Mixed March

I know, March isn’t over yet, but having just enjoyed a one-week March vacation that offered a few opportunities to get some shooting done, I felt it was time to make a status report.

Before my vacation I had grand plans to drive or – in the spirit of spring – ride my bike all over the region and capture nature as it slowly sheds its winter harness.

Well, that didn’t quite happen, but I did get out once on my bike. I had high hopes for an area about 7 kilometers away where I’d never been before. Being in abysmal shape, I barely made it there. There was a cold wind blowing, and tons of little hills that seemed to only go up. I had to make several stops on the way to catch my breath check the map and take pictures of the pretty scenery.

In fact, my favorite picture of the day – and perhaps the whole week – was taken at the foot of a hill that seemed like a good place for a short break. It was taken with my cell phone as my real camera was still packed away in its bag, and I couldn’t be bothered to get it out. As a true artist I had to take a risk by standing in the middle of the road for a couple of seconds. It was a very quiet road, but behind me was a curve and an underpass that would have given drivers only a short time to react to my presence. Fortunately, no cars appeared, and the shot was in the can and turned out better than expected, although it worked best in black and white.

As it turned out, that would be one of the only pictures of the day worth sharing. The area I’d had in mind was a disappointment. Just some typical Danish winter forest and a swampy meadow with no interesting angles, colors, or lines. The below picture – a cell phone panorama – turned out ok though.

The day before my somewhat anticlimatic bike ride, I had a chance to explore our local castle again. It offers endless photo opportunities, and while I have been known to complain about our nearby landscape’s lack of character and photogeneity, I am grateful to live in close vicinity to such an architectural pearl. I’m nowhere near done with it. I haven’t even shot it during a real beautiful sunset yet. Soon!

My third and final photo outing during my vacation also went to familiar territory: the Strødam enclosure, where I’ve posted numerous pictures from before. I keep coming back, because it is actually the exception to the rule that I live in a boring area. I love it there, and despite no great light or other redeeming factors, I was quite happy with a few of the pictures I went away with.

So that was it for my vacation. Not quite what I’d hoped for, but March is still a little early to expect miracles in your landscape photography.

Blessed and cursed in Iceland

Iceland is all landscape photographers’ dream travel destination, and back in September I was fortunate enough to spend all of 20 hours there in connection with a return flight from the US to Denmark.

The deal with Icelandair was the following: get an insanely cheap flight to US and in return spend a little time – and money – in our beautiful, volcanic country. I figured, why not? I knew that whatever I saved on the plane ticket, I’d probably spend in Iceland, but the prospect of getting to shoot some of the most fascinating landscapes in the world intrigued me.

So after a little research I booked a six-hour bus tour covering what’s known as The Golden Circle, the southwest corner of Iceland where spectacular scenery is as plentiful as it is accessible. I was ready.

I arrived in Reykjavik at 6 o’clock in the morning on September 20 2016 after a seven-hour flight from Seattle. Having been unable to sleep on the plane, I was beginning to have some slight doubts about this whole endeavor. It didn’t help that I had six hours to kill before the bus tour even started, 50 minutes of which were spent on a shuttle bus going from the airport into the city of Reykjavik. A lot of the landscape that we passed on the way looked rather bleak, to put it mildly. The clouds were almost as black as the volcanic soil. Even the rays of sun seemed hostile, like big, extra-terrestrial search lights sweeping the ground looking for surviving humans.

Was this dark, bare landscape really the magical Iceland I had heard so much about? At this point I wished I’d just spent $200 more on that plane ticket and gone straight home to my warm, Danish bed.

Well, it was too late for regrets. I had to make the best of it. That included walking a couple of kilometers from the bus depot to downtown Reykjavik. If the country had indeed been taken over by aliens, a good bet was that their overlord could be found inside that dome in the background of the below picture.

I didn’t go to find out, but continued the opposite direction and, with the help of Google Maps, soon made it to the city center. Reykjavik is much bigger than I imagined and seems to be going through both some serious growth and an architectural update, including the brand new city hall as seen here:

After a 30-minute pit-stop at the local public library (always to the rescue when you most need them), I was ready for a little more exploration and found my way to a park rising above downtown and offering this view of the harbor and the new performing arts center Harpa.

Then the rain started.

It had been threatening to rain since I’d left the airport. I had felt plenty of drops and hoped it wouldn’t amount to more than that, but as I continued my walk through the city, the rain started pouring from a steel gray sky from which the dots of blue and rays of sunlight had now completely vanished. I had to find refuge in a covered bus stop and sat there shivering with cold for an hour while bus passengers came and went. The fact that I didn’t take a single picture of life buzzing by on this busy Reykjavik street tells you all about my state of mind. I was hungry, tired, wet, jet-lagged, sore, and just plain miserable.

Finally, the time came when I had to go to the pick-up place for the Golden Circle bus tour. A small shuttle bus took me back to the bus depot where the actual bus departed from, and we were on our way. When I say “we” I mean myself and about 10 other tourists, the driver, and a male guide who, in his own quiet, understated way, entertained us with jokes about volcanic eruptions and all the other hard conditions Icelandic people had to endure.

The first part of the tour went through some more bleak, and yet fascinating landscape, where overland pipelines transporting thermally heated water criss-crossed the treeless hills, and electric powerlines towered above us like deadly steel triffids.

Things became a little more hospitable when we picked up two more passengers at an idyllic horse breeding ranch. The stumpy, long-haired, and extremely tough Icelandic ponies are one of the country’s primary exports, and they supposedly cost fortunes.

The first real stop of the tour came after about an hour’s drive (during which I think I dozed off for a few minutes, the first sleep I’d had in close to 24 hours). It was the famous Haukadalur geyser area where a geyser named Geysir actually gave name to… well… geysers.

Although I have experienced geysers several times in Yellowstone National Park, steaming water shooting out of the ground will always be one of the most awesome natural phenomenons you can witness. A short let-up in the rain even made it possible to get some decent pictures, and unlike most geysers in Yellowstone, here you didn’t have to wait hours, days or months for an eruption. This particular specimen knew how to please a crowd and released its load of boiling water every 10-15 minutes.

Before the next stop, we passed through a landscape that was turning more and more breathtaking. There were no huge mountains chains on the horizon – in fact, in places it was almost flat – but rivers and creeks were everywhere, framed by lush green colors and this characteristic soft icelandic light that despite the cloud cover still felt quite tangible.

Having not really studied the Golden Circle in advance, nothing had prepared me for what came next. Sure, the guide talked about a waterfall. I knew waterfalls. I’d seen tons of waterfalls two weeks previously in Canada. They didn’t come much better than that.

Except, they did. After a short hike from the parking lot, what revealed itself in front of me was one of the most magnificent sights my eyes had beheld in my 47 years on Earth: a waterfall the size of a 10-story apartment block. All the fatigue, misery, and pain that the day had been so full of vanished in a split second, and all I could think of was how to capture this natural wonder with my little, utterly insufficient piece of man-made technology called a camera.

You’d think the Gullfoss waterfall would be a slam dunk, but to be honest, while I’m fairly happy with the result, it does not tell half the story of what it was like to stand there. You don’t truly sense the sheer magnitude and power of all that water roaring through the canyon.

Part of the problem was not my photography skills, but the fact that the surrounding landscape was so bare. The waterfall was all there was. There was nothing to put in the foreground, nothing that could work as a scale indicator, and no sunshine or sunset to enhance the colors.

Perhaps my best capture of the Gullfoss waterfall is actually the stitch of 2-3 images, which is what you see below. I had followed a trail down to the top shelf of the waterfall where I snapped several images, including a few long exposures. My tripod was safely packed in my checked baggage at Keflavik Airport, so I had to place the camera on the rocks and use a 2-second shutter delay.

Another challenge was that the rain was starting to pick up again and that we only had about 30 minutes before departure. So I worked fast and frantically to take all the pictures I could, using two different lenses, two different cameras (my cell phone being the other one), and all kinds of settings to cover all my bases. I was actually surprised and proud of myself for not screwing things up and dropping a lens into the raging river. The last few years of frequent picture-taking has paid off. I know my camera and can almost work it in my sleep, even when things get hectic. This next picture tells you all you need to know about the conditions I was working under.

As it turned out, I was back on the bus before most everyone else, but I was happy and elated and knew I’d done what I could under difficult circumstances. I also knew that no matter what had happened earlier in the day and what would happen from then on, my Icelandic detour would have been more than worth it.

When we arrived at the last stop an hour or so later, it wasn’t just raining. It was pouring. Hard. I put my camera under my vest and walked with the rest of the party up to where the tectonic plates of Europe and North America happened to meet. Or rather, separate. It was also the location of an ancient viking parliament where the earliest Icelanders met to make decisions or put criminals to trial.

Under normal circumstances my camera shutter would have been working non-stop to capture every detail of this historically and scientifically significant spot. But the pouring rain meant I could only get the camera out from under my vest for a second or two at a time, or just enough time to point and shoot. It’s a miracle I got any useable pictures at all.

The below image is the actual rift between the two continents. In some places it’s no wider than you could stand with a foot in both Europe and North America.

While not a photographic highlight of my Icelandic adventure, the visit to Thingvellir, as the area is called, was still a mindblowing look into the past, both geological and historical. Moreover, it was a perfect end to a bus tour that, at one point I wished I’d never booked, but very soon realized would be an experience of a lifetime.

At this point I packed my camera away. I did take a couple more pictures with my cell phone on the way back to Reykjavik, but nothing spectacular. Back at the bus depot, I had to wait a couple of hours for my ride back to the airport.

After arriving at the airport, the rest of the evening until my 1 a.m. flight was spent picking up my luggage from the storage place a kilometer from the airport terminal (a distance I had to walk to and from in more pouring rain), queuing up in the only passenger queue I could find (the wrong one, it turned out… all the German voices should have tipped me off), walking what felt like three miles through the airport to my gate (I’d always thought Keflavik Airport was fairly small… boy, was I wrong), sitting in a chair at the gate for two hours unable to sleep, then lining up to board the plane only to be told it would be 30 minutes late, and then finally, FINALLY dropping into my plane seat after having walked 20,000 steps and been awake for about 35 hours.

I may have dozed off for an hour or so during the flight, but I would not get any real sleep until I was all the way home 5-6 hours later, more dead than alive, and the last 40 hours seeming like a dream – except, I had the pictures to prove that it happened.

Taking on gray, depressing grayness

The other day I mentioned how depressing and uninspiring our current weather is. It’s all a gray mass of gray and has been so for weeks. This is actually one of the reasons we survive the short days here in the Scandinavian hemisphere: nightfall at 3:30 in the afternoon is a relief compared to the gray mush we spend the day in.

Anyway, needing some exercise today and with no intention of turning it into a photo excursion, I saddled my bike and rode into the grayness, armed only with my cell phone. But of course, I had not gone for more than 10 minutes before I caught sight of the most beautiful and depressing abandoned… well, actually, I don’t know what it used to be, but anything abandoned is worth a picture, so off the bike I hopped and used my cell phone to capture the below likeness.

Sensing that all the grayness might be negotiable after all, it wasn’t long until I came upon my next suitable motif. A flat, depressing, gray, dreary, and did I mention, gray, field of grayish brown soil, broken only by a string of bare, cold, industrial power poles. This is as gray and boring as it gets, so I figured I’d capture it if only to show you what you’re up against in this country. However, while this is by no means a masterpiece, I felt that the spot actually had some potential, so I plan to return in the spring and see if I can capture a nice sunset here.

For the next image I once again had to rely on black and white to make it interesting. This may be my favorite shot of the day, but only after I took it through my Silver Effects Pro plugin.

The colors return for the next one, as the flock of geese taking off from a field makes up for an otherwise depressing scene of gray Danish flatness. I was lucky too, as a lone car passing by stirred up the birds enough for me to capture this pretty scene. A few pictures taken moments before this one, just showed the birds standing around doing nothing.

Finally, an attempt at mimicking Flickr star Nick Brundle whose favorite subject seems to be rolled up hay bales. I’m not quite at his level yet, but I was rather pleased with this one and its simplicity.

Well, while January and February will never be my favorite shooting months, I guess I got a little bit of confidence in myself today that you can in fact get something worthwhile out of the gray, light-deprived mush that we call winter around here. If nothing else, I got some much-needed exercise, covering more than 15 kilometers on my trusty iron horse.

Picking 20

January and February are horrible months for an outdoor photographer in this country. Seems like weeks since we saw even the tiniest ray of sunshine. We’ve been shrouded in gray grayness that is as inspiring to a photographer as Chicken McNuggets is to a Michelin inspector. So what better time to go through your old photos and updating your portfolio?

Well, that’s exactly what I did. I picked my favorite 20 pictures out of my Master Collection of 25,000. Actually, it’s not that simple. I had a few more criteria: 1) I wanted to include pictures from throughout my “career” as a photographer, 2) I wanted some variety in the subject matter, and 3) I wanted a mix of plain personal favorites and pictures that have proven their worth in public, two factors that  may or may not overlap. In other words, compromises had to be made, and every picture left out that I wanted to include was a struggle, but overall what I came up with is a good representation of what I consider my best work.

Check it out.

Summer memories

Since my last post about my more or less failed attempt at New Year’s Eve fireworks shooting, I’ve been wanting to put something a bit more flattering at the top of this blog. And what better excuse can you ask for than to show a few of my faves from my trip across the pond back in September? My three weeks in Idaho and Alberta (Canada) was a great opportunity for me to practice my photo skills on some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes, sometimes with the inclusion of marvelous wildlife, majestic trains, and magical waterfalls.

These pictures, I hope, speak for themselves. Some of them I consider among my best work… as in, ever. Anything else would in fact have been a disappointment as even a chimpanzee with a disposable Kodak camera would have gotten several nice shots out of those locations.

Want more? Don’t miss my slideshow video made from some of these and other 2016 vacation pictures.

Fireworks… when will I get them right?

This blog is mostly an opportunity for me to show off my best work. For every picture I post here, I have 200 that are not as good. But this time I’m going to talk about my annual failed attempt to take pictures of the New Year’s Eve fireworks.

Since getting my Sony A33 camera six years ago, on most New Year’s Eves I’ve gone outside after midnight to capture the spectacular spectacle of the neighborhood exploding in fireworks of all colors, sizes and price levels. And every single time, on reviewing the pictures, I must conclude that… they kind of suck.

I have tried all sorts of settings, following the advice of the experts, but something just isn’t quite right. In my mind, I’m going for something like this:

Fireworks, silhuette. Free photo from Pixabay.

I want not just the fireworks themselves, I want the surroundings, the people, the celebration, the awe… and of course, some well-defined, colorful blasts.

The good news is that I feel I’m getting closer every year. The bad news is, I’m nowhere near what I envision inside my head. And I may also be on the verge of concluding that the conditions for great fireworks photography are just not present in my local area.

Look at the picture below from the other night. We have the burst, we have the people, we have the street. But the problem with this, and my other pictures, is the utterly black Danish winter night. No amount of long exposure (my pictures shown here are between 3- and 15-second exposures) can turn blackness into anything other than blackness, and no post-processing can reveal details that even the human eye can’t see.

The next picture is just a 5-second exposure over nearby housing communities. Apart from battling the utter darkness, it was a challenge in post-processing to tone down the light from windows and streetlights in order to make the fireworks stand out.

This next one may be my own favorite of the night. The bursts of fireworks are wonderful, and overall, it’s the best-lit shot of the bunch. In this, as in some of the other shots, I have removed the trailing light of the rockets that is a result of long exposures. I realized, as I was looking at the pictures, that in real life you don’t see the trailing light and the explosion at the same time. In real life, you see the trailing light, then the explosion.

The last picture is pure cheating. The three big bursts of fireworks were taken from some of the other pictures and ‘shopped into a 15-second exposure of the neighborhood. The real bursts were nowhere near as big, but dammit, this comes closer to how I remember it than the actual pictures showed, so I have no scruples doing this. Whether I did it well enough to fool anyone else is another matter, but there! Now you know.

Time will show if I feel motivated to go out again on the next New Year’s Eve and try to improve on these results. What I need to do is to go where there is more light on the ground and more people gathered. And the question is if long exposures are always the way to go, or if quick bursts of 7-10 shots might produce some keepers.

Check back in a year to find out!

The world is not black and white…

… but that doesn’t mean a photo can’t be. I mean, I have personally been skeptical of black and white photography. If color photography had been invented first, would anyone have ever thought about black and white? I doubt it.

But lately I have come to appreciate the art of black and white photography and have turned more and more of my own pictures into black and white shots. What happened was that I realized black and white wasn’t just black and white. Black and white can have as many different expressions as color photography. I discovered this when I installed Google’s Nik Collection after Google started to offer this otherwise expensive software for free. Apart from well-known post-processing tools such as noise-reduction and sharpening, Nik Collection includes a tool called Silver Effect Pro that is basically an advanced black and white converter. And you don’t even have to use the advanced options. The presets are usually enough to blow my mind and do the job for me.

So below are some of my own favorite black and white shots, all made using Silver Effect Pro, and with a feeble attempt to explain what, in my opinion, makes them work in black and white.

I think this was the picture that opened my eyes to the power of black and white. In color, a rather bleh image of a neighborhood development, in black and white… something, to me, much more powerful.
A picture I took at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Copenhagen in 2016. In this case, I think the black and white style makes an otherwise very detailed image more soothing for the brain.
This abandoned cabin in Montana was a slam-dunk, I thought. But I just couldn’t get it right in post-processing due to the colors just being completely uninteresting. So what do you do? Remove the colors, of course. That hit the nail on the head.
The black and white here helped erase the difference between the car and nature and thus emphasizing nature reclaiming its materials. I could never have done that in color.
Another example of a picture that just didn’t work very well in color, because the colors were just kind of blah. Still not for everyone I guess, but I like it.
I posted a color version of this in my “Best of November” post, but I actually think it works even better in black and white. Technically and artistically one I’m rather proud of.

Best of November

November was a surprisingly active month for me photo-wise. I was out there with my camera three out of four weekends and actually got some pretty decent shots of the neighborhood and a little beyond.

The first three images were taken during a magic afternoon sunset at Strødam where I have posted pictures from before (yes, I trespassed again). They all feature swans, and they were all taken with my cell phone. I did bring my real camera, but the battery died before the magic started to happen in the shape of this flock of swans doing their bedtime routines. Not paying any attention to me standing right there on the shore, they went about their business of eating, chasing each other, and just floating around aimlessly in beautiful formations on the calm water.

The next picture was taken the following weekend and shows our local castle, Frederiksborg Castle. It’s one of the most beautiful castles in the country and I have taken tons of pictures of it. However, it had been a while since my last visit so I figured I would find a good spot and hope for a nice sunset. I didn’t quite get what I hoped for, but an orange stripe on the horizon along with dramatic clouds saved the day. I’ll be back though, because there’s a lot more potential in that castle than this image brings out.

Finally, on the last weekend of November, I went back to the Strøbæk area. It still amazes me how you can continue to find new spots and angles on otherwise well-known turf. I have passed this gate numerous times, but suddenly I saw what a fine composition lay hidden there. Post-processing revealed that it worked best in black and white, at least in my own opinion.

My last November fave was taken on the same day as the one above and shows a church in the tiny village of Gadevang, which is within walking distance of my house. It’s a typical Danish church and really nothing special, but I think I nailed it. It’s actually a stitch of two images as even my wide-angle lens couldn’t contain both the foreground and the church in one frame.

It will probably be too much to hope for that December will prove as productive for me as November. Especially since the days are getting so very short.

Finally the world is ready for my vacation pictures

It’s been a while since my last post here. Not for lack of picture-taking or writing-desire. On the contrary, during my annual voyage to the United States (with side trips to Canada and Iceland) in September, I took a couple of thousand. So instead of blogging, I have actually been busy selecting, post-processing, and organizing those pictures.

Out of the approximately 2000 pictures taken, I have saved around 400 to what I call my Master Collection. They are the pictures that I like, as well as those I want to keep for other reasons, like an important moment captured.

The challenge is to present some of those pictures. When you are an amateur photographer you go back and forth between loving and loathing your own work. During the former periods when you are full of confidence in your own skills, you want to show all your pictures to everybody, and you cannot fathom if everybody is not interested in seeing all your pictures. Nonetheless, that’s what the experts say: choose a few. And by “a few” they mean less than 50.

Of course, there’s no way I can just pick 50 or less, so what do you do? You turn them into a slideshow, or even a movie, and you add music and cool effects, and voila, suddenly 100+ pictures go down a lot easier. So that’s what I did, and I am happy enough with the result that I will share it here. I used Camtasia 9 from TechSmith, which I highly recommend. It may be primarily for screen capturing, but it works really well for slideshows too. It’s easy to use, and has tons of features and tweeking options.

It should be pointed out that some of the photos used in the video were taken by my wife Peggy and her daughter Jen, who are both much better than me at getting people to pose and capturing those familiy moments that are probably much more important to save than all the landscape pictures in the world.

And while I’m giving credit to others, the music in the video is “Drive All Night” by Bruce Springsteen, “500 Miles” by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and “Way Back Home” by Band of Horses.

Later on I hope to post high definition versions of a few of the pictures included in the video – and possibly some not in the video – that I like and talk more about them and how they were taken.

Karsten reviews photo sharing sites: ViewBug

This is a new series where I will talk about the various photo sharing communities I participate in. Most of all, I will probably be whining about how stupid computer algorithms and conspiracies against my person prevent my genius as a photographer to be recognized, but I hope to also present some facts and information that may be of help if you are unsure of what photo community suits you best.

I will start by talking about one of the latest sites I joined: ViewBug. Which is also, in fact, my favorite. ViewBug is all about the contests. Every day new photo contests and challenges are added, such as “Pets in Black and White”, “People in Landscapes” or “Cities and the Rule of Thirds”. You can win cash prizes or camera equipment and other neat things.

Now, the chances of someone like me winning a contest is pretty slim. Each one has thousands and thousands of entries, and many of them are pretty mindblowing.  But at least you have a hope that it could happen. Because unlike most of the other photo communities I’ve tried, with ViewBug it seems everybody has the same chance of faring well. On other sites – some of which I will review later – it seems to matter more how many followers you have than how good your pictures are.

On ViewBug, on the other hand, once the voting starts, it’s all about who has shot the best picture. When you vote in a contest – and everybody can do that – you are presented with four random images and can vote for your favorite and your second favorite before you are presented with another set of four. This goes on for as long as you feel like it, because as mentioned above, each contest has way more entries than you’ll ever want to see.

So, after the public voting is over, the photos with the most votes enter a final round where human expert judges have their say. Their favorite becomes the final winner, but a “people’s choice” award is also given, one must assume for the picture with the most public votes.

All of this gives you the feeling that justice is, for the most part, served. Sure, I’ve been wondering about some of the winners and finalists and in some cases how badly I have fared myself with what I thought was a pretty decent picture, but overall, ViewBug blows away the competition when it comes to fairness. My pictures often end up in the best 10-50% segment, and that’s probably what they deserve.

The notable exception to my usual performance was the very first picture I submitted to ViewBug. The picture of my wife’s daughter Jen chilling at a waterfall in Alberta, Canada, entered the final in a contest called “People and Waterfalls”. Now, entering a final on ViewBug is a pretty big deal. Of course, my picture didn’t win, but just being in the final brought me more exposure than I’d received on any other photo site. Before I knew it, I had 200+ followers and tons of “peer awards”.

Probably my best picture... ever. At least according to ViewBug.
Probably my best picture… ever. At least according to ViewBug.

And here’s the problem with ViewBug: the 200+ followers don’t really translate to much of anything. Every picture I have submitted since the waterfall one, has gone all but unnoticed in terms of likes and “awards”. Where, on 500px (another site I will review in the future), I will, within the first two hours, receive 15-30 likes for any decent picture I submit, I’m lucky to get five views and three likes on ViewBug.

So I guess so far that makes me sort of a one-hit-wonder on ViewBug. No matter how many other pictures I submit, it’s always “Waterfall Vegging”, as I titled it, that gets the attention. But I haven’t given up. Every time I upload a new picture, I’m sure that that’s the one that will bring me fame and fortune.

There’s a lot more to ViewBug, of course. They are masters at awarding you badges for everything from giving peer awards to getting certain amounts of followers. This along with interesting stats about your pictures makes ViewBug the champions at motivating their members.

My conclusion is that ViewBug is the best site if you are genuinely interested in having your pictures judged fairly and getting motivated. There’s not much of the instant gratification that you find on other sites. But if you are patient and can wait several weeks  – sometimes months – before contests and challenges are decided, you will be rewarded with a realistic idea of where you stand as a photographer. And get lots of inspiration as to what you need to work on in order to be a winner or a finalist.

Check out ViewBug.