Thursday, November 21, 2019

Photography — My Next Big Thing

It's been a while since I've posted anything here but I've just gone bonkers about photography again and that has motivated me to write about it. My daughter will say, "Oh dad, you always go crazy about things (tennis, bicycling, mapping) but then decide to do something else." I suppose that's true to some extent but my interests, transitory as they might sometimes be, animate me, get me out of the house and into the great outdoors and occupy my time in meaningful ways. For the past several years I've spent much of my spare time mapping for the Open Street Map project. I'm still mapping but not nearly as much as before I got bit by the photography bug.
Actually, this pastime isn't new because I've enjoyed photography since high school. That's when one used actual film that had to be developed in a darkroom with nasty-smelling chemicals. You remember that, right? I had a darkroom in my childhood home. It was "down cellar", in a tiny room in the basement that had been used to store coal before my folks bought the house and replaced the old coal furnace with a gas-fired one. That's why my darkroom was called "the coal bin" by the rest of the family. After I got interested in chemistry and with the help of my dad, I repurposed the darkroom into a functional chemistry lab where I performed analyses I submitted as homework assignments during junior college. I went on to get a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from the Rochester Institute of Technology. But that's another story.

My first camera, a Brownie-Hawkeye

Years later, after the breakup of my first marriage, I fell in love with a wonderful woman who had a passion for photography. I set up a darkroom for Jean in the second bedroom of our tiny apartment in Rochester, New York. I bought a second hand Nikkormat SLR and returned to photography for a time. When I moved to Alaska in 1982, I didn't have enough money to pay for processing color slides or any practical way to have a darkroom (hell, I didn't even have running water), so I sold the Nikkormat to a dear friend and for the next few years didn't own any camera at all.

Fast forward to the digital era. I first became interested in digital photography back in the late 1990s when I purchased for our company a Nikon Coolpix camera that was needed to take photos of boats we would then upload to our website at That little Coolpix cost over $1,000 and produced a decent looking 2 MB image. I was so impressed with the technology that I bought an identical one for myself. I've owned several digital cameras since then and have enjoyed and, many times, been frustrated by them. But that was then and this is now. Now I have Youtube to help me through the learning stages — it contains a wealth of information about cameras, gear, and techniques

These days, you can buy a decent digital camera for 100 bucks although most people never buy a separate camera — they simply use their phones for any photography they do — something that was unimaginable when I was a kid. In the Sunday comics I can remember marveling at Dick Tracy's wrist radio. My current cell phone, an ordinary $200 Lenovo Moto G(5), has 16 GIGA-bytes of memory. The supercomputer I used at Boston University in 1975, an IBM System 360/370, occupied a huge air-conditioned area in the B. U. Computer Center. It had a whopping 16 MEGA-bytes of memory that was housed in a cabinet the size of a pickup truck and cooled with refrigerated water. My little Moto G(5) is not only a camera and telephone but has 1,000 times more memory than the ancient IBM and fits easily into my shirt pocket. Things have certainly changed.

I use a digital camera for all the things that most folks use them for — pictures of family, friends, special events, and for travel. But I've always been frustrated by the lack of fine resolution in my images when you get up close and personal. My travel photos are okay but for a variety of reasons including my lack of skill at composing an image and then shooting it properly, they've left me wanting more. Lately, after the purchase of a Canon mirrorless EOS M50 camera that is quite easy to operate, I've decided to move into shooting landscape and wildlife photos. However, during the last six months of experimentation with that camera I learned that in order to do landscapes right I'll need a camera with a bigger sensor and professional quality lenses, things that simply aren't available for my little M50. This is why my next camera will be a high-resolution, full-frame, mirrorless DSLR. A few of my latest photos might better illustrate the situation.

Blue-winged laughingthrush - Doi Luang
I adore this photo. It's the best wildlife photo I have to date. The red flower and jungle foliage help make it special. It was shot from a distance of about 40 feet with my M50 and a little EF-M 55-200mm telephoto. It's not bad until you inspect it closely. The little lens, bought used for $200 USD, offers decent but not spectacular performance. Compare that to photos I shot with my M50 in Eugene last August using a rented Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 on an EFM-EF adapter. This lens is a beast and costs about $2,000 USD new but it delivers exceptional images. (Reminder: to see the images properly, they should be viewed at full size. Double-click to open in a new window.)

Great blue heron-- Delta Ponds - Eugene, OR
Canon EF70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM - 200mm f/4.5 1/200 ISO 100
 The heron was about 30 feet from my camera. You can clearly see details in its feathers.

Dragonfly - Delta Ponds - Eugene, OR
Canon EF70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM - 200mm f/4.5 1/200 ISO 100
And check this image out. It may not be a particularly colorful dragonfly but the detail captured by the big lens at a distance of 20 feet (while being held in my shaky hands), is pretty impressive. Almost all quality modern lenses have autofocus and image stabilization built into them.

I can tell you one thing, working with digital images is profoundly easier than it was with the silver halide technology I grew up with. The color and quality of the images produced by a modern Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera is fantastic. And because those images are digital, they can be edited and manipulated in a program like Photoshop. In Photoshop you can readily change an image's color balance and manipulate its tonal qualities. It's as easy as moving a slider with your mouse. You can remove objects and even people from an image if you like. Using Photoshop's newest versions you can enhance a subject's smile or the size, tilt and spacing of a subject's eyes and do it all seamlessly, effortlessly.

Back in the day, if you merely wanted to increase the contrast in an image to make it a bit snappier, you had to stick a new sheet of photo-paper under your enlarger, a paper having a different chemical makeup to provide the increased contrast, re-expose it to light and then process it in developer solution (Kodak's "Dektol" was a popular developer), then "shortstop" to terminate the development reaction and finally soak it in a "fixer" solution to make the photo-chemical changes permanent. Photo hobbyists like myself used to keep umpteen boxes of expensive photographic paper on hand — papers for each of three or four contrast levels, papers with different surface textures, tints, etc., and several different development solutions — in order to have the flexibility to deal with different sorts of negatives. And I'm talking about black & white;  working with color processes was beyond the ability of the casual darkroom tinkerer.

By comparison, fine-tuning an image in Photoshop or other image editing software, which is called post-processing, is a trivial operation.  I can tweak an image to my heart's content and for me, that's a major source of the enjoyment I get from the process. Part of my motivation to get reinvolved with photography is because the newest Photoshop software is so outrageously powerful and fun to use that it sucked me back into the photography scene.

I know, I know. Enough talk already. Here are some other recent images I consider good enough to share and that illustrate my current level of expertise, an expertise I hope will steadily improve as I learn and grow. My primary interest is in landscape photography and the images that follow are, at the moment, the best I can do here in Thailand, where there is no wild country in the Alaska sense of that term, and where the sun is almost always shining. (Aside: landscape photographers hate the high contrast that results if the sun or a bright white sky is in the frame. Bright highlights are very distracting and tricky to deal with effectively. We much prefer overcast days and misty forests.)

The Sai Mok Waterfall — Downstream
A dark morning at Sai Mok Waterfall
My main interest is in photographing landscapes but given my advanced age and the physical limitations that go along with it, joint pain and balance issues mostly, I have difficulty traversing rocky terrain and nowadays feel positively afraid of cliffs and high places. My heroes of the landscape genre travel to places like The Isle of Skye, the high Rockies, the Faroe Islands, and come back with outstanding photos. I'm not able to follow them in that sort of endeavor so I've chosen subjects that are easier to get to. Luckily, Thailand has many waterfalls that can be reached on foot, so I've focused on them for now.

Evening at the Mon Tha Than Waterfall — Doi Suthep
Sri Sang Wan Waterfall - Pha Daeng N.P.
The other things I've decided to shoot are birds and butterflies. Again, it's a question of ease of access. I used to be an avid birdwatcher once but for one reason or another, got away from it. Now that photography is back in my life, shooting birds with a camera is an enjoyable way to get me outdoors. Thailand brags about having many bird species but in my area, I've seen only a few. (Doves, pigeons, mynahs, sparrows).Thais use vast amounts of pesticides on crops and I suspect that has something to do with the scarcity of birds. Up in the big national parks, where I got my photo of the laughingthrush, there is quite a bit of wild jungle and many species of birds can be found within it. Not so much down here. Butterflies are plentiful throughout Thailand though, so some of the following are photos of butterflies.

Red-vented bulbul - in the tree across our lane

Red Helen butterfly

I glimpsed two somewhat plain brown birds fly into a nearby tree just as I was sitting down to an iced latte while on a bicycle ride several miles south of home. I was pretty sure they were perched in there even though I could hardly see them in my viewfinder. When I noticed a slight movement, I shot a couple of frames. After I got home, I was about to delete the files because I couldn't see any birds in either frame at first. But after cranking up the exposure in Photoshop this little guy appeared almost by magic it seemed. A little dodging & burning brought out the details. I consider it a pretty good shot given the circumstances.

Scaly-breasted Munia
Nut & I were joined by our pickleball friend, Nancy, for an overnight trip to Pai a couple of weeks ago. I didn't take the time to birdwatch during our time on the motorcycles but I did sit out on the patio early in the morning to watch the birds feeding in a tree right outside in the parking lot of our hotel. They were perhaps 20-30 feet overhead and were backlit with a bright sky, not the perfect situation for good photography. Still, I like the overall image.

Red-whiskered bulbul pair and a mystery bird — Pai Thailand

The day after I posted this, I got a pretty good shot of this tiny bird in the tree next to our house. I added it here to complete the photo collection I captured with the EFM 55-200mm lens. I ordered a new Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS USM II yesterday. After it arrives, I'll probably put the little EFM lens in a desk drawer for a while.

Olive-backed sunbird
All the images shown were shot in camera raw. Processing was done in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CC 2019. The birds and butterflies were shot with my EOS M50 and Canon EF-M 55-200mm lens. The waterfalls were shot with the M50 and its Canon EF-M 15-45mm kit lens equipped with a Breakthrough brand polarizing filter. Some images were run through a Topaz Labs DenoiseAI filter to remove background graininess.

Photo-nerd Addendum

The full specification of the rented Canon lens I discussed is EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM. It took me a while to understand what all these abbreviations mean so I'll just explain them for those interested enough to read this addendum. Also, the terms described below apply only to Canon lenses. Nikon, Sony, Sigma and other lens and camera manufacturers use different codes to describe their products. Naturally.
First off, the EF means this lens is for use with cameras having Canon's venerable EF (Electronic Focus) mount for its DSLR cameras. The numbers 70-200mm refer to the range of focal lengths it can reach, while the f/2.8 refers to its maximum aperture. The smaller this number, the larger the front lens and therefore the greater the amount of light that reaches the sensor.  It also correlates with price. An f/2.8 lens might cost from 50-100 percent more than an f/4 lens, for example. The "L" means this is one of Canon's professional-grade lenses, the IS means the lens has built-in Image Stabilization, the USM stands for Ultra Sonic Motors, which are the tiny internal motors that do the autofocusing, and the II means this is version 2 of a particular lens.

Here's a photo of the big Canon next to my M50 and  its EF-M 55-200mm telephoto
 My little Canon telephoto has the specification EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM. The EF-M designation means it's for cameras having Canon's newer EF-M (M=mirrorless) mount, the 55-200mm refers to its range of focal lengths, the IS means it's Image Stabilized just like its vastly more expensive cousin and the USM stands for Universal Stepping Motor, which is another type of internal autofocus motor. Note too that instead of a single F-number, this lens has an aperture range of f/4.5-f/6.3. This is important because as one  zooms to its full magnification, the aperture closes from f/4.5 to f/6.3 thus drastically reducing the amount of light reaching the sensor which in turn means a change will probably be needed in either the aperture, shutter speed or ISO to maintain the proper exposure. The much more expensive f/2.8 70-200mm maintains a constant aperture of f/2.8 throughout its zoom range. This is a very desirable characteristic in any lens but one that never comes cheap.

I used the term "mirrorless" earlier. Most high-end cameras employ an optical system that uses a mirror to reflect light up to the viewfinder so you can focus by looking "through the lens" to compose a photo. When you press the shutter button the mirror is mechanically flipped up and out of the optical path, the lens closes to the preselected aperture, the shutter opens, the sensor is exposed to light through the lens, the shutter closes and finally the mirror drops back into place. In a high-end camera, this mechanism operates fast and flawlessly, so fast that some DSLRs can shoot 10 frames in a single second. But the mirror and its operating mechanism are expensive to manufacture. Mirrorless cameras don't use an optical viewfinder so don't need a mirror. They instead use an electronic system that reads the image direct from the sensor and recreates it on the rear LCD viewscreen or in your eyepiece. This is referred to as an EVF (Electronic ViewFinder) and because there is no clunky, complex mirror mechanism inside, such cameras can be made cheaper, smaller, can shoot faster and are more rugged. The DSLR camera industry is inexorably headed in this direction.