How Not To Die

Woman reading "How Not To Die"This is an unplanned shot of Lori, comfortably lounging in a bed, reading “How Not To Die”.  I like it because of the dynamic light, the muted hues, but mostly because it’s so Lori-esque: even relaxing she’s ferociously focused.

The topic of the book is how diet and nutrition affects our health and the title is a bit sensational given that current expert opinion is that we are biologically engineered to live 115 years at the most.  I’m betting that Lori lives to at least 150 years if for no other reason than to be stubbornly contrary.  Any winnings I make on that bet will, of course, be post mortem–I won’t have the patience to hang around that long.

Sixty Shmixty

Lori relaxing with cigar and bourbon

Lori’s 60th birthday celebration picture with bourbon and cigar.

Lori has been a bit distressed about marking her 60th birthday: she’s reached middle age.  (She plans to live at least until 120.)  I wanted to commemorate it with a photo that emphasizes the spirit of how I would like her to approach it: with equanimity or indifference.  She’s too busy enjoying life to pay much attention to arbitrary chronological milestones.

I was a bit surprised when she agreed to the concept as I described it. A cigar and glass of bourbon were always part of the narrative but the venue changed from field of daisies to woods due to uncooperative weather.

A moderately wide aperture reduced depth of focus. A low ISO and 1/250th shutter speed enabled darker tones in the woods so that some lighting would help bring the subject out a bit more.

Lighting was via two studio strobes.  One was camera left in a pan reflector for a slightly diffused overall subject lighting.  Another strobe in a grid high camera right behind Lori brought up a little separation on her shadow side. Both were at very low power because of the wider aperture.

We are pleased with the results.  At least photographically.  We got many good poses to pick from.  Unfortunately the cheap cigar made Lori ill and it took her the rest of the day to recover from all the puffing to bring the shot to life.

So, aside from poisoning my wife on her birthday, I would say things went pretty well.  Lori may differ.

 

Divestiture

I’m consolidating and getting rid of decades worth of photographic gear, partly to simplify, partly to raise some cash to cover the cost of my new system.  (More on that later.) My best option is to sell on eBay but it requires a bit of homework to make it worthwhile.  I have to do the research to find the value of each item and then prepare photos and descriptions of each one for sale.

Preparing the photos for sales is relatively easy and a little care makes the results more appealing than most other eBay posts.  It seems a bit odd when people put fine photographic equipment up for sale with crappy pictures–it affects credibility.

After a little tinkering, I settled on a lighting setup I can use for a variety of product-style shots that look good for the eBay listings.

Lighting setup diagram

Lighting for product photos of items being placed for sale on eBay.

I use two LED light sources.  Key light is through a diffusion panel camera left and a background light below the table is reflected off a white fabric panel behind the table with the subject.  Items are placed on a piece of white tile board allowing for a plain background letting the eye concentrate on the actual items for sale.  An aluminum foil reflector, camera right is used for fill.

The setup is in a corner of our basement and allows for the tedious but efficient processing of the photos required for the listings.

Two lights (LED at left and one below table reflected off white panel behind) is used to light items to be sold online.

Two lights (LED at left and one below table reflected off white panel behind) is used to light items to be sold online.

The results from this particular setup shows how the items for sale are featured without any other distractions and the lighting shows off the items in enough detail to illustrate the condition.

The image shows the effect of the simple 2-light setup to light photography equipment for sale.

The image shows the effect of the simple 2-light setup to light photography equipment for sale.

Here’s a sample of some of the images made with this simple but versatile setup:

In addition to shooting some decent quality images for the sales, I had a few other things going for me:

  • Most of the items are higher quality and performance with well-known specifications and track records.
  • I’ve taken very good care of all of them; they’re in uniformly excellent condition.
  • I’ve researched selling prices for each one and assigned reasonable prices near the upper end of used market selling prices.
  • I include bonus items when it makes sense (e.g. lens plates, memory cards) and I offer free shipping to keep the transactions simple. (I build average shipping cost into the asking price.)
  • I strive for accuracy on the descriptions including being meticulous about any flaws like scuff marks, missing peripheral pieces, etc.

So, how is it going so far?  I posted the first 5 items (4 lenses and a camera body from the sample images above) and sold 4 out of 5 within 24 hours and the fifth in less than a week.  I’m maxed out on my eBay selling limit for a month but have the next batch queued for listing in the next cycle.  I’m divesting my unused equipment and buyers are picking up some excellent quality items at reasonable prices. So far so good.

Controlled Focus Stacking

Alstroemeria blossom

Twelve focus stacked wide aperture images create an in-focus blossom with an out-of-focus background.

Combining focus-stacking with wide-aperture (shallow depth-of-focus) images can create some nice effects.  I wanted this alstroemeria blossom to be completely in focus but the background blurred.  By using a wide aperture (f/2.8) and 12 images varying the focal point, the stacking operation enabled nice crisp focus on the entire blossom but the out-of-focus background remained soft, almost watercolor-like.  It’s a combo you won’t be able to get with a single image.

Rechargeable Hand Warmer

MJ Gear Rechargeable Hand WarmerOutdoor photography on a cold winter day can be challenging trying to balance keeping hands warm but allowing the dexterity to work the seemingly-ever-shrinking controls on cameras and lenses. I picked up a couple rechargeable hand warmers to try and they’re working out great.  I keep a warmer in a coat pocket along with a spare camera battery.  Wearing light polypropylene glove liners, I can work the camera with little trouble and then just slip my hand in the coat pocket and grasp the warmer to get the fingers toasty in no time. Keeping the spare battery warm in the pocket keeps the camera battery viable when it needs to be switched into duty.

The MJ Gear warmers I picked up are rechargeable via USB.  They have some extra features that are handy as well.  You can use one as a source of power to recharge your cell phone or other USB-rechargeable device, it has two power settings for the warmer (I’ve found the low setting is all that’s needed most of the time), and it has a powerful little LED light that could come in handy.  This combination of features makes these hand warmers more appealing than the chemical pack or lighter-fluid powered alternatives.

Frostbite and photography don’t work well together–hand warmers keep things comfortable on those cold outings.

Wasp Nest Dissection

I had some time to kill recently when Lori was out grocery shopping.  What to do, what to do.  Then it hit me: Of course!  I’ll cut open an Eastern yellowjacket wasp nest.

A handy wasp nest was built under our deck this last summer so I carefully cut it away and then sliced it open with a bread knife.

These are amazing structures that are beautifully engineered.  The ball-shaped wall is multiple nested shells of paper with an entrance hole in the bottom.  The walls protect the interior from the elements.  The core of the nest consists of a suspended set of disk-shaped combs used to grow the pupae.  There’s enough room between the combs and around their sides for the wasps to move around and tend to their chores.  Each comb is suspended in the middle from the one above by a paper-like string wad.  This particular nest had four of these combs with the bottom one being the smallest.

The dozen or so wasps still in the nest were too sluggish from the cold to be a threat, giving me plenty of time to admire the extraordinary design and construction of the nest.  Then I chucked it into the woods.

My Brief Illustrious Career

Illustrations for a murder mysteryWhile rummaging through some old papers I found some yellowed tearsheets from my brief inglorious career as an illustrator.  Well, it was more like a sideline than a career.

In the mid-1970’s I wrote to the editor of Susquehanna magazine, a Sunday insert in the now defunct Binghamton Evening Press newspaper, with a rather cheeky offer to provide better illustrations for their stories.  I included a cartoon drawing of an artist flinging pigment at a primitive painting.  To Darrel Burkhardt’s credit, he overlooked my youthful arrogance and offered to give me a shot.  I worked with him and a couple of his writers on various stories for several issues.  Sometimes they would provide me the story ahead of time and sometimes it would be a discussion about what they were going for.  I would provide pen-and-ink drawings that would reproduce well on newsprint.  I had some fun, made a few extra bucks, and they got some illustrations that were at least marginally better than the stuff they had been using.

It was fun while it lasted.  I don’t recall exactly how our working relationship ended but I recall it was kind of a fade-out.  They were going for more conventional stock illustration and I was realizing that this was too much like work with deadlines and specifications.  It’s a bit humbling to look at this stuff now.  Clearly I was not following in the footsteps of N. C. Wyeth or Norman Rockwell.

Mouse Is No More

Mouse, our house cat

Mouse (one of our two cats, good friend, and family member) has passed away just shy of 16 years old.

She was, in fact, a better friend than a cat.  She lacked a few basic cat skills like catching mice and birds (total failure).  She never mastered use of her claws, frequently getting stuck when jumping up on an ottoman.

As a friend she was stellar.  She never bit or scratched anyone, was relentlessly friendly, ever affectionate, and forgave transgressions immediately.  She was an enthusiastic conversationalist, delighting in taking turns speaking in our respective languages.  Her purring was all out of proportion to her size.

Mouse was a consummate hedonist, spending all waking hours on the prowl for food, belly rubs, or noogies.  As a prodigious producer of hair, she relished her brushings when Lori could, in one sitting, brush out enough hair to knit a kitten. We often spotted her gazing at her reflection in a window or mirror–we shared her opinion of her good looks.

She always assumed that if anyone was in, near, or walking through the kitchen, the only plausible purpose was to serve her food.  She would relentlessly pace and exclaim her frustration at the staff’s inability to focus on this essential task.  Food finally served, she could purr and munch simultaneously.

Her naps were long luxurious embraces with a splash of sunlight, a vacant warm lap, or a cozy cardboard box.

As part of the family she was loved and she loved us, and we all (mostly) overlooked our respective shortcomings as any beloved family members do.

Mouse was a sweet sweet friend, will be dearly missed, and will be the subject of fond reminiscences for years to come.

Vignetting 6: Other Options and Summary

For a little perspective on what we’ve been dealing with, we can posterize high-contrast versions of our flat fields to better appreciate the topology of vignetting in different circumstances:

Posterized high-contrast flat field images

A little processing can enhance the features of flat field images to visualize their contours more easily. Contrast was boosted and the images posterized to get this effect.

Far from exhausting the possibilities for vignetting correction in this series of posts, there are many other options to consider.  Here are a few:

Capture One Pro

If you are using Phase One’s excellent Capture One Pro to process your images, the Lens Correction Tab includes tools to not only correct images for lenses in their database but you can create and apply LCCs (Lens Cast Calibration) images.  It uses flat field images like we’ve been talking about, to enable you to selectively correct for Color Cast, Dust Removal, or Enable Uniform Light in any combination. It works really well. The tab also includes the more conventional parametric sliders for vignetting.

Hugin

Hugin is freely-available panorama stitching software that has a number of tools available for image corrections.  The fulla command-line tool in the package enables a couple of different ways to address vignetting.  One way is to use the –flatfield command line option to specify a flat-field image used for a division operation very similar to what we did using ImageMagick commands in an earlier post.

Another option offered in fulla is the –vignette command-line option used to specify 4 coefficients for a 6th-order polynomial describing the fall-off curve for radially-symmetric vignetting.  I’ve used it, it works quite well, but it’s probably not for anyone who recoiled when I mentioned 6th-order polynomial coefficients.

Video

Although possibly worthy of another entire post, it should be mentioned that vignetting can be corrected for video in a number of ways too.  Besides the usual parametric slider corrections, Adobe After Effects, for example, provides layer blending modes.  You can use the same techniques we’ve been discussing to create a correction layer above a clip and change the blending mode to Divide or Multiply, as we’ve previously demonstrated with Photoshop, to get accurate vignetting control.

Vignetting Perspective

Contrary to what a 6-part blog series on destroying vignetting might indicate, I don’t have a visceral hatred of vignetting. But vignetting is a consequence of the camera, lens, and settings you use; it’s not a characteristic of the subject you’re shooting. I generally don’t want it to be a noticeable component of an image unless there’s a specific reason for it. Maybe adding some judicious vignetting to an image can improve it but that added vignetting is likely to be of different character and magnitude than the system’s innate vignetting.  Vignetting often seems gimmicky and detracts from an image but at least there are techniques available to fully control it on your terms.

Bogus Alert

There are, like anything else, numerous explanations, tutorials, and remedies on the Internet that address vignetting.  Some are even accurate.  Much is (possibly well-intentioned) bad advice.  For example, there are discussions here and there about creating radial gradients and applying them in layers using Multiply or whatever.  These are often accompanied by some hand-waving about tuning with opacity adjustments etc. (to disguise the damage done to the image). Ignore all that.  Radial gradients are linear by nature and, as we’ve seen, real-world vignetting is not linear at all.  Making a linear adjustment to an exponential problem just shoves pixel values around, improving one thing, creating problems elsewhere.  Bogus, bogus, bogus.  If you want quick and easy, stick with parametric vignetting adjustments common in almost all image processing software.

Summary

There are a few high-level lessons I’ve learned about vignetting and vignette control.

  • The best, most accurate, vignetting adjustment is enabled by your creation of good flat field images.  Those flat fields can then be used to either determine the optimal settings for parametric slider adjustments or can be converted to highly-accurate correction images themselves.
  • For radially-symmetric vignetting (the most common case) optimal parametric settings are usually “good enough”, creating results that the eye is quite satisfied with.
  • For most accurate results, or for the occasional oddball non-radially-symmetric case, flat field correction images are the way to go.  They can be used in a number of tools in different ways:  command-line manipulation in ImageMagick and layer blending modes in Photoshop being two we focused on.  (Under the covers they’re doing the same thing.)
  • There’s still a lot more we haven’t covered in this series but we have covered some solid tools to address the most common problems.  There’s little practical need to get any deeper into this swamp than we already have.