Vaishakhi Lahoti


From the Sky

From the Sky

A few things have changed my life the last year. We moved to California, I began working from home, and for reasons I am still trying to fathom, I stopped writing this blog. Its not for lack of creative fodder, we’ve traveled more than we ever have, and captured more beauty with my camera than I had hoped for. I’ve started a post and left it midway. Oh well, lets just hope I get to the end of this post.
And for those reasons I will add one other thing that changed in the last year. I started flying a lot to St Louis. The four hour one way ride gives ample time to look over those little rounded windows and peer down. And what I saw (if the cloud gods were willing) was surreal. Day or night, the views from 35,000 feet or just before landing are nothing short of spectacular. As a shutterbug, I first tried taking some snaps with my phone. Naturally, the results were far from ideal. I had to take my SLR with me, only problem is, that while flying, the lesser you can carry, the better. The Canon 60D with the 24-1o5 lens is as wide as 10″ tablet and heavier than a laptop. I also knew that shooting with a point and shoot would just not satisfy my need for perfect photos. And here in comes the almost miraculous 40mm pancake lens I acquired within last year. At just about an inch in length, its almost within the size of the body. It makes my SLR just about as portable as it can get.

Photo Credit to Digital Story

I will now skip over to the best part of the story. During the last two trips, I was able to get greats shots of LA in the night and St Louis downtown and suburbs. The first time, it did not occur to me to map (or geo tag) them to get an idea of what I was looking at. The route to St Louis is particularly good as it crosses over Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, the Colorado Rockies and  the great Kansas plains. And the view from up high is particularly deceiving about scale. It wasn’t till the last trip that I decided to figure out a way to map the track of the plane. Turns out it was public information and was easily converted into a gpx format file which I could use to geo tag photos. What I found amazed me. I had already known a few of the landmarks I had seen while flying, but what was surprising is that I was miles away from them. The angle of the view is limited to what is far away rather than what is right below.
Below are some of the really cool shots from the last two trips. For fun, you can compare my photo to a satellite image from Google. A full resolution download can be done by clicking on the caption on top of the photos or from the gallery just below. But be warned – the full resolution files are HUGE in the range of 12-18 mb each
I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. Leave a comment below if you do 🙂

Panorama Galore

Panorama Galore

Back after a long hiatus. Its been a crazy couple of months and between shifting cities and adjusting to the new city, there has not been much of time left for blogging. For most of July I was not even able to take any pictures with the camera simply due to other priorities. We did make it to the Malibu Pier to take some shots of the fireworks. Since our stuff was still in transit, I didnt have my tripod and my shots were all hand held and thus not so spectacular. I may share that session sometime later.
For sheer convenience, my Galaxy S2 phone became my camera while looking for new houses . The camera’s focal length is just wide enough to get a good picture of an empty room and its 8Mpx resolution did capture most of the detail. In then end, when we did move in after 2 weeks of living out of a hotel I was well versed in the strengths and weaknesses of the phone camera.
Then there was the photo shoot of dear friends in San Francisco who were expecting their baby girl in a month. That was a whole lot of fun. It was after a while that I was playing around with the camera and I was trying to use ambient light which was getting worse. Will definitely share those some day
And finally the subject of this post : the trip to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. One of the most compelling reasons to move to the west coast for us to be able to visit so many new and beautiful places. This was the first trip on the list to go and see, just a three hour drive away, it was an easy ride.
I will probably leave it to hubby dear to log the details of the trip on his blog. What I will do instead is dwell upon my dilemma right before the trip – to go wide or not to.
Let me explain. Currently my collection only includes the ever versatile and extremely popular 24-105mm F4 L EF lens, and the 60mm F2.8 Macro. The widest I can go is 24mm which is really more like 38mm on the cropped sensor on the Canon 60D. I knew from the beginning that it was not even close to being wide for the kind of scenery on the hills.

Tech Bit

To learn more about angle of views and how much different 38mm is from a 16mm in a graphical format. See this graphic -

What I had definitely not thought about were the trees. They are so massive and tall that it’s like standing in front of a skyscraper. Taking the whole of the tree requires you to either be very far from the tree or have a fisheye lens. I had been contemplating to buy the 10-22mm lens from Canon which I had rented on our trip to Yellowstone and was too late to make a decision to buy or rent it when we started this trip. All I knew then is that I would just have make things work somehow with the existing gear.
As expected, the canyons were wide and the trees tall! And so I had to go old school about the horizontal and vertical panoramas.
Most point and shoot digital cameras built in the last 5 years have had an option of capturing panoramas quickly and painlessly. Even my Mom’s FujiFilm S2900 had a ridiculously easy panorama feature that gave super results. For a SLR though, the only way to do so was with a software provided by Canon. There are other software, but in time I learnt that the Canon version, although a bit jaded was the fastest  and certainly more intuitive than a few others in its category. In fact it is almost as useful to me as it was in 2005 when I bought my first Canon Point and shoot.
Coming back to my predicament at the national park. To ensure that I could make some nice panorama’s back home I was using my own judgement to pan and take consecutive photos. Ideally I should have held the shutter speed, ISO and aperture constant to get uniform results, but this time I was too lazy and took photos only in the Program mode.

Tech Bit

Holding exposures can also be done on a Canon SLR by clicking on the * or the AE lock button on the back. Of course I remember this now, while writing this blog and not when I really needed it.

This is usually fine for horizontal panoramas where there is not too much of change of exposure settings. But I realized after coming back home that it was a total disaster for vertical panoramas.
For example I have below a stitch of 2 photos horizontally across the Sierra Nevada range for a great look out point. After tweaking the white balance a little I was able to get a great panorama, although pixel pickers might notice the slight vignetting in the sky where the two photos were merged. This was probably due to the alignment of the polarizing filter. So lesson number for capturing panoramas on the go, skip the polarizer

Wider panorama, the little lake in the center is Hume lake, that we visit later in the evening

Something to keep in mind while working with large files on a panorama, any change in the set up of the photo requires all the parts of the panorama to be edited all over again. Example shown below where I had to go through two iterations to get the right colours and effects. The problem was that this was a SIX part panorama which meant any change had to be replicated across all the six photos.

Lets move on to a vertical panorama. The one below was created with two photos to capture the entire length of the tree. See the problem? The two photos show distinctly different exposures. Individually, both shots look great. Together the difference in exposure destroys this panorama.

And here is where I always comforted with the fact that I shoot everything in RAW. To have the RAW version is always a life saver in such situations. If I had only kept the JPG files I might have as well given up on getting a good picture. The RAW version is so great because it gives you almost a 2 Stop cushion on the exposure. If you have an underexposed picture, no problem. Use a decent editing software like Lightroom and you can increase your exposure by 2 stops without losing detail. Same goes the other way around for over exposed pictures . Most new digital cameras capture more detail that can be printed in a JPG file.

Tech Bit

Shooting in RAW has more advantages that can be written in one day. It is literally the negative of digital photography. Within the details are options to fix the white balance, exposure, clarity, sharpness, saturation etc. to limits that JPGs wouldnt even come close. Regarding the 2 stop exposure cushion (as I call it) it works better on underexposed photos than on over exposed. This has been discussed in photography forums to be an inherent issue with current set of digital sensors. They just “blow” away details in the highlights but do exceptionally well in capturing details in the dark shadows. Film on the other hand was the other way around. More examples here

Lightroom 4 has this amazing feature to equalize the exposures on multiple photos.First I had to set one photo to an ideal exposure amount where there was enough detail in both the bright and dark parts of the photo. Then I had to apply this exposure rating to all the other photos in the same panorama.This took some trial and error but in the end, the result was so much more better. See below for an example of before and after the exposure fixing.

The image on the right has three photos fixed for an equal exposure level.

One last thing to fix, and this will always be up to personal preference – Fixing the Barrel Distortion on the stitched photos. Really good wide angle lenses have their optics set to reduce this to as much as possible. But while stitching photos together, you can clearly see the barrel effects.  Again, Lightroom makes it easy to fix the basic distortion effects using the lens profile used for the photo. But since a Panorama stitched with multiple photos has no lens value, I had to do this manually on some photos in PaintShop Pro 14. See below for another example of before and after. Maybe it’s just me, but I like my trees to be straight 🙂

Notice the trees on the edges on the photo in the left. Now compare them to the picture to right.

All said and done, after weeks of post processing, here are the final panoramas from that trip. Warning – the original files are HUGE. But if you can, do download a few to just enjoy the scenery at a very different angle.

Passing through the woods, I found a giant Sequoia fallen. Its fall almost emphasizing how tall it was when it stood along with all the others.

Driving through the Giant Forest, makes you feel as if you’ve entered an alien land, or you’ve just been shrunk


Similar to the photo above, but from an another angle


Hubby and Baby at the bottom.


Six Part – Horizontal Panorama of the Kings Canyon NP


Giant National Forest – Panorama created with 3 x 2 photos



In my last post I mentioned Fireworks and it seemed like a good segway into this post. Fireworks are a budding photographer’s real test. Its technically challenging and needs patience. With July 4th just around the corner it doesn’t hurt to brush over the basics of this type of photography.

Before you begin

Set your ISO to 100 or 200. You want to capture the bright colours and a dark background. Left to its own means the camera may choose the highest ISO possible leaving you with washed colors and grainy background.
Find yourself a good spot to view the fireworks. Hopefully without bobbling heads and wires and trees.. you get the picture!

Get the Focus right

Fireworks are hard to photograph right because if you think about it, the camera needs to be focused to an object that doesn’t exist yet. It does not help either that everything is dark. Here is where having an SLR which can switch into manual focus mode helps. Traditional point and shoots may go ‘hunting’ for the right focus all the time and the end result is generally blurry. Some lenses do not come with a manual focus switch and in that case you might just have to hope that while the fireworks are on you will be able to get a good focus. Once switched to Manual, you need to set the focus to infinity. This should be good for most instances unless for some reason you are very close to the fireworks and may want to check with a few shots to get the focus right.

Blurred and Shaky!


Tripod or not?

Having a tripod is generally a good thing. It allows you set long exposures and reduce shake. But, in this case the length of the exposure is tricky. Too long and it will be a mess of too may fireworks on the same location. Too less and you will not see the full bloom of the show. See the examples below that show the two problems.

Too many fireworks in the same shot?

Too less of an shutter speed? This was taken without a tripod

That being said a tripod is not a necessity. You may only want a firm base to hold your hand while you take the shots or reduce your shutter speed to just the right amounts. The above photos are hand held and although they dont show a full bloom they are still sharp.

Be an early bird

Among other things what can destroy an otherwise decent fireworks photo is the smoke associated with the show. Its amazing how much can gather and how soon. Get in early in the fireworks show while there is still less smoke. It also helps to make sure that the frame captures one or two of the fireworks. As the end draws closer more of the fireworks go together creating a mish mash. See photo below for an example

Smoke and wires.. too many fireworks going simultaneously


In the end

Remember to peek outside the camera once in a while, enjoy the fireworks for what they are  – spectacularly pretty. And if you are into Katy Perry, go humming – Baby you’re a firework!

Below are a few of my prized Fireworks shots. Hopefully they illustrate how to do it the right way. But as usual beauty is solely in the eyes of the beholder. So you let me know if you like them or not

The Strutting Peacock

The Strutting Peacock

On our trip to the St Louis Zoo, we saw a lot of animals. What we did not expect is to find this peacock strutting around in front of the rest room showing off its colors. Good thing then that I had my camera handy. After I took a few shots of the beautiful feathers, I decided to take a video too. Hope you have watching as much as I did.

Starry Starry Night

Starry Starry Night

It was about midnight, the embers from the bonfire had almost died down. Fireflies danced around our camp to lighten up the pitch darkness. The wind rustled and I looked up to see a clear sky with a dazzling array of stars, sparkling through just like the fireflies. That’s the photographer in my head spoke -“wonder if this beauty could be captured?”
I have had some experience with shooting fireworks so I knew how this might have to be done. Groping for a torch I found my camera from the car and turned it on. The panel LCD was almost as bright as the torch and I really wondered if I had enough light to take a photo.
Lets consider the scenario. In that pitch darkness there was no way the camera was going to auto focus, I had to change the focus to manual and ramp it to infinity. The angle of the lens had to be exactly upright, so I would have either craned my neck  or lied down to hold the camera. Holding the camera in my hand was also impossible as I knew I would need at least 10 seconds of exposure to get any imprint on the sensor. So I set the shutter timer to 2 seconds, and placed the camera on its back on the bare ground (gasp gasp) and took a shot with a 10 second exposure with maximum aperture, widest focal length 24mm and ISO 800.
10 seconds later, the image came out with absolutely nothing.
Increasing the ISO to 1600 and shutter speed to 20 seconds got me to show flickers of the brightest stars but nothing like the beautiful sky above me.

Increasing the shutter to 3o seconds ( the maximum possible without getting into the BULB mode) I finally captured the stars but on closer inspection it turned out that there was a slight wind which had made my stars “move a little”.

Another try gave me better results but I captured a UFO on the screen. Any guesses what those two green lights are? Hint: there is nothing alien about these

Finally, after a few more tries, I got a good view of the sky with quite a few stars and bit of the tree line bring in contrast. I proudly showed the photo on my camera LCD to my friends who agreed that those 20 minutes of my life trying to take photos of the stars were not probably all that in vain.

But wait, these photos dont look like the photo at the top so how did I get there? With a bit of Paint shop magic of course. Back home when I opened my perfect image it looked good, but extremely boring. So I captured a bunch of dots on a grainy background. How would any one know if those were real stars or not? Those beautiful pictures of stars we see in magazines and tv shows are somehow different and sharper. Since I wasnt going back to the camp to take more pictures, I had to rely on post processing to bring those features in to my photo.
First, using Lightroom I created a few versions of my image from the RAW file. One was specifically to bring in a blue background. The other to make the stars brighter with additional contrast and a few others to become the base and masking layers.
Using Paint Shop Pro (or Photoshop) , I stacked up all the layers and started playing with the blend modes. I think I used the Brighten, Luminance, and Screen blend modes to get to a base image that showed a blue sky with bright stars in it.
Then to spruce up things, I used the stars tube brush to bring in some artificial sparkles to the brightest stars. See the difference below when you hover.

Here comes the last part of the challenge. I now have a beautiful pictures of stars that I dont know anything about. It was like looking at beautiful calligraphy of a language I did not understand. Were some of these planets? Or constellations that I knew of (Ursa Major, Orion?). How would I know if the brightest stars were part of the same constellation. Did I capture too small a portion of the sky to ever know. It hit me- this was almost impossible! Unless there was someone who knew better than me about stars I may be totally lost.
Zoom out view of the constellation

I downloaded the Skymap site  this year and looked hard at it. It was a chart of the constellations that would be seen in the northern hemisphere this month. Orion wasn’t around, Ursa Major did not match the pattern nor did Ursa Minor. I must have spent hours looking at the photo and almost giving up. I really didn’t think it would be so hard. And then I got a very lucky break. I found a small constellation, a curve of stars looking just like something I had on the photo. And lo and behold, suddenly all the stars started to match up. It was truly incredible, just like connecting the dots when we were kids except this was unbelievably precise. Once I had figured out one constellation all I had to do was map the different stars. Turns out there were four constellations that I had captured and only two of them were captured in the whole. I was very very lucky. If I had set my camera even a degree in a different angle I might not have captured even one constellation in the whole. For all you stargazers, the constellations you can make out on the photo are Bootes and the beautiful Corona Borealis.
This was undoubtedly the most time I had spent in figuring out a photo even after I was done with post processing. It was also the most rewarding. Do have a look at the star mapped versions Standard and Full size (6.5MB) of the photo here.
And do let me know if you liked it 🙂