Vaishakhi Lahoti


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

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 🙂

Sunset in Jamaica

Sunset in Jamaica

I was eagerly looking forward to our vacation this year. Negril, Jamaica was our destination and its known to be one of the best beaches in the world thanks to the clear blue waters and fine white sand coupled with timid shallow waves. The photo opportunities were tremendous.  Most of the Negril beach faces west, which also makes it a fantastic sunset spot. I was hoping to get some great shots there with the sun swimming down into the Carribean waters, sadly all the three days that we were there , we had clouds covering the final few moments of the sunset. Even then the scene was nothing less than spectacular.
Which brings me to the creation you see above. Although not perfect, (boo to you clouds) it is in a way a nice way to show a progression of the sun setting.
The idea did not come to me while I was in Negril though. Like all other vacations, this one too left us with way too many photos to work with. In fact we were so enamored with the sun set that on all the 3 evenings we took about 50 photos just devoted to the sea and the sun. While I sat through trimming through our 450+ photos at home I realised that I may be able to do a collage of the sun set photos. Initially I thought of making it for the different days we had seen the sun set. Nothing fancy, a quick collage in picasa. But it was not up to my expectations.

Then it came to me, how about take the random photos taken on one single day and show a progression. Put the photos together and ended up with this

As you can see, still no good. There were photos with different zoom levels, orientations just didnt go together.
So I decided to choose the photos only with a constant zoom and orientation. My selection was limited, I had to crop to a pre-set orientation and try again. Much better.. but still not perfect. The horizon is all messed up, the exposures are mixed.

Needs more work, except it will now require a more complicated tool. Enter Paint shop pro. Lots of layers and and cropping later, you have the final results.
Ah.. I can sleep peacefully now 😀


A foggy drive

A foggy drive

A picturesque opportunity can arrive any time.  This instance was when we were driving back from Indianapolis on a real foggy day. It was scary and amazing at the same time. My Canon 60D paired with the  60mm EF-S Macro did a great job except its not easy to continuously focus or hold the camera steady inside a car. Here is where Youtube comes to your rescue. The video editor feature is the coolest thing that has happened to youtube. It can stitch up your videos, fix them in all possible ways, and as I realized try and stabilize the video too. This video is a great example of that feature. One of the other feature in Youtube editor is the ability to rotate photos.
Often I just take a photo in a portrait mode and continue with a video in the same orientation. You could try rotate the video on your system before uploading it but it seems much more easier when I know my target audience is going to see the final result on the web. The cons of this process are the clear loss of clarity due to compression methods by youtube but if you have a fairly old system with a processor that cringes at the thoughts of churning videos, this may be a good alternative. Go Cloud!

Imperfect is perfect!

Imperfect is perfect!

So everyone has a digital camera now. Most of us have more photos than we can care for. A lot of us want photos that are perfect. Not having to worry about film rolls is great..   and in the search of that one perfect photo it’s so easy to miss out on some not so perfect  but really beautiful shots.
Here’s an old example. These were my pre-SLR days. I was getting married (yippie) and wanted some nice shots of myself. Here is a shot that came out really well

Here is one that did NOT come out well

As you can see, the photo was over exposed, and bit of my head got cut off. But I kept wondering about how I could make the best out of this?
Enter the crop tool. People often do not realize how powerful this tool is. A small portion of an otherwise cluttered photograph can be more expressive than the whole photo itself. But more on that later.
Here all I had to do was to tweak it to make it look like the photo was intentionally taken to highlight the eyes. Picasa was the tool of the trade then (it still is for general touch ups) and using some glow and tinting effects, I was able to get the photo below.

This was my avatar for a long time and surprisingly, a lot of people appreciated it.
Okie, here is another example of how a little work on your photos can work wonders. Another photo from my pre-SLR days; it was my birthday and I had just received a bunch of red roses from hubby dear. He took a photo of me in a crowded restaurant and although the photo was nice, it didn’t highlight me or the roses.

Lost in the Crowd

Tools of the trade this time were a little more complicated – Paint Shop Pro in my case. GIMP would do the same for no money and Adobe Photoshop would probably burn a hole in your pocket to do the same. All I did was to remove the background, brighten the photo and leave the lovely reds with the flowers. Result below


Red Roses and the Birthday Girl

Not too bad ha? Remember these were taken a long time ago, with my 5 Megapixel Canon Powershot A420. (That camera served me real well. I still have it with me even though I don’t use it at all.) The same principles of correction/enhancement/highlighting apply to any photo. Today while I edit my 24MB/18 Mega Pixel Raw images in Lightroom, it’s still these basic concepts that make the difference between a good photo and great photo..