Reloaded

January 24, 2011 4 comments

Ah. That last post left me with a lot to think about, and even more to do. I vowed to change my approach to the Mac Lab by reincorporating learning into my schedule. Mission accomplished. All is well inside the double doors of room 246, for me anyway. And let’s leave it at that.

As opposed to last year’s frantic mission to churn out as many posts as possible in as least time as possible, this year I have tried to listen to some advice that Philip gave me a while back and am now only posting when I have something important to say. The problem is, its been seven weeks since my last post and I have not found much to say. I have found that so much has happened, that it is difficult to wrap it up into a neat little post. Last time, I had my anger to drive me, this time I have a promise.

I gave a speech today in my second period AP Literature class about the impact photography has had on my life over the past 454 days since I first borrowed a camera. I have always been a gifted public speaker, and I have to say that I pulled out all the stops to blow the doors off that classroom. The strange thing is, when I went to bed at 11pm last night, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to talk about. By 11:08pm, I had figured it out. I started with a single word – photography –  and in eight minutes drafted a five and a half minute speech that would determine my grade for semester one of AP Literature. You see, this speech was the Final Exam. The only reason I was able to pull off such a good speech in just eight minutes while lying in bed on a Sunday night is that photography is something I am passionate about. There were no drafts, no rewrites, no brainstorming sessions….I just laid down and started talking. Eight minutes later I had a speech.

At the end of that speech, I spoke about the power of a single action to transform someone’s life. This observation became the revelation that nicely tied up my anecdote. Another observation that I could have talked about was the power of passion to drive a person through even the most trying times. Interestingly for my posting career, the past seven weeks have been a very trying time and it’s my passion for photography the both has me posting now, and had me writing poetic phrases in my mind last night. Good things have a way of running my mind in circles.

Anyway, back to the promise that has me seated here instead of watching the second best television show of all time (that would be The West Wing – the first is Battlestar Galactica). It wasn’t really a promise, but if I tell myself that it was then I am more likely to sit here and not go grab some chocolate. In third period AP Calculus, my friend Chris C. asked for the link to my website, this website, which I had mentioned in my speech. I gave him the link but respectively asked him to wait until tomorrow to visit my site. The reason for this, I said, was that I had new content to upload. And boy is that true. Now I have no choice but to get up off the sofa, put down the Sees Candy, and give my keyboard a workout.

“How about that new content?” Well, here’s the story. Over Winter Break, my partner in crime (the 5D Mark II) and I took a trip across the country to the frozen winter wonderland of Northern Wisconsin and the two of us had some good times playing in the snow. Well, I had fun playing in the snow. The 5D spent the trip safely in my backpack inside my grandmother’s warm house. My Mom, sister Emily, and I have been to Wisconsin over a dozen times, but since this was our first time going there in the winter in a few years, I was especially excited. The 5D was excited too.

I spent the first third of our nine-day vacation taking pictures, but the harsh conditions outside confined the camera to the house. So I shot through the windows. I only actually took the 5D outside one time, at night, to capture the beauty of my grandmother’s old barn covered in snow. I took extra care to cover the camera, as it was still snowing out. I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

And then school started and my life was kicked back into high gear. I had three weeks to solidify A’s in four AP classes as well as Honor Spanish. As far as I can tell, that speech signaled the successful completion of that solidification.

Two weekends ago, Philip, Kyle, my Dad, and I spent the day taking pictures at Gillespie Field, where my Dad keeps his Piper Cherokee, and Mission Trails park in Mission Gorge. Our first stop was the airport, where I treated my friends to the best hamburger the world has ever seen: the B-52. One half-pound patty + two slices of ham + two cheeses + sautéed onions + lettuce + tomatoes + barbecue sauce + a toasted bun = the burger built to win a nuclear war. We spent a few minutes taking pictures around the tarmac, in the “Authorized Personnel Only” zone, before driving a few miles to Mission Trials park. We walked first to an old dam, photographing every rock, foam bubble, and disgusting puddle of ooze that we could find. Before calling it a day, we walked for about a mile on a beautiful trail and I took a picture of every manhole cover I could find.

I have spent the past two weeks editing eighteen of the three hundred, thirty-nine pictures I took that day. Here are the best four, in my opinion. I took a different approach when I Photoshopped these images than I usually do. Instead of going for realism, I experimented with blurs and blending modes to create heaving stylized works of art. Well, what do you think?

Be sure to check my photo gallery for the other twenty-one pictures from my trips to Wisconsin, the Gillespie Field Airport, and Mission Trails park.

Also, Mr. Skocko was so kind as to print the featured image from my last post. It is the eighteenth picture that I have had printed and marks the beginning of a new era in my printing practices. I plan to print fewer images, but frame the ones that I do print. This tumultuous image of the sunset is the first of my pictures that I have ever framed. It really is beautiful.

Ultimately, these past three weeks since I returned from Winter Break have been a transition period. I am waiting with bated breath for second semester, when I will charge forward with a single goal in mind: be the best that I can be. I am reloaded, re-energized, and reawakened to the magic that reverberates through the walls of the Valhalla Mac Lab.

Three, two, one…

The Sky’s the Limit

November 14, 2010 7 comments

Hmmm. Where to begin? I can’t believe that it’s been seventy days since I last posted. Well, in all honesty I can. I haven’t felt very inspired over the last two and a half months. This year in the Mac Lab has been exactly what Mr. Skocko said it would be: amazing on a scale we had never before seen. The reach and scope of the Mac Lab has expanded further than ever before, our little classroom is being called upon more and more to complete projects for the school, and Mac Lab students are accomplishing feats never before dreamed of. And yet, I can’t help feeling like I have gotten almost nowhere in the past seventy days.

Last year, Danny Owens and I decided that I would inherit his role as leader of the Mac Lab Video Team come the start of the 2010/2011 school year. I have done my best to assume this mantle of leadership and drive our little group of dedicated students into greatness. However, I can’t say that I am enjoying it. The year started with Kyle W, Philip B, Josh K, James W, and myself frantically pushing video after video through what felt like an assembly line for the school. For the first few weeks, I was so caught up in the adrenaline of this fast-paced workflow that I failed to realize how what I loved about the Mac Lab was crumbling around us. Simply put, I have not felt proud of a single video that we have produced for the school, despite people saying that they are good. And that is why I am unhappy. Perhaps the defining factor of my epic year in the Mac Lab last year was that I finally felt proud of something I had done, and now that is gone. That pride drove me day after day to work for hours on end in front of my computer at home, striving to be the best that I could be. The never-ending onslaught of projects this year has not allowed me to work at the best of my ability and that has diminished the quality of our projects. This decrease in quality has then sapped away my pride in what I am doing in the Mac Lab. And that is a problem.

At the same time, I encountered problems within our Video Team. People not wanting to work hard, being lazy, not liking to be told what to do, not being professional, and not holding themselves to Mac Lab standards tore a massive hole through the heart of Mac Lab Media. However, in the past month I have backed off, listened more, and lead less and that has in turn seemed to stabilize the social and political situation within MLM. Nobody is perfect, especially not me.

So how am I going to fix this problem of me not being happy in the Mac Lab right now? Well, first I need to identify a more concrete source of my unhappiness. After a few days of introspection, I realized that what made last year so great was that I had time to learn. I had time to learn, practice, and successfully (or not) implement new skills. That and my own determination strapped me to a rocket bound for Mac Lab greatness. Happiness ensued. So the logical way for me be happy again is to start learning again. (Some people are rolling their eyes right now. “Learning……I HATE LEARNING….How can learning make this lunatic happy?” My answer: find something you love doing, then learn about it and then ask yourself the same question.) Well, to learn, I need time. Ah, time, the illusive thing that has escaped me these past eleven weeks. In order to find time to learn, something else has to go. If I don’t deem a project to be conducive to my learning, I won’t take it. Period. That should clear up my schedule a little, and if it doesn’t I’m man enough to do whatever else is necessary to make sure that the rest of my Senior Year is better than these past eleven weeks.

And now on to a more positive topic: what I have liked/loved about these past eleven weeks. First and foremost, I have been able to build friendships that would never have grown without my time in the Mac Lab. In general, the friendships that I have made in the Mac Lab have been one of my main reasons for returning day after day. Mac Lab Media has become a tight-knit group of friends who do their best given the task at hand. Regardless of the projects we have worked on, the other members of Mac Lab Media have been true heroes to the Mac Lab, the school, and to me. Thank you guys. This year has been, above all else, a team effort.

My second reason for surviving these past months has been my Mac Lab work outside the Mac Lab. Specifically, the time I have spent working with Steven Moyer on his projects for Digital Group Audio has been, without doubt, the highlight of my summer and the past eleven weeks of this school year. Steven has taken all my classroom experience in the Mac Lab and channeled it, craft it into something I can use in the real world. For the details of the many-pronged Zipbuds project, read Steven, Kyle, Christian, and Philip’s detailed descriptions.

For me, the Zipbuds project took my skills as a photographer/Photoshopper to the next level while at the same time giving me real world experience that will have repercussions for the rest of my life. “What? You’ve gotta be kidding me. You expect me to believe that those endless hours in front of the computer or in Steven’s garage are going to have an impact on the rest of your life?” Hey, beyond the internal benefits and happiness that working on such a wonderful project has brought me, the successes of the Zipbuds project will fatten my resumé quite nicely. And that is extremely important in today’s gladiator battle for college acceptance. To all you people out there who live for your grades, there is another, equally important side to a college application: the extracurricular activities section. (And hey, I have been able to do all this stuff for the Mac Lab, continuously building my resumé, while still maintaining my straight A’s. That sounds like a good deal to me.)

The Zipbuds project is a true testament to the power of teamwork, because teamwork was the driving force for the greatness of the final result. Steven, Kyle, Danny, Philip, Christian, Evan, and myself could not have done it without each other. And what do we have to show for it? See for yourself: www.Zipbuds.com |  Gizmodo |  Gadget Review

I will build a gallery of the roughly two dozen Zipbuds pictures that I personally Photoshopped sometime in the next week (they are stored on a different computer than the one I am writing this post on).

There is no doubt that the Zipbuds project will go down in Mac Lab history as one of the greatest examples of how students can, given the opportunity (thanks to Steven), create work that is good enough to stand proud beside the best in the industry. To come right out and say it, the Zipbuds project has demonstrated how, in the Mac Lab, the sky really is the limit.

And so now I finally get to talk about that featured image. I took that picture almost two months ago and have been saving it for a really special post. Obviously, I did quite a bit of enhancement in Photoshop, but that is how I work. For me, an image isn’t complete until I have torn it pixel from pixel in Adobe’s king of pics. This post’s featured image symbolizes the turmoil and conflict of the skies, but given the success that I described in the preceding paragraphs it can be interpreted to illustrate the power of the Mac Lab to elevate a student’s abilities to the level where they can survive such chaos. But that’s just AP Literature talking. I think it’s a great picture.

I have taken a keen interest in the sky lately, and so here is another of my attempts to capture the beauty of nature. I know that the orange glow is lopsided.

While filming a history movie with my friend Chadd Cady, we noticed a horde of bees swarming a nearby bush. I put down my T1i and ran home to grab the 5D Mark II and 100mm Macro. Here is my first attempt to use that wonderful lens.

While taking a break during the same video shoot, I snapped these pictures of a nearby fence post. Check out that beastly depth of field, courtesy of the 100mm Macro.

I have not had much time to work on projects of my choosing, but one thing that I did do was try stop motion photography. I’ll spare you the details for now. Only one of the four test videos I made turned out semi-interesting. I learned a lot from these tests and next time I try stop motion photography the results will be much better.

Mr. Skocko printed one of my pictures during my seventy-day vacation from post-writing, but I don’t think it turned out good so I haven’t hung it. I did go frame-shopping a few days ago and took notes of various frame sizes. Now I have to decided which pictures I like enough to crop, reprint, and frame.

In the next few weeks, I will try stop motion photography again, give FLOAT my first honest attempt, learn more about Adobe Premiere, and do my best to keep learning, start having fun again, and find that zone of intrinsic motivation that made last year so epic.

Tweak Time

September 6, 2010 4 comments

“You’re never finished in the Mac Lab.” That quote seems to define my approach to a photo. No matter how much time I spend in Photoshop and Camera Raw working on an image the first time around, I always find something to improve upon in the following days (sometimes quite a few somethings).

This is a key quality in a digital artist; the ability to assess one’s work and recognize that it is never truly complete. I am constantly learning new skills and techniques that I can use on old photos to transform them into new wonders. This continual acquisition of knowledge is a defining factor of what makes the cutting edge such a great place. When we stop learning, then we have failed. And so I try to never stop learning.

The batch of photos that resulted from my trip to Mt. San Gorgonio, like most of my photos, has recently found itself inside Photoshop once again. Read this comment, and you will understand my eagerness to get to the tweaking. There is nothing more satisfying for me that seeing one of my photos rolling out of the big Epson, so I have been working fast to get my favorite images up to a level of quality that represents the best of my current abilities. Note that I did not say that I am done, but merely at a point where my skill is appropriately reflected in my images.

Of the four hundred picture I took on my trip to Mt. San Gorgonio, 12 made it to this blog. Of those twelve, I have selected my favorite five to get a second run through Photoshop.

My plan for the three picture of the Milky Way featured in this post is to create a single print for all three, and for that I must make them look like they go together. I used the this one as a starting point, and matched the color and contrast of the other two as close as I could. Here is the before and after of the second image. And the before and after of the third. The different exposure times made exact matching impossible, but I think they go together nicely. I tried very hard not to go crazy and make them too unrealistic.

In addition, for Orion_02, I tried something different. I went all the way back to the beginning and started over with the original file. My goal was to create an image that was mostly color correct but at the same time vibrant and dramatic. My result is feature on this post. It is completely different but I like it even more. What are your thoughts?

Next, I turned to this image. My problems with it were twofold: the sky and the white balance. I played with Hue/Saturation and managed to oust the excessive orange in the forest. I also used H/S to make the sky most pleasing. That was easy, and makes all the difference.

Then I tried to make the focal point of this image, Mt. San Jacinto, more defined, and succeeded with a simple Levels layer. While at it, I brightened the bushed in the foreground and threw a contrast curve on the already dramatic sky. I really like this picture because of its beauty and the personal connection I have with it (end of this post). I think I have done it justice.

I was about to call it a day, when my I realized I had forgotten this photo. I particularly like this one, and so tried my best to oust the red in the rocks and fallen tree and make the sky more peaceful. A handful of complicated Adjustment Layers and Masks later, I had succeeded, and made the leaves actually green.

Well, it has been two weeks since I first posted these photos and already I have found loads of thing to improve upon. That is life as a learner.

Am I finished? Not now, and not ever. By the time I return to these photos again, I will have learned new and interesting things. And the cycle continues forever.

Update: It is September 25th. I woke up at 5:00am to go the Mac Lab Saturday School™ but learned that the video shoot I was going to take part in was canceled, so I decided to stay home. Instead, I spent four hours returning to these pictures once again and make improvements on all of them. I’m not going to bother writing a new post to give the details on this, as that would be a little redundant.

Just never stop learning.

The Milky Way

August 23, 2010 11 comments

This picture is quite mind-boggling, if you think about it. The light that struck the image sensor of the 5D Mark II and created this beautiful stellar photo was forged in the center of a nuclear fusion reaction over 75,000 years ago. What you are looking at is the Milky Way Galaxy; our celestial neighborhood.

My quest for a picture of the Milky Way started a long time ago and was one of the reasons I took up photography in the first place. I first mentioned this goal here, way back in January, and have been striving to reach it ever since.

A little over a month ago, I went on a camping trip with my Dad and cousin Alex to Mount San Gorgonio, the tallest mountain in Southern California. I had three goals: have fun, climb the mountain, and take the picture featured above. For once, I accomplished all my objectives. I had loads of fun. The three of us walked 22.8 miles carrying a total of 125 pounds of supplies for two days until we reached the peak, at 11,503 feet in elevation. And I got my picture (well three actually).

So how did I do it? Well, it involved a lot of trial and error but in the end I found a recipe that consistently produced good results for my elevation (we camped at 10,000 feet) and time of night (9:30pm): 30 seconds at f/1.8 and 28mm with the focus turned almost all the way to far away. In my efforts to slim down the amount of gear I would have to carry up the mountain, I elected not to bring a tripod and instead settled for the gorillapod. Unfortunately, because I was not about of crawl around on the bug-infested ground, the height of the gorillapod meant that I was unable to frame my shot or focus the camera. I was left to trying different angles and focus measures at random until something worked. But in the end I achieved success.

But why did you have to go to the mountains in order to get a good picture of the night sky? Well, the answer is something called light pollution. The light from cities and houses blocks out the light from stars, so in order to get a detailed night photo, one must either go to the middle of nowhere (like the desert or forest) or go up (like the mountains). Being so high in elevation meant that I was far enough away from civilization so as to not be shrouded in light pollution. I took this picture at around 9:30pm, just after the sun went down, so I can’t help but wonder what it would have looked like if I had had the energy to stay up even later, thus allowing more stars to appear in the night sky.

When it came to post-production, I sort of hit a wall. I got a good result that was astronomically correct (as far as color) but was not satisfied. So, I asked Steven Moyer for help. I sent him the file for the image above and he managed to help me overcome my problems. The trick (what I had failed to do) was to raise both the Fill Light and Blacks but lower the temperature significantly. The result was a photo that was less color-correct but looked better overall. I spent an hour or two making minor adjustments and color tweaks before reaching a truly wonderful result. I implemented the same tactic in the next two photos, and they turned out quite nicely. One problem that I never overcame was the challenge of finding a balance between noise reduction and sharpening so as to retain detail but minimize noise.

So, there are at least three lessons to be learned from my experience with this photo. The first is that you need to experiment. I tried dozens of different settings and camera positions before I found what was just right and I did not let the lack of a suitable tripod get in my way. The second lesson is that if you take the time to give something a little extra effort, you will most likely be happy with the results. When nightfall came, I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep. I was sore and wanted to get in as much rest as I could before getting up early the next morning. Even though I had been planning for months to take pictures of the sky that night, I wanted so desperately just to sleep. But in the end, I muscled up enough willpower to go out into the freezing night and give it a try. I overcame my reluctance, knowing that if I did not just try, I would regret it. And well, the results speak for themselves. The third lesson (that I can think of right now) is that it is okay to ask for help. I knew that my picture had more potential that I was capable of extracting in Camera Raw, so I asked Steven for help and he gladly assisted me in making that picture everything it was meant to be. So thank you Steven.

And here are the other two photos.

Although not as impressive as the first three, I decided that nine other pictures from that camping trip are worth displaying. The truth is that there are dozens more of superb quality, but I just don’t have time to edit them all.

I especially like the next picture, because the mountain you see is Mount San Jacinto, which my Dad and I climbed last year (on the day before school started). It is about 500 feet shorter than San Gorgonio and can be done in a single day, whereas Gorgonio is a two day hike. The valley between San Jacinto and me is the San Gorgonio Pass, which is the primary route from San Diego to Palm Springs. In order to train for our next climb, Mount Shasta, my Dad and I are going to return to San Jacinto and climb the Snow Creek Trail, a grueling ascent from the backyard of Palm Springs straight up over 10,000 feet in the single greatest elevation change in the continental United States. Extreme temperatures mean it can only be done in winter, and even then the ascent is quite deadly. That should be fun.

One thing that I would like to add is that this time, I took extra care to frame my pictures correctly and therefore eliminated a lot of cropping. I highly suggest taking an extra ten seconds to make sure that the frame is good before taking a picture and hopefully you too will find that your images have a little extra beauty.

Well, that’s it for now. It’s been quite a while since my last post, but now I am back in full force and ready for whatever challenges the Mac Lab can throw at me.

A Day in Point Loma

July 9, 2010 Leave a comment

On Monday my Dad had the day off and so the whole family (plus a few extras) took a drive down to Point Loma to enjoy the ocean and take in the sights. In order to get out of having to hike around, I decided to bring the 5D Mark II and my T1i, along with three lenses. I had not used anything telephoto in a long time, so I was excited to try taking pictures of the city from really far away.

I took pictures of the ocean, the city, plants, rocks, and my family. The best photos fall under that last category.

I took over 450 pictures in two hours. Not counting dozens of duplicates, there were about ten pictures that made is past the first round of eliminations. I narrowed that down my favorite four, all captured by the 5D, and edited those. None are spectacular or amazing, but I like them nonetheless. It was overcast and so that sort of set the tone for the shoot. That’s just my light painting curse acting up during the day.

Here are those four. I know that the colors in the first two are slightly off but I was going for two different effects (dramatic and postcard) and so colored each photo differently in Camera Raw.

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Fireworks Photography, Part 2

July 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Well, I wish I had better news. My second try at fireworks photography did not go as well as my first, even though I lugged two 5D Mark II’s, a Rebel T1i, six lenses, and three tripods for what felt like ten miles up, down, and around the USS Midway for six hours on the 4th of July.

I was completely prepared and knew exactly what I needed to do to capture great pictures, but three things got in my way: clouds, smoke, and people. Fog started coming in as soon as it got dark and so the fireworks were exploding inside a bank of haze that was impossible for the camera to penetrate. I tried things like increasing the f-stop to 22 so as to capture as little surrounding light as possible, but to little avail. Second, there must have been five hundred fireworks going off every minute from nine different locations around the bay, so the fog was compounded by an impregnable layer of smoke that never blew away. Third, I had a great location to shoot the fireworks but at the last minute decided to move because I was standing in people’s way, and that proved disastrous. Most of my pictures have a line of heads along the bottom that obstruct the lower reaches of the fireworks. Oh well.

I took over 400 pictures in six hours, and less that 20 are worth editing. Like last time, here are the first four.

Most of the time the smoke was a nuisance, but sometimes it added to the composition.

Those fireworks with exploding bulbs make for interesting pictures.

Brief moments of clarity and a lot of Photoshopping produced some smokeless images. Notice the Coronado Bridge at the bottom of the next two pictures.

Fireworks Photography, Part 1

July 3, 2010 3 comments

If you have been following the Mac Lab Blog and the happenings of the 2010 Mac Lab Summer Academy™, then you know that I am determined to capture some amazing pictures of fireworks this 4th of July. Today, the 3rd, I went to the top of the hill in Cottonwood and watched a fireworks show over the Cottonwood Golf Course. My goal was to test the new advanced shutter button and experiment with the techniques I had learned here and here.

Well, I had moderate success. The button worked well once I figured it out but I ended up not using many of its cool features. As for what I had read, well only about half actually proved to be applicable to this particular shoot. Focusing turned out to be more that just throwing the dial to infinity and the 4 seconds and f/11 trick that Scott Kelby suggested didn’t work very well. What did work phenomenally though was the baseball hat trick I read here. Yes, you are going to have to read the article to find out what I mean. The most important thing I learned, however, is that experimentation is key. There is not a single group of settings that will yield perfect pictures every time and so you must be willing to experiment and find what is best. That goes for everything in general.

I took 92 pictures in a twenty minute time period. About 25 are good. About 20 are great. Here are the first 4. What’s really good is that there is very little post-production work to be done with pictures like this. It took be under ten minutes to edit these 4 and most of that time was spent in Camera Raw.

More info here.