The Sky Is The Limit

I was sitting on my back porch yesterday, thinking about possible photography projects. My mind was blank. Most anything I could think of doing involved travel, eating at restaurants and staying in hotels. I’ve eliminated the idea of eating at restaurants and staying in hotels due to the massive increase of COVID-19 restrictions, which I’m assuming will continue for the next six months or so at the very least. That essentially limits my photography projects to simple travel. That means day trips or local outings.

This time of year, most of the available photography subjects in my world are bighorn sheep, bison, deer, and birds, with some oddball wildlife or landscapes added to the mix in the process. I need a change of pace. The hunkering down is seriously limiting my photographic activity and I need to find something new to get me through what is sure to be a long, cold and boring Winter.

As I sat on my porch, I noticed that the clear blue sky above me had turned into white puffy clouds. White puffy clouds that I couldn’t really take photos of in my back yard due to the fact that I had a number of obstructions around the horizon from trees and houses. I thought, perhaps, I should jump in the car and drive out to a more open area near the house and see if I could maybe get a few sky photos from a better location. I didn’t do anything as I was still in my sweats and wasn’t prepared to gather my camera gear, get dressed and jump in the car. Too damn lazy in other words.

To pass the time during the pandemic, I’ve browsed all my photo catalogs for sky photos to use as replacement skies in Photoshop. I’ve managed to gather about 50 usable sky photos by sifting through my archives from the past 15 years or so, but many of those photographs are fairly old and taken with lower resolution cameras. Seeing how my current cameras are all at least 24 megapixel bodies or higher, I can’t really make good use of the older and lower resolution images. Add to it the constraint of not reusing sky photos, it’s becoming obvious that I need more and the only way to get more is to get out there and photograph the sky when the opportunity presents itself.

We’re lucky here in Colorado. From a statistical standpoint, Colorado has over 300 sunny days a year. Interesting sunrises and sunsets and puffy skies and dramatic skies are almost always available. All I have to do is change my mindset and be prepared to hop in a car and drive a couple of miles to get them. It meets all my requirements for working during the pandemic. All I have to do is prepare myself and my gear to drop what I’m doing and drive a couple of miles for an hour or two. The sky is always there. It’s just a question of what it is and how quickly I can respond.

But it hit me. Here’s my project for the Winter. Sky photos.

Sky shots are a great project I concluded. Not exciting or exotic, but quite useful. So there it was, laying on the table so to speak. A perfect project to get me through the Winter. Sky photography. All I have to do is be prepared to jump in the car and drive a few miles on short notice. It’s not like I’ll be doing much else.

I can’t stop thinking there though. What else do I need to consider? Firstly, I’ll use my Nikon D850. 45 megapixel sky photos have more than enough resolution to be used in any image. I’ll shoot from a tripod at ISO 100 to keep the camera noise below perceptible levels. I’ll use two different lenses. The 24-70mm f/2.8 and the 70-200mm f/4. Both lenses are sharp and versatile. I’ll concentrate on getting photos at all the available focal lengths from 24-200mm. This will give me a good variety of sky images that will fit the most common landscape photography focal lengths I use. I’m figuring I’ll need a lot of sky shots too. Since I don’t want to reuse a sky shot if I can avoid it, it’s more or less the same thing as photographing other scenes. I don’t normally take more than a few shots of any given scene, so I’ll treat my sky images the same way as I would treat any other landscape photo. Each one will be unique. I’ll set a goal of accumulating a couple hundred images for the project. That should be enough to last me a while. And, there will always be targets of opportunity, after all, the sky is always there.

The sky is the limit.

The Overdub

I’ve received a little feedback over the past few weeks concerning the rationalizations for replacing skies in some photos. Mostly the typical arguments and sentiments regarding maintaining originality or integrity of the photographed scene. Some photographers get it, others don’t. I don’t begrudge anyone their opinion, but I have my own and I’m sticking to it.

From my perspective, the only time you shouldn’t edit a sky in your photo if you feel it is needed is if you are required to not edit the sky. It’s that simple.

I have quite a music collection, mostly old guy stuff from the rock-n-roll era, but some classical and jazz. A lot of my music catalog is live recordings. If you’re a true music aficionado, you’ll know that many of the most popular live music recordings have been modified from their original. How so? The record producer and sound engineers and artists are often brought back into the studio to overdub studio instruments into the live tracks. Usually to augment the live recording or to clean or improve the sound in weak spots during the live performance, or to even add extended portions to the songs on the live recording. It’s an old practice and when done properly, you never hear the difference, because you never heard the original and its weaknesses. You buy the overdubbed music and bask in the glow of a live recording. It’s commercial art and it helps the sales of the material.

Photography as commercial art is the same basic idea. For most purchasers, it’s the final image that matters, not how it was derived. I’ve found that from a stock photography perspective, a typical landscape photograph will sell 2-3 times better than a typical wildlife photo. There are exceptions of course, but landscape photography is by far the more commercially profitable of the two subjects.

One thing about landscape photography though. You plan your trip and when you get there, sometimes the elements don’t cooperate with what you want to achieve. Most recently and relevant from my perspective is the blue sky syndrome. The last two autumn photography trips I’ve made in Colorado consisted of days with clear blue (bald) skies. Most photographers I know don’t like bald skies. They are uninteresting for the most part. I like clouds or dramatic skies at least. Skies make or break your photographs. They can also make or break your sales of images.

I’ve been working through my landscape photos for images that have bald blue skies. Most of them were never offered for sale or even edited, as I simply didn’t want to try selling what I considered to be generally boring images.

I’ve found a couple dozen images so far that were great candidates for sky replacement. Having a good tool to change a boring image to something a little more interesting will increase my bottom line. I know because some of my recent edits are already selling on the stock agencies.

From my view of the road, what is most important about editing the skies in your photos is to make it look realistic. One must pay attention to the scene and the technical aspects of the photo such as color temperatures and natural light hitting the subject of the photo, selecting a sky replacement that keeps the perspective, color and mood correct for that image.

I will also admit to you that I fibbed to you earlier. One of these images has the original sky in it. Tell me which one it is and you win an all expenses paid trip to your back porch while you hunker down during the Pandemic.

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Have you figured out which photo has the original sky in it?

Remastering Stock Photos

Courthouse Mountain in the Cimarron Mountains of Colorado.

One of my hunkering down photography projects has been to revisit the edits of some of my stock images.

I have a few photos that I’ve submitted to stock agencies that contained bald blue skies. Every now and again I’ll sell one, but honestly, they aren’t my favorite shots. I’ll often return to a location of a previous blue sky and try to get a newer moe-betta photo with some type of clouds. Good clouds can make or break a photo.

The new Photoshop feature that allows you to replace skies in photos works fairly well, but it isn’t always perfect and on some types of shots it doesn’t really work that well at all.

Today’s photo is a shot I took late in the day in the Autumn of 2019 at a place called Debs’s Meadow, East of Ridgway in the Cimarron Mountains of Colorado. I’ve visited this location many times over the years and I’ve never really got the perfect shot there (by my standards.)

Deb’s Meadow was a shooting location for the 1969 John Wayne movie True Grit. The famous climactic scene where John Wayne and Robert Duvall were having their shootout from horseback was filmed on this spot. If you watch the movie, you can see Courthouse Mountain and that big rock in the field in the film as they lineup on their horses and charge each other with guns blazing.

The original version of my photo here was a clear blue sky at sunset. It looked okay but I never really liked the final editing result, so I replaced the sky with a photo of dramatic clouds I had taken for this very purpose. The end result is a shot that looks much more appealing, at least to my eyes.

As for replacing skies in photos, there are some photographers out there who don’t do it, there are more that do. I’d bet money that a lot of the dramatic landscape scenes you see on the internet are heavily edited and sky replacement is a common post processing technique. Personally, I don’t mind doing it so long as the result looks convincing and I don’t begrudge any photographer who edits their photographs to their own personal taste. Art is art. It’s the end result that matters, not the delusional belief in the nobility of which method was used to get to the final result.

Here’s the original image, with no editing. You be the judge. Which one do you think looks better?

Debs Meadow without editing.

I like the added clouds.

Hope I Hit The Big One

Bighorn Sheep Ram on the Move Before Sunrise

2020 has been a very strange year indeed.

I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a year with so many aborted and/or lost wildlife photography opportunities. It hasn’t been for lack of effort, I know that much.

This past Sunday morning started off well enough. I had arranged to meet my good friend Tim at a specific spot in the mountains west of Denver at 7 AM for a morning of bighorn photography together, sorta. I have a strict rule this year that I don’t travel with other people in the same vehicle. No problem for the most part, we just drive around together in separate vehicles so we don’t have to worry about catching or spreading the COVID-19 virus.

I got to our preselected meeting spot about 30 minutes early. It was still dark but the first vestiges of morning light were appearing, enough to see what was going on. I parked and waited for my buddy Tim to arrive, listening to music, assembling my camera gear, watching the mountain side for signs of the bighorn.

Tim arrived on schedule and pulled up next to me in his truck. He lowers the window of his truck and informs me that there is a nice group of sheep on the hillside just a few hundred yards away. He saw them driving in, but I had either missed spotting them in the darkness. We quickly drove up the road and there they were, some 24 or so bighorn gathered less than 40 yards from the road, on a nice open hillside, in perfect view for photographing. The light was still low but we were patient as we watched the sheep move across the hillside taking photos. A third of the group of sheep had moved to our right and I moved my SUV about 20 yards down the road to get the sleepy sunrise behind me and kept taking photos. Mountains are tough at times. Sunrise doesn’t always bring sunlight on your subjects, as the tall hills and peaks in steep canyons generally blocks direct light until the sun has moved higher in the sky. It was going to be a bright, cloudless day in the mountains, but the canyon we were working was still in shadows. We discussed heading to better lit areas up the road to hopefully find more sheep in better light. It’s always difficult to leave a subject in such a prime spot, but we had all morning to work together and were going to return to this spot in a while after we had made the rounds of the normal sheep gather areas.

I walked to my SUV, put the key in the ignition, and when I tried to turn the car around, all I got was a revving engine with the transmission engaged. My Explorer wouldn’t move. It had two gears, park and neutral, neither of which was going to get me out of the canyon.

I’ve had my Explorer for 10 years now. It has over 110,000 miles on it and I’ve kept it well maintained over the years. But, old vehicles break down. The most recent repair was a result of the transmission breaking while coming down the mountain from a morning of moose photography. Not a result of bad driving, as I was just coasting to a stop where a road construction crew was working on the highway. The transmission gave out, blaring a loud alarm in the cockpit and thumping loudly when it would shift from 3rd to 4th and from 4th to 5th gear. That trip ended abruptly and I limped back to Denver without having to call a tow truck. I took the SUV to the repair shop and three weeks later we got it back, thinking it was fixed. Wrong. It wasn’t fixed. It was acting up, shifting hard and dropping into neutral at random intervals. We put the vehicle back in the shop and got it back this past Friday, thinking it was fixed. Wrong. It was now immobile on the side of the road in the mountains, the transmission had defeated me again, this time on a beautiful morning with two dozen bighorn in front of me. I called the insurance company and they arranged to have a tow truck meet me at the car. I had it towed back to my house and will be contacting the repair shop later today to get it back in for the third repair in as many months.

After spending the better part of Sunday dealing with the broken vehicle, I finally managed to download the few shots I got in the early morning light. Another aborted photo trip. Sheep interruptus. Kinda like Moose interruptus. More like life interruptus. It is definitely a case of bank account interruptus. Today, I get to put more money in the auto repair slot machine and hope I hit the big one.

One of these days, I’ll find a mechanic who can repair a transmission.

 

Cackling Away

Cackling Goose in a clear water lake.

Having had the chance to test all my lenses on the new camera, I spent the day on Saturday doing lens micro-adjustments on the new Nikon D850.

The D850, like the D500, has the ability to automatically calculate the lens front/back focusing error and I was able to go through all the lenses with no difficulty.

I think the process went smoother on the D850 than on my D500. The D500 had some trouble with my Sigma Macro lenses, the D850 nailed them on the first try. Happy day.

I also managed a few usable stock photos from my first field test on the D850. Today’s photo of a Cackling Goose is one of them. The Cackling Goose is very similar to the Canada Goose at first glance, but, their necks are shorter and overall body size is a little smaller. Good addition to the stock portfolio.

Next up is to get back up to the mountains with the new camera and calibrated lenses to look for more bighorn sheep. The bighorn rut is full tilt at the moment and will last until late December.

I did notice that Nikon has discontinued their Camera Manual app. For those unaware, and it’s too late now, Nikon had an iPhone/Android app that allowed you to download and view any manual for any of their cameras. I have the app still on my phone and have the manual for my other Nikon bodies, but at the end of August, 2020, they pulled the plug and I wasn’t able to get the iPhone version of the D850 manual. It was a handy tool. I don’t know why they discontinued it. Probably has something to do with saving money.

The Right Tool For The Job

Cackling Geese swimming in a leaf covered lake. Nikon D850/ 200-500mm VR @ 500mm.

I took the new Nikon D850 out for a test drive on Friday at a local lake.  The camera works great; however, when editing the photos I ran into the same issue that I experience with the Nikon D810. File sizes.

At 45.x megapixels, the images from this camera are huge. Lightroom takes a little longer to generate the full resolution previews and processing a batch of about 150 photos took a bit longer than what I was used too, but I’m not at all surprised.

I got to thinking about a how this new camera will fit into my stock photography workflow and like the D810’s 36 Megapixel files, the D850 files require me to scale the images down in size if I intend to use them for stock photos. Why is this?

Most of the microstock sites have a maximum file size limit, which may vary from site to site, but typically hovers in the 25 megabyte range. I’ve found that with the D810, I’m reducing the image sizes down to a 24 megapixel image, but sometimes I have to go a little smaller when the dynamic color range of the image is higher.

The way I deal with the reduction in file size is to create an export setting that renames the file with an added “R-” at the beginning of the file name and produces a 24 megapixel stock jpg photo. The “R-” lets me know that the original file was “Resized” for the creation of the stock jpg photo.

So, what is the best camera for stock photos? In a general sense, I’ve found that cameras with a 20-24 megapixel resolution generate the best image size for the stock agencies. The processing time required is less, which speeds things up a bit when editing large batches of photographs, but the conversion process is about the same. I can confirm this in my portfolio by analyzing the different cameras I’ve used and by a fairly large degree, more of my stock photos from the past three years have been from my 24 megapixel Nikon D750. The reason, if I know I’m going to be shooting for stock, I take the 24 megapixel D750 with me.

So why have a camera that creates 45 megapixel image?  If you’re shooting for stock photographs, you don’t need this much resolution. A 24 megapixel camera is going to give you near perfect file size and resolution results as far as stock photography is concerned. I like the higher resolution cameras though, as they do give me a little more wiggle room on cropping and a lot more wiggle room for making larger prints.

I suggest you keep in mind what your intended use will be for your photographs when selecting your next camera. You can get excellent prints up to 20 x 30 inches using a 24 megapixel camera, which is about all you need in the real world. Those extra pixels don’t always solve a problem, and can sometimes cause you problems.

It’s really about having and using the right tool for the job. Right now, the 24 megapixel camera is the sweet spot for stock photography.

I’m In Business

Time for photography talk. The rule is always write about something.

1/200th sec, f/3.2, ISO 25,600, FL 50mm.

I’m playing with a new camera today and the first thing have to find out is how all of my lenses behave with it.

Today, I’m playing with the Nikkor 24-78 f/2.8 E VR, which may be the last version of this lens to be made. By zoom standards, it should be a good lens for the D850. I may write about some of the others.

My first test is to take a single shot, just me lifting the camera and focusing on the big lens sitting on my photography desk.

If the one shot, first try, looks good, I’m in business.

This is the one shot, developed with my standard import setting for all photos, with tweak to the color temperature. This shot has two different color temperatures at least so I dialed out some of the tungsten from a table lamp on my desk.

The image noise is about where the old Canon EOS 1dsMkII was at ISO 3200. DXO noise reduction would improve on that by a stop or even two.

With this lens on this camera, I’m in business.

 

Cold Dead Hands

I decided some years ago that I was not going to write about the commercial aspect of photography. I would instead focus on my personal experiences relating to my own photography. From time to time, I have strayed off path, but I always return and keep my literary focus. Until I stray again. My propensity to stray is a topic for another blog entry.

I do; however, still own a business and my business is still doing fine. One aspect of the business is the equipment. Nikon just lowered the price on their top tier full frame DSLR, the D850. I never bought the D850 because I typically never buy a camera when it first hits the market. I almost always wait to buy a new camera near the end of its market life. All the camera manufacturers discount their cameras when they are either going to stop making them, or release an upgraded model. I pounced on the new price of the D850, with all the market stuff in mind. I’ve been waiting for this very moment for 3 years.

There were other considerations. From a market perspective, the cameras that are being released today are very seldom DSLR’s. Mirrorless is where the market is and may very well be the future of the majority of the camera market. Do I invest in DSLR equipment knowing that I could be obsolete within a couple of years? Canon dumped an entire system back in the day and nothing new would work with anything old afterwards. It could happen again. Sometimes big companies do drastic stuff to adjust their business. I must rationalize.

I don’t have problems with the ability of Mirrorless. It’s just that I have no lust for mirrorless, and that’s the bottom line. When I analyze the investment and reinvestment costs, versus the actual productivity and quality of the result. There’s no difference. Mirrorless isn’t better and it isn’t worse. Mirrorless is just a different design to do the same thing. Create a digital photograph to the highest degree of quality possible. For a full frame digital photograph using standard 35mm frame width, there is no better all around camera than a Nikon D850, be it Mirrorless or DSLR.

So I go back to my simplification process and reach a common mindset with different variables. As I used to tell my students in the earlier days of digital cameras; “Don’t shoot JPG format files unless you are required to do so. Always shoot RAW.” Thinking about switching to Mirrorless and I arrive at the same formula. Don’t do a major conversion unless it is required. I have a delightfully varied array of DSLR’s in my kit and I’m not going to give them and my lenses up for the hell of it. If and when the time comes that I can’t do something I need to do, I’ll find something that will do it. I’ve yet to reach the limits of the DSLR from a photographic perspective. Mirrorless isn’t giving me a solution, it’s only an alternative, at the moment.

So, from my view of the road. If you are investing into a new photographic kit, I would recommend you to choose Mirrorless equipment. Once you learn it, you’ll do just fine.

If you have enough disposable income to do what you want to do, have at it.

Personally I don’t like to throw money at things if I can avoid it, but it’s never really worked that way in practice.

As for the diehard DSLR shooter out there. I’d say, keep your DSLR until they pry it from your cold, dead hands.

 

 

Sheep Sunday

Bighorn Sheep rut in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

The bighorn sheep rut is underway here in Colorado. Having skipped bighorn photography in 2019, I’m back on task this year.

The rut begins mid-October and usually runs through late December. In a typical year, I’d get several thousand photos over the course of the photography season. I’m not sure where I’ll be this year with actual photo outings but my hope is to make at least 3-4 trips into the high country before the season ends.

I get a bit of a chuckle out of photographing bighorn, as they aren’t all that difficult a subject from a logistical standpoint; but, I’ve been told by folks that they imagine me hiking around in the mountain wilderness packing camera gear and stalking the animals like I was Jeremiah Johnson or something to that effect. The truth is, they aren’t that difficult to photograph. Most of my photography is done from roadsides. It’s just a question of driving around until I find a herd in a photographable position and then watching and waiting for decent shots. I don’t care to pretend I’m some intrepid mountain man, when in truth, most of my time is spent behind the wheel of my vehicle sipping coffee and listening to music while I look for them. I see no reason to be pretentious about it.

My favorite approach is to wait until the day after a snow storm to make a trip. I can normally be on the animals within 45 minutes and seldom spend more than three hours looking for and photographing these wild critters. When it snows, the bighorn will normally come down from the higher elevations to find suitable grass to graze on and they have a propensity to move into areas close to humans along the roadsides. They like southern facing hills with grassy areas at the base where the snow tends to melt off more quickly.

I’ll be watching the weather reports and responding accordingly. Stay tuned, there will be sheep.

 

 

Back to the Bighorn

Bighorn Ram doing his rut stuff.

I’ve started my bighorn sheep photography season. I took last year off from photographing the bighorn. Mostly due to congestion and construction in the area where I normally look for the sheep.

Out this past Wednesday with friend Jim Esten and we easily found a cooperative group to photograph in short order. A good morning overall. No ram combat witnessed on the trip but there was plenty of mating activity and we did manage a few good photographs out of the trip.

Most of what I do with bighorn goes to the stock agencies these days. I try to get at least a handful of photos for stock on these outings, and ended up with an even dozen this time out.

Here are a few samples from the Wednesday outing.

Early morning light in cloudless skies makes for harsh contrasts, but you take what you get.

 

Immature bighorn ram posing in the morning sun.

I’ve found the best time to look for the bighorn is the day after a snow storm, as the sheep come down from the higher elevations to get to good grazing grass. I’ll be keeping my eye on the weather reports and will plan more trips around the snow predictions. Luckily, I can get to them in 45 minutes of driving.

Mature ram mating with a mature ewe.

On a side note, my main camera, the Nikon D810 is getting a little old and the rubber grip on the memory chip access door peeled off.  I’ve got it cleaned up and will glue it back on the camera in the near future.. First time that’s happened to me on a Nikon body. I don’t feel like sending it to Nikon to be fixed, as the camera works fine. I think I can get it glued back on without creating a mess. I’ll report back with the results of that effort.

It always makes for a fun morning.