CowParade Austin Calendar – March – Cowjunta Music

The painted cow for the month of March in my CowParade Austin calendar for 2012 is called Cowjunta Music. The artist was Elizabeth C. Sullivan, and the financial sponsor is 101.7 LaZ, a Tejano Austin FM radio station.

The name Cowjunta is a play on words, as it is the “bovine version” of Conjunta Music.  Now I readily admit that I did not know what that music genre was. But since this is Austin,TX – the city that calls itself the “Live Music Capital of the World“, and since I live here, I thought I should at least find out what Conjunta Music is. Besides, I had to write something semi-intelligent about this cow in this post!

Conjunta Music is apparently Spanish for Cantina Music. I did find a nice YouTube video that quickly gives you as pretty good explanation about it. If you want to really get the academic details about it, The University of Texas has a very complete web page on the subject called The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music.

OK, so after you’ve checked out those two web sites, you will now know why Elizabeth made the accordion so prominent in the center on her very artistic and colorful cow.

Cowjunta Music was on display at 419 Congress Avenue at the Mexic Arte Museum, which is at the southeast corner of East 4th St. and Congress Ave. That’s just north of the Frost Bank Tower. Cowjunta Music was facing west towards Congress Ave.

The photos that I took of this cow were only about 25 minutes after the photos of Moosic Capital that was selected for the “February Cow” in my calendar. So, it was still pretty early; just 5 minutes before 9:00 AM on Saturday, September 3rd, 2011.

The sun was still low in the morning sky, and you can see the shadows of the cow in the photo. The sun was shining brightly and was unobstructed coming in from the east on 4th Street. The side of the cow that I wanted to photograph was in its own shade. (That would make it The Dark Side of the Cow.)  This presented a photographic challenge. If I simply took a photo of this shaded side of the cow, combined with the bright areas that the sunlight was directly hitting (beneath and behind the cow), I could end up with one of a few very different exposure possibilities.

If I exposed for the shaded side of the cow, everything in the direct sunlight would be very bright, and appear “washed out”, or worse yet: “blown out”. I could expose for the brightly lit areas, but then the cow would pretty much be a silhouette. A third possible outcome would be to expose for the average brightness in the scene, but that would result in an “average” photo – just like everyone else would make with their iPhone as they walked by this cow and snapped a photo. The cow would be “half as dark”, and the sunlit areas would be “half as bright”, but neither area would look right.

I thought about these alternatives for a few moments, and decided upon my fourth option. I would simply add a bit of light to the Dark Side of the Cow by using my portable flash unit; a technique known as Fill Flash. So I got out my Canon Speedlite flash unit, put it in the hot shoe of the camera (oh no!), set it to TTL mode, and simply took the picture you see below.

Now that brightened up the cow to a level to match the brightness of the areas in the direct sunlight. There are two not-so-great side effects of having used the on-camera flash, though. First, you can see 4 or 5 bright little “hot spot” reflections on the cow itself, and second, the flash lit up the street sign all the way across the street above the shoulder and neck of the cow. I never saw that street sign until much later – when I was post-processing my photos on the computer!

I didn’t feel that the “hot spot” reflections were that bad – they sort of gave the cow some extra sparkle (I hope Elizabeth doesn’t mind), so I left them alone in post-processing. The bright street sign was another matter completely. I didn’t like it at all, so I spent a few minutes removing it by using the Spot Removal Tool in Lightroom.  You can see that it is no longer present in the photo on the calendar. In looking at the photo again today, perhaps I should have also spent some effort to remove that silver colored fire hydrant in front of the cow’s face (which now looks like a Rhinoceros horn).

I also needed to get a photo of the other side of this cow, so I waited for a moment with no traffic coming down 4th Steet, walked out to the second traffic lane, leveled my camera on the tripod and snapped this photo of the “sunny side” of the cow.

The cow wasn’t completely broadside to the sun’s rays, so it did show some interesting shadows on the cow. The most notable one is how the cow’s ear shadowed the side of the face.

If you look very closely at the larger version of this photo (just click on the photo – but then use the “Back Button” on your web browser to return), you will see my reflection in the storefront window right above the cow’s nose.

I didn’t want to stand out in the middle of 4th Street any longer than needed, so I only took that one photo of this side of Cowjunto Music.

Although I actually took the next photo first, I show it to you last, just to document the plaque that identified this cow.

Dad and I had a large number of cows to photograph along Congress Avenue that morning, so we were moving along at a pretty good clip.  By examining the EXIF metadata (the information embedded into the photo by the camera), I see that the time-stamps on these three photos was just over 3 minutes from the first to the last.

For some reason the cow named Cowjunto Music appealed to me a lot. Maybe she was all decorated up for an evening of dancing at the Cantina… I think the artist, Elizabeth C. Sullivan, did a very clean, colorful job with her cow!

Salad Ingredients

This week’s Project 52 assignment was to shoot the ingredients for a salad on a white background, and they would need a little white space at the foreground for some type (words).  The photo above is what I submitted for this assignment, and this post is the story of how that photo was created.

Since I will be shooting family portraits for Diane V. and her sisters next Saturday, I wanted to get this “salad shooter” assignment out of the way this weekend.  So yesterday, Barb and I headed over to the HEB to get our groceries, and also anything that looked like it might be interesting to include in the photo.  It was important to remember that this wasn’t going to be a photograph of a salad, but rather a photo of the ingredients that were to be going to be used in a salad. We were looking for anything that had lots of color!

After we got home, I started setting up my lights. Following Don Giannatti’s recommendations, I put my largest softbox on a C-Stand with a mini-boom and positioned it directly over the island in our kitchen.

We then spent the next half hour or so just washing and trimming the vegetables that we thought would make interesting items in the photo. We then got out one of Barb’s white tablecloths and thought about how we could use it for the white background requirement portion of the assignment. Our solution was to prop up a large piece of poster board right next to the gas cooktop and then drape the tablecloth over that poster board and the counter top. We then placed a large white cutting board onto the tablecloth.

With that in place, Barb started to arrange some of the vegetables onto the cutting board while I started setting up my other two strobe lights. We quickly decided that we didn’t know how to position the veggies, as we didn’t know how the picture would be “framed” by the camera…. So I went and got out my camera and tripod. I put on the 50mm f/1.4 lens, even though I knew that I would be using a much smaller aperture (larger f-stop number) to get as much depth of field as I could (front to back in focus).

A requirement was that they final image was to be 8.0 wide by 10.5 high aspect ratio, so I positioned the camera in the “portrait” orientation. I also realized that some cropping of the photo that the camera took would be required to get from the 2 wide by 3 high aspect ratio that the camera captures to get to the 8.0 wide by 10.5 high aspect ratio. This meant that I would not be cropping anything from the sides of the photo, but rather I would leave extra space at the top and/or bottom to cut off later.

By knowing this, we arranged the vegetables to fill the entire frame from side to side, and left plenty of room at the top and the bottom – especially the bottom, as that’s where the client was going to want to add the text for the recipe. So Barb made a reasonable first attempt at veggie placement while I finished setting up the two other strobes in stripboxes.

With the large 30 inch by 50 inch softbox directly overhead, and the front of the softbox pointing straight down, it was about 24 to 26 inches above the surface of the countertop. To get the 30 inch long stripboxes to come in under the overhead softbox, I simply rotated them to the horizontal orientation. Next thing to do was to meter the light, adjust the power level of all the lights, and position the two stripboxes on the sides.

In the end, the stripboxes were slightly below camera height, and shining their lights in at 45 degree angles from the line of sight that the camera had. I set the shutter speed on the camera to 1/125 second, and the ISO to 100. I also manually set the White Balance to 5700 Kelvin, as I knew this would be close to the color of the light that the strobes produce, and I was going to adjust it to the final correct setting in post processing anyway. I set the aperture of the camera to f/18 to get a lot of depth of field, and set the light output power of the strobe in the overhead softbox to the level that would result in a proper exposure at f/18. From there it took 10 or so trials with power levels and resulting meter readings to get to the final setting. With all 3 lights firing I now had too much light for an f/18 aperture, so I stopped it down to f/20.

The power of the stripbox on the right ended up being 1/2 the power level down (-1 f-stop) from the overhead softbox, and the stripbox on the left was 1/4 the power level down (-2 f-stop) from the overhead softbox. I did not want the lights all at the same power level, as this would result in a photo with no shadows. (The distance of all the lights to the subject was almost identical.) I did not want “no shadows”, just some “soft shadows”.

OK, so we were pretty excited how things were looking on the LCD on the  back of the camera, but experience has taught me to zoom in to 10x magnification and check out the details. Everything seemed to be pretty good, but the top of that iceberg lettuce was sort of blending into the background. Easy enough, we’ll just rotate it to get more of the green portion on top.

Well, that didn’t look very good…. so we fiddled around with that for a while and decided it simply needed to be replaced with something different. While I grabbed a bunch of the green leafy lettuce that we had already cleaned, Barb noticed our wooden pepper grinder, and said, “Hey, that’s a salad ingredient“. I thought it was a brilliant idea! So we spent another few minutes arranging our new items, and then made this photo.

Looking good!  Zoomed in to check on the finer details, and noticed the radishes now had a white “dust” on them. Hey, so did the carrots! It had been quite a while since we had washed the vegetables, and now they were drying out and looking rather crusty. Think. Think fast….

Hey, this is just a picture, so why don’t we oil them down!  OK, so I took the radishes and the carrots over to the kitchen sink and rubbed olive oil all over them. I also cut the ends off of the radishes to reveal more of the “white dots”. I then used paper towels to wipe off the excess olive oil, and finally tried to reposition the radishes and the carrots back in their places.

That looked pretty good, but upon zooming in to examine the details, I didn’t like how one of the carrots was now blocking the stem on the yellow bell pepper. Easy enough, just move it over a bit.

OK, so that shot turned out to be the “hero shot”. It was taken with the aperture at f/20, but I wasn’t sure that there might be some highlight clipping, so I also took another shot with a smaller aperture of f/22 (not shown).

Before heading upstairs with my memory card, I wanted to take 2 more photos that would help me with the post processing on the computer. I always try to get a shot with a gray card in it. This isn’t a traditional 18% gray card used for setting proper exposure, but rather this gray card is certified to be free of any color cast (Red, Green, and Blue are all equal value).

Once on the computer, using RAW processing software, such as Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom, you can select all of the photos taken under the same lighting conditions, make this photo the “most selected”, and then using the White Balance Tool, click once in the center of the gray card in the photo, and voila!, all of the photos are set to the correct White Balance setting. You might remember that earlier I had set that to 5700 Kelvin in my camera, which turned out to be very close, but just about 100 too high. (Now I don’t know why Adobe and Canon can’t agree on their number systems. When I set my Canon camera to 5700 and then use Lightroom to open the RAW file, it’s “As Shot” setting is about 500 Kelvin down – at 5200.)

When I really want to make sure that all of the colors of the photo captured by the camera are as accurate as possible, I also take a photo of the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport under the exact same lighting conditions.

I don’t want to really get into the details of how this thing works, as it would double the length of this already-too-long post.  I will just say that the ColorChecker Passport comes with some software that can examine the photo with the color swatches in it, compares the color values that the camera records to the actual known values, and then creates a “profile” that can be used by either Camera Raw or Lightroom to “calibrate” your camera colors.

So I got the series of photos processed on my computer using Lightroom 3.6, and everything was looking fine, until I noticed the pattern in the tablecloth seemed to be very visible on my 24 inch monitor.  This was going to have to be taken over to Photoshop for more work.  Using the Quick Selection Tool, I selected the white background in the top half of the photo, decreased the size of the selection by 20 pixels, feathered it by 10 pixels, and copied that selection up to a new layer. There I simply used the Gaussian Blur filter with the setting at 28 pixels wide.

That was enough to “blur out” the pattern in the table cloth, which you can see if you look closely above and below my hand in the previous two photos. I also had to blur out two of the stripes in the fabric below the tomatoes.

Lastly, I thought that the white background at the top left wasn’t quite white; it definitely looked gray when compared side-by-side to true white on my monitor.  So I used a simple Curves Adjustment Layer, and using its Targeted Adjustment Tool, clicked in the area that I wanted to brighten up, and dragged the mouse straight up for just “a little bit”. Every Adjustment Layer comes automatically with a Mask, where you can be very precise in which areas of the photo that you want the adjustment to effect, and which areas it will not. I masked off the vegetables and the bottom of the photo, as I did not want them to get any brighter. Here’s the result of all of the Photoshop work

Only two things left to do.

First, to meet the requirement for the assignment, the photo had to be cropped to 8.0 wide by 10.5 high, and right now it was still 2 wide by 3 high.  Simple enough; I handed the Photoshop file back over to Lightroom, made a Virtual Copy of it, and then took that Virtual Copy into the Develop Module where I just typed in the Custom Crop aspect ratio. (I find that MUCH easier than cropping to a specific size in Photoshop.  Besides, doing it to a Virtual Copy preserves all the pixels in the original file.)

The final version that I submitted for the Project 52 assignment is at the beginning of this post.

Oh, I almost forgot…. the second thing to do was to put away all of my gear, and sit down to a WONDERFUL salad that Barb had made while I was working on the photos.  Any guesses on what was in that salad?

Cell Phone Portrait

Last week’s Project 52 assignment was to pretend that a local cell phone distributor and online data service (think AT&T or Verizon) had contracted with me to shoot a point-of-purchase poster sized image that people would see in their stores and kiosks.

The “art director” had scribbled some concept of how he/she wanted the phone and the model to be positioned in the frame of the photo. (Check out the sketch by clicking on the Project 52 link above.) The photo was to be tall and skinny (3-wide by 7-high), and there was to be some room down the left side for the addition of text on the final poster.

A major part of the exercise was to also to submit a realistic estimate for the job. I’ll not go into that in this post.

Last Friday I received my order of three Einstein studio flash strobes from Paul C. Buff in Nashville,TN.

I also purchased the Cyber Commander radio control units, and several light modifiers to go with these flash units.  I had spent all of Friday evening, almost the entire day on Saturday unpacking, inspecting, and putting together everything to make sure it was all in good working order. Sunday morning and early afternoon I spent trying to figure out the Cyber Commander radio control for the Einstein lights.

I was tired of all of this unpacking, organizing, and studying, so I told Barb that I was going to go our for my 3 mile walk, and when I got back, we’d try to take the photos for the Project 52 assignment I talked about above.

When I got back, it was about 3:30 PM, and I was hoping that we would be done by 5:00 – but I also was going to be using a whole bunch of equipment that was new to me. I told Barb that I was really going to need her to be ultra patient with me for this shoot.

First thing to do was move the couch and coffee tables out of the way, and swing my Lazy Boy around so that I could position it where the fireplace would be visible behind the edge of the chair.  Even though it was sunny and 60 degrees outside, I lit the fireplace and turned it up pretty high, just to make the flames visible. That was the easy stuff…

Brought down my trusty Gitzo tripod, got out my favorite portrait lens; the Canon 85mm f/1.8. I definitely wanted the fireplace and mantle to be very blurry in the background, and the only way to do that is with a wide open aperture (low f-stop number). I put the camera in Manual mode of operation, set the ISO to 100, the shutter to 125th of a second, and since I wanted a shallow depth of field (that’s why the background would be blurry) to a fairly wide open f/2.2.  (The lens is capable of f/1.8, but lenses are not their sharpest at either extremes of their f-stop range.)

For the lighting, I used all three Einstein flash units. I put one inside a 47 inch octabox on a light stand about 3 feet to the camera left side of the chair. I also put a grid on the front of the octabox, as I wanted to keep the light coming out of it going straight out, and not also lighting up the fireplace and mantle behind Barb.  To the camera right side of the chair, I put an Einstein inside a 32 inch by 40 inch softbox, and positioned it so that the front of it was about 4 feet from Barb’s face. Lastly, I put the third flash unit on a short light stand, put a 7 inch reflector on the front of the light (one that you could also add colored gels to), and aimed it at the wall between the fireplace and the mantle (thus called a background light).

Using the Cyber Commander, I set the power level of the flash unit in the 32 inch by 40 inch softbox about ½ the power (1 f-stop) below the level of the flash in the octabox on the left. I also set the power of the background light to about ¼ the power (2 f-stops) below the flash in the octabox. I was going to have to take a few test shots, using my Sekonic L-358 flash meter to make sure that the lights were putting out the amount of light that I had set my camera to get a correct exposure with.

After about 4 iterative test shots, I pretty much had the photo that you see above. It was OK, but not terribly exciting. It should meet the requirements of the Project 52 assignment – but not until it was cropped to a 3-wide by 7-high aspect ratio.  Now my camera, a Canon 5D Mark II has a light sensor that is a 6-wide by 4-high aspect ratio. I could get it close by simply rotating the camera 90 degrees from the landscape orientation to the portrait orientation. That’s easy enough for me, as I keep an L-plate permanently attached to this camera. That allows me to reposition the camera without changing any of the angles of the ball head on the top of the tripod.  Even so, some cropping must occur in post processing (I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom). Here’s what the same photo looks like with a 3-wide by 7-high aspect ratio.

Of course, you can’t see a 3-wide by 7-high aspect ratio photo while looking through a 4-wide by 6-high viewfinder on the camera. You can kind of guesstimate how much of the photo will have to be cut off (cropped) to get there, but you don’t really know until you do it on the computer. I didn’t do that until the shooting was all over, and then when I saw the result, I was pretty disappointed that the fireplace had to be pretty much lopped off and wasn’t even part of the photo anymore…  I could have set that chair up anywhere!

I had to submit at least 3 photos for the Project 52 assignment, so I had to get imaginative. I didn’t want to re-position Barb or the chair very much, as the sketch I had received from the “art director” although crude, was pretty clear about how they wanted the model and the phone to be positioned within the frame of the picture (also known as “composition”). I’m not sure how creative this will be perceived by Don Giannatti (the pro who operates Project 52), but my solution was to try a few colored gels over the reflector on the background light.

I thought that if I used an orange gel, it would give a nice warm appearance, just like the flames from the fireplace.  Here’s how that cam out:

Not too bad, but let’s see how taking it a little but further would look. Here’s the effect I got by using the Magenta gel on the background light:

Here’s what you get with a Rose colored gel:

OK, so that one probably went too far, but it does kind of match Barb’s cell phone, her painted finger nails, and her red lipstick, so I will submit that one as one of the group.

Since I already thought this was as far into the “red spectrum” that I wanted to go, I decided to reverse direction somewhat and head into the “blue spectrum”. I also slightly repositioned the tripod and camera a little, so as to see a little more of the fireplace. Here’s how the background appeared with a Light Blue gel:

Not as bad as I had anticipated, but it definitely gave the photo a “cooler” feel.  So I went  further towards a stronger Blue gel, and here’s what I got:

Not bad, either!  Kind of gives me a Red, White, and Blue sort of photo. Even better, having repositioned the tripod and the camera slightly, I could now see more of the fireplace after the photo was cropped to the 3-wide by 7-high aspect ratio.

In conclusion, I hope that my attempts to make the various photos “different” by simply changing the colored gels on the background light meets Don Giannatti’s approval.  We’ll find out next Wednesday evening!

Lake Travis in a Historic Central Texas Drought

Last week’s Project 52 assignment was to pretend that a major online magazine wants you to shoot the photos for a lead story on the impact of weather in your area.  The historic drought in central Texas immediately came to my mind, and specifically how it has affected LakeTravis. We have been hearing on the local TV weather that Lake Travis was down more than 50 feet (15m), but we have not been out there to see it ourselves. Seemed like a great way to make my Project 52 assignment!

So last Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012 on a chilly 40 degree morning, Dad and I headed out to see LakeTravis. The sky was clear and a beautiful shade of blue! While on RR 620, just past Comanche Trail, but still about 2 miles east of Mansfield Dam, we pulled into the parking lot of St. Luke’s on the Lake Episcopal Church. This is normally a very scenic overlook of the beautiful waters of LakeTravis. Using my Canon 5D Mark II camera, I put a circular polarizer filter on the 70-200mm lens, mounted it all on my sturdy Gitzo tripod, zoomed the lens to 140mm and took the photo of the lake you see above.

(Note: you can see a larger version of each photo by simply clicking on the photo – just be sure to press the “Back” button on your web browser to return to my story.)

In a normal year, nothing that appears “sandy brown” would be visible – it would be under water.  Land being visible in the middle of this lake is such an uncommon occurrence that when it does “come to the surface”, the exposed land is referred to as “The Sometimes Islands”.  Right now they are peninsulas that have lots of vegetation growing on them. The small clump of trees on the far right are on Windy Point.

We moved on to Mansfield Dam Park. With all of the stark, barren exposed rock, the bright blue sky, and surrounded by water, I knew that the circular polarizer was really going to help by reducing glare. I changed my lens to the 24-105mm (with the circular polarizer), and we got out of the CR-V to walk around. It was very windy, and with the temperature still very close to 40 degrees F, we were quite cold.

This is looking east towards The Sometimes Islands, and yes, that is the Oasis restaurant on the cliff just to the left of the tree.

The boat ramp was closed. This was the last of all the boat ramps into Lake Travis to close, and currently there are not any boat ramps open to get a boat into our out of Lake Travis. In the photo above, it doesn’t appear to be such a great distance down to the water, but the next photo changes that perspective.

It wasn’t windy on this north shore, so I decided to spend more time investigating this area.

From here, it still appeared to me that there was no reason to close the boat ramp. What would stop anyone from simply removing the orange pylons and backing their boat into the lake for a care-free afternoon of cruising around the lake? Well, maybe this would prevent that:

But even if that didn’t stop them, this certainly would.

We decided to move on and head out and see how things appeared over by the popular lake-side restaurant named Carlos ‘n Charlie’s. We turned right onto Hudson Bend Road, and then a left onto Highline Road.

If your boat is already in the water, and docked at a marina, you are OK, as long as the marina is floating and can be moved further from the shore as the lake levels drop.  That appeared to be case at Emerald Point Marina, which pretty much surrounds Carlos ‘n Charlie’s.

Of course this doesn’t look anything like the photo that you see on Emerald Point Marina’s web site, but then I exaggerated the appearance of the distance by using a wide-angle view by zooming my lens in to only 24mm. But even so, it really is quite a way out from where it would be in a normal year.

We then decided to head back over across Highline Road to see what it looked like on the other side of Carlos ‘n Charlie’s restaurant.

If you’ve ever been there when the lake is up at its normal level, you know that the water line isn’t very far below the tops of the cylindrical concrete supports – and you can see the stains on them showing just how high the water should be! This was looking towards the northeast, and by turning to my left, and looking towards the northwest, you could get a sense of the fabulous view that the current customers were experiencing.

Although this photo doesn’t show it as well as I had hoped, the water level is at least 20 feet below the ledge. The ledge is higher than anything on the few boats remaining in this shallow part of the marina.

I thought it was would make an interesting photo to zoom my lens out to 105mm and get as much of a close-up as I could of the beached floating boat dock that was in the previous photo.

It was getting close to 1 o’clock. We were getting hungry, and the Longhorns were about to play Kansas State in basketball, so we packed up our photography equipment into the CR-V and headed home. We didn’t have much conversation on the way home. I’m sure it was because were were somewhat in a state of shock over what we had just seen. The only hard thing left for me to do was to choose which 3 photos to submit for my Project 52 assignment.

Happy Valentine’s Day – Chocolate Lovers

I’m not sure where the connection between Valentine’s Day and chocolate comes from… Does it really matter?  Just be sure to enjoy some today!

I took this photo on my kitchen table, using natural light. I placed a large diffuser just out of the frame to the right of the plate. I then positioned a large white bounce card to the left of the plate. To capture the largest depth-of-field (front to back in focus) I set the 100mm macro lens to the smallest aperture it was capable of (highest f-stop number): f/32. With the camera’s ISO setting of 100, my handheld light meter told me that the proper exposure would be obtained with the shutter set to be open for 8 seconds.