Sense behind Sensor (2) – Let There be Light!

Light is essential to human existence, so it is to photography.  The word “photography” is originated from Greek, meaning “drawing with light”.  Light is the single most important component in a photograph.   Without light, the camera records nothing.

While the light is essential for photography, quality light is essential for quality photography.  Landscape and nature photographers go out in the dark and return in the dark just to seek the golden light of sunrise and sunset for its brilliant color.  But quality light is not just limited to sunrise and sunset, soft light of blue hours pre-dawn and post dusk is my most favorite light for landscape, overcast light filtered through cloudy sky is perfect for flower photos, even the harsh light in the middle of day can be quality light if the shadow is the main interest.  There is no best light, just the best light to satisfy the artistic vision of a photographer.

I traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last spring to seek the soft light it is famous for.  In the field of Cades Cove, a dead tree in the middle of field caught my attention.  It was an ordinary dead tree that I would have it cut down if it were in my backyard.  But I envisioned what it might look like in the golden light of Smoky.


I came by three days in a row to wait for the quality light I had in mind.  The first morning was too foggy that I couldn’t even see the tree from the road.  The second morning was opposite, no fog at all.  The third morning, the valley was filled with light fog.  The soft light through the fog turned dead tree into lively golden branches.  What an extraordinary transformation!


Good Morning

A few months later, I was at Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park.  It is a popular beach with great scenery.  However, it is also well known for its often gloomy sky at sunset.  Without quality light, it was just a tourist snap shot.


I came back the second evening.  The light was much better.  Most photographers would photograph the sea stacks from the side because the golden light would lit up the rocks.  But I wanted to do something different.  I saw an opportunity because there was some light fog hanging over the beach to diffuse the light.  I decided to stand behind rocks to shoot straight into the sun.  I carefully positioned my camera at a position that the sun was barely peeking out behind the rock to create sun burst effect.  Too much sun would cause to too much contrast for camera sensor to handle.  At the same time, I framed my shot so that my composition took advantage of the shadow on the sand as leading lines to lead viewer’s attention into the main object.


The Golden Beach

Light is the life.  A photograph can’t live without light.

Sense behind Sensor (1) – Left Brain vs Right Brain

I have been traveling across North America to give photography lectures in recent years.  One of the topics I went over many times is artistic vision in photography.  During this holiday season, I decided to collect my thoughts and write a series of articles about the subject.

Human brain is divided into left and right hemispheres.  Left brain thinking is more analytical, while the right brain is more intuitive.  In another word, left brain is more technical and right brain is more artistic.  Does photography rely on left brain or right brain?  This art vs technology debate is an age old discussion that has never come to an end.

Well, photography is at first a technology.  A lens focuses the light reflected or emitted from objects onto the photo-sensitive material, film or image sensor, inside a camera during a timed exposure.  The light is then recorded chemically or electronically and processed into an image.  Photography is not possible without technology.  A properly exposed image is intimately tied to a series of correctly determined parameters: focus, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc.  Modern technology has made life really easy for photographers.  Press a button, you get instant gratification.  That has in a way caused an explosive popularity of photography.  Photography is no longer a skill that can only be mastered by fortunate few.  Everyone with a camera can satisfy their inner desire to be a master.

However, the advancement of technology also became one of the obstacles for many beginners to elevate to a higher level as it has led to a commonly held perception that there is a transfer of creative responsibility from photographer to camera equipment.  When a non-photographer looks at an image, the first impression that comes to the mind is often like this: “Nice picture.  He must have a nice camera”.  As we advances down our photography journey, we no longer make that kind of obvious remark.  But the old philosophy is hard to shake off.  Instead of saying “a nice camera”, we now think of high quality lens, sophisticated post processing technique, etc.

What makes an image successful is not just camera parameters, there is another aspect of photography that is difficult to measure scientifically: composition, contrast, color, light, mood, etc.  It is the artistic aspect of a photograph.

What is art?  Art is “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others”, according to Britannica Online.  We spend so much time and effort to study the technical aspect of photography.  While it is essential to a successful image, we often lose sight of creativity and imagination.  We often see a technically perfect picture of a picture-perfect scene that lacks soul and feels documentary or descriptive.  “A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety” – Ansel Adams.

Photography is a combination of art and technique.  As Arnold Newman best described it: “visual idea combined with technology combined with personal interpretation equals photography.  Each must hold its own; if it doesn’t the thing collapses”.  To move beyond simple descriptive record of reality, one needs to evoke emotional responses in the viewer mind.

So, which half of the brain is more important?  The key for a photographer to elevate his/her work to a higher level is to find the right balance between technical knowhow and artistic creativity.  A photograph without technique is a snap shot, a photograph without idea is a record shot.  A good photographer must use the whole brain.


Wake up Call

Sony A7RII Long Exposure Noise Test

Just came back from a week long camping trip to Olympic National Park with the Sony A7RII I received just a few days before my trip.  I have been a Sony shooter through A100, A700, A900, A77, A99, A77II, A7R, and now A7RII.  I have to say that this is by far the best Sony camera I owned.  I took lots of Milky Way images at 3200 ISO, none of them really needs much noise reduction.  I will post some images later.

Back at home, I wanted to do a quick test to see with my own eyes how bad is the highly publicized long exposure noise issue.  I connected the camera with an USB cable to my computer, captured a series images with Sony Remote Camera Control software.  For the test, I turned off long exposure noise reduction, kept lens cap on, and exposed 30 second per image.

Before I started, I took an image at 200 ISO as reference.  Then, I shot continuously for 120 images at 3200 ISO.  It took slightly over an hour, including a couple of seconds delay between images.  When it is done, I shot 4 additional images at 200, 400, 800, and 1600 ISO respectively.  All images were magnified to 100% and cropped in Photoshop.

Here is a comparison of the 1st (left) and 120th (right) image at 3200 ISO:


There was a noticeable increase in noise after an hour of shooting.  But the noise characteristics were similar.  Nothing like the ugly spots being publicized over internet.  To see how much the noise has increased, I put the 1st 3200 ISO image (left) together against the 1600 ISO image (right) shot after the series:


The noise levels were nearly identical, and noise characteristics was again very similar.  It tells me that the noise level increased by about one stop after an hour of none stop shooting.

At last, here are the 200 ISO images before and after the 120 image series:


Again, the noise level was increased somewhat (if you can see it).  But the level was so low that it is really not meaningful in real life.

Night at Big Sur – When Life Takes Detours

I spent a few days in September of 2014 to photograph the Big Sur region of California’s central coast.  A small waterfall called McWay Falls at beach attracted my attention.  I decided to stay with it to shot the sunset.  Big Sur, however, is known for its constantly cloudy, foggy weather.  The evening hour around sunset was predictably cloudy.  The sunset was disappointing.  But I still stayed a couple of hours after sunset, hoping the cloud would clear up so I can take some night shots.  The magic did not happen.  So I left scene to drive back to my hotel in Monterey Bay.While I was driving on the twisting mountain road, all the sudden I felt that there were some stars visible in the sky.  I pulled over.  To my delight, the sky was clearing up.  I went back to my hotel, slept two hours, got up and drove an hour in the dark back to the waterfall.  Now the sky was totally clear.  It was so clear that I can see Milky Way with my naked eyes.  I knew this was my lucky day.
 I spent so much time there the previous day.  So the composition was straightforward even in the complete darkness.  I took two shots, one for the sky and one for the foreground.  I tilted camera upward slightly for the sky shot to include more sky while tilting it down for foreground shot, with the intention to stitch them together for a 1:1 aspect ratio.  After taken the shots, I realized that foreground was too dark.  So I left the camera on the tripod untouched, and waited another two hours or so in the dark.  At about one hour before sunrise, it started to have some light in sky and foreground became visible to the eyes.  I took the third shot, just for the foreground.  Back at home, I stitched first two shots together and cropped the image to 1:1 ratio.  Then I aligned the third shot just to blend in the areas I wanted to show more foreground details.
Almost a year later, in July of 2015, I went up to Big Sur again with two friends from California. We checked in at a hotel at south end of Big Sur before we head out to photograph sunset.  Big Sur was cloudy as usual in the evening.  We stayed a couple of hours after sunset to see if the sky will clear up like it did for me a year ago.  This time, I was not so lucky.  We started to drive back to hotel in disappointment.Our fortune got even worse a couple of miles away from the hotel.  A construction crew blocked the Highway 1 to repair the road damaged by a landslide.  No one was allowed to pass between 10:00PM and 7:00AM.  The crew told us to take a detour.  Not just any detour – a three hour detour.  We had to drive north and then head east across the mountains to reach another highway to go south.  It was already midnight.  What choice do we have?  We started our journey onto the mountain road.When we reached the top of mountain, we saw stars! The Milky Way was so clear that I can almost reach out to touch it.  To make things even more interesting, dense low fog rolled in from the ocean, filled up the valley in front of us.

Rivers of Sky

Rivers of Sky

Life is full of detours, we just need to learn to appreciate every moment.


Beauty of Subtleties

The Great Smoky Mountains is a popular destination for travelers as well as photographers.  It is the most visited national park in United States.  In the age of flickr and 500px though, it lacks eye catching vista to attract viewer’s attention.  But its beauty has occupied my heart for many years that I finally had a chance to pay her a visit.

My wife and I camped in the Smoky for five nights.  Among all the areas in Smoky, Cades Cave is probably the most popular place.  Each morning before the gate open at 7:00, cars line up outside with every driver praying God to wake up the park rangers a little earlier.  Sometime they do, sometime they don’t, sometime they over sleep.  Just like everything else in the Smoky, it has its own pace.  Smoky is not for people who are in a hurry.

One needs great patience to appreciate the beauty in the Smoky.  I quickly drove around the Cades Cove in the early afternoon when we arrived, the thought of an over sized suburban forest preserve came to my mind.  Under the bright sun, I can’t see anything interesting to take my camera out.  Still, I came back to it.  The fog was so dense next morning that I can hardly see anything in front of me.  It was still dark an hour after sunrise.  The following morning was rainy, and the next morning had no fog at all.  Most of us would give up by now.  But I decided to keep going at it, partly because of my stubbornness.

Patience was finally rewarded.  It was a perfect morning.  Plenty of fog but just the right amount to let light through.  The light was so soft that I felt like I was in the fairyland.  I drove to the spot I picked before and quickly framed this shot with road and fence converge with the arch formed by the trees.  The composition was already in my heart.


After taking the shot, I drove to another spot I had in mind as fast as I could.  Now the sun is much higher up in the sky. Fog started to fade while heavy clouds moved in. I decided on my composition and patiently waited for the light. The sun only peeked out of clouds for a few seconds.  But that was enough to make the whole cove to glow!

The Smoky’s beauty is subtle, one needs patience to appreciate.

Good Morning



Snow Geese Takeoff

I visited Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico again in December of 2014.  The refuge is home to tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes each winter.  This is a place so dear in my heart that I have visited many times in the past.  I have never left empty handed.

After I arrived at the refuge, I photographed at various locations the first day and figured out where birds were overnight.  The behavior of birds was different each time I visited.  This trip was not different either.  So purpose of my first day was largely for scouting out the area.  There were not many birds in the refuge this year.  However, on the way back to my hotel in the evening, I saw hundreds of sandhill cranes stayed on a pond at road side.  Therefore I decided to come back here to photograph them in the morning.

I arrived at the scene an hour before sunrise next morning.  I could see lots of cranes over the pond but no snow geese.  I setup my gear on a Jobu Heavy Duty Gimbal and patiently waited in the dark.  Jobu DMG-HD4 Heavy Duty Gimbal is a Gimbal head our friend at Jobu Design asked me to evaluate.  It was the first time I used it in the field.

Just before sunrise, I heard loud noise from the east.  I saw the sky was blanketed with snow geese.  There must be thousands of them.  They circled around the pond and started to land on it in a very orderly fashion.  I immediately started photographing them.  The light at predawn hour was very dim.  Instead of increasing iso and shutter speed to freeze the action, I deliberately slowed down the shutter speed to about 1/15 second to capture the motion effect of the wings.  It is a technique I used often.  Many of my published works were done with this technique.

Dream Landing

The landing process took about 15 minutes.  Almost at the instant when the last snow goose landed, all of them took off at the same time without any warning.  I took me by total surprise.  Fortunately, I was constantly capturing the landing action.  All I had to do was continue to shoot.  It was such a breath taken moment.  The birds were so densely packed in the air that one could not see much of the sky.  I always wonder why they don’t collide with each other.  The takeoff lasted a few seconds, then all of them were gone.  Apparently, this pond was used by snow geese as some sort of station ground to wait for all geese to arrive.

Group Action

It was such a memorable experience that I decided to come back again next morning.  I decided to do something different the second day.  I brought a second camera with a wide angle lens mounted.  I wanted to capture the environment when the snow geese took off.

It was a predictable event this time around when thousands geese arrived and started landing.  I photographed landing scene as usual with my telephoto lens.  But this time the birds did not take off immediately.  They waited for another half an hour.  When they finally took off, they did not take off all together.  Instead, they took off in large groups.  I photographed with my wide angle lens as each group of birds flying over my head.

I always capture images in RAW format to acquire as much information as possible in the field, even when I photograph wildlife.  Memory cards are so cheap these days that I carried several 64GB cards with me so that I never have to worry about running out of storage.  Back at home, I open them up Adobe Lightroom to make some global adjustment with exposure and color temperature before I send them to Adobe Photoshop for detailed adjustment.  Here I would adjust contrast, saturation, sharpness, etc.  During post processing, I converted “Dream Landing” into a monochrome image to enhance the dreamy effect.

Take Off

I have photographed snow geese at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge a few times before and I have witnessed the massive snow geese take off.  But this was the first time I photographed them up close.  It provided me a good opportunity to try something more creative.  I often pre-visualize when I photograph landscape, but wildlife photography is largely a spontaneous sport.  This was one of the rare moments I pre-visualized in wildlife photography.  I had this idea, and I knew it was going to be a special shot.  It was photographed with composition and technique just like landscape photography.  Is it a wildlife photo or landscape photo?  It does not matter.  When I saw my picture on the back of my camera, I knew I nailed it.

On a side note,  Jobu DMG-HD4 Heavy Duty Gimbal (Jobu Design) performed admirably.  It levels well.  Pan and tilt operations are amazingly smooth.  It is definitely a keeper.

Symphony of Sunset

I went up to Lake Superior National Lake Shore with a couple of friends last October to photograph fall color.  We wondered in the forest for a couple of days.  The fall color was rather unimpressive, so we decided to head to the beach.  This is a place I visited a few years ago.  What always intrigues me here is a tiny waterfall on the Miners Beach.  It is only about 4 feet high and rather ordinary.  In upper Michigan where water falls are abundant, many people probably won’t bother to take the camera out of bag.  However, the real attraction is the rock underneath the falls.  At sunset, the rock is lit up by sunset. The ledges of rocks turns into golden lines that lead to the water fall.

This time, we photographed sunset as usual. Just when the light started to fade away and we were ready to leave. The whole sky towards west explored in red and Lake Superior water looked like on fire. At that moment, blue, red and golden lights came together signing a nature’s symphony with the tiny water falls stood proudly on the Miners Beach. I quickly took a few more shots of my favorite water fall before the light totally faded away. It was one of the most spectacular sunsets I experienced. I looked at my LCD screen and smiled.

This picture was published on and in April, 2014

Symphony of Sunset

Make Accessories Easily Accessible – A Review of MindShift Filter Hive

As a landscape photographer who often hikes a long distance and photograph in harsh environment, I always found difficult to figure out the perfect system to carry my camera gear, and to make the gear easily accessible at the same time.  I usually carry 2 camera bodies, 2-3 lens, flash and all sorts of accessories in the field.  Backpack is the only sensible way to carry all these gears.  But the problem with backpack is the lack of accessibility.  I have to constantly put the backpack down to take things out and put them back in.  A belt system would have the advantage of easy accessibility, but carrying my heavy camera bodies and lens on the belt for a long hike has never appeared to be feasible to me.

A couple of years ago, I derived a method to use a combination of belt and backpack system. I carry most of my accessories on the belt, in front of my body.  This includes round ND filters and polarizers, rectangular GND filters and holder, flash, remote, and GPS etc.  I chose a ThinkTank Thin Skin Belt so that it is not so thick at back where backpack rests.  It has been working out fairly well.  When I arrive at a scene, I only need to open the backpack to get the camera, and put away when I am done.  I don’t have to open the backpack again when I am shooting.  All filters I need are easily accessible in front of me.  This is particularly helpful when I am standing in the water or mud where I have no place to put down the backpack.

I bought a Lowepro Filter Pouch 100 to carry rectangular GND filters and holder, and a Tamron M.A.S. Filter Belt Pack to carry round filters.  While they are functional, I realized a big problem while using them in the field.  These cases are not really designed to carry outside of a camera bag.  The lids do not have zippers.  When I photograph in the desert environment, wind-blown sand and dust can easily find their way into the cases and stick onto the filters.  Additionally, Lowepro Filter Pouch 100 is too big for 4×6” filters, there is a lot of wasted space in it.  I was searching for another filter case and found MindShift Filter Hive.

MindShift Filter Hive with ThinkTank Think Skin Belt

The Filter Hive is the first case designed to carry both round and rectangular filters together.  It is made of tough and light weight material.  It holds up to six 4×6” rectangular GND filters and a holder as well as six round filters up to 82mm diameter.  All my filters now fit into a single case without the need to carry two separate cases.  It saves some space around my belt to carry another pouch for other small items such as batteries and flash light.  The lid is zipped tight to protect filters from elements.  There is a small zipped pocket at front.  This is where I keep my camera remote, etc.  An added benefit of Filter Hive is that the padded insert is completely removable.  If I don’t want to carry Filter Hive on the belt, I can take out the inset (with filters in it) and pack it in my backpack.  The case is sensibly sized, there is no wasted space inside.

I am a big fan of ThinkTank products.  They are usually very well made.  MindShift follows the tradition and makes some innovative products.  MindShift Rotation 180 Professional and Panorama backpacks are two of the most interesting backpacks on the market.  Unfortunately, MindShift Rotation 180 Professional is about 2 lb heavier than competition.  For a landscape photographer who hikes a long distant to make a shot, 2 extra lb is a deal breaker.  MindShift Rotation 180 Panorama is much lighter, but it is not roomy enough to fit my needs.  I hope they will trim some weight off MindShift Rotation 180 Professional and come up with a lighter version, just like F-stop did to their popular F-Stop Loka backpack.

Update: I just took it through three days of down pour in Columbia Gorge.  It managed to keep my filters dry.

Photographing Ding Darling

Florida is not just popular for “snow birds”, it is popular for all kinds of birds.  One of the hottest attractions for bird photographers is J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island near Ft. Meyers.  The refuge is part of the United States Wildlife Refuge System. It is famous for its migratory bird population.  Most photographers will find plenty to shot along the four miles of Wildlife Drive that takes you through mangrove tree forests and tidal flats.  What makes a photographer’s life even more interesting is that Sanibel Island is a tourist attraction by itself, with nice beaches and good restaurants, although most choose to go straight to the beaches.  It is a relaxing place to be while I don’t take pictures, and certainly makes it easy to convince my family to come along.

The hours of operation is my principle complaint.  The refuge opens at 7 a.m. and closes at sunset.  It also closes every Friday.  I anxiously waited outside of the gate every morning, watched the sun rising behind me, missed the best light of day, and the best bird action of the morning when most of birds take off together from the tidal flats they spent the night at.  Well, U.S. government is not known to be photographer friendly.

Nevertheless, Ding Darling is a bird photographer’s paradise.  What is remaining after 7:00am is still enough to give any wildlife photographer a real treat.  There are plenty wake up calls after 7:00am.

Wake up Call

And plenty of action even the light is not the best.

Just Caught a Crab

The most intriguing bird at Ding Darling is probably the Spoonbill.  God must have thought the feathers are too pretty.  He gave her an ugly head to be fair to the entire bird species.  Nevertheless, I love her just for her feather.

Pink Panther

Bald Eagles on Mississippi

The bald eagle is American national bird because of its association with authority and statehood.  Its majestic beauty and great strength attract thousands of bird watchers and photographers to the Mississippi River bank, where bald eagles feed on the fishes near the dams during winter months.

I always come to Loc & Dam 14 on Mississippi each winter.  Like anything else in nature, it has been hit or miss.  Sometimes, I can only see a couple of eagles flying far and away for a whole afternoon.  Two weeks ago, I hit the jackpot.   It had been a harsh week that temperature stayed in single digit for the entire week.  A heavy snow covered field that eagles had nowhere else to find food supply but to come to the unfrozen open water under the dam.  The light was great and the action was none stop from the time we arrived around 11:00am to sunset.

Here Comes the Fish

I have photographed bald eagles catching fish over Mississippi hundreds of times.  But at the moment it races down to the water surface to grab the fish, it has never failed to electrify my brain and keep my heart singing.  This is the moment that is worth photographing for a lifetime as it my heart praises the creator of this magnificent creature.

Good Catch