Monday, April 28, 2008

Crashes (Tour de Ephrata)

Crashes are compelling events at bicycle races.  I'm not sure exactly why.  I'm set by personal history, a sense of pain and desire to help.  When I was seventeen, a drunk driver ran a red light and hit my car.  Bad news: bottom GCS coma score, brain surgery, left-side paralysis, much damage, long recovery.  Many folks did God-lovely things to help.

A bunch of folks crashed at the Tour de Ephrata in Lancaster County, PA.  My seventeen-year-old son chased a strong threat in the Cat 3/4 criterium:  he overcooked a 90-degree turn at about 30 mph, hit the curb, settled his bike and flew into a wall.  Lots of abrasion, deep bruises to his upper left arm and, later, pain in the clavicle/acromioclavicular area.  We swathed him.  JayDawg (who crashed Saturday) gave solace.  Monday's X-rays showed no fracture.  He'll race Poolesville Saturday.

Ephrata was the first bike race in several weekends without rain.  Saturday's road race had nasty cross winds and chalky light, but Sunday's Pain Mountain time trial and town criterium were better -- light gray sky.  1,000+ images.  More than I needed; whittled down to 170+ posted.  Shot most everything at ISO 400; sacrificed depth of field.  In retrospect, ISO 800 would have been better.

Ephrata images heremovie here.  Lots of race shots, brief crash series and some farm critters.  Though he crashed in the crit, my son finished in the money on Pain Mountain, so overall the weekend was a great success.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Carl Dolan Memorial Spring Classic

Another rainy day at the races.  Caught three events -- masters 30+/40+, Cat 3/4 and Pro 1/2/3.  346 images; pushed 70+ to web.  Started with ISO 800, then dropped to 400 when light improved. Race shots at 1/1000 second, auto aperture.  Rain limited mobility; plastic bag over camera.  Wind hit 35-45 mph during last event, cancelled due to lightning.  (Tornado reported down the road.)  A number of crashes in several races.  Not a pretty day, epic.  Changed focusing mode to more center-weighted.  This improved picture quality for action shots; the lens hunted less to focus.  Abandoned event when last race cancelled; tent ripped useless, referee and post-race pavilions flattened.

Mac Pro much faster for post processing.  About 5 times faster than MacBook.

Licensed a dozen pictures to a team's sponsor; funds donated to Ethiopia Healthcare Network.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mac Pro

Bit the bullet.  A great first-year plus in the Apple world with my Macbook (Intel 2 GHz Core 2 Duo) transitioned to more serious iron:  I grabbed a Mac Pro from Craig's list.  The Mac laptop is great, but it isn't designed to be left on most of the time and crunch gigabytes of RAW files -- or so I reasoned.  The Mac Pro is a chunky tower, runs two dual-core CPUs at 3 GHz, and came with 5 Gb RAM and a terabyte of storage (across 3 internal hard drives).  I'm cautious about high-tech gear from Craig's or Ebay.  This unit came from a respected firm that chose not to go Mac, and had two years left on its Apple Care service program.  I researched comparable refurbs at Apple ("Refurbished Mac" at store.apple.com), learned the machine's history ("hardly used since our old IT guy left"),  reviewed the machine on site, slept on the deal, and checked kitchen points with Care.

I picked it up Thursday lunchtime and set it up that night.  Ran Software Update to get the latest version of Tiger (it was running OS X 10.4) and other things.  Hooked-up the Macbook with a firewire cable, ran Apple's Migration Assistant to transfer data and applications, and after about an hour, the MP was racing on its own, running the old programs, email and the like.  I dawdled into the early morning, arranging disk volumes and back-up routines to my liking.  (A 232 Gb main drive holds boot and application files; a 750 Gb drive holds Aperture libraries and iTunes music; and a second 232 Mb holds Aperture vaults.)  I use a 500 Gb external firewire drive for backup.  Friday, I picked-up OS X 10.5 -- Leopard.  It installed without difficulty.  I configured Leopard's Time Machine to back-up the main drive (but, importantly, not the Aperture images).  I configured SilverKeeper to back-up the Aperture libs.  Everything seems to cook pretty well.  I'll take pictures at Sunday's bike race and gauge post-processing performance that night.  One item I yearn for is a reliable, affordable Blue-Ray drive, that will allow me to burn 50 Gb disks that I can store off-site ... prices will probably drop to $300 or so this summer.

The MP is playing iTunes (Schumann) and the MB is tucked in its case, ready for the next flight to Africa or out-of-town race (Ephrata, I think).  No more beach balls.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Tyson's Corner Circuit Race

Another rainy race day ... Up at 5:00 AM. To Starbucks with younger son; grab sandwiches, muffins, skim latte, 5 gallons coffee to sell in bake sale tent. Car loaded with 8 cases bottled water, tents, chairs, tables, coolers, Red Bull, clothing, camera gear, the whole pile. Older son gets to Tyson's ahead of me to help with set-up and registration. Wife (Care) at work in Switzerland -- left Friday, presentation Sunday, returns Monday. I miss her help and cheer. U19 Juniors program is phenomenal -- many parents bake, help at tented pavilion (a good thing in rain). End of day, we meet fundraising goal of $500. A lot of work.

Juniors race phenomenally -- big turnout, about 20 from National Capital Velo Club but, even better, 30 juniors from other squads. (It wasn't long ago that an average turnout was six racers total.) Our squad grabs podiums in J10-14, 15-18 and senior (adult) Category 3/4 races. My sons win 3rd and 2nd place in their age groups. 17 year old crashes (not bad) in Cat 3/4 race, rides solidly in Pro/1/2/3 event. Home from dinner about 9 pm. 1,200 images.

Rainy day, shot at ISO 1600 in morning gloom. Some good shots, but grainy when cropped. Light picks up after lunch -- able to shoot at 400 or 800, better DoF, less grain. A lot of time post-processing, a couple late nights. Some favorite shots are in rain -- grainy moire with vibrant jerseys. Have begun doing more cropping in 16x9 HD format -- fresh perspective. Macbook is hurting -- big RAW files send Aperture into spinning beachball mode. Refurbished Mac Pro on wish list. Selected 170+ photos for web site; scored most as 2, a handful as 3. Look forward to warmer, brighter days for better images. Taxes and rides for me this weekend -- Care is on for Mount Joy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Photography techniques/workflow

After posting Jeff Cup pictures, I received this note and question: "All your images are spot on. Thanks for posting. Two questions: In general do you take a machine gun approach when shooting? Then later pick the choice ones to post and what kind of post-processing do you do if any? Obviously your lens are awesome but the richness of the photos seem a bit more. Thanks for your time."

Here's a shot at an answer: Thank you. Given all there is to know and the depth of great photographers, I'm a beginner. About 1968, I started as a 9 year-old in a small basement darkroom in DC, mixing chemicals, developing and spilling. I continued as a high-school and college journalist, writing and taking pictures. My heroes were the photojournalists at the civil rights marches and in Vietnam. (My father George Wilson was a war correspondent for the Washington Post -- and a pretty good war photographer as the situation fit. My namesake James Ricalton was an early photography pioneer.)

After my camera was stolen during a 1981 trip to Mexico, I pretty much hung-up serious photography. In 2006, when my son started photography class in high school, I got re-interested. I picked up an inexpensive digital SLR, the Canon Rebel XT. This is a great camera, but the thing that really makes a big difference is that I bought excellent Canon L-quality glass, after finding the $100 kit lens that came with the XT murky. My first L was the 70-200 F4.0L; I use this $600 lens for most cycling shots. I use the more expensive 24-70 F2.8L for party, Africa walk-about and similar shots. Under the right conditions and usage, these lenses produce great images. In fall 2007, before going to Africa, I upgraded my XT to the Canon 5D. (I gave the XT to my sons.) The 5D image quality is phenomenal, particularly in low light. These shots are the 5D working without a flash, and mixed stage lighting, at my 13-year-old's Kennedy Center Concert. ISO is set to 3200 and the shots are mostly noise free (but with some graininess when cropped).

When shooting bike races, I'm often tempted to hold down the shutter release and take a series of images (the 5D shoots 3 frames per second) 'machine-gun' style, but so far I'm almost always disappointed with the results. (Plus, post processing a bunch of sub-par images wastes time.) I'm probably doing something wrong, or the continuous drive servo-focus doesn't do as well as I'd like. My best shots seem to be the ones I wait for, frame, and press the shutter release. I have a pretty good hand/arm, and can hand hold the 200 mm down to about 1/60 or 1/125 second. (The 70-200 F4L doesn't have image stabilization.) My sense is that to be successful a photographer has to be sensitive, guileless and incautious, stepping into the fray. (I was arrested in Spain by Guardia Civil for doing this, photographing ETA protesters ... almost the same fate marching with protesters in Mexico. I watched classmates hurry past slum kids in Cairo; I stopped to photograph.)

At last Sunday's Jeff Cup, the weather and light sucked. It was sleeting, snowing and then rainy, gray and flat. I shot the indoor shots at ISO 1600; most of these came out pretty well. I shot most of my outdoor shots at ISO 400 and 1/1000 or 1/800 second. Because the ISO was only 400, my depth of field was lower than I liked -- mostly F4.0-5.6. At about 20 feet from the cyclists, my sharp depth of field was about two feet -- so you see a lot of shots where one rider is sharp and the other is hazy (sometimes to good effect). I probably should have shot higher ISO to get better DoF -- but I was sensitive to the graininess-under-enlargement or -crop from some prior work, like the indoor Kennedy Center stuff.

The summer before I got the Canon XT, in 2006, I started raging against the PCs in my house. With a couple teenage kids and lots of web/email/game interaction, the PCs always seemed to get spyware infected and lose performance and stability. A former CTO, I spent too many nights -- or all nighters -- delousing Windows and reinstalling and stabilizing software. When Apple introduced the Mac Mini, I threw out my sons' PCs and substituted in the Mini (toss the Windows CPU, and plug in the same old monitor, KB and mouse). The Minis worked great; things stopped breaking. I later followed, pitching my PC for a basic Macbook. It's been great; does all the email, finance and web development work I want. When I got the Canon, I bought Apple's Aperture for photography post processing and upped RAM to 2 Gb. While I'm not a student of Adobe's Photoshop or Lightroom, Aperture does everything I want. I haven't begun to use most of the capabilities of Aperture 2.0 (or 2.1). It's fast and keeps me well organized. Also, for a good look, at home, I have a 23" Cinema Display at 1920x1200 connected to the Mac. Once a month, I use Datacolor's inexpensive Spyder tool to calibrate the display.

Here's my basic post-processing workflow: I shoot everything RAW. Usually, I fill 2-3 4 Mb CF cards during a day-long bike race. (I carry a ThinkTank wallet with about 10 4-Gb CF cards in my pocket; I got real compulsive when traveling in Africa, with multiple backups and DVD burning every night.) When I get home, I put the CF cards in a card reader which imports the RAW images into a new Aperture project. At Jeff Cup, I captured about 600 images (including a number of ill-advised machine gun spews). I review and rate each image on a scale of 0-5. From the Jeff Cup collection, I marked about 125 images as a '2' and about 5 as '3' ... Since going digital, I've only marked a handful of images 4 or 5; the picture has to be really sharp, well composed and meaningful to get a high rating. Most of the Jeff Cup pictures were plausibly well-focused but uninteresting. I left these unrated (0). About 10 of 600 pictures were blurry messes or unintended shoe shots and got deleted. Photos with a two or higher rating get posted on the images.jamesrwilson.com website.

Almost every Jeff Cup image with a 2 or higher rating is cropped using non-destructive Aperture editing tools. (Non-destructive means the original RAW (or JPEG) file is unchanged, but a mask or filter is applied so that when the image version is displayed on-screen or exported (e.g., as JPEG) for web posting or printing, Aperture renders the modified version.) After cropping, I check image characteristics such as exposure, color saturation and contrast. For a richer look, in some images, I'll pop-up the exposure and contrast, or I'll slightly increase saturation. Other images I'll drop saturation for an old-school black-and-white effect, like this one. All this is pretty easy to do with Aperture. I spend about 1-2 minutes for each image with a 2 or higher rating, and a cursory 5-10 seconds 'passing by' each less rated image. (This also means that, in the interest of time, I often skip pretty good images ... my sons insist on reviewing all the images themselves and they negotiate in some images I didn't rate well.) So my total pre-web post processing time for an event like Jeff Cup is 4-6 hours. A multi-day event like Fitchburg usually runs about 6-8 hours -- I set-up my laptop in the race hotel lobby and process away. When I get home, I review edits on the Cinema Display (because the laptop screen isn't very precise).

After I've selected and adjusted the images for an event like Jeff Cup, I post them to an image hosting service. Until recently, I used phanfare.com, but that is becoming a registration-based social networking site, so I dropped the service. Now I'm using zenfolio.com, which is a professional photography site. I started with zenfolio in March 2008; so far, I'm pretty pleased. It costs $100/year and lets me resell images (as prints processed by Miller Photography). And just recently (e.g., this is my first post), I set up a blog on Google's blogspot.

For refreshers and learning I keep an eye on these sites: fred miranda, pixelatedimage, bagelturf and others.

My apologies. That's a long answer. I'm learning. Cartier-Bresson said your first 10,000 pictures are your worst. I'm catching up to that mark.