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Review of “Sí El Paso” first appeared in the January 2020 issue of El Paso Scene.  The gracious review is written by Randy Limbird.

No photographer has chronicled El Paso and the surrounding region more extensively than Mark Paulda.  His first photographic compilation of the borderland, “Celebrate El Paso,” came out over 10 years ago.  “No one guessed but the book went on to be a best seller and the fastest selling book for my publisher, TCU Press,” Paulda said.

But after a decade of changes — in which landmarks like City Hall and the ASARCO smokestacks were razed, others like San Jacinto Plaza were restored and new ones were created, like the red “X” rising above Juárez — it was time for a new edition.

The result is “Sí El Paso,” a larger version of the older book, with over 250 color photographs of El Paso, Juárez and Southern New Mexico.  And while his first book was nothing but photographs, “Sí El Paso” includes memories and stories written by a range of El Pasoans.  To make the book even more accessible to our community, the text is provided in both English and Spanish.

Mark, whose photographs have appeared in El Paso Scene several times over the past dozen years, approached me about doing something with the new book, so I offered to put it on the January cover.  It was a joy leafing through the book, but hard to pick out just a few images out of so many.

The main picture featured on this month’s cover jumped out at me.  It’s a winter scene familiar to my mind’s eye but one that I had never seen portrayed as well as Mark had done in his photograph of winter storm clouds draped over the Franklins.  The vibrant colors of the Juárez mercado and the subtle gold shades on the Cortez Building also caught my attention.  The long-exposure shot of freeway traffic amid a the foreground of desert plants and the background of Union Depot is Mark Paulda’s signature image, similar to the one that graces the book’s cover.

Hopefully Mark — and El Paso Scene — will be around long enough for his next decade’s installment of photography.

Cover of El Paso Scene January 2020

 

This is Iceland.  An island with the wild North Atlantic Ocean to the south and the Norwegian Sea to the north.  A place where you might sometimes think  you’re on a different planet.  A country whose population is often dwarfed by the number of tourists who visit.   Home to the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.  A small island with landscapes larger than life.   

If you’ve never visited Iceland, drop everything and go now.  Of all the countries I’ve visited around the world, Iceland is not only cool (and I’m not referring to the temperatures), but it ranks near the top of my most favourite places in the world.  I’ve visited Iceland numerous times dating back well before it became a wildly popular destination.  There were few hotel choices when I first visited.  Today there are an abundance of hotels in the city centre of Rejkjavik.

Reyjavik alone is charming enough for you to know you’ve chosen the right travel destination.  The city centre is relatively small and most definitely walkable.  You’ll find numerous bars, restaurants and shops and outdoor public spaces to sit back and watch Icelanders go by.  

But it’s the majestic landscape that will capture your heart and imagination.  The mountains are glorious.  The glaciers are enormous.  There are plenty of tours that will take you to the top sights.  Private guides will take you to places few others see.  If you prefer to go on your own, rent a car.  Navigating Iceland is easier than finding your way in your home town.   Traffic and direction signs are in Icelandic but it doesn’t matter because you can’t get lost.  Drive the southern route and you’ll see everything mentioned in this blog post.  Drive northward and you’ll feel as if you have Iceland to yourself and the landscapes are even more impressive.

Geysirs burst steam in the air constantly while some erupt like clockwork.  The landscape is fascinating if you’re a nature lover.  They are literally everywhere so you can’t miss them.  If you fancy waterfalls, Iceland has those, too, and they are mightily impressive. 

If you’re adventurous like me, head to the local airport and ask a pilot to fly you over Iceland in a small plane.  It is from the air that you will truly appreciate the grand size of the glaciers.  I’d like to say they are the size of Texas except Texas is vastly larger than the entire country.  But, you get the idea.  The lakes, the rivers, the evident flow of lava when a volcano erupts, the mountains and desolate landscape are even more stunning from up above.

Iceland is also a photographer’s paradise and playground.  It’s safe to say you can’t take a bad photograph in Iceland.  Plan to travel with your DSLR.  You’ll probably want to print some of the photographs you capture.  At the same time, have your iPhone or any mobile phone handy.  Smartphones are brilliant when you want to capture a quick photo or video.

I’ve included some tips to consider when using your iPhone for travel photography.

12 iPhone X Camera Tips You Won’t Want to Forget should help you to improve the images you take with that omnipresent camera system.  It should be noted that most of these tips can be applied if you own any of the other iPhone models or even other camera phones.

1. Turn on all the lights in the room

This is a great place to start immediately improving the quality of the photos you capture with your iPhone. The pitfall you are immediately battling when you grab for your iPhone over your DSLR or Mirrorless camera is in the fact that you are working with a MUCH smaller lens in front of a MUCH smaller sensor. What this means is that your iPhone is not all that good at collecting light. Yes, that statement applies to the iPhone X as well.

When light collection is inefficient, noise can become a problem quickly. But don’t fret, I have a solution. Add light. It really is that simple. Turning on every available light will immediately enhance the quality of your image. The lights in your house are most likely placed up high (probably near or in the ceiling) and they will be familiar and flattering. This will immediately improve your photos making them sharper and reducing overall noise.

2. Turn on the flash

This is clearly related to the first tip. More light = better iPhone photos! iPhones have the tendency to not use the built-in flash as much as they should. Now, while it is a point light source and thus a harsh light source, it is also probably not strong enough to overpower your ambient light. Rather, it will add to it as a fill and reduce overall noise in the image.

Since the ambient light is still present, you shouldn’t end up with harsh, ugly shadows. That is, unless you ignored the first tip. Just make sure you’re not expecting the flash to cover any great distance. It has an effective range of about 7 feet before the inverse square law renders it less than useless.

Do be aware of the possibility of your flash not matching the ambient light in terms of color temperature. This is supposed to be less of a problem with “True Tone” flash. However, the lighting in a house tends to be very warm and can really give your flash away. Play around with it and see what works best in your given situation.

3. Utilize “Portrait Mode”

One place where the limitations of a mobile device for photography start to become more apparent is when trying to take advantage of the physics of optics to do things like create a shallow depth of field. Enter computational photography.

This is going to be a buzz phrase as we move into the future of photography. A huge strength of the iPhone X camera (like the 7 plus and 8 plus) is the ability to recognize the subject, separate them from the background and create a fantastic and convincing bokeh. While it’s not perfect, it is pretty darn good and getting better with each iteration.

While in the main camera, simply swipe into “portrait” mode and the camera will do the rest. You will notice that it doesn’t work horribly well up close but you must be close enough for it to separate the subject from the background. 7 to 8 feet works pretty well. The phone will actually tell you things like “Move Farther Away” or “Place subject within 8 feet” to help guide you to the optimum subject distance to make the feature work. Also, be sure that your background is a decent distance behind your subject. This will help the system work better.

The software takes over and creates a great bokeh that will separate your subject from the background and improve your portraits.

If you’re living in the world of the iPhone X, you also have access to the lighting adjustments in portrait mode. 

4. Tap on screen to adjust focus and exposure

An often-underutilized functionality built into the iPhone experience, dating way back to the early versions of the iPhone Camera app, is the ability to control the exposure. Many people simply stumble onto the feature.

The way this works is by simply touching the screen where your subject is. This sets the focus point on the image. Now, with your finger still touching the screen, drag it up and down to adjust the overall exposure. Now you’re in a perfect position to nail your iPhone photo exposure every time!

This works especially well with subjects like sunsets where the camera wants to automatically select an exposure that is far too bright, blowing out the details in the sky. Drag down to “under-expose” and boom… perfect sunset shot.

Another level of functionality in this feature is the ability to lock exposure and auto focus. Once it’s set how you like it, just hold on the screen for two seconds and you will see the AE/AF lock indication pop up. You can then recompose your image without the camera changing focus or exposure settings.

5. Don’t pinch to zoom when taking pictures

“Zooming” by using the pinch gestures on screen. Technically, you can’t zoom on an iPhone. Zoom would be changing the optical focal length of your lens. Pinch “zoom” is digital “zoom” and amounts to a simple cropping of the image. Of course, with the X and with the Plus versions of the iPhone, there is the option to use the second “2X” camera. But this is really more of a lens swap, or technically it’s a complete camera swap to a different system, different sensor, everything.

Note: There is a HUGE caveat with the “2x camera” that I discovered while writing this article. When lighting conditions are not optimal, the iPhone camera app always uses the main 1x camera and when you tap 2x, it uses a digital “zoom”. This is because the 1x camera has a slightly larger sensor and a slightly brighter aperture. In order to know if you’re actually utilizing the 2x optics, cover the telephoto lens (leave the main lens unobstructed and that is how you’ll know you’re covering the correct lens) and switch to “2x”. If you’ve actually switched over the image should go dark. If it does not, you are using “digital zoom” and you’re better off just using the 1x camera.

Pinch zooming is really just cropping the image live and then taking the photo committing the photographer to the exact composition they had when they hit the shutter. A far better approach would be to take the photo without zooming in and then crop later to get the desired effect. Then there is time to make it perfect and/or change it later on. A sort of non-destructive workflow applied to capture in-camera.

The other alternative, and one that is especially useful if you do not have one of the iPhones with the handy two camera setup on the back, is a set of clip on lenses that can be attached to your phone. There are tons of these on the market and many of them actually work quite well (see tip #8)!

6. Panoramas can be useful

This one might seem obvious, but I want to point out a couple of less obvious ways to use this feature. First, the obvious. Sometimes you just want a panorama. Shooting several photos with sufficient overlap and then hauling said files into Lightroom or Photoshop or your editor of choice to merge to a panorama is simply too much. So, engage panorama mode, start the exposure and slowly pan from left to right. Done.

One spot where it might not be so obvious to use a panorama is in a situation where you don’t necessarily need the sweeping 180-degree view. You can take short panoramas (is that a contradiction in terms? I don’t care) you have my permission. This is a way to achieve a slightly wider angle of view both vertically and horizontally while, at the same times, adding a fair bit of resolution.

Another useful tip with panoramas on the iPhone is to remember that they work in the vertical orientation as well. The process is the same, just hold your phone in landscape orientation at the start of the panorama and pan from low to high. Now you have a beautiful photo of a very tall subject in one shot.

The panorama mode comes with a couple of caveats and these are not unlike panoramas with larger photography equipment.

  • You’re likely to have some significant distortion, especially if you’re close to your subject. This can sometimes be OK and other times it can be fixed in post.
  • Moving subjects don’t play well with panoramas. Sometimes this can lead to some interesting stitching errors.
7. Rotate your phone rather than your body when taking a panorama

This is obviously part of tip #6, but I gave it its own heading because it will help you just that much. It has to do with parallax and other forms of distortion that are possible when the camera moves rather than rotates. If you have no clue what that means, don’t fret, just understand that you will end up with superior results when you rotate your phone rather than your body with your phone out in front of you.

The same principle is true when shooting panoramas with a larger camera system. The idea is to rotate around something known as the nodal point. With your phone, just think of the camera itself as the nodal point and you’ll probably be close enough. Throw a longer lens on and have objects near and far in the frame, and it becomes important quickly.

If you want to try an experiment that will help you understand the concept, do the following:

  • Hold your finger up in front of your face about a foot or so away.
  • With one eye closed, line your finger up with some object in the background (something about 10 feet or more away works best)
  • Now rotate your head and notice that your finger appears to shift position as your head rotates. This is the same thing that is happening when you hold your phone out in front of you as you rotate your body to create a panorama. It can mess things up pretty quickly.
  • Now try again, but as your head rotates, try to keep your finger and your target object lined up. If you are able to do this, you are rotating around the nodal point of your eye! Stitching a panorama that was taken with the camera rotating around this nodal point is much easier and much more accurate as the elements in the frame do not move relative to one another.

If you have a hard time with this, consider mounting your phone on a tripod as you would when taking a panorama with a larger camera system (more on tripod benefits in tip #9).

8. Invest in some external lenses for more iPhone photography fun

As with more traditional photography setups, good glass is critical. External lenses are a great addition to your iPhone. Be it the X, or the 8 or any of the previous iterations. Now, obviously the X and the 8 Plus (as well as the 7 Plus) have the extra camera with the longer focal length but why would you want to stop at two setups?

Right now, there are countless options for adding lenses to your iPhone setup, be it the X, 8, 8 Plus or any of the previous models. Oh, and the phones made by the other manufacturers too.  I’d start by looking at the products offered by Moment and Olloclip. 

There is also the option to look into the less expensive “clip on” lenses that are available. Be careful though as many do not sport stellar quality. Now seems like a good time to mention that many of those #ShotOniPhone ad spots you see were indeed done with the iPhone, but usually use high-end lenses adapted for use in front of the iPhone camera to create final product. So, if you’re really into mobile photography on the iPhone or any other device, a GOOD set of external lenses might be worth the hefty investment.

9. Use a tripod for excellent results

This kind of sounds like a general photography tip you’ve probably heard before, and it is. This is especially true when working in low lighting. Now, the iPhone X is not going to contend with its larger sensor equipped counterparts in low lighting (see tips #1 and #2), however it does hold its own when compared to cameras placed inside smartphones.

A tripod will help to reduce camera shake that can be a result of the longer exposures needed in these low light environments. This benefit is especially true when using a 3rd party camera app to manually control exposure keeping shutter speeds long and ISO down. Longer shutter speeds equal more light equals less apparent noise. They also equal the need for a tripod. A device like the Joby GripTight Mount will help you to easily attach your phone to any tripod via the ¼ -20 thread. A handy little piece that you’ll hardly notice in your camera bag.

10. The wired headphones your phone came with can be used as a cable release

Everyone knows about the iconic white ear buds that come standard with every iPhone. What not everyone knows is that the volume buttons that are built into those very headphones can be used as a cable release to avoid camera shake when taking a photo! Simply attach your headphones to your iPhone via the lightning port (using the supplied adapter with a normal 3.5mm headphone plug works as well) and when you’re ready to take the photo just click volume up or down.

This functionality is an extension of the ability to use the volume buttons on the phone itself as shutter buttons. A helpful tip if you like the tactile properties of an actual shutter button. Or if you need the ability to trigger your camera without touching it.

If you want to go a little more “high-tech” or you just plain love Bluetooth (and who doesn’t love Bluetooth?) you could try something like what I use, which is the Joby Impulse Remote Control.

11. Use HDR

HDR is a very popular and yet often criticized technique in photography. The basic premise behind it is to create an image where detail is remains in the very bright and very dark parts of an image where both exist. Part of the limitation of cameras in general, and especially that one that you sometimes use to make calls with, is the lack of an ability to catch these details in the highlights and shadows.

Your iPhone camera app has the built-in functionality to take multiple exposures and automatically blend them together into a seamless image showing all of this wonderful detail. It does it quite well I might add. The only real drawback is that if you have a moving element in your frame, the stitch can fail, just the same as with more traditional forms of image capture. HDR does not play well with moving subjects.

When you have a scene that has a significant difference between the bright and dark parts and you want to maintain that detail and your scene lacks moving subjects, use HDR.

12. Optimize Your Video

I love using my iPhone for video purposes. It does a fantastic job in a large variety of situations. Try not to forget that it’s there. Do pay attention to the settings as they must be accessed through the settings app in the iPhone (I really wish that I could change them on the fly from inside the camera app).

The iPhone X will shoot at various framerate settings from 720p/30 frames per second (fps) to 4K/60fps. I should note that the 4K/60 option is not available in my Canon 5D Mark IV. So, in my case, this is a great tool! Be aware of the space required for the 4K/60 video though. Apple has a handy guide built into the settings screen showing you the space required for each framerate/resolution setting.

In order to drastically increase the quality of your video, I recommend getting a gimbal for your phone. If I were to buy one today, I would gravitate toward the DJI OSMO Mobile. This device, or one like it is designed to stabilize your footage giving it a much more polished, professional look.

There are fifty shades of green, and none of them are jaded.  Welcome to Ireland!  It’s said that Ireland, once visited, is never forgotten, and for once the blarney delivered treasure to be kept for a lifetime.   The Western Irish landscape has a mythic resonance, the country’s history is almost tangible with ruins standing the test of time and its people seem put on earth expressly to restore faith in humanity as their warmth and humor will make all feel welcome.

My dear friend Daragh and I set out for an adventurous experience second to none along the Connemara Loop which is situated in breathtaking North West Connemara, County Galway, Ireland.   Following the Loop, we were taken on a journey through an ever changing landscape of craggy mountain peaks, spectacular expansive sandy beaches, the wild North Atlantic, mist covered lakes, pre-historic bogs and shady glens.   All exemplify the peaceful solitude and rugged beauty of the West of Ireland.   A landscape peppered with quaint but lively villages where all the convenience of the modern day is available alongside an opportunity to step back in time to a more relaxed and friendly era.  Though the roads are rather narrow for this West Texas driver there was no getting lost although the wandering sheep may be inclined to cause a traffic-jam here and there.   I must admit, too, to closing my eyes the first few times I drove past a tour bus leaving Daragh convinced he would not reach his 40th birthday, which we were there to celebrate.  

One can easily get lost forgetting the trials of the world while rejuvenating the soul and centering the mind in this small area of the universe.   Connemara is an area comprising of a broad peninsula between Killary Harbour and Kilkieran Bay in the west of County Galway or south west Connacht. From the rugged Twelve Bens mountain range in the north through lake-rich Roundstone Bog to the golden beaches reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean, you’ll know you’re in Connemara by the light that constantly changes the mood and tone of the landscape and the incredible reflections on the almost still lakes.  Connemara has long been regarded as the real emerald of Ireland and I must concur this was a feast for this photographer’s eyes.  The natural terrain and unspoiled environment offers a wonderland of sights and experiences.  The people are warm, friendly and extend a hospitality which is the essence of Ireland as were greeted with a smile, a gentle hello on the street or the single finger “Mayo Wave” while driving.  It is difficult to not feel as if you’re right at home in this land far from home.

As William Thackery quoted in 1842: “one of the most wild and beautiful districts these wild mountains over which the clouds as they pass or the sunshine as it comes and goes casts such a variety of tint, light and shadow.”  I would venture to say not much has changed since the time of Thackery’s quote but this traveler appreciates a slower pace where the days still pass quickly though the abundant green Irish landscape whispered in my ear to take a deep breath and let go of the pressures of the city.

Snow white and mysteriously beautiful, New Mexico’s White Sands National Park is the world’s largest gypsum dune field, with huge, wave-like dunes that constantly roll across some 275 square miles of desert in the Tularosa Basin.   These pristine waves affect me more than any other place in this world.   Here I am in awe of the dune’s ever-changing natural beauty.   I like the notion of the blowing wind shifting the sands into different for-mations, as this reflects my own life.   Not much ever remains the same for me over time, and I look forward to change.

White Sands touches deep within my soul, often serving as a healer—a place of solace, if you will.   When life becomes hectic, the pure silence of the dunes provides calm, allowing my mind and spirit to become centered once again.   There are no distractions, and what sometimes appears impossible in other surroundings reveals itself to be the opposite.

This is where I retreated to make some sort of sense of my father’s sudden passing at an all-too-young age, and where, saying goodbye one last time, I was able to let go.   Only me, the dunes, and unfiltered thoughts of a man who worked so hard to give me so much.   Too, after being diagnosed with a virus that will never leave my body, it was the white sands I kicked, pounded, yelled at, then cried over from fear and disappointment.   And it was among the graceful dunes that my partner of twenty-four years and I reconnected, strengthening our relationship well beyond words.

Yes, I’ve spent countless hours hiking White Sands as far as possible, seen more than a million stars overhead, watched the sand illuminate under the full moon, and have had the good fortune to view the area from overhead, hanging out of a small plane.   The dunes of White Sands have a personal hold on me.   I may go in with a heavy heart from time to time, but I always leave knowing I am not running from anything; instead I am running to- ward the day with eyes wide open.   For this, I will be forever grateful.

Gypsum sand is rare, because gypsum is usually dissolved by rain and carried out to sea.   But the deposits of gypsum washed down from the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains that ring the Tularosa Basin are trapped there, for the basin has no outlet to the sea.   When shallow pools left by the rain evaporate, they leave on the surface a layer of gypsum in a crystalline form called selenite, which forms in crystals that can be well over a foot long.   Whipped by constantly blowing winds and exposed to extreme temperature changes, the crystals are eventually pounded into a fine-grained sand that gathers in brilliant white drifts moving across the desert floor. Because the terrain is in constant motion, only a few plants and animals survive here, adapting to the changing conditions in unique ways.