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Zooming In

18th March 2021

Zambriskie Point is of my favorite areas to visit in Death Valley. I am awed by its magnificent landscape created by millions of years of erosion. When climb the steep path from the visitor entrance, you’re immediately greeted by the heavily textured, sandy colored alluvial fans.

This day as I walked up the path I could barely see two people standing on one of the flat areas in the distance. They looked like ants on the rocks. The juxtaposition of the tiny figures against the huge backdrop of these badlands was an interesting view.


 

My equipment was a Sony NEX-7 camera with a medium 18-200mm zoom lens.

This is the image that I captured of the couple.

The EXIF data tells me that the lens was zoomed to 44mm.



 

The above photo was the only one that I took of the couple.

When I viewed the image in my “computer darkroom”, I wanted to see how the scene would look if I had used the zoom feature of the lens. I magically zoomed by cropping the original image.

The result is that the the couple and the rocky landscape show up in much more detail.

Which one do you preferr?



While I like both images, I prefer the zoomed in version. This is an example of composing your image after the fact.

Fisheye On The Cheap

14th March 2021

A few years ago I upgraded from a Sony NEX7 to the newer Alpha 6000.

The A6000 became my everyday walk around camera. But I didn’t want to let the NEX7 collect dust, nor did I want to spend a lot more investing in more glass.

The one drawback is that this lens is manual aperture control and manual focus but I decided that I could live with these limitations.


 

So I started looking for an inexpensive lens. My preference was to go wide so I did a little looking around and found an affordable 8mm fisheye. I’m a fan of the way the images are elegantly distorted by lens’ curvature. The lens adds lots of interest to common everyday scenery and subjects.

The lens I chose is the 8mm Rokinon fisheye for about $300.

When the 8mm lens is coupled on the camera’s APS-C sensor it is equivalent to a 12mm full frame lens.

To use the lens, I set the camera to Auto ISO and using the manual exposure mode (M) rotate the aperture ring on the lens to a specific aperture (f/stop) and dial the shutter speed until the exposure indicator is centered.


Measuring about 3″ long and weighing just a few ounces, it is miniscule compared to the two other DSLR fisheyes in my equipment stable. The Rokinon 8mm has a well-marked aperture ring, smooth focus ring, a small built-in sunshade and lens cap that total covers the outer lens surface. I am very happy that when mounted, my fisheye camera is very compact and easy to carry.

 

The important question is how does this inexpensive fisheye perform?

I’ve taken hundreds of photos with the 8mm. I’ve found that the images are tack sharp. The resolution of the NEX-7 is 24MP and with this lens I’ve made several 16″ x 20″ enlargements including three below.


roaming through the cypress groves in the Everglades

amazed at the super bloom in Death Valley

viewing part of Mammoth Hot Spring in Yellowstone

a very wide view of the front porch on our house

The compact size of this camera/lens combination makes it a great way to have a tag along camera and use it for the wide views without having to change lenses.

For many excursions, I carrythree cameras: this fisheye combo, a second with a long lens telephoto (80-400mm) for wildlife and a third with a medium zoom (24mm to 200mm) – all without breaking my back with the weight. In the case of the 8mm fisheye lens, I have a winner at a very decent price.

Having done a little looking around, I know that there are other inexpensive fisheye lenses available for all of the major brand cameras. If you too like the interesting effects that the come from the ultra curved lens surface you’ll be able to find a fisheye to add to your camera bag.

SuperBloom

11th March 2016

The Desert Explodes with Color

Nature never ceases to amaze me.

Death Valley National Park is the driest, hottest place in North America. Although its climate isn’t very hospitable, wildflowers do appear each Spring. However this past October, a series of rainstorms set in motion the favorable conditions for a literal explosion of colorful wildflowers that blanketed the normally harsh landscape of the park.

This phenomenon happens seldom, perhaps once in every 10 or so years and arrived in mid-February. When I visited Death Valley in early March, I was fortunate enough to see many fields still shimmering in the SuperBloom.
 





 


I’ve visited Death Valley more than a dozen times previously, but I’ve never seen as many visitors taking in the colorful wildflowers as I saw in March.

Click here to see one of the DV Park Rangers describe a “once-in-a-lifetime” visit to Death Valley.

How lucky I was to be able to see this unexpected event.

Written by: Arnie Lee
 
 


 
 

Taking Flight

08th February 2015

Things With Wings

 

Like many others, I’ve been fascinated with flight and things that fly.

On a recent trip to the parts of the USA where the sun is bright and warm, I had another chance to look skyward.

Here’s a short gallery of some of the sitings that caught my eye.










 
 

For those who are interested these photos are from Death Valley National Park, Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, McCarran International Airport, Creech AFB, Nellis AFB and Everglades National Park.
 
 
Written by: Arnie Lee
 
 


 
 

Experiencing the Environment

03rd September 2012

and keeping the environment “a thing of importance”

Our family has been enjoying the outdoors for many years. Some of our adult children were mere babies when we trekked long distance to experience and camp in far away places like Mono Lake, Yellowstone and Acadia. We were attracted by tight knit forests, tumbling waterfalls, golden meadows, majestic mountains, winding hiking trails, abundant wildlife, trickling streams and shimmering nighttime skies.

The love of nature has been in my blood from childhood. At the University of Michigan I studied natural resource economics. The year was 1970 and the call for ecology had gone out with the first Earth Day and notable proponents such as author Rachel Carson, politician Senator Gaylord Nelson, futurist Buckminster Fuller, economist E.F. Schumacher. With my studies, I was counting on a future career that would revolve around conservation and ecology. But as often happens, this career plan didn’t come to pass. Nonetheless, I’ve been trying to keep nature and the environment close to my heart all the years since.

Wouldn’t you guess that photography has been one of my hobbies also since childhood? So it’s only natural that I would arm myself with a camera as our family traveled far and wide. And while family snapshots comprise an important part of my picture taking activities, the other part are the photos that I take to record the many amazing places that we visit.

These are all “peopleless” photographs. They’re meant to illustrate the beauty, scale, magnificence and sometimes fragility of some of our nation’s most iconic vistas and scenery.

Here are some of those picturesque places that we’ve experienced in our travels.
 



Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon NP

Temple of Sinawara, Zion NP
Oxbow Bend, Grand Teton NP
Snake River, Grand Teton NP
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley NP
Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone NP

Joshua Tree NM

snow geese flyout, Bosque del Apache NWR

Devil’s Golf Course, Death Valley NP

West Thumb, Yellowstone NP

Lake, Yellowstone NP

Upper Yellowstone Falls, Yellowstone NP

Spider Rocks, Canyon de Chelly NM

Olympic NP

Devil’s Tower NM

 


 

As I view this photo, I can feel the mist rising from the roaring waterfall. When I look at that photo, I find myself breathing in the scent of an immense douglas fir forest. In a third photo, my eyes are following the billowing clouds passing over a craggy, red rock canyon. And that photo has me marveling at the way the bright, fall colors accent the distant snow-covered peaks. Yes, all of these photos serve to remind me how wondrous our environment really is.

But I haven’t completed documenting my encounters with the outdoors just yet. And so I’m determined to continue experiencing the environment in person. I somehow prefer the phrase “experiencing the environment” rather than “capturing the environment” even though I may be recording the scene with a camera.

Whether it’s a national, state, county or city park or any other natural setting, I will treat the environment with respect.

I remain committed to practicing “leave no trace photography” – disturb neither our environment nor our wildlife.

Written by Arnie Lee
 
 

Our National Parks

As you can see from the photos above, I’m a avid user of our National Park System. It’s extensive, consisting of almost 400 parks, monuments, landmarks, recreation areas, shorelines, trails, historic sites and wildlife refuges and encompassing some 85 million acres. Each year 275 million of us outdoor lovers visit these places.

Entrance fees vary by unit, but an $80 annual pass is a bargain if you plan to visit several parks. Senior citizens 62 years and older can purchase a lifetime pass for only $10.

Find our more about our National Parks here.

 
 


In this final Part 3, I’ll show you additional examples of some of the innovative and easy-to-use features that make the Sony Alpha A55 my recent favorite camera.

You can read about the “standard” features of the Sony Alpha A55 in Part 1 of my review. And in Part 2, I describe my experience using several of the A55’s unique features.


D-Range Optimization

When shooting a scene that has high contrast, you may notice that the shadow areas are likely to lack detail and/or the highlight areas are overexposed.

To counter this tricky lighting, the A55 offers D-Range Optimization that compresses tones to preserve detail in both shadows and highlights.

This feature is not unique to the A55; Canon offers a similar feature which it calls Auto Lighting Optimizer and Nikon uses the moniker Active D-Lighting.

However, the A55 offers five levels of D-Range optimization. To use it, press the dedicated D-Range button on the top of the camera to reveal the DRO menu item and toggle between Auto, Lv 1, Lv 2, LV3, Lv 4 and Lv 5.

In the high contrast winter photos below, you can see that the D-Range reveals much more shadow detail at Lv 5.


D-Range off

D-Range Lv 1

D-Range Lv 5

High Dynamic Range – in-camera

The A55’s High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature has a similar goal as D-Range Optimization, namely to maintain detail in shadows and highlights. HDR photography attempts to reduce the contrast levels of a scene so that the scene can be displayed with maximum detail on a print or display device.

For the last few years, HDR has been popularized by using software to combine multiple images within the computer. The A55 is one of the first to offer it easily and automatically in-camera.

For HDR, the A55 take 3 successive photos with varying exposures (bracketed). To use it, press the dedicated D-Range button on the top of the camera to reveal the HDR item. Then toggle between Auto, 1.0 EV, 2.0 EV, 3.0 EV, 4.0 EV, 5.0 EV and 6.0 EV. For example, when set to 3.0 EV, three images are captured: one at the normal exposure, one at 3 stops overexposed (+3.0 EV) and one at 3 stops underexposed (-3.0 EV).
The A55 then writes two images to the SDHC card: one at the normal exposure and a second that has been processed to combine the predominantly shadow detail from the +3.0 EV capture, the predominantly highlight detail from the -3.0 EV capture and the predominantly midtone detail from the normal exposure.

normal exposure

HDR 3.0 EV

normal exposure

HDR 5.0 EV

normal exposure

HDR 6.0 EV
Some users are surprised that the HDR images appear to have low contrast, but this is a by-product of having to reduce such a wide range of exposure values to level suitable for a display device or printing.

While it may not produce acceptable results in all situations, I’ve been happy with many of the A55’s HDR images that I’ve captured.

Note that HDR is not available unless the A55 is set to capture JPG only images (not RAW).


Multi Frame Noise Reduction – in-camera

Multi frame noise reduction is the A55’s “stealth” feature. For some reason, it hasn’t been widely promoted by Sony. In fact, I didn’t know about multi frame noise reduction until one of the Sony reps explained its use to me at a recent trade show.

When set to use this feature, the A55 captures six successive images and merges them to produce a single image with lower noise.

Once again, it’s simple to use. Press the ISO button and set the topmost item (labeled ISO) between Auto and 25600. Press the shutter release to capture the scene and a short time later after it is processed, the image is written to the SDHC card.


Left: image captured at ISO 1600;
Right: image captured at ISO 3200 with multi frame noise reduction.
Click to see an enlargement.

You can also click here
to see a more detailed full size image

Briefly, the process works like this: the camera automatically takes 6 frames at the currently settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. It combines them into a single JPEG image by carefully aligning the 6 frames during compositing while at the same time using proprietary techniques to reduce noise level equivalent to two ISO exposure levels.

Above, you can clearly see that the noise level of the rightmost image is significantly less than the leftmost image even though it was captured at a higher ISO setting. I experienced an equally reduced noise level in several other images that I shot in low lighting conditions. So I find multi frame noise reduction to be a very useful yet unexpected feature.

Note that multi frame noise reduction is not available unless the A55 is set to capture JPG only images (not RAW).


Sweep Panorama – in-camera

While I’m a fan of panoramas, the task of setting up a tripod, adjusting the camera to capture a series of images, post-processing the individual images and finally pasting them together afterwards using stitching software often takes a few hours.

With the A55, you can create a panorama automatically. First, you set the mode dial for panoramas. From the shooting menu, you can select either 2D or 3D panoramas.

For 2D panoramas, you choose a direction for panning: left to right, right to left, up to down or down to up direction and a format: standard or wide.

For 3D panoramas, you choose a direction for panning: left to right or right to left and a format: 16:9, standard or wide.

As its name suggests, to capture a scene you press and hold the shutter while slowly sweeping (panning) the camera in the chosen direction. After a specified number of images are captured, shooting ends and the A55 stitches together the separate images to create the panorama and writes a single one to the SDHC card.

It’s as simple as that. You’ll want to take a few test shots to determine the speed at which you should sweep the camera. To guide you, the A55 displays helpful text messages in the viewfinder with shooting suggestions.

Below are a pair of panoramas that I captured – one with the camera held in the horizontal orientation and the other with the camera held in the vertical orientation.

Death Valley panorama captured horizontally 8192 x 1856 pixels

Bryce Canyon panorama captured vertically 3872 x 2160 pixels
I also captured a few 3D panoramas. However, to display a 3D panorama, I had to have a 3D television and special eyewear. The 3D panoramas are very impressive.

The 3D panorama will appear as a 2D panorama if you do not use a 3D television nor special eyewear.

I really enjoy the ease at which I can capture a landscape using the Sweep Panorama.


Earlier in the review, I mentioned that I’ve had extensive experience with a large variety of DSLRs. These range from low-priced entry to expensive professional level. I mention this so that you understand that my fondness for the Alpha A55 is not just “puppy love”.

When I first learned about the Alpha A55, I was amazed by the number of innovative features that Sony claimed to have packed into this new body. In the two months that I’ve used this camera, I remain impressed by the results that I’m seeing in the images and the ease with which I am able to capture them.

If the Alpha 55 is any indication of the kind of innovation that we might expect from Sony in coming months, I’ll be anxiously watching for more.

It looks like Sony has a winner. The Sony Alpha A55 is certainly a winner in my book.

 

Written by Arnie Lee