Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Rest of my Photo Toolkit

Wild Geranium at Messenger Woods, Homer Glen, IL – May, 2012

As the last post was all about the tools I use to capture my images, I thought I’d share in this post the tools I use once I bring the images back home (or to the RV).

But first a brief diversion to answer a question from reader Terry in Oklahoma City to explain a bit more about the filters I use.  There are lots of software filters included in many of the major photo editing programs and folks might start to think that it’s unnecessary to buy camera filters anymore because you can “correct it later with software.”   This can indeed be true in a number of situations, but not all!  I still use 2 kinds of filters at the camera because software still can’t quite mimic them.  They are:


  • a glass Circular Polarizer that screws on the front of the lens (I use a warming polarizer to make landscape colors “pop” better than traditional cool-toned polarizers").


  • Graduated Neutral Density and Reverse ND Grad filters (these are rectangular-shaped plastic resin) that I handhold directly against the front of the lens.  These can also produce some neat starbursts when photographing a sunset or sunrise.

I’ve been using Singh-Ray filters for the last few years, and while they are super expensive, they produce quality images that will be “kicked up a notch” from those taken with lesser-quality filters.

Sing-Ray has an excellent training video on how to use these filters and their before/after effects--    They also have a great blog that features some really wonderful landscape photography and photgraphers.

So, back to my post-processing toolkit!


I used to do my primary photo editing at home where I had a Windows workstation with large pro-grade NEC LCD monitor.  But now that I RV for months at a time and mobility is critical, I’m quite satisfied with the anti-glare screen on my 15” Apple MacBook Pro. It has a decent shadow range and colors appear more true and less over-saturated than my previous Sony PC laptop. 

Photo Editing Software:

I recently upgraded to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 (from version 2), and I’ve been blown away by the recent improvements—mostly, the new shadow and highlight controls which add incredible dynamic range while preserving a very natural look.  If you already have Lightroom, this $79 upgrade is a no-brainer!

I use Lightroom for the majority of my photo editing, but when working on an individual image that requires some advanced editing (such as removing distracting poles and utility lines such as I did with the Shamrock Conoco shot), I open the image in Adobe Photoshop Elements.


If you only want to invest in one photo editor, PSE is it!  I used to use the full version of Photoshop, but when layer masks and the spot healing brush made their way into PSE version 9, I no longer needed full-Photoshop (since I mostly just edit images for electronic-only viewing, the 8-bit editing of PSE is sufficient).

Plug-In Bells and Whistles:
Both Lightroom and PSE come with a decent set of pre-sets and filters, but if I really want to go all-out on a particular image, I turn to two Photoshop plug-in solutions that work with both Lightroom and PSE (as well as any other software than accepts Photoshop plug-ins).

21OAL0lXb3L._SL500_AA300_I’ve used Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro filters since they first came out, but after recently upgrading to version 4, I’m even more impressed!  Their new Detail Extractor filter (used in conjunction with Lightroom 4’s shadow/highlight sliders), make it virtually unnecessary to shoot multiple images and combine in HDR software to get a wider dynamic range.

In the past, a single-shot image like the one below would have been nearly impossible for me to edit into something usable.  The shadows were just too under-exposed to be usable.


But with Lightroom 4 and Color Efex Pro 4, I’m able to pull out very natural-looking subtle shadow detail and bring the image much closer to what I actually saw in just a couple of clicks!


My other “go to” set of plug-ins is the excellent Topaz Labs Plug-In Bundle:


The full bundle has 10 different plug-ins that do all kinds of different effects, but I mainly stick with Topaz Adjust when I want to do a more aggressive HDR look such as this:


Topaz Adjust is very similar to Color Efex Pro (and a lot cheaper), so if you can only buy 1, give it a try!  It will let you do subtle effects as well—I just happen to like some of their wilder HDR presets.

I also like Topaz DeNoise a lot, and still prefer it even to Lightroom 4’s improved Noise Reduction control.  It has some really good algorithms for removing noise (those grainy dots from high ISO or HDR photos) while still maintaining sharpness.

Storage and Viewing:
I keep all of my laptop images backed up to an external hard drive while traveling.  But as soon as I find some good, strong unlimited WiFi, I upload my edited images to my Flickr Pro account.


For $24.95/year I can upload and store an unlimited number of full-resolution JPG images (up to 50MB each), and can access them from my various mobile devices and TV set-top boxes such as AppleTV and Roku.

The one downside to Flickr is that it won’t store my RAW or editable PSD file formats, however, just within the past month, both Microsoft and Google have updated their online file storage solutions (Windows SkyDrive and Google Drive) making it now possible to store pretty large amounts of data for a minimal price (or even free!).  On future extended RV trips, I plan to also start backing up my edited PSD files to these solutions whenever I have the wifi bandwidth available to do so. 


Finally, at home, I have a great network hard drive, a Western Digital MyBook Live, that allows me to store/retrieve files and full backups of all my computer data wirelessly throughout the house.  A neat added feature is that the contents of the MyBook Live can also be accessible to me where ever I’m traveling via the free website or their WD2go mobile apps.  This came in super handy for me this past winter when I was out in Arizona and needed some older files that I had forgotten to copy to my laptop.  Thank goodness for WD2go!!!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

My Photo Toolset for RVing

Recently, a few readers have asked me about my camera gear, so with summer vacation season just around the corner, I thought I’d share this info with everyone.

My blog photos are mostly just casual “point & shoot” shots with minimal to no editing (but I’ll do a post later on how I edit my photos as I know that’s been another common request from readers!). 

I sometimes will use the camera in my iPhone 4S to take blog shots, but I much prefer the quality of my small “pocketable” Canon point-n-shoot. 

For the last few years, that had been the Canon s90, a truly amazing little gem of a camera with a larger sensor than most other pocket cameras, which translated to a higher-quality, sharper, virtually noise-free images.

A couple months ago, I upgraded to the latest version of this camera, the Canon s100, to get a lens with a slightly better range (24-120mm equivalent) and HD video capture.  It’s been a pretty nice upgrade for the most part, although I’m still trying to get used to a few of the changes.

But as good as the s90/s100 are, they’re no match for the much larger sensor sizes and quality lenses of a digital SLR system. For my “more serious” photographs (i.e. the ones I consider my best images), I use Canon D-SLRs.  I used to use Nikon in my film SLR days and switched to Canon when digital SLRs first came out because the Canons tended to fit my small hands a bit better.  But if I were buying into a DSLR system today, either Canon or Nikon would be a fine choice.  It mainly comes down to the lenses you’re most interested in, and how comfortable you are with the camera’s ergonomics—quality differences between the two are pretty minimal in most cases.

Up until last year, my primary DSLR system was a full-frame Canon 5D with a variety of Canon lenses from 15 to 400 mm.  I ran a portrait photography side business a few years ago and full-frame was essential to use lenses at their intended focal length to obtain proper compression and depth of field.

But as much as I love full-frame, the older I get, the more often I’d prefer to carry a lighter weight “traveling” DSLR rather than my 25 lb camera bag!  So, last year, I added a Canon Rebel T3i to the mix.

When I bought it, I thought I’d mainly just use it as a backup to my 5D or when I was going to be walking around all day at someplace where I could not bring a tripod (such as a botanic garden or zoo).  In the last year, I’ve dutifully brought both my big 5D camera bag and the little Rebel bag on every RV trip, and guess what?  I’ve not touched the 5D since!

One of the key reasons for using the Rebel T3i so much is the lightweight “do it all” lens I bought for it, the Tamron 18-270mm PZD.

This single lens gives the equivalent of a 28-432mm range and combined with T3i, the camera and lens together weigh just 2.25 lbs—perfect for any RVer!

A surprising benefit of the T3i has been it’s rotating LCD screen with Live View.  It allows me to not only shoot HD video more naturally, but also get high and low-angle shots without having to crawl around in the mud or climb a tree!


So what else is in my lightweight traveling kit?

  • a Canon EF-S 10-22mm (shown above) for ultra-wide angle shots. With an equivalent range of 16-35mm, it’s ideal for exaggerated foregrounds.
  • a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod with a Really Right Stuff ball head. This setup was a complete splurge a few years ago when CF tripods were just coming on the scene.  Today, there are numerous lower-priced options available.  The key point is that if you want to shoot quality landscapes, you need to use a sturdy tripod to get maximum image sharpness.
  • a Singh-Ray LB warming polarizer and various graduated neutral density filters (I handhold my rectangular ND filters after learning the advantages of this method from Art Wolfe).  For years I balked at buying expensive filters, but in the end, I probably spent more money on all the cheaper imitations.  Yes, modern image editing software can provide many effects that eliminate the need for a camera filter, but for landscapes, a good polarizer and a couple graduated ND filters are still essential tools.
  • spare batteries & memory cards, a microfiber cleaning cloth, and a remote shutter release. 

So after all this gear talk, do you need to run out and buy a lot of expensive gear to take good photos?  Absolutely not!  Just having a camera with you (any camera) will allow you to capture those fleeting split seconds and memories better than having no camera at all.  It’s a common cliché, I know, but so completely true!

Lynne's Camera Bag

Best RVing Stuff Under $50

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