Albion Castle: Cave Photo Shoot Under a Historic San Francisco Brewery

The Albion Castle is a fascinating and little known historic building in the Hunter's Point neighborhood of San Francisco. The castle was built in 1870 by John Burnell, who started a brewery using the underground aquifer as the water source. Two stone cisterns were dug to capture the water. This area is accessed via caves underneath the castle. You can read more about the castle's history on Atlas Obscura. In 2005 I got invited to a party at the Albion Castle. The building was amazing, and the underground caves seemed like a perfect location for a photo shoot. I came up with a concept about a mob couple who visit the caves, and the husband gets killed and dumped in the water. I arranged access to return to the castle, and then found two willing participants to play the couple. Thanks Rick and Excelsus!

The photos were taken with a Canon EOS 20D and 10-22mm lens. An off-camera 580EX was triggered with a Pocket Wizard. The flash was diffused but not gelled to create a warm against cool lighting scheme. I also used long exposures on some of the shots to blur Rick as he floated in the underground pool. And wow, that water was cold!

The biggest surprise in revisiting this shoot from 9 years ago is how much better the photos looked after updating the Process 2012 in Lightroom. Both the software and my post-processing skills have come a long way since 2005. I hope you enjoy the photos of this unique location. Below are a few outtakes:

Projections: Airplane Light Painting and Post-Processing

Photographer Tim Little made one of my favorite photos from the Eagle Field Night Photography workshop last year.  A tiny 2 seater ERCO Ercoupe airplane sits out near the runway at an old WWII training base. Tim saw the potential of projecting the little airplane's shadow onto a nearby storage container. Before opening up his exposure, Tim and I experimented with different lighting angles and distances to get the plane projection just in the right spot. If you're shooting with a friend, have one person stand behind the camera to see what the camera sees, as the other person tests the lighting.

Once Tim nailed the lighting, he took multiple shots at about 2.5 minutes f/11, ISO 200.  This exposure is a bit darker than an expose to the right (ETTR) image shot under full moon conditions. The slight underexposure helps keep the night time feel, and allows the light painting to pop.

Projections 01: Light Painting
Projections 01: Light Painting

1. Light Painting - Above is the single exposure that shows the best version on the light painting, which was done with a flashlight.

Projections 02: Stacking and Masking
Projections 02: Stacking and Masking

2. Stacking and Masking - The camera is facing roughly to the south, which makes the star trails almost horizontal. To make the star trails longer, multiple shots were stacked in Photoshop, using Lighten blending mode on everything except the bottom layer.

Tim also used a non-lighted painted shot from the stack to mask out the light on the airplane and cement in the foreground. Having a non-light painted image in your star trail stack gives you an easy way to reduce or remove light painting from your image. This effect makes Tim's image more mysterious, because the projected light doesn't have an obvious source.

The image is starting to look really good, but there are a few more post-processing techniques that will help make the final photo really sing.

Projections 03: Curves for Contrast

Projections 03: Curves for Contrast

3. Curves for Contrast - After reviewing the histogram, I used an S-curve to increase the overall contrast. This gives the plane a bit more shadowy mystery, and adds more snap to the projected image. The sky looks better, too. The S-curve could also be applied in Lightroom in the Tone Curve panel.

Projections 04: Sky Contrast Curve

Projections 04: Sky Contrast Curve

4. Sky Contrast Curve - Using the Quick Selection Tool (W), I selected the sky. Then I created a new curves layer to add more contrast to the sky and star trails. The red area shows the part of the image that's protected from this adjustment. This selective adjustment is possible in Lightroom, but easier to do in Photoshop.

Projections 05: Vibrance
Projections 05: Vibrance

5. Vibrance - Next was a Vibrance and Saturation adjustment. This pushed the plane and sky towards blue, and increased the color contrast against the warmer orange light of the plane projection. You could also use Saturation, Selective Color, or a LAB conversion for this type of adjustment. Vibrance could also be adjusted in Lightroom.

Projections 06: Off-center Vignette
Projections 06: Off-center Vignette

6. Off-center Vignette - To make the projection even more dramatic, I created a vignette around the projected plane shadow. The curve adjustment above darkens everything except the projected plane shadow. Because the projection isn't in the center of the image, I used the Gradient tool to make a vignette just in this area (indicated by the red mask). Hit G for gradient, and adjust your tool bar to look like this:


Create a new Curves layer, and make sure the mask is selected. Then draw a line to create your vignette. If you don't get it right the first time, just try again. You can also create an off-center vignette in Lightroom using the radial vignette feature.

Projections 07: Selective sharpening
Projections 07: Selective sharpening

7. Selective Sharpening - Using the Marquee tool (M), I drew a box around the airplane and hit Command-J to put this selection on a new layer. I applied sharpening to this layer, and then added a black layer mask by holding down alt-option and clicking the new mask icon (aka, the front loading washer). Using a soft brush at 20-30%, I painted in some extra sharpening on the rivets and peeling paint of the airplane. This adjustment could also be done in Lightroom with the adjustment brush, but Photoshop offers more control.

Projections: Final Image
Projections: Final Image

8. Output Sharpening - At this point, the image is ready for output. If you're in Lightroom, simply use the Export setting with the appropriate amount of output sharpening for screen. In Photoshop, flatten the layers, go to Image-Image Size, choose your dimensions, select Bicubic (best for smooth gradients), and click OK. Apply output sharpening using Smart Sharpen, Unsharp Mask, or a plugin. Then save for web.

I'd like to thank Tim Little for giving me permission to feature this image on my blog. Want to hone your skills on night photography, light painting, and post-processing? Consider taking a night photography workshop!

B&H Travel Series: How to Shoot 360-Degree Panoramas

B&H Photo just published an article that I wrote on How to Shoot 360-Degree Panoramas. This 360 pano article is part of the B&H Travel Series. I cover everything from iPhone panorama apps to professional panoramic heads. Thanks to night photographer and B&H marketing guru Gabriel Biderman for this opportunity to inspire more people to shoot 360s. Enjoy!

B&H Travel Series: How to Shoot 360-Degree Panoramas
B&H Travel Series: How to Shoot 360-Degree Panoramas

Boron Air Force Station 360 Night Panorama

Boron AFS Night Panorama
Boron AFS Night Panorama

The Mojave July? Yes! During last week's full supermoon I spent 2 nights shooting 360 panoramas at the abandoned Boron Air Force Station. Boron AFS was built in the 1952 as part of the Air Defense Command radar network. After being decommissioned in 1975, Boron was used as a Federal prison from 1979-2000. The radome is still operated by the FAA.

Temperatures were 100º in the daytime, and in the 80's at night. The monsoon season brought fantastic clouds both nights. I was shooting with the Canon EOS 6D, and used the built-in GPS feature to record the location of each panorama. Setting the GPS to record positioning at 2 minute intervals seemed to have barely any affect on battery life. A screenshot of the Lightroom maps module for the shoot is below. The GPS coordinates also get picked up by Pano2VR, which will save a lot of time when building a virtual tour.

You clicked the image at the top and looked at the 360 pano already, right?

Update 8/25/14: There are 14 panoramas in the night tour of Boron AFS. I'm still adding panos, and hope to have a tour with 25+ panos and a map when everything is done.

Boron AFS - Lightroom GPS Coordinates
Boron AFS - Lightroom GPS Coordinates

Sony a7R vs. Canon EOS 6D: Long Exposure Noise Tests, HDR Bracketing, Panoramas and More

I've wanted to try the Sony a7R ever since I read Fred Miranda's review on using the a7R with Canon lenses. In addition to a sizable jump in resolution over the Canon 6D and 5D Mark III, the a7R's 36 megapixel full frame sensor reportedly has better dynamic range. The ability to lift the shadow details in underexposed a7R files is really impressive. Not having an optical low pass filter also makes these files quite sharp straight out of the camera. The a7R's sensor has offset gapless micro-lenses to help with wide angle corner performance.

Would these benefits improve image quality, resolution, and workflow for my type of shooting? What were the trade offs? I rented a Sony a7R and Metabones Canon to Sony adapter from to find out.

360 Panoramas: Sony a7R vs. Canon 6D

I often shoot 360 panoramas in 4 shots on the EOS 6D with a Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens. The final file is 10,500 x 5250 (55 megapixels). The same lens and shooting pattern on the Sony a7R results in 14,000 x 7,000 (98 megapixels). This resolution gain allows more zooming online, and bigger prints. The 6D would require 6 shots around, 1 up, and 1 down to achieve this resolution.

The a7R files look sharper out of the camera, and wide angle lens edge performance is just as sharp at the edges as the 6D, if not better. The ability to lift shadow detail without a noise penalty is really impressive.

HDR Bracketing: Sony a7R vs. Canon 6D

For those of you who shoot HDR, it's important to note that the a7R's exposure bracketing options are more limited than on Canon.

Canon EOS 6D: Versatile HDR bracketing options Set your own exposure level increment in 0.3 stop intervals. Decide whether you want 2, 3, 5 or 7 shots.

Sony a7R: Fixed/Limited HDR bracketing options 0.3 stops/3 shots - 0.3 stops/5 shots 0.5 stops/3 shots - 0.5 stops/5 shots 0.7 stops/3 shots - 0.7 stops/5 shots 1.0 stop/3 shots - 2.0 stops/3 shots - 3.0 stops/3 shots

Most of the time, a 3 shot bracket at 2 stop intervals is enough for what I shoot. Occasionally I'll shoot a 5 shot bracket every 2 stops with the 6D. That's not an option on the a7R. Considering the added dynamic range of the a7R, perhaps the 3 shot 3.0EV bracketing would work OK though.

Conclusion: Despite the bracketing limitations, the a7R's extra sharpness, resolution, and dynamic range could be a big plus for the 360 panorama shooting that I do.

Long Exposure Noise: Sony a7R vs. Canon 6D

For night photography, having a camera that can produce clean files without the need to run long exposure noise reduction (LENR) is really helpful.  When LENR is turned on in most cameras, noise reduction runs after your exposure finishes.

If your shot is 5 minutes, the camera runs noise reduction for an additional 5 minutes before you can shoot again. During that 5 minutes that camera takes a dark frame that is used to subtract noise and hot pixels from your photo. This process is great for image quality, but can significantly cut into your productivity and battery life.

I know from experience that the Canon EOS 6D is clean in the 6-8 minute exposure range without using LENR (as long as the weather is cold). I was curious to see how the Sony a7R stacked up for night photography. I ran the cameras through a series of tests with long exposure noise reduction (LENR) turned off. The body cap was on. The ambient temperature was 66 degrees. The ISO was set to 100 on both cameras.

Noise Test Results: Sony a7R vs. Canon 6D

For exposures of 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 2 minutes, both cameras produced clean files. There was little to no performance compromise for leaving LENR turned off in both cameras.

3 minutes: The 6D still looks good. The a7R is just starting to show faint traces of noise and hot pixels. Nothing objectionable.

4 minutes: The 6D is just starting to show a few signs of noise and hot pixels. The a7R has a bit more noise now.

6 minutes: The 6D is still fine at 6 minutes. The Sony a7R has noticeably more hot pixels by this point. Enough to where you'll spend a few minutes with each file cloning them out.

8 minutes: The 6D still is still good. The a7R has reached the breaking point, with additional hot pixels.

10 minutes: The 6D has a bit more noise now. You'll need to clone a few hot pixels, but it's still usable. a7R = nope.

15 minutes: The 6D is past my comfort level for noise at this point. The a7R has galaxies full of hot pixels.

Conclusion: The 6D is good for long exposures up to 8 minutes without LENR.  The a7R is good up to 4-5 minutes. This gives the 6D the advantage for shooting long star trails in one shot, and for doing star trail stacking using less shots.

Turning on Long Exposure Noise Reduction

I also ran some tests with Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) turned on in the camera. Both cameras were perfectly clean on 5 minute, 8 minute, and 10 minute exposures.

15 minute exposure: The 6D still looks great. The a7R file shows a few hints of noise.

30 minutes: The 6D shows some luminance noise that will benefit from additional noise reduction in post, but is still usable. The Sony battery died during the 30 minutes that noise reduction was running. The file was still saved on the memory card, but without any noise reduction.

Other Considerations

Battery Life: Canon is the clear winner here. Both cameras started the tests with a fully charged battery. The Sony battery died during the 30 minute exposure test. The Canon battery still had 40% capacity left at the end.

When the Sony a7R LCD screen is active, it does not turn off all of the way. Even when the screen appears blank, it's still slightly lit up and using battery life. Switching to the EVF may not help, and also makes reviewing images a pain. Advantage: Canon

Timer Remotes: There are a wide number of timer remotes available for shooting long exposures on Canon. Sony doesn't have a remote with a built-in timer, only an expensive manual option. There are only a few third party remote options for Sony, and I'm not aware of anyone who makes a wired remote with a timer. Advantage: Canon

Focusing: I haven't tested the a7R under full moon conditions, but did find Sony's focus peaking feature to be an excellent tool for daytime landscape shooting. Canon's AF is better for faster moving subjects. I don't use AF very much, so this is not really an issue.

Lenses: Canon DSLR's have a wide range of high quality lenses available. You can also use Olympus OM or Nikon lenses on an adapter. Native full frame Sony lens options are much more limited, but Sony's E mount will take a wide variety of lenses with an adapter. If you want to keep autofocus, the adapters can be expensive and AF slow. For landscapes this isn't a problem. For wide angle lenses, having a quality adapter is important to maintaining sharpness across the frame. Advantage: Canon

Size and Weight: The a7R is 5.0 x 3.7 x 1.9 inches and weighs 14 ounces. The 6D is 5.7 x 4.4 x 2.8 inches and weighs 27 ounces. The 5D Mark III is 6.0 x 4.6 x 3.0 inches and 30 ounces. Saving a pound in your gear bag is nice. Advantage: Sony

Build Quality and UI: No problems for me here with either camera, other than needing to test the a7R to make sure there are no light leaks during long exposures. The Canon has a slight edge in UI, but the Sony is pretty intuitive.

File Size: The 6D's CR2 files are about 20 MB each. The Sony a7R ARW files are about 37 MB. Memory cards and hard drives are inexpensive. The a7R RAW files are referred to as "visually lossless" but they do throw away some data to keep the file size down. I have seen one example file where the quality of a star trail shot was affected by the Sony's lossy file type. Something to keep an eye on. Advantage: Canon

Shutter Shake: Much has been written about the a7R's shutter design causing soft photos with long lenses at shutter speeds between 1/30 and 1/125. Luckily, I don't even own any long lenses. WTF: Sony

Price: The a7R lists for $2300, but can be bought new for as low as $1865. Make sure to budget $150-400 for an adapter if you're planning to use Canon lenses on the a7R. This brings the Sony in around $500 cheaper than a 5D Mark III, or $500 more than a 6D.

Final Thoughts: The Sony a7R has a few notable quirks for the types of shooting that I do. I also shoot 1-2 minute night panoramas at ISO 800, and the Sony doesn't perform well for long exposures at higher ISOs. For now, I'm sticking with my EOS 6D. It will be interesting to see what Canon has up their sleeves with the rumored 7D and 5D Mark III replacements.

Words: In America photographers are outcasts

For in America photographers are outcasts. No one understands us. No one worries much.  I can't think of one non-photographer friend who has a sense of what I do, and I suspect that may be true for others. There's no place for us except within a narrow community of other photographers, gallerists, and misfits where we grovel for crumbs of attention in a steady downward spiral of mutual nonsupport. I feel that all the photographers in America could go away tomorrow (except the working pros who have a prescribed societal function) and no one would notice. it would be like the winos dissolving. Or the life coaches. Or Pinterest. Maybe that's why American photography has such a strong tradition, because it's a de facto outsider art.

Blake Andrews in B: Art of Noise

San Francisco Adventure: Walking the Embarcadero to Goldsworthy's Tree Fall and Wood Line

Embarcadero to the Goldsworthy Art in the Presididio - a 12.5 mile urban hike

Let's walk from the Ferry Building to the Andy Goldsworthy art installations in the Presidio. It's a sunny June Saturday morning, 70 degrees with a slight breeze. Click any of the panoramas below for an interactive version shot with a Ricoh Theta 360 camera.

360 panorama skateboarding outside the Exploratorium
360 panorama skateboarding outside the Exploratorium

We take BART to Embarcadero, and thread our way through the art vendors and Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Outside the Exploratorium, we do a little bit of skateboarding:

Along the piers, a hundred cruise ship passengers wait for taxi cabs. We run the gauntlet of tourists at Fisherman's Wharf. We do not eat soup in a bread bowl. Here is a scale model of Alcatraz:

Alcatraz scale model along the Embarcadero
Alcatraz scale model along the Embarcadero

After watching tourists on rental bikes struggle up the hill at Black Point, we reach Fort Mason. We load up our backpacks with some books at the SFPL Readers Bookstore, and then get takeout food at Greens. Also, we learned how to spot UFOs:

UFOs and how to see them
UFOs and how to see them

We walked through the Marina Green and Yacht Harbor.  Jogging, cycling, and volleyball ensued. We arrived at the crowded beach where a dog was digging a large hole:


Curious about the new approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, we left the beach path and walked on Old Mason Street, crossed under the freeway, up past the pet cemetery, San Francisco National Cemetery, and down to the Main Post of Fort Mason.

The Andy Goldsworthy piece Tree Fall is in a small, unsigned building in the square of the Main Post of Fort Mason. From a distance, it looks like a bathroom building. We sat down inside and contemplated the art:

Tree Fall diptych
Tree Fall diptych

Continuing through the neighborhood, we walked to the Lovers' Lane Trail, and found the Andy Goldsworthy installation Wood Line. A young Indian fellow who was up along the road above the trail asked what I was photographing. I showed him the Wood Line and after a short walk he exclaimed: "Wow, it's HEAVY!" I couldn't have said it better myself.

The area on the map at the top of this post where we double back is where the Wood Line is. We walked it both ways. Here's the view from the top:

Andy Goldsworthy: Wood Line - photo by Joe Reifer
Andy Goldsworthy: Wood Line - photo by Joe Reifer

If you're in the area, Andy Goldsworthy's Spire is also worth a visit. Exiting the Presidio, we walked through Pacific Heights, and down to Civic Center BART for the journey home. San Francisco is yours to experience. Put on those walking shoes and roar!

San Francisco Lion Panorama
San Francisco Lion Panorama

Valley Junkyard Night Photography Workshop and West Yard 360 Tour

Valley Junkyard West Yard 360 Night Tour
Valley Junkyard West Yard 360 Night Tour

The next Valley Junkyard Night Photography Workshop will be September 6-8, 2014. In addition to the main yard, we also have access to the west yard, which has some amazing 40's and 50's cars, an ambulance, a hearse, and a stretch taxi. Take a 360 night tour of the west yard.

The Valley Junkyard workshop is a great way to improve your night photography and light painting techniques. My co-instructor Troy Paiva and I also cover composition, color theory, and post processing during the daytime sessions. The last workshop sold out quickly. Registration for the fall workshop opens to our email list on June 9th, and to the world on June 10th. Contact me if you'd like to sign up!

Time-Lapse Video of the Pier 24 Photography Exhibit A Sense of Place

Today I was lucky enough to visit the Pier 24 exhibit A Sense of Place before it closes at the end of May. Pier 24 is an amazing, free photography museum right under the Bay Bridge. Only 20 people are allowed in at a time to view an amazing selection of photos. This exhibit explores how photographs shape our perception of environments. I really enjoyed seeing work by Paul Graham, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Edward Burtynsky, Todd Hido, and Rinko Kawauchi. The absolute highlight was an entire room full of Lee Friedlander's America by Car series. Unfortunately this book is currently out of print. And speaking of print, Pier 24 has exhibition catalogs from some of their previous shows available at very reasonable prices. The next exhibit is scheduled to open in August of 2014.

Time-lapse technical details: The time-lapse was shot with a Ricoh GR camera on a strap around my neck. The exposures were 1/30 at f/4, ISO 800. The camera was set to shoot small jpegs every 2 seconds. The resulting 1,425 images were minimally processed and then cropped to 1280x720 in Lightroom. The time-lapse was assembled and output in Photoshop. Titles and music were added in iMovie. The music is Perfect Dream from the 2006 self-titled album by Natural Dreamers.

Words: Ted Orland on art, marketing, and fame

Josef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College
Josef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College

Still, if the only goal were to attain quick visibility in the art world, the formula (at least on paper) is absurdly simple: devote ten percent of your effort to artmaking, and ninety percent to marketing and self-promotion. But that gambit works (when it does work) only as long as you keep sprinting down the fame & fortune treadmill -- pause for an instant and it's a straight drop into oblivion. The fact that cultivated fame has little substance behind it, however, hardly slows the stampede. In our media-dominated culture it's an open question whether fame is the result of accomplishment, or whether fame -- all by itself -- is the accomplishment.

Page 90, The view from the studio door: How artists find their way in an uncertain world / by Ted Orland.