Category Archives: Technique

Shooting and processing HDR night photography from Mare Island

The Nocturnes head honcho Tim Baskerville lives on Mare Island, and has been hosting occasional night photography events there since 2006. Mare Island Naval Shipyard was established in 1854, and decommissioned in 1996. A wide variety of old buildings and dry docks remain. Mare Island has enough lighting for night photography whether there is a full moon or not. The mixed lighting conditions can be challenging for night photography. Below are four images from last Saturday’s adventure, along with notes about how to shoot and process HDR night photography.

Mare Island crane D3 and dry dock
The dry docks and cranes at Mare Island are always a interesting subject for night photography. Unfortunately, these areas are fenced, which makes getting a good camera position tough. A lot of photographers at the event marveled at my solution to this problem. I have a Gitzo 3541XLS tripod (now the Gitzo 3542XLS) that goes up to 6.6 feet tall. Add the height of the ballhead and camera, and you can easily shoot over a standard fence, which is how I got this shot.

The image is composed of a five shot bracket of 8 seconds, 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 2 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. The 5 images were blended together using Exposure Fusion in Photomatix. Then I brought the blended image into Photoshop. Using a layer mask, I used the foreground from the blended HDR image, and the sky from the 2 minute exposure.

Natural Looking HDR

<rant> HDR is a dirty word (or dirty acroynm) in some circles, due to rampant abuse of HDR software. I used to blend exposures on a layer mask to make sure my photos looked like photos instead of clown puke. Over the last few years I’ve realized that HDR can be used for very natural looking results. I want my photographs to look like photographs, not some bad Photoshop filter from the 1990′s. Anyhow, HDR can save you a lot of time when you’re shooting at night under mixed lighting conditions. If you’re interested in learning HDR techniques, I highly recommend Christian Bloch’s The HDRI Handbook 2.0. Even experienced HDR shooters will pick up some great techniques from this book. </rant> Let’s continue with some more night photography examples.

Mare Island crane truck C5 at night
My compositional style typically favors the grand view instead of detail shots. I did two different setups for the picture of this truck, and ended up liking the tighter framing above. This image is a three shot bracket of 24 seconds, 46 seconds, and 2 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. The three images were merged to HDR in Photoshop, and the resulting 32-bit TIFF file was processed in Lightroom. The light in the window at the bottom right was blown out, even in the shortest exposure. I was planning to shoot a few shorter exposures, but I had to move my tripod. I was setup in the middle of the road, and a car drove through before I could finish. The bright area could be adjusted by simply using the clone stamp to bring some tonal value back in the bottom window panes, although I’m not sure that it bothers me.

Mare Island buoys and cranes at night
I scouted this shot during a walk at sunset, and was happy with how dark and mysterious the area looked at night. Shooting this image proved to be complicated because a bright orange building light behind me kept turning off and on every 2-3 minutes. I ended up with a five shot bracket of 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 2 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. The fifth shot was also 2 minutes at f/9.5, but at ISO 400.

The building light was on for a few seconds in a couple of the exposures. I thought this might help with a little bit of fill light, but it ended up making the resulting colors look weird when I merged to HDR in Photoshop. The Photomatix Fusion results looked better, but the image still had a slight HDR look. I used the 2 minute exposure for the sky, and tried layering the HDR version on top for more foreground detail. The tone of the image looked just about right, but the color in the buoys still looked a little bit off. I switched the HDR image layer with the foreground detail to Luminosity Blend Mode — problem solved! The tone looked good, and the colors looked natural.

Mare Island night geometry with Orion's Belt
The hardest part of this shot was smelling the fumes from the nearby buildings that are used to paint large pipes. The foreground is a four shot bracket of 45 seconds, 90 seconds, 3 minutes, and 6 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. After reviewing the bracketed shots on the back of the camera, I noticed that Orion’s Belt would be in a good position in the sky soon. I waited a few minutes, and then made a 10 minute exposure at f/11, ISO 100. The 5 shot bracket was blended with Exposure Fusion in Photomatix. The foreground is the HDR image, and the sky is from the 10 minute exposure.

I hope these shooting and post-processing details are useful for those who are interested in shooting HDR at night. You can see bigger versions of these photos, and more night photography of Mare Island on my website.

Mixing Nodal Ninja and Really Right Stuff Gear for Shooting 360 Panoramas


I’ve used a variety of Nodal Ninja and RRS pano equipment over the last 6 years. I started with a Nodal Ninja 3 for shooting 360s, and also acquired a used RRS PCL-1 rotator and nodal slide for shooting single-row landscape panoramas. My 360 pano gear has evolved into 2 main setups:

  1. Really Right Stuff PG-02 Omni-Pivot head with 192 FAS nodal slide – for use on a tripod
  2. Nodal Ninja R1 ring mount panohead - for use with a Nodal Ninja carbon fiber pano pole

Panning Clamp, Ballhead Rotator, or Click-Stop Rotator

My main tripod is a Gitzo 3-series with a Markins ballhead — I’ve replaced the top clamp with the RRS PCL-1 panning clamp. I can quickly level the axis of rotation with the ballhead, and then rotate the PCL-1 for shooting panos. This setup is very strong and smooth, but is missing click-stops for high volume 360 work.

My secondary/travel tripod is a Gitzo 1-series with an Arca Swiss p0 ballhead. This setup offers the same flexibility as my main tripod, but without the handy laser etched degree indicators of the PCL-1. This works OK for the occasional 4-around pano, but isn’t ideal.

For high volume pano shooting, a click-stop rotator is a must. Shooting is much faster, and the precise positioning is great for using a stitching template in PTGui Pro. If I’m going to shoot a lot of panos, I’ll remove the ballhead and mount a Nodal Ninja EZ Leveller II with a RD4 rotator on top (the RD4 has been replaced by the RD5). I used a M6 male to 3/8″ male adapter to install an  Arca Swiss style clamp on top of the rotator.

Mixing Nodal Ninja and RRS Pano Gear: Setup 1

Sometimes I won’t know if I want to shoot panos until I get to a location. Swapping out heads with my current setup can be a pain, so I was looking for more flexibility. I found a great article by Jon Witsell on using Nodal Ninja and RRS equipment together, and started digging around in my parts bin.

Arca Swiss clamp, Nodal Ninja RD4 rotator, RRS TH-DVTL-55 plate

Arca Swiss clamp, Nodal Ninja RD4 rotator, RRS TH-DVTL-55 plate

I added a RRS TH-DVTL-55 plate to the bottom of my Nodal Ninja rotator. The 3/8″-16 screw that came with the RRS dovetail plate was slightly too long. I sawed off one thread, added some Loctite 242, and secured the plate.

The RRS TH-DVTL-55 plate makes a Nodal Ninja rotator Arca Swiss compatible

The RRS TH-DVTL-55 plate makes a Nodal Ninja rotator Arca Swiss compatible

Now I can quickly switch to a click-stop rotator for shooting panos. The TH-DVTL-55 plate is a perfect fit for the PCL-1 panning clamp, which makes centering a breeze. The PCL-1 panning clamp can be also used to adjust the starting position of the pano. The knob on the PCL-1 can be aligned with one of the tripod legs, which is one less obstruction when stitching the nadir shot.

Nodal Ninja click-stop rotator on arca swiss clamp

Nodal Ninja click-stop rotator on arca swiss clamp

Mixing Nodal Ninja and RRS Pano Gear: Setup 2

The RRS pano head is smooth and sturdy, but also a bit heavy. Sometimes I want to use my Nodal Ninja R1 for packing light. I normally use the R1 on a pole with the Quick Mount Mini adapter. I had a RRS MPR-73 rail lying around, and bought an extra Quick Mount plate. The R1 head can be mounted directly to the MPR-73, and the screws sit inside the rail as an anti-twist mechanism. There is a very slight amount of play, but I had a better idea.

Anti-twist screws from Nodal Ninja R1 head mounted directly on a RRS MPR-73 rail

Anti-twist screws from Nodal Ninja R1 head mounted directly on a RRS MPR-73 rail

I also had a Nodal Ninja R1/R10 nadir adapter lying around. Using two 3/8″-16 to 1/4″-20 reducer bushings, I mounted the MPR-73 on the nadir adapter, and the quick mount plate on top. You can also get the MPR-73 rail with a 3/8″ screw.

RRS MPR-73 rail on Nodal Ninja R1/R10 nadir adapter

RRS MPR-73 rail on Nodal Ninja R1/R10 nadir adapter

Everything was installed with Loctite 242, and fit perfectly. The whole thing weighs 1 pound and barely takes up any room in my bag.

Nodal Ninja R1/R10 nadir adapter, RRS MPR-73 plate, Quick Mount Mini, and R1 head

Nodal Ninja R1/R10 nadir adapter, RRS MPR-73 plate, Quick Mount Mini, and R1 head

Installation note: While you can mount the quick mount plate on a 3/8″ stud (that would go in the empty hole on the nadir adapter above), it’s better to mount the plate as shown above. That way the anti-twist screws can be used to keep everything in alignment. The anti-twist screws also work when I swap the R1 over to my carbon pano pole.

Nodal Ninja R1 head on nadir adapter with RRS MPR-73 rail

Nodal Ninja R1 head on nadir adapter with RRS MPR-73 rail

Here’s the Arca Swiss compatible R1 mounted on a ballhead. Just level the head, and use the PCL-1 to rotate. I usually shoot 4-shots around with the R1, so not having click-stops isn’t too annoying.

I hope these ideas come in handy for those of you who are trying to mix Nodal Ninja and Really Right Stuff gear.


Target Display Mode: Using an iMac as a 2nd monitor for a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air

I have a mid-2011 27″ iMac as a home computer, a 13″ MacBook Air as a travel computer, and recently got a 13″ MacBook Pro Retina as a work machine. I was thinking about getting a second monitor for using the MacBook Pro at home, but it turns out I can just use my 27″ iMac as a second monitor. The secret? Target Display Mode and a Thunderbolt cable.

Thunderbolt Cable
If you’re using a MacBook Pro as your main computer, but still have one of the iMac models below, Target Display Mode will help you breathe new life into your old machine. All you need is either a Mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt cable. This makes an older iMac a great backup computer that doubles as a second monitor.

iMac (27-inch Late 2009) Mini DisplayPort to Mini DisplayPort Mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt
iMac (27-inch Mid 2010) Mini DisplayPort to Mini DisplayPort Mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt
iMac (21.5-inch, Mid 2011) Thunderbolt to Thunderbolt Thunderbolt
iMac (27-inch, Mid 2011) Thunderbolt to Thunderbolt Thunderbolt
iMac (21.5-inch, Late 2012) Thunderbolt to Thunderbolt Thunderbolt
iMac (27-inch, Late 2012) Thunderbolt to Thunderbolt Thunderbolt

To use your iMac as a second monitor:

  1. Turn on both machines
  2. Connect the cable
  3. Press Command-F2 on the keyboard of your iMac
    *If you’re using F1, F2, as standard function keys, then use Command-Fn-F2
    Some older keyboards may not activate Target Display Mode. I’m using a newer standard Mac wired keyboard and it works great.

To exit Target Display Mode, just hit Command-F2 again or detach the cable. If one of the computers goes into sleep mode, that will also exit Target Display Mode.

Demolition Video: CSU East Bay Warren Hall Building Implosion

Built in 1971, the 13-story Warren Hall Building on the CSU East Bay campus was right on top of the Hayward Fault. Due to seismic safety concerns, Warren Hall was imploded yesterday at 9 a.m. using 1,100 charges.

I got stuck in traffic and was running late getting to the demolition. Realizing there was no way I’d make it to the recommended viewing spot at the Kmart parking lot in time, I pulled into a strip mall and parked in front of a donut shop and cash for gold store. With only minutes to spare, I put my Sony RX100 on a Nodal Ninja carbon fiber pole, pressed record, and stood on the corner with a crowd of onlookers.

Technical Details: I shot the video at 60p on the RX100, which becomes 30p in an editing program. The 60p setting is best for slow motion, and the shutter should be set to 1/60. For regular footage, the 60i setting has a lot more data. This is somewhat unintuitive because 60p is 28mbps and 60i is 24mbps. Run Gun Shoot has a great post about the RX100 video settings.

For a quick lo-fi edit, I took the MTS (AVCHD) video file and created a 720p mp4 using HandBrake. I dropped the mp4 into iMovie, and sped up the beginning and end of the footage 4x’s. The demolition itself was slowed down to half speed. I mixed in some music by Gong, and kept the native audio at 50% volume.

Voilà – 53 seconds of gongs, screeching, and a building falling down in slow motion.

Muffler Man HDR 360 Pole Panorama

Muffler Man HDR 360 Pole Panorama - Little Planet view

Muffler Man HDR 360 Pole Panorama – Little Planet view

Up in California’s Gold Country, the former site of Sierra Equipment is now the Community Hope Thrift Store – and they still have the impressive muffler man! This 360 panorama was shot using a Nodal Ninja carbon fiber pole with an R1 pano head. A three shot bracket was taken at each camera position. I used a natural looking fusion setting in Photomatix to blend the exposures, PTGui to stitch the pano, Photoshop for image enhancement, and Pano2VR for output.

Take a look around in the interactive version below:

Stitching power lines in 360 panoramas using PTGui Pro

Special thanks to 360 pano expert John Houghton for his advice on how to get the power lines to stitch together.

  1. Stitch and optimize the panorama using your regular workflow.
  2. Use the show seams view in the Panorama Editor to see where the power lines will join across images.
  3. Temporarily switch the Editor to rectilinear to view the power lines as straight as possible.
  4. Using the masks feature in PTGui Pro, adjust the join area to be across a straight section of the power lines.
  5. Open the control points tab and select the two images where the power lines will join.
  6. Under CP type on the bottom left, select new line (t3).
  7. Add t3 points on the same power line, on each side of where they join across images. You can add multiple t3 points to define the line.
  8. Optional: Add another set of t4 points along a different line. Add t5 points along yet another line, etc.
  9. Go to the Optimizer tab, and select Optimize using: Panorama Tools in the bottom left, and then click Run Optimizer.

Hopefully your power lines will now stitch correctly. You may need to use Puppet Warp and the clone stamp in Photoshop to make things perfect.

If you’re using viewpoint optimization to add a nadir to your panorama

  1. Delete all of the new line control points. Optional: Save off a version of your PTGui project file first.
  2. The muffler man pano was 4 around + 1 down. On the Optimization tab, I unchecked all of the optimization parameters for images 0-3, so as not to disturb the alignment in the next step.
  3. Uncheck the lens parameters for image 4 (the nadir), and turn on viewpoint optimization for this image.
  4. Switch to Optimize using: PTGui, and click Run Optimizer to put the nadir shot into place.