Monday, 20 October 2014

Sulphide Street Railway Museum, Broken Hill

I have always liked railway museums - I guess partly because as a kid, I spent time train spotting in the days just before steam was discontinued and partly because the English are mad keen preservers of industry.
These days I like shooting images of railway equipment using HDR techniques.  HDR or high dynamic range photography involves taking multiple different exposures of the same subject, preferably using a tripod, then using specific software to assemble the bracketed frames into an image that shows a wider range of tones than you would normally get with a single shot.  Typical software used to combine the bracketed shots includes Adobe Photoshop, Photomatix Pro and Nik HDR Efex, to name just a few...
Because of their metallic surfaces, thick layers of grease, rust, and wear and tear (not to mention their history), these ageing mechanical monsters work beautifully in a high dynamic range image.

Engineer's runabout powered by what looks like a lawn mower engine.
HDR by Natalie Hitchens.
Another reason to like railway museums is the colours. 
Aside from the fact that the HDR process has exaggerated the hues in this shot of a steam locomotive from the Silverton Transport Company, you just never see that kind of green any more.
HDR by Natalie Hitchens
Dirt and Dust. 
HDR is good for holding on to deep shadow detail without losing the valuable highlight tones - which is what you'd lose if this were a single shot.
HDR by Robin Nichols
Number 24: same steam engine front on.
HDR by Robin Nichols
Souvenirs from the left luggage office.
HDR by Natalie Hitchens.
More cool looking furniture from the days of steam in the outback.
HDR by Natalie Hitchens
Inside the first class, smoking carriages.
HDR by Natalie Hitchens

More smoking seats.  The non-smoking section only had 8 seats.
HDR by Natalie Hitchens
2nd, non-smoking carriage section.
HDR pic by Robin Nichols
HDR pic by Robin Nichols
Amazing to see how much wood was used in the construction of these railway carriages. 
All the electric lamps had glass lampshades.
HDR by Robin Nichols.

HDR close-up of two ore trucks coupled together.
HDR by Robin Nichols
Inside the guard's van.
HDR by Robin Nichols

Sunday, 19 October 2014

High Contrast Landscape - High Contrast Black and White

Some time ago I paid $350 or so to have an old Canon EOS400D converted to shoot (only) colour infra-red images.  It's a neat thing to do with a completely superseded (and somewhat worthless) old DSLR camera.
I used to shoot a lot of (real) infra-red film back in the day - so shooting digital black-and-white is a cinch - no tripod, no ultra-slow shutter speeds shooting something you can barely see through the deep red filter used to get the IR effect.  Once converted you just use the camera as you would shooting for colour - only using a special custom White Balance that the [conversion] company sets for you.
You can then use the colour IR RAW files it produces and convert those to black-and-white or shoot black-and-white JPEGs.
Here are some evening shots taken in Broken Hill's signature Living Desert sculpture park nine kms out of town.  It's a very harsh environment so I thought the stark IR effect particularly applicable. For those interested, I sent the camera to LifePixel in the States for the conversion. The company had a special on at the time so it cost a lot less than If I had sent it to Melbourne for the same conversion (

This is a three-frame HDR shot - there was a slight breeze so the tips of the trees came out a bit furry - the effect of slight movement between exposures.
The infra red effect really enhanced the 3D texture of this sculpture while emphasising the embossed carvings. 
Actually it looks 100% better than the one I shot in colour
Looks like a goanna staring into space.  Shooting digital infra-red is easy and produces a number of different colour and black-and-white (post-processing) options.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Fill-flash Technique

Sunset shots are hard to get - we drove up to the Broken Hill Sculpture park to watch the end of the day. Dozens of other visitors and photographers also arrived to enjoy the evening.  Here's a technique to get more out of the sort of average results many were getting last night. The problem of course is that most people are impressed by the emotion created by the sunset event - it's a beautiful time of day, very peaceful and quiet.
Pointing your camera directly at a sunset produces a dramatically underexposed result because the camera's metering reacts to the intense bright light.  Sometimes this can look good, especially if you have a good silhouette but once the sun actually sets below the horizon you are left with less colour and no tone in the your subject. One neat way to boost the shot and make your subject appear almost three dimensional is to pop a bit of fill-flash into the scene. You can do this using a small pop-up flash or a larger speedlight.

Set the camera on a tripod and in Manual (M) metering mode establish the base exposure - do this in Program mode, then copy the exposure recipe into manual mode.  A good sunset fill flash exposure is one that produces a nice, rich sky colour. 
In this example it was 1/250s because the light from the sunset was quite bright.  Most might automatically set a slower shutter speed because you are technically shooting at night, right?  No, a faster shutter underexposes the night sky and produces rich colours. 
It's important then to keep the aperture wide open, or close to wide open, so the flash can make a mark on the subject.  Most flashes are only effective at eight to ten feet with a small aperture number (i.e. f4 - 5.6).  If the aperture is set smaller (i.e. f16) it makes a huge demand on flash power - which a pop-up flash doesn't have.  If using a speedlight, firing at full to half power will exhaust the batteries fast.
As the sky gets progressively darker, raise the ISO which will also help the flash maintain its brightness.
So the lesson to be learned here is that shutter speed always controls the brightness of the ambient light while the aperture always regulates the brightness of the flash...

Sunset with no fill flash produces a nice effect but somewhat hard, black silhouettes.
Sunset with fill-flash. 1/250s @ f4, ISO 640
Another successful and fun location at Broken Hill's Living Desert reserve 9kms out of town

The Long Road to Broken Hill

This year's three-day photo workshop in Broken Hill kicked off on October 17th.  But before we could get started we had to get there.  Five drove and one flew the mail run via Mildura.  Natalie and I drove - it's only 1200 kms.  We chose to travel via Newcastle owing to unseasonal snow (!) hampering drivers crossing the Blue Mountains.   These are a few pictures we shot in Wilcannia, a small predominantly Aboriginal settlement 950kms west of Sydney.  It's so small there's not even a decent medical service in town - the Royal Flying Doctor Service flies in three times a week to hold clinics. 
Much of the town appears to be somewhat dilapidated, and run down.  The pub on the main road through town looked like it had been under siege - many of the other houses and shops were either boarded up, for sale, or burned out.  Or a combination of all three.  Despite the fact that it is on the beautiful Darling River it comes over as being the sort of place most just drive through on the highway to Broken Hill, two hours to the West.
 However, its history is impressive. During the 1880s, Wilcannia reached its peak with a population of 3,000. It claimed 13 hotels and its own newspaper, the Western Grazier. It was one of the major Murray-Darling river ports (the third largest in New South Wales after Sydney and Morpeth) and played a vital part in the transport of goods, notably wool and wheat, in the days of the Murray-Darling paddle steamers.  At its height there were 90 steamers plying their trade on the river.  Because the river height was uncertain in those days, the banks of the river were lined with huge warehouses used to store materials for the farmers, plus of course, the wool and wheat that brought immense wealth to the inland. Now you can only see vestiges of this history with a few beautifully restored buildings like the Court House and the police station (and the gaol).

'Keeping it alive'.  103.1FM in Wilcannia. HDR shot.

Wanna buy a pub? Here's the Queen's Head up for grabs but with the current economic climate, I doubt that there'd be any customers...
Former Athenaeum library from 1883 - shot by Natalie Hitchens.
HDR shot of a local butcher shop, now boarded up and moved elsewhere...
I missed seeing this contradictory sign altogether - too keen to get a front-on shot. 
Interesting visual comment by Natalie Hitchens.
More social dilapidation in Wilcannia. 
I thought these boarded up shop fronts made good subjects for the HDR treatment
Interesting colours in Wilcannia.
Corrugated iron now covers many of the unused buildings in what was once an impressive and very successful country town.
Natalie's shot of a window in Wilcannia's historic court house.
It looks very like an electrical outlet!
Another great HDR shot by Natalie Hitchens
Sign of the times: graffiti smeared over a boarded up shop in Wilcannia's back streets

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Three Giraffe, Early Morning in Pilansberg

Just popping the head up to take a look around.
Giraffe are sedate and very stately in their behaviour.
Although this older male was simply lifting his head up from browsing on a thorn bush, it looks as though he's leaning over to better see what we are doing over here in the truck...
We spotted this guy just as the sun was hitting the mountain in the background.
Again a solitary male standing so still I took a three frame bracket and made this HDR shot.

Swallow in Flight

Pilansberg National Park has a lot of bird life - one of the more common is the Lesser Striped Swallow.  What's interesting about these tiny highly mobile birds is that they rarely touch land - every day I could see them skimming the pool for water.

I took these sequential shots of the birds drinking form the resort pool and after about a half hour of waiting got these quite surprising shots.  Although the AF response on the EOS5D MkIII is fast it's not that fast, plus it's nearly impossible to frame the subject and activate the AF in the time it takes for a swallow to round the corner, dip into the water and be off. 

To make it easier, I went to manual focus, prefocussed on a spot where I thought where the swallows would fly and pushed up the ISO to get a decent f-stop (f11) in case my pre-focussing was out of line - which it was on several attempts.

Although they do spend a lot of time flying, you can also see these tiny birds at rest in small trees about the place.
A perfect approach to the pool
A not so perfect scoop of water.
If they get it right, the beak breaks the surface briefly and they are away.
This one was an inch too low!
But speed and I guess flying dexterity saved the day and the swallow pulls out amidst a flurry of wings and water
A full recovery and it is off in search of food again...

Monday, 6 October 2014

A New Day, A new National Park

Here are a few snaps taken on my first day in Pilansberg National Park, three hours drive north west of Johannesburg. Never been here before but wanted to experience a different animal habitat after the deserts of Namibia.  Pilansberg was a natural choice because it is so easy to get to from J'Berg.  I mis-judged the time thanks to daylight savings so was up and ready by 4am wondering why no one else was in the reception. An hour later they all turned up and off we went. I had a private tour as the other guests booked for the safari were obviously also struggling with daylight saving. Here are a few of my best shots from day one.

Moonshot - as I got up one hour sooner than needed I had a bit of spare time on  my hands!
Mr Kranky-pants in action.
I suddenly felt I was going to end up as one of those YouTube videos featuring a game truck tipped over by a rampaging elephant. If we had not reversed quick enough, would have been.
Years ago all the old bulls died so the young elephants had no role models. In short, they all went a bit rogue, trying to mate with rhino and pulling fences down and generally misbehaving. 
Park authorities shipped five old bulls in from Kruger and within a week the bad behaviour stopped. We thought this might be one of those (now quite ancient) bulls.
Bull elephant 'in must' - meaning he is loaded with testosterone, ready to mate and very aggressive.  He walked out in front of the cruiser and mock charged us as we quickly reversed out of his 'personal' zone.
Quite a moment - at one moment he got so close my 24mm lens wasn't wide enough (above).
Southern giraffe - these species are so much lighter than those seen in Tanzania.
Older giraffe get darker.  The patterning is not for camouflage, but cooling.
The dark/light combination sets up a heat/cool circulation on the skin strong enough to provide a slight cooling effect on the body surface.
At the weekend this park is busy with self-drivers from Joberg. Someone sighted a dead impala up a tree next to the road and then the leopard appeared.
Unfortunately it was a dense tree so even seeing it was tough, let alone getting a good shot.  This was the only clear glimpse I had in about 50 tries. 450mmm focal length, 1/400s @ f4
Actually there were two leopards up a tree, but not at the same time, that would be too much to expect.
This was a smaller male,  seen the next time we drove past the traffic jam which was now being monitored by a park ranger ( to dissuade anyone from getting out of their cars). To get a more usable image, I bracketed the scene (3 shots) and produced this HDR of the tree leopard with better results.
An hour of cloning got rid of the worst leaves/twigs over the face.
Third time we drove past in the late afternoon, the small male was lying in full view on the roadside among some tree stumps.
The traffic jam was even worse but I eventually got this shot with my EF300mm lens (1/25s @ f2.8, ISO 1600) manual focussing.
Three minutes later the light had all but gone - and then the leopard sat up! Luckily one of the guides used the spotlight and I got this nice shot. 1/40s @ f2.8, ISO 3200, MF.
In the centre of Pilansberg there's a lake - the flooded part of the original caldera.
At one end there's an excellent bird hide providing good voews of the birds, including a whole bunch of pied kingfishers
Reed Cormorant
Southern Masked Weaver weaving.
Sunrise and a white rhino by the roadside
Two Red Hartebeeste keeping their usual distance from the roadside.  This is the second-fastest antelope in Africa. Fastest is the Tsessebe (which I have never seen).
Lesser striped swallows are everywhere in the park.