Photographing the Great Smoky Mountains with the Hasselblad X1D

One of my favorite southeastern US travel destinations is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I try to time my trips to the park to coincide with either the peak of dogwood blossoms in the spring or with the peak of fall color. Sometimes I hit a home run and sometimes I strike out. I just missed (by one week or one storm) the dogwood peak and there were only a few blooms left on the Tennessee side of the mountains. Not to worry. Photo ops abound around Townsend, Tennessee in Cades Cove, along the Little River Road (from the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg to the Townsend “wye”), and in the Tremont area. I spent four days at the end of April and had great weather for photography – morning ground fog, a thunderstorm, an afternoon with no wind, periods of muted sunshine and periods of full sun. Late April is also a good time to visit the park ahead of the crowds that descend after Memorial Day when schools are in summer recess.

Hasselblad X1D | Lens: Hasselblad XCD 45mm f/3.5 | Focal length: 45 mm | Shutter speed: 40.0 sec | Aperture: ƒ / 16 | ISO: 100 | Exposure bias: N/A

This was my first road trip with the Hasselblad X1D medium format camera and XCD lenses. I had used the camera and the three XCD lenses enough close to home to be confident in the system as my primary kit for this trip. The last item on my “wish list” for the trip was a spare battery and I managed to get three spares just prior to hitting the road. I anticipated using the camera from a tripod and shooting at ISO 100 as much as possible. Being familiar with the territory helped in this regard, as did understanding the likely weather conditions. For water cascades and river shots, I needed both 6-stop and 10-stop ND filters in a couple of filter sizes. I also wanted to try the Xume (now Manfrotto) magnetic filter adapters to evaluate their ease of use in the field. And I’ve been conditioned to always carry circular polarizers and a rain cover.

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FrameShop Script v1.0.0 for Photoshop CC and CS6

FrameShop is a script for Adobe Photoshop designed to give the photographer/artist a variety of mat and frame styles for displaying digital images on the Web. The previous version of the FrameShop script (v0.9.7) was described in detail in an earlier post on this blog. This new version (v1.0.0) runs on Photoshop CC and CS6, and has new features and improvements:

  • Batch mode
  • Smart Sharpen and Unsharp Mask sharpening methods
  • EXIF tag “Focal Length in 35mm Film”
  • Four date formats for “Date taken”
  • Default selection of IPTC title, caption and copyright notice fields
  • Simplified save options

The FrameShop script dialog box is organized so that each option can be selected and customized independently, using a tabbed dialog.

The dialog is displayed in the default Color Theme for Adobe Photoshop CC, chosen in Adobe Photoshop’s Preferences/Interface… menu. Here’s an example of what the script can do, showing the various FrameShop elements that are referenced in this guide.

For those who are familiar with Adobe Photoshop and using scripts, or for those who have used earlier versions of the FrameShop script, the following detailed guide to FrameShop options can be skimmed or skipped entirely. The script is easy to use and the settings/options are easy to “play with” without damaging any pixels. If you’re unfamiliar with using scripts in Adobe Photoshop, read the following guide and you’ll be on your way. The major changes from the previous version are highlighted in green.

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First Impressions of the Hasselblad X1D-50c Medium Format Camera

The Backstory
My fascination with medium-format digital photography began in 2010 when I began my journey by buying a used Hasselblad H4D-50 from an online estate sale. I had read about the advantages (and disadvantages) of medium format over 35mm, researched the available cameras, and watched from a safe distance until a good buying opportunity presented itself. The market was thin and the camera options were expensive and somewhat eclectic. Nonetheless, my obsessive technical curiosity and preference for hands-on learning pushed me over the edge. The H4D was an excellent first step and led me down a sometimes circuitous and always expensive path:

  • Hasselblad H4D-50 – Start of the journey
  • Hasselblad H4D-40
  • Phase One IQ180 digital back with DF
  • Phase One IQ180 digital back with Alpa and Cambo technical cameras
  • Leica S2
  • Leica S Type 006
  • Pentax 645Z – End of the journey?

The common denominators were cost, size and, with the exception of the two tech cams, a reflex mirror. A reflex mirror brings with it varying degrees of vibration introduced by mirror “slap” when the shutter is triggered. They were large, chunky and heavy, requiring a tripod for consistently sharp results. And each was expensive, ranging from $7,000 to $43,000 brand new, not including a lens kit.

I gave up on medium format in early 2016 and centered my photography on the Sony a7RII. The Sony is lightweight, full-frame 35mm, 42 megapixels and mirrorless. It’s easy to hand hold and produces excellent image quality even in low light. For me, perhaps the most important advantage that the mirrorless Sony had over the medium format category of cameras (and traditional 35mm DSLRs) was its EVF (electronic viewfinder) and Live View, giving me the ability to focus accurately manually or to check focus precisely when using AF. Anyone with presbyopia appreciates the advantages of mirrorless – using an EVF, Live View, and focus aids like focus peaking.

My relationship with the Sony is…hmmm…complicated. I love the mirrorless advantages that I’ve mentioned as well as the camera body’s light weight. I dislike the complex Byzantine menu tree. I dislike the myriad of buttons, dials and wheels and their minuscule and varied sizes. I dislike the lack of a consistent lens design standard that would make using different lenses less of a re-learning experience. I love the camera’s performance in low light (using high ISO with little to no noise) and IBIS. And with a 42MP file, there’s plenty of room to crop and still have enough remaining pixels to print relatively large. Like I said…complicated.

But the dream of medium format remained.

The Plot Thickens
Then magic happened. On June 22, 2016, Hasselblad announced the introduction of the X1D-50c, the world’s first mirrorless medium format camera. Using the terms “groundbreaking” and “game changer”, Hasselblad proudly described the camera as compact and lightweight. Using the same Sony-manufactured 50-megapixel sensor as the Pentax 645Z and weighing in at only 725gm (only 100gm more than the much beloved Nikon D810 35mm DSLR that I had previously used), the X1D promised to be my dream medium format camera.

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Crowds at Popular Photo Destinations

As a landscape photographer primarily, I’ve been a keen observer of the increased popularity of digital photography and its effects on popular photo venues. Iconic locations like Mesa Arch, Antelope Canyon and Schwabacher Landing have become so crowded with photographers, that squeezing into a row of tripods has become a struggle (or an impossibility depending upon how early you arrive). That’s good news and bad news. The good news is that photography as a hobby or profession is vibrant and growing in popularity. Everyone with a smartphone is a potential photographer. The bad news is that the crowds have discouraged some visitors and, in some cases, ruined the experience for others who follow. Some have blamed the crowds on tour bus operators who bring bus loads of eager tourists to popular spots. Others have blamed the ubiquity of the smartphone – a camera in everyone’s pocket.

After reading a few blog posts by well-known photographers and workshop leaders addressing this subject, I came across an invitation to join The Great Smoky Mountains Photography Summit, which invited 200 photographers and 15 workshop leaders to the very small town (one traffic light) of Townsend, Tennessee during the peak week of fall color. While the surrounding area is extremely popular (the adjacent Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most heavily visited National Park in the US) for recreation (hiking, biking, kayaking, sightseeing…) and photography, it seemed ironic that the same people who had expressed concern about crowded destinations were inviting 200 people to descend upon a tiny area of the GSMNP during peak season.
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Photographing Butterflies with the Sony a7R II

During the hot months of July and August, I usually struggle to find subjects in nature to photograph. This summer I turned my attention to something new for me – macro photography. Specifically, I concentrated on photographing butterflies and other flying insects literally in my own (or my neighbor’s) backyard. I’ve got two reasons for writing this article. First, to encourage dormant photographers to get out and explore their immediate environs, and perhaps as important, to demonstrate that the Sony a7R II camera is a very capable tool for photographing [some] wildlife and for butterfly photography in particular.

I didn’t have any difficulty finding willing subjects. The Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), the state butterfly of North Carolina, is a plentiful species in central North Carolina and a good starting point for honing macro photography technique.

ILCE-7RM2 | Lens: FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS | Focal length: 90 mm | Shutter speed: ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec | Aperture: ƒ / 8.0 | ISO: 6400 | Exposure bias: 0 EV

ILCE-7RM2 | Lens: FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS | Focal length: 90 mm | Shutter speed: ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec | Aperture: ƒ / 8.0 | ISO: 6400 | Exposure bias: 0 EV

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FrameShop Script v0.9.7 for Photoshop CC 2015

FrameShop is a script for Adobe Photoshop designed to give the photographer/artist a variety of mat and frame styles for displaying digital images on the Web. The previous version of the FrameShop script (v0.9.5) was described in detail in an earlier post on this blog. This new version (v0.9.7) runs on Photoshop CC 2015 and CS6, and has several new features and improvements (as well as bug fixes):

  • User interface has been organized into tabs, minimizing screen real estate and organizing workflow
  • EXIF information can be formatted on multiple lines or a single line
  • Improvement to identification of lens information from EXIF metadata
  • Caption can be added beneath the Title
  • Frame edge bevel is now an option
  • Additional shooting information (e.g. “Hand-held”) can be added to the EXIF text
  • FrameShop script settings can be saved and retrieved

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Infrared Photography with the Sony a7R

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I’ve had a fascination with infrared (IR) photography for several years, but lurked from a safe distance. I finally took the plunge last year and had a Sony a7R camera body converted to IR. Like most of my adventures, this has been a learn-by-doing experiment, aided by online guides and tutorials. This article is a summary of my experience to date, with tips, workflow, and links to resources that might help prospective IR photographers. This is not a comprehensive tutorial, product review or user’s guide.
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2015 “Mill As Muse” Award Winner

One of my photographs won a second place award in the Historic Yates Mill County Park 2015 “Mill As Muse” Photography Contest. Yates Mill is a fully restored grist mill located in Raleigh, NC. The mill and park have been open to the public since May 2006, and are picturesque throughout the year. My winning photograph, entered in “Photography – Historic Yates Mill – Adult” category, was taken in July 2014, using a Sony a7R camera that had been converted to infrared. The contest culminated with a reception and photography exhibit on February 15. All of the winning entries are currently on display in the Visitors Center at the mill.



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Photographing the North Carolina Outer Banks with the Pentax 645Z

In early May, before the mosquitoes, heat, crowds and tropical storms descended on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I packed my gear and headed to the coast. My longtime friend and colleague from Illinois, Ron Basinger, joined me for the week. Ron’s an excellent photographer and has an outstanding gallery of lighthouse images on PBase. The North Carolina Outer Banks is one of my favorite travel destinations. It’s a photographer’s paradise, with wildlife, eye-popping sunrises and sunsets, lighthouses, beach scenes, and harbors to fill several days of shooting. The seafood ain’t bad either!

For this trip, instead of packing my Sony α7RII, I decided to go medium format and took a recently acquired Pentax 645Z. The 645Z is a digital medium format camera based on the Pentax 645D body and incorporating a 50MP Sony sensor. The camera body form factor is basically a “D”, chunky and relatively heavy. There are a few modern Pentax 645 lenses designed specifically for digital and for the higher resolution sensor. However, I’ve found that some of the legacy Pentax lenses perform quite well. My go-to lens for this trip was the Pentax FA 645 45-85mm f/4.5 zoom, an autofocus zoom covering approximately the 35mm-70mm range in 35mm film terms. A good copy of that lens, when stopped down, produces sharp images corner to corner. And with a 50MP camera, there’s considerable latitude for cropping if the corners or edges are soft.
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Crazy Use of a Nikon D800E

Forget drones. Try driving a remote controlled 4×4 car equipped with a Nikon D800E into a pride of lions in Botswana.

The “Car L” project was hatched by Chris McLennan and engineered by Carl Hansen to capture unique images of lions with a Nikon D800E, fired remotely by Chris McLennan using a trigger system built into the remote control unit.

 

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