Portable Power When You Are “Off the Grid”

Knowing that I will be spending a lot of time in places where I won’t be to charge my laptop, camera batteries and the like easily, I went searching for a portable power source that could charge these and also run some lights and/or a fan when needed. My first “off the gird” trip is coming up in a few weeks when I will be traveling to the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area in northwest New Mexico for landscape/night photography and then on to the Ouray, Colorado area for some fall foliage and wildlife photography. I have been to Ouray many times in summer but this will be my first fall trip. One of the things I am most excited about is the chance to meet a phenomenal photographer by the name of David Kingham. He has some incredible night and landscape images on his website and leads workshops around the American West.

I will be camping out of the back of my “new to me” 2001 Toyota Tacoma that I purchased last week.  Reason I went with this vehicle was that an article on Expedition Portal that rated the Ten Best Used Vehicles for Overland Travel put the 2001-2008 Toyota Tacoma as #2 on the list. I had been primarily looking for a Jeep Wrangler (which I have had two others), a Class B RV (get that in 4×4 and you are spending a LOT of money), and a few other options. Ultimately, I found this vehicle near Dallas and decided I would try to put 400K at least on her before retiring her someday!

Tacoma #3 Tacoma #2

I had been researching many different types of power options for “off the grid” camping and if I can summarize what I have learned it is 1)  it isn’t cheap, 2) most don’t last very long, and 3) if you are a do-it-yourselfer you can save a lot money. The first option I seriously considered were the Goal Zero products since my email has been bombarded by their advertising of late. After extensive reading and searching, here is what I concluded about Goal Zero, they are overpriced, short on power, lots of problems with products, and outstanding at marketing. A quick read through expedition websites and related sources will lead you to the conclusion that if all you want to power off the grid is a smartphone and/or iPad, then this might be the way to go. But if you want a portable fridge, lights, or more, you will spend a lot of money unnecessarily with Goal Zero.

The second option I seriously considered was a simple dual battery setup (click the link for a 43 page thread discussing everything you might want to learn about dual battery setups) for the vehicle. In the long run, the reason I didn’t go this route was because a) it requires either a lot of wiring on your own which I really wasn’t up for b) the second battery is fixed and any outlets are probably fixed as well and thus not portable, 3) to do it right is still a lot of money and modification to your vehicle.

The third option, which I almost bought until I found my fourth and final option, was the National Luna Portable Power Pak. This unit is a self-contained dual battery setup (at least 1/2 of the dual battery setup) and is much more portable than the previously discussed hardwired dual battery setup. This setup was really enticing me until I came across a thread at Expedition Portal on the Ark Pak which was initially developed and sold in Australia and finally began distribution in the United States late last year. I read every page of the thread, looked at every page on the Ark Pak website and was sold on what would provide the most efficient power, for the best price, in the easiest manner possible.

The reasons I ultimately chose the Ark Park over the National Luna are as follows:

1) Price: I got the Ark Pak with 12volt charger which lets you charge the battery with your vehicle for $399 including shipping versus $560 (and not sure if that includes shipping or not).

2) Design: The design of the Ark Pak is much more user friendly and cleaner. The Ark Pak looks ready to go and the National Luna still looks very much like a Do-It-Yourself Unit.

3) Features: The Ark Pak includes a 110 outlet for plugging 2 and 3 prong cords directly into the unit. While not as energy efficient as going straight 12v, you still have both options directly built into the unit. With the National Luna you would still have to by an inverter. My plan is to purchase a 12volt car charger for my Canon cameras to improve charging efficiency. I think the plastic box for National Luna might be a bit sturdier, but I plan to take this out when needed and use next to a table so improved portability was key for me.

4) Customer Service/Reliability – I have read a lot about problems with the National Luna controllers which made me nervous. In addition, on the thread about the Ark Pak the manufacturer and sales reps are constantly chiming in and offering advice, assistance and thoughts on options. That was the final straw for my decision to purchase an Ark Pak.

Before you just click the link and buy one, understand you will still need to purchase a battery to power the unit. You can expect to spend $180 to over $300 for a proper battery in the 100 to 130 ah range. The battery of choice for many is the Exide MC-31 AGM-200 which is unfortunately out-of-stock everywhere due to reorganization of the company. A quick perusal through the thread will reveal some other batteries that have been used.

For a solar option to recharging the battery, you will want to consider this option from Renogy. For around $260 you can add 100 watts of portable solar energy but you should definitely read and understand the limitations of portable solar energy depending upon where you are and how much sunlight you will receive. I plan to keep the battery charged through a mix of 12volt charging while driving and solar power.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about my findings or would like to learn more about this type of portable power.

Playing around with B&W

Once again, I have been using Nik Software plug-in for LR5 called Silver Effex Pro 2.0 to convert some wildlife images to black and white.  I have been wanting to see the difference when texture is the key communicator versus color.

Here are the results:

Black-tailed Jackrabbit Big  Bend National Park

Black-tailed Jackrabbit
Big Bend National Park

Red Squirrel Pagosa Springs, CO

Red Squirrel
Pagosa Springs, CO

Buffalo Wichita Mountains NWR

Buffalo
Wichita Mountains NWR

Buffalo Dust Bath Wichita Mountains NWR

Buffalo Dust Bath
Wichita Mountains NWR

Buffalo Profile Wichita Mountains NWR

Buffalo Profile
Wichita Mountains NWR

Buffalo Resting Wichita Mountains NWR

Buffalo Resting
Wichita Mountains NWR

The buffalo images were lacking in color but after the conversion they found major new life.  I am really enjoying wildlife images in B&W because I feel like contrast and texture can communicate so much!

American Alligator in Black & White or Color?

I took this shot of a large American Alligator (bull) in Brazos Bend State Park this past April.  I have focused a bit more on editing images in Black & White to see how much more texture and light can impact an image versus color alone.  I thought I would see which image you preferred?  I think for this image, I prefer the Black & White version.

Image Information:

Canon 1D Mark III, Canon 600 f/4 L IS II, Canon 1.4 III extender, aperture priority, 1/300 @ f/7.1, ISO 640, exposure compensation -1/3, Fill Flash with Better Beamer

Histogram and Color Image from Lightroom 5:

LR5 Develop Module

LR5 Develop Module

American Alligator Brazos Bend State Park, TX April 23, 2014

American Alligator
Brazos Bend State Park, TX
April 23, 2014

 

To produce the B&W version, I opened the file in LR5 to Nik’s Silver Effex Pro 2.0.

My ultimate goal was to make the alligator and the white flowers stand out from the rest of the image.  So, I first applied a blue color filter at Hue 265° and strength at 100%.  Next, under the Contrast adjustment, I moved the “amplify whites” slider to 47% and the “amplify blacks” slider to 27%.  Finally, to further force the viewer to the alligator, I added a Vignette starting with the “Lens Falloff 1” setting with amount at -14% and I moved the “Circle-Rectangle” Slider to about 40%.  I then clicked save and my file was added to my LR5 catalog.

Silver Effex Pro Settings

Silver Effex Pro Settings

Silver Effex Pro Vignette

Silver Effex Pro Vignette

Here is the final B&W Image:

American Alligator Black & White Version

American Alligator
Black & White Version

Shot of the Day – Rufous-Crowned Sparrow

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

This image of a Rufous-crowned Sparrow was taken at Transition Ranch northwest of Uvalde, Texas.

Technical Information:

Equipment:  Canon 7D, Canon 600 f/4 L II, Canon 1.4 extender, Gitzo Tripod with Wimberly Head

Exposure:  1/400 @ f/6.3, ISO 640, Processed in LR5

 

Lightroom 5 Tips & Tricks (Setting Your Whites & Black Levels)

If you are like me, you love editing your images in Lightroom (LR) due to the brilliant organization tools in the Library Module, the intuitive editing functions in the Develop Module, and the other modules like Print, Slideshow, and Map.  From time to time, I will share a tip/trick to help you make the most of your LR5 experience.  If you haven’t already updated your LR to LR 5, I can tell you that you are missing out on some amazing features and tools.  Today, my goal was to share the four (4) basic approaches on how to set the white and black levels in the Basic Panel of LR5’s Develop Module.

This image will best be viewed in 1080p mode.

Watch this video to learn how:

Focus Stacking for Greater Depth-of-Field

This morning I went to a local park, Berry Springs, to shoot some macro images of dragonflies, butterflies and insects.  Since I had sent the Canon 7D off to Canon Professional Services for a check and cleaning, that left me with the new Canon 5D Mark III to shoot with so I opted to go with my typical dragonfly setup that consists of the Mark III, (1) 25mm Canon extension tube, (1) 12mm Canon extension tube and the Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 L lens.

An extension tube merely moves the camera’s mirror further away from the lens thus increasing your magnification (which is what we want for macro photography) and decreasing your minimum focusing distance (which is also what we want); however, it also reduces the amount of light falling on the camera sensor (which is what we don’t want, but have to live with).  Therefore, we must either add light through the use of flash (which is what I normally do) and/or we must increase our ISO (I try not to do and generally shoot at ISO 400 or 800) or we must decrease shutter speed and/or our f-stop (aperture).  I have found that for this setup (see photo below) a tripod is required at all times for sharp images.  I generally shoot in the neighborhood of 1/250 @ f/11 to f/14 for dragonflies, large butterflies, and other large insects to maintain sufficient depth of field.  This is because as we move toward an object our depth of field decreases at the same aperture.

Dragonfly Equipment Setup

Dragonfly Equipment Setup

Today I came across many large Yellow-and-Black Argiope spiders and wanted to practice my focus stacking in Adobe Photoshop CC.  I came across a nice looking subject and set up my tripod where the spider was at about a 45 degree angle from the front element of the lens (this isn’t important but just know that I would need focus stacking much more at this angle than if the spider were at a 90 degree angle to the lens).  I always shoot macro in manual exposure mode so I can control my settings.  I wanted to take three (3) consecutive shots with varying focal points to ensure that all eight (8) legs of the spider would ultimately be in sharp focus.  When shooting any images that you plan to “stitch” or “stack” together such as a Panoramic or a focus stacked image, you want to make sure your exposure remains consistent for every image.  This will only change if you plan to add High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing to the mix.  In addition, I focus almost exclusively in manual and on the Canon 100-400 I turn off image stabilization as it has a tendency to “jump” at times.  I believe this is due to the older IS technology in the lens.

I took a shot to make sure my settings of 1/160 @ f/16, ISO 800 and flash exposure compensation of -1 1/3 were spot on.  With a subject like this, if we have our flash set too brightly, we will easily blow out (lose details) on the body of the spider due to the pale yellow/whites and the dark background.  I set up for the first image with focus locked in on the closest front leg and part of the body nearest the camera.  If you click on the image, you can see that the legs furthest away from the camera are blurry due to the narrow depth of field even at f/16.

Focal Point #1

Focal Point #1

I took a second shot with the focal point being the eyes and body of the spider.

Focal Point #2

Focal Point #2

I then focused on the legs furthest from the camera and took a 3rd shot.

Focal Point #3

Focal Point #3

When shooting a series of images in the field where I know I will be stacking or stitching them together, I often take a shot of my hand at the beginning and end of the sequence to help me remember which images I wanted to sequence so that when I upload my images into Lightroom I can easily find them.  This makes it easy to see a series in the film strip at the bottom of Lightroom’s workspace since I know any images found between images of my hand are intended for that purpose.

Once all my files have been uploaded to Lightroom, I can then make a few edits such as lens corrections, sharpening/noise reduction, and other such adjustments.  The key is that I want each of the three images to have the EXACT same settings before going into Photoshop for the image stacking itself.  I select all three images in Lightrooms filmstrip at the bottom and then right click to open the contextual menu.  I then select Edit In ⇒ Open as Layers in Photoshop… (see image below).

Open as Layers in Photoshop

Open as Layers in Photoshop

Once I had my images loaded as layers in Photoshop, I made sure all three were selected (of course, if I had 5 images to stack, I would select all 5 layers).  I selected them by clicking on one layer then while holding the Shift key, I clicked on the last layer and all layers were highlighted as in the image below.

Selecting the Layers

Now, despite the fact I was using a tripod, there was still a bit of movement from one image to the next due to a slight breeze this morning which resulted in a slight change from image to image.  The image below shows the slight blur due to the images not being exactly aligned.

Images Need Aligning

Images Need Aligning

Because the layers didn’t line up exactly (and I highly recommend checking this before you stack your images), I decided to Auto-Align them in Photshop.  To run this function, I simply selected Edit ⇒ Auto-Align Layers…

Auto-Align Layers

Auto-Align Layers

After selecting Auto-Align a box will open and then I chose Auto as the projection type and allowed Photoshop to align the layers.  The other modes are for various types of Panoramic images.  I also made sure that neither the vignette or geometric distortion box was checked.  Once I had done that, I clicked OK.

Auto-Align Layers Box

Auto-Align Layers Box

After aligning the images and ensuring they lined up well, I was ready to blend the images to combine the sharpest part of each image.  Now, honestly, how Photoshop does this is pure magic!!  I won’t even attempt to explain the how, just know it works and it is really quite easy in terms of what you have to do.  Again I went to the Main Menu and selected Edit ⇒ Auto-Blend Layers…

Auto-Blend Layers...

Auto-Blend Layers…

This opens up another dialog box that looks like this:

Auto-Blend Options

Auto-Blend Options

As you can see, my options are limited to either Panorama or Stack Images and for my purposes, I selected Stack Images and then clicked OK.  I saw the Photoshop blending progress bar and waited while the magic happened.

Auto Blending Progress

Auto-Blend Progress Bar

Once the blending was complete, my image was done and all that was left was to save the image to a new name and new format.  Now, Lightroom handles RAW file formats but when we blend layers in Photoshop we can’t keep the images in a RAW format.  Our choice, to maintain the most quality and to have a chance to go back and edit the layers separately, is to either save the image in TIFF or PSD format and check the Save Layers options.  Yes, this does create a larger file and requires more memory, but memory is cheap.  For my purposes, I chose to save as a TIFF file and I renamed the image to Focus Stacked Spider.

Save Image as TIFF

Save Image as TIFF

We can then close the image in Photoshop and if we return to Lightroom we will notice that our image has now appeared in our Lightroom filmstrip.  Now, to make sure our images reappear in Lightroom where we expect them, it is important to make sure that the Save As to Original Folder preference is checked in Photoshop.  This option can be found under Photoshop ⇒ Preferences ⇒ File Handling…

Photoshop Save As Preference

Photoshop Save As Preference

If the box for this option is not checked, I recommend doing so.  Otherwise, unless you pay special attention to where you saved the image, you may have to do some searching and hunting for the image.  In the image below you can see our TIFF file back in Lightroom (note the file name in upper left).  I didn’t have to do anything special to get the image back in Lightroom because I opened the files from within Lightroom to focus stack them.  Now, had I opened the files from Photoshop without going through Lightroom, the file would not have appeared in Lightroom without me having to import the file as a new image.

Back in Lightroom

Back in Lightroom

I prefer to do all the editing I can within Lightroom and use Photoshop only for those functions which are not available in Lightroom.  Once back in Lightroom, I wanted to crop the image from a horizontal to vertical composition.  I applied some clarity and vibrance edits and some further sharpening and noise reduction.

Clarity, Vibrance & Sharpening/NR

Clarity, Vibrance & Sharpening/NR

I felt after that the image was ready.  Here is the final image.

Final Image

Final Image

I will be offering some macro workshops in the summer of 2015 so watch for those announcements to come.  Feel free to let me know if you have any questions on image stacking.

Photoshop for Photographers Video Training @ Craft & Vision

I realize that there are a gazillion training tools out there for Adobe Photoshop (PS), but I wanted to share my experience with you in the event you found yourself in the same predicament as me.

At this point, I feel I have pretty  much mastered Adobe Lightroom 5 (LR5) as I have found some outstanding resources and I use it on an almost daily basis.  My experience with attempting to learn Photoshop has not been as pleasant, but I have come to the point where even with the amazing updates to LR 5 there are a few things like layer masking and some blending that I can’t perform in LR5.  I find I need Photoshop more for my landscape photography than anything else.  So, I finally sucked it up and though I have never been a fan of subscription software, I upgraded from PS5 to PS CC.  For $10 a month I can bear it, plus I just completely removed all satellite TV from our house and saved a lot of money on that.

I had purchased some resources for Adobe PS5 that had left me lacking.  I tried going through the Adobe PS5 Classroom in a Book which was actually prepared by the Adobe Creative Team but good night nurse, that left me longing to do my taxes it was so boring.  And it isn’t really focused on photographers.  I had purchased two of Scott Kelby’s books on Lightroom (LR3 & LR5) and one of Martin Evening’s books on LR5.  While I found both books well written and helpful, they are still more of a “do this” and “click here” than a, “if you want to understanding what clarity is . . . and then here is where you click and why you click.  See, I figure you can pretty much train a monkey or chicken to “click” on something, but getting someone to understand why and when you click (or drag) something, well, you need a full blown photographer for that!  So, I wasn’t really keen on purchasing their books for PS CC.  I was looking for something different.

I often purchase e-books through a website called Craft & Vision because the books are very helpful, fun to read and frankly, very cheap compared to many other books.  One of the best LR5 books I have found yet is by Peter Van den Eynde and it is called Lightroom 5 Unmasked.  His liberal use of screen snapshots and constant sidebars and the like were extremely useful in advancing my knowledge of LR5.  This book and the Digital Negative by Jeff Schewe (and if you want to know why his book is so good, Google the work he has performed on developing Adobe Products) are my two favorite on understanding the why and how of LR editing.

Robbery Fly with Prey

Edited with LR5

Alas, I digress.  I get emails from Craft & Vision occasionally about bundle deals and specials they have and the latest email I received was for a 42-video training on Photoshop for Photographers.  To be honest, I usually don’t like watching training videos because I find the don’t really help me.  I prefer a good old-fashioned book (or e-book).  However, for $30 for 42 videos (normal price is $40 for bundle or $25 for each volume), exercise files and a PS action freebie, I succumbed and purchased the Bundle.  Volume 1 (21 videos) deals mostly with Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and I can say I now have a great understanding of the link between ACR and Photoshop.  To be honest, given that LR5 does virtually everything ACR does and in a much better environment (let’s be honest how outdated does ACR and PS look visually) and in a very organized manner, I don’t really see myself using ACR to edit photos very often.  Nevertheless, I am no longer flummoxed by the link between Adobe Bridge, ACR, and PS CC.  He did address using PS for the creation of HDR images, Panoramic images, and he also briefly introduced layers in the last few videos.

I have watched all 21 videos of Volume 1 and I can say that for the money, I feel it was a bargain.  The videos were excellent quality but I did notice a few audio issues on a couple of videos.  You have the option of downloading videos to your computer or streaming.  I opted for the former to avoid having streaming issues (despite my 100GB service at home).  The exercise files were easy to use and for the most part his speed in the videos allows you to follow along up until the last layers video where I found myself having to pause on several occasions to keep up.  Pete is Belgium and has a strong accent but I found him very easy to understand and you feel almost as if a foreign spy is teaching you.

I have waiting a book on Adobe Photoshop Layers by Matt Koslowski for when I complete this training.  I hope that I will have enough experience with Photoshop after Volume 2 to jump right into layers, masking and blending in PS CC.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about the materials I have referenced thus far.