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Saturday, July 30, 2011

••◊ The Brixton Women (mostly)

Last Saturday was our annual bicycle club race in San Marcos around the university campus.  I volunteered part of the day and shot the rest of the day, which was an interesting fight with outdoor conditions.  Between the extreme contrasts of morning daylight coming over the horizon and fast moving subjects with me having a relatively short lens the racing action shots were a bit...well, difficult.  My photographic efforts here were considerably last minute, so of course I didn't throw a long lens in my bag as I should have.  This mainly meant I was limited to portraits. 

The Brixton team's heritage emanates from the Ranchos squad.  Robert, a former Ranchos racer, started the Ranchos women's team a few years ago and the team was so successful that they were picked up by respectable sponsorship, including Brixton Cycles, a bicycle manufacturer and the distributor of many well known cycling brands.  So in a way I consider the Brixton cycling team sort of like the sister team to the Ranchos squad.

Jenn and Rachel, two Brixton racers, were kind enough to give me five minutes of their time to take their portraits.  In both these shots the women were in full afternoon sunlight, so I cranked up the power on my camera flash to ludicrous nuclear and used the sun as a highlight, which balanced out nicely after ape-ing exposure.  Since their pupils were already closed down due to the sunlight I didn't even get any red eye!

Patricia, the German faction of the Brixton team, has gone from just keeping up on Ranchos training rides to shredding some serious rubber on the road in just over year.  Now if anyone accuses her of being slow she has the earned right to say "ficken sie, scheisskopf!", or something of that nature...  Picked up that phrase in German class in high school, much to Mrs. Essex's dismay I'm sure.  We can't forget about the Brixton husband, Roger.  Roger was there sporting this year's contentious and much maligned "blurple" Ranchos colors.  When Patricia started racing I told him to buy a nice high end camping chair, being very familiar with how competitive athletics works with we Germans.

Then there's Jo.  This grrrrl is an animal.  I thought it might be interesting to show her full "Hulk" style transition.  She showed up in the morning with a long flowing girly dress, hair draped over her shoulders, and celeb-utante sunglasses.  The next time I see her she's broken away, gap-ing the field with a massive attack.  Jo stayed away solo most of the race!  I know from the Ranchos training rides that this woman can keep up with the boys no problem, but man, I'm not sure I would want to race against her.  Look at the intensity on that face.  The final photo was taken post race.  My feeling is that Jo is going to do big things in cycling.  I would put money on her for the Olympic squad.

Some of the team members bring their family out for the event.  I was a volunteer for corner 3 with Bob and his daughter Mary Beth.  Mary Beth was mostly camera shy until she got around her dad, then her face lit up like it was Christmas in July.  Note that Bob even had her sporting our sponsor's logo on her hat!  ...our new 20" bike spokey dokes model!

Then there's the Tragarz family.  I'm sad to say that after starting the Ranchos cycling club way back before the dawn of time, Alan is leaving us for the golden fields and majestic mountains of Colorado.  For a cyclist this is a valid excuse I guess.  The day of the race was his last day as president of the club and his efforts will be sorely missed.  We've seen his daughter and son grow up in the last few years, consoled him through his struggles with team clothing vendors, and I've personally been on hundreds of club rides led by Alan every Saturday morning.  When he wasn't around the training ride turned into a battle between adolescent siblings when dad wasn't looking.  Then Alan would come back the next week and the riders would behave themselves around "dad."

...and finally, the big win in the cat 1-2-pro race.  Bryan pulled it off after 90 minutes of racing in the heat and humidity with a solo breakaway.  At 21 he's also a national pursuit champion and likely a future pro racer on a major squad.  Just look at that gap!  The cat 1-2-pro race usually comes down to attrition.  If 60 men start, usually on 20 actually finish and 3 or so make the break-away.  It's brutal to watch.  One year when I won the cat 3 race they snuck me into the this race later in the day.  I think I lasted 5-7 laps, but by then my legs were toast from earlier in the day.  With fresh legs I still wouldn't have made it all 90 minutes, given an average speed of about 25mph and a 60' climb per lap around a 1 mile course.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

••◊ Random stuff from Comic-Con '11

Today's post mainly consists of random whatever tourist gawker pictures from Comic-Con 2011.   I mean you have to to take pictures at a convention that covets the still image.  It's like heresy against the church of Stan Lee not to.  The imagery...well what can I say?  The archetypes were mostly as you would expect: the usual depiction of overly powerful men with super-human ability to fend off bullies and images of warrior women with vastly over sized breasts and blatantly undersized bikini tops.

My friend and colleague Keisha (a.k.a. "The Purple Problem Solver") is a steady volunteer at Comic-Con and she happened to have a complimentary preview night pass.  That's how I snuck in the front door.  I know it's hard to see in the picture, but her earrings are actually custom stereolith Darth Vader helmets.  Keisha, and yes she'll admit it, is no stranger to geeking out, but it an endearing way.  What you don't see is her custom lego+Darth necklace since she does metal working as well.

As we were leaving work Keisha tells me that she has one more preview night pass due to people having other commitments/excuses/being lame-asses/whatever, so we call up Clarence.  The summary of his response was something like "hells yeah!" and our superhero team was complete: The Purple Problem Solver, The Party Animal, and Reflector-Man (referring to my skin color).

Comic-Con is the ultimate place to geek out over comics, movies, art, t-shirts, movie stars, and the occasional samurai sword replica.  As we were walking to the venue I spotted this woman in front of us at the crosswalk.  What I began thinking to myself is, "is that Chewbacca on her back or is she the daughter of Robin Williams?"  "Yep, I'm in the right place."  Also everywhere were the much anticipated and highly valued Comic-Con swag bags.  Believe it or not the bags actually stood out on the convention floor in the crowd of people, however it was only preview night so the really wild costumes hadn't showed up yet.

The first movie gawker display we came to was a booth that features the original Delorian from Back to the Future III.  According to the display placard there were 8 cars used in the making of the movies and only 3 still exist.  They even had the original flux capacitor and the LED segment panel lit up to 1985/1885.  Not to geek out too much just yet, but the car had a Mr. Fusion mounted on the back!  The car was there to raise money for the Micheal J. Fox Foundation Parkinson's research.

What would a comic book convention be without grand scale artwork?  I really liked the original Stan Lee painting of the group of superheros.  Notice the lovely lighting he illustrated?  Shows the work of a master.  Clarence is shown for scale reference.

They had to use some over sized dolls to scare small children away from certain sections.  Bart looks like an LA celebrity lawyer protecting their client.  Is Lindsey Lohan back there somewhere?  The Legos samuri must be the private security for when she feels like getting sushi.  ...to continue on the Japanese theme, the warrior shown below must be Japanese.  Only they would paint a pink bunny face on the front of a 10 foot tall heavily armored warrior robot.  Maybe there's some Japanese pink bunny warrior anime that I blissfully unaware of.

Star Trek, grock it or not, was greatly under-represented at the convention.  This was the only sign I saw of the enterprise; at a booth selling model replicas of spaceships.  Don't worry Spock, JJ Abrams will make another Trekker picture.  The box office take and thousands of mind melds on studio heads guarantees it.

Finally, I present to you Star Wars - cue John William soundtrack, begin epic scroll.  An artist was sitting in their area drawing illustrations all over this Star Wars car.  It took me a bit to figure out what the center illustration is, but to just give it away you can see Darth holding The Emperor overhead as in the last part of Return of the Jedi.  Also of note was Star Wars clothing for women (click on the picture to read the message on the back of the underwear).  I like boba too, but generally in Thai ice tea.  Also pictured is my impression of a mash up between Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Star Wars.  Too bad I didn't have a light saber.  Guess I could have composited one in (notice after the last post I restrained myself from using the word "Photoshopped"?).  To end things right, the ultimate geeks dream: TWO, count them, TWO Princess Leia's with slave barge costumes!  Mostly geeks' fantasies end at ONE.

I only found out later that the two women in the picture weren't actually working at the Star Wars booth.  They were true life fans!  I saw one walking around with her boyfriend and thought of a phrase Yoda would say in this situation:  "Boyfriend-ed is she, now matters are worse."

Sunday, July 17, 2011

••◊ After Effects For Still Images?

I recently posted a composite photo to my Flickr account and my friend asked me about the editing process.  Just for kicks I decided to use Adobe After Effects as a still image tool.  I know, I know, people now days refer to any image manipulation as "Photoshopping."  I understand how tech society takes nouns and makes them verbs just as the case with "Googling", "Emailing", or "Texting",  but jeez...it isn't the only tool in the shed.  Pixels are pixels.  After Effects has a couple advantages for still image editing even though it was designed for video.  First, it has complex processes combined into 3-D capable "Effects" that would take multiple layers to do in Photoshop.  It has an easy to use scripting language called "expressions" that can link one layer's effects to another layer.  You can "parent" an effect to a simple "slider" control or other layers for easy experimentation.  3-D integration is native and dynamic, so establishing a look by creating a camera and selecting lens aperture (to control depth of field) is easy.  The effects are also non-destructive, so you can tweak the composition design easily at any time.

Truth be told, I used a combination of Photoshop and After Effects because some operations are still easier in Photoshop.  So first, let's start in Photoshop. Yep, that's Larry and I holding up Tina in Larry's living room (aka the extreme high end photo studio!).  You'll also notice our unbelievably expensive high end wind machine at the far right sitting on a chair.  The first operation was to create a mask layer and get rid of those horrible looking extras in the shot.

The remaining steps mostly happen in After Effects.  The first operation in there, besides importing the Photoshop document of Tina, was to add a background.  I happened to have a shot of some graffiti under a bridge in Pisa that would lend itself toward the image.

One of the great things about After Effects is that you can easily re-light a scene.  In the above photo all I had was available light, which was flat and boring.  By recreating the light coming from the upper right the background matched the lighting from Tina's photo.  I actually had to do this with a couple lights because there's the highlight in the lower left and then the ambient fill that would normally be associated with any location.

Next I added Tina into the composition along with a touch of color correction for contrast and to make her hair color pop out.  I also added a subtle lens flare on the tip of her pistol because I wanted to make it look like her left gun was firing.  It would have been more difficult to make it look like the right gun was firing because the bullet trajectory was partially over her body and the gun was tilted up...which doesn't make sense.

Then I had to add the muzzle's smoke and fire.  I opted for the subtle approach to not make this composition too cartoon-ish.  By adding two layers: the first being a set of blurred convex particles for smoke, the second being fractal noise for the muzzle fire, the effect was sort of like a split second after the bullet leaves the muzzle.  I wasn't worried about color here because color correction came later.

To add a little action to the photo there are a couple layers of concrete wall being shattered by bullets in the background.  For this effect I took the background photo, shifted it a little bit, and masked off small portions to be exposed as impacted concrete.  You can see the holes in the wall to the left of her lower boot, on the green bullet, below and above her shoulders.  Gotta call it close to be a real action movie shot!

It doesn't really make sense to have random holes in the wall without chunks of 3-D concrete flying out, right?!  To do this I just copied the masked layers where the holes are and used the built-in "shatter" effect to shatter the concrete wall.  It's subtle, but effective.  You have to click on the photo to look at it larger to see the effect.

Finally, I added a Magic Bullet "Quicklooks" preset and vignette to the photo just to add a bit of that comic book action movie flair to the photo.  Green was a little too obvious of an homage to The Matrix, so I went the opposite direction and used a Mexican theme.  The effect is basically drag and drop with a few minor tweak-able parameters.

A little sharpening back in Photoshop and I was done making Tina look like a bad ass action hero.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

••◊ Happy Birthday America!

For those in the USA July 4th is Independence Day.  It officially commemorates the signing of The Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776.  The congressional vote took place on July 2nd, but the exact date of the signing of the declaration is a source of dispute among historians.  Some claim that the declaration was actually signed on August 2nd.  What isn't in dispute is that the declaration was written by Thomas Jefferson.  Just to briefly change the subject, but stay on the topic of birthdays, below is a picture of a t-shirt worn by my photog friend Kevin at our little Independence Day party.  He shoots for Jinx clothing so he was wearing what he sells.

Last year I took a trip to Washington DC for an honorary award reception at NASA for our involvement in the NASA space elevator challenge. After the reception I bravely walked a few bone chilling blocks over to the Capitol Building and took a tour.  Somehow they let me in with my virtual arsenal of photography gear, tripod and all - which was somewhat unexpected given that capitol security gave me a hard time about my tripod at the WWII memorial with no one else around.  The guard must have thought I was a 5150 given the early morning winter temperature.  The capitol tour guide took us into the room where, legend has it, Thomas Jefferson perfectly positioned his desk inside the dome ceiling room such that he could hear any whisper inside the room because it was the center point of acoustic reflection. The legend also claims that he would pretend to nap at his desk just to listen in on other's legislator's conversations!

But what is Independence Day really all about? EXPLOSIVES!  ...um, I meant firework displays.  When I was little I used to love lighting off my own fireworks but they are pretty much banned in SoCal.  M-80's, Saturn Missiles, Roman Candles, firecrackers, tanks, whistlers, snakes, sparklers (Tim Allen grunt implied);  of course we drank out of the garden hose too, so take of it what you will.  In San Diego we have to relinquish our once a year desire to blow stuff up.  Below are some firework photos from Del Mar (...sigh...) from a safe distance.

Friday, July 1, 2011

••◊ New Quick Release Camera Mount

Time for some light hearted Friday afternoon camera pr0n (safe mi-spelling).  This is my latest beast out of the machine shop and is actually upgrade-able to fit a full size video camera - like that's ever going to happen, but still.  The goal here was to make a sturdy mount with a quick release so I can quickly change out cameras or exchange the camera between this rig and my shoulder mount.

The quick release plate is a Manfrotto 323 plate adapter purchased from my local camera shop.  In addition to the standard mounting, I can extend the rails backward and put the mount back far enough for panoramic shots.  In theory the front  lens element should be at the horizontal rotation axis of the tripod head to get perfect panorama shots that can be stitched together.  The only thing I'm missing now is the ability of the camera to be mounted at 90-degrees for more vertical resolution!

The large block at the bottom is mostly hollow and it only meant to raise the mount enough to not have the thumb knobs hit the tripod head.  The rails are from my previous mount and are well used, but still reliable.  Note that I left the rig nekkid (i.e. no follow focus or other accessories) so you could see the beautiful silver machinery.

Off to shoot some panoramas on Independence Day here in the USA.