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July 3, 2014

Master Class: Tracks Not Worth the Risk

Train track sessions are both dangerous and illegal

By Robert A. Howard, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

Holders of the PPA Master of Photography degree share essays and ideas in service to the industry.

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As a professional photographer with more than 30 years of experience, I can truly say I’ve seen it all and in many cases done it all. Staying on the cutting edge of the photography profession requires dedication, creativity, and the ability push the limits.

I’ve photographed nearly every type of subject during my career, but nothing challenges my creativity more than capturing the personalities of high school seniors. Their outside-the-box ideas, while sometimes frustrating, are always fascinating. I’ve seen many trends come and go and just as many recycled with a unique spin, but one of the most common requests I’ve received in the past five years is for train track sessions.

Teenagers nationwide are fascinated with those parallel lines of steel, which they see as a symbol of transition in their young lives. Some teens pose between the rails, with the vanishing point of perspective representing their journey into the future. Others walk the tracks strumming a guitar, mimicking musicians they admire.

I admit I’ve done dozens of these sessions, never really taking into account the danger or the potential legal consequences associated with my actions. Yes, that’s correct. Train track sessions are illegal. Hard to believe, given that a Google search for “train track session” churns up hundreds of images of children, families, brides, and high school seniors taken all over the United States. It demonstrates the serious lack of knowledge that these extremely popular sessions can actually get you arrested and fined. Nearly every image I took on or near the tracks was not only very dangerous but involved me breaking the law. At a minimum, I could have been cited for trespassing.

KNOW THE DANGERS

These days, when I’m asked to provide this type of session I am quick to say no and here’s why: First and foremost, it’s dangerous. The railroading industry spends a great deal of time and effort teaching employees safety measures when working around the tracks. In spite of all this training, the industry has hundreds of accidents annually. And it’s not just the risk of being hit by an oncoming train; posing in and around the steel rails and wooden ties can cause physical injury from slips and falls.

If you think you’re safe because you never pose in an area with heavy train traffic—or that you’d see or hear a train long before you’re in danger—you’re wrong. The railroad typically builds tracks in as straight a line as possible between points A and B. However, every track has turns or bends that were designed to avoid an object or an area. Add to this the often dense growth of trees and bushes that line the track, and the train crew’s line of sight is dramatically reduced.

The danger is compounded by the fact that trains are large, heavy, fast-moving objects that don’t stop on a dime. The average freight train engine travels 50 mph, weighs over 120 tons, and requires more than a mile to come to a complete stop. Roughly every three hours in the United States, a person or vehicle is hit by a train.

If those statistics alone don’t put an end to your quest for this type of photography, there are several additional reasons to avoid train tracks cited by the Federal Railroad Administration and Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit organization devoted to railroad safety education:

• Trains can’t stop quickly to avoid people or vehicles on the tracks.

• An optical illusion makes it hard to determine a train’s distance from you and its speed.

• The average train overhangs the track by at least 3 feet.

• Railroad tracks, trestles, yards, and rights-of-way are private property.

• No tracks should be assumed to be abandoned or inactive.

• People in your community mimic your behavior.

Some photographers argue that these issues don’t apply to them because they conduct train track sessions only on old or abandoned tracks. But the Federal Railroad Administration notes that all tracks, live or dead, whether owned by private freight or public transit, are dangerous. Nearly all of these tracks are private property, and you’re trespassing by doing anything other than legally crossing them via a marked roadway, grade crossing, or other safely posted location. The bottom line is this: If you’re still considering a train tracks session, think again, because in addition to the safety issues, both you and your client could be fined up to $10,000 or even face arrest.

TRACKS ARE POLICED

Yes, enforcement is real. Every time I did one of these sessions I risked that a police officer or railroad employee would see me engaged in this illegal activity. Most modern locomotives are equipped with cameras, so the chance of being caught and identified is more real than ever. And if you’re still thinking It’ll never happen to me, allow me to add one last deterrent: Nationwide there are hundreds of thousands of “rail fans”—train lovers with cameras. They are trackside nearly every hour of every day. While engaging in their hobby, many are also participating in Protect the Line, a program that asks these individuals to keep a watchful eye out for anything that is unsafe around the tracks. Many of these rail fans have photographed pro photographers and their clients as they engage in this illegal activity. Their images along with license plate numbers are shared with authorities on a regular basis.

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Posing young clients on train tracks is dangerous,
illegal, and not very creative. Steer them toward
more interesting and original settings.
©Robert A. Howard

Up to this point, most of us have been lucky. In many cases, if caught, you may receive a warning, but sooner or later you will have to pay the piper, and that could be a huge check to write. We need to ask ourselves whether taking such a big risk for such an unoriginal style of portrait is really worth jeopardizing the safety of all the people involved.

Safety needs to be a top priority for professional photographers; we need to set the best example. We all need to educate fellow professionals, amateur image-makers, and clients about the real risks associated with train track sessions.

Robert Howard has been a PPA member since 1987. He is the owner of Howard Studios in Lebanon, Pa. howardstudios.com

Related article: "'Midnight Rider' director, producers charged with involuntary manslaughter"

July 8, 2014

Phase One IQ250 High ISO Milky Way Capture

Find the complete review of the Phase One IQ250 in an upcoming issue of Professional Photographer magazine.

By Stan Sholik

Through the years, Phase One has advanced the technology of charge-coupled device (CCD) sensors, but the needs of some photographers are incompatible with the CCD technology itself. To address those needs, Phase One is introducing the IQ250 back.

The IQ250 sensor is based on complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) technology rather than CCD, which was abandoned by the makers of professional digital SLR cameras years ago. Phase One is retaining its CCDbased backs and adding to its line with this, and presumably other, CMOS-based backs.

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Although the time of year wasn’t optimum and there were distant city lights glowing over the horizon, I was able to capture the Milky Way using an ISO of 6400 and an exposure of 8 seconds at f/2.8 with the Phase One IQ250 and Schneider Kreuznach 55mm f/2.8 lens. [Click for high-resolution image; use arrow keys to navigate around the image.]

The most welcomed feature of the IQ250 for most photographers is its ability to shoot at high ISOs. While the lowest ISO on the IQ250 is 100, the highest is now 6400. Every ISO setting up to and including ISO 1600 is completely usable for all subjects. ISO 1600 seems to deliver about the same tight luminance noise and lack of chrominance noise as my Nikon D700 at ISO 800. At ISO 3200, noise is visible, but Capture One software can easily remove it with minimal sharpness loss. By ISO 6400 it is still possible to eliminate the chrominance noise, but luminance noise is present unless you really crank up the noise reduction. However, in order to shoot the Milky Way with the Schneider Kreuznach 55mm f/2.8 at 8 seconds (to eliminate star trails), I needed ISO 6400, and the result (above) is totally acceptable to me until I enlarge the 8,200x6,208-pixel image to 1:1 on a high-end monitor.

July 21, 2014

Announcing Photoshop CC 2014

by Stan Sholik

With the announcement of Photoshop CC 2014, Adobe has ended speculation about the update cycle of Photoshop. While Creative Cloud members have enjoyed two updates (14.1 and 14.2) since the release of Photoshop CC, Photoshop CC 2014 appears as a new release, equivalent to Photoshop 15.0. But Adobe has abandoned the previous numbering convention and 18-month release cycle. We can now expect yearly releases with the new naming convention, Photoshop CC RELEASE YEAR.

For photographers, the Photoshop CC 2014 release adds some tweaks to the Brush Presets and Color Panel, improved Smart Guides, enhanced Sync Settings, a new Content and Color Aware Fill option, and other changes. But the features of greater interest are additions to the Select and the Filter > Blur Gallery menus.

The Select drop-down menu contains a new Focus Area option. Selecting it opens the Focus Area dialog box while Photoshop automatically makes a selection of the out of focus area in the image. For portraits or other subjects with large differences in sharpness between the in-focus foreground and out of focus background, the selection works extremely well. The dialog box includes brushes for adding or subtracting areas that were not automatically included. Also included in the dialog box is a button that opens the Refine Edges dialog box if you need to more carefully mask a subject’s hair or perform other refinements.

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Because of the similar tonality of the hair, skin, and background, this portrait used to be tricky to outline. Using the new Focus Area tool in the Select menu, the job is much easier.

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When you select Focus Area, Photoshop automatically looks for areas in focus and makes a rough selection. Brushes are available to add to or delete from the selection, as well as a slider to adjust the range of in-focus areas.

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The Focus Area tool, even with the parameter adjustments available only does a rough job. But a button is included in the dialog box to open Refine Edges.

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Using Refine Edges you can complete the outline and send the image back to Photoshop.

The updated Blur Gallery includes two new motion blurs: Spin Blur and Path Blur. Spin Blur creates a circular (or elliptical) motion blur, allowing you to spin the wheels of a stationary vehicle, or make a stopped Ferris wheel appear to be turning. The spin blur overlay on the image allows multiple options to adjust the effect and the Blur Angle slider controls the “speed” of the blur. You can also create strobe effects that “stop” the spinning as many as 100 times within the blur.

The Path Blur tool is even more interesting. With it you can create motion blurs along a Bezier path that you create. Path Blur operates on the entire image or a selection, but masks are not implemented for Path or Spin Blur. With only a short time to play with the path blur, I see a multitude of creative possibilities—how about the wedding party jumping in the air with motion streaks? With the right slider settings, you can also use Path Blur to simulate rear-curtain flash synchronization.

Along with the release of Photoshop CC 2014, Adobe announced other new releases of interest to photographers. Lightroom is upgraded to version 5.5, with a few new features, and remains a standalone as well as Creative Cloud program. With Lightroom 5.5 you are able to use Lightroom Mobile on iPhones as well as iPads, synchronize star ratings as well as flag ratings, and view and sort images with a custom sort order.

The new Photoshop Mix app will be of interest to photographers who can’t stand being separated from Photoshop. Adobe Photoshop Mix focuses on transferring Photoshop’s ability to make non-destructive selections, create masks, and perform compositing to the iPhone and iPad. The mobile app includes Photoshop functionality such as upright, shake reduction, and content-aware fill. All actions are done by touch on the mobile device.

Photoshop Mix is a free download from the Apple App Store, but you must have an Adobe ID to use it. You can use the features in Photoshop Mix on any image in your camera roll, including those taken with the mobile device, or on images you upload to the Creative Cloud. When you are finished using Photoshop Mix on images, the app saves them back to Photoshop CC with the changes in layers for further refinement. Adobe is offering true cloud computing with Photoshop Mix, and it will be exciting to see where this leads.

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, California. His latest book, “Shoot Macro: Techniques for Photography Up Close” (Amherst Media), is available this fall.

July 23, 2014

Alien Skin Exposure 6

By Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

If you've been around long enough to appreciate the subtleties of film photographs, you will probably be interested in Alien Skin Exposure 6, which allows you to apply a variety of film exposure effects to your digital images. And if you're looking to convert images to black and white, its capabilities are definitely superior to the defaults in many image editing applications.  

The interface is fairly intuitive. In the middle you’ll find the image you’re editing, as well as thumbnails of the other images simultaneously open in Exposure. To the left are the presets, both color and black-and-white options. You can choose to replicate the look of certain films (e.g. Kodak T-Max 100), enhance the focus (sharpen), add bokeh effects, or cross-process your image. Here’s a view of the Exposure 6 interface.

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There are a variety of views for the preset panel, and you can display by preset name only or show thumbnails of each preset applied to your selected image (two different thumbnail sizes). 

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The presets panel has subtabs to allow easier location of specific presets: all, color, B&W, favorite, user, recent, and search. You can apply presets to multiple images by selecting more than one in the thumbnail scroll. If you find yourself going back to the same presets over and over, there is an option to add your most-used presets to the Favorite tab, and there's a Recent tab as well. You can save presets for later access from the User tab.To save a preset, click the + button and a window will open for saving your preset. 

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The right panel contains a navigator window, overall intensity slider, and all the different aspects of the image that you can tweak (or that the presets adjust for you): basic, color, tone curve, vignette, overlays, focus, grain, IR, bokeh. Each can be turned on or off for a given image (click on the green button) or reset to defaults (the circling arrow icon). 

Basic: Here you can select color or black and white and adjust standard image settings. There are setting sliders for exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, clarity, vibrance, and saturation. You can also type in a positive or negative number value to the right of a given slider.

Color: There are two sections: color filter and color sensitivity. The color filter has several presets (warming, cooling, etc.), or you can create your own with the option to preserve luminosity or not. Color sensitivity can be adjusted through equal weighted presets (RGB or RYGCBM), or presets weighted toward a specific color range, such as reds. There are also sliders for each color if you want to manually adjust the color sensitivity. Both sections of the color panel have an option to save your adjustments as a user preset.

Tone Curve: You can adjust the tone or apply split toning here. Presets for the tone include brighten highlights, crush blacks, shadow recovery, and more. You can use eyedroppers for white, gray, and black points, or adjust sliders for contrast, shadows, midtones, and highlights. If you want to apply split toning, there is an expansive range of options, including platinum, selenium, and sepia. Again, these sections have options to save your settings as a preset.

Vignette: Apply a preset (subtle, distortion, etc.) to create either a black or white vignette on your image. You can adjust the amount, size, roundness, softness, distortion, and even select the vignette location on the image. Saving presets is an option here, too. 

Overlays: A variety of overlays can be applied to your image, including a border, light effect, or texture. You can also select an area of the image to protect from the overlays. The border effect can be zoomed in, and it can be inverted from black to white. Light effects add sun flare or corner light leakage to the print (zoom and opacity can be adjusted). Finally, you can add dust, paper, or scratch textures to the image (zoom, opacity, and black/white inversion are options).

Focus: Adjust the image’s clarity with sharpen and blur. Sharpen sliders include amount, radius, and threshold; blur sliders include opacity, radius, and lens warp. There are a number of presets to choose from (glamour, sharpen, soften), or save your own.

Grain: Create or use an existing preset, and adjust overall grain strength here.  You can fine tune amount (shadow, midtone, highlight), type (roughness, push processing), and size (automatic, film format, etc.).

IR: Adjust color contrast, halation opacity, and halation spread. You can save presets, or use existing ones (glow, IR, no halation).

Bokeh: Choose a focus region (show mask if you want), then adjust lens settings or use a preset (amount, zoom, twist, creamy, curvature, shape, and rotation). There are creative and traditional apertures, including hearts, plus signs, stars, etc. Highlight adjustment sliders include threshold and boost; grain matching sliders are for strength and size.

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Overall, I’ve enjoyed using Exposure 6 with my client images. I appreciated the black-and-white conversions, which definitely have more oomph than the standard desaturation options. One of my other favorite aspects of Exposure 6 is the batch editing feature. This is essential for any photographer looking to efficiently edit images or apply exposure presets. The only shortcoming, as I see it, is that you have to open the images in Exposure 6 to access all the neat presets. But, if that’s something you’re willing to integrate into your workflow, go for it. 

Pros:
Exposure 6 is a standalone software with many presets, allowing you to quickly create and apply a variety of film effects to your digital images. You can save presets, edit images in batches, and tweak settings to your liking. 

Cons:
You may not need many of the presets, and may not want to use a separate interface when editing. Depending on your workflow and image processing style, it may be difficult to integrate Exposure 6 smoothly.

Exposure 6 is $149. For more information, or to download a free trial, visit http://www.alienskin.com/exposure/.

Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, is a portrait artist in Michigan.

About July 2014

This page contains all entries posted to Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives in July 2014. They are listed from oldest to newest.

June 2014 is the previous archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.


 
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