Sunday, November 27, 2011

The HDR Book by Rafael “RC” Conception

Unlocking the pros’ hottest post-processing techniques – a book review

There’s no better feeling for a photographer than to have people gush over your photo, suggesting you submit it to National Geographic, or better yet, asking if they could buy it. Unfortunately, most of your shots don’t get that way with a simple press of the shutter. Most are post-processed, some heavily and more often than not, it’s the HDR images that pull the most praise.

So how hard is it to learn HDR? Can a hobbyist learn HDR, or does it take years to perfect? The answer is Yes and No.  Learning HDR, whether you use Photoshop, Photomatix or Nik’s HDR Efex Pro, could take years; but, with RC’s newest title The HDR Book, you’ll be producing fantastic shots in under a week.

What makes people crazy is that the first time you use Photomatix, after you press the “create” button, you wait for your masterpiece to appear. When it finally does, it usually looks plain awful.  That’s because the image created is really not finished. You next need to “tone-map” the image. That’s where the magic begins to happen. 

Only problem here is that there are so many choices in the tone-mapping process that most mere mortals get overwhelmed with all the check boxes and sliders at their disposal. It can be quite intimidating.

Enter The HDR Book.  Just as the Canadian Mounties save the day up north, RC saves the photographic day for his readers.  In a non-techie tone, he explains what you need to do to make the choices that will both start and finish your photos into the masterpiece that you hoped for. 

Luckily for you, he doesn’t confine his suggestions to one specific brand of HDR software. He actually shows you how to create your art using each of the three primary software choices. He also spends an appropriate amount of time discussing the setup of your shot, what type scenes are the best candidates for HDR and shortcuts that will save you processing time. He even discusses how to do single-shot HDR’s and using HDR for black and white photos. 

Step by step, in ten different photos, he shows how each situation can be handled using each of the three software packages. But then, the secret sauce is revealed when he takes each image back into Photoshop for the final tweaks that make that photo really pop. 

As a bonus, Kelby Training did an hour- long webcast about the book that anyone can view for free. View that first or just head straight for your local book store and get started with the real thing. Your pictures will love you for it.

Freemake Video Downloader 3.0 Rips Videos from 10,000 Websites

New Freemake Video Downloader 3.0 rips videos, converts videos, burns to DVD and more

Whether you find it on the web, get it from a friend or create it yourself - this is a video app you are going to NEED. It does EVERYTHING! Create an MP3 from a video, burn an M4V file to DVD, does it fast, does it well and it's freaking FREE.

Download it here and you can thank me later.

From their press release:

Ellora Assets Corporation released Freemake Video Downloader 3.0 which introduces innovative technique to rip streaming video. Now Freemake users are able to download any videos from thousands of websites.

Ellora Assets Corporation, a developer of audio/video software for Windows, releases a crucial update for its award-winning video download tool. Due to the new video capturing algorithm, Freemake Video Downloader 3.0 now downloads video from over 10,000 websites including most popular video-sharing resources and minor websites embedding videos. The updated video downloader also lets keep download history and resume broken or unfinished downloads.

Responding to numerous users' requests to enlarge the list of websites for video download, Freemake team elaborated an advanced method of online video ripping. A special technique analyzes information coming from a video web page in order to detect the video source. Thus, the program quickly picks up the needed video file when a user pastes a URL for download. The algorithm is applied to any website with standard video coding scheme, except Hulu, Netflix, MTV and MTV Network.

"With the former video download algorithm, we well understood our shortcomings: in case of any changes in video portal coding, our software would stop downloading from it. To ensure the endless download support, we switched to a new method of web video ripping. Now we don't depend on portals internal changes: websites with standard video coding like YouTube or Vimeo will be durably supported. Plus, due to astonishing increase of supported resources, our users can enjoy videos ripped from their local sites," said Vladimir Mikhailov, the Product Development Head.

In addition to top portals and local video services, the tool now supports download from numerous websites embedding videos. It means that a user can get a video from almost any minor resource smoothly.

Freemake Video Downloader 3.0 also keeps download history, thus letting users quickly detect the destination of downloaded videos and search them by title, format and source.

Plus, the new version brings the option to resume all broken, interrupted or unfinished downloads. As a result, in case of unstable or slow Internet connection, users can easily complete any initiated video and music downloads by a simple click on "Resume all" button.

Thereby, with the latest update Freemake Video Downloader becomes an all-in-one solution to grab any video streaming content, no matter where it's hosted.

About Freemake Video Downloader
Freemake Video Downloader is a free video ripping application which downloads video and music from thousands of video portals like YouTube, Facebook, Dailymotion, Vimeo. The tool also features in-built conversion of online videos to handheld gadgets, common video formats and MP3. The software is absolutely free, without any feature or time limitations.
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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Getting just the right amount of a good thing

The Tiffen Variable ND filter handles a full range of photo opportunities

If you’ve ever admired those beautiful fluffy white waterfall photos, or creamy streams flowing past those polished boulders, you’ve probably been looking at a photo where a neutral density (ND) filter has been used.

To achieve that soft texture in water, you need to leave your shutter open for a longer period of time, allowing the sensor to capture what then becomes a soft flow of water, versus a sharp rendition of the water at a given moment in time.  A photo taken at 1/250 of a second in bright light will never get that creamy look.  However, if you could reduce the amount of light hitting your camera’s sensor, and take the same shot at 1/15 or 1/10 of a second, then a much smoother version of the water is quite apparent.  A neutral density filter is what makes the magic happen.

Without changing the color of your photo, a neutral density filter blocks much of the light coming through it, creating the need for extra exposure and hence, a slower shutter speed. Depending on the brightness of the daylight, you may need a slight exposure increase and would therefore use  a 2 stop filter, or you might need an extra, extra deep dose of filtration, in which case you would use an 8 stop filter. There are also various other steps available as well.

If that sounds like a lot of filters to carry…you are right. Tiffen heard the photographer’s plea and created an answer to prevent needing a boat-load of filters in your bag…the Tiffen Variable ND filter.
The Tiffen Variable ND filter operates on the same principle as a Circular Polarizer – rotate until you reach your desired effect and shoot. It allows you to have continuous control over the amount of light coming through your lens in an approximate range of 2 (ND 0.6) to 8 (ND 2.4) stops – while maintaining the integrity of your image. Note: The evenly spaced indexing marks between MIN and MAX do not represent calibrated stops. They are for reference only, to be used as a density bench-mark to return to a previous setting.

Having tested the filter in a range of situations, I was always able to find a setting that worked. Having that complete range of adjustability is quite liberating. If you want to only pack one filter, this is the one to consider. 

Presently, the filter is available in one size only – 77mm.  If your lens is smaller, you’ll want to also purchase a step-up ring to handle the transition. Various rings are available for most of the popular lens diameters.  According to their website, additional size filters are coming soon.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

12 things to know about traveling in Zimbabwe

Travel to Zimbabwe confirms their marketing mantra, “WOW (a World of Wonders).”  From natural geological wonders, to fabulous wildlife, to the warmth of their people, you’ll be saying “WOW,” day after day. 

To get the most enjoyment from your trip, here’s a list of things an American needs to know when planning a trip to Zimbabwe.

#1 Zimbabweans have a culture of using the sun to tell time. That’s more figurative than literal, but it does mean that “Zim time” is a rather loose definition. “Meeting at 7:30am” definitely means meeting in the morning, but you might leave at 7:30 am, 8:00 am or perhaps, even 9:00 am.  Double check with your host, if the time referred to is Zim time or English time. 

#2 Dining is a leisurely process.  Don’t expect drinks to be brought first like in the USA. Drinks seem to be an afterthought in Zimbabwe.  You might want to grab a drink before sitting down if you are real thirsty. Otherwise, drinks could easily arrive 15 minutes after you are seated.

#3 Passports are needed when you check in most hotels. Have it handy and save yourself some time.

#4 Flashpackers, get ready for electrical outlet withdrawal. Unless you are staying at a 5 star hotel, be prepared for only one or two useable outlets in your room. Other than the low amperage shaver outlet in the bathroom, there are typically only one or two 220v outlets in each suite or cabin.

#5 Take a couple outlet adapters with the two round prongs for use in Africa. Most of today’s computers and cellphone adapters’ work with both 110v and 220v, but you’ll need that adapter to fit the outlets. Don’t spend the big bucks on a current convertor unless you really need it. Convertors aren’t meant to run for more than an hour or so at a time or you will burn it up. Also, do not plug a standard power strip in after the adapter. All sorts of flashy, sparky things happen - NOT GOOD.

#6 The Internet is a prized commodity in Zimbabwe. Most urban hotels have wired or wireless connections…sometimes. Don’t expect more than a 56MB connection. A 10MB connection is probably what you’ll get. Outside the major urban centers, you’ll probably lose access to it completely.  3G is available more widely if you were smart enough to pick up a local sim card and prepaid plan. $100US can get you the sim card and 100MB of data. (My AT&T data plan from the U.S. conversely will bill you $19.95 per single MB for data!  Ouch.)

#7 Driving in Zimbabwe might not be what you expect. Most of the main roads are wonderfully paved and the tendency to exceed the speed limit is inviting. Don’t. Despite the remoteness of the countryside, there are frequent roadside checks that stop all motorists to check documents and inquire about your travels. Most are a quick, friendly “hello” and you are on your way; but, a few are equipped with hand-held radar guns and you’ll get your first Zimbabwean citation if you have too much of lead foot. Slow down, watch the speed limit and enjoy the scenery. Also, rent from the majors like Hertz or Avis so you’ll have back-up service should you need it.

#8 Travel in Africa gets you closer to the animals than you would have ever expected. Walking through major urban vacation areas (like Victoria Falls) doesn’t mean you won’t come upon wildlife. While we were there, a warthog wandered through town like he was out running an errand. People left him alone and he wandered off without any problems. Elephants have also been known to come to town to see what’s happening. Don’t be shocked, nobody else is.

#9 On safari, you’ll get even closer to wildlife than you ever imagined as well. On a typical safari drive at Ivory Lodge, our guide drove our vehicle to within 30 or 40 feet of most animals we saw. In most protected animal preserves and national parks, the animals seem to tolerate the snap-happy tourists and just go about their business. At Antelope Park in Gweru, you can even get closer, actually walking with a pair of almost full-size lions. (Read the whole story about walking with the lions here.)

#10   Don’t even think about illegal hunting or poaching. The government is so strict about the protection of their elephant and rhino populations that they have a “shoot first, ask questions later” policy with illegal hunters and trappers.  

#11  Don’t worry about changing money when you get to the airport in Zimbabwe. They use the American dollar as official currency in the country, but getting change is a bit more problematic.  They don’t officially use our coins to make change. Instead, lots of retailers offer a receipt for change, (like a due-bill) that can be used on your next visit toward the price of your order. If you won’t be returning to that store again, you might as well add some gum or something to make it as close to an even dollar amount as possible.

#12  There are many languages, dialects and tongues spoken in Zimbabwe. Luckily for Americans, a great number of people speak or understand English. Signs often have the English names as well as the local name. If you can’t way find by yourself, don’t hesitate to stop and ask someone for directions. The locals are usually only too happy to help with directions or suggestions. 

With this short list of travel-tested suggestions, hopefully you’ll be ready to explore and enjoy all the WOW that is Zimbabwe.

For more information, check out

Destination – African Adventures

Staying at Inn on Rupurara in Zimbabwe puts the game drive in your backyard

If you’re looking for the most adventures available in one place, the Inn on Rupurara should be on your radar. Situated in an area of Zimbabwe known as the Eastern Highlands, the inn itself is a green jewel in a necklace of scenic mountains.  Passing through the big entrance gate, you sense you are in for a special experience and then looking at their activities board, you realize that you are going to need some time to take in all that the inn has to offer.

We arrived late in the afternoon, which just gave us time to register and quickly head down for the scheduled game drive. Piling into a 12 passenger open safari vehicle, we drove down into a valley full of native flora with strange names and their beautiful blossoms. Heading up the steep climb on the other side of the valley, it didn’t take long at all for the wildlife to come into view. 

Rounding the bend in the road at the top of the hill, we came eye-to-eye with a herd of grazing zebra. Another 500 feet along the road, eland could be seen over the brush. Not much longer and impalas added their names to our checklist. Cecil, our guide, pointed out how to verify an impala from the markings on their rear ends.

Heading into a grassy plain, we brought our vehicle to a quick halt as two large wildebeest ambled across our dirt road. Seeming ambivalent to our presence, but somehow shy at the same time, they kept going until they were safely out of sight in a clump of trees.

Animal sightings continued on a regular basis as we drove around a good portion of this huge game preserve. Heading back for dinner, Cecil wanted to check out a special group of Acacia trees where some of the resident giraffes liked to hang out. Approaching the grove of trees, all we could see were the legs and bellies of the giraffes. Cecil parked our vehicle and jumped out, heading into the Acacia grove. 

With a little good-natured coaxing, the giraffes came out for their photo session. Mom, dad and baby all made for great photo subjects in the setting sunlight. After posing for maybe 5 minutes, they returned to their favorite food source and continued their dinner. It was dinner time for us as well and we returned to the inn.

Staying at Inn on Rupurara in Zimbabwe keeps you comfortable during your adventures

Black eagles fly over the lodges at Inn on Rupurara

The Inn on Rupurara is cut into the side of one of the many hills of the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. With such a dramatic setting, the owners were careful to utilize as many natural materials as possible in the construction of the lodge. Rugged stone walks and steps guide you to individual lodges overlooking the valley we had just driven through. 

Staff from the hotel carried our heavier bags as the frequent stone steps and wooden bridge made the long path to our room a bit of challenge in the fading light.  Inside the cabin was a wonderfully furnished room overlooking the valley.  An outside deck with comfortable chairs and the fresh evening air just begged to be utilized. 

Eighteen lodges dot the hillside. Each lodge is spacious and the beds are comfortable. Each is furnished with period wooden furnishings. In addition to the bed(s) there is a desk and chair as well as an overstuffed easy chair.  The baths are large and have a full-sized soaking tub and a separate, tiled shower. The floor was a colorful tiled floral pattern.

The dining area back at the main lodge was located on the second floor and offered both inside and outside dining. Inside, the dining area was a blend of warm wood tones and artwork. Food was plentiful and tasty, a perfect end for a fun filled afternoon. 

Internet coverage is spotty in the wilds of Zimbabwe and this was no different. From 7:30pm until 8:30pm we did get a good wireless signal in the lodge and we quickly checked emails before the signal and the lights started to fade by 10:00pm. By that time it was time to turn in for an early morning hike the next day. 

Staying at Inn on Rupurara in Zimbabwe enables you to scale a mountain, no training needed

While on the game drive the night before, we had noticed this large boulder-like mountain hovering in the distance. Turns out this was Rupurara Rock, for which the inn had been named. In an otherwise level grassy plain, this monstrous 1,804 meter-tall rock juts up as though someone had slammed their fist up through the earth’s crust from the nether world below.
As the saying goes, “If there’s a mountain, someone’s got to climb it,” so a small group of journalists from around the world met at 6:00am to give it our best shot. We’re met again by Cecil, who has led this trek to the top 904 times. He’s even got one of the scenic overlooks named after him.

Luckily for us, we get a ride to the base of the mountain on the safari jeep. That saved an hour’s worth of hiking right there, not to mention not having to dodge the wildebeest and eland with their twisty horns.
From the shady western face of the mountain, we start our ascent. Much of the first portion is an easily traversed set of switchbacks with an occasional large boulder that must be vaulted up and over. 

Occasionally we’d see some of the bashful, furry creatures that live amongst the rocks. They were too quick to photograph though. Later we found a large millipede slithering across the ground which gave us reason to pause for photographs. Actually, we’d have been just as happy to stop and photograph dirt…we just needed to catch our breath.  Cecil, at 70+ years old, was in far better shape than our traveling band of writers and photographers. 

Cecil paused at "Cecil's Overlook" while we worked to catch our breath.
Pushing on, we eventually reached the tree line and were greeted with unobstructed views of the distant hills and a couple priceless hilltop homes. The ground at this point turned to 99% pure rock face. Only an occasional plant sprouted up in a rock crack and some lichen could be found growing on the surface.  From here it was a constant smooth climb to the summit. 

Reaching the peak, a 360 degree panorama revealed itself with breathtaking vistas in all directions. Directly below, dozens of animals could be seen grazing on the grassy plains. In the distance, everywhere you looked revealed more mountain peaks. To our right, the Inn on Rupurara’s cabins could be seen dotting the hillside closest to us. 

"We made it!"
Cecil had carried an antelope’s horn with us, all the way to the top.  Upon reaching the summit, we discovered why. With great ceremonial flourish, he aimed the horn toward the Inn and began to blow. “That’ll let the cook know we’re coming in for breakfast,” he said with a smile. “Better hold those eggs” we thought, as none of us wanted to leave. 

If you are looking for a place to rough it (limited electricity and Internet) without having to rough it (comfortable beds and warm showers) or you’re looking for a place to enjoy good food with great views, you’ll want to consider Inn on Rupurara.  Whether your idea of a good time is horseback riding up close and personal with the giraffes, or taking a hike to see ancient rock paintings, or trout fishing or bird walks, the Inn is happy to accommodate.  

To see my images from the Inn of Rupurara, click here to see the full slideshow.

Contact them here:
P.O. Box 337
Ph:   +263 29 3021/2/3/4
Description:  +263 772215326
Fax: +263 293025

Or contact:
307 W. 38th Street, Suite 1701
New York, NY 10018
Ph:       +1 646 515-7468     
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