Total Solar Eclipse 2017

Everyone is getting excited for the North American total eclipse–and for good reason–it’s rare (and getting rarer). The last time it took place over the United States was during the late 1970s. Nearly half a century later, the eclipse now taking place on August 21, 2017 is going to have a totality (full magnitude) stripe across the nation from the south east corner to the north west corner. The rest of the United States is going to experience AT LEAST a 60% partial eclipse. This is insane–and naturally, a nerd like myself is going crazy preparing to photograph this eclipse.

Oh yeah–I wasn’t kidding about being a nerd. I am a big nerd and I write nerdy articles. So be warned.

Just like many of my colleagues, this will be my first experience seeing a total eclipse. I’ve seen lunar eclipses before–very cool stuff–but I hear that nothing can quite compare to a full-on total eclipse. So having zero experience photographing a total eclipse, I had to leverage the expertise of my fellow photographers who have the experience–some of whom have spent their lives chasing the elusive eclipse.

So I have never photographed the eclipse before–why would you listen to me?

I’ve studied, man!

I’ve lost sleep researching this thing! I have spent a bunch of time reading up on the eclipse, spent hours in exciting lectures, and even more time figuring the equipment I needed to bring with me. I have practiced photographing the sun in the meantime–photographing sunspots even!

So let me share what I’ve learned so far.

For those who will be seeing totality, there are four contacts that you will experience.

First contact: Moon begins to cover the sun. This is the beginning of the partial eclipse

Second contact: Moon completely covers the sun

Third contact: Moon uncovers the sun

Fourth contact: Moon separates from the sun. The eclipse is over.

For those in the United States who are not going to be in totality, you will see a partial eclipse the entire time and never get to see the second contact.

Every stage of the eclipse IS DANGEROUS to the naked eye without solar protection except during totality. During the second contact of a total solar eclipse, the moon completely covers the sun. Do not confuse this with an ANNULAR eclipse, which–even when the moon is completely between the sun and earth–some of the sun is still visible around the moon. Because of the dangers to the eyes–wear your solar eye protection up until totality–then put it back on as soon as the moon starts to uncover the sun (third contact).

Now let’s talk about your cameras and protection. Your lenses act like a very expensive magnifying glass and your camera body acts like a very expensive ant on the business end of the magnifying glass.

Just like the solar glasses are crucial to protect your eyes–SOLAR FILTERS are important for your cameras. Respected subject matter experts recommend them over the neutral density filters that only limit the visible light that makes it to your sensor. ND filters do nothing with regards to the ultraviolet and infrared rays that can damage your sensors. If you shoot with a camera that has mirrors and prisms that reflect the image into your optical viewfinder–all those damaging UV and IR waves go right into your eyeballs if you’re not using a solar filter. At least with the Sony mirrorless camera setups like my Sony a7RII/a9 bodies, the damage is localized to your camera. It will cost you to fix your gear, but at least you did not damage your eyes. What happens if you cannot get any solar filters this late in the game? Check with your local telescope shops to see if they have any solar film sheets that they can cut for you. I also hear welders film works.

Protect your eyes and gear.

Now let’s talk about the types of pictures you will take. When you use the solar filter, the only discernible image that will make it to your camera is the sun. So if Bigfoot happens to walk into your shot, sorry–no amount of dynamic range is going to bring him out of the shadows. Most of the photos of the eclipse that I have studied are closer images of the sun, devoid of the landscape that may surround the photographer.

As such, it’s all about those telephotos (or spotting scopes).

For me, telephoto lenses are the easiest way to get those shots of the “diamond ring” (at a point where the moon nearly covers the sun). But using a telephoto lens brings with it a few additional considerations. The first one is stability. You’ll want a tripod (I happen to know a very good article on that). Telephoto lenses also tend to be pretty hefty–so those little GorillaPods might not help too much in this regard. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

Get a good tripod already.

I am also going to be using an equatorial mount. If you have ever tried to photograph the sun or moon from a tripod before, you’ll know why I am using the equatorial mount. If you have your telephoto lens on a tripod and the moon or sun centered in your frame…just give it a few minutes. You’ll notice that the moon or the sun moves across the frame. Having an equatorial mount continually tracks those “space objects” by compensating for earth’s movement. I can track the sun all day if I wanted to. If you don’t have one of these snazzy equatorial mounts, no worries–you’ll just need to recompose your photos every few minutes.

See, I told you I was a big nerd. I’m not done–here’s video of the equatorial mount doing what it does–track those items in the sky.


Hopefully you already have an idea of what lenses that you are going to use. Ready to find out something about you lens that may surprise you? Your infinity focus might not actually be at what the lens indicates as “infinity.” Most of the lenses I have used have the focus for the stars or moon at slightly before the infinity markings on the scale of my lenses. On the Sony mirrorless lenses, set your cameras to manual focus, move your focus ring, and notice that little scale that shows up on the bottom of the screen? That’s the scale on our new-fangled mirrorless cameras. Learn what the sun’s focus is before the eclipse happens and keep it there. That should ensure sharp eclipse photos. Sony mirrorless users–you should have a feature called Focus Magnification that can zoom in even closer to assist you in nailing your focus.

Let’s talk about how I am going to have my camera configured. On both of the Sony camera bodies that I am bringing (my trusty a7RII and the new a9), I have a few custom settings on the mode dial (a7RII has two, a9 has three). I am planning on using all of them so I can easily change my shooting options so I don’t make a mistake when the adrenaline is surging through my veins during the eclipse.

For instance, here’s what I am looking at for my a7RII:


Memory Purpose PASM Shutter Aperture ISO Focus
1 Partial eclipse M 1/1600 F8 200 MF
2 Totality with sun corona M 1/250 F8 1250 MF

Note that the totality mode (Memory 2) is at ISO 1250. The solar filter is off at that point–and since we’re at total eclipse, it’s going to be dark–hence, the higher ISO. Also the a7RII is a spiffy camera since it supports Playmemories apps (in this situation, the time lapse app will be very useful). I will be leveraging one camera for time lapse purposes and the other for bracketing photos of the rapid-fire changes in-between contact points. 

Another pretty important tip is to set your camera up to do bracket shooting. This will be useful to try and spread your shots across several stops to try and improve the amount of “keepers.” I’ll start my bracketing at +/-3 stops. The dynamic range of the Sony cameras will help fill in the gaps.

Other things to note is the location you decide to set up for the eclipse. I recommend going to a place away from big bodies of water and free of clouds. I have read stories of someone who perched near a lake for an eclipse, then as soon as the eclipse began, the lake had a layer of fog over it. Great for landscape photos–not so good for clear sky images. Have snacks ready (and in bear-proof containers if you happen to shoot in areas that have those dangers) and plenty of water. Expect to be out in the sun for two to three hours if you are going to photograph the entire event.

Other than photographing the eclipse, note that there’s going to be some strange phenomenon that tends to take place. The temperature will drop (I’ve heard it can drop 15 degrees F). Animals and plants will start acting as if it is night time. You may even see the elusive flickering shadow bands that appear on lighter surfaces. And this is the most insane part–the eclipse will bring along with it a 360 degree sunset. Let me say that again–A 360 DEGREE SUNSET. You will get that sweet sunset light over to your northern, eastern, and southern directions.

Crazy, I know.

Be safe. You’ll have all your techy gear out trying to photograph the eclipse. Less scrupulous people know that–so keep an eye on your gear.

If you find that you’re getting hung up on your gear and the eclipse is seconds away–stop. Use those solar glasses and enjoy the show with your own (protected) eyeballs. It’s better to experience the eclipse than it is to get frustrated trying to photograph it and missing the entire event.

So what am I bringing? Based on the photo above, the kitchen sink, apparently.

Hat – for protection, and also because you can never have enough alpha.

Mindshift FirstLight 40L bag – few bags can hold all this gear and still be comfortable. This happens to be one of them.

Remotes – I don’t want to touch my camera bodies while they’re tracking, so I’ll use my remotes

Microfiber – believe it or not, it’s not for cleaning–but to provide shade to my gear.

Sony FE 35mm f1.4 Zeiss – I love that lens. I will use this to photograph the area leading up to the eclipse.

Sony FE 24-70 f2.8 GM – For everything else I don’t need a telephoto lens.

Minolta 500mm f8 Reflex – You can never really have enough telephotos at an eclipse, can you? If you mount this on one of the Sony mirrorless bodies, you’ll also need the adapter.

360 degree camera – Did you not read the part where I said you would be having a 360 degree sunset?

Sony FE 100-400 GM – A telephoto that is sharp and very easy to handle. Yes, please.

iPad mini – Tetris and Bejeweled

Solar glasses – Protect those eyeballs. I am bringing several in case any of them get damaged or I want to make a new friend.

Sunblock – Knowing me, I’ll be in the sun for at least three hours.

Chapstick – Lips need protection, too.

Keychain – Keyport for tools and Peak Design Capture tool for tightening arca plates and opening a cold beer later.

ThinkTank SD Pixel Pocket Rocket – Holds the SD cards. The Sony a9 can do 20 frames per second. You do the math.

Skywatcher Star Adventurer equatorial mount – the equatorial mount for tracking those sky objects.

Batteries – You better have spares.

Sony a7RII – High resolution camera with a time lapse app.

Sony a9 – Fast. Not really knowing what to expect with regards to the diamond ring shots, I want to be sure I can capture every split second.

Thousand Oaks Optical Solar Filters – the critical component to protect my gear and capture photos of the partial eclipse.

3D printed solar filter adapter – this adapter was custom made by a friend to allow me to quickly slide the filter on and off a lens, while still being secure.

Sturdy tripod – one of two that I will have for this trip. The Manfrotto pictured works well with my equatorial mount.

Anker USB battery pack – I have to keep my Tetris and Bejeweled games powered, man.


Useful links:


Families: What to wear?

With this question being the absolute number one my family clients ask, I cannot believe I haven’t written anything about it.

Well here it goes.

I like to stay away from crazy patterns and large text and logos on clothes. Nothing detracts from the smiling faces of families than a huge logo of a silhouette of a polo player spread across your torso.

I’ve been a fan of nice, deep earth tone colors. But my recommendation is to wait until we select a location–the colors that adorn your family should complement your environment. Those earth tones look awesome in a field. But bold colors look SWEET in an urban environment. Pick a spot first, then let’s talk color scheme.

Accessories can add so much awesome to the photos. A nice airy pashmina that catches the golden light, floral clips in a young girl’s hair, a nice vest and matching the shoes and the belt–those all help the photos.

Make sure the clothes are comfortable–they fit well both standing AND sitting. If you’re not comfortable, it shows–so make sure your clothes make you feel good!

That’s a good start towards your photo shoot. We’ll have more to discuss as we approach the date (like nap times and meals and snacks for the kids).

Contact me now to schedule a photo session!

Spencer Pablo – 619-717-2399

ProSlinger by Anders and Lee

The ProSlinger is useful for a variety of photography. Here, my buddy is using it to photograph the sunrise in the desert after a night of camping.

Being a bigger guy has an obvious bunch of disadvantages. From having a difficult time finding clothes that fit (and look good) to always feeling the desire to super-size everything (the struggle is real!). It’s even more difficult when you are in a niche category of plus-sized male event photographer. For someone like me, it’s very easy to believe that this industry is comprised primarily of fashionable image creators with a prototypical hipster physique (read: fairly thin skinny jean folk). It can make finding bags and straps that work with our–ahem–higher volume frame, that much more difficult. God help us if we needed to use one of those slick looking camera holsters that not only help when photographing events, but also look good too.

270 pounds of awesome requires a strap to hold his cameras.

Let me explain what these holsters are supposed to do. Say, for instance, you are photographing a wedding. You want to take a nice wide angle photo of the couple and the surrounding area in one frame. That’s what the wide angle lens is for. Then the couple goes in for the first kiss (which you MUST photograph)–and you’re on the far side of the main aisle because you don’t want to get in the way of others who want to see the awesome moment. That’s a job for the telephoto. It’s pretty difficult to find a singular lens bright enough to photograph both the wide shots and the telephoto shots in the typical light-challenged environments of a wedding. So this means you’re usually using two different lenses on two different cameras (you just don’t have the time to swap lenses most of the time during events like this). So what do you do? You use a holster. One camera with the wide angle lens on one side of the body, the other camera with the telephoto lens on the other.

There’s a bunch of holster companies out there. The problem is that most of them just don’t seem to be comfortable on bodies like mine. Many times they run tight in the shoulders and they rub poorly (and too high) on the side of the body and the neck. They felt like wearing a button-down shirt that was about two sizes too small. It looked bad.

Enter the company Anders and Lee with their launch product, the ProSlinger.

Professional event and portrait photographer, Shaun Anders, understands. At 6’5” and tipping the scales slightly past 350 pounds, finding properly fitting gear has always been a struggle for him. His photography business was booming and his workload was increasing–as was the pain of using ill-fitting photography gear. This is why he started Anders and Lee. His launch product, the ProSlinger, addresses the requirement of a comfortable camera holster for the rest of us (he even makes them for the petite frames on the other side of the body spectrum).

I received my ProSlinger on the eve of a photoshoot in the desert with the awesome Imperial Sands Garrison. They are a group of Star Wars cosplayers that mingle on the “evil” Imperial Army side. Makes for some awesome photos, albeit it, in a pretty demanding desert environment. Not only did I have to climb over a few sand dunes on foot, I also needed to make sure that the lenses I had mounted to my cameras for the event could span the entire shoot–because you DO NOT change lenses in a windy and sandy environment (unless you want bigger problems). The desert environment was a good proving ground for the first day of using the ProSlinger.

The Imperial Sand Dunes was an excellent way to try out The ProSlinger.

How did it do?

It was functional AND comfortable. That simple statement is immense coming from someone like me. It allowed the unused camera to slide behind me, out of the way, but was easily within an arm’s reach away. The straps were wide enough to distribute the weight of my gear, yet narrow enough that allowed for decent breathability. If I had to find an issue, it would be the cross patch (the core that combines the shoulder straps that lays on your back). It created a little patch on your back that would get warm. In a normal event, it would likely be a non-issue. In the desert on a 270 pound frame like mine–it made itself known. Using it at a “normal” event (indoor wedding, family portraits in the woods, etc) would prove issue-free. Shaun designed the ProSlinger to have the cameras rest behind you, like angel wings, making navigating around in busy situations easier.

Now let’s talk about how it looks. You can’t find very many things that complement the photographer in both casual (I mean, look at me in the desert–shorts, t-shirt, and tennis shoes) and formal events (suit and tie). The ProSlinger does. Not a fan of the saddle color I’ve got here? It’s also available in black and dark brown. It’s made of full-grain cowhide leather and made with brass hardware that looks like it’s going to last for a while, and handmade in Oregon, USA.

So the ProSlinger fits me. It’s very likely that you’ll find one that is going to fit you (or any photographer that you know), too. Anders and Lee makes the ProSlinger with two types of back patches (small and large) that span the size range (petite, small, medium, large, XL, and XXL). Anders and Lee guarantees the fit. If not, send it back. It’s $299 with free ground shipping.

On the left, a handsome gentleman at 5’10 and 270 pounds. On the right, another dapper man at 6′ and 280 pounds. The ProSlinger used is the XL size for both.

3 Legged Thing Winston Tripod

160824FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSSILCE-7RM2144-2
3LT Winston

Sir Winston Churchill–one of the most respected men in modern history. He helped lead a nation to victory through World War II. His famous quote “we shall never surrender” sums up his determination to succeed no matter the heavy burden it carries. Not only did he maintain his unwavering trajectory, he looked good while doing it.

It’s a well-known fact that he left a design for a tripod that carried his virtues, but the technology was just not there yet.

Sir Winston Churchill was way ahead of his time.

So now I have the 3 Legged Thing Winston tripod in my hands. Does it live up to this *possibly true* intro I just gave it?

So I’ve owned a few tripods throughout my life. If the 2016 Spencer could tell the budding, younger Spencer one thing to guide his life as a professional photographer, it would be to select an awesome tripod right from the beginning and to not waste money on all the tripods that would end up failing for one reason or another. I would tell young Spencer to just buy the 3 Legged Thing Winston.

So–yes–the tripod does live up to the namesake.

160824FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSSILCE-7RM2144-9

Let’s start with the build quality and appearances. Oh, yes. The build quality. The feel of the matte carbon fiber legs–with all the carbon fiber that present intended for support and none of the fake carbon fiber weave which exists purely for aesthetics. But just because this tripod does not have the gimmicky pattern does in no-way take away from the beauty. From the awesome anodization of the metal pieces to the active capture of the twist mechanism that gives me a very confident feeling of being locked–this tripod is quality. Cleaning the legs are also wicked easy–without tools!

I have a few tripods that I currently use based on the task at hand. I have a tripod for when I travel by plane and need something light and portable. I have a tripod for when I need to be very incognito and fit a tripod INSIDE a bag. Then I have a tripod for everything else–that’s astrophotography, studio photography, road trips, landscapes and long exposure shots. For those tasks, I usually use the same tripod. I want something stable and quick to deploy. I usually go for something with the fewest leg sections. Weight is less of a concern because I am not worrying about it going in the overhead compartment. That tripod is my most used tripod. My former tripod has now been replaced by the Winston.

So what does this tripod do that is outside of the norm? For a tripod that gets this tall, it’s amazingly compact in its folded form. Also, the minimum height comes in at around half a foot. That is just enough for it to hold my Sony cameras for some very tight macros. Add to that one of the legs turns into a monopod! And if you prefer that your ballhead mount directly to the crown and not a center column…you’ve got that.  And these last features are things that happen on the entire Equinox line at 3 Legged Thing.

Wow. Just. Wow.

So what can 3LT improve on with this tripod? Not much, actually.

150526FE 28mm F2ILCE-7S-22
Oneonta Falls: That’s my wife casually sitting on the most dangerous pile of logs I’ve ever experienced.

Some back story…

I am a heavy user of the Peak Design Capture clip. That device is seriously disruptive (in a positive way) to my shooting workflow. I can “wear” my gear comfortably on my backpack when I am hiking and be able to take a picture at a moment’s notice (without opening my bag). This has been useful, for instance, when I hiked Oneonta Gorge in Oregon. If you are not familiar with that chasm, it involves maneuvering over a large log jam that is so dangerous, it actually can be fatal. As such, it involves using your hands and feet to climb over slippery logs to continue on the hike (picture above with my lovely wife).

160824FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSSILCE-7RM2144-5

Being able to safely climb AND take a photo at a so seamlessly is something that I could do only with the Capture Clip. It securely holds my gear and then allows me go directly onto any arca-swiss compatible clamp. The only disadvantage is that the Peak Design implementation of the arca-swiss standard makes it difficult to put a fail-safe pin that can hold the camera should the screw on the clamp loosen.

It would be gut-wrenching to have your expensive equipment come crashing down due to a slipped arca clamp. So my workaround is to use another Peak Design product, the Cuff, to clip onto the camera. It’s not made for this purpose, but using it as such gives me enough confidence to hold the camera in case it does come loose. It would be nice if the clamp on this tripod had a lever that would ensure a complete lock–that’s all.

One last thing I wish I had (for purely sentimental reasons) is soft padding on the legs. I got used to having something to grip when my hands get slippery or when I am out photographing in the cold. My solution is to wrap a leg with a chainstay protector I purchased from a bike shop.

Problem solved.

160824FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSSILCE-7RM2144-14

This has now become my favorite tripod. It’s such a perfect match for my type of photography. It is beautiful with the right amount of bling without looking like a highlighter (I’m looking at you, MeFoto). It is light and stable where it counts, and weighty where it matters. So if you’re reading this and you haven’t purchased a tripod yet…you now know what to get.

My Experience with Sony PRO Support

150308FE 35mm F2.8 ZAILCE-5100-781

Sony Imaging PRO Support is a brand new premium care program for professional Sony photographers. It is growing and learning from industry practices on how to best support the Sony professional photographer community.

As such, Sony has a set of requirements for photographers in order to be a part of the PRO Support group:

– A minimum of 2 Sony Alpha Full-Frame interchangeable lens cameras
– A minimum of 3 Sony ZEISS and/or G series lenses
– Be an active professional photographer (self-employed or an employee of a professional imaging business/organization)
– Provide professional work samples
– Provide membership fee payment

– So what do you get once you are in the PRO Support program?
– Dedicated support by phone or email seven-days-a-week
– Speedy repair turnaround time–free shipping both ways
– Repair loans
– Discounts on out-of-warranty repairs
– (and my favorite) Product evaluation

Being part of the PRO Support program since it was in a limited beta release, I have been able to experience most of these features.

Cleanings.160521FE 35mm F1.4 ZAILCE-7RM295-4

First, the cleanings. I tend to photograph in some pretty sticky environments. While I do my best to shield my equipment from salt spray and the humidity, I realize I am not working in a vacuum. With winds and constant exposure to the elements, my sensor will get dirty. I can clean the camera sensor myself (pretty risky for me–especially after late night editing sessions and too much caffeine), get my local camera shop to clean it for me (at about $50 for each camera), or so send my gear in for free and get it cleaned.

You get three shipped cleanings annually.

Camera repair.  150316FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSSILCE-7R-2

The first experience I had with the camera repair was about a year ago–during the limited beta release I mentioned earlier.

As I am with my cameras nearly everyday in many types of situations, accidents are bound to occur. My personal experience with them started when I broke my Sony a6000. These cameras are strong, but not strong enough to survive a fall from my cabinet (that’s what the Sony TX-30 is for, apparently). I called up the private support number (which is  not advertised publicly, as it’s only for PRO Support members) and was on hold for a minute before a friendly Sony Senior product specialist picked up on the other end. Within minutes of the call, I was provided with a pre-paid FedEx shipping label and guidelines for the camera shipment. After carefully packaging the camera, I dropped it off to my nearby FedEx shipping center. After checking the tracking the next day–I was surprised that it already made it across the country and was delivered to Precision Camera.

Unfortunately, at this early state of the PRO Support program, my experience was not as fast. This had more to do with the supply chain than it did with the performance of the Precision Camera team (I guess the Sony a6000 is a popular camera 😉 ). The day after they received my camera, I received an email saying that the shop didn’t have spare parts for the type of repair my camera. They also offered a replacement camera that I could use in the meantime. As I’ve got a few other cameras to shoot with in the meantime, I decline on borrowing another camera. After a few more days, the Sony PRO Support team again offered another camera to borrow. Again, I declined.

Then the following week, I received an email with a tracking number. Parts came in and my camera was being shipped to me. The very next day, the camera was delivered in full working order.

My second experience with the repair was executed considerably faster? How fast? I needed a display repair on my Sony a7RII and six business days later, I had the repaired unit in my hands–that includes shipping across the country–twice! It looks like the dedicated team at Precision Camera that specifically handles PRO Support members worked out some of the previous kinks they had the year before!

Renting.160112E 16-70mm F4 ZA OSSILCE-510036-6

So this feature is awesome and one of my favorite things about the PRO Support program. Essentially what happens is I send the PRO Support team an email and ask if I could try out some brand new lens I am interested in. That’s it. Within a few days, expect it at your doorstep (assuming, of course, you are there to sign for it).

The first time I did this was with the 35mm f1.4 Zeiss lens. I could not wait to test this lens out–and test it I did. I went everywhere with that lens. All types of lighting conditions and environments.The few weeks with that lens was amazing. After my time with that lens, I had to ship it back to Lens Rentals–but not without ordering my very own copy.

160129FE 35mm F1.4 ZAILCE-7RM241-19If you are curious about acquiring Sony gear and just want to see how it performs first, this is definitely an excellent way to go.

I rented several e-mount lenses, including the Zeiss 16-70 (provide link), the G 18-105, and the FE 28mm f2, and the corresponding adapters. Once I was able to test how they perform, I made my decision to purchase them.

Renting goes through Lens Rentals and they ship it quickly. It also applies to more than lenses. It works with camera bodies, as well. You can try out battery grips, A-mount to E-mount adapters, and monitors. You can rent the items for two weeks at a time based on availability.

As I write this, I am waiting on the Sony RX1RII to borrow–ready to do it all over again and make a more educated decision on my gear purchases.

The team behind Sony PRO Support photographers are far more than support professionals. They know the gear and are also photographers, themselves.
There’s so much more to the PRO Support program and it’s awesome to see how they continue to grow and listen to their customers to better the service.160622FE 28mm F2ILCE-7RM2103

Sony Playmemories – Sky HDR

1151214FE 16-35mm F4 ZA OSSILCE-728-4

Those ND Filters

I use neutral density filters a lot. 15052612-24mm F4.5-5.6ILCE-7R-54It is, by far, my most
used filter. It helps me drag my shutter speeds to get a pretty neat effect with water and clouds. It helps me make the smoothest curtains of water, as well as stretched out cloud effects.

But they also serve a different purpose. When I photograph something with skies, I grab a graduated ND filter to properly expose the skies with the land or water. The dynamic range of the Sony sensor is pretty amazing, but sometimes you need to stretch it even further to bring out details in both the land-based items and the clouds in the sky. Otherwise, with less dynamic range, you stand to lose details in the highlights or shadows.

It has worked so far with my photography, but it comes with it’s set of problems. One is making sure I brought the correct one and every piece required to mount it (not only do I need the actual graduated ND filters–there’s a few of them–but I also need the slide mount and the appropriate threaded rings that the slide mounts clip onto). Then when I bring the pieces, I need to make sure I don’t drop it. Typically the environments I photograph in are not the easiest to move in, and among the most hazardous when I drop things (dropping glass on rocks usually ends in tragedy). Then there’s always the cost. Some of the ND filters cost several hundreds of dollars. You could always purchase the cheaper, non-multicoated ones, but then run the risk of glare and internal reflections. To add, it’s really another element to keep clean. You have to make sure your lens is clean–sure, but now you also have a filter with two sides that can pick up dirt.

151012E PZ 18-105mm F4 G OSSILCE-51004-32

You have to really be dedicated to put up with all the filter juggling .

Sky HDR Playmemories Camera App

Now I would like to think that Sony actually made this Sky HDR application for me. This app ticks so many of the checkboxes for me.

It includes three types of presets (Blue Sky, Sunset, and Graduated ND), with two additional custom “save points.”  I only had time to really play with two of them and I’ll share my experience here.

Here is the comparison–with the only corrections being the removal of dirt on the lens and sensor.


I got really comfortable with the Sunset and the Graduated ND filters. The sunset preset provides a warm tone that “expresses the redness of dusk scenes impressively.” The Graduated ND filter “shoots images with only different exposures.”


This app is remarkable to me for the reason that it does a composite of the land and the sky–each with it’s own exposure settings. You can independently control the white balance, shutter and aperture of each element. You set the boundary between the sky area and the land area and rotate it appropriately to match your horizon. When you get your settings dialed in, you push the shutter button and your camera takes an image with the land settings first, then it takes the second exposure with your sky settings. It presents it to you then asks if you would like to tweak your boundary settings (position of boundary, as well as the defocus area–the strength of the effect near the horizon). When you accept the changes, you can then save the image. Oh yeah, it can also do this on the RAW file.


Also, it’s friggin’ 10 bucks. That’s cheaper than shipping on some of the ND filters I own.


The Sky HDR app is, no doubt, a pretty powerful tool. That being said, it can take a while to get the settings done so that your image looks natural. It’s very easy to make the settings so pronounced that it makes the image look weird.


Also, in my small time with the program, I could not figure out a way to make the exposure last longer than 30 seconds, even with a remote shutter connected. It would have been nice to use the remote to drag the shutter far beyond 30 seconds, as I find that the clouds really start to look pretty awesome after a minute with an open shutter.

Discovered Niceties

There are some advantages to the Sky HDR application that I never thought about before even playing with it. One nice advantage is that I can further shrink what I bring when I go shooting–which is nice. I have forgotten things when I head out to shoot (memory cards, filters, batteries), so it’s nice to know that if I bring, at minimum, my camera, I also know that I have a decent set of graduated ND filters.

Another nice advantage that I didn’t realize when I first started playing with this application is filter stacking.

150408FE 55mm F1.8 ZAILCE-7R

Filter stacking can be frowned upon due to degradation of some filters, as well as vignetting that occurs–especially when you shoot with a wide angle lens. The reason filter stacking is nice is for use with a 10-stop ND filter–to really slow down my shutter.

Lastly, it saves me some time when I don’t need to do a composite in Photoshop. When I do it with my Sony a7R II, that would be at least two 42 megapixel images, each one with the potential to be over 80 megabytes in size. When my camera can do that for me–then I could send the image straight to my
smartphone for sharing.20151213_161439

I am quickly finding the Sky HDR application very useful–and now a very easy to implement component in my workflow. Also–it’s only $10. That’s a simple decision for the application-capable Sony camera owners out there.

To get the Sky HDR app, and the MANY others for your app-capable Sony camera, go here.

A camera and a smartphone.


One humongous reason I have shifted all my shooting to mirrorless cameras is because I wanted smaller devices that were still as fully featured (if not more so) than my larger SLT cameras. Saving weight is nice and all, but I did it so that I can actually fit more gear into my bag.

One thing I couldn’t quite shed, though, was my computing system. I always had to bring a laptop (and it’s large power supply), a mouse, and an external backup hard drive. That meant I had no choice but to also carry another bag that housed my computational needs.

This was inefficient. In the past five years, my photo gear has managed to shrink by about a third, but my laptop has remained the same size. When I discovered a wireless SD-card capable external drive that was compatible with my mobile phone, it dawned on me that I could leave the laptop at home and just use my smaller phone and tablet.

But I wanted to take it further. I wanted to see if I could leverage my android devices to not only backup my media every night, but to also edit the images to a degree near what I could do at home.

DSC07034-01 DSC06843-01 ORG_DSC07619-02ORG_DSC08022-02 DSC08240-01 DSC06806-01 ORG_DSC07329-02 DSC06873-01 So I packed up my camera gear, my android phone (with the Snapseed mobile application), and wireless SD card 2TB hard drive and set forth to photograph the changing colors of the North Eastern part of the country.

This is what I was able to do–all from my cameras and editing on my phone.


What did I learn?


I could definiately do it. Barely making a change to my workflow (in fact, improving it slightly), I was able to take pictures with my camera like I normally would do, wirelessly transfer select jpeg images to my mobile device for editing and sharing, and archive my photos and videos at the end of the day at the hotel while I brushed my teeth and got ready for bed (the wireless hard drive can automatically backup my SD cards upon inserting the card in the hard drive slot).


The output of the imagery could even be printed and published–it’s that good. Now there are some things that I couldn’t do. For instance, my desktop computer at home has some sophisticated software for editing RAW software. That way I can really leverage all my dynamic range and push my shadows and highlights–far more than I can with the normal jpeg. But for the majority of my other images, this newly found mobile solution suited me fine.


No need to bring the proprietary charger for my laptop, I was able to charge my hard drives and mobile devices with the same ubiquitous micro usb charger I also use to charge my cameras!


Snapseed is one insanely sweet mobile application. I find myself using it like a simpler touch-friendly Adobe Lightroom-like program that can edit jpeg images that come out of my Sony A7R II and have a degree of latitude in editing thanks to the dynamic range of the camera. I could even clean up specks from a dirty sensor.


The word “impressed” was inadequate to describe how I felt.


Less cables, less power requirements, less baggage, lighter luggage, a simpler infrastructure, smoother traveling and the ability to edit images while waiting for my sandwich to arrive.


Photo nirvana.

Note: every image here was taken on my Sony A7R II, edited on my Nexus 6 phone. I am writing this article on my phone on the flight back home.

GEAR TALK – High Resolution PC for a professional photographer

150726E 85mm F1.8ILCE-7R-10

I finally got my hands on the amazing Sony a7R II camera. All computer-crushing backside illuminated 42 RAW megapixels of AWESOME SAUCE are finally mine to process–assuming I’ve got the computer powerful enough to process it.

And I do. The a7R II wasn’t my first romp with high resolution photos–the a7R was. And with my experience with that camera, I was able to customize a machine tailor made to my purposes.

You see, when much of my workflow involves delivering images expeditiously, I have to remove all bottlenecks. The computer has the potential to be the largest bottleneck to my productivity.

In my workflow, if my computer is a hindrance, my entire process is stalled.

So how can I make sure my computer can slice through hundreds of images and have enough computing power to play some music while I cull into the wee hours of the morning? Keep in mind that each Sony a7Rii RAW file is over 40 megabytes. To add, I usually have multiple RAW files open at the same time.

I have built my computers for as far back as I can remember–finding it both cathartic and cost effective. I like controlling what goes into my machine and not let a big-box computer company tell me what parts belong in my computer. I also like to swap out a part for something else if it will give me better performance or that part happens to be what ails my computer rather than have an entire system out of commission. This ideology precludes me from going with laptops or going to companies like Apple or shopping at pre-made places like Costco. Also, my work in photography requires key applications that prevent me from going to Linux distributions.

Because of that, my computing world is PC-based. And in that PC-based world, the most important things for me as a high resolution professional photographer are redundancy, parallel processing, and efficiency. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll explain the components in my computer system and how it contributes to what I feel are important.


2 SSDs
5 internal mechanical hard drives
1 Drobo

I do not skimp on my storage. First–SSDs. I have two of them. One contains my operating system and applications. The second contains my scratch disk and Adobe Lightroom catalog.

The mechanical hard drives are my “staging environment” where I save the RAW files, other documents, and recorded videos. The mechanical drives also are “enterprise” quality rather than normal consumer quality. My external Drobo drive (which contains four additional mechanical hard drives) contain my processed files. My network attached storage (NAS) devices contain timed encrypted backups of my client files, and are located in various areas of my house, connected to my wired network. I also have several uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) that condition and protect my computer and storage during power outages.

Task Manager

Parallel Processing:

12 core CPU
64 GBs of RAM
2 3D accelerated video cards

What does parallel processing mean? Essentially, that means my computer can multitask. When my computer is on, it rarely has only one program open. Usually I have a web browser with multiple tabs open, a music streaming service (I use Rdio), Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, as well as Capture One 8 Pro. I also have my email client open, and a variety of utilities that support the tasks I am working on. For instance, I have been trying out a product from Palette Gear, that allows me to cull and edit my Lightroom catalog. I also have software that maintains my color calibration for each of my computer screens. All of the hardware devices plugged into my computer require some type of software driver. It needs to work harmoniously. The newest versions of Adobe photo editing software (Lightroom and Photoshop) can actually leverage the powerful 3D accelerated graphics cards to improve performance in the application. For instance, Adobe Lightroom can use the 3D card to instantly display the changes that a slider (exposure, blacks, clarity, etc.) move makes to the image.




Water cooling
80 Plus Platinum Power Supply

Why do I use water cooling? 12 cores of processing power get hot. Air cooling would work, but a smaller fan mounted on top of my CPU would need to spin fast, making it too loud for my office. When the cooling task is spread across two larger fans (as opposed to smaller ones) by way of a liquid radiator, it allows each fan to spin slower, letting my computer run cooler and quieter. “80 Plus Platinum” is a rating given to the highest performing efficient power supplies. That means more power is used by your computer and not lost unnecessarily to heat and noise. Also, the hotter a power supply is, the less efficient it is. So it allows the power supply to run cooler.

So how does it perform?

It’s fast.

The programs open immediately and my photos load with minimal lag, going from image to image quickly and rendering the image modifications nearly instantaneously. And this is with Adobe Lightroom, arguably a resource intensive software that, while extremely feature packed, has been known to be slower with each recent release. I can have multiple image editing software open simultaneously and have each one executing a task (for instance, I can have Capture One exporting hundreds of images, Photoshop can process a HDR image, and Lightroom can make edits to another image).

Is it expensive?

Your camera–wasn’t it expensive? Yes, this computer is not cheap.

I may not be the typical computer user, but as a photographer that processes high resolution images, I know I cannot be the only one with this elevated processing echelon. Your requirements might be different. In fact, many others who process the 4K video might need something even beefier.