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Into the West

(to see the image larger or so it fits into your screen resolution, have a click-see)

It’s been awhile since I posted any images from our trip up to the abandoned ghost town of Two Guns, Arizona. First off, you gotta love a name like that. If there was ever a contest to name an old west town in Arizona…that has to be up at the top.

I will say, the structures left behind at Two Guns weren’t exactly what you’d picture seeing if you heard “ghost town”. Normally you’d think of old wooden saloons, stables, whatever. At least, that’s what floats into my head. But Two Guns was pretty much made up entirely of old stone walls and wooden support beams where they still existed. And only one or two places still had a roof up.

The windows became obvious culprits in framing some of our shots. My buddy Ken Peterson posted a photograph from a different spot last week. I liked this little lone tree-ish looking thing up on the cliff through the window in this room. I tried it with my 50mm at first, but it proved lacking. I dig how my wide angle brought in not only the window, but the lack of a roof.

Title of this post was taken from the soundtrack of Return of the King.

(exif: canon eos 5d mark ii, tamron 17-35mm 2.8, 17mm, iso 100, f/16)

Who holds the key?

My first thought when I saw this lock through the broken glass wasn’t what it should have been. There are at least two other aspects of this scene that are way more interesting than the question that went through my head at the time:

I wonder who has the key to the lock…or does anyone even know where it is anymore?

So now you may wonder, what are the other two things?

Both of them only occurred to me AFTER I embedded this photo tonight. Which means to me that I need to take my time more. But it kind of makes sense…because I found this abandoned water/power structure while on the way to Lake Mead while the sun was going down and I honestly was a little nervous being all alone. I was rushing to get shots quickly, composing fast, without really noticing what was around me.

Yet even during post-processing I didn’t see it. Not until now.

Okay, the first may not be a big deal, but the fact that the chain is going through the broken windows is kind of amusing to me. Obviously someone decided they needed to keep people out after they’ve tried to get in a few times.

The bigger thing is that the friggin’ door is OPEN. I mean, I don’t know how far I could have pulled it ajar…but maybe enough to get a camera slid inside to take a couple of brackets? Maybe it would still be too tight.

But the strange thing is that I just didn’t even notice.

Regardless of all that, I just loved this old door and I still can’t sing enough praises about using the 50mm on stuff like this. It’s just brilliant.

(exif: canon 5d mark ii, canon 50mm 1.4, f/2.0, iso 100)

The Shawshank Redemption

Bars Urban Urbex Downtown Phoenix Windows

I was scouring some of my images last night looking for the right one to post for Movie Title Wednesday. Usually I save my best work for these days (in my eyes of course), but the ones that I really, really loved just couldn’t be connected to a movie for some reason. But then I saw this one, thought “Shawshank” and immediately knew I had today’s photograph. And I actually really like this image.

What can I say about The Shawshank Redemption that most of you wouldn’t know already? I mean, it’s in a lot of people’s top 10 favorite movies list (including mine), it was nominated for 12 Oscars (I’m amazed that it didn’t win any now that I look back) and it had one of the best little plot twists in recent memory. You got emotionally tied to the characters…and end up feeling their struggle when it comes to suddenly being in the outside world after 30 years in prison. But the message of hope was key to me…it’s something that no one can ever take away from you. What a great scene that was between Andy and Red:

Andy Dufresne: That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you… Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?
Red: I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn’t make much sense in here.
Andy Dufresne: Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.
Red: Forget?
Andy Dufresne: Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.
Red: What’re you talking about?
Andy Dufresne: Hope.

Gives me chills just reading it again. What a fantastic film.

This image had the feel to me of an old prison…mangled bars, fading metal mesh…stained, dirty glass…worn and weathered bricks. Shot this back in late December during our downtown Phoenix photowalk. Once again, it’s an image using my 50mm 1.4 and I played around with it in live view to find the place I wanted to focus on the most. It wasn’t too hard to quickly spot the kind of “cross” in the middle that appears to be bound together with a piece of rusted wire.

Excited to go explore the urban areas of Phoenix once again…the February 5th photowalk is packed with people, we’re up to 13 and if you are interested in joining us, check out this blog post.

(exif: canon rebel xsi, 50mm 1.4, f/2.5, iso100)

Inside Out

Dog Track Black Canyon City Chairs

After wandering around the dog track for an hour or so, I ended up coming back to the rows of seats with a new perspective and a new lens on my camera. As I’m prone to do, I started with the 17-35mm because I wanted to capture the vastness and enormity of the place. But later I realized I was missing out on the subtle nuances everywhere you looked.

One of them was the weirdness of standing inside a building but still feeling like you were outside. All the giant windows were broken, bushes were growing inside and occasionally a breeze would float through. The panes of glass would wobble from the wind…a few ropes hanging from the ceiling would swing…you get the idea.

My goal here was to use the 50mm 1.4 to focus on a small area of the row of chairs, but still capture the way the windows beyond led right to the desert outside. Probably my favorite element of this shot is the low angle of the sun and the way it highlights the top portion of the chairs. Now I know I haven’t explored tons of these urbex locations, but I can’t stress enough the importance of natural light in places like this.

I think this is one of my favorite images from the trip. And while I don’t tend to talk about the processing as much these days, I just want to point out how great HDR is for situations like this. You get to see the clouds in the distance despite maintaining the light and shadows on the chairs. It wouldn’t be as easy to get all of this in a single shot without possibly a few filters and even then you may do exposure blending in Photoshop.

And despite some of my urbex shots where I take liberty with the processing and stylizing…this one has to be as close to how I remember it in person as any HDR shot I’ve done.

The Ruins

I loved the movie A Simple Plan, which was made from a book of the same name by Scott B. Smith, so when I heard he was writing a scary horror novel, I was pumped.  I think the first day The Ruins hit bookstore shelves, I bought it.

Now, this is Movie Title Wednesday and here I am talking about a friggin’ book! Well, of course The Ruins was made into a movie, and while it was a lot of fun to see it for those of us who are huge fans of the book, the film was just so-so. But if you aren’t into reading and just like a good popcorn horror flick, then check it out. The concept is fun, a little different than the norm.

However, if you love books, it’s a great read. If you don’t know this about me, I’m a huge book fan. I gobble them up. One year I discovered Dean Koontz and probably read 30 of his books in 12 months. I love that supernatural/sci-fi genre of storytelling.

This image has a bit of that feel to it for me. I think if you were walking up to this place by yourself, as the sun was going down…you’d probably get some chills, perhaps a few goosebumps, and likely turn around. Although I know a few of my urban explorer buddies would just whip out a couple of cannons and blaze ahead.

The building above is from my abandoned dog track series. My cohort Rick pointed out the actual track itself earlier in our outing, so I made sure to walk out there and see what I could see. Basically dirt and some cement borders that disappeared into overgrowth in a lot of spots. But looking back towards the building from the track was an awesome angle. You guys probably know how much I love roads and paths disappearing into the horizon, so this was kind of my money shot. Long, lost road, desert, broken glass windows…and of course, clouds in the sky.

Because for me, this shot would have been about 40% less exciting without the sky looking the way it did.

Lots more to come from the dog track…being there for around three hours was a perfect amount of time to just walk around slowly, see angles, explore and then even go back over it all one more time.

Window to the End of the World

Black Canyon City Abandoned Dog Track Sunset

This is the first of many, many images from the abandoned dog track north of Phoenix near Black Canyon City. I made the trek up there with my good AZ photog buddies Rick Young and Scott Wood. The place hasn’t been used as a dog track since 1982 and after that it was a swap meet until closed a few years later. Now it sits there waiting for explorers to venture inside in search of hidden treasures…which for us are photographs.

There was talk that we’d go in the morning, but I pushed for the late afternoon hours, having told Rick that the seats and windows face West/Southwest, so the light coming in will be amazing while we’re there and maybe we’ll get a sunset out of it. Of course, I’d never been there really, only saw it from the road once. This was Rick’s second time.

Well, he doubted me, saying the mountains were too close for a good sunset, but we decided to get out there around 3pm anyways and spent a couple of hours wandering the place until the sun finally did set and gave us one of the most magnificent shows in awhile. Rick called out to me from across the bleachers area, “See Mike, told you the sunset would suck.

But even if the show was good, there was nothing like sitting in those old chairs, in eerie quiet, watching this amazing sunset framed by huge windows which themselves were framed with whatever remaining glass they had left. I can’t even describe the feeling…part of me wanted to just sit there and watch, and the other (more commanding) part scrambled around to find the perfect way to compose the shot.

I’m thrilled and excited to bring you more images from that trip…it was an amazing place of course, but also the very first true indoor urban exploration for me and I relished every moment.

Holey Windows: Before and After

Yet another awesome external wall to an abandoned or barely used building in downtown Phoenix. Loved the sort of monotone colors on this wall, something I don’t always look for. I tend to like scenes like the Blue Door I posted a few days ago where there is some color that pops out at you. But this just had a very post-apocalyptic feel to it…almost a Matrix-like color to the thing.

I used PhotoTools on this image as I have been doing a lot lately, and I have to say, I absolutely love the amazing flexibility and range that the software package has. And I’m not blowing smoke. There is so much versatility in how you want to present your image…so many tools that allow for a serious amount of creativity.

I’ve never really done a “Before and After” before and in some ways I almost hesitate to do it…but I’m also kind of excited. I mean, you don’t necessarily want everyone knowing the full extent of how you process an image, but on the other hand, it’s so much fun to show people what you do and perhaps even help them learn how to do it themselves. There are some friends of mine out there that are incredibly humble and sacrificial in the way they help other photographers, the way they freely give away their secrets and tricks…and I have to believe that’s the right way to be.

So the above image was composed of six bracketed photos, the one below being the “Zero (0)” bracket.  Depending on the brightness of scenes, I tend to go from -3 to +2 most of the time, or if I want more, I’ll just go up to +3. Occasionally I do the whole -4 to +4, but since I’m still without a Promote Tool, I tend to stick to six brackets right now. I find they give me what I want, but I’m sure someday shooting nine or more will be something I want to give a shot.

Plus when I shoot weather and fast moving clouds…six is about all I can do without a ton of movement. Someday I’ll pick up the Promote Tool, but it’s pricey for me right now.

So this is the RAW zero bracket right out of the camera:

The image below is the intermediate, tonemapped image right out of Photomatix. What I’ve been trying very hard to do lately is to keep my tonemapping simple. I only want to make sure I see the entire dynamic range of the image. I used to overprocess and over-tonemap in Photomatix, which led to a lot of noisy images and stuff that I’m just not as fond of anymore.

Now I stick to doing the processing in Photoshop and instead use Photomatix to give me a starting point. It’s amazing how much I’ve seen my noise go down in my images because of changing this up. Even late evening sunset photos with just six brackets yield hardly any noise at all.

So you can see the tonemapped image above kind of looks like the middle ground between my original raw and the final product.

Now here is the part where I can’t remember what I did in Phototools to polish off the image. I didn’t do much, just a few filters…more than likely one of the new HDR presets in their latest package. I did apply my own vignette to the image to give it some darker edging and more internal focus.

That’s it…the behind the scenes look at how I process an image, or at least, the major steps I go through. I plan on doing a little video tutorial soon on what I do and I also have some plans to do HDR Workshops in downtown Phoenix this coming new year. If you are interested learning this amazing way of processing photographs, let me know.

Oh, and if you like what you see with Phototools, you can learn more by visiting there website. I have my own coupon code now and if you use “OLBINSKI” when you check-out, you’ll get 15% off.

If you have any questions or comments on anything I talked about, please don’t hesitate!

Drink at the Duce

This is another shot from The Duce, a hidden gem in downtown Phoenix that we discovered a few weeks ago. The inside is crazy…there is a boxing ring, restaurant, vintage shop, bar, bleachers for Suns games and more. While the inside probably demands some HDR attention from me down the road, on this night I was focused mainly on grungy walls and alleyways, and the west side of the building was calling my name.

I absolutely love the sign on this wall, right down to the font and layout of the name of the building. The way the light from behind the metal cutout shows you not only the name, but some of the brick details behind it is awesome. That light also helped illuminate the area below it and highlight a few other things. There is just so much about this wall I loved…the textures in the bricks and doorway, the sidewalk, the vertical “drink” and the specks of light coming through the square windows on either side (which you can see better if you view the larger version).

I definitely would like to head back inside the place at some point to snatch some shots of the awesomely quirky interior.  The boxing ring is kind of stuck in my head and I know I must capture it someday.

Please Kee Door Close

(Rebel XSi, Tamron 17-35mm, 17mm, ISO100, F8, six exposure HDR)

No, the title isn’t a typo.

I’ve been teetering on the edge of buying the onOne Software Perfect Photo Suite for awhile now. My good buddy Brian Matiash just went to work for that company and I discovered yesterday that he named a couple of the Photo Tools presets after some photographer friends he has, including yours truly.

As most good friendships between buddies go, insults are the way we communicate. So of course instead of naming the preset “AZ Bad Ass” he decided to go with the more humiliating, “Graddad Mike O’s Secret Sauce.” This stems from an inside joke where apparently I’m much older than some of these guys, use a cane to get around and my death is imminent. The preset may or may not contain Metamucil.

Either way, I cried a little at first, but then I got over it and downloaded the Photo Suite. I mean, what else was I going to do?

So the image above was made using my Secret Sauce. It’s a simple wall in downtown Phoenix just a bit west of Coach & Willy’s. I liked the amazing textures and various colors of the wall, but thought the sign was kind of funny considering the door probably hasn’t been opened in a decade.

I’m having a serious  blast exploring downtown. The wife, daughter and myself drove around again tonight looking for awesomeness and I shot some brackets. I really want to spend a few hours down there in the near future to really take my time finding hidden gems. But when you are busy with work all the time, it’s nice to bring the family along for a short little drive around the desolate, abandoned areas of town right?

Perfect Photo Suite is pretty awesome and I’m slowly getting the hang of it. One thing brilliant about onOne themselves as a company is the way they go about helping you learn how to use their software, with webinars, video tutorials, etc. Brian even did a little webex for me to show me quickly how it worked with Photoshop, because I really want to be able to use it for processing portraits as well. Amazing customer service at onOne. That’s how you earn loyalty and good word of mouth.

There is a smashing deal going on right now for the thing…check it out (offer expires on the 8th).

Can’t wait to show off a few more images next week…and hopefully get out there to shoot some more.

In Bruges

Something a little bit different for Movie Title Wednesday this week…you don’t get one image, you get a BUNCH of images! Yay!

My portrait photography business has been ramping up here in the last few weeks so my time out shooting brackets has dwindled. Not to mention putting that photobook together has really sucked down my time. So now appears to be the right time to bust out these shots from Bruges, Belgium that I took this past July.

And what better movie title than In Bruges could you possibly use for this? I dare anyone out there to find one! If you haven’t seen the movie, you should rent it…of course, be prepared for a dark comedy with foul language, violence and midgets. This is one of my most favorite films of all time.

When I was there in Bruges back in July, I immediately knew that the big square in the middle of town with the giant church was the same from the film, and it was kind of awesome to stand in the same place that they filmed part of the movie. Maybe because I never thought I’d go to Bruges and suddenly I was standing there.

The thing about Bruges is that you honestly can’t take a bad picture. I could have shot for weeks and probably not gotten all the subtle nuances of this medieval city. Most of the images you see above were all shot with my 50mm 1.4 and I couldn’t love them more. I had been using the 17-35 for most of my time there and decided that for the last few hours, I’d switch to the 50mm and see the city in a new way. It’s amazing how much different everything looked to me through that lens.

The photos above are mostly of “the city”, but I have another slideshow planned for another day of “the people”…random shots of life in Bruges. If I could open up a thriving portraiture photography business anywhere in the world, it would probably be there. In Phoenix, you look for cool locations to do photoshoots…in Bruges, the ENTIRE town is a location. You could shoot people anywhere and it would look amazing.

I hope you enjoy these few photos. We actually printed off at least 5-8 of these from the slideshow and put some of them up in the house.  I know a few of these grouped together would make for some great wall art in YOUR house too *grin*