Christmas Sunset Surprise


Grace means more than gifts. In grace something is transcended, once and for all overcome. Grace happens in spite of something; it happens in spite of separateness and alienation. Grace means that life is once again united with life, self is reconciled with self. Grace means accepting the abandoned one. Grace transforms fate into a meaningful vocation. It transforms guilt to trust and courage. The word grace has something triumphant in it.  – Yrjo Kallinen

(This is my first post using my new writing style. I call it “grammar and punctuation don’t matter”. It is part of my plan to post more frequently by spending less time on each individual post. As I write this, it does not sound like a good idea to sacrifice quality for volume. However, not to be inconvenienced by logic, I am going to try it.)

On Christmas day, the sky was heavily overcast. There had been rain the night before.  I expected that there would be no visible sunset. However I also knew that some of the most spectacular sunsets occur as the sky is clearing after bad weather. An hour before sunset, the sky was clearing a little on the other side of the mountain range, about 10 miles away toward the west. Not expecting to find anything worth photographing, I went to a spot with a panoramic view of the sky and mountain range. The sun then set uneventfully (no color), hidden behind clouds.  However, five minutes after the actual setting of the sun, the overcast condition quickly broke up, and the sky became bright gold in front of me plus overhead, to the sides and behind me. Then the sky turned pink briefly and faded away. Wow! I could not capture the entire amount of sky involved. To include as much sky as possible, I took several series of images for panoramic composites.

My willingness to take the camera to what I expected to be a “no show” sunset, led to experiencing one of the top ten sunsets of my life. This caused me to think about other aspects of successful sunset photography.

  • Go often: The majority of sunsets will not be impressive.  However, if you are not there, you cannot get images of the great sunsets when they do occur. (I am still unable to predict whether a sunset will be exceptional).
  • Arrive early: Sun rays coming through clouds (traditionally called “God rays” by photographers) can be most prominent up to an hour before the sun actually sets. Plus, arriving early will allow you to scout out good locations and foreground subjects.
  • Stay late: The best color (pink and red) often occur 20 to 25 minutes after the sun sets.
  • Bring a tripod: Exposures of the last pink or red can be several seconds in duration.
  • The most dramatic sunsets occur when the weather is changing, particularly when bad weather is moving out.
  • Unless a sunset is spectacular, include a foreground object. The easiest way to do this is with the foreground object is as a silhouette. If a silhouette is not used, correct exposure for both this object and the sky simultaneously requires either a neutral density filter or bracketed exposures used for high dynamic range (HDR) processing. (HDR processing is the technique that I personally like. It is surprisingly easy. First bracket your exposure for 3 frames in increments of 1 to 2 stops. Then process them with software such as Photomatix from which offers a free trial of their software. This is a good starting point for shooting HDR, although this technique, to be mastered, is very complex.)

Image processing:

  • I processed the original RAW  format images in Photoshop Elements raw converter.
  • Brightness, vibrance and clarity were added.
  • Noise, both luminance and color, were reduced.
  • A tiny bit of sharpening was added.

Here is the result on a single frame.


Although improved via raw converter processing, the images (like the single frame above), the color is a little dull and the lighting a little flat. Therefore, after generating a panorama using Photoshop Elements panorama tool, I used Nik ColorEfx Pro4 (once again, to the rescue). I used a little Pro Constrast and a little Color Range Contrast with good results.

Finally, I sharpened via Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 (which I love). The final composite is the image at the top of this post. It is made from 7 images taken from side to side with the camera in a vertical orientation and a one third overlap between frames.

I welcome comments, criticism and suggestions for future blog topics.


I am available at my photo enhancement website ( to assist clients with transforming their common nature photos into uncommon works of art that they are proud to give as gifts or to hang on their own wall for inspiration.

J. Michael Harroun ©2013


Flower Fireworks – Happy New Year!


Most people can look back over the years and identify a time and place at which their lives changed significantly. Whether by accident or design, these are the moments when, because of a readiness within us and collaboration with events occurring around us, we are forced to seriously reappraise ourselves and the conditions under which we live and to make certain choices that will affect the rest of our lives.   – Frederick F. Flack

Thank you all who have visited my blog this past year. Especially, I wish to thank those people who are following this blog and who have provided comments on my posts. I wish for you all, health and happiness. Happy New Year! I have found inspiration in the posts of many of you. 

I cannot remember the last year that I made resolutions. This year, for whatever reason, I have decided that resolutions are appropriate.

Here are my (daily) resolutions:

Learn five things that are totally new to me:

  • a fact or piece of information (ie the pygmy right whale belongs to a species that was thought to have been extinct for millions of years. Not very practical info, but I enjoy being amazed. Science has not even figured out all the data about the animals that are here.)
  • a picture of something that I have never before seen, or at least that I have never seen depicted in that style (Yesterday’s find was Guy Tal’s marvelous landscapes that he has processed as paintings (
  • listen to a song that I have not heard before (thank you Pandora)
  • do something that extends an ability that I already have (like learning a new technique of photo processing)
  • do something in a way that is not my usual way (such as… I don’t know. This category is going to take some effort)

Give an unexpected gift to someone

Show, through my actions, that I love someone.

Become conscious of at least 20 things for which I am thankful.

Recommit, through actions, to my values and priorities.

Post more often on my blog, not worrying about proper grammar or punctuation.

The photo at the top of this page is a large chrysanthemum, each bloom of which is at least 4-6 inches in diameter. Usually close up photographs have a shallow depth of focus, that is, only a portion of the subject is in focus. This photo is almost entirely in sharp focus, because of using a technique called focus stacking. Multiple images are captured that are exactly the same except for the area in sharp focus. In this case, 41 separate photos were taken, beginning at the closest point of the flowers to the lens and working toward the back of the flowers with the focal plane of each photo being 2 mm deeper than the last. Then all the images were processed with Helicon Focus software (from, which does an unbelievable job. (I highly recommend it both for close up/macro work, and for landscapes.) If you are interested in more information on focus stacking, please check out my first two posts of this blog.

Again, I wish you all a Happy New Year!

I welcome comments and criticisms (mostly comments).

My website for photo enhancing, processing and saving seemingly useless images is

J. Michael Harroun©2013

La Jolla Sunset and a Lesson Learned (Again!!) `

“One has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.”  Bessie Stanley

Recently I have been photographing primarily skies, particularly sunsets. They wake me up and give me inspiration. I have some wonderful images, but have been not posted any because I was too busy to write my usual “article” for a post. Therefore I have posted nothing recently. During this time I have been increasingly reminded that it is better to “something” well rather than to do “nothing” perfectly. In other words, the Best can be the enemy of the Good. After all, it is only I who knows what my initial intentions were, and that I did not complete them. This is a lesson that I am continually “learning” again and again. Now I will remember to put it into practice (for a while).

The sunset above is in La Jolla, California earlier this month. It is a panoramic composite of 5 vertical images (done in Photoshop Elements) and processed in Nik Photo Efex4. I love both programs and recommend them. (For the person just starting out with photo enhancement processing, I recommend buying a older version of Photoshop Elements, such as version 8 (the newest is version 11). It has impressive capabilities, but a low purchase price on eBay. No good manual comes with the program. I strongly recommend also getting “The Photoshop Elements 8 Book for Digital Photographers”.

So at this point I click “Publish”. Ahhh…  I feel much better.

I welcome your comments.

I am available at where I help to transform clients nature photos into works of art that they are proud to give as gifts or to hang on their own wall for inspiration.

Digital Photography: the ISO setting

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”  -M. Scott Peck


The level of difficulty for this discussion of ISO settings: beginners

Understanding ISO is surprisingly easy.

  • Sensor sensitivity to light: ISO is a carryover from the days of film photography. It referred to the amount of sensitivity to light of a particular type of film. Similarly in digital photography, ISO indicates the degree of sensitivity to light of the camera’s light sensor. This sensitivity is adjustable. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive is the sensor to light. This greater sensitivity of the sensor allows the use of a faster the shutter speed and/or smaller aperture diameter than would be needed if the ISO (and sensitivity to light) were lower. A faster shutter speed is usually an advantage because it increases the probability that the image will be sharp.
  • Electronic noise: The disadvantage of high ISO however, is that more sensitive pixels are more likely to be activated by electron movement within the sensor itself, rather than by the light. This accidental firing of pixels produces red and green pixel-sized dots (color noise) and mottling in areas of uniform lighting such as blue sky (luminance noise). In addition to ISO, the amount of noise within an image depends upon the sensor type and quality.Color noise (also called chrominance noise and chromatic aberration) shows up most readily in the darker areas of your photo when viewed at a magnification of 150% or higher (200% makes this easier for me). Luminance noise (also called contrast noise) areas of uniform color and lighting, such as blue sky, when viewed at a magnification of 150% or higher (again, 200% is easiest for me).
  • Which ISO is best? To minimize the amount of electronic noise in your images, use the lowest ISO setting that allows you a shutter speed fast enough to achieve the effect that you want for that image. Usually, the preferable effect is sharpness. For instance, to “freeze” the motion of a person walking, a shutter speed of at least 1/125 sec is needed. To stop the motion of a person running, a minimum shutter speed of 1/250 sec is needed. In order to have sharp images of sporting activities often requires a shutter speed of at least 1/500 sec. If the light on the scene is low, shutter speeds this fast will not be possible with a low ISO setting, even when using a large diameter aperture.  When in this situation, increase the ISO only as much as is needed to achieve your desired shutter speed.   This increased noise level just needs to be tolerated or, better yet, removed with editing software. A high ISO is also necessary in very low light situations such as night photography, especially night sky photography of the stars.
  • When slow shutter speed is needed, a low ISO is helpful: Sometimes a blur is the photographer’s desired effect. The most common example is flowing water or waves that one wants to appear smooth or hazy. In this case a long shutter speed is needed, typically 2 to 15 seconds. Using the lowest ISO setting (and a small diameter aperture like f/16 or f/22) will help to get shutter speeds that last this long without overexposing your image. Another example of a specific need for a low ISO setting is when the desired effect is a blurring of a person walking or of moving automobiles, in order to convey the feeling of speed.
  • For those people who do not want to mess with ISO settings, use your camera’s program option for landscape, portrait, close up, action/sports and night photography. Your camera will then automatically provide you with the ISO setting which is usually the best.

Condensed version for those in a hurry:

  • The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera’s sensor is to light.
  • The higher the sensor’s sensitivity to light, the more electronic “noise” the image contains.
  • To minimize the amount of noise, use the lowest ISO number that allows a fast enough shutter speed to achieve the effect that you want (usually sharpness).
  • Cameras with program options such as landscape, portrait, close up, action/sports and night photography, will automatically provide you with the ISO setting which is usually the best for that purpose.
  • Electronic noise can be removed with editing software. However bold noise removal creates loss of sharpness or decreased saturation of color.

When noise in an image usually does not matter: When your photo is going to be displayed on the web or you will make prints no larger than 4 inches by 6 inches, noise will usually not be apparent unless the noise level is very high. (But you never know when you will shoot a remarkable image that you wish to enlarge and print. A high noise level will require special processing for removal).

Noise removal

  • Every digital image contains noise regardless of the ISO or quality of the camera.
  • Noise removal is the first step of image processing by professionals.
  • High ISO creates much more noise than usual, making its reduction even more important. Noise removal is accomplished with editing software (luminance noise reduction and color noise reduction) such as the software that came with your camera, Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom and many other editing programs. (The best, and easiest to use noise reduction software that I know of is Nik software’s Dfine program). However large amounts of noise reduction produce slightly blurred images from luminance noise reduction and/or unsaturated (faded) color from color noise reduction. A slightly blurry image can sometimes be saved by applying extra sharpening with your editing software. Desaturated color can be easily fixed by adding a little saturation with editing software.

I welcome comments, criticisms and questions about specific photography issues that you may be experiencing.

I am available at where I help people have their images transformed into impressive works of art that they are proud to either hang on their own wall or give as a gift.

J. Michael Harroun©2012

Digital Photography: Processing Is Not Cheating

“The important thing is this: to be ready at any moment to sacrifice what you are for what you could become.”   – Charles Dickens

Level of difficulty: beginners

Is image processing cheating? No.

  • Digital images are the result of processing the data generated from millions of red, blue and green pixels in the light sensor. Processing is actually a necessity in order for a digital photo to look realistic. Of course, processing can also be use to create an emotional response in the viewer such as ephemeral, moody, dramatic or old fashioned.
  • Over-processing produces a garish and unnatural appearance causing the viewer to ask “Is that what it really looked like?
  • Correct processing causes the viewer to say “Wow”.
  • Over 99% of all professional’s digital images are processed.

What is image processing?

  • the adjustment/manipulation of the data generated by the digital sensor when it is exposed to light. Some frequently adjusted properites of an image are contrast, color hue, saturation, brightness of highlights, darkness of shadows, white balance, sharpness, etc).
  • Processing is done in-camera immediately after the photo is taken to create jpg images.
  • If you do not direct the adjustments, you will have to accept a lot of guess work by your camera and its image editing software.

There are three main categories of image processing: in camera, raw converter and “post processing”. I will primarily address in-camera and raw converter processing today. Post-processing with full editing software, such as Photoshop will be covered in a future post.

In camera processing:  Within all digital cameras, there is a tiny computer processor. Unless a camera is set to record a “camera raw” file format, this processor modifies/adjusts the data generated by the digital sensor immediately after a photo is taken. If you are recording images in the jpg file format (image file name ends in .jpg), then you are using processed images. Your images are being processed within your camera. This processing is required to create a jpg file format image. If you do not adjust the camera’s default settings for creating a jpg image, then your camera has to make a lot of guesses about the lighting conditions present and about how you want your image to look. If you like the appearance of all your jpg photos already, then there is no reason to make any change. However, if some of your images look dull, flat or washed-out, then you will benefit from learning how to control at least some of your camera’s processing. It’s not as difficult as it sounds.  In fact the first stage is very easy.

How do I begin processing without being overwhelmed? Do just a little at a time. If possible, take at least 20 minutes every day or two to learn something new about the editing programs that you have (an editing program comes with every digital camera). Then take at least 10 minutes to experiment with one of your images with the information that you learned.

How to begin controlling the in-camera processing?

1) For in-camera processing of jpg images, begin using you camera’s program modes for landscape, portrait, night scenes, etc (Different manufacturers give these different names, but common names are picture styles or creative program modes). They are usually accessed either via a button on the back of the camera or with a wheel that has tiny pictures on it). These will allow you to use presets that your camera came with, so that you do not need to make all the changes by yourself initially.

  • “Standard” (auto) programs are for general use. They usually increase contrast mildly and color vividness (saturation) and sharpness moderately.
  • The landscape setting (usually with a picture of a mountain) will make blues (sky) and greens (grass and tree leaves) more vivid (more saturated), strongly increase sharpness for greater detail and use a small aperture width for maximal depth of focus.
  • Portrait mode will adjust color for better skin tones, add  little or no sharpness (for smooth skin) and use a medium width aperture so that the background is blurred (helping to keep one’s attention on the person).
  • Close up mode (usually with a picture of a flower) increases color saturation, increases sharpness and uses a wide aperture for fast shutter speed and blurring of foreground and background.
  • Other specific program modes or picture styles, such as night scenes or action/sports, make their own distinctive adjustments. Letting your camera know what type of picture you are taking, will help it to produce a more pleasing image.

2)  The reason to take greater control over the in-camera processing is to decrease the amount of guess work that your camera has to do about the style, composition and lighting of the image that you took. Also your camera will not have to guess about your personal preferences for your images (For instance, I like more contrast, saturation and sharpness than average). The goal is to create more realistic or evocative images, although it will allow you to have unusual or weird effects if you choose. Generally we want images that appear realistic to the viewer.

  • White balance: First, I recommend that you learn to set the white balance. I covered this in detail in my last post entitled “Photography: White Balance Essentials”. If you are not familiar with white balance, please check it out.
  • Contrast, saturation and sharpness: Find your camera’s settings for these image characteristics.  Usually they will be in the recording menu or the menu for “functions” or custom picture styles. (Often there is a button on the back of the camera that gets you quickly to these settings.  (Check your camera’s instruction manual).There, you can individually adjust contrast, color saturation, sharpness, color tone and perhaps some additional properties (depending upon your particular camera).  Begin by adjusting just one of these characteristics at a time. (The changes that you will make now will not affect your camera’s settings for the preset picture styles and creative program modes (landscape, portrait, close up, etc that I mentioned with in-camera processing-part 1, above).
  • Setting contrast: Low contrast gives a smooth, delicate, dreamy or flat appearance. High contrast increases depth of field, detail and texture. It also can give a more dramatic appearance to images. Take pictures of the same thing with different settings for contrast. Start with the lowest amount of contrast offered and work up to the maximal setting. Compare the images to see which you like best.  Make a note of it. (The very highest and lowest settings are likely to make it look weird, but sometimes you may want to make your images weird). You probably will like a different amount of contrast for landscapes than for portraits, than for night scenes, etc. You can add that information later. It’s a very good idea to keep a record or journal of the settings that you like. (In the past, whenever I have not written it down immediately, I have forgotten the result and have to do it all again.)
  • Saturation (vividness of colors):  Low saturation tends to give calm, delicate of dreamy feel to the images. Moderate saturation gives vivid colors and a dramatic feeling. High saturation tends to look garish and definitely unnatural. Take a photo of something at each of the settings offered by your camera from the lowest to highest option. Again compare the pictures to see which settings you like best for this particular type of photo and write it down. You can do this with other types of photos later to see whether you like different t settings for them.
  • Sharpening: Generally, low sharpening gives a smooth look to skin in portraits, less apparent texture and depth of field and helps with a calm or delicate feel. High amounts of sharpening bring out texture and depth of field. It is often used for landscapes or images with lots of detail (like leaves of a tree). But high levels of sharpening will ruin most images, so be judicious. High levels of sharpening create lots of artifacts (tiny circles called halos at the edges of things). Halo artifacts give a very unnatural appearance and cannot be removed once a jpg image is recorded. A very common error is to apply too much sharpening.

Images recorded in a jpg file format loose data each time they are opened. However images with a tiff file format are stable and do not loose information. It’s best to convert your jpg images to tiff images as soon as they are into your computer. (If you click on the “File” menu  and click “Save as”, you can change the file format to end with the letters .tiff. )

Raw converter processing is primarily for images recorded with a “camera raw” file format (CR2 for Canon, NEF for Nikon and other manufacturers have their own initials for this type of file). “Raw files” contain only the unprocessed data collected from the sensor when it was exposed to light (It is no more complicated than that). The advantage of using raw files are that they are durable. They do not loose information with repeated opening. Any editing changes applied to a raw file can be erased or replaced at any time. The adjustments do not alter the original image file. In this way, raw files are analogous to negatives in the film days of old.

  • All cameras that offer the option of a raw file format come with the software to edit those images (technically called a raw converter). Other programs, such as Photoshop and Photoshop Elements also contain raw converters.
  • Keeping with my recommendation that processing be learned a little at a time, start with adjusting two image characteristics: white balance and sharpness.
  • White balance: Even if you set the white balance prior to taking your photo, the color may not look just right to you when it is opened in the raw converter software. (It’s easiest to fix color if something in your photo is , or at least is supposed to be,  pure white. Find the drop down menu for white balance (usually toward the top of the screen or toolbar) and click on each option successively (sunny, shade, cloudy, etc) to see which gives the correct color. If none of these options gives a good resut, look for the eyedropper (white balance) tool and click on something that is supposed to be white. You may need to click on a couple of different places on the white object to get the best result. If nothing in your image is white, most programs allow you to click on something that is supposed to be neutral gray to determine white balance (It does not have to actually be neutral gray, just something that is supoosed to look newtral gray.
  • Sharpening: All raw images, require some sharpening to look good. This type of sharpening is safe for your image. For good results, try just a small amount of sharpening. If your program offers you a sharpening scale from neg 4 to +4, try +1 or +2. Check your image on the screen at 100% magnification to see if you like the result. If using Photoshop Elements raw converter, get to sharpening by clicking on the little tab with the triangle on it (just above white balance adjustmejnt). Then try amount 25 to 40, radius 1 and detail 25 (for images with lots of detail, like landscapes, movethe  detail slider up to 50). You do not need to do all the sharpening now. More sharpening is usually added later, after further  editing with a full feature program such as Photoshop, Photoshop Elements or Lightroom.  That type of sharpening is destructive and needs to be done as the very last step of processing.
  • Gradually add additional settings after becoming comfortable with these two settings. Adding a little at a time, but frequently is the a great way to learn processing.

Post-processing with full edit software will be covered in a future post.

Comments, suggestions (and criticisms) are welcome.

I am available at where I help people transform their nature images into impressive works of art that they are proud to give as a gift or to hang on their own wall for inspiration. I offer photo retouching, complex processing and enhancements, enlargements, prints (up to 12in x 18in) and framing.

2012©J. Michael Harroun


Expanded Depth of Field Photography: Introduction

“The fact that I can plant a seed and it becomes a flower, share a bit of knowledge and it becomes another’s, smile at someone and receive a smile in return, are to me continual spiritual exercises.” -Leo Buscaglia

The technique of expanded depth of field, also called focus stacking, produces objects and scenes  that are totally in focus from front to back. Generally in photography, single images of close objects render only a portion of the subject in focus. Sometimes this is exactly what is needed. It draws a person’s attention to that limited area. At other times, this limited depth of field of a single image is distracting and  limits the amount of visual information available, compared to what is actually seen by a person at that time.

Our eyes scan objects and scenes, focusing very quickly on many different areas. This gives us a perception that everything is in focus simultaneously. The technique of expanded depth of field also produces an image with the object or scene totally in focus. For this reason, the resultant composite image appears more realistic than any single image can. This also allows people to connect more fully with the subjects, to feel an emotional connection. In this way, the expanded depth of field technique can become a valuable element of photographic art. Effective photography obviously requires more than just technique. However, this  is an aspect of digital photography that is superior to film, in fact , impossible with film.

This is the first of a series  of blog post on this expanded depth of field photography, also called focus image stacking or simply image stacking. This is a technique with which multiple, nearly identical, images are taken of the same subject. The only variable between frames is the depth of field/focus. Importantly, the depth of field must overlap between images for successful results. Then via software, the sharply focused areas of each frame are incorporated into a composite image which is entirely in focus.

Although initially intimidating, this technique can be enjoyed by anyone with the proper equipment and the willingness to take their images with great care.

I plan a series of blogs regarding this technique. My target audience is amateur and professional photographers who are just beginning to use this technique or who have had difficulty getting consistently good results.

I am not an expert; however I have had good success producing dramatic images with this technique. On a typical day I shoot 2-4 sets of images of close up or macro subjects, usually with 35 – 45 images per set. Most of my work, and knowledge about this is close up subjects, although I do some macro work.  To be exact, macro technique requires that the image on the sensor or film be at least as large as the subject itself. For example, a 1/2 inch bee would need to make an image on the sensor or film of at least ½ inch in length. If its image is smaller on the sensor, it is technically a close up image, rather than a true macro image. However, for the subjects that I will be covering, the techniques are essentially the same.

My next post will be an overview/outline of this technique. It will be a “Table of Contents” for my remaining posts in this series. Hopefully I can help other people to get more satisfying results and improve my own technique simultaneously. I invite comments & suggestions.

If you would like assistance with the processing of your images, please check out my website for processing, retouching, enlargements, prints and framing at