20 Photos from The Last 6 Months

Just like that, six months of this year has gone by. In terms of photography, it has been pure joy. I pursued new genres of photography which demanded a lot more time, patience and planning. Over the past couple of years, I have been shooting only landscape and outdoor photography exclusively. This year I deviated from the usual ultra-wide-angle-on-a-full-frame style to do a few new things (some of which involved an ultra-wide-angle-on-a-full-frame 😀 )

Here is a look at how 2018 has been so far and some of the places I visited.

January

As winters in Bangalore get warmer every year, we go further away from the city to find the old charm of foggy mornings. I shot this aerial image in a lake near Dodballapur:

Gundamgere near Bangalore

In the same month, Pradyu and I went to Ramnagara looking for the traditional practice of making livestock jump over fire, but we ended up shooting this beautiful scene of a temple lit by a 100 (or so) lamps:

Later that month, some friends and I went to Badami on a recee trip to design a unique photography tour. We found excellent opportunities and here is one shot of star trails above the rocky hillocks of Badami:

Badami astro photography

The drive to Badami also took us through some scenic routes like this one:

And how can a trip to Badami be complete without capturing the way locals live amidst the splendid ruins of the Chalukya empire:

Locals near the Bhoothanatha temple

If you thought I was done with road trips in January, you are wrong. Friends and I went down South to see the beautiful big temple at Tanjore and visit nearby places:

Bharathanatyam near the Chola temples

And here is an aerial view of paddy fields from the country side:

Paddy Fields in Tamil Nadu

February

The astro photography workshop that I mentored happened in the second month of 2018. We had a full house and the participants enjoyed capturing the night sky. Watch the video I made after the tour:

Later that month, I did a solo trip to look for the Milky Way. In the wee hours of the morning, I looked up at the sky after driving 70km and was rewarded with this beautiful sight:

Milky Way near Bangalore

In February, we earthlings got a chance to witness a rare celestial event – the blood red super moon. We traveled to a location near Tumkur hoping to get clear skies and a chance to witness this spectacle. It was a bit of a disappointment though, as the moon rose early in the evening. I shot this star trail after the moon rose:

Star trail near Bangalore

And here is a day-old super moon photographed with a Canon 500mm:

March

While I was enjoying my newfound love for astro-photography, I soon realised that my Sony A7rII wasn’t the best camera for this job. I borrowed a friend’s 6D to try it out. While it has an outdated sensor for 2018, it performed quite decently for landscape photography.

Mydala lake

Using the 6D took me back to my Canon days. I knew I had to get back to using a DSLR, so I tried the Canon 5D Mark IV when a bunch of astronomers and astrophotographers went to a farmhouse near Kanakpura to shoot the Milky Way.

Astrophotography at Chiguru farm

By now, I was shooting a lot of time-lapses.  I purchased a Syrp Genie and Genie mini and was shooting panning and linear time lapses with a slider. Watch a YouTube video of this outing here.

April

I decided to travel to the Gharwal region of the Himalayas to shoot nightscapes under clear skies. In the high altitude of Nag Tibba, 4 hours from Mussourie, I got a chance to see the Milky Way in all its glory. The only problem is that the Milky Way rises very late in the night in the early part of the year. Staying up way past midnight, I captured this:

Nat Tibbe night sky in the Himalayas

I traveled with my Sony A7rII and a borrowed Canon 5D Mark II. Unfortunately the Canon 5D Mark II was too old for astro photography while my A7RII wasn’t suitable for time-lapses. So once I came back to Bangalore I purchased a Canon 5D Mark IV.

May

I did a few small trips to test out the 5D Mark IV. The performance far exceeded my expectations. I realised how overrated YouTube videos of people reviewing cameras are! Everyone in the internet loves to trash Canon and praise Sony. The truth is that the Canon 5D Mark IV is a fine camera and much more user friendly than the Sony.

I was back to shooting macros too.

A friend of mine even shot a feature film with my Canon 5D Mark IV. His camera man was given a choice of using my A7rII and the 5D Mark IV (with C log) and he chose the Canon. The industry is pretty much still with Canon.

I visited Padubidri to watch his shoot when I captured this crab on the beach with a Laowa 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D.

June

Monsoon season brought interesting cloud formations in the sky. On two visits to Mysore and places nearby, this added the necessary drama to my photographs. Here is an aerial photo of a farm near T Narasipura:

By June, I was using the 5D Mark IV almost exclusively. I even created a corporate video with it. Reality check: 4K video is not the yardstick to measure everything!

The 30mb files from the 5D Mark IV is a perfect combo of quality vs resolution. I always had a tough time batch processing 45mb files from my Sony A7rII. The 5D Mark IV is a lot more versatile. Here are some timelapses that I shot with it:

Lightroom Workshops – Six Years and Counting

I conducted a one-day workshop on Lightroom/Post-Processing in Bangalore on May 5th. As I was looking at the course material, I realized that it was my sixth year of mentoring photographers in Lightroom. Our initial few workshops included both Lightroom and Photoshop, and spanned across two days. We converted it to a one day Lightroom-only workshop because Photoshop is not something that you can cover in a weekend.

In these years, Adobe has made quite a few significant changes to the software to simplify it, but the core concepts still remain the same. With Lightroom CC, the app that we once knew has actually become a ‘classic.’ Lightroom Classic CC is what Adobe calls the software that desktop version. Lightroom CC is now for the ‘mobile’ crowd and uses the cloud to store images.

In this class, we had 9 participants, two of whom were French. We also had many participants who had either traveled with Darter on our tours before, or had attended our other workshops. This is certainly encouraging for us – people come back only when they are happy.

The venue for our workshop was the Honeycomb – Video Production Bangalore, Web Design office in Koramangala. It was great to work in a space dedicated for photographers. In case you weren’t aware, Honeycomb makes archival photo prints on imported media. We had at least 50 prints hanging on the walls of our classroom. Honeycomb also offers services like image retouching and website development. Do check out their website.

Lightroom can be both easy and daunting. A common question that I get asked always is – when do I stop editing? How much of Lightroom should I use to edit an image. This question is challenging one for me, because like the question itself, there is no definite answer. The best thing would be to use a number of examples to show what can be achieved.  As a mentor, I always strive to get the participants to understand the tricky topics like tonal correction first. To do this, I use some of my own photos as examples. As someone who loves landscape photography, I use more of such images for demonstration. However, I also recognize the need to have a variety of sample RAW files.

One collective feedback that I received in this workshop was to split the session into two days. What do you think? Should a Lightroom workshop be for one day or two days? Comment below and let me know.

If you are interested in a future Lightroom workshop, visit http://www.darter.in/ and stay connected through our Facebook page.

Testing the Syrp Genie for a Milky Way Timelapse

I got to test the Syrp Genie, Genie Mini, and my Carbon Fibre slider this week. Using the three, I was able to achieve a timelapse that had linear and panning motion.

I wanted the timelapse to show the transition from night to day. I had been researching on tools that would help me automate the exposure correction required for a timelapse that runs from dark to bright or vice versa. If you are wondering why – the settings for a timelapse when it is dark cannot be used when the light changes and becomes bright (or vice versa). Such a timelapse involving exposure changes is called the ‘Holy Grail’ timelapse. The right term for this kind of exposure change is ‘ramping’. You either ramp the ISO, Shutterspeed, Aperture or all three depending on the situation.

The best method to automate and achieve the holy grail technique is by using an app called qdslrdashboard. Unforunately, it is Android only, so I had to borrow a One Plus One phone to try it out.

So yes, I was able to make the Syrp Genie, Genie Mini and QDslrdashboard to work together. I almost did not get a chance to do the timelapse because of bad weather. Thankfully, the skies cleared up after 1 am and the stars showed up. It was not the darkest of nights and the skies were hazy after the rain.

I set up the genie, mini and the slider first. Once connected together, the Genie and Mini connect to the phone via bluetooth. The camera can connect to the phone via WiFi but I connected it via USB. I set the whole thing up for 4.5 hours. I realized later that this was a mistake. Why? Because:

  • Qdslrdashboard had a setting which determines the longest shutterspeed. It was set to 4 seconds. This prevented the app from increasing the shutter speed correctly once the night turned to day.
  • The slider and panning movement was controlled by the total duration of the timelapse. So by the end of 3.5 hours – when it had turned bright and I realised that the frames were overexposed, the slider had not reached the end of the track. So the end result does not show much of linear movement.
  • The interval between shots was set to 30 seconds. This interval was fine when the expsoure was 25 seconds at night. But as it got brighter and the exposure time decreased, the interval became a little too much. Not that it mattered – I was just getting impatient 🙂

Another challenge I faced for lens fog. I had to clean the front of the lens in between the timelapse which introduced some shake in the time lapse.

It took a bit of an effort to shoot mid-week at a remote location, staying up almost through the night. This is what it takes to learn something by doing. Here is the end result. The Milky Way is faint. But you can see it rise and disappear as the night turned into day. And a bunch of us running around with flashlights 🙂

Not many get to witness the movement of the Milky Way in the sky. Enjoy it here in the timelapse. More stuff to come when I get a chance to go out and shoot.

Dynamic Timelapses with a Syrp Genie

I like shooting timelapses. It compliments my love for landscape photography. Timelapses help me show how dynamic nature can be over a short period of time.

But shooting timelapses of nature is hard work. Adding motion – linear or panning – to a timelapses is not only more hard work, but even heavy on the pocket. I am learning the video side of things – which is what most timelapse equipment is based on – after I purchased the Syrp Genie.

Wait, who?

The Syrp Genie is a device that helps you pan your camera when mounted on a flat surface, or move your camera in a linear direction when mounted on a slider. It uses a rope and pulley system to move in a linear direction.  A slider is a track for the camera to move. The distance that the genie can travel is limited by the length of your slider or length of the rope that you have.

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I just got the Genie and tried out a panning timelapse. I don’t own a slider yet. Looking up sliders online is making me sweat – they are mighty expensive! Plus, sliders are not very portable. And in India, you need to travel long distances or hike for days, to shoot nature in its purest form.

Today, I tried out the Genie to capture a panning timelapse. It is easy to shoot a panning timelapse, because all you need is to mount the Genie on a tripod. The genie connects to the camera via a cable. It controls the panning movement, and triggers the camera as per your settings. Because the Genie is in control, the camera will not fire when the Genie is moving. You will not have blurry photos. This way, you can use the Genie to take timelapses of celestial objects at night. Something that I have been dying to do ever since I got into night scapes. I have tried static time lapses of the stars at night. Now, I want to take it one step further and add a panning or linear motion. For inspiration on the possibilities, check out this tutorial from Syrp.

Here is my first timelapse that I shot with the Syrp Genie, today:

Equipment used:

  • Syrp Genie with Photo Clam Gold ball head
  • Feisol 3441T Tripod
  • Canon 6D
  • Irix 15mm f2.4 lens

And oh! Found some interesting places to shoot the Milky Way today. Looking forward to next week.

A Group for Landscape Photographers

When I started photography, JJ Mehta Photograpy Forum (JJMPF) was a great place to hang out. Along with Bangalore Photography Forum (which is now extinct), JJMPF was where many of us used to post photos for critique.  After almost 10 years of interacting with members there, I finally met a few of them today. The meeting was planned on a Whatsapp group. We visited a beautiful lake off AH 48.  I had previously visited a hillock near the lake on Jan 31st for a super moon/lunar eclipse shoot (video here).

The idea of forming a Whatsapp group for nature and outdoor photographers occurred to me when a post of mine on JJMPF saw queries about locations to shoot around Bangalore. These days here in India, WhatsApp groups are where the action is, albeit mostly the spammy kind. Unfortunately many of the photography groups have too many members with various agendas. I wanted to create a group for only like minded photographers. Having visited numerous lakes and hillocks, I have a fair idea of places for landscape and nature photography within 100km from the city. So after the interactions on JJMPF, I created a WA group and added photographers with the intention of planning and going on shoots together.

Now, unlike regular photowalk groups, were a bunch of people get together and walk the lanes of Bangalore and shoot street photos, nature/landscape/outdoor photography is a different ballgame. For one, it involves heading out for shoots at unearthly hours (I was up by 3 am today). Since we go far away from the city, transport is something each person needs to have figured out. Lastly, it is difficult to shoot photos of nature when in a large group. Outings I have been on have always been in twos, threes or fours at the most.

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Today for the first time, I was part of a larger group. We first did some planning on Whatsapp using Google maps. After checking out the blue hour and golden hour timings, we met up on the highway after the Tumkur Road toll booth. We were 7 of us in two cars, coming from different parts of the city. After chai on the highway and quick introductions, we continued to our location, even overshooting a right turn and missing our intended route. After making a U turn, we were back on track and at our destination by 6 am.

It was a rather quiet and uneventful sunrise. I got to test the 6D which I have in mind as a second body (last week, I tested the 6D Mark II with my Irix 15mm f2.5 lens).  I used the A7rII for shooting a time lapse.

Here are two photos from today.

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Personally, I am quite pleased with the results from the 6D. I even got a chance to fly my Mavic. One of the photographers in the group was shooting with an IR modified camera.

Unfortunately, summer is almost here. The transition from night to day and vice versa will only get increasingly quicker. The skies will mostly be boring. The next three months are not going to be conducive for landscape photography. Our only option would be to shoot the night sky. Places such as the one we visited today are potential spots for future Milky Way shoots. Let’s see if forming a group is going to help in going on more such fruitful trips. Definitely safer to be at remote locations at odd hours when in a larger group!

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First Milky Way Outing of 2018

In a previous post I wrote about how I was excited and awaiting the Milky  Way season. I was proved wrong about the start of the season – the Milky Way is already visible! I was under the impression that the Galactic Core is visible starting March. I checked PhotoPills again, and saw that the Milky Way is already visible from 2.30 am to 5.20am.

As a confirmation, I received a photo of the Milky Way that someone shot last week, in a WhatsApp Group. The Milky Way looked glorious – the Galactic Core was clearly visible. So I was determined to see it myself. But there was only one way to do it. I had to wake up early and drive to somewhere dark and arrive by 5.00 am.

Of the many sacrifices that a photographer makes, sleep is one of them. So yea, I was up by 3 am to drive 75km and arrive at the place I had in mind before 5.00 am.  I must have been in the middle of the sleep cycle when the alarm rang. I just could not open my eyes. But it had to be done.

I left home at 4 am on Saturday and drove on NH 948. Traffic was very light, except for slow moving trucks and an occasional taxi. After an hour of driving my destination was not yet in sight. Would I miss the Milky Way? Should I just stop to check the sky or keep driving without losing precious time? I had another agenda apart from shooting the Milky Way. I had a loaner 6D Mark II that I wanted to test out.

By 5.05 am I reached a spot that I was familiar with. It was just beyond a village and beside a small lake. It was not the prettiest of locations. I stopped my car because I did not want to travel further and hit another village. Most villages these days have LED street lamps which cause light pollution in a horrible shade of green. Dogs and curious (or angry locals) are another problem. This was a state highway and the roads weren’t wide. Trees beside the road meant that I could not stop just about anywhere to do my photography. I needed a clearing. The already beside the lake was best I could find.

I stopped my car, fired up PhotoPills and pointed the Augmented Reality projection at the night sky. The Milky Way was supposed to be very close to the horizon, almost blocked by the tree-line. I was disappointed. But I could see a faint line of star dust with my eyes. Was the app wrong? There was only one way to find out.

I took out my camera and tripod and set up a 20 second exposure. The wait felt long. What I saw on the back of the camera after 20 seconds made me jump in glee. The faint star dust was indeed the Milky Way, and it was quite high up in the sky. PhotoPills was wrong.

I took a few steps back and started shooting again. This time, my car was the subject. Each exposure was 20s long. The air was cold, and in the distance dogs were barking. I would have to sound very convincing if someone were to ask me what I was up to. Only someone totally mad would drive that early in the morning just for a few photos. Luckily, no one came by.

I got my photos. For a better composition, I went down to the lake bed. It was semi-dry, even marshy in some parts. I took a few more shots. It was beyond 5.20 and the Milky Way was still visible. So PhotoPills was wrong about the Milky Way setting time as well. I could have driven further to my preferred spot.

After getting a few shots, I watched the orange glow from the eastern direction slowly engulfing the blue sky. It was beautiful. Birds near the lake began to wake up. A few of them probably felt my presence and made screeching sounds. The number of vehicles started to increase. I couldn’t continue shooting because the headlights were ruining my shots. Nevertheless, I was pleased with whatever I got. My first shots of the Milky Way.

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It was 6 am, and I was a little confused about what to do. Should I just drive back to Bangalore? Or should I head to a nearby tourist spot? I chose to drive ahead. I found more interesting places for future Milky Way shooting. I marked them on Google Maps. Beyond the last village and before the popular tourist spot, there was no vehicular movement. I parked my car and simply enjoyed watching the breaking of dawn. Somethings are only meant to be experienced.

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Here is an interesting fact:

You can only see about 2k light-years into the galaxy due to dust and gas. The core is another 50k or so light-years away. Your looking at a very small percentage of the milky way.

My Experience Shopping and Returning on B&H

B&H PhotoVideo is an online e-commerce websites with a physical presence in New York. They have been in the business of selling photo and video equipment since 1973. Although I live in India, I have been a happy customer of B&H since  2013. Over the years, I have purchased photography gear worth several lakhs from them. I generally request someone traveling to India to carry my orders.

In all these years of shopping purchasing remotely from them, I have never had a problem. My packages have always arrived when they were supposed to. I don’t have that confidence with any Indian e-commerce website yet. But things did not go right with the latest order that I made this month. The mistake was mine – I ordered archival paper of the wrong size. I needed 13×19″ sized paper but I incorrectly ordered 17×22″.

The ease of shopping online is only as good as the ease of returns. B&H has a simple 3o-day return window. They have a 3 step process for returns. I just had to request an RMA for the product that I no longer needed and ship it back to them. They require you to pay for return shipping. I was fine with that because the mistake was mine. But how would I to ship it back? My contact in the US was staying in a hotel and did not have the time to visit a post office. The product was 17×22″ and not easy to carry around. It was certainly going to be a bother to have someone coordinate returns.

Nevertheless, I wrote to B&H and waited for an RMA authorisation. Meanwhile, I started looking up USPS and UPS for mail pick up options. I knew this service existed, but I had never used it before. From Wikipedia, “United States Postal Service is an independent agency of the United States federal government responsible for providing postal service in the United States.” I presumed that they would have the best rates and coverage.

My contact in the US was checking out on a Friday, and I started looking up USPS and UPS on Wednesday morning US time. Here is a brief summary of my experiences:

USPS

  • Easy to sign up. Could provide my Indian address for signing up.
  • Confusing mail pick up options. Their website had a different page for Click-N-Ship® and Schedule a Pickup. I couldn’t tell the difference. My best understanding of it is that you can use Click-N-Ship® to print pre-paid shipping labels and then schedule a pickup.
  • Scheduling a pickup was extremely confusing. The online wizard kept telling me that my address was invalid because I had provided an Indian address while signing up. I tried providing the US hotel address but the error message didn’t go away. Finally I changed my default address to the one in US and deleted my India address to make it work.
  • After spending nearly an hour scratching my head on their website, I arrived at the final screen of the Schedule a Pickup wizard. My options for payment were credit card and PayPal. I first tried PayPal and didn’t succeed because PayPal showed me a message that said USPS only accepted payments from US PayPal accounts. I tried to use my card, but couldn’t give an Indian billing address. I tried with the US address and my bank declined the payment.

By the end of this exercise I was pretty frustrated with USPS. So I checked UPS.

UPS

  • Sign up was easy
  • Pickup terms and conditions were simple. But I could not easily find the rates for pickup.
  • I started the process to schedule a pickup. On the payment screen, I was told to pay an additional $6 for a pickup. On USPS, pickups were free. If I did not want to pay for pickup the only option was to drop off the package at one of the UPS stores. This would not have been possible for the aforementioned reasons.

I closed the browser in exasperation. Just then I received an email from B&H saying my RMA was authorised. The good news was that they had included a prepaid shipping label in their email. If I chose to use the prepaid label, the cost of shipping ($11.08) would be deducted from my refund. The fact that they would provide a prepaid shipping label was not mentioned on their website. If I had known before, I would have not spent time on the USPS and UPS website. 

At least the problem of not being able to pay on USPS was solved. So I went ahead and scheduled a pickup for Thursday US time on the USPS website.

The Catch

My friend left the package at the hotel reception and left for work on her Thursday. USPS was supposed to pick it up from the reception during the day. On Thursday evening US time, I heard from my friend that USPS had not picked up the parcel. I checked the status online and it said pickup was successfully completed.

By then I was clueless what to do. Why did the USPS website say that the pickup was complete? How would I get the parcel across to B&H? My friend was checking out and leaving the next morning. I had just my Friday morning to find a solution and I had to do it by evening my time.

That is when it struck me. My palm and face met each other.

The return label that B&H provided was for FedEx. This was not mentioned either in their mail or their website! In all likelihood, USPS did come for the package, but refused pickup because the prepaid label was for FedEx. At least if the USPS website mentioned that the pickup was refused, I would have understood what was going on.

Yes, it was my carelessness that I did not check the return label to see the shipper. It was also silly on my part to assume that the returns could be done by any carrier in spite of having a prepaid shipping label. Nevertheless, by stating all details clearly, either on the website or mail, B&H could have saved me a lot of problem.

Long story short, my return is on the way to B&H via FedEx. It should reach them on Monday and I should hopefully get my money.

Planning and Executing an Astro Photography Workshop

In February 2018, I led a workshop on astro photography for Darter. Read on to understand how we planned and executed this.

Update: See the highlights of the workshop here.

Sometime towards the end of 2016, my interest in astro photography peaked after a vist to The Goat Village in Uttaranchal. Sightings of the beautiful and clear night sky from the cold environs of the Himalayas incited me to shoot the great skies above. With my interest growing, I did not miss any opportunity to shoot more astro photos in the following year, even traveling to the Great Rann of Kutch specially for this purpose. I penned my learning on how to shoot night scapes – stars, star-trails, moon and night timelapses in this article. In February 2018, I led a workshop on astro photography for Darter. Read on to understand how we planned and executed this.

A small clarification before I proceed – astro photography here refers to photography of celestial objects that you can see at night with your naked eye. I am aware that there are purists who believe that looking/photographing through a telescope solely qualifies as astro photography. No offense to anyone, but I would like to move on from that debate.

It goes without saying that astro photography requires very clear skies. Have you ever looked up at night from any of the big metro cities in India? From my house in Bangalore, I can barely look past a layer of smog. No wonder we are 24th in this list of South Asia’s pollution index. Absence of clouds is also important. So it was imperative that to conduct a workshop on shooting stars and star-trails, we had to find a location outside the city.

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Colorful fields along the highway between Badami and Hubbali

My friend and founder of Darter, Arun,  suggested Badami as a location for the workshop. Situated 50o odd kilometers from Bangalore, personally, Badami was not my first choice for the workshop. But on a recce trip in January 2018, we made interesting discoveries.

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Aerial view of fields near Pattadkal

Badami is mainly well known for the remains of the ancient Chalukyan dynasty. It would be an opportunity of a lifetime to photograph the night sky against some of the ancient structures built by our ancestors. But experience has taught me that the probability of the sun rising from the West is more than ASI considering an interesting proposal.

Having visited Hampi several times, I was quite aware of how the ASI of India functions. You cannot even use tripods at any of the sites maintained by ASI, so getting permission to shoot after dark is out of question. The presence of wild animals is another deterrent at Hampi. Leopards and bears roam around freely after dark. I prefer not to disturb them, for they have already lost a lot of their territory to us humans. In spite of the restrictions from the ASI, during my most recent visit to Hampi, I did indeed shoot star-trails. Nevertheless, Badami was a much simpler choice.

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Sunflower fields

On our reconnaissance mission to Badami, we essentially looked for:

  1. Open areas with as little light pollution as possible. We identified at least 4 such spots.
  2. Elements of interest, unique to Badami. We found at least 1 such spot with an ancient temple and several spots which offered interesting natural foreground.
  3. Comfortable lodging so we could relax during the day. Badami Heritage Resort certainly offered this.
  4. Accessibility. Mountain villages and camping sites in the the upper Himalayas are certainly great to make images of the night sky, but it is not easy to get to these places. I still remember how grand the glaciers of Har-Ki-Dun looked under a full moon, but we had to trek three days to get there. Our workshop had to happen somewhere closer to home.
  5. Safety from miscreants and wild animals. At first, I was quite apprehensive about shooting in the fields at night. I did not want to be caught tresspassing. On the reccee we had several encounters with locals in the dead of the night and not once did they cause any altercation.

With Arun’s expertise of the place and a lof of scouting around, we where happy with Badami because it ticked all the right boxes for the workshop.

On the 16th of February, a team of 10 participants of all age groups left Bangalore early on a Friday and reached Badami by evening. We traveled by road, enjoying the change in scenery as we crossed Chitradurga and entered the northern region of Karnataka.

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Night sky against the sunflower field

The workshop started with a presentation on how to photograph the night sky. The session covered gear, techniques and planning aspects.  We then headed out to make some images. The participants were an enthusiastic lot, so all challenges that comes with shooting at night were easily taken care of. In case you weren’t aware, focusing a lens itself is impossible in the dark.

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Shiva Temple in Badami

In spite of having traveled by road during the day, we shot well into the night and retired to bed only after 2 am. On the first field outing, we got to shoot star trails at a dam and a bullock cart against the night sky.

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“Wolf Rock”

The next day we had a session on post processing techniques. We learnt how to process astro photos and create star-trails. After visiting the famous Badami caves, we headed out again to make more images. The sky was clearer on the second night and the experience of staying under a vast canopy of stars was certainly memorable. We even tried our hand at light painting – a genre that one of the participants was really good at.

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Light Painted Self Portrait

Personally, it was a really satisfying experience to conduct this workshop on astro photography. From learning, to planning and finally leading a workshop, my interest in nature and outdoor photography has gone up several notches thanks to the new opportunities offered by astro photography. I am eagerly awaiting the Milky Way season – a short window between March to November when the galactic core is clearly visible. That will be the time to put into practice more new techniques that I am learning. This addiction to learn and create is what keeps me up at night (pun unintended) 🙂

Why I Switched my Website Address

I recently moved my website from pixelshooter.net to pratapj.com – why did I switch domain names?

I said “hello world” from a self-hosted website on Jan 06, 2006. I had purchased a DSLR, the Canon 350D, a month before. Until then I was shooting with a Canon Powershot A75 which was also my first digital camera. I used the handle, “pixelshooter” for my online presence. I first hosted pixelshooter.net on a low budget web host and then moved to ANhosting (now called Midphase).

In the year 2006, self-published photography was a deviation from the trend. Flickr (before Yahoo acquired it) was a rage, and everyone was posting there. FB and 500px were not heard of. I think there was orkut, but I never took it seriously.

The first trip I did with the DSLR was to Kasargod in the same month when I purchased the domain name. This photo of Bekal fort is one of my favourites from that trip.

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In Feburary my friend and I backpacked to Bhutan. It was my first time ever in the Himalayas. Bhutan was not yet commercialized. My DSLR proved to be the best thing that happened to me. After I came back, I wrote a travelogue which I published on pixelshooter.net. Here is a photo from Calcutta, which was my transit point to Bhutan. From early on, my photography was mostly about landscapes.

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Internet connectivity was not great back then, and people still kept in touch through offline means. One of my friends even asked me “how to get an account on pixelshooter.net” because he thought it was a website like Flickr. No one quite understood my obsession with self-hosting a website. Needless to say, the only person who was really interested in pixelshooter.net was me.

The biggest challenge in the world of self-hosting was initially about theme design. Photo blogging, or posting a new photo every day, was a popular trend. I wanted a website where I could post a pic per day, and also write about my travels. With no ready made theme available, I got my hands dirty and learnt how to make my own theme in WordPress. You can see that version of my website on old.pixelshooter.net. Since I did not have a background in coding, it took me a lot of time to get the theme the way I wanted. Later I would realise that web design was not as much of a problem as website traffic.

My thought process behind hosting my own website hasn’t changed from the very begining. It was always about sharing pics, either through my photo blog or my travelogues. I wanted to do this on a self-hosted platform because I wanted to present my work in a unique way. I paid for everything from my pocket and never used advertisements. I always kept a check on the number of assignments that I took up, because I wanted to focus on learning. In the process, I forgot to take into account that people don’t take your work seriously unless you make it glamorous.

Until circa 2009, there was no social media to share my posts, so my traffic was mostly from Google and when friends visited. I joined Facebook very late. I did not bother creating a Facebook Page (when Pages actually mattered) because I had my blog. I was not aware about how Facebook throttles organic reach. I was very late to the party.

I did my first multi-day Himalayan trek to Kuari Pass in August 2009. I never published those photos online though. Post trek, I found myself really short on time to do justice to a travelogue and it never occured to me that I should post on Facebook. The ROI of running a website was limited to self-satisfaction. The hottest place to pimp your work was still on Flickr, and later 500px. I was a lone ranger in the genre of landscape photography. Wedding, portraiture, street and wildlife were the most popular genres of photography in India, and even today. I tried to stake my claim as a travel blogger, but my travels were focused around landscape photography.

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Today, self-hosted blogs have made a come back. But blogging has become a sport. Self-hosted websites are mostly running a rat race for ‘influencer’ campaigns. When brands identify you as an influencer because of your popularity online, you promote them on your blog and social media in return for free stuff. A lot of people are writing blogs hoping to get free trips, hotel stays, goodies and road show invites. I just read an article today about these Influencer campaigns are pointless, but who cares? Likes, views, page hits and everything else that measures your popularity can either be purchased, or manufactured by careful self-promotion and branding and that is all what the marketing agencies want.

Facebook’s ‘Like’ button has hijacked the spirit of sharing anything online. Everyone has a digital presence today. All you need is very polarised opinions about the world or the skill of self-promotion to climb up the social media ladder. The joy of photography as a hobby died the day photographers focused on popularity instead of perfecting their art.

Pixelshooter.net did not stand a chance to become popular. I never shouted on top of rooftops about how awesome I was. My articles were all based on personal experience and I kept away from listicles. I only wrote when I had something to share.  I did not have a network wide enough to keep spamming my social media with links. I hardly posted photos of myself from places I visited, and even if I did, I could never compete against the young women who promoted their blogs with just selfies. I wanted to showcase my work as an artist and content creator. It was too late by the time I realised that I was competing with people who had a completely different set of priorities.

These days, travelogues are not about the joy of discovering a place, but about how you did all the awesome things that you were supposed to do at the destination so you can post on social media. Photography is not about how artistically and technically good your work is, but about how glamourous it is to quit your job and become a full time professional. The word “hobby” has almost become a synonym for “boring”. Being enthusiastic about something does not mean anything unless you have enough Likes to prove it.

Sorry, I went a bit off track. The real reason I moved to Pratapj.com, however, was due to a technical problem I faced when I switched web hosts. One of the important factors for good SEO is page load speeds. I took advantage of a black Friday deal and purchased web hosting with SiteGround in November of 2017. SiteGround servers are faster than those of Mid Phase. I spent most of December migrating the content in the backend (more on that in the next post). I set up a staging environment called pratapj.com on Site Ground for this purpose. After all the backend work was done, I realised that I couldn’t simply point the new web host to pixelshooter.net because of a few technicalities. Pixelshooter.net was deeply tied to Mid Phase. The only way I could let it go was by breaking ties with them. That was not an option for certain reasons. So I decided to simply start using Pratapj.com as my new domain name.

But in more than one way, the change of domain names also signifies a change in my thought process about self publishing. I would like to keep working hard to excel in the space of outdoor and nature photography than be a contender for influencer campaigns.  I’d rather see traffic from visitors who are genuinely interested in my content. I plan to incorporate more video into my work. I want to explore the market for commercial fine art digital prints. I hope do to more real-world product reviews.

I have fond memories of Pixelshooter.net. I hope someday I can find good use for that domain name again.

New Journal!

About my new Wordpress journal – a home for non-commercial thoughts, product reviews and photography talk.

Hello there. Hello world. Hello reader.

This is my new personal journal. I call it, “Life in Manual Focus.” I used to be an active blogger several years ago (circa 2006 – 8). Back then, a blog was where you put in real thoughts and did not make up things for just for page rank.  My old blog is still alive on the Blogger network.

Although the blog died, my website, www.pixelshooter.net continued till December 2017. Then I migrated my domain name. Now it is www.pratapj.com. Why? More on that in the next post. And how I migrated. It was quite a task.

The birth of this journal is to get back to writing. I don’t do a lot of personal writing these days. Posts on www.pratapj.com are always written for a target audience or to compliment my photography.

The internet has no dearth of blogs these days. Most of the ones that you discover via social media are commercial in one way or the other. From “influencers” to “paid reviews”, most blogs out there are just extended product marketing.

This blog is going to be non-commercial. A free flow of ideas, thoughts and learning. I hope to do product reviews, talk about photography techniques and occassionally rant and muse. Let’s see how it goes.