Making Death Valley Even Scarier By Digital Photo-Editing | Gary Cain Photography

by Gary A. Cain, Ph.D.

Bad Weather Can Be Good

It’s called Death Valley for a reason, folks.

With that in mind, I wanted to edit an old Death Valley image to make it even scarier.

Photo Shows Dark Clouds and Deep Shadows to Provide Ominous Atmosphere to Zabriskie Point

Dark Clouds and Deep Shadows Provide an Ominous Atmosphere to the Zabriskie Point Overlook at Death Valley

The day was cloudy but not hot when I was in Death Valley way back in April 1997. Using color slide film at the time, I took the original photo. The result was an OK, but not exciting image with flat lighting and muted colors. Nothing deathly scary or interesting about that. So the slide sat. And sat. And sat.

Fast forward to March 2014. OK, maybe I procrastinated a bit. I finally returned to this image, armed with my newfangled digital photo-editing tricks, to see what I could do to enhance it.

Long story short, I converted it to black and white using Nik Silver Efex Pro2, then used Photoshop Elements to adjust tones and contrast, add sepia toning, and add texture. The key to getting the really gloomy ambiance was darkening the already present clouds and adding small, dark shadows around the image. Now it has ATMOSPHERE. One befitting the name Death Valley.

Museum-Quality Prints

I’ve just added this image to my collection sold online through Fine Art America. Museum-quality prints are available on several surfaces, including canvas, metal, and acrylic, in addition to several paper finishes. Postcards are also offered.

How To Take Better Pictures: Use Framing Elements | Gary Cain Photography

by Gary A. Cain, Ph.D.

Look For Natural Frames

A tree trunk and leafy branch frame the Washington Monument to add visual interest in this black-and-white photo.

Framing the Washington Monument With a Tree Adds Interest

Everybody hates boring.

Boring people. Boring lectures. Boring photographs.

Hate. Hate. Hate.

Can’t help with the first two, but here’s a trick to eliminate boring photographs.

Never again have the subject of your photograph just standing there in the midst of vast nothingness, sticking up against a ho-hum sky.

Instead, scout around the foreground area looking for something interesting to fill the otherwise empty space around and/or above the subject.

In this shot of the Washington Monument (surrounded by scaffolding during earthquake repairs last summer), I walked around until I found a stately tree to provide a natural frame.

The resulting image possesses much more visual interest and balance than just the boring sky which I would have gotten by shooting from 10 feet farther ahead.

Structural Frames Work Too

Photographing the colonial Bellevue Mansion through the gazebo helps add context and visual interest.

The Gazebo provides a contextual frame around the historic Bellevue Mansion.

Purists would say even better frames should help place the main subject in context with its surroundings. In this image of the colonial-era Bellevue Mansion (located in Bellevue State Park, Wilmington, Delaware), I shot through the nearby gazebo.

The gazebo does much more than just fill empty space in the photo around the mansion. It’s looming presence also suggests that the gazebo played an important role in colonial life. What’s more, from this vantage point the viewer almost feels present right there in the scene.

Not to Bore You, But It’s Called Compositional Framing

In photography-speak, this ‘How-To’ tip is all about composition. Compose the main subject with a framing foreground element before you press the shutter button. It’ll help banish boring in your photographs.

Cain WV ‘Autumn Grist Mill’ Print Wins Medal at 2014 WIEP | Gary Cain Photography

by Gary A. Cain, Ph.D.

Shameless Bragging and Self-Promotion

Delaware fine art photographer Gary Cain's small color print of the Glade Creek Grist Mill, surrounded by colorful autumn leaves, won a DVCCC medal at the 2014 WIEP competition.

Gary Cain’s ‘Autumn Grist Mill’ image won a DVCCC medal at the 2014 WIEP competition.

I don’t always take realistic landscape photos, but when I do, I prefer West Virginia.

Especially now, since my ‘Autumn Grist Mill’ image, which I took last October near Beckley, WV, won a DVCCC medal at this year’s Wilmington International Exhibition of Photography (WIEP).

The DVCCC medal was in the Small Color Print category, and represents the first official photo competition award in my young photography career. Yippee!

[The Delaware Valley Council of Camera Clubs (DVCCC), including groups from DE, NJ, and PA, annually presents awards in each WIEP competition category for outstanding image by a club member. I'm a member of the DVCCC's Delaware Photographic Society.]

WIEP Public Image Viewing

For those in the Wilmington / Philadelphia region, the WIEP public display of this year’s accepted prints and projected images will be Sunday afternoons Feb. 23 and Mar. 2.

The location is Arsht Hall on the University of Delaware’s Wilmington Campus. Street address: 2700 Pennsylvania Ave, Wilmington, Delaware. I hope to see you there!

Travel Photography Tip: New River Gorge, WV

Of the places I’m fortunate to visit fairly regularly, West Virginia has to be at the top of the list for attractive landscape photo opportunities.

It’s not called “West ‘By God’ Virginia” for nothing. Covered with lush mountains and rushing streams from top to bottom, WV is a photographer’s paradise.

I strongly recommend visiting the New River Gorge, near Beckley in the south-central part of the state. That’s where the Glade Creek Grist Mill of my photo, part of the Babcock State Park, is located. Ideally, go in the fall, when the mountains of trees explode in color.

With any luck, maybe you’ll capture a winner too!

‘Autumn Grist Mill’ Prints

Purchase a museum-quality ‘Autumn Grist Mill’ print of your very own (without the watermark) at Fine Art America. They offer prints on a variety of durable and beautiful media, including metal, acrylic, canvas, and paper.

Take Better Photos: Lead the Viewer’s Eye | Gary Cain Photography

by Gary A. Cain, Ph.D.

Yes, it was cold. Yes, my fingers ached. Yes, I flirted with frostbite.

Yet, I resolutely soldiered on. Snow be damned.

Why? I needed to find an interesting foreground which would naturally lead my photograph viewer’s eye and, uh, interest directly to the main subject. In this case, the 113-year-old Rockford Tower.

The rising stairway naturally leads the viewer's eye to the photo's main subject — the old stone water tower.

The rising stairway naturally leads the viewer’s eye to the photo’s main subject — the old stone water tower.

I visited Rockford Park on a cold winter’s day yesterday knowing I wanted an image which featured Wilmington’s historic stone water tower standing in the snow.

The challenge, however, was how to make the iconic tower more enticing. After all, it rather boringly just stood there surrounded by an empty field and some trees.

So I walked through the snow. And walked. And walked some more. Stopping now and then as I gazed back toward the tower. Looking for something containing that magical leading line which would serve to highlight the tower.

Then I found it. Partway down the hill stood a snowy stone wall and staircase. Eureka! Pointing directly at Rockland Tower! My leading line! The graceful curves of the stone staircase naturally drew my — and the eventual viewer’s — eye directly upward through the wall opening to my desired main point of interest.

Details, Details, and more Details

I immediately knew I had located the elements which would make a strong photograph. Then it was just a matter of setting up my camera and tripod in the optimal position.

I centered the tower in the opening at the top of the stairs for pleasing balance. I moved so I could see the entire top of the tower (the most interesting part) below the large tree limb, even though that cut off part of the tower’s bottom (nothing to see there, folks, so move along).

Click. Click. Click.

White snow plus dark rocks equals a difficult exposure. I actually took three shots, one exposed for the snow, one exposed for the rocks, and one in the middle. I then used an HDR (High Dynamic Range) program to automatically blend and balance the bright and dark areas into a single image.

Since the Rockford Tower is really old, I wanted to modify my image to give it a vintage, historic feel. So I converted the color image into a grainy Black-and-White using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

That gave the image an aged look.

Good, but not good enough. I wanted it to look cold, too, since I had been out there freezing my you-know-what off. So I then added a blue tint using Photoshop Elements.

Better. But most old-time photos have really worn, weathered paper. Easy. I faked that by digitally combining with a separate texture image, again in Photoshop Elements.

Whew. Net result, the aged, cold-looking digital art photograph you see above.

Take Home Message

To take better photos, look for foreground elements containing lines or simple curves which point back toward the main subject. Simple as that.

Museum-quality prints of this ‘Rockford Park in Winter’ image are available online at Fine Art America.

Bad Hair Day, Great Picture Day | Gary Cain Photography

by Gary A. Cain, Ph.D.

Photo of an agitated snowy egret, head plumage standing erect, defending his turf.

This snowy egret’s excitement is palpable as he defends his turf.

Cherish the Bad Hair Day. Enticing, dynamic photographs may result.

Huh? What the heck am I talking about?

Bad hair — on snowy egrets. Feathers, actually.

With their attractive plumage, spindly, long legs, and graceful S-shaped necks, snowy egrets are always a delight to photograph. Yet when these elegant wading birds become agitated or excited, bad hair…ok, head feathers…really start(s) flying. Amen and hallelujah, it’s showtime! Picture time!

Egrets are somewhat territorial, and will vigorously defend their turf, particularly around egg-laden nests, when an interloper intrudes. They’ll also fight each other over food. That’s when their hair/head feathers stand on end as if electrified.

For you or me — actually just you, since I’m bald — a head full of erect plumage would make it a Bad Hair Day and cameras would be avoided at all costs.

Close-up profile photo of an agitated snowy egret in a battle for food.

This agitated snowy egret was in a battle for food.

But for a photographer, capturing a snowy egret during a Bad Hair Day moment is ideal.

When those head feathers jump to attention, a close-up photo crackles with energy and the viewer is drawn excitedly into the action.

Snowy egrets are most often found around marshes and swamps, particularly close to the coasts.

I took the top image in August 2013 in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. This snowy egret was all worked up because another one had gotten too close to his choice feeding spot.

The lower one I took in July 2012 at Gatorland, near Orlando, Florida. Tourists were tossing food pellets to the myriad waterfowl, and this snowy egret took exception to a faster one’s thievery.

Bottom line, get as close as you can with your camera to a snowy egret, especially as they’re feeding. And absolutely wait for that Bad Hair Day moment when two or more grate on each other’s nerves. Then snap away.

Prints of these Bad Hair Day snowy egret images are for sale at Fine Art America and Waltzing Rainbows Images.

How I Learned to Improve My Photos on the Computer, and So Should You | Gary Cain Photography

by Gary A. Cain, Ph.D.

Photoshop Elements Software

Up and down, up and down. Like a cheerleader on speed. Up and down.

For months in this blog I’ve been jumping up and down, raving about the great things you can do to improve your photographs using inexpensive Photoshop Elements photo-editing software on your home computer.

The Photoshop Elements program currently goes for only $99.99US directly from Adobe. You may even already have it. It came free in the box when I bought a camera several years ago. Check yours.

Photoshop Elements Techniques Tutorials

Fair enough, you say, but how did I learn, step by step, from the beginning, to actually carry out photograph improvements using Photoshop Elements?

Answer: Mostly by watching online videos and reading how-to articles at Photoshop Elements Techniques, a subscription Web site (at and magazine created by Photo One Media.

Their training cost is incredibly modest. As of today, according to their web site, a 1-year subscription costs only $59US. That gets you:

(1) A DVD with tutorials, tips, and tricks
(2) A 33-page e-book “Mastering Layers with Elements”
(3) Full access to their online video and written training course
(4) A hardcopy magazine featuring new tutorials, tips, and tricks 6 times a year.

It’s an even better deal if you sign up for 2 years or skip the hardcopy magazine. There’s even a free Starter Kit if you’re nervous about subscribing for a whole year.

That’s an absolute bargain. There are hundreds of how-to articles from entry level to skilled expert, all of them broken down into easy to follow step-by-step sequences. Online, you pick and choose what you want to learn about and when.

I was a total rookie when I signed up, and I’m glad I did. In fact, I’m still a subscriber, and still have lots more to learn. The videos and articles are created by world-class Photoshop experts, including Matt Kloskowski and Dave Cross, to name just two.

Both videos and articles are packaged in small, easy-to-digest sizes which are easy to work into your busy schedule. Videos typically run around 5 minutes to at most 10. Magazine articles are usually just 2 to 8 pages, most of which is pictures. Most importantly, they include each and every step you need to carry out, from opening the original photo to saving the final file.

As you’ll learn at Photoshop Elements Techniques, the Elements software can be used for much more than just manipulating photographs. You can add text or graphic elements to your photographs, or build new images entirely from scratch, such as greeting cards or scrapbook pages.

Before photo of Brooklyn Bridge straight out of my camera

BEFORE — Unexciting Brooklyn Bridge Original Photo

Wildly colorful, highly impressionistic AFTER image of the same Brooklyn Bridge after processing in Photoshop Elements

AFTER — Same Brooklyn Bridge Photo After Photoshop Elements Processing

Bottom line, with Photoshop Elements photo-editing software and training by Photoshop Elements Techniques, I’ve learned not only to improve my photographs, but also to create state-of-the-art, uh, art.

Check out the transformation of my Brooklyn Bridge original photo, left, straight out of the camera, to the wildly colorful, exciting, impressionistic version at right applying what I learned from several Photoshop Elements Techniques tutorials.

If I can do it, so can you.

Disclosure: The author was not compensated by Adobe or Photo One Media for these endorsements.

Cheap Hardware Store Lights Yield Pro Studio Flower Image | Gary Cain Photography

by Gary A. Cain, Ph.D.

Amateur flower photography enthusiasts, it doesn’t get much easier than this.

You too can take professional grade, dramatic flower portraits using regular household light bulbs and super-cheap hardware store equipment. That’s what I used to capture this lovely close-up of an ‘Inca Ice’ Peruvian Lily.

Photo — Close-up of a pastel pink, yellow, and green Peruvian lily with brown spots lit with three household light bulbs

Three Household Light Bulbs Lit this ‘Inca Ice’ Peruvian Lily

Two blog posts ago I described the key hardware store item, a clamp-on reflector lamp (A) costing less than $20. In that article, lighting a translucent Rebecca’s World Dahlia, I only needed one such light plus a white paper reflector. Here, to obtain ideal results for this darker Peruvian lily, I used two reflector lamps plus an even cheaper light socket/clamp combination (B, essentially the same thing without the reflector, simply because I had it lying around and was too lazy to run to the hardware store). The actual set-up I used is shown below.
Photo showing the actual Low-Budget Three Light Set-up Used for this Peruvian lily Studio Flower Shoot

Low-Budget Three Light Set-up Used for In-Home Studio Flower Shoot

The essential set-up involved one reflector lamp (A) in front and slightly above the flower (E) as the main light. The other two lights, reflector (A) and bare bulb (B), were placed behind and below the flower to provide rim lighting for the stem and petal edges. The dark background (D) was a plain black T-shirt draped over an empty shoe box. Low budget all the way.

The best part of such simple studio lighting set-up is that, with only these lights on, what you see through the camera’s viewfinder is essentially what you’re going to get in the photo.

Now for the exposure technicalities.

To show the entire flower — front to back — in sharp focus, use aperture f/22 (set manually). That makes for a long exposure and a need for a solid camera support.

Household light bulbs aren’t nearly as bright as a camera flash, again leading to a long exposure time. Possibly a few seconds. Holding the camera rock-steady, as on a tripod (C), is a must.

You may need to experiment with the shutter speed (set manually) if the auto-exposure comes out too bright or too dark. My photo above required exactly 1 second for the proper exposure after checking on a computer monitor. (I don’t rely on the small screen on the back of the camera.)

One thing to be aware of. Household bulbs tend to give photos an orange tint. Some modern cameras are smart enough to sense the orange-ish light and automatically correct for it. If your photos do come out orange, you can fix it by resetting the camera’s white balance for tungsten bulb (usually a light bulb icon). Otherwise, you can remove the orange color cast afterward using the computer software that came with your digital camera.

I did make a few adjustments in Photoshop Elements from my raw photo file to the final image above.

One, I cropped it to a square format to eliminate the glass holding up the lily. Two, I tweaked the colors and contrast and fixed a few blemishes. Three, I enhanced the rim lighting around the edges using a tiny digital brush and the dodge tool.

Wrapping up, you may already have these simple lamps lying around your tool closet. If not, a quick trip to the hardware store and you’ll be on your way to taking professional-look studio flower images.

[Museum-quality prints of the top 'Inca Ice' Peruvian lily are available online at Waltzing Rainbows Images.]

SAFETY NOTICE — Household bulbs can get really hot really fast. Be careful when working around them. Don’t burn your skin, and keep flammable items (like curtains) far away.

Brooklyn Bridge Explodes with Color and Energy for Delaware Digital Artist | Gary Cain Photography

by Gary A. Cain, Ph.D.

I did it and I admit it. Especially since I got away with it scot-free.

I made the sky around the Brooklyn Bridge absolutely explode with dazzling colors. Fireworks on steroids. Here’s the irrefutable photographic proof.

Photo — Dazzling pinks, reds, oranges, and yellows fill the sky around the iconic double-arched Brooklyn Bridge support.

Dazzling Colors Envelop the Iconic Brooklyn Bridge in Gary Cain’s New Photo-Based Image

Despite the kaleidoscopic mayhem surrounding this venerable New York City icon, the feds didn’t even care, photographic evidence or not.

That’s because this painterly, high-energy nuclear bomb only took place in cyberspace. On only one computer — mine.

Like a lot of computer shenanigans, blame it on boredom. A boring original photograph, in this case.

As every serious color photographer will swear, the middle of the day is the absolute worst time to take pictures outside. Which, in my ever-so-brief one day visit to New York City in August, was exactly when I found myself walking across the landmark Brooklyn Bridge, camera in hand. Full sun, few clouds, hazy blue sky. Boring.

Yet with its symmetric, graceful curving cables and imposing double-arched support towers, my original photo of the old suspension bridge did possess strong graphical elements. It just needed punching up a bit.

As I so often do, here again with inexpensive Photoshop Elements, I experimented using texture images and various blending modes to add visual interest to my original photo. In this case, no single textured composite gave me an image capable of standing on its own. What then?

Duh. I started playing around combining the textured composites with all the blending modes. When I obtained a look a liked, I then added hue, brightness, and contrast adjustment layers to optimize colors. Ultimately, I added layer masks to hide and let through only specific portions of certain layers.

Whew! And that’s only an overview to what I did to create this colorful, energetic Brooklyn Bridge image.

Bottom line: When you’ve got a good but not great photo, attack your original with photo-editing software. Experiment, experiment, experiment. Play, play, play. Just try stuff, even with no pre-ordained vision in mind. Go with the flow. Take improvements you like and trash ones you don’t. Eventually you’ll come up with something new and exciting.

Something like my explosive digital fireworks display brightening the stoic Brooklyn Bridge, as shown above.

[Museum-quality prints of the above image are available for purchase online at Fine Art America.]

The author was not compensated for this endorsement of Photoshop Elements.

Ultra-Low Cost Studio Lighting Yields Breathtaking Dahlia Close-Up Photo | Gary Cain Photography

by Gary A. Cain, Ph.D.

Less than $20 will buy you a studio light setup like I used to take the stunningly beautiful Rebecca’s World Dahlia photo below. Scrooges say amen!

Close-up photo of a mostly white with pink to maroon accents Rebecca's World dahlia flower

One Incandescent Bulb in a Reflector Above, and White Paper Below, Provided Elegant Illumination for this Rebecca’s World Dahlia

You too can look like a studio pro with a minimal cash outlay for lighting. Here’s how.

Photo of an inexpensive, readily available clamp reflector utility lamp.

Inexpensive Clamp Reflector Utility Lamp.

I captured the breathtaking dahlia image above with a single, ordinary light bulb positioned close overhead, housed in a clamp reflector. Such utility lamps are readily available at any hardware store. Shown at right is one currently listed at for $14.97.

With the dahlia in a narrow-mouth vase (and a piece of tape on the stem to hold the flower upright) I positioned the reflector light above and slightly in front so the beam just illuminated the front petals.

The single overhead light also served to indirectly brighten the lower flower petals and the flower stem. A white sheet of letter-sized paper, taped to a piece of cardboard, propped just out of camera view below to the left, bounced spillover light back up.

Lighting-wise, that was it! A black bed sheet below and behind the vase provided the dark background.

Warning! Physics ahead.

For this image I wanted the flower petals to have sharp focus front to back. So to ensure maximum depth-of-field, I manually set the camera f-stop to f/22. That exposure setting meant that not much light got through to the sensor.

In addition, that single light bulb didn’t output enough light to get a sharp photo handheld at any f-stop.

The combination of those two factors necessitated a much longer-than-normal shutter speed. Firm camera support was a must. I used a tripod.

After a few test shots, checking the images on a computer screen as I went, I found that a 3.2 second exposure provided the right amount of light. As expected, the focus was tack-sharp.

Final result: a dramatic, lovely Rebecca’s World Dahlia image I’m quite proud of, and a studio lighting cash outlay my Chief Financial Officer (aka wife) is even more proud of.

[Museum-quality prints of this dahlia close-up are available online at Waltzing Rainbows Images.]

Flatiron Building Withstands Hellish Digital Storm in Beautiful Fine Art Photo | Gary Cain Photography

by Gary A. Cain, Ph.D.

‘Twas a dark and stormy night, wind screaming through the abandoned canyons of New York City, snow, sleet, hail, thunder, lightning, torrential downpours, yet the iconic Flatiron Building stood steadfast, proud.

Photo showing the iconic narrow-triangular-shaped NYC Flatiron Building in a dark, gloomy software-created storm

New York’s Iconic Flatiron Building in a Digital Composite Image

Not really. I lied.

When I captured the original Flatiron Building photo in NYC last month, it was actually mid-afternoon on a hot, sunny, hazy day. Photographically speaking — boring, boring, boring. Curses!

What to do? Jump on the computer armed with photo-editing software and experiment. Especially using texture layers.

I’ve often written about improving photographs by digitally creating composites with texture layers to add visual interest. The Flatiron Building image above provides a perfect new example.

Here’s how I did it.

First, I used Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 software to convert the original to black and white, then added sepia toning. I took the resulting image into Photoshop Elements 11 and placed a texture image of a weathered, scratched, pitted piece of metal on top.

I then simply experimented with blending modes for combining the two layers. This time, ‘difference’ mode produced the beautiful, striking effect here. After a little further tweaking of contrast and brightness, VOILA, the Flatiron Building caught in a biblical maelstrom.

Take home message: experiment combining an unexciting photograph with texture images. Try every blending mode your software provides. You’ll often get a “Eureka!” moment when a fantastic image you never could have dreamed of emerges.

[Museum-quality prints of this artistic Flatiron Building image (without the watermark) may be purchased online at Fine Art America.]

I was not compensated for these software recommendations.