Photography Photoshop rocks and lapidary Uncategorized

A Jumble of Colors from a Six Dollar Rock

These are extremely small vanadinite crystals, barely forming a red haze in a seemingly featureless six dollar rock from Arizona. Under the microscope, they present a wealth of red, with a few showing vanadinite’s true hexagonal crystals. Click on the image for the Big Picture. Or here.

I am suffering mightily with this new scope. I cannot get it to operate with my fast desktop Mac and I have been reduced to experimenting with an old Windows machine running System 7. The lag time between adjusting the scope and the images it presents on the screen is several seconds, impossible to do any meaningful work.

Look at the second photo below. You can see the asbestos like fibers on serpentinite.

And just for fun. Gold in quartz self collected near Auburn in Placer County, California.

Self collected gold flake while dredging Oregon Creek in Yuba County, California.

non-fiction writing Photography Photoshop Uncategorized

Close Up Photography

Close up or macro photography is expensive and challenging. Never-the-less, it can bring to life specimens you’ve self-collected or bought at rock shops or over the internet. This is a picture of native copper. I bought the material for a few dollars at a rock shop in Duncan, Arizona. Doug Barlow, the owner, says the copper came from the Santa Rita Mine near Silver City, New Mexico.

This copper piece is only two inches across but a photograph brings it alive for easy, contemplative viewing. Click on the image or here to see it up close. This was taken in one shot, no special techniques in Photoshop required. Just a macro lens on a tripod, with the rock inside a light tent. Notice how the support stand is visible? I’ll try to remove it the next time I photograph the copper. There is always room for improvement in this hobby within a hobby. Oh, and I hope to have more closeups like this in my book.


Photography Photoshop rocks and lapidary Uncategorized

We The Few

“We the few, who have done so much with so little, now attempt the impossible with nothing.”

My week long road trip has returned me to a seemingly impossible problem: producing professional looking closeup and macro photography. I have located many fine rocks, gems and minerals to illustrate my book but none of them possess any value unless I can photograph them in sharp focus.

On the positive side, my recent purchase of a light tent is allowing me to take publishable photographs of larger specimens, those three to five inches and bigger. Success! But the world of macro photography is a dark art. It requires specialized equipment and patience beyond that of art restorers working on bringing back the Last Supper.

I do have some right equipment, a macro lens bought at great expense some time ago. And a tripod that should be steady enough. Even with the right tools, however, this process is like handing professional equipment to a beginning woodworker and asking them to produce fine cabinetry in a week. Money can’t buy experience.

Taking a close up shot of a minuscule mineral requires multiple photographs of the object at different focal points or ranges and then blending them all together in Photoshop. I’ve produced images I can tolerate myself, perhaps good enough for the web, but nothing approaching what I see in the rock and gem magazines.

I’m thinking of taking two weeks off from writing to devote myself solely to photography. I’ve considered hiring a professional photographer to give me pointers but this is a labor intensive pursuit and the cost of a consultant for even one day would be prohibitive. Check out the photo below.

Notice how the dark crystal is in focus, more or less? And the feldspar closest to the lens, the material closest to the camera, is in best focus? In the ideal photograph, all surfaces of this crystal cluster would be in focus.

The idea is to take ten or twelve shots of different points, each of these in sharp focus, neglecting the rest of the subject. Then, Photoshop merges all of the images, resulting in a photo that combines every sharply focused point into one glorious photograph, everything well defined. Unlike the photograph above.

I am trying to be positive.

Update! I may have a way to make smoother progress. My current light box is great but there is no way for me to reach through the small openings to take a photo of a specimen in the middle of the box. My head would get in the way of the lights and the reflective interior of the box, even if I could manage to get my head through.

But, using a horizontal arm on my tripod, I could easily slide my camera in to get as close as needed to the specimen. I’ve just ordered such an arm. How, then, might you ask, will I be able to see anything through the viewfinder, since the camera will be inside the box?

Canon makes an app for remote shooting. I can view an image through my phone and take shots from it. Previously, when I got my camera two years ago, the app was balky and unpredictable and a general pain. But they have improved it tremendously and this morning I was getting good, predictable results. Between these two developments I may be on my way toward my goal.

Update! Smartphone not needed. Nor the fancy horizontal arm I ordered. Using the slider mechanism below and my backup cameral I have managed to take a series of good photos using just the lightbox. Here’s a post where you can see my best image. (external link)

Keep in mind, however, that photo stacking is not point and shoot. I may have to take a dozen individual shots just to produce a finished, publishable photo. A real time thief. To aid in this precise, individual shooting, I’ve also ordered an inexpensive rail slider. It fits on the horizontal arm and allows precise back and forth movement for the camera. With all this fiddling, I may be heading in the right direction to make macro a manageable feat.

What’s a professional’s setup? They use what are called full sensor DSLRs, not mirrorless cameras like the one I have. (I bought my EOS M3 for its compact size, low cost, and low weight.) For a professional, a standard camera body, Canon, used, starts at $600. The recognized Canon macro lens for such a full sensor DSLR is the EF 100 f 2.8L. That’s $650 to $700. The enabling industry recognized software is from Helicon, and license packages go up to $200. ‘Course, these are all minimum costs. While passable photography can be had from a camera phone, publishable macro photography is the province of the well heeled or the supremely inventive.

Photography Uncategorized

Photoshop is More Magical Than You Think

Take a look at these before and after photos. The first photo shows a roughly corrugated gold flake no more than two centimeters across. With my fancy new macro lens the lower middle is squarely in focus. And that’s it. This was quite a disappointment to me after spending money on a new camera and lens. The whole point of my photography project was to get good images for my articles in Rock&Gem Magazine (internal link). What’s going on?


The depth of field at such high magnification renders everything flat. So if there is a high and a low to your object, no matter how tiny that variation, the macro lens just can’t handle it. I’m learning one way to get around this and it’s called automated focus stacking (external link).

Basically, you take four or five photos at different focal points and blend them all together. That is, you take several shots, each at a high and a low and a middle. You focus correctly for each shot, each variation, even if the rest of the field is out of focus. Then, using Photoshop black magic, you gather up your photos into a single file, have Photoshop align them, then watch as they are blended together. See the image below.


Notice the improvement? It’s amazing. I feel like I am practicing some dark art or witchcraft. Yes, there are areas that need improvement in the photo but this is just my second try. With a steadier tripod, more focal points, and more practice, I might just get this down. I can at least see there is a path toward a perfectly focused specimen. And I am gaining a deep appreciation for the professional photographer.

This points out, too, that this is the product of a home studio or spare bedroom. No way could you cruise through a rock and gem show and hope to duplicate this method on a vendor’s shaky table with poor lighting. Click on the photos if you want to see the full sized images.

Magazine article Thoughts on writing Uncategorized

Another Article Submitted

Just completed another article for Rock&Gem Magazine (internal link). With luck they will accept it, like they have my three other articles. This was a difficult piece because my rough draft ran over 4,500 words and the magazine’s limit was 3,000. Much agonizing over facts and quotations I couldn’t use due to length.

I wrote the article in conjunction with a trip I took along Highway 49. That’s the Golden Chain Highway, which runs north and south through California’s historic and rustic Mother Lode. I stopped along the way to rockhound and take pictures.

Upon return I found out I’ll have to learn more about macro photography. Most of my photos came out fine but I’m having a terrible time with closeups of rocks and gems. People who photograph coins, stamps, and flowers all have the same problem. And it’s an expensive problem as I’m finding out. I’ll report on this more later on.

The picture below is of St James Episcopal Church in Sonora. The city bills itself as the Queen of the Southern Mines.