Sunday, December 28, 2008

Happy Holidays

As usual, my wishes arrive a few days late :). But I guess better late than never! Happy Holidays everyone, hope you had a safe and wonderful holiday season with your friends and loved ones.

From Happy Holidays

As 2008 comes to a close, I am just beginning to realize what an eventful year it has been for the world and for me personally (that probably deserves a post on its own). I've spent the past few days on a break from all things related to photos and just relaxed, doing different things - ok ok, mainly just going back to video games for a little bit :). Finally got to finish Eternal Sonata - a Japanese RPG about Chopin and this fantastic dream world he enters while on his deathbed. The game had some of the best video game music ever (not to mention a few pieces from Chopin), amazing visuals and some of the most creative character designs I've seen in awhile (oh and a very interesting battle mechanism). At first I mistook this game as something for kids with the art style, characters, and premise but I decided to give it a try based on some very positive reviews. While it's not a perfect game I loved just about every second of it... I mean just the music and visuals alone was worth the 40 some odd hours I spent on the game. I'm also starting back on Ys Origin, another Japanese RPG (one of the more recent Ys games which also has amazing music ;)).

Anyways, I did get to go out for a quick photo shoot the day after Christmas. With recent storm in Southern California, there has been a lot of snow up in the nearby mountains so my family decided to take a quick day trip out to Lake Arrowhead. After all, we wanted to experience a white Christmas too :). We got there kind of late in the afternoon and wanted to leave before nightfall since we didn't have snow chains or anything so I only got a few shots in. Here are some of my favorites from the day (full album here:

Happy New Years everyone, hope 2009 will bring happiness and many new experiences (as well as many wonderful photos) for you!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

New Zealand Day 3

Sorry the long delay in between posts, a lot of stuff has been happening both at work (you know, like the launch) and outside of work. Personally I've been trying to take a short break from photography (and processing photos) so I can attend to other areas of interest and hopefully come back to photos with a lot more passion and creativity. I actually had day 3 photos almost fully processed 2 weeks ago but I got side tracked by a personal photo calendar project I was doing... Thanks to everyone who helped with that and provided valuable input.

Day 3 in New Zealand to me was one of those turning point type day where the number of potentially interesting photos grew sharply from the previous day. It was also a major turning point for the weather as the day started out completely overcast (and even slight drizzle to light rain) which completely dashed any hopes of taking a helicopter flight up to the glaciers. I was actually really looking forward to taking that helicopter, getting some aerial photos and being able to walk on the glaciers... but I guess I'll have to just setting for the view from the base. After the short visit to Fox Glacier, we drove along the west coast of the South Island before heading in land towards Queenstown (our destination for the day). Along the drive, we passed by two gorgeous lakes (Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea) and this was right about when the weather started clearing up revealing some of the "classic" New Zealand landscapes... The full album can be viewed here: 

Here is a photo taken at the base of Fox Glacier... The original photo (left) was really kind of boring with the featureless overcast sky which also made the colors feel really muted. My friend Alex happened to send me a post of a technique he recently learned in Lightroom to make foggy landscapes look even more interesting (post here: What better way to learn a new technique than to try it out on a photo immediately? So I basically lowered the clarity of the photo overall to about -70, bumped up recovery to about 90 to try to bring back some of the blown details. This made the whole image kind of glowy bright feel which was cool, but really killed the detail on the glacier so I took the brush tool to bring back the details in the foreground (graduated filter would work just as well I think): +100 clarity, 22 sharpness, 35 saturation, 20 contrast). Finally I fiddled with the settings on the image over all by increasing the contrast and saturation a bit more but really bumped up the saturation of the blue (with a small hue shift) to emphasize the clean blue color of the glacier. While still not a great photo, it is certainly better than the original I think :).

Here is a photo from Lake Hawea, to me this really feels like "New Zealand"... the expansive blue lakes set against snow-capped mountains with a thin string of clouds. In fact, the native Maori's name for New Zealand is 'Aotearoa' which translates to 'the land of the long white cloud'. While this photo is an HDR composite of 3 images, the actual vista wasn't too different. In fact the main difference between the HDR and the non-HDR version of the image is that you see a bit more detail in the sky (and has more gray) and the lake water is a bight brighter more like turquoise rather than a darker emerald color.

After our brief stop at Lake Hawea, we stopped by the town of Cromwell to buy some fresh fruits... of course my mom and I completely ignored the fruit stand and instead started taking pictures... The places just had the largest field of Sakura (Cherry blossom) trees I've ever seen and almost made me feel like I was in Japan... BTW, in case you don't know, I'm totally obsessed about sakuras but have always struggled to take good photos of them...

I think the reason why I really like this photo is because it feels like a post card, you know one of those photos looking down a long path under the blossoming sakura trees. Just like one of those images you would find in the random "inspirational" PowerPoint you'd get in the mail.

While I didn't really need to use HDR (there is a similar non-HDR shot in the album) on this shot, I thought having the darker angrier looking cloud made the image feel a bit more dramatic. In the end, I think I just really liked the sun shining through creating the long shadows on the ground.

We arrived at Queenstown just before sunset and took the gondola up the nearby mountain for a great buffet dinner overlooking Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. I managed to be one of the first ones up the gondola to get myself a bit more time shooting the sunset. While the sunset itself wasn't that great, the view from the top overlooking Lake Wakatipu was just amazing, offering a nice reflection of the nearby mountains basked in the warm light.

This is one of my favorite shots from the day... I just love sweeping vista... I mean you can see all of Queenstown, the mountains nearby, Lake Wakatipu and just see it extend all the way out to the horizon.

This is by far my favorite photo from the day... but there is a reason for this. In my home in Taiwan, my step mom has a laminated aerial photo of Hokkaido (at least that's what I think it is...) during twilight... I mean this image had it all, huge city with bustling city lights, large bodies of water... and this deep blue sky. For some reason that image just connected with me and I really liked the royal blue color of the image (white balance trick I believe) and the city lights against the darker water surrounding the city which really made it stand out. So when I saw this scene earlier in the day, I knew I just had to come back during twilight just after the sun has set but leaving enough ambient light for me to get some detail out of the mountains in the distance. Well, the sun set just half way through dinner so I had to just stuff myself with as much food as I could (only had time for 1 plate at the buffet and gave up on seconds or the wonderful desserts they had... I mean they had some amazing desserts) and just grabbed my tripod and ran outside. I think for this image, it was well worth giving up dinner and dessert... I ended up eating cup noodles back in the hotel room. OH well, such is the life of a photographer :).

Before getting to New Zealand, I knew I wanted to try taking more star trail shots and also try to capture the Milky Way. Day two actually was the perfect opportunity given the low light pollution of the area, but rain killed any chances of seeing stars. While Queenstown sill is a pretty large town with decent amount of light pollution, I was able to find a quiet corner along the coast of Lake Wakatipu during the walk back from dinner. I quickly set up my tripod and took a few test shots. This particular shot was taken at f/5.6 over an 8 minute exposure. I was actually really surprised you can capture that much of the star trails that clearly...

Friday, December 5, 2008

Improved Sharing, new album mode for picasaweb

So on Wednesday Picasaweb launched another set of new features to the public (full post: The most noticeable was probably the new gallery layout and icons. Personally I think this new layout is much more slick instead of the old dated 90's look to the gallery page. Another major enhancement is the integration with Google Translate for all the comments. Ever since we launched the Explore page, I've noticed that picasaweb actually has a fairly large (and very international) active user base! All the people started leaving comments in their native languages and I've personally made a few friends in Europe and other parts of the world. I started to get very curious as to what some of these comments were saying. For example: has a comment: "bellissima foto...simile alla toscana , ma profondamente diversa. Ottimo inquadratura. Brava" And now thanks to Google Translate... I now know that means "beautiful picture ... similar to Tuscany, but profoundly different. Excellent shot. Brava". While the translation is rarely perfect, it does help to get the point across, not to mention some of the failed attempts are pretty darn funny :) (case in point: "可惜好像故意照他掉頭髮的樣子" => "It is a pity as he seemed to intentionally look like the hair" when I really was trying to say that it was pity that it seemed as if I was intentionally taking picture the fact that he was balding - from Either way, I love this feature and I hope it'll spur more comment activity and help people overcome the language barrier.

We've also just launched the new album privacy mode called "sign in required" which will really locked down the album to the people you've shared with via the "Share" button on the page. Personally I find unlisted just fine, but I guess it's perfect for those wild bachelor party pics.... er I mean photos of your sweet kids to share with the grandparents... If you share the album with a friend who does not have a Google account to login with, we'll generate a special invite for him to create an account with (or he can log into any existing account to tie the invite to him). Keep in mind that you can also add non-gmail address to your Google account on the my account page so you can add your yahoo, hotmail or whatever address all to your Google account so when people share with you, it will all just work regardless of the email they use. One extra benefit of using the share button is for us to be able to track who you've shared with but also to create customized gallery views. This means that when you go to you will simply see ALL the albums you can view including unlisted and sign in required albums if the owner has invited you. This way if you don't have to worry if you deleted or lost the original share email... we'll remember all this for you to make it easier. Just make sure you share things with people using the "share" button or else we won't know about it... Hope you all enjoy these new features and start sharing all those photos during the holidays!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

So here is a late "Happy Thanksgiving" post... I've been fairly busy the past couple days stuffing myself full of great food (there goes that diet I was working on...) and working through all the HDRs I took in NZ (after 80 some HDRs, I can't even tell what looks real or fake anymore). But given the economic uncertainties (by uncertainty I mean the hell hole that we are in...) and suffering in the world (think Iraq, Mumbai, China... the list goes on), I had to stop for a moment and really count my blessings. I am really thankful of so many things in my life... For one, I have my health (I mean, I've sleep-driven myself to Santa Monica on numerous occasion and survived - please don't tell my van poolers that... But really, thank you God for watching over me.  This point hit even closer to home with Joe McNally's recent post.), the world's best mom that constantly watches out for me (even though I'd probably prefer she didn't), great group of friends that I can count on for support (no matter how stupid I am), a beautiful house to come back to every night, and a great job that I enjoy (yes, even on the days that I want to pull my hair out), what more can I ask for? Heck, even the Lakers are at 14 and 1... 

A few weeks ago at my brother's fellowship, he asked everyone to take a moment and think of things they would complain to God about (it's ok to complain, but one should try to think positive). I thought long and hard but really could not come up with anything, sure I could complain about how busy work is, how exhausted I am coming back from Santa Monica every night, or how I'd love to meet the "right one" sometime soon (these seems to be the most common complaints people had)... but honestly, I have no right (and no reason) to complain. All these things are so minor in the grand scheme of things. I really don't know what I did to deserve the life I have. Whether you believe in Buddhist view of reincarnation (and karma) or not, I can't help but feel as if I'm wasting away the good karma that I must have built up in previous life times... that I'm not doing enough to give back to the people around me, to the world. I could be doing so much more, like my cousin and actually going out to third world countries and helping out, making a difference.

Anyways, I digress, I just want to take a moment and thank all the people that have touched my life, supported me through tough times, put up with me when I'm being unreasonable, and watched over me. And especially thank God for giving me everything that I have in life, even though I deserve none of it. Thank you all.  Hope you have a great and most importantly, safe, holiday season.  Happy Holidays.