The Holidays in a Small Town

This was shot after Christmas as I spent some time alone in a Brenham, a little town between Austin and Houston. I arrived right at dusk and strolled about for a few hours, meandering around the streets as dusk set… just me and my tripod and music that seemed fitting at the time. I can’t ever decide if I like being alone at moments like those. Actually, I do quite like being alone, but it’s interrupted by fleeting thoughts that I’d like to share with someone, as much as I’d like to hear new unexpected thoughts and ideas.

Brenham is one of those old Texas towns where there is a quaint square that surrounds a courthouse-like object. I thought this might be fitting, since, according to the twitters and facebook updates, everyone really seems to be strangely in love with the government all the sudden. Those of you that know my Libertarian leanings can pretty much expect that I spend little time getting excited about the power of government..

And, speaking of the twitters (my Twitter is at, I have made a change to the comments so those of you that use the same email should see your avatar show up on the right. If you don’t have an avatar, you can upload your own for free at Gravatar.

The Holidays in a Small Town (by Stuck in Customs)

Entering Another World

Sometimes don’t you just want to leave this world behind and go some place else for a bit (or forever)?

I was invited to go for a private walk of the shark reef aquarium at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I went in with average expectations and came away very impressed! There are many cool areas, including a dreamy jellyfish tank and another nearby section where you are in a sunken ship. I’ll post that one as soon as I get around to processing it… my brain has been overloaded as of late…

Entering Another World (by Stuck in Customs)

I was able to hack the D3X into a flux capacitor to time travel to 1958

This is my favorite bakery in the world – Clear River Pecan Company.  I’ve been there about four times… it’s about two hours away from Austin in historic Fredricksburg, Texas.

The brownies here are somewhere between a solid and a liquid… sort of a sweet plasma of brownie!

I do consider myself a connoisseur of chocolate with a specialty within the magistarium of brownies.  So believe me when I say they are a 10/10.  The only other 10/10 I can find in Austin is something called “Miles of Chocolate”, which also barely surfs within the existence of this mortal coil.

I was able to hack the D3X into a flux capacitor to time travel to 1958

Where to Party in Vegas

I just recently got back from Las Vegas and betwixt a panoply of activities that kept my mental faculties on edge, I did manage to go out and get some photos, of course. At least I am assured that these always turn out winners!

I stayed in THE Hotel. I think you are supposed to capitalize that THE. In fact, maybe it is even one word like THEhotel. Before going, I thought it was just "the" hotel at Mandalay but now I know it’s much different…. It was a great place and probably the best of 7 or 8 hotels I have stayed there. Although 2 or 3 of those should barely be on the list…

This is a shot of the restaurant area of Club Mix, which sits on the top floor of THE Hotel. I was able to see so many cool places there — I hardly knew which to process first! …more coming in the next weeks and months!

Where to Party in Vegas (by Stuck in Customs)

The State Capitol of Texas at Dusk

I went down on Saturday evening to do some shooting around Austin and caught the capitol around sunset. There are all kinds of interesting things about the Texas capitol, like this cool underground Illuminati chamber you can see here, but the one thing that all Texans seem to know is that our capitol is 14 feet taller than the one in D.C. This is a source of pride for Texans, along with the cool and trivial fact that we maintain, in our state constitution, the right to secede from the Union.

The capitol is made out of this pink granite, and it gets a little pinker at night at soon as they turn on the lights, especially against the blue sky.

The State Capitol of Texas at Dusk

The ghost town just outside of Brenham, Texas

I left Brenham early on Sunday morning after crashing in a tiny roadside motel. The motel was pretty sketchy, but sometimes I like that style of drive-up-to-the-door, ditch my camera stuff in the room, crash for 6 hours, then leave in haste to catch the sunrise. Sunday morning turned out to be rainy and freezing… pretty horrible for a lot of outside photography. So I ate in downtown, read a few chapters of Ananthem, drank a lot of coffee, chatted with a waitress who was an aspiring photography student and gave her some golden nuggets of truth, then drove on to Houston.

Several miles outside of Brenham, I saw this strange collection of houses and stores that were all brightly colored but recently abandoned. It was still raining, so I put it on my list to hit on the way back later in the evening. Luckily, the weather was dark and moody when I returned. I spent about an hour walking around this old abandoned place, shooting a bunch of cool and creepy things. I have no idea why everything was boarded up and empty… there might have been some squatters in one distant house, but I was kind of freaked out by some strange music coming out through some of the boarded-up windows, so I decided it was time to leave…

I’ll post more shots of this place later… it was very strange… reminded me a little of a mid-80’s Texas version of my visit to Pripyat (the little town right by Chernobyl that was also abandoned).

The ghost town just outside of Brenham, Texas (by Stuck in Customs)

A Good Ol’ Texas Revival

I drove down to Houston this weekend to meet some friends, and I took my time about it, so I might find a few things here or there. Well, I found a bunch!

The sun started to set as I was approaching Brenham (home of Blue Bell Ice Cream, as a few of you dessert-lovers like me already know), I came across a Roadside Revival!

So, those of you from overseas or those not familiar with the Christian sects and various mathic practices of arks in the south may never have heard of a Revival. These usually feature a firebrand ENTJ, who, happens to share the same Myers-Briggs as yours truly, and a happenstance clustering of believers who come to testify amidst fellow revelers, gesticulating about as 18-wheelers rumble along in the background.

A Good Old Texas Revival Meeting (by Stuck in Customs)

The Little Things in Life

This little thing has been a nice distraction for my holidays. This is actually a perfect little fairy that I got for my perfect little daughter who still believes that everything is both real and unreal at the same time. She doesn’t yet realize (or care) about what is possible and impossible. She has this wonderful free-spirit that is delicate and innocent – a soft way of holding my hand with intent as her grip loosens while she falls asleep.

I got her this little winged muse for the holidays – a tiny jewelry box for little things that she likes to use to make herself pretty for me.

Having kids running around is very nice for the artist in me… (uh oh – stream of consciousness warning – but don’t worry I am not a blogger who listens to the same Enya song 37 times in a row) It reminds me that it doesn’t really matter what is real and not real that affects the state of mind… To her fairies and magical forest creatures are real and full of wonder. They affect what she thinks and what she does… Then as adults, we are not supposed to think about that stuff any more because it is for children, but don’t we still fill up our heads with other things that are not real? Not only do we fill our heads up with non-corporeal visions, but most of them aren’t any fun at all! So, I say, why not go ahead and fill up our adult heads with fantastical things that may or may not be real, and have fun with it? I fill my head with things that have a deep truth and a fantastical nature… I suppose you can see some of that bleed out in my photos… and many of these things that are in my head actually come true in unexpected ways. There are elements of my brain that are like Big Fish and The Fall — all of it is there and happening within various levels… I am glad movies like that exist and kids exist… reminding us of what is secretly acceptable.

The Little Things in Life (by Stuck in Customs)

Merry Christmas from the Ratcliffs!

Merry Christmas from my family to yours! See my three kids there? They’re so happy you come to the blog and, in so doing, help out the family! I love photography,and I love the family, so I can’t think of a better thing to share with you on Christmas.

And thank you so much for sharing the site with your friends and family. It’s helped us to grow to hundreds of thousands of monthly readers. Some come to just look at photos. Some come to learn more about photography. So whether you’re just browsing around for fun or here to get more goodies, I’m thankful! I hope you have a great holiday.

This is the first photo I ever took with my Nikon D3X. If you want to know more about this style of photography, see my HDR Tutorial (it’s free!). If you want to know more about this camera, I have it listed on my HDR Camera page here on the site.

In this photo are my three kids… See the older Ethan in the picture? He said, “Dad, that looks just like your old camera.” I tousled his hair and told him to just be quiet and pose for the photo and be as neoRockwellian as possible with the rest of my brood.

Have a good holiday week!

Christmas HDR Photo

HDR Tutorial Part 3

(Continued from Page 2 – or go to page 1 of the HDR Tutorial)

Step 6, Continued

Stacking and Aligning the Photos

In the screenshot below, look down in the lower right at the layers. You can see the four layers there. I put the Photomatix result on the top layer, and stacked the other three below. The order does not matter. Note that as you become more advanced, you will not need to bring in all of these originals. Maybe just one or two will do the trick.

To import the photos, there are a variety of ways, as there is with everything in Photoshop!  If you read the following bullet point list, I will assume you are a beginner, so I will try tell you the easiest way!

  • After you open all 4 (or your number) into Photoshop, you should have 4 windows or tabs open in Photoshop.
    • Bonus Tip: If you have Adobe Bridge, you can select all the photos, then go to Tools>Photoshop…>Load Files into Photoshop Layers… and voila, all are in one Photoshop window!
  • Go to your Tonemapped photo that was the result of the Photomatix process. Remember this is your “Base Layer”. We will copy and paste all the other photos into this image.
  • Go to one of the original photos.
  • On the Menu, choose Select > All.  Then Edit > Copy.  Then go back to your Base Layer and do a Edit > Paste.  Then you will have 2 layers.
  • Continue to repeat this with all of the other photos.
  • Once you have all the layers in one photo, you can re-arrange them as you see fit. I usually put the HDR result on the top.

I have also made sure to align all the images so they are neatly stacked:

  • Select all the layers with CTRL or SHIFT-clicking them, then use Auto-Align under the Edit Menu – default options are fine.
  • …Or you can press V to get into move mode and use the arrow keys at 300% to nudge them around. This is usually what I have to do with the HDR layer, turning it on and off to make sure it’s lined up just right.

HDR Tutorial

Photoshop – Here we have the HDR image on top with some of the original photos on layers beneath.

If you look closely at the layers on the right in the screenshot below, you can see that I have created a LAYER MASK for the TOP LAYER. If you see those little black and gray marks there, that is where I have painted black to see the layer beneath. I used the Brush, adjusted the opacity to about 30%, and kept painting until enough of the lower layer shined through.

To create a mask and start revealing the layer underneath:

  • Click on the top layer (the one you want to punch through)
  • On the Menu, go to Layer > Create Layer Mask > Reveal All.
  • Choose the brush tool (or hit B).
  • At the top, there are two areas to adjust:
    • “Opacity” –  Set that to 30%.  This means how hard you will be pushing down the brush to punch through to the bottom layer. Multiple brush strokes will make that percentage go up… For example, if you brush over the same spot ten times or so, you’ll be at 100% see-through!
    • Brush – Click that dropdown and make the brush size 100.  You will keep adjusting this size throughout, depending on what you want!
      • Quick Tip – to change the size of the brush quickly use the bracket keys ( [ and ] )
  • Now that you created the mask, you will see a little white box on that layer down in the lower right.  See it?  Click on that little white box it because THAT represents the mask.
  • Make sure your chosen color over on the right is BLACK.
  • Start using the brush on the photo.  Each stroke will make that layer 30% more transparent.  If you stroke the same area over and over again, you will get to 100%, which allows you to see the layer underneath.
  • After you are done masking the two layers together, Merge Layers in the menu or by pressing Command (Ctrl on PC) E.
  • Bonus Tip: Are you still MASSIVELY confused by Masking?  This happens often because of my lousy description.  I suggest you visit this nice YouTube Video on Masking (note that I did not make that video).

You will notice the areas in which I painted. Those areas were blown out and unreadable. So, I chose the DARKEST layer, in which the signs were very readable. I masked those through so we can read, for example, the ticker on the right at the ABC Studios.

Photoshop – Stacking the Layers and Starting to Mask. The gray areas in the white box represent where we have “punched through” to the lower level.

I hope that was easy for you to understand, at least in concept. People sometimes have trouble with Masking, so I hope I explained it okay.

The next thing I do is combine the top two layers by selecting both of them by selecting Layer > Merge Layers. Below, you can see how I have combined the layers top two. Now I only have three layers.

Combined those two (by Stuck in Customs)

Photoshop – I have combined the top two layers after masking.  Now just three remain.

This process of masking and combining should repeated until you are happy with the results.

Moving on, the next step in this particular photo is masking in the pedestrians so that they do not look “ghosted”.  When they are moving around between the frames, Photomatix gets confused.  I prefer to find my favorite of the original shots where the people are in the most interesting formation.  I then use that photo to remix with the original.  Below, you can see I have zoomed in on the pedestrians and created a mask on the top layer.  I have used the Brush on the top layer to reveal the clean pedestrian layer beneath.  Note that the pedestrians are not crystal clear, and I did not mind a bit of “motion” here, since it is Times Square after all.

HDR Tutorial (by Stuck in Customs)

De-ghosting the image by masking through to the layer where the people look best

Step 6 – Noise Reduction and other Tools

You will notice that you probably have a lot of noise in the finished result. The HDR Process does this… it is an unfortunate side effect, but easily cleaned up.

I will not go into the full description of Noiseware here, but you are welcome to go read my Noiseware Review.

The only thing I really have to do is to show you the following screenshot. I mean, are you kidding me? The only tip I can add beyond this, for a full master’s touch, is to create a duplicate layer of your finished product before doing the noise reduction. It may get rid of some details you quite like, in which case you can use the masking tricks above to just keep the details and noise how you best see fit for your own work of art.

As you can see below, this can help make your final product look a lot more silky-smooth.

Noiseware Review
This is the best software I have used for Noise reduction – better than Noise Ninja!

Below, we can see the final image once again! All the hard work has paid off! Behold!

Times Square at Dusk
The final product, after a lot of fun steps… remember… it’s the journey, not the destination…

Now that you are done with that, here are some other tools that I recommend. These are part of my workflow, and I recommend you get these and play with them all!

  • Lucis Pro – I’ve also started using Lucis Pro more and more. It’s a lot like LucisArt, but it’s even better. I’ve written a Lucis Pro Review and a Lucis Tutorial here on the site, which maybe you can save for later. The same coupon code for LucisArt applies here of “TREYRATCLIFF”. She tells me it’s the best one available.
  • Nik Software – Nik makes a great suite of tools I recommend. Use the Coupon Code of “STUCKINCUSTOMS” to save the most amount of money. You can get it from the Nik Software website. I have a full Nik Review here on the site for more info.
  • OnOne Software – This is another great suite of powerful tools that I use a lot. Use the Coupon Code “STUCKINCUSTOMS” to save the most amount of money when ordering from the onOne Software website. I have a full review of the OnOne Plugin here on the site for you.

Bonus Step – Sharpening and adding pop with Lucis Pro or LucisArt

Many of my images get a visit from the sweet lady Lucis.

The LucisArt Plugin is awesome. I suggest you download the trial and give it a run! The trial is nice because you get a preview window that shows what all the cool sliders do. If you buy it, be sure to use this Lucis Coupon Code of TREYRATCLIFF.  If I ever meet you in person, you can buy me a cappuccino or something… You can get the trial or order it at the LucisArt Website.

Note that sometimes I use an even better program, and you can find out more about that at the Lucis Pro Review.  I really don’t mean to overwhelm you with options, just to let you know that there are good, better, and best paths to sharpening.

When you use LucisArt, I suggest the SCULPTURE setting with the top slider less than 12 and the bottom slider above 70 or so. Now, the screenshot below has the bottom slider at 55 original just to show you how it makes the lines “pop”. It’s a bit like UNSHARP MASK, but quite a bit better, in my judgment.

HDR Tutorial (by Stuck in Customs)

Bonus Step – Processing a single RAW file

In Photomatix, go you can simply open a RAW file and then go right to Tone Mapping! This is a new feature, and a welcome time saver… You will get a little warning that it is not a true HDR image, but just ignore that. Many times, I find that it is quite good enough.

People ask me all the time if it is better to use just One RAW or multiple. Well, sometimes you have no choice if the subject is moving… but the result can be quite nice in both conditions. For the record, I always take multiple exposures whenever possible.

To show you how good images can look from just a single RAW file, here are a few examples:

The Place Where Rebekka's Horses Run Free

A Giraffe on the Savannah

This is Nathaniel

The Lonely Road to the Dinosaur Dig

That is an hour of your life you will never get back, but let’s hope you formed some good memories and skills to create more. Best of luck and I thank you for all your comments and feedback. I currently have over 20,000 emails unread in my photography inbox, so I apologize if I do not get back to you… just don’t have enough time I am afraid. But thanks for all your comments and support! I hope you all have as much fun with HDR as I am – again, best of luck to you!

Did You Find the HDR Tutorial Useful?

If you did, please make a little blog post about it and link back here to “HDR Tutorial“!  That would be very nice of you, and it would help more find out the best way to make good HDRs.  Thanks!

Stuck In Customs Textures Tutorial

The video Stuck In Customs Textures Tutorial is only a click a way. Now that you are getting to know HDR, why not move onto the next one? :) Below is an advertisement that talks a little about the content. I think out of all our sales, we have only had ONE return, so people seem happy with it.

Stuck In Customs Textures Poster

The Stuck In Customs Textures Tutorial.  Make your photos stand out from the crowd!

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