Underwater Color Correction Video How To

Saturday, December 1st, 2007

I was initially pretty disappointed in my Belize diving photos since I couldn’t get good color correction afterwards. My dad did some digging, though, and found an excellent video tutorial on another technique:

By using green and blue light in place of the missing red light, you can get a much more balanced photo. If you use GIMP instead of Photoshop, the Channel Mixer can be found under Colors > Components. There’s still a certain tint to the photos, but overall it’s a vast improvement!

View the Belize Diving photos

La Milpa

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

CabanasOne of the more interesting places I visited in Belize was La Milpa, part of the Rio Bravo preserve run by the Program For Belize. It’s an out-of-the-way field station in the middle of the rainforest, not far from another Mayan site.

Getting there involved about 2 hours of rough dirt roads from Orange Walk with our guide Vladimir, who picked us up in a pickup already sporting some groceries and a few windshield cracks. The ride passed through more typical Belizean country-side: small villages, Mennonite settlements, fields of sugarcane and rice, and finally some views of Mexican mountains just over the border.

La Milpa itself is really just a clearing in the forest, with thatched roof cabanas, a central dining hall, and their new eco-friendly dorm up the hill. It has the makings to draw an interesting community of visitors, though being the off-season, my Dad and I were the only ones there at the time.

Big palmsThat did mean that we had our own tour guide the whole time. We did morning and afternoon hikes, learning a good bit about the variety of plants and animals and their numerous defense mechanisms. Touring the La Milpa Mayan site was an interesting contrast to Lamanai, in that it’s largely unexcavated and still very much a part of the jungle. And if you forgot it for even a moment, the mosquitos were quick to remind you!

A slower pace of lifeAside from the hikes and meals, life at La Milpa was as laid back as elsewhere in Belize. There was plenty of time to read, swing in a hammock, or chase the butterflies and turkeys around camp with a camera. Their resident cat set a fine example by lounging in the sun instead of chasing after the numerous birds.

Tree frogNighttime was also a treat; the sun sets quickly close to the equator, and then the stars come out. All the stars. I got the same sense of awe I experienced years ago in the Rocky Mountains, looking up from a campground and being able to see dimmer stars and the diffuse band of the Milky Way. We also attempted a night safari drive, and while we didn’t see any jaguars, we did get some smaller treats: a tree frog and a big beetle.

The New River to Lamanai

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Jesus Christ bird - walks on waterSwooping down the New River in a small boat banking big turns through the jungle conjures up any number of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now flashbacks, but our captain and guide Carlos soon cuts the motor so we can stop and watch the “Jesus Christ bird” walk on water. (Or lily pads, for the less faithful.)

Boating down the New River to LamanaiWe’re enjoying the hour boat ride to Lamanai, the largest Mayan city in Belize. The original tour we booked through the Hotel de la Fuenta canceled on us, but the owners continued to take great care of us by getting us another one and even driving us down to the dock. In addition to my Dad and I, there’s a group of 10 who have already traveled 2 hours by boat and bus from the island of Ambergris Caye we left the day before.

Ephiphytes - plants growing on other plantsThe river is less active midday than earlier or later, but we still see various plants and animals. A crocodile even splashes the boat, giving me a faceful of water, but not a chance to even realize it was a croc. Lunch for us is the traditional spiced stewed chicken over beans and rice; then we quickly become lunch for the mosquitos. My legs are safe under long pants, but my hands and arms are soon streaked with blood from fending off the little buggers.

Howler monkeyLamanai is worth the sacrifice, though. In addition to a number of restored buildings, walking through the jungle begins to give us a sense of the ecosystem that thrives here. Howler monkeys and toucans own the trees, while the forest continues to own 98% of the known but unexcavated city buildings.

Dad and Matthew celebrate the end of the climbThe Tall Temple offers a steep climb to a panoramic view 125 feet above the surrounding rainforest, and most of the group takes at least a stab at it. It’s a welcome escape from the bugs, and there’s a healthy exchange of cameras for “summit” photos.

The jaguarAfter walking through the royal residential area and past the jaguar temple, the tour wraps up quickly, but most of us are happy to get back in the boat and enjoy the wind in our faces and cold drinks in hand.

Chicken Plane

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Window seat on the flight to CorozalBefore we got on the Chicken Bus in Belize, we had to catch one of the quick local flights between Ambergris Caye] and the mainland. Never mind “puddle jumper” commuter planes; these were almost down to the scale of the bush plane I took to see [Mount McKinley in Alaska.

The contrast of the airport was one of my favorites: there’s nothing like boarding on a jetway and deboarding by stairway to remind you that you’re a bit off the beaten path. The island terminal is just a few buildings with open-air waiting areas; the baggage claim area is a spot in the grass where they park hand-wheeled carts piled with bags.

The local airport security had picked up on the TSA’s shoe fetish, but didn’t seem too concerned with baggies of 3 ounce containers. After climbing, almost literly, over the seats to your own sheep-fur-covered spot, it was simply time to go. No safety lecture, no shutting off your electronics, not even an admonition not to reach out and grab the controls that were in arm’s reach, certainly no queue on the taxiway - just a quick shoot down the runway.

AirstripThe flight was only about 20 minutes, and at only 200 feet provided some nice views and photos in the daylight. Approaching Corozal, I tried to reconcile the guidebook’s description of it being a regional economic center with the limited sprawl of two-story buildings. Then we lined up with the runway; more of a paved strip in the grass. It was a smooth landing, but it still felt good to be out of the small plane and back on solid ground.

Diving in Belize

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

The reason I choose Belize was for it’s renowned scuba diving, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Boasting the second largest barrier reef in the world, it has abundant easily-accessible reefs filled with healthy coral and fish. It has some big name sites like The Blue Hole and The Elbow, but the former didn’t seem worth it, and in the slow season there weren’t many boats running to the latter.

Ocean viewDiving the local reef off Ambergris Caye was a pleasure, though. Each morning around nine, the dive boat would make a pickup at the dock in front of the hotel and take a calm 10-15 ride out to the reef. After a good 40-50 minute at 50-80 feet, we’d head back to the dive shop’s dock for a tank swap and surface interval before doing a second dive and getting dropped right back at the hotel. That left the afternoon free for lunch, napping, and lounging in a hammock, making for some very pleasant days.

The water was a warm 84 F, even at depth, so I was quite toasty in my 3mm wet suit; most people went with a thinner shortie. There was plenty to see in addition to the variety of coral and tropical fish: nurse sharks, groupers, an eagle ray, and a few eels Dad developed a specialty for spotting. The coral itself also boasted some deep canyons that were quite dramatic to swim through.

Eagle ray in flightThis was the first trip I did any dive photography, which opened up a whole new world: looking for good shots, getting better bouyancy control, and mastering a little more multitasking. I also rented a dive computer for the trip, which allowed me to get in much more diving that using tables, and took the mathematical work out of my dive vacation.

Chicken Bus

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

Belize was my first really good local travel experience on the chicken bus (yes, of course it has a Wikipedia entry!). Arriving at the airstrip in Corozal, the taxi driver in Corozal was happy to take us to the bus stop, but for 10 times the bus fare, also offered to drive us directly to Orange Walk. We stuck with the bus plan, despite the fact that the original bus company had gone bankrupt and there were no tickets being sold at the stripped-down bus terminal, just a vague promise that a bus would show up.

After watching the local mid-morning color for about half an hour, a repainted Bluebird school bus rolled up. The “conductor” hopped out, yelled out some destinations, and confirmed ours was among them. All the windows were down, and Spanish music played at a healthy stereo and lights system that I don’t remember from my school bus days. The bus filled up with local folks (but no chickens) and a young American couple backpacking - her oversized sunglasses and his trucker hat didn’t leave much doubt as to their origin.

The bus barely made it’s first turn before stopping to pick someone up, in what quickly became obvious was the standard “route”. The conductor collected fares ($4 for an hour’s ride) and then hung out in the open door of the bus collecting and discharging passengers from seemingly random spots along the road.

Our destination was equally distinctive: the hot bustling market of a moderate central american town. Lugging our bags from there to the hotel showed us most of what Orange Walk had to offer, and after the ride, we were glad to grab some lunch and hide out for the heat of the day.

Flat Tire

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

Rain on the plane in PhiladelphiaWinter warm spells, monsoon rains, and hay all over the Schuylkill - it seems weird things happen every time I try to leave from the Philly airport. Heading to Belize, it was monsoon rains, and when I found my Dad at the check-in counter, we were already in danger of missing our connection to the one flight a day into Belize City due to the rain. We took it in stride, though, and were ready to run as the plane pulled up to the gate in Dallas.

Everything’s bigger in Texas, and the airport is no exception. Our connection was naturally the farthest possible gate, so after our hustle we were pleasantly surprised to find the plane still there. As we settled into our seats, we found out why: the plane had a flat tire was going to have to be replaced, delaying departure about an hour. The guy sitting next to us looked over and said, “I bet you’re the only two happy ones on the plane.” And we certainly were; the delay meant we actually had time to go back into the terminal and get some lunch!

Belize Photo Notes

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

Matthew concentrating on a photoMy recent trip to Belize was my first big vacation with the DSLR, and an undeniable slip down the slope of photo obsession. My carry-on bag basically consisted of the following:

  1. Rebel XTi with kit lens
  2. 50mm f/1.4 prime lens
  3. Canon SD630 point and shoot in waterproof housing

Over the week, I shot about 1000 photos, 300 of those underwater while scuba diving, and 50 taken by my dad with the same underwater camera.

Big palmsThe biggest surprise for me was never using my prime lens. For outdoor shooting of landscapes, the kit lens’ wider zoom was an obvious choice. And for macro work, it focuses at a closer range to provide a fuller frame. It’s one shortcoming was the high f-number; shooting in dimmer light under the jungle canopy was a struggle. Sometimes I had to resort to the flash, though I never thought to employ my flash diffuser. That begs the question of a lower f-number upgrade, though Digital Photography School’s post on Travel Photography - Which Lenses to Take? doesn’t offer any runaway solutions to me.

Jaguar TempleAnother piece of equipment I didn’t use was my new 50mm lens hood. After anticipating the strong Central American sun to be a lens flare problem, I purchased it for the trip, naively thinking it would also fit the kit lens. Of course, it didn’t so a few of the Lamanai photos have a bit of flare.

Overall, carrying around either camera wasn’t bad; the only difficulty was having my LowePro shoulder bag swinging around when scrambling up to the top of the unexcavated Mayan temple at La Milpa. (I do have a waistbelt for the pack, which would solve the problem.) Having add-on pouch for a water bottle was also a life saver, though with a big bottle and no camera, the bag was a little unbalanced.

Post-processing and trimming the photos was surprisingly quick over the course of two days. I’m getting much better about making the first cut of interesting photos from everything I shot. The second cut is tougher, trimming near duplicates and otherwise good shots that just don’t add to the album as a whole.

Life on the reefMy one disappointment was the inability to get good color correction when post-processing the underwater photos, though people still thought they were pretty neat, so I guess I shouldn’t sweat it. Next time, I’ll try using the flash to get more balanced colors. Overall, though, it was a great trip for photography!