Saturday, December 29, 2012

Winter Horses

After being housebound for more than a week, I've been itching to get out with a camera. Sometimes the urge to do photography seems even greater than the need for physical exercise. I had attempted to slake my thirst for fun by doing some humorous shots through an open door. I created these two "flower" shots while watching squirrel antics.

Today, I finally got out, and drove in search of a decent landscape or cityscape to complement the sunset that I thought would develop. As it happened, the clouds and colors fizzled, but along the way I encountered some horses in challenging light. I did my best to show the bucolic nature of this scene at the edge of the city, and present these four shots for those of you who love horses.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Trance Only

Here's a little tableau that I pass fairly regularly. It has gradually changed as the objects weather. What you're seeing, aside from the obvious, is a metal sign wrapped around a cylindrical gate post. A paper combining printed and hand written material has been glued to the sign and partially removed.

The reason I decided to pause and record the scene today was that I'd been thinking (again) about pareidolia, our tendency to see patterns in what may be random. We create our own meaning in these patterns, even imagining human faces in cratered surfaces, weathered paint, and so forth.

Now there clearly is a face in the poster-on-sign in my photo. Something I find fascinating about some styles of poster art is that with skill, a few simple lines of solid black on a plain background can immediately convey the feeling of a three dimensional person, complete with expression. My suspicion is that part of the reason this can be done so successfully is precisely because we are "wired" to want to see faces, and further to want to read their mood as well as we can. This is a skill that has evolved to a high level in humans!

To return to my little photo abstraction, I had the notion that the person was fixated on a goal, but also that her (?) stare was somewhat trancelike. From there, it was impossible for me not to read the "ENTRANCE ONLY" sign as "TRANCE ONLY". It was a simple matter of composing with my little Canon G10 so that only the desired portion of the word was in the frame. I chose my angle to center a tall tree within the slit of background on the right, because I'm always looking for patterns to connect my foreground, midground and background. Tree>path of leaves>similarly shaped letters on the sign. Note, too, the LY>LY connecting the sign and poster. Okay, those are surely examples of my own tendency to look for and find patterns and meaning! If this photograph has any worthwhile symbolism, I'll have to take at least partial credit for it, because I don't think it was intended by the worker who mounted the sign, nor even by the "vandal" (or graffiti artist) who added the pasted paper.

One other detail. See how the A has been punctured and fractured? Do you see anything interesting or significant in the shadows cast by the fragments? If so, that's your own pareidolia! Please use the comments section below to let us know what you see.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Watching for (Geminid) meteors

This year's Geminid meteor shower has been projected to be unusually fine this year, and the peak was/is today/tonight (Dec. 13-14), so it would be a good night to escape urban light pollution for awhile. The Geminids are unusual among recurring showers in that their source is not a comet, but an asteroid, Phaethon. Phaethon is unusual among asteroids in that it has a highly elliptical orbit, traveling further from the sun than Mars (where the greatest bulk of asteroids "live" in a belt between Mars and Jupiter) and also coming much closer to the sun than Mercury. It may even have an icy component to its core, which would explain the amount of debris that surrounds it, as this would tend to melt and break up at perihelion. In any case, it's the tiny bits that spread along the approximate orbit of the asteroid itself, and many of them end up encountering earth's atmosphere, where they burn up quickly but make a very nice display for us if we chance to be looking in the right direction at the right time. Because of the geometry of Earth's orbit and Phaethon's, these "shooting stars" appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Gemini.

I did a quick drive out to Jordan Lake, away from the substantial light pollution of Raleigh, and arrived just before sunset. I found myself at a western exposure, where I could enjoy the dusk over the water, but facing opposite where Gemini would be rising at about 8 pm. I was ready for my first photo op, but had to set up in a hurry!

After the sun disappeared, with the sky still glowing, I looked for ways to narrow the focus to color contrast and graphic design. That meant a telephoto lens (narrow angle of view) and dropping the exposure value to intensify color and turn dark areas into silhouette.

The birds became somewhat active after sundown, but remained at the far side of the lake, both in the air and on the water.

With the sky continuing to darken, but no stars visible yet in the west, a plane added its contrail to the scene.

I included a boat launching ramp in a few foregrounds, opting for variety of texture instead of pristine nature.

Finally the sky became dark enough for thousands of stars to be visible in the east. There was also a constant stream of air traffic, but I got one frame with no airplane lights visible. No meteors either, which is no surprise because Gemini was still well below the horizon, and any horizon grazers would likely have been hidden by the trees in the east.

And then I had to leave! I probably won't put much effort into photographing meteors tonight, but I'm going out for a post-midnight look just to enjoy the experience. Shooting stars do bring good luck - the fine fortune of experiencing something beautiful with such fascinating phenomena behind it!


Wedding venues, and what matters most in photographing the day

In the midst of designing two wedding albums, I got to thinking about the amazing variety of venues in which I've photographed ceremonies over the past fifteen years and more. This year's main wedding "season" was bookended for me by a neat little coincidence of names. In spring, I covered Gayle and Mark's wedding at Umstead Park in Raleigh. This fall, it was Tatiana and Roger's wedding at the Umstead Hotel. Another, more important way that it brought me full circle was that the officiant in both cases was Reverend Kayelily Middleton. The people are what really matters, and that's why both experiences were a great pleasure for me.

Now, both of the Umstead events were outdoor ceremonies, but of course many weddings take place indoors, whether in impressive architectural wonders or in simple settings. Naturally it is part of the documentary process to capture some of the memorable characteristics of the surroundings, at the same time that the people and events are the main focus. I've enjoyed covering weddings at Duke Chapel, and it's a fine challenge to do justice to the majesty of the building itself, but it's also rewarding to capture, in the brief time generally available, the charm and detail of a simple country church, a period home turned bed and breakfast, or even a living room put into service for nuptials.

Modest church wedding:

An impressive backdrop for a reception portrait:

A gazebo in a neighborhood park can be as beautiful as anyplace for a wedding ceremony.

Dilshad and Michael's album cover included a beautiful garden corner that was part of the back yard venue for their reception.

Here's just a taste of the living room ceremony.

This next photo happens to be one of the last shots from the Umstead Park wedding of Gayle and Mark, but the location matters less than the expressions, in my view.

I've already shown a couple of photos from Tatiana and Roger's wedding at the Umstead Hotel in my
Potpourri Week post, but here's one that is just wide enough to evoke some of the atmosphere of that crisply beautiful fall evening, with the surrounding woods adding to the romance.

So what matters most? Well, everything matters in wedding photography, but emotions rule the day, so I suppose that in whatever ways the physical surroundings color the feelings of all the participants, the photographer should try to be sensitive to those effects and incorporate them into the total package.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Wood and wood products

If you came here looking for particle board, sorry to mislead your search engine. The oak leaves have curled into interesting shapes, and the existing light brought out the textures pretty well. I'd like to think that the subject matter complements my previous post. No experimenting with different cameras this time, just a quick tripod setup, compose and focus using live view, and a manual exposure of 20 seconds at f/13, ISO 100, 100 mm.

It's sometimes fun to look for animal-like shapes in static plants (not to mention rocks, clouds, etc.), but then the real thing arrives to show you a true action pose, if you can catch it:

I know squirrels are rodents, and commonplace, but I still think they're cute, and sometimes downright funny! Also, even urban squirrels are products of the woods.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Obsolete cameras?

"Obsolete" cameras? Or just different personalities?

While waiting for my computer to batch process a bunch of raw files that I had edited in Adobe Lightroom, I stepped out on the landing of my studio, and spotted a leaf that had stuck in a side-lit spot on the railing. I had also been charging the batteries for a series of "old" Canon digital cameras that I like to keep in working condition, if for no other reason than out of nostalgia. The first one I grabbed was my very first digital, a Canon PowerShot G1 that I bought in spring of 2000. It's a 3 megapixel beast that operates slowly, but does have an articulated LCD that made it easy to compose a close view. It also supports saving raw files, so I had some latitude to add contrast without losing quality. I wouldn't want to hang a 30"x40" print of this image, but until you try enlarging it, it holds up surprisingly well in a comparison to files from newer cameras. Of course, this is a static subject with limited contrast range.

As soon as I'd captured the scene with the old G1, I pulled out an EOS 1D MkII. That model is a DSLR introduced in 2004, and features an 8.2 megapixel APS-H sensor (something like 15 times the area of the one in the G1), not to mention 8.5 frames per second continuous shooting with autofocus - in other words, an action camera. It was perfectly capable of handling a still life, but has inherently shallower depth of field (because of the larger sensor) than a compact camera like the G1, and led me in a different direction.

Because the degree of background blur rendered some objects unrecognizable, I allowed some interesting color to bleed in from a blue recycling bin and a green garden hose.

I tried my oldest DSLR, a Canon D60 (not to be confused with the 60D), and got this result. The sensor is APS-C, smaller than APS-H, but still much larger than a compact camera's. Note that all of these shots were hand held. I wasn't trying to directly compare different cameras with exactly the same composition, but rather to see what I would come up with using each one naturally, quickly and intuitively. Meanwhile, the light was changing, of course.

The next day I was preparing to leave on a road trip, and was amazed to see the leaf still in place. I tried a shot with my cell phone, and found I rather liked it. The phone camera has an even smaller sensor than the compact G1, resulting in substantial depth of field and limited background blur. I used that characteristic to emphasize the lines in the background and foreground.

When I got back from the four day trip, the persistent leaf had finally blown away. There were lots of others around, though, so I put one on the rail and decided to complete my little journey by doing some shots with a full-frame DSLR, a 21 megapixel 5D MkII. This is the largest sensor of the lot (greatest in area, not just the number of pixels). Are these "better" than the photos done with older or lesser cameras? In some technical ways, they certainly are. In terms of what you see on a web site like this one...well, you be the judge.

I would be the last person to claim that the camera doesn't matter. In addition to levels of fine detail that can be captured, dynamic range (dark and bright areas that can be held within one exposure), and speed of response, each camera features a set of design goals and compromises that make it good for particular types of shooting, or perhaps very flexible and good for many things (at a price). But of course a photographer's vision still makes a difference, and one of the fun things about working with different types of cameras is that you can allow them to lead you to see a bit differently, if you are sensitive to their "personalities".


Monday, December 3, 2012

Brown Thrasher

I was treated to a new visitor to our yard today, a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), apparently looking for insects and seeds beneath the clutter of fallen leaves. What a privilege for me: he or she gave me time for a few good shots in pretty good light before flitting off into the shadows, then into a tree.

Such striking yellow eyes!