Monday, March 25, 2013

The strength of trees, the fragility of glass

The strength of trees is impressive, They bend just enough to withstand considerable winds, and send their roots wide to survive periods of drought. Unless struck by lightning or weakened by infestation (or attacked by chain saws) they tend to survive a very long time, during which they do many things important for animal and plant life.

When I look at a tree, I'm aware of some aspects of its structure, of how it grows, and I even have a rudimentary understanding of photosynthesis (though I studied such things when I was young, before making the decision to devote the working part of my life to the arts). This fits perfectly with liking to view in the abstract, with no purpose beyond pleasure. To me, no matter how much knowledge and understanding one can acquire, it only adds to the pure sensory enjoyment of the world around us. It's the same with something as "simple" as viewing the night sky in a dark, clear environment. The feeling of awe is much like what we experience as children, but becomes even greater when, for example, we spend enough effort studying astronomy and math to gain some appreciation of the vastness of cosmic distances, the depth of time. These are so many orders of magnitude greater than what we experience directly in our brief lives on this tiny planet!

Well...looking upward from the roots at that massive trunk shows some of the strength, as well as the fractal patterns of branching. Below, I took two approaches to highlighting the delicate twigs at the end of the progression.

And now for something completely different. Glass is obviously frangible, and can easily be transformed from a flat plate to a pile of shards. Sometimes the pattern of breaks can lead to something interesting to look at, at least for a nutty photographer intrigued by reflections and geometry. I suppose I  could say something about the trees outliving the artificial structure, or the wood deteriorating because it has been separated from its organism and is no longer living. For me, though, this is pretty much an abstract composition. It's a collection of found objects, whose shapes intrigued me, but only when I contrived to view them from an oddly skewed perspective.

The curves in what you would be right to assume are essentially straight objects (wooden boards, metal window frame components) are the result of using a fisheye lens. Unlike a typical rectilinear lens, a fisheye is designed to curve all lines that do not go through the central axis. The bending enables a very wide field of coverage. They were initially intended to photograph the full sky, or a very large portion, for meteorological studies.

By the way, notice that one rod goes diagonally almost exactly through the center, and is rendered as straight. I love the contrast between that and all the curves!


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rainy, rainy day

Some people like to stay in bed on a rainy morning. That wouldn't apply to me, of course - nothing gets me going like a nice overcast and steady drizzle.

Our dog Photon has become increasingly precipitation averse as she has aged. I guess I can't blame her. It's tough enough to get around with two bum legs. Slippery ground just makes things worse. Notice how she manages not only to stay in bed, but to pull a blanket over herself despite the lack of opposable thumbs. She compensates with un-opposable eyes: we must do her bidding.

The falling water not only transforms the ground, but can turn the bark of a pine tree into a miniature landscape. Between the moss and bubbles, there's contrast of color and texture. I wonder if an insect has bored into the bark and the bubbling results from emission of gaseous metabolites...

I've written previously about similar things on a similarly rainy day. This time, I was prepared to catch the anticipated bubble scene, so that I could do a better job with a tripod, etc. My special equipment included a rain hat, not on my head, but held over the camera.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

First street shadow of spring

While walking the dog on the second day of spring...

I spotted an odd little shadow play. It was because of the dog. I often look up at the sky, partly out of interest in cloud formations, and partly because of awareness that impending changes in the clouds will have a major impact on how the landscape (or cityscape) looks. But that's a photographer thing. I wasn't even carrying a camera, just walking the dog.

Except that of course I did have my iPhone, which has a very usable camera for certain types of photos.

But I was walking the dog, which meant watching where she was going, which meant often looking down. So I spotted this interesting play of shadows on the asphalt pavement, shadows of...

Shadows of what? Is that an armadillo or an insect crawling along? Actually, what we have here, or rather what was above my head, includes a utility pole with a step-down transformer and several power lines, a street lamp on an arm, and a few odds and ends. The shadows are very sharp because the sun was in a clear sky and quite near zenith. It only took a moment to grab the shot, so doggie didn't even have a chance to become impatient.

It it worth a second look? I enjoy it, maybe because it reminds me of how I used to look at the street as a small boy and spot all kinds of things that the adults might have wished I would ignore. Also, I guess I do like the abstract structure of shadow and light. And kid-style imaginings of creatures instead of just electrical utilities.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How to Eat a Sunflower Seed

Matters of etiquette and practicality converge when it comes to consuming comestibles. There is a proper way to eat a sunflower seed, no question about it. Here is a demonstration by an acknowledged expert. Note that one's beak must be opened sufficiently to allow a vertical positioning of the width of the shell.

A crosswise angle allows full use of the sharp cutting edges.

Do not allow yourself to be distracted from the task at hand, even when you think you are being watched.

As the shell begins to open, you must deftly reposition it to get at the delicacies inside without dropping any.

Be alert for edges and stray bits that can get caught in your "beard".

Form counts, but only to the extent that it helps efficiency.

Pretty good job. You've earned this portion of your meal.

And we're finally just about done. Note the neat and evenly sized pieces that will slide smoothly down the gullet.

Other foodstuffs may call for slight variations in technique. :)


Chance and necessity, and depth of field

[Tip for viewing the photos in this blog: if the blog archive list obscures part of the first picture, collapse the list with the top arrow. Thanks for taking the trouble to look carefully!]

Sometimes aspects of the "look" of a photographic image are dictated by the limitations of the conditions and the equipment used. As one example, when I'm shooting wild birds, even those who have become accustomed to finding food that we've set out for them, I know that they will not allow me to approach them. Even for as brazen a visitor as a Blue jay, my only chance for a photo will be from a partially hidden position some distance away. That means using a long telephoto lens (600 mm in this case) to get reasonable magnification. That in turn means that any background more than a few inches behind the plane of focus will be very blurry.

This is not a bad thing generally speaking, and probably an advantage when the surroundings could be distracting rather than adding to the story of the photo. My only purpose in this image is the jay himself and the way that he managed to get two seeds in his beak. I would actually prefer to have blurred the pine straw even more, but it was simply too close. Okay, now that I've drawn your attention to it, ignore it! Pay attention to the whiskery facial feathers and the bright, tasty seeds!

In photographing this flower, I had two somewhat conflicting aims. I wanted to show the overall feeling of softness and subtle curves. Allied with that, I wanted to minimize any blemishes in the leaves around it. On the other hand, I also wanted to capture the details of petal texture, and even the tiny grains of pollen. To suit all the aims, I used a 135 mm telephoto and shot at a very wide, f/2 aperture. Getting much closer than I could with the jay, I managed a nice perspective, as well as tack sharp pollen grains and buttery soft leaves. Horses for courses, lenses for looks.

With the same 135 mm lens at the same aperture, I caught this little doggie challenging my presence (she's actually quite friendly). At the greater distance, the lens can render her quite distinctly, yet separate her from the blurred background so effectively that she almost pops off the screen in a three dimensional way. It's a very effective illusion in the full-resolution image, which I hope is somewhat apparent even in the reduced size seen here.

That lens was on my camera and in my hands as a result of having just shot the flower above, so the canine portrait certainly represents a bit of serendipity.

Here's a case where the lens focal length and aperture were chosen deliberately to suit the situation. I wanted to create a dreamy atmosphere in this portrait of our dreaming pet. I feel that the clear details of fur around her eye, her ear tips, and the rug and blanket textures are sufficient to anchor us to reality, while the rest of Photon's soft form can recede into her fantasy land, perhaps remembrances of her youthful days filled with action.

[35 mm, f/1.6]


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Horses in a mostly sunny landscape

A few days ago I found the "local" (NC State Veterinary School) horses grazing in a pasture accessible from public walkways. It was a mostly sunny day, but with upper and lower layers of clouds moving around. I decided to try to portray the three dimensional shapes and overlap of the cloud layers. 

I'm always drawn to patterns in landscapes, so I composed a shot of two horses mirroring each other, framed by lines in the grass and fences.

In a wider view, the blue sky and green grass are "completed" by the red barn - the three primary colors. Actually, the grass is yellow-green, and the sky is, well, sky blue, not pure blue, but it's still a strong combination.

One friendly stallion came closer to look me over, so we exchanged greetings, then each moved on.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Revisiting the back-lit landscape

I've written a bit about how a particular type of back lighting - rim light - can emphasize a subject. For portraits of people, this can add a very nice accent, as long as there is a suitable pattern of main light for the direction of the face. For horses, with their manes and tails, it may even work with only a little skylight for fill.

For landscapes, side light is often ideal, because it emphasizes textures, whereas front lighting - the sun directly behind the photographer's back, tends to be boring. Front lighting equals flat lighting, with minimal shadows and not much to add interest.

Full back lighting can be tricky to capture with a camera. The sun is in the field of view, perhaps even close to the center. If it is almost hidden by clouds, then really the light diffused by the clouds and approaching from many directions becomes almost as strong as whatever portion of the sunlight gets through directly. When the full intensity of the sun is aimed at the lens and the sun is part of the picture, it is hard to compete!

One way to deal with this super brilliant light source, while taking advantage of the pattern of shadows it paints on the land, is to arrange to have a natural object in place as a block. Trees are obvious choices for this role. In winter (even the not-so-icy winter we've experienced this year in the NC piedmont), deciduous trees become very bare, and don't help much as light flags, unless there is a trunk or very thick bough available.

So, on to this afternoon's photo. I revisited, yet again, a spot near the Schenck Memorial Forest that I have used as a photographer's playground several times recently. My happiest catch was spotting the shadows cast by the sun directly in front of me. The shadows of the tree reached toward me, and worked together with the curving dirt road to make nice leading lines. The textures of the grass and the roof of the shack were also emphasized by the light. What made it all possible was that the sun was sufficiently blocked by an intersection of two boughs of the tree. When clouds were in front of the sun, the scene lost its interest. While the sun was in the clear, yet blocked from the camera lens, everything came together.

Here is the result.

[17 mm tilt/shift lens, shifted upward ~7 mm]


Monday, March 11, 2013

Double Header

If last Sunday was a cold day for the first U-12 women's soccer game of the season (for the team I photograph), today was a balmy spring day in advance of the equinox. I was looking forward to some more ease of movement, but I wasn't expecting to catch a double header. No, I don't mean two games in a row, as in major league baseball. What I mean is this:


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Sunset Grunge

Being free as the end of daylight neared, I returned to a spot I've explored a few times recently. Today the angles worked for me to see the sun through the fenestration of a favorite shack. I love the grungy textures and the confluence of reflected branches and interior objects.

The approach of sunset, viewed "diagonally" through two windows:

The sun sets behind the ridge (moments before reaching the actual horizon):

Twilight glow viewed to the north-northwest:

The horses, fencing, wires and landscape are all important components of the image, but the post-sunset light is what makes it work, I think.


Monday, March 4, 2013

Eyes and ears - windows to the inner thoughts of non-verbal animals

Having shared our world with our pet dog Photon for fourteen years, my wife and I know her feelings about as well as humans can know the inner life of a canine. We've sometimes wished she could speak our language, to tell us directly what she wants and needs, what hurts, even, perhaps - I hope -which things are less of a concern for her than a worry for us. Like any pet lovers who really care about their non-human family members, we do our best to intuit and anticipate what is best for our charge. Pam has been amazing at doing whatever is needed for Photon, no matter how difficult, let alone inconvenient. Doggie has been amazing at making it all worthwhile.

Photon continues, so far, to make it clear that she enjoys being out in the world, able to explore using all of her acute senses. This is in spite of the fact that her hind legs no longer function very well. Sometimes we manage to go for surprisingly long walks; other times it's hard to get very far at all. It is always up to her - she leads and we follow.

The combination of her intense pleasure in surveying simple surroundings with the growing limitations in mobility led to Pam's suggestion to me that I try to capture Photon in a setting evocative of the famous Andrew Wyeth painting "Christina's World". Today I found her in a suitable mood, even though the composition of the setting would probably never remind anyone else but us of the inspiration.

Photon's World:

Here are two follow-up shots that show how expressive her ears and eyes can be. When Photon looks into my eyes, I know that although there is not a human intelligence in there, there most certainly is a high degree of intelligence, and definitely a conscious awareness, a self. We may never know "what it is like to be a dog" (or other animal), but I think it is well worth exploring whatever levels of communication and empathy we can establish.

I hear someone!

Who goes there!

Here I should probably add a photo of her looking at me through the camera, but I didn't get a good one like that today.


Abstract art in action sports photos?

Today was a cool day for Raleigh, with the temperature a bit of a hindrance to athletes trying to warm up. It also led to cold stiff fingers for photographers, especially this one, who had a sore foot that prevented sprinting around the edge of the soccer field.

When photographing sports like soccer, the first aim would generally be to capture the moments of peak action. Shooting an exciting play at the right moment from a great angle is the photographer's dream. Although "fortune favors the prepared mind" (Louis Pasteur), no matter how well one knows a sport, anticipating moves will never guarantee being in exactly the right place to catch that great photo (but it may improve your chances).

Well, I'm not about to post a killer action shot from the game I shot this afternoon, but I do want to show one that demonstrates the confluence of both preparedness and luck. I like it as an abstract image, as one with some human interest, and almost secondarily as an example of snagging sports action.

This was a corner kick, so I knew it was coming. I hobbled to a spot that gave an unobstructed view of the flag, hoping that no other player would move in front of the kick as it happened. I made sure the safety was off my hair trigger response circuits, and was lucky enough to capture the ball not only in-frame, but separated from the pole. Here's where serendipity really helped: the player's right shin guard came off with the impact of the kick, and was frozen between her shoe and the flag pole. It made an almost perfect symmetry with the ball. And the second happenstance: the spectator glancing back at the play with her body in an interesting walking posture.

As for the kicker, all four of her limbs are just where I would want to place them if I were painting the scene free-hand, and the curve of her back adds to the dynamism. Even the chalk lines, the flag pole, and the fence posts and rails in the background add to what I see as an abstract unity, with the two human bodies forming the focus.

So, in the end, this can be seen as just another mediocre soccer shot - cluttered background, not an exciting or unusual play - but I'm glad I caught it, and I think I will probably enjoy looking at it from time to time. Please give it a second look and let me know what you think.


Friday, March 1, 2013

Approaches to photography

There are always multiple approaches possible when photographing a subject. That should go without saying, but I've already said it, so let's move on. Thinking through goals and ideas before beginning is often a good way to work, but even when you do that, remember that what seems best before you actually complete it may be superseded by something better that you couldn't anticipate. Or maybe you could have, but just didn't. Don't be embarrassed, just...move on.

Another fruitful approach is to just shoot and see what happens. Become one with your camera. Enter a zone of total immersion and allow the flow to carry you along. Don't take pictures, don't even make pictures, just be the image. Shoot from the hip. Okay, this has gone far enough. In all seriousness, I do think that fooling around without being quite sure what you are hoping to capture is - once in a while - a perfectly reasonable way to revitalize your creative impulses. Also remember, though, that thinking through the process, both artistic and technical, is an important skill that needs practice.

So, I tried to take some of my own advice today. I drove off in the late afternoon light. I had decided that a certain barn might look good at that time of day. Here is a basic, almost head-on shot with a "normal" perspective. It was actually done after the photo below it, when I was surprised to see that the cloud cover had almost completely disappeared in a short time. I've reversed the order for presentation because this one is so much less interesting. A portfolio should begin with one of your best creations, but this is just a blog, of ideas as much as of images. Also, I should mention that I never do well at judging my new photos the day that I make them. I always have to live with them for awhile before I can decide anything beyond the obvious characteristics. Well, here they are, out in the open, so you can help me with my judgment!

The atmospheric front was moving in from the northwest, and the heavy cloud cover rapidly began to clear. I was scrambling to set up this shot (level the camera, focus, shift the lens upward to cover more sky and less ground, set exposure) when I heard a small plane. I saw it come out of the clouds just as the shutter opened. Serendipity! I like it (so far).

I saw possibilities in the way the setting sun was throwing golden light on the building and the side of the tree, in spite of the sky to the south still being blue.

A different approach: get closer to the tree to really show off the side-lit texture of the bark.

Back to the barn. Focus on details and abstract the shapes into two dimensions instead of an implied three.

Take it further by heightening the color saturation:

Back to the old building with a similar approach.

Oh, and I can't forget about the horses! Here are two quite similar shots, but note the differences in composition as I changed my position.

And two approaches to a more comprehensive view.

Realizing that the western sky itself would not be providing much of a light show, I spent the minutes approaching sunset toying with the light playing on the remains of the windows of the shack.

A second version, giving equal billing to the magnificent tree.

Content with what I'd gotten for the day, and with fingers too frozen to operate the controls any longer (lack of proper clothing on my part), I drove off into the sunset.