Archive for March, 2011

Photography Field Tips #1

One of the earliest lessons I learned in photography was to cultivate good field habits.  That is to establish habits and routines that not only help you stay organized, but keep you from going crazy if you have a lot of gear.  Accessories are the kiss of death sometimes and unless you have a way to keep track of them, you’ll lose stuff or not be able to find something when you need it.  One of my oldest habits is to always put my lens cap in my left pocket.  Usually it’s my pants pocket, but it can be jacket or vest pocket, too.  Don’t get me started on cap keepers, either.  Never had one, never will.  When I was in camera retail I sold them by the boatload, but would never be caught dead with one.  Noob city.  Nope, the pocket rule has always worked.  Only lost one lens cap in 25 years.  I think that’s pretty good.  Whenever I don’t follow the rule, I screw myself up royally.

The other day is a perfect example.  I was out in the woods as usual, looking for signs of spring.  I didn’t find any, but I shot a little anyway.  I remembered distinctly that I didn’t want to put my lenscap in my left pants pocket where I always put it because I was going to do a lot of ground shooting and it’s uncomfortable to have a 72mm cap in there.  I also couldn’t get to my jacket pockets because of my backpack straps.  But it belongs in one of them that’s for sure. That’s all I remembered when an hour later I reached for my lenscap because it started to snow hard.  It wasn’t there.

Frantic pocket patting ensued.  I must have looked demented.  Or like I had OCD.  That great George Carlin routine about losing things went through my head.  I even checked the upper parts of my pockets because yes, indeed, it might have fallen upward!  I went through the obvious places in my backpack.  I changed the battery so maybe it ended up in the main compartment where the old batteries go…nope, not there.  Am I sure it’s not in my pockets?  More pocket patting.  Nope, not back yet.  I knew I shouldn’t have put it in my left front pocket…I knew I’d be crouched down a lot and it must have squirted out while I was shooting.  A quick review of my shots gave me the locations where I’d have to stop and search.  Back down the trail I went.  Eyes down, scanning for a black disk and hoping it fell on some snow and not the leaves which could hide a Sherman Tank.

Imagine looking for the same stupid leaf you liked on the side of the path only coming from the other direction.  OMFG it was torture…was that the little plant I stopped to look at?  Oh hey, here’s where I found that old jar.  It must be here.  After much snow scraping and leaf kicking I didn’t find it.  Ok…it must be down where I shot that club moss.  Yeah, I spent a lot of time there, so it must be there.  How much further was that?  Oh there it is.  More snow kicking and leaf sweeping.  No cap.  OMG.  Is it where I shot that weird tree?  Or was it when I went to shoot the birch bark?  Tramp down the trail some more, always scanning the ground.  What if someone stomped on it?  What if someone kicked it?  What if a dog thought it was a toy and chewed it all up?  I’ll never find it.

So…to make a long story short I got all the way back to the first thing I shot and still didn’t find my missing cap.  I decided to search my backpack again and then it hit me.  I put it in the side pocket.  But not the left pocket, the right one.  There it was.  Shining up at me, smiling with glee that it was once again found.  If I could have kicked myself, I would have.  What a dope.  I didn’t follow my rule and it screwed with me.

The Offending Pocket

You can imagine what I’ll be remembering to do on my next few trips out into the field.  Negative reinforcement, baby!

So what other rules do I have?  Not all that many, but one that I live by is to keep my fresh batteries in one spot.  Here –

Keep your good and bad batteries straight or you'll go nuts.

If I find batteries anywhere else in my pack, I know they’re used.   I don’t really have a designated place for them, just that they don’t go back into that little section.

Oh, so I probably should show you the whole rig, huh?  Well here it is with my travel tripod stuffed in the back –

My most used camera bag - a LowePro

It’s a LowePro Street & Field Rover Light.  Stupid name, great bag.  The top section is basically one big pocket and is great for non-photo stuff like snacks, shell jackets, hats, gloves and other stuff.  I’ve got a trash bag in there all the time as well as some peanut-butter crackers.  Oh and an extra memory card, filters, a space blanket and folded paper towels.  And I can’t forget my Swiss Army knife and flashlight.

The bottom section opens like a clamshell and has padded sections like any other camera bag.  I haven’t moved them around much.  My old E-300 (which I used to take these pictures) fit better than my E-30 does mostly because it doesn’t have a penta-prism and is flat on top.  It does the job though –

The E-30's home away from home

As I haven’t acquired a large telephoto zoom at this point, this bag still works.  I’ve had it since 2003 and it’s been everywhere.  I use it as my primary carry-on all the time when I’m flying.  I can cram toiletries and other stuff like my Bose headphones, a book and my iPod in the top and all my camera stuff below.  But the best thing about it is that it’s a real hiker’s pack with excellent padding and adjustment potential.  When hiking with a camera I usually have it hanging from a D-ring on the right shoulder strap.  Like this –

With a wrist strap, the camera hangs at hip-height and is manageable on the trail.

Most of the time I don’t even have to detach the camera and can leave it on the D-ring (or D-link as I stupidly labeled it).  It is an unusual arrangement, but it works for me.  The D-ring is also a handy hanger for gloves.  Sometimes I hang a water-bottle pouch from the waist belt.  Not only is it good for water, but for a long telephoto making it easy to do lens changes without taking the pack off.  The only downside is when you slide down a hill in deep snow.

So yeah, I’ve gone down a tangent that has nothing to do with rules for the field.  Digression is the house special today.  As rules go I think the lens cap location is key as is keeping your batteries straight.  Anyone else got any good field habits they want to share??  Feel free to chime in!

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The Road Not Taken

You know that old saying, hindsight is 20/20?  Some days it smacks me right in the head.  The other day after a lovely few hours in the woods I thought to myself that I should have been a forester or something.  Hubby comes back to say that it doesn’t pay much.  In money, no it doesn’t, but in joy it probably would make me rich.

I stood on a little bridge to take this shot and I stood there quite a long time.  It’s not deep enough to lose the sounds of humanity entirely, but it’s far enough to drown them out a bit.  The brook.  The wind in the trees.  Birds.  It was peaceful and exhilarating at the same time.

 

Enjoy the Silence

We’re at the tail end of winter and I swear I can feel the forest on edge.  It doesn’t look it, but stuff is happening and it won’t be contained for long.

 

Winter colors (yellow birch)

Hidden Track

In some of our local forest preserves are stands of unlogged forest, often called virgin forest.  So far I’ve been in two of them and some of the trees literally stop my breath.  One enormous beech (I think it was a beech) drew me off the trail and I stood by it in awe.  Thinking about what it had “witnessed” and how I wish it could talk.  Just for a minute.  Like the Ents.  Unfortunately my photos aren’t close to doing justice to the grand beauty…maybe when it’s crowned with all its leafy glory.  I did find these stupendous hemlocks though.  Practically broke my neck tripping on my showshoes while gazing up at these towering trees.

 

The Three Graces

It’s so hard to do justice to these massive beings…well, maybe not beings, but they inspire awe in me even if they are only plants.  Often I stop and just touch them to feel the vibrations as they sway in the wind.  I know, I’m nuts, but see…that’s what makes me think I should be working in the woods.  Maybe that would take the joy away, but I still wonder…what if?


Black and White Photography 201

The next step along the monochrome brick road is manipulating images once you’ve converted them and done the basics like cropping, white balance and sharpening.  Sometimes the color palette we’re presented with isn’t as dynamic in monochrome as we want it to be.  I mean that the gray values of the colors aren’t separated, they’re the same.  So try as you might the image just doesn’t work in some ways even though your composition and subject matter might be perfect.  This often happens with colorless landscapes like this one –

What made me take this photo was the big tangle of trees and shrubs and the orderliness of the walkway in the midst of it.  I knew when I took it that my end product would be in black and white, but also was worried that the tonal range wouldn’t be great enough.  I was right.  Notice how the walkway disappears as you move from the stairs to the back of the photo.  The color of the wood and the color of the vegetation are about identical even to the eye.  So how can I make this photo work?

Color sliders were the first thing I went to.  In Lightroom’s Develop module there is a panel called B&W and it only functions when you’ve done a conversion using the black and white button in the Basic panel (if you just move the saturation slider to 0, it won’t work since you took all the color out of a color photo).  All the major colors from red to magenta have an individual slider that changes the intensity of that color in the photo.  Slide it all the way to the left and the colors are saturated to 100, slide it the other way and they’re de-saturated to 0.  In the photo the shade of gray is either darkened or lightened.

Tool panels for both the adjustment brush and the B&W color sliders

With this shot I concentrated on the orange slider, moving it to the left to darken the gray value of the orange in the branches and dead leaves on the ground.  This helped make the far pathway more visible because the gray value of the planks wasn’t changed.  So far, so hoopy.  But I still wasn’t satisfied.  The thing makes this shot work is the big distinction between the mad tangle of branches and the imposed order of the boardwalk, so that meant that the boardwalk had to pop more.  What to do…ah, the adjustment brush.

This is a tool I’ve just begun to use more often.  I liken it to the dodging and burning I did in the darkroom in the 80s.  With this tool you can lighten or darken the exposure of an area easily.  The brush proportions and intensity are almost infinitely variable and you can do much more than just change exposure with it, but for this article I’m only concentrating on exposure.  Typically I’ll dial in a huge change just so I can see it clearly on the image.  Once I know the area I want to cover is covered, I’ll dial it in to the exact value I want.  It takes practice, but since Lightroom is non-destructive, I don’t worry about it.  You can have as many do-overs as you want.

 

Out of Chaos - final version

Using these two techniques in Lightroom made the most of this photo.  The changes aren’t huge, but they work.  I never want my images to be about the processing.  Instead I want the processing to clarify and enhance the point of the image.  I think leaving the mass of gray makes the chaos look even more chaotic, but the subtle use of the adjustment brush and the color sliders reinforced the sense of order provided by the walkway.  Here are some other shots where I used either the brush or the sliders or both.

 

Garter Snake

Hope

Grimm's Woods

The Ones Who Came Before

Hopefully, if I’ve done my job right, the processing doesn’t reach out and smack you between the eyes.  I think my touch was light enough, but definite enough to bring out the strengths of each photo (or in one case, to minimize a weakness).  That’s the key though – the image has to work in the first place.  The composition, exposure, framing and subject matter have to be appropriate for monochrome.  Then if the gray values aren’t helping those things, or some of the exposure values aren’t, the adjustment brush or color sliders can assist.

I’ve mentioned only Lightroom because that’s the editor I use, but most robust programs will include the same functionality at least where the color sliders are concerned.  I’ve also not mentioned white balance or curves, things I also use in my black and white photography, I’ll save those for another article.    For me, working a monochrome image in the ways I just talked about helps me reinforce the ideas and feelings I want to convey with my photograph.  They’re part of the process that begins in my head, goes through my camera and then my computer to the final product.  The key is knowing what you want to show and the tools that will help you do it.  These are just a couple you should get to know and learn to wield with skill if you want to make the most of your B&W work.

 
Black and White Gallery

Black and White 101 article in case you missed it


Forest Abstracts

The tail end of winter still holds some beauty, I just had to look for it.  These first two are details of a beaver pond in the woods that appeared to be new.  These bushes were still alive, albeit dormant for the season.  I loved the patterns the ice made while it was thawing.  All those bubbles.   The color is striking, too, like beer or champagne.  Getting them was a bit of an adventure.  I stood on what I thought was the bank since it was covered with snow, but it wasn’t.  Turns out there was ice under there, too.   Wet socks are not fun, but I laughed my head off, startling a nearby hairy woodpecker.  Luckily it wasn’t that cold so I kept on.  I bet the beavers were laughing, too.

Where Waters Fall Frozen

On Tap

It was a day for staring into icy puddles, too.  This leaf looks as if it’s trying to free itself and I love how different the colors are from the pond pictures.  At first I thought that purple hue was just a goof with the white balance, but it isn’t.  I even reduced the magenta in the image and the blues, it persists.  Just one of the wonders of the forest.

Catalyst

There aren’t too many signs of spring yet, but the birches had a good year.  So many of them are splitting their britches.

Vernal Jubilee

Also saw some porcupine tracks in the snow, so I hope spring isn’t far behind.

I am planning to head out on Saturday with some friends (the same guys I shot the Flume Gorge with last month, plus one more) and hopefully we get cooperative weather.  We’re going to try to find abandoned buildings and do a sunset in the White Mountains.  It’s gonna be a long day, but I hope we find some magic.


Photography Resolutions – checking in

A while back I said I’d report on my progress from time to time.  It’s part of my attempt to be more aware of the state of my photography and where I want to take it.  Now if I can only remember what they were.  Oh right, here they are –

1. Improve composition; read a book or two, podcasts, tutorials, essays etc.
2. Strive for more distinctive images
3. Maintain post-processing workflow discipline

Hm.  Will you look at that.

Yes I have read a few articles that deal with composition, but I haven’t done anything really serious about it.  No books have been bought.  Mostly because I’m still not working full time and what with the internet being free and all…  But I am on the trail of a full time job and when that lands (positive thinking all around!) I will buy a book or two.  That being said, I have been more conscious of the rules of composition when I’m out in the field.  Hardly ever in the past did I deliberately think about composition in my head.  It’s always been very gut-level for me.  I walk around, frame, pace, line up, but never do I recite mantras to myself.  Now I sort of do.  One I keep in mind is relationships…creating relationships between objects in my image.  Here’s one –

Pratt Cemetery

In this one I deliberately set opposing geometries together.  Vertical aspect, horizontal wall in foreground, vertical trees in background, that first horizontal row of nearly square headstones, going from short to tall, the tall monument on the left reinforcing the vertical nature of the shot.  All sort of clashes, but also flows really well.  I did it deliberately.  Oh sure I tried other compositions, but none worked so well.  I even left out the rather terrific gate because it broke up the flow too drastically.  It blocked the flow.  Out it went.

On to the next one.  Have I striven for distinctive images?  Yes and no.  In my mind, this means shooting a more typical view in a different way.  Lately I haven’t been presented with much that’s typical so my images remain my own take on the world I see.  The only one that approaches anything near this is this shot of Mt. Monadnock –

Winter Monadnock

No, it isn’t that great a photograph.  The view to the mountain was difficult and narrow.  I had to climb on the top of an escarpment to get clear of the trees in the immediate foreground.  The lighting wasn’t particularly helpful either, so I decided to try to make the mountain look small by using a lot of sky.  If they sky hadn’t been interesting, I wouldn’t have, but I think as a snapshot, this works.  Are there other shots of  mountains taken this way, I’m sure there are, but most people wouldn’t even try I don’t think.  Maybe I’m foolish to have, but I think even a snapshotty image adds to the impression of a place.

And how is my post-processing work-flow these days?  Pretty good actually.  Using specific folders, tags, labels, ratings and keywords has made it much easier to find stuff even though I haven’t shot much yet.  So far, so good.

So there you have it.  An update.  Crossing my fingers that the weather cooperates for one last major winter shoot this weekend.  I’ll be trying to manage #1 and 2 more fully and hopefully #3 will be habit by now and will fall into place automatically.


Photography and the Winter Blahs

It pretty much always happens about now.  Especially if we’ve had snow since December.  At first it’s magical and a joy to be out in, but after a while.  After it snows a dozen times.  After there’s 3 feet of it with 5 foot drifts and 6 foot snowbanks.  When it’s too deep for snowshoes.  When you don’t feel like skiing anymore.  The snow isn’t so magical.  Now it’s in the way.

Between the uncooperative light and the need to see some color I’ve been adrift, photography-wise.  Sure, I’ve been out, but I’ve hardly shot anything.  Pretty much the only things have been abandoned stuff by the side of the road.

Upcycled

The naked trees reveal them, but also obscure them.  The accumulated snow, well, I’ve dealt with it as best I can.  Using it to further isolate the crumbling structures.

Rural Obscura II

Some of them I hope to visit again, come spring.  If I remember.  This one above is on the list.  It’s big enough to have been a hunting cabin or something.  Some are small though, like this next one.  It’s child-sized.  Or maybe just sheltered machinery once upon a time.  But why the window?  It’s regular sized, so that makes the door tiny.  Strange.

Roadside Attraction

I’ve always been fascinated by these strange structures.  Here’s one from this past summer.  Isn’t it great?

Fractured Fairytale

That little turret part had a sink, and maybe a toilet if I remember correctly.  Running water in a tiny house like this.  Also a bed and an easy chair inside.  Solidly built with real construction techniques.  I have no idea if it was a glorified play house or if someone actually lived in it.  It’s like a free-standing bedsitter.  Or maybe a mother-in-law suite.

Anyone else intrigued by little buildings like this?  Am I the only one who gets on the brakes to stop to shoot them?

Anyway, I hope all you other northern photographers are making it through the ragged end of winter.  Hail spring!