Cloud 9

Every once in a while, things come together unexpectedly in small ways.  I say in small ways because, after all, creating an image that I like is not like curing cancer.  But, sometimes, just every once in a while, something happens that gives me hope.

I don’t know what for, exactly.  There’s the hope that maybe I can capture images that matter to me.  There’s the hope that life will have more moments of stunning beauty and the joy of witnessing them.  And then there’s the hope that life is really about these moments and none of the other crap really matters.

On this particular day, the three of us were loaded in our mini van.  Me in the front passenger seat, Pat driving, and Tisen riding in the back with Lion (or maybe it was ‘Possum?).  As we made our way to the Rice Boxx to pick up dinner (side note:  the food is decent, but if you judge chinese food by the quality of the fortunes in their fortune cookies, steer clear), I looked up and saw the most amazing clouds in the sky.  They were the fluffiest, most interestingly lit clouds I can remember.  Of course, the time to see the most interesting clouds is not when you’re in a car on your way to pick up dinner and camera-less.

This is the part where things just came together.  We got dinner and went home and when I looked out the window, I saw an enormous ray popping through the clouds going straight up.  I had to choose between trying to capture an image that might last the rest of my life and eating a hot dinner that would last about 10 minutes.  It was an easy decision.

I grabbed my camera, tripod, an extra lens, and headed up to the roof.  I found a neighbor up there, already enjoying the sky.  She had her back to the sun rays coming through the clouds, enjoying the puffy clouds–although they were somewhat less puffy now.  Like me, she really enjoys unwinding on the roof.  Unlike me, she didn’t bring a camera.

While I set up and started shooting, she and I talked.  I managed to set up and get at least one image I’m happy with (well, at least on my monitor) and get to know a little about my neighbor at the same time.  This might be a new milestone for me.

One of the things I’ve discovered about my 5D Mark III that was a nice surprise is its built-in level.  I can push a button and it displays a level on the LCD.  Having discovered that I view the world at a tilt, this is an awesome feature for me.  Especially when shooting in Chattanooga–there are no straight lines on the horizon to line up with.

Returning to finish my dinner, I discovered Tisen was not at all interested in the clouds–only in getting comfortable on the couch.

My Cloudy Clouds

I have been studying clouds quite a bit lately.  Not only am I obsessed with getting a landscape shot with sharply focused clouds from front to back, but I am also learning how clouds help predict changes in weather, which is helpful in hang gliding.  Apparently hang gliding pilots are the best weather (wo)men–at least the ones who survive.

Plus, I just like clouds.  Who doesn’t really?  There’s something fascinating about the way they swirl and swoosh and dissolve in front of our eyes.

When it comes to my photographic goals with clouds, I’ve come to several conclusions.

  1. A fast shutter speed freezes the movement caused by wind.
  2. A small aperture is essential for expansive clouds that range from front to back in the frame.
  3. Lower ISO settings prevent graininess that can make clouds look less sharp.
  4. All of the above makes it very difficult to get sharp looking clouds in low light.
  5. Finding a focus point about 1/3 of the depth keeps things sharp front to back.
  6. Even if you do everything perfectly, the clouds may not be sharp in real life.

Number 6 is my latest discovery in my endeavor to capture sharply focused clouds.  Given that “cloudy” is used to mean “1. lacking definite form or limits” and blurred is considered a synonym for “cloudy,” this might have occurred to me sooner.

I find myself relieved to realize that my images are, in some cases, every bit as sharp as the clouds themselves were.  I have been walking Tisen through the park gazing upwards, smiling at the blurry looking clouds.  I try to pretend I’m bird watching so bystanders don’t think I’m crazy.  I’m not sure it helps.

For today’s experiment, I tested this theory.  I went up on the roof and got some shots of the sunset.  I found an angle that had parts of a roof top in the very near foreground that angles away from the camera towards a ridge line in the mid-depth of the photo and then a second ridge further back.  I figured this gives me landmarks so I can tell if I have depth of field even if the clouds appear blurry.

I also looked carefully at the clouds and determined that they hurt my eyes when I try to bring them into focus just with my eyes–especially the dark, large, foreground mist.

In post processing, I lifted the shadows beyond my personal preference in the first shot just to be able to see the sharpness of the focus better:

I look at the landmarks at each distance through the loupe in Aperture at 200%.  They are acceptably sharp.  Perhaps they could be sharper if I were shooting more towards the middle of the aperture range for my lens, but there is no discernible difference in the level of sharpness between the foreground and the background.  This makes me happy.

I can now stop calling myself names for having cloudy looking clouds.

Shooting the Breeze

Today, I continue my quest to graduate from a 101 use of depth of field to, well, I’d like to jump up to a 400-level given it seems I’m not going to get a great shot before I die if I continue at this pace.

I was hoping for a nice sunset to play with–there are always so many interesting clouds.  I would really like to figure out how to get the clouds sharp from front to back in the image.

So, that is my assignment for today:  sharp clouds front to back.

As I gather up my gear to head up to the roof, I feel like I am doing a scene written for Chevy Chase or Tim Conway.  I pick up my tripod, swing it around and knock a glass off a table.  I set it down and trip over the leg.  I pull myself together, clean up, and then become frantic trying to find the radio trigger for my wireless remote (which mysteriously and thankfully started working again).

I wish I had a video of me darting back and forth looking fearfully over my shoulder out the windows at the fading light.  I run into two door frames, a door knob, and trip a second time over my tripod leg in the process.

I am considering changing the name of my blog to “Bumbling Photography.”

When I get all my stuff together, Pat puts a bowl of food down for Tisen, which means I have to stay until he’s done eating or he won’t eat his dinner.  I watch him eat.  He’s pretty into it, so I decide to sneak down the hall.  Tisen pokes his head around the corner only seconds later and I pretend to be setting up my tripod in the hallway.  Tisen stares at me.  I leave the tripod where it is and then return to the kitchen until Tisen finishes eating.

Finally, up on the roof I realize I haven’t missed much.  The light is not very dramatic, although the clouds will still work for my assignment.

I’ve identified two possible causes for inadequate depth of field in my landscape photos:  1) not consciously choosing an aperture based on the depth of field I want, and 2) focusing too far back in the field of view.  Tonight, I learn that maybe my lack of skill is not the only reason.

Those clouds are moving.  And I don’t mean crawling along.  I mean hauling across the sky like they’ve got somewhere to be.  Given the amount of light, stopping down for good depth of field means slowing the shutter speed to speeds like 2 seconds to get what the camera thinks is a good exposure at 400 ISO.  I play with balancing ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to see if I can get something that gives me enough exposure, enough depth of field, and enough speed to stop the motion.  I really thought it was going to be easier!

Just for fun: