Night Time Renaissance

Bright moon, pink clouds, twilight sky--but too much wind

Bright moon, pink clouds, twilight sky–but too much wind

Sometimes at night the clouds lay low over the city and reflect back the light from the street lights below, luminous against the twilight blue sky.  Usually, the phenomena of having low-lying clouds with a clear sky above is accompanied by wind.

If there is no wind, the clouds don’t break up.  They lie like a blanket, impenetrable, creating only a haze of light that just isn’t as interesting as on windy nights.  On this particular night, not only was the wind blowing hard with the clouds breaking up nicely, but the moon was bobbing and weaving amongst the blowing clouds.

For this special effect, the assistance of Tisen was required--a surprise pull on the leash captured Tisen's own form of art

For this special effect, the assistance of Tisen was required–a surprise pull on the leash captured Tisen’s own form of art

Who could resist trying to get a photo of that?  Of course, Tisen also needed to go out, so being the multi-tasker that I am, I hung my DSLR around my neck and put Tisen’s collar around his.

While I always take my iPhone with me when I wander around Renaissance park, I had no intention of using it tonight.  The iPhone is a light hog, like all digital cameras with tiny sensors.  Getting a night time image with an iPhone isn’t something I’ve figured out how to do and this wasn’t going to be the night I tried again.

Shot while swaying with a post I was trying to lean on for stability

Shot while swaying with a post I was trying to lean on for stability

I’m glad I didn’t bother trying with the iPhone.  With my DSLR set on ISO 10,000, I was still shooting at shutter speeds over 3 seconds long.  This is because I was being greedy.  I wanted lots of depth of field, which meant sacrificing light to get it.

This may not have been the best decision.  Armed with my camera and with my tripod tucked neatly in the closet back at home, I was buffeted about in the wind like a human sail.  I tried leaning against a light pole and discovered the light pole was also blowing in the wind.  We swayed together as I contemplated the hopelessness of getting a good shot in these conditions.

Closer to still, if only the clouds would have paused

Closer to still, if only the clouds would have paused

I remembered some of the lessons I learned about wind from hang gliding.  First and foremost, it cycles.  If you stand still and pay attention, you’ll feel it start to ease up until it will suddenly drop and be still.  Sometimes this lasts only a split second.  Sometimes it lasts several seconds.  I needed 3 second windows of calm to get any sharp photos.

To make matters more difficult, the wind tossing the clouds was blowing at a much steadier pace, keeping the clouds blowing across my frame during the exposure.  Even the plants in the foreground weren’t settling down when the breeze would briefly die.  Everything was in motion.  There were to be no sharp shots that night.

This is my favorite--the effect of the wind blowing everything in the long exposure reminds me of an impressionist painting

This is my favorite–the effect of the wind blowing everything in the long exposure reminds me of an impressionist painting

Tisen was happy to return to the indoors–the wind was cold and Tisen’s leg is sore.  He has created yet another hot spot because of his allergies.  We are treating it topically for the time being in the hope of avoiding more steroids.  The pink self-sticking tape was hard to resist–he looks so cute in pink.

Tisen spent most of the day napping--he managed to wake up long enough to yawn mid-day

Tisen spent most of the day napping–he managed to wake up long enough to yawn mid-day

I got one pose out of him before he went back to sleep

I got one pose out of him before he went back to sleep



Yellow Berries

A slightly squished pair of leftover berries

A slightly squished pair of leftover berries

Sometimes I get into a rut.  A rut of not really feeling like shooting.  These are the times when having a commitment to post daily drives me to dig deep and find the energy to go shoot.

Today was one of those days.  I had a long list of things I wanted to get done.  But after spending nearly 3 hours on the first item on the list and failing to get it done, I really just wanted to take a nap.  I decided to give myself a half an hour to lie on the couch before heading out to pursue 4 shooting “assignments” I’d come up for myself.

I like to turn the TV on when I nap on a Sunday afternoon.  I don’t know why. Two things went disastrously wrong with this plan:  1)  My feet were cold; I can’t sleep when my feet are cold.  2)  While I was not sleeping, I got interested in the movie that was on.

So, instead of taking a short nap, I laid on the couch until late afternoon.  I almost didn’t manage to get myself out the door at all.  After all, it was gloomy, gray, and cold out there.  I was tired and, at last, my feet were warm.  But, Pat got motivated to go work for a bit, so I thought I could at least get motivated to do something fun.

I realized I was not going to get to all four of my photographic assignments, however.  I opted to take Tisen with me and do the most convenient of the four.  That was to shoot water droplets.

I have to admit I knew this was a long shot.  4:30 in the afternoon is not prime time for water droplets.  But, given that it was gray, gloomy, and cold, I thought maybe, just maybe, all those wonderful water droplets on the grass in the morning would still be there.

They weren’t.  As soon as I walked outside and felt the wind, I knew there would be no water droplet shots today.  But, having outfitted my camera with my 100mm macro lens attached to 3 extension tubes to maximize close-up focusing, I figured I might as well look for something interesting to shoot in lieu of water droplets.

I found the berries above looking bright and cheerful on such a drab day.  In real life, they’re less than a ½ inch in diameter.  I walked by them every day, 3x a day without really noticing until I went looking for something small to shoot.

That’s one of the things I love about shooting macro–I suddenly see things I completely filtered out.  It’s like someone handed me a new pair of glasses and the world came into sharp focus.

Speaking of sharp focus, I experimented with using a higher ISO setting and a very small aperture to try to maximize the depth of field, one of the challenges of macro shooting.  I think it helped.

Berry starting to get a few sunken spots

Berry starting to get a few sunken spots

Bowl Games

Many moons ago, I taught an Essay and Research class.  One of the things I taught my students was to narrow their focus.

Every time a student was stuck, it was because they were overwhelmed by a big subject and didn’t know where to go with it.  Creating a more current, hypothetical example, a student writing about the economic crisis of 2008 would get as far as “it was awful”  and then not know what else to say.  If they wrote about what caused the economic crisis, they would have something to go research.  But, since none of them were interested in writing a dissertation, that would also lead to writer’s block.  If they wrote about one cause, they would get further, but were usually bored.  But if they wrote about one family and what happened to them, suddenly, they would not be able to stop writing.  As you narrow the scope of what you write about, you often find a nugget of inspiration.

Taking a lesson from my own class (although, I shouldn’t take credit–there was probably a teacher I’ve forgotten who shared this wisdom with me), as I look for photographic inspiration, I switch from thinking about every possibility in the world to giving myself a highly constrained assignment:  shoot one bowl in one place as many ways as possible in about an hour.

As I clear off the largest surface I have available to work on, creating a space about 2 feet by 2 feet (how I miss having a big table), and place a weathered copper bowl under a light, my husband watches me.

“Do you know what you’re going to write about?” He asks.

I ignore him because I, in fact, have not a clue what I’m going to write about.  I am only worried about what I’m going to shoot; the story will come.

He watches me spend my hour on about 40 shots of this poor, beaten bowl.  I start with my 24-70mm lens on a tripod with a simple light bulb behind the bowl.  Then, I try it with my flash with an 1/8” grid strapped on top.  Not satisfied with the spread of the light, I try it with a softbox attachment.  This ruins the contrasting shadows.  I try with a snoot (I still love that word!) and hold the snoot in various positions to create a spotlight effect on different parts of the bowl.

Finally, I ditch my flash and switch to my 100mm macro lens.  I get up close and try to get as much depth of field as possible (not much) across the gleaming rim of the bowl.

“Have you decided what you’re going to write about?” my husband asks again.

I give him a look.

He says, “Well, you’re over there taking all these pictures of that bowl, I assume you know what you’re going to write about.”

I still haven’t told him.

Love Looks

While processing the photos of my nephew (alias Sam) and his girlfriend (alias Ellie), I sighed and thought “Aww.  Young love!”  But when I flipped through some recent photos of my brother and my sister-in-law a few minutes later, I realized this had nothing to do with age.  My nephew’s face is just a younger version of my brother’s when they are with their respective partners.

It’s an interesting phenomenon.  Sam looks very little like my brother except when he’s around Ellie.  Then, it’s like his dissimilar features mold themselves into a shape that exactly resembles my brother’s face.  Who knew that falling in love could be hereditary?

But shooting both Ellie and Sam with one small strobe on an umbrella stand and in the confines of the family room proved to be challenging.

First, there was the issue of light.  Lighting one person is much easier than lighting two when there’s only one light.  Getting light on Ellie, sitting furthest from the light, was quite difficult.

This led to the second challenge, depth of field.  Opening up the aperture to try to overcome the shortage of light led to a very shallow depth of field, which led to portraits of one subject with another person in the frame instead of portraits of two people.  However, I still like some of the resulting images.

The need to shut the aperture down a bit to increase the depth of field to get Ellie and Same both in focus increased the problem created by the third challenge.  Because we of where Sam and Ellie were, traffic kept moving in and out of the room behind them.  Of course, some of the best expressions on their faces were in the shots with people behind them.  This led to extensive use of the “blur” brush to reduce the distracting background.  I am not fond of doing that much editing, but it’s my nephew.

It occurs to me that perhaps it would be easier if I could shoot in the same environment more than one time.  It’s hard to master something when there are so many variables changing each time.  But then again, it’s the variables that make it fun.

I think about photographers who have marks on the floor and who have their subjects go through a formula of poses.  I suppose this would be extremely efficient and may even help guarantee that the subject gets a decent portrait, but I don’t know how the photographer keeps from getting so bored s/he stops paying attention.  And what happens if someone comes in who just looks horrible in that particular set of poses?  Do they have formulas for such variables?

If there’s one lesson I’m sure of, I have a hard time paying attention to all the details when I feel rushed.  I guess I need to find someone who really wants to model for me.  And then, I need to take my time.  What’s that old expression?  Haste makes waste?

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:

Flash of Insight

When children learn a new grammar rule, they often start over applying it.  They get that adding “s” makes things plural, so they add “s” to everything.  They learn the exceptions later.  I’ve had the realization that I have learned what the depth of field will be like at a few aperture settings and started applying those settings all the time.

Now, the trick is to step things up a notch and start paying closer attention to the exact results I get in each circumstance.

In the meantime, I had a moment of weakness.  Upon spotting a very good price on some used studio lighting, I decided it was time to figure out how to start taking control of the lighting in my living room.

Today I take on two lessons simultaneously.  First, control depth of field.  Second, control lighting.  I start by using Pat as a reluctant model, but he bails and I turn to Tisen.

As it turns out, the enormous soft box and umbrella of light flashing at him are enough to motivate Tisen to go nap elsewhere.  I am stuck with only Tisen’s toys to shoot.

In reviewing the shots I’ve selected, here are the lessons I took from each (so far):

  1. Over exposure is easy when using giant studio flashes.  I actually really like this picture however.  This is a barely retouched photo–the drawing effect is purely from the overexposure.

2.  The second shot is what happens when you are using two monolights and you forget to turn one on.  I actually like this shot, too, though.  I am beginning to think I do my best work by accident.

3.  A grouping of Tisen’s toys are a great tool for depth of field practice.  In this shot, at f/4.5 (another thing I learned–I apparently have 1/3 stops enabled on my camera), I got a relatively shallow depth of field.  Shallow enough that I was able to tell that Red Dog and Mr. Beaver were not sharp from my camera’s LCD.

4.  Same group shot at f/10, the depth of field is significantly better than the last shot, although Red Dog still does not look sharp.  I am beginning to suspect that it’s difficult to get fake red fur to look sharp.  I also added a fill light to reduce shadows.

5.  I switched Lamb and Mr. Beaver, who always looks like he’s in a shadow.  The depth of field was the same as the previous shot.

6.  Here, Tisen demonstrates both a shallow depth of field (paw in foreground out of focus) and what happens when your subject decides to pop up and take a nap with his head propped against your soft box.

7.  Repeating the previous shot with greater depth of field, now the paw is in focus and so is his face (I think?).

8. Finally, I thought it would be nice to see the setup (plus Tisen).  There is also a light behind the umbrella.  Given that this is all new to me, I was pretty happy with the lighting results.

Going Small

Macro photography is one of those fun things I love to do but rarely find the time for.  This is not because it actually takes longer than shooting anything else, but rather because the possibilities expand infinitely as I keep finding subjects that I would never find interesting at a normal distance.  I have spent an hour shooting a single link of a chain.

Not only does shooting up close allow me to extract out a single shape from a conglomeration, but an extremely shallow depth of focus creates an even smaller view of what’s in focus within the frame, creating all kinds of interesting effects.  In “Spiny Plant”–only one small area of the top edge of the plant is in focus because I shot perpendicular to the plant:

“Blossom” also shows this effect:

I almost scrapped this picture because only the very edge of the blossom is in focus, but I kind of liked it after experimenting quite a bit with editing.  “Flower Cluster” shows how this effect puts only one of the berries (or whatever they are called) in sharp focus:


“08 The world in a single drop” is one of those shots I really want to be spectacular, but it’s not:

I would prefer to fill the frame with just the drop against the pink background.  I am excited to try some of the tools discussed in the workshop (a close-up lens and extension tubes) to see if I can, in fact, fill the frame with a water drop.  I suppose it will only reflect my lens at that point, though.

I’ve often struggled with the depth of field issue.  As much as I like the effect of a wide-open aperture in macro shots, when I’m shooting something living and moving this way, I find I often get the focus just in front of or just behind what I actually was trying to focus on.  I learned three important things about this last night:  1)  Don’t use autofocus when shooting macro, 2) Shoot parallel to the subject if you want more of it in focus, and 3) Make use of the diopter on the viewfinder if you need it.

The milestone of reading glasses is something that no one really celebrates.  I usually rely on autofocus to solve my vision limitations.  I found when I was shooting the moon (I love saying that) and I was forced to focus manually, I got my sharpest focus by using the LCD on 10x magnification and wearing my reading glasses.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t work well for a subject that moves faster than the moon or that doesn’t accommodate the use of a tripod.  I’m going to have to do some googling on photography, focus, and reading glasses.