Thursday, May 17, 2012

Contrast: Pinion and Pebbles

I've discovered that there are people who always look down when they walk and others, like me, who always look forward or up. I'm not sure why that is, or how people wind up like that, but it's an interesting contrast. My wife is one of those who look down. Consequently, I think that our world looks very different. Even when we walk together over the same piece of ground what we see is never the same.

Feather and Stones; f/3.2, 1/170 sec, ISO 400
The picture in this post is all about contrast. And it's a photo I would have missed had I not taken a lesson from my walks with Kim; for once I was looking down. That's the first contrast. The dissonance between the soft, wispy vanes of the feather on the hard, water-worn stones is the most obvious contrast. The mostly-dark color of the stones beneath the white feather makes for yet another interesting contrast, one made even more stark by my decision to drain nearly all of the color from the picture and to bump up the fine detail contrast in Photoshop Elements. I deepened the shadows for even more of contrast.

The original photo had some good elements to it, and I might revisit it in a future post, but it wasn't until I had a look at it totally desaturated of color that I discovered the incredible detail and the possibility to explore all of the textures and tones. Sometimes color and perfect light can hide the real beauty in a subject. Sometimes the real picture is hidden in the contrast.

I took this picture in 2005 and have always wanted to do something with it. Now I know why I kept it around all these years.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Abuzz Over Bees in the Trees

It's been a strange transition to Spring here in Rochester. There were a couple of 80 degree days in March, then more snow in April, then warmer, then rain and even a few flakes in May. The trees and many other plants bloomed early and when the flowers come out and the birds start singing and the bees are buzzing I want to take pictures!

It happens every year - I can't help it.

Bee In The Maple: f/5.6, 1/200, ISO 200
By mid-March the maple tree in my back yard was in full bloom and lots of bees were attracted to the flowers. I grabbed my camera and was trying to figure out how best to catch one of them. It was a bit cloudy with some great, diffuse light, but my initial shots were coming out a bit dark. I had just finished reading about using aperture and shutter speed to control subject and background exposure when using a flash so I thought I'd try to slightly over-expose the background so that the bee and flowers would stand out.

It took a few tries, but but I managed to get a couple of shots that I think worked out like I wanted. I also shot with a relatively wide open aperture that also helped blur the background - you can just see the reddish blur of other flowers in the background. These add a little interest and keep the shot from looking like it was taken in a studio. The specular highlights on the bee from the flash are pretty cool, especially the hexagonal one on the compound eye.

This shot worked because I read about a technique, remembered it and then used that technique when I ran into a situation where it was applicable. In this case I needed to do something different because the background would have been too cluttered with more tree branches, other insects buzzing about and the rest of the world behind the shot. Now the challenge will be to remember how I did this and to keep using it where it works to simplify a shot and bring real focus to my subject. That seems to be a big challenge for me; I am learning lots of new things as I work to improve my pictures, but I haven't used them enough for them to become second nature for me yet. I guess that means I'll just have to take more pictures!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Thinking Small

Sometimes I think too big when it comes to taking pictures. I want to take in the "big picture", sorry for the pun. It's axiomatic that "you can't see the forest for the trees." But what happens when the little things are interesting or important? What do you do when you don't want to be bothered with the forest?

Get in close! Go macro! Think small.

When I took this picture I was wandering around the Erie Canal Path in Fairport, NY. It was early spring and I was waiting for Kim to get her hair styled. It was still too early in the season for flowers or new leaves in the trees and too early in the day for there to be a lot of interesting people on the path to watch. So I started looking around for interesting things to shoot. I got bored with the usual subjects in the area; a few ducks, interesting reflections of buildings in the canal. So I started looking in a different direction: down.

Micro-forest. iPhone f/2.4, 1/557 sec at ISO 64
Along this part of the path there are planters and walls made up of posts and pilings and for about half the day some areas get almost no sunshine because of the buildings right along the canal and some large trees. The wood stays damp for most of that time and so little colonies of mosses grow wherever they can gain a foothold. I saw this little clump of different mosses on top of one of the posts - and that would have been interesting enough - but the post had been weathered into little concentric ridges and the moss had used the bits of dust, dirt and other detritus to attach themselves to the post. All-in-all it looked like a miniature forest had sprouted on a lilliputian mountain range.

I bent down and - with my iPhone - composed for the dappled background, maximum contrast in the ridges on the post, and some back-lighting through the tiny leaves. The iPhone camera has a wide aperture (f/2.4) and I selectively focused (I use the SmugMug "Camera!" app instead of the app that comes preloaded) on an interesting clump of moss and snapped the shot. I bumped up contrast and sharpened a bit in Photoshop Elements, but that's about it.

There's an interesting sense of scale to this picture, I think. If you look casually this could be a woodland scene with large bushes and young trees, but peer closely and suddenly the scale inverts and you are immersed in a miniature landscape all arranged on the top of a fence post.

Friday, April 6, 2012

How Deep is Your Field?

My camera mostly stays in Aperture Priority mode. Sometimes I'll shoot in full manual, occasionally in Shutter Priority; but in the main I shoot Av. I think the photograph for this post helps explain my reasoning.

I love to control the depth of field in my photos. It helps to focus the viewer's attention on the main subject by reducing background clutter and distractions. With a large enough aperture it's possible to turn the most cluttered background into a blurred field of color and vague shapes and bokeh. In the case of this Eastern Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus), that background looks almost impressionistic and forces the butterfly and the thistle it landed on to pop out into the foreground.

Eastern Swallowtail Butterfly
Because I shot this picture several years ago, before I got my current DSLR, I couldn't get the aperture quite as large as I wanted, so I enhanced the blur very slightly in Photoshop. Other than that, I cropped the picture for composition and corrected the color.

This picture was another one of those lucky shots where I just happened to have my camera with me on a late summer walk. I saw this butterfly flitting from flower to flower in the thistle growing in a ditch near my house and I slowly stalked it until it landed in just the right spot, in the sun on a nicely placed flower and captured it with it's wings spread wide. I was very happy with how this turned out and think that the slight imperfections on the insects wings adds to the interest; sometimes a subject can be too perfect...

Most nature photos - in my opinion, unless you are shooting landscapes can benefit from narrowing and controlling the depth of field with aperture. But you really have to watch your focus and you may have to trade off the actual depth of field with your ability to control exposure. If you can do it right, though, the effort is worth it. If your camera stays in Auto mode, explore the other modes. You'll be amazed at how different - and better - your pictures can be.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Memories We Never Had

What do you do with old photos? I have quite a few in all kinds of condition; stuck in paper bags, plastic bins, stuck between the pages of books in the hope of flattening them out. I've been meaning to get all the "really good ones" scanned in and digitally cleaned up or repaired. Somehow other things always become more important.

Those old pictures are more than just pieces of paper. They are memories; in many cases they are memories we never had. What I mean is that some of them are portals into a world I never knew or to people I knew but as an older, more world-weary version than the one in the picture. With digital cameras everywhere now and the ability to share them instantaneously it's easy to forget that those pixels represent a moment in time we want to remember - at least in that moment we think we do. But the old photos are not backed up anywhere they are as prone to disappearing as a real memory until they are scanned.

So there are a couple of old family treasures that I've scanned in or asked relatives to scan and send to me. Then I take the time to open them in Photoshop Elements and do my best to clean them up, enhance them a little and back them up. Just in case. These are not my pictures, in most cases I wasn't even born when they were taken. But they are every bit as special to me as the absolute best photos I've ever taken: more so.

Antonio and Margarita Perez
The picture with this post is of my grandparents on my dad's side. I'm not sure of the date but I would guess it was sometime in the late 1940s or very early 1950s. My dad would have been around 10 years old or so. My grandfather, Antonio, looks very much like I remember him in the late 1960s and until he died in 1972. He spoke mostly Spanish at home although his English was passable. Margarita, my grandmother, looks familiar but by the time I remember her hair was mostly grey and she was much more "weathered." Her face was one of the kindest I have ever seen. She lived into her 90s and died in the late 1990s. Between them they had twelve children, eight boys and four girls. I had so many cousins I literally couldn't remember all of their names. I think at last count, for first and second cousins only we were over 100.

The memories that this one picture brings back to me are amazing. A picture that was taken more than a decade before I was born has the power to evoke memories of people, places and events that aren't even a part of the picture. The stories that I heard as a child about my grandparents are etched into their faces and all of my stories and the stories of a hundred cousins are all continuations of those same stories.

Look around you for those old treasured pictures. Take the time to scan them in, fix them up just a little (unless they are really damaged), look closely at them and remember. Then pass on the pictures, the memories and your stories.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

See With Your Heart

Have you ever looked at a scene, whether first-hand or in a photograph, that evoked an emotional response? There was just something that made you happy or sad or unsettled; you may not have even known why or been able to say just what it was in the picture that made you feel that way.But you knew it was there.

Unless the camera was wielded by someone looking strictly to document a moment - which can yield beautiful pictures, no doubt - those that evoke emotion are special. Even when they are not technically perfect the emotion comes through to the viewer.

Several years ago I decided to take the short drive up to the shore of Lake Ontario to the little town of Pultneyville. There's a beautiful park there called Foreman Park right on the shore. It had been a warm early spring day with a few clouds in the sky and I knew that sunset would be beautiful along the water. I walked along the paths and among the trees and swings and picnicking families looking for the perfect spot to catch some of the golden light as sunset got closer. At the far western end of the park the trail swings around a small curve in the shoreline and there are benches along it, probably put there just so you could stop and watch the sunsets.

Lonely View
Despite all the people in the park, probably because it was getting darker and they were mostly interested in picking up their gear and gathering up their children, the trails were empty. I left the trail and moved away from the water even though I didn't think I would find a good vantage point for the sunset. But as I looked back at the trail, towards the last bit of warm light, there was a bench - empty - looking out over the water. Maybe it was the fading light, or perhaps the still leafless trees looming over the bench; but the whole scene seemed kind of sad and lonely.

I moved around to get the best combination of sky, trees and bench. The little cloud in the upper right corner caught some great colors that I wanted to make sure I captured. But no matter where I moved I couldn't get rid of the distracting little branches and bushes in front of the bench and it was way too fussy trying to remove them in post. In the end, thankfully, they seemed not to matter too much to the emotional impact of the final picture.

I'm sure thousands of people had sat on that bench to watch sunsets over the years. Some young, some old; all of them with a story. In the last light of a spring day it seemed that all of those stories were hanging over that bench. The only witnesses to the beautiful end of another in the endless march of days.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Clowns of The Bird World!

We spend a lot of money on bird seed. Or at least it seems that way sometimes. But my wife and I love to watch the birds around our feeders, especially in the winter when their color may be the only thing to break the monotony of winter grey. But even during the summer, they are a constant source of wonder and even humor.

No bird captures all of that more than Chickadees. I never saw these funny little birds growing up in Florida but they are now my favorite, hands down. They are fearless, often sitting just above my head while filling the feeders, chirping down at me as if telling me to hurry up so they can get back to eating. There is a park not far from where we live where the Chickadees are so used to humans they will eat out of your hands. I haven't quite gotten our birds to do the same, but I'll keep trying! They will hang upside down on branches or feeders it seems just for the fun of it. They flit around from feeder to branch, from tree to tree and like all small animals they move quickly.

All of that makes them very hard to photograph well. I would estimate that for every ten or fifteen photos I take of them only one is worth keeping. But even that makes me laugh as I patiently sit outside in the heat and the cold or - more often in the winter - as I wait at our kitchen window which looks out at several feeders.

This picture was taken about four weeks ago in mid-February. And in this case it was too cold to be outside shooting, so I caught this little guy in the maple outside of our kitchen in between flits to the feeder. There was still light, fluffy snow on the branches that had fallen overnight and you can see the red leaf buds at the ends of the branches as well. It was bright out through a solid overcast so the light is wonderfully even without harsh shadows. As usual, I was laughing at the Chickadees, with all the snow on the ground there were at least ten of them in this one tree and they put on a show of their complete comedy routine for me. I cropped this for composition, made some slight adjustments to color and temperature and I dodged his eye to make the catchlights in it stand out a little better.

If you have these little guys where you live, you know what I mean about them being the clowns of the birds, if not, enjoy the picture!

Let me know what your favorite backyard bird is!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Best Camera

It's a photographers' truism: "The best camera is the one you have with you."

If you've left your brand new DSLR or medium format at home and all you have is your cell phone, the best camera is the one on the back of your phone. With companies packing in ever more sophisticated cameras into their phones the awkward terms "iPhoneography" or "phoneography" have come to designate art forms all their own. The pictures you can take with these devices are getting better and better. Apps with the capability of editing them range from the simple and sometimes gimmicky to the powerful and elegant.

Now that smart phones are always connected and becoming relatively ubiquitous, these photos make their way onto social networking and photo sharing sites just moments after they are taken. I've posted hundreds of pictures to Facebook and Twitter and I've seen some really good pictures on both of them. The ability to let friends and family see these instant memories almost as they happen is magical.

Kim's Footprint
A few years ago, my wife and I spent a week on the beaches of Bradenton, Florida. This is my hometown, but we were there to be a part of the wedding of two wonderful friends. I took literally hundreds of pictures as the couple asked me to capture the wedding. I got some great shots and our friends seemed truly happy with them. But this simple picture means something different to me.

One morning I walked down the short, wooden walk to the beach with only my iPhone. I was going to go for a swim and didn't really want my "good" camera sitting on the beach and getting full of sand. Kim was ahead of me on the walk back to the house, her feet still damp from the surf and when I looked down I saw her sandy footprints on the boards. I knew I wanted that picture! But I also knew that if I went into the house to get my camera somebody else could come along and erase that perfect print. So I walked along, looking for that perfect print on the perfect spot on the boards.

This picture is really special to me; it's Kim's footprint (nobody else has arches so high), it's from a wonderful trip to one of my favorite places on the planet. Every time I look at it I remember how warm the sun was, I remember the smell of the salt air off of the Gulf, I remember sitting in the sand with my best friend. It makes me happy. I hope you enjoy it, too. In the comments, tell me about a picture you just had to get with your phone and why it was so special.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Dreaming of Summer

We were lucky here in the Northeast, winter was not so harsh this year. We didn't get our usual 100 inches or more of snow for which I am very grateful. But with the arrival of March I am ready to put away my flannel lined jeans (they should be in any list of mankind's best inventions) and put on shorts. As ready as I may be, that is not likely to be practicable for at least another six weeks.

But longing for summer attire made me think of a summer afternoon several years ago when my wife and I made the forty minute ride from our house to Canandaigua, NY. It's a wonderful small town on the northern point of Canandaigua lake; one of New York's famous Finger Lakes. Being from Florida, I feel most at home and relaxed on or near the water so I love being down on the lake during our too-short summers.

Canandaigua Boat Houses
Alongside the city pier there are rows of boat houses. What's interesting about them is that the owners have enlarged and "improved" them to the point that they are rather nice apartments or cottages that just happen to have a covered boat slip instead of a garage. Many of them are brightly painted and decked out in nautical decorations.  I think they are amazing and I took quite a few pictures that day.

This one is one of my favorites.  The colors are vibrant in the bright sun light, the water is not so smooth as to lose all visual interest and the sky... That sky! Puffy white summer clouds in a deep blue sky; when you live in upstate New York a sky like that is something to treasure. I think that all the elements of the picture work really well even though this was one of my earlier attempts. There are several interesting things in the picture besides the boat houses; the two ducks in the foreground, the wonderful reflections rippled by the water, some great leading lines, and the sky. Did I mention the sky?

I did some minor adjustments in Photoshop Elements to brightness, contrast and sharpness. I adjusted the color of the sky to match what it looked like to me that day and I cropped for composition and to move the horizon a little more off the center line. This was one of those times when all the elements came together and the picture I wanted to capture actually showed up on my computer screen when I uploaded them from the camera.

Maybe where you are the temperature has already started to inch its way upwards. You may already be wearing shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops (my favorite summer wardrobe). But up here, winter is still fighting off spring; yesterday we had 4 inches of snow. But the temperature tomorrow is supposed to be near 60. Which gives me some hope that I might soon dig out my flip-flops from the closet, grab my camera and head for the water.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The One That Got Away

There's a picture I can see in my mind as clearly as if it were right in front of me. It was the shot of a lifetime. But I'll never have a print; it will never be on this blog; nobody will ever "ooh and ahh" over it. I think about this picture every time I pick up my camera.

It was a late summer evening, when the sun still sets late in the day so it may have been about 8:30 pm. The moon was just about full and had risen huge and orange in a clear sky. I was driving home from an afternoon of golf and had marveled at the size and color of the moon hanging on the horizon. As I approached a certain corner about half way home I thought about how I could frame the moon from a certain angle that I knew would place an old dead tree in front of it. There are times when I don't take a camera with me, but as I pulled up to the stop sign I realized this time it was a big mistake.

Sitting in that spiky snag was a huge Red Tail Hawk, regal and deadly, looking out over a wide expanse of mouse-filled grass surrounding his perch. From my vantage he was front lit by the warm glow of the setting sun and backed by the pale, gibbous moon in a blue sky tinted to orange at the horizon. The grassy field spilled up and over a hill in the background.

It was a perfect picture.

I can still see it as clearly as if it were right in front of me.

Friday, February 24, 2012


This is about several firsts for me. This is the first post on my first photo blog; I have thought about doing this for several years and I finally just did it. This is the first blog I've written that isn't primarily about politics. And the picture below is the first picture that I ever sold.

This is not about selling my photographs. It's about growing as an artist; it's about talking with you - whoever and how many "you" turn out to be - about what goes into my photography. It's about the stories behind the pictures. It's about the journey.

I hope you'll come along on that journey. Tell me what you think about my pictures, about my stories; help me to learn to be a better photographer and a better artist.

Sunset Grazing
"Sunset Grazing" was taken with my first digital camera; a Fuji Finepix 6.0 MP with a 20 x zoom. I had owned an SLR in college for a few years but not since and decided to get my feet wet in digital with something not too expensive but that still took good pictures and would let me experiment with everything from full automatic to full manual modes. It lasted me for about four years until a couple of Christmases ago my wife surprised me with my first DSLR - and my current camera - a Canon Rebel XSi.

But back to the photo: I came upon this horse grazing in a field on one of our evening walks on an early November day in 2005. There was still some color in the trees and the sun was setting just behind a line of trees, making the light more golden than usual. That light limned the horses tail and mane and gave the whole scene a wonderful, warm glow. I walked back and forth a couple of times to get just the right mix of highlights, color in the trees and just a bit of sun flare and took about 4 shots.

For the final picture, I cropped from landscape to portrait, putting the horse near one of the rule of thirds intersections and then adjusted exposure, color and saturation in Photoshop Elements. This was shot in aperture priority at 1/160 sec, f 3.2, ISO 200.

While I was careful about setting up the shot, the important part of this story is that I came upon this beautiful scene and I had my camera with me. It's a lesson I continually have to relearn: take my camera with me no matter where I go and no matter how many times I've gone to that same place. And so there are still so many times the I've missed some really great pictures because I don't have my camera. My next post will be about the shot I missed because I didn't have my camera.