Monday, July 20, 2009

Blueberry, blueberry, where are you?

You ought to have seen what I saw on my way
To the village, through Mortenson's pasture to-day:
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe! You ought to have seen!"

Blueberries by Robert Frost

Blueberries IIHave you ever pulled a well-ripened blueberry from it's comforting container and just ... admired it? Hold it between your fingers. No, don't squeeze it; it'll burst at the seams. But, just cradle it. They have a delicate skin, a deepest of blue. Some of mine were just past the age of ripeness. You could see it in the skin, wrinkled like the skin of a well-worn man aged in the sun and retired from the orchard.

When ripened, blueberry skin becomes waxy, almost white and milky. This aging of it's coat protects it from spoiling too quickly. But, at the same time, reveals a mottled and textured appeal for the camera. It gives life and depth to this tiny blue planet.

On one end a crater has formed from the tips of the flower petal. It resembles a miniature (yet mighty) impact of rock and ice on a planet surface. Really, go look. Tell me you don't see it.

Anyway, I took up the idea of blueberries one evening recently after having seen a photo of this delightful little fruit falling into a bowl and leaving a trail of light in it's wake. I wanted to recreate that image to see if I could do it. Sadly, I came to the conclusion that it's not as easy as it looked.

BlueberriesI'm still mulling over why I failed here. The scientist in me could give you a hundred different technical reasons on why I couldn't capture it, starting at "not enough ambient light" and ending somewhere around "not enough hand-eye coordination to coordinate the falling berries and the shutter". The storyteller in me just wants to say that the idea, however much I had chased it, just wasn't in me. Frustration set in when I wasn't getting what I wanted.

So, like every grand experimenter, I tried something different.

A little side journey here. One of the things I'd promised myself recently was to shoot every Strobist Bootcamp II subject presented to me. I did the first. Failed on the second (but made up for it with my coffee beans). When the results were announced, I went through the entire 700+ list of entries just to see what people were doing. I declare that I'm standing on the shoulders of giants here. The one that caught my eye (before it was announced as the winner) was this one. Peppers in a well-seasoned skillet. Now this ... this has character. This pan has a story to tell, of all the wonderful and comforting dinners it's sizzled away at. You can see the scratches and dings and pock marks. A hedonistic patina built up by years and years of use.

Blueberries IIIAnd this is how ideas start.

I wanted something like this, something showing off the well-used baking stone we have. Our second stone, in fact, lovingly built up through years of curing under the scorching oven heat, saturated with the oils leached out of the foods we've cooked on it. French fries, battered fish, bread, pizza ... you name it, we've cooked it. This has taken years. I was crushed when, in a moment of idiocracy, I took our first stone and set it under a fountain of water coming from our kitchen sink. It was the CRACK! heard 'round the world. Yep. The sudden change of temperature from hellfire and brimstone to cold, cold river water did me in. And I remember that moment every time I'm cooking on our second stone because of the time and effort it takes to season one of these well. An unseasoned stone is no stone to cook on.

So, I had my stone. And I had my blueberries. Like chocolate and peanut butter: two great tastes tasting great together. I had the soul and depth of my background with the life and zest of my subject. So, what to do? Be like any great artist and just plop my load of tiny planets down on this dark brown thingy. Make it look not-so-arranged and neat. Order is the bane of inconsistency. I played with the light a bit combining a bit of flash with a bit of incandescent and didn't like it all that much; the blue and the orange just didn't work well with this. Blueberries IVThe orange just detracts from the color of the blueberries, warming them up too much. They're blue. They needed to be stark and cold and inviting that way.

I labored on. I spent hours upon hours arranging each and every berry in the most articulate of ways. You know, pushing and prodding gently with a toothpick, picking them up one by one with tongs like a little berry crane, and gingerly dropping them down upon the other without a moments hesitation. Ok, not really. They were unceremoniously dumped from the bowl I was eating them out of and finger-kicked until it looked
right, I realized I was still missing something. Steel! Cold, hard steel. Everyone loves a good blade right?

I'm still debating which photo I like more: with the blade or without. I wanted to see some of the detail and striations in the knife's makeup. It really is a pain in the ass to get that angled correctly so the detail is teased out without blowing out the stripes. I tried adding some drops of water blown on to the entire arrangement but it looked contrived. I also thought about crushing some berries but ... by that point, I was just eating them before I could sufficiently place the crushed ones back on the board.

Oh well.

Blueberries SetupThe lighting setup on this wasn't too difficult. One 32" white shoot-through umbrella on the far side of the baking stone to give me that broad northern-looking light. I had a second light on-camera but aimed directly up at the ceiling to create a large fill source. I wanted just enough light to bring up some of the shadow detail without killing it and without blowing out the detail in the knife. I think it worked well enough.

But again, I'm still not sure which picture I like more. One thing's for sure: the berries were good. I'll need to go and get some more before the season dies out.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Hoppin' the waterplug just for old HDR's sake.

Through these doors ...Spent Thursday afternoon filling my camera with more sources of mediocre HDR down at the University. I have to admit: trying to see this stuff is much harder than I expected. You don't really know what you're going to get until you're staring at the tonemap and you're clicking on commit.

It's somewhat frustrating, I must confess. You think you have something good in camera and when you get it loaded it ... well. It's just utter crap. I like the look of HDR photography when, to the naked eye, it appears delicately painted on, brush stroke by brush stroke. I suppose it will get better with time, but we'll see.

I think my problem with the latest HDR trash was that I was photographing subjects that were in full sun so I didn't get the under-exposed part of the range that I wanted (or needed). It was just bright. The photos didn't look all that good. In fact, I ended up deleting a few hundred because they just didn't work out well.

Three Rings
But, we'll see how this goes. I need to read up more on the topic to see what I'm missing. This whole shooting blind idea is not very fruitful. I'd be better off throwing it all up against the wall and seeing what sticks. But, we'll see. The worst that happens is that I delete more photos. C'est la vie.

The photo above is the side entrance (well, the exit) of Garrison Hall on campus. This was the first (and probably the best) attempt I made on Thursday. I love the hint of detail on the windows. I need to work that more deeply whenever I photograph buildings this way. You can see the sky reflection if you look closely.

For this round of photos, I did 5-stop spreads (five photos, one stop apart). I don't know if that's enough. Or too much. And I don't yet know how the size of the stop really affects the final outcome. For all I know, I'm spinning my wheels because I've chosen to deal with too much data on my eye.

I seem to have a fetish for fire plugs. This is now the third that I've taken and added to my collection.

Drink from the firehose.

And, of course, we cannot forget to photograph the biggest balls of them all. I like the rusty bits. HDR really makes them pop out at you like a bad 3D b-movie.

We've got the BIGGEST Balls of them all!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

HDR Playtime!

American Airlines

Last month when I flew up to Chicago, we got diverted to St. Louis because of the nightmare that was the storm front rolling through the area. The sunset was beautiful. It was just us, the plane, the tarmac, and our fellow stranded fliers in the other planes around us. We were all in the penalty box and no one knew if we'd get out alive.

I didn't have much else to do, so I popped over to the left side of our plane and just started playing with the bracketing on my d300. I had intended to play with HDR a bit, but never got around to touching the photos when I got back to Austin.

Until now.

It's not great. I'm definitely no StuckInCustoms, that's for sure. But hell, for a first attempt, it's pretty damn good. Check it out in
large on black.

This was created with 7 RAW images all at f8, ranging from 1/100th to 1/1600th and tonemapped in Photomatix. I had to let it re-align things because I was handholding the camera and shifted around a bit while the photos were being taken. I think it did an excellent job.

Definitely need to play with HDR some more and see what I can come up with.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Links Plucked from the Ether

I think I'm going to start something new on here. Well, restart is probably more apropos. I spend a decent amount of time feeding my hunger for photography (and other interesting stuff) on the web every day. Probably far more than a sane person should. So as I come across this stuff, I'll drop it on here for you.

President Obama's first 167 days in office — Man these photos are awesome. Very engaging. I really enjoyed #16, #18, #32, and #36. Makes me wish I could step into a photography role like that, where I get to follow someone in the limelight and document their lives for posterity.

Kind of old and not really photography related, but this cover of Stand By Me is just damned inspiring. The amount of collaboration it took to pull this off is just amazing.

Over at the Lens, Todd Heisler discusses his work on the One in 8 Million series and answers a question about his black and white workflow. I love the photo of the violinist, Henrique Prince. The one thing about Heisler's workflow that struck me as worth trying out was setting the camera to b&w while shooting to help better visualize what the end result was going to look like. I'm going to have to try that and see if it helps me to better visualize the play of light on scenes.

Found at A Photo Editor, Ten Things I Have Learned by Milton Glaser. Number 5 revved me up the most. The emphasis is mine. I'll have to read some of his other essays.

Being a child of modernism I have heard this mantra all my life. Less is more. One morning upon awakening I realised that it was total nonsense, it is an absurd proposition and also fairly meaningless. But it sounds great because it contains within it a paradox that is resistant to understanding. But it simply does not obtain when you think about the visual of the history of the world. If you look at a Persian rug, you cannot say that less is more because you realise that every part of that rug, every change of colour, every shift in form is absolutely essential for its aesthetic success. You cannot prove to me that a solid blue rug is in any way superior. That also goes for the work of Gaudi, Persian miniatures, art nouveau and everything else. However, I have an alternative to the proposition that I believe is more appropriate. ‘Just enough is more.’

And finally, I'm all about a good belly laugh. Really, there's nothing like one to shove a happy mood into someone. And with that, I leave you with Old Jews Telling Jokes. A warning: some just aren't safe for work because of language. I leave you with A Meeting with the Pope and Broccoli

Juan Valdez, eat your heart out!

Overflow coffee beansI promised myself I would do every Strobist Bootcamp II assignment this go-around. I swear I did. When I failed at doing the second one (the food assignment), I went out and bought some random vittles at Whole Foods to make up for it. A good strobist I was. I chose a random smattering of things: serrano peppers, fresno peppers, coffee beans, spaghetti (spinach AND wheat), two-bite brownies, and pints of blueberries.

Sadly, the brownies didn't make it out of the evening alive. But the coffee beans did! I'm not sure about the photos though. I need to take a step back and re-evaluate what I did and figure out how I could have made them better. I think the biggest problem is that they're just too uniform in color. All brown, no biscuit.

Biscotti might have helped.

Sea of coffee beans IIIBut that's ok. I still managed to spend over an hour working the light and coming up with something that looked good. Compared to many of the 2nd assignment's submissions, I think they suck a bit. For the reason mentioned above. I just didn't think enough about what I wanted to do with what I had.

I have a few more ideas to work through for the berries and peppers, but that's going to take a day or two before I'm ready to even work on that. The hard part is trying to re-create northern sunlight coming in through the window in the dining room. It's just too hot during the day to try and shoot back there.

I've included a few lighting setup shots so you can see what I was doing. It's not much, but it's a start.

Sea of coffee beans IWhat I'm realizing now is that, while the umbrellas do really well at creating a large, soft light, they're extremely challenging to control. I mean, it's a big round light. At one point, I was getting hot spots coming through because of how close I had the umbrella to the kitchen table. Solved that by slipping a piece of paper inside the umbrella at the point where it came closest to the table top to help diffuse out more of the light. That definitely worked great.

But, I need a good softbox. I need more light control for something like this.

In time.

Sea of coffee beans IIBut yeah, take a look at my coffee. Juan Valdez ain't got nothin' on my coffee bean yumminess! I think I'll have to play with this idea some more. Add some piles of white cane sugar, maybe some cinnamon sticks. And a different mug. The brown is definitely just too much.

Oh, and next time I'm buying cheaper coffee. Something I can throw away when I'm done; or at least keep away from my wife who kept trying to act as part of the coffee bean thievery guild of greater Austin. Maybe I'll just buy her her own coffee and that'll solve my problem.

More photos from the evening. Click through to see the explicit lighting details.

Coffee beans in cup I
Coffee beans in cup II
Sea of coffee beans IV
Setp for Overflow coffee beans
Setup for Sea of Coffee beans

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Thousand Points of Light

Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work. — Thomas A. Edison

In one of the photography forums I so frequently haunt, a new photographer threw out the age old existential question: "What makes a better photo, film or digital? Discuss." Yikes. Let's just lob the Holy Hand Grenade of Photographic Antioch into our midst and see what carnage we can make!

Ok, it really wasn't that bad. The responses ranged from the obvious of "The photographer" to "it depends on what you're shooting and it's intended use." But the one that caught my eye was the guy who said:

"I shoot both. I do nature with film as I love the whole process but shoot people with digital due to ease of use and most of my shoots with people are typically upward of 1000 - 2000 photos which would be ungodly expensive with film."

I've never really focused on shooting film, but I do understand the expense of it. What I question about his statement is the "1000 - 2000 photos" per shoot with his digital camera. And I have to ask: why? Why would you want to do that, especially for people? Is there something I'm missing here?

I get that there's a desire to create the perfect photo. I really get that. But what is it about digital that makes people think shooting 1000+ photos will get them perfection? Don't get me wrong, there's probably a time and place for it. But really, is that needed all the time? I wonder if people's photos would improve a notch or two if they stopped taking the shotgun approach to their art (or work) and thought a bit about what exactly they were trying to create.

From what I've encountered, some photographers look at digital as the panacea of recording media. I get the sense that these photogs just snap and snap with wild abandon because, hey, it's digital ... it's free! But that's not entirely true. What you've gained in saved film processing costs, you've now lost due to increased time dealing with more photos during post. You're now saving large amounts of data off so your archiving costs increase. There's a larger wear-and-tear factor on your camera. You may or may not care about any of these things.

Now, I'm guilty of doing this on occasion, taking photo after photo of the exact same pose or moment ... or maybe even slightly altering it to see if that changes the dynamic of the content. But ... does this really help me, as a photographer? I realize I can't shoot every thing I see (well, I can, but I won't). I'm going to miss some things. That's just the law of averages.

But, thousands of images at a sitting? Sounds like a bit much to me.

As for the whole digital vs. film debate? That rages on.

The model above is Scarlet. We were trying different things in the studio. This was my third attempt at this setup. I tried a few times and moved on when I thought I wasn't getting it. Lucky me, it turned out.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fireworks or Bust!

2009 4th July-6367
If your lifetime goal is to own a fireworks stand ... you might be a redneck. -- Jeff Foxworthy

I, of course, don't want to own a fireworks stand. Now, I'm not knocking those who do, but that aspiration just isn't my style. Nevertheless, I did my photographic duty yesterday and camped out with the hundreds of thousands of other people at Town Lake in the blazing July heat. Yes, that fantastical Texas heat. As if the showering sparkles of gun powder laced in burning smoke, the army of fire ants, and warm drips of sweat weren't enough.

For all my heat-induced bellyaching, I have to say I did enjoy the show. I made the colossal mistake of parking close this year. You know, to save time getting to the show. Because I'm Lazy. Yes, with a capital "L". Hung out with a few friends before the show so I could suck up some of their marvelous air conditioning. It was like seeing one of those signs out in the desert, "Last chance for gas, 180 miles." You knew you'd better stop and partake of that brilliant resource before you found yourself out in the middle of nowhere, miles from relief and help, while pissing into the wind.

By 8:45, I knew I had to get over to the park or I'd miss my chance to etch the pretty sparklies onto a flash card for posterity. Say goodbye to Mr. A/C. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

I found a spot on the hill in front of the Palmer Event Center. It's a shame it was the wrong spot. See, what I neglected to realize in my excellently sketched out plan was ... well, you'll see. Sadly, leave it to me to draw this plan out on the back of a napkin. When the ink soaked in like a bloodied pool, I discovered error of my ways. What was so wrong?

Well, everything was fine with the playing of the 1812 Overture. The guns were booming, people were jumping up in fright. And when the fireworks started, they ... were. not. in. front. of. me. No.

They were off to my left. Right behind a lamp post. It was at that moment I wished I had one of two things: a rifle and scope or Dumbledore's lamplight killer thingy. To say I was annoyed would be the understatement of the moment. Shame I had already unpacked all my camera gear and dug in to my little photo foxhole. I was fully engaged and had nowhere to escape to. So, I did what any good photographer would do.

I shot.

There's a scene in Wild, Wild West where Artemis, acting as the President, is chastising West on his investigative style: "Shoot, shoot again, shoot some more, and then ask questions." This thought bubbled up to the front of my mind as I laid on the camera trigger and didn't stop shooting until the last explosive pot launched above the Austin skyline.

And as quickly as it had begun, it ended. Fifteen minutes to get in and find my spot. Fifteen to setup. It took me two to pack, and ten to hoof it out. I wanted to beat the rush. Sadly, I, like every other optimistic party-goer in Austin, decided that they would beat the rush too. Dave Mustaine kept my company the rest of the evening while I ... moved a foot, stomped on the brake. moved a foot, stomped on the brake. Moved three feet ... stomped on the brake.

Fireworks shows put on at Town Lake are an exercise in patience. But, only at their end. There are only five major north-south thoroughfares through Austin to get over the lake: IH35, Congress, South 1st, Lamar, and Mopac. South 1st is always shut down for big events. And the rest, well ... imagine a parking lot. Only with pissed off drunk people. And it's 47 bazillion miles long. It goes without saying that I wanted my bloody hovercar last night. I even called my wife and asked here where my hovercar was. I bet she stole it from me just to make me suffer.

But I digress.

Eventually, I made out of the area and onto IH35 wherein, I stomped on the gas, popped some Digital Underground into the CD player, and cruised through the city at high speed, deftly avoiding the drunk yahoos and their mishmash of weaving and bouncing off the concrete walls.

And that, my friends, was how I spent 4th of July in Austin.

If you'd like to see bigger versions of the photos below, check out my Fireworks Slideshow on Flickr.

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