Wednesday, January 26, 2011

As the crow flies at sunrise

The morning of December 21, 2010, Fynn and I drove up to the Rotenberg to observe and photograph the solar eclipse at 9:15. Temperatures were below freezing, making it difficult to enjoy being up there. Besides the vague idea I had about taking pictures of the sun without looking into the viewfinder of the camera, we were not prepared to watch the spectacle. We brought some cereal boxes to make pinhole viewers, but it had been 40 years since I last used one so they were useless in the end.
However, a nice woman came up to us and let us use her protective glasses to see the sun. It was indeed an interesting sight. We came off the mountain ready for a warm breakfast and I thought I hadn't really gotten any good shots of the eclipse. I followed a crow through the vineyards in the valley near Uhlbach and think the austerity of those pictures sums up how the cold felt. Interestingly, the light in these pictures of the crow does not look anything like that in the sunrise pictures.

When I looked at the pictures of the sun (1/4000 sec; f32; 300mm) on the computer and turned up the clarity on them, we could actually see the bite that the moon took out of the sun that morning. All in all, it wasn't as spectacular or thrilling as we had expected, but it was a nice father/son/sun thing to do!

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Heart of Photography

On Saturday I went for a wonderfully delightful photo walk through Stuttgart with the fotocommunity group from Kirchheim. Since we were going to be walking through my main stomping grounds - the part of Stuttgart that I see several times a week - I decided to do something different and take my big Tamron 2.8/70-200 lens with me. It is heavy and not the thing I lug around every day, only for special occasions because it demands quite a bit more physical effort than screwing on a smaller lens.
The people in the group were very relaxed and seemed to know each other already. But even as an outsider, I was soon chatting with several of the others and ended up having a great day. The wonderful light was icing on the cake.
We were to meet at 2 pm at the train station in Stuttgart. As soccer fans started to pour into town from Mainz, things started to get a bit loud. When the fun-loving fans saw a group of a dozen photographers standing around, they called attention to themselves.

They thought their second-place team would easily beat Stuttgart's team, which is in next-to-last place, but we pulled out a 1-0 victory to start the "Rückrunde", the second half of what has been a very tough season so far.

The other photographers caught up with one another while I watched the sun shine on the main flight of stairs near the main entrance in the station. Between "Yes, I like that too" and "Did you see that?" I was starting my walk before we even took off.

I love photographing people on stairs. The latest DPReview challenge was entitled "People on stairs". I entered two photos, though I couldn't find one that I had really wanted to enter. This one above is now my current favorite. In the original the light faded the contrast in the stairs, creating the appearance of a wall. I took a bit more contrast and clarity out of the corners and ended up with this.

As I said, the light was fantastic, even though it was perhaps too bright for some people's taste. These two young women were enjoying their lattes as we left the station and headed into the park.

There we were met by a juggler who gladly - if a bit shyly - let our group photograph his act. When I am in a group as a participant, it is sometimes difficult for me to turn off my "teacher personality". I mentioned to one woman that she should take off her lens cap and as we were waiting inside another person asked if my camera were on by mistake. I could tell that I had a different philosophy regarding street photography and photo walks than they had.
Another issue that I've been concentrating on lately - thanks to some compliments from my mentor Jim Palik - is background. When I was a child, my mother made the three of us kids aware of the importance of backgrounds as she positioned us thoughtfully for her photographs. So when I saw this juggler and noticed everyone else taking his picture apparently regardless of the background, I moved over to the side and chose this colorful background instead. Does a background have to be plain? I think this adds to the charm of the picture. It smacks of street circus, doesn't it?

Then we moved on into the lower Schlosspark where the protesters have taken over. Muddy tents now stand where huge skylights will one day allow daylight into the underground train station. Activists mill around, decorating their habitats while tourist - and photo walkers - take pictures.
At this time of year, most everything is gray, especially the muddy park. So I was pleasantly surprised to see this fine-dressed gentleman enjoying his snack out in the sun. It took some maneuvering to get the Greenpeace halo over his head, but he sat still and seemed to be either oblivious or at least tolerant of my antics.

Photography is all about light - stark contrasts and gradations. So when you find both in a natural situation, you make the most of it. That's why I love the underpass leading from the station into the park.

On the other side, we were joined by a pretty young woman and her Dalmatian. Someone asked if we could take her picture and she kindly said yes, so a half-dozen sensors were barraged by pixels while I went around to the other side to capture the nice sunlight on her hair - and the other half of the story.

After waiting until they were finished, I could more carefully choose my background and wait for the perfect moment.

Another wonderful advantage to photographing in groups is that you lose your inhibitions. It is sort of the opposite of writing in a group. If you are in a sea of Sonys, Nikons and Canons, passers-by can more easily ignore you. This gentleman rode right past me while I took hispicture. You can decide whether you prefer the first image with the blurred people in the background (which gives you more of a sense of action), or if the second one suits your taste better.

At 3:15 the sun was still shining over the buildings and onto the Schlossplatz. As we entered the square, I saw this motif (stairs! sun on hair! woman sitting in thought!) and took about 20 shots. If you see something that captures your eye, "shoot it till it's dead."
Here I must also admit that carrying a 70-200mm lens had advantages. If I had been using my 17-50, I'd have gotten one close-up shot of her surprised expression and the picture probably wouldn't have made it into this final selection.

This man seemed to follow us around. He was in the park, in front of the opera house and then, apparently following the sun as we were, out in the square where he sunned himself against the wall. Could you have resisted taking his picture?

As it got cooler, I was just getting warmed up (photographically speaking). I had already taken 450 pictures but you never know what is going to cross your path when you are on the street. This elderly man was sleeping on a barricade post, blending in with the gray surroundings so well that he was nearly invisible. I'll just call this one "Arrangement in Gray and Black"; you decide if you could consider it a classic.

When we finally arrived at our destination - the flea market at Karlsplatz - we walked around looking for things worth photographing. Sometimes angels drop in from heaven, make your job easy for you.
This one was not posing for me. It seem that she and her friends had returned to the market where she wanted to show her boyfriend this faux (?) fox vest. She ended up not buying it, but she had her picture taken in it.

"Can you top that?" I asked myself. I really doubted it. I usually don't look at my pictures while I'm walking, but I had to look at the foxy woman again and was pleased as punch. The evening air was getting chilly and I had promised I'd be home for supper. Walking back to the opera house with the others, we were soon met by a couple of photographers who joined the group at 5 pm. After some golden time photography with tripods, they retired to a restaurant to review the day.
The evening sun shone on the old sandstone buildings on the hillside and we started taking bets as to whether the sky would turn red as it did the previous week. I thought it probably would.

It did.

My goal for the day had been 2-3 good shots. I took 750, shooting many things three times with exposure bracketing (0 -> -7 -> +7). Half the pictures made it into my "picks" category, meaning I think I might eventually be able to do something with them. Then I put one star on 59 pictures, cropping and doing a bit of processing on them. Of those, 20 earned a second star and are what I could consider worthwhile.
I hope even you think 2-3 were worth looking at.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sledding again!

Fynn heads down the "Todesschlucht"
The kids got a bright red bobsled for Christmas and the weatherman was nice enough to bring us several perfect days for sledding on the hill behind our house. The bobsled seemed to have a mind of its own as it carried my children down the hill and delivered them into the refreshingly cool snow.

But on this particular day, the fastest mode of transport was the "Po-po Rutscher" (Butt slider? Just don't pronounce the German name like a Japanese businessman and expect me to keep a straight face!). The path winding down behind the hill was icy and the wall at the bottom did not seem to act as a deterrent.




That was a few days ago. The snow has all melted now. But speaking of snow, Stuttgart shipped in several tons from a glacier in Sölden in the Ötztal of Austria in order to put on the world snowboarding championship! Then they built a 36-meter tall jump with an elevator on the back and a landing ramp about 10 meters downwind of the jump. 
Lights were set up overhead for the event, which ran into the evening of January 5, a very cold day.

So I walked on over to the event around 3 pm, starting to take pictures from the south side first. Standing up on a railing, I got a good angle for the warm-ups.

To be honest, though, if you don't know any of the athletes and don't know anything about the sport, the jumps start to look about the same after six or seven guys leave the ramp.
So I thought I'd get a bit closer, ending up right at the foot of the jump. Several press photographers, noticing this was an awesome perspective for working this event, came to the guard at the gate nearby but were sent around to the other entry. I doubt any of them got this shot!

The sky turned blue and a cloud came up for the perfect background. As quickly as it came, it also disappeared.

After 20 minutes there, I started walking around some more, partially to get different shots, but also just to walk and warm up a bit. The next time I plan on shooting standing on snow and ice, I'm going to take an old piece of doubled-up cardboard with me to stand on! It was about -10° C but the Sony 700 did just fine!

Over on the north side, I got some good shots, too. There are a lot of sycamore trees there obscuring the view in many places. I am glad I had my 100-300mm lens with me. The full-format pros with their short but heavy 70-200 lenses didn't get anything like this:

Finally, around 4:30 pm I was frozen and ready to go home, but I wanted to get some pictures from one more angle. I liked how I could capture the Mercedes-Benz Arena in the background from the Gaisburg Bridge, so I waited there for a while.
And waited some more. In the following 15 minutes, the lights above the jump went on and off and on and off, the DJ/MC was still trying to sound excited and exciting after two hours of mixing informal German and English patter like, "The #7 snowboarder in the world, Blah-Blah!!!", and my bladder told me to get home sooner than later.

So this was the last good shot I got. It wasn't taken from what I would always remember as "the perfect vantage point" because at 4:45 pm I figured no one else would jump until 5 pm and I didn't really want to wait around that long.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Für eine barrierefreie Stuttgart
Don't mess with me!

As inhabitants of Stuttgart, we all get visitors from out of town whom we want to show the sights. It is part and parcel of living in such a culturally enriched town. In the evening you can choose among 10 concerts, 10 plays and probably 10 discos before taking the late-night bus back home.
Nearly every weekend this past November a lot of out-of-town visitors came to see my photo exhibit. Some haden't been to Stuttgart since we moved here in 2002, so they naturally wanted to see "the sights".

"Well, what do you want to see?" I ask.
"How about Stuttgart 21?" So we get out of the U-Bahn at Staatsgalerie, walk through the Schloßpark (which did not disappoint!) and on over to the exhibition at Charlottenplatz.

On our way over, a friend asks, "What are those?"

Landscape I
 "Oh, those are barriers that the police put up when the protesters threaten to storm the parliament building," I reply.

"Uh-huh. And what's that over there?"

"Oh, that's the Kunstverein, one of my favorite art galleries," I say. "They had a great photo exhibition this past summer!"

"And that round tower over there?"


"Oh, well you can't see it very well from here, but that's the music conservatory. In the summer they have concerts up on the roof!"

"And is that the world-famous Staatsgalerie next to it?"

Many colors, one function

"Are those colorful barriers part of an exhibition? Or are they part of James Stirling's architecture?"
"I'm not sure."

"What does 'Plenum' mean?" These questions are becoming increasingly difficult.


"That's a Latin word that means a meeting of a group where all the members are present."
"So can anyone go in there, even though there are barriers outside?"
"Well, not any time you want," I explain. "Only when it is open."
"And when there aren't any barriers outside?"
"Well, they are always there now."

State Parliament building

"And what," asks my foreign friend, "does Kein Winterdienst mean? Does that mean there's no outside service during the winter?"

"Yeah, sort of. It actually means they don't clear the sidewalks in the winter."
"But," my friend protests, "how do the people get into the restaurant safely? Snow and ice can be treacherous for elderly people. You could slip and fall!"
"Well, I guess you could always hold onto the barriers like a handrail."

Landscape I

"Yes, that's probably why they are there. Or for handicapped people."
"What do you mean?" I ask, not following her line of thought.
"Yes, I think they probably move them out of the way for handicapped people, right? I read in the tourist guide that Stuttgart wants to become what is known as a barrierefreie Stadt!"

Landscape II

A cold winter's day

Here's a quiz. What is this?
  The answer is at the end of this blog post.

January 5 it was cold-cold in Stuttgart. So of course I took off on a walk through town. Across the busy road near our house a new fancy-shmanzy car wash is being built. At this point it is just an empty industrial-style building with a cathedral ceiling, but when the sun shines through it, you can get some stunning shots!

Do you like the tilt? I decided to add an off-kilter angle to shake up the image a bit.

The gritty door and windows next to the big ride-up door also served their photographic purpose that day.

And this is what it looks like from the outside. You can see how well it blends in with the existing architecture!

A few steps further up the path leading to the Neckar River, I discovered numbered heating (or cooling?) units outside a huge storehouse. This is located at the heart of the wholesale district, so there are probably perishable flowers or fruits in there.

On the bridge the sun created wonderful shadows for me and the man headed my way.

The topic of one of the recent DPReview challenges was barbed wire. That got me shooting the stuff surrounding the gardens near our house. The pictures were interesting with the snow and clear sky in the background, but nothing great. Then these images popped up as I headed down into the underpass near the Mercedes Museum.
In the image above I like the contrasting colors and textures, the loopy razor wire and the smooth square tiles.

In the two photos above I tried to show how focusing on either the branches or the wire would make a difference to our perception of the image, but I don't think it makes much of a difference, does it?

Time out
The beach volleyball courts look oddly inviting to me even with a half a foot of snow on them.

Another DPReview challenge was called "Aftermath" and was set right after Christmas and New Year's. I got these two shots, though didn't enter either one because I didn't think they were that strong. The one with the cups was taken at the snowboarding competition where the sponsor, Relentless, was giving away its energy drink (perhaps because no one would buy it?).

And this shot was taken right after the sign was destroyed. It is one of those scrolling advertisements that had not survived a drunken pedestrian's fist.

It is wet. It is cold. It doesn't matter. (Ad for a four-wheel drive Mercedes)
That was it for a cold day's walk. Join me soon for other interesting topics!

Drum roll, please!
The answer to the quiz:
Snow blowing off the bridge railing