Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wide angle skies

Wide angle skies

Once you invest in a super wide angle lens - 10-20mm in my case - you have the opportunity to see the world around you with different eyes. When I go through the city with my 70-300mm lens, I look into the distance and try to pick out interesting motifs. At 10mm, you capture the whole street and the sky to boot!
Back in college when I would walk across campus hand-in-hand with my girlfriend, my eyes often drifted up to the skies. To this day, when I see a beautiful sky, I think back to those days. Sunday evening I saw these small cumulus clouds forming around 9 p.m., grabbed my camera, a flash and two lenses and headed toward the quickly setting sun (sunset on that day in Stuttgart: 9:30). From the hill above our house I took the picture above at 9:11.
Then I walked toward the west, hoping to get the tower of the Gaisburg church in a nice silhouette with the clouds as I had once. Down in the industrial area near our house I was dwarfed by trucks and warehouses, though, which provided ugly foregrounds. But if I crop out the 12 trucks directly in front of me, the sky is pretty decent. What I first mistook for lightning turned out to be the truckers taking pictures of the sky with their point-and-shoots. This was not the time for me to teach a lesson on a camera's manual mode, nor was this the perfect pedagogical setting.

Around 9:40 I took a few shots and then watched as the orange color slowly left the sky. I figured I had seen the best of that evening's sunset already because it was becoming dark, so I headed back through the warehouses, getting some wide-angle shots of wood pallets and sides of buildings that I might be able to use as backgrounds in Photoshop someday. Someday when I figure out how to do that!
Then I saw that as the sky began to darken, the bright orange bottoms of the clouds turned dark red. I headed to the bridge over highway B10 and saw a wondrous sky just seven minutes later!

On the bridge over the Neckar River I used a much slower shutter speed than I had for the previous pictures, so it appears brightest of all. I wanted the river to have a smooth surface, which you can only get with a slow shutter speed. In any case, at 9:50 the sun was perfectly placed behind the bridge.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review of "Another Day with Jay Maisel"

Review of "Another Day with Jay Maisel"

If you missed this - and you probably did if you are here in Germany because the three-hour webcast started at midnight on June 6 - I want to try to summarize some of what was said so you can benefit from this master photographer's experience.
In a post from last summer just before the Worldwide Photo Walk, I wrote down some tips garnered from Scott Kelby's training video for street photography called "A Day with Jay Maisel": pack light, walk slowly, be prepared, look for the gesture, be open to new images, set your camera to guarantee you get the shot (high ISO and shutter speed), enjoy yourself and be friendly to those you meet (and may therefore want to photograph).
In this second video and webcast, the viewer goes away with even more of a sense of Jay's photographic frame of mind (pardon the pun). In addition, you got a sense of Scott Kelby's amiability, which at times borders on obsequiousness, though that is also part of the video's charm. Scott keeps coming back to the instructional purpose of the walk, putting easy-to-learn labels on what they are going after. It basically all boils down to gesture, light and color.

Equipment: Body and glass
1/320 sec, f5.6, 400 ISO, 300mm
Scott knew that the audience would be interested in their equipment, so he got those facts out on the table right away. During the webcast, a lot of people continued to ask what kind of camera and lens were in use. On the first walk, Jay and Scott had Nikon D3s cameras with 70-300mm lenses. This time Jay has left the second lens home, the 24-70 he had in his belt pack, and is carrying only a 28-300. I asked in the webcast if the quality of that lens was good enough (I am not familiar with that Nikon lens but know that such super zooms are often less than stellar in quality). He answered, "If it wasn't, I wouldn't be using it." With that kind of range on your camera, you can go out open to whatever happens. Otherwise, I think you would normally say to yourself, "Today I'm feeling like shooting with a wide-angle lens [or a telephoto lens]."
Something else Jay always leaves at home is his lens hood. At the onset of the first walk, he tried to convince Scott that it just made him look intimidating. Nevertheless, Scott had it on his lens (backwards) until Jay reminded him that he didn't need it.

A good day with Jay
1/1000sec, f8, 400 ISO, 135mm
As unspectacular as some of his pictures appeared to be, one got the sense that Jay goes out to have fun and doesn't like bowing to other people's rules. He shoots in dappled light. He doesn't shoot a pick-up game of soccer because it wouldn't be fun spending an hour trying to get a good picture. Scott, on the other hand, seems to know and want to adhere to "the rules", such as using a lens hood to fight flare and add contrast to your pictures. On the other hand, one of the rules Jay handed out on the first walk was that you should keep shooting and not look at the display so much during your walk. But this time they were both spending a lot of time comparing shots and checking what they had just shot.
One of the great joys of watching Jay take pictures is seeing the child in him having fun. He admits that he keeps shooting because he enjoys seeing something he has never seen before: a certain light, a combination of colors, an interesting gesture.
Again and again, we see Jay following an important bit of his own advice: If someone allows you to take their picture, make the most of it. He walks through the streets, admittedly "looking like an idiot who is having a good time" and thinks people will be least suspicious of someone (acting) like that. Now and then he finds someone who stands there and lets him take her picture. He takes several and then says thank you.

Cropping: Making the most of the frame
1/1000sec, f7.1, 800 ISO, 280mm
Jay teaches his students to crop in the camera. "It's a discipline," he says. "If you say to yourself, 'I'll do it later,' then you get sloppy." He said in the first video that he doesn't like it when people take quick pictures without framing their subjects carefully. In this video he talks about "watching the corners", especially with a wide-angle lens (because there is so much more in the corners to watch). If you have distracting elements in the corners and edges, then the viewer won't be able to concentrate on the main motif. Plus, "The center is going to work out; that's what attracted me in the first place." At this point in his career, he says he tries harder to eliminate bad elements from his photographs than to put good elements in them. How many of us can claim to take pictures that way?
Jay doesn't like using the word "composition" (though he studied art and knows very well how important it is) but rather "framing" and "cropping". "The composition is already there," he says, underlining the improvisational aspect of his sort of street photography.

Exposures: Catching the action
1/2000sec, f7.1, 800 ISO, 150mm
Jay brackets while shooting, so he takes three pictures of everything, and he shoots RAW and JPEGs. With the D3s, a 12MP camera, that takes up a lot of memory. At one point in the first half of the video he "runs out of film" and has to put in a new memory card. The D3s has twin card slots, allowing you to record the same data on two cards simultaneously, or RAW on one and JPEG on the other (which is probably what Jay does), and transfer data from one card to another. So either he was using relatively small cards (8GB or smaller) or we didn't see but a fraction of the pictures he took that day.
He says his assistants post-process his shots to make them look like what he originally saw. He doesn't like to spend time in front of the computer; he'd rather be out shooting.
He shoots at ISO 1600 (on a sunny day!) and sets his aperture at f11-14 so that he can capture the shots he wants. Scott was using a lower ISO and realized that was reason his shots were not as sharp as Jay's.  Jay seems to not listen to what people write about the physics of optics. Apparently, most lenses are sharpest two stops down from their maximum open aperture. He also doesn't care much about separating his main motif from the background (with a wide aperture) because at f14 everything is going to be sharp.
With the D3s there is practically no noise at 3200 and even 6400 is still acceptable. He admitted to having shot a concert at 12,800 ISO. For a full-frame 12.1 MP camera that goes up to the equivalent of ISO 102,400, what would you expect? In the meantime, I've been shooting with my Sony A700 increasingly at higher ISOs during the day and must admit to having caught some things that previously would have been too blurry.
He pointed out that most prize-winning pictures are "shitty technically" because that's not what counts. The gesture is more important than the technical side - "it's the picture not the pixels"!

Inspiration: Staying fresh
1/1000sec, f6.3, 100 ISO, 17mm
For inspiration, Jay suggests going to a good museum. Of course, looking at the works of masters of photography such as Henri Cartier-Bresson will both keep you humble and show you that great moments of truth can be captured with a camera if you are skilled and prepared. One of his favorite pictures is Arnold Newman's photograph of Igor Stravinsky at the piano. He's motivated by the possibility of seeing something he's never seen before. What keeps you going?
You get good at photography by putting in your time and doing a lot of hard work. Social networking will help you make money, but it won't make you good, says Jay.
If you want to have fun, stay open to what happens in front of your lens when you are out on the street. Jay says that to learn the craft he would send students out on three different walks, each time concentrating on one of these three aspects: gesture, light or color.
So now you have your assignment - get shooting (and have fun!).

P.S. On the Digital Photography School website I saw a video of Leica photographer Eric Kim walking through the streets of L.A. snapping away. His style couldn't be more different from Jays. Check out the video here. An in between approach can be seen in this video about New York Leica photographer Jeff Mermelstein. I like what he says about his attitude toward his photography: "It's what I do. It's my way of responding to people." I think if we (amateur street) photographers were able to convince ourselves that we have a right to express ourselves through our artwork, then we would have fewer inhibitions about what we do.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Painting with light

Painting with light

First attempts at a new artistic endeavor are bound to be disappointing unless you have no expectations. And I think this can only be the case when you are playing and not working toward any particular goals.
Of course "photography" means "writing with light" and serious photographers should always be aware that the light is the deciding factor in every picture they take. However, sometimes a motif - taken at an event, for example - needs to be captured and the artistic aspects of the photo become secondary. In such cases, a bit of luck may help turn a pictorial recording into an aesthetically pleasing piece of artwork.
At our art group's "happening" on Friday, June 10, at the appropriately named Lichtbildnerei, I did some light painting in performance with the people in attendance. Audience members who had never seen it done before seemed intrigued by the idea and had a chance to try it out themselves.

Before the performance, I practiced a bit at home first. This motif was on a 1978 record cover. Can you guess which one?

I think the most interesting designs are made when you outline - or form a pattern - with light close to the object. As in the first picture of Patrick above and the knapsack below, these detailed lines add little light to the picture as a whole, appearing more like a skeleton. I found f10 to work well on pictures lasting over 9 seconds. Of course it depends on the amount of ambient light and the distance of the camera to the object, as well as the intensity of the light.

Try it out yourself! Just put your camera on a tripod and set the shutter speed to at least 10 seconds or BULB if your DSLR has that setting so you can use your remote control. Make sure you are wearing dark clothes and try not to get yourself between the camera and the light. Have fun!
The picture below is a montage of four pictures - one for each letter - that I did for my artist friend. However, instead of painting the letters with a flashlight, I moved the camera and used a streetlight as the source of light.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Reflets dans l'eau

Reflets dans l'eau
(Reflections on the water)

We have finally had some rain in Stuttgart after three very sunny months. Aside from getting caught out in a hailstorm on the weekend, it's been refreshing for the flowers and for allergy sufferers. For photographers, it's always nice to have more interesting sidewalks to pace.

The water in front of my door in the Neckar River provided a beautiful canvas for me recently. The river was calm, barely a breeze ruffled the surface.

The contrasting colors of the trees on the two banks made for a nice composition.

As the sun set, the sky provided all the colors one might need for a pretty scene.

Sunday, June 5, 2011



As I've suggested in earlier posts, once you've found a suitable motif - one that captures your fancy - then go ahead and "shoot it till it's dead". What you will then have is a collection of very similar shots and, if you're lucky, you may find all of them interesting. But your friends might not think that 77 pictures of your kid eating spaghetti are as captivating as you do. 
One possible solution: presets. Most programs with which you process your pictures have presets that give your photos a certain look with one click. Just like the presets in your camera which can make your pictures extra vivid or sharp or full of contrast from the onset, post-processing presets - which you can also create yourself - provide you with time-saving steps for giving a group of pictures similar properties. For example, if you are planning to show a half-dozen pictures together, you may want them to share a similar color spectrum. Smart phones have apps that give the photos a blurry green, artsy-retro look. I'm sure you've seen them on Facebook. I am not sure why blurry green pictures are supposed to look artistic, but then there's a lot I don't understand.
Back to presets: In Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop or many other photo processing programs, there are presets available for free on the web or in magazines and they are fun to try out when you have a series of pictures you want to play around with. I even had one of mine published in the Dec. 2010 issue of Digital Photo. However, I believe the real art comes when you have your own vision and create presets for your pictures yourself.

High contrast
On a sunny day at a bike fest, it seems to me that high-contrast pictures are called for, whether they have bright colors or almost none. Bikes have lots of lines and curves and they look coolest when you can see them clearly. Right?

Low saturation
You may, on the other hand, want to play with the opposite of what you would normally choose and see if you feel the look and the content are in accord. It's OK if they aren't; many people will then be able to recognize it as art.

Blue look
Here you see several different looks that I tried out by starting with existing presets in Lightroom and then tweaking them to my liking. 

This one, for example, had a pretty cool black frame-like vignette around it that would have taken me several minutes to create myself. Again, you can keep some aspects of a preset - the coloring, contrast, vibrancy, clarity, etc. - and change others to your suit your aesthetic sensibility. 
These last two pictures below have very similar contents and yet each one has a fairly different feel to it. Can you put your finger on what the differences are? Which one do you prefer? Why?

Riding high

Riding low