Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My pictures, your story

Here are a couple of pictures from the week before Christmas. This time, however, your creativity is called for, OK? I'm providing you with the pictures and you put the story together. I'll try to make this first one fun. Ready?







You may, of course, put the pictures in any order you like. Just refer to the numbers when you mention the illustration. I'll post your stories here if you like. Send them to my e-mail address. I will also be writing a story to accompany the pictures. Have fun!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Magic moments (sometimes after the shot)

Hundertwasser in Stuttgart

This does not happen very often. Yesterday I transferred the day's pictures from my memory card to my computer and looked at the thumbnails of a handful of what I thought were loser images. Then I sent one image through a post-processing preset that I like a lot and - bam! - magic happened. Finally, I played with the above image a bit to get it to look just how I wanted it.
I like how the reflections of the buildings in the background look like Hundertwasser architecture. This was a case of discovering something in a photograph that I had not foreseen. Nowadays I often know exactly how I'm going to process a picture that I take. In this one, I knew the reflection was interesting and I wanted the old woman in the picture (so I only had time to take four shots), but the possibility of drawing out the buildings in the background (by increasing the blacks and the contrast) was a nice surprise.

Esslingen reflection
This is another reflection, but one I had a bit more time to prepare because the buildings weren't going to walk away anytime soon. What I like about this one is the frame effect of the broken glass and the appeal of the contrasting architectural styles. The yellow contoured glass from a bar in Esslingen is typical of the late 1970s. Juxtapose that with the bay window of the building from the early 20th century and you get a nice contrast.

During the same trip to Esslingen (with my friend Christian) I took a shot through a round window looking into a parking garage while I was waiting for him. Using the new lens correction feature from Lightroom 3, I made this one look like a super wide angle shot. This shows what can be done with post-production to make everyday shots more interesting.

Taking the advice of Chase Jarvis, I tried to get some good shots within a few meters of where I was sitting (in my office) one evening. While some photographers will tell you that if you want to get more interesting pictures, you have to become a more interesting person (that could take a while!), and others will tell you to put something more interesting in front of your camera, Chase suggests you can take interesting pictures wherever you are, assuming you have a camera with you (he is a fan of the iPhone's photo capabilities) and that you have a good eye for images. I always carry my big camera with me, but you can take great shots with a small one, too, if you have your eyes open. My friend Jim Palik says there are a lot of people out there taking great pictures but 95% of them don't know what to do once they've taken it. In other words, their post-processing skills are weak and/or they don't know how to share them.
So there I was in my basement taking pictures one evening. I took a lot of pictures - one too many pictures, as it turned out. I was recording to a 2GB Memory Stick (originally developed and now exclusively used by Sony, of course) and it filled up before I noticed that it had counted down to 0. When I copied the pictures to my hard drive, the last 50 pictures were corrupt and had purple tinges and stripes in parts. The picture above is almost interesting in a technical, never-seen-that-before way. It is not too frustrating to have corrupt pictures of your CD collection. However, I had this problem at a friend's 40th birthday and again one day when I was visiting my father with my children.
The problem is that the pictures look fine on the camera's monitor, but when you copy them onto the computer, you have either gray parts or stripes with either a purple tint or white noise. I've only had this problem with the Memory Stick, but perhaps that is because in each of the cases that was my back-up card and it, too, filled up.
So - never shoot a card until it is totally full (unless you like purple stripes)! The little computer processor in your digital camera needs a bit more room to write the files to the card than you think it does.
Remember the lovely analog days when accidents could also happen to ruin your pictures? The film didn't catch when you loaded it (happened to a friend of mine before he went to meet his idol John Williams the conductor. [Now he's making movies with him in Hollywood, so things worked out in the end!]). Or you ripped up the film forcing it back into the spool (happened to me more than once). Or the back of the camera opened and exposed your film (happened to everyone).

By the way, the picture above is more of what I was trying to do that evening. I used a slow shutter speed and moved the camera once while the shutter was opened. It is sort of like a double exposure. Some DSLRs can take multiple exposures, but mine can't. Of course, you could simply place one layer over the other in Photoshop, but I don't to that (yet).

I'll end with one more bit of magic. Walking back home one evening, I used a slow shutter speed (about 2-3 seconds) and let the streetlights capture my gait. It appears that I walk like a cat!

Monday, December 20, 2010

City sidewalks

If I've learned one thing about blogging, it is that you can't wait until you have the perfect collection of pictures to post or else you'll rarely get something up and online. So I'm going to let you, dear reader, put the pictures together in your own mind. The following photos were all taken within two hours of one another.

This first picture is a left-over from a challenge called "Windows" which I entered on Digital Photography Review. I'm fairly addicted to these challenges. In the end, I think I missed the deadline on this one, but since there is no daylight left when I leave work, I am forced to look for the light in the shop windows. And there is a lot going on there at this time of year! Year-end offerings for the adults...

German Christmas clothes
And enticing offerings for the children...

There are a lot of buskers out on the streets of Stuttgart braving the cold with their fragile instruments. This young woman was playing particularly well on Königstrasse down near the train station.

On Schlossplatz, where the Christmas market is first put up at the beginning of November - including a skating rink - there are several stands that sell Glühwein and assorted goodies for the after-work crowd. These blue hooded helpers seem appropriately dressed to sell their blue packages of nuts.

Am I blue?
A large clothing store on the main shopping drag has two life-size mannequins on either side of the entrance. I thrilled to have time to get a good shot of this shopper unconsciously assuming the pose of one wooded figure.

Jay Maisel would have loved this gesture
 Then it was time to go home and pick up my little girl, who was playing at a friend's after school. Little light rarely stops me from snapping away. At 1600 ISO, I was able to capture the most important features clearly enough. The rest blurs with action, adding a nice feeling to this shot.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Visit

 We had a very nice visit this past weekend from friends we met in Freiburg a couple of years ago. Yesterday we went to the Christmas market and let the kids ride the little Ferris wheel, which I believe is there so that fathers can take pictures of their children as they go around eight times. Fiona and her friend Emily saw what I was up to!

What a great photo op! (All the better with three good looking kids!)

On the way home, I surrendered my camera to Fynn and Emily. What those young eyes see is unbelievable! This was Fynn's snapshot.

And this was Emily's.

Fiona caught her brother in a Klitschko fighting mood!

Sunday was a bit quieter. All three played the piano for us. 

First Emily played a Tango for us.

Then it was Fiona's turn to play her "Flohwalzer" and a couple of Christmas carols.

And finally Fynn played some songs he has been learning the past couple of weeks.

The highlight for little Emily was getting to hold and even feed Julia April. As an only child, she appreciated the fact that she could be the big sister for once. And for us it was nice having four children in the house!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Back on the street

It gets dark early here in Stuttgart in mid-December, but that can't stop me from hitting the streets after work. My eye just has to look a bit harder for light. Yesterday I discovered the treats waiting for me in the street-level shops and restaurants downtown.
Technical stuff (you may skip):
After I watched Jay Maisel and Scott Kelby walk around Manhattan with 70-300mm lenses on their (full-format) cameras, I bought a Sigma 50-200, which is about the same thing. It's OK, but now I've picked up a Sigma 70-300 and it rocks on the street! With my Sony A700, a 300mm lens puts me at the equivalent of 450mm, which is where your super zoom bridge cameras put you when they are totally maxed out. 
What that means is that you can get super close to people across the street from you or on the next corner. It also means you have to hold the camera very steady. The 50-200 has an optical stabilizer built into it, which Sony Alphas don't necessarily need (because they've got the Super Steady Shot built into the body), so you turn off either the OS on the lens or the SSS on your Sony.

On the way to work that morning, I just had to test out the new lens. What crossed my aperture but the perfect frame for "man and his car" scene. Judging from the other cars in this picture, you may not think it snowed much, but I had just finished scraping the ice and snow off our car and can tell you the middle car was, like ours, out all night. In any case, I think the "No parking" signs add a nice frame to this winter work-out.

Two Santas

If you haven't been to Stuttgart's Christmas market, you should go just for the smells! The food never tastes as good as your ol' olfactory makes you think it will. With frozen feet standing at a chest-high wooden table with a smoker, a blabber, a tweeter and a Glühwein drunker, your food will be cold before you get half of it down. But go and smell. If you are lucky, there will be some good brass players like my friend Christof playing delightful arrangements of Christmas carols. This is a good place to go with some colleagues or friends after work. It probably isn't the best place to go after a hard afternoon's shopping because where are you going to put all the bags? Come back when you have some time on your hands!
Now when it gets cold, homeless people obviously have it hard. 

The sellers of "Trottwar", a newspaper written, published and distributed by homeless people, are present at the Christmas market, hoping to catch some people in a cheerful, generous mood. Often, however, they go about their business of looking for cheap presents in the well-stocked bargain stores.

And then there are the people who come into town to be amongst the masses in order to forget their loneliness. You can read it on their faces and in their body language. Wouldn't it be great if the two men here felt free enough to talk to one another? It would take a great leap in the rules of German etiquette for that to happen.

The young people always have someone to talk to - or chat or skype with or text or tweet. This member of the multi-tasking generation was doing it while his hair was being dried. There were a lot of young people getting their hair done yesterday evening.

Wishing you all a cheery Advent!

Thursday, December 9, 2010


You've all seen the outtake reels as the credits roll after a movie or on DVDs in the "Extras" section. They include the scenes that were cut because they weren't as strong as the rest - or because the film would have been too long otherwise.
And you may remember the scene from Amadeus in which the emperor told the young Wolfgang that he thought the piece of music was "wonderful except that there are too many notes."
"Well," Mozart asked, "which ones should I take out, Your Majesty?
As a writer - and particularly as an editor - I am constantly confronted with this question. What part of the text can we do without? Where will a cut make a piece stronger?
During the process of putting together my photo exhibition this past year, I had to make some difficult decisions, too. The selection was, on the one hand, made a bit easier by the fact that the exhibition had a theme: Halloween and autumn. Furthermore, my photographs were to complement Tiffany's illustrations and, I reasoned, should therefore have something magical or mystical about them. And yet there were also other restrictions. For example, we were using borrowed frames and matts, several of which housed pairs of pictures. And we had only a certain amount of frames and hanging space. So the decision process began.

This picture was taken in the early fall and the punk with the spikey hair looks like he is dressed for Halloween, but the picture - despite the nice late afternoon lighting - hardly makes you think of autumn. Rejected!

This photo was in the final selection, but the picture of Lilith, the witch, showed a very different side of Halloween, a more playful and exuberant one, so this calm and cozy scene was rejected and banned to the outtakes. The picture accompanying Lilith showed her and her friends trick-or-treating at a neighbor's house.

I had thought about hanging pairs of pictures to show a certain scene in two different seasons, but this idea did not quite fit our main idea, being autumn, nor did I feel it would have been a good use of the wall space. Rejected!

The same goes for the pictures below, in which the automatic white balance went crazy when I first pointed the camera into the woods. The warm orange color of the leaves overwhelmed the camera's computer, causing it to compensate and turn the gray trees cool blue.

A click of the white balance adjustment button resolved the problem. This is what the woods really looked like.

The harvest of the grapes all around my part of town is a big part of fall for many people. The new wine and the colorful vineyards delight the senses in November. This picture, however, is missing something (besides grapes!).

Perhaps it is the composition. The eye is not led left-to-right through the picture as we westerners are used to. So we can flop the negative:

And we get a much more pleasing composition, but still nothing I'd necessarily want to look at for more than two seconds, which is, according to some experts, the sign of a good photograph. Rejected!

Part of the trick of making your pictures look good, of course, is the presentation. This picture did make it into my exhibition catalog, but the rule of thirds was blatantly ignored here and the grapes appear to want to fall right out of the picture. I should have taken more care in framing the bunch of grapes when I took the original picture. Rejected!

Another one of my favorite photographs (OK, I can do without the heavy vignetting in the corners now) didn't make it into the frame on the wall. It was certainly a finalist as a candidate to hang with the following shot, which I took the same day:

But again, I had to make a decision and after post-processing both of these (admittedly a bit too much), I chose not to use them. Rejected! By the way, the picture of the bird in the tree shown here is not edited to death but fairly much as it looked straight out of the camera.

The gas tank near the Neckar River is another one of my favorite photographic subjects, being so omnipresent in my field of vision. This picture, taken out of my bedroom window at dusk, shows it in all its glory. But does it look like fall? Is there anything magical about it? Rejected! 

This picture, also taken from my bedroom window, shows the risen moon over Rotenberg. Certainly a nice shot, but compositionally not as strong as the one of the rising moon that was included in the show. Rejected!

Sycamore alley in the Schloßpark was a beautiful sight in early November 2009. But the picture of the old man walking his dog in the deep leaves suited the feeling of the season better, I felt. The athletic activity going on here reminds me more of a time for rejuvenation than hibernation. Rejected!

Finally, we come to the pictures of fowl in ponds. Beautiful light and nice compositions made them strong candidates, but the contents are a bit trite. 

Haven't you also taken pictures just like these? Rejected! 

So when you are making your final selection for your portfolio, a photo book or and exhibition, remember these rules:
1. The picture should turn you on. You should thrill when you look at it - even a year later. Create your PC wallpaper with it and look at it every day for a month or two if you aren't sure.
2. The pictures should serve the purpose intended by the project. If your topic is leaves, ask yourself if you really need a picture of the tree, too. (You may say yes; that's your decision!)
3. Choose pictures with strong compositions. If you haven't developed your artistic eye yet, you can stubbornly use the rule of thirds or, if you are lucky, you can ask someone else for critique.
4. Avoid trite pictures or clichés. This is a tough rule because we are fed trite images every day: the resolute politician, the airbrushed model, show-covered trees, the smiling baby, etc. There are certainly times when you will want to capture a cliché; for instance, when you want to measure yourself against other photographers. But is that the essence of creativity, the best you can do?