Friday, December 26, 2014

Using a fish-eye lens for architectural photography

The fish-eye experience, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we saw some of the fun you can have with a fish-eye lens and learned what you have to watch out for when using one.
As with any architectural photography, the lines and light are the main elements and should be kept in mind at all times. When using a fish-eye lens, however, your lines often turn into curves, especially on the edges of your frame. In the photograph below you can see how the lines of the spiral staircase actually complement the curvature of the framing window, as do the round-back chairs in the café.

Café in downtown Stuttgart
As with any wide-angle lens, your photograph will be focused over a large depth-of-field, especially if you are trying to get the maximum amount of sharpness out of your lens. Take some test shots in good light to find the best aperture for your lens. The sharpest aperture is usually two stops down from wide open.
These photos were made with the Walimex f3.5/8mm ASP-C fish-eye lens for Sony. (Walimex is also sold under the names Samyang and Rokinon.) I usually shoot at f8 but if there is enough light, I'll stop it down to f11 or f16, as in the image below. When you close the aperture so tight, your light sources will appear star-like.

Tempodrom in Berlin
Putting yourself in the picture: Architectural selfies

In 2013 the word of the year was "selfie", so why not use it in 2014? I'm sure you have used the word and the technique of pointing the camera at yourself and clicking the shutter!
But do you think of your background when taking one? That's probably the most interesting thing in a selfie after looking at 100 pictures of yourself, don't you agree?
With a fish-eye lens it is often difficult NOT to get in the picture. If I don't lean forward and shoot straight, I invariably get my toes in the frame. Placing yourself in the picture is easier if you have a flip-out display, as on the Sony A77. In the shot below (taken with the A7), I positioned myself in front of one of the dark sides of the cement slabs and let the light cast an outline of sunshine on my profile. The negative space of the sky is as much a part of this composition as are the slabs.

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin
The more lines the better

Bending the perspective with a fish-eye is simply fun. The observer won't see it as skewed, however, if you don't provide a point of reference, a straight line somewhere.
And remember that you can cut down a great deal of the distortion during the post-processing in Photoshop or, as I did here, slightly in Lightroom (by pushing "Distortion" up to +88).
Side note: With light entering the lens from 180°, you are bound to get some lens flare now and then, despite the small lens hood. Opinions differ, but I think lens flare is not necessarily a bad thing. It is natural - usually. Photoshop offers a special tool to help you add it after the fact if you like. Here it is in its original form.

It's not the "what" but the "why" of the photograph

One of the most poignant tips I've ever received about photography was that it is not as important what you take a picture of as why. With a fish-eye lens, you may want to ask yourself how the image makes you feel because the "what" will be skewed to a point that it is nearly unrecognizable. In the case of the image below, the extremely short lens added a feeling of being swallowed up by the stairway and graffiti.

Stairway in Tübingen
One last tip: Keep your lens parallel to the ground when shooting architecture. Your Sony camera will probably have a built-in level to help you. Levels can be bought for other camera brands which fit on top of the hot shoe.
The fish-eye lens is a lot of fun in town if you know how to make the most of it. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Getting closer

The fish-eye experience, Part 1

Getting the big picture at the weekly market in Tübingen
I'm not the first one to write about the fun you can have with fish-eye lenses. But this is the first time I've written about it to this extent.

In June 2012 I bought a Walimex Pro 3.5/8mm Fisheye for Sony and have used it on the Sony A77 and A7 since then. It is an APS-C lens, so on the full-frame A7 you have to set the camera to capture the photo on the smaller sweet spot on the sensor. Otherwise, you get this:

The shadows cast by an APS-C lens on a full-frame sensor
The shadowy fringe around the outside is a result both of the tulip-shaped lens hood which is affixed to the lens and also of the small focus of the APS-C lens. Of course, you can always simply crop the picture afterwards if you prefer. When in "APS-C Capture" mode, the camera will show that you have much more room left on your memory card than you would normally have. I've found that since APS-C lenses use the middle part of the sensor, they pictures often appear sharper than those taken with a comparable full-frame lens. Your experience may vary, depending on the lenses in use.

Creatively adding the foreground to your composition
One of the things I like best about fish-eye lenses is that they allow you to use the foreground more effectively than longer lenses do. Whereas a telephoto lens will seemingly blend the fore- and background into a flatter plane, you wouldn't be able to compose the above photo with a 200mm lens.
Fish-eye lenses are also fun to play with if you experiment enough with them and think of good opportunities for using them.

Capture Two
You can obviously capture larger swathes of the landscape with 8mm (equivalent to 12mm on an APS-C sensor with Sony cameras) than with the normal kit lens.

Bend it like heck, hmm?
One thing you must take into consideration, though, is the angle at which you take the pictures. The picture at the top of this post was taken straight-on and parallel to the ground (all recent Sony cameras have a level built into the camera). This is what it looked like before I began my lens correction tweaking:

This shows the vegetable stand in the context of the market. What I wanted, however, was to emphasize the lines of the blue and white awning and the colors of the veggies. As with many of my fish-eye photos, I pushed the "Distortion" slider up to +100 in Lightroom (it works the same in Camera Raw) and constrained the crop. In essence, that flattens out the picture a bit, making it appear as a simple wide-angle shot.
In the two photos below, I experimented a bit more with the position of the camera relative to the awning. In post-processing you can also add vertical lens correction to get the look you want.

With a bit of forethought and some imagination, you can combine several advantages of the lens at once and get close, emphasize the composition and frame the motif all at once. Happy shooting!

In the next part, I'll write a bit about using the fish-eye lens for architectural photography.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Landscape photography

If you are lucky enough to live where this is the view from your window, landscape photography might just be for you.

Sunrise over the Grabkapelle of Rotenberg
However, that was not the case with me. I guess I like nature as much as the next person, but the hustle and bustle of the city streets with all the interesting people attracted me even more. So my landscapes over the past few years tended to look more like this:

Then I went to the Netherlands for a vacation. Anticipating good light and interesting landscapes, I was pleased to learn that the Dutch don't disappoint.
From sunrise at the harbor ...

... or at the beach ...

... to sunset behind our apartment ...

... or at the shore, ...

... there was always something pleasing to photograph ...

... even as the sun disappeared, taking the details of the day with it.

I won't call myself a landscape photographer yet, but I certainly enjoy trying to capture the essence
of the world around me. So when I'm in places like this that are devoid of skyscrapers, I'll make the best of it.
The last two photographs shown here were part of an exhibition in Zuffenhausen this month at the Zehntscheuer as part of the German & American Art Show. If you can stop by and see the show, I think you'll enjoy it.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

At the blog hop! Ding-a-ling!

I have been asked by Uta Lenk to write something on my blog about my art and to request the same of three further blogging friends. This is known as a blog hop, she tells me. So I'll look for the best three bloggers to pass the torch to once I've warmed up to this task.
So here are the questions and the brief answers.

1. What am I working on?
Several things. Everything and nothing.
Several things: still life photography, our vacation photos, renewing my interest in street photography (long story, soon to appear on my other blog, "1000 Awful Things"), continuing my documentation of Stuttgart 21, monthly editorial work and cover photos for a magazine, various events as they come up, my portfolio, processing a batch of pictures I took in August 2013 in Richmond, gathering a selection of landscape photos for a show here in Stuttgart).
Everything: (see "Several things")
Nothing: Ever since taking down my last show in Freiburg, the fire under my butt has been more of a flicker - and I don't mean Flickr. I'm still looking for that burning inspiration to return. Right now I'm spending much more time practicing Chopin's D-flat Nocturne than working on my photography.

2. How does my art differ from other's work?
Look at my background. Look at yours. Look at that of other artists.
Every artist has a certain amount of individuality in what s/he creates. The fact that I don't consciously try to copy anyone else's work leads me to believe that there must be something different about mine.
What I photograph is usually based on personal impulses mixed with the randomness that accompanies my life as a working father of three. I like to cook. Recently, the mess on the cutting board suddenly sparked me to grab my macro and explore shadows and light before supper.

It wasn't the first time. My stir fry had me snapping away last year.

I have a certain amount of experience and a great number of interests. These all flow into my work. Coming from a family of artists and performers and athletes and lovers of beauty, I am consequently comfortable in a vast array of situations, which bodes well for my work. Being open to many things, I have found, helps me be aware of the connections among the disciplines. Metaphors open new areas for exploration, be it in photography, music, pottery, painting, dancing or writing. And the deeper we understand any of these disciplines, the more we can potentially learn about the others. Exploring photography has helped me gain insights into physics (the laws of light), architecture (I'd never appreciated it before I tried to make a building look good), meteorology (I know when the moon will rise and can predict when we will have a picturesque sky), sociology (street photography thrives on what people do...), psychology (...and why they do it), and others because I have learned to look closely at what I am photographing.

3. Why do I do it?
Because I can.
I've taken pictures for 40 years. Soon after I began, I was thrown into it head-first and saw hundreds of my photographs published in the school yearbooks by the time I was 18. All of those photos were accompanied by a caption or were used to illustrate a text, many of which I wrote. Text and picture. That's been my thing ever since. I do it professionally. I do it here on my blog. I have to do it.
When I was in a writing workshop eight years ago here in Stuttgart, I met a photographer who got me interested in pursuing digital photography more seriously than the occasional snapshot of my children. Back then I knew nothing about the elements that can make a photograph pleasing or even eye-catching. I was not interested in the history of photography or dead photographers. I didn't stop when I walked by a camera store.
That all changed when I met Jim Palik in the writing workshop. We both stopped going to that and began going on photo walks and showing our work in exhibitions together. He offered me well-founded critique of my early work, gave me advice about how to handle a camera and showed through his example how to shoot, print, frame and exhibit pictures.
The other friend who helped me get where I am today is a concert pianist but also the most enthusiastic photographer I know. We learned about photography together, but he always stayed a step or two ahead of me, and patiently helped me up to his level, be it in questions regarding gear, lighting, posing, interacting with people or processing pictures.
I enjoy sharing my knowledge with other people, so I have taught workshops, I write this blog and I instructed a college class in photography one semester.
It is difficult to explain to somebody who doesn't take pictures because most people think the result of a printed picture is the only reward. But for me, the joy of finding a moment to capture is what keeps me shooting. In a few instances - usually cases where the light and shadows were stunning - the picture itself was indeed an even greater source of joy (and perhaps pride).

4. How does my process work?
I make the best possible pictures of scenes that catch my eye and then I process them to meet my aesthetic criteria.
Since I nearly always have at least one camera with me (usually 2 or 3, including my phone), my eyes are continually focusing on motifs and evaluating the available light. When I prepare to make a picture, a few things happen: I usually imagine the scene as part of a story or vignette. Then the knowledge I've acquired over the past several years - usually about composition, direction of light, perspective, contrast and the technical side of things (holding steady, having the settings on the camera perfect for the situation) - flash through my mind. I may take another picture or a series if I think I can improve on the first shot. If I've got a unique motif before my lens, I'll try to shoot it from all angles in as many different manifestations as I can manage or imagine.

The best of a series of pictures I took of this worker
My photo processing is also an important part of my artistic life. I select from the shoot the photos that I deem worthy of a second look. Depending on the day, that could be 50-70% of them. Then I go back through them and give the ones taht affect me emotionally one star. Those are ones I want to process first. Since I shoot in RAW - a digital negative being created in the camera - I must do some basic processing to "develop" the negative as in the old days in the dark room. But now I sit at the PC and use Adobe Lightroom for that work, reviving the colors, contrast and sharpness that were originally in my line of sight. I straighten and crop the pictures, if necessary, to optimize the viewer's experience.
Other times I'm just damned lucky.

The first person I thought about nominating to continue this blog hop hopping was my sister Susan, but she's too busy setting up a business and teaching art to do it. Check out her blog anyway.
But I'd like to introduce you now to Karin Rehm.

We met through a mutual friend and have been to several art-related events together. She is an all-around artist, a very pleasant person and a fun blogger to follow, whether for her professional, conceptual or political work.

I'll try to find two further bloggers who have the time and energy to write about what they do.
If you have any questions about this, or would like to join the blog hop, please just let me know.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Opening night!

Photo by James Palik
I didn't know there was such a thing as post-show blues, but a friend sent me this blog post a few days after my show opened. Now that I've taken the exhibition down, yes, I do feel a bit blue.
However, the show was very well received and opening night was a blast. Friederike Schulte, the director of the Carl-Schurz-Haus, was very gracious in inviting me to show my work there. Her introduction on opening night pointed out my close association with the institute, where I taught for over a decade.

                                                                                                                                                                 Photo by James Palik
At the opening, many old friends were on hand to see the photographs and hear me introduce the topic from my perspective - what emotionally affected me about Stuttgart 21.

                                                                                                                                                                 Photo by James Palik
I explained there were three major points that made me put out the effort to put up the show:
First, the construction has scarred the face of the city I once used to love walking through and photographing.
Second, the divide that was wrought between proponents and protesters was so deep that it even caused us to think twice about which of our friends might not feel comfortable sitting at the table with others.

Photo by Uka Meissner-deRuiz
Finally, when we learned that one of the tunnels is supposed to be dug under our house, a shudder went down my back that returns every time I think about it.
I enjoyed discussing my art and my understanding of the project with visitors such as the Lückings, whose son Thomas is a star architect working on huge projects in Saudi Arabia.

Photo by James Palik
While I was taking a lunch break, I saw the Hebbekers walk past. He was one of my wife's favorite professors in Freiburg where we studied together. They were able to some to the opening and see Bianca again after many years.

Photo by James Palik

My daughter Julia made her own pictures of opening night, thanks to Uka lending her a camera.

Photo by Uka Meissner-deRuiz
The show was a nice opportunity to invite old friends whom I got to know while I lived in Freiburg. Sabine and Isabelle graced the vernissage with their presence.

Photo by Uka Meissner-deRuiz
Special friends came down from Stuttgart and even Berlin to be at the opening. Christel and Uwe drove in from Umkirch. Our families have had close ties for 20 years now.

Photo by James Palik
All in all, it seemed like many things had come full circle. The Lückings, whom I originally met through the Carl-Schurz-Haus, came to see my show and had a chance to meet many other wonderful people. They also came to Stuttgart to see my exhibition four years ago.

Photo by James Palik
From all reports, many visitors came to see the exhibition during the five weeks that is was up. I received emails from several people who posed questions or shared remarks about the photography they had seen. Putting on an exhibition provides an opportunity to create a dialog among people - not between the artist and the viewers, as I observed on opening night. There were also two long articles in the local papers about the show.

The 100 x 300cm collage afterward
Aside from a visitor's book, I also provided sticky notes for people to add their comments about the show and add to the collage I created from newspaper articles and information about the project. When the pictures are shown again, I'll update the information and perhaps even add some new photographs of the project's progress.
Although this first solo show will always hold a special place in my heart, I'm excited about upcoming shows and am looking forward to diving deeper into still life and landscape photography. I'm always open to new artistic adventures.

And since photography can help us freeze time, I'm going to add a final picture, one of my friend Christian helping me hang the show back in August. I couldn't have done it without him. Thank you!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Construction without consensus

Certainly everyone in Stuttgart and most people who read the news in Germany is aware of the controversy around the plans to bury the train station in the city.

The documentary film maker Gary Hustwit highlighted the problems in Urbanized (2011). In the part about Stuttgart 21 the main arguments for and against the project are brought to light. At the end of this section there is some footage about the major protest from September 30, 2010, which shocked not only the citizens of this rich and peaceful city but also people around the globe. How did it come to this?

The project has torn up our city, divided our friends into two camps and is threatening to send fissures through our walls as tunnels are dug through town. When the drill starts turning 50' under my house, I'll let you know if I can feel it.

In my exhibition of 33 photographs at the Carl-Schurz-Haus in Freiburg, you can see from now until Sept. 11, 2013, what I observed as I walked through town these past five years.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Stuttgart 21: Construction without consensus

The time is rife. After years of photographing the changes in the city of Stuttgart that this massive project have brought with it, I am finally going to be able to show a selection of these pictures in a solo exhibition in Freibug.

   Too many people failed to take seriously the plans put forth by the Deutsche Bahn and the city of Stuttgart for a complete overhaul of the terminal train station here. The 16 tracks will be squeezed into an underground tunnel just wide enough for 8 tracks and will run perpendicular to the present train lines. The real estate that has been freed up by this plan has already been sold to investors to offset some of the costs of the construction. The current state of the site can be viewed in the various webcams set up by the Bahn for this purpose. Time-lapse films of the tree felling in the park and other big steps in the construction process can also be viewed online.

   Please join me for the opening of the show at 7 p.m. on August 7, 2014, at the Carl-Schurz-Haus in Freiburg. The solo show will consist of 32 large photographs and one huge collage, all images I have shot over the past four years.
   If you can't attend on Thursday evening, I will be in town till Sunday evening. Get in touch with me and perhaps we can meet up and go through the exhibition together on another day.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Exhibition 4

The One Night Stand at Café Babel

Canvases by Adi (4), Christel (2) and me (from the right)
The Transatlantic Art ConneXion, which meets at least once a month in the DAZ in Stuttgart, organized and put on an art happening for the third time as part of the American Days on May 22, 2014. We decided on one central theme for the evening and one format. We have used the square format in previous shows and will offer our artwork to the Museum Ritter near Stuttgart, which specializes in all things in a square format.

Sabine did a wonderful job of capturing the evening's theme "Connections" in her work
Mixed media is one of Uka's strengths, mixing photography and drawing on the canvases.

Nic found inspiration in the solar system.

Juan went all out and made delicious finger-food for the 30 participants and visitors.

In addition to showing three canvases, Adi also put her handmade jewelry on display.

To complement the 40 x 40 cm canvases we put up all around the café, the Writers in Stuttgart, read from their work.


In two years the American Days will roll around again and we'll be looking for another interesting venue to do our happening. Please tell me if you know of a good place!