The Dreaded “White Sky of Death”

Everyone has a weakness, an Achilles heel if you will.  The one thing that in the heat of a creative moment they forget to do.  Rather than bore you with examples that I think other people might do, I’ll get right down to it.  When I’m deep in the creative process, concentrating on my subject, I forget about checking the sky.  Then when I am reviewing my images it hits me right in the eye.  The “White Sky of Death”

bwtestThere it is, a glaring white patch of nothingness ruining what could have been a wonderful photo.  The phrase “White Sky of Death” is not my own.  Years ago when I belonged to a camera club I had entered a photo contest, slide film, with the subject being a cemetery.  I sat proudly as my slide was projected and heard a judge proclaim.  “Too bad the shot was ruined by including the dreaded white sky of death”  He then went on to explain how the bland white sky in the background ruined the shot by drawing the viewer’s eye to an expanse of nothingness.

Despite many efforts, I could never seem to visit that particular cemetery when the sky was anything but a dull monotone grey.  So I practiced focusing closer, filling the frame and using fill flash to make the headstones pop.  But even though today I don’t take many pictures in cemeteries, I still sometimes forget to check the sky behind my subject.

This is something that I find extremely frustrating.  I should know better.  I should have learned my lesson years ago, many times over.  I should NOT have let this happen.

The only thing I could think of to try and save the moment was to put in some sky from another photo.  Not sure how well it worked though.shadbw

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Sometimes Getting the Most Light, is Not Light

In photography it’s all about the light.  Without light we can take no photos, it’s that simple.  It doesn’t matter if you are using studio light, natural light, or inside ambient light.  Photography is all about the light.  I know, I know, you also need something to be taking photos of.  But, and trust me on this, the best subject in the world will not show up in your photo without light.

This of course leads the discussion directly to lenses.  Lenses are classified in two main ways.  By their focal length, and by their light gathering ability.  There are of course other factors such as how many elements they contain, how well the glass is coated to reduce flare and chromatic aberration.Focal length of course relates to the size of the lens, such as 50mm or 300mm.But, the real determination of a lens is it’s speed. The amount of light that a lens can gather.  This measured by the maximum aperture, the amount the lens diaphragm opens when the camera shutter is pressed. The wider the aperture, the more light that can enter.  In an entirely perverse manner, the smaller the number or f stop, the wider the aperture.

Most folks with DSLR cameras start with the “kit” lenses.  These are called kit lenses because they are the lower priced lenses normally sold together with the camera body as a kit.  There are of course other  lenses sold with cameras, especially the higher end bodies.   But most of us probably started off with the older 18-55mm zoom lenses with variable apertures.  The lenses whose aperture might start at f3.5 but ends at a f5.6, fairly slow for a 55mm lens.  The problem is that lenses made with a constant aperture are of only two flavors.  Your choices are either a prime lens, one with only one focal length, or if you prefer a zoom lens, expensive.

Although I own and use prime lenses, I find a zoom lens to be a better choice for me when out in the field or at the beach.  As most readers know, I photograph horses.  the lens I have found most versatile for that is my 50-200mm zoom.  The problem being, my 50-200mm is a variable aperture zoom.  The more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that I wanted a better zoom lens in that focal length range.

To get a zoom range in that focal length I had three choices.  Since I use Pentax cameras I could have waited and went with the new Pentax 70-200mm f2.8, except that lens has a $2299.95 price tag.  Ouch.  And being brand new to the market, not yet available used.  Another choice was the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8, but that lens has been discontinued for Pentax K mount.  It also has a motor driven focusing mechanism (as opposed to camera driven) which can occasionally malfunction.  Since I would need to buy this lens used, my warranty options in case of a failure would be limited.  My third option was the Tamron 70-200mm f2.8.  Although it is considered to have a slightly slower auto focus speed than the Sigma, and to be slightly nosier when focusing, the Tamron was also considered to be the sharper of the two.

Thus my choice was made.  A used Tamron has joined my stable for nature and equine photography.  It’s constant f2.8 will allow me to capture the scene in lower light, and of course it can be stopped down to a smaller aperture if I want to.  Now I just need to getwebice used to it’s 3.24 lbs weight.  Thankfully it came with it’s own tripod collar.  Stay tuned for more test shots soon.

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Sometimes You Find What You’re Not Chasing

One Sunday in late November I went chasing.  In other words a sighting of a rare bird, rare in the sense that it is “rarely” seen in my area, had me up going out to see if I could spot it.  I had been sitting, sipping coffee and bouncing around the internet reading a little bit of this and a little bit of that.  As always, I had Face Book open in a separate tab.  This way if a family member, or a friend posts or sends me a private message I will see the notice in the tab header.  Then it’s a simple matter to click over to that tab and see what’s up.  I am also a member of three Face Book groups devoted to local birding.  So when my little tab said I had a notification, and the notification told me of a rare bird sighting, off I went to chase it.

I live on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, which is considered the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, at least according to the bird guides.  The bird I was chasing was a Black-legged Kittiwake .  Now, during their breeding season  Kittiwakes  are found much further north than where this one had been spotted.  And the rest of the year they normally are found living  out to sea, far from the of sight from land.  It took me less than ten minutes from seeing the notification to being in full chase mode.  Spotting scope, tripod, camera, binoculars, appropriate clothing for a bay side beach the last day of November, cash money to get into the park.  The beach where the bird had been found was in a state park.  During the off season there are no toll collectors and the the auto-lift gates at the entrance do not take credit cards.  And soon I was in my car making the long five mile journey to the park.  There I waited impatiently while the driver in the car ahead of me dug through his wallet and glove box to find enough money to get in.  Finally I was in the park and a moment later pulling into a parking spot at the beach.

First step, as always if the parking is close, I leave all the gear except my binoculars and camera  and dash to the appropriate viewing spot.  This allows me time to actually see the bird if it’s there,take a quick photo, and decide where to make camp.  This time a friend of mine arrived just as I did and we walked onto the beach to look for the Kittiwake.  No luck. But we did see a nice group of gulls, mostly sleeping and a Sanderling.  The Sanderling was IMGP1849rare in itself as the poor thing should have already been in Florida.  Obviously it had missed the memo telling it to fly south earlier in the year,  As Black-legged kittiwakes look like gulls, until you see their black legs and facial markings, we decided to set up our gear and wait for the gull flock to wake up.

After close to two hours of watching, waiting, using my camera off the tripod, I was close to giving up.  More and more birders came as the word had spread.  Always the same greetings.  “Is it here?” asked by the new arrival.  “Haven’t seen it.” answered by the slowly growing throng.  And another birder joins in scrutinizing each arriving seagull with binoculars.

Since I still had my binoculars out I decided I wouldn’t miss any bird action if I put up my spotting scope.  So I put the lens and eye piece cap on the scope, took it off the tripod and closed it in it’s case.  Now that it was protected the scope was carefully laid down and my camera went onto the tripod.

I am not a bird photographer by any stretch.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a very enthusiastic birder, and I do enjoy taking photos of birds, but a true bird photographer has much moreIMGP1866 talent than I do.  The Sanderling seemed oblivious to our presence and I was able to take many photos of it.  The one I posted is my favorite but after looking at it closer I realized that my focus was in the wrong place.  The ring-billed gull photo is, in my opinion, is technically more correct but the subject doesn’t “move me” as much.

This wasn’t the first time that I have “chased” a bird only to have not found it.  Last Saturday though I had better success.  Not the best of photos but I didn’t have my tripod with me at the time.  Meet the Snow bunting.  A bird from the Arctic tundra who prefers to winter in the balmy south.  Of Canada that is.IMGP1877

 

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Photographer’s Block, Writer’s Block, and Slush

Recently I have found myself totally blank of creativity.  Photographer’s block as well as writer’s block has had me in their respective grip.  I could blame it on the approaching holiday season.  I could blame it on being overly involved with my day job.  Finally I could blame it on depression.  Not a major clinical type depression, but the down feeling blues that comes with the time change.  Every November like clockwork our time gets turned back an hour.  Suddenly I’m driving to work in daylight and driving home in the dark leaving me only weekends to relax outside, take photos, go birding.  But mainly I blame it on myself.  I haven’t even tried to push beyond it, until today.

Well today I’m off work and it is raining outside.  Not only is it raining but it’s predicted to change over to sleet and snow.  Never mind that.  Today is the day that I find a way to push IMGP1771beyond it all.  The first thing I did was take my camera and go outside.  My camera and two of it’s lenses are weather and dust resistant.  I kept it under my raincoat though unless I was actually using it.  I must admit that my neighborhood in the rain doesn’t have much that is photogenic.  But I did still try, and it felt good to be out.

Well it seems the predictions were true. So in my newly determined state of mind I IMGP1793ventured forth once again with camera in hand.  this time to try and capture the essence of falling snow.  Snow photography is new for me.  Despite having been raised in New England I now find the prospect of snow to be worrisome.  An hours commute to work can do that to some.  Especially when my day job is in health care and “snow days” are not allowed to be taken.

My final photographic venture this day is to prove that the weather did indeed follow what the forecasters had said.  Very shortly after the snow had started to fall the sleet IMGP1820followed.  This varied precipitation had the predicted effect.  From an area washed clean by a gentle rain, to one turning picturesque in the snow, I now have one that is just plain slush.

Slush.  What my photographer’s and writer’s block had turned my mind into.  Neither rain no snow, neither black nor white, neither here nor there.  Well despite the weather I’m determined to unblock my creativity and sallow forth camera in hand to capture what I see.  As soon as the slush goes away.

 

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Focus Through the Noise or Listen Through the Clutter

As my readers, few that they are, know, I am an avid birder.  Being a typical suburb dweller, when I am short on time I try to bird my little half acre.  Alas, although all of the trees and shrubs give us what I like to call “The illusion of seclusion.” they do not filter out the almost constant noise from the neighbors.

On one side of me there dwells a family which seems to live on their back deck.  No problem except that extends to watching television out there.  Holding family meetings out there.  Talking loudly on cell phones out there.  Oh did I mention their five dogs.  Four of IMGP1648which are dachshunds.  Now I do not dislike their dogs, and they do try to keep them from being bothersome.  But, dachshunds can’t see someone, something, anything move without running around and barking.  It is just their nature.

The neighbors on my other side just carry on normal conversations, with each other and on cell phones.  The trouble is that they only have one volume, LOUD.  The folks directly behind me are very nice and quiet.  And they have no dogs. But, you knew that was coming, they have parrots.  Parrots capable of being heard in my house when their windows are open and mine are closed.

Now about a week ago I was outside weeding and all around me was the cacophony of my neighborhood.  Yet I found myself able to tune out the noise and instead listen to the birds.  I could hear their individual songs and chip notes.  It was if I had reached a state of Zen where the noises of the ordinary were filtered out leaving me free to focus on only the sounds of nature.

That experience started me thinking.  If I could focus through all that noise, then what was to stop me from listening to my inner photographer and finding the image amongst the clutter.  Well this past weekend I had my chance to find out.  I went to a model railroad slowtrainconvention with my husband.  And as want among model railroaders time was also spent driving around looking at real railroads.  As I wandered through the yard I spent my time trying listen to my inner photographer.  I stopped seeing clutter and started looking at images.

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At what point do you place a price on weight?

At what point do you place a price on weight?  Does the presence of an extra ounce make a difference?  An extra four ounces?  Eight ounces? Or perhaps 10 ounces is the magic number.

Years ago I attended a two day workshop on nature photography featuring John Shaw.  I will never forget the sight of him standing in front of the audience holding up his arms out from his sides.  He alternated raising and lowering his hands in a pantomime of weighing something as he answered someone’s question about whether the cost of a carbon fiber tripod was worth the weight savings over an aluminum one.

His points were that:
1.  Someone could pay roughly $350 more to obtain a carbon fiber tripod that weighs only a pound less than it’s otherwise aluminum twin.
2. The savings in weight was roughly equivalent to an order from MacDonalds of a Big Mac, large fries and a drink.
3.  The majority of photographers never carry their tripods further than the hundred or so feet between their car and the scenic overlook.
Concluding that most photographers who insist that they must save every ounce are deluding themselves.  And at a fairly steep price as well.

Of course he did say that for those photographers who regularly hiked in fair distances with their gear, the weight savings had much greater importance.  and, since this workshop was geared towards nature photographers in general, the amount of vibration dampening found in carbon fiber over aluminum was not mentioned.

As you might have noticed from my first blog post, Getting Back to Basics or Photography on a Shoestring, Part 1, I am also an avid birder. Just not an avid bird photographer.  This past Saturday I went on a roughly two mile long bird walk carrying my brand new full sized spotting scope.  The weight; scope, tripod and tripod head were not too heavy for me to carry.  But I did notice a problem.  I use a ball head for my camera gear.  Although this head works great with my camera and not too bad with my older, and much smaller scope, the size of the full sized scope made handling very awkward.

So, I came home and off I went in online pursuit of a 3-way pan/tilt tripod head.  My first stop in this venture was to check out what suitable heads were available from Induro, the maker of my tripod legs and it’s current ball head.  After learning that the least expensive pan/tilt head made by Induro was $77, I then went in search of heads from other makers.  Not that $77 was that expensive, but rather that it was an expense that I had not budgeted for.  Problem was that no maker had pan/tilt heads for much less cost.  And those that did used a quick release system that was different than the one found in the Induro heads.  That would necessitate my buying a second quick release plate so I could have one on the camera and one on the scope.  That would mean an additional $15-$20 depending on the make of quick release plate.

From there I turned to the used market.  KEH, a respected used camera and photo equipment dealer had Induro pan/tilt heads for $33.00  Factoring in the $10,00 for shipping and it was still a savings of $34 over a new pan/tilt head with free shipping.  Except for one small problem.  My current tripod head weighed only 8 ounces but despite it’s small size it could easily support the weight.  Pan/tilt heads, due to their style, must weigh more to support the same weight.  The Induro heads available from KEH weighed 2.1 pounds.  Or roughly a pound and a half more than I was already carrying.  The new Induro for $77.00 only weighed 1.5 pounds.

So my dilemma was clear.  Do I pay an additional $34.00 to save 17.6 ounces? It took me a few days of pondering but I finally made my choice and opted to pay the extra money in exchange for lower weight.  With my current camera, and the longest lens I own, my tripod and the ball head, my rig weighs in a about 8.5 pounds.  The spotting scope weighs about as much as the camera/lens combination.  When using the camera and tripod I don’t normally walk further than a mile, usually over a smooth path of grass or packed dirt.  But after doing a two mile bird walk over ankle turning rock I had second thoughts about adding much more weight.  So despite it stretching my budget I spent the extra money for the lighter weight head.

 

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The Light is Right but the Color is Wrong

In my mind at least, things are sometimes black and white.  Okay, maybe a little grey here and there as well.  But out in the “real world” they somehow are still in color.  Now I’m not talking about theoretical discussions or mathematical facts.  I’m talking about the world IMGP1696that my camera captures.  There are times that no matter how you try, the image that your camera captured is not what you had envisioned.  It can be disheartening to say the least.  But using natural light to illuminate your photos doesn’t mean that some digital darkroom work can’t be done.

I find that there are times when color, or at least bright color, can detract from an image and distract the viewer from getting the full visual impact.  This is an old run in shed the way it actually shed1was when I took the photo.  The colors, although drab did not portray what I had envisioned when I first saw it.

So I played with the image in the “digital shed3darkroom”  My first thought was to make it a straight black and white photo.  Although I am a fan of black and white imagery for some subjects it doesn’t always work.  And to me this shed was one of those subjects.

So I worked the image until I found just the right compromise of “starkness” and color.  This is something that is totally subjective.  What may look “right” to my eye may be nothing like you would have envisioned the image.  Perhaps I would obtained the same effect if I had waited for the right light.  Dusk on an overcast day might have worked.  But this shed is an hours drive away from home for me and trying to plan on being there on an overcast day at dusk is a bit difficult since I also work full time. But then, one of these days I may just try for it.shed2

 

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Waiting For the Light, or Games With a Revolving Door

I have always loved revolving doors. Many of the downtown stores where I grew up had them. The early ones were mechanical. requiring people to push the door as they walked to make it turn. When I was young,  friends and I would each get into a wedge and push it as hard and fast as we could round and round.    We would only stop if someone else actually needed to use the door or one of the store employees yelled at us.  Later, as stores started to put in those slow revolving electronic ones, the game became one of waiting till the last second and jumping into the wedge before it disappeared past the door jamb.

As an adult though, I find myself looking at revolving doors in a different light.  In a world where everything seems to be moving too fast a revolving door makes you stop and wait, if20140805_143059 even for a second or two.  Of all the revolving doors I have met though, this one is my favorite.  If you look close at the bottom of the door you can make out a circular area on the concrete joining the two outer wings.  For this door you stand within the circle and the central glass portion sweeps around you allowing you to walk into the building.  No wedges, no pushing, no trying to time when to walk between two moving walls of glass.  No matter how I find myself hurrying from the parking lot to get inside, once I enter and allow this door to sweep around me, I find myself slowing down and relaxing.  I allow myself to wait for the door to let me in, or out.  It moves at it’s set speed and being patient I reach my destination.

When photographing in natural light one also needs to be patient.  Early dawn may be too dark for that landscape you got out of bed  for and drove thirty miles in the darkness to photograph.  But however impatient you may be daylight will come at it’s own pace.  And only at it’s own pace.  Waiting for the light involves more than just the amount of light.  Light cloud cover often gives a softness to the light. In  that light flowers often look  better than flowers photographed in harsher, bright sunlight. For some images the longer shadows seen later in the day work well.  Shadows you won’t get at any other time.

The same patience is needed for weather.  Light rain might add a sense of moodiness to an image.  Were you planning on it raining?  Can you make the rain work in your favor?   Can you plan that shoot for another day?    Clouds obscuring that full moon?  Sorry, ranting and raving won’t make them part.  I know, I tried it.  Twice.  Again patience.  Slow down, breathe and take the best course of action.

I know that most of us have busy lives.  If I didn’t this post would have been written when I thought of it last week.  Waiting for the light is not as simple as stopping to breath when waiting for a revolving door to turn.  But just as that door closes behind the one world and opens upon another the differences in light can be dramatic.  Like the difference between night and day.

 

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Horses and Dogs and Flowers, Oh My

Horses and dogs and flowers oh my. wait a minute.  I’ve never done photos of dogs.  Not seriously.  Oh sure I’ve done the “usual” pictures of my family pets.  Some have even turned out half decent.  But to capture the true look and spirit of a dog.  That I’ve never eye of the eagle(1)tried to do seriously.  Not even by half.  Wait another minute, I need to correct myself.  I did take some photos a couple of years ago at a dog show for a friend if mine.  I had fun doing it, but for some reason I can no longer remember, I never shot anymore. Looking back on these first images I can see that I never really captured a compelling image.  An image that speaks to the viewer and can convey the scene the way I say it in my mind.  This close up of her dog’s head, showing just his alert eye was the only one where I felt I had captured his spirit.

And so I have set myself upon the path of learning to create images of dogs that will capture with my camera the nature and spirit of the dogs as I see them.  I am fortunate to IMGP1596have a partner to help me on this journey.  A good friend of mine has recently purchased a new puppy.I will be spending time practicing dog photography while trying to preserve special moments of the puppy’s growth.  My goal is to be able to take a photo that when I look at it takes me back to the time I took it.  And I can say, “Yes, that is what I saw.”

After just one session I already know that I have a lot to learn.  Focus for one thing.  Puppies move fast and leaving my focus set to spot left me with a large number of blurryIMGP1614 images.  The other thing I need to do remember is to not let my emotions get in the way of taking the photos.  The shoot that these images came from was actually done a week later than planned. The day I had planned to go was the day I finally lost my canine companion of sixteen years.  Understandably, I was in no way ready to face another dog.

Working with this beautiful puppy will help me heal from my loss as I grow in my photography.  It’s hard to resist the playfulness of any young one.  Be they a puppy, foal or human.  You can’t help but smile at their joyful and trusting outlook on the world.

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Light and Weather Wait for No One

Natural light photography is dependent of course on the light outside of my window.  But  weather plays a large part in dictating how that light looks.  And like, time weather and the light can be fleeting.   And along with them, what you may have wanted to capture.

The other night  I had gone outside to help my husband for a moment.  When I stepped outside my front door I was greeted by the sight of a giant full moon framed on either side by a neighbors towering trees.  Instead of following my instinct to run inside and grab my camera, I made the mistake of helping my husband first.

Once my assistance was no longer needed I dashed back inside for my camera.  I hesitated IMGP1550for perhaps twenty long seconds while I played at deciding which lens to use.  Finally I decided to use whatever lens was already on the camera and worry about switching lenses after I take a few shots.  So I go back outside, aim my camera and was able to capture this.

That’s right, the fast moving clouds covered the full moon.  The full moon that had been visible the whole time I was helping my husband.  The moon that was visible even as I stepped back outside camera in hand.  I felt helpless as I watched the last of the moon disappear.

So I spent some time trying to see if I could find an image amongst the clouds.  I must admit that it was difficult for IMGP1555me.  I often enjoying watching storm clouds skitter across the sky and pile up upon each other.  Watching the clouds grow ever darker and more threatening.  But capturing those images is difficult for me.

The best way to capture the threat that storm clouds poses is to anchor them with an earthbound subject.  This grounds the clouds and gives the viewer a sense of prospective, and hopefully a sense of fear.  The sense IMGP1557of fear may only be subliminal but still exists.

I have no desire to become a storm chaser.  I don’t want to be out in the storms themselves risking life and equipment to tornadoes and lightening.  I may, however, become a cloud chaser.

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