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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Getting Back to Basics, or Photography on a Shoestring, Part 3-Tripods Anonymous

How many legs does it take to hold your camera steady?  Two, Three, Five?  All of the above, so to speak.  If you said all of the above you’d be right.  Most folks, myself included, normally use only our own two legs to help hold our cameras steady.  The problem is, sometimes that is just not enough.  No matter how big and strong someone maybe, holding  a heavy camera steady is not easy.  And the camera doesn’t have to be very “heavy” before the shake sets in.  I’m talking about the shake that starts as unnoticeable by you and eventually turns into a full blown tired arm category two tremor.  It’s this camera shake that contributes to that blur you see in your photos.

This not to say that all the blur we see in our photos are due to camera shake, but that it is a factor we can try to overcome when practical.  Many photographers rely on three legs, those of the tripod.  If the image subject is unmoving, such as a mountain, they will lock the camera in place and step back to take the photo with a remote control.  This allows them to eliminate any chance of camera shake brought on by their touching the shutter button.

When I can, I use five legs.  My own two combined with the tripod’s three.  My camera is supported by the tripod but is not locked down tight.  In this way I am free to moved my camera as needed to follow the action without having to support it’s weight.  There is still room for some camera shake to occur this way but the amount is greatly reduced.

My love affair with tripods reaches back over two decades.  For a while I went the yard sale route.  I never met a tripod I didn’t want to buy.  It got so bad that my family started to complain that my tripod collection was taking up more room than they were.  Then I started looking at the tripods other folks were using.  I took note of the brands and the sizes and even more importantly, of the heads.  All of my tripods had the usual pan-tilt heads built in.  I wanted one of those fancy ball heads.  So one day while at a local auction I spotted a Gitzo tripod.  Now Gitzo is one of those expensive tripod brands I had read about.  But even more importantly, it had a ball head.

I used that tripod for a  number of years.  But the more I read, the more I realized that it was one of Gitzo’s lower tier of tripods.  It was heavy and the head, although a ball head, was offset and hard for me to control.  So I sold the Gitzo on Ebay to help pay for a lens I had wanted and went back to using my yard sale finds.

My desire for a “good” tripod never left me though.  I was constantly looking at them. In person, online, in ads.  I knew that somewhere out there was my perfect tripod.  Although I might try and shoot on a shoestring I had concentrated my lust on the well known brands; Manfrotto, Velbon, Gitzo and their like.  Then someone in an online photo forum I read asked about tripods on a budget.  I avidly read all the responses.  Then I researched the brands suggested.  At last my lust for a high quality tripod was met by a lesser known brand which is fast becoming popular.  I decided on an Induro.  Now that I had my brand I still had more decisions.  This tripod was going to be my new best friend for years.  I had to choose right.

First was which material, carbon fiber or aluminum alloy.  Carbon fiber is amazingly strong and lightweight.  So lightweight that at times there is a danger of their blowing over.  It is also almost twice as expensive as the alloy.  So with budget in mind, the alloy won out.  Next was size or more accurately weight holding capacity.  I added up the weight of the heaviest camera and lens combination I might hope to own in the near future and then chose a size that would easily be able to support that amount with extra capacity to spare.  After that I needed to make the choice between three leg sections or four.  Three are more stable but a tripod with legs divided into four sections can be collapsed down small enough to fit in a airline sized carry on bag.  since I don’t travel by plane with a tripod I opted for the three legged version.

So there I was with a budget tripod that easily fit my needs.  I picked a ball head to go with it and was ready to go.  Did I stop buying tripods at yard sales, no.  The only way I have found to stop is to avoid yard sales.  Maybe some where there is a Tripods Anonymous support group I can find.  Many of my earlier tripods have been re-homed to friends who are looking for “any kind of tripod” just to get them started.

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Oh Look, A Shiny or How Distraction Should be my Middle Name

Distraction and I are well acquainted. When I’m unable to come up with ideas for images the best way for me to break out of my photographer’s block is to go do something and let distraction lead me away.  For a while I thought that I should have a better “method” of coming up with creative ideas.  I mean it seemed silly that a grown woman would be so easily distracted by something shiny .(Shiny in this case meaning something not related to what I am doing at the time) I had tried taking the time to just sit and plan future images. I sat in a quiet area with a notebook and a pencil and prepared to let the ideas flow.  No wrong ideas, no bad ideas, just ideas.  All ideas were going to be written down and looked at objectively later.  But before I knew it an hour had passed and no ideas had came to me. Not even “bad ones”.  After trying this three or four times I realized that the “pencil and notebook” stream of creative consciousness system for generating ideas was not for me.  I needed to follow my familiar way and let distraction lead me to ideas.   All I need is to start doing something, anything, as long as it’s physical, then the distractions will come  and the ideas flow.
It’s not a perfect system. Occasionally, like last Saturday, my distraction method may get in the way of actually completing a task.  I went out to water the gardens in my front yard.  IMGP1521Just before turning on the water I noticed how pretty the sunlight is shining on the sundews.  So I go into the house and get my camera.  I take pictures of the sundews and turn to see a planter my husband had made me out of a jeep  part.  It looked so whimsical with a plant growing out of it that I spent a solid fifteen minutes moving it around to get it in the best light for photos.  During this time the county trash trucks had been through so I went to the street and hauled back my trash cans.  On my way back from the street the warmth of the sun made me remember that I needed to put out some sun tea.  I went inside and made up the jug of tea and put it out on the back deck to steep.  Then came back inside, got a cold drink and collapsed in a chair to check my email.  At no time had I watered the plants.

Later that Saturday I did make it back outside to water the front gardens.  While out there I noticed that the day lilies had opened some more blooms.  Earlier in the week I had planned on taking photos of them but all of the open blooms were too tall for me to easily IMGP1530photograph the way I wanted.  These newly opened blooms were just at the right height.  This time I finished the watering before getting my camera.  Then it was picture time.  After capturing the lilies I turned my attention to the straw bale garden.  I finished with a walk around the yard but no more distractions, or ideas, came to me.

Where was I?  Oh that’s right, I was talking about distraction.  Distraction is a flow of ideas that need only be captured and executed.  Following the shiny distractions that come into my life help my creative process.  They also jog my memory of images I meant to create but for some reason didn’t.  They show me images that I may never have thought to create by just sitting with a pencil and a notebook.

Creation by distraction may not be a new concept.  I’ve never tried to research it. But give it a try.  Allow yourself to let your mind drift while your hands are busy.  Go fold some laundry, water the garden, walk the dog.  While I am looking for images to create someone else may be looking for ideas to write about or clothes to design.  Shiny things are there for a purpose.  They give us a reason to look in a direction we may never have thought to look on our own.  Embrace the distractions when you are trying to be creative.  Everyone needs to look at a shiny now and again.


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A Sudden Flash of Clarity

It can happen in a flash. That moment when you see the image that you want your camera to capture. It may be as you’re walking your dog. It may be something  you see as you drive to work that triggers an idea. Or may be a sudden inspiration that hits as you stumble to the bathroom at two in the morning.  I wish I could see that flash of creativity more often. Most of the time my inspiration from what I have planned to photograph.  Once I am at the scene of an interesting landscape, or have something that I want to photograph at hand, then I become inspired to see the image I want to create.

This low C Irish or Penny whistle had been sent to me by the whistle maker to photograph it for his website. As I tried to come up with unique ideas for how best to showcase it I An Irish whistle and bodrhan waiting their time to playleaned the whistle against a set of barnboard doors. Although the final image chosen for the website was a different one, I love this image of the whistle and a bodhran leaning against the doors as if they were put down between sets and will very soon be played again. When the building the doors were attached to was torn down I kept a section of one door to use as a backdrop. The final image chosen was a simple photo, taken from above of the whistle lying in a bed of fallen oak leaves.  Some were already brown but others still had vestiges of their fall colors.  The website owner then became further creative and cropped the image so that rather than being a plain rectangle it had the shape of an oak leaf.

When I am photographing horses it’s easier for me to be creative. Although I do photograph the posed images requested by their owners, it’s the unplanned fun moments IOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA like to capture. Moments between the horses and their people.Moments when a horse may be playful before settling down to stand still.

My biggest hurdle is finding inspiration on my own.  And trying to come up with an idea can make me feel me the photographer’s version of writers block.  I find that I need to relax and just let the image ideas come to me.  It’s not easy and many times very frustrating. Once I have an idea getting it from idea to finished image is not always easy.  My problem, in part,  comes simply from making mistakes.  I will look at a scene, see an image in my mind, but fail to capture it with my camera.  I go home, download my media card and look critically at my creation.  Then I sigh as I see all the things that spoil the image.  It happens to everyone.  And if we truly want to learn, the lesson is in front of us.  I take note of what about the photo spoils the image I had wanted to take.  I check the meta data to see what shutter speed and aperture I had used if depth of field or blur was a problem .  I want to learn from my errors..

hornwormSomeday, I can only hope, my photographic muse will find me.  Until then I will wait for my flash of clarity to strike when the right image is in front of me.

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My Slide into the Darkness Lit Only by Artificial Light, and Climbing Back Out Again

Long ago, when I had picked up my first film SLR, I yearned for a built in flash.  I was told that only amateur cameras had built in flashes.  “Real pros use separate flash units”.  Still I wanted one.  All I wanted was a simple flash to allow me to use fill in flash when I needed it.  You know, just a small amount of flash to  bring out the details in what you are photographing to help set it apart from the background.  So even though I hated having something extra to carry, I bought a small shoe mount flash and went on my way.

As time went by, and I had “upgraded” my first camera a few times, I became obsessed with the idea of being able to photograph a hummingbird and freeze the wing movements.  I had read somewhere that in order to do this you needed a camera with a flash sync to shutter speed  of at least  250.  Well my latest camera then not only had a built in flash but also had that speed ability.  But as it happens; photographing hummingbirds and showing stopped wing movements also required at least one more flash and something to put them on, a tripod for the camera and a remote shutter release to help prevent vibrations from your hands on the shutter button from blurring up the image.  So with many thanks to Ebay and yard sales my final set up included not only my camera and it’s built in flash, plus tripod and remote but also two more tripods, each holding a flash adapter and a small shoe mount flash.  So there I was, able to take photos of hummingbirds with their wings frozen in flight.  It was fun but where did it lead me.  Actually it only led me to some slides that are buried in a box somewhere in the family room.

I was soon to be driven to even deeper forays into the artificially lit darkness.  The company I was working for held monthly conferences.  Since I owned the only “Pro” camera and lenses,pro in their opinion only, I was picked to be the official photographer.  Only one problem, despite all my various hummingbird flashes I did not own a single flash unit that could properly handle the task.  Enter the words “expense it” and soon a flash costing more than my camera was in my hands.  I held that position for nearly three years, till someone else got a bigger camera.  At least they let me keep the flash.  When I left that company for another, the same thing happened.  By then I had started using a different brand of camera  so the new company bought me a new flash.  Seemed kind of strange to me as neither company hired me as a photographer,   I figure it was like the only kid in the neighborhood with a basketball being the team captain.

My rock bottom in the world of artificial lighting sprang from my love of orchids.  The American Orchid Society bestows awards upon well bred orchids the way the American Kennel Club does upon dogs.  Orchids may not be prancing around the ring at the end of a leash but they are shown, singly and in groups at orchid shows.  AOS rules state that all awarded orchids must have their photos taken for the record book.  At a show put on by one of my local clubs I had the chance to spend an afternoon with the official show photographer and learned how these photos were taken.  They needed to be lit without shadows, against a black background.  Black velvet is preferred because it will not throw any reflections under the lights.

phal 1Lights!  That’s right lights, not my camera’s onboard flash. Not even multiple flashes.  But lights.  So once again I was searching for a way to take photos that required artificial lighting equipment.  Equipment that I didn’t have.  It took a bit of ingenuity, I was on a shoestring then as well, but I finally came up with something that worked.

It took a large trifold foam core board. Lots of black velvet, not only to cover the board but phal2also to cover the pot.  Clothespins to secure the fabric to the board.  Inexpensive shop lights.  And willing orchids.  But it worked.  It did take some practice to keep the colors accurate.  I have to admit that I have kept all of my “orchid” studio equipment.  Photographing the blooms is one of the few things that I will do without using natural light.

So there you have it.  My long slide down the slope of artificial lighting.  The deeper I went the more difficult it was.  And the more expensive.  It was a hard climb back up to the natural light again.  But I think the results are worth it.



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