Boots and Bones

A tangled tree stands against a clear sky in the countryside near Ryan, Oklahoma, Sunday, January 19, 2014.
A tangled tree stands against a clear sky in the countryside near Ryan, Oklahoma, Sunday, January 19, 2014.
The tool of my trade today: the Nikon D3000 with the Tamron 18-250mm.
The tool of my trade today: the Nikon D3000 with the Tamron 18-250mm.

My wife Abby and I went to her hometown (link) of Ryan, Oklahoma, yesterday. After a nice lunch, she and her family caught up on the latest news about town, while I decided to walk toward the Red River, which is not far, and make some pictures.

The day was clear and warm.

The only DSLR we had with us was Abby’s Nikon D3000, which I like to shoot sometimes because it gives me a better perspective on the cameras I see in the hands of my students. On it was the Tamron 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3, a lens about which I have decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is convenient, but on the other hand, the wide end isn’t quite wide enough. It also suffers optically at the long end.

I passed the barn on the south end of the patch. The sun is shining through a series of small holes in the sheet metal.
I passed the barn on the south end of the patch. The sun is shining through a series of small holes in the sheet metal.
I saw several bones, presumable bovine, on the trail.
I saw several bones, presumable bovine, on the trail.

I didn’t make it as far as the River, but I followed a fence about half a mile into a pasture, where I found some steers grazing. I circled one of the ponds in the vicinity, and while I was at it I startled the steers enough to make them all gallop away to the west.

I moved along the ribbons of cattle trails, which made hiking easier than bushwhacking the rough terrain. I found some bones, which I photographed.

Warm light accentuates the color of the fence I followed west into a pasture. I shot this at 250mm.
Warm light accentuates the color of the fence I followed west into a pasture. I shot this at 250mm.
These steers were decidedly curious, but so shy they ran away as I got close.
These steers were decidedly curious, but so shy they ran away as I got close.
It's easier to squeeze through a gap in the cattle gate than to actually open it.
It’s easier to squeeze through a gap in the cattle gate than to actually open it.

I came across a ravine, which I followed for some time. In it were numerous gnarled trees and low brush. Judging from the tracks, the cattle followed the ravine as well.

After an hour chasing the light and the features of the farm, I made my way back to the house.

The point of this post is that you can’t sit in the living room and let your camera collect dust. To make new pictures, you have to explore. The walk I made on this day was easy, fun, and quiet. The light was inviting. The air was clear. And the images I made were all very satisfying.

Back at the house, late afternoon light through blinds helped create this image of some Christmas leftovers. I shot this with my iPhone 5.
Back at the house, late afternoon light through blinds helped create this image of some Christmas leftovers. I shot this with my iPhone 5.
Abby's sister Gail was riding her horse Abe when we called, and didn't take off her spurs, so I asked if I could photograph her boots.
Abby’s sister Gail was riding her horse Abe when we called, and didn’t take off her spurs, so I asked if I could photograph her boots.

Sunstars, Selective Focus, and Other Holidays Tips

This image, made in a window at dusk, utilizes the excellent selective focus qualities of the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 lens.
This image, made in a window at dusk, utilizes the excellent selective focus qualities of the Tokina 100mm f/2.8 lens.

Since it is the Christmas season and the Christmas lights season, I thought I would share a couple of tips about photographing the tinsel and glitter.

  • Turn off that flash. If you shoot in AUTO (also know as “green box mode”) while trying to photograph a Christmas tree or a parade, your camera will probably respond to the relative darkness with flash. Pick another exposure mode (see The PASM) and turn off the flash.
  • See the light. Holiday lighting is very dim compared to normal lighting conditions. Prepare accordingly; you’re going to need a large-aperture lens (the 50mm f/1.8 in many camera bags is a great choice) or a tripod, or both.
  • Be aggressive with exposure compensation. The +/- selector is your best friend, and unless you are in manual mode (exposure compensation only effects automatic exposure modes), you’ll probably need a lot of +. The exposure sensors will see the bright lights and adjust accordingly, often resulting in pinpoint lights and large, black backgrounds. That doesn’t convey the sense of glowing light that makes Christmas beautiful.
  • Use aperture to your advantage. This is not the time to let the camera pick medium apertures. Go one way or the other all the way. Big apertures in the range of f/1.4 through f/2.8 can give you those shallow depths of field and powerful selective focus, while very small aperture like f/22 render most everything in focus, plus improve the look of points of light by emphasizing the “sunstar” effect.
  • Think high ISO. If shooting moving subjects like a Christmas parade or a child under a Christmas tree, add higher ISO to that large aperture. Trust me – these scenes are not as bright as they seem, and camera and subject motion will become a factor unless you crank open the lens and crank up the ISO. Think ISO 3200 at f/2.
  • Don’t forget to have Christmas. This is a big one, and it’s hard, since everyone seems to want to a be a photographer. Getting good pictures of Christmas memories is secondary to actually experiencing the event that becomes those memories. Put down the camera or let someone else take a few pictures and watch the parade, open your presents, drink your egg nog. It’s your holiday too.
The bright points of light in this image, made at f/22 for 30 seconds, convey a sense of brightness and sparkle thanks to the "sunstar" effect. The lens was an AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8.
The bright points of light in this image, made at f/22 for 30 seconds, convey a sense of brightness and sparkle thanks to the “sunstar” effect. The lens was an AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8.

Chasing the Light

The delicate beauty of a deep purple iris shines in late afternoon light.
The delicate beauty of a deep purple iris shines in late afternoon light.

I live in the county, and springtime is everything you might imagine it is here. It’s a little like a Norman Rockwell painting, only without the Depression-era school children fishing from the pond.

We’ve had adequate rain this spring, and with that, everything has been green. In addition to the extra mowing that I need to do when there is enough rain, there are also more imaging opportunities. When I finished mowing the pasture tonight, the light was so nice and everything was so green that I grabbed a camera – the Nikon D80 with a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 on it – and set out to make pictures of the iris (my favorite flower) that blooms on the other end of the patch where our defacto Mother-in-law Dorothy lived.

Our tools for the shoot: the Nikon D80 with a third-party battery grip, with the excellent Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.
Our tools for the shoot: the Nikon D80 with a third-party battery grip, with the excellent Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.

I like my D80s, although they aren’t as robustly built as the pro hardware I use at work every day. It’s a trade-off for their lightweight compactness. The Tamron is a capable lens, but it, too, isn’t built like the super-heavy Nikkor I use to shoot news day after day.

Initially, I had some success, especially with the deep purple iris along the fence by the barn. The maturing late afternoon light cooperated, and I was pleased. I also got some decent images of the gold-and-lilac colored iris near the rock wall by the road. It is a particularly photogenic color combination. I also noticed that the light purple/dark purple iris was blooming wildly, but was in full shadow. I almost gave up and went inside. I was covered in grass and dust from mowing. But I decided that the light might change in my favor, so I stuck around and watched as it crept into the rose garden and finally touched one iris, then another, just enough that it made beautiful, delicate images with much more evening-light subtlety that the solid-purple iris I’d photographed just 20 minutes earlier.

Before the night was over, I picked a red rose and a peace rose from Dorothy’s garden and brought them to my wife.

A more complex and rewarding image: a two-color iris is illuminated by the last of the evening light.
A more complex and rewarding image: a two-color iris is illuminated by the last of the evening light.

Studio-like Light for Next to Nothing

During a basketball tournament recently I saw a friend of mine who shoots a lot of basketball action, often deploying two White Lightning monolights and a radio slave. The setup provides a tremendous amount of light, but is both quite expensive, each unit costing about $500, and bulky. I, on the other hand, shoot all my basketball using existing light, since I am neither willing to carry extra lights, nor am I willing to wait for flash units to cycle, causing me to miss peak moments in the action.

Cheap and effective, these small slave flashes can give excellent light in many situations.
Cheap and effective, these small slave flashes can give excellent light in many situations.

For other occasions, however, I sometimes do like to add light. In my small studio at work and here in my home I have three small slave flash units.

For those who don’t know, a slave flash has a sensor in it that fires the flash when another flash goes off in the same vicinity. The units I have plug into a standard AC light bulb fixture.

These little strobes are ideal for small settings where carrying a lot of gear is prohibitive, yet it’s nice to add more light to a scene. In the studio at work, I have one pointed into a silver umbrella, one pointed into the corner of the room, and one clamped to a pipe behind the subject, all of which combine to create classic “TV lighting.” I can and do move the lights wherever I need them. The room is small and painted white, so all together these three strobes give me plenty of light. I use an old Sunpak flash on-camera pointed behind me on low power to trigger them. (Note that you can’t use the pop-up flash on your camera to trigger them, since the pop-up flash sends out a distance-measuring “pre-flash” before the main flash, triggering the slaves too early.)

I also have three of these little guys at the house. Two of them are screwed into Home Depot workbench-style reflectors with spring clamps, so I can clamp them to a desk or table near an AC outlet and have instant light. The third is kind of my “floater,” which I often screw into a table lamp or overhead fixture. When I’m teaching, I bring an extension cord and have my students hold the light for each other.

Big studios with huge amounts of lighting at their disposals sometimes use these little guys in situations where they need to put light in a very small place their big units won’t fit, like under a table or inside something like a China cabinet.

Maybe the best reason to consider getting one or more of these neat little flashes is the price. The two I bought most recently were just $32 each. Considering what you can do with that kind of light, it’s one of photography’s best values.

Chele and Tom, my step-daughter and her husband, along with Max the Chihuahua, play with their baby Paul in our living room. Faced with strong backlight from the front window, I used a slave flash screwed into a floor lamp in the corner of our living room, plus a flash on my camera set to about 1/4 power pointed straight behind me, to make this image. This is really nice, easy light for pictures of people.
Chele and Tom, my step-daughter and her husband, along with Max the Chihuahua, play with their baby Paul in our living room. Faced with strong backlight from the front window, I used a slave flash screwed into a floor lamp in the corner of our living room, plus a flash on my camera set to about 1/4 power pointed straight behind me, to make this image. This is really nice, easy light for pictures of people.

Like Day and Night

Good light: city lights are starting to emerge.
Good light: city lights are starting to emerge.

In my recent post about shooting city lights at the right time of day, I talked about the magical hour just after sunset, in which the sky has pleasing hues but is just right to let the city lights shine through. Here is a sample of that from our recent trip to Las Vegas…

Great light: the Las Vegas Strip comes alive with light about 40 minutes after dusk
Great light: the Las Vegas Strip comes alive with light about 40 minutes after dusk

Bright Lights, Big Photos

Abby watches a performance of the famous Bellagio Fountains.
Abby watches a performance of the famous Bellagio Fountains.

My wife Abby and I have just returned from our annual anniversary vacation, our seventh. We usually head west, often to Moab, Utah, where we married. This year, however, we decided to try something different and sample the photographic fruits offered by Las Vegas, Nevada.

Neither Abby nor I gamble, but we both love to take pictures and it had been many years since either of us had been to Vegas.

Photographing the desert City of Lights, or any big city like New York or Chicago or Dallas, is harder than one might realize. It seems like you could just point and shoot your point-and-shoot camera in any direction and get instant results. The trouble is a place as complex and visually stimulating as Las Vegas has a tendency to overwhelm the senses and cloud the photographic eye.

The same rules apply to shooting a big city as apply to most situations.

The lights and traffic on the Las Vegas Strip fill the night with luminosity. It's easy for a camera to underexpose an image like this, yielding nothing but bright lights on a black background, but that misses out on the feel of cities like Las Vegas.
The lights and traffic on the Las Vegas Strip fill the night with luminosity. It's easy for a camera to underexpose an image like this, yielding nothing but bright lights on a black background, but that misses out on the feel of cities like Las Vegas.
  • Wide overview shots tend to bore viewers. If you shoot with a wide angle, try to explore near-far relationships, which will engage the eye and draw the viewer into the image.
  • Get high and low. We all know what a city street looks like from eye level. Show us how it looks from a glass elevator 55 stories up, or from the bottom of a subway station stairs. Keep us interested in your images.
  • Try to shoot when the light is nice. There are some shots you can make in the middle of the day, but for the most part, the best time to shoot a brightly-lit city is at dawn or dusk, when the lights from buildings and signs combine with amber hues of sunrises and sunsets or blue hughes before sunrise and after sunset.
  • If you are photographing your friends or relatives in a place like Las Vegas, try to photograph them engaged in some activity, even one as simple as walking down the street, rather than stopping them and making them pose. Some of my best, most natural images of Abby from last week were of her taking pictures on the street or watching the Bellagio Fountains.

    The angles on the walkways in this image bring the viewer's eye to the center of the image.
    The angles on the walkways in this image bring the viewer's eye to the center of the image.
  • You can do the “Party Pic” group pose if you must, but it shares little about the place you are visiting and the activities you are doing, so consider saving them for the living room when you get home.
  • Use the light from the city itself instead of the flash on your camera. This is especially effective if you have a lens with a large maximum aperture, like the venerable 50mm f/1.8. The flash on your camera will tend to overwhelm objects close by and leave the lights in the distance darker than your eye perceives them, robbing your images of the very “City of Lights” look you are attempting to capture.
  • Don’t let anyone bully you out of taking pictures in a public place (unless it puts you in danger). Public streets and the things that happen on them in plain view are not generally protected by privacy laws (the so-called “reasonable expectation of privacy’). If a security guard tells you you can’t photograph his building from a public street, he’s not only wrong, he’s interfering with your rights as a citizen. (If you are on private property, however, it is a very different matter.)
  • Abby and I saw a lot of people taking pictures and videos with their smart phones, but considering their limitations, I would recommend something more capable. A consumer-priced digital SLR is enough to photograph the bright lights and big city, in the right hands.
  • Don’t take any of this advice too seriously. They’re just tips after all. Go have fun.
I spotted this elegant stainless steel planter along a sidewalk at City Center in Las Vegas. Note how the lines from the glass rail on the left side guide to eye to the casino lights in the distance.
I spotted this elegant stainless steel planter along a sidewalk at City Center in Las Vegas. Note how the lines from the glass rail on the left side guide to eye to the casino lights in the distance.

Command of Light

My crew takes a moment out of their campus tour to photograph a Frisbee-catching dog named Jake.
My crew takes a moment out of their campus tour to photograph a Frisbee-catching dog named Jake.

Today’s lesson in Photo I was “command of light.” Since we were in the studio some yesterday where we could easily control where we placed our light and how bright we could make it, today we walked around campus, in and out of buildings, observing and photographing the way existing light interacted with the surroundings and our own faces.

At one point a playful dog named Jake and his owner showed up with a Frisbee, so it was a sports photo opportunity moment.

I hope everyone got a lot out of it. By the time we got back to the classroom, we were all exhausted and hot, so I dismissed them about 20 minutes early.

I grabbed a bite of lunch, then went to Wal Mart for a few items. They had strawberries and blueberries, two of my all-time favorite foods, on sale, so I got some. When I got home, I started to slice the strawberries, and they looked so amazingly appetizing that I decided to photograph them, which really illustrates that I truly am always a photographer.

I used a fairly simple two-flash setup, with one on the camera bounced onto the wall to my left, and one on the counter top to my right, flashed into a Tupperware top to soften the shadows a bit. The lens was my 100mm macro. I was particularly pleased with the color.

Strawberries and blueberries sit on my cutting board this afternoon. After photographing them, I consumed them, and they were as good as they look.
Strawberries and blueberries sit on my cutting board this afternoon. After photographing them, I consumed them, and they were as good as they look.

Simple Setup, Dazzling Results

A simple two-light setup with excellent results
A simple two-light setup with excellent results

At a basketball game tonight, one of the player’s parents joined me courtside to ask a couple of pieces of photographic advice, then stayed for nearly two quarters for what ended up being quite a cordial chat.

One of the things she asked me was, “What would be the advantage of getting an additional flash for my camera?”

I told her that while it would provide a lot more power (producing more light), the biggest advantage would be that she could start using bounce flash. I told her about the recent session I had with Abby, when she came home looking so beautiful and I photographed her. The setup was incredibly simple, involving a white blanket, a desk lamp, and, of course, bounce flash.

For those who have never bounced flash before, it is this: instead of pointing the light from the flash unit directly at your subject, you point it at an object and let the light “bounce” off that object onto the subject. Typically, this object could be a white wall or ceiling, a reflector, or some other surface that causes the light to spread out, thus illuminating the subject with a much softer appearance.

For the session with Abby, I hung an off-white blanket from the coat closet over a nearby lamp, to my right. I then simply pointed the head of my flash unit at the blanket, bouncing it toward her. As you can see, the light is soft and flattering, and in some ways resembles window light. For the amber highlight in her hair, I turned on a halogen desk lamp and set it behind her.

It doesn’t get much simpler than that, yet the results don’t get much better.

The Golden Moment

Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, 2002; note pleasant but predictable mid-after light
Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, 2002; note pleasant but predictable mid-afternoon light

Photographers who shoot outdoors a lot try to take advantage of what has become known as the “Golden Hour” or “Golden Moment.” In reality, this period of time during the first or last light of day can vary depending on what you are shooting and how you want to use the light. Essentially, this moment is when the sun is low in the sky, and providing desirable illumination, whether on human faces, or the landscape all around. It differs quite dramatically from the harsh glare of midday sun, and also from the soft light of cloudy days.

Light from the Golden Moment is generally warmer, meaning that it is rich in reds and yellows that convey warmth. An additional element of the Golden Moment is that the sky itself is often beautifully lit by the setting sun, though this often happens shortly after the Golden Moment on your subjects subsides.

I look at first and last light every day, and shoot using it when I can. The only thing a photographer can control about this light is where he is when he expects the light to be right.

Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, 2004, just before sunset; note dramtically warmer tones and a more inviting character of the image
Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, 2004, just before sunset; note dramtically warmer tones and a more inviting character of the image

Clear Air vs Haze

Grand View Point, November 2007
Grand View Point, November 2007

A lot of photography depends on luck. We try to be in the right place at the right time, and often it works. Certainly we would get nothing if we didn’t try. An example is the weather. Obviously, rain or clouds or other difficult conditions can put a damper on making good images, but a less tangible factor is haze. There’s no good way to forecast haze in the wilderness (although it is more common in the summer), so it can squelch the best plans. In 2003 on the High Road, Abby and I dealt with haze brought about by forest fires in eastern Arizona, which spread out over a huge region.

The examples here are from Canyonlands. The first image is from November 2007, on The Next Cairn, and you can see how hazy it is. The second was made at about the same time of day, and from near the same spot in March 2004 (The Confluence), and as you can see, it was very clear at the Grand View Point that day.

Grand View Point, March 2004
Grand View Point, March 2004