Archive for May, 2008

Two Fortuitous Birds

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

DSC_0623_20080520_1749

I had a couple of lucky spottings last week, each of which I was not quite prepared for.

On Tuesday, as I was going from work to my film photography class, I spotted terns fishing near the 7th Street pumping station — first time I’ve seen them doing this in about a year. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a while, because the shots I got before weren’t all that great, so I was pretty excited. Unfortunately, I wasn’t carrying any of my long lenses, so I rushed back to the office, where I had left my 300mm f/4.5. I could have snagged my tripod at the same time, except then I would have had to carry it all night, and besides, a tripod and a standard ball head weren’t going to be much help in following the fast, bizarre flight of terns fishing, so I didn’t even bother.

X-Wing

This meant I had to crank the shutter speed, lean against anything I could, and hope for the best while handholding it. I didn’t get any heroic, ultimate tern shots, but I did get a few usable ones, with more detail than previously, including some of the more fantastic postures the birds assume before and during their dives.

I haven’t yet hit the books to identify these guys — terns aren’t a type of bird I know well, and many of look very, very similar to one another. This is irksome, but nearly so much as Sparrow identification. ::shudder::

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On Wednesday, I was leaving work to again go to my class — end of the semester, and I wanted to wrap up my remaining assignments. (Which was tricky, because I had to make nine prints and I only had about seven pieces of paper left. I almost made it work (some of the prints were 5×7), but screwed up the last one and had to borrow a few sheets to finish. Almost had the hat trick….)

Anyway, as I was leaving work, I practically stepped on this gigantic Red-Tailed Hawk that was just hopping around the parking lot. This was pretty weird — we don’t see Red-Tails all that often, and when we do, it’s generally just long enough for them to make a pass at some of the ducks or coots, and then get chased off by the crows. And they don’t generally hang out on the ground. Maybe there was some prey it was after that I didn’t see.

Now, this time I was carrying a moderately long lens — my 180mm f/2.8 P. I could have run back into the office for the 300mm again (some days I carry it with me, but I’ve been trying not to do it every day, for my back’s sake), but my experience is that going somewhere and coming back and hoping that the raptor you saw was still there is…risky. So I went for the 180mm instead.

DSC_0736_20080521_1743

These shots were tricky for a few reasons. The lens wasn’t really long enough, so I had to crop in pretty aggressively if I wanted to fill the frame. I also had to deal with the fact that the bird was lit from a very awkward angle, meaning that the eye, for the most part, was in pretty deep shaddow. I did what I could to expose appropriately in-camera (getting as much detail in the face as possible without blowing out the highlights in the legs more than would be acceptable), and spent a fair amount of time in post-processing bringing up shadow detail where it seemed appropriate.

I didn’t get any usable shots of the bird on the ground, but instead of taking off, it decided to do me a solid (or at least a semi-solid) by flying to perch at the top of a small, very pointy statue we have near the parking lot. (A memorial for one of Police Services officers.) this would have been awesome if I could have finished circling around and shot it front-lit, but I didn’t get a chance for that.

Still, the opportunity was quite a gift, and I did as muchw it as I could.

Red-Tailed Hawk. View

Thomas Hawk on brick and mortar stores

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

Thomas Hawk has a nice post about brick and mortar stores versus buying online. I’m one of those people who gets a mild warm and fuzzy feeling when buying locally, but it’s often either not economically viable, or else the moral value is spoiled by awful service. This last is a real issue in Berkeley, where we have a lot of stores that are staffed by really, incredibly knowledgeable, passionate people who are also utter asshats. I often have to weigh these qualities carefully before deciding whether to shop at one of the local establishments.

The Other Change of Hobbit is a good example of a place where the people behind the counter can sometimes be aggravating, but not all the time, and the specialized knowledge they have is just stunning. The staff of Comic Relief, on the other hand, almost invariably induce a desire to just kick them all in the groin and never read comics again. Games of Berkeley is often almost as bad. The eerie and unnerving but undoubtedly gifted staff of Crixa are a related case.

As for Looking Glass Photo — I’ve been shopping there pretty regularly lately for film-related stuff, and I sometimes buy bags there, because it’s worth paying a premium to be able to try them on first. They’re often very busy, and not super-efficient, but when you can get time with the staff, they’re very helpful. I will probably never, ever buy a camera there, though; just can’t justify it to my budget.

While I can understand how the whole “shop local” people might be disgruntled over the internet invading their jobs and space, the best way to compete and handle it is to truly offer superior service and support, not insult customers, provide bad service or give lip service responses.

Thomas Hawk’s Digital Connection: A Bad Service Experience at Tall’s Camera

Obligatory Gosling Action

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

First gosling of the season

Yes, by popular demand, some more hot baby bird action. This one is the only gosling I’ve seen so far in the area, a Canadian. None of the others seem to have any young in tow, so far.

First gosling of the season

For this one, click through to flickr and view at “Large” size:

First gosling of the season (View "Large")

Color Noise

Friday, May 16th, 2008

I like grain. I’m hardly unique in this — grain has a long and noble history in photography. One of the awesome things about shooting film is the weirdly satisfying look and feel of film grain.

Cigarettes and Coffee

Nose to the Water

Good-looking grain makes it possible to shoot at very high speeds and still get usable results for many applications, and in many cases, it’s a critical part of the image.

Digital doesn’t have grain, it has “noise.” In addition to sounding much less awesome than grain, noise also, sadly, does not look as awesome, mainly because it’s garishly colored. I don’t have an example of this, so I won’t post one, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

There are two obvious approaches here. The most obvious one is noise reduction. I find that I use less and less of this as time goes by. Sometimes it’s really needed, and sometimes it really works, but sadly, those times don’t necessarily coincide, and when noise reduction goes wrong, the resulting muddy softness is even more irritating than noise. I could probably invest a lot of time and energy in getting better at noise reduction and sharpening, and at some point I will have to do that, but in the time, I’m trying to cut back on it.

The second obvious approach, which I use maybe a little too much, is black and white conversion. Black and white conversion of digital noise doesn’t result in film-like grain, quite, but for many applications it’s fairly close, and fairly pleasant, even when shooting at ISOs that are far higher than what’s really advisable.

Predawn

This approach works well in a lot of situations, especially in low-light conditions where colors often become boring and/or ugly, anyway. And, indeed, in any situation in which the important visual information is to do with contrast and tonality rather than color (and this is many, if not most, images), black and white is probably a better choice, anyway.

But, sometimes color is important. For shots in which you have objects with similar tones but very different hues, a black and white rendition will be quite boring, and quite possibly misleading. And if one of the goals of an image is to accurately depict reality, and the subject is known by the audience to be colorful, a black and white image will often fail horribly.

So, what I do now to deal with color noise in digital files, when I want to preserve color in a scene, is to desaturate the noise.

Olympus XA

I do this using Capture NX, which is a program of odd strengths and weaknesses — the strength in this case being its inclusion of Nik Software’s U-Point technology, which is lately being marketed as a Photoshop/Aperture plugin called Viveza.

The points, called “Control Points” in NX, are little dots placed in areas of the image, each sporting an area of sliders for brightness, contrast, saturation, RGB, etc. You use the sliders to tell NX what to do to parts of an image, within a certain radius, that match the part you dropped the point in. A few more points placed in different areas, either to make other changes or to protect from changes by surrounding points, and you’ve (hopefully) got your image just how you want it. It’s a profoundly better way to do local edits than layer masking, and by comparison, burning and dodging in the darkroom is a tremendous burden.

20080421-008

The trick is to place a control point in an area of intense noise, and then completely or nearly completely desaturation it. Then place a second control point in a nearby area of the same overall color, but without so much noise. This will result in some overall desaturation, but mainly it will reduce the color noise, leaving you with a grainy speckling, but none of those annoying red, green, etc. dots — and the overall effect is much more pleasing.

Kodak Portra 800

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Laundromat at Derby and College

I’ve only started scanning the results of my first test roll with Portra 800, but I’m pretty excited already. I really like the way colors are rendered, and in particular the reduced saturation and contrast. I’m a bit curious about what it looks like when it’s underexposed by about a stop — unfortunately, this isn’t a question I can answer with my XA, since that only goes up to ISO 800; I’ll try running it through the Nikkormat rated at 1600 (give or take).

Laundromat at Derby and College

Olympus XA

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

Olympus XA

For a while now, I’ve been wanting a compact camera to replace the Sony point and shoot that’s currently on extended loan to my sister — extended loan, meaning I’ll probably never see it again. : )

But, knowing somewhat more about photography than I did when I got that camera, and in particular knowing that I often want to shoot in available light conditions, without flash, I was wary of buying a digital compact of the kind currently on the market. High ISO performance is simply too lame. This is a problem which is directly related to the size of the sensors used in these cameras, and until there is a major improvement in the design of sensor, or until the use of larger sensors in compact cameras (like the buggy and fiendishly expensive Sigma DP-1) becomes more common, I decided I would need to start looking more toward compact film cameras. Shooting film at high ISOs is not exactly a grain-free exercise, of course, but I find film grain to be generally unobjectionable (if not desirable), whereas digital noise in color images has to be massaged quite a bit before I find it presentable.

When looking for a film compact, I mostly steered clear of autofocus film cameras. Not that there’s anything wrong with autofocus per se, but I’ve become so accustomed to manual focus that I really don’t like the idea of doing without it — weird, I know, because it’s a step backward in functionality, but we all have our quirks.

So, I recently purchased a fascinating little piece of 70’s-era camera history: The Olympus XA. It looks like one of thouse silly plastic fixed-focus cameras, the sort of thing you might have bought for a particularly stupid and/or clumsy niece of nephew about to go on a trip. But what it really is, is one of the smallest coupled rangefinder cameras ever made.

For those not in the know, “coupled rangefinder” means that you’re not viewing the image through the lens, as in an SLR, but through a separate viewfinder, but that there’s a focusing aid coupled to the lens, to let you know when you’re in focus. How this works is there’s a little square projected into the middle of the viewfinder with a second, overlay image, and you adjust the focus until the images match.

This method of focusing allows rangefinder cameras to be designed more compactly than SLRs — no need for mirrors and prisms to redirect the light path. Rangefinder cameras can also be much quieter, and there are other benefits, like the absence of mirror slap — the motion of the mirror being lifted out of the way, which can cause problems at certain shutter speeds. These factors — in particular the compact size and the quiet — have made Leicas a favorite of street photographers and journalists.

Rangefinders have limitations; they aren’t much good for shooting at long focal lengths, at macro magnifications. They also can present problems because of parallax error. This is why I won’t be switching to Leica for birding any time soon.

Now, I’d love to use something like a Leica as my new point and shoot replacement, but I don’t have that kind of cash. Heck, even used Leica clones can be disconcertingly expensive. There are less expensive rangefinders with fixed lenses — like the Canonet — that nonetheless look and handle and shoot more like a “real” camera, and I looked at these, but I eventually settled on the XA, because, while it’s more limited in terms of its optics and functionality than some of those alternatives, it’s also by far the most pocketable. Given that my goal here is not to replace either my DSLR or my SLR, but rather to supplement them with a very compact, very portable backup, it makes the most sense.

Form factor and controls

The form factor is interesting. The design is quite impressive — tiny, lightweight, reasonably ergonomic. There is a “dust cover” that conceals the lens and viewfinder; sliding this aside turns the camera on and lets you take pictures.

Because the lens is pretty much flush with the body — a big part of the design feat — focusing is done with a small lever at the bottom of the camera. The aperture (it’s basically a full-time aperture priority camera) is set with a small slider on the right side of the camera. The shutter release is a big red button that you sort of brush with your finger — the release is electronic. The rest is fairly conventional.

It really is, by the way, fully pocketable. Shirt pocket, pants pocket, whatever. Because of its relative thickness, it does tend to bulge slightly, so wearers of extremely tight jeans should be appropriately wary.

Use and usability

So, how’s it working? First off, focusing using the double-image rangefinder is really cool, and when it works, it’s really quite fast compared to focusing using a split prism. There are two caveats, though:

  • Focus and recompose is tricky. With an SLR, even if the focusing aid (prism, AF point, whatever) can’t be positioned over the subject, it is still possible to gauge focus using the matte areas of the focusing screen. With a rangefinder, you only have visual feedback about focus within the area of the doubled image. This means you have to be extra cautious when recomposing, so as not to disturb the relationship between the subject and the film plane.
  • Overlay brightness. It can be hard to see the overlay, depending on what the light is like that you’re shooting in. This also applies to the shutter speed readout. I seem to recall somewhere that some folks put something translucent over the viewfinder to compensate for this.

I was surprised at how comfortable the camera is to hold. It doesn’t really work to support it from below, as you would an SLR. With an SLR, the weight of the camera is, in itself, a big part of what keeps things steady; with the XA, that simply isn’t a factor. I find I basically have to hold it from both sides — stupid tourist style — with perhaps a thumb thrown underneath. Having pressure applied from multiple angles seems to be essential.

Fortunately, I don’t mind looking like a stupid tourist. : )

Test shots

I’ve only shot one roll through the XA so far, a roll of Fuji Superia 800. I don’t much care for Fuji film, so far — but it’s just a test roll, and I wanted an 800-speed film (The XA’s max ISO) so that I could shoot in available light when needed. My second roll, the one in the camera now, is Kodak Portra 800. After that I’ll try running another roll of Superia through at a lower rating.

FujiPress800-001-01

FujiPress800-001-25

Up Live Plants

FujiPress800-001-32

Obligatory Bathroom Self-Portrait

Setting aside questions of emulsion, there are aspects of image quality which have to do with the camera, and especially its lens. It’s definitely not like shooting with my Nikkor lenses; there’s a definite softness to the XA, and I noticed some impressive chromatic aberration in one of my test shots.

But that’s not a deal-breaker. The XA’s lens gives it a certain quality, a character, that is peculiar to it and not unpleasant. We’re not in Holga territory, here, but there is an XA “look” that is rather appealing not just despite but at least partly because of its slightly off IQ. I just need to figure out how to use it to best effect.

Random Shoes

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Three's Company

I went out for bagels last Sunday, and I took with me my D40 and my 180mm f/2.8 P. I took a few shots, mostly nothing particularly interesting, but a couple I liked — both shots of odd numbers of shoes left unattended.

I always enjoy finding and photographing unusual abandoned objects — not trash, per se, but things that appear to be dropped or set aside in the prime of life — clothing — underwear is always particularly curious, found on sidewalks –, unfinished meals, and whatnot.

Shine

The Sunday shoes were all black leather, and they both seemed to work best as black and white conversions. For the one above, I used a strong magenta filter setting in Capture NX (the wall was a thick, dark red), for the one on the right, I think I used blue.

The 180mm f/2.8 P is one of my favorite lenses, especially for these subjects. It’s much easier to get usable perspectives without kneeling or just outright laying on the ground, and it’s great for picking the interesting details out of a scene. It is a bit bulky, of course, but it’s about as easy to hold steady as my 55-200VR — the heft makes up for the lack of fancy techno-stabilization.

BTW, “random shoes” is not an original phrase — it’s a Torchwood episode title, and there are, many photos on flickr with that title. : )

Does Jesus want to ruin your wedding?

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

Last month, Thomas Hawk had an interesting post about a lawsuit between a lesbian couple and a pair of photographers who refused to shoot their commitment ceremony on religious grounds:

Earlier this week the commission found the photographers guilty of discrimination under New Mexico state anti-discrimination laws and ordered them to pay $6,000.

While there is no Federal statue that I am aware of providing legal protection to same sex couples, the state of New Mexico does have such a statue on their books. Apparently a Christian law firm is going to appeal the decision.

What do you think? Should the decision stand? Should a Christian photographer be required to shoot something that violates their personal religious beliefs? Is the New Mexico ruling a good verdict and one that protects the rights of same sex couples and helps them to avoid discrimination? How would you feel if the couple had refused to photograph a couple because they were black or too old or handicapped? Would that change your opinion on the decision?

It’s an interesting question. I cannot sympathize with religiously-based homophobia — as far as I can tell, it’s a clear case of canon being manipulated to provide cover for simple bigotry. [See bottom of post for slightly more detail.]

But we inhabit a pluralist democracy — or at least we’re supposed to — and that means that as a nation, we’re supposed to have broad tolerance for speech, even speech that is offensive or, in some cases, hateful. But is photography speech? More specifically, is wedding photography speech? I’m not entirely sure.

It would obviously be wrong to compel a homophobic fine art photographer to change the content of their art, just as it would be wrong to forbid a private homophobe from expressing their views. On the other extreme, it would equally obviously be wrong for a restaurant to refuse to serve a gay couple food. It would be inappropriate to forbid editorial homophobia (as in an opinion column, an editorial, or a piece of editorial photojournalism), but it would not also be inappropriate to push a homophobic agenda in simple journalistic reporting.

I’m not sure which of these cases wedding photography most fits. My first inclination is to say that the wedding photographer is providing a service, much as a restaurant or a mechanic or what have you, and that therefore to refuse to photograph a commitment ceremony is straightforward discrimination.

But wedding photography is considered the intellectual property of the photographer, and I can’t say that I think this is an incorrect stance on the copyright issue; this seems to suggest that at some level, wedding photography is a form of expression, such that the photographer has rights over the use of those images; surely that also means they have some rights over the creation of them?

And — as is often the case when dealing with a possible conflict of freedoms — it’s useful to consider flipping the offensiveness polarity — would/should a lesbian photographer who specialized in commitment ceremonies (if there aren’t some, there should be — I’m sure there’s a market, at least in some regions) be liable if she refused to shoot a wedding at a church with conservative views on gay marriage?

Yeah, in that case, I’d have to say that the same rules and precedents should apply.

The reason I thought about that post, by the way, is that — in the course of responding to a strictly technical question in the D40 group on flickr where I’m an admin, I came across this guy’s site, in which he explains that he will only shoot your wedding if you agree to these conditions:

*Do you give me freedom to exercise discernment, to the extent of deleting photos of inappropriately dressed people? If you want to know what constitutes “inappropriate”, email me or look through my photos for “acceptable” clothing. It’s hard enough for me to practice godliness while editing photos of women with their chests half-exposed. It’s even harder for me to send those images to your relatives, knowing that my photos grieve my God whom I love. Thank you for being understanding. [Matt 5:28]

*Do you have any intention of supporting flagrant drunkeness at your wedding? Alcohol is not evil, but I cannot support willful abuse of it. The nature of my photography is to make things look good, and drunkeness is not good. I recognize that you cannot prevent everyone from bringing his secret stash and then overindulging. This issue applies more to couples providing or approving an “open tab” at the bar. The bible warns that all drunkards and wild partiers will have their part in the lake of fire – it is a sympton of spiritual death. [1 Cor 6:9-10, Rev 21:8] I’m not joking, I’m scared for you if you’re fine with that.

*Do you intend to merge wordly-themed music with your Christ-centered reception? Do you intend to dance to lyrics that God will punish the unsaved artists for writing? Worldliness is defined by the Apostle John as “lusts of the flesh, lusts of the eyes, and the pride of life.” [1 John 5:15-16] Unfortunately, there goes most popular dance music. God says these things should not appear amogst His people even once in an approving way. Dancing is approving, and my photos represent a quiet approval.[Eph 5:3-5, 1 Pet 4:1-5]

If your heart says “Amen”, we’ll probably get on fine! Praise God!

This presents an interesting wrinkle, because this isn’t explicitly a refusal to serve certain groups (although it’s pretty obviously going to have that effect in practice), it’s a list of conditions required for providing services, and obviously the ability to set conditions is not something we can take away from service-providers. Indeed, “The nature of my photography is to make things look good, and drunkeness is not good,” is a point that I find totally unobjectionable. People expect their wedding photos to look good, and that’s a lot harder if everyone is so wasted they can’t stand straight.

But somewhere in there, a line is probably being crossed between the kinds of conditions that are legitimate and the kind that brings is into the realm of religious discrimination of the kind discussed above. Of course, it’s a different state, and a different case, and in any case there can’t possibly be such a shortage of qualified wedding photographers that this is really a practical problem for most people — but it does seem to add an interesting dimension to these issues.

[As promised, that slightly more detail]
I’m aware of the textual basis, but anyone who thinks that there is a single and/or plain reading of any scriptural text is tragically naive, and anyone who thinks that they know what that reading is guilty of the worst kind of pride — not the gay parade kind, the deadly sins kind. This is why the history of religion should be taught in schools — people need to know how our beliefs change over time, in order to have some perspective on the many contradictory teachings that are bandied about in the name of Jesus, Mohammad, and every other religious figure around. Incidentally, the history of science should be taught for similar reasons; a lot of folks who blithely dismiss religious viewpoints in favor of “science” have a similar lack of perspective about where their own beliefs come from.

Obligatory Ducklings

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Obligatory Ducklings

By popular demand.

Also, obligatory bunnies.

Obligatory Bunnies

A Different Sort of Technicolor Yawn

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Double-Crested Cormorant, Yawning

This guy was feeling pretty secure in the piling he was standing, as a result of which, I was able to — slowly and carefully — get pretty close. A lot closer than I usually get. I have historically had much difficulty in really getting a clear shot of a cormorant’s eye — which frankly looks less like a bird’s eye and more like the eye of some Egyptian deity.

Because their eyes are so awesome, and I have so few shots were the awesomeness comes through, I was excited about the prospect of getting a really good shot of the face and eye, and I went ahead and shot 100-150 shots in the space of maybe twenty or thirty minutes, which (together with what I’d shot before that) filled up the card.

20080501-012

During that whole time, this guy was pretty much looking around, looking at me, looking at the water, checking for his buddies, and then looking at me again. Not to entertaining. Nonetheless, I pounded away on the shutter, trying to ensure that I would get a shot with a sharp, clear image of the eye.

Then, when I was literally on the last shot left on the card, he suddenly broke into this enormous yawn, revealing the surreal color of the inside of his mouth.

Then he took off.

Thank, you photographic deities.