Here in California, we’re finally enjoying (or enduring, depending on our temperament) a little rainfall. We can certainly use it — although it’s not going to be as much as we need, unfortunately.
Some folks are discouraged from taking out sensitive electronic devices when there’s water falling from the sky, but most SLRs, even DSLRs, are pretty robust. And rainy weather can be great for photography. Clouds provide diffusion to soften harsh contrasts. Rain tends to encourage activity among some species. (These two factors make rainy weather great for photographing egrets.)
Water on the ground produces interesting reflections. And clouds that are breaking up can add a great deal of drama to landscapes — especially if you’re experimenting with infrared. And running water has the ability to create landscapes all its own…
So, a couple of days ago, I left my tripod at home on a day which turned out to have some really rockin thick white clouds. Exactly the sort I’ve been wanting to try my R72 on. The R72 was in my bag, so I decided to throw it on the camera and crank the ISO to 1600 and see what I got.
This is pretty much the exact opposite of the workflow I used last with IR — careful long exposure tripod shots using exposure blending to maximize tonal range. This was scale or guesstimate focused, and composed with even less precision, and exposed at or over the limit of what I could handhold safely, and working with the very limited dynamic range at high ISO. The results — while still IR — have a very different feel. Softer (of course), grainer (of course), and overall with a bit of a toy camera feel.
One thing that sort of surprises me about these images is that I find myself cropping them far less than I do most of my images. Usually I crop at least a little to adjust framing or trim off extraneous bits — which only makes sense; none of my cameras has 100% viewfinder coverage, anyway. But some of these shots, framed without the benefit of any kind of finder whatsoever, seem to work compositionally to the point that I don’t feel any urge to crop them at all.
Anyway, this definitely makes me want to get into film IR, and/or get a body conversion. This ability IR has to reveal bring something otherworldly to mundane views — or, more accurately, to reveal something otherworldly within mundane views — is getting addictive.
On my way home from work yesterday, my attention was caught by a fallen branch. The branch sat at the top of a gentle slope up from the Channel park to the East 8th sidewalk. I would not have noticed it — in fact, I probably walked past it for days or weeks without doing so — except that I happened to be off the path.
As a result, there was a brief moment in which the branch was silhouetted against the late afternoon sky, revealing a strange and compelling shape. And also a familiar one — the branch twisted in on itself is a common element in Minor White’s photography, and some of his most striking and enigmatic images feature them. That brief glimpse stayed with me through my commute, and I resolved to see whether I could make something photographic of it.
I knew there was no way I could convey anything interesting about the branch if I photographed it in situ. There was quite a lot of clutter in the area and in the skyline beyond; even if I got down on the ground, there was no way I could get the thing silhouetted against the sky — my initial view of it depended on the eye’s ability to immediately discard visual clutter.
So, during my lunch break today, I did something which I do not normally do — I moved the damn thing. (I usually prefer to document things where and as I find them.) I dragged the thing down next to the channel, leaned it against a bench, and propped it up (to prevent it from rolling) using the card wallet I use to hold my business cards, bard tickets, and bus pass. (I managed not to forget it when I left, although it was close.)
I made many different exposures with three lenses (35mm, 105mm, 400mm), varying my camera position extensively. My two main considerations were the relationship between the shapes within the branch, and the relationship between the branch and the rest of the scene. The primary factor in determining these relationships is camera position; the secondary is the choice of focal length and aperture.
The image at the beginning of this post is the last one shot, using my 400mm f/5.6 to fully isolate the branch from its context. In this shot, I chose a camera position such that the rear fork of the branch crosses behind the forward main segment. This preserves the three-dimensionality of the object despite the flattening effect of the long-range perspective and shallow depth of field.
Proceeding in reverse chronological order, the middle image to survive the culling process was made with my 105mm f/2.5, with my tripod legs fully extended and the center column somewhat extended, so that the camera is looking down past the branch. This permits the shapes of the background to come through, but no detail. In this vantage, I was able to capture birds moving in the air or water in several shots. (These are my normal lunchtime subjects.) In this one, two egrets perch on the far bank of the channel, just above forked end of the branch, while two others fly, one with cupped wing mirroring the penultimate curve of the branch.
The first surviving image (there were a few other test shots before it) was made with a normal lens (35mm on crop sensor), stopped down to f/11 or f/16 for depth of field. The result does not render the background sharply, but does allow a degree of detail to come through. This, together with the flattened background and foreground created by the square-on camera angle, allows for useful juxtapositions in the composition, with the branch bracketed between the four bare trees, the two lower works cupping the boundary between the far bank and the channel, and the top of the tallest tree becoming another fork of the branch, extending from the vertical segment.
For each image, I adjusted the saturation and color cast of various segments, warming the branch and cooling the background, or the opposite, and then applying a blue- or yellow-filtered black and white conversion in Capture NX.
These images are, as suggested earlier, derivative to a greater or lesser extent (or, put more favorably, they are a reference or — for the ultra-mega-douches in the audience — “an homage”); I consider them basically an exercise in composition. And while I wouldn’t blame anyone for being unimpressed by them, I consider them a success, and a well-spent forty-five minutes…
I had a good bit of birding at lunch today. In particular, I had some particularly good luck working with goldeneye ducks. These birds are tricky, because their plumage contains very intense contrast. This makes it very difficult to expose them correctly. They also, for some reason, seem extremely prone to chromatic aberration. Partly this is due to the aforementioned contrast, but the CA issues when shooting goldeneyes for some reason are even more annoying than those encountered with other high-contrast birds, like buffleheads. It may be due to their eponymous eyes, which are susceptible to CA in a way that the black eyes of buffleheads are not. The fringing on the eyes diminishes their apparent sharpness in a way that is quite frustrating…
I was able to clean up the CA, for the most part. It helped that I was shooting with the 400mm f/5.6 ED AIS rather than my 300mm f/4.5 non-AI. I shudder to think what the CA would have been like without the ED glass, and the extra reach is essential in having enough image to crop in and sharpen appropriately.
My approach to dealing with CA is generally to drop a control point on the fringing in Capture NX, crank the saturation down, drop some other control points in adjacent areas, and then tweak until it looks right. It works. There are more elegant solutions, I’m sure, but I don’t know that those elegant solutions are up to some of the gonzo CA I occasionally get shooting with my old lenses….
Another stroke of luck — got a couple more shots of the Hooded Merganser x Barrow’s Goldeneye hybrid that drops in from time to time:
CA is even more irritating in this case, because the bird has purple plumage that isn’t all that far from the color of the purple fringing…
The weather in California lately has been uncharacteristically…weathery. We’ve had cold, and rain, and even snow in areas that don’t normally see any, ever.
This makes it the season for two kinds of shooting — (a) birds are often most active and available at the times which are least comfortable be out in, but are worth it anyway,
and (b) experimenting with lighting still lives. This is something I’m getting better at. I had to break down and buy a second flash (the somewhat too fashionable Strobist special (the SB-24), and while I’m still not particularly fast or deft when working this way, it’s a tolerable way of passing a cold afternoon.
Sorry about the lack of posts. I’ve been very busy — end of the semester, end of the fiscal year, all that nonsense.
But yesterday, I had my 300mm f/4.5 and cobbled together half an hour at lunch to walk around with it, and I was rewarded with a rare, close-up appearance by one of the local Black-Crowned Night Herons. I’ve hardly ever gotten this close before, and I’ve never had a chance to get shots like this. I suggest clicking through to flickr and then going to “all sizes” to look at them a bit larger.
Later that day, I also got some less impressive (but hey, I’ll take what I can get) shots of the terns using my 180mm f/2.8 P:
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.
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::
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.
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.
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.
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.
Taking good pictures of birds is not easy. Taking pictures of birds at moments when they transition between stillness and motion is particularly hard, because of the need to capture motion, compose by anticipation, and keep the eyes in the depth of field. All of these problems are amplified when you’re photographing a highly contrasty animal like a Snowy Egret, and they’re amplified again when the scene includes both bright highlights and deep shadows.
This isn’t a reason not try, of course; on the contrary, this is exactly why these shots are so fun to attempt, even if they seldom turn out well. This is one of my best to date. I spent about half an hour watching him fly back and forth between two sides of the channel — presumably on the assumption that the fish are always tastier on the opposite bank. I observed his body language, his flight paths, and the tricky illumination. I also took many, many completely unusable shots before I got this one.