Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Laughing Cow Scrubber

What can you say about this picture? Or rather what can I say about it? I could analyze it photographically--composition, exposure, contrast, the brush in hand visually standing out against the cow's shadow. I could say a lot about it.

But I'll only say one thing. I like it. And sometimes, in fact, most of the time, that's enough. When you look at a picture and instantly like it, then that picture succeeds.

The only hand I had in making this picture succeed was the fact that I pressed the button as this young woman broke into an infectious smile. She's in the cow cleaning area outside the dairy barn at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, New York. She's a farm girl (okay, farm woman). And she was spraying and scrubbing her cows to show them in the dairy ring.

It doesn't hurt that she is a natural beauty. She's exquisitely fit. I didn't ask but I suppose those sleek muscled arms and flat abs come not from the gym but from farm chores.

Even more natural is her open personality and charm as she chatted with me and a barn worker while scrubbing down her cows. You simply don't come across many folks like this on the city streets.

And then there's that smile, that 100-megawatt smile that lights her whole face and beams out of the picture and throws its warmth on anybody looking at it.

What's the shutter speed, the aperture, the focal length, and ISO? Who cares? When the time is right, let the subject rule and reap the benefits.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Common beauty

Although sunrises and sunsets occur every day, many of us do not live in a place with open vistas that reveal great views of them. Others of us have become bored with them because they seem to be such common fodder for photographers that they just seem mundane.

If you pressed me to address the worthiness of photographing a sunrise or sunset from a creativity perspective, especially such a common scene as the one I offer here, I’d have to agree that they are both creatively unoriginal and, well, I’ll just say it—trite. They’re not something I’d hold up representing my photographic triumphs.

But for me, especially as I get older, I’d have to say one of the main reasons I photograph is the pleasure I get from seeing and existing in moments of beauty. What I’m trying to say is that I love being present in locations that provide good views of the rising or setting sun. The peacefulness is pervasive. I revel in the subtle gradations of color, even those flamboyant reds and oranges, and especially get excited at seeing the contrast of a deep black silhouette, such as this fisherman, against the color gradations of the sky.

In short, my emotions and logic tangle when it comes to the sun hovering on the horizon, but the emotions won out yesterday. Give me the calming serenity of a checker chip sun slowly slipping into the still waters on a warm summer evening, and I know I’ll sleep well that night.

Here are a few tips. Arrive an hour before the sun is scheduled to set or rise and explore the location for the best angle. If it’s a sunset, hang around for about fifteen minutes after it sets to see what colors might magically appear in the sun. To make the sun seem fairly large, use a focal length of 200 mm or longer. Lock in a meter reading of the sky next to but excluding the sun so that the sun’s brightness doesn’t cause the meter to underexpose (make too dark) the picture. Bracket exposure by taking several pictures at different shutter-aperture combinations to determine which best shows the colors of the sky and the foreground. Bracket compositions, sometimes show more sky and water to emphasize the vastness of our world or zoom in close to emphasize the subject and its graphic qualities.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Waiting for lady hummingbird

Last summer (that's a full year ago) I planted some red bergamot outside a window so I could attract hummingbirds to an area with a pre-existing blind that I could behind behind and not frighten any visitors. All I had to do was open the window and patiently wait for their arrival while sipping a cool drink. For a full year I eagerly waited for the seasons to turn and for summer to arrive so my bergamot would bloom. It finally did in late June. But it was a few weeks before a hummingbird came.

Now a female hummingbird visits several times a day and I've been photographing her regularly. Because she is somewhat backlit by the morning sun, I leaned a large white board against my house to reflect sunlight back on her (I'm sure the neighbors love the random white board against the house). I probably should use flash, but I have a beautiful background of yellow brown-eyed Susans that nicely set off the hummingbird and my flash behaves erratically anyhow.

Instead, I set a high ISO—800—and a fast shutter speed—1/2500 second. I use a 70-300 mm lens set at about 250 mm and an f/stop of 5.6. With the hummingbird only about eight feet away, those settings beautifully blurred the background.

At first, I shot from the open window. But the background wasn’t colorful enough. So to get a better angle I removed the window from the front storm door. I knelt on a high chair by the door and waited ten, fifteen, sometimes thirty minutes for my lady hummingbird to visit. For all her speed, she is quite shy. If she spots me lurking in the door or window, she zips away.

My best photo is her spotting me. She turned to face me, seeming to accuse me of spying on her. I quickly snapped a photo before she darted away.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Have you ever licked a photograph?

One of the biggest challenges of photography is invoking, or shall we say activating, the other senses. Let’s face it. The only sense truly involved in seeing a photograph is sight. I suppose you could say the sense of touch is also involved when you pick up a print, but all you’re ever going to feel is paper—never the subject itself.

But the more senses you can manage to activate, the stronger and more realistic your photo will seem. My corn on the cob photo certainly brings in the sense of smell, which automatically links to taste, and, at least for this picture, perhaps also the sense of hot and cold.

The corn was cooked indoors in a pot of water. Upon completion three ears were heaped on a plate and placed on a counter. I wasn't planning to take a picture at this point--just to chomp on some fresh corn. But the island counter I placed the corn on was backlit by the evening sun coming through the kitchen window. What did that achieve? Two things: It emphasized the steam rising off the corn and it delayed everyone's meal as I now had to grab the camera and quickly take some pictures of this serendipitous event.

The steam makes the picture. At just a glance, you see the steam and know that fresh, tasty corn is about to be eaten. As an added bonus, the kernels were nice and shiny from the water which made them look like they had just been buttered—but that was still a few minutes away.

To show steam rising—be it from corn on the cob or a cup of fresh brewed coffee—I like to use a shutter speed between 1/60 and 1/125 second. It’s fast enough to almost stop the rising steam and give it a definite steam form but slow enough to gently blur it so it looks like it’s rising.

Now, would you please pass the salt?

Be still my heart--the water is moving

How do I love moving water? Let me count the ways. I love how it flows, curls, ripples, and whirls. I love how it jumps and leaps and twists and turns. I love how it sucks in the blue of the sky and shouts the red of stream side autumn maples. I love how it takes my hand in its current and lifts it to the surface. How it shimmers and shines in the sun and multiplies the world with reflections of boat hulls, ducks, water lilies, and pond side barns. How it braids and threads its way around rocks and logs. I love its stillness in lakes that instills calm into the depths of the soul and how a single dropped pebble can radiate concentrically in ever-growing circles that eventually expand to distant shores.

I especially love how it lets me photograph all this because its beauty is vast and open to interpretation.

Like showing any movement in a still photograph, moving water challenges my photographic skills. Waterfalls tend to be the primary target of cameras seeking moving water. But streams coursing over rocky bottoms may offer the most variety.

As with most moving subjects, transforming moving water into successful photographs tends to rely on a slow shutter speed. How slow? Well, that is the question. How fast is the water moving? How close are you to it? And what are you trying to show?

Waterfalls turn warm and cottony comfy when you use shutter speeds of 1/8 second or slower. Rock-strewn streams can also take on the fluffy look with slow shutter speeds. Extra slow shutter speeds, those of one second and slower may reduce the definition and sense of sharpness of internals spaces in the water as the extra time lets stray droplets diffuse and lessen local contrast. Not necessarily a bad thing, but those well defined and dark areas reinforce the surrounding softness of the blurred water.

What should you do? Try a variety of shutter speeds from 1/60 second to three or four seconds. Use a neutral density filter (or a polarizing filter) to block light so you can use a slow shutter speed. And don't forget your tripod as you want to retain the sharpness of the immobile areas within the picture.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

All aboard the sunflower wagon

Sometimes acts of beauty combine with scenes of beauty. I became friends with this sunflower farmer (he's driving the tractor) when I stopped to photograph his fields several years ago. The sunflowers were growing along Interstate 90 in New York and at that time surrounded a red barn. I pulled off the thruway, hopped out of the car, and began photographing them.

They were only about thirty miles from my house.

A few days after I got home I returned via the back roads and photographed them again. John, the farmer, stopped by as I photographed and introduced himself. He was a hardworking farmer struggling to find success with what he loved to do. I met his family and twenty or so barnyard cats. I think he grew the sunflowers because he loved the fields of yellow and enjoyed seeing others take pleasure in them. He invited me to come back in two weekends when he would be offering sunflower wagon rides through his field.

I couldn't miss that. Two weeks later I was back. As I neared his farm, I spotted his wagon rolling through the sunflower fields on a makeshift road he had cut out. He was pulling a load of riders, including the local state representative who, complete with photographer, was out for some publicity.

When he returned to the barn, I climbed aboard the wagon and perched on its back slats. As it rolled through the sunflowers I set a variety of slow shutter speeds (from 1/4 to 1/15 second), and began photographing with my camera held firmly against a slat. I wanted to show the fields somewhat blurry to convey the sense of the wagon moving through them. The results weren't blurry enough so I enhanced the blur in Photoshop, using the Motion Filter.

When I drove by a few days ago, I saw only corn. Although he grew those fields of sunflowers for several years, I don't think they proved profitable and he finally had to give them up.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Modeling in the third world

Okay, maybe much of Peru isn't the third world. But some of it is. And it's certainly a major tourist destination with Machu Picchu the most popular destination.

And the route to Machu Picchu is well traveled and if you step out of a vehicle it will seem like your running a gauntlet of street hawkers, who besiege you incessantly. But a quieter type of salesmanship comes from the very young children and their mothers. When you first see them you think somewhat naively how nicely they dress in their casual wear. And isn't that quaint and rustic that they just happen to be carrying the cutest little baby lamb or walking the sweetest little baby llama.

On the scale of adorability, they're pushing a 10.

But after you take a few pictures and are asked for a contribution you eventually realize they are dressed for work. And their work is modeling for the tourists. It's certainly worth several sol (the local currency which usually amounts to less than $1 equivalent) to get such picturesque photos.

As you travel the country and see these third world models at every stop, you may begin to wonder, especially in regards to the children--some only two or three years old--about the appropriateness of what they're doing. But if you think about children in your own world, often away from their parents for most of the day, you may question your own beliefs. Moreover, it's their culture, they need the money, and mother and child (I'm assuming that is the relationship) are together much of the day.

So until I know more, it seems like a workable arrangement all around.