Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Everyday Abstract

I was shopping for a hat.
     I like Nike hats.
          I went to the Nike store.
               I didn't find a hat.
                    I found this.

Spring is Here!

Finally, the equinoctial light at the end of the tunnel.

 So everybody get outside.

Might I suggest Point Bonita lighthouse?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Postcards and Not Postcards

Is there any possible way to take a picture of a cable car that doesn't look like either a unimaginative tourist snapshot or cheap postcard? I don't think there is. I've tried.

So here's the story. A month ago I started a new job in San Francisco with a commute in which a train drops me off at the Powell Street cable car turnaround, where tourists line up to watch their novelty ride arrive and get rotated until its nose points dutifully up the hill, and from there, past the kiosk where they all bought the tickets they now protectively hold, I walk up four blocks alongside humming cable tracks, then left half a block to the office. In the heart of the city!

And every weekday for the past month I've been taking pictures on my way to and from work, at lunchtime, morning and afternoon walks, random meanderings around the block just to avoid the unhealthy trap of sitting at a desk all day. Since I always have my little digital shooter handy (the Ricoh GR II, a DSLR sensor in my pocket! tack-sharp prime lens! film simulation effects!), I thought this might be a great opportunity to expand my pictorial horizons and try what's known as "street photography." Imagine every day a photo walk, exploring new scenes, making interesting-looking compositions that tell a story, capturing city life like a wannabe Garry Winogrand, and-- hey! look! a streetcar!

People riding streetcars!

No, it's all very postcard. Hardly worth noticing. Who would bother?

Just keep your eye on your phone.

Walk on by.

Don't. Help.

Wow a trolley!
Now wouldn't that make a nice postcard?

And I figure as long as you're here. Why not.

Next thing you know it's getting to the point where lunch is a selfie and girls with cameras in coffee shops make pretty picture windows.

There are a lot of restaurants, a lot of coffee shops, and a lot of cameras.

I shouldn't be so cynical. 

It can be quite beautiful.

And people are having a good time.

So who am I to judge?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Flying out of Chicago

through the airport

and into the air 
up up and away

Just Somebody that I Used to Know

Memories fade with time, photos fade with time, digital pictures don't fade unless you do it on purpose in photoshop, and you can do that any time.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Cataract Falls Loop Trail on a less-than-perfect Sunday

Hey let's meet for a hike! How's the weather forecast? Rain and storms again? Eh, that isn't always accurate. Look, I found a different weather app with a better forecast. Only "mostly cloudy!" Surely we won't get rained on, snowed on, hailed on, find the road closed, and stand around wondering what to do.

So what to do what to do... check the AllTrails app and...

Another trailhead! We found our way into the forest.

We came to a river.
We crossed the river.

We went up, we went down. Many, many times. It was muddy, it was steep, there were stairs, in some places there was a guardrail. That's some good trail work. Thanks, park people!
We climbed over and under fallen trees. 

We saw waterfalls.

Waterfalls, plural.

The sun came out.

And we ascended into the light.

We took a group photo.

We took another group photo.

That feeling of accomplishment after an epic hike? Yeah, it's like that.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Happy Friday

Here's to the weekend. 

Canon 6D, 50mm f/1.2
at the Majestic Hotel in Yosemite National Park

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The "Decisive Moment" in Family Snapshots

Henri Cartier-Bresson described photography as trying to capture the "decisive moment," where all the pieces of a scene come together to be expressive as a whole. An instant before or after just isn't the same and I've missed enough shots by a fraction of a second to teach me to keep my eyes open and my camera on continuous shooting mode. 

As a simple illustration of this principle, let's look at the contact sheet of one composition at a recent family gathering. I was originally going to take a picture of my niece playing piano when the scene changed into a girl and her aunt playing together. 

So I shoot a bunch and later choose-- which one? I like where she has her finger on a piano key and they're both smiling at each other. One shot out of seven and I will gladly throw away six (or more!) to get that one. Funny thing I've found that more often than not my favorite is either the first one (spontaneous!) or the last one (where I'm finally happy and stop shooting). In this case, I liked the second-to-last.

And maybe I'm biased, but it helps that she's cute as a button.

Reflections on Yosemite High Country

As a general rule, if I see a chance to make a picture like this, I'll take it.

Even if it's been done before.
Even if I've done it before.

I'll stop and reflect, check my histogram, try a different point of view. 

Of course, if you're here for sunset it probably means you're spending the night, so gather around the campfire and settle in.

Both photos taken in the same evening -- the second one in the blue hour -- with a Canon EOS Rebel SL1 and Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 manual focus lens. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

When I Became Serious about Photography

We all have a story and it can start anywhere, so pick your favorite spot. Me, I was sitting by the pool on the coast of Hawaii reading a first edition copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. 

I had a reclining chair,

a beer in hand,

the sky overhead,

and a cat named Atticus underfoot.

The sun sank into the sea and I in my thoughts.

The stars came out and I found myself contemplating, ruminating even, on the night sky (and a breakup I never really got over, if I'm honest). I used to take pictures of that sky, I thought.

Look, when I was a kid I loved astronomy more than anything. I was fiercely curious about the nature of space and determined to learn how light moved across the cosmos, traveling vast distances to our little planet here where we can capture it, refract it in just the right way to get a good image of everything, everywhere. I used my father's 35mm SLR to take pictures of the stars and planets and even built my own telescope camera mount for tracking long exposures. I remember capturing the nebulae of Cygnus, polar star trails, craterscapes on the moon, the rings of Saturn. I collected the best of those photos in an envelope and somewhere in my late teenage years, lost it. Every one of those pictures is gone but the passion for astronomy and science stayed with me my whole life. I eventually landed my dream job at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, NM.

That's why, beer in hand and mind in the sky, I started thinking about digital photography in a serious way.

I guess I've always liked cameras. At high school graduation my parents gave me a Canon SureShot Ace which I loved and promptly lost. After college I bought myself a Nikon Pronea S which I loved and promptly broke. At the moment I had a tiny compact digital Sony CyberShot, waterproof, which I loved and took underwater video snorkeling with manta rays and took pictures from the pool, from inside the pool.

Even with a small cheap camera you can take fantastic pictures and maybe in this case I threw off the camera's white balance by accident, but I like the result.

My background in astronomy gave me a bit of a head start on your average beginner camera enthusiast, I'll admit. It helps that I already knew the geometry of optics, how light of different wavelengths travels through different glass at different speeds, what photons do when they strike a photodiode, and more or less what a Fourier transform is (something you do on a computer). I tried and failed to get through Richard Feynman's Nobel prize-winning Quantum Electrodynamics explaining the details of how light and matter interact on a subatomic level. I don't know everything but I know a Feynman diagram when I see one. I know light slows down when traveling through glass and that causes refraction. I know about ray tracing and wave guides. I know about diffraction and the camera obscura. And I know photon energy is a function of frequency. And frequency, wavelength, and color all essentially describe the same thing.

It was actually choosing a camera I found difficult. I could go down to Costco and buy one of the more popular DSLRs - a Canon EOS Rebel SL1 with kit lens, but I really wanted to do more research than that. I didn't want to be stuck with a camera that isn't right for me. I had another week in Hawaii. After that I was heading to Kilimanjaro. So I went "summiting Kili" with my small, waterproof, but inevitably inferior point-and-shoot compact - the Sony TX10 with a smallish 1/2.3" sensor. Still got some great memories.

Approaching the top of the Barranco Wall, Kili's glacial peak comes into view
The day before summit night, just us and the birds
Finally, the view from the top

Despite what Toto says, Kilimanjaro does not rise like Olympus above the Serengeti.

The last night before we were to summit, I borrowed a companion's camera and took a 30 second exposure of the Big Dipper over Kilimanjaro, my first picture of the stars since... well, for a moment I felt like I was once again that kid growing up in East Texas staying up late with his father's old 35mm SLR, getting to know the stars and capturing their light.

Canon PowerShot G16, 6.1mm, f/1.8, 30sec @ ISO 100

And when I got back, after weeks of research, what did I get? I bought the EOS SL1, the same one I could have picked up at Costco without much thought. However, I eschewed the kit lens in favor of the just-released super-sharp 24mm f/2.8 "pancake" prime for walking around in classic 35mm style.

My first excursion with this new kit was a backpacking trip in Yosemite.

The 24mm prime takes pretty good pictures! Especially considering I hadn't had much practice yet. These were shot at f/5.6

I like to think I'm in every picture when I'm behind the camera, and sometimes I am! If you look closely you can see me crouching in Cheryl's sunglasses.

I also bought an all-manual 14mm f/2.8 for landscapes and astro and got some practice photographing the stars, culminating in this nighttime picture of our campsite, a 25 second exposure at ISO 3200. The northern arm of the Milky Way is visible with the constellation Cassiopeia, as a satellite streaks behind the trees.
EOS Rebel SL1, 14mm Rokinon, 25sec ISO 3200
Looking back to that moment in Hawaii I see a before and after, in terms of camera gear, learning skills, and even attention to detail. Before it was cheap compact cameras, smart phones, and point and shoot. After was DSLRs, pro-level compacts, careful composition, and post-processing. Big difference in sharpness, color, and quality. But whatever the equipment, it's all about the memories.