Saturday, April 29, 2017

Commute in Full Color

The commute between Palo Alto and San Francisco is helped by the fact that both ends are at a major train station, a ten minute walk from home, two blocks from the office. Wake up at seven, on the train by seven-ten, get a seat with a table. Coffee and laptop warm and ready, the peninsula glides by, quiet and smooth.

Forty-five minutes later we pull into the San Francisco station.

From there it's a short light rail ride to the office. By eight in the morning I'm either sitting at my desk or a coffee shop. If I wrote a sci-fi future, we would all commute this way.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Commute in Blue

Wheels screaming against the rails, caffeine buzzing through our veins.
Pulling left, right, forward, back.
Lean in all you straphangers, feel the power hurling us into the city.
Electric anticipation of another day at the office.
Read a book, surf the web, stand clear of the doors.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Friday, April 21, 2017

Being a Cat

Her: The cat is being so annoying!

Me: The cat has ONE job, to be petted. If anything you should admire her dedication.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Photo Walk

A "photo walk" is an exercise photographers use to improve their skills by looking for pictures to take while walking around the neighborhood, any neighborhood will do. The idea is to simply photograph whatever you find interesting, exploring your style and improving your eye by examining the everyday for hidden beauty, extracting art from the mundane (and of course practice composition, exposure, technical camera operation, etc). In a sense, it is just a walk, albeit while holding a camera, perhaps looking around more than usual, watching the light, the people, thinking visually, looking for interesting things, interacting with the world in a semi-passive way. Sometimes you get a good picture but more often you don't. It can seem frustrating, spending time ostensibly in the craft of visual arts with nothing to show for it, but you have to look at this as an educational pursuit, instructional, letting your surroundings teach you. If your photo walk yields a good picture, great, but that's not the point. What did you get from this that isn't a photo? It's an exercise. An exercise in walking and and exercise in seeing, so if you're stronger and healthier it's served its purpose. From that point of view, the more mundane and uninteresting the walk, the better.

I feel like I've reached a plateau in my photography skills. The first year was one of constant improvement. The second, a hunt for new skills and exercises. Now everything is starting to look... the same. Part of learning is reaching plateaus, getting stuck and unsticking yourself, searching for a way out, breaking through.

So I take a walk.


Friday, April 14, 2017

In Defense of Manual Settings

Death Valley
Canon 6D, 14mm, manual focus, manual everything

It occurred to me that I wrote many paragraphs about the right time to adjust camera aperture, shutter speed, and ISO so you're ready to take that quick snapshot when the moment happens. Now, some people might point out there's a big red "A" on the camera that lets its little computer take care of all that for you. In fact most people will prefer to keep a camera - or camera phone - in auto mode so they're always ready.

I don't want to take pictures like most people.

Two things. One, this is a hobby, and the point of a hobby is to have more to do, not less. Second, the camera will always try to give you a perfect middle-of-the-road exposure, and that's boring. Take this picture of a hiker on a trail, washed out by sunlight and beautiful (at least I think so). A camera in auto settings would not take this picture, the camera's computer would make sure it's properly exposed. But I'm not a computer. The truth is I only got this look because I couldn't keep up with the changing conditions moving from the dark woods to bright sunlight. This picture is over-exposed, by a lot. When I got home and started developing, I found this was one of my favorites. This one goes on the blog, this one gets the Instagram likes, while many other perfectly exposed pictures simply don't. Sure, this happened pretty much by accident, but happy accidents happen, that's where the magic is.

Shooting in auto mode will ensure that most, likely all of your pictures will be nicely exposed, not too bright not too dark. In manual mode there's a higher rate of badly exposed pictures but also a few that come out just stunning. I get a higher "keeper" rate in auto mode, but I find my very best photos are shot in manual mode. And I'd rather have a few spectacular photos than a lot of mediocre ones.

I do use auto mode sometimes. When I'm doing this, for example.

This was a glacier hike in Iceland. it was raining, lightly but constantly, and hailing occasionally. It was cold. My camera was in its storm bag, in aperture priority mode at f/8 and daylight white balance. When I saw a chance to take a picture, for example as our group was going up this steep hill, I wanted to be quick. Take out the camera, snap the picture, towel it off, and put it back. I couldn't walk on ice and shoot pictures at the same time so I had to stop, stand still with crampons embedded firm-footingly in the ice, and you can see the guide at the top of the glacier looking back at me, waiting. Not shown, people behind me also waiting. So in this situation I decided it was best to set it and forget it, or in camera parlance, "f/8 and forget it," so I could concentrate on walking on ice and protecting my camera from the rain.

Manual mode is obviously used for landscape photography when you can take the time to set everything up right. But vacation photos, capturing the beautiful chaos of a family trip? Yeah, they'll look fine in auto mode, they'll look realistic, perfectly adequate, and people will say hey look there you are in that place you went. But will they be artistic? Will they wow? Do you even know what kind of "look" you want? If I know the shutter speed I know if I 'm going to freeze or blur the motion. Aperture setting? Do I want depth of field or a defocused background to make my subject stand out? ISO? What is the right ISO to get enough light sensitivity without too much noise? Or do I want noise, that grainy film look? You can use a camera phone or put your expensive DSLR in auto mode and not worry about any of that. Personally, I'd rather worry about all of that. Like I said, it's a hobby, something to do.

I'll be honest, manual mode is a lot to juggle and you'll spend a lot of time fiddling at first, you'll forget to change the settings, you'll ruin some pictures as you move up the learning curve. But trust me, you'll get better and better until you're shooting so fast your friends will assume you're shooting in auto mode like everyone else. Until they see the results. I think the best compliment is the question, Did you really take that picture yourself?

Yes I did. It was me, not a computer.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Shoot Slow, Shoot Fast

I remember reading the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman about two types of thinking we humans undertake. There's the quick stimulus-response instant reaction that lets you interact with day to day stuff by acting immediately in the moment, the fast brain. Then there's the slower, more carefully crafted thinking responsible for long term planning, the slow brain. The trick is getting the two to work together, using the planning brain to create an environment that channels your impulsive energy in the right direction, for example setting up your kitchen so healthy snacks are more convenient than junk food, or arranging your home so you can grab everything you need for work as you walk towards the front door in the morning when you're half awake and running late. The slow brain builds these channels, guard rails, wave guides, whatever you want to call them, so the fast brain can bounce around and get you where you need to go.

Lately I've been thinking about how that might apply to photography.

There's shooting fast, the quick snapshot, the hey look and click! The kind of picture where you take your camera out, turn it on, and say oh darn I missed it. Let's say for example you're on vacation walking around Barcelona with your friend when suddenly a fireworks parade rushes right past you. Hey, it happens! What do you do? Pull out the camera, press the power button and hold down the shutter button. You just captured the moment.

Then there's shooting slow. Lots of planning and equipment prep. Careful examination of every setting. Tripod, remote shutter, and when everything's as close to perfect as you can manage and the timing of the light is just right, you take the exposure.

Shooting fast, shooting slow.

The thing is, shooting slow can vastly improve your shooting fast and make for better snapshots. Any picture will benefit from some advanced thinking, really, and if that slow brain is at work making sure you're ready for the decisive moment, then you'll really capture those moments. You want to take a picture the instant you see something and your camera needs to be available in the right settings. You definitely, absolutely, do not want to and please don't slow everyone down or bring the proceedings to a complete halt just so you can fiddle with your camera and get that perfect exposure. You can't check your settings when you're shooting from the hip. Maybe you can check them when you're not shooting? Take a moment when nothing is happening and check your camera. Are you out in the midday sun? Take a second set a fast exposure time and high f-stop. Inside a museum? Open up the aperture. Be ready to take that cute picture of your kid and a dinosaur with what they call the artistically correct exposure.

Think about the lighting conditions you're about to encounter and what kind of artistic effect you might want. Motion freezing? Motion blur? Bokeh background? Sunstars? Are you looking at the architecture or your goofy companions? And how fast are they moving? Once you've answered these questions - and all answers must be expressed in the form of camera settings - when you've provided your camera with the answers you're ready to capture the moment the way you want to capture it. Hey-look-click and it's yours for life.

In summary, don't annoy your friends with fiddling and framing. Think ahead so you're ready to click-click-click and move on. You're more likely to get the ideal framing and ideal smile in continuous shooting mode. The camera records your interaction with the world as much as anything. So enjoy the moment you want to capture.

Don't underestimate the moment just before and after everyone says cheese.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Land of Fire and Ice and Rainbows

A moss covered lava field, full rainbow, and setting sun. Reasons to pull over when driving along Iceland's ring road. 

Writing Mistakes and how to Use Them

Overuse of commas. Repetition of the same word too many times on a page. Overuse of prepositions. Stringing too many prepositional phrases together in series. Not enough variety in sentence structure. Overly long sentences, like the kind that go on and on until you start to think maybe I should just adopt this as my new style, like I'm going to impress anyone or break my old record with an innovative use of grammar, a variety of phrasings building on each other and not, definitely not, just a long unimaginative string of prepositional phrases in, of, and/or for,,,,,,,,,,   , did I mention overuse of commas? Overuse of conjunctions. Disorganized paragraph ordering. Abrupt transitions between sentences. Uneven pacing. Weakness of theme and story arc. Over-fondness of flowery poetic imagery. Tendency to sound similar to whatever pretentious post-modern literature I'm reading on the subway this week. Overuse of irony. Desire to counterpunch grammatically innovative long paragraphs or even multi-paragraph arcs with a short single-sentence, narrative-breaking think-stopper.

Like this.

Lack of practice. Mismatched verb tenses. Saying tenses when I mean noun-verb agreement. Rookie mistakes. Spending more time correcting than writing. Starting sentences with conjunctions. To sometimes, when necessary, split infinitives. Easily influenced. Weakness of voice. Undefined individuality. Indecisiveness. Dearth of ideas about style. Timid exploration of style. Stylistic dead ends. Disconnected ideas and amorphous feelings vis a vis everything and how and why it all fits together. Not labeling by subject. Conflating subject categorization. Lack of practice. Lack of writing schedule. Easily distracted. Noisy internal dialogue. Lack of practice.

Self-critical. Not self-critical enough. Needs improvement. Unsure. Unfocused. Too much television. Addicted. Lazy. Manic. Depressed. Past regrets. Present anxiety. Future worries. Fill your toolbox with these helpful tips to improve your writing style.

"The world is a hellish place and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering." -Tom Waits

The Most Photographed Wreck in the World

When asked for one tip about traveling to Iceland, I said read the photography blogs. It's a picture paradise and whether or not you're a shutterbug you'll find some uniquely beautiful places you might not have seen otherwise. One of my best planning resources for this trip was Earth in Colors, which has an excellent list of favorite places to go and what time of day they are most photogenic.

Tami said her one tip for Iceland is: bring goggles.

Our story involves a stop at the famous DC-3 wreck on the southern coast, a 4km walk from an unmarked parking lot on the ring road (better directions can be found here). Don't ask me how many miles that is. I can either think in metric or imperial units but I refuse to convert from one to the other. Kilimanjaro is just shy of 5,900 meters and Mount Elbert in Colorado is above 14,000 feet and I don't need to convert units because I would never compare the two. Iceland is a European country and it will always be metric to me. 

In any case, 4km is a long walk, a good hour each way. Even worse, when we parked the car and started out, we were facing high winds and freezing rain, sideways rain hitting us right in the face. The whole way. It was, in a word, miserable. Even with good rain clothes getting a face full of cold water is not comfortable. Now, we had just returned from a guided glacier hike where we were constantly rained on and subjected to two separate hailstorms. This is where Tami decided that goggles are on her list of required equipment for Iceland. Since the road to the DC-3 is practically across the street from the glacier, we parked the car and started walking towards the ocean. Into the wind and ice cold rain pelting us face-on.

I didn't take any pictures on that walk. It was all we could do to keep moving forward, walking into the wind and rain like that. I didn't even think about getting my camera out of its storm bag, I didn't feel like getting the lens soaked and I didn't think it would make a good picture anyway. Getting rain to show up well on camera takes the right lighting conditions and I was in no condition to think about what those might be. On the way back, after the weather improved I did take this photo showing how long and boring the walk is. Just a black gravel road on a black sand desert vanishing into the horizon. Imagine facing this in a storm and you'll get an idea of how badly I wanted to see this plane. 

So we trudged on and on, not daring to stop, barely speaking. There were no words of encouragement I could offer, nothing to make it easier. I gave up trying to see through my glasses, trying to keep the rain off my face. I wouldn't say I got used to it, only that I got through it. When I started thinking we must be getting close by now, we stopped someone walking the other way to ask how much further it was. A long way yet, he replied, a long way. We didn't ask anyone else. We trudged on, faces stinging with the cold.

Eventually, in the distance, we saw it. And when we saw it, the rain stopped. To the east a double rainbow appeared. I started running immediately, running to catch it, literally chasing the rainbow. I was in a race against the ephemerality of light on the edge of this mercurial weather and it felt good, I was energized, goal in sight, warmed by my legs bounding beneath me. Then I stopped myself, realizing I had simply taken off running without saying anything to Tami, not so much as a see you later. I turned around and before I could shout a quick explanation of why I was leaving her there, she waved me on. She knows, she understands. I continued, running as fast as I could to the side of the plane just in time to get a few pictures before the rainbow faded away. My cold hands nervously fumbling at the camera, that miserable walk was immediately forgotten. 

Tami, who for the past hour must have been wondering why I wanted to take her on the worst hike in the world, the least comfortable, least scenic (did you see that road? Imagine nothing but that for an hour each way), until now when the simple addition of an old airplane long since stripped to its shell renders the scene otherworldly, and coincidentally the sky became sunny, and warmed us, and the wind died down and Tami must have forgiven me for dragging her face-first through a subarctic storm. She was running around making airplane noises.

Hello! All aboard!

This is no insider secret. The place attracts crowds and we're all there for the same reason. People love to get pictures of themselves around, in, and even on top of this plane, so the challenge can be getting a photo that doesn't have people walking in and all around it, climbing on it, pointing cameras at each other.

So you're walking around with everyone else, trying to find an angle where, just for a moment, it looks like you're all alone. If you're patient, and quick, you can get that 

iconic shot.


The superlative otherworldly is often used to describe Iceland, and I think that could be applied to any incongruous artifact dropped into a field of black lava sand. Honestly, it looks like a DC-3 crash-landed on another planet.

Thank you for flying Twilight Zone Airlines.

Beyond the plane is the sea, the sky, and a seemingly endless black sand beach.

We walked back to the car, drove to town, and had a nice warm bowl of cauliflower soup.

The End.

See also Icelandic Blues

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Cherry Blossom Interlude

Somewhere in the city the cherry blossom festival is happening. In Golden Gate Park, it's a nice day for a walk.

Icelandic Blues

We didn't see a lot of blue sky in Iceland. Most of the time the sky was solid white or light grey. Even with these conditions, we occasionally saw grey clouds become slate blue with an orange sun hidden low in the sky. The blues that did come through were striking.

I recently learned about selective saturation in Adobe Lightroom, where instead of boosting overall color saturation and vibrance, you can boost selective colors depending on what you want to bring out in the scene. You can emphasize the blue sky, green grass, even a little orange in the soil without making it look artificial. We want a picture that represents what we saw, to bring out memories of when we were there and elicit an emotional response. I want to make pictures that feel good to look at. Too much color and it doesn't look real, too little and it looks flat. Somewhere in between will make you oooh and ahhh. Remember how it looked? How blue the sky, how green the grass below grey clouds and a hazy horizon? That's what I want to see, what I want to feel. To feel like I'm there.

But Iceland isn't all clouds and rain. Sometimes the sun comes out and the sky is shockingly bright by contrast. 

Walking around Fjaðrárgljúfur I found canyons can be very challenging as far as exposure goes. The sky is bright, the river is in shadows, and there's a full range of light and dark in between. If you have a tripod you can bracket exposures to capture both the bright and dark areas, the usual method for serious photographers. If you're walking around taking handheld shots, the usual method for fun-loving vacation goers, you're limited to a single exposure and inevitably you cut something off the top or bottom of the brightness range. Either overexpose the sky to get the darker canyon, or get a properly exposed sky and canyon lost in shadow.

Since I felt the canyon makes a better picture I chose to overexpose the sky so the brightest clouds are washed out in a sea of white. There a little blue sky peeking through which I was able to bring out by boosting the blues using - yep - selective saturation. Then I nudged up green to brighten the grass, plus believe it or not I found a little orange in the soil. It pays to experiment.

Nearby at the famous DC-3 wreck, possibly the most photographed plane wreck in the world, we have a black sand beach, blue sky, a bit of orange in the sky, and yellow rain jacket. Again, I wanted to bring out the colors of the sky without altering the scene or making that rain jacket too bright. It's plenty bright already.

Sometimes nature turns up the saturation for you. I didn't have to do much of anything to this next picture. On our last night in Iceland, it was the autumnal equinox and we arrived for dinner as slate blue clouds accented a sunset behind the red roof architecture in Reykjavic, making for the perfect end to our trip.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Sketches of London

18th century author Samuel Johnson once famously said, "Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

Indeed, with a small pocket camera and good pair of walking shoes, one might never tire of London.

If one does tire, there are plenty of nice places to stop and rest, take for example the Royal Albert Hall. There's a huge lawn across the street with large stone steps and sitting walls. Just find a nice spot, put up your feet, and watch the world go by. And it will go by.

Who knows, you might even get some free entertainment. Maybe a street musician will play your favorite Simon & Garfunkle songs. How do you get to the Royal Albert Hall? Practice!

Or if you're feeling a bit more spendy, the music inside is also very nice. David Gilmour used to be in this band called Pink Floyd. He plays there sometimes.

 Everyone stands and cheers for David. Wish you were here, mate.
That's what you call a night on the town.

And then...

And then...

Kensington Gardens anyone?

It's Sunday afternoon in the park and the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain is full of children laughing and playing. The fountain is a big circuit of flowing water, some parts calm and tranquil, other parts turbulent, much like her life some tour guides might say. Children run and play and giggle and splash and tire themselves out and I like to think she would rather enjoy that.

At nightfall they lock up Kensington Gardens. If you find yourself on the wrong side of the gate all you can do is make shadow puppets until you find your way out. And you will find your way out. 

Then it's back to the pub for a pint or few. Cheers! The Mad Hatter Hotel? Couldn't ask for a more London place to stay.