New Year’s Resolution

I was experiencing some existential angst yesterday.  After getting through all of the stress and anxiety around Christmas and having my mom stay with us, I was left feeling lost and sad.  Oh Boo Hoo.  It was actually my first little freak out since leaving work at the end of May, so it was probably long over due.  Now I’m on to making plans and starting new projects.  I need to take more photos and I need to start going through some of my existing work with a more critical eye.  So I am resolving to post at least one photo a day from now through the end of January.  If I haven’t done anything new, then I will be digging something out of the archives.

I took very few photos on Christmas Eve.  There were a lot of people, the gift opening was a little chaotic and the lighting was poor.  I don’t like to use flash unless absolutely necessary, especially when photographing children.  Here’s one of a handful I deemed acceptable:

This is our goddaughter Sedona.  She’s growing out her bangs so they are constantly in her eyes.  Other than cropping the right side of the photo (she was centered in the original) this is right out of the camera.  I tried color correcting it to get a more natural look but then it lost the warmth and holiday glow.  This is the closest I’ve gotten to a natural smile from her, she’s a total poseur when the camera comes out.

Take Two

After completing the 6+ hour task of converting my MIM photos to JPEG format, I started going through them on Wednesday.  And I quickly came to the conclusion that most of them will be unusable.  Why?  The depth of field was too shallow, so items in the front or back of every exhibit are out of focus.  It’s a pretty rookie mistake actually, so I was kicking myself when I realized it.  Most of our day on Wednesday was dedicated to having our floors measured for hardwood and then picking up all of the material needed for the installation, which took two trips in the Xterra.  So that day was out for a re-shoot.  Ironically, I was back in the museum on Thursday, but it was to give a “short” tour to a friend and his wife, so photography was not on the agenda.  We walked them around for almost two hours and they quickly realized that a more comprehensive tour with the audio equipment would take the better part of a day.  No matter how hard I try to describe the museum to people, they always underestimate the size and scope of the place until they are actually there.  It really does take a minimum of four hours to tour, even if you skim over a lot of the exhibits.

So I ran back on Friday afternoon and tried to re-shoot the exhibits in the Geo Galleries.  At least I had a pretty good idea of what worked well in photos, so I didn’t have to do everything over.  Unfortunately the Artist Gallery and Experience Gallery were way too busy for me to get any decent photos.  I’ve spent most of yesterday and today processing and uploading the images.  I have enough to get started, so I’m feeling slightly less freaked out.  I know I’ll have to take more photos to finish it, but hopefully I can be pretty targeted about what I need to shoot.  I did get some good detail shots from my first photo shoot.  Here are a few I’m planning to use.


Big Photo Project Alert

I limped up to the MIM (http://www.themim.org/) this morning to get started on my next big photo project.  Fortunately it’s still sandal weather in Phoenix so I wasn’t forced to shove my purple foot into a closed shoe.  (I’m totally exaggerating for effect here, my foot’s not that bad.  In fact, I’m a little disappointed the bruise isn’t bigger)  When the MIM opened back in April, I took a buttload of photos (1000, in case you’re wondering how big a buttload is) and put together a photo book for my Dad to commemorate the occasion.  It was a pretty big hit with him.  I think it would be fair to say it’s the best present I’ve ever given him, as he asked for two additional copies.  I was feeling pretty impressed with myself, since it was the first photo book I’ve ever done.  I’ve put together tons of albums, but never a book.  Honestly, a good photo book makes a photo album look like a kindergarten project.

The first book was focused on the opening events, so it featured a lot of photos of family and friends with a smattering of museum spaces and exhibits.  Taken completely haphazardly as things appealed to me, which is largely my photographic style.  So now I’m taking on the bigger task of doing a more comprehensive book on the entire museum.  Which means I need to photograph every exhibit, every public space, most of the back of house spaces plus detail shots of random things that look cool.  I was there for about 3 hours today and I took 789 photos, which is a new single day record for me.  And I didn’t get to any of the back of house spaces.  Crap.

I’ve been converting the RAW files to JPEG for over 2 hours now and I’m not even close to half way through.  Double crap.  This is going to be a monumental task.  The museum is an amazing place and I really want this book to reflect that.  But I do have a deadline.  This will be my Dad’s main Christmas present and we are celebrating at his house on December 17th.  So I have to have this puppy finished by the beginning of December to make sure it gets produced in time.

So I guess I know what I’m going to be doing for the next 3 weeks.

This is one of my favorite photos from April.  It’s the Martin Guitar exhibit.

Jerome at a Macro Level

I am totally milking this trip to Jerome for blog fodder.  I figure it’s a lot more interesting than writing about picking out hardwood floor or ordering a sleeper sofa.  (Two of our accomplishments over the past week)  Since I was using a macro lens in Jerome, I thought I would look for some opportunities to use that functionality.

Flowers are a favorite subject matter for macro photography.  Jerome in November is not exactly lush with flora, but I did find a few flowers, first on a small sunflower plant.  Between the wind and the direction of the sunlight, I wasn’t able to get a good image of one of the open flowers, but I did get this one nice shot of a closed bud.  I also found a yellow rose bush.  Again, the wind made it nearly impossible to get a lot of good shots (shooting macro outside on a windy day can be extremely frustrating).  But I did get a few nice images, including this one on the right.  Definitely worth the effort.

Of course I didn’t want to stop with just the obvious subject matter, so I tried looking for interesting patterns and was rewarded with these.

Both images are from a rusty old gas pump that sits outside of a store.  I took some conventional photos of the pump and the big rusty gear wheel that sits next to it (Jerome is full of old mining remnants like that).  They turned out fine but when I looked more closely at the pump I saw that the rusting surface had a great abstract art quality to it.  The bit of yellow in the photo at left is a small bit of paint that is still clinging tenaciously to the pump.  I’m not sure which image I like better, what do you think?

Jerome Continues to Haunt Me

Continuing my quest for the perfect shadow photo in an abandoned Jerome building.  I like the background in the photo at left (especially the old wood texture) but the shadow is too out of focus and not particularly interesting.  The photo at right seems to be the best compromise of shadow and background, but it’s still not exactly what I was hoping to capture.  I may try cropping it a little tighter to get rid of some of the top portion, which is a little dull.  So it looks like I’ll need another trip to Jerome to go another round with the shadows.  One sometimes has to suffer for one’s art.  Sigh.  Seriously, this is pretty typical for me.  I take a ton of photos and manage to find fault with some aspect of nearly every one.  Even the photos I’m really proud of usually have some room for improvement in my mind.  It’s hard to say what makes a “great” photo.  It’s art and all art is subjective.  You can appreciate the artist merit of something without really liking it.  (See my July 30 blog on the Walker Art Center for more on that topic)  I can look at a photo and tell you why it works for me or not but that doesn’t mean everyone or anyone else will feel the same way.

I think the shadow photos are cool even if I didn’t get exactly the image I wanted.  Maybe it only exists in my mind.  I also realize that a lot of people might think they are weird, creepy or (worse yet) just boring.  Don’t worry, there are plenty of pretty landscapes in my future.  But I’m prouder of these types of efforts, even when they aren’t perfect.

Jerome

We took a little trip up north yesterday.  The forecast high for Phoenix was around 90 degrees so it seemed like a good day to head to the high country, as Phoenicians like to call it.  We went to Jerome first and then stopped in Prescott for a late lunch before driving back.  Jerome is the most popular “ghost town” in Arizona.  It was a big mining town around the turn of the century that was gradually abandoned after the mines shut down.  It was largely deserted until squatters started moving in and fixing up houses in the 60’s.  Of course now it is a wildly popular tourist destination with lots of shops and restaurants, but it’s managed to retain most of its charm despite that handicap.  It was a sad day for us when the funky little Jerome Brewery turned into a wine bar.  They still serve the most awesome pizza but it’s just not the same.

There are a lot of cool old buildings, some abandoned and some occupied.  It also features some of the most amazing vistas, as the whole town is perched up on a side of a hill.  The shops are all small and feature unique, frequently local items.  I have dropped a serious amount of coin in Jerome over the years.  But yesterday was strictly a photo op.  One of the tricks I’ve learned when photographing a place or activity (like racing) that is a very familiar subject is to use a new and/or unusual lens.  So for this trip to Jerome I exclusively used my new 100mm macro lens (which totally and completely rocks, by the way).  It’s not a lens I would normally use to photograph a town, so it forced me to look for unusual subject matter.

I became completely obsessed with the shadow of an iron fence against the shell of an old building.  This one shows the shadow against an old stone floor.  It reminds me of a cemetery.

The left photo is the shadow of a single fence post against a stone wall.  The original is color and had a very brown cast.  I thought it looked better in black and white.  The right photo is a sunburst detail that cast a shadow down to a corner of the lower level.  I love this shadow but I don’t love the background.  Unfortunately this sunburst is only in one spot along the fence so I didn’t have a choice.  This just made me more obsessed about getting the “perfect” shadow photograph.  To be continued…

Book it

I offered to help a friend put together a photo book of her recent vacation.  Heck, I’ve done one so that makes me an expert, right?  In order to make it go as efficiently as possible, I recommended that she decide what site she wanted to use and get the photos uploaded in advance.  Or at least I thought that’s what I told her.  What I actually wrote was – “I can’t remember if you’ve done photo books before, but the most time consuming step is uploading all of the photos you want to use, so you should try and do that as soon as possible.  The website I used for the MIM book is http://www.adoramapix.com/products/books if you want to use that.”

After years of working in IT and needing to divine client requirements from completely ambiguous documentation, you’d think I would be better at giving very specific instructions, particularly to someone who is not necessarily a computer whiz.  But, no.  When we got together to start on the project and I asked if she had uploaded her photos, she cheerfully replied yes.  From her camera to her laptop.  Okay, so this is going to take a little longer than planned.  She had some trouble getting her Mac to power up (it’s a new machine and her first Mac, so perfectly understandable) which made us both a little nervous since she had not had time to back up the photos to another location.  Fortunately the machine came to life after a few tries, so the first order of business was to create a full back-up in case we had any other issues.

After we had a full set on a thumb drive, we went through the process of viewing all of  the photos and selecting the ones to use for the book.  There were a little over 1000 images.  Now, that’s not a lot for me, as I’ve been known to shoot over 500 in one day of a vacation, but it is a lot for a typical vacationer.  She was a fast decision maker so we quickly breezed through all of them and narrowed it down to 120, copying the keepers to my PC for tweaking.  At this point I quit kicking myself about my lame instructions, since we ended up making changes to the majority of the photos.  So uploading to a website in advance wouldn’t have saved any time.  She has a really good eye for composition, so there was a lot a great material to work with.

Unfortunately, we blew my 2-3 hour time estimate out of the water.  It didn’t help that I neglected to bring a mouse and had to work with Photoshop exclusively through my laptop’s touch pad, which is clumsy at best.  After nearly 5 hours of working together, we called it quits with about half of the photos completed.  And of course we still need to actually upload them and create the book.  We’ve probably got an additional 2-3 hours to go before we get to the finished product.

Of course, I have all of the photos on my laptop and in theory I could finish the whole thing on my own much more quickly, which would quiet my project manager anxiety about half finished projects.  But it’s her book, not mine and I want it to speak with her voice.  Plus it was really fun working together and I think the end result will be much better as a collaborative effort.

So I’m telling my inner bossy girl to shut up now.

This photo is from my last trip to Europe – a long weekend in Amsterdam.  It was very gray and overcast, so it seems to work better in black and white than the original color.

Acting Up

In early 2007 I started doing volunteer photography for a non-profit organization, Youth Performance Company.  The best way to describe it is a budget version of The Children’s Theatre Company.  Their previous photographer, who had been serving in that capacity for over 10 years, was no longer willing/able to do it.  They sent out a plea to the members of their board, asking for a new volunteer.  My brother was a board member, so of course he thought of me.  To say I was reluctant to take it on would be a massive understatement.  Photographing people wasn’t really my thing, unless it was racing related.  Frankly I was a little terrified of the whole idea.  But I agreed to try it once and see how it went.  My biggest concern was based on the misconception that I would have pose the actors for the photos.  The director quickly disabused me of that idea.  She would be the one setting up the shots, I just needed to operate the camera.

When I think about it now, it makes me laugh.  The least camera averse groups in the world are actors and children and I was being asked to photograph child actors.  You won’t find more ham at Easter dinner.  That first shoot went really well and I was extremely pleased with the images.  Yesterday I did my 15th shoot.  Not every one has been perfect.  The larger shows are always trickier because it’s almost impossible to get more than 3 people in focus with good expressions.  (Keep in mind that I’m shooting without a flash so I’m usually working with pretty shallow depth of field)  I’ve run into situations where almost every shot had a heavy red tint from the stage lighting, making the actors looked bathed in blood.  I’ve learned how to fix that and a host of other issues.

Since I’m doing this in a volunteer capacity, I provide YPC with a CD of processed jpegs from each show and give them unrestricted permission to use the images.  So if you check out their website (http://www.youthperformanceco.com/) almost all of the rotating images on the homepage are mine and if you happen to get on their mailing list, many of the printed images on their postcards, letters and brochures are mine as well.  But the biggest surprise was when I showed up to shoot one of their fund-raising events and found they had blown up my photos into posters as large as 5 feet by 7 feet.  It actually kind of freaked me out to see my photos larger than life sized.  And looking pretty damn good, at that.  I also get a pretty nice credit as staff photographer in their show programs.  Yes, it’s an ego boost.  But I’m not the most altruistic person in the world so I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t getting something out of it.

The images from yesterday’s shoot were great, but not exceptional.  So here’s one from two years ago that I really like.  See if you can guess the play.

Thanks for Stealing, Here’s $10

I was flipping through an issue of Popular Photography when an ad for their reader photo contest caught my eye.  I went online to check it out.  The first red flag was a $10 fee per photo to enter.  Generally speaking, I distrust photo contests that require an entry fee.  To be fair, $10 is minimal and it may be largely intended to thin the herd of images submitted.  From that perspective, it appears to be working.  The contest has been open since June 15, closes in less than a month and has less than 1000 submissions so far.  (Assuming all submissions are posted online)  Compare that to the nearly 20,000 images submitted in a Conde Nast contest that I entered earlier this year.

The second red flag was the totally lame prizes being offered:

One (1) GRAND PRIZE: *Sony A550 DSLR Camera and Lens (Approx. value $849.99)

Eight (8) FIRST PLACE CATEGORY PRIZES: *Sony a NEX-3 with 18-55mm lens (Approx. value $599.99)

Even with the relatively low number of submissions, Pop Photo will still make money from the contest, assuming they pay for the prizes.  Nice gig.  Personally, I wouldn’t be willing to pay even the income tax on a Sony camera prize.  Okay, but the real prize is getting published if you win, right?  I mean, isn’t it sort of every amateur photographer’s dream to get published in Popular Photography?  So, of course I would expect that by entering you are giving them the right to publish your photo, if you are a winner.

The third red flag was this bit of wording in the rules:

By entering, you grant to Sponsor a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty free license to edit, publish, promote, republish at any time in the future and otherwise use your submission, along with your name and likeness, in any and all media for any purpose, without further permission, notice or compensation (except where prohibited by law).

So, you are asking me to pay $10 for the privilege of giving you free use of my image for perpetuity??  Even if I don’t win anything?  How stupid do you think I am?  Assuming people actually read the rules, I am amazed they received any entries.  I guess it was nice of them to throw in the “non-exclusive” part.

Sheesh.

Read the fine print.

Shooting People

For many years I believed that I wasn’t good at shooting people (photographically speaking).  I was never happy with the results when I took photos of people and so I concentrated even more on landscapes.  With landscapes, it’s all about composition and lighting.  Except for rare exceptions, like those fleeting moments around sunrise and sunset, you can take your time and get the perfect shot.  People move and they frequently change expression.  Plus I have found that most adults don’t really like to be photographed, making them even more troublesome.  Landscapes just are – you can zoom with your lens or with your feet to change your relative perspective, but you don’t have to worry about the mountains shifting around or making a fake smile for the camera.  Kids are a little less problematic, mostly because they get bored quickly and start ignoring you, which automatically makes them easier to photograph.

I first started to realize that I might not be such a terrible people photographer when I switched from a manual to an auto-focus camera.  It seems incredibly stupid in retrospect, but I just wasn’t that fast at focusing and so I never really got the shot I wanted.  (refer back to the comment about movement and expression)  Most of my early “serious” work with people was centered around racing.  Pit crews and drivers are pretty focused on their work and they are used to photographers constantly buzzing around, so they completely ignore you.  I have some pretty decent images from the late 1990’s, which I’m sure I’ll get around to scanning in someday so I can share them.  But don’t hold your breath, it’s pretty low on my list and you know what happens to low priority requirements.

My second revelation in regards to photographing people came when I switched to digital.  When I would shoot a 36 exposure roll of film, I would be pretty happy if 2 or 3 of the images were really good.  I threw away about 70% of the prints that came back as being unworthy to keep even for my own amusement.  I only showed about 10% of what I shot.  With digital I can get nearly 300 images on one flash card using my 20 megapixel camera.  So it’s a numbers game.  If I can get 10-20 really great photos out of that 300 I’m happy.  It costs nothing to discard the others.  Or consign them to purgatory on my computer, which is more often the case.  Photo snobs will argue “real” photographers don’t shoot 1000’s of images, hoping for a few good ones.  Screw ’em.  Digital has freed me to be more experimental and try a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have when every photo had a cost associated with it.  As a result, I’ve become a better photographer.  Even with people.

This photo was taken in 2005 out of the window of a van while stopped for traffic in Beijing.  I would never have tried something like this using film.  I had enough time while the van was motionless to take this one shot.