Castle on the Hill

Castle on the Hill

Before you ask…yes, the title of this picture was taken from an Ed Sheeran song :) The song itself didn’t inspire the photo though, and in fact this was a picture that, contrary to many of the pictures I put here on the blog, was deliberately planned in advance. On a chilly weekend in January my wife and I loaded up the kids in our car to take a little drive so our youngest would hopefully fall asleep and take a nap…which actually worked. Woohoo! As we headed south out of town we drove past this dilapidated, um, barn? Shed? Workshop? I’m not even sure. But whatever it once was, it had clearly fallen on hard times and as we drove past I had the distinct though that it would make for a good picture. So a few days later I returned to the scene on my way to work in an attempt to make good on my vision.

Going in to the shoot I knew I would need a couple of specific pieces of gear. Based on the proximity of the building to the main road, and the fact that right in front of where I stood to take this image there was a barbed-wire fence to keep out any trespassers, I knew I would need to use my D750 if I shot this with my 50mm lens. I could get no closer and no farther from the building than what you see here and I knew that if I shot this with my crop-sensor D7100 it would be much too tight and I wouldn’t be able to capture a sense that this building was part of a much larger landscape. I also knew I would need a tripod since I was going to shoot this early in the morning, and finally I understood that I would have to shoot in manual without Auto-ISO in order to get precisely the end result I was hoping for.

That advance mental preparation paid off quite well and on the morning I took this shot the sky was quite overcast which provided a nice even, and rather somber, light to the scene. I hopped out of the car, grabbed my D750 and tripod, and walked right up to the fence to take a few pictures. I shot this at f/8, ISO 100 to get everything nice and sharp and this particular image required 0.3 seconds to get a properly-exposed photo. (Bonus tip: if you’re doing shots like this with a tripod, use a delay timer so your picture isn’t affected by your finger wobbling the camera when you press the shutter button.) There was not much room to move around laterally either, which was fine because the spot I was standing gave me pretty much the exact view I was hoping for. I also composed the shot specifically with the pine tree on the right and the other two trees, sans leaves, on the left. I tried shifting my view a bit to the north but other trees soon entered the frame in the foreground which wasn’t what I wanted at all.

In the end I’m happy with how this turned out and part of me wonders what the history of this place is like. Since I don’t know, I like to make up my own stories which can be a lot more interesting than finding out what really happened. I’m also reminded of how, even though I’m a big proponent of spontaneous photography, it’s also a good thing to plan your shots and create a deliberate composition from time to time.

Jupiter

Jupiter

When my wife and I moved to Oklahoma several years ago we were told a couple things about the weather that we were cautioned to keep in mind. The first, regarding tornados, was obvious and we soon followed through on getting an underground storm shelter installed on our property. The second was something we didn’t expect, which was that Oklahoma, apparently, doesn’t get a lot of snow in the winter but can get a lot of ice. I don’t know if we objectively get more or less ice than, say, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Kansas, but I certainly can confirm we get far less snow. Nonetheless, when we do get ice storms here they tend to be pretty bad and such was the case, or so we thought, on a chilly weekend in January when Winter Storm Jupiter made its way slowly across the midwestern plains.

Though the weather conditions didn’t quite materialize how meteorologists were predicting, we did get a fair amount of ice here in town and when my kids and I woke up on Saturday morning (I like to let my wife sleep in on the weekends) we saw that the whole world outside was covered in a thin sheet of frozen water that glistened in the morning sunlight. I quickly grabbed my camera and walked around the yard for about five minutes attempting to take a few shots before things started to melt, and came back with a few dozen pictures of branches, leaves, icicles dangling from fences, and crepe myrtle buds like what you see in this week’s picture above. I shot most of the pictures with my +4 filter at f/4 or smaller in order to get things as sharp as they could be, and this one was my favorite of the bunch.

This picture could also be seen as some kind of tangible evidence of my own progression as a photographer. The last time I remember having the opportunity to take pictures on the morning after an ice storm I made an image called Winter Berries that I posted to Weekly Fifty. I like the colors of that photo but looking back on it I think it’s far too cluttered, with a depth of field that is way too shallow given the foreground elements, and generally leaves the viewer with a sense of relative confusion. This week’s image, by comparison, is much more focused with a cleaner overall composition, and the viewer’s eye is specifically directed to just one or two elements. Now of course all this is a matter of personal taste and some might prefer the original over this one, but in my opinion this week’s image shows how my approach to photography has changed over the years and is, to be honest, much better than it used to be. And I’m sure a couple years from now I’ll look back at this picture and shake my head, wondering just what in the world I was thinking. But that’s good! And if it weren’t for the early steps we would never have the later ones.

Incidentally, this post comes almost exactly four years after I started Weekly Fifty. It sure has been a fun ride, and I want all of you to know how much I appreciate you taking time out of your days to read these posts, listen to the commentary, and even leave feedback. You are all part of why this blog is so special to me, and I hope it has helped you learn and grow as photographers too. Thank you, and I’m excited for what the next four years (and many more) have in store.

Here’s to the journey, folks :)

Day One

Day One

The winter here in Oklahoma has been a little strange, with some days in the 60’s and 70’s and other days bitterly cold with freezing rain and even a little snow. This up-and-down pattern (or lack thereof) is still a bit of a surprise for a Northerner like me who still thinks of winters as perpetually snow-covered and well below 32 degrees on the thermometer. Not that I don’t enjoy it, mind you, and in the nearly eight years since my wife and I have moved down here I have grown quite accustomed to making it through the colder months with jackets instead of wool overcoats. In fact I quite like it and I don’t know if I’d ever want to go back :)

This picture was taken on January 17, the start of the Spring 2017 semester at OSU, at the edge of good old Theta Pond–the location of a disproportionally large number of Weekly Fifty photos. It was the first time in a while that we had such pleasant weather, and with temps in the mid-50’s it made for ideal photography conditions especially with all the student activity that was sorely lacking in the preceding months. I just couldn’t help myself and, because I had my D7100 + 50mm lens with me, went for a short walk to enjoy a few minutes of nature through the lens of my camera.

Even though I have taken what might be considered far too many pictures of Theta Pond I never really get tired of walking around it. At one point way back in the early days of OSU it was used as a watering hole for cattle, and in the years since it is has morphed into basically a man-made heavily-curated artifice and yet it feels so nice to just go and chill out on one of the benches, watch the geese and ducks, or stroll around on the sidewalks which is precisely what I was doing when I took this picture. I deliberately framed the fountain between the two trees on the right and shot with a 1/10 shutter in order to get a little bit of motion trails in the fountain. The only way to get a still image without a tripod was to shoot a burst of images and hope for the best, and out of a half dozen images this was the one that turned out the clearest. I actually overexposed the original by about a full stop in order to use a 1/10 shutter in bright daylight without an ND filter but thanks to the magic of RAW I was able to recover plenty of data in Lightroom.

Note the overexposed sidewalk and stone border around the trees.

It’s probably a bit cliché at this point to continue posting pictures of Theta Pond but what can I say…I like it and if you ever get the chance to visit OSU I’m sure you will too :)

No Stronger Bond

No Stronger Bond

This post is sort of a follow-up to a previous one from the fall of 2015 title Aftermath, which dealt with the fallout from a tragic event at the annual OSU Homecoming Parade in which a woman drove her car into a crowd of onlookers and killed four people including a young boy and a woman named Bonnie who worked in the my building on campus. My family and I were at the parade a few blocks away from the car crash and almost everyone I talked to in the following days had some kind of connection to the event. That’s life in a small town, really. Friends were at the same intersection and narrowly avoided getting hit. Coworkers had just seen Bonnie and her husband a few minutes prior to their passing. Church members were near the scene, and even a student of mine who was in the military was so close he was one of the first responders at the scene offering help to those who were hurt. It was a rough time for pretty much everyone in Stillwater and the intersection of Hall of Fame and Main Street (seriously…Main Street. How much more Americana can you get?) is, to this day, memorialized with flowers and signs like what you see here.

The morning I took this picture I was biking to work on an uncharacteristically warm day in January which also happened to be the day that the woman who was responsible for the tragedy was finally brought to justice. About two hours after I took this picture she accepted a plea deal and will spend the rest of her life in prison–a result about which I feel strangely ambivalent. Putting this woman in jail will not bring the four people killed back to life, and yet the punishment at the same time feels almost a bit light. No one really knows why she did what she did, and even the woman has indicated she feels remorse for her actions. But at the same time I wouldn’t really want her to go scot-free either (not that such an outcome was ever an option.) To be honest I’m not really sure what justice would even look like in this case, but at least now the town has what might be called a sense of closure from the ordeal almost a year and a half ago.

In the days following the accident there were signs of shared pain throughout the whole town, and the message on that small little handmade sign rings true: nothing brings people together quite like a shared experience, and even moreso when the experience is one of profound pain, grief, sadness, or tragedy. The inevitable hashtag, in this case #StillwaterStrong, started showing up on social media almost immediately afterwards, but even today that simple compound word can be seen on signs, shirts, and vehicles all over the city. I bike past that same intersection almost every day and looking at the photos of the four people, especially little Nash Lucas, who were killed still makes me tear up a little. While hearing the news that the perpetrator will no longer be a danger to anyone else in society certainly brings a sigh of relief, many people here in Stillwater remain as frustrated, angry, and confused as ever simply because there doesn’t seem to be any reason behind what she did. And I think it’s that vacuum of logic that makes this whole incident strike a little deeper as a result.

So to Nash, Nikita, Marvin and Bonnie…you are missed and you will continue to be missed. And every time I walk past Bonnie’s office on the way to mine I still think about her smile, her charm, and her relentless positive attitude with which she approached every aspect of her job. I do hope their families can sleep a little easier, and if nothing else all this serves as yet another reminder to me to give my wife and two little boys just one more hug before heading out the door in the morning.

Where the Hearth Is

Where the hearth is

One of my fondest memories from childhood is that of making fires in our living room fireplace. My dad would get a big fire going at the drop of a hat, and we would burn all sorts of wood in there: old fence boards, scrap lumber, logs from felled trees, and even trash. Yes, as weird as it might sound, my dad often used the fireplace as a sort of homebrew incinerator and it was not uncommon on a cold day to find the wood in our fireplace augmented by discarded papers, used plastic bottles, or anything else that might otherwise find its way to the landfill. I think this tendency came from the days when my family used to live in Minnesota where, as I understand, it was fairly common for residents to dispose of trash by burning it in their yard. Or maybe it was just my dad. Either way, when I was a kid I figured this sort of thing was normal. Then again, my family also rode unicycles in parades so I might not have had the most typical childhood :)

When my wife and I bought our house nearly eight years ago I was delighted that we found one with a fireplace and for a while both of us enjoyed burning fires during many cold, and even not-so-cold, days throughout the winter months. Once we had kids we kind of got out of the habit because they required a lot more of our attention, and the last few winters here haven’t really been cold enough to warrant a blazing fire. A few days maybe, but the times when we had an opportunity to make a fire never really lined up with days that were cold enough to do so.

It was with almost giddy excitement, then, that on a chilly morning in January 2017 after a fresh snowfall which resulted in OSU and all public schools being closed I rushed outside to gather a big load of wood from out back and make a big ol’ fire just like we used to. I started it in the morning and we kept it fed throughout the day, and my boys (ages 5 and 3) were thrilled at the prospect of having the fireplace lit up all day. In what might have been a bit of longing for my own homeland of central Minnesota, my wife and I got out all their snow-based storybooks and huddled up by the fire to read about snowmen, sledding, and a perennial favorite, a hedgehog who ends up wearing a hat.

This being Oklahoma the show and cold weather did not last long and the next day temps were in the mid-30’s, and the day after that one would be hard-pressed to find any evidence that it had snowed at all. To capture a bit of the day I took this shot after the kids were in bed with my D750, 50mm lens, and a tripod. I shot it at f/5.6 to get the image nice and sharp while getting a bit of background blur, and used a 10-second exposure to get some flames and sparks too. This was one of about ten shots I took and while some had more flames and others more sparks, I liked the cozy feeling of this particular photo the best. I’m not sure when another day will come around that we can build a fire, but I’m glad we had the chance to do it and my kiddos got to help out a little bit too. Who knows…maybe one day they will get to do the same thing in houses of their own. Just hopefully with wood and not trash :)

Whither

Whither

One of my favorite types of picture to take in the last few months has been close-ups of flowers, thanks to my +10 and +4 filters, but the trouble with shooting photos like that in the winter months is the relative lack of color and greenery. Such was the case when I took my camera out on a mini photo-taking expedition (read: a five-minute walk out in the cold) one afternoon in late December. I was determined to find a photo opportunity despite the relative lack of color and interesting subjects, and it wasn’t too long before I came across this wilted yellow flower.

The first few shots I took were from almost straight above, but the more I looked at these the less interesting they became. They didn’t have any depth or character to them, and the image of a wilted flower from above just wasn’t all that compelling. I soon knelt down and shot this from the side, intentionally composing the picture with another flower behind and to the left, and then it was a matter of which exposure settings to use. I have long since realized that my favorite filter is the +4 (I save the +10 for rare situations where I need to get reeeealy close to my subject) and I like the way it lets me hone in on a subject without getting too crazy, while also having a nice degree of control over depth of field. For this image I used the +4 filter on my 50mm lens at an aperture of f/4, and focused on the center part of the flower to get it nice and sharp. It worked pretty well except for one thing: the foremost wilted petals are not in focus. A quick check of my LCD screen on location would have told me as such and I could have easily stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8 and gotten almost exactly the same image without the blurry yellow petals…but alas, that’s how things go when you’re taking pictures. You always realize the one thing you could have done to kick your image up to 11 after you’re already finished. Well, maybe not always, but sometimes it feels that way. And in those situations it’s best to learn from your mistakes, enjoy the pictures you got, and promise yourself you’ll do better next time.

I mentioned at the top of this post that when I set out to take a picture I didn’t think there was much in the way of natural photo opportunities available, and one thing I have learned over the years is that it’s often these types of situations when my mind tends to get a little more creative. If ample photogenic situations present themselves readily in a given setting, such as on a walk through a park on a summer afternoon, I tend to find myself shutting down and retreating to a place of mental incapacitation. If, as the saying goes, everything is a good photo opportunity then nothing is. Or so my mind tells me from time to time. So ironically I have found that in situations where I have to work harder and look closer for pictures, it’s those times when I find myself seeing things I would not normally notice. It’s a fun experiment to try and I recommend it the next time you think you are in a situation with nothing interesting to photograph. Grab your camera anyway, look closer at the world around you, and see what you can find :)

Soldering Onward

Soldering Onward

The idea for this picture came to me when I was showing my soldering gun to my two boys recently, and letting them see how the solder melts and drips when exposed to a heat source but soon afterwards becomes cool to the touch and quite strong. To illustrate this I brought out a piece of 1/4″ plywood I had lying around and let them watch as I dripped some bits of solder on to it, which they thought was pretty neat. As we sat there on the floor of our kitchen I realized that the drips of solder might make for an interesting picture so the next morning I got out the same board and a few balls of solder that were still left, put them on the counter with some task lighting shining down (this was about 5:45am, long before my wife and kids were awake), and busted out the ol’ D750, 50mm lens, and set of close-up filters. The result, what you see here, is not really all that cool and a big part of me didn’t even want to post it here because it’s kind of a blurry mess but I figured I would anyway because it fits with the spirit of Weekly Fifty which is all about getting out there and taking pictures, trying new things, and not letting my camera collect dust on a shelf.

The main issue I have with this image is that I had to get super close to the solder drops, which meant I had to use a +10 and +4 filter, which then meant that I had to use a wide enough aperture to get any decently-large depth of field…but I was shooting handheld so all this was quite challenging. On a tripod in a more controlled environment I could have used a self-timer along with a small aperture and lower ISO and not worried about shutter speed at all, but as it stands this picture was taken at f/9.5, ISO 2000, at 1/125 second to minimize handheld blur. Even then the depth of field was, as you can see, about 1/8 inch and I would really have liked to have it be much wider but a smaller aperture would have meant a slower shutter or higher ISO–neither of which was something I wanted to do.

In my mind this picture is less about the photo itself but more about the process required to get it, and someday it would be fun to revisit this with a lot more control over the elements. Until then I’m going to keep shooting away, hopefully trying new things and keeping my camera off the shelf, and see what happens :)

At the Knee

At the knees

Working on a college campus is nice for so many reasons, and one of my favorites is how things always seem to be in a state of flux. Visit a campus at any time of the year and things are likely to be quite different from the previous time you were there. In the fall the whole place is buzzing with excitement and anticipation; in the spring students are anxious and eager for graduation; in the summer you are likely to hear sounds of marching bands practicing, sports teams playing, or the steady rhythm and honking of construction equipment moving earth and pounding steel. However one of the most interesting periods is that time when fall semester ends but spring semester has not yet begun. Traffic is light, students are sparse, and staff are busy finalizing documents and preparing for spring while professors huddle in their offices trying to finish up grades or hammer out the finishing touches on a research paper.

It was during that time when I went out on a chilly afternoon with my D750 + 50mm lens combination for (you guessed it!) a quick walk around Theta Pond, determined to get a few pictures of…something. I wasn’t quite sure really, but given that the sky was overcast and the students were gone I thought I might as well try and get a picture just to keep the creative juices flowing. I came back with several, which may or may not show up here on the blog in the coming weeks, but one stood out to me for a reason that I did not expect. It was two cypress knees nestled in a bed of brown needles, and it seemed very much like two people offering comfort to one another on this chilly December day. Something about the image really hit home but I was also bothered by the composition since I was not quite happy with the background and, since I shot the original at f/1.8, the two roots which formed the subject of the picture were not in focus due to a crazy shallow depth of field. In short the photo was good, but a few steps away from one that I really liked.

To remedy the situation I grabbed my buddy who works down the hall and the two of us went back to Theta Pond with the sole purpose of taking a picture of the cypress knees, but done properly. I knew exactly what I had in mind and had a much better sense of the exposure settings I would need, and the result is what you see here. To me it looks like a scene of sorrow, and while I don’t intend to bring anyone down by reading this, that’s just how it comes across to me. It’s a wife being comforted by her husband, with a small crowd of mourners and sympathizers (most likely friends and family) in the background who are there to offer support but know that this couple needs a minute to themselves. I don’t know why the couple is sad, and I’m not sure if they are looking towards the camera or away from it, but I like the intimacy of the picture and the sense of comfort it conveys. Well, to me anyway, but your own interpretation might vary.

I wavered a long time between posting the f/2.8 and f/4 versions of this photo but eventually settled on the former. This meant that there is just a slightly smaller depth of field than I would prefer, and as a result the foremost part of the shorter root is not quite in focus, but the tradeoff is a higher degree of background blur which helps separate the subjects from everything else. Often I find myself taking pictures of something that looks fun, interesting, or even just a bit artsy but this particular image meant something (or illustrated something) that was a bit more than just a pretty-looking picture of nature. I don’t know if it does the same for you, but I hope you at least enjoy it :)

Camera Dads

This isn’t a traditional Weekly Fifty post, but kind of a public service announcement letting you know about a new show I’m doing with my brother Phil. (Perhaps you could say it’s an advertisement? Except I’m not selling anything!) It’s a monthly video, also available as an audio podcast, where he and I talk about a particular camera-related topic. Both of us are fathers, and both of us enjoy photography, so we thought we would put our heads together and do a show involving both of these elements of our lives:

Camera Dads

One thing we want to do is make input from the community a part of our show, and on the right-hand side of the website you’ll see the topic that we are going to discuss on our next show along with a way for you to provide input. If you have anything you’d like to say, or questions to ask, about the upcoming topic we’d love to hear from you! And of course if you’d like to leave us a comment on the current show we always welcome those too.

Thank you!

Colors of the Season

Colors of the Season

I shot this photo after work in November 2016 while walking to my car (not my bike. it was chilly that day!) and happened to see a patch of colorful leaves on the ground which looked like it could make for a halfway decent photo opportunity. And really, that’s about all this is. It’s a picture I would consider not especially good, but halfway decent. I like it but wouldn’t frame it, and I think it’s OK but could be better. So why am I posting it here on Weekly Fifty? Because this picture represents what my blog is all about: growth, progress, and forcing me to keep taking pictures even if I don’t think they will be all that noteworthy.

However…

The more I look at this image the more I actually do think it bears a little closer examination especially due to the shallow depth of field which resulted from shooting a close subject (the curled leaf in the center) at a wide aperture of f/1.8. As I have said repeatedly here on this blog I generally don’t like shooting wide open especially with close subjects because the depth of field goes from an interesting compositional choice to a blurry distraction, but I actually think it works quite well here for one reason: it creates a sense of motion. Even though there was virtually no wind when I took the picture, the blurred foreground and background combined with the bent and twisted nature of the various leaves and grasses imparts a sense of kinetic energy into the picture which I kind of like. Then again, perhaps this is all just in my mind and I’m imagining something where nothing actually exists, but when I look at the picture now it’s hard for me to not envision leaves actually swirling around like you might see on a crisp autumn day.