Skylight

Skylight

I promise this wasn’t processed through some type of Instagram-style photo filter. The sky really did look like this on the morning of January 10, 2019. When I pulled out of my driveway on my bike I could see that the sunrise was, for whatever atmospheric reasons cause these sorts of conditions, going to be especially rich and beautiful. As I rode past the vacant lot just south of my house I paused to take a few shots but they didn’t really do a great job of capturing the scene, especially with my D7100 and 50mm lens. So on I went until I got to the parking lot behind Hobby Lobby with an empty tree-filled field just to the southwest. I looked behind me to the east and it looked like the sky was positively blazing.

The tricky thing about photographing sunrises and sunsets is that it’s almost impossible to get the vision in real life to translate to a digital facsimile. Colors are never as vivid, and vistas are never as scenic, as when you see them in person with your own two eyes. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try though, and even though I only had my 50mm lens I figured I would do what I could to make the most of the situation. I shot a couple images with trees in the foreground but then realized that eliminating them altogether might result in a more interesting image, even though a picture of the sky alone kind of removes the possibility of context. And you know how much I emphasize context… :)

To capture the richness of the colors I underesposed the image by two full stops, and here’s what the RAW file looked like as a result:

Even in this picture the clouds are such a deep red that it’s almost difficult to believe unless you saw it with your own eyes. I didn’t want to lose those colors but I did want to punch up the sky just a bit to make the final image more accurately represent what I actually saw. I promise I didn’t adjust the saturation levels at all, and most of the editing was just adjusting the brightness of the dark areas as well as a bit of cropping on the bottom.

A few minutes later, as I turned to look behind me while waiting for a stoplight to change from red to green, I saw that the scene was almost entirely gone. Instead of a rich amber glow the sky was now a much more normal shade of blue and orange, wholly unremarkable. It’s amazing how quickly some photographic moments pass, and I’m glad I was able to capture just a bit of this one while I had the chance.

Optimist

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This was a fun picture to take partially because of the bit of challenge it presented, but also because it was just a really enjoyable day to be out at the lake with my camera. As my wife and I were walking around the lake here in town while our boys rode their bikes, I paused a few times to get some pictures just like this with various brown plants and leaves as subjects. The weather conditions were kind of unique in that there was virtually no detectable wind whatsoever, and no clouds in the sky, combined with temps in the 40’s or 50’s which made for really fun photo conditions. On the south side of the lake I got a couple shots like this but with grass instead of…whatever this thing is…and while they worked out OK the lighting wasn’t that great and the subjects were a bit unclear. I was shooting with my Fuji X100F so it was difficult to isolate my subject in the frame, but when we got to the south side of the lake and came across this scene I realized that it was just what I was looking for.

I knew I wanted this withered flower to be right in the center of the shot as opposed to on either side, but two big questions ran through my mind:

  1. What aperture should I use?
  2. Where should I place the horizon?

I really wanted the background to be blurred out but nevertheless discernible, but I wanted the subject to be nice and sharp as well. Shooting subjects close-up at f/2 is not exactly the X100F’s forte because that lens gets pretty soft in those specific conditions. F/4 didn’t quite give me the background blur I was aiming for, so I settled on f/2.8 even though the subject is a bit fuzzy around the edges. It’s a compromise I’m quite happy with.

As for the horizon, I wasn’t really sure what to do so I shot several different versions of this picture. Some were like this, some had the ball (or whatever you want to call it) right in the middle of the horizon, and some had it much lower. I ended up liking this one the best but not for any specific reason that I can articulate. It just looks the most interesting to me. I really liked that the lack of wind resulted in a glassy smooth lake surface, and even though this picture is awash with blue tones I hope it feels at least a little warm and inviting because that’s certainly how it felt on this particular day :)

Christmas Train

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The local Botanic Garden here in Stillwater often has family events throughout the year, and one week before Christmas last year they invited the public to come out for snacks, crafts, and a bit of a bonfire as well. They recently installed a model train on the premises which runs a few times each month, and because we knew they would have it operating during their Christmas event I made sure to bring my Fuji X100F and little Gorillapod with so I could try a few long-exposure shots and see what happened.

I set up my camera and tripod on one side of the train display while our kids ran around looking at the lights and trying to keep up with the trains as they completed their circuits around the tracks. My goal was to catch the trains in motion but also have a shallow depth of field to create a sense of foreground and background, which meant I had to shoot at f/2.8 with an ISO value of 200. This left me with a 2.5-second shutter speed in order to get the right exposure, though in hindsight I could have activated the built-in ND filter and gotten about seven seconds or possibly even more. I manually focused on the rocks because I wanted them to be nice and sharp, and I wasn’t too worried about the trains not being super well focused because I knew they would end up looking like blurry streaks anyway.

After getting one or two shots that I wasn’t quite happy with, I realized that I could use the burst mode on my camera to get five photos in succession and then just pick the one I liked the most. This resulted in several mediocre images but a couple ones that I really like, especially the one posted here. I always like the sense of motion that light trails give a shot, and it was neat to hear my oldest son ask me how I got the trains to move so fast. In reality they were chugging along kind of slow, but the motion trails here make them look like some kind of supersonic bullet trains.

After spending just a few minutes here I put the camera away and joined my wife and my boys at the hot chocolate station where we also met up with some friends who happened to be at the same event. It was a clear starry sky on a crisp December night, and having this photo is a nice way to remember it all.

Arcadia

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To those of you who shoot film…I salute you.

I took this photo this when my wife and I were on a walk at Arcadia Lake just northeast of Oklahoma City, and as I knelt down on this leaf-strewn path I thought about my buddy Ryan who has taken some absolutely breathtaking images similar to this, but with a lot more mountains and water, using nothing but a light meter, some math, and a film camera. I had no such tools at my disposal and instead went with a decidedly modern approach: I shot this with my Fuji X100F which, despite looking kind of like an old-school film camera, is all ones and zeros on the inside. And as such I let the camera take care of all the heavy lifting. I was using Auto ISO with a minimum shutter of 1/125 and shot the first version of this at f/4 which, thanks to the ability to see the final image on the LCD screen on the back of the camera, I realized had a depth-of-field that was much too shallow. So I dialed in an aperture of f/8, focused on the tree  halfway down the path, and took the shot you see here.

Then when I got back to my computer I used Lightroom to edit the RAW file to my taste. The entire process was digital from start to finish, and while I’m certainly happy with the results I wonder what I would think if had shot this on film. Even something as simple as nailing the exposure would have been difficult because of the mix of highlights and shadows, and I almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten the composition to look how I wanted with the green mossy rock slightly out of focus in the foreground and horizon neatly bisecting the image just above the lower third.

Film shooters…you have a tricky job and I appreciate the work that goes into capturing images without a digital safety net.

Boom Box

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What a blast from the past this was! I haven’t seen a stereo like this in years, so you can imagine my surprise when I was biking home from work and saw this old thing lying by the side of the road about a hundred yards west of a drainage ditch. It practically screams 1997 with a CD player, tape deck, analog radio tuner, and even an FM antenna wrapped around the handle. Just seeing this thing brought up all kinds of memories from high school and sitting in my basement listening to music while playing Zelda: Link’s Awakening on my Game Boy.

When I first biked past it was cold and the sun was rapidly setting, so I made a mental note to bring my camera and get a picture of this music machine on the way to work the following day.I figured my Fuji X100F would be perfect for the picture though I thought about bringing one of my DSLRs, but the picture I was envisioning was really better suited to the lens on the Fuji as opposed to any of the lenses I have for my Nikons. I knew I wanted to get a shot of the stereo and some of the surrounding environment, and the Fuji along with my Gorillapod proved to be just the ticket.The next morning the boom box was still there so I parked my bike on the boulevard, got out the camera and tripod, and took a few minutes for indulging in my photography.

To get a really clean image I set the ISO to 200 (I normally use auto-ISO, max 6400 with minimum shutter speed of 1/125) and opened the aperture up to f/2.0, but also activated the ND filter so I could get a longer exposure of 1/2 second. I was hoping to get some light trails from passing vehicles and when I was satisfied that I got the image I was hoping for I packed up, pulled my gloves back on, and went on my way to work.However, while I was looking through the photos I noticed something that I did not expect. The image I envisioned, that of the stereo in the grass with car headlights in the background, was decent but it paled in comparison to the image I ended up selecting for this week. See for yourself:

Do you notice the difference? While the second shot does indeed have a mark of light on the left side, the entire picture feels dull and lifeless compared to the one at the top of the page. Unbeknownst to me, I had inadvertently taken a picture (that I ended up using) with an oncoming car behind me whose headlights were casting a really nice yellow glow on to the stereo. It gives the subject a sense of life and vibrancy that’s totally missing from the second image, and really goes to show how much lighting can impact the overall results of a photograph.

On my way home later that day the boom box was gone, perhaps picked up by a passer-by or maybe just thrown into the trash. Either way I’m glad I was able to capture it for one moment as a fun trip down memory lane.

Luminescence

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Here’s an interesting case of finding a photo opportunity in a somewhat unexpected scenario. I was out for a short walk around Theta Pond in the afternoon when I came across this…uh…plant? I don’t know what it is, but there’s a lot of them around the pond here at OSU and I’m no botanist as you probably know by now. Anyway, the scene was altogether unremarkable, except for one interesting twist: the sun was already getting low on the horizon which made for a unique mix of colors and light.

Normally when I’m taking pictures I tend to put myself between the light source and my subject, but in this case I did the opposite. By positioning the subject (i.e. this withering, brown, and mostly unremarkable leaf) between my camera the the light source (i.e. the sun) it created a neat effect where it almost seems like the leaf is glowing. I didn’t think about this at first, mind you, and it was only after a few minutes of playing around with different compositions that I stumbled across this particular angle and figured I would give it a try.

The first thing I did was put my camera (in this case, my Fuji X100F) in RAW instead of JPG because I figured I would need the leeway when editing. Then I had to figure out what to shoot and how to shoot it. I realized that if I got down low, shot at f/2.8, and tried to compose the shot in such a way that there would be a bit of foreground as well as background, it might look interesting. I put the leaf slightly off center and I think the end result works quite well. To give you an idea of what I was working with I returned a few hours later on my way home from work and took a picture after the sun had gone down a bit farther. You can see it below, and the leaves in the shot above are circled in red.

Pretty boring, eh? I guess it just goes to show how much of a difference lighting can make when taking photos. And I would challenge you to keep this in mind as well, especially at times of the year such as winter (for those of us in the northern hemisphere, that is) when the sun is often much lower on the horizon compared to the summer months. You might find that otherwise ordinary scenes become transformed into rich photographic opportunities.

Homemade

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I have taught a class called Information Technology Project Management at Oklahoma State University for the past four and a half years and it really is one of the standout parts of my job. While I do miss teaching high school, which I did in Minnesota for several years, I have really come to appreciate working at a university and also teaching college-age students. Many of them in my class are near graduation and they are getting ready to move away, start careers, or take a year off to just go see the world. It’s a fun opportunity to be able to teach them and each semester I cap off my class with a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies.

I always like to involve my kids in this process and usually make their consuming of said cookies contingent on their willingness to pitch in with the creation process. Normally I would just stand near them, hold my camera at eye level, and take a photo but this time I wanted to try something a bit different. I stood on a chair, held my Fuji X100F out at arm’s length, set the aperture to f/2.8, and fired off a few shots from directly above. I rather like the result even though I wasn’t entirely sure where to focus, and as such my son’s head on the left is a bit blurry but I do think it works to draw the viewer’s attention to the mixing bowl and other baking implements.

As I look back at photos of my kids that my wife and I have taken over the past seven years the ones that seem to have the most impact are the ones that also convey a sense of time, place, and activity. A headshot is great but if that headshot can be part of a larger story that’s even better, and I think that’s one reason I’m happy with this picture. I like that both boys are intently staring at the mixer, I like that there’s a bit of a mess on the counter, and I like that it clearly tells a story of something that’s happening. Plus I like that it involves homemade chocolate chip cookies :)

Towering

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If last week’s post was about the end of one year, this week’s image is about the beginning of a new one. It’s a bit ironic though, since I shot this in November 2018 and what you’re seeing here isn’t the beginning of anything. In fact it’s the last gasp of light and life from our Chinese Pistache tree in our back yard, and the very next day after I took this photo the scene here was one of dull, lifeless brown. Still, the picture represents renewal for me despite what is actually happening in it, and I like to think that with the onset of another trip around the sun it’s pictures like this that are going to mean something a little more.

So a bit of background here. It was a chilly Saturday morning and I was eating breakfast with my kids while my wife slept (I like to let her sleep in on the weekend if possible) and noticed the sun peeking over our fence. Our trees had been losing their leaves and the green grass was riddled with spots of yellow and orange, and the early morning sun cast an almost otherworldly glow on the whole scene that was accentuated even further bit near-frozen dewdrops on nearly every surface. I wondered if it would even be possible to capture some of the scene with my camera but knew I only had a few minutes to try, so I grabbed my trusty Nikon D7100, popped on my 50mm lens, and set out to see what I could get.

One of the nice benefits of a newer camera like my D750 (which, as a model released in late 2014, isn’t even all that new anymore) is a tilting rear screen which makes composing low or high shots in Live View a lot easier. My D7100 doesn’t have any such feature so I simply held it as low to the ground as I could, focused as best as I was able to given the constraints of the situation and the fact that I was working in Live View as opposed to the optical viewfinder, and fired off a handful of shots hoping one of them would turn out. The trickiest part was finding a scene to shoot, which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I didn’t want just a generic image of grass and leaves; I needed a focal point to draw in the viewer and serve as the subject of the image. After moving around a bit I found it in this leaf that you see above, which was poking upwards amidst the green grass and morning dew.

I shot this at f/2.8 instead of f/1.8 to give myself just a bit of leeway in terms of overall depth of field, and I think my favorite part is the bokeh ball just to the right of the pair of yellow leaves. It has the rather unique and, altogether unplanned on my part, property of being divided into three sections because of the way the light is altered by some grass. I didn’t notice that at the time I took this shot but realized, as I was looking through the pictures afterwards, that I rather liked that little bit and thought that it served as kind of an interesting added touch to the image.

So here’s to a happy, healthy, prosperous, and joyful 2019. Today is a day, and this year is a year, full of possibilities. So let’s go exploring.

Wonderland

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To close out 2018 I thought I’d share this picture that I took in November on a rather unusually snowy morning here in Oklahoma. Where as the classic Christmas tune speaks of walking in a Winter Wonderland, we don’t usually get scenes like that down here and instead it’s more common to have temps in the 40’s with a smattering of snow every now and then. It’s a welcome sight, then, to wake up to snowfall and chilly temps even if it’s only temporary, and as such I figured it would make an appropriate image for the time of year as well as the Christmas season.

Most of the year I don’t really post pictures that have much in common with the dates on which they are published, usually because I schedule posts many weeks in advance and don’t have any kind of grand master plan behind the photos I take and share. As the year winds down though I do like to take a minute and reflect on things, if you will, and that sentiment is kind of echoed in this image. In some ways 2018 was a difficult one and while I’m not going to get into the details here, suffice it to say that as the year is drawn to a close I find myself really taking to heart the old adage of live each day to the fullest. Not in the sense that I have to do extreme skydiving or run triathlons or anything like that, but that partly because of some losses my family and friends have endured this year I really have made more of an effort to use my time more intentionally. Some would say wisely, but I would say that I just hope I’m not being lazy or sitting around and waiting for things to happen and instead trying to make sure the people in my life know I love them and that I’m doing things that matter.

One of my favorite songs of all time is Heart’s Cry by Steven Curtis Chapman, and there’s a line in it that goes like this:

This is my heart’s cry – to stand before the Father one day and hear Him say well done – this is my heart’s cry.

We don’t have a lot of time on this earth, and when I finally meet my maker I hope to stand before Him and know that I did well with the time He gave me. That I was a good father, a good husband, and a good friend. That we trained up our children in the way they should go, such that as they grow old they will not depart from Him. The scene in this week’s image, that of a path going into the distance on a snowy morning, to me represents both the mistakes of the past and the promise of the future, and while the way might be blurry at times we are never far from the love of Christ. The same Christ whose birth, and life, and death, and resurrection, we celebrate at Christmas and throughout the year.

So while this picture represents the end of one year it also, hopefully, shows the beginning of a new one as well. And while we can’t ever be sure of what the future will hold, we can do our best with the time we have right this very moment. So do what you can to make this day count.

As a bit of a postscript, I will say that my sister lost her three-year battle with breast cancer this past March. You can view my eulogy for her at the link below, and if you or anyone you might know would find a sense of comfort in the message please feel free to share it.

 

Butterfly Effect

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Lately I’ve been return to my roots a bit, photographically speaking, and doing a bit more shooting with my D7100 + 50mm lens and honestly, it’s been really really nice. As much as I like my Fuji X100F (and you know I like that camera!) there’s something about going back to where it all started and using my crop-sensor camera and the first lens I ever bought. The very same lens, in fact, that got me to start this Weekly Fifty blog way back in the spring of 2013.

When one of my friends from work suggested I bring my camera to get a picture of some of the monarch butterflies that were alighting on the flowers in the garden in front of the Student Union, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get a classic 50mm shot. Due to their sheer size these butterflies make good photography subjects since you don’t have get in super duper close like you might with smaller creatures. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get a shot like this one earlier in the year due to the time of day and different lighting conditions, but I figured I would at least be able to capture something interesting and colorful nonetheless.

After a few shots at f/4 I decided to go all-in and leave my aperture firmly at f/1.8 because…well, why not. Depth of field at f/1.8 is so unwieldy I knew I would likely get shots that were slightly out of focus, but I really wanted to focus the viewer’s attention firmly on any butterflies I was photographing which called for a super wide aperture despite the issues that situation sometimes causes. I got plenty of images I liked, and sure enough several were front- or back-focused, but this one was one of my favorites because of all the color as well as the interesting foreground element. Which was, I might add, an intentional compositional choice on my part. I specifically shot this with those two branches in between my camera and the butterfly to create a sense of depth and perspective that just wasn’t present in most of my other pictures. It turned out pretty well focused too, and even zoomed in all the way you’ll notice that the butterfly is nice and sharp right where it counts.