Eruption

Eruption

I didn’t really know what to expect when I shot this, and I guess that kind of makes sense because I didn’t even plan on taking this picture at all in the first place. This was on a Sunday afternoon in January when, oddly, we were caught in a bit of a spring rain as opposed to winter snow. My wife was running a few errands and I had just returned home from the hardware store with our kids when they asked if they could ride their bikes around in the rain. Even though it was a bit chilly I told them to go right ahead since, let’s be honest, there’s few things more fun when you’re a kid than tearing through puddles on a bike :)

I did some work in the garage as they were zooming around and soon noticed a steady drip-drip-drip near the corner of the driveway where a bit of water was falling from the gutters overhead. I ran in to get my camera to see if I could capture one of the drops as it hit the tiny pool of water gathered below the gutter, and ended up with what you see here. It’s an interesting image but has some technical issues that are difficult for me to overlook, mainly the prominent back-focusing and the fact that I ended up using a slightly higher ISO than I’m normally comfortable with on my D7100. But it served as an interesting proof-of-concept and is something I’d like to explore a bit more in the future.

To get this shot on my D7100 I held it low to the ground and flipped over to Live View in order to get it focused properly. I could have used the optical viewfinder but didn’t feel like laying down on the soaking ground, and Live View turned out to work just fine especially considering that I’m a back-button focuser anyway :) I put my camera in Continuous High Speed mode and held the shutter down every time a drop was about to hit, which fired off a half-dozen pictures before filling the painfully small buffer on the camera. Doing all this in Live View was painfully slow so eventually I just used Live View to nail focus and then switched it off to fire off my bursts of shots. That’s probably what caused the focusing on this particular picture to be off by just a bit, and even though I wish I could have gotten a slightly clearer image I guess I don’t mind all that much and it’ll help me to work just a bit harder next time to make sure I really get things right.

Aftermath

Aftermath

Any idea what’s going on here? Go ahead, take a minute to think about it.

If you’re like me you might have drawn a rather violent conclusion–an explosion of some kind, or perhaps an earthquake or other such disaster. The relatively intact nature of the tree in the foreground as well as the structural integrity of the building in the background seem to point to an isolated incident that only affected a portion of the building, and the sheer level of debris and rubble makes one think of a scene that might have been played out on World News Tonight with an on-location reporter telling stories of conflict from deep inside a war zone.

Or, perhaps, the truth could be something else entirely. Watch what happens when I go back and reverse two key editing choices that I made during postproduction.

Aside from some color adjustments, the key things to note here are the fence in the foreground with the “Danger: Construction Zone” sign as well as one other notable difference: the Permit Parking Only notice affixed to the post. What you’re actually looking at here is the planned demolition of Cordell Hall, a building on the OSU campus that has been slated for removal for quite some time now. I first heard news that this building was going to come down several years ago but it wasn’t until January of 2018 that the process actually began, and from what I’ve heard it will be replaced with a lush green lawn adorned with perhaps a statue or other such ornament to honor one of OSU’s big donors, T. Boone Pickens.

The reason I posted it here on Weekly Fifty is partly because it’s not often I get the chance to take a picture of a building in mid-demolition, but also to demonstrate the power of photography and visual storytelling and the effect that a few simple edits can have on how a viewer interprets an image. I know I’m guilty of drawing conclusions almost immediately when I see pictures posted on social media and even in print, but if I take a little more time to investigate the story behind the image it might not be as strange or shocking as I might think. Some would say that the act of cropping a picture just a bit, or removing an unsightly blemish such as a metered parking sign, is merely an artistic choice and doesn’t impact the image as a whole. I would say that, as photographers, we just need to be careful and be aware of how our edits (and even our initial compositions, as I could have easily just moved to a different position when I shot this instead of cropping it and ended up with the same result) can change how our images are seen and interpreted.

That being said, it sure was fun to see this demolition as it progressed. My wife and I even drove our kids over, parked the car, and just watched as excavators and dump trucks laid waste to this building. It was like the world’s biggest IMAX screen, and I would be lying if I said the kids were the only ones who were enjoying watching it come down :)

Headlong

Headlong

Sometimes it’s fun to let your kids take the lead and see what happens.

I shot this when I was downtown with my wife and kids one warm November afternoon (a phrase that you wouldn’t hear too often back in Minnesota where I was born) on a fact-finding mission to the bike shop to see how much it would cost to repair my bicycle that had developed a pretty bad wobble in the rear wheel. After we dropped the two-wheeler off my wife went to another shop to look at clothes while I took the boys on a short walk just because it was nice out. We were thinking about going to a winter display that the city had set up a few blocks away but with kids it’s more about the journey than the destination, so when they asked if they could take a detour and explore a long space between two buildings I figured…well why not?

I had my D7100 with me and didn’t really plan on spending any significant time taking pictures, but it never hurts to be prepared. As the kids cautiously made their way into the narrow corridor I took out my camera and kind of crouched down close to the ground to follow them, almost like I was waddling like a duck. It only took a few seconds for them to throw caution to the wind and just run at full tilt down the passageway to the light on the other side, at which point they reversed course and came right back at me kicking leaves and debris up on all sides. It was a fun moment of serendipity and would have never happened had I insisted that they stay on the sidewalk :)

This photo also illustrates a big reason why I use auto-ISO in just about every shooting situation. The ISO performance of modern cameras is so good that, in my opinion, it’s just not worth worrying about anymore. I almost always use a minimum shutter speed of 1/160 (or faster) so I’m confident I will get as little motion blur as possible, which means all I need to do is set the aperture on my camera in order to get the right depth of field. As I pulled out my camera in is concrete-and-brick hallway I quickly dialed in an aperture of f/4 and let my camera take care of ISO and shutter speed, and the results speak for themselves. And for the record there are still instances when I like to take full manual control over my exposure settings, but honestly most of the time I just like to get on with my day, and get back to playing with my kids, rather than fiddling with buttons and dials on my camera.

Subdued

Subdued

This picture is kind of a cop-out, because it’s not exactly difficult to get. Sort of. I mean, it’s the Low Library on the OSU campus and anyone can walk by and snap a photo of it any time they want, so why bother using as this week’s photo here on Weekly Fifty? Because even though this is, by most accounts, a relatively common and simple picture there were some thing that made it unique such that I felt like it deserved a spot here on the blog.

I shot this on a foggy morning right before work when I had my camera with me and noticed the particular way in which the library and its well-lit interior stood in stark contrast to the dull gray sky and otherwise rather bland surroundings. I’d guess that in any given year we have maybe five to ten morning that are just thick with low-lying clouds, and often the light just doesn’t quite work out to get any type of interesting image before sunrise, so to get the library looking like this actually is somewhat different from the norm. Also there are no students present in the foreground, or really any people in the picture at all, which as anyone who has ever been to OSU will tell you is not all that common. Finally the uniform dull orange of the grass in the foreground, coupled with the gray overcast sky, gave the entire composition a feeling of cool melancholy that I found to be strangely compelling.

The editing was also a bit different for me, since I normally like a little more color and saturation in my images. Here I actually reduced the overall saturation just a bit and added a twinge more vignette than I usually do, because it really felt like it suited the mood of the photo. And maybe that’s the big takeaway for me here: this picture isn’t about creating art or a visually pleasing image per se, but more about capturing a mood. I’m not sure how well I actually succeeded, but if nothing else I hope it helps you the viewer think of an early morning with a bit of a slow pace–a hush or a held breath before the start of a busy day.

Cypress Squirrel

Snack

I gotta say, these little squirrels are tricky! They’re all over the place here at OSU and sometimes they literally let you walk right up to them without moving an inch. But then other times they scurry away at the first sign of a human! It’s like Forrest Gump said, you never know what you’re gonna get. That was certainly the case here, especially since I wasn’t actually trying to get a picture of a squirrel at all. I saw this little guy sitting on a cypress knee munching on some kind of nut or acorn, and had one of those “I can’t believe I might get this shot” moments. Every element was lining up perfectly: I had my camera, the light was good, the squirrel was kind of unaware of my presence, and…then I remembered I had my 50mm lens instead of something much better suited for this type of picture. But heeding Gump’s Words of Wisdom I went ahead and fired off a few shots (at f/1.8 to get a shallow depth of field even though I risked getting an out-of-focus rodent) and hoped for the best.

I wasn’t all that optimistic for the picture until I loaded it up into Lightroom and found that I could get away with cropping it quite a bit and still have a decent picture. That’s the problem with a 50mm lens: it’s just not that good for shooting long-distance shooting images of, say, a squirrel on a wooden stalagmite. But the nice thing about using it on a 24mp camera is that you can crop in quite a bit and still have plenty of sharpness and detail, provided you get your settings right and don’t miss focus. Such was the case here and even though a longer lens would have helped isolate the squirrel from the background I think I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

In Season

Speckle

Sometimes I read posts on various internet forums (or is it foræ? fora? I dunno) wherein people bemoan the fact that there just isn’t anything interesting to photograph where they live and work. And to be honest I feel the same way at times, and I’ve been known to go for a walk, camera in hand, and return with nary a photo to show for my effort. It’s a common rut in which to be stuck with no easy way out, and that’s what I was feeling on the day I took this particular photo of some rather uninteresting leaves on what was quite a nondescript tree in the middle of the OSU campus.

I wasn’t really intending to capture this specific image, but as I walked around and noticed the vibrant colors of fall all around me I kept my eye out for a way in which I could photograph what I thought was the essence of the season. While the photo itself was kind of a happy accident, once I saw these leaves on a tree I did make some intentional compositional decisions in order to get it to look just how I wanted. Shooting with a 50mm lens doesn’t really let you get the kind of wide perspective that’s really necessary for a sweeping vista with rich colorful trees, so I took the opposite approach and tried for just a couple leaves instead. I didn’t use a close-up filter to get this shot, and instead tried to get as close as I could while also shooting wide open to get the brilliant football-shaped bokeh balls in the background.

In the end I’m not sure if this photo quite works or not. On a larger screen like a desktop monitor or even a laptop I think it’s fine, but as I was playing around with it in Lightroom I zoomed out so it would be about the size of a mobile phone screen at which point it looked more like a muddy yellow mess than a collection of fall leaves. So your interpretation of this photo might be totally different depending on how you view it, which is something that I need to keep in mind more often nowadays as it’s becoming increasingly common to view images on smaller screens.

Remembrance

Remembrance

I don’t usually get too symbolic here on Weekly Fifty, and I don’t make it a habit of scheduling the photos in order to coincide with specific times of the year, which is why it’s the first post of 2018 and you’re seeing a field full of flags. I thought about using a post that would serve as a more symbolic way of ringing in the new year, but then I realized I would just post the next photo in my list and let the interpretive chips fall where they may. Hence this week’s image of a bunch of flags on January 3.

There is, as you might have guessed, a great deal of symbolism in the flags themselves even though it has little to do with this particular day. These were placed on the OSU Library Lawn in observance of Veteran’s Day in order to honor the lives of the nearly 7,000 soldiers who have died since the United States started fighting the War on Terror. As my friend Ryan pointed out it might have been more appropriate to display these at Memorial Day instead, but…well, it is what it is. I felt a little strange taking pictures of these flags because this scene is one of remembrance and contemplation, and getting out my DSLR to snap some photos just felt kind of cheap. However, as I walked around on a chilly November afternoon looking at the flags and examining the pages of two large volumes containing the names of all the soldiers, I noticed several other people taking photos, kneeling to place memorabilia, and pausing to consider the meaning of the scene. I also saw plenty of passers-by who went about their business. In short, everyone was free to interpret, photograph, and interact with this scene however he or she saw fit. For me that involved my camera.

One tricky part of photographing a scene like this with a 50mm lens is that you just don’t have a very wide field of view. This image cuts the sides off the flags which essentially omits hundreds of them from the scene altogether, which is a direct result of the 50mm lens as opposed to something wider like a 35 or 28. In fact, I saw photos on Instagram and Facebook of this same scene–photos that were taken with iPhones and pocket cameras–that I thought were far superior to this in terms of composition and overall emotional impact. Here the flags seem cold and distant, and there is literally a wall of separation between me and the subjects. Shooting with a wider lens would have let me get closer to an individual flag while also showing the broader context, but alas, this is Weekly Fifty not Weekly Thirty-Five.

The challenge, then, was how to photograph the flags in a meaningful and respectful way while working within the limitations of my gear. They went in the ground on a Wednesday and I happened to have my D7100 with me, which I quickly realized would not get me the shot I was looking for due to its even more limited field of view because it is a crop-sensor camera. I also knew I wanted a shot without any people in it, so I returned with my full-frame D750 the following morning on my way to work (I bike past this spot almost every day) and climbed up to the terrace in front of the library to get this shot. I actually stood in front of the fountain right where the arrow is pointing in the picture below, with my feet in a bit of water, in order to get the angle of view I wanted.

I believe I shot this at f/4 or f/8 to get the image nice and sharp, and had to boost the shadows while bringing down the highlights in the sky in Lightroom in order to arrive at a finished image that I felt accurately represented the scene. Taking this picture was an exercise in planning, knowing my gear, and understanding some basics about composition and I’m glad I got the opportunity to do it.

I just wish the flags didn’t have to be there at all in the first place.

Yuletide

Yuletide

There’s nothing about this picture that isn’t artificial, and yet, I kind of like it in a weird way. To wit, the various elements include:

• Plastic USB-powered Christmas tree which was given to me by one of my students when I taught at a K-12 school in Minnesota about ten years ago. (Thanks Rachel!)
• Fake Christmas tree in the background
• Artificial lights on the tree in the background
• Even the ornament itself isn’t really what it seems. It’s designed to sit passively on a desk, but my buddy Stacy is literally holding it up in midair so I could take this shot. I cropped his hand out of the photo

So basically this image, which likely conjures up some very real thoughts and feelings about Christmas, is entirely concocted and created by me, the photographer. It’s manipulative in a way, and almost makes me a bit uncomfortable to even post it here, but I am a sucker for bokehlicious backgrounds, so there you go.

I don’t know what any of this says in grander terms, and probably nothing at all, but it did make me think about the ways in which we surround ourselves with man-made materialism at this most holy time of year when our thoughts often shift to the birth of Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. The simple act of taking this picture (f/1.8, 1/180 second, ISO 140 in case you’re interested) gave me pause because it felt like I was trying too hard to create a specific scene that should be a lot more organic and natural. If I were really trying to capture a picture that embodied the spirit of Christmas perhaps I should have looked for a crèche, or a star, or even a cross. Or maybe a picture that encapsulates innocence, self-sacrifice, or even just love.

I didn’t do any of that though, and instead chose to take a plastic tree, put it in front of another plastic tree with man-made lights stuck to it, and call it Christmas. I think the reason was because I wasn’t really trying to do anything with this picture other than to make an image that looked cool. It could have been a ham sandwich in front of a Lite Brite and it would have had the same effect, but lacking either of those I went with some more readily available implements.

Perhaps the point here is that there isn’t really a point, and if this picture makes you think of Christmas then that’s just as valid as if this picture makes you think of nothing at all. Either way I enjoyed taking this (and thanks to Stacy for helping me out!) and I like that it did make me think a little bit about things I hadn’t really intended at the time.

And with that, here’s to a good 2017 with hopes for a fantastic 2018. For me and my family this year certainly had its share of ups and downs, challenges and rewards, and good times and bad times, but through it all I’m thankful to have had the experience and optimistic for whatever the new year brings. Thanks to all of you who continue to read Weekly Fifty, and I hope your year is ending on a good note with a lot of fantastic things yet to come.

Commute

Commute

This one took some work.

I don’t mean in the physical sense, as in it was difficult to get the shot (though it was a bit tricky) but in the sense that when I sat down to edit the image I was totally lost. I had a vision in my mind of what I wanted the shot to look like, but it just wan’t quite coming together for me. A bit more on that after a while though.

For starters, I wanted to mention a bit about how I got the shot itself. I was heading to work one morning in mid October when I saw a particularly beautiful sunrise and stopped to get a photo of it from the vacant lot just south of my house. I’ve used that spot before to take sunrise pictures and while it might seem like a good place, my pictures never quite turns out exactly how I want them to. No worries though, because it’s always fun to try. A few minutes later I had turned westward and after biking a little way I looked behind me to see if it was safe to cross the street…and that’s when the sunrise went into overdrive. As soon as I got across the street I grabbed my D750 with the 50mm lens attached and waited for the traffic to clear. What I had in mind was a shot with a totally empty road with the sky glowing like the world’s largest fireworks display behind it. And I only had a few seconds to work with because sunrise scenes are exceedingly fleeting and then, as if arriving with the wave of a cosmic hand, day breaks and the magic is gone.

I waited for traffic to clear and then ran out into the middle of the road to take a couple of shots from eye level, which actually worked out fairly well. I set my aperture to f/4 with auto-ISO and a minimum shutter speed of 1/180 second. I believe I was using highlight-weighted metering too, just to make sure the sky wasn’t all blown out and knowing I could recover plenty of shadow detail in post. After a few seconds some cars showed up on the horizon so I ran back to the curb and was about to get on my bike when I noticed another potential clearing in traffic. This time I grabbed my camera, ran into the road, clicked over to Live View, flipped up the rear LCD screen so I could see the shot I was composing, set my camera on the street, and took one single picture.

I didn’t even look at the image afterwards on my camera, and figured if nothing else I at least tried to get a picture which is really all you can ask for somedays.

Later on when I loaded it into Lightroom I wasn’t even sure where to begin with my editing:

Right off the bat the first thing I saw was those two glaring headlights just below the horizon. I was specifically trying to avoid any cars in the shot, and there they were: unmistakable and unavoidable and ruining my shot. Or so I thought. But back to the editing…

I tried a number of different edits to the image but was never really happy with how it turned out. Highlight/shadow adjustments, white balance, graduated filters, brushes…I just wasn’t having any luck. I knew what I saw in person, and I knew what I wanted the image to look like in my mind, but I just couldn’t get it there in Lightroom. After a while I sent the RAW file to my friend Ryan, curious to see what he could do with the same file I had, and oh my goodness did that help. A lot.

Behold, the Ryan Edit:

Good gravy! Suddenly I finally had an image of what I was trying to achieve since the start, and looking at his edits gave me a whole new direction to take in Lightroom. My final version, which you see at the top of this post, isn’t quite as bright as his and there are some other choices I made to suit my own personal taste but I was floored when I saw what he was able to do and I can’t overstate how useful it was to have a second pair of creative eyes take a look at this photo.

And finally, about those headlights.

The more I looked at this image the more I appreciated that car in the distance, and now I think it’s actually the one element that ties the whole picture together. Without the car this would be just another sunrise photograph, but with it the picture tells a story and shows a sense of time and place. It’s now a picture about someone’s drive, most likely to work, in the early morning hours. His (her?) headlights are on, which helps instill a sense of time–a few minutes later and the headlights wouldn’t be needed. It’s juuuuuust below the horizon too, which maintains the clean horizontal line above the vehicle, but not yet low enough that the headlight reflections on the road no longer show up. Contrary to what I initially envisioned for the image, having this one single vehicle makes all the difference in the world.

Guardian

Guardian

I must confess that no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t quite capture this scene how I envisioned it in my mind. A few years ago the Hastings in our town closed down, most likely due to mounting competition from online retailers and the Best Buy that opened up a few miles down the road, and ever since the building at the corner of Hall of Fame and Main Street has remained vacant despite being what I would assume is a fairly nice piece of commercial real estate. Not much has happened there in the time since, but this fall a pop-up flower-and-pumpkin outfit just sort of showed up one day and whenever I bike past it on my way to or from work it’s nice to see all the colors of the season that bring so much life to what’s really nothing more than an old parking lot. On my way home recently I saw that a pumpkin-man had been constructed at the edge of the property and I knew right away that it would be a really cool photo opportunity.

A few days later I returned to the scene on my way to work as the sun was just starting to peek out on the horizon, and armed with my D750 and 50mm lens I was determined to get a picture that would capture the essence of the scene. Unfortunately nothing I did really sealed the deal for me, and no matter what angle of view I shot from I just couldn’t find a compelling way to show the pumpkin creature set against the backdrop of flowers and tables beneath the yellow canopy. This is the best I was able to come up with and believe me I tried, having shot the scene while sitting, standing, and crouching low from various different vantage points in the general area. If I got much closer you couldn’t see enough of the background, but much farther and the subject wasn’t clear. I shot from straight on but it just wan’t all that interesting, and on and on. In the end I kind of resigned myself to the shot I was able to get and I might revisit the scene (I mean, I go past it every day) in the coming days to see if I’m missing something. As it stands I’m using this image here on Weekly Fifty despite its shortcomings as a reminder that sometimes things just don’t work out, but the point is to keep trying and continue learning so you have a greater chance of getting the shot next time :)