Duck Hunting

Duck Hunting

I used to teach English at Meadow Creek Christian School (now called Legacy Christian Academy) in Andover, Minnesota, and one thing I stressed to my students who were struggling with narrative-style writing is to start by simply writing what they know. Using our own lives as a backdrop for writing stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, is a fantastic way to help bring out our inner authors. Tolkien used his experiences in World War I as the backdrop for the conflicts in his Lord of the Rings tales. Michael Crichton imparted his extensive knowledge of science and medicine into his many books, movies, and television shows which he had a hand in creating. Even John Grisham, purveyor of many of the most popular legal thrillers today, began his career as an author only after practicing law for ten years and then used that as the basis for his creative works.

What I’m getting at here is that sometimes it’s good to branch out into new and unexplored territories, but sometimes it’s nice to stick with what you know. There’s nothing wrong with treading in familiar waters—how often did you see Bob Ross do cubist-style paintings or try his hand at marble sculptures? And that’s what’s happening in this picture of a relatively normal white duck. There’s a small pond on the OSU campus that is a favorite spot for me and many of our students and faculty, and even though it’s somewhat cliché to wander down there and take photos of the animals…well, who cares? I still like doing it. It’s not groundbreaking or earth-shattering, but pictures of the geese and ducks are fun and can often be challenging too, especially when shooting with a 50mm lens because the animals, despite their familiarity with humans, still like to keep a healthy distance.

On this particular afternoon my friend Gina had brought some duck food along while we went on a short walk around the pond (apparently the stuff is super cheap! She bought 40 pounds of it from a local farm supply store for about $7) and it was fun to see the waterfowl overcome their trepidation and get very up close and personal with us while we fed them. I had my D750 with me so I used the opportunity to take some pictures, and you know what? I like this one and don’t even care that there are probably ten thousand others just like it. Taking this picture made me smile and it’s a fun little reminder of how there is nothing wrong with just doing what works.

Færie

Færie

This photo honestly took me by surprise just a little bit. On a warm Sunday afternoon in July my wife and I were at the local botanic gardens with our two boys and as they played with one of the exhibits (some kind of hand-operated water pump connected to a trough and an underground storage tank) and we wandered around talking while looking at the local flora. It was one of those lazy, relaxing kind of days where there is no real agenda other than to get out and enjoy nature and we wanted to take advantage before it got too sunny. Soon our boys migrated to a spot within a grove of trees containing a few interactive art pieces to play with, so we went with and played along while snapping a couple pictures just for the fun of it.

As we were getting ready to head back to the car I spotted this tiny winged woodland lady frolicking among the branches, and crept in close to get a better look. She was kind enough to hover silently while I drew near with my D750 + 50mm lens, and turned a few pirouettes while I snapped some pictures. I didn’t want to disturb her lest she cry out for Oberon or Puck to come to her rescue but I did linger long enough get about a dozen photos before retreating to the outside world. Her slow twirling made it somewhat difficult to get the images I was looking for, and what I ended up with is actually not at all what I intended at the outset. I thought it would be fun to get a picture of her on the left side of the frame while also angled slightly so as to possibly show a bit of movement, and while I did in fact get that picture I did not really like it much:

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Looking at the photos in Lightroom I realized that her slightly skewed composure made her look strangely distorted, and the extrusion of this two-dimensional shape in order to add depth only served to make such a picture look strange and even a bit disconcerting. I had about a dozen images just like this one but fortunately I also managed to capture one–and only one–of this little lady directly from the side which is what I ended up using as this week’s featured photo. I shot it at f/4 which, thanks to my full-frame camera, gave me the equivalent depth of field as if I had shot this at f/2.8 on a crop sensor camera and resulted in a very pleasing composition overall.

I thought it was cool to see this little scene in the gardens on that day, and it made me think of how we often decorate Christmas trees with similar trinkets and tchotchkes but put them away once the season passes. Why do we do that? Why not add a bit of life and inspire a sense of wonder in the world around us by adding special charms like this to our yards during the rest of the year? It seems like a fun activity to do, and I think I’m going to try to get on this with my own kiddos and find ways of adding a little extra spark of life to the natural world outside our house and the world around us.

Upstairs

Upstairs

Ah, the classic sunstar-from-behind-a-building photo. It’s one I’ve done many times before and yet it continues to be the type of picture I really enjoy revisiting. When I took this I had no special intention of making the particular picture you see here but I’m quite happy with how it all turned out. At the time I shot this I was running an errand at work and, as I often do, I brought my camera with me. On this occasion it was my D750 + 50mm combo which I knew would give me a little wider field of view than my D7100, so when I saw the sun poking out from behind the stairwell on a parking garage I thought it might make for a slightly more interesting photo than I would normally get with my crop sensor D7100. For me the biggest consideration here was of a compositional nature: there were three elements at play, and I had to decide how I wanted them to all interact within the frame. The parking garage, the sky, and the sun all come together to form a cohesive whole, and I had to figure out where I would stand and point my camera in order to get the shot I was looking for. (FYI, nothing here was cropped. What you see is what I got.)

Ironically the first thing I decided was the aperture of my lens; when shooting a starburst like this you need to stop your lens down quite a bit to get the light to make that cool star pattern which usually requires something around f/11 to f/16. I set my camera to f/13 and moved around until I could just barely see the sun poking out from behind the roof of the stairwell, which is key for a shot like this. If you point your camera straight at the sun you will just get a giant overexposed blob, so you have to get just a bit of the sun peeking out from behind something else like a tree or building.

After deciding my aperture I tried a couple different places to stand that would still show a bit of the sun and took a grand total of five images from slightly different angles. The sky was actually quite overcast which meant I was able to pull out a great deal of blue color detail in Lightroom that would have normally been way, way too overexposed to salvage and I also used the Healing brush to take out about a half dozen little brown spots on the concrete side of the structure.

To me this picture is somewhat of an exercise in how to convey a sense of size or create a particular mood, as well as a reminder of how much I have grown as a photographer in the last several years. If I had made this image in 2012 I would have taken 50 shots from all sorts of angles and tried all kinds of different settings, but here I only took five and it was over in less than a minute. These days I have a much better idea of how to control my camera to get the shot I want, and I try to avoid taking dozens and dozens of photos of the same scene to get that one perfect shot. There is no such thing as the perfect image, and instead I try to get photos that I like and with which I am well pleased, and then go back to my life. That’s what happened here and I hope you like this shot too :)

Giddy

Giddy

When I was a kid my family used to spend a week each summer at a lake near Brainerd, Minnesota, playing at the beach, catching turtles with paddleboats and fishing nets, going tubing behind my uncle Paul’s boat, and staying up talking with relatives around the campfire. For some reason I distinctly remember the sight of dragonflies on those vacations, and when I was a kid I was absolutely fascinated at these strange anachronistic creatures that looked like they were ripped right from prehistoric eras and placed squarely in our modern-day world. I remember seeing them buzzing around us when were out on the boat or sitting in tubes near the beach and being at once amazed and horrified by their strange design.

Nearly 30 years later when my family was on vacation in Kansas a few weeks ago my brother Phil asked if I wanted to go bug hunting with him, armed with our cameras and close-up lenses. I gladly agreed and we set off near the beach at Milford Lake to go see what we could find among the foliage. He had a big advantage since he was using a 55-200mm lens with a +2 filter attached (I think. Or it might have been a +4.) that let him stay farther away from various bugs and insects but still take good shots. Far more, in fact, than I was able to get with my 50mm lens :) We were surrounded by not only dragonflies but bees, flies, beetles, and myriad other bugs but the problem, I soon realized, was that whenever I would get close enough to one of these little creatures it would scamper away by the time I could get things in focus and fire off a few shots. We were only bug hunting for maybe 20 minutes but I spent much more of that time chasing away insects than taking their pictures, and it was quite a learning experience for me in that regard!

After a little while Phil pointed out the dragonfly you see in this week’s image, and after taking some pictures he stepped aside and I eagerly moved in to see what I could get. I was using my +10 filter which meant I had to be about three inches away, but this gold-colored dragonfly didn’t really seem to mind too much. In fact I don’t think he minded anything at all, judging by the look on his face :) I shot this at f/8, ISO 160, 1/180 second which was more than fast enough given that the insect wasn’t moving at all, and much smaller than f/8 would have given me a depth of field that was simply too shallow. As you can probably tell by the slate of recent pics here on Weekly Fifty I’m really enjoying these close-up filters, and if you don’t have some yet I’d highly recommend getting a set. They’re very cheap and can introduce you to a whole new world of photographic possibilities!

Transition

Before

This photo came about somewhat by accident, and not really how I intended, but led to a series of images of which I am rather fond nonetheless. I have posted some pictures over the years involving magnolia trees, which are quite prevalent here in this part of Oklahoma, and the beauty of their flowers never stops being amazing to me. I hope, then, that you won’t mind yet another photo (or two or three) of the same subject :)

When I shot this picture I was on a short walk and wasn’t really looking for an image quite like what you see, but I did know I wanted to capture a magnolia flower somehow using my D7100 and a close-up filter. (I think might have been either a +4 or a +10 but can’t remember which.) Not 30 seconds into the walk I came across this flower which was just starting to emerge, and as I took a few shots I specifically framed the subject so it was being blocked a bit on the left-hand side by one of its own massive petals. I wanted to create a scene almost as if the viewer is peeking in on the beginning of something fascinating not unlike when a baby raptor emerges from its egg in the original Jurassic Park. Though hopefully this flower is much more benign.

I thought the image was decent but kept on looking around for something…different. On another tree I spotted this flower which was much farther along in its progression:

DuringFor this image I removed the filter so I could get a little more context for the flower. I wanted to see some of the petals and surrounding scenery which wasn’t really possible with a close-up filter attached. I shot from a low angle because I thought it would be more appropriate to see this flower reaching, stretching, lifting high into the sky like Andy Dufresne at the end of Shawshank. (Though ironically, that scene was shot from above in kind of the opposite fashion. Hmm. Perhaps I need to re-think my technique.) It made no sense to use a filter on the second image because it would have severely restricted my field of view and given the viewer no sense of context at all, and I liked the idea of showing the petals opening wide as the ball of pistils raised the anthers high almost like a chorus of worshippers praising God on a Sunday morning. In his gospel Luke recounts a scene in which Jesus tells the religious leaders of the day that if his disciples are not allowed to speak, the rocks and stones around them will cry out with praises to the Lord. I don’t know if they had magnolia trees in Israel back then, but it sure looks to me like that’s what is happening here in this picture :)

As I rounded the tree I came upon one final scene that shows the progression of a magnolia flower, and even though the beauty and glory has faded there is still much to be seen.

AfterThe anthers are withered, the pistils are faltering, and yet despite the impending sense of loss and decay there is hope to be found here as the flower has served its purpose, and in its death there lives hope: inside the ball of pistils are dozens of bright red seeds only beginning to take form, and in a few months what was once a flower will be transformed into a thick green shell which will house them until they are fully mature. After that the shell itself will wither and die, exposing the seeds which may take root and turn into majestic trees of their own someday.

I wasn’t expecting to capture all this on a single 10-minute walk one warm May afternoon, but that’s the nice thing about photography. You never know what you’re gonna get.

Earnest

Earnest

Alright, here you have it. This photo right here…this is the reason I bought a set of close-up filters. Every time I have seen a shot like this over the past several years I have wanted to get one of my own, but never had the proper equipment to make it happen. Certainly any one of my cameras could get this shot, even my old D200, but there’s no way to get a picture like this without using some type of macro equipment. The subject is just too small, and taking a picture with a normal lens and cropping it in post does not at all yield the same results as simply getting very close to the subject. However after getting my close-up filters and trying a few experiments I knew a shot like this was possible, which then meant I had to find a way to make it actually happen.

What you are seeing here are the anthers at the end of the filaments on a flower. (It’s some kind of lily, I think, though I’m not certain.) I found this, as I do so many of my Weekly Fifty pictures, on the campus of Oklahoma State University as I was out running an errand one day in late May. I figured we must have had some flowers on campus that would allow for this type of image but for a few weeks I had been mostly unsuccessful in locating any, until I cam across this one near the south side of our student union. There was a bit of a breeze so it made focusing a little tricky, and I ended up mostly just moving myself forward and backward as I snapped the shutter in order to get the picture I was hoping for. Even at f/8 I knew the depth of field would be so shallow as to be almost uncontrollable, and autofocus wasn’t helping much because of the way close-up filters degrade its accuracy along with the light wind causing its own set of problems.

I kept at it though, and after shooting the flower from one side I scooted over and tried a different angle while finally resulted in the image you see here. I hope I’m not being conceited when I say how pleased I am with the picture and the way it turned out–it’s not often that an image comes across exactly how I picture it in my mind, but that’s precisely what happened in this particular instance. I like the clear, distinct color palette and the sharpness of the foremost anther, and I like how you can clearly see a context for the subject too. Going much wider on the aperture would have resulted in a depth of field that would have likely obscured too many background elements and made it well-nigh impossible to get the one single anther in focus anyway.

I’m excited to keep using these filters and maybe one day get my hands on a true macro lens to play with too. It sure would be fun :)

Leaf-Footed Tree Bug

Mesquite

Here we have what I believe to be a giant mesquite bug, though I would gladly welcome corrections from any eagle-eyed entomologists who happen to be reading today’s post. a leaf-footed tree bug (acanthocephala terminalis), which I was able to identify with the help of some very nice strangers on Facebook :) This is another result of my continual experiments with close-up filters (see last week’s post for more details) and the more I use these little lens attachments the more I like them. And, the more I can hardly believe the results I am getting for such a cheap price.

One thing that has always fascinated me about macro photography is its ability to capture bugs and insects with incredible detail–often of the sort that is hidden from normal human eyes. It is something I have tried from time to time with my lenses but thanks to a rather weak maximum magnification it has mostly eluded me. Even with the close-up filters I am still having a lot of trouble because they require you to be very close to your subject–a situation that a telephoto macro lens like Nikon’s 105mm f/2.8 beast would be able to handle much better simply because it could be positioned farther away and focus across a much wider range as opposed to only being able to focus up close. However when I was playing with my kids in the backyard recently we came across several of these bugs crawling on a fence and since they don’t generally move all that quickly I thought it would be an ideal situation for playing around with some close-up shots.

At the time I did not have my camera with me but after dinner the three of us went back out and, with our glimpses peeled, soon spotted the small herd of six-legged friends which had by then migrated from the fence to a tree. We spent about ten or fifteen minutes moving in and around the tree, the boys looking for bugs while daddy rushed in to get some pictures, and soon discovered that while these insects don’t move very fast they do have a tendency to fly away at inconvenient times such as when a big ol’ Nikon DSLR is hovering about an inch and a half away. Out of 17 shots this was the only one that turned out, and even this one isn’t as good as it could be because the eyes of the bug are just barely out of focus. If you click on the image and look at the high-rez version on Flickr you will see that the in-focus area, or depth of field, is just behind the head and not actually on the head itself.

A couple problems cause this sort of thing to happen:

• When dealing with close-up photography you have a super duper shallow depth of field even at smaller apertures. The depth of field here is less than 1/4 inch and I was shooting at f/8.

• When shooting with close-up filters the autofocus doesn’t work too well, and even when it does the image often comes out a bit soft.

• I have learned that for close-up shots like this one it’s best to focus manually (yay for back-button focus!) which, combined with a moving subject and jittery photographer, make nailing focus even more tricky.

Still, overall I am very pleased with this shot and continue to be blown away at how effective these close-up filters are. I shot this with a +10 and +2 combined together, and even with all that extra glass jammed on front of my lens I am amazed at how sharp the final images can be. Is it as good as a dedicated macro lens? Not at all. But it’s also way cheaper, which goes a long way with me :)

Fossil

Fossil

This week’s photo is a bit different from most of the pictures I have posted here on Weekly Fifty over the years. It’s the result of some experimenting I have been doing lately with a set of close-up filters. These, to be precise. Ever since my cousin Beth got an Olloclip which basically turned her iPhone into a macro photography machine I have wanted a similar solution for my DSLR. Unfortunately, actual macro lenses range in price from “Impractical” to “Not a chance” for most hobbyist photographers like myself, so until recently I basically found myself left out of the close-up photography party altogether. I had investigated various solutions like extension tubes and lens reversing rings, but they all seemed kind of expensive and more than a bit impractical for someone who just wants to play around with macro-style photography on occasion. I had heard of close-up filters before but never given them much thought until I realized that, for just about the cost of a pizza or two I could at least get something that would let me try this type of photography. If it worked, great! If not, no big deal. So I bought a set and kept my expectations low.

My goodness, were they ever exceeded. By a very long shot.

I explain more about what close-up filters do and how they work in an article I recently published on Digital Photography School, but the gist of it is they let you use any regular lens to focus on things that are super close. Super duper close, to be honest. The pocket watch you see above is about the size of a silver dollar in real life, but it filled the entire frame of the picture thanks to a +10 filter that I attached to my 50mm lens. It’s kind of unreal how well these little screw-on filters work for taking non-professional good-enough macro shots, and after using them for a while now I can confidently recommend them to anyone who is looking for something new and fun to try.*

On a side note, this watch was the one I wore when my wife and I got married just over ten years ago which is one reason I’m using it as this week’s picture. It’s sort of a commemoration, if you will. My three brothers served as my groomsmen and we all had identical pocket watches, and even though I don’t exactly wear mine on a regular basis I like to take it out from time and reflect on that special day. Of course I have plenty of other tangible reminders of my wedding day around me constantly, but it’s fun to get out special objects, totems, and trinkets like this from time to time (har!) as they help conjure up fond moments from days gone by in a unique way. It sure has been an incredible decade, and if my wife is reading this, I love you and our two little boys so very much. Thank you for being my beautiful bride, and here’s to many many more years of being your hubsand :)

*If you do want to purchase some filters, make sure they fit your lens. Check the thread diameter on your lens first, which will likely be something like 52mm or 58mm, and then get filters that will fit that size.

Royal

Royal

I remember banging away at my mom’s typewriter when I was a kid, and yes I did say typewriter and not computer. She had one that we would haul out of the closet from time to time, plug in to the wall, and use to type letters or just play with kind of as an expensive source of amusement. This was in the late 1980’s before most homes had a computer and even though her typewriter did need to be plugged in it was merely so the physical action of pressing a key would then trigger a small motor that would activate the individual mechanical lever for the corresponding type hammer. This thing had no screen, no mouse, and used a physical ink ribbon that had to be refilled if letters started appearing as light gray. It wasn’t the most efficient way to get things done, and we always kept a small bottle of White-Out handy when using it, but without a computer screen we didn’t know any different at the time and it was a pretty useful and practical way to engage in written communication.

Of course my mom’s typewriter was far more modern than the one in this picture, and far more functional as well given that this one has some sort of plant growing out the top, but seeing this Royal model and taking its picture did bring me back a few years to what I guess you could say was a much simpler time. When I took this photo my wife and I had just eaten lunch at a local diner called Granny’s (kind of appropriate, I suppose, given the subject of the picture) and were on our way back to the car when I saw this collection of old household items sitting outside a store called The Nook. Something about the colors really stood out to me, and I thought about trying something a bit different and taking a shot straight on instead of with my usual foreground/background composition, but there were too many cars parked in the way and my 50mm lens was not wide enough to get that kind of a picture. So I went with what works and I’m pretty happy with how things turned out.

I shot this with my D750 which enabled me to get a bit more foreground and background blur than would have been possible on my D7100 due to the sensor size (if I was trying to shoot the exact same composition, that is) and really like the mix of colors that I was able to get in the final shot. This was taken at f/1.8 and even though I had to stand pretty far back to get everything I wanted in the shot, there depth of field is still quite shallow. Yay for full-frame cameras! :)

Clearly the typewriter is the subject of the scene but you can see a lot of interesting things going on in the background too, and the typewriter just happened to be perfectly positioned so as to enable a picture like this with its features neatly on display while also offering a bit of deference to the background objects too. When I was editing the RAW file in Lightroom I actually desaturated things just a bit which is contrary to my normal style of postprocessing, but I thought it was appropriate given the old-fashioned nature of the image itself. I think it would be cool to revisit this scene in the near future, perhaps in the morning or evening when the type of daylight and background traffic would allow for a much different type of picture. And who knows, maybe in the meantime it would be fun to track down an old typewriter and see if my kids can play around with it too :)

In Hiding

In Hiding

The story behind this photo is a bit strange, and it all begins with a shopping cart and a bicycle. On most days I like to ride my bike to work, especially now that the weather is so much warmer and it’s not raining as much. It’s only three miles from my house to my office which means it takes about 15 minutes on two wheels which is not much longer than it takes to get there on four. I also get a bit of exercise in the process, which I use to justify the rather copious amounts of Mt. Dew that I usually drink when I arrive at work. There’s a bridge that crosses a small creek at the halfway point in my bike ride and a few days before this picture was taken I saw something a bit strange as I crossed the stream. (And yes I know this is something you should never do.) Below me in the bushes I spied, with my little eye, a shopping cart:

DSC_5932

No, this should not be here. But I’m kind of impressed that it is.

I believe this was a Tuesday or Wednesday, and at the time I thought it would for kind of an interesting picture but didn’t want to be late for work so I just kept on biking. On Friday I saw that the cart was still there, so I hopped off my bike and went down to see if I could use this in any way to create an interesting picture. I tried a couple different angles and it just wasn’t working out, mostly because the greenery around the cart was so thick that you couldn’t really see the cart itself in most of the pictures. I also realized that when I was on the grassy ridge it was difficult to get a sense of place and context, which made the picture of a yellow shopping cart a little too mundane and boring. I really wanted to take advantage of the setting and the early morning light, so I searched around a bit to see if anything stood out to me and that’s when I saw the dark red piece of grass that ended up being the subject for this week’s picture.

If you look close the grass is barely attached to the main stalk. I think it has turned red as part of the dying process, and my guess is that it will soon become brown and fall off. The richness of the color kind of took me off guard, and when I got down low to photograph it I noticed something in the background I could use as a little extra compositional bonus: the yellow shopping cart :) If you look near the top left corner you will see a faint yellow stripe which is the top of the cart, and though it was not entirely intentional I thought it added a fun extra bit to the image overall.

It’s weird how many times I have biked over that stream on the way to work but never taken 30 seconds to stop for a photo. Now I wonder what else there is on my 15-minute early morning bike ride that might make for an interesting picture as well. Hmm…