Sunflower State

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If I had to define the word serendipity I would use this picture as an example. I shot this when I was on my way to Nebraska recently to see family, and as I often prefer to do I took back roads and highways instead of main roads and interstates. Those routes are often more direct as the crow flies but take a little longer due to reduced speed limits and small towns, but they more than make up for it (in my opinion) simply due to the scenic nature of the drive. Case in point: I had no idea that my trip through Kansas would end up taking me past a vast field of sunflowers, and because I was on a barely-paved two-lane highway I was able to easily stop, get out, and shoot some photos.

First off: I don’t really want to say exactly where in Kansas I got this picture because of stories like this where tourists and Instagrammers overwhelmed and basically destroyed a similar location in Ontario. But it was definitely off the proverbial beaten path, and not at all something that most people would end up driving past. And as I got out my camera I quickly realized one problem: I had no idea how to capture this scene.

When I first drove past the field on my way to Nebraska I got out my D750 + 70-200 lens because…well, I don’t really know why. I thought that it would be a way to capture the vast scene in front of me but when I got to my parents’ house and looked through some of my images I realized that even shooting at 70mm was far too narrow to really showcase the scope of the sunflowers, and my shots at longer focal lengths mostly looked like a yellow and green mess. Depth of field was all weird too, and even shooting at f/11 the DOF was so narrow that much of the sunflower field looked blurry and uninspiring.

On my return trip to Oklahoma I made a point of driving past the same field but this time used my Fuji X100F and was able to get what were, in my opinion, some much better images. I had to move physically closer to the sunflowers but this gave me the best of both worlds: I realized that I could make one single sunflower the focal point of the image while still showing the vastness of the sunflower field as a whole. Or, at least that was my goal here. I expect the next time I drive past this scene the flowers will be long gone, but it’s kind of cool knowing where to find this spot for similar shots years down the proverbial road…

The Right Direction

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I don’t know quite what I was going for here, so I can’t say if it worked or not, but I do kind of like the image I was able to capture. I shot this right before the autumnal equinox (almost exactly one year after I captured this similar photo) and didn’t plan on taking any pictures at all until I was out the door on my bike and heading to work. As soon as I got to the end of my driveway I looked to the east and saw a fantastic sunrise just beginning, with nary a camera on me. I quickly turned around, ran back inside, and grabbed my D750 + 70-200mm lens to see if I could capture even the faintest hint of what this scene looked like in real life.

In the one minute it took me to get my camera and return to my bike the sun was already well over the horizon, and the view I saw from my driveway was already subsiding so I frantically rode my bike south a few blocks and was able to take some pictures looking down the east/west road that I take to campus. I don’t like that there’s so many power lines crisscrossing the entire image but after a few shots I tried to embrace the urban elements a little bit since there was no way to actually get rid of them. To that end I specifically tried to take some pictures with cars in them, as a way of adding a bit of life and activity to the sunrise. I mean, if it’s clearly an urban scene anyway (power lines, street signs, etc.) then why not embrace it all the way?

I underexposed the image while shooting at f/2.8 and ISO 100 in order to get a clean picture, not overexpose the sun, and add a bit of foreground blur just for fun. Shooting at a smaller aperture might have resulted in a bit sharper image overall but it would have made the Jeep more in-focus, and I like that it ended up being just a bit blurry in the final image. If you click on the picture and view the full-size original you might notice a glow on the undulating power lines extending to the horizon which was certainly not intended on my part but ended up being kind of interesting as well.

It’s always fascinating to me how quickly scenes like this disappear. Five minutes later this was entirely gone and it was just another sunny morning like any other, but for a brief window it was downright inspirational and a great way to start the day. It’s a good reminder that from the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord God is to be praised.

Orion

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Sometimes you will hear people talk about how it’s possible to get great pictures in your own backyard, but the term backyard is used somewhat loosely and what people really mean is you don’t have to travel very far outsize of your normal daily travels. In this case though, I was able to get what I think is kind of a cool picture literally in my own back yard. Or, my back porch to be more specific.

Every morning my routine follows a somewhat similar pattern: Get up, shower, and sit in a particular spot in our living room to spend some time in prayer before making breakfast. Two days before taking this picture I was praying while looking at the night sky through the sliding glass door to the back porch and noticed that I could clearly see the Orion constellation hanging low above the neighbor’s tree. The temperature was mild, the wind was quiet, and the sky was crystal clear which, I thought, would make for a cool photo. I brought my X100F and tripod outside, took a few shots, and wasn’t really happy with the results. It seemed kind of boring and uninteresting, which was kind of the opposite of what I was aiming for.

The solution, I realized, was to take a long-exposure shot of the same scene with clouds moving across the sky to add a sense of motion and scale to the image. The next morning I set out to do just that, but was foiled due to the total lack of clouds for the second day in a row. While normally it’s kind of neat to be able to see a clear late-summer sky and gaze up at the stars, I was hoping for some clouds to obscure things just a bit. Thankfully the third day, the morning of September 13, I got just what I was hoping for.

After experimenting with a couple different exposure settings I found that 15 seconds at f/8 and ISO 1250 was giving me an ideal mix of starry sky and cloud movement. Much longer and the trees started to show too much motion blur, while much shorter shutter speeds didn’t give me the kind of cloudy streaks I was aiming for. Of the ten images I shot on my back porch I liked this one the best because it seemed as though the clouds were drawing my attention to Orion while also showing the silhouettes of the two trees for a sense of space and context. When I processed this image in Lightroom I found that the clouds were a bit too noisy for my taste so I moved the Luminance slider all the way to 100 (which I almost never do as it gets rid of far too much detail and texture) and that gave the clouds a smooth, dreamlike quality that I thought was really cool.

Game Day

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I’m not the biggest football fan in the world, and if there were a sliding scale of total apathy to insane fandom I would definitely be closer to the former than the latter. I do think it’s fun to watch and I admire the strategy inherent in the game, and I’ll watch a game if it’s on TV but I don’t really go out of my way to cheer for a particular team or deck myself out for tailgating. That being said, there is something cool about working on a college campus and being a part of the excitement and hubbub that starts to swell soon after the school year begins. And yet, none of that sense of activity is captured here at all.

Instead we have a serene scene not with the football stadium but the Spears School of Business building which is just south of where the Cowboys toss the pigskin around. Truth be told as I biked around the west side of the stadium on the morning of August 30, the day of our football season opener, I wasn’t thinking about a picture at all. I was just heading to work like any other Thursday with the exception that on this particular day there were already signs that game day fever would soon be felt around campus. For the moment, however, things were calm and the sun was rising and the weather was a mild late-summer 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

So when I saw the Business Building basking in the morning glow of the sunrise I stopped, hopped off my bike, and shot a few pictures to try and capture the sense of calm-before-the-storm. Or maybe not even that, but just a sense of calm and peace. It felt still on that summer morning and even though it wouldn’t be long before the whole campus (and this spot in particular) would be buzzing with activity, here was a slice of time that was just kind of tranquil. I did just a bit of retouching on the file to get a slightly bluer sky and slightly richer red on the building, but otherwise what you see here is a good reflection of the morning as I saw it. Hopefully the orange glow and long shadows give you a sense that a new day has just begun, and hopefully this picture might even bring just a tad bit of peace to your Wednesday before things get hectic with life.

Welcome to Minnesota

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Even though I often talk about living in Oklahoma, I’m actually a transplant to the state. I was born in central Minnesota and lived most of my childhood in Nebraska, but once or twice a year my family would load up the minivan and head north to see relatives and go fishing at the lake. Back in the early 90’s most of the roads we took on that trip were two-lane undivided highways which meant the drive would take about 8 hours on a good day, and a lot longer in the winter.

On these trips there was a stretch of Highway 60 between Le Mars, Iowa, and Worthington, Minnesota that held a bit of a special place in my heart because it was on this road that we passed the border between those two states. It was a milestone of sorts, and even though nothing about the road or scenery was any different all of us kids knew were were just that much closer to seeing our cousins and playing in the lake. Just across that imaginary line was a tiny little town called Bigelow that we never stopped in, but always thought was kind of cool simply because of its proximity to the border.

The last time I took that stretch of road was probably 15 years ago on a drive up north from Nebraska, and I haven’t really thought about it much in the years since. But on my way back from a recent visit to my hometown I found myself driving southbound on Highway 60 and when I saw a green road sign informing me that Bigelow was a few miles ahead, I knew it would be a good opportunity for a picture.

From a technical standpoint this image was a little tricky because, as you can tell, I was shooting almost directly into the sun. I shot at f/8 and underexposed by -1EV so as to not blow out the sky entirely, but that meant the sign itself was really dark and underexposed. No problem though, that’s what RAW is for :) I played around with the file in Lightroom for a while and got it to be about 90% of the way to where I wanted it, but struggled to get that last 10% which you can still see in the image here. If you look at the edges of the grass you’ll notice a white haze of sorts that extends into the sky and makes the picture look kind of…well, photoshopped I guess. And that’s because it is. I played around with auto-masking and other tools in Lightroom and eventually just decided that I was fine with the image as-is, even though it’s not perfect. It works fine for me and it gets the point across, and that’s plenty good for Flickr and this blog :)

Dewdrops

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Yet another picture in the long line tradition of finding photo opportunities on my way to work. This one was just off the sidewalk between two buildings on campus about 7:25am as the sun was just peeking over the horizon and the grass was still wet with morning dew. I had my Fuji X100F with me in case the chance to take a picture arose, and wouldn’t you know it, I straight-up ignored this one that was right in front of my eyes. I saw this patch of grass, thought about taking a picture for roughly one and a half seconds, and then kept on walking because…well, I don’t really know why.

A little while later I thought to myself Why didn’t I just take a picture? and since I had no good answer, I turned around, pulled out my camera, and fired off a couple of shots. I was using the Classic Chrome film simulation which is why the greens look a little cold and, dare I say it, washed-out compared to if I had shot this with my Nikon and edited the RAW file in Lightroom. Though I might have made different choices regarding color rendition using the latter process, I’ve really tried to embrace the simplicity of shooting JPG and have appreciated spending less time fiddling with sliders on my computer than I used to. And so, what you see is what you get and I’m fine with that.

I really wanted to get some shallow depth of field with this, but when shooting with a 23mm lens you have to a) use a really wide aperture and b) get pretty close to your subject. Thankfully I was able to do both but that meant a trade-off in overall sharpness because using the X100F at its maximum aperture of f/2 gives close-up subjects a bit of a wistful, dreamy quality. Or as a lot of internet reviewers point out, a lack of sharpness. It doesn’t bother me that much since you have to zoom way in to see that the edges of the piece of grass in the center aren’t razor sharp, but it’s something that most people (myself included) probably won’t notice.

What makes this image unique for me is the dew in the foreground and the yellow sunlight glow in the background, both of which create a sense of calm and peacefulness and hopefully help the viewer feel, in some small way, something similar to what I felt on that chilly humid morning in late August when I shot this. A few seconds later I was back on my way to work but it felt nice knowing I was able to capture a small slice of what the morning had to offer :)

Turbine

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In some ways this is a picture I’ve been trying to take for quite some time. I’ve long been a fan of looking at the giant wind turbines that dot the landscape in the midwest, but it’s hard to realize just how massive they are when you pass them on the freeway doing 75mph. Occasionally we’ll find ourselves at a rest stop or gas station with wind turbines on the horizon, but it’s not really easy to get up close and personal. However when I drove from Oklahoma to Minnesota earlier this year I was able to do just that and thankfully I had my camera with me to document the occasion.

I shot this on a stretch of Highway 36 between St. Joseph, Missouri, and I-35 going through Iowa and it really was a spur-of-the-moment picture. Unlike interstates you can leave state highways just about any time you want (as opposed to waiting for the nearest exit which could be several miles down the road) and when I saw this turbine looming ahead of me on the south side of the highway I turned off on a dirt road and drove about a quarter mile until I was within spitting distance of this massive monolithic energy-harnessing machine.

I actually didn’t get super close to these turbines because my goal was to take a picture of them, not to literally touch them (which I’m fairly certain would have been trespassing) but it was neat hearing the creaks and moans of the turbines as a slow breeze turned the giant blades. Since the only camera I had with me was my Fuji X100F I couldn’t exactly zoom in or out so instead I had to drive up and down the dirt road just a little in order to find a spot that would let me get the shot I was looking for.

I took dozens of pictures on burst mode because I wasn’t sure what would look best in terms of the position of the blades, and of all my images this one turned out to be my favorite. It captures a lot of what makes these turbines so interesting: the sheer size, the quantity (especially if you look towards the horizon) and the fact that they often just protrude hundreds of feet from the middle of a cornfield. Or, whatever kind of field this is :)

I know there are disagreements about the usefulness of these turbines, the noise they create on windy days, the eyesore that they can be, and even the way in which they can harm birds and other wildlife, but it is cool to see such massive machines turning air into energy that powers our homes and businesses. Also, they’re just really huge which makes taking pictures of them kind of neat.

Country Roads

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This is the kind of picture that, if you don’t live in the midwest, you might think anyone in Nebraska, Kansas, or Oklahoma could take any time they wanted to. After all what could be more emblematic of the Great Plains than a dirt road, corn fields, and an endless blue sky? Interestingly, scenes like this are not actually all that common here and most of the time a picture like this would also include farm houses, silos, tractors, barns, or even buildings and cities on the horizon. You’ll also notice that the scene here isn’t exactly flat either. Rather it’s a slow undulation of earth that feels casual, homely, and downright comfortable.

True, there are plenty of flat spots in the midwest United States but there’s a lot of variation too which is why I stopped to take this photo on a recent trip from Minnesota to Oklahoma. It kind of hits several Midwestern stereotypes in a single frame, none of which are a true representation of what we’re all about here but all of which are parts of the whole. We’ve got corn and dirt roads but that’s not all there is. Though no matter where you go up and down and across these plains you’re sure to find a great blue sky, provided it’s not storming at the time :)

I shot this with my Fuji X100F which is great for many different purposes but perhaps not quite ideal for landscapes as you can see here. A wider lens would have been nice but alas, the Fuji is stuck firmly at 23mm (unless you have a wide-angle adapter, which I do not) and as such I had to make the best out of what I had available. The bigger questions for me when taking this shot were what angle do I shoot at, what height do I position the camera, and how far down the road do I travel? Truth be told I didn’t really consider the final issue that much since I just wanted to get on with my trip (Highway 75 is about 1/4 mile behind me in this shot) but I did take a handful of shots at different angles and positions before getting one I was really happy with.

Wiretree

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Every time we go on a trip out of town I like to keep my eye open for possible photo opportunities beyond just taking snapshots of friends and family. Sometimes they present themselves plain as day, but other times I have to look just a bit harder which was the case here. This is a small wire tree at my in-laws’ house where we spent a few days this summer reading, relaxing, watching the kids play, and solving a communal crossword puzzle too :) We mostly spent time at their house with the exception of going out to eat, attending church, and taking some walks around the neighborhood and after a little while I was starting to wonder if I would be able to spot any potential Weekly Fifty images.

The last evening we were at their house I took note of this little wireframe creation on a table in their living room and wondered if it might make for an interesting photo, so I took a few minutes to play around with the idea. I tried not to alter the scene except for just scooting the glass paperweight over a few inches, lest it come across as blatantly artificial. It would have been fun to shoot this with a 50mm lens but all I had was my X100F so I did what I could to make that work.

I used my Gorillapod tripod with its legs wrapped around the back of a kitchen chair which allowed me to use a slightly longer shutter speed of 1/30 second. Depth of field was an issue because I wanted a bit of foreground and background blur but also wanted as much of the tree branches in focus as possible, and after trying a couple different aperture values I settled on f/2.8 which turned out to be a decent compromise. Focus was entirely manual but the focus peaking on this camera (which is also available on a lot of other cameras–check your manual to see if you have it too) helped mitigate some of the issues I might have had otherwise. ISO was as low as I could get it in order to give me as smooth and noise-free of an image as possible.

I don’t have a grand story to tell about this photo, though perhaps my mother-in-law (who is a frequent reader of this blog) might leave some information in the comments :) I just thought it would be a cool picture given the interesting subject and late-night lighting, and overall I quite like the results.

Mammoth Cave

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Note: If you’re sick of me talking about my Fuji X100F and have gotten into the habit of rolling your eyes whenever you see it mentioned here…get ready to scroll past this post entirely and move on to a different blog :)

This photo was taken along the Historic Cave Tour in Mammoth Cave National Park during our 10-day family trip across the midwest United States earlier this year. As I mentioned in last week’s post the only camera I brought with me on this vacation was my Fuji X100F because I knew it would be small enough to bring everywhere we went but capable of handling almost anything I would want to take pictures of. Including, as it turned out, photos of near-dark caves hundreds of feet underground.

I’ve been in the habit of shooting in JPG mode on my X100F because I quite like the Classic Chrome film simulation and found that if I get my exposure right in camera (which is easier to do thanks to an electronic viewfinder) I don’t really need to adjust anything in Lightroom. But walking in caves would require something more so I shot in RAW the whole time we were on these tours. There was almost no light at all down in those ancient tunnels save for some sparsely-placed incandescent bulbs at intermittent spots along the way, which meant I shot almost every picture with very little light at all. I took every picture at f/2.0, ISO 6400, and even then most of the images needed shutter speeds of 1/20 or slower just to get something even worth salvaging. This picture, for instance, required a +.8 exposure adjustment along with shadows lifted by nearly 100 and it still looks dim.

Probably the trickiest part of shooting in the caves was the focusing, or lack thereof. Autofocus is not the X100F’s strong point and even in good light it can be a bit slow. (At least compared to my Nikons or pretty much every other camera available.) In the labyrinth of underground passages it was nearly useless and I had to focus manually at times which was also a bit of a sticky wicket because even looking through the viewfinder I could barely see anything. Most of the time I found myself autofocusing on anything even remotely bright which is what I did here–I focused on the white patch of light in the distance and hoped for the best. The results ranged from fair to midland with a couple standouts like this one here which I liked because the people (i.e. my son and his cousin) help give a sense of scale to the surroundings.