Low Rainbow

Low Rainbow

You want to know the difference between your iPhone camera and a DSLR with a 50mm lens? Take a look at this photo of the Low Library on the OSU campus, and now look at the one below which I took about 30 seconds later with my iPhone:

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(click to see full-size image)

Granted the latter might be considered somewhat cheating as it’s actually a panoramic photo, but you get the point: the wide angle of view on an iPhone camera can fit way, way more in the frame than the limited angle of a 50mm lens. For the sake of comparison, if we adjusted for sensor size and compared these two imaging devices on a level playing field the focal length of the iPhone 5C on which the lower image was shot would be roughly 31mm while the 50mm on a crop-sensor camera (which is what I used to make the top image) would be 75mm. That’s a massive difference, and hopefully illustrates why the latter is so much more limiting: you honestly can’t fit much in the frame!

And yet, it is precisely this limitation that makes it such a useful lens. To wit: the top image, which I prefer to the bottom one, shows a much larger rainbow and has a more tightly controlled sense of composition. There are three elements in the frame, or four if you count the sky. The other image, while showing a larger view of the rainbow as a whole, feels somehow less majestic and almost cold and distant. True, it does convey a greater sense of scale due to the wide grassy lawn and the several buildings which are cradled gently beneath the colorful bow in the sky. However the top image seems, to me anyway, more intentional and purposeful. It seems to be about something, whereas the lower image is a picture of something. Perhaps it’s a a distinction that is either quite subtle or utterly meaningless, but if you handed me a mobile phone and a DSLR with a 50mm lens I would choose the latter even though it is so much more limiting. For, as I have learned over the years, it’s precisely within those limitations that I find myself being so much more creative.

Chrysalis

Chrysalis

Some of you might look at this shot and think I’m cheating or treading trodden trails here, but I promise that’s not my intention. What you are looking at is, yet again, a picture of a magnolia flower just like I shared a few weeks ago (and a few times over the years before that). Could I find something else to shoot? Sure. Have I? Definitely. So why do I continue to return to this specific type of flower? Mostly because it’s so fascinating, such a unique arboreal artifact to look at, and so much fun to photograph.

This is, of course, another image made with my close-up filters (if you’ve missed the past few weeks worth of posts you might want to scroll down and check them out) as you can probably tell already. It’s great fun having these filters now as these magnolia seed pods start to mature, as previously the closest I could get to them when taking pictures was about a foot and a half. It worked, and 24 megapixels allows me to get a little closer when cropping, but it’s not the same at all as being mere inches from the subject. In early August I posted a few pictures of similar seed pods in far earlier stages of maturity when you could see these curly little tendrils sticking up from the base of the flower (sorry for my lack of technical knowledge here. As Bones would say, I’m an educational technologist, not a botanist) and it was fun to revisit them much later in life as the seed pods were starting to balloon out.

Soon these pods will wither and die, and from them will appear a host of tiny red seeds that will be scattered, eaten, trampled, or maybe even planted in fertile ground and eventually give way to tiny little magnolia trees. And maybe that’s why I like taking these images repeatedly over the years: it’s a way to remind myself of the circle of life (cue Lion King theme) and document it one picture at a time.

Drenching

Drenching

If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a hundred times: overcast rainy days are ideal for photography, and this was shown to be true yet again the morning I took this picture. (Though I suppose you could make the argument that, given your unique style of photography, any number of other weather conditions would suit you better…but for me a an overcast and/or rainy day is the bee’s knees.) Couple the weather with a macro setup, whether true macro lens or close-up filter, and you’re good to go. That’s what happened here anyway, and what you are seeing is yet another attempt to capture the ever-elusive drop-on-a-leaf picture I have been striving for ever since I got my close-up filters. As often happens I was not seeking this specific image in particular, but happened to come across this scene as I was out with my camera one rainy morning and could hardly go on without at least attempting a shot. And I’m sure glad I did.

Though I have made a few images like this before, what I found unique to this particular setup is the fact that the big drop in the center is not really the focus of attention. Rather, it is the small image of what is being reflected in the drop that I wanted to try to highlight and all in all I think it worked out fairly well. You can’t really tell from the small image preview here but if you click through to the full-sized image on Flickr you will see that the bright white streak on the lower-left portion of the drop in the center is actually a reflection of the sky above, and what looks like the webbings on a leaf is actually the pattern created by tree limbs high above as they stretch across the clouds. This was an intentional choice on my part, and I spent a few minutes carefully focusing not really on the big drop of water but in such a way so as to get the reflection to be tack sharp.

I used my D7100 + 50mm combo to get this shot (f/8, 1/250 second, ISO 140), and screwed a +10 filter on to the end, and what I’m learning after using this setup over the past few months is just how enjoyable it is even though it’s not technically a true macro rig. I don’t have an actual macro lens, and a few filters are kind of a poor approximation of what’s required to get real high quality close-up images, but at the end of the day I’m having so much fun taking these types of shots that I just don’t care :) Whether you’re posting cell phone shots to Instagram or making fine art prints for galleries, the point is to get out there and shoot the photos you want and hopefully enjoy yourself in the process.

Peeking

Peeking

So…you know how last week I wrote about how going down to the pond to take photos of ducks and other waterfowl was almost like cheating? Well, here we go again! This is a squirrel right near Theta Pond on campus, and just like last week part of me feels like this picture shouldn’t even count because shots like this are almost too easy to get. My coworker and I went for a walk around the pond and she spotted this fella munching on some kind of nut or acorn, and as usual I had my camera with me which was, thankfully, my D7100 and not my D750 so I had the advantage of a little extra reach with the crop sensor. Squirrels near the pond are so used to people that they barely bat an eye when you walk past them which makes images like this seem almost a bit unfair because it’s not like this required hours of waiting or any real work whatsoever. But still, just like last week’s picture of a duck, I rather like this picture even if it is somewhat derivative. It was fun to take and I like the way it’s composed, so I’m posting it here because I can :)

I shot this at f/1.8 which regular readers know is something I generally avoid, but since I knew I wouldn’t be able to get super duper close to the squirrel I wanted to make the most out of whatever I had and try to get a shallow depth of field if at all possible. Even though the resulting image isn’t as zoom-in-to-a-hundred-percent tack-sharp as I would like, using the wide aperture gave me the bokelicious background I was going for and helped focus the viewer right on the eyes and face of the squirrel.

One weird thing happened as I was taking this photo, which I hope is not an indicator of a larger problem that might be down the road: my lens refused to autofocus, at least at first. I tried a few different options on the camera and checked that the lens was in M/A mode, but nothing worked. I was getting a little antsy because I thought this squirrel might hightail it outta there and I was in danger of missing what might be a really nice photo, so I quickly took a few shots while focusing manually. Then I took the lens off, put it back on, and everything worked just fine at which point I got the shot you see here. Much to my surprise though, the manually-focused images actually looked decent. Not great, but not bad either, and if I would have shot at f/2.8 or f/4 they probably would have been just fine. The takeaway for me was that I need to take a cue from the US Coast Guard: semper paratus. Always be prepared. If I had taken the time to double check my gear I would have fixed the problem before it even became a problem. Thankfully all’s well that ends well and I’m treating this as a lesson in what to make sure I do the next time :)

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 :)