Truck For Sale

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I’m really not sure what to make of this image, to be perfectly frank. I was, once again, driving south on Highway 77 (side note: this is the last in a series of photos that I took while on a drive to Nebraska and back earlier this year) when I went right past this truck sitting by the side of the road with a For Sale sign hanging from its rear-view mirror. Something about the scene just caught my attention and I decided to stop for a picture, though I couldn’t quite explain why. Maybe it was the well-worn nature of the vehicle, a truck that had worked hard and served its owner well but was ready to move on to another stage of its life. Maybe it was the way the metal structure behind it rose like a stairway into the sky. Maybe it was the brown, earthy tones of the ground that seemed to match the well-used nature of the truck. Whatever the reason, I decided to stop and get a picture because…well, why not :)

Composing this picture was a little tricky because I really wanted to shoot the truck low to the ground and from this specific angle, which meant I was kind of stuck with whatever background elements were in the frame. I couldn’t move anything but myself, though I could (and did) change focal lengths on my 70-200mm lens which sort of helped, I guess. I ended up shooting this at 98mm with an aperture of f/2.8 to get a little bit of blur in the background but I wasn’t, and still am not, quite happy with the placement of the truck relative to the structure. I wish I could have separated the two a little more, but if I moved to the left then the truck ceased to be at this particular angle and that was a sacrifice I wasn’t really willing to make. I also wish the green street signs and yellow arrow (which you can only barely see anyway, since it’s obscured by another sign) weren’t in the picture but…well, what can you do.

Pictures like this might evoke some particular sentiments about the midwest, and while some of them might be true the irony is that things really aren’t like this around here. Sure we have our share of plains and cornfields and old trucks and whatnot, but a few months from now this composition will look entirely different. You would see a scene full of life, vibrant and colorful, with a blue sky stretching to the endless horizon. Sure there are signs of the past if you look for them, like an old truck or a rusty three-story pole barn, but just underfoot you’ll find plenty that points to an exciting future too.

Fancy Creek

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I’m not kidding, that’s literally the name of this waterway and I have always thought that this scene would make for an interesting photo opportunity, but I’ve never really had the time or gear or weather conditions to get this shot. I’ve driven over this spot a dozen times in recent memory and I have a hunch that this is all that remains of a once-great reservoir, much like Milford Lake just to the south, but that has now been returned to a state that resembles, more or less, how it might have looked long ago with a small stream cutting a meandering path through the Kansas wilderness.

As I was driving from Nebraska to Oklahoma in early February I knew that the weather would be good enough for me to at least pull over and see if I could get some type of shot here, but I wasn’t quite sure just what I was going for. I knew I would want something on the wider end of the spectrum so I grabbed my Fuji X100F, got out of my car, and made my way to the edge of the bluff you see in the foreground. I fired off a couple shots but something wasn’t quite working out and I wasn’t able to put my finger on it…and then I realized was going on. It was the curve of the river.

This shot, much like most of my images up to this point, didn’t do a good job of capturing the scale of the scene because the river just sort of wandered off the frame without going into the distance. It just wasn’t working, but I wasn’t really sure what to do about it. Kind of on a whim I decided to move even closer to the edge and also scoot up to the bridge a little bit too, so it didn’t take up quite as much room in the frame. The result is the picture you see at the top of this post, and it’s very close to what I’ve been seeing in my mind whenever I’ve thought about getting a photo of this location. Not much is different between the two pictures you see here–both have a bridge on the right, a river in the middle, and roughly the same horizon–but the one on top does such a better job of capturing the expansive nature of the scene.

I’d like to revisit this when the grass is greener and the sky is bluer, and hopefully use what I learned here to get an even better shot someday :)

Wildcat Windmill

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I’m telling you…Highway 15 is the gift that keeps on giving, photographically speaking. Every time I travel on that road I end up finding some type of scene worth photographing, and it almost always happens when I least expect it. I was heading southbound on a Sunday afternoon when off to my left as I saw this scene that looked like it was ripped straight from the pages of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book or maybe even a Coen Brothers movie. There was no shoulder to speak of and I didn’t want to slow down and be a bother to other cars, so I drove another mile, found a side road to turn around, waited for a group of vehicles to pass, and made my way back to a spot where I could pull off into the grass and take a picture of the windmill.

Several months ago I posted a couple pictures of windmills that were also shot in midwestern Kansas and those were certainly on my mind when I took this one, but there was something different and quite unique about the scene here. The two shots I posted earlier didn’t have much in the way of context, and you know how I’m such a big proponent of context :) What really stood out to me here was the hill in the background, which helped give a sense of scale to the picture that the other ones just lacked. You see the windmill, you see the little shed, and then you see the hill slightly out of focus (yay for the 70-200 f/2.8!) and then you hopefully get a sense for just how vast these windswept plains really are. You might even notice the grass bending over to complete the scene, and if it wasn’t for the Wildcat logo on the rudder you might even think this was some kind of centuries-old daguerrotype.

This picture shows something that I’ve really come to appreciate about doing Weekly Fifty, that of progress. One, two, four, or six years ago I would have never made the compositional choices I did to get this shot nor would I have had the gear to take this picture either. It’s fun to think about the things I’ve learned over the years, and even more fun to think about everything there is still left to learn :)

Cotton Bales

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I must admit I had no idea what was going on here when I drove past this scene in Kansas a few weeks ago. I’ve spent pretty much my whole life in the midwest but I had never before seen giant bales of cotton wrapped up in bright pink, and the sight was almost otherworldly. But there I was, driving down Highway 77 southbound towards Oklahoma when just to the east I spotted a field dotted with these bulbous pink cylinders and I didn’t have a clue what to make of it. All I knew is it would probably make an interesting picture, so I turned off onto the shoulder, got out my camera, and set to work.

I had my Fuji X100F and my Nikon D750 + 70-200 f/2.8 with me, and I knew right away I would need the latter and not the former to get any type of decent shot. I’m not one to go around trespassing on random fields, and because I knew I wanted to fill the frame with the giant reddish weirdness that was one of these bales I figured my best option would be to use the zoom lens, which turned out to work pretty well. It’s sometimes tricky to judge things like depth of field on a small camera screen but I was pretty sure I wanted to use f/2.8 since I was really hoping to put one single bale in focus with the rest slightly blurry, and anything smaller than f/2.8 wouldn’t have really given me the background blur I was aiming for. I was just hoping it wouldn’t be too much blur, but in the end any fears of such proved to be unfounded.

The one thing that I was really going for was to have each bale in the shot exist in its own space within the composition–a lesson I learned from Sam Abell in his remarkable lecture The Life of a Photograph. (Skip ahead to about the 47-minute mark if you want, but really the whole talk is worth your time.) Much like Mr. Abell did in his shot of calves being branded I wanted each bale to be separate from all the rest but all work together to form a cohesive whole, so I scooted left and right until I was satisfied I got the composition I was aiming for. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the radio tower in the background but I figured there was really nothing I could do, so I just didn’t think about it too much.

I did see a few other scenes like this on my drive but none were quite as intriguing, and now I know what I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next time I’m driving by some cotton fields :)

Midwest Winter Sunset

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It’s always good to turn around.

Shortly before I made this image I watched a video from Nerdwriter about one of the greatest photographs in American history, that of a mother and her children during the Great Depression. In the short video essay Evan Puschak, the creator and narrator, discussed how Dorothea Lange took this picture and it all started by her decision to turn around and return to a scene after she had already driven past. This is something I’ve pondered a lot over the years but at no time is this thought process quite as crystallized as it is when I am literally driving along a road, see a scene that might be interesting to photograph, and just continue onward. Almost inevitably a little voice starts nagging me and I end up turning around to see if I can get a picture I might like.

From time to time I have found myself driving between Oklahoma and Nebraska and whenever this happens I like to take the road less traveled, quite literally. I take it easy, stop often, and look for picture opportunities and in the process will usually stretch a six-and-a-half hour drive into nearly eight hours. I almost never regret any instances in which I have reversed course to get a picture, and even if the resulting image isn’t all that great I at least know I tried.

When I shot this image I was standing right here just northeast of Odell, Nebraska, while the sun was setting on a chilly February evening. I got out my Nikon D750 and 70-200 f/2.8 lens, dialed the aperture way down to f/16m, and spent the next ten minutes shooting dozens and dozens of pictures while the sun went down. On one hand it was just a really neat experience, getting to watch the earth become bathed in a dazzling display of orange and red without a breath of wind or noise in the air. On the other hand it was also a fun opportunity to get pictures, and this was my favorite of the bunch.

What really does it for me here are the wind turbines, which were missing on most of the shots I got at longer focal lengths. (I shot this at 70mm, ISO 100.) Seeing them rising above the horizon far in the distance lends a sense of scale that a lot of my other pictures from this event lack, which had the effect of rendering the scene somewhat sterile and uninteresting. The sunset by itself is pretty cool, especially as the rays poke through the trees, but the windmills, each one roughly 350 feet tall, give you a sense of just how vast the scene really is.

It was a quiet and humbling moment, and as I got in my car after the sun was over the horizon I said a prayer of thanks that God saw fit to create this world and breathe life into us that we might get to experience it.

Cosmic Cavortation

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I don’t know how many pictures I’ve posted here that began with me sitting in my usual sport for my morning prayer, looking out the window, and having an idea for a photograph suddenly hit me. It’s a lot, that’s for sure. That’s exactly what happened here, and this started like many others with me sitting in our living room looking in a southwest direction as I prayed for the day, for my family, for my friends, and other things that were on my heart that morning. The sky was still dark at 5:45am so when I looked out I could clearly see the crescent moon being trailed by a dot that, thanks to my SkyGuide app, I confirmed was actually the planet Venus.

My first thought, photographically speaking, was that I wished I had a better camera and lens to capture a shot of these two celestial bodies entwined in a cosmic dance for a short moment in those pre-dawn hours. Then I realized that I could probably get a decent image with my 70-200mm lens and Nikon D7100 camera, thanks to the huge amount of room those 24 megapixels offers when it comes to cropping. It was also super cold so I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to take the shot, but I figured I might as well give it a try and see what happened.

I’ve learned that when taking pictures of the moon, exposure can be a tricky thing. You need a fast shutter since it’s actually moving pretty quickly across the sky, and anything less than 1/90 probably won’t cut it. You need to limit the amount of light coming in when shooting a full moon because it’s actually pretty darn bright (it is reflecting the sun, after all) and a low ISO helps to preserve the rich texture and details of the surface. All that is well and good but doesn’t help much with just a sliver of the moon in view, which is what I had to work with here. There just isn’t much light available, so you have to get things just right or your photo will turn out a muddy mess.

Shooting at f/2.8 definitely helped because I could let in a ton of light, and when there’s not much to begin with, that’s always a good thing. I tried different shutter speeds and realized that I could get a reasonably good shot at 1/90 second, but anything below that was just too blurry from the motion of the moon. I set my ISO at 100 to get a super crisp, detailed shot and make sure I had enough photo information to work with in post in case I needed to do some editing. In retrospect I probably could have adjusted some of those parameters a bit (shooting at ISO 200 and 1/125 second, perhaps. And also zooming to 200mm, which I somehow forgot to do. The picture was shot at 180mm! Grr…) I used the good old focus-and-recompose technique (thanks back-button focusing!) to get the moon nice and sharp but then adjusting the composition slightly to include Venus just below and to the left.

I’m really pleased with how this turned out, and though it would have been cool to get Jupiter in the shot as well, it would have required a massively different composition with a much smaller moon and more zoomed-out view overall. The shot you see here was cropped quite a bit but I really like the level of detail it contains on the surface of the moon, and I hope it’s obvious that there are two celestial bodies here, the moon and Venus, but hopefully people will pick up on that without too much effort.

Footbridge

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This pictures serves as a bit of a companion piece to the one I shared two weeks ago which was taken at an Outdoor Classroom by one of the elementary schools here in town. This was the same location but a bit further down the path and I wanted to snap a picture that sort of caught the essence of the afternoon, but didn’t want it to be forced or artificial. To that end I kind of snuck up behind my kids (running ahead and leaving my poor wife in the dust, albeit briefly) and popped off a couple images in rapid succession while they walked down a path. When I checked them on my camera I noticed something, though: too much of the scene was in focus. I had the lens on my Fuji X100F set to f/5.6 because there was plenty of light and I was using the mechanical leaf shutter which doesn’t work at high shutter values when shooting wide open at f/2.0.

Normally my solution to this is to simply stop down my lens, which is what I did here originally, but from a compositional standpoint I really wanted the kids in focus but the background to be a little blurry so as to draw the viewer’s eye to the children but still have a sense of place and context. I quickly changed to M+E shutter which forces the camera to use the mechanical shutter as long as it can, but then activate the electronic shutter if necessary. Then I dialed in an f/2.0 aperture, set my camera to 8fps drive mode, and caught up once again with my kids as they were crossing this bridge. And I was able to get the shot I was hoping for.

I know a lot of people tend to value the simplicity of mobile phone cameras but this image, to me, is a lesson in the value of learning how to manually control a camera to get the shot you want. A mobile phone would have been able to approximate this shot but the depth of field would have been so wide that the entire scene would be in focus. Portrait Mode could be used, if shot with a phone that supports it, but that only works with subjects that are close to the lens. In this case with subjects several meters away Portrait Mode would have been useless. I knew what I wanted my picture to look like, knew how to control my camera to get it, and am really happy with the result. That’s not to say mobile phone cameras are not value and capable and worth having…but just illustrates that sometimes it’s nice to have a dedicated camera and also know how to make it do what you want :)

Side note: This post roughly marks six years of me doing Weekly Fifty, and I wanted to thank all of you who have been a part of this blog for so long. I appreciate your comments, your support, and even your questions about photography. Thank you, and here’s to many many more years of weekly pictures :)

Magic Tree

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Each year an artist named Will Treelighter, in Columbia, MO, wraps a few trees with lights. I don’t mean a couple hundred or even a couple thousand, though. I mean more like tens of thousands of lights, all different colors and all lit up and glowing and all free for anyone to come look at. These trees really are a sight to see and if you ever find yourself in the area with some time to spare I highly recommend giving it a look.

When we were in Columbia visiting family over Christmas we made sure to check out the trees and I brought my Fuji X100F to see if I could get a picture worthy of Weekly Fifty. One big issue was the fact that we had our kids with us which wasn’t really a problem, because it would be silly and selfish not to bring the kids, but added some challenges and constraints in terms of getting a picture. For one, I didn’t want to spend half an hour ignoring my boys while my wife and mother-in-law got to enjoy the tree lights. It was also cold, and we had a time constraint in that we were up against the boys’ bedtime and I didn’t want to sacrifice that for a blog photo.

I had my tripod with me and tried a few long-exposure shots from about a hundred yards away but they just didn’t seem to capture the scope and scale of the trees, so I shifted things around and went for the opposite approach of getting real close instead of real far. When I got this shot we were about one minute away from heading home and I had to think fast, so I ran up to the tree, put my camera in manual focus, and got a couple pictures of this green bulb with a thousand points of light in the background behind it. I still don’t know if it quite captures the essence of what these trees really look like, but somehow this seemed to do a better job and result in a more colorful image than any that I shot from far off.

I guess the lesson to be learned here, if there is one, might be that shifting your perception of a scene can lead to some dramatic results much different than what you might expect but equally interesting in their own right. And maybe next year I’ll be able to experiment with some different types of images with these trees, as long as my kids cooperate :)

Outdoor Classroom

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In some ways this picture reminded me of one I shared a few weeks ago from Arcadia Lake, and certainly the composition is quite similar in a lot of ways. Like that one, this was shot with my Fuji X100F from the ground looking up at the sky through a forest of bare trees. The foreground dominates the frame with a bit of a green patch on the left, the horizon lines are roughly equal, and both images were taken at a lake. Suffice it to say the first image was certainly on my mind when I shot this one, and that’s one of the fun things about photography: learning from your earlier shots and letting them inform your approach to subsequent pictures.

What might not seem obvious when looking at this one is that the setting is, in fact, vastly different. Instead of a huge lake at a state park, this one was taken at an outdoor classroom on the southwest side of town. The lake in this image is actually just on the other side of the patch of trees and it’s…oh, about maybe a quarter of an acre in size. You’d never know it from looking at the picture though, and what you also don’t see is the middle school just out of frame as well as the elementary school behind me. Nothing has been photoshopped here, just cleverly hidden thanks to how I composed the shot.

So what happened was, my wife and I took our boys to this spot on a chilly Saturday afternoon in late January when we needed to get them out of the house for a little while. The park we usually go to was kind of a non-starter since we had just been there a few days prior and the kids tend to do better with a change of scenery, so we went here and basically just let them wander around on the dirt paths for an hour and a half. They vacillated between throwing sticks into the water and finding out where various trails went, and even though their pants and shoes were much more muddy than we anticipated a great time was had by all and we left feeling like we had done something useful with the time. Not life-changing or earth-shattering, but hopefully better than sitting inside all day :)

Skylight

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

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

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

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

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