Birdhouse in Your Soul

Birdhouse in Your Soul

Most of the pictures I’ve been posting here lately have come about through sheer happenstance and are the result of some kind of serendipity, good timing, or even just random task…er…chance.. Not this one, though. I specifically set out to take the picture you see here, not because it was especially artistic but because it has a degree of personal meaning and significance. So, of course, there’s a bit of a story to be told as well :)

Years ago when we moved in to our house one of the existing accoutrements in the back yard was that of a couple of bird houses. Not knowing anything about feeding our little avian friends, my wife and I just let them sit attached to the fence where they remain to this day, and each Spring a pair of little birds (I have no idea what kind) makes a nest in each small little wooden dwelling. This year I wanted to try something new so I found some plans online for making bird houses of our own. My boys, ages 5 and 3, thought this would be a cool idea and it also gave me a chance to use some power tools which is always a good thing. I searched many websites and finally found these simple plans for a Blue Jay house which I tweaked a little to fit my own preferences and materials.

Originally my boys and I made a house based on those plans but using some spare pickets that have been sitting in the corner of our yard ever since we bought the house. Though the lumber wasn’t decaying, it was rather brittle and we soon realized that it was not at all suited for any type of construction because it simply split apart whenever we drove screws into it. Even with pilot holes. Yeah…not good. So we went to the hardware store and got some 6′ by 5 1/2″ fence pickets for about $1.60 each, a box of 1 5/8″ deck screws (the self-tapping kind which don’t need pilot holes. Whee!) and set to work to make what you see in this picture.

It took another few prototypes before we got comfortable with the final product, and our kids were really happy with how things turned out. We tried spray painting one of the prototypes so we could decorate it, but that proved to be somewhat of a fruitless endeavor because the wood soaked up so much paint that multiple coats would be required after which my finger really got sore from pressing the nozzle on the paint can :) For these two bird houses, our boys just got out some crayons and made drawings on all sides which is what you’re seeing in the picture. According to my oldest son the illustration here is a rainbow, and I thought it would make for a fun picture that would recall some special memories long after the wood decays and the color fades away.

Ever since my boys were little I’ve tried to involve them in handyman projects, from replacing outlets to painting walls to cutting down trees. I don’t let them use some of the bigger tools in my garage like my table saw or miter saw, but they do enjoy getting their hands dirty with other tools like my drill and sander, and then cleaning things off with the air compressor. Hopefully projects like these bird houses will help show them that they can use their own two hands to create objects that are beautiful, functional, and help others–even if it’s just our small little feathered friends. Now all we need is a blue canary to inhabit these things. Maybe I can find one in the outlet by the light switch.

Stacks

Stacks

Sometimes it’s the familiar things in life that would make such good photos, if only we weren’t so used to seeing them on a daily basis. Such is often the case with me as I walk around my home, my neighborhood, or even the OSU campus where I work and one thing I try to do to combat the overwhelming sense that there’s nothing interesting to photograph is to force myself to take a picture of something. That’s kind of what happened here because normally this building, part of the Noble Research Center, is something I would just pass by and about which I wouldn’t really give a second thought. I mean…it’s just a building. What would possibly make it an interesting photograph?

The answer to that depends on whether you even accept the premise of the question that it is an interesting photograph in the first place. It might be, or you might not like it at all. Either way I promise you I intentionally used several photographic techniques here to get this specific shot and I’d like to share them with you. So here we go :)

While it’s true that this is, on one hand, a rather unremarkable brick-and-mortar structure, it’s the four columns on top that make it stand out as something more. I don’t even know what they are, since this certainly is not a factory or coal-burning power plant. My guess is they help draw away fumes or gases from the labs housed in the NRC but whatever they are, they sure do look interesting. I knew I wanted them in the shot, but as longtime readers might know I also had to get some context in there too. I shot this with my D7100 so I was working with the limitations of a crop-sensor camera, and decided that I wanted to shoot the building from an angle because it was much more interesting to see it receding back into the bottom-right corner of the frame as opposed to a picture from the side or front. I think the angle helped add a bit of dimensionality to what might otherwise be a rather dull photo.

I also wanted the structure to feel somewhat imposing, so I retreated as far back as I could while still maintaining a sense of scale. If I moved back much father, other objects like trees and neighboring buildings started to creep into the sides of the image, which tended to draw the viewer’s focus away from the pillars. One of my ideas here was to make the building seem taller and larger than it actually is in real life, which was done (I hope, anyway) through the use of composition alone. By moving myself and positioning my camera to get this photo with its receding lines and vertical pillars I hope I have given you, the viewer, the idea that this might be something more than it actually is.

Spoiler alert: it’s the middle building in this Google Maps 3D view.

In the end I’m not sure if this is a picture I would necessarily call interesting, special, or noteworthy in any way but it was fun to experiment a little and, if nothing else, I got my camera out of my bag and in my hands which is always a good thing :)

Sarlacc

Sarlacc

Sometimes you never know what you’re gonna get, whether you’re eating a box of chocolates or going out for a quick walk with your camera. In fact I think by this point I should probably consider changing the name of this site from “Weekly Fifty” to “Five Minute Walks Around Theta Pond” since that seems to be where so many of these pictures come from. I took this on a particularly pleasant afternoon in February when the weather was in the mid 60’s, and it was one of those times that seems as though it’s tailor-made for snapping a few pictures. Armed with my D7100, 50mm lens, and a few close-up filters I was determined to get a few good shots while the sun was shining.

After a few minutes of walking, which also included a couple pictures of some yellow flowers I might post here in the coming weeks, I saw this purple…um…something-or-other. Perhaps it’s a tulip? No, that’s not right. A lily? I honestly have no idea. To me it looked like the monster in the sarlacc pit in the special edition of Return of the Jedi. (A version I own, have seen, but refuse to watch anymore due to the inclusion of the heinous Jedi Rocks scene in Jabba’s palace. #maxreboband #sysnootles #neverforget #despecializedtrilogyftw.) Whatever it was, I wanted to get a picture so there were a few things to think about:

• Regular 50mm lens, or filter?

• What angle do I shoot from?

• What do I focus on?

• What aperture do I use to get the desired depth of field and sharpness?

• What do I want in the foreground and background for context?

On a shot like this shutter speed and ISO are mostly irrelevant because there is so much light, but it was still a lot to consider in just a few seconds of time. I knew I wanted the viewer’s attention to be drawn to the bright purple flower but if I shot it straight on it would lose a sense of depth and context. However if I stood too far to the side the leaves would get in the way. I chose this particular composition because it not only contains a bit of foreground and background elements, but also another flower on the side to add a bit of additional color to the scene and make the central flower feel less isolated.

I used my +4 filter at f/4 (seriously, the 50mm lens, +4 filter, at f/4 is magical. Give this combination a try if you are able to.) and got a picture that was almost exactly what I was hoping for, which isn’t always the case when I go out shooting. I’m super pleased with how sharp everything turned out, and if you pixel peep at 100% you’ll even notice little drops of condensation on the leaf at the bottom of the frame. Sometimes when I shoot subjects close up I find myself having to use live view to get the focus right, but this was either using the in-viewfinder autofocus or me just focusing manually. I honestly don’t remember but either way I like the result and I hope you do too :)

Highway 77 Sunrise

77

Every now and then when I make it back to Nebraska I like to take a route that’s a bit slower than the interstate. Maybe I’m old, or maybe I just like looking for photo opportunities, but when I was younger I took the Ian Malcolm approach of “must go faster.” Nowadays I like to go with a journey-is-the-reward approach and take my sweet time, and one of my favorite roads to travel is Highway 77 which winds north through Kansas among lots of small towns and even a few lakes. It’s not the quickest route but I think it’s only about 20 minutes shorter than Interstate 35, though that’s if you don’t get stuck behind a John Deere tractor along the way :)

When I was up north (which, to an Oklahoman, means some place like Nebraska) several weeks ago I once again drove-slash-ambled along 77 on the way there as well as the return trip, except on the way back home I left town at 6:30am so I could still have some time with my wife and our kids before the little ones went to bed. As I watched the sky change from inky black to burnt orange over the course of the first hour of my trip I kept wanting to stop to take pictures of the wee hours before sunrise, but nothing was really working out how I wanted it to. (I also didn’t want to dilly-dally too much or else I’d be wasting my early rise.) Trees obscured the horizon, buildings and power lines ended up jutting through the frame, and as the sky got lighter and lighter my chances got slimmer and slimmer. I was just south of Beatrice, right about here in fact, when I saw the sun juuuust starting to peek over the horizon in front of me and knew that this was my chance. I quickly pulled off the road, grabbed my D750 + 50mm lens, and ran off to the side of my car to snap a few frames. I shot several at f/8 and a couple more at f/11, all while maintaining an ISO of 100 in order to get the richest colors possible, and in the space of about a minute and a half I was able to get a few that I liked before the sun rose too high and ruined the moment.

It was a bit of a tricky situation for one reason, really: composition. I didn’t want the sun to be in the center because those shots (imho) are a little boring, but I didn’t want it too far off to the side or it would seem weird. I also looked for some other elements to feature in the frame but wasn’t sure how high or low to place the horizon itself. What I’ve ended up with is a near textbook example of the efficacy of the Rule of Thirds: the horizon, the sun, the radio tower…it’s just about as Rule of Thirds-ey as you can get. And to be honest, that’s not a bad thing. Sure you can always try new things and break the old conventions to get interesting and exciting shots, but with just a minute to get the shot I went with the same old tried-and-true compositional method that always just gets the job done. This shot won’t win any awards but I like it, and as I’ve mentioned here before, that’s really all that matters to me :)

Resurgence

Resurgence

One thing I really like about using my close-up filters is that it’s helping me to see the world around me in a whole new light, especially the types of things I have photographed before. For instance, each year around February or early March I see all sorts of signs of life after a chilly winter, and one of my favorites to watch out for is rose bushes that are just starting to spring forth from their crispy brown cocoons. I’ve tried photographing this phenomenon before, but the results have been mixed as you can see here:

Rosebud

That was taken in my back yard with my 50mm lens on a Nikon D200 and focusing as close as I could get it. The bud itself is the same physical size as the one in this week’s post, and yet because I simply couldn’t get very close to it without my lens being able to focus on it, the entire picture feels different. You see a giant chunky thorny green branch from a rose bush…and wait a minute, there’s a little red thing peeking out. Indeed some viewers might not even notice the bud, and this is addition to the relatively poor composition of the picture in general. Oh well, you live and learn right? :)

Contrast that image, taken in March of 2014, to this week’s picture which I took nearly three years later. Not only have I learned a lot more about creating a well-composed photograph but I was, thanks to my +10 close-up filter, able to get much closer to the little red bud. So much that it nearly fills the frame and is obviously the clear subject of the image. The second picture is so much better (in my opinion) that it’s not even close, and I’m constantly amazed at how using a close-up filter is able to bring out so many rich details that are all around us but often go unnoticed.

Focusing this image was tricky as all get out, since shooting an object a few inches away results in a depth of field that is downright unwieldy. I initially took some shots at f/4 but then stopped down to f/8 to not only get a sharper image but to get a slightly wider area in focus too. The f/4 shots also lacked a sense of context, as the background was just a blurry cloudy mess whereas in the f/8 iteration you can (sort of) see a thorn extending from the branch which hopefully sends a signal that this is on a rose bush and also gives a sense of scale for the bud.

So yeah…maybe I’ll make a whole series out of this. “Re-taking shots I couldn’t get before I had close-up filters.” Hmm :)

Castle on the Hill

Castle on the Hill

Before you ask…yes, the title of this picture was taken from an Ed Sheeran song :) The song itself didn’t inspire the photo though, and in fact this was a picture that, contrary to many of the pictures I put here on the blog, was deliberately planned in advance. On a chilly weekend in January my wife and I loaded up the kids in our car to take a little drive so our youngest would hopefully fall asleep and take a nap…which actually worked. Woohoo! As we headed south out of town we drove past this dilapidated, um, barn? Shed? Workshop? I’m not even sure. But whatever it once was, it had clearly fallen on hard times and as we drove past I had the distinct though that it would make for a good picture. So a few days later I returned to the scene on my way to work in an attempt to make good on my vision.

Going in to the shoot I knew I would need a couple of specific pieces of gear. Based on the proximity of the building to the main road, and the fact that right in front of where I stood to take this image there was a barbed-wire fence to keep out any trespassers, I knew I would need to use my D750 if I shot this with my 50mm lens. I could get no closer and no farther from the building than what you see here and I knew that if I shot this with my crop-sensor D7100 it would be much too tight and I wouldn’t be able to capture a sense that this building was part of a much larger landscape. I also knew I would need a tripod since I was going to shoot this early in the morning, and finally I understood that I would have to shoot in manual without Auto-ISO in order to get precisely the end result I was hoping for.

That advance mental preparation paid off quite well and on the morning I took this shot the sky was quite overcast which provided a nice even, and rather somber, light to the scene. I hopped out of the car, grabbed my D750 and tripod, and walked right up to the fence to take a few pictures. I shot this at f/8, ISO 100 to get everything nice and sharp and this particular image required 0.3 seconds to get a properly-exposed photo. (Bonus tip: if you’re doing shots like this with a tripod, use a delay timer so your picture isn’t affected by your finger wobbling the camera when you press the shutter button.) There was not much room to move around laterally either, which was fine because the spot I was standing gave me pretty much the exact view I was hoping for. I also composed the shot specifically with the pine tree on the right and the other two trees, sans leaves, on the left. I tried shifting my view a bit to the north but other trees soon entered the frame in the foreground which wasn’t what I wanted at all.

In the end I’m happy with how this turned out and part of me wonders what the history of this place is like. Since I don’t know, I like to make up my own stories which can be a lot more interesting than finding out what really happened. I’m also reminded of how, even though I’m a big proponent of spontaneous photography, it’s also a good thing to plan your shots and create a deliberate composition from time to time.

Jupiter

Jupiter

When my wife and I moved to Oklahoma several years ago we were told a couple things about the weather that we were cautioned to keep in mind. The first, regarding tornados, was obvious and we soon followed through on getting an underground storm shelter installed on our property. The second was something we didn’t expect, which was that Oklahoma, apparently, doesn’t get a lot of snow in the winter but can get a lot of ice. I don’t know if we objectively get more or less ice than, say, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Kansas, but I certainly can confirm we get far less snow. Nonetheless, when we do get ice storms here they tend to be pretty bad and such was the case, or so we thought, on a chilly weekend in January when Winter Storm Jupiter made its way slowly across the midwestern plains.

Though the weather conditions didn’t quite materialize how meteorologists were predicting, we did get a fair amount of ice here in town and when my kids and I woke up on Saturday morning (I like to let my wife sleep in on the weekends) we saw that the whole world outside was covered in a thin sheet of frozen water that glistened in the morning sunlight. I quickly grabbed my camera and walked around the yard for about five minutes attempting to take a few shots before things started to melt, and came back with a few dozen pictures of branches, leaves, icicles dangling from fences, and crepe myrtle buds like what you see in this week’s picture above. I shot most of the pictures with my +4 filter at f/4 or smaller in order to get things as sharp as they could be, and this one was my favorite of the bunch.

This picture could also be seen as some kind of tangible evidence of my own progression as a photographer. The last time I remember having the opportunity to take pictures on the morning after an ice storm I made an image called Winter Berries that I posted to Weekly Fifty. I like the colors of that photo but looking back on it I think it’s far too cluttered, with a depth of field that is way too shallow given the foreground elements, and generally leaves the viewer with a sense of relative confusion. This week’s image, by comparison, is much more focused with a cleaner overall composition, and the viewer’s eye is specifically directed to just one or two elements. Now of course all this is a matter of personal taste and some might prefer the original over this one, but in my opinion this week’s image shows how my approach to photography has changed over the years and is, to be honest, much better than it used to be. And I’m sure a couple years from now I’ll look back at this picture and shake my head, wondering just what in the world I was thinking. But that’s good! And if it weren’t for the early steps we would never have the later ones.

Incidentally, this post comes almost exactly four years after I started Weekly Fifty. It sure has been a fun ride, and I want all of you to know how much I appreciate you taking time out of your days to read these posts, listen to the commentary, and even leave feedback. You are all part of why this blog is so special to me, and I hope it has helped you learn and grow as photographers too. Thank you, and I’m excited for what the next four years (and many more) have in store.

Here’s to the journey, folks :)

Day One

Day One

The winter here in Oklahoma has been a little strange, with some days in the 60’s and 70’s and other days bitterly cold with freezing rain and even a little snow. This up-and-down pattern (or lack thereof) is still a bit of a surprise for a Northerner like me who still thinks of winters as perpetually snow-covered and well below 32 degrees on the thermometer. Not that I don’t enjoy it, mind you, and in the nearly eight years since my wife and I have moved down here I have grown quite accustomed to making it through the colder months with jackets instead of wool overcoats. In fact I quite like it and I don’t know if I’d ever want to go back :)

This picture was taken on January 17, the start of the Spring 2017 semester at OSU, at the edge of good old Theta Pond–the location of a disproportionally large number of Weekly Fifty photos. It was the first time in a while that we had such pleasant weather, and with temps in the mid-50’s it made for ideal photography conditions especially with all the student activity that was sorely lacking in the preceding months. I just couldn’t help myself and, because I had my D7100 + 50mm lens with me, went for a short walk to enjoy a few minutes of nature through the lens of my camera.

Even though I have taken what might be considered far too many pictures of Theta Pond I never really get tired of walking around it. At one point way back in the early days of OSU it was used as a watering hole for cattle, and in the years since it is has morphed into basically a man-made heavily-curated artifice and yet it feels so nice to just go and chill out on one of the benches, watch the geese and ducks, or stroll around on the sidewalks which is precisely what I was doing when I took this picture. I deliberately framed the fountain between the two trees on the right and shot with a 1/10 shutter in order to get a little bit of motion trails in the fountain. The only way to get a still image without a tripod was to shoot a burst of images and hope for the best, and out of a half dozen images this was the one that turned out the clearest. I actually overexposed the original by about a full stop in order to use a 1/10 shutter in bright daylight without an ND filter but thanks to the magic of RAW I was able to recover plenty of data in Lightroom.

Note the overexposed sidewalk and stone border around the trees.

It’s probably a bit cliché at this point to continue posting pictures of Theta Pond but what can I say…I like it and if you ever get the chance to visit OSU I’m sure you will too :)

No Stronger Bond

No Stronger Bond

This post is sort of a follow-up to a previous one from the fall of 2015 title Aftermath, which dealt with the fallout from a tragic event at the annual OSU Homecoming Parade in which a woman drove her car into a crowd of onlookers and killed four people including a young boy and a woman named Bonnie who worked in the my building on campus. My family and I were at the parade a few blocks away from the car crash and almost everyone I talked to in the following days had some kind of connection to the event. That’s life in a small town, really. Friends were at the same intersection and narrowly avoided getting hit. Coworkers had just seen Bonnie and her husband a few minutes prior to their passing. Church members were near the scene, and even a student of mine who was in the military was so close he was one of the first responders at the scene offering help to those who were hurt. It was a rough time for pretty much everyone in Stillwater and the intersection of Hall of Fame and Main Street (seriously…Main Street. How much more Americana can you get?) is, to this day, memorialized with flowers and signs like what you see here.

The morning I took this picture I was biking to work on an uncharacteristically warm day in January which also happened to be the day that the woman who was responsible for the tragedy was finally brought to justice. About two hours after I took this picture she accepted a plea deal and will spend the rest of her life in prison–a result about which I feel strangely ambivalent. Putting this woman in jail will not bring the four people killed back to life, and yet the punishment at the same time feels almost a bit light. No one really knows why she did what she did, and even the woman has indicated she feels remorse for her actions. But at the same time I wouldn’t really want her to go scot-free either (not that such an outcome was ever an option.) To be honest I’m not really sure what justice would even look like in this case, but at least now the town has what might be called a sense of closure from the ordeal almost a year and a half ago.

In the days following the accident there were signs of shared pain throughout the whole town, and the message on that small little handmade sign rings true: nothing brings people together quite like a shared experience, and even moreso when the experience is one of profound pain, grief, sadness, or tragedy. The inevitable hashtag, in this case #StillwaterStrong, started showing up on social media almost immediately afterwards, but even today that simple compound word can be seen on signs, shirts, and vehicles all over the city. I bike past that same intersection almost every day and looking at the photos of the four people, especially little Nash Lucas, who were killed still makes me tear up a little. While hearing the news that the perpetrator will no longer be a danger to anyone else in society certainly brings a sigh of relief, many people here in Stillwater remain as frustrated, angry, and confused as ever simply because there doesn’t seem to be any reason behind what she did. And I think it’s that vacuum of logic that makes this whole incident strike a little deeper as a result.

So to Nash, Nikita, Marvin and Bonnie…you are missed and you will continue to be missed. And every time I walk past Bonnie’s office on the way to mine I still think about her smile, her charm, and her relentless positive attitude with which she approached every aspect of her job. I do hope their families can sleep a little easier, and if nothing else all this serves as yet another reminder to me to give my wife and two little boys just one more hug before heading out the door in the morning.

Where the Hearth Is

Where the hearth is

One of my fondest memories from childhood is that of making fires in our living room fireplace. My dad would get a big fire going at the drop of a hat, and we would burn all sorts of wood in there: old fence boards, scrap lumber, logs from felled trees, and even trash. Yes, as weird as it might sound, my dad often used the fireplace as a sort of homebrew incinerator and it was not uncommon on a cold day to find the wood in our fireplace augmented by discarded papers, used plastic bottles, or anything else that might otherwise find its way to the landfill. I think this tendency came from the days when my family used to live in Minnesota where, as I understand, it was fairly common for residents to dispose of trash by burning it in their yard. Or maybe it was just my dad. Either way, when I was a kid I figured this sort of thing was normal. Then again, my family also rode unicycles in parades so I might not have had the most typical childhood :)

When my wife and I bought our house nearly eight years ago I was delighted that we found one with a fireplace and for a while both of us enjoyed burning fires during many cold, and even not-so-cold, days throughout the winter months. Once we had kids we kind of got out of the habit because they required a lot more of our attention, and the last few winters here haven’t really been cold enough to warrant a blazing fire. A few days maybe, but the times when we had an opportunity to make a fire never really lined up with days that were cold enough to do so.

It was with almost giddy excitement, then, that on a chilly morning in January 2017 after a fresh snowfall which resulted in OSU and all public schools being closed I rushed outside to gather a big load of wood from out back and make a big ol’ fire just like we used to. I started it in the morning and we kept it fed throughout the day, and my boys (ages 5 and 3) were thrilled at the prospect of having the fireplace lit up all day. In what might have been a bit of longing for my own homeland of central Minnesota, my wife and I got out all their snow-based storybooks and huddled up by the fire to read about snowmen, sledding, and a perennial favorite, a hedgehog who ends up wearing a hat.

This being Oklahoma the show and cold weather did not last long and the next day temps were in the mid-30’s, and the day after that one would be hard-pressed to find any evidence that it had snowed at all. To capture a bit of the day I took this shot after the kids were in bed with my D750, 50mm lens, and a tripod. I shot it at f/5.6 to get the image nice and sharp while getting a bit of background blur, and used a 10-second exposure to get some flames and sparks too. This was one of about ten shots I took and while some had more flames and others more sparks, I liked the cozy feeling of this particular photo the best. I’m not sure when another day will come around that we can build a fire, but I’m glad we had the chance to do it and my kiddos got to help out a little bit too. Who knows…maybe one day they will get to do the same thing in houses of their own. Just hopefully with wood and not trash :)