Enter Light

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Contrary to last week’s image, this was one that definitely involved some thought and planning. My neighbors have a two-acre yard, part of which they let go untended and un-mowed because it ends up fostering a huge swath of yellow and red flowers, so after a rainstorm in mid-May I figured it would make a good setting for some pictures. I stopped on my way to work the next morning armed with my Classic Combination of a Nikon D750 and 50mm lens, and set about capturing a picture of red flowers surrounded by glistening grass.

I really did have this specific shot in mind when I set out with my camera that morning, and I was glad I could make my vision come to life pretty much how I planned. I shot this with the sun directly behind me just coming up over the horizon, which cast a nice even light over the whole scene. I also used a pretty wide aperture of f/1.8 which I normally tend to avoid, but gosh darnit, sometimes it’s fun to just open things up all the way and go for it. I knew I would be sacrificing a bit of sharpness and a few flower petals wouldn’t quite be in focus, but the tradeoff in terms of blur and subject isolation were worth it to me. I also liked how I was able to create a red horizontal blurry band of red flowers near the top of the picture, which was something I did no initially intend but really liked when I saw it.

My inspiration for this picture was a similar photo I took almost exactly one year prior, but I figured I wouldn’t get the same results with butterflies. And even though that assumption was correct, there are some things about this image I prefer over the original too. That’s the fun part about photography: you get the opportunity to revisit your creations and learn from them, and hopefully improve your images over time :)

Bright Spot

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It’s been a rough couple of months here in the Midwest, and hopefully by the time you read this the sun will be shining and the waters will have receded a bit! We capped a chilly winter with a very wet and rainy spring that saw rivers well over their banks, lakes swelling, and farmland inundated with more water than it could handle. The day after I took this image we got yet another all-night downpour and Theta Pond, which was right behind me as I shot the picture, was more like Theta Reservoir and a little waterfall was pouring onto University Avenue because of it. And thus the name of the picture reflects the conditions in which it was shot, which was an abnormally sunny day in the midst of lots of cloudy ones.

My inspiration for this photo was a few images that I recently posted which I took with my niece when she was in town. It’s weird how the simple act of going out to take photos of flowers can be so soothing, and a good way to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life. There’s flowers all around, especially at this time of year, and yet how many times have I thought to myself “There’s nothing to take pictures of?” (Answer: way too many times.) So I figured I would do just that, and it was a nice way to slow down for a bit which also resulted in a cool photo.

As is normal for me when I use my X100F I shot this in JPEG and used the Velvia film simulation so I wouldn’t have to do a lot of RAW editing. I shot wide open at f/2.0 to get a bit of foreground/background separation, and I think (though I’m not exactly sure) I used the electronic shutter so I could get a proper exposure despite shooting wide open. I used to activate the ND filter for situations like this, but that often slowed down the focusing so I’ve been using the electronic shutter instead and for the most part it works quite well, especially outdoors.

Zoo Therapy

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Each semester during dead week (aka the week right before final exams) OSU hosts a petting zoo for the college kids on campus. And I know what you’re probably thinking…a petting zoo for college students? That sound so stupid! But I’m telling you, it’s not. Every time this petting zoo shows up I’m amazed at how many students surround the animals, interacting with them and spending a few minutes getting lost in the moment before heading back to their studies and other obligations. And not just students, but staff and faculty members too. It might seem silly but a handful of barnyard animals can do wonders for people of all stripes and walks of life during an intense and often stressful part of the year.

When I visited the Finals Week Petting Zoo during May of 2019 I was on my way to a faculty meeting but stopped long enough to get a few pictures. I would have loved to stick around for a while just petting the goats and rabbits (and one llama, I think) but, as they say, it was not meant to be. Still, the few minutes I did have were pretty relaxing and I tried to get a few shots of the occasion as well. The X100F is perfect for this type of scenario since the 35mm (equivalent) focal length lets you isolate a subject while also showing plenty of surrounding context, which is what you see here. The sheep is clearly the subject of this image while behind it you can see students, a building, trees, and more. I shot this wide open at f/2.0 to get some background blur, which incidentally meant I had to use the electronic shutter since the mechanical shutter on the X100F has a max speed of 1/1000 second at f/2.0, but a proper exposure required 1/2000 second.

One thing you’ll notice about this photo is the colors look a bit…odd. Over-saturated, perhaps. I shot this in JPEG using the Velvia preset and I’m not entirely happy with how it turned out. It’s a little overdone for my taste, but rather than shoot and tweak in RAW I’m finding that I prefer to customize my JPG settings and just let the final picture be what it is. So this was definitely a learning experience for me, and it will continue to be so as I play around with the JPG settings.

May Day Mushroom

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I’m not sure why, but I kind of have a fascination with photographing mushrooms. They’re not around for long, and when you get down low to the ground to take a picture it feels a bit like you’re sneaking a peek into some kind of hidden kingdom. You don’t see them out in the open very often, and something about the conditions in which you often find them (i.e. musty, damp, kind of dark) just seem kind of…different. When my wife and I took our kids to the local botanic garden for their annual May Day event we were about to head to one of the art pavilions when I spotted this mushroom poking through some mulch near the base of a tree, so I told them to go on without me for just a minute.

I had (what else?) my Fuji X100F with me which isn’t super sharp at maximum aperture when photographing subjects up close, but in this case I cared more about blurring the background than getting an ultra-sharp image, so I didn’t care too much about the technical details and just went all the way to f/2.0. I shot this in JPEG, as I usually do with my Fuji, and used the Velvia film simulation which is really well-suited for nature photography because it has a rich but not overly-saturated color palette. I positioned the mushroom slightly off-center to get some greenery behind it, and even though there’s some weird smudging along the left side of the stem I’m really happy with how it turned out. It’s got a nice sense of time and place, and the overcast sky lent a nice even lighting to the whole scene.

I think one of the things that draws me to these types of pictures is the transient nature of the subject. If I would have come back to the same spot the next day, the mushroom would have been gone. These things come and go so quickly you really don’t have much time to photograph them, which means you get a nice little slice of time captured on camera that’s somehow different from a lot of other pictures.

All Things New

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You probably know by now that I’m no arborist, and my knowledge of plants and vegetation is about the same as my knowledge of particle physics. Which is to say, not exactly stellar. All I know is that flowers can be really pretty, and when I see interesting shapes and colors in nature I like to have the opportunity to capture them with my camera. About a week before I took this shot last April I noticed trees all over town exploding with bright purple flowers and while the effect was fascinating to see, I was never able to really get the kind of picture I wanted. Everything I tried just wasn’t quite able to capture the image I had in my mind, until I took a closer look and found what I was missing.

The key to getting the picture, I realized, was to give the viewer something to focus on. With an entire branch full of purple and pink there was no one clear spot to look at, but after realizing that many of the trees also had tiny little leaves sprouting from amidst the puffs of violet I knew I could use that to my advantage. I used my Nikon D750, 50mm lens, and a +4 close-up filter to get close to the leaves, and shot at f/5.6 to get a reasonably wide depth of field. This let me get the leaves to be sharp and focused while still giving me plenty of background blur, which hopefully helps the viewer see that there’s a lot more going on than just some leaves.

This is another example of the continuous learning process that is basically required of anyone who wants to learn more about photography. Or any given pursuit, for that matter. I had the equipment to take this picture about three years ago but none of the knowledge and experience, either on a technical level or from an artistic standpoint. It’s fun to see what happens as you refine and hone your craft over time, and I’m sure not too long from now I’ll revisit a scene like this and take a picture that’s even better. And it’s this cycle of continuous learning and improvement which makes this hobby so much fun :)

Stalwart

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In last week’s post I wrote about how the flower photo which was showcased came about as a result of a short drive down the street with my niece to experiment with, and learn more about, photography. This picture also came from the same event, and it’s also an illustration of how sometimes people can see things that you might not notice even though they are right in front of you.

After my niece and I spent about 20 minutes taking pictures of purple tulips we got in my car and drove down the road a little ways to see if there might be any other scenes worth photographing. The sun was rapidly descending on the horizon and after going about a half mile and coming up empty I turned around in a parking lot and we headed for home. That’s when she spotted this lone tulip poking up in the middle of a boulevard, all by itself, and excitedly told me to pull over so we could get a shot. I didn’t even realize this flower but she had no trouble spotting it, so I found a safe spot to park and we ran over to see if we could get any pictures before we lost all the light we had.

As we looked at the scene from different angles and played around with different apertures (She had my Nikon D7100 + 50mm lens, I had my D750 + 85mm lens) I noticed something that we could use to our advantage despite the quickly-dimming sunlight: headlights from passing cars. I showed her how, by getting close to the flower and shooting wide open, she could transform headlights into big blurry balls of orange and yellow. You can see the effect in the photo above, which is quite pronounced even when shooting at f/2.8 instead of f/1.8, and it was neat seeing her eyes light up when she realized that these effects were a result of controlling her camera, not adding a filter on her camera. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter method, but sometimes it’s just kind of neat to learn that you can do it yourself :)

30 Minutes

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A few weeks ago we had family stay with us for a weekend, and it’s always a bit chaotic (in a fun way) when our house is bursting at the seams with in-laws and cousins and all the running and chatting and eating and laughing that comes with such events. My niece, who is 14, spent a lot of time that weekend taking pictures with her mobile phone and I really enjoyed seeing her enthusiasm and energy for this newfound outlet of creative expression. It was fun to watch her look at ordinary objects–flowers in the back yard, fence posts, bumblebees–and see them as beautiful creations to be photographed and shared with others. Of course most of those images ended up on her Instagram, and she liked to use filters and effects, but even though that’s not really how I operate I had to continually remind myself that it wasn’t about me. It was about her, and if she was happy doing what she liked then I wasn’t about to stop her.

The evening before they left she asked if she could use one of my cameras. Delighted at the chance to show her a bit more about photography, I let her have my Nikon D7100 with a 50mm lens and showed her how to control the lens aperture and what effect that had on the resulting image. She was pretty excited with this newfound level of control and wanted to try a bit more, so we went out to find some flowers to photography. I brought my Nikon D750 and 85mm lens, and we drove a few blocks from my house where we came across a patch of tulips someone had planted in an acre of grass near the road.

We spent the next half hour taking photos of the flowers, and I gave her some pointers about composition, lighting, and changing her angle of view. I showed her what happens when you shoot at f/1.8 vs. f/4 and how the former makes the background super blurry, but using physics instead of a filter. Through it all I tried to be careful to not downplay the pictures she had taken with her phone, but instead explain the reasons someone might choose a dedicated camera as well as what you can do when you take control over the exposure settings.

This picture (which I shot, though she has others very similar to it) demonstrates something we played around with during our time that evening: the idea that ordinary objects can become beautiful compositional elements when shot properly. The patch of blue with the white and orange lights on the left is just my 2007 Toyota Matrix but, with a little sunset lighting and the right perspective, can add a really neat splash of color to a photo :)

Aspiration

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Here’s the final picture I’ll be sharing from my time with the Sigma 40mm f/1.4 ART lens, and I chose this one for a reason. It might sound corny, but I don’t think I could have gotten this particular shot with any other lens. But first, a bit of background: this was taken at the Big XII Equestrian Championship held at OSU back in late March, and even though OSU ultimately lost (but not by much!) we were glad we could go out and support the riders who had worked so hard to get there.

After one of the events one of the riders, who was a student in my wife’s class, brought her horse up for our boys to see up close. Normally I’d have my Fuji X100F for times like this but since I was evaluating the Sigma lens I brought that with me instead and even though I wasn’t exactly used to its sheer size and heft, I got some shots such as this one that I really like. What I find most compelling about this image is the way the horse is tack-sharp, especially its eye, but everything in the foreground and background is blurry to some extent. As the viewer your eye is immediately drawn to the horse but then you start to notice other elements like the man’s plaid shirt, the younger child in a blue coat, and context clues such as the overhead lights and the fact that my wife is wearing a hat. It all comes together to paint a richer picture of the entire scene than if it were just the horse by itself, and when you add in the fact that my oldest son is reaching out to touch the horse it’s kind of the cherry on top.

So why couldn’t I get this shot with any other lens? The options I had at my disposal were:

  • Fuji X100F (23mm f/2.0 lens, 35mm equivalent on full-frame)
  • 35mm f/1.8
  • 50mm f/1.8

I’m not counting my 85 or 70-200 because I wouldn’t even think to bring them to a situation like this; they’re just not practical. And with each of those lenses I wouldn’t have been able to get the shot framed quite like this while also getting the foreground out of focus. The background, sure. But not the foreground. The closest might have been my 35mm lens but even at f/1.8 the man’s shirt (which I really like, by the way. The plaid pattern is just buttery smooth when blurred out) would have been too much in focus. If I used my 50mm I would have had to stand farther back to get a similar composition and then, as you might have guessed, the foreground wouldn’t be as blurry. Something about the 40mm focal length just worked ideally to capture this image, and even though I don’t plan on ever purchasing that lens (At $1300 it’s just too expensive) it sure does give photographers some interesting creative freedom.


Exoskeleton

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Here’s a scene I have viewed many times, and often stopped to photograph, but was never quite able to get it to look how I wanted. This metal sculpture is on the first floor of one of the Engineering buildings on the OSU campus and every time I walk past it (which is maybe once or twice a semester) I think about how this, and other similar objects nearby, would be interesting photo subjects. But no matter what I’ve tried, I just haven’t really been able to capture what I think might be a compelling image. There’s always some kind of compromise or constraint I can’t overcome, and I’m left with kind of a shell of an image that doesn’t really do justice to the subject.

On my most recent stroll down this hallway I realized I finally had something that would help: the Sigma 40mm f/1.4 ART lens. (And yes, I realize that after a few weeks of posts about this lens I probably sound like some kind of corporate shill, but that’s not it at all. Sigma let me borrow the lens, but that’s it. I haven’t gotten a dime from them and I doubt I ever will. I just really enjoyed using the lens.) The 40mm focal length let me stand far enough back to get this entire sculpture in the frame, and shooting at f/1.4 meant I could get a smooth, pleasing background blur while keeping my subject in sharp focus.

I’ve tried similar pictures with both my 35mm and 50mm lenses and it just hasn’t quite worked. Either the framing wasn’t right or the background wasn’t blurred or the picture just wan’t quite sharp enough. But that 40mm Sigma lens worked wonders in this situation. I held my D70 down on the floor, flipped out the rear screen, and used Live View to compose the shot while zooming in to check focus. It was a fun shot to get and maybe the next time I’m in that same hallway I’ll try other pictures anyway, even though I don’t have that lens anymore. Maybe there’s shots I just haven’t considered yet. Hmm.

Morning Glory

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I’ve posted a few sunrise and sunset photos over the years here on Weekly Fifty, but nothing quite like this one. And, true to form, it was a photo I almost didn’t take because I didn’t think it would be worth my time. Either that or I figured the results just wouldn’t be very good. Another in my series of images taken with the Sigma 40mm f/1.4, I shot this just outside my building on the way to work (about ten minutes later than I shot last week’s photo of the pond) and as I rode my bike past this tree I literally had to stop, think about the scene for a second, and then go back for the shot. I’m so glad I did.

Once again I shot this picture wide open at f/1.4 just to see what this lens could do, and once again I was not disappointed. It was pretty neat to shoot a scene like this wide open and get such good results, which is a testament not only to the lens but to the flexibility of shooting in RAW. See for yourself, with the original unedited image below.

When I got this into Lightroom I thought I wouldn’t have much to use because it was just so underexposed, but the more I worked with it the more I was surprised at the exposure latitude and dynamic range that I had to work with. After significantly raising the shadows, tweaking the highlights, and doing some simple color corrections like white balance I ended up with a photo that I really like. Regardless of the lens used to shoot this, it’s just a picture I enjoy and am glad I was able to capture. And once again, as I’ve said before, it was a good reminder of why it’s important to stop, turn around, and go back to get that photo.