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.

Fog on the Pond

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On one hand there isn’t a whole lot interesting about this photo: it’s an urban pond with some trees. And this particular pond is only a few blocks from my house, which means I end up biking past it almost every morning on my way to work. What is a little different about this is the fog that’s hovering just over the left side of the pond, which isn’t something that happens all too often, and I wish I could have been here about 15 minutes prior when there was (I’m guessing) a much more pronounced cloud of mist. I’m happy with what I got though, and I’m going to keep my eyes open for future photo opportunities at this pond as well.

What is a bit different here is the exposure settings and the results I was able to get. Believe it or not, I actually shot this at f/1.4 on the Sigma 40mm f/1.4 ART lens. Normally I’d never shoot a picture like this at maximum aperture because the tree branches would be a blurry mess due to an overall loss of sharpness, but this lens is amazing even when using it wide open. If you click over to the high-resolution version on Flickr you’ll see that every little branch and twig is tack-sharp, which I didn’t expect at all when I took this photo. Mostly I was just experimenting for kicks and giggles, and I really was caught off guard when I saw the results in Lightroom.

Even though the sun isn’t up yet, and the light was super dim, I was able to shoot at 1/250 second and ISO 100 thanks to the f/1.4 aperture on this lens. I think that was one of my favorite parts about the lens for a couple of weeks–the freedom I had to use it at basically any aperture and know I wasn’t going to have to compromise in terms of image quality. I don’t plan on spending that much on a single prime lens any time soon, but it was neat to see performance like that firsthand :)

Opening Soon

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Just a bit about this picture behind-the-scenes before I get too deep into the weeds here. When I shot this I was evaluating a lens for Sigma corporation, specifically their 40mm f/1.4 ART lens that they sent me to test out for a few weeks. I’ve only used third-party lenses a handful of times over the years and always preferred first-party versions, but this thing was a whole other beast entirely. It was awesome, and I was super excited to get to review it. I only wish they had let me keep it!

As part of testing this lens I went around shooting a ton of pictures, several of which you’ll see here over the next few weeks. It was fun seeing the world around me in a bit of a different light, having never shot with an f/1.4 lens and certainly not one of this caliber before. Case in point: this magnolia flower, similar to others I’ve shot before, but on a whole other level optically speaking. The 40mm focal length of that Sigma lens meant that I could capture a wide field of view (not true wide-angle, but wider than a 50mm lens) and get a lot of context to the shot, while the f/1.4 aperture meant that I could all but eliminate the background entirely. Normally to get this much background blur I’d need to get closer, which would mean a narrower field of view and a different image altogether.

You can read my actual review of the lens over at DPS and I don’t want to waste your time just gushing over it here on Weekly Fifty, but I did enjoy shooting with it and seeing what it was like to capture the world at f/1.4 :)

Inversion

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Nearly six years ago I took a picture similar to this in Willard Hall on the OSU campus, and in the time since then I haven’t really thought much about that original image. But when I found myself in a similar situation, that of being alone on an errand and in one of the stairwells at Willard Hall while toting a camera, a few months back I decided to stop for a minute and see if it would be worth re-taking the same type of picture. And you know what? I’m glad I did.

When I shot the original I had my Nikon D200 and 50mm lens, which not only meant that the field of view was extremely limited compared to my Fuji X100F (which I used to shoot the picture above for this week) but I couldn’t even see what I was shooting. The D200 doesn’t even have Live View which meant I had to basically compose the original shot with guesswork while holding the camera out with my arm. It was a little weird.

When I was back in Willard with my X100F I took a different approach, and it’s interesting to compare the results. First, I was at the bottom of the stairwell instead of the top. Second, I literally laid down on the floor flat on my back. (I shot it over Spring Break when there was almost no one in the building. Because I imagine the scene would have looked a little strange.) Third, I had the benefit of being able to properly compose the shot by actually looking through the viewfinder! I also was a little more knowledgeable about exposure settings, specifically the aperture I was using, which meant I was able to control depth of field much better.

I don’t think the final image is edited at all, save for maybe just a bit of cropping (I honestly don’t remember) but I think my favorite part is the diagonal shadow at the top going across the right side of the rectangle. The ceiling, to be specific. I like the monochromatic nature of the image, the play of light and shadow, and the way that diagonal juts across the open space to create something a bit more interesting to look at. I don’t imagine I’ll take another picture like this anytime soon, but it was a fun little photographic opportunity and one that made me really glad I was looking at the world around me with an eye for photography :)

Tempest

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This photo came about after a few days of my wife and I doing somewhat of a science experiment with our kids involving the classic tornado-in-a-bottle project. We spent an hour or so on a Tuesday afternoon, thanks to a city-wide weather-related school closure, putting a few of these together to bet with somewhat mixed results: the mini-tornados functioned normally but the containers were a bit leaky. The next day we revised our design, primarily using hot glue as an adhesive between the bottles, and things were significantly improved such that we couldn’t detect any leaks at all despite some significant usage by the kids including dropping one of the contraptions onto the kitchen floor. It was a fun way to spend a couple of hours, and the kids really seemed to enjoy creating whirling vortexes in these bottles for a lot longer than I thought they would.

Later that evening as the sun was going down but before the kids went to bed I had the idea of using one of the bottle experiments as a photo subject, but I didn’t really know what to do or how to photograph it. I got out my D750 and 85mm lens, mostly because it was convenient and readily available and I needed a bit more reach than my 50mm but wanted to avoid she sheer heft of the 70-200mm. I put the camera on a tripod and aimed it at the kitchen table with the bottle in the middle, just like you see here:

This is literally the same scene that I photographed, except with the lights turned on and the purple water already drained into the lower bottle.

The trick here was lighting. I didn’t really know what to do to properly light the scene, so I started with a 2500 lumen LED shop light sitting on a chair and pointed up at the bottle from behind. I also didn’t really know what exposure settings to use except that I wanted a slightly long shutter and a low ISO, in order to get some motion trails and a nice clean shot. As such I used manual mode, ISO 100, F/2.8, with a 1/60 second shutter speed. The results were…not good.

I played around with the light a little more though, firmly thinking that a big strong backlight would give me the look I was going for, while also stopping down my aperture to f/4 to get a wider depth of field. I did this because it was tricky to get the bottle to sit on the exact same spot on the table every time I turned it over, and I needed a bit of wiggle room in case I didn’t get the placement just right. Things improved, but not very much.

At this point I was really wondering what I was doing wrong, and then I realized that my light was simply too bright. I switched out the shop light for a flashlight with an angled head, set that on the chair, lowered my shutter speed to 1/10, and got the picture you see at the top of this post. After that I kept on trying new settings like smaller apertures and longer shutter speeds just for the fun of it, and while some of those photos turned out OK nothing was really any better than the image I chose for this week’s featured photo. It was a fun experiment to try though, and gave me some interesting ideas to try for future pictures too.