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.

Optimist

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This was a fun picture to take partially because of the bit of challenge it presented, but also because it was just a really enjoyable day to be out at the lake with my camera. As my wife and I were walking around the lake here in town while our boys rode their bikes, I paused a few times to get some pictures just like this with various brown plants and leaves as subjects. The weather conditions were kind of unique in that there was virtually no detectable wind whatsoever, and no clouds in the sky, combined with temps in the 40’s or 50’s which made for really fun photo conditions. On the south side of the lake I got a couple shots like this but with grass instead of…whatever this thing is…and while they worked out OK the lighting wasn’t that great and the subjects were a bit unclear. I was shooting with my Fuji X100F so it was difficult to isolate my subject in the frame, but when we got to the south side of the lake and came across this scene I realized that it was just what I was looking for.

I knew I wanted this withered flower to be right in the center of the shot as opposed to on either side, but two big questions ran through my mind:

  1. What aperture should I use?
  2. Where should I place the horizon?

I really wanted the background to be blurred out but nevertheless discernible, but I wanted the subject to be nice and sharp as well. Shooting subjects close-up at f/2 is not exactly the X100F’s forte because that lens gets pretty soft in those specific conditions. F/4 didn’t quite give me the background blur I was aiming for, so I settled on f/2.8 even though the subject is a bit fuzzy around the edges. It’s a compromise I’m quite happy with.

As for the horizon, I wasn’t really sure what to do so I shot several different versions of this picture. Some were like this, some had the ball (or whatever you want to call it) right in the middle of the horizon, and some had it much lower. I ended up liking this one the best but not for any specific reason that I can articulate. It just looks the most interesting to me. I really liked that the lack of wind resulted in a glassy smooth lake surface, and even though this picture is awash with blue tones I hope it feels at least a little warm and inviting because that’s certainly how it felt on this particular day :)

Christmas Train

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The local Botanic Garden here in Stillwater often has family events throughout the year, and one week before Christmas last year they invited the public to come out for snacks, crafts, and a bit of a bonfire as well. They recently installed a model train on the premises which runs a few times each month, and because we knew they would have it operating during their Christmas event I made sure to bring my Fuji X100F and little Gorillapod with so I could try a few long-exposure shots and see what happened.

I set up my camera and tripod on one side of the train display while our kids ran around looking at the lights and trying to keep up with the trains as they completed their circuits around the tracks. My goal was to catch the trains in motion but also have a shallow depth of field to create a sense of foreground and background, which meant I had to shoot at f/2.8 with an ISO value of 200. This left me with a 2.5-second shutter speed in order to get the right exposure, though in hindsight I could have activated the built-in ND filter and gotten about seven seconds or possibly even more. I manually focused on the rocks because I wanted them to be nice and sharp, and I wasn’t too worried about the trains not being super well focused because I knew they would end up looking like blurry streaks anyway.

After getting one or two shots that I wasn’t quite happy with, I realized that I could use the burst mode on my camera to get five photos in succession and then just pick the one I liked the most. This resulted in several mediocre images but a couple ones that I really like, especially the one posted here. I always like the sense of motion that light trails give a shot, and it was neat to hear my oldest son ask me how I got the trains to move so fast. In reality they were chugging along kind of slow, but the motion trails here make them look like some kind of supersonic bullet trains.

After spending just a few minutes here I put the camera away and joined my wife and my boys at the hot chocolate station where we also met up with some friends who happened to be at the same event. It was a clear starry sky on a crisp December night, and having this photo is a nice way to remember it all.

Arcadia

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To those of you who shoot film…I salute you.

I took this photo this when my wife and I were on a walk at Arcadia Lake just northeast of Oklahoma City, and as I knelt down on this leaf-strewn path I thought about my buddy Ryan who has taken some absolutely breathtaking images similar to this, but with a lot more mountains and water, using nothing but a light meter, some math, and a film camera. I had no such tools at my disposal and instead went with a decidedly modern approach: I shot this with my Fuji X100F which, despite looking kind of like an old-school film camera, is all ones and zeros on the inside. And as such I let the camera take care of all the heavy lifting. I was using Auto ISO with a minimum shutter of 1/125 and shot the first version of this at f/4 which, thanks to the ability to see the final image on the LCD screen on the back of the camera, I realized had a depth-of-field that was much too shallow. So I dialed in an aperture of f/8, focused on the tree  halfway down the path, and took the shot you see here.

Then when I got back to my computer I used Lightroom to edit the RAW file to my taste. The entire process was digital from start to finish, and while I’m certainly happy with the results I wonder what I would think if had shot this on film. Even something as simple as nailing the exposure would have been difficult because of the mix of highlights and shadows, and I almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten the composition to look how I wanted with the green mossy rock slightly out of focus in the foreground and horizon neatly bisecting the image just above the lower third.

Film shooters…you have a tricky job and I appreciate the work that goes into capturing images without a digital safety net.

Boom Box

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What a blast from the past this was! I haven’t seen a stereo like this in years, so you can imagine my surprise when I was biking home from work and saw this old thing lying by the side of the road about a hundred yards west of a drainage ditch. It practically screams 1997 with a CD player, tape deck, analog radio tuner, and even an FM antenna wrapped around the handle. Just seeing this thing brought up all kinds of memories from high school and sitting in my basement listening to music while playing Zelda: Link’s Awakening on my Game Boy.

When I first biked past it was cold and the sun was rapidly setting, so I made a mental note to bring my camera and get a picture of this music machine on the way to work the following day.I figured my Fuji X100F would be perfect for the picture though I thought about bringing one of my DSLRs, but the picture I was envisioning was really better suited to the lens on the Fuji as opposed to any of the lenses I have for my Nikons. I knew I wanted to get a shot of the stereo and some of the surrounding environment, and the Fuji along with my Gorillapod proved to be just the ticket.The next morning the boom box was still there so I parked my bike on the boulevard, got out the camera and tripod, and took a few minutes for indulging in my photography.

To get a really clean image I set the ISO to 200 (I normally use auto-ISO, max 6400 with minimum shutter speed of 1/125) and opened the aperture up to f/2.0, but also activated the ND filter so I could get a longer exposure of 1/2 second. I was hoping to get some light trails from passing vehicles and when I was satisfied that I got the image I was hoping for I packed up, pulled my gloves back on, and went on my way to work.However, while I was looking through the photos I noticed something that I did not expect. The image I envisioned, that of the stereo in the grass with car headlights in the background, was decent but it paled in comparison to the image I ended up selecting for this week. See for yourself:

Do you notice the difference? While the second shot does indeed have a mark of light on the left side, the entire picture feels dull and lifeless compared to the one at the top of the page. Unbeknownst to me, I had inadvertently taken a picture (that I ended up using) with an oncoming car behind me whose headlights were casting a really nice yellow glow on to the stereo. It gives the subject a sense of life and vibrancy that’s totally missing from the second image, and really goes to show how much lighting can impact the overall results of a photograph.

On my way home later that day the boom box was gone, perhaps picked up by a passer-by or maybe just thrown into the trash. Either way I’m glad I was able to capture it for one moment as a fun trip down memory lane.

Luminescence

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Here’s an interesting case of finding a photo opportunity in a somewhat unexpected scenario. I was out for a short walk around Theta Pond in the afternoon when I came across this…uh…plant? I don’t know what it is, but there’s a lot of them around the pond here at OSU and I’m no botanist as you probably know by now. Anyway, the scene was altogether unremarkable, except for one interesting twist: the sun was already getting low on the horizon which made for a unique mix of colors and light.

Normally when I’m taking pictures I tend to put myself between the light source and my subject, but in this case I did the opposite. By positioning the subject (i.e. this withering, brown, and mostly unremarkable leaf) between my camera the the light source (i.e. the sun) it created a neat effect where it almost seems like the leaf is glowing. I didn’t think about this at first, mind you, and it was only after a few minutes of playing around with different compositions that I stumbled across this particular angle and figured I would give it a try.

The first thing I did was put my camera (in this case, my Fuji X100F) in RAW instead of JPG because I figured I would need the leeway when editing. Then I had to figure out what to shoot and how to shoot it. I realized that if I got down low, shot at f/2.8, and tried to compose the shot in such a way that there would be a bit of foreground as well as background, it might look interesting. I put the leaf slightly off center and I think the end result works quite well. To give you an idea of what I was working with I returned a few hours later on my way home from work and took a picture after the sun had gone down a bit farther. You can see it below, and the leaves in the shot above are circled in red.

Pretty boring, eh? I guess it just goes to show how much of a difference lighting can make when taking photos. And I would challenge you to keep this in mind as well, especially at times of the year such as winter (for those of us in the northern hemisphere, that is) when the sun is often much lower on the horizon compared to the summer months. You might find that otherwise ordinary scenes become transformed into rich photographic opportunities.