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.

Little One

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This photo was a good example of how a lot of the images I’ve taken and posted here on Weekly Fifty have helped me learn practical skills as a photographer that ended up directly impacting the occasional work I do for clients. I don’t have a macro lens, and I don’t exactly plan on getting one any time soon, but every now and then a situation arises in which I need to take close-up shots of something. Usually nature, but sometimes small objects and, occasionally, something like the image above where you can see a little baby clasping a parent’s fingers.

When a friend of ours asked if I would take some photos of their two-week-old son I was glad to oblige, and I felt a lot more prepared for this one than I have for similar sessions in the past. I went with my D750 and 50mm lens, foregoing my 85 because I just like the look of that particular focal length when working with infants, and also because I wanted something a lot more light, nimble, and let’s face it, practical than my 70-200 f/2.8. (I mean seriously, who shoots an infant session with that lens? Some people, I suppose, but not me!) I also brought my Fuji X100F just in case, but I ended up not needing it at all as the Nifty Fifty did everything I needed.

After several shots of the baby all snuggled in a big fluffy blanket from lots of different angles, I wanted to switch things up a bit so I reached for my set of close-up filters to get some more intimate photos of his eyes, fingers, and other features. Thanks to all the trial-and-error with those filters over the years here on Weekly Fifty I already had a pretty good idea of the exposure settings I would need to get the shots I was aiming for:

  • F/5.6 to get a reasonably wide depth of field and to allow for a little wiggle room when focusing.
  • 1/90 second to get a sharp, wobble-free image
  • Auto ISO with max value of 6400 because the D750 is so good at high ISO values it’s not even funny. Even modern image sensors have a tough time beating the rock-solid sensor in the D750.

I was really happy with the results I got, and the parents were too. A true macro lens would have definitely helped in this situation but these opportunities present themselves so rarely that I’m fine with just sticking with the close-up filters. For now, anyway :)

Almost There

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If you’ve been following along the last few weeks you’ve seen that the recent set of pictures has had a distinctively midwestern theme, with images of windmills and trucks and cotton and other items indicative of the Great Plains. This picture is a departure, or rather, a return to the more normal types of photos I enjoy taking. It’s a simple scene and, like a lot of my Weekly Fifty photos, entirely unplanned with what I hope are some interesting results.

On a Friday evening earlier this year my brother and his girlfriend were down for a visit, and we spent a while playing the board game Ticket to Ride with our kids. It’s kind of like a super duper basic version of Settlers of Catan in that you have to connect various regions on a map with roads or, in this case, train routes. We didn’t quite finish the game since the kids had to go to bed, but we left it out for the next morning which seemed like a good compromise for everyone. After waking up and making my way to the kitchen the next day I thought that the colors of the trains, lit by the glow of the early morning sun, would make for an interesting photo but instead of reaching for my Fuji I went for the classic Nikon + 50mm. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…something about that lens is just kind of magical. It’s not what I prefer for general-purpose everyday shots, but it’s amazing when you want to get a little artistic and creative.

So I set the camera on the table, dialed in an aperture of f/2.8 (I knew f/1.8 would be waaaaaay too big and leave almost nothing in focus) focused using Live View, and took a shot. Sure enough, even at f/2.8 the depth of field was too shallow so I closed it down to f/4 and left the ISO at 100, which meant I needed a super long shutter speed of 1.5 seconds. No matter, though. Just set the self-timer, press the shutter, take your hands off, and you’re good to go. (Sorry for my use of the second-person pronoun. Sometimes it just works better.) My oldest son, who was awake and watching me take this picture, was eager to get going with breakfast so I quickly put the camera away and set about taking care of some of the usual morning routine activities, but it was nice to get a shot of this almost-completed train route before everyone else woke up and the moment faded away.

Truck For Sale

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

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

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

Fancy Creek

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

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

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

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

Wildcat Windmill

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

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

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

Cotton Bales

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

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

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

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

Midwest Winter Sunset

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It’s always good to turn around.

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

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

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

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

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

Cosmic Cavortation

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

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

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

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

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