The long view

Our perception of time moves at a constant rate – 1 second per second. And our memory of images over a time more than a second isn’t that good, especially when it comes to seeing what occurs over a period of time all at once. Fortunately, photography can do that for us.

Put a camera on a tripod, set the shutter to stay open for a bit (say, 30 seconds), then look at the image. You’ll see everything that happened for 30 seconds all compressed into one image. Items that never move look unchanged. Subjects who move may just disappear or show up as a fog in the image. Combine that with some mood lighting and you get an experience beyond just standing an watching.

If you stand on the shore of Asilomar beach at the tip of the Monterey peninsula, with the full moon behind you and the waves rolling in on the rocks, and you set your camera up just right, you get to see how the ocean behaves over time. And how the rocks seem to ignore the mist that washes over them.

Walk upon a picture

Even strolling I look for how light falls on the sights around me, how the shapes lead my eye to specific areas or subjects. Many times I “see” something amazing but the image rarely captures all the emotional impact. But every once in a while I photograph a scene just because, and then on the computer screen it reveals something I really didn’t see at the time. Those are the fun images! When you surprise yourself with just automatically and subconsciously do the mechanics of photography and realize only later it all came together.

I was walking along a path today in an area bordering a small river. It was mostly overgrown foliage and trees, some of the leaves starting to change color anticipating the coming season. The sunlight was random, skipping along through the clouds that were quickly passing overhead. I saw the scene below and felt there was something there so I set the exposure to make sure I got cloud details as well as objects in the shadows. I really like the look of the result, mostly because it reflects what I was subliminally feeling that caused me to stop.

All light and all shadow are just boring. Keep your eyes open and find the right mix of the two.

See it big

One of the photographers I follow online posted a comment this week about a video they’d seen by a newcomer to the world of large format photography. The person I follow has quite a bit of experience with 4×5″ photography from earlier days so they were somewhat puzzled at how hard the video was making the use of this format. In spite of many how-to videos and books about the use of large format cameras the person in the video was surprisingly inept, and seemed to be ready to ditch the whole thing to return to digital.

That’s a shame. Large format photography is one of the last means of connecting with the way photography developed from the beginning. The magical devices we carry around now to record the world around us, stripped of their bells and whistles, are descendants of simple boxes with a hole in one side and a image-making means on the other. Large format cameras are really just a step above that, offering some features to control light, focus, and other aspects needed to translate what the photographer sees into an image that can be shared broadly. The one photographer most people know by name – Ansel Adams – used large format almost exclusively to make the images he is famous for. Someone serious about understanding how light becomes image should at least take the time to work with a large format camera system and get the feel for how it was done years ago.

The person who trained me on the use of these devices gave me a very old folding version of a field camera, one that can be carried around easier than the studio models. I bought a couple of lenses, film holders, loupe, cloth, etc. and started getting the hang of the process. Soon I traded to a more “modern” camera and got more serious about learning how to make the image I wanted. The thing everyone says about working with this format is it forces you to slow down and really define the image you want to make. That’s true – just setting up takes several minutes so what you see out there had better merit the effort needed to get ready and shoot.

Because the film plane (where the flat film resides) doesn’t have to be parallel to the lens plane (where the lens is) there are all sorts of ways to capture an image that would be impossible with “regular” cameras where the film and lens planes are fixed parallel. Also, the 4×5″ piece of film offers much more surface area than 35mm or cropped sensor digital cameras. That size film give almost 13,000 square millimeters of image area whereas full-format sensors (the size of a piece of 35mm film) provide only 864 square millimeters of area. This bigger surface area gives lots of room for compositions, cropping, exposure, etc.

I don’t do as much with my full format right now. Film is getting harder to find and processing, especially the color slide film I prefer, is really hard to find. I’ve learned to process my own black-and-white images but do it in batch to justify mixing the chemicals, which have a limited shelf-life. So most of my work is B&W – I just throw the exposed film into the freezer until I have enough to develop. B&W is definitely the way to learn because focus and exposure are the first two critical things to learn in using large format. Without the distraction of color it’s easier to see how the various controls will result in different looks to the final image.

Here are a few of my favorite 4×5″ images.

Kentucky Hills, Red River Gorge
Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, Horicon, WI
Corn silos, Nebraska
Country Church, Nebraska
Fall colors, Red River Gorge, Kentucky
Sandhill Cranes, Kearney, NE (using a large format camera in a blind is quite a challenge but the birds didn’t seem to mind as long as I didn’t make much noise)
Devil’s Lake, Baraboo, WI
Still life, Autumn Harvest
Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming
Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, California (current images of this scene are so full of smoke and ash from the Caldor fire you can barely see the island, much less the other shore.)

One fine day

Further testing has shown me at least one of my digital lenses work better on my infrared camera, especially regarding the bright flare in the middle of the image. The manual lens, when stopped down to f/8, made images with a bright spot in the middle. This is due to light bouncing around inside the lens. Some lenses have coatings on all the internal glass that will minimize or prevent this whereas the coatings in some lenses aren’t as sensitive to infrared wavelengths. The bright spot can be pretty much eliminated in post-processing but it’s a pain to have to make adjustments for several images.

I was using the manual lens because it gave me reference points for focusing infrared, resulting in sharper images. I thought I’d discounted the digital lenses because of image sharpness but going back to my 14-54mm Zuiko lens I got images just as sharp as the manual lens. And no bright spots.

It was a great day for infrared with little haze, puffy clouds and lots of sunshine. This local park has a quarry lake surrounded by rocks and trees so the contrast between dark and light areas is great for this style photography.

For a landscape photographer this is a really fun way to make some images that are different. I’m looking forward to fall colors to see what the foliage looks like under infrared when the green is gone.

Sun all around

It’s the time of year for summer flowers to start becoming fall seeds and nothing shows this off better than sunflowers. Whether small or large, individual or clusters, short or tall, sunflower blooms mark the time when days get shorter and animals hurry to put on that last layer of fat for travel or hibernation.

They are amazingly easy to grow, assuming you can keep the rabbits and deer from clipping them off while young and tender. Once the stalks get above the tallest rabbit and tougher than the curious deer care for, the flowers are almost assured to show up, carefully watching the sun move across the sky. As they get heavy with seeds their movement becomes less and less, until they are so full of the promise of next year’s crop they are unable to turn their heads skyward.

Big and bold, loud and raucous, unabashedly colorful, sunflowers have attracted artists for centuries and will continue excite many future generations of birds, bees and people. Look for them around you and take time to enjoy their brief display of a successful growing season.

Building art

In downtown Oshkosh there’s a square that celebrates the interesting architecture of the buildings around it. Many of them date to the turn of the century – the 19th to 20th century. Fronting the square is the Grand Oshkosh, the city’s opera house built in the 1880’s. It’s an interesting place to stroll around and get a sense of what the place may have been like at that time.

I’ve always wondered about the fascination of builders around this time with wrapping a building around the corner. The New York Flatiron building is one of the most famous but you see this design feature is lots of cities with buildings dating to that time period. Was it the interest in having that room looking out from the point, like the prow of a ship? Or was it just a reasonable use of the shape of the lot? Must have been a challenge to furnish such room shapes.

The decorative pieces on buildings of the era are also great for designs. It’s as if plain fronts were frowned on. Every roofline, window and door needed some form to highlight it.

For some buildings the forms served a purpose, such as highlighting the meaning for the building to exist. This logo mounted above the main entrance shows symbols important to the organization.
A newer addition to the part is this sundial, apparently one of the largest in the country. The gnomon trickles water down into the fountain, probably a design to keep the stainless steel cool while the sun hits it. The darker wall beyond the bricks has the numerals engraved on it for the shadow to hit at the appropriate times.

With such a prominent piece available, and a nice blue sky with some clouds, it was a perfect chance for a composition that puts all those elements together.

City Panorama – Futuristic

Another great infrared day – plenty of sunshine with just the right amount of puffy clouds. I went downtown to get more architectural images and found a couple of opportunities for panos. The RAW images need some post-processing before dropping them into the panoramic generator so that’s a learning curve. The two below are good first starts.

In this style the city comes across like one of those “city of the future” drawings so popular back in the ’60’s. Don’t know if it’s the shape of the buildings or their height. Or maybe it’s just the surrealistic appearance of an infrared image. Looks pretty cool.

The first is just the Milwaukee Art Museum, a four-image composite. I masked the sky and filled it with black just to increase the drama of the building. There are some cosmetic adjustments needed to make it standout but this is a good example of how panoramics can fit the infrared work.

Next is the lakefront skyline from Veteran’s Park. In addition to the buildings I think it’s the bikers on the right that give this image that “city of the future” appearance. You know, just another leisurely day in the 21st century!

Exposures are becoming easier but the histogram on the camera is essential to ensuring I don’t blow out the highlights. The RAW image is a little grainy regardless so underexposing the shadows and then bringing back the details is less of a problem than in visible light. Also I’m discovering that shutter speed gives me fine-tuning for exposure whereas aperture makes big changes. I’m trying to stay in the f/5.6-f/8 range to get the sharpest images but sometimes that means I have to get below 1/40 sec. shutter speed or go up to ISO800. I originally thought sharpness would be my biggest challenge but this old Olympus lens is delivering what I want so more experience with exposure is my challenge.

Buildings in a different light

Final got some infrared weather today – no haze, very few clouds, bright sunshine. I’ve been waiting for this so I could make some architectural images. Landscapes are fun in infrared but I wanted to try and get more details and sharpness that’s hard to see with leaves, branches and grass.

There’s small town nearby that has remodeled itself around early American architecture. Nice walking around place with lots of open views of the buildings. Here are a few results from my stroll.

Out and around

Storms or horribly hot weather have been the standard across the state for several days but today just about all the negatives were gone. Great time for some exploration away from the usual areas near home. The goal is to see parts of Wisconsin that are away from the high-speed highways and usually crowded cities. A day like this is perfect for wandering around in a general direction and seeing what’s there in the nooks and crannies of the state.

One place I’ve wanted to visit is Richland Center, which was sometimes claimed by Frank Lloyd Wright as his birthplace. Wanted to see if there was any indication of his life there. Instead, found something he built.

According to a couple of Wright websites this is the only remaining commercial building from this period in Wright’s career (around 1920). You can see his ideas on pressed concrete (the “Mayan” frieze on top of the building) and the beginnings of his “dendriform” columns. Both of these design elements show up in subsequent structures – the “Mayan” pressed concrete in the Hollyhock house in LA and the columns in the Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, WI. This warehouse was never completed – another of Wright’s cost overruns – but it has functioned in various uses, including a Wright museum. Currently the building is under a conservancy aimed are restoring it inside and out. Like much of Wright’s work it definitely stands out among the more traditional and somewhat Victorian buildings around the town center.

North of Richland Center there is a small county park built around an interesting geological formation. The whole area is sandstone laid down in layers millions of years ago and gradually whittled down by the rivers and streams from melting glaciers. This was not an area covered in the most recent glaciation but it definitely felt the impact.

Here you can see how the Pine river ground down and undercut the sandstone. Some parts of it must be slightly more resistant than others since where you see the trees on top used to be the “surface” of the whole valley. All that’s left is this ridge of sandstone. To the left of this image the ridge runs about 70-80 feet to a similar looking other side, which was eroded away by the West Pine river.

Two rivers running that close together across a band of sandstone with lots of cracks from repeated freeze/thaws and tree roots are bound to find a way to join, which they did. The result is a “stone bridge” which gave the park its name.

The developers of the park realized the story about the rivers joining wouldn’t be complete unless visitors could see the other side so they thoughtfully cut a tunnel through the ridge…

…giving the view from the other, or West Pine river, side, which is the image below. The water level looks pretty placid right now but while there we noticed mud washed up about 6 feet above the current water level and there were tree limbs stuck in the higher part of the crack. Although joined after thousands of years of separation, the rivers continue to wear away at this barrier.

Taking a small country road just to see what a town named Yuba might look like we came upon this old farmstead. The date is not a paint job – it’s light colored brick built into the house. Hate to see good workmanship deteriorating like this; looks like it was built to stand for ages.

The form of things

Getting caught up in composition is a peril of photography. There’s so much advice on how to create an image that will catch a viewer’s eye and get them to pause enough to actually “see” the photograph. It’s easy to look through the viewfinder and hear all those “rules” running through your brain, to the extent you miss the very photograph you originally set out to make.

Looking through my library I’ve been concentrating on those images that simply have a form, a composition that I focused on just because it showed me something other than color or tones or the rule-of-thirds. Advice I once got was to squint as you look at an image because that helps you ignore all the details and simply see the overall shape of what’s in the composition. I do this sometime in the field, especially where I’m working on B&W images because it helps see just the tones and not the colors.

Here are a few images that I like just because there’s a shape or form.

Leaf on snow, melting dew
Kelp strands, Big Sur
Barn siding, Smoky Mountain National Park
Mineral swirls
Quartz intrusion