We watch them, they watch us

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a great place to learn about the scope of what’s below the waves, a visual cornucopia where you can spend hours feasting on one more view.  From the shores to the deep, there’s usually a display and creature to capture your interest.

I’ve photographed in the aquarium before, challenging my skills with low light and moving sea life.  I’ve found it hard to present a sense of the place even though the exhibits are thoughtfully laid out with plenty of space and sight lines.  This time, however, I took a different approach.

If you look over this blog even a little you realize seeing people in my images is a rare thing.  I’m usually pursuing the grand or intimate landscape and for me people generally don’t help tell the story.  At the aquarium, though, I realized the people are an important element of the experience.  This time I selected some perspectives to try and show how people interact with the exhibits.  After editing I realized it was the dark scenes that attracted me the most, places in the aquarium where the creatures are highlighted but people become part of the display because they could get close and examine what they were interested in.

The Open Sea

The Open Sea is a huge tank containing creatures like tuna, sea turtles, bonita, sunfish, sharks, rays, etc.  The light into the tank is always pretty dim but the soft glow into the dark room draws you to the glass as soon as you walk in.  Every time I’ve been here it has been the same image; these silhouettes of people just mesmerized by the creatures slowing swimming by.  It’s like standing in front of an enormous fishbowl!  Actually, this image poorly conveys just how big this display is – the image above used my widest lens and I’m only showing about half the glass.  Those tuna swimming by in the picture?  They are probably 5-6 feet long.

The Bay

This display is a little more typical, although it goes back much farther than the image can reveal.  This is an example of what a diver might see in the shallower parts of Monterey Bay.  In spite of all the kids running around the aquarium this day, it was the adults that would stand for minutes just watching the fish glide by.

Jellyfish Experience

This display has been at the aquarium for several years and it’s easy to see why they keep it.  People enter the exhibit and suddenly find themselves in another world inhabited by these strange, alien creatures.  The lighting really contrasts the jellyfish so they are easy to see.  I think part of the good feeling you get in this exhibit is the warm and cool colors present – it’s actually very peaceful just to walk around.

Most of the other exhibits have visitors pointed at the creatures or following them around the glass but the jellyfish tanks are like meditation zones.  People just stand and watch the creatures slowly drift around, revealing new perspectives all the time.  Maybe it’s the unworldly aspect of these animals that holds your attention.  With no frame of reference (no arms, no legs, no eyes or ears) every twist and turn presents a new view to try and understand.

Until I looked at this image I never realized there were 3D sculptures on the wall – that’s how fixated on the jellyfish you can become.

Moon Jellies

These are a favorite of visitors, I think because you can see them in the Bay much of the time.  They are so delicate and fragile looking, as if a strong breeze would disrupt them.  I liked this lady’s quizzical expression and how her face and hands seem to float in the darkness.

It is a great place to visit and I certainly recommend it to anyone traveling to the central coast.  When you are there, take some time to look around and experience how other visitors are responding to what you are seeing.

I don’t do street photography

Well, not as an intentional style.  You know, where I would hang out in the city with my Leica and B&W film, probably a 50mm lens, and observe what’s going on in search of a very poignant human moment or a lovely interaction.  Hey, I love great street photography and admire those photographers who jump right into the mess of humanity to focus on just the one composition that tells a great story.  Look at Allard’s work and you’ll see a true artist at work in the genre.  It’s just not what I’m comfortable doing.  At least not the traditional way.

ISO 100, 400mm, 1/30 sec., f/11

No, my street photography takes place on a little larger stage.   Catching people and nature interacting in a fashion unique to each and yet compatible together.

ISO 100, 108mm, 1/40 sec., f/11

Sometimes I wonder if people even know that animals are paying attention to them.  The goose won, by the way, and squawked victory for a minute or two afterwards.  Don’t think the kayak-er even noticed.  Two paddles in the water at the same time beats one stroke per side any day.

We’re only a veneer of civilization away from our roots in Nature and our connection to the citizens there so why not consider this a form of street photography?  I’m sure if the creatures had cameras they would be making similar images…..

Where ever you go, that’s where you are….

According to the World Tourism Organization in 2009 there were 990 million tourist arrivals around the world – almost a billion people (1/9th of the world’s population) going somewhere for business, leisure or recreation.  And the trend is expected to continue increasing in 2010.  Tourism is the world’s single largest industry, outpacing oil, steel and even armaments.


I’ve been watching lectures on Impressionism to learn about why this art movement started and today I learned why landscapes suddenly popped up on the art scene after the middle of the 19th century.

Trains.  Yeah, trains.  They became readily available to more people as a way to travel, meaning people where trains existed were going from where they lived to some other place to “see the sights.”  Non-essential travel to new locations.


Artists in Paris were able to reach the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts more easily in search of new subjects.  No longer limited to the classic still life scenes or rendering of heroic personalities in their urban studios these artists were taking their easels out into the country to create images of what they saw there.

Imagine the reaction they caused among the other people who were also taking trains to these places.  What are those people doing?  Don’t you need a studio for real painting?  Suddenly you can see the lightbulbs going off over heads, “I love this sight of beach, water, sky and clouds – I can buy that painting and keep it to remember this sight.”  That’s right – the first postcards were tourists buying paintings being made right on the scene to document their trip.  Claude Monet was doing it in La Havre as a teenager to make money.

Somewhere, right now, there’s a priceless Monet in some French house’s attic, a relic of great-great-great-grandfather’s trip to the beach at Normandy….Art is full of irony, not all of it obvious.

If you’ve ever been around a tourist-y place you know what to expect.  Lots of people milling around looking at everything, having their picture taken, browsing the souvenirs, chasing errant children.


Don’t people ever just stop to take in the location?  They go to some trouble to get from their home to this place only to spend a little time there and then go away, relying on their Flickr album to document their presence and remind them of the scene.

Of course among any crowd there is the random few who realize the reason to reach a place is to savor the result, to drink in what the place has to offer, to learn why it’s different from home and all other locations in between.  They may not have dozens of snapshots to show off but I’m betting they have a clearer memory of the place and stronger sense of what being there did for them.

Shun the obvious.  Enjoy the place.  Be a non-conformational tourist.

Fishing by strobe

I’ve wanted to continue experimenting with using strobes for outdoor photographs, especially of people in some activity.  One of my photography colleagues volunteered to go out with me as long as the photography was about fishing.  Since he habits a lake near me we met there last week for some tests.

Of course the day we picked was the rainy one out of all the nice weather that week but he says fishing in the rain is not an issue and my camera and lens is pretty weathersealed so it was just a matter of keeping the strobe dry.  Too much wind for more than one strobe, though, and that one securely handheld so my lighting angles were limited by how far I could get from the camera using the remote shutter release.

With the generally dark mood of the day the challenge was to light my subject so that is looked somewhat “natural” and not like he was cut and pasted into the picture.  I found adjusting the aperture and the strobe power gave me the control I wanted of the scene.  A little Photoshop work to increase the contrast and I got this image.  Luckily for us, too, since that line of dark clouds in the background drenched us just as we’d packed up and started walking back to our cars.

19mm, ISO100, 1/100 sec., f/4

And since I had these images that didn’t look all that “natural” because of the lighting I thought it would be fun to play with the high-contrast HDR look I’ve seen several photographers use.  Using a single image in Photomatix Pro tonemapping application I was able to use the extreme contrast between the dark background and lighted subject to my advantage.  Increasing the saturation in the grass and adjusting the lighting on that feature seemed to balance the brightly lit subject, especially as the image background faded into darker tones.

14mm, ISO100, 1/200 sec., f/11

Change your perspective

Jimmy White article on underwater photography, part 2.

Jimmy White article on underwater photography, part 1.

Ever wondered just how you would go about taking pictures underwater?  Without all that equipment seen on the Cousteau expeditions?  Check out the above articles on the subject by emerging photographer Jimmy White.  He relates his experiences getting started, equipment he uses, techniques you have to pay attention to, and provides some links of his own for more information.  Pass these articles on to anyone who is interested in learning a bit about this specialized area of photography.

You can read more about Jimmy’s underwater work on his blog.  Jimmy licenses his images for a variety of uses but is particularly interested in conservation efforts aimed at preserving our aquatic environment.  Get in touch with him directly for more information on his projects.

Hello? Are you out there?

Morning Pearls

In spite of all the news around the sudden emergence of social networking as a tween and teen phenomena I seem to remember my time at that age trying to stay connected with as many people as possible.  And this with just a telephone and study hall.  Granted technology makes it easier to be more spontaneous with our conversation but I don’t remember immediacy being that critical to connection.  Connection was a sort of long-term thing, built over many short-term sessions of just chatting.

As I’ve gotten older connections have fallen off a bit.  Some are replaced by other connections while some vanish completely.  There are several that strengthen and defy distance but those are in the minority for me.  Because of that it’s always a pleasure to re-connect with someone, especially when you’ve been on the look out for them but not quite getting the wiring right.

This weekend one of those lost connections finally renewed as a friend from graduate school years ago.  It was a truly Internet story as I searched on their name off and on for a few years but never really got a convincing hit.  Then suddenly all the social networking I’ve done and they have done reached a critical mass and the right link showed up with the right amount of credibility.  With that it was a simple invitation to link up that was accepted.  Now we can start filling in all those intervening years.

Unlike a family tree with its linear, temporal connections the network of friends we build is multidimensional.  Such was revealed to me when I started my first baby-steps with social networking.  Connect with one person and it’s like you plucked a single strand of a spider web – the whole thing vibrates and resonates with your presence.  People you didn’t think of connecting with are suddenly there – several strands over and down perhaps but still linked to you through other strands.

Does that comfort or unsettle you?

People matter

Read an online course yesterday about lighting models outdoors.  It’s a series offered by a lighting company to show how their products fit different needs.  I learned a little more about lighting but also picked up on an idea about subjects.

The photographer clearly stated he was tapping into his friends for this short lesson.  The “model” was a 2nd grade teacher friend of his and the “assistant” was a buddy also interested in photography.  The went to a park and played around with some scenes, using different lighting tools to develop the lesson.  I thought it was cool the informal approach to the project.  Professionals who photograph people for a living talk a lot about the production aspects of their commercial shoots.  To a beginner it all sounds pretty daunting, lining up models, permits, assistants, equipment, wardrobe, makeup, etc. – how can any novice know what they need to know!?!

Yet here’s this guy making a short instructional blog, getting a couple of friends to step in and have fun in the afternoon.  How easy is that?  And what a great learning opportunity, where you can experiment with different approaches, see the result and correct or make adjustments.  Of course this wasn’t a commercial shoot (the blog is free to anyone who goes to the site) so the pressures of meeting a budget or even a deadline were significantly less, but it still was a project with a definite outcome.

I realize adding people to photography increases the interest in the images.  Our brains are wired to lock onto faces or human forms in an image so our eyes go there first.  Putting people in a scene also gives perspective, a point of reference.  Why else do all those Grand Canyon photos have people standing on the rim?

So, I need to round up some friends for a short workshop on people-in-landscapes, and probably work on my exterior lighting skills as well.  Until then, I’ll have to turn to more convenient subjects….