Working it

One of the things that I’ve learned in my 26 years of photography is that, no matter how good or bad the photo possibilities are, you don’t give up on getting a good shot. Even if you’ve found a good picture you don’t necessarily stop there. Whether I shoot for an assignment or an enterprise photo or just for pleasure, I’ve learned to work a situation. What that means is that I try to wring as many different pictures as possible from a given scene by using different lenses, angles and and techniques.

Switzerland-based artist Corinne Vionnet has created images, each of a famous landmark, made from a mash-up of several hundred photos from various online photo sharing sites. Interestingly, the landmarks are still recognizable because most of the photos were taken unwittingly from very close to the same spot. I see it happen all the time. A person takes out his/her camera takes a picture or two of a particular scene and then considers themselves done. They put away the camera and then leave. If it’s a popular touristy spot then the next person steps up to do the same thing. What I try to do is to see where no one else is standing and make my pictures from there.

A few weeks ago I was at the Weber Point Events Center and I shot an overall scene of a couple watching the setting sun hovering just above the horizon. It was a nice enough picture and I could have ended it there, but experience has taught me that there might be something more to be had. I turned around 180-degrees and saw the warm rays of the sunset were lighting up the clouds that were behind me. I thought the 12-story Medico-Dental building, several blocks to the east would make a good focal point to set against those clouds. However from my vantage point the view of the building was partially blocked by the park’s trees. Knowing that the light would fade quickly, I hopped into my car and headed towards the building.

Unfortunately, when I got to a spot to get a clear shot the clouds were no longer ideally aligned with the building because of to my changed angle of view. I got a few pictures but nothing exceptional. Looking back west I could see the sky turning to a deep warm color. Again I got in my car and headed back west to where I started.

The sun had dipped below the horizon and the sky had changed to several different shades of orange. I shot some of trees that created a spiderweb-like silhouette for the colorful backdrop. Then changing to a telephoto lens I got tight photos of the branches using the same fiery sky as a background. I continued in that vein until the sunset played itself out.

Finally, I turned back to the east to walk back to my car. The “blue hour” of twilight was beginning to envelope the city. The very last remnants of sunset clung to the topmost portion of the Medico-Dental Building. The waning warm light reflected off the windows and contrasted with the surrounding sea of azure. This time shooting through the trees that obscured the view earlier helped give the scene an air of mystery.

My old photo instructor Dick Fleming told of a student he once had. The student, who missed most of the class lectures, showed up to the lab with an exposed roll of black and white film. With very little instruction he went into the film processing room and developed it. When he was done he showed the negatives to Fleming. Amazingly they were perfect. Then, on his own, the student went into the darkroom and put his negatives into an enlarger. He exposed a piece of photographic paper and put into the developing tray. The print turned out totally black which meant too much light from the enlarger was passing through the negative. With a well-exposed neg it’s an easy fix, either stop down the enlarger’s lens to a smaller aperture or give the print’s exposure less time. But the student just gave a grunt of frustrated disgust and left, never to return.

What that student didn’t know is that you shouldn’t give up on a situation. Whether you get it on the first try or if it’s a failure you should keep on trying. When you’re shooting pictures look for unique angles, good lighting, strong expressions or interesting compositions. Try, try and try again even if you think you’ve got “the” shot. I could have easily stopped after my first picture of the sunset, but by working the scene I got several photos instead of just one.

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Ground Clouds

“Look at your feet. You are standing in the sky. When we think of the sky, we tend to look up, but the sky actually begins at the earth.” ~ Diane Ackerman

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February in review

“The stormy March has come at last,

With wind, and cloud, and changing skies;

I hear the rushing of the blast,

That through the snowy valley flies.” – William Cullen Bryant

Here are 10 of my favorites from February.

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2/4/11:

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2/12/11:

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2/17/11:

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2/13/11:

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2/19/11:

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In a fog

“…What to do? What to do? What to do?
The outlook was decidedly blue
But as I walked through the foggy streets alone
It turned out to be the luckiest day I’ve known…”
- A Foggy Day in London Town – George and Ira Gershwin

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Time off

“A vacation is having nothing to do and all day to do it in”. ~Robert Orben

I’m taking the next couple of weeks off. I’ll be back on Mar. 1. I’ll post a few photos between now and then. Enjoy!

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Comparisons

For work I carry around with me thousands of dollars worth of equipment. From the digital single-lens-reflex (DSLR) camera to the lenses and flashes, it’s all pretty high end gear. Occasionally when I’m on assignment I’ll run across someone who’s impressed with my equipment and they’ll say something like: “That’s a great camera, I bet it takes some great pictures.” To which I usually just smile and nod and move along. Now, I’m as much of a photo gear geek as much as anyone else, but it’s not camera that takes a good (or bad) picture, it’s the person using it.

Former record chief photographer and now freelance shooter extraordinaire Rich Turner teaches a University of the Pacific extension class on photography and recently asked me speak to his students. The class is aimed at those who want to learn how to use their point and shoot cameras more effectively. Rich’s offer made me think that I should to put my money where my mouth is. For a couple of days I dusted off my old point-and-shoot camera and shot it side-by-side with my daily work equipment.

The Canon Powershot S40 cost about $800 when it was introduced in 2001. I bought a used one several years ago on ebay for about $150 (I recently saw another S40 on ebay for $25). It’s a point-and-shoot camera which features 4.1 megapixels (MP), a 7.1mm-22.3mm zoom lens and a 1.8-inch diagonal monitor. It’s is currently 7 generations out of date (the latest version is the 10MP S95 which is priced at about $400) and is archaic by today’s standard.

For work I use a Nikon D3s digital single-lens-reflex (DSLR) camera. It features 12.1 MP and shoots at 9-frames-a-second and costs about $5200. I used a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 (an additional $2000) for a closer apples-to-apples comparison with the S40′s 7.1mm-22.3mm lens.

For the time being ignore the captions and try to guess which picture was shot with which camera. Some are pretty easy to tell but there are a couple that even I have a hard time determining which is which. A point-and-shoot is designed to require very little thought in its operation. The irony is that if it’s used that way then that’s how the pictures will turn out, like not much thought was put into taking them. Like a DSLR, you should learn how to use the camera. Read the manual, take a class, learn what it can and cannot do. That will free you to think more creatively. Slow down and think about what you’re taking. Is everything that you in the picture there? Is there anything that you don’t want? Most of all take a lot of pictures and experiment. Sometimes you can learn more from your mistakes than your triumphs.

I can’t tell what to take a photo of, that’s up to you, but I can suggest on how you can approach your picture-taking. Don’t think of what you should shoot, but how you should shoot it. It’s the difference of taking a picture of subject that’s pretty and talking a pretty picture of your subject. It may sound like a roundabout argument, but there is a difference. The former is that you rely on your subject to make or break the photo. The latter means taking a great shot of whatever your subject is.

So why don’t I use a point-and shoot all the time? First, from sporting events, to spot news to portraits and more, I encounter many different situations in my job. A point-and-shoot’s ability to stop action and telephoto capabilities are limited. I need the versatility that only a DSLR with its manual controls and interchangeable lenses affords me.

Secondly, I need something with a certain robustness. A couple of months ago I had an assignment to shoot work being done on several new express bus stops being constructed in Stockton. When I arrived the workers were waiting for asphalt to be delivered for some roadwork. Just before the load arrived another worker arrived in a pickup and handed out brand new shovels. One of the workers asked his fellow employee where he got them from and examined one of shovel’s heft in his hands. He place its blade to the ground and put his booted foot upon it and pressed down on it to test its strength. He then spun it around on its tip and did the same to the back of the blade. You might think that it was a bit much for simple shovel. He was just making sure that is was a sturdy piece of work. I might use a shovel just a few times a year and for light work at that, so it wouldn’t matter if I got a cheap one. But for someone who uses one day-in and day-out under all kinds of conditions and situations, a quality-made tool is essential to his job.

I shoot under a myriad of different conditions From rain and snow to extremes of cold and heat, I depend on my equipment to work and work well. Like the worker, I need to know that my equipment is durable, reliable and will work each and every time I use it.

The camera is a tool. A complex tool, but a tool nonetheless. Whether it’s a point-and-shoot or fancy DSLR, set one down by itself and it can’t take a picture alone. It can’t decide if the lighting is right, if the composition is pleasing or when to press the shutter button. The only one that can decide those things as well as other intangibles is the person behind the camera.

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Open (flash) sesame

In The technique of “open flash,” the camera is set up on a tripod, and a lengthy shutter speed is picked. Then a flash, unconnected to the camera, is fired off manually. It’s usually used for night shots or nearly lightless rooms. The advantage is that you can use one flash as if it were several.

I was asked to shoot the statue the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in downtown Stockton in advance of MLK Day. I had gone out and shot it during the day. Photos of inanimate objects can be difficult to photograph creatively (especially ones you can’t move around to catch the light at its best) and the statue, well, it looked just like a statue. I thought about going back to get a night shot, but I had a busy evening and only had a half an hour between assignments. Fortunately, that half hour was during the “blue hour” of dusk, about 5:30 or so at this time of year.

As I got to the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza where the statue is located, the sky had turned a deep blue. I set up my camera on a tripod and took a couple of shots.  The light from a nearby street light was blocked by some trees, and the east-facing statue was still a bit backlit from the last remnants of a dying sunset and the glow of other streetlights. I needed to add some light to bring out the detail in the front of the statue, so I broke out my flash. Not expecting to have a need for a flash I had brought only one.

Using a 5-second exposure, I pressed the shutter button and ran over to the right of the statue and fired off the flash, which was set at about 1/8th power. I checked the shot on the camera’s monitor and saw that I needed a bit more light, so I increased the flash to 1/4-power. Moreover I could see that the light coming only from the right side created dark shadows on the left. I doubled the exposure to 10 seconds and shot again. Again I fired off the flash from the right, but then I ran around behind the camera and popped it off from the left. I checked the camera again, and the picture looked much better. Detail could be seen in the statue, the “blue hour” sky was a deep azure. Wispy clouds picked up traces of pink from the sunset that was nearly gone. A light from a streetlamp the right side and to the rear of the statue just out of the frame created an orangy glow. I repeated the shot several more times, firing the flash from slightly different positions. I must have been a sight running back and forth, but I didn’t care. I was too busy concentrating on what I was doing.

In the end, the night shot was more colorful and dramatic than anything I could have produced during the day.

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Numbers game #2

There’s an old adage in sports photography of “two faces and a ball,” meaning that’s what most sports pictures boil down to. You want to get two opposing athletes in action over whatever ball they use. I also try to include jersey numbers to help with identifying them later. Occasionally both players will have the same number. While it’s not unheard of, it doesn’t happen all that often. Maybe a couple of times a season. At last week’s girls varsity basketball game between Chavez High at Bear Creek, it happened three times.

When shooting action, it usually happens so fast and I’m concentrating to capture it that I don’t notice what numbers are on the jerseys. I usually shoot a few extra frames after the play to make sure that the numbers can be seen later.

The first was fairly early in the game of Chavez’s Mary Flowers (23) being guarded by Bear Creek’s Kayla Clarin (23) as Flowers drove down the court. Then came Chavez’s Renee Gentry (14) shooting over Bear Creek’s Lache Lucky (14). Finally, near the end of the first half, I captured Bear Creek’s Cavosnia King (34) shooting on Chavez’s Ayanna Hanes (34).

Maybe there can be a rule that says players have to cover only opponents with the same jersey number, then it’ll be easier for me to ID them later.

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Moon shot

A full moon has been celebrated in both fact and folklore. The moon gravitational field affects the Earth’s tides. There have been reports of an increase of crime during full moons. Romantic scenes depict couples parked at lovers’ lane under a full moon (granted, it’s often in some type of slasher movie and bad things happen to the young lovers). Werewolves are said to transform under a full moon. The ancient Greeks named Artemis as the goddess of the moon. It’s been immortalized in film (“Moon Over Miami” starring Don Ameche and Betty Grable – 1941) and song (“Blue Moon” by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart 1934) and even in a breakfast foods (Denny’s Moon Over My-Hammy meal) Any way you view it, once (or twice during “blue” moon periods) a month a full moon comes out to haunt or enchant us.

According to Calphoto.com, using a 100mm lens (considered a mild telephoto or portrait lens) the moon will take up only 0.3% of the frame, so getting a tight shot of the moon requires a very long lens. To get a photo with very little or no cropping something in the order of a 1000mm to 1500mm lens is needed, but that could be costly for the average person. I would say the equivalent of a 300mm lens would be the minimum requirement. The moon would be still be small in the frame, but you could crop the picture using a photo editing program with acceptable results. Teleconverters (sometimes called tele-extenders or doublers) are optical devices that fit between the lens and camera which, depending on maginfication, can extend a lens’ reach by half again to double. The downsides are they cut down the lens’ light gathering abilities by their order of magnification (a 2x extender will decrease the amount of light by 2 f/stops) and there can also be a slight loss of sharpness. There are camera mounts for telescopes that can get close shots of the moon as well (the Japanese blog jurilog.jp posted surprisingly decent photos of the moon shot with an iPhone taped to a telescope!).

Being in the middle of the night, most people think getting a shot of the moon one needs to use a long-time exposure.  Actually it’s just the opposite. Think about a bright cloudless day, say around noontime. It  may be hard to believe with it being shrouded in darkness but that’s the same amount of light falling on the moon (well, at least the side that we see from here). To get it properly exposed, you can follow what’s known as the “sunny 16″ rule. The rule, which is used for exposures on bright sunny days, states that your camera’s aperture should be at f/16 while the shutter speed should be set at the nearest ISO number (for example at ISO 400 the shutter speed would be 1/400th of a second). You may think that when we see the moon it’s farther away from the sun than we are, so there must be some loss of light. That’s true, but the difference is negligible. The sun is about 93 million miles from the earth. A full moon is “only” another 250,000 miles or so further from the sun, a drop in a bucket distance-wise.

A lit full moon is thousands of times brighter than night on earth, even if the foreground is a bright urban setting. At best your camera can handle 2 or 3 times the difference. You should use your camera’s manual exposure setting, not automatic.The surrounding darkness will fool the camera into thinking the moon is darker than it really is, and you’ll over expose the picture.

Because you can either get the correct exposure for the moon or the surrounding area but not both, you’ll have to make a choice between the two. If you’re taking a close-up of the moon with a long lens, then the “sunny 16″ rule should be followed. It won’t work for an overall scene with a wide-angle lens. The moon will be just be a tiny — though well-exposed — dot in a sea of inky blackness. You’ll have to use a longer exposure to capture the foreground and let the moon be overexposed. That’s not entirely a bad thing. An extremely overexposed moon will appear several times larger than it is, a boon when using a wide-angle lens.

There are two notable exceptions to the either-or scenario. The first is to shoot a double-exposure. One shot with a well exposed moon and another without the moon at all. It was a bit of a pain to do this back in the days of film, but now in the digital age, it is as easy as cut-and-paste.

The second exception is that occasionally the moon will rise just before the sun sets completely. The moon will be low on the horizon so the Earth’s atmospheric haze will cut out some of the its brightness while the ambient light is bright enough to capture the foreground. You’ll have to figure out when this is going to happen (usually by checking out weather almanacs on sunsets/moonrises). You’ll have to be prepared to shoot quickly because the window of opportunity to shoot is fleeting, sometimes only minutes.

All these techniques will work with the moon in almost any phase, but it’s the full moon that tends to capture our imagination and fascinates us and and provides us with inspiration.

Posted in Column, Nature, Night, Techniques | Tagged | Leave a comment

Jaunary in review

The first month of a new year has come and gone and has provided a promising harbinger of the 11 subsequent months to come. Here are ten of my favorite shots from January.

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1/4/11:

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1/5/11:

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1/7/11:

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1/11/11:

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1/12/11:

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1/14/11:

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1/19/11:

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1/20/11:

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    Clifford Oto

    Clifford Oto, an award-winning photographer, has been with The Record since 1984. Through the changes from black and white to digital photography, he’s kept his focus on covering the events, people and life of San Joaquin county. This blog deals ... Read Full
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