Archive for the ‘hobbies’ Category

Canon T3i ISO 100 50mm f/1.4 1/40sec

Cloudy Wheat Beer that I made!

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Astro photography, or stellar photography, presents a number of challenges on top of those of regular night time photography.  The big ones in the photographer’s control are tracking, focus and subject acquisition – nothing us poor mortals can do about the weather when it wants to get in the way of having some fun.

Unless you are photographing bright objects found within the solar system like the Moon, Venus, Mars or Jupiter, even the best tripod on the most stable platform is going to be severely limiting because of the relative motion of the stars as the Earth rotates.  To gather enough light for a photograph, the shutter will have to be open for a long time.  Without some way of tracking the movement of the stars you will end up with streaks of light, also known as star trails.  Sometimes this can be desirable for its look, as in this picture from Fred Espenak

If you want a still shot of the stars, however, you need a way of having your camera follow them. There are a couple of ways to track the stars.  An equatorial mount with a drive motor, often used for telescopes, is one way.  Another device for doing this is often called a barn door which is simpler than the equatorial mount but achieves the same results.  Of course with both devices you add more complications like aligning the axis with the north star properly, drive speed, wobble due to the mounting hardware or leverage of the weight of the camera on the mounting arm, or vibration if the device uses a stepper motor for the drive mechanism.

My brother and I are working on refining the use of a barn door for taking pictures; so far our results have been mixed.  We are also working on repairing an equatorial mounted telescope that my Grandfather built many years ago, which was originally designed to have a camera sit with the film at the prime focal point of the telescope with no lens attached.  If we can get them to work we will be able to capture some images of the fainter objects out in deep space with some super long exposures.

Moving on… we will take for granted that we have tracking down to perfection, it’s time to move on to focus.  Since the stars are a minimum of 24,800,000,000,000 miles away, focus needs to be set at infinity.  If you are lucky, infinite focus is at one end of the lens’ focus ring or the other, or if you are really lucky your lens has a focus meter on it where infinity is marked for you.  If you are unlucky, like me, you have neither.  Because the stars are too faint to see through the viewfinder to focus on we have two options.  First (not recommended) is to take a photo, check for focus, make a small adjustment, rinse and repeat until focus is achieved.  This is tedious, time consuming and very frustrating.  What I like to do, when I remember, is to go out before the sun sets and focus on a far distant object and use masking tape to hold the focus ring in place and, boom, all set to go for the night.

OK, we have tracking mastered and our lenses are all focused to infinity – it’s time to start taking pictures.  But how do we know where to point the camera?  There are lots of interesting things among the stars that aren’t plainly visible to the naked eye but will show up in photographs.  One place to look is a Star Map which details the constellations and other celestial bodies.  There are also some very nifty apps for Android phones and iPhones that display a star map over the sky wherever you point the phone.  These tools will help you find the things in the sky, getting your camera pointed at them is a little trickier.  With a short lens, getting what you want in the field of view is fairly easy, but you wont get much detail on things like star clusters or distant galaxies.  The longer the lens you use, the harder it is going to be to point it at your subject because the field of view gets smaller and smaller.  Since you can’t star hop like you can with a telescope you will have to find a different way of finding those deep space objects.  Future plans for my brother and I are to rig up a device for the hot shoe of the camera that will hold a high output green laser.  Unlike the red laser pointers you find for a few bucks as the store, the high output laser’s beam is visible in the air.  Once zeroed in at the center of the camera’s field of view, it will be possible to easily point the camera at what we want to take pictures of, even at long focal lengths.

Hopefully by the next time I post about astro photography, we will have made some advances in our technique and have news about progress on the telescope.  I will leave you with a couple of pictures we were able to capture on Christmas night 2011.

Jupiter and several moons

Orion, Taurus, and the Pleadies

M31 the galaxy in Andromeda

Star field with Double Cluster

Star field with Double Cluster

Orion with holiday lights

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In the course of pursuing my goal of participating in the PhotoFriday challenge every week for the last few weeks I have run into a nasty old demon getting in the way of my creativity.  I will call him the “Not Good Enough” demon.  Perhaps you are familiar with him.  He is always hanging around whispering in my ear.  When I am taking pictures I hear him telling my my composition is no good, or that my subject doesn’t really meet the theme of the week.  He is in Lightroom with me while I am editing, ragging on my exposure, my colors, the clarity of the photo, on and on.  He is even there when I post the link to my entry, saying that my photo which I have spent no small amount of time and effort on is not good enough to be entered.

This is not the first time I have encountered this particular demon.  He showed up when I first started screenwriting and film making as well.  I believe that all artists and creative types confront him at some point whether they are painters, musicians, sculptors, photographers, writers or dancers.  He feeds on our own self judgements, how we think others will perceive our work and also how we fear others will perceive us as artists.  It would take a team of sociologists and psychologists to sort out how all of these external and internal factors affect us in our creativity so I wont even try to figure that out here.  All that is of concern is that the “Not Good Enough” demon haunts us, taunts us and gets in the way of doing the creative things we want to do, of being the creative people we want to be.

One of the first things I came to realize about Mr. Not Good Enough is that he is a Grade A, Class 1 JERK.  He is a good for nothing asshat.  His only goal is to keep you from doing the art you want to do.  He is plum full of false excuses for you to put off that painting you’ve been meaning to finish, that photo shoot you wanted to set up last week, that violin solo you have been meaning to practice.  It’s tough, but the only thing I have found that works is tune him out.

When you hear him whispering in your ear that the shot you are about to take is crap you smile, tell him to go straight to hell and push the shutter button.  It turns out that the demon can’t actually stop you from taking the photograph, adding the next brush stroke, typing the next word, or playing the next song.  Only you can do that.

The next, and possibly most important, thing I learned in combating the demon is forgiveness.  That last photograph you took wasn’t perfect?  So what!  Forgive yourself.  The next one will be better for it.  By forgiving yourself for not being perfect you will free yourself to experiment and learn and ultimately create the art you want to.  Do you think the Mona Lisa was DaVinci’s first painting?  Of course not.  Did Itzhak Perlman become a virtuoso simply by picking up a violin?  I bet his parents wished they couldn’t hear after his first lesson.  Art takes practice and dedication.  By forgiving yourself the second will be easier and the first will follow.

Are we always going to be happy with the results of our hard work?  No.  And that is OK too.  In fact it is a good thing.  After a hard shoot and editing session I look forward to the next, taking the lessons I learned with me and striving to get better with every exposure.  That belief that we can do better is what will drive us to keep refining our techniques and skills.  Just as long as that trash talking demon isn’t allowed to bend your ear.  Some day he might just give up and not bother you again, but it will take time and a lot of hard work to build your confidence enough there is no more room for him.  I’m still waiting for that day, but I hear him less and less all the time.

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PhotoFriday Challenge

I decided recently that I wanted to participate in some kind of weekly photography challenge.  My goal is not to win prizes or acclaim or anything like that.  I feel that participating in a regular submission style process would create for me a kind of accountability to keep me engaged in taking photo’s and working on different aspects of my photography.  Additionally the assignment type nature of the weekly challenge would help me exercise my creativity to meet the criteria for each challenge.

Searching for a challenge brought me to several pages with wide ranges of styles and types of challenges/contests.  A challenge site that I thought was interesting and something to aspire to was DPChallenge.  The photo’s I looked at on the page were incredible.  The challenges were highly structured with very specific requirements about the subject of the challenge, when you could take photo’s for the challenges and the kind of editing allowed for submissions.  They run several challenges concurrently, which I also liked.  It is however a pay site where you have to be a member to participate in the challenges, which isn’t something I am interested in at this time.  I also feel that I need to become a more polished photographer to be ready for their challenges.

The next place I looked was at PhotoSunday.  I thought it was a nice site with a good concept of running a weekly challenge.  Give the readers a theme and let them submit a link to their picture of choice for that theme.  Its a much more relaxed atmosphere than DPC, with no rules about when the picture was taken or editing requirements etc.  However the page seems to have a very low volume of traffic.  With one day left on the current challenge, there are only 27 submissions (one of which is Marie’s, go vote for it).

The one I finally settled on to give a try is PhotoFriday.  Similar to PhotoSunday in its method of organizing the challenge, the site has a more structured voting process with a cool viewer window for seeing all of the links without actually leaving the PhotoFriday page.  There is also a much larger volume of traffic, which will hopefully translate into more traffic for our page.  The “rules” are still pretty open with no requirements to speak of.  I am however setting one requirement for myself in regard to these challenges.  I am limiting myself to only photographs taken after the challenge subject has been posted this will hopefully force me to get out every week and flex my photography muscles.

This weeks challenge is “noon”.  A nice easy concept to photograph right?…

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This weekend, Keith and I met up with Jennifer and James, a happily married couple who had their wedding this last summer. Keith and I had been promoting a free photo shoot on our Facebook page and Jennifer entered and won! She told us that she wanted to do a photo shoot of her and James on their motorcycles (there’s gotta be a cooler way to say it…)… er,… hogs… um,… bikes!… er, crotch rockets!

Anywho, we all met up in St Croix Falls, WI, and discussed how we would go about this shoot. We suggested some driving shots from our car, out our window on the highway. Then some still shots in a park in Taylors Falls.

1st Challenge: Taking Pictures of Moving Objects While You Yourself Are Moving

Strategy: I got in the back seat of the car while Keith drove; we told James and Jennifer to get on the highway in the lane next to us. I would gesture to  them to have one come up to my window and then the other, and then both so that we could get a variety of shots.

Focusing. It would be difficult to have my camera on auto-focus while the scenery is moving so quickly. Each shot would take the camera a long time to focus and by then, I may have already lost the scene. I needed to shoot quickly and couldn’t let the camera be in charge of the focus. So I turned my camera on manual focus.

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Example: Bad focus!

Smearing the Background. On our first round of highway shots, I found that things were turning out well on-screen but that the background wasn’t showing motion. My shutter speed was so fast that not only was it making my subjects nice and sharp, but it was also keeping the background sharp. I wanted pictures where you could see how the scenery was zipping by in a smear while the driver remained sharp.

Example: Background isn't smeared. Appears sharp.

So on our second round of highway shots, I slowed down my shutter speed, which means I had to open up my aperture. Then got the smear that I wanted; however, my subject became less sharp, too. I had to settle with a compromise. In the end, I got a handful of photos of both drivers that I thought were a good balance of sharp subject and smeared background.

Example: Background is smeared, showing motion

Scenery. I didn’t realize this was a challenge until I was home at the end of the night, sorting through my treasure of photos. I had assumed I would be getting smeary backgrounds for all the shots, so it wouldn’t matter what was in the background. But as I said, my first shots didn’t have smeary backgrounds; so we had shots of James happily driving past Wal-Mart, or a picture of Jennifer with an anti-abortion advertisement floating over her head. Lesson? Be aware of the background. We might have waited to do this driving shots until we were in a more forest area instead of this Wal-Mart inhabited town.

Example: Bad background

Cars. Very specific to highway driving shots, we were faced with the challenge of others motorists. These motorists got in the way in a couple of ways. First, they disrupted our synchronization of vehicles for lining up the shots. They somehow thought that the roads were for them to get places instead of us to set up a photo shoot. Self-centered turds. Secondly, they would get in the shots whether they were further up the road or behind, or just exiting on a ramp and got directly in the back of the shot. So I had to toss a few photos because of that. There was not much we could do about this except to find a quiet road which we did our best to do. And above all, nothing was worth a shot if the drivers weren’t safe. We made sure they worried more about the road then setting up the shot.

Example: Car getting in our shot

Communication. I am finding more and more that people cannot read my mind. Why? I dunno. They’re nutty, I guess. But I found that after the shoot, James and Jennifer were talking about how they weren’t really sure what to do with themselves when being photographed while driving. Should they turn and smile? Stare straight ahead? They shared with us that they just ended up doing a combination of the two. That made me realize that not everyone can envision what I’m going to do with my photos. I need to communicate with them and let them know what to expect. Or communicate my strategy at the very least and then let them have input as to what they want from the shoot. So I’m going to try to be more communicative with my clients and freely ask for any questions they have and any suggestions, too. After all, it’s their pictures. They need to look the way THEY want them to look.

2nd Challenge: Taking Pictures of 2 Giant Motorcycles and Two Human Subjects with Helmets in the Dead Fall

Strategy: Go to the park in Taylors Falls and get some still, posed shots. Eventually, we would also go to the Landing in Osceola for some more stills and panning.

Unique Perspectives, Fitting in the Frame, 10% Faces, and Heavy Bikes: So we have two 750-pound motorcycles. One is all black, the other has some yellow and blue. We have two human subjects who have helmets on their heads. How do we get unique perspectives of the two giant machines (one of which has little detail due to being black) and two humans with only 10% of their faces showing? I found it hard to choose to cut off a part of the bike because then the picture didn’t look complete. So how many angles can you come at a motorcycle while fitting it all in the frame? And what about if you have two? And what about if they’re very, very difficult to maneuver? It was challenging to think of new ways to set up the motorcycles and our subjects. We usually had them parallel to each other, at an angle with an interesting background. Then we would have the human subjects placed in different positions around the bikes. But it was difficult to search for the emotion because we couldn’t really see their faces well. But that also made editing easier since you sometimes couldn’t tell if someone was blinking or whether they were smiling! Either way, it was OK!

Example: Fitting two bikes and two subjects in a shot

Dead colors. Of course, we were doing our shots in mid-November when all leaves have died and turned brown. Skies are gray. Colors are dead and we are mourning. What to do? Well, contrast doesn’t always have to have color. We can contrast using patterns. So I tried to find situations in which, despite a lack of colors, our subjects would pop out in the frame. At the Osceola site, I had the subjects against a sunset and that turned them into silhouettes that looked fantastic against the background. Also, in post processing, I was able to raise the contrast and saturation and bring out the greens in the forests to add to the color in the final picture.

Example: The real color we were given by nature

Example: Picture with enhanced color through Lightroom

And that is my two cents on our motorcycle photo shoot. It was a lot of fun and very challenging, as you’ve seen! But Keith and I really enjoyed our time with Jennifer and James and how silly and crazy-in-love they are; what with whacking each other in the face and having slapping wars. I aspire to their level of love. Truly beautiful.

Thanks Jennifer & James!

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