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Featured workshop: 2013.12.07 and 2013.12.08—Photographing Flowers for Transparency, Two-Day Workshop
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Category Archives: Bemusements
I think perhaps that The Incredible Shrinking Man, a 1957 film about a man who shrinks to nothing following an encounter with a radioactive cloud, had an indelible impact on a portion of my visual aesthetic. I know that The Incredible Shrinking Man was one of the first movies I ever saw (what were my parents thinking?). No doubt due to my tender years, I took the pseudo-profundities uttered by Grant Williams, the actor who plays the shrinking man as, well, profundities.
It’s hard to resist lines like this one: “So close — the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet — like the closing of a gigantic circle.”
To this day, I enjoy playing with scale in my imagery. It’s one of my goals to create iconography that compels at least a second glance, and using indeterminate scale is one way to get there.
For example, the Sand Dollar shown above is captured at near microscopic level. But the vista of badlands in Death Valley (far above) could easily be an enlargement of the pattern in the shell. You see, it’s all a circle, with the large and vast ultimately smaller than the small and tiny—or vice versa.
For the record, the other movie I remember well from my early years was Some Like It Hot. My brother and I were supposed to be asleep in the back of the family station wagon at the drive-in movie theater. Now what artistic influence did Some Like It Hot have?
There’s one somewhat discordant element in this tableau of a metallurgic assayer’s desk, shot at Laws Railroad Museum near Bishop, California. What is the gun doing in the image?
According to the docent I spoke with, most assayers tended to deal in gold and other precious metals as well as to assay it. The natural tendency for miners hitting what passed for civilization out of their stakes in Death Valley or the Panamint Range was to want to get some ready money quickly—no doubt for some to spend on booze and women in wild boom towns like Bodie. These miners would often come to feel that they had been low-balled by assayers who had taken advantage of them; hence, a revolver to defend against disgruntled small mining stake-holders was standard equipment for most metallurgists.
Exposure data: 52mm, ten exposures at shutter speeds between 1/80 of a second and five seconds, each exposure at f/13 and ISO 200, tripod mounted; exposures combined using Nik HDR Efex Pro and Photoshop, and converted to monochromatic using Photoshop, Nik Silver Efex and Topaz Adjust.
For many years one of the pleasures of the two-mile hike down to Tennessee Beach in the Marin Headlands has been to view the wonderful hole in the cliff on the north side of the beach. This dramatic formation as it appeared in 2007 can be seen in the photo below, which is lit by moonlight. A star appears through the hole in the cliff in the photo.
Sometime during the tumultuous storms of the last few weeks this cliff collapsed, presumably brought down by rain and wind. The impact on the appearance of the north end of Tennessee Beach is tremendous and visceral, as you can see in the 2013 view of the scene below that I shot yesterday.
Looking at the fault line exposed by the landslide, it seems likely that erosion will continue. Perhaps the cliff jutting out into the sea is doomed to become an island sea stack in the course of time. But I am no geologist.
The cliffs looking north from Tennessee Beach are still spectacular, although I miss the unique formation of the hole in the cliff.
This slide in a beloved landscape is a reminder that nothing lasts forever, and that the only constant is change. Confronted with clear evidence that even something as apparently immutable as the iron-bound cliffs of the Marin Headlands are not static we have to conclude that our lives will change as well—in ways that are hard to expect or predict, and out of our control.
Change can be disconcerting, particularly when it is precipitated by exogenous events—the human equivalents to landslide. The way to survive in style is to eschew denial, and accept that the unpredictable is by definition unpredictable.
When you have four kids like I do, shopping for food occurs frequently. The one thing you want to do when you take the kids into the supermarket is to encapsulate them to prevent general madness, mayhem, and terrorizing of the civilian population.
What better way to encapsulate them than in a honey trap, like this shopping cart? Katie Rose and Mathew are shown in the “cab” and Nicky is riding on top.
It’s times like these that I am grateful for my iPhone camera because it is the camera I always have with me!
The idea behind Within the Canvas (below) is to show the model emerging from a background. It is not clear where the model begins and where the model ends. Model and canvas seem to flow together. The fabric the model is wearing is part of the canvas. Or, is it?
Even as an issue of three-dimensional spacial relationships consider: Is the model is in front or in back of the canvas? Depending where you look in the image, both are possible—leading to potential paradox and visual impossibility. A potential solution is to assume there is a slit in the canvas, but this doesn’t really work (observe her hand).
To make this image I shot the model on a white background. She was wrapped in sheer, white gauze. In post-production, I placed the model image as a layer on a canvas background, then added a series of textures on top of the Photoshop composite.
I fondly dubbed my shot of a wet cyclamen “Moby Dick” because the flower looked to me like a white whale. I never expected the New Bedford Whaling Museum—surely an authority on whales and what they look like—to take up the refrain!
Signifying the Whale is an exhibition opening at the New Bedford Whaling Museum on November 1. The exhibit consists of crowd-sourced images (via Flickr) of signified (as in, to be a sign or symbol of something), documented, or artistically rendered whales. The images in the exhibition do not depict actual whales.
I am pleased to have my image lead the way into this singular and amusing exhibition!
With this image featuring the travelling model Kellie my idea was to recreate something of the feeling of a Titian painting, particularly in the folds of red velvet draped on the couch. Besides the studio model shot I used a desaturated image of the setting sun (and bird). To complete the image, I add several layers of virtual textures (I will be writing about digital textures in a future story) and a small margin of background.
I’ve printed Kellie on canvas to reinforce the visual reference to historical masterworks, and am experimenting with adding by hand an actual (rather than virtual) coat of varnish that I can work to recreate the craquelure of an old oil painting.
Wandering around New York with my camera after an absence of many years was in some ways a dissonant experience. I grew up in New York City, but the New York of today is not the New York I remember from the years of my youth and as a young adult.
Of course, one can’t go home again and the only thing constant is change. But somehow this visit to my old stomping grounds made me feel particularly spectral, as if the photographer Harold of thirty years ago was also present and sensing my contemporary presence. To the Harold of the past I would have seemed like a ghost, inhabiting a future world that would have been almost unimaginable.
Past and present merged as one, and I tried to express this very odd feeling in my image of Grand Central Station and its ghosts.
How this image was made: When I walked through Grand Central Station I knew that I wanted to show this vast public space filled with people, many of whom would be partially blurred and therefore “ghosts.” Obviously, to achieve this effect I needed a long exposure.
The first hurdle was that when I took out my tripod a gentleman in camouflage khakis carrying an automatic weapon came over and told me I couldn’t use it. This was in keeping with much of my experience trying to photograph in New York—pulling out my tripod often led to its prohibition.
So I found a balcony railing on which I could rest my camera.
The next problem was that there was too much light for a long exposure. I solved this issue in two ways. First, I added a neutral density filter that cut the amount of light coming into my camera by a factor of 8. I then made a series of exposures at 4 seconds, f/22 and ISO 100.
The second way to extend the exposure was to rely on stacking. Stacking is a post-processing method for effectively extending the length of an exposure by aggregating shorter exposures. A common use is to extend the effective time of night exposures to create circular star trails as in Stars My Destination.
By extending the exposure time using a small aperture, a neutral density filter, and stacking I accomplished the intermittent blur I was looking for. People who stood still appeared solid and “real,” while those who were moving became spectral and blurred ghosts.
In this image I used the technique of stacking a little differently from stacking star trails, in which one wants the brightest pixel in a stack to be the one selected: In Ghosts of Grand Central I made two stacks, each consisting of six images, for an aggregate exposure length of 24 seconds. In one of the stacks I elected to choose the darkest pixel at each point. This is accomplished in the Photoshop Statistics action by setting the stack mode to Minimum.
The second stack used the Range stack mode, which is a statistical method that renders the spread between the darkest and lightest pixel at every point.
I combined the two stacks using a gradient, so the background of Grand Central Station (created with the Minimum stack) looked fundamentally as it does in “real life. But the foreground and floor of the space, created in the Range mode, was spectral and ghostly with some figures rendered normally and others as negative space.
If you go into any restaurant these days and look at the diners who are eating alone, most of them are likely to be playing with their smartphones. Some of these folks are checking email and some are surfing the web. Others, like me, are often using the camera in their phone to take and process photos. For example, creating semi-abstract images of packets of sugar while waiting for the first cuppa of the morning.
It’s well known that the iPhone camera is now the most used camera in the world. If not the world’s best digital camera, it is the camera that is always with one. But—like more professional digital cameras—if you treat it as just another camera that renders static and realistic images via a sensor (instead of film) you are missing most of the creative potential.
Digital photography is a completely new art form and a whole new ballgame. This is true if you make digital images with a DSLR, and also true if you create with an iPhone. New mediums require new thinking, new tools and new ways of seeing.
Case in point: While bored and waiting for breakfast in a restaurant on a recent trip, I created the image of sugar packets shown in this story using the Slow Shutter Cam iPhone app. Somewhat astoundingly, Show Shutter Cam lets you adjust effective shutter speed, blur, and exposure after the fact—you tweak these things following composition and image creation, and then save the image to the Camera Roll.
In other words, I was able to completely control the blur in the impressionistic image of sugar packets I had made by adjusting a slider after the photo had been made.
A new paradigm. Sweet.
So I love and hate my iPhone. My iPhone 4 is the camera I always have with me, and it is a joy to schlep compared to my full and weighty rig of DSLR, lenses, and tripod. But sometimes it feels like my brains are in my iPhone, and my external brains are always trying to seduce me to be online—ignoring the beauty and serenity of the world in exchange for instant access to email no matter where I am.
Whatever my feelings for my iPhone—and it is certainly a nifty device—I am not overly fond of Apple. I like apples, but Apple the company really doesn’t do it for me anymore. If you have to call yourself a “genius” then you are not one, and this certainly applies to the so-called customer service “geniuses” at Apple.
The only thing they are geniuses at is making money for Apple.
But don’t get me started.
The other day the handset speaker on my iPhone stopped working. The phone worked okay with the ear buds, and when I pressed the Speaker button I could hear fine, but when I put the phone up to my ear and called, or someone phoned me, I couldn’t hear it through the phone.
I tried cleaning the phone, rebooting it, backing it up and restoring the operating system, and so on, but nothing worked. I figured it was a hardware problem.
So I made an appointment with the geniuses at the Apple store on 4th Street. Sure enough, my genius told me it was a hardware problem.
All of the “solutions” the genius proffered involved trashing my phone and getting a new one. The cheapest “solution” was $149 for a replacement of the same model as my current phone, but the genius whispered to me that I maybe should “make do” without the sound and wait for the iPhone 5 to come out—I could then sign a new contract and pay to upgrade.
To his credit, my “genius” did also suggest that I could probably get a repair shop to fix the problem for less than $149.
Every “solution” Apple offered meant abandoning my current phone. Now, I don’t know about you, or about the average corporate warrior, but for me $149 is a lot of money to drop. The whole thing stuck in my craw. I figure my iPhone was made by slave labor in China. This thing was paid for in the currency of people’s lives.
Also, if I paid Apple $149 for a new one they would probably refurbish and resell my old one, and further add to their multi-billion dollar hoard.
So I took a pass on the $149 deal. You can’t even get cell phone service in the Bristlecone Pines (where I am heading to teach a workshop this week).
Next stop: a repair shop. Yup, they said, we can fix this for you. Take about a week to get the part, though.
Then I noticed “Joe” on Yelp with about a hundred 5-star reviews. I put “Joe” in quotes (the way it is on his business card), because almost certainly this is not his real name.
Finding “Joe” was a little dodgy because his address seemed to be at Starbucks. When I called him, at first he was guarded until I described my problem with my iPhone. I asked where to find him, he kept repeating to me, as if I were slightly dense, “Come up the stairs inside Starbucks to the mezzanine, you’ll find me there.” Mobile office indeed!
And yes, inside Starbucks there was “Joe” at a corner table in the mezzanine with his cup of “Joe”, unmistakable with two black briefcases, a black backpack, and iPhone tools in several Altoid boxes. “Joe” was surrounded by seven iPhones in various states of repair, and an extensive inventory of iPhone parts in tiny well-organized boxes.
He took my phone apart in the blink of the eye, had the right part, tested it, and put my phone back together in about five minutes. All for more than the cost of a cup of “Joe,” but far less than a new phone from Apple would have cost.
While I was there, customers came and called. He set up appointments, gave advice, and quoted prices. Busy guy. At one point “Joe” asked me to mind his shop while he delivered a repaired phone to a drive-by customer downstairs.
So I don’t need no stinkin’ “Genius,” I’ve got my “Joe”—at least until I (possibly) switch to Android. If you have an iPhone that needs repair and you don’t want an expensive replacement from Apple, here’s a link to “Joe’s” site on Yelp.
The other day I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to photograph a Falcon Motorcycle. These motorcycles are one-of-a-kind completely handmade works of art. As I particularly enjoy photographing machinery it was a real treat getting to photograph a machine that had been so carefully and artfully constructed.
To capture the subtle shapes and forms of the motorcycle’s engine it will surprise no one who reads my blog to learn that I used High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques. This image was created from seven exposures. Each exposure was shot at f/11 and ISO 200. I used a tripod, and manually bracketed the shutter speeds in a range from two seconds to 1/200 of a second.
In post production I combined the exposures using Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro 2 and hand-layering in Photoshop.
My original thought had been to produce a monochromatic final image, but when I saw the results in color I decided the color version looked pretty good too!
I converted the color version to black and white using Nik Silver Efex 2, Photoshop Black & White adjustment layers, and a monochromatic HDR version processed from the original seven files.
These images will make stunning prints I think on Moab’s wonderful pearlized metallic Slickrock paper.
By the way, I’ve been asked a number of times recently why I often choose to shoot my HDR sequences using manual shutter speed bracketing rather than in-camera auto bracketing (which at first blush would seem easier). The answer, as I explain on page 76 of Creating HDR Photos, is that auto bracketing programs do not in fact capture enough extended dynamic range. So if you want to create HDR multi-shot imagery like mine you, too, will need to bracket manually. I plan to write a future blog story on the mechanics of keeping the camera absolutely still while one manually brackets.
An abandoned cement field in West Oakland near the docks was filled with large, rusting metal pipes, maybe ten feet in diameter. What was their original purpose? Why were they left behind? Who knows.
The vast area was fenced, but it had obviously been entered many times—getting in was no problem. Once inside I felt the need to stay alert regarding my surroundings, although as far as I could tell I shared the scene only with trash, weeds, wall art, and the gray sky of a misty day. The damp, overcast weather helped saturate the colors you see in this image.
As I often do these days in the field, I manually bracketed for HDR. Usually, this means about a 10 EV exposure range—plus, of course, whatever one can tease out of the RAW files. Specifically, for this image I shot ten exposures ranging from 1/200 of a second at the darkest end to 4 seconds at the lightest end. Each exposure was shot at 130mm, f/36, and ISO 200, using a tripod.
It turns out that this was definitely too much information! Running the combined exposures through HDR processing led to an average looking image that showed the interior of the pipes along with assorted booze bottles and trash. This was definitely not the look I wanted to achieve because I knew things would be much more dramatic with a contrast range between the blackness of the pipe interior and the riotous color of the graffiti on the wall behind.
So I reprocessed the image, mostly using a single exposure, to enhance the high contrast drama, adding a little color to the central paintings using a low opacity version rendered by Nik HDR Efex Pro 2.
If you look carefully, you can still see an old booze bottle caught between the two pipes. I could have retouched this out, but decided to leave the bottle in the image as a reminder of the authentic environment this image was made in.
The moral, of course, is that there is no real problem overshooting in the field. If I don’t need all the information, I can just discard it at the processing stage. Better to have it in case I need it, and end up not using it, than to regret undershooting. As experienced photographers know, mostly you can’t go back because things are never the same twice.
In the great seafaring Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian, the bad guys often get their just comeuppance using a ruse de guerre that in hindsight should have been obvious. Admiral Ramage, the protagonist of a somewhat less literary but still entertaining eponymous naval series by Dudley Pope, puts it this way: we expect to see the obvious, therefore the obvious is what we do see, even when there is something else going on.
The photographer’s job is to see beyond the obvious.
At the very least, seeing beyond the obvious means being acutely aware of one’s environment. Visual explorations help, as does looking up, down, and to the sides. The view straight ahead is not the only one! Ignore preconceptions and prior expectations whenever possible.
In this spirit, when I recently visited San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral with my camera, the view that most interested me was straight up, with the exposed structure supporting the ceiling looking for all the world like the skeleton of some large beast.
Alleys can be magical places. Just think of Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books. The Mission District of San Francisco has a number of alleys, made magical by the artists who have decorated them. Some of these artists have gone on to fame and fortune. Unfortunately, I have no idea who painted this garage door in Clarion Alley as I could not find a signature.
To make this image I shot five exposures with my camera on a tripod using manual exposure mode. Each exposure was exposed at 35mm, f/11 and ISO 200. My shutter speeds ranged between 1/10 of a second and 1/200 of a second. I combined the five exposures using Nik HDR Efex Pro.
At the recent Photography with Harold Davis night event at Sutro Baths, my friend and colleague Steven Christenson lit the night with scouring pads and magnesium. If you are interested in learning more about the night magic that Steven creates, check out his StarCircleAcademy blog.