Monthly Archives: June 2006

Navigation and a Water Drop

This is a photograph of one of a water drop on one of my new dahlia flowers taken with my Nikon D200 and 200mm f/4 macro lens equipped with 64mm of extension tubes and a +4 diopter close-up filter. I have the 200mm lens, which is pretty heavy, mounted on a rail with a scale for both precise focusing and better balance on the tripod. I use a remote shutter release with the mirror locked-up for this kind of photograph.

To take this picture, I set the lens for maximum depth-of-field and exposed a series of captures at shutter speeds ranging from 1/8 of a second to 8 seconds. (This exposure was pretty much in the middle of the shutter speed range.)

Even at maximum depth-of-field this close, there’s only a thin range of subject that is in focus, so precise focusing is critical. I use a magnifying eye piece to help make sure that I have focused where I want.

From a practical viewpoint, given the water drop, the equipment that I have described, and a photographer who knows how to work the equipment, there are two problems to overcome with a photograph like this. The first is movement in the water drop—and for sure it will vibrate and wriggle in the slightest breath of a breeze. Short of going to macro flash, the only remedy for this issue is patience—and seizing the second of stillness when it does occur.

The second problem is a little less obviously a problem unless you’ve been there and done that. Extreme macro setups have a narrow range in which they can be focused. It’s hard to find that range, hard to know what you are looking at, and hard to find your subject. The whole process reminds me of navigation in unfamiliar terrain. Some of the shapes and contours seem familiar. Then finally you see something and know where you are. Now you can navigate relative to your landmark.

Funny, isn’t it, how my experience navigating the vast world of mountain wilderness can help me steer through the puzzle of extreme close-ups in my backyard?

Posted in Photography, Water Drops

Slow Flash

“Slow flash” is an oxymoron because there can be no such thing as a slow flash exposure. A flash duration is usually between 1/1000 of a second and 1/20,000 of a second, depending on the strobe. By most normal definitions, a flash burst cannot be slow.

In default camera modes it usually synchronizes with a camera shutter speed of 1/60 of a second or 1/125 of a second (1/60 of a second with the Nikon dSLRs such as the Nikon D70 or Nikon D200). Whatever the shutter synch speed, the light from the flash is fundementally controlling the exposure, although depending on circumstances ambient light can play a role as well.

Nikon uses “slow flash,” along with “slow synch,” as their rather obscure terms for an exposure that combines a flash burst with a long time exposure (of up to thirty seconds). With this technique, you’ve got to set the flash into this synch mode. Next, you need to know that it will only work when exposure is set to automatic or aperture-preferred modes.

Even in slow flash mode, of course, the flash isn’t slow: it’s the exposure that is used in conjunction with the flash that is slow.

The idea is that you could put the camera on a tripod, stop the aperture all the way down (say to f/40), and take a time exposure of a couple of seconds combined with a flash burst.

Once I figured out how to set the camera up in slow flash mode—and I think you can believe me when I say the Nikon manuals are not a model of good expository technical writing, this documentation is difficult to decode—it occured to me that I could use slow flash to create a stained-glass effect using the natural translucence of flower petals. In other words, my idea was to use the flash part of the slow-flash exposure to create seriously intense backlighting.

The photograph of the dahlia at the top of this story used the technique, with a Nikon SB-800 unit mounted on a tripod directly behind the flower (and pointed straight at it) and connected via wireless at the camera, which controlled the exposure in aperture-priorty mode. The overall exposure of the camera, which also was tripod mounted, was at ISO 100, for 1.3 seconds, at f/36 using my 105mm macro lens.

This extreme macro photo of a Salpiglossis sinuata (“Painted tongue”) really shows the stained glass effect:

Painted Tongue

View this photograph larger.

For this photo, both the camera and strobe were tripod-mounted and connected via wireless. I used the less powerful SB-R200 unit (rather than the SB-800) to create the backlighting. My overall exposure was 2.2 seconds, f/40, at ISO 100 with my 105mm Nikon macro lens with extension tubes and a close-up filter.

Posted in Flowers, Hardware, Photography

Dahlia Days

Dahlias are interesting me lately. I love their symmetry, flamboyance, and elegance. I photographed this red dwarf dahlia head-on with my 105mm macro lens at an ISO of 100 and an exposure of 1.3 seconds and f/36.

Here’s an extreme close-up of a Dalia petal (from this dalhia, planted in my front garden):

Dahlia Petal

View this photograph larger.

Posted in Flowers, Photography

A Kiss on the Cheek

As a four-year-old, Nicky—my middle son—is full of life, imagination, empathy, and affection. As you can see from these lips on his cheek.

Posted in Kids

White Rose

A white rose is a potent symbol. A symbol of what? Perhaps of love, purity, and chastity. But historically the white rose has often been used as a political symbol: in 15th century England during the War of the Roses by Yorkist partisans opposed to the House of Lancaster, and a little more recently, as the name taken by a group of courageous German students who actively resisted the Nazis in 1942-1943.

The White Rose students were beheaded after being tortured by the Gestapo. Despite their terrible fate, they—and the pure white rose itself—should remind us to stand up for liberty and be counted against tyranny, under whatever guise it appears. If I had been living in Nazi Germany, I wish that I had the courage of the White Rose, and I pledge to do my part to stop my country from descending into fascism.

Posted in Flowers, Photography

Heart Like a Mallow

Mallows are annuals or perennials of the Malvaceae family. Spreading from their origins in Southern Europe, they’ve given us fiber and marshmallows.

Often considered a weed, a number of the varieties of mallows are grown in gardens for their wonderful flowers. I’ve come to appreciate the wonderful baroque shapes and curliques made by the pistils, stamen, and anthers of this flower, as well as the transulence of the flower itself.

Bush Mallow

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I photographed the mallows shown here using a handheld vibration reduction lens and a short, low depth-of-field exposure in sunny, bright conditions.

Here’s an earlier photo of a mallow spiral using a more classical technique that I like.

Posted in Flowers, Photography

Wet Dahlia

How lucious to come downstairs and see everything setup for a Father’s Day celebration! Even though they were a week early. I guess it means we will have to celebrate this day twice!

Also lucious, this dahlia I planted yesterday wet from the sprinkler, photographed head on the classical mode.

Posted in Flowers, Photography, Water Drops

A Classical Zinnia

This is another photograph using classical techniques (like this delphinium): tripod mounted, high depth-of-field, moderately long exposure, head-on point-of-view. (If you are interested, the photo was exposed for 1/2 of a second at f/40, ISO 100, using my 105mm macro lens.)

The classical head-on view partly works because of the detail it displays. This is not a character shot, and it is not about quirky focus, lighting, or angle. Best accomplished in bright, windless, overcast conditions—overcast conditions tend to produce more saturated colors, and too much high contrast in lighting (such as under direct sun) tends to defeat the high definition effect.

Of course, any wind at all makes the long exposure needed for the depth-of-field extremely problematic—in total distinction to this photo of a Califonia poppy where I took advantage of the wind as a technique, and on purpose.

Posted in Flowers, Photography


This is a columbine, called a Songbird Columbine, that I photographed today in classical mode using a long macro lens, high depth of field, and a moderately long exposure. (Specifically, 1/8 of a second at f/40 with my Nikon 200mm f/4 macro lens.) In this kind of situation, it is a case of waiting for the right light, then waiting more for the subject to be absolutely still. The absolute stillness is a real issue with a flower up on a stem like a columbine, because the mechanics of the situation means that the slightest breeze is amplified in the movements of the flower.

What caught my eye was the symmetry of the flower, the contrast between the reds and the yellows, and the way the long lens compressed the perspective of the flower. I think someone coming on this photograph will not be sure when they first look at it what the scale is. Hopefully, this will make the viewer do a double-take, then look harder at the photo!

Posted in Flowers, Photography

More Water Drops

This is a water drop at the bottom of the hanging begonia basket that I got Phyllis for Mother’s Day. It was taken using the strobes that come with the Nikon wireless macro kit. You can see a reflection of one of the begonia flowers from the basket at the bottom of the water drop.

Here are a couple of other recent water drop photos from my garden using the equipment I wrote about earlier:

Heliotropic Bubble

View this photograph larger.

Water Marbles

View this photograph larger.

Posted in Photography, Water Drops

Blind Shadow

The late afternoon sun streams in strongly through my windows that face northwest at this time of year. I shut my Venetian blinds and then pull the curtains across. Otherwise, the light is just too strong. Although it has been ten years since I lived in the east, the western Pacific sun still surprises me with its brightness and heat.

In an hour or so, I’ll be able to open the windows again. In the meantime, this shadow of the blind against the curtain, with its suggestion of three dimensionality, intrigues me.

Posted in Bemusements, Patterns, Photography

Sunshine and Water Drops

I photographed these water drops on a poppy stem backlit by the early morning sun using my Nikon D200 and 200mm macro lens, with the setup described here.

Posted in Photography, Water Drops

What is a Photographer?

In the 1980s, when I was a photographer based in New York City, I was a member of an organization that went by the acronym ASMP. (If you are interested, here are some of my photos of the World Trade Towers taken during that era.)

Back then, ASMP was short for American Society of Magazine Photographers, and the organization was based in New York. The world has moved on, and today ASMP is based in Philadelphia and the abbreviation is short for American Society of Media Photographers.

I’ve become active enough again in photography that I recently thought to join back up with ASMP. I noted on ASMP’s website the following criteria for general membership:

Photographer must be actively and professionally engaged in publication photography with three or more consecutive years of substantial publication experience from date of first published work. This publication record must generate the major source (over 50%) of earned income.

A few of my photographs are still in print after more than twenty-five years, and I make a little money from them. I make some money from my current books that are about (or include) photographs, and I generate revenue from this photoblog. But obviously, even leaving aside investment income, I make more money from general writing and consulting than I do from photography. I’d like to make more money from my photographs than I do (if you can help with this, please contact me!). That said, I’ve really enjoyed not having to depend on photography for the bulk of my living (or to support my expanding family) as I’ve eased back into photography. Does this make me less a media photographer?

I decided honesty was the best policy, and I wrote Eugene Mopsik, the executive director of ASMP as follows:

I’m interested in rejoining ASMP. I was a general member from about 1980 to 1990 (I’m not sure of the exact years) when I worked out of my New York studio.

At this point, I can’t say that I make the bulk of my living from photography (my primary income sources are writing and consulting). But I do have quite a few recent publication credits, including the book “Digital Field Guide” (published in 2005 by Wiley), a book contract with W.W. Norton for “Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite” … .

Mr. Mopsik replied :

If the primary source of your income is not the sale or license of your images, then you do not qualify for General membership. I have no room to make exceptions.

Now, ASMP has the right to establish whatever membership criteria they’d like. But this seems like a strangely rigid policy in a time of career fluidity in the face of the changes wrought by digital photography. Reversing Groucho Marx’s dictum that “I don’t care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member,” I no longer have much enthusiasm for re-joining ASMP, which seems to me a fairly two-bit operation these days. I’m trying not to be egocentric about this, but there is something pretty strange about any professional photography organization that doesn’t want me as a member.

Water of Life

View this photo larger. I originally blogged this photograph here.

The exchange with ASMP brings up a bigger question in my mind: what is a photographer? I’m not asking this question in the reductive sense that could be answered “someone with a camera who takes pictures.” Nor does ASMP’s someone who “makes more than 50% of their earned income from photography” seem particularly helpful—although it does seem vulgar and peculiarly American in its conflation of revenue with professionalism.

When I was a photographer the first time round, and depending on my income as a photographer to pay the rent, I took any number of commercial assignments that I don’t think served my photography particularly well. I sold a great many prints as “corporate art,” which may not have been the best thing for me as an artist. Of course, you do what you have to do—and there’s nothing wrong with making money from photography as long as the process of being commercial doesn’t contradict the reason for photography.

Even taking those who are literally dependent on photography for the bulk of their “earned income,” the umbrella of photographer covers a huge number of different kinds of businesses. A wedding photographer is doing something very different from an advertising photographer, or a photojournalist.

I recall that in a night-long bull session with Ansel Adams, the great photographer told me proudly in his time that he had accepted any photography assignment that came along—including some pretty low-rent projects. Of course, by the time I knew Adams his days of this kind of thing were long in the past. And I doubt he was ever a terribly good product photographer.


View this photo larger. I originally blogged this photograph here.

It’s hard to quarrel with Adams’s magisterial technique and the grandeur of his subject matter. The only possible critique is that the images create an emotional epiphany based on false premises—these are places in a park, wrested away from the original inhabitants, not a true spiritual wilderness. Still, a print of Adams’s Moonrise over Hernandez in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art is what got me started on my career as a photographer back when I was a teenager.

Whatever detours into commercial photography Adams may have made, these did not inform his real work. (Whether they actually detracted from it ultimately is another question, and one that am I undecided about.)

You can do advertising, or weddings, or products, or photojournalism and be a hack. You can also do advertising, or weddings, or products, or photojournalism, or write, or many other things, and also be a real photographer.

So what is a real photographer? Here are my thoughts.

A real photographer understands the techniques and technicalities of photography, and the image-making process. Back when I had my first photography career, this meant knowing about cameras, lenses, film, darkrooms, and all that stuff. Today, this means understanding cameras, lenses, digital workflow, the RAW file format, and how to prepare images in Photoshop. The subject matter changes, but the level of knowledge and attention to detail required does not.

A photographer is a craftsperson.

A photographer has a good eye, looks at the world in an original way, and knows how to capture that original vision as a two-dimensional image.

A photographer behaves professionally, and with integrity. He does not lie or manipulate, and uses his photographs for purposes of good, not evil.

A photographer cares about what he photographs, and that empathy can be seen in his imagery.

A photographer understands light, color, focus, shadow, and composition.

A photographer is like a knight on a quest. Even the goal of the quest may not be entirely clear. The photographer goes forth, in whatever milieu is most his own, and takes the adventure that is given to him. He may succeed and bring back great images, or more likely not, but the point is not the goals and results but rather the journey.

Posted in Photography

Lost in the Funhouse

It’s very hard with a photo like this water drop on my leucospermum to see what one is doing. For all its apparent shallowness of focus, this is a high depth-of-field photo. Using the depth-of-field preview, things get so dark that I can’t really see. The LCD display after I’ve taken the photograph doesn’t really show anything in bright, high-contrast light. If you don’t believe me about this, just try squinting at the sun and then looking at one of these displays. Trust me, you won’t be able to see diddly.

So it is nice to have an image emerge that shows sun stars within the water bubble, and the stamen from the leucospermum flower reflected within the water drop just like a roller coaster in an amusement park. Giant worlds in a very small cosmos!

Taken with my Nikon D200, 200 f/4 macro lens with 64mm of extension tubes and a +4 diopter close-up filter, at f/32 and 1/5 of a second.

Posted in Photography, Water Drops

Poppy in the Sun

I photographed this poppy early this morning in my garden. It is a papaver somniferum, or opium poppy, but (of course!) I grow it for purely decorative purposes.

The irrigation sprinklers had just gone off. This poppy was newly opened.

Phyllis had made lunches for the older kids, and was getting them dressed. We were running late to get them to school. I had a meeting in a little up at Nicky’s pre-school. But I couldn’t resist this beautiful new bud, looking like a decorative tent in the sun.

The technique here—besides paying attention to the photography and ignoring the maelstrom around me—depended on the wind. I had my Nikon D200 on a tripod with my wonderful 200mm f/4 macro lens. I got down in the wet grass, waiting for the poppy to stop blowing in the wind, and pushed the shutter with as gentle a motion as I could, for an exposure of 1/10 of a second at f/36.

Here’s a close-up of a clematis bud from yesterday evening. This was a handheld low depth of field image with my 18-200mm VR (vibration reduction) lens and an extension tube:


View this photograph larger.

I like this photo of a coreopsis flower taken about the same time as the clematis because it feels like one is down in a forest of the coreopsis flowers:

Coreopsis Forest

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Like the clematis image, this is low depth-of-field. Like the poppy, it was done using a tripod, with a “decisive moment” shutter release when the wind had positioned the flower as I liked it. I used my 105mm macro lens.

The moral here: even a fairly limited and precise area of photography like taking macro photos of flowers depends on a wide variety of techniques. Getting accustomed to thinking expansively about the range of possible photographic techniques (and equipment) you can use will be fun and keep your creative jouces flowing!

Posted in Flowers, Photography