Sea Blue Lens


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Hunting and Gathering

Inspired by this week’s Be Still – 52 lesson, I took a couple of nature walks to gather materials for creating some still life photographs. My first impression, as I thought of “gather – drop – place and prop,” was that Mother Nature does such a fine job of gathering and dropping that she doesn’t need any help from me. All I needed to do was “place” my own two “props” and snap away:

IMG_5376 Fall FeetMagic Carpet

However much fun that was, it didn’t really satisfy the requirements of the lesson, so I set off to collect some autumnal miscellany around the neighborhood. There can be hazards to this kind of still life photography. Did you know that if you bring certain dried wildflowers into your house, you will soon have seeds of said wildflowers everywhere? The Queen Anne’s Lace was so messy that I didn’t use it after all, in spite of its fascinating structure. I’m still vacuuming up prickly little seeds. My basket of goodies also contained other unintended “organic matter” that was inclined to make itself at home in my home, but don’t worry, I put the little spiders safely back outside.

Anyway, after gathering a basketful of colorful leaves, berries, seeds and twigs, more than enough for a dozen still-life photo shoots, I came home to arrange and photograph them. I’m still working on where and how to set up still lifes in this apartment — finding space, light, and clean backgrounds is a challenge. My workspace for this project was an antique folding sewing table set up by the living room window.

DSC_6941 work spaceMy Garden and Reflecting Pool

DSC_6942 fallen leaf pondFallen Leaf

DSC_6926Autumn Joy

This was my final composition, taken from above and processed with Kim’s moodswing Lightroom preset. Okay, assignment done, I thought.

But then . . . Sunday I woke up in a melancholy mood. Thinking it might be interesting to try the assignment with odds and ends I could find at the beach, I headed to one of my favorite places, the Audubon Walk at Biddeford Pool. Five minutes of sea breeze and sunshine, and I was a new person. It works every time. I must remember this!

P1040477 Wood Island LightWood Island Light

I took my usual path, which was more overgrown than I’ve ever seen it before, probably due to the very rainy July we had this year. The only birds I saw were sea gulls and chickadees, but there were lots of butterflies and bees on the wild asters.

P1040389 butterfly-bee-asterAutumn Feasts for Tiny Beasts

I came home with over 100 photos in my camera and a much lighter heart. Oh, and a few bits of this and that in my pockets.

DSC_6961 beach treasures_aboveA Day at the Beach

Some granite eggs, a few shells, a bit of old brick and scrap of wood, seaweed, three hearts (I only asked the Universe for one!), and two tiny bits of sea glass. I was amazed at how many red-berried trees and bushes I saw. These were only one of at least a half-dozen different kinds of red berries I discovered. The yellow ones are bittersweet berries. There are tons of it out there, but it’s not quite “ready” yet — the outer casings haven’t yet opened to show the orange berries inside.

DSC_6971 beach still lifeBe Still, My Heart

Lesson learned from this week’s still-life photo assignment? I must get out more. Literally out: outside, into nature. I need it as much as I need food, water, sleep, and air to breathe.


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Finding the Words

“Ever had a strong reaction to a photograph?” That’s the question Kat asks in the final lesson in our Find Your Eye: Journey of Fascination class. Well, that’s an easy one: of course I have! But the followup question is not so easy: can I explain why I had that reaction?

I don’t like this lesson very much. I’d much rather just look at a photograph and feel whether I like it or not. But Kat believes that if we learn to explain why we do or do not like a photograph, it will help us to improve our own photography.

And although trying to find concrete reasons for gut reactions is not my strong suit, I knew as soon as I read the lesson that she was right. I think this is going to be one of the most valuable skills I can have in my arsenal, and one whose usefulness is not limited to photography. Now all I have to do is figure it out.

The first part of the assignment was to find several photos we liked (not our own) and describe them: horizontal or vertical format, type of lens, point of view, depth of field, type and direction of light, lines and shapes, warm vs. cool colors, etc. Then we were to choose two of our own photographs — one we like and one we don’t — and analyze them in the same way.

Kat suggested that comparing images from the same photo shoot might be helpful, so that’s what I did. Here is my first photo:

DSC_0179

Post I

When I first saw this old fence post with its loop of barbed wire, I saw it as a vertical subject which would therefore fit well into a vertical format. I took several shots of it that way, but it doesn’t really do much for me. I think it’s kind of ho-hum, and it doesn’t capture the feeling I had when I saw it.

Then I turned the camera horizontally to see what I could see:

Post II

Post II

Immediately I liked that much better.  I like the contrast of the horizontal frame with the vertical post, and also that more of the clouds on the left and the mountain on the right were included. It feels better balanced that way to me. I like the rhythm of the curved stick and curved wire leading to the circle of wire on the post that then trails off diagonally toward the lower right of the frame. Streaks of light in the cloudy sky echo the curved diagonal line of the grass and mountain horizon. I also see an implied triangular shape from the lower left corner to the top of the post and down the wire to the lower right corner.

This kind of analysis does not come naturally to me. I’m an Intuitive-Feeling type in the Myers-Briggs personality type system, not a Thinking-Judging type. (This exercise reminds me of the analyses we had to do in high school literature class. I just wanted to get lost in the story, not pick it apart for symbolism. ) So all that in the paragraph above? I don’t really know if that makes the horizontal version a better image or not. I just know it feels better to me.

Clearly I need to keep working on this one until I can integrate it into my photography tool kit.


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That Sixth Sense

I’m still busy Finding My Eye over here. Next lesson: recognizing intuition. I’m finding this a hard assignment, which is odd, since I think of myself as an intuitive photographer. I seldom go out to take photographs with a goal in mind, but just meander along until something “speaks” to me and I think, “Yes! Try to catch that!”

But is that really intuition? When I take my eyes from the glorious color of the autumn foliage and look down at my feet at exactly the right moment to notice this:

leaf loopLeaf Loop

. . . is that intuition or just a lucky chance? I still remember my excitement when I spotted it. Perhaps it was my intuition that told me it was a good subject for me. Perhaps a different photographer’s intuition would have told him to just keep walking.

I sometimes wonder whether what appears to be a “sixth sense” is simply the result of paying attention to information received, perhaps subliminally, by the usual five senses. A bit of barely-glimpsed motion or color that causes me to look in a certain direction, or a whisper of sound or scent that makes me turn around. But perhaps it’s intuition that tells me to pay attention to that hint of sensory stimulation.

When something tells me a subject would probably make a good photograph, is it intuition or just experience? In fact, Psychology Today’s website has this to say about intuition:

We think of intuition as a magical phenomenon—but hunches are formed out of our past experiences and knowledge.

My past experiences and knowledge tell me to continue seeking out places where the subjects that tug at my heart are likely to be found. My intuition nudges me to keep walking, just a little farther, just around one more bend, and look right over there. . . .

IMG_4797So glad I came this way!


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Learning How I Learn

DSC_0001

My next lesson in Find Your Eye: Journey of Fascination is about how to learn a new technique. Kat has asked us to think about new photographic techniques we’ve been wanting to try, and to consider how we learn best.  Then we’re to choose the new technique we’re most interested in learning right now, and apply our best learning methods to it.

I have a long list of techniques I’m interested in learning, some written down in actual notes and some just mental notes. Some, like HDR,  are brand new to me, and others, like controlling depth of field, I’m familiar with but not as skilled or comfortable as I’d like to be.

When I’m learning something I’m interested in, I’m usually intense and focused. I like classroom learning, especially if it involves hands-on practice and the opportunity to ask questions and get feedback. But I tend to become impatient with off-topic discussions, or having to wait for everyone to catch up. I love the Internet for the wealth of information about any topic you can think of, and that it’s available whenever I want it.

I’ve learned many new photographic techniques through online classes and from fellow bloggers. When I’m interested in a specific topic, I start with an online search, read articles and watch videos, go back to my camera reference books for further details, and try the technique myself. I’ve recently found videos to be very helpful for me, because I can pause them to try each step with my own camera or software. I also take detailed notes, because writing it down not only helps it sink in, but gives me something to refer back to later if needed.

The specific technique I chose to work on for this lesson is hyperfocal distance focusing. It’s a technique useful for taking photos that are in clear focus from foreground all the way to the horizon. It can be complicated! (There’s a more detailed explanation here.)  It can also be controversial.

I used to be able to use the hyperfocal technique pretty successfully when I shot film. It’s been a problem ever since I got my dSLR, because my digital lenses don’t have the helpful focus zone markings that my old lenses did. The result was images like these:

DSC_0113Foreground sharp; distance fuzzy

DSC_0114Distance sharp; foreground fuzzy

After doing some online research, studying some hyperfocal distance charts, reading my aftermarket camera guide, and playing with my camera controls, I headed out to take some photos. The image at the top of this post and the one below were taken using the information I gathered.

DSC_0004Foreground fence sharp; mid-range shrubbery sharp; distant mountains sharp(ish)

I’m not completely satisfied yet, but I think I have a grasp of the principles and I’ll keep working on it. It feels good to be making progress toward mastery of (or at least competence with) a useful technique that should help improve my landscape photos.


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Quick Draw

Here I thought I was taking a photography course, and now Kat’s got us drawing pictures. With pen or pencil and PAPER. This lesson in Find Your Eye: Journey of Fascination is about seeing by drawing. Drawing an object helps us see its shapes, lines, light and shadow, blocks of color. It helps us move past our preconceptions and see something in a new way. Then, hopefully, when we look at that object again through the viewfinder, we’ll be able to capture it in a new way.

I wandered around the house looking for an object to draw and hit upon a little ceramic mouse that sits on my dresser. I’ve had it for years and am very fond of it. It reminds me of my daughter, whom I called Mouse when she was little. As instructed in the lesson, I placed it in the center of the table and took three photos of it.

Mousie x 3

Mouse x 3

Then I sat down with paper and pen and began to sketch. (I decided to use a pen not because I am a great or confident artist, but to keep myself from getting obsessive about trying to make a perfect pencil drawing.) I drew four quick sketches, from front, back, and each side.

I haven’t drawn anything in a very long time, but as I proceeded, I found myself relaxing into the exercise and enjoying myself. The first one looked more like a salamander than a mouse, but by the time I finished the last one, I felt I had captured a bit of its little mousey spirit. (No, sorry, you don’t get to see them.)

The next step was to re-photograph the object, using the sketches for inspiration. Most of the new photos I took at the table weren’t much different from before the drawing, but I did take this one because I had drawn it and liked the angle:

Wee Sleekit Beastie

Wee, Sleekit Beastie

This reminds me of the little creature in Robert Burns’ “Ode to a Field Mouse.” I like the simplicity of it, and that long curved shape from the nose to the wrapped-around tail.

I decided to try a different setting, and moved Little Moislie over to my desk, where the window faces northeast and gives a softer light. The desktop gave a nice reflected fill light, too, and I got several images I liked. This was my favorite:

Computer Mouse

Computer Mouse

Doesn’t she look at home there? Maybe I’ll let her stay for a while. She can help me edit my blog posts. Oh, I’ve just turned on the lamp and noticed it gives her some interesting shadows and modeling. There may be more posing in her future.

This was an interesting assignment. I don’t feel that I made a real breakthrough photographically, but I certainly did take a closer look at a small object that I usually take for granted. I can see how drawing could be a useful tool. Years ago, I used to carry a sketchbook with me everywhere. It would probably be a good practice to take up again.

 


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Breaking Through

The next lesson in my Journey of Fascination is called Creative Breakthroughs. My first reaction was, “I don’t think I’ve ever had one.” I believe that my photography has improved over the years, but it seems to me that it has been a gradual process, rather than anything as dramatic as a “breakthrough” — especially a creative one. There has never been anything that has propelled me in a totally different direction with my photography.

But then I started thinking about it and a few things did come to mind.

One I recalled was my move to Maine. A new environment stimulates new output, and what a gorgeous new environment it was. I felt lit up as I attempted to capture the fresh things I saw around me. Soon after that, I got my first digital camera. Suddenly I could take all the pictures I wanted, at no cost, and just delete any that didn’t turn out. Also, it was a very small camera and I began carrying it with me everywhere. I’m in another new environment now, and again am excited about exploring its photographic possibilities.

First photo with Canon Digital Elph

First photo with Canon Digital Elph (SOOC)

Another was signing up for my first Find Your Eye course. I learned a great deal from the lessons. But that wasn’t the real breakthrough. In order to keep the photo journal that was required for the class, I started this blog. I connected with fellow FYE-ers and even random strangers, and for the first time ever, began to put my work (and myself) out into the world. Literally the WORLD. Making those connections, getting feedback and encouragement about my work, and seeing the work of others has inspired my photography and my life. I want to photograph more, and better, and to release it into the wild.

First photo published on blog

First photo published on blog

One of my happiest creative breakthroughs came with the discovery that giving up seriousness and expectations of perfection can actually improve my photography. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times before — that time when I forgot to make sure my camera was in the bag before meeting a friend for a photoshoot. I didn’t even have my small backup camera with me. So I pulled out my iPhone and started taking photos with it. I didn’t expect to get anything good out of it, but hey, I was there, so why not just have some fun? In spite of its limitations, or maybe because of them, I had a blast and got some of my favorite photos ever.

First photo from (accidental) iPhone photo walk

First photo from (accidental) iPhone photo walk

Recently I had another breakthrough when I took a couple of classes from Kim Klassen on post-processing with Photoshop Elements and Lightroom. I’d been using Photoshop for years, stumbling along with it on my own. Just a couple of lessons with Kim and I learned things that amazed me. I don’t know if it was a breakthrough in creativity, but it sure revolutionized my processing.

Fun with Photoshop

First Photoshop assignment: Learning layers at long last

My latest breakthrough actually happened as I was working on our lesson on Contrasts. I did my photo walk and downloaded the images to my computer. I was so mad! They were not sharp, despite being taken in bright sunlight at very fast shutter speeds. Every single one was just soft, even though my camera is supposed to have one of the best picture qualities out there. I was totally fed up. So I started researching, looking through manuals and online forums, and guess what? I discovered I wasn’t the only one with that problem, and there are camera settings to fix it. So I tried variations on those settings, taking test photos, downloading and comparing them, and then I went out and redid my photoshoot. Now I’m getting the nice sharp images I’ve been looking for all along. A breakthrough in creativity? I don’t know if that will be the result, but now I’m a lot more eager to get out there and see what I can make the little beastie do!

It may not be Art, but at least it's not fuzzy.

First photo, second time around. It may not be Art, but at least it’s not fuzzy.

So I have had and I hope will continue to have breakthroughs. Are they Creative Breakthroughs? I guess only time will tell. But one thing Kat said really rang a bell with me: When I go out and try to force it, it doesn’t happen so much.

Here’s to letting it happen. And maybe just encouraging it a little bit!

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Getting Over It

Yay, it’s finally here! I’m taking a new class in Kat Sloma’s Find Your Eye series, called Journey of Fascination. We received our first lesson yesterday, “Letting Go.” It’s about learning from our photographic mistakes and missed opportunities and then letting them go — not continuing to beat ourselves up about them. Our assignment is to write a photojournal entry about one of those mistakes, what we learned from it, and whether we’ve let it go.

Let me count the ways . . .

Oops . . .

Probably like most photographers, I’ve missed a LOT of shots for various reasons. Driving by and not being able to stop. Not being able to get to my camera quick enough. Losing the light. Dead battery. Wrong lens. Wrong settings. Operator error.

Where'd he go?

Where’d he go? Note to self: practice panning.

Some of those I can’t do much about. Sometimes you just cannot pull off the road to get that photograph, no matter how badly you might want to. Clouds and light change in an instant, and there’s no controlling that — not for the average human, anyway.

I try to keep my camera close at hand now. It’s usually on my desk, with the lens on it that I’m most likely to want in a hurry. These days, that’s my 55-200mm zoom, for capturing the birds that fly in and only stay a moment or two. I keep my battery and a backup charged and change it before it runs completely out of juice.

Darn it!

Darn it! Wrong focal point.

The mistakes that bother me the most are the ones I make due to lack of technical expertise or knowledge of my camera. When I read over this lesson, one very painful one leapt to mind. Several years ago, some dear friends asked me to attend and photograph their wedding. It was a weekend-long event at a beautiful location, and began on Friday evening with a dinner for all the guests in a dimly-lit restaurant.

I arrived late, as I had to drive a long distance after work to get there. For some reason, I decided to change my camera’s flash setting to “rear curtain sync.” What I wanted was to capture the ambient light, then add a pop of flash to capture the details. (I wanted a more natural atmosphere than straight flash would give me.) What I didn’t take into account is that this might work fine for a stationary subject, but not so well with moving targets.

Here’s a photo from that night:

Makes me want to cry.

Still makes me want to cry.

Actually, this image (cropped to just the instrument and hands) doesn’t look that bad. You might almost think I’d done it deliberately. But, believe me, the blurred pictures of people sitting around tables, eating, chatting, and laughing, were not pleasing. The worst of it was, of course, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. There could be no do-overs.

Fortunately, I realized my mistake right after taking the image above, and the rest of the weekend and the photography went fine. But by then the dinner was over and the damage done. My friends were gracious and forgiving, but my stomach still clenches whenever I think about it. Clearly I have not let it go, despite knowing there is nothing I can do about it.

The takeaway lesson for me was to never, EVER experiment with the unknown when the results are critical. Don’t guess, but plan ahead of time and KNOW what is going to happen if a setting is changed. Look up what I want to do and how to do it. Experiment on my own time, ahead of time.

If those photos had been for myself, I’d have been disappointed and probably angry with myself, but I’d have gotten over it. What’s done is done, and there’s no point in brooding about what can’t be changed. But in this case, I disappointed someone I cared about who was counting on me, and that’s the part that hurts. That’s what makes it hard to let this one go.

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