Quick start to snowflake photography

January 31st, 2010

“How do you photograph snowflakes?’ I hear that a lot.  It’s not as complicated as you may think, I think.

First, not every snowstorm produces nice flakes to photograph. The temperature and other conditions have to be just right or else the flakes won’t have their nice symmetrical shape . For me a temperature around 10 t0 15 degrees Fahrenheit works well. At that temperature the flakes don’t melt too fast and I don’t freeze too fast and have to quit.

It takes quite a while to get the camera gear assembled and ready to roll. I use a household power adapter to power my camera. My flashes are battery powered so I end up changing  batteries frequently. All of my equipment has to go outside to cool down for about 30 minute before I can start photographing.

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I don’t sift through snow banks for good flakes, I collect them as they fall on a black piece of paper. When I see a good one I’ll use a feather to gently push or lift it onto a piece of glass. The glass and flake are then place below the camera which is oriented like a microscope.

My gear consists of an slr camera, flashes, macro focusing rail, cable release,and high magnification macro lenses. If you decide to try this I would highly recommend a camera with live view for very precise focusing.

The snowstorms that I’ve experienced this year have not produced good flakes. I’m anxious for a good storm since I just bought a rather rare old macro lens that I hope will produce good results. To date this is my favorite snowflake photo.

Dan

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By The Light of Totality

January 20th, 2010

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By the Light of Totality is a prime example of what I stated in an earlier post, “most of my favorite photographs were envisioned ahead of time”. As long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated with astronomy. As a child I had a favorite astronomy book,  The Sky Observers Guide, it was part of the Golden Guide series. There was a photo in that book that stuck in my mind through adulthood. It was a multi-exposure image of a solar eclipse over Minneapolis. Ever since I developed an interest in photography I wanted to create an eclipse image using a similar technique. My photo is a lunar eclipse instead of a solar eclipse.

When I planned the photograph my first inclination was to have a cityscape in the foreground. When I researched the eclipse more I realized that it would happen too high in the sky to effectively include a cityscape. At the last moment I decided use my backyard for the photograph and trees for the foreground element.

The photo from the golden guide was taken by placing the camera on a tripod and taking multiple exposures on the same negative. Since I used digital capture I was able to accomplish the same effect by taking multiple images and selectively layering them.

I had to determine the start time and end of the eclipse and figure out what focal length lens would effectively cover the entire event, it was 28mm. I used a second camera with a 430mm equivalent focal length lens as well to capture a higher resolution image of the moon. Photos from each camera were taken on a 15 minute interval. When the moon was in the full shadow of the earth (known as totality), I took a longer timed image which exposed the stars, trees, and clouds. This is how the photo got its title.

While photographing the eclipse I had an audience of deer in the field behind me. They approached within about 30 yards and wouldn’t scare away. I also had problems with my batteries dying in the clock I used to measure the 15 minute intervals. I finally used the clock on my cell phone.

During this eclipse the Red Sox were playing against the Cardinals in the World Series. Near halfway through the eclipse I heard in the distance horns tooting and fireworks, it was then that I knew that the Red Sox had won.

In all I used 16 images to create the final image. It took about a month for me to finish the project. At this point it is my best selling image.

A customer at one of my shows a few years ago was named Diana.  Her birthday was the same day as the eclipse, October 27th. She also shared a name with the Greek god of the moon and hunt, Diana. My customer was also a Red Sox fan, and because of all those reasons she had to purchase the  photograph.

Dan

Photography and art community

January 20th, 2010

Sometimes it seems that the art community regards photography as something less than art. I have heard some say about photographers, “all they do is push a button how is that art”.

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Last year I had my first encounter with the anti photography attitude at a local art show. This particular art show was started a few years ago by an artists community. I participated in the show since it began and it was a good show for me due to its proximity and sales weren’t bad.

When I received my application for the show last year I was dismayed to see that they were closing the show to photographers, only photographers. I read a little further and found that they would let me participate since I had exhibited the year before. After my initial upset I thought maybe it would be good for me since I would have less competition for sales. I decided to attend the show.

Well the exclusionary attitude didn’t end there. The show had a competition, like many do, with a cash prize. When the time came I picked out a photo and headed to the competition area. Of course there was no category for photography. I asked the person collecting the art if I could submit my piece in the mixed media category, which made sense to me since mixed media is where one enters if one’s work fits no other category. I was told to take the matter up with the organizer of the show.

I found her and stated my case. Her response was that I could not compete. She then went on to say that she and the art council decided to eliminate photography from the show since they wanted the show to be a “fine art show”. I was a bit in shock after hearing that. I can understand and respect someone for not liking my work but to make a general statement like that about photography was quite ignorant I felt. I also felt that I was cheated since I had paid to attend the show I should have been given a chance at winning something too.

Now some photographers are more talented than others, just like some painters or sculptors are better than others. A juried art show would be a much better way of excluding the non “fine artists”.

I’ve thought about why some would feel that photography is not a “fine art” and I have a few ideas. Most types of art require a certain amount of physical manipulation during the creation of the piece. A clay pot being spun and formed by hands or oil paint being brushed on canvas come to mind. Those types of art require a degree of coordination and hand eye talent not required by photography. But, does the method of creation define art? For me art is a product of the mind and soul, whether it was painted or printed makes little difference. The artist still has to make the decision as to whether their product is good enough to display or throw away.

In many ways I feel photography is a more challenging craft than many. There are many times that I wish I had the latitude of a painter, I could then make compositions the way that I want them to be, or not have a line of people in front of my subject. The limits of photography dictated by physics can be totally overlooked by painters, I’m talking about depth of field, dynamic range, and resolution. Photographers work in the real world and have to balance compromises to composition, lighting, and technical limitations constantly. Plein air painters have similar challenges as photographers especially with respect to weather.

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I know of some painters that work from photographs. Their works have the typical attributes of a photograph, fine details and bokeh (out of focus areas behind and ahead of the subject). Sometimes they didn’t take the original photograph that they painted from, the composition and conditions that existed at the time of the exposure weren’t the painter’s. Should  their work be considered  less artistic because of the connection and similarity to photography? Is it plagiarism if the painter didn’t actually take the photo? These types of paintings seem highly regarded in the art community.

The photography community still has some inside attitudes of its own. It seems whenever a new technology arises there are those that won’t accept change. The most recent change is from film to digital, before that it was black and white film to color. One of New Hampshire’s largest art associations has a new policy towards accepting new applicants, no digital photographers. The funny thing is that the majority of the photographers of the association, and the ones that made the rule, are digital photographers.

Please realize that I respect and admire other forms of art and I feel that the attitudes discussed here are not the norm. I just feel that some artists don’t fully understand what it takes to create a great photograph, and exclusionary policies don’t help the art scene at all. What is considered fine art should be left to the eye of the beholder.

Dan

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Belle Femme focus blended and stitched

March 5th, 2009

Howdy all, welcome to my blog. In response to a few requests my first entry will describe the making of the photograph titled Belle Femme.

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In my experience the best photos are the ones whereby I have a vision in mind before I create the image. That is not to say that all my favorite shots were envisioned ahead of time, I have chanced upon subjects and captured keepers. My vision for Belle Femme was one of a very large framed print that would have incredible detail even when viewed close up. My subject was a local wildflower called the blue flag, iris versicolor. Wildflowers interest me far more than cultivated varieties and this flower is one of my favorites.

To make the image I had to overcome two limitations of my camera, resolution and depth of field. The native resolution of my camera was pretty good at 16 megapixels but to make a print 30 inches high as sharp as I wanted would require more.  To create an image of more than 16 megapixels with my camera required a technique called stitching.

The next camera limitation, depth of field, needs a little explaining. My subject was relatively small, about 2 inches wide. When photographing subjects this small the area that is actually in focus is very shallow. The area behind and ahead of the focus plane are blurred. I employed a technique called focus blending in order to render the entire flower in focus.

This is how it was done. To employ the techniques that I needed required multiple photos of the flower and a very calm controlled environment. I have made some photos by going into the field in the calm hours of early morning but in this case I needed the atmosphere of my studio. My mother happened to have some of the flowers in her yard. The night before the planned shoot I picked a plant with two unopened blossoms. The following morning in my studio I had a beautiful blossom open, and because it was inside all night the flower was undamaged and clean.

My next challenge was to come up with a pleasing lighting arrangement. I decided to use a technique called cross polarization. Cross polarization reduces bright reflections on the flower and reveals the color and fine details better.
For my first series of photos I framed just the upper part of the flower.
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The first photo was focused on the nearest part of the flower. Subsequent photos were focused just a little further away in small steps.

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When my focus point reached the base of the first petal I cut it off so that it would not interfere when defocused on the furthest petal.
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After the first series of photos were complete I angled the camera down and created the next series, clipping petals as I went.

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It required 45 minutes and 272 photos to cover the entire photo in four separate series.  After that the project became much less fun. I had to manually rescale and blend each of the photos into one finished photo.

Here is a bit more detail on how the blending took place. The first photo that I opened was focused on the part of the petal nearest to the camera. The next photo opened was focused just a tiny bit further away. I would then take the second image and drag it on top of the first image (I used Photoshop for the project). The second image had slightly less magnification than the first, since it was focused further away, and needed to be upscaled slightly to match the size of the first image. I then upscaled just the second image using the transform image, image scale function to about 100.2%. The upscaled image then needed to be positioned exactly over the first image. Next I chose the eraser tool. I adjusted the brush to a medium hardness and a size of about 30 pixels. I then carefully erased the blurred areas that were just adjacent to the sharp areas on the top image to reveal the in focus areas on the bottom image. This procedure was repeated for every image until the entire series was in focus. Each image required a different amount of scaling and it was trial and error until the right size was found.

For the next series of images the framing of the flower was lower on the plant. These images were blended with the first series of images, so in effect from here on the images are focus blended and stitched at the same time.

The completed photo is 61 megapixels in size and 16 bit. It took me 5 months and over 50 hours to complete the project.  Most nights I didn’t work on it since I found that I needed to be in the right state of mind and alert to work without mistakes. In the end I used only 151 of the original 272 images. Here is a 100% crop from the photo.  The white spots in the upper left are pollen grains.
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After putting that much effort into the photograph I was reluctant to show it to anyone. I was afraid the photo would get just a ho hum reception and I would feel that the effort may have been wasted. I think the photo was worth the effort and I encourage anyone about to undertake such a project to pick your subject well so that the effort is fully appreciated.
Dan

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