Monday, April 7, 2014

100 - More Signal, Less Noise

I am 100 days into this 365 project. It's been an interesting and enlightening experience. Along the way, I've learned a number of technical things about lighting and exposure and composition. Just forcing a camera into my hands every day has sharpened my skills. I've also learned things about myself like, if under the gun, I can produce creatively. That's incredibly empowering!

And I've taken some pictures in this project that I'm really proud of.

But.  There's always a but.

The problem is I just don't have the free time required to come up with a shot of which I can be proud every single day. All too often, after the kids are in bed, I scramble to take a photo in the remaining hours of the day. As a result, I've developed some creative crutches that I've abused to get the shot out. Some of my pictures fall short in both concept and execution. I learn nothing from these and they turn this project into work of the tedious and unenjoyable kind. Most of all, I hate that they've diluted the quality of my online work - the stuff by which people form opinions about my photography. In my life - whether it's mowing lawns, making music, programming computers, marketing products, or taking pictures - I've never been happy working on something unless I feel like it's genuinely good. And too often in this 365 I've not been able to do that.

Worse, this project is competing for time with other projects that I desperately need to complete - like finishing off my guitar photos, building a new web site with e-commerce, or putting together my photography book from 2013.  I've learned a lot doing the 365, but I'm forced to admit that the cost/benefit of continuing is no longer in my favor.

Now, I hate quitting things. Always have, always will. I'm wired that way. But continuing to do something just for the sake of completion, at the expense of other opportunities that have a much higher pay-off is irrational and counter-productive. From an economist's perspective, the "sunk costs" (in my case, the time investment I've already made in the 365) are not relevant factors to consider in decisions regarding current options (whether or not to continue the 365 or invest the time in something else). This runs counter to what we're taught as children, and what we teach our children ("Winners never quit and quitters never win!"). But it is true that knowing why and when to quit, and acting upon it decisively, actually helps you be more successful by opening opportunities that could otherwise not be explored. (I struggle with that concept, but this podcast really helped.)

So, I sincerely thank you for paying attention to my little project and I apologize for ending this prematurely. But it's the right thing to do. I will of course be posting tons more photos at my regular site, but I will go back to my old way of just posting the pictures that I believe in and for which I don't have to feel apologetic.

More signal, less noise.

Love you guys, David

Sunday, April 6, 2014

99 - Hamer Time

This weekend I shot my Hamer Special FM. The Special FM is no longer made, but it's basically a slab-cut Les Paul. It has the classic Les Paul formula of dual humbuckers, mahogany body and neck, and a maple top. It varies from the formula with a double-cutaway shape and a control configuration of two volumes, a master tone, and a 3-way toggle placed on the lower bout. US-made Hamers are great instruments with excellent woods, top-shelf parts, and superb fit and finish. The thick maple top on this one is PRS-pretty with an amber finish.  I bought this guitar 20 years ago and it's still in fine shape. It has a few surface scratches and the pickup covers have a fair amount of corrosion (one of the drawbacks of nickel-silver covers). I swapped out the original pickups for Duncan Seth Lovers, which are particularly authentic reproductions of '50s era Gibson PAF pickups. They're low in output and very warm sounding, with just enough bite to be articulate. All of which adds up to a vintage Les Paul sort of sound. I used this guitar for some of the rhythm tracks on my first CD and they ended up being the songs that had the best guitar sounds on the record. The only real criticism I have for the Special FM is that the short upper horn makes the guitar just a bit neck-heavy when balanced on a strap.

I've reached a crossroads with my guitar photo series. I have several photos left to post-process, but beyond that I'm trying to decide if I want to continue the series or not. I've learned a lot and of course there's always more to learn, but I think I could advance my cause more by moving on and finding some new challenges. On the other hand, the series has gone very well and has generated a fair bit of traffic to my web sites. Most likely, I will at least take a break from photographing guitars for awhile and maybe return to it in the future when my enthusiasm for it has recharged.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

98 - Big Wheel

This truck (I think it's a Unimog, but I'm not sure) was sitting outside a barbeque restaurant in Brenham, Texas. I went over to get a picture of The Punisher logo on the driver's door, but then I noticed that the tire was as big as C and decided to get that photo as well. We stopped at the restaurant to eat while driving through the area looking at bluebonnets and other wildflowers, which are currently in season.

This photo is a pretty good example of shooting on an overcast day. This was taken when the sun would have right over head, which would cause very harsh shadows on a clear day. But on an overcast day, the clouds acts as a giant softbox so C's face has a nice even lighting and even the shadows under the truck are soft. Very nice light for portraits, as long as you don't let the sky itself dominate the shot.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

94 - Orchid Redux

I'd taken a picture of some of my wife's orchids before, but I wanted to do it again. First, they've bloomed a lot more since the first photo. But even more, I felt like there was a lot better photo to be had. I did both color and black and white versions of this photo. They both looked good in my opinion, and the color version had a lovely classic still life painting aesthetic to it. But I went with black and white because it made the simple composition even simpler.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

91 - Workin' It

My favorite models glamming it up for the camera.

I've had this shot in mind for while. One easy formula to take pretty portraits: Find a pretty landscape, then put people in it. We have several nice little parks in our neighborhood that are great photo settings if the lighting is right. As we were heading home from dinner, it was still over an hour away from sunset but  I noticed that the clouds seemed well-formed for a nice one. So when we got home, I asked the boys to keep their shoes on (they didn't, of course), I slapped together a simple one-light rig that my wife could hand-hold, and I waited until about 10 minutes before I thought the sunset would be at its prime.  Then we went to a nearby park. You have to work fast in a sunset because you have maybe 10 or 15 minutes when the light will be at it's best.

You can really craft the final look of an image when working with mixed ambient and flash lighting. That's because you have independent control over how much the background (ambient sunset light) and foreground (flash) is lit. A camera flash is a very short, but intense burst of light. It's so short that it will fully drench the subject in its light regardless of the shutter speed, up to the "sync speed" of the camera which is typically 1/200 or 1/250 of second on a modern camera.  The shutter speed will therefore control how much ambient light is in the photo, but won't affect the flash at all. Conversely, the flash will have controls to adjust its intensity and therefore the amount of flash light hitting the foreground subjects. Meanwhile the aperture and the ISO speed will affect how much of both kinds of light are in the image.  Between all of these controls you can dial in a custom mix of background and foreground lighting. I went with a somewhat underexposed sunset because that causes the sunset colors to be more rich and saturated.

Now, this works fine with an on-camera or pop-up flash, but it doesn't look nearly as good as it can. Having the flash so close to the lens basically gives you light that is shadowless from the lens' point of view (objects block their own shadows from the lens' view). That is not very flattering light. You get that camera-at-a-party snapshot look, plus it practically guarantees red-eye on anyone looking at the camera. The first way to improve the look is to take the flash off the camera and simply aim it at the subject from somewhere else (which means that you have to have a way to trigger the flash remotely). Moving the flash away from the camera will cast shadows, providing depth and contour to people's faces and other objects. It makes a world of difference. Second thing is to put the light through some kind of diffuser to soften the shadows so there's a smoother gradient between those highlights and shadows you've introduced. In my case, the flash is to the left of the camera. I ran it through a softbox so if you look at, say, the light on the left boy, you'll see a smooth gradient between highlight and shadow on his left cheek and arm, instead of a hard shadow line.  It gives a softer look that is more flattering, especially to people, unless you're deliberately going for a harsh look (like, say, for a sports photo).

Friday, March 28, 2014

90 - Storm On The Horizon

There's a storm headed our way. This was the actual color of the sky about 20 minutes ago. We're under a severe thunderstorm warning and some parts of the area under a tornado warning.

You may have noticed that I didn't post a photo yesterday.  I'm pretty disappointed that I missed a day, but frankly, it was the last thing I wanted to do at the time. I've been sick as a dog the last couple days and yesterday was the worst of it. Got some kind of stomach virus that wiped out the entire family. I'm on the mend now, but my muscles are still all achy and I have a headache.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

88 - My Latest Camera

I figured I'd follow up the photo of my first camera with one of my latest. This is my "take everywhere" camera, a Fujifilm X20. It's not my best camera (that would be my Nikon), but it's small, has good controls, and it takes nice photos. It also has this old Leica vibe that's pretty cool.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

87 - My First Camera

Today's picture is of my first good camera. A Canon AE-1 from around 1978. I purchased it from money I earned mowing lawns in the 8th grade. Millions of photographers started with one of these. They were good, inexpensive cameras that were easy to use but could be put into manual mode to learn the basics of photography. This one literally traveled the world with me, going to the Philippines, Brazil, arctic Canada, and too many places in the US to name. For the first several years I used it, I just put it in shutter-priority mode (it's only automatic exposure mode) and left it there, except when I used flash. But in college I took a photojournalism class that finally taught me how to bend it to my will and develop my own prints. I still have the camera and it still works, although the light seals need replacing. I dedicate this photo to my life-long friend Richard, who had a camera very similar to this (the follow-on model, called the AE-1 Program).

Sunday, March 23, 2014

85 - Cow Noir

On the drive back from the Lexington, I stopped to get a couple photos of cows grazing in the mist under this fine-looking oak tree.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

84 - THBBFT!!

We spent Saturday night on the USS Lexington, an Essex Class aircraft carrier built during WWII and in commission all the way until the early '90s. It was Cub Scout event and a highlight of scouting here in Houston as far as I'm concerned. The best word I can come up with to describe the Lexington is magnificent. It truly is. The overnight event is a special way to see it because at 5PM they send all the other tourists home and you get the ship to yourself for several hours. For a history buff like me, that's heaven. They also let you into areas of the ship that are generally off-limits, and of course you get to sleep and eat on the ship. You sleep in one of the enlisted bunks, which are essentially cot-size bookshelves, stacked three units high. Not exactly Ritz-Carlton, but more comfortable than camping and hellaciously cool.

The photo above was taken on the trip to Corpus Christi where the Lexington is anchored as a floating museum. It was kind of a dreary day, but the light fog made for nice atmosphere and the wild flowers give a nice splash of color in the background.

Friday, March 21, 2014

83 - Lean On Me

Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Thursday, March 20, 2014

82 - Renaissance Man

My older son's class had a "living museum" today where students dressed up as, and educated other students about, influential people from history.  D played Michelangelo and my wife put together a costume for him.  I'm biased but he's gotta be one of the cuter polymaths I've seen, and he makes the beard just work.