Monday, December 24, 2012

Living History Photo Shoots

Portrait of a Maid
I more or less accidentally discovered historical reenactments, often referred to as "living history." Here in Virginia there are plenty of reenactments depicting the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, and of course Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown are open year round. Other examples are "Military Through the Ages" and a variety of Renaissance fairs. All are populated by enthusiasts who spend big sums creating and maintaining authentic costumes, equipment and props, which can include horses, vehicles, portable structures like tents, musical instruments, furniture, weapons, anything that is historically accurate or authentic. Some presentations include reenactments of battles, complete with (blank) gunfire. Renaissance Fairs are the most lighthearted and colorful.

Perhaps as important as their appearance is the reenactors' interest in educating visitors. They will happily share incredible amounts of information and if possible, show you the items associated with their narrative. It is clear that these enthusiasts are well-read and deeply committed to understanding the era they represent, even as they enjoy sharing that knowledge and showing off a bit, which is right they have earned.

Walking Through a Meadow

For the photographer, these events are rich opportunities for capturing portraits of people in authentic costumes. For obvious reasons, these events are held outdoors, so having good shooting light isn't a problem. Ideally, bright overcast skies are best as they reduce the harsh shadows and squinting. 
 Because backgrounds are often busy and other visitors are walking through your frame, a relatively long zoom lens can get you in close and a wide open aperture can help isolate your subject, especially for headshots, which I favor. One benefit of shooting reenactors is that they're actors--they comfortably strike poses that are photographically appealing. It helps to be quick on the shutter---you probably won't have but a few seconds to frame and shoot, but with practice you can make some incredible captures.

Point Sur Light Station

The Point Sur Light Station is another landmark on the Cabrillo Highway, one that is not especially easy to photograph because it is only infrequently open for tours. However, I highly recommend that you take the time to visit it if at all possible. For more tour info, go to the Point Sur home page. The Station is inaccessible to the public except during these tours. There is plenty of time and flexibility to wander off and take photos of the Station and its various buildings.

The tour is three hours long and is conducted on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays on a first come-first served basis, with a maximum of 30 visitors. There were only a dozen visitors on the day I went. The two docents were informative and knowledgeable. The tour involves a climb up the access road. However, it is not particularly strenuous and they stop frequently to point out sights and to describe the fascinating history of the Station.

Of note, for once I chose to not carry a tripod and that worked out fine. There was plenty of light and there was no need for extra support. The Station does offer a moonlight tour that I'd like to take someday, and a tripod would be a must. Maybe next year!

The image to the left was taken at sunset from the road with a 300 mm lens.

Piedras Blancas Seal Rookery

I first visited the Piedras Blancas seal rookery in 2010 on my first visit to the Central Coast area. In December the seals are cheek-by-jowl, jostling for space and trying to catch the weak winter sun. Lest you think that this is a quiet, sanguine little beach, the seals are constantly snorting, barking, growling and making farting noises that will leave the 8 year-old in you snickering. Graceful only in the ocean, they shuffle, roll and collapse into scattered heaps of blubber. Their only captivating features are their eyes.

The main Piedras Blancas seal observation area is often busy, filled by tourists spilling out of buses and jostling each other for good spots to get photos of the seals. However, the seals are often too far away for really good shots unless you have a long telephoto. Even then, setting up a tripod will get you scowls and people are likely to trip over it, ruining your shot.  There's a wooden fence keeping visitors from encroaching on the seals' territory, and for good reason, given some folks' judgment. Bottom line, it's not easy to get a good shot here. But, there's a solution.

Head 1.3 miles south of the main observation area and you'll find a parking lot at the "Vista Point." (Look for the blue sign.) Park at the southernmost end of the lot and then take the path at the end of the lot about 100 yards further. You'll find yourself on the edge of a bank 10' or less from the seals, where you can get as many shots as you want. The two times I've visited this spot I've had it to myself.

The seals are either curious, napping or preoccupied with their battles for territory. There is no fence, but of course you absolutely should not climb down the bank. There's really no reason to--you can get all the shots you want with little effort. Respect the seals and leave them to their little corner of the coast.

Big Sur: The Bixby Bridge Revisited

Anyone who has driven down Highway 1 in Big Sur has crossed the Bixby Bridge, which is just 12 miles south of Carmel. Built in only 14 months and completed in 1932, it has an elegance of style and function you don't see in contemporary bridge architecture. It may be the most identifiable and iconic scenes on the Cabrillo Highway. I suppose that's why so many travelers stop and take photos of the bridge or just take in the vista of the Pacific coast from that vantage point. The location, along the rocky coast and surrounded by the hills of Big Sur, makes it one of my favorite spots.

Getting good shots of the bridge can be tricky unless you use a wide angle lens.  I like to capture the sweep of the bridge's lines from both ends. The parking area at the northern end of the bridge can get busy, so I like to get right up to the end of the bridge so I can capture some of the coastline. 

Shots from the southern end requires crossing the bridge and then parking in the tiny turnout just past the end of the bridge. Climb up the narrow path and you'll find yourself with a sweeping view of the bridge. With a wide angle lens you can capture the entire bridge, as well as some foreground and coastline. (The shot above was taken with a 12 mm lens on an APS-C sensor, equivalent to about a 20 mm full-frame lens.)

One unwelcome development this year: one evening two women set up portable speakers and were playing guitars and singing. Sorry, but this was just noise pollution in a beautiful setting.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"You Must Have a Fantastic Camera"

There's an apocryphal anecdote circulating among photographers about a "socialite" complimenting a photographer's work, saying "you must have a fantastic camera." Later, the photographer returns the favor, complimenting the dinner she served by saying, "you must have a fantastic stove."  (Recently I heard it attributed to Ansel Adams.) The obvious message is that when someone says this about our photography we should be insulted and condescending.  

Please watch your step as you dismount your high horse.

Photographers should know that most people do not look at photographs with the same critical eye as those who produced the image. (Some even count on that fact, judging from some of what passes as family portraiture.) When people make this statement they are expressing their appreciation of the image, even though they may not be able to articulate what it is that makes it special to them. They're ordinary people, not art critics. Chill.

If we silently roll our eyes when we hear this we are missing an opportunity to accept a compliment and maybe impart a bit of knowledge. By graciously saying, "Thank you. Let me tell you what I particularly like about this image" we might begin a dialogue in which we learn how non-photographers view our efforts and politely teach a lesson on composition and light. 

Not to mention, we avoid looking like self-important jerks.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum ("TALA") is an abandoned psychiatric hospital that was built in Weston, WV in the mid-19th century. After almost 150 years of treating the mentally ill, it was closed in 1994 after it became over-crowded and outdated. Since then, TALA has offered tours of its historic grounds and once a year it offers photographers relatively unrestricted access to the grounds and buildings.

As a psychologist and photographer the campus holds a special interest to me, so I eagerly anticipated a trip for the photographers' access this September. Seven of us journeyed to Weston, located in the middle of West Virginia.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Review: Lowepro Slingshot 202 AW

Lowepro Slingshot 202
One of the realities of photography is that in addition to buying equipment, you need something to haul it around in. Over the past few years I've accumulated a large Tenba messenger bag, a small Wenger messenger bag, my Lowepro Slingshot 202 AW, a Lowepro Pro Runner 200 AW, and I have my sights set on a Lowepro Video Fastpack 350 for my return to Big Sur. Each of these bags is suitable for a specific amount of equipment and photo shoot. As time goes on my bags get bigger as I accumulate more lenses and "stuff."

I had shied away from sling bags, concerned that the weight would not be comfortably distributed on my back and would lead to cramped muscles, something I had experienced with the large Tenba. I have found that the larger the bag, the more likely you are to fill it full of things, "just in case." "Just in case" quickly gets heavy, so it makes sense to have more than one bag. I bought the Slingshot 202 AW as a day bag for shooting at venues where I might need a second lens and a few accessories, but not a full kit of filters, lenses, etc. I found that it was perfect for shooting when my 18-200mm zoom was going to be the "lens of the day" and I would probably leave my heftier 70-300 in the bag for the rest of the shoot. As you can see in the photo, it holds this set up with ease and still leaves room for extras. There is an attached microfiber cloth in the main compartment that can cover the camera.

Nikon D7000 with 18-200
& 70-300

What do I like about the bag? Just about everything. There's enough extra storage space in the upper compartment to hold a speedlight, extra camera battery, and smaller items. I can even slip in a disposable plastic poncho if the weather is unsettled. The outside pockets hold a pen, small notebook, multitool, chapstick, and business cards, the things I want to be able to get to with ease. There's space designated for memory cards in the main flap, along with another space for thin items. The all-weather cover disappears into the bottom of the bag. I haven't had to use it---yet, but it's nice to know it's there and it's easily implemented.

On the other hand, I have used the side-mounted tripod holder with mixed results. It works fine for carrying my small Manfrotto travel tripod. I had hoped I could pull the tripod out over my shoulder. Maybe more flexible users can do that; I couldn't and found I have to remove the bag to get to it. The small tripod, which weighs just over 2 pounds, also causes the bag to sag off-center. Perhaps a center-mounted system would work better, but that would potentially interfere with the main compartment flap. Given this, I would not try to carry a full-size tripod on the side. I prefer to carry tripods over my shoulder anyway, so this is not a drawback for me. And, this is not an expedition bag where one expects to attach lenses, water bottles and other extras on the outside. (I have cargo pants and a vest for that.)
Upper Compartment with
Lowepro Memory Case, mini-
flashlight, multi-tool &
Emergency Poncho

The sling arrangement is very comfortable and I find that I forget I have the bag on after a while. I can easily wear it all day without feeling overburdened.  I can get to the main compartment quickly by releasing the chest strap. It being the mid-sized bag in this line, it is ideal for me as a day bag. It will slip under an airline seat with ease, if you are planning to fly. Build quality is typical Lowepro: solid, hiqh quality materials that are securely stitched and should last for many years.

If you're looking for a walkabout bag that is comfortable and yet spacious, give the Slingshot 202 AW a thorough look.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Review: Lightroom Workshops

I confess: I had Lightroom for over six months before I really started to use it. I was happy with Photoshop and bought LR mostly to see what all the fuss was about. In retrospect, I wasted time that I could have used to learn to use an outstanding image processing program. I decided that if I was going to really learn Lightroom, it made sense to get some hands-on training. I searched the net and found plenty of workshops. Some were four days of training costing more than $1,000. They were all in distant cities and I wasn't ready to invest that much.  I found Lightroom Workshops and saw that they were offering a workshop only 2 hours away for about $300 for two full days of instruction. Sign me up.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Point Sur from Garrapata State Park

Point Sur at Dawn
I spent part of my first day in Big Sur scouting for likely locations for sunrise shots. I saved them in my GPS so that I could find them the next day when I was half awake. The challenge of sunrise photos in the Big Sur area is that the sun is behind the mountains for at least an hour before you actually see it. On the other hand, it can create beautiful colors, as it did on this particular December morning.
Big Sur from Garrapata State Park
I parked in the turn out and unpacked my gear, and promptly tripped over a root snaking out from the underbrush. Fortunately, I didn't have my camera in my hand and there was no one there to see me fall on my ass. I made my way down a trail with my coffee, tripod and backpack more or less securely in hand. The sage smelled wonderful and I would pinch some between my fingers to capture the aroma. I could hear the crashing of the waves below me and the seagulls wheeling overhead. It was delightful solitude.

As the sun crept up behind Point Sur I captured these images and promised myself to return someday. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Patience is a Photographic Virtue

How Not to Take Good Photos
Here are the keys to photographic success:
  1. Buy an expensive DSLR.
  2. Roar up to a turnout near a scenic outlook.
  3. Thrust camera out of the window and take several frames.
  4. Drive off.
  5. Admire your work at home.
This really happened and I caught it, mostly by accident. I was positioned at the Hurricane Point turnout just south of the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, waiting for the light from the setting sun to get just right. My camera was mounted on my tripod and every few minutes I took a frame or two. Suddenly, a car drove up and the scene I just described unfolded. I swung around and captured it.
I don't know how good the woman's photos were. Maybe they were spectacular; maybe they were blurry because it was a low-light situation and she shot without support. But beyond her haste to take pictures, I know she could not appreciate the beauty below us in the few seconds she was there. As I stood on the high bluff overlooking the rocky Big Sur coast I was able to enjoy the golden light falling on the blue Pacific water and the vista laid out before me. Now, when I look at the image below, I will not only enjoy the photo itself, I'll be transported back to the hour I spent experiencing the landscape. Her memory will be much different.
Bixby Bridge at Dusk
For me, photography isn't just about creating an image for my future enjoyment. It's also a pathway to re-experiencing what I did to capture the image. I want to be relive the smells, sounds and the totality of the sensory experience when, years later, I gaze at it and remember how much I enjoyed creating it and the time I devoted to doing so.
What will she remember?