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Which Focus Point Would You Choose?

My two boys are fortunate to have a pile of toys they love to play with.  Their creative energy is astounding.  I try photographing their play in new and creative ways to document their childhood, and to help me improve my techniques. 

My philosophical approach to photography is that anything can make a nice picture.  You just have to "see" it right. Sometimes I am confronted with a photograph that I see in my head, but I'm not always sure if it will work the way I want.

When I saw this picture I knew how I wanted to make it, but I was torn between two different focus points.  Should I have focussed on the airplane, or did I do it right by focussing on his hand?

Either way, I love the juxtaposition between the blue and yellow within this narrow frame.  The bright colors of the airplane draw your eye to it, whereas the hand is used to grab and play with the plane bringing me back to my original question. Which focus point would you choose?

Infancy of Yard Work

As a young boy I remember helping my dad with yard work. I hated it. I would get stuck pulling weeds, moving rock, and raking leaves to name a few. I also remember helping my friends finish their yard work so we could go play baseball. Needless to say kids all too often get stuck helping their parents with yard work, and my oldest son is no different.

In contrast to "forced labor", Timmy asked if he could help clean up the palm trimmings and he actually enjoyed it. Before starting however, he asked for pair of gloves, but all I had was a small pair that were way too big for his little hands. Regardless the size, after he put them on he had a ball picking up the palm pieces and throwing them into the green bin.

His enthusiasm lasted for about 20 minutes, and then decided he was finished and ran back to the garage yelling, "I'm done!"  I couldn't complain about him quitting as I didn't expect him to help in the first place. At three and half years old Timmy did a great job.

Yard work is not the scope of this post, however.  Rather, this post is a metaphor about the future. His age, the current state of the yard, and the size of the palm are changes we will notice when we look back 20 years from now.  This picture will show the obvious transformation of Timmy from a young boy to the man I am raising him to become while the oversized gloves project his maturity.

I'm hopeful the current drought conditions will yield rain while the palm may or may not grow larger. I think it's some type of pygmy.  My plan is to landscape this part of the yard with a French drain and native plants and grasses. In the coming years the yard will certainly look different, and so will Timmy. All things start in infancy and grow over time including yard work. 

I never enjoyed it, and I still don't. I want to create a landscape that requires little maintenance or water, but will look groomed with native flora. With a little luck I won't be doing much yard work, and me and my boys can spend our time playing baseball rather than pulling weeds, moving rock, or raking leaves.

Gear and Settings

I shot this photograph with an all manual 24mm f/2.5 Tamron lens that I bought about 20 years ago. It's an Adaptal 2 style lens, which means you buy the lens without a mount and add an adapter that is based on your camera's specific mount. It's a great little lens and gives an effective focal length of 36mm on my Nikon D7200.

My camera was set to ISO100 at f/5.6 with a shutter speed of 1/200 of a second. I shot it at f/5.6 for a deeper depth of field to capture both the trash can and palm in focus. After looking at this image I should have shot it at f/4 or lower to blur the guy walking in the background.

In spite of that I still enjoy this picture, and it is one we will cherish in the years to come.

Capturing Moments

Looking for Randi & Ronnie

Looking for Randi & Ronnie

If you pay attention, fun moments happen often and they're fleeting. My boys are often doing funny things and getting into all sorts of mischief, and I want to be ready to capture those moments. That's the reason I carry my camera everywhere, and at home I always have it at the ready. If you don't have a camera with you, or you aren't prepared to photograph a moment when it happens you'll miss it. As the adage goes - the best camera is the one you have with you.  

The other day, after arriving home from picking up the boys from daycare they wanted to play in the yard, as they often do. When I unlocked the back door they ran outside to play. Timmy enjoys riding his glide bike around the path in the yard, and Mikey loves wagon rides. 

When not on the bike or in the wagon they will curiously investigate the yard. On this day, Timmy found a hole in the fence, and was peaking through it looking for the neighbors two dogs, Randi and Ronnie. Randi is an older Labradoodle around 10 years old and Ronnie is a 6 month old Labradoodle puppy. I can only guess that Timmy was getting puppy licks on his face while he was poking his head through the crack. Yuck!

While Timmy was having fun getting licked by the puppy, Mikey was peaking around trying to catch a glimpse of the dogs. The boys often discover places in the yard that captures their curiosity, and it is at these times that I capture some of my best photos of them.

If you want to test your camera's speed, your proficiency at using it, and your photography prowess then I suggest you start photographing children. It is a challenge to make great photos of kids, and it's guaranteed, if you pay attention to your process, that your skills will improve. You just have to be ready with your camera, know how to use it well, and quickly react to photographic moments.

For this image I set my camera's aperture to f/5.6 at ISO 100 with a shutter speed of 1/400 of a second, and shot at 50mm (Full Frame = 75mm). I chose these settings for two reasons. First, the boys are running around, and I wanted a fast shutter to freeze the action. I set the aperture to f/5.6 to get a deeper depth of field that would keep the shutter speed fast with a low ISO in the bright sunshine.

Focussing modes are another decision you need to make when photographing active kids. I go back and forth choosing which focussing mode is best. I will sometimes set it to single focus, lock it in, then recompose the composition. But with single focus they can move out of the locked in focal point and become blurry. Whereas, when the boys are moving fast I set the camera to continuous focus. This way when they are running around the camera is continuously refocussing, so most of my shots will be tack sharp.

The one thing I rarely do is motor drive the shutter. I don't view that as photography as it's too much "spray and pray". I'd rather capture a nice moment that engages me in the process while creating a lasting memory of that moment.

One of the things I love about this image is that it reminds me of two different scenes. My first thought was something similar to a modern day Huck Finn. The boys are curiously off on their own engaging in mischief. 

The other scene reminds me of the film The Sandlot. Sure, it's not a baseball picture, but it can be two young boys looking through the old broken fence for their baseball in Mr. Mertle's back yard. Though the Labradoodles are far less ominous than Hercules.

Finally, I processed the image in color because I like how both boys are wearing blue. Perhaps if they were wearing different colors I would have gone black and white, but I felt the color added to the interest of this picture. My first reaction to pictures, whether or not I process in black and white, is to make the determination if color takes away from the story, or is somehow distracting. In this case, I thought the color added to the interest with telling this story. The blue also makes a nice contrast against the grey fence.

What's the takeaway? Have a camera with you, always. Once you learn to see photographs everywhere you can't stop seeing them, and you will want to take lots of pictures. The key is to know which moments are photographs and which are just snapshots. Now get out their and practice learning the difference.

Blue Hour

Musée du Louvre

Musée du Louvre

My wife and I recently celebrated our 10th anniversary in Paris. While there, we visited a number of tourist spots to include the Louvre. It's one of the best museums I have visited and is unbelievably huge. It is said that if you spend 30 seconds in front of each item for 8 hours a day that it would take you 100 days to see every piece. I don't know how true that is, but it's believable. 

The Louvre has an extensive history. It was originally built as a fortress around 1190 by Phillip II, and later used as a palace through the middle ages until Louis XIV moved his palace and the government to Versailles in 1682. During that quiet time the Louvre was used as a residence for artists and later opened as a museum in 1793 after the French Revolution.

Fast forward to the evening of July 17, 2016. After a long day viewing many of the Louvre's priceless works, to include da Vinci's Mona Lisa, we left for another fantastic Parisian dinner. After dinner we walked back to the Louvre and hung out on one of its many stoops waiting for blue hour to arrive.

Blue hour is that time of night just after golden hour. It is the period of twilight that occurs at early dawn or late dusk when the sun is significantly below the horizon when indirect sunlight takes on a blue hue. It typically lasts for about 40 minutes, and the quality of the light is treasured by photographers and artists alike.

Sunset was at 9:47pm, and this image was taken at 10:56pm. After arriving back at the Louvre, my wife and I waited a couple of hours for this moment. I'd say it was well worth it as I love this photo. 

I started shooting right after sunset around 10pm, but the sky was still too bright to display the pyramid and the lights on the building. This was also the second location I shot from, and I like this angle much better than the first. Not only does it showcase the pyramid well, but I also like how it shows the motion of the ferris wheel in the background, and the starbursts from the street lamps.

The camera settings are straight forward. The aperture was set to f/8 for a deeper depth of field, ISO was set to 200 so the image had as little grain as possible, and the exposure was set to four seconds. The lens focussed on the pyramid. To avoid any camera shake I used my little travel tripod and the camera's timer.

A fun side note to this image was the number of other photographers making similar photographs along with others photographing models, and couples in formal wear. Some were using flash photography within a long exposure to highlight the couples with the Louvre in the background. I enjoyed watching and learning from their creative styles.

The architecture of the Louvre is just stunning. Any photograph taken of it is beautiful, and yet I still struggle to grasp the magnitude of its size and the impression it puts upon you. I would say that is also true of Paris itself. It's such a majestic and wonderful city. If you have the opportunity to visit, take it, you won't be disappointed. 

Star Trails & Timing

Let me first say, "RTFM!" When you're finished come on back.

Okay, now that you read your camera's manual you know how to use it. Or so you think. And that is why this star trail picture is not a picture of star trails, but star dots. Though I screwed up, it did make a pretty cool image. So how did I mess it up? Easy, I did what any photographer can do. I confused minutes with seconds. 

Before I get to that, a little back story. When this image was created we were camping in the Eastern Sierra at Twin Lakes just west of Bridgeport, California. The weather was tremendous with a New Moon, so the sky was good and dark. It was a perfect night for capturing star trails. 

To create a nice circle, if you aren't sure how to do it, point your camera in the direction of Polaris, the north star. The earth's axis points, more or less, right to it. If you are in the northern hemisphere, that is.

For this image, I set my tripod in an alpine meadow adjacent to the campground. On it was my old Nikon D7100 with a 17-50mm f/2.8 Sigma lens. I shot at 17mm with the lens wide open for 20 seconds/interval at ISO 1600.

The way star trails were made in the film days you shot with your lens wide open and the shutter would stay open for a length of time long enough to get trails. The longer the shutter was open the longer the trails. It was best to have a fully mechanical camera so the shutter could stay open as long as needed.

With an electronic shutter it would only stay open as long as your camera battery would last. The downside of star trails on film is that you would record skyglow along with your trails. So you would get both star trails and an orange glow from distant cities. Not ideal.

With a digital camera you instead take a series of shots at a specific interval then compile all the images in stacking software. If you want longer trails you take more photos over a longer period of time. Ideally, you want a couple of hours of images taken every 5 seconds for about 20 seconds each with the widest lens you have set to the widest aperture focussed at infinity. Doing so will get you nice trails on a black sky and no skyglow. 

Here is where the "500 Rule" should be mentioned. This isn't as important for star trails because, well, you want trails, but if you are photographing the night sky and want to avoid star trails you have to apply the 500 rule. That is, 500 divided by the focal length of your lens, which equals the longest exposure (in Seconds) before stars start to “trail” in your picture.

Why are there dots?

As I stated above, RTFM to mitigate mistakes. Or at least know the difference between 5 seconds and 5 minutes. And that is how this image has dots and not trails. When I set up the shutter interval in camera I set it to take a 20 second photo every 5 minutes when in fact I thought I was setting it to 5 seconds. 

To my surprise, when I woke up the following morning the camera was still working. As I calculated my intervals, it should have finished sometime around 4am. Yet it was still going at 6am. It was early, which further lead to my confusion until I realized my interval timing was wrong. Had I done 5 seconds I would have had trails.

After I got home and compiled the photos into a single image I was pleasantly surprised. This image is unique such that I have never seen anyone post a photo like it. So a mistake actually made for something unique and interesting, and gave me something to write about.

The takeaway is that you can salvage a mistake and make something interesting. The other takeaway is that you need to check and double check your settings making sure you will get what you think you will get. Lastly, pay attention to what the camera is doing after you start the series of intervals, and don't just walk away like I did. Let it take a few test shots.

I use StarStax to compile all of the images to create a star trail photograph. It's free to download and use on Mac, Windows, and Linux.