Wednesday, October 01, 2014

MAKING TIME FOR THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

Aurora Borealis
A slightly longer shutter speed allowed additional colors to appear. 1/8 @ f2.8, ISO 3200.
One of the benefits of traveling on assignment is that you often find yourself in places that you might not otherwise have the opportunity to get to. And when I find myself in these locations, I make it a point to take full advantage of all the photographic opportunities available.

Just to be clear, the assignment that I'm getting paid for always comes first, which means that I really have to muster the energy to do personal work. This was certainly the case on a recent trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, to document Navy-sponsored Arctic research.

Prior to any trip I conduct a web search for things to do and see at that location. Imagine my surprise when I kept seeing photographs of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. Was it possible that I would get the chance to not only see this, but photograph it? For some reason I thought you had to be much farther north.

Aurora Borealis
The intensity of light was constantly changing which meant I had to keep adjusting shutter speed. 1/2 @ f2.8, ISO 3200.
As you can see from the photographs accompanying this blog that I was treated to a spectacular sight. I offer some tips and a little more about what it took to take these photographs below.

1. Getting the photograph means you might lose a little sleep. Rarely are the best outdoor or landscape photographs taken mid morning, just after a leisurely breakfast and before a long lunch. Most of the time getting the best means setting up before the sun rises and staying out after it sets. Of course there is still time for that leisurely lunch, and maybe a nap in the middle of the day, unless you are getting paid to be there, then you have to make the extra effort. So to photograph the Northern Lights I had to set my alarm for midnight, and not just one night, but for three nights until I had success.

2. Shooting something for the first time, means experimentation. I had never photographed the Northern Lights, but I have photographed stars, so I knew that I first needed a location away from the city lights which in Fairbanks meant about a ten minute drive. Ideally you would scout these locations during the day, but remember since I was on an assignment, I had to locate a safe and awesome location in the dark, which I fortunately did. On the second night it was clear and the sky was filled with stars, but I didn't see signs of the Aurora Borealis. However, just because I didn't see what I was looking for, didn't mean I wasn't going to still take pictures.

Aurora Borealis
I did not realize that I had captured a faint glow of the Northern Lights on the second night until downloaded and post processed my photos. 1/13 @f2.8, ISO 1600.
3. Sometime luck, even beginners luck, is your friend. If you asked me when I returned to the hotel that second night if I had any luck, I would have said no. So imagine my surprise when I imported the images into Lightroom 5 and saw the subtle green and yellow hue in the sky. After some post processing, I liked the images enough to share, but still felt I missed out since I didn't actually see anything with my own eyes.

4. Persistence pays off. On the third night I once again woke up at midnight and headed back to the same location as the previous night, only this time as soon as I stepped out of the car, even before my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see streaks of green in the sky. By the time I set up my tripod and camera, the lights were sweeping across the night sky. I started with the same camera settings as I had the previous night and could tell right away that I wasn't even close. Remember tip two, experiment and don't get flustered. This time instead of a standard night star setup of a 15-20 second exposure at ISO 3200, I was at a two to four second exposure at ISO 1600. Any longer on the exposure time and the lights were really soft because they were moving and "dancing" so fast. Given more time I probably would have experimented more with that longer exposure.

5. Look 360 degrees. At first I was really focused in one direction which had good foreground of pine trees. It wasn't until I relaxed a bit, turned and started looking around, that I realized there were photo opportunities everywhere, even straight up. I just kept shooting with the Nikon 24-70mm and even though I did bring the 70-200mm with me, for some reason I left the 14-20mm in the room. In total, I spent around an hour taking pictures and if it wasn't for that pesky aforementioned assignment, I would have stayed all night.

Aurora Borealis
Even shooting vertical at 24mm I was not able to capture everything I was seeing. 1/5 @ f 2.8, ISO 1600.
After seeing the Northern Lights with my own eyes, I don't regret any sleep I missed and even as I sit here in the Anchorage airport with a five hour layover and another 16 hours before I'm back in Virginia, the lights are still bright in my eyes.

Bonus tip: Many of the hotels in Fairbanks maintain a wake up list if you wish to be notified whether the Aurora Borealis is active on a particular night. My advice, just get out there and shoot; you may discover more in your photograph than you expected.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

You can't get the photograph, in this case the U.S. Air Force Memorial, if you don't stop and take the picture.
You can't get the photograph, in this case the U.S. Air Force Memorial, if you don't stop and take the picture.
Stop and take that photo today! You know what I'm talking about. Have you been driving past a location every day and thinking what a nice photograph that would make. Why haven't you stopped? What are you waiting for? After all, don't you owe it to yourself to at least stop and see if it truly is your next great photograph or if it is one you can cross it off your list.

Do you make excuses like waiting for the right light or you have to be somewhere in a hurry. I understand, but then how do you explain that when the light is perfect and you all the time in the world, you still don't stop.

Are you afraid to be disappointed? It happens, that somehow the photo you've pictured from the seat of your car driving by at 50 m.p.h. may in fact look very different when you stop and get a closer look. But the point is, how will you know unless you actually stop.

The two photos posted here are good examples of what I'm talking about. The Air Force Memorial itself can be interesting, but it wasn't until I saw it against a backdrop of storm clouds that I really took notice. The problem was, I saw this same picture on several occasions and just kept driving. Well, earlier this month I finally stopped and captured the image that I had seen previously. I was glad I finally stopped and am pleased with the photo.

I've been looking at this pickle from my car seat for a year and never stopped. Not thrilled with results, but not ready to cross of my list yet.
I've been looking at this pickle from my car seat for a year and never stopped. Not thrilled with results, but not ready to cross of my list yet.
The other thing I've witnessed from my car seat is a large pickle, or what I believe is a pickle (it could be a cucumber), that hangs between two buildings just off the road. I was intrigued and couldn't figure out why it was there, after all there isn't a pickle shop, or even a deli nearby. I guess it really doesn't really matter, because once I noticed it, I couldn't drive by without checking it out and thinking about photographing it.

So after nearly a year, really, a year, I finally stopped and took a picture. The light was alright and the picture is not what I pre-visualized, but at least I finally stopped. I also learned that when I try this again, and yes, I will try again, it will be early in the day, or maybe with a cool sky, but I will take this photo again.

So are your ready to stop and get the picture?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

DOES IT EVER BECOME EASY?

Breaking the bottle during the R/V Sally Ride christening.
Why was I feeling so much stress about capturing this photograph?
I was wondering during a recent assignment in Anacortes, Wash., while covering the christening of the Research Vessel Sally Ride if even seemingly easy assignments ever become routine.

I was just out there to photograph the christening ceremony of the R/V Neil Armstrong in March and I had no reason to believe that this event would be any different. Easy right? Probably the most important photograph during a ship's christening is the moment the sponsor breaks a bottle of champagne on the hull and during the Armstrong christening I got the shot, which was made even tougher due to the sponsor having to strike the bottle three times before it broke.

Having already covered the christening of the R/V Neil Armstrong should have mitigated any stress I was feeling about covering the same ceremony for the Sally Ride, right?
Having already covered the christening of the R/V Neil Armstrong should have mitigated any stress I was feeling about covering the same ceremony for the Sally Ride, right?
That photograph of the bottle break along with the other coverage I provided, meant that when it came time to christen the sister ship, Sally Ride, my inbox began began to fill with inquires about whether or not I would be available to take the assignment. Of course I wanted to, ship's christenings happen only once, and being able to photograph such historic events is one of the reasons I enjoy what I do. I also realize that I'm not the only photographer capable of pulling that shot off, so was it really necessary for me to cover this assignment.

Ship's sponsor, Dr. Tam O'Shaughnessy, co-founder, chair of the board of directors and chief executive officer of Sally Ride Science, delivers remarks during the christening ceremony. The whole time I'm shooting this I'm thinking about the one shot that truly counts, the bottle break.
Ship's sponsor, Dr. Tam O'Shaughnessy, co-founder, chair of the board of directors and chief executive officer of Sally Ride Science, delivers remarks during the christening ceremony. The whole time I'm shooting this I'm thinking about the one shot that truly counts, the bottle break.
The reason I questioned whether or not I would go and all the anxiety I was feeling was centered around the events timing. This christening fell right in the middle of a challenging two-week assignment that I knew would require my full attention. An assignment that took months of planning and presented a host of challenges that needed to be overcome in order to produce a product that would meet every one's expectations. I can't discuss that project now, but thinking about leaving right in the middle of that assignment to spend 36 hours in Anacortes, Wash., was a tough decision to make.

In the end I did agreed to cover the Sally Ride christening and was able to capture the shot needed to tell the story, but during the flight to Seattle and while waiting for the ceremony to start, I also spent a lot of time thinking about the topic of this post.

Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, delivers remarks. If I was going to lug my Nikon 14-24mm lens across the country, I was going to use it to capture at least one photograph.
Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, delivers remarks. If I was going to lug my Nikon 14-24mm lens across the country, I was going to use it to capture at least one photograph.
Why was I feeling nervous as I went over my camera settings and scouted shooting angles. Was it due to a lack of confidence in my ability or the fact that so many were depending on my coverage which needed to be transmitted within hours of the ceremonies conclusion? Or was it something else? Was I still focused on the larger assignment I had left.

I believe I've reached a point in my career where I'm confident that I can cover any photo assignment. But having confidence doesn't diminish the angst or the questioning of ability. Having confidence just means I believe I have the skills needed, skills that come from years of work, but also from constantly learning from others and a willingness to experiment and stretch my comfort zone.

So is there ever a time in ones photographic career that an assignment becomes routine, that the nervousness goes away, and the pictures just appear.

Well if there is, I'm certainly not there and I suspect that I never will be. I also suspect I'm not alone.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

EARLY DIGITAL CAMERA AND PUBLISHING FIRSTS

Tear sheet showing stand-along photo taken with the Kodak DCS 460 as it appeared in the May 11, 1996 Philadelphia Daily News. Was this a first?
Tear sheet showing stand-along photo taken with the Kodak DCS 460 as it appeared in the May 11, 1996 edition of the Philadelphia Daily News. Was this a first?
Last year I read an article on Popphoto.com titled "The 30 Most Important Digital Cameras of all Time," and first thing that struck me was how many of these cameras I had the opportunity to use or at least get my hands on and the second thing was how far we've come in both quality and price.

It also got me thinking about the first image I had published that was taken with a digital camera. Actually it was published twice.
The Kodak Professional DCS 460 Digital Camera was introduced in 1995.
The Kodak Professional DCS 460 Digital Camera was introduced in 1995.
The camera was a Kodak Professional DCS 460 which had a list price of $35,600, a 1.3x crop factor and at 6.2 megapixels was the highest resolution digital camera available at the time.

In May of 1996 I was a photo editor and producer for Philadelphia Online (now Philly.com) and was working on an interactive seating map of the Blockbuster Sony Music Entertainment Center in Camden, N.J., and since I had access to the DCS 460, I decided to use it as I photographed the stage from various sections of the arena. A great time saver over shooting on film and scanning the negatives.

On the way to the venue I came across an accident on Spring Garden Street where a car had smashed into the front window of Panichelle's barber shop. As I drove by I thought I caught a glimpse of the barber inside continuing to cut hair, so I parked, grabbed the camera and walked back to the barber shop and started shooting photos.
Stand-alone photo as it appeared on the May 10, 1996 homepage of Philadelphia Online.
Stand-alone photo as it appeared on the May 10, 1996 homepage of Philadelphia Online. View full homepage from that day.
After I returned from the original assignment in Camden I downloaded the images from the camera and was showing a few editors the shot when one of them suggested we post it to the Philadelphia Online home page as a stand-alone photo, something we hadn't done previously. This was a first.

The other suggestion was to show it to the photo editors at the Philadelphia Daily News, where it was published as a stand-alone photo the next day.

So was this the first digital camera photo, not from a wire service, published in the Philadelphia Daily News? Hardly a case for the History Detectives, but I know if I had shot this with film, I probably wouldn't have processed it until the next day and by that time it would not have been news.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

SEVEN DAYS WITH THE FUJI X-PRO1

Fleet Week New York
The Fuji XF35mm (53mm equivalent), F1.4 lens did a great job. 1/1000, f2.8 at ISO 200.
I was headed to New York City on a seven day assignment to cover Fleet Week for the Navy and thought it would be the perfect time and location to test a Fujifilm X-Pro 1 outfitted with a XF 35mm F1.4 Lens I rented from BorrowedLenses.com.

I have been a fan of the Fuji X cameras since I purchased a X-10 in 2012. Then after spending ten days with a X100S in 2013, I immediately ordered one for myself and I still carry and shoot with it almost daily. Would I love the X-Pro1 as much as these previous cameras?

The X-Pro1 is not a new camera, in fact it has been around since March 2012 and there is no shortage of reviews and testimonials from photographers who really like this camera. So why am I just writing about it now? Well maybe it's because I was so wrapped up in my X100S that I never really considered another APS-C camera, or maybe it's because I started seeing rumors about a X-Pro2. Whatever the reason, I figured it was time – probably long overdue, that I gave this camera a try.

A little bit of rain didn't bother the X-Pro1, but did offer some nice scenes to photograph. When shooting on the streets in large cities, I find crosswalks and street corners offer plenty of opportunities. 1/125, f5.6 at ISO 640.
A little bit of rain didn't bother the X-Pro1, but did offer some nice scenes to photograph. When shooting on the streets in large cities, I find crosswalks and street corners offer plenty of opportunities. 1/125, f5.6 at ISO 640.
Since there has already been so much written about the X-Pro1, and it really is similar in functionality to the X100S, I decided to skip most of the technical details about this camera and concentrate more on how I set up and used this camera during a week of street photography in New York City. But don't worry, I will still point out the differences to the X100S as they come up.

Of course there is one major difference between the X-Pro1 and the X100S, interchangeable X mount lenses. In 2012 Fuji originally offered three lenses; a 60mm (91mm) f2.4 macro, 18mm (27mm) f2 and the aforementioned 35mm. As of this posting, there are now at least nine additional lenses, including zooms and offerings from other manufacturers, including Carl Zeiss. It never bothered me that the X100S was a fixed 35mm equivalent, since you work with what you have, but perhaps on a few occasions it would have been nice to have options. That said, I only had the 53mm lens available to me during the trial period, so I made that work and admit I enjoyed the change.

In street photography you have to always be ready to shoot. In this case I noticed the Fleet Week sign and the man loading kegs as I walked by. I quickly turned and got off about a dozen frames before I moved on. 1/125, f5.6 at ISO 500.
In street photography you have to always be ready to shoot. In this case I noticed the Fleet Week sign and the man loading kegs as I walked by. I quickly turned and got off about a dozen frames before I moved on. 1/125, f5.6 at ISO 500.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The X-Pro1 has a great feel, classic look and you get the sense that it is just made for the streets. Physically, it is slightly larger and a bit heavier than the X100S, but continues to feel comfortable and natural in your hands. The XF35mm lens did protrude from the camera body more than I expected and took me a while to get used to. I've noticed many of the new lens offerings look huge and somewhat awkward on these APS-C cameras.

The Hybrid Viewfinder is similar the X100S, except it will update views based on lens choice. I still prefer the Optical viewfinder (OVF) over the Electronic viewfinder (EVF). I find the EVF darker than I would like and just a bit artificial. The OVF feels open and I like how I can see what is happening just outside the frame which is helpful, especially in street photography.

I was still able to get that wide angle feel I'm used to with the X100S even though the XF 35mm is a 53mm equivalent lens. 1/1200, f5.6 at ISO 200.
I was still able to get that wide angle feel I'm used to with the X100S even though the XF 35mm is a 53mm equivalent lens. 1/1200, f5.6 at ISO 200.
Again, the button layout and functionality is also similar to the X100S. I think the placement of the AE/AF-lock button is in a better location and therefore I found myself using it more often. You can also choose a focus area quickly by pressing the AF Button and then using the selector to move your focus point within the frame. Pressing the MENU/OK Button will return the focus point to the center. It takes some practice, but getting used to the focus features on the X-Pro1, like the X100S, is key to getting the most out of your camera.

MY SETTINGS FOR SHOOTING ON THE STREETS

Set the AF Illuminator to OFF. The purpose of this light is to assist with autofocus in low light situations, but using the camera in lowlight situations is also the time you probably don't want to draw attention to yourself, or telegraph that you are about to take a photo. I didn't notice any focus issues, even in fairly low light, with the AF Illuminator off.

Place gaffer's tape over the Indicator Lamp. For the same reason I set the AF Illuminator to OFF, I prefer to cover over the Indicator Lamp on the back of the camera. I'm not so worried I'll be discovered or afraid of the interaction, however, if I can get a few frames off without being noticed, I prefer that.

Set Operational Volume off. Are you seeing a trend here. Plus no shutter noise is a real advantage of mirrorless over DSLR. Even my Nikon's quiet mode can't compete with silence.

Using Auto ISO meant that I could shoot all day in and out of the shadows and then well into the night without thinking about it. 1/125, f1.4 at ISO 2500.
Using Auto ISO meant that I could shoot all day in and out of the shadows and then well into the night without thinking about it. 1/125, f1.4 at ISO 2500.
Use Auto ISO. I like the thought of moving in and out of various lighting situations and not having to change ISO each time. You can assign ISO to the Fn (function) Button which speeds up the process, but if you don't have to worry about it, why do so. Within auto ISO there are a few considerations you need to take into account though. For instance I set the max ISO to 3200, but the lowest shutter speed to 1/125. Prior to making that choice, the camera would favor ISO and I found my shutter speed kept dropping too low which in some cases resulted in blurred photos.

New York City and Times Square is a busy and crowed place. The small form factor of the X-Pro1 is perfect in these situations and most people hardly notice you taking photos. 1/125, f2.0 at ISO 320.
New York City and Times Square is a busy and crowed place. The small form factor of the X-Pro1 is perfect in these situations and most people hardly notice you taking photos. A real advantage in street photography. 1/125, f2.0 at ISO 320.
Set Film Type to Monochrome. Just like with the X100S, I set up the camera to shoot both raw and jpeg allowing me to shoot and preview my photos in black and white, but still have the color originals available during post production. I further set the film simulation mode to monochrome plus yellow filter which offers slightly increased contrast while toning down the brightness of the sky. I've always associated street photography with black and white which why I favor this setup.

I used continuous shooting (burst mode) set to six frames per second (max for this camera) to capture this photo in Coney Island. 1/300, f11 at ISO 200.
I used continuous shooting (burst mode) set to six frames per second (max for this camera) to capture this photo in Coney Island. 1/300, f11 at ISO 200.
Remaining settings. Aperture-priority AE (A) mode, turn off display back (Viewfinder Only), focus mode set to Single Focus.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

The X-Pro1 did seem to focus quicker than the X100S, but there was still a bit of lag when coming out of standby mode. I missed a few shots because of this which was a reminder to always make sure the camera is awake and ready. UPDATE: Under Power Management turning the Quick Start Mode to ON is supposed to reduce camera start up time except I failed to test this and only noticed it in the instruction manual recently. And sure enough there is a similar feature available on the X100S, so I may have found a solution. More to come.

New York Wedding
In street photography, scenes like this happen quickly and having the camera awake and ready to shoot is key. 1/125, f1.4 at ISO 2500.
What appealed to me about the X100S was its simplicity. And I wondered if adding interchangeable lenses would detract from that? Hard to answer since as I mentioned previously I only had the XF 35mm available to me during the trial period, but even if I had other options available, I tend to pick a lens and stick with it. Although picking a Fujifilm XF 60mm f2.4 macro lens one day and then a Zeiss 12mm f2.8 Touit series the next would be a fun option to have.

I know there are other new X offerings from Fuji like the XE-2 and the XT-1, but I really love the rangefinder styling of the X100S and X-Pro1. The XT-1 has been getting a lot of favorable reviews and I'm looking forward to testing it in the future.

However for now, I've gone back to shooting with my X100S and really am not looking to change anytime soon. That is unless the X-Pro2 rumors pan out.