26 September, 2009

I, For One, Welcome Our New Robotic Overlords

Over the past couple weeks, I've been buried under a dense mixture of photos and work. On the photographic front, I've been focusing primarily on getting Zenfolio to work how I want, rather than putting things up on my old gallery. It seems sad to let photos languish there when I can put versions up on Zenfolio that actually have decent resolution.

The main problem has been that processing the large photos has been very much a manual process: open in UFRaw, tweak, send to GIMP, tweak, scale, sharpen, export, and then back to the beginning. It was slow but worthwhile for the blog images, but completely, ridiculously unmanageable for the often 100+ I wanted to put online from events.

So, as has been my wont for the past couple (time period)s, I wrote some automation to do it for me. This means I won't be fixing every slightly skewed horizon or not-quite-perfect white balance any more. On the flip side, photos will be more likely to show up in a day, and less likely to show up in three weeks. I think it's a reasonable exchange, and I can still fix egregious problems by hand.

So, without further ado, here are photos from prom vault, and here are photos from September autocross, and here are photos from July autocross. They respectively go with the Prom Vault blog post, "Go.", and "Autocross".

As always, if there are photos that you wanted to see, let me know. I might have them. And don't forget that you can click an image to see larger, more detailed versions. Iron Man has a lot of intricate details that are harder to see in the blog-sized image.

In a another departure from the norm, it's a photo not taken by me (thanks, Adele). Prom vault was amazing.

"If you're not winning, try some tighter pants and some shinier shades." —me, with assist by L

20 September, 2009

Trying to see the light

I was out shooting tonight, and got this. It's still a work in progress, but it's definitely a good start. (Note that if you're viewing this with a light background, you probably can't see most of the stars)

I'll be entering the Zenfolio Featured Images contest soon (deadline is in a week), and the theme is "All About Light." "We are looking for images that are striking because of their use of light… We will accept a lot of flexibility in the subject but the light must 'make the shot'."

In addition to digging a few years back for appropriate photos, I've also been trying to take new ones that would work, such as the shot above. If the moon comes back before the deadline, I think I'll have something.

Until then, though, feel free to browse my brainstorming gallery, which has potential submissions alongside placeholder images and photos to jog my memory. In particular, if you want to see some of my older photos, now's your chance. See if you can spot the gecko.

"If I had a miniature elephant, would it be a picoderm?" —Suki Dorfman

18 September, 2009


This past weekend was my second autocross, and my (sort of) second time shooting motorsports. This time, it was held in an auxiliary parking lot at Great America, complete with undulating terrain, light poles, and a course that was only just starting to dry as the first run group was underway.

The above is already one of my favorite car photos that I've ever taken. I really like the juxtaposition of the stopped car with the moving flag; the rigid, geometric structure of the Ariel Atom with the smooth, flowing contours of the green flag. It's neat that one of the goals of racing of any sort is to be like the flag: smooth, flowing from corner to corner, rolling on the throttle rather than stamping on the gas. Slow is fast.

And perhaps it's a bit too fast. My friend Jason was one of the course designers for this first session at Great America. While test-driving the still-wet course, he wound up in third gear by the end of the long straight. He later summarized his discussion with the other designers as such: "We have to change this" (emphasis his).

It was then that I realized that one aspect of designing an autocross course is trying to prevent drivers from shooting themselves in the foot too severely. If someone overcooks a corner, it's fine for them to take out a large helpin' of cones. It's not fine for them to slide off the track, hit a curb, and roll.

Another thing I realized was the extent to which the purpose of autocross is to spend time with and learn from other folks. A few folks had a pit "crew". Those that didn't helped and got help from each other. There were a number of friends and spouses who showed up just to watch, and for one driver it was a family affair: at one point, his young daughter looked on as he and his wife wrapped tire covers around the race wheels.

Of course, it's also an opportunity to spend time in your car and to learn about driving. As I mentioned in my last autocross post, ride-alongs happen all the time. For one, it's informative to have someone to give pointers here and there, and as a passenger it can be useful to see and feel how another driver navigates the course. But beyond that, teaching someone reinforces your own knowledge of a subject: driving coaches likely become better drivers as a result of coaching.

I had another realization — more of an epiphany, really — which brings home something I had often heard but never truly noticed in the land of photojournalism. When you start to become part of a group and to acclimate to a new environment, your mental attitude changes. While as a documentarist, the desire to remain objective remains, an "objective view" must always have some standard of reference. Over time, that standard changes: many of the group's norms start to seem normal; what may have seemed weird at first is now old-hat.

This biker sort of came as a welcome shock to my senses. In striving to learn to drive better, and to learn just how to be an autocrosser, I had lost sight of what it's like to see this microcommunity from the outside. And unavoidably so, I believe.

It's difficult to maintain multiple competing points of view. In this photo, it can be easy to see an impermeable line of cars and inaccessible drivers, and it can be just as easy to see a line of friends, each honing his or her technique in an attempt to shave seconds off the clock. But it's hard to see it both ways.

Even seeing how much my point of view has changed, though, I still enjoy autocross. It's challenging both from a driving and a photographic perspective. It emphasizes technique, which is true of most of the activities I like. It promotes awareness; tactile, aural, visual… sometimes even errant smells can provide useful information.

But most of all, it's all about relationships: how close can you get to that cone? How quickly can you find some folks to help you fix your water pump? How fast can you fly down that straightaway without butchering the corner? How much can you learn from another driver?

Thanks for looking.
"Photography allows me the opportunity to share what I see through my viewfinder with those who can appreciate the beauty of the world around us." —Mark Jay

09 September, 2009

MIT Prom Vault: A competition of unparalleled amazing hyperbole

A few months ago, my friend Patrick told me about something he and Old Man Ballsky (both of whom you may have met, if you've seen some of my other posts) had been planning, the prom vault. It was like a normal track meet, except only the pole vault would be contested, and only formal attire would be acceptable. I immediately marked my calendar (a lie, since I don't have a calendar) and set to thinking about what sort of outlandish getup I might be crazy enough to vault in.

As the months prior to the event counted down to weeks, more details were announced. A prom vault in name alone is not much of a prom vault at all. So to stay true to the theme, you had to have a date to compete. The partners with the greatest sum of heights would win.

When the day finally arrived, I was running behind on the tailoring/surgery of my uniform, but was excited to see what other folks had worn. I finished sewing literally minutes before heading over to the gym, where folks were already warming up. One thing I found so peculiar about the prom vault was that it felt so much like a normal meet.

People caught each others' steps, as often happens at a normal meet. And as always, there were poles everywhere, and the vaulters holding them only maintained a loose semblance of a line while waiting for their respective turns on the runway. The only difference was that these vaulters wore dresses and suits and even coattails.

Well, perhaps that wasn't the only difference. The brother of one of the vaulters plays in a jazz trio, which showed up and played for a few hours. I really enjoyed the the mix of experiences that one usually finds in totally different environments. It was like an upside-down cake of amazing juxtapositions and contrasts (This sentence was for Patrick).

In addition to the myriad forms of entertainment, it was fun to see how each vaulter's attire stood up to the rigors of an actual jump. This dress-turned-much-shorter-dress was the only one that was stiff enough to keep from flopping inside-out during a vault.

For a short while, the jazz trio took a break and The Ballinator, a jazz musician in his own right, took to the keys. P-man (yes, that's Patrick) had a quick dance with Julia as Sharpé took a seat and demonstrated why these are his go-to pants for flood conditions.

Unfortunately, every competition of unparalleled amazing hyperbole must come to an end. Of course, given the circumstances, and with apologies to Dave Eggers, this end could only truly be described as a heartbreaking ending of staggering genius. Or something like that.

Anyway, despite somewhat suspiciously breaking a tie for third place in favor of Emily and himself, Patrick ran most of the awards ceremony in a surprisingly efficient and well-organized fashion. Near the end, Old Man Ballsky put P-man in his place (on the podium, next to his date), and finished the awards presentations.

In what was pretty much a foregone conclusion until an also-suspicious last-minute scoring rule swap, Hanna and Alex were crowned queen and king of the 2009 MIT Prom Vault. Congratulations also to second place finishers Jim and Jillena.

More photos to come. Until then, here's motorcycle racer Bill McKenna's oft-quoted line from the Feb. 1982 issue of Cycle magazine:
"Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in one pretty and well-preserved piece, but to slide across the finish line broadside, thoroughly used up, worn out, leaking oil, and shouting GERONIMO!!!"

03 September, 2009

We are all of us in the gutter…

You see a lot of interesting things when you cast your eyes skyward. I had often been tempted to take a photo of this awesome statue/sculpture, but I had no idea how to shoot it so that it'd be interesting.

Then walking back from lunch a few weeks ago, I heard aircraft engines. I pulled my camera out and took a couple shots. It was a weird-looking aircraft (later identified as a P-3 Orion, a number of which were apparently stationed at Moffett field), but the photos weren't really that interesting.

By that point, I was in the mood for photography and was in the vicinity of the sculpture. I walked over and was pondering what to with it when I heard more engines. With a few quick steps back, I took a couple shots and got this frame.

This past weekend, I flew back to MIT for the prom vault, which was amazing. On Sunday night's return flight, I noticed the moon's bright reflection off of the port-side wing, something I had never seen before. I had to wait for the people in my row to turn their lights off and go to sleep, and the person sitting between me and the window graciously turned her TV off. I took a bunch of shots, but they weren't quite right — part of the window was diffusing the light from the moon.

Then, when she got up for a moment, I took a few quick shots and got this one. The bright spots are from reflections between the internal and external windows.

It had also been a few months since I spotted this bell on El Camino Real. There's no light inside of it or anything, so I figured it would probably look most interesting at night, likely with the moon somewhere in the frame. At the time, the moon had risen, but was hiding behind a nearby building.

Riding home tonight, I noticed that the moon was fairly high in the sky and this bell came immediately to mind. I stopped, sat around trying compositions for 15 minutes, and came up with this one, which I really like. The reddish light in the lower-left corner is a really cool lens flare effect from having a streetlamp just outside of the lens's field of view. The moon provides the slight blue glow from behind the bell, and I'm pretty sure the bright spot on the right is Venus.

So, that's it for now; just a quick post, since I've been pretty busy of late. Hopefully I'll get to dive into my backlog of photos soonish, but until then, the continuation of Oscar Wilde's well-known statement:
"We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."