22 December, 2014

Five Day B&W Challenge: Day 5


During a four-day vacation in Mexico, I captured this photo of two people hugging at the side of the street. I loved the juxtaposition of the bus's motion in the background with the stillness of their embrace.
From a conversion perspective, this image was pretty straightforward. The challenge was more of a personal struggle — I love the streaks of red on the pair's clothes, but I think it still works out pretty well in black and white. I tried to crop it in a way that would reduce the amount of distraction without eliminating context. I didn't want to focus so much on them that you lose track of their surroundings, or that you lose the feeling of the street moving around them.

04 December, 2014

Five Day B&W Challenge: Day 4

Earlier this year, I visited some friends in New York City, and we took some time to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The Memorial consists primarily of two square-shaped waterfalls, which are somewhat distinct in that they are so large, but so easy to interact with. The walls of water are dozens of feet tall, and hundreds of feet wide, but the water originates in a mirror pool that you can swirl with your fingertips before it pours over the edge, and your influence can alter the continuously-changing pattern that the water makes as it falls.

The names in the memorial are inscribed in bronze panels and mounted where people can touch them. Feel them. Mull them over and ponder them. I noticed that a lot of visitors would stand at the edge, pause with a hand on the stone, and just look out over the water.
For the B&W conversion, the main challenge here was that the man's shirt is overexposed in the blue channel. After a couple different attempts to bring his shirt down without adversely affecting the rest of the image, I decided to just crop him mostly out. The final image shows him, and shows his contact with the child, but focuses on the child and the child's experience of the memorial.

23 November, 2014

Five Day B&W Challenge: Day 3

For day three, I decided to dig into my mostly-neglected set of images from the NASCAR Toyota/Save Mart 350, held at Sonoma Raceway back in June of this year. As far as conversions go, this time was all about controlling the viewer's visual attention — getting them to notice certain things, and to pay less or no attention to other things. Many of the the NASCAR teams feature incredibly bright, saturated colors which are designed to attract attention, and the grayscale conversion allowed me to work against that dynamic.

My treatment of this first image was mainly to diffuse the viewer's attention. In the original, the bright colors draw your attention to the crew member's uniform, and from there, to his face, to his hands, to the air hose on his gun, and to the fire extinguisher inside. As your eyes take in the image, it ends up being difficult for them to focus on other aspects of the scene — the tires and other pit-stop paraphernalia surrounding the main subject; the details of the mock hub mounted to the trailer; even the actual expression of concentration on his face that reinforces the dynamic pose of his body.
By contrast, the treatment of the second image was to make the distribution of viewer attention more focused. The bright colors everywhere cause the viewer's eye to bounce around the scene. Whereas in the monochrome version, all of the colors are relatively similar shades of gray, and the strong contrast of the brake components draws the viewer's eye into the wheel well.
This one didn't really work out; but not all experiments turn out how you hope they will. I wanted to focus attention on the different crew-member acts — hands poised to give the car a push start out of the pits; gas can chugging away; new windshield tearoff whipping in the wind; and something with the front-left wheel.

But it's all pretty muddled. The windshield tearoff pretty much disappears when I try to set the curves/contrast for the rest of the scene, and if I set things for the tearoff, the rest of the scene ends up with way too much contrast. The comromise that I'm publishing is really just the worst of both worlds. Oh well. Still more to learn :o)

21 November, 2014

Five Day B&W Challenge: Day 2

There were a bunch of options here that all looked reasonable, but in the spirit of pushing outside of my comfort zone, I decided to focus on nuance and subtlety. One of the things I learned (which I already had some idea of) is that my main editing monitor has very poor grayscale rendition at very low luminance levels. The really low blacks tend to go away completely, and the levels that it does display tend to have color casts. By comparison, when I look at the same image on my second monitor, the color rendition is completely neutral.

Even so, I tried to use a light touch with the Tone Curve module to bring out a little bit of shadow detail on the near side of L's face. It's hard to tell if it worked or if it didn't — one one monitor, you can _barely_ see the slightest hint of her large, shiny earring. On my other monitor, I can see the faint hint of the outline of her ear and her haircut, and you can see that she's wearing a pair of earrings. That's about what I was going for, so I'm going to call that a tentative success.

I also used the Monochrome module in an attempt to massage her phone reflection into the other reflections in the bowl. It's still there, but it doesn't draw your attention the same way that it does in the original.

Finally, I tried a bunch of things to pull down the translucent highlight from the edge of her thumb on the bowl, but I didn't find anything that worked. The main challenge was that I _really_ like the stark contrast of her backlit hair, and the levels in the hair are pretty similar to the levels on her thumb. Clearly something I need to keep in mind while shooting.

20 November, 2014

Five Day B&W Challenge: Day 1

Two friends tagged me for the Five Day B&W Challenge at about the same time. I'm going to participate, but it's going to be on my own rules.

The canonical rules for the Five Day B&W Challenge are that you post a B&W image every day for five days, and that with each post, you tag someone new to also participate. First and foremost, I have no idea what the original motivation for this challenge might have been, but I will use it as an opportunity for personal growth (see also, Ad Hoc Challenges and Personal Growth).

I will spend more time on each image than I typically do, and I will attempt images that I find difficult to deal with. Hopefully, I will learn new techniques to deal with some of the challenging images that I might otherwise pass over. At the same time, I will not necessarily post a images on consecutive days. If I haven't figured something out, I will invest the time to get as far as I can before posting the result.

Second, I will not tag or nominate anyone. It's not for me to decide who needs what kind of photographic growth. That said, I hope that this post inspires you to challenge yourself somehow. That challenge may be by working up images in B&W, or by working them up in color, or perhaps by not working them up at all — by aspiring to achieve a better image in the camera, and to do less of that work after the exposure has already been taken.
Finally, I will share the original image with each post, and I'll go through the retouching steps I used to produce the final image. So even if you don't choose to participate, hopefully you will still learn some of the same things that I'm learning.

Nearly all of my work is done in some combination of darktable and GIMP, and this series will be no exception. Also note that one of my personal ethical principles, given my coming-of-age in a journalistic environment, is that I don't make local adjustments. Everything I do applies to the entire frame. This means that I also don't dodge or burn, which processes many photojournalists consider to be okay.

First and foremost, when I noticed this moment, one of the things that drew me to it was the inherent symmetry of the chef sitting against the picnic table, with the creases in her jacket mirroring the gaps in the tabletop. I know that I'm no good at nailing the horizon, and I didn't want to miss the moment, so I specifically left some room around my desired composition so that I would be able to get the horizon perfect in post.

In darktable, I first tried converting to B&W with the Monochrome module, but I ended up switching the Color Correction module and just set Saturation to 0. At that point, I found that I had difficulty maintaining contrast _both_ between the chef's left arm and the bright background, as well as between their head/hat and the dark background there. That was the most challenging aspect of working this particular image.

The first half of the solution was to use Tone Curve to blow out the entire sunny area. I put a control point at the top, a little over halfway to the right. This forced all of the lightness values about 60% or so straight to 100%, and gave me some more room for contrast between the chef's jacket and the sunny area. Then I added a control point along the steep upslope (at about 30% input lightness) and tweaked it to adjust the contrast between the chef's head and the medium-brightness background. Et voila!

To finish, I pulled the image into GIMP, sharpened it with the Refocus plugin, added the watermark, and called it a day.

31 October, 2014

I'm irresistible, you fool

It's amazing how an interesting spectacle can bring people together. I went to an American Autocross event recently, and had the great pleasure of seeing a Lola T-70 Mk1 for the first (and, quite possibly, only) time. The car was built in 1965, and is owned and driven by David Pozzi who has a page on the car here.
The race cars of that era had a particularly distinctive styling, which makes them easy to remember. As I took the car in, a combined sense of recollection and discovery wafted across my mind. The car is a gorgeous relic of a somewhat bygone era, and even though faster, safer, more efficient cars have followed, there's still a sense of something lost.

I imagine that those feelings of wonderment and wistfulness are something all of the onlookers shared as we admired the #26 — seeing this example undoubtedly stoked the memories of anyone who had seen one in person, on television, in posters, or elsewhere.
In my own case, I grew up watching the "Speed Racer" cartoon, which featured the somewhat similarly-styled Mach 5. Of course, at the time, the world of the Mach 5 was a pure historical fantasy for me. It's funny how things change.

So in the short time that I had a physical manifestation in front of me, I reveled in the details that a cartoon glosses over. Giant tires, mid-mounted engine, rear transaxle and radiator. Plus what I assume is a hinge to flip up (or remove) the rear clam.
Having spent an inordinate amount of time working on Truckula, my '85 Nissan 720 pickup, the Weber carburetors immediately caught my eye. The 720 comes stock with a diabolically complicated Hitachi-manufactured carburetor, but Weber swaps are incredibly common for people looking for easier maintenance and more simplicity.

Sometimes, it's easy to miss how connected our lives become with the unrecalled events and experiences of the past.
Of course, if you're having a once-in-a-lifetime experience, why not make it even more special? According to other folks at the event, the Mk III Cobra in the foreground is the sole remaining Shelby Cobra that is still owned by the original owner.

I didn't get a chance to chat with the driver, Ken McCullough, but what I heard is that he worked for Ford at the time, bought it new, and has owned it since. That's pretty amazing if accurate. McCullough was pretty quick in the car regardless, placing 10th by time, and 21st by index, out of 142 drivers.

Correction [3 Nov 2014]: The original Cobra was actually the other one, the #18 owned and driven by Bruce Cambern. It appears that that car hit the tarmac only after I had departed. You can find more about it here: Bruce Cambern's 427 one owner Cobra.
Mary Pozzi, David's wife, answers questions about the car before the autocross session gets underway. Mary would go on to place first in her own class (and 46th overall, 35th by index) driving a Chevy Camaro.
No regrets.

23 October, 2014

Ad Hoc Challenges and Personal Growth

Sometimes it pays to throw caution to the wind. To try something just to see if you can do it. If it works, that's another skill or capability under your belt. If it doesn't work, that's extra experience under your belt. Either eventuality leads to personal growth.

In my own case, I was in the studio a few days ago to shoot a new passport photo for myself. I wanted to get home, and I idly wondered how quickly I could do a good-enough job. The answer was seven photos. I got to the studio, took seven pictures, and went home. I also made a lot of mistakes. I learned a lot, and if I were going to do it over again, I'd do things differently. Skills, capability, experience.

I analyze all seven shots below.
First shot. Making sure the light and trigger are working. Check. Tripod in the photo is the one that I used (since I forgot mine at home; whoops).
Second shot. Bumped the light output. Remember that this is the tripod that will be under the camera, so the tripod isn't actually in the hotspot.
Third shot. Camera mounted on tripod. Yoga mat as focus stand-in.
Fourth shot. Self-timer was shorter than expected. Obviously overexposed, framed too low, and out-of-focus.
Fifth shot. Bumped the camera from f/2.8 to f/4.0 to deal with overexposure. Used another tripod as a focus stand-in, because its legs kept it from flopping backward like the yoga mat did. Also, I made it taller to better approximate my torso height. Still out-of-focus.
Sixth shot. Pitched down a little bit, and finally nailed the focus.
Seventh shot. Focus is perfect. Framing is perfect. The main thing I got wrong is that the light is too directional. I pondered putting up a second light and decided that I was too lazy. That was a mistake — passport photos call for very flat, even lighting. In the end, I was able to fix that in post, but were I shooting for an actual (journalistic) publication, it would've called for a re-shoot.

The second thing I got wrong is that I needed more diffusion. I used a ~5-foot octa, set up pretty close, and the hotspot is too bright, which overexposed my left (camera-right) cheek, while leaving the rest of my face reasonably-exposed. If I drop the exposure so my cheek is reasonable, the rest of my face is underexposed. The effect is exacerbated by the fact that I wear UV-blocking sunglasses every day, which is why the area around my eyes is so much less tan than the rest of my face.

But all in all, pretty good. And even better next time :o)

11 October, 2014


flag, n:
    emblem usually consisting of a rectangular piece of cloth of distinctive design

At the most basic level, a flag is a symbol. It represents some other concept, and it's understood that the purpose of a flag's existence is to induce thoughts of that other concept. But flags don't simply exist. They are raised. They are waved. They are unfurled. They are shown. Sometimes assertively, and other times, quietly. But the display of a flag is always a conscious decision at some level.

Flags in motorsports are ubiquitous. The car control flags are most obvious — green means "go!", red means "stop," yellow means "proceed with caution." But there are plenty of others.
The car control flags are most frequently perceived as commands, but they become more personal when shown out-of-context. Moreover, as mentioned above, the display of a flag is always active, and in many cases can be a proclamation of pride.

A tiny checkered flag like this might indicate "I'm proud to be a racing fan." A legitimate checkered flag laying on a car, or being held aloft by a car driver, typically proclaims that they won the race. For instance, check out "Continuity" from the 25 Hours of Camaraderie series.
Flags that are incorporated into car liveries are often also proclamations. "I am proud to represent my country." (The "Rebirth from Fire" post shows another example.) But again, it's the conspicuous display of a flag where one might not be expected that makes the proclamation so emphatic.
Of course, the distinction may be subtle between an in-context and out-of-context (or expected and unexpected) display of a flag. The Taiwanese flag on this person's shoulder is ambiguous for me. Is it a standard part of a uniform? Or did the person affix it of their own volition? In the latter case, it's a definite expression of self, and in the former case, it may or may not be.
Some cases are mixed. The display of a country-of-origin flag next to a driver's name is a standard. But the side-by-side display of the American and Japanese flags is not. Instead, I'm confident that's meant to convey the partnership between Mazda (a Japanese company) and SpeedSource Race Engineering (an American company) in the development of the Skyactiv LMP2 cars for competition in this particular race series.
Some associations aren't with a country at all. I spotted this BMW fan during the grid walk, where, after the cars are parked on the starting grid, spectators can enter the hot pits to see the cars and meet the teams that run them. The flag features signatures from BMW RLL drivers Andy Priaulx (who drove the #55 BMW Z4 GTE) and Joey Hand (who drove the #56).
And again. These fans broke out their national flag to cheer on Mexican driver Memo Rojas, who placed third alongside Scott Pruett in the #01 Ford EcoBoost/Riley car, campaigned by Chip Ganassi Racing.
"Orgullo," the title of this post, is the Spanish word for "pride." And it felt fitting, since seeing the fans cheer for Memo Rojas was one of the most memorable aspects of the weekend, for me. In this case, the flag and it's various associations served to not only connect fans and driver with their shared mother country, but also with each other.

05 September, 2014

Drought Conditions

I was driving northbound on US-101 when I saw smoke emanating from something burning in the distance. As I approached, I realized it was an untended brush fire, burning the vegetation on the side of the road. I stopped. The easiest way to keep a small fire from turning into a big fire is to take care of it when it's still small. So I dialed 9-1-1.

Busy signal.

I dialed again. Busy signal. That was when my hands started to shake.

To be sure, I have panicked before. I panicked when the ceiling of my dorm collapsed under a flood of hot water. And then I dialed the emergency number that was listed on my room phone, and then I got out. But it's different when you're panicking, and the obvious next step turns into a dead end, and suddenly you have to figure out what you're gonna do about it. The adrenaline clouds your thinking either way, but the reason that 9-1-1 is repeated everywhere, all the time, is so that you don't need to think; you just do. That was no longer an option.

So, okay. Calm down. Think. What do we do? Fire extinguisher? No, way too big for a fire extinguisher. I don't have one anyway. It looks like it's not really moving very fast. I guess we just sit and wait…

After what was likely under a minute, though my perception of time was completely unreliable by that point, another motorist stopped, and I got him to call. Emergency services were already on their way. He took off, and a little bit later, a Foster City water truck showed up, followed in short order by a CHP squad car.

*Phew*. I took a couple pictures and left.

30 August, 2014

F One Eight

Around a year ago, Sigma launched the 18-35 f/1.8 zoom lens. An f/1.8 constant zoom. Wow. I snapped one up as soon as I could afford it, but there were some teething problems the first time I tried it, and after that it just sat in my bag. It never quite got dark enough for me to face those problems and use it in place of my Nikon 24-70/2.8.

But I knew darker times were approaching (this weekend, as it happens), and earlier this month, I figured it was as good a time as any to force myself to learn how to use this lens. I shot a concert with my friends, Holychild, and all I had on me were this lens and my typical long lens, the Nikon 70-200/2.8. All shots in this post are from the 18-35.

Finally, a few technical notes. This lens is 18mm-35mm f/1.8, and is designed for APS-C bodies. For Nikon's 1.5x crop factor, this means that the effective focal length is 27mm-52.5mm in full-frame terms, and the effective depth-of-field matches f/2.7 on full-frame. That said, the light-gathering ability of the lens is independent of the sensor size — you would have to use an f/1.8 constant zoom to gather the same amount of light with a full-frame body — but on the other hand, the APS-C sensors will exhibit more noise at each ISO as compared to similar-resolution full-frame sensors.

All that means that this lens can put an APS-C body on similar footing to its full-frame cousins, but likely won't cause it to perform better than those full-frame bodies by most regards. Anyway, on to the show…
It was pretty tricky at first. The 18-35 and 24-70 focal ranges hardly overlap, and they call for different shooting styles. Also, I hadn't realized just how much I had internalized what settings to use when shooting with an f/2.8 lens. I shot this at 1/50s, 1250ISO. At f/2.8, things would've been fine, if a little hot. At f/1.8, all the highlights were completely blown. Whoops.

On the other hand, the detail in the audience is something I had been struggling to capture with the 24-70, and with this lens, it was pretty much effortless. So there's that.
The key with any wide lens, of course, is to get close to things. Which I found incredibly uncomfortable at first. I like to move around when shooting, but when that's difficult, I look for perches that give me a reasonable view of the crowd and of the stage. As with any perch, though, it's far away from all but a few things. This shot convinced me that I needed to get closer to the stage.
Another crowd shot. This one was 1/30s at f/1.8, 1000ISO, which is pretty far outside the the scope of the 24-70 (at least, without bumping the ISO and losing some of the smoothness of the gradients fading to black). I again love how you get a glimpse of even the people who aren't in the spotlight.
The night ended with a headline performance by Miniature Tigers. During the short opportunity afforded by the changing sets, I made a leap of faith and painted myself into a corner that was way too close to the stage. Of course, way too close turned out to be just the right distance. The 18mm wide end meant that I wasn't as cramped as I would have been with the 24mm, and the position gave me a completely different perspective on the concert.
Even something as simple as having the musicians appear larger in the frame than the audience members is something I've only previously accomplished in outdoor, open-stage concerts. But this lens made it easy simply because it was wide enough to get most of the musician in the frame, and bright enough to capture the faces of the audience-members. I also love the speckles of colored light in the distance — there's enough dynamic range to see some hints of the surroundings.
Sadly, this lens isn't all sunshine and rainbows. The primary drawback is the extremely short focal length range. This photo has the lens racked out to full tele, and it's just not that long. The hole between 18-35 and 70-200 is pretty significant, and there were plenty of times during the concert where my ideal composition would have landed me in that gap. In terms of canonical full-frame focal lengths, I miss the entire 60mm-90mm portrait range.

Also, autofocus is slow. I mean, it's still usable, and I still adjusted to it pretty quickly, but shooting back-to-back with the 24-70 made the difference blindingly obvious. The 24-70 doesn't rack the focus so much as pick a distance and land there — the actual time required for the focus elements to move is almost imperceptible. The 18-35 isn't quite so supernatural — when I focus on something, I watch it come into focus, whereas with the 24-70, the viewfinder starts off blurry and ends up sharp with almost no apparent transition.

All in all, though, I feel like I figured out when it'll come in handy, and what kinds of tradeoffs I'll be making if I slap it on a body. So mission accomplished.

21 August, 2014

Rinse, Repeat

As a reminder, if you enjoy the work I do, please help me to keep producing great images and stories by supporting me on Patreon. Your support will help me to publish higher-quality work with greater frequency than I do right now.

11 August, 2014

Stages of Grief

"Why didn't you make him leave? I told you not to let him stay around here. Why didn't you tell him to leave?"

Watching someone go through the stages of grief gives a glimpse of their hopes and fears; it exposes the humanity that underlies their rational behavior. In this case, I heard the owner (I presume; second from right in the foreground) fluctuate between anger and acceptance.

"Well, at least no one was hurt. We'll be out of business one or two days, but we can afford that." He pointed at the employee he had been interrogating as he continued, "But if this guy got hit…" His voice trailed off. "What's important is that nobody got hurt."
According to other onlookers, the driver of this rental car got confused between the gas and the brake and plowed through the front of the store. And according to the owner, the driver had taken to spending hours upon hours loitering around the convenience store.

When I arrived, the occupants of the vehicle had gotten out, but the vehicle itself was still lodged in the storefront. The tow-truck driver then used his flatbed truck to help disentangle the vehicle from the remains of the store's glass-and-metal fa├žade.

In the photo, a firefighter inspects the front of the car after it was loaded onto the truck.
The group of fire-fighters managed the general safety of the situation. They cautioned onlookers from getting too close, and I believe they shut off power to the building as the car was extricated — in case any electrical lines were damaged during the incident. Afterward, they hung caution tape at the entrances to keep vehicles from entering the somewhat glass-strewn parking lot.
After everyone else had left, the staff began the cleanup process. Within two days, they were back open for business, with a plywood wall in place of the damaged sections of glass. Life goes on…