Sunday, June 29, 2008

One step closer....

Over the past 2 years, I've strived to improve my photography. There was always something about landscape photos that I never got right... I could never produce a landscape photo that had any kind of... feeling it in. Not even gorgeous sunsets or sun rises out in Death Valley... I guess the photos never told a story, there was no connection. People always say you have to "feel" the environment, and love for what you are photographing to produce powerful images. While I certainly enjoyed all the beautiful vistas I've seen... I still wasn't able to quite capture the mood of the scene. This is one reason landscape photography has never been my favorite....
So a few weeks ago I was up in Mountain View for a training course and decided to go out on a photo walk with some friends after work one day. They picked Half Moon bay saying the cloud cover of the coast will provide stunning sunsets, and who can say no to that. I had my doubts as we headed out... the cloud cover looked really thick over the ocean and I figured we wouldn't see much of anything. We made a few quick stops along the way on PCH. I didn't get much out of those stops, a few so so images, but mostly I wasn't feeling very inspired. I did, however, get a nice portrait of myself by one of my friends, an heroic portrait as he calls it.
From Photo Walk at San Gregorio State Beach

We made our final stop at San Gregorio state beach, just south of Half Moon Bay. The sun was quickly descending towards the horizon by this point and we really only had about 10 mins to get ready before the "golden hour". Since both of my companions shoot RAW, I decided to start shooting RAW for some of the photos as well, figured I'd give it another try. Most of my previous RAW photos turned out well, I just didn't have the time (or desire) to do that much post processing to play around with the RAW files. Heck, how often do I get to come to Half Moon Bay to view a potentially stunning sunset? Almost never right... time to bite the bullet and shoot RAW :).

While the sun hasn't quite gotten to the horizon yet, it was behind a thick layer of clouds (but it was perfectly clear overhead) so I figured I'd change the white balance to tungsten or fluorescent to give the clear part of the sky a nice deep blue look. A lot of the beach goers have packed up and started going home when I snapped this shot
From Photo Walk at San Gregorio State Beach

This was shot in RAW so I did a little bit of post on it, making the blue stand out a bit more. I really like the story of this photo... and how lonely it feels. Just a lone silhouette along the beach, walking home. From a more technical perspective, I am not sure if I should have cropped out the log on the bottom. The original photo actually had even more space along the bottom and top and I wanted to crop it a little so its tighter and focus on the silhouette more. I didn't want to cut out the logs because I was worried the composition would become too symmetrical and too boring, but as it stands now, the log is a little distracting so maybe it would be best to cut it out but keep rule of thirds or something. I think I just didn't want to cut out the bottom because I like the color of the water reflection.

From Photo Walk at San Gregorio State Beach

This was also shot in RAW. I set the picture style to "landscape" (Canon thing) and it seemed to really add more punch to the blue. I also manually adjusted the RGB a little and added more contrast. The end result looks very post processed, almost "flickr" like I think. But at the same time, I love the darkness and the texture of the clouds, adds a bit of drama to the photo. The blue feel also makes it feel that much more surreal. I'm usually not much on post processing, but I really like the result for this photo.

From Photo Walk at San Gregorio State Beach

In addition to playing with RAW, I actually gave HDR a try. I've never been a big fan of HDR... almost thought it was "fake"... but it definitely can produce stunning images. At this point, the sunset was just so amazing... the sun was right on the horizon where the clouds were a bit thinner and made the entire horizon bright yellow/orange. The wind swept the clouds towards land creating long beautiful strands. It also thinned the clouds just enough for the sun to light up patches of the sky... the lagoon in front of me was perfectly still forming this beautiful mirror reflecting all the beauty above. It was such a serene and breath-taking view... I just thought what the heck... I have to try HDR now. The dynamic range in the scene wasn't that great, but HDR could certainly help enhance the details in both the sky and the darker reflection. I hope the end result doesn't look too fake... I honestly can't tell anymore since this is all I can remember... in my mind's eye, the sunset really just looked like that and was really THAT stunning and dramatic.

I finally felt like I'm one step closer in the search for the perfect photo... one step closer in taking photos that evoke some kind of emotional response. It is unfortunate that I used HDR to make that step, but it's all part of the learning process. As long as I don't depend on HDR, it should be fine :). The journey is just beginning and I have the rest of my life to explore photography and hopefully find that one shot I can define myself with... that one perfect shot.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Photo Club assignment 1

Recently we started a photo club at work, and we decided to start handing out assignments for people to do and then come back together to discuss the photos and just have fun.

The first assignment was for us to take 12 photos of one subject (it must be smaller than a car, but larger than a breadbox). The subject must be stationary and the photographer must be the one moving around. The idea is to get people to explore different views/angles. So often people just approach a subject, snap a shot, and walk away (i.e. getting out of their car at a vista point and snap one shot assuming there is only 1 shot worth taking). Eye level (roughly 5-6 ft) is the most boring perspective and is one you should try to avoid normally (but people are lazy...). Next time you come across a subject to photograph, try above, below (as close to the ground as possible), close, far, something different, you'll be amazed at how refreshing it can be.

My subject was my favorite (and most expensive....) lens, the Canon EF 70-200 2.8 IS lens. This probably wasn't my first choice in subject, but it worked out none the less. I knew I wanted to get some close up shots of the lens, the writing on it, the different controls, etc (which I did get, but nothing amazing there). I then realized a major flaw in my subject.... it is a cylinder! No matter how I walk around it, it looks practically the same! I had to cheat a little bit and move the lens around and thats when I started having more fun...

This is probably my favorite shot from the entire set. I had this shot in mind when I first thought of using a lens as my subject but I didn't know how it'd turn out. I was really surprised that you can get it to focus so clearly in the center while blurring everything else around it so its a nice creamy background. The fact that the image was inverted was definitely a pleasant surprise... I had no idea but I guess it makes sense ;). I've only looked through this thing while its on a camera through the view finder, it is definitely a different experience to look through it through another lens :). The window screen also ended up helping the image quite a bit I think. When blurred, it adds a bit of texture and makes the center focused part just look... different. Not quite sure how to explain it :).

And finally here is the Canon "cannon". I like the distortion effect, making the lens look much bigger than it actually is (well, maybe not "much" :)). I just like the feeling of it pointing outwards... looking over the neighborhood.

Rest of the photos available here: I had a lot of fun doing the assignment and thought everyone else's photos turned out really well too. Now I'm excited about assignment two...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Half of photography is just luck...

Thanks to a friend's suggestion/encouragement, I've decided to start blogging again... this time it'll focus around photos and photography in general... I don't think my photos are good enough to warrant blogging about, but I'll at least try to describe my thought process, places I've been, lessons learned and whatever else I see. If nothing else, it'll document my journey over time as I think I've changed a lot over the past 2 years when I first picked up my SLR. Hopefully I can keep this up longer instead of just forgetting about it :).

I've recently started a photo club at work in Santa Monica. We'll be doing bi-weekly assignments together and hopefully learn from each other. Some people were intimidated by the idea of a photo club thinking it'll be filled with professionals with their big SLRs, and I had to reassure them that equipment does not matter. I've seen some amazing shots taken by simple point and shoots. Personally I believe there are 3 factors that make up a good photograph:

40% is skill of the photographer... this includes basic techniques and understanding how to use your camera.
10% is the equipment... this might be a bit high, but the equipment is really an enabler in some cases, it makes certain shots that much easier to get.

The rest... 50% of it is pure luck. Sometimes, you just have to be at the right place at the right time and let mother nature do the rest.

Looking back at some of the photos I've taken the past 6 months or so... I think the majority of my photos falls in the luck category.

Case in point: This photo is quickly becoming one of my favorite photos. I think it is more or less pure luck... we were on a trip to KenTing (southern most part of Taiwan) when we just decide to pull over at some random run down beach. At the time I knew that you can make some interesting photos with this old fish net so I intentionally tried to include it while my mom avoided it like a plague. But I had no idea how much I'd like the image until after I snapped the first shot and realized I had found something really cool and decided to snap a few more shots, trying harder to compose it but nothing beat the original shot. I've since framed this shot up on my wall now and no matter how many times I look at it, it still fills me with a sense of joy. In the end, it was pure luck that I got this photo... if we had stopped at the beach 30 mins earlier, the light wouldn't have been the same and it just wouldn't have worked... the sky was also perfect in my opinion... a bit ominous with the clouds but still clear enough for the blue to shine through. The golden light of the setting (but not yet set) sun, the empty beach, everything just came together for me.
Of course sometimes it takes a lot of practice to get the shot just the way you want it, I guess that's why people call it painting with light. This is by far the most complex (and maybe the most technically challenging) photo I've ever taken. I'm shooting straight into the sun here which means that the foreground would be completely black if I don't use a flash. I decided to use a wide angle lens to try to exaggerate the size of the cactus and make it stand out even more. Once I got the composition more or less the way I wanted, then came the hard part: balancing ambient light with flash. Thanks to the strobist ( seminar I went to earlier this year, I knew exactly what I had to do. Normally The exposure is affected by both the shutter speed and aperture; but things are a bit different when using a flash. The amount of the flash that gets captured is purely determined by the aperture... the wider the aperture (smaller the F value) the more of the flash you'll capture along with ambient light. This means that you can increase the shutter speed to capture less ambient light without affecting the flash (well... sort of but that's a different story). After a few quick test shots in manual mode, I decided to set the shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second so that I can still get some color in the background but that it is dark enough to not draw attention away from the cactus (apparently I should have paid more attention since that sun is still too bright). At 1/1000th of a second, I had to put my flash into high speed sync mode which meant that it had less power/reach but that was fine. I was only like 2 feet away from the cactus anyways. I didn't want the light from the flash to spill too much on the foreground so I decided to point the flash (on camera flash) away and use a few business cards to act as my mini-reflector. I forget the exact flash setting but the aperture was set at f5.0 so just take a few test shots to determine the right power output for the flash. Overall, I am extremely happy with the shot and the mood that the dark background sets up. If I had to do it again, I'd definitely take the flash off the camera and use a snoot or something to direct the flash better. Oh well :).
And finally, sometimes you DO need the equipment... Having the ability to shoot 5 frames per second meant that I got 5 or 6 shots to pick from... also having a 200mm lens also really helps with the composition :). But I think this is really a rare case. And you can definite still get good action shots with any camera, it is just a bit harder.

I'm a firm believer that the equipment does not make the photographer... you can have thousands of dollars in equipment and still take the crappiest photos (hm....) while someone with a point and shoot can still take award winning photos. As people say, it's the machine behind the camera that matters the most. People might not believe me looking at the gear that I carry around everyday... to be honest a part of me regret the path I've chosen. I definitely don't recommend people to do what I did i.e. buy 4 or 5 lens all within 3 months of buying the SLR as a complete beginner. I wish I had held off and just gone with one kit lens to really learn how to shoot photos... but like most guys... I just like to buy new toys :). In the end, I got lucky and all the lenses I bought 2 years ago I still use religiously today (some more than others) but I've definitely gotten good mileage out of each one and they've enabled me to take shots that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. In the end, just keep shooting, a lot, and look at your photos to see which ones you liked better and try to figure out why. Digital film is free, just keep shooting, try different angles, low, high, close, far, left, right, and experiment, do something out of the box; the most boring perspective is roughly 5 or 6 ft at eye level. But most importantly, have fun! I know I certainly did the past two years.