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KICKSTART – Switching it up at the Zoo

I spend a LOT of time at the zoo.  On average, I visit once per month.  That number used to be roughly three times per month, but alas, life has a way of getting in the way.  It was at the Pittsburgh Zoo that I really found my calling as a photographer.  Before I was hired for my first full time out job out of college, I’d spend countless hours at each exhibit (with an extended period of time at the big cats) just staring and snapping, staring and snapping.

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The type of image I was, and still am, after is just like the one you see above: a nice, tight image of the subject animal with zero indication that the photo was taken at a zoo.  The snow provides a natural, realistic backdrop for this amur leopard which lives in snowy regions of Russia.  It’s a fantastic photo, but for me, it sort of felt like a been there done that moment.  I needed to switch things up to get out of a creative rut.  But how?

I continued on through the zoo, still searching for a theme or idea.  Doing what I normally do in the winter time when it’s cold, I headed to the aquarium to breeze through the exhibits and warm up a bit.  To my delight, it was empty without another soul to be seen.  I won’t get in to all of the technicals of my shots, but suffice it to say that being alone gave me a lot of freedom, and time, to work on some techniques for shooting through the glass of the exhibits.  I’m very pleased with the end results and next time, I might not heed the advice of our absent minded fish friend, Dory.  I won’t just keep swimming.  I’ll wait then shoot, wait then shoot.  And hopefully I’ll swim away with some winners!

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KICKSTART – I Freeze So You Don’t Have To

One of the most common themes I notice this time of year is that people DO NOT like the snow and ice.  The reasons might vary, and to some degree, I agree.  Most of us don’t like the seemingly inherent danger that follows the cold weather.  Roads become treacherous if not treated properly or proactively, and if the snow (or ice) is significant enough, any amount of preparation and treatment may well end up being futile.  It’s easy to see why this would be a reason to wish away the cold and relocate to Florida.

Living in Pittsburgh, where winter -and certainly snow – are not a new concept, it can be very easy to become annoyed with snow.  If you look out your window and see falling snow, it’s almost a guarantee that you can jump on your Facebook Newsfeed and see no less than 37 memes and complaints about “people not not knowing how to drive” and “this is Pittsburgh, it’s snowed here before.”

You’ll also see even more dramatization about the amount of snow that’s going to fall and gripes about how the weatherman is NEVER right.  I try to give the meteorologists the benefit of the doubt – they are trying to predict the future, after all – but I don’t think they do themselves any favors by naming every storm.  And monikers such as “Snowzilla” and “Snowmageddon” don’t help, but I don’t believe those names come from the news stations.  Regardless of where the names originate, Facebook certainly does not help contain Snowzilla’s icy breath from causing the next Snowmageddon.  So, yes, Facebook drama queens and lousy traveling conditions allow me to sympathize with the winter haters.

My sympathies end there, though.  My disdain, if you can even call it that, for winter does not begin or end with the cold, snow, and ice.  It’s merely the other people that dislike it so much that they can do nothing but be bitter about it that causes me to sometimes, and only sometimes, wish the snow would melt.

In all actuality, I embrace the biting temperatures and the frozen stuff that falls from the sky.  To me, there’s no beauty like looking out at a scene with a blanket of untouched, pristine snow.  Walking along, listening to the subtle crunch of snow beneath my feet with my camera in tow…well that is euphoria for me and I forget about the cold.

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I forget about the cold, that is, until the mercury busts through the bottom of the thermometer.  Even when that happens, though, there’s a good chance you can find me playing near the banks of the rivers in the city.  See, when it gets to be so cold that the rivers, mostly the Allegheny River, freeze I find the patterns, lines, and shapes make for amazing compositional elements in my photographs.  This ice usually lasts more than a day also, and even though the it’s seemingly solid and static, the patterns are pretty dynamic which allows for unique photos with each visit, even if I stand in the exact same spot.

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Usually, inclement weather is a detriment to my photos along the rivers because I almost always try to incorporate reflections for added interest.  But if it’s windy and choppy, the reflections are nil and that can make for a dull subject and photograph.  Frozen rivers, though, provide patterns, shapes, and lines that negate the need for a reflection.  They serve as an interesting foreground and lead you right to the subject of the image.  If the skyline is reflected in the ice or unfrozen patches of water, then that makes the image even stronger.  Not needing calm waters expands the amount of “worthwhile” time I can spend on the shores and adds endless possibilities to what I can create.  So I say bring on the snow and ice.

Now I’m not saying winter is a season without its drawbacks or that it doesn’t get unbearably cold out there.  It does.  It gets really, really cold.  But I feel, when I’m not numb from head to toe, that after a freshly fallen snow, there’s too much beauty to be seen out there to stay inside.  If I’ve yet to show you enough to convince you to take a winter excursion yourself, well the cause might be hopeless.  So just cuddle up next to the fire with a nice glass of wine or mug of hot chocolate, and take a trip into the cold through my eyes.  Let me show you what most choose not to experience.  Let me freeze so you don’t have to.

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KICKSTART 10 – This or That?

A lot of time while I’m out shooting, I take several exposures of the same scene.  Well, actually, almost ALL the time I do this.  I don’t just trip the shutter repeatedly, though, hoping that something changes and creates a meaningful impact that otherwise wasn’t visible in the previous exposure.  Obviously there are variables I can’t control like weather or a stray airplane, animal, or pedestrian inevitably entering the frame.  When that happens, I need to wait a moment for the extraneous element to leave and continue shooting.  I try to concern myself with the variables I can change.  Shutter speed, aperture, perspective, and the use of filters are just a few of the variables I employ regularly to add an extra element or bit of flare to an otherwise static scene.  Most often a change in perspective provides the most dramatic boost to a photo, but you can achieve greatly different photos with simple change such as a longer exposure.

PHOTO 1 - This 13 second exposure retains much of the detail in the fog as it rolls into the city.

PHOTO 1 – This 13 second exposure retains much of the detail in the fog as it rolls into the city.

PHOTO 2 - Taken just two minutes after photo 1, this is a 130 second exposure.

PHOTO 2 – Taken just two minutes after photo 1, this is a 130 second exposure.

Take the photos above, for example.  These two photos were taken roughly two minutes apart.  The camera never moved from the tripod, the position remained 100% constant.  The ONLY setting that changed with these photos was the shutter speed.  Photo 1 was a 13 second exposure while Photo 2 was ten 13 second exposures stacked in camera to create a 130 second exposure.  You’ll notice that in Photo 1, even though it is a long exposure, the fog is pretty well defined with a lot of mid tone contrast.  There is a pretty clear delineation in the wall of fog moving into the city.  It feels a bit ominous and foreboding.  Photo 2, conversely, has a more smooth look to the wall of fog and the clouds above.  The reflections in the river are also less defined.  Overall the photo has a more pleasing mood to it, in my opinion at least.  I’d like to know how you feel.  Which photo do you like better?  Please take the poll below and also please feel free to explain your pick in the comments!

KICKSTART 9 – Filter Fun

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Last week I set out for my Monday session for my Kickstart Post.  For reasons beyond my understanding, lately I’ve gravitated to Mount Washington.  To say this location is overdone is not necessarily inaccurate but there is a reason people flock here…it’s one hell of a view.  Since I like to have a theme for these posts and I get questions pretty frequently about my processes, both shooting and processing, I thought I’d make this latest installment an example about one of the tools I use in the field.  That tool is the Graduated Neutral Density Filter.  This will be a brief synopsis of the particular filter I used for the photo above.

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In the photo above, you will notice a dramatic difference in the exposure in the sky.  Different shutter speeds, right?  Negative.  If you look at the skyline and the foreground of both photos, you will see they are pretty evenly exposed.  So how is the sky darker in the second image?  I used a Graduated Neutral Density Filter (ND Grad).  Without getting into too much detail,  an ND Grad filter is clear, neutral glass on the bottom which, halfway up the filter, gradually transitions to an opaque but still neutral coating which blocks the transmission of light to the camera’s sensor for that part of the image.  More simply stated, it effectively makes the image darker for the portion covered by the top of the filter.

Again, referencing the example, I used a .9 (3 stop) ND Grad filter.  You’ll notice that the camera settings are identical for each photo yet the sky is dramatically different.  The 1/8 second exposure is good for the foreground but the sky is entirely too bright and the highlights are overblown.  After placing the filter on, I kept the exposure at 1/8 second but since the light for the top image was “blocked” by 3 stops, the effective exposure is actually 1/64 second keeping the detail in the sky.

This may sound very technical, but Graduated Neutral Filter are quite simple to use.  Consequently, I’ve toyed with the idea of teaching a workshop for beginners in photography where we will explore the basics of exposure, composition, and filters.  The workshop would likely be in Pittsburgh and would focus on the skyline.  Below I’ve included a poll – please take a moment to let me know if you might be interested in a photography workshop led by me.  (Time of year has not been decided and would likely be based on interest)

KICKSTART 8 – In A Fog

Last Monday seems like a blur.  It was a whirlwind of activity and a morning of shooting unlike most mornings for me.  Typically I don’t like to jump around from location to location (in the same morning or evening) trying to find that perfect spot for a photo.  I like to set up shop, move around within that spot, and take advantage of the conditions before me.  Sometimes, though, I need to change things up a bit and that’s what this Kickstart series is for me – breaking norms, exploring new ideas and concepts, and getting outside of my comfort zone a bit.  Monday provided me with just that opportunity.

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Upon waking up, I checked the conditions outside my office window at home.  Fog.  Awesome!  I grabbed my gear and headed out the door.  Within a mile from home the fog was gone and I thought the morning would be foiled before it even started.  Luckily, by the time the city was in my sights, I couldn’t see it!  A nice blanket of fog was covering the skyline.  I had a feeling Mount Washington would not provide much in terms of photos as the fog was higher up and pretty dense.  I began my morning there anyway and I was right.  Upon my arrival, the twilight fog was impervious.  Nothing was visible more than a hundred feet or so in front of me.

Dense twilight fog blankets the city, blocking any view of the skyline.

Dense twilight fog blankets the city, blocking any view of the skyline.

I mentioned I don’t like to jump around too, too much during sessions.  Well after this sight, I knew that would have to change.  If I stayed in this spot, I’d have a camera full of the same scene and who wants to see that?  Not me and I bet you  don’t either.  So I jumped in my car and headed down to the Duquesne Incline.  Nothing to see there as I suspected – in fact I never even took a photo from the overlook.  Back to the car for the next location.  I flew down PJ McCardle and down into Station Square.  I stopped by my favorite spot along the train tracks, but again the fog was too dense and I couldn’t catch any skyline.  The Smithfield Street Bridge was my backup plan to the tracks and luckily, it didn’t disappoint.  The fog was thick but not impenetrable so I was able to hop up on the Median and snag a few frames.  The buses flying by combined with a long exposure allowed me to catch some nifty light trails to complement/contrast with the moodiness somewhat invisible skyline.

Buses flying past and long shutter speeds create an interesting dynamic to an already moody view from the Smithfield Street Bridge.

Buses flying past and long shutter speeds create an interesting dynamic to an already moody view from the Smithfield Street Bridge.

Next on the plate was…wait for it…Mount Washington.  Yes, I went back.  I’ve had a shot in mind for years and I was hoping to get it.  The conditions weren’t right and you still couldn’t see anything so I was thwarted again.  Oh well.  I’ll catch some day and share it all with you.  Since the mountain was a bust, I headed low again to my favorite spot…the North Shore.  This is where I hit my stride and found some success.  I started between the Clemente and Warhol Bridges shooting above and along the dock at water level.  Conditions were pretty nice and I was able to snag a few good photos.

The reflections were nice, the fog was perfect, and the foreground bollards and chained mirrored the shape of the bridges nicely.

The reflections were nice, the fog was perfect, and the foreground bollards and chained mirrored the shape of the bridges nicely.

Even along the North Shore, though, I jumped around more than usual.  I hit a couple spots that I like to frequent up along the Sister Bridges that I enjoy.  The rocky shore along the Allegheny provides an awesome foreground and makes it feel more like a landscape photo than a cityscape.

 

The rocks along the shore provide a nice natural element to the urban scene.

The rocks along the shore provide a nice natural element to the urban scene.

A four image panoramic captures both the Warhol and Rachel Carson bridges.

A four image panoramic captures both the Warhol and Rachel Carson bridges.

For my last spot, I jumped down across from Heinz Field to incorporate the fountain.  The river was very calm as I snapped the first photo featuring the fountain.  As luck would have it, after that the wind picked up and the still reflections were nothing but a memory caught in one photograph.  I kept working the scene, though, and incorporated some of the flowers along the river walk.  I got some strange looks since I was basically standing in the tall patch of weeds, but I didn’t care.  All in all, it was a fantastic morning of shooting.  I’d been waiting for 3 years for fog like this and it didn’t disappoint.

The calm waters provided the perfect setting for a foggy reflection of the fountain and Fort Pitt Bridge.  Anybody else see an outline of a fish?!

The calm waters provided the perfect setting for a foggy reflection of the fountain and Fort Pitt Bridge. Anybody else see an outline of a fish?!

Summer blooms along the North Shore provide a nice contrast to the fog blanketing the city.

Summer blooms along the North Shore provide a nice contrast to the fog blanketing the city.

 

KICKSTART 7 – Visitors From Asgard

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One of the things I like to do with this blog is give a little bit of insight into who I am beyond photography.  Each tidbit I share ultimately plays a minor role in my actual photographs, the inspiration behind the name of a photo or series of photos, the story of behind the photo, or the story it makes me want to tell.  Today’s little tidbit is that I am a big comic book dork, specifically Marvel Comics.  Wolverine is my favorite superhero but I enjoy all the X-Men comics.  I’m also a big fan of Spiderman and the Avengers too.  If you don’t know anything about superheroes and I’ve lost you already, you can give my wife a call.  The two of you can sympathize together because I guarantee she’s lost too.  In fact, she refers to all superheroes as “X-Mans” because she can’t tell them apart.  She thinks it frustrates me but deep down I think she knows how cute I think it is.  But I digress…

What does any of this have to do with photography and how do fictional heroes relate?  We’ll get there soon, I promise, but for now just a bit more back story.  Last month some wild storms came through the city of Pittsburgh.  It’s always been a goal of mine to capture some excellent streaks of lightning over the skyline.  It was my number one “bucket list shot” in terms of Pittsburgh photography.  I’ve made several attempts but to no avail.  My next opportunity came late one evening last month.  I got a call at 11PM while I was sound asleep.  Much to my chagrin, I answered.  Barely.  On the other line was my cousin, “JP, work can’t wait.  The lightning is going crazy!”  Begrudgingly I got my hind end out of bed and headed out the door.  Luckily I keep my camera bag packed and batteries charged for just such an “emergency” situation.  I spent  the evening and wee hours of the morning atop Mount Washington with my camera set up watching the clouds illuminate ever 2 to 3 seconds.  It was really cool but there was one problem.  All the strikes were about 30 miles north and completely blocked by the clouds.  Another unsuccessful opportunity.

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Luckily for me though, I’m persistent.  The very next day more storms were being called for.  I was in town just leaving the Pirates game when I saw a few flashes of lightning.  Aha!  I called my wife and let her know I’d probably be home later than planned and headed back up the mountain.  I staked out the perfect spot and got my camera situated with the right settings, the perfect composition, and a rain sleeve.  I was expecting the best but prepared for the worst.  Guess which one I got!  A few strikes behind me really lit up the clouds and building nicely.  Before the lightning moved over the city, though, sheets and sheets of rain fell upon me.  My camera was mostly protected but I just couldn’t risk my gear.  I was packed up ready to head home when the worst really happened.  I shut my back car door and my wedding ring flew off!  It was dark and raining terribly.  I knew the ring had rolled into gutter where the water was rushing rapidly towards the sewer.  Right about then I started wishing I myself were a superhero.  What powers would I need?  X-ray vision to help me spot the ring?  Maybe.  Super-human strength to smash through the grate to get into the sewer?  Probably.  The ability to control metal with magnetism?  That would likely help.  Deep down, though, I knew I’d need Wolverine’s power.  See Wolverine has the power to heal himself and I knew that would be most helpful because, well, my wife was going to KILL ME!  Out into the rain I went.  I was soaked, absolutely soaked.  After 1o minutes of looking in the gutter, under my car, under the car in front me, and in the middle of the road I was ready to give up.  I got down on my belly one last time and looked up the road.  There it was!  Sitting right next to my car.  Apparently in the moment I dropped the ring I did have they ability to control metal because there is no other explanation on how a round object dropped on a downward slope doesn’t roll anywhere!  I wasn’t complaining though.

By this point, I was sopping wet and that wasn’t changing anytime soon.  I really had no other choice but to stay out and give another shot at catching those lightning bolts.  I’d been through so much already, what was the worst that could happen, short of electrocution?  This is when the best happened.  The rain tapered off and the lightning moved right on in.  It was the most intense and beautiful display of nature’s power I’ve ever witnessed in person.  I stood there, sopping wet, but happy as could be.  Every few seconds there were bolts, not just one but many bolts of lightning stretching out across the entire sky.  I’d open the shutter, review the image, the click then shutter again for the next bolt which I knew would be coming soon.  The best of the evening are below, and if you look closely you might just see an unsuspected visitor.  A visitor from Asgard, a world very far from here.  A world home to Avenger and Norse God of Thunder.  A world home to the mighty THOR!

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KICKSTART 5 – In Memorium

Greetings from the happiest place on earth – Walt Disney World.  I love this place and it really does make me happy like no place other can.  As you know today is Monday so that means it is Kickstart Monday.  Seeing as today is Memorial Day, I’d like to do something a bit different and take a moment to thank our troops, past and present, who’ve fought to make our nation the greatest in the world.  It is because of them that I can take this vacation as free man.  Free of tyranny, free of persecution, and free to do the things I choose to do.  To that end, I would like to share some of my photos that honor those who’ve served and especially those who’ve fallen.  Accompanying the photos is also one of my favorite quotes, patriotic or otherwise.

“It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.”

-Charles M. Province

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