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Chasing the Cloud City

Yesterday marked 1 year to the day of chasing a dream, or in my case a cloud, and actually catching it.  I thought I had blogged about it last year at this time, but it turns out I did not.  This is my recount of one of the best mornings of my photographic life.

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Who here has seen the Jetson’s?  What’s your lasting memory?  The first thing that comes to mind every time I think of that futuristic cartoon is the way the city seems to rise above the clouds.  And ever since I’ve taken up photography, that is the dreamlike image I’ve been chasing in the city of Pittsburgh.

In pursuit of my dream shot, I’ve become a ravenous weather forecast checker always on the lookout for foggy conditions.  If there’s a chance for fog, I’m going to chase it.  Invariably, though, I’ve had prior commitments when the fog rolls in or the conditions aren’t what I want need (I’m picky, I know!).  The fog either ends up being to high above the city and clips the tops of the buildings or it is so thick that you can’t see the city at all, as in the photos above.

Saturday, January 21, 2017 changed all that…and sent me on the chase of a lifetime.

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The chase began as soon as I left my house.  I knew what the conditions were like in town and drove perhaps a little faster than one should at 4:00 in the morning.  Upon my arrival, I was disappointed at the conditions from the north but a good friend called and told me to get my…well, I let you fill in these blanks…up to Mount Washington.  The city was blanketed in fog and the chase was on.

After about half an hour of shooting the scene you see above, we parted ways…but the chase continued.  I wanted something different and it seemed like every photographer and their mother was out shooting since it was a Saturday, so I took a gamble.  The gamble paid off.  I had a “secret” spot and since it was secret, it was just me, my camera, and a dreamlike landscape that nobody else was capturing.  This next image represents my vision and also my dream…one I’d been chasing for 7 years.  To amplify the dreamy quality, I went with a 5 minute exposure to draw out the motion in the fog and clouds.

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Usually during a photo excursion, I like to stay put at one location.  I’ll work the scene and prepare for what the light of the sunrise wants to give me.  But on this rare occasion, the situation dictated that the chase wasn’t over.  I’d gotten what I wanted from my secret spot so it was back to Mount Washington.

This is where I realized just how many photographers were out, making the need to set myself apart more important than ever.  Sure I could have squeezed in between the ten or so cameras on the Duquesne Incline Overlook, but who wants to see the same shot from 10 different people?  I don’t.  I want to be unique…so I pressed on, and again my gut was right, rewarding me with pleasant results.

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Candidly, this color and cloud formation above is similar to that which would have been seen from the observation deck at the incline, but I was alone in this spot and that makes this unique to me.  That’s a quality a strive for.  I want something unrepeatable, even (dare I say “especially”) if I have to chase it.

As I was shooting from atop the “mountain,”  The wheels in my head continued to spin out of control.  “What if I went to the West End Overlook?  Those clouds to the right of the city that I can’t quite get in to the frame from here would make a perfect ‘V’ pointing right at the city.”  And with that the chase continued.

Before shooting the pink sky, I thought about leaving for the overlook because of that bank of clouds I mentioned.  Upon arrival to the West End, though, I’m glad I didn’t.  The fog was too thick and the city could not be seen.  I’m not sure that’s the case before I arrived, but I had a sure thing from Mount Washington so I played it “safe.”

Four hours after it all started, the chase was finally over…

Or was it?  I don’t like to give up to quickly, and again, the conditions were so rare and I’d been out so long, what was another half an hour?  As it turns out…that half an hour might have been the most important of the morning.  The sun rose above the fog and clouds, illuminating the tops with a texture I’ve only ever seen if photos of fog surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

At this point, I was floating just like the city I was photographing seemed to be.  But alas, the sun rose too high and nearly blinded me as I was composing a shot.  NOW…the chase was over…but not before recording possibly my favorite photograph of the morning and the shot of a lifetime!

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2017 – The Year That Was(n’t)

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     I’m just going to say it:  2017 was not my best or favorite year as a photographer.  Sure there were a few unforgettable experiences including a bucket list moment for me, but by and large I would use two words to sum up my photography throughout this past year:  coast and flat.
     Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Wow, this guy spent time along the flat beaches of the coast, why is he unhappy?”  Pffft.  I wish the beach is what I were describing.  Unfortunately, “coast” and “flat” are adjectives for my creative drive and output for about 11 of last year’s 12 months.
     January started out with such promise.  Endless tiny, white flakes of Inspiration fell from the sky littering the Pittsburgh landscape in a coating of opportunities to create.  I was compelled to seize these moments that were literally, and soon to be figuratively, frozen in time, but in a way unfamiliar to me.  Instead of my usual flirting with twilight blue hours and sunrise/sunset color explosions, I photographed under the cloak of night.  My juices were flowing and the results were favorable, both to me and those who enjoy my work.

DSC_6023 edited final lum mask 010816 c web srgb c web srgbDSC_6161 edited final lum mask 011116 c web srgb c web srgbDSC_6985 edited final lum mask 011317 c web srgb c web srgb     Continue towards the end of January and euphoria presented itself.  I was finally out to see Pittsburgh encapsulated in fog, but only from the river up to about a third of the height of the buildings.  The Jetson-like setting I had been chasing since picking up my first (real) camera was there for the taking.  And take I did.

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     After such an exciting rush of endorphins, exploration, and creativity, I was certain this was going to be THE year.  Enter February.
      February was a mixed bag of sorts.  The extreme highs of seeing my image, The Lonely Leaf, grace the covers of the Official Visitors Guide for the city of Pittsburgh were somewhat countered by the metaphorical pouring down the drain of my photographic mojo juice.
     This is not to say, purely from the perspective of creating new work, that ’17 was a bust.  But if I’m being 100% honest with myself, throughout the rest of the year, a recurring theme emerged:  my want-to and compulsion to get out and create had flatlined, waning to the point of indifference with only less than significant attempts to inspire myself being made. I merely coasted through the remainder of the year.
   I made some solid photos to be sure, which you can see strewn about this post.  Yet, there were no stretches of Inspiration.  I was unable to build on my successes, rather I was complacent and remained satisfied with them.
    Now, this not some shameless reach for compliments or reaffirmation of my art or an attempt to beat myself up in self-loathing.  I am confident in my work and that needs to remain the case, else I’d better give up entirely.  If I don’t believe in my own abilities, then who will besides my wife and parents?  Nobody.  The answer is nobody.
     This is merely a declaration that I AM GOING to do better in 2018 and stating it publicly will be the extra nudge I will need to ensure I hold myself accountable, after all nobody wants to be thought of as a liar.


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It’s said that you shouldn’t stare directly into the sun because it can lead to permanent damage to your eyes. Since my eyes are literally how I make a living and provide for my family, I usually heed this advice, but only if the sun is unobstructed. If the sun is partially blocked, by say a bank of clouds, you get a beautiful array of light beams dancing gently in the sky making their way down to earth. Something so soft and beautiful couldn’t hurt, right?

Up until this past week I would have agreed. Now, I’m not so sure. But it’s not my eyes that I’m worried about. It’s my heart. I’ve heard before, and even said it myself (last night in fact), that those rays of light we see being filtered through the clouds are our loved ones watching over us. If that’s true, and I just might believe that it is, aren’t those very light beams also a reminder to us that our loved ones are no longer with us? Again, that’s true. That hurts. But the pain is temporary.

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If you’ve ever witnessed the scene I’m describing, you know these wonderfully golden rays don’t last very long. They are beautiful. They are intense. They are also fleeting. And for me at this time, perhaps these beams are a most appropriate symbol for the friend – no, brother – I’ve recently lost. His life was beautiful. The impact he had on anyone he ever met was as positively intense as his immense size. And his life, fleeting – a seemingly brief moment, gone at the speed of light. But, unlike the heartache and the light, his impact will be everlasting.

Anyone that ever met him remembered him…and they were better for it. Good journey my brother, until we meet again. And we will meet again.

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Kickstart – Playing in Puddles

As a 31 year old man, you would think my days of playing in puddles would be long behind me.  You would be wrong.  I probably play in the leftover rain more than most toddlers you know.  So I guess that “man” word is not suitable for me.  I suppose, in actuality, I am just a 31 year old kid.  And I’m okay with that.

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I’m okay with being a thirty-something man child because very near the beginning in my journey to becoming a photographer, it was playing in a puddle that taught me an invaluable lesson.  That lesson was one about perspective and just how important it is for creating a compelling image.  If you look at the photo above, my first puddle photo and aptly named “Puddles of Pittsburgh,” it’s pretty clear to see that the skyline of Pittsburgh is being reflected in a puddle.  What’s not so clear is the collection of outtakes I snapped before I was able to get “THE” shot.  Standing in front of the puddle just didn’t do the scene any just or convey the image I had in my mind.  It wasn’t until I got down on all fours, and then eventually flat onto my belly, that I realized I could include a large portion of the buildings in the reflection, creating a much more dynamic and interesting photograph, simply by changing my positioning.  I had discovered there is more to plopping a camera down, snapping a photo, and moving on to the next shot.  Work the scene.  Change positioning.  Change up the perspective.  Get creative.  I had read many books, articles, and essays on composition…but it was that puddle that taught me this most important lesson.

…and as a bonus, here are some of my favorite puddle photos:

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Persistence and the end of summer – POTD

Labor Day has come and gone.  Summer doesn’t officially end until September 22, but for most Labor Day is the unofficial end of what many consider their favorite season of the year.  I, again like many folks, equate the summer with the beach.  Right, wrong, or indifferent….that’s what I do.  And it occurred to me just this morning that on all my social media platforms, this blog included, I’ve neglected to share a single beach scene or any non-Pittsburgh photo that just screamed summer.  Perhaps that’s because, for the first time and years, I visited zero beaches.  None.  Zip, zilch, zero.  But that’s okay.  I had an awesome trip to Disney World, took a nice long weekend family trip to Ohio, and had a couple trips to Washington, D.C. sprinkled in there as well.  They were all great times and in many ways they were better than a trip to the shore.  All that being said, though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share a photo from the beach.  So with no further ado, please have a look at my absolute favorite beach scene I’ve ever photographed.  Persistence North Myrtle Beach South Carolina Ocean Sunrise c web blog srgb

The above scene was taken at the inlet at the border of North and South Carolina in Cherry Grove, Myrtle Beach.  Each morning the tide would fill the inlet and upon its retreat create some of the most amazing, intricate, and unique patters in the sand I’ve ever seen.  I can’t wait to get back…who knows – maybe a fall beach trip is in order!

Adams Falls – POTD

After a heavy rain or the spring melt, this rock in the foreground is normally covered in water.  It was relatively dry this weekend allowing for some unique and intimate photo ops.

After a heavy rain or the spring melt, this rock in the foreground is normally covered in water. It was relatively dry this weekend allowing for some unique and intimate photo ops.

Adams Falls in Ricketts Glen is the lowest waterfall in the park.  It’s not the smallest drop, it is just the lowest in elevation.  It doesn’t lie on the Falls Loop Trail where the vast majority of the major falls can be found.  It’s actually quite easy to get to which is surprising in a sense because I always that the most beautiful places where the most difficult to get to 😛

Upon doing some research on Ricketts Glen upon my return from my trip, I learned that the flow of Kitchen Creek was actually quite low.  The lines in the rocks you see in my photo are only visible with the water level is low.  Most of the photos I’ve seen of this location, in fact, feature a heavier flow.  More water falling would mean that I would not be able to catch this perspective.  While shooting, I never had thought about the water level being higher and how it would effect my camera placement and setup, but looking forward I’m excited for a heavier rainfall so I can explore some new compositions.

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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