Upon arrival to the Smithfield Street Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh, the rain had stopped and the sun began to rise…slowly, but quickly enough that time was of the essence. The color was peak and fading fast.
Scouring the bridge for a pleasing composition, I noticed a puddle on the center median of the bridge. Not being one to shy away from a precarious perch, I crossed the inbound lane of the bridge, only slightly illegally, to go play in the water. Laying on the ground in a puddle to catch a unique reflection has kind of been my thing since 2011 and I’ve only been mistaken for a homeless vagrant 7 or 8 times. In fact, as the story goes, that’s how I made my first dollar as a photographer. While walking along the North Shore, some lovely, kind soul had pity upon me, the face-down-on-the-ground-in-a-puddle photographer, and tossed a few bucks on my back so I could grab a bite to eat when I came to.
But I digress. Back to “Maze” and the near tragedy.
Crossing the traffic and dodging speeding buses was a challenge, sure. But squeezing my larger than average frame on to a smaller than average bridge median proved to almost be the end of me. Or at least my leg which was hanging off the side of the median as said incoming bus was whizzing by. ‘JP Diroll – Risking Limbs For Your Art since 2017’ has a nice ring to it, yes? Monty Python and the Holy Grail anyone?
Unfortunately for me, the tale had not yet concluded. Mr. Bus Driver that almost took off my leg must have been pretty ticked at me. Although it can’t be proven, we (myself and the two friends on the bridge with me) are 137% certain the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police received an anonymous tip from him that “5” people were hanging out on the bridge. Illegally. Uh-Oh.
Now, I’m not saying I should have been on the bridge, specifically the middle of it. I shouldn’t have. But come on, ‘5 people.’ I’m a big guy, but as big as 3 adults. Low blow Mr. Bus Driver, why you gotta be so mean?
So there it is. I did not lose a limb. I did not lose any days, hours, or even minutes as a free man. But I DID gain one hell of a photo, a slightly exaggerated story, and a lifelong memory!
The full moon is a wonderful event to photograph. Something about watching it rise fills me with energy and curiosity. Even when I don’t plan to photograph the moon, I love to watch, often from the back window of my home, as it crests the horizon,
When I do photograph the celestial event, though, I like to have an idea and a plan to execute the idea. But you know what they say about the best laid plans…
Usually, my plan involves getting to the spot I’ve chosen no less than an hour before the man in the moon is set to show his face. Sometimes, this early arrival spells trouble for my plan. See, as much vigor as the thought of creating a new moon shot fills me with, the idea of waiting turns me into my four year old daughter. She doesn’t like to sit still, and I don’t like it very much lately either, so my mind wanders. Then I do.
For this latest moon adventure, I realized this is probably not a bad thing.
The photo above is an older photo, taken in 2015 from the West End Bridge in Pittsburgh. I was hoping to recreate it, but do it better. And had everything gone to plan, I would have walked away with a nice, solid image that would have probably made a lovely print. But it wouldn’t have been different. I wanted to make something different and I bet that’s what you want to see to!
So I abandoned my plan and let my mind wander.
First, my right brain took charge, allowing creativity to also wander. A lot of “what ifs” charged through my mind. That’s when I noticed the lovely light on the railing in front of me. Bingo! “I’ll work with this until the moon rises in 30 minutes,” I told myself.
This is when my left brain kicked in and started firing on all cylinders, bringing out that engineer in me that I often keep hidden. I must have analyzed every spot on the bridge for a good 100 yards, trying seemingly endless combinations to make sure the city would be framed perfectly by the railing. Finally I found my spot.
Then the Mr. Moon showed up, close to where I knew it would rise, but the composition wasn’t right. There went that plan again. Good thing I didn’t give the right brain the rest of the night off. Now that the moon was present, I had all of the pieces of the puzzle and I just needed to put them together.
After one hour and fifteen minutes of tinkering – an inch up, three railing supports to the left, back up half a foot – it all came together and this was the final photo:
It’s DEFINITELY different but still reflective of my style (if I have such a thing) and it was more challenging to create than the original concept, which makes the final image that much more rewarding.
DETAILS ABOUT THE IMAGE
Thank you for making it this far. If you like the final image and want some more details, this is the place for you.
1 – THE MOON – obviously, the moon was critical in the image. Not just including it, but framing it as well.
2 – FRAMING – the framing was the single most important part of the image. Not just the composition and concept, but the actual spacing of the building between the railing. Notice the Gulf Building on the left – dead center of the railings. The US Steel Tower and the new PPG tower equally spaced from the railing as well.
Keeping the balance in the image and preventing the buildings from intersecting the bridge, all while keeping the moon centered too proved to be quite the challenge, thus the nearly hour of tinkering with the camera and tripod to get everything lined up perfectly
3 – SHARPNESS – because I photographed this with a telephoto lens and only few feet from the railing, getting the entire scene to be in sharp focus in on frame wasn’t an option. So I did an exposure with the focus on the railing and a second immediately after, focused on the buildings. I combined them in Photoshop for maximum depth of field.
So there you have it, a little backstory to what’s probably my favorite image of the year. I hope you enjoyed the photo and the recount of how it was created.
In life, they say it’s good to have a plan, a strategy to help achieve the goals or tasks we set for ourselves. I wholeheartedly agree. Without a plan, I all too often find myself orbiting around my own brain wondering what to do next. Having a step by step, actionable list of things to do is helpful to me and essential to keeping me focused and on task.
But that’s really only feasible from the business side of my photography, not the artistic and creative side. Sure, when a sunrise needs to be prepared for, many things can be mapped out and counted upon. I know the sun WILL come up and I know WHERE it will rise. I know the bridge that I want to photograph or make photos from will be there, potholes and all, because hey, this is Pittsburgh. But there are factors that are beyond control. Traffic getting to the city, complete drear and cloud cover (again…Pittsburgh), or my 6 month old baby needing me at 6AM so I’m late for the sunrise are a few that spring to mind. These circumstances render a plan completely useless, causing photography to often take on “take what you’re given” mentality.
Often times, this take what you’re given approach ends up feeling a concession. You can’t get what you planned or hoped for so you settle for something different and presumably not as good. In my experience though, different is better than good.
Other times, luck prevails, the weather cooperates, and the stars align. Or in my case, the planets do.
The weather in Pittsburgh this last week of January reached record breaking lows and can only be described by most as brutally cold. The meteorologists said stay inside but what I heard was the rivers are going to freeze. Time to make a plan. So I did.
And what did we just learn about plans. They change. The river was frozen, yes, but not nearly as much as I’d anticipated…or hoped. I’ve seen it completely frozen over several times when temperatures weren’t nearly as cold. Most of the river was still flowing, but with large chunks of ice slowly floating along. So I went with a long exposure to convey the motion of the floating ice contrasting with the static ice that was building along the bank of the river. Cool. Pun intended.
What I wasn’t accounting for, or expecting, is what I’m calling a happy little accident. And I was lucky enough to catch 3 of them!
If you look at the photo, you’ll see the moon and two bright stars. Normally I’m pretty in tune with where the moon is going to be, but I read my app wrong and was surprised, pleasantly, to have it in such a pleasing spot for my intended composition. Happy accident number 1. But those two bright stars, it turns out, are actually Venus and Jupiter. This was totally unplanned for, I must admit. They are a tiny, yet impactful, morsel of photographic tastiness that you were completely unaware of but privileged enough to not only see, but include in your photo in a meaningful AND intentional way! Happy accident number 2!
…and happy accident number 3? Well, I was lucky that Uranus wasn’t also in the picture!
You can read more about Jupiter and Venus HERE
Who out there likes flowers? Not me. I was never much of a flower guy. There was never much of a need for me to like them. Sure they were nice to look at, but…well, that’s it. They were nice to look at. Occasionally. Up until last year, my only real experience with flowers was getting a corsage for my dates to prom and homecoming, which my mother took care of, and the flowers for my wedding which my wife took care of. In my defense I suppose, I did pay for and pick up said flowers so I wasn’t completely dead weight.
Then something changed. Last year a bought a macro lens for my photography. This allowed me to get super close to things and photograph the fine details of an otherwise uncomplicated subject. As it turns out, flowers were a PERFECT subject for experimentation. So experiment I did and now I can’t seem to get enough flowers and plants in my life. I find myself noting new ones I’ve never noticed or seeing if there is a safe place to pull off when I see a spectacular roadside bunch of blooms. I’ve even bought some plants. What!?
The world of macro has really opened up my eyes and allowed me to see things differently. I don’t intend for my flower photos to over take my Pittsburgh photography as my best sellers in print, but I do intend to look at things differently as a result of my foray into flower photography. And I’ve been able to do just that.
Seeing differently, and uniquely, has always been paramount in my work. There are a lot of photographers these days so standing out is a challenge. With the Pittsburgh skyline being my perennial (see what I did there?) favorite subject, I wanted to incorporate it in to my newfound, ever-growing interest in flora. But how to do that? I think I found a unique way which you will se in the proceeding photos. Each composition will include some sort of bud, blossom, or bloom and also a bit of the ‘Burgh. Whoa! Holy alliteration, Batman!
Can you tell which part of Pittsburgh is peaking through in the pictures?
Walt Disney once famously said, “I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started with a mouse.” That mouse is of course Mickey Mouse and “famously” might be too strong a description of the quote unless you are a Disney dork like myself. The “it” he is referring to is essentially the Disney empire, which I could go on in detail about, but since I’ve alluded to my love of all things Disney in another post (READ IT HERE), I’ll skip that part. What I’d like to call attention to, though, is what this quote means to me: We all start somewhere. I’d like to share with you my somewhere.
Let’s travel back a few years, somewhere around let’s say fall of 2004. I was a sophomore in college and things were going well for me. Grades were improving and I was in what at the time seemed like a perfect, serious (for a 20 year old) relationship. I was happy…until I wasn’t. Well, actually, until she wasn’t. Several hours before the stroke of midnight on February 14, 2005 – that’s Valentine’s Day, folks – my “serious” girlfriend broke up with me. Ouch. As if that weren’t bad enough, at that very stroke of midnight, we’d rip another page off the old day-by-day calendar and I would turn 21 on February 15. Double ouch. But at least I could now legally drown my sorrows in beer. But I did not.
I’d like to say what I did was take this opportunity to take a negative and turn it in to a positive. I’d like to say it was no big deal and that “things happen for a reason.” I’d like to say those things, but I can’t and a discussion with my best friend recently reminded me that this saying is bullshit. Sometimes things suck and it’s okay for you to acknowledge that they suck. This was one of those times, even if only temporarily.
Make no mistake; I don’t recount this story for pity or feelings of sadness. By all accounts, I wouldn’t be where I am today without this chapter in my life. I am HAPPY now so I am grateful for what happened back then. It turns out that, in retrospect, this actually was one of those “things happen for a reason” scenarios. At the time, however, a void was present in my life for several months, a void that needed filling so that I didn’t sit around all day, wallowing in my self-pity making mixed CDs, which I did. I needed something to occupy my mind, to numb the pain but with a more positive influence on my life. As it turns out, that empty part of me took the shape of a camera and it was easy, satisfying, and productive to fill.
I started taking walks with my tiny little point and shoot camera, just snapping away with whatever struck me as interesting, with Point State Park being a common subject. The photos – snapshots really – were no good, but my mind was occupied and I was done feeling sorry for myself.
The void inside me began to shrink, and as it did my desire to turn snapshots into actual photos grew rapidly. Consequently, so did my camera when I bought my first DSLR in 2007. It was a used, entry-level camera – a Nikon D50 with a monster 6-megapixel sensor. It would be just perfect for my upcoming trip to St. Thomas and many trips to the zoo. But that camera just didn’t cut it. I needed more. I needed bigger. I am a man after all!
In 2009 I upgraded again for a trip to Mexico, this time to a new Nikon model, the D300, with twice as many megapixels as my last camera. At the time I thought megapixels was all that mattered, even though I wasn’t really printing photos. They’d only be seen on a small screen so resolution wasn’t as important an issue as I was making it out to be. But again, bigger means better, right? After Mexico, the camera probably spent more time on the shelf than it did in my hands – just kidding, I was a slob so it was probably in corner of my room on the floor under a pile of clothes and some empty Gatorade bottles. The point is I didn’t use it very much in ’09 or ’10.
Fast forward to 2011. I’d been using my camera a little more regularly at this point and uploading the shots to my Flickr account, a popular social photo sharing platform at the time. No one had really noticed the photos, and for good reason – they weren’t anything special or different. There was mostly wildlife and some marginal landscapes with a poorly executed Pittsburgh skyline shot sprinkled in here and there. (I just went back in to the account for the first time in year’s today to have a look at the early stuff, and wow! It’s like looking at pictures of yourself decades ago….”What was I thinking!?!”).
But then I uploaded a photo called “Winter’s Light.” This photo, oh this photo. It’s an HDR, which is short for High Dynamic Range meaning it contains fine details in both the dark shadows and the lightest lights and generally includes multiple exposures since camera sensors at the time were unable to record the detail that your eye can process in a single frame. Admittedly, it is very easy to let an HDR photo get away from you, looking almost cartoony and certainly fake. This photo is no exception. It has a painterly feel, keeping it just on the cusp of natural meets unbelievable but definitely falls beyond the range of my processing these days, which tends to have a vibrant, yet natural feel to it. That said, Winter’s Light has held up to the test of time for me, partially because I’ve yet to see comparably impressive light on the Warhol Bridge, which is the main showcase of the photo, since that cold winter day in January of 2011. Oh yea, and it still sells too!
A few hours after uploading to Flickr, it began to rack in the ‘favorites’ which is today’s equivalent to a Facebook ‘like.’ “Cool,” I thought. And that was it. Then the photo got “Explored,” which means a daily feature essentially. Again, cool! Up to this point, most of my photos received a whopping 2 favorites and if I were lucky, a comment or two. Again, they were mostly overdone HDR landscapes or wildlife shots that didn’t deserve much merit. This one, though, made it to triple digit likes and was racking in the views. This felt like a big deal for me. It turns out that it was.
Looking back, that extra bit of exposure on Flickr really was a catalyst for me. Though it didn’t go viral or directly result in any immediate sales – selling my work wasn’t even an afterthought at this point – and didn’t bring any notoriety either, it did serve as a fulcrum allowing me to leverage my passion for photography in to something a bit more. Winter’s Light did not launch my career in photography, but it sure has hell gave me the confidence I needed to pursue it!
They say that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” By that measure, I certainly must be certifiable by now. I’ll get to why, but first a little lesson I learned early on, before photography was a career and just my weekend hobby.
Ever since my first time picking up a camera, I’ve attempted to keep a strong gras o the number one trait a photographer must possess. It’s not a unique eye. It’s not the most expensive camera or lens. It’s not even an endlessly deep wallet that allows you to travel to the most exotic locations. Nope, none of those. Necessity numero uno for someone wanting to MAKE excellent photographs is….drum roll please…. PATIENCE.
In most areas of my life, patience is a virtue that has eluded me. I won’t get in to the messy details of why I think that is so suffice it to say I don’t like to wait. That is unless, of course, I am behind a camera. When I’m framing up a shot, I’ll tinker and tinker until everything is just how it needs to be. That’s more of an issue of perfectionism and being in control at this point, but once the camera is set, I’ll wait for the conditions to compliment the composition. Sometimes this takes 10 minutes, sometimes it takes 30. Sometimes, like on a cloudy windless day where I’m playing around with macro photos, I’ll be able to setup and shoot with no waiting because conditions aren’t changing. Regardless, it doesn’t really matter how long it takes as long as I get the shot I envisioned.
So what does having an enduring resolve behind the camera have to do with being clinically insane? Well, not much, really, but please allow me to try and connect the dots for you. As it turns out I’m not quite as tolerant with waiting as the picture I just photographed for you would suggest. It turns out that if conditions are not shaping up the way I think they should or the way I want them to, specifically 15-20 minutes before the sun comes up or before it goes down, I’ll probably call it a day. I can’t begin to count the number of sunset explosions I’ve watched in my rearview mirror because I had been out for 2 hours and didn’t have the patience to stick around another 20 minutes because “it was gonna happen.” I can’t begin to count the number of sunrises that have looked like gloomy duds that turn out to be quite photogenic.
Realizing this problem doesn’t always happen in my rearview mirror either. Since photographers are so plentiful these days and everyone shares on Instagram, seeing my blunders is all but unavoidable because if I didn’t stick around, someone else did. And then they shared it. And I saw it. I saw the photo I didn’t get, but could have, serving as an instant reminder of the mistake I’ve made countless times already and probably will make countless times more. I see the photo of the sunset I missed…and it might as well be a photo of me in a straight jacket, because I am insane.
We’ve all heard the term “the one that got away,” yes? Yes, of course we have. And for some of us maybe the phrase is even applicable. Not so much in my case because I’m married to the woman of my dreams and am about to have my second beautiful daughter with her. For those that are wondering, I’m not in the dog house or sucking up because my wife probably won’t read this, my first daughter is 3 and can’t read yet (yet!) and my second daughter, well the library in her womb has been closed for renovations for weeks so no reading in there either. Okay, let’s crawl out of the weird rabbit hole and get back on topic here. Focus, JP!
Now where was I? Ah, yes…the one that got away. I don’t have one. I do, however, have many many many suns that got away. See what I did there? I love puns and plays on words. I’m of course talking about sunrises and sunsets. As a city/landscape photographer the sky is my canvas and the sun provides the paint for it. Without light, a photographer has nothing. I think I’m pretty good, but I am no exception to this necessity for the suns gleaming rays.
With this dependence on light, for me, comes a constant, almost gawking and definitely studious observance of the sky, the position of the sun, and clouds or lack thereof. There is no foolproof method to predicting whether a sky will erupt with color or be a dud, but there are apps and programs out there to help predict such occurrences, but even without the technology, I usually have a pretty good gut feel for what’s going to happen. But just like the software, my gut, impressive as it might be, is not infallible.
Tracking the position of the sun, however is pretty precise and always reliable. But, just because I almost always know where the sun is going to crest or dip below the horizon, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get away from me. What do I mean? Sadly, that means I am not physically able to catch on camera every jaw-dropping sunrise or every sunset that makes the angels weep. Sometimes, when I don’t have my camera and I’m watching the sky explode with every shade of red, orange, and yellow imaginable in my rear view mirror or from my bedroom window, I sit right beside the Angels and shed a tear with them. And by sometimes, I mean this happens A LOT!
This mourning for color undocumented is usually pretty short lived once I drift back down to earth and realize if I wasn’t out catching the glow of a fiery sunset, I was more than likely spending time with my family…and maybe even able to enjoy that sight with them. So that’s the point of this kind of bizarre rambling. Take in the color. Enjoy it. Remember it in your mind’s eye. And certainly don’t sweat if you weren’t able to snap a photo of it.
One of the things I’ve struggled with in keeping up with this blog is what the focus should be. Time after time I’d sit down with an idea, write a couple sentences, maybe even a paragraph or two, and then abandon it because it didn’t match the theme of the blog. There was a major flaw with this: there was no theme. There was no structure or cliffhanger to make you tune in next week to see what happens. It was a random collection of stories and photos supporting the story.
I know what you’re thinking: “Boy, this guy is doing a lousy job at selling his own blog.” To that I say…”True story!” But that was the old blog. That was the old JP. The new JP is firing up his revamped blog that is going to be completely different and more exciting than ever before. The new blog is going to be…wait for it…
….A random collection of musings, stories, maybe some humor, and of course, PHOTOS (I am a photographer, after all) from the far off place of JP Land. (If you’re interested in traveling there, now is the time…nobody goes there anymore and flights are cheeeeeap!)
So why no dramatic change to the original “structure?” Because I know my strengths and at this very moment those DO NOT include the ability to write a blog that can substitute as a novel.
Instead, I want the blog and stories to be for people who have followed my work for years as well as those who are just discovering it. I want it to be for those who like pretty words, those who like pretty pictures, and those who like pretty words about pretty pictures. I want it to be where people can escape the mundane of everyday life…okay that sounds trite, I admit, but I do want to create a 5 minute retreat with each post that at least one person can relate to, even if that person is only myself. I might just even add a bit of humor – work with me on this one, I’ve only been a dad for 3 years but I’m getting the “Dad joke” down pat. I want this to be just what it’s always been, but with more regularity. I want it to evolve as I evolve.
And this time, I’m doing exactly what I want to do which is to make this blog an extension of myself. To do that properly, to share my stories, I have to examine the story of me, learn who I was, who I am now, and who I want to be. But you’ll have to tune in later for all that…oh look, my first cliffhanger!
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.
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.
Saturday, January 21, 2017 changed all that…and sent me on the chase of a lifetime.
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.
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.
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!
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.