The Photographers Eyes

I’ve always been intrigued by cameras and composition. I trained as a fine artist and focused on life drawing and painting with a side of ceramics. In college photography was a discipline I had to study for a year to satisfy the requirements of my BFA. I did really enjoy it, but it was not my “go-to” discipline. I learned the mechanics and even did a few professional shoots here and there. A camera was a tool in my designers toolbox. This all changed for me in 2006, but to tell the whole story I need to go back a little further.
When I was 17 I wrecked the family car. I was coming out of a construction zone and just when traffic started to speed up the car in front of me stopped for a dog crossing the road and I plowed right into it. I didn’t realize that I was so close. Afterward my mom decided to get my eyes checked out. It turns out that I had a slight crossed eye that could have interfered with my depth perception. Along with this the doctor discovered that I had cataracts. I was born with them. They were unusual in shape and not very common. I had 20/20 vision, and really didn’t notice anything. The doctor said that they might never be an issue.

Every time I moved to a new city and got a new eye doctor, they would ask it if was OK to bring in all their staff to see my cataracts, they were very unusual, something you might only see a couple of times in a career. One doctor even asked to photograph them – I finally got to see what the fuss was about. They looked like tiny galaxies, circular with swirls radiating from the center.

Now spring forward to 2006, my eye doctor had advised me that I could really benefit from cataract surgery. He suggested that once I began to lose the ability to focus (we all start to experience this in our 40’s) that I seriously should consider it. By this time I was living in a rural area and I was having difficulty driving at night. It never occurred to me that the culprit might be my cataracts, I assumed it was the lack of street lights. I had the surgery one eye at a time. I was the youngest person in the office by about 30 years. None of my fellow patients could imagine me having cataracts. The surgery only took a couple of minutes, and for those seconds between when they remove your old lens and when they replace it with a new one, my field of vision was filled with swirling rainbows through liquid – it was vivid and beautiful.

The next morning when I went out into the sunlight I was stunned by what I saw. I had always had 20/20 vision. I could see details and contrast just fine. In those first moments that morning I realized that I had never really seen color before. I never knew that a lawn was filled with thousands of shades of green and that each blade of grass both cast a shadow and caught a touch of sunlight. I never knew that the parking lot at work was made up of hundreds of greys and browns – I had always seen it as just kinda black. Before my surgery I had taken photos of mostly still life and everyday objects. I loved finding a new way to see something ordinary, but now my eyes were overwhelmed with the vividness of the world around me. I upgraded my camera kit to better capture the color and began to take my camera everywhere.

After work and on weekends I began to seek out color. Autumn leaves, sunsets, spring flowers, songbirds. The first time I had a show locally, a reporter asked me what inspired me and seemed surprised when I said color, since I had so many wildlife shots and landscapes. The subjects of my beloved still lives became more colorful. Color is the unifying theme of almost everything I shoot.

Today, I cannot even imagine the dullness of the world I lived in for so long without knowing it. I live for color and in the spring time when the Ozarks are alive with color. Currently I have a show up here in Eureka Springs called Harbingers – I collected works shot between February and April to represent those things that usher in a glorious spring after a long cold winter. I’ve mounted each on canvas over hard board and fixed then onto stretcher bars exposing the wood sides. I wanted to try to take the technical photography and give it a warmer hand-crafted feel. As spring has blossomed here I continue to add to my Harbinger library – and it’s no surprise that the images are filled with color. The images used in the show are in the slideshow below. Scroll through to see the images larger and to see camera settings.

Shutterbug notes – I chose my current camera set up partly because of its dynamic range. Moving to manual really give you a lot more control over color. Moving off auto gives you access to all the features of your camera and let’s you get the most out of it. Try seeing things in a new light, you might never want to go back to your old ways of seeing the world around you!

What does the Fox Say?

One of my favorite things about life in the Ozarks are the random encounters with wildlife. These encounters happen often up on my mountain – songbirds, squirrels, hawks, and deer all circle around the Stonehouse, careful to steer clear of the patrolling terriers in the lawn. A few years ago we had bear sightings up the road. I spotted a black mountain lion passing through one time. These occurrences are alway magical, but not unexpected anymore.

My friend Candy lives about a mile and a half from me on a golf course community called Holiday Island. You may have seen Eric Estrada pitching lots on late night infomercials a few years back. It’s beautiful spot carved out of the wilds of the Ozarks – but it’s considerably less wild than my mountain. They have restaurants, grocery stores, and a club house. One night Candy and I were driving from her house to mine. We were passing the clubhouse when we spotted some visitors. There on the parking lot next to the putting green were three little faces looking back at us. Candy maneuvered the car to give me some light while I took photos with my flash – oddly enough they were not at all bothered by the car, the flash, or me. At one point I was shooting two of them grooming each other when I glanced back and caught sight of the third one sneaking up behind me. Their curiosity overwhelmed any fear they had.

Their manner reminded me a lot of my shy pup Kirby. They were cautious but curious. I almost wanted to just sit on the ground and let them come to me – but we were in the middle of a street in the dark in the middle of the night. After about 20 minutes they tired of us and moved on across the putting green. Something more interesting awaited them in the dark of the golf course.

Since that night I have seen them several times. I spent some time with them at the bank parking lot one evening, but without Candy there to point the car headlights at them I didn’t have enough light to photograph them. I saw them sleeping in a driveway the other day – soaking up the last of the warmth of our Indian Summer.

 

The Second Rule of Photography

If the first rule of photography is to always have your camera with you, then the second rule must be about light. Light is everything to a photographer, without it there is no color, without enough of it you lose detail and sharpness.

Of course you can add light by using a flash, but that can create other issues – it can add too much light or create unwanted reflections. It’s essential to make some shots, but I wouldn’t use it just because your camera has one.

There is one kind of light that is almost magical – it is warm and soft and almost without glare. It’s that lovely light at the beginning or at the very end of the day – the golden hour. I’m not a morning person, so I prefer that soft light that starts about a half hour before the sun sets.

Over the course of the last week I have been practicing shooting sunsets at a local lookout point. On the way I travel through a residential neighborhood where the deer feed in the hollows and lots between houses. I find these local whitetails to be lovely and curious creatures. They are all about their dining, but any noise or movement from me gets them to look up at me. Sometimes they hold their gaze for several shots. They rarely flee.

Click through to see how expressive these whitetail can be:

After my first shot at these deer I began to give myself 10-15 minutes on my way to the lookout and I am never disappointed in these characters. In truth, it’s the light that makes these shots so intimate, you get a sense of the golden glow in their eyes, they emerge from the noisy backgrounds because there is enough light to get good focus. The details are mostly sharp because there is enough light for my camera to do the job I want it to do.

Shutterbug Notes:

I have found that your vehicle can be a good blind sometimes. Animals are often less threatened by a big box than they are of you approaching in spots where there is no place for cover. I have found that deer and antelope are naturally curious so sometimes a little movement makes them make eye contact with you – waving a bandana out the window or making clicking noises will often do the trick. When I do approach on foot I always respect the lines they set – if they huff or raise their tails I stop moving towards them. I want them to be curious and not frightened of me. 

Winter Weary

Old Man Winter has been giving us all he’s got this year. He started in Autumn and it looks like it’s doing his best to drag things out into Spring. Here in the Ozarks, we typically get a light snow before Christmas and we have a cold and sometimes snowy January. This year we’ve been pounded by storm after storm. I’m tired of shoveling and I miss the sunshine. It’s hard on us humans, but I have to tell you that the birds at the Stonehouse are over it. Yesterday when  forecasted “light afternoon flurries” turned into 7 inches of wet sticky snow, I did what I always do. I took out my camera. My friends at the feeders have lost their sweet Christmassy look – gone are the noble poses with perfectly coiffed tufts and wings. Haggard cards and finches continue to feed, but clearly they are over this whole “polar vortex” thing. Don’t worry, my little feathered friends, Spring is on the way – it’s supposed to arrive on Thursday, but don’t count your chicks before they’re hatched.

Click through to see what the diners at the Stonehouse Buffet have to say about Winter 2014:

 

Shutterbug Notes:

I have a weather sealed camera, but my bird lens is not sealed – I use a sandwich bag to give it a bit of protection, while still allowing me to focus in the weather. Shooting birds in falling snow is tricky, your AF will try to lock onto snowflakes so try focussing first on something at the same distance as your subject – I find that nearby branches work well – this makes it easier to fine tune your focus on your subject. When shooting birds I always focus on their eyes and I use the smallest AF target box that by camera has. I think the eyes help to capture their personalities. A motion blur on a wing can add to a shot, but a face out of focus is not a keeper for me. 

Paper or Ice? Maybe We Got it Right in Kindergarten.

I grew up in the desert. I saw snow in a measurable amount about once a decade. Even so, making paper snowflakes was one of my favorite projects in school. Over the years I made them out of various types of paper – tissue paper, construction paper, my report card…you get the idea. I still love to make them – here’s one I made with my power bill that just arrived…

Seems pretty appropriate, given the winter we have had so far. I think I will only pay the parts I can read...

Seems pretty appropriate, given the winter we have had so far. I think I will only pay the portions I can read.

I still love to make snowflakes and have taught dozens of children how to get the open and airy feel over the years. What never occurred to me was the idea that my desert-born imaginings of snowflakes might not be so far off the mark.

A couple of weeks ago we were pummeled with about a foot of show on a Sunday afternoon. People were stranded getting home from church, the grocery store was out of milk and bread, and I had been busy shooting cardinals and other birds as they flocked to the feeders.

I stepped outside and noticed that the snow was really fluffy and wondered what it would look like shot through my macro lens. I knew I needed contrast so I looked for the smoothest flat black objects I could find to capture the flakes. I tried a microfiber cloth, a crock pot, a frying pan – ultimately I ended up turning a black t-shirt inside out. In the weather at the angles I was trying to focus at, a tripod was out of the question, so all of these images are handheld shots. Click through for your very own micro snowstorm:

So, I guess my power bill really doesn’t compare to the complexity and beauty of something so delicate and perfect, but I think that my classmates and I got closer than we could have imagined.

Shutterbug Notes:

Shooting macro handheld is easier if you use some breathing techniques. It’s kind of like firing a rifle – take aim, exhale, fire the shutter. Exhaling eliminates some movement. It also helps to pull your elbows into your body to make yourself into a tripod.  I prefer to shoot macro from a tripod because it’s easier to focus and play with aperture and shutter settings. the challenge is always to get the depth of field right. When snow is falling you have to move fairly quickly because the flakes you are shooting are covered pretty quickly. 

2013 – Ten shots that I love

Editing is crucial for me and I often put myself through the process of narrowing my shots to find the ones that really work – my blog helps with that. I take about 10,000 photos every year. I shared about a thousand with you in 2013.  As the old year closes, I thought I would take a minute to post the shots that stood out for me.

10. Orange Stairs Orange Stairs

I shot this in an architectural salvage store in Chicago. The color captivated me. It was a great day of shooting and shopping, but this is my favorite shot of my time in the Windy City.

9. One Way20130513-163959.jpgI actually shot this on my last evening in Chicago. I used my fast 50 and it let me get lots of detail even late at night. This year I challenged myself to try things to find the limits of my equipment.

8. The Friendly Yearling20130324-103214.jpgThis is probably not one of my better photos, but it was an amazing moment for me. As I looked at this young buck looking back at me I realized he was the friendly fawn I had met the year before. I was Freshly Pressed for that post, and while that was great, the moment I recognized him was something I will never forget.

7. The Fly In20130119-111408.jpgThis was one of those shots I didn’t know I captured until I reviewed the shots. I thought there was no shot with the chickadee flying in – but it is one that I just love. This shot is one that encouraged me to keep shooting even when the scene looks pretty boring. After all, if I had decided to put my camera away because all I saw was a couple of finches eating, I would have missed this shot.

6. A Frosty Windshield

The payoff, sunrise out my driver's side window.

I took this shot waiting for my jeep to warm up one morning. I was so glad to have my macro lens with me. Macro shooting makes you look deeper into an unexplored world.

5. The Dancing Elk

Blitzen

I love shooting the elk during the rut, but this day was magical. The ground was frosty and there was a full on bull-fight. This bull was the victor and danced his way across the valley letting everyone know.

4. Stop Action Hummer

20130917-122612.jpg

After trying every shutter speed and lighting combination to try to capture a shot of a hummer in flight I decided to try a flash. This was taken right before sunset and I was running out of light – the flash was a gamble, but it worked so well that I began to use it in the daylight to stop action.

3. Tilt Shift Ben

This is my friend Ben. He lives across the road from me and sometimes visits with me while I get my mail. I never noticed how close in color he is to the road before. I shot him as he moved towards me and lucked out on the focus.

This is an experimental shot I took with a tilt shift set up. It was manually focused right after sunset. I was pleased with how it turned out, but this really feels like Ben to me – he is a neighbor dog that drops by to make sure I make it home OK.

2. The Swimming Dog

Speed

This shot of my brother’s dog in the swimming pool took a grand champion ribbon at the county fair – but even if no one appreciated the technical process of stopping the action, I love how that spit second of bliss shows in her expression. The color of the pool in the sunlight made for a great setting.

1. The Blue Jay

Eat and glare

This is my favorite photo I took this year – the attitude of the blue jay, the color of the bokeh, the late afternoon lighting. The funny thing is that I was trying to stop action and this guy just stopped to pose for me.

I’ll admit it, as soon as I got to 10, I wished I had made a top 20 list. Are there any you think should have made the cut? What did you post in 2013 that you are especially happy with? Happy New Year!

Shutterbug Notes:

If I could offer any advice, it would be to try new things. Your camera is capable of so much more than you imagine. Shoot the shots you want in Auto and then try the other modes. Push the ISO. Try that lens that is sitting around gathering dust. You’ll be a better photographer. 8 of these 10 shots would not have happened if I had stayed in my comfort zone. 

Out on a Limb

Winter Storm Cleon has moved east and it’s finally possible to get out of the Stone House and get back to work. It’s still unseasonably cold, and today I got my first mail delivery in almost a week. During the storm I worked from home and stayed warm and mostly dry by the fire. By day two the symptoms of cabin fever were starting to set in. I was getting up every thirty minutes and walking up and down my hallway several times. I constantly stocked the indoor firewood pile. I starting to feel restless and cooped up. I decided that to clear my head that I would take a walk outside over my “lunch hour”.

I put on my Carharts and tucked my weatherproof camera and lens inside my jacket. The activity around the house was extraordinary. Cardinals were hanging onto the branches of the crepe myrtle for dear life. A fallen tree limb over the pergola was a lifeline to a small woodpecker as winds blew snow almost sideways. Birds that typically dart away held fast in hopes of spotting fallen seed below on the patio.

I came in almost soaked through and freezing, but invigorated and ready to focus – on work.

Shutterbug notes:

Shooting birds in the snow can be tricky. Your camera’s autofocus wants to focus on the nearest object in your field of view – I found that if I made my focus point as small as possible and tried to get it to lock onto a bird’s eyes or beak that I could eventually get a focus between flakes. I took all of these shots in shutter mode at 1/400 second and an ISO of 1000. The white of the snow added ambient light that made a moderate ISO setting sufficient. A slower shutter speed would make the flakes look more like streaks – a faster one would require a higher ISO and would create unnecessary noise in a limited light situation.