Sunday, January 22, 2012

Respite from Heavy Pondering

When I'm not working at my day job, practicing law, I pursue an decades long interest in photography. It is more than a hobby. I refer to myself as an enthusiast. For as long as I can remember, starting with family road trips to California and vacations in Florida in the '60's, I have carried a camera.

My brother and I shared a darkroom when he shot for the high school yearbook. I set up the first student darkroom at Carleton and was more than pleased to see that it was still around when I visited campus last Spring. I was the guy who memorialized college life and, later, law school for my classmates. Deb became irritated with me while in labor with our daughter because the obstetrician and I were discussing the camera equipment I brought into the delivery room instead of caring for her. I watched the kids grow up through my viewfinder. Today, my Facebook page has 124 photo albums associated with it, covering subjects ranging from friends' birthday parties to macro-photography of food. Last month, I decided it was time to set up a formal site on which to post my work and set up galleries on

I built my system up over the years, sticking with Nikon products that were mostly backward compatible. I take odd jobs for pay, but mostly volunteer my photography, donating half-day photo sessions to charities holding silent auctions. I also serve as Senator Franken's campaign staff photographer when he's in town. For three years, I served as the event photographer for a steeplechase in Florida. Last night, for the fifth time, I photographed the award winners at the annual Central States Dressage & Eventing Association.

I offer this background to give credence to the advice I am about to share. My presence at events with intimidating looking camera gear frequently invites comments from other attendees with simpler equipment. Observing me lugging five pounds of camera, they worry that their photographs cannot compete with mine because my equipment is fancier.

The truth, cliché or not, is that the photographer, not the equipment is the key element in creating images. Lately, I have been getting amazing results with my iPhone. I encourage the observers to learn the craft by working with the camera they have, shooting whenever they can and making the end product as good as they can. I also usually throw in a gratuitous "fill the frame" as the best single piece of advice on photography I can offer.

There are, however, rewards to learning the basics and being able to make equipment work to its capacity in order to further develop as an artist. I offer this example in today's bi-partisan blog.

Experienced photographers know to bracket their exposures in order to assure capturing just the combination of light and darkness in their images. Recently, software known as HDR, High Dynamic Range, has made it possible to take the best exposed elements of various parts of an image and combine it into a finished product. One of the features of my digital camera, once the flagship in Nikon's stable, is its ability to auto-bracket up to 9 frames in increments of 1/3 of a stop at 5-8 frames per second.

With the "normal" exposure in the middle, this has the effect of bracketing 4 exposures on either side. The complete series ranges from an image that has about 42% of the light of a normal exposure to one that has 233% of the light needed for a normal exposure. By "normal", I am referring to the default setting a camera with a built-in light meter would choose for a particular scene assuming no special circumstances like bright light directly behind the subject.

Of course, it is possible to make the manual adjustments to exposures to get the same effect. But the professional camera equipment I use allows me to quickly compile the entire series of images I want to work with and to do so without the need for a tripod.

Here is an example of the most overexposed image in a series I shot in California in November. I was driving on two lane roads between San Diego and Palm Springs, winding through the San Bernadino Mountains on a rainy Sunday. I was disappointed at the weather because it kept me from stopping to capture more landscapes. When I came to a rest stop just outside San Bernadino National Forest after being on the road for several hours, I seized an opportunity (click on the images to enlarge for viewing).

Generally, the image is washed out, particularly the clouds in sky, which have basically disappeared. This results from the need to over expose the foreground to get detail otherwise darkened by the lack of sunlight. Here's the most underexposed image in the series.

Now I have detail in the clouds, but the high desert flora is too dark to be acceptable. Notice that the images are identical in composition. By shooting the series over the course of less than 2 seconds, I was able to avoid a lot of movement in the clouds or have any problems with aligning the 9 images that made up the series. Keep in mind that there were an additional 7 "in between" images that were eventually combined into the finished product.

By taking all 9 images and applying the HDR software I purchased to enhance the capabilities of Apple's Aperture, I ended up with a finished product that properly exposes all elements of the scene:

I have had universal praise for this last shot, particularly when I crop it to remove the trash bins. There are those who question whether such digital manipulation is really photography. I am in the camp that believes it is. I am merely using tools available to reproduce an image as I saw it in my mind's eye. Our brain does all the HDR adjustments for us. My software merely overcomes the limitations, reduced range, of the sensor in my camera as it deals with any one particular shot.

And now that I've touted the difference a very expensive piece of equipment can make, automatically, here's another HDR example that was captured more basically and attainable with any camera that allows either manual override of automatic exposures or the ability to spot meter various very small portions of a scene in multiple exposures.

This is a composite of six images I shot, handheld, one morning as I was leaving for the office. I had my recently acquired backup camera in the car and I was not as familiar with its controls as with the more expensive model. I manually adjusted the exposures, needing to underexpose from the camera's norm in order to capture the deep colors of the sunrise. That left the foreground black (it's a sunrise; there was no other light). By shooting a series and applying the HDR software, I obtained something special. Because each exposure was taken individually, and despite my best efforts to line up the exposures similarly by using reference points in the viewfinder, you can see some ghosting in the tree branches.

You can see more of my landscapes, and other work, on my photo website. Tomorrow, I'll get back to pondering about politics and matters of more import. Feel free to contact me with questions or for advice. My photography is the release from the pressures of needing to be right all the time when getting paid for giving legal advice. Some people garden, some people read, some people exert themselves physically. I capture images and, from time to time, I write.

When I was introduced to Garrison Keillor at Senator Franken's event last week, he looked at my camera and asked if I was with the press.
"No, sir, I'm an attorney", I replied.
"An attorney? I should have known by the bow tie."
"I'm a left-handed attorney," I elaborated.
"A left-handed attorney," Mr. Keillor repeated. When he smirked, I knew he understood.

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