Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Smithfield Ice Storm

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Nobody needs a reminder that this winter won't let go. Another storm is due in today. They've been running almost one a week since the pattern began months ago. Each storm has been different, like a succession of theatrical events, with effects often localized. This picture was taken in Smithfield, NY, on March 8th. In Connecticut the passing storm was of wimpy, wet snow that wouldn't stick and was quickly road slop. Had a friend on the other side of Sharon Mountain not put out the word, I never would have known of the magnificent crisis occurring just over the NY/CT border. My friend had been there in the morning, and several of us joined him for a late afternoon shoot.

Smithfield Road which is set high and has some moderate views was closed. Limbs down everywhere and electric crews were struggling to un-snag wires. Though officially closed, cars were permitted to dodge debris. In one area a row of old, white pines on the hillside all had broken tops and gaping wounds where the weight of the ice had snapped them.

The good news is that though snow is coming, I saw maple sap running into buckets over a week ago, and this week the crimson skunk cabbage knobs were punching through hard, wet mud at White Memorial, and nearby I saw a turtle swimming at the edge of a pond. Winter may not want to let go, but there are things wiggling in the mud that won't be put off. It's all happening.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hei-a-ho! Hei-a-ho! Hei-a-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho!

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: (On Lens Choice, part 4, conclusion) Starting hand-held allowed me to explore possibilities. In addition to finding the best angles and positions, I also determined exposure settings.

What shutter speed would produce the kind of motion blur I wanted? The blacksmith's moving limbs probably shouldn't look like dismemberments. Experimentation suggested shutter speeds between 1/30 and 1/125 might work; 1/60 probably was ideal.

While I focused on the blacksmith, the beauty and importance of the shop grew on me; I realized I needed to keep the background also in focus. How much depth of field would the light permit? Probably not enough.

The solution of last resort is to bump the ISO. I knew that in processing I would be pulling detail from dark corners, and that would make the graininess worse, so I set the limit at ISO 800, two additional stops of light traded for grittiness that would fit the subject, I hoped.

With 2 more stops I was still shooting at f7.1 and 1/20th. Even with VR, that's not reliable hand-held shooting, especially when zoomed out. Once angles were decided I returned to shooting from my tripod but with the ball head free to swivel.

The work of blacksmiths does not usually produce sparks, but when asked, Will obliged. I found coordinating the shower of sparks to the wink of the shutter to be ticklish. The best shower happened on Will's first stroke; because it was the first stroke, it was the hardest to synchronize. The shutter must open as the sparks diverge and stay open long enough for them to cross a significant part of the image. Too short an exposure and the ember won't have a trail; as the exposure gets longer, the ember trail fades. I used the same exposure here as previously. Successes were few, rejects many.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Blacksmith's Vice

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: (On Lens Choice, part 3)

Even before I saw Will's shop I suspected that at least to start I would be shooting hand-held. I wanted to explore various perspectives and elevations quickly. The space was a bit tight but allowed me to move around Will and the hearth on three sides. Depending on the angle I could get back as much as perhaps ten feet but sometimes just 6. I could get as close as I dared.

As it turned out Will frequently turned from hearth to anvil and back. They stood at ninety degrees to each other, and by shifting positions I could look into his face across either or view him in profile. There was constant tension between the desire to angle up into Will's face or down at his work on anvil or hearth. As I moved, the background changed presenting compositional opportunities and dangers. Shooting with a zoom and hand-held provided rich options.

Most of the time I like shooting from a tripod. When my pack is on my back, my tripod and camera are likely to be on my shoulder. When I see a promising image I enjoy standing and fine-tuning the composition, and I may stop and shoot from a single position for 5 minutes or 20 minutes, and, when the sky was changing, I've often shot for three hours without repositioning more than ten feet.

I've only been shooting from a tripod for the last 5 or 6 years. It keeps me from rushing and makes me look harder. When I saw this wall in Will's shop, I knew I wanted to photograph it. It is a window Vermeer would want to paint. The light was perfect, outlining the edges of the iron scroll and some of the other iron pieces hanging in the window revealing them in high relief. The orderliness and nature of the stuff drew me. On full resolution copies I've spent a long time zooming and enjoying the particulars, like characters in a drama.

Whether I got the composition right or not, I needed the tripod to study how the layers intersected and to provide separation between them at critical places. A slight move up, down, right or left made a huge difference. A tilt sent the perpendiculars diverging. Sometimes the eye is quick in finding a composition, but fine tuning often requires a tripod.

I also needed a tripod as this is an HDR made from 4 distinct exposures ranging from 1/50 sec. to 1.3 seconds. Of course these shutter speeds alone call for a tripod. Whether one shoots most often from a tripod or shoots hand held more of the time will often be dictated by subject, but ones preferences and practices make up one's "camera habit," and that will determine what lenses one should choose.

Once all photography was done from a fixed camera, but even today practice ranges from those who shoot mostly with tripod-bound, medium and large format cameras that must be patiently set up and viewed with the image upside down - to paparazzi who snag photos by the dozens, one-handed, from the top of a no parking sign. There are so many ways to be a photographer. Shooting style leads to lens choice and is entirely personal.

Back at Will's, I spent most of the shoot with the 18-200mm zoom, first without tripod and later on the tripod but with the head free to move. My 18-70mm zoom is a better lens and would have done the job better; almost all shots were under 70mm, but I no longer pack that lens.

to be continued...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

At the Anvil

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: (On Lens Choice, part 2) The size of ones toolkit is directly related to ones need for mobility. Consistent with my need to trek backcountry, I question every addition to my pack.

I bought my first 18-200mm zoom as a street lens, not my usual beat, but it's terrific having that much range and vibration reduction (VR) instantly available when shooting in a crowd of people or at an event. Shooting landscape one has more time for lens changes, and I had the 18-200mm range covered by an excellent 18-70mm VR zoom, and an 80-400mm VR zoom. However, it didn't take long before I was leaving the 18-70mm at home and carrying the 18-200mm over the hillsides. I no longer skipped shots that I deemed not worth a lens change.

I don't do a lot of selective focus photography; usually I want as much depth of field as I can get. One lens covering everything from mild wide angle to deep telephoto is almost an all-purpose lens. Almost! I've now owned three different 18-200mm zooms and each one has been a love-hate relationship. The three previous images were taken with my latest 18-200mm lens.

A super-wide 10-20mm zoom is my newest lens. Even when I shot film I never had a lens so wide. It's not a fish-eye but it has lots of tricks, pushes the walls away, bends the horizon, and sees around corners. However, when all you want is a bigger bite, that dizzying magic has to be tamed. I used the superwide zoom here only because I wanted the shop, floor to ceiling. Once I had it, however, I cropped it a bit. Wide angle lenses don't simply capture more, they see differently.

I still carry the big, heavy 80-400mm, and enjoy using it. I love standing back and zooming for compositions in the tangled planes of a cluster of buildings or the patterns on a hillside, or among blossoms rising from the mud of a pond bottom. The lens has withstood abuse and is clear and sharp, and I see nothing affordable to persuade me to switch.

I carry a 105mm macro lens for when I really want to get close or create a smooth bokeh. Having a good macro was essential for me. Many needs all pointed to 105mm rather than 85mm or 200mm. Cost was a big factor, but I also knew that a bit of telephoto would let me keep my distance when stalking insects and similar wildlife. As a lens for wildlife it complements the 80-400mm zoom.

to be continued...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Blacksmith's Attentions

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: (On Lens Choice) Yesterday at the Kent Historical Society there were several questions about lens choice, and I made the kind of answer the time permitted. The full answer starts at subject choice and shooting style and is intensely idiosyncratic. The lenses I carry are a result of some statistical average of the kinds of shooting I do leveraged (literally) against the strength of my backbone and the depth of my wallet.

My kit starts with a good backpack because the shooting I like best is in what can be called, for good reason, backcountry even if it is sometimes in fields along a road or down old railroad tracks or even in NYC. I much prefer finding a good place to explore than shopping by car for picture ops. Four miles is a normal day's trek in hill country.

to be continued...

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Blacksmith and his Tools

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL - It's not clear what Will is heating on his forge, but he's waiting a moment before grabbing it with the tongs. A few moments earlier he set the small tongs on the swage block, dropping a glove on the corner of the hearth. If you look closely beside the glove you will see some of the leaves he has been forging.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL - Last summer at the exhibition of my work in Sharon, Connecticut, I met William Trowbridge. Will is an artist and blacksmith in Sharon, and he invited me to photograph in his shop where I found him at work on vines and leaves for a decorative railing he was completing for a client. I did two shoots in his shop. The light from outside was especially beautiful on the first shoot, but there were technical hurdles which made me eager to go back.

To begin, I had to learn a bit of Will's routine, the procedures he was executing and how he moved in order to begin to find angles. Obviously, shutter speed was critical. How much could Will's arm and hammer be blurred to show motion before it became unacceptably distorted? How would that motion appear from different angles? I shot under natural light; how quick an exposure was possible? When his work generated sparks, what shutter speed best caught their trails? The workshop was part of what I wanted to photograph; how could Will be shot to reveal it?

Finally, the more I shot, the more I became aware of the tremendous concentration and emotion Will puts into his work. The archetypal blacksmith of my imagination is at least 80% modeled after Siegfried swinging away at the previously un-weldable fragments of his father's sword and singing to the heavens. There is definitely magic in smithing. Will's magic came from many gentler, more precisely regulated strokes and complete understanding of the material. Will's one truly "smashing" blow came at a moment of extreme frustration when the material resisted his will.

The more fully I could become an unseen spectator, I figured, the better my shots might be. After two shoots, I'm still not satisfied that I've gotten all I could.

REMINDER: Sunday, March 20th - Kent Historical Society presentation: 2 PM, Kent Town Hall, Kent, CT
UPCOMING: April 29- May 15, 2011 - Exhibition at White SIlo Winery, Sherman, CT

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Highlander on Rabbit Hill

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL - I've been walking at the top of Rabbit Hill recently, and it occurs to me that it's been a long time since I've seen any of the Highland cattle that used to live in the woods on the north side of the hill. Highlanders are rugged creatures, bred for centuries in the remote Scottish highlands. They'll eat things other breeds shun; to them this forest of swamp maples is fine pasture. I read that their nature is docile from years of cohabitation with Scottish farm families, a practice that helped reduce heating costs, and that their beef is naturally well-marbled. I wonder where the Rabbit Hill Highlanders have gone.

REMINDER: March 20th - Kent Historical Society presentation: 2 PM, Kent Town Hall, Kent, CT
UPCOMING: April 29- May 15, 2011 - Exhibition at White SIlo Winery, Sherman, CT

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

“Tourist at Home in the Litchfield Hills”

The Kent Historical Society’s Sunday Series will feature Emery (Ted) Roth on March 20 at 2PM in the Kent Town Hall.  He will present a magical slide show of his photographic images, read a bit from his journals and talk about various digital photography techniques.

Roth describes himself as “a tourist at home in the Litchfield Hills,” capturing the beauty of the land and the richness of its heritage. Take a virtual walk with Roth while viewing his moving photographs of old farmhouses and barns, fields and woods, and nature.  This lecture offers an opportunity for both new and accomplished photographers to expand their horizons, as seen through Roth’s eye.  He will answer questions about digital photography and how it can be of value to the amateur photographer.

Admission is free, but donations to the Historical Society are welcome.

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL - As a weak concession to winter, this week has brought rain and, in low lying areas, flooding. More of everything is expected. Do I sense somewhere off stage they are beginning to construct spring? It's too soon to say, and days like this over Rabbit Hill are still a long way off.

Other projects have taken me away from TODAY'S temporarily. Thanks to all who have written to inquire.