Photographing the lights of Christmas  

I like Christmas. I like the gaudy colours, the music, and especially the lights.

Regular readers might remember that last December I wrote that as a child my parents used to bundle my brothers and I into the family car and drive up along the high avenues around Salt Lake City so we could look down on all the decorative lights in the valley.

We even got hot chocolate from my dad’s beat up old thermos that my mother would pour for us when we finally stopped on a hill high over the city to view the lights. Although these days my drink of choice is usually wine or beer, when Christmas rolls around I have a yearning for hot chocolate, and I’ll shamelessly admit to being a Christmas light junky.

Last year I also wrote that for years I had business in Kelowna, British Columbia. And during December I always made sure I brought my camera so I could go out at night and then again at morning’s first light to photograph the Christmas lights along the city streets and waterfront.

I no longer have work to do in that lakeside city, but on the weekend of December 8th I packed my camera into my car and headed south to what I suppose will become my overnight Christmas light photography sojourn for years to come.

I left early enough, wait…that’s not right. “We left” is more the accurate.

Last week when visiting my friends Jo and Shaun I mentioned that I was planning on spending Saturday night and Sunday morning photographing Christmas lights.

I had barely returned home when I received a text from Jo telling me that she had talked her husband into letting her go and could I get her a hotel room because she would be joining me if I didn’t mind. So “We” left early enough to stop for some quick shopping, check in to our hotel and walk down the street to the eatery I had spent my evening at last year before going out to photograph the lights.

Last year I was disappointed that the weather was to warm and they wouldn’t be opening the outdoor skating rink until after I was gone. However, this time the days were colder and it was packed with people.

I don’t like choosing auto modes on my camera unless there is a good reason. Shutter Priority for a fast moving event like a rodeo, or Aperture Priority for subjects field like flowers that require controlling depth of field.

On dark nights with moving subjects I prefer the Manual mode. I can be in complete control of how I want my subject to look by changing the ISO, the Shutter and the aperture depending what I want. That way I can balance the light so the final image doesn’t look unnatural.

With the Skaters I wanted to see some movement. I knew there would be people stopping, moving slow, and of course passing very fast. All I had to do is work with those three controls to create the photograph I wanted.

We spent the night photographing the streets, decorated boats moored along the lake, the lakefront walkway, lighted trees, buildings and just about anything in front of our cameras.

We were up before dawn waiting on a highway overpass for there to be just enough daylight to give buildings some definition. We were there to photograph Kelowna’s 120 foot tall Tree of Hope.

For 20 years, the Tree of Hope made up of about 25,000 LED bulbs has been a symbol of inspiration, giving, and hope to the community.

I like to photograph that light bulb tree. Most photos I see of it either shows no background because it is photographed after dark or too much background because it is photographed after the sun has come up.

I want to barely see beginning blue of the sky. To see buildings with the tree reflecting in their windows and I want the light to vivid and colourful. So we stood in the dark and waited for the early morning sun. This time we lucked out with a cloudy sky.

All we had was about 30 minutes of shooting before the sun came up. Then it was back to our hotel to eat breakfast, warm up, pack our gear and head home.

Repeating my words from last December, “Night photography (well actually, early morning photography) gives a city such a nice mood that isn’t really manifest during the day. I like the mystery and, of course, this time of year the frosting on the cake is the wonderful Christmas lights.”

Photographing a November garden   

 

For years I have made sure to wander my garden with my camera in every season.

I know most photographers are only interested in the bloom of spring or glorious colours or fall, but to me it’s as much how the yearly changes shape the plants as it is the colourful presentation of spring and fall.

I like to walk around the garden that hides my home from the country road that borders my property. Spring, summer, fall or winter. I enjoy it.

It was on a late afternoon just after 4PM. I walked out on my porch to listen to the coyotes serenading the neighbourhood. Or maybe they were complaining loudly that the wet cold weather was making it hard to find food that normally scurries in the meadows.

Friends have commented that it must be nice to live away from the noise of the hustling city. However, at that moment it wasn’t only the coyotes that were disturbing my supposedly quiet rural life. Three roosters, fourteen chickens and five ducks were all making sure I knew they were as important as the coyotes in their forest home.

As I lazily kicked some fir tree branches out of my path I thought about how the cold plants looked interesting and decided to get my camera.

I mounted my 200mm macro on my camera and attached the ring flash and walked along the little pond to take some pictures. After about five not-so-sharp captures I chastised myself for being lazy and returned to my house to grab a tripod.

A photographer I met that worked for a couple magazines once asked me, “What is the difference between using a tripod and not using a tripod?   “The shot with the tripod is the one the editor chooses for the cover.”   I am not sure if that’s always true, but I am sure using a tripod (and a flash) when photographing plants and gardens give me more keepers.

The ring-flash creates a smooth direct light that is very different from the flash mounted top of the camera. There is a sparkle to the subjects.

I always use a flash for plants.

I begin by metering the ambient light as if I were about to photograph the flower without a flash. Then I stop the aperture down to under expose the picture. In the low, bright November light I wanted to darken everything but my subject.

Sure one could open the aperture to reduce the depth-of-field and soften the background. But the closer the lens is to the subject when doing a macro or close-up photograph the less the field of focus in front of and behind the subject will be anyway.

I want as much sharpness as I can get around the flower. So instead of relying on the aperture to separate my subject from a busy background, I reduce the ambient light.

My ring-flash is set to manual so all I need to do is experiment with flash distance. I move forward and back to give the plant the light I want.

The ring-flash has a diffuser and I use a 200mm macro lens. The magnification is the same as with a 50mm or 105mm macro. I just get to be further away and that distance is more effective for the ring-flash.

There isn’t much more relaxing photography than garden photography because the subjects usually cooperate.

December has just overtaken me and I have no doubt that festive Canadian month will bring a totally different garden to photograph.

 

The best lens (for the price) to photograph wildlife.    

In my experience, any image can be altered (sometimes dramatically) when one changes lenses.  A subject can be isolated and the perspective in front of, and behind, the subject flattened with a telephoto lens. And landscapes are changed using a wide-angle lens as the field of focus increases the view around the subject.

To add a bit more to my last article, “what is the best lens for scenic photography” I thought I’d continue with a discussion I had with a budding wildlife photographer.

I select my lenses depending on what I want my photograph to say about the subject. And to me, control over my image is important so I ask my self two questions.

What lens will show my subject best? And second, what final result do I want?

This past week I spent some time talking about lenses with a photographer after he read my last article and said, What about the best option for the price to photograph wildlife here in the interior of British Columbia.

I suggested starting with a zoom that can reach 300mm and then purchase a 150-600mm in the future. Each of those lenses has a narrow angle of view and plenty of magnification for wildlife photography.  I thought he might start with a lens that is inexpensive, lightweight, easy to pack around and hand holdable. The smaller multifocal length lenses are generally lightweight and excellent for vacations or just walking around.

He told me he is hesitant to dig into his savings for a super zoom at the present, so I thought moderately priced lenses like the might do for his introduction to long lens photography.

There are interesting lenses like the 300mm and more impressive lenses like a 400mm, 500mm and even the favourite of bird photographers, the 600mm. But for an introduction I thought a zoom might be more versatile until he was ready to make the financial commitment to a large prime or zoom.

When he gets serious and willing to spend a bit more there are big lenses with maximum apertures of f/2.8. Those large high quality lenses give the user lots of light gathering capability and the ability to use higher shutter speeds for reducing camera shake, and help stop fast moving subjects.

To explain that, there is an optimum amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor for a correct exposure. When the aperture is closed down it lets in less light and one must slow the shutter speed.  With large aperture lenses the shutter opening can be increased and let in a lot more light, therefore one has the ability to increase the shutter speed for less camera shake and still get a proper exposure.

All this also affects “depth of field”.  Depth of field is best defined as “that area around the main subject, in front of and behind, that is acceptably sharp”.  Photographers like to blur non-essential elements in the background by reducing the depth of field, and do that by increasing the size of the lens aperture.  In addition, letting in more light makes shooting in low light conditions less difficult.

And to that photographer’s question:  What lens do I need?  There are lots of other choices that will better help him visually discuss his subject. I don’t think there is one lens that fits all.

Each year manufacturers introduce more lenses with different technology, which improves imaging capabilities, and naturally, increases the price.

One of the favourite sayings in photography is “it’s all about the glass”.

Photographers I know that spend their free time photographing birds tend to stay with long fixed-focal length, or prime lenses. However an opportunist like myself will prefer the versatility of a multifocal length (zoom) lens.

With regards to that soon to be wildlife photographer, I expect to see him with more than one lens choice as he pursues his hobby and selects different lenses that meet his photographer’s vision. I know he will be cautious with his purchases, but ultimately his choice of lens comes down to what he wants viewers to feel and see.

Photographing the 2018 Pritchard Rodeo       

 

The Pritchard rodeo has come and gone once again.

Gosh, its 2018. I need to dig though my storage of photographs to find out how long I have been attending and photographing that fun filled tournament.

I will say that it is a much smaller event than it was years ago. Maybe it’s a sign of the times. The numbers of participants has declined dramatically and so has the crowd.

There are so many opportunities for people to attend each weekend that spending the day at a hot, dusty rodeo may have become low on many peoples list. Nevertheless, for anyone, especially photographers, that want to see great action, our local rodeo is still a worthwhile way to spend the day.

I arrived an hour early expecting to beat the crowds. However, there were already several photographers ready and waiting ringside for the action to begin.

It’s always so much fun saying hello and trading quips with photographer friends I only get to see once a year. As I looked at the cowboy hatted gaggle of photographers I noticed that every dang one of them were sporting Canon cameras, all to evident by the large white lenses attached to their cameras. So I was ready and waiting for the Canon vs. Nikon jokes that never end.

That said, when the dust and the jokes clear, those that I stopped to talk to were experienced, talented and certainly dedicated rodeo photographers.

The first bronco-riding event started at 1AM and I comfortably positioned myself along the metal railing. I checked my camera and set my ISO to 400 so I could get a reasonable depth of field, selected Shutter Priority Mode and placed my shutterspeed at 1/500th of a second to stop the action.

My lens of choice for sports is the 70-200mm. There are longer focal lengths available, but my well used 70-200mm is easily hand holdable and quick focusing.

I like photographing any kind of action, and that especially goes for rodeos. Small venues like the one a few minutes drive from my home in Pritchard are photographically accessible and the organizers haven’t put restrictions that limit photographers. And for those new to rodeos, it’s a friendly and easy place to practice and, of course, experiment.

This hometown rodeo makes it easy for local participants to get quality photographs of themselves that can be made into wall prints. All they have to ask some one with a camera as they pass by.

I began this article with the words, “The Pritchard rodeo has come and gone once again”. As always, that fun packed rodeo was, well gosh, fun. I got to talk with other photographers and renew friendships with neighbours that I rarely see. And, of course, had a great time taking pictures.

 

Photographing flowers.    

 

Just after I got to my shop this morning I received a text on my phone that read. “ Hi, How’s your shop today? I hope you sell something. What’s your article going to be about this week?”

To tell the truth, at that moment I was walking down the street to get a coffee from Tim Horton’s and I hadn’t thought about my shop, impending sales or my article.

Just coffee. However, when I got to the coffee shop there was a line, so to keep from being rude I returned a text that said, “I dunno, me too, dunno.”

I’ll shorten this story by saying that about four or five hours later I received another text from my friend Jo that said, “I have pictures for you of flowers in your yard. Stop by on your way home tonight and get the USB drive. They’ll be edited to PSDs and ready for your article.”

So the images I am posting this week are again from my photography pal Jo. However, this time she didn’t have to wander around in the rain.

Spring is just beginning and there are many plants in the process of poking out of the ground and blooming. I haven’t taken the time to photograph anything anywhere in the garden yet.

Maybe next week.

For me, photographing my wife’s garden is quite a time consuming process that includes a tripod, an off-camera flash or two, reflectors, and sometimes even a backdrop.

My wife used to complain that I enjoyed the photography more than her garden.

That may be so.

When I opened Jo’s images on the USB drive it was obvious that she was of the same mindset as my wife, and enjoyed the spring garden as much as she was enjoyed pointing her camera’s 70-200mm lens at everything growing there.

I have been noticing more and more flower pictures being shown on our local photographer’s page. I suppose Jo, like most of those that are posting flower pictures, could wander the mountain meadows around Kamloops, British Columbia. However,most of the pictures I see are of the same one or two early blooming wild plants, whereas the large fenced garden at my place has lots of different shapes and colours to choose from and if one is, like me, more interested in the image then the flower, a colourful garden is a great choice.

This is a good time to get out with one’s camera. Whether it’s to photograph plants and flowers in the rain or on a sunny day the growth and colours that spring brings is so stimulating.

The famous Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson, in his book, “Photography and the Art of Seeing” wrote, “ Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, you intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.”

 

And thanks again to my good friend Jo McAvany.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Camera Handling   

The act of taking pictures and doing photography has become so easy that many of today’s up-and-coming photographers have come to rely completely on their camera’s tiny computers and are sure that the automated programs will always deliver wonderful results. All one has to do is put the digital camera up to the eye, or shakily extend arms, push the shutter release, and count on modern technology to make all the necessary decisions.

Last week a photographer proudly showed me some enlargements and asked how I liked them. They were reasonable images and the printing was ok, but as I looked at them closely I could see they weren’t very sharp, lacked depth of field, and contained tiny spots in the sky.

If I had been in a classroom environment it would have been a perfect time to break into a discussion on camera handling techniques. Using a camera effectively includes more than just moving a camera body around in front of one’s face and pushing the shutter. Camera handling means understanding how to use and control a camera in the most effective way.

Carpenters, cabinetmakers, mechanics, quilters, and cake decorators, to name a few professions, would nod their heads knowingly if I mentioned how important it is to learn how to control and use the tools of their trade correctly. However, when taking photographers and their tools of the trade into consideration, many believe that owning a feature-loaded camera is more than adequate, and if the photos from one’s camera aren’t great, they think the answer is to buy another camera.

With that in mind I have a few very basic camera-handling suggestions that would have helped that photographer to produce better pictures than those he showed me.

  1. Examine the picture and if there are lots of tiny dark spots, clean the sensor.  Cleaning the sensor is fairly easy and all that is usually required is a few minutes with an air-blower.
  2. Vibration reduction features only helps with shaking hands, not subject movement.   He should practice following subject movement and try to keep the camera as close as possible to his body to reduce shake.
  3. When handholding the camera, faster shutter speeds will produce more “keepers” than slower shutter speeds. For example, shutter speeds like 1/125th or higher are probably the safest to control both camera shake and subject movement. And follow that old rule to match the shutterspeed with the lens focal length.
  4. The current infatuation with wide aperture lenses is great, but the larger the aperture  opening is, the less the depth of field will be, and that will mean areas in front of and behind the selected subject will probably be out of focus. That photographer must understand that the smaller the aperture is the more chance the area in front of and behind the subject will be sharp.
  5. Using “program” or “auto mode” leaves exposure decisions to in-camera computers and takes creative and intellectual control away from the photographer. Some digicams and all DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras have manual exposure modes. My advice is to experiment and practice to find out when manual mode is most effective.

Photographing the garden in the March snow.     

 

Jo McAavany

Jo McAvany

Jo McAvany

This time last March I wrote about flowers as portraits, and discussed my indoor makeshift studio setup using modifiers like reflectors, umbrellas and softboxes to photograph potted plants.

This year I decided to put my winter boots on and wander out in the sub-zero, snow-laden garden out side my front door to see what interesting features I could discover.

As I have written before, I prefer using flash and the waning March light at 7PM was perfect for my off-camera flash equipped with a shoot-thru umbrella.

I really don’t care what time of year or the weather, I like photographing the plants and flowers in my garden. Shrubbery, weeds, and vegetation in general always make for fun subjects.

Plants are so much easier to photograph than people, plants don’t get tired, nervous or jittery, and always are happy to wait for me. Maybe that’s why I like photographing flowers, they (almost) always cooperate.

This time my goal was to photograph anything that caught my eye.

It didn’t matter how the late afternoon light was, because I had my key light with me. Relying on ambient light is so troublesome, and I knew that the only way to give my subjects “pop” and reduce deep shadows caused by sunlight was to use flash.

The slowly dimming light was perfect for my sojourn through the garden. I easily metered the ambient light, then under exposed slightly so the flash would become the main light instead of the late afternoon sun. The soft modified light from a shoot-through umbrella was even across the image with a gradual transition from highlights to mid-tones to shadows.

The snow was deep and more than once it filled my boots as I trod off the packed down path. However, there were lots to things photograph I didn’t care.

Branches and sticks poking out of the snow, shadows along the fence, a rusty old wagon wheel, the red leaves of Oregon grape, weathered boards, dead and dried out flowers, and as the sun sunk below the mountains, a light bulb hanging from the snow cover above my car.

I was enjoying myself so much that I texted my friend (Jo lives down in the valley and across the river from me) and suggested she grab her camera and join me.

We took turns holding the stand mounted flash and finally, when it was to dark to see things and we finished our photographic we went inside to load our images on my computer and warmed up with a glass of red wine as we looked over the pictures we had just taken.

As I have written before, I photograph my garden in every season.    I know there are many photographers that only take pictures of plants when they are in bloom and prefer colourful representations. However, spring, summer, fall, winter, snow, rain, sunny, or overcast, my garden is filled with ever changing subjects that always offer something new.

As always, my advise to photographers that think they must wait for inspiring weather before their next garden safari is, there’s always something to photograph no matter the weather or the season, just get up close and look for the small stuff.