Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bad Dates

Bad Dates

It's hard to start a paragraph with, "It sucks that my airship ride was canceled today" without sounding like either a fat cat, or at least somebody way, way too into Steampunk, but that's what happened to me today. Turns out, zeppelins lost out because they have a hard time taking off in anything other than a gentle zephyr.

By way of consolation, I do have a picture of some zombies for you.

We had our ginormous Halloween party on Friday, and every year they hire some ringers to dress up as zombies. Most of the time, I'm like, "Eh, zombies. I can't throw a brick without hitting some hipster dressed for a zombie flash mob!" However, it turns out these paid zombies are actually great hammy horror actresses, and had a fun time attacking passers-by.

I shot most of the Halloween party in what I now think of as "Folsom Style" (um, maybe not the best term) -- with a flash held in my left hand on a TTL cable, and manual metering on the camera.

Happy Halloween everyone, and I hope somebody is flying in a zeppelin out there.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Past Through Tomorrow

The Past Through Tomorrow

Last week, I was hoping for rain. This week, I'm hoping it stays clear -- because I have a ride scheduled with some coworkers on this airship you may have seen hanging around the Bay Area. We went last year and flew around the South Bay. Great flight, but I really wanted to catch the city and the Bridges from above. The opportunity came up for us to fly out of Oakland, and so now I'm sitting here, hoping we don't get rained out or socked in with fog. Wish me luck!

Rain Dropped

Rain Dropped

Shot this one after I stepped off Caltrain and was headed home. Composition at an angle on these windows continues to niggle at me, but I loved the drops on the glass and the world-weariness of the man.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Down the Rabbit Hole

Down the Rabbit Hole

I've had intense myopia since the second grade -- without corrective lenses, I can't even make out the big 'E'. So, I have to make an annual pilgrimage to my eye doctor for various obscure tests (why yes, I can see that blurry-shaky thing at the corner of my vision, and the balloon on the road in the distance, and managed to go another year without my retina detaching!). Last but not least of these is the bit where she puts these drops in my eye to make them dilate. Hello, f/1.4 eyes!

The bad news is the same drops that hold your pupils open super-wide also paralyze some of the muscles that allow your eyes to focus. So, dilation inevitably results in this 2-4 hour window for me where it's almost impossible for me to read or focus on anything close. As a bonus, everything is overexposed, so stepping out into natural light is painful if I'm not wearing sunglasses.

It's generally not a good experience for me, since I spend my day reading and writing things on a computer terminal, or taking photos and examining them on the screen.

So, naturally, I decided to do something tricky -- get a macro shot of my eye while it was in this state. Hey, it's Halloween: attack of the mole men and all that.

I had a few problems: With a macro shot, depth of field is going to be razor thin. And if I wanted to beat this back with smaller apertures, I was going to either need to be out in direct sunlight or to use a flash -- neither of which were going to happen in my state. And even if I did have more than a frog's eyelash of focus, AF is tricky with macro at best. So, I had less than an inch of depth of field, manual focus, I was holding the camera, and I was so unable to focus my *own* eyes, I couldn't even tell if the frame would be in focus.

Pixels are free though, so I just did something simple. Got roughly in focus on my eye, switched to manual, then took about ten frames, moving the camera gradually from the focus distance in and out. For light, I used my house's built-in softbox -- the bathroom with the frosted window.

As I was squinting at my eye on the frame, I realized I was picking up a reflection in my eye of the camera. So, I tried to find a place where the reflection was the most visible, and positioned myself there -- on the theory that a huge pupil would be cool, but one with stuff in it would be cooler. Mission accomplished! I love the way my lens is right in the center of my pupil -- iris in iris.

Liked the effect, and I'm only a tiny bit sad that the opportunity for this only comes once a year.

In the Soup

In the Soup

This is another one from my set of rain pictures -- a little chaotic around the edges, but I love the character of the bellhop at work, juggling rain, baggage, guests, the works.

I suppose I should talk a little bit about how I went about shooting the rain. If you want rain that kind of looks more drop-like (kind of like what our eyes see), shoot north of 1/320s. If you want long, cinematic streaks of rain, go lower -- probably south of 1/100s. I had a little physics debate in my head: Do fat raindrops fall heavier than small ones? Terminal velocity is going to be affected by things like the drag coefficient, the mass of the drop, and inversely proportion to the area. Would the drop being heavier have more of an influence than the larger area a fat drop would have? My meditation on the subject was cut short by Googling it on my phone, where I found this page, which tells you the terminal velocity of raindrops. Big and fat? About 30 feet/second. Tiny and drizzly? 6 1/2 feet/second. So, as rain gets fatter, you might end up needing more shutter speed to sort of freeze it as a drop -- but easier to get that long, flowing effect.

Ok, I'm probably boring you all by now, but at this point, I thought I was all set.

Well, not quite, and if you look at the picture above, you'll see why. Notice how the place where we see the rain most clearly is under the man's umbrella? I like it here, since it gives me the impression he's having a permanent rainy day -- but it's sort of the opposite of reality. What gives?

Well, basically, on some rainy days, you have flat, diffuse light everywhere. Pretty good for portraits of people, and bringing out some saturated, sunk colors -- but not so hot at making little drops of water stand out. The way I thought of it was that if the little drops of water get hit by light in any direction, light refracts off it equally from every way you look at it. It ends up being not standing out on the sensor. But give the light a direction, or drop the rain in front of a dark background, and the rain shows up again.

That's my theory at least, and it was certainly born out by all the rain I saw last weekend.

If you are stuck in flat, diffuse light, what should you do with your rain? Well, I think most of our brains are pretty good at accepting the fact that there's more rain near umbrellas. It's aphysical, but there's some weird logic to it our brain accepts. You can also look for dark surfaces to set your rain against (plenty of asphalt in the city), or wait for the errant ray of sunlight (or city lights, if it's night) to pop out. The other option would be flash -- of course, lots of electricity flying around there, so you really would have to wrap everything up if you wanted to end up not frying your flash (or at least discharging the batteries). That would probably put me outside my limit for carting around gear and remaining nimble, but to each their own.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pennies from Heaven

Pennies from Heaven

This image is weird -- it actually took me a bit to explain what was going on with it when I found it while processing. Basically, this guy had a translucent, dollar-signed themed umbrella. To the human eye, it was a little more translucent. But since I underexposed this a bit when I shot it (other than the b&w conversion, the only alteration is brightening the dude at the bottom), it brought out on the detail of the umbrella, which breaks up the even brighter background sky in a way that's so weird, it looks like I photoshopped a layer of dollar bills on the umbrella.

Weird, but I like how it turned out.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010



I was a little worried to be shooting in the rain. My d700 is weather sealed, and even though prominent madmen use it inclement weather, I figured I might have a few problems. One, the little rubber door on the left that leads to the tethering and/or ports_I_never_use has gotten a little used with age and tends to pop up and can't be properly sealed. Also, I don't tend to use my uber-weather-sealed-if-you-should-encounter-God-on-the-road-he-will-be-cut-by-this-lens-it's-just-that-sharp lenses out on the street.

I mainly use my cheap-o Nikon 28mm f/2.8 and 35mm f/2. On the plus side, they're not zooms, so they wouldn't be sucking in rainwater. On the downside, they're a little plastic-y (particularly the 28), and I had visions of water dripping through some tiny seam I'd never seen. Still, they ARE pretty solid, so I just put on a lens hood (less sprinkling on the glass), and crossed my fingers.

I also carried a small umbrella with me, and put on a treated leather jacket. I didn't have galoshes, but I reasoned if they're anything like the oyster boots everybody wore where I grew up, they'd be a chore to walk around in.

Here's the deal: I didn't grow up in a city (where masses of people walk around in the rain for no good reason), and I've lived in California for the last ten years in suburbia. It turns out my wet weather survival skills have atrophied.

Here's what I discovered on my first day in the rain:
  • Carry the camera bag UNDER your jacket. Not perfect, but with something small like the Crumpler 5 million dollar home I use, it's totally possible. Keeping it outside my jacket resulted in an increasingly moist top to my bag, and eventually it made my lens cloth (which I keep at the top) a little damp.
  • Umbrellas with a little hand strap rock, since they're less likely to go flying and you get some use out of your off hand a little. I kept on shooting at 1/500s, so I could wing one handed shots for everything.
  • The small umbrella is portable, but expect stuff you carry not directly near your head to get wet.
  • Consequently, keep your camera near your eye (useful anyway, even if you look a little weird).
  • Crocs are great until you get in water deep enough for them to seep in.
  • Moving crowds of people in umbrellas are actually kind of a danger to your eye or something if you or they don't raise your umbrella at just the right moment.
  • People love to shake the water off umbrellas onto you. 
  • Everybody recommending storing your lenses in a bag with desiccant in order to keep moisture from building up. I didn't do this, but I don't keep desiccant on hand.
  • If you have to duck in somewhere to get warm/dry, the Apple Store might not be the best place if they just came out with a new netbook. "Boy, an 11' MBA might just overheat enough to warm me up right now..." Plus, all the cold and wind seem to lower willpower. ;) 
If I had it to do over again, a poncho over everything might help (particularly if it were warmer and I wanted to skip the jacket). There are also rain sleeves for the camera, but I didn't feel like I needed one, and they seemed like a lot of effort in order to make me less able to shoot in the middle of a swarm of umbrella-carrying people, so I skipped it.

Now, if I were seriously crazy, I would look into getting covering for a flash, so I could use that off camera in the rain. Seems like a good recipe for me frying my flash, but you never know...

I also picked up a fair amount of insight about how rain shows up in your images and what it does to the light -- but I think I'll save that for another post before this one gets too big.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Against the Rain

Against the Rain

I spent most of Saturday in the area around Market & Powell, but then decided to head over to the Mission to see how rainy it was there. The 24th street station is pretty widely photographed (because it's awesome), but I saw something new to me when I caught this guy opening his umbrella at the bottom right before the ascent.

Love the light here, the lines of the escalator, umbrella dude, and let's be honest: I never feel more like a Morlock among Eloi when I step out of the dark confines of a Bart Station into the light of the Mission.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Everything is Better with Umbrellas

Rainy Days

Actually got this frame a week ago at the Oktoberfest in Campbell. The Campbell Oktoberfest... well, they had beer, decent sausages, and (of course) Kettle Corn [1]. This shot taught me a valuable lesson: Basically, the people using umbrellas for light shaping are totally missing out on their utility as a compositional tool. Basically, it made me want to carry an umbrella to hand to people to play with before I photographed them. Or, maybe have umbrella day ever third Thursday?

Thanks to my friends Vince and Olga located at frame right, who were good enough to be unsuspecting participants in the composition.

[1] Naturally, this was the same Kettle Corn at the Mountain View Art & Wine Festival, the Folsom Street Fair, the Sunnyvale Art & Wine Festival, and the Gilroy Garlic Festival. Evidence of a shadowy guild that controls all street fairs in the Bay Area continues to mount. 

Rain, Rain Go Away

Rain, Rain Go Away

I noticed a friend of mine had buzzed yesterday:

"I want to go outside and take photos. However it's raining like mad. This makes me sad."

Perversely, I had the opposite reaction. Rain means people behaving differently. Here in California, you can read "differently" as "crazier". People forget how to drive in the rain, and swerve around. People forget that rain exists since we haven't had it for eight months or so, and then end up blinded by a freak umbrella opening accident.

I've never really photographed in the rain (other than a few times I got caught out in it, and like a proper Californian recoiled like Bill Compton hit by the sun), but I had a picture in my head, ever since I saw it in Street Photography Now.

Well, I didn't get that shot, but I did find a lot of things I liked out there in the rain, and this is the first one. :)

More to come, and I'll comment more about what (if anything) I did to protect my gear from the rain.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Grin and Bare It

Grin and Bare It

Snapped this last week as I was on a crosswalk. Woman noticed me with a camera, and, well, reacted. Got to think she had this bottled up inside all day, and the lens was just an excuse. :)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Shame on Sutter

Shame on Sutter

I was passing underneath the overhang for some construction work going on at a hotel, and notice this line of lights trailing off into the darkness, and an old guy in the corner of the frame. Shot this from the hip, and noticed the guy had covered his face. First I wondered if he'd seen the camera (always an occupational hazard), but then I saw him later behaving somewhat erratically.

Regardless of that, I like the way I feel like I'm falling into the darker part of the frame, and both the guy and the sign are covering things about themselves, so it kind works for me.

Dog Lover

Short and Sweet:

Dog Lover

Took this when I was up in the city last Saturday.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

20 Something

20 Something

My girlfriend is headed out of town for the next three weeks, so I thought I would take a brief break to post one of my favorite portraits of her.

Last Christmas, work had a 1920s themed holiday party at City Hall in SF. I think it's every young girls dream to be a flapper, so we spent several weeks assembling something right out of a speakeasy's dance floor.

I shot this with one light in my softbox, positioned to about 45 degrees to camera right. B has limited patience for this kind of tomfoolery, but I managed to get this shot before I got one of those patented frames with her eyes rolling at me. ;)

What can I say? She's gorgeous.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Public Exposure

Public Exposure

Snapped this while I was waiting to take Caltrain up to the city. Very nice light for most of the day up in the city, and at the station in Mountain View -- made up for seemingly weeks of harsh, direct light torturing me. Along with the light, the grin, the sky, and the composition (yes, I liked the image), these people are profoundly and genuinely joyful about having a Caltrain ticket.

How did they get to this place? I'm envious of this kind of mad glee -- can you ever imagine being this excited about public transit? Maybe public transit to the Moon? I don't think I'd get there without pharmaceuticals, but I'm glad these girls were as excited as they were, since it made the photo for me.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Gotta Have Faith

Gotta Have Faith

Was up in the city again on Saturday, taking some photos and attending a housewarming (coincidentally, of this couple previously featured). I did basically the same area I did last week -- Market near Union Square, and then up Stockton to a little piece of Chinatown right before sunset. Brad over at CitySnaps says this area never gets old -- I'm inclined to agree. My only real complaint is that sometimes there are almost too many people, with all the craziness.

That leads me to this shot: Dude on a pedestal (would have been so perfect if it were a soapbox), shouting some evangelical Jesus thing, and basically a crazy guy from the street shouting back at him. Later that night, twenty feet away, two dudes were out with a megaphones, blasting out about how great life is, and offering free hugs to anyone who walked by. Guy with drums made out of buckets and eating fire (again). Frank Chu vs. the Nike Women's Classic. Old hands like the Jesus Loves You sign guy, and the Anti-Sex guy. Last week it was people acting out a drama about the plight of African Americans in the 1850s (cool history lesson, but why next to Forever 21?). Guy dressed up in a Union Square outfit like security, handing out maps to anyone who'll listen.

I spent half a day around this area, and I couldn't tell you which of these people are on serious, which ones of them are on drugs, which ones are performance art, and which ones are just cosplaying.

If god believes in Irony like I do, it's the Union Square map guy.

I was telling a friend about all this, and he was making noises about 'only in San Francisco'. Maybe so, but it's more than that -- everybody comes to the place with all the people for attention. Attention directly to get off on it, attention fired and then cooled second hand the form of money, and attention third hand photog style where we try to get attention for shots of people getting attention. ;)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Just Visiting

Just Visiting

Was thinking about animal photos this week, and remembered this photo from Thursday Night Live in Mountain View. It had grown on me over time -- the composition is delicate, but I like how it holds together.

Also, the dog is pretty cute.

The Lonely Road

The Lonely Road

One of my gripes with my 28mm is that it has perennial problems with flare when front lit. I got disgruntled enough with it that I actually ordered the small lens hood for it. Honestly, I've never been a fan of hoods -- I'm already carrying a two pound hunk of metal, do I really need something else to draw attention to the lens?

I'd say it was a little hard to tell if the hood was really doing anything about flare. My verdict would be 'not much', although I think I could detect an overall increase in micro-contrast to some of my shots. Hard to tell if it's the lens hood placebo effect or not. ;)

The plus side of all the flaring was that I got this shot, when this guy walked into my frame. With this light, the shot is all about him and his expression -- best efforts of the lens hood notwithstanding.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hang In There, Baby

Hang in There, Baby

One more photo from the Stockton Street Tunnel -- and with that, I'll quit while I'm ahead. :)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

No Exit

No Exit

This is another shot from the Stockton Street Tunnel as another section of that Muni Bus ran by. Along with being (at least I think) a successful frame, it was an interesting test of my social inhibitions.

Taking a picture of anyone on the street is always something that requires me to steel my nerves a bit. It gets exponentially harder once I've been spotted. Taking a photo after that -- particularly when I'm by myself is still almost impossible for me. I think how the photo might be broken because I've been noticed, and also all the social manners come rushing back to me.

I had this happen to me here, but the people were behind glass, and on a bus moving away from me and down a tunnel. I still felt the mad pressure to stop, but it was easier to force myself to keep shooting what I saw. Not sure if the Stockton tunnel is good practice or not, but I loved the shots I got there.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Scenes from the Stockton Street Tunnel

Scenes from the Stockton Street Tunnel

I walked through the Stockton Street Tunnel to get to Chinatown this weekend, and as I passed through the tunnel, I passed a MUNI bus crammed full of people (Fleet week traffic, maybe?). Lots of great faces looking out, and this is the first was the first frame I saw.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Five and Dime

Five and Dime

Went up to the city yesterday to take some photos -- was hoping to get something to submit to the Street Photography Now Project for Instruction #1. Couple I really liked, though apparently this week's project closed sooner than the anticipated deadline?

At any rate, I loved the expressions here -- panhandler vs. kid is a nice set of contrasts here, and I love the guy just peeking around the corner at his marks.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Fourth Rider

The Fourth Rider

Living on the peninsula, I feel like that the summer is generally a long period of ho-hum sunsets. "Great! Another clear, blue-sky day..." At any rate, whenever there is a good sunset, I take note. In true Murphy fashion, this is when the days shorten, and I'm much more likely to still be at work when the sunsets happen. So, I'm always on the lookout for interesting vistas around campus.

Our offices have a balcony that looks out over our chunk of campus, and I was there last night watching the clouds, and I was telling a friend, "I think these may turn pink. We've got a sunset." An outside observer could tell it might be an interesting sunset, since every single photog on my team wandered out on the balcony, and started staring at the clouds and pontificating.

My friend Marius and I figured we'd try out a sunset photo down by this little statue that's right down the road from our office. Our approach to the statue was interesting -- Marius is an Actual Landscape Photographer, so he sniffed a bit when I got down low and started shooting up at the horse with my 28mm.

Walking away from the statue as we were losing light, I noticed that there was a fair amount of drama when I saw the horse silhouetted from a distance, and shot semi-wide. I had Marius go up to the horse, and shouted at him to try a bunch of poses.

This is one I liked, and frankly seemed a little creepy, which I loved.

A Rock and a Hard Place

A Rock and a Hard Place

This is the last of the Folsom photos I plan to post for now, so I thought it would be appropriate to have one that depicted part of what was actually going on at Folsom, which was a whole lot of sexually-charged activity.

As I've said before, one of the challenges of shooting Folsom was that it's very easy to just shoot all these people being nude and/or sexual just because it's not something you see every day. Man bites dog (I might have actually seen this at Folsom) and all that. I wasn't after this -- I wanted to find images that worked for me, and this is one.

The thing is, I still don't understand why it does. A lot of my friends I've shown this too have liked (or loved) it, though they similarly can't articulate the dynamic either. I just look at it, and the pieces fall into place. It felt like a strong note to end the series on.

If you're interested in the rest of my favorites from the Folsom Street Fair, you can find them here, and if you want the complete set, I also have those available. Please note: these sets contain images which are not generally considered safe for work -- caveat spectator.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Best in Show

Best in Show

One thing about street photography is that it requires a certain amount of social heedlessness at times. Some people who I know take a few drinks before shooting stuff on the street -- I generally try to get in a place where I'm just lost in the feel of the hunt for good pictures. But it's one of those things like being up high -- don't look down, or you might get freaked out about what would happen if you fall.

I wonder if the people at Folsom feel this way. I've never really been into any sort of sexual scene (for lack of a better word), so I wonder how it happens that you wake up one morning and decide that your partner is going to walk you around on a leash like a pig. Maybe it's just the most natural thing in the world. "Honey, I'm the pig this week!", but I have to think there's a certain state of mind that's required to pull something like this off.

I was telling my best friend about Folsom, and he quipped that he had been lead to believe it was a festival for celebrating your compulsions.

I think I fit right in.

Kiss Kiss/Army of One

Kiss Kiss

The hardest thing for me about photographing something like the Folsom Street Fair is to not let it turn into a documentary work. When an event is full of characters (which Folsom is), it's very, very easy to just start shooting the individuals and call it a day. Colors and costumes do the heavy lifting, and if you're competent with a camera, you end up with a nifty record of the event.

These images are invariably garbage.

Army of OneLet me explain what I mean -- if someone came to you and said, "Give me a box of photos that tell me what Folsom is about!", you could show them to the person, and they'd ooh and ahh, and they'd get a picture in their head of what it was about. But the individual images would not, as a matter of course, be something that you'd want to revisit. You wouldn't hang them on a wall, you wouldn't show them to friends who knew what Folsom was about -- they could just sit in that box, or on that Flickr group, waiting for the next person who wanted to know the score. Add to this the fact that so much of Folsom is about shock and spectacle, and the seduction of doing this can be almost irresistible. I'm sure I succumbed at least a little.

Let me tell you about the sort of images I wanted to make though, and hopefully you can see what I mean.

About a week before Folsom, I went to a gallery where I got to see a lot of Diane Arbus' portraits hanging on the wall. My reaction to seeing these portraits was the same as my reaction to Garry Winogrand's street photography: I could look at my own work, or even portraits of some pretty decent photographers, and if you tried to compare them, you wouldn't even be on the same planet. Seeing an Arbus photo work was a little like saying "I'm heading up to San Francisco" -- only, it'd be like stepping out of your house, hopping onto a rocket ship, going to the moon, looking at San Francisco through a telescope, then being hurled by a mass driver down into Dolores Park. You may not agree with the photos. You may not even like them. But it would be impossible to deny that the process at work was wholly different to the world you came from.

I can only dream about taking portraits that do this. But I do know if your portrait is going to step past being just a documentary work, you have to do more. You have to get some sort of connection with your subject -- you have to hyper-control the scene or be hyper-sensitive to nuance to detect when their real character is going to shine through. I know if I can do that even a little, I like what comes out a lot more.

The two images here aren't perfect, and I only had a minute or two to get my shot. I feel like I connected to them in the time that I had -- and while I don't feel like they took me to the moon, they did at least get me a few feet off the ground.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Folsom Street Hero

Folsom Street Hero

This is another one of my shots from Folsom. This one was shot as this guy walked by, and I thought it was interesting to see one with such a perfect physique (uh, and largely unclothed) in the foreground, with some people sort of trailing off behind him. Since the guy was in the shade but with bright, bright sky behind him. Did the same trick as before, where I dropped the overall exposure, and popped up the flash. The result was better than expected -- rather the opposite of my normal experience of walking around with a flash in hand.