Monday, August 30, 2010

Photo of the Day

Not being a very deep person, I don't often go in for pictures that are steeped in symbolism, but this scene north of Urbana Illinois begged to be the exception. The picture is not manipulated, apart from being rendered in black and white. The tree is quite alive, and during the summer its leaves almost obscure the corn crib it's living inside of.

And I thought I had problems.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Photo of the day

I am still playing with my new Photoshop plugins that make it easy to create a painting-like effect. Here is a picture of an abandoned house on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It's been rendered as an oil painting. I like it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We Pause For Station Identification

To the two people who read this blog, thank you.

Part of what I want to achieve with this blog is to write about something other than myself. But here's the deal. I've been incredibly busy lately.  I defended my doctoral dissertation today. It went fine, and I am now a Ph.D., but finishing my dissertation has been a burden. It's my second doctoral degree, but those things don't get easier with repetition. I teach my first class of the semester tomorrow. I have two books under contract that have to be finished by spring. I'm working full time. My brand new computer had to go into the shop (bad power supply) and took my picture database with it. I'm not looking for sympathy here, I'm just saying I have a lot going on.

The point is that for the next few weeks posts may be more sporadic and less thoughtful than usual. (Although I guess that assumes they have been regular and thoughtful in the past.) I will try to keep things up, but bear with me. The good news is that I am planning some travel starting in October that should yield some great travel photography. Before I start that I will need some new equipment, so there will be that to write about.

All I'm saying is bear with me over the next few weeks as I try to keep up with life while recharging my batteries. I love writing this blog, and I plan to keep it going indefinitely. I hope you enjoy it too. If you do, drop me a comment. I'd love to hear from you.

The photo is of the fabulous Pritzker Pavilion in Millenium Park in Chicago.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Travel Spot: Sapporo, Japan

Hokkaido is Japan's most northern Island, and has often been compared to Alaska, in that it is vast, and mostly wilderness, and has long, snowy winters. But Hokkaido has something Alaska doesn't: A bustling, cosmopolitan city of almost 2 million people. Sapporo is Japan's fifth largest city, and in spite of its northern locale, it is an exciting, fun place to visit.

Sapporo first came to Western attention as the site of the 1972 Olympics, but it has much more to offer than sports. There is a major research university, famous industry, and many restaurants and entertainment venues. The whole city has a young, hip vibe.
The picture above is of a brook on the lovely wooded campus of Hokkaido University, a great place to walk around. Sapporo is actually home to 18 colleges and universities, as well as industries like Miso Ramen Noodles and Sapporo beer. Below is one of the covered shopping arcades. These are popular in many Japanese cities, but there is quite a network of them in Sapporo.

While the winters can be severe, Sapporo's famous snow festival draws millions of visitors during the coldest months of the year. In the summer it is warm but not humid, unlike much of Japan. Finally, Sapporo is a great starting point for visiting the huge national parks and wilderness areas on the rest of the island. 
Odori park dominates the center of town. It is one block wide and 13 blocks long, with the Sapporo TV tower at one end. On a beautiful spring Sunday, like the one pictured above, people flood into the park to listen to music, play, eat, and hang out.

Tourist information on Sapporo is available here.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Finger Painting in Photoshop

I haven't been able to get out and shoot pictures much this summer. I've been busy, with a couple of books to write, and now that classes are starting I have to turn back to teaching. What photography work I have had time to do has been spent learning Photoshop CS5, and Lightroom 3, both excellent programs. I bought a set of plugins by Topaz (mostly for the de-noise feature) and found that it has an excellent paint-look feature. I have been playing with it, and i think I like it. The picture above, of an old church on the hillside above Creede, Colorado, is one of the first images that I tried the effect.

I hate to say it, but one of its best uses is salvaging bad pictures. the picture above of the Pittsburgh skyline was so noisy that it was unusable (and couldn't be rescued by the de-noise plugin) but as a painting, it looks great.

Relatively good shots look good too, like this picture of the Washington Monument.
So many toys, so little time.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Features Treadmill

A week or so after buying my new camera, Canon (of course!) announced a series of new models and upgrades,  including to the model I bought. What saved me from total buyer's remorse was that the new model, while having a longer zoom, has less of a wide angle than my model. Since I mostly shoot at the wide end, the new model wouldn't have appealed to me. Whew.

What is amazing, as I've mentioned on other posts, is the range of features being crammed into these tiny cameras. They all have several modes of HD video, along with a huge range of shooting modes, and other advancements that make each camera a technological marvel.

I tend to look at these features as either "under the hood" or "driver's seat." (Tortured analogy, I know, but bear with me.) Under the hood features are enhancements that users don't engage directly, but make the camera better. Things like image stabilization, a back-lit CMOS or DIGIC 4 processor, are all great things, but the camera user doesn't need to know about them or make any choices when shooting. It's like having a more powerful motor or better transmission in your car.

Driver's seat features are the ones you have to select from to use the camera. To pursue my car analogy, my new camera has a "full auto" mode, which is the equivalent of driving a car with an automatic transmission. Just get in and drive; just pick up the camera and shoot. On the other hand, it has 23 shooting modes to choose from--everything from low light, and sports, to night portraits, beach, snow, fireworks, fish-eye effect, and so on. This is sort of like having a car with a stick shift, and 23 gears to choose from. How many of those are you really going to use, in the course of normal driving? I suspect most people identify two or three of those modes that they will use, and ignore the rest.

At some point all of these features become meaningless, even to a camera aficionado like me. I have to assume a casual camera user zones out much sooner. It just reinforces my belief that you should identify the specific features that are useful to you, and shop with those in mind, ignoring the rest. 

The picture above is of the sunrise over a very cold Dubuque, Iowa, in January 1983. I have been experimenting with a new plug-in in Photoshop that gives a painterly effect. More on that tomorrow.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Travel Spot: Nederland, Colorado

Nederland, Colorado, is a small town nestled in the front range of the Colorado Rockies, roughly between Denver and Boulder. It sits above 8,000 feet, on the banks of the Barker Meadow Reservoir. Nederland is a picturesque little town of less than 1500 people, with a long history. It started out in the 1850s as a trading post serving the various mines in the area. As the population in the mountains grew, it survived as a place to shop and get supplies, and as a crossroads on the way to many attractions, including Rocky Mountain National Park, and Roosevelt National Forest. Today the town calls itself the "Gateway to the Indian Peaks". The view above is of Nederland from across the reservoir.

Today, Nederland combines the look of an old mountain town with being a tourist spot, and with a distinct hippie vibe (Nederland was the third town in Colorado to legalize Marijuana). There are shops and restaurants, and a few hotels. Nederland is also the site of at least two annual music festivals, Ned Fest (coming up on August 28 & 29), and Frozen Dead Guy Days each March. It makes a great stopping point on your way to or from Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, which is just an hour north.
You can get to Nederland from Denver by following Colorado Highway 72 from the west side of town up Coal Creek Canyon (a very pretty drive), or you can go up Boulder Canyon Drive from downtown Boulder. The trip will take about an hour from Central Denver, and about half an hour from Boulder.

Information on visiting Nederland is available here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Photo of the Day

Here's a nice monochrome study of a sailboat off the coast of southern France, near Cavalaire-Sur-Mer. July, 2006.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

New camera!

 As I mentioned in my recent post on taking more or less photos, I have been searching for a camera that is small enough to carry in my pocket, but has enough features to do a respectable job of picture taking. I wrestled with the agony of choice, and finally this week, I settled on the Canon Elph Power Shot SD 4000 IS.

My search was a trade-off between size and features. I wanted a camera small enough to carry comfortably in a shirt or pants pocket, but I also wanted as much control as possible. I didn't expect to get RAW capability (and I didn't) but I wanted the ability to at least shoot aperture priority, and have JPEGs of decent size and resolution. The SD 4000 allows for fully automatic shooting, or you can choose from a wide variety of shooting modes, including aperture priority and shutter priority. It has face recognition, 10 megapixel resolution, usable ISO up to 1600, and shoots 720p HD video, as well as JPEGS up to 3648 x 2736. The lens is F2.0 wide open, with a 28mm to 105 mm zoom (35mm equivalent). All this in a camera that is only 4" by 2" by 3/4", or smaller than the average cell phone.
Low light shots are nicely balanced (above). The panorama stitch mode works very well, as you can see in this picture of the Wright Street bus plaza on the University of Illinois campus.

I have to admit that I have been distracted by some of the special features it has, including a "miniature" mode that is supposed to mimic a tilt and shift lens. I think it has potential, but I am still working with it. Here are indoors and outdoors examples.
It also has a unique slow motion video mode that is intriguing, but is such low resolution as to be essentially useless. Needless to say, I didn't buy this camera for its video capabilities.

Here is a picture of my living room, with deliberately challenging lighting, shot with the fully automatic mode. I'd say it did a pretty good job of exposing the room properly. Below that is my study, shot in the miniature mode.
This is the first camera of any kind that I've bought in about 4 years. I hope that this one will be something I can carry no matter what, so that I always have a camera ready to shoot. Prior to this point I have carried a Canon G9 with me as much as possible, but it really is coat pocket/backpack size and not pocket size. It is an excellent camera, though, with RAW capability and so forth, and I will continue to carry it as much as possible. Interestingly, I plan to replace both the G9 (assuming the G12 comes out this year) and my DSLR body this year (with either a Rebel T2i or EOS 7D), so I could have a clean sweep of new cameras soon.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Travel Spot: Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya, Japan

Last week I posted an entry about Japan's most sacred shrines, the Ise Grand Shrines. Today I'd like to discuss the second most sacred shrine, the Atsuta shrine in Nagoya. Ise is important enough that it gets some foreign visitors. The Atsuta shrine, in spite of its importance, doesn't usually come up on the itineraries of visitors to Japan. That's too bad.
Atsuta is located south of the main downtown area, and is accessible by both train and subway. The shrine is not ostentatiously marked, and I had to wander a bit from the Atsuta station before I found it. It is notable from the outside mostly as a mass of trees and greenery in the urban landscape.
The shrine itself is said to house the sword of the Imperial regalia, although this is never on display and its presence is never officially confirmed. Atsuta has a 2000 year history, and in addition to the sword, it has over 4000 relics, including hundreds of Important Cultural Properties, and at least one National Relic of Japan. Many of these can be seen in the rotating displays in the shrine's treasure house.
The shrine also houses a school for Shinto priests, and in the morning the students can be seen, clad in white, sweeping the public areas of the shrine.
In addition to the student priests, there are many Miko attending the shrine. Miko, or shrine maidens, must be young and unmarried, and are often the daughters of priests. At the shrines, they run the shops that sell religious items, attend at ceremonies, and assist the priests.

Nagoya tends not to be high on the list of tourist stops, in spite of being the third-largest city in Japan. It is an industrial town, and a very busy port, and has the reputation of not having much to see. This really isn't true. In addition to Atsuta, there is Nagoya castle, the vibrant port with many attractions, a zoo, an art museum, and museums operated by Toyota and Noritake China, both headquartered in Nagoya. Nagoya castle, in addition to being a beautiful expression of Japanese castle architecture, is historically significant as the home of the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Nagoya is definitely worth a visit.

Visiting information for Atsuta shrine is available here, and information on Nagoya is here.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Photo of the Day

It's our latest bumper crop here in the Midwest: Windmills.These are part of a very large field near Gibson City, Illinois.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Take more or less photos?

 I read a recent piece that extolled the virtues of leaving your camera behind and not taking pictures, particularly while traveling. I have to say I disagree, and I'd like to explain why. I don't want to put words in the author's mouth, but as I understand his reasoning, the camera interferes with his really seeing what is around him (he says it gives him "tunnel vision"), and that leaving the camera at home, particularly in a new place, helps him see better.

I don't doubt the author's sincerity, but it is fascinating to me that my reaction to a new place is exactly the opposite. Photography has taught me to do exactly what he is seeking:  to really see a place with fresh eyes, and to avoid the tunnel vision that most people live in. I try to take my camera with me at all times, because having it with me prompts me to look for photographs, instead of just zoning out about my surroundings.

What was ironic for me was that I read the piece at the above link on the same day that I had decided to explore finding a  point-and-shoot camera that is smaller than my Canon G9. The G9 is an admirable camera, and I carry it in my briefcase all the time, and in the winter in a coat pocket. But I'd like an even smaller camera that will fit in a shirt or pants pocket with ease. Why? So that I can always have a camera with me, and thereby be inspired to be constantly looking for pictures. I feel the need to take more pictures, not less.

To each their own, I guess. Do what you need to, in order to enjoy photography and get the many benefits it brings to life. As for me, I want the camera with me, to keep me alert to my surroundings, and to document what I find.

(The picture is of a boat on Mobile Bay, Mobile, Alabama, November 2009.)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Travel Spot: Ise Grand Shrines, Japan

Some of the most sacred sites to the Japanese don't get much attention from foreigners. Perhaps this is because they are so completely Japanese, that they become a bit inscrutable to outsiders. This is certainly true of the two most sacred sites in the Shinto religion: The Ise Grand Shrines, in Ise, and the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya. Foreign visitors who want a view of the "real" Japan could do worse than to explore these sites. This week, I will talk about the Ise Shrine complex. Next week, we'll look at Atsuta.

The Ise shrines are actually a vast complex of 125 Shrines, with two main ones, Naiku and Gekku. Of the two, Gekku is considered the lesser, or outer shrine, and Naiku is the grand, or inner shrine. Gekku is located in the city of Ise-Shi itself, just a short walk from the train station. It's vast wooded grounds are part of 14,000 acres of sacred Japanese Cypress trees that encompass the entire Ise complex. The photo above is of the entrance to the inner sanctum at Gekku.
Gekku is dedicated to the deity of agriculture and industry. The approach to the inner sanctum is a gravel walk which passes under several sacred gates, or Torii. The second Torii at Gekku is pictured above.
Naiku is located southeast of Ise in Uji-tachi, about 4 miles from the Gekku shrine. It is customary to visit both, but there are plenty of taxis and buses to get you back and forth. Naiku, the inner shrine, is the most sacred place in Japan. It is dedicated to the sun Goddess Amaterasu, and is said to house the sacred mirror she gave to the first emperor, which is the most sacred object of the Imperial Regalia. Above is the entrance Torii at the Uji bridge over the Isuzu river, which leads to the shrine grounds.
Above is the entrance to the inner sanctum at Naiku, the most sacred place in Japan. Although visitors can enter the gate and peer over a fence at the inner shrine buildings, one of which is said to house the sacred mirror, photography is absolutely forbidden within the gate.
Here is a glimpse of the inner sanctum itself, taken from along side the Naiku inner sanctum. Notice the gold finish on the roof pillars. The shrines at Naiku and Gekku preserve a very ancient style of building called Shinmeizukuri. They are the only shrines allowed to be built in this style. The workmanship involved is kept alive because every 20 years an exact copy of the shrines are built on an alternate site right next door, the contents are transferred to the new buildings, and then the old shrine buildings are torn down. The building and tearing down of the shrines is a multi-year process, but the next transfer will take place in 2013.
Oharaimachi is an old town that lines the road leading to the entrance to Naiku. It is made up mostly of restaurants and inns, and some of the businesses have been serving travelers for hundreds of years. It is a great place to get a snack or a meal after visiting Naiku, or to pick up a souvenir.

Information on the Ise shrines and Oharaimachi is available here.