Friday, December 31, 2010

Photo Of The Day

Sunset near Sterling, Colorado, July 1979.

(Click on the picture to see a bigger version.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Photo Of The Day

In the garden of the Nijo-Jo, the Shogun's Palace, Kyoto Japan, November, 2006.

(Click on the picture to see a bigger version.)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Photo Of The Day

Fishermen, in the evening after a storm, Frankfort Michigan, July, 1976.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas in Japan

The Japanese have adopted Christmas as a popular holiday, but as a social holiday rather than a religious one. In some ways, the Japanese have reversed the roles of Christmas and New Years from how we see them in the U.S. For the Japanese, Christmas is a time for parties with friends, while New Years, a very important holiday in Japan, is celebrated by gathering with family. Apart from the religious aspect, it's not such a stretch. People decorate for the holiday, and put up trees, and give gifts.

One curious aspect of the Japanese take on Christmas is the central importance of fried chicken from KFC. No joke. The story I heard, which I can't confirm, is that some American who was in Japan at Christmas time wanted to celebrate it with turkey, but couldn't find one to cook, and so settled for KFC instead, thus starting the fad. What is true is that the KFC company picked up on this and marketed it relentlessly and successfully. KFC outlets are plentiful in Japan, and at Christmas time lines of people waiting to buy fried chicken for Christmas dinner will stretch down the block from each store. People even reserve their Christmas fried chicken months in advance.

Above is a picture of a ubiquitous scene in Japan in November and December. It is a nearly life-sized Colonel Sanders, dressed as Santa Claus. This photo was taken in November of 2006, in a shopping arcade in Kyoto.

Happy holidays, however you choose to celebrate the season.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Photo Of The Day

Scattered leaves, Kyoto, Japan, November 2006.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Photo Of The Day

I think that over the holidays, for the next two weeks or so, I'm just going to post some of the pictures I've been working on lately. No particular themes, and, perhaps, no particular good. Who knows?

Here's the Iseshi train station, Ise city, Japan, November 2006. Rendered as a painting. (Click on the image to make it larger.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Snow, Part 2: Night Scenes

Photographing in the snow can be especially fruitful at night. One of the challenges of night photography is the wide dynamic range of any scene that has lights in it. Getting a good, balanced exposure can be next to impossible. In addition to the way it transforms a scene, the reflective quality of snow raises light values at night, and lowers the dynamic range, making it much easier to get a usable exposure. The picture above is an example. It shows fireworks over the Minnesota State Capitol during a raging snow storm. (Minnesotans aren't the least bit fazed by raging snowstorms.)
As I mentioned in my previous post, mundane objects can become interesting in snow. This is doubly true at night. I don't even try to get the white balance right in these situations, I just go for a good exposure.
Taking pictures while the snow is falling can also be very fruitful. Use your camer's flash to light up and freeze the falling flakes in place. This takes some experimentation, but sooner or later you'll get an interesting picture.
While you're playing with the flash, try setting the camera for a long exposure, one or two seconds, with the flash on. As you press the shutter, move or shake the camera. The result will be, as above, that anything in the range of flash is frozen, while lights and bright objects become a blur. Again, experimentation will yield something interesting.

As always, dress for the weather, and remember that the cold will sap your batteries, so have extras stored in a warm place, and keep yourself warm too.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Snow, Part1: Basics

Winter has come to east-central Illinois with a vengeance, and so we might as well spend some time on how to photograph it. Lemons, meet lemonade. Just to be clear, the picture above is not of anywhere in east-central Illinois, which is flat as an ironing board, but of Dubuque, Iowa, taken (on film) in January of 1990. (Click on any picture to see a larger version.) I am fairly sure that winter has come to Dubuque with a vengeance as well, so it's OK to use that picture.

Winter is a wonderful time for photography, but there are a few basic things to know about shooting snow. People often are unsatisfied with the pictures they get of snowy scenes. The reason for this is usually because snow tends to wreak havoc in the camera with two photographic variables: Exposure and white balance.

These things can often be fixed by software, such as Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture, but you're generally better off getting it right in the camera. The very easiest fix is to use the "snow" exposure setting in your camera, if it has one. The snow setting will automatically correct for both exposure and and white balance. But if not, or if you want more manual control over what happens, both exposure and white balance can be corrected using camera settings at the scene.
Many times pictures of snow end up dark and blue, even though the camera's meter reading was fine at the scene. The problem is that the pure white glare of fresh snow throws off the camera's light meter. It sees the bright white as neutral gray, and dials down the exposure accordingly. The result is an underexposed, drab scene. In the picture above, of the Quad at the University of Illinois, the camera's exposure, on the left, was about 1 1/2 stops underexposed. The fix for this is to use your camera's exposure compensation controls to overexpose snow scenes. The camera's histogram can be very useful for measuring the proper exposure. As you can see, the panel on the right is much closer to the actual scene.
The second problem is white balance. Again, the pure white of the snow is the culprit. In anything but direct sunlight, the white snow reflects the blue of the sky, turning it blue as well. The result is an unpleasant blue cast to the entire picture. The fix is to adjust your white balance in your camera to account for this. Although some cameras may allow you to adjust by color temperature, most have scene settings for white balance. The fix, obviously, would be to switch from automatic white balance (AWB), to the snow white balance. If your camera doesn't have a setting for snow white balance, then the shade setting will help. Pick a white balance that warms up the scene and gets rid of the blue cast. In the picture above, the left panel is the original shot, and the right has been corrected for both exposure and white balance. A real guru will create a custom white balance in camera, based on the scene, but if you can do that then I'm really surprised that you're reading this.
One of the great things about shooting in the snow is that it transforms things, so that even mundane objects become interesting. It also is good for a sort of minimalist approach because the snow obliterates so many details. Try to look at things in the snow with a new eye; it's very rewarding.

On Friday, some special fun shooting snow scenes at night.

Monday, December 13, 2010

More "Paintings"

I'm still having fun with my Photoshop plugin that renders photos as paintings. These are all from Provence, France, in the summer of 2006. Above is the church in the village of Grimaud. Below is a passageway in Gassin. (Click on a picture to enlarge it and get a better view.)
I am finding that it takes a certain kind of photo to work well as a painting. In fact, it is really hit or miss, and I haven't quite nailed down the most important factors. For instance, I thought pictures of flowers would work pretty uniformly, but that's not the case. The picture below is one that does. So I keep experimenting.
The plugin is called Topaz Simplify

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Travel spot: Nauvoo and Carthage, Illinois

Nauvoo, Illinois is a small town on the Mississippi, located between Fort Madison, Iowa, to the north, and Keokuk, Iowa, to the south. The town was basically taken over by the Mormons in the late 1830s and became their home base, and the site of their first full scale temple. At the time, the population swelled to 12,000, although it is about 1,000 today. It was at Nauvoo that Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith was arrested, and taken to nearby Carthage, where he was murdered. After his death, and other events, the Mormons moved west to Utah, and Nauvoo was left alone.

Today most of Nauvoo is an historic district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A new temple has been built, pictured above, completed in 2002. The old town, or "flats" has been preserved with a scattering of buildings from the time. They include, among others, Joseph Smith's House and store (Below).

A few years ago, it happened that I was reading Fawn Brodie's excellent biography, "No Man Knows My History: The Story of Joseph Smith", when I was returing from a trip west and crossed into Illinois from Keokuk. Seeing the signs for Nauvoo, I took the quick 12 mile drive north along the river. It really is quite a sight. There is an elaborate visitors center, run by the Mormon Church, and you can freely wander by the temple, and the preserved buildings on the flats. I was there on a snowy winter day, just after an ice storm had moved through, but it was still a very interesting visit.

From there, it is just 25 miles south and east to Carthage, where the old jail, the site of Smith's murder, is also preserved by the Mormon church.
There is a memorial plaque there, and another visitors center. Admittedly, both of these sites are a bit off the beaten path, but if you are in the area and have the time, Nauvoo and Carthage provide a well-preserved view of a fascinating page in American history.

Information on visiting Nauvoo is available here, and Carthage here.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Travel Spot: Woodstock, Illinois-Groundhog Day

The 1992 movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray has become a modern classic. While the movie is set in  Punxsutawney Pennsylvania, it was filmed in Woodstock, Illinois, a northwest Chicago suburb. There is much to see there relating to the film. The main square is the site of the Groundhog Day activities in the film, and the private home that served as the Cherry Street Inn is nearby on Madison St.
As it happens, some good friends of mine owned, and lived in, the Cherry Street Inn house until just a year or so ago. It was my good fortune to get to spend the night there a number of times. The view above is from the window of the bedroom where I slept on one of my visits. As you can see, this is pretty close to the view the Bill Murray character got up and looked out at each morning.

The interior of the house looks nothing like the interior scenes in the film. They were shot on a sound stage. It is a beautiful house though. My friends would host a lavish Christmas party each year, after which a select select few of us were invited to spend the night. I have some very fond memories of staying up late, six or eight of us, seated around the fire, drinking very nice scotch, and talking until the small hours.
If you visit Woodstock, you won't get to see interior scenes like this unless you know the current owners. However, you can see the house from the outside, along with all the other memorable locations from the film. Add to that some very nice local restaurants, and easy access from Chicago, and you have plenty of reason to visit Woodstock.

Information on Groundhog Day sights in Woodstock is available here.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Photo Of The Day

From my first trip to Japan, way back in 1988, here is a picture of shrine maidens, or Mako, at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. I caught them in a rare, and uncharacteristic, moment of levity. Shrine maidens help maintain Shinto shrines and assist with ceremonies, and they carry out their duties with pacific calm and utmost seriousness. I respect that, but it was nice to see this little bit of very human enjoyment.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Travel spot: The Great Plains

I've been reading Ian Frazier's wonderful book "The Great Plains", and it's been reminding me of my trip to Nebraska and the Dakotas in the summer of 2009. In fact, some of the places I visited are discussed in Frazier's book. His point, to which I concur, is that this area is amazingly open and empty, and yet is chock full of interesting history, dating back thousands of years. It takes some doing, but it's worth a visit.

The picture above is of an abandoned building at a stop on the Deadwood to Bismarck stage trail (rendered as a painting). The stop is along Highway 73 in northern South Dakota, south of Lemmon. In the 1870s this trail was one of the most active in the West.
Above is a panorama of Fort Buford, located near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Little Missouri rivers in western North Dakota, just southwest of Williston. This fort, along with the Fort Union trading post a few miles west was an important hub in the 19th Century, and saw many luminaries of the time, from Sitting Bull to John James Audubon. This part of the country is really worth visiting. It will take some time, and some driving, but both the amazing geography, and the strong sense of history make it worthwhile.