Daily Jim pic 33

American bison Bison bison being bisony by James L. Kramer
This is not a buffalo, but an American bison (Bison bison – no, really,) and by saying that, I am perpetually reminded of a B.C. comic strip by Johnny Hart that dated from my early childhood. One of the caveman characters was perusing a dictionary and came across the entry, “Buffalo (noun) – See Bison.” He flips a few pages and reads, “Bison (noun) – The second largest city in New York state.”

Anyway, they’re pretty damn impressive ungulates, you must admit. Note the horns, with the wear areas on the tips that show this specimen has been sharpening them against whatever surface it could find. Take the hint.

Daily Jim pic 32

Crazy Horse memroial in  progress, South Dakota, by James L. Kramer
There are not a lot of reasons to visit South Dakota, and the previous Daily Jim pic was about a third of them. This will eventually be another, but it’s been in progress for a long time now (since 1948) so, you know, maybe not for next summer…

This is the Crazy Horse memorial, intended to depict one of the most influential Native American leaders, most known for defeating Custer at Little Bighorn. Part of the reason that it’s been taking so long is that it’s a private, non-profit foundation that’s driving the project, not a government initiative, and so there are no fund allocations or major promotional campaigns. Nevertheless, as can be seen by the equipment in the shot, it’s moving along.

It helps to know what it’s intended to look like:

scale statue of proposed Crazy Horse memorial sculpture, by James L. Kramer
Once completed, it should be pretty impressive, but unless a major funding breakthrough comes along, I’m not going to see it. I also have mixed feelings about memorials of this kind. Like yesterday’s example, there’s a certain level of recognition and reverence that such things foster, which is fine: “Gosh, people were impressed enough to do this big project, the person(s) depicted must have been pretty badass!” But it says nothing whatsoever of who they were, or why they received this attention, and so on. For that, we need dedicated education efforts – which can be undertaken without any sculpture at all. What percentage of people visiting Mt Rushmore cannot even name all four of the presidents depicted, much less tell us their major accomplishments?

I’m not one for hero worship; I know that everyone has their good and bad points, and it’s not the person so much as their particular accomplishments that deserve the attention. Right now there’s a bit of push, mostly on college campuses (imagine that,) to take down statues and/or rename various memorial halls featuring Thomas Jefferson, because he owned slaves. I think that knowing he owned slaves is a valid concern – and so are the countless efforts he made to establish our system or government and its underlying values, which have lasted longer than the majority of governments across the planet. That’s the man. But the good things are what we should be highlighting, regardless. They don’t weigh against one another – we have no reason to pass judgment on the person themself.

Anyway, enough soapboxing.

On composition, part 26: Sunrise and sunset

sunrise breakers with backlighting

A tight crop from a wider shot of the breakers at sunrise, increasing attention to those backlit splashes

It’s been a long time since my last ‘On composition’ post, even though I’ve done several that fall into the composition category. And as all avid readers of this blog will know (a ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!) I’ve probably covered all of this before in separate posts, but it’s better to have it here where it can be found easily, I think. I probably should have covered it long ago, but here we are.

The very first thing I’m going to say about sunrises and sunsets is that you’re at the mercy of the weather. Seems like this goes without saying, but there’s an additional aspect that anyone should know about, and it’s how the conditions can change very quickly. You might have a lovely day with just the right kind of clouds, all day long, but right before sunset everything changes for the worse. Or vice versa, and you get surprised by something excellent after a day of yuck. Weather has a tendency to be transitioning as the temperatures change, more often at sunset, so don’t let yourself get too discouraged when your plans don’t come to fruition. And by the way, I am perhaps more aware of this than many, because I have students that want to find out how to shoot sunsets and this is something that is extremely difficult to plan, even a couple of hours in advance, but especially a couple of days.

This is not to say that planning is meaningless – just the opposite. You definitely want to plan out a sunrise or sunset shoot, mostly to be on site with something scenic, and to no small extent because the colors can change so rapidly that noticing a great sunset and then trying to find a nice locale probably won’t produce what you’re hoping for. So, be at an ideal setting before it starts to happen, but be ready for things not to work out too.

So let’s go through the main factors.

Location: There are a lot of places that can look great at sunrise and sunset, so I can offer only a rough guide. Water is a very useful element, because it can reflect the sky colors, including those out of the frame, but we also just like seeing placid lakes at sunrise – it’s probably evolution or something, you know, back when we were fish and depositing eggs. But it almost always helps to have a nice sweeping vista, and of course something interesting in the foreground or setting. The lower the effective horizon (as in, the fewer close trees and all that,) the more you have to work with, and the longer the sun will be visible. Just bear in mind that capturing the sky colors may mean the foreground goes a bit dark, perhaps even all the way to full silhouette. Scout things out ahead of time, and if you’re being really particular, you may want to know precisely where the sun will touch the horizon, and this will usually take some astronomical software (such as Stellarium) set for your precise location. However, if you’re close, often it’s not hard to place the sun right in position within your frame with just a small amount of dodging around.

Also, bear in mind that you may be trying to get there before first light, so, in the dark. Or returning. Plan accordingly.

What’s going to work: Obviously, overcast days aren’t what we’re looking for, but clear days often don’t produce much either; you need something to alter the light more, and something for this altered light to shine on. Scattered clouds help a lot, and building thunderheads can occasionally produce something really dramatic. The best, in my experience, is when you have changing weather conditions right at rise or set, and especially a clearing storm at sunset – these seem to produce the more appealing conditions. Still, there are a lot of conditions that can work, and even some that work for just a few minutes, but do so spectacularly for that brief period.

Timing: It’s not hard to find out when astronomical sunrise or sunset will be, but make sure whatever source you use is accurate for your location. However, this time is only going to give you a guideline; first light is about 45 minutes before astronomical sunrise, and last light is about 45 minutes after sunset, and both of these periods can produce something captivating. So ideally, being on location for sunrise about 45 minutes in advance is being the most prepared. And don’t be too quick to leave, especially for sunset – a lot of the best colors come after the sun has disappeared from view.

Focal length: This will be dictated largely by the location, but here are a couple of pertinent details. The shorter the focal length, the more distant the sun will seem, and sometimes this can make it appear too remote; it’s a good way to emphasize something in the foreground more, though. Also, it’s easy to get too much of the sky and reduce the color impact by showing areas that aren’t as affected by the sunrise. Usually, however, a moderately wide angle lens (shorter focal length, like 18-25mm) produces the best landscape framing.

Auto-exposure: While camera mode, such as aperture-priority or shutter-priority, doesn’t make a whole lot of difference (save for those situations where they’re crucial, like a purposefully fast shutter speed because birds are flying past or whatever,) you won’t be able to trust the exposure settings of the camera. The sky will be much brighter than the foreground, especially when the sun is below the horizon, and depending on how much of each is within your frame and what exposure mode you’re using, the exposure can change significantly with just a slight tilt of the camera. The key here is exposure bracketing: go ahead and use the exposure meter as a baseline, but adjust exposure compensation radically, both over- and under-exposed, by up to two full stops or so – if you’re bracketing by 1/3 stops, that’s seven separate exposures.

Do not trust the LCD preview on the camera back while doing this – they’re notorious for giving the wrong impression of the exposure. Just shoot a lot, and decide which ones work when you’re looking at the images later on a properly-adjusted monitor.

White Balance: An awful lot of people just leave this on Auto White Balance (AWB,) but this is a mistake at sunrise and sunset. The sky may skew the overall color register in any direction, and AWB settings will be fooled and try to get these back to neutral rather than leaving them as they are. The setting you want is full sunlight, which pretty much means no adjustment to the image.

cormorant in silhouette against sunrise colors in water
Also, the atmospheric effects that make the light a warm yellow, orange, or even red is a great mood-setter, and this is an excellent time to be shooting portraits, both because of the color (which can make skin tones more pleasant,) and because the light is usually lower in contrast so harsh shadows are at a minimum. And the subtle but useful aspect, looking into the light is positive and optimistic, which is harder to do when the sun is directly overhead and blinding, but very easy at these times. This period is called the golden hour (even though, like happy hour, it’s often not an hour long – let’s not be too literal now,) and it’s a great time to be tackling a lot more subjects than simply the sky.

Saturation and contrast: This is a season-to-taste kind of thing, but generally neutral to higher saturation will produce more stunning images. As for contrast, that’s very tricky, because a lot of it depends on the setting and subject matter. But I have three main custom settings on the camera: one with increased saturation and contrast, one that’s neutral, and one with reduced saturation and contrast. And none of these are by a lot, either – there’s such a thing as going too far, and you can always tweak the settings afterward in a photo editing program. I use the increased sat/cont mode for when the light is low contrast, and the decreased sat/cont mode for when the light is bright and sharp; this helps keep the color and exposure registers within the narrow range of digital images. Since I have these modes and can switch them in less than 2 seconds (know your camera,) I can adjust as needed, and bracket the saturation and contrast settings as well as the exposure. Yeah, that can actually boost the number of frames to 21 or so for just one particular scene – I usually don’t shoot quite that many – but if it captures the perfect combination in the image, then you’ve accomplished what you need to.

Take lots of frames: While we’re there, we often don’t notice the changes, but during sunrise and sunset the colors can go through radical shifts in a very short period of time. All of a sudden the thin high-altitude clouds may be touched by pink, or the sunbeams may appear and disappear. It’s digital – you can always discard what didn’t work, which is much better than missing what would’ve.

Keep your eyes open!: Well, of course, but what I mean is, watch for something happening in your scene, like a bird entering the frame or someone crossing into the foreground. Little added touches can often mean the difference between a good shot and a great one, and sometimes you have only a moment to think about framing. If you see the pelican approaching, you have a little time to plan exactly when to trip the shutter.

Sunrise or sunset?: Most times, this is going to depend on where you have the best view, but here’s a couple of points to consider. The first is, the wind is usually the calmest during sunrise, and the birds the most active, and the locations the most deserted. And dew – let’s not forget that. Moreover, and this can be a biggie, the planes haven’t taken off yet and started filling the sky with contrails, while sunset often seems to be among the busiest times for air activity. This depends on the season, natch, because there’s plenty of morning air travel, just more often during the summer months it starts later than we’d be out shooting sunrise.

However, sunrise is colder, and much harder to judge what the sky will look like, and a lot of parks won’t have access until well afterward. And if you’re working with someone, it’s a lot easier to get them out for sunset than sunrise. Just things to consider.

beach sunrise shot with flare from bright sun
Beware the flare: When the sunlight is actually hitting the glass surface of the lens, this is very likely to create flare and ghosts within the image, even when the sun isn’t directly in the frame (but almost guaranteed when it is.) Every lens has a different effect, so it’s hard to tell you what’s going to happen, but often there’s a bright spot that will be exactly opposite the center of the frame from the sun, and then often some curves or rainbows here or there. They won’t always be visible in the viewfinder, either, because the aperture will dictate how they appear and that doesn’t normally close until you trip the shutter. Just be aware that it will happen, and recognize that the resulting blotch in your photo may be distracting and even lie directly atop a key part of your subject. Shifting a little between frames can help.

sunset glow behind bare treeTurn around!: Quite often, you can get some great colors in the sky while facing away from the sun, and of course while the sun is still above the horizon, it will be shining on whatever lies that way with that nice golden light. Also, even as it’s over the horizon, it may be catching high altitude clouds and still producing something cool up there when you think the light show is over. Just remember to periodically check all around you, and don’t miss the opportunities that may be available.

Be creative: Even when the sky isn’t doing something spectacular, sometimes there are little patches of color that can be exploited by using a longer focal length and letting them fill the frame, giving the impression of a great sunset even when, overall, it was just okay. Also, the sky colors can add a lot to just about any subject, and produce more impact from simple silhouettes. And if you’re near water, don’t neglect the reflections. Remember that moving water will be producing abstract reflections that will be frozen at a particular instant by the camera and might produce something quite surreal – or, you can drag the shutter and get a multi-colored blur. Ever shot the reflection of the sky in someone’s sunglasses, or on the glass fa├žade of a building? Even just doing a sequence of shots at the same exposure every thirty seconds can demonstrate how much the sky changes when they’re animated together. Play around!

Additional lighting: So I mentioned above that, when facing into the sun and sky, anything in the foreground might become a silhouette? And if you adjust exposure so it’s not, you’ll likely wash out the nice colors from the sky. But maybe you want some detail from the foreground anyway. The solution is to throw some light on it from your side – usually with a flash, but occasionally a reflector can be used if the sun is still bright enough (when it’s right near the horizon, the sun is often too weak to reflect much.) Using a flash or studio light, however, gets tricky. All forms of TTL flash metering stand a good chance of producing the wrong light, fooled by the background, and it’s very easy to get too much flash power and look unnatural. It’s better to have a unit that allows manual output, and bracket those settings heavily to find one that doesn’t look odd – it’s okay to be dim, we expect it when looking into the light. Worse, however, is that the sky light may be yellow or orange or red and the flash light will be white; again, unnatural-looking. So a colored gel to throw over the flash head is a better idea, yellow or orange being the best.

And finally, don’t neglect the other aspects of composition: While we’re captivated by bright colors, having these splashed across the sky usually doesn’t make a complete image; they should most often be considered a benefit, added emphasis for a particular subject or scene. You still want to put together a shot that will work without the colors whenever you can. Use you foreground elements wisely, look for something captivating or at least geometrically pleasing. However, the addition of the light and color can really boost an otherwise okay subject. Just put some effort into it, and don’t count on the sunset colors by themselves.

Hope this all helps. Best of luck!

long exposure of predawn light on lifeguard boat

This is a several-second exposure in the early pre-dawn light

Daily Jim pic 31

Mt Rushmmore under clouds by James L. Kramer
I don’t have to tell you where this is, and there’s only so much anyone can do with it – there’s largely one perspective that can be achieved, and I think this visit was as much for the benefit of Jim’s kid, while they were in the vicinity, than anything else. It’s admittedly pretty amazing how erosion can produce something that looks so much like four faces…

I actually liked this frame the best, out of the handful that Jim sent me, because of the color. The sun had gone behind a cloud and this produced a muted blue light that seemed to bring more character out of the rock than the typical sunlight shots. It also eliminated the harsh shadows that can make the faces look less like their subjects (or so I gather – I haven’t met any of them in person yet.)

But let’s take a closer look at this album cover, and the expressions therein. On. Whatever. Washington looking dreamily off into the distance, thinking of the bold future. Jefferson getting a bit pompous, believing he’s the driving force behind the songwriting. Roosevelt (the drummer) tucked into a corner and finally determined to dump these bozos and go solo. And Lincoln trying not to look like he was staring at the lighting assistant’s nipple bumps.

Oh, stop it. You know I’m right…

Sunday slide 34

multiple exposure sequence of total lunar eclipse 2007
It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out why I decided on this one to feature this Sunday. This is not a solar eclipse, however – just a lunar one. The eclipse had started before the moon rose, so the sky still had some light in it while I was trying to capture a moon dimmed by atmospheric haze. Lunar eclipses always happen during the moon’s full phase, and at least during the warmer months the full moon rises during twilight. That light set the background color for all of the subsequent exposures, even though most of them were against an adequately dark sky.

Only a couple of digital cameras can do this without resorting to a photo editor, but film bodies could do multiple exposures on a single frame easily, and I occasionally played with the technique. The primary part of this was the use of a shutter ‘computer’ called an intervalometer, Canon’s TC-80N3, to be precise. This could be programmed to trip the shutter at specific intervals, or for specific lengths of time, and so on, which came in handy when doing a perfectly-spaced sequence as the moon traveled up the sky. I was using a Canon Elan IIe camera body, which only allowed a maximum of 9 exposures – unless you reset it before the sequence ended. The trickier part was deciding how long each exposure should be, judging from how much the moon was dimming as the eclipse progressed, and you can see the variation captured.

A better setting would have been nice, but it was hard enough to find a good field of view without traveling. It also would have been nice to carry the sequence right out of the frame, which is also challenging: the viewfinder was almost completely dark, so even seeing the edge was difficult, and finding the now-eclipsed moon glowing a very dim red and knowing how close it was to the frame edge defeated me. I should have kept snapping frames until very sure, but an easier technique would be to just crop the picture…

Daily Jim pic 30

wide shot of Devil's Tower, Wyoming with storm in background by James L. Kramer
I’m doing these in the order that I received them, so blame Jim, but we’re once again hanging out at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. The wide shot with the light angle is dramatic enough, but the storm in the background adds a bit of atmosphere. This is the kind of composition where you need a dramatic lightning bolt, but that’s really hard in these conditions, since you cannot leave the shutter open and wait for one to happen along like you can at night. Even if you manage to extend the shutter speed to a few seconds with some esoteric light-reducing tricks like using a neutral density filter, it will improve the chance of capturing a bolt by only a small margin unless the storm is ridiculously active; meanwhile, any bolt captured will have its light reduced by the same amount and appear much weaker in the frame.

Daily Jim pic 29

interior of decrepit one-room schoolhouse in Denton Montana by James L. Kramer
This… is why you don’t have pep rallies.

I told you we’d see more, as Jim moves into the interior of the schoolhouse that his grandfather-in-law attended. While I’d like to think it was in better shape then, I’m assuming nothing. To me, it looks like those buildings used in the first atomic tests, though it possibly predates those by fifty years or so.

Actually, I’m surprised that it’s in this good a condition, to be honest – I would have thought someone would have set fire to it long ago.

It’s all sciencey

Once again, let’s welcome back Randall Munroe and xkcd:

I was thinking of observing stars to verify Einstein's theory of relativity again, but I gotta say, that thing is looking pretty solid at this point.

Actually, this isn’t sciencey at all. I remember hearing some religious pundit telling us eclipses were proof of god, because the perfect match of sun and moon sizes could only be done by an intelligent being – coincidences just can’t happen. Eclipses are god’s gift to humans, which explains why so many older cultures would freak out when they occurred. And why they usually occur in tiny patches out over the middle of an ocean, and why they’re not always a perfect match, and so on…

But yeah, the number of stupid questions that can be asked in the media is almost as high as Yahoo Answers. Insofar as rare occurrences go, this has the opportunity to be a lot more informative than any sporting event or motion picture, especially when coupled with someone knowledgeable on hand, but it’s pretty straightforward otherwise.

And it promises to be chaotic on the roads, anywhere near the band of totality. Be warned.

It’s a little late for this – your plans should already be made if you intend to view the eclipse – but this site is a great resource, and this one will help in photographing. Sorry, I could have been more on this, but you’ve been seeing the number of posts I’ve been making (outside of featuring Jim’s pics,) so, you know…

Daily Jim pic 28

ancient schoolhouse near Denton, Montana by James L. Kramer
It appears that I inadvertently deleted the e-mail this was attached to, so I’m thin on details, but I believe this is the schoolhouse that Jim’s grandfather-in-law attended. We’ll see a little more of it shortly. We’re back in Montana, by the way.

Meanwhile, I’m jealous. I would love for any of the schools that I attended to be this decrepit; obviously I don’t have fond memories of my school days. I would probably have even less fond ones had I attended something like this, but that’s perspective – I went to school mostly in the 70s, and while I was in a rather stagnant farming area, it wasn’t this bad – you can’t get much more Laura-Ingalls, can you? We at least had filmstrip projectors, though you had to manually advance the frames (bong.)

For my legions of younger followers, I’ll expand on that a little: some slides were not individual pieces of film but instead a whole roll undivided, which would be run through a projector and advanced one frame at a time, thus a filmstrip. The related part was usually a cassette tape, which contained the instructional/explanatory audio and a tone to cue the operator to advance. This is where all of the terminology of Powerpoint presentations came from, much later on.

Okay, odd memories time. The computer revolution was just beginning to take place in my latter years of high school, though not really at my high school. Nonetheless, we had a pair of computer terminals, one of which wasn’t even connected to a monitor: it had a noisy printer instead, so yes, everything that you typed, and every response to commands, was printed out one letter at a time – I mean, fairly quickly, but still, claklaklaklaklaklak. No shit. It was a hell of a way to play games.

The one that did have a monitor, though, was connected real-time to the computer lab at the trade school twenty-some kilometers away, and you could direct message people within the class, which was a hoot at the time (I honestly don’t know the class structure that permitted this, but I was never accused of being disruptive.) Yes, this was a precursor to texting, and before that instant-messaging, and was my first experience with the peculiar properties of communicating with total strangers in text messages. I was fairly popular in that milieu, and had people asking if I was around – at a time when my face-to-face interactions were anything but (hard as that may be to believe, but the glamor of bug photography was still in the future.) When you have a little time to formulate a response, you can be more clever than conversation permits, for most of us, anyway, and while this wasn’t exactly flirting, it had largely the same effect. Later on when AOL Instant Messenger was the way everyone was communicating, it happened again with the classmates of a friend who all used her account; they wanted to know who I was, undoubtedly not picturing me in anything like an accurate manner. It’s really weird how fascinated someone can get with someone else over a bare minimum of information, filling in the missing bits through sheer imagination.

And now, I barely text, and never use chatrooms or any such social media – dunno why. Just seemed to leave it behind.

Getting back to the old schoolhouse, do you think the students there used to leave messages on the little chalkboards for kids on different schedules? Maybe even, “Draw a picture of your ankles” when things started to heat up?

Daily Jim pic 27

black-tailed prairie dog Cynomys ludovicianus gorging on grass by James L. Kramer
Quite a few people don’t know this, but black-tailed prairie dogs will whistle sharply and fiercely when they sense danger.

Even fewer people know this, but they do so with the old country-boy trick of placing a blade of grass in a small gap between thumbs pressed together and blowing strongly. It is one of those remarkably useful things that you learn in adolescence, like making fart noises with your hand in your armpit.

This prairie dog, however, is playing an entire jazz ensemble…