The Art of Making Due

Dental Exam

On Wednesday afternoon as I left home, I grabbed the camera in case I came across anything worth shooting. The nifty fifty was mounted on the front, and seeing as how I didn’t figure I’d even use the camera, I figured that was good enough. Two hours later, I’m at the Franklin Park Zoo and kicking myself for not bringing a different lens. The 50mm f/1.8 doesn’t zoom in or out. It is roughly the focal length of our eyes. I can’t get closer to the animals, nor can I capture a wider shot. I can’t even go macro the way I can with two of my other lenses. What I’m left with is a challenge. I can either throw my hands up in the air and give up or I can make due with what I have and try to use the strengths of the lens to my advantage.

It’s a fast lens, perfect for low light, and the overcast skies combined with dimly lit interior locations dictated that I use a wide aperture and turn up the ISO. The wide aperture gave me a very narrow depth of field, and the fast focus helped with the moving subjects. As some of them were moving quite often, I switched into single-servo auto focus to see exactly what was in focus. Continuous-servo mode doesn’t display which target it locks onto.

Given that the zoo was nearly empty being a weekday, I was able to take my time composing shots, however by the time I had all of my photos loaded into Lightroom, I wasn’t all too impressed. There were a few shots that stood out, but after having processed them, they still lacked what I was looking for. Opting to try something different, I dumped a few shots out of Lightroom into HDR Efex Pro and a few of these images are the result.

I spent most of the day trying to either capture a portrait of a beautiful animal or trying to tell a story with a photo. The above photos of the mandrill and silverback gorilla come across as portaits in my eyes. As I was crouched in front of the gorilla pen, a child stepped in front of me and stared through the glass. I think the faint image of the gorilla somehow captured the moment. Not bad for challenging myself to use the less than ideal lens that I found myself with.

Window Light Leftovers


A north facing window lets in wonderfully diffused lighting that works perfectly for portraits. There are no harsh shadows, the light is soft and wraps around the subject, and it’s available anywhere you have daylight and a north facing window. The following photos are a few tidbits that I had sitting in the camera after catching Dude sleeping on the bed. Note the rectangular catch-lights in the eyes.

Ode to the Cardboard Lightbox

Bottle Opener

The purpose of a lightbox or a light tent is to isolate an object, wrap it in light, and bring out it’s details. The panels on the top and sides diffuse the light and the inside of the box provides a seamless backdrop perfect for product and macro photography. What’s the catch? They’re not cheap. The smallest models run about $50, and for larger sizes, that number can double or triple. Enter the Do-it-yourself solution… in this case, free. Take a cardboard box, a sheet of white paper, tissue paper, and some tape. Cut the flaps off of one side of the box, cut squares out of the top and two sides, then tape tissue paper over the holes. Add the white paper to the interior and reinforce the seams with tape. The whole process took me a few minutes. For some more detailed instructions, check out Strobist.

Tuckerman Ravine

Tuckerman Ravine

My first trip to ski the bowl, as documented in Get Out!, was an intimidating solo venture. Stories of difficult skiing, avalanches, unpredictable weather, and injuries propagated the myth that the superb spring skiing wasn’t for the timid, and I was ready to believe it. I reached the cabin that year as they med-evac’d a guy down the mountain with a partially collapsed skull. A trail of blood led upwards for a half-mile to the base of the bowl. I found out later that a dislodged block of ice had cascaded into his face. Subsequent annual trips have each moved further into the realm of awesome by picking only the plum days with the best weather and the most coverage. Whatever fear I once felt about the bowl has been replaced with an appreciation of the sublime challenge, but this year I wanted to do more than just ski. I wanted to capture a complete panorama of the ravine in order to create a stereographic projection, as seen above.

Armed with a full pack of ski boots, skis, clothing and food, as well as two cameras, three lenses, and parts of a tripod, we set off from Pinkham Notch amidst the crowds. According to the Tuckermans Avalanche weekend update, there were somewhere between 1500 and 2000 people there that day. Temperatures climbed as fast as we did, that is, slowly. Hours later, in the bowl of the ravine, I set up the tripod with difficulty. The skinny legs punched through the soft snow and threatened to topple only to be saved by the frozen layers below. Ideally I would have had a shovel to level the area or mini snowshoes for each tripod leg, but neither seemed very practical. (Skiing with a tripod strapped to my back is entirely practical.) I swapped lenses, set up the pan-head and snapped the images before repacking and switching cameras. Rather than risk damaging my main camera, I opted for a lesser quality point-n-shoot for the climb up Lobster Claw. The problem I have now is that I like the resulting images and can’t enlarge them nearly enough.

Once I imported all of the photos into Lightroom, I narrowed down the collection to about 25 that I liked and started processing. Using the sync option while developing is a huge time saver and a sure way to keep colors consistent between similar images, especially when doing a panorama. My attention turned to stitching the 8 images together in PTGui and then finishing it further in Photoshop CS5. Tripod removal was simple with Content-Aware Fill.

And now a few notes for photographing Tuckerman Ravine…

1) For landscape photos, think wide and arrive early. On a busy day, the bottom of the bowl fills with spectators and provides an unsightly foreground.
2) For action photos, bring a long lens (200mm minimum), a tripod, and a pair of crampons. For the best shots, you’ll want to position yourself somewhere partway up the wall. There is usually a ledge beneath the Chute, but try not to take up prime real estate. Shooting head on from the bowl makes for a flat, lifeless photo.
3) A circular polarizer is a must. With the sun overhead and reflecting off of snow and ice below you and surrounding you on three sides, there is a lot of scattered light. A neutral density filter may be a decent idea to cut the amount of light, depending on your shutter/aperture/ISO choices.
4) Watch your histogram. Is snow supposed to be gray? Of course not, but your camera wants it to be. Override the meter by dialing in some Exposure Compensation until your highlights are actually white again, but not so far that you’re losing detail.

Tungsten Versus The Sun


Light is the basis of photography. Light can be hard or soft, warm or cold, mottled, diffused, or any number of things really. Light also has a temperature. Neutral sunlight should be around 5500K. This is what light from the flash is also calibrated towards, but how appealing is direct and neutral sunlight? It doesn’t make us feel anything. Warmer light, such as that from the sunrise or sunset is infinitely more appealing. Tungsten lighting, frequently found indoors in most of our light sockets, has a temperature of 2850K. In digital photography, we are able to set the white balance of the camera to match the color of the light as our eye might do, making whites stay white, and it can get ugly if we use the wrong setting. Last year, I saw the result of an entire photo session captured with the camera set to tungsten while shooting under daylight. Every photo was bright blue. This happens because tungsten light is more yellow and the camera would cool off the light per se to make it appear white. Since daylight is already white, it cooled it off into the realm of blue.

It becomes a challenge then when using multiple light sources. Ideally, the lights could be color balanced by swapping bulbs and adjusting the white balance in the camera. Sometimes we’re not so lucky and we’re left with a color cast in the final image. In the top image, both sunlight and tungsten light were supplying light. The sunlight was arriving diffused through the window and the tungsten from overhead. Without having daylight balanced bulbs, I was left with a mostly yellow photo that I tried to salvage in Lightroom. Yet another reason to shoot in RAW format.