The new lens

At my age, birthdays are only good for one thing.  I’m certainly past the point where another year older brings exciting new privileges like drinking or driving.  In fact, I’m starting to dread birthdays, so my birthday gift this year helped sweeten the deal a little.  I’ve been grumbling about a wide angle lens for a while now, and Corbin went out and bought me one (with a little help from daddy, I’m sure.)  It’s a lovely 18-55mm zoom, which makes taking certain shots a whole heck of a lot easier.  It’s a cool new toy, to be sure.

Corbin and I went to the park to test it out, and I have to say, shooting a baby is MUCH easier with a wide angle.  I’m close enough to grab him if he starts doing something like trying to fall off a park bench or eating a handful of dirt – both of which he did while we were there.  So far I’m really truly pleased with it, and while I know I’m limiting its potential a little by doing baby shots, I’m sure I’ll find lots of cool things to shoot with it.

I tested it out a bit on the pond at the park when the sun was getting lower.  Despite the crud that people have been flinging on the ice, the pond is lovely in the light.  What is it about ice that brings out the worst in us?  Either we act really really stupid (try to walk on it) or we dirty it up with stuff just to “see how it slides.”  Bleh.

Are there such things as sun trails?  I know you call the light the moon leaves on the water a moon trail, but I’m not sure what you call this.  It certainly captured my attention, and I messed around with different exposures trying to get the ripples of light on the ice while not totally blowing the sky out at the same time.  The key was to block the low, bright sun with a tree branch and expose for the ice.  Which totally lost any detail I had on the tree, but who cares, it’s just a boring tree.  It’s not even a grown up tree – it’s one that’s caged with a little mesh to keep it from escaping until it settles in and resigns itself to the new, mediocre location. Cool berries though, so definitely points for trying.

What is it about the camera that brings out the stupid in people?  As soon as I pull out my camera someone invariably has to comment on something – most usually the size.  This guy was at least a little original: he asked if I was photographing the old rusted fountain in the pond with an air of disbelief.  Another day when it wasn’t so cold and I didn’t have a fussy baby with me I might have tried to point out the wonderful light, but as it was, I just smiled and told him I was testing a new lens.  It’s people like that that make me second guess myself a lot.  He obviously couldn’t see anything worth photographing, and he couldn’t understand why I was bothering.

I did try this shot in pure black and white, but it lost a little something that made it interesting.

Early Snow

I usually don’t tweak things like this, and to be totally honest, I didn’t tweak it that much.  Still, I usually say that my photos are lightly edited, so I guess I should explain what I did here.

We had a lovely, messy snow in the last few days of October up here in NY.  It didn’t stick to anything hard, but when we got up that morning, anything green was covered with a dusting of snow.  It even lasted most of the day, but I managed to grab a few shots when the morning sun was shining on my back yard.  Given that it’s autumn, the leaves were already a nice rusty color that looked wonderful when the sun was on it.  I wanted to emphasize the color of the leaves more than the initial shot did, so I ended up tweaking it in post (production.)

Now, I could say that I dropped it into Photoshop and did some fancy number with filters and color channels.  Nothing that interesting, sadly.  All I did was tweak the white balance a bit to give it a slightly warmer cast.  It’s pretty obvious that I didn’t tweak it that far because the snow still looks white.  I guess if I really wanted to do things the hard way, I could have slapped some sort of filter on the camera lens itself.

Funnily enough, I didn’t notice until I edited the shot that there’s a water drop on the leaf tip.  Which explains why it’s out of focus.

For those of you who follow this blog, thank you for your patience.  I won’t go into details, but my son has given us a few scares and we still don’t know exactly what’s going on.  We’re praying for the best and still looking for answers.  Thank you for your kind thoughts and prayers!

Calibrating the hard way


We finally got my new computer from the local shop, and after working out a few bugs (the cpu fan stopped working!) and installing various programs, it’s almost usable.  Almost.  I had to tackle the daunting task of calibrating the monitor by eye.  All monitors are not created equal – what you see on the internet differs from what I see because our monitors are set up differently.  If you don’t believe me, just go to Best Buy and eyeball the different computer monitors – not a one is alike.  This poses a problem when it comes to photo editing – the image must match what the printer spits out, or I waste a lot of time and money trying to manually match it.

Now, real pros have a handy little calibrating program that does this stuff for you.  Since I don’t want to spend a lot of money (and I know there are free programs – I’ve been ordered not to download anything without permission after a few trojan/virus scares!) I decided to calibrate it by eye.  Basically, I printed out a photograph that I know is a good one, since I edited it on my formerly calibrated, dying gamma monitor, and compared the image on the screen until I got it right.  Sounds easy?  Not at all.  I’m still not sure I got the color balance right – the reds and blue aren’t quite as accurate as I want, and I’m still showing a few hot spots on the monitor that aren’t on the original image.  But, overall, I could put up this image without feeling too scared of what it actually looks like.

Corbin and I went for a walk along the Mohawk river the other evening.  Mosquitoes abounded and the water level has dropped drastically, but the evening light was lovely.  I don’t shoot landscape a lot, and this is truly just a snapshot.  Still, I thought it turned out ok for a distracted photo shoot with baby in tow.


I finally got an updated version of Photoshop to go with my brand new computer, so expect some experimentation in the coming weeks.  I have all these new toys and I don’t know what to try first!  In all my spare time, that is.  Of course, when I say I edited a photograph, bear in mind that I’m somewhat of a purist: no wild edits, insertions, or deletions.  I pretty much stick with basic darkroom edits – it’s just what I’m more comfortable with.

What the flood left behind

Someone once told me that it’s much easier to capture the effect of bad weather than trying to actually capture the bad weather itself.  If you’ve ever tried to take photographs of a high wind, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  While his advice might not have been perfect, it’s something I keep in mind when I’m shooting nature.

Last month was a month of rain.  Lots of rain.  Our temperatures were high enough that the (large) piles of snow started to melt during all the rain, and there for a while we had severe weather flood alert warnings from the national weather service almost every week.  It did flood, badly, but not in any areas close to me.  All we had to deal with was a massive amount of water trying to enter the basement – our sump pump earned its keep last month.

A recent walk on the sedate walking trail – former railroad – near the Mohawk river illustrated to me just how badly things had flooded in low-lying areas.  What was normally a forest merging into a marshy river bank filled with grasses and cattails during summer was instead inundated with about 5 feet of water. 

I know this because, as always, I went off-trail.  Every small tree and brush was coated with a thick coat of mud.  When the water finally receded, it left a curiously blank canvas of consistent mud and leaves on the ground.  Here and there, beside fallen tree trunks and large trees were eddies of detritus that the receding water had left.   

I’m a sucker for details, so this photo focused on the mess of stuff the water left behind.  It had to be black and white, because the uniform mud color wasn’t inspiring at all!

Thank goodness for small blessings

Rarely have I been so thankful for rain, but this weekend is one of those times.  We here in upstate NY were scheduled to get a snowstorm on, of all days, April 1st.  April Fool’s day – with about 7 inches of snow.  I was understandably NOT happy about it because it seems as if spring has finally started to arrive. 

A few of my daffodils were starting to come up, the temperature has been delightfully coatless, and my next door neighbors had scheduled their roof to be replaced.  7 inches of snow didn’t exactly thrill anyone I talked to, but they all sighed and said it was to be expected – that’s the kind of weather we get.

On the big day, it did indeed start to snow: big fluffy flakes that drifted down with mocking slowness, settling on the wizened grass.  But, oh joy of joys, it didn’t stick!  The roads were clear, our sidewalks were clear, and eventually, the snow turned to rain.  Glorious rain. 

It really never snowed after that – we got a good bit more rain that cleared up in time for the roofers to come finish the job in the blazing sun.  It’s raining now too, but despite the gloomy sky and the sound of my sump pump working hard, I can’t find it in me to complain.  No snow! 

I don’t really care if it was nature’s April Fool’s joke on us – we didn’t have to shovel any slushy, nasty snow this weekend and that makes me truly happy.

A little bit of spring

I’m ready for winter to be over with.  I can’t wait for spring, with its straggly tulips in my front flower bed and its carpets of wild violets across the street in my neighbor’s back yard.  While the snow pack has started to melt here, the smothered grass beneath isn’t exactly fulfilling my hunger to see something green.

Thankfully, I have a cat.

Actually, I have three, but the sickly one requires a steady supply of wheat grass to keep him happy.  He loves his wheat grass – it doesn’t seem right somehow that a carnivore gnaws on grass, but it’s essential to a healthy diet.  And the fresh ones from Petsmart make nice subjects for photography.

I promise, I didn’t oversaturate this image – the grass really is that green.  I don’t know what the company fertilizes the stuff with, but it’s vibrant and healthy looking when it’s fresh.  Since they grow it in practically no dirt (can’t have the cat making a mess dragging it out of the pot) it doesn’t tend to last long, even with frequent watering. 

That’s probably for the best, because a super moist environment of grass seeds and roots tends to breed annoying little fruit flies.  It annoys me to no end when Petsmart doesn’t quarantine infested shipments – and sometimes the new grass I bring home hatches out some tiny flies a few days later.  Not cool.  Not that the cat cares.

For now, spring resides in a tiny patch of grass sitting in front of my cats’ water bowl.  Hopefully soon I’ll be photographing violets instead.

The difficulties of photographing snow

I’ve recently realized that snow is not an easy thing to photograph.  Nor is ice, but for different reasons.  After my hike today – a very liberal use of the word hike – I’m unhappy with almost every image I took. 

I already knew the basics, like the camera meter wouldn’t  calculate the white on white very well, so I overexposed my images by at least a full stop.  I knew the white balance would need tinkering as well – an overall blue cast is not a lovely thing. 

What I didn’t realize is that snow in massive quantities removes enough details that the image looks flat.  It’s not that I didn’t capture detail in my images of snowy fields and forests – it’s more that the detail is only there in areas where the snow didn’t cling.  When you add winter lighting into the mix – cloudy, overcast, looks like it’s going to snow again – it’s a recipe for a really ugly, flat photograph.  

So.  Lesson learned.  Skip the knee-plunging hikes into frigid crusty snow and go for details.   I would have cheerfully offered up an arm or a leg for a good pair of snowshoes today:  the frozen rain we had a few days ago hardened the surface of the snow almost enough for me to walk on the top of it.  Almost, but not enough.  I finally took to carefully backtracking  in my own footsteps to make things easier on myself on the way out. 

Even though I’m not really happy with my images I got a chance to escape being snowbound.  While I didn’t truly capture the beauty of what I set out to photograph, I can say the woods were breathtakingly gorgeous dressed in ice with a dusting of snow.  Sometimes, just being there is worth the effort.  No photographs required.

Nature’s sculpture


It’s not often that we get the right kind of snow that makes the trees into fantastic sculptures.  Every once in a while we get ice that serves almost the same purpose, but snow has a much softer look than the hard surfaces of ice.  It’s even more rare to get that kind of snowfall without any sort of breeze kicking in to knock the snow off in a matter of hours.

This weekend was a nasty one by all accounts.  It was a perfect weekend to huddle up on the couch with a blanket and a good book while the snow fell.  And it fell all weekend – from a smattering of flakes on Friday morning to a steady blanket all through Saturday morning.  When it ended (Sunday’s random flakes didn’t count much) we had about 6 inches of soft, fluffy snow.

I’ve always loved the spare look of bare tree branches in winter – it’s the essence of the thing exposed.  When the snow coats the branches, the trees become so much more – they gain in size.  And while I love them all, my neighbor’s Japanese Maple is my favorite tree.

This Saturday was a rare occurence.  Not only did the snow hold while we shoveled the driveway and endless sidewalks clear, it stayed on the trees for the rest of the day.  I seriously considered going for a tree photographing hike – until the sore muscles from shoveling kicked in.   Oww.

The camera returns

Just in time for our big snow, my camera was sent home from the repair center.  Apparently the pixel wasn’t actually dead – somehow a stray piece of dust sucked itself onto the pixel and refused to come off. 

So the beast is home now, cleaned and spiffy and ready to go.  It’s a good thing too, because now I can play around with my new lens that I got for Christmas.  Since my handy little 50mm was in the process of dying, we’ve replaced it with another 50mm prime – but this one is the 1.4f version with ultrasonic stabilization.  I’m not quite sure yet exactly what that does, but it sure sounds cool.

Today I went clumping around in the snow with the camera and new lens, trying to capture a few good photographs.  I think I’ll have better luck with it when my fingers are less frozen!

The superplant: cattails

Since I’m camera-less at the moment, I’m  using a few images from my recent winter walk at Anne Lee Pond.  Even during the winter the cattails lined the edges of the pond, making it easy to see exactly where the waterline (and ice) was despite the snow coating everything. 

I’ve always loved cattails.  As a kid, the fluffy seed heads are irresistible – like a giant dandelion just waiting to be fluffed into the wind.  The plants themselves are visually interesting: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a water plant that grows as high as the cattail.  They’re the super wetland plant, popping up in drainage ditches, seasonal puddles, and every marshy area you see.  Plain and simple, they’re cool. 

I didn’t realize just how useful they were until I did a little cursory research.  I already knew that the starchy roots could be easily eaten and that the fluff had quite a few uses ranging from lining bird nests to moccasins. 

Did you know the cattail can be eaten in just about any stage of growth?  The leaves make great thatching, baskets, and mats, and the young leaves produce a kind of jelly that’s a natural pain reliever.  The pollen (lots of it) can be used as flour. 

It’s a great plant to deal with soil erosion, and wildlife flourish in the rhizomatous roots (they spread quickly by branching roots underground and producing new plants.)  Fish shelter and lay their eggs in the shallow water that the plants love, and waterfowl make nests in the stands of plants.  Cattails are truly a handy plant to have around.

If you love to photograph bugs, cattails are a good place to start looking.  During the summer at Anne Lee Pond I lurked beside the cattail stands at the edge of the lake and stalked dragonflies with my camera.  Butterflies paid them a few visits as well, along with a few less desirable insects that like to bite.  I do have a childhood memory of a rather nasty type of caterpillar that loved cattails – I’ve only ever seen it in on the broad, blade-like leaves of the cattail, and it stung like a bee.  Ouch.