This shot is from my morning outing downtown a couple of weeks ago. I don't know what it was that made me stop for this shot, but the more I look at it, the more I like it. I like how the window in the reflection frames the model's eye, and how it almost looks like she's holding up the building. But beyond the individual elements, there's something compelling about it, but I can't quite put my finger on what. You might think that this diminishes the value of the shot, since not even I know what's good about it, but I find that these little accidental moments are one of the best parts of photography, especially since it invites me to investigate the ideas I stumble across in future work.
Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G lens, in manual exposure mode. Aperture f/5.6, shutter 1/50 sec, ISO 200. Post-processing in Aperture 3: levels to darken shadows and brighten highlights.
Thoughts for improvement: I don't really know what I could improve about this particular shot, but I think that in general what I can take away from it is an opportunity to further study what in it works for me and how I can use that in the future.
I didn't get a chance to get out and shoot this weekend, so this week we're taking another trip through the archives.
I took this photo in August at the San Diego DSLR club's group shoot in Belmont Park. It's not an ideal technical image, what with the lens flare ghosts from pointing the camera straight into the streetlamps. I keep coming back to it, though, because I think it represents a turning point in my approach to photography--this was the first time I ever approached a stranger and asked if I could take his picture.
Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX lens, in aperture-priority exposure mode. Aperture f/1.8, shutter 1/40 sec (+0 EV), ISO 1600. No post-processing.
Thoughts for improvement: As I mentioned, the ghosting is a little awkward. I should probably also have toned down the lights in post a bit.
All I can say is, dang, Juliette is a lucky woman.
Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40, Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX lens, and Nikon SB-400 flash (bounced off the ceiling). Manual exposure mode, TTL flash mode (-2 EV). Aperture f/1.8, shutter 1/40, ISO 200. Post-processing in Aperture 3: WB adjustment; +1 exposure; curves for contrast; slight overall desaturation; further desaturated reds and yellows; retouched a sit on the side of my nose.
Thoughts for improvement: I've never been able to decide whether or not I like the fact that the auto-focus picked my glasses instead of my eyes in this one. But, honestly, the main thing I wish with this photo is that I had done something about my nose hair beforehand.
By Brandon Sanderson
I probably wouldn't have picked up another Sanderson novel so soon after finishing the Mistborn trilogy, but a coworker loaned me this one thinking that it was the third book in that series so I had it on-hand. Still, it made for an interesting comparison, since Elantris was Sanderson's first published novel, and Mistborn followed soon after.
Elantris is the name of a huge, once powerful and beautiful city. For hundreds of years, the city was populated by a race of benevolent demigods, each of whom was at one time human but was transformed into an Elantrian through a mysterious process called the Shaod. But ten years prior to the beginning of the story, the Elantrians' magic failed, causing their city to crumble. More than that, though the Shaod still takes people, instead of becoming powerful, near-immortal magic wielders, they turn into shambling wrecks, unable to die or even heal--any wounds suffered by a new Elantrian remain painful forever.
The story opens with Raoden--a prince of Arelon, the country formerly ruled by Elantris--waking to discover that he has been taken by the Shaod, on the morning he is to be wed to Sarene, a princess from across the sea. Like all those transformed since the fall of Elantris, he is banished into the rotting city, and the rest of the world is told that he has died suddenly. Sarene is left to find her way in Arelon on her own, while Raoden discovers the depths to which life--if it can be called that--in Elantris has sunk in the past ten years. Into this scene comes a third character, Hrathen, a warrior-priest intent on subjugating Arelon for his dark masters, and Raoden and Sarene must work to discover the secret of Elantris' downfall before Hrathen achieves his goal.
All in all, the book was decent, but in comparison with Mistborn, it was easy to see that this was the earlier work. Like a lot of speculative fiction, Elantris is built around one central idea. In this case, it's the mystery of the Elantrians' downfall. The problem is, that idea was a little too central for my taste, leaving me feeling in the end that the book was just too long for what it was. Which is not to say that the book is boring--Sanderson does a fairly good job of keeping things going from scene to scene--it's just that much of what happens, especially in the first half, ends up feeling digressive by the end.
Still, I do have to give Sanderson credit for coming up with an interesting concept. The characters were fairly well-crafted, too, even if the world they inhabited felt a little simplistic to me. What worked the best for me was actually not so much the plot but rather the time spent with Raoden, exploring the ruins of Elantris. Both the descriptions of the city, itself, as well as the survival-of-the-fittest culture that arose there were quite evocative. (As a side note, it made me wonder how much influence was drawn from Mervyn Peake's Ghormengast novels--I haven't read those yet, but reading this made me bump them ahead in my queue a few places.)
I don't know if Elantris is quite worth the praise it's gotten from critics and readers, but it was nevertheless a pretty entertaining read. It's out in paperback at this point, so you should be able to pick it up fairly cheaply in your local bookstore.
Started: 12/9/2010 | Finished: 12/16/2010
I'm all out of new pictures for the week (actually, I ran out on Tuesday), so it's back to the archives. This one is from the trip we took to Legoland back in October. This house is part of a Duplo-themed toddler playground near the back of the park. It has stairs up one side and a slide coming down the other, and I think it may have been Jason's favorite part of Legoland. Which made me extra glad that our tickets were free.
Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX lens, in manual exposure mode. Aperture f/4, shutter 1/500 sec, ISO 400. Post-processing in Aperture 3: brought up midtones slightly with curves; burned over everything except Jason, himself.
Thoughts for improvement: I could probably stand to crop out a bit of the bottom.
Will Be Back
I took this photo at 9:08 on a Sunday morning. I came back at 9:13, but they weren't back yet.
Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G lens, in manual exposure mode. Aperture f/1.4, shutter 1/1000 sec, ISO 200. Post-processing in Aperture 3: levels to brighten highlights and midtones, darken shadows.
Thoughts for improvement: Nothing comes to mind. Other than, you know, taking a picture of something more interesting.
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith
By Peter Carey
I wasn't sure, when I finished this novel, whether or not I liked it. Having had seven weeks to mull it over, I'm still not sure. That doesn't happen that often for me, but it appears to be where I am with The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.
A big part of my ambivalence stems from my difficulty in figuring out just what the book is about. It is, as the title suggests, a personal story. Tristan Smith is born with grotesque deformities that isolate him for the rest of his life--he can barely speak, only walks with difficulty, vomits when upset, and is so hideous that most people can't stand to look at him. So, on one level, it is a character study of a deeply marginalized and alienated person--we see the roiling internal life of a central figure who is effectively cut off from the world around him.
But then, it's also clearly meant as a political allegory. Tristan is born and grows up in the country of Efica, a fictional island nation whose beginnings as a penal colony recall author Carey's native Australia, but whose language and culture rather bring to mind South Africa. (Or, at least, the loosely formed image of South Africa that I have.) Tristan's mother is an emigrant from Voorstand, another fictional country whose cultural hegemony and cloak-and-dagger espionage agents are an obvious reference to the United States--though Voorstand's Dutch-influenced dialect is also reminiscent of the Boers.
The interplay between Efica and Voorstand colors every aspect of the novel. Tristan's mother is the founder of an agitprop theater company, and much of the first half of the novel is spent in the company of that theater group as they work and tour and speak against Voorstandish influence in Efica. Tristan grows up both despising Voorstand and entranced by its flashy culture. (The lie is later put to that flashy impression when Tristan visits Voorstand and sees, instead, a landscape of inanity and social decay.) Seeing Tristan's world as we do, through his eyes, we're given a glimpse at the other side of first-world relations with the third world.
The political aspect might seem overbearing if it were completely earnest--and I'm not sure it's not overbearing anyway--but there's also a fair amount of satire. Of the world superpowers, of course--Voorstand's feared intelligence agencies are depicted as almost farcical, and the country's society is based on what amounts to a literal worship of Disney characters. Conversely, Efica--especially the artists surrounding Tristan and his mother--are portrayed with such self-importance that it's hard to imagine that Carey isn't making fun of them, as well.
On top of all of that, the form of the book leaves me wondering how much, if any, can even be trusted. The story is told in Tristan's own voice, complete with footnotes on fictional history and cultural explanations, presented as a memoir or confessional. Throughout the book, Tristan addresses the reader directly, imagining us to be Voorstandish citizens who see him as a terrorist, and imploring us to understand his perspective. It's reminiscent of Humbert Humbert's repeated asides to the "ladies and gentlemen of the jury." Between that allusion and the fact that so much detail is included in scenes where Tristan was either not present or was too young to remember or understand, it seems at times that the reader is invited to wonder just how much is being made up or covered over to further some other agenda.
There's a lot going on in this book, and it's clearly a skillful work. But despite the fact that I can appreciate, even marvel at the craftsmanship, there was still something holding me back from really connecting with it. Maybe I'm simply too American or too bourgeois. I don't know. I'd love to get another take on it, though, so if any of you out there do read it, let me know what you thought.
Started: 11/23/2010 | Finished: 12/7/2010
If there's one thing that we San Diegans are good at, it's following directions.
Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G lens, in aperture priority exposure mode (matrix metering). Aperture f/1.4, shutter 1/200 sec (+0 EV), ISO 200. Post-processing in Aperture 3: cropped to 4x5; curves for contrast.
Thoughts for improvement: Probably should have taken this one at f/8 for deeper depth of field.
Ocean Beach Sunset
Each of the past two weekends I've taken a couple of hours to myself to wander around and take pictures. One of the nice things about this activity--other than the photographs, of course--is that I'm getting to know the city a lot better. Most of the places I've gone for pictures I've driven through before, but to really get a feel for an area, there's nothing quite like being out there on your own two feet.
Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX lens, in aperture-priority exposure mode (matrix metering). Aperture f/8, shutter 1/400 sec (+0 EV), ISO 200. Post-processing in Aperture 3: straightened and cropped; several curves and layers adjustments brushed in over the sea, sky, and foreground; cloned out a dust spot.
Thoughts for improvement: I like the effect that the sun flare gives on the left side, but it makes the photo feel a little unbalanced, since the left and right sides don't match. Possibly I should have taken a lower angle and panned left more, though the sun was already low enough that I probably couldn't have gotten gone much further left without shooting directly into the light. Also, if I'd waited twenty minutes or so, the sky might have been a little more colorful.
The Mistborn Trilogy
The problem with genre fiction is how, well, generic so much of it is. You know what I'm talking about. The SF/fantasy section at your typical bookstore is jam-packed with J. R. R. Tolkien and H. P. Lovecraft and Stephenie Meyer rip-offs. (And, let's be fair, even Stephenie Meyer is kind of an Anne Rice rip-off.) Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with being derivative--not only is there plenty of entertainment to be found by adhering to genre tropes, but playing on and with those tropes can and has produced some very thoughtful work over the years.
Still, it's nice when an author comes along with a fresh take on an old genre. Daniel Abraham's magic poetry in his Long Price Quartet, for example, or Glen Cook's dark spin on epic fantasy conventions in his Black Company novels. I'm not quite sure I'd put Brandon Sanderson and his Mistborn series on quite the same level as those two, but I do have to give him credit for coming up with a pretty novel system of magic for his books.
Instead of waving wands, chanting incantations, or carving mystic symbols, magic users in Sanderson's world draw power from various metals, which they ingest and then "burn." (He calls this system of magic "allomancy," aptly enough.) Different metals give different powers--pewter, for example, makes you strong, while zinc and brass allow you to manipulate emotions. Some people, called "Mistings," can only use one metal, while others can use all of them. These latter are known as "Mistborn," from which the series draws its name.
The series opens on Vin, a street girl who has begun to make a name for herself as a member of a small-time criminal organization. What no one knows--not even Vin, herself--is that her successes in her gang are because she is a natural Allomancer. She's soon discovered by Kelsier, a rebel who stands against the evil (and immortal) Lord Protector and the empire over which he rules.
The trilogy is structured much like a standard three-act story. In fact, the story arc reminded me a bit of Star Wars. In the first installment we're introduced to the major characters and shown the rules of the world; things end with a big triumph for the good guys. In the second episode we're given some big revelations and the characters are hit with a huge setback. The third and final episode finally answers all of the questions and resolves everything in one epic climax.
All in all, I'd say Sanderson delivered a thoroughly entertaining read. Nevertheless, I couldn't help feeling like I wanted more from him. I often felt that the series was reaching really hard for "epic," but despite the fact that world-changing events keep happening, I still came away feeling that the story was kind of small.
Part of this may have to do with the fact that I've read some really good fantasy over the last few years. I mentioned Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet already, and the comparison there may be apt. Both series are notable for being built around a novel magic system, but Abraham's world was much more deeply imagined, leaving you with the sense of having visited a place both truly exotic but still familiar. Too, Abraham worked with bigger themes, or perhaps just realized them more skillfully--either way, his characters had much more emotional resonance with me.
Lest you think I'm being too harsh, I'd like to repeat that I certainly found Mistborn entertaining. It's just that I felt that the series aspired to more, and I found myself wishing it had gotten there. But it's worth pointing out that I read the entire trilogy--over 2,000 pages--in just two weeks, so there was clearly enough there to grab me and keep me interested.
Started: 11/3/2010 | Finished: 11/5/2010
The Well of Ascension
Started: 11/6/2010 | Finished: 11/10/2010
The Hero of Ages
Started: 11/12/2010 | Finished: 11/17/2010