Fire in the Sky

Fire in the Sky

Tuesday morning--like most weekday mornings--I was getting Jason's breakfast ready as Juliette was on her way out the door to go to work. The door had scarcely closed behind her when she came back in and said "Come out here and look." Through the open garage door I was greeted by this explosion of color as the sun came up over the hills. I just stood there and gaped at it for a few seconds before rushing to grab my camera out of the trunk of my car. In the space of the few minutes it took me to get my camera, switch lenses, and snap a few frames, the light had already changed and the brilliant orange color faded to gold and then to yellow. I missed the best colors, but fortunately I was able to catch a few shots that were almost as good.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 55-200mm VR DX lens, in manual exposure mode. Focal length 65mm, aperture f/16, shutter 1/60 sec, ISO 200. Post-processing in Aperture 3: Daylight WB preset, cropped out some on the left and bottom, curves to recover highlights, deepen shadows, and intensify the color a bit.

Thoughts for improvement: What I would have loved is to be able to get this shot from up on my roof with a much wider angle. Either that or to have been in the back yard of my neighbor across the street, whose yard opens up onto a canyon. As it was, from ground level in my own driveway I had to settle for a much narrower angle of view, which unfortunately doesn't portray the same feeling of majesty that the entire scene had.

Sometimes You Have To Wait

"I want that diaper."

I've just put him down onto his changing table after his bath. As every night, we flossed and brushed his teeth, then he washed his hands. Immediately after drying them, he ran--still naked--into his room and behind the rocking chair, to sing to himself and play with the strings that tie the seat cushion to the frame. I followed behind, pausing to move his stepstool back against the wall and turn off the bathroom light, then fished him out from behind the chair and set him on the table.

He's pointing at the picture of Elmo on the front of the diaper that's hanging over the edge of the shelf above him. "I want to wear it."

"You want that one?" I ask, and he nods. "But Jason," I say, "that's not a night-time diaper. We only wear those ones during the day." I don't know why I say "we," but he doesn't notice.

"I want it," he insists.

"I know, buddy, but we don't always get what we want." I pull out an overnight diaper and put it on him, then slide on his pajama pants. "Jason, I'm going to tell you something," I say. "Sometimes we want things, but we don't get them." I pull his pajama top over his head and hold the bottom open for him to put his arms in. "And sometimes we have to do things we don't want to do. It's frustrating, I know, but that's just how it is sometimes."

I pick him up. "But, I'll tell you what: it's worth it to wait because then when you do get..."

He throws his arms around me and puts his head on my shoulder. "Awww," I say, smiling. "Are you giving me a hug? That's so nice. I love hugs from Jason. Those are my favorite kind of hug." He leans back and looks at me, in that way that he does that seems like he's searching my face.

I continue. "Jason, when you wait to get the things you want..."

He cuts me off with a kiss. I take the hint. "OK. Night night, buddy," I say.

"Night night!" he replies as I hand him to his mother. She and I both chuckle--turns out, sometimes you don't have to wait to get what you want.

Edged With Gold

Edged With Gold

Sunday morning, I was walking back to the campsite after finishing up at the lakeshore when I was struck by how the rising sun was shining through the trees. I had already been taking pictures longer than I had intended--I'd told Juliette I'd be "just a few minutes" but ended up crouching by the waterside for probably 20 minutes--but even so I had to stop and look at the light. I probably stood there shooting for a good five minutes or so, but eventually I overheard my friend James say "No, he's right over there" and realized it was time to finish up.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 18-55mm DX lens, in manual exposure mode. Focal length 55mm, aperture f/22, shutter 1/30 sec, ISO 200. Post-processing in Aperture 3: Daylight WB preset, crop to 4x5, curves to recover highlights and increase midtones.

Thoughts for improvement: I'm actually pretty happy with this one. I'm still not sure how to coax a nice, defined sunstar out of the lenses I use, but I still like the way the sunbeams look in this image, even though there is also a bit of ghosting. I particularly like how the sunlight adds some separation to the leaves in the foreground, so they still stand out distinctly even against the dark and somewhat busy background. If I'm being really nitpicky, there's a little strand of what looks like spiderweb hanging between two of the leaves at the top right, which I probably should have brushed away before taking the shot. And then I guess I might also prefer if the sun were just a tiny bit more to the right, but keeping the same crop and placement of the subject.

Green Sand

Green Sand

For the shot I posted yesterday, I really wanted to get a low angle, with my camera just above the surface of the water. Unfortunately, I was still wearing my pajama pants and I didn't want to kneel or lie down in the green scum that ringed the water line. On the other hand, the scum made an interesting subject in its own right.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 18-55mm DX lens, in manual exposure mode. Focal length 55mm, aperture f/5.6, shutter 1/30 sec, ISO 200. Post-processing in Aperture 3: Daylight WB preset, crop to 4x5, s-curve to increase contrast and set the white and black points.

Thoughts for improvement: I like the horizontal bands of color and focus in this shot. I'm not 100% sure about the crop--it might look a little better with some more space at the top. I would also have liked to see what it looked like with a narrower aperture (more depth of field) and the focal point set either right at the water line or further into the foreground.

Mad Men and Me

One of Juliette's and my favorite shows--indeed, one of the only shows I still care about watching--is Mad Men. It's a wildly successful show, of course, both popular and critically acclaimed, and I like it for most of the same reasons that everybody else does. Still, you'd think that the fact that I have no particular nostalgia or longing for the 60's--nor any desire to drink and smoke at work or cheat on my wife--would mean that some of the appeal would be lost on me. There's another facet, though, that helps pull me in, one that's very personal and that I didn't realize until just last week.

You see, it turns out that Don Draper is just about the same age as my mom's dad. Sally Draper, his daughter, is almost exactly the same age as my mom. John Slattery's character, Roger Sterling, is just a couple of years younger than my other grandfather. And characters like Peggy Olson, Joan Holloway, and Pete Campbell are right around the same age as my father-in-law.

Granted, the resemblance pretty much begins and ends with age. One of my grandfathers was a career Army sergeant, while the other came back from the war to become a farmer--neither of them led lives that were anything like the Madison Avenue life depicted on the show. My mother, unlike Sally Draper, was born in Italy and lived in Japan, Okinawa, and several places up and down the Pacific coast. And while my father-in-law was a New York businessman in his younger days, he was never the sort of ruthless son of a bitch that Pete Campbell is.

Nevertheless, I've come to realize that watching Mad Men makes me feel some connection to those people. I know so little about what my parents' and grandparents' lives were like back then, and I can't help feeling some sense of recognition when I see the world that these characters inhabit--even if only for the context of the historical events.

Lake Morena

Lake Morena

This weekend, Juliette and I took Jason on his very first camping trip. Along with our friends James and Melanie (who brought their daughter along for her first camping trip, as well) we headed over to Lake Morena, in east San Diego county, for a little overnight excursion. We went on some walks, had a nice campfire, and Jason got to rub dirt all over his face. (At one point he looked like a little chimneysweep.)

It turns out that going on a camping trip with a two-year-old doesn't provide a lot of opportunities for taking pictures--most of my time was spent making sure Jason wasn't eating rocks or throwing dirt at his friend. I did finally get a chance just after sunrise on Sunday morning, while Juliette took Jason to give him his breakfast. As you can see, the lake is quite picturesque at that time of the morning.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 18-55mm DX lens, in manual exposure mode. Focal length 18mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/30 sec, ISO 200. Post-processing in Aperture 3: Straightened horizon, cropped to 4x5, daylight WB preset, slight s-curve for contrast, brought the black point way up to darken the bottom of the frame, burned over the sky and the bright parts of the hills, dodged over the shadowy parts of the hills and reflection.

Thoughts for improvement: You know, I was really happy with this photo when I finished with it last night, but the more I look at it, the less happy I'm becoming. I think that this would look better in a narrower crop, probably 2x3 instead of 4x5. That would give more of a feeling of length and also cut out some of the hills on the right side, which now look unbalanced to me. Also, I shouldn't have brought up the black point quite so much. I do like the feeling of darkness at the bottom to balance the brightly-lit hills, but there's too much of it. The bottom third of the frame is entirely without detail, and it feels like wasted space. Actually, both problems could be solved with a shorter, more narrow crop, but with the camera I use, I don't have the resolution to spare.

Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes

Last month I decided to try my hand at making one of those neat shots of dye droplets diffusing into water. I set up a wine glass of water in front of a piece of printer paper and used a straw to drop small quantities of blue curacao into it. It didn't really work out, though--I couldn't get the timing quite right, plus the lighting just didn't look good. After about forty-five minutes, six or seven changes of water, and two shots' worth of curacao, I gave up. But I snuck in this little setup shot before I cleaned up.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 18-55mm DX lens, in manual exposure mode. Focal length 18mm, aperture f/16, shutter 1/125 sec, ISO 200. Nikon SB-400 flash at camera left, set to EV -1. Post-processing in Aperture 3: bumped vibrancy, added edge sharpening, and used a curve to darken shadows, pull in highlights, and add contrast.

Thoughts for improvement: Technically, this is not a very good photo. There's no particular thought behind the arrangement of the elements, the countertop is too busy and the wrong color to make the elements (and splashed liqueur) stand out, and that little blue lens cloth in the background is completely out of place. If I were going to do this on purpose, I would definitely have preferred to have a white or light-gray surface, and I would have arranged the wine glass, shot glass, and paper to have a more evenly triangular arrangement across the frame. The lighting is kind of cool, though.

Wave House

Wave House

This one comes from the group shoot last month with the San Diego DSLR club. Right next to the famous Belmont Park amusement park in Mission Beach is the Wave House--an outdoor bar that includes two huge wave pools for boogey boarding and surfing. My friends, Shawn and Andy, pointed it out to me, and I immediately busted out my telephoto lens and took a position near the edge of one of the pools. Many of the people that went in were obviously beginners, which made for some amusing wipeouts, but one or two knew what they were doing. This guy was one of the latter.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 55-200mm VR DX lens, in aperture priority mode. Focal length 150mm, aperture f/5.6, shutter 1/125 sec, ISO 900. Post-processing in Aperture 3: pushed exposure to the max and added a strong curve to drop the shadows and midtones while maintaining the highlights. (It looks like there is some vignetting, but the darkness you see around the edges has more to do with the way the artificial lights were actually striking the wave area.)

Thoughts for improvement: I actually like this shot quite a bit. The only reason I didn't pick it the first time around is because although it's a pretty good action shot, it doesn't really speak to me much in terms of atmosphere or storytelling. Technically speaking, this would probably have been much better if I had a fast telephoto lens and a camera with better high-ISO performance, that way I could have operated with a much faster shutter speed and captured the water with less blur and grain. Working within the limitations of my gear as it is, though, I think this is pretty good. Possibly a different crop would be better.

I Can't Reach It

She lifts him into the carseat and begins to fasten the buckles over his little chest. Just as she pushes the clasps into place, he notices a bottle of water she had left in the cupholder. He immediately wants it, of course, but she's an old hand at distracting him.

"Look what I found!" she exclaims, producing a pair of toy cars as if by magic and placing them into his hands.

He studies them intently. "Those Nana's cars," he says at last.

She nods. "Yeah," she says, "you got those at Nana's house."

A funny look crosses his face. "I want to touch Nana's house," he declares, extending his arms out in front of him. He strains, stretching through his fingertips and grunting with the effort. Finally, he has to admit defeat, though. "I can't reach it," he says, not sad but perhaps a little surprised. After all, Nana's house is in Big Sur and he is in San Diego--it's only four hundred miles from that parking lot to her door. Why shouldn't he be able to reach?

Can I Have Some?

Can I Have Some?

I didn't manage to get out for a shoot this past weekend, so for the next few days I'll be posting a few "B-sides" from previous weeks--photos that I liked but that didn't make the first cut.

This is another from the weekend before last, when Juliette and I took a walk down the Mission Beach boardwalk. About halfway into our walk, we passed by a funny pair having a conversation from adjacent patios. One was a middled-aged woman who was chatty, happy, and completely blitzed. The other was this guy. What caught my eye was the way the dog here was so completely intent on the rib his master was eating--anybody who's ever eaten around a dog is familiar with that body language.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 55-200mm VR DX lens, in manual exposure mode. Focal length 116mm, aperture f/5.6, shutter 1/1000 sec, ISO 200. Post-processing in Aperture 3: Red Filter BW preset, cropped to a closer composition, curves for highlight recovery and contrast, dodged over the dog, burned the background and the man's hat. Also applied some burning on the man's shirt to try to make the dog stand out a bit more.

Thoughts for improvement: I liked the moment here a lot, but the reason it didn't make the cut the first time around is because the angle is pretty poor. Because I have the dog and man lined up on the same axis as the camera, the edges of the dog's head get lost against the background of his shirt. That, in turn, loses much of the expressiveness of the tilt of the dog's head. What would have been much better would be to either get much closer and lower--so as to both decrease the depth of field and to put the dog's head against a more contrasted background--or to bring them off-axis from one another. The latter is probably the better choice, as it would also allow you to see the dog's facial expression, plus there wouldn't be an umbrella right behind the man's head.

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