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TTL: “Through the Lens”

And that’s what this blog records. My experiences and observations of life through the lens, whether that be photography or filmmaking, along with some other posts including equipment reviews and such. Feedback is always welcome, and thanks so much for reading and stopping by.


The Last Weekly Photo

August 29, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

     After months of waiting for clear nights and the right phases, I can finally reveal to you the project that I mentioned a while ago. The Moon Phases. None of these are color corrected at all; that moon really was that red, and the atmosphere was still so thick the following morning that I could stare at the sun with no problem and see individual sunspots on its surface. I also discovered that it's quite hard to get a clear shot of a thin crescent moon. For one thing they're uncommon, and for another they hover so close to the horizon that there's always more distortion through the atmosphere than if it was straight overhead. Lastly, none of these shots are duplicated or rotated, so from the vantage point of Tennessee, what you see here is the section of the lunar cycle that we typically see, at least during the summer.

     Now for some bigger news. For those of you observant enough to read subject lines, you'll notice that this is the 100th Weekly Photo. Yes indeed. One photo every week for the past 100 weeks. That's basically two years, and it's come a long way since the first one taken of myself on a nighttime street in Etowah, Tennessee. What started as a simple challenge has exceeded expectations and become one of the biggest positive influences ever on my photography, in both quality and consistency. It's been fun, stretching, and sometimes panicked, but totally worthwhile, and would be the first thing I recommend to anyone wanting to improve their photography.
     Where to go from here? That's a good question, one for which I've been trying to come up with a good answer for. Keep going? I really want to, but there's a new element thrown into the mix now: college. Yes, I'm now in college full time, with all of the annihilation of free time that comes with it. The Weekly Photo could continue, but what about the drop in quality that would in all likelihood follow since there wouldn't be a healthy mount of time to devote to it?
     On the flip side, it's painful to think of it ending. Two years is a long time. It's become part of my weekly routine. Without it, the camera will inevitably stay in the bag longer and long for usage, which is a sad thought indeed. Then, of course, there are you all, faithful readers/viewers. You've helped immensely in keeping this whole thing on track, and all of the feedback has been greatly appreciated. For this, I thank you. I hope you enjoyed reading and viewing these every week, and maybe it even brightened your day or taught you something new.
     Now that everything's on the table and out in the open, it's with mixed emotions that I officially declare the Weekly Photo decommissioned until further notice. This e-mail list will continue to exist for periodic updates and occasional non-Weekly Photos, but don't expect to have your inbox brightened on a regular weekly basis by SkySail. Feel free to join me in a moment of silence for this momentous and somber day. In a way these moons make for a fitting final image. It shows the passage of time, of consistent effort, and that things have a beginning and an end. Sounds like a good metaphor to me. 
     Finally, I'll leave you with this. More than anything, I hope these photos and written experiences have at least taught you this one thing: Get out there. It doesn't matter where "there" is, just go there. Don't feel motivated to go? Get out there. Don't think you'll find anything good? Get out there. It doesn't matter what's there, because if you keep your eyes wide open to the wonder that is the world all around you, and hopefully have a camera along for the ride, there's absolutely nothing that can't be fascinating simply by the very act of existing in this enigma we call reality, because reality is simply the foundation of imagination. Get out there and see and imagine what it would be like to fly with cranes by the moon, stare a damselfly in the eye and wonder what secrets it could tell, hear the story of a young street violinist in Times Square, and feel the thunderous power of fireworks resonating in your chest. We'll never truly encounter life from behind screens, books, or closed doors. That only happens when we get out there, the wide world with all of its imperfections, dangers, uncertainties, and limitless possibilitiesHowever you do it, with camera, pen, or nothing but an open mind, there's all of creation ready for our exploration of imagination. Now...Get out there...

Stars and Lightning Bugs

July 01, 2015  •  Leave a Comment


     Somehow, I still manage to wake up before the alarm. The sky is just starting to give hints that the sun will soon be making yet another grand entrance. Muted blues take the place of night’s black, and in this inky lighting I roll my head over on the pillow and am relieved to see my camera still standing a few inches from me, faithfully pointing skyward just as it was left the night before with a remote timer set to fire every minute and forty-five seconds dangling next to it. I say relieved because of my built-in paranoia of leaving camera gear exposed and defenseless, and even though I was right next to it all night on the concrete porch, any emergency assistance from me would have been less than responsive as I went to sleep after making sure all of the camera settings were good to go.

     As is always the case with time-lapse, I wasn’t entirely sure what was going to be the result, so without getting up I reached up to the playback button to see. Of course only one image at a time showed up instead of the 51 image composite you see here, but even so things looked good. By spinning the wheel on the back of the camera and scrolling through the photos one-by-one but very fast, I got an idea of how the final time-lapse video would turn out.  That’s one of the many perks of shooting multiple exposures like this, you get two pieces of imagery for the work of one – a composite still photo like this one, and a time-lapse video, which in this case turned out to be four seconds long and a shot in my upcoming nature documentary test clip (more on that later).
     Closer to the beginning in the playback list are shots of what brought me outside in the first place – a distant lightning storm. This was a time-lapse as well, however the nearby city lights and positioning of the storm messed with things enough that it may end up not getting used for anything, unfortunately. Even though the lightning didn’t turn out, these lightning bugs you see here were obliging enough to act as a replacement, dashing all through the yard, trees, and frame like fleeting brush strokes on a massive rotating backdrop. Then of course there are the two planes that had to get in on the action as well. At first it seemed that all of these elements (stars, planes, lightning bugs) cobbled into one frame might look too messy, but after putting it all together it took on a look that I’m calling “chaotic harmony”.
     I also learned a trick that you might also find useful. First, I admit that I’m a little too addicted to using the camera’s LCD screen, and this usually isn’t a problem…until it comes time to frame a shot with almost no preexisting light, as was the case with this image. To frame the trees properly using the LCD screen would have meant intentionally throwing the settings to ridiculous extremes to let in enough light to see and/or using a high-powered light to briefly light-up the trees to be able to see where they were. However, the optical viewfinder doesn’t have to “see” through the sensor like the screen does. It just needs enough light to see through the lens, which isn’t a lot more than what we need to see with anyway. Once this gold nugget of information dawned on me it was no problem whatsoever to frame the trees where I wanted them, since I could faintly see them through the viewfinder without having to let any additional light in.
     In the end this shot was worth the all-night wait, and the concrete really wasn’t terribly uncomfortable. Long exposure series like this take long enough that only two or three can usually be done per night (assuming sleep time is included), but there are so many things that can be done with this technique that you could take one each night for months and just scratch the surface. Next long exposure shot I do like this will be a bit different though…maybe lightning bugs by themselves so they can have their time in the limelight.

2015 K-Love Fan Awards

June 08, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

     It is a well known fact that there's next to nothing to do in Lewisburg, TN. However, the much more interesting city of Nashville is only an hour north, so my plan for all of last week was to find a good section of the city to go to then essentially wander around there on Saturday. I still plan on doing that one day soon, but luck/fate/divine intervention stepped in on Friday evening when I flipped on the radio and K-Love, the biggest Contemporary Christian Music station around, came on. In between songs, they were talking about the K-Love Fan Awards that had just started that evening and going through to Sunday, but what first caught my ear was that there was a charity 5K Run for Love that benefited the Hands and Feet Project Saturday morning. Why not go? It was in Nashville like I was already planning on, and even though I run a lot I've never done a 5K before, so on the spur of the moment I decided to go, got everything ready the night before, and left before 5:30am Saturday morning.
     The day started hot and humid, and at 8:00am the race began within a stone's throw of the Grand Ole Opry. Out of the few hundred participants many of them walked, but me and my newly acquired free 5K T-shirt finished in just under 21 1/2 minutes. Since my camera gear was parked about a half mile away and it obviously couldn't run with me, I didn't get many shots of the race, but it was still fun to finally be in one. Once the live performances started, though, then the camera and all his friends came out to play.

     There was quite the line-up of performers. Matthew West, TobyMac, Tenth Avenue North, Plumb, Danny Gokey, I Am They, Lauren Daigle...and those are just some of the ones I saw in person. There were a bunch of others that were there on Sunday and not Saturday. Since there were so many on one day it wasn't like a full concert, but instead a stage that they all rotated out on at different times. Even so, it had the volume and feel of a concert bigger than what the available area would normally permit.
     To start things off was The Digital Age, the lead singer of which, Mike Dodson, can be seen in the Weekly Photo here belting it out during one of his last songs. Shortly after that was Lauren Daigle, who ended up winning the Worship Song of the Year with "How Can It Be", and who actually sounds better in person than in her recordings in my opinion, which is opposite of the norm. One of my favorite shots is of Chris August's drummer waiting for their show to start.

     Not only was this an outright cool experience, it was also a major trial run for concert work with the Canon 100-400mm telephoto lens. It's not very fast (it maxes out at f/4.5) and I had to shoot at ISO 800 most of the time, but it did surprisingly well under the circumstances. The biggest problem was reducing blur since I couldn't use a super fast shutter speed and everything was shot handheld. Out of the 1,200+ shots taken I kept roughly 400, and out of that there were about 60 really good ones that will end up in a dedicated folder on the website later this week.
     So to all of you photographers out there, if you ever get the chance to cover a concert, take it. The lights, energy, and overall spectacle of it make for an amazing subject. Even if you've only got a few hours notice ahead of time.


       Long live spur of the moment.








     To see the full gallery of photos from the event, click on one of the photos here.

Concerning HDR

December 06, 2014  •  1 Comment

     Behold, the promised post on the topic of HDR photography. This is more of an introduction to the process and a synopsis of my take on it, and not an in-depth study of everything there is to know about it. Since I’ve merely seen far more HDR images than I’ve made myself, this is not an expert’s opinion on this often discussed subject, but rather that of a photographer living and working in a time when this genre is popular and often lauded. But can this type of photography hold up to such esteem? Perhaps, but first let’s have an overview of what it is on the technical side.

HDR BarnHDR Barn


How is HDR Done?

     No, the “HD” in “HDR” does NOT stand for “High Definition”. “HDR” is “High Dynamic Range”. And why do we care if dynamic range is high, low, or any particular measure? Because dynamic range is the ratio between the smallest and largest possible values of a changeable quantity, and the quantity that we care about in this case is light. The range goes from total black in the shadows or underexposed areas (the small quantity of light) all the way to the total white in the overexposed spots (the large quantity of light). Most scenes have one of these extremes or both, such as a bright, cloudy sky above a shaded, black road. In this example the contrast between the sky and road will be so severe that you can either expose the sky correctly and black out the road, or expose the road correctly and white out the sky. This might sound strange since the human eye can see most everything fairly evenly without losing detail in the blacks or whites, but cameras are many times less able to cope with a wide dynamic range than our eyes, so in this situation you’d have to pick one or the other – the sky or the road. This is where HDR comes in.  Setting the camera on a tripod (or hand-held if you happen to be part statue), you could take a few shots overexposed for the road, a few underexposed for the sky, and a few exposed in between. Later these shots would be put into a program such as Photoshop or Photomatix and layered together one on top of another, thus meshing the exposures together to create an image closer to what the eye can see, with no blow-outs on either end of the range. The post-processing can be done so that the image looks like a totally realistic representation of the original scene, or fired-up into a very colorful and dramatic image.


How much should HDR be Done?

     Before going any farther, I should point out that the main object of this viewpoint is not the photos that look totally natural with seemingly no post-editing even though they are indeed HDR. The HDR shots that I’m suggesting should be considered more closely are the ones that are obviously edited and are majorly more dramatic than reality.

     Keeping that in mind, HDR photos are like candy. They’re colorful, dramatic, hyperrealistic…and should be taken in small quantities. True, the same could be said of some other photos, but these tend to be the most "done-up" as a whole. It’s an entirely valid from of photography and takes just as much skill as some other types of shooting, but post editing can play a larger role than the actual framing or telling a compelling story more often than in other genres.

     The main issue is when HDR is put alongside regular photos. Even if the regular photos are perfectly fine, the HDR ones will grab more attention simply because humans like bright and colorful things. As a result, the unedited photos will tend to be overshadowed because they represent realism, and reality isn't as visually electrifying as HDR would lead us to believe. You could say that the danger is a "comparative danger". Comparing real photos with "candied" ones, and comparing reality with a "hyper reality".


     These are some first impressions and a few things that I've been tossing around for a while. It's possible that my stance will shift to some degree as I make more HDR images myself, but that's for another time and another post. Now what about you? Any strong opinions on this topic? Type your agreements or disagreements in the comments.

In the Details

November 15, 2014  •  2 Comments

     Looking over the photos on this site, you may have caught on to the fact that landscapes, and sometimes simply wide shots in general, aren't my strong suite. For one thing, those kinds of shots require a large swath of photogenic mountains, ocean, prairie, fill in the blank; not something that's always accessible. A way to get around this problem is to back up from that wide view, focus a little closer, and see what small things there are all around you.

Pine Needles in Moss

     For this past Weekly Photo, that's exactly what I did. As it was getting to the end of the week and I still hadn't taken a photo (nor had any idea what to photograph), it became clear that a stroll through the woods around my house was in order. Now, going out on a specific assignment, whether one given to you by someone else or yourself, is a lot of fun. It helps you to mentally create the shots you want and go get 'em. There's a lot to be said for randomly wandering around with a camera, totally unsure about what you'll end up with as well, as was the case with this walk. As compared to being on assignment for one particular thing, you have no idea what you may come across, so everything gets looked at with equal attention. Weather, animals, wide shots, plants, abstract. There's no telling what may make the best shot. This method also makes you totally rely on your eye since there's no one subject you're after, and because of this, it's a very good way to train the eye to see potential shots everywhere, even in the small things.

     Due to the season and the accompanying bare trees, there weren't many wide shot options, so into macro mode I went. That's one of the beauties of tiny things: even when the entire area looks bland, just lay down on the ground and BOOM. You've entered the Macro Realm, full of shapes, patterns, monsters and surprises. But it's not always apparent. Sometimes you have to wait and let the denizens of this world show themselves to you. Walking along, I finally sat down at the base of a tree in a clear part of the forest floor covered in fallen leaves, and waited. But this isn't the waiting-in-the-grocery-store-check-out-line sort of waiting where you wait until something happens regardless of whether or not you do anything. This is proactive. An "active patience". Look closely, searching in one spot for a while, and find scenes that would normally be walked right over without a second thought, such as these two photos (neither of which are Weekly Photos) taken during the walk.

     Regardless of what you do, whether it be landscapes, macro, assignments, or a brief, wandering walk about the woods, there are things all around that are worth your time and attention. So slow down. Don't just look, but see.

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