Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Photo Opportunity or Just Plain Opportunist?

No photos today, but I've had this on my mind and I'd love to hear what other people think.

They started demolition on the last building remaining at the Cabrini-Green Public Housing project here in Chicago today.

For those who don't know, Cabrini-Green was a monster public housing development that was everything you think of when you think of urban public housing in the 70's and 80's and into the 90's.  It was rat-ridden and drug-ridden and graffitied and gang-ridden and all of that. I remember driving by it once or twice as a kid and just finding it really freaking scary looking. Not because of the people, but because of the odd structural design. It was very, very reminiscent of a prison. The halls between the apartments looked over a courtyard, but there were floor to ceiling fences on that inside wall to keep people from being tossed overboard. There were some of these fence-walls on the outside too. There was the infamous case of "Girl X" - a nine year old girl who was brutally raped and beaten and then poisoned and left in a Cabrini-Green stairwell to die. Only she didn't, but was severely brain-damaged by the poison and traumatized by the attack. This is how 99% of the world remembers Cabrini-Green.

There are many very scary things about this place. I know that there were generations of families who lived there and felt that was their community and didn't want to leave when the city started moving them out a few years back, but from the outside we only heard about crime after crime after crime on those grounds.

From the Wikipedia Page:
During the worst years of Cabrini–Green's problems, vandalism increased substantially. Gang members and miscreants covered interior walls with graffiti and damaged doors, windows, and elevators. Rat and cockroach infestations were commonplace, rotting garbage stacked up in clogged trash chutes (it once piled up to the 15th floor), and basic utilities (water, electricity, etc.) often malfunctioned and were left unrepaired. On the exterior, boarded-up windows, burned-out areas of the facade, and pavement instead of green space—all in the name of economizing on maintenance—created an atmosphere of neglect and decay. The high "open galleries" were enclosed with steel fencing along the entire height of the building to prevent residents from falling or being thrown off to their deaths (giving the visual appearance of a large prison tier, or animal cages, which further enraged community leaders).[6]
So they've moved everyone out as of last winter (I believe) and they'd been consolidating and destroying buildings in the complex for a few years now. Last night I heard on the news that the last building was going to start being torn down today.

I seriously thought about grabbing my camera and finding a good vantage point and shooting the demolition. But I couldn't decide if that was just weird. I mean, if they were leveling some random building in my neighborhood, I would have been there in a heartbeat. Wrecking balls + concrete and steel = cool shooting, right? But I just couldn't decide if the appeal here was that it was such a notorious place with such a history behind it.

I asked myself how I'd feel if someone wanted to stand around and take pictures of the house I grew up in being demolished and decided that well, it's not like I'd try to get an injunction to stop them or anything, but I'm not sure I'd want to see the shots. Too much of my history is tied up in that house. Would other people find it freaky that I wanted to watch them tear down their childhood home?

I didn't go. I just couldn't quite square it with the "that's a little weird" in my brain. But I've been thinking about it all day. If they wanted to take down the grocery story and associated apartments around the corner from me, I'd totally go. So why did this strike me as different?

What do you all think? Would you have gone? Where's the line between "photographic opportunity" and just being "opportunist"?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Chicago Flower and Garden Show - 3.06.11 - Post 3/3

So this is my last post on the flower show.  Just a few more shots I thought were interesting but didn't fit into my other themes.

The Geometry of Plants
 Fun with macros/Annoyance with macros.  I really wanted to get both of these cactus 'fingers' in focus, but my camera was having none of it.  Even on manual-focus.  I could get one or the other, but not both.  This may have had to do with the limited options I have for focal length when shooting in macro.  I also wonder if I had known then what I learned last week about spot-metering if I could have gotten them to both look better. As you can see, despite being two parts of one plant, the lighting on each was different.  That was how bad the lighting was at this place.  All that said, there are some very cool aspects of this shot.  Look at the piece in focus.  I love the geometric pattern the spines make as your eyes travel from the far left edge up the cactus.  There's hexagons and triangles and rhombi.  I love it.  This is when macro photography is fun.

Jewelweed in Ruby and Emerald
These jewelweed leaves were gorgeous but I'm learning that Red is Hard.  On my LCD screen, on my computer screen... red is hard to reproduce.  This is as close as I could get, and my mind's eye still tells me it's not saturated enough, but when I try to turn up the saturation, even a little, the red becomes magenta and that's not right either.
Arctur African Attempts to Stretch

 My awesome little daisies again.  These are African daisies and I find it amazing how many varieties of African daisies there are out there - all of these have white petals and purple centers.  My best guess, given the pointed petals is that this is an Arctur African Daisy.  But if someone out there is a better horticulturist, feel free to correct me.

Pretty, Purple and a Total Mystery.
I have no earthly clue what these are, but they're really pretty.  Like I said in an earlier post, very few flowers in the show beds were actually labeled.  And because these are cultured flowers, I can't even use my normal tricks of looking for websites that feature the wildflowers of a given area and then look at everything in the 'purple' category.  I can't even use the identifier programs because they want things like native location and when they bloom.  Guess what?  Who knows?  It was an indoor show where the flowers were forced, so... *shrug*  If you've got an idea, please holler!

Shades of Blue
These are blue hyacinth.  The blue can be seen best where the flower attaches to the stem.  They're bulb flowers like tulips and daffodils, but have many flowers on a stalk, which always makes me think they're something else.
On First Reflection

And, of course, my (sort of) first water lily of the year.  Water lilies are one of my favorite flowers.  I only count this as 'sort of' because it's in a garden show.  But I suspect that when I start getting out the the Lincoln Park Lily Pond in the next month or so or the Botanical Garden when the tulips start coming up, I'll start finding some that are working their natural cycle.

Okay, that's it for that show.  Last week I was in Nashville, Tennessee and we took my 15 month old nephew to the zoo.  Nashville, like most other zoos, has some brilliant set-ups for some of their animals - like the outdoor meerkat exhibit with a cluster of babies! - and some that are just awful and unshootable - like the red panda who spent most of her time pressed up against the corner of the glass grooming.  Those shots and a discussion of metering coming soon!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

And now on with the show.... Chicago Flower and Garden Show, Part 2

Okay, so I diverged for a minute to talk about a few settings on the camera.  Now we'll go back to the shots I took with it. :)

I mentioned before that I wanted to do an entire post on the tulip garden because it was one of the few areas done right (as far as lighting and labeling goes).

Way More Than Two-'Lips.
This was the tulip garden.  I overheard someone say that every four days of the show or so every one of these bulbs will be pulled up and replaced so that the blooms remain perfect for the entire run of the show.  That's no small undertaking.  I shot this with the widest possible aperture, but really, I wasn't going to get all these flowers in focus.  As you can see, it goes on for quite a while.

Something else I overheard made a lot of sense: this tulip garden is set up right.  Tulips look great singly or in clusters like this.  When you see tulips in a single row... they end up looking like an eight-year-old's drawing.  The other great thing about this set up was that each cluster of flowers was labeled.  I now have a nifty little file of pictures with the signs so that when I go back to the Chicago Botanic Gardens in a few weeks, or downtown, and all the tulips aren't labeled, I can just compare them to the shots from this show and figure out which species I'm looking at.

And I really do love the way these flowers photograph.  And a photograph lasts eons longer than the short-lived flowers.

Synaeda Amor Tulip from the Top
The insides of tulips are amazing.  Like they were created to be textbook examples of pistils, stamens and anthers.  There's also something about the architecture and symmetry that makes me think of looking in a kaleidoscope.

Gavotas Going Fast
I took this deliberately off-kilter.  I liked the sense of movement created by the lines heading into the corner.  The Gavotas (crimson and yellow) Tulips in the front seem to be trying to race or pass the Canastas behind them.

Ever have peppermint salt-water taffy?  (If not, you should, it's really good stuff.)  Anyway, I swear this is what happens when someone crafts a living flower out of that candy.  This is the kind of shot where you want your white balance to be spot on.  These flowers wouldn't look nearly as awesome if they were pink and slightly-yellowish-white.

Sensational Rem's Sensation
These two-toners are called Rem's Sensation Tulips.  Another place where you want the white balance to be on spot.  I like these more than the similar Canastas.  I think it's because the frilly edge of the Canastas don't strike me as 'tulip-y'.  One of the neat things about tulips is how neat and clean they are.

The Heart of the Ad Rems

These actually are yellow and pinkish-red.  They remind me of a watercolor.  These are Ad Rem Beauties.  According to the 'net, Ad Rem means "to the matter (subject, topic)."  Not quite sure what that has to do with flowers, but there it is.

Key Parts of Kees Nelis
Another shot of the awesome geometric-ness of the inside of a tulip.  I love that the colors band around the inside and outside of the petals.  It really enhances that kaleidoscope effect.  This is called a Kees Nelis.  Which strikes me as Dutch for something, but I really have no idea.

About to Flower
Your good, old, standard "plain red tulips".  These weren't part of the tulip garden, actually.  They were in a different display and clearly they weren't planning to change them out every four days, they just planted them early in their budding cycle.

Okay, there will be one more post of the other more random flowers I shot at that show.

Monday, March 14, 2011

What Does This Button Do? - ISO So What?

So this is the one I paid attention to when I shooting on film and stopped being aware of when I went to digital.

What is ISO?  ISO is the sensitivity of your film or sensor.  When you shot film you were stuck with one setting on each roll of film.  So if you put in a roll of 100 ISO film for shooting outdoors, but didn't use it all before needing to shoot indoors or in low light, you were kind of hosed.  The great thing about digital cameras is the ability to change settings on a shot-by-shot basis.

A low sensitivity, like 100 or 200 is great for outdoors, in bright sunny circumstances.  You can still shoot handheld with a quick shutter and narrow(ish) aperture and get a nice clear shot.  Low ISO produces cleaner, clearer pictures.

High ISO lets you shoot with a quick shutter and/or narrow aperture, but has the unfortunate effect of dark areas becoming 'grainy' or 'speckled', especially when viewed at full size.

Here's an example:
This is a piece of the tulip photo from the first Navy Pier Flower and Garden Show post.  This shot was done at 100 ISO so that even the dark spot at the tip of the anther looks smooth, color-wise.

In contrast, this a piece of a shot of a rose done at 800 ISO.
You can see that, especially in the background where it's dark, the colors don't blend seamlessly into each other or have nice, stark delineating lines.  There's a grainy look to the photo.

ISO is a balancing act.  If you're shooting outdoors, say on a nature hike, or indoors while your three-year-old runs around at his birthday party, you may not have the luxury of being able to stay at 100 because when your ISO is that low the camera will compensate by leaving the shutter open longer and opening the iris more, exposing the camera to more shake or to movement of the subject.  Ideally you want to keep your ISO as low as your lighting will tolerate. If you're using a tripod and a still subject, go all the way down.  If your subject is moving or your light is low you may have to creep it up to 400 or 800.  Once you get higher than that you can almost be certain there will be a fair amount of grain.  Now, if you're shooting urban, 'gritty' scenes, you can make the grain work for you and have it be part of your style choice, but if you want clean, sharp images, go as low as you can.

Most cameras only allow you to chose your ISO in Av, Tv or Manual mode.  Many of the presets will automatically chose a higher ISO to keep your shutter time down.  I use what I call "Stuff's-moving" mode (otherwise known as 'sports mode') a lot when shooting wild animals and unless it's very, very bright out my camera tends to default to 800 on that setting, but sometimes when I'm trying to get squirrels playing or wildflowers blowing in the breeze, it's a compromise I have to make since running a longer shutter would give me an unacceptable amount of blur.

One time I use 800 ISO is when shooting fireworks.  You can Google the settings that will work best for your particular camera - some even have a fireworks preset - but when you want to get the little details like the trails of light in the finale, a high ISO is good thing.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What Does This Button Do? - White Balance

Many people want photographs that are, in essence, memory aids.  "Hey, there's a shot of Little Jack's first birthday!  Remember that?"  For things like that a camera that does most of the thinking for you is perfectly fine.

But when you start thinking about doing photography as art, you need to start taking control of your camera.  I haven't met a dSLR yet that doesn't let you control the features I'm going to highlight.  I haven't met a pocket camera that really does let you control all those same features.  But I do see that that is changing.  For example, about two weeks ago I got a new cell phone and the built in camera lets me adjust the ISO and the white balance.  I can't, however, set the shutter speed or aperture. 

Many of the topics I'll be covering are interconnected.  For example, the faster the shutter, the wider your aperture will need to be (especially when you're shooting hand-held - without a tripod).  But this one is independent of everything else in your camera and one of the last ones I got any kind of real understanding of.  (Okay, not *completely* independent - on most cameras you can only select what you want when in Av, Tv or Manual.  When you use a preset, it also presets this one.)

White Balance.

I remember as a kid, my dad had these cards that were various shades of white - some were grayer, some were more tan.  When I asked what they were for he'd say they were for setting the white balance.  I, being a wise-acre, wondered how the white got off-balance - white was white after all, right?  Otherwise it was gray or tan or something not white.  So never really paid attention to that when I was shooting on film.  I'm also pretty sure I never owned a camera good enough account for the light temperature anyway.

So what is white balance? Basically, it's this: the light in different environments has different temperatures, which has nothing to do with the air temperature.  Your camera needs to know what white should look like in different situations.

Most cameras have a range of presets that will cover most shooting locations.  Outside you get Sunny, Cloudy or Shade.  Inside you get Incandescent Lights (old-style 'regular' lightbulbs), Florescent Lights or Camera Flash.

Most have a custom setting, but I've never needed to use it.

There's also an AWB - Automatic White Balance.  That means that camera checks out the lighting and takes it's best guess.  Sometimes this works fabulously, other times less so.

Here's the short version:  When your white balance is off your shot skews towards one color or another.  White is no longer white. Your picture may have bluish cast in shadows or a yellow cast or a red cast under certain lights.

Like this:
Believe it or not, these flowers are white.  Plain white.  Like that paper you use in your printer white.  Like the background of this blog, white.  But I was shooting with the wrong white balance.  Unfortunately, for as much meta-data as my camera captures and my post-production program will show me, all it says is "Manual White Balance Selection."  So I'm not 100% sure what I was set on, but I think it was set for "Sunlight" when, in fact, I was under incandescent lights.  Bad, dim incandescent lights.

The good news is, this is pretty apparent when you look at your picture in your LCD screen.  I could see right away that these were awfully yellow and adjust the white balance.

Once I did, I got the same shot with accurately white flowers.

Our eyes adjust the 'white balance' naturally, but our cameras can't.  I found that with the abysmal lighting conditions of this particular show, some of my shots actually looked better when I told the white balance I was outside shooting in cloudy weather.  When you have odd lighting, the best thing to do is to experiment.  If you really are outside in bright sunlight, the camera should be able accurately adjust under the "Bright Sunlight" setting.

The AWB setting is very helpful if you're going in and out of various lighting conditions, but if you know you'll be shooting in a given setting, taking control of your white balance can save you a ton of time correcting it in post-production when you realize nothing in your shot is actually white.

Comments?  Questions?  Corrections?  I'd love to hear what people think of posts like this instead of just, "Hey look, I took a picture of a thing!"

Monday, March 7, 2011

Chicago Flower and Garden Show - 3.06.11 - Post 1

So I got another press pass to an event at Navy Pier.  Well, not actually a press pass, more like a press sticker.

I think I could have done this on my computer.

Yes, that's a picture of my knee.  They handed me the sticker with no backing and I got the definite impression that it wouldn't stick again if I moved it.  I've never been a fan of having nametags/labels on my shirt and I knew I'd be aggravating it (and it would be aggravating me) all day if it was up near my camera strap.  So it went on my jeans.

I'm glad I didn't pay to get in, because it wasn't a great event.  Now, having said that, I suspect if you're actually there to get ideas for landscaping it may have been just fine.  But as a photography event it was very, very poorly designed.  And there were an insane number of photographers around.  Not just "Oh, I should get a picture of this container garden so I can do something like it at home" photographers.  I don't think I've seen so many fully kitted-out dSLR photographers in one place since... well, possibly ever.  Lots of people who, like me, weren't afraid to get on the floor to shoot at a better angle or spend the time monkeying with lenses and tripods and filters and all the stuff that goes with them.

And yet... this was a photographer's nightmare in a lot of ways.  There were two ends of this large exhibit hall.  For reasons I don't understand at all, the end that had all the display gardens and the show plants contest was horribly, horribly underlit.  The bulbs appeared to be incandescent, but my white balance was being completely thrown off by them.  "Auto WB" wasn't working and in various places throughout the hall I had to change to different settings.  I have no idea how they could make the temperature of the light so radically different in about twenty feet, but they were managing.  The other end, where they had the vendors?  Very brightly lit.  Go figure.  The only good thing about this lighting was that there wasn't enough of it to make harsh shadows a concern.

To give you an idea, though not the point of this shot, you can see how much brighter the hallway was.  That bright spot behind the tree on the right hand side is the entrance/exit to the exhibit hall.  Look how much brighter the hall is than the lighting on the bench and 'plants'.

Due to the low lighting I had to spend a lot of time putting the camera on the tripod and bringing the apature down to about 22 or smaller (I played with 45 in some areas) and run a crazy long shutter to get a reasonable shot.  Having just gotten my camera cleaned (more about that later) I wanted to keep my ISO at 100 as often as possible, so I decided to take the time getting the long exposure shots.  Which can be pretty flipping difficult when there are a lot of people milling about in non-intuitive paths.  I think I've decided that I need to start going to some of these events armed with a stack of postcards or flyers that explain to people a little bit of photography etiquette.  Things like, if you hear the shutter click once, but not the second time, the photographer is taking a long shot.  DON'T WALK IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA!  An exceptionally long exposure is thirty seconds.  Unless you're chasing your errant toddler or you are on fire, thirty seconds is not that long for you to hold it for just a bit.  Most photographers try very hard not to set up in obtrusive places or where their tripod will be a trip-hazard.  Please show them the same consideration by waiting to go past their lens.  Oy.  I know there are always people who don't realize they're walking into your shot, but this place seemed to have an inordinate number of people who would walk through going, "Oh gee are you shooting?  Sorry."  Or one person in their party would stop and wait and someone else would say to them, "Oh, it's fine, you can go past, she isn't shooting," without asking if it was actually okay for them to go past or if I was shooting.

The show had a few other problems that were more relative to how the show is billed and promoted around Chicago vs. what you actually get...  The show is all over every local news channel.  They run the free Navy Pier trolleys for the event, even though they're generally shut down in the winter.  It's made out to be a Very Big Deal. And some of it is obviously very cool.  There were some really interesting garden and patio/porch displays by people from all over the country.  But then there were some really odd things too...

Between the show gardens and the vendors' area there are these 'rooms' set up by various sponsors. 

This is clearly a picnic set up done by a local community college's level two floral design class.  I've never done anything like this, but this doesn't look like a level two of much of anything.  Honestly, it reminded me more of "Quick Fire" challenge for an art Reality Show. (I can't think of the name of the one Bravo did last year, but it seemed like to should come from there.)  "You have 3000 carnations and a budget of $50 at Michaels.  Make a 'room' from this in the sixty-seven mintues."  It just screamed amateur to me.  Sticking red carnations in hot dog buns to make flower hot dogs?  I don't even know what the orange ones in blue bowls were supposed to be.  Or why there's construction fencing hanging from the walls.
Like I said, it may be harder than I think it is; I've never done it, but I was very very underwhelmed to see something like this at an event that is theoretically this Big of a Deal.

Another huge annoyance for me is that at best, 25% of the plants being used were labeled.  You would think that at a show where you're supposed to be giving people ideas, you might want to let them know what it is they were looking at.  And very few of the gardens had people attending them to tell you if you wanted to know.

Oh, and that picture above with the bench and the orange and yellow painted trees?  I have no earthly idea why they would bring those to a show that is primarily about living plants.  They're supposed to represent a park along Lake Shore Drive near Lincoln Park Zoo.  A number of trees down there died a few years back and for some truly incomprehensible reason, instead of removing them, the park district decided to paint them orange and yellow and a few green and blue.  We're living in a budget crisis in this city, but they somehow had the materials and the people to go paint dead trees.  I do. not. understand, but there it is.  And why would you want to showcase that at a flower and garden show?

Anyway, I got a lot of shots that will actually make for some great teaching moments.  I always wanted this to be a place where we could discuss technique and methods, but it's mostly been, "Look!  I took a picture of a thing!"  I've been reading a 'bookazine', as they call it, and they're breaking down both the basic and more specific concepts in photography and it's been helping me a lot.

So, while showing off the pictures I took (because, hey, I need to do that too. :) I want to talk about some basic concepts that new photographers might not be overly familiar with or that more seasoned folks haven't thought about.

To wit, I'll be posting on:
• ISO, so what?
• White balance: what color is your environmental light?
• You probably bathe your dog more often than you clean your camera.  You may want to do something about that.

But before I go... just a few of the good shots that I was pretty pleased with.

Another Anther
As you may have noticed, now that the snow's gone, I needed to change my banner photo at the top of the blog.  I'm going to do an entire post on the tulips - the huge tulip garden was one of the few places they did everything pretty much right.  This was my favorite shot from the entire day.  It looks great even at full size.  The peach and yellow make a really pretty background and the three brown anthers give the shot a great focal point.  For anyone keeping score at home this was taken at ISO 100, F36 and a shutter speed of 13 seconds.  I also used a two second timer to trip the shutter so I wouldn't bump the camera by pressing the button.  I did no post production edition of this, not even cropping (obviously it was scaled), but it came out of the camera like this, and I was pretty excited.

Wouldn't Look out of Place on Canvas

I've never been a huge fan of those old school nineteenth century oil paintings that are all in dark greens and browns with a little yellow or dark red in them.  And yet, these roses would fit in perfectly in one of those shots and I love them.

A Rose of Fire
Here's that top, center one blown up.  I don't know what they were called, but the colors make me think of what would happen if you made a rose out of fire.

Standing Out
This was in a windowbox display that actually had a key put up on the wall so I can go and look to see what it is, but I haven't checked yet.  I'm fairly sure it's some kind of daisy.  I did a metric ton of color-correction on this shot and I'm still not 100% thrilled with it.  But at least it's not pink any more.  These are really awesome flowers with bright purple centers and white petals with light green edges.  My favorite color combination ever.  I also like that I played with the aperture setting enough that I got the background to be just fuzzy enough that the flower stands out, but not so fuzzy that you can't tell what is behind the focus.

Okay, the next post will actually be a discussion of white balance and why it's worth fighting with. :)