Archive for the ‘General Photography’ Category

The Naked Eye

Posted: July 18, 2015 in General Photography

For me there are two main difficulties when gathering images of the Northern Lights. One of them is being outside when they are active and the other is the post processing of the images once they are acquired. Getting the image is not such a struggle these days if the lights are flying, but, once gathered…what do you do with them? What colors should they be? How much color is too much?

Much of what comes into play after the image is acquired depends on each photographer’s personal tastes. Some prefer strong saturated colors while others prefer a more subtle approach but the question remains, what color are they??

In my life I have only seen definitive color during an aurora show once. I think it was 1994 or 1995 and the display of light was intense and the patterns were mind boggling. I distinctly remember seeing green and red colors in those patterns, there was no mistake about it. I don’t know how many times that I have seen the Northern Lights but I do remember how many times I’ve been able to see a definite color to them–exactly once.

The most recent show that started on the 22nd of June and ended in the AM hours of the 23rd was amazing. Patterns, pillars, curtain effects, even motion directly overhead, all a testament to the strength of the show but, to my unaided eye, well, they looked like a dull bluish\greenish\grayish white…if that is even a color! The point is, given how the eye works with it’s cones and rods and how the camera works with it’s incredible light gathering properties during a long exposure, it should come as no surprise that to the naked eye, in many cases, there are simply no colors to be seen and those that are seen are often barely noted, mere hints of their true nature.

A recent discussion with a publication entity who shall remain nameless left me a bit confused as they refused to publish an image without an accompanying unedited file to ensure that “…the image submitted is what the human eye would see…”. I found this a bit odd as, without question, there is no way that the human eye will see anything even remotely like what the camera captured, a fact well documented in the literature regarding the capture of aurora. The patterns of light, sure, they would be similar, but it is unlikely that a 75 MB RAW image file, exposed for a time of twenty seconds, would in any way, shape, or form give us ‘what the human eye saw’.

the-naked-eye-WEB

The Naked Eye–Bringing what the camera captured closer to what the human eye might see.

Another concern expressed was that the images might be manipulated by an image editing program and as a result have over saturated and non realistic colors that, again, are not what the eye would see. I think we have all seen some of those over saturated color drenched images that may be a bit over the top and while I don’t prefer that style I have certainly done my share of them and no, you don’t get to see those! We are all different and that’s what makes this all work. The world would be a boring place if we all did the same thing.

The irony here? You would have to use an image editing program in order to edit the image to make it appear closer to what the naked eye would see. While I see their point and can appreciate and respect journalistic integrity as far as journalistic photography is concerned, I cannot agree to the extent that the naked eye and a camera sensor or film will capture the same thing when it comes to a five, ten, twenty, or even thirty second long exposure time–it simply doesn’t happen like that.

I freely admit that I use image editing programs to put the final touches on images that I gather. In the case of the aurora I try to express not only what I saw, but what I felt–they are a truly remarkable phenomena to experience and I still find it hard to believe that the human body can endure that much adrenaline for that length of time!

With all of this in mind, I have used this particular image as an attempt to get closer to what the unaided eye might see out there. I’ve toned the colors down quite a bit, trying to match-and probably failing–the exact color (or lack of it) that I witnessed for those four hours on the beach.

Across the street from Bronson Lake

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Chasing the Lights

Posted: October 12, 2013 in General Photography

Chasing the Lights

In my photography career few subjects have captured my attention and efforts as profoundly as the aurora borealis have. Also known as the Northern Lights, these surreal displays of color and shape punctuate the night sky and for those lucky enough to see them, the descriptions given often include the word indescribable somewhere in the conversation. Truly, they must be seen to be believed. The easiest way to see them, of course, is to do a simple internet search and have a look at the millions, perhaps billions of photographs, videos, and time-lapse captures of the phenomena. Many photographers specialize not only in photographing the aurora but leading workshops and expeditions to see them as well. However, as with all things worth experiencing, there is a bit of work involved.

Where and When?

One of the most frequent questions I am asked about the Northern Lights is “When will they be out?” and, of course, the answer is always the same—the lights are happening all the time. The aurora are active twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year and are the result, for the most part, of a constantly streaming flow of charged particles kindly donated by the nearest star, the sun. These constant lights exist in a band known as the auroral zone which is 3-6 degrees in latitudinal extent at all longitudes and 10-20 degrees in all latitudes away from the magnetic pole as defined by the axis of the Earth’s magnetic dipole. In other words, a very thin circular-ish band that exists at the polar regions of the planet. All the time.

Now, if you are like me, this conjures up one word—cold! And, given that we are talking about the Polar Regions here, cold is probably an understatement. Long story short, if you want to pretty much guarantee a look at these lights, travel to the poles is one way to go about it. Practical? No. Fun? Even less so! But that is the reality—the lights are out all the time. However, there is this thing known as a geomagnetic storm…

Now Were Talkin’

On occasion, an event known as a geomagnetic storm will have the effect of turning a viewing of the lights from a trip to frigid hell into a relatively comfortable and memorable experience as the auroral oval expands and becomes visible at lower latitudes, changing from diffuse aurora, that is, a bland, perhaps not visible indication of the constant auroral oval to discrete aurora, when the boring band of light becomes a feature filled and dramatic display of color and shape that varies in brightness from very dim to something you can read by. We are, of course, after the discrete aurora, preferably the kind we can read by. And warmth, we are after warmth as well.

Over the years there have been many explanations for the lights, but the basic mechanism is as follows: oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere are involved in collisions with charged particles that are traveling along the magnetic field lines of the earth. These collisions are of either an ionization or excitation type. In other words, the atoms collide with the high energy electrons—or, in some cases, charged variants of those very same atoms—and as they return to their ground state or the state in which they existed before being bothered by an energetic particle, light is emitted. This light, then, is what we see when we see the lights in the sky. Depending on the atom impacted, a different color light is seen. Nitrogen, for example, will emit blue or red photons, blue if it is gaining an electron after an impact, red if it is returning to the ground state after an excitation event. Oxygen is responsible for green and reddish-brown. Further, oxygen exhibits a bit of strangeness in that it can take nearly a second to emit the green light before it returns to a ground state and several minutes to emit the red light as collisions with other atoms and molecules prevent their rapid return to the ground state. For further technical reasons that involve the abundance of oxygen atoms in the upper regions of the atmosphere, the color red is rare, but not impossible.

Here, I’ll paraphrase the paraphrasing I have just done from my Wikipedia source:

Tiny things smash into slightly larger things and we see light and stuff.

There is one important thing to keep in mind here—we are, after all, dealing with light. The same kind of light that we might see at sunrise, sunset, or any other time there is light around. As such, as the intensity of the aurora changes, we need to keep on top of our camera settings so as to not end up with a bunch of completely black or completely overexposed images. If you haven’t taken the time to learn the basic manual functions of your camera, now is the time to do so—Auto mode is more likely than not going to fail miserably in these conditions and you can pretty much toss auto-focus out the window as well. And that hand held stuff you like to do? Fuggedaboutit.

ISO, shutter speed, aperture…if you want to end up with anything remotely resembling a picture of the aurora in the night time sky, you will need to get comfortable with those settings, what they mean, and how to change them rapidly. The only shortcut I know of is to let someone else take the picture!

And you know what? You got this. I guarantee it. It may involve leaving some photographic comfort zones, but if you want to go for pictures of aurora in the night sky, now’s the time to step up to the plate and hit one out of the park.

 

 

limited visibility_web

 

Zoning In On the Target

All the fancy camera knowledge, gear, and equipment in the world is meaningless if you are beneath a sky devoid of auroral activity. Just like it’s hard to take a sunset photo at midnight, it’s nearly impossible to capture images of the aurora when they aren’t around. I know, I know, these are boring and trivial details that we all could care less about but it does beg the question—how in the Sam Hill do we know when a geomagnetic storm is happening and, further, how do we know we would even be able to see them if a storm was happening? Excellent questions and I wish I had some excellent answers but all I have are good answers.

First things first. We happen to be in the midst of a solar cycle, that is, the once per eleven years or so when the sun gets all crazy and stuff on the surface with twisting magnetic field lines and stronger than usual ejections of particles that, surprisingly, lead to some rather amazing displays of the aurora, provided that they are earth directed. In other words, a gigantic solar flare that blasts off the sun on the side opposite the earth will have absolutely no impact on us. It may hit Jupiter or something, causing some auroral displays there, but we will be missed.

So…there is about eleventy gazillion dollars’ worth of equipment around the planet and in space that monitors the sun on a constant basis and when something happens on the sun, we know about it rather quickly. Be it a private astronomer taking photographs of our star or a fancy satellite in space measuring the properties of the solar wind, for example, the sun is a well understood entity. Well, much of it is well understood, much more of it remains a grand mystery.

But for us, the aurora chasers, only one thing is important—how big was the CME (coronal mass ejection) from the sun, and when will it get here? Here, you can proceed in two fashions; one, do absolutely nothing and hope your buddy tells you when the lights are out so you can leave the comfort of your home and head to a sky full of aurora, or, two, you can get your hands dirty and have a pretty good idea all by yourself of a good time to leave the couch and have a go at getting some aurora images.

We live in an amazing time as far as information is concerned. I read something a while back that informed me that I have, at my very fingertips, more information available to me at a moment’s notice than my grandparents did over the course of their entire lives. This is mind boggling, to say the least, but there is no doubt that the proliferation of the world wide web has given us access to information that those who came before us can only dream about. But all is not rainbows and Unicorns here…how, exactly, do you wade through the mass of quadrillions of bits of information and find exactly what you need? Practice, that’s how. And your favorite search engine. Mine is Google, yours might be something else, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is becoming proficient in the use of that search engine and knowing what to keep and, more importantly, what to throw away. I’ll cut to the chase here and give you two of my favorite sites for keeping an eye on when the aurora might be visible in the sky:
First, the Geophysical Institute Aurora Page.

http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/NorthAmerica

There is a lot of information there and I am not going to go into it as, for the most part, it’s self-explanatory. Take a look around the page, click on various links, look at the diagrams, and get familiar with it and if you have questions about it there are about seventy five trillion forums, Facebook groups, etc. available online that go into rather extensive detail about what you might come across on this page. I suggest you start at the FAQ on the page itself.

Second, I will go to this page as well, Soft Serve News.
http://www.softservenews.com/Aurora.htm

Again, in addition to providing predictions of when and if the lights might be out, and where they might be visible, the page is full of interesting and important information regarding the aurora.

There are, no doubt, countless others out there and there are even pages you can pay a small fee to and they will send you alerts via various electronic means such as email or text message.

I do not mean for my brevity here to be misconstrued as having no patience for those lazy folks out there but as I mentioned earlier if you want to get pictures of the aurora—or even see them—a modicum of effort is required on your part. As a lazy person myself, I am well aware of the pitfalls of missing out on all the fun due to inaction on my part.

 

noise in the woods_web

A final word—even with all of this fancy information at our fingertips and a CME headed our way as may be indicated by all of this fancy information, some hard facts remain. The lights might not show up. Or they might show up a day early. Or they might be a weak show that is barely visible. The factors involved in why this is so are numerous and certainly beyond the scope of this article, but one thing is for sure—if you are not prepared to stand outside for hours on end in the frigid cold of a middle of winter night then the aurora chase may not be for you. Believe me, I often decide that the chase is not for me! It’s sort of like chasing that perfect sunset, you never quite catch it. The aurora is like that, but magnitudes more complex because the sun sets every day, visible aurora in your area may happen a handful of times a year, if at all.

And don’t even get me started on cloudy skies during amazing aurora displays…

Getting the Shot

You’ve checked the web pages, corroborated with other sources, talked with your buddies and are all but certain that tonight is the night. The batteries are charged, the tripod is working and with you, your favorite lens is on the camera, your dressed for the weather and have your cellphone with you in case of a grizzly bear attack or some other emergency…what next? First, drive to the location where you want to take pictures. In my area, Lake Michigan is a popular spot as displays of the aurora leave beautiful reflections on the surface of the water, an interesting compositional element. You may prefer the solitude of a wooded area or secluded stream and this is fine just make sure that your spot is not impossible to navigate and, more importantly, is not so obstructed as to block out the lights!

Here is a quick tip for determining if the lights are out as they are often not visible to the naked eye. Set the ISO of your camera to around 6400 (or as high as it goes if it will not go to 6400), select a shutter speed of around 10-15 seconds, manually focus the lens to infinity—it’s that sideways ‘8’ on the lens—point the camera in a general northern direction and take a picture. See any green or other colors? If you do that probably means the lights are out! I’ll do this before I ever get out of the car and if I’m not seeing anything on the viewfinder I may remain in the friendly confines of my Subaru, checking the aurora web pages on my cellphone, repeating the quick and dirty check with the camera.

But we didn’t leave to get skunked, so, the lights are out! Now is the time to get setup for our shots. It’s good to have a flashlight handy, preferably one with a red filter over the light so as to not destroy your night vision. I use the light to set the focus to infinity, after that I rarely use it until it is time to navigate treacherous terrain or ward off evil spirits. If you can’t change you camera settings in pitch black conditions, learn how. As mentioned earlier, the intensity of the lights can change in an extremely short amount of time and those settings that were getting you perfect images a couple of seconds ago now might be generating useless and overexposed images or useless and underexposed images.

 

escalation-web

There are no hard and fast camera settings and, in general, I’ll start with the following settings and tweak them as needed:
Full manual mode

ISO-1600. I start here, but, depending on light intensity or even a certain effect I may be going for, this can be as low as 640 or as high as 25,600. If you’re just getting started, keep it simple, use and ISO that gives you satisfactory results for the conditions you find yourself in.

Shutter speed-15 second exposure

Shutter release—I have a wireless unit that I like to use but for the most part I don’t use it. Many cameras can be setup to have a slight delay after pressing the release button before the shutter trips.

Lens focused to infinity—careful here, this may very well be a temperature dependent adjustment and what works in the summer might not work in the winter. Take a shot, zoom in with the LCD controls and check sharpness. Adjust as needed.

Aperture-f\2.8. Lens dependent, but the larger the aperture, the more light will get in and you can use a shorter exposure time and\or lower ISO which helps to reduce noise in the final image. I prefer to use an ultra-wide angle lens but you can use any lens you want. But as the focal length of the lens increases, your field of view decreases, so, use the widest lens you can get your hands on to get a large patch of sky in your images.

Tripod. Don’t question it, just do it. Tripod. Use one. Period. If I see you out there without a tripod I will beat you with mine! Of course, I would never do that, but you get the point. I hope.

LCD brightness—low. If set too brightly, the LCD can fool you into thinking you got a great shot but when you get home to look you can barely see anything. I do this all the time and kick myself for it all the time. Finally I gave up and now use the Histogram. Learn how to use the histogram. It’s unlikely you’ll be getting a nice and smooth histogram all along the exposure region, but you do want more than a single spike at the far left. Read about it, learn about it, the histogram is your friend!

And…there you go. That is what I do and that is just to get started. Once you find a spot and get setup, you may find yourself under some rather dim or boring lights, perhaps a simple green band along the horizon, for example. Be vigilant, be patient. If a geomagnetic storm is on the way it is most likely going to follow its rules, not yours. That boring green band might turn into a wall of light and color in the blink of an eye, I’ve seen it more times than I can count. I have also nearly frozen solid as I waited, for hours, to see absolutely nothing. When all is said and done it boils down to a race between your tolerance for boredom—or frigid cold—and your ability to remain beneath the stars. The ‘show’ might be as short as a few minutes or as long as several hours, you simply don’t know. It can be extremely frustrating. It can also be extremely rewarding, ethereal, spiritual, an experience of a lifetime that is more than worth some temporary discomfort.

Once you get comfortable out there, change it up a bit. Lower the camera, turn it vertical, take a panorama, and move to another location! The possibilities are endless but only if the basics are well understood. I also strongly encourage you to check out the work of others who are known to have good results with the aurora, who knows, they may give you a secret or two…

I hope that I have given a decent overview of the basics of aurora photography here, and I apologize in advance for the brevity and skimming over. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions you may have and I will be more than happy to help!

Happy hunting and good luck!

Bob Simmerman

10-12-13

Supplemental Information.

Aurora Wikipedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurora_(astronomy)

Various Northern Lights images by Yours Truly:
http://simmermanphotography.zenfolio.com/f11323828

 

Numerous Facebook groups and pages dedicated to the aurora and other extra-terrestrial phenomena.

It’s About…About.

Posted: September 10, 2013 in General Photography

First things first—a big Congratulations to Jennifer Maxey, winner of the very first copy of the new, Limited Edition print, Revival’.  Congratulations to Jennifer and a big thank you to all who participated in the giveaway.  Here is a good look at that print, it’s one of my all time favorites of Bronson Lake, the small lake just across the road from my house and a long time photographic subject of mine.

Second things, well, second—I am happy to announce that a new front end to the web page has not only been constructed with extreme skill by Aaron Carpenter of Legendary Lion Web Design, the new page is up!  During the design phase we decided to not fix what wasn’t broken, namely, the excellent display of images and, just as important, the eCommerce side of things.  Zenfolio does a fantastic job all around, but their eCommerce system is simple, effective, and, most importantly, very easy to use.  I mean, heck, if I can use it then anyone can.  And make no mistake, from time to time I will buy a print or a new product a Zenfolio partner offers as a way to keep an eye on what the clients are receiving.

I was very excited when I noticed that Zenfolio had partnered with iVoke, and it wasn’t long before I had my hands on the dial to order up a sample to check for quality control purposes.  I chose one of my favorite images from the M22 Gallery, ‘Sunset At Good Harbor Bay’, selected the White Base option for the print and ordered it up.  Stunned would be an understatement, the image looks fantastic on the metal and with the White Base option the aluminum does not show through as it would if selecting the Clear Base option, but, as with many things, that is a personal preference.  Suffice it to say, I am happy with the end product and look forward to what the fine folks at Zenfolio have in mind next…

And last things last, I updated the About section on the new web page rather extensively.  I’m not sure who reads that sort of thing but I can say, honestly, that when I visit the page of someone—or something—that I am interested in, it’s one of the first buttons I look for.  To wrap up this blog, I am including the new About section from the new web page, in its entirety, below.

Before we get to that there is one thing I must do and that is send out a huge thank you to all of you who have supported me these past few years.  It’s been tough at times, but like all things worth doing there will be those tough times.  and I simply cannot thank you all enough for giving me the boost I needed when it would have been so much easier to simply throw in the towel and call it a day.  I don’t mean to say that all of a sudden Unicorns and rainbows are flying around my yard, no, nothing like that—it is life, after all, and that just ain,t the way it goes—but it sure does make it easier knowing you got folks on your side.

Forever, I am in your spiritual debt, thank you.

**********

About

Landscape Photography

Art via photography has been a hobby of mine for the better part of my life.  From snapshots of friends to the latest modification of a motorcycle or car, there are few better ways to capture a moment for all time than a photograph.  While growing up I traveled extensively and there was always a camera nearby.  From the eerie passages of Mammoth Cave to the most secluded areas of Reelfoot Lake, I was always trying to get those memories on film and, for the most part, succeeded.  None of them hang in the Louvre but they will always have a special place in my heart and the memories invoked by simply viewing them shall forever remain priceless.

It’s been a while since I have been south of the Mason-Dixon line and for nearly twenty years Northern Michigan has been my home, and, from an artist’s standpoint, what a home it is– we have the beautiful Northern Michigan landscape to explore and enjoy. From the stunning scenery along the M22 highway to the inland lakes, rivers, and streams that Michigan is famous for, the possibilities for new discovery are endless.

Architecture and Real Estate Photography

As a young boy, I was captivated by architecture.  From building models of houses that I dreamed of bringing to reality to standing motionless and awestruck in front of iconic buildings and structures as I traveled with my family through the southern and western United States, architecture has always had a special place in my heart.

These days, I don’t have the time to build models of houses and the trips and vacations are few and far between, unfortunately.  As a compromise, I capture the essence of the structure with the camera and provide the client with truly unique and accurate images that go beyond a simple snapshot.

Gear Up

There is little doubt that having the greatest camera gear in the world will not make you a better photographer, there is also little doubt that having sub-par gear will, eventually, affect a photographer in a detrimental way, usually at the most inopportune times.  I often find myself standing in fast moving bodies of water or on the shore of a frozen beach in gale force winds and it is times like these that having gear that can take the punishment and still deliver the artists vision are a true blessing.

I take pride in my camera, lenses, tripod, and supplemental photography kit, ensuring that they are performing in top condition any time I go on location, be it the splendor of the Aurora Borealis or the handcrafted beauty of a one of a kind construction project.

My camera of choice is the Nikon D800.  Rugged, weather resistant, and boasting a sensor capable of image quality rivaling that of some medium format camera’s the Nikon D800 is an industry leading imaging device and has yet to let me down when it counted.  In the bag are a variety of lenses but my favorite, by far, is the legendary Nikkor 14-24 mm f\2.8.  Known the world over for its edge to edge sharpness and unrivaled image quality the Nikkor 14-24 mm f\2.8 is my go to lens when I absolutely positively must get the shot.

Long exposure photography is aided with filters from Hitech-Formatt and Cokin.  I am a big fan of the new Pro IRND ten-stop neutral density filter from Hitech and coupled with the ultra wide angle filter holder system from Lucroit, the Pro IRND allows for the capture of some truly stunning and ethereal imagery.

The greatest gear in the world is nothing if not stable and I can think of no other tripod system I would rather use than one from Really Right Stuff.  Lightweight, bulletproof, and able to support a whopping fifty-five pounds on top of the BH-55 LR ball head, the TVC-33S tripod from Really Right Stuff rounds out my photography arsenal in truly professional fashion.

After the Shot

I use a custom built computer coupled to an industry leading NEC wide gamut display for the post processing of my images.  Photoshop, Lightroom, and the Nik Suite of software products are vital to my workflow and ensure images of the highest quality that remain true to my vision, and, more importantly, true to the scene as it was witnessed.

My approach to the post-processing of images is the result of years of experience and constant evaluation and practice of new techniques and methods.  I prefer a realistic look to my images as I feel that it is difficult to improve on what nature so readily and freely provides—the real trick is being there at the right time, a time that, sometimes, lasts mere seconds.

Early in my digital photographic art career I did quite a bit of experimentation with combining multiple exposures of a scene and rapidly processing them using a well-known exposure blending software program.  Initially, I was quite impressed with the results as the software quickly provided a lot of ‘wow’ factor to the image.  But, as time passed, I began to take a very critical and honest look at the work I was producing with this method and was not happy with the results as they not only looked nothing like the image I was trying to capture in the first place, there was an easily apparent heavy hand to the image and it simply wasn’t for me, it was not the style I was trying to achieve and as a result I felt that I was selling myself short on not only the image quality, but on my vision as well.

As such, I have made some rather drastic changes to my post-processing workflow in recent years and I feel that the results I now achieve are far superior to my previous work and I look forward to further improving.  I feel that in order to be the best I can be a level of honesty must figure into the creative process.  We are all different and all have different preferences and styles but if we are not happy with our work then it is time for a change.

Inspiration

Thinking about this for a while I feel it might be easier writing down what isn’t an inspiration!  Briefly, some of the masters of their craft; DaVinci, Renoit, Matisse, Weston, Adams, O’Keefe, Warhol, Ferrari, Clark, Stewart…well, as I said, briefly.  Rumor has it that the internet has a word limit.

To continue, Patrick DiFruscia, Jay and Varina Patel, Colby Brown, Elia Locardi, Bobby Bong, Marc Adamus, Daniel K. Cheong, Felix Inden, Javier Olmedo, Xavier Jamonet, Steve Coleman and his list of 100 Landscape Photographers Worth Knowing…once again, this list is for all intents and purposes an endless one but these are some of the current photographers whose work is, to put it mildly, an inspiration to me. Brilliant and beautiful, their art is worthy of any wall, their vision worthy of any gaze.

A drop of dew on a blade of grass.

*****

The Final Product

Nearly three years ago, I began my first tiny steps of putting my work out there for purchase.  After some consultation and research I decided to begin my journey in this area with the fine folks at Zenfolio.  Simple to use and much cheaper than a full-blown web page designer, I have nothing but good things to say about my experience.  And their product lineup has done nothing but grow in the years I have been with them, offering everything from standard photographic paper prints to stunning images on aluminum, the product gallery is full and sure to satisfy the needs of the discerning customer.

In addition to what is offered by Zenfolio, I personally offer signed and matted images, small production run limited edition prints, and custom imagery by client request.  Please do not hesitate to contact me for any questions or concerns regarding anything product related.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you!  And I thank you for your support as well.  While it is true that I create art with a camera for little more reason than it is a passion of mine, it is an indescribable gratitude to know that others gain some enjoyment from my passion as well.

Bob Simmerman

09-09-13

I’ll often find myself at a location flooded with emotions as I take in the scene in preparation for an attempt at photographically capturing, at least partially, those emotions. A recent trip to the beach in Empire, Michigan was no exception.

The day was glorious–the sun was ablaze and the sky was abundant with beautiful clouds, puffy and plentiful, the kind you might see on a warm summer day. It was difficult to concentrate on the duties of my day job but I somehow managed, all the while making time for thoughts of a return to one of my favorite Lake Michigan locations, the Lake Michigan Beach Park at Empire. Long exposure, short exposure, low to the ground, eye level, near the creek, lighthouse in or out of the composition, my mind raced with the possibilities, but, remembering past sessions, I did my best to keep the thoughts in perspective–often it is the case that when we arrive at a scene, previous thoughts are rapidly replaced by an entirely new train of thought as we adapt to the reality that may be in direct conflict to our imaginations. And, as it turns out, this day at Empire was such a case.

The sun was still ablaze, that had not changed, but not a cloud remained in the sky! It was as if the giant weather machine known as Lake Michigan had decided that no more clouds were necessary, and, as a result of this, my arrival was met with a bit of discouragement, but that quickly turned to optimism as I adapted to the conditions, accepted the challenge, and proceeded to go to work. I walked past the Robert H. Manning memorial lighthouse and when I reached the creek that flows into the big water from South Bar lake, north of the lighthouse, I turned around and made my way back a short distance. I took a few shots of some random ice chunks and sparse driftwood, but was not happy with the composition so I walked a bit farther until I came to a very interesting ice formation on the beach. A mere remnant of the ice that dominated the shores not so long ago, it was clear that this particular chunk of ice was well on the way to disappearing forever and the scene captured my full attention beneath the rapidly setting sun.

In my mind’s eye I saw two things here–one, the very real fact that winter had yet to release its grip made all the more apparent by the quite cold temperatures and, two, the very real fact that winter, try as it might, has a limited time each year to present us with its beauty, a shelf life, if you will. I decided to capture the first image with the grip of winter in mind. Cold, windy, with the sun rapidly approaching the horizon, I chose a long exposure in an attempt to convey what I was feeling as I stood near that ice formation. Tripod secure and filter in place, I triggered the remote and for fifty-eight seconds patiently waited, hoping that I had captured at least a fraction of the feelings flowing through my mind and body as I stood on the shores of Lake Michigan. The resulting image, Shelf Life, exceeded my expectations and I could not have been happier with the result. I chose to emphasize the blue tones of the scene as I felt those conveyed how I felt, physically, as the warmth of the sun was more a thought than a reality at this point in the season.

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Shelf Life

But, as I have alluded to earlier, the grip of winter was not all that I saw on this day. I also saw the hope and promise of spring, of warmer weather and new opportunities. For the next image, I chose a short exposure as I wanted to convey the motion of the waves and I concentrated on emphasizing the beautiful golden glow of the sun as it filled the horizon and caressed the edge of the ice formation, as if to say “I will be here long after you are gone…” 

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Seasonal Conflict

I did not feel the warmth of the sun that day, but I most certainly heard the promise of that warmth before it vanished below the horizon.

Bob Simmerman

Across the street from Bronson Lake

On Display

Posted: February 25, 2013 in General Photography

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—Spring is right around the corner…and winter is right around the other three.  The past two winters have been relatively tame around these parts, so tame in fact that I had forgotten what four foot high piles of snow on either side of the driveway look like.  This past weekend was a perfect example that the snow machine is in perfect working order as around ten inches of new snow joined the previous seventy five feet of snow we already had.  Ok, I am exaggerating a bit as it is more like a hundred feet of snow!

I gave myself a few goals for this coming year and so far so good.  One of those goals involved a re-examination of my photographic endeavors of the previous year and that goal was to stop going to a location and taking six million photographs of, basically, the same thing.  True, in this day and age of digital photography the film is free but I soon discovered that I was becoming good at one thing and one thing only—pressing the shutter button.  I wasn’t seeing the beauty around me, I wasn’t appreciating the beauty around me, I wasn’t capturing the beauty around me, I was standing on a beach or hill at sunset, testing the lifetime of batteries and storage capacity of memory cards.

Sure, I might catch a good one here and there, but the fact remained that when I got home and transferred the photographs to the computer for processing I increased my skill in yet another area—hitting the delete button as shot after shot after shot fell far short of anything I was prepared to put my name to.  Discouraged but not ready to give up I took a suggestion offered by a world class landscape photographer and stopped filling the memory card with redundancy.  It’s amazing how much better your photography becomes when you start treating those memory cards like rolls of film and that is exactly what I vowed to do.  My current camera memory configuration allows for the capture of around 1200 images before it’s time to pull the cards and that, to put it bluntly, is a bit on the excessive side. Hence the new goal—stop taking so many damn pictures and start taking a few good ones.

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‘Barnstorm’  Empire, Michigan

Mission accomplished—on average, the shutter on my camera now snaps open and shut about 90% less than it used to and it has made all the difference.  Granted, I haven’t magically become a world famous photographer or even the most famous photographer of the street I live on, but the results speak for themselves.  Sometimes, when we ask for a bit less we end up with a lot more.  I spend more time researching and planning what, exactly, it is that I am going to do at the location I am planning on visiting and even find room to toss in a few contingency plans in case things don’t go according to my wishes—a common occurrence.  Given the amount of snow we have had this winter, that contingency might involve looking for a new angle on the mailbox at the end of the driveway if I were to get stuck short of my destination…for example.

Another goal I set for myself is directly related to the first and that is to obtain around one portfolio worthy image per month.

One.  Per month. For the Portfolio.

I have fully embraced the ‘quality not quantity’ mindset and, to my surprise, less has become more.  No doubt there are billions of photographers out there who can take a hundred photographs per day and all will be Facebook post-worthy or fast-tracked to the Louvre, but I am not that guy.  In fact, I don’t think I will ever be that guy.  It wasn’t easy to make this change, in fact, it has taken months and still feels a bit alien to me but beneath that feeling of discomfort that comes from change is another feeling, a feeling of great satisfaction that doing something outside of my comfort zone has led to results far beyond what I was achieving doing the same old same old.  Time to retire?  Not likely!  One of the beautiful things about photography is that you are always learning and if you are willing to take an honest and open minded look at your work, those changes might be for the better.

I have a lifetime of learning to go and I can’t wait for the next step in this journey.

My final goal has been one surrounded by some difficulty—finding wall space.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing this for the money—I would have starved years ago—but I do desire to have real life examples of my work, at the very least, enjoyed by others and that involves wall space that isn’t my living room.  As luck would have it I was recently contacted by Mark O’Shaughnessy from the Traverse City Art & Design Studio and soon after our first meeting  I found myself in possession of one of the rare luxuries in the art world—wall space.

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‘Point Betsie Lighthouse’ Crystallia, Michigan.

Once again I am leaving a comfort zone and, once again, I get the feeling that the time is right for another step on this journey.  For this particular display I have chosen two photographs from the past few months of work, Barnstorm, taken on a gorgeous sun filled February day near Empire, Michigan, and Point Betsie Lighthouse, a personal favorite from beautiful Crystallia, Michigan, on an icy cold day at the end of December, an area that is well known to Northern Michiganders and a favorite with many photographers.  Todd and the rest of the crew at McMillen’s Custom Framing have, once again, done a stellar job with the presentation and framing of the images.  The images will be on display through March and April alongside many other fantastic photographs and original artworks from artists around the Northern Michigan area.

For complete details of events, shows, and artists displaying works at the studio make sure to visit their Facebook page,  Traverse City Art & Design Studio.

 

When we let go of our dreams we must be wary of embracing the wrong side of life.

 

Bob Simmerman

Across the street from Bronson Lake.

Another Look

Posted: January 28, 2013 in General Photography

 

About a month ago, I found myself, once again, prowling around the Point Betsie Lighthouse area in search of the ever elusive keeper for my portfolio.  Well, that isn’t entirely true—my first order of the day was testing a new filter holder system for an upcoming video review and if I got a keeper in the process, all the better.  But testing is testing so I kept to the task at hand and tested.

The goal for the day was to acquire at least one illustrative long exposure photograph as I was putting a 10 stop Hitech Formatt 165 mm x 165 mm rectangular filter through the paces.  A 10 stop filter is an interesting beast, allowing for quite long exposure times even during the daylight hours, and, if conditions are right, the results are often dramatic.  This day happened to be a great day for such a filter as the sky was filled with plenty of fast moving clouds, big waves were moving into shore in all of their turquoise glory, and the seasons first show of icicles on the break wall completed the circle, in other words, three phases of water were in co-existence, and the prospects were good.  At the very least, an interesting composition presented itself, just the thing for a long exposure capture.

Simple?  In theory, yes, setup the tripod, set the focus, figure out the correct exposure time, trigger the shutter, capture the image, go home, get warm, have a cup of coffee.  So much for theory…while setting the tripod up, it was clear that whatever timing scheme I had going was not working as more often than not at sometime during the exposure phase, a wave would just so happen to travel about twenty feet farther than the previous breaking waves and in doing so flooded the tripod feet, causing the camera to dip a few inches in the newly formed quicksand which did not lend itself well to a sharply focused shot!  Further, the ice I was trying so desperately to capture in the image would remain in one place…until, at some time during the exposure another rogue wave would hit the shore and move it several feet in a random direction.  Finally, after nearly an hour of hoping for at least a small amount of luck, I was able to capture an acceptable image, Castaway.

 

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Now, if you look closely, you can see that some of the smaller ice chunks did, in fact, move a bit during this exposure but I liked the effect of it so I went with it.  

In preparations for long exposures, I acquire several images without the filter in place.  These are to ensure the sharpness of the stationary objects in the frame and, further, to give me some idea of the unfiltered exposure parameters which allows for the calculation of the correct exposure time with the filter in place.  I like the contrast of sharpness for the stationary objects versus the smoothness of the moving elements in the photograph and extra time spent in the preparation stage of the image gives me the effect that I want—for the most part.  During this phase of preparation, I’ll gather anywhere from five to twenty images at normal exposure times as during the long exposure phase you are basically standing there, hoping for the best, and in my experience, the more time you spend prepping for the final image, the better your chances of a result you are happy with.  Natural events aside—moving elements in the image and waves that threaten to wash away the tripod and camera to a new location, for example, are out of the photographers control, of course, but by spending the time and being persistent, the reward is often an image to be proud of. 

I had my image for the day, but I couldn’t help but be interested in one of the setup shots for Castaway, an image titled Last Line Of Defense:

 

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Dramatic skies, decent size waves, a foreground element of ice that had recently broken free of the break wall, and a wave rushing toward and behind the camera location giving a sense of ‘being there’ to the viewer.  Not likely to find home on a billboard along M22 any time soon, the photograph nevertheless  captured the conditions of the day as I experienced them—windy, cold, powerful, a small glimpse of the grand beauty of Lake Michigan.  But on taking another look a few weeks later I realized a few things were not quite exactly how I remembered them.  In fact, on further examination, I found the image sort of on the blah side of things.  For one thing, I distinctly remember that the water and churning sand on the beach were more colorful, and the clouds were a bit bluer.  At the time, I wasn’t paying a lot of attention as, for all intents and purposes, this image was acquired for the purpose of ensuring sharp focus and to give me an idea of the proper exposure time once the filter was in place.

Opening the image in an image editor and examining the histogram told me all I that needed to know and, fortunately, I was able to bring the image more in line with how I remembered the way the beach looked that day.  A slight change in the exposure, a small adjustment of the vibrance and saturation sliders, and, finally, a bit of tweaking the brightness and contrast and there it was—the image now represented not only the feel of the day, but more closely resembled the look as well:

 

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Of course it wasn’t perfect—only a visit with our own eyes can give that kind of experience—but it was an important example of how giving something another look can be like seeing it again, for the first time.

 

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Ah yes, the difference a year makes.  A well worn cliché, to be sure, but, as with all cliché’s, it remains for a reason.  In my case, the difference a year made has been significant.  As many of you know, photography is a passion of mine that went from lifelong hobby to something a bit more in the fall of 2010.  While I harbored no intentions—or illusions—of striking it rich in the super saturated photography market, I definitely had an agenda to bring my photography to the next level, so to speak.  In other words, I made a conscious effort not to just take better pictures, but to be “better than the photographer I was the day before”, to quote an often used phrase.  I think that, for the most part, I have succeeded in my endeavor to this point, but, as they say (just who are ‘they’ by the way???), more work is to be done. 

The previous year was not without some struggle, however.  Near the end of 2011, as things began to really get rolling with the photography gig, I was unexpectedly and quite painfully sidelined with a back injury that, for whatever reason, took about a year to surface following a rather serious car accident.  I chalk it up to ‘one of the great mysteries of life’, regardless, my photography career—and walking normally, for that matter—took an immediate back seat to my physical recovery.

 

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Slowly, and surely, the months passed and the recovery came and before I knew it I could hold a camera for more than five minutes without agonizing pain and discomfort getting in the way.  Finally!  Not long after, the Super Storm of March 2012 paid a visit and while removing tree limbs from my car so as to get inside of it and get warm after three days without power I…broke my damn wrist. 

Another great mystery of life, perhaps, or just some guy in the middle of nowhere trying to get warm. Regardless, I knew that I had six weeks of wearing a cast and about a month of rehab to look forward to once it came off ahead of me.  Undaunted, I quickly learned how to adjust to the cast and in no time at all I found myself taking pictures again.  Pure joy, that.  Even sweeter, as luck would have it, one crisp April night I found myself in the right place at the right time for one of the most intense Aurora Borealis displays of the year.  I must have been a sight to see, middle of the night, jumping up and down with glee like a small child with a new toy, trying not to bang my still healing wrist on anything important, such as, oh, the camera and tripod, for example.  As they say…anything for the shot.

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Soon enough, the rehab was finished and it was time to get down to business, in this case, that business involved making some decisions as to which direction I wanted to go in terms of photographic genres.  After some long and careful thought it was clear to me that my true love was in landscape photography.  It doesn’t hurt that I live in one of the most beautiful locations in the entire country, if not the world, and honing the fine art of landscapes, I felt, could not happen in a better place.  Besides, thanks to the Creative Housing Market of 2007, I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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Zooming in…

Having made the decision to work on landscape photography—for the most part—I felt a sense of relief as I no longer felt that I was pressuring myself to learn every genre. On the other hand, it wasn’t long after this decision that I noticed something that troubled me. I realized that instead of capturing images I was going to locations and filling memory cards. In other words, instead of concentrating on acquiring an image worthy of a portfolio I was under the mistaken impression that more is better.

Now, for some photographers, this may be the case, but, regrettably, I am not that photographer and no matter how much I would like every single image to be a show stopping keeper, the fact was that the more images I acquired, the less I liked any of them. Soon after this realization, discouragement set in, and I found myself going to new locations not because I wanted to, but because I felt that I had to. And this, in my opinion, is not the best mindset when it comes to photography, or, for that matter, anything else. We’ve all heard it said many times, “Quality, not quantity”. But we don’t always listen to that sage advice.

 

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Discouragement quickly led to a sense of loss, for lack of a better word. I thought that I had at least a little bit of talent but soon began to doubt that very much. I suppose, were I a professional athlete or race car driver, what I was feeling might be described as being in a slump. I wasn’t at the point of giving up, but I was at the point of thinking that maybe I was better off doing this as a hobby.

I couldn’t accept that—my conscience wouldn’t allow it, and my passion, though tempered, was not gone altogether. In response to this uncertainty, I did what many people do in similar situations and sought outside consultation. I signed up for an hour consultation with Patrick DiFruscia, an amazing landscape photographer who I feel is one of the best in the world. The consultation went great and the honesty and knowledge expressed by Patrick was refreshing to me, a breath of fresh air, and exactly what I needed to hear. I felt rejuvenated and committed to my original goal—being better than I was the day before.

 

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I began to carefully plan not only the location of the next session, but what it was, exactly, that I wanted to obtain from that session. I knew what I didn’t want—a thousand shots of ‘blah’, I knew what I did want—the possibility of a shot of a lifetime. I was more focused and found myself taking less photographs and, to my surprise, ending up with more keepers. Not necessarily the once in a lifetime images, or even more for the portfolio, but images that filled me with excitement, renewed my passion for the craft, and encouraged me to leave comfort zones that until recently had been cast in stone.

Sometimes, less really is more.

Gear Up

In terms of gear, 2012 brought with it a substantial change. I traded in the venerable and much loved Canon 5D Mark II for the brand new and unproven Nikon D800. The truth is, the very second the Nikon was announced, my ears perked up and I kept a very close eye on just what in the Sam Hill Nikon was up to with this one. With a stated resolution and image quality approaching that of medium format cameras, this was some serious kit. On paper. It all looks good on paper…but how does it look in reality? Slowly, the reports began to trickle out as well as some rather stunning images. Yes, the 36+ megapixel sensor made by Sony was for real and, with the right glass, image quality was astonishing, to say the least. The dynamic range was reported to be a full three stops wider than the 5D Mark II.

A bold claim indeed.

Now, as far as a Canon vs. Nikon ‘war’, you’ll find none of that here—I’ve shot with Olympus, Sony, Kodak, Canon, and Nikon, to name a few, and in all cases have achieved excellent results. When you hear it said or read that “It’s not the camera”, you can believe it. On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t show up to the big wedding session with only a cell phone camera and some KooL-A-Gram filters, no matter who I was. Sometimes, the equipment does matter. With that being said, a great camera will not make you a great photographer; a bad camera will not make you a bad photographer.

 

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But all was not unicorns and sunshine for Nikon as some very troubling reports began to make their way to the masses soon after units began to ship. Left side focus points that were all but useless, and, even more troubling, tiny white dots all over the image when long exposures were acquired. Given that the Nikon D800 and D800E were new beasts, I did not find these reports surprising. In the case of the bad focus point (not all cameras suffered from this), unfortunately, the camera had to be sent back to Nikon for focus point recalibration, in the other case the user was all but forced to enable the Long Exposure Noise Reduction function to deal with spots on the image for long exposures, effectively doubling the time required to acquire a long exposure image, and, possibly, preventing one from a second try at that perfect lighting.

 

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And there was something else…oh yeah—I couldn’t afford it. But that all changed in October when I walked into the local Camera Shop and was offered a tremendous trade in offer for my 5D Mark II, lenses, and gear. I made the switch and never looked back. I won’t go into the details as I am trying very hard to keep this first—and longest—blog entry of the year of reasonable word count, but suffice it to say that I was pleasantly surprised and extremely happy with my decision. Does the D800 make me a better photographer? Nope, not a bit—but the expanded dynamic range, low light, and high ISO performance improvements give me tools that I did not have before and welcome whole heartedly. At the end of the day it was a personal choice and it doesn’t change my opinion that the Canon 5D Mark II is one of the greatest cameras ever brought to market in the history of photography.

 

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More Comfort in the Comfort Zones

One of the most comfortable places for me to be is in front of my editing station. Ironically, I don’t like editing photographs as much as I like taking them, but that is probably a common thing. Nevertheless, if you are shooting in RAW mode exclusively, well, you’re most likely going to be editing at some point—the camera is going to give you the full, 14-bit uncompressed sensor image and you’ll get none of the in camera brightness\contrast\sharpness\saturation\color\etc. adjustments that are done automatically if shooting in JPEG mode. So…plan on a bit of sharpening, maybe an adjustment to the white balance, perhaps some contrast and saturation changes if you shoot in RAW mode.

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I try my best to get everything ‘right’ in camera, but it is often the case that a touchup here and there is not only a necessity, but a requirement to complete the vision. From color calibrated monitors to carefully controlled lighting conditions, the editing station is critical to the digital image development workflow and the more comfortable you are here, the better your images will be. At least I keep telling myself that.

 

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Lately, I find myself working on long exposure images using high stop neutral density filters, and I am taking small steps while tackling the beginning stages of learning the luminosity blending technique.   In addition,  I now have, for the first time, a piece of art hanging on a wall, for sale.  Thanks to the Grand Traverse Art Bomb Show, running January through March and displayed on the walls of the Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City, Michigan.  The piece is one of my favorite photographs, the southernmost beacon at Portage Point in Onekama, Michigan.  If you find yourself in or near the Traverse City area, stop on by the brewery and have a look at all of the fantastic art on display.  In the coming year I will be working hard to have my work on display in more local settings. 

 

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Wrapping Up

To wrap this all up, neat and tidy, it goes without saying that I am very grateful and extremely appreciative of the support I have received this past couple of years from friends, family, and, last but not least, my wonderful clients. That you find enjoyment in the images I share means more to me than I can say and I look forward to sharing more with all of you as the year unfolds.

 

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Thank you.