Under the Influence

By Roger (25 May 2015)

Today is Memorial Day. We honor and cherish all those who have given their lives in service of the United States and kept us a free nation. In addition, our deepest and sincerest thanks to those who have served, in any capacity: the veterans, families, and support personnel. We usually do a special blog on this subject, but, since we've done so much commemorative and military-themed blogs lately, I thought I'd stay contemplative, but move to a broader topic related to photography.

Ft. Clinch, Florida

Ft. Clinch, Florida

Most beginners make photographs of anything that crosses their path when they're holding a camera. This shotgun approach is helpful, at first, because they shoot often and learn lots. As you shoot more, you tend to better identify the subjects you prefer, and, very likely, the subjects you tend to do better with. For photographers who want to go beyond the simple fun of photography, or capturing their family moments, it can be very helpful to go into a little self-analysis to help direct your efforts and get into subjects that will suit you best.

Please note: There is nothing wrong with stopping at the sheer enjoyment phase of photography. There is absolutely no requirement to take it further. Some folks want more and see photography as a pursuit to create art or a business or, sometimes, both; they are compelled to complicate everything. ;-)

When you listen to interviews of veteran photographers, they are, often, asked what influenced them to move in the photographic direction they did. What got them started? How did they choose the area of photography they went into? Who helped them along their way? It is one of the most common questions you hear.

We are all influenced by many things: some common to most of us; some unique and very personal. If you understand what your main influences are, you can better organize your pursuit and move closer, more quickly, to your goal. What influences you?

Probably, the first answer that will come to mind, for those who immerse themselves in this photography thing will be other photographers and artists. We all follow photographers whose work inspires and influences the kind of work we do. It could be their work, their subject matter, or, even a little deeper, their struggles or work ethic. We try to emulate what they have done; see how they see; and learn their techniques for our own use.

I've been into photography for quite a while now, and I have my list of photographers and artists that quickly pop into my head. Some I've met and talked with, and some I've only read about. I enjoy looking at their work. This is the easy answer, but let's go even further.

All of your life has been an influence on the photography you'll make. Your goal here is to make yourself more self-aware of what has shaped you into you – the real you, the one in the mirror, when no one else is around. There are so many variables here that I can't list them all for you. Your life, background, experiences, and desires are likely to be very different from mine. Even if they are similar, your reaction and attitude to them may be very different from mine. Take that personal information and organize it; give extra weight to the things that have influenced you the most and matter the most to you; and decide how you want to translate that to your photography.

Your photographic reaction may be to embrace or totally reject those influences, but you can use this self-awareness to move yourself along in a more useful direction. Many photographers want to go further in their pursuit, but they are overwhelmed by the choices available. Their lack of direction can slow down their progress; instead of choosing, they continue the shotgun approach. The more thoroughly you work through this exercise, the clearer your path will be.

I'm not saying you should forsake all other photography subject, except the one this over-simplified exercise seems to point you towards. I'm saying this over-simplified exercise can help narrow your choices. Here's a simple example: if you don't like bugs, camping, or being alone in the wilderness, you are, probably, not going to be into photographing nature as a primary pursuit. That doesn't mean you won't take any pictures at the zoo or on a safari, but it isn't likely to be your first subject choice. So, don't spend much effort in this direction. See, we've already narrowed the list of photographic topics you need to pursue.

One of the major influences on my photography has been my military life. As a military brat and, then, living through my own military career, I've been moving from city to city and traveling throughout most of my life. I thought it was great. I loved the travel and meeting new people – travel and people are my favorite subjects. Family becomes very important when the world around you is constantly changing, and those are my favorite people subjects.

Street Musician, Krakow, Poland

Street Musician, Krakow, Poland

So, try to take a serious inventory of the people and things that have influenced you and those that are still active. Think about the type of each influence – environment (past or present); lifestyle; emotions; education; and attitudes toward them. Think of how they may affect your approach to photography and where they may suggest you concentrate your efforts.

Or maybe you think I just spent too much time studying my navel, lately. I had plenty of time to do so, on my latest trip. The photo, below, is Alexander Graham Bell's summer home, where I spent the weekend, without the internet or television. The irony of the situation was not lost on me

The Bell House, Colonial Beach, Virginia

The Bell House, Colonial Beach, Virginia


It’s Just a Little Bit Hazy

By Mark

Digital Photography can do some amazing things in post processing.  This past Saturday, I got to go flying again with my friend Jeff.  We decided that it would be cool to fly up to New York City and then home again.  It gives him some good cross country time and would allow me to hopefully get a few interesting shots.   Last fall we went to Baltimore and the Eastern Shore and it was a blast.  We took off from Leesburg with an eye on the weather.  Thunderstorms and small airplanes do not mix.  Things looked pretty good, but there was definitely the early summer light haziness in the air.  The further north and closer to the coast we got, the more the haze thickened.  We had good visibility for flying, but details on the ground were just seemingly slightly out of focus.  It helps to understand what components make up haze.  Thanks to all of the wonderful trees breathing there is a lot of moisture in the air.  Plus we have had quite a bit of good old rain so the air is saturated with tiny water particles.  Mix in a healthy bit of human exhaust from cars, buildings and the like and voila-haze.

As we approached the city, this is pretty much what we could see.  

Pretty sure there is a city there somewhere??

Pretty sure there is a city there somewhere??

Not good picture taking conditions.   When you look at the histogram, you can see that it is pretty condensed.  I wasn’t certain how much information I would be able to recover, but I knew I had to try.  

That narrow range from the histogram and the very powerful Clarity slider were what gave me hope.   There are a few plug-ins which claim to help, but honestly you don’t really need them. 

Switch over to the Develop Module. To start with I find that reducing the exposure slightly-around a half stop or so; -.5, really helps.  The water reflects the light and makes the camera believe it is brighter than it really is.   The next step is pretty universal and is one you should be doing for almost all of your images anyway-setting the black and white points for your image.  In reality you are deciding where you want the darkest and lightest points to be without driving them out of printable range.   If you hold down the ALT Key as you move the black or white sliders an amazing thing happens.    For the Blacks slider, the screen turns all white.  Drag the arrow to the left and watch the histogram as it expands to the left.  When you start seeing little black pixels appear and before the little arrows at the top of the histogram turn solid white, let go and your image will have transformed.  For the Whites slider, drag the arrow to the right.  You can see how much more range you have created. 

You can then move down into the Presence panel and make some additional adjustments.  For inanimate objects like cities and landscapes you can crank up the Clarity all the way to 100.  I find that if you do that, you probably need to add a little Vibrance as well to bring back those mid-tone colors. Finally you get to this.  Still not “great”, but much better. 

Anyway, most of the shots started out needing a lot of work, but that didn't make the experience any less interesting.  Not many people get the privilege of angles like this, starting as we flew right over the Verrazano-Narrow Bridge.

VE Day +70 Part 2

By Mark

As Roger wrote in the last blog the hazy weather over the mall didn’t make for the best aircraft shots.  

Start of the "Missing Man" finale formation.  P-40, Corsair, Avenger, and a Mustang

Start of the "Missing Man" finale formation.  P-40, Corsair, Avenger, and a Mustang

Luckily for us, the organizers wanted to give the public a chance to see the aircraft up close and personal so they were going to fly in to Dulles Airport and be on the tarmac right outside the Udvar-Hazy museum.  Having seen the traffic jams for family day before, I made everyone get up early and we headed down to Dulles.  As we drove from home, we noticed that it was a little misty, but the weather guessers assured everyone that the cloud cover would all be gone by 10, when the aircraft were scheduled to start landing.  We arrived and the place was already pretty full of people.  There were many WW2 Vets there with their families among the crowd.  I got to chat with an 8th AF B-17 pilot who flew with the 344th.

B-17G

B-17G

He was spry and feisty.  I’m pretty certain he was not unlike the reenactor by the tents outside.  

Everyone trooped through the hanger to get the required safety briefing before we would be allowed outside and then, well to put it bluntly the weathermen were just wrong.  The clouds and rain hung around and the ceiling never lifted enough for the extremely valuable aircraft to make it in.  All was not lost though as the museum continues to be an amazing place.  One of the things that struck me in talking to that pilot was that he had seen aviation transform from these wood and fabric biplanes

Nieuport from WW1 flown by the American "Hat in the Ring" squadron

Nieuport from WW1 flown by the American "Hat in the Ring" squadron

all the way to watching the Space Shuttle retire from service. 

Space Shuttle Discovery--39 trips to orbit and back

Space Shuttle Discovery--39 trips to orbit and back

I took advantage of the opportunity to use my 14-24 wide angle lens to do something I’ve wanted to capture ever the museum first opened.   Capturing both the size of the facility itself and just how big some of the aircraft really are has always been difficult.  Standing on the various walkways above the main floor provides great vantage points.   I’ve gotten parts of the F4U Corsair hanging in the entrance before, but never the whole thing. 

F4U Corsair--My uncle was shot down in one of these over Korea.

F4U Corsair--My uncle was shot down in one of these over Korea.

From above the Enola Gay you can look one direction and see the World War 2 aircraft.

When you turn around though and look the other way, you get to see the evolution of how aircraft have evolved and transformed civilian travel.  

From an early Boeing airliner to the Concorde Super Sonic Transport in the distance, it makes you hopeful what progress we will continue to see in our lifetimes.  You can spend hours and hours and hours in the museum.  I've been there lots and have yet to see every thing.  Just gives me something to shoot for.   

VE Day +70

By Roger (10 May 2015)

One of the major benefits to living in Northern Virginia is the easy access to our country's capitol region and the surrounding history. We have a Civil War battlefield less than a mile from our house, and I drive through the big Manassas battlefield, daily, en route to the office. Washington, D.C., is only 40 miles away, if you want the museums, memorials, and bustle of a big city. It is a great place to keep active, with lots of photography opportunities.

So, I was fired up about the plans for the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. They were going to open up the restricted airspace over D.C. for a fly-over that included dozens of World War II aircraft. The aircraft would span the development that occurred during the war, including the only still-flying B-29 Superfortress. Their flight path took them down the Potomac, over the Lincoln Memorial, buzzing the Washington Monument, and then back out of the airspace.

Mark and I knew we needed a location that would afford us a view of the city – somewhere high enough that the aircraft wouldn't be obstructed by the surrounding buildings. The only location that fit that description was the top of the hill in Arlington National Cemetery, by the old Custis mansion and now more-commonly known as the Arlington mansion. How often do we harp about the advantages of planning out your shoot prior to arriving. whenever possible? This is one more opportunity to hammer that home. Except...it doesn't always guarantee success....

I got there early, to stake out a claim. There were two other photographers already there. Clearly, someone had leaked our plans. ;-) There was still plenty of room and time to kill, so I shot a panoramic while I waited. I think I need to go back and re-do this when the light is better.

What a view

What a view

The crypt was put here in 1909 for Pierre L'Enfant. He was commissioned by George Washington to plan the newly approved Federal City. I would go into all the wrangling and bureaucratic nonsense that occurred during his labors, including the very little money he was paid, years after completion of the original work, but that would take us into a non-photographic rant. (We do try to keep those to a minimum.) Let us all just agree that his crypt now has the best view of the city he planned.

Back to our story....

The flights were scheduled to begin at 1210, so it immediately became apparent that the time of day was going to be a challenge. And you can see the hazy skies weren't helping much. When the aircraft began coming in, I was disappointed to see the aircraft were flying further away, and higher, than I had hoped. If I zoomed in, I could see details on the aircraft, but I lost my background completely.

Planes in the sky; no background; le sigh.

Planes in the sky; no background; le sigh.

I had to give up my plan to get the city and aircraft into a single shot. There was one flight of fighters that came in lower and turned later. They allowed me to get this compromise shot with the Washington Monument.

Sometimes, you have to make a compromise

Sometimes, you have to make a compromise

I got to go a little wider when the B-29 came it because it is so much larger than the little fighters. I managed to get both the Washington Monument and the Capitol building, but at the cost of a tiny-looking bomber.

"Fifi", the B-29

"Fifi", the B-29

B-29 over D.C.

B-29 over D.C.

It was a pretty disappointing day for my photography, but what an experience. The crowd buzzed (excuse the pun) over every aircraft type, with stories from veterans and their descendants. “That's the plane your grandpa flew.” Facts about the aircraft, pilots, and the various battles that were shaped by them just seemed to spontaneously erupt from the onlookers as the parade progressed. It was very inspirational. There was a hearty applause as the final fighter group broke into the “Missing Man” formation. I was thrilled to be there.

One of the veteran pilots took some rest in the shade as we walked down from the mansion, and I took this final shot. Arlington Cemetery is a fitting resting place for our nation's heroes. It always feels calm and dignified, as it should.

A veteran rests, thinking of his comrades

A veteran rests, thinking of his comrades

So, I didn't get the shots I hoped for, despite my prior planning. It happens some times. When it does, go to plan B. Enjoy the time, regardless of the results. Life is too short to get upset when plans don't work out the way you hoped.