Change Your Approach

By Roger (23 October 2014)

When you shoot the same subject frequently, you can find many of your photos beginning to revert to a norm. Things begin to look too similar. Your photographs may not lose their quality, they just don't excite you as much. If you find this happening to you, it's time to change your approach to the subject – explore different facets of the subject; do something, anything, you haven't done recently. You don't want your photography to become boring to you. That is a sure sign it may be boring to your viewer.

One of my long-time projects, for the last couple of years, has been photographing the Civil War sesquicentennial re-enactments. The project continues until April 2015, when I will join the re-enactors at Appomattox, Va., where General Lee surrendered to General Grant, 150 years ago. As a guy who loves history and genealogy, this photo project has been lots of fun for me. However, over the last 24 months, I've shot many battlefield re-enactments, and I was beginning to become less interested in the results. I was making the photographs for my project, not for my enjoyment.

I realized I needed to do something differently. So, at this weekend's event at Cedar Creek Battlefield, near Middletown, Va., I concentrated on photographs other than the actual battle re-enactments. Not only did I get a better variety of photos, my fun meter slammed back into the green zone.

Formation on the ridgeline, Cedar Creek, Middletown, VA

Formation on the ridgeline, Cedar Creek, Middletown, VA

I arrived at the rolling hills of Middletown early, while the re-enactors were practicing their close order drill, prior to the arrival of regular visitors. With lots of clouds keeping down the light, I shot these guys up on a ridge from a much lower angle and got this nice silhouette. It isn't an extraordinary shot, but I got what I saw in my head, and that is always a kick.

Once I had my plan for the day, there were photographs everywhere I turned.

Young Re-enactor

Young Re-enactor

For many, these events are a family affair, and some of the re-enactors start a very young age. I had a chance to shoot several shots of this cute, little girl, waiting with her mother and friends. I sat on the ground to keep at her eye level and made this shot as she noticed me. She turned shy and hid behind her mother.

This was a big gathering of almost 7,000 re-enactors. Cedar Creek was an important battle, pitting Union General Philip Sheridan against Confederate General Jubal Early. The Confederates were eventually defeated, and the Union controlled the Shenandoah Valley until the end of the war.

On Saturday, before the battles, the Union boys held a mass formation and a pass in review. It was an impressive site. It took almost an hour for all of them to parade by. The reviewing general looked more like General Sherman (not possible because he was in Georgia, threatening Atlanta), but he cut quite a figure, just the same.

The General for the Review

The General for the Review

There were too many soldiers to fit in my lens, but I made many photos of parts of the formation and during the pass in review. For an old Army guy, they were just too good to pass up.

Pass in Review, Cedar Creek

Pass in Review, Cedar Creek

After the Union pass in review, it was time to head over to the Confederate camps to see what I could find there. The folks there were busy preparing for the upcoming battle. Women in the camps were mending uniforms; preparing for wounded that were soon to arrive; and discussing bits of the day's news.

In the Confederate camp

In the Confederate camp

The re-enactors live in period-correct tents and cook their meals over fires during the event. When they aren't engaged in the battles, they will happily give living history demonstrations of camp life. We discussed the facts and personalities of this battle. As always, I had no problems getting permission to make photos of them.

Confederate Infantryman

Confederate Infantryman

The camp included a photographer who was taking authentic tin-types and ferro-types, with a replica camera. He had a long line, waiting for the opportunity to pose. He developed the photos in the tent with the same type of chemicals Matthew Brady used 150 years ago. I watched several of the photo sessions.

After Mark's blog, last week, I had to make at least one toned photo to look like it was taken 150 years ago. I'm quite happy to create the effect in Lightroom, but it was impressive to watch the re-enactment photographer create the real thing.

Tin-types and Ferro-types while you wait

Tin-types and Ferro-types while you wait

North Carolina Confederate

North Carolina Confederate

The day went entirely too quickly. I wish I could have made it there for Sunday when the Confederates were going to conduct their parade. The different approach brought back my enthusiasm to see this project through to the end in April. I began this project with the idea I would photograph the battles, but it needed a more comprehensive approach. The Civil War impacted Americans far beyond the battlefields, and the re-enactors do a great job of showing us how life was lived in those times.

And I found some humor on the edges of the battlefield. Keep the fun in your photography.

We didn't have these kinds of rations when I was in the Army.

We didn't have these kinds of rations when I was in the Army.

Why Are Old Photos Brown?

By Mark

Roger wrote about our very successful Photowalk in Harpers Ferry last weekend.  Since there was a huge Civil War reenactment ongoing, lots of our group have been processing our photos to look older.  I started thinking that we all know what images from then look like, but wanted to know why?   

Courtesy Library of Congress

Courtesy Library of Congress

Photography was still a relatively new art and science at the beginning of the war.  People had to sit really still for a very long time under very bright light for any kind of image to take hold.  The first “easily” replicated process was done by Daguerre in France.  A glass plate was coated with chemicals and exposed to light.  Mercury vapor then fixed the image.  It created a bright image, but only one.  There was no way to reproduce them.  Starting in the 1850’s they created the Ambrotype.  

It was easier to produce, but also used dangerous chemicals.  It too only could produce one image.  Finally a relatively inexpensive process which printed the image directly on to a metal plate-a tintype was introduced and soon everyone had pictures in their pockets.  These tended to be fairly dark, but were relatively stable

Tintype effect

Tintype effect

Now the great Civil-War photographers like Gardner and Brady used a different wet-plate process, which did produce negatives and could make prints. Gradually during the war, this process largely replaced the others for fine photography.  Unfortunately the prints made from these negatives had problems all their own.  The silver nitrates tended to crack and turn all black when exposed to sun.  Photographers discovered that they could use different chemicals which would replace the silver salts, and which would add new tones to the image, but preserve the relationships between the lights and the darks in a picture.

Cuttlefish ink, or sepia added to the image imparts a nice warm brown tone, while selenium adds a cooler bluish tint.  Because these colors are stable they became the standards for what we think of in old photos.   

It's fun to play with these and see the history come to life.  

From now looking back to then.  Reenactment Family at Harpers Ferry

From now looking back to then.  Reenactment Family at Harpers Ferry


The Past is Never Far Away

By Mark

This last weekend in a brief interruption between snow storms we drove up to Harpers Ferry West Virginia.  

In 1859, John Brown attacked the Federal Army in the mistaken belief that he could raise a slave rebellion.  A US Army Colonel named Robert E. Lee oversaw a company of US Marines who captured Brown.  His hanging was one of the large stones which started the avalanche leading to the Civil War.   The town, poised at the intersection of the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers was an industrial powerhouse, forging iron into tools and weapons for the new nation. The canals and the railroads shipped goods in all directions. 

Potomac River rolling towards DC

Potomac River rolling towards DC

During the war, the town changed hands 8 times.  It seems that everywhere you look; with just a little imagination you can still feel the presence of those days.  

After the war, it was largely in ruins and a century of floods and neglect left the foundations mainly unchanged.  It is a very well preserved look at what a thriving 1850’s manufacturing metropolis looked like.  The General store reflects the array of goods available.  

Canned peas, what will they think of next?  The latest fashions are displayed in the window for passersby to admire.  

This was Sarah’s first visit, but I might have been here a few times before.   

June 1968

June 1968

Sarah said it must be beautiful in the fall and we should come back.   I can attest that it is beautiful, and I will always look for the chance to talk another walk through history.  

St. John's Episcopal Church

St. John's Episcopal Church

Winter Travel

By Roger (6 Feb 2014)

While Mark is hibernating, working away in his cave until the temperatures are warmer than 80, I love winter and getting out in it. I've been out around town during our recent snow events because, if you want a photo of town, in the winter, during a snow shower, at night...well...you have to be there.

Old Town Manassas snow shower

Old Town Manassas snow shower

My first photo weekend for 2014 was a trip to Smithfield, Virginia. It is a lovely town, situated on the Pagan River. They had eight inches of snow a couple of days before my arrival, and much of it was still there. It's only a few hours from my house, and I've never been there. That's reason enough for me, but the initial draw was another of the Civil War sesquicentennial events.

There was a small skirmish at Smithfield on January 31 and 1 February 1864. A small Confederate force repelled an equally small Union raiding force. There was fighting up and down Main Street until the Confederates brought out a couple of cannons. The Union gunboat Smith-Briggs was brought into the Pagan River to pick up the Union soldiers and effect a retreat. The Confederates fired a shot that disabled the gunboat, putting an end to that strategy. Prisoners were gathered, and the boat set ablaze. When the munitions exploded on the boat, there was more damage to the town. Your history lesson for this week is concluded with the obligatory photo of cannon fire.

Cannon fires in Smithfield re-enactment.

Cannon fires in Smithfield re-enactment.

After making some photos at the re-enactors' camp, I set off for the Main Street area on a one-man photowalk. Since I had never been there before, I was looking at everything with “new eyes.”

What a great place, full of friendly folks! I live in a suburban neighborhood in northern Virginia; it is very conveniently located but not terribly interesting. I really liked Smithfield's tree-lined streets and the big, old houses with turrets and fancy porches. It seemed like the idealized small town where the old folks sit in rocking chairs on the porch, while they play endless games of checkers.

Don't you just love these old homes?  Church Street, Smithfield, VA.

Don't you just love these old homes?  Church Street, Smithfield, VA.

Smithfield Inn porch rockers.

Smithfield Inn porch rockers.

I'm old enough to know that the reality of heating and maintaining those houses may have dampened my fantasy of living there, but, since I was only there for the day, I didn't have to deal with that conflict. The historic and picturesque town made for a very pleasant photowalk. After a couple of hours and five miles, I meandered back to Smithfield Station (link), at the end of Church Street and the approximate location where the Smith-Briggs exploded and sank. What luck – right there was an excellent restaurant to cap off a great day.

You can see why I'm always trying to get you (and me) out there. You will see skill improvement and have more fun if you keep your photography muscles toned from frequent use. I make sure I designate some time for some dedicated photography work every month – regardless of the season. I work on post-processing and other small stuff during the week whenever I can, but I also need to schedule chunks of time solely for my photography.

This trip allowed me to add to my personal project and work on a variety of photo subjects I wouldn't normally pursue. You, obviously, don't need to spend the night away from home every time you go. But, when your wife is having a sisters weekend at your house, don't grump about it – grab your camera and hit the road for some fun.

Wish there were some interesting clouds for the sunrise at Smithfield Station. Guess I'll have to go back and try again.

Wish there were some interesting clouds for the sunrise at Smithfield Station. Guess I'll have to go back and try again.