myEARTH - A Touch of Magic

Last year I had the exciting privilege of leaving the US at the onset of Winter and traveling with my wife to Sri Lanka for two months. She was completing a two-month Global Health clerkship in the city of Anuradhapura with three other medical students and in addition to serving as the group's designated water-carrier I took advantage of the island's stunning natural landscapeto shoot a huge amount of photos and video of the local wildlife. The goal was always to create a Sri Lanka edition of the myEARTH series I've been working on over the last three years but it took me longer than expected to get down to the actual editing process. But now it's finally done.

Sri Lanka was the first place where I really felt like I had the creative freedom to immerse myself into a totally new environment and really explore the cultural and natural landscape with a camera. I discovered soon after arriving on the island that not only are Sri Lankans generally not camera-shy but walking around with a camera slung over your shoulder will usually result in people approaching you asking you to take their picture.

Taken my first day in Anuradhapura. I knew this would be a great place to shoot.

Taken my first day in Anuradhapura. I knew this would be a great place to shoot.

I had escaped the freezing cold of the northern latitude winter and I got to spend my days hanging out with dragonflies, wandering around temple gardens and hanging out with some of the most relaxed and helpful people I've ever had the privilege of meeting. They give Palestinians a run for their money in the kindness and generosity category. One of my warmest memories of shooting in Sri Lanka was the day I climbed a parking garage in downtown Colombo in order to shoot some time lapse sequences of the street below. The structure was still under construction so when five construction workers came over to where I was shooting, my mind was still in Israel mode and I expected them to ask me to leave. Nope. They just wanted to share a joint with me on their mid-afternoon coffee break. Lovely people. Only one of them spoke a few English words but I'm friends with two of them on Facebook now. The photos from that afternoon make me smile every time I see them.

Galle Road in downtown Colombo

Galle Road in downtown Colombo

Needless to say, diving back into all of the footage I shot a year ago was a richly colorful walk down memory lane. The images I captured laying in the grass photographing monkeys beside the massive, ancient stupas in Anuradhapura will always bring to mind the distinct smell of red bricks drying in the sun and the feeling of being sunburnt, drenched with sweat and ravenously hungry yet magically content all at the same time. But that's just Sri Lanka for you.

So please enjoy myEARTH - A Touch of Magic. And please...for God's sake...watch it in HD.



Can a Camera Re-Wire Your Brain?

Sending my main camera to the repair shop for a month and a half felt like losing a limb. There. I said it. I do not mean to trivialize the experience of anyone who has actually lost a limb (like I did in college when I wrote and performed a song about a fictional boy with no legs) but I will try and explain.

Over the last year, I traveled through about eight different countries and the camera was with me virtually at all times. Certainly anywhere interesting was largely experienced through the camera. I've written before about the differences between experiencing a place through the eyes and experiencing it through the lens, but I hadn't quite realized until recently the extent to which I use the camera as an extension of my senses. I can't speak for how other people travel, but the heavy volume of photos and video I take means that not only do I physically view my environment through the lens but I spend a lot of time after the event going through photos, examining them for clarity and processing them to help the image reinforce the ephemeral essence felt in a particular place. Realistically, there are certain details that I simply wouldn't be able to see without the assistance of a 300mm lens. The camera lets me get close enough to see the shifting expressions on the face of a monkey and not only do I leave with photos, I also spend lots of time looking through the lens and taking in views unavailable to the naked eye.

As a result of all this, the camera changes my experience of a place in very fundamental ways. Spending a month and a half without it left me feeling a sort of withdrawal from the absence of this electronic limb. I ended up renting a camera for my Costa Rica trip in September but this alien camera felt like a new limb that behaved differently, had different tolerances and different controls that I needed to learn before I could use this replacement limb naturally. I had to learn where the buttons for key functions were located before I could operate it without looking and focus all of my attention on the subject. It took a while.

This is by no means a new concept and anyone who knows me well knows that I take the mediation of perception and memory through technology very seriously. To better understand this relationship, however, I find it helpful to draw a comparison between technology and mind-altering substances. Travel to virtually any place on earth and you'll usually be a stones-throw away from someone using a mind-altering substance. They could be drinking coffee for that morning pick-me-up. Chewing Khat or Betel Nut to suppress hunger and keep working through the hot noonday sun. Alcohol to wind down the tired body at the end of the day. Cannabis on the weekend to make that sunset just a little bit sweeter. Valerian Root calms the mind and help you sleep. Whatever your background, you can probably relate to at least one of these examples. These are all natural substances we use to reshape our perception and as human communities evolve we go through a process of exploring mind-altering tools to decide whether or not there's a place for them in our public and private lives. It is rarely an easy process but if you look at it from an development perspective, part of growing up is learning how to use powerful tools responsibly.

I believe we're going through that process right now when it comes to digital photography. In a single generation we've seen the near-complete saturation of certain parts of the world by cameras. The mind-jarring volume of the images we generate on a daily basis is just one of the indicators that we're dealing with a tool that touches a very primal desire of human beings to augment our daily experiences with the permanence of a photograph. The feeling of holding my camera in my hand again (not just any camera but my camera) and the comforting sensation of running my fingers over the well-worn corners rubbed smooth by thousands of hours of use indicates to me that the relationship I have with this device has fundamentally changed the way my brain is wired. The power of this tool, just like the power of the substances I mentioned above, is something to be taken seriously. We're only beginning to understand the power of this technology but I personally find it exciting to be a creative professional exploring the new and exciting frontiers unlocked by modern digital photography.

So to celebrate the camera's homecoming, I had to celebrate with a photo shoot. Luckily the camera arrived the day before Halloween. I dressed up as a cave man. I will admit, it was mostly an excuse to purchase and own a dreadlock wig.

If someone has an in with Caveman Coffee, let them know I want to sell them some new artwork.

New Gear on the Road: Canon 6D in Costa Rica

Sometimes I wonder if I could pull off my own video series. Something like the photography-related videos from Tony Northrup or DigitalREV. As I write this, I'm imagining a series where every time I go on some kind of trip, be it foreign or domestic travel, I rent some new piece of gear and make a review video about it. I would call it "New Gear on the Road."

Let's pretend this is the first episode.

One of the distinct advantages of being married to a woman who was born in Costa Rica is that we have a beautiful place to go when we feel like it's time to "go back home" after a long spell. It's been four years since we had our wedding there and we decided we had been away long enough.

Unfortunately, my Canon 70D remained in the partially-functional state it was in for the "Recreating a Dream" photo shoot. I decided it would kill me to spend two weeks in Costa Rica without a camera so I rented a Canon 6D from BorrowLenses. I had never shot on a full-frame before so the choice of lenses to bring was a bit of a challenge, as ever wondering whether I should bring the 50mm f1.4 for low light in the jungle and portraits or whether the much smaller and lighter 40mm f2.8 would be good enough for that. Camera people problems.

The 6D produced some really good-looking pictures. I'm used to fighting to keep the ISO under 800 on my 70D but on this one I was pushing ISO4000 and the photos I brought back and looked at on my computer had very little color or luminance noise. It also paired very nicely with my 70-300mm lens. I was worried that the larger sensor would leave me missing the 1.6x crop zoom on the 70D but not only did the images look sharp at 300mm but the out-of-focus areas looked much smoother and visually appealing on that larger sensor.

300mm - f/6.3 - 1/200 - ISO4000

300mm - f/6.3 - 1/200 - ISO4000

I did most of my macro work, as per usual, with my 24-70mm f4 which was good because both the 6D and that lens are weather sealed. I never took the pair out in the daily pouring rain but Costa Rica was having a dry year (relatively speaking) and the weather was unusually hot most of the time. Hiking through the humid jungle in rubber boots with fifteen pounds of camera gear on your shoulders is the kind of situation where expectations of keeping your camera dry, clean and sweat-free go right out the window. Camera and lens were frequently covered in sweat and dirt but the weather sealing did it's job and both survived the ordeal.

Jungle fauna are decidedly more skittish than semi-domesticated urban animals (like squirrels in Cleveland or monkeys in Sri Lanka) so I wasn't able to do as much macro photography as I expected. As usual however, the dragonflies proved to be inexplicably braver than the rest of the forest creatures and I had some great up-close encounters with them.

I have to say, though, the 6D was a difficult gear change when it came to video. The camera offers the same 90Mb/s ALL-I codec as the 70D but the absence of the newer camera's articulating screen and Dual-Pixel AF system meant that shooting video was a much more complicated procedure. In Sri Lanka and Ethiopia I really took those two features for granted and I realize now that shooting solid video on the 6D really requires an external monitor and some kind of focus-pulling attachment. So in that respect, the 6D really couldn't operate "on the road" with the same flexibility as the 70D.

I thoroughly enjoyed how the full frame sensor turned the wide end of my 24-70mm into an actual wide angle lens and this was demonstrated nowhere better than while shooting panoramas. A huge part of what makes the jungle impressive is the vast scale of the trees and plants that make up the enormous canopy. The ability of the 6D to work at high ISOs allowed me to create panoramas that captured the detail of the vast shadowy space below the forest canopy.

Had I been shooting with my 70D, I probably would have been a little more protective of my camera, so it was nice that the 6D let me me spend less time guarding the camera and more time focusing on my subjects. I missed the swiveling screen though and was generally disappointed by the videos I brought home because it was often hard to get my head down to where it needed to be to see the screen well enough to pull focus. For a trip like this one, it wouldn't have been practical to bring a rig, monitor or other field equipment and so I'm realizing a few things I might have been taking for granted on my regular camera. The rapid-fire speed of the 6D is also much slower than I'm used to with the 70D. Instead of shooting bursts of photos and picking the perfect moment later, I had to really watch and anticipate my subjects knowing that I had one shot to get it right. It was a good exercise, but I miss being able to shoot seven frames per second.

One question I've considered from time to time is the potential benefits of investing in a second camera body. The advantages of dual set-ups in the field (such as one camera set up for video and a second camera set up for stills or one camera set up for telephoto and one camera set up for wide angle shots) are obvious and tempting but the question then becomes what category should that second camera come from? Would is be better overall to pick up something small and light like the SL1 or to pick up an older, used full-frame body like a 5dmk2 or a 6d? I think this experience makes a compelling argument that the 6D is that it is a fantastic camera for wide angle and portrait shots so it could be set up with something like a 17-40or 16-35 and paired with a 70D using a stabilized 24-70 or 24-105 for video. By keeping a 50mm prime and a telephoto in reserve, that would seem to give you a pretty wide range of options with a pretty manageable load-out of gear.

It's nice when a vacation can be a learning experience as well and this trip certainly qualified.

You can see the final photo album from the trip below. Cheers.

Recreating a Dream

So much fun this past week. And with a broken camera to boot!

One morning last week, I was shooting an early morning traffic time lapse when suddenly I noticed a black bar appearing across the images I was shooting. It took a little digging before I realized I had a loose shutter curtain that was not retracting with the rest of the shutter mechanism. Long-story short, my camera was down for the count. Mostly.

The camera shutter started malfunctioning in the middle of this time lapse...

The camera shutter started malfunctioning in the middle of this time lapse...

I'd been looking forward to the 52Frames theme last week: "Dreams and Fantasy"

A few ideas involving apocalyptic scenes of Lego figurines fleeing through hookah smoke from explosions had been running through my head for days, but I was now confronted with the aforementioned shutter issue. Experimentation led me to discover that I could actually get a clean frame out of the camera every once in a while if the camera was in a portrait orientation. For the sake of time, I determined that I could get away with one or two frames but I would have to shoot a still subject with little control over the background action.

That's where the self-portrait idea came from.

This week's "Extra Credit" challenge was to recreate an actual dream. While not resembling a single specific dream, I took a loose interpretation of the challenge and started with not so much a dream as a photograph of an intense experience.

The photograph above was shot at a protest in the Bedouin town of Hura on October 30, 2013. A peaceful demonstration against a plan formulated by the Israeli government to displace Bedouin villages in the Naqab (Negev) desert turned violent and riot police mobilized to break up the protest and arrest agitators. I had given my backup camera to another American who sat next to me on the bus to the demonstration and he shot this image after the tear gas and water cannons had turned the place into something resembling a war zone. This was my first experience observing police violence and the memory of that event has a strange quality to it because I continued filming and all of my own memories were filtered through the camera lens. I've returned to that field a few times in my dreams so the challenge I set for myself was to recreate something of those dream-like images for this week's challenge.

This is the result.

I call it "Soundtrack to the Revolution"

The pose (with the phone) is actually a practical effect in itself. I had to repeatedly trigger the camera until I finally got a frame that didn't have a shutter curtain blocking the sensor so I flipped the screen of the camera to face, placed my remote control on the face of my phone and used my thumb to trigger the camera. I'll put the image progression below,

The first real challenge was to find a photo, in portrait orientation that had a focus point placed in a similar location as the original shot of me against a green screen but with nothing occupying the point where the image is focused. So basically I needed a vertical, empty image of a landscape but with the camera focused a meter in front of the lens instead of on the horizon. Well, I ended up finding one. During my first tour of the New Dawn in the Negev offices in Rahat, Israel, I shot a panorama of the space outside the main classroom building. I focused on Jamal Alkirnawi (the NGO's Director) standing in the corner of the yard, talking on his phone, and then panned left with the camera in vertical orientation to capture the entire scene (to be stitched together later). It was one of those middle images that I chose for this apocalyptic background. Take note of the car on the right hand side of the image.

I have to admit, I bought that green screen at a fabric store in Tallin (Estonia) over two years ago and this is the first time I've actually used it and therefore justified wasting my friend Emanuel's time when I dragged him into a fabric store to buy a ridiculously large, impractically green sheet of fabric. Fun times.

This is how the world ends...

The theme for this week's 52Frames challenge was "Fire" and I spent the first four days of the week letting a few different ideas percolate. A disturbing number of them had an uncomfortably high probability of burning down my apartment so I was a little worried.

In the end, however, I scavenged a sheet of clear plastic sheeting from a broken poster frame and spray-painted a piece of cardboard black to serve as a dark backing behind the plastic. Using a black T-Shirt as a backdrop, I went through four or five flowers before the heat started to warp and blister the plastic around the stem of the flower.

By the time the flames managed to trash the plastic sheeting I had more or less found an exposure balance I was happy with. I had also worked out a method for quickly dousing the flames if they got too big. The scene was set up in an outdoor screen porch, but I still had to keep a water bottle handy. I originally planner to use Kerosene as my accelerant because I wanted something that would burn at a low temperature but the smallest container of Kero that I could buy at my local hardware store was 1 Gallon. I ended up using paint thinner which made for some good-looking flames but the alcohol seemed to evaporate off pretty quickly and required some quick handwork in order to light the liquid before the fumes blew away. There's a dark part of me that would love to try this same kind of set-up again with Lego figures.

In the end it was a fun experiment and I walked away with my beard intact so I'll call this one a win.

Shoaling

If innovation is born out of necessity, then the idea I want to share here represents a weird manifestation of that principle. To be clear, I've heard that line quoted many times before but I haven't been able to find reliable documentation of an original author.

My daily routine starts with waking up at 6:00am. This isn't by choice so much as it's a reality of my life that I happily embrace for many non-photography-related reasons. One by-product of this lifestyle is that while driving east on I-480 south of Cleveland, I have seen more sunrises in the last two months than I saw in the first 29 years of my life. Since I'm awake (and fueled for driving by caffeine) before the sun comes up every day, there's no going back to bed when I get home so I often try to capture some unique images in this pre-dawn world.

Several weeks ago I arrived at the Cleveland Metroparks Acacia Reservation at sunrise for a PhotoRoam. I chased pretty sunbeams and skittish cranes for a couple hours before stumbling on a pumping station at the edge of a small lake on the western edge of the park. For some reason, there was a large number of bird flying in looping patterns back and forth over the area of the lake in front of the pumping station. My first I idea was to set up a time lapse of the flocks flying back and forth, but my initial tests didn't result in anything particularly impressive. When an odd idea struck a moment later, I tweaked a few of my settings and created the image below. 

Then I pressed the "ON" button on my intervelometer and took 500 more. Through a process that involved a lot of compositing, what I was able to create in the end is the picture you see below.

Shoaling - Acacia Reservation.jpg

On a basic level, what I shot was functionally a time lapse. I had 500 images shoot at a shutter speed of 1/80th of a second. Fast enough that the birds flying through the frame would show up in the final image but slow enough to show a bit of motion blur. Once back home, I grouped the images into groups of between 10 and 20 and imported those frames as seperate layers in a Photoshop document. Then I used the Auto Blend function to composite all the birds caught in those frames into a single image. I repeated the process for all the images I captures and then, after flattening the resulting composites into individual layers in a second Photoshop document, blended all the composites into the image you see above.

I call the technique "Shoaling" and I think it has some interesting applications for taking time lapse to a new level. What would be really interesting is to come up with a way to automate the process so you could shoot ten minutes of video and export the video to a JPG sequence (18,000 frames at 30fps). Then you select how many frames you want to combine into each super-frame (let's say 400) and composite the entire sequence into a time-compressed sequence that plays back like a 45-second time-lapse video but captures 400 times more movement. Now, I should point out that I'm aware that this technique is similar to what you get when you speed up a video clip in Adobe Premiere and turn on Frame Blending but you don't get nearly the same level of quality. I'm psyched to see where it goes and I would love to see other people try it out.

And to think that none of this would have happened if I had stayed in bed.

myEARTH - The Suburban Life of Bees

An earlier version of this video went up on Facebook a couple weeks ago but I wanted to talk a little bit more about the finished product. The initial concept was to test out the end-to-end quality of the SloMo function on the iPhone 6. While the video shot with the iPhone 6 plays back splendidly on the phone's retina screen, I wanted to see how the final footage looked when downloaded, edited, rendered and then compressed for YouTube. Part of the challenge of creating video for the web is the restrictions of the final viewing platform. This is a problem/challenge for professionals doing virtually any kind of online publishing from website design to audio production. When I post videos online, I frequently succumb to vanity and add an annotation or comment requesting the viewer to watch the video in HD rather than letting YouTube choose the playback resolution. It still kills me to spend so much time and energy ensuring the quality and clarity of the original footage captured in 1080p HD (or in the case of time lapse footage, in 4K) and then to watch the final product on a tiny phone screen scaled down to 480p.

That being said, I wanted to see how the video shot at 240fps on the iPhone 6 looked next to HD footage shot on a DSLR or my Canon XA10 after YouTube was finished smashing it into a web-friendly container. It's a subjective analysis to be sure but the short answer is that it doesn't look too bad. Apps like MoviePro3K show that the phone can handle bitrates in excess of 100Mbps but iPhone 6 saves the 240fps SloMo video using a Quicktime container at around 18Mbps which is optimized for web publishing in a bandwidth-friendly format. When the three  videos on the myEARTH page (here) are played back simultaneously, you can't tell right off the bat that the bee video was shot at a significantly lower bitrate than the others so I suppose that represents a proof of concept.

In the end, even though the capture quality is far below what I would accept for professional work, the SloMo feature on the iPhone 6 is damn fun and I'm sure it will be making more appearances in future projects. For now, enjoy "The Suburban Life of Bees" with the musical stylings of the Easy Street All-Stars.


A Theory of Life

Moving is a lot of work.

If I ever write a book about my life, each chapter will tell the story of an experience that taught me the definition of one word or another. The chapter entitled Summer will describe the steaming hot July days in Minnesota when I was little and spent hours and hours roaming the woods around our house. My definition of the word summer is tied to those memories. The chapter entitled Epic will describe the two days that my Dad and I spent in Singapore after graduating from high school in Papua New Guinea. After living for so long in the mountains of PNG, it took a visit to Singapore before I realized the vast, engulfing experience that the word epic is meant to describe. My definition of that word is tied to the memory of standing on the sidewalk looking up at the 77-story Pan Pacific Hotel.

The chapter describing this last year will be called Chaos.

I've heard others who were along for the ride use terms such as insanity or exhaustion. The idea of chaos however seems to hint at an odd duality of certainty and uncertainty. Chaos is not predictable, but it can be reliable. In the last twelve months my wife and I never lived in one place for more than two months without moving. Two apartments in NYC, a guest house in Sri Lanka, two apartments in Israel and more hostels, hotels and airports than I feel like counting.  We lived in a bubble out from which you could never really see more than two weeks into the future very clearly.

The constant in all this was the chaos. But if you could handle operating in chaos, good things could happen.

 

The chaos was never knowing exactly what I would find when I left our Sri Lankan guest house on foot with my camera. Sometimes I walked for hours and never spoke with anyone. Sometimes I would be harassed by taxi drivers and souvenir sellers and kids to such an extent that I would literally jump in a passing taxi just to escape. The uncertainty, the newness and the constant motion was exciting. In New York I wandered the city trying to figure out how to interact with people now that I had this giant, heavy camera hanging from my neck telling everyone that I was a photographer. In Sri Lanka I learned how to capture a moment in another person's life (as well as how to ask their permission without a common language). Ethiopia was was my first experience photographing in a place where boldness gave way to caution in many situations and I often put away my camera to avoid drawing attention.

We spent a year jumping on buses and boats and covering in excess of 35,000 miles of travel by all those different methods. It was a year of constantly listening and learning and taking in new places and its only now that I'm having time to go back and see all the things I was learning along the way. The whole time I was trying to take advantage of the learning and experience that could be had along the way. After this year, I knew, it would be back to the US and I would have to start thinking about something resembling a coherent career.

We made it to Cleveland and have begun to make this place our new home. The funny thing is that I don't think I've stopped moving yet. I'm exhausted after such a chaotic year but there's still a part of my internal engine that has its foot on the gas and I get antsy. We have an apartment that is starting to feel like a place we can call home but those thoughts of permanence still seem far-off and vague. I've been working hard to get this new website completed and in doing so I've spent a lot of time thinking about how I've grown and what course I want to set at this pivotal moment. I don't really know what being a career photographer looks like, but I think it looks a lot like what I was doing this past year.

Every day.

So maybe that's the lesson in this. I spent a year just trying to cram in as much shooting as I could because time was short. And along the way there were a few jobs that I was able to do and get paid for. What happens if I apply that same ethic to Cleveland? Except that here, the relationships don't go away when I leave in two months. They can build and grow and that can become a sustainable career. Does that sound crazy?

And that's the closest thing I have to a theory of life at this point.

A New Take on Time-Lapse

One of the more inconsistent parts of my time lapse work has got to be the spelling. Honestly, I can't decide on a single spelling to stick with in the long term. Time Lapse. Timelapse. Time-Lapse. Whatever.

In my time-lapse work recently I've been working on moving away from a wide-angle, scenic composition into some more experimental compositions focusing on central focal points that either provide a static focus in contrast to the high speed movement in the rest of the scene.

I spent about an hour setting up a shot this afternoon that took a great deal of experimentation but I was really set on making this one work. The sequence below was ultimately accomplished by wrapping a strip of clear packing tape across the vertical security bars on my living room window facing the streets. Because the tape has adhesive on one side, water sprayed in a mist on the strip the water will bead nicely on the surface but more importantly the drops will remain and will not drip downwards as easy due to gravity. I spent about twenty minutes trying to make this work on the window glass but the water had no desire to behave and stay on the glass.

What I would really like to try in the future is shoot a scene downwards through a horizontal piece of glass (with drops of beaded water) into a mirror tilted at a 45 degree angle reflecting a scene. In this case, you can see that the rough surface of the tape is only vaguely translucent when dry but the drops of water have the effect of smoothing the surface and allowing the light to pass through the tape and water in a significantly clearer path.

The result is something I find intriguing in terms of future potential for combining macro photography with time lapse photography in a unique way. I'm excited to see where it goes. Enjoy.