Technical

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.


To Macro Extension Tube or not to Macro Extension Tube...that is the Question.

I have a deep and abiding love for macro photography. On one level, it's a technique that I kind of consider cheating in the back of my mind. It's kind of like black and white in that respect. Take a picture of most things and switch it into high contrast back and white and it makes anything look moody and interesting. Same with macro. Take a picture close enough of anything and you're likely to capture something new and different. Taking my technique to a new level has been an interesting process and my most recent endeavor has involved Extension Tubes. Fun times.

When I started shooting on my 70D, it took me a while before I really got it into my head that getting even a small subject in focus required stopping down to f/8 or smaller. Moving to a 50mm f/1.4 lens from a Tamron 18-200mm f4.5-5.6 was heaven in terms of blowing out the background but I now faced the problem of a prohibitively narrow depth of field.

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A couple weeks ago I started experimenting with focus stacking in order to solve the problems associated with narrow depths in macro. It basically involves taking a series of images of a subject and adjusting the focus point with each picture you take. Photoshop then aligns the series of photos, even compensating for "breathing" in the lens as you move from one end of the focus range to the other, and compiles the photos into a single composite using the most in-focus parts found in each image. Making tweaks to the final composite isn't particularly easy but the software is generally reliable under reasonable conditions. You can see a few of the early results here.

Once this technique became a viable tool, the challenge became getting close enough to get truly interesting shots. I'm currently operating with three lenses: a 70-300mm with a minimum focus distance of 1.5m, a 50mm with a minimum focus distance of 0.45m and a 40mm pancake with a minimum focus distance of 0.3m. In lieu of buying a dedicated macro lens, macro extension tubes presented themselves as a possibility for expanding the macro capabilities of my current lenses. These tubes connect between the camera body and the lens and allow the lenses to focus significantly closer to the end of the lens. But when I considered getting a set of these, I had a few questions to which I couldn't seem to find answers online.

My first question was the difference between getting a 13mm, 21mm or 31mm extension (or all three). To answer this question, the image to the right is the same 50mm lens with six different extension tube set-ups all shot at f/2.8. As a second point of reference, the image below shows the magnification of a quarter with a bare 50mm on the left and all three tubes stacked to 65mm on the left. You can see in the bottom image (if you click and expand it full-screen) just how narrow the depth of field is at f/2.8. In both cases, the first shot is at 0.45m and the closest focus is about an inch from the end of the lens.

As much as I wished I could pick one ideal size and not purchase all three together, there really is a great deal of flexibility when it comes to the different levels of magnification allowed by combining the three sizes. I also debated between getting the auto-focus version (which allows communication between the camera and the lens or sticking with manual focus for half the price.

I did find two notes online about the limitations of the manual version. One, autofocus doesn't work and two, you cannot control the aperture and are limited to the widest setting of the lens. This is not strictly true. One thing you can do is put the lens directly on the camera, adjust the aperture to the setting you want, press the DOF preview button and while holding it down, disconnect the lens. Then when you put the lens and the manual tubes on, your lens will be locked at that aperture. In reality, after testing with both photo and video mode, the autofocus through the extension tubes is marginally useful. When adding extension tubes, you drastically cut down your focus range so autofocus can't fix that problem. My own take on the situation is that if you're taking stills, there's really no need for autofocus whatsoever. Aperture is the real issue. If you don'tmind changing aperture the way I describe above or if you have a lens with a manual aperture ring, groovy, save the money. But unless you're shooting on a camera that has video autofocus on par with the 70D (none come to mind) the autofocus isn't something you'll need in reality.

One context where it worked well was using the 13mm tube with the 50mm lens at f/8 for video. With that set-up you're limited to focusing between 6 and 10 inches from the end of the lens so it's a good set-up for shooting insects. It's close enough to get good magnification of things like bees pollinating flowers but not so close that your bumping the bugs with your lens or blocking the light. The video autofocus has sufficient latitude to track your subject in the four inches of focus range at f/8 and it performs pretty well. When you're going for maximum magnification using all three tubes stacked together, forget autofocus. Go with manual and shoot either in Live View or through the viewfinder using your DOF preview button to get an accurate view of what will be in focus.

The final takeaway for me was that the extension tubes are incredibly versatile but it's by no means a magic bullet to replace a dedicated macro lens. You're gonna have to spend hours playing around with them and figuring out exactly how they behave in order to find out just what you can do with them but if your anything like me, you'll love every second of it. My hope is that this post was at least helpful in illuminating the subject a little more.

Now I'm going to post this and go decide if it wouldn't have been a better idea to make a video explaining all this than trying to write it down.

 

One Roll of Film

The process of exploring photography in New York City has taken me to some unexpected places. I've been working on refining specific skill sets and setting different tasks and challenges for myself designed to push me out of my comfort zone. With my recent acquisition of my Canon 70D and small collection of lenses, I've been working hard to put this new gear through its paces and figuring out what role this new kit will play in the future of my creative profession.

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One assignment suggested by Jared Polin (among others) was to cover the back of the camera and limit yourself to a simulated single roll of film. Thirty-six chances to get it right with no chance to see the images until your back home. I tried out the experiment today exploring a four-mile section of Riverside park between 123rd and the George Washington Bridge today and I have to say that I was not prepared for how much I learned in just a single afternoon.

The first and most obvious effect of this self-imposed limit was a drastic reduction in the speed with which I attacked the urban canvas. Expecting that 36 photos would be a frustrating straightjacket, I began the activity without a real sense of what shooting 36 photographs feels like. With a 32BG card, even shooting full RAW means I've got space for over a thousand shots before changing magazines. What I soon found out, though, was that there is a distinct difference between visually scanning for any subject that is remotely interesting and scanning for a subject that is worth being one of those 36. Rather than racing along trying to get as much coverage as possible, my pace slowed and I became much more mindful of the subjects I chose as well as the story I wanted to tell with each frame.

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My first subject was a street located under cavernous metal trusses holding up the elevated West Side Highway. Normally I would have taken a couple wide shots with the 40mm and a few closer detail shots with the 70-300mm but under this new paradigm, I really wanted to capture the essence of the space. Whatever the fuck that means. I spent a good five minutes trying out different lenses and zoom variations as well as changing my position on the slanted concrete platform leading from the bridge supports down to the street level. I eventually settled on a rule of thirds configuration with the bridge supports taking up a third of the horizontal space on the left and right as well as about a third of the vertical space. Once I had the framing set, I waited another five minutes or so before the alignment of the parked cars, traffic patterns and pedestrians aligned themselves before pressing that fateful shutter button. After that much planning and thought went into the composition, the crisp snapping sound of the mirror rising and falling inside the camera becomes an incredibly sexy sound.

Truth be told, I actually used three of my 36 frames on this section of covered road. The first frame was underexposed (by a lot) and I only realized my mistake when I saw the light meter after firing the shutter. Right as I took the second picture a bus started to enter the frame so I needed a third to be sure I got the shot and the one above is shot number three.

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About an hour later, I happened upon a beautiful butterfly dancing from flower to flower and I expended four frames on this guy. The image to the right is the first of those four and the challenge I was faced with hear was, “How long can I afford to wait for the perfect shot when my subject might fly off into the woods at any moment?” As I composed, I found myself thinking back on the examples I’d seen of film or even plate photographers economizing their shots. I thought of Ansel Adams hiking for an entire day with one glass plate in his backpack and expressing discomfort with the casual triviality of carrying half a dozen plates at a time. I remembered the scene from The Bang Bang Club when Kevin Carter is explaining to Greg Marinovich how seasoned photographer Ken Oosterbroek works from the outside of a scene in toward the middle and then cups his hand over the lens to shoot a black frame once he’s gotten the shot he was looking for. This tells the darkroom tech which shot is the keeper. Finally I pondered the scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty when Walter finally tracks down the elusive photographer Sean O'Connell on a craggy mountain-side in Afghanistan after chasing him down the entire movie. Sean was on an assignment to photograph snow leopards which he tells Walter are called the ghost cat because it never lets itself be seen. As a snow leopard  emerges from a crevice, Walter asks why Sean isn’t taking the picture and Sean says, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment…I mean me personally…I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” Whether or not these lofty thoughts were justified as I lay sprawled in the grass, they certainly added a layer of profundity to the experience.

It took about five hours to walk the eight mile round trip to the George Washington bridge and back. What I realized when I got home and loaded the pictures into Lightroom, was that as I looked through those 36 shots, I knew exactly what I was thinking as the shutter fired each time. I know what caught my eye as I walked past. I knew how I mentally composed the shot and which lens I ultimately chose. I remembered the process of framing the shot and deciding how much I needed to compensate for back-lighting when I read the light meter. If I had gone out and taken a hundred or two hundred photos, I wouldn’t have spent nearly as much time choosing, framing and waiting for each shot to be ready and I wouldn’t have remembered the process of calculating all the settings with enough detail to learn from those choices later.

It was a very unique experience and I don’t know how quickly I’ll feel like doing it again but I’d definitely recommend the experiment to anyone looking to step back in time a little and learn something new.  

 

 

 

Macro Part 2 - Two Schools of Thought: 50mm vs Tilt-Shift

I think that I can trace my fascination with Macro Photography to my second year of undergrad. In the Fall of 2005 I had finished work on a selection of recordings which I intended to compile into a AlbumArt (small)new album. At the time, I still had a wide selection of sunglasses which I paired daily with my outfits. It was a phase. My favorite pair was a silver-lensed Oakley replicas purchased in Santiago, Chile. With my sister's old 5 Megapixel digital camera I set up a little light stage with a paper backdrop on a chair in my dorm room and captured the cover image for the album I ultimately called Reflections. Within the practice of photography (and this applies to video production as well), I observe two different schools of thought. The two are by no means mutually exclusive but they do operate based on different core principles.

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The first school of thought is what I call the 50mm School which focuses on using composition and natural light to capture an honest, unfiltered moment in time. Photographers in this school often focus on using prime lenses (like the 50mm which best replicates the perspective of the human eye) and rely upon their wit, patience and instinct to capture images that demonstrate their value through their ability to tell a story. The photographs are visually flawed, rough and raw by design and this often creates the sense that the intensity of reality is bleeding through and cannot fully be captured without dulling the image.

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The second school of thought I call the Tilt-Shift School and it focuses more on using technology to show the viewer something that their eye cannot naturally see. This is the world of zooms, macro lenses and (as the name suggests) tilt-shift lenses. Within this stream the detail, clarity and depth of a photograph must exceed ability of the human eye and is designed to take full advantage of the available technology in the pursuit of another reality than the one in which we inhabit. The goal therefore is to exceed, enhance and expand images beyond the confines of realism.

I often think about the difference between painting and theater as an example of these two philosophies. Actors on stage in a live performance have one shot to combine their lines, the stage blocking and lighting and the music into a coherent performance for those in attendance. The value is therefore more immediate because it doesn't really matter if everyone got their lines right yesterday. There is a new audience today and you have one shot to get it right. Practitioners of the 50mm School must situate their photos within a specific context because the value of the image comes from the fact that the photographer had to be there, at a specific place and at a specific time to capture a shot 12131591624_22b2714c5f_cthat is real and authentic in a way that could never be replicated again. In the Tilt-Shift School, value is derived from the ability of an artist to start with the raw materials of subject, context, light and camera manipulate each of those to create a stunning visual experience for the viewer.  In the same way, the painter takes a bucket of paint tubes, brushes and canvas and combines those elements into a pleasing composition that is far greater than the sum of it's parts.

Although I have enormous respect for both schools of though, my work has often leaned in the direction of the Tilt-Shift School myself, centering around the goal of elevating the subject matter through artistry. The kinds of skills used in this type of photography go hand in hand with the skills needed to build an audio recording piece by piece from the ground up or to combine dozens or hundreds of small video clips into a single, coherent visual story. I do have a great deal of envy, however, for people who are die-hard proponents of no-frills, no-Photoshop, prime-lens-or-bust photography. They don't get hung up on sharp focus or crushed highlights and their not afraid of dust on the lens or using high ISO to get their shot. I can identify with them, however, when it comes to the relentless, self-critical standard to which we both hold ourselves when judging our own art.

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They go out on an assignment to somewhere with stunning visuals and a breathtaking story but none of the photos they bring back quite capture , in their own estimation, the reality that they took in with their eyes. On the other hand, I sit down at a macro light stage and spend hours shooting thousands of pictures of water drops falling and splashing in a reflective pool and even the ones that capture the crisp, clear beauty of an impossibly beautiful moment in time still bug me because the background is a bit grainy in the shadows.

I'm convinced, however, that it takes a slightly insane obsession with perfection to drive people like me out into the cold on a January night to capture a shot of the moon rising Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 1.08.19 PMfrom the top of a desolate hill in the middle of the desert. And really, the insanity is a big part of what I love about this work. When I'm out on a shoot watching a man cleanly slicing the throat of a goat using the same cuts his father and grandfather taught him, I stop and ask myself, "This is crazy, right?"

And then I smile.

Macro Part 1: The Smallest Moments in Time

I tried to write a post about a photoshoot I did this past week but it turned into a much longer discussion about the imbued value of art based on captured context vs technical composition. I'll post that discussion when I'm done with this, but I felt like the amount of fun I had with this photoshoot necessitated a technical post of it's own. The World According to a WaterdropI chose on this particular occasion to make an attempt at replicating a photo that I've had on my computer for about ten years now. I found it on PhotoSig.com in 2004 taken by the user flippyx/Alex. I had hoped to use the photo for an album cover but I ended up going in a different direction (see next post). I hung onto the shot because I thought it was both technically and artistically stunning and I suppose I dreamed on day of being able to make that kind of photo myself. Fast forward ten years and it suddenly occurred to me that I had all of the tools needed to replicate that shot so I set out one evening to make it happen.

It began with a set-up akin to a double boiler on my kitchen counter. I put a large bowl on the counter inside of which was a small cup sitting upside down. On top of the small cup I set a ceramic cereal bowl filled to the brim with water. Using a microphone stand I suspended a plastic cup over the bowl of water. I used a safety pin to prick a small hole in the plastic cup. When I filled the cup with water, liquid slowly dripped into the bowl below, filling it to the brim and slowly overflowing into the larger reservoir below. Once I had everything working properly I had a steady stream of drips that fell into a nice, stable pool of water and I could set the camera on the tripod as close as I wanted. I wish I had a picture of the contraption but I'm sure you can imagine it in your head.

One of the advantages of shooting with the Pentax WG-III is of course the waterproofing. Water, especially in an airborne or splashing state, is one of the most mesmerizing textures to work with and under controlled light it just looks stunning. It really helps to be able to get in close without worrying about getting water on your camera. I began by setting up the focus and lighting. The WG-III has a really great Manual Focus mode so I used a wooden skewer set across the bowl of water precisely where the water was falling so I could lock the manual focus precisely where I wanted it.

IMGP3009Several different setups resulted in pleasing imagery. Setting the camera about two inches from the drops allowed me to really take advantage of the SuperMacro mode and exaggerate the sense of scale as you can see to the left. Unfortunately, this also meant I had to clean stray drops of water off the lens every ten seconds and the pace of this got annoying after a while. Backing off a few inches and going to the telephoto end of the zoom meant I could capture more of the surface details of the water and widen the depth of field beyond the water drops itself. The advantage of this setup (beyond a dry lens) was that I had far fewer throw-away shots since more or less everything was in focus as you can see below. IMGP2571After getting comfortable with the equipment set-up, I began to experiment with coloring the image. I started by putting an FLR filter over the lens to give everything a purple tint but ultimately found that I could give more nuanced color to the scene by adjusting the tint of the flash and bouncing colors into the scene from other light sources. The image below and the purple image above we colored by holding strips of tissue paper in front of the flash. The purple was a single strip of the same color and the green below was a combination of a couple layers of blue and yellow adjusted over time to get the appropriate combination of color strengths for the desired color. IMGP2428

One of the downsides of not being able to manually adjust aperture and shutter speed is that you have to sort of nudge the camera in the direction you want using roundabout methods. The WG-III displays the shutter speed and aperture settings onscreen before IMGP3120capturing the photo so you can keep an eye on what it's doing with those setting as you adjust others. It has the fortunate tendency to open up the aperture as wide as possible before slowing the shutter speed, which is useful, but the best go-to trick for speeding up he shutter speed is to turn the flash on. I made myself a little cap to cover the flash if I want to speed up the shutter without the fill light hitting my subject. The image above was created by masking the flash and instead using a flashlight at an oblique angle. With macro shots especially, though, I can adjust the EV down 2 (stops, I assume) and take macro shots in daylight using the flash. Because the flash in combination with sunlight would normally blowout the subject, by turning down the EV and limiting the ISO to 200 or 400, I can burn out the background in full sunlight and properly expose my subject as though it were dark, as you can see below. IMGP0604One of the criticisms I've read about the Optio series from Pentax is that it has a steep learning curve. In my experience, however, it has forced me to think a little more like a film photographer and less like a digital shooter. Because I can't simply adjust the exposure with a thumb dial like on a DSLR, I have gotten into the habit of visually assessing the scene and paying attention to how different adjustments affect the image. Over time, I've gotten better at eyeballing the light light levels and setting the exposure accordingly. the practical benefit is that I can set the AUTO ISO range to a more narrow (read: lower) level and minimize the potential for digital noise as much as possible.

In any case, this macro shoot with water drops was a huge amount of fun and I hope you all like the images. I'll give this post a couple days at the top and then add the more intellectual post in a couple days.

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Inside the Pentax WG-2

When my camera was destroyed during the ill-advised dive mentioned in the previous post, I was understandably bummed out. The opportunity for which it did provide was tearing the camera apart and seeing what was going on inside. When I did so, I was a bit frumped to see a scene of bleak corrosion and rust inside an otherwise beautiful little machine. When I finally stripped out everything inside and got down to the image sensor, I was surprised to see an ingenious engineering solution that answered many of my questions about how a camera so thin can accomplish an optical zoom. The way the system is designed is that Lens elementthe light comes into the front of the camera, through the first lens, then it hits a 45 degree lens and the light is sent sideways through a series of lens elements (neutral density filter, diopter, etc) and into the CMOS image sensor. The movement of this intermediate lens elements is how the focus and zoom is achieved. I made a little video about it because I thought it was such a cool idea. After doing a little research I discovered that Minolta was the first manufacturer to use this design with the DiMAGE X released in 2002. One of the issues I always had with the camera was that the colors is medium and low light situations were really flat. I'm curious whether the use of a mirror to bounce the light causes any significant loss of contrast relative to a mirror-less design. The macro and video performance, however, is more than good enough to justify its performance in a night club.

Check out the video. It's fun.

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