Sunday, May 31, 2009

Magical Rays of Light

Rays on the Patomac - Piney Point
In nearly every post placed on this blog, I state that photography is all about light.  Well, in this entry I take that idea very literally.  The shots featured here are clearly about light, but in a very literal sense; they feature rays of light.
Rays of light coming through a window, cloud, or between the trees in a dense forest encourage the imagination.  They make you wonder what is at the other end?  How do they come to be?  What do they mean?  What are they shining on, and why?
NREL Wind Turbine Blade -2
From a very practical perspective, lets take a look at the bits and pieces that must come together for us to see these light rays.  First, and most obviously, you need a light source.  In all the shots shown here, the light source is the sun.  But other light sources can result in the same effect – spot lights on a stage, a street light in a snow storm, or stadium lights in a driving rain.
Next,  you need an aperture for the light.  In other words, the shot above with a wind turbine blade in the foreground and operating wind turbines in mid-field would not have light rays unless the clouds were there to block out some of the light while allowing bands of light to pass (this shot, and the others with wind turbines, were taken at the US Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden Colorado).
Rays in church
Next, you need to have a sufficiently dark background to allow the rays of light to standout.  The shot above was taken in the Church in the Field near Garmisch Germany.  The dark background of the church walls make these light rays pop from the picture.  Rays of light shining through churches always add to the mystical nature of light.  It almost seems as though God is shining a flashlight through the window with the intention of bringing your attention to something important.
Abu Dhabi Desert Landscape (4 of 6)
The final ingredient to forming light rays is something to reflect the light.  In other words, with out fog, rain, snow, mist, sand, dust, or something else suspended in the air, the light would continue on it’s path and never be reflected to your eye.  The shot above was taken in the deserts of the UAE.  Most likely, the light rays are a result of light reflecting off dust or sand blown into the air.
Al Aain Oasis
Like the last shot, the one above is taken in the UAE.  This shot was taken at the oasis on the outskirts of Al AIn and like the previous shot, the light rays were likely formed from suspended dust and sand. 
The next shot is taken in Washington DC and includes a view of the Main Avenue marinas in the foreground and Haines Point in the midfield.  This shot reinforces all of the elements necessary to have these wonderful rays of light; light source, aperture, dark background, and something suspended in the air to reflect the light.
Storm Over Potomac
The final shot is a bit different than the others, because it involves a reflection that fills the same role as the aperture we talked about earlier.  The shot is of the very top of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai.  This hotel is the second tallest hotel in the world and stands 1050 feet.  The Burj Al Arab anchors the Jumeirah beach and is just minutes from the Palm Jumeirah (a series of artificial islands shaped like a palm tree).  I will not attempt to talk about the immense list of features this hotel showcases, but I will mention one of my favorites.  About one third of the way up the photograph, you see a disk suspended on somewhat of a cantilever.  This platform is at a height of 692 feet and is a helipad.  The really cool thing is that in 2005, the helipad was temporarily converted into a tennis court as a promotion associated with the Dubai Duty Free Men’s Open.  Andre Agassi and Roger Federer took advantage of the opportunity to get in a couple of warm-up rounds.  (Check out for some shots of the “tennis court.”
Burj Al Arab
I hope you enjoyed these shots and find the opportunity to capture some sunbeams.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What’s in the Bag? (17-40 f/4.0 L)

I feel very fortunate to have inspired a number of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances to either pick up a camera and pursue photography a bit more deliberately, or to rekindle an old flame.  I intentionally did not use the phrase “take photography more seriously” because, I firmly believe it should not be taken too seriously.  Photography is a great joy and like anything else taken too seriously, can loose it’s sparkle if not approached with the freedom and expression the endeavor calls for.  Photography is a pursuit that should be a release for the creativity one desires to express and in doing so should be an avenue of great pleasure.
But this posting is not about the joys of photography.  In this post I intend to answer the question “what’s in the bag?”  More specifically, I will tell you what gear I use, the benefits and limitations of that gear, and how it helps me get the shots I see even before the viewfinder comes to my eye.
Before I open the bag, I think it is important to add a disclaimer to this discussion.  I have a whole bunch of really nice gear.  In fact, there are a number of people who make their living in photography that do not have such a well equipped kit.  I recognize my good fortune and do not take it lightly.  However, it is not the equipment that makes good photography.  It is the photographer. 
Before I built up my kit, I collected a very nice portfolio of shots taken with equipment much less capable.  If I were to post the best shots taken with my original canon EOS and kit lens alongside those taken with a $3000 body and $2000 lens, it would be difficult to judge from which camera the shot originated.
In summary, the best camera to have is the one you have in your hands when the stars align and a beautiful composition is begging you to click the shutter…even if it is the camera on your phone.
In this post, I will give a brief description of the camera body I use, and the shortest focal length lens I have.  In later posts I will work through the rest of the bag.
Canon 5D
Canon 5D
I shoot with the Canon 5D digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex).  This camera was recently replaced by the Canon 5D Mark II and is no longer in production (yet still available, and a great value on the used market).  The principal advantage of the 5D is that it has a full frame sensor as opposed to the cropped frame sensors of the rest of the Canon line (with the exception of certain 1D models).  In terms everyone can understand, the sensor that captures the image on the Canon 5D is essentially the same size of a 35mm film negative.  Cropped sensor bodies use a smaller sensor meaning less physical space on which to capture the image.  The difference should be clear; the larger the sensor, the more information can be captured.  More detail, more color information, and greater light sensitivity.
For a full review of this body (or anything else in the canon line), I highly recommend going to The Digital produced by Bryan Carnathan.  Bryan publishes some of the most thorough and well written reviews you will find.  For the Canon 5D, follow this link:

Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0 L USM
Canon 17-40
This lens is the bottom of the Canon focal length zoom lens range.  This lens is an ultra-wide angle lens in the Canon L series.  There are other fixed focal length lenses that have a shorter focal length, but none among the zoom lenses.  At the shortest focal length, this lens can fit a great deal of real estate into the frame.  From a landscape perspective, the next three shots of a fishing village near Al Jadi, Oman (first two) and Hana Oman (third in the series) are examples of what this lens can do at the 17mm end of its range.
1 Fishing Village Near Al Jadi Oman
2 Fishing Village Near Al Jadi Oman - 2
3 Fishing Village of Hana Oman
The next shot demonstrates one of the great applications of this lens.  The shot of this old car was taken about a foot from the front fender and was still able to cover essentially the entire car (and this shot was cropped a bet to eliminate some distracting elements on both the right and left sides).  IMPORTANT SAFETY NOTE:  it is not a good idea to take close up shots of people using the 17mm end of the focal range.  Your subject will be very distorted, and not in a flattering way.  For instance, a headshot of a person will result in a photograph with a dramatically enlarged nose…not a good way to win points with your spouse.
4 Ford sinking into the ground - small
The next two shots come from Bukha Oman.  Both these shots demonstrate the wonderful landscape photography that can be produced with this lens.
5 Bukha Oman - 2
6 Bukha Fort Oman - 4
I also find this lens perfect for architecture photography.  The next series of shots are from the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE.  Most are taken at the 17mm end of the range, but a couple come from the longer end of the focal range.
8Minaret Reflection
9 Relief
10 Arches
11 Framed
12 Flowers and Minaret
13 Framed Minaret
I hoped you enjoyed this post.  In the next segment of “What’s in the Bag?” I will talk about the Canon 24-105mm f/4.0 L.  This is an indispensible lens that is attached to my camera more often than any other lens.  I also hope you enjoyed the photographs.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why Black and White? Insufficient Color Information

IMG_4062-2 IMG_4062
In my post titled “Solitude” (April 28, 2009) I talked briefly about my decision criteria for processing a photo in black and white.  In that post I promised to talk more about my decision process.  I was also challenged by a good friend, Steve, to show some examples. 
In this post I will further explore the first question I apply in making a decision to consider converting a shot to black and white.  In the “Solitude” post, I said my first criteria was “does the color information in the shot add value to the final composition?” 
The first pair of shots, at the beginning of this post, are from the Supreme Petroleum Council Building in Abu Dhabi.  This example clearly shows a relevant decision point for the process of conversion to black and white.  The original shot has some brown tones in the concrete and a bit of blue in the slight area of exposed sky.
Had I decided to further crop this shot to eliminate the sky, there would be even less support for keeping this in color.  As a tangential point, there is good reason I did not further crop the shot.  I love this shot because it has a number of lines leading your eye through the shot.  You likely found yourself viewing this shot from left to right with the lines of the floors guiding you along to the right.  Then your eye would likely have started to explore what was going on vertically…and then being drawn once again from left to right.  Had I cropped out the sky and the stacking part of the building in the upper left of center, I would have lost some of the visual interest.
The second pair of shots is similar in that the prairie dog (from the Al Ain Zoo in the UAE) is nearly the same color as the ground it is standing on.  With respect to color, this shot is essentially a two tone photograph; the color adds very little information to the composition.
2 IMG_3622-2
2 IMG_3622
The next shot is unique because it was taken with a lens that brings one area of the shot into clear focus while increasingly blurring the rest of the shot as you move away from the center of focus.  Again note the amount of color information in the original, and the change that occurs in the transition to black and white.
3 IMG_2899-2
3 IMG_2899
The life ring and cleat shot was taken with a Lens Baby 3G.  If you have not seen this lens before, it looks like some sort of medieval torture device.  The unique appearance is complimented by even more unique results.  In a future post, I will feature shots taken exclusively with the lens baby.  If you are interested in this lens, or even better, the next generation Lens Baby Composer, check them out at  This is a terrifically fun lens and adds a whole new level of creativity to your photography.
The next shot is the cockpit of a decaying 1940-something Ford that sat alongside the road in Southern Maryland.  Except for the yellow hue in the dash gauges and the reddish tones in the wheel, there is very little color information – the choice to go black and white was easy and much more consistent with the era of the car.
4 IMG_3130-2
4 IMG_3130
The following shot comes from the lobby of the Solar Lab at the National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) in Boulder Colorado.  This shot is nearly black and white without any adjustment.  The only hint of color comes from the window below the dome letting in natural light to the lobby.  This is a fun shot because it is a unique piece of architecture and also because of the full tonal range, gradual transitions and the only occasional sharp edge.
5 IMG_3404-2 5 IMG_3404
Arguably, the next shot has sufficient color to make you wonder why I include it in the group of photographs considered to have too little color information to warrant a color shot.  To a certain extent, this is true.  However, the color is highly concentrated in a couple of areas including the top of the minaret, the grass around the mosque, and the green of the mosque dome.
By removing those few points of concentrated color, I think the shot becomes much more interesting.
6 IMG_3441-2 6 IMG_3441
The Washington Monument in Washington, DC during a snow storm leaves very little remaining color.  In this case, there is a slight yellow hue to the monument and because the shot was taken at some distance, the flags at the base show just specs of red and blue.  I find the black and white version much more interesting and consistent with the starkness of a menacing sky, barren trees, and snow covered ground.
7 Washington Monument in the Snow-2 7 Washington Monument in the Snow
The next shot takes us back out to Colorado and the National Renewable Energy Laboratories.  This shot features a wind turbine blade in the foreground, quickly followed by the mountain range, then domination by a dramatic sky.  The tiny bit of color comes primarily from the brown grass.  I find the drama of the sky much more compelling in black and white.  The bit of color in the dormant grass is not missed.
8 NREL Big Sky Turbine Blade-2
8 NREL Big Sky Turbine Blade
The next shot, “Storm over Lincoln,” combines the key elements of the Washington Monument in Snow with the NREL wind turbine shot.  The color is limited to the slight hue in the monument’s stone, and the dark green, nearly underexposed trees bordering the reflecting pool.  The entire scene is complimented by a dramatic and foreboding sky.  The sloping tree lines draw the observers eye to the Lincoln Monument, then up to the sky.
9 Storm over Lincoln-2
9 Storm over Lincoln
The next shot is of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in front of the U.S. Capitol building.  The shot is interesting on a number of levels.  First, the stormy sky sets the scene for battle – a gloomy and threatening day as General Grant leads his troops, in this case, against the invaders of the national mall who have setup large tents and barbeque pits!
The only color of significance in the shot is the oxidation on the monument proper.  With the conversion to black and white, the green oxidized metal gains additional contrast and makes the shot more consistent over the tonal range of the composition.
10 Charge the Storm-2
10 Charge the Storm
The next shot is an interesting case.  The pair of Southern Maryland barns has sufficient color information with respect to the blue in the sky, the green grass, and the red of the barns themselves.  However, much of the barn is in the shade, and the color is very muted.  In this case, the color information was not sufficient in the area I wanted it.  The black and white version brings out much of the detail in the shadows and adds more interest to the shot.
11 IMG_2841-2
11 IMG_2841
For the final example, we return the camel races in Al Wathba UAE, just outside of Abu Dhabi.  Consistent with the theme of this post, there is very little color information in this shot.  The photograph is dominated by the fog with the subject just emerging and several other camels appearing as apparitions in the distance.  The only color information is the slight brown hue of the subject camel, and the dominant orange of the mechanical jockey.  In answering the question of sufficient color information, clearly this shot deserves to be black and white according to the criteria I use.  Additionally, I find the bright orange of the mechanical jockey to be distracting – the jockey is not the subject of the shot.
12 IMG_4479
12 IMG_4479-2
I hope you enjoyed this post and I hope I satisfied Steve’s request for some examples.  If you have any requests about any subject relating to photography, please send me a note at  I am happy to respond.  I have plenty of subjects to write about, but would be particularly pleased to know I am helping someone understand something new about my passion.
Enjoy, and do something nice for someone today.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Hold my Tail
My recent post “Solitude” prompted me to move in the opposing direction with this post.  So here we will explore the idea of “together” with a lead-off photograph of the Barnum and Bailey Circus elephants as they parade through Washington DC from the Southwest rail yard.
From a shot composition perspective, this is an example of showing something less than the whole and letting the observer construct the rest of the scene.  In other words, I could have set up a wider perspective and included the entirety of both elephants.  However, with a tighter cropped shot I was able to capture the essence of the moment.  You do not need to see the whole elephant to know it is an elephant.
The next shot “Merida Musicians” was taken in Merida Venezuela.
Merida Musicians
This shot was taken at one of the stops on the Merida cable car(teleferico in Spanish).  The cable car claims to be the longest and highest in the world.  Commencing a couple of blocks from the central plaza in Merida , it ascends 10,500 ft and traverses a distance of 7.8 miles. 
Before processing this shot, the two musicians were standing in front of a bright pink wall – it was overwhelming.  In post process, only the musicians, their instruments, and the violin case remain in color.  By eliminating the color from the distracting pink wall, the shot gains interest, has a more three dimensional feel,  and draws your eyes to the subject of the photo – the musicians.
I will only introduce the next photo as “Beside Myself” and suggest it takes the idea of “together” to a completely different level.  Because this is a panorama, you will get a better perspective by clicking on the photo and bringing up a larger version.
Plaza in El Hatillo
So I’m sure you quickly determined that the same man shows up three times in the photo.  This shot is a composition of 7 shots that were stitched together with a program called PTgui.  I took the first shot at the far right and progressively panned to the left with successive shots – the same direction the man was walking.  When stitching the shots together in PTgui, I was able to keep the man in the shot, and in three different positions.
For anyone considering panoramic shots, particularly useful in landscape photography, I highly endorse PTgui (  The program is easy, intuitive, and produces exceptionally high quality photographs. (Hey PTgui guys…my computer with your software on it died last year.  Send me a fresh copy and I will gladly and enthusiastically continue to plug your product!)
A wedding says “together” in an iconic way.  So the next shot “Wedding at the Capitol” could not be ignored.  However, what I like most about the shot has nothing to do with the theme of this post.  Take a look, then I will explain.
Wedding at the Capitol small
This shot was taken in the spring when the Cherry blossoms were in full swing around the US Capitol building.  Not surprisingly, this is a favored time and location for DC area wedding shots.  This photograph accomplishes something unique – although it is black and white it maintains the celebratory essence of the event - it is not moody as many black and white shots tend to be.  Although we have taken away the color, the shot remains vibrant.  With the white blossoms mirroring the brides white dress in contrast to the black tuxedos and dark tree trunks, the shot has a full gamut from pure white to pure black and a pleasing balance of intermediate shades.
As was the case with my blog on “Solitude,” “Together” need not refer only to people.  Here is an example from Bogota, Colombia - “Bogota Churches.”
Bogota Churches
The next shot comes from Machu Pichu in Peru.  I have a number of great shots from this visit, but I will limit myself to the photograph relevant to our theme of together.
Inca Ruins Plaza Tree
So far our exploration of “together” is principally limited to “pairs.”  The next shot expands a bit beyond a pair, and speaks more to working together.
This shot was taken in the jungles of Venezuela in a place called Canaima.  Canaima consists of an air strip, three rustic camps, and a small village of an indigenous nomadic group.  Canaima is the stopover on the way to Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world.  The camp where we stayed consisted of rustic yet attractive little cabins with a beautiful view from the covered porch.  Unfortunately the interior held a few surprises such as a bed that was about a foot shorter than my 6’+ requires, and the hot water for the shower was supplied by an electric heater attached to the tip of the shower head – including exposed wires.  But hey, what is life without a little adventure.
Back to the ants – on nearly all solid surfaces in the camp, you can find these enclosed ant highways.  I’m not a biologist, but I assume they are intended as some form of defensive measure to protect against predators.  Curious, I flicked off a piece to inspect the construction (for a sense of scale, the opening in the picture is the width of my index finger).  I left momentarily to fix a drink, and upon my return I found the scene you see in the photo.  Within no more than two minutes, the “repair crew” was on scene.  And within 10 minutes, repairs were complete.  The efficiency of the process was quite impressive.
Continuing with the sub-theme of working together, the following shot “Stroke!” shows the human level of working together.
Stroke! (1 of 1)
“Stroke!” is a shot taken at the traditional rowing races in Abu Dhabi.  These are not lightweight crew shells, and that is not a western conception of a coxswain!
Finally, in going to the extreme of togetherness, nothing says together like the barrios of Caracas.
Caracas Barrio Highlight
This is a pretty common sight in Caracas.  Caracas is located in a mountain valley at an elevation of 3000 feet and separated from the Caribbean by the Avila Mountain Range which extends up to about 9000 feet at Naiguata peak.  All along the valley sides, Caracas is ringed by barrios similar to this (with the exception of the Avila National Park on the Northern side of the valley).  House upon house – literally.  The truly sad thing about this is that landslides are common during the rainy season which can lead to catastrophic results such as the 1999 landslide that killed some 30,000 people. 
Between the beginning of December 1999 and the 16th, coastal Venezuela received over 44 inches of rain.  The landslides began on the 15th and continued through the 16th.  The effects were devastating including the loss of 10% of the population in that region, 8,000 individual residences, and 700 apartment buildings.  Of the estimated 30,000 deaths, only 1,000 bodies were recovered.  The rest were either buried in the mud and rock, or washed out to sea.
Lastly, we will end on a lighter note and return to the Barnum and Bailey elephants.  For obvious reasons, I call this shot “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
The Greatest Show on Earth small
I hope you enjoyed the exploration of “together.”  It was a natural contrast to my last post - “solitude.”