Sunday, December 18, 2011

Published 10:37 AM by with 5 comments

In the Company of Cats

No matter what I'm doing in my life, I always try to integrate something creative into the mix. I am currently working at an animal hospital and recently someone suggested that I take some pictures of the resident cats to spice up the walls and replace what had been there for years. The idea was appealing but taking photographs of animals in a conventional way was not entirely exciting. There was no deadline for the project so I just let the idea percolate in my brain for a while. There are plenty of pet photographers out there and, while they satisfy a need for many people, I am happy to look elsewhere for my inspiration. 

I read an article in a British magazine called Black and White about a photographer who had a fascination with the circus. It wasn't the performance itself that drew him in, rather, it was the mystery of what went on behind the curtain. I have to admit that I have that same sense of wonder about circus life. The resulting images were very penetrating. In single stills, the photographer was able to paint a life of hardship and, in some cases, complete isolation. The only break in that kind of solitary existence was when the ringmaster announced the the next amazing feat to a wide-eyed audience. Even operating in a team environment was an introspective experience for all those hard working individuals.

Something really connected with me in those photographs. There was a strong emotional element and the choice of black and white made each photograph timeless. Monochrome tends to do that. Not only does it remove most references to reality as we know it, it also intensifies and sometimes creates anew a mood and atmosphere usually only sensed but rarely seen.

So I began to think in black and white for my animal hospital project. I wanted to approach each photograph as I would a human portrait. My priority was to draw out the personality of the subject. 

So how does one do that with a cat? Luckily the hospital cats roam loose and I get to spend a lot of time with them. It is said that cats' personalities are more numerous and varied than most other species. I actually made that up but, by saying that, I am drawing from my own experience. My life thus far has been shared with many a feline. I've had cats for as long as I can remember and, although I once visited with an allergist who told me my biggest concern should be cat dander, I have long enjoyed their company.

Each cat at the hospital has a unique trait. Every day, each one announces its presence. Take Toby, for instance, our overweight Main Coon-like cat who appears to be as dumb as a bag of hammers but is really qute ingenious. He wears an invisible fence collar that prevents him from breaking into the food on display at the front of the hospital. When he is in close proximity of said kibbles, the collar gives him a gentle buzz signaling the illegal activity. Toby is able to sense when the battery is depleted and helps himself. He is also aware of the device's range and has been found tearing into a bag that is just inches outside the buzz zone. His mission in life, it seems, is to taunt the only cat in the hospital who is not a resident, Saucy.

Toby - genius or clown? The jury is out.
Saucy came to us more than six months ago because the septogenarian owner found her too hard to handle. She closely resembles an angry Garfield in appearance, which seems to be her perpetual demeanor. She is a cool cat in my books but needs her own space. She is not a lap cat and screams like a banshee when lifted. First impressions are everything when trying to adopt an animal and unfortunately Saucy fails right there. As a result she sits in her cage or sometimes sleeps beneath the counter of the front desk. 

Saucy - She can look really innocent when she wants to...
Among the many interesting things about Saucy is her unwillingness or inability to fraternize with any of her feline brethren. Hissing and spitting and low moans get directed at any other passing cat like a laser gun. Having said that, she does come to accept other cats after some time but she and the aforementioned Toby have never seen eye to eye. Toby will sit and stare at Saucy when she is locked up in her cage and, despite her very audible protests, Toby doesn't flinch. He simply sits there and stares at her. When these two collide, it sounds like the dungeon doors have been pried open and all hell has broken loose.

I could go on and on about the other actors in this hospital drama but I think the point is made that each has their own unique existence and it was with that in mind that I approached photographing them.

Cats are solitary creatures although they occasionally like to share a bed or space with each other. I wanted to show that sense of indepence in each shot. In some cases, I was able to capture it directly and at other times it took days.

Karl with a K - he spends most of his waking life sleeping

Rico C Suave - This cool cat thinks he is the boss and actually
has his own 
Facebook page
Still influenced by the circus photos I had seen in that magazine, I captured each cat in black and white and then added some grunge in post production to enhance that feeling of timelessness and mood. It was important for me not to show any of the hospital surroundings in each frame, the emphasis had to be completely on the subject. 

On projects such as this where I am given complete creative reign, I'm working inside a bubble. Only when I had a small body of pictures did I share them. I was pleased that the reaction was quite positive. 

Code named "Fiona", this kitten stayed at the hospital only for a few 
days while preparing to be adopted.
Of course, it is an animal hospital, not a cat clinic so it became obvious that we also needed some dog photographs as well. We have no resident dogs but the doctor's dog Earl, an endearing King Charles Cavalier, gladly obliged, as did DD, a dog belonging to one of the techs. 

One of the doctors' dogs, Earl.
DD is one of the sweetest dogs ever known to man
There are more animals yet to be photographed and, when the existing ones are printed and framed and adorning the halls and exam rooms, the project may be an ongoing one.

I should mention that all of the photographs in this post were shot with a Canon 5D Mark II using a 50mm f1.4 Canon lens. The post production was an entirely new experience for me using a completely innovative app for the iPad called Snapseed from Nik Software. If you were to boil Photoshop down to its bare essence and get rid of everything except the absolute essentials to make any photograph pop, you would get Snapseed. I urge anyone interested in taking their photographs to the next level to give it a try.

Stay tuned...
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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Published 10:15 AM by with 3 comments

Sometimes it's Not All About the Shot

I was excited to hear about an upcoming lunar eclipse that would be visible from where I live. The problem with living in the Northwest, however, is that the weather is quite unpredictable. While that might be fine for a photographer who goes out shooting landscapes and relies on sheer luck, sometimes it would be nice to have a more predictable climate. Of course I don't really mean that because nothing beats the drama in this corner of the world. I'll take a cloudy day over blues skies any time.

But for an event such as an eclipse, I wanted the skies to be clear. Maybe a peppering of clouds here and there to add long as the moon was not obscured.

The weather lady on TV told me to expect clear skies with some chance of clouds. Okay, this was encouraging. I had read that the best place to see the eclipse in this neck of the woods was Cannon Beach in Oregon. While this is one of my favorite places in the world, I wasn't about to travel over 300 miles to see the moon glow red.

So my dilemma was to figure out the best place to see the eclipse locally. I considered going to my favorite stomping ground in the Snoqualmie Valley but it was too risky to be in an area so prone to fog at this time of the year.

One Web site suggested finding high ground for optimal viewing. Linda suggested Issaquah Highlands, which is about the most elevated neighborhood in the area and only about 10 minutes away. It was settled.

When I'm considering shooting an event like this, there is much more than just the moon to think about. If I get some nice closeups, it's going to look like just about every other shot by every other photographer with decent gear and a long lens. The secret is the context in which you put it. 

A moon by itself does not give any kind of perspective. It just kinda floats out in a big black void and says nothing new to the viewer. Put it into context like above a city or mountain or even juxtaposed against the silhouette of a tree and now it starts to get interesting.

So as much as Issaquah Highlands gave me the vantage point I needed, it didn't provide me much else in the way of visual interest. There is nothing more than a large wasteland of grass and construction and also some lights off in the distance. I didn't have much of a choice at this stage because traveling any kind of distance was out of the question.

I left the house at 4:00 on Saturday morning. It was still dark and below freezing. My car was frozen over and I had to pry the door open. I went back inside and filled a basin with water. Once I dumped it on the car windows I got back in and started the engine. In those few seconds, the windshield froze solid again so this time I just waited until the heater kicked in.

I planned to hang out at a little turnout across from one of the big parking lots. That way, I'd be away from everything and everybody and still have access to my warm car when I needed it. I would also be able to keep my lenses within arm's reach.

I got out of the car and looked up. The eclipse had already begun, just revealing a slight shadow over the top of the bright moon. I set up my tripod and affixed my 100-400mm lens to the camera and took a couple of test shots.

Soon another car pulled up beside me, all spotlights and noisy. I was a little miffed that someone was invading the little space I had carved out for myself. They stopped the car and turned off the lights. I didn't see any sign of activity so I assumed they were staying in their car because of the chill.

By now the moon was resembling the Apple logo and there was a slight red glow beginning to appear. The doors of the enemy car opened and out popped a middle-aged couple with a Jack Russell dog wearing a little coat. They stayed a distance from me but I decided to speak first. "Good morning!" I said with enthusiasm. "Good morning" replied the man, "You shooting video or stills?". I explained that I was shooting stills and he proceeded to tell me that he used to shoot with film back in the day. He had never made the transition to digital. We talked about the best strategy for capturing both the shadow and highlights of the moon simultaneously. He used the phrase "middle gray" quite a bit but I tried not to engage too much about the technical side of what I was doing. After a few moments, he went back to talking with his wife and worrying about how cold his dog was.

One of the nice things about getting up early and witnessing a phenomen like this is that it slows everything down. You can't make an eclipse go any faster than the length of time it takes. There's no fast-forward button. It is mesmerizing to watch and I found myself in an almost hypnotic state. I clicked the shutter every few minutes. What I was seeing in the viewfinder was only a hint at the real thing. I told myself that this is one of those times you have to pay more attention to the world around you than the little framed area of the camera's viewfinder.

Once the Earth's shadow had completely engulfed the moon, the red glow intensified and all of a sudden I saw a shooting star. I've only ever seen about two or three shooting stars in my entire life. Usually I am looking in the opposite direction when someone shouts "Shooting star!!!" It seemed particularly magical this morning next to the total eclipse.

I got into my car and turned the heat on. My feet were numb from the cold and I had been standing in the same spot for over an hour now. I put on the seat warmer and selected some music to act as the soundtrack of the eclipse, now seen through the front windshield, a makeshift cinema screen. I settled upon music from the film "Solaris". It seemed quite fitting as it had a surreal feeling to it, much like the red moon above. Another shooting star appeared. How thrilling! This is auspicious, I thought.

After warming up I was outside again trying to take some wide shots for variety. As much as they tried, the photographs could only play second fiddle to the main event. I just had to accept that I couldn't make an uninteresting place interesting this time around.

I was mostly looking forward to the end of the eclipse when the moon would be larger near the horizon. Even just including the horizon itself would perk up the composition. 

By now other cars had arrived and the blinding headlights from those going to and from work were shattering my sense of peace. Thick clouds were moving in rapidly and, before I had a chance to see the light return to the moon, it was swallowed up. I looked around me and there were now clouds everywhere. I got back in my car and waited a while. Someone knocked on my fogged up window. It was the man I spoke to earlier waving goodbye and telling me it was nice to meet me. The other motorists reversed out of my hiding place and soon I was alone again. I looked up into the sky one more time to see if I could catch a final glimpse of the eclipse but it was gone.

Although the photographs I captured were nothing to write home about, the experience had been well worth the trouble. I was glad I had averted my eyes from the camera to the sky and was completely present to the bigger picture. 

Every now and again I have to remind myself that it's not always all about the shot.
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Monday, December 05, 2011

Published 9:25 AM by with 2 comments

Photography, an iPad and and an App Called Snapseed

When the iPad first surfaced, I was mildly curious about it. Mostly it looked like Apple had taken the iPhone design and made it bigger. I wasn't sure what all the fuss was about back in those infant days of digital tablets.

I've been an Apple fan since the mid-eighties. The first real computer I ever laid my eyes on was an Apple. Back then, computers were a novelty, usually only associated with science fiction or in government archival rooms with large machines and spinning tape reels. I have only briefly owned my own Mac but because of work over the years, I have been largely a PC owner.

I'm what's called a power user. Basically that means that I end up utilizing every gadget on my computer whether it be hardware or software. The same can be said of my smartphone usage. I have an iPhone and I have an app for just about every aspect of my daily living.

So recently the opportunity presented itself to buy an iPad because my wife Linda was going to Mexico for a vacation with her family and she didn't want to bring a computer. She still wanted to stay in touch via Facebook and email so we looked at each other and said, let's get an iPad!

By now I had more than a year's experience with my Droid and I was fully versed on the advantages of ultra-portable technology. I had my entire portfolio of photographs and some of my video work on my Droid. If I met someone and they wanted to see examples of my work, I had it right in my pocket. 

I had been reading about all the great photography apps available for the iPad. Of course the size of the screen on the iPad made it actually practical to consider viewing a photography portfolio and even possibly editing some of my shots. I began to crave ownership of an iPad and when Linda suggested it, I squeaked out a fake and casual "sure".

Since her trip to Mexico, Linda has not used the iPad very much not only because it's still not a replacement for her beloved laptop but mainly because I have been hogging it every day. It has now become my main source of information. I can consolidate all the photography sites I love reading into one reader app. I also have another app to stay in touch with local and world events. In fact, the iPad makes it so easy to stay in touch with the news, I feel like I am now more well informed than I have ever been in my life. Hell, I even gave my parents in Ireland a walking tour of our new house using another app: Skype.

The iPad has also greatly impacted my photography. While I used to shoot exclusively in the RAW format on my camera, I am now shooting both RAW and JPEG. This way, when I get home, I import all the JPEGs  onto my iPad and use it like an old-style light box.

I've learned to slow down a little with this tablet. Even writing this blog is taking much more time than it would usually because I'm finger-pecking the iPad's onscreen keypad, kinda like those journalists or authors from the old days with a cigarette hanging out of the side of their mouths and a big typewriter to capture their inspiration. I find my words are a little more considered at this pace.

And this slow pace has transferred to the process of photography for me. Once I import my photographs, I let them simmer a little. It is said that you cannot make your best choices right after a shoot and I think that's true. Oftentimes I find little gems after the fact in photographs I had initially discarded. On my computer I have little patience. I want to process everything quickly and move on. The light box idea on the iPad, however, makes the whole process more enjoyable for me. Now I'm not as quick to delete a photograph. Even if it's not a good shot, I find myself analyzing it more and figuring out how I could have made it better at the moment of capture.

The other day I decided to go visit a few of my favorite haunts to shoot. There was a thick fog that morning and it seemed ideal for getting some moody shots. In general, I find that going out to shoot with no plan can be fun and exciting but it can also lead to disappointment, particularly when I am visiting old familiar places. What I have found to be more lucrative is to set some kind of challenge or goal for myself.

I decided that today my challenge was going to be shooting only in black and white. For me, shooting monochrome makes me look at things in a completely different way. What makes a successful black and white shot is a combination of factors; contrast, texture and a simple uncluttered composition. There are other things too but these are my main criteria. A successful black and white picture, for the most part, cannot be had by simply pushing the black and white conversion button in your program of choice... there's much more too it than that.

Black and white lends itself to abstraction. While color photography can easily capture reality as we mostly see it, black and white captures the mood of a scene. In fact, sometimes a black and white photograph can acquire a life of its own in a monochrome world. Take, for instance the photograph below. I call it "Ghost Train" because the black and white rendering of this scene added an air of eeriness that was not apparent while I was actually there. However, because of my familiarity with this kind of transformation, I anticipated this mood before I clicked the shutter. 

Click photo for larger view
The more experience I have in this genre, the more predictable the results although, having said that, part of the appeal of shooting this way is the magic that sometimes appears when I later develop the photograph.

Click photo for larger view

As I was shooting, another train arrived in the little station of Snoqualmie. The local government has preserved this area to feel like something from the early twentieth century. The stationmaster was dressed up in uniform as he greeted the driver. I knew how I wanted this photograph to look. I wanted a sense of nostalgia so I carefully composed the frame, making sure not to include anything modern, like cars or logos, etc. I am pleased with how it turned out.

Click photo for larger view

Old metal and rust photograph well in black and white so I headed back to the "ghost train" to snag some closeups of the dilapidation. I added texture to enhance the grittiness and vintage appearance.

Click photo for larger view

It's such a different experience out walking and imagining the world without color. Everything is reduced to basic shapes and compositions are not as readily available as when you have color to pick up the slack.

I walked past a white garage and the simplicity of the square door, adjacent gnarly fence and bare tree caught my eye. The black and white rendering of the image gave it a feeling of loneliness and quiet. It made me wonder what lay behind the door...

Click photo for larger view
The detail on the gnarly fence was a natural choice for monochrome. You almost can't go wrong with distressed and worn wood.

Click photo for larger view
By now, my hands were freezing but I wasn't yet ready to put my camera away. Near the train station there is a huge tree trunk on display with some old logging machinery. At one point, you could freely walk about and touch all of these wonders but vandalism in the form of graffiti forced the powers that be to erect a metal rail all the way around. It was diffult to get a decent shot without the bars getting in the way so I opted to shoot what looked like a wagon wheel instead. I'm actually not sure what it is but it had all the ingredients for an interesting black and white shot; texture and form.

Click photo for larger view

Almost done, I noticed some unintentional yard art across the street. A beat up bath tub and some old metal urns? I was in mono heaven!

Click photo for larger view
I had now circled back to my car and, although I could have continued for hours, I had promised Linda that I would spend time today decorating for Christmas and we had planned to purchase a tree so it was time to go. I didn't feel like I missed any opportunities. The shoot felt like a success. I thought I had at least one or two interesting shots.

When I got home I imported everything onto my iPad. Sure enough, there were a couple of interesting shots and a lot of not so interesting shots. But, true to my new, slower method of selecting worthy candidates, I let them sit on my iPad light box and got on with the rest of my day.

When I returned later, I saw everything with a fresh eye and new selections became apparent to me. I wondered just how many other photos I may have overlooked during previous shoots. Perhaps I should revisit my older catalog to take a look.

All the photographs in the blog were processed entirely on the iPad using Snapseed, a wonderful app from Nik Software. Basically it allows you to create professional and creative looks with just a few simple clicks. The interface is so intuitive that, once I got the hang of it, I was creating a polished finish to each photograph in minutes. Who would have thought a simple app could do so much?

This new process facilitated by my iPad has added a breath of fresh air to my photography and has opened my eyes to a new level of "seeing".

Stay tuned for more adventures...

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