A target-rich environment

Hello, my name is Rick, and I’m an amateur photographer. I don’t really have aspirations to become a professional, but I do enjoy expanding my skills through practice, reading, and feedback. I tend to be the person at family events holding a camera, trying to not be noticed as I grab candid shots of people in conversation, and kids frolicking about.

Yesterday we had a family picnic after the interment and memorial services for the family matriarch, Lillian. Including myself, there were 45 people, including 10 kids. For a photographer of my skills an interests, this was a target rich environment. These are some of my thoughts on the event and the pictures I took.

The 35 adults came from a number of different family and friend groups–not all were descendants (nor married to descendants) of Lillian. As such, there were a number of interesting conversation groups as people got to know each other. I really enjoy trying to capture these moments of natural conversation. There are several more in the set.

There were also a number of conversations among well established friends and relatives. It’s sometimes hard to find something new to photograph in these situations, since I’ve seen many of them before. I’m very pleased to have captured this moment between Theo and Van. Both normally pose in their own goofy ways when they notice the camera. I guess the camera has finally largely become a part of my face, so they either didn’t notice, or didn’t care.

I also really enjoy capturing kids being kids. Their expressions are fabulous.  It was fun watching them hang out, play baseball, ride a tricycle, and swing on a hammock.

We generally try to get a group picture when lots of family gathers.  This group was bigger than normal, so I was skeptical that we’d be able to get a decent shot in our usual location on the deck. I originally had cloudy sunlight to the back of the camera, which made for diffuse lighting, and I figured it would be nice to be framed in by the trees. Then the sun came out, and the group was larger than anticipated. So, alas, the left of the group was in shade, while the right side was in sun. I was able to adjust it a bit in GIMP to make it less dramatic a difference. I decided that was better than trying to reset everyone in a different location. The other major learning part of this for me is to be patient–we normally do this group shot as an after-thought just as people are trying to leave and kids are wearing out. This time it was still early, and I had plenty of time to arrange folks had I chosen to do so. I did a small amount of that, but I still felt rushed to get the shots taken. Next time I’ll try to pose folks a little bit more so that it looks a bit cleaner and less…well…noisy.

After the full group shot, a number of folks asked me to take some smaller family shots. This was one of the greatest compliments I could have received yesterday. Its not just that they wanted someone to take a picture of them–they wanted me to do it. That’s high praise in deed, so I really wanted to live up to their expectations. As a result, I tried some slightly unique shots, like the one above, taken from a second floor bedroom, or taken from the ground in front of the group. Unfortunately, I had a couple of poorly composed family shots: one where the location of the people in the shot throw it severely off balance, and another where a child is obscured behind plants. I think my greatest sin here was a lack of patience. Had I taken a chance to review the shot (before or after) I would have caught these problems. I would say “lesson learned” but patience (or lack thereof) has been a lifelong shortcoming for me. As a result, I may never be a good portrait photographer, whereas my candids probably will excel because I’m usually ready to take a shot immediately.

Then there’s my favorite accomplishment of the day. Erika and I had been talking for several minutes, and the low sun came out from behind the clouds, lighting her with a warm glow. I also thought there was an interesting moment on the deck behind her, and pulled out my camera, exclaiming “Don’t worry, I’m not shooting you. I’m getting them…” I took one shot of her back ground that didn’t turn out. I changed focus mode and took this shot of her, relaxing in the glow of the sun.

This shot, for me, really captures the possibilities of these family events–beautiful weather, time to relax, or play, or enjoy conversation with family and friends.

Great Blue Heron in our Neighborhood

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting on my back patio, enjoying a beer, when I saw a bird with a massive wing span fly over the park behind my house. I watched for a moment, unaccustomed to seeing such a large bird in my neighborhood, trying to figure out what it was. As it landed on the roof of a house 500 feet from my house, I could tell it was a great blue heron. Unfortunately, it landed on the far side of that house’s roof peak, so I could only glimpse its head twice more  as it bobbed up and down. I told my family what I had seen, and Anne could just see it for a moment from our second floor den.

I decided to grab a camera (and my flip-flops) and try to get some pictures of it. I wasn’t sure what kind of chance I had of getting a shot, but I figured it was worth the short walk. Nathan tagged along, curious, but skeptical.

Nathan: You probably won’t be able to see it.

Me: How do you know that? Isn’t it worth the chance that we will see it?

Nathan: I just think it will already be gone.

Me: It might be, but I definitely won’t see it again if I’m sitting on my butt. Its worth a shot, right?

Nathan: Yeah, I suppose. I just don’t think you’ll find it.

Me: You don’t have to come along, if you’re so sure its gone.

Nathan followed me for about 3 minutes, until we’d looked at the front of the house where the bird had landed, and couldn’t see it. I decided to swing around to the other side of the block, so that I could try to see into the back yard of the house it had landed on. I still couldn’t see it from there, and was heading back home, a little disappointed that I had missed it. I knew it was near by because I could hear other birds chirping their warning calls, but I wasn’t willing to start climbing through back yards without permission.

As I was walking, I saw a man walking to the edge of his back yard with a camera. He saw me with my camera, and with a brief “Do you see it? Can I come into your yard?” I was able to take my first set of shots. A moment later, he flew just a bit out of sight, but was near a yard where I’d seen a lady washing her car.  I took off at a jog to get to her yard, and asked her if I could go in to take some pictures of the heron. She told me that she’d seen it before. I stepped into her yard, and got a few more shots before the heron flew off.

Unfortunately I don’t have a long zoom on my camera, so I’ve had to crop the pictures down a bit to make the heron obvious. In the end though, I’m pleased I got off my butt to go find it.

Helen Levitt

Before today, I had never heard of Helen Levitt. She died yesterday, at 95, and NPR did a wonderful story on her.

The moment in the interview that really caught my attention was when she described how she could take wonderfully candid photographs:

“I had attached to my camera — I had a little device that fit on the Leica camera that they called a winkelsucher, which meant that you could look one way and take the picture the other,” she said. “You could turn your camera sideways.”

That’s what I love most about long zoom lenses–the ability to get a shot without someone knowing, reacting, posing (or smirking uncomfortably). I can’t find an equivalent winkelsucher kind of attachment today.

Another part of the interview that immediately caught my ear:

“It was a very good neighborhood for taking pictures in those days, because that was before television,” she said. “There was a lot happening. And then the older people would sometimes be sitting out on the stoops because of the heat. They didn’t have air conditioning in those days. It was, don’t forget, in the late ’30s. So those neighborhoods were very active.”

I enjoy walking around my neighborhood, but I don’t see many people out. I would argue that TV and garages have been the death of active neighborhoods. When I go to neighborhoods of friends where garages are less prevalent among the older houses, there are always more people ambling along the street than in my neighborhood. These are all middle to upper-middle income folks with multiple TVs (and cable or satellite).

So, although I didn’t have a driveway moment listening to the story (I got home after it was finished), the two memorable parts of the interview prompted me to reserve a couple of her books from the library. I’m looking forward to browsing the images of yesteryear, when kids played in the streets.

Helen Levitt Boys Playing over Doorway
Helen Levitt Boys Playing over Doorway

The Black Rose

Here’s my latest little photographic experiment–subject on black background intentionally. I was inspired by this posting, and by these pictures, to try my own hand at it.

The evolution of this picture starts on Valentines day. No wait, back up a bit. Weeks before Valentines day, I procrastinated planning for Valentines day. Anne and I talked about plans, but I never acted on them. I waited. Several days (maybe 10?) prior to Valentines day I called a restaurant that we had talked about to make reservations. Ah, no. So Sorry, McFly, shoulda called earlier. So my procrastination continued right up to the point that my mom came to watch our son for the evening. We went to one restaurant and were told, no surprise here, that it would be a 2 hour wait. Our next stop, Cuisine of India, told us it would be a 20 minute wait, but it turned out to be more like 5. We had a fabulous meal, a bottle of wine, and it turned out to be an excellent recovery from my earlier bad-husbandry. When they brought the bill, they included a rose. I, of course, presented it to Anne. We returned home, put it in a vase, and the cats immediately started trying to eat it. I put the rose, in the vase, on top of the refrigerator.

Twelve days later, the rose is fading, to say the least. But I thought it would be the perfect first subject to play with a blackened background effect that had inspired me.

The vase is sitting on my dining room table, with darkness all around, except for a flashlight on the rose. The camera was set to automatic, flash disabled. No additional processing.