Special Light

It’s a frustrating and rewarding fact of life for photographers: no matter how long you study and practice, no matter how many times you upgrade to better equipment, nothing can substitute for having really great light. And for landscape photographers, great light usually depends on a combination of location, patience, and luck.

We were recently on a 12-day cruise of the Mediterranean, focussed primarily on the Greek Isles. We saw a lot of fascinating places, but unfortunately, we saw most of them under clear skies and mid-day sun, which is good for photojournalism, but doesn’t really make for the best photos. The exception was the second evening of the trip, as we sailed out of Venice at sunset to start across the Adriatic towards Croatia. For about an hour, we were treated to some of the best light I’ve had a chance to shoot in, and some really unusual views of Venice, from the vantage point of our cabin balcony as we cruised between the islands into the lagoon and then out to the open sea.

Here are just a few of my shots from that hour:

All these images are viewable in a large size by right-clicking on the image and then choosing “Open image in a new page.”

You can see some more of my images from Venice, as well as a growing set from the rest of the trip, on my Flickr page. I’m looking forward to my next happy opportunity to shoot again in such a wonderful location with such light.

Winter afternoon on Crow Hill

The winter has been mostly dreary and cold since we returned from our Christmas travels, and I haven’t been doing much photography. But a couple of days ago, we had a touch of passing sunshine, and I decided I’d take a photo walk around the neighborhood with the D800 and my Tamron 17-35mm zoom. Nothing much was catching my eye, even though the walk was about three miles, but when I got home and did some post-processing, I really liked the way this shot came out after a conversion to black and white:

I think this just says that I need to make the effort to get out and shoot more. A good resolution for the new year.

When the storms of life are raging…

The news of the moment in New Jersey, and much of the Northeastern U. S., for that matter, is Hurricane Sandy. We got hit three days ago, and this is definitely the worst storm experience of my lifetime, at least since Hurricane Hazel hit Raleigh, N. C., just after I entered the first grade in 1954 (I think that date is right).

Sandy arrived Monday evening, and, we lost power around 5PM. By 7:30 it was so dark in the house that we decided we might as well go to bed. About an hour later, we were awakened by the sound of crashing glass, and after running around to several rooms, we found that a tree had come crashing through the bay window in our guest bedroom. We spent an hour or so doing some quick picking up of the biggest pieces of glass and rigging an interim replacement for the window pane using plastic sheeting, masking tape, an old bulletin board, and some scrap plywood, and then went to bed again and lay awake several hours as we listened to the roar of the storm and wondered what would be next.

When we woke the next morning, we found no additional damage to the house itself, but discovered we now had no less than five trees across the driveway blocking our exit, and at the foot of the drive an additional tree was blocking the road, even if we could get the car out. And there were at least a dozen additional trees down across our wooded hillside, though fortunately none of them seemed to be causing big immediate problems for us. We went out for a walk on the morning following the storm, and met a neighbor down the road who is a contractor, and was willing to come remove the tree against the house and the ones blocking our drive, so our most pressing needs were met pretty quickly.

These past three days have been an experience in adapting to changing circumstances and learning to be grateful that we got off relatively easily, in spite of the inconvenience of no power, no water, no heat, and of course, no Internet access. We have been blessed by the generosity of our friends Anne, Dan and Laura, who have been hosting us as several-hours-a-day refugees, as they have a whole-house natural gas-powered generator, and still have most of the amenities our house has lost. We’ll lose most of our refrigerated and frozen food, but we can still cook on the gas stovetop, and our gym is now open, with shower facilities and plenty of heat. Compared to so many families in the shore region around us, our losses and troubles are embarrassingly small.

We’re able to get water from our friends and the local fire department, and some of the grocery stores are now open to sell their non-perishable items. When we’re home in the evening, this is our light source:

It gives a romantic atmosphere, but I’m ready to get power back – are you listening, JCP&L? They say we may have as much as a week to go, but I’m hopeful it will be sooner than that.

This morning Anita received an e-mail from our bishop, which started off quoting the words of the hymn “When the Storms of Life are Raging, Stand by Me.” We do feel supported, and we are grateful for the help of our friends and the prayers of so many around the country. I hope we’ll find a way to help someone else as much as we ourselves have been helped.


Sunflower Serendipity

Late August to early October or so is usually sunflower season in New Jersey, and there are often large fields of these huge flowers in the more rural areas of our county. This year, though, I noted with pleasure that one of the local farmers had planted sunflowers in a field normally used for raising sod grass, right on the road into Freehold, just in front of a former glass factory which is now used as a document storage and destruction facility. The owners of the field have planted a mix of sunflowers and various wildflowers, and the overall effect is spectacular.

Since I finally broke down two weeks ago and bought the Nikon D800 that I’ve been lusting after since February, I decided the sunflower field would make a great test subject. So I got myself out of bed before sunrise, and headed over to the field with the new camera with a couple of my lenses, just to see how each would perform on the D800. I was very pleased with the results, given that I don’t yet have enough experience to understand what lens to use when on this new tool, or whether I may yet need to purchase one or more additional new lenses to take full advantage of the 36 megapixel resolution (that’s three times the number of pixels of my D300, or about 80% higher resolution). I’m pretty sure the answer to that last question is “yes.” But since there have been so many Internet posts talking about how the D800 demands absolutely top-rated (i. e., expensive) glass, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well my 7-year old Tamron 17-35mm lens (probably worth about $250 on the used market) performs. Here’s an example from the morning shoot:

For those who care about such things, the image above was shot at f/7.1, 17mm, ISO 100, and 1/6 second, in Nikon’s raw NEF format, developed in Adobe Lightroom 4, and given some final touches in Photoshop 5.1.

I’ve been giving the D800, the Tamron, and a new lightweight “travel” lens (the Nikon 24-85 f/3.5-4.5 VR) a shakedown in Italy for about a week now, and will start posting photos from that series after I return home. But so far, I really love the new camera, and I’m really happy I went ahead and got it in time for this trip. And I’m delighted that I had these sunflowers available as my first subject.

On getting in over your head

Since transitioning most of my web presence to a WordPress blog two years ago, I’ve greatly increased my frequency of posting my photography and calligraphy work, and have found I’ve been enjoying the process more. The blog is much friendlier in terms of being able to add new material quickly than my old website software (I’ve been needing to re-build the main website for years now). But like most things computer-related, when it works it’s great, and when it stops working, you can quickly find that you’re in way over your head.

I suppose I should have known that the easier way to do all this would have been to simply create a blog on a commercial blogging site like wordpress.com, blogspot.com, or blogger.com. But I’m a basically techno-geek kind of person, and I was already paying a hosting service for web space, so I decided I’d install my own copy of WordPress on my web server. That turned out to be a little bit of a stretch for me, but with the aid of information from wordpress.org, I had my blog running within a couple of days.

All was basically fine for almost two years, and without knowing much of anything about WordPress, or php and MySQL (the underlying software technology of WordPress), I was blithely making posts, customizing my blog, adding feature plugins, and updating my software regularly as new versions became available. Then, sometime around last June (I suspect my update to WordPress 3.4.1), I found I was no longer able to create new posts containing any sort of a graphic. For a blog devoted to graphic design, calligraphy, and photography, that’s somewhat of a drawback.

I spent an unbelievable amount of time trying to fix this problem, probably equivalent to several weeks of full-time work by now. I found lots of references on the web to similar problems to what I was seeing, and thousands of sometimes helpful (and mostly not) suggestions of things to try, but nothing seemed to work. Eventually, I discovered a workaround that allowed me to alter the way I created my posts, and continue to post new material, albeit less conveniently.

Then, this past week, I discovered I had also lost the ability to upload new custom-designed headers to the blog pages. This was a major setback from my viewpoint, because the custom headers are the main tool I use to make my blog look different from everyone else’s WordPress blog. Another round of searching the web and trying every suggested solution began.

Finally, about 2 AM today, I reluctantly opened the hood of the MySQL database supporting my blog, and discovered the helpful message “Table ‘wp_postmeta’ is marked as Crashed, and needs to be repaired.” Great. How do I do that? It turns out that the magic solution, strangely enough, was an SQL command called “REPAIR.” How cool is that?

Everything is not completely well yet, and I’ll stop boring you with the details of my ongoing repair work, but I have at least been able to upload my new header graphic, which I’ll also show below, so that it will still be in my post archives once the main header changes:

The sunflower photo above, by the way, was taken with my new Nikon D800. Yes, I finally broke down and bought it – I’ll post a full image from the sunflower shoot later. Now, back to calligraphy, graphics, and photography!

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I guess…I hope…

A new header for spring


Anita had obtained the beautiful rocks on the new header to use as part of last week’s Ash Wednesday service at church, and I thought they were much too nice not to use for something else. Her Valentine’s Day flowers were also dying away, so I decided to use some of their petals on the rocks. The lettering just grew out of doodling “petal” shapes. Anita says she never would have thought I’d use pink in one of my designs – but spring will be here and gone before we know it, and then I’ll think up something new. Yes, I know it’s not officially spring yet. But I’m ready for it.

Winter in Monmouth County


The new winter blog header photo was shot at Monmouth Battlefield State Park after one of our heavy snow storms a couple of years back. This park is the site of George Washington’s final battle against Cornwallis, an event which is re-enacted every year in June with authentic costumes and weaponry, and lots of loud cannons and smoke. In the winter, the park is a favorite spot for sledding and cross-country skiing. The “grraphics” lettering was done with a broad pen, and slightly retouched in Photoshop. It has been reproduced here at approximately the size of the original lettering.

Smiles, Sunshine and Light

Almost all the Christmas cards finally got addressed and taken to the post office yesterday, so I’m ready to post our card online. I’ll share some of the background details of the design process later, but here’s the final result for this year:

Christmas, 2011

I’ve mentioned before that I’m always late in getting my annual Christmas card design done, and that I never get anything done without deadlines. One reason is that I’m always looking for just the right text to express what I’m feeling, or to go with other things that I want to share on the card. Because I was struggling with my feelings this year, I was having a hard time picking the text, until I found this little poem.

According to that highly reliable source, The Internet, these are “words on a church wall in Upwaltham, England,” though my attempts to track them down did not locate any Upwaltham source that acknowledges their existence there. But they still spoke to me, and as soon as I found them, I felt they were the words I needed this year. Anita put her finger on the reason as she wrote our Christmas newsletter to go with the card. She said that my mother had been a person who spread smiles, sunshine, and light all along her path in life, and I knew immediately that she was right.

So after finally finding a text last weekend, I felt ready to design the card, and it came together relatively quickly, at least relative to how such things usually go for me.┬áThe angel on the card (Mom loved angels) is from a photo I took at St. Vitus Cathedral, in Prague, during our visit there in 2009. She was a metal sculpture, hanging suspended in the air; unfortunately, I don’t know who the artist was. I’ll show the original photo in my follow-on post. I extracted her from her surroundings using various Photoshop tools, and turned her into more of a sketch appearance, which I often prefer when combining photography and calligraphy. I created the background night sky and “heavenly light” painting from scratch, and overlaid the photo and my scanned calligraphy, adjusting the blending of the layers to get the overall mood right, preserving the dark of the night sky while bringing out some of the detail of the misty clouds. I re-did the calligraphy a couple of times before I was satisfied with how the image and calligraphy worked together.

I still have a few more cards left to send to calligraphy colleagues. I have hundreds of “Internet friends” in calligraphy through Cyberscribes, as well as calligraphy friends I know much better through intensive workshops we’ve attended together. It’s not feasible to mail physical cards to all of them, of course, so I usually try to pick a dozen or so names not-quite-at-random to share a card by “real” mail. For the rest,sharing the card here and on the Cyberscribes graphics board will have to do. I hope ┬áthis greeting finds you all well, and that you, too, may find and spread smiles, sunshine, and light wherever your path may lead you in the coming year.

Please click on the image above, so that you can see the card closer to actual size.

Changing themes


I’m currently changing my WordPress “theme” to give the blog a slightly different look. For the moment, the header is a default WordPress image; it will be changed to a custom design of my own soon. Of course, they couldn’t design the new theme so that it could use the headers from the old theme :-(