I’m just starting to shoot people shots with my new 85mm portrait lens, and I was practicing this past Sunday by shooting a rehearsal of our Joyful Noise praise band as they prepare for an upcoming concert. The best shot turned out to be this one of Tom, who was wailing away on the harmonica. I decided to process it in black and white, to hopefully give it a little of a “blues club” feel. I tried a couple of versions, but this is my current favorite, done with Photoshop and the Nik Silver Effects Pro plugin.


Shot on the D800 with the 85mm f/1.4g lens at ISO 100, f/1.8, and 1/60 sec., using an SB-800 flash mounted on-camera with mini-softbox. Right-click and choose “Open Image in New Window,” and you can see it at a much larger resolution.

[Aside: I just bought the Nik plug-in suite, as Google has recently acquired Nik, and is selling the software for a bargain price. You can get information here . Note that additional discounts are available.]

If you’re in the area, the concert will be Sunday, April 7, at 4:00 PM, at the First United Methodist Church, Freehold, NJ. We’ll be celebrating the installation of a new sound and video system for the sanctuary.


I’ve been testing a new lens this week (a Nikon 85mm f/1.4g, for those who may care), and this was one of the test shots. Each item has some memories attached to it – my old trumpet that I played in college and for many years afterwards, photos of Mom, Dad, and Grandma R., an Uncle Sam mechanical bank we once gave to Granddad Bourne for Christmas, one of a set of ceramic mariachi musicians Christina brought back to me from Mexico, and a “Lilies of the Field” print we bought from Michael Podesta when we met him at a craft show.

The image was processed in Lightroom 4 with some effects to give it more of an aged photo look.

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.

Merry Christmas 2012

I have probably been designing our Christmas cards for at least 30 years now, and just finished the design, printing and envelope addressing for 2012 (possibly excepting a few last-minute additions to our list).  I usually struggle with picking a text until it becomes clear that I have to make a decision and get on with it. After the devastation of Tropical Storm Sandy (the U S Weather Service apparently has decided it was no longer a hurricane when it hit us), my dominant feeling was simply gratitude – for having come through with no lasting damage or injury, for friends who helped us so much when we were without power, water, and heat, and for our family, who let us know we were cared about. After a lot of searching for a quote that had notes of both gratitude and Christmas, I again found myself up against deadlines, and decided to go with a traditional set of words for the Advent season – Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. These are usually the themes represented by the candles of the Advent wreath. Our adult class at church had been doing an Advent study centered around these themes, with the title “Christmas Gifts That Don’t Break,” so I wove “family” and “friends” into the background of the card design, and Anita and I decided on the inside text of “Wishing you gifts that last.”

Here’s the final design:

 As I usually do, I began the card design by doing the main lettering in black and white. When I first started thinking of the Hope-Joy-Peace-Love theme, I tried a number of different styles and layouts of letters, but none of them were working for me. So I took a break and started reading a recent issue of Letter Arts Review, which had some very fine examples of Blackletter and Fraktur. Seeing those, I knew immediately I wanted to do the words in some form of Blackletter, and for some reason, I knew they would run across the entire bottom of the card. I really had no idea at that point as to what the rest of the design would look like.

Using Blackletter was for me an unusual choice, as I don’t do much of it. I had taken a multiple-day workshop on Blackletter styles with Julian Waters several years back, though, and he’s one of the best in the world at this hand, so I felt reasonably confident that I understood enough about it to make it work if I took the time to dust off some of my cobwebs. I went through probably a dozen or more renditions before I got one that I liked. As I started to close in on getting all the letterforms more or less the way I wanted them, I marked up each draft with corrections and laid a sheet of thin layout bond over it so that I could adjust the next draft to correct the deficiencies of the previous one.

I did the lettering with a large Automatic pen (that’s a brand name, not a description of some magical powers in the way the pen works) and black gouache, which is my favorite writing fluid. In this case, the original letters were more than an inch high. Working large makes it much easier for me to see where I’ve made mistakes, which is important when I’m using a style I’m less comfortable with, and when I finally get the letters right, reducing them in size for the final reproduction makes them appear sharper and smoother than they were actually written.

Here’s a sample of near-final headline letters at close to their original size:

I next quickly wrote a couple of versions of the words “friends” and “family” in my usual Italic style, thinking that I would work them into the piece somehow, but with no specific idea of where they’d be used.

I needed a background, and I didn’t have an idea for an illustration, so I decided I’d just try to invent a texture. Going through my stocks of papers, I came up with a couple of unusual handmade Japanese papers that seemed like they might work. One was a brilliant red with a sort of radiating pattern of ridges and wrinkles, and the second was a translucent white with circular patterns of opaque white dots. I stacked the second paper on top of a sheet of pale green, just to make the white dots stand out more, and scanned the paper designs and the lettering into Photoshop. Once I had them stacked as layers in Photoshop, I decided the red was too brilliant, and would be hard to reproduce in print, so I toned it down with a touch of brown and orange.

After playing around with “family” and “friends” in the layout, I finally decided to bleed both words slightly off the page and orient them diagonally, so that neither was entirely revealed. I also cut back the opacity of these words so that they became only faintly visible – mostly I was using them as additional texture, and I wanted people who noticed them to think a little about what they said, rather than being able to immediately read them.

After I finished the design, Anita suggested that we add a small rhinestone on top of the diamond shape in the “P” of “Peace,” and I thought that touch of sparkle and dimension really added a lot.

The envelopes were addressed in large red letters matching the card color, and coincidentally, I was able to find a Christmas postage stamp that had some of the same red-orange tones in it. Here’s a shot of some of the completed envelopes along with the cards – if you look closely, you’ll see the rhinestones I mentioned above:

 Here’s wishing you all gifts that last this Christmas and throughout 2013!


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.


Home from Italy

We just returned last night from a great two-week trip to Italy with several members of my family, so it’s time to start sharing some of my results with the new D800. For this trip I was using a Nikon 24-85 f/3.5-4.5 VR lens, which I purchased specifically as a “travel” lens, to give me a lighter-weight option compared to other lenses I expect to use on this camera for a lot of my landscape work, and I was anxious to see how it would perform and to begin learning the unique quirks of both the lens and the camera.

I expect I’ll post more images from the trip later, but for today, I’ll just share three. First, from Milan, where we got to explore the terraces of the ornate Duomo:

Technical data: f/4.5, ISO 100, 1/400 sec., and 24mm.

From Rome, inside the Basilica of St. Peter:

Technical data: f/4.5, ISO 1600, 1/30 sec., and 24 mm.

And from Riomaggiore, in the Cinque Terre region:

Technical data: f/7.1, ISO 320, 1/25 sec., and 31mm.

All of the images above were initially developed in Adobe Lightroom 4, and further processed in Photoshop CS5.1.

Just to give a quick comment on the new 24-85 VR lens, which is definitely the weaker link in this camera/ lens combination: I’ve been very impressed with what it can do. The most obvious weaknesses so far are distortion, especially at the extreme wide and telephoto ends of the zoom range, and softness in the edges and corners in some situations. But the lens is quite sharp at most focal lengths, focus distances, and apertures, and the vibration reduction (VR) works very effectively. The distortion is mostly correctable in post-processing, and I’ll eventually be able to do that automatically once I get an appropriate “profile” in place in Lightroom.

As for the camera, I am finding that the files are a joy to work with, in that they can be pushed a lot in post-processing, and I’m loving the results I get. The overall weakest link in my photography gear is me; but hopefully, I’ll improve as I get to know the equipment better. I’m looking forward to doing more shooting from a tripod (I didn’t have one with me in Italy), where I’ll be forced to work a little slower and more carefully than I’ve done with most of my D800 images so far, which have been done 90% with hand-held shooting.

A larger set of images from Italy can be found here .

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…

Doing the Word

Pastor Ramon returned from summer vacation, and this was the scripture text for the sermon, as seen in this week’s callidoodle:

I’m not sure whether the intended interpretation comes through in the drawing above, or even whether it comes across as “Word.” I would appreciate some feedback on that. I do sometimes like illegible calligraphy, but in these little callidoodles, I usually intend for them to be quickly readable. I’m thinking of doing the hands photographically  for a more polished graphic.

I’ll have some more callidoodles to post in the next couple of weeks.

Vacation for plants

My mother’s angel wing begonia, which we brought home after her passing last year, has really been enjoying its summer vacation on our patio. The plant was not in very good shape when we brought it home, but I went on a campaign of feeding, watering and pruning, and this year it has begun to flourish. We moved it from the sunspace to the patio for the summer months, and the extra sun and all the rainy weather seem to agree with it. During the winter I started propagating some cuttings, which are also developing into nice plants, and now all of the begonias are bursting with blooms:

I don’t know if Mom ever had so many blooms on this plant – but I do know that I never visited her when it had more than one or two. I probably need to cut it down some before its vacation is over and we return it to the sunspace, but it’s doing so well now that I hated to disturb it much. I love the delicacy of the blooms, which are so thin that they’re actually a little translucent.

Apparently, the insects love the begonia blooms, too – yesterday I found this little guy hanging out:

I thought of Mom this morning in church as we were singing “Shall We Gather at the River,” and had a hard time continuing to sing for a verse or two. I think she would have enjoyed seeing her begonia in such good shape – we’re certainly enjoying it, and cherish it as a reminder of her.