Ginkgo

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A Literal Metaphor

 

Photo by Xiaolong Wong on Unsplash

It’s a gray, cold winter morning. I open the front door and gale force winds push me back. I try to believe it’s a sign that I shouldn’t go to work today, that Mother Nature needs me to stay home, but even I don’t buy that story.

I turn to lock the door behind me while sideways rain pelts my back. Once the tumblers fall into place, I turn into the wind and face it head on, squinting at the horizon as fog rolls and swirls in the street. This is winter in Northern California. This is what it does. I remind myself that as a Californian I am supposed to be thankful for the rain. I am thankful in an existential way. But I am not thankful, not today.

Holding the handrail with both hands, I make my way down one, two, eight steps to street level. Slow progress, necessary due to the slick wet palm and maple leaves stacked up on each riser.

At the sidewalk I stand up straight again, and realize my car is not where I left it. Sleep addled brain has something to tell me. Wait for it. Oh right, I got home late last night and had to park well down the street. This should be fun.

The best word to describe what I do is trudge. I trudge down the block and find my car where I left it, parked in front of a neighbor’s house. The neighbor with the adorable corgi dog.

Also the neighbor with the small ginkgo tree growing on the berm between the sidewalk and the street. I’ve left my tired and faded black Jeep safely under the branches of this little tree. The wind and rain have assisted in the removal of leaves from branches and deposited them on my car.

The bright sunny yellow ginkgo leaves are a startling contrast to the dark clouds both hovering low in the sky and infused in my mood. I’ll allow that the yellow ginkgo leaves are kind of pretty. This bright pile of nature’s sunny hue against the black paint of my car is a delicious morsel of something joyful in an otherwise dull day.

The leaves are piled high, covering the roof and windshield. I’ve only recently returned from a work trip to a place where it gets really cold. The kind of cold that requires ice scrapers and snow sweepers. I look at the pile of leaves on my windshield and wish I had one of those small snow brooms in my car, but I don’t. And I’m glad that I don’t need one. I hate scraping windows.

I opt for the “drive very fast” methodology of leaf removal. Windshield wipers give me enough space to see out the window to drive and off I go in a bright yellow cloud of beauty, fluttering like butterflies in my rearview mirror.

Most are gone by the first mile, but a few hang on, shellacked to the windows by a sturdy winter wet. Adhered. Stuck.

When I pull into the parking lot at work, there is one particular ginkgo leaf that has become my little buddy. Right there on the left side of the windshield, we became ride or die on the commute. I drove faster and it hung on tighter. I imaged a little leafy “whoo hooo!” when we really got going on the highway.

Now at rest, I pluck the leaf from the glass and gaze at it closely, studying the lines and whorls. I can’t bear to drop it on the ground and walk away, so I don’t. Inside it goes with me. I set the leaf on my work desk and spend all day looking at it, picking it up, examining from every angle. It’s so cute. So pretty. So yellow.

A bit of cheer during another dreary work video conference call. While we pick low hanging fruit and maximize our ROI, I turn the leaf over in my hands just off camera. It makes me smile. A reminder that something beautiful exists.


Photo by the author,©2019 Karen Fayeth

But as the days will do, time passes. The sun goes down, and I pack up and go home, leaving my friend on the desk for the next day. And the next.

Then it’s the holidays and my employer shuts the doors and I slip in a few extra vacation days too. Two weeks away from work and I forget about my ginkgo friend.

When I return to work it’s a sunny day. A new year. A new outlook. The same old me. My personal clouds are a little less dark.

The leaf is still on my desk. The bright yellow has faded to a dull beige. The sides have curled in. The broad leaf is now a tight roll. And yet it is still beautiful in its now gnarled and aged way.

I can’t bear to throw it away, so I don’t.

Not yet.


Photo by the author, ©2020 Karen Fayeth

It is only after writing this true story that I remember Ginkgo leaves turn bright yellow just before they die.

This item first appeared on Medium, find more of my work @karenfayeth over there.

It’s About the Light

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Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

In music, it’s about the beat.

In writing it’s about choice and cadence of words.

In photography, it’s about the light.

“No duh,” you might say, understandably.

No really, it’s about the light.

I think everyone can agree that light hitting the sensor of a camera is how a photograph is born. The beautiful study of how light is captured is what takes an ordinary photograph and makes it something you want to keep looking at.

Lately I have been studying light with more intensity than I ever have before. I will place a subject and look at natural light, overhead florescent, then flashlight on my phone, then a small bright LED panel, a ring flash, a candle, on and on.

The light source used, the angle of the light source, and the intensity of the light all change the outcome, the feel, the meaning of the photo.

Look again at the header photo for this story. I took that photo one week ago today (on 12/12) with an iPhone 8 using the onboard camera app that comes with the phone. I have done no editing of the image, that is straight off the camera. It is the best of the five photos I took at that same time.

I was inspired by the fog lingering in the trees on a rainy day in the Bay Area. I noticed this scene when I stood outside taking a break from work. The time of day was 3:52 pm, which means that the late afternoon winter sun was off to my left making its steady but inevitable descent toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

There is nothing remarkable about the subject, it’s a grove of eucalyptus trees just outside my office door. It’s in portrait mode so I could avoid both the nearby building and industrial pipes on either side of this grove.

The photo is just beautiful, wistful, sentimental. It evokes another time and place, and the reason for that is the light. Golden late day sun muted by thick clouds and fog casts an etherial glow. The play of grays and browns and greens and silver metal all create something worth looking at.

Here is the same shot taken today with broken clouds and sunshine overhead, my angle of focus is a little higher and a little more to the right, and the time is 11:29 am.

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

Same scene, same setting, slightly different framing, different time of day, different weather conditions, far less interesting.

The sky is blown out, the greens are a little too green, there is a loss of definition of the leaves. I would call it a nice snapshot, but little more. Again, no editing was done to this photo which was again taken with an iPhone 8 and the onboard camera app.

It was the fog, and more importantly, the quality of light through that fog, that made the first photo more interesting. More memorable.

I know, I know, this is Photography 101 level thinking, but it’s also something I will spend the rest of my lifetime studying.

LEDs will never be as pretty as old incandescents. Foggy or overcast will always be better than full sun. Natural light almost always preferable to flash.

Those are the guidelines we all know.

But what about shadows? What about selective highlighting? What about using multiple light sources? How about putting a piece of paper or cloth over a light source? What about, what about, what about? Ah, there’s where the experimentation begins.

And from experimentation comes magic. And a whole lot of “what the heck was I thinking?” shots too.

But let’s focus on the magic.

Final note: right after the first photo was taken, I turned around to go back to my desk, mishandled a step, stumbled wildly and dropped my phone where it took a bounce and landed under a raised wooden walkway.

I had to shimmy under the railing to drop down and get my phone, brush the mud off and hike myself back up onto the walkway.

Making art does come at a price. Worth it.

The Serendipity Of Nature Photography

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One little camera. One little bird

 

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

This weekend I found myself at the UC Botanical Garden and marveled again at how rich it is with subjects to photograph. Gorgeous trees and plants, winding walkways, seasonal flowers in bloom, epic views of Strawberry Canyon.

I have taken many photos here and find endless new things to photograph on each visit.

Plants are easy, but photographing wildlife is a bit more difficult. For me, at least.

I know the old adages, one that patience is required in shooting wildlife, another that one should expect to take a lot of shots to get to one good image.

I’ve been shooting long enough to know better. But I’ve also been me long enough to know that patience isn’t always my virtue.

Under the auspices of “the best camera is the one you have with you” I tend to shoot a lot on my iPhone. There is hot debate on the topic in the various photo clubs I belong to. Some of my fellow photographers see iPhoneography as a perfectly acceptable medium and encourage the ease and accessibility of on-the-fly photos.

Others of my peers scoff and say they will never accept iPhone photos as legitimate (really, seriously, in 2019 they say this). In that particular photo club I strip the exif data off of my photos before posting to our monthly theme review. They won’t look at my photos if they know for sure it’s an iPhone photo.

So while I shoot a lot on my iPhone (the header image, for example), I also feel the limitations of the hardware. The light has to be good to get anything worthwhile. The image quality, even in good light, is not always the best. And zoom? Forget it, the pixelation from the software zoom is more than I want to deal with.

About a year ago I decided I wanted a camera that was a little less than my big boy camera and a little more than my iPhone. After some research, many reviews read, and lots of waffling, I finally settled on a Sony Cybershot. It’s cute, fits into my pocket or purse, and has a real optical zoom versus a software zoom.

It’s a neat little camera and does a whole lot more than point-and-shoot devices used to do. In fact it’s scary how good simple pocket cameras have become.

I’m still learning the Sony and it surprises me every time I give it a try.

Like, for example, this photo:

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

I was enchanted by this little bird at the botanical garden. I have no idea what type of bird that is, I’m not that good at identifying species. My husband and I watched it flit from branch to branch, often coming quite close to us. The light was good, but the movement was way too fast for an iPhone. (though my husband used Live Photo and that worked pretty well)

I tried pulling out the Cybershot and fiddled with settings. I found one I hadn’t used before called “reduce motion blur” and gave it a go. I tracked the little bird, zoomed in and quick took a snap expecting very little.

No planning the shot. No endless patience waiting for the bird to turn in the right direction. No one hundred shots to get one good one.

One snap, one photo. Got it.

Because I’m naturally superstitious when shooting, I took another photo. I did so thinking I knew more than I did with the first photo, so I must be able to take a better photo, right?

Truth is, I had much less luck on the second shot (note the bird butt in the top left corner):

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

And with that, I gave up. Yes, I took only two shots and got one worth keeping. How often does that happen? For me, not very often. It was a good reminder lesson in allowing serendipity in my photography.

Maybe knowing a bit more when taking the second shot turned out to be a hindrance? Maybe on the second photo I was trying too hard?

In photography, I can get rigid about the shot I want to make. I have been known to see a shot evolving in real time and then pressing too hard when trying to take the perfect version of it.

I can get obsessive and fire off image after image and come back with nothing worth looking at. In those moments I wanted the photo to be something I was not capable of producing.

Sort of the divine struggle of photography, right? To produce an image that is how you saw it in real time.

What have I learned from this serendipitous nature photography moment?

  1. Right place, right time. Meaning let the image happen the way it wants to evolve.
  2. Don’t press, just let it flow and let it go. If I don’t get the shot I wanted, okay to try again, also okay to move on.
  3. It helps to know your camera. In this case, I tried a new setting, but knew pretty well how to use the features of the camera including zoom, focus and settings.

It is not hyperbole when I say that little bird is among the best wildlife shots I’ve ever taken (the first one, not the bird butt one) in that it comes very close to how I saw that beautiful late afternoon winter sun on the green and yellow and brown botanical garden.

True, wildlife photography isn’t my main focus, and practice would certainly improve my images, but dang if I’m not pleased with that photo of one little bird taken with one little point-and-shoot camera.

Does it have less value since it wasn’t taken with a “real” camera? (scare quotes used on purpose. Isn’t any camera a real camera?) I don’t think so. Others might disagree.

But I like it, and that is what matters the most. Trying to shoot something I think will please someone else is always going to be hard road with no destination.

One of the things I love about photography is that it is both so easy (just get the exposure triangle right!) and so very difficult.


Note: I have done no post processing on any of the photos in this story. I could certainly fiddle with all three of them, but that was less important for me and not quite the point of this story.

Visual Christmas

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How I See the Holidays, in Photographs

 

Photo by the author, ©Karen Fayeth

The holidays offer a fantastic time to work on photography skills as there is so much to see, from winter landscapes to Santa in the mall to glimmering photos of Christmas trees.

I belong to a photo club that establishes a monthly theme to help spur creativity all year ‘round, and December’s theme is “anything holiday.” Since my fellow photographers tend to capture pretty traditional holiday photos, each year I like to work hard to come up with something a bit more unique.

I ask myself, “What is a creative take on the holiday theme?” and see where my mind takes me.

It started with the photo in the header of this story, titled “We Three Kings.” It was shot at dusk in the parking lot where I used to live. The concrete and brick wall paired with the dried pine needles against the colorful ornaments struck the right sort of modern look I’d visualized.

So the next year, I had to up my game. Since I had made those ornaments look so pretty, it was time to clear a corner in the studio and gently apply a hammer.

Photo by the author, ©Karen Fayeth

I’m often asked how I got that photo and I say “I had a lot of fun, and it was a lot of mess to clean up.” The cheapie ornaments I bought didn’t smash as much as splinter, sending tinted glass shards skittering across the floor. It was far longer to cleanup than to set up, but smashing those ornaments was a fantastic holiday stress reliever. (Some friends have told me seeing these broken ornaments increases their stress)

This photo was well received and was hung as part of a gallery show at a local library here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The next year I felt I had said all that I wanted to say about ornaments, and I had to think a bit harder about how to show the holidays in a different way.

Since I love to photograph ordinary objects to show the beauty in the mundane, I turned to my baking drawer and pulled out some cookie cutters.

Photo by the author, ©Karen Fayeth

This photo was taken to satisfy a Flickr group’s theme of “photos by candlelight.” The yellow glow from the flame lit up the copper colored metal of the cookie cutter and produced a very satisfying warm orange glow.

In that same shoot, I also did one in black and white, still using the candle flame. This has more of a German expressionist feel to it. Or a police lineup.

Photo by the author, ©Karen Fayeth

Whereas the star is a warm glow of home, the black and white is more stark. Exploring that dark side of the holiday imagery is a lot of fun.

Last year I decided to go a bit more traditional. With the help of a theme of “stick” from my photoclub to get the gears turning in my creative mind, I looked to my spice shelf and pulled out the cinnamon sticks. I found some glitter ornaments in the box of holiday stuff and had my background.

Photo by the author, ©Karen Fayeth

It took a while to organize the cinnamon sticks in an interesting way, and as I was shooting, I was not sure I’d produced anything interesting. Then going back through the photos, I found this one to be intriguing and now I love it and feel like it perfectly captures the holidays in a new way.

And so here we are again in December and the holiday theme is upon me. Time to put some thought into how I visualize the holiday season for 2019.

Cutting The Line

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What Cutting Mats for my Photos Taught Me About Creativity


Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

While writing is and will always be my first love, it is not my only creative outlet. I am also an avid photographer (I dabble a little with painting too). I have been doing photography for a much shorter time than I have been writing and while I’ve had some success in photography, I am still learning.

I love being at different levels of mastery for each of my creative outlets. They feed off of each other and help me stay motivated overall as an artist.

Recently, I was getting ready for an event where all photographers were to bring a portfolio of ten photographs to be shown and critiqued by a group of professional photographers who, for some reason, let me hang out with them.

This is a formal, annual event and is something I take very seriously. I had carefully curated ten good prints of my photos and needed to cut mat boards to perfectly frame each of the ten photos.

Now, I could have taken the photos to a framing shop and had them cut the mats for me, but my photography mentor is a stickler that a photographer should know how to cut their own mats and do so with a ruler and a blade, no need to use a mat cutting device.

A fifty-year professional photographer, she is very quick and efficient, zip, zip, bam a perfectly measured, perfectly cut mat.

My mat cutting is more like, zip, curse word, zoop, why god why, zap, damn! Did you know that paper has a grain, like wood? And your very sharp blade, if not well-tended, can slip into the grain and wander well off of your carefully measured and drawn pencil line?

Yeah. I’m not so good at cutting mats, but I am getting better.

This year I tried a different approach. One that I hoped would result in less shedding of tears, fewer pieces of ripped up mat board on the floor, and a happier me.

Instead of trying to go faster, to push quickly to complete the essential cuts in the board, I went slower. Much slower, using both deep breathing and intent. I kept my eye on the pencil line and my hand firmly on the blade, I watched the slow progress as I cut, making micro adjustments as needed. I didn’t let up on the pressure to the blade until I hit the end of the pencil line, and stayed focused on finishing each mat and not thinking about how many more I had left to do, just on making the one in front of me the best it could be.

The result? Instead of using up 2 to 3 pieces of mat board to get one good matted photo, I ended up spoiling only three boards total over ten photos.

This is significant.

Which caused me to think about what lessons I could apply from this experiment to the rest of my creative work.

Here’s what I learned:

1. In any creative work, errors will be made. There is a one-hundred percent chance you will make errors if you are doing creative work. Own that and learn to love the serendipity now.

Mistakes are what Bob Ross used to call “happy accidents.” It’s not whether or not you will make a mistake, you will, it’s how you recover from it that makes all the difference.

Fear of making mistakes, or giving up once a mistake is made is the number one obstacle I see limiting my fellow creatives.

2. Don’t let mistakes keep you from creating new work. How are you ever going to get any better if you don’t dive in, make mistakes, and learn what not to do next time?

Doing the work and continuing to create is how you start to make fewer mistakes.

3. Keep the end in mind but don’t make it your only focus. Finishing your project matters, but not at the expense of quality in the progress needed to get there.

Don’t get cocky, don’t take shortcuts, and stay focused at all stages as they each need different attention and they all matter in the finished product. People can tell when an artist takes a shortcut. It shows in the final product and is the difference between good and great work.

Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash

4. Know your tools and know your medium. Being in the flow is so cool and when that creativity flows through you like an electric charge, there can be no better feeling. And there can be no quicker way to kill your flow than having to fiddle with your tools or finding the medium you work in doesn’t respond the way you thought.

Take a little time to experiment, play around a bit before you get serious in order to see what your tools and medium can do before jumping in there with ambitious plans.

5. Be willing to change your approach if something isn’t working. You may see another artist do something (in person, via YouTube, etc.) and wonder why you can’t make it work that way. You might try and try, following the exact instructions and still not get there.

What I am saying is: Don’t give up too soon, but don’t be afraid to make changes in your approach to see if it helps.

And finally…

6. Stay centered. It’s easy as an artistic type to go off on fun flights of fancy. To get in your head thinking “look at me being an artist!” and “where should I post photos of this thing when I’m done?” All of that takes you away from the work in front of you.

Allow yourself that fun dream time after you are done. While in the act of creating, stay in the now and stay purpose-driven in your work.

I know we are all writers here on Medium, so this may not seem like a story about cutting mat boards is for you, but rest assured, this applies to all creative endeavors, no matter the medium or the Medium (see what I did there?) you work in.

 

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