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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.

Pondering My Existence In Two Languages

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Last night I found myself on the Southwest Waterfront of Washington D.C., right on the Potomac River. The neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying and filled with shops, restaurants, and a music venue.

My coworker, who used to live and work around here, says she remembers when the Wharf wasn’t much of a place to hang out on a Wednesday night. But now it’s welcoming, fast paced, and vibrant.


Like, didn’t George Washington cross the Potomac? Well now I have too.

This just in….ol’ Jorge crossed the Delaware not the Potomac in that mas famoso painting. My bad. Thanks, Google. No thanks ABQ public schools.

So on a beautiful evening after a very long day at work, we headed over to a schmancy so-called designer Mexican place to eat. Now, as a New Mexican, anything called “designer Mexican” gets a hard side-eye from me, but I went along to get along, as they say. Plus, I was hungry.

It was a short walk and we got there early so I looked around, got a couple photos and then noticed this:


How great are those annotations, huh?

To answer a few questions: Those are two different restaurants. I don’t think this was a planned thing. No, they are not owned by the same people. Mi Vida is Mexican, with a “celebrity Chef” (I know, I know), La Vie is a Mediterranean restaurant.

(For a side road, this review of La Vie in the Washington Post worth the read for sheer snark: La Vie on the Wharf is so bad I’m only writing about it as a warning.)

So there I stood on the banks of the Potomac, in a place where I could feel the gentrification galloping by like wild horses, being imposed upon to ponder the nature of life. In two different languages. What course of events brought me to this place where two restaurants, one on top of the other, are called Life and My Life? What message are they trying to send?

Then I laughed. I shook my head. I took a photo.

In the words of the droll host of a favorite podcast:

“That’s so delightfully…stupid.”

My existential crisis didn’t last long. Soon we went to eat, snagging a table up in that balcony section toward the middle of the building. Lovely views. Decent food. Excellent night.

And the basis for a fair to middlin’ blog post, with photos to remind me of it all.

Boom. That’s life, baby.

Apropos of mostly nothing, my favorite rendition of “La Vie en Rose”

Photos ©2019 Karen Fayeth, and subject to the Creative Commons license in the right column of this page.




Dark Days, Bright Ahead

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The holidays are over. Tinsel and paper all swept up and gone. Yesterday the trash men hauled away bones of the Christmas ham.

And Monday, I go back to work. Rather, I drag myself reluctantly back to work.

Here in the heart of winter, there are cold days ahead. And rain. And grim skies to match my grim demeanor.

What’s this, then?


©2019 Karen Fayeth

A tiny blob of bright pink in my yard that I noticed today when returning from the grocery store, where candy canes and festive platters have given way to “healthy selections” and Valentine hearts.

I stepped closer, peered in between the branches to discover…

A single cherry blossom. Ahead of its time, but ready to be kissed by today’s warm California sun. Soon the rest of the tree will follow suit. Soon. But not yet.

And what is that over there?


©2019 Karen Fayeth

A little cocoon, snug in a fur coat, warding off the shiver. A magnolia blossom, in very early stages. What is gray and fuzzy now will soon be creamy pink, fragrant and bold, seemingly overnight. Soon. But not yet.

Oh, and look at that!


©2019 Karen Fayeth


In that one corner of the yard, I’d forgotten the daffodils that grow wild. Their leaves have come on bold and green with the promise of emerging stalks soon carrying butter yellow blooms. Soon. But not yet.

I stop and smile. I remember that December 21st was the shortest day of the year, a milestone that now lies in the past. Even though this weekend promises torrential rain (which the California soil will gladly drink up), gray skies, and gloom, the fact of the matter is that Spring is on its way with rush of color and fresh leaves, activity, joy and warmth.

The sunshine of my favorite season will soon come to push back the gloom and cobwebs in my mind and replace it with tulips and lilacs and California poppies.

I will photograph and paint and pick and sniff all of the riotous wildflowers that California has to offer. I will smile when I see them growing in the unlikeliest of places.

Oh so very soon I will bask in the Spring warmth and smile at the clear skies and feel happy as the sun sets later and later each day.

Soon. But not yet.