Featured Photo: Beauty Is In the Eye of the Beholder — and Photographer

Ugly Is Beautiful:  Well, I don’t think the wall is ugly.  But that’s the whole point.  Finding beauty in decay, finding interest in things we often overlook.  One of the things I love about photography is that it has made me appreciate the world around me much more than before.

The following photo is of an abandoned building in West Virginia, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.  The paint was peeling off the walls, creating a fantastic texture.

Doctor's wall
A decaying doctor’s office at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia. Some of the doctors had special wings, where their wife and children would stay. Can you imagine being a kid, living and growing up at an insane asylum?

Anybody who reads me blog or looks at my Ken Lee Photography website knows that I love abandoned buildings.  They have stories to tell.  And fantastic photographic opportunities, with its texture, decay, and more.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens

Featured Photo – Focusing On The Eyes, Deer!

Never run away from a pun, I always say.

I’m featuring a photo of a deer today, but as is so often the case, with some information.

Someone looking at a photograph of a person or animal often keys in on the eye.  So as photographers, one thing we can do to create a more captivating image is to focus the camera on the eyes, particularly with portraits.

It’s even effective when photographing deer.

Deer - Northern California

If the eyes of a subject are not sharp, it psychologically takes away from the viewer’s enjoyment of the photo since many of us naturally gravitate toward the eyes, particularly in portraiture.

For a particularly silly example, but hopefully one that still makes its point, here’s another example:

Wooden Deer

A redwood deer, sure, but nonetheless, still focusing on the eyes. 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens showing off its buttery bokeh.

If you are shooting wide open (with large openings of f/1.4 or thereabouts), focus on the closest eye, but still, try and get both eyes on the same plane if you want both eyes in focus.  To control the focus, I will often change the focus points in the camera rather than focusing and recomposing.  And I generally use auto-focus for portraits.

The Window

The Window. This photo of this lovely girl has both eyes in focus, but was taken with a small compact camera, illustrating that you don’t always need to bring your heavier, more expensive camera with you, especially for travel photography.  Brazil, summer 2009, taken with the Leica version of the Panasonic Lumix LX3 (see link below).  The main difference?  The Panasonic is considerably cheaper in price.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens

Featured Photo – Beautiful Bokeh: Best Lens Bargain for a Nikon!

Camera equipment can be quite expensive.  But not always.  There are some fantastic 50mm lens out there for not so much money.  Nikon, for instance, makes a 50mm f/1.8 for somewhere around US$100, and a 50mm f/1.4 for under US$300, lens with large apertures (openings) to let in more light (see links at bottom).

And remember last week when I was showing you photo examples taken with really small apertures (the long exposure shots at Goat Rock Beach)?  You may remember that I mentioned that small apertures keep more elements of the photo in focus, or, in other words, has a large depth of field.

I’m going to show you the opposite of that this week.  If you shoot with the aperture wide open, using large apertures of f/1.4 or f/1.8, *less* elements appear in focus, or, in other words, a shallow depth of field.

Why would you want to do that, you ask?  To accentuate features and have backgrounds (or foregrounds) blur out.  This would be effective for portraits, focusing our attention on the subject and not the background or foreground.

Portraits can be people.  Or reptiles.  We may have friends or family members who qualify as both.

Reptile near 49 Palms

Reptile near 49 Palms.  Since I was using a 50mm lens and not a zoom, I was surprised at how close this guy let me get to him.  This was taken at f/1.8.  You can see how in this photo, our happy prehistoric looking subject is in focus while the foreground and background have this lovely bokeh, or blurred areas due to the shallow depth of field.

Or maybe another use might be taking photos of bottle trees in the desert…you know, the usual things one might use a 50mm prime lens for…

Bottles at Joshua Tree

Bottle tree in Joshua Tree, taken with a 50mm f1/4 prime Nikkor lens, illustrating the shallow depth of field for the lovely readers of this photography blog.

Dengue Fever

Dengue Fever. For those who don’t know this Los Angeles-based band, who combine Cambodian pop-rock with psychedelic rock. They were formed in 2001 by Ethan Holtzman after he visited Cambodia and was inspired to start a band. This was taken with – you guessed it – the 50mm prime, illustrating another fine use…it’s a fast lens. Meaning it lets in lots of light through its large opening.  Meaning it does well in low light situations such as at this concert.

There’s a few other bonuses of a 50mm:

– As I mentioned, they can be quite cheap.  You can get Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 for a hair over US$100.  Not bad.

-They’re prime lens, or, in other words, fixed.  Good and sharp.  Of course, you can’t stand around and use your zoom lens.  You’ll hafta move your feet.

– As mentioned in the Dengue Fever photo caption, the lens is a fast lens.  It lets in lots of light through a larger, wider opening.  Which means that it’s also better in low light situations, where you might need to use a faster shutter speed to capture the action without blurring.  Cool, eh?

– And 50mm primes are small and light, perfect for the photographer on the go.

Flute player

Flute player for the band Dengue Fever, shot wide open at f/1.4. 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens. For this photo, I also shot at 1/100 at ISO 2500, focusing on his eye. I really like the bokeh on his hat and flute, a beautiful sense of depth that this lens is capable of doing.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, 50mm f/1.4 prime Nikkor lens

Featured Quote: Michael Kenna on the Act of Photography Connecting Us To the World

Joshua Tree Star Trails (Ken Lee, night photographer)

Joshua Tree Star Trails.  This is a photo that I (Ken) took in the middle of a warm summer night.  I brought out one of those zero-gravity loungers and looked up at the sky during the entire exposure.  Indeed, as Michael Kenna describes in his quote below, the act of photography does connect us to the world. NIkon D90, 18-200mm VR lens, MC-DC2 remote release cord, and my father’s 1970s Sears metal tripod.

I love this quote and thought I’d share with you.

“Getting photographs is not the most important thing. For me it’s the act of photographing. It’s enlightening, therapeutic and satisfying, because the very process forces me to connect with the world. When you make four-hour exposures in the middle of the night, you inevitably slow down and begin to observe and appreciate more what’s going on around you. In our fast-paced, modern world, it’s a luxury to be able to watch the stars move across the sky.” – Michael Kenna in “Photographer’s Forum Interview” – Winter 2003 by Claire Sykes

Featured Photo: Sonoma Coast – Fun With Long Exposure Photography

Sonoma Coast – Fun With Long Exposure Photography

I just came back from a trip to Sonoma to welcome in Year 2012.  On New Year’s Eve, I took a few of the photos on my trip with a technique called long exposure, keeping the shutter open for long durations.  This technique keeps stationary objects sharp while blurring, smearing, or even obscuring elements that are moving.  In these photos, the moving waves of the Pacific  appear ethereal and otherworldly.

Sonoma Coast

The above photo is a long exposure shot of the rocks at Goat Rock Beach during the setting sun, captured by leaving the shutter open for five seconds to create the otherworldly misty look of the waves pounding the rocks. This is a technique that I used last year at Black Sand Beach near Shelter Cove in the Lost Coast region of Northern California.

Nikon D90, Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens, two Tiffen 0.9 neutral density filters, F/36, 5-second exposure, ISO 200.

Sonoma Coast with Adam and son

This is great fun!  Here, Adam and his son sat still for ten seconds in this unusual photo. The photo is a long exposure in which the shutter is held open for ten seconds, creating the otherworldly ethereal look with the surf in the rocks below.  You can see where Adam’s son checked up on me to see whether we were finished or not, blurring his photo.  Anything that moves will blur, appear as a ghostly image, or in some cases, actually disappear.  If I have my shutter open for several minutes or more, as I do with my night shots in Joshua Tree, I can wander through the frame without it appearing in the finished photo.

Nikon D90, Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens, two Tiffen 0.9 neutral density filters, F/32, 10-second exposure, ISO 200.

Shimmery Pacific Expanse

And in this ten-second long exposure photo, the Pacific is turned into a glowing ethereal expanse, with Adam and his son watching the sun set for the last time in 2011.

Nikon D90, Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens, two Tiffen 0.9 neutral density filters, F/32, 10-second exposure, ISO 200.

I set my camera to have a very small aperture (opening).  This creates a larger depth of field, keeping more elements in the photo in focus.  And also, because the day was still bright, a small aperture allows less light to enter the camera, enabling me to keep the shutter open for longer periods of time without overexposing the shot.

But to allow the shutter to stay open for even longer, I also used two Tiffen neutral density filters.  Neutral density filters are colorless filters that reduce all the colors of light equally, allowing for greater exposure time and additional flexibility.  Two of these stacked together allowed me to keep the shutter open for five to ten seconds, even in relatively bright light.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens, two Tiffen neutral density 0.9 filters, Feisol tripod, Nikon MC-DC2 Remote Trigger Cable.

Photo Tip of the Month: Seriously Cheap Studio Lighting Kit…and Happy New Year!

Stephanie and the Emergency Kits 4 All brochure

Stephanie the Chihuahua of Emergency Kits 4 All wants you to know 1.) that it is possible to buy good studio lighting on a shoestring budget, 2.) these lights don’t make me pant because they don’t give off much heat,  3) that you should have an emergency kit for you, your family, and your beloved pets, and 4.) HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!  This is a raw photo before I color-corrected or did much of anything else, just so I could show you how it comes out.

Seriously Cheap Studio Lighting Kit For Photographers On The Go
Professional photographers who do a lot of work in studios need a professional setup. This can cost a truckload of money. But what about the rest of us who might only occasionally require studio lighting? Was it possible for the photographer on the go to get cheap studio lighting that was light, portable, and durable…something that didn’t suck?

What Was I Looking For?
I’m a WYSIWYG person and don’t need to freeze fast action, so I was looking for continuous lights, not speedlights (although I do have a Nikon SB-600, a good quality speedlight).

I initially considered hot lights, but dismissed them because photofloods were not terribly energy-efficient and require replacing more often, while halogens look great but also aren’t as energy-efficient.  And they both give off a lot of heat, something that wasn’t too fun to think about during the summer when I was considering these.

That left cool lights.  Fluorescents, to be exact.  These gave off less heat, were far more energy efficient, the bulbs lasted a long time and were cheap to replace.  Nice.

Now to find the exact kit. After searching the photography forums, looking at reviews, and other sources, I came across a kit that fit the bill:  theFlashpoint 3 Fluorescent Light Kit from Adorama.  They mimic daylight at 5500 degrees Kelvin. Each 85 watt bulb was the equivalent of 425 watts of light output.  Not bad. They had three lights with seven foot stands that were reported to be solid, one 33″ shoot-through umbrella and one 33″ reflective white umbrella with a black back, and a carrying case.

I assembled everything while watching TV in 30 minutes. I undoubtedly could have done it in less time if I were actively focusing. Assembly is easy, in other words.

The lights were plenty bright. The stands, including the base and the latches for allowing you to extend the stands, seem surprisingly sturdy for a $149 budget kit (note:  the kit now sells for $169 as of this writing, still a great bargain). You can adjust the stands for wider stability if needed. The kit breaks down and packs away in the included bag in a matter of minutes. I put a bit of bubble wrap around the bulbs to make sure they’re well padded. The black bag fit everything with room to spare.

The lights are fluorescent and did not flicker during the 20 minutes I was using them, giving off noticeably less heat than their incandescent counterparts.  I used the lights in the evening, and turned off my regular house lights so I could control the color temperature better. This worked very well, and I was able to get some test shots quickly and effectively without much maneuvering of the lights.

I have since shot three commercial product shoots, and it’s worked really well every time, setting up in minutes, perfect for the photographer on the go, shooting on location.

My friend has a hot light lighting kit that she purchased for about $200.  I used her kit when I was shooting her wedding last year. Her kit came with two lights/stands, two shoot-through umbrellas, and no carrying case.  The lighting kit I purchased had three lights/stands instead of two, gave off more light, ran cooler and “greener”, and had noticeably sturdier stands.  I’d say I got a great bargain.

What I Added To My Portable Photo On The Go Studio Lighting Kit
It was $149 (okay, now $169), so I was beyond happy.  Still, I felt it needed a little bit more.  The cords are rather short.  This was easily remedied.  I threw in a couple of power strips and a few extension cords.

Also, I wanted a black backdrop.  Now, I happen to be a recording engineer, so I have numerous microphone boom stands laying around, so I didn’t need to buy stands.  I never priced them out, but boom stands cost anywhere from $50-100 each. I also went to Home Depot and bought a few clamps for several dollars.  I wanted a black black black backdrop.  Construction paper is awful for this.  It reflects too much of the light back.  I don’t like things that wrinkle, so I dismissed curtains.  Black bedsheets aren’t black enough and are too sheer.  I decided on a large $40 black velour cloth, which soaks up the light quite well, almost as well as velvet.  With not too much hassle, I had my backdrop. If you look at the photo, you can see that it is a good dark black…black black.

I already mentioned that I also threw in some bubble wrap and a couple of towels to protect the kit.  With this and a couple of spare fluorescent bulbs, all is good.  I have a kit that gives provides good flicker-free lighting, sets up easily, and is durable and cheap.

This worked out very well for me.  What are your needs?  What are you looking for in a budget studio lighting kit?

I do not work for or own stock on Adorama, nor am I sleeping with anyone from the company. I just like this product.

The above photo was shot with a Nikon D90 and a 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens.