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Studies in depth of field

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Sometimes when I haven’t taken any pictures in awhile—like, say, today—I push myself a little harder and find something, even something simple and ordinary, to shoot. It’s a kind of workout, but the only things that get any exercise are my shutter finger and, in the best cases, my mind.

IMG_1359 The nearest thing I could find today was in my front yard. The roses have exploded in color bursts I don’t remember from previous springs. I thought for a minute and figured I could work on depth of field.

IMG_1362Depth of field is a term of art in photography, referring to how much focus is in a picture. If width is the first dimension, and height is the second dimension, depth is the third dimension. But in a two-dimensional medium like photography, that third dimension is an illusion. Shallow depth of field means only a small part of the picture is in focus. It could be the foreground, the mid-ground, or the background. In deep depth of field, all three would be in focus.

IMG_1363There are two ways to monkey with the depth of field. One is mechanical, and the other digital. In the mechanical manner, a bigger lens aperture will make for shallower depth of field, and a smaller aperture will make for deeper depth of field. The digital manner relies on computer software to do the focus trick.

IMG_1364Both methods have their virtues, and both have their drawbacks. For instance, the mechanical method has a more realistic look, but it can take some experimentation with the dials on the camera. Similarly, the software approach can alter depth of field in situations where the camera may have had problems, but it takes some aesthetic skill and a steady hand to mark the parts of the picture that require the software’s attention.

IMG_1368Which did I use this afternoon? A little of both.

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A national park I’d never heard of

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I was somewhere around King City when I first saw the sign for Pinnacles National Park. It struck me as odd that there was a national park in California that I’d not only never been to, but also never heard of. I’ve spent the bulk of my life in California, and much of it since the Golden State granted me a driver’s license at the age of 16 in seeing its many parts. The particular stretch of Highway 101, El Camino Real, that was now inviting me to Pinnacles National Park is one I’ve been on scores of times.

A couple days later, my visit to the Salinas Valley completed, I was overcome by the curiosity of just what these pinnacles were that had been made into a national park.

DSC_0014 They were rock spires, vastly different than the Gabilan Mountains just east of them that separate the Salinas Valley from the San Joaquin Valley. I learned at the Visitor Center that the Pinnacles had been created by seismic activity along the San Andreas Fault. The creation site was actually about 200 miles southeast of where the Pinnacles now stand, near the Antelope Valley in northeastern Los Angeles County. The Pinnacles had been pushed north in the jostling of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates.

DSC_0007It turns out, I also discovered at the Visitor’s Center, that I never knew about this national park because it was just over a year earlier that it had become a national park. The Pinnacles had protected status for over a century before that as a National Monument, having been designated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.

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That morning my curiosity compelled me up a one-lane road east of Soledad was a warm one—over 90 degrees before noon—and I let reason take over. I didn’t have the right shoes for hiking and I also didn’t have any drinking water with me. (The rangers recommended a liter an hour for the two-hour walk through the caves.) I figured I’d have to leave for another day more detailed explorations of Pinnacles. Besides, there was a whole area of the park that wasn’t accessible without leaving the park and driving miles around to get to it.

DSC_0016As I was getting ready to leave, I looked up and saw the circling birds. My first impulse was to think they were some of the California condors that had been released into Pinnacles. The birds were circling at too high an altitude for a rank amateur like me to try to identify the species. Maybe they were hawks, maybe some other birds of prey.

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Or maybe my curiosity had paid really big dividends by giving me a glimpse of ancient beasts in glorious surroundings.

UPDATE (April 15, 2014 1:27pm PT): Due to my editing error, one of the photos in this post was duplicated, and two of the photos weren’t originally included. The photos have been rearranged.

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Into the Valley

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My travels took me deep into the San Joaquin Valley in January. Not the urban San Joaquin Valley of Bakersfield, Fresno, and Modesto, but rather the rural, forgotten San Joaquin Valley of Shafter, Wasco, and Corcoran. These are towns along California Hwy 43 where you see farm-implement dealerships and pick-up trucks. They’re the kind of places where it seems everybody’s hands are at least a little dirty with the soil that grows what America eats.

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These are almond trees just east of Allensworth. In this part of the world, that’s pronounced AAA’-mund (where the “a” sound is like the starting syllable of “apple”). I’ve always been impressed at how perfectly these trees are planted, the rows forming precise lines with a perfect vanishing point. They are, as are so many fruit and nut trees, leafless in winter. Thirty-five ago, when I lived and worked in Fresno and was a relatively frequent visitor to the agricultural world, they’d flood the troughs between the trees to water them. Now, with water in short supply, they’ve switched to irrigation carried by thick black hoses and dripped onto the tree roots.

IMG_1097The railroad is a key component of California agriculture. It’s how many of the crops get to market. It’s what built the San Joaquin Valley into an economic juggernaut a century and a half ago, and what made a handful of men multimillionaires beyond their wildest dreams.

IMG_1098I took almost all of these shots within a few miles of Colonel Allensworth State Park. I was the only visitor at the time I was there, and other than a couple of maintenance people, the only person I saw for about an hour while I was in the area.

IMG_1105The longer I stayed at the rural railroad crossing that evening, the more spectacular my surroundings became. The sunset turned into a symphony of color, a rippled curtain of majesty.

IMG_1106When that happens, about the only thing to do is to keep clicking the shutter.

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Rainy days and Fridays

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I braved southern California’s severe elements today. Those elements amounted to intermittent rain storms that were at times decidedly moderate in intensity. The goal was to snap some pictures with rain drops in them.

IMG_1191Initially, I canvassed the area to see what there was to photograph, but ultimately, I snapped all of these shots within 30 steps of my front door. Can’t beat the convenience. Lots of trees, flowers, and fruit, and hot coffee at the top of the stairs.

IMG_1200My daughter tells me that I’ve been a journalist way too long to see the world in artistic terms. She says I’m limited to a realistic view because of my training and my profession.

To prove her wrong, I ran all of these shots through Photoshop, and then through my new high-end effects program to enhance their artistic nature. I didn’t add anything that the camera didn’t catch, but I did throw a few vignettes on and do a little blurring to keep the focus off the trash cans and on the landscaping.

IMG_1204Dig those rain drops!

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JLOP vs. Downtown LA

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I guess I’m a little burned out on sunsets, so when the call went out for a JLOP gathering yesterday in the middle of the afternoon in downtown Los Angeles, my quest for variety compelled me to go.

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JLOP is the name we’ve given to a loose-knit group of photo enthusiasts who enjoy getting together from time to time to snap some pictures and chat. (I’ve mentioned our gatherings here, here, and here in the past, to link to just a few.) It is not a group, in that it has no leader, no dues, and no rules. If you want to shoot, you show up.

Downtown Los Angeles is an odd area—it’s the city’s civic center without being particularly civic or in the center. In truth it’s a financial and administrative area where a few people live and a few more work. But since I’ve neither lived there nor worked there, it always feels a little foreign to me.

IMG_1116Lately (as in over the last 30 years or so), downtown LA has become a collection of skyscrapers, which are impressive for their size and their defiance of seismic realities. We were hoping they’d have some photogenic qualities as well.

IMG_1132I was particularly drawn on this outing to the reflections. There are now so many buildings with mirror-like windows that, when the angle is right, you can catch two or three buildings in one view. The glass and the light sometimes show up as wavy lines within straight ones.

IMG_1141The Bonaventure Hotel (now known as the Westin Bonaventure) is, I think, one of the oldest of the glass buildings. It’ll be 40 years old soon. I’m sure I have been inside at one time or another, but I can’t tell you when it was. It’s always been about the outside for me.

IMG_1153Behind the Los Angeles Central Library—which I have been inside many times—are a couple of small fountains. They helped to break up the photographic flow for me.

IMG_1166And almost before I knew it, I was focused again on the Bonaventure. We’d crossed around so we were seeing it from a different angle, and the light had changed a little to pick up even more reflections.

IMG_1178I caught one last look as I was driving away from the skyscrapers, across the freeway and back into the world where people live. The lights were just coming on, and I was on the verge of being far enough away that the buildings were becoming an actual skyline. If you wonder where you are, the palm trees put it all into perspective.

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Bull shot

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My daughter Rebecca told me the other day that in the few years she has been snapping pictures, she figures she’s taken a couple of good ones—and one great one.

I happen to have been there when she took the great one. Well, that’s not quite the whole story. I happen to have been the subject of the great one. I’ll show you the shot, and then tell you the story behind it.

bull Last June, Rebecca and I took a three-day road trip. It was going to be one day out, one day there, and one day back. We figured we could make it to Marin County under those constraints.

Tooling around the countryside, we stopped for lunch in Olema, maybe the hippest rural town in the world. It’s about 40 miles west of San Rafael, the seat of Marin County, which is on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. After lunch, we were wandering around, stretching our limbs, and relaxing. Rebecca came to where I was sitting in the shade behind the inn and told me she had found the coolest thing—a pasture with a special set of stairs to get over the fence and a herd of cattle in it—and that we should go take some pictures.

As I followed her to the special stairs that would get us effortlessly over the barbed wire, I asked what I thought was a simple question: “Are they cows, Rebecca, or bulls?”

She said, “They’re cows. They don’t have horns.”

I’m not the world’s greatest expert on bovine anatomy, but it struck me that she’d answered with information that wasn’t relevant. “It’s not the horns that make the difference,” I said. We kept plodding closer to the 50 or so animals in the herd, and it became apparent that at least one of them wasn’t a cow. It was a bull. And it left little doubt that we were unwelcome around the herd.

Rebecca skedaddled. I wasn’t as quick to move. The bull started doing many of the bull-type things I’d only seen in cartoons—pawing the ground, lowering its head, snorting, and probably a few others that I failed to notice because I wasn’t seeing a happy ending to this little pastoral sitcom. I wasn’t sure what to do. Getting gored by a bull wasn’t on my schedule for that day (or any other). I figured I was best staying exactly where I was.

And that’s when Rebecca snapped her “best” shot.

I was preoccupied with the animal in front of me and not paying any attention to the camera. Each time I took a step down the path, the bull took umbrage. Finally, after I reviewed in my mind the limited options, I made a mad dash through the tall grass. I figured the risk of abrasion from a full face-plant in the pasture, or a sprained ankle from hitting a hidden rut, was preferable to doing anything to make the bull tangle with me.

Thankfully, Rebecca chose not to document my egress.

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Silver skin on a golden field

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I’m drawn to sunsets, having dragged my camera—and, by extension, my readers—to a good many of them. But when I set out last Saturday to follow the “golden hour,” I wanted to try my hand at something more than just the setting sun. I found myself at a place called Imperial Hill, on the south side of LAX in El Segundo. Imperial Hill’s great claim to fame among aviation buffs and photographers is that it overlooks the south complex of runways at the airport.

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It was a particularly clear day with an onshore wind of about 25 mph, enough to keep it clear. And the control tower did its job by keeping the planes taking off into the wind.

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And the setting sun did its part as its rays grew diffuse and golden against the aluminum of the planes.

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Aircraft photographers are a distinct subset. They like to call themselves “plane spotters.” Many have a lot of specialized equipment—extra-long lenses, dedicated aviation radios, and some even carry a spotting glass (like ship’s captains from the 18th Century.) Some keep detailed archives of the planes they’ve photographed, their tail numbers, the weather. A few I’ve talked to claim they’ve made money mining their photo archives if a particular plane makes it into the news.

I was more interested in the action photos than in the gear. At one point, I even turned to the other end of the runway, where planes were touching down. The points of light are planes on final approach to LAX, each at a different distance and thus a different altitude.

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I think the high point of my photo session was the “big boy,” a Lufthansa Airbus A340-600 that lumbered down the runway and then crept toward the sun.

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A whole new look around here

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Yup, the blog’s all different.

I know it looks pretty much the same, but its innards are all new. It’s the result of way too many hours of migrating from one form of blog software to another. And yes, there was a point to all this.a_new_look

Among the things you can now do is look at the blog from a mobile device—a phone, a tablet, or anything in between the two—as well as a desktop or a laptop. In other words, the page will show up well on any device you might be using. It will be legible. The pictures will be large enough to see. And there’s a special menu to help you get around, whether you’re on Ios, Android, or Kindle.

Those who have followed my faltering efforts in the past to write computer code and have it work as intended may wonder why the investment of grief and sweat.

Have a look at the stats and I think you’ll start to understand. So far this month, this site has had 131 visits. Of them, 84 (64%) have been from computers, 28 (21%) have been from mobile devices, and 19 (14%) have been from tablets. During the same period a year ago, mobile devices accounted from about 9% of the visits and tablets 7%. In other words, mobile and tablet visits to this site have more than doubled in a year. And there’s every expectation to think the traffic will continue to grow at a rapid pace.

And here’s the best part: you don’t have to do anything different. Just type the same URL, and the site itself will decide (based on the size of the screen you’re using) which version to give you.

Progress!

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What a SoCal New Year’s sunset looks like

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There’s a secret covenant somewhere that when the sun rises on southern California on New Year’s morning, the weather will be glorious. But what about a New Year’s sunset?

IMG_0927 This is the one I found tonight at Playa del Rey, just south of the boat channel to the Marina.

The picture doesn’t tell the whole story. The breeze did have a little nip to it—bringing the temperature down to somewhere in the mid-60s.

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And this, I suppose, is why it’s called “the Golden State.”

IMG_0939Happy New Year!

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The setting sun

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The kid-who’s-almost-not-a-kid-anymore and I raced west last night in hopes of catching the sun drop into the Gulf of Mexico. We made it!

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We were in one of our usual spots—Indian Rocks Beach, straight west of Tampa—and the sunset was glorious, as it so often is in this part of Florida.

IMG_0590The camera was a little cumbersome for Rebecca, since her left arm is in a cast, the result of trying to learn to surf a few weeks ago on Florida’s East Coast. But she figured out a way to maneuver the zoom ring and was all-in for the shoot.

IMG_0598There was a bit of unexpected drama on the sand, as we found ourselves steps from a marriage proposal in progress. It was quite the scene, when just as the sun dipped below the horizon, a glittering ring materialized and the couple kissed. Maybe a hundred people on the beach to watch the sunset broke into applause. Even though no one was close enough to hear the words, we all got the upshot.

IMG_0602I am in Florida to celebrate (a few days early) an important milestone in Rebecca’s life, her 18th birthday. It’s startling for me to realize that next week, she will achieve the “age of majority.” She keeps telling me she doesn’t feel like she’s 18.

IMG_0608I have to keep silent. The only responses I have available are all cliches.

Here’s to adulthood to my little girl.

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