Tuesday, June 30, 2009

You can't just drive by

Zach Zellmer stays cool by taking his turn down a water slide in Mankato.

There are certain scenes that just beg to be photographed. When you see them, you're compelled to stop and photograph them. It doesn't matter if you're in a hurry or have somewhere else to be, you find the five minutes it takes to pull over and make some pictures. Kids having a water fight is one of them. It's almost like the scene has its own gravitational pull, drawing you in.
I even tried to drive by these boys playing on a water slide in their front yard. It didn't work. I had to go back. So what if I'm a couple of minutes late to my next assignment. This is worth it.
Fortunately for me I made it worth it. The kids, for the most part, let me hang around for a little while without showing off for my benefit (they did try to squirt me twice, though. Water and cameras don't mix well!). They just continued their fun in the water.
And I had a pretty good picture on a warm summer's day.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Always a photographer

Frederick listening to the radio.

My wife's father Frederick died last week. He was only 67. He had struggled with his health for many years. He died June 9, peacefully, surrounded by family. We should all be so lucky.
Frederick and I had a number of things in common, one of which was that we don't like to have our picture taken. Often when I'm at a portrait assignment and the subject is nervous about being photographed, I tell the story about how I hated having my picture taken as a geeky-looking high schooler, so I was always the one to volunteer to pick up the camera. Years later I've turned my dislike for being a subject of pictures into a career in photography. It always seems to put people at ease knowing I dislike having my picture taken as much as they do.
Frederick may not have been a willing subject, but he was a good one. His natural, thoughtful nature made him interesting to photograph, whether he knew I was taking the picture or not. I took the picture at the top one Christmas from the end of our hall as Frederick, a retired United Methodist clergy, was listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on the radio. He rarely missed the annual broadcast from Kings College in Cambridge, England. I think the picture shows Frederick's thoughfulness, intelligence and spirituality.
I take pictures for a living, but I don't just turn off my visual curiosity when I'm sitting around with my family. Sometimes my family may get annoyed with my sometimes-excessive visual curiosity, I feel it's important to document those people and places that are important in our lives. Don't let the opportunity to take pictures of your loved ones pass by, even when they shy away from the camera.

It was hard not to feel a little bit like a bull in a china shop the other day while photographing all those restored Chevys on display at a gathering of the Vintage Chevrolet Club of America.
Typically, I wear two cameras when I'm shooting an event _ one equipped with a wide angle lens and one equipped with a telephoto lens.
The telephoto _ an 80mm-200mm _ has a very prominent lens shade just begging to get banged against something. And if you take a closer look at it, it bears all kinds of scars from door jambs, etc.
I wasn't concerned at all about putting a few more scars on the lens; while I don't abuse them, they are tools designed to be used so we expect some wear-and-tear on equipment.
I was more concerned about inadvertantly dinging the pristine paint that those vintage cars with one of my cameras as I looked for the best angles.
And judging by some of the side-long glances I got from a few car owners, they were just as concerned that a clumsy photographer might mar their pride-and-joys.
And I can't say that I blame them. I know how I feel when I discover a ding left by some careless parking lot miscreant in my wife's Chevy Impala.
And the Chevys we're talking about here raised the bar a whole lot higher than that.
So I took extra pains to be very, very careful _ to the point of taking a camera off my shoulder and putting on the ground while I used the other one.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A cardinal rule of photography, one of the first things I drum into the students attending photojournalism class I have taught at Minnesota State University for the last 29 years is the need to get close to their subjects.
And on that count, I could find all sorts of things to criticize about the attached photograph on the left. Too far away, odd composition, etc.
And like many of my students, I can find all kinds of excuses for not closing the gap. But honestly, there is a reason the peregrine falcons that have taken up residence for the last several years at the nesting site beneath the North Star Bridge that links Mankato and North Mankato via Highway 169.
The only way their nest can be reached is, if one can fly as adroitly as peregrines can, is by air or with the assistance of one of those booms used by MnDOT to inspect bridges.
But the other thing I tell students is that in the end, compositional considerations are trumped by the the significance of the image and the message it brings to viewers.
In this case, peregrine falcon watchers will be glad to know that the Mankato/North Mankato's pair of peregrines for the third time in as many years have successfully hatched offspring.
Peregrines are what many rank as the sports cars of the raptor world. Reaching diving speeds of nearly 200 mph, they knock their prey _ in urban areas that usually means pigeons _ right out of mid-air.
The only way to see the birds beneath the bridge is from the Mankato side and even at that, they are still three spans and probably 300 yards away.
The photograph was made with a 300mm lens with a 1.4X extender attached. That translates to about a 420 mm lens.
And even at that, as illustrated by the uncropped version of the image at right, the chicks still remained very small in the frame.
The camera was a D300 Nikon and the exposure was 1/40 @ f11 at 2000 ISO.
No tripod was used but between trucks rumbling overhead, I braced the camera against a girder to steady it.
That the photograph held together as well as it did when tightly cropped and at such a high ISO is an illustration of how much better digital technology has gotten in the last 8 years.
Still, it's safe to say the photograph won't win any prizes.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Most photographers would agree that rain can make for interesting photographs.
But they also would agree that working in such conditions can be very difficult.
Using an umbrella is out of the question since it takes both hands to use a camera. And a raincoat will keep the photographer dry but is of little value in protecting the equipment.
There is the issue of keeping the lens surfaces clear of moisture, of course. Likewise, just being able to see clearly can be a challenge if one wears glasses as I do.
And while moisture has never been a camera's best friend, this is especially true with modern cameras which are largely electronic.
The cameras we use are Nikon D300s. While they won't survive a fall in a lake, fortunately they are sealed fairly well against the incidental moisture and a few rain drops.
Even with that, I was fairly nervous about their extended exposure to Saturday's wind-driven rain while covering the D-Day battle re-enactment near Le Center.
Not only were my glasses rain-smeared, but the cameras were pretty much drenched as well. While its possible to use specially-made camera rain coats or protection rigged from plastic bags, I generally find them difficult to use.
I tried to minimize my and my cameras exposure by finding shelter beneath one of the several tents on the Traxler Hunting Preserver grounds until showtime.
But once the action started, coincidentally about the same time another heavy rain shower moved through the area, I had no choice but to venture out to take the photographs I needed.
I found that if I stood downwind from _ and close to _ someone who had an umbrella, my lenses would stay reasonably clear enough to make a few quick photographs.
So if anyone out there wondered about the guy with a couple of cameras around his neck who was trying to get too cozy...it was all in the name of journalism.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

It's tournament time! Time to elevate your game!

There's a flurry of high school section and state tournaments going on right now. Almost too many. Track, softball, golf and tennis all have their state tournaments this week, and section tournaments are well under way in baseball. Somehow, though, through all the rushing around to cover all these events, there are opportunities to elevate my game, so to speak.
Often times things can get formulaic in the news business, especially where sports photos are concerned. When you're seeking a specific athlete in a specific event, or you only have 20 minutes to get a good photo from a softball game, it's easy to say a photo works fine and go on to the next assignments. Tournament time is different. The games are more important. The emotion is higher, and there's a little more time built into the schedule to let yourself out of your comfort zone.
While shooting a section track meet Saturday I got the opportunity to shoot track photos for one of our Sunday photo packages in our Valley section. I get more leeway to create a more abstract picture for the photo package than I do when I'm shooting
track to go along with a sports story. Don't get me wrong: I seek creativity in every photo I shoot. But let's face it, I'd get either yelled at or laughed at if I came back with this photo instead of the top one. Both photos tell a story, but the bottom one tells a much different one than the top one. 
I like them both, but they are very different photos for very different situations. Now excuse me, there are a couple of state tournaments I need to shoot.