Backgrounder 3

Some early images, their stories, their impact on me

These images are from 2008/09 when my portfolio was quite small, partly due to image losses from some unfortunate storage issues, and partly because I had not developed a focus on any genre. Of the images that survived, here are some of the better ones; and some I wouldn’t ordinarily display, but do so here because of their story.

  1. On a very cloudy day, I could hear but couldn’t exactly locate, a woodpecker pecking away with sporadic gusto. Expecting to find the bird in a tree, I kept looking in trees until the sonic evidence directed my attention to a place I didn’t expect: The apex of the next-door neighbor’s roof. The bird was going to town on the wood under the shingles at the crown and doing some serious damage.
Red Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

The lessons here are:
1) to always have a camera nearby, and
2) to expect the unexpected and be prepared to change your preconceived notions.

2. Among my missing or damaged photos is a large portion of a cache from a visit to Longwood Gardens, but a few remain. There was a special orchid display going on at the time, but the displays in the rest of the building were simply amazing given this was winter. The roof is a latticework of beams and the walls had large windows. As the sun moved across the sky, the light/shadow mix would shift as well. These lilies  were just emerging out of the shifting shadow.

Lillies emerging from shadow into light

3. This image is a better example of how the interplay between the roof design and sunlight produced some dramatic images.

4. This single orchid is something I took as a self-training exercise but it has been well received by some “name” photographers who critiqued the shot. Who am I to argue?

5. One winter day I happened to look out my window and saw this hawk capture and consume a grackle. It was fascinating to watch. Of course, I didn’t think to shoot any of it! After it finished, it flew up into this tree to relax and digest for about an hour. I did manage to get a few long-distance shots, including this favorite.

Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter Cooperii)
Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter Cooperii)

6. The timeframe: This was conceived and shot in June of 2009, after the market crash of ’08 and the bottom had fallen out of the housing/mortgage market. Foreclosures were mounting. I had an idea for an image that would exemplify that theme and twist it…just a bit.

I had noticed quite a number of garden snails, and quite a few of their empty shells under some shrubs in the yard. There was also a fair number of garden slugs.

I had a small cardboard box that was white on the outside, regular brown cardboard color on the inside. I could disassemble the box, turn it inside out and reassemble it so the inside was now white. Perfect! Now I had an infinite white background to stage my shot.

I found a nice empty snail shell that cleaned up really well. I set the box on top of some blocks, placed the shell inside. I set up my camera and flash on a tripod, took a few test shots to set up the focus, depth of field, flash settings, and exposure because I would not have time to make adjustments on the fly once the subject was in place. Then I found a clean common garden slug, placed it on top of the shell, and hoped it would move in the direction I wanted (parallel to my set focal plane). It did, probably drawn to the invisible slug bait just out of frame—beer. I took the shot.

Once in editing software, I did some exposure tweaks, added a blue color cast and a bit of ominous corner vignetting. The image looks like a snail is leaving its shell home. Why? The title says it all:                              

Foreclose. A contived and staged image of a snail leaving it shell home.

7. This is not a very good image. The focus is not crisp, and there is color fringing on the edges of the flower. See those hot spots? This is a problem when shooting closeup in full sunlight (there’s a reason why you don’t really want to shoot in unfiltered direct sunlight of mid-day.) This is really a problem when shooting cactus blossoms which have quite gossamer edges that reflect light at an intensity that makes this subject difficult to shoot — even under better conditions (as does the pollen and the central stigma). not having an assistant, I’m sure I was trying lots of things to subdue the hot spots while keeping enough exposure on the bee. I wasn’t that successful in this one as evidenced by the grainy noise you can see in the black of the bee.

But this was an early attempt involving difficult shooting conditions that would vex and annoy me but also challenge me to learn how to do better because I love the combination of both subjects. They will be(e) a common combo in future posts.

8. Shooting stationary bees in cactus in full sun is painfully difficult. But no, I wanted more! Not satisfied shooting stationary tiny animals who do not like to pose or take direction, I decided to try capturing them in flight (Yes, the need for therapy is clearly indicated.) Why? Because of this shot:

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re probably right. The therapist had some choice words, too.

This shot was a total accident, a freak, a happy happenstance of overdue serendipity so that I might maintain my sanity (still debated). I was shooting small insects and some bees that were working the tiny flowers of this holly. I was playing with camera settings and, according to the metadata, did not use flash.

I was focusing on this bee as it was working a flower cluster at about eye level on this cloudy day. The bee began to fly off and rise to the left of this holly. I instinctively attempted to follow the bee with my eye in the viewfinder. Somehow I managed to get it in the frame against the cloudy gray sky and just stabbed the shutter release button. Oh, so many technical no-nos! And yet, when I later looked at the image in my editing software, this is what I had captured. This intrigued me to learn the hows and whys of the shot. This was the kind of shooting I wanted to do.

It would be quite some time until I figured out why, technically, this shot worked. It was a pure-luck image that contained chapters of technical lessons in photography in one frame. It changed my life (I could see the dollar signs in the therapist’s eyes when I uttered those words, as he knew he could now get that new boat, and the kid’s college was paid for).

My mental disorder was so advanced that I decided to try capturing bees in flight in the cactus. The mental health profession was on cloud nine...

9. ...until I got this possible-proof-of-concept/competency shot a little later that year:

It wasn’t perfect, but it made my fever worse. I knew it was possible for me to do what I wanted to do.

10. And then on a foggy September morning, I captured this one:

A bee approaches a Rose of Sharon

Not quite perfect in that all the flash and exposure elements that needed to mesh perfectly are not quite there. For a hand-held shot, full-manual everything, with a tiny acceptable depth of field, this composition is solid (even better after I would crop it later), has good color, and with good wing action. Did you catch the other bee out of focus in the background?

As I closed out the 2009 season, I was thinking about setting challenges for 2010 and beyond.

You can move on to Backgrounder 4.