Friday, October 19, 2012

Photographically speaking

One thing I like to do, especially this time of year, is take our camera with me whenever I happen to be walking around somewhere.  It's sometimes a bit of a hassle, given that the body is rather large and conspicuous, but having a camera makes me look at things a little differently.  Carrying a clunky DSLR often causes me to think consciously of different ways to look at the world around me, and think about what objects and designs would make good photographs.  Not that I am a good photographer by any means, and certainly far from it by any objective measurement.  But the secret to becoming a good photographer, like any skill or trade, is simply doing it repeatedly and refining your technique over time.  One thing I am not very good at is finding things that would make for interesting pictures, though, which brings me back to the original point of this post: forcing myself to look for these opportunities.  Rarely will a good scene just appear before my eyes, gift-wrapped and labeled as a Good Picture Opportunity.  Instead, I have found that these times must be sought out and pursued, and even then the picture itself must be evaluated, planned, and composed. Of course there are exceptions to this, and many great photographers have taken many great photographs simply by being in the right place at the right time, but for me this is something that I have to continue to learn and refine by repeated practicing.  Take this photo, for instance:

(click to view full-size)
I was pushing my son in his stroller a week ago, and we were just walking through the neighborhood when I spotted this patch of flower buds next to a mailbox.  It's the kind of thing that, normally, I would have not even noticed and simply passed by.  But because I had my camera with me and was actively seeking photograph opportunities, I decided to park the stroller, sit down on the street, and snap a couple pictures.  I didn't adjust anything in Photoshop, though perhaps I could have cropped it a little, but overall I am pleased with this picture.  I like the shallow depth of field (I think it was taken at f/2.8) and the bits of purple that contrast nicely with the overall green and brown tones.  I also like that the setting discernible but not distracting.  There's a bunch of things wrong with the picture too, and I think I could have found a more interesting angle from which to photograph it, but these are the kinds of things that, hopefully, will continue to improve over time.

A few days later I happened to have my camera on campus with me during a bit of a rain shower.  It wasn't a downpour, but there was enough water to make things interesting and the clouds were creating just enough of an overcast sky to allow for decent picture-taking.  My boss and I were coming in to the building and she casually said "Hey, you should get a picture of the dogwood tree."  She meant the whole tree, but with my 50mm lens there was no way I could have fit the entire thing in frame.  So I went for the opposite approach and decided to try getting just a part of the tree instead:
(click to view full-size)
I have taken other pictures of tree leaves and things like this, but I think the overcast sky and the wet leaves made for a slightly more interesting photo opportunity than what otherwise might have been.  The drips on the leaf bring out the colors, and I like the way the tip is turning brown too.  It's kind of a reminder that time is passing, and even beautiful things like this tree will fade over time.  The curly leaf on the left side of the photo is kind of cool too, and like the previous picture I did not adjust anything in Photoshop though I did crop it just a bit. Originally there was part of a leaf on the right side, which kind of ruined the composition, so I just cropped the picture until it was gone.  This photo could be improved in many ways too, and I'm not throwing it up here to showcase any type of photographic talent or skill.  I just think it's fun to share pictures like this, and I also see myself getting better at this kind of thing over time.

I also enjoy learning more about my camera and lens through photography also, and finding ways to tame the awesome powers of the 50mm lens.  But I also like hearing from other photographers too.  It's my favorite way of learning more about photography and do any of you have tips or tricks to recommend?  Or how about photos to share?  Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Gems in the rough

Last Friday I came home from like usual, to my wife and son were playing in the yard while waiting for me to pull up on my bike.  We continued to let our boy explore nature for a few minutes, and as he played in the grass my wife told me about an estate sale she had seen that afternoon while pushing the stroller around the neighborhood.  We have always been fond of garage/lawn/yard/estate sales, but the latter generally have the highest potential for finding some sweet deals (case in point: the mint-condition shop vac I snagged three years ago at an estate sale for $15).  We decided to hold off on dinner for a little while and take a stroll to the neighbor's house a few blocks down to see if we might strike it lucky at this sale.

Once we got to the sale we found all the usual trappings and flotsam that such things usually entail: clothes, kitchenware, tools, old electronics, and of course a room full of knicknacks.  It was fun to browse around and talk to the son of the owner about the house, which is slated to go up for sale in a few weeks.  Clearly he was fond of the place, but also seemed like they were glad to be selling it and moving into a retirement home.  While browsing through a collection of odds and ends in one of the back rooms, my wife stumbled across a few paintings she really liked, such as this one:

(blurry picture taken on my old cell fone)
She's a big fan of wall art, specifically nature scenes like this, and was delighted to find some paintings in really good shape that we could take home and hang up.  There were a couple dozen paintings like this around the house, all for sale, and while they might not have been Rembrandts they were certainly worth buying for about $20 each.

The second painting we found.

The really cool part, though, was when we got to talking with the mother of the guy from earlier.  Turns out she and her husband were selling the place and decades of their own personal possessions in order to move to an assisted living facility nearby.  The woman, named Virginia, took up painting at a hobby several years ago and created all the works we were seeing throughout the house.  It was an impressive display of artistic talent, and we were thrilled to get to meet the lady who had painted these works of art.  She humbly dismissed virtually all our praise, even suggesting at one point that we might want to whitewash one of the paintings because it wasn't very good, but at least we would get a decent frame out of the purchase.  We told her that such a concept was rubbish, and we were pleased as punch to be able to buy these paintings and put them on our walls at home.  She smiled kindly, and we walked home with two paintings along with a stud finder, a fertilizer spreader, and some fabric.  Yay for estate sales!
Another day, another painting
The next day we went back to see if any of the paintings were still available, and sure enough there was a handful left.  We picked up this winter cabin scene and again passed some time just visiting with Virginia and her other family members who were there to help out with the sale.  Soon we went home with a third painting, thinking about where we might want to put it.  But that's not where things stopped.  On Sunday we went back one last time, and picked up this gem:

Through all this, Virginia was just pleased that people were buying her paintings and happy that we came by with our 15-month-old son to see their sale and visit with her and her family.  Through it all I got the distinct impression that this couple had lived life on their own terms, doing what they wanted and finding ways to be happy despite what circumstances befell them.  Even as they watched their history get tagged and sold and carted out the door, they were happy.  Through our talks we discovered that they were moving to an assisted living facility not out of resignation or poor health, but simply because they wanted to live life on their own terms.  They did not need trinkets or tools or couches or fancy decorations to give their lives purpose and meaning.  Just each other.  I hope when these paintings adorn our walls we will appreciate them, but remember that in the end they too will pass away.  And after all is gone it is the relationships that matter, and not the memories but the people with whom they were created.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

10-Minute Restoration

Even though I'm 32 years old, I'm a big fan of some tried-and-true basics when I need a quick lunch fix. Macaroni and Cheese (Kraft, mind you. Never the off-brand), Spaghetti O's with meatballs (ditto on the name brand), and Campbell's Chunky Soup often find themselves in front of me on my lunch break, often augmented with a pickle, some fruit, or a handful of Tapatio Doritos.  That's good stuff, man, and fifty years from now I'll probably be requesting Spaghetti O's with meatballs when I've got a couple of marbles rolling around upstairs and the nursing home staff has long since given up on trying to get me to eat healthy.  I always make my Macaroni and Cheese in the same pot, too, but last week my wife discovered a bit of a problem when she went to get something in the kitchen:
The horror!  I left the stove on, and all the extra milk and cheesey goodness had been burnt and, I thought, permanently bonded to the pot.  Say it ain't so!  But for a while, it was.  I tried scraping it, washing it, and boiling it while hoping in vain that something would work.  Try as I might, victory escaped my grasp and taunted me each time...until this morning.  As I was staring at the pot wondering how I could resurrect it to its once-storied status I remembered the little bottle of Brasso we had in the cupboard.
For those of you who have never heard of Brasso, it's basically magic in squeezable form. It can clean almost anything, and I can't believe it took me a whole week to think about using it on the pan.  It's kind of like industrial-strength Soft Scrub in that it uses a slurry of microscopic particles and cleaning solvent to remove the dirt from a given surface.  A few minutes into the cleaning process my hands were getting tired but I was seeing some promising results:
3 minutes of scrubbing and all's well thus far.
Lookin' good so far!
I used an old T-shirt that I had in my rag pile out in the garage to do the actual scrubbing, and things went a little smoother when I started going in a circular motion instead of back and forth.  All in all the process took about 10 minutes, and I was left with a pot in mint condition:
Now time to go grab some Spaghetti O's and get my lunch on...