F-stops and All That

I’ve been wanting to get back into photography for quite awhile, but between work and work and more work I’ve been so creatively drained that’s it’s been a major chore even to finish reading a novel, for crying out loud. Well, no more. I signed up with Shutterstock to do some stock photography work. That was something I considered years ago, but the business model required so much time that I wasn’t able to meet the Big Guys’ specifications (travel, submit hundreds of photos at a time, etc.).

The business model has changed a lot in the last few years, and now there’s something called microstock photography. You don’t have to be a full-time photographer or submit hundreds of images — but of course, you still need to submit good work. By giving myself a “job” I will spend more time with my photography. I haven’t uploaded any images yet as I’m still filling out some paperwork and I need time to go through my portfolio and decide what will make good stock photography. Since I have some background in editorial work I have a bit of an idea what to expect, and I hope that works for me.

Approaching photography with the idea of purposely shooting stock means that I will also spend some time coming up with compositions. I don’t expect to do portraits or events; landscapes, buildings, and things that don’t move are more to my liking. I spent a season at a ski resort in New Hampshire taking photos of skiers and snowboarders, and it was pretty hard to get everyone posed without having them slide down the mountain while I was fiddling around with aperture settings!

So, I’m off to read up about stock photography (and get sidetracked reading about new camera gear and camera bags). I’ll be going to the Maine Astronomy Retreat at the end of July, and I’m hoping to have some more Milky Way photos that maybe I can turn into works of art or at least earn enough to buy myself a cup of coffee. So, I’m off to charge my camera batteries and scout out things around the house that would be interesting subjects for some still life compositions.

Lights, Camera … Subject?

I bought a photography table tent a few weeks ago and a pair of tabletop LED lights to use with it. The lights were very inexpensive so I didn’t expect very much from them, but they produce quite a bit of light and are small and easy to use. The lights came with blue and yellow plastic filters that fit over the light, but let’s face it, I’m never satisfied with just two colors of art supplies! Are you?

So immediately I went looking online to see what else I could find — never mind the fact that I have no immediate use for these things. The filter gels, which is what they’re called, averaged about $12 for a sheet, but my lights are very small and I don’t have a need for a large square filter. I found a Roscolux sample book and ordered that. If I could cut out one of the samples and fit it over my lights, that would be great, but if not then at least I would have actual samples of the gel colors. Then, if I want to buy larger sheets later on, I’ll know what colors to order.

I’ve done traditional photography and darkroom work, so filters are nothing new to me. I still have a collection of Cokin and Tiffin filters that I use occasionally (hey, not everything has to be Photoshop!) but they won’t fit my new lights without being cut down and I don’t want to ruin them. So, here are some photos of my lighting adventure.

Here is the LED lamp. There is a gap between the white bulb and the black lamp housing, which is a bit difficult to see in this photo. The bulb I want to cover with the filter is just over an inch and a half wide. You can see the blue and yellow plastic filters that came with the lamps in the background, and that black ring top right (also shown below) is what screws over the lamp to hold the filters in place.

And this is a close-up of the ring for the housing. I really only need to cover the opening with any new filter or gel that I use, although the lamp housing will accommodate something up to about 2 inches.

Here’s the yellow plastic filter that came with the lamps. It measures about 2 inches across so it’s wider than the opening in the housing ring. I cut one of the Roscolux samples out of the book (actually not the whole piece, but about three-quarters of it) and placed it over the yellow plastic filter to compare sizes. I marked where the gel was too large and cut off the corners (not shown) so it would fit the lamp housing.

Well, it’s close! The red Roscolux sample gel is narrower than the yellow plastic filter, and here’s what it looks like when the lamp housing is assembled with the gel in place. Although the red gel doesn’t entirely fill the space inside the ring, crucially, all of the LEDs are covered. When I tried the lamp, it worked wonders. The white photography tent lit up like some demonic Halloween world, blood red and spooky and very, very bright. And that was with only one colored lamp!

So, it’s possible for me to use my samples for some actual photography, although I’ll need a second sample book to cover both lamps. If I buy larger photo lights I will need to purchase entire gel sheets, but for now, this is fine for experiments. I have my lights, and my camera. But now, I just need a good subject …

Getting the Right Slant

This tree at Great Falls, Virginia, shows great visual texture. The angle of the tree matches the angle of the rock formation across the river.

This tree at Great Falls, Virginia, shows great visual texture. The angle of the tree matches the angle of the rock formation across the river.

I spent an hour or two today fussing with my new light setup, but I haven’t found a good place to put my photo tent yet and I still need to get the wrinkles out of the nylon background fabric. I’ve already ironed it once and frankly that sort of thing just isn’t my cup of tea: one nickname that I’ll never aspire to is “domestic goddess.”

I’m setting up some materials for a post on lighting but that’s for another day. Tonight I sorted through some older photos to see what would be a good inspiration for a blog post.

This tree at Great Falls, Virginia, caught my interest when I visited there a few years back and I was trying to get the texture of the bark and the rocks in the foreground. What I didn’t notice until I was going through the photographs later was that the angle of the tree matches the rocks on the other side of the river.

If you look you can see cracks through the rocks where geological and weathering forces have worked on them. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the tree branch is nearly the exact same angle as the rocks, but it makes for an interesting composition.

This photo was taken while I was on a hike and I hand-held the camera, so the focus isn’t very sharp. The colors in the image are pretty bland, but that’s the way they were in real life, too. And that’s the problem with photos of subjects like this — they tend to be so monochromatic that they might as well be black and white photographs.

And actually this one might be better as a B&W image, so pardon me while I go off to Photoshop and try a few variations to see if I can make this image any more interesting.

So here we are. I’ve made two quick variations on the original image, both using the Topaz Black and White Effects filters, to see how they will change the image. The one on the left is a cyanotype version. It’s very moody but I would like to have more brilliance in the white caps on the water. There’s not enough variation in the tones to make the image really good, but this reminds me of some of the duotone images that I’ve seen in old textbooks and encyclopedias. The image on the right is called eggplant, and it does have a slight purplish overtone. Again, the water is muddy and there aren’t enough bright spots to make the water sparkle.

The original photo isn’t very appealing, despite the interesting lines in the composition, and the two images below could use more work to bring out some highlights. But it’s interesting to see how the color difference changes the feel of the images. The blue one is almost sinister, but the brown one shows off the texture of the wood much better.

Same tree and rocks, but with Topaz B&W Effects Teal Dynamic filter applied.

Same tree and rocks, but with Topaz B&W Effects Teal Dynamic filter applied.

And here it is with the Topaz B&W Effects Eggplant Dynamic filter applied.

And here it is with the Topaz B&W Effects Eggplant Dynamic filter applied and a black border added.

Weird, Wild Winter


This winter has been fairly mild, but if weather can be called bipolar, then that’s what we have. Last week we had temperatures of almost 70 degrees and within two days the temperatures were back down in the 30s, with tremendous wind gusts. Is it summer? Winter? Noooo …. it’s all-seasons-in-one. These meteorological mood swings are hard enough on people, but the spring flowering trees and bulbs don’t know whether to bloom or not, and this wreaks havoc on the cherry blossoms.

Nevertheless, it’s “crocus watch” season here. Sooner or later those cheerful little flowers are going to appear. I never see them coming. I look and look for their green leaves amongst the leaf litter, but I just don’t see it. And then, one day when the sun is out — Presto! It’s a crocus. I swear they pop out of the ground overnight! So, I’ve been keeping an eye out but it’s too early. This lovely purple and white crocus photo is from a few years ago and I’ve doctored it with Topaz Impressions filter and added some texture.

In other photography news, I’ve just bought a light tent and two LED tabletop lamps to do some still-life photography. The tent is much bigger than I thought it would be and frankly, the thing is big enough I could crawl into it. I’ve ironed the nylon backdrops but they’re still a bit creased, so I will deal with that when the time comes. This is where controlling aperture is a good thing — and that’s something phone cameras don’t allow you to do.

I’m assembling other things for the still-life photo shoots, too, such as art papers for backgrounds and an assortment of tools and clips for holding the papers in place. The lamps came with yellow and blue filters, but I’ve also ordered a swatch book of filter gels and hope they can be cut to fit the lamps. Stay tuned for more posts on photography in the near future.