Archives for posts with tag: Sigma

I find, much to my regret and humiliation, that I am fairly consistent in my failure to post regularly. I tell myself this is because I’m selective and perfectionistic, and only post when I have something unique and generally interesting to say. I tell myself that, but the truth is I am both lazy and highly distractable. So I’m going to try an experiment that will compel me to post regularly. I will randomly (really, randomly) select one or two orposibly three photos every day from my whole history of photographing stuff (a number of years that I would prefer not to disclose, in the interest of maintaining the bloggerly illusion that I am both young and sprightly) and say just a few pertinent (or impertinent, as the case may be) things about them: where they were taken, what the circumstances were, what–if anything–about them might be interesting to others.

We’ll see how this works. Here we go…

"Eat Cake" in pink script on the side of a white stucco building with an intense blue sky

I’m starting with a bit of a cheat, since this is a pretty recent photo. It was taken at the Sweet & Saucy Shop, a bakery in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach, I was here for a cake-tasting as part of the traditional process involved in selecting a wedding cake. There is, by the way, nothing at all wrong with a cake-tasting: Regardless of anyone’s personal feelings about my right to be legally married (thank you, United States Supreme Court), I think we can all agree that cake is nice (and the cake at Sweet & Saucy is particularly creative and excellent). Anyway, when we arrived the sun on the white stucco was spectacular, and the sentiment of the sign was too good to pass up. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my Nikon with me, so I took this using my phone. The result is still good, even if the photography snob in me discounts it as not a real photograph. (Photo taken with a Samsung Galaxy Siii 12 megapixel smartphone)

Macro photo of a grasshopper near North Pond in Lincoln Park, Chicago

Now this one was also taken fairly recently. It’s obviously a grasshopper, photographed in a pretty outstanding macro. It helped that the grasshopper was on a fence near Lincoln Park’s North Pond in Chicago, and the weather in early October was coolish–which makes for slightly sluggish and therefore more photogenic grasshoppers. Anyway, I’m very proud of the detail in this.  (Photo taken with a Nikon D7000 with a Nikon DX 18-105 lens)

Aerial view of a rock quarry in upstate New York

Finally, just the opposite of a macro: This aerial photo was taken from a United jet somewhere over upstate New York, en route to Boston last July. I travel a fair amount for business, and always get a window seat for just this purpose, as I believe I’ve written about before. The detail here is good, and I like (or rather, don’t like) the juxtaposition of the huge scar in the earth surrounded by dense forest. (Photo taken with a Nikon D90 and a Sigma 70-300 lens)

So there we have it. Next time I do this, I may just do a very short post with one photo, or a long and rambling post with one photo, or more pictures and fewer words, or the other way around. Sometimes I’ll stick to a specific topic,when I have something to say about it. Otherwise I’ll just put up a photo and say a little something about it. I’ll try to keep me guessing, and see where that leads me, in terms of being a better and more committed blogger.

For a wider selection of randomness, visit my online gallery: EButterfield Photography.

This weekend I went for a walk in a local forest preserve with Durrell, and as is usually the case I brought my camera along. One never knows, after all, when one will stumble across something photoworthy out in the big, broad world. Normally, I take a general-purpose lens, like a Sigma 70-300, or Nikon 18-105, because, as I said, you never know what you’re going to see rising up out of the marsh, or startled into flight from the tall grasses. Herons, turtles, the occasional snake or hummingbird: I’m all about the nature stuff. (Oh yeah: click on the images to see them embiggened.)

Red Skimmer dragonfly, up close

This time, though, I thought I’d try an experiment. I brought only one lens, a Sigma DG Macro 105mm 1:2.8. I’d been given this lens as a going-away gift when I resigned my previous job in Chicago before moving to sunny Southern California to take up a glamorous day-job in the nonprofit sector (oh just go read my bio if you care so much), and to pursue an increasing interest in semi-semi-pro photography as I prepare for those latter days that loom increasingly large and darkly ominous in my ever-nearer future.

I grow old…I grow old…I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Little blue flower, up close

Well enough of that; I apologize for the brief lapse into self-pitying literary allusion: it’s the fate of the liberal arts major to become ever more obnoxiously pedantic. There’s a direct relationship, I’ve observed, between the length of time since the MA was awarded and the level of showoffery exhibited by the erstwhile graduate student. Probably a not-so-subconscious desire to cling to the sunny intellectual days at the university coupled with the brain’s tendency to pay more attention to the increasingly distant past the closer to the inevitable end it is (“look at this shiny object over here, hon, and ignore the looming cold presence of inescapable mortality”).

Oh dear; how the hell did I end up on my deathbed? I think we were talking about macro lenses.

Bee on Salt Marsh Fleabane

So I decided this time to limit myself to looking closely at the little world of the forest; to eschew the bigger picture—the herons taking flight, the sun glinting on the algae-greened pond, the path winding through the shadows—and see what I could see when I was limited to peering closely at the leaves, watching for spiderwebs, and really just looking down.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Yikes, someone make me stop.

OK so where were we before we went to Walden? Oh right, the woods, with a macro lens.

Red Skimmer dragonfly on a dry stem

Once I got over the feeling of panic that I couldn’t photograph birds, or use the telephoto to capture dragonflies perched on dry stems by the pond’s edge, I settled in to a lovely and contemplative stroll, punctuated by long pauses to try to focus on vaguely wind-swayed flowers that steadfastly refused to come into focus and stay there while the shutter opened and closed. Durrell is ever-patient with my shenanigans and occasional outbursts, and so makes a perfect travel companion in all possible ways. (It must be pointed out that he, too, spent many long and seemingly interminable interludes with his camera focused on light-and-shadow patterns on the path, so we all have our little interests. I perhaps lack his patience and kind nature, and may possibly have whined and complained a bit about standing around places where there was nothing interesting for me to take pictures of.)

Close up of yellow primrose, with pollen on the stamen

So what did I learn from my foray into the Little World? Patience, in large part, and stealth. I was actually still able to photograph dragonflies with my macro lens, but I had to get much closer to them than I normally would. This involved sslloowwllyy maneuvering myself down rocks on the edges of ponds, shamelessly lying belly-down on the trail, striking alarmingly precarious poses, and generally showing little or no concern for my dignity. I learned to focus my attention more, to walk more quietly than usual (we are, generally, quiet hikers: we talk of course, but use our inside voices, and frequently the topic of our discussion is the unruliness of other peoples’ children, their insistence on beating the bushes with sticks, and their obnoxious screechings that frighten away the wildlife. Of course, complaining about families bringing their children to walk in the woods is perhaps as churlish and cranky as our grumblings about the omnipresence of infant annoyances at the miniature golf courses we occasionally frequent. Being annoyed that there are children at a place that features gaily-colored windmills and garish fiberglass dragons on the putting greens is, admittedly, perhaps not the height of reasonableness.)

red sap oozing from a tree, up clsoe

Flower parts. Busy bees. Oozing sap. A hike with a macro lens becomes less about the woods and more about the trees, as it were. Less about the big picture and more about the interesting beige stripe on the pistils in a white wildflower, or the suddenly visible bits of pollen in a primrose. It’s less about the majesty of a heron rising from the water, and more about the delicate stillness of a dragonfly, and the exposed wing mechanics on its back.

close up of beige-striped pistils

A walk in the woods with a macro lens is a reminder that we live in the little world more than we do in the bigger perspective; that we are tiny, tiny beings on the back of a whirling globe that spins around a star that spins around a galaxy that’s just one of billions of galaxies all hurrying away from each other. The spider in its web, the dragonfly on a leaf are riding that same rock with us, marginally aware of our existence only as large and probably threatening objects. We are the killer asteroid to their Earth, the black hole to their sun, the unknown and unobserved phenomenon. It’s all woven together, but we so rarely look at it. The little world or the bigger one, they’re all the same: repeated patterns and relationships, over and over again; ourselves as part of a patterns that’s at once so much smaller and so vastly bigger than we are. There’s the stuff of immortality; there’s a little joy for the Prufrock in me, and a dose of humility for my inner Thoreau.

Purple Sage plant

Well, at least in the world I live in, they aren’t. The title comes from Gilbert and Sullivan (specifically HMS Pinafore, and a generally nonsensical duet between Buttercup and the Captain, for those of you who are counting), but the sentiment comes from me, and specifically my Nikon, and even more exactly from, well, snails again.

[To interrupt myself for a moment, it’s been a while since I encouraged my reader to visit my photography website, so consider yourself Officially Encouraged. Also, there are in fact photos in this blog entry, there are just a lot of words before you get there. Thanks.]

In the past, I’ve blogged about my obsession with snails and the tiny universe they live in, pretty much oblivious to how very, very important I am (“Up Close and Escargotal“). That led me to wax poetic (putting my random bloviations in the kindest possible light) about humanity’s place in the universe, which is really quite a leap.

Not surprisingly, snails pop up again here, and for that I apologize. Well, I actually don’t apologize, and for two reasons: Reason One, I like snails and this is my blog and so there. Reason Two (and more loftily), just as snails make a remarkably excellent vehicle for the ingestion of yummy garlic butter (partly because eating spoonfuls of garlic butter is generally discouraged, and partly because if you’re going to eat what amounts to spoonfuls of garlic butter, then you should have to at least pay some moral price to offset your wallow in self-indulgent gluttony, and that price is you have to have a mollusk floating in your butter), so too they make—at least in my fevered mind—a remarkably excellent vehicle for making broader generalizations about other things.

(By the way, if you successfully navigated that last sentence then you are a truly unique person of admirable reading skills. Congratulations. On the other hand, if we lost you somewhere in the parenthetical prior to the em-dashed digressive clause, I promise that it gets easier from here on.)

This blog entry is really expanding on the subject of close-ups, and what isolating bits of a subject can do to the nature of the subject, and the viewer’s experience of something completely other than what it is he or she is looking at. It’s not unlike what I’ve observed about taking pictures of the landscape from high in the air (“Abstracted at 30,000 Feet“): At a certain point, whether you’re really up close or really far away, the thing-ness of a thing can disappear altogether into something much more than the limited subject itself. Because I like to make up names for things, we’ll call that phenomenon, that approach, “isolative photography,” because it sounds kinda smart very Serious.

Perhaps I shall write a wordy treatise on it one of these days, making copious use of parentheticals and em dashes and semicolons. And that’ll be way different from what’s been going on here so far.

Anyway, snails don’t entirely fit in to this, because my macro work with the aquarium is really pretty traditional macro work: Thanks to a 105mm 1:2.8 Sigma DG Macro lens, we can now demonstrate conclusively, for anyone who was wondering, that Yes, snails do have teeth:

 Close-up view of a snail

But what that does illustrate is the importance, or at least the coolness, of getting really close to a subject, and finding—as I did here—something not really expected. What I’d expected was a cool close-up of a snail’s face, with all those little tentacles waving around. And what I got, when I looked at the photos, was a big toothy snail-smile. (If you click on the photo, it will loom large, and you can examine the dental characteristics of the common bivalve to your heart’s content.)

More to the point, though, is this:

 close-up view of a recessed weapon on a fighter jet fuselage

What appears at first glance to be a steampunky robotic eye is in fact one of the recessed weapons on the fuselage of an F-86 Sabre jet fighter. But in isolation, only the most nitpicky of aircraft enthusiasts would know that.

When he heard that I’d been to an airplane museum, my father—who is quite the aircraft aficionado—pleaded with me not to send him any pictures of airplanes. (“I really don’t want to see another three-quarters view of a P-51,” he said—because he talks that way—as if I would ever send him such a thing. Others do, though, knowing his interests, so I sympathize.) Of course, it’s highly unlikely that I would take such a picture. Whether or not he wants extreme close-up views of a recessed gun or a propeller on a pretty red airplane or the turbofan on a jet engine or  is another question, but that’s what he gets from me.

Like life, isolative photography is not just about airplanes and snails. Here’s an interesting (well, at least to me) juxtaposition of an aerial “abstract” of the Western United States, and a close up of a similarly-colored rock near Palm Springs, California.

And here are close-up views of carnival glass and a Prius headlight, both of which become much more interesting abstracts in isolation from the rest of the object. A picture of a vase, and a picture of a car, are (at least to me) not very interesting. But in getting close, in isolating parts from the whole, they take on a more uniquely evocative character.

It’s interesting how the view through the viewfinder can show the photographer how the isolated image flattens compared with the dimensional reality of the subject. This photo is a perspective shot of a canvass awning-covered walkway on the campus of the California State University in Long Beach.

At the end of the walkway is an enormous blue corrugated aluminum pyramid (don’t ask) that houses a basketball stadium. Here, though, the image is forcibly flattened in the frame, and becomes more interesting (again, to me at least) than a pleasant location shot showing off a Southern California college campus.

The main thing I’m going on about here, I guess, is that it’s often pieces of things that are more compelling than the things themselves. The fact is that anyone can, these Webbish days, see all the pictures they want of airplanes and cars and vases and landscapes. The whole world seems to be equipped with perfectly functional cameras built into their phones, and millions of people every day blithely take snapshots that do the trick if you’re wondering what something looks like.

The trick is to go beyond the “looks like” and, to go back to the snails again, briefly, find the teeth. Look for the interesting details, the pieces in your viewfinder that become more than a vintage jet fighter and take on an independent character all their own. Get up close to your subjects, and then get closer, and you’ll find new and unexpected—and sometimes better—subjects right in front of you.

I love bokeh. Well, really, who doesn’t? Bokeh is a term derived from the Japanese boke-aji (ボケ味 for those of you who read Japanese), which translates as “blur-quality.” Not to be That Way, but seriously: leave it to a culture that finds serenity and beauty in raked gravel to notice that the out-of-focus is often more lovely than the actual subject of a photo. Partly intentional, largely accidental, bokeh refers to the wildly and often beautifully out-of-focus background effects achieved when one part of a photograph is in focus and the rest is not.

That’s the important part, that first phrase: “partly intentional, largely accidental.” So much of bokeh depends on a fairly precise and unpredictable (at least for me) interaction of lens, focal length, light, weather, and probably the phases of the moon and alignment of the planets that it’s almost magical. It’s an effect that, to me, is like a little extra prize I discover when I first open the photo files. Oh sure, I may have had some idea that the close-up focus of a photo will likely result in interesting background effects, but I, at least, can’t accurately predict it. (If other, more clever, photographers have this whole “creating bokeh” thing down to a science, please don’t tell me; I’m perfectly happy with the “almost magical” thing.)

It’s the unpredictability of bokeh that makes it so appealing, I guess. I can plan and control and manipulate to my heart’s content, but I still can’t do everything. Bokeh is like a lovely little reminder that I do not control the world. (That I need lovely little reminders that I don’t control the world is, I suppose, an issue I should be exploring in more depth, perhaps with professional assistance.) I’ve included some of my favorite examples of bokeh from my photography here, because I can.  This is, after all, my blog. You want your bokeh samples shown, write your own blog about it.

 In any case, the bokeh becomes at least as important as the main subject, providing a flat and abstract background from which the focal subject emerges. Bokeh is a function of light and lenses that transforms an otherwise good image into art. Recently, I’ve been obsessing with the fish in the new little ten-gallon aquarium I put in my kitchen. Earlier, I know I said I’ve been obsessing with the snails, but I’m also obsessing with the fish. (The plants and bubbler seem safe from obsession for now, but I make no guarantees.)

I’ve been using a macro lens, as I’ve also mentioned before: a 105mm 1:2.8 Sigma DG Macro lens, and various manual and pre-set settings on a Nikon D90. For my through-the-glass-and-water aquarium shots, I’ve been using only the camera’s built-in flash, although I’ve also played around with supressing the flash and using only ambient light from the kitchen fluorescents and the little bulb in the aquarium top. The trouble with those shots, of course, is that the exposure times are longer, and the goldfish tend to move around a bit more than the snails do. More rapidly, at least.

So here are two examples of what happens when a macro lens is focused on a goldfish. Remember, we’re interested here not just in the fabulously captured little fishly faces, but in the blurry background as well, and how nicely it all works together.

 Close-up of a calico fantail goldfishclose-up of a calico fantail goldfish

What I really love about these is the way the fish blend into the background, the way their already-colorful bodies become part of a big, abstract, kaleidoscopic flatness. It emphasizes the clarity of the bits that are in focus (their eyes and mouths particularly), and manages at the same time to transcend the banality of “oh that’s blurry” by virtue of the extensiveness and drama of the blur. I suspect that the action of light through the water that’s behind the little fellas, and the motion of the water itself, plus the motion of their fantail fins wafting about all work together to contribute to the overall effect. In any case, it’s not just out of focus; it’s beautiful.

It’s not just macros of goldfish where this can happen. Here are two other examples of what I tend to think is pretty remarkable bokeh. One resulted from the interplay of late afternoon sun and leafy trees (using a Sigma DG 70-300mm lens), the other from focusing close-up on something other than a fish (in this case, molten glass in a glass blowing demonstration at the Orange County Fair, with a Nikon DX 18-105mm.

 ball of molten glass at glass blowing demonstrationShirtless young man walking out of a clearing

I’d love to take credit for it, but the effect took me by surprise when I downloaded these from the Nikon. Oh, wait a moment.

Er, rather, I mean: The bokeh effects were totally planned by me, using expert care and skill, and I could do it again any time. If I felt like it. Really.

I have become obsessed with snails.

As obsessions go, that one’s fairly harmless, but still a bit on the odd side. I added two Golden Mystery Snails (also known as Apple Snails, and in any case the most common petstore snails available in the US) to the small aquarium I’d set up in my kitchen. It currently contains the aforementioned snails, along with three goldfish who were transplanted from an outdoor water feature on my balcony due to some upcoming construction. There are also a number of small brown pest snails that came along for the ride with the plants.

Anyway, so I added the snails, which are between about an inch and an inch and a half long (the female is larger). We selected the two we did because they seemed most active in the pet shop–to the extent that snails can be called “active,” I suppose. As it turns out, their activity was mostly related to pretty incessant mating behavior. And it’s not just recreational: the female deposited two egg clusters on the side of the aquarium just above the water line, each about an inch and a half long. Typical Apple Snail clusters contain between 70 and 200 eggs; but I suspect the goldfish who share the aquarium will assist in preventing a population explosion in the snail community, the circle of life being what it is.

All of this does, in fact, have to do with photography. I’m experiencing a lull in human models, and the demands of my day job are preventing a lot of excursions into the photogenic desert, but the photographic void in my life has been utterly filled with watching the snails, and photographing their goings-on.

To photograph events in the relatively small world of a ten-gallon aquarium, involving even smaller critters, I’ve been playing around with a 105mm 1:2.8 Sigma DG Macro lens, and various manual and pre-set settings on the Nikon D90 (auto and close-up presets, for instance, as well as manual and auto-focus on the lens). I’ve been using and not using a tripod, and using the camera flash, a Nikon Speedlight SB-700 flash attachment, and ambient fluorescent light in the kitchen where the aquarium lives. The some of the results, seen here, are pretty successful, particularly considering that the two of snails were taken through glass and water:

close-up of Apple SnailApple Snails mating

Snail egg cluster

What’s been most interesting about this foray into macro photography is how phenomenally interesting the little world is. The geometry of the egg cluster, for instance, was unexpected and surprisingly (at least in my view) beautiful. All the intricate flowing parts of the snails, the gracefulness of their movements and, well let’s be honest, their voracious sexual appetite, was not really aligned with what I thought of as snail-ness.

It’s been good to pause and look closely at a world that has no idea that I’m here.  That thought gets me all philosophical about the nature of being, and the limits of human understanding even as we sit around thinking we pretty much know it all. There’s a quote attributed to the Buddha, which I love: “Our theories of the eternal are as valuable as are those which a chick which has not broken its way through its shell might form of the outside world.” We think we know everything there is to know at any particular point in time, but subsequent centuries generally demonstrate that we were foolish in our presumptuousness, woefully ignorant in our misunderstandings of science and the world. In the past, the most shining, brilliant minds knew the inarguable truth that the world was flat, that the sun, planets, and fixed stars revolved around in in a series of nested crystaline spheres, or that the world was spontaneously created in six days.

In my aquarium, the snails go about their (photogenic) interests blissfully unaware that they’re in my kitchen, that I’m taking pictures of them, that those pictures are being posted on a website and viewed by (one or two) people all over the world. As history has demonstrated, as the Buddha has said in other ways, as we somehow know, we’re living in our own little aquarium (albeit one whose limits are defined by the Hubble on one end and CERN on the other). We may be equally unclear about what’s going on right around us, and will no doubt be utterly shocked and amazed at the silliness of what we “knew” as we slowly peel away layers of misconception and ignorance, working toward an ultimate understanding that always lies a little beyond our glassy wall. 

Well that was a digression, and I apologize. But one thing’s utterly clear: Snails are cool. 

OK so I admit I’m Bad: Sometimes I do not carry a full array of lenses with me when I go out into the world. Sometimes I just grab the Nikon D-90 and slap on whatever lens seems most appropriate to where I’m going, and make do. I know this makes me a bad example, a poor photographer, and probably should prohibit me from writing any blogs about photography, but who am I to run afoul of the current cultural abhorence of competency. I have a computer, dammit, and that qualifies me to blog about whatever I want to.

So this brings me to what I’m on about today: the wrong lens, and the right photographic opportunity.

Surfer surfing near Huntington Beach, CaliforniaI  set out last Sunday for Huntington Beach Pier, where I expected to take sports-action photos of surfers from the pier, which, because the surfers are actually some distance from the pier, would require the Sigma DG 70-300mm lens. That would  result in photos more or less like the one here.

I’ve actually had very good luck with surfer photos using this lens. While I covet the enormous, bazooka-size telephotos I occasionally see being hauled around by other photographers, this one does the trick well enough, at least until I find myself stringing for Surfer Magazine. They have not yet knocked on my door, however.

Anyway, I digress. The point here is that I went to Huntington Beach prepared for one sort of photography (and even, in my mind, also prepared for some bird photos, for which the lens du jour was also sufficient), but, as sometimes happen, another opportunity presented itself.

At the street end of the pier, we encountered three muscular young men who were preparing for a street performance, loudly busking to rustle up a crowd suitable to the occasion. They were The Flying Tortillas, a group of performers  who proceeded to engage in breakdancing, acrobatics, and tumbling (followed by a spirited passing of plastic buckets and not-so-subtle pleas for financial support). They spun, leaped, and hurled themselves through the air quite impressively. The problem, obviously, is that I was in a small circle of onlookers, no more than five or six feet from the performers, with entirely the wrong lens.

The solution, obviously, was to change how I looked at the Tortillas. Instead of thinking about their performance as whole people hurtling themselves around, I tried to think of them as patterns, or disembodied parts. So I used the zoom as it was intended, and got in close. By not trying to force the whole scene into view (which would have required that I leave my sweet spot at the front of the crowd and go stand twenty feet away, where I would be unable to see the performers at all), I was able to capture some interesting, unique perspectives of what the boys were doing, even from up close. As it happened, I even managed to get acceptable action shots, like this:

street performer upside down in a mid-air somersault

The lesson, then, I guess, is two-fold: One, don’t be lazy by avoiding having the right lens for a variety of unexpected opportunities. Two, if you’re going to be lazy (as I undoubtedly will continue to be, being generally weak-willed by nature), then be flexible in how you use the tools you’ve got. I could have just enjoyed the Tortillas’ show and not bothered with photos, since I had the wrong lens. I could have given up a prime viewing spot to stand back father to accomodate more traditional framings using the lens I had. Or, as it turned out, I could just force the lens I had to accomodate the moment, and be flexible in how I viewed the event. Not having the right tool for the job, it was OK to use the tool I had.

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