Happy Birthday AGA!

January 31, 2011 at 12:05 pm (Edmonton, Events, Food, Photography) (, , , , , , )

Art Gallery of Alberta anniversary party

On January 30, 2011 the Art Gallery of Alberta celebrated its first anniversary, and held a bit of a party. Hugh and I went down to check it out, and were treated to free coffee and cupcakes with icing in the AGA’s colours. The cupcakes, made by Big City Cupcakes were delicious, though almost unbearably sweet.

Free cupcakes!

We also took in the Matisse exhibit, the first time at our own pace, and a second time as part of a free guided tour. We also saw a very interesting exhibit by Canadian artist Brian Jungen, who created two ‘fossil reconstructions’ using nothing but plastic lawn chairs. Very cool. Also very cool was the fact that the artist allowed photography of his work, which means I was able to get a shot inside the actual exhibit:

Shapeshifter (2000) and Cetology (2002)

Despite the naysaying by all the ‘pothole people’ while the AGA was under construction, and those who decry the building as ‘ugly’ even today, the AGA has had a tremendous first year. More than 111,000 people have come through the doors, compared to 20,000 visitors per year to the old Edmonton Art Gallery which the AGA has replaced. Membership sales are at 5,300 as compared to 1,650 from the year before.

As for the building itself, it is 85,000 square feet, of which 30,000 is dedicated exhibition space. Designed by Randall Stout (former protege of Frank Gehry) and built to LEED standards, the building is a stunning showcase located right in the heart of downtown Edmonton.

AGA architect Randall Stout


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Noir Night with Robyn

November 9, 2010 at 11:02 am (Edmonton, Photography, Strobist) (, , , , , )

I have always liked the light and shadow look of film noir movies. Traditionally these movies are shot in black and white, though this is not strictly necessary (have you seen Chinatown?). Trying to create a film noir look in photography is something I have wanted to do for a while, and after hooking up with Edmonton model Robyn Brown I had my chance.

The noir look requires very hard light. This is difficult (if not impossible) to achieve with a bare, unmodified speedlight, so a little creativity was in order. I am not a rich man, so I figured something DIY would be appropriate. For this shoot I used my SB-600, as well as a borrowed SB-800 speedlight, so I fashioned two snoots out of black posterboard and duct tape. Total cost: about $3 bucks or so. The snoot funnels light through a tube which controls the spread of light, concentrating it in a very small area. Exactly what you need for noir.

Exposure 0.04 sec (1/25) Aperture f/13.0 Focal Length 46 mm Strobist: SB-800 high camera right 1/8@105mm snooted Triggered with CLS

As you can see in the above photo, the snooted speedlight positioned camera-right produces very high contrast lighting, with half her face properly exposed and the other half completely obscured by shadows. A small amount of ambient light serves to add a bit of definition to the rest of the scene.

Noir is not all about lighting however, it is also about mood, style, and story. Inspired by a shot I saw by Joe McNally I decided to see if I could ‘tell a story’ with a single shot. The idea was to convey a ‘damsell in distress’, threatened by an off-camera knife wielding maniac. I am still not completely satisfied with my results, but I think it was a good first effort. See for yourself:

Exposure 0.005 sec (1/200) Aperture f/16.0 Focal Length 19 mm Strobist: SB-800 1/6@105mm high camera left SB-600 1/10@85mm camera right.

I had the SB-800 at camera left to light Robyn, and the SB-600 camera right shooting through an arm holding a knife to cast the shadow on the wall. As you can see, the shadow turned out quite well, though the placement could be better. The lighting on Robyn could certainly be better.

All in all, I learned some new stuff, and as always, had a great time. Many thanks to Robyn for being such a great model, and to Hugh Lee and Rory Mallett for assisting on this shoot.

One more for you:

Exposure 3 Aperture f/16.0 Focal Length 25 mm Strobist: SB-800 camera left 1/4@105mm SB-600 camera right 1/6@85mm through omnibounce Triggered with CLS

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Model Shoot: Nestille

October 30, 2010 at 12:09 pm (Photography, Strobist)

Spent a few hours in the afternoon shooting with the lovely Nestille who was a real trooper for putting up with equipment problems and my inexperience on a not so warm day. She did a fantastic job. This shot is sort of a candid. I don’t think she expected me to take it while she was adjusting her hair, but I think it is pretty cool.

I am still very new at this, and I am fairly pleased with the results, and very grateful for the experience, but the more I learn the more I can see room for improvement. I was sort of run and gun with the lighting. I definitely need to work on more subtlety and adding more drama with the lights. I wish I had less flaky equipment, but I’m not going to blame that. I think I need a mannequin head or something to practice with.

Also thanks to Hugh for once again letting me use the roof of the Goodridge, and for being a most excellent assistant.

Check out the entire set (10 pictures so far, will probably upload more later).

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Getting started with astrophotography

September 8, 2010 at 7:54 pm (Camera Gear, Howto, Photography) (, , , , , , , , )

This almost 27 minute exposure was taken on August 5, 2010, at the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. You can see a single meteor, as well as a jet that flew through the frame. Exposure 1609.9s, Aperture f/2.8, Focal Length 11 mm

Astrophotography, defined in simplest terms, is not much more than pointing your camera at the night sky. Of course as with most things it is not really so simple and the upper reaches of astrophotography can involve specialized equipment that costs thousands of dollars, and specialized settings that can be difficult to access. I’m not really going to get into that though, I just want to present some techniques using common equipment that pretty much anyone with a DSLR and a tripod can go out and try for themselves. Thus, I’ll demonstrate three types of shots: the moon, star trails, and milky way shots.

First of all, we will need to assemble some gear. At a bare minimum you should have:

  • A DLSR camera, or an advanced point-and-shoot that allows you to dial in shutter speeds manually.
  • A decent tripod. Keeping your camera steady is absolutely imperative for star trail and milky way shots.

A few other items that are extremely useful, though not absolutely necessary are:

  • An infrared or cable shutter release. If you don’t have one of these then use your camera’s timer function if available.
  • A flashlight, or other portable lights for focus assist and general navigation in the darkness.
  • Folding chairs…you may want to have a seat while doing a 30 minute star trail exposure.
  • Snacks, beverages, suitable clothing and other ‘creature comforts’ to make your night of shooting as comfortable as possible.

A few words on locations

You may be aware of what light pollution is. Suffice it to say, the more electric light polluting the sky, the less stars you are going to see. For moon pictures this is not so important, but for other shots it is imperative to get as far from ‘civilization’ as possible. Depending on where you live in the world, this may be easier said than done. Those in large cities will have to travel farther than those who live in more rural area. I’ve found that if you don’t have time or resources to plan a trip solely for astrophotography you can use camping as a good opportunity, assuming you head out into the bush to do your camping. Now other than getting as far from the city as possible, the location doesn’t really matter that much, just pick a nice quiet spot a little ways off the road. The head and tail lights of passing traffic can influence your exposure, so you may want to keep that in mind. If you are unsure of where to go in your local area, you may want to see if there is a local astronomy club and ask them where they go for their ‘star parties’.

Part 1: Shooting the moon

Exposure: 0.005 sec (1/200), Aperture: f/5.6, Focal Length: 300 mm

Getting a shot of the moon may be the simplest of the three, as you don’t really need to leave home and head out into the wilderness. The moon is very bright, and it stands to reason that if you can see it, you can photograph it regardless of the light pollution present. At the risk of sounding patronizingly obvious, the moon is very, very far away. That means you will want to use your longest telephoto lens. I have the Nikkor 70-300mm VR, and mounted on a D90 with an APS-C sized sensor that gives me an effective focal length of 450 mm which is still not nearly long enough to fill the frame. Unless you can afford a 600mm telephoto at about $10,000 you will have to make a choice of whether to crop the photo, or leave some context into the photo as I have done with my example shot. If you don’t have a telephoto lens, you can still try with your longest focal length, but even with a crop I think you will be disappointed with the results.

Now it is important to keep in mind that although you are likely shooting at night, the moon’s surface is covered in full daylight. That’s why it’s so bright. You need to consider this when selecting your exposure values. As a starting point you can use the ‘sunny-16’ rule which states that in full sun at f/16 your shutter speed should be the reciprocal of your ISO. Thus: if you are using ISO200 your shutter speed should be set at 1/200th of a second. From this starting point you can use a faster shutter speed and larger aperture and vice-versa as you see fit, or disregard the rule altogether as your artistic sensibilities dictate. I am a very strong believer in the mantra “learn the rules, so you know which rules you can break”. Try a few settings and chimp the shots to see what you’re getting. That is one of the foremost benefits of shooting digital: instant results.

If you are not comfortable dialing in your exposures manually you can also use your DSLR’s spot-metering function. Regular matrix or average metering will not give good results, as the darkened sky will cause your camera to ramp up the exposure leaving you with a spot of nuclear burn-out where the moon should be. Select spot-metering, and place your focus/metering point directly in the middle of the moon and take a reading. At this point you can use your exposure/focus lock button and recompose if you wish. This will ensure a shot where the moon is properly exposed and showing good detail, while the rest of the frame will fall where it may, most certainly coming out very dark if not completely black. That’s really not such a bad place for the night sky to be.

One last thought: I cheated with my example shot, as I didn’t use a tripod. It is hand-held at 1/200th of a second, which is a no-no due to the 450mm EFL. I strongly suggest however, that you do as I say, and not as I do to ensure the sharpest shots possible. This is especially true if you intend to crop the shot.

Part 2: Star trails

Exposure: 1424.6 seconds, Aperture f/2.8, Focal Length: 11 mm

You are probably aware that Earth spins on its axis. This means that if we put a camera in a fixed location relative to the Earth things not on the earth, such as stars, will appear to be moving. When it comes to star-trail photography, this apparent movement can make for quite a dramatic photograph. For this type of shot you absolutely must use a tripod, as you will be making exposures of up to 30 minutes. You should also use an infrared or cable release to ensure the sharpest shots possible. You may want to use your widest lens for this type of shot, however that is of course a judgement call. I like as much sky in frame as possible so I used my Tokina 11-16mm at its widest setting. As for framing, I find that adding something at the bottom or side of the frame relative to the earth adds a lot more interest. I used trees in the example photos, but you can use anything you like, such as a hillside, an old barn, or even a car. As for focus, you will want to set your distance meter to infinity. If you do not have a distance meter on your lens, you can use a flashlight and light up some trees in the distance and use your AF to focus on them, and that should leave the stars in relatively good focus. After you have your focus dialed, change the focus to manual control so the AF doesn’t kick in the next time you hit the shutter release.

As for exposure settings, it is largely personal taste. You need at least 30 seconds to detect any movement in the stars. The longer your exposure, the longer the trails will be. I generally like to expose for 25 to 30 minutes. To get an exposure longer than 30 seconds you will likely have to use ‘Bulb’ mode. On Nikon cameras this requires the ML-L3 wireless remote control, a very useful piece of gear for about $15. For other camera makes, you will have to consult your manual for specifics of enabling bulb mode. As for aperture, that depends on the brightness of the sky. If there is no moonlight present you may want to dial your aperture wide open. If there is a very bright moon you will probably want to stop down a bit or your shot will come out of camera ridiculously bright. Turn your auto-ISO off, and set your ISO to your camera’s lowest possible setting to avoid noise.

Exposure: 1800s (30 minutes), Aperture: f/2.8, Focal Length: 11 mm

You may notice that these example shots have a center point in the sky that the rest of the stars seem to swirl around. That star is Polaris, the star closest to the north magnetic pole. It sits exactly above the axis on which the earth spins, which makes it appear static. If you can locate Polaris then you can use it to effect in your composition. Quite honestly, I have no idea which star has the same effect for our friends in the southern hemisphere. You’ll have to do some research I guess. Also, if you orient your frame 90 degrees or so away from Polaris you can get some neat effects and different lines. This is where experimentation and artistic license come to play. Try all sorts of different things and see what you can get.

Note: rather than doing straight long exposures there is also a method of taking many shorter exposures and stacking them with software. This requires a special cable release and specialized software which I don’t have, so I can’t speak intelligently about it. digital-photography-school.com has an article on the subject you can explore if you like…

Part 3: The Milky Way

This is a simple technique that can afford you some stunning results, however, you do have to ensure there is close to zero light pollution at your chosen location. If you cannot see the Milky Way with your naked eye, you will not be able to photograph it. Basically, you have to set up on a tripod, open your aperture to it’s widest setting and expose for 30 seconds. As I mentioned, any longer than 30 seconds and you will start noticing the movement of the stars which is undesirable in this case. You will also have to crank up your ISO. If you leave it at a low setting you will be left with a decent shot of the brightest stars, but you won’t get the full milky way effect. This will of course introduce noise. That said, a bunch of points of light, ie: the stars will hide the noise well, so it isn’t as annoying as it may be in other types of shots. You may want to just frame open sky for this type of shot. You can see in my example that the noise is most noticeable at the bottom of the frame in the tree line.

Exposure: 30s, Aperture: f/2.8, Focal Length: 11 mm, ISO: 1600

More resources

As I mentioned, these three types of shots just scratch the surface of astrophotography, and are relatively easy to capture with common equipment. If you are already a keen astronomer, you will almost certainly want to look into an adapter so you can attach your camera to a telescope. Jerry Lodriguss has put together a great bit of information and further links on his Introduction to Digital Astrophotography page if you want to explore further. Have fun!

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A Few Thoughts on Photo Licensing and Creative Commons

August 11, 2010 at 11:26 am (Linux, Photography) (, , )

You may or may not have noticed that I license my photographs fairly permissively. For all but shots of humans for whom I have no model release I use the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, and I would like like to talk about my experiences with that for a bit today. Now, before I was into photography, I was hardcore into computers, and to an extent I still am. Years ago I discovered open source software such as the Linux operating system, Firefox (then Mozilla) web browser, and many others. I discovered a community of computer geeks who were disenchanted with the typical commercial offerings and decided to write their own software that performed the way they wanted it to, and rather than locking it down, they released it to the world so anybody else with the time and ability could enhance it and make it better, and once again continue the chain by sharing their enhancements.

It rather reminded me of kindergarten, where we were taught that if you had two apples you should share one. If you had a bag of candy, you should let each member of the class have a taste. We were taught that this was the proper thing to do. So why have people strayed so far from these basic principles of sharing your assets if you have an abundance of them? Why is it now considered more correct to hoard your abundance and charge as much money as you can for it?

Ah, perhaps that’s a question for another day, I’m straying rather far from my point now anyway…

Back to Creative Commons. The crux of the license focuses on two points, the first is that the author of the work must be attributed. This stands to reason, everyone deserves credit for their work whether they sell it or give it away free. The second is the so-called ‘share alike’, that is, if you take an existing work and change, enhance, remix, or just plain make it better, you must release your enhancements under the same or a similar license. For a person like me, this just makes good sense. It fosters a community of support, mutual benefit, and produces a pool of work available for anyone to enjoy and use no matter what their personal means may be. It just feels right to me.

Now, a lot of photographers seem to hoard their work like coal barons, clutching it to their chests and allowing people but a brief look at it. They only allow you to view a very small resolution version, often so small you can’t even tell if the work is good or not. They put watermarks on it which detract from the quality and impact of the work. They use digital hacks such as disabling right-clicks so no one can download the work. I posit that these artificial barriers do little more than lower the value of your work, and keep honest people (and potential customers) from evaluating it properly. It is, as the saying goes, defective by design. Crippled on purpose. Why would you want to cripple your work?

Here’s a sad fact of life: If it is on the internet, someone will download it. It doesn’t matter what you do to safeguard your work. If someone wants to steal it, they will. That’s why we have proper legal procedures to redress such situations. Not always the quickest, not always the easiest, but they are there.

Now, the main argument I see against using a Creative Commons license is this: “If I give away my work how will I make any money?” Let’s think about that. Speaking from personal experience, there are generally two distinct groups that may want to use your work. The first is bloggers, and I am also going to lump in regular folks who may want to use your stuff for personal use, such as wallpaper for their computer. Now here’s the thing: If you think you are missing a sale by allowing these folks to use your stuff you are delusional. A blogger is not going to shell out $$$ to use your picture of the Chrysler Building to illustrate their blog post on New York City urban issues. Sorry, they’re not. They will scour flickr and other sites and find a public domain or creative commons picture to use instead. So what have you gained by barring them from your work. Nothing. What have you lost? Exposure. Some of these blogs and other sites draw a lot of eyeballs. How much is it worth to you to have a few hundred, or even thousand new people exposed to your work? There are even a few crazy folks who pay good money to get their stuff on popular blogs, it’s called advertising. Why not advertise your work for free?

Now our second group of people who may want to use your work are commercial interests. They want to use your images for an ad campaign, packaging, to illustrate their websites and promotional materials and whatnot. Again, think of the attribution clause. Do you really think a commercial interest is willing to put a conspicuous “Photo by Joe Blow” on their materials? Of course not. These people will pay to license your work so they do not have to conform to the attribution clause. Case in point: I was contacted by a web developer who wanted to use a picture I took of the Alberta flag for their clients website. At first the guy asked if he could attribute in the source code. I of course said no, that is not sufficient. Nobody reads the bloody source code looking for photo credits. So: The guy said he’d do a mockup of the site using the image and talk to his client. What do you know? A few days later he got back to me and told me his client loved the mockup. We then discussed licensing terms. Another example, Hasbro Canada contacted me about using one of my images on the gameboard of ‘Canadian Monopoly’. Do you really think Hasbro wanted to put ‘Photo by Darren Kirby’ on the gameboard? Of course they don’t, and I had yet another sale.

So: I hope I have properly conveyed that those who are willing to pay for your work will still do so, and those who are not willing (or are unable) will provide you with valuable exposure.

I have seen some folks who license their stuff Creative Commons, but add the No Commercial clause. Their heart is in the right place, but this is still misguided. A large part of the problem is what exactly is commercial use? Is a blog with advertisements on it commercial use? Is a registered charity’s website commercial use? As far as I know, no court of competent jurisdiction has yet ruled on what exactly is commercial use pertaining to the Creative Commons license. Are you willing to spend the time and money to become the test case? Besides, I think I explained well enough above that commercial interests will pay for your work anyway, as they do not want to uphold the attribution clause cluttering their product or service.

I challenge all who read this to give Creative Commons licensing a try. You may be surprised just how good it makes you feel to share. You may be surprised what a weight off your back it is to no longer need to be vigilant and paranoid about people ‘stealing’ your work. Most of all, you may be surprised how much more exposure your work gets, and how many sales you still manage to close…

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