"Harder" Not "Smarter" Better Art Does Not Make

There's a building in Geneseo that I drove by a few years ago, but didn't stop to shoot.  It was the perfect combination of lighting, whether, sky cover, and moon position.  From the right angle, it would all have framed up perfectly. 

I should not have taken that set of circumstances for granted.  It literally was 3 more years before it all lined up just right again.  This time, I damn well made sure to stop and get the shots I wanted.  It was -4°F out with a bitter wind chill making it feel far worse than that, and I wasn't nearly properly equipped for it.  My nice, heavy, metal tripod had been sitting in my car outside all day and felt like it was made of ice.  I had just a light coat and no gloves.  I stood outside under these conditions for far too long, taking shot after shot (the original plan was an HDR, so I wanted a bunch of different exposures to play with). 

When done, I had 50 or 60 shots, but could barely feel my fingers.  The only reason I didn't get frostbite is I had my remote shutter release and could keep my hand in my pocket during the longer exposures.  Hell, the bottoms of my feet were cold from standing flat-footed on the ground as long as I did (yes, through my shoes, and yes, sneakers or boots would've been much better).  In the end, I was out there about a half hour, maybe 45 minutes, tops.  I finished the errand I had originally set out to do, went home, and went to bed.  I was really looking forward to getting to work on the images in post the next day. 

When I started futzing with them, it didn't take too long to realize I made two errors.  One stung a lot more than the other.  First off, the moon moves.  I'm not going to get all astrophysicist-y here - don't bother correcting me, we all know what's really going on*.  What I failed to realize, is the moon moves relatively fast.  From my first exposure to my last, it had traveled about 5 moon diameters in my frame.  I was going to have to do some serious 'shopping to get them to have a "standard" position if I was going to line them all up and stack them for an HDR. 

Cropped portion of the sky from a poorly rendered first draft of an HDR from the stack.  Naturally it is behind a bunch of tree branches to make any attempt to fix that much more of a pain.

Then came the second realization - the one that stung.  I didn't - hell, I shouldn't have waited for that perfect alignment of all those events to get my shot.  All I needed was most of it.  I should've done it without the moon, then added the moon in post.  Not only could've I had the shot I wanted years earlier - it actually would've been easier.  Instead of having to move the moon to a standard set of coordinates from an arbitrary location in a ton of different shots, I could have simply inserted a moon into a fixed position from nothing. 

In the end I actually waited years just to make things harder on myself.  Talk about crossing the street to get your ass kicked. 

But by the moon really being in the shot, is my image is more genuine?  I'd like to think yes.  I'd like to think that because I waited so long and put in so much effort and practiced such patience that it somehow translates to the result being more genuine or pure or authentic or something.  But when I remove the emotional investment and look at it critically, there really is just one conclusion.  Nobody cares how "authentic" the image is.  All that matters is the finished work. 

In the end, the final image alone has to stand up by itself.  Nobody cares if I lost 3 fingers to frostbite in the process or bought some awesome piece of gear that somehow takes perfect shots through a car window and never myself had to step outside.  Choosing to work "harder" instead of "smarter" doesn't make you any more of an artist.  Your gear doesn't matter, your technique doesn't matter, and you yourself don't matter.  The finished image matters, and nobody gives a shit how you got there. 

Someday you'll probably eventually see the shot I'm talking about listed here.  After some moonless night when I go back and re-do the whole stack of shots, then borrow the moon from one frame of the images taken from this failed night. 

*Yes, the moon orbits the earth, which itself spins and orbits the sun, tectonic plates shift, the whole galaxy is flying through space, etc.

Light Science = Fun

Kids are fun somtimes.  I got my 2 and 4 year old into light painting, and I highly recommend it if you can get away with it.  As a lazy parent, this is my favorite "arts and crafts" project, because it requires no clean-up.  

The first session was with a couple of their light-up toys.  Then we moved on to the cats' laser pointer.  They both pre-date this blog (and this company), but I may in the future circle back and post the results here.  Anyway, both sessions went well, so that was enough of an excuse to go find more toys.  I ended up finding some real cheap <5mw (because they are kids, after all) colored lasers.  We got a 405nm (purple/blue)*, a traditional 640nm (red)*, and a 532nm (green)*.  

I guess I should take a moment to talk about laser safety.  We only do this with both parents right there, each responsible for one kid, and we treat it like a gun range.  Nobody walks down range without a ceasefire.  Lasers are always pointed at eye safe things, even if they are off.  Oh, and the most important part - we're done the second either of them starts screwing around or not listening.  No amount of fun is worth impairing the vision of a child.    

The TV in our living room is a projector, so I already have a perfect neutral canvas (the display screen with the projector off) for light painting.  I set up the tripod, cranked the exposure length up to 30 seconds, turned off all the lights, closed the blinds, and this is what we came up with. 

First, I call the 405nm purple/blue because it really can be either, just by messing with the color temperature of the camera.  I shoot raw (.NEF), so I can futz around with it in post.  For example, this is the 405nm at 3000K...

Sure looks like a blue laser.

Here's the exact same image at 9090K...

Looks purple to me.

That same technique does comparatively nothing to the red or green lasers.  Here's an image that used all three lasers.  First at 4000K, then 9000K...



The green is affected more than the red, but neither have moved nearly so drastically as the blue to purple shift.  Now, none of this is surprising if you know your light science, right?  Still, it's kinda fun to see in a practical** implementation.  

Now, on to the fun!

At first I let the kids loose to do with their 30 seconds as they saw fit.  These were the results...

ISO 1000 (silly daddy)

First try was a misfire - I left the ISO cranked up from a previous shoot.  Scaled it back down for round two...

ISO 100 (much better)

After that, I explained to my kids that you can actually DRAW stuff.  As an example, I did this...

The mighty X prevails yet again!

I show the kids the result in the chimp viewscreen, and my 4 year old goes "Ooh, I see.  Can I try with the purple one?", which of course I let her do.  The result is this...

This is what "organized" looks like to a 4 year old

At this point, we start to team up.  I and each of my kids take a different color, and we all go at it at the same time.  The first result is the prior color temp example (if you came here just for light science, this post has derailed, and I advise bailing now).   These are the rest.  Spoiler alert: Just about any color that is attempting to make any sort of a pattern is me.

My dots look like V's because a 4 year old was very bouncy on the couch as she made her purple squiggles.

My second attempt at a tic-tac-toe board is admittedly sub-par.  But compare it to those red X's and purple O's! 

More dots that look like V's.  But I'm getting better - some only look like I's, right?

Her "green monster" chased my "purple princess" around in this one.  I didn't realize these needed a narrative to accompany them, but my daughter corrected me.  

I poorly planned my 30 seconds and didn't finish my "KS" on the end.  Oh well.  

I think the next logical step would be to find some programmable servos to move them around and actuators to press and release the buttons.  Then I could make all sorts of fun stuff.  An intermediate step may be to learn how to program servos and actuators.  What about steel wool?  Has anybody on the internet ever done a long exposure of that burning?

*Be warned, this site is in China, and one of my credit card companies thought for sure my card was compromised and not only prevented my order, but killed my card.  When I did eventually get my order placed, it took damn near a month for this stuff to show up.  Don't by any means take these links as an endorsement.

**as in "non-theoretical", opposed to "useful for everyday life"

To Wartermark or Not?

This was a huge point of contention internally.  So much time is spent making every pixel of every image look just so, then we're just gonna go ahead and wreck the only copy that most people will see (assuming sale to page view ratio < 50%, and nobody has the hubris to think that's not the case)? 

What we settled on was a minimally intrusive watermark.  In most cases, you have to play "Where's Waldo" to find it.  The goal is to have the focus of the image be the image, and not have your eye drawn to a watermark then say "oh, there's a photo there too".  This seems like the best balance of protecting our product without ruining our art. 


Getting Started

I've been taking photos ever since I got my first Sony DSC-S50 for about $500 when I was in college.  That was a HUGE chunk of change back then, but that camera was awesome.  Removal storage sticks available up to a whopping 64 MB in capacity.  You needed that capacity with a monster resolution of 2.1 megapixels. 

Times have changed.  First, I never sold any of the photos I took with that old Sony.  Yes, the specs are laughable by the standards of today, but so was my skill set.  Fastforward about a decade and a half, and both my skillset and my gear are a little better.  I don't want to derail into a gear review post (though I reserve the right to do one eventually), but if you're curious, we're doing Nikon bodies, Nikon and Tamron lenses, and a truly mixed bag of other accessories. 

Art doesn't really exist until people see it.  I don't want to be Vivian Maier.  If my work has merit, I want to share it with those that may appreciate it.  If it sucks, I'd rather not go to my grave thinking I sat on a private treasure trove that could've changed the world when it was in fact crap.  I'm putting it out there, and the market will tell me if it is any good.