The “Explore”


Over on my favorite social photo site, Flickr, there’s a feature called “Explore.” Each day 500 photos are pulled out of the stream of pictures being uploaded to Flickr. Flickr posts the 500 photos to its Explore page where thousands of people see them. It’s great fun.
You have to wrap your head around a couple of things with Explore. The pictures are selected based on “interestingness.” An algorithm runs all the pictures and makes choices for Explore based on how interesting the image is. There’s a lot of mystery and speculation about this and Flickr is pretty close to the vest with information. Best as people can figure, interesting includes things like views and favorites and comments as well as attributes of the picture itself.
What Explore isn’t is a judged photo contest. While most of the images on Explore are outstanding, they landed there because they are considered “interesting.” If you’re a fan of Explore, you’ll no doubt find yourself thinking, “Well that’s interesting” as you scroll the page. That’s the deal. The same image may not fare so well before a hardened photo judge in a competition.
Flickr is criticized for running Explore the way they do. People think the company should judge and pull out “the best” pictures from its vast upload stream. The criticism has some merit. Pictures hitting Explore get a lot of exposure and exposure can mean good things for a photographer. But because Explore isn’t weighted toward such values, almost any image, if it’s interesting, has a shot at Explore.
For me at least, I think Explore is good fun and take it with a wink and a smile. If you go deeper into Flickr I think you can find opportunities beyond Explore if that’s what you want.

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Tough old bird

The James Ranch in Durango, Colo., has a flock of well-tended range chickens among other wonderful things. I was there a couple of years ago on assignment for John Deere Furrow magazine and I got this bright idea about getting pictures of the range chickens.
The idea was to put the camera on a tripod down low and put it right in the middle of the flock. My notion was that the curious birds would approach the camera and I’d snap pictures remotely. The birds didn’t care about the camera at all and never came close.
So I went over to retrieve the camera and try something else. That’s when this bird took exception to me being on her range and came over to give it to me. I just held the camera between her and me and kept pushing the shutter. Maybe I’ll post more later but this one seemed to sum up her attitude the best.
Flickr Explore 9/24/2014

one_tough_bird {Explore 9/24/2014}

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Filler time

Gettin' a lickin' cow and calf

A jumbo scoreboard entry

Some of my pictures were used on the jumbo scoreboard in the stadium in a tribute to agriculture earlier this season. While I do now get to make the claim my images were so used, it’s not that big of a deal. Yes, I shall make note of the exhibition. Why not?
But in reality, the pictures showed up pregame before a mostly empty stadium. Of the few people in the building at the time, only a small subset may have even looked. There wasn’t any credit or anything since the pictures were all in the public domain.
It’s called filler in the business. Something, almost anything, is needed to fill the space and time and some of my pictures landed there. Yes, my pictures were used on the giant scoreboard. I don’t have to say anything else.

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Flickr Explore

Fun when it happens. Neat Sunday morning treat!
little_red_shed {Explore 9/7/14}

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Flying blind

Dawn
Dawn over the Arlington Agricultural Research Station was gorgeous; warm light with long shadows texturing the landscape. Then we turned the helicopter north toward the Hancock Agricultural Research Station to complete the second phase of the aerial photography session. Ahead we could see clouds and fog. Pilot Eric Peterson of Fly High Helicopters told us earlier that Stevens Point Airport was reporting zero visibility. But Hancock is 30 or more miles from Point. Besides, this it fog. It burns off, blows away, dissipates. Right?
The atmospheric moisture increased steadily as we progressed north. Over Portage the view was broken with interesting sunlight poking through gaps in the clouds. Then suddenly there was no view at all. “This isn’t good,” Eric said, in as matter-of-fact way you could make such an announcement. “Look for a road. They usually don’t build towers on roads.” Towers?
We went lower, looking for the ground. A north-heading road appeared below and we followed it at treetop level. “We have to get out of this. We’re going to climb,” Eric explained to myself and passenger Phil Dunigan, assistant research station director. Up we angled up into bright, featureless, invisibility. After a long climb the helicopter came out and the first thing visible to the left was the top of a tower. “Let’s look for a place to land. Any field or open area will do,” Eric said.
Flying_in_the_fog-
Using the instruments, we nudged over Interstate 39. We could see the highway once in a while as we looked for breaks in the fog big enough to drop into and find a landing spot. At Westfield, the fog parted to reveal the Pioneer Inn and its ample parking lot. Eric wiggled the helicopter down through the fog and past the light and utility poles to a soft, safe landing on the far north end of the parking lot.
Sensing we might be there for a while I jumped out of the helicopter and went into the Pioneer. Employees and customers alike had piled up on the window facing our side of the parking lot. Speculation was in the air. A police car had pulled up near the grounded helicopter and the officer was talking with Eric as I walked back. “Isn’t there something illegal about this,” chief of police said. “You’re the cop, you tell me,” Eric said. The chief, Louis Rudolf, was a nice guy and we visited then said good bye and went into the Pioneer for coffee and breakfast.
Once we could see, we lifted off to finish the flight over the research station. But it was still cloudy with close, heavy haze making pictures hard to take. Again we landed and went into the Hancock station to check weather and figure out if we should wait or head out. The sky kept getting darker and more threatening. But we could still see. “Let’s just get out of here while we can,” I said. The three of us got back in the helicopter and took off for home. We lifted off and flew over a huge field of sweet corn that you could smell in the wet air. By the time we got back to the Baraboo Airport it was a beautiful day.

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Flash

 

Cherry_Harvest_Time!

 

Since I started taking pictures I’ve lived and died with flash. Make it work and you can gain at least a thimbleful of control over a crappy situation. In an ongoing effort to keep the “died with” part to a rolling minimum, I’ve always tried to gather as much information about flash photography as possible.

When I gained access to a TTL flash system I was genuinely excited. Sending controlling signals to remote units, adjusting intensity right from the camera. Wow. Then the disappointment set in. What I was supposed to be able to do didn’t always happen. And because I tend to try things on the fly, I let frustration get the better of me. That, and menu systems on little screens are a headache.

That led me to recently attend a Kelbyonelive seminar presented by Joe McNally. McNally spent from 10:00 a.m. to after 5:00 p.m. talking about flash photography to a group in excess of 200 people. All day he built example after example and told many of his stories from the trenches. “TTL gets me in the door and tells me how much trouble I’m in,” he said.

A couple of times during the day I had to slap my forehead when McNally made things so obvious that… line of sight and distance always limited me. Move the trigger flash where the receiving flash can see it. Put together a domino string of triggers to set off out of sight flashes. Use something reflective to bounce the signal light to the receiver flash.

I’d all but abandoned using TTL and gone to an inexpensive set of manual radio triggers. Oh, I still love my trusty radio signals but I had my eyes opened about TTL flash big time during the seminar. I still won’t trust it in bright sunlight as a first choice but I might give that another shot.

McNally seems like a great guy. Certainly he’s an accomplished photographer. And I gained as much in that one day lighting seminar as I had in months of reading, watching and trying on my own.

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Daisy on black

fly_on_white {Explore}
It starts at the camera. First, I hunted for a situation where I have the light I like on the flower (subject). In this case low, strong, direct evening sun (sidelight). Then I make every effort to position the lens with the most darkened background I can conjure with the light on the subject the way I want. Here I had myself corkscrewed in between a boulder, a picket fence, and a wire dividing fence.

My darkened background wasn’t the best. It included the white picket fence any way I twisted the camera. Then I fiddled with my settings. Stick with me for a second. I wanted the background dark, black if I could do it. So I made an exposure for only the brightest elements in the frame – the white flower petals. But the stinking picket fence also was white. Okay, how do you disrupt the background as much as possible? Shallow depth of field, f-3.2.

What happens when you open the lens up like that? So, spin up the shutter speed – 1/2500 (ISO 100).

Snap, snap, snap, fiddle, fiddle, fiddle, swear you’ll buy a light meter, snap, snap, snap, fiddle, fiddle, fiddle, snap, snap, snap…

Now it’s in Lightroom and I’m unhappy. Ghosts of the white picket fence linger. Darken up shadows. Increase black. Bump up whites. Soften. Crop. Remove a couple of light leaks.

All the time I’m looking at that stupid fly. I hate the fly. But it’s a pollinator. It does add something to the visual. Wish honey bees would make a comeback.

You could do all of this with a flash much simpler. Next time.

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Talking Phottix

In two of the worlds I live in, photographer at a budget-strapped college and that of a budget-strapped freelancer, money is important. When you buy something you want to get the best possible tool with the money you have.

That budget-conscience side drove my investigation into remote flash radio triggers. Such investigations start at the top of the heap with the highest rated and most expensive units. In this case it’s the Pocket Wizard. By all accounts, Pocket Wizard is the gold standard for quality and reliability. No arguments from me with the reputation the product has garnered. On more than one occasion I’ve been able to use the Pocket Wizard system and it’s likable.

20140618_143240If money; Pocket Wizard. But really, I just wanted something that’d set off a distant flash or two or three. Boil it down and a radio signal is a radio signal. Which got me around to the Phottix brand where I finally found the balance between cost and value I needed. A transmitter and two receivers set me back less than $140.

Trade-offs, trade-offs, trade-offs. Since I’ve been using the Phottix system I’ve had the reliability I had hoped for. They work and have served in some touch and go outdoor settings. I have the manual only system and you may recognize that as a trade off which it is. Phottix does offer the TTL Odin system that works well by all accounts. A trigger and two receivers is about $400.

At that price, you may decide to go back and look at Pocket Wizard. Your decision but I think I’d be willing to try the Odin if I ever upgrade.

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When batteries crap – or – The Professional

The room was gorgeous with an entire wall covered in window overlooking the lake. Sweet window light bathed the entire place. The event I was sent to cover was routine. An alumni celebration with old artifacts to look at, a short program, food, entertainment, and some current student presentations. Document the high points and out of there in a couple of hours.

Of course, the podium was against the window and faced the seating. You make your choices here. Expose for the person speaking and let everything in the background blow out or cut it back and use some fill flash. Fill flash.

As I worked the event, I’d use the flash to fill in the shadows anytime I took pictures toward the window and then turn it off when I had the window light with me. Naturally, I left the flash off a few times and used back lighting because I love the dramatic. That was for me. You can’t sell dramatic for an event like this. Everyone wants to see everyone and that’s the point.

And then suddenly the flash wasn’t keeping up and I was seeing entirely too much drama. And the band came in. With the mascot. Because I’m a professional, I’d never run out of batteries at the peak point in the event. A professional with a dead flash. Never, not me, I know about batteries because I’m a professional.

There were more batteries in the bag. Because I’m a professional. Yet the bag and I are suddenly separated by an ocean of people, a marching band, and a lively mascot sharing the love with the alumni. Now, a professional can adapt. Pictures are made without flash all the time. So I did, because I’m a professional. A professional probably would keep the bag with him, though, because professional.

I made do, as the saying goes, and found my way to the bag where I just grabbed the other flash. There are two because I’m a professional. And several sets of spare batteries also because I’m a professional. Made it through. Covered the high points. No one noticed but me. Because I’m a professional.

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The reaction

Old_Oak {Explore #379}
My favorite form of acceptance is a check from an editor or publisher. It’s a business deal and means you met the terms of the assignment how ever daunting or simple. But those of us who take pictures or write stories probably are seeking some kind of approval. We’d really like someone to care.

So you show a picture first to someone in your life who is close, like a spouse or other family member. You can usually count on them to be approving. “Oh, that’s nice, honey.” The further out from your inner circle you show the picture, the more the approval curve trends down. “What the hell is that?”

The other day, however, I got a reaction I wasn’t expecting and left me both pleased and unsettled. My spouse had a small gathering of the people she went to high school with. There were perhaps six or seven of her classmates having a picnic on our deck.

One of them owns a small family homestead farm on the edge of town where I happen to snap a lot of pictures. It’s a classic location with old barns on a hill and large trees surrounded by well tended fields. It’s close so I see it in various weather, seasons and lighting situations. We’d recently enlarged and framed a picture taken there.

That’s what I mentioned to him. “Hey, there’s something on our wall in the house you might be interested in.” What I wasn’t ready for was his mouth to drop open and for tears to well up in his eyes. After a few seconds he managed to stammer out something like, “wow.” And then he stood there looking at it from different angles.

He returned to the picture a couple of more times that day, each time shaking and nodding his head. We managed to find a 4×6 print we’d used like a swatch to send home with him when the picnic broke up and told him we’d be pleased to make an enlargement if he ever wanted.

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