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Adventures in Paradise

Originally uploaded by chris_rutkowski

Adventures in Paradise is something of a visual departure for me; especially for a “beach shot” during a storm. It is very high key – blown out highlights all over the place; barely a dark dark to be seen. But I processed the look in what felt like 60 seconds flat – luminosity, saturation, vibrance– zip, zip, zip. I just did it and knew right away the result was what I wanted; done. So I asked myself the next logical question: “Why?” and had no immediate answer.

Well, next day I was talking with my sister Carol who lives back east, describing the picture to her, going on about how much I love driving on the beach when she said “You remember Uncle Alex’s dune buggy, don’t you?”

My Uncle Alex owned a bait and tackle shop down on Long Beach Island (better known to most folks as a part of The Jersey Shore). I’d long ago recognized the coincidence that I’d spent a lot of time on Long Beach Island in New Jersey when I was a kid, and now spent a lot of time on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington. But; “A dune buggy?”

“Sure, they used to let dune buggies on the beach when we were kids. Then that hurricane came along and destroyed all those houses and they built jetties and buggies weren’t allowed on the beach anymore. Don’t you remember?”

“Uh… No.”

“Maybe you were too little… Uncle Alex had this bright pink dune buggy called Adventures in Paradise. The name was on the side.”

Then I remembered.

I remember a flamingo-pink jeep-turned-dune buggy with its name in Floridian-sky-blue-script on both sides with rod holders and a half dozen 10 or 12 foot poles rigged up, ready to go. I remember spinners, jigs and spoons with feathery tails hanging from an overhead tackle-board, and the whir and crunch of gears from the buggy’s mechanicals as we wheeled down the beach. And I remember surfing my arms in the rushing-by wind pretending to fly like a seagull that paced us.

Adventures in Paradise. Yup.

Of course, a big piece of why I love this place fell into place somewhere along in here. There are some amazing similarities – or points of congruency – even visual similarities – between this place and what were perhaps the best experiences and times I had as a child. Say 1955-60; pre-Kennedy, pre Nam. Pre the shit-storm of every dimension that was headed the world’s way. This place is like a cultural preserve – they aren’t trying to be fifties, they are fifties.

Places like this will be extinct soon. Portland and Seattle population predicted to double by 2038 or something like that? What if? Somewhere along in there, little pockets of a simpler time like this will cease to exist, gone like cultural passenger pigeons.

Enjoy it while ya got it.

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Trailhead on beach




Trail head on beach

Originally uploaded by chris_rutkowski

I like this and the others in the set enough that I’ve posted this as a solo item.

I can but marvel at how many of my personal favorite photographs were taken within a couple of hundred yards of this spot. It is varied and beautiful and it seems as though I’ve created a bit of project for myself; to tell the tale of this place in pictures and it would also seem, a few words.

This raises questions about how one actually goes about doing such a project. Clearly, something about this area is very compelling to me. I’m making pictures which I at least enjoy, and so it would seem at least a few others. So each post in the blog is like a page – or part of a page – in an unstructured book. Being a structure kind of guy, I’m sure a pattern will emerge that makes sense. Perhaps geaographic, by sections and regions. But I’ll confess that I find that old things – simple things – like that trail marker and footprints in the sand somehow connect me to the endless flow of life.

In this particular shot, what I wish I had was about 20 different people – actors, models, men, women, and kids… Just coming and going, walking and pointing and looking and photographing… certiainly didn’t have it this day, but some day…

So at some point I’ll figure out what the sections are – ocean and bay and town and cars is good…. It’s interesting how important cars are out here on the Peninsula. From day to day living to the show-car hot-rods “Rod Run to the End of the World” that fills the roads with automotive heirlooms on steroids one weekend every summer, and to that amazing public-street beach out there, automobiles are a part of the landscape here, but it seems in a personal way, as contrasted with the bumper to bumper madness that we survive in urban culture. The ocean and the bay – it’s all about how the ocean and the bay mold land and people, each in their own way.

Ah well, enough thinking for tonight. Thanks for reading. :-)

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Trail Marker – Klipsan Beach, WA

20+ Miles of sandy beach – dunes and grass as far as the eye can see. Where’s the trail you came in on? They all look the same… keep you eye out for a trail marker – and remember which one is yours….

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Runes are characters used in early written Nordic languages. This scene, the bent driftwood and the plant near its base, forming a visual ovoid-triangle, remind me of these symbols. It touches something deep in me. Surely our ancestors made tokens just like this 10,000 years ago… when we were still inventing language.

I imagine seeing this long ago, on a North Sea beach, revealing the trail to a Norseman’s home and hearth. And I imagine this marker coming to be identified with the person who set it, their skills (warrior, fisherman, blacksmith, healer) or the place – its image a proto-signature – a proto-word – standing first for a persons name, then their craft, then even the place itself. Thus we see language evolving from the simplest of actions; a person marking their way home.

Making the shot:

This was actually the last shot of a series made on the beach that morning. Even though our trips to the Long Beach Peninsula are usually short, we always try to get out and walk on the beach a bit, even if it’s only for a few minutes. I’d been hoping for a shot of sea grass: see that clump of grass standing to the right of the driftwood’s base? Notice the fountain-swell of the leaves and shadows, and the fine circles traced in the sand by the leaf tips blowing in the breeze…. I’ve been captivated by this form for a long time. One finds the perfect composition when one finds it; the Zen-garden like tracings in the sand are a beauty that just happens, and I haven’t got it right so far. This is a crop of the grass clump from the full-size version of Runes:

sea grass excerpt 

So, I’d been walking on the beach stalking that elusive composition (the plant in the picture didn’t make the cut for a single shot) but at that point I sort of looked up and stepped back and took in the rest of the scene when the composition hit me and resulted in this:

_DSC1598-pseudo_PS-FocusFix-Noise-curves-TopazBeach-FLATTENED_lzn-CROPPED-fullsize-BnD

In this, the beach area visually dominates, and within the beach area, the bright region of grasses on the right balances the regions of sand and trail on the left. The color balance is warmer than Runes – emphasis on home and hearth… There is enough beach that I see this as looking AT the trail, not ON the trail.

Cropping it somewhat greatly emphasizes the sky and grass area – and de-emphasizes the grasses on the right so that the shot revolves around the trail and the “there” beyond the edge of the grasses. The view is much more ON the trail.

_DSC1598-pseudo_PS-FocusFix-Noise-curves-TopazBeach-FLATTENED_lzn-CROPPED-fullsize-BnD-CROPPED

This bit of crop-comparison also reveals a photo op – including more and more of the beach – maybe next time :-)

In any event, the preceding crop was done at home in Photoshop. But out there, looking at the scene the trail marker that became Runes caught my eye and instantly became a subject in its own right. I didn’t move the tripod – just rotated the camera 90 degrees, zoomed and tweaked to frame and made the shot.

Along with the symbolism mentioned earlier, there is a certain whimsical aspect to Runes that I greatly enjoy: the bent driftwood becomes a fishing pole, the clump of grass a fish on the line, the circles in the sand ripples on the sea. And wouldn’t that make a nice “proto signature”… Not “Dances with wolves”… “Fishes with weeds”…

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In the Port of Ilwaco, WA.

Barbed wire waves, St. Elmo’s fire glowing electric in the rigging, the stain of neglect on her bow; run aground on reefs of time: there she sits, high and dry.

My son said, half-jokingly, that he’d like to live on her and fix her up. If only :-)

I suggest viewing this in original size.

Making the Photo:

We were visiting the Port on a Sunday morning, strolling down the unusually quiet quay with my wife, son and his girlfriend, when these day-glow orange floats across the street from the docks snuck into my peripheral vision. They were piled up against a fence next to a holding area filled with boats in various stages of repair or decay. I left the group and walked a bit closer, then spotted the Jeanie O and this composition just jumped into the viewfinder. I spot-metered on the boat’s window under the vertical topaz-colored mast and made this single shot.

Because the contrast ratios were high, I really wanted to shoot this as HDR, but opted not to try it hand-held. So I then walked a few hundred yards back to our car, got my tripod, returned to the scene and set up. Problem was, by the time I went to the car and back, the family had caught up with me and we’d started gabbing, and the “moment” was lost; guess I just broke my concentration. What I got was ok, but I knew I hadn’t duplicated this exact composition again (in the bright light of the location, the camera’s LCD screen was pretty much useless for critical viewing).

Back at the computer, after deciding to go with this, I processed the RAW file as a pseudo-HDR in Photomatix.  The purpose was to “process the digital negative” to reduce the contrast, particularly to pull the highlights away from being blown. Next the shot was processed for sharpness and noise reduction. Great noise reduction software is a must when processing most pseudo-HDRs; the darker regions tend to get noisy really fast. Then I used Topaz Adjust for post-processing, and the first result was this:

_DSC1623-pseudo_PS-fixer-noise-Topaz-ExpCor^adapt-clone

This is a nice “straight” representation of the scene. But when I shot this, what got me about the composition was the sense that the ship was riding up, over the obstacles in front, like a ship rises over waves in the sea. Sitting there looking at the screen, the title phrase “The Wreck of the Jeanie O” sprang into mind… and the clear-cut desire to present this as a dramatic scene – reminiscent of a wreck at sea – swept over me, well, like a wave. So back into Topaz Adjust for post processing (to match my “post visualization”).  The result was this:

_DSC1623-pseudo_PS-works-FLATTENED-1-TWOTJO-1

I still have some difficulty with “expressive” photography. I was trained to accomplish, and strived to achieve photo realism; non-interpretive rendering. But just as I’ve learned to let the urge to shoot a subject take over (when the urge to shoot hits, I shoot) so I’m learning to let myself alter a photo to tell a tale. The key word is “let”. The urge to go with a bit of “ghost ship” on this was strong, and came straight out of the right brain; it wasn’t planned or considered; I didn’t stop and think about what to do; “maybe I should try this…” No, the right brain had the thought, knew what to do, and did it. I, the left brain, had to shut up and stay out of the way.  After the processing, part of me wanted to start quibbling; “Oh, what about this? And What about that?” And the right brain had to say “Shush. It’s ok… just relax and enjoy it.”

Subject note:

A wreck the Jeanie O is, but she didn’t run aground on the rocks surrounding Cape Disappointment (I love the names Lewis and Clark gave to places on this coast. “Dismal Notch” may be my favorite…). She’d run aground on reefs of neglect, spurred on by the economics of making and keeping her sea worthy.  But the world of “people who go down to the sea in ships” is not a consumer-driven use-it-and-throw-it-away culture. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that someone actually plans to restore the Jeanie O and take her home to the sea. If the hull is sound, the rest can be fixed.

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We had breakfast this morning in a little cafe in Ocean Park, down along the beach access road. Anyway, I walked out after a last cup of coffee and spotted the distant suff down the road and in a flash this shot jumped into my head – I even tried to describe it to my wife.

To my wife’s consternation, I drove my Honda Civic out onto the sand (we usually bring our Subaru Outback) and parked it close to the edge beyond which two driven wheels would not be enough. I’d known from the first instant that I wanted – needed – as flat a perspective as I could get, so I threw on my 70-300mm, mounted the camera on a tripod, extended it out to 300mm and started framing.

Making the photo: What I was seeking was a confluence of waves and wind where all the random bits would come together in a dynamic whole. Yeah, right – just like that… I’ve spent lots of time with cameras on tripods all framed up and ready to shoot when the perfect waves roll by, but usually I’m waiting for a line of waves to match the other elements in the overall design. This had an added twist: there was nothing to frame in reference to – other than ocean – it was all waves. I picked a patch based on a bit of watching the overall wave patterns and the sun and clouds and hoped I was pointing at (or at least near) a spot that would give me what I wanted (ok, the camera wasn’t that rigidly fixed; the ball head was set to allow some slight panning to follow wave patterns, but you get what I mean). Basically: wait as sets of rollers comes through then combine “critical moment” timing with occasional high-speed shooting bursts and go for the best.

This is very similar to shooting sporting events where you try to position yourself, plan the shot and then start shooting as the critical moments come and go. Shooting waves is unlike shooting sports in that you can know pretty much where a runner’s feet will fall or where a jumpers shadow will pass. Not so with waves, so they’re harder to get just right. Accordingly, unless you are incredibly patient, lucky, or skilled, you will be cropping the image to a greater or lesser degree. That was certainly the case here.

The hardest part of cropping is knowing what to crop – and when shooting something as chaotic as waves it isn’t always easy – not for me at least – to spot a fragment of order amid the chaos. The “subject” isn’t just sitting there – a duck on a pond so to speak. It is camouflaged by all the surrounding action. Cropping amounts to paring away everything that isn’t “the shot”.

As a consequence, on the beach I didn’t know for sure that I had “the shot” until later, back on the computer, scanning through all the images. This was on the third to last shot out of a couple of dozen exposures; I can only wonder if subconsciously I knew this pattern had flickered in front of my eye during the shoot, causing me to stop. 

A problem shooting material in stormy conditions is that the scene, while begging for drama, tends to be rather flat; the contrasts are mostly of texture and shape, not light and dark. Nature co-operated here, throwing a Flickr of weak sun across a portion of the scene for just a few seconds, giving the white froth a bit of added brightness to capitalize on. Even so, the overall contrast didn’t exceed 4 or 5 stops, if that. Photoshop curves set the white and black points giving the scene contrast it lacked in nature. But the small textures, little micro waves and ripples, while interesting and accurate, seemed like noise, distracting from the design, so I used Topaz adjust on a duplicate base layer to smooth the smaller details, then blended the original and smoothed layers to strike a balance between texture/detail and shapes.  The final step was some judicious burning and dodging, mostly to punch up the highlights.

This “subject” invites repeat attempts; no one version will ever be definitive – a be all, end all. Each attempt will generate moments of crystallized chaos – raw material to mold into finished images. Great fun :-)

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My friend Frank




My friend Frank

Originally uploaded by chris_rutkowski

This is my friend Frank. Before there were IBM PCs, or MACs, let alone the Internet, Frank wrote the email system for the computer I designed for Epson. We called Frank “Conan”, as in “Conan the Barbarian” because he was a force to be reckoned with – larger than life – but always ready with a smile, a helping hand, and his great knowledge and skill. He’s one of that handfull of people who helped buid the foundations of today’s information age.

Frank has stage 4 pancreatic cancer; he’s 2+ years in – beat the original prognosis by a year and a half so far – doing another round of chemo now… very rough stuff. I am amazed and inspired by his courage in the face of insurmountable odds, his fortitude in the presence of ceaseless pain, and his complete refusal to give up living while there’s life to be lived.

I recently heard it said that a friend is someone who knows your faults and loves you anyway. I’m proud to call Frank my friend.

Making the photo

This is one time I won’t say much. My first inclination as a photographer was to record the pain – to try and capture his endurance in the face of suffering. But, I just couldn’t do it. Frank is about life, not death, he very graciously gave me this smile – and it is that I chose to record. Pain is all around us, we all experience it. Love makes it endurable.

Technically; hand held, 1/20th or something like that. simplistic processing in Photoshop; burn some of the background to shift emphasis, balance out the contrast with curves, and finally noise reduction and a touch of sharpening.

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The Americana Diner in Hightstown, NJ.

Gleaming stainless steel, bright neon lights – cases full of goodies…

5 shot HDR handheld.

Making the photo

Saying “HDR” in a note on Flickr might be called “trolling for pixel-peepers”. But this shot begged for HDR. The contrast ratios were extreme – we’ve got direct line-of-sight to both the neon signs and the fluorescent bulbs in the goodies case, and bright reflective shiny areas from a multitude of highlight spots and floods. But we’ve also got areas of important detail in dark shadow. Furthermore, the “spread spectrum” effect – the smear of light that can be had with HDR is effective in portraying an “old time” look, appropriate for the subject.

The problem of course is that I’m in a public place, with no tripod or lights, and although this was before the dinner crush, there were people scurrying about. So, there are two photographic problems to solve; how get that shot – adequately sharp – without a tripod, and how to control the scene – at least enough to get the shot I visualized.

As for steadying the camera, I  was able to lean against a half-wall to help steady my body, but above the hips it was “photographer as tripod”. Now, there are a multitude of sites that describe proper camera holding, and everything applied here; elbows close in, camera held firmly, shoot on the exhale…and of course my camera/lens combo has built in anti-shake – without which getting a sharp single shot, let alone a HDR series, would have been pretty well impossible for this old photographer. But here’s the tip of the day: HDR software, the software that assembles individual images into the HDR master, is pretty good at aligning images which are displaced laterally and horizontally. Got that? it can automatically align left/right or up/down shifts. The anti-shake in most cameras does exactly the same thing. Together, they really push the odds of success with hand-held work  But neither the software nor the hardware anti-shake can do much if anything about pivots and twists. i.e. HDR software can help with shake. But it doesn’t help much if at all with camera twist or pivot because those things alter convergence – creating apparent changes in size; different parts of the image will be zoomed relative to each other. Displacement the software can deal with; differential zoom it cannot.

So, let the software and the built-in anti-shake deal with the displacements, and you concentrate on minimizing rotations. Combine the two and with a touch of luck you can get a good HDR shot (and by "good" I always mean; satisfactory for your purpose).

Of course it’s better to use a tripod; but even if you have one with you, you can’t always use one, so knowing how to make the most of what you’ve got will enable you to make shots you’d otherwise miss.

Scene control can be much more difficult to manage in an ad-hoc shooting environment. If you’ve recruited people to be in the scene you can give some direction, but in a totally candid scene such as this one must pick the critical moments as carefully as one picks the timing of a wave crashing to the shore. But for all of that, getting people to stand still for most scenes is challenging. But there is a solution.

Trey Ratcliff, arguably one of the modern masters of HDR, wrote an excellent tutorial on the subject which you can find on his blog here. In essence, you take the best single shot, process it to match the HDR tonally, then layer it and the HDR in Photoshop and mask the HDR over the single shot, allowing various pieces of the single shot(s) to be visible. The result is that certain elements, in this case the head of the waitress in the shot, can be rendered as sharp as your single shot allows.

You have a choice of what elements to emphasize in the final image. You can combine as many layers as you like, highlighting blur in one part of the final image, emphasizing tack-sharpness in another, until you arrive at the result which best satisfies your intentions.

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