Such a Winter’s Day

Where To?

 

Wildlife on the trail:

One rabbit.

Three squirrels. Maybe four.

A hawk, overhead.

Crows, ditto.

A myriad of songbirds.

The Narrow Road

 

Joggers.

Dogs, with their people.

The maintenance team.

A pack of young men who don’t seem like they’re up to any trouble, but are followed out by the park ranger.

A pack of young women, with J-pop (or K-pop maybe) playing loudly on an iPod. One of them wears a shirt that says, “MAD AS A HATER”. I can’t decide if it’s a misprint or a pun.

A couple with their arms wrapped so tightly around each other that I don’t know how they keep walking. She’s telling him about hobbit holes. (My favorite!)

A family of four. The mom is delighted with the lack of spiderwebs on the trail. “Now I”m telling you, this is the time for me to go hiking!”

Another family of four. A girl verging on 12 years, sweat beading her brow, wishes me a good afternoon. I say, “Is it after noon already?” She replies, “I have no idea!” (It’s not.)

A line of boys on mountain bikes. The road is wide enough for all of us.

The road is wide enough for all of us.

Such a Winter's Day

Capturing Light: An Overview of the Exposure Triangle in Easy Terms

Temple

Photography is, by definition, the art of drawing with light. So it’s not surprising that a great part of learning how to to take good photos is learning how to control light. In this section of my contemplative photography lesson plan, I’m going to discuss the three ways your camera helps you to do that. I am not going to talk about flash and external lighting setups, because frankly I have no practical experience with either, except for knowing that the built-in flash on your camera is really only good for giving your daughters glowing red eyes.

If you are shooting with a camera phone or a low-end point-and-shoot that doesn’t offer you much beyond auto shooting, I don’t know if this will be much help to you. I’ve taken some great shots with my iPhone 4, but I don’t know if there’s anyway to control exposure. (I may have to look into it though.)

Learning about exposure typically involves a lot of technical language about things like F-stops, which is the kind of thing used to separate experts from the rest of us. Now, when you look at those experts’ photos, you can see that their expertise pays off, but for the new or casual photographer it can be intimidating.

I am not an expert – I just like to take a nice picture once in a while – so I’m going to explain these things to you in the terms I understand them best. If you want to learn more, I encourage you to go out and find other resources who can provide more technical and expert guidance.

There are three basic tools on your camera that let you control light. They are:

  • Shutter speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO

Shutter speed and aperture control how much light enters through the camera’s lens. The ISO setting determines the sensitivity of the sensor, or how much light is actually recorded. (In film photography, ISO is equivalent to film speed, e.g. 100, 200, 400 etc.)

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is pretty self-explanatory. It determines how long the shutter stays open, or how long it actually takes to snap the picture, and is measured in tenths (or even hundredths) of a second. Most of the time, you want to have a fast shutter, because the longer the shutter stays open, the greater the chance you’ll end up with a blurry photo. Your subject moves, your hand wobbles – it doesn’t take a great deal of motion to throw your focus out of whack. That’s why experienced photographers know to use a tripod when they are working with conditions that might require a long shutter speed (we’ll discuss some of those situations in a moment).

If you’re shooting in Auto mode, your camera will automatically select a longer shutter speed in low-light settings. You can tell, because the click sound you hear when you push the shutter button actually takes longer. If you’re out shooting in the woods, and all your gorgeous tree photos are slightly blurry, then it’s probably because the shutter is taking longer to open and close. The two solutions to this problem are: 1) use a tripod; 2) adjust your aperture.

Shutter speed example

Same aperture, different shutter speeds. On the left 1/8 second, on the right 1/25 second. Not only is the first overexposed, you can see how fuzzy the details are.

Aperture

Aperture refers to how wide the shutter actually opens – okay, not actually the shutter, but the hole inside the lens where light enters the camera. The wider the opening, the more light enters the camera at once. It’s measured as “f-stops”, which I’m not even going to try to define for you. It’s enough to say that your camera will have a range of numbers you can choose – mine goes from f/3.5 to f/20. But here’s the tricky part: the wider your aperture, the lower the number. So, an aperture of f/6 is open further than an aperture of f/10. That’s important, so I’m going to say it again:

The wider your aperture, the lower the f/number.

Okay – so what’s the point in being able to raise (close) or lower (open) your aperture? As I already said, it can help compensate in low-light settings, so your shutter speed doesn’t get too long. Or conversely, in strong light, raising your aperture can keep your photos from getting over-exposed or washed out. But there are consequences, and those consequences have mostly to do with what photographers call the Depth of Field.

Depth of Field refers to how much of what you are pointing the camera at will be in focus. With a wide aperture (low f-stop), only the subject you’re focused on will be sharp, while the background will be blurred. With a narrow aperture, everything in the camera’s line of sight will be sharp and clear. This has to do with the angle of light and how it enters the camera and, well, Physics. Don’t make me go there.

Aperture set at 5.6, 9.0 and 22 respectively. See how more of the background detail is in focus the higher the f-number goes? That's depth of field.

Aperture set at 5.6, 9.0 and 22 respectively. See how more of the background detail is in focus the higher the f-number goes? That’s depth of field.

To summarize (because it can be a little confusing at first):

Small f/number Wide aperture Shallow depth of field Good for:

  • close ups
  • portraits
  • macro
  • florals
  • bugs
Large f/number Narrow aperture Wide depth of field Good for:

  • landscapes
  • seascapes
  • sunrises/sunsets/clouds
  • sports
  • photojournalism

The Magic Dance of Shutter Speed and Aperture

When you understand the interconnected relationship between aperture and shutter speed, you have taken the first major step towards shooting with real artistry. In the most general terms, it’s about balancing the light that enters your camera’s lens. Raise one value, lower the other, to avoid under- or over-exposing your photograph. Then you can start making adjustments that will really allow your photos stand out from standard auto-set snapshots.

Aperture, in particular, is an easy way to control the final image, creating hazy backgrounds, blurred foliage, or the sparkling bokeh effect of blurred lights that is particularly popular. With a very wide aperture, you can focus tightly on your subject, while background objects fade into swirl of color and shadow.

Greening

I shoot almost entirely in aperature-priority mode, which means that I control the depth of field while my camera calculates the appropriate shutter speed for me based on its built in light meter.

Burst

You can also choose to shoot in shutter-priority mode, to control the time the shutter stays open. This is useful if you’re, for example, shooting animals or sports and you want to have a fast shutter speed to avoid blurring when the subject moves. Or you can lengthen the shutter speed to to create dreamy effects with moving water, or when you want to capture a shallow depth of field in low-light circumstances. (Just be sure to use a tripod.)

Cauldron

If you like a little math, then you can try shooting in full manual mode, which lets you set both the aperture and the shutter speed yourself – you’ll need to learn more about f-stops, and how much you’ll need to adjust shutter speed for such-and-such a aperture, and vice versa. Personally, that’s more than I want to tackle most of the time – contemplative -anything- does not involve math! I’m happy to let my camera handle the hard part.

That ISO Thing

You’ve doubtless noticed that though I mentioned ISO as the third part of the exposure triangle, I haven’t talked about it much yet.

That’s because, at least as far as I understand and use it, it’s kind of a last-ditch tool for me when it comes to exposure. If I want this shutter speed and that aperture, and my exposure is still too dark, then I raise the ISO to try and compensate. If there a better way to use ISO for artistic purpose, then I’m not familiar with it.

So, there you have the not-so-secret tools you can use to make sure your photos are properly exposed and also artistically interesting. Please feel free to ask questions and point out places where I can improve my descriptions – as I said, I’m no expert, just someone who has learned to muddle my way through the morass of expertise.

Next up in my Contemplative Photography Lesson Plan will be a couple posts about photo composition, so stay tuned!

 

What You Need to Know About Your Camera

Land of Medicind Buddha Retreat Center

I’ll admit, I’m starting with the topic “Know Your Camera” in my Contemplative Photography Lesson Plan because it’s the easiest. Teaching you about your camera isn’t something I can do it a blog post, or even on location during a workshop, unless you happen to be using an Olympus 410-R just like mine. There are just too many differences between cameras (configuration and software) to be able to teach these things to a whole group of people with different cameras all at once. So really, this lesson is about you teaching yourself, which makes it real easy on me.

But this is also first because the more comfortable you are with the technical aspects of your camera, the less you are going to have to worry about when you’re in the field. When you’re intimately familiar with all the buttons, menus and controls available, then you won’t have to stop and fuss with things before you take a shot. Or rather, you can spend more time thinking about why you want to make an adjustment, rather than just how to do it.

Below, I’m going to present a few of the essential functions you really should know how to use. Keep in mind that not every one of these functions will be available on every type of camera. Phone cameras have less functionality than most point-and-shoot models; point-and-shoot models have fewer features than most DSLRs; and film cameras — well, film cameras are in a class all by themselves. Don’t ask me to go there – I haven’t used a film camera since we retired our Kokak Advantix over a decade ago.

What it comes down to, though, is that features on all types of cameras vary wildly depending on the price point and age. The only way to really get to know what YOUR camera does is to actually read the manual. Read it straight through, once. Even if you don’t understand everything you’re reading. If you’re new to photography, you may not have a clue about things like ISO and White Balance, but at least you’ll have a vague awareness whether or not you can make manual adjustments to those settings if you wanted. When you’re ready to learn about those aspects of photography, you can return to the manual (and to supporting books, magazines and web articles) for a deeper understanding of how they work.

Keep this in mind: you don’t have to learn everything all at once. Pick a feature which you want to learn, and practice with it a while until it becomes familiar to use without having to think about it. Then you can move on to something else. There is a lot to learn in photography, and if you try to learn it all at once it you’ll quickly feel overwhelmed and anxious, which is exactly the wrong sort of mood you want when practicing contemplative photography.

So here we go: a generalized list of what I think are the most important features to know how to use on your camera. This list is aimed primarily at point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras, though I may throw in a phone camera tip where appropriate.

ALL THE BUTTONS

A digital camera can have a dizzying array of buttons and dials for you to interact with. Some of them are pretty intuitive, like a trash can for deleting photos, while others may leave you scratching your head. Your manual probably has a diagram mapping out what each of these does, but it can be overwhelming to take in all at once, especially if you’re not familiar with what everything means.

My recommendation is to not try and learn all the buttons at once. Learn the essentials at the outset, then learn additional buttons as you are learning about the functions they control.

The essentials are:

  • Power – Duh.
  • Shutter button – This is the button that actually takes the picture. But find out if your camera is equipped with a two-stage function. This lets you push the button down halfway so the camera can make adjustments like focus and metering; when it beeps, you push the button the rest of the way to take the picture. Low-priced cameras may be missing this feature.
  • Zoom – On point and shoot camera’s the zoom control is usually a little lever up on the top, but not always. For DSLRs, you zoom in by manipulating the lens directly. On an iPhone, you zoom by pinching the screen, and then adjusting the slider (I don’t know about other smart phone cameras).
  • Play – Switches into View mode, so you can review the photos you’ve already taken.
  • Menu – This allows you access to the various settings and controls.
  • Scroll wheel – Not really a wheel, this is usually four separate buttons you use to navigate through menu options. In View mode, they typically allow you to scroll through photos (right and left) and zoom in and out (up and down). It usually has an “OK” button in the middle for making selections.

Screen View

The LCD screen on a digital camera is one of its most prominent features, and also one of it’s most useful. Not only does it allow you to immediately view the pictures you just took, but it also displays a lot of technical information about each shot, and provides access to the advanced controls and settings. It also uses a lot of battery power, so learning how to turn it off and on should be one of the first things you learn. Other things to look for:

  • How many different screen views does the camera offer, and how can you switch between them?
  • What information is available on the different screens?
  • What buttons do you push to access the menus, and how do you navigate through them?
  • How do you switch between “shoot” and “view” modes?
  • How can you zoom in on photos while viewing them, for a close look at details?

Battery

When the battery goes dead, you’re done taking photos for the day, so knowing how to manage battery is an essential skill!

  • Where is the battery compartment, and does it use rechargeable or disposable batteries? Can you plug the camera in directly to charge it, or does the battery need to be removed?
  • How can you monitor the battery level?
  • Will your camera turn itself off if you forget to? After how long?
  • How long can you go before the batteries need to be recharged or replaced?
  • The answer to that last question may not be found in the manual, but it’s something you’ll learn over time and use.

Memory, Picture Size & File Format

In digital photography, picture size corresponds directly to how many pictures you can take – the smaller the photo, the smaller the file size, and the more photos you can fit on a memory card. I’m not going to get into the topic of image sizes right here, but just keep in mind that smaller isn’t always better. If you’re photo file size is too small, you won’t be able to get decent prints. If you go with larger photos, you won’t be able to save as many on your card. So you’ll have to decide what you’re going to use photos for before you start shooting.

  • What kind of memory card does it use? How do you put in and remove the card?
  • How many pictures can be stored in the “onboard” memory, if there’s no memory card in place?
  • Where does the camera display how much memory is left or how many more pictures you can take? How does your camera alert you if the memory is full?
  • What is the default photo size for your camera?
  • How many different sizes are available, and how do you switch between them?
  • What file format choices are available? (JPEG is the most common, but RAW is also popular.)

Modes

When talking about a digital camera, “mode” generally refers to how much control you have over the shot. It’s usually a knob at the top of the camera, near the shutter button and on/off switch, but it might be a button on the back of the camera, too. Besides AUTO, most cameras offer: PROGRAM, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, and a variety of pre-set modes such as “Sunset” and “Sports”. Review the options available.

It’s totally okay to shoot in AUTO, but switching to PROGRAM is a great way to start learning how to play with settings. In AUTO, the camera takes care of everything. In PROGRAM the camera still takes care of everything – except for those things that you deliberately change for creative effect. So if you want to experiment with, for example, a slower shutter speed, you can do that without having to worry about making corresponding adjustments to ISO, aperture, etc. PROGRAM does that for you. Then, when you’re ready, you can step up and take more control with the manual control modes.

Flash Control

I hardly ever shoot with flash, so I don’t have a lot of advice to offer about when to use it or not.* But being able to turn it on and off at need is crucial. Some cameras offer more complex control of the flash, too, so learn what you can and can’t change.

  • How do you turn the automatic flash off and on?
  • If there a flash delay?
  • Is there a red-eye prevention mode?
  • Can you reduce the flash level so the light is not as strong?

Auto Focus On/Off

If you’re shooting with a DSLR, you have the option of manually focusing your lens in order to create a particular effect. Personally, I always shoot with auto-focus because I’m lazy and can’t be bothered and, also, I think my eyes are just not that sharp. But in case you are more enthusiastic than I – or for situations when auto-focus just isn’t cooperating – you need how to turn the feature off and on.

Focal Point

If you are using auto focus, then you need to know what point your camera is using as a focal point. By default, it’s the center of the image, but with many cameras you can change that to enhance various compositions. Choices include setting it to the left or right of center, and also up or down. Fancier cameras have a “continual focus” feature that automatically compensate for moving subjects. The focal point usually shows up as a flashing, bracketed dot in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen when you push the shutter button down halfway. Find out if and how you can change it.

Retreat

Focal point shifted to left of center.

 Camera phone tip: To select the focal point when shooting with your iPhone, just tap the spot on the screen while you are framing your shot. Otherwise it will select the most prominent feature in the frame to focus on. (I don’t know if other smart phone cameras work this way or not. Check the manual for your model!)

ISO Settings

Remember when you used to buy film, and you had to decide whether you should buy 100, 200 or 400 film? That number referred to how sensitive the film was – the higher the number, the more sensitive the film. ISO works the same way, indicating how much light the sensor inside your camera will absorb while the shutter is open. When light is low, you generally want a higher ISO so that the shutter doesn’t have to stay open as long in order to take a picture.

ISO detail

Click to see this full-sized. Look in the dark area around the eye to see the noise.

Most cameras will adjust ISO automatically according to the ambient light, but you can adjust it manually as well, with typical values of 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1600. Newer, more expensive cameras can go even higher. The trade off with a high ISO is increased “noise” in your photos – that is, grainy flecks across the image (though more and more cameras are conquering this problem).

To test your camera’s noise at high ISO settings, set up to take an series of interior shots. Leave all the other settings the same, but change the ISO between each shot. Compare them on the computer to see how much noise is added.

Aperture and Shutter Speed

These two controls are probably the two most powerful tools you can have to control your photo’s artistry – and I’m not going tell you about them. At least, not in this post. My next post will be about the Exposure Trio, and we’ll get into how to use each of these effectively. For now simply familiarize yourself with the controls (if they’re available).

  • What buttons or dials control each setting?
  • Where are the current settings displayed?

White Balance

“Old fashioned” photographers** used light meters to gauge the light and adjust their cameras to compensate for different types of light – midday versus dusk, cloudy versus sunny, incandescent versus florescent, etc. Modern digital cameras have built-in light meters, and when you’re shooting in auto mode they will compensate as necessary.

Effects of white balance

White balance is really one of the most important adjustments you can make for good looking photos, because the color and tone the light can really affect the final picture. If you’ve ever had to put on makeup under a fluorescent light then you know exactly what I mean. Colors are just different when the light is different. You can experiment with with white balance the same way you do with ISO, but you won’t even have to upload the photos to compare. You’ll be able to see the differences right on the view screen.

  • How do you set white balance?
  • How many settings (including auto) are available and which situations is each best for?

Existential Familiarity

Aside from knowing what everything on your camera does, there is a kind of camera intimacy that only comes from actually using your camera a lot. Even if you never change a single setting, you’ll become more knowledge about how your camera works the more you take photos and look at the results. With experience, you learn how your lens sees, and you learn to maximize your camera’s unique vision to the best effect. I know it sounds a little woo-woo, but but it’s true – your relationship with your camera is like a partnership that improves the more you become familiar with it.

* Because I mostly shoot outdoors in daylight.

** And really, professionals still do.

 

Two Worlds

Saturday's Rose

I have a folder of edited photos on my hard drive labeled “Magical.”

It’s filled with photos that I have edited not just to improve or highlight, but to transform. Photos that try to look beyond what the camera actually captured and see … something … that lies beyond our normal vision.

Which is why this page from my journal, drawn on New Year’s Eve, is more of a self-portrait than might be apparent at first glance.

She Sees in Two Worlds

A Contemplative Photography Lesson Plan

 Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.

— André Gide

Lily Dilly

Last spring, I was invited by my friend Melodye to take part in a yoga and mindfulness retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains, and to offer a workshop to participants introducing the concept of Contemplative Photography. I have taught workshops about creative journaling, but I had never thought about offering anyone lessons in photography – that’s best left for the professionals, not someone who just messes around with a camera and occasionally gets a good photo in the process.

But then, the point of this particular workshop wasn’t meant to be about photography, so much as it was about contemplation. Though I’d never heard or paid attention to the phrase “contemplative photography” before, it pretty much sums up how I operate. I go for a walk somewhere, look at the world through my camera lens, and push the button when I see something interesting. My problem was, how do you teach something  you just do instinctively on your own to a group of other people? I had to be somewhat more organized than, “go out and take some pictures.”

Catch the Light

I won’t go into the all the iterations of thought that I tried out, but in the end, I managed to put together a simple lesson plan to introduce the concept and quickly get people out there shooting mindfully.  I even made a simple pocket-sized card for the participants, laminated, as a way they could carry the simple lessons with them.

Here’s what was on the front:

In my view you cannot claim to have seen something until you have photographed it.

- Emile Zola

1. Be an observer, not an interpreter
2. Know your camera
3. Detach from judgment
4. Rule of thirds
5 Try another angle
6. Your feet are the best zoom
7 . Exposure = ISO, Aperture, Shutter speed
And on the reverse:
Photo Walk Themes:
Color
Texture
Light
Space
Patterns
Simplicity

In retrospect, this list seems kind of random and mixed up. I see technical info (2, 6, 7) and artistic recommendations (4, 5) alongside contemplative encouragement(1, 3). Though I don’t don’t disagree with any of the little tidbits of advice I’ve offered, neither can I look back at the list and get a clear picture of what vision I was trying to offer in the 90 minutes we were granted that day.

Pink Smile

I guess whatever I was doing worked, as I’e been told participants really enjoyed the session. Of course, even the worst workshop in the world would have been enjoyable, wandering among the redwoods as we were!

In order to get a better grip on the what i’m doing for the next time I teach this subject, I’m going to be writing about the different topics I listed on that card, and some different ones that I’ve come up with since. And yes, I will be teaching this again! You can join Melodye and I next June, along with author Jeannine Atkins and other special guests for Candles in the Window: A Writing and Yoga Retreat (with Chocolate!). Here are the details from the website:

CANDLES IN THE WINDOW:
A Writing and Yoga Retreat (With Chocolate)

candles in the window

Just as yoga helps bring us home to our bodies, writing helps bring us home to ourselves. Drawing inspiration from both disciplines, we’ll create a nurturing space in which to explore new ideas and develop our own essential truths. Here, our personal experiences serve as traveling guides, and our imaginations glow like candles in the window, inviting us home.

Retreat Location and Itinerary

Nestled into the redwood groves of Soquel, California, Land of Medicine Buddha is the perfect place in which to nurture ourselves, and to feed our creative urges! It’s about 80 miles south of San Francisco, and 8 miles from the sparkling beaches in Santa Cruz.

Together in this beautiful environment, we’ll enjoy:

      • Writing workshops (guided and unstructured activities for writers in all genres)
      • Gentle yoga classes, designed for beginning to advanced yoga practitioners
      • Photography walk
      • Chocolate-infused writing session, courtesy of EarthHoney Chocolates
      • Access to the Tibetan Buddhist Library materials and the Wish Fulfilling Temple
      • Six farm-to-table, vegetarian meals
      • 2 nights’ lodging (single or double-occupancy rooms; prices adjusted accordingly)

You may also schedule a massage, collaborate on your writing projects, or take a 6.5 mile run/hike through the Enchanted Forest. Avail yourself of these experiences and more, in this transformative place!

Please click to learn more – early bird registration is open now, and I’d love to see you there! In the meantime, you can look forward to (hopefully) weekly posts on the topics in this lesson plan. If you have any feedback or additional topics you’d like to see, please let me know.

How Did You Find Me in 2013?

Passage

My annual “how’d you find me” post isn’t going to be as much fun this year as it used to be, thanks to the increased number of results from Google showing up as “unknown search term” – more than half of my search term results were unknown, so I can’t guess what those people may have been looking for at all. Did you find it?

But here’s some of the more interesting stats:

Variations of my name – 10
People looking for bookmarks – 24
Creative journaling and/or lettering – 15
Juan Cabrillo – 2
Tim Burton / Beauty & the Beast – 4

And some of the more unique single hits:

Medieval butterflies
Stairs in the wood
Color crash
Mythic designs
Sight magical sensitivity castle marrach (sorry, I have no clue how to get this!)
Texture page from old book pages with turned and torn edges
Guys with huge feet

Just to see if anyone is paying attention, I will send a prize to the first person who identifies the post that last one refers to. Leave your answer in the comments!

(Picture is unrelated, but I thought I’d share it. Taken last August in New Hampshire, at “America’s Stonehenge.”)