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Zen Night Watch Tower

Zen Night Watch Tower

If you don’t have a fear of heights, this will give you it. Think of it as a bus stop 75 feet in the air. More Zen.

First National Bank, Downtown St. Paul

First National Bank, Downtown St. Paul

Xcel Energy Parking Garage, St. Paul, MN

Xcel Energy Parking Garage, St. Paul, MN

Plenty of parking in the middle of the night. This is the first shot with my car-window camera mount that I bought back in the winter when I was hating being outside. If you decide to take a long exposure night shot with such a thing, turn the car off to avoid vibration and sit still (cars wobble pretty easy, but you Casanova-types know that already) .

Number 4771

Number 4771

Trains, glorious trains. This beastie is sitting quietly in one of the many railyards in the Twin Cites; specifically one next to a round house just off I-94 in St. Paul. It always amazes me how many freaking railyards there are and how many there used to be. Like looking for ancient meteor craters, you can find them on google satellite maps and see the familiar shape (long wedge shapes near tracks) with new buildings, sometimes town-homes or a shopping center.

I love how the face of ol’ number 4711 iridesces in the morning light, must be something in the paint as it fades.

Have a great week, it’s warming up in Minneapolis and Mitchs are much more active when it’s warm. Watch for your daily photo here and please, look both ways before crossing the tracks.

Winter Carnival Medallion Treasure Hunt and Beauty Queens

Winter Carnival Medallion Treasure Hunt and Beauty Queens

Behold the invading beauty queens. As Lynne and I sat in the Landmark Center, joyful of the warmth and our bellies full of hot dish, we were taken by surprise by a gaggle of beauty queens. The Landmark Center was mostly empty, being the middle of a weekday, then they burst onto the scene. There had to be a hundred of them, all wearing their tiaras and sashes. It was very surreal. I kept thinking of the video game “Grand Theft” which has cheat codes where you can turn all the people in the game into clowns or gangsters. It was like we typed in the cheat code “givethemalltiaras” and poof — everyone was a beauty queen sporting a tiara. The Winter Carnival is an odd thing, ice castles, snow sculptures, skating on city streets, a hot-dish tent (seriously), roving gangs of beauty queens and…

So I spent last night wandering an undisclosed park in St. Paul. I was settling in for the evening when my friend Bob calls; he’s certain that he knows where it is. Half an hour later, flashlight in hand, we are “boots on the ground” searching for the Winter Carnival Medallion. One of the great activities of the St. Paul Winter Carnival is the Medallion Treasure Hunt. The local paper prints lyrical clues to a treasure hunt. Somewhere, on public property, they hide medallion. There’s cash, glory and a year of groceries from Cub on the line. Needless to say, we returned to Minneapolis dejected and empty handed. Well, I wish we returned empty-handed, Bob kept looking up clues with his Treo while driving — Oh, God…

Christmas Lights & Night Photography

Christmas Lights & Night Photography

As we head into the final stretch of the Holidays, I plan on presenting several night pictures of Christmas lights. In my comments, many of my readers are asking about how to take night photos, so here is some tips and techniques for you on how to do this.

Night Photography

Taking pictures at night is about managing very little light. The big three variables that deal with the quantity of light are ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

ISO (pronounced eye-so, it’s not an acronym) determines the sensor sensitivity. A higher ISO allows for low light conditions, but at a high price. High ISO images have increased noise, which appears as grainy patterns on the image. Since most outdoor night shots have big black skies, the noise can be really obvious, so stay down to low ISOs, like 100.

Aperture is your creative variable. The bigger the aperture, the narrower the depth of field. The number of the aperture is the denominator in a fraction, so the smaller the number the bigger the aperture it represents. With a big aperture of 2.8 or 3.5 you can focus on something close and have the background out of focus like this, or this. With a small aperture, you can keep lots of things in focus. Today’s picture above was taken at a smaller aperture (f 11) to keep lots of subjects in focus. With tighter aperture, there is less light coming in, but it’s all in focus. Play around with this, you can get neat effects at wide apertures, but f 8 and higher help keep all the lights in focus.

So now that I have told you to set the first two variables at the most light-demanding settings, we come to shutter speed. It’s going to take a long exposure to make this work, and I mean a second or more. Some of my pics that you have seen are ten seconds (holidazzle pics) or even 20 seconds. These long exposures can also give you fun effects like car light lines, but be careful, trees moving in the wind will blur. How do I work with a long exposure?

Get a good tripod. Those light weight cheap tripods are easy to carry, but my favorite is big heavy Manfrotto. Not only is it heavy and stable, it makes for a good weapon, so I feel better skulking around at night in the big city. Your camera has to remain perfectly still for the whole time the shutter is open — big tripod, good footing. Then you have to be careful while pushing the shutter. I place my hand on top of the camera and gently push the trigger then leave my hand on the camera, play around, find whatever way you can do it without shaking the camera works for you. How about a cable release? Yes, that’s a good idea, but every camera I bought needs a different one and they can cost $50 or more. I had one a month ago, but I was using it when it was 25 degrees out (not cold here) and it broke! Since then I’ve found with a gentile technique and a good tripod, I don’t need it.

The amount of ambient light can vary a lot in the winter, if it’s humid, the light can scatter in the sky and light everything like a cloudy day. This will give you a lot more light than you realize. For the first few times, take a lot of pictures and shoot brackets (several pictures in a row with different settings i.e. different shutter speeds). It takes a while to get a feel for it, but you learn a lot. If your camera has a histogram, use it to see how the exposure is going. Judging the exposure by looking at the LCD is difficult at night, the LCD is so relatively bright at night that you might think it’s a good shot only to come home and find it way under exposed.

White balance is very tricky at night. It depends on what lights are around. This one ended up at around 2800K. So if you can, shoot in RAW and determine the white balance later. I can talk about RAW at a later time, this post is getting way to long.

There’s a pretty good explanation of night photography, I didn’t realize how much I was doing until I wrote this. It becomes intuitive after a while. The problem is that when it’s 3 degrees out, it’s hard to relax and think out a shot and then wait 10 seconds for an exposure. My hands were seriously hurting by the time I stopped shooting these pictures.

Oh yeah, one more thing, this was shot with the Tamron 11-18mm Ultra-Wide.