Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Experiments in Airplane Photography - Part I

Recently (Can't say when because there's no WiFi here aboard UA395) I saw an article online that offered a simple, but useful suggestion on how to improve photos taken from an airplane. I've been meaning to try it out, and today I finally got around to do so.

Shortly after takeoff from IND on UA3473, the plane banked slightly (See tip #3 in the article above) and I pounced at the opportunity.

I confess intentionally copied the composition of the example photo (hence the inclusion of the engine). The composition adds depth to the photo.

But even without the engine, the photo is much better than my usual regrettably dull airplane photos (I've kindly refrained from including one of those lackluster photos in this post).

One improvement in this photo is that the top of the photo isn't faded the way such photos usually turn out. In hindsight, I now recognize that my previous photos suffered because they inevitably grew increasingly desaturated from bottom to top. Including the horizon in the photo was essentially a sure-fire recipe for a bland photo. Taking the photo when the plane banked as the article suggested took care of that.

The banking suggestion also helped overcome another problem I've had with these photos. Ever notice that windows in commercial jets inevitably slope upwards? That tiny design decision practically forces photos to include that boring, desaturated horizon. I wonder if there's a reason for that design. I read recently online (therefore it must be true) that airplane windows are intentionally rounded. They have a nasty tendency to fail otherwise.

Full disclosure: I enhanced the photo in Photoshop (increased the saturation, adjusted the levels to darken the midtones). I've found that combo to be a tremendously effective tool for improving photos in general. In the case of this photo, that combo helped two ways. First, it lessened the lingering traces of that annoying bottom-to-top desaturation problem. Second, the combo eliminated a another recurring problem I've had with airplane photos: glare and shadows cast on the window.

I'm hesitant to include this next version of the photo, because some anti-Photoshop fanatic out there is likely to accuse me of having cheated in the photo above.

To you, whoever you are, I Photoshop to make my photos more asthetically pleasing - prettier, if you will.

More often than not, my goal in photography is artistry as opposed to accuracy. I'm not attempting to document. I'm attempting to capture the feeling of the moment as I experienced it when I took the photo. So there.

But take a moment and examine the engine again in this un-Photoshopped version of the photo. Two things are going on: There's a shadow reflected from seat 1A dividing the engine in half diagonally, and running perpendicular to the shadow there is glare streaking across the engine.

Previously I've figured out that one method to reduce shadows and glare in the airplane windows is to shove my camera lens as close to the window as possible. Another method I've figured out is to cloak myself with a piece of clothing such as a jacket. That second method kind of makes me look like one of those old-time photographers hiding underneath the black fabric on the back of an old-fashioned large format camera - except that doing it on a plane makes me look more like a dork than say Ansel Adams.

I have a theory about shoving the camera lens up to the window: Even though the optics are better and the pixel resolution is higher in my 30D, I'm more likely to get better photos with my iPhone 4S, surprisingly. I'll be taking both on our upcoming trip to the UK. I'll try there. I doubt I'll be able to do so on the outbound flight since I'm stuck in an aisle seat. I can't complain too much, though, since that seat is in business class. Oh wait, yes I can... Alicia's seat is in first class. :-)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Are You Looking For...

Our friends Bill and Betty are visiting us this weekend. The scenery where we first met set a high bar to cross, so Alicia and I needed to take them on an impressive tour of some sort otherwise we ran the risk that they would find Santa Cruz lacking.

We decided to take them out on the Chardonnay. They did not let us down. In addition to unequaled views of the coastline, we were treated to views of sea lions, pelicans, sea otters, cormorants, a whale, and the annular solar eclipse. Special thanks to the British couple who had the foresight to bring several sets of eclipse glasses.

All in all, I think we've done a good job of presenting Santa Cruz favorably. We've taken them for a walk on West Cliff, toured the UCSC campus (viewing the murals in the Merrill College moat), and strolled along Rio Del Mar and Seacliff beaches (with a brief tangent out to the end of the wharf to see the Cement Ship up close). And all of this sightseeing has been made even more spectacular with this weekend's glorious weather.

[ As a entirely skippable aside, I was amused by the picture of the Merrill moat murals in the article I linked to above. It just so happens that my mural is in the picture... Well sort of. My mural, which I painted more than twenty years ago, is to the immediate right of the "If you can walk, you can dance" mural. [As an aside to my aside, I am living proof that the whole walking=dancing theory is faulty.] "What," you wonder, "was the significance of your shadowy man casting a shadow" mural? I have no clue. My mural is countless layers under other murals on that spot. Would anyone like to fund an art restoration project? ]

But back to the eclipse.

After our entirely enjoyable cruise on the bay, we headed back home to Aptos. We needed a quick stop a store, and that's where the story begins.

As I was walking across the parking lot towards the store entrance, a couple in their teens walked toward me.

Through the glare of the sun behind them, I could see their disheveled appearance and their cardboard sign (on which was scribbled some variant of the "Will work for food" theme). I assumed that I was about to get hit up for some money.

I was wrong.

Instead, the guy asked me, "Are you looking for the eclipse?"

The scene unfolded in my mind in approximately ten different ways - each included one smart ass response or another on my part.

But they both looked so dejected. Clearly they had heard that there was an eclipse taking place, but they couldn't find it.

Out of the wealth of available where's-the-eclipse retorts, I picked the one that seemed lest obnoxious. I pointed behind them in the general direction of the sun and said - with a slight smirk on my face - it's right there.

I had composed myself sufficiently by the time I responded that I able to refrain from laughing as I said it. And I'm glad I didn't. His question was earnest, and he likely didn't need (and certainly didn't want)  some stranger making him look foolish in front of his female companion. Back when I was his age, I wouldn't have needed a stranger to make me look like a fool. I was quite self-sufficient in that regard.

They turned around and looked up at the sun.

"But," they objected, "we can't see it."

"Must... not... laugh..." I commanded myself silently.

Instead I performed my first good deed of the day. [ I suppose some might consider the kindness behind my initial response to them to be a good deed, but I don't think selecting the least obnoxious retort qualifies. ] My good deed?

"Stop looking before you burn out your eyes," I advised them.

"But how do we see it?"

That's when I did my second good deed of the day. Trying valiantly to avoid sounding condescending, I explained how to create a crude pin hole camera.

"You just poke a tiny round hole in a piece of paper, hold it up to the sunlight, and let the sun sign onto a surface," I explained.

"But we don't have a piece of paper."

Unfortunately for them, I was in that oh-great-someone-is-hitting-me-up-for-money mode, and my trajectory took me right past them as I continued on my way to the store.

As I entered the store, I looked back and saw that they had both sat down on a curb in the parking lot looking like they had nowhere to go and nothing better to do. I wondered for a moment what they had thought about our brief interaction. I hoped that I had managed not to sound too obnoxious, but I also hoped that I didn't seem too insensitive just walking away. I wondered what they were saying to each other.

My theory?


I did my shopping and was leaving the store when I noticed a discarded weekly advertising supplement on the floor. I grabbed the piece of paper, turned around, and headed back towards the cashier. I borrowed a pen, poked the tiniest, roundest hole that I could, and headed out the door.

I walked up to the teens on my way back to the car and stopped to talk with them some more.

"Here you go," I said cheerfully holding up and waving the piece of paper as I approached.

"How do you use it?" he asked. I handed them the piece of paper and explained that you hold up the piece of paper, let the light shine though, and let the light shine on some sort of flat surface.

"But we don't have a surface," he replied.

"Ah, but you do," I responded. I took their "Will work for food" cardboard sign, positioned her a few feet back with the piece of paper, and had him hold the sign.

All of my restraint was rewarded as the crescent shape of the eclipse appeared on the cardboard.

"Coooooooool," he said in that teen-years rough approximation of awe.

I'm going to have to wait to proofread this post till later. Bill, Betty, Alicia, and I are headed down to Monterey where we'll be meeting Theresa, another of of shipmates on the previously mentioned trip down south, for a behind the scenes tour of Monterey Bay Aquarium. We'll follow that up with a hike at Point Lobos.

That should nicely cap Bill and Betty's trip to California.