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2012 Favorites

In mid-December Mary from All Over Albany floated the idea of running a series of posts with local photographers’ favorite photos from the year. The idea was to use them while the AOA crew took their winter break, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. I sent her this one as my favorite Albany-related photo, I like how it came together and shows the public side of one of Albany’s best public spaces. I also pointed some other local photographers her way, people who I thought have great work but don’t get a lot of attention for it, and since the AOA post didn’t pan out I wanted to show what they picked too.

Empire Plaza, Albany, NY
Paul Sesink Clee

Empire Plaza, Albany, NY
Paul Sesink Clee

Paul went with these two so I figure I’ll show them both, and I remember first seeing them on flickr and especially liking the bus driver photo myself. His street work is good with a lot of interesting experimentation, and check out the Everyday Disposable series.

Untitled
Daniel Meade

Daniel does a lot of instant and expired film, something I usually find gimmicky. But in his case, the images are usually stronger than the method, so instead of being mainly about the film used it adds to the final product. This one he picked of Thacher Park is a good example, it’s a great landscape no matter what was used to make it.

MAD Irish Toast Wake
Patrick Stephenson

Drinking Buddies
Patrick Stephenson

Patrick also picked two, so here you go. The first is one of the best portraits I’ve seen, and doubly interesting since we mourned the loss of the Miss Albany Diner last year. The second is a still from a short film he created, Biollante. Check it out.

D44 crossing the Hoosick River
William Gill

Will forwarded this one to me, saying:

This photo was taken this summer on Fisherman’s Lane in Schaghticoke at 3am in the middle of a thunderstorm. This is one of the last 3 locomotives remaining in the Delaware & Hudson paint scheme. With their headquarters at the base of State St in Albany and their main shops in Colonie, the D&H was railroading in the Capital District. Their first diesel locomotives were black. The lightning-stripe scheme represented the changes of the early 1960s: they no longer burned coal in steam locomotives and increasingly knew that hauling coal from PA to Albany was no longer a future. With Pennsylvanian coal out of the picture, the D&H was free to paint their locomotives in bright blue, gray, and yellow. The Delaware and Hudson was purchased by Canadian Pacific in 1991.

He posted it on his own blog too. In addition to the excellent train photos, most taken at night, he has great lifestyle/party work and knows his way around a flash.

A few other photographers I like who I referred to Mary, but haven’t heard from: James DiBianco does mainly sports and urbex, but there’s a lot of other subjects mixed in there too, the guy knows how to hustle; Andrew Wertz has a great eye for landscape and New Topographics style which I especially like; and Chris “skippmarv” who just has an insane eye for dramatic light and shadow. If any of you guys see this, I’d love to see your favorite, drop me a line.

I do regret that I didn’t single out any female photographers. I don’t see a lot of interesting work from local female photographers who don’t get a lot of exposure, but I’m pretty sure that’s my fault for not looking hard enough, I’m going to try to fix that.

Sebastien also has a 2012 favorites post up with other impressive local work, check it out.

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Street Photography Ain’t Simple

A while back my friend Sebastien blogged about a foray into street photography after picking up a new camera. I took umbrage at what I saw as a gear related, throw-money-at-the-problem answer to a question that has not much to do with gear or money, resulting in a comment thread including French translation and disemvowelment. Revisiting all that is fun and I was unfair, everyone’s approach to their own work is valid right? Or maybe there is a right and wrong. Anyway, unless he is planning to be the next Vivian Maier it looks like the street bug hasn’t bitten him in a while which makes me sad.

In retrospect what really got me going was the fact that by that time I’d been practicing candid photography — trying to define “street” is like wrestling a grizzly bear covered in Crisco, you’ll never get ahold of anything and just end up worse for the effort — for a couple of years and here this French guy picks up a new camera, snaps a few frames, and suddenly has something to say about it? Kind of galling. That was unfair too, and I need to remember to focus more on making my own work and less on what others are doing. He has the same right as anyone to share his thoughts and experiences. I’m going to take advantage of that right too, and probably regret it a year or two from now.

Larkfest 2009

So this is one of my earlier attempts. I did what a lot of people do at first, faced with the terrifying prospect of actually interacting with people in public, and fired off a hipshot instead of using the viewfinder. Thankfully there was no hope of this photo being anything but terrible, but the hipshooting made it worse. lesson learned.

2009 Scott Kelby Photo Walk, Albany NY

The annual Scott Kelby Photo Walk is a thing, and I did it in 2009, with the intent of taking candids to show the people and daily life of Albany, rather than macro flower photos or something. I used a really long telephoto, and you can see how that turned out, there’s something really creepy about this photo. This one is even worse. I decided very quickly that I don’t like candid telephoto. A macro flower photo was picked for the photo walk that year.

So I played on the title of Sebastien’s post because after a couple years of doing this stuff, I think it really is easy. That is, it’s accessible, anyone can try it, there’s virtually no barrier to entry. If you are reading this you have some kind of picture taking technology and live in a society where people play out some of their lives in public. In fact this might be the most democratic of genres, because traditionally technical merits can be and often are overlooked in the case of a good photo. Flickr proved this. Don’t get me wrong, I have a spot in my heart for macro flowers too, but that requires specific, often expensive equipment and some technical knowledge and experience. For street, something with minimal shutter lag is about all I would ask for, and even that’s optional. If it’s not already I expect the iPhone to be the most popular street camera in history soon.

Balboa Park, San Diego California

So in that sense, it’s easy. And I kept working at it, carrying my big, heavy, obvious, definitely not for the street according to some camera everywhere I could, taking occasional photos like this. After a while the fear wears off, by which I mean I don’t have the excuse of hipshooting to explain what went wrong here. And I learned that while it’s easy, it’s not simple at all. It took many, many tries before I started making photos with something I liked. They’re still few and far between. Some of that is thanks to lessons learned, like that an interesting subject doesn’t necessarily make an interesting photo (in fact there’s usually an inverse relationship), and that even with a huge camera to your face most people actively try to ignore you (as in the “pick a fight” scene in Fight Club) and those who don’t almost always have something interesting to say if you just talk to them, with negative confrontations very rare. Working on this kind of photography has brought me out of my own shell, so even if I never make an excellent photo I’ve gained something. But the other side of the not simple equation is that you’re working with (or against) the full entropy of the universe. Good photos are everywhere but they can vanish as quickly as you can get the camera up. The unexpected is what you’re looking for and what ruins almost every frame. This is not a still life you can set up and shoot from fifty different angles (Weston I still love your peppers). You control only where you point the camera and when you press the button. The rest is not up to you.

Troy River Street Festival 2011

Shooting events is largely responsible for reigniting my interest in photography a few years ago, and it’s a good entry point into street. Stop shooting the parade and start shooting the crowd. Even better, the lessons you learn from that complex problem will make your photos of the parade better too. These days when I go to a street fair I take very few photos of what’s on the tables and stages, instead the people behind and around them. It’s more challenging partially because the obvious — the parade, the bent fork sculptures, the girls in tank tops hired by a promotional company — are designed to be eye catching. The other stuff is not, so you have to find what’s interesting about it.

Soapbox Derby, Albany NY

Where’s this all headed? I don’t know. I’m not ready to call myself a street photographer, but there’s a long history of folks dropping the genre after a couple of decades of work. The famous Henri Cartier-Bresson finished his days as a painter, not a photographer. Maybe if I ever get to the point where it’s not a challenge, I’ll get tired of it, the same way I became interested in it because photos of fireworks and abandoned factories are not challenging anymore. In the meantime, I’m actually getting positive feedback here and there, which is nice; this year I entered three street photos in the Mohawk-Hudson Regional and was awarded the Albany Center Gallery Board of Directors prize, for which I’m very grateful.

St. Patrick's Day 2012, Albany NY

That was one of them. I’m no Winogrand either.

Shortly after writing a draft of this, a not-Sebastien friend who takes excellent candid photos of family and friends started a conversation about street photography. It began with the telephoto issue but we covered a few other bases. I eventually summed it up as well as I could by saying that I’m part of the society and world that I’m photographing, there’s no way to separate myself from that, and I want as little distance as possible — not just physically — between me and what/who is in my photos. Well, I didn’t say it that clearly. But that approach, which I learned through an interest in street, has fully influenced all the photos I make.

Washington Park, Albany NY

Then again, Capa said “If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” and he stepped on a land mine.

Troy, NY 12.04.2011

“Stepping on a Land Mine” would have been a good title for this because I’m sure I’m doing that.

Street photography, or at least a street “approach” (christ, if I can’t define “street” I should probably avoid phrases like that), is the only thing that convinces me to pick up the camera some days. But also, the fact that it is so not-simple, and that I still haven’t made a photo that I’m really, truly, 100% happy with, causes a monthly crisis of confidence. Following a few really great photographers on flickr doesn’t help that (though it helps a lot of other things). Mostly this style of photography is just fun as hell, and the world is so interesting even though I don’t understand it much. Making these photos is partially an attempt to figure it out.

Lake George, New York

I put together a street set on flickr, which shows me some trends in my own work. I could build bodies of work around the following subjects:

– dogs
– people getting their photo taken
– people taking photos
– people leaning on railings
– butts

Washington Park, Albany NY

At some point I’ll get all five of those in one photo and then I’ll probably quit.

That’s probably enough from me for now. There are lots of good resources out there for street photography, all of which have better photos than I do. The Hardcore Street Photography flickr group has an excellent pool, with hit-and-miss discussion. A few other good flickr groups, not all dedicated expressly to street but with a general focus on that aesthetic: La Familia Abrazada, At War With the Obvious, Sharpness is Such a Bourgeois Concept, SeriousBalloons (yes really), and Rule of Third Beers. The number of websites dedicated to street is staggering, but a few I really like are iN PUBLiC, Blake Andrews, La Pura Vida, American Suburb X, and holy crap, a lot more. Michael David Murphy doesn’t update his blog much these days but his Ways of Working series is still a great intro. If you want more web stuff and use Google Reader email me and I’ll export my 200+ feed photo folder.

There are some great books out there too, and I can’t recommend more highly the act of physically looking at prints, even in book form. Bystander is sadly out of print but as close as it comes to a history of the genre by people who know what they’re talking about. Street Photography Now includes more contemporary work with an outstanding bibliography. There are lots of how to books out there but most of them are crap by bandwagon jumpers looking to make a buck. Be careful. If you’re near any small or larger metro area local libraries can be a surprisingly good resource, find the branch that has the best photo selection and block off an hour or so to pull a couple big books down and just look at photos.

Oh, there’s some good stuff on Youtube too, try a search for Bruce Gilden, Joel Meyerowitz, or Garry Winogrand for a start. And Bill Cunningham New York was a great movie! And as for that crisis of confidence thing earlier, this Ira Glass interview helps.

That’s all from me. For now.

2011 Restoration Festival

RestFest 2011 - Deer Tick
Deer Tick

Sometimes people get a chance to put up or shut up. Through the work of a capricious universe — call it fate, a higher power, or whatever — the folks behind this year’s Restoration Festival got that chance, and put up like you’ve probably never seen it putted upped before.

RestFest (or as it is alternately called, Restoration Funstival, Restoration Funkstival, Wristoration Fistival, etc.) is an annual two-day concert begun in 2010 to help fund the rehabilitation of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Albany’s Arbor Hill neighborhood. completed in 1856, “[t]he walls of this Gothic Revival building are bluestone, and the trim was orginially buff stone from the Caen quarries of France. [. . .] The steeple, designed by Albany architects M.L. and H.G. Emery, was added around 1910. The interior is embellished with a hammerbeam roof structure with angels’ heads and a polychrome ceiling” (Albany Architecture. Edited by Diana S. Waite. Mount Ida Press, via the RestFest website). You can see some great views of the interior architecture from Sebastien’s coverage of Heavy, an arts fundraiser last year. It’s easy to see why this is a monument worth saving.

Held on August 27th & 28th, the music included many local acts plus some notable nationals; I was interested in catching Titus Andronicus on Saturday and Hawk & and a Hacksaw on Sunday. You can review the full schedule but Sunday didn’t quite turn out as planned.

RestFest 2011 - Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus

Arriving late on saturday, I missed all of the early performers but made it for most of Titus Andronicus’ set. They’ve been on my radar for a couple years now and were awesome to see live, even if the space didn’t necessarily cater to their sound. The play from whence the name comes from has been described as “an extraordinary fusion of the savage and the sublime”, which aptly describes the music. They have a great brash “wall of sound” punk thing going on and brought some awesome energy to the stage, which is always appreciated in a live show.

RestFest 2011 - Deer Tick
Deer Tick

Deer Tick was mostly unknown to me but did an amazing job of capping off the night with their own take on alt-country and some really good covers. Launching into Bastards of Young put a huge grin on my face. Theirs is not a genre I instinctively head toward, but maybe that’s because the live experience is way more satisfying than a recording.

Day two was when fate stepped in. You may remember something else noteworthy that happened on August 27th & 28th — tropical storm (née hurricane) Irene swept through, bringing record flood levels for upstate New York. While Albany was spared some of the worst, water inundating the cathedral and threats of power outages caused frantic scrambling to let the show go on. But go on it did, and I have to give serious props the staff and volunteers who made it happen, especially the B3nson collective behind the show’s organization. Less dedicated people would have literally called it a wash, especially with the meager trickle of concertgoers in attendance when I showed up around 3pm. Didn’t stay that way though, turns out you can’t stop dedicated fans either.

<a href="RestFest 2011 - We are Jeneric“>
We are Jeneric

Let’s break for a second because I know you’re wondering why some of these photos are black and white and some are in color. Or let’s just pretend you are. The answer is that I don’t always see what’s staring me in the face. The camera/lens/software combination I used was simply not up to the task of photos in a very dark, very big space, and I pushed a little too hard ending up with lots and lots of noise. I went to some great lengths to clear it up as much as possible to deliver a few to All Over Albany, with limited success. Returning to the photos later, I realized that in black and white I like the noise, so I went through the not much simpler conversion. Do I wish these were cleaner and that I took more advantage of the sweet colored LED panels on stage? Sure, but not every photo needs to be glossy-magazine-ad slick, it’s a good lesson to remember that technical perfection doesn’t make a photo good.

RestFest 2011 - Swamp Baby
Swamp Baby

The storm did more than deluge the building, it led to a major shuffling of Sunday’s lineup with the news that Hawk & and a Hacksaw and The Music Tapes couldn’t fly in. The organizers made the day “pay what you will”, and the rest of the acts stepped up in a big way. Slender Shoulders and Swamp Baby did a great job warming things up, but a big surprise, and one of the best performances of the weekend, came from We are Jeneric. They brought some big sound and the dam broke, pulling the audience to their feet in dancing, shouting, cheering defiance of the weather.

RestFest 2011 - Matthew Carefully Undone Ensemble
Matthew Carefully Undone Ensemble

But I was truly waiting for Matthew Carefully’s Undone Ensemble. I’d heard rumblings of this project months before but had no idea how completely awesome it would be on stage. Matthew brought together over a dozen singers and instrumentalists in a group that breaks with his traditional style. “No Looping. No electronic instruments.” The opening timpanis gave me a Radiohead In Rainbows shudder, and the full force of the entire group elevating Matthew’s vocals was something to behold. I hope he’s lied to us and that this will happen again.

There was more than just the music though. Of course a limited bar was on hand, and Ommegang and live music go together for me like money and problems. The merch table had t-shirts, CDs, stickers, art, and free candy, and did very well, contrary to some early reports I’d heard. A copy of Fletcher and the Hendersons was available to read and listen to (and it’s a really good idea), a robot wandered the crowd dispensing custom stickers, some participatory art was continually being added to, and solo acts played in an alcove in between sets on the stage.

RestFest 2011 - Nick Wallas
Nick Wallas

It was one of the best local shows in my memory, and now that we know nothing can stop it I can’t wait to see what happens next year.

RestFest 2011
That guy waving his arms was awesome and there is bonus Matthew (and Laura!) content here.

As usual there’s a slideshow with a few more photos, and plenty of other reports to read: Nippertown, Metroland, Keep Albany Boring, Kevin Marshall, and probably more I didn’t catch. Special thanks to the RestFest sponsors, all of the bands, and especially the show staff and volunteers who really made it happen.

Albany In.Print

Albany No.1

Albany In.Print is a project I started nearly two years ago. Originally, I used it as an excuse to get out, walking the city, and making more photos, my own version of one of those horrible 10 things to shoot in your own backyard or Walk 50 yards with a 50mm lens and take 50 pictures “challenges” you see on hobbyist websites, or the even more horrible 365 project. After a few frames I liked the idea of the city expressing itself in literally its own words.

The project moved on in fits and starts, and now when I do have time to flâneur I’ve either got other subjects on my mind or I just don’t bring a camera. I have extremely no need to find excuses to shoot. When I remember and notice an opportunity I still take it but that’s rare.

Albany No.12

I’m not really sure where it’s headed or if it’s even worthwhile. I thought a series could work as an exhibit or a small book, but when I look at the photos now the typology doesn’t add the layer of meaning I’d hoped for. The approach I’ve been taking lacks necessary context.

Albany No.14

For now it’s slipped back into being a game, purely self-indulgent, and occasional excuse to use the latest $20 eBay lens. I’ve been struggling to escape self-indulgent photography but it’s comforting now and then. If I can change focus slightly maybe this can still work, but I don’t know if there’s any point. For now it languishes on flickr, at the time of this writing a set of 15.

Albany No.10

Albany No.6

Albany No.7

Albany No.13

Near-Macro Photography in the Field

Yesterday I mentioned that I would have something to say about my recent adventures in closeup photography. I wouldn’t call myself a nature photographer at this point but I’m an amateur (very amateur) naturalist and really like taking photos as a way to bring “samples” home without actually bringing samples home. Being able to get very close to natural details is important, both because many subjects are just really small and the intricacies of larger subjects are fascinating.

There are a few different ways to get photos at the macro (micro, if you’re a Nikon user because they have to be different) level:

– Invest in a true macro lens (a.k.a. the real way)
– Use extension tubes1 and/or teleconverters on existing lenses
– Reverse-mount lenses, either directly to the camera or on another lens
– Add screw-on closeup lenses to an existing lens

The only method I haven’t tried so far is the first, because I’m difficult like that. But each has their own benefits and drawbacks. Definitions: true macro means 1:1 magnification, the subject being recorded on the sensor/film at life size. This means that on 35mm film or a full frame camera, a subject 36mm long would fill the frame horizontally, edge to edge. That is really, really close when you consider that 35mm film and modern digital cameras can produce good prints up to 20 inches wide, at least. You can see examples at any of the many macro lens groups on flickr.

Dedicated macro lenses get you to true macro magnification with no fuss and all of your camera’s automated features intact. They’re the easiest, but also most expensive, solution. They’re especially great for studio work, and can even be combined with some of the other techniques to go beyond 1:1, but are all prime lenses. The problem here is that you’re probably going to want to get shots at a variety of focal lengths, maybe some wide angle landscapes and telephoto landscapes, or use the compression of a longer focal length to blur the background in one shot but the wide depth of field of a shorter length to keep everything in focus in the next. Unless you’re carrying multiple camera bodies you’ll eventually want to swap lenses, and as much as I love using primes and can deal with changing lenses in some situations, out in the woods or on a windy, bare mountaintop are not those situations. So, on a short trip where you only want to take macro photos, a dedicated macro lens is a great idea, but on a longer hike, not so much, you’ll want a general-purpose zoom.

Extension tubes and teleconverters are essentially a cheaper way to get to 1:1 with lenses you may already have, to get them to pull double-duty. I’ve written about using extension tubes for macro work before, as an inexpensive (in this case under $50) way to get 1:1 or higher magnification. The problem is, teleconverters and extension tubes go between the camera body and the lens, so you’re really stuck with the same problem as above, unmounting the lens if you want to do anything but closeup work. Another problem is that you lose light — sometimes multiple stops worth — with tubes and teleconverters, which means increasing your ISO and thus ugly noise, to maintain the same aperture and shutter speed.

Reverse mounting a lens to the camera body, especially a normal prime lens, is an extremely inexpensive and efficient way to get very high magnification ratios if you already own a suitable lens2. However again that means swapping lenses if you want to do anything else, but there’s another solution; reverse mounting a prime lens onto the end of a zoom lens. This lets you work very close without having to take the zoom off your camera. I have tried this, that example is the Canon 50mm f/1.8 reversed on the 28-105mm USM at 105mm, giving somewhere around 2x (2:1) magnification3, but you can see that there are problems with image quality. You can do some math here and try a setup that gives less magnification and less distortion4, but in my experience, trying to do so with any reasonably working distance at a reasonable cost and with any convenience is very difficult. But, if you already have a fast prime to reverse onto a general-purpose zoom, reversing rings are under $20, so give it a shot.

One other approach I didn’t mention above that I’ve tried is finding a jack-of-all-trades lens, which to my knowledge is sort of like a unicorn who can do your taxes and poop out hundred dollar bills5. In my case it was the Tamron SP 60-300mm (23A), which impressively magnifies to 1:1.55 (about 2/3x) natively, along with a great zoom range of almost normal to telephoto. While it gives very good near-macro results, 60mm is just not wide enough, the lens is just too heavy, and manual focus is a little too tricky in critical situations, especially at 300mm. It’s a great lens though, and there may be others out there that can work for you; some standard zoom lenses will go to 1:4 or so which can be plenty for some purposes.

Closeup lenses are built just like filters, they screw on to the front of your lens. This means you need to get a closeup sized for your lens filter diameter so the same closeup may not work across multiple lenses, but it also means that you can add magnification without unmounting your lens. They work well on zooms, so there is none of the restriction or having the fixed focal length of a dedicated prime lens, none of the light loss of tubes or teleconverters, and you can easily choose between stronger or weaker magnification and avoid the extreme distortion of reversing lenses. They’re as small as standard filters and thus easy to carry along, much easier than packing another lens.

So, if you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m telling you to use these closeup lenses.

There are two basic types of closeup lenses, single-element and multi-element. Single-element lenses are very inexpensive, but at stronger magnifications blurry distortion becomes quickly evident, especially at the image edges. Multi-element lenses help solve this problem and return very impressive image quality but are much more expensive; a set of four single-element lenses can be had for under $20, while something like the Canon 250D goes for around $75 and up6.

Closeups are rated in diopter strength, listed as +#, a higher number being stronger magnification7. I find the +4 lens to be a sweet spot, enough magnification to show some good detail without degrading the quality of that detail.

Woah, I haven’t included any photos in this post yet? On my photoblog? Okay, let’s fix that. These are all taken with the Canon 5D and 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 USM, with a Zeikos +4 closeup lens included in a $15 4-lens set:

Bennett Hill, Clarksville NY
Ant and Damselfly, Taughannock Falls, Ulysses NY
Poppy

You can see a few more in a slideshow. What you may notice is that these are not quite as close up as some of the examples of other techniques. I’m getting around 1:2 (1/2x) magnification, not true macro closeness, and going much stronger than +4 really begins to degrade image quality. I find this to be the best compromise; it’s rare that I need to go stronger than this for the sort of visual field notes I’m taking, and carrying the closeup set lets me throw another closeup on to get +6 or even put on the +10 and take the hit to edge detail. I find this acceptable for the convenience of carrying around only a lightweight set of small screw-on lenses and being able to quickly switch between a general-purpose zoom and near-macro work.

A couple of notes about using closeup lenses. The diopter is additive and lenses can be stacked, so a typical 4-lens single-element set with a +1, +2, +4, and +10 can also give you, say, +3, +6, or +178. More importantly, when using a zoom, once you have mounted the closeup lens your focus ring doesn’t work how you may think. Instead of focusing closer or further, it changes the working distance of the lens. So, in my case, on the 28-105mm zoom, the closeup lens makes 28mm the least amount of magnification and 105mm the greatest, while what is normally the shortest focus distance now gives the shortest working distance and the longest focusing distance (infinity) gives the longest working distance. This is counterintuitive because normally closest focus distance gives the most magnification and in fact on this lens that is actually marked with “macro” on the distance scale. With the closeup lens on, the difference in magnification is negligible, again the focus ring only changes your working distance!

One final sidenote: a low-power diopter, +1 or +2, can have some application in portraiture. When you want to greatly blur your out of focus areas, it will drastically reduce your depth of field, and selecting a moderate focal length in your zoom range (in my case around 50-70mm) will not magnify the image greatly, so you’re not filling the frame with your subject’s pupil or anything. Going a bit stronger will start to give a soft-focus effect outside of the very center of the image9, so get creative; shoot your subject at an angle and put the close eye right in the center of the frame, and it remains sharp but skin gets softer and appears smoother toward the edge of the frame.

That’s what I can tell you from experience. The dedicated macro lens is the easiest way to get true macro magnification (while I haven’t experienced that directly, I can tell you the other ways can be a huge pain). Extension tubes and teleconverters can work wonders and get you really close but mean either only shooting macro or swapping lenses. Reverse-mounting can get you into the extreme macro range but means either again unmounting lenses or dealing with some severe distortion issues without lots of trial and error and possibly expensive, high quality lenses, which you have to carry with you. But closeup diopter lenses are easy to carry, don’t require removing a general-purpose zoom, and inexpensive ones can give surprisingly good results for the money. If I’m going to be hiking for three days, I’ll take the inexpensive, lightweight solution even if it means a slight hit to image quality, thanks.

1Or bellows, but it’s difficult to find new bellows setups for modern DSLR systems, you’ll more likely end up with a Frankensteinian adapter setup.
2Fast standard primes work great, if you have something like the cheap Canon 50mm f/1.8, give it a shot just for kicks.
3Divide the primary lens’ focal length by the reversed lens’ focal length to get an estimate of magnification strength.
4Faster zooms like the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L will give better results, the wider the primary lens’ aperture the less distortion toward the edges. But those lenses also cost about the same as the monthly rent on some New York City apartments.
5That is, it doesn’t quite exist.
6And are increasingly tricky to find, and may only come in a single strength for your lens type.
7Like extension tubes, they effectively shorten the minimum focus distance as well as narrow the depth of field, sometimes drastically.
8Stacking four closeups will probably lead to strong vignetting as well as massive amounts of distortion. When stacking, put the lowest diopter power on first.
9high-power diopters, especially single-element ones, exaggerate coma toward the edges of the frame, which provides that “dreamy”, soft effect that some people try to get with really cheap lenses or software emulation of those lenses (*cough* Hipstamatic *cough*).
10Yes, I love footnotes.

2011 Troy River Street Festival

Troy River Street Festival

Saturday, June 18, was the 7th annual River Street Festival in Troy, a free 8 hour event with food, music, and vendors. This year the weather cooperated beautifully — maybe a bit too beautifully if you ask my sunburn — fortunate because the highlight is the street chalk drawing competition hosted by the Arts Center of the Capital Region. Congrats to Brian Barker who won 1st place in the adult category, unfortunately I don’t have a photo of his work.

Troy River Street Festival

All Over Albany sponsored an entry, and you may recognize Casey’s beautiful chickadee print. Yep, she had donated a few prints to Art for ALS too. That’s her above, doing her thing, her theme was a bird sitting on Albany’s iconic Egg. The chalk art is more stunning each year, but the whimsical entries get a lot of attention, like one 12 year old’s Angry Birds interpretation.

Troy River Street Festival

The River Street Festival boasts three stages, a main stage, local stage, and one for the kids. Add great food carts to the restaurants already on River Street, a beer truck, local crafts vendors, and a gorgeously sunny afternoon and you end up with a lot of people. If you follow my friend Sebastien, you’ve read that he’s trying his hand at street photography with some new gear. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while now also, in fact I’ve been a street dilettante ever since I grabbed a DSLR, but I’ve been a bit more focused for the last year or so. The reason I haven’t written much about it is that frankly my results just aren’t that good. But the crowd at the festival gave me a chance to practice.

Troy River Street Festival 2011

Street is one of the least gear-obsessed genres of photography; sure there’s a certain reverence for Leicas but there’s not the constant prattle about lenses, high-ISO performance, ballheads, frames per second, or polarizing filters you get in, say, nature or sports photography. Just pick up a camera and go. That said, allow me to indulge a bit. Sebastien bought the shiny Fuji X100 to have a smaller, more discreet package; I’ve gone in the entirely opposite direction and not only haul out the huge, loud, ugly 5D, but throw a flash unit on top. It says yes, I’m taking your picture, and you’ll even know exactly when I take it. No tricks, no shame, no hiding it. In fact, I think trying to be at all sneaky is an admission of guilt in itself, and there’s nothing wrong with taking photos of people in public.

Troy River Street Festival 2011

But that’s the beauty, almost any camera short of maybe a pinhole can work and there are as many different approaches as there are photographers. On the 5D I have the Canon 28-105mm USM lens, which is nothing special, in fact it’s a discontinued kit lens from Canon’s mid-range cameras. For street shooting, I set it at 35mm (I’d like to use a 35mm lens but the zoom is nice for quickly switching style), set the camera to shutter priority at 1/200th (max flash sync speed), dial down the flash exposure by 1 stop, set ISO to give me at least f/9, and put the lens into manual focus. Wait, what? Daytime flash, manual focus? The flash is just enough to fill in and take a bit of the harsh edge off midday shadows, and no matter how fast your camera and lens, autofocus will slow you down just enough that you may miss “the moment”. At f/9 and higher, I can preset the lens, a.k.a. zone focus, and get a depth of field from somewhere around 5 feet to infinity. From there, all I have to do is frame and shoot.

Troy River Street Festival 2011

Okay, sorry about all that. I had a good time shooting at the festival, and am happy with some of the results. The idea, for me, is to freeze some part of the human condition, maybe someone who looks interesting, or a scene that says something about either the people in it or the people viewing it (preferably both). On top of that, it should be aesthetically appealing, which is where the real difficulty lies. It’s hard for me to evaluate whether or not I actually did any of that, because I was there and have my own memory of what was happening at the time. I don’t think I’ve quite hit the mark yet but hopefully the photos are at least fun to look at. Some of them are much better when you click through and view large, consider these previews.

Troy River Street Festival 2011

So that’s the River Street Festival. As always I have a slideshow with more photos, and you can see Sebastien’s set too. We walked together mostly, which must have been a little extra bizarre to people watching us photograph them or others, since we chose some of the same subjects. The Exile in NY has a set and Flickr user pearl.higgins has some nice photos of the chalk art from an artists’ perspective too, and I’ll update as I see more photos — also when I find out who the other winners are. I hope you enjoy looking at the photos as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Troy River Street Festival Troy River Street Festival
Troy River Street Festival 2011 Troy River Street Festival 2011

2011 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival

2011 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Castle

The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival began 114 years ago as a one day event in this small village in the Adirondacks, and is now a ten-day extravaganza of parades, games, music, the famous ice castle, and lots and lots of snow.

Every year has a theme, and for 2011 is was “medieval times”. The parade included princesses, knights on horseback, witches, dragons, and yes, a Trojan rabbit. I accompanied some friends in a group calling themselves The Gimps, a crowd favorite, who of course dressed as sock monkeys. Were there sock monkeys in the dark ages? Let’s say probably.

2011 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival

This year’s Carnival ran from February 4 through the 13th, bookended by the two parades and fireworks shows. We visited at the tail end, which is probably the best end since everyone is desperate to enjoy what’s left of this huge party. It’s really pretty crazy; hundreds of people descend on this three square mile village, and I’d say at least three square miles of alcohol are consumed. I have to give a shout out to the Saranac Lake police and fire departments, who do a great job of keeping things orderly and safe. I’m sure that’s no easy job, and they handle it well.

2011 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival 2011 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival

Most of my photos are of the parade itself; we headed up early Saturday morning to catch that, and I followed the Gimps to a few watering holes before we finished up the party at the very hospitable Hotel Saranac. So, I missed most of the other festivities, but you can see more from last year’s event. I did get a chance to spend some time at the ice castle at night, which is gorgeously lit as you can see at the top.

A little shop talk: I took most of the parade photos with a 50mm lens, which is a dicey proposal. A general purpose zoom is really ideal unless you have a lot of freedom to move around, which I didn’t; step away from the edge of the roped off street and you won’t get back in. I do have a 19-35mm zoom that I used for the 2011 Santa Speedo Sprint but that wouldn’t quite give me enough reach here. So, I’m stuck in one place at one focal length, and that makes it a challenge to get a variety of shots from individual closeups to wider views of the groups in the parade. I think I did a good job, but I had a secret weapon: I stood next to a kid. Paraders coming up to give him candy gave me great opportunities for closer head and body shots. Thanks, kid!

If you can make it, and especially if you can find a place to stay (try booking now but even that’s a little late), you should check out the Carnival in 2012. You definitely won’t be disappointed, and during a time when it can be a little hard to find outdoor things to do if you don’t ski, it’s a great little escape. See you next year!

2011 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival 2011 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival
2011 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival 2011 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival

There’s a slideshow with more photos, and you can check out the official Winter Carnival site.