Photography 101 – Class One

For Christmas, my husband got me a course from Nicole’s Classes. I wanted to improve my skills with the camera. I really enjoy taking pictures, but am fully aware that I’m limited by technical capabilities. To sum up: there are many buttons on my camera that I don’t know what they do an am afraid to change in case I can’t figure out how to change them back.

So for the quieter time after Christmas, I decided I would learn how to take pictures better.

The course is a four week course. The first week paid for itself. We learned about lighting: shutter speed, f-stop, ISO and equivalent lighting. Now, I’d learned about ISO before and it was my single and sole method of correcting for lighting. This means that most of my photos, especially the indoor photos, are taken with very high ISO. My MIND WAS BLOWN by the fact there were three other ways I could manage light (short of flash), and I had been using the worst of them previously. Now, I had actually read a few photography books, and I knew I was missing something here, but I had trouble putting it all together. This made it make sense finally. (Bonus! Who knew there was a light meter on my camera letting me know – ahead of time – whether a picture was over or under exposed!)

So for your enjoyment, here is my homework for week 1:

Assignment 1 – Change the Depth of Field (two pictures – one with shallow depth of field and one with deep depth):

Deep depth of field
Deep depth of field

Shallow field
Shallow field

Assignment 2 – Daylight vs indoor ISO

Indoor, high ISO
Indoor, high ISO

Outdoor, low ISO.
Outdoor, low ISO.

Assignment 3 – Slow vs. fast shutter speed (sense of motion vs sense of stillness)

The circles are blurred
The circles are blurred

The circles are still
The circles are still

Assignment 4 – we were supposed to follow “a day in the life”. I picked Grey to follow for the day. I will confess that this is over more like 2 days, but I apologize for nothing.

What a great picture of him!
What a great picture of him!
I love the way the beam of light illuminates him
I love the way the beam of light illuminates him
Dual use.
Dual use.
Even with all my new skills, I could not get this picture exposed enough.
Even with all my new skills, I could not get this picture exposed enough.
Using a tripod and timer for the first time!
Using a tripod and timer for the first time!

For those of you who find yourself begging for more, here’s a complete link to an album with all the pictures from the week, some of which are pre-class and others of which are me practicing!

Jeweled Dreams

Labradorite, flourite and jadite necklace
Labradorite, flourite and jadite necklace

This week of the year is an excellent one for projects. Like 80% of the other people in my company, I took the week off. I hied to my mother-in-law’s house, where I’ve been royally spoiled. So here I am, with my brand new camera, and a promise to my mother-in-law that I would help her get her jewelry online. If you’ve met me in person, you’ve likely seen some of my mother-in-law’s jewelry. She spent about 30 years gathering beautiful things from around the globe. Now she is putting them together into works of “wearable art”, and is ready to sell them.

Carved jade with rough unakite and coral beads
Carved jade with rough unakite and coral beads

If your mother-in-law had gorgeous hand-crafted items for sale, where would you tell her to sell it? Of course. So we set up an Etsy store for her called Jeweled Dreams. She’s got about 12 of her items up now. And I’ll have you know that while I helped her set up the store, she’s done all the posting all by herself! I’m very proud.

Jade pendant
Jade pendant

But then comes the great labor. So…. I have this brand new camera I’m learning to use. She has about 75 completed necklaces. And heaven help me, I took pictures of each and every single one of them. Practically, I think they look pretty good – at least up to standards for Etsy. It was also frustrating. The second day, I simply couldn’t get the lighting right. I know enough to mess up the settings on my camera, but not to make it obey me. I can see progress on the photography, but I am also starting to see just how far I have to go to accomplish what I want to. On the other hand, it was probably excellent practice to take a gazillion images of beautiful jewelry for practical reasons. With the number of pictures I took, she should be all set to make postings to her store for months.

So I am feeling very proud of myself and very accomplished. I’m also feeling like I have a lot of room to grow. Finally, I’m really really hoping she actually sells something at her Etsy Store. She says she needs to sell them to make room to make more. I thought she was exaggerating until I had to take pictures of all of them!

So… if you know someone (or are someone) who loves beautiful, exotic, one-of-a-kind jewelry, consider browsing through her store (or pictures). Valentine’s day is only like 6 weeks away!

Carved turquoise and silver
Carved turquoise and silver

All I want for Christmas is a digital SLR

This, my friends, is a perfect Christmas. We’re at my mother-in-law’s house… which is to say we’re completely spoiled. The place is all Christmasy. She has, at least count, six Christmas trees up, two full size and several smaller ones. She has about 6 batches of baked goods and every possible treat you can imagine. She also bought out several toy and clothing stores to outfit us. She told us not to pack anything… she had everything – and she does!

I spent this lovely hour today: my husband was watching Tron, the boys were down pretending to nap, the Christmas music was on, the fireplace was roaring and in an extremely unexpected turn of events, it was snowing. I sat on the couch, quiet, and read “The Dark is Rising”, which is my favorite Christmas book. It was an astonishingly lovely moment.

Anyway, for Christmas Santa Husband bought me a Digital SLR camera. I bought a photography book a while back and read it through. This permitted me to know exactly what my point and shoot could or could not do. It can actually do a lot. I use ISO all the time and I think it immeasurably improved my pictures. But there were things I couldn’t do: anything with detachable lenses and most importantly f-stops. I thought about it for about two years. But I decided: I wanted a real camera. So I told my husband and left him to do all the research on which one was best yadda yadda. My new camera is a Pentak DAL 18-55 mm F3.5 – 5.6 AL.

It’s my first non-point-and-shoot, so I’m probably not well qualified to review it. But I have spent, oh, about 24 hours with it now and taken over 300 pictures. It’s a leap of faith to record Christmas morning on your brand new camera (do you know how to take the lens cap off?) but we did it. Here are all the pictures, but let me call some out:

This here explains why I needed this camera. In a point in shoot, usually, most of the picture in the camera is sharp. That’s great – it means Aunt Agnes isn’t a blur (or everything is) – but it also leads to flatter pictures. Snapshots. Nothing wrong with that, but I wanted more. So here is a “non flat” set of the same pictures:

Rear focus - front blurred
Rear focus - front blurred

Forward focus - blurred back
Forward focus - blurred back

And for your viewing pleasure, here’s a full set of Christmas pictures!.

PS – I have totally not figured out how to work my camera! But I’m looking forward to doing so!

Learning about ISO

Youre getting better mom
You're getting better mom

So I’ve been working my way through a book about photographing children. It had a small but useful chapter on the technical stuff that cameras do. I’ve discovered my point and shoot does NOT have any manual controls for aperture — the bit where you can blur backgrounds. Given the clutter that is the normal state of my environment, that would be mighty useful. But I did discover ISO, or how not to use a flash indoors. I think some of my photos are “noisy” from having gone too high in the ISO settings, but generally I like the light better.

The bulk of my pictures are of Thane. There are two reasons for this: 1) He is a baby and therefore massively photogenic 2) He sits still, unlike his cute (if snotty) older brother.

There are also one or two pictures I just thought looked cool and so left in place.

I laugh at you, stereotype that second children have fewer baby pictures than first! Thane shall not lack for baby pictures!

Here’s the link to my full set:

http://tiltedworld.com/brenda/pictures/LateJanuary2009/

What I want

One of the great tensions of being a person is finding balance. I have so many things I need to balance with a finite set of resources: who I am as a mother, a wife, an employee, a church member, a homeowner, a citizen. Most of these identities make demands of my time and energy. It is terribly easy to get wrapped up in those concentric circles of need and not create the space at the center that is none of those things — that person who is me. Without knowing who I am and taking care of my core, all those offshoots of my energy suffer. They need a strong, centered, joyful person in order to thrive.

But it IS hard. There are two ways I’m bad at it, and if they appear to conflict, well, maybe they do. The first problem I have is guilt. It’s hard for me to do things for me, that I enjoy, without feeling guilty for not spending that energy elsewhere. Last night, for example, I thoroughly enjoyed reading a novel. Hardly high crimes and misdemeanors. But I still feel like I should make up for this transgression in some way — work extra hard today or apologize or something. I certainly don’t feel like I have the right to read another novel this week (which I’m dying to do!) The best way I have around this is to turn a pleasure into an obligation. But the problem is that I have obligations enough. I actually enjoy (looks at list above) all of my obligations. I love being a mother. I am a delightedly happy wife. As much as is possible, I enjoy my job. I like going to church. I get satisfaction out of a newly painted wall. I take pride in being an informed citizen and exercising my responsibilities as such. It’s not that my obligations are onerous, it’s that they are tiring. But guilt is tiring, too. The time I take to renew my spirits carries a cost that it shouldn’t — a counter-productive cost at that.

The second hard thing is to really figure out what *I* want. That’s pretty easy on the scale of an evening. Heck, you can pretty much lay money that on any given evening I would enjoy doing one of the following:
*reading a book (preferably in the bathtub, especially in winter)
*watching a baseball game
*working on crafty/papery things
*goofing off online
*playing games with friends (anyone want to come play Agricola with me?)
*playing video games

There are maybe, uh, 5 nights a year I don’t want to do any of those things, and none of those nights coincide with Red Sox games.

But in a longer span context, it’s harder. What do I want to do with my career? What about continuing education? Do I ever want to go back for a graduate degree? (My problem there is that I’m not well suited to pursue my passionate hobbies — no Latin — and a graduate degree in those areas would be decidedly un-useful. But fun. I loved what I got to do in pursuit of my BA.) What sort of activities would I want to do to be healthy and active? If I had the desire and commitment to pursue a dream, I could doubtless make it happen. I just don’t know what dream that is.

This is all very long background for a revelation that’s been creeping up on me lately. The revelation is small and simple. Perhaps even anticlimactic.

I want to learn how to take good photographs.

(Waits for howls of astonishment and amazement from the crowd.)

You see, I really enjoy doing … well, this. I like to write. I think I would like to write fiction too, but I find that such a big bite to chew that I never seem well-rested enough, ready enough, prepared enough, with time enough to tackle it. But this informal, first-person, day-to-day writing and the sense of community and communication it brings are pleasant and sustainable. I write this for me, although I need the sense of audience in order to find my voice and to capture the urgency and need to report in.

But a truth I have learned about blogging is that if the words are the peanut butter, pictures are the chocolate. A well captured, well chosen picture illuminates the idea. I take literally hundreds of pictures. I took 300 this month. All of them were taken with my (quite nice for what it is) $200 point and shoot snapshot camera. I have some idea how much I don’t know about photography: shutter speed, aperture, focus, lighting, framing… there are a thousand things that go into taking a photograph that I know exist to be known, but that I do not know. These days, there are about two thousand after the photograph has been taken, but one thing at a time.

I could do something about this. I could decide to become a competent photographer. What stands in my way? Well, I’d like to take a course in it. I have taken no courses whatsoever since I graduated college. But it needn’t even be a long course. A few evenings. A long weekend. I suppose a book would do as well, but at this point in my life I think the commitment of a course would do better.

But then there’s the sticky part — the camera. Some of my friends and loved ones have real cameras. I am rather aware that they are what you might call a pretty penny. And to learn about all those fancy words above, you need a camera with, like, lenses and more than two settings.

Thus we come back to guilt. I would have a hard time justifying either the time (for classes and practicing what I’ve learned) or the expense (for classes and hardware). Justifying both seems downright greedy — but the one isn’t much good without the other. It seems like I should be happy with my point and shoot and my little blog and the myriad other things I need to do. But I so rarely can articulate what I want on any grander scale than this week or smaller scale than “at the end, looking back” that I feel as though I should take this impulse and run with it.

Please mom, learn how to take better pictures!
Please mom, learn how to take better pictures!