Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Photo: When the Lightning Gods Smile

Lightning is one of the most frustrating subjects in photography.

Think about it. You can't know where lightning is going to strike next. And you can't point your camera at the sky and push the button as soon as you see the flash; by the time the nerve signal gets from your brain to your finger, the bolt is gone, and there's nothing left to see in the picture except a lot of dark.

So the only way to take a lightning picture is to point your camera where you think the lightning is going to strike, and leave the shutter hanging wide open for as long as you can, and cross your fingers that the "Lightning Gods" will be kind to you with this storm.

You take black picture after black picture, while trying to keep your equipment dry, while trying to keep from becoming a target for the lightning yourself. And all the while, lightning strikes again and again--off to the side, where the camera isn't pointed...up in the clouds, where you can't see it...and directly in front of the camera--but while the camera is saving the previous picture and isn't ready for the next one if the lightning gods themselves are mocking you for even attempting to capture their glory on film...

...all of which makes lightning photography an exercise in frustration, patience, disappointment and persistence. Why? Why take picture after picture of the same tree hoping that a lightning bolt will strike behind it if your luck holds?

Because lightning shots are the ultimate in "one of a kind" photography.

Anyone can go to the same vantage point and get practically the same shot of the Grand Canyon.

Anyone can pose their kids in front of the same tree you found, or signpost, or playground. But lightning...those are truly one of a kind. Even in the extreme chance that some other photographer on the far side of town managed to get a shot of the exact same bolt...he still wouldn't get the same picture, because the bolt would curve differently, past a different background, with a different foreground...

...and it's that "one in a million" chance, the idea of getting a picture no one else could possibly get, that drags me out to my driveway, into a thunderstorm that woke me at 3am, with my tripod in hand, hoping for something more than black picture after black picture...hoping the lightning gods are kind that night...

It's actually a bit easier to shoot lightning with a 35mm than a digital, but in either case, the process is the same. You have to anticipate the lightning, and have the camera pointed "in the right place at the right time." Fireworks require exactly the same technique, but are a little bit easier, because it's easier to anticipate where the fireworks will explode--roughly the same vicinity as the last burst.

But for either, the trick is to hold the shutter open as long as your camera will allow. For a 35mm or digital SLR, this is the "B" setting. Use a tripod (don't even *think* of trying to do lightning or fireworks without a tripod), and a shutter release cable (so that you don't shake the camera once the shutter is open). Point the camera in the right direction, get your composition arranged the way you want, and set your aperture appropriately. The aperture is the F-stop, or how much light the camera is letting in to shine on the film, and the only way to find the "right" f-stop is trial and error. I would suggest starting at the extreme wide-open setting, and adjust accordingly. If there's a lot of "light pollution" (like shooting fireworks over a sports venue, with the field lights intruding on your perfect picture), then you might need to close down the aperture quite a bit.

Next, use the shutter release cable to "lock open" the lens. Leave the lens cap on until the fireworks launch, or until you think a lightning bolt is about to strike. Then, remove the cap. You could also get a sheet of black paper or cardboard and hold it in front of the lens, instead of fiddling with the lens cap. After the burst--or after a set amount of time waiting for it--cover the lens again, release the shutter, and advance the film.

With a digital point and shoot, there's more work involved, because most of these cameras don't have a "B" setting. Most of the rules will still apply, but you have to count more on luck. A lot more, actually. You'll need to set the shutter to stay open as long as possible (on my camera, this is fifteen seconds). Point it in the general direction of the storm, where you think the most bolts will hit...and then shoot a hundred frames of black. This is the photography slot machine, shooting picture after picture after picture, and hoping that a lightning bolt will hit, in the camera's field of view, during the short period when the shutter is actually open, and not during the annoyingly long space between pictures when the camera is saving the data to the chip and clearing out memory in preparation for the next picture.

Expect one lightning bolt shot for each 50 wasted pictures, during a particularly active storm; and expect one spectacular lightning shot out of ten bolts...

...if the lightning gods are smiling upon you.


Writing: You Can Learn a Lot Just By Watching...

You can learn a lot just by watching...professional wrestling.

Okay, now that I've driven away half my reader base, never to return...and half the rest are laughing hysterically at my social blunder and obvious lack of intelligence...allow me to illuminate.

Professional wrestling is a television show pretending to be sports; think "soap opera for guys." Wrestlers are actors and stuntmen, putting on a match where they try to appear to be beating the snot out of each other--hopefully, without actually beating the snot out of each other, because there's always another show to do the next night. The wrestlers know who is supposed to "win" the match, but the actual wrestling is basically made up on the spot between the wrestlers.

Most wrestling plotlines involve the "Face" (good guy) opposing the "Heel" (bad guy). Faces wrestle by the rules, while heels cheat. More importantly, faces try to get the crowd to cheer for them, while heels try to get them to boo. They can do this in the ring, or on the microphone:

"It's so nice to be back in Canada. I've been walking around, smelling the fresh
air, saying hello to all the Torontonians. I'm so glad I left. This place
sucks!" --Chris Jericho

In the wrestling world, faces become heels, and vice-versa. If the hero has gotten stale, and isn't getting cheers anymore, well, he can have a scripted "change of heart." He might start berating the crowd for not cheering him, and start beating up on his friends and other good guys; bingo, instant heel. Or the heel can be pushed over the edge, and "rescue the damsel in distress," and change back into a hero again.

That's the point of this essay. There has to be a key moment where the good guy becomes a good action that defines the character completely. An action that lets the viewer forget all of the past history of that character, and start a whole new chapter in their life...or, at least, in their wrestling career.

Two wrestlers fight a "best of seven" series. They are matched perfectly, tied 3-3 going into the seventh match. One of the wrestlers gets knocked out of the ring, and while he's getting up, and dusting himself off, another wrestler sneaks into the ring and whacks his opponent with a steel chair. The first wrestler sees this...and defines himself as "totally honorable good guy" by refusing to win the match by cheating. Or defines himself as totally unscrupulous and opportunistic by getting the win and celebrating how much he "did it by himself."

Characters need defining moments. Every character has one instance in their life that defines who and what they are--an event that lays the foundation for everything they do after that. Maybe your character is trying to make amends for his heinous and evil act years ago. Or maybe that character has never had that defining moment, and the story is about how they handle it when it arrives.

Regardless, that shining (or badly tarnished?) moment in the character's life reflects in everything they do from that point on, and defining that moment will go a long way towards defining the character in your story--whether they're smooth talking Canadians or gravel-voiced professional wrestlers.


Friday, January 13, 2006

Photo: The Trip that Started it All

...okay, so maybe "started it all" is a bit of an overstatement...let me explain...

I grew up with photography. My father had his old Minolta or Canon out often, and I still have boxes and boxes of slides of my brothers and I growing up and all of the places we lived travelling with the military. I actually remember taking a picture for him from the top of a pagoda at Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan, because I could fit into the gap he wanted the picture taken from and he couldn't. I must have been six or seven years old at the time.

I bought my first camera, a Minolta X-500, with my first paycheck after I finished high school, and I set out to shoot as many pictures with it as I could. That camera even went with me to Air Force Basic Training, and I still use it today, when I get the urge to shoot film instead of digital.

But, growing up, no one ever told me about all the other stuff photographers are supposed to know about, like composition, and lighting, and exposure...and it seemed like no matter how hard I tried to take a great picture, I got garbage back. What was the point of spending money on a roll of film and more money to get it developed, only to see dozens of washed-out over-exposed pictures of my friends' faces, with eyes glaring red, and the tops of their heads chopped off like some lunatic tribe of b-movie Indians had rampaged through the developer's lab scalping everyone they could reach...?

I also made one of those life mistakes, and married someone who didn't appreciate my love of photography. It's very difficult to take your time and compose a shot and experiment with different settings with someone standing ten feet away, arms crossed, toe tapping, mumbling "is he done playing with that stupid thing yet...?"

End result...I might have shot five rolls of film between 1990 and 2000.

The two "D's" - divorce and digital - changed a bunch of things in my life.

Digital is a godsend to student photographers. To take better pictures, you need feedback; you need to experiment with a setting, or exposure, or pose, see how the picture turned out, and learn from the process. With 35mm, that process takes a long time--you have to finish the roll, then send it in for developing, then check the results against what you remember shooting...with me, that feedback loop often took weeks, or longer. By that time, I couldn't remember what I was trying to do in the picture.

Digital, on the other hand, shortens that feedback loop to nearly immediate. You can see the new picture in the back of the camera, and find out if you made any major errors, and reshoot immediately. Then you can download the pictures to your computer, and learn from the shoot that day, rather than waiting for the pictures to come back from the developer. And in my case...without wasting the money developing garbage.

With digital, suddenly photography was fun again.

When the company I worked for at the time announced a paid vacation trip to Whistler, in Vancouver, shortly after my divorce, I decided it was time to revive my old interest in photography. But this time, I wouldn't just be lugging around a Minolta and twenty rolls of film...I was going to take my HP Photosmart 215 and a laptop. I told myself that if I enjoyed taking pictures, I would seriously pursue it, but that if all I shot was garbage, then I would know that photography just wasn't for me.

I shot over five hundred pictures that week, and I really put that "learning photography feedback loop" through it's paces. I have no doubt that I shot at least 480 pieces of garbage, but I also set out to learn from each of them, and by the last day, I felt like I was actually shooting some pictures I would be proud to show off.

...yes, I'm doing the "vacation picture slide show" thing here, to illustrate my point about learning more quickly with digital. Do you have a problem with that...?

First shot is a creek across the street from our hotel. What I learned from this shot is "don't shoot into the sun." Oh, and "if you do shoot into the sun, you might be able to clean it up just a little bit in Photoshop." I almost threw this shot away because the flare was so bad, but a good friend convinced me to keep it.

Second, I learned that sailing across a cable at fifty miles an hour is an absolute blast. This is a shot from the launching point of the ZipTrek Ecotour wire. The mountain climbing harness is attached to the wire at the top, and to me at the bottom, and ten seconds after I took this shot, I stepped off and zipped across to the other side. It's over-exposed; the river is washed out, sorry for the pun. I named this picture Apprehension, because I was trying to capture the moment, standing there with your heels firmly planted on the platform and your toes a hundred feet off the ground, working up the nerve to step out into space...

Not a great picture, but I just had to share what is quite probably the coolest piece of playground equipment I have ever seen.

And finally, two shots of the mountains, taken from the top of Whistler mountain, on the very last day we were there.

No, these are not "fantastic!" photos. They were shot with the digital equivalent of a disposeable camera; there are no controls, or options, or bells and whistles, on that camera. I couldn't change shutter speed or aperture or anything, and I'm not even sure the resolution reaches a single megapixel. Just three months later, I bought my current camera, a Canon Powershot A80--one that does have some bells and whistles to it.

But that trip was where I restarted my photography hobby, and re-dedicated myself to learning more about taking pictures, and figured out the basics of the Photography Feedback Learning Loop.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

Rant: Yahoo Ate my Email!

Now, I'm an understanding and patient guy. And I've been a Yahoo email fan for years. Check the profile (data_devil) and you'll see that I've had my email address for nearly eight years. I don't know of any of my friends who have managed to keep a Yahoo address alive that long, before it became deluged with spam and totally unuseable.

I was there when Yahoo barely gave 4mb of storage, not the amazingly large numbers you get now. I was there when Yahoo bought up Egroups and merged them into the Yahoo network. I've always reccomended Yahoo email to friends who were new to the 'net and needed someplace to check their email.

I'm having a really hard time doing that anymore.

My Yahoo account is screwed up somehow. On my computer at home, the Yahoo screen locks up right after it puts the logo in the top left. Sometimes a Refresh will get it going, other times I just have to close the browser and start over. It happens on the main Inbox screen and at every email. It happens in IE and Firefox, but not on other people's computers. I've checked over everything I can think of in my settings and can't figure out what's locking it up.

...and if that were the only problem, then I wouldn't be so upset. After all, that's a problem with my computer, not Yahoo. I've probably got Yahoo's banner ad generator in my anti-popup or anti-spam program or something, and just haven't figured out how to fix it yet.

But that's not the only problem.

My Yahoo service has been getting increasingly bad over the last few months. Back around Halloween, it was "hey, how come you didn't answer my email?"

"What email?"

The one that arrives after three days of sitting on some dusty streetcorner out on the Information Superhighway, trying to hitch a free ride on a digital turnip truck instead of zipping around in electronic Corvettes like most other emails do. This was happening once or twice a week back then.

Then my outgoing emails started disappearing, too. The mass email with pictures of my new daughter never made it to nearly every recipient. Again, if I was forwarding jokes and chain letters, and the Internet's anti-spam functions killed them, I wouldn't be so upset, but when my father complains that I still haven't shared pictures of the new baby when I know I sent the email...I've got friends who think I'm not talking to them anymore, when the real reason is, either I, or they, haven't been able to get through.

Then the rejections start trickling in. "I'm sorry, I've held onto this email for four days now, and the person on the other end just hasn't gotten it, sorry for any inconvenience." Well, thanks for letting me know that the email was never going to arrive...three and a half days after I talked to them in person about the same topic.

This week, it's reached the absolute worst yet. Five emails I've sent, and at least a dozen emails addressed to me, have never arrived, and this is just to and from ONE person, and just TODAY. There's no telling how many other emails I don't know about have not arrived and how many total of my own emails have just never made it over the wall that Yahoo has apparently built to imprison my emails.

Who do you complain to when a free service is screwing up? It's not like you can go to Yahoo and withhold your payment until they get their act together. What, am I going to write them an email refusing to look at any of their ads until they fix my email issues?

...with my luck, that email wouldn't arrive either...

So I'm doing the only thing I can do, really. Venting.

"Why do you hang onto free email when you could just go through your ISP?" Easy. ISP's change. Maybe a competitor will offer me a better deal, or maybe I'll move out of state. I'd rather have a permanent address, one that isn't tied to my current ISP, than be forced to send out a mass of "oh, by the way, update your address books..." emails.

Enough...I give. I've championed and fought and tried to hang on, but I can't accept the level of service that Yahoo is now offering me. Just this morning, three emails in one hour ended up in a digital ditch, even though two emails before them and three emails after them, from the same sender, all arrived just fine.

So, it's time to abandon Yahoo, once and for all. It's been fun, but from now on, all of my important emails are going to route through Gmail instead.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Photo: The fine line between "Macho" and "Bonehead"

I had a project to do, about a month after my
girlfriend and I got together. A major storm had
blasted through and torn up a tree outside my mother's
house. There was junk everywhere, from that tree and
all the nearby palm trees, and it needed to be cleaned
up. My best friends were helping; this wasn't
unusual, they lived next door and had the same
problem. And my new girlfriend pitched in just so we
could spend some time together.

I grabbed the biggest branch from the downed tree, and
couldn't move it easily. So, under the mind-altering
influence of clean Arizona air and (very likely) an
overdose of testosterone, I came up with the brilliant
idea of breaking this branch with a karate kick.

I dragged the branch to a low wall, propped it just
so, and called on my vast knowledge of karate skills
(that is, four lessons in tenth grade, plus dozens or
even hundreds of hours of Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and
The Matrix), and delivered what I hoped was a clean
and powerful and impressive-looking snap kick.

The kick was perfect; the branch snapped, right where
my foot landed. However, I only had half a second to

The heavy end of the branch, now totally disconnected
from the dead weight of the leaves and branches,
decided to come back for revenge. It spun perfectly
in the air, 180 degrees, and nailed me with a broken
stub, right between the eyes.

I opened my eyes to blue sky, and the faces of my
friends and family--all torn between horrified
concern at the blood on my face...and hysterical
laughter that I had done something so incredibly
stupid to myself.

I learned something that day...I learned not to karate
kick trees. Well, without an assistant holding the
victim down, anyway.

So, how do you tell the difference between "Macho" and
"Bonehead?" I suppose the best measure would be the
results. The end result of that particular
misadventure involves my friends and family and
girlfriend never letting me live down my stupidity.
Here's another example, and one that turned out much

What does a photographer do with a perfect sunset and
way too much garbage between him and the horizon?
Why, he does whatever it takes to get the picture.

I was experimenting with my camera and sunset shots,
and I turned on the Vivid option, and as soon as I saw
the bright blues and reds in the LCD screen, I knew I
had to get a better picture. But, I was surrounded by
houses; I couldn't find a vantage point that would get
them all out of the shot. On the ground, that is.

So, I went to my next-door neighbor's house, and
climbed the railing around their deck, and shot my
picture with one hand--while hanging onto their roof
with the other and balancing on one foot on the
railing. Definitely ranks right up there with
knocking myself out with my own karate kick on the
"bonehead" scale. But, in this case, no one got hurt,
least of all me, and the final picture was most
definitely worth it.

The point of all of this random mumbling into my
personal acts of stupidity? Simply this: Don't be
afraid to try something new, like experimenting with
the settings on your camera. Sunsets taken with Vivid
turned on can be almost otherworldly. Just be careful
not to step over that fine line between "Macho" and
"Bonehead" along the way.


Monday, January 09, 2006

Obsessions and Contradictions

I'd like to welcome everyone to the inaugural edition of Shards and Phractures.

What is this blog for? Basically, it's a place for me to rant and vent about the things that annoy me, and cheer on--or maybe just babble about--the things that don't.

Writers write. They need to write; it's almost an addiction, or maybe obsession is a better description. A cool color combination in the sunset, or an interesting phrase from the morning DJ...anything can spark an idea, and lay the foundation for an essay, or an article, or a novel...

I am a writer. I've been a writer for as long as I can remember (I had a third grade school principal tell me that one day he was going to read a best-seller written by me). I've tried to deny it, by putting down the pen for months or years at a time. I've also tried to support it--I originally got into computers to "support my writing habit," and I now have over twenty years of experience playing with them.

So, Shards and Phractures is my outlet, my place to write about...well, whatever it is I'm going to write about. Some days I'll talk about photography and share some of my pictures. Other days I'll rant about politics, or education, or some news story that caught my attention.

Sometimes I'll probably jump in and get right to the point, and other times, I'll go off on a meandering side-story tangent that has practically nothing whatsoever to do with whatever it was I started talking about. Heck, some days, I'll probably just brag about my kids--I've got six, I've got a lot to brag about.

Who am I? I am a bundle of contradictions.

I've never been the first across the finish line, or hit the winning shot at the buzzer. I've never sky-dived, bungee-jumped, or gone spelunking. But I did learn how to ski in the Swiss Alps, and I've also dangled from a cable, a hundred feet over a river, moving at 50 miles an hour.

I've never changed the course of human events. But I was present at the births of all of my children--which is closer than I'm ever going to get, and ultimately, more important to me anyway.

I don't fit anyone's pre-conceived notion of who I am or who I should be. I'm my own person, no masks, me and nothing more.

Thank you for stopping by, you're all always welcome here. I hope to entertain and enlighten, and if I'm really lucky, even inspire. And I hope I never commit the one unpardonable sin of boring you.