Archive for July, 2008

Extra Golden

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

Extra Golden 10

On assignment of sorts for the Washington City Paper, I shot Extra Golden‘s show on Monday night at the Black Cat. I wrote up the show here, so I won’t go into the music in this blog. Photographically, this was a fun show to shoot, even though the lighting was low and static. I was locked in at ISO 3200, f/2.8, 1/100 sec, shutter speeds varying by only about a third of the stop for basically the whole show. I was using a recently acquired (used and relatively cheap!) 17-55/2.8 almost exclusively.

The show was at the Black Cat’s small backstage – low stage, static lighting, and a useful gap between the performers and concertgoers that narrowed when the band requested that everyone take a few steps forward. I was able to move around pretty freely until that happened. Pretty much the only real challenge was the low lighting – I probably should have used my 50/1.8 a little more for the drummer and one of the guitarists who was standing in shadow the whole show.

Day 210: Extra Golden 11

Full set is here at Flickr.

Trip to Vancouver – Sunday

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Enjoying the morning

Oh hey, a little late here. Sunday was not as fruitful a photography day as Saturday, so I’ll keep this short. Besides, I having the creeping feeling that travel photography tends to be really boring if you’re not somehow invested in the places in question.

Jogger in Stanley Park

The top photo is a couple enjoying a quiet Sunday morning on the waterfront. Just above is a slightly more active way of enjoying the morning; this was taken on the other side of the bay (along the seawall in Stanley Park) with downtown Vancouver in the background.

Lunch 4

And that’s the view from our lunch restaurant. Not too shabby.

…and really that’s about all I have to share from Sunday. Definitely got a lot more on Saturday. Full set with a bunch of photos of my family at lunch is at Flickr.

Trip to Vancouver – Saturday

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Canadian Ire

Went to Vancouver last weekend. Took lots of photos of all kinds. Here are a few I like from Saturday (Sunday to come), after the jump. (If you’re reading this in an RSS reader, I think you’ll have to click through to the entry to see the photos below.)

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Pay attention

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

When a professional sports photographer, whose photos regularly get published by ESPN on their website and magazine, starts a blog – you pay attention.

Check out Mark J. Rebilas’ blog, where he regularly posts some crazy awesome sports photos and talks in wonderfully entertaining detail about the process by which he got them. His latest entry on “light pockets” is just too cool. This is the real deal – great photog, and real blogging, not just photo posts sans text. Go.

Gypsy prog

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Vialka 9

Vialka, a French husband-and-wife duo of drums and baritone guitar, played at the Velvet Lounge on Tuesday night. I previewed the show at Black Plastic Bag, complete with plenty of hype and one wildly inaccurate comparison (no, these guys do not sound anything like Ruins).

The show definitely lived up to my expectations. As I wrote in my preview, the band describe themselves, glibly, as a “turbo folk micro-orchestra,” whatever the hell that means. But what they really are is prog, albeit prog in the Etron Fou sense more than anything else, minus a bit of the dadaism. They played a number of lengthy compositions that flitted whimsically through two to three seemingly unrelated themes, most of them involving tricky but somehow bouncy rhythms, gratuitously sung/screamed/declaimed vocals (all in French), and a hell of a lot of fancy guitar fretwork.

Vialka 6

Vialka combine the manic, stop-start spasticity characteristic of so much proggy avant-rock with a melodic sense that draws straight from Eastern European folk and what I ignorantly categorize in my head as “French music.” There’s a sense of whimsy that’s very un-American going on in their writing, which probably makes them sound ridiculous to some of the more jaded types out there, but gives them a certain irrepressible charm for me.

In concert, all the quirkiness embedded in the compositions came out in the open. I got a chance to chat with both band members – Eric Boros, the guitarist, and Marylise Frecheville, the drummer – before and after the show, and my very enjoyable conversations with them gave no hint of their stage personalities. When the show began, Eric donned a shiny metallic shirt and Marylise a sequined spaghetti strap top and the quirkiness just kept going from there. They danced around a lot – Marylise leapt up from behind her kit to dance in the middle of the crowd on two occasions, and Eric was bouncing around with a huge grin on his face the whole time – but more than that, their personalities just seemed to shine through in the vocals and the sometimes hilariously disjointed rhythms.

Vialka 5

The reception was quite good, and they sold a few CDs, always nice to see with a band likely so far outside the experience of your average American concertgoer (even one who frequents the Velvet Lounge). Good times.

Photographically, well, it was the Velvet Lounge so it sucked. Static light, extremely dim, all heavily colored, etc etc. Nothing surprising here. With two performers so dynamic, it was tough to get much of anything (and they had asked me not to use flash). I was at ISO HI 1.0 (6400), f/1.8, usually locked in at a shutter speed of 1/50 – not really fast enough to freeze action. So I had to resort to blasting off bursts of 5-6 frames at a time, hoping to catch a split-second pause in the performers’ movements. It worked reasonably well – I got a few decent shots – but it didn’t exactly make me feel skilled.

Also, this exposure was still underexposing by up to a stop or so, and I pushed it as far as I could in post-processing without introducing too much noise. As it is, I definitely did some pretty aggressive noise reduction, but nevertheless these will never be anything but low-res Web images. Can’t really ask for too much more from ISO 6400 and shooting in near darkness, I suppose.

Vialka 1

There are a few more photos in the full Flickr set – mostly of Marylise as the lighting was almost nonexistent on Eric.

Things I still suck at

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

SFC43

A very, very incomplete list of things I suck at:

1. Flash photography.
2. Flash photography.
3. Flash photography.

Almost all of the photography I do is available-light. This goes for sports, concerts, and my presumptuous efforts at so-called “fine art” photography (whatever the hell that may or may not mean). I occasionally use off-camera flash to spice things up, but for the most part I try to avoid having to use flash at all.

This weekend, I photographed an event put on by SweatFree Communities: a panel discussion and rally targeting the National Governors’ Association meeting in downtown Philadelphia. One of SFC’s major goals is to get states to commit to sweatshop-free procurement policies, so an event that brought together all 50 governors in one place was an obvious opportunity to hold some publicity events.

Day 194: National SweatFree Summit

The panel took place inside a church, on a low stage with minimal light. I had brought a strobe but nothing to mount it on. Available-light shooting with the lenses I had (80-200/2.8 on my D300 and 12-24/4 on my D70) was getting me ISO 3200 on the D300 and ISO 800 on the D70, neither of those anywhere close to ideal. The above photo was shot available light at ISO 3200, and would have been a heck of a lot better at a lower ISO or with some carefully applied strobe – the noise in the wall behind the panelist is kind of distracting to me, which bothers me a lot because otherwise I really like that shot.

With a wide stage to deal with and no light stand on which to mount my SB-800, I enlisted the help of a friend and had him hold the strobe standing to the right of the stage near the podium. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have time to give him instructions on how to orient the flash head, so he just kept the CLS sensor pointing toward my camera as I wandered around the room, which meant uneven lighting on the stage depending on my position. So most of my flash shots came out fairly badly.

If this had been a paid gig I would have shown up earlier with appropriate gear (rented from Penn Camera most likely) and positioned a strobe or two on the stage. Instead, I improvised and it didn’t really work. So it goes.

SFC31

On the other hand, the rally was outside the church in broad daylight, so lighting was not an issue here. But rallies and protests present their own challenges, of course, in that it’s sometimes tough to take creative shots. Most of mine are fairly cliche, but at least I think they’re reasonably well-executed. And these kinds of things are always a lot of fun to photograph.

The rally was confined to a relatively narrow sidewalk – there was a massive police presence befitting the fact that all 50 governors were in the building across the street from us – which made getting wide photos of the whole rally basically impossible (though I did hop over to a distant street corner to at least grab a couple environmental shots). So I focused on headshots and the like and came away with a few that I’m happy with.

Another thing – this was the first time I used my D300 and D70 in conjunction, and switching between the two wasn’t nearly as jarring as I expected. It did take me a few moments to remember how to do a few extremely basic things on the D70 (like change ISO or zoom in and out when reviewing images), but once I got reacquainted, it was fine. The tiny, dim viewfinder of the D70 didn’t bother me at all, which was something I had been worried about. Instead, what I noticed most was the tiny LCD screen that made it hard to evaluate photos in the field. I’ve definitely taken to analyzing my photos reasonably critically using the D300’s enormous LCD. That’s a nice luxury for sure.

SFC38

I turned over a bunch of my photos to SFC, but a select few are in this Flickr photoset.

Fog machines are awesome

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

Boris 11

On Tuesday night at the Black Cat, Boris (pictured above), Torche and Clouds played one of the loudest shows I’ve been to all year, to one of the most raucous crowds I’ve been a part of all year. All three of these bands are very heavy rock bands – many fans would call them “metal” but for their own reasons, I believe Boris and Torche tend to eschew that label. But this was almost as “metal” a show as any I’ve seen so far this year, right down to the mosh pit that exploded during Torche’s set, and the wild stage dive by Boris’ drummer at the end of their set.

Clouds 3

Clouds (above) were first, replacing Wolves in the Throne Room who (very sadly, for me at least) dropped off the tour after being pencilled in as the openers. I’m not familiar with their material at all, but they put on an entertaining set of what seemed to be fairly straightforward sludgy metal. Their new album is on Hydra Head, and if this show was anything to go off of, it seems like their music is just a tad poppier than the norm for that label. Solid opener, but I wasn’t inspired to pick up their album right off the bat.

Torche 3

I saw Torche (above) a couple months ago at Rock & Roll Hotel, where I thought they stole the show from headliners The Sword. These guys play a very catchy brand of metal, with melodic hooks galore embedded in their jackhammering guitar riffs. They’re also not afraid to bring the noise, eschewing the poppy stuff in some songs in favor of pure cathartic brutality. But for the most part, they’re a crowd-pleasing band, and that was in full effect last night, as throughout their set a fairly large (by Black Cat standards at least) mosh pit roiled violently in front of the stage, at times threatening to push those of us in the front row practically up onto the stage itself.

The Torche dudes were loving it, playing to the moshers with huge grins on their faces, and seemingly upping the energy of their performance as compared to the one I saw in May. As before, they put on a hugely enjoyable show, even if the music is a little too straightforward for my tastes on record. Also as before, they closed their set with a monstrous, extended version of the title track from their most recent album, Meanderthal, that absolutely brought the house down. Good times.

Boris 13

Boris took the stage after a 45-minute set change, obscured by fog pumping out from the drum riser, playing the opening strains of their newest album, Smile. Their setlist was actually just Smile in its entirety, played in order, except with “Pink” and “Floor Shaker” inserted into the middle of the set. As such, their set exhibited by far the most dynamic range of any of the three bands performing, ranging from hard-driving stoner metal to meandering, pretty soundscapes to breathtakingly exciting extended jams (the final, set-ending song).

I’m not a huge fan of Boris‘ studio output – as I just mentioned, I generally find stoner metal and stuff like this (I realize Boris is not really easy to pigeonhole in any one genre) a little too simplistic – but like Torche, these guys really shine in a live setting. Something about how they bounce between peaceful melody and merciless pummelling is just really fantastic to witness live. Wata is a beast of a guitarist, but you’d never know it from watching her, as she just stands there, expressionless, barely moving, while cranking out some killer riffs. But Takeshi made up for her stoicism with his manic stage presence, flailing around wildly on his headless double-necked guitar (as in the above photo). Atsuo, if anything, was even crazier, but ensconced behind his drum kit as he was, that never really became obvious until the end of the set. And all the while, guest guitarist Michio Kurihara (“guest” even though he’s been on Boris‘ last couple tours) stood quietly in the corner, barely lit, often completely obscured in fog:

Boris 2

The highlight was the end of the set, which was “You Were Holding an Umbrella” followed by its 16-minute closing section, a spectacular jam that built from a near-ambient beginning into a series of noisy, cathartic crescendoes. Almost post-rock-like, except a couple of the noisy parts tended to come more out of nowhere, giving the piece a much less linear feel than your average post-rock epic.

Towards the end, with guitars wailing and feedback screaming, drummer Atsuo started dismantling his kit, chucking cymbals against the giant gong hanging behind him and generally going apeshit. After he had thrown everything around, he jumped up on his bass drum, arms raised, face upturned, reveling in the glorious noise, and then hopped down onto the stage and dove into the crowd. From what I could tell he crowdsurfed half way back into the heart of the club before climbing back on stage, striking another pose, and exiting backstage with the rest of the band still hammering away. The wall of sound subsided shortly thereafter, leaving the crowd to cheer lustily in the hopes of an encore that did not come.

Boris 15

The Black Cat is a pleasure to photograph in, especially when the headlining band actually has a light show and some visual effects, which Boris certainly did. Though the club has no photo pit, it’s fairly easy to get up front early. The stage is low, the lighting generally decent, and the photo policy extremely friendly (basically no restrictions). For this show, Clouds was extremely well-lit and Torche was for one song before they asked for the lights to be turned down, after which things got a little too dim to get much of use.

Boris‘ show was accompanied by changing lighting schemes and a very liberally used fog machine, which made for some dramatic shots. For their set, I shot with my 50/1.8, wide open at ISO 1600, getting shutter speeds ranging from 1/80 all the way up to 1/250. Because I was so close and the environmental shots were exciting, I actually ended up using my 18-70/3.5-4.5 lens a lot, almost always at the 18mm end, at ISO 6400 (HI 1.0 on my D300) with shutter speeds from 1/25 on up. This was obviously not ideal and I got some very noisy shots and some shots ruined by motion blur – I really, really could have used a 17-55/2.8 for this show. Nevertheless, some judicious use of Noise Ninja in post-processing cleaned up some of these photos enough that I’m more than happy with a lot of them.

Boris 7

There was another photographer at the show, Michael Starghill, who was positioned on the opposite side of the stage as me. The crowd was packed in so tight at the front that there was no opportunity to move around, so we were both stuck in a single shooting position for the whole show. He got some great shots of Boris, including some of Wata and Atsuo that I couldn’t have gotten from my position. Unfortunately, he got caught right in the middle of the moshpit for both Torche and Boris – I was on the fringes and even there it was quite a challenge taking good shots while getting shoved around!

Full set of my photos, as always, at Flickr.

The outdoor itch

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

Dolly Sods 21

Every summer I start itching to go backpacking, only to be dissuaded by too many occupied weekends and too much mercury in the thermometers (and too little cash to go somewhere cooler). Right now it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to take a trip until September at the earliest – sigh. So I figured I’d share some photos of my last trip, which was in April in one of my absolute favorite places to visit – West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness. This was also the last time I used my D70 extensively, as I got my D300 shortly after this expedition and have barely touched the D70 since (though I’m keeping it as a backup and for use if and when I do more photojournalism).

Our group of four left DC late on a Friday morning to make the 3+ hour drive to the Sods. When we got close, we quickly realized that this hike was not destined to start smoothly. Forest Road 70, the main access road to the wilderness, was still closed for the winter (this was early April), forcing us to drive to a different starting location and make an 8-mile detour hike up FR70 to our originally intended starting point. Still, Dolly Sods being what it is, this was a more scenic road hike than most any other I can imagine in the eastern United States. FR70 is almost freakishly straight, and between the clean line of the road, the dramatically cloudy sky, and the peculiar flora of the area, I managed to take some interesting photos. As a bonus, since the entire Dolly Sods area lies atop a plateau, it was pleasantly flat and an easy hike – even if it doesn’t really look so flat in this photo:

Day 95: The straight & narrow

We did the eight miles in just over two hours, if I recall, not bad time considering we had a couple relatively novice backpackers in our little group of four. The weather looked threatening, but it never rained and stayed pleasant cool the entire time. It was a good thing we made decent time, because we were already getting a late start – by the time we got to our intended starting point for the day, it was already 6pm. We still took a few minutes to enjoy the view from Bear Rocks – a huge rock outcrop that enjoys sweeping 360-degree views, including the Dobbin Slashings bog to the west and, on a clear day, unimpeded sight lines all the way to the Shenandoah National Park ridgeline to the east. It was crazy windy at Bear Rocks though, and we were already starting to lose some daylight, so we didn’t stay for too long.

Dolly Sods 06

After descending from Bear Rocks, we hiked just about a mile in on Bear Rocks Trail, where we then made camp immediately after crossing Red Creek, where the water level was low enough to make crossing easy. It was completely dark by the time we had dinner ready, and we retired to bed shortly thereafter. Sometime in the night, the rain came, but not too heavy, and by the time we awoke it had cleared up completely, leaving in its wake a damp, cool morning. We made a quick breakfast, broke camp, hiked up the hill, and before too long emerged on the wide-open expanses of Raven Ridge, completely obscured by a thick, clinging fog. It was beautiful. I hung back behind the group and took many, many photos, none of which could do the scene justice. Imagine walking atop a clear plateau, with nothing obscuring views in all directions except for a pea-soup fog. It’s an epic feeling. Too epic for a mere photograph, really.

Dolly Sods 11

Gradually the fog lifted as we moved west towards Rocky Ridge. The terrain changed once again, the trails got a little boggy, the weather remained damp and a little chilly, and the photo opportunities kept coming faster than I could keep up. I fell completely behind my companions for half an hour or so, enjoying the solitude and using the chance to take some photos like this one:

Dolly Sods 18

Rocky Ridge is, in practice, the western boundary of Dolly Sods, as the plateau drops off steeply to the west. The hike south along the ridge is one of the many highlights of the area, as on a clear day there are amazing views of the Monongahela National Forest. It is also a windy hike, since you’re basically hiking in the middle of the jetstream, with no protection from any wind or weather coming from the west (Dolly Sods lies atop the Allegheny Front, which is part of the Eastern Continental Divide). But the high winds just add to the feeling of adventure, along with the fact that the trail inexplicably peters out for a while on the ridge. Picking our way through the rocks, looking for the trail proper, bundling up against the weather, following pink USFS boundary markers (see the headlnie photo), enjoying the view – this is what happens every time I’m up here and this time was no different.

Amazingly, the weather cleared up for us as we walked along the ridge; the fog lifted, the sun came out, and we were presented with expansive views and a gorgeous late morning/early afternoon. We ate a leisurely lunch at a big rock outcrop, and continued our way south, eventually turning back east at Harman Trail to head towards our eventual goal of a campsite far to the south, along Red Creek and in the shadow of Rocky Point.

Day 96: Big sky

The hike down to the campsite was long but easy – all gently downhill with just a couple minor stream crossings to make things interesting. There was still a decent amount of daylight left as we set up camp by the river and ate dinner on the rocks. As we ate dinner we saw the only other hikers we would see all weekend, camping across the river from us, gathering wood for a fire. After dinner, pretty much straight to bed.

I realized that I have no good photos of our campsite from either this night or the previous one – usually I’m good about taking photos of campsites and gear and stuff because afterwards I find them interesting to revisit, even if they are totally devoid of artistic value. Perhaps I was spending a little too much energy trying to be artistic with my photos, and overlooking some of the basic memory-jogging snapshots I also like to have. A good thing to keep in mind on future trips.

It rained again that night, but once again it was clear by morning. Unfortunately, we had a vestibule collapse in the middle of the night, leaving one person with soaked shoes – ultimately this was not a big deal because we were starting the day off with a major stream crossing (and because none of us were using waterproof boots, which would have been disastrous in this case), but it certainly was inconvenient around camp before we got going. Said stream crossing was a bit of an ordeal, but we were prepared, each of us with one or two heavy downed branches to help us balance. I went first and quickly found myself waist-deep in ice-cold, fast-moving water, but my pack liner (and my DSLR in a trash bag) kept everything from getting wet other than my legs and feet.

I posted a better pic of the crossing in an earlier post to this blog; here’s another, less dramatic view:

Dolly Sods 38

After this rather exciting beginning, the rest of our final day was marked by lots of twists and turns heading up from the Red Creek valley, on trails I had never traversed before. We got lost once or twice, only finding the trail again after extensive bushwhacking, but otherwise this was a very pleasant and mostly uneventful walk, in an environment that felt completely different from the previous day’s open spaces and grand vistas. This day was like a jungle trek, through dense vegetation and over rocky streams that disappeared into small (and not so small) waterfalls only shortly downstream from many of our crossings.

But slowly, as we climbed out of the valley, the terrain changed again. We went from dubiously maintained backcountry trails to wide, smooth roads – most likely old railroad grades or ATV trails. These were perhaps the easiest trails we walked all weekend (not counting those first eight miles on FR70), a refreshing change of pace after worrying about losing the trail every 5-10 minutes earlier in the day. But most dramatically, the trail led us into the heart of a cloud.

Dolly Sods 48

We literally climbed up into a fogbank, one that would prove to be pea-soup thick by the time we got back up to Forest Road 70. I love fog when it comes to photographs – something about it just adds a sense of mystery to what would otherwise be mundane, everyday snapshots. Fog also helps isolate subjects, keeping lots of extraneous clutter out of a shot – in that sense it’s almost like working with an extremely shallow depth of field. However you choose to think about it, it’s certainly a fun photographic tool, as it were. The photo below was taken on a particularly open spot on FR70, but it’s not as if you can tell:

Dolly Sods 51

And thus ended our hike – my last outdoor expedition until September, and the last full weekend I spent with my D70. As I’ve said before, I’ll follow this up with some posts about the logistics of carrying camera gear into the backcountry – we did so very successfully on this trip, even following lightweight backpacking principles. Between myself and one of my companions, we had a D70, a D40, and four lenses: 12-24/4, 18-70/3.5-4.5, 18-55/3.5-5.6, and 28-300/3.5-6.3. No pro lenses or pro cameras, but I would say we got some great shots indeed. And had a great time!

Technically problematic

Monday, July 7th, 2008

Day 187: In passing

Usually I’m a total product of the digital photography age, which means I like my photos sharp, focused, with a strong subject, free of noise, and with accurate color reproduction. Well, if that’s not entirely accurate, that at least describes the kind of photos I know how to take. But sometimes I take a photo purposely not trying to succeed in all of these areas, and sometimes (if rarely) I like the result. This is one of those times.

Hey, my birthday was just a few weeks ago

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

Anyone want to buy me one of these? Rumor has it in the $3000 range in the US…

This will be amazing for concert photography, assuming it has the same high-ISO performance as the D3 (and I don’t see why it wouldn’t). I can see lots of pros with a D700 and a D300 as backup, especially since both use the same battery and take the same battery grip as well. The 95% viewfinder is interesting – I wonder if it’s intentionally crippled in that way to keep some incentive to go with the D3 instead. It doesn’t really seem like Nikon’s usual MO to cripple prosumer cameras though, with the D300 a prime example.

This is a beefy camera at 6 ounces heavier than the D300, much of it probably in that huge FX prism. I wonder what the weatherproofing is like. D300 equivalent would make sense.