Archive for June, 2013

Black & White

I’ve shot a lot of pool in my life. I played competitively a bit, and it was interesting to try to gauge the skill of your opponent by how he or she presented themselves. Something that would always get a rise out of me was meeting a player who had his own very expensive cue and case, a glove, and myriad other accoutrements, that I would proceed to beat soundly. I’m of the mind that your equipment should match your skills, otherwise you can look ridiculous.
So it is with photography, where I’ve waited until I felt my skills justified the investment before upgrading equipment. But even technique or editing gets this scrutiny for me; I feel you should be ready for it.  HDR, for example, is a rather advanced tool that can be dangerous in unskilled hands. (For a compelling rant on that subject, see The Idiot Photographer‘s recent post here.) And, though others would disagree, I might put black and white photography in this category, though mainly because I feel I abused it early on. With the recent trip to Iceland, however, I decided to tackle my reluctance head on, since much of that country’s landscape is seemingly made for B&W. Here is an HDR shot that has been desaturated into a sepia tone, as well as other editing tweaks. I think I’ve worked this shot so long I’ve lost the ability to be objective about it anymore; I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if this came out well, or if it is Frankenstein’s monster of photography.


Rift Valley Ravine.

Mission Statement

For those who may not have noticed I’ve been working with a fellow blogger, Sometimes Interesting, to offer up a unique view of my favorite city to explore.  Many of the urbex photos I’ve posted here are from buildings in Gary Indiana; I’ve been to the Sheraton Hotel and climbed 14 monotonus floors to get to the roof.  I’ve poked around the ruins of Gary-Aldering Settlement House, a building who’s history was largely forgotten as it was based almost soley in racisim.  My first introduction to urban exploring was the grand old relic, Mahencha Apartments and not long after we found City United Church which is quite possibly the most well known abandonment in the city and has been in several motion pictures, both major and independent.  I’ve climbed the scary stairs in one of the most decrepit buildings still standing and made it to the rooftop of Ambassador Arms Apartments.

I’ve strolled through the wreck of the Palace Theater, once the pride of the city.  I wandered the halls of Emerson High School, and Horace Mann High School.  In every case Sometimes Interesting has done the hard work of researching and writing the stories of these buildings and the people behind them, I simply had to have some fun exploring and take photos while I was at it.  If you haven’t read any of these stories but have enjoyed the photos I’ve provided from these locations then I would suggest perhaps you stop on by his place and take a look.  For me, learning the history of these buildings has deepened the experience of being there, knowing that this isn’t just another empty building, but a place that once loved, important and held meaning to the residents of the city.

mission statement

Nicobar Pigeon

Why can’t all pigeons be this pretty?

Nicobar Pigeon

 Nicobar Pigeon nesting

Alluvial Midnight

A huge perk of photography in Iceland this time of the year is there is no night to speak of. Sure, the sun sets for three hours, but that merely throws the landscape into twilight. If cloud cover isn’t too heavy, the “golden hour” of optimal light can stretch seemingly forever. At the time of this shot, roughly 11:30 PM, the sun was crawling down towards the horizon and casting the boulders and mists of the alluvial plain in sharp contrast.



Goodnight to all.


Black-naped Stilt

Black Naped Stilt lateral view

Black Naped Stilt


Somewhat hidden inside a ravine in Thingvellir was this waterfall, one of the most beautiful I would see in Iceland.





Cute Overload

I’ve been hanging on to these photos for far too long, it is time for some more Takin baby action.

I mentioned that last time I was at the zoo they were feeling frisky and acting like adorable fools, here is the evidence.

takin dash


High speed galumphing!

takin baby running


And it wasn’t just the one either!  It isn’t easy to get both of them into the frame at once, but I got lucky.

scampering takin babies


There was a fair amount of play fighting too, practice for when they’re all grown up big boys.

takin babies tussle


Some times, you just have to jump around for the sheer joy of it.

takin baby dance

Cairns of Iceland

Ubiquitous in this country are cairns, or rock piles, which punctuate the landscape. Dense in some areas, occasional in others, cairns can be a memorial, a bit of folk art, or, seemingly, a simple way of saying “I was here.” The first shot is from the base of a sea cliff.




The second, from a hilltop not far from an excavated viking longhouse.








As unremarkable as moss may seem here, in temperate climates, it can take on fantastic forms in Iceland. It is one of the few types of flora that thrives in this cold, damp climate. While driving the ring road east of Vik, I came upon vast lava fields that at first glance appeared to be green crumb cake. In fact, each rock and boulder had grown a thick coat of moss and lichens. When I left the car to get a closer shot, I found jumping from rock to rock to be like trampolining, the stuff was so thick and spongy.





Lava frozen in moss



Depth, an illustration.




Fennic Fox

sleepy fennic fox


A thirty minute drive northeast from Reykjavik will take you to Thingvellir, site of the old Althingi, where the Icelandic parliament was held every year. It was, essentially, a celebrated campground where chieftains would meet to hammer out laws and try difficult cases, and not much is left to see of that. The site, however, is fantastic. A wide continental rift valley between mountain ranges with the country’s largest lake in the middle offers gorgeous vistas, tortured gorges, and of course, a sense of history.


From the southwest side of the lake

Tibetan Takin

I make it no secret that I like goats and think that they are pretty awesome animals.  The internet in the past year has been catching up to me in their love of goats, mostly due to the hilarious YouTube videos of goats screaming.  In celebration of my 350th post I will talk about my favorite of all the wild goats.

The Takin is the granddaddy of all goats, there is not one more majestic or massive.  True, technically they are “goat-antelopes” and some consider them more antelope than goat, but I’m going to ignore them.  They live at the highest altitude of any goat (or goat-antelope) in the world, up in the Himalayas at up to 4,500 meters over sea level.

golden takin

some think that the “golden fleece” Jason and argonauts were after was a takin hide

The takin I will share with you today do not live at such impressive altitude, they’re at about 177 meters (or 583 feet) above sea level.  They’re also not that far from Lake Michigan and call Chicago home.

takin in the water

the female isn’t as blonde as the male

This winter both female takin at Lincoln Park Zoo gave birth to bouncing baby boys and they are growing big and strong at an amazing rate.

takin baby sass

What?  i’m cute.

Neither is as big as dad, yet.

father and son edited

“One day I’m gonna grow up to be like you dad!”

Takin don’t have many natural predators; black bears, tigers, snow leopards, dholes, and wolves will take one out if the opportunity arises, but the evidence for predation is uncommon.  The biggest threat this animal faces is us.

takin family

One happy family


One of nature’s greatest jokes.

flamingo feathers






Bolivian Grey Titi Monkey

titi monkey

Sun Breaking Through

A frustrating thing about having a lot of pictures to go through is that I don’t know what’s good until I get to edit it, and I can’t edit 1500 shots in one sitting. What I’m saying here is that I’d like a mulligan on yesterday’s post. Here’s the same subject with a tighter focus, better color and… well, I think it’s just a better shot. Let me know what you think.



Mountains In Sunlight


The Turning Point

Before I get to my latest offering, a quick plug. Those of you that visit this blog recently have seen a lot of pictures of the fantastic ruins of Gary, Indiana. If you’ve ever wondered about the stories of some of these edifices, fellow blogger Sometimes-Interesting has an ongoing series of posts documenting some of the most notable buildings, using many of our photographs. The stories deserve a wider audience, and anyone interested in the hows and whys of the decline of our favorite rust belt city should check him out here.

Today’s picture illustrates a point that I’ve reached on just about all of my forays abroad. There usually comes a time a day or two into a trip when I seem to hit a wall. The immediate reasons vary, but inevitably it is a crisis of doubt: “why did I come here?” “I planned this all wrong” “I hope the U.S. consulate can claim my body.”  Whatever the case, I usually just work through it. Sometimes a good dinner at some restaurant with a few drinks helps. This time, however, at a moment when I had recently left Reykjavik and struck out into a strange country, unsure of how this excursion would go, I made a turn and found myself facing this:


Shafts of Light

I’m not religious, nor even spiritual in the least. But this sight made me take a deep breath and believe I’d come to the right place. I hope the pictures that follow bear me out.


meerkats chillingI’ve got the day off work, so I’m taking it easy just like these meerkats.

Emerald Tree Boa

emerald tree boaAwwww, don’t you just want to cuddle him?

One More From the Beach

I like things organized. Returning from Iceland, I had been mulling over the shots I took, planning an approach as to how I would post them. I thought I’d be like a museum curator, planning an orderly and cogent tour through various themes.


That was before Delta airlines stranded me at JFK airport for eight hours, ultimately canceling my flight and sending me out on a redeye the next day, leaving me even more jetlagged than I would have been. That was before returning to work Monday, which didn’t leave much time for thoughtfully and leisurely editing pictures. This isn’t merely bitching, but a reminder of how the best laid plans of mice and men turn out. Alright, it is pretty much bitching. But I’ve managed to clean up one more shot of the same beach at Vik which I’ve showcased in previous days, and progress is being made on the many, many photos which remain.



A View of the North Atlantic.


Black Beaches

Outside the town of Vik, rivers have eroded volcanic basalt into a black sand as they’ve carried it south toward the sea. The result is a wide plume of inky beach, maybe a couple miles along. Walk along the monochromatic coast and you’re likely to fall into reverie, imagining yourself in a Chris Isaak video or a Calvin Klein perfume commercial. Then, you snap out of it and decide to get to work taking pictures.






Between boulders.


Spotted Hyena

spotted hyena

So Tabula Rasa went to Iceland; I went to the zoo!  This Spotted Hyena was curious as to what I was up to, standing on the railing like I was.

Iceland: Introduction

I chose Iceland as a destination because I had heard it was full of sights not to be seen elsewhere. I was not dissapointed. Since returning this morning, I urge any traveler with the means to get there to go. The austere beauty of the Icelandic countryside can be hypnotic, with otherworldly geological formations, strange mosses, and slender waterfalls vying for the photographer’s attention. I can only hope that I’ve managed to faithfully capture on camera a fraction of what the country had to offer. Whatever the results, I will be presenting them here in coming posts.



Black basalt sand beach outside the town of Vik.


On HDR- a rant

This post is going to be something a little different than the usual for me.  I’ve been seeking critiques on my work lately, and let me tell you it sounds easy but isn’t.   Most of the time you get very general comments like “looks nice”, “boring”, “interesting subject”, and the like.  It seems that people are afraid to tell you where you got it right or wrong or they are too lazy to write an actual critique, in which case I wonder why they’re on a critique site.

Oh hey, I  haven’t even started yet and I’ve already gone off on a tangent!  The point is, I’ve been looking at an awful lot of other people’s photos lately and were it not for the fact that I use HDR on a regular basis I would be ready to hate it as much as I despise Instagram.   Instagram is quick and easy to use, it can be a useful tool but in general it seems to be employed in an attempt to make a boring photo interesting.  I don’t care how many filters you run your photo of a poorly lit burger through, it is still a boring photo of a poorly lit  burger.   I haven’t seen a many photos run through Instagram that could stand on their own merits, although to be fair I’m generally not looking anymore.

HDR on the other hand is not quick and easy to use.  I can forgive Instagram (somewhat, a little, ok, maybe not) for encouraging smart phone users into thinking that they are now professional grade photographers because they used preset filters to make their photo look quirky.  I have a harder time forgiving people who spend all the time and effort to set up a shot, bracket it, get home and spend time post processing it to get it “just right” only to post a poorly composed photo that is interesting only due to the technique used and they decide that it is “quite nice”.  The subject matter is in the middle of the frame,  the horizon line is totally off kilter, the colors are terribly over saturated, the processing overwhelms the subject, and there are massive halos around everything in the photo.   Perhaps even worse is the serious amateur or pro who brow beats the viewer with ALL THE PRETTY COLORS!!!!!!!!


Let me beat you over the head with all the pretty colors! i can make bad hdr too!

Often when I look at shots like these I feel I am being beaten over the head with processing technique and it makes me never want to shoot HDR again.

ambss reworked loud

to be fair, this was the very first option my hdr program offered up to me for this composite. i still have a headache from viewing it full screen.

Look, I understand good composition is difficult, and the majority of people out there are casual photographers who really enjoy the hobby, or serious amateurs of varying levels of skill.   I got started as a casual photographer and when I look back at the photos I took 4 years ago I cringe.  I admit that when I first got my hands on HDR I went a little nuts and over processed the hell out most of my photos.  Yet, it still makes me crazy.  If my idiotic self can learn to use HDR to enhance rather than overwhelm, can’t others?  But then I see the semi-pros and pros who have great composition doing the exact same thing and I despair.  It would be one thing if it was occasional but when every single photo is the same in-your-face HDR style, well I just don’t want to look at it any more much less use it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of examples of fantastic HDR where they got it just right.

Then I get on location.

I start thinking “What would this look like in HDR?”.  I go and bracket shots where HDR isn’t really called for just because I am curious and then I go and over process them.   I’ve been known to over saturate colors, I pretty much always have to fix my horizon line and some days a trained baboon could probably come up with better composition than I do.  In short, I commit all the crimes I am currently bitching about.

So why am I so annoyed with HDR right now?  I think it is because people outside of my hobby see it and go totally gaga for it.  It is like it short circuits their brain and suddenly no matter the subject they love the photo.  I have recently received more than one email or link on Facebook pointing me to this “awesome” photography set  where the main element was over done HDR.  In some forums the photos I have taken that have gotten the most positive response have been the ones where I thought I was being too heavy handed with the HDR effect, which tells me they like the effect, not the photo.

HDR is here to stay, they are building cameras with in camera capacities and programmers are creating pseudo HDR apps that work on one shot rather than a bracketed set for those who either shoot a lot of action or are just plain lazy.  The fact is that we’re going to be seeing a lot more it in the future, to the point where it may end up even more common for casual photographers than standard photography is, simply for the ease of use.  I don’t think single shot “HDR” will ever be able to achieve what a true bracketed composite can tone wise, that is until camera sensors improve to see higher range than they do now.  I’ve employed the pseudo HDR once, and will probably never do it again because it lacks so much.  Sure you get the effect, but you don’t get the range.

Better photographers than I  have been complaining about HDR and refusing to use it for years now for exactly the same reasons I’m annoyed with it.  But like everything else we have for post- processing, it can be used for good or evil.  In the end it is the photographer’s choice to go all out surreal or attempt to stay true to what they saw, and it is up to the viewer if they like it or not.  I’m not going to stop using HDR simply because it is such a valuable tool for me and I think that for the most part I’ve learned to employ it in a manner where it enhances my subjects rather than replacing them.   One day restrained use of HDR will become the normal for it and I will no longer have to fear the HDR tag on blogs, Flickr and other photo sharing sites.  This is my dream, and I’m going to hold on to it.  (after all, the 90’s and 00’s had selective coloring and that has mostly, thankfully, fallen out of favor.)


ok fine, i admit that sometimes you gotta get a little crazy with cheez-whiz. this is perhaps a little overdone but i like it. i’m just as bad as the rest of them.