What my histogram has taught me about our political problems

 

Yosemite Valley, in all its splendor, a beautiful landscape.

08-23-2012

OK, this will be a stretch, but watch as I connect two seemingly random topics, my camera’s histogram and our country’s political landscape, into one post.

The other day I was explaining how a camera’s histogram works to a student, when I realized I could have also been describing the ways we view the world. Go figure.

For this idea to have any possible chance of making any sense, you first have to understand how a camera’s histogram works. A histogram is a statistical graph that illustrates the frequency that something occurs. In the case of a camera’s histogram, it maps out the number of pixels across a scale of brightness ranges from 0 to 255. Imagine you are the camera looking at an image. You examine the first pixel and give it a grayscale brightness value, with 0 representing total black and 255 representing total white. Every value in between is some sort of gray level, with a gradation from black to white. Very dark pixels would be scored a very low number, middle gray pixels would score somewhere in the middle (e.g. 128) and very light pixels would score a higher number, approaching 255. After scoring every pixel in an image, the histogram shows how they all scored. Each image has its own unique histogram. The histogram is a great tool to help a photographer accurately evaluate the exposure of images.

This is the histogram for the Yosemite image above. Lots of gray pixels between the black ones and the white ones.

So what does this have to do with politics? Well, hang with me here a little longer.

A histogram has one value for black (0) and one value for white (255). The other 254 values represent some form of gray. If we convert the gray pixels into only black or white pixels, we get very little of the whole picture.

I think our country’s biggest political problem is the massively divisive ways that issues and problems are described and debated in purely black and white terms. It’s like looking at a photo without any gray areas.

Without any gray areas, the landscape looks pretty stark. No details, no beauty.

Realistically, most of our country’s issues have lots of gray areas. Economic problems don’t start and stop with each presidency. These problems are highly complex and cannot be understood or solved if we oversimplify them and say they are caused by one person or one policy. For example, some of the California budget problems today can be traced back to decisions that were made several decades ago, along with many more made since then.

But here’s the point: if these problems have lots of gray areas, then the solutions must exist in those gray areas, too. In order to find those solutions, we have to leave the safety of our polar opposites and be willing to wander around the middle areas together with some curiosity and flexibility. If we describe the problem in black and white terms, we aren’t seeing the whole picture.

So if we could map out a histogram of our political views, how much gray area would show up? Or would it look as bad as the photo of Yosemite without much gray in it?

I realize this curiosity and flexibility is not easy to do. Much of our political identity is wrapped up in absolutes. But if we try it, I believe something else can happen along the way. As we begin to explore and accept the gray areas along with others, we may get to know each other a little better. We may find out that we all have a lot more in common than we think. But most importantly, I think our focus would shift away from yelling and name-calling and blaming each other, and without all that, we can get smarter. Because right now, I think our country looks pretty stupid. It takes gray matter to see the gray areas.

It all begins with each of us. We might even begin to treat each other with a little more respect. I can only begin to imagine the power of treating each other with a little more respect. Now there’s a concept.

But if we want to really solve these problems in our own lifetimes, we will need to let go of some of the hyperbole and get down to the real work of sorting it out and setting things straight.

And we can’t set things straight if we can’t see things straight.

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I took a knife to a gunfight…and lived.

 

Raley Field, home of the Sacramento River Cats

07-28-2012

Figuratively speaking, of course.

I regularly shoot Sacramento River Cats baseball games for Sacramento Press. The River Cats are the MILB AAA team that feeds the Oakland A’s.

The baseball park is located at Raley Field in West Sacramento and the park has a little more than 11,000 seats, plus some lawn seating. It is a great and comfortable venue for watching baseball.

 

Pre-game ceremonies, shot with a Panasonic GH2 and Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 lens

My normal gear haul for shooting sports is two Canon 7D camera bodies and three or four lenses. The Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 (non-IS) lens is my standard sports lens, the other lenses are usually chosen when I am packing for the game, sometimes on impulse. One time, I took a telescope to a game, just for something different.

After adding extra batteries, a monopod and a water bottle, the gear pack usually weighs about 30 pounds. Fortunately I am able to set the pack on the ground most of the time I am at the game. I do like to shoot from different locations around the park, including from behind the back fence, so I do add up some mileage lugging this load around.

As I was packing for a game last week, I decided to pare down the load and travel lighter. I brought one Canon 7D body and the 70-200 lens. But for a majority of my shooting, I wanted to use the Panasonic GH2 camera with a few smaller lenses.

The GH2 is a micro four-thirds format camera which has a 16 MP sensor that is slightly smaller physically than the sensor on the 7D. The sensors in the GH2 and the 7D are pretty comparable according to some of the diagnostic websites, although the 7D does have an advantage in low light. More on that in a minute.

The entire Panasonic camera system is smaller than the Canons, so the reduction in weight (and pack space) is pretty significant. For example, a Canon 7D with a 70-200mm lens weighs in at 4.5 lbs. The GH2 with a 45-200mm lens weighs 1.25 lbs.

 

Panasonic GH2 setup (left) weighs almost 1/4 of the Canon (right)

Using the Panasonic setup did leave me with a few technical challenges. The Canon lens is two stops brighter than the Panasonic lens, so I knew I would be shooting the GH2 at a slower shutter speed. With action photography, freezing motion is a pretty big challenge. Frame rate is another. The Canon 7D will shoot at 8.5 frames per second, the GH2 lags a bit at 5 fps. And the 7D’s low light advantage would become more apparent as the evening progressed and the park shifted from daylight to stadium lights.

Side note: The GH2 has a super high speed frame rate – something like 40 frames per second. But this comes with a trade-off. In this mode, the sensor resolution drops to around 4 megapixels, and after shooting a burst of frames, the camera needs about 10-15 seconds to write the images to the card. And this is with a Class 10 card!

So how did it go? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

I left the Canon gear in the pack until later in the evening when the light levels dropped. Shooting with the GH2 was a delight. The light weight made it much more pleasant to hold without tiring out my arms (and back and shoulders muscles). It was fun to stand in the photo pits along the baselines next to the photographers with the traditional “sewer-pipe” sports lenses. The technological disadvantages I mentioned above were not an issue since I adjusted my technique to compensate. (Imagine that)

 

Action moving toward the camera is easier to capture.

To compensate for the slower shutter speed, I shot more photos at the edges of the action. For example, instead of trying to freeze the batter swinging a bat, I included photos of him approaching the plate or looking at the umpire. I also shot some of the action that was moving toward or away from the camera rather than across the frame.

 

Approaching the plate...

To compensate for a slower continuous shooting rate on the GH2, (“only” 5 frames per second!) I paid more attention to timing my shots to align with the action. An extra benefit was having fewer images to cull through later when editing the photos for submission.

These are the same techniques I used when shooting sports with a film camera. At best I could push process Tri-X film to ASA/ISO 1600 to get an acceptable image. Anything higher than that was pretty much unusable. This limited shutter speeds to something crazy low, like 1/125 second.

 

Even under the park lights, the Panasonic GH2 keeps up with the action.

With film and processing costs at stake, I used to shoot fewer images, way fewer. I was more particular about which players I would cover, and what plays I would follow. And when the action would unfold, I would pay close attention to capture the one shot at the right instant. 8 frames per second seems like laziness at times. Just spray and pray.

Waiting for the right instant can be a great alternative to spraying and praying.

The Panasonic GH2 had a couple of advantages over the Canon 7D. Using the electronic viewfinder on the GH2 is a huge improvement over the 7D. I’ve gone on in previous posts about how much I love the EVF, so I won’t repeat myself here. Even with the slight black-out of the EVF when shooting sports, it’s terrific. The GH2 also has a great AutoFocus control, right where I need it. It’s located in the thumb placement on the back of the camera and I found I used it regularly to lock focus. The best part is it works like a toggle, so I can hit it to lock and then relax my thumb until I want to change focus, then hit it again. I’ve programmed the AF button on my 7D to also control auto focus, it just requires that I hold it down continuously.

Once the light levels dropped to the lowest point, I pulled out the Canon gear and used it during the last couple of innings. It certainly does handle the low light nicely, and I didn’t mind the extra weight of the rig, since I wasn’t using it all evening.

The Canon setup handles sports in low light very nicely.

One thing I haven’t discussed is the credibility factor. I’ll admit I was a little self-conscious about not slinging around a huge camera/lens combo. This is often the sign of a “serious” sports shooter. But those little fears dropped off quickly as I found myself enjoying the process of using smaller scale gear (and much smaller cost!)  and applying some brain power to get the results I wanted.

Next time? I’ll probably do the same thing.

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Canon (finally) enters the mirrorless camera world…

Canon's new EOS M mirrorless camera with new 22mm f/2 pancake lens

07-24-2012

… sort of ….

This week Canon announced its first mirrorless camera, the Canon EOS M.

Sadly, I’m underwhelmed. All I can do is sigh.

It seems that Canon had a great opportunity to build the perfect storm of cameras: compact, mirrorless, interchangeable lens design (check), high quality sensor (check), electronic eye-level viewfinder (umm, oops!). Two out of three isn’t enough. Instead, I predict the EOS M will see an initial surge of excitement with an anticipated sales spike just before the holidays, and then most likely, a rapid loss of interest as the short-changed design becomes apparent through use, frustration and comparison (with envy) to other mirrorless camera models. Pretty much the same path as the Nikon1 cameras have done.

Briefly, the EOS M features include:

– Compact camera body
– APS-C sensor, same size sensor as the Digital Rebel and #OD line (e.g. 60D)  (this is big improvement over any point/shoot camera sensor)
– 18 megapixels
– Touch-screen controls on LCD screen (a smooth transition for phone-camera users)
– Interchangeable lens mount (a new “M” mount, with an available adapter to use existing Canon EF and EF-S lenses)
– A couple of new “M” lenses
– A hybrid AutoFocus system

These are very good features for a compact camera. However, a couple of significant features are lacking on this camera:

– No eye-level viewfinder – the only way to point and shoot this camera is to hold it like a point and shoot camera – out in front of your face. This is not a stable way to hold a camera and is difficult to see the screen in bright outdoor light. This model does not even allow for an external electronic viewfinder to connect. I can’t imagine using this method to shoot an image with a large EF lens mounted on the little camera body.
– Very few on-body controls. The mode control dial is gone, replaced with a point and shoot style dial with three choices: Green-Auto, Shooting mode, Video mode.

A simplified user interface with very few on-body controls.

 

This design clearly points to a certain market – someone who wants better image quality than a point/shoot or camera phone, without all the hassle of controlling the camera. At the announced price of $799 with a 22mm f/2 pancake lens, (non-stabilized lens, no included flash) I’m hoping buyers do some shopping around. There are plenty of comparable camera/lens deals that offer much more in the way of usability and features. I doubt many people will choose this model among a feature-rich selection in this price range.

Several bloggers and commenters have suggested the EOS M is targeted at existing Canon DSLR owners who want a smaller camera. I find this an even less-likely market. I own several Canon DSLRs and if I want a smaller camera, I currently have two very useful choices: take a Canon Rebel (it’s small and light enough) or leave all the Canon stuff home and take a Panasonic M4/3 camera setup. Either of these options has plenty of advantages over the EOS M. The only advantage of the EOS M is its small size, but the lack of an eye-level viewfinder is a showstopper for me. Compared to a Panasonic G3, the EOS M is not much smaller. And for the record, neither of them are pocketable.

The Canon EOS M next to a Panasonic G3 - neither of them are pocketable.

 

I’m still hopeful that Canon will take an innovative leap and incorporate an electronic viewfinder (EVF) into their next Rebel DSLR model. This design would be the best of both worlds, as far as I’m concerned. The EVF, as part of a mirrorless design, would eliminate the moving parts associated with a mirror flopping around. It would also eliminate the focus variance between the focusing screen and the sensor.

The EVF allows the photographer to immediately view a shot without moving the camera from their eye. In my case, this movement also involves putting on reading glasses, chimping, then removing the glasses to shoot the next image. The EVF image can be clearly viewed in bright sunlight. More conveniently, the user could make all menu changes at eye-level as well. And with all the rage about video, an eye-level EVF would be ideal, just like the video cameras of the good old days. Imagine, no need for a loupe to shoot video.

I hope I’m wrong about my dismal prediction for this camera. It’s a selfish desire because if sales are strong, Canon will have the resources to get busy with the camera design I’m waiting for.

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The things I love about teaching photography…

Teaching digital photography classes at Learning Exchange

07-15-2012

I’ve been teaching digital photography classes at the Learning Exchange for almost three years. Over 750 people have attended my classes where we cover topics such as digital camera controls, menus, exposure, white balance, depth of field, ISO, motion blur, focal length, focus locking, sensor comparisons, composition, file management, lighting techniques, etc. etc.

As I reflect on the classes and step back and get a wider view of my experiences, I realize how lucky I am to be teaching others how to use their digital cameras. So, what’s in it for me?

Plenty.

From the questions I hear in the classes, I learn a lot about why people want to make better photographs. And this gives me hope. When I start to fear that our culture is slipping into a quick-paced, short-term-memory, social-media-driven lifestyle, someone will remind me that they really want good, long-lasting memories of their loved ones. They want to capture a special moment and save it in a way that is meaningful to them. It is very comforting to know that some of the simpler things in life, like memories, are still important to people.

I learn more and more about my own interests related to photography. Sometimes a student will ask me what I think about when I’m setting up a shot and it forces me to share some things that are quietly resting below the surface of the Obvious. And many of these things are not technical, but emotional. I am reminded why I love to carry a camera with me just about everywhere I go. The student informs and the instructor learns.

I relish a good challenge, and when I am asked to help someone figure out a problem with their camera, I enjoy sitting down with them and doing some troubleshooting. The shared moment of discovery as we sort it out adds a fun spark to the interaction.

I value the feedback I get from students. They tell me when things in a class are working and when they are not. Those comments help me improve the classes each time I teach. But the most rewarding comments are the ones that describe how they felt. I hear things like, “The instructor answered my questions without talking down to me,” or “He is very easy-going and explains technical stuff in simple terms,” or “Now I’m not afraid to use my camera.” Comments like these tell me that I’ve found a way to help others learn to explore something that, frankly, has become unnecessarily technical and confusing to enjoy.

I’ve always heard the best way to learn something is to teach it – I couldn’t agree more.

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Polarizing filters for dramatic fall colors

Left photo - no polarizing filter / Right photo taken with a polarizing filter

12-15-2011 (click on any photo to see it larger)

My last post of fall colors in my neighborhood reminded me to share some test shots I took –  I wanted to illustrate how much difference a polarizing filter can make on the colors in a landscape photograph.

The photos above were taken with the same camera, the photo on the left was taken without the polarizing filter and the one on the right was taken with the polarizing filter. The right-hand photo has more vibrant color in the leaves and the sky is a darker blue.

Why the difference? A polarizing filter removes polarized light – the degree of removal is based on the angle of the camera and the rotation of the filter. The filter is actually two filters that rotate independently. By rotating the outer filter (the inner one is firmly attached to the front of your lens) you can vary the effect. Any reflections on non-metallic objects are polarized light and the filter can reduce the reflections.

The images below show a close-up example of the differences in color saturation. The photo on the left (no polarizer) gives you an idea of the amount of reflection on the leaves. When the polarizing filter is rotated (photo on the right) the reflections are reduced and you get the true colors of the leaves.

The reflections on the leaves (left photo) diminish the colors. The polarizing filter (right photo) removes the reflections and allows the full color to show.

Sunlight is also polarized light, so when you use a polarizing filter, it can make the blue sky seem darker and more dramatic. The effect is most pronounced when you are pointing the camera about 90 degrees from the direction of the sunlight.

Another example of a darker blue sky and more vibrant colors on the leaves in the photo on the right.

Be sure to get a circular polarizing filter (most of them these days are circular). A linear polarizer won’t work well with auto-focus systems and digital sensors. A good polarizing filter can be pretty expensive ($40-$50) and if you have several lenses with different filter sizes, the best approach is to buy a filter for the largest size, and get inexpensive step-up rings to adapt the large filter to smaller lens diameters. In this way, you can use one filter on all lenses.

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Falling back

 

The fall colors have arrived, with a mission.

11-25-2011

After sharing a terrific Thanksgiving meal yesterday, followed by a rousing evening of board games with the family, we took a walk today. It was a beautiful, brisk sunny day so it was a great time to get out and walk off some of the calories from the previous day.

The trees are at their height of beauty this week and it seems everywhere you turn, it hits you head-on.

 

Classic shot of someone’s front yard in the fall

I used to lament the onset of winter, partly because I enjoy doing things outdoors in warm weather. But lately, I’ve come to really appreciate each of the seasons with patience. The autumn season represents transition from the heat and energy of summer toward the cold, gray quiet of winter. Even though winter seems to be the earmark of dying, it is part of the cycle. From this dying, the spring can bring out new life and new abundance in different forms. One season feeds the next, and on and on.

 

These are a few stragglers.

 

Every winter I tell myself I will use the time to finish up some long overdue indoor projects. But it seems I instead find a new, more interesting project to attend to, leaving my best intentions behind like a pile of dry leaves.

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College football is a blast

Be true to your school

09-24-2011

I recently started shooting photos for Sacstatesports.com – a sports-news outlet that features stories on the athletic teams at California State University, Sacramento – better know as the “Sac State Hornets.”

The energy at these games is incredible. The home field seats were pretty well filled, and amazingly, the visitor’s side had a respectable attendance, especially considering the visiting team was from Montana.

One of the things I really like about college sports is how hard the athletes play. They will give it their all on the field. They aren’t playing for a salary, but for the enjoyment, the ambition and the potential. And when they do well, their teammates get excited, too. Of course, the crowd is very loyal and loud. At this game, the Sac State Hornets beat the Montana Grizzlies, 42-28. It was the first Hornets’ victory over Montana in 17 games, so the student crowd was especially rowdy.

Serious football happens here.

Funny thing, I took some crowd shots of the grandstands and it wasn’t until I edited the images after the game that I noticed a strange spectator in the crowd…

Looks like a normal crowd shot…
…until you look closer – what the….?

I have no idea what the “Green Man” was about…and nobody around him seemed to care much about it. I guess they were used to it.

Diving for yardage.

Point after touchdown

Wear your team on your cheek.

For the record, #35 has the ball.

I look forward to shooting more sports for Sacstatesports – after all, Sac State is my alma mater.

For you gear heads, I shoot with two Canon 7D’s, one with a wide zoom (17-40mm, f/4) for close action and the other with a tele zoom (70- 200mm, f/2.8). At night games, I need to set the ISO  around 3200 so I can get a decent shutter speed (around 1/500 second).

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