A half-dozen continents in one place

March 26, 2014 in Events by T.J. Thomson

A Grevy's Zebra, Equus grevyi, stirs up a dust cloud at the Denver Zoo. Zebras are one of many mammals that groom by wallowing in the dirt.

A Grevy’s Zebra, Equus grevyi, stirs up a dust cloud at the Denver Zoo. Zebras are one of many mammals that groom by
wallowing in the dirt. Metadata: f/13; 1/1600; ISO 2000; 300mm focal length

A day-long visit to the Denver Zoo’s 80-acre campus yielded fascinating views of the location’s exotic animals and naturalistic environments.

Capturing the exotic nature of these animals took patience, timing, and luck, however. I happened upon dozens of animals and was only able to fire off a shot or two before the animal turned its head or closed its eyes.

A hooded capuchin forages for food on the Denver Zoo's Monkey Island.

A hooded capuchin forages for food on the Denver Zoo’s Monkey Island.

A number of animals, too, lazily rested in a corner. In many cases, it was hard to separate the animals from their small and often man-made environments.

When possible, though, I was thrilled to connect with the animals and show a more dynamic side of them.

An Asiatic black bear, Ursus thibetanus, rests on his paw at the Denver Zoo's Bear Mountain exhibit.

An Asiatic black bear, Ursus thibetanus, rests on his paw at the Denver Zoo’s Bear Mountain exhibit.

Not all the sights were behind bars or barriers, however, like David Britton, who used the time between customers to apply some of his artistry to his own body.

David Britton, Goofy Faces body paint and caricature artist, paints a purple monster on his forearm while waiting for customers at the Denver Zoo.

David Britton, Goofy Faces body paint and caricature artist, paints a purple monster on his forearm
while waiting for customers at the Denver Zoo.

The afternoon brought a few storm clouds and a brief show featuring Addie, a three-year-old California Sea Lion, who displayed her tricks and theatrics for a fishy reward.

By day’s end, we had covered all the zoo’s territory, with the exception of the reptile and avian houses. It was a good day, but by the end of it, I felt a lot like this little girl.

A girl lies splayed out in her stroller outside the Feline House at the Denver Zoo.

A girl lies splayed out in her stroller outside the Feline House at the Denver Zoo.

Transcending the bounds of boring boxes

March 16, 2014 in Art by T.J. Thomson

A scale architectural model highlights past student work in a display housed at the University of Missouri's Stanley Hall.

A scale architectural model highlights past student work in a display housed at the University of Missouri’s Stanley Hall.
Metadata: f/13; 1/160; ISO 100; 50mm focal length

So much of the world is organized into the most simple geometric shapes that even a slight curve or deviation from standard angles provides a much-needed reprieve to the senses.

A series of three convex shapes make up the west side of this architectural model.

A series of three convex shapes make up the west side of this architectural model.

Yes, our existence is made easier by simple aspect ratios. They cost less, are more efficient, and are generally more stable. They are, however, also overdone and largely boring.

Any screen, from the smallest cell phone’s display to the widest television monitor, is a variation of a simple rectangle.

An Asian electronics manufacturer is making waves with its ongoing development of a curved cell phone screen, which is revolutionary in and of itself, but will also likely, experts say, pave the way for bendable screens that can contort large displays into small spaces for travel when not in use.

Virtual technology, too, caters to this all-powerful rectangle. Trying to share a link with a vertical image on Facebook or Twitter? The site’s content management system will cram it into a horizontal preview, often accompanied by an unflattering crop of the image’s midsection.

I relish the thought of a day when our society frees itself from modularity and instead embraces a more widespread organic approach to art and design.

It’s a chronic case of the “That’s how it’s always been done” mentality. From our early childhoods when we arranged blocks into modular towers to when we grow up and live in our own largely rectangular houses, what innovation are we missing because of our reliance on what is safe and familiar?

Dealing with digital dynamic range

March 9, 2014 in Lighting by T.J. Thomson

Two men walk past the University of Missouri's Student Success Center in Columbia, Mo.

Two men walk past the University of Missouri’s Student Success Center in Columbia, Mo.
Metadata: f/7.1; 1/640; ISO 4000; 200mm focal length

The last few minutes of a setting sun’s rays can yield some incredible contrasts. The warm, hazy light of the sun contrasts with the cool shadows that overtake the retreating sun. The extreme differences in light between the dark shadows and the bright highlights also makes for a large dynamic range.

A camera’s sensor experiences little difficulty capturing detail in scenes with a lower dynamic range, such as that of an evenly lit room, for example. However, if the same room was lit only by a candle, the dynamic range would be huge, and the photographer would be left with a choice: either meter the exposure for the candle (thus leaving the rest of the room pitch black), or meter for the rest of the room and have an overblown white blob where the candle was.

Are the shadows or the highlights more important? After answering that question, the photographer can adjust the exposure accordingly and preserve one or the other. A third option, exists, taking multiple intermediate exposures and blending them together (à la HDR photography), but this is confined primarily to landscapes or still life scenes, as this method can’t accommodate frozen motion.

Had I metered for the men walking next to the building, they would have been exposed correctly, but the highlights in the metal and glass would have also been clipped and been overexposed. As the highlights were more important in this scene, I metered for them and lost some data in the shadow areas instead.

Frigid temps don’t halt Columbia operations

March 2, 2014 in Feature by T.J. Thomson

A man operates a scissor lift in the alley between East Broadway and Cherry Streets in Columbia, Mo.

A man operates a scissor lift in the alley between East Broadway and Cherry Streets in Columbia, Mo.
Metadata: f/8; 1/400; ISO 5000; 70mm focal length

A light dusting of snow sprinkled Columbia, Mo. today and the thousands of visitors soaking up the 11th incarnation of the annual True/False Film Festival.

More unbearable than the snow was likely the freezing temperatures that dipped close to zero on the festival’s final day.

A snowplow's blade scrapes up a skiff of snow as it turns right off East Broadway Street in Columbia, Mo.

A snowplow’s blade scrapes up a skiff of snow as it turns right off East Broadway Street in Columbia, Mo.

A pedestrian bridge spanning the width of South College Avenue provided a vantage point to capture passing vehicles, including several snowplows that drove through the busy intersection.

Three women walk across a pedestrian bridge toward Columbia College's Stamper Commons.

Three women walk across a pedestrian bridge toward Columbia College’s Stamper Commons.

A sprinkling of aquamarine ice melt fascinated me. As far as I could tell, it had been applied only to the pedestrian bridge and not to the surrounding area.

MU crews bolster other walkways after initial collapse kills firefighter and forces 18 to evacuate

February 22, 2014 in Events by T.J. Thomson

MU Campus Facilities employee Patrick Burks measures a wooden plank Saturday afternoon at University Village.

MU Campus Facilities employee Patrick Burks measures a wooden plank Saturday afternoon at University Village.
Metadata: f/7.1; 1/500; ISO 1250; 166mm focal length

About four hours after a 911 call informed authorities that a walkway had partially collapsed at Building 707 in the MU-operated University Village, trucks delivered several tons of wood to the 14-building complex.

Forklifts lifted their loads 10 or more feet to avoid collision with parked vehicles dotting the car-lined streets.

MU Campus Facilities employee Keith Aitkens, right, hauls off metal sheets that maintenance crews tore off from under walkways Saturday at the University Village student housing complex.

MU Campus Facilities employee Keith Aitkens, right, hauls off metal sheets that maintenance crews tore off from under walkways Saturday at the University Village student housing complex.

Employees from MU’s Campus Facilities Department started ripping off metal sheets under walkways at several other buildings and began sawing the wood that would eventually brace the walkways deemed structurally unsound.

A boy looks out from his second-story apartment as MU Campus Facilities employees renovate exterior walkways at University Village student housing complex.

A boy looks out from his second-story apartment as MU Campus Facilities employees renovate exterior walkways at the University Village student housing complex. Metadata: f/10; 1/800; ISO 1000; 300mm focal length

Residents watched the scene with curiosity. Some milled about in the parking lots, while others watched from their windows.

MU Campus Facilities employees bolster the external structure of Building 707 at University Village Saturday afternoon.

MU Campus Facilities employees bolster the external structure of Building 707 at University Village Saturday afternoon.

At Building 707, where a portion of the walkway had collapsed early Saturday morning, a team of MU employees propped up the walkway with wooden supports.

Collapsed walkway forces 18 residents to evacuate

February 22, 2014 in Events by T.J. Thomson

A mangled blue bike lies under a collapsed walkway at Building 707 in the University Village student housing complex. A walkway partially collapsed early Saturday morning and all 18 residents were safely evacuated, MU Spokesman Christian Basi said.

A mangled blue bike lies under a collapsed walkway at Building 707 in the University Village student housing complex.
Metadata: f/7.1; 1/500; ISO 800; 300mm focal length

A collapsed walkway at MU-operated University Village prompted the evacuation of 18 residents from University Village Saturday morning. No residents were injured and MU is providing food and housing accommodations, MU Spokesman Christian Basi said.

“We are moving them (the residents) to alternate locations,” MU spokesman Christian Basi said. “Its my understanding that we have given them a choice of a couple of different places where they can move to. We will be working with them to gather any belongings that they need. I do know, too, that we’re taking care of any food needs they might have as well as any personal belongings that they may have.”

University of Missouri personnel, including Gary L. Ward, associate vice chancellor for facilities, survey the damage at Building 707 in University Village, where a walkway collapsed early Saturday morning.

University of Missouri personnel, including Gary L. Ward, associate vice chancellor for facilities, survey the damage at Building 707 in University Village, where a walkway collapsed early Saturday morning.

“In addition to the investigation into the cause of the collapse here, we are also inspecting all the other buildings in this complex.”

Basi said he didn’t know when the building had last been inspected, but had requested that information.

University of Missouri Police Sergeant Chris Groves cordons off the scene around Building 707 Saturday morning at University Village, an MU-operated housing complex. A walkway collapsed and prompted the evacuation of the building.

University of Missouri Police Sergeant Chris Groves cordons off the scene around Building 707 Saturday morning at University Village, an MU-operated housing complex. A walkway collapsed and prompted the evacuation of the building.

An email sent from the MU Student Apartments Office to University Village residents at 10:50 a.m. stated that maintenance crews were working on stabilizing the building.

“A temporary support structure for the remaining walkway is being constructed as quickly as possible to prevent any additional damage and to allow residents and/or personnel to safely enter the apartments,” according to the email.

MU spokesman Christian Basi fields phone calls Saturday morning at University Village, where a walkway collapse prompted the evacuation of 18 residents.

MU spokesman Christian Basi fields phone calls Saturday morning at University Village, where a walkway collapse prompted the evacuation of 18 residents.

The email also said that assessment is underway and corrective measures, if needed, would begin immediately. University Village houses married, graduate, and students older than 21. The University of Missouri constructed the complex in 1956.

Westboro brings ‘Fag Football’ protest to Mizzou

February 15, 2014 in Events by T.J. Thomson

A Westboro Baptist Church member protests at the corner of Stadium Boulevard and South Providence Road in Columbia, Mo. The group visited the University of Missouri on Feb. 15, 2014, in response to Mizzou alumnus Michael Sam's Feb. 10 public announcement that he is gay.

A Westboro Baptist Church member protests at the corner of Stadium Boulevard and South Providence Road in Columbia, Mo. The group visited the University of Missouri on Feb. 15, 2014, in response to Mizzou alumnus Michael Sam’s Feb. 10 public announcement that he is gay. Metadata: f/7.1; 1/400; ISO 640; 88mm focal length

About a dozen Westboro Baptist Church members huddled in a barricaded area at the corner of Stadium Boulevard and South Providence Road today holding signs with incendiary messages such as “Death Penalty 4 Fags” and “2 Gay Rights: AIDS & Hell.”

On the opposite side of the street stood several thousand MU students and members of the Columbia community. They stood largely in silence, but the scene was far from quiet.

The familiar melody from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love” anthem floated through the air, only the words no longer promoted equality and acceptance. The music that blared from an amplifier on the Westboro side had been dubbed with new lyrics that church members had recorded.

“You can’t be cured by some hellish false religion. The fact that God hates you is your predisposition. Fretting God, ah now there you go. America depraved; violent fags run the show.”

Some of the protesters added their voices to the recorded voice that echoed across the intersection while others soaked up the media attention.

A man talks on his iPhone while protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church picket in the background.

A man talks on his iPhone while protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church picket in the background.

The group tweated a picture of one of its members giving a TV interview along with this message: “Yes! Westboro made it to @mizzou & we got just the Light to shine on this dark @mikesamfootball fag mess.”

Using angles to achieve better composition and light

February 9, 2014 in Branding, Lighting by T.J. Thomson

A bounced flash illuminates a stack of 10 business cards.

A bounced flash illuminates a stack of 10 business cards.
Metadata: f/14; 1/200; ISO 100; 50mm focal length

After beginning my first foray into off-camera strobe lighting yesterday, I better appreciate how angles influence composition and light.

COMPOSITION — The height of the shooting table and location of the business cards on it meant that I couldn’t view the composition from directly overhead.

Business cards shot with ambient light (top) and with a bounced strobe (bottom).

Business cards shot with ambient light (top) and with a bounced strobe (bottom).

I could hold the camera out at arm’s length and try to blindly focus and compose, but instead, I eventually brought over a ladder which helped me gain a better vantage point for the shot.

If I wasn’t directly overhead, the perspective would have been skewed and I would have been rewarded with non-parallel lines.

As I initially placed them, the last business card (the one under all the others) was touching the table instead of resting at the same angle as the other cards. I successfully made it uniform with the others by placing two coins under it.

LIGHT — The quality and size of the light affects the color, texture, and shadows of the scene.

As visible in the example at right, the colors are overly saturated, the cards lack definition, and the scene shows little depth when illuminated only by ambient light. Without extra light from a bounced flash, the camera’s light sensitivity in the top image was much higher (ISO 4000 vs. ISO 100), which results in much more grain and less texture.

Without the shadows and highlights that the bounced flash provides, the top image appears flat and lacks depth.

A Canon 600EX-RT flash on a light stand, triggered by a VELLO freewave fusion pro transmitter, yielded a softer, more even light when bounced off the acrylic shooting table's back wall.

A Canon 600EX-RT flash on a light stand, triggered by a VELLO freewave fusion pro transmitter, yielded a softer, more even light when bounced off the acrylic shooting table’s back wall.

Light reflects at the same angle that it strikes an object. For example, if I positioned my flash straight up, the light would hit the ceiling and, assuming the ceiling was flat, come straight back down.

If I position my flash head at 70 degrees, it will reflect off the wall at 70 degrees. Thus, for my studio setup, I positioned the flash head at negative seven degrees in order to bounce the light off the acrylic surface at the same angle and illuminate the business cards.

If I had another flash handy, I would have positioned it opposite of the key light and at a lower power so I could counter the light falloff in the bottom-right corner of the composition. The same effect could also be achieved with a handheld or mounted reflector.

Optimizing your camera’s settings for the conditions

February 8, 2014 in Feature, Settings by T.J. Thomson

A man stands outside the Domino's restaurant at 416 S 9th St. in Columbia, Mo. amidst lightly falling snow.

A man stands amidst lightly falling snow outside the Domino’s restaurant at 416 S 9th St. in Columbia, Mo.
Metadata: f/2.8; 1/80; ISO 4000; 50mm focal length

When its cold outside, my camera’s autofocus system suffers after being exposed to the elements for a while. To combat this, I tend to wear multiple jackets and leave the outermost one unzipped so that I can tuck my camera inside this outer layer, thus concealing the camera and keeping it warmer when not in immediate use.

Also, when cameras undergo extreme temperature transitions too quickly, internal condensation can form inside the camera or lens’s internal elements. Sealing the camera in a bag while in one environment before transitioning into another with a drastic temperature difference allows the camera (and trapped air in the bag) to adjust to the new temperature more gradually and reduces the likelihood of internal condensation developing.

In addition to taking physical precautions when conditions warrant them, photographers can also adjust their camera’s settings based on the circumstances so that they have greater flexibility in capturing moments and reacting to fast-moving scenes in varied conditions.

For instance, I don’t ever turn my camera off when I’m out looking for photography scenes to capture. Every 30 seconds or so, I’ll lightly tap the shutter halfway to ensure the camera stays awake at the current settings I’ve entered.

The default focus point on my camera's 19-point autofocus system usually falls on a third of the frame in the grid's second row.

I set my default focus point to the far right in the second row of my camera’s 19-point autofocus system.

Every time I turn on my camera, I’ll bump up the ISO, depending on how much available light there is. If its a bright, sunny day, I’ll leave it at 200 or 400; if its cloudy, I’ll most likely boost it to 800 or higher. I also almost always set the autofocus point in the same spot (far right on the second row from the top), so I can quickly establish rough focus before fine tuning, if needed.

If I see a photo-worthy scene but it lacks people, I’ll go ahead and meter the exposure and set the focus point so that I can quickly raise the camera and snap off the image when my subject passes through and before he or she disappears.

Some of the most rewarding images to make often are made in situations that are less than ideal, such as the crack of dawn, the bitter cold of a wintery day, or a dimly-lit but dramatic night scene. Planning your settings in advance can allow these fleeting moments to be recorded and preserved.

Is an iPhone a journalist’s best friend?

February 7, 2014 in Analysis, Commercial Photography, Equipment by T.J. Thomson

A student lounges on the fourth floor of the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri.

A student lounges on the fourth floor of the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri.
Metadata: f/2.2; 1/250; ISO 32; 30mm focal length

The Chicago Sun-Times drew widespread criticism last year when it fired its entire full-time photo staff and placed the burden of both words and visuals solely in reporters’ iPhone-wielding hands.

Enough argument has ensued over the rationale and implications of the move, I think, but the iPhone’s capabilities are an aspect that haven’t received the attention they deserve.

While the public and numerous professionals have decried the decision the Sun-Times’s management made, they did so, in part, claiming the iPhone was an inferior replacement to expensive traditional DSLR cameras that photojournalists have used for decades.

I myself have toted around a bulky DSLR and bag full of lenses for the past six years, but when I received an iPhone for Christmas two months ago, I’ve been surprised at how well it delivers.

Low light scene at a crowded restaurant? Check. High-dynamic-range scene under midday sun? Check.

(The iPhone I used to photograph the scene at the top of this post delivered an impressive 8×10 image at 300 pixels per inch, more than enough to fill a newspaper’s average front-page photo frame.)

The iPhone delivers, but what matter more than its features or drawbacks is the operator.

Depending on my training and understanding of photography, I can make evocative images with an iPhone as easily as taking bland, boring shots with expensive glass and a pricey DSLR.

Rather than lambaste a still developing tool for not surpassing a technology that has stood for decades, perhaps we should be more critical of those who wield the technology and work to educate them about how to create compelling imagery.

In the end, an understanding of light and composition will matter more than the size of a sensor or the weight of a camera.