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Various musings and observations about photography, architecture, design, and life.

Photo Tips | Chasing Sunrises
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I love taking photos of the sunrise.  I enjoy the anticipation of what the sunrise will look like from the moment I wake up earlier than any sane person should to the beginning of blue hour.  It's like nature is slowly unwrapping a present that we've been eager to receive.  As I have mentioned before, photographing sunrises require a ton of persistence because there's no guarantee that the sunrise will be a burst of vibrant color, especially in the Pacific Northwest.  It isn't a complete crapshoot however.  There are a few easy indicators and resources that can help increase the chances of a great sunrise.  I'll share the things that I usually check for before deciding if I should commit to waking up early for a sunrise photoshoot.  

Clouds: Any Weather App

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The best sunrises in my opinion will always have some clouds to provide some depth and character.  The best clouds to hope for are cirrus clouds, which are light and wispy.  They'll provide the opportunity for the sunlight to reflect, diffract, and disperse and create those vibrant colors.  Check the hourly forecast in your local area for partly cloudy, partly sunny, and mostly sunny skies the hour before sunrise.  Even mostly cloudy conditions can provide gorgeous sunrises if the clouds are high enough.  If you have a particular backdrop in mind be sure to check the forecast for that area in addition to your local forecast.  For example, if I want to photograph the sunrise from the Pittock Mansion viewpoint I will always check the forecast around Mt. Hood as well to make sure that it will make an appearance.  The best resource for seeing what the cloud conditions will be like is your local news weather reports or even weather.com if you can handle their bombardment of advertisements.  The weather app on your phone also works.  Again, always check the hourly forecast instead of the daily forecasts.  It also doesn't hurt to observe the clouds the night before.

Atmospheric Transparency: Clear Dark Sky

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In addition to the traditional cloud coverage in the sky, another important aspect is the atmospheric transparency.  This will determine the quality of the scenery for the sunrise more than anything else especially if you're hoping a far away object such as Mt. Hood will be visible.  For this I usually check the astrophotography reference, cleardarksky.com.  Their Clear Sky Chart provides a lot of great information such as cloud coverage as well as how transparent the air will be and how clearly you can see objects.  The clearer the better, but I've often found that even a below average rating seems to be good enough for a great sunrise sometimes.  After all, this site is geared towards photographing objects that are much further out in space. I would only really worry if the air transparency or seeing quality is poor.  

Sun Location: SunCalc

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Now that the conditions are likely to produce a great sunrise, the next step in the process is to find where the sun will actually be rising to help with framing the photo and even help determine which location to shoot from.  There are a few websites that can help you with this: suncalc.net, suncalc.org, timeanddate.com. Suncalc.net is a nice and clean graphical website of where the sun position is at any given time.  It doesn't provide too much data outside of the basics to go along with the map and graphic overlay.  Time and Date is really good for planning ahead with more numbers, but doesn't have as useful graphics as far as telling you where the sun will be rising from.  You'll have to figure that out for yourself with the solar azimuth angle.  Suncalc.org is a hybrid of the nice graphics and the more in-depth numbers, but its interface is a bit obnoxious with the giant advertisement bar taking up a quarter of the screen.

Second Opinion: SunsetWx

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After I have looked into all of the different resources, I like to head over to sunsetwx.com and check to see how their forecast turned out.  This is a fun little website with sunset and sunrise forecasting.  It's not a guarantee of what the sunrise quality would be like, but it does give a decent general idea for how it will turn out.  I would say that most of the time it lines up with what I anticipate which is a positive sign.  There are some things that it will miss and that are the local conditions that it never accounts for such as forest fires causing smoke to fill the air or locations that are often enveloped in fog etc.  

Execution: Preparation

"The separation is in the preparation" as Russell Wilson often says.  Make sure all of your gear is ready to go the night before.  Charge up the batteries, find the quick release plate for the tripod, pack your gloves, pack some snacks, pack some memory cards, pack the clothes you're going to wear, etc.  You want to do all of this the night before because the brain most likely won't be firing on all cylinders at such an early morning.  Set multiple alarm clocks.  I always like to set an alarm half an hour before I need to get out of bed to get ready.  I set another alarm at the time I need to get out of bed to get ready.  And then I set a third alarm clock for when I need to get out of the door.  Every once in a while I don't get out of bed until that third alarm.  This is when preparing everything the night before comes into play and can save your sunrise shoot.  
NOTE: If you are too drowsy to drive safely when you wake up, do not drive. It is not worth it.

And that's pretty much it.  The final thing to do is to hope that the forecasters were right and that the clouds in the sky cooperate with the wind.  Most importantly, don't forget to take some time and enjoy the sunrise while you are photographing it.  It's this memory and feeling that you will try to recall when you process the RAW photos.  Most likely the photos the camera captures will not be able to fully present the dynamistic properties of the sunrise like our eyes do without some post processing.  If properly exposed or bracketed, the information will be there in the RAW file, it just needs to be brought out to the forefront of the image and presented for all to enjoy.

Good luck chasing the sunrises.

Timothy NiouComment
Process | Portland Design Lecture Series: Collective Inquiry

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of photographing Billie Faircloth of KieranTimberlake while she gave a presentation during Portland Design Event's Lecture Series.  This lecture was both inspiring and thought provoking, challenging the audience to continually explore and learn from their processes.  I have been taking photos for the better part of the last decade.  This experience has allowed me to not overthink too much about the process of my photography--especially with photojournalistic event photography; most of my professional photography experience has come from documenting events and presentations.  Every once in a while I stumble upon an old photo I've taken and question what I was thinking when taking that photo.  With that in mind, I figured I could and should start documenting my thought process and intentionality behind the photos that I take.  Often times there is no rational thought behind a photo other than just experimenting and trying something out and that's okay.  I think I just need to document that thought.  I believe this could be beneficial to my photography craft when I look back on these thoughts and compare them to others.  I'm hoping that I can keep this up as a regular series of blog posts going forward.

THE VENUE

 The audience trickling into Ziba's auditorium and finding their seats

The audience trickling into Ziba's auditorium and finding their seats

Let's start with the setup of the space.  This lecture took place at Ziba's auditorium in downtown Portland.  I Googled the venue to get a general idea of what it's like.  It is a very uniquely designed space with steep auditorium seating that immediately catches the eye.  From an architectural point of view I was very intrigued with the modern design and found it to be a successful extension of Ziba's high design caliber.

Prior to the event I was forewarned that it will get very dark during the presentation, a condition that I assumed would be the case.  Since I have never been to this auditorium before, I decided to rent two lenses for this event to increase my flexibility: the Nikon 24-70 f2.8 and the Nikon 16-35mm f4 VR.  I opted to forego the 70-200mm f2.8 primarily because I didn't anticipate using it too much and it wasn't worth the extra weight.  If needed, I also had my 50mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.4 in my bag.  I did not regret this decision, but there were a couple of occasions where I thought that it would have come in handy.  Based on the seating layout, I would be primarily limited to photographing from the sides along the staircase.  It would have been distracting for me to step in front of those seated in the front row to capture a few photos.  This wasn't a huge deal.  I still had plenty of freedom to move up and down the stairs to get from one side of the auditorium to the other and add to my step count for the day.  I felt pretty confident with the gear I had going in and my preparations that I should be able to get some pretty decent photos.  The only things left were variables outside of my control--the speakers and the actual lighting conditions.  

 Arriving early allows me to capture images like this: Gray Magazine setting up the space with a free copy of their magazine for the audience.

Arriving early allows me to capture images like this: Gray Magazine setting up the space with a free copy of their magazine for the audience.

I arrived a little bit early to the venue to walk the space while the event organizers were setting up.  I like to do this because it helps me get comfortable with my surroundings and offers a sneak peek to what the (lack of) lighting was going to be like.  The other advantage of arriving early is that it allows me to present myself as the photographer to the event organizers and volunteers and speakers and gives them a chance to be comfortable with me taking their photos during the lecture.  Gray Magazine was setting up the venue with a free copy of their latest issue at the time.  The videographers were testing out the live stream features.  Volunteers of Portland Design Events were setting up promotional materials.  And the Ziba staff were running through the presentations, going through soundcheck, and testing the lights.  They weren't kidding when they said that it would be very dark.  I would say the most challenging aspect was that there wasn't a dedicated spotlight that followed the speaker, which caused the amount of light on the speakers to vary depending on where they were on the stage.

THE MAIN IMAGE

When I set out to take photos, I always try to figure out what I want the three C's (content, context, and composition) to be--especially for photojournalistic photos where visually telling a story is crucial to its success.  In other words, I ask myself the following questions:
Content - what is the focus or subject of the photo? Is it obvious enough?
Context - what else is going to be in the photo and does it help enhance the subject? Is it too distracting from the focus of the image?
Composition - how do I want to visually present the content and context?

 Billie Faircloth addresses the crowd in Portland, OR.

Billie Faircloth addresses the crowd in Portland, OR.

In this photo, my main subject is Billie.  And more specifically, Billie lecturing.  The context I set out to include was the audience.  Too often I see photos of lecturers or speakers where it's a zoomed in photo of the speaker without providing any context to help ground the image.  The organizers had set up a lectern for the speakers so I tested out some potential compositions based on its location.  Billie rarely stood anywhere near the lectern and instead moved around the stage quite a bit, engaging the audience.  This forced me to have to think on the spot and find a new vantage point.  I decided to settle for a couple rows up from the audience so I can place the audience in the foreground and bring the viewers into the photo as if they were part of the crowd that evening.  By default I tend to compose with the rule-of-third as a safety net, especially when I need to think quickly on my feet and won't have an opportunity to redo a photo.  There was a row of lights above that perfectly illuminated Billie when she stood from a specific spot that would allow her and the audience to line up along the rule-of-thirds.  All I had to do was wait for her to return to that spot and do some kind of action that was generally appealing whether that be some gestures, a smile, and/or an expressive face.  Luckily for me, I was able to catch her doing all of those at the same time.

In addition to the photo above, I also took photos of the audience, the other opening speakers, and photos from other vantage points.  The photos were delivered to Portland Design Events where it gets distributed to the press upon request.  It's always interesting to see which photos they end up choosing to showcase.  I understand different people will have different tastes and may pick certain photos over others.  However, it's a little validating when more often than not the photos that I thought were most successful end up being the ones that get picked.  

THE TECHNICALS

For most of the evening I used the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 lens on my Nikon D810 body.  The main photo above was shot with a shutter speed of 1/250s at f2.8 and ISO 6400.  One of the main things that I like about the D810 is its dynamic range and the ability to bring back information from the shadows and highlights.  This allows me to underexpose the images a little bit to maintain an acceptable ISO and increase my shutter speed.  Post-processing for this image was fairly minimal.  I increased the exposure by almost 1-stop, lightened up the shadows a bit, corrected the white balance and lens distortion.  I also applied some noise reduction to the images.  Overall I'm pretty satisfied with the resulting photos from this event.

I don't think there would be much that I would change with this setup outside of upgrading to the Nikon D850, but I don't see that happening anytime soon unless someone is feeling very generous.  I would also probably use the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 VR if it were available to rent from the gear rental place.  Now that I'm more familiar with the venue, I probably wouldn't rent the Nikon 16-35mm f4 VR again since it wasn't really needed.  24mm was plenty wide for my needs.  I'm still on the fence with the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 FL VR and would probably depend on who the speakers are.

EXTERNAL LINKS:
Portland Design Events
Gray Magazine
Portland Architecture Blog
 

Timothy NiouComment
Sneak Peek Senior Portraits!
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Last weekend I shot my little cousin's senior portraits.  This weekend I'm starting to go through and edit them and I'm pretty pleased with the results! She is the youngest out of all the cousins so it's pretty exciting to see her finish out high school and prepare for the next chapter in her life. 

We photographed some popular locations around the Pearl District in Portland such as Jamison Square, Tanner Springs Park, and the Ecotrust Building.  We also went down towards the Portland waterfront and across the Steel Bridge.  Finally, we went north to Ester Short Park in Vancouver, WA to finish out the day.  It was a little bit less cloudy than what was forecasted for the weekend, so that made for some challenging lighting as we approached noon.  But I think we were able to make due with what we had.  The whole session was photographed with an 85mm f1.4 lens.  I had contemplated switching lenses for certain shots but the 85mm is such a good portrait lens that it stayed on the camera body the whole time.  

I try to mix in a range of emotions into portrait sessions so that they aren't all smiles that appear to be more and more forced as the day goes on.  I don't usually like to pose people either because I'm terrible at it.  I don't shoot portraits consistently or frequently enough.  I usually just stick with some basic directions of what to do and then they tend to produce more natural and comfortable results.  It also helps that all of my cousins are very photogenic!  These are some of my favorites so far.

Timothy NiouComment
Persistence II
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I decided to give this site another try for sunrise photography since I just happened to be driving by it on my way to photograph some senior portraits.  It's pretty amazing how much difference a week makes.  There were a lot less clouds than I would have preferred, but the smoke was relatively clear so all the major peaks of the cascades were visible.

On a different note, the sunrise the following morning was beyond spectacular but I was on my way to work and wasn't in a spectacular location.  Either way, this keeps me wanting to go out and take more sunrise photos from spectacular locations.

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Timothy NiouComment
Persistence

I believe that the main ingredient for success in photography is persistence.  All the amazing photographs that are floating around on social media and in books are the results of persistence--constantly honing photography skills, researching the site and location scouting, and multiple attempts just waiting for the one magical moment when all of the variables align.  

I enjoy photography and define my success as a photographer not by how much money I make from it or how many followers or likes I get on Instagram. Instead, I define success as the amount of joy that it brings me to see an image that I was able to successfully capture.  This hobby pushes me to want to explore new places I've never been and revisit old places I've been to dozens of times before.  

As some of you know, I really enjoy heading out and photographing sunrises.  I'm constantly keeping an eye on the forecast for potential amazing sunrises.  Last week all the signs were pointing to an amazing sunrise.  The sky would be partly cloudy with the clouds at higher elevations, the air was relatively clear and transparent, the temperature wasn't too hot or cold, the moon and stars were visible the evening before, and the sunset was relatively pleasant.  However, with the recent Eagle Creek Fire, there was a chance for smoke to ruin the experience.  The previous few days the smoke hadn't been too bad and the air quality was good, but I still didn't want to waste a long trip out for a sunrise that may not materialize.  I settled on Rocky Butte as a location as it had scenic views of the Cascade mountains and wasn't too far of a drive.

I arrived at Rocky Butte around 5:30am, an hour before sunrise.  I got out of the car and could smell the smoke.  I knew right away that the sunrise would probably not be that great.  Other than the smoke, everything was as the forecasts had predicted.  Unfortunately, the smoke was dense and it was low to the horizon.  I wasn't able to see the sun until well after the sun rose and I was back in Beaverton.  There was a brief burst of color where it attempted to be great, but in the end the sun could break through the dense smoke.  Turns out that day happened to be one of the worst air quality days since the initial days following the fire.  It was also the day where Portland had the worst air quality in the entire US.  Nevertheless, I can see great potential in Rocky Butte for being an excellent location for future sunrises.  I will return again one day.

Timothy NiouComment