Insomnia

Columbia–Wrightsville Bridge
Columbia–Wrightsville Bridge

I’ve had insomnia ever since I was very young, my mother tells me that as a baby I sometimes woke up two or three times a night crying. I don’t remember that, but she has no reason to lie so I guess it’s true.

These days I rarely wake up crying but often have trouble staying asleep. Experts suggest things like getting up and doing a relaxing activity in dim light. So at 4:30am I decided to do just that. Checking the weather forecast, I saw that a dense fog advisory was in effect with scattered light rain, perfect.

I headed to the Columbia–Wrightsville Bridge to stare at the lights and maybe get an interesting shot of the fog rolling in over the Susquehanna River. In theory this should be relaxing, but between stumbling around in the dark over boulders and waiting for dawn it wasn’t.

The water was calm and the reflections were beautiful, but the fog was nowhere to be found. So I decided to take a couple of photos of the bridge and go home and go back to sleep. About 6:30 the fog finally rolled in and I started to get tired, but my mind was filled with what are known as intrusive thoughts. Was a 4 second exposure too long? Did I blow the highlights? Is photography actually a complete waste of time?

Eventually all of those questions were answered: no, a little bit, and maybe. But for some reason I still could not get back to sleep. Maybe it was the four cups of black coffee and the six cigarettes and maybe not. I blame Scott Kelby for insisting that if you want good photos you have to get up very early and stay out very late. Note to self-reread the chapter about shooting on cloudy days.

The Old Ones

Don and Ann's Antique Roe
Don and Ann’s Antique Roe

I used to see old film cameras in antiques shops now and then, but never so many in one place. This is a small selection that was in Don and Ann’s Antique Roe in Bird In Hand, a fantastic little shop that is now closed. He had four shelves filled with old cameras, lenses, bags, and tripods. There was even a shelf of video equipment including 8 and Super 8 millimeter movie cameras and projectors.

I wondered about all the people that loved these cameras and the places they took them. Vacations, fishing trips, birthday parties, weddings, or maybe even to photograph bald eagles at the Conowingo Dam in Maryland, where $10,000 lenses are now as common as the vultures that chew on cars.

One day I decided to capture these with my digital camera, but in a way that was reminiscent of the film camera experience. I set up my tripod in the narrow isle, moved a few of them around, and in aperture priority took a total of eight of what I felt were carefully composed shots.

I would have taken more but Don was making me nervous standing behind me whistling. I forgot to check my settings and in the dim light my camera decided that ISO 800 was best. I also didn’t realize that I was shooting JPEG instead of RAW. It was a lot like the days of using my old Canon Sure Shot 35mm, which is now considered vintage and is selling on Etsy for $90. Take a few shots and hope for the best.

These days I can take 100 shots of whatever, edit them in 100 ways, and keep the best one or two. Maybe photography is too easy now, less challenging. I’ll think about that later when I have to make the life changing decision of which method to use to convert to black and white. Note: there are as many ways to convert to black and white as there are people selling 35 year old 35 millimeter cameras online.

The Four Things

Penn Croft Alpacas
Penn Croft Alpacas

Ming Thein is a professional photographer extraordinaire, an Oxford graduate (at 16), a physicist, and a man that takes his craft very seriously. One of his many useful and practical theories is something he calls the four things.

He says; “There are four things to consider in making an image that works: light, subject, composition and the idea.” So this is how I saw the four things yesterday at the Penn Croft Alpaca farm in Lancaster.

The light was pretty good, bright but cloudy which is perfect for photographing white animals. The subject was Alpacas, those cartoon like creatures that can bring a smile to the face of an ax murderer. Composition was tricky, because I wanted a group shot with them all facing the same way. And the idea was to take a decent photo of alpacas on a cloudy day in a group.

It began well and they seemed much friendlier than usual, many shots were taken and most were well composed and sharp, but somewhat boring. Then something exciting started happening with their friends on the other side of the fence. Either an orgy or a fight, it was hard to tell, but they all went over and watched. A few more photos were shot and I knew I had what I wanted.

So does considering the four things make an image that works? Maybe. For my next experiment I will explore composition considering the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, diagonal lines and the golden spiral. Or I can just go out and take pictures.

Games People Play

Cash4Life
Cash4Life

I’ve been playing the lottery more than usual lately but strictly for mental health reasons; I want a new motorcycle. I didn’t say that I need a new motorcycle but I want one. Will a new bike make me happy? Will $1000 a day or $1000 a week make me happy? Maybe.

Yesterday I played Cash4Life and surprisingly did not win. The odds of winning $1,000 a day for life are 1 in 21,846,048, but, and this is a big but, the odds of winning $1000 a week for life are only 1 in 7,282,016. Ridiculous yes, but I’m not the only one playing this game.

I used to wonder why older people stood in line to play these games, and by older I mean 70 and up. I guess that they, like everyone else think that money will change everything. And it will, but not always in a good way. So what is the point you might ask?

I think my point is that people spend a lot of time dreaming about the way things could be, how much better life would be if only…the list goes on and on. In Buddhism this is the essence of the Second Noble Truth, which says that getting what you want does not guarantee happiness.

I told the girl at the store that I would be better off giving the money to charity than wasting it on lottery tickets. Now I know that the lottery helps older Americans in many ways but I have an alternative plan. I’m going to take that money and donate to a charity called Ride for Kids with all proceeds benefiting the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

As selfless as this might sound, they have a raffle where every five dollars donated enters you in a sweepstakes to win a custom motorcycle. And I might still occasionally play the lottery, maybe once a week or so, but only because I can use a new pair of sneakers. And a car, and a motorcycle, and a mansion and a yacht.

Read more about the Ride For Kids Project Here

Impermanence

Snowdrops
Snowdrops

Every spring I visit the Garden Of Five Senses in Lancaster County Central Park to see the snowdrops. They come up in February and within a very short time bloom into the most amazing flowers I’ve ever seen, with small bell shaped pedals with just a touch of green on them. Then a couple of weeks later they’re gone, completely gone, as if they were never there.

It’s easy to see changes over time but to watch them happen this fast is really something to appreciate. Of course, people don’t want to be reminded of impermanence so it’s usually a passing thought, then another thought pops in like what’s for lunch?

Charlotte Joko Beck, author of Everyday Zen said this; “Intelligent Practice always deals with just one thing: the fear at the base of human existence, the fear that I am not. And of course I am not, but the last thing I want to know is that. I am impermanence itself in a rapidly changing human form that appears solid. I fear to see what I am: an ever changing energy field. I don’t want to be that.”

Depending on how far you really get into this whole nothingness thing, you’ll find it either terrifying or enlightening, or both.

Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying wrote; “I shall never forget when Dudjom Rinpoche, in a moment of intimacy, leaned toward me and said in his soft, hoarse, slightly high-pitched voice: “You know, don’t you, that actually all these things around us go away, just go away . . .”

Alrighty then, what’s for lunch?

How To Save a Bad Photo

Save Me!
Save Me!

There are as many ways to save a bad photo as there are ways to scale a fish. If you’re shooting RAW, you can play with the file in Lightroom, Photoshop, HDR software or all three in whatever sequence floats your boat. Of course you can do this with a JPEG as well but let’s not get into that.

Then, if you’re not satisfied with the results you can very easily use a Photoshop filter for creative and/or possibly artistic results. Amaze your friends and family and insist that this was your plan the whole time. But deep down inside you’ll know the real truth. But what is the truth?

There is a very famous poem written by the third patriarch of Zen, Seng-ts’an, called the Hsin-Hsin Ming. In this poem Seng-ts’an writes these lines: “Do not seek the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.”

In terms of photography this means either nothing or everything. The truth in this case, is that you took a photo that didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. Life goes on, but wait…

At this point you’ve not only tried converting to black and white but you did it in a thousand different ways. There is actually a book called From Oz to Kansas: Almost Every Black and White Conversion Technique Known to Man. I browsed through it once in Barnes & Noble and almost had to call my therapist.

The best technique to save a bad photo is to convince yourself that it’s not really a bad photo. No one besides you is going to zoom in on the original at 100% (or more), study the histogram, or hit the O key in Lightroom to cycle through different grid options like the rule of thirds, the golden ratio and the golden spiral.

I photographed this Alpaca at a farm near Poole Forge on a cloudy day. The light was bad, he was far away, and my composition was terrible. I convinced myself that despite everything it’s not really a bad photo (after cropping and B&W conversion). Despite the fact that he spit a mouthful of chewed up grass and hit me right in the face from 15 feet away, I consider the afternoon and photo memorable if not perfect. Adorable isn’t he?

Al Paca
Al Paca

The Struggle

The Struggle
The Struggle

Everyone struggles in one way or another, its part of living this life of illusion. Whether it’s the ten thousand things or the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, there are challenges to be dealt with every day.

For the man in this photo his struggle at that moment was to inflate the balloon, for me it was trying to get a decent shot before I ran out of patience, for the owner of the United States Hot Air Balloon Team, his was waiting for the wind to die down enough to launch safely.

No big deal right? Yet some challenges are harder than others. For one person it might be your supermodel wife telling you that there is no caviar left, and that she scratched the Ferrari, again. For another it might be a denied parole and your cell mate telling you that he wants to be more than just friends.

One of my favorite authors, Charles Bukowski once said; “I don’t know about other people, but when I wake up in the morning and put my shoes on, I think, Jesus Christ, now what?” So it would seem that for some life is harder than for others. But wait…

In his poem How Is Your Heart, he reflects on the rougher times in his life. Jail, bad relationships, hangovers, backalley fights and hospitals, but looks at it in a different way. The last line in that poem is so perfect that people actually have it tattooed on their body, which is tricky because its 11 words.

He wrote; “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”

At once time I considered getting that tattoo on my arm, but struggled with the choice of fonts. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

The Key to Obsessive Compulsive Photography Disorder

The Key to Obsessive Compulsive Photography Disorder
The Key to Obsessive Compulsive Photography Disorder

This is a photo I took of some old keys, obviously. It was a simple matter of arranging, lighting, taking a few shots on a tripod, processing the RAW files in Lightroom, editing in Photoshop, and then a little tweaking in Photomatix Essentials for an HDR effect.

So I asked myself, am I obsessive, compulsive or possibly both? I wasn’t sure so I did some research on the five types of OCD.

The first type is cleaning obsessions, such as cleaning your camera and lenses with a special microfiber cloth kept in a special package and folded in a special way.

Next are checking obsessions, which can include checking camera settings frequently like shooting modes, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus points, exposure mode and white balance.

The third type is obsessions without visible compulsions, which can involve intrusive thoughts such as previsualization, and in extreme cases this is known as Dryshooting.

Not surprisingly there are also hoarding obsessions, which may involve accumulating tripods, lens hoods, filters, and new equipment of all kinds whether you need it or not (do not keep a copy of the B&H photo video catalog under your bed).

And finally, obsessions with ordering, arranging and counting compulsions, which would realistically be almost everything else involved with photography.

So in my case, the answer might be yes, but it gives me something to do and it’s much better than sitting in a recliner, drinking vodka and watching daytime TV. (I’m guessing).

Something In The Way

Left for dead
Left for dead

Kurt Cobain once sang that fish don’t have any feelings, and I wonder if that’s true. I was walking around Long’s Park a while ago and saw a partly mangled dead goldfish. My guess is that one of the Herons that live there got over ambitious and bit off more than he could chew, or maybe left to invite his friends for lunch. So I took a few pictures because I was intrigued by the whole thing.

Then the fish moved. At first I thought this was strange because dead fish rarely move, but apparently she was not quite done being alive. So being a fisherman I considered throwing her back, but the wounds were serious.

If only I was a fish doctor, if only I got there earlier, if only I won the Powerball last night, if only, well, that fish was screwed no matter what. So I watched her for a minute wondering if she was suffering. I imagined she was as I would be if I got eaten by a giant bird and left for dead like that.

I finally kicked her back into the lake in the delusional hope that she would take a couple of deep breaths and swim away with just a flesh wound, warning her fish friends to stay deep. But she floated on the top with those terrified eyes staring right at me.

It became too painful to watch and I told myself it was the natural cycle of life, survival of the fittest and all that. And that maybe fish don’t have any feelings and she wasn’t suffering at all.

In goldfish heaven there are no angry birds.