Gimme a Sign

Weaver's Bike Shop
Weaver’s Bike Shop

Adrienne Posey, an author born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania once wrote that signs don’t shout; they whisper. I didn’t know that when I took this photo but it makes a lot of sense now.

This is a sign for Weaver’s Bike Shop in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, a family operated business that has been serving customers since 1958. I found an interesting review about it on Yelp from a Lancaster man named George:

“I tried to find this place and I’m still not sure that I did. I think it’s an Amish guy who fixes bikes for other Amish kids. It’s not really a shop, just a garage near a barn with some bikes outside. There is no sign out front, only one at each end of the street pointing in opposite directions.”

Well George, there are two red bicycles mounted on a post pointing in the direction of the shop with the name on an arrow. Apparently he never heard that signs don’t shout; they whisper.

I learned several things that day, first, if you don’t look for signs you can easily miss them. I also learned that rather than driving around winding back roads for 30 minutes, you can find the address and directions online in 30 seconds.

But the main thing I learned is that everything that has been said about selective coloring is true. It’s a blatant attempt to make a boring photo interesting and should only be used in very specific circumstances, like photographing a woman wearing a red bikini and red lipstick.

But I was in the heart of Amish country; where the women don’t wear lipstick and most don’t even own a bikini. And even if by some chance I found one that did, they usually don’t want their photo taken.

Although most Amish refuse to allow themselves to be photographed, some make a distinction between a photograph taken in a natural setting versus posing for one.

So if one day I happen to see an Amish woman in a red bikini, I will politely ask her if I can take her photo, but I won’t ask her to pose, and more important, all she has to do is act naturally. As for post processing with selective coloring, I’ll cross that covered bridge when I come to it.

Photography Training

Strasburg Rail Road HDR
Strasburg Rail Road HDR

You can learn a lot photographing trains on a cloudy day by experimenting with composition, exposure and aperture. This morning I went down to the Strasburg Rail Road to see if I could learn anything new, but I found the same things that were true the last time I was there were true today.

Just like Freud’s cigar, sometimes a train is just a train, but adding a person to the photo can make it much more interesting.

Composition is probably the most important thing besides the subject, and you can only do so much with a boring gray sky.

Taking a hundred or more shots is easy to do, even though I know that I only need one good one, or at least one decent one.

Finally, post processing RAW files with Lightroom, Photoshop and HDR software will not make a bad photo great, and the time comes when a decision has to be made when to call it done and read the Sunday newspapers.

As Ansel Adams one said: “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” I stood behind another photographer and watched the smoke and mirror show from a distance, and it was good enough to make the trip worthwhile. Next time I’ll shoot the conductor (not literally).

Overexposed at Walmart

Horse and buggy parking
Horse and buggy parking

As every fifth grader with a Hasselblad knows, getting the exposure right is not as easy as making a viral video of your cat. But by learning some basic principles, you can expose like a pro in just a few short years.

There is a well know method known in some circles as the golden triangle, which is not to be confused with Asia’s main opium producing area. The golden, or exposure triangle as it’s also called, is using the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed in the right combination to produce the results that you want.

Histograms can also be helpful, but like speed limit signs they are only a suggestion. The best way to learn exposure as well as other basics like metering, aspect ratio and composition is to practice.

Occasionally you may slightly overexpose a photo of something, maybe a horse and buggy in a Walmart parking lot, and realize that the effect is more interesting than all the other shots that have histograms like the Himalayas.

Play with the contrast in post processing, convert to black and white, and give it a title that suggests surrealism. Then, as if that isn’t enough, throw in a quote from Alfred Stieglitz such as: “In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”

Once you master exposure, practice photographing clouds and call them equivalents.

Nothing Is Black and White

Strasburg Rail Road
Strasburg Rail Road

In photography, a lot of things are black, white, and fifty shades of grayscale. People, animals and landscapes sometimes do look better in monochrome, but it’s also a way to compensate for the fact that the light was bad.

I took this at the Strasburg Rail Road station at 10:30am, too late in the morning for the best light. The left side, which I kept in color for scientific purposes, is pretty good but the rest is washed out, and the patch of sky on the top right was almost pure white. I liked the composition so I tried to make it work as a color photo but couldn’t. That left me with a couple of options.

I could tell myself that steam engines are awesome, and that color and sharpness don’t matter because it’s only a photo. Or convert to monochrome and call it done. I live close enough to go back and try to do better, so I converted the RAW file to black and white using Lightroom, in what could have been a ten second process using a Photoshop action.

The Strasburg Rail Road takes you on a 45-minute, round-trip ride through the tranquil Amish countryside to Paradise (Pennsylvania) and back. If tranquility is not your style but you like trains, photo opportunities are yours for the taking.

Starting in April they have trains that leave at 6pm on Saturday, and the best place to watch or photograph them is in the parking lot of the nearby Red Caboose Motel. Somewhere around 6:45-7:00 on those nights, they will be slowly chugging back to the station toward you, with amazing light low in the sky in just the right direction for a perfect trainspotting photo.

Note: it’s very easy to get excited and blow the shot completely, but remember, steam engines are awesome, and color and sharpness don’t matter because it’s only a photo.

Strasburg Rail Road B&W
Strasburg Rail Road B&W

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