New Year, New Gear!

Photographers are always looking for new tools and techniques to help improve our work or to facilitate the exploration of new subject matter.  For me, it was the latter scenario—I recently purchased a new telephoto lens with the intention of taking a stab at wildlife photography.  As a long-time Nikon shooter and, as one not prone to splurge on gear, I settled on the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR  telephoto zoom and the Nikon 1.4 tel-extender.  When combined, they theoretically provide the capability to take a shot at 700mm.  That’s a big jump from my previous maximum of 340mm using a 1.7 extender with my 70-200m f/2.8 lens.

Weight is also a consideration.  The weight of the f/5.6 zoom lens is 5.1 lbs., while the weight of the 500mm f/4 prime lens is 8.54 lbs.   And for those who consider the weight of their wallet, the price difference is more than $5,000.

But how does it perform?  The answer to this question is still open, but some preliminary findings can be made.  In my view, it’s usually wise to take small steps while becoming familiar with a new piece of equipment.  So, I decided to start in my own backyard where the presence of a several bird feeders attracts a decent variety of birds, especially during the winter months.

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Pileated Woodpecker  (male)

(Nikon D800E with Nikon 200-500mm lens on tripod;  1/400th sec @ f/5.6, ISO 3200)

The image above was not cropped and there was no sharpening in Photoshop. Due to the large size of original file, it would come out as a 16 X 24” print without any upsizing.  Given the low light situation, a high ISO was necessary so there probably would be a bit of noise evident in a full-sized print.

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Pileated Woodpecker (female)

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod;  1/125th sec @ f/8, ISO 1600)

Adding the extender brought the subject really close.  But I found that the D800E had difficulty resolving focus with the extender.  Switching to the Nikon 810 brought better results but it had become clear the extender has limited utility in low light situations.  As before, this is an uncropped image.  A full stop was lost due to the extender, but by dropping the shutter speed, it was possible to use a lower ISO.  This speed, however would far too slow without a tripod, let alone a bird in flight.

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Avian Food Fight #1

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/1600th sec @ f/9, ISO 1600)

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Avian Food Fight #2

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/1600th sec @ f/8, ISO 1600)

The feeder in the two images immediately above is about twice as far away and the birds are much smaller.  But it was well illuminated by sunlight so a faster shutter speed was possible and focusing was not a problem.

Having tested the lens in a familiar environment and with full knowledge of knowing exactly where to point the camera before the birds arrived, it was now time to try for something a little more difficult—birds in flight.  I spent a bit of time practicing on a flock of buzzards at the nearby Great Falls National Park.  I will spare you samples of the results.  They turned out fine, but buzzards??

We need something more impressive.  Something regal and majestic, like a bald eagle.

Luckily, there is a location about two hours away where a large number of bald eagles gather in the winter.  It is the Conowingo dam in Darlington Maryland and I learned of it from Jim, a photographer colleague who had been there.  More information about it can be found here.

So, with a forecast of sunny weather on Wednesday, Jim and I drove up in the teeth of the morning rush hour traffic.   Jim was correct—there were many eagles to see and, as noted in the referenced link above, there were many photographers there as well.  But the weather man had lied—a heavy cloud cover arrived as we drove into the parking lot.

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In addition to large numbers of eagles and photographers, there were also numerous vultures (buzzards).  Not a problem I thought, until I saw this sign.

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But, there were so many cars in the lot, what were the chances?  We rolled the dice and decided to stay. (That part worked out as we hoped–they did not attack my car)  Here are two examples of the results.

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Bald Eagle in Flight

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens handheld; 1/1600th sec @ f/6.3, ISO 800)

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Bald Eagle with Fish

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens handheld;  1/5000th sec @ f/11, ISO 1600)

In sum, more testing is needed and hopefully there will be another chance at Conowingo before the eagles depart in late January.  Updates will be included in future posts.  In the meantime…

 

Keep Shooting……

Sleeping Beauty

There is one building on the National Mall that has been closed to the public for a decade but, thanks to a renovation project launched in 2009, is now beginning to awaken.  It is the Arts and Industries Building next (east side) to the Smithsonian Castle.

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Arts and Industries Building, View from the Enid Haupt Garden at the Smithsonian Castle

Background

It’s a large building (the roof covers 2.5 acres) and it has been here a long time.  Constructed in 1879-1881, it was the first building created solely to house the US National Museum. The National Museum’s collections had been housed in the Smithsonian Castle since the 1850s but soon outgrew the space.   Spencer Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian at the time, devoted his entire career to developing a great National Museum at the Smithsonian and this building brought his dreams to reality. A detailed history of the building can be found here.

The structure was renovated in the 1970s for a special exhibition during the National Bicentennial celebrations in 1976.  Afterwards, it was used for a variety of temporary exhibits but its condition slowly deteriorated until it received the dubious distinction in 2006 of being named as one of America’s Most Endangered Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and was closed soon afterwards.  Three years later, some of the funding needed for its restoration was made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  Although the funding  was only about 30-40% of the total amount required, it was sufficient for a “shell restoration,” essentially restoring the exterior face, replacing the roof and windows (all 911), and stabilizing the structure.

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Undergoing rennovation

 

The above image is by G. Edward Johnson, courtesy Wikipedia and the source information can be found here.

When the exterior scaffolding was removed at the end of this phase, the results were quite impressive.

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Detail of Jefferson Street Entrance

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Exterior of the Central Rotunda, View from Independence Avenue

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Western Facade, View from across Independence Avenue

But funds are not available (so far) for an equivalent restoration of the interior and it is not open for the public.  However, the Smithsonian Associates recently held a special “open house” and I joined several hundred others to get a rare look at the interior.

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South Hall Looking Toward Independence Avenue

It was a festive event, with games, music, and food.  There was much interest in the presentations, especially the compelling  story of the restoration project as related by Construction Manager Pat Ponton (above).   Built in a time without air conditioning and before electrical lighting was practical,  the visionary design incorporated natural light and circulation, high ceilings and fireproof materials that foreshadowed modern construction techniques.

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Games for the Visitors

The black marble used in the geometric floors was quarried in Vermont and is characterized by a variety of fossils dating back 480 million years.  The same marble was also used in Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

Much work remains but one can glimpse its former glory, especially when looking up at the dome above the central Rotunda.

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Dome over the Rotunda

According to Frederica Adelman, the Director of the Smithsonian Associates, the space is being made available for rent for private functions.  But lacking sufficient funding for the full restoration, final plans for the building’s ultimate purpose have not been made.

Tours are periodically offered by the Smithsonian Associates, so stay alert for future opportunities to get a peek.  In the meantime,

 

Keep Shooting….

 

Cherry Blossom Update

Photo colleague Carla and I checked out potential images on Friday afternoon and concluded that the cherry blossoms around the tidal basin will not be ready for prime time until Monday or Tuesday.  And the prospects for rain and snow on the weekend have raised some concerns that the blossoms may be damaged before then. A thorough article in the Washington Post provides the details.

On the positive side, the magnolia trees continued to be magnificent everywhere they are growing as illustrated in the image below.

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Magnolia Trees at Enid Haupt Garden, Smithsonian Castle

(Technical: Nikon D810 with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 35mm.  Hand held, with fill flash 1/200th sec. @ f/16, ISO 400)

They also can be found, among other places, in the Outdoor Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art, Rawlins Park between the two lanes of E Street, and a small stand near the Korean War Memorial.

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Magnolia Trees Reflected in Korean War Memorial Pool

(Technical: Nikon D810 with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm.  Hand held, exposure of 1/160th sec. @ f/14, ISO 800)

In addition to the Magnolias, the weeping cherry trees are in excellent viewing condition, but tend to be found as single trees in various locations.  The weeping willows along the Potomac are also looking very nice.

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Weeping Willow Trees and Weeping Cherry along the Potomac

(Technical: Nikon D810 with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 29mm.  Hand held, exposure at 1/125th sec. @ f/14, ISO 400)

And if you are over in the Federal Triangle area, check out the newly restored Mellon Memorial Fountain at 6th Street and Constitution Avenue.  I suspect it will look good in any weather.

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Mellon Memorial Fountain, March 17, 2016

In the meantime,

Keep Shooting…..

Return to the Living

There was a good news story in Washington, DC today.  The Andrew W. Mellon Memorial Fountain, situated at the apex of the Federal Triangle complex in downtown Washington, is now operating again after an 8-year hiatus.  In a special ceremony this morning, the 75th anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, the fountain burst back to life in dramatic fashion.

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Mellon Memorial Fountain, Running Again

Designed in a style similar to a fountain in Genoa, Italy, the Mellon Memorial Fountain consists of three nested bronze basins, from which water cascades into a low granite-curbed pool, measuring 55 feet, 4 inches in diameter. Water is supplied from the central jet or plume, and flows from the two top tiers into largest and deepest of the bronze basins. The water is kept at a constant level by sophisticated controls and is tempered and smoothed by means of a bronze baffle, so that when it finally pours over the lip of the basin, it becomes a clear transparent sheet of water.

Cast by Roman Bronze Works and General Bronze Corporation in 1952, it is thought that this was the largest bronze fountain known at the time of construction. The material is known as statuary bronze—a quaternary alloy made of copper, zinc, tin, and lead, and traditionally golden brown in color.

Sidney Waugh, commissioned to design the reliefs for the lowest basin, created twelve high-relief symbols of the zodiac that were cast in bronze and applied to the fluted wall. The sign of Aries is situated so that the sun shines on Aries on March 21—the vernal equinox.

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Sunrise, Mellon Fountain

(Photographed today as the rising sun illuminated the basin and the Aires symbol)

I first photographed the fountain six years ago, after I learned about its relationship to the solar cycle.  I visited at sunrise on the morning of that year’s spring equinox and was saddened by its pathetic condition.  I have always been hopeful that it would someday be brought back to life.  The photograph below provides a rough idea of its condition in 2010.

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Sunrise on Vernal Equinox, March 2010

The fountain and surrounding triangular park, which are dedicated to Gallery founder Andrew W. Mellon, had been the responsibility of the National Park Service.  But in September 2015 custody was transferred to the National Gallery of Art.   The rapidity of the renovation under the aegis of the National Gallery is impressive.

According to the Gallery’s press office, their conservators worked with Washington-area firm Conservation Solutions, Inc. to assist in carrying out the treatment on the bronze fountain. In order to preserve the bronze patina while removing a green mineralization buildup, the team used a special method of blasting dry ice (CO2) on the metal surface instead of using strong chemicals or an aggressive mechanical process to remove the multiple corrosion layers. The process revealed a stunning surface, with original brushstrokes of protective wax visible across the bronze. Several layers of a new protective wax coating were added to help preserve the bronze surface. Annual maintenance will be carried out in the winter when the fountain is not operating.

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Throwing the Switch

Special thanks to my photo colleague, Michele, who alerted me to this event and to gracious staff at the National Gallery who invited me to attend their press briefing and rededication ceremony.  More can be learned about the history of the fountain here.  Information about the origins of the National Gallery of Art can be found here.

It’s Later Than You Think

Spring is arriving early in Washington, DC this year and time is running out for those wanting to partake of the annual visual treats that emerge after winter every year.  The cherry blossoms still have a ways to go, but there is much to be seen already.  A good place to start is the Smithsonian Institution’s Enid Haupt Garden on Independence Avenue.  I visited it late yesterday afternoon and found the magnolia trees in perfect condition.

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Moongate Garden and Smithsonian Castle

(Nikon D810 on tripod, with 24-70mm f.2.8 lens extended to 26mm; exposure: 1/60th sec. @ f/16, ISO 400; two vertical images photomerged)

When I moved to the opposite side of the Moongate pool, another opportunity presented itself.

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Magnolia Tree and West Wing, Smithsonian Castle

(Nikon D810 on tripod, with 24-70mm f.2.8 lens extended to 50mm; exposure: 1/30th sec. @ f/16, ISO 400; approximately 45 minutes before sunset)

The above image is a view toward the north.  But there was more.  The setting sun occasionally found an opening in the clouds and provided a few brief illuminations of the Arts and Industries Building to the east as shown in the image below.

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Magnolia Trees, Enid Haupt Garden

(Nikon D810 on tripod, with 24-70mm f.2.8 lens extended to 66mm; exposure: 1/13th sec. @ f/16, ISO 400; approximately 40 minutes before sunset)

Update:  A check on the cherry blossoms early this morning (March 11) showed that it will be at least a few days before they are ready for their moment to shine.

OnePhoto Focus (March)

It’s the first Friday of the month and that means it’s time for Stacy Fisher’s famous OnePhoto Focus where everyone gets a chance to apply their magic touches to the same image.  But before we get to that, a flash back to last month when I visited the Washington National Cathedral for a morning shoot.

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Morning Light, National Cathedral

(Technical Data: Nikon D810 on tripod with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, extended to 44mm; two images photomerged, exposure 0.5 sec@ f/16, ISO 400)

The National Cathedral has recently started a series of special sessions for photographers who wish to capture images of the interior before the doors open for the public.  The number of photographers is limited to about 25 and reservations can be made in advance. Tripods are allowed and, depending on the day some areas may not be open. Cost of admission is $30.  Details can be found here.

Now back to our main program, the monthly OnePhoto Focus.  This month’s photograph was contributed by Nancy Merrill.  The original is shown below.

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Original Image by Nancy Merrill

The building, as the sign indicates, is a theatre dedicated to the works of Shakespeare.  The theatrical theme seemed to be a good one to run with and, as we all know, theatre deals with fantasy.  So I thought I would go with that.

No need to go into the boring details of the “image prep” phase in Adobe Camera Raw, largely because Nancy has kindly provided us with a clean, well-exposed, and sharply focused image that needs no heroic efforts.  Only a few standard tweaks were applied.

The next step was to set the scene and it seemed that a visit to Photoshop’s Filter Gallery would be a good place to start.  The “Glowing Edges” effect under the Stylize tab produced an electric effect and, after a little trial and error, the image shown below emerged. The  sign was “protected” from the effects of the filter tool because I had other plans for it.

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“Glowing Edge” Effect Applied

Since this is a Shakespearean Theatre, it seemed appropriate to make that fact very obvious.  A quick online search produced an image of a poster for one of the bard’s most famous plays.  It was superimposed as a separate layer and the opacity was slightly reduced.  A mask was used to paint out the unwanted sections of the poster.

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Sign Added

With the stage and scenery ready, some characters are needed.  Back to the Internet.  This search found several willing participants: a fashion model, a photographer, and a couple descending the stairs.

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Final Image

On a technical note, the procedure I used for adding these elements was to first create a new layer above the background.  The copied images were scaled down using the Edit–>Transform–>Scale tool on the inserted layer (be sure to hold the shift key down to maintain the original aspect ratio).

Thanks again to Stacy for organizing this monthly event. You can see the other versions by the participants by clicking on this link.  And thanks to Nancy for a fun image to edit.

Twilight and Beyond: Photography at Night (Part 2)

In the first installment of this mini-series, I suggested including the moon in a night scene as a way to add interest and provided a few examples.  In this segment, we’ll look at the moon in a little greater detail.

In the Washington, DC area, capturing images of a full moon rising has become increasingly popular, largely due to the availability of mobile “apps” to help you be at the right place at the right time.  The general approach is to find a location from which one can photograph the moon perfectly positioned in relation to one of the major monuments.   The image below was captured at the most popular of these locations, on a hill in Rosslyn, Virginia directly in front of the Netherlands Carillon.

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Moonrise, Washington, DC (September 5, 2009)

An image like this is not as easy to obtain as it would appear, even with the help of an app like TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris). Aside from the obvious need for good weather, the time between the moonrise and sunset are critical as is the precise location of the moonrise.  In the case of this image, it was actually taken on the night after the full moon.  On the previous night, the weather was cloudy, the moonrise was 13 minutes before sunset and well to the right of the Lincoln Memorial. On the night of this image, the moonrise was 13 minutes after sunset at the perfect azimuth reading—85.5 degrees.  This photograph was taken about 10 minutes later, very close to the end of civil twilight.

For those wanting to know when the next such opportunity comes, they might want to mark their calendars for October 15, 2016.  It is the night before the full moon and the moon will rise 2 minutes after sunset.  That’s a little closer than ideal, but the azimuth reading is close to perfect, at 84.1 degrees.  Not as good as September 5, 2009, but worth a try if the weather is favorable.

A word of warning:  You will be sharing this location with as many as 100 other photographers, all with tripods.

The Jefferson Memorial is probably the second most popular spot for a moonrise image, often attracting 30-40 photographers on a promising evening. The advantage here is there are more vantage points along the sidewalks of the Tidal Basin.

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Moonrise, Jefferson Memorial (July 31, 2015)

(Technical notes: Moonrise 2 minutes after sunset at Azimuth 106.2 degrees; photograph taken 18 minutes after sunset.)

A similar alignment will occur on April 22, 2016 with a full moonrise 3 minutes after sunset at Azimuth 105 degrees.

One of the challenges in photographing a full moon is exposure.  Once it gets well above the horizon on a clear night, an exposure chosen to capture a twilight scene will often result in an overexposed moon. This will happen even with illuminated buildings as the primary subject.

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Jefferson Memorial, Full Moon and Fireworks (April 4, 2014)

(Technical notes: Moonrise 21 minutes after sunset at Azimuth 99.1 degrees, photograph taken 63 minutes after sunset.)

Tactics for resolving this issue can range from hoping for a light cloud cover to blending two separate exposures in Photoshop or using the HDR bracketed exposure procedure.  Another method is to try for a crescent moon.

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Crescent Moon with Lincoln Memorial (August 17, 2015)

Photographed 35 minutes after sunset.  Note:  In this case, the photograph is taken in same direction as the setting sun.  Therefore, the twilight blue lasts longer than when you are pointing in the opposite direction.

Always consider possible locations when you travel.  Apps like TPE can be really helpful if you check the destination before you go.  For example, Mother Nature had kindly scheduled a full moon during our visit to Paris in 2014.  A check with TPE revealed that it would be possible to have it in a picture with the Eiffel Tower.

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Full Moon and Eiffel Tower (June 13, 2014)

(Technical Notes: Moonrise 8 minutes after Sunset at Azimuth 119.5 degrees. Photograph taken 50 minutes after Sunset. Twilight tends to last longer in Paris than in Washington, DC.)

The next full moon will be on February 22nd.  Pick a spot and …

Keep Shooting….