British Church Note Cards

I’ve traveled quite a lot during my life. One of the places I’ve visited most often is Great Britain. Always cameras in hand, I’ve recorded many of the sights and scenes I’ve encountered. One of the most fascinating things for me are the churches. Great Britain has a rich array of them, many with long histories. They are often wonderful exemplars of architecture and decoration that are well worth being captured photographically.

Nativity Window, Chester Cathedral, Chester, England

My bulging files are filled with colorful images of these gems. The question is, what can I do to display them and make use of my experiences? After much thought, I settled on creating a set of note cards that feature representative scenes from a variety of subjects and locales.

Church of St. Peter, Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd, Denbigshire, Wales

At first, I created them as gifts for family and friends. Then, seeing how well received they have been, I decided to go a step further and offer them for sale on Etsy. I’m pricing them to sell: a set of 12 cards, two each of six scenes, are priced at $12 plus $3 flat rate shipping per set.

Vaulted Cellarium, Fountains Abbey, Near Aldfield, North Yorkshire,England

The technical details: they measure 4 ¼ X 5 ½ inches, come with envelopes, and are printed on Red River River Linen 60 lb. note card stock.

Truro Cathedral, Truro, Cornwall

Additional card sets featuring rural scenes, covered bridges, railroad wheels, and colorful scenics will soon follow. And I have ideas for even more photo note cards representing other aspects of my photography.

Tomb of the Black Prince, Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England

Whether or not the cards become good sellers, they are fun to make and offer another creative outlet for my photography. And that, in the end, is what makes it all worthwhile.

A Lesson in Tough Love

Although Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is best known for his classic The Little Prince, he authored other books that merit attention. One of these, Night Flight, also a classic, is set in the early years of airmail delivery connecting far-flung cities in South America with daily flights from Buenos Aires to France. Written in an era when airmail across the Andes was dangerous and not yet fully established, Saint-Exupéry tells the story of the fight to maintain reliable and safe airmail service linking the widespread populations of South America with Europe.

Drawing on his life as a pilot, Saint-Exupéry’s work is filled with the stories of pilots flying in dangerous and unpredictable weather over difficult terrain to keep the mails on a regular schedule. Beautifully written in language worthy of emulation, Night Flight is an interesting short read about the early struggles to improve communications across widely separated places and the lives of the pilots and crews who made it a reality.

But beneath the surface lies a deeper story, and a moral. The central character, Rivière, is not a pilot but the flight supervisor to whom pilots and ground crews report. It is he who is charged with seeing that the mails are not only delivered on time, but that the very concept of airmail delivery is cemented into established practice.

Throughout the narrative, Rivière governs the pilots, ground crews, and clerical staff with what appears as an intolerant iron fist. He is a stickler for adherence to established procedures and is swift to discipline both deviations and failures.

Sometimes, it seems, stern action offers the greatest act of kindness

But beneath his hard face lies a struggle between the necessity for excellence, on the one hand, and his love for his men, on the other. In the end, he concludes that he can best show that love by holding them to the highest standards of performance. Though victory—over the elements, over the timetable—remains of paramount importance for Rivière, it is his tough love that both saved lives in this dangerous undertaking and allowed the experiment of airborne communications to ultimately succeed.

Sometimes, it seems, stern action offers the greatest act of kindness. So it was with Rivière.

Losing Focus on Purpose

I’m a sharp focus kind of photographer. I’ve sought out the best lenses for sharpness. I use a tripod whenever possible. And I do a lot of focus stacking to get sharpness throughout the depth of an image.

But just maybe, I’m in a photographic rut. What if I broke out of this routine and approached image making in a novel way?

To help me set out in new directions, I’m currently enrolled in Lori Lankford’s Creative Closeups class, which is offered through the Capital Photography Center. Lori’s full of ideas on how to build exciting close-ups using a variety of techniques that, frankly, are new to me.

Although this looks like an array of flower petals, in fact it is a defocused close-up of the air intake grill on my truck!

The current lesson urges us to seek out light in ways that will reveal interesting bokeh. Bokeh, a Japanese term, refers to the out of focus portion of an image. There is good bokeh and there is bad bokeh. The goal is to create out of focus areas, usually in the background behind a sharply focused subject, that is pleasing to the eye.  When you achieve it, you’ve got good bokeh.

This image is of a portion of a translucent yard ornament. The colors were enhanced in post-processing to create this vivid abstraction.

In carrying out my assignment, I chose a somewhat different path. Rather than focusing sharply on a foreground object, I decided to defocus my lens entirely so that no part of the image was recognizable. I shot wide open, using a Voitlander 100mm macro lens at f/2.5.

Another interpretation of the yard ornament.

This was a totally new experience for this sharpness nut and it opened my eyes to wonderful new possibilities. I’m still experimenting, mind you, but already I’ve learned a few things I’ll use in the future. Here are some takeaways:

  • I can get some very artistic effects by defocusing entirely
  • I get my best results shooting into the light against backlit subjects
  • Speculars, like the glint of light on water drops or tiny reflections on other objects can yield geometric patterns due to the configuration of the lens’s diaphragm blades
  • Backlit translucent objects are great for shooting through to create abstractions
  • Subtle colors in the raw files can be enhanced in postprocessing to create brilliantly hued abstractions
  • Tack sharp shooting is definitely not the only way to go

I’m excited to have learned this lesson and I’m eager to see what else I can learn as I continue this course.

Smell the Roses, Then Shoot Them

It’s no secret that I read a lot of books in an attempt to enhance my skill as a photographer. Many of these have been written by Harold Davis, one of my favorite authors on things photographic. His latest volume, Creative Garden Photography, is one of his best, if not in fact the very best one he’s written.

The book covers a wide range of subjects related to garden photography, including:

  • The types and sizes of gardens, many of which he’s visited and photographed worldwide.
  • The practice of photographing flowers in gardens using a variety of techniques to achieve stunning effects.
  • Studio photography of flowers, including lightbox photography.

As he does in all his books, Davis shares his photographic and post-processing methods in enough detail that they can be replicated by the reader.

This book is filled with photographs that are not only beautiful but also inspiring and educational. For each, he carefully details how and where the image was produced, both in the camera and the digital darkroom. But though the photographs provide valuable information for photographers, non-photographers will also find this beautiful and informative book worthy of a serious perusal.

In crafting this book, Davis is generous, both in the volume of ideas he presents and in his spirit of sharing his knowledge.  As a result, it is replete with techniques and inspiration that will stimulate my photography for a long time to come. I’ve already begun to implement some of his ideas, especially lightbox photography, and I have plans to do more.

Even if flower photography is not your interest, this book contains many ideas that can be applied to other subject matter. For that reason, this book makes an important contribution to the photographic technical literature. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Looking to 2021

With each new year come new opportunities. Likewise, new challenges arise. Some of these we cannot anticipate, of course; but others, we set for ourselves, to expand our capacities and extend our visions.

I have many ideas for personal development and accomplishment in the year ahead. At the risk of future embarrassment at my presumption, here are some of them.

  • As a newly appointed member of the Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services Board, I want to fully comprehend the range of services it offers the community and to carve out a meaningful role for myself in contributing to it. I see an opportunity to use my position to enhance public information about the agency’s services and educate citizens and public officials about the value of social investments such as these.
  • I want to expand my mind by studying things that are new to me, especially Greek philosophy and the philosophy of the Roman Stoics.
  • I want to develop a portfolio of photos for sharing on the web and with potential purchasers and exhibitors.
  • I want to create a sequence of macro photos that are interpretive of deeper themes and go beyond being merely documentary.
  • I want to use my photos to create a line of note cards I can offer for sale.
  • I want to enhance my photographic post-processing skills.
  • I want to develop my skills at creating artistic images as a part of my portfolio.
  • I want to publish a coffee table book on the rural fences in the horse country where I live.
  • I want to continue writing monthly reviews of woodworking books.
  • I want to teach two new hands-on woodworking classes.
  • I want to make natural edge coffee tables for gifts and for sale.
  • I want to continue making boxes for gifts and for sale.
  • I want to complete some other woodworking projects, including a book rack and a desk.
  • I want to provide ongoing leadership to my local photographic club, the Shenandoah Photographic Society.
  • I want to learn the basics of playing the uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes), whose sound I’ve come to love. I want to first learn to master the manipulation of the bags and the key strokes on the chanter and by the end of the year to be able to play a simple tune or two.
  • I want to visit family members.
  • I want to do something some training in photography, Covid permitting.

I know this is a lot to endeavor. And perhaps it’s more that I can achieve in 12 months. But if goals are not challenging, what is the use of having them?

Following Dreams, 2021 Style

The transition between the old year and the new is a time long recognized for both looking back at what has passed and forward to what might become. January is appropriately named for the Roman god Janus, the two-faced god who simultaneously looked both to the past and to the future. It is a time when we often reflect on what was or might have been and what may yet become.

Looking to the past should be more than an exercise in reminiscences. It is also a time to reflect on things we did well and those where there is room for growth and change. A serious self-assessment is essential to our development as well functioning people and something anyone who seeks to be both competent and thoughtful will wish to undertake.

The beginning of the year is also a time for looking to the future. That is the stuff of dreams. It’s an opportunity to elevate to consciousness our aspirations, about things that might be possible, if only.

“You can get what you want or you can just get old.”

Billy Joel

There is much to be valued in dreaming. Dreaming need not be mere idling away the time in pointless escapism. It can, instead, be a well-used exercise, a source of enrichment, a creator of opportunities, of inspiration, of fresh ideas and new pathways. All too often, though, we neglect and abandon the objects of our desires. When we do so, our neglect comes at a cost that is often high. We miss opportunities we might have seized. We may resign ourselves to living in a rut. In extreme instances, we may fall into depression. Unfortunately, we easily find all sorts of reasons not to pursue our dreams.

“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”

Albert Einstein

In my life, I’ve chosen to follow some dreams while neglecting others. On the positive side, I’ve followed my passion for photography, made a once-in-a-lifetime African Safari, and indulged my need to express myself in words, among other things.

But there have been failures as well. Despite my love of music, I never studied the piano sufficiently to learn to play. And though I am enchanted by the sound of uilleann (Irish) pipes, I feared to take up this difficult instrument and ran away from it.

What explains my failure to follow my dreams? A fear of failure is part of it. Resisting the work needed to succeed is another part. And the judgment that I do not merit success lies beneath them.

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve always imagined.”

Henry David Thoreau

But now, 2021 beckons. Sure, the Covid pandemic will be a major factor constraining us in the coming year. But still, many opportunities remain. So, for 2021, I am planning to follow my dreams as far as they will lead me. Here are some I intend to pursue. I will seriously explore learning to play the uilleann pipes. I will work toward publishing a coffee table book of my photography of local fences. I will contribute to public service by serving on the RRCS board. I will enhance my skills in photo editing by studying the methods of the masters. And, to balance these fresh opportunities, I will make a thorough assessment of my successes and failures during 2020.

How about you?  What do you feel you did well in 2020 and where does your room for growth lie?  And what dreams to you plan to pursue in 2021?  I’d love to hear from you about them.

From Waste to Wonderful

One of the most exciting photo books I’ve read recently is Lisa and Tom Cuchara’s Create Fine Art Photographs from Historic Places and Rusty Things. These outstanding photographers, whom we might call denizens of the dusty, frequent abandoned factories, prisons, and asylums among other neglected places in search of creative and often iconic images. In these unlikely spaces, they find, or rather, they make photographs of great beauty and artful composition. In so doing, they breathe new life into what was once vital.

Their book displays many exciting photos that reveal both the latent beauty and the hidden colors of the spaces they visit. But the photos are more than merely beautiful; they often lay bare the soul of these forlorn places as they tell the stories of those who lived and worked in them.

Still, the photos are more than graphic interpretations of neglected spaces and abandoned things. They are also a set of lessons on photographic practices and how to bring potential to reality. Using HDR, panoramas, time exposures, creative lighting, and careful post-processing, they employ their photos as instructions in technique.

Above all, this book is a high source of inspiration. It witnesses the power of well executed photography to build exciting images in spaces that on the surface are run down and easily avoided or overlooked.

Above all, this book is a high source of inspiration. It witnesses the power of well executed photography to build exciting images in spaces that on the surface are run down and easily avoided or overlooked. There are lessons aplenty in this fine book. Whether you ever intend to set foot in an abandoned factory or junkyard, the Cucharas have plenty to teach about composition, technique, patience, and vision. And those are skills every one of us can benefit from by studying.

Wise Words for Grown-ups

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the early French long-distance pilot and author, is most famously known for his enduring classic, The Little Prince. But he wrote many other books, mostly drawn from his flight experiences in Africa, South America, and during World War II, when he ultimately died during a reconnaissance flight.

The Little Prince is famous for its sage and gentle advice. Though usually heralded as a children’s book, both it and his other writings contain many wise thoughts worth pondering by adults. Some of these are collected in a small volume of just over 80 pages, titled A Guide for Grown-ups. It contains thoughtful and pithy sayings grouped thematically in six categories: Happiness, Friendship, Love, Responsibility, Fortitude, and What Is Essential.

Here are several of his sayings that I find particularly meaningful.

“If I summon up those memories that have left me with an enduring savor, if I draw up the balance sheet of the hours in my life that have truly counted, surely I find only those that no wealth could have procured me.”

“It is much harder to judge yourself than to judge others. If you succeed in judging yourself, it’s because you are truly a wise man.”

“Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

“A civilization is built on what is required of men, not on that which is provided for them.”

“What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.”

This slim and inexpensive book contains much that is worth reflection.

Birth of an Elephant

The opportunity to safari in Kenya was a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and photograph big-game animals in their native habitat.  Early on our first morning out in the Land Rovers, we chanced upon a herd of elephants in a state of considerable excitement. During the night a baby elephant had been born to a young mother, herself only half the size of the older matrons of the herd.

The members of the herd, about a dozen in number, milled about uneasily as first one elephant, then another greeted the newborn by touching it with their trunks and bellowing out their joy at this new addition to their community.  I stood up through the open hatch of the Land Rover and, balancing my Nikon and telephoto lens on a bean bag for stability, fired off shot after shot at this fascinating ceremony.

For a time, mother and baby became separated as other females took temporary custody of the baby.  Eventually, though, mother and child were reunited and the rest of the herd settled down to grazing on the branches and tree limbs that proliferated the dry and dusty environment of the Shaba National Reserve in the north of Kenya.  From that point on, the baby was on its own as it struggled to gain its footing, once humorously stumbling forward and landing on its nose.

But in the end, all was well, as can be seen by the smile on the face of this tiny pachyderm, a welcome addition to the threatened and dwindling herds of African elephants.

For the Love of Trains

There’s something about a train that’s hard not to love.  Many of their features are worth noting, but to my way of thinking, it’s the wheels that are most iconic.  This is especially true for the drive wheels of steam locomotives.  They were, after all, the motive power that moved heavy loads across miles of steel.

Relics of the past, the heaving behemoths they carried were once alive with breath and driving power that was visible for all to see.  Though mostly gone now, they remain an indelible part of our heritage and they live on in metaphor and memory, even if rarely seen.

These photos date from the 1970s and 1980s, when the Southern Railroad (now Norfolk Southern), the Chessie System (now CSX), and the Norfolk & Western (also Norfolk Southern) ran steam-powered excursion trains across northern Virginia, where I reside.  Trailing dark tinted plumes of smoke, they traversed miles of rural landscape and drew appreciative crowds at every crossing.

I rode behind these giants many times and even more often frequented the yards to watch them being stoked up and readied to depart.  It was then that these photos were made.  But the trains are now in museums, the yards transmuted into commercial space and parking lots.

The power behind these wheels and the rods that drove them is self-evident.  The wheels and the trains they bore were special.  And they are missed.