Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Smoke and Lights

I have always been fascinated by the little things in life: each grain of sand at the beach tanning under a beautiful summer sun, snow flakes falling and swirling on their long descent only to land and melt in my mouth, and watching wisps of smoke curling and winding their way through invisible currents in the air.

This week's special was smoke. Both from burning incense and light bulb filaments. After seeing a few shots from a few friends we decided it would be fun to try, but we wanted to add something to the mix. Why not add smoke rings?

The first task was to figure out how to make a smoke ring, and based on a demonstration in a Physics class I decided we needed a Vortex Cannon. A simple device that creates a smoke vortex (ring) and sends it flying through the air. A quick search on Google revealed several designs, but they basically all consisted of a tube with a venturi at one end and a diaphragm at the other.

Now we needed to generate some smoke so we bought some light bulbs, incense, and an old lamp from Goodwill. The use for the lamp and light bulbs will be clear in a minute. We setup our black backdrop and wireless flashes to the side, and lit the incense to generate smoke. We filled the Vortex Cannon and fired off some nice smoke rings, but quickly found the design of the cannon to be weak. The rings were small, and too hard to achieve well defined rings. When we did capture the rings they were really bland and looked like a white circle. Back to the drawing board for a later date.

With the failed smoke rings we decided to just photograph the incense smoke. We tried various color gels and flash positions until we had some shots we were happy with. The biggest problem we experienced here was with the flash point back at the lens we had some serious flare from dust particles floating through the air.

Finally, we come to the lamp and light bulbs. A light bulb is a simple device developed well over 100 years ago. It is a tungsten wire in a sealed glass shell that is filled with an inert gas. Tungsten is used because it has a high melting point (high enough to radiate a lot of light), but as a downside it will burn at those temperatures in an oxygen atmosphere. That is where the inert gas comes into play; it prevents the filament from burning itself up.

So what happens if you break the glass shell and let all the protective inert gas out and light the bulb? Well, the element burns bright for a second or two before dying a horrible fiery and smokey death! (don't try this at home without proper precautions). A great fleeting moment to photograph. So with the same setup as the incense we flashed our way through a dozen light bulbs.

Even though I didn't capture any smoke rings how I wanted, I was happy with the results from the light bulbs and the incense smoke. The smoke rings will have to wait until another time. We found that not using colored gels on the flashes and just doing any color adjustments in post processing was an easier route, and far more flexible. The smoke takes color well in front of the solid black background.

Smoke is such a little thing. A fleeting moment that is ever changing, like the sand at the beach or the snow blowing in the wind. Each of these moments draws my complete attention. Day to day thoughts slip into oblivion and my mind is focused. Nothing else matters but the sand beneath my feet, the snow hitting my face, or the smoke in the air. I love photography because of this. I use the camera as my tool to draw me into the Zone and capture these special moments.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

In the Forest of Fire and Ice

Bitter cold swept the mid-west. The forecast indicated a record -33 F, but clear skies. What better weather for photography? I packed my Pentax K20d and DA* 50-135 f/2.8 mm, the only gear I trusted in the extreme cold. I set out my cold weather gear: 3 layers of clothing, snow pants, face mask, wind resistant jacket, water proof boots, and arctic mittens. I was ready for a cold morning.

I awoke before dawn the next morning, dressed, and packed my gear. The temperature had fallen to only -29 F, and the truck reluctantly fired up. I drove to my shoot location, and found the path had been groomed so I didn't need my snowshoes. The sun was just about to rise, so I grabbed my gear and headed down the path to catch the sunrise.

The path lead by a field, and I thought that would be the perfect place to snap a shot of the sun rising above the horizon. I quickly cut off the path, and immediately wished I had worn my snow shoes. My feet plunged knee deep into the snow, and I had to trudge across fallen logs. Halfway through something grabbed my arm and tore at my jacket. Those weren't ordinary bushes, they were brambles!

When I finally got to the field the sun was just starting to poke above the trees. I quickly snapped a couple shots and setup my tripod for something better. The light was playing across the small snow dunes created in the wind swept field. Like ripples on a lake created by a light breeze, dead corn stalks poked through where they once stood tall and proud from the previous harvest.

I still had an hour that the light and peacefulness of the morning would hold out. I knew of a warm water spring nearby that might make for some interesting shots. Steam and ice with the strong morning sun might mix nicely. I quickly set on my way, cautious of the brambles this time.

I arrived at the spring and was in luck. Billows of vapor were rising from the spring water. Even though the spring water could still be considered cold, it was more than 60 F warmer than the surrounding air. Ice had formed on everything near the water and the sun was diffracting through the trees creating brilliant rays piercing through the fog. It was a moving experience. I did my best to capture its glory, but fear no effort ever could.

Time had no meaning, even in the extreme cold. I noticed the camera was frosting over; fields of soft white crystals covering the black plastic. The sun was climbing in the sky. I reluctantly trekked back to the vehicle. The temperature seemed to drop as I left the spring, and the warmth was ripped from my body. My eye lashes froze shut, and needles were piercing at my cheeks. My toes were getting numb. It was time to get back in the truck or suffer frostbite.

Only when I was back in the truck did I realize 90 minutes had passed since I first arrived, and I was going to be late for work if I didn't get moving. I fired up the old Dodge and headed off to work, where the magical world of fire and ice quickly faded into reality. Did I just imagine everything? That is why I love photography.


See the rest of the images at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28177041@N03/sets/72157612625918040/