Composing Effective Images with Art Wolfe

  • Published Date:
  • by
  • Category:

I took my first photography class in recent memory this weekend. It was the "Composing Effective Images - Field Edition" by the renown Seattle photographer Art Wolfe. He hosted a reception Friday night for the fifty-or-so students at his incredible home in West Seattle -- stunning rock and water landscaping, insane west-facing view of Puget Sound, and an art-filled interior. It was a nice way to get ready for the weekend.

Art Wolfe pointing out some potentially interesting shots.

We were at the Washington Arboretum Saturday and Sunday for lecture and shooting. Art started by talking about his sources of inspiration. As a trained painter, his influences were famous painters. He talked about bringing elements of line, motion, and gesture into our photos, to tell a story or lead the viewer through the photo. Art kept emphasizing that we should be intentional making photos. It's definitely true that I usually am a little careless in my photography, at best having only a notional idea of what I really want.

After lunch, we went into the Arboretum to shoot. Art and his assistants were on hand to give us advice and help us out. I was a bit stymied at first. Art rescued me and helped me find something good to shoot. There were a few key lessons I got from the brief 1:1. He was scanning rapidly for a few things -- interesting subject, interesting light, with a suitable background. He found some backlit plants and then got me down on the ground with my tripod (which I rarely shoot with, but Art seems to rarely shoot without) and close to the subject. Since I was shooting into the sun, he also helped block the light (which I never think of since I never have an assistant). It was a good reminder that the best vantage to shoot things isn't usually eye level and that you need to have a lot of interesting elements right to make an interesting shot. I followed Art and the group clustered with him for a while, picking up the tips I could and then went off again on my own to shoot a while. I admit, I didn't think I had much in the way of interesting shots and was a little bummed by the end of shooting.

That night, I picked and edited three images for critique the next day. Using some of the ideas Art introduced in class, I managed to come up with three images I really liked that I thought were more graphic and abstract than my usual photos.

This is a tree trunk with a sawn off end. It's the only shot of the three where I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted when I shot the picture. I really liked the thick white line and the contrasting textures and colors on either side of it.

I saw these backlit leaves and liked the glow. I didn't have a macro lens or extension tubes with me, so I shot a much broader scene with a lot more leaves. I cropped it down to these two, mostly the get the shape against the lovely background. Besides cropping the image, I only messed with the levels to do this.

Art turned me onto this kind of pointy, backlit leaf. The leaves themselves were green with brown spots, which I thought was distracting. I loved how the edges and veins glowed, so I decided to focus on those and minimize the color distractions by going black and white. I haven't decided yet whether I like this image better this way or vertically.

The second day started with a great lecture on the different lenses he uses and more importantly, how he uses them. Interestingly, he seems to use only a small number of lenses on a regular basis, bringing in others as needed. The 16-35 and 70-200 are his primary lenses. He uses others such as the fish-eye and 500mm+ in special cases. He also uses a 24-105 as a walking-around lens as well as for some aerial shots. I was a bit surprised to hear that he uses the Canon 70-200 f4 instead of the 2.8; the quality is still very good and it weighs less. Since he's shooting on a tripod most of the time and since digital cameras have usably go to higher ISOs, the weight is a good tradeoff against the extra speed. He also doesn't seem to shoot much with normal lenses (50mm range). Since they produce photos like we normally see them, his contention is they make for uninteresting shots.

We also had a talk from his assistant on how to use Adobe Lightroom. Although I've been using Lightroom for a while, I picked up some good tips even from this section.

Finally, we went through everyone's photos. Art and his assistant critiqued the photos, making quick edits in Lightroom to try to make the images more interesting. It was great to see how they looked at each image and what kinds of things they did with them. There were some really powerful images in the group (and some not so good ones). The feedback on my images was good. Art cropped and rotated them a bit to try some different things, but he had nice things to say. I also got a little "ooh" from the other students when the first image came up, which was nice. I only wish I had named the folder "Anthony C" instead of "Tony C"; as it was, I was one of the last students to be critiqued.

Throughout the three days, we saw a lot of stunning images Art had made. He's a good lecturer - clear, entertaining, and informative. The class wasn't cheap, but it was well worth it. It was especially fun since my friends Chris and Imran were there too. Art hosts photo expeditions all over the world. I think I'd love to take one of these some day. As it is, I'm re-energized to start doing more than taking snapshots again.

Kiteboarding at Double Bluff Beach

  • Published Date:
  • by
  • Category:

Chris Evans and I went to take photos of the crazy kiteboarders who were ripping it up on a very windy, chilly January day at Double Bluff Beach on Whidbey Island.

When we first arrived, there were only a few kiteboarders out, but there were a lot of guys setting up. The kites have inflatable leading edge and slats, so they were pumping up their kites and dealing with their lines.

Pretty quickly there was a whole squadron out there, sailing in a big oval, maybe 45 degrees to the wind (close reach up, broad reach down).

The wind was blowing steadily and hard, so they were getting a lot of speed.


I was amazed how much air they were able to get using this speed.


We were out there for about 45 minutes until we were too cold to keep shooting (even with gloves on). Although the kiteboarders were in dry suits and working hard, I have to believe they were pretty cold too. Still, it was awesome.

A Comparison of US vs. Chinese News Coverage: Pollution

  • Published Date:
  • by
  • Category:

I've written twice before, comparing Western and Chinese news coverage of the same story (Obama visit to China and Internet registration). In both cases, it was interesting to see how the reports read very differently despite presenting the same basic facts; differences in tone, emphasis, and inclusion/omission of other facts can really change how the story comes across.

AQI 493 from my office window

Today, I was reading about how Beijing will start reporting a new air pollution measure - PM 2.5 (2.5 micron particulate matter). I've written before several times about the gross Beijing air. We relied on the US Embassy's air quality Twitter feed that showed what we thought was a more accurate view of what we were seeing outside; Chinese official reports measured the larger PM10 particles and would say we were having only minor air pollution even when we couldn't see outside.

The report from China Daily acknowledges the dangers of PM2.5 and how the government is responding to "public criticism". They describe the effort as similar to what other cities in China have been doing and that the government is already taking action to clean up Beijing air. There is no mention of the US Embassy's Twitter feed. There is also a story (higher on the front page) describing how Beijing's PM 2.5 count is down. The story paints a picture of the government taking action and listening to the people. "Beijing to release PM 2.5 data".

The similar story from the New York Times described the actions as a response to "public outcry", "public's anger", and bloggers who "sharply criticized" the government. NYT puts a lot more emphasis on the effect of the US Embassy Twitter feed as well as mentioning how Twitter is blocked in China, and talks about the Chinese complained about the feed as "confusing" and "insulting". This story leaves the reader thinking the people are mad at the government and that the gov't needs outside pressure to change. "China to Release More Data on Air Pollution in Beijing".

Again, both of these stories seem factually correct, and perhaps the "right" interpretation is somewhere in the middle. You'll never know unless you read multiple news sources.

Get Fresher Eggs: Reading Egg Cartons

To find the freshest eggs at the supermarket, you can decode the numbers on the carton. The number we’re looking for is the three digit number (circled in red below). This is the ordinal date (the day of the year) the eggs were packaged (so 1 is January 1, 2 is January 2, etc.) Assuming the eggs were all handled the same way, I think you can assume that eggs packaged more recently are fresher.

Egg carton codes

Interestingly, the “use by” by date (the month/day indicated on the carton) seems less reliable. These two cartons in my refrigerator have the same packing date yet the “use by” dates are more than a week apart. In my local grocery store, I’ve seen packaging dates more than three weeks apart on the shelf. While the eggs are probably all safe to eat, I’m confident there’s a big drop in quality between these eggs. (I look for how thick/runny the whites are.)

In case you’re curious, the Pxxxx number is the plant where the eggs were packed.

Michael’s Snowman Army

  • Published Date:
  • by
  • Category:

Most kids like making and decorating Christmas cookies. Michael (11) decided he would create an army of snowman cookies instead.

As he was stamping them out, he kept calling, “Rise my minions!”

Once they were baked, he decorated them in red sugar and dubbed them his “Red Snow Corps”. He seems innocent enough in the photo below, but it’s like having our own little Calvin.

Michael decorating his snowman cookie army.

Best Sandwich Ever: Katsu Burger

Michelle and I went with our friend Meng to Katsu Burger this week. Like it’s name implies, this little restaurant in the south part of Seattle (Georgetown) serves a unique katsu sandwich on hamburger buns. If you’re not familiar, katsu is a Japanese dish: pork cutlets in panko coating, deep fried.

They have a bunch of different sandwiches including beef burgers and chicken burgers; they even have a ridiculous “Mt. Fuji” burger with a katsu patty, a beef patty, a chicken breast, ham, bacon, and three types of cheese. I passed on that heart-attack-in-a-bun and had a spicy curry katsu burger. Meng had a katsu burger with bacon (my next trip...) We added fries (mine with curry powder, Michelle’s with nori) and a green tea milkshake.


It was really an insanely great meal. I’ve had katsu in famous places across Tokyo, but the katsu at Katsu Burger is among the best I’ve ever had. The burger was crazy good as was the shake. The fries were decent too (they could have been crispier to my liking.)

We waited a while for our burgers (definitely worth the wait), and it looked like you could wind up waiting for a table too. The only real bummer is that Katsu Burger is only open on weekdays.

6538 Fourth Ave. S., Seattle

[Update 12/23/2011: We went back today and learned that after the New Year (2012) they will be open Saturdays 11-4!! Wahoo! Also, I learned their panko coated, deep fried hamburgers are silly good too.]

WTF Michael

  • Published Date:
  • by
  • Category:

The kids have recently discovered that Michelle's car audio system will read text messages out loud. As you might guess, this has become a source of some amusement.

Andrew (14) has contented himself to making the car say funny things like "blarg" or having it repeat the prompts, but with errors, so it sounds like the car has a problem.

Michael (11), as usual, is more devious. When he sent "LOL" to the car, it said the expanded version "laughing out loud". Without missing a beat, he sent "WTF".

Fortunately, the engineers at Volkswagen had the foresight to handle this case gracefully...

Halloween 2011

  • Published Date:
  • by
  • Category:

The boys chose their own Halloween costumes this year. I thought their choices were pretty good illustrations of their differences. Andrew (14) chose to be a Dalton Academy Warbler from the TV show Glee. (This is a singing group from an all-boys' school.) Michael (11) chose to be an elite soldier from some unspecified armed service. Both were very pleased with their costumes.


Incidentally, Michelle made Andrew's jacket (and one for me...). I thought it turned out really well, better than other jackets I've seen on the net. I found the Dalton Academy patch on Etsy (I've also seen people selling them on eBay). The red piping was seam tape ironed on with heat activated tape (I can't remember what you call it, but you can find it in fabric stores.)

The Intergalactic Nemesis

NemesisPoster5webLast weekend, Andrew (14) and I (much older than 14) bought tickets for The Intergalactic Nemesis, self-described as a "live-action graphic novel". It turned out to be a super-fun performance combining a 1930's-style comic book projected onto a large screen with a old-style radio show performed live in front of the screen by three actors, a Foley (sound effects) artist, and a keyboard player. The evening was even nicer since they performed in the Neptune Theater, an lovely old theater near the University of Washington (Andrew was at least as impressed by the Neptune as the show).

The story was fine and the comic book art OK, but the live performance was really the show for me. The three actors did all of the many voices and were physically into it as well; it was super fun just watching them. The Foley artist was really fun to watch too, just seeing how he created all of the sounds from different things, some purpose-built (like a mini-door and frame for open/close door sounds) and some just ordinary things (like a locomotive engine sound made by shaking a box of macaroni and cheese).

This Austin-based group is touring the country. Unfortunately, they only had one night in Seattle (their first stop), but if you're in Fort Worth, Lawrence, Madison, Chicago, Minneapolis, or one of the other cities they're playing, I really recommend going to see them.

(Interestingly, the "book 2" of the project is a Kickstarter project.)

Video sample of their performance
My bad cameraphone shot of the performance

Andrew taking the mike after the show