Monday, August 11, 2014

The Blessing of the Combines

This is sort of a late post, for which I apologize in advance.

    Last week was the Blessing of the Combines ceremony in Snow Hill, Maryland. Basically what happens is all of the combines from the area are driven into town, where they are blessed to ensure a good harvest. A one day festival of activities is built around this, with the entire town getting involved.
"The Town Together" Sony A99, 85mm, 1/400, F/5.6, ISO 200

    Naturally, I took this to be an awesome chance for me to play around with street/event photography. I do have some experience with this, as I got to explore the streets of NYC on several awesome occasions, as well as my work documenting battalion life/events at while at the Academy. While plotting things out in advance, I decided that I wanted to travel light, so I brought only a single body and lens: The Sony A99 and Minolta 28-85 F/3.5-4.5. As I've mentioned before, I have sort of a love/hate relationship with this lens. I really think it is just too heavy of a lens, considering how soft and slow it is. I can't wait until I can afford the 24-70 Zeiss, which is supposed to be the best mid-range zoom in its class.

    The event kicked off at about 11:30, and I positioned myself at the main intersection of town. Down the road, I could see the parade heading towards us. Crossing the draw-bridge, they came into range of my camera, where I was able to score a number of good shots.
"American LaFrance Fire Truck" Sony A99, 85mm, 1/800, F/4.5, ISO 200

"Little Tractors" Sony A99, 85mm, 1/640, F/4.5, ISO 200

"Ford Tractor" Sony A99, 85mm, 1/500, F/4.5, ISO 200

    Finally, after many smaller pieces of farm equipment trundled through, the distinct roar of the combines could be heard. A column of them followed the parade in alternating models of red and green. Even without the wide harvesting implement on the front, they barely squeezed through the small streets.
"Case Combine" Sony A99, 30mm, 1/500, F/4.5, ISO 200

    Once all the combines were in position on a side street, people began to head for the festival stage, where the National Anthem was about to be sung. I tried to cut through the crowd, but was unsuccessful.

"Man in the Crowd" Sony A99, 85mm, 1/500, F/4.5. ISO 200

    When I finally did arrive at the stage, a man announced the day's schedule, and I took a snap or two. There appeared to be many photographers at the event. I saw plenty of garden-variety T2i's, as well as the odd 60d and even a 7D, which seems to be the preferred semi-professional camera of choice here. As far as I could tell, I was the only full-frame shooter there. I saw a couple of Nikon D3200s, but overall, the cameras were decidedly in favor of Canon. To my great surprise, I actually saw a Sony A700, which thrilled me to death, as I had not ever seen another Sony SLR/SLT in the wild.
    The weather was warm and fairly overcast, which made for some good street portraits. As I weaved down through the town, I saw this guy standing around:
"Portrait of a Man and Dog" Sony A99, 85mm, 1/800, F/5.6, ISO 400
    Because of lessons learned with low shutter speed, I ramped up my ISO so that I could get a fast enough shutter speed to get crisp results. I think the result was quite pleasing.

    The Blessing of the Combines is sort of a county fair flash-mob. the whole thing is set up, visited, and removed in one day, but includes all the accoutrements of a fair. Food stalls, games, a petting zoo; it's all here.
"Horsey" Sony A99 85mm, 1/640, F/5.6, ISO 400

"The Petting Zoo Prisoner" Sony A99, 85mm, 1/320, F/5.6, ISO 800

"Peeps!" Sony A99, 85mm, 1/400, F/5.6, ISO 1600
"Good Food" Sony A99, 50mm, 1/1250, F/4, ISO 200


    Overall, I think the event was very fun, and I hope to go again next year if I'm not at the Naval Academy. I think that the A99 proved itself as a great street shooter, and that Minolta lens proved surprisingly sharp at the long end. At F/5.6 it was awesome. Well everyone, that was the Blessing of the Combines in 11 photos. Thanks for reading!

These pictures and many others can be found at the author's Flickr page, here.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Portrait Day Out

   Last week I had the opportunity to catch up with my friend Kristen, who I haven't seen in almost a year. We were looking for something to do, when I suggested we take some portraits by the river. She readily agreed, and so we headed over to the park.
"The Royal Port" Sony A99  28mm, f/9, 1/125, ISO 100
   This was my first time doing non-candid portraiture, as well as my first time out with the A99, so I had my work cut out for me when it came to light-sensitivity and depth of field! I set up my gear at the edge of the park, and we headed over to the docks. As we walked, I surveyed the scene and decided that I wanted to use the shallow depth of field of my 50mm f/1.7.

"Kristen and Barney" Sony A99  50mm, f/2.8, 1/640, ISO 400

  Kristen had brought her dog Barney, and so we decided to incorporate him into our photographs. He was very energetic, and so I need to boost my ISO so that I could get the shutter speed that I needed to freeze his motion. As we sat at the dock, we talked. During our conversation, Barney settled down and I was able to capture the following photo of the pair:

"Dog and Owner" Sony A99 50mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO 400

Observing that the light was fading fast, we decided to move across the park towards the historic downtown. As we walked, we passed a planted section of the park full of flowers. Once again, the magic of the 50mm was needed to turn the bright colors of the flowers into a bokeh wonderland. I think my focus must have been slightly in the wrong spot due to the sharpness of her sleeves, but a lovely photo nonetheless.

"Kristen" Sony A99, 50mm, f/1.7, 1/250, ISO 50

Not wanting to miss out on the fun, Barney jumped right in:

"Barney the Wonderdog" Sony A99, 50mm, f/1.7, 1/800, ISO 200

Working our way into town, we passed a backstreet with a crumbling brick wall. Kristen told me she wanted a photo in front of it, and I obliged.

"Kristen at the Wall" Sony A99, 50mm, f/3.5, 1/800, ISO 400

Still wanting to try out my new 28-85mm lens, I reattached it to the camera and we headed further into town. Passing a bank, I noticed a very interesting night deposit box. I decided that that would also be a good place for a photograph. The light was rapidly fading, and I was forced to boost my ISO to 1600. On an APS-C camera like my A57, this would have introduced much unpleasant grain. Luckily the A99's FF sensor took it like an absolute champ:

"The Night Depository" Sony A99, 40mm, f/6.3, 1/400, ISO 1600

Since it was getting dark, we decided to head back to the car. as we passed the bridge, I saw an opportunity for one final photo. Switching to my 70-210 lens, I directed her to look down the river at the setting sun. I opened up the aperture as wide as I could to separate her from the distraction of the trees behind her. The final image came out quite nicely.

"Kristen on the Bridge" Sony A99, 150mm, f/4, 1/800, ISO 800

 Overall, I think the trip was a great success. We both had a marvelous time, and Kristen and Barney seem pleased with their portraits. If you would like to see the full sized images, head on over to my Flickr.  Zach's Flickr

My Gear

       Since I'm always curious as to what other photographers use to make their photos, I figured I should show you a list of what I use to take my photos. Depending on how soon I get all my planned content posted, I may end up doing a review on the more complicated pieces I use.


   Sony A57

Sony A57 with 50mm 1.7
   The Sony A57 was my first ever DSLR camera. That first sentence is a little misleading however, because it is actually an SLT (Single Lens Translucent). Rather than the flipping mirror of a DSLR, it uses a semi-transparent fixed mirror. This lends it certain advantages and disadvantages that will be discussed in a later post. I'll be honest though. I had no idea what it was when I bought it. I originally planned on getting a Nikon D3200, but this one was on sale, so I got it instead. I'm glad I did though. It's a 16mp APS-C camera that uses Sony's A-Mount lens ecosystem. This is fortunate, because it is identical to Minolta's A-Mount (Sony bought Minolta). Since Minolta's lenses are all Full Frame, it made my life much easier when I upgraded.

   Sony A99

The Beast: Sony A99
    I only just made the jump to Full Frame recently, and I have to say that I love it. When I first was looking to upgrade, I had pretty much settled on the A77. I was happy with APS-C format, and what I was really after was a weather-sealed body with more manual controls. To my fortune, I found a gently used A99 body  that was only a little more than the A77/16-50 lens kit. It is Full Frame, with a gorgeous 24mp sensor, and build quality-wise is a total stud. It is the Sony equivalent of the 5D MKiii and the Nikon D800 (I secretly like the D800 more, but this thing throttles the 5D) The image quality and depth of field is phenomenal. I'm using all Minolta glass right now, but I hope to get Zeiss eventually. So far, I've found the camera to be excellent for portraits.


    Sony 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 Zoom

    This is the lens that came with the A57, and what can I say? It's not terrible. I mean, it isn't the be all, end all of lenses, but it does its job modestly and efficiently. Not a whole lot to say really.

    Minolta 50mm 1.7 Prime AKA "Nifty Fifty"

   This is a super-cheap lens that I got used for about 45 dollars. It remains my only really "fast" piece of glass, and I love it to death. It has the famous Minolta colors, and soft, creamy bokeh. I feel that my copy is a little soft, though. (That bit you see on the end of it is a 49 to 55mm step-up ring, so I can use all my normal filters.)

    Minolta 28-85mm 3.5-4.5

   This lens might qualify as one of the heaviest objects on earth. it nearly doubles the weight of the camera, which is slightly insane, given that it is only twice the size of the 50mm. I have sort of a love/hate relationship with this lens. It has a useful range (I use it for all of my macro work), but I wish it was faster. Oh, and DAMN is it heavy!!!

   Minolta 70-210mm f/4 "The Beercan"

   Sorry I don't have a studio picture of the lens, I'll try and get one. You can see in the above picture that I have a tulip-hood mounted on it, but I've since replaced it with the proper factory hood. This is a heavy lens, and fulfills my need at the telephoto end. It is a proper telephoto, with an internal zoom and a constant f/4 aperture at the wide end. it's quite sharp through the entire range, and the only thing I really miss with it is a tripod mounting collar, which would make much more sense than using the camera's tripod mount.

Odds and Ends

   Metz 44 AF-1 Speedlight

    This is my only speedlight, and it is pretty darn good. Full TTL, as well as the ability to trigger/be triggered by other flashes. The UI is insanely simple, which can lead to some confusion when the flash is set to manual mode. When deciding between this and the Sony, this was reviewed as being much more reliable.

   Eye-Fi 8gb SD Card

   When paired with the Kindle Fire HD, this card allows me to use my tablet as a larger screen to view my work in the field, this is priceless, as it allows me to check critical focus.

Cowboy Studio Flash Trigger

   I ordered these when I got my flash. They're cheap and highly effective. I love them to death.

Ultra-Pod and Variable Neutral Density Filter

     For all those times that I can't be bothered to bring a tripod, this Ultra-Pod always finds a place in my backpack. It supports about 7 pounds, which will suit the A99 with a 50mm just fine. The VND filter also generally accompanies me on my adventures. I used it to take the photo below:

Long exposure captured with A57 using the Ultra-Pod and VND filter.


   Well, that's the bulk of my shooting equipment. If you'd like to see how they perform, check out my Flicker page:   Zach's Flickr

An Introduction of Sorts

     Welcome to my blog!

      Hi! To sort of give you a bit of perspective as to what you should expect on this blog, I'd like to tell you a bit about myself. My name is Zachary Shenal, and I am currently living in Maryland. In my 19 years of existence I have gotten to do some stuff that is a little bit different than your average teenager with a blog. I have been out to sea on an Aircraft Carrier, worked for NASA, I have competed nationally in JROTC marksmanship a competition, and served in the US Army while attending the United States Military Academy Preparatory School at West Point, which is where I developed my passion for photography.

      The intent of the blog is twofold: To help track my development as a photographer, as well as to show how I work and explain things so that others can have an easier time figuring this stuff out than I did. I plan to post as regularly as possible, so check in regularly!
The Author's first day at West Point. (image borrowed from USMAPS)

     I hope you enjoy yourselves!