Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Phebruary Begins Tomorrow

Tomorrow we begin down the 28 days of #phebruary.

Let's answer some Frequently Asked Questions*.

Are you unsure whether you should participate? 
You should. Even if you can only do it once a week (4 times total).

Don't do photography? 
That's cool. You can participate with whatever art form you like. If you draw, draw. If you do interpretive dance, dance. If you do mathematics on an overhead projector, do math on an overhead projector.

Does the piece have to be 'finished' quality? 
Nope. The idea is to share what you've got.

Do I have to take the picture/do the piece on that day?
No. You could conceivably go out tonight, shoot 28 photos, and post them over the course of the month. The idea is to share something that you haven't shown people before. Let's face it, we all have lives outside our art, and requiring you to make a new piece every day might prevent you from participating at all.

Do I have to do something for every single day?
Nope. I will say this, though -- challenge yourself to a schedule, and keep to it. Make it something that will challenge you as an artist. Whether that's once a week, Mondays & Fridays, or something else.

How can I help if I don't want to participate as an artist?
The best way to help is to look out for people who are participating by following the #phebruary hashtag, and by retweeting things. I don't have a huge number of followers, and this blog isn't that widely circulated, so your help in circulating the pieces made by people participating helps immensely.

Why are you doing this?
One of my goals with this blog is to encourage people to find ways to express themselves creatively. Mainly it's through photography, since that's my medium, but any format you want is great. Too often there are people standing at the gates of 'fine art' picking and choosing who can create, and deciding what's 'worthy'. That's absolute nonsense.

It can take a big leap of courage to share something you created. And there will always be people who try to knock you down, but I firmly believe that there are as many people who want to see you succeed.

Can I participate without having a Twitter?
Yes, but I may miss seeing your work. If you want to, you can send me your entries to suggestions AT thebecwar DOT net, and I'll do what I can to spread them around. If you don't want me to share them with anyone else, just let me know.

What were the topics again?

Do you have any final thoughts?
Give it a go. I hope to see some of you going along with me through the month. If I miss your piece, feel free to DM me so I can RT you.

* Actual frequency of question asking may vary.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Phebruary Inspirations

As I promised last week, today we're going to look at some more examples of possible Phebruary photos. If you aren't sure about one of the prompts, feel free to ask. We're all learning together, and there's no shame in asking for clarification. With that said, let's look at some examples.

This rather stately looking gull, could fill in for the prompts: Living (9th), Monochromatic (11th), or Below (27th).

This tree in front of a river could be used for the prompts: Dead (11th), High Contrast (3rd), or Black and White (17th).

This abandoned house could be a submission for High Contrast (3rd), Black and White (17th), Old (17th) or Dirty (24th).

Hopefully you'll participate along with me starting this Thursday! Here's a shareable graphic with all of the prompts for the challenge.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Camera Types

Fair Warning: This one might be a bit basic for some of you, but at some point we need to address it to try to bring everyone up to the same level. If you're in that category, here's a picture so that clicking the link wasn't a complete waste of time. :D

What are the different types of cameras? (For this, we're going to ignore movie/video cameras.)


We'll start with the kind of camera most of you won't really have any experience with, and are unlikely to ever see, let alone use. These are cameras designed to be embedded into other devices, or those cameras sold for scientific research. They tend to be very basic, and are generally little more than a CCD/CMOS sensor and the electronics required to run it. They usually also have some sort of mounting arrangement so that they can be attached to scientific apparatus. (For an example of this type of camera, check out this page at Thor Labs.)

Cell Phone/Integrated

This is the kind of camera that people are most likely to own. They are in cell phones and integrated webcams. With these it's important to remember that the camera is designed for form, rather than function. The camera has a very limited amount of space to fill, so these tend to have the smallest detectors. From a design perspective, the lenses tend to be pretty limited, and are usually made of plastic.  Importantly, for this type of camera, the quality is incredibly variable. Some cameras are pretty good, some are ok, and some are downright terrible. The only way to know is to try it.


A typical digital point-and-shoot.
Picture Credit: Fir0002 (CC BY-NC 3.0)
This is our first consumer-level standalone camera. They come in a variety of quality levels, from ones designed to be the kind of rugged thing you can give a toddler, all the way to very expensive cameras. A couple things to note about point-and-shoot cameras:

  • They are designed to be easy to use, and reasonably compact.
  • Most have some kind of zoom, whether digital or optical.
  • The lens elements are usually made of glass, and are typically coated to reduce unwanted glare
  • More expensive models give you more control over the exposure. Some let you adjust parameters like shutter speed, and aperture.
  • Lenses are not interchangeable. 
Generally, framing pictures with these is done one of two ways. First there's a viewfinder. On this style of camera the viewfinder doesn't look down the lens. Since it's slightly offset, the picture that you take will not exactly match what you see in the final picture. The other way that you can frame the picture is by using the display on the back of the camera. This has the advantage of being a through-the-lens view, which eliminates the offset error from the viewfinder.

Single Lens Reflex (SLR)

Nikon DSLR body, without lens.
Picture Credit: Bengt Nyman (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Single Lens Reflex (SLR) solves the viewfinder problem that we talked about in the point-and-shoot section above by using a mirror that allows you to look down the lens. This type of camera is probably worthy of its own post, so I'll keep this relatively brief. 
  • These range from consumer to professional grade. Basically, you can spend as much as you want. 
  • They are also the first that take interchangeable lenses.
  • Most of these have a sensor size that is similar to 35mm film, but there are also APS and full frame sensors. The thing to know here is that the lens has to match the mount and the detector size.

Mirrorless cameras are pretty much the same as SLR cameras in operation, but instead of a mirror, the viewfinder is a display screen. The main advantage of this design is that there are essentially no moving parts in the body, so there's not really anything to break. There are two main disadvantages. First, since the viewfinder is not an optical system, the resolution is somewhat limited. Second, when the lens is removed, there is no shutter and mirror protecting the sensor.

Medium/Large Format

Medium and Large format cameras use physically larger sensors. (In film days these used larger film.) The cameras come in a variety of shapes and designs. The advantage of a medium or large format camera is that the sensor, being bigger, can have a ton more pixels. (B&H sells medium format cameras up to 100 Megapixel.)

So is that it?

There's more, but this is already pushing on the boundary of 1000 words, and I think there's enough information for now. We'll go into some more details in the future.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Phebruary Challenge (Phixed?)

The Birb Is The Worb.

As promised, I reworked the list of prompts for the Phebruary Challenge. (Check the link for details about how to participate.)

The list of prompts is still a two-column list. For each day pick a prompt from either column to inspire that day's creation. The left column, much like the original list, is a theme to use in your composition. The right column is a little bit of a departure. Each item is based on an artistic principle. (Line, shape, value, viewpoint, etc.) This should allow you more flexibility, and hopefully we can learn some art fundamentals together.

I said it at the link above, but it bears repeating -- Anyone can participate, using whatever medium they have available. If you want to participate by drawing, painting, writing, music, interpretive dance, choral reading or semaphore, you are entirely welcome to participate along with us.

Day Theme Principle (Artistic Element)
1 Industrial Centering (Arrangement)
2 Architecture Landscape (Orientation)
3 Found Object High Contrast (Value)
4 Out of Place Rough (Texture)
5 Hidden Colorful (Color)
6 Time Negative Space (Space)
7 Transportation Symmetry (Arrangement)
8 Abstract Curved (Line)
9 Living Smooth (Texture)
10 Symbol Portrait (Orientation)
11 Dead Monochromatic (Color)
12 Weather Eye-Level (Viewpoint)
13 Close Up Thirds (Arrangement)
14 Far Away Dark (Illumination)
15 New Asymmetry (Arrangement)
16 Relaxed Straight (Line)
17 Old Black and White (Color)
18 Weird Threes (Arrangement)
19 Culture Positive Space (Space)
20 Rural Geometric (Shape)
21 Travel Round (Shape)
22 Clean Above (Viewpoint)
23 Games Flat (Shape)
24 Dirty Organic (Shape)
25 Sunrise/set Low Contrast (Value)
26 Fast-Paced Shadows (Illumination)
27 Urban Below (Viewpoint)
28 Wilderness Bright (Illumination)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Photography Wednesday: Signs Part II

For today's quick photography Wednesday, let's look at three different ways to compose a shot of a sign. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but might give you some ideas to try (or completely avoid) during your next photography adventure.

First up, the low-angle shot with foreground and background clutter. The depth of field is such that the only part of the image that's actually in focus is the plane of the sign. (Plane as in the mathematical concept, not as in the big pretty white planes with red stripes, curtains in the window and wheels, that look like a big Tylenols.)

The eye level approach.

The perspective shot. The angle here gives us a single point perspective that helps to make the sign look as if it's receding into the distance. (Which, in truth, it is)

Like I said above, this is only a couple of ideas for framing pictures of signs. There are lots more ways that we can handle this.

Also, I promise, this will be the last sign-related entry for a while. I realized after picking the photos I wanted to use that I did signs already a couple weeks back.

Just one more thing...

The last note for today is that the Phebruary challenge prompts list is almost complete, I should have a supplemental post today or tomorrow announcing the final list.

Monday, January 22, 2018

10 Days Till Phebruary

First off, if you missed last week's announcement, or would like to refresh your memory, check it out before going on. This entry may or may not make much sense otherwise. You can go ahead and read it now if you like. We'll wait for you to get back.


Welcome back. Partly to get everyone's creativity flowing, and partly to help explain the challenge, this Monday, and next Monday I'll be posting a couple examples of photographs I may have picked for the challenge if I didn't take them more than a year ago. Today will be relatively literal interpretations, next week we'll get a bit more metaphorical. Without further ado, let's get on with it.

On the 7th, you might respond to the challenge "old-fashioned" with a picture like this:

On the 21st, this could be an answer to the prompt "huge": (As in, the sky is literally huge.)

You could, on the 3rd, use a photo like this to respond to the "big" prompt:

Finally, as far as examples for today, you could use a picture like this for the prompt "noisy", and cross the 16th off your list.

Hopefully these examples clear up some of the questions you might have about the challenge. Next week, we'll look at some less literal interpretations of the prompts. (There will be posts Wednesday and Friday, but I'm not quite sure what they are going to be yet, so I can't tease them here. :D)

Friday, January 19, 2018


Most of you, by now, have probably heard about Inktober, the month long foray into all things inky. If you aren’t familiar, the challenge consists of a one-word prompt for each day of the challenge. The idea is to take each day’s prompt and create a new piece of art using ink.

So let’s do it for photography.

Below you’ll find a list of prompts for the month. Each day, take a photograph using one of the two prompts for that day, and tweet it out with the hashtag #phebruary, along with the prompt that you used.

Some ‘rules’:

  1. This is meant to be fun. Support each other and be nice.
  2. You don’t necessarily have to participate every single day. I get it, life gets in the way sometimes, and there’s only a certain amount of time that you can devote to hobbies. That said, if you want to get into photography, or you want to improve, challenge yourself to pick and stick to a schedule, whether that’s every day, every other day, once a week, or something else.
  3. I will be doing the challenge daily, and posting my submissions to my blog in addition to Twitter. At the end of the month, if anyone takes up the challenge, I’ll be collecting some highlights, and sharing them on the blog. (I will always contact you for permission before I use one of your pieces, and I will never give you grief for saying no.) If no one takes up the challenge, it will be a retrospective about the challenge.
  4. This isn’t school, so there is no such thing as a wrong answer. Use the prompt to inspire you. If you are inspired by both prompts for a day, do both.
  5. Feel free to watermark your images.
  6. Not a photographer, but still want to create along with us? You are 100% welcome to use these prompts for art in whatever medium you care to use.

The Prompts:

EDIT FROM THE FUTURE!!!! (Jan. 22) - So I screwed up when generating the list of prompts, and a couple of duplicates snuck through into the pool that got fed into the randomizer. I'm currently in the process of fixing my mistake, and will have the repaired list posted before this weekend. Hopefully with some twitter-friendly sharable graphics! -tB

I hope to see some of you participating along with me. If the whole thing is as clear as mud, I'll be posting a couple examples next week.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Photography Wednesday: Feeling Squirrely

Last weekend at Wadsworth Falls, one of my favorite CT state parks, conditions were perfect for squirrel shooting.

Before you run in disgust, I mean with a camera. :)

The weather was warm enough for the squirrels to be out and about, but still cool enough that they weren't really in the mood to run away. (And it was warm enough that I didn't have to wear 15 coats!)

Squirrels have been among my most difficult subjects so far. Mainly that's because, by the time I get close enough, and get the camera set up for the image I want, the squirrel got bored and left.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Mediocre Monday: Over Under

Today, for mediocre Monday, I'm going to look at some failures at managing the available light.

Way under exposed. You can barely tell tell that it's a church back there.

White balance problems. The sky is light enough, and the road dark enough that neither is really that well exposed.

Under exposed. You can barely see the details, and the sky is too dark.

I thought this one would be cool. A gravel road in the woods illuminated by headlights. Unfortunately, the lighting just flattens out the trees, and the headlights faded too fast to get the trees in the distance. (I haven't given up on this one yet. I will be attempting this again.)

A misty morning, and a short exposure conspired to make this one a failure.

Hopefully this serves as your friendly weekly reminder that a lot of photography is just persistence. Trying something repeatedly until it finally works. Sometimes that means that you miss the shot you really wanted. Other times the stars and planets align, and a shot that shouldn't have worked turns out better than you could have hoped.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Truth About Equipment

Wheels by Mark Becwar on

This is going to be a bit of a rambling post today.

Before I start down the path towards equipment, let's make it clear -- what you use is at most 10% of the final result. The hard work in creating a good photograph is developing your eye. Learning about composition, and developing your abilities can be done with anything, even a piece of paper with a photograph sized hole in it. An expensive camera cannot save a bad composition.

That said, equipment does play a role in the quality of the final result. As you can see from my first cheap camera challenge the result from my garbage cell phone camera, even after post processing and tweaking the image, is not as good as the one from my good camera. (Its close, but it wasn't entirely successful.)

Here's a quick list of things to think about when you are trying to decide what type of camera you want to use. In the future we'll look at different types of cameras and accessories.


If you're taking pictures for yourself, or to share with your family and friends on Twit-face-snap-gram then you don't need anything fancy. A relatively cheap point-and-shoot or cell phone camera would work well. If you want to have a gallery art show, then you probably do need some better quality equipment.


The cost is going to be the primary concern for many people. I'd love one of Canon's $12,000 telephoto lenses, but I'd also like to eat sometime in the next few years. It's important to balance cost with features. Look for used or refurbished gear, and package deals to make your dollar go further.


Before you decide on a camera, look at the accessories that are available for it. Even if you aren't looking to buy any add-ons now, check to see what's available so that you are informed and get a platform that will work for you for a long time.

If it's a SLR, what lenses are available? Does the manufacturer use the same mount they used 10 years ago, or do they change it every couple of years? (Advice: If they change every couple of years, don't buy it. You'll end up having to replace the camera body and all of your lenses if there's ever a problem with your camera.)

Destination Size

If you want to use your pictures on a website, the size of the image is less of a concern. If you want to make prints, what size prints do you want to make? In general, more megapixels equals more cost. For more info about image/print size, see the article I wrote about DPI.


Where do you want to take pictures? Are taking pictures indoors at family events, or are you hiking out into the middle of a swamp during a rainstorm?


Read reviews. Talk to people who own similar models. Talk to someone at your friendly neighborhood camera store. A $100 camera that needs to be replaced every year ends up costing the same as a $1000 camera that lasts 10 years.


All of that said, don't let a lack of equipment get in the way of making this your hobby. But also remember that a room full of equipment that you never use is a wasted investment.

About the picture: Canadian Pacific Railroad locomotive at the yard in Milwaukee, WI. Taken 11/20/2017. Modified from the original in Lightroom.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Photography Wednesday: Signs

Sign by Mark Becwar on

Road signs can make an interesting topic for photography. It's something that people see every day, but rarely pay that much attention to. The patterns on them are bold. There's also smaller detail textures that come as the sign ages, like rust streaks from the bolts that hold it to it's post, and cracks in the paint. Shot in black and white the contrast and patterns help to add visual interest.

Signs can also be challenging. They are usually retro-reflective which means that it's easy for them to be much brighter than their surroundings. Additionally, being placed on the side of the road means that you can't always safely get the angle that you want.

Old Guy Note: If you do decide to compose a shot using a road sign, be safe. If you can, have someone with you who's able to keep an eye out for traffic so that you aren't hit by a car. There's no photo worth dying for.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Cheap Camera Challenge: Point, Shoot, Pray

Welcome back to another cheap camera challenge! For those just joining us, the idea is to take a picture with my good camera, and then try to replicate it with a cheap camera. Hopefully, in the process, showing that you shouldn't use a lack of expensive equipment as an excuse to not pursue your art.

Today's target photo for reproduction:

This is of some line tensioning equipment on the electrified tracks near Branford, CT's train station. The picture was taken late in the day, with my trusty Canon EOS 5D Mk III, through my equally trusty 100-400 mm telephoto lens. Post processing was simply removing the lens error and vignetting.

On to the cheap camera!

This time, I'm using a 12 year old Olympus point and shoot digital camera. The current price on eBay is around 35 bucks, but it's 10 years old, and has been used and abused, so at a yard sale you'd probably be able to get your hands on something similar for about 5. So let's look at the raw shot.

The framing is a little different, mostly to avoid resolution loss through digital zoom. There's also a smudge on the lens or a dark spot on the sensor that we'll have to deal with as well. (Top wire, towards the left-hand third of the image.)

So, I fired up the GIMP (free tools only, we're on a budget!) and tweaked the brightness and contrast. I then used the dodge/burn tool with a very low opacity brush to lighten the smudge. That produced this as the final result:

I think I'm going to declare this one a success.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Dots Per Inch and Other Assorted Fairy Tales

Red Line by Mark Becwar on

Back in the day, when I used to shoot film, I knew exactly what size my photos were. I shot 35 mm film, so my exposures were all that size. There was no doubt about the image size. With digital we're left with a question.

What size is a digital photo?

First let's consider the detector in our digital camera. This detector is a certain number of pixels wide by a certain number of pixels tall. In my camera that is 5760 pixels wide by 3840 pixels tall. Cool. That's the answer, right?

Not so quick.

How big is a pixel?

Enter dots per inch (DPI) -- a measure of how many pixels we're displaying/printing per inch*. Like with everything else in photography, there's a tradeoff here. Higher DPIs make for crisper, better looking images, but that comes at the price of final image size. High quality prints that you might show in a gallery, or sell as art are typically around 300 DPI.

Doing the math for my camera, that means that the largest image I can produce at 300 DPI is 19.2 x 12.8 inches. (Divide the number of pixels by the DPI to get the size.) If I accept a lower output quality of 150 DPI, the result is 38.4 x 25.6 inches.

I won't give any hard-and-fast rules here. It's a matter of personal preference, and something that you need to decide on your own. Most galleries and competitions want image submissions at 300 DPI.

A Quick Rant to Finish

A lot of competitions and galleries specify in their submission requirements that the digital file should be 300 DPI. This is nonsensical. While some file formats do have the ability to store a DPI for calculation of the 'native' image size, it is generally optional. What matters is the actual resolution (in pixels) of the image. When you open the file on a computer monitor, it isn't being displayed at the 300 DPI suggested by the file, it's being shown at the DPI of the monitor, which may be as low as 72 DPI. When you print the image, you select what size you want. If you want images that you can print at 300 DPI and have a minimum size, then do the conversion, and post the requirement in pixels. (If you want an image to be a minimum of 10 x 10 inches at 300 DPI, then just make the requirement that the image must be at least 3000 x 3000 pixels.

About the image:
The photo is of a Los Angeles Red Line subway car, shortly after delivery to the north side of Milwaukee, WI, for rebuilding by Talgo. Taken by yours truly at a press event on 14 July 2017.

* Technically PPI and DPI are different. This is an intro, so I'm simplifying things a bit to make it easier to understand. The two are, for our purposes today, identical.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Photography Wednesday: Ghost Railroad

Most of the time, when going out to take pictures, you don't really know what you're going to get. (Yes, Forrest, it's like a box of chocolates.) Sometimes you go out with an idea of the photo you want, but that doesn't always work for reasons you can't control.  Other times, you go out and get a picture that you didn't expect. The great Bob Ross may have called that a happy accident, and I definitely will call it that. Occasionally, you also decide to experiment a bit with the results, to produce something that you can be proud of. Today, I present the result of just such a happy accident and an experiment.

Ghost Railroad by Mark Becwar on

This picture was taken of a northbound Canadian National freight train at Duplainville in Wisconsin, while I was there on vacation. The accident is the logo on that freight car. I really like the logo that the railroad used for many decades. The Chicago and North Western railroad went out of business in the 90s, but railroads, being frugal beasts who throw nothing away, often continue to use cars from their predecessor roads. It was just random chance that the train passing by me happened to have this car. A happy accident.

The experiment was in the way I processed the photo. Rather than going completely black and white, I slightly increased the saturation on the red of the logo, and dropped the saturation of all of the other colors in the image. This makes the logo really pop out from the background, and draws the eye in.

As is my custom, here's the original unmodified photo for comparison:

I think it is a neat effect, but I'll leave it to you to decide how successful it was.

As a weekly reminder I'd love to feature other artists here. If you have something you'd like to share on a future photography Wednesday, get in touch.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Mediocre Monday: Well that didn't work

Today for Mediocre Monday, a couple of pictures that didn't work out. Let's look at them with a critical eye. (Since they are photos I took I won't worry about being constructive in my criticisms.)

Neither of these exposures is really satisfying. The first one is composed better, but that doesn't really help. What's wrong with these? Here's a quick list of 5 things that make these two unsuccessful.

  1. The right side of the photograph is too dark to show any features which might bring visual interest, but too bright to serve as an empty space.
  2. The trees on the left side of the image sparkle a bit in the light, but don't really stand out.
  3. The light pole isn't really distinct enough to stand as a feature, and due to the lighting, only half of it is visible.
  4. The lens flare doesn't really work. It's a single spot that just ends up looking like a smudge on the lens.
  5. The haze around the light could have made for an interesting shot, but the brightness of the light overpowers the effect.
I'd like to close here with a quick reminder why I do these. It's easy to get discouraged when looking at other people's work, because you only get to see the 'good' ones. By sharing some of my many failures, I hope that it shows that persistence is the key to capturing something worth being proud of.

Programmer vs Software Engineer: The Interview

A common question presented in interviews for developer positions goes something like this: Given an array of numbers, write a function th...