by David Margaretos

Observations and Thoughts on Photography

Wednesday, August 23, 2017
By Dave Margaretos

August 21, 2017 was a special treat for millions of American across fourteen states who were able to view a total eclipse of the sun. At my home on Cape Cod in Massachusetts we were only provided with a partial eclipse of about 65% but I was determined to make the most of it and photograph the event. Some of my motivation came from wanting to participate in this rare event but much of it was the photographic challenge. I'm glad I made the effort as it was a thrilling experience and I'm please with my photographic result.

I started about a month before the event with some internet research of the details of the eclipse itself: date, time, duration and how to go about making a successful photograph. Critical to the process is a solar filter which allows the photographer (and the camera) to safely view the sun. These filters are nearly opaque and block about 99.999% of the sun's light which in photographic terms is the equivalent of about 18 photographic stops of exposure reduction. Without this filter you would permanently damage both your retinas and the camera's digital sensor.

I soon discovered what I should have guessed. Most serious photographers had long ago ordered their solar filters and, for example, every one of the thirty or more solar filters listed by B&H Photo were sold out and back ordered. At that point I decided to make my own filter which turned out to be fairly easy and very economical. For $16.00 I was able to purchase a 6" x 6" sheet of  polymer solar filter material from Thousand Oaks Optical that is manufactured for astronomy uses. The lens I had chosen to use had a filter thread diameter of 77mm so I purchased a 77mm to 86mm step-up ring for $8.95 from B&H. To make the filter I traced the 86mm side of the step-up ring onto the polymer film with a Sharpie and cut out the circular piece. Finally, I carefully glued the circular disc into the 86mm side with the silver side facing out (towards the sun). Presto, a solar filter!

I selected a  Nikon 80-400mm lens to use in conjunction with a Tamron A300fNS 2x tele-converter which increased my effective focal length to 800mm. Tele-converters introduce a number of optical flaws and for most work I would not use one; however, the image of the sun has little detail so I opted to go for the greater magnification and not worry about image quality. The lens and tel-converter combination provided an image of the sun that filled about half of my viewfinder which was what I wanted. Although the tele-converter was auto-focus I chose to manually focus to minimize the need to find an edge for the auto-focus mechanism to work on.  

Using a Nikon D700 I set  the exposure mode to manual and determined my exposure a through a series of trial and error shots. I ended with an exposure of f/16 at 1/400 second using an ISO of 1600. I chose this relatively high ISO speed because I wanted my aperture to be in the middle range of my lens and a faster shutter speed to counter any camera or tripod shake when I released the shutter. This exposure gave me an image of the sun that had a nice golden-yellow color (with a histogram that was not clipped) and a black background which made for a nice sharp image. 

I mounted my camera and lens on a Giottos tripod with a Manfrotto ball head and 360⁰ panning platform. This made it easier to track the sun and moon as they moved across the sky during the 2-1/2 hour duration from the start to the end of the eclipse. This tracking turned out to be the hardest part of the process. Beginning with the start of the eclipse I made an exposure every 5 minutes and owing to the high magnification I needed to adjust the camera trajectory for every shot. It was important to never let the image of the sun "leave" the viewfinder as it can be hard to relocate because the solar filter is so dense that you can see nothing other than the sun. As this happened a couple of times I was glad that I was using a variable focal length lens which allowed me to zoom out to a wider field of vision so that I could locate the sun. 

The rest was fairly easy. In-between making an exposure every 5 minutes I was able to catch up on some reading and observe the changes in my yard as the eclipse came and went. Although it did not really get dark the light quality changed to "dingy", the birds stopped chirping, the temperature dropped and a little breeze picked-up. As the eclipse ended all of these reversed and soon enough life was back to the way it had been before the eclipse.

To make my final photo I selected five images. I started with the mid-point which showed the maximum eclipse and then added two that showed the very first and very last views of the moon. Finally, I added two from the midpoints between the start and mid-point and the mid-point and the end. I cropped  the five images to the same size and resolution and merged them onto one canvas in Photoshop. Finally, I annotated my photograph with the date, time and latitude/longitude and the result is above.

On April 8, 2024 New England will be treated to a total solar eclipse. Beginning in Southern Texas, the path of totality will pass through Dallas, heading northeast through Little Rock, Arkansas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Cleveland, Ohio; Buffalo, New York and Burlington, Vermont. Although Boston will only get a near total solar eclipse at 92% it will be a spectacular photographic event. There are 2,422 days to prepare so we should all be ready!

Thursday, July 27, 2017
By David Margaretos
I recently had lunch with a photography student who sought my advice. She explained she felt disappointment in her work, that it was unexceptional, and she wanted to know what I thought she needed to do to become a really great photographer. I told her that the solution was fairly simple but that she would need to take a minimum of 100 photographs per week and that it would take ten years. My response surprised and stunned her.
Imagine a music student posing the same question to her teacher? "My performance of the Chopin Polonaise in A-flat major is somewhat ordinary, what must I do in order to have a truly exceptional performance?" My guess is that the instructor would have a similar response to mine. Although this seems like a reasonable course of action in music, for some reason the thought that excellence in photography comes through hard work and practice seems ludicrous to many. It shouldn't. Becoming good at anything always requires commitment and hard work. Perhaps it is the "You push the button and we do the rest" marketing that has always surrounded photography that has convinced so many that excellence should somehow come easier.
University studies of human expertise have attempted to understand how humans become experts in a particular field, whether it be performing music, speaking a foreign language, playing chess or writing fiction. The consensus from studying hundreds of experts in various fields seems to be that it takes 10,000 hours of study in order to achieve the skill necessary to be considered an expert... in anything. Ten thousand hours breaks down to about three hours of study per day for ten years. Researchers theorize that this has something to do with the amount of repetition and time the human brain requires to create the number of neural traces involved in developing the memory strength necessary to support expert knowledge and ability. Researchers also point out that other factors such as our emotional commitment or passion also play an important role in determining how effective study is for different individuals.

"Practice my friend, practice!". But we always knew this.
Thursday, July 27, 2017
By David Margaretos

Recently I reread Daniel Levitin's first best-selling book, "This is your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession". Levitin's book is the fascinating story of the nature of music and how the human brain hears, understands and responds to the music in our lives. Dr. Levitin is no ordinary sort of scholar. Born in San Francisco in 1957, Levitin studied electrical engineering at the MIT and music at the Berklee College of Music before dropping out of college to join a succession of bands. After a he returned to school in his thirties he obtained his B.A in cognitive science at Stanford University and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. Along the way he worked as a recording engineer and producer, including on albums by Blue Oyster Cult, Chris Isaak, Santana and the Grateful Dead and as a consultant to Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder. An unusual resume to say the least.

His second best selling book, is a discourse on the role of music in human evolution and development entitled, "The World in Six Songs - How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature", which is a little less entertaining but no less fascinating. In it he describes the role music has played in the human experience from primitive to modern societies. He believes all music (or songs as he defines them) falls into one of six categories: songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love and that each type of song has played a significant role in defining human nature as we know it today. 

Levitin relies heavily on Darwin's theory of natural selection as the underlying mechanism causing the human brain to evolve in its ability to create and use music in the furtherance of humanity. This is a big deal... that music has been so important in the evolution of human society that nature selected humans with brains most musically capable to survive and procreate.

As a photographer I found myself wondering (and admittedly with some degree of envy) if photography has in as significant a way also contributed to human development. Of course we have only had technology like lenses, film and pixels in the most recent small slice of our human existence, but in the broader sense the practice of conveying the world we see around us by graphically representing it to others has been around for millions of years. Whether scratching on the walls of caves, tracing an image projected by a Camera Obscura or transmitting digital images across the web, this has always been a part of the human experience; arguably with no less an impact to our survival and development Consider images that warning of the presence of an enemy or danger, that record human activity or convey the knowledge of how something appears. Although materials and crafts have varied, the skills and cognitive processes are similar: the recognition of a visual experience worthy of capture and preservation, previsualization of how the experience can be represented to others and the skill required to execute that vision.

As students of great photographers that came before us we recognize these same common skills among them. The ability to recognize a photographic opportunity, to previsualize it as a photographic result and the skill necessary to achieve that result. It sounds easy, but it's not. It curious that some of us are obsessed with this photographic process and spend our lifetimes perfecting the required skills, while others fail to share or understand our fascination. It could be that some possess the random chromosomal combinations that tend to heighten the visual experience and they are therefore drawn to photography as a form of expression. Perhaps nature has selected some of us to pursue this mission as a way to fulfill a necessary role in the advancement of human and societal development.

If this sounds far fetched, try imagining the world we live in without photographic images. And if we didn't photograph the world around us, who would?