National Gallery in London opens Da Vinci exhibition today

National Gallery, Da VinciLondon’s National Gallery is hosting an exhibition of the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. The show, titled Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, focuses on the paintings of the famous genius rather than his many other projects. It brings together nine of the only 15 or 16 paintings known to be his. The gallery boasts that it’s the most complete collection of his paintings ever shown.

The Mona Lisa is not among them. Personally I consider it Da Vinci’s least compelling work. Perhaps that’s just because I’ve seen it too much, or maybe I was influenced by my art history teacher who, while giving us a slideshow on Renaissance art, got to the Mona Lisa and wearily said, “The Mona Lisa. Is she smiling or isn’t she? Who cares?” and then went on to the next slide. Maybe if she went into the theory that it shows Da Vinci in drag I would have been more interested.

One of the paintings on display is Christ as Salvator Mundi, which is the subject of a heated debate within art circles as to whether it’s by Da Vinci or one of his students. Hanging beside known works of Da Vinci, you’ll have the chance to judge for yourself.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan runs until 5 February 2012.

Photo of the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani courtesy Web Gallery of Art.

Ronald Reagan retrospective at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

Ronald ReaganRonald Reagan is the subject of a retrospective at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The multimedia exhibition is called One Life: Ronald Reagan and marks the centenary of his birth.

Most of the material covers his time as president, including the attempted assassination in 1981, his handling of the waning years of the Cold War, and bombing Libya. Yes, Gaddafi has been causing trouble for that long. Visitors will see a variety of photographs and artifacts, including a portion of the Berlin Wall, a portrait by Andy Warhol, and video clips of the 40th president’s speeches.

Space is reserved for lesser-seen images of Reagan from his early years as a sports announcer, actor, and president of the Screen Actors Guild. Yes, Reagan was a union leader! The image above is from his 1938 film Cowboy from Brooklyn. This musical comedy, one of his many popular films, even has Ronny Rayguns singing.

Love him or hate him, Ronald Reagan had a profound effect on the nation’s politics and culture. This show will teach you more about the man everyone has an opinion on.

One Life: Ronald Reagan runs from July 1 to May 28, 2012.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Through the Gadling Lens: Photography tips I learned on my summer vacation

I just got back from a long weekend in Oregon. This was the second year that I joined 13 friends in a beautiful coastal town, where we rented this huge rustic beach house, and spent the entire time resting, relaxing, and generally making art. As it happens, all of us make all or most of our living being creative, and many of us are professional photographers. And even though we all pretty much know our way around a camera, having all of us together resulted in us learning and sharing various tips and tricks to creating cool images. And so, since the experience is particularly fresh in my mind, I thought I’d share with you my very favourite vacation photography ideas that I picked up this week.

On with the show.
1. Wake up early.

Because Oregon’s time zone is two hours earlier than mine here in Houston, while on vacation I found myself waking up earlier than most of the women with whom I was staying at the house. Since I didn’t particularly want to lie still in bed for fear of waking up the other houseguests, I found that the better option was to just go ahead and get up, pull on my wellies and go for a long walk on the beach. And naturally, I took my camera with me.

And this is how I learned my first lesson: every location has a much different personality early in the mornings, before its inhabitants have woken and began their day. In the case of this particular beach, the morning often brought a considerable mist or fog rising off of the ocean, and the light was invariably quite blue and grey. The beach was littered with the ashes of the evening’s bonfires and the remains of sandcastles from the day before, and save for the occasional morning jogger or yoga practitioner, I was the only person on the beach. It was a far cry from the bustle of the kite surfers and horseback riders of the middle of the day, and I relished the solitude and the calm, peaceful, vibe.

So on your next holiday, while it is tempting to sleep in, I’d strongly recommend taking at least one morning and waking up early, just to experience your vacation spot at the start of the day.

2. Use the ground or the sky as a backdrop.

I learned this trick sort of by accident: I was sitting on the ground taking a picture of a baby, when suddenly I noticed a friend of mine watching what was going on above me. The sky was amazingly blue and absolutely clear, and I realized that it made a perfect backdrop for my very fair, blonde friend. So I took the shot.

In the second instance, I was about to take the portrait of a different friend, and she stopped me: “Would you mind taking the shot from above?” she said, sitting on the grass. “I always prefer pictures of myself from that angle.” Since I’m always thrilled to take portraits of someone who have great body self-awareness, I was happy to oblige — and she was right: shooting from above is a great way to get a lovely, doe-eyed look from your subject.

It works particularly well with women and children.

3. Speaking of backdrops, don’t be afraid to get creative.

I was sitting in the house, when through the window I noticed a few of my friends standing on the lawn holding up a giant white sheet. Curious, I got up and went outside.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Prom pictures,” came the response.

The sheet was held so that the low light from the afternoon sun was shining right through it, diffusing the light and creating a lightbox effect. The result was this amazing glow around each subject:

I learned such a valuable lesson here: just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t spend some time capturing creative portraits of your travel companions. Let’s face it: vacations tend to make people relax. What better time to capture their best sides? It was an inspired idea.

4. In addition to shooting in the early morning, shoot during the Golden Hour.

During every sunny day, there comes the time as late afternoon turns into early evening, when the light becomes shockingly golden, making everything and everyone it falls on glow beautifully. The actual time of the Golden Hour obviously varies depending on the time of year; nonetheless, It is really a lovely time to shoot, so be sure to keep an eye out for the changing light, and save some space on that memory card to capture a few images during that time.

5. Finally, break all the rules and shoot into the sun.

I know, I know — they say you should never shoot into the sun. I can’t help it, though: the fact is that you can get some amazing silhouetted shots by shooting into the sun. However, if what you’re looking for are just some great back-lit shots, but you want your subject’s face to be clear, the best thing to do is to again wait until the sun is lower in the sky (but not too low so that it’s dark), and then set your ISO exposure for the light reflecting from your subject’s face (rather than the actual sun). The result is that the light from the sun will be “blown out” (read: almost white) but your subject’s face will be well lit.

So those are my lessons from the weekend: some of which I sort of knew already (like the shooting into the sun, or shooting during the Golden Hour) but I needed to be reminded; others which I had never considered (the fabulous sheet trick comes immediately to mind). I’m definitely taking these tips with me on my next trip. And of course, thanks much to my friends Alex, Ali, Andrea, Jen, Jen, Jen, Tracey and little Anna for letting me take their amazing portraits you see above, as well as sharing their fantastic photography tips with me, since they’re all profe
ssional photographers themselves.

Well, all except little Anna. She’s just sort of a supermodel rockstar, wrapped up in a sweet 6-month-old package.

As always, if you have any questions (or would like to comment on the tips you see here), you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.

Through the Gadling Lens: 5 of the best travel photographers of all time

I’m in the middle of a crazy travel time: I’ve been to both New York and Chicago in the past two weeks, and there doesn’t seem to be much relief in sight in the upcoming 2 or 3 months: Portland, Atlanta, London and Paris are all distinct possibilities. And while being away from my family for all of these trips doesn’t please me in the least, I can’t help but be a little excited at the prospect of some great photo ops coming my way.

Like most, I often search Flickr and other sites for some inspiration. In addition, I’ve been known to pour through the work of some of my photography idols — Herb Ritts, Annie Leibovitz — the people who got me interested in photography in the first place, to get some ideas. But since I’m in the throes of traveling, I thought that this week, I thought I’d share the photographers who, in my opinion, are absolutely the tops when it comes to travel photography. Greater minds may differ, though, so I hope you’ll challenge me in the comments.

With that, on with the show:

Landscapes: Ansel Adams

I think it’s arguable that Ansel Adams is the most recognizable name in photography — I’d heard of Ansel Adams and his stunning images of Yosemite before I’d ever heard of an SLR camera. According to the official website, American photographer Ansel Adams was born in San Francisco, California, at the beginning of the last century. Originally, he was training to be a professional piano player, but eventually left music to pursue photography. In addition to being a photographer, he was also an avid environmentalist — and his passion for the environment is obvious in his images of Yosemite, and other areas of the Southwest United States.

Of course, the subject matter of Adams’ photographs is pretty breathtaking, but the reason I love his work is not because of his composition, so much as the way he processed the images. Again, from the official website: “Adams developed the famous and highly complex “zone system” of controlling and relating exposure and development, enabling photographers to creatively visualize an image and produce a photograph that matched and expressed that visualization. He produced ten volumes of technical manuals on photography, which are the most influential books ever written on the subject.”

In other words, Adams was one of the first photographers to codify the idea of visualizing the resulting image before you actually squeeze the shutter, and then using the developer chemicals (or, these days, Photoshop) to ensure that the resulting image accurately reflects what you visualized. He was one of the first photographers to think of the image as a form of expression, rather than documentation. And for this, in my mind, he will forever be a rock star.

(For more information about Ansel Adams, be sure to visit the official website.)

Portraits: Steve McCurry

You may not know his name, but chances are you’re familiar with his famous photograph of the young Afghan girl with the piercing green eyes, which graced the cover of National Geographic Magazine in the mid-1980’s. Steve McCurry is an American photographer born in Philadelphia, and graduated cum laude from my dad’s alma mater, Penn State University, from the College of Arts and Architecture. But my favourite part of his official bio describes how his career got its start:

“His career was launched when, disguised in native garb, he crossed the Pakistan border into rebel-controlled Afghanistan just before the Russian invasion. When he emerged, he had rolls of film sewn into his clothes of images that would be published around the world as among the first to show the conflict there. His coverage won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad, an award dedicated to photographers exhibiting exceptional courage and enterprise.”

See what I mean? Rock. Star.

I seriously can’t get enough of McCurry’s work, and frankly, he’s my very favourite photographer of those I’m featuring here on this post. In particular, I love two aspects of his work:

a) He is masterful when it comes to understanding colour and light. When you look at his images, it’s clear that the colour palates of compositions are at least as important as the subject matter itself. The light of his images is always breathtaking, and the catchlights in his subjects eyes’ always draw you right into the image; and

b) He is prodigious when it comes to capturing a glimpse of the spirits and souls of his subjects. When you look at his portraits, you’re not just looking at a pretty face, or a weathered expression, you’re catching a glimpse of the thoughts and emotions of his subjects as well. I absolutely believe that this ability of capturing a quick flash of someone’s soul in a photograph is one that is truly a gift, and can’t be taught. But that’s not to say I don’t try to tap into my own ability to do this every single time I click my camera.

(For more information about Steve McCurry, visit his official website. Also? Be sure to check out the posters and fine art prints he has for sale. I purchase the portrait of the woman in Peshawar, Pakistan to hang in my studio for inspiration.)

Wildlife: Jim Brandenburg

American photographer Jim Brandenburg has been a photographer with National Geographic for more than 30 years. As I look through the gallery on Brandenburg’s website, it occurs to me that his portfolio entirely and decisively debunks the myth that all you need to take a good wildlife photograph is a long lens: his images of the animals in the prairies and other wild locations show emotion in these animals; whether it’s the sheer, frozen determination on the faces of the bison caught in the blizzard, or the apparent hysterical laughter on the face of rabbit on Brandenburg’s image, entitled appropriately, “Laughing Rabbit.” In addition, his panoramas of wide open spaces are wonderful studies in colour and pattern and repetition. Really inspirational work.

(For more information on Jim Brandenburg, be sure to visit his official website.)

Architecture: Julius Shulman

If you’ve ever been struck by the way many historic images of mid-century modern houses are shot, chances are you have photograp
her Julius Shulman to thank. Shulman was widely considered the most innovative architecture photographer of all time — and sadly, he died at the age of 98 this month. In the obituary announcing his death in the L.A. Times, the late Robert Sobieszek, former photography curator at the Los Angeles County Musum of Art, described Shulman’s work as follows: “He has a sense of visual bravura of composition, so that he can take a rather mundane house and make it look exciting, and take a spectacular house and make it look triply spectacular.”

His most famous image is the one you can see above, and I can tell you that it must have been a doozy to capture. The multiple light sources — the ones hanging on from the ceiling of the house, the lights of the city below, and the fact that the women seated appear to be lit from a source near the floor as well — makes this nearly an impossible image to expose properly, and yet Shulman does it flawlessly. The women add perfect scale to the image, without distracting. And he did all this without a digital camera. Amazing.

(For more information about Julius Shulman, see his Wikipedia entry, with links to external sites discussing his work.)

Underwater: Chris Newbert

I’m a scuba diver, but one type of photography I’ve just never been able to nail down is underwater photography. I’ve been diving in some of the clearest, stillest water possible, but still — the water never seems still enough to get a sharp image, it’s difficult to hold the camera steady while you’re floating, and the diffused light through the ocean totally distorts colours. I just can’t get it right, and unfortunately, I don’t get enough opportunity to dive in order to practice.

Which is why, I suppose, I’m absolutely blown away by the photography of Chris Newbert. Newbert is also a photographer for National Geographic Magazine, and his images of translucent underwater creatures is breathtaking. Are you looking at those? Incredible. According to his official bio, Newbert has been shooting underwater since the early 1970’s, and has received worldwide accolades for his work. It’s truly breathtaking.

(For more information on Chris Newbert, visit his official website.)

So, that’s my take on the top 5 travel photographers ever. If you have any other photographers you’d like to add to my list, be sure to leave them in the comments, below. As always, if you have any questions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.

Through the Gadling Lens: enhancing vacation shots with macro photography

This week, I received an email from Gadling reader, Brenda:

I read your post on choosing lenses and I was curious as to how big exactly a macro lens is because all the other lenses were identified by their length in mm and I couldn’t find a precise range for the size of a macro lens by searching on google so im not sure what it is. I would appreciate it if you could clear this up for me.

This is an excellent question, and because I love to do it, I thought this week we’d spend some time on macro photography — what it is, why you need a special lens, and how it might enhance your travel shots.

And so, without further ado:
According to Wikipedia, “macro photography” is when “the image projected on the “film plane” (i.e., film or a digital sensor) is close to the same size as the subject.” Which, for me, is a bit technical. For those of us laypeople, macro photography is basically very-very-very-very-very close up photography. The beauty of this type of photography is that it can bring out the details of the subject of your photograph that you might not normally notice with the naked eye during the everyday.

In order to do macro photography well, if you have an SLR camera, you will likely have to purchase or borrow a special “macro” lens (or, if you use Nikon products, a “micro” lens — for some inexplicable reason, Nikon likes to call their macro lenses “micro,” but trust me, they’re the same). If instead, however, you’re in the market for a point-and-shoot camera and you’re interested in macro photography, be sure that you buy one with a “macro” setting — not all point-and shoots have them, and without it, you won’t be able to get a nice sharp macro image.

Here’s why the lens is important:

The following image was taken about 2 feet away from a bouquet of daisies I bought earlier this week, shot with a 50mm “normal” lens:

Now, if I went to get a bit closer to that yellow daisy, the closest I can get my camera with that 50mm lens is about 1 foot away, and still maintain some sharpness and focus:

But watch what happens when I get any closer — say, about 6 inches away:

See how I completely lose all focus? All you notice is a bunch of muddled (albeit pretty) colours.

Okay, so now I’m switching lenses — this time, I’m using my 60mm macro lens.

First, I’ll take the shot about 2 feet away, like I did with my 50mm lens:

You’ll notice that from this far away, the 60mm lens behaves like any other 60mm lens — petals are sharp, not just on the yellow daisy, but on the surrounding daisies, as well.

But! Because this is a macro lens, check out how close I can actually continue to maintain focus:

In the above image, I was actually holding the camera a mere 3-ish inches away from the daisy. This time, you can clearly see all the details in the centre of the flower. Without my macro lens, this sort of sharpness would be impossible to capture.

A few tips when it comes to macro photography:

  • You’ll remember that we talked about lens focal length; however, as Brenda noticed, there really isn’t a specific “focal length” when it comes to a macro lens — it’s possible to get 50mm macro lenses, 85mm macro lenses, 100mm macro lenses, whatever. For my purposes, I like macro lenses that are in the “normal” range — 50 to 60mm — so that I don’t have to worry about any wide angle or telephoto distortion in the resulting images.
  • When it comes to ISO, aperture and the like, the rules remain the same — just remember that if you’re focusing on a very small part of your subject, you’re concerned with light, etc., in a tiny region, so you’ll need to adjust accordingly. For example, the subject might be in bright light, but what you’re actually focusing on might be in shadow — so adjust your ISO for low light, rather than high.
  • The cool thing about macro lenses is that they can also be used as regular lenses — so, for example, when I pack my 60mm macro lens with me, I don’t worry about bringing another “normal” lens — the 60 mm macro will do the trick — I just have to stand farther away from the subject than I would when taking a macro shot. Make sense?

Okay, so now that you know what macro photography can do, here are some reasons why you might want to take a macro lens on your trip:

You’re going to a location with amazing flora.

As you can probably guess, macro photography is a great way to show the details of really exotic flowers — you can see the smallest details of petals and other characteristics of a flower that your naked eye wouldn’t necessarily notice. I always take my macro lens when I travel to tropical places, because the flowers are so unusual; similarly, if I’m going to England or, say, the United States Pacific Northwest in the summertime — places where the locals are truly passionate about their gardens — I make sure to take the macro along.

Some images which prove my point:

In the shot of the ginger lily, above, the macro lens allows you to really notice how the light falls on each individual petal, rather than just taking in the blossom as a whole. The resulting image shows a palette of cool pinks, reds and burgandies.

In the above image of the iris, notice how you can see the tiny little yellow hairs along the inside of the white petals.

And finally:

In the above image of this lilly, you can almost see each independent grain of pollen on the stamens — an aspect of the flower you might not notice (until you get all that pollen on your hands and clothes, I mean, or start seriously sneezing).

You’re going to a place with big bugs.

One of the most popular uses of macro photography is taking photographs of creepy-crawlies and other other-worldly insects. With a macro lens, you can see their little buggy faces, the hairs on their legs, and other details that a regular lens would miss.

A couple of a very accommodating dragonfly that I took recently, using my macro lens:

Notice the detail of his wings in the first shot, and his turquoise eyes (who knew dragonflies had turquoise eyes?). And in the second shot, is it me, or is that bug smiling?

You want to take really detailed shots of your travel companions.

Say you’re planning a beautiful, sunny beach vacation, or a strenuous hike in the mountains or desert. Carrying along your macro lens will help you take really focused shots of your travel companions’ Coppertone tans, or the sweat as it rolls off their brows after the hike:

Notice how you can see every little wrinkle in the skin at the base of my thumb. It occurs to me my hands don’t look that young anymore.

My husband, on a hot Texas day, after dousing himself with the hose.

You’re just in the mood to take some artsy-fartsy shots.

The very cool thing about macro photography is that sometimes you can get so close to your subject, it’s almost hard to tell what your subject is anymore. I love playing with my macro to get in close to subjects which have very vibrant colours or patterns — the results are often unrecognizable, but artistic enough that they find a framed place in my home:

You plan on eating.

Finally, an admission: I love to eat on vacation. And one of my favourite uses for my macro lens is to shoot images of food. Sometimes you just gotta get close to see how luscious everything is:

So get out there and grab your macro, and see what you can capture – sometimes, the very best way to remember your vacation is up close and personal. And as always, if you have any questions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.