Raven’s Night 2015

Sarah here. As I’ve mentioned before, one of my other creative outlets is tribal fusion bellydance. Every year just before Halloween, my teacher produces a show/event called Raven’s Night. Each year has a different theme (this year was Supernatural), and dancers from all over come to perform. The audience is encouraged to dress up in their finest steampunk, goth, or otherwise fantastical attire. It’s always a blast and a rich feast for the eyes and ears.

This year I performed in my teacher’s piece, so I was too distracted to take pictures. Andrew, however, was tasked to photograph the pre-show festivities, and since he was there and had a camera, he shot the show as well. He edited the pre-show pictures himself, but as is our usual arrangement for dance events, he handed the raw image files from the show over to me to process. Considering how dark the theater is, how much the color and intensity of the stage lighting changes, and how quickly the performers move, taking good pictures is no easy feat. Andrew always does a great job… and I’ve dragged him to enough shows over the years that he’s developed a knack for catching dramatic moments.

Raven’s Night pictures are a treat to play with, since the performances and costumes are so dramatic and full of intense energy. This year we had a multi-sword-wielding Celtic goddess, banshees, angels, vampires, a truly epic take on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and many other awesome pieces.

You can see the full gallery of pre-show pictures here, and show pictures here.

Look to the Right

Andrew here. Last month, my brother and I took a trip to Mt. Rainier, Washington. This is a favorite destination of ours when out West, and this year we got to spend a couple of nights on the mountain. This also meant we got a couple of sunrises and, since my brother is himself an excellent photographer, it wasn’t too hard to convince him to get up at dawn and visit the famous Reflection Lakes.

We got up before sunrise, as landscape photographers are cursed to do, and were in place when the sun hit the mountain. We had uncharacteristically clear skies both mornings, which meant almost no clouds to catch the morning light and color. While we did get some good reflection shots, I took a more important lesson away from this opportunity: Even if you know what you’re there to shoot, keep your eyes open.

This shot of the treeline and rising sun reflected in the lake is the result of looking to my right, away from the mountain, and realizing this was the shot that really made the most of the atmosphere and light at that moment. I did take shots of Mt. Rainier reflected in the still waters of the lake, but the fact that you’re seeing this shot first should tell you something — the famous scene you went there to shoot isn’t always going to be your favorite shot of the visit, so keep your eyes peeled for what else is around you. You might be surprised.

Backyard Nature

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Andrew here. Wildlife photographers typically make landscape photographers (who famously have to be in crazy places before the sun rises for the best shots) look like they have an easy time. Wildlife photography often involves hauling huge (and incredibly expensive) equipment into remote places and waiting… and watching… and following, and studying… and waiting. And did I mention waiting? And hauling? Not that I have any objection to hauling and waiting and watching… But that doesn’t always have to be the way it’s done.

We live in a pretty urban area on the edge of Washington D.C., but this year we decided to tailor our garden habitat to support (and attract!) the local fauna. This has allowed me to literally practice my photography from my living room.

Now, I’m not going to be getting any world class images of bears flipping salmon out of the river or the sun rising through moose antlers from my backyard, but if you’re interested in practicing your wildlife photography skills and learning to appreciate the surprising amount of beautiful wildlife where you already live, I highly recommend it.

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A few tips:

– Find out what native plants support interesting wildlife where you live (milkweed for butterflies, for example, which need all the help they can get these days).

– Arrange the planting so you can at least see it from inside your house if at all possible. If not, consider building in a space to put an outdoor chair where you can comfortably watch from far enough away not to disturb, but close enough to photograph.

– Don’t overestimate your lens’ reach. Take some test shots from your vantage point before you plant everything to make sure you’ll be able to see what you want to see.

– Plan your backdrops. A beautiful hummingbird with a trashcan in the background probably won’t be the image you want. Consider planting flowers far enough in front of solid greenery that you get a nice solid, not-distracting background.

– Be patient and learn the behavior of your visitors once they arrive. You’ll start to see patterns of where birds land, and how the butterflies choose flowers. You don’t have to chase them around with your lens if you can anticipate where they’ll likely land. You can even build in perches to encourage them to choose certain places in easy reach for you.

This is a great opportunity to hone your photographic skills and support your local wildlife at the same time. There are lots of resources out there (including a great class by Moose Peterson on KelbyOne) on how to take great backyard wildlife photos. You never know what you’ll find right in your backyard, and you’ll learn good skills before you go trekking out into the wilderness!

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It’s Full of Stars

Andrew here. Sometimes you don’t have to go as far away as you think to get something interesting.

I live a few minutes outside Washington D.C. For years, I’ve wanted to try my hand at photographing the night sky and Milky Way, but there’s far too much light pollution where I live. All my travels over the past few years have been to other urban areas or to remote areas that were completely clouded over at night (with the incredibly fortunate exception of our one aurora night in Iceland last March), so I’ve just never had a good opportunity to try to see the Milky Way.

This summer, a couple of my photographer friends decided to visit Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and came back with some great night sky shots. This past weekend, I joined them.

It was amazing to be less than two hours from D.C. and able to see the Milky Way with my naked eye. There was some city glow in the distance and some hazy fog along the horizon, but there was no question what I was seeing up above.

There are many websites with detailed guides to shooting the night sky, so I’m not going to try to recreate those here, but here are a few quick tips:

– Use a program like Stellarium to find out when you’ll have the Milky Way visible where you’ll be, and what the sun and moon cycles will be like to get good, dark skies.

– Scout ahead of time – having a clear view of the night sky is easy enough in most places, but if you want any other compositional elements (and just for safety) it’s good to scout out the area before it gets dark.

– Use a headlamp with a red filter to help you work in the dark. The red filter will help protect your night vision and the headlamp means you’ll have your hands free.

– You will, of course, need a good tripod and a wide aperture, wide angle lens for best results. That said, you can do some creative things with other lenses, so if you don’t have the “right” one, give it a go anyway.

– Finally, focus on a light in the far distance (or focus on something far away if it’s still light out) and lock your focus in place by turning off autofocus and taping your focus ring in place with gaffer’s tape. (I failed to do the latter part and it cost me a lot of shots when I apparently bumped the focus just slightly at some point.) Just racking the lens to infinity usually doesn’t quite get you where you need to be on most lenses.

For more details on planning your trip, Dave Morrow has a great three part tutorial on Youtube here. It’s very worth checking out if you’re planning your first shot at the Milky Way.

One last recommendation: Make sure to put the camera aside for a couple of minutes and appreciate what you’re seeing. At night, the curtain of the sky gets pulled back and lets you see the galaxy we live in. Realizing what you’re really looking at is a truly amazing experience once that sinks in. It’s hard to imagine a more inspiring vista than 200 billion stars spread out over 120,000 light years of space. What a view.


This image is not a composite — it is a single image shot using a timer delay. I composed, set the timer, ran out and tried to stand still for the 8 seconds of the exposure. As you might imagine, it took a few tries to get right, but I think it was well worth it.

Occasional Green Thumb

Sarah here. Andrew has family friends who grow absolutely breath-taking (and prize-winning) dahlias and zinnias; if you’ve poked through my galleries on our site, you may have seen some of them already. I fell in love with the huge dinner plate sized dahlias, and this year our friends were kind enough to give us a handful of dahlia tubers so we could try growing them ourselves.

One of the plants (Wanda’s Aurora) just bloomed for the first time, and I was thrilled to see that it makes those enormous lush blossoms I’d been dreaming of. It’s so much fun to play with flash direction and intensity with these luminous, sculptural petals.

Orc Stomp 2015 – GenCon – 31 July 2015

Orc Stomp 2015 Gallery

Sarah here. I don’t know if it’s been obvious in my posts so far, but I am a big geek. I love fantasy and sci-fi and comic books and video games and non-video games (Dungeons & Dragons ftw!). In what seems to be a nascent tradition, a small group of my friends have been attending GenCon in Indianapolis for the past few years as a fun excuse for an annual reunion.

Two of my friends are runners, and this year they signed up for the Orc Stomp 5k fun run bright and early on Friday morning. While I admit I wasn’t thrilled to wake up at 0445 for the second day in a row, I was excited to cheer them on and get some photography practice in.

We couldn’t have asked for a more gorgeous morning, and for once I was actually awake and ready to take pictures at golden hour. It also turned out that the event had an unanticipated photographer shortage, so I tried to catch as many people as I could. I wish I’d had a longer lens and a little more practice shooting runs, but it was a super fun event.

The most fun –and surprising, for me– part was how many people grinned and posed for the camera. I’ve always been camera-shy (that’s why I’m on the other side of the lens), so it was a happy shock the first time a runner looked straight at the camera and gave me a big smile. It was awesome! There was so much positive energy that morning, it still makes me smile to think of it.


Running dinosaurs! What’s not to love?


So while I was shooting, this guy staggers up and asks if I’ve got any “hot scoops” on what to do when your thighs really hurt. As I blinked and tried to figure out what was going on, he said something about how he got really drunk, woke up early, and ended up following the runners. I don’t even know if he was part of GenCon, but I can’t make this stuff up.

Explorer chic

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Sarah here. Andrew received his prize from the ViewBug contest: a very spiffy National Geographic camera pack. He asked me to take a still life of it (apparently I’m the household product photographer), so we pulled together the most explorer-appropriate gear we had around: Middle Eastern feedbag-turned-rug, Russian bayonet, Australian bush hat, desert boots, and a steamer trunk.

The pack is very retro-cool, and it’s got lots of organizational pockets and some great features, like a nice padded modular camera insert that’s similar to my Lowepro pack but smaller. Andrew hasn’t used it yet, but our first impression is that it feels pretty rugged. I like the map-printed fabric inside some of the flaps. Some parts are so retro that they’ll probably be annoying, like the chest strap; where any modern backpack would use a simple buckle/clip, here you have to loop the strap through two metal rings. It’s also not the lightest (it’s canvas instead of high-tech fabric, etc.). It’s obviously not meant to be the most high-speed-low-drag of gear, and it’s a bit on the small side, but it’s cool and reflects its NatGeo roots nicely. It looks and feels like it wants to tag along on some grand adventures.

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[And here it is with all its accompanying swag, and the picture that won it.]

Support Gear Review: Kahtoola Microspikes

Kahtoola Microspikes

Kahtoola MICROspikes

Andrew here. If you saw my “Preface” post, you know a couple of things about me already — I love “bad” weather, and I like to find gear that lets me go out and take photos in that weather. I took my Kahtoola Microspikes with me to Iceland and they not only worked perfectly, I’d never go to Iceland in the winter without them. They were crucial for getting around since most trails and paths, especially around waterfalls, were frozen over. Sliding around in boots is slow, dangerous, and just unpleasant. The spikes gave us a freedom of movement and a level of safety that made the trip much more enjoyable and productive. After my great experience, I figured they were worth a writeup.

For most people, most of the time, crampons are overkill. They’re also a pain to use. On the other end of the spectrum, my limited experience with Yaktrax was that they weren’t very durable and were best suited for walking the dog on icy sidewalks. What happens when Crampons and Yaktrax meet in the middle? Kahtoola’s Microspikes. And the result is awesome.

The Microspikes have twelve ⅜” spikes on each foot, chained together and attached to your boot with a heavy duty rubber strap. The strap is allegedly flexible to something like -70 degrees F. That’s way beyond where I stop being flexible. These are pretty much the perfect hybrid of real grip and convenience. Overall, these are extremely durable, comfortable, and convenient.

When walking with them, you eventually forget you’re even wearing them. You can just walk on ice like it’s pavement. (For science, I even went for a brief jog on a solid sheet of ice. No problems.) The spikes are short enough and the whole system is durable enough that you can cross mixed terrain without having to take them off. Most of our Iceland hikes involved interspersed icy and rocky areas and it was good that we didn’t have to take the spikes off every 200 meters. I’m sure heavy use on rocky surfaces will dull the spikes, but I’d bet you can sharpen them again. Even with the amount of hiking we did, I didn’t notice any wear on the points.

One concern I had was that they’d be great on ice, but slippery rocks would be a problem if the metal didn’t grip (back to my original use for these, walking in mostly frozen streams). A few tests (without the camera gear in hand) proved my fears were unfounded. They’re awesome for slimy wet rocks too.


This was Day 1 and an early win for the Microspikes which let me easily walk the frozen trail and up the frozen stream to get to this incredible spot.

So, what’s the catch? Just like normal crampons, you can potentially step in a way where they don’t grip. The sides and back obviously don’t have spikes, so if you get too complacent in uneven terrain and forget you’re relying on spikes for traction, you could find yourself without grip. If you’re even mildly attentive to what you’re doing, you’ll be fine… but because they’re so comfortable and easy to get used to, complacency isn’t an unfounded concern. Walking on ice on metal spikes also makes a fair amount of noise, so if you’re planning to sneak up on wildlife, I’d either get there well ahead of time or stick to the kind being eaten by vultures. Finally, they’re not cheap. At somewhere near $65, you’re going to consider how much you’ll use them, but if you’re traveling or hiking with camera gear in the winter, it’s probably a very good investment.

As an aside, check out FStoppers’ awesome video series with Elia Locardi in which they discover they probably should have gotten themselves a few pairs of these before their trip to Iceland. You can see one such instance here where the icy terrain stopped them from getting the composition they planned, but I’d definitely recommend checking out the whole video series.

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[Thanks to my friend Norm for taking the awesome shot of me on Skaftafellsjokull glacier sporting my spikes.]

You can, of course, buy them through Amazon (if you buy through the links on this post, we’ll get a small percentage which will go toward more photography and support gear):
Kahtoola MICROspikes

An Ice Sunset

Andrew here. If you saw my teaser post on the Iceland trip, you already know we didn’t have the most cooperative weather for photography. To be more specific, we had hurricane and “strong gale force” winds, rain, sleet, snow, and/or hail for a lot of the time. This meant we also had a lot of dim, flat, gray light to work with. The one morning we had some good light was one of the days my camera was completely non-functional (more on that another time), so the few shots I have with anything resembling interesting light tend to stand out for me.

This is the famous glacial lagoon of Jokulsarlon in the southeast corner of Iceland. A glacier calves icebergs off into this large body of water, which empties into the sea. The glacier is shrinking rapidly, so the lagoon keeps getting larger. It’s a famous site for photography; you see lots of photos of clear ice on black sand beaches taken near here.

We got there for sunset, which was mostly obscured by heavy clouds but for a brief window when just enough light and color was poking through to get me this scene. Photography frustration aside, I’m happy to say that just being there to see these amazing features is reward enough. That said, I’d be lying if I said I’m not hoping for better light next time…

Father’s Day

Sarah here. I took this picture while walking along Alki Beach (Seattle) on Father’s Day, and it’s been rattling around in my head since then. I finally worked on it this weekend. The moment between these two was so sweet; I’m glad I caught it.

I showed the picture to my mom this morning, and she said, “I bet the two in this picture would love to have it.” Of course, I don’t have any idea who they are. If anyone sees this post and knows them, or if you think you know someone who might know them, please pass it along. The picture was taken on 16 June 2013, on Alki Beach in Seattle, Washington State.

(And if it does make its way to them, please tell me!)

Washington, D.C.-based photography and digital art, natural and unnatural.