Monday, November 21, 2011

Deal Beach, NJ

As often as we can, Andy and I get together for planned photo shoots.  Sometimes that's not always possible due to our schedules and lives.  On occasion a photo shoot is a spur of the moment thing.  The weather conditions seem promising or some free time opens up.  Maybe a new piece of equipment arrives and you just can't wait to go try it out.  Or you stumble upon a location too good to pass up.

It was for all of these reasons I found myself loading my gear into the car for a quick sunset shoot at Deal Beach at the end of Roosevelt Avenue in New Jersey.  Some time ago while researching a different location, I stumbled onto another photographer's shots from a group named Jersey Shore on Flickr.  They weren't geo-marked and there was no indication as to where they were shot other than being included in that group.   I sent a quick note to the photographer and his one line response was:  "roosevelt ave in Deal". Andy and I had bookmarked the location for a future trip.

If you read my recent Tutorial on purchasing used lenses, you'll know that I just picked up a bunch of used equipment.  The day after I had freed up some time for a shoot, but a completely clear day didn't seem too promising.  I postponed the shoot for the next day where some clouds were promised.

The trip over would take around a half hour and with sunset scheduled for 4:45pm, I left about 2:30pm which would allow me plenty of time to explore the area.  If you want to shoot this area, you'll basically want to take Roosevelt Avenue as far as you can.  It dead ends at the beach entrance and so long as you stay behind the "No parking from here to the corner" type signs, you might as well get as close to the beach as you can.  I pulled my gear out of the car, slung my Lowepro over one shoulder and carried my tripod.  A path took me to some rocks which overlooked the beach.  I had to climb my way down.  

As this was my first trip, I wasn't aware of the layout and, as it turned out, what amounts to a creek flowing into the ocean would have to be crossed.  From where I was, I had two options.  Try to jump it (and with the tide out, this was a somewhat reasonable option) or climb back up the rocks and see if there was an easier crossing.  I opted to jump about a 6 foot section of water.  I had to time my jump while the surf was heading out, as that was when the mouth of the creek had the least water.  I almost made it, with just my back foot landing in water.

I still had over an hour and a half, so I began to take it all in.   This location was spectacular.  Easily five different key features to shoot:
  1. The creek mouth connected to the ocean which had a sort of man made waterfall.
  2. The creek itself which carved it's way through the sand.
  3. The remnants of an old pier in the ocean by the mouth of the creek.
  4. Up the creek towards the street with rocks, eroded beach and tidal pools.
  5. As if that wasn't enough, up the beach a half mile or so was and intact pier.
I got the tripod set up and mounted my camera.  I started off with the new to me 19mm-35mm Wide Angle Lens.  After shooting some of the creek and ruined pier, I decided I needed to capture a panoramic for documentation purposes (above).  I wasn't trying to necessarily get the best shot, just be able to give an overview of the location so that when Andy and I returned we would have some sense of the location.

With the light fading a bit but still some time before the magic hour, I wanted to explore the way the water had carved out the beach in a sort of "S" curve on it's way too and from the ocean.  This was a perfect opportunity to try out the Minolta 50mm 1.7 prime lens I had purchased.  The large aperture would allow me to hand hold even in the failing light and the decreased depth of field offered an opportunity to play with my focal depth.  Being as careful as possible, I worked my way over to the edge.  Something you need to consider with a prime lens; you are the zoom.  In a shot like this you have to move around to get the framing right but at the same time you have to be careful not to disturb an area that may later be essential to a shot.  Working over to the edge, I learned this the hard way. I got a little too close and the sand broke way and fell into the water, ruining a portion of the ledge I was trying to capture.  I still had some area to work with, but I had definitely limited myself further.

After getting some shots that I thought would turn out well, the light was getting too low for hand held shooting even opened all the way up.  I could tell that the mix of clouds and clear would have the possibility of giving me strong sunset colors so I went back to my 18-55mm kit lens.  It was what I was most comfortable with.  I would have to play with some of the other lenses at a different time.

I was back up on the tripod but the sunset colors had yet to really fill the sky.  I began shooting up the beach towards the pier as the sun finally began to set.  The sand had some strong textures and the pier in the distance created an interesting background feature.  A figure was wandering down the shoreline towards me.  She had a basket on the end of a stick  and she was sifting through the surf with it, for crabs of some sort, I imagined.  I decided to use her.  I was shooting relatively long exposures so I studied her for a moment to find patterns in her work that had her the most still. I knew she would have some motion blur still, but I wanted it as slight as possible.

Finally, some pink started to fill the sky and I turned towards the ocean to see if the sunset behind me would spread out over the ocean.  There is a very small window of color when shooting the Atlantic at sunset.  I decided to use the ruined pier as my main feature.  The longer exposure mixed with the strong colors reflecting the surf gave me some good lines to work with.  After a few shots I moved back from my camera to survey the scene and think about a different angle.

That's when the woman's waiving arms caught my attention.  I turned towards her and she started emphatically pointing behind me.  I did an about face towards the sunset to find an apocalyptic sky.  It certainly wasn't the direction I wanted to be shooting in.  The houses on the beach and some rough foliage was not the ideal backdrop, but I knew I had to capture this amazing light.  I framed out a shot using the scene that I had and started shooting.  As I did, I noticed the tidal pool itself was reflecting a lot of light and framed in tight on it to get some less cluttered shots.

After a while of shooting this, the sun faded and it was time to head back before it was too dark to see.  I hadn't thought to bring a flash light for the trip back to the car.  The tide coming in made the water I jumped coming in much too wide to get across.  I'd have to find another way out.  After some consideration, I decided that crossing the rocks upstream was my best bet.  None of them were very large or well seated in the water, so it was haphazard.  I made it across and then climbed up the rocks only to realize I would have to climb back down and then up again to get to where my car was.

Next time I'd bring a flashlight but for now, I was just happy to get back home so I could see what I had in the can.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Buying Used Lenses, An Experience

Lenses can be expensive. We all know that. Not all of us can afford every lens we think might improve our shooting or let us capture that elusive shot the way we want to. At the same time, there are photographers all over the world who are getting new equipment and looking to get a few bucks for their old stuff. Like anything used, camera equipment and lenses in particular can be a great investment or a bad way to throw away good money.

I recently found myself wanting a new lens. For me, a new lens wasn't so much about trying to get a shot I felt I was missing with my current equipment it was to have a new way to look at the world. I'm sure there are many photographers who know the shot they want and figure out how to get it. I'm not one of those. I go to where I think interesting shots can be found and look for them. Each lens gives me a new window to look through. So I wasn't necessarily looking for a specific lens, I wanted to find a quality lens at a reasonable price that gave me a new window.

The first step is to determine where to look. There are plenty of places to find used lenses and where you look will depend on your budget, the popularity of your lens mount, how quickly you need the lens as well as your risk aversion. In order by price:

Physical Camera Shops
Photography Forums

Camera shops tend to be the most expensive but also the safest. With everything going big box, your local camera shop will be run by professionals and they'll know exactly what their used lens is worth as well as it's exact condition. They also have a reputation to protect and likely aren't going any where.
Amazon sells more than just new items, they also offer plenty of used ones as well. You can bet that anyone who has a bad experience with a seller will leave negative feedback, so that gives you a good idea of whether a seller can be trusted. Sellers also have Amazon watching over them, and Amazon is also worried about reputation. Still, Amazon is taking some off the top of each sale and most sellers on Amazon are professionals so there won't be many discounts here.

From here the risk increases. Ebay has many reputable sellers and probably has the largest inventory of used camera equipment. You'll likely find dozens of sellers for the lens you want each day, with sellers ranging from very reputable to unknown. Be wary of sellers with no reputation and also ones who don't accept returns. While some of these are just new sellers looking to exclusively get rid of this one thing, others are fly by nighters who are looking to rip people off. The other issue with Ebay is that unless you're using a Buy Now option, you're likely bidding against others. That means you have to have the last bid or you're not getting your lense. Ebay is also concerned about it's reputation and if you buy using PayPal, you'll get additional protections. The biggest issue you'll find with Ebay if you're careful is that your purchase is not what you expected and resolving the issue will take a while.

Photography forums are similar to Ebay but without the bidding process. If you're an active participant in these forums, often you'll know the reputation of the person you're dealing with and you may even find that this comradre offers you a discount where helping a fellow photographer is factored into the cost of the lens.
Now for the highest risk/reward seller, Craigslist. Craigslist is kind of the Wild West of the after market world. Reputable sellers see it as a free outlet shop while criminals and con men and women see it as an easy and unregulated way to make a quick buck. I would highly recommend that you only use Craigslist for face to face purchases. Talk to people over the phone. Do some research to make sure you're not in an obvious scam (ie, many scams copy and paste the same offers, so if you do a google search for a key phrase in the offer, you shouldn't get tons of complaints about this being a scam). If someone's name is posted or you get it via email conversation, do a google search of that too. Make sure that at the least, the person is in the town they say they're from. The reward is often high as well. You can often times find very good bargains here, especially on older lenses. Every day it seems like someone digging through their or stuff finds a camera and lenses that they haven't used in years. Or parents are asking their kids to help them get rid of some of their old stuff and a camera is discovered.

Now to my experience. Through research when I bought my camera, I found that Sony had purchased Minolta and were using their A Mount, a design which went back over 25 years. I was in no rush. I looked around Amazon and everything was very close to retail in the used market so I moved on. Checking inventory at local and mail order used camera outlets showed the same almost new higher cost for all but the worst conditioned lenses. I turned to Ebay and found some bargains. The Buy It Now prices weren't much cheaper than what I had found previously. One of the things I did find was that one of the Minolta kit lenses happened to be a 50mm 1.7 prime lens and it was experiencing a renewed life on the after market. I focused on finding this lens. Compared to the Buy It Now price of around $100, bidding seemed to stop around $60-$75 depending on reputation of the seller and the condition of the lens. I tried to get in on a few by came up empty. In the meantime, I was finding some complete outfits that offered a number of different lenses along with the camera body and flash units. While the price was higher, it wasn't significantly so. I tried a few of these as well, but still hadn't won anything.
I had also been searching Craigslist locally. The pickings were much, much more slim. That same Minolta 50mm 1.7 popped up from time to time, but it seemed like it was always people or shops that knew about the resurgance so the price was always around $100.

That's when I came across a long post explaining how a young man was trying to sell not just an old Minolta Camera and four lenses (one of which was the 50mm I was after), but a black and white enlarger with all the trimmings as well. The seller's story recounted how he and his father had fond memories of capturing and developing their black and white prints together decades earliear and that his father had moved on to digitial and had no use for the equipment any more. He indicated that he would not sell individual pieces, but might consider packaging the camera body, the four lenses and two flash units (one broken but repairable) separetly. He only mentioned a combined price of $475 for everything.

Some of the hopeful signs for me is that this is obviously someone who loved photography. You don't set up a dark room in your basement if that's not the case. I'm hoping that means he took very good care of the equipment. He had indicated that the one lens I was interested in the most was never used. This jived with the stories I'd heard in my research that it was not a popular lens at the time because zooms were all the rage.
The pictures on Craigslist showed original boxes for everything. This is a camera that came out around 1990, 21 years ago. Having all the boxes shows care. He also mentioned that one of the flashes was broken. This indicates a desire to give the most value and information possible. The flash could have been thrown out or the condition could have been stated as unknown. Instead, they included the flash in case someone wanted to have it fixed.

I emailed him and waited almost a day to hear back. When I did, he offered the camera equipment with out the enlarger for $150. As I was willing to pay half of that for the one lense, I felt that it was a good offer so long as the equipment was in good condition. We set up a meeting for me to examine the lenses and if I was happy, to purchase them. I did some research on the other lenses to see what they were going for used and also about how to test used camera equipment, primarily lenses.  You can find some useful sites I discovered on it in our Resources section.

We set up a date an time to meet over email and I got his phone number.  I called prior to leaving for one last confirmation that this was the real deal.  I packed up my camera and headed out.  It took about a half hour to get to his house.  After knocking on the door I was greeted by a young man in his 20's who welcomed me inside.  His father was with him and extended his hand which I shook.  They led me into their kitchen.  On the table was everything from the photograph.  

I asked if they minded if I tested everything and they responded that it was fine.  We bantered as I carefully examined and then mounted each lens.  Everything was very clean and functioned properly in both automatic and manual modes.  I made sure that each lens allowed me to adjust the aperture through the camera.   I shot some pictures and examined them through the view finder, zooming in and scanning through each shot to make sure there were no obvious defects.  

I only found a problem with one of the lenses.  A Phoenix 19-35mm Wide Angle felt a little fragile and clicky when zooming/focusing.  It still auto focused and shot reasonably well from what I could see, but I had to re-asses whether this would be a deal breaker.  I decided that it wasn't and completed the purchase and said my goodbyes.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Every Now and Then... Lake Topanemus

Every now and then, the planets align, the photography gods look down and wink to see if we notice. October 30, 2011 was one of those times.

Lake Topanemus in Freehold, NJ is our "home field" when it comes to photography. A short walk from my home, it is the perfect hidden gem that never fails to inspire me and continues to serve up fine photographic opportunities. What we saw on October 30, 2011 was twice as good because we knew it was coming.

The tri-state area focused on the day of the storm, and I'm sorry to say, it was justified as thousands still remained without power 5 days later. We were lucky - not impacted by the storm.

As a photographer, you should have been looking at the forecast for the day after the snow storm. Many times the storm will linger with unremarkable overcast skies. This day was predicted to be perfect, and it did not disappoint. Calm, clear skies overnight meant plenty of warm light at sunrise, blue skies to fill in the background and no wind to disturb the snow dusted foliage - all the makings of a classic photograph.

The doesn't mean it wasn't still a challenging shoot. Dave's Halloween party was the night before, and the thought of getting up even at the late sunrise hour of 7.20 or so was not appealing. But as the old saying goes - f8 and be there. Dave earlier than I, but between the two of us, we came away with some fairly unique images for central New Jersey who hadn't seen snowfall near Halloween for quite some time.

So how did we shoot this one? Using pretty standard techniques that you should become well familiar with.

1. Know your location
Pre-visualizing the shots with the information we had helped streamline efforts to set up; however, at this intimate location, you'll do just fine to arrive and shoot without ever having been here before. The sun rises from the opposite side of the lake from the park entry.

2. Plan your timing
I failed almost spectacularly at this one. We had just shot the foliage on the lake a few days earlier.  I was fairly confident that I had captured the images fall images I wanted from this location - which were basically the same images I made 3 years earlier, only this time on the 14 megapixel sensor of my K20d.  (Print big).  Pre-dawn was a distant memory by the time I arrived, and my creativity suffered for it.  There were plenty of close-ups to be had within the trees.  But I managed to make it in time for the warm light to be on the trees without having yet melted the snow on the leaves.  The opening image in this post was actually shot at 8.34am.  Good light, with the sun high enough for the brilliant blue to be coming through from the sky.   An hour earlier would have given me useful time to explore, but an hour later and the light would have been too hard, with the snow possibly melted.

3. Know your equipment
I wanted a wide angle for this shot - the long coast of the lake with as many of the fall colored trees as I could fit into the frame.  I got myself way on the other side of the lake (near where the bridge starts), then used a zoom a bit to frame the shot.
The circular polarizer was another key to this image.  The colors of the foliage are drawn out to be richer; the angle of the sun's light is just right for the rich blue sky.  And the lake is reflecting the colors of the foliage well as the filter cuts down the glare from the light on the water.
And of course, your trusty tripod and remote shutter release.

This was a magical scene, and I'm sure glad I didn't miss it.  But instead of stumbling across it, we were prepared.  Check the weather, know the spot, and with a little bit of luck, you end up with that gallery shot of snow covered fall foliage in NJ.

So where's your home field?