What can we Learn from Celery?

Celery Still Life © jj raia

Fading Celery © jj raia

For anyone who follows this blog, you’ve already seen several images like the one above made from very simple set ups in my “kitchen studio”: window light, white reflector, black background, granite tabletop. Nothing complicated or expensive, except for in this instance, the celery.

The only thing done differently for this one was some additional post processing from what would normally be pretty basic. The extra processing wasn’t any secret formula, but rather simply using the brushes in Lightroom with much more thought behind their use than usually goes into them, namely, lighten this or darken that. This time, an actual reason behind each brush stroke was mentally verbalized to gently bring out more luminosity in the stalks and leaves, while at the same time, being cognizant of the light’s direction to create additional contouring and highlights. “Drawing” in these thoughts, so to speak; the why behind them.

While brushing, decisions on which part of each leaf or stalk was determined prior to making the brushstroke, and if the change in exposure for it was too great, then the stroke was partially erased. If the effect was not sufficient, then adjustments to the exposure were made. Quite often, many strokes within a single sequence were altered through changes in the flow and density, to adjust their affect. If a stroke couldn’t be corrected satisfactorily, it was deleted altogether, and the process begun again. It was not saying, “the stalk needs increased exposure”, but rather. “where on the stalk would added exposure help it appear more round based on the light’s direction?” Each brushstroke served a specific purpose.

If we can enhance the three-dimensionality of the subject within this two-dimensional screen or print, then we can move closer to the true realization of this representational form of photography, namely, to record exactly what we see, and more importantly, how we see it.




Worth - Red Dot Softball (used) © jj raia

Worth — Red Dot Softball (used) © jj raia

I often hear folks mentioning the “telling of a story” in a photograph, and wondered if something relatively innocuous, without the benefit of any information other than the subject itself, can tell pretty much a complete story. As part of an “assignment” members of a local photo group received, this softball was retrieved from a glove that’s been sitting around unused for nearly 35 years. Looking at it closely, there were a number of tell tale signs of what had happened to it prior to it vacationing inside the glove for all this time, and it brought back quite a few memories of the years when softball was an important part of my social life and the time away from work. It made me reflect on my life and all the folks who were part of it back then. Amazing that a simple softball could do that.

Taking the photograph was not as simple as it might seem though, only because I wanted a black background and dark table, while missing all the ingredients to do so in the “kitchen” studio. A large piece of black foam core was used for the “table” but I had nothing but a small 8×10-inch piece of it for the background. So improvisation dictated that placing the small piece behind would require 5 frames to completely cover the back and one more to make a possible brighter image for the softball itself, just in case it was needed. All frames were taken using a tripod of course so the ball would always be stationary in each frame. After the 5 background frames were blended together using separate layers in Photoshop, the lighter table needed to be blended into the black background for a smooth transition using a soft cloning brush set at a low flow. And in doing so, I could determine where the lighter portions would lay, and arranged them to appear as though there were lights on either side of the softball with one being a bit stronger than the other. The shadow of the softball was formed from the windows that provided the actual lighting, and a piece of white board was used to reflect some of the light back into the shadow side.

The words “Red Dot” and “Worth” were enhanced just a bit so they would be more prominent after the continued beatings the ball took so many years ago smudged them. Some split toning was used to warm up the softball and cool down the background and table for better separation (warm tones advance while cooler tones recede). And a normal 50mm lens on a full frame did the work of capturing all the detail at f/16. A little softening of the outer frame edges was accomplished with a radial filter and decreases in clarity and sharpness in Lightroom.

It was a fun assignment with the added bonus of a trip down memory lane, compliments of a Worth Red Dot Softball (used).

Note For those of you who may not know, the Red Dot signified it was a “restricted flight” ball, meaning that it was constructed a bit off center so the ball would not travel as far on a fly as an unrestricted model. But believe me, restricted or not, that ball seemed it could go a mile after being hit by some of the “big men” we played against; I know because I had to chase them down pretty often.

Also — A few days after making the photograph, I happened across a single piece of black foam core that would have reached across the entire background, and would have been able to make it in a single frame instead of five. And somehow, I knew that would happen!!

Throwback Thursday No. 29


Images from the Film Archives – 2001

Winter Dawn - Spruce Run State Park, NJ © jj raia

Winter Dawn – Spruce Run State Park, NJ © jj raia

Spruce Run was one of the many NJ state parks where gates closed off entry until after sunrise, and other arrangements needed to be made in order to get any photographs there at that time of day. By heading about 1/2-mile beyond the entrance, there was a small dirt parking area where you might be able to access the large reservoir that was part of the park. So on a 15-degree morning, I bundled up and headed out onto the ice in search of some design on the surface for some visual interest. After wandering around a while, an area that did not have a coating of snow looked like it might reflect any color in the sky, and I took a position that looked out to where the sun might rise (personal computers were barely out then, much less The Photographer’s Ephemeris). I was a bit concerned with the ice because I was learning that it makes an occasional, unannounced loud groan or cracking sound, which sent shivers through me even more than the cold.


Winter — Spruce Run State Park, NJ © jj raia

I would come to these spots only in winter because the tangle of bushes right against the shoreline prevented any clear views of the lake. It was only after a long hard freeze that you could get through the tangle and step out onto the ice to get the unobstructed, expansive view. Little by little, I was learning local, as was suggested a few years earlier, of places to go under specific conditions or light.

Another spot right nearby the image at the top, was the entrance of a feeder creek into Spruce Run. I guess the movement of the water kept the immediate area from freezing, and provided a good leading line through the scene to the sunrise horizon.

There were other spots around the lake that were a bit hidden, accessible in summer when the huge flowers of marsh or swamp mallows put on a display, or where the sun would rise in the fall, over some trees on the opposite side of a narrow section of the lake. Little by little, I gained the knowledge of these places, of where to go and when, that made the chances to be photographically lucky, greater.

I suppose it is the same for street photographers. Where the real characters hang out, or where the dramatic lighting is, or some storefront with character resides. Others may photograph couples or families by a specific barn, beach or interesting architecture. Whatever it is that you can add to a photograph through your own experiences and knowledge can only enhance your photography. It’s all about getting out with the camera, and hitting those spots where your creative juices will flow the most, and overflow right into your frame. New places are great to explore, but its the familiar haunts where the most success lies.


Black Sun No.1 © jj raia

Black Sun No.1 © jj raia

Being a member of a small group of photographers that normally shares photos at monthly face to face meetings, over the last couple of months, while this virus rages throughout America, we’ve held weekly zoom meetings through the internet, most likely to help keep our sanity during the lockdown. And it seems that each and every week, I’ve been inspired by many of the other members’ photos to push my personal envelope when it comes to subject matter. Although, for the most part, my preferred subjects involve the natural world, sometimes it is simply the enjoyment derived from the challenge to extract something of interest from the chaos that lies there. And so I took that same challenge into other areas inspired by those photos shared by group members. The recent post about the results from circling a nearby museum was one of those challenges (Click. here to see that post).

Throwback Thursday No. 28


Images from the Film Archives – 1997

Dried Roses © jj raia

Dried Roses © jj raia

Years before this image was taken, my wife and I bought this basket because we loved the pastel shades woven into it. And it was at least a year until we dried some roses and placed them inside to help with decorating our home. But I always loved the harmony of colors between the roses and the basket weave. So in 1997, I finally got the inspiration to photograph it somehow to show that harmony.

It was a simple photo with the basket on a stand by an open window that provided the light, with a piece of white foam core on the opposite side of the basket to provide some fill light for the shadows. But camera placement began to be a problem since including the entire handle, which also added to the color harmony, and more of the flowers created a large dead space at the top of the frame. I tried horizontal and vertical orientations, but neither seemed to work. So I tried moving closer with the camera to eliminate that dead space entirely, but the lens could not focus close enough. What to do?

Progress (thankfully)

Barber Shop — Eastern State Penitentiary, PA © jj raia

Barber Shop — Eastern State Penitentiary, PA © jj raia

At one time, holding the famous gangster Al Capone, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, is an interesting place to explore. Photographically, its unique interest lies in allowing it to remain in a state of natural and continuing decay which is in complete opposition to most historic buildings that are lovingly restored to their original “beauty”.

Receiving its first prisoner in 1829, and closing in 1970, the prison was eventually stabilized after years of abandonment, and opened to the public for daily tours in 1994. A part of its history housing criminals is described in an article from the Philadelphia Public Ledger, August 20, 1929, which describes Al Capone’s cell:

   “The whole room was suffused in the glow of a desk lamp which stood on a polished desk…. On the once-grim walls of the penal chamber hung tasteful paintings, and the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receiver of handsome design and fine finish…”

Al Capone'e Cell © Jo Bolton

Al Capone’s Cell © Jo Bolton

Lucky we have an accomplished photographer in the Triangle who managed to photograph the cell with the lights on. Jo Bolton was kind enough to share this rich, well crafted photo (above) to get an idea of what it may have looked like when Al Capone was in residence. Unfortunately, there were no lights on when I visited and never made a photograph of it, although I did visit it. As you can see, not exactly the suffering and deprivation of most other inmates.

Throwback Thursday No. 27


Images from the Film Archives — 1999

Marsh Grasses and Fog - Cape May County, NJ © jj raia

Marsh Grasses and Fog – Cape May County, NJ © jj raia

In August of 1992, our family began an annual tradition of spending a week in Wildwood Crest, NJ for a summer vacation, along with my wife’s twin sister, brother-in-law and niece. We rented a condominium at the extreme south end of the area, with nothing but unspoiled marshland and beaches further south from the place we stayed. Right nearby, the main road crossed miles of marshes to connect with Cape May, the renowned victorian town of colorful, vintage homes adorned with intricate gingerbread.

On one of the days during the 1999 trip, there was dense fog almost all morning, and I ventured out along that road to try to capture the mood of the marshes. I found a spot with just enough elevation to see some of the twisted waterways with a view of some trees far beyond. The grasses seemed to have a beautifully flowing pattern, undulating sensuously across the marsh there, but with the fog, the lighting was rather flat. Another thing going against any success was in order to indicate the fog that day in the photograph, the partly hidden trees and sky needed to be included, which posed the problem of a wide range of tonal values; very bright sky and darker, middle-toned grasses. I set up the camera anyway, hoping I could darken the sky using a black card to block the sky during the exposure, basically dodging the sky in real-time rather than in the darkroom. But this was color chrome film, and there was no darkroom anyway! There were a few breaks in the fog when the sun would manage to shine down lightly on various spots, which could make things even trickier.

Here to There

Solo Kayaker Original Frame © jj raia

Solo Kayaker — Original Frame © jj raia

You would be hard pressed to find an actual kayaker in the photo above because at the moment, there isn’t one to be found. But, this photo is one of the most beautiful, impactful, emotional, majestic, colorful and spiritual images I have ever taken in my entire photographic life!! In addition, should you happen to actually believe the previous sentence, there’s a bridge I have available for sale in which you may be interested.

Actually, as a stand alone image, it is very poor. Its intention however, was to be used as the darkest of a 3-frame bracket to be blended together to more realistically record the wide tonal range of the dramatic light and fog over the lake that morning. But even if all three were blended together, overall it would have been better exposed, but still a pretty lackluster image for several reasons.

Over a decade ago, I heard an accomplished photographer declare that he was not a landscape photographer, although all the “photos” I saw of his appeared to be made by one; but rather, he considered himself a landscape artist. Using his own photographs, he chose various elements from far reaching locations and times, and merged them together to create a realistic moment in time that had never occurred, at a location that doesn’t exist, with bits and pieces picked from various images in his library.

More recently, I saw a You Tube photographer (Andrew S. Gray) who uses Intentional Camera Movement (blurred photos) to create numerous iterations of a single scene, and merges several of them together in various ways during post processing to create abstract landscapes. I believe he still does Tuesday night edits live on You Tube where you can follow along as he creates some of his work, or you can view previous edits on his You Tube Channel. Watching him manipulate several images into a single, finished photo, he masterfully layered several frames with varying opacity, and even rotated or resized some of the layers to utilize only the portion of the frame he wanted, to create what he was after from the beginning.

Many months ago, when I made my own meager attempt to simply flip one of several layers in Photoshop, my skills were so weak that all the layers flipped, when (at least I thought) only one of them was supposed to. So the idea of combining these two approaches was shelved for quite some time until this most recent attempt.

Not very long ago, I was shown how to transform, resize, rotate or flip a single layer without affecting the other layers; so with the free time currently available, I wanted to make another attempt utilizing these new found skills. The idea was to use only the single image at the top (trying to keep it as simple as possible), to create the background, and from another image taken earlier that morning, insert a single kayaker into it, combining the two approaches mentioned earlier. Here’s what happened…

Intimate Encounters — Structures

Hallgrímskirkja — Reykjavik, Iceland  © jj raia

Hallgrímskirkja — Reykjavik, Iceland © jj raia

For the most part, the previous Intimate Encounters videos have involved a connection between myself and some element of the natural world. Depending upon the experience, it can involve a wide ranging view, a more intimate view, or an extraction from any view, whether close at hand or at a distance. Each of these encounters usually involves the inherent, almost subconscious knowledge, that the subject has made a direct connection much deeper than a superficial “seeing”. The encounter creates a startling sensation that cannot be ignored, is usually etched into memory, and hopefully a camera is handy to record it.

But these occasions are not restricted solely to nature. I have been in the presence of other things that have connected and created the same soulful sensation and resonated deeply. While the hand of man is usually missing from most of the work, sometimes it is the hand of man that creates the same connection. An awe inspiring interior space can connect just as easily as the weathering of an old building, for each has a story to tell if we take the time to listen.

Click Here to see the latest in the series of videos,

Intimate Encounters — Structures

Be sure to subscribe to get notification of when the next in the series premieres.

To view prior installments in the series, click on the links below.

Intimate Encounters — Trees

Intimate Encounters — Water

Intimate Encounters — Desert

Intimate Encounters — Coast

Intimate Encounters — Blurs

Intimate Encounters — Vignettes