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Camera Fun - Making Crazy Art Using Christmas Lights

It's that time of year -- strings of tiny lights are everywhere, and families are wandering around, checking out those lights. If you're like me, you bring your camera along on these light-viewing jaunts. And if you're like me, you use your camera to take boring old pictures of boring old lights. But if you have a decent digital SLR camera (or have a camera phone and are willing to make some compromises on which techniques you use; see below), you can do some nutty stuff -- and it's not hard at all. There's no Photoshop or digital stuff involved -- just clever use of your camera. You can, for example, make crazy pictures like this (note that for all images in this post, you can click for a larger version):

Want to learn how? Read on.

The Original Tree

First, you need a set of lights you can photograph. You'll get the best results when it's dark out, so the lights stand out. In my case, I chose a tree at the Grotto in Portland -- it has a nice, evenly spaced set of red lights on top, with green lights around the trunk. Here's what it looks like in a "normal" photograph:

Photo of tree, non-crazy

Fun With Zoom Lenses

In order to achieve that "jump to hyperspace" effect above, I first zoomed my camera all the way in and focused on the lights. Then, because I have a digital SLR (meaning it has a lens I can manually control, by twisting it), I simultaneously zoomed out and snapped a picture. I had to try several times until I got it just right -- sometimes the shutter didn't open at quite the right time, and sometimes my hands were shaky, making the effect a little wobbly (but sometimes the wobble adds a delightful squiggle -- more on that below). By using variations of this technique, you can make all kinds of freaky stuff happen; you can also experiment with zooming in while taking the picture, or try twisting the camera as you do the zoom. Another important factor is how much you zoom -- try shorter zooms, and also try lingering at one point in the zoom (it's easiest to linger at the beginning or end). Here are some examples:

Zoom - mild

Zoom - extreme

Zoom - sparse

Zoom - squiggle

Moving in Circles

Next up, try moving the camera in a circular pattern as you snap the picture. What you get is a wavy, loopy, or "waterfall" pattern the looks very abstract -- sort of like Jackson Pollock but with light. If you have different colors of light available, try playing with those -- you'll get much different results with white lights versus colored lights, and mixtures can be interesting too. If you can set your camera for a longer exposure (a second or more), this can give you different results (and sometimes ruin the photo, as eventually the frame quickly turns white with all the colors smeared all over it). I find it useful to zoom in first, to minimize the number of points you're working with. Play around. But basically, hold the camera out in front of you (don't try to look through the viewfinder) while moving it in a circle, and snap pictures as you move it. Take a bunch, then pause and check 'em out. Ignore the weird stares you get from passersby.

Circles - 1

Circles - 2

Circles - 3

Circles - 4

Circles - 5

Circles - 6

Circles - 7

Circles - 8

Circles - 9

Circles - 10

Circles - 11

Circles - 12

Walk on By

As you walk by lights, point the camera at them and take a picture. It helps if you're zoomed in. Alternately, you can sway the camera left-to-right. In either case, you'll get an arced blur of lights. You may want to throw in a little rotation (the aforementioned "circular movement") to get a squiggle effect while you're at it.

Walk on By - 1

Walk on By - 2

Walk on By - 3

Walk on By - 4

Walk on By - 5

Walk on By - 6

Walk on By - 7

Walk on By - 8

Stand Up

A final fun method is to move the camera up and down while standing still. You should get a thicket of light streaks, like this:

Stand Up

Notes on Cameras

If you don't have a fancy camera, some of these techniques don't work (for example, the zoom technique probably can't work on a phone camera). But even with the most basic camera, you can still try circles, swipes, or up-and-down camera movement. I tried circles using a camera phone and got surprisingly good results -- though I almost dropped the phone a few times.

If your camera allows it, try setting the exposure to manual (but try to keep autofocus on, as getting initial focus while walking around can be tricky). If you do set a manual exposure, I recommend starting out with a shutter speed of around 1/2 second, an aperture (aka f/stop) around f/5, and play with the ISO settings on your camera -- I had best results with an ISO around 800, but your mileage may vary. (Note that, of course, as you change the ISO settings your shutter speed will need to adapt.)

Show Your Work!

If you try this kind of tomfoolery, post the photos on Flickr or your favorite photo site, and post a link in the comments! Happy photographing!

Copyright Notice

All images in this post are copyright © 2011 Chris Higgins, all rights reserved. Please contact me if you'd like to buy a print or license a photo for commercial use.

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Louvre Abu Dhabi
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Art
The Louvre Abu Dhabi Just Opened the World's First Radio-Guided Highway Art Gallery
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Louvre Abu Dhabi

One way to plan an epic art road trip is to drive from museum to museum, but in the United Arab Emirates, you can take in masterpieces without leaving your car. As Artforum reports, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has lined a stretch of highway with billboards displaying works by Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, and Piet Mondrian.

The 10 works on display along the E/11 Sheikh Zayed road connecting Dubai to Abu Dhabi are recreations of pieces at or on loan to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which developed the project in partnership with three radio stations. Dubbed the Highway Gallery, it was "created to reinforce art's role in elevating everyday life into something beautiful and memorable," the museum website reads.

Like in a traditional gallery, the 30-foot-by-23-foot displays along the road are accompanied by a guided audio tour. Drivers can learn the title, artist, technique, and other details about each piece by tuning into a participating local radio station (Radio 1 FM, Classic FM, or Emarat FM). There they will hear descriptions of Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière, Van Gogh’s Self Portrait, 1887, and Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow, and Black, as well as the Islamic sculpture Mari-Cha Lion and the sarcophagus of Egyptian princess Henuttawy.

The Highway Gallery will run through mid-March. After that, art lovers can drive their cars to the Louvre Abu Dhabi to see the items in person.

[h/t Artforum]

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5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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