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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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Art
A Secret Room Full of Michelangelo's Sketches Will Soon Open in Florence
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images

Parents all over the world have chastised their children for drawing on the walls. But when you're Michelangelo, you've got some leeway. According to The Local, the Medici Chapels, part of the Bargello museum in Florence, Italy, has announced that it plans to open a largely unseen room full of the artist's sketches to the public by 2020.

Roughly 40 years ago, curators of the chapels at the Basilica di San Lorenzo had a very Dan Brown moment when they discovered a trap door in a wardrobe leading to an underground room that appeared to have works from Michelangelo covering its walls. The tiny retreat is thought to be a place where the artist hid out in 1530 after upsetting the Medicis—his patrons—by joining a revolt against their control of Florence. While in self-imposed exile for several months, he apparently spent his time drawing on whatever surfaces were available.

A drawing by Michelangelo under the Medici Chapels in Florence
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images

Museum officials previously believed the room and the charcoal drawings were too fragile to risk visitors, but have since had a change of heart, leading to their plan to renovate the building and create new attractions. While not all of the work is thought to be attributable to the famed artist, there's enough of it in the subterranean chamber—including drawings of Jesus and even recreations of portions of the Sistine Chapel—to make a trip worthwhile.

[h/t The Local]

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15 Things You Should Know About Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s enchanting floral still lifes are now a deeply ingrained part of American culture—so much so that they often eclipse her other colorful accomplishments. For a more complete portrait of the artist, who was born 130 years ago today, brush up on these 15 little-known facts about her.

1. FLOWER PAINTINGS MAKE UP A SMALL PERCENTAGE OF O'KEEFFE'S BODY OF WORK.

Though O'Keeffe is most famous for her lovingly rendered close-ups of flowers—like Black Iris and Oriental Poppies—these make up just about 200 of her 2000-plus paintings. The rest primarily depict landscapes, leaves, rocks, shells, and bones.

2. SHE REJECTED SEXUAL INTERPRETATIONS OF HER PAINTINGS.

For decades, critics assumed that O'Keeffe's flowers were intended as homages—or at the very least, allusions—to the female form. But in 1943, she insisted that they had it all wrong, saying, “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” So there.

3. SHE WAS NOT A NATIVE OF THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST.


Joe Raedle/Getty Images

O'Keeffe was actually born on a Wisconsin dairy farm. She'd go on to live in Chicago; New York City; New York’s Lake George; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Amarillo, Texas. She first visited New Mexico in 1917, and as she grew older, her trips there became more and more frequent. Following the death of her husband in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently.

4. HER FAVORITE STUDIO WAS THE BACKSEAT OF A MODEL-A FORD.

In an interview with C-SPAN, Carolyn Kastner, curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, explained how the artist customized her car for this use: "She would remove the driver's seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger car, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford."

Painting inside the car allowed O'Keeffe to stay out of the unrelenting desert sun, where she painted many of her later works. The Model-A also provided a barrier from the bees that would gather as the day wore on.

5. O'KEEFFE ALSO PAINTED SKYSCRAPERS.

While nature was her main source of inspiration, the time she spent in 1920s Manhattan spurred the creation of surreal efforts like New York With Moon, City Night and The Shelton with Sunspots.

6. O'KEEFFE IMMERSED HERSELF IN NATURE ...

While in New Mexico O’Keeffe spent summers and falls at her Ghost Ranch, putting up with the region's hottest, most stifling days in order to capture its most vivid colors. (The rest of the year she stayed at her second home, located in the small town of Abiquiu.) When she wasn't painting in her Model-A, O'Keeffe often camped out in the harsh surrounding terrain, to keep close to the landscapes that inspired her.

7. …WHATEVER THE WEATHER.

The artist would rig up tents from tarps, contend with unrelenting downpours, and paint with gloves on when it got too cold. She went camping well into her 70s and enjoyed a well-documented rafting trip with photographer Todd Webb at age 74. Her camping equipment is occasionally exhibited at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

8. SHE MARRIED THE MAN BEHIND HER FIRST GALLERY SHOW.

"At last, a woman on paper!" That’s what modernist photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz cried when he first saw O'Keeffe's abstract charcoal drawings. He was so enthusiastic about this series of sketches that he put them on display—before consulting their creator.

When O'Keeffe arrived at his gallery, she wasn't pleased, and brusquely introduced herself: "I am Georgia O'Keeffe and you will have to take these pictures down." Despite their rocky beginnings, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe quickly made amends, and went on to become partners in art and in life.

9. O'KEEFFE AND STIEGLITZ WROTE 25,000 PAGES OF LOVE LETTERS TO EACH OTHER.

When the pair met in 1916, he was famous and married; she was unknown and 23 years his junior. All the same, they began writing to each other often (sometimes two or three times a day) and at length (as many as 40 pages at a time). These preserved writings chart the progression of their romance—from flirtation to affair to their marriage in 1924—and even document their marital struggles.

10. SHE SERVED AS A MUSE TO OTHER ARTISTS.

Thanks in part to Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was one of the most photographed women of the 20th century. Stieglitz made O'Keeffe the subject of a long-term series of portraits meant to capture individuals as they aged, and she made for a striking model. Though he died in 1946, the project lived on as other photographers sought out O'Keeffe in order to capture the beloved artist against the harsh New Mexican landscapes she loved so dearly.

O'Keeffe later wrote:

When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than sixty years ago—I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. If the person in the photographs were living in this world today, she would be quite a different person—but it doesn't matter—Stieglitz photographed her then.

11. SHE QUIT PAINTING THREE TIMES.

The first break spanned several years (the exact number is a matter of debate), when O'Keeffe took on more stable jobs to help her family through financial troubles. In the early 1930s, a nervous breakdown led to her hospitalization, and caused her to set aside her brushes for more than a year.

In the years leading up to her death in 1986, failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe to give up painting entirely. Until then, she fought hard to keep working, enlisting assistants to prepare her canvas and mix her oil paints for pieces like 1977's Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds. She managed to use watercolors until she was 95.

12. AFTER GOING BLIND, SHE TURNED TO SCULPTING.


By Alfred Stieglitz - Phillips, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although her vision eventually made painting impossible, O'Keeffe's desire to create was not squelched. She memorably declared, "I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” O'Keeffe began experimenting with clay sculpting in her late 80s, and continued with it into her 96th year.

13. SHE'S THE MOTHER OF AMERICAN MODERNISM.

Searching for what she called “the Great American Thing,” O'Keeffe was part of the Stieglitz Circle, which included such lauded early modernists as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen. By the mid-1920s, she had become the first female painter to gain acclaim alongside her male contemporaries in New York's cutthroat art world. Her distinctive way of rendering nature in shapes and forms that made them seem simultaneously familiar and new earned her a reputation as a pioneer of the form.

14. SHE BLAZED NEW TRAILS FOR FEMALE ARTISTS.

In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Twenty-four years later, a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective exhibit introduced her work to a new generation. Fifteen years after that, O'Keeffe was included in the inaugural slate of artists chosen to receive the newly founded National Medal of Arts for her contribution to American culture.

15. SHE WASN'T FEARLESS, BUT SHE REJECTED FEAR.

O'Keeffe was purported to have said, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

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