the further adventures of

Mike Pirnat

a leaf on the wind

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The Morning After

The Morning After

I woke up to the news of the horriffic shooting at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. A showing that I had considered attending, since it was practically walking distance from the hotel where I spent the night after my arrival in Denver, but decided against due to the travel and time difference. I heard all the sirens shortly before going to bed and knew something wasn't good. Turns out I was more right than I thought.

On the plus side, jet lag may have saved my life. So there's that.

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June Photowalk: Medina

Sunday Morning on the Square
Sunday Morning on the Square
Originally uploaded by mikepirnat

Once upon a time when the world wasn't quite going by at such a pace, it was June 2011, and I managed two photowalks in a single month. Just two weeks after my walk around the Cleveland zoo, I met up with Chris Miller and two of his friends for a walk around Medina, Ohio. I'd never been to Medina proper--I think I stopped once for gas on my way to Columbus, and I'd been to Chris's place for his birthday party--but I'd never seen the Town Square area in the daylight.

I was most struck by the contrasts in our walk. We began in the Rockwellian Town Square, almost a creature out of another time. About halfway through the walk, we moved away from the Square in the direction of the Farmer's Exchange, and the quaint visions of yesteryear were rapidly replaced by the lonely decay of modern Ohio, rundown, forlorn, abandoned, peeling paint consumed by rust and left to quietly wither away.

I didn't have a lot of expectations going into the walk, but I ended up with a lot of photographs that I like; many seem to reinforce my obsessions with: confusing signs, close-up geometry, drinking fountains, sunflowers, lines, abstract shapes, memorials, stickers in public places, sincere patriotism, ironic juxtaposition, warnings, chalk art, electric meters, windows, geometry and graffiti, urban/industrial decay, errors, other photographers, fallout shelter signs, numbers and letters... Sadly, the unplanned Abbey Road tribute didn't quite work out (bad timing on my part), but on the other hand I was delighted to capture a series of classic cars that drove through the Square.

Photography lessons learned:

  1. Warm up before shooting. While waiting at Chris's place to coordinate with others, I popped out into the back yard to take some macro shots of flowers in the garden. This got my eyes and fingers ready to see and shoot.

  2. Breakfast rocks. Especially at the local greasy spoon. I was a little too polite to shoot much inside, though; the people-watching opportunities were great but I didn't want to intrude on Sunday breakfasts.

  3. Be open to surprises. I wasn't really that excited about shooting in Medina and had low expectations of what I might find. Instead I was surprised and delighted by opportunities to be creative, and ended up being both prolific and creatively satisfied.

  4. Shoot with new people. Dan and James were not only fun to meet and chat with, but they also helped me see things I might not have otherwise seen.

You can check out the full set for the rest of my upload-worthy shots. It'll probably be a while before I post more photos as, after two week-long vacations in just over a month, I'm now several thousand photos behind on the review/post-process/edit/upload cycle, and I won't do any of that if I don't have the energy to really focus on each shot and give it the attention it deserves.

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Impromptu June Photowalk: Cleveland Zoo

I don't know what happened to June, but I suspect that it had something to do with getting not one but two productive photowalks in successive weeks, and all the reviewing, post-processing, and uploading that comes with that. The first came early in the month, barely a week after our Ohio City walk, as the family and I took advantage of the break in the rain to pop down to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo to check out the new African elephant exhibit. Here are some of the highlights:

There are some other decent shots in the full set, including a bunch of good ones of Claire (as usual, those are Flickr friends and family only for her privacy). I got some reasonably good video as well that I'll probably put on YouTube at some point.

The only drawback to the day was that it was also a Cleveland Photographic Society photowalk, so I ended up with some hardcore lens envy. Oh, for ridiculous amounts of disposable income! I chatted up a couple of people and found them to be a friendly sort, so I think I may end up joining (or at least stealing shooting location ideas from their calendar).

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May Photowalk: Ohio City

West Side Market
West Side Market
Originally uploaded by mikepirnat

For the past couple of months, friends in the office have been asking about being part of one of the photowalks that Chris and I have been doing. This month I had the presence of mind to actually involve some of them when planning the walk, and the result was an extended trek around Ohio City with Mike Griffith, Cory Sitko, Ben Smith, and David Snyder.

Maybe it was the beautiful weather, maybe it was the bounty of interesting subjects, maybe it was the new camera I was toting (upgrading from the 350D to the 60D, as well as a new walkabout lens with image stabilization), but I ended up being really happy with a lot more shots than usual--I ended up posting about twice as many shots as I have in previous walks. Of course, it could also be that we stayed out longer and moved slower; Chris and I usually set a hard two-hour limit that we went way, way past on this walk. Still, I'm really happy with a lot of what I shot.

Particular highlights include a very scary trash can, a dreamy Virgin Mary, a father-son moment, a comment on mortality, an attempt at irony, a game of chess, a ridiculously tall bicycle, a tiger in the back of a Mini, a family out for a stroll, the happiest art ever, and the first shot that's ever made me uncomfortable--I mean, seriously, look at his eyes!

I feel a little bad for being in "cheater modes" for most of the day, but on the other hand I kind of wanted to see what the 60D could do on its own. Also it was really warm and I was being lazy. I'll probably be spending a lot more time in the manual side of the dial next month. The new gear was definitely a win, though--particularly the image stabilized lens, which allows me a lot more freedom as I generally shoot without a tripod. I was also smart enough to make sure I had a polarizing filter on, which seemed to help out a lot--the difference in the light (not to mention the temperature!) between 10 AM in January and 10 AM in May is really quite striking!

I've already got a date on the calendar for a June walk; now all we need is a destination.

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My DIY Photo Lightbox

Background

It all started with the Legos.

I love building Lego kits, and have for many, many years. And I've found that for the bigger kits, like the Star Destroyer, it's a lot of fun to shoot photos as I go, so that I can look back at the building process in time-lapse fashion. So when my daughter and I started assembling the Death Star together, it was only natural that I'd take pictures every few steps so that we could have a record of our achievement.

That, of course, led to silly pictures of Stormtroopers busily assembling the dreaded space station under the stern supervision of Duplo Jessie.

And that led to the inspiration to use silly photos of minifigs in a Keynote deck for work. What better way to highlight the dangers of SQL injection attacks than Han Solo and Luke Skywalker infiltrating a group of Stormtroopers and wreaking havoc?

Assembly

And that was the kick in the pants I needed to build my own little lightbox for macro photography. It's basically the same as the recipe from Strobist, WikiHow, and others--a cardboard box, some tissue paper, and a sheet of white posterboard. I spent about seven dollars in all, and most of that was on the box. Assembly pretty much goes like this:

Try not to cut yourself on the box cutters or X-Acto knife you use for slicing out sections of the box (luckily my experience in life-size cardboard ninja preparation had prepared me for this, but that's another story).

When you're all set up to shoot, it might look something like this:

I can't tell you how exciting that moment is, as an amateur photographer, when you do something that looks like that. You really feel empowered, and there's a wonderful feeling that you know what the hell you're doing. It's great!

Here's how my first test shot (the cyborg-versus-alien scene shown in the photo above) turned out:

Gun Fight
Gun Fight
Originally uploaded by mikepirnat

Lessons Learned

I learned several key lessons that are worth passing on:

  1. Brighter, Whiter Lights

    I grabbed whatever was handy (the reading lights from my bedroom, in this case) to provide lighting. Great idea in terms of directionality and ability to get lights close to the box, but a seriously bad move overall because they were loaded up with low-wattage "soft white" CFL bulbs. You really have to up the exposure to compensate for the lack of brightness, but with a tripod and a remote shutter release, that's no big deal. What really sucks is the sheer, awful yellowness of the "soft white" bulbs, which guarantees that you'll be spending a lot of time doing color correction in post. I had to do quite a lot with temperature, exposure, color balance, lightening of shadows, etc. in order to get acceptable colors. Halogen work lights ought to do it, as long as I keep them far enough back from the box to keep from lighting the tissue paper on fire.

  2. Start Small on Tissue Paper

    Like a good engineer, I decided to evenly allocate all of my tissue paper so that I was able to use the maximum amount out of the eight sheets in the package I bought. (Waste not, want not, right?) Well, it turns out to be a dumb maneuver because it's easier to add more layers of tissue paper than it is to remove them once they're taped into place. I had three layers on mine; I think two would have done the job (or mabye just one?).

  3. Clean Your Lens, Clean Your Sensor

    Given the tripod and remote shutter release, I figured I could narrow down my aperture to F22 and beyond and thereby maximize my depth of field, thereby ensuring that i didn't have characters (or parts of characters) that were inappropriately out of focus. Turns out that when you do this, every piece of dust on your lens or sensor (I suspect the latter may be the worst of my problems at this point) comes into sharp relief, and once again you're spending a ton of time in post. Retouching the dust spots out late isn't too bad... until you're doing it to a full batch of 150 or so images. At that point, you've entered a whole new world of pain.

  4. Tripod and Remote Shutter Release

    This kind of work is impossible (or next to impossible) without a stable platform and a way to shoot without jiggling the camera, because you will be taking shots that may need a half second or a second (or more!) to capture. It would be a shame to set all this up and not have the camera equipment you need.

  5. Low ISO

    I went with ISO 400, which is okay when I'm shooting hand-held indoors, but if you've already got the luxury of the tripod and remote release, you might as well go with longer exposures that yield less noise. I was frustrated by the amount of noise I picked up at 400, though it may be due in some degree to shooting in JPEG (where the all-white background leads to poor-looking compression artifacts).

The most important lesson, of course, is that this is fun and that you can do it too. It's cheap, doesn't require much skill, and leads to highly satisfying results.

I'll post some of my Star Wars minifig shots next time. Promise.

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April Photo Walk: Downtown Cleveland

Hard Area
Hard Area
Originally uploaded by mikepirnat

After a barrage of scheduling derailments in February and March, Chris and I finally made our calendars mesh long enough to go shooting again. Thus it was that we found ourselves in downtown Cleveland on the Tenth of April, greeted by the first really fantastic weather of spring. (One thing about living in Cleveland is that it will teach you to appreciate good weather!)

We started at Tower City and meandered down Euclid, to Playhouse Square, then back along Prospect to Public Square--about three miles in all.

Photography lessons learned:

  1. I don't care if the shadows from the buildings make the light weird; if the sky is blue, put the damn polarizing filter on! Otherwise that lovely spring sky gets blown out and looks gloomy and overcast.

  2. Photoshop has had epic powers of lens correction since CS2 that make it super-easy to adjust for barrel distortion. I've started playing with it quite a lot in this set, though I deliberately left alone it in some shots for effect.

  3. The best photo walks end with beer.

There are a lot of other photos that I'm quite satisfied with, so it's worth perusing the whole set. Hopefully a walk in May is easier to schedule, as the world should be exploding with greenery and life in a few short weeks.

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Tremont Photo Walk

Winter Blues
Winter Blues
Originally uploaded by mikepirnat

After years of dithering and making excuses, I found the perfect way to motivate myself to get out and do a photowalk--find a friend with his first DSLR and bully him into going out shooting to play with his new toy!

And that's exactly what I had the pleasure of doing a couple weekends ago. My coworker (and dare I say... buddy?) Chris Miller had just splurged on a nice new Nikon, and even better was able to overcome the "I don't know, where do you want to go" ennui that has kept me a "cats, kid, and vacations" photographer for the past few years. Thus it was that, in spite of it being January in Cleveland and absolutely fucking cold outside, we met up at Civilization in Tremont and then set out for a couple of hours' stroll in the bitter, awful beauty of an icy Saturday morning.

I could ramble for a bit about where we walked and what we saw, but frankly the photos speak for themselves, and I'm really pleased to see some good results from Chris as well, particularly this one. I have some problems editing a collection to publish, but having a one-in-four ratio of images I like enough to show the world still feels pretty good to me; in the past it was closer to one-in-ten or three-in-twenty.

What is noteworthy, at least in what passes for my life, is that:

  1. I got a nice walk (a little over two miles);
  2. I learned (and remembered) a few things about Cleveland history;
  3. I found out that I can go shoot in much colder weather than I thought practical;
  4. I got out of the house and did something social and creative with a fully-functional adult that didn't involve being at a bar.

It's this last item that is especially important to me; I usually don't have any plans on the weekend because the combination of workday exhaustion and trying to spend appropriate time with my family leaves me little leeway to indulge in my own mental and social well-being. While work is often awesome and exciting and fun, it's still work, and I very easily fall into the trap of letting it dominate my waking hours; I don't want it to be the only thing that defines my identity. And likewise I love and my family, but having a chance to do something just for myself--especially while the sun's still up!--makes me appreciate them even more. I tend to neglect and deprioritize my personal creativity, and I've realized lately that I'm tired of doing that to myself.

Chris and I both agreed that we'd like to make these outings a regular occurrence; we'll aim for once a month for starters as that seems like it strikes a good balance with everything else on our schedules, and we'll try to hit new and interesting places each outing to avoid getting into a rut (though obviously it might be fun to revisit some locations in different seasons).

Is it February yet?

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Processing PyCon 2008

Stairway
Stairway
Originally uploaded by mikepirnat.

The security line at O'Hare was almost non-existent, so now I've got a bit of time to kill and (since "free wireless network" doesn't seem to want to give me any DNS) have the laptop open, it's probably time to digest and process my PyCon experience.

Overall, I felt strangely disconnected this year. I didn't end up dining with any of the circles I'd overlapped with in years past, didn't go to any parties, didn't stay up late hacking on personal projects, didn't hang out on the IRC channel (thanks a lot, wonky wi-fi), didn't have a presentation to worry about, and didn't end up being able to wake up in time to get my name on the list for Lightning Talks. Heck, since I didn't have the laptop out much, I barely even took notes this year.

What I did do was shoot a lot of photos, some of them acceptable, nearly filling my 2GB card over the course of the conference. I've only had time to upload one as I just haven't had the time, motivation, or energy to sort through everything at the hotel. (And it's not like uploading via the sippy-straw of the hotel's in-room wireless would have been terribly practical either.) I enjoyed briefly meeting Ted Leung before the opening keynote, and was amazed (and somewhat intimidated) by the number and variety of fancy camera toys he'd brought with him as he performed his duties as official photo dude. A number of folks stopped me and asked me questions about my camera and flash; I tried not to sound like too much of a moron when answering them. The weird thing is that everyone assumes if you are toting a DSLR around that you can't possibly take bad pictures with "a camera like that," when in reality shooting with a DSLR is the fastest way to find out exactly how much you suck at photography. I can get some good (and sometimes above-average) results, but I really have to work at it, so I try to stay humble. Also it helps to never show anyone your bad shots. ;-)

While I'm still on the camera talk, I learned that I need to bring extra batteries for the flash, recharge the camera battery while I sleep or bring a spare, and that I should probably buy a spare memory card so that I don't feel any last-day storage pressures when I've been too lazy to dump things down to my laptop. I've also learned to swallow my pride and kick the camera over to automatic metering when the lighting is tricky and I need to shoot quickly--I have some almost-good shots ruined by camera shake that could have been avoided if I hadn't been trying to be all manly and shooting in full manual with no flash. Finally, a happy discovery--the bad-ass heavy-grade Gorillapod that my wife gave me for Christmas makes an excellent hybrid of monopod (albeit rather short) and grip/brace. I found that I could keep the camera very steady by placing two of the legs against my body and supporting the camera with the third, making it easy to track and shoot moving subjects without too much wobble.

On the dining front, the huge posse of Cleveland folks managed to get out to some tasty meals. On Wednesday night we lucked into an unheard of thirty-second wait for a table at Frontera Grill and enjoyed a meal that simply cannot be described in words. Friday night we (along with Bill Zingler, a compadre from the Turbogears sprint in '06) hoofed it down to Ram, a grill and brewhouse, where the beer and food were pretty good. We didn't stay for too long though as we were greatly outnumbered by a vast sea of douchebaggery--drunken BMW-driving jerks in their sport jackets acting out a sad, strange re-enactment of their college (or more likely high school) days. We rounded things out on Saturday with a visit to the local Giordano's for deep-dish pizza, a first for one of our number, where we proceeded to annihilate their supply of Fat Tire.

Gosh, that's an awful lot of text without really even talking about the conference... Which might in itself be a comment about the conference.

Everyone knows the wireless network was stinky, so I won't spend too much time one that. It wasn't until this afternoon that I was able to even connect in any way approaching reliability. By then, really, there wasn't much point.

It seems like the consensus is that the Lightning Talks really suffered this year from the overwhelming dominance of the (lackluster) sponsor talks, to which I can only agree. It was really disappointing to see so little time available to community speakers during what, to me, is really the heart and soul of PyCon. There were a few gems on Friday and Saturday, but mostly... ho-hum.

And I was underwhelmed by a lot of the presentations too. A lot of things that I thought would be really useful or deep ended up being too light, too dull, or just not well presented. I seemed to have a knack for picking a lot of duds. Even two thirds of the tutorials that I attended (Eggs and Testing) were letdowns, due to the lack of being able to do any of the exercise material thanks to the network (Eggs), and the repetition of material from last year's PyCon (Testing).

The big wins for me were the Advanced SQLAlchemy tutorial (slide runner rocks! and if it's possible to be in love with an ORM, I think I am!), Kevin Dangoor's talk about TG2 and Dojo, and John Harrison's insanely cool Halloween laser-zapping extravaganza, which was probably the most fun presentation I've been to in four years of attending PyCon. The first two will have practical benefit for me in my daily existence, and the latter--complete with head-tracking, 3D VR goodness--was just frickin' awesome. A note to future PyCon presenters when coming up with your proposals--lasers, lasers, LASERS!

I don't mean to be so down on PyCon. I had a good time, I was just exhausted from one end to the next. Exhausted before I even left, exhausted while I was there, and (surprise surprise) exhausted now that I'm home. I did really enjoy meeting folks, networking a bit, and soaking in the vibe... It just didn't manage to leave me as energized as I'd gotten used to, spoiled as I've been by PyCons past. Though stumbling across the excellent performance of "Stairway to Heaven" in the atrium thoroughly lifted my spirits. So few people seemed to even notice that it was almost like a private gift just for me.

I've got about seven hundred photos to wade through to find promising candidates to share; please bear with me as the lucky few take their time to escape into my Flickr stream.

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No Business Like Snow Business


You Don't Say
Originally uploaded by mikepirnat.

March 1 was strangely mild; I laughed derisively when the weather lady declared that it was "coming in like a lamb" for once. Silly, silly woman. As a recent fortune cookie told me, "the lion, when hunting, does not roar." And that's what our small handful of balmy days were--that nice peaceful time before the lion pounces and tears you limb from limb.

So, after a Tuesday ice storm that had my car out of commission all day (plow didn't come before work, I got my car stuck in the ice and snow, and did some underbelly damage in its extraction, Liz was paying close enough attention that she was able to stock up on food and supplies before the whole state got socked on Friday. Her efforts made sure that once I was home from work on Friday, we could just hole up in the house and watch the snow come down, and down, and down down down, burying our yard and turning the neighborhood into an icy moonscape.

We entertained Claire. We had cocoa. I played a ton of Mass Effect. We watched a couple ski down the street. And still the snow kept falling, and falling.

Finally, on Sunday, the weather broke, our plow guy cleared out our driveway, and we emerged into the sunny day to explore the new world.

I shot a bunch of photos on Saturday and Sunday, including some great shots of Claire.

While I enjoyed having an excuse to wear my Jayne hat, I think it's safe to say we're all looking forward to spring.


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