Transit of Venus

Next week something rare and special will be happening in the cosmos. The planet Venus will pass directly between Earth and the sun. This last happened in 2004 and will not happen again for another 105.5 years. Observers in North America will see the transit during the evening of June 5, 2012 from 6 p.m. until sunset for those of us on the East Coast. It is NOT safe to look directly at the sun, even with sunglasses or through your telescope or telephoto lens. But you can watch a transit webcast, get eclipse glasses or make a pinhole projector.
Photo Geek Footnote: ISO 160, 1/13 second at f/13 with a 300mm lens.
But all this talk about the sky made me think about how to best photograph the sky and the many wondrous things we can see in it.  When photographing a sunset or the moon it would be great if you had a tripod and a long lens. The image above is the waxing moon last night. I used a 300mm lens on a tripod. I set my ISO as low as possible because the higher the ISO the grainier the image. I pre-focused the image and then set the timer. Often you will need to use shutter speeds of 1/15 second or lower which necessitates a tripod. I always use the timer as well, as I find that even pressing the shutter button creates some camera shake resulting in a blurry image. I made very sure that the light part of the moon was exposed correctly by looking at my histogram.
Photo Geek Footnote: ISO 1000, 1/640 second at f/7.1 with a 200mm lens.
This image of a sunset and two egrets was photographed at Sunset Beach, North Carolina. I did not have a tripod with me so I used a faster ISO and shutter speed. Large lenses can be heavy, so I braced myself against the dock railing, held my breath and shot. I was sooooooo pleased that I happened to catch the silhouette of these two beautiful birds as they passed through my shot.
Photo Geek Footnote: ISO 320, 0.6 second at f/2.8 with a 55mm lens.
Finally we have an image of a red moon taken at Ocean Isle, North Carolina. On June 15, 2011 the longest total lunar eclipse in 11 years occurred. This turned the moon a dusky, blood red. I did have my tripod with me this time, as well as my 200mm lens. Again, I went for the slowest ISO possible and was very careful to not let the highlights get overexposed. I wanted to see the texture of the moon as well as the reflection on the water below. So pretty! These photos make me want to go to the beach now! Thank goodness summer vacation is almost here.
I hope that everyone gets to see the transit of Venus safely on the evening of June 5, 2012. Venus is roughly the size of Earth. It will be amazing to see how small it is in comparison to the sun. Have fun photographing the sky! If you have any questions or comments just write to me at

Spring Gardening in Chapelboro

Some gardeners know how to gently coax life out of even the most delicate plant. They study the soil, the available light, the plants specific needs and even give plant food and sprays to keep their plants healthy. My kind of gardening would be opposite of that. It could be called survival of the fittest gardening. I love these plants but once they are in and established they either need to thrive or they will be replaced. I will weed and mulch the beds but I don’t water and I rarely fertilize. So my favorite plants are made for our climate and are hardy as well as beautiful. I want to talk about my two favorite April plants today.
Kerria Japonica is not very common. I see a ton of forsythia, which is also yellow and blooms at the same time, but this plant, called The Japanese Yellow Rose, is overlooked. The branches have a weeping willow feel to them and the yellow blooms last for weeks. I have both the “Plenaflora” and the “Honshu” variety, but prefer the former. When mature this deciduous shrub is 3 to 5 feet in height. I have heard that some Kerria plants rebloom off and on all summer long but I have not seen this. Perhaps it is because I don’t baby them enough. They like well-drained soil and perform best in partial shade. Below are three photos of this magnificent plant.
Jenn Baucom Ayscue in front of the Kerria for her bridal portrait.
My littlest guy, Leo, when he was just 2. Don’t worry, the kid has pants on!

Paige O’Luanaigh who wanted a headshot with a Monet-type feel.
Azaleas are very popular here. When I bought my home 11 years ago there were 20 azaleas bushes in the yard. They have all thrived with little care. Each April they bloom, turning my yard into a wonderland. Azaleas are in the genus Rhododendron. They are generally healthy, long-lived plants when their basic requirements are met. They like well-drained soil and partial shade to full sun. To see if you have well drained soil, dig the hole and fill it with water. If the water has not drained out of the hole within one hour, the soil is poorly drained. It is best to trim your azaleas right after they bloom. Here are three photos of some of azaleas in my yard.
Briana Corke Pelton came in for a Spring bridal portrait. This image was taken in the shady part of my yard where they azaleas really brighten up the woods.
Again, we have Briana with the azaleas. These bushes are in a much sunnier spot. I love how they do well all over.
Jenny Noonan and Andy Edmonds brought both sets of grandparents in town for a portrait with their two children, Robbie and Rosie. Thank you azaleas for making my job so easy!
Thanks for reading! I am always looking for great photo stories to tell in the Chapelboro area. If you know of someone or something that should be documented, please write to me at

Trayvon Martin

Like most parents, I am trying my best to teach my children vital life lessons so they will eventually be equipped to go out on their own to find happiness and success. We talk about self-respect as well as respect for others. I tell them that you are only as good as your word. Even though none of my kids are even close to driving yet, I promise them that if they are ever in a car with a friend who is driving and drinking, they can call me for a ride any time, day or night, no questions asked. We talk about the importance of education. We all see it as their key to getting to do their life’s work. Oh, the places they will go! We discuss taking good care of your body since it is the only one you get in this lifetime. But, it had not yet occurred to me to warn them not to wear a hoodie.

The Trayvon Martin case has really shaken a lot of us up. If you have been living under a rock, let me tell you the basics. Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old African American boy who lived in Sanford, Florida, a community north of Orlando. On a recent evening, he was on foot returning home to his father’s house from a gas station with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone. Meanwhile, George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain armed with a gun, was following him and saw him as a threat. Zimmerman fatally shot Martin and has not been arrested as he told police he killed him in self-defense. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law supports that defense, although he was the only one armed.

In the days following Martin’s murder, the news has exploded with facts about the case, about Martin’s character and his actions towards Zimmerman. This will all eventually be sorted out. But, basically this case has made me see how dangerous it can be to simply be black, especially a black male like my two sons. I am also so frightened that nearly anyone can get a gun, and the laws are becoming more and more permissive. But race is what I want to talk about today.

I was married to my children’s father, an African American of Nigerian descent, for a decade. I saw glimpses of how my ex-husband interacted with society, compared to how people treated me as a blonde, white woman. For example, I remember that when we were shopping he always asked me to carry the bags as we wandered from store to store, as he did not want to be accused of shoplifting. Our close family and friends, who are from a wide variety of races and cultures, generally see people for who they are, not just what they look like. But some others will just see my children’s skin color. Until the Martin case burst onto the scene I had forgotten that I need to remind my children that there are ignorant, frightened people in our society who will only see that they are black and will automatically assume many things about them, most of which are not pleasant.

Last night I watched my boys, 5 and 8, play basketball in the yard. Leo was Harrison Barnes and Roman was Tom Robinson. (Yes, you can tell we are still processing the UNC vs. Kentucky game.) The late afternoon sun was illuminating them beautifully, so I took a quick photo. The sun kept going down and it was getting too cool for their sleeveless shirts so they put on hoodies. I just didn’t have the heart to warn them yet about walking around in a hoodie.

So, now I realize I need to add some life lessons about racism to my repertoire. Mentally, I had placed us in a safe bubble because we live in a liberal, accepting community like Chapel Hill/ Carrboro. Our particular neighborhood is very tight-knit and supportive. We all know each other and watch out for each other. But my job as a parent is to prepare them for the world.

I am just so sorry about the senseless death of Trayvon Martin, but it has helped me to face up to the fact that I need to remind my children that, although we have come a long way, racism, ignorance and fear are still out there and we must be wary.

Please feel free to continue this discussion by emailing me at or by leaving a comment. As always, thank you for reading.

Spring Has Sprung

Spring is my favorite season, for so many reasons. Growing up in chilly Green Bay, Wisconsin, Spring meant the exciting thawing of the dreary snow and ice that had covered everything since Halloween. Since moving to North Carolina in 1987, Spring  now means an overwhelming outburst of daffodils, forsythia, red buds and azaleas, to name a few. And my daughter, Amira, was born on the first day of Spring, just as the sun came up, 11 years ago. Also, my birthday is in April. So you can see I have many reasons to celebrate this time of year. I truly think Spring is magical and always will. This blog post is dedicated to the Spring flowers in my yard and around Chapelboro. Enjoy!

Amira, my Spring baby, in a weeping cherry.
In Chapel Hill, Jeff Erick Essen has a veritable springtime show in his yard! Featured here is an apple-pear tree branch in the foreground with red bud and weeping cherry in the background.
I planted bulbs this past winter and could not believe how many tulips came up. This was the first one to open.

On the left is a close-up of a weeping cherry blossom. On the right are my sons, Roman and Leo, under my deciduous magnolia with saucer flowers. People call these tulip trees because of the shape and bright color of their flowers.
Please be sure to ask any questions you may have! I am also always open to suggestions for photo stories. You may write me at If you don’t want to miss any Snapshots from the Hill posts, please subscribe to the RSS Feed.

Thanks for reading!

Tip Three – How to Compensate for Auto Exposure

I began my photography career as photojournalist for newspapers. At the time it was a field dominated by men who held certain, hardcore values. One of which was that it was a sign of weakness to use a tripod, auto focus or auto exposure. I was young and easily influenced at the time so I tried hard to live up to that standard.

Eventually I realized that both auto exposure and auto focus are great tools. When used properly, they can free you up to think more about your image composition and the scene unfolding in front of you. Plus, what good is a great photo if it is improperly exposed? And, I must admit, I even use tripods from time to time now as well.

Auto exposure settings vary from camera to camera. I am a Canon user. But it is universal to have these camera settings:
–       Automatic or Program (P): the camera automatically sets the shutter speed and aperture to suit the subject’s brightness.
–       Manual (M): you set both the shutter speed and aperture desired.
–       Aperture Priority (AV): you set the desired aperture and the camera sets the shutter speed automatically to obtain correct exposure suiting the subject’s brightness.
–       Shutter Priority (TV): you set the desired shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture automatically to obtain correct exposure suiting the subject’s brightness.
I don’t ever use the fully automatic setting. I use the manual setting when indoors or at night most of the time. But I use both aperture and shutter priority constantly when outside. For instance, if I am outside photographing children running around I use shutter priority (TV) to make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to capture the fast action (ie. 1/250 or higher). Or another example would be if I am taking a landscape photo of beautiful scenery, I would use aperture priority to make sure I had deep depth of field (ie. f/11 or higher).

Autoexposure isn’t perfect. A camera sees a scene as grey. The camera doesn’t have a smart, flexible, sentient brain like you. Because they are designed to accurately capture a scene that has an average reflectance of middle gray, your camera is puzzled by setups that don’t fit this ideal. Sometimes you have to override the camera’s auto settings just a bit using exposure compensation. Let’s begin by looking at some of the most common situations where your automatic exposure system will have a problem and then explore how you can easily achieve perfect exposure.

Photo Geek Footnote: Using aperture priority- ISO 400 f/8 at 125th of a second.
We have not had a proper snow this year so these snow photos date back to Christmas 2010 when it snowed on Christmas Day. Fun! I had my children and two of their cousins over for a sleepover. We all woke up early to play in the winter wonderland. My camera saw the snow as grey, rather than white. So using shutter priority resulted in a dark image as seen above. To lighten a picture, you increase the exposure (+). I do this by either turning the exposure compensation to +1 or +2. Or you may also just switch to manual and set it to one or two stops above the correct exposure.
Photo Geek Footnote: Using shutter priority (I wanted a fast shutter speed to catch crazy kids running!)- ISO 400, f/4 at 1/1000th. I set the exposure compensation to plus one. I checked my histogram (see Tip One) to make sure all was well.
Photo Geek Footnote: Setting my camera manually (I set it so it was two stops below what was shown as a correct exposure.)- ISO 400, f/3.2 at 0.8 seconds.
In a scene with many dark tones, the camera sees them as all grey. If you let the camera choose your exposure, your image will be too light. So trick it by stopping down one or two f/stops. If you are shooting digitally you need only look at your histogram or preview. If it doesn’t look great, go down another stop.
Photo Geek Footnote: In this case I am photographing two incredibly cute, dark-haired children in the studio against a dark background. I am using my studio lights to illuminate, but set them 1 stop lower than I would have for a more middle grey scene.
If you missed the second part of this series read it HERE.
Please be sure to ask any questions you may have! I am also always open to suggestions for photo stories. You may write me at If you don’t want to miss any Snapshots from the Hill posts, please subscribe to the RSS Feed.
Thanks for reading!