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I was driving south toward Indiana this morning, and on a whim decided to detour on I-55 to visit those giant silos on South Damen Avenue.  The ones with the big “STATE AUCTION” sign on them, and all the graffiti.  This summer, I had a very enjoyable afternoon seeing them for the first time (even slipped under the fence, shhhh), and thought I would see how they looked in the snow.  Was not disappointed.

[Editor’s note:  I should really start a photoblog, and save CityForward for mostly text-based posts.  This fixed-width layout is killing me, as it conveniently snips off the right margin of all my landscape-oriented photos.  Straw poll:  Flickr, or a legit photoblog format?]

"State Property, No Trespassing" Sign

Silo through the fence, with AUCTION sign

Fence and Silos

Silo, Graffiti Detail

No Dumping Sign

Graffiti, "RIP AFRO 42"

Graffiti, "RIP EVOL"

Graffiti, Rabbit

Wreath in front of silos

Silos and building through the fence

Building skeleton

Graffiti on brick building

Brick building, with Sears Tower in the distance

Side building, river, and geese

Side building, river, and bench

Side building, river, and silos

Highway ramp toward home

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Family, friends, and cleaning have kept me from some quality LEGOing during the break, but I will at least take the time to write up a few tips about LEGO photography.  I need to preface by heartily emphasizing that I am not an expert, or even an experienced amateur, in this area.

For more skilled endeavors into taking brick pictures, check out the following links.  Or, just search for “Star Wars LEGO” on Google Image.  I can guarantee thousands of hits.  Thousands.  [Note:  I checked, it’s 2,500,000.]

The Brick Testament – LEGO versions of classic Bible stories

LEGO365 – Day-by-day photoblog of miscellaneous LEGO scenes

via Wired – “Lego Tableaus Re-Create Classic Photos

via Wired – “Historic Moments Recreated in Lego

Based on what I’ve done so far, I can offer a few helpful tips:

Setting the scene

  • Orientation.  Even if you’re taking photos from multiple angles, consider the scene as you would a stage – remove any of the “fourth wall” obstructions, unless you want them to be out of focus in the foreground.  A temptation might be to set up your photo as though it was candid and not contrived, especially something like a street scene or battle, but it won’t appear the same way as you intend from the photo’s single vantage point.  Also, it’s LEGO.  It’s going to look a bit contrived, not to say, plastic.  If you want to show interiors of buildings, consider building a cutaway, as I did in this condo build:

Cutaway of Condo Interior

  • Background.  If you’ve already browsed some of the above LEGO photo sites, you’ll noticed that often the background is very blurry.  This is usually a function of the camera’s macro setting (see below) but can be avoided by using relatively two-dimensional scenes.  Depending on the scene, a background may or may not be appropriate; occasionally the set’s original box will make a decent stand-in for a more complicated scene.  Posters, magazine images, and (for underwater scenes) that plastic “wallpaper” you can buy for the back of fishtanks also work great.  But in a pinch, any colorful surface can be put into the background for a generic non-white or -black background.
    Depending on the scene or scale of your build, using an outdoor scene might be useful.  A blue sky might be a nice “looking up” shot at your work.  Beware, however:  for minifig scale shots, things like grass, concrete sidewalks, or flowers will generally clash with your intended scale.  Unless you’re going for that Alice-in-Wonderland-caterpillar-scene look.

Sometimes just a wood floor is a decent background

For complete scenes, however, a blank background diminishes the effect

  • Poses.  I haven’t put much effort into LEGO tableaus which require a great deal of challenging poses.  The best I can offer here is, even if you’re only taking architectural photos, put a bit of thought into what your minifigs are doing in the scene, besides existing for scale.  Are they sitting or standing?  Talking or alone?  On the phone?  Reading?  Walking or running?  What are their hands doing?  Little details like this can make them more realistic, as it were.

These minifigs, a doctor and a woman of means, are waiting expressively for the bus

Taking photos

  • Use the macro setting.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Every (digital) camera has a macro setting – the little tulip/flower on the menu options.  (Note:  if your point-and-shoot is in “Auto” setting, it may not display this option – switch to “Manual” for more options.)  Not only does it focus on and maximize the sharpness of close objects – and because LEGO builds are small scale, you are inevitably right in front of them with your lens.  It also adjusts the flash so the light does not wash out the nearest objects.  Even if you don’t use the flash, macro mode can improve the clarity of your images.
    The two (potential) disadvantages of macro mode are:  1) extremely close focus tends to make the background very blurry, even when not far from the camera either; and 2) having a close flash will substantially darken the space behind the closest object, making a faraway black or very shadowy.  These can be adjusted for to some degree, but it is somewhat in the nature of LEGO photography to lose some of the depth of life-size photography.  The photos below illustrate the difference in quality between regular and macro mode – I’m still sold!

Bus stop photo, normal focus mode, with flash

Same shot of bus stop, macro (flower) focus mode, with flash

  • Flash or no flash?  As the above photos illustrate, macro mode makes a big difference.  Depending on the scene you want, light levels also make a big difference.  Because the flash tends to be very reflective, even in macro mode, sometimes it’s best to try to use directional light sources to achieve the effect you want.  If you have the option of shooting outdoors, this can also be a great way to light the scene (especially if you can get natural shadows from morning or afternoon sunlight).  Controlled lighting also gives you some crazier options, as shown below.
    While I’m not a fan of flash photography in most cases, I make an exception for LEGO.  Because I have a lot of white building pieces and, from my most recent purchase, even more of those, I tend to build white buildings with a red roof.  Using the flash indoors brings out those bright colors, whereas incandescent or fluorescent lighting can make the white too warm or cool.  This can be somewhat corrected in post-processing software (see below).  Generally speaking, however, a daytime LEGO scene is best lit with directional light with minimum shadows.

Even in macro mode, the flash can add excess glare and odd shadows in low light

I'm still not sure how the camera did this, but dramatic lighting can create interesting effects!

  • Vantage point.  When documenting your creation or setting up a tableau, consider your vantage point.  Shooting from straight above, or at an angle looking down, will produce a photo of a LEGO build; shooting at ground level will make the photo appear to scale for a minifig; shooting too low will be pretty much unrealistic.  While this seems obvious, even subtle changes in angle may make a difference – play around until you figure out what you want your camera height to be.  I am still perfecting this one myself.

Not quite right - the background is too blurry, and the camera is perhaps a bit too low

Getting closer - the height might be a bit off, but feels more realistic

Final edits

  • Adjustments.  Tweaking photos would be a series of posts in itself, so I’ll be brief.  Grab your favorite photo-editing software (both Adobe Photoshop and Corel PaintShop Pro have their merits, if you can afford either; GIMP is a generally-functional open-source freebie)  Unless the light you used completely washed out the photos, you generally don’t need to mess with saturation or contrast to make them realistic-looking – LEGOs are shiny plastic blocks that come in mainly primary colors, so they don’t need much help in the color department.  In fact, if you’re printing the photos on a regular printer, I’d recommend stepping back the saturation about 15% to adjust for ink levels.
    The main things I would recommend would be increasing some of the lights and shadows to compensate for the flash.  If you took photos outdoors on a sunny day, definitely balance out highlights and shadows.  And finally, you can enhance the difference between a clear focal point and surrounding objects by playing with the sharpen and blur functions in the program.  If the background was already blurry you can’t do much about it, but if you want to enhance the effect it’s easy to do with layers and lens blur.
    Also, don’t forget to crop out the stuff around the edges, especially if you only built the scene to extend to a certain point.  Easier to do in software than with the camera.

Binky's house, pre-retouch in Photoshop

Not a very precise job, but toning down Brightness and using Burn/Dodge adds some color back to the shot

Happy LEGO-ing and photo-ing!

The final installment of my NYC photos.  It was especially hard to choose for this set, as it includes shots of Williamsburg/Brooklyn, the High Line, AND Central Park.  I’ve chosen a mix of detail shots and, in the case of Central Park, some interesting pictures of actual people (rare for me, I know!) I encountered.

Back to writing soon.  As well as a brief discussion of how to do easy and successful LEGO photography.

Elevated Train to Williamsburg

Williamsburg, Bicycle

Williamsburg, Art Studio

Williamsburg, Glass Mosaic

High Line Park

High Line Park

High Line Park

High Line Park

Central Park

Central Park, Dog Walker

Central Park, Fountain

Central Park

Central Park, Boats

Central Park

Central Park, Boat

Central Park, Ties for Sale

Central Park, Parenting

Park Avenue, French Defenses

Parade Woman

… more specifically, the two new pavilions in the park dedicated to the centennial of the Chicago Plan, as envisioned by Burnham and Bennett.  I have not gotten a photo of them yet.

First:  maybe it was just that particular evening, but I noticed as many or more professional (looking) photographers taking photos of the new pavilions as there were actual people milling around and photographing them.  Tripods and such.  I think these might be more exciting to the press and architecture photographers than the average person; or maybe that’s just me who is underwhelmed by them.

Second:  walking around Millennium Park, I overhear a lot of people talking about their childhoods.  Totally supports my idea that the park is a big playground for adults as well as children.

A lot on my mind recently, and I’ve been delinquent in putting these thoughts down in digital form.

For the time being, here are some photos from today’s walk to downtown (I would say “to and from” but the rain made me wuss out and take the bus home).  I headed from Wicker Park to Grand Avenue, saw a movie, and spent a bit of time in Millennium Park until I got somewhat rained out.

A show of color on Grand Avenue

I walked underneath Michigan Avenue for the first time (or at least, first time in that direction) – here’s the stairs to and from the lower level.

Egress to and from Lower Wacker

The “American Gothic” statues at the NBC Plaza, against a backdrop of the Tribune building.  Still working on how to hold the camera vertically.

American Gothic Statues and Tribune Tower

The rain at Millennium Park wasn’t heavy, just enough to make the park-goers huddle together under umbrellas.

Umbrellas in Millennium Park

My favorite photo – I love the floral umbrella.  This might have been the usual number of people at the Bean, but they seemed to be seeking shelter underneath it.

Rainy Day at the Bean

Five sparrows sitting by the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park.  They flew away about five seconds later.

Sparrows in Millennium Park

The rainy bus ride home (and messing around with the focus function)

Rain on Bus Window

Three weeks, more or less, until I leave Chicago.  More thoughts on this to come.

I spent a few days in Columbus.

I purchased a new Nikon D40 d-SLR and am still figuring out what the heck to do with it.  So far, pro: it’s faster and definitely takes better-looking photos; con: it’s bulky and looks “like a camera” and is not as instant-gratification as the Canon SD400.  More work to come.

I lost a pet.  Or rather, chose the moment to have her be lost.

I met up with some old friends.

I didn’t pack hardly anything for Cornell, and kinda screwed myself over for my quick trip through Ohio in August.

I had a good cry.

And I found a nice thistle plant by a church.

A thistle plant in Clintonville

A thistle plant in Clintonville

I debated whether to post these, as they aren’t planning-related, but they are practice for other more relevant city photos, so it works out.  Why not.

In a pensive mood tonight.  Found myself lying down staring at my glasses.  Decided to focus distracted thoughts into visual representation.  Photoshop gets a thumbs up.

Things close at hand come into clearer focus

Things close at hand come into clearer focus

... other things are too close to see clearly

... other things are too close to see clearly

Reflection on a Sunday night’s walk home…

Relationship Status:  It's Complicated with The City of Chicago

Relationship Status: It's Complicated with The City of Chicago

While I’ve already violated my rule to not spend any money today (not to excess, at least!), I successfully spent the afternoon transit-free.  After a couple errands, I headed down Milwaukee Ave. to the Loop (according to Google Maps, at least 2.2 miles from Wicker Park).  On my to-do list were the Rookery Building, the Monadnock Building, picking up a couple books from the library, and another jaunt up the Nichols Bridge at the Art Institute.

My camera was gracious enough to keep the battery alive for the whole afternoon, and I came across some interesting stuff.  After a lovely mini-tour of Oak Park earlier this week, I’m starting to think about another one of downtown… judiciously avoiding most of the touristy stuff in favor of more interesting sites.

Interesting shadows of an old fire escape

Interesting shadows of an old fire escape

I finally saw the Rookery Building – definitely worth a visit!

Lobby of the Rookery Building

Lobby of the Rookery Building

The Nichols Bridge, the spatial liaison between Millennium Park and the AI’s Modern Wing, might be one of my new favorite things.  I really wish they would leave it open at night, I’m sure it’s a beautiful view of the city.

A visual reminder that Chicago was built on the railroads...

A visual reminder that Chicago was built on the railroads...

… And a bonus:  I found an old rail bridge.  Very cool.

Looking up at the old rail bridge

Looking up at the old rail bridge

All in all, a lovely afternoon.  I’ll miss this city.

Three cheers for RSS feeds!

I’ve recently started following Lens, the New York Times photojournalists’ blog.  Topics range from current events to slow-exposure photography of New York City to images dug up in the archives.  I just had to post this entry in particular – “Nature Triumphant,” a collection of post-2008-flood images from Iowa and Texas.  In spite of the tragedy of the event itself, these photos are utterly beautiful.  #5 is my favorite – the reflection of painted boats in real water.

It’s high time for another LEGO post.  In the meantime, marvel at the work of Brick Structures and the new Frank Lloyd Wright sets.  I can only hope the LEGO version of Fallingwater is more structurally sound.

The "other" bricks

The "other" bricks