Embracing the Blur

Blurry pictures are not generally a goal in photography. But there are times that blur in a photo is used as a means of conveying motion. There are a couple of different ways to accomplish this. Calling upon my most faithful backyard model for this motion photo shoot, we dusted off the old cruiser bike and headed out. The first way to convey motion with blur is to put the camera on a tripod, compose the scene, set your exposure settings using a slow shutter speed (anything from 1/30 and lower will work) and have something or someone move through your scene.

DSC_0934motionThe shutter speed I used for this was 1/25. I tried a slower one of 1/8 and it was so slow the subject was unrecognizable.

At the playground, a tether ball beckoned.

DSC_0935motionSo, we set up and had some fun here.

DSC_0940motionFor old time’s sake. . .

DSC_0943motionAnother method of conveying motion is panning. This involves following a subject with your camera creating a blurred background and focused subject.

DSC_0952motion1To achieve this effect, use the tracking mode in auto-focus (or as an alternative you can preset your focus to the spot you will be capturing your image), a slower shutter speed  (once again anything from 1/30 down), holding the camera very steady follow your subject in the viewfinder and moving the camera in the same direction as your subject, shoot away. A fluid movement is key to this effect. If there is any jerkiness your subject will also end up out of focus. A mono-pod or tripod can be used but sometimes this is more troublesome, the choice is yours. This works best for subjects moving in a predictable motion that remain at a constant distance from you; subjects moving in a line parallel from you. Cars, bikers, joggers and pets (anything moving really) are all fun subjects for the panning technique. It can be tricky and may require some practice but is a fun tool to add to your photographic toolbox.

So go on and get out there and embrace the blur!

Shih tzu dog at play

~ Susan

Blur can be used in photos to convey motion and this can be achieved by using a slower shutter speed and keeping your camera still on a tripod while an object or something moves through your scene creating a blurry subject and focused background or by using a slower shutter speed and moving your camera with your subject creating a blurry background and sharp subject.

Think of things in motion you everyday and how you can convey that motion in a photo.
Using a tripod, set up and capture the blur of something moving while the rest of a scene stays in focus.
Pan your camera with a moving subject. This may involve taking many photos to get one but it’s worth it.

Call upon your most faithful model and set up a scene with them in motion. Could be jogging, skateboarding, bike riding, scootering or even simply walking with gusto and try using both motion capturing techniques on them. Play around using different shutter speeds also.

The Weekend Dish – Curried Butternut Squash Soup

curried butternut squash soup

There are a few food scents that upon detection send me to my “happy place” – cinnamon, cloves, roasting garlic and to a slightly lesser extent coffee and cooking bacon. A new addition is curry. This month, I have been making dishes with curry more than usual and I have noticed it is beginning to have that happy effect on me. Recently, returning home after making this soup, I am transported to my aroma therapy happy place. The faint curry scent coupled with the delicate squash create an olfactory bouquet I view as a little gift to myself. In the five seconds or so I am mentally reveling in this gift, my daughter exclaims, “mmm, smells good!”, a bonus gift!

The squash, with the help of a few supporting ingredients, is elevated to a smooth, warm, savory delight and allowed to shine.

_MG_8721soupFor this simple yet elegant soup. . .

Curried Butternut Squash Soup

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cups chopped onion
2 Tbsp chopped, seeded jalapeño pepper
1 tsp curry
6 cups cubed, peeled butternut squash (about 3 pounds)
4 cups water
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp dry sherry

Heat olive oil in a dutch oven or large pot over medium heat. Add onion; cover and cook   5 minutes. Stir in jalapeño and curry, and cook 2 minutes. Stir in squash, water, and salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes or until squash is tender. Place half of the squash mixture in a blender ; process until smooth (or can be processed in pan using a hand held blender). Pour the puréed squash mixture into a bowl. Repeat the procedure with the remaining squash mixture. Return the puréed squash mixture to the pan and stir in the sherry. Can be brought back up to a simmer and kept warm.

curried butternut squash soupThe perfect dish for warming a cold, winter day.

Try it this weekend and see if you will be transported to your “happy place”.

~ Susan

Lessons from winter

Can I weave a nest for silence,
weave it of listening,
layer upon layer?

May Sarton, from “Beyond the Question”

I told you once, there are four of us Backyard Sisters.  Today’s post comes from the eldest,  Theresa, prompted by a telephone conversation.


“I drove in the dead winter,” she tells me one day.  “From Des Moines to Minneapolis. And it was darker than dark except for headlights on the highway. And I thought of letters flying through cyberspace, of too many words, like those headlights.


“And I thought of a poem by May Sarton.  Then I wrote this for you.”

Theresa’s my hero. She finds a way to quietly approach life, to focus as if each moment, each person, each word matters.  I’m happy to share my big sister with you.  Here’s Theresa…


“words once spoken, can tear down or build up – but can never be destroyed.”

I wrote that when I was 14 or 15 years old, probably after an angst-producing adolescent moment – and I still think about words a lot.


This 27 ft x 17 ft sculpture, Nomade, is by Jaume Plensa, who “envisioned the letters as building blocks for words and ideas, in the same way human cells form tissues, organs and bodies.”  It sits in Des Moines’ outdoor sculpture park.

DSCN0865I too believe that words and ideas form us in the same way our cells give us shape and I believe that we are all the better that words can’t be destroyed or we would have lost our earliest stories.

But one must first become small,

nothing but a presence,

attentive as a nesting bird,

May Sarton, from “Beyond the Question

I also think about how today thoughts can be casually dispatched as quickly as you can type and in a split second be launched at someone or some group and preserved forever in our digital minds.

I picture cyberspace as the darkest of nights, illuminated by flashing lights like lightening bugs and trailing comets, letters strung together careening and whistling to their intended targets.

And then I think about us, how we see this chatter, day and night, incessant words, constant words, bathing our thoughts and I wonder what will come of this, what are we building?

What happens in a world when conversation is mostly visual and  there are few pauses between our words? Where are the spaces in our communication now, the opportunities to pause and reflect before answering, or to just sit in comfortable silence with one and other.

Beyond the question, the silence,

before the answer, the silence.

May Sarton, from “Beyond the Question


This amazing technology that allows us to connect instantly is for the most part a gift, allowing families and friends to share their lives in a way never before possible. But like all blessings, it might also be a curse, teasing us into believing that putting thoughts into words without pausing to consider the effect or substituting virtual reality for an opportunity to connect with a real person is the way it is supposed to be.

I have no answers – I suppose when the telephone first became available to most people, there were those who declared it unnatural and dangerous to humanity, most likely by someone like me who tends to think too much… However, quite by accident, I stumbled upon a book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle.


Sherry Turkle is director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self and spoke with Krista Tippett about this topic on “On Being” recently. Do you think we really expect less from each other?  I’m going to download the book on my Nook and start reading.

You don’t expect me to throw the baby out with the bathwater do you?  I’ll let you know what I learn.  Until then,

Happy wandering –

p.s. Catherine here ~ What would happen if today, this week, this year, you focused on treating the words you release as precious as art, as air?  Celebrate silence. Be attentive “as a nesting bird.” Speak and write carefully.


It’s a Wild Life

I am a paparazzo. Positioning myself in the optimum position to capture the subject while trying to remain hidden so as not to spook it. There have been rumors of sightings. I have actually seen them here before, in this exact location, but this time they are proving to be elusive. I lay on the ground as flat as possible behind a large bush, checking the camera settings; at the ready, finger on the shutter. . . there he is! Snap!_MG_8627birds
It’s a goldfinch! Joining another one for breakfast.

_MG_8625birdsNot unlike celebrities going about their daily lives, birds are difficult subjects – camera shy, flighty, never staying too long in the same spot – downright evasive.


Sometimes you get lucky and are able to catch them at rest.


Giving you more time for focusing and composing the shot.


More often than not though, you will be trying to capture a moving object . . .

hummingbird and sage

When trying to get that shot, and focus on the avian subject, you have choices. You can use auto-focus or manual focus. When choosing, auto-focus there are options within that choice – the options I describe pertain to Canon cameras, so if you have another type you will have to refer to your user’s manual for the exact terms for your camera. The auto-focus options are:  One Shot mode – which is used for still subjects,  AI Servo – for moving subjects ( if the subject is moving and the focusing distance keeps changing the camera tracks the subject) or AI Focus – for switching between the two ( if the subject is still and then moves it will switch to the AI Servo mode from the one shot mode). The auto-focus mode can be nice for capturing active subjects out in the open.Take your camera to a location where you know those celebrities congregate out in the open; perhaps near your local watering hole.

pelicanStart in either the AI Servo or AI Focus modes and shoot away.


Often, our feathered friends choose to hang out in trees or on bushes with a lot of branches. This can create a problem with auto-focus because if the bird takes flight the camera will sometimes try to focus on the branches. The other option is manual focus discussed last week.  If having trouble in auto-focus mode switch to manual focus and see which setting works best for you in your situation.

Sometimes those avians can be very accommodating. . . “I’m ready for my close-up!”

_MG_8552birdsKeeping both eyes focused in the trees.

~ Susan

When using auto-focus there are options as to how the camera handles the focusing of a subject. If your subject is still use One Shot mode, if your subject is moving use AI Servo mode and if your subject will be still at times and then move choose AI Focus mode.

Use auto-focus in each of the three different settings and conditions this week and see how your camera responds. Birds make excellent action subjects but choose whatever you like.

Become a bird paparazzo capturing your subjects by being as unobtrusive as possible so you can catch them acting naturally, or catch them before they fly away!

The Weekend Dish – Thank You

Dear One,


(You are amazing. I love you beyond the clouds and back.)

I found your note, tucked under the honey jar after the dinner party.  It’s hard to know exactly what made you underscore “amazing.” Was it the dancing in the kitchen after cheesecake? The roaring laughter at the table when you told that story about a sprinting basset hound? Whatever dear friend, it was really nothing, you know, nothing more than deciding to open up the door, serve a little food, and add some candlelight. For the record, you are amazing too. And for that, I’m grateful.

DSCN2554A few years back I had this idea to keep all my Thank You notes. At the time I thought I’d collect a pile, then paper a wall with them, or create a room border, maybe modge-podge them onto a tray. Yes, I’ll pause while you chortle.  At my earnestness. At my utter disregard for the fact that I have no crafting ability. But still, I save these treasures.

Thank you for including us! We enjoyed meeting some of your friends.
Thank you for spending a Saturday afternoon with me at the AFI Fest…

Merci pour the less-buttered chocolate cake…
Thank you for a wonderful semester of learning!
Thanks for your love and support during what has to be one of saddest times of my life…
Thank you so much for sharing your time, your words, and your poetry…

Thank You notes remind me of good times and of the importance of helping friends through  the sad ones.  They’re a living scrapbook of parties I’ve almost forgotten, of cakes I’ve made so frequently that I tend to I overlook how they might still be special to another. Thank You notes, sent and saved, draw in pen the invisible web of connected lives.

This weekend, take a minute – that’s really all it takes – and send a Thank You note.  Or, if you’re like my friend, write a note and tuck it in a hidden spot where it will be discovered later.  Either way, show a little gratitude for big things, yes. But focus on the small things too; the time spent together, the cake, the poem, the words said at just the right time.


To our readers, on this our 100th post – this one’s for you. You are amazing.

With No Crafting Ability Whatsoever Except When Using Words



Rock, paper, scissors…

Focus. Focus. I need to focus, to find an image, a metaphor to guide when life’s rapids churn around blind curves and threaten to upend me.

Rapids on the Reuss

Rapids of the Reuss, Illustration from 1,000 Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe

What’s the point, I wonder, of crafting a vision for a life, without a symbol? I try on images like new dresses.  Words from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden echo.

…beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?

The first time I heard of a life image was when my daughter’s friend, poised between college graduation and a new career, said “I want to be the Swiss Army Knife, you know, that guy who’s helpful in any situation.”


I’m not a knife. I am a rock. I am an island.  


No, I’m not a rock.  A stone is too immobile, improbable. Too cold.

Paper. Paperback writer, (paperback writer….) Too ephemeral.  Too easily ignited by flame and burned to ash.

Scissors. Sharp. Sharp tongued. Rock beats scissors.

Quick jot.
Things I love:
YouOf course. And…
Ocean.  Freedom.  Literature.

Woman’s search for image simmers on the back burner as I unpack more boxes to fill the new bookcases J built for me. I find Dove by Robin Lee Graham, a yellowed, dog-eared souvenir of my teenage reading taste.  “The true story of a 16-year-old boy who sailed his 24-foot-sloop around the world.”


Sailboat?  Closer.

I unpack a stack of freshly printed copies of dirtcakes, the literary journal I founded. I remember when I first hatched the idea of birthing a journal and asked around for  inspiration. A friend told me his favorite was Kayak Magazine.  George Hitchcock, Kayak’s founder, used to say,

A kayak is not a galleon, ark, coracle or speedboat. It is a small watertight vessel operated by a single oarsman. It is submersible, has sharply pointed ends…It has never yet been successfully employed as a means of mass transport.

“…operated by a single oarsman…” J and I kayak together and I’m a terrible backseat paddler.  Yet a daytrip to Venice Beach finds me walking along the canals, thinking of vessels, maybe boats with only one seat, not “a means of mass transport.”


Did you know almost 100 years before George Hitchcock started Kayak Magazine, another man took off alone to explore Europe in a canoe, selecting that vessel because,

…in the wildest parts of the best rivers…these very things which bother the “pair oar,” become cheery excitements to the voyager in a canoe. For now, as he sits in his little bark, he looks forward, and not backward. He sees all his course, and the scenery besides. With one sweep of his paddle he can turn aside when only a foot from destruction.

He can steer within an inch in a narrow place, and …can shove with his paddle when aground, and can jump out in good time to prevent a bad smash. He can wade and haul his craft over shallows, or drag it on dry ground, through fields and hedges, over dykes, barriers, and walls; can carry it by hand up ladders and stairs, and can transport his canoe over high mountains and broad plains in a cart drawn by a man, a horse, or a cow. (From A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Rivers and Lakes of Europe by J. MacGregor.)

Kayak. Canoe. Canoe. Kayak.  Some websites say the words are interchangeable, others cite leg and seat position as defining characteristics between the two.  Kayak is a palindrome, a word that reads the same from front to back. It moves only through human effort, glides silently, is open to the sun and moon, the breeze and stars. So too, the canoe.


Maybe for once the word matters less than the image. Kayak. Canoe. A noun. A verb. A vessel wherein the wildest parts of the river of life can, “become cheery excitements;” a vessel wherein the paddler “looks forward, not backward…and can jump out in time to prevent a bad smash;” a symbol to take along into the big wide open year.

With wobble and strength,

An image can remind you to stay on track with the life vision you set for yourself.

Explore things you love – books, places, people – for ideas to create your own personal  image.  Settle on this image/metaphor for the year.  Post it in a spot you see every day.

Read about others’ adventures where a single object becomes metaphor.  Herman Melville’s Moby Dick immediately comes to mind. What, that doesn’t sound like play to you? OK, fine; go out and kayak. Then send us a focused photo.

Take Back the Control, and Focus

Cameras are great! They are tools for capturing our lives and expressing ourselves, but there are times when they just don’t get it right. Using the auto features on a camera will often work and produce the desired vision but … it’s those times when they don’t that can be exasperating. There are certain situations, when using auto-focus, the lens will have trouble bringing into focus what you want in focus. Low light, low contrast, trying to take a picture of something behind another object and active subjects are all situations that can bring on the frustrating state of the lens searching for focus but never achieving focus lock. There is a solution! Slide the button on the lens over to MF (manual focus). Follow me as I tackle some of these situations on my photographic journey . . .

We have had some clear nights here in Los Angeles lately and the city lights have been shining and twinkling brightly. Wanting to capture the lights of downtown with the outlying suburbs, I drive to my favorite city light vantage point, set up with a tripod and find that in the low light of night, manually focusing the lens is the best way to achieve focus.

_MG_8386It makes me feel as if I am in an airplane looking out at the lights below.


On a recent bike ride, I spot five great blue herons in a field behind a chain link fence. This is a rare occurrence in my experience on this bike path, the most I have seen before is three. Wanting to capture all five in one shot but not being able to get around the fence, I put the lens in manual focus and use the focusing ring to focus through the fencing. Maybe not the ultimate shot but I was able to capture it nonetheless._MG_5542

Can you see them? Then, I kept manually focusing, so any fencing wouldn’t interfere with my intended subject, and zoomed in on them, one and two at a time, through the links.

_MG_5545 _MG_5548

Sitting in my backyard, I notice the flash of white of a Matilija poppy peeking through the other foliage in the garden. I decide to take the shot through the other foliage, which is out of focus, and thus creating a frame of sorts for the poppy.

matilija copyA hummingbird is flying around a sage bush searching for nectar, so I focus on the area using manual focus and capture it. Pre-focusing on the spot the subject is expected to appear is a technique to use to help you get the shot.

hummingbirdThe pre-focus technique will work for sports, dancing, anything where the subject is in motion and is in a fairly predictable location. Simply focus on the spot the subject is expected to appear using the focus ring in manual focus and take the shot once the subject enters the frame.

Now you are ready to take on some difficult shooting situations and conquer them!

~ Susan

Using Catherine’s lovely alliterative terms from last week,

The camera doesn’t always get it right in auto modes. Certain situations, such as low light, low contrast, moving subjects and subjects behind another object, are best approached with the lens in manual focus rather than auto focus.

Familiarize yourself with your lenses and the manual focus ring on them (it is different from the ring you turn on a zoom lens to zoom in and out.) Think of situations where you have had trouble focusing in auto-focus. Go out of your way to put yourself in those situations this week.

Get creative in low light or shooting through objects. Take a portrait in candle light or in a garden search out a flower or fruit hiding behind leaves and see if you can capture it through manual focusing.