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Friday Slide Show: A Chihuly Selection Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

2 January 2015

It's the time of year for fireworks. The fuse lit, it sails into the dark sky and explodes into color. The colorful glasswork of Dale Chihuly strikes us as a near equivalent, the colors permanently exploding in the dark. The trick has been in artfully presenting what is itself a work of art.

That's not unlike the art of translation, it occurs to us. You start with a work of art and present it as artfully as you can in a different context.

So these 11 images, a small sampling of our collection, are not catalog depictions of the Chihuly exhibit at the de Young museum in 2008. They are interpretations of it.

That begins in Lightroom 5, as usual for our slide shows, with the crops that hide some lines to emphasize others. And that by itself was both great fun (there's no one right way to do it) and something of a betrayal. The betrayal is forgivable because this is a two dimensional portrayal of a three dimensional object, an object designed to be experienced in space.

And Chihuly himself, we think, might not mind much. He generously permitted photography during the exhibition. We took both a digicam and a dSLR to the show and enjoyed both. We wrote about it at the time and reprise that article for you below.

After the crop we applied a uniform amount of Clarity to all of them, sharpening the images derived from the DNG files noticeably. We didn't bother with the JPEGs mentioned in the article.

Then we adjusted the Shadow slider to bring up the darker colors and the Highlight shadow to intensify the brighter colors. That was it for the creative side.

On the technical side, these were shot at ISO 800 and exhibited some noise in the shadows even at our 800-pixel reduction here. So we kicked the luminance noise reduction up from zero to between 30 and 55 to smooth things out.

When we were done we had our own fireworks display exploding across the screen to start the year. Enjoy!

Shooting Chihuly

We were getting our arm twisted by our physical therapist when she asked if we'd seen the Chihuly exhibit at the de Young. Dale Chihuly is a glass blower from Seattle who has taken the medium from cordial classes and figurines to forests and ceilings. Kenneth Baker, a local art critic, had just chastised the museum for pandering to blockbuster crowds by displaying merely decorative pieces with no intellectual content. Of course that's how we got Manhattan.

We hadn't been yet, we confessed as she tightened her grip, but it was on our list, we promised. We'd seen a PBS documentary on him a while ago, which we remembered for his installation in Jerusalem, a show that transported huge blocks of ice for a night time light show that were left to melt in the hot sun of the Middle East. It sounded like fun.


And the attraction of seeing bright, shiny, colorful shapes of glass creating their own landscape of drips and bowls and spikes and balls has been greatly enhanced by Chihuly's generous decision to allow photography of his work. Baker perhaps would find that self-serving (and it no doubt counts as 1,000 times more valuable than mere word of mouth if a picture really is worth a thousand words).

But the stuff photographs very well (no flash, incidentally). We took a Panasonic TZ50 with us on one occasion and a Nikon D300 on two others. We also observed a lot of camphones at work (mainly in the hands of young girls, madly shaking them left to right as they took a picture). Digicams predominated (both compacts and long zooms), but there were quite a few dSLRs in each room, too.

That's because the rooms are packed with people, no doubt. Entry is timed so don't expect to get right in. You may have a half hour or hour wait (but there's plenty to amuse yourself with upstairs).


While the glass is well lit with white spotlights, the background is theatrical black. Depending on how you frame your shot, that contrast can confuse your camera. But most cameras using center-weighted metering with the subject in the center of the frame will do fine in Auto or Program mode, especially if you fill the frame with glass.

That's how we shot the show with the Panasonic TZ50. The LCD showed us right away if there was any serious trouble with the shot, of course. We did enable ISO up to 1600 and our shots that included some black in the background tapped into that, while shots whose frames were filled with colorful glass were at ISO 800. On occasion we did crank down the exposure -1 EV.

Shooting the explanatory placards is a good idea but they are particularly poorly lit in this exhibit. Still, you should get an image that's readable. Zoom in on the image in Playback mode to check.

The biggest problem we had was capturing the reds, but the problem was exaggerated on the camera's small LCD. On the computer, the reds were not as washed out as they appeared on the camera.

So we were glad we left the TZ50's white balance set on Auto.


With the dSLR, we had a lot more options. Because the rooms are so dark, we took a clue from our TZ50 shots and bumped up the ISO to a conservative, noise-free ISO 800. We left the white balance set on Auto again, unsure what the source really was. Our first test shots confirmed the camera could figure it out, so we didn't set a custom white balance.

With the large crowds, we weren't really in a position to fine tune exposure from shot to shot, so we settled on Shutter Priority mode with a borderline handheld setting of 1/30 second and Vibration Reduction enabled on our zoom lens to help steady that. Sometimes the window we had to get the shot we wanted was almost as fleeting as at a sporting event.

We also tended, the second time around, to shoot more of the black background, isolating the profile of a piece rather than shooting it whole, or concentrating on the line of a bowl's lip or the color of its shell. So we also underexposed -0.7 EV. The glass was still bright and the color accurate but the dark background was submerged.

We used Active D-Lighting (something we normally do anyway) in Normal mode because these were high-contrast shots. We shot everything as Raw+JPEG and were quite pleased with the JPEGs we brought home.

For the most part, we weren't interested in capturing much depth of field and instead relied on selective focus (tweaking auto focus with a twist to the focus ring now and then) to highlight one shape or piece in a field of color.

The second time we visited with the D300, we shot in Manual mode at ISO 800. Shutter speed varied from 1/15 to 1/30 second (thanks to the Vibration Reduction lens we used) while apertures ranged from wide open (at whatever focal length we used) to f7.1. Except for Active D-Lighting, there were no other enhancements.

If you're doing this right, the histogram is going to be well clipped in the darks (merging the distracting background detail into black). But you should have some data at the right end. Exposures were very similar to our Aperture Priority shots but we worked a lot harder to get them, bracketing f-stops along the way.

Oddly enough, our exposures were in the same range for the public picture galleries. So, despite the dramatic difference in appearance, the light levels appear to be quite similar.


In rooms with larger pieces we enjoyed leaning against the back wall, twisting our zoom to wide angle and even dropping into Live View mode to snatch an overall shot of the piece with the crowd silhouetted in front of it. There was always time later to sneak in closer, squat down and get a different angle of the piece.

Filling the frame with a brightly colored bowl, cropping the left and right sides so the edge cut through the image like a knife led to some interesting images as well. Again, it was easy to zoom out and shoot the whole piece for reference, but the fun was in cropping the line and color. And not just bowls, either. All sorts of spikes and swirls and dips and tips profited from closer inspection than an overall view could give.

Oh, and that camera shaking we mentioned? Turns out the camphones use too slow a shutter to get a sharp handheld shot, so the trick was to really blur the color. Special FX, you know.


There's something compelling about the bright color of blown glass in the subdued palette of our natural world, something about that shine in our otherwise dusty environment which promises only inevitable corrosion. Whether it's art or not, we leave for you to decide. But if you bring your camera to the show, you may actually make some art of your own.

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