The More Mistakes you Make, the Better You’ll Become

I found this article earlier today, thanks to someone who posted it on Facebook:

The only way to learn how to do anything is to make mistakes, learn why you made the mistakes, then go out and practice that same technique after learning it the corrected way so it becomes ingrained in your memory.  There are no limited number of ways to alter technique to improve any given scene…it’s a process that never ends.  No one ever reaches a point where they say, “OK, I’ve learned it all…I’m done!”

Keep messing up, and keeping figuring out why.  No matter how good you are, you’ll never run out of a shortage of mistakes.

Which brings us back around to the original point of the article I linked to:  Having a small camera with you all the time is not only good because you get to practice, think about light in different ways, learn to quickly adjust camera settings to suit your ideas, and think about composition and working a scene…it most importantly affords you the ideal situation for screwing up a shot.  Think about it: You’re usually in a hurry if you’re pulling out the secondary camera to grab a quick shot of a scene you like…you’re there for a different reason (i.e. at the mall to get something for your kids), but you just wanna grab this shot because something about it spoke to you.

Rushing a shot is a breeding ground for all kinds of mistakes.  Later on, pull these shots up on your computer at home and take time going through them, identifying all the technique blunders you made, and how you could have altered this setting, or moved your feet this way a little to improve the composition, or altered your metering to mitigate the highlights on one side of the shot, etc…

That’s the best thing about having a camera with you at all times:  It gives you the perfect opportunity to mess up, and to constantly learn at a pace you’d never set if you didn’t have the camera with you most of the time.

Some tips for beginners on portraits

It wasn’t long ago that I completed my first indoor portrait shoot, and it reminded me that maybe if someone else learns these simple steps, then they won’t have to learn them the hard way, as I did. (By screwing them up, then having to try it over again)

1) Practice with someone before you do your shoot. This sounds somewhat obvious, as practicing a craft is always a good idea. But, especially when you’re first starting out, trying out new settings, new locations for the lights, and different poses for the subject will go a long way towards you not only being more prepared to succeed, but will also give you a sense of security…even if it’s false (just kidding).

2) Play with your light settings in manual mode. I learned to shoot portraits using only manual settings on my speed lights. That affords me all of the control over the lighting so there are no surprises.  You want to avoid blown-out spots like the plague. Blown out spots on a face are pretty much impossible to cure, unless you’re an expert with the band-aid brush. If you have to choose overexposing or underexposing, I will ALWAYS prefer to underexpose. Modern cameras, (especially full frame DSLRS) are quite good at pulling light out of darker areas, but they still fail badly at pulling detail out of blown-out areas.

Think in terms of your histogram. Anything off the left side of the histogram will be too dark…and as long as it isn’t pitch black, it’s recoverable in Lightroom or PS. You cal pull those sliders to the right and bring detail back into the photo. However, stuff off to the right side of the histrogram is nasty, harsh, blown-out light that you can’t do anything with, unless you can clone it out. And good luck with that. As a general rule, I try to avoid cloning on the face, because sometimes you can end up with a Lego face without even realizing it. (When you’re doing the work, you lose perspective on how this would look to someone who hasn’t had their face buried into this picture for 8 hours).

To avoid a Lego face, we need to avoid blown out spots that fall off the left side of the histogram cliff. That’s where knowing your speed light manual settings really comes in.

Start out by, you guessed it, practicing. Doesn’t matter what is posing for you…a person, your dog, a stuffed kitty your grandma left you, a can of Ragu sauce…whatever. Well, whatever you choose, it should be something that is conducive to portrait photography…maybe something that’s close to being as big as what you’ll be shooting so you get similar situations.

I typically use umbrellas as my main and secondary lighting….one as a pass through (the key) and one as a bounce. That’s just my personal preference…I’ve gotten used to working with them. You will find your own comfort zone too. Well…I hope you do…it would kinda suck to do this for a living for a couple of decades and never go to a single shoot with a sense of comfort in your lighting setup. They would write books about your struggle. But I digress…

Start out with the main light on full power, just for the heck of it. Take a shot, and see what the histogram tells you. If you’re close to a good distribution of light, try moving your aperture on the camera up or down, to see how that alters the photograph.

Then drop down a stop of light on the main light, and shoot again. Move your aperture around a little again to get a feel for what happens.

Trivia question: In a situation with no ambient lighting…if you drop one stop of light on the light source, then open up your camera’s aperture by one stop (and do nothing else), what should happen to the amount of light? Generally speaking, the same amount of light should hit the sensor, assuming no one moved much during the intermittent time, and that ambient light wasn’t playing a major role in the lighting. Think about it: You dropped down the amount of artificial light in the scene by one stop…but, your aperture will now accept one more stop of light. Now, in a setting where your flash is just a minor fill flash, and most of your light is from ambient sources, bumping up the aperture by a stop will likely brighten the scene, as all that ambient light will have a wider path to your sensor.

The overall point…assuming I really have one, is that playing around with the flash level, and the aperture setting in your camera will give you VERY valuable learning tools to adjust to different lighting environments.

3) Keep It simple. Given that I know very little about how to manipulate the direction of light, I try to keep it very basic with portraits (unless the client asks for something different. Then I get all sweaty, my heart races, my throat gets all dry, and I have to count to ten to get my stuff together. And then, once I’m conscious again, I do what any good professional does most of the time…IMPROVISE!!

Want to walk away from this blog with only one truth? Here it is: Throughout life, anyone who acts like they always know what they are doing is ALWAYS full of you know what. It’s true. They’ve done studies…I read one on the internet a while back, so it’s definitely true.

I don’t care how smart you are or how long you’ve been doing something…you don’t know everything, and you never will. Anyone who admits otherwise is a potential asshat, and I’d advise staying away from asshat photographers. They take awesome photos, but man, they are atrociously annoying. Sorta like this blog.

Sorry, I digress again. I keep it very simple with a two speedlight setup, using two umbrellas, usually a muslin background of some sort, a stool for people to sit on, the tripod, camera, lenses, remote shutter release (a must!), and that’s pretty much it. I have gotten good enough at knowing how a two light setup affects the light on the screen…and as of yet, I have not had any reason to try any of the other millions of possible light setups.

Artificial lighting really isn’t an interest of mine within the realm of photography…I do it when clients ask me to. I enjoy doing it because I enjoy doing anything that has to do with photography, and I really enjoy helping to make a client happy. If the need ever arises to look into other lighting techniques…I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

I can hear one of you out there thinking (the one of you who’s reading this), “Well maybe by proactively learning some new lighting setups, you could make the scene look more attractive for the client, thereby helping my prime directive. And while that’s true, there what’s called an “opportunity cost” of practicing. Basically, opportunity cost means that, whenever you’re doing something, you do it at the cost of doing something else at that time. So if I take a full Thursday practicing artificial light, I lose that whole day when could have been doing something else…and you never get that day back. Use your time wisely. Especially as you get older…man, time really speeds up after you hit 40.

I remember back when I was a kid in school, it felt like a day and a half went by before a 45 minute class ended. Nowadays, I can’t do anything in under 45 minutes. Hours laugh at me as they fly by.

The only thing in my life that slows everything down for me is waiting for my computer to turn on. Regardless of what technologies may change, that one constant is always longer than it feels like it should be.

OK, enough…back to the topic, if there ever was one. Oh yeah, #3:

3) Talk to your client for a while before shooting.  This is especially true for firing squadsman.  Even if they are a lifelong friend…it will be a little awkward when you first start. (unless your friend is one of those kooky fashion people…I guess if you act awkward all the time, you never actually are?). I am kidding…I love all kooky fashion people…You make magazines worth reading.

If you are the kind of person who is good at disarming a tense situation, you will have a much easier time with this aspect of portrait photography…especially when shooting strangers. For those burdened with social anxiety, no matter how much you chat, there will always be a sense of uneasiness and you will probably not do portraiture for a living. If you do, please email me…I’d be incredibly impressed. For everyone else in between, it’s just a matter of getting into the “flow” of the scene. Once you get a little bit of comfort, then start out with some simple shots. Don’t forget to check those lighting settings!

Ask a lot of questions, even while shooting. Get into their brain a little, so you can start to anticipate what they are and aren’t comfortable doing. Trust them to be honest with you. Machiavelli would have been a crappy portrait photographer. Above average writer, though.

4) Don’t underestimate how important your camera height should be.  Just a little too high or low, and you get awkward-looking people. No one wants to see so much of a nostril that the first question posted in the mind of the viewer is, “Man I wish I could see in there just a liiiiitttttle more so I could tell what that thing sticking out is!”

A very general rule is a chest-high tripod, and focus for the eyes. That may change for a very tall person or a small kid or for tons of other reasons…but that’s the general rule.

You can easily hand-hold during shoots, and some photographers love the freedom it allows you. Just make sure your light settings are working with you!

5) Smile. A lot. No one wants to have a curmudgeon taking pictures of them. That’s just cruel. Make sure you’re having a good time…even if you aren’t. If you don’t let your subject know that you’re having fun, it can create concern and anxiety on their part, which leads to not getting the most out of your poses. And they definitely won’t use you again.

Just have fun. Portrait shoots usually are fun, because it places people in unnatural situations, and trying out new things is always a good time. And, if someone finds out how much they enjoy being in front of a camera, then maybe you’ve found someone who can help you practice for the low, low price of free!

To put an end to something that should have ended long ago (this blog post), here’s a crazy fun shot of a group of co-workings feeling that Holiday cheer!

They were a lot of fun to do a portrait shoot with…and that makes taking pictures SO much easier.


If I ever find myself…

in a slump…where I’ve hit a mental block…and temporarily lost confidence in my creative instincts.  Just one of those things where last few times I’ve gone out to shoot, I came back with nothing that inspired me.

I always try to remember this one simple bit of advice from Ansel Adams:


“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”




5 Of My Worst Photography Screw-Ups


Without further delay, here’s 5 of the most monumentally stupid things I’ve done…in photography.

No particular order:


1) Lens caps are like socks.  Where do they all go?

We will start out with a rather benign screw-up.  This event seems to occur especially when I’m packing my photo stuff for a trip.  Maybe a half dozen times or so, after I’ve arrived somewhere after a flight or a long trip, I open up the bag to unpack, and a lens is missing its cap.  I never see the cap actually fly off the lens.  I just take the lens out of the bag, and, no lens cap.

The way to protect yourself from the lens cap thief is to always keep a cheap lens filter on the front of the lens. So, even if you lose the lens cap, you’ve still got the lens filter protecting the front glass.


2) Tripod legs should be tightened.  

Each of my tripod’s legs has three sections…and each section is lengthened by turing a ring at the joint.  After pulling out the section of the leg, you then turn it the opposite direction it to tighten.  Makes sense, right?  One evening, waiting for the sunset to come down just off the horizon, I was in the process of mounting a lens on the camera, which was on the tripod at the time (via Arca-Swiss quick release…the absolute BEST mounting system). The lens neatly locked itself to the camera, just like always.  I took a quick look to make sure it was sturdy, gently holding the side of the camera.  Felt fine to me.

I released my hand from the camera…and the camera suddenly disappeared from my view…like the coyote upon realizing he ran over the cliff.  Familiar with the affects of gravity, I looked down.    (at least it was easier to find than a lens cap).  Sighed.  Closed eyes for what felt like about 3 days.  Looked down again for confirmation.  The tripod was standing on a somewhat muddy/gravel-like terrain…so fortunately the camera didn’t require any repairs.  Everyone was discharged that afternoon.

Fortunately, that was when I was using the Nikon D700, a camera hewn out of wrought iron: It could survive practically any and all beatings I threw at it.  That really was the perfect camera to learn how to shoot with.  We had our time together…we laughed, we cried.  Life goes on.


3) Don’t delete the memory card…until…

I was tired…it was late.  Long night of shooting a cool sunset.  Great puffy clouds with some good movement in them.  I felt good about some of the long exposures I had gotten and couldn’t wait to see them at the computer.  (Quick side note: I never even bother to judge the quality of a shot by looking at the LCD screen…it’s worthless.  Until you get the image up on a large monitor, don’t trick yourself into thinking an image is tack sharp)

I uploaded the images onto my iMac.  Keep in mind that the D800E has two memory slots, one for an SD card and one for a CF.  I use them for a mirror backup.  Each shot I take is recorded onto both cards…so if one dies, I still have the other.

After a couple of minutes, I heard the little bell letting me know the photos has been imported into Lightroom.  i pulled out the card, put it back into the camera, and, as was custom, I deleted both cards before putting the camera back on the shelf for the night.

I went back to the computer.  No images.  The bell sound was because I received a god damn email. I hadn’t even hit the button to begin the import.

Two morals: 1) Don’t make your email sound the same sound as your “photos import is finished” sound, and 2) Don’t delete your cards until you not only have imported the images onto your computer, but that you’ve also backed them up onto your backup drive.

That one still hurts.


4) When you manually focus a lens, it’s usually a good idea to focus.

This one happened very early on in my professional career..  It was a new client, and I was nervous.  When I’m nervous, I have a tendency to hyper-focus on one particular issue that I was concerned about.  That day, composure was the #1 issue on my mind.

I was very methodical during that shoot…making sure ISO was at 100, aperture at 11, set to aperture priority, etc…everything went smoothly.

For most interior shoots, I use the Zeiss Distagon 15mm.  A manual focus lens.  It’s not difficult to focus a 15mm lens at f/11.  Nevertheless, it IS important that you do actually focus the lens.

I felt great on my way back to the computer.  I was satisfied that I got some very good shots, some nicely composed images in what was a beautifully decorated home.

OK…for those of you who know how Lightroom operates…when you click on a particular file to view, it will immediately fill the screen (assuming you have it set to “fill” the screen with the image) with a version of the image with poor resolution while it says “loading” near the bottom of the screen. Once the image fully loads, the photo immediately clears up and you have the final product.  Well…yeah…you probably figured out what happened…I kept waiting and waiting, but the image never got any clearer after it loaded.  Four letter words began to float into my mind.

It took about a minute of wanting to carefully pull out the fingernails of everyone who worked for Adobe before I realize what had actually happened.  The images, especially as you venture further from the camera, were a little fuzzy, like the furniture hadn’t shaved in a few days.  I was so zoned in on the other facets of shooting, I had TOTALLY forgotten to focus the images.  ALL of the images.  The focus target was actually not far from hyperfocal distance, so the areas outside the circle of confusion weren’t horrifying…but they were awful to look at.

I felt like one of those doctors who put the cast on the wrong leg.  Photoshop is good, but there still isn’t an “Asshole Compensation” slider.

The final images would have been passable for their intended use…but I went back and reshot the house.  I am way too OCD to let that slide.


5) The descriptive terms for aperture and f/stop were created by someone with a real messed up sense of humor.

Who creates a system where the technique is described like this:  “When you stop down, the f-stop goes up“.  How does one stop in two different directions at the same time?

Anyway, back when I was just a youngin’ in the world of photography (before someone dumped a big bucket of gray over my hair), a friend of mine asked me to take some pictures of his family.  Not for money…he knew that I had just taken a liking to photography, so it would be good practice, and he gets some (hopefully) keepable photos of his family.  Quid pro quo.

To “study up” on the how-tos of this type of shoot, I googled “portraiture”.  I should have googled “how to weed through the results of googling ‘portraiture'”.

Ultimately, being the OCD nutbag (pistachios…once you start, you can’t put ‘em back down) that I am, I overloaded my brain with information that was so esoteric, I’d never in my right mind want to try using it.  I mean after a few hours online, I was reading articles on how to manipulate light with the inverse-square law, the use of backlighting, soft boxes vs. umbrellas…I was a mumbling human robot, talking in my sleep about angles of light and shadows.

Had I taken an exam that week on studio lighting, I would have rocked it.  But, here in the real world, applying that material into an actual real-world, fast-paced scene is not something you can learn by reading or watching a tutorial.

Another of life’s lessons I learned the hard way: The only way to learn how to excel at a task is by actually doing it, fucking it up, figuring out why you fucked it up, then doing it again better.  Even if God put an individual on this earth to be an incredibly gifted, trans-generational professional at (fill in the blank)…that individual will royally screw up the job multiple times along the way…because there is no substitute for experience.  Not intelligence, not education, not money, and certainly not by trying to please everyone (that last one is a Trojan Horse, trust me on that).  I always try remember that when a client tells me my work sucks.    Even if the work wasn’t up to par, that is NOT a reflection of me as an artist. What IS a reflection of me as an artist is HOW I RESPOND to that criticism.  If I try hard to learn what I need to do to correct the mistakes which caused the work to suck, then apply that to the next job, I’m no longer the artist that made the mistakes on that last job. But if I dwell on screwing up a job, I am choosing to remain no more wise or experienced a photographer than I was before I made the mistakes I made.

Anyway…if you leave this blog post with only one thought in your mind, make it this one: It’s usually the simple things that fall through the cracks.  The shoot with that family could not have been an easier situation…it was outside, under a bunch of trees so the light was nicely diffused, and I used one off-camera flash with a soft box.

Easy, right?  Well, yeah, if you make sure you stop down enough to get both rows of people in focus.  In all that crap I read about portraiture, someone forgot to tell me to remember the effects aperture has on depth of field.

The good to take from that is I now have all the subtleties of aperture burned into my skull for eternity, thanks to a recurring nightmare of a blurry back row of a family…and now I’ve become what I’d consider pretty well-read on the intricacies of depth of field relative to aperture, focal length, and distance of the subject between the camera and the background.  That is, until the next time I mess up hyperfocal distance on an easy landscape shot :)

And with that, here’s a random shot of Rehoboth Beach, DE at sunset:



At what point does Photography become Graphic Design?

This is one of the most heated topics in the industry today.  I imagine practically everyone agrees that post-processing a digital image, in and of itself, is not where the controversy lies…in other words, simply uploading your photos from the camera into your computer, and adding very slight amounts of information to the raw image (i.e. perhaps de-saturating portions of the photo, or gently bringing out the shadows), is not tantamount to a felony in the Photography legal code.

But, at what point do you cross that imaginary line from creating a Photograph, to creating digital graphics?

Dodging and burning is obviously not only accepted, but a major part of the art form itself.  It’s become far easier to accomplish with a computer, but the premise remains the same.

What about adding color/saturation?  Healing and cloning?  Adding in a graduated neutral density filter in software, rather than with real filters out in the field?  Focus stacking?  Smart sharpening?  Correcting for lens distortion?  What about all those cartoonishly silly Jpeg settings your camera will do for you? I could go on and on…

There never will be any clear-cut boundary for all Photographers to follow.  I am sure there are some who firmly believe that a photograph is only truly a photograph when it’s taken right out of the camera…and any digital manipulation of that raw image violates the photographer’s code of ethics.  And…on the other side, you have photographers who take a more liberal view of post-processing…the final product is what’s important, and if you create a stunning work of art, what difference does it make how you created it?

The question I always ask first is:  Did the photographer alter his/her photograph with the intent of deceiving or distracting the viewer from something which was altered in post-processing?

For example, I would be fine with a photo darkened just a bit, using luminosity masks and/or the “multiply” action in Photoshop, in order to pull the sunset into a more desirable range.  But, I would be uncomfortable with not only darkening the sunset, but also adding in artificial saturation (i.e boosting the orange/red tint of the horizon), which gives the sunset the appearance of something which never occurred at the scene.  That’s graphic design.  Digital painting.

Similarly, I’d be OK with a Photographer brushing in some Gaussian Blur to very gently improve the complexion of a model’s skin.  But, if the model looks like she is wearing a plastic mask in the final image, with shiny glass eyeballs that look like they will pop out if she sneezed, it is clear the software became a predominant part of the expression, rather than just a tool to finalize the image.

I try to stay right of center on this issue…leaning towards doing as little as absolutely possible in post production to develop an image.  The slope is fatalistically slippery if you want to routinely push the limit.  Eventually, you’ll go too far without realizing it…or even worse, make it a habit.

When I first started learning about photography, I was definitely guilty of over-doing it in post.  For whatever reason, sliding that saturation button up to the right made an image look so cool…even if, to everyone else who looked at it, all they could see was a big bucket of brutally yellow haze across the screen.  I try not to look back at those old photos…but sometimes, when I’m in the mood for a good cry, I’ll go back a few years in my Lightroom library and marvel at the sheer lack of perspective I had.  As I gained experienced, I backed off soaking my photos in plutonium, and learned to work the color balance while out in the field, instead of relying on correcting it in post.

If we become numb to the oversimplification of post-processing photographs, will we will lose sight of the truly remarkable work that was required to produce photographs a generation ago?  Just my opinion…but by doing my best to minimize processing (and maximizing work out in the field), I’m staying truer to the origins of the art.





How I get pictures of kids playing sports.

There are lots of ways you can go about setting your camera up for great shots of the kids playing sports…none of them are any better or more “right” than others…it’s just a question of whatever you’re most comfortable with and whatever you feel gives you the best chance for the quality you’re looking for.


My typical style is to put the camera in “Aperture priority” mode (on the Nikon, it’s the setting with the “A” on the little digital readout screen on top of the camera).  The rest of the settings depend on what lens I’m using, how bright the scene is, and what kind of shot I’m going for.  Generally speaking, if I want to get a good freeze on action, I aim for around 1/1000th a second.  Then I experiment with ISO so that the shutter speed is in the general vicinity of what I am looking for, and take a few test shots.  If the exposure is too dark, I bump up ISO.  Too bright, bring down ISO.


You can just as easily use “shutter priority” mode, which allows you to set shutter speed on your own, and the camera will adjust aperture to properly expose the shot.  It’s just my personal preference, but I prefer to have control over aperture all the time…especially if I want to isolate the subject with a soft blurry background, or, on some lenses, make sure I don’t shoot at the widest aperture (lowest f-stop), which can sometimes degrade aspects of the image (i.e. objects can be soft around the edges, vignetting at the corners, glare/ghosting, etc…).



Nikon D4, 70-200 f/2.8 at f/4, ISO 400, 1/1600.


Shooting for action is a situation where having a faster, more expensive lens can be an advantage.  Having an extra stop of light will allow the photographer to possibly shoot at a lower ISO, creating images with less noise.  For example, instead of shooting at ISO 800 1/000 f/4, you can bump up the aperture to f/2.8 and still shoot at 1/1000 at ISO 400.  That’s a nice advantage to have in your pocket.

It’s a very expensive option…there is no other significant difference in performance between these two lenses…the image quality is essentially the same.  The f/2.8 version is heavier due to requiring more glass to handle the faster aperture, but you won’t get a sharper picture from it compared to the f/4 version.  The 2.8 costs over a thousand dollars more than its f/4 brother, basically because it offers an extra f-stop.  If you only shoot landscapes, I can’t think of a situation where you really need to shoot 2.8…maybe if you’re messing around with depth of field…but that’s an awful expensive option just for shallow DOF.  But for action, that extra f-stop can be very handy.


The shot below was taken at f/2, ISO 1/1600, 1/640.  It was dark in there.  If I were to have taken this shot at f/4, I would have had to bump ISO up TWO more stops, to ISO 6400, to remain at a shutter speed of 1/640.  Regardless of how well your camera handles high ISOs, it would no doubt have introduced more unwanted noise into the image.



I’ve never taken action shots professionally…I’ve only take them of my kids and some other events for fun.  I’m sure pros have some tried and true methods of freezing action that trump my home grown technique I’ve described here.


One thing that is very important when shooting youngsters: make sure you get down to their level of the action.  If you take pictures while standing up, you will be looking down on everything in the photo…but if you get down to their eye level, it creates a more dramatic image, as if you’re looking at the action through their perspective.