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.”

 

 

jonas

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:

 

rehoboth

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…).

 

action1

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.

action2

 

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.

What kind of camera do you use?

Ten Great Photography Websites

Here’s a list of 10 great photography sites…in no particular order.

1) B&H Photo

They sell literally anything and everything you would ever want or need.  Cameras, lenses, camcorders, computers, strobes, light stands, printers, paper, cleaning supplies, backpacks…if you can think of it, they sell it.  Their customer service is the best on the internet, and the customer reviews on products are generally reliable. They also buy back your used equipment.

2) Digital Photography Review

Informative, well-written and comprehensive reviews on all kinds of products related to photography.  They are objective in their conclusions…I trust the site and they’ve yet to disappoint me on something I’ve purchased based on their recommendation.

3) Ming Thein’s Blog

I really like this site.  He has an esoteric writing style that, if you get it, is a true pleasure to read…not just because he approaches the art of photography in a refreshingly original and clever way, but also because he is brutally honest and leaves you with a sense of refreshing clarity…on a medium that is otherwise oversaturated with blogs which, after a while, all begin to feel like they’re written by the same person.

4) Ken Rockwell

A remarkably clever website…mostly because his writing style is unapologetically arrogant and trite, but when you get down to it, it’s a collection of reviews and opinions that basically say the same thing, over and over.  His goal becomes clearly transparent rather quickly: He wants to rock the boat and act controversial, thereby generating web hits.  As you read though more and more of the pages on his site, you begin to marvel at how he has been able to take the same basic review, saying the same thing in almost the exact same sentences, re-written for several hundred different products, backed up by his almost hilariously unimpressive portfolio of photographic material, and parlayed it into a vastly popular and successful career in blogging.  He is the poster child for how even the most unimpressive talent can live the American Dream in the internet age.  It makes for an entertaining website in a “I can’t look away even though my eyes are burning” sort of way.

5) My Facebook Page

Go take a look and, most importantly, like and share my page!  I would seriously appreciate it.

6) Matt Kloskowski’s Blog

A good bit of what I’ve learned about photography I owe to Matt.  He has video tutorials, articles, and all kinds of material and information all over the web, much of it for the low, low cost of free.  But, most of his stuff is absolutely worth paying a premium for.  His style is what sets him apart from everyone else.  He has a rare talent for taking what is otherwise sophisticated and intimidating to the beginner, and delivering it in an awesomely disarming, affably entertaining style.  His teaching method oozes credibility and confidence, but never for a second does his zen-level understanding of Photoshop come across as arrogant or conceited. He is the anti-Ken Rockwell.

7) Digital Photography School 

Another website loaded with helpful information, written by tons of talented and accomplished photographers around the world.  They also have a pretty good discussion forum, if you enjoy pretending to know more than other people you’ll never meet.

8) Meetup.com

This site is littered with groups and clubs which actually meet up in real life.  Imagine meeting other live human beings, in person, who also share a passion for photography. Every genre you can think of…adventure, hiking, studio, in-person tutorials, photo walks, landscape/waterscape, architectural, and online critiques…there’s a meetup group near you for any and every kind of photography you can think of.

9) Alltrtails.com

It’s not a site dedicated to photography, per se…but if you enjoy shooting landscapes or outdoor scenes…or like to hike with your camera, this site is an online map of every cool location you can reach by foot or automobile.  Most places have informative reviews by others who have been there, and the cool part is you can download the trails and directions to the site onto an app on your phone or your GPS device.  It can easily become your bible of endless amounts of photogenic destinations, which will get you there and back without getting lost.  You could chew up several hours on this site without exhaling.

10) Leica

Generally speaking, the Leica rangefinder is the coolest instrument of photography ever created (in my opinion).  If you love photography, just take a minute or two at lunch and browse though Leica’s website…specifically their rangefinder cameras and lenses.  They have a very strong and loyal base of purists who enjoy the rigors a rangefinder system puts you through in order to earn an image which has a subtle look to it DSLRs can’t create.  Leica rangefinders paint with a unique brush.

Feel free to add any of your own.  I’m always on the lookout for new websites!

And, for no particular reason…here’s a shot of my younger son hitting a softball.

coopsball