Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Fun Way to Learn Photography

Often people will ask how I learned photography.  While I certainly did my share of reading books and practicing with the camera in areas around my home, I believe I learned the most from attending photography workshops.  I know I've been to more than 15, and even though I'm fairly accomplished, I still attend them and still learn something new each time.

An ideal format for a workshop is for an established photographer to lead a group in a scenic area where the typical day consists of sunrise and sunset shoots, lecture or critique time, and time for participants to develop images from the workshop.  There has to be some scenery to photograph both for inspirational and practical purposes, so most workshops are somewhere especially beautiful and are timed to occur during a season where that location is even more photogenic.  The leader accompanies the group members into the field and shares his/her knowledge of optimal locations for shooting in that area.  The leader makes himself available for questions and assists the participants as they are composing and capturing images.  Most workshop leaders have either a set of lectures with photographic examples to present or will have Q&A sessions. It's very common towards the end of the trip to have a session where each participant presents several images taken during the workshop.  While this gives the leader the option to critique the images, it gives the other participants a chance to see how other people viewed the location and created images.  Since digital photography is very dependent on imaging software skills, participants often bring laptops and develop their images in a common workroom under the guidance of the lead photographer.

Workshops are beneficial for all levels of photographers.  Certainly beginners can learn all aspects of photography in this situation, but even advanced photographers benefit.  If the workshop is in an unfamiliar area, you won't waste time trying to figure out when and where to be during the best light of the day. Sometimes a workshop is the only way to access a sensitive area or private land.  There's safety in numbers for workshops that occur in wilder areas and there is the opportunity for camaraderie and creative synergy with people who share an interest but often have a different viewpoint.  One of my favorite aspects of a photo workshop is to see the compositions from people who were often shooting right next to me but saw something completely different.

The image of a bobcat is from a workshop I just returned from given by Rikk Flohr in the South Dakota Badlands.  I'm essentially a landscape photographer but was interested in the possibility of incorporating animals into my landscape images.  I've been to the badlands in the past, but until this workshop with Rikk and the other lead photographer Laurie Hernandez I didn't realize the variety of wildlife living in the park or where to find them.  One of my favorite photography workshop leaders is Andy Cook who melds the right balance of knowledge, personality, and energy into a workshop that's both educational and really fun.

For so many reasons, a photography workshop is a superb way to improve your skills.  They make great Christmas presents too!  (Chris, are you reading this?)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Photographic Things to be Thankful For

Being that it's the tail end of the Thanksgiving weekend I was musing about things that have to do with photography for which I am thankful. A big category is jets, rental cars, on line reservations and all of the services that make modern travel so much easier than in the past (the TSA is not one of these) and permits you to get to photographically interesting places.  The image above is from the Pacific coast of Costa Rica which took less than a day to reach from Toledo.   It was taken with a mirrorless camera - small enough to carry without needing a chiropractor afterwards, fairly inconspicuous, high quality, and yet not so expensive that if I'd have dropped it overboard I would have been heartbroken.  My Canon M is a great back up camera for trips that aren't designed as hard core dawn to dusk expeditions and is a reasonable primary camera when I'm accompanying the wife somewhere that's not supposed to be a photographic outing (Chris has already learned there's really no such thing!)  Digital itself is another blessing.  I've heard it said that a real photographer has to learn by shooting film first but I disagree.  The instant feedback showing your mistakes makes a digital camera a far better learning tool.  I do not miss the days of slide film when I would review my images from a photography workshop by placing a large trash can next to a light table, peering at slides through a viewing loop, and then pitching many of them into that trash can. It's been derided as  "chimping" when you look at your images on the camera monitor right after capturing them, but the best way to learn is to set the viewscreen to show the image along with the RGB histogram and review as you go.  HDR software is another plus.  When it works, it's sure better than trying to put together a series of exposures by hand.  However, I do often start with the HDR program but then blend that image by hand with one of the original images, usually the one with the best sky, because I find that HDR software often makes a mess out of the sky.  Panoramic software gives you the chance to widen your opportunities for compositions (bad pun intended.) Seriously though, panoramic technique gives one the freedom of composition far beyond the traditional 2x3, 4x5 or square formats.  My last thanks goes out to grocery stores everywhere as I don't have to spend time like the fisherman trying to capture food - I can capture images instead.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Time and patience

Currently I'm on vacation in central america so I have lots of free time.  Of course I do, I'm on vacation! But this is not my usual run and shoot til I drop vacation so the photograph on this blog is from home where I don't have much free time and especially not much time for photography. But since shooting images is one of my most favorite activities, how do I fit it in?
One of my techniques for maximizing my photographic opportunities in Toledo is that I have a list of images I would make if the weather and season (and my schedule) coincide.  As I've driven around the area I've noticed potential subjects and thought about when they might make an intriguing image.  Then if those circumstances arise and I can get to that spot I'm able to photograph quickly and efficiently. 
For years I've been fascinated by the crumbling interurban bridge.  I've photographed it numerous times but really hadn't gotten an image to my liking.  I thought a foggy day would work but it honestly took years until one morning the fog seemed perfect and first light was early enough that I could get there and then to work on time.  That's the image below.

Now I just need a lightening storm at sunset...

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Going with the flow

Most of the time when I head out to photograph I have something specific in mind. The destination and time of day are chosen because I think I might be able to create a certain image: sunrise light on a mountain, fall foliage along a stream, flowers in bloom in a meadow, or maybe city lights reflecting off a wet street.  If you've spent much time photographing you know that frequently you don't find the image that you were anticipating.  Maybe the flowers were wind damaged, the sunrise was obscured by heavy clouds, or the light just didn't work at that time of day for that location.  At those times, which happen to me more often than I'd like, I try to pause, look around, and see what else might make a good image.  That's the situation that challenges your creativity and can result in great artwork.

I had been looking for ways to photograph along the Maumee River from a different point of view as well as enjoy one of the underappreciated recreational opportunities in the Toledo area.  Chris and I decided that a boat was too much trouble to own, but jet skis would get us out on the water and I hoped to use them as a photography platform.  Of course water and a 5D Mark III don't play well together, so I bought a "diving bag" - a plastic watertight bag with a lens port and headed out.  I'd always wanted to photograph the Toledo harbor lighthouse, but it's about seven miles out into Lake Erie from the mouth of the Maumee River.  An image of it would need to be made in daylight since jet skis aren't allowed out at night and it would be difficult to stabilize a camera in low light on the water.  We picked a day with blue skis and fluffy clouds and hoped for the best.  Of course by the time we reached the lighthouse, most of the fluffy clouds had dissipated from behind the sunlit side of the lighthouse.  So I swung around behind the lighthouse with the thought of a starburst type effect and the sun coming through the light of the lighthouse.  It was fairly choppy on the lake so precision composition was a lost cause.  But the biggest surprise when I looked at the images on the computer was that the plastic of the port of the waterproof bag had caused a rainbow color effect on the images.  When I had tested the bag inside my house this hadn't happened, but in bright sunlit images the problem was major.  Time for a black and white conversion!  Not what I had planned, but it's a decent image and it was fun creating it.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Canon vs. Nikon - Or, thoughts on choosing a camera.

Mesa Arch by Moonlight

One of the most common questions I'm asked is "What camera should I get?" Most people are probably expecting me to say something specific like "Get the Canon XYZ-5."  But my first response is always - what kind of images do you want to capture and what are you going to do with them?  The purpose of the images is probably the most important question to answer.  If all you ever do with them is post to facebook, then a cell phone camera might be all you need.  If you plan to print them as 4 foot long fine art images, then the camera will need to be capable of  high resolution and low noise.  Most current point and shoot cameras as well as many cell phone cameras will capture images of sufficient quality to post online or print up to 8x10 inch images.  If the images will be made into large prints then it's necessary to have a camera with a high quality sensor.  The digital SLR cameras (those with interchangeable lenses and mirrors that flip up during an image capture) have those types of sensors.  However, those cameras tend to be bigger and bulkier and tend to be the most expensive because they also require a selection of different lenses to cover wide angle to telephoto ranges.

Fortunately advances in camera technology do provide a few options to a digital SLR.  A new class of camera called "mirrorless" can have an excellent sensor in a much smaller body that uses smaller and lighter lenses.  I recently used a Canon EOS M on a trip.  It has the same sensor found in one of the top Canon SLR cameras but the body is about 1/4 the size as are the dedicated lenses.  It was very easy to carry and the images are superb.  Downsides though are shorter battery life and a much slower autofocus.  Another option is what I call the "professional backup camera point and shoot" which have fixed zoom lenses that cover wide angle to moderate zoom and can capture in RAW format which allows you much more latitude to adjust the image later with photo editing software than with JPEG captures.  These cameras (example Canon G15, Canon G1X) have bigger, higher quality sensors than the average point and shoot as well as almost all of the controls that are found on digital SLRs.  Some pro's have them as a backup in case disaster befalls their regular camera or for those times when you want a good camera but don't want to carry around a big SLR body and 3 lenses.

What you plan to photograph is important in choosing a camera as well.  If you want to take pictures of sporting events or young children (they are rarely still!) the camera needs a fast autofocus or you miss the moment.  You can test this out in a store by seeing how fast the camera focuses on other customers walking around.  If you will photograph indoor sporting events a flash won't help so you need a camera with low noise at higher ISO settings and the ability to use ISO's of 3200 and above.  ISO in a digital camera is the setting which allows faster shutter speeds in less light and in effect multiplies the sensitivity of the sensor but introduces noise (a grainy, unsharp look) to an image. For those cameras with fixed lenses, the bigger the opening of the lens (f stop, smaller f number is bigger opening) the faster the shutter speed and the lower the ISO that is necessary in low light situations.  Outdoor vacation photos and family gatherings are handled well by almost all cameras.  I frequently photograph at night using light from the moon or just starlight, as seen in the photo above.  Night photography requires a high ISO low noise camera and lenses with small f stops.

My final advice about choosing a camera is that the camera that you can just pick up and make work without reading the instructions is often the best one for you.  There are so many digital devices that people use every day that it's difficult to remember the fine points of how to operate any of them that you don't use frequently.  So if the camera feels good in your hand and the buttons and dials make sense to you right away, get that one.  After all, you won't get the photography if you can't work the camera!  And who walks around with an instruction manual...

Monday, July 1, 2013

Local Beauty

     As a photographer, it's tempting to think that you have to travel away from home to find compelling images.  And if you live in the midwest like I do, you probably find yourself dreaming of the next chance you have to shoot the Rocky Mountains, fall color in New England, or the coast of Oregon.  It can be very difficult to get motivated to get up for a sunrise shoot close to home or to explore areas within an hour or so from home to find photogenic locations.

     If you want to keep your skills fresh it's important to keep shooting regularly.  And most of us have a day job, so frequent trips to photography hot spots are out of the question. So what's a dedicated photographer to do?  The answer is to shoot locally and shoot often.

     I live in the Toledo area, and I would be stunned if anyone lists northwest Ohio in their top 10 dream locations to shoot.  It's been a challenge for me to extend my vision and find images near my home.  But it's been worthwhile.  I've gotten to know my home region better.  I've kept my skills sharper so when I am in one of my dream locations I don't have to think about how to operate my camera equipment.  It's also allowed me to expand the style of images I shoot from the traditional landscape scenic to urban images and still life images.

     When I think about photographing near home, I head out with either a location in mind that I've pictured under certain circumstances - ie, a bridge at sunrise,  a forest after a light snow, or I have a concept in mind but need to find the location.  The image above was the result of a short exploratory drive.  I had intended to find barns with rows of crops serving as leading lines.  I had pictured rows of corn that weren't so tall and grown that you could still see the dirt in between.  It's a seasonal event that I've notice occurs in late June to early July - the common saying being that corn should be "knee high by the 4th of July."  Too tall and it's just a sea of green.  I've been successful in the past finding this situation but not on this day.  It can be amazingly difficult to find a decent looking barn that lines up right with the crop rows and doesn't have a bunch a junk parked around it. I found plenty of rows of corn, but none with an photogenic barn. However, this year the field in front of this barn hadn't been planted and was instead filled with wildflowers.  Paydirt!

   Everyplace has something worth photographing under the right conditions.  If you can see these images around your own home you will be more successful on those dream trips - and in the meantime add some great images to your portfolio.