Monday, April 27, 2009

Get great photos from your camera, instead of whining about needing a new one

I know many photographers, pros and amateurs alike, who are always talking about the next camera, lens, accessory, or gadget they need to purchase. I know I’m sometimes, okay often, guilty of this myself.

Most of us either can’t afford or can’t justify upgrading to the “latest and greatest” camera, lens or gadget every year, so we really need to get over our envy and longing for that new one, and get the most out of what we already have.

While camera companies constantly push out new products to keep their revenue stream high, is it really important for us to have the latest new feature? Aren’t we able to get a sharp image for our 11 point auto-focus system? Won’t we continue to get the “right” exposure without moving to a new camera with the latest 3D Matrix meter system?

Ansel Adams: The Tetons and Snake RiverTake my word for it, Ansel Adams, who took some of the most famous, stirring, and resonant photographs of nature’s grandeur, never had a camera with a 3D meter, or a 51 point focusing system, yet he took some of the most spectacular photographs ever crafted. Adams, one of the world’s greatest photographers never had the photographic gadgetry we have available to us today, yet the quality and evocative nature of his photographs are what we all strive to create.

It’s clear to me, the true difference between a snapshot and a great photograph, is the photographer, not the camera. Ansel Adams said, “A photograph is not an accident – it is a concept.” I agree, and would add, the concept comes from inside the photographer, not from inside the camera.

So, what should we do to get the most from the camera we already own.

The first thing I advise anyone to do is take your camera out of your bag, and pull out the camera’s manual. In the manual, find the diagrams of the camera’s controls, connecting sockets, viewer, LCD panels, etc. and locate each on your camera. Then make sure you are completely familiar with each item on the diagram/camera; what they are and generally what they do. I never cease to be amazed how little so many camera users know about running their cameras.

Once that’s done, I suggest going through the manual, cover to cover, but not just to read how to work each control or setting, but to consider how to use them to advantage when taking photos. For example, don’t just understand how to turn on bracketing and how to set it, but learn the various kinds of situations it will help you create great photographs. For instance, bracketing is invaluable in creating HDR photos.

Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer of the 1st century BC said, “Practice is the best of all instructors.” That certainly applies to photography. As you're traveling, or even at home, take lots of photos. Take your camera everywhere. Only by using your camera in a variety of situations will you learn how to use its features purposefully and creatively to fashion images.

For every camera there are three settings which control the image being saved by the camera; aperture, shutter speed, ISO (film or sensor sensitivity to light). Together, this trio controls the formation of the image in the camera. If you really want to learn how your camera works, and how each of these settings control your photo’s appearance, you need to put your camera in manual mode and try different combinations.

Digital cameras today, whether point and shoot (P&S) or digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, have a myriad of other settings, all intended to enhance your ability to take great photos. You usually get to those settings (features) via a menu system. Take time to try various settings to see how they affect the camera, and how they work for you. On my cameras I have altered more than half the settings from the way they were set in the factory.

White Cheeked Galapagos PintailIn the past, the expense of film, developing it, and printing your photos was significant enough that it forced photographers to actually think about the photographs being taken. Digital photography removed that incentive. In a sense that was unfortunate. All too often digital camera “users” just point their camera in the direction of their subject and shoot. No thought goes into photographic composition or exposure.

While I suggested above you need to take lots of photos, you still need the discipline to think about each, set an appropriate exposure, and carefully compose the photograph with thought.

Use the low cost of the digital photograph to experiment. Use different points of view and different exposures for your photos. You might get some clinkers, but I think you’ll get some interesting and pleasing results too, and I’d bet your overall photography will dramatically improve.

Mastery of your camera will greatly enhance your enjoyment of it. Now which new macro lens do you think I should buy for when I'm traveling to see gardens and other close-up opportunities?

Photography Exhibition: At the Photographic Center Northwest - Andy Freeberg, Guardians & Sentry: Sitting in the Art World

by Andy FreebergIf you’re in the Seattle area in May, you might want to drop in on the new photography exhibition at the Photographic Center Northwest, Andy Freeberg, Guardians & Sentry: Sitting in the Art World.

The exhibition will run from May 1 - May 29, 2009

by Andy FreebergAndy Freeberg photographs women Guardians in the art museums of Russia, as they sit and guard the collections. When looking at the paintings and sculptures, the presence of the women becomes an inherent part of viewing the artwork itself. In a second series, Sentry, Freeberg photographs the Chelsea Galleries white bunkerlike front desks that display the top of the heads of the desk sitters - often the only other human presence. In a deadpan approach, he targets the uniformity, anonymity, and their chilling effect.

I’m not going to be able to see this exhibition myself, but it sounds very interesting, and if I was in Seattle, I would definitely see it.

As I travel, I love seeing the work of other photographers as I hope you do. If you know of a new photographic exhibition which you think the Blog should publicize, please contact me.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Destination: For a wild time in San Diego, don't forget your camera

San Diego Wild Animal Park Safari TruckIf you're like me, and are fascinated by wild animals, treat yourself to one of the San Diego Wild Animal Park's Photo Caravan Safaris. While it might not be the same as the safaris in Kenya or Tanzania, these "domestic" safaris are a real blast.

The Park, part of the Zoological Society of San Diego, is located approximately 35 miles north of San Diego, near the city of Escondido, California.

The Photo Safaris are not just for adults, or photographers. They are great fun for families. You get to be "up close" to wild animals which in zoos have a tall fence, or glass partition separating you from them.

Feeding a RhinoThe minimum age for short Safaris is six, and it's eight for the longer ones. We had a 10-year-old on our Safari. She had a great time learning about the animals from our guide, and dropping apple slices into the mouth of a rhino.

On Photo Caravan Safaris you travel in the park's Safari trucks like the one above. Keep in mind for children, the fence walls of the truck are about four feet high. There are benches in the truck to knee on, but very small children can not see easily.

Feeding a giraffeOn most of these Safaris you'll have the opportunity to directly interact with some of the animals like this woman feeding a giraffe. What a thrill it is for adults, teens, and children alike to be that close to these wild creatures. Some youngsters might have some fear of getting close to large wild animals, so you need to consider that before you take a young child on a Safari.

The Photo Caravan Safari trucks literally take you right into the center of the Park's field exhibits. They offer a rare opportunity to spend time with and learn about wild animals, unmatched at zoos or animal amusement parks. Each truck has a trained driver and guide.Ostrich at the San Diego Wild Animal Park The guides are well schooled to answer questions about the animals themselves and animal conservation. Drivers stop the trucks near the animals for the best photographic opportunities, and they'll make extra stops for photos whenever requested by Safari participants. They made several such stops for me.

We went on the 3½ hour Deluxe Adventure Photo Caravan Safari which took us into both the African and Asian Field Exhibits. We saw oryxs, gazelles, giraffes, rhinos, impalas, chitals, cranes, waterbucks and storks, to name just a few. A snack was provided at a brief stop, and water was available at all times. To see more Safari photos go to my Safari photo gallery. Click on the "Map This" button there, to see a map of where we went in the Park on the Safari, how extensive the Safari was, and where each photo was taken.

The Deluxe Adventure Photo Caravan Safari costs $150 per person, plus the cost of admission to the Park, which is $35 for adults (12 years old and up) and $26 for children, for a one day pass. That may seem high, but in my opinion, it's more than worth it. Other Photo Safaris range in price from $69 for the Snapshot Safari (1 hour) to the $230 Early Riser Ultimate Photo Caravan Safari (4½ hours), plus the cost of Park admission. The proceeds of these Photo Safaris are important for the Park to raise necessary funds for their animal conservation and education programs.

I used my Nikon DSLR for these photos, but you can get marvelous photos with a good "Point and Shoot" camera. Your camera does need to be able to take both "wide angle" and "telephoto" photographs, but with a good zoom lens on a DSLR or SLR camera, or the zoom lens on most of today's "Point and Shoot" cameras you'll be all set for great photos. I used an 18mm-200mm Nikkor zoom lens for my photographs. I found I was close enough to the animals that I never needed a more powerful (longer) telephoto or zoom telephoto lens.

Feeding the GiraffesThere are many great exhibits to see at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, from the "big" cats to exotic birds of all shapes and sizes, and of course the elephants. After the Photo Safari we took in many of the other exhibits. We especially enjoyed our walk to the Lion Camp, Heart of Africa, and Lagoon exhibits, but the Photo Safari was by far the highlight of the day, and an incredible 3½+ hours, for us and all Safari participants.

Photography Exhibition: At the Art Institute of Chicago - Photography on Display: Modern Treasures

If you're planning an upcoming trip into Chicago, the new exhibit, Photography on Display: Modern Treasures will be coming to the Art Institute of Chicago in just a few weeks. The exhibition appears as though it will be fantastic as it explores the different avenues for presenting photographs in the world.

The exhibition runs from May 9–September 13, 2009

Photography on Display, Modern Treasures“This exhibition, presented in conjunction with the debut of the new photography galleries of the Modern Wing, explores the different avenues for presenting photographs in the world. Around 130 works by some 70 modernist figures, including classics such as Albert Renger-Patzsch, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange, demonstrate the range of photography’s spaces of display: from salon exhibitions to commercial galleries, magazine spreads, or art-school assignments. Each of these spaces helped shape the ideas that continue to make photography a singularly influential field.”

If I’m in Chicago during this exhibition, I’m not going to miss it.

As I travel, I love seeing the work of other photographers as I hope you do. If you know of a new photographic exhibition which you think the Blog should publicize, please contact me.

Monday, April 13, 2009

It's spring! Getting those close-up shots while traveling

Spring has just come to the Northern Hemisphere. Flowers are blooming and the colors are spectacular. Each spring more and more travelers tour famous gardens to photograph and drink in their magnificent blooms.

Around Philadelphia, traffic to Winterthur and Longwood Gardens dramatically increases in the spring. In the Netherlands it’s time to visit Keukenhof Gardens, just outside of Los Angeles, the amazing Huntington Botanical Gardens, and also in Scotland, Castle Kennedy and Gardens. They are all exquisite.

Morris Arboretum - Bee In RoseThis spring, travel photographers will pull out their macro lenses to get close-ups of garden blooms. If you don't have an expensive SLR (single lens reflex), or DSLR (digital single lens reflex), with extra care, a good P&S (point and shoot) camera can grab the shots too.

In general photography, we record sharp images with ease, as most photos such as landscapes, are taken at a distance. In macro photography, we take photographs of small and sometimes tiny objects, which require the lens to be positioned close to the subject, often less than a foot away. That makes it much more difficult to record a sharp image.

Morris ArboretumIf you have a quality SLR or DSLR with a macro lens attached, you will have a great advantage over other cameras to get that sharp close-up image. If you have a tripod you'll have an even greater advantage.

That being said, here are some tips to get great close-up photographs:

  • Compose your photo carefully, as the subject’s background can make or break a close-up picture. Use the background to complement the main subject, not detract from it.

  • Consider opening up the lens’ aperture to reduce depth of field. In the photo above, on the right, taken at the Morris Arboretum, note the background is not in focus, while the plant is in sharp focus, making the plant stand out, almost in 3D. This was accomplished by opening the lens to f/5.6.

  • Garden of Eden Botanical Garden - Bee in LotusFocus your camera carefully. As in telephoto photography, focus is critical. Focus on the most important element in a scene. Shoot at a small aperture (f/11, up) for good depth of field, unless you want the area in front of and behind your subject out of focus. In the lotus flower photo to the right, I focused on the bee, and used an aperture which kept the entire lotus in focus.

  • Steady your camera. Close-up shots exaggerate camera shake. To reduce camera movement, which is most noticeable in natural light pictures, use a tripod. For the photo of the bee in the lotus, I used a tripod when I took it at the Garden of Eden Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Maui.

  • Another way to reduce or eliminate the effect of camera shake is to use your camera or lens’ image stabilization or vibration reduction ability. Please remember, however, while they can really help, they are no substitute for using a quality tripod.

  • Set your digital camera’s image quality to RAW, if your camera has it. The RAW setting gives you more exposure latitude than JPEG (JPG). In close-up photography you try to record tiny details, so save the image at the highest quality available in your camera. If you can’t save images in RAW, use the highest quality JPEG setting, such as "superfine, large."

  • Set your digital camera's ISO (sensor sensitivity) to the lowest possible setting according to conditions, to reduce noise and artifacts which are troublesome in macro photography. For film cameras, use film with a low ISO rating. An ISO of 100 is ideal.

  • Morris AboretumConsider adding light (flash), even when outside. A ring light, or a system like the Nikon R1 is a good choice. The light they produce can add contrast to a photograph, making it look sharper. The built-in flashes in DSLRs and P&S generally will not work well for macro photos, and are better turned off.

  • Look for different viewpoints. Different angles and shooting distances can greatly affect your macro shot. Sometimes moving just a faction of an inch can provide a completely different view of the same subject. Experiment with color, and black & white.

  • Many point and shoot cameras have a macro mode. Use it. Macro mode allows your camera to focus on a subject closer to your lens than normal. Most macro modes will set your camera to choose a larger aperture, so that your subject is in focus but the background is not.

I love visiting gardens myself, and taking hikes through parks and forests while taking close-ups of flowers. I hope you enjoy bringing home great plant, flower, and insect photos from your spring travels.

Photography Exhibition: At the National Portrait Gallery - Portraiture Now: Feature Photography

There is a wonderful photography exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., Portraiture Now: Feature Photography.

The exhibition runs through September 27, 2009.

“Portraiture Now: Feature Photography” focuses on six photographers who, by working on assignment for publications such as the New Yorker, Esquire, and the New York Times Magazine, each bring their distinctive “take” on contemporary portraiture to a broad audience. Critically acclaimed for their independent fine-art work, these photographers—Katy Grannan, Jocelyn Lee, Ryan McGinley, Steve Pyke, Martin Schoeller, and Alec Soth—have also pursued a variety of editorial projects, taking advantage of the opportunities and grappling with the parameters that these assignments introduce. Their work builds upon a longstanding tradition of photographic portraiture for the popular press and highlights creative possibilities for twenty-first-century portrayal.

If you're in the Washington D.C. area, don't miss this exhibition. The National Portrait Gallery is conveniently located at Eighth and F Streets, NW, in Washington D.C., above the Gallery Place–Chinatown Metrorail station (red, yellow, and green lines). The Gallery is open from 11:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m. daily, but closed December 25th. There is no admission fee.

If you can't make it in person to Portraiture Now: Feature Photography, you can see a limited number of the works, in the actual exhibition, in the Feature Photography online gallery. Take some time to wet your appetite to visit the Portraiture Now: Feature Photography in person by viewing the online version of the exhibition.

As I travel, I love seeing the work of other photographers as I hope you do. If you know of a new photographic exhibition which you think the Blog should publicize, please contact me.

Friday, April 10, 2009

USA Today and launches an online photo contest to highlight iconic American images.

USA Today and have launched an online photo contest today to highlight iconic American images.

"The contest, which will run through May 8, invites people to submit images that capture the essence of the USA and best represent it to foreign visitors. The photos from 10 finalists will be used in the U.S. Travel Association's Discover America campaign to promote the country internationally and displayed on and, and in USA TODAY., launched by U.S. Travel in 2008, is the first official website that promotes U.S. tourism internationally. It is the result of a cooperative agreement between U.S Travel and the U.S. Department of Commerce. Many countries centralize their national tourism campaigns under cabinet-level ministries or other government agencies, however the USA does not."

In the rules of the contest it states,
"By entering the Contest, each contestant grants to Sponsor an exclusive, royalty-free and irrevocable right and license to publish, print, edit or otherwise use the contestant’s submitted entry, in whole or in part, for any purpose and in any manner or media (including, without limitation, the Internet) throughout the world in perpetuity, and to license others to do so, all without limitation or further compensation. Each contestant further agrees that if his/her entry is selected by Sponsor as the winning entry, he/she will sign any additional license or release that Sponsors may require, and will not publicly display his or her photo submission without the express permission of Sponsor."
I've never seen a contest yet where you didn't have to grant the sponsor a royalty free license to use the photo in perpetuity, however, I have also never seen a contest where you agree, in advance, to agree to any additional license or release the sponsors say you have to agree to at any time in the future. Why would any sane person agree to agree to any unknown license or release action without any kind of limitation on what they might have to agree to? It just doesn't make any sense whatsoever to me.

Moreover, the rules are extremely one-sided in that they don't speak to attribution at all. According to the rules your photo can be used forever, and the sponsor doesn't have to say who created the image.

On the surface the contest looks like a great way to get your name "in lights," however, upon further review, I for one will skip the opportunity. It's too expensive.

I have written USA Today about my objections. If they answer, I will let everyone know what they had to say.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Review: Photoshop CS4 Extended

As you read this review, please remember two things. First, I've only personally been using Photoshop CS4 for about a month or two, so I'm still discovering new features and techniques in it, and second, I'm reviewing the product solely from the viewpoint of a photographer who's not overly interested in the product's drawing features.

If you never upgraded from Photoshop CS2, this will be a big upgrade, and I highly recommend it. If you're using Photoshop CS3, then the upgrade is more incremental, with a lot about the new interface than anything else. It has a big boost in the 3D area, which may or may not be useful for photographers getting out work to clients, but it can create some amazing effects, so don't dismiss it too fast. Finally, there are some real gems of improvements which may make this product upgrade, a worthwhile purchase for you. Read on.

If you are using a 64bit version of Microsoft Windows (Vista directly supported, XP not, but people tell me it works fine with XP), Photoshop CS4 is definitely for you with its direct 64bit support, so you can use all that memory you have in your computer.

Photoshop CS4 ExtendedAdobe has implemented OpenGL support in Photoshop CS4. It now offers most of the essential rendering settings and view controls, plus the ability to create primitives (and extend the library of primitives), necessary to work with 3D models. It dramatically speeds up zooming and rotation. With its strong GPU use, you can look forward to no more jagged pixels at various zoom levels. Now you'll get any zoom ratio, from .07% all the way up to 3200% (and everywhere in between). This gives you previews of cloned/healed data clipped to the brush and faster performance from the color management engine for HDR preview and adjustments.

Okay, I know it's a matter of preference, and many love the new tabbed interface (If you use Firefox or IE7 you'll immediately understand the new interface.), but I'm not particularly enthusiastic about it, at least not under the current implementation.

The appeal of tabs is the ability to drag content between document windows. You can grab a layer and move it onto another tab, and the foreground window changes so that the dragged content can be dropped into the other image, if the tab is visible. Since most of us compare and work with images side-by-side, the tabbed interface can split the main window into any number of panes via what Adobe refers to as "n-up." Tab usefulness is crippled by Photoshop's inability to simply fit content to the frame, plus n-up and document stacking is unpredictable. If you want to compare documents, there's no way of knowing what order they will be arranged in.

Considering the practical side of using tabs, the text-based navigation is great if your document names are descriptive. I often work with a number of photos open in the program. Now like many, I rename all my photos to reflect where I took them and when, however, the photos are not named individually, but are part of a numbered series, so just by looking at the tab name, it's impossible to tell what photo belongs to the tab.

Adobe needs to put a lot more work into their new tabbed interface. That's the bad. Let's move on to the good news.

The new adjustments panel is a nice addition. I don't think it's as earthshattering as some, but I do like it. It has 22 built-in new presets which all user-configurable but not all that worthwhile, in my opinion, plus on-image controls for both Curves and Hue/Saturation, which is great. The real benefit of the panel is that adjustment layers are more readily available making your work faster and no longer forcing you into a limited dialogue.

IMPORTANT TIP: Adobe long ago stopped shipping manuals with their products, but through Photoshop CS3, at least its disk contained a PDF version of the manual. Without that you're dependent on a very limited built-in help file, or you've got to have a fast Internet connection. In Photoshop CS4, even the PDF version of the product's printed manual is no longer available on the disk. The manual is available on the Photoshop Help and Support web site. Look toward the upper right on the page for Photoshop Help PDF (printable). I strongly suggest downloading the pdf for quick reference when you need it.

Camera Raw 5.x is a major improvement. The new comprehensive raw conversion engine in Photoshop CS4 and Bridge CS4 leaps forward with the ability to edit individual regions; dodging, burning, painting saturation, applying graduated filters, and more.

Three of the Photoshop CS4 tools I use are Dodge, Burn and Sponge tools, and they've been dramatically improved. The have more power, accuracy, control, speed and flexibility. “Protect Tones” gives you dodging and burning where you need it (while preserving the areas you don’t) and the Sponge tool can now saturate or de-saturate with far greater intelligence.

Photoshop CS4 has dramatically improved alignment and offers better results, more choices for projection, and built-in profiles for common wide angle lenses. CS4 can even remove vignetting and geometric distortion as it aligns. This can all be handled automatically by Photoshop CS4, whether handing off from Lightroom or from Bridge which in this particular case is a big bonus.

HDR photo of Independence HallPhotoshop CS4 has made panoramas and composites smoother and better than ever, using the new blending focus from multiple images. There’s a new option called “Seamless Tones & Colors” which helps blend exposure data.

I found that High Dynamic Range imaging (HDR) is dramatically improved in Photoshop CS4, in large part due to the product's improvement in the way it handles alignment, as well as its improvements in blending, however, it still doesn't measure up to the power and quality of Photomatix, in my opinion, which is what I use to produce HDR images, such as the photo of Independence Hall above on the right.

Photoshop CS4 now has content-aware scaling. This is a big deal. You know the trouble you've had with a full-frame 11x17, 8x12, 5x8 that needed to fit into the 11x14, 8x10 or 5x7 frame, or that wedding photo for the bride and groom's electronic picture frame rescaled without cutting their heads off. Content-aware scaling can take care of that.

A really neat 3D item for 2D photographers found in Photoshop CS4 Extended is spherical panorama editing. This allows you to wrap images onto a 3D sphere inside which you place your camera. You can now use all your Photoshop 2D tools and techniques (painting, cloning, healing, merging layers, etc.) to adjust the projected data, making it much easier to retouch the image in its final form, rather than trying to tweak the unwrapped 2D form. This is a really great tool if your photo(s) are being used for web sites. Take a look at this Russell Brown tutorial about this feature and you'll better understand what I'm talking about.

Finally, I don't know about you, but I use multiple monitors. Photoshop CS2 is designed for multiple monitors. For example, palette/panel groups can float and be minimized/expanded across monitors. With the new UI and workspace switcher, custom configurations have never been easier or more capable.

In conclusion, the best way I can put it is, I upgraded to Photoshop CS4 Extended, and I've already found enough new features and improvements (despite some shortcomings) that I feel my cash was well spent.

Photography Exhibition: At the Getty Museum - In Focus: The Portrait

There is a terrific photographic exhibit at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, In Focus, The Portrait.

The exhibit runs through June 14, 2009.

In Focus: The PortraitFollowing the invention of photography in 1839, portraiture became accessible to all. The 1850s marked the beginning of the medium's commercialization. Continuing technical improvements enabled the instant capture of likenesses under virtually any condition and expanded the dialogue between the photographer and the sitter.

While photography was first presented as the most truthful of representations, its underlying subjectivity is especially relevant in portraiture.

This exhibit is made exclusively of images from the J. Paul Getty Museum's collection. The selection of portraits surveys the relationship between photographer and subject, including formal portraits, intimate pictures, and documentary photographs.

Among my favorites in the exhibition are works by Matthew Brady, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz. In the exhibition, Stieglitz's portrait of his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe is marvelous. O'Keeffe is one of America's most famous and celebrated artists. Just last week I saw two small, but terrific examples of O'Keeffe's work at the Museum of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts is the oldest school of art, and houses the oldest art museum in the United States. It is internationally renown for its collections of 19th and 20th century American paintings, sculptures, and works on paper.

If you're in the Los Angeles area, be sure to visit the Getty and see this wonderful photographic exhibition.

As I travel, I love seeing the work of other photographers as I hope you do. If you know of a new photographic exhibition which you think the Blog should publicize, please contact me.