Monday, May 25, 2009

Ten Tips to Improve your Landscapes

Sculling on the Schuykill RiverIt’s Spring. We’ve had days in the 90’s and days in the 50’s, days it’s been sunny and days its poured and poured, days it’s been calm, and days the winds have gusted over 50mph. Such is spring in the Northeast, but it’s been so great to be beyond the grip of winter.

With digital point and shoot cameras and consumer DSLRs so easy to use to make high quality photos, the number of Philadelphian’s and visitors walking on the paths beside the Schuylkill River a couple of weeks ago, to watch and take photos of the shells rowed quickly down the River, and the beautiful landscapes of Fairmount Park’s flowering trees along the River was amazing.

As I watched the scenes revealed as I walked up the River banks, I thought I might discuss some ideas I’ve learned about making landscape photographs better, here on the Blog.

  1. With film, there was a real cost per photo, so photographers gave thought to composing each one. With digital image costs at almost zero, that impetus for thoughtful image composition disappeared, and now too many travelers bring home too many poorly composed images. I see travelers so excited to arrive at their destination, that they start taking photos willy-nilly. Take a breath, take in the scene, then compose an image which shows off the scene well. That way you’ll make photographs, not take snapshots.

  2. Monument ValleyMaximize your depth of field (well most of the time anyway). Generally you want to ensure that as much of your image as possible is in focus. The easiest way to do this is to choose a small aperture setting. The smaller your aperture, the greater the depth of field in your photos. Don’t forget, a smaller aperture means you’ll need to decrease your shutter speed, or increase you sensor sensitivity (ISO setting) to get the correct exposure, or a combination of both.

  3. Sometimes to help your image have a more natural look, and focus on an object in the foreground, or the foreground itself, you might want to narrow the depth of field. This can give the image a real sense of depth, and give the viewer a way into the photograph. I often choose this, to emulate the way we actually see a large landscape, by keeping the foreground and mid-ground of the image in sharp focus, but allow the background to be somewhat fuzzy. When we look at a scene and concentrate our eyes on the foreground, the background is generally somewhat out of focus.

  4. Galapagos, Puerto Egas, Santiago IslandLandscapes need some sort of focal point to avoid ending up looking rather empty. Focal points prevent your viewer’s eye from wandering, with no guidance of where or how to look at your photograph. Focal points can take many forms in landscapes from buildings, trees, boulders, birds, ships, islands, a person, silhouette, etc.

  5. Consider using the sky to enhance your landscape. Many great landscapes will either have a dominant foreground or sky to eliminate your photo from being boring. If your sky is bland, compose your landscape to focus on its foreground by placing the horizon in the upper third of your shot (Remember my article on the Rule of Thirds.) If the sky is filled with drama, interesting cloud formations and colors, let it dominate by placing the foreground lower. You can even enhance skies via a polarizing filter or in post production.

  6. When people think landscapes, they think of passive environments, still lifes, but many of the great landscapes show motion and the movement adds drama, mood and points of interest. It could be waves on a shoreline, a waterfall, moving clouds or birds flying, for example.

  7. Scotland, Highlands, Dornoch FirthAfter you take that breath, while you’re composing your landscape image, one question to ask yourself is “How will you lead the viewer’s eye in the photograph?” We’ve already discussed some methods. Another is to provide viewers with lines that lead them into and through an image. Lines give images depth, scale, perspective and can be a point of interest, creating patterns in your image.

  8. Photograph during the “golden hours,” the hours near dawn and dusk. This is the time when the light must travel through the atmosphere the longest distance, which effects it’s “golden” color. The light being low also creates shadow, and helps define shapes better with improved contrast, interesting patterns, dimensions and textures.

  9. Think about the horizon in your landscapes. While you can fix the horizon in post processing it’s better if you get it right when you take the photo. Ask yourself if it’s straight, if it should be, and if it’s in the right place to make the best landscape possible. Think about that rule of thirds I keep mentioning. It works.

  10. Remember it’s not the camera which creates great photographs. Photographers create great photographs with their minds, hearts and senses.

Galapagos, North Seymour Island, Great Frigate at sunset

Photography Exhibition: International Center of Photography - Avedon Fashion 1944–2000

Richard Avedon, Veruschka, dress by Kimberly, New York, January 1967

The International Center of Photography regularly has spectacular exhibitions of photography. One of its current exhibitions, Avedon Fashion 1944–2000, is no exception. If you're in the New York City area make sure you see this exhibition of one of the greatest American photographers of the 20th Century.

This exhibition will be the most comprehensive exploration to date of Avedon's fashion photography during his long career at Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, The New Yorker, and beyond.

This exhibition will run through September 6, 2009

"Richard Avedon (1923–2004) revolutionized fashion photography starting in the post-World War II era and redefined the role of the fashion photographer. Anticipating many of the cultural cross-fertilizations that have occurred between high art, commercial art, fashion, advertising, and pop culture in the last twenty years, he created spirited, imaginative photographs that showed fashion and the modern woman in a new light. He shook up the chilly, static formulas of the fashion photograph and by 1950 was the most imitated American editorial photographer. Injecting a forthright, American energy into a business that had been dominated by Europeans, Avedon's stylistic innovations continue to influence photographers around the world."

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, May 18, 2009

Focus, overcoming the "fuzzies" Part 2

Filbert Street stairs, San FranciscoIn Part 1, I discussed how auto-focus works, and many of the modes of auto-focus found in today’s camera’s. In Part 2, I’ll discuss how to use auto-focus, difficult auto-focus situations, and when to manually focus your camera if it has that capability.

A not so famous photographer said in 2007, “Out of focus photographs give me a headache.”¹

Visiting the National Zoo’s panda exhibit where the glass wall separating visitors from the bears has a zillion finger prints and other dirt, travelers notice their photographs of the Pandas are out of focus, but the fingerprints on the glass are “sharp as a tack.” Seriously, wouldn’t that give you a headache?

When I first started pursuing photography seriously, auto-focus wasn’t even a dream, but today, auto-focus is the standard, and on most cameras, in most situations it does an outstanding job, more quickly, and sometimes better than photographers can do for themselves. Please note the use of the phrase, “in most situations,” and the word “sometimes” in the previous sentence.

If you want your photographs consistently to be in focus, care and thought must be given to the process.

For good auto-focus the photographer must be cognizant of how auto-focus works. For stationary subjects, the general technique used when auto-focus is difficult is called, “focus and recompose.”

LACMAUtilizing your knowledge of how auto-focus works, you allow the camera to find the ideal “focus” for your photograph, then, after locking-in the focus, compose, or rather “recompose” the image to that desired. This is only possible if your camera permits manual focus lock. Most auto-focus cameras utilize the shutter release button to lock the camera’s auto-focus when the button is pressed halfway down. As long as the button is not released, the focus will be locked, and remain locked until the photograph is taken by pressing the shutter release all the way.

We already know, to auto-focus, the camera must find the edges of your subject on which to focus by sensing the differences in the scene’s contrast. For difficult to focus stationary subjects I use single area focus and directly point to an edge or line on the subject. If that won’t work, I’ll focus on another object, equidistant to the subject of the photo. I lock the focus and compose my image, all the while holding the shutter release halfway down, then when ready, take the photo.

Sometimes, if conditions permit, I close the aperture of the lens to the extent possible to lengthen the depth of field, to better ensure good subject focus. That can have negative results, however, if it brings into focus, objects you would rather have out of focus to make your main subject stand out.

Pelican flying in the GalapagosFor subjects in motion, such as birds, I suggest using continuous group dynamic focusing. This allows the camera to use multiple focus points to auto-focus, so if the subject moves for a moment, away from the photographer’s primary focus point, it will remain in focus while the photographer pans the camera to keep composing the image as photographs are taken. This mode, allows the camera to more easily find those elusive edges for focusing on moving objects. A method to assist you focus on a moving subject, such as a bicycle rider, is to prefocus on something which is stationary and equidistant from where the rider will be going across your field of vision.

Lion at the San Diego Wild Animal ParkSometimes, the camera’s auto-focus can be fooled into focusing on the wrong subject. The National Zoo’s Panda exhibit mentioned above is a perfect example. At zoos, we want to take photos of animals behind glass or chain link fences, but our cameras often auto-focus on the glass or fence. In that situation bring your camera as close to the barrier as possible, such as in between the links of the fence. This brings the fence or wall too close for the camera to focus on it, so it ignores it, and focuses on the real subject instead.

If you have manual focus available in your camera, there are times it’s the best focus method to use. For macro or close-up shots, night photography, portraits where I generally focus on the eyes, fireworks, low light or distant landscapes, I manually focus my camera.

A final thought. For many landscapes, I concentrate my focus on the foreground of my image, and let the focus be what it may for the rest of the photo. This is the way our eyes generally focus on outdoor scenes, and is a very natural look for landscapes, where the background focus is a bit soft.

¹Completely frustrated with a lens that was “back focusing” while traveling in Los Angeles in 2007, when reviewing photos taken earlier in the day, which had to be re-taken, I said, “Out of focus photographs give me a headache.”

Photography Exhibition: The Santa Barbara Museum of Art - Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow

Brett Weston: Out of the ShadowThe Santa Barbara Museum of Art periodically has wonderful exhibitions of photography. Right now they have a marvelous exhibition of the work of the American Photographer, Brett Weston. Weston is the son of the famous American Photographer, Edward Henry Weston who co-founded Group f/64.

Group f/64 was a group of seven 20th century San Francisco photographers who shared a common photographic style characterized by sharp-focused and carefully framed images seen through a particularly Western US viewpoint. Group f/64 included luminaries such as Ansel Adams, Sonya Noskowiak and Imogen Cunningham.

The exhibition, Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow is the largest retrospective of Brett Weston's work in over 30 years.

This exhibition will run through August 16, 2009

This exhibition surveys Weston’s almost 70-year career. It presents more than 130 photographs which range from early vintage prints made in Mexico and California in the 1920s and 1930s, to East Coast images from the 1940s, to later landscape and nature photographs. It also includes prints made shortly before his death in Hawaii in 1993.

“While the presentation provides an unprecedented view of the form, composition and contrast that remained constants in Weston’s career, it also parallels the life of the artist, especially the familial and artistic relationship between Brett and his father, Edward. The exhibition illuminates their influence on each other, simultaneously freeing Brett from his father’s shadow and allowing him to take his own place in the pantheon of American photography.”

If you’re in the Santa Barbara area through mid August, I strongly suggest you take in this terrific 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.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Focus, overcoming the "fuzzies" Part 1

Ansel Adams said, “There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.” While I certainly agree with Adams’ sentiment, if your photo is out of focus, no one will care about your image.

Future Faces of Fashion Charity Fashion ShowToday’s digital cameras, whether expensive DSLRs or low end Point & Shoots all have remarkably accurate automatic focus capability, but sometimes, your image composition, or conditions which are a bit out of the ordinary, can defeat any camera’s auto-focus.

In Part 1, I discuss how auto-focus works, and many of the modes of auto-focus found in today’s camera’s. In Part 2, I’ll discuss how to use auto-focus, difficult auto-focus situations, and when to manually focus your camera if it has that capability.

In auto-focus, the camera senses the difference in contrast between the edges of objects as seen through the lens. When the subject has sharp contrast differences, the camera will probably easily and correctly focus. If the edges of your subject are fuzzy, or aren’t clearly distinguishable from the surrounding background, the camera will have difficultly focusing, if it can at all. When this occurs, the camera’s auto-focus system will keep searching to find a clear sharp edge. This is sometimes called hunting.

Usually, in brightly lit conditions where the subject’s color makes it stand out from the background, auto-focus has little problem. If the light is dim, or the subject is similar in color to the background then auto-focus probably won’t work. Likewise, if your subject has multiple line patterns, it may have too many edges and the auto-focus system may not be able to decide on one to use, and therefore hunt. The same thing happens when there are many objects in the focus area.

Galapagos, Espinoza Point, Fernandina Island, Lava LizardRecently, at a forum I frequent, a photog new to his DSLR told us how he tried to take a photo of a coyote about 100 yards away. He was trying to understand why his photograph was out of focus. The problem was the image was monochromatic, with the coyote blending into the background. In addition, in the overall landscape the coyote wasn’t much more than a blip. The camera’s auto-focus really didn’t have a chance. The photog needed to manually focus in this situation.

Auto-focus has a number of methods or modes it uses to determine at what distance from the camera it should focus the lens to produce a sharp image. The modes have different names, according to the type of camera and brand. I’ll briefly discuss the major modes.

Face Detect:

The camera automatically detects the location of faces in the photo and focuses on them. If you’re taking a photograph of a single individual, or a small group of individuals in a single row, or “scrunched” together, I’ve found this mode works exceedingly well, especially on newer cameras.

The mode has difficulty when you’re photographing people of different complexions, and large groups in multiple rows or at tables, as they depend on depth of field and the photographer doesn’t control the actual point of focus.

Dynamic Area (No Frame):

The camera uses information from multiple focus points in a specific area of the image to determine focus. This mode is especially suited to continuous focusing, for action photographs. In this mode, the camera gets to choose the primary focus point in the focus area, not the photographer, which can be a problem.

Group Dynamic:

This mode is similar to the Dynamic Area mode. It uses multiple focus points in a specific area of the image to determine focus, but unlike Dynamic Area focus, the photographer chooses the primary focus point within the focus area. This mode is especially suited to continuous focusing, when shooting action photographs.

Closest Subject Priority:

In this mode the camera focuses on the closest object of significant size in the image. The problem with this mode is when the closest subject is not the main subject and the camera focuses on the wrong part of the image. I never recommend this mode.

Single Area:

In this mode, the photographer chooses which focus point among all the available focus points for the camera to set the focus. In some cameras, it’s always the center focus point. This is an excellent mode for portraits or any photograph in which your subject(s) are stationary.

Monument ValleyFor many amateur photographers, Face Detect mode can be extremely helpful in taking photographs of groups, as long as you understand its shortcomings.

I never utilize Dynamic Area focus due to its uncertainty, but do use its cousin, Group Dynamic focus, when I’m using continuous focusing for action photographs.

For stationary subjects, I use Single Area mode, and use the focus point which matches the location of where I want to focus in the photograph, or I use the center focus point (more often than not), focus, then recompose my image to get the precise composition of the image I desire.

Part 2 next week.

Photography Exhibition: The Hallmark Museum of Contemporary Photography - Blake Fitch - Expectations of Adolescence

Blake Fitch, Expectations of AdolescenceThe Hallmark Museum of Contemporary Photography in Turners Falls, MA has some of the most interesting exhibitions of contemporary photography on the East Coast of the US. Blake Fitch, Expectations of Adolescence, a ten year study of two girls, continues in that tradition. If you’re in north-central Massachusetts, about 100 miles west of Boston, don’t miss this exhibition.

The exhibition will run through June 28, 2009.

Blake Fitch was born in Rochester, NY in 1971, and educated at Pratt Institute with a B.F.A. in Photography and a minor in Photo History (1994). She has gone on to receive a masters degree in Arts Administration from Boston University (2001). She has photographed extensively in the United States and South America, focusing on themes of identity, rites of passage, civil rights, and the exploration of community within third world countries.

This exhibition, at Gallery 52 of the Museum, is the culmination of a ten year photographic project documenting the emotional and physical growth and emotional maturation of two young girls. It’s quite amazing.

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, May 4, 2009

Myth exploded: Digital verus Film Photography

Travelers, still using film cameras have asked me, "Is digital photography really as good as film?" They want the best keepsakes possible of their travel memories.

In San Francisco, in March, in a museum, a man came up to me to say, "I see you have one of those expensive DSLRs. I really want to move to digital, but it's just too expensive for the camera, software, and an expensive computer to edit the photos." That statement blew me away, as many travelers, have discarded their film cameras precisely because digital photography is much less expensive than film.

I think it’s time to dispel the digital versus film photography myths.
  1. Digital photographs are inferior to film photographs

    Delft: Nieuwe kerk Delft in the background in Delft PlazaEarly on, film was better than digital. Digital cameras in 2001 generally produced grainy, off-color images. Even a few years later with digital camera sensor improvements, the cameras’ internal computers still didn't interpret sensor output very well, and there were other problems too.

    Today, the better digital cameras in each price range, produce photos of equal quality, or better, to film. Professional digital cameras often exceed the capabilities of their film camera counterparts. Today's professional digital cameras can produce great photos, even when projected on large screens, or made into poster sized prints or larger. This isn't to say film isn't good anymore. It is good, but digital is now as good or better.

  2. Digital photography is expensive

    If you want to, you can spent a “fortune” on top level digital photography equipment and software, but then again, it’s possible to spend a “fortune” on top level film photography equipment and chemicals too.

    In the early ‘90s, some of the first professional digital cameras cost more than $15,000. Today, you can purchase a Nikon professional DSLR, the D300, for $2,000. Nikon’s top SLR film camera, the F6, costs $2,500, while their top DSLR, the D3X costs $8,000, but don’t let that throw you. The D3X or the D300, for that matter have features that F6 owners can only drool over.

    My professional DSLR costs more than a typical traveler’s point and shoot (P&S) film camera, but you can get a great P&S digital cameras for less than $300. For editing and touching up, I use Adobe Photoshop CS4 ($700), but Adobe Photoshop Elements, typically overkill for most non-professionals, costs under $70. You can also use an online program like Picassa for free. Prints at your local Costco or BJ’s cost about the same for digital and film. So please, don’t tell me how expensive digital photography is, because it’s not.

  3. Digital Cameras are heavy, bulky, and won’t rapid fire

    Nikon D200My DSLR with vertical grip and zoom lens is bulky and heavy, but the weight and heft is typical for pro level SLR or DSLR.

    Today's digital P&S cameras are light weight, and the majority are quite small. A typical Canon Powershot weighs 5.3oz, and is only 3.5”x2.3”x1”. It doesn’t have all the features my DSLR has, but it takes wonderful photos, to make a great pictorial travel log, share on a web site, or even print up to 8”x10” enlargements.

    As far as rapidly taking photos, DSLRs are equal to SLRs. Early digital P&S cameras had a serious shutter lag, but today, the lag is gone. Some digital P&S users complain that after they take each photo, they have to wait several seconds before they can take another. If they would turn off their multi-second photo review on the LCD, they could generally rapid fire their camera.

  4. Organizing and storing digital photos is costly and time-consuming

    I organize my photos in folders by location and date, using a program which also renames each photo with a name combining location and date, with a sequence number. You can’t get much easier. If you’re using a P&S camera, or a consumer DSLR your file size is small enough that your photos won’t take much hard drive space. To back up, you can write them to CDs, which is inexpensive.

    My DSLR photos have a large file size, and I take thousands of photos each year. My hard drive and CDs don't have a large enough capacity. I use a 1TB (Terabyte=1,000GBs) external hard drive which only costs $130.

  5. It’s hard to print digital photos, and they don’t look very good

    Hearst Castle: Neptune PoolThat changed quite some time ago, as the printer manufactures like HP and Epson, designed better, and more sophisticated photo printers, along with excellent professional quality photo paper and inks.

    I print my own photos up to 13"x19" with no trouble at all. Home users can make their own quality prints on inexpensive photo printers and for big enlargements send them to Costco or other companies online.

Photography Exhibition: At MoMA - Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West

The MoMA (Museum of Modern Art – New York City) consistently has some of the best photographic exhibitions in North America or anywhere, for that matter. The current exhibition, Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West is no exception. If you’re in the New York City area, don’t miss this exhibition.

The exhibition will run through June 8, 2009.

Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West examines how photography has pictured the idea of the American West from 1850 to the present. Photography's development coincided with the exploration and the settlement of the West, and their simultaneous rise resulted in a complex association that has shaped the perception of the West's physical and social landscape to this day.”

“Into the Sunset brings together over 120 photographs made by a variety of photographers. These works illustrate photography's role in popularizing ideas of the sublime landscape, Manifest Destiny, and the "land of opportunity," as well as describing a more complex vision of the West, one that addresses cultural dislocation, environmental devastation, and failed social aspirations.”

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.