Monday, August 31, 2009

Photographing Sacred Spaces

Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia, PAWhen we travel we certainly see and often visit churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and other religious shrines. Many contain some of the world’s great artwork. Many are architectural gems unto themselves. Many have extensive grounds. Many are important for their history, or their part in historic events.

Some are the center of their town’s or city’s culture, and attract visitors from across their region, country, and some attract visitors from across the world.

Often we find shops, vendors, and other places supporting the sacred space. That means many photo opportunities besides the place of worship itself, and those of its grounds and interior.

Gaining access to a place considered sacred by those who maintain and belong to it, brings responsibility to behave with sensitivity to the place of worship itself, those who worship in it, and those responsible for running it. The building, grounds, and the people must be respected.

Photography Exhibition: The Getty Museum - In Focus: Making a Scene

The Letter, Guido Rey, 1908The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has one of the great photographic collections in the world. This exhibition shows of some of their most interesting works of scene setting, as opposed to natural settings.

This exhibition, In Focus: Making a Scene, is one of the Getty’s most interesting.

This exhibition will run through October 18th

Monday, August 24, 2009

Travel Tripod: My quest paid off

In the first article of my Tripod Series, Traveling with a tripod: It's love — Hate, I discussed the benefits of using a tripod when traveling. I’ve been taking a tripod with me for years while traveling. You can’t take night photographs, or other long exposure shots without a tripod.

Gitzo GK2580TQR with RRS BH-40LR headIn the second article in the Series, How to Choose a Tripod, I discussed the various criteria to use in choosing any tripod, including one for travel.

So what makes a Travel Tripod different than any other tripod, and why might choosing a Travel Tripod require us to make compromises, and force us to rank our criteria by their importance to us?

When choosing a Travel Tripod there are two criteria briefly mentioned in the second article in my Tripod Series which makes the choice difficult. A Travel Tripod has to be easy to pack and take on your trip. In addition, presumably on most trips, you’re going to be carrying it around for long periods of time, so it needs to be very light weight.

My main tripod is made of carbon-fiber. Even so, it weighs about 6 lbs with the head. Carrying it around for several hours at a time can be very tiring. Folded it won’t fit in my carry-on, no matter how it’s positioned.

I chose the Gitzo GK2580TQR Travel Tripod (legs), using my criteria from How to Choose a Tripod. This is how I went about it:
  • I’m about 66” tall. When I put my Nikon D200 atop the head, on the legs, it adds about 3” to the tripod’s height. My eyes, like most adults are about 4” or so below the top of my head. To use the tripod without raising the center column, Therefore to be comfortable for me, I prefer the tripod to be at least 50” high with the legs at their smallest angle setting with the center column down.
  • While I can’t attach the head to the legs without the center column, I can purchase a shorter center column to replace the current one, so the camera can be on the tripod even lower to the ground than I can get it now (16”).
  • The tripod legs are unbraced.
  • The tripod legs are made with carbon-fiber, using the pultrusion method of manufacture, which has the best weight to stability ratio.
  • The tripod legs weight 3 lbs and with the head/clamp I chose, just under 4 lbs aggregately, better than I hoped for.
  • Folded Size, is the 2nd critical criterion specific for travel tripods. Considering the size of my allowable roller carry-on, and the size of my camera/computer backpack, I was very pleased that my tripod is just under 17” long folded, and less than 4.5” wide.
  • The tripod must be able to easily carry the weight of my D200, and more. The tripod must support the camera, the heaviest lens I will use with it, my flash with bracket, head/clamp, and the plate on the camera to which the clamp holds on. (More on that in a moment.) The tripod legs support 15.4 lbs, which is sufficient.
  • The diameter of the tripod’s legs are a critical specification for maximizing the tripod’s resistance to torque. I plan to use my Nikon 80mm-400mm lens with this tripod. It’s length at 400mm, and its weight are somewhat less than a typical 300mm prime lens, so I chose to use legs which have the first leg section at a diameter of 28mm. I’ve now tested the tripod. It holds my equipment very steady, enough for long exposure shots.
  • The tripod head, which sits atop the legs is what allows you to move the camera to compose your photographs. For the purposes of this article, it’s enough to say, in my opinion, the ball head is the best choice for Point and Shoot, SLR, and DSLR cameras (mine). In my opinion, the best ball heads are manufactured by Markins and Really Right Stuff (RRS). I’ll have an article on ball heads on the Blog soon. I chose the RRS BH-40 LR ball head.
  • As mentioned in the second article of the Series, the best clamp for SLR/DSLR camera/lenses is an Arca-Swiss style clamp. It allows quick attachment and detachment, and provides a solid, secure base and connection between the head and your camera/lens. I chose an Arca-Swiss lever style clamp by RRS, which allows for instant release of the camera/lens compared to the screw knob style. A point and shoot camera can use a direct screw attachment successfully.
  • Point and Shoot cameras, and lenses need only a flat plate for a clamp to grip. Point and Shoot cameras are light, and flopping them in the ball head to obtain a vertical orientation will not noticeably affect their stability. Long lenses used with an SLR or DSLR camera are usually attached to the head, via a collar, instead of the camera the camera. The camera/lens is rotated in the collar to change orientation. The lens is attached to the head for balance. Otherwise, an SLR/DSLR with lens is attached to the tripod via the camera. I prefer to use an “L” plate with the camera. To vertically orient the camera, you use the short side of the “L” plate keeping the camera/lenses weight directly over the tripod’s central axis, instead of flopping the camera to the side in the head’s slot which substantially diminishes the stability of the tripod. I’m using a RRS flat plate for my long lenses and and “L” plate for my D200.
D200 with 80-400mm lens attached to tripod via lens collar and plate

The compromise one must make, when choosing a Travel Tripod is stability (weight capacity, and resistance to torque) versus folded size, and tripod weight. It’s extremely hard to find a combination which works.
My quest was successful. The Gitzo GK2580TQR tripod meets my varied specifications, and the head and other parts by RRS fit the bill perfectly. By the way, in my opinion Gitzo makes the best tripods. Manfrotto tripods are also excellent, and there are other brands which are highly serviceable.

Please note, however, that if I wanted to use a longer lens, such as a Nikon 500mm telephoto lens for birding, the GK2580TQR legs would not have the necessary stability.

Photography Exhibition: The Philadelphia Museum of Art - Skyscrapers: Prints, Drawings, and Photographs of the Early Twentieth Century

Looking North from an American Place, 1930, Alfred StieglitzThe Philadelphia Museum of Art, in Philadelphia, PA, has recently been more creative in developing their photographic exhibitions. Skyscrapers: Prints, Drawings, and Photographs of the Early Twentieth Century is an example of their new direction, where they are melding photography with art of other milieus.

This exhibition will run through November 1, 2009
Icons of modernity and testaments to human achievement, skyscrapers rose to towering heights in major cities across the United States during the early decades of the twentieth century. These technological feats of architecture and design furnished necessary solutions to the problems set by rapid urban growth while simultaneously providing exciting new material for artists. Skyscrapers offered the contemporary artist a way to document a city’s development, a pretext for experimenting with modernist aesthetics, and a subject on which to project personal or collective ideas and emotions.
Curators, John Vick, the Margaret R. Mainwaring Curatorial Fellow in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, and John Ittmann, Curator of Prints have done an extraordinary job in this exhibition which features photographs of Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand

If you’re in the Philadelphia area through November 1st, 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, August 17, 2009

How to Choose a Tripod

Last week I discussed the benefits of using a tripod. Of course, first and foremost the job of a tripod is to hold your camera/lens steady. If your choice of tripod can’t do that one thing, in my opinion, you’ve wasted your money purchasing it.

Choosing a tripod is very personal because it needs to be sized to your height, handle your camera/lens/ancillary mounted equipment weight, and the length (focal length) of the longest lens you will use with it. I think it’s obvious how your height and the camera’s weight come into play, but perhaps not why the length (focal length) of the lens is important.

Travel Tripod with Ball Head and Arca Swiss style clampLens length is important for two reasons. First, the longer the focal length of the lens, the higher the magnification. The more magnification the lens provides, the more any shake or vibration of the lens will cause your photograph to be blurred. Second, the longer the focal length of the lens, the longer the lens will generally be. The weight of the lens extending well past the central axis of the tripod will torque the tripod legs while the tripod is supporting the camera/lens.

A tripod holding a lens with high magnification, and torqued must have sufficient structural strength to prevent image blurring due to movement cause by outside forces such as ground vibration, wind, the camera’s mechanical actions, or human touch.

When we are talking about tripods, we are really talking about 4 distinct pieces which make up the total tripod.
  1. Tripod legs which support everything else.
  2. Tripod head which permits the camera/lens to be moved to compose the photograph.
  3. Tripod head clamp which is used to attach the camera or lens to the tripod head. ¹,²
  4. Camera or lens plate, which is held directly by the tripod head clamp. ¹,²
¹ It is possible to screw the camera or possibly the lens directly to the tripod head, though this does not permit the quick attachment or disattachment of the camera or lens from the tripod/tripod head which I believe is important.

² When using longer lens with a camera you generally attach the lens directly to the tripod head, rather than the camera.

Use the following criteria when choosing a tripod:
  • Height: Ideally the height of your tripod’s platform holding your camera should be at least as high as your eye level with the legs open at their smallest setting angle. Outside you often need one or two legs set at a level lower than where you are standing which makes the tripod feels shorter than it is. Therefore it’s better to have a little extra leg length than not. Remember that the head atop your legs on which the camera/lens will sit will add some inches to the height of the tripod’s legs. This is especially important for travelers as it can reduce the leg length you need for your tripod, which can reduce its weight. Plus, in my opinion you don't want to use the center column to bring your viewfinder to eye level. (If at all possible you shouldn’t use the center column as when up it adds instability to the tripod.
  • Center Column: Many quality tripods have a reversible and removable center column which can help you get a low angle, macro, and close to the ground shot. Some swear the capability to set the center column horizontally is great, but I’ve never thought much of it. There are both smooth and geared columns. I prefer smooth.
  • Leg Spread: The best tripod legs are unbraced with independent multiple angle positioning to work on uneven terrain, and allow the tripod to get low to the ground for such shots as macros of flowers and insects.
  • Leg Composition: Carbon-fiber offers the greatest weight to stability ratio, and is easier to hold in cold weather than aluminum. Unfortunately, carbon-fiber comes at a cost, a significantly higher cost. If you can afford it, you won't regret purchasing carbon-fiber tripod legs. Carbon-fiber can make your tripod legs truly “travel light,” yet strong.
  • Weight: If you’re carrying around a tripod while you’re on your feet all day, your tripod can’t be light enough. My travel tripod (legs) weighs 3 lbs. It’s ball head, with clamp weighs another 18 oz. The legs are carbon-fiber.
  • Folded Size: Ordinarily, most people don’t care about the length of a tripod when folded, but this is very important for travel tripods. You want it to fit in your airplane carry-on if at all possible, otherwise you’ll have to pack it in your checked luggage. My travel tripod closes to just 16.75 inches.
  • Leg Diameter: You need a diameter which enables the tripod to carry the necessary weight, and resist torque, to be a solid and steady platform for your camera/lens. Many tripods, while being able to withstand the weight, can’t resist the torque, and so still shake and vibrate when used.
  • Head: In my opinion, for most still photography, the best and most versatile head to use is ball head, but there are many brands and choices. To help narrow your choices down next week in my third and final article of the series I will tell you which brands I prefer.
  • Clamp: There is no better clamp to attach your camera/lens to your ball head than the Arca-Swiss style clamp. It allows quick attachment and detachment, and provides a solid, secure base for your camera/lens. I use one myself, with a quick-release lever.
  • Camera/Lens Plate: There are two basic styles of plates which bolt to your camera, to attach it to an Arca-Swiss style clamp; straight, and “L.” I prefer the “L” plate for my camera, as it allows me to quickly switch between horizontal and vertical orientation, and keeps the weight of the camera/lens directly over the central axis of the head, maintaining maximum stability. A flat plate requires the camera be flopped to the side, placing the camera/lens weight to the side of the head instead of over it.
Travel Tripod folding for packing in carry-onI’ve now discussed the benefits of using a tripod, and the general criteria you should use to compare potential tripod choices, to find one which meets your needs.

Next week, I’ll discuss real world examples of tripods and tripod heads, clamps, plates, and explain how to use the criteria to choose a travel tripod. I’ll warn you up front, choosing a travel tripod, at this time, requires compromises, especially if you want to use a long lens on your camera.

Photography Exhibition: Whitney Museum of American Art - Photoconceptualism, 1966–1973

Bruce Nauman (b. 1941), Waxing Hot, 1966-67 (printed 1970), from the portfolio Eleven Color Photographs.The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, New York, regularly has very special photographic exhibitions. Photoconceptualism, 1966–1973 follows in that tradition.

This exhibition will run through September 20, 2009
The final installment in a three-part series taking a closer look at photography in the Whitney’s collection, this exhibition focuses on works by conceptual artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s. During that time, photography became a favored medium (along with video) for art that placed more importance on concepts than on aesthetic and material concerns and rejected the necessity of the gallery or museum as a primary site of exhibition. The presentation features work by Mel Bochner, Adrian Piper, Bruce Nauman, Michael Heizer, and others.
If you’re in the New York City area through September 20th, I strongly suggest you take in this terrific exhibition. From it you can tell how extraordinary the Whitney’s collection of photographs is.

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, August 10, 2009

Traveling with a tripod: It's love — Hate

You know, it really is a love — hate relationship between travel photographers and their tripods. Some weigh so much you get tired just looking at them in your room. When traveling with a group, you may get some “evil eyes” staring at you while you take time to set them up and take them down.
Monument Valley, Utah

 Unfortunately, without a tripod, you can’t get really good night photographs, multi-image panoramas, sharp wildlife photos at distance, or sharp macro photographs of beautiful blooms, even with lens vibration reduction or camera image stabilization.

If you don’t have a tripod, or are considering one, but haven’t yet purchased one, it’s time to look at what benefits to travel photography you can derive from taking a tripod with you.
  • Enhance sharpness — The “Photography Hand Holding” rule of thumb, for 35mm camera “equivalent” focal lengths, is the slowest hand-holdable shutter speed is 1 divided by the focal length of the lens. A 200mm lens can be hand held no lower than 1/200 sec. For print sizes of 8x10 inches and larger, even 1/200 is too slow. While some people can hand hold better than others, and lens vibration reduction / camera image stability can help, when you get to it, the rule is accurate. A sturdy, stable, properly sized tripod will get you sharper pictures every time.
  • Create photographic opportunities — There are many photographic opportunities for which a tripod is essential; night photography, time-lapse photography, macro photography, wildlife photography, timed delay exposures, panoramas, etc. You might use a tripod to be creative such as in action photography where you pan with the subject and blur the background to show movement.
  • Use lenses with longer focal lengths — The longer your lens’ focal length, the higher the magnification of your image, the more difficult hand holding the lens will be, and the more likely the image will be blurred by even a minute amount of camera shake. The longer the lens, the more the shake will be amplified. Vibration reduction and image stabilization cannot eliminate camera/lens movement as effectively as a properly sized tripod.
  • Enhance photographic image quality — When you hand hold your camera in low light conditions, you often must either use faster film, or set your sensor ISO setting higher on your digital camera, since there is a lower limit in reducing your f/setting, when you try to keep your shutter speed high enough to hand hold your camera. By placing your camera on a tripod, you can keep your film speed or ISO setting low, improving your photograph’s quality.
  • Enhance depth of field — When you hand hold in low light, you must use a low f/setting, opening up your lens’ aperture to let more light in, and/or a high film speed or ISO setting. Using a low f/setting reduces your photograph’s depth of field. Using a tripod enables you to use higher f/settings, closing the lens’ aperture to create a longer depth of field.
  • Reduce distortion — Some better tripods allow you to get close to the ground for extreme low-angle shooting. This in turn can help you better compose the photograph and minimize keystoning and other types of distortion.
  • Enhance image framing — There’s nothing better than a tripod in assisting a photographer to control the camera/lens position to permit you to perfectly compose your photo by using its panning and tilting movement.
  • Enhance videos — You’ve seen TV cameras at sporting events, news events, and other locations. Many, especially the ones far from the action, are on tripods. There is no doubt that their use for video reduces camera shake and ehances smooth panning to follow movement. With more and more digital still cameras able to take short videos, tripods for those shots are becoming more important daily.
  • Enhance flexibility — You can use a tripod like many photographers to hold more than just a camera. I’ve often used a tripod as a light stand, or to hold a reflector.
  • Enhance photographer’s discipline — In my article, “Get great photos from your camera, instead of whining about needing a new one,” I said, “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.” It takes a bit of time to set up a tripod with a camera and lens. This is a great time to think about your image, set an appropriate exposure, and carefully compose the photograph with thought.”
The Louvre at Night, Paris

 Perhaps you think a tripod is only for expensive SLR or DSL cameras. Think again. If you have a Point and Shoot camera, look on the bottom of the camera. I’ll be you’ll find a threaded hole for attaching a tripod. Tripods work effectively for all kinds of cameras. You just need the right one.

Next week I’ll discuss choosing the right tripod.

Photography Exhibition: Victoria and Albert Museum - Capturing the Moment: Photographs by Reg Wilson

Anthony Sher, Richard III, 1985 by Reg WilsonThe Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England periodically has wonderful photographic exhibitions. Capturing the Moment: Photographs by Reg Wilson is one of those terrific exhibitions.

This exhibition will run through January 10, 2010

Reg Wilson is one of Britain's most prolific performance photographers.  From the 1960s he has recorded four decades of the performing arts in all their richness and variety, capturing the great and the good on stage, backstage and in the studio.

This selection from Wilson's archive, chosen by the artist, shows every aspect of the performance process from the studio to the finished product.  It also demonstrates a range of techniques, from the staged photo-call to the snatched backstage shot and includes some of the earliest stage photography and colour productions.

If you’re in the London, England area through early January, 2010, 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, August 3, 2009

Avoiding Some Digital Travel Photography Goofs

From time to time we’ve all been there; a great photo opportunity blown because of a silly mistake, misstep, forgotten item, or other reason. Here’s a few suggestions for you to avoid eight common digital travel photography goofs.
  • Don’t forget the spare battery — Actually, this one has never happened to me, but a few years ago, in Las Vegas, I realized I left my Nikon battery charger in my office. Fortunately, I was able to have it Fed-Exed it to me. If I would have been out of the country — oh my! I now have a permanent checklist to make sure I take all necessary equipment.
  • Philadelphia at SunsetDon’t forget, your camera has the settings from the last time you used it — Did you ever pick up your camera in the morning, to take a photo of a scene that quickly disappeared, only to find it’s out of focus because you left manual focus on the day before? I have a set procedure each time I get ready to take photos, to ready my camera. I use a DSLR, but you should have a checklist for whatever type of camera you use. Following my checklist ensures my DSLR properly set for the first shot of the day.
    • Check battery power.
    • Check memory card capacity remaining.
    • Set auto-focus to on.
    • Set focus mode appropriately.
    • Set lens vibration reduction appropriately.
    • Set shutter mode into single shot vs. continuous shooting.
    • Set the ISO.
    • Set shooting mode to aperture priority.
    • Set meter mode to 3D Matrix Metering.
    • Turn vertical grip shutter release off.
    • Set shooting menu setup to appropriate bank.
  • Don’t leave your spare memory cards at home — I know many who have done this. Their extra memory cards are always on the dresser. Just like batteries, memory cards are on my checklist.
  • Turn off your “Digital Zoom” (Digital Point and Shoot Cameras) — Often if this is forgotten, your telephoto shots will have terrible quality compared to the rest of your photos. “Digital zooming” is not really zooming, in my opinion. “Digital zooming” enlarges a portion of an image, “simulating” optical zoom. To do that, the camera crops the image and then enlarges the cropped portion to full size. That’s why you lose image quality. I recommend you turn your “digital zoom” off, but if you feel you’ll miss a photo you really want, and you aren’t printing your photo past 4”x6”, you may be okay.
  • Don’t let your travel photos of your family look like “Police Lineups” in “Law and Order” — I keep seeing this when people show off their vacation photos. In those photos, family and friends are standing erect with straight faces or forced smiles. It’s as if someone said, “Say cheese, or else!” When you take those shots, make them come alive by having your group do something. Have them relax, especially children. You could have them looking at someone, talking, or maybe leaning at a railing. The possibilities are endless.
  • Contrary to popular opinion, the light at noon isn’t ideal — Midday is about the worst time to take photos, if it's sunny because the overhead sunlight is strong and harsh. Even if you properly expose the photo, the colors tend to get washed out. Of course, sometimes your opportunity for a particular photograph will not be at an ideal time, so make sure your exposure is spot on. The best daylight times for photography are in the early morning and late afternoon; the “Golden Hours,” which I’ve discussed before. The low-angled sun produces photos with soft, rich, warm colors (yellow, reds, and oranges), and the long shadows produce great contrast.
  • Scotland - The Black IsleDon’t avoid taking cloudy day photo — I just shake my head when I hear travelers put their camera away on cloudy days. Cloudy overcast skies are great for photographing close-ups of people. The diffused illumination softens their facial features. The colors of flowers are often more vivid under gray skies. Dark angry skies can help you make fantastic landscapes.
  • Don’t let your spouse be just a dot in her photo at the Grand Canyon — You’ve got to decide what the real subject of your photo is when you document “You were there.” All too often your real subject is too far away. If you’re taking a photo of a person, remember, they are the subject of the photo, not the background. A tip you might want to follow for this type of photo is to use the “Rule of Thirds.” Put your subject in the right or left third of the photo. That way you’ll get a great photo of the person, and the background will still stand out too.

Photography Exhibition: Photographic Center Northwest - Photo-Op, 14th Annual Photographic Competition Exhibition

The work of Onejoon CheThe Photographic Center Northwest, Seattle, Washington, is at the forefront in advancing the study, practice, and appreciation of fine art and documentary photography through education, exhibitions, and public programs. Their Photo-Op, 14th Annual Photographic Competition Exhibition shows off some of the best work of today’s professional photographers.

This exhibition will run through September 4, 2009
This international annual juried exhibition remains among the most popular shows in PCNW's annual schedule. The competition is open to all photographers, all photographic processes, and all themes. The juror looks for work that represents a larger, cohesive body of work and selects a short series from each photographer chosen. Choosing from over 2500 images, the exhibition is full of surprises - fresh & exciting work!

This exhibition features: Jowhara Alsaud, Andrea Bakacs, Mary Ellen Bartley, Katie Baum, Magda Biernat, Colin Blakely, Tim Carpenter, Onejoon Che, Thomas Holton, Stephanie Kirk, Brian Knappenberger, Alex Leme, James Luckett, Kevin Miyazaki, Liz Obert, Colleen Plumb, Shawn Records, Tom Reese, Andy Reynolds, Rebecca Sittler, Lacey Terrell, Ian Whitmore
If you’re in the Seattle area through early September, I strongly suggest you take in this amazing 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.