Thursday, May 4, 2017

Nailed It

Nailed it.  That’s a pretty common phrase that we use for many things to describe when we’ve succeeded in a manner that really pleases, or was effortless, or is without much fault.

I was recently musing on the concept of “nailing it” in photography.  I was thinking about the concept of how I can be in a location shooting and the variety of success I achieve shooting in the same conditions, with generally the same equipment (except lens changes) and same mindset.  Some shots don’t work at all, some are good and when everything is just right, I might just “nail” a shot.  The shot below is one that when I got done processing it, I thought to myself, “I nailed it”

click to view large

So, that got me thinking about what it takes to “nail” a shot.  The first thing I realized is that nailing a shot is almost completely subjective and is the opinion of the photographer or the viewer.  I will grant that a portion of this concept is the technical execution of the shot; is it in focus, properly exposed, etc.    The majority of the feeling of nailing it is subjective though and there are many creative factors that need to combine together to elicit that feeling of nailing it.

Lighting and composition are the two biggest non-technical factors that contribute to nailing it.  Working with the available light, and the quality of light, is a huge factor is the “feeling” of an image and how it comes across to the viewer.  In addition, choosing the right subject to shoot given the available light is another subjective factor contributing to the image.  In the above shot, this was taken just after sunrise in a shaded area, there was enough light to illuminate the subject and use a decent shutter speed to reduce motion blur. The light was soft, slightly warm  and somewhat diffuse with no shadows or harsh light. 

Choice of composition is a HUGE factor in an image and it is our main storytelling tool to use as photographers.  Now this is where it really gets subjective based upon the photographer and the desired end result.  Granted, there are some compositions that just don’t work. They aren’t balanced, framed well, or even harmonious…all of which result in a less than pleasing comp to the viewer.  The composition above is one that really works for me on many levels.  The angle of the flower, how the petals leave the scene on 3 of 4 sides and one side you get the full petal view, how the flower recedes a bit away from the viewer, etc.    Those are some of my subjective reasons for feeling this comp works, your opinion may vary and that’s ok.  Art by its very nature is subjective.    At this location, I took 30-40 images all slightly different compositions and framing and only a few of them really rose above the rest.  I do like to explore and experiment with different comps in the field, partly as a learning experience when I review my images and partly because something caught my eye and I want to capture it. 

OK, so then my thinking then went to the fact that sometimes you have the technical details right, the lighting and comp are good or great, yet there is still some variation in the end result where some pics are “good” or “great” and maybe one or two are so good you feel that you “nailed it”.  So what is this special sauce that makes one pic rise above the others and can it be replicated with more consistency?    Unfortunately for me, I don’t think it’s something that is easily replicated, nor can it be analyzed and packaged in to a repeatable formula.  

The special sauce, in my thinking, is best represented by the word GESTALT, which is an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of it's parts.  There is something in these special images which is a combination of technical execution, lighting, composition, subject, etc., that come together to be a greater whole than the sum of the individual components of the image.   I have quite a few images that are technically great, but with average lighting, or a great comp but the technical side isn't quite right, and so on.....And I even have images where all of the components are good or even great, but still the gestalt of the image didn't coalesce in to something special.

Despite all of our technical learnings, amazing choices in gear, incredible locations to photograph, there is still something a bit mysterious and elusive in the art of photography.  When everything does come together and  you "nail" the shot, it is an incredible feeling. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Batteries and Mirrorless Cameras

When I made the switch to my Fujifilm mirrorless camera system from Canon, one of the knocks against mirrorless cameras was the battery life and how it was lacking compared to it’s DSLR competitors.  After using this system for a couple of years, I will agree that battery life is not as good as what I experienced from my DSLR.  However, it’s something that I’ve gotten used to, planned around and I don’t find it a problem or hindrance in any way.

Just so you know, a couple of the reasons why the battery life isn’t as good in mirrorless systems……1) smaller camera means a smaller battery, which means less stored energy in each battery.  2) The EVF and LCD screens are almost constantly on when shooting and reviewing images, which consume more energy.  3) In mirrorless cameras, the sensor stays charged all the time which consumes more energy.

When I bought my first Fujifilm X-T1 and then the X-T2, I bought the OEM Fuji batteries.  They are relatively expensive but I wanted to start off with the OEM batteries which I know are optimized for the camera.  As I have further built out my system I have found the need to add additional spare batteries to my gear to support longer shooting days. 

Looking through the vast choices of aftermarket batteries out there, I consulted several friends and read some reviews and finally settled on batteries from Wasabi, easily found on Amazon.  I’ve been using Wasabi batteries for the past year and have had very good results.  I was initially skeptical of aftermarket batteries, not expecting a lot of performance or longevity, especially considering how cheap these batteries are.  Thankfully, I only have positive things to say about the Wasabi batteries.  To be fair, they don’t last as long as the OEM Fuji batteries do, however, I can have 3 Wasabi batteries for the price of 1 Fuji battery.  I’ve not noticed any funkiness with the battery level meters, they report as accurate as the OEM batteries (as you may know, most batteries have some “smartness” built in to them these days) and have had no power related issues since I started using them.

Just recently, I wanted to add a couple more batteries to my collection and again turned to Wasabi products.  I have typically bought a 2-pack of batteries with a basic single battery wall charger for around $25.00.   I thought I would buy these again, but I noticed a new option available from Wasabi…..a 2-pack of batteries, plus a DUAL CHARGER that plugs in to a USB outlet!!!!!  All for $24.99.    This really got my attention because I could now charge two batteries at the same time instead of the one at a time process I’ve been doing.  I ordered them up and just received them a couple days ago. 

Same great quality of battery and the new charging option, wow!  Wonderfully well built, the batteries fit snugly in the slots and I was able to charge both batteries in almost the same time as charging one battery, just a little bit longer.  No I didn’t time it, just a gut check on the time it took.  The size of the dual charger is much smaller than the single battery wall charger, and since I usually have a computer or USB cigarette adapter, I’m always near a source of power.

On long photo trips, power management with mirrorless cameras is something to think about and a quiver of batteries is a must for a full day of shooting.  I can whole-heartedly say that both the OEM and Wasabi batteries perform extremely well and in particularly the Wasabi batteries perform much better than expected given their price.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Yes I use filters in the field

One of the questions I get asked a lot is if I still use filters when I shoot. My answer is always a very quick "Yes I most certainly do!"  "And I'm going to continue using them for the foreseeable future"

Many of the younger photographers ask why?   In this age of bracketing for exposure, WB, aperture, HDR, EDR, Photoshop, Lightroom, Topaz, Nik, etc etc etc, why do I go to the trouble of messing with filters?  

The answer is two-fold and it's pretty simple......1) if you can get it right in camera in one frame, then your final output will be that much better and 2) I'd much rather be out in the field "messing" with filters than sitting at home in front of my computer messing with blending tons of shots together.  And, I think I'm a bit of a purist...notice the key words in #1, "in one frame".  I enjoy the skill and artistry in working to capture an image in one frame, as I see it...not forcing it through digital chemistry.  I don't mind those who do, I just have a bit of a different approach.

I don't use a ton of different filters as I've been able to pare down what i use to the essentials to "get it right in camera"  All of my filters store neatly in one pouch that fits easily in my backpack and can be hung on belt loop as I'm shooting for quick and easy access.  The pouch I'm using right now, which i really like, is the Mindshift Filter Hive. It has padded sleeves for 8 rectangular filters and 6-9 slots for round filters, all in a handy zippered pouch.

Shown above is the filter holder insert. Well constructed, color coded tabs for quick identification.  

Here's a quick overview of the filters I use in the field. Generally in order of most frequently used to least frequently used

In the Pacific Northwest, polarizing filters are a must have.  They work great at cutting the glare coming off the water or rain on the foliage.  There is nothing you can do in post-processing that will fix an image with lots of glare.  The only solution is using a polarizing filter at the time of image capture.

I primarily use Singh-Ray filters as I've found them the highest quality with best performance and the least amount of color cast. It's a 77mm thread size and I use step up/down rings for whichever lens I need it on.  I also have a smaller B+W filter for use with my macro lens.  If you're in the market for one, only get a "circular" polarizer

Graduated Neutral Density Filters  
I regularly use Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters during sunrise and sunset shoots when I want to even out the exposure across the scene.  Usually the sky is bright and the foreground is much darker, so using one of these filters I can better even out the exposure across the entire scene. 

I started with Lee filters and then a few years ago I transitioned to Singh-Ray due to the higher quality and no color cast.  I've used the 4"x6" size since I started to ensure that I have good side to side coverage even when using ultra-wide angle lenses. 

The reason they are called "Graduated" is that the tint only covers part of the transitions from clear to the full strength of the gradient. There are two types of graduation, Hard and Soft.  Hard filters have a very defined, hard line of transition.  The Soft filters have a much more gradual transition.   

     Hard GNDs
Here you can see the very hard transition line between clear and the full darkness of the filter.  These are best used when you have a well defined horizon line such as shooting an ocean scene.

     Soft GNDs
Here you can see a very gradual, "soft", transition between clear and the full darkness of the filter.  These are best used when you have an uneven horizon line.  

     Reverse GNDs
These are a bit more specialized in that as you move from the clear section, there is a hard horizon line, then the full darkness, then near the top it lightens up a bit.  These are great when you have a well defined horizon line, the sun is low in the sky and you want to retain some more exposure higher up in the sky. Think of the time right before sunset along the coast with nice clouds in the sky.  You need to knock back the brightness of the sun, yet you don't want to completely knock back the clouds up above.  

Most of these filters are offered in 2,3,4 stops of light reduction at the full strength.  

To hold these filters I use a Lee filter holder and a modified quick on/off ring to attach it whichever lens I'm working with.

Neutral Density Filters
Sometimes you want to knock back the light entering the camera across the entire scene in order to achieve longer shutter speeds.  I use these types of filters when I really want to blur the water or when I want to create long exposures to add drama to the scene, such as the clouds streaking across the sky.  I bring two different ones with me...

     Singh-Ray Vari-ND
This is an adjustable ND filter, allowing me to dial in 2-8 stops of light reduction in order to achieve the shutter speed I want.  It's a little thick and some vignetting can occur at super wide angles, but the flexibility it brings far outweighs any shortcomings.

     Singh-Ray Mor-Slo 10 Stop ND
This bad boy knocks down 10 stops of light!  With this much light reduction, I don't use it all that often, but when I do......nice!  The effects you can create with longer shutter speeds can sometimes only be achieved with such a filter. When you have this on your lens, you can't see the image through the viewfinder (typically) because it's too dark, so you need to compute an approximate shutter speed and then work your way into the right speed for a proper exposure.   It's a speciality item, but one that is always a "must bring" for me.  

Well there you have it, a quick run down of all of the filters I continue to use in the field.  If you have any questions please add a comment to the blog or drop me an email at

Saturday, April 1, 2017

2016 Images in Review - Book Publishing

It's that time of year again when I am able to publish a book of my favorite images of the previous year.

2016 was a productive year for me and I'm happy with the diversity of my output as well as the quality of the imagery I created during the year.  A general rule of thumb is that if I can come away from a year with 3 or more images that I feel are outstanding, then it was a very successful year.  This year, I feel that I have 5 images that fall in to this category. Fantastic success by my standards!!!

As I go through the year and process images from each shoot, I create a copy of the image and put it in a folder for my year end book.  This year, that folder contained a ton of images that I have processed and posted.  As I sit down to start the process to create my book, the first task is culling the images in this folder....not all of my images make it in to the book!    Self editing can be a difficult process as we all have images that we "like" maybe more for the experience of being there, being with friends, fond memories, etc....all of which won't translate in to a book viewed by someone who wasn't there.  So, the editing process requires that I put aside memories and look at the images solely based upon technical and compositional merit.   I reduced my 198 images down to just over 100 for inclusion in the book.  Even this amount is a bit much, but I couldn't edit any further and still represent the photographic year I had.

Once I had the images selected, then came the relatively easy task of creating a book.  There are many great on-demand book publishers out there.  I've used Blurb for many years because I enjoy their interface and ultimately the quality of the printed book that I receive.    The biggest challenge is laying out the images in a way that flows well and is pleasing to the eye.  Color palettes, image orientation, etc all have to be considered as you lay out your book.  And, those special images that I want to highlight to the reader, those need to be larger and highlighted in the layout. 

All in all I'm very happy with the finished output and proud of what I've accomplished in 2016.  You can preview the book HERE

Friday, January 20, 2017

Revisiting Familiar Places - Frozen Gorge

I love to visit new places and have new experiences.  I can't deny that.  It's exciting, activates different senses, creates new memories and all that good stuff.   I'm all for going on an adventure.

What I have found though is to produce some of my most meaningful work, I like to visit more familiar locations and cultivate and take advantage of a deeper connection to a location to tell more intriguing stories, bring out subtle nuances and overall have a more satisfying experience.

The Columbia River Gorge is truly a magical wonderland.  And, since it's in my backyard it's a location I've visited mroe times that I can count.  In fact I've bene there so much on my own, or showing other photogs the area, that it has lost some of it's appeal or magic for me.  I haven't stopped going there, it's just that I've told many of the stories that I'd like to tell with that given landscape in most every season and weather condition.

Real magic happened recently in Oregon when a winter storm came through the area and gave us a week of sub-freezing temperatures as well as a dumping of over a foot of snow, alot more in some locations.   In these kinds of conditions I knew that this familiar location would be magical and it would be transformed into an almost "new" type of landscape.

I ventured out on a cold morning towards the end of the unique weather period...I waited a bit more towards the end to give the conditions enough time to fully mature, as well as the trails and roads to become relatively safe to travel.  What I found when I got out there was a sight to behold and a renewed sense of energy, invigorated sense of discovery and adventure all bubbled up inside of me. 

I haven't yet processed many of my pics but here are a couple to share.

Latourell Falls

I have shot this falls so much and I know it so well, but when I dropped down into the area, the footpath was covered in snow and ice and as I got closer, the trail became caked with frozen water, the spray from the waterfall.  I had traction devices on my boots which were basically mandatory for navigating the frozen landscape.     The spray at the turn of the trail was insane, hitting me as frozen pellets and coating my jacket and backpack in rime.    When I got down to the footbridge that crosses the creek, I stood for a full 5 minutes just soaking up the scene, knowing that this is a very rare event.  Normally the falls drops dramatically into the splash pool below, however on this day, the build up of ice in the splash pool from the spray was so high, I'd estimate over 20 feet tall, that I couldn't even see the pool any longer.  The pool is usually an element in the composition, but on this day it wasn't going to happen and I adjusted my comps to show the ice, but accentuate other elements in the scene.

Horsetail Falls

I like Horsetail Falls, yes, however I've never enjoyed shooting it that much.  It's a standard type of shot, not a lot of room for too much creativity or originality of vision.  And, it's been shot to death!    But on this day as I crunched, slipped and slid in to the parking lot, Horsetail was not like I've ever seen it before.  The ice encrusting the main flow of the falls was built up in to so many crazy patterns.  I shot the tradition shots showing the full falls and splash pool, I shot showing the frozen pool and foreground elements with the falls in the background, I shot from high and I went down and shot along the shore.  Horsetail Falls is always one to kick out a lot of spray and even on the best days it seems you're always wiping off the lens. On this day, down along the waters edge, I literally needed an ice scraper for the front of my lens.  I would take one shot and then have to spend several minutes cleaning the element, warming the ice enough to be wiped away.   Having tired of that activity, I went back along the road and put a long lens on my camera, fascinated by the intricate patterns and shapes that had been created, wanting to do some abstract work.  I think these might be some of the most creatively satisfying images of the day. 

I also made several stops at Multnomah Falls, Wahkeena, Sheppards Dell and some other small spots.  My last stop of the day was at Oneonta Gorge.

Oneonta Gorge

In normal conditions, this gorge is a magical place to be with steep dramatic walls closing in on you, walking up the creek, over the log jam and then deeper in to the gorge (unfortunately this location is also being over-run).  On this day however, it was other-worldly!!!!  Descending the steep and slippery steps down to the creeks edge I was mesmorized by the transformation.  The creek was almost invisible under the snow and ice.  Large ice formations hung down from each overhang.  Every where I turned it was breathtaking.  The transformation was so complete and this was such a "new" landscape, I had to readjust my preconceived visions for this area and think differently.  Comps that I wouldn't shoot before looked amazing, and vice versa shots that I would normally take didn't look good in this new condition. 

No matter how familiar you are with a location, revisiting it in different conditions can bring a renewed sense of creative energy and quite possibly some amazing results.  

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Creative Goals

Well, now that we've entered in to 2017 my energy is split in two different ways; finishing up processing the images from 2016 that I want to include in my yearly retrospective book, and then, thinking about what I want to accomplish in the coming year.

Each year I try to set unofficial goals or desires for myself in my creative work. I  work to set realistic goals for myself, knowing that I have a full time job and a family which all need to be taken care of.  The one thing I try hard not to do is set goals that are too high, which will invariably cause disappointment at the end of the year when I don't meet them.  I try and set more modest goals, such as finishing one project, visiting one new area during the year, focusing more on a certain type of photography or style, or anything like that that gives me a general direction, yet isn't so specific that I am bound by it.  I do NOT set goals like "shoot one image every day for the whole year" or "photograph the coast once a month" or things like that.  I want goals that are specific enough to give me direction, yet not so specific that I am bound by a narrow definition of success.

The challenge I'm facing right now is that I have a lot of creative energy and want to accomplish many things this year, however I know I don't have the time to tackle them all.  Some of the goals are in my comfort zone, yet several of them are outside of my comfort zone involving things I haven't done before.  I love when I push myself to try new things, however, new things take a lot more time to do because of the learning curve......learning new techniques, learning new software, etc.     The trick for me right now is to temper my enthusiasm and focus my energy on those things that are a high priority for me.  There are so many possibilities in the creative space to support my photography and not all of them involve the actual act of pressing the shutter button.

Here are a few of the project ideas I have in mind so far.....

- Photograph as much or more than I did in 2016.

- Commit to writing in my photography blog more frequently.  I am continually thinking about art, creativity and photography and I should put more of my thoughts down in writing and share them.

- Redesign my website.  'Nuf said.  Long term I'd like to learn the skills to build and maintain my website instead of using a service. 

- Explore and expand my video skills.  This involves taking video, editing and grading video, then composing a finished product.  This requires a new skill set and way for approaching a scene to video.  Color grading and the software used is complex and can be a whole study by itself.  

- Teach more.  Whether one on work or in groups, I want to expand my teaching of others.   This is one thing that brings me so much joy and something I think I'm pretty good at.  However, being a bit of a perfectionist, it also puts a lot of pressure on me to create teaching materials that meet my standards.

- Work on several long term projects.  I have started several long term photography projects in the past couple years and I would like to make progress on them.   These projects are "theme" based projects of photos that someday I will publish in a book.
     "My Writings"

- Write more poetry or thoughtful words to accompany my images

- Create original music scores to accompany my slide shows.   I absolutely love music, always have, and the free music out there just doesn't appeal to me.  I would love to create my own music, using readily available software.  This is also a learning curve to learn the software.  

- Start to write a photographers guide to a coastal location that I'm intimately familiar with.  Won't tell you which one yet :-).  Pulling together all the images, writing the content, putting it together, etc.  This can be a big project and one that will take a while.  I'd like to get started on it.

Whew!!!!    Thats just the list off the top of my head that I would l like to get after this year.  Not sure exactly which ones I'll focus my energy on, but I know I won't lack for things to do in the creative space.

Do you set goals or desires for a year?  

Mobile Editing

Just recently I made a slight change to my editing arsenal and so far I'm quite happy with the choice I made.

In years past I did all of my serious editing on my desktop platform, an Apple iMac with the full Adobe suite as well as many other applications such as the Nik products, Helicon Focus, etc.  And, I've been using a Wacom tablet as my user interface which is a joy to use.  Whenever I travelled I brought a laptop, but mainly as a way to review and store images while on the road.  I never did any serious editing of images, maybe a few quick edits to share on social media.  The laptop I used was an Apple MacBook Pro that I bought used.  It was a brick of a computer, super heavy but a joy to use in the way that Apple products are.

Well, about two years ago I was growing tired of the heavy weight and low horsepower of the computer, so I decided to upgrade.  I decided to buy an Apple Air laptop due to its lightweight and size.  It was super small, almost un-noticeable in the luggage, and very lightweight.  However, there were some downsides to this.  It didn't have a strong engine inside, and, it used an older screen technology.  I used this when I travelled, again to mainly review and do some light processing.  However, after being used to the high-end iMac at home, I was never happy using it.  It took a while to chunk through edits which frustrated me.  And, the screen, oh the screen, I just couldn't handle the low resolution.  My images just didn't pop and that made it not very fun to work on them when on the road.

In the last 6 months I've become even more mobile, spending less time parked in front of my desktop system, and more time in different locations.  This all brought a stronger desire to have a mobile platform that I could do some serious image editing, which means a strong processor and fantastic resolution screen.  All of my computers and software are in the Apple ecosystem, I started looking for a new laptop to replace the Air.

Apple just released a new MacBook Pro about the time I was looking for a new laptop.  I normally try and buy the newest computer I can afford in order to maximize the length/usability of ownership, however in this case, the price/performance of the new MacBook didn't add up for me.  And, they have removed the USB ports and other normal features that I'm used to.  So the new MacBook was out of the question for me and I started combing the use market looking for a deal on what I wanted.

Right before Christmas I found a barely used MacBook Pro, less than 8 months old, fully loaded with the fastest processor available and a sizable hard drive.  What was most important for me was getting one with a Retina display, which this one has.   It was owned by someone who had it as a secondary computer and barely used it.  After a bit of negotiation, I was the new owner of this wonderful machine.

It took a few days for me to load up all the software and configure it to my work style, but once complete, the system is outstanding!  I'm so happy that I made the switch to a Retina display and a strong engine to process images.   Even though I don't have my Wacom tablet to make edits, I can still do most everything I want/need to do to my images.     The extra size and weight over the Air is not a concern to me at all considering the increase in performance and usability, enabling me to process images confidently no matter where I am.

I can't tell ya how happy I am to have the "right" tools for me while I am on the go, enabling me to work on all of my creative endeavors while on the road.