Welcome to (The Occasional) Photo Tip of the Day! Please also visit my main site jeffwignall.com. Text and photographs Copyright 2016 Jeff Wignall.

“The best way out is always through.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wildlife in Motion: Let the Little Deer Prance

Unless you're a big time early 1960's rock 'n roll fan (like me), you may not immediately recognize the name Billy Bland. But if you've ever listened to A.M. radio in the United States, you've probably heard his hit record Let the Little Girl Dance (check out the Youtube video, you'll love it). Ever since I shot this photo a few weeks ago I can't stop hearing the song in my head when I look at it because the rhythm of the deer leaping away is perfectly matched to the rhythm of that song! By the way, just for the music buffs out there, Bland's song reached #11 on the Billboard Top 100 and he had a few other minor hits, but then left the music industry.

What does that have to do with a photo tip? Almost nothing. But hearing that song in my head when I look at this photo reminds me of one important quality that is lacking in a lot of wildlife photography: motion. Most photographers are so intent on getting good sharp photos of wildlife that they tend to shoot the animals only when they're standing rock still. But most animals, like this white-tail deer that I photographed on the John Jay estate in Westchester, New York (extra points if you happen to know who John Jay was) live in constant motion. For a deer (or most other wildlife, for that matter) to stand still too long is to invite the slings and arrows of higher-ups on the food chain (including humans). Using--even exaggerating--that motion is a great way to capture the true spirit of the animals you're photographing.

One way to photograph animals in motion and to get a relatively sharp (though not totally, as you can see here) image that also contains the essence of movement, is to use a technique called panning. By setting your camera to a slower shutter speed (use your shutter-priority exposure mode) and tracking the animal as it runs, you get a sharp(ish) image of the animal against a blurred background. Unless you're very good at panning and have some luck on your side, there will always motion in the subject, but that only adds to the realism. You can experiment with speeds from about 1/60 second (the speed I used for this shot) down to around 1/4 or 1/8 second, but the slower you go the more blur there will be in the background and in the subject. As you can see in this shot, even at 1/60 second, which is at the top end of the useful panning speeds, there is still quite a bit of motion in the deer's legs.

Selecting just the right speed is not easy and it takes some experimenting, and since you may 0nly have time to pop off a few frames, you're likely not to get a second chance with that one particular animal. But if you're in a situation where you're photographing animals that are moving around (deer, horses, bunnies, etc.), try keeping the shutter speed set slow and being ready mentally to follow the animal as you shoot. You'll get a much smaller percentage of "keepers" with this technique because it is so experimental, but the winners will really stand out and I think they capture the true spirit of wild animals.

One slight caution: when you intentionally use a shutter speed that you know is going to create at least a partially blurred photo, many photographers get scared off and go back to safe shutter speeds to try to stop the action. Don't do it! In order to succeed at a somewhat risky technique you have to commit to it and let the experiment run it's course. The worse thing that will happen is that you'll get some out-0f-focus photos, but even then, I think you'll be excited by the results because they'll be different than most of the action shots you see.

Of course, you can also use the exact same technique to photograph your own little heard of wild animals as they run through the local park or ride their bikes up and down the street--and that's a great time to practice your wildlife panning skills. By the way, intentionally using a wide aperture (for shallow depth of field) and using a long lens (pretty much required to get close to animals anyway) will exaggerate the motion even more.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sports Photography: Off with Their Heads!

It probably goes without having to state it as a rule, but generally it's not a good idea to chop peoples' heads off in pictures. That said, I run hot and cold when looking at this photo: sometimes I like the action being aimed at the feet (it is soccer, after all), but other times I wish I'd twisted the zoom back faster (I was shooting very tight with a 70-300mm zoom) and included the entire players--heads and all.

The risk you run in composing off-beat images like this is that people will think you made a mistake and that you didn't mean to shoot it that way. And, of course, in this case they'd be exactly right: it wasn't a planned shot, it was just a matter of the action happening faster than my hands could react. But still, in looking at the 100 or so photos I shot during the first half of this game, this is one of the ones I like the best. I like the feet in motion, I like the ball being right on the side line and I like the shadows behind the players. I'm not sure that including their heads would have added anything to the shot. I'm sure the parents would love to see their little darlings' faces, but since I don't know the players, it's not a concern.

So is cutting off the heads always a mistake? You decide next time you're out shooting sports--shoot a couple of shots without heads (it's probably tougher than you think when you're actually trying to cut off the heads) and see if you like the results after. I'm not sure I'd go out looking for headless soccer players in the future, but I would still keep firing if a shot like this ran into my viewfinder. And by the way, you're seeing the show exactly as it was taken--this isn't a fake crop, though I'm sure someone will think it is. See, you can't even confess to mistakes without people calling you on it!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tino Wallenda: Life Lessons from the High Wire

As I said in my last post, I spent a few days photographing the great high-wire performer Tino Wallenda and his famous family of circus performers last week at a state fair in Connecticut. I had the chance to talk with Tino a few times and he is as kind and charming as he is talented and brave. Since I photographed him I've been absolutely enthralled by the entire Wallenda-family saga and I'm hoping to read several books about them (including Tino's autobiography that he kindly autographed for me) to learn more about their amazing history. The Wallenda story is filled to overflowing with tales of incredible talent, courage and tragedy--and of overcoming tragedy. It was a great thrill to see the family this close, to photograph them and to meet them.

As I photographed Tino walking high above the crowds, balanced on a thin wire strung between two cranes, I couldn't help but draw some philosophical and artistic lessons from his performance. (It would seem impossible to me that anyone could watch someone of this skill and courage and not get a few life lessons from the experience.) For one, I was amazed by how relaxed Tino was before, seemingly during, and obviously after each performance. Though there is a net set up for the trapeze artists, it would be of little use to him on the high wire since there is a substantial amount of rigging strung between him and the net. Yet he seems utterly relaxed as he performs. To have such courage and to perform (and he even toyed casually with the audience from his high perch) with such ease is a life lesson in itself: relax and enjoy what you're doing at every moment and especially during the moments when you are living closer to the edge. When you relax you not only perform better, but you enjoy it more (a lesson most golfers, for example, know very well).

And that made me think of lesson number two: embrace your passion. Whether your passion is to confront your own fate on a wire above a circus audience or just sitting on a beach photographing the sunset, it's important to realize that being involved in that passion--and fully living in that moment--is probably a high point of your life (artistically and spiritually) and it's worth acknowledging the greatness of that opportunity. After a tragic accident in which two members of the troupe were killed and others seriously injured, Tino's grandfather, the great Karl Wallenda, insisted on performing the very next night. He is quoted as saying, "Life is being on the wire; everything else is just waiting." Indeed.

Therein lies perhaps the ultimate Wallenda lesson: spend as much of your life living your passion as you can because if you have a true calling, if you hear a true voice, everything else is just waiting. If your kids are your passion, spend all the time you can with them. If taking pictures is one of your passions, carve out the time for that passion. If it's eating donuts, well...(perhaps just take up baking, instead).

There is also quite obviously, though perhaps less spoken, a lesson in faith in watching a performer whose tiniest misstep could mean a tragic fall: you never see a hint of fear in any of the Wallenda or Cortes faces. In fact, just the opposite: you see a look of total contented joy, call it inner peace, that somehow they know something that the rest of us don't: that when you walk in faith (whether you see that as a religious experience or just faith in your own skills and talents), you are connected to something larger than yourself--or, at least, to the more true core of your being.

The idea that life is not about clinging to safety (or standing "safely" on the ground) but rather to pushing yourself to the edge of your own destiny is one that has always fascinated me (and often only from the comfort of a recliner as I read about it!) and one that I had in my viewfinder while photographing this incredible family. To bring this back (ever so slightly) to photography, I once interviewed the great travel photographer Harvey Lloyd (who often hangs out of helicopters to photograph cruise ships--just looking at his photos gives me vertigo) who told me that his credo was: "If your life bores you, risk it." Do you see a theme here?

I don't think that Tino Wallenda finds anything in life boring, or thinks about the risks involved other than to minimize them, but I gathered in watching his grin of pure joy as he walked the high wire that, by comparison, much of the rest is not just waiting, but eager anticipation of the glorious moments he shares with us from the wire.

And you thought this was just a photography blog :)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sports Photography: Become the Action, Grasshopper

I shot this photo of two members of the Cortes Family of trapeze artists (part of the family troupe that travels with great high-wire artist Tino Wallenda) last weekend at an agricultural fair in Guilford, Connecticut. I've shot a lot of photos of many subjects this summer, but this is one of my favorite shots. The reason that I like the photo so much, I think, is not only that it's a great moment, well exposed and sharp as nails, but because it's exactly the photograph I wanted to capture. It is the moment I waited for and I was able to capture it as I saw it in my mind's eye.

I actually attended the fair for two days in a row (I highly recommend returning for more than one day of shooting if there is a multi-day event) and I did photograph the Cortes troupe on the first day and got some acceptable photos. The problem was that I hadn't seen a trapeze act in a few years and trying to make plans for something you haven't seen recently is really tough. You can anticipate some of the action and if your reactions are fast you'll get some shots, but there is little time to plan great shots--to visualize photos that go beyond the ordinary. Great shots require more than just good reflexes and anticipation, they also require an intimate knowledge of what you're shooting. Unless you're willing to run away with the circus (and would I love that!) the amount of knowledge you can gain for shooting trapeze acts is somewhat limited, but by watching any sport or action multiple times, you can still get a good insight.

As I said, the Cortes family performs in a show headlined by the great high wire legend Tino Wallenda and I was there the first day largely to photograph him walking the high wire. Every since I was a kid I've been fascinated by both high-wire acts in general and the Wallenda family in particular (tomorrow I'll show you one of my shots of Tino walking the wire). But during the first day I got fascinated with the beauty and precision of the trapeze acts and I decided to return a second day to shoot them more carefully. I knew the shots that I wanted to capture, but I also knew that with performers flying through space and the action happening very quickly, it was going to be a challenge to keep things sharp and well-timed.

The solution? I decided that what I needed most was to arrive at the fair an hour ahead of the performance so that I could make certain photographic decisions (like choosing the best vantage point based on the direction of the sun), but also so that I could meditate on the situation. I wanted (needed) to sit and try and replay the previous day's performance while looking at the rigging--and also reviewing the previous day's shoot on the LCD (I still had the same card in the camera): How high is the trapeze arc? How fast does it swing? Where is the brief pause before it swings back? When do the performers reach for one another? How often do they shake off a jump? What are the signals that they're going to shake it off instead of completing it?

Studying the rigging was very important and it became an almost Zen-like exercise because I felt that the more I knew about the rigging, the more I would understand the action. The rigging is everything to trapeze and high-wire performers--it's their lifeline, at the very least--and so I sat in the audience and just traced each and every line of the rigging. And I mean that literally. I started at one corner of the rigging (which is probably a few hundred feet long) and followed every line, every wire, every joint and every trapeze bar. I then shot test photos of the empty rigging to see how my angles and compositions looked on the LCD. And in my mind I tried to remember the performance from the day before so that I could anticipate (at least roughly) where the action would occur.

Finally, of course, I spent about 10 minutes carefully reviewing every setting on the camera (take the time to do this and you'll always increase your percentage of great shots): frame speed (continuous high), focus settings (continuous), ISO (I bumped it up to ISO 400 just to buy me an extra shutter speed), set the camera to RAW (I shoot in RAW 100% of the time now) and lens choice. I shot test shots with two different zooms (18-70mm and 70-300mm). By the time the troupe took to the trapeze rigging, I had the camera set and I had tested the exposures and framing. Also, I knew the moments I was looking for and I had mentally previsualized those moments as much as possible. As the show began, I tried to put myself in the mindset of the members of the Cortes Family as they flew through the air "with the greatest of ease" (and it really seemed that way).

Did all of this previsualization work? As I said, this is one of my favorite photos from a long summer of shooting and, probably not surprisingly considering the concentration I was devoting to the shots, I had a very high percentage of good shots. I got more than a dozen shots that I consider exceptional in just a 10 or 15-minute performance. I also got many good photos of Tino Wallenda (see tomorrow's post).

The bottom-line advice: Take the time to get to an event early and sit quietly and study your own goals and the goals of the performers or athletes. Before the event begins, sit quietly and close your eyes and try to "see" the event as it unfolds (again, much easier if you have watched a similar event recently) and you'll be thrilled with your successful shots. If you have a son or daughter that plays soccer, for example, you've watched them enough times to know what they're thinking on the field. Try to place yourself in their mind as you shoot and you will find yourself anticipating shots far more often than you might have thought possible. That's all for today, Grasshopper.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

S-t-r-e-t-c-h Your Vision with an Ultra-Wide Lens

OK, time for a pop quiz: The most obvious reason to own a really wide-angle lens is to take in really big spaces in one shot--right? Wrong! Well, only partly wrong actually. Yes, you can use a wide-angle lens to capture a wide, sweeping view like the Grand Canyon or a mountain range. The problem with shooting views like that with a very wide-angle lens, however, is that everything in the shot gets smaller and the view tends to lose grandeur rather than gain it.

In reality if you want to take in expansive landscapes or scenics you're better off shooting a series of images with a normal or moderate telephoto lens and stitching them into a panorama. Panoramas shot with a normal or slightly telephoto lens usually offer a much more realistic interpretation of a wide view or vista.

So what's the point of owning a super-wide-angle lens (a super-wide in 35mm terms would be anything wider than about 21mm and as wide as 10mm or so)? For me, the beauty of a super-wide is its ability to stretch and elongate objects or to really exaggerate the spaces between parts of a scene. If you photograph a row boat sitting on the beach using a normal lens, for example, the boat will look pretty much like it looks to you without a camera in front of your face--the proportions will seem very natural. But if you photograph that same boat (shooting from a very close perspective of, say, a few inches from the bow) using a super-wide lens, the boat will seem much longer than it really is and its exaggerated shape will dominate the design of the image.

I used exactly that idea photographing these giant saguaro cactus outside of Tucson, Arizona. Using a 10-20mm Sigma lens I knelt down and, from a vantage point just a foot or so from the base of the catci, I shot almost straight up at them. The already-tall saguaro now tower over their environment. It's not a method (or a lens) that I use all that often, but when I do I'm always jazzed by the interesting look it creates.

As I said, you can also use a very wide lens to exaggerate the spaces between near and far--which can be quite an effective tool in landscape photography. If you're photographing a farm scene with a tractor in the foreground and a dirt road leading to a barn behind it, you can move in close to the tractor and it will dominate the shot, making the road seem long and the barn seem much more distant. That type of spatial stretching provides a great feeling of presence in a landscape shot, making the viewer feel as if they're experiencing the spaces involved.

One other great use of a super-wide lens is shooting in tight quarters--hotel rooms, small museum rooms, etc. It's nice to have a lens in your kit that, even though it will distort the dimensions (and probably the shape) of tight spaces, at least lets you include everything. Often too the inherent distortion created by the an ultra-wide-angle lens adds to the intrigue of the shot.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Get the Maximum Blast from Built-in Flash

As much as I prefer not to use flash in any situation where I can possibly avoid it, there are certain times when it's the only option. This past weekend, for example, I was at an agricultural fair and while it was bright and sunny outdoors the minute you stepped into any of the animal-display barns it was like entering a cave--no light at all. The only solution was to pop on the built-in flash and try to find shots where the flash wouldn't be terribly intrusive or obvious.

There are numerous problems with built-in flash, the most obvious being that the flash is harsh, very directional and rarely flattering. Also, the power of the flash is modest at best and so you are limited in how large a subject you can light and how far you can be from that subject. But in watching several other people (most with point-and-shoots) shooting flash photos in the same barns I noticed several simple things people could have done to improve their flash photos. So here are some quick tips for improving your built-in flash photos:
  • Stay within the flash distance range. Most built-in units have a range of roughly 3-12' (your manual will provide the exact range). If you work closer than that (unless you're specifically working in a close-up mode that allows a reduced distance range) you will blast your subject with too much light and overexpose it. Conversely if you're too far away you won't have enough light on your main subject and your photos will be dark.
  • Use flash compensation if your subject is very light. Many DSLRS (like my Nikon D90) and zoom cameras have a flash exposure-compensation setting that lets you add or subtract light from the flash exposure (without affecting the main exposure of the camera). If you photograph a very light subject in the foreground (like the sheep shown here) without compensation, the flash will "read" the light reflecting back from the white subject and shut down the flash prematurely (thinking there's plenty of light in the entire scene) so that the overall scene is too dark. In this case I only used +2/3 stop of compensation because I really didn't care if the background went dark (in fact, I wanted it to be darker so the sheep would stand out) but I added that extra two-thirds stop because I thought it would lighten the sheep's wool coat a bit. Read your manual for more about flash compensation.
  • Consider buying a Soft Screen diffuser from Lumiquest. Lumiquest makes a great little gadget (under $15) that mounts quickly to your built-in flash and softens the light nicely without absorbing much light. You can watch a video about the product on the Lumiquest site.
  • Keep your batteries fresh. Flash is one of the biggest drains on your camera's batteries and so it's important if you're going to be using flash to keep your camera batteries freshly charged. Weakened batteries will delay flash recharging times significantly and will also reduce the maximum flash-to-subject range.
  • Allow your camera time to recharge the flash. You can't shoot flash photos as rapidly as you can shoot outdoors in sunlight because the batteries need time to charge the flash unit. Give the camera an extra few seconds between flash exposures and you'll be sure you're getting a maximum blast with each exposure.
  • Don't put your fingers in front of the flash. I see this all the time--people putting their fingers or their camera straps in front of the flash unit and blocking the light (or creating unwanted shadows on the subjects). Find a comfortable grip that avoids blocking the flash unit.
  • Take chances and hope for the best. There have been a lot of times when I didn't think the built-in flash was worth turning on but I shot the photos anyway. I'm sometimes amazed by the difference just a tiny bit of flash can make--often providing me enough light so that I can save the shot completely in editing. What the heck, if you're deciding between not shooting or taking a chance on the flash, take the chance, you might get a happy surprise.
  • Consider buying an accessory flash. If you've been frustrated by the limits of your built-in flash, perhaps it's time to consider buying an accessory flash unit (or dropping lots of hints around birthday time) if your camera has a hot shoe that accepts an accessory unit. A good accessory flash can provide you with a flash range several times longer than a built-in flash unit and offer tons of other flash options like bounce-flash for softer light, etc.
Built-in flash isn't the greatest lighting option in the world, but it sure beats not taking pictures--and it's a whole lot better than carrying flash bulbs in your pocket the way I did when I was starting out!

Metadata: Shot with a Nikon D90 camera with a Nikkor 18-70mm lens; exposure was 1/60 second at f/3.5 with +2/3 stop flash compensation. Shot in RAW format.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Digital Image Cafe Interview: Read More About the Contest Book

As I mentioned earlier this week, my new book Winning Digital Photo Contests has just been released (ahead of schedule, which is always nice) and it's already generating some nice media coverage. Earlier this week Todd MacMillan, founder of Digital Image Cafe, did an interview with me about the new book and it was posted today, so take a look if you have a few minutes. Digital Image Cafe is a great photo-sharing and photo-community site and it was their Photo-of-the-Day contests that helped inspired the book--so be sure to look at their winning photos while you're there. It's a very fun site with tons of wonderful photos and you can read more about their mission here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Photographing Carnival Rides: Work with a Twilight Sky

A few posts ago I talked about the value of using a twilight sky when shooting city skylines and I think you'll also find that's equally good advice when shooting carnival rides. This past weekend I went to a large country fair in Hebron, Connecticut and part of the fair, of course, was a large midway of carnival rides. I have a hard time resisting the inherent motion and color of carnival rides and so I always carve out an hour or so to shoot them regardless of how tired I am from the rest of the day's shooting.

The lights on the rides started coming on just as the sun began to set but unfortunately the lights on the Ferris wheel weren't as exciting as some others that I've photographed. As the daylight disappeared and the sky took on a rich sapphire blue, however, the contrast between the artificial lights and the sky got very intense. This beautiful contrast only lasted about 15-20 minutes and then the magic was gone. At one point, however, the twilight reached a peak of brilliance and there was an almost even balance in luminosity between the ride and the sky and that's when the shots really started to pop. I kept on shooting after the sky had faded to gray and then black, but I knew that the best photos were shot right at that height of the twilight.

If you're going out to shoot a carnival soon, scout out your shots during the last hour of daylight and be ready to shoot as the sun sets and the sky illuminates with that glowing blue color. You might even get some good shots with the last rays of daylight illuminating the rides as the sky grows darker. In this case I was actually facing right into the area of sky where the sun had set (look down low and you can even see a small glimmer of the sunset), but that was just dictated by that particular locale. I probably could have shot with the sun behind me, but this was the viewpoint that worked the best overall.

Incidentally, this is one of the rare times that I didn't use a tripod, largely because the fair was so crowded I was afraid someone would trip on it. But by using a fence rail from a nearby ride, I was able to handhold this shot at 1/8 second (with an 18-70mm Nikkor zoom); it's not the sharpest shot I've ever made but it is sharp enough. I even managed to do some motion shots hand held, though the inherent movement of the rides turned the shots into abstracts so sharpness wasn't a concern.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Win Photo Contests: Read My New Book!

O.K., a little bit of shameless self promotion: I have a new book out called Winning Digital Photo Contests (Lark Books) and online stores (Barnes & Noble and Amazon among others) just began shipping it yesterday.

If you've ever wanted to win a photo contest or would just like to see some of the amazing photos that have won them, you'll love this book. The entire book is illustrated by photos--almost all of them shot by amateur photographers--that have won photo contests. The photographs will blow you away; their quality, diversity and sheer beauty is just incredible. And you'll not only read my thoughts on the photos and suggestions for how to take them, but you'll read comments from the photographers on how they made the pictures, why they chose that particular subject and why they shot the photo at that particular moment. Also, the meta data (exposure, camera, lens, etc.) is included for the vast majority of shots.

There are also profiles of two amateur shooters that have won enormous numbers of photo contests: Heather McFarland and Robert Ganz. When you read their stories and see their photos you will just be in awe. Honestly, their stories will inspire you. There is also an interview that I did with National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson--who has judged hundreds of photo contests--about what it takes to catch the eye of a contest judge.

I had the idea for the book about a year ago but I when I approached the publisher I told them that the only way the book would succeed would be if we could use contest-winning photos for the majority of the illustrations. Amazingly, they agreed (and probably lived to regret the logistical nightmare that decision unleashed!). We looked at thousands of winning photos from around the world, narrowed them down to the top 100+ photos and then contacted and interviewed all of the photographers. It was a grueling process at times, but it was also a lot of fun. In fact, as much as I like seeing my own photos illustrating my books, I couldn't have had more fun or been more excited about choosing the photographs for this book.

You'll also find a lot of information about how to find contests, what sorts of images get judges' attention and just a lot of good picture-taking advice. Entering contests is a great way to motivate yourself to shoot new pictures, it's an excellent way to share you photos with a worldwide audience and, of course, you could win some really cool prizes--trips, cameras, workshops, etc. So don't hide your photos in your hard drive, show the world! And we'll be updating the book regularly, so if you do win, let me know and we'll consider them for the next edition.

Friday, September 11, 2009


The sculpture in this photo has an amazing story. Rescue workers laboring furiously around the clock for days to get into the rubble and try to find survivors rejoiced at finding a human form--even a lifeless one--only to find that it was actually a sculpture, not a human body. But exhausted and out of hope, even just finding a sculpture of a human was a positive sign and it provided them with a much needed spiritual boost--and amazingly, even a laugh. It also served as an impromptu memorial upon which rescue workers and families began hanging signs and leaving small offerings: American flags, teddy bears, bouquets of flowers and other mementos. The sculptor, hearing of how much the sculpture meant to the rescue teams, took the sculpture and had it re-bronzed to include the offerings people had left. The sculpture now sits on the promenade in Jersey City, New Jersey and in the background you can see the area where the World Trade Center once dominated the skyline. I photographed it on a bleak day just a few weeks ago and the gray pall seemed to match the mood of the memories. Please take a moment to send a link to this posting to your friends so that the hopeful spirit of this memorial will endure.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pump Up the Volume with Bold, Brash Colors

The other day I was driving through one of the local town beach parks, just cruising around hoping to see something that would entice me to take some pictures (or "cruising for snaps" as I like to call it), and was shocked and delighted to see that the old concrete bunker of a snack bar had been painted a wild Caribbean blue. Wow! What a color. We're not talking a pretty seaside blue or a gentle sky blue, but a downright radiant spin-your-head-around blue.

I knew I wanted to photograph the building but really wasn't sure what I wanted to say with the pictures. Should I shoot the entire building? I tried that and the shots were OK, but I wanted something slightly more abstract where the color would carry the shot. A corner of the building with the beach in the background? (Maybe--I'll show you that photo tomorrow.) Some detail? I was kind of lazy at first and took a few halfhearted snapshots, but the closer I got to the building and the more I began to study the details, the more intrigued I got.

This color was just screaming to be photographed and I was determined to find some detail or composition that really let it be the star of the shot. Then I saw this drinking fountain: perfect. Nice and shiny and polished and bold enough to stand up to the wall of blue. I shot about 50 different compositions, just tweaking the placement and playing with different ideas. Talk about fun! I shot the photo with my Nikon D90 and an 18-70mm Nikkor zoom, but could have easily shot it with any point-and-shoot camera. It was a simple, direct shot.

While I was shooting I got into a nice conversation with a woman whose son who owned the snack bar and she asked me what was attracting me to the shots I was taking. I told her it was the bright Caribbean blue walls (stunningly, she told me that it was the town public works department that chose the color) and she told me that she was Greek and that the colors (the building's trim is bright white) reminded her of the Greek Isles. How great that this ordinary little snack bar had been transformed into such an exotic space with just some paint. (I immediately wanted to go home and paint my house this color.)

Anyway, I shot a lot of different views and details of this building and will probably return to shoot more--it was that much fun. One of the things that I liked about finding such a wild and strong color was that it reminded me of some of photos of Pete Turner, my hero in color photography. Pete is the master of brash, wild colors and one of his photos of a yellow and red plastic garbage can on a beach has stayed in my head since I first saw it decades ago. Some photos affect you that strongly and plant themselves in your imagination.

Keep your eye and your imagination open for bold, wild colors because you never know where you'll find them and then work them until you find the perfect shot. Pete Turner found a classic shot in a garbage can at the beach and I found this great fountain shot at my local beach. The shots are there, just keep looking.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Hotel Room Options: Request a Room with a View

While I'm a person that would rather walk barefoot in a rattlesnake nest than look over the edge of a cliff or stand on a high ladder, I love the view from upper-story hotel rooms. Though it's not always true, usually he higher the floor, the better the view. One of the first things I do when I get into a room, in fact, is see if there are any good photo possibilities. I also take a few minutes to estimate which direction the room is facing so I can see if they'll be any good sunrise possibilities. Probably the only time I get up at dawn on a regular basis is when I'm in a hotel and I think there might be a great sunrise or early-morning view.

One way to increase your odds of getting an upper story room with a good view is to ask for one and to ask well in advance. Some hotels have far too automated a reservation process to take personal requests, but others are very accommodating. A few weeks ago while staying at the beautiful Westin Newport in Jersey City, New Jersey (one of the nicest hotels I've ever visited anywhere, by the way), the hotel guest manager actually emailed me and asked if I had a room preference! I requested an upper story room and got a room on the 22nd floor. While the view wasn't the glimpse of Manhattan I'd daydreamed about (having never seen the hotel before), it was nonetheless an interesting scene that included a very pretty little plaza. There were amazing views of Manhattan just a short walk from the hotel.

Although fewer and fewer hotel-room windows can be opened and the glass in a lot of hotel rooms is usually either very dirty or very tinted, I almost always still manage to get some interesting shots and I've gone as far as borrowing a bottle of window cleaner from the housekeeping cart to clean a window. The windows at the Westin were spotless (and I mean spotless) and so I had no problem shooting nice clear images (come to think of it, everything at the Westin was spotless).

Make an effort when you're making hotel reservations to see if you can't get a room with a great view. If you're willing to follow through on the deal, offering a manager or public relations person at the hotel the free use of your pictures for their website is another option. Often too, just chatting up the front desk staff and telling them you're a photographer will get you a nice view (and it's nice to reward them with a small tip), especially if you check in early when there are more rooms available.

I once checked into a hotel room in San Francisco after midnight and told a nice college-aged kid at the front desk that I was a photographer and would love a room with a great view. He laughed and said, "Do you want a really great view?" I thought he was teasing, but how could I say no to that? I was exhausted from flying cross country, but after I schlepped my camera bags up to the room, I opened the curtains wide and nearly fell over backwards: I had a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay from floor-to-ceiling windows that was surely the best view from any hotel I'd ever seen. I took the elevator back down to the lobby immediately and put a $20 bill in the kid's hand and believe it or not, when I got off the elevator, he wasn't surprised to see me at all. Tired as I was that night, I pulled a chair up to the window and sat and stared at the view for an hour. (And the next night I photographed it.)

If you can't score a great room, take the elevator to different floors and see if you can't shoot from a hallway window with a good view. Is it worth the effort? I've used photos in several books that were shot from hotel rooms in Las Vegas, New York, Bermuda and Germany--views that would have been impossible to get any other way.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Telephoto Lenses: Beware Compressed Background Clutter

The ability to cut through space and make distant subjects seem much closer is the reason most people want long-focal-length lenses and it's also why camera manufacturers work so hard at making good-quality and affordable zoom lenses. Long telephoto and zoom lenses are great for sports, wildlife or candid people photography or any situation where you want close shots of far-off subjects close. In a lot of situations (like sports) using a long lens is the only option you have.

One of the problems of using longer focal lengths though is that they compress the apparent distance between different areas of your compositions. While this can be a creative advantage at times (compressing a silhouette of a sailboat into a setting sun, for example), it can also create situations where it's hard to separate the main subject from the background--as is the case in the top photo. I shot this photo of a tugboat in New York harbor (from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River) using a Nikkor 70-300mm lens at 165mm (which is roughly 247mm in 35mm terms). While I like the idea of the Manhattan skyline behind the tug, from the vantage point that I had there is no separation between the boat and the buildings. Had I been able to find a better vantage point (perhaps a more head-on angle on the tug), the focal length might have been fine. But as it is, the background seems to clutter the shot too much.

As the boat came closer to me though, I zoomed out a bit to a focal length of 220mm (about 330 in 35mm terms) and waited until it cleared the clutter of the buildings and had just an open river (and in the distance the George Washington bridge) behind it. If I had had the time, I would have backed off on the zoom a bit and shot the entire boat, but because it was moving so fast and I wanted a closer shot, I had to shoot very quickly. By the time I got this shot the boat was almost right in front of me. And as I said, I really wanted a shot of the tug in front of the city buildings, but when you're shooting moving subjects you don't always get what you want.

Whenever you're using long telephoto lenses (anything that is longer than, say, 135mm in 35mm terms) be aware of what is behind your subject and make sure the compression isn't combining the near and far in an unattractive way. If it is, see if you can find a better angle so you can see some space between near and far and if not, you might have to alter your composition a bit or back off on the zoom. In this case I was lucky because the subject was moving and I was still able to use the longer focal length but choose an alternative background.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ten Useful Photo Accessories You Can (and Should) Buy at the Grocery Store

If there is one thing photographers like almost as much as buying a new camera, it's buying lots of little toys to go with it. Unfortunately a lot of the more important accessories--flash units, filters, tripods--can be quite expensive. But there are lots of really useful and fun accessories that you can buy (virtually all of them for well under $10 each) at the grocery store. Best of all, you can sneak them past your better half without having to confess they're going to live in your camera bag.

Here are my top 10 favorite inexpensive accessories:

  • Zipper plastic bags. I use them for everything from an impromptu rain cover for the camera to keeping lenses and other expensive gear clean and dry inside my bag or vest. Easy for airline security to see what's in them, too. Buy several sizes from one quart to three gallon, they have a million uses. Cost: about $3-5.
  • Heavy duty garbage bags. I keep several garbage bags in my shooting vest and in my shoulder bag and if I get caught in a downpour, all the gear gets stashed immediately. Cost: about $7 for a box of 32.
  • Small flashlight. Finding and reading all of those tiny dials and switches on your camera is tough once the sun sets (or if you're in a dark room). They're also great for reading maps in a dark car (auto dome lights are worthless) and just might save your life if you get lost in the wilderness. Buy and carry a few. Cost: under $5.
  • Disposable lighter. I wouldn't go into the wilderness--even a local state park--without a lighter. You can use them to light an emergency fire, light punks to keep mosquitos away or even to signal for help. Cost: under $2.
  • Laminated maps. Most grocery stores (and drug stores) have a pretty good selection of local and regional maps. Laminated maps last for years (I have a Manhattan map I've had for 10 years), they fold very flat and you can mark them up with China markers and then wipe them clean. Cost: about $8 (overpriced but worthwhile).
  • Trail mix. If you fly a lot, you know how hard it is to catch a snack between flights or waiting for a flight. Also, whether you're hiking in the city or woods, a bag of trail mix can save your sanity and your mood. Cost: under $5--much cheaper at home than in the airport.
  • Rain pocho. A few weeks ago I got caught in a horrific downpour while photographing the Statue of Liberty and a poncho kept me and my gear 100% dry. Cost: Under $8 and worth every cent. Buy better quality if you have a choice.
  • Duct tape. A small roll of duct tape or electrical tape has a million uses from patching tears in a camera bag to repairing a blown-out flip flop. Also good for quick-fixing a broken battery compartment door. Look for the bright neon colors, they're easier to find in your gear and you can use it to mark trails if you start to get disoriented in the woods. Cost: under $5.
  • Travel soap dish. The unbreakable plastic variety are great for keeping small accessories like memory cards and batteries from floating around in your bag or for stashing some extra cash. Cost: Under $2.
  • Small bungee cords. Absolutely indispensable for keeping tripod legs together or backing up your shoulder bag's zipper lid during the airport shuffle. Great for securing a water bottle to your tripod leg, too. A million uses. Cost: Pack of five usually under $5.
Next time you're trying to think of a unique gift for the photographer(s) in your life, think about filling a nice gift bag with one of each from the list above--you can probably do it for under $50. Or, hey, now that you've saved all that money on accessories, you can treat yourself to a nice tote bag to carry the stuff around--which is exactly what we did at the Center for Creative Photography in Tuscon last year!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sports Photos: Wait for the Peak of Action

Sports photos can be a lot of fun to shoot, especially if you happen to have kids in the family that are active in a particular sport. And considering the long lenses that are available not only to DSLR shooters, but to a lot of point-and-shoot and zoom cameras, it's possible to get close to the action even from a relatively distant sideline. Some zoom cameras, in fact, have zooms with a 24x range and the long telephoto zoom setting is often over 400mm in 35mm terms--focal lengths unheard of outside of pro gear up until a year or so ago.

But while long lenses will get you close to the action, it still takes a few other skills to get great sports shots. Interestingly, one of the best skills sports shooters posses is patience--waiting until there is a peak of action. The more you know about a sport, of course, the more you can predict exactly when that peak will occur. In volleyball, for example, in almost every point there is a clash (and often several of them during a single point) at the net and waiting for that instant to shoot will provide great moments of action. I only had to watch this informal pick-up game at a local beach for a few moments before I realized that the net was where the action was taking place. In this shot the ball is at its peak and both players are completely off the ground.Knowing that the best action was repeatedly happening at the net helped me to visualize and frame shots in advance and then all I did was sit back and wait for the best shots.

All sports have some kind of action highlights and, again, predicting where and when they will happen is just a matter of knowing the sport. If you've sat through a few hundred kids' soccer matches in your life, you know that most of the exciting action happens in and around the goal. Focusing on the goalie will provide you with much better chances to get a good action shot than trying to snatch random bits of action in a huge field. You might spend more time waiting than shooting (especially with soccer), but you will probably get a higher percentage of exciting shots. In baseball the bases (especially first and third bases which are closer to the sidelines) are good places to concentrate your attention.

Waiting for peak of action also has a benefit when it comes to freezing motion, too. In most forms of action--a diver at the peak of her upward momentum, for example--there is a brief lull before the speed of the motion increases again. By timing your shots to capture that peak of action you can use much lower shutter speeds and still get very sharp results. One little game that I play when I'm watching sports on TV is trying to imagine when I would shoot if I were photographing the action with a still camera. I actually sit there and say (out loud) "click, click, click," which is why I rarely watch sports in a bar. If you visualize those moments and plant that sense of timing in your head you'll find yourself getting a much higher percentage of great action photos.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Don't Get Hung Up On One Shot

I've talked about this before but one of the things that I'm most guilty of when I'm out shooting is getting hung up on shooting a subject from just one angle or using one design choice. Instead of exploring and experimenting, I tend to get focused on getting the shot just right and I obsess over things like focus, depth of field, lens choice, etc. These are good things to obsess over, of course, but you also need to know when to walk away from a particular shot or composition and see what else is going on around you.

In yesterday's posting I showed you the lion's-head doorknocker that I found on the front door of the local historical society museum. I did scout around for 1o minutes or so before I decided that the knocker was going to be the shot and I had some alternative shots in mind. But the lion's face is what I wanted and so I devoted about a half hour to getting exactly the shot I saw in my mind's eye (the black face surrounded by that very bold blue, with some hint of the windows above in the frame).

Knowing that I have a tendency to spend too much time on one shot though, at a certain point I just plucked the tripod off the front step (I was standing on the lower of the two steps when I shot yesterday's picture) and went looking for another shot. As I backed up down the front sidewalk, I noticed that I could probably frame the doorway with the overhanging branch and so I set up the tripod again and shot that. I also shot the door from the left and from the right and got down low on the lawn and shot up at the door from a more extreme angle.

I like the shot here, it's OK (I don't like the fact that the window frame on the lower left is leaning in too much and I would have needed a perspective-control lens to fix that--a lens that I don't own), but I much prefer the close-up of the lion's head. Still, by taking the time to really "work" a subject from many angles, you get the chance to test your conviction to what you think is the best shot. I'm satisfied that the doorknocker is the best shot, but I'm glad I took the time to prove it to myself.