Thursday, December 26, 2013

Could You Repeat that Please?

I have to admit it; I’ve been very close to being taken in by the latest fad in photography.  I'm calling it a fad, but I just think it’s more of a contagion…a contagion of fancy talk.  Politicians can be known to do this when describing something quite ordinary but making it sound quite extraordinary.  This same practice has crept into our photography and utilizes subleties designed to differentiate the elitists from the more pedestrian (or “amateur”) photographers.  When someone asks if you shoot “raw”  or if your gear is "full frame”, they may really want to know, or they may be trying to send a message.  But if they ask whether you create photographs or simply shoot pictures, their question is dripping with superiority.

It is this esoteric distinction between "shooting pictures" and "creating photographs" that I’ve been noticing has crept into our vernacular.  I recently watched a video where a photographer was speaking in hushed and reverent tones as he referred to his craft of creating photographs…and he went on to say it was much more than simply taking pictures.  Really?  To me it sounded a bit self-aggrandizing?

In the simplest terms, you press the shutter to record the light entering the camera through the lens.  You’re recording that light either on film or on a digital sensor.  You then transfer that information by some method to another media that allows people to see what it is that you captured.  So what’s all the hub bub about this “making” versus “taking”, the “creating” versus the “capturing”?  Is it just the artistry of language or is it the “politics” of photography?

I have to admit I was nearly taken in by it all.  Shoot and shot, capture and take, I’d begun to accept that they’re simply too barbaric to describe the artistry that I bring to my photography.  I too should talk that way.  And maybe a fancy accent would add some mystique! But in reality, outside of photographers who use this language with each other, we must sound a little goofy when talking to “normal” people!

When we tell our friends we spent the afternoon making photographs, they probably conclude that we were either in a darkroom (if they know what that is), or that we were simply at Costco picking up prints!  If you say you were shooting pictures, capturing images, etc., they know we were out with the camera doing our thing.  And isn’t this what communications is all about—we say stuff so other people understand what we mean?  Of course photography is a craft, people get that.  It’s an artistic expression, and it’s our passion—people get that too.  Do we really need to load up the language with euphemistic phrases that try to elevate the importance of what we do, when all it really does is make our communication more ambiguous and less understandable? Photography is rich with possibilities and offers a beautiful way to “speak” about life and describe, persuade, and inspire…like a song with visual notes.

So in the interest of clarity, from now on, when I say I’m taking pictures, shooting pictures, and capturing images you should expect to find me with my camera in my hands.  And when I say I’m editing or processing images, you can expect to find me in front of my computer.  And if by some chance you catch me saying that I’m creating photographs, then please stop me and say "excuse me?".

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Manual Focus--With an Emphasis on "Manual"

I once heard that for someone considering buying a new camera, and unsure what brand to buy, the best advice given is to buy what your friends have.  There are a variety of reasons for that, but the two biggest are built in tech support and potential for equipment sharing and advice (a variation of tech support).

Enough can’t be said for having a circle of photography friends that you can rely on for help and for partnering when going out to shoot pictures.  It’s when these friends also have the same brand camera as you (or maybe even the same model) that you find how much knowledge and experience can be drawn from each other. 
A friend of mine just recently bought into a new brand, the same brand that I have, and he purchased the same model camera as well.  He wanted to get together right away so he could set his camera up with the same settings that I had settled on for my camera.  As anxious as I was to share what I knew get him up and running with his new camera, I strongly encouraged him to read the manual first, determine what settings he thought he should use, and THEN let’s get together and compare notes.
This approach has two obvious benefits… First, he learns about his own camera and doesn’t just blindly copy the same settings I’ve chosen.  But second, and this is a selfish reason, is that I recognize that I’m not the expert on everything (might not actually be an expert on anything), and by him reading the manual, he’d be in a position to point out things that I might not know.  Another saying I’ve heard that I really like is, “there is more I don’t know than I do know”….profound in its humility.
The payoff for this strategy was huge when this last weekend my friend made a casual observation about his camera.  He was using a very old lens that would still fit on the camera, but not take advantage of automatic focusing when he remarked that an indicator light came on when the subject was in focus.  At first I didn’t understand what he meant, and then coolest “aha moment” occurred.  The tip was this… when shooting with a lens in manual focus mode, one way (the most common way) that people determine if something is in focus is simply by looking at the scene and making a visual judgement.  My friend pointed out that if you hold the shutter half-way down when doing this, a small indicator light shows up to signal when the subject has come into focus…wow, that’s huge!  No more guessing based on visual observation!
Yes, I’ve gone back and looked and the manual, and this “tip” couldn’t be more obvious…it’s in the second paragraph on the page that discussing manual focus.  I’ve read my manual, but missed this—probably because I had modern lenses and expected that I’d be using auto focus most of the time.  I know though that there are probably many other things in my manual that I’ve missed.  Reading, and periodically re-reading operating manuals, especially for complicated instruments such as cameras can be an invaluable way to help ensure you know how to use your equipment and maximize its capabilities and features.
And surrounding yourself with photography friends who like to learn and like to share is a wonderful habit to be in.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Indoor Concert Photography--Game On!

One of the more flattering requests I’ve received was one recently from my own son whose band was preparing for a show at a local joint.  The request wasn’t just to attend, which was certainly the invitation, but it was with the additional request to bring my camera and take pictures.  In fact, my son said his band members had requested that I bring my camera…flattering, for sure.

No, they don’t follow my blog, nor my photostream, nor my website gallery—they don’t really know what my photography looks like, but they do know I take pictures because I’ve taken pictures of them before when they’ve been practicing around the house They were confident they’d get better pictures than what their friends had been shooting on the cell phone cameras at other their other performances—and that confidence hooked me.

You’d think I’d been given the assignment to shoot the Beatles, or maybe someone a bit more contemporary, but still famous, as I was nervous and excited about the challenge of meeting the expectations the band now placed into my hands.  I’d never been to the venue before, so I had my son describe how it was set up, and in particular, what my range of motion would be and what proximities I’d have to the band, the audience, the mixer, etc…   Folks, I’m sorry to say this was the limit and extent of my venue planning.  Sure, on a “real” assignment, I’d go down there, test angles, test lighting, etc…but hey, this was for fun, so cutting corners seemed reasonable!

I made several decisions ahead of time regarding gear.  First of all, I was not going to take a flash.  I like existing light photography, and I didn’t want to be drawing attention to myself with a flash going off every 2 seconds.  Second, I was going to take a single lens, my 18-200mm.  Lazy choice, maybe, but I knew that it would give me the full range of coverage that I anticipated I would want, plus I didn’t want to be fooling around with carrying extra gear and changing lenses—I was going into an unknown situation and wanted to minimize the variables.  The only drawback to this decision was that the 18-200 is not particularly fast, having a range of 3.5-5.6.  My plan to make up for this lack of speed of course was to crank up the ISO, the third leg of the exposure triangle.  I was willing to accept the grain that comes along with a high ISO in exchange for reasonably sharp images that a faster shutter speed would allow me to capture.  As they say, I’d rather have a grainy image than a blurry one. 

So my plan was set.  And you know what?  My plan worked as far as I was concerned, and based on the feedback I received from the band members (my ultimate “client” for the shoot), I’d say a resounding success.  I also learned a great deal about how I’d approach my next indoor concert assignment.  And this learning is what I would say is basic about any photo shoot you might plan if going to somewhere new.  Number one, find out as much as you can about the physical nature of where you’re going, whether that’s inside or outside.  Obviously if it’s a travel destination, you won’t be able to go there ahead of time, but you can research what others have done, and prepare yourself that way.  In terms of more local venues, if it’s important to get the images right, then go there ahead of time and scout things out.

Second, if you have the luxury of bringing more gear than you might need, either because you can carry it on you with a strap or bag, or if you can store it in a room or vehicles nearby, then do so.  Circumstance can change, and having the right gear with you gives you the change to adjust on the fly.  Gear back at home does you no good if you can’t get at it.

And lastly, if you’re doing the shoot for a “client” (as I was sort of), talk to them in detail, in advance to get a sense of what they envision as an end product.  They may not know angles, composition, or other technical aspects of what you do, but they will be able to convey the feelings, or end-use of the imagery that you’ll be creating.  This information will be invaluable to you while you’re in the middle of the creative process during your shoot.

My final take-away from this experience was feeling the exhilaration that comes from the challenge of putting oneself in a situation that’s not your norm.  It offered, or forced, a different kind of thinking, planning, and visualizing that invigorated my photography.

The full collection of images from this concert can be viewed on my website gallery at

And if you have comments or suggestions, I’d love to hear from you at