All posts by Tom Dills

Personal Style

I got into a discussion with some of my photo buddies this past weekend about “developing a personal style” and got to thinking about it on my own. A lot of photographers (and other artists) have a recognizable, identifiable personal style, to the point where you can pick out their work among a group of images or prints. I don’t think this is something you can “do” as much as it is something that “happens.” You can’t for example put on your To Do list: “Develop personal style today” or something similar. And it doesn’t happen with a certain camera, lens or Photoshop plug in. I think it must come from hard work, from taking a lot of pictures, using whatever influences and inspiration you have in you, editing your photos into some kind of organized structure, and showing them to others.

Everyone has a personal style, but not everyone’s personal style is individual or unique enough to be recognizable. But some people’s personal style definitely stands out as their own.

Art & Photography

(1) I went to a meeting of an artist’s group last night. Several of the painters talked about having worked from a photograph to do their paintings. I couldn’t help but think that if they would just learn to take better photographs they wouldn’t have to bother with the paint.

(2) Photographers who like to get all righteous about their work being art and say it is more dependent on their vision than their equipment always say that they get upset when someone asks them what kind of camera they have to get those nice pictures. One of the typical lines is that “painters don’t sit around talking about what kind of brush they used, or their brand of easel or what kind of palette they use….” Well, when someone (not me) showed their photography, one of the painters said “what kind of camera do you have, it must be a good one?” I was tempted but kept my mouth shut. I was a guest, after all.

(3) Most of the painters seemed to be more interested in whether the photographers would photograph their paintings, presumably for free, than they were in what kind of photographs they made.

Lessons I Didn’t Learn In Photo School

Syl Arena was recently the guest poster on Scott Kelby’s blog and wrote an amazing article that everyone who pretends or intends to be a photographer needs to read. He promises that this is the first of a series to appear on his own blog every Wednesday. If they are as compelling as the first dozen it will be a real treat. If I were to choose just one to quote here I would (and did) pick this one:

7. Learning to create photographs that “look” like your world should be only a milestone – not the destination.
Embrace the fact that cameras see differently than humans. Accept that, even today, state-of-the-art tools and technology fall short of reproducing the entire gamut of human vision. The reality is that photography cannot perfectly record or portray the world as we experience it. Yet, this is typically the goal of most neophyte photographers. They measure the “goodness” of their photos by how closely the images match what the shooter experienced. If this is you, with time and practice, you’ll come to understand that your photos will seldom (if ever) match your reality. When that awareness comes, celebrate! You’ve finally reached the true starting line on your journey as a photographer. What lies ahead is the exploration of how you can create photographs that express rather than represent.

Read It!

Snow Motion

The nice light didn’t last too long this morning before the clouds moved in, but the conditions got right for some motiony blur stuff, which I thought might look kind of cool with snow. These aren’t the best I’ve ever done but we don’t have a good selection of nice straight tree trunks along my section of the greenway.

I like how the snow erases all the background clutter, so you just get the tree trunks, a little green and some brown.

Snow Day!

Hey, the weather people got one right! I would have bet money otherwise, but just to be safe I brought my work laptop home on Friday “just in case.” So today I ended up having one of those whatever-they-call-those-days-when-people-stay-home-from-work-when-the-kids-are-out-of-school days. Sick day? Sure as heck isn’t going to count as a vacation day! Since I don’t usually take sick days we’ll call it that!

Anyway, I wandered around this morning trying to see what I could get and whether I might get something to get in the paper and make me famous again. Well, I got some nice stuff, but while I was downloading the images our power went out, I went off and did something else, and by the time I got back to it and processed some images the paper had decided they had gotten enough photos and disabled their upload link. Oh well, a few more for the stock files!

This image was made during some fleeting golden light shortly after sunrise this morning along the Torrence Creek Greenway, about 100 yards from my house.


Since I don’t know who-all reads my blog I don’t know who-all read my previous post and wondered what the who-all I was talking about. Most followers know that my day job is with a large financial institution in town. Most people also know that this is not the best of times to be working for a financial institution. Well, this past Friday I got to experience first-hand the way that financial institutions “build shareholder value” by reducing the quantity of what in better times is often referred to as “our greatest resource.” Boogers said “sayonara,” gave me a little severance package and a pat on the head and said “thanks.”

Now the good news is that, within 30 minutes of getting my notice I had applied for a position doing almost exactly the same thing for the same customers in the same market segment but with a different product serviced by an area where they are hiring. Gotta love big business – why they can’t say “we gotta give somebody up, you need somebody, let’s make a deal” is beyond me but that’s bidness. Found out today that I’ve been selected for the interview process, which means they think I’m worth talking to. Best part is that I already know the people I’ll be interviewing with and they know me, they’re great folks that I’d love to work for, and even if I have to take a cut in pay it’s still better than zero. So hopefully things will work out, maybe I end up with a little paid vacation, conveniently the week of the CNPA Annual Meeting here in Charlotte, which I was already planning to be off for. Whatever happens, we’ll be fine.

Update 3/5/09: I didn’t get the job. But we’re still going to be OK. Maybe better than OK!

The photo is something else I borrowed from William Neill. The artsy term is “Triptych” and I think that’s pretty nice so that’s what I call mine. Collection of three (hence the name) images from our recent adventure to Hilton Head.


This was supposed to be a productive weekend, but things didn’t turn out exactly as planned. In a number of ways. Looks like I may have a lot more time on my hands in a couple of weeks. We’ll see.

This image is one of a number of impressionistic images from our trip to the beach. Hard to believe it was just a week ago!

For now, suffice it to say that this image sums up the state of my head these days. Lots of content, just a little fuzzy.

More From the Beach

Here is another quick photo from Monday morning’s sunrise. I shot a few panoramas of this scene as it developed but haven’t had time to process them. I “only” shot 800 images this weekend! A few of them should turn out to be jewels but I’m going to need some time to process them over the next few weeks.

One bit of exciting news – I submitted an article to Camera in the Wild, the newsletter of the Carolinas’ Nature Photographers Association, and it got published in the March issue! Now this is sort of like getting your 3rd grade artwork posted on Mom’s refrigerator, but published is published, right? It’s not the New York Times, but it’s the best I’ve done so far! I’d share the link but it is member’s only. The article was originally posted here, so you can still read it if you haven’t already.

Published is published, right? Now I can say I’m a writer and a photographer!

Red for Valentine’s Day!

Kathy & I are spending the long President’s Day weekend in Hilton Head, SC, our favorite destination to get away for a few days and chill. Sometimes I use our trips here to have a vacation from photography, but I haven’t been doing a lot of shooting so far this year and I decided I needed to work on upping my giggage quotient.

We got here late Thursday, well after sunset, but the forecast for Friday was excellent with conditions deteriorating late Friday into Saturday. I decided to get up for sunrise, which is at a fairly civil time this time of year, and while I was a little later getting to work than I might have liked there was plenty of gorgeous color. I took a bunch of shots and will try to post a few over the next several days.

Things started to cloud up as the afternoon progressed, and I was afraid we might lose our sunset opportunity for the day. There was some pretty nice color in the sky but nothing spectacular. As often happens however, well after sunset things got a little interesting, away from the sun and over the water. For about 5 minutes things turned a brilliant red and I managed to get a few shots.

I’ll call this one Nature’s Valentine!

Expose to the Right, or Not?

I spent this past weekend at a workshop with John Shaw, famous landscape and nature photographer. Learned a lot of good things, heard a lot of things I already knew, and found a few things I don’t necessarily agree with. Now John’s a pretty opinionated dude, not afraid to say so and what he says is right. As far as he’s concerned. All in all it was worth the time and money, especially in the middle of February when there’s not a whole lot else going on.

One of the most inspired conversations of the weekend was around Shaw’s espousal of the principal of “Expose to the Right” or ETTR. I feel pretty confident in saying that I understand the theory behind ETTR – half of your information is in the 5th box, the preview on your LCD will look overexposed, move the histogram as far right as possible without blowing highlights, move it back during processing etc, etc, etc. I get that. But here’s the thing: Many if not most of the attendees at this workshop were completely clueless about this, as evidenced by the questions and background whispers. I don’t think it’s a good idea for most people to run around constantly overexposing their pictures because “I was at a John Shaw workshop and this is what he said we should do.” NO! How about subject or situational appropriateness?

During this lengthy discussion someone asked the rhetorical question, “what if I’m taking a photo of my Black Lab in a coal mine?” Shaw’s response – “EXPOSE TO THE RIGHT!” “How about if…”EXPOSE TO THE RIGHT!” Like there were no other options. What I wanted to ask and didn’t was, “If, in order to expose to the right I have to increase exposure by 3 stops, and assuming I know what I want my aperture to be, I have to increase exposure either by using a longer shutter speed or higher ISO. What if the dog is panting hard and will be blurry at a longer shutter speed, or what if we’re in the woods, there is just a little bit of breeze and the leaves are moving? What if lengthening the shutter speed or raising the ISO by three stops takes it beyond the optimal low-noise threshold for my camera? Is it better to have the information I want, properly exposed and sharp, or should I accept a blurry subject with noise because someone said that I need to EXPOSE TO THE RIGHT? And what if I don’t want to spend the time it takes to process all my images back to the proper exposure?

Most people have a hard enough time understanding exposure as it is. Many of them have advanced beyond shooting JPEGs which is great, but to then introduce this principal of purposely overexposing their pictures is an unnecessary complication for a lot of people. The problem as I see it is that most of the people who are knowledgeable enough to use and understand ETTR are probably experienced enough to know that it is not a One Size Fits All proposition. Those who aren’t should be happy with the gains they achieve by shooting at the higher bit rate and larger color space of RAW files and leave the color theory to the scientists.