All posts by Tom Dills

A Glint in the Eye


This past weekend I attended a presentation by noted nature and wildlife photographer Bill Lea. During Bill’s presentation he showed a number of excellent wildlife images – bear, deer, fox, wolf and more. At one point he made the statement that a successful animal photograph should always include a “glint” in the animal’s eye. I agree completely, but to take it a step further, I feel that a successful photograph of any kind is one that puts a glint in the photographer’s eye.

Critiques, reviews and evaluations


One of the things that often puzzles aspiring photographers of all skill levels, from absolute beginners to experienced amateurs and professionals, is the question of knowing how “good” their images are and how to make them better. As great as most experienced photographers are with sharing information about equipment, technique and locations, it is very difficult for photographers to get direct and specific feedback on improving their work.

I think one of the biggest challenges may be that we don’t know what kind of advice to ask for.

For a photographer trying to improve and learn, what to do? Maybe you could start posting to online forums, participate in a critique session, or attend a workshop. Each of these choices has its own benefits, and it’s possible to get a good foundation from a workshop. Even before that, though, you need to have an idea what it is you are trying to accomplish. What are you trying to learn, and who is best suited to help you do that?

Before taking a workshop or participating in a critique session, the place to start is to evaluate your own images. What kind of photographs do you take? Which ones do you like? Do they look like what you intended? Have you captured whatever it was that attracted you and caused you to press the shutter button? Why or why not? What do YOU like about your images, and what do YOU see in your images that need improvement? What matters most is YOUR vision, not someone else’s interpretation of your image. Once a photographer has evaluated his own images and edited them based on his own intentions, only then can they be properly evaluated by others.

Eventually you will want to present your work to others, to get feedback, advice and suggestions. Don’t be afraid of this, but also be clear what kind of feedback you are looking for. This is important, as it helps you determine where and how to present your work.

The easiest and perhaps most common approach today is the online image critique. This can be as informal as posting images to Flickr or Facebook and getting comments. It can be an individual image critique forum such as the CNPA message boards, or you can submit to a formal review group or forum such as those offered by PPA and other organizations. When participating in online image critiques it is important to know who is going to be doing the critiques. Who are the critiquers, what are their qualifications? Are they professionals, beginners or someone in between? Are they people whose goals and vision are similar to your own, or are they just people looking for “atta-boys” and meaningless platitudes for their own work and who spend their time doing the same for others? Are they “pixel peepers” who will ignore an image with beautiful composition or wonderful light because maybe it isn’t critically sharp or optimally processed? Make sure you are showing your work to people whose opinions you would most want, and remember that a lot of people who post and comment to online forums are people whose hobby is commenting and posting to online forums. Photographers whose opinions you might value most might not spend a lot of time online because they are out taking photographs.

Group critiques are popular, as they tend to be “live,” with a known speaker or presenter who is recognized as having expertise in the field. While these types of sessions have some value, there are many factors that can limit their usefulness. Factors such as limited time, volume of images and technology issues such as a projector that does not properly show the images can limit the effectiveness of such sessions. Also, when someone is looking at images one at a time, the feedback often tends to be based on “rules” and often doesn’t involve input from the photographer. A good review will take the photographer’s intent into account – what are you trying to show and how well did you accomplish it?

Recently I have started to become more comfortable with my technical ability and have started to explore a more artistic approach to my photography. One of the areas that I wanted help with was the choices I make when editing my photographs (NOTE: by editing I am referring to the selection of images to keep or work on further. Processing refers to the optimization in software, or “developing” the images). I recently took a workshop with a photographer whose work and teaching style I admire, and as part of the process we arranged a follow-up meeting to review the images I made while on the workshop. It hasn’t happened as of the time of this article, but my goal is for us to review the work I did, evaluate the decisions I made about which images best suited my intent, and get his feedback on my post-processing. Yes, I’m paying extra for his time, but I feel that the extra effort to “complete the circle” will be worth it.

Another area I have been working on is doing my own printing. The way to get feedback on printing is to have someone actually look at your prints, so I have been working with a local master printer to get ongoing feedback to help me come up with better output. A trained eye is far better at seeing subtle differences that, once seen, make a huge difference in the impact of a print. Again, I’m paying for the advice, but I am getting a lot of efficiency by having exclusive access to this person, rather than trying to wedge in time during his studio hours or during a hectic workshop.

There are a number of things to consider and look for when deciding about learning opportunities. Decide what it is you are trying to accomplish. Establish goals and get specific feedback. Look at the activity on a forum or in a critique group and see what kind of images people are showing, what kind of feedback they are getting and whether you think it would work for you. Talk to a potential workshop leader or instructor to discuss your needs and to determine if and how he or she can help you. It might require more effort, it will probably cost some money and will definitely take time, but the payoff will be in terms of meaningful and specific feedback to help solve problems you have or answer your questions.

It’s Not About “Best”


I was recently on a photography workshop with a well-known nature photographer and one of the participants asked the leader “between us, tell me – who are the 4 best photographers in the Unnamed Camera Club?” Just like in the old Dean Witter commercials all of the ears within listening distance perked up, and back came the answer, but not what the questioner was hoping for. He said – and I’m paraphrasing – that you can’t evaluate “best.” It’s not about “best.” Two different photographers, or for that matter a group of photographers, can each have completely different styles, use completely different equipment and present their final images in completely different ways. What distinguishes them may be content, technical excellence or emotional response. But that just makes them different, not better.

To carry this example a little further, think about other things you know personally. Do you like to read? Who is a better writer, Stephen King or Dan Brown? How about wine? Is Stag’s Leap a better wine than Kendall Jackson? Is Carlos Santana a better guitar player than Eric Clapton? Is Art Morris a better photographer than Joe McNally? Each choice is distinctively different, each choice is excellent in its own way, each choice is very, very good at what they do. But best? It’s not about best.

When evaluating anything, books, wine, photographs, we have to decide what it is that matters most to us. For photography do we want technical excellence? Define that. Does that mean excellent in-camera technique, excellent post processing, beautifully hand-crafted fine art prints on wonderful paper? Are we looking to go beyond technical excellence and explore images that convey feeling and emotion? What matters to each of us is very personal, and whether we are evaluating our own images or looking at others’ images, our preferences and opinions will dictate what we look for, how we feel, and how well those images stack up.

Many photographers are very subject-specific. Some photographers are very skilled at and perfectly satisfied making technically excellent documentary portraits of plants, animals and birds. Things like pose, head angle, direction and quality of light may be their focus. They may have an interest in the biological characteristics, or they may simply be adding to a collection. Whether they are shooting plants, animals, birds, waterfalls, sunrises at the beach or mountain ridges in the fog, it is the specifics of the subject that attract them. Those things are relatively easy to define, and on the surface the resulting photographs are relatively easy to evaluate. But even then, there will be differences in the images because each person brings their own set of interests, their own preferences and goals. Whether evaluating their own images or images of others, those preferences will influence what we look for, what we see and how we feel. Each set of photographs can be evaluated on the basis of many variables, and determining which of those variables is important is up to each individual photographer first.

Some photographers, whether satisfied with their level of technical knowledge or attracted by the desire to go beyond technical excellence start to think in terms of making images that convey thoughts, feelings and emotions. This does not mean burning incense and getting all new-agey – it just means thinking about what we see, understanding what it is that attracts us to a scene and making photographs that reflect the emotions and feelings we have about it. This gets into foreign territory for many photographers and it is easy to be scared off by the concept. Consequently, it can be very difficult to judge whether a photographer has created images that reflect their vision and whether they have achieved his or her goals.

While you are evaluating your own images, take time to look at other people’s photographs to build your own personal database of what you like and don’t like. Start with your own images but also expand your horizons to look at other people’s work. It doesn’t have to be work from famous people either, it can be anyone’s. Look at other images, whether prints in a gallery, online slideshows & galleries, books, magazines or presentations. Look at other images not to copy them, but to learn from them. Which images appeal to you and why? Just like listening to music or tasting wine, you need to have enough experience to understand what things are important to you. You need to have an opinion about what you like and what you look for, and you need to be able to recognize whether your work or someone else’s satisfies your preferences. If it doesn’t, you might still be able to appreciate it because even if it is not something you prefer you recognize that it is done very, very well.

We hear a lot about technical stuff. This is important but it is only the beginning. Learn the basics, but learn them so well that you don’t have to think about them. Learn how to use technique to achieve your goals. Learn to evaluate others’ images to determine how they made them and decide whether you like the results. When you attend a presentation of someone else’s images, participate in an image critique or see someone’s photographs online, learn to recognize characteristics. What makes them appeal to you (or not)? Look at other people’s images, and instead of asking them about aperture shutter speed, focal length, etc. look at the image and decide for yourself what was used, and whether or not you think it was effective. Think about what the photograph might look like with more or less depth of field, a longer or shorter shutter speed, or a different focal length lens. When you look at a photograph and think “wow, I wish I had taken that,” think about how it was done so that when you are in a situation to take a “wow” photograph you know how to do it. Remember that and add it to your personal database, so the next time you are photographing you can go into your personal database, think about all the variables, and have a better idea of what to do to reach your goals.

It’s important that we all try to improve our photography. We all want to get better at what we do. We want to learn and grow. But wondering or worrying about whether we are “better” than someone else or wanting to know who is “best” is an unnecessary distraction. Appreciate photographers and photographs for what they are and how they are different. This is supposed to be fun – enjoy it!

August Wallpaper Calendar


August 1st came and went, but August 2nd is a better day anyway. It’s my son Scott’s birthday – a national holiday in my family! For the calendar, a day late and a dollar short will have to do. I will happily refund your money if you are not completely satisfied!

I’ve got a number of essay ideas floating around in my head and will have at least one of them on paper for the upcoming deadline for the next CNPA newsletter. With any luck it will end up as a blog post. So stay tuned!

This month’s photograph is from a visit last year to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was taken at Currituck Heritage Park near Corolla, North Carolina.

July Wallpaper Calendar


This month’s image is one of those where I knew I had something when I made the photograph, but it got lost in the shuffle and just recently got rediscovered. This is an early morning shot along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesville, NC. It was shot last summer while on a workshop with Les Saucier. I’ve been wanting to get back to these images for a while and just managed to get one worked up in time for this month. I hope you enjoy looking at it as much as I do!

Simplify


I was just reading a post on Kirk Tuck’s blog about gear choices for going on vacation. The usual dilemma – how much stuff does someone need to take on whatever kind of trip they’re taking. And since I’m going on vacation – yes, again! – in just a few days it’s a subject on my mind. I’ve had this internal discussion before, and have managed to get myself down to a nice small kit that doesn’t take up much room, gets me the pictures I plan to get but doesn’t involve carrying my 40-pound ThinkTank roller through the airport, only to to have to check it on the jetway.

When I was shooting film I had a Mamiya 7 with the 50, 65 and 150, which roughly equates to a 24, 35 and 75 in 35mm terms. And I rarely used the 50. I long to regain that simplicity in a digital outfit, but it finally dawned on me that a body and a reasonable zoom would just about cover me. So until I decide to spring for an M9 and a pocketfull of Leica glass I’ve been traveling with my 40D and 24-105. It’s a little clunky but it’s what I’ve got. And it fits in the little shoulder bag that I used to carry my Mamiya in. Why the 40D? With “only” 10 megapixels there’s little to no chance I’ll fill up all my cards in a week, so I can leave the laptop at home and enjoy cocktail hour actually doing cocktails instead of backing up files! It’s the only camera I have with built-in sensor cleaning so I don’t have to worry about taking all the cleaning stuff with me. Lastly, the “crop factor” of the 40D gives me enough reach with the 24-105 that I’m not tempted to bring the 70-200, which seems to help me avoid the inevitable “as-long-as-I” syndrome. As in “as-long-as-I’m taking the bigger lens I’ll need the bigger bag and as long as I’m taking the bigger bag I might as well take the…” You get the idea.

One camera, one lens. Maybe the 17-40 if I think I’m going to miss the wide end, and the G9 and a Ziploc bag for going to the beach. Cards, batteries, chargers and a polarizer and I’m there. For support I’ll always take my T-Pod, and if there’s room after I’m done packing clothes I may throw in a monopod. If I’m really lucky and have a couple of pounds to spare I’ll take my tripod, but probably not.

And none of that daily posting to Facebook stuff. I’m on vacation – that can wait!

SoFoBoMo 2010


SoFoBoMo stands for Solo Photo Book Month, and is a fun way to motivate yourself to do a project. I participated last year and am doing it again this year.

During any 30-day period between June 1 and July 31 you take the photographs, lay them out in a book format and publish them as a .PDF book and if you wish as a print-on-demand book through Blurb, Lulu or one of the many other POD publishers. Lulu and Blurb seem to be the most popular. Last year I published mine on Lulu and someone actually bought one!

I had come up with a really good idea for this year’s theme but my plans didn’t work out so I’ve decided to hold that thought for another year. What I’ve decided to do should still be interesting. I’m excited about it and looking forward to giving it a go.

Kathy & I leave July 3 for a cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas. What I’m planning to do is photograph people taking pictures. A cruise should offer plenty of subject matter! I’ve got some ideas about how to make that interesting, so we’ll see how it goes. The primary thing for me is the exercise of shooting and creating a project. I’ll do my best, and regardless of the outcome it will be a lot of fun and a great learning experience.

Look for my book on Blurb some time in early August!

Paper Testing and June Wallpaper


When I bought my new printer late last year one of the things I intended to do early on was to try out a number of papers and eventually settle on one or two that I really liked and learn how to make the best possible prints from those papers. I spent the last several months working with some Lexjet paper I got “free” with my printer along with several papers I had laying around the house. My “go-to” paper has been Crane’s MuseoMAX paper. I originally discovered MuseoMAX paper from print guru Gary Kerr at Fine Art Impressions, who used it on a couple of custom prints he made for me. It’s a very nice paper, with a smooth matte surface that holds sharpness and color like a glossy paper. The best of both worlds in many ways.

Over this past winter I took a fine art printing class from Les Saucier, who had recently begun using Hahnemuhle’s Fine Art Baryta paper. In his class I made a print of my own using this paper, which I found to be very nice. I had also read about a new paper from Canson called Canson Infinity Baryta Photographique that was said to be very nice. A few articles placed it higher than the Hahnemuhle in terms of print quality. So I ordered some 8.5×11 sheets of the Hahnemuhle and the Canson and proceeded to make test prints on all the paper in my storage cabinet. I must say that – despite my relatively basic knowledge of the art of printing – the Canson paper blows me away. Amazing shadow detail, all the way to the deepest blacks, excellent color and sharpness, and a nice white surface that really makes for a fine print.

I’m still going to use the MuseoMAX as well, as I like the matte surface and warm tone of that paper for certain photographs, but the the Canson is my new favorite. I just ordered a bunch of it from Shades of Paper and can’t wait to start making prints with it. Great stuff! Once I’ve had some time with it I’ll start thinking about custom profiles.

It’s a day early, but here is the June wallpaper calendar for those of you who collect it. The Place to Be in June is Roan Mountain, and this is an image from last year’s visit there. A beautiful blue sky and lovely rhododendron make a great representation of June in the Southeast. Enjoy!

Home Again and May Wallpaper


Just got back from a lovely week on the high seas…a 6 night cruise on Royal Princess followed by a couple of nights in Hollywood Beach, FL. This was a vacation week so I didn’t take my good gear but managed to get a few grab shots with the G9. I’ve got some fodder for a couple of blog posts and will get them downloaded from my brain over the next week or so and will post them along with a few photos. For now it’s back to the banking grindstone for a few weeks.

I remembered to do the May calendar before I left, so here it is, only a few days late! The image is from a last May and was taken along the Boone Fork from the Tanawha Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway near Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina. Enjoy!