My 2011 Photography Calendar is Here!

I am now taking orders for my 2011 Photography Calendar – titled “A Year by the Sea.”  This calendar contains 12 beautiful photographs from beaches I have visited over the last several years, from Hilton Head, SC to Barbados.  You can see a preview of the calendar on my website.

Place your order now for delivery by mid-December – just in time for the holidays!  I’ll be taking orders through November 30 at the Paypal link on my blog (top of the right-hand column).

If you would like more than one calendar, please e-mail me for an invoice which I can send you via e-mail.  This automates the payment process for me, allows me to collect the sales tax I need to collect, and lets me keep good track of orders.


November Wallpaper Calendar

I’m sure it’s just me (it usually is) but there is something weird about kids going around and trick-or-treating while they text on their cell phones.  Seems like if you are old enough to have a cell phone you shouldn’t be out begging for candy.  Like I said, probably just me….

Let’s kick November off with another waterfall image.  On our recent club outing to Brevard someone mentioned that they thought it was interesting that there could be 20 photographers standing in front of a waterfall and I would be the only one with my lens pointing away from the waterfall. Well, not always.  In this case I was pointed at the waterfall, but at a really small part of it.

This is a detail from Looking Glass Falls in Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, NC.  Not too many people get this shot, most of them don’t even see it.  But sometimes I do actually shoot waterfalls!

Fancy Colours

(Reference to an old Chicago tune)

I spent last week in the NC mountains photographing in fall color.  On several occasions people mentioned that they thought that “the colors are lousy this year” or “this fall is one of the worst I’ve seen.”  I even heard someone say something like “this fall sucks.”  While I admit that there were places where you might have to isolate the colors a bit, I didn’t think it was all that bad.  As I review my images on the computer this week I’m not all that disappointed with the color.  Could it be that we have gotten so used to looking at our images through Viveza-colored glasses that we can’t appreciate reality when we see it?  Just a thought.

Drum Machines Have No Soul

Creativity comes from many places and takes many forms.  There is no formula for creativity and there is no single definition or example.  Photography is no exception, but where my opinion differs from that of many photographers I know is I feel that 95% (or more) of creativity takes place at the instant a photograph is taken, using the camera and related tools to express the vision in our hearts.  Whether we use an expensive high-res camera or our phone, the expression of our creativity comes not from the equipment but from how we use our equipment to communicate our thoughts, ideas and emotions through our photographs.  We use more tools to realize our creativity after the photograph is taken, and those tools range from the type of equipment used, to the software used to process the photograph to the method for displaying the finished result.
Recently someone suggested that I needed to use a certain piece of software because (a whole list of people) were using it and because it did a great job of making their images look really good.  I have seen the results of this software in the work of these referenced photographers and agree that the software does have some interesting characteristics.  But it’s not the software that makes good images good.  Good images look good no matter what software is used, because a good image reflects good vision, and all the software in the world won’t make a lousy image great (I’ve tried it!).  My personal preference is to use software as a tool and learn how to achieve my vision regardless of the name of the software.  I work really hard to learn how to use my software to make my images look like I want them to, based on my creativity and vision.  The danger comes in relying on software or presets or plug-ins as a “recipe” that doesn’t make images good, it just makes them look like the images of everyone else using that software.  To quote art expert Barney Davey, “The talent to emulate and replicate is not the same as to create.”
A car in my neighborhood has a bumper sticker on the back that says “Drum Machines Have No Soul.”  When I first read that message I knew exactly what it meant.  Drum machines are great for laying down a rhythm track.  They sound pretty good and are used a lot in certain types of music.  While you can be somewhat creative in programming them, they do some interesting things and can reflect some variety based on the programmer’s input, they have little ability to reflect artistry, and can’t adapt to changes in mood or energy.  Once upon a time I was a musician and was very fortunate to have played in a band with an individual who is now one of the top drummers in the world.  There’s a big difference between a rhythm track and a virtuoso drum solo.
When I heard the comment about using a certain piece of software to process all my images, I couldn’t help but think of the bumper sticker warning me about drum machines.  The computer has no soul either, and while using software can be creative in terms of deciding which button to push, I would much rather achieve my vision by working with software I control, rather than using some faceless software developer’s recipe to give my images some soulless look with a canned effect.  Learning how to use the software I use to achieve the end result I want, rather than pushing buttons until I find something that looks “cool,” puts my heart and my soul into my photographs.

October 2010 Calendar

My, how time flies!  October already, the busiest time of the year for nature photographers.  Kathy & I have a big month coming up, although we won’t be running around quite as much this year as we have in years past.  One big week starting with a CNPA outing in Brevard and ending with Kevin Adams’ Fall Photo Tour, plus a few random day trips thrown in, will be a great time and should make for some productive photography.

Fall can be so easy that it ends up being hard.  When the color starts to show it can be tempting to just point and shoot.  The trouble with that is that it’s hard to go beyond the obvious.  And that is really going to be my focus this year – to go beyond the obvious.  I intend to photograph mindfully and intentionally, seeing lines, patterns colors and relationships.  We’ll see how how I did a month from now.

I liked the photo from my last post so much I’ve decided to make it the October wallpaper calendar.  It’s a little bit different look at Hooker Falls in Dupont State Forest.  This photo illustrates what I mean by “beyond the obvious” and is the kind of photograph I hope to make a lot more of.

I hope you enjoy this month’s calendar, and hope you all have an excellent October.  See you somewhere along the way!

When the “Stars” Align

A friend of mine recently posted a question on Facebook that became an interesting topic of discussion. The Facebook discussion is long over but I’ve been pondering it in my own mind. The friend asked, “on a photo outing, would you rather get one 5* image or five-ten 3-4* images?” Predictably, there were opinions on both sides of the question, with most – OK, all – of the responders answering the opposite of me.

My answer was “I agree that the ‘Wow!’ image is the one you always hope for, but those are so dependent on circumstance that you can hardly be disappointed if you don’t come home with one. Plus, what people buy… doesn’t tend to agree with my rating!

If I come home with a handful of ‘3s’ I can say I had a pretty good day, and a solid group of ‘3s’ makes a foundation for a gallery display, a calendar or a book.”

So let’s look at that. First, to know how to answer that question we all need to agree on what a “5 Star” image is, right? I’m guessing we’re pretty much all on the same page, as most of us probably consider 5 stars to be ‘Best of the Best’. I don’t even think about upgrading to 4 or 5 stars until I’ve done extensive processing to my images and have come up with a print that I am happy with. In my mind the tricky part is when we define what images get 3 stars in the first place. Everyone has a workflow that suits them, and I’ve developed some pretty high standards when it comes to giving my images star ratings.

Back when I was shooting film, I considered one “keeper” per roll of film to be good shooting. The number might have been a little higher with 35mm and 36 exposures on a roll, but when I was using 220 film and getting 20 images on a roll, one keeper per roll was my goal. Not that the others were bad, but I’ve found that there is always one shot that best captured my intentions with a particular subject or scene, and that was my “keeper.” I kept all of my film except the absolute bad ones, but marked the keeper as the one that I would have printed, sent to a magazine or (later) scanned into a digital file for the computer. I didn’t worry about star ratings then because there wasn’t really a need to.

Now that I am using digital cameras I don’t measure my images by rolls of film. I measure them in Gigabytes – dozens and perhaps hundreds of shots from a particular scene or subject. Does shooting more photographs mean I have more keepers? Hardly. The number of keepers – now we call them “Picks” – is perhaps a little higher, but as a percentage of the total it is much, much lower. I have become a ruthless editor. In a day where I shoot 500 photos, I might initially end up with 50 or so Picks, but once I go through them and narrow it down to the very best ones I might end up with 8 or 10 that get the 3 Star rating. There’s no reason to have 20 keepers from a sunrise or sunset, for example, when there are one or two that captured the peak moment. You might select a few more than that if you captured some variety, or shot verticals and horizontals, and then only if it was really something special.

I’m picking on sunrises and sunsets here, but I’m hoping to make a point. A lot of folks trudge out hours before dawn, shoot until the sun comes up then go eat breakfast. In the evening we grab dinner or a glass of wine just about the time things are getting interesting, then head out to our favorite spot just in time to see the ball of the sun disappear into an overcast sky or have the clouds move in just before the “magic moment.” There’s a lot to shoot besides the sun, and shooting the sun makes for some boring pictures more often than not. And when you’re standing at an overlook with 20 of your closest friends, cameras all pointed in the same direction waiting until the magic moment, you’re certainly not going to get anything different!

Truthfully, a lot of my sunrises and sunsets don’t even get picked unless they are better than something I already have. Not that I have a “been there done that” attitude but unless they are spectacular, sunrises are generally pretty cliché. I truly have some pretty good sunrises and sunsets already, and unless something is really different or a lot better than what I have I’m probably better off looking for something else. Hopefully, if I am really paying attention and thinking about what I’m doing, I’m looking for other things to shoot instead of waiting for a boring sunset to turn into something special. That’s where the 3s come from. Look for something that is enhanced by the nice light, or find something interesting and see what I can make of that.

But I digress. The thing I find interesting is that my definition of a 5 star rating changes constantly. I have my All Time Favorites, but periodically I go back, move all my 4 and 5 star images back to 3 stars and re-rate the whole batch. That forces me to re-look objectively at each one of them to confirm that it does or does not meet my 4 star criteria. Most recently I have begun to re-process old files with new software and am surprised at the differences I see. Usually the difference is for the better as the newer software allows me to get even more out of my older files. But often I’ll find an image that I thought was excellent that isn’t, and it stays a 3 or gets deleted. More often than not I start over and re-process the RAW file and delete the old PSD file that was processed in Elements or an older version of Photoshop.

This discussion has been a great exercise and I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and the more I think about it the more I stand by my original response. A good solid group of ‘3s’ means I had a productive outing, that I was seeing well, inspired and creative. If I come back from an outing with a 5 star image I consider myself lucky. If I come back from an image with NO 3 star images I was either uninspired, lazy or not working very hard. To become the photographer I want to be it’s far more important to consistently come home with 3s than to come home with no 3s and a 5. The ideal situation would be to come home with some of each. Once in a while that happens, and when it does it is very, very nice!

Photo is one of those lousy “3-star” images from a trip to Hooker Falls in Dupont State Forest last October. It’s got a pretty good shot at getting a promotion, I think.

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.

Photographs and stuff!