I just read another “pro” blog saying to leave your DSLR camera and lenses at home when traveling and just take a small mirrorless camera with one lens. If the purpose of your trip is to make great images, then that is the most stupid advice there is.
Let me get this straight:
- You’re going to a grand location.
- You may never go there again.
- You want to make great images.
- You’ve invested a good deal of money for the trip.
- You’re spending valuable time on the trip.
So you should use equipment that you wouldn’t use at home to photograph your dog?
Yes, I’d rather travel light, it is much easier. I’d rather take no luggage and have everything given to me when I arrive. But that doesn’t happen in my income range. I always have at least one more case of equipment than anyone else – I want to be ready for the shot.
Now if I were to go on vacation and sit on a beach and do nothing, then I don’t need my real camera gear. But that doesn’t happen for me. Even when I’m not on a exclusively photography trip, I get away at least of a couple of mornings for sunrise light so I can make some decent pictures.
I see people buy these light, flimsy tripods for trips and they would never use the skinny things at home. So why use them when you are someplace special? Oh yea, it is easier. I hosted a workshop in Tuscany last summer and a couple of times when we went into quaint medieval villages I didn’t bother taking my tripod. I shoot nearly everything on a tripod but I was feeling lazy. And it showed. When I got home and looked at my images I couldn’t figure out why some days I didn’t get much in the towns. Then it hit me that I wasn’t using the tripod and it changed the way I shot in the towns. I did snapshots instead of real photos because I was just walking around popping off tourist photos without thinking what I really wanted to say with my photos. I blame that on my laziness.
I’m not going to let “It is easier” be the determining factor on whether I get good images. I hope you don’t either.
Personal photography projects large and small keep photographers enthused and motivated and are a great way to focus your photography efforts.
A personal photography project is simply selecting a subject to shoot multiple times. It can be shooting a historic building in different light, a series of portraits of your children, a big tree in a nearby park or a creek at different times of year. It could just be improving a technique or getting to know your camera better.
I have at least one project in the works at all times, usually two or three. When I get a moment of free time to shoot, I don’t have to wonder what it is I should shoot, I jump right into one of my projects. Here are some things to think about when coming up with a project.
Have an objective, a goal in mind. Be clear on your outcome. I find it best to write it down, that makes it real and easy for my old mind to remember! The goal can be to master a new skill, to create a series of prints, or to make a calendar as a gift.
Make your project something you are passionate about. You are much more likely to keep the project going if you are loving what you are doing rather than something you “should” be doing. I really enjoy photographing older men with classic faces, if they have a big old beard, even better. So whenever I see a great face, I tell the guy he has a great face and ask if I can photograph him. I always give anyone I photograph my business card and tell them I’ll send them a photo if they email me.
Be sure you can return multiple times. One of the main reasons to do a personal project is to make the best images you can of your subject. That rarely happens the first time you photograph something. Pro photographers return to the same subject many times so they get the right light in the best conditions possible. I’ve photographed this covered bridge in Vermont at least 30 times and have many really good shots but there is a better one there. If I keep working it, I’ll get it. I had a long discussion with a pro friend about how cool it would be if we could just walk up to a scene and make a great photo right away. The more we talked the more we realized how boring that would be, the creative process would be removed and we’d be photo robots. Working a scene is a challenge and is rewarding when that great shot is made.
Have a project that happens on a regular basis at a scheduled time or a place you can just show up and shoot anytime. It could be a flower garden, karate class, a monument you photograph at night or downtown at sunrise. I’m working on a project photographing five trees atop a hill 20 minutes from my house. Since they are to the west from the road I can shoot from, I decided to shoot them at sunset and the beautiful light that happens until the sky is pitch black. I’ve gone over 20 times since December and it amazing how different the sky looks each time. It is making a great series of photos and I’m bummed when I can’t go because of other commitments or bad weather conditions.
Try a subject with a learning goal, or end product in mind. You might want to learn more about light, or shooting in manual mode, or photographing people. Before digital I did some light painting using strobes, but it was very hard to do and I didn’t get too good at it. Now lighting painting is something I love to do because a made a personal project out of perfecting my technique. I have several size flashlights I use to add light to the scene. My big one is 18 million candle power down to using my iPhone as a light. This was just a little penlight during a 30 second exposure and a car streaking through
Choose a subject with a variety of visual possibilities. If your project is a rock in your front yard, so there only so many pictures you can make before you aren’t too excited to shoot it again. I have a large project going photographing trees and a couple of sub-projects that are tree based at the same time. I love the look of birch trees and found a grove 10 miles from my Vermont home. I go there whenever I can and it looks different each time. My five trees on a hilltop project sounds like there isn’t much variety but I’m really using the trees as a foreground object to see how different the sky looks.
Planning your project. I’m not naturally organized so I have to work hard to keep my life is some sort of order. I use Evernote to plan my projects in several ways. It lets me create notebooks that are subject based and I can put notes, photos or web pages in the folders and add searchable keywords. When I come across a location that will make a good photo, I take a picture of it with my cellphone through Evernote and add keywords like sunrise, winter, trees, or whatever. Evernote captures the GPS coordinates and address so I’m able to easily find it again. I have Evernote notebooks for nearly every place I’ve been or hope to go in the future. Costa Rica is on my list of places to go and whenever I run across an online article that is interesting I add it to the Costa Rica notebook. I mentioned I’m working on a big project about trees. My trees notebook is packed with info from all over the world.
Get feedback. One of the most important ways to improve anything is getting qualified feedback. I don’t mean posting a picture on a forum where someone says “great capture.” That doesn’t help at all. You need to know who is providing the feedback whether they are a friend, co-worker or member of a photo club or Meetup group. My New Jersey photography Meetup group (https://www.meetup.com/somerset_photography) has monthly critique nights and they are a great way to get feedback. I’ve seen people grow immensely since I started it several years ago. Having a mentor is also a great way to get guidance and coaching. I love working with other photographers through my photographer mentoring program.
How do you know when the project is over? It can be when you’re bored with the subject but it would be better to have the final output in mind when you start. I did a personal project where I decided for 90 days I was going to photograph what is good is my life and post a photo each day to Facebook. It was lots of fun and on the three days I missed people were asking where that day’s photo was. Here are some things you might do:
- Post photos on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
- Create a photo book – either through a publisher or a one off
- Do a slide show presentation for senior centers, libraries
- Create an exhibit at gallery or places like senior centers or libraries
- Create a website
- Sell prints
- Make a calendar
I’d love to hear what projects you come up with and how you plan on displaying your photos. Please leave a comment below.
While on my way back to N.J. after two art shows in Florida, I made a side trip to Charleston, S.C., to photograph the “super moon” tonight. The full moon won’t be this close to the earth until 2034, which means it looks larger than normal.
I usually like to shoot the full moon on the night before the actual full moon, it rises about an hour earlier, so there is still light in the foreground. But I had an art show yesterday and couldn’t get out to shoot, so my only choice was tonight.
I used a program called Photographer’s Ephemerist to pre-determine where the moon would rise behind a large fishing pier on Folly Beach. It blows my mind that I can sit at my computer or use the app on my iPhone and know where I need to be to line up the rising moon and the pier.
While doing the art show in Pensacola, FL, I’m getting lots of requests for local photos. Since this is the first time I’ve been in Pensacola, I don’t have anything to show them so I went to the beach after the show tonight to catch sunset and see what was going on around the pier.
There was some great color in the sky after the sun went down, as I waded in the edge of the surf, I was able to get the pier in the foreground and the sky blazing behind it.
After the color faded a bit I went under the pier but I didn’t want the typical shot of the silhouetted pier and smooth water. I brought a flashlight with me to try some light painting. I did a 30 second exposure and used the flashlight to illuminate the pier and give me a different effect.
At Chittenden Reservoir in Vermont there is a pretty little island about 300 yards off shore. It is a favorite place for photographers and I’ve photographed it on many occasions at different times of day and different seasons. I decided to try it at night and use a large flashlight to illuminate the island using a technique called light painting, where you pass the light over the subject many times during a long exposure, I usually do 30 seconds. So tonight I started about 30 minutes after the sun went down and shot for the next hour. There was only a slight breeze which gave me the nice reflection on the water. Then I was lucky to have a shooting star which gave me a beautiful final touch. This is one exposure with only minor adjustments in Lightroom. As the sky got darker I needed to bump my ISO up to 400 and I was shooting at f/5.6.
I was out in my favorite location in Pomfret, VT, looking for foliage photos and looking at a small set of birch trees. A single fallen yellow maple leaf had landed on the trees and provided a nice splash of color against the white bark.
But the light was pretty bad. I was deep in the woods and there wasn’t any light getting down to the leaf.
So I pulled out my flashlight and since I use my tripod for most of my photos I was able to do a long exposure which let me light the scene with my flashlight. Rather than illuminate it from the front with a flat light, I moved the flashlight to the side to give it nice modeling and texture on the tree. I like sidelight and backlight and use it whenever I can, so when I can control the light, that is what I aim for.
Usually most people think of doing light painting at night, but there are many times when kicking in some extra light can make a big difference in an image. It is good to have a strong flashlight handy.
Let’s start with when you need a neutral density filter. A normal ND filter cuts down the amount of light going through the lens. You want to do that when the light is too bright to get a slow shutter speed you want, like when you want moving water to look milky. Or when you want to use a large aperture, like f/2.8 on a sunny day to limit your depth of field. People shooting video frequently use an ND filter so they can shoot at 1/30th shutter speed to get normal looking video.
There are a couple of different ways to accomplish neutral density. One is to use a variable neutral density filter, the other is to use a filter that has a fixed amount of density. The variable is much more expensive and gives you more precise control. The fixed is less expensive but you may want two or three to meet all your needs.
If I want moving water to look milky, I usually like to have a shutter speed of two seconds or longer. So if I am shooting 100 ISO and it is sunny, my exposure will be f/11 at 1/125 sec. So I need eight stops of ND to get down to the two second exposure I want, which is why the only ND I carry is 8X.
OK, I kinda lied. I made my own variable ND filter by using two polarizing filters and reversing one in its frame. I can then stack the two on my lens and vary the amount of light coming through, which is how an official variable ND filter works. But I don’t find that I need to do that very often, my 8X ND covers what I usually want to do.
And there are graduated ND filters where part of the filter is ND and part is clear. These are great when the sun is below the horizon and the foreground is dark and the sky is bright. You can cut down the light in the sky but not the foreground. I have to admit that I don’t use my graduated ND filters much any more since Lightroom does such a great job creating the same effect. But I’d say that it is better to do it with filters than software if you are real fussy. They also make slotted ND filters that cut down the light in the middle, like after sunset when the horizon is bright but the sky and foreground are dark. And there are tinted ND filters, but they are gimmicks to me. If you want your scene to be blue or warm, just do it in the computer.
My suggestion is to start with a 8-10 stop ND. You’ll want to have it available for each of your lenses, you never know if you are going to want it with wide angle or telephoto. So either buy one for each lens or buy one for the largest filter size you have and get step-down rings that let you put the larger filter on the smaller lens.
Many photographers use fill flash outdoors when faces are in the shadow. The flash built into the camera can do a good job punching a little light into an area that is too dark. I went out to photograph a field of sunflowers and the sky was gray, so I made the “fill flash” the main light source and underexposed the rest of the photo by one stop. The flash was off the camera bouncing into a small umbrella to create a softer light, but it would still work with an on-camera flash.
During a workshop in Cape May, NJ, we were getting pretty tired at the end of the day. I had seen a row of tents on the beach and knew they would make a fun photo but the light was too harsh. So long after the sun had set I said I wanted to go shoot the tents and asked if anyone wanted to join me. I got some strange looks but everyone had enough energy left to join me. The street lights were yellow and cast a strange color on the sand and the tents. Tire tracks made interesting patterns in the beach and there was barely enough light in the sky to give it some blue. I shot this at f/5.6 for 30 seconds at ISO 800 and my lens was zoomed to 20mm. So when you think the day is over, there usually is more out there to shoot.
Since we still have the snowiest months coming, here is a vital tip when taking pictures in the snow. You have to give your photos more exposure than your meter is telling you, especially when the sun is out. A camera’s light meter reads the overall light in a scene and then calculates the exposure to average tonal value of 18% gray. So if the scene is mostly white, you’re camera will make the snow gray, not what we want. We need to increase the exposure up to two full stops more light to turn that gray snow back to the white that it should be. The same thing happens on bright, sunny beaches in the summer. And the opposite happens when most of the scene is dark, then we need to underexpose from the meter reading. So don’t forget that you are smarter than your camera and be sure to make the proper adjustments.
I hear a lot of people saying that an iPhone will make pictures as good as my expensive DSLR camera. That’s true if the iPhone is the only camera you have with you, but the difference is the ability to use wide angle or telephoto lenses. A telephoto is not used just so you don’t have to be as close to your subject. Yes, when I was in British Columbia this summer I needed my telephoto to shoot a breaching humpback whale, but one great creative use is to pull the background closer to the foreground and to give an image a flatter look. I often use a telephoto when I want to make the background look closer to the foreground, like in this shot of a birch tree against colorful maples. If I would have gotten closer to the birch and used a wide angle lens, the birch would have looked farther away form the maples and not had the colorful impact.
When photographing anything that has eyes, people, birds, frogs or dogs, I almost always want to have my camera at the same height as their eyes. Sure, there are exceptions, but generally being at eye level makes for more compelling photos. So if you are taking photos of a child opening Christmas presents, get down on the floor. If you are shooting eagles plucking fish out of the water, be at water level. If you are taking a portrait, shoot head on with the person, although older folks do appreciate if you get a just little higher which will hide double chins and saggy necks.
Camera lenses are full of flaws, which can be bad, but we can also use some of them in a creative way. I’m sure you’ve seen sunbursts in photos but maybe you haven’t figured out how to get them in your photos. All lenses will create the effect when the sun, or any strong light source, shines directly in the lens. But it doesn’t always happen, only when the lens aperture is very small, like f/22, and letting in very little light. Stopping your camera down to f/22 doesn’t always make the points happen either. If you aim your camera directly at the sun, you probably won’t see any bursts. You need to have the strong light source be slightly diffracted by something, like a tree branch, or lamp post.
I run into a lot of beginning photographers who see something they want to photograph, look at the scene, take one picture and move on. Unless they are damn good or really lucky, they are probably not getting the best photo possible. When I am out shooting, I’m looking to get the best photos I can, not the most photos. I prefer quality over quantity and I achieve this by what I call working the scene. Working the scene means that I am going to exhaust all possible angles, positions, settings and lenses before I am satisfied that I have made the best image possible. It may require moving my tripod down two inches or to the right two yards. I tend to look at angles first without the camera because over the years I’ve learned what it will look like, but I recommend you look through the camera first, find the right spot to start and then put the camera on the tripod. Slowing down and working the scene will make you a happier photographer!