Sunday, March 28, 2010

What do you think?

Thanks to the new Template Designer tool, we've redesigned our blog from the top down. The most obvious change is aesthetic. We wanted a lighter and more interesting look, and we think we've accomplished that. (We do want to point out, however, that the background image you are seeing now - with the raindrops and the mountains behind - is NOT our image. Blogger promises the capability to upload your own background images soon... and we'll do it as soon as we can. Meanwhile, we kind of like this one from their collection of stock photos.) The design change also allows us to use larger images (like this one from Kootenay National Park in British Columbia, Canada), which makes us very happy. Of course, you can still click on an image to view a larger version.

We've also added two pages - you'll find links under the header that provide information about our upcoming workshops, and about us. That means our profiles aren't crammed into the left-hand column - so it's a lot less crowded overall - and you don't have to search though all our old posts if you are interested in one of our workshops or webinars. We're hoping these changes result in a better experience overall.

So, what do you think? Does the new design work for you? Is it better than the old one? Is it easy enough to read? We'd like to hear what you think - suggestions and comments are always welcome!

Thanks, everyone!


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Learning to See: Finding Foreground

When we're on location, we spend a lot of time looking for foreground. We're looking for something more interesting than scrub or gravel. We want to convey a sense of location - not just distant, untouchable beauty... but the feeling that you are a part of this place. You can feel the air on your skin, reach out and touch it, walk into it. We want you to feel that this place is right in front of you. You are standing there experiencing it in person. Maybe that's asking a bit much from a photograph, but we do try. :)

The above photo is from Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado. We spent hour wandering these beautiful hillsides - looking for foreground in a place that offered stunning beauty, but not much foreground. I used the interesting bark of the tree to give the viewer a sense of the texture of the bark. When you know how that papery, white bark looks and feels, you gain a deeper understanding of the place. That's my theory, anyway.

I think that if you can get up close and personal, your brain interprets the image more fully. You start to feel the textures in the bark, the warmth of the sun on your face - you know these sensations, and when you see a photograph, memory mingles with vision to evoke a response. This shot from the everglades in Florida is entirely different from the last one. When you look at a photo, do you take the time to let the sensations of the place sink in? The dry grass crackling underfoot, the wind rattling in the trees, the light filtering through heavy thunderheads. And does the foreground in this shot help draw you in?
And what about shooting in locations that seem similar to one another? Is one desert just like the next? Sand, tumbleweed, dune... how do I convince you that you haven't this this desert before? The sky - lovely as it is - doesn't tell you a thing about where you are. The distant mountains are indistinct... it's the foreground that gives you a sense of place.This is Utah's beautiful desert (above). And this one is in California's Death Valley National Park.
And this is Arizona. Foreground isn't always necessary - but it can be an important defining element. Get creative! Invite the viewer to step into your mind and see through your eyes.

Does finding a foreground element and composing an image come naturally to you? Or do you struggle to include foreground details in your photos? Do you have suggestions or tips for other photographers? Comments are always welcome. Maybe others can learn from your experience!

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Filter, Focus, and Fantastic Light

Has this ever happened to you?

You are still 5 minutes away from your location as the sun begins to set. If you really hurry, you might catch the end of what promises to be a beautiful sunset. You pull into the parking lot, slam the car into park and jump out. You grab your camera bag and tripod and run like heck - tripping over stones on the uneven path. You find a decent looking bush for a foreground object (nothing spectacular, mind you - there just isn't time!), rip your camera out of the bag, and fumble with your tripod as you try to get it set up on slippery rocks. Quick! Grab your hyperfocal distance chart (What's my aperture? And how wide do I want to go? Hyperfocal distance is 1.2 meters with this focal length... so what's the near focus...?) You have to get your focus right, and then adjust the composition until your happy with it (not that it's that great a shot considering the fact that you are tripping all over yourself trying to get the darned camera set up before this spectacular light is gone!) Ok - now, you've got to pick the right GND filter. Choose the appropriate shutter speed! Hook up the remote release, set the camera on mirror lock up and two second timed release, and get ready to bracket! Lucky you! There is still some color left in the sky! Hit the shutter release... and nothing happens. Your battery is dead. And the other one is charging in the car.

AAHHH!We've all been there. ;)

Although you can't avoid this situation all the time, we do try to make sure we reach our location well before sunrise or sunset. In many cases, we'll check out the area the day before - or on a previous trip - so we know where we want to set up. When I get there, my camera is ready to go. (If you run into me at the airport, you'll probably find me cleaning lenses and checking camera settings while I wait for my flight.)

I have the hyperfocal distance memorized for the lens I use most frequently, and with experience, choosing the right filter gets easier. Batteries are charged after each trip - so they're ready to go at any time. I've also set up the menu options in-camera to include mirror lock-up and bracketing options under the "favorites" tab, so I don't have to dig through a series of menus to find them.

Now all I have to worry about is that other photographer who comes stumbling right into my shot just as the sky gets good - fumbling with his tripod, chasing his hyperfocal distance chart as it blows out of his hand in the wind, and screaming like a banshee....

No worries, buddy. I've been there.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Q and A: How many shots is too many?

Another common question: How many shots do you take on location? And how do you choose which will be processed, and which will be thrown away?

I generally shoot lots of images - but as I shoot, I delete. Let's say it's early in the morning. Here I am at Graveyard Flats in Banff National Park (Alberta, Canada). Lovely mist is rising, and the world looks positively blue. The sun isn't up yet, so I set up my camera for a long exposure. I take my first shot... maybe it's a little underexposed, so I take another to correct the damage. I will compare the two images, and then delete one of them. I might take another shot or two from a different angle. But each time I shoot, I compare the tiny image on my monitor, check the histogram, maybe even zoom in to check the focus... and delete any image that isn't quite right. When I get home, I choose the one that looks the best and delete the others after I've processed. The shot you see at the top of this post is the one I chose from that set. (ISO 100, 20 seconds at f/7.1)
The light changes as the sun nears the horizon, and I want a shot that shows the strange landscape surrounding the lake. So, I set up my tripod for another shot. I follow the same steps, and I'll pay close attention to my histogram. I need to make sure that I'm capturing the entire range of light as the sky gets brighter... and that my shadows aren't too dark. The histogram shows me that I need just one image for this photo - but I take two anyway... one a little brighter than the other, just to make sure. In the end, I don't need that brighter shot, so after processing, I delete it.
While I'm waiting for the sunrise, I try out a couple of compositions. This one survives because of the mist still hanging around the mountain, and the appealing curve of the lake... but I'm hoping for something better.
Now the sun is rising over my left shoulder. I've been waiting for the sun to light up the top of the mountain because I want to capture its reflection in the lake. My tripod is already set up with one leg in the water at the edge of the lake. I've found these interesting stones that make appealing foreground objects, and I have my camera set up low and as close as possible. I'm glad to see a little bit of mist still hovering at the base of the mountains, and although the sky is clearing, I still have some pretty little clouds hanging over my mountain.
At this point, I might have 10 or 15 shots from this location. A few bracketed images, a couple of different angles and compositions, and shots from different times. When I get home, I'll pull the images off my card and compare them at a larger size. In this case, I end up processing four images. And then, I take this last shot and convert it to black and white. Everything I haven't used gets deleted. In the end, the file for Graveyard flats contains 9 files... four RAW, 4 processed color tifs, and a black and white tif.

Five processed shots. Four will end up on my website - one might make the showcase gallery if I'm feeling generous - and the last will never see the light of day. (In case you are wondering, shot number three doesn't make the cut.)

I know so many photographers who shoot hundreds of images every day - and if that's what works for you... by all means, keep doing it! For me, the problem with that approach is that I can't process all those photos. So, if I shoot and keep that many, most will never get any attention. Worse - the good ones get lost in amongst the rabble. On an average day, I'll leave a location with 2 to 5 images (maybe as many as 18 or 21 if I'm bracketing). Even if I visit several locations in a single day - and get great skies all day long - I won't end up with more images than I can handle.

So the question is this... how hard is it for you to delete photos as you shoot? I know lots of photographers who won't delete anything until they see the image at full size on a good monitor... and others who don't delete at all. Ever. Do you come home with 50 shots? Or 5000?


Monday, March 8, 2010

Fields of Gold

Spring is just around the corner, so we thought we'd share this desktop wallpaper. Forget about heavy coats and fur-lined hats! It's time to start dreaming about warm sunny days, clear skies, and Spring flowers. How sweet it is!

This photograph was taken in the Jura region of France very early in the summer. The field is on private property located just outside the Cascades du Herisson natural recreation area. The overcast skies left the area in lovely, soft shade... notice the rich glow on the tops of the trees in the distance. Jay wanted to fill the frame with flowers as much as possible. He backed his rented Mercedes Benz (SWEET!) as close to the field of the flowers as he could, and then climbed onto the roof. We got some odd looks from drivers who saw us standing up there with our tripods and long lenses... but shooting from the roof of a vehicle gives you several feet of additional height. So... you do what you have to do. (Would you be willing to make a bit of a fool of yourself to get the shot you want?) ;)

We're waiting for the last of the snow to melt, here in Northern Ohio - and we hope that you have flowers and sunshine wherever you are.

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More free wallpaper is available at our Download Site.

These images are provided for personal use as computer wallpaper or backgrounds ONLY. Copyright belongs to the photographer, and photographs cannot be used, redistributed, or recreated in print or on the web or on any other medium without written permission from the photographer.

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Learning to See: Looking at the Details

Sometimes we are so captivated by the sweeping grandeur of grand vistas, that we fail to notice the beauty in the details. The breathtaking colors in the sky grab our attention - but what about that tiny seed pod that seems to glow from within as it it touched by those last fingers of light? Does it end up crushed under our feet as we rush to get the sunset shot? Are you guilty of the same crime?

When the light isn't perfect, Varina always pulls out her macro lens. At Banff National Park, we spent most of a bright, sunny morning exploring Sunshine Meadows. The mountainsides were covered with wildflowers – and thousands of wild Anemone's that had lost their petals were going to seed. Their wispy heads were beautiful against the green meadow grass, and it would have been easy to cast a shadow for a nicely lit, if somewhat standard shot. Instead, Varina went in search of something different. She found this anemone in a shady and cool alcove near the lake. It's downy head was a brighter white than many of the others, and the sun had not yet burned the dew away. She set up her 180mm macro lens and waited for the wind to die down before shooting. The lovely head of the anemone flower is beautiful on its own, but the minuscule water droplets take the shot beyond the ordinary.Although Varina has loved macro photography for years, Jay only ventured into the land of macro recently. He photographed this ghost crab with a 180mm Macro lens on island of Kauai in Hawaii. He sat in the sand for half an hour, and waited for the tiny, nearly-invisible creatures to venture out of their holes. The tiny grains of sand you see so clearly, here, are wonderfully smooth under your bare feet, and the crab measures only about an inch and a half in size... including it's legs. It takes real patience to photograph these skittish little crustaceans.

The macro lens is great - but what if you don't have one? Just look for larger details, and include background in your shots. Jay took this photograph of water droplets on a leaf last Fall with Canon's 17-40 F/4 lens.

And here's a shot from the Everglades in Florida, taken with a Canon 135mm f/2.0 prime. This is the lens we usually use for photos of our kids up on stage during a school performance. The lens you own may not be intended just for shooting details - but that doesn't mean you can't use it for that purpose!
During our workshops, we try to encourage student to venture into the world of detail photography when the weather is not particularly attractive for grand vistas. Here's a shot from our most recent on-location workshop in Death Valley. These crystals were only a few millimeters in diameter.So next time you are looking for inspiration under an uninspiring sky... stop and take some time to examine the details. Maybe there is a photograph right in front of you!

What lens do you use for detail shots? Do you have a true macro/micro lens - or are you making do with another lens? Do you have any tips for others who are trying to find beauty in the little things? Comments are welcome and appreciated... we know you have something to offer other photographers! We are all learning from each other!

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Friday, March 5, 2010

What do we do with your comments?

We wanted a take a few minutes to let you know how we handle the comments you post on our blog. We get questions about that occasionally, and we thought posting this here might help you understand how our comments sections work. Here's our basic policy:

1. We encourage and appreciate comments from our readers. We are always looking for feedback - both on our photographs and on our articles. We want to produce the best work we possibly can, and we read every single comment posted to our blog. We always try to respond if you comment, too - so feel free to ask questions.

2. All comments are moderated. We receive as many spam comments as real ones - so every single comment is checked before it is approved for posting on the site. We delete all spam comments in order to keep our blog clean and relevant.

3. Negative comments are not removed - we value both negative and positive criticism. We will almost always approve and respond to non-spam comments, unless they contain excessive profanity or non-relevant links.

4. Relevant links are encouraged - we always appreciate links to good content... but don't post irrelevant links. Comments that include irrelevant links will probably be deleted.

5. Signatures are fine - we don't mind a signature and a link to your photo gallery in your comment, as long as the comment is worth posting. "Good post" followed by a link to your personal business page will probably be deleted. :)

So - please feel free to comment! Let us know what you think. Tell us if you like what we're offering, and ask questions anytime. Don't like a post? Tell us! Disagree with our perspective? We want to hear it! Love a photo? Hate it? Tell us why! We're always trying to be better at what we do - and your feedback is essential.

And to those of you who have posted comments in the past - Thank You. We appreciate the time you spend on our blog - and we appreciate the time you take to comment.

All the best,
Varina and Jay


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Q and A - Mouse or Stylus?

When people see me working, they invariably ask if I like my Wacom Graphics Tablet. The answer is HECK, YES! I absolutely love my tablet. But is it necessary to have one? No. It's not. I've been using a tablet for ten years or so - Jay doesn't use one. He uses a mouse.

Here's your first reason to stick with your mouse if you're happy with it. After using my old Intuos3 tablet for about ten years, I purchased the new Intuos4 (medium) for about $350.00. Ouch. Of course - once you take into account the fact that I expect to use this tablet for several years, that price doesn't look quite so bad. And do keep in mind that there are other companies that make perfectly good, less-expensive graphics tablets. One of the problems with this wonderful profession of mine, is that the tools for the job are pretty expensive.

Another reason to stick with a mouse - if you are used to the mouse, it can take a while to get comfortable with the stylus. It does feel awkward at first - and learning to use it can take some getting used to.
My Wacom tablet and stylus give me incredible control in Photoshop. I can make fine adjustments with great precision. Have you ever tried to draw a complicated selection with the mouse? Even making a small circle is difficult with such a clunky tool. With the stylus, I can draw that selection... and just about anything else... with ease. But what about learning to use the dang thing?Well - you'll need to learn how to click and drag, left and right click, and select... but that's pretty straightforward once you know how to do it. But what about going back and forth between stylus and keyboard? Right now, for example, I'm typing a blog post, and checking emails, and keeping an eye on political news, which is streaming live on my computer desktop. I am using my stylus to click back and forth between windows - and I'm using my keyboard to type. If I had a mouse, I could simply reach over, click away, and then leave my mouse where it is to return to my keyboard. The stylus needs to be put back in its little cup or put down on the tablet. That's not such a problem if you only do it every now and then, but if I do it 20 times in a minute, it gets a bit annoying. I've actually learned to type while holding the thing in my hands - though I usually do that only if I'm typing just a few words... typing a quick response to an email, or putting in a password.

So - if you win the lottery, and you are willing to deal with the learning curve, a stylus is a fantastic tool. But if you are comfortable with your mouse, there's really no need to make the change.

And for the record - no... Wacom doesn't pay me to review their products. Nor does anyone else. I get lots of inquiries about my graphics tablet - and this is my opinion. Nothing more.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Upcoming Workshop: Olympic National Park

A lot of planning goes into a photograph like this one - and a bit of luck. After consulting weather charts, we realized that the Washington coastline would be cloudless on this particular morning - so we decided to try our luck at Lake Crescent. We hoped that high humidity in the region would leave us with mist over the lake - and it did! We roamed a section of the lake shore looking for promising spots, and when the sun began to peak through the mist, we were ready for it.

Olympic is a fantastic park. It is home to a variety of lakes, rivers, and waterfalls, lush temperate rain forests, sprawling rocky beaches, and the beautiful Mount Olympus. We have spent a lot of time exploring this park, and this year, we've decided to offer a Photo Tour. We hope you'll join us!

Olympic National Park Workshop

Friday, May 28, 2010 - Monday, May 31, 2010
Regular Price: $949 per person
Price for former Students: $649 per person (If you've taken classes with us before, don't forget to ask for your student discount code!)

For registration and more information, go to:

Here are some of the site you can expect to see in Olympic National Park:

Sunset at Second Beach

Along Solduc Falls Trail

Rialto Beach

Solduc Falls

Mystic Mountain

Temperate Rain Forest

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