Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Improve Your Photography – Shoot a Lot and Buy a Big Drive

Montgomery Course Dubai - 2
I am frequently asked about the “best” way to improve your photography.  The list of approaches for improving your photography skills is long:
  • Study great photographs
  • Attend seminars and workshops
  • Read books (any book would be fine, but try one on photography)
  • Take a course (photography would be good, but for the love of Pete, get off the couch and get an education)
  • Read the entire web (ok, just the photography stuff).
  • Understand your equipment and what it can do.
  • Don’t read magazines…look at the pictures (like you want to do anyway!)
  • Shoot in RAW (but keep your clothes on)
  • Get a coach
  • Study art and understand the principles of composition
  • Use good processing software
  • Take the flash off the camera (see
  • Fill the Frame
  • Don’t be afraid of cropping!
  • Commit to submitting your work to contests
  • Challenge yourself to take difficult shots
  • Plan your photography…go with a purpose!
  • Think in themes.
  • Shoot dawn and dusk
  • Ask friends and other photographers to critique your work
  • Find a new angle
  • Stop thinking!
  • Lay down
  • Climb something
  • When you find what you want to shoot, turnaround and shoot the other direction.
  • Yada, yada, yada…
 Abu Dhabi Golf Club (6 of 13)
In my opinion, this list supplies a strong group of approaches, strategies and tactics one could employ to improve your photography.  However, the number one method is missing.  Shoot.  Shoot a lot. Take your camera with you everywhere and use it!  Commit to shooting every day (or week, or whatever best fits your lifestyle…but commit to shooting regularly).  Shoot in the morning.  Shoot during the day.  Shoot at night.  Shoot.  Shoot.  Shoot.
Abu Dhabi Golf Club (12 of 13)
I enjoy golf.  Ok, I am completely addicted to golf (the photos for this post should be a hint).  Each season I set goals – what do I want to achieve this year?  Not surprisingly, I found the only way to improve my game is to practice, and practice a lot.  I would be fooling myself if I were to set challenging goals and followed up by golfing once every other weekend.  If you pick up your camera once a month, can you really expect to get better?
Izcaragua Golf Club Venezuela 6th hole
And here is the good news:  Unlike the days of film, shooting digital is cheap!  You can shoot all day long, evaluate your results, learn something from what you have done, and spend little more than the wine you drink while admiring your progress!
As with everything, there is a catch.  In this case, the catch is storage.  As you commit to shooting every third day, you will accumulate a tremendous number of photographs which require a good deal of storage.  Using my Canon 5D, I produce finished photography between 10 and 15 megs per file.  With files this size and larger, you begin to run short on drive space quickly.  Additionally, you want to make sure your hard work is safe and secure.
Montgomery Course Dubai - 1
There are many viable storage options on the market.  I chose Drobo (  The Drobo is a rack system (very sleek and attractive case) that has four bays for drives and a management system that provides a high level of security for your data.  The beauty of this system is that you can use any size drives you want (I currently have four 2 terrabyte drives), the drives do not need to be matched sizes, and the Drobo incorporates internal redundancy and system health monitoring.  In simple terms, if a drive fails, just pull it out and put in a new one.  Your data was duplicated in other areas of the remaining drives, and you have lost nothing.  Magic!
If your hard drive is filling up, or you worry about loosing some of your favorite photographs, I highly recommend the Drobo as an extremely capable, secure, easy , and carefree way to store your data.  (This blog is not sponsored or supported by Drobo…but I am listening!  Honestly, I simply love the product and could not make a stronger recommendation.)
If you want to improve your golf game, go play golf, go to the range, chase balls around the putting green and dig your way out of the practice bunkers.  You have to hit the ball. 
Golf Carts
If you want to improve your photography, pick up your camera and press the shutter release…many, many, many times.
Go make some great photography!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why Black and White? (Distracting Color)

Incan Gang
In May of this year, I posted a discussion of the first criteria I apply when deciding if a shot should be converted to black and white - “Is there sufficient information in the color to warrant keeping it?”  This post will explore the second criteria I apply - “Is the color distracting?”
Making good color photography is difficult.  One of the many problems color can introduce involves distraction from the subject.  Color can be overwhelming.  The concept of applying the criteria of “distracting color” is pretty simple, and for many photographs the decision is simple.  However, this can easily become a matter of taste.  What I find distracting may not be distracting to you.  That is ok.  I’m not offering the organic rules of photography. I am offering the benefit of my experience, and my opinion.
In the examples that follow, I show photographs I feel were improved greatly by conversion to black and white.  In each case, the primary reason for doing so is my judgment the color information is distracting.  As you view the pairs, ask yourself if you agree with my judgments.  And if not, why?
This shot was taken in Grenada days after Hurricane Ivan devastated the island in 2004.  This particular photograph comes from the warehouse of the Grenada Cooperative Nutmeg Association in Grenville.  This man and others were working hard to save the crop that had already been harvested while lamenting the loss of many Nutmeg trees.
In the color version of this shot I found the bright orange and yellows of the staircase coupled with the out of place blue fan blades distracting.  Upon shifting to a tinted black and white, the fans nearly disappear, and the stairs actually serve to frame the shot and lead the eye from the bottom right up through the middle of the composition.
Fertilizer Processing at Cumana Fish Plant-2
Fertilizer Processing at Cumana Fish Plant
This is a shot taken at the “fertilizer end” of a fish processing plant in Cumana, Venezuela.  In the color version, I find the yellows and oranges dominating the color palette and distracting from the gritty industrial feel of the composition.  After stripping away the color, the photograph becomes more cohesive and has an appropriate “feel” with the blown out highlights (upper right corner) mist, and steam wafting through the machinery.
This is another shot taken just after hurricane Ivan hit Grenada.  If you are a sailboat owner and have your boat at the True Blue Marina, this is not a sight you ever want to see. 
One of the tragically comical experiences I had during this period happened several weeks following the hurricane when one of the lesser damaged hotels was able to gain the services of a generator and partially reopen.  As I was sitting at the partially operating bar one night (where I learned to appreciate rum and ginger ale), I took count of the people in the room after having made an effort to make small talk with nearly all of them.  I concluded that among the people visiting Grenada as a result of Hurricane Ivan, the insurance underwriters and adjusters nearly equaled the number of international aid and relief workers.  My innate distrust of the insurance industry proved to be true for the most part…their purpose in Grenada was dominated by a need to calculate their losses, and secondarily to assist their clients.
Back to the photograph:  I found several distracting areas of color in this photograph including the red hull on the left, the blue and green overturned hulls in the foreground, and the orange/yellow barrels on the right.
The painting on this wall is a historical remnant of the 1983 US invasion of Grenada.  On October 25, 1983, President Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada under the operational codename “Urgent Fury.”  The roots of this conflict stem back to March 1979 when the New Jewel Movement leader, Maurice Bishop, directed an armed overthrow of the government of Eric Gairy who led Grenada to independence from the United Kingdom in 1974.
Following the coup, the Bishop government quickly aligned itself with Cuba and other communist governments.  In early October, 1983, a splinter of the NJM led by Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard seized power from Bishop and placed him under arrest.  General turmoil and rioting in the country ensued until the army, led by Hudson Austin, formed a military junta to rule the country.
During this period of instability, Bishop was murdered.  Following the invasion, a new government was appointed by the Governor-General Paul Scoon and the constitution reinstated.  Ironically, the principal airport in Grenada, Point Salines International Airport, was renamed in honor of the deposed, murdered, communist aligned coup leader, Maurice Bishop on May 29, 2009.  This move to memorialize Bishop leads me to the inevitable thought…”there must be more to this story!”
Back to the photograph:  While not normally the case, in this shot I found both the blue sky and the green grass distracting from the photograph.  The red cloth caught in the grass is another distraction.  I find the black and white version much easier to view and explore.
I have a number of photographs from the Hurricane Ivan devastation of Grenada and Angel Falls, Venezuela.  I promise to dedicate individual posts to these subjects.
River Colors - 3
This shot is near Angel Falls in Venezuela on the Gauya river.  This represents a bit of a segue from our subject, yet relevant.  In this composition, the color in the mountains was muted, and the midfield trees included a number of green hues…neither of which were very interesting, and bordered on distracting.  On the other hand, the foreground water, plant and sand colors mark the area I want to draw the observer.  In the end, I decided to retain the color in the bottom 1/3 and apply a de-saturating gradient to the top 2/3, thus eliminating the distracting color elements.
Air Shot Leaving Canaima - 2
Air Shot Leaving Canaima - 2-2
This is an aerial shot of the Churun River located in the Gran Sabana of Bolivar State, Venezuela.  The color version has all kinds of odd things going on.  This is largely a function of the the lighting at that time of day along with the interesting reflections that happen at altitude.  The colors are horribly distracting.  This is a completely different photograph in black and white.
Bird Lady Bogota-2
Bird Lady Bogota
This shot of a woman watching the birds was taken in the principal plaza of the old part of Bogota, Colombia.  I think this is a great example of distracting colors.  The red shirt, the wine colored blanket and the blue shoes detract from the focal point of the photograph…the gaze of the woman as she surveys her flock.
Armless Barby-2
Armless Barby
Finally, this shot of a girl playing with her armless doll was taken in Cuzco, Peru.  I found the scene extremely sad – an un-bathed young girl wearing ill-fitting and dirty clothes, playing with an armless blue haired Barbie.  Given this mood toward the photograph, I found the pink dress and blue hair of the Barbie distracting.  As well the red hair band, and the group of colors in the upper left corner.
I hope you learned something valuable from seeing examples of how I make my decision to keep a shot in color, or convert it to black and white.  I was just talking with a fellow photographer about just this subject over a frosty kool-aid this week (oddly, it came from a tap and looked nothing like kook-aid).  I confessed that I find good color photography so difficult that rather than applying the decision criteria I have presented to you here and in previous posts, I am gradually coming to the position of having to argue in favor of keeping a photograph in color.  My default preference is increasingly and consciously moving toward black and white.
Go make some photographs!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Liwa Date Festival

Dates in Baskets
This will not be one of my typical blog entries.  This will be light on describing the photography and heavy on the photographs.
Arabic Tea
Today (17 July, 2009) I went to the Liwa Date Festival in Liwa, UAE with a van full of friends intent on taking in as much of the local culture as we can find.  Liwa is located in the southwestern area of the UAE near the border of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  It is a real pleasure to have friends who enjoy engaging the local culture as much as I do.
Booths at the Souk
As the name implies, the Liwa date festival celebrates the harvest of dates.  I like dates, and this was a real treat.  What I came to learn was the tremendous variety of dates and the similarly vast range of flavors and colors.  At various locations throughout the venue were posters showing the multitude of varieties and their names.
Dates - Yum
All of the shots in this post were taken with a Canon 5D set at an ISO of 400, and my lens selection of a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS.  The event was held in a series of tents meaning I was challenged with relatively low light conditions.  Because of the low light, I used the fastest lens I brought on the trip, the 70-200 f/2.8.
Dates in Baskets-2
All of the shots were taken without flash – using only the available light.  To work with these light conditions, all the shots were taken at the widest possible aperture of f/2.8, meaning a shallow depth of field.
Traditional Date Baskets-2
Because I am in a bit of a rush to get this entry posted, the remaining shots will go without comment.  For those of you who have kept up with this blog, you are sure to recognize the composition techniques and post processing routines I have written about in past entries.  I hope you enjoy.
VIP Vistors to the Date Festival-2
VIP Vistors to the Date Festival-3
Weaving Baskets-2
Weaving Baskets-4
Weaving Baskets-5
I must now get back to watching the British Open golf tournament.
Go make some great photography!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fill the Frame!

 Trumpet Player on Constitution Avenue - 2
This post is dedicated to another composition technique – filling the frame.  In other words, the objective is to fill as much of the shot with your subject as possible.  In contrast, have you ever seen one of Uncle Bob’s vacation pictures of the Eiffel Tower (the King’s Dominion version of course) that happens to be a speck just to the left of Aunt Martha’s decapitated and bisected head (photographically of course)?  My mission is to implore you to try another approach…fill the frame with the Eiffel Tower, not half of Aunt Martha’s chin hair.
Al Fujayrah Beach CabanaAnother way to think about this, is to make it a goal to really feature your subject.  By filling the frame with your subject, you eliminate distracting elements that draw the viewer’s eye away from the subject.
A Camel was parked at a Mosque
There are two ways to achieve a “full frame.”  First, and certainly preferred in my opinion, is composing the shot with the frame filled.  In other words, do it in the camera.  The second, and less preferred method is to crop in the image in the digital dark room.  My rationale is simple; your persistent goal should be to minimize the need for any post-processing.   The better your composition, exposure, use of light and appropriate camera settings, the better your photograph and the less need for software enhancements.
Playing Devil’s Advocate, there is an argument for taking a slightly larger shot (leaving generous space around your subject) and cropping to the desired frame filling dimensions.  By taking this approach, you leave yourself with more cropping options and the occasional surprise of something cool in the frame you did not notice while composing the shot.
Are you looking at me-
While on the subject of cropping, I will take a moment to share a couple of thoughts.  Other than cropping a shot to such a small size you loose the ability to print it at a desirable size, I encourage you to be aggressive with cropping. 
There has never been a very good reason to not crop photographs, but in the digital era, all excuses have disappeared.  With post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, or Aperture, cropping is an easy task.  With the ever widening array of printing and displaying options, the size and proportion of the final product are not limitations. 
Georgetown Kayaks
This knowledge is liberating.  It means that when cropping, you need only consider the best composition for the final photograph, and maintaining a sufficient size to allow display.  In other words, you can make the horizon straight, move a leading line to begin from the lower left corner, modify the size and proportion to use the rule of thirds and the golden intersections.  Your limitations are few, so experiment!
Stare down with a Falcon
The lead-in photograph and those up to this point in the post are all examples of “filling the frame” in-camera.  The shots were not cropped.
The remaining photographs are pre and post processing examples of using the crop tool to achieve a filled frame.
Retriever at Maritime Museum - 10-2
Retriever at Maritime Museum - 10
In my opinion, the un-cropped shot of the retriever is not a bad composition.  However, the water adds very little to the shot and is not missed when cropped down to just the dog’s body with a 1/3 line running through his shoulders and head.
Piney Point Light-2
Piney Point Light
Again, the un-cropped version of Piney Point lighthouse is not a bad composition.  However, the crop more fully fills the frame, and brings the lighthouse and flagpole to the 1/3  lines adding both interest and balance to the shot.
Flag Ring at Washington Monument-2
Flag Ring at Washington Monument
This photograph of the ring of flags around the Washington Memorial in Washington DC was pretty well composed in the original with respect to filling the frame, but the crop achieved 3 things; 1) it straightened the shot (original is leaning to the left slightly), 2) it eliminated the distracting tree tops at the bottom, and 3) it brought balance to a line that runs through the flags from lower right to upper right – the line running through the flags draws your eye through the photograph.
The un-cropped version of the musicians has a great deal of negative space at the top.  The foreground carpet also adds little to the composition.  The cropped version eliminates the distracting background light, compacts the picture, and fills the frame nearly completely with the musicians.
Vietnam Memorial Reflecting the Washington Monument-2
Vietnam Memorial Reflecting the Washington Monument
The un-cropped version of the Washington Monument reflected on the Vietnam Memorial is visually confusing in the lower half due to the reflections of the visitors and the walkway.  In the cropped version, the distractions are eliminated, the monument more fully fills the frame (vertically), and we retain some of the darker reflections along the side and bottom corners to frame the shot.  In both versions, the Washington monument lies along a 1/3 line balanced by a seam in the monument near the opposing 1/3 line.
Go make some photographs, and fill the frame!