10 Books Every Photographer Should Read

Grab a cup of coffee, put on your slippers, and curl up in your favorite arm chair with one of these texts and learn something new about the art of photography! I have a rather large and ecclectic collection of photography texts, and this list represents my 10 favorites - texts I would recommend to anyone wanting to improve their photography.

What have I missed on the list? Leave me a comment and let me know what you'd add!

  1. "The Camera" & "The Negative" & "The Print" - Ansel Adams
    The author needs no introduction, and this is really three texts in one, but they are the definitive texts for all technical things film photography. So you're a digital photographer? Read anyway. Seriously, these books are #1.0, 1.1 and 1.2 on my list for a reason. The fundamentals of photography are the same no matter the medium, and I promise you'll learn something. Plus, its awesome seeing how Ansel thought about his work.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  2. "Black and White Photography Workshop" - John Blakemore
    This is without question one of the best all-in-one books on using the Zone System to create incredible black and white film images. Like with the texts from Ansel Adams, this is a great material for any digital photographer who wants to build their foundational knowledge.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  3. "Vivian Maier: Street Photographer" - John Maloof
    Vivian Maier was a nanny in the mid-1900s who travelled around Europe and the United States taking photographs with her Rolleiflex 120mm film camera. She was a very private woman and never shared her work - it was only discovered and she became famous after her death. There is a documentary (currently on Netflix) about her story, but the book is fantastic as a resource to study the work of another photographer. What I find so inspiring about Vivian is that she took photographs for personal joy and satisfaction - not to share them. That's opposite of most of us (myself included) who have blogs, Facebook, etc where we share our images. There is something particularly special about her work because of the private nature of her images.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  4. "From Oz to Kansas: Almost Every Black and White Conversion Technique Known to Man" - Vincent Versace
    Vincent is a Nikon Ambassador, and an exceptional black and white digital photography artist. His text differs from the above black and white books in that he spends more time on the details of the digital workflow, and how to create masterpieces in the digital era. A must-own for any black and white photographer. Seriously.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  5. “Chasing Light: An Exploration of the American Landscape” - Frank Lee Ruggles

    Frank is a friend of mine. He was my first mentor in photography and sold me some of my very first lenses (I’m embarrassed to say it was a Tokina). Needless to say, after years of studying his work, I have found him to be one of my greatest inspirations. This isn’t a how-to book, it’s a fine art photography book, and it will inspire you. A good photographer is always looking at the work of others — I have spent hours reverse engineering Frank’s images and learning from them, and suggest this book to any landscape photographer. Plus, Frank’s an all-around awesome guy, so it’s no wonder this book is so high on my list of must-reads!

    Buy on Amazon.com

  6. "Eyes Wide Open - 100 Years of Leica Photography"
    Some of the best books for photography aren't instructional - they are collections of work from which I can draw new inspiration or ideas. I love to deconstruct other photographer's images, and this book is full of inspiration. And if you ever need a paperweight or door stop, it'll cover those bases too!

    Buy on Amazon.com

  7. "Captured: Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer" - Moose Peterson
    So you have an interest in wildlife photography? Moose wrote the definitive guide on all things wildlife and bird photography - its a fun read complete with great images and some amusing stories of his time spent shooting in the field.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  8. "Surreal Photography: Creating the Impossible" - Daniela Bowker
    This is a fun and entertaining text - a great way to see how some photographers express creativity by creating surrealist images. While I rarely (if ever) will use the techniques taught in this book, it's another great resource to draw new inspiration and pull new techniques from. Certainly one of the more bizarre and fun books on my shelf.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  9. "Black and White Magazine" - Subscription
    I am not a fan of most photography magazines - they push you to buy crap and gadgets you don't need. And just like the exercise magazines that routinely re-run the same articles with the "best weight loss tips," most photography magazines don't offer new content, or content that will make you a better artist. Black and White is the exception. There is a great showcase of various artists (real artists) and inspiring pieces. I would recommend the paper subscription over e-version - the printed quality is exceptionally good.

    Subscribe Online

  10. “Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash” - Joe McNally

    This addition to my list might surprise you, considering how little I use flash in my photography. I only ever use a flash for macro images, so it should speak volumes that I recommend a book about something I don’t use. Why? Because photography is all about light, and Joe McNally is arguably the master of light. The things he can do with a flash boggle the mind, and I think it’s important to study light as a photographer. So might as well learn from the master. Besides, my flash is the sun, and if you can control a AA-battery powered flash, you’re that much closer to making the sun work for you,


    Buy on Amazon.com

Behind-the-Photo: Elakala Falls

Photography is more than just the 'click' - there is a lot of planning and editing required to make a spectacular photograph. I recently posted about my revisit to Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia, where I photographed Elakala Falls. This photograph was particularly difficult to create, so I wanted to deconstruct the image into its raw parts and share the creation process with you. It's like a chef showing you the recipe...

PS - this technique is *exactly* the same as the technique I used to create this waterfall photograph at Great Falls. Once you know the technique, you can apply it anywhere!

The Equipment

Obviously the first step to taking a photograph like this is having the correct equipment. The basis of this image is a long exposure at the base of a waterfall, which requires two fundamental pieces of gear: a tripod and neutral density filter.

In this case, I was using my Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens. I use a Really Right Stuff L-bracket on the Leica SL and mounted that via an Acratech GP bullhead with leveling base to my Gitzo tripod. I use a funny combination of filters and mounts for my neutral density filter - it is greatly oversized for this lens, but that results in no vignetting, which can be a problem with filters. Here's a quick iPhone photo of me with my gear for the day (note the boots so I can stand in the water):

So, to recap, we have the following equipment in use on this photograph:

The Secret Sauce

There are two secrets to this photograph: 1) the neutral density filter and 2) the leveling base. Let's explore why...

To create the flowing water effect and the swirl in the bottom of the image, I need to take a long photograph. That long image exposure will allow the sensor to see things - like the swirls - that are not really perceptible with the human eye. It takes some practice to spot things like the pools of water that will swirl in a long exposure, but it is doable with the naked eye. Anyway, in daylight, the only way to get the camera to take a long photograph and not have the image washed out is by putting a pair of sunglasses on the camera - known as a neutral density filter. Like sunglasses, this darkens what the camera sensor sees, and thereby makes the exposure time required to get a properly exposed image longer. I stacked two filters to give a really dark effect - resulting in exposures of over a minute.

Not all tripods are created equal, and this photograph is a great example for why investing in good gear matters. I knew this was going to be a panorama, and the only way to ensure a level plane as you rotate the camera is with a leveling base. Let's explore.... Set up your tripod in your house and purposefully make it a little uneven by putting a book under one leg of the tripod. You can remove that un-level-ness by making the ball head level. But now if you loosen the rotation on the tripod head and move the head left to right, you'll see that the head doesn't stay level.

A levelling base sits below the ball head on the tripod. Once you level that, you can rotate the ball head portion and the whole things stays flat. Compared to the price of a great tripod and head, the leveling base is cheap, and it's a must have if you plan to shoot panoramas.

Planning the Shot

The goal was to get a swirl of water at the base of the waterfall - the trick was how. I walked around the falls taking some test shots for a few minutes before eying this pool of water. I knew it'd be prefer to make my swirl, so I setup my tripod. 

Unfortunately, there was no way I could get the image I had in my head in a single capture. The 24mm focal length of my lens meant I'd have to aim down toward the pool of water, and I wanted the image to feel more straight on. Thankfully there is a solution to this problem - shoot the image as a vertical panorama.

When most people think of making a panorama, they mistakenly orient their camera horizontally because they want the final image to be wide. But you actually get a better final product by taking vertically oriented images and stitching those together to get a wide final image (see photos below to illustrate this point).

The five photographs that were stitched together to make the final image. They are intentionally underexposed to preserve shadow detail.

The five photographs that were stitched together to make the final image. They are intentionally underexposed to preserve shadow detail.

The next challenge was lighting. It was a cloudy day, and the sun would pop out of the clouds to create a harsh light, then would duck behind a cloud and generate a soft diffuse light. I wanted the later. So I waited.... a lot. Every time the cloud went in front of the sun, I triggered the shutter and waited for the 60 second exposure to complete. Unfortunately this process isn't scientific, so the end result was that there were some images that were just brighter than others. 

In the images below, you can see how the rocks in the foreground are brighter in one shot and darker in the next. I knew I could resolve this in post production, so I didn't stress over this - as long as the waterfall was evenly lit between images, I knew I could adjust the foreground.

Two images showing a big change in the lighting as I shot the panorama

Two images showing a big change in the lighting as I shot the panorama

Post Production

I don't do a lot of 'chimping' (aka looking at the back LCD screen), but I gave a quick scroll through my results and determined they were satisfactory for my final product. The rest of the image would wait until I got home.

Back in my studio, I downloaded the original RAW files to my backup and primary hard drive and imported them into Adobe Lightroom. Before creating the panorama, I did some minor adjustments on the individual files to make them uniform in the lighting. In other words, I reduced the highlights and exposure values for the 2nd image slightly.

I then asked Lightroom to turn the five images into a panorama, and this was the result:

The panorama resulting from the five images - notice there is some distortion, which I resolve by cropping.

The panorama resulting from the five images - notice there is some distortion, which I resolve by cropping.

I cropped the image to remove the distortion and to crop out the branches in the foreground. Next was to go in with the spot removal tool and clean up that sensor dust (I am very anal about sensor dust!). 

Finally, it's the fun part! I used the sliders to adjust the image to bring it back to what I had in my mind's eye. Remember, I intentionally underexposed the images as I shot them so that I could revive some of the shadow detail, so the final product was always going to look more vibrant than the RAW files. That is why we shoot in RAW, so we can have all that dynamic range to play with!

The biggest adjustment I made was a selective whitening on the pool in the foreground to really enhance the swirl.

And there we have it - the final product. I exported it in several sizes - one suitable for printing, another suitable for the internet, and a third suitable for mobile devices.

This technique is a process I use all the time - including with this other waterfall photograph. There are dozens of images on my website shot like this, so I hope this little tutorial helps! Ask questions below....

The Importance of Storytelling

I've said it before - storytelling is everything as a photographer. There are lots of stories to tell, and each story requires a different presentation to share that story with the eventual viewer of the image.

Some stories tell themselves. Others need help. As a photographer, I need to use the tools at my disposal - namely the camera and lens - to capture that story, and to aid in conveyance. If we fail as storytellers, we fail as photographers. 

This image was a particularly fun story. The man peeking up from the ground is actually a bronze statue titled "Man at Work" on the streets of Bratislava, Slovakia. Tourists from around the world flock to kneel next to him and have their photo taken. Some rub the top of his hat for good luck (though after watching a few dogs pee on the statue, presumably for good luck, I opted out of the good luck charm). The photo everyone takes of him is one posing next to the statue. Yawn.

I stood about 20 feet away and got the camera low to the ground. Using the Leica f/0.95 Noctilux lens (which is wonderful for storytelling), I focused on the statue with a shallow depth of field. With the Leica Monochrom producing the black and white image, I just needed to wait and time my shot when there were a bunch of legs in the scene. I wanted the final product to feel a bit weird - to give the viewer goosebumps. 

The locals joke that his job is to look up the skirts of women passing by. I don't know about that, but I hope that my photograph told a similar story!

"What's That?" 10 Things Every Large Format Photographer Should Know....

"What's that?"

It's the question I get every time I pull out my large format film cameras in public. The cameras are like nude exhibitionists in the world of cell phone cameras - their presence is awkward and uncomfortable.

Equally uncomfortable is the relative lack of information about shooting large format film cameras. Outside of a few forums and selected websites, there is very little about their use, or tips for new large format photographers. So today I'm embarking on a quest to share ten tips - things I wish I knew when I started large format photography several years ago.

  1. You do not need a camera with every movement known to mankind. 
    I screwed this one up. I started with a Zone VI camera, which is a great machine, but it has too many movements, many of which are really only useful to architectural photographers. As a landscape photographer, I really only needed two or three movements, which is one of the major reasons I 'downgraded' with my second large format camera to a Ebony RSW45 camera. That camera only has focus, front rise, and front tilt, but that's really all I need. Fewer movements = less to screw around with, less weight, and easier to learn.
     
  2. You really do need a good light meter. Preferably a spot meter. Oh, and you should know how to work the thing too.
    I purchased a nice light meter when I started large format photography, but I was a bit overwhelmed with its functions, so I cheated for several months by metering with my Nikon D800. With a good meter (and the knowledge on how to use it) you really can fine tune the images and unlock some of the creative potential of things like the Zone System. Understand the relationship between your light meter, neutral / middle grey, and Zone V. If that knowledge isn't second nature to you, then read up until you fully comprehend it. You'll be a better photographer for it!
     
  3. You'll probably become obsessed, and will eventually "need" to buy more film cameras.
    I started backward with large format, then moved to smaller formats. Large format and the big negatives are addicting. It's photographers crack. Be prepared to lust for more - your venture into large format may be the undoing of your bank account!
     
  4. There is a right and a wrong way to setup, focus, and use the movements on the camera. 
    How do you setup, frame, focus, and compose your image? There is a correct way to do it. The simple version: determine your shot and compose it mentally before you start. It's a pain to move the camera and tripod around once it's setup, so it's better to have the image in mind first, then place the camera. Setup the tripod and place the camera on top. Open the lens (without film in the back) wide and give a rough focus. Then use the movements to fine tune the composition. Re-focus for final image. Meter and set the lens aperture. Insert the film slide, make an exposure, and remove. 
     
  5. The best place to practice shooting large format is at home.
    You can read endless babble about how to use the large format camera online, but the best place to learn is through use. You don't have a fancy home studio? Get a nice piece of fabric or canvas, put it in front of a window with some nice natural light, and put a flower or other object on it. Make an exposure. I have learned far more from a methodical and painstaking image creating process at home than I ever learned in the field. A $5 investment to buy some flowers to photograph will pay dividends for your learning.
     
  6. You should at least understand the concepts of the Zone System, even if you don't use it.
    For a long time, I misunderstood the Zone System as a way of just metering light without a light meter. And I had a light meter, so I didn't need the Zone System? The Zone System was invented by Ansel Adams as a way of controlling the exposures he got. Do you want that foreground to be a rich dark grey? Did you want that flower to be soft and light? You need to understand the concepts of the Zone System in order to know how to do that, because your light meter is lying to you!
     
  7. Take detailed notes while you are learning - that will become your 'metadata'.
    It was a 40 second exposure? Right? Maybe? As much as you think you can memorize the shutter and aperture combinations until you develop the film and review it, you're wrong. Large format photography isn't fast, so take the extra 20 seconds to jot down a few notes about the image so you can review them afterward and critique what went well, and what needs improvement.
     
  8. It's easy (and cheap) to develop your own film. It's hard (and expensive) to find someone to develop it for you.
    I started large format film development in Washington, DC. It's a small city, very few people have heard of it. Obama lives there. Yet there is only one place in all of DC that will develop 4x5 film - and its like $6 a sheet. I was super nervous to develop my own black and white film, but can proudly say I have never screwed up a roll in development. So read some information about developing at home, buy some chemicals, and give it a whirl. You'll save time, and (more importantly) have even more creative control over the final image results.
     
  9. You want a copy of that negative digitally to share with friends? Plan to spend some bucks on a scanner and software.
    Oh yeah, you don't have a darkroom to enlarge your negative? Scanners for 4x5 film aren't cheap, and while you can pay companies to do it for you, that's not cheap either. I invested about $600 in a scanner that could accept large format negatives, and it really isn't close to top-of-the line. Negatives are only so much fun if you can't appreciate them in all their glory!
     
  10. You should carry 10,000 business cards whenever you have that camera out, because people will want to see the images.
    See the start of this post. Everyone in public will be intrigued by your camera, and there is no better time to promote your website and photography than when you have a crowd of onlookers. Hand out cards, sell prints, and be happy!

What tips would you have for a new large format photographer? Leave 'em in the comments!

Which Software for Black and White Conversion?

There are a few questions you can ask on the internet that are bound to generate a heated debate. Like "Which is better, Coke or Pepsi?" or my personal favorite "Is Nikon or Canon better?" It is the source of so many wasted keystrokes because those issues aren't black and white.... unlike this debate.

The question today is all about the shades of grey, specifically, which software to use for Black and White conversions. Presumably if you have come to my blog, you have come for my opinion, and my opinion is what you're about to get.....

First, let's break for a quick history lesson, because my historical biases and experiences weigh heavily in my answer. I learned Photoshop before Lightroom was a 'thing' - at least before it was mainstream. Until earlier this year, I did all of my RAW edits in Adobe Camera Raw. So when I wanted to do a black and white conversion, I could either 1) desaturate the colors (boring....) or 2) use Photoshop's organic black and white presets (still kind of boring) or 3) use an outside program. Not impressed with desaturation or the built in presets, I purchased a copy of Nik Silver Efex and used it as a plugin for Photoshop.

Nik appealed to me because the presets were awesome, the adjustments were intuitive, and I have a big crush on the control points feature. 

Fast forward to today...... I have changed the way I edit the color images, but I haven't found something that I like better than Nik Silver Efex. And since the software is now FREE, I'm not exactly motivated to find something that costs money to replace the free thing I like.....

Ok, so back to which software to use - for me its 100.10% Nik Silver Efex. The adjustment are just too easy, and my romance with the control point feature is hotter than ever. It brings out the best in my color images and in my black and white photos from the Leica Monochrom (Leica used to include a license of the software with the Monochrom, before it was free for everyone).  And while I could maybe get similar results with enough button clicks in Lightroom, I can do it faster in Nik, so thats where I go. For me, better is defined as "result I want, fastest" - Nik does it, so Nik is better!

Normally when I write a post like this, I'm talking about something that costs (a considerable amount of) money. But today I'm telling you that my favorite software is free. So rather than babble any more about Nik Silver Efex, I'm going to give you a link and let you play yourself. The lady giving out free samples of meatballs at the discount shoppers club spends less time selling you on free than I've spent!

(To be clear, I'm in no way shape or form endorsed by Nik or Google or anyone who designs software.)

Download Nik's complete software suite here: https://www.google.com/nikcollection/

One of thousands of black and white conversions I have done using Nik's software

Digital Photography Workflow on Your iPad

Living in Europe, I spent a lot of time traveling and on the road. Every day spent away from my main workstation is a day less blogging, editing, and producing content (although it is usually a day creating new images). Travel is important for me to create new works, so I'm certainly not complaining! However, the down time spent at airports, on trains, flying, and in layovers between destinations could be spent supporting ScenicTraverse.com. 

It's important to pause here by saying first that as much as Apple and Microsoft would love to convince you that their tablet systems are capable of supporting digital photography workflow independent of a 'traditional' desktop / laptop, I don't think that is fair (at this point in 2016). Processing speed, memory, storage, and application complexity alone are evidence that the iPad cannot substitute for a traditional workstation. And, in my experience, the workflow on the iPad is much slower than on the desktop, so even if you could one-for-one do the same tasks, the time required to complete them is very different. For that reason, the iPad is designed to compliment my workflow by enabling me to extend it to the field.

I can't wait until I get home to edit and download all my images.... I'd have a forever long backlog! So I have complimented my desktop by working in a mobile Lightroom setup, even if it isn't as fast as the desktop. 

Let's start by discussing what I'd like to be able to do, in a perfect world, from my tablet (Apple iPad Pro in this case):

  • Download RAW files from SD media
  • Review / quality control files on the iPad
  • Apply a rating (1-5 stars) in Lightroom Mobile and have that rating preserved when the file is imported into Adobe Lightroom Desktop
  • EASILY send a selection of files between Lightroom Mobile and Lightroom Desktop
  • Do minor adjustments (contrast, blacks/whites, sharpening) to the RAW file
  • Do spot healing adjustments to remove dust
  • Controls for black and white developing
  • Export images to display on my website / Facebook / Instagram

The good news is that most of these things can be done, although not as perfectly as I'd like. For discussion of how this actually works in practice, you should know that I am using the 2016 Apple iPad Pro 9.7" with the Apple Keyboard, Apple Pencil and Apple SD Card Reader.

The cool thing about Lightroom mobile is that you can share images between your mobile devices, and edits on one carry to another. This is a screenshot of my "photography page" on my phone.... lots of Adobe apps!

The cool thing about Lightroom mobile is that you can share images between your mobile devices, and edits on one carry to another. This is a screenshot of my "photography page" on my phone.... lots of Adobe apps!

Now let's take a quick step backward and look how I got here....... I started using Adobe Photoshop in 2008, long before Creative Cloud existed. I didn't buy Lightroom and just used Adobe Bridge (gasp) and Adobe Photoshop (really, Adobe Camera RAW...... don't want to upset the Adobe crowd with the wrong terms) for all my editing. I became very fast editing a RAW file with that combination, and as much as Bridge sucks, I adapted it to fit my archive method. All was good. When I travelled, I'd haul my laptop and do some editing on the road, but that became a real pain. Laptops are big, they need a different power source (or not the same one as my iPhone), and don't las as long. So I got to thinking about trying to swap out the laptop for an iPad and being even more portable in my editing away from home.

Photoshop on the iPad isn't really "Adobe Photoshop" - its a smattering of the best functions from the desktop version, but it isn't designed to do the basic edits. Adobe gives us Lightroom Mobile and has clearly emphasized that Lightroom is the future of digital workflow and archiving. 

I hadn't learned Lightroom previously because I didn't need to  - I was fast and efficient with Photoshop and Lightroom didn't offer me anything else. But the mobile apps finally tipped the scale, and I spent a few weeks building the muscle memory and recall to be as fast with Lightroom as I was with Photoshop. Now I use Lightroom more. Same results, different app.

Back to the mobile workflow..... does it work? Can I accomplish that list of wants?

Sorta? 

Generally, most of the things on that list can be done with the mobile applications, but I'm not totally on board with the entire workflow. For starters, I hate how many apps are involved. I need at least FOUR different Adobe apps running on the iPad to achieve the same results as I get from desktop Lightroom. For instance, you can edit the basic exposure and sharpness in Lightroom Mobile, but need to change apps to do dust removal. In all fairness to Adobe, I suspect they had to break up the processing into several apps to make it manageable for the processors on the iPad, and they do have the apps able to pass images back and forth between themselves, but it still is a slow down....... in fact, the slow down is really my beef.

I edit roughly 200 images per week. If I spend one minute per image, that's 3+ hours per week spent editing. Kill me please. I've mastered the desktop software and can edit most photographs in 20-30 seconds (there are plenty of exceptions, so don't get all judging). But the same edits in Lightroom mobile might take 2-3x longer. 

What better time to work on editing your digital images than when you're flying with a budget airline? It's not like they are about to bring me a drink, snack or meal!

What better time to work on editing your digital images than when you're flying with a budget airline? It's not like they are about to bring me a drink, snack or meal!

What that translates into is that I'll edit a selection of image on the road just to 'keep ahead of the curve' and take advantage of that down time at an airport, but if I have access to my desktop, I'm using that. I have also found that using Lightroom Mobile and the iPad is a great way to review, but not edit, the images from that day, and often use it for that without editing. 

As a side note: I LOVE that Leica has programmed apps for the Leica Q and Leica SL to connect to the iPad via wifi. The photo download and transfer rate over the self-broadcast wifi network is significantly faster than the SD card reader that Apple sells (apparently the transfer rate is better on the 12" iPad, but I didn't want something that big). So if you are using a mobile device to edit, get the free apps for your cameras, because they may make this even faster.

I suspect the difference in editing times will shrink in the next few years; mobile devices are getting faster and continue to close the gap in processing performance to their desktop counterparts. As Apple installs better processors, Adobe will be able to collapse apps together and streamline workflow. I genuinely believe that we will get to a point where the tablet workflow is on par with the desktop workflow, at least in speed. 

Do you edit with the mobile applications? Have you found them a nice compliment to your desktop?

 

8 Tulips & The Importance of Playing

If you are a photographer, or even someone who fancies the occasional creative expression, then you know the challenge associated with the lack of creative juices. Authors call it "writers block," but all creative people are subject to this period when they can't seem to generate some new work. Which is why I advocate playing!

Every so often, I go to the Cambridge market and select some flowers for sale from one of the merchants. I often pick Tulips - they are cheap and do lots of interesting things as they open. I'll bring those flowers home and then take some different photographs of the flowers, playing with different things to get the creative juices flowing. There is rarely a goal - just to play.

This weekend I got dozen tulips and decided to play with the macro setup on the Hasselblad 503CX. I loaded up a roll of black and white film and shot 12 images of tulips in various poses. After developing and scanning, I saved 8; a few of my experiments didn't work so well! But I played around with the camera and lighting, I played with exposures, I played with focus, and I played with contrast. And the result is that I got 8 fun photographs. 

If you stumble into a "writers block" - or even if you just want to prevent it through pre-emptive therapy, then I recommend taking the camera out to play. No goals, no expectations, see what comes across the lens. You might end up with 8 fun tulip photographs!

Side Note:

Curious about the fancy setup I used to get these photographs? I caution you..... it's not fancy. The canvas background you see behind the flowers is actually the back of a pillow case. It's laying on the floor in front of a big glass door and the lighting is all natural sunlight. The camera is mounted on a tripod and triggered manually. No flashes. No wiz bang light setup. Sunshine + pillow case + film. Playing, remember?

The Power of the Darkroom

Since I've started working with enlarging my film negatives in a darkroom, I keep getting the same series of questions.......

  1. Darkrooms still are a thing?
  2. Isn't it expensive?
  3. Why not just scan and print your negative?

All fair questions. Let's break down the power of the darkroom.....

1. Yes, darkrooms are still a thing, but increasingly rare. Where I live outside Cambridge, the closest public use darkroom is a little more than an hour drive away, but it's worth the drive. While I could (and will eventually) build a darkroom in my house, that will have to wait until I am not living abroad, so a public darkroom is the way to go. There are several websites dedicated to helping you find a darkroom, such as http://www.localdarkroom.com

2. Name something in photography that is not expensive and you win a prize. For me, darkroom printing is no more expensive than my inkjet work. My consumables are the light sensitive papers and chemicals. In my case, I don't pay for chemicals because I have instead opted for a membership at a darkroom (The Photo Parlour), so my chemical cost is really my membership cost. Factoring in the cost of paper and assuming I make around 50 prints a year, my cost per print is around $3 - and that's good and large paper (8x10 or bigger). In digital printing, my costs are ink and again paper. The paper I was using, which is again a high quality paper, cost $2.75/sheet and my ink costs were about $2 per print. In fact, all factors considered, I once calculated that my "startup" cost for inkjet printing was almost $1000! 

Let's assume I make 50 prints at 11x14 per year. My cost per print in the darkroom, including my membership fees, is about $4/print (also assuming some margin for mistakes and re-prints/ test strips, etc). The cost for the same 50 prints done at home on my inkjet printer is $5/print (I probably have less "waste" since a printer is a very.... mechanical..... object!). 

Bottom line - it's always cheaper to mail order print, but that removes the "art" from a lot of the work. I enjoy watching my prints appear before my eyes, so for me, the costs of personally printing are worthwhile. And, in my current situation, the darkroom doesn't cost more than inkjet!

3. I really didn't appreciate the true magic of the darkroom until I began using it. This sounds stupid to say, but I always thought about my prints as having one single proper exposure. I thought there was one version that was the "proper" version (as conceived by the artist, not technically proper) and you print that version. I was blown away when I watched prints that were dramatically different come from the same negative...... slightly longer exposures in the enlarger made some prints darker and moody, while the same negative with less exposure time was light and bright. I was blown away. I can make two different prints with two different moods from the same negative? I know, it sounds stupid, but I never really considered this.

Suddenly a new world was unlocked. I now visualize an image thinking "is this a dark and moody photo, or a light and cheery photo?" ---> I am thinking about the development and enlargement before I take the picture. With digital photography I would think about the end product, sure, but I didn't think in the same tonalities and with the same possibilities that film has stretched me to consider.

The best example of how to get the different tonalities is best seen in a test strip. Check these photos below - the different slices are the same photo, but different lengths of time in the enlarger. Each has a different look and feel and none of them is "more correct" than the other.

Let's revisit a recent negative - one of a boat on the beach of Dungeness. I scanned and posted it several days ago, but let's review the original negative....... looking at it below, it's fairly dark and the image we see is a digital machine's (scanner) literal interpretation of the negative. There isn't much creative interpretation - the scanner is just trying to represent the negative in a series of shades of grey - really simplifying my image into a series of 1's and 0's. How sad.

Obviously, this is a lovely photograph! But it's not the print I imagined when I clicked the shutter. The print in my head was much lighter. MUCH lighter. It was almost white sky and the boat was very light, as though it was drawn in pencil. It was a happy photograph, while this is a little dark and moody. Off to the darkroom!

I did a test print and decided that my first print would be at an exposure of 10 seconds with no dodging or burning - just a straight print. Here's what that looks like:

This is certainly lighter than the scanned "literal interpretation" from the negative, but the sky is still too dark for my liking. I ran another print at  5 seconds, but that was too washed out - needed more contrast. To boost contrast in a black and white print, we add magenta filters, so I went crazy and added 50 magenta to the filtration (for scale, 15 is more "normal"). I ran another test strip and determined I liked the look of the print at 9 seconds. I realize this almost the same exposure as the previous print, but the magenta filtration requires more time to compensate, hence the minor change in image time. Here's the print at 9 seconds with 50 magenta in the filter (I also burned the bottom right part of the rail a little more.

Perfect! This is actually my final print - there are several others that I used to tweak the dodging and burning and show slight differences in the foreground, but this was my final version. 

So why bother with the darkroom - that's why! Look at what an incredibly diverse set of prints I got from a negative that, to the scanner, looked very dark. The darkroom has unlocked my creative potential and has me visualizing my artwork in a whole new way.

Inside the Darkroom with John Blakemore

I had the opportunity to join famous UK photographer John Blakemore for a black and white printing workshop in the darkroom at a studio called the Photo Parlour outside Nottingham this past weekend. It was my first real adventure in darkroom work and I wanted to share some of the process for anyone who is curious what working in a darkroom is like. I should warn you - it's addicting!

The workshop was held at the Derby Photo Parlour, which is a community darkroom and developing studio run by Dan Wheeler. Through his relationship with local famous UK photographer John Blakemore, Dan is able to offer some workshops to a small group of students who want to learn from one of the masters of the darkroom. The workshop ran over two full days and although I was tired at the end, I was still eager to keep printing!

Day 1 of the workshop began with John running through some of his work to describe tonality, visualization, the zone system, and his general philosophy towards many things! After a lunch break we headed into the darkroom to watch John as he made about six prints from one of his negatives. The powerful thing was to watch him explore a negative-  taking it from a dark and gloomy image to a bright and uplifting image....... all from a single negative. My brain was going a million miles an hour trying to keep up, and I couldn't wait to get my hands wet in some chemicals the following day. 

John laid out many of his prints for us to inspect and discuss - having a photographer deconstruct their work is one of the best ways to learn a new technique.

John laid out many of his prints for us to inspect and discuss - having a photographer deconstruct their work is one of the best ways to learn a new technique.

Looking at some of the prints John made under our watch. Although it's a basic iPhone photo, you can still tell the difference in tonality between the two prints, which are made from the same negative.

The second day was where we got our own turn at printing on the series of enlargers available in the darkroom. Under the guidance of Dan and John, we selected a negative to print and began setting up home in the darkroom. 

The row of enlargers on the dry side of the darkroom.

The row of enlargers on the dry side of the darkroom.

If you've never been in a darkroom, I'll give you a general layout. It's broken into two sides: a wet side where the chemicals for developing the paper are kept, along with drums to wash prints, and a dry side which is where the enlargers are located. Wet should never enter dry and vice versa. Despite the name, a darkroom isn't totally dark - special red lights called "safelights" are on to provide some light from which to work, but it's faint and not good lighting for really evaluating your work, so you are regularly exiting the darkroom to view prints in the daylight. Access in and out is via a special rounded door that spins so that light from outside cannot enter the room. It's a cramped little door and looks like it should belong on the side of a space station, but it works!

The wet side of the darkroom. Each tray holds a different developing chemical. The black and silver thing at the end is the light tight door.

The wet side of the darkroom. Each tray holds a different developing chemical. The black and silver thing at the end is the light tight door.

An enlarger is essentially a projector with a timer on it. You load your negative, set the timer, and the light in the enlarger stays on for until the timer expires. Below the enlarger is where the image is projected onto an easel that holds a piece of special paper coated in an emulsion. As the enlarger projects the image onto the paper, the emulsion reacts (just link with normal film). The "disturbing" thing is that you don't get to see the photo appear on the paper immediately. In fact, when you are done on an enlarger it looks like you've just made a white piece of paper!

The enlarging station I worked from - this is obviously before the lights went out for the day. The timer is the big orange button on the back right corner.

The enlarging station I worked from - this is obviously before the lights went out for the day. The timer is the big orange button on the back right corner.

From there you cross to the wet side and submerge the paper into a developer bath for around a minute (depending on the paper). While the paper soaks, an image begins to appear on the paper, which is extremely gratifying to see! From there the paper moves to a stop bath which (as the name implies) stops the developer from reacting further. Finally it's into the fixer, which (again, clever naming) fixes the image into the paper permanently. Technically there is one more step, which is to wash the paper for hours to remove these strong chemicals as they could degrade the image over time.

One of my prints (this is "Dali's Tree") in the day and being reviewed in the daylight after developing.

One of my prints (this is "Dali's Tree") in the day and being reviewed in the daylight after developing.

This is all overly simplified of course...... how long to you set the enlarger's timer to project the image onto the paper if you can't see the image appearing on the paper in real time? How do you get it dark enough / light enough? This is where the real magic of the darkroom comes in..... before making an actual print you first make a series of test strips at different intervals to help you select the proper exposure time. You then make a straight print before starting to play with dodging and burning (selective darkening or lightening of particular areas). Because so much of this process is human driven, no two prints will ever come out exactly the same, which is the fun of it! I can press "print" on my inkjet machine and get the same photograph repeatedly, but I didn't work for it, my sweat isn't in it, and it's lacking personality. Each of the prints I made that day have their own personality and feeling. When I hang them on the wall, the extra effort will mean a lot more than so many of my other prints.

Test strips! It took many of these to really dial in the proper exposure times for the print. In the case of this test strip, each "step" is an extra three seconds exposed to the light.

Test strips! It took many of these to really dial in the proper exposure times for the print. In the case of this test strip, each "step" is an extra three seconds exposed to the light.

More test strips! The bottom one helped me determine that between 13-15 seconds was the proper exposure. The one in the white tray is a side by side of 13 and 15 seconds to compare those exposures more closely.

More test strips! The bottom one helped me determine that between 13-15 seconds was the proper exposure. The one in the white tray is a side by side of 13 and 15 seconds to compare those exposures more closely.

John was a fantastic instructor - he offered many tips and tricks for improving each print and wasn't afraid to challenging you outside your comfort zone. I particularly appreciated the challenge he offered and have already started shooting some new work with his advice in the back of my mind. 

John reviewing some of the work we did- in this case, one of my prints.

John reviewing some of the work we did- in this case, one of my prints.

John offering a quick primer in touching up a few spots on a finished print.

John offering a quick primer in touching up a few spots on a finished print.

While I'm here in the UK I will continue to visit the Photo Parlour to refine my work. When I move back stateside I'll probably build my own darkroom, but for now, there is much to learn! I cannot wait to get back into the darkroom and would strongly recommend this class to anyone interested in improving or learning to print in the darkroom.

I came away with six prints which were then left hanging to dry in my bathroom at home. Unlike film, which dries in roughly an hour, the prints take over eight hours to fully dry.

I came away with six prints which were then left hanging to dry in my bathroom at home. Unlike film, which dries in roughly an hour, the prints take over eight hours to fully dry.

Intro to Film: Small, Medium, & Large Formats

Congratulations! You have decided to embark on a journey that will inevitably leave you frustrated, confused, but most of all, excited to take more photographs. This journey is a travel back a few decades to the era where film reigned supreme and taking a photograph involved more thought and art than reaching for the iPhone.

Now what? You are probably digging in your basement, your parents basement, or friends basement looking for a camera to start shooting with and you'll most likely find a 35mm film camera. Then you'll hit up Google and ask for some film photography advice and start reading words like "medium and large format." Googling "medium format" returns an image search for all sorts of interesting cameras and suddenly you're left wondering what all of this means.

So let's get a primer in film, why you might want to shoot film, and the pros/cons of each film format.

In the beginning....

Before we discuss the formats, lets take a quick primer in film photography. Film is a plastic covered in silver and light-sensitive chemicals. Prior to developing, any exposure to light results in  either an image or damage of the film. A film camera holds the unexposed film in a dark sleeve or roll and when you click the shutter, a portion of that film is exposed to light, rendering an image. Most photographers start with negative film (and that's what we'll discuss here). Negative film results in an inverse image- the darkest parts of the image appear lightest on the film and vice versa.

After you have exposed an image, the next step is to develop the film. Development happens either in a lab (which are dwindling in numbers) or can be done at home with some equipment and chemicals. With the right equipment, black and white film can be processed in broad daylight in about 15 minutes with three chemicals, so it's not terribly difficult.

Once the development has occurred, you have two choices. The first is to use the traditional printing method of using an enlarger to project the negative onto light sensitive paper. The more modern (and cheaper) method is to invest in a high quality scanner (I use the Epson V700) that can hold and scan negatives of all sizes, resulting in digital images that can be sent to a lab or your home printer.

Why are we doing this?

Right, that process sounded hard and cumbersome, but the end product is much more gratifying. I am left holding real images and the quality of these images is totally on me - from exposure to developing and scanning - the camera made no decisions. I find every film image far more gratifying than a digital image for that reason. There is also something very beautiful about film that digital cannot reproduce - and the quality of a nice film image is hard to replicate with digital.

Ok, what do I need?

Some film, a lens, and a camera. But we have decisions here...... what kind of subjects do you plan to shoot? Are you a color or black and white shooter? Do you want something compact, or are you okay hauling lots of equipment for a truly magnificent image? Finally, what size do you want your images to be? All of these factors make a big difference when selecting the gear and format to shoot. Let's look at the formats....

35mm (small) format film

This is the one you are probably most familiar with. It's what I saw my dad using and I briefly used as a kid. At one point there were even drive through film processing centers for 35mm! This size most closely matches the size of the digital camera sensor in a dSLR. The resulting image is about the size of a postage stamp, and is the smallest size most commonly used with photography.  

Virtually every company has made a 35mm camera at some point - Nikon, Canon, Kodak, Minolta, Leica, etc etc etc. Many 35mm cameras also accept their modern lenses - I have a Nikon 35mm body that takes my "digital" lenses, meaning less gear to buy. If you need a body, eBay is flush with options. I paid $12 for my Nikon film body.....

The pros of 35mm are that it's the most readily available, it's the cheapest, there is an abundance of 35mm equipment on the market, and they are very compact and easy to carry. There are also tons of film choices in this category! The cons? It's smaller than the other formats, so the resulting image cannot be enlarged as much and "everyone does it." The larger formats certainly have a uniqueness and lure to them based on the rarer sizing....

Loading and unloading film can be done in the daylight with both 120mm and 35mm films - large format film cannot be loaded into the slides without being in a dark environment.

Loading and unloading film can be done in the daylight with both 120mm and 35mm films - large format film cannot be loaded into the slides without being in a dark environment.

Medium format film

If you guessed that this is larger than 35mm film, then congrats on the obvious! Medium format is a huge category - there are lots of sizes in this genre, but we'll talk about 120mm, which is the most common medium format film. Based on the numbers alone, you can tell that 120mm is almost 4x larger than 35mm. Unlike 35mm, which shoots a rectangular image, 120mm film is square. Yep, square. 

There are many choices of cameras for medium format, but they are less abundant than 35mm. Common brands are Rollei, Hasselblad, etc. In a future blog post I'll discuss my choice in medium format, which is a twin lens Rolleiflex T. Most medium format cameras are larger than 35mm, but still small enough to tuck into a small camera bag (my Rollei is about the size of a facial tissue box). 

The pros of 120mm are the image size is larger, resulting in bigger prints that can be made from the negatives without introducing grain. The film is harder to find than 35mm, but it is still relatively economical. We'll talk about large format in a minute, but for me, medium format was a good "compromise" between the small size of 35mm and the high costs of large format. For the films I use, it's about $0.10 per image on 35mm, $0.50 per image on 120mm film, and $2 per image on large format! I can afford to make mistakes on $0.50 an image film and the economics and cost benefit made this my preferred "larger than 35mm" format.

Unlike my large format camera, which cannot be loaded or unloaded in the daylight, I can load and unload the 120mm camera in light, making it better for travel. 

The cons of 120mm are the availability of film and camera equipment. There are many specialty film stores in the UK and the USA that sell these films for competitive prices and free shipping. The films are available in both color and black and white, but the price differences start to become more apparent between color and black and white at this size. 35mm film is almost equally priced, but color 120mm film runs about $1-2 more per roll (each roll is 12 images). There is a nice range of films made in this size too. 

Shooting 120mm medium format film in my Rolleiflex T camera

Shooting 120mm medium format film in my Rolleiflex T camera

Large format film

This category, like medium format, encompasses many film sizes, with the most common being 4x5, 5x7 and 8x10. Those units are in inches..... that's right.... a piece of film that is 4 inches by 5 inches in size. That's incredible! The resulting negative is the size of my hand! The quality is unreal - I've scanned some of these on the highest resolution and been left with the equivalent of an 800 megapixel photograph. Think about that for a second..... with my 36megapixel D800 I would need to stitch 22 images together to get 800 megapixels of resolution. Wow.

You have probably never heard of any companies that make these cameras - they are specialized and not the sort of item you find just anywhere! I have a Zone VI camera that was made about 20 years ago, but there are many great choices on the market. 

The cameras for this are often called "view cameras" and are great for architecture and landscape photography because the lens and film planes can be aligned to a different geometry. The camera consists of two parts connected by a bellows between them - the film side and lens side. Moving knobs allows the lens and film sides to be adjusted until a sharp image is rendered on the focusing screen. This sounds very complicated and it is, compared to the point and shoot 35mm, but it also offers more creative possibilities and opportunities! Most large format photography is done from a tripod, so it's not the best camera to carry around a busy city center.

The pros of large format are the huge film size and quality compared to the other formats. The camera designs also offer more creative freedom compared to some of the smaller formats, but at the cost of having to haul more gear! 

The cons of large format is the cost of the film (in color it can run almost $7 an image!), the bulky equipment, and availability of cameras and film. Film for large format is also pre-loaded in a dark environment into slides that are inserted into the camera to create an exposure. Unfortunately, these slides must be loaded in total darkness (I use a dark bag that I insert my arms into and load "blind"), which means you can't pull out more film if you run out on a trip without needing even more equipment handy. I normally only pack a few sheets of film in slides and hope that I don't see something terrific to photograph the moment I'm out of film!

My large format Zone VI camera accepts 4x5 inch sheet film

My large format Zone VI camera accepts 4x5 inch sheet film

So what do I use?

All three! Seriously, for me there is a time and place to shoot each of these formats. 35mm is the camera that can be tossed into a small purse and carried through London on a date night or for street photography. Medium format is perfect for a "photo mission" but where I still want to be more mobile than large format. For me, large format is best for scenes I have already scouted and am going with the intention of taking 1-2 pre-determined photographs. My trips with large format are usually very dedicated.

I will be posting more about each of these formats, cameras and photos taken with each in the coming weeks.... stay tuned!

Why I Still Shoot Film

These days, you will be hard pressed to find someone who answered "film" if asked "what kind of camera should I buy?" - the market has been flooded with so many fantastic digital cameras that film is becoming a long lost art form. Everyone is now a photographer with a camera built into their smart phone - why go through the hassle of developing film!?

I'll tell you why.

Film photography is an art. It's raw. It's genuine. Film doesn't respond to gimmicks and tricks quite like digital. It takes a real artist to compose and shoot film.

Of course I'm not saying people who shoot digital are not real photographers - I still love and use my Nikon D800 and D610, but the film camera carries an allure that the digital camera will never replace. When I shoot in film, I feel like I'm walking on the path of so many famous photographers who only knew of film.

Digital photography makes me lazy. If I am not paying attention and mess up a shot there aren't any consequences. I can just recompose my photo and click again. I've inconvenienced a few electrons. With film, especially my larger formats, it can cost $3+ per negative, so mistakes can be expensive! This forces me to slow down, pay close attention, and really compose my shot carefully. My rate of "keepers" with film is much greater than with digital - I can't afford to blow shots.

I love the look of a film photograph. I develop my own prints and love the "hands on" feeling I get - I am so much more in touch with those images and they are more personal to me. Instead of just clicking and having a file ready to email, with film I have to develop and scan - a process that can take hours. I know that doesn't sound like a benefit, but to see the end result is so much more rewarding because of the work I've put into the shot.

There are still plenty of circumstances and environments where I prefer digital, but when the time is right, I'll reach for one of my film cameras to get the traditional bliss that only film can offer.

Some 120mm negatives drying after being developed in my studio. Developing my own prints is a rush and nothing is more rewarding than opening the developing tank to see 12 beautiful prints.

Getting the Most: Basic Techniques for Editing the DJI Phantom Photos

Introduction

Greetings! This article is designed to explain some basic techniques for editing photos from the DJI Phantom series quadcopters to improve the results you get from the camera. Examples seen in this article were taken using a DJI Phantom Vision 2 +, but can apply to other models of the Phantom series. Although this how-to may seem foreboding, it’s really not that hard and with practice, you can do everything described below in a matter of minutes. This guide is designed to help the beginner -someone with little experience in editing but who wants to get the most out of their work. I’ll caveat up front that there are LOTS of other ways to edit your photos and this is by no means the only way, it’s just the way I do it and find works best for me!

About the author: Although I am new to flying the DJI copters and shooting aerial photography with them, I am no stranger to photography or editing my photos.... the techniques applied to edit from the DJI Phantom are almost no different from those used to edit photos from my Nikon dSLR camera. I regularly post a blog with techniques and describing my work, which can be found on my website at www.ScenicTraverse.com; you can also find me on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google + and more - all the links are on the website. My work has been recognized in a variety of forums, most notably on CNN and in Photoshop User Magazine. I am the 2014 winner of the Vincent Versace Award for Photographic Excellence.

YouTube Video

I made a video to accompany this article - and I cover everything below in the video. Be sure to watch it!

Camera Settings

Before we discuss the photos, let’s take a brief look at three settings that can make a big difference in your results:

  1. Make sure you are shooting in RAW (.DNG files). I will explain more in the next section, but if you shoot in .JPEG, this tutorial will be far less useful. Seriously.

  2. Set an exposure compensation of -0.3 to start, but play with this number based on your environment. Why? When shooting something with the sky, your camera tries to choose a “correct” exposure based on balancing the bright sky and relatively dark earth. But what is technically a correct exposure is often not an artistically appealing exposure. A negative exposure compensation will make the whole photo a little darker, but will preserve the shadow detail so that it’s not blown out when the camera attempts to compensate for the bright sky. This is not a golden rule and I will often vary the exposure compensation, but it’s a point to consider to improve your results.

  3. Use the lowest ISO possible when shooting. I always try to use ISO 100, but if I’m shooting a sunset or other darker scene, I’ll need to raise that number. Based on my observations, the DJI Phantom camera has a decent amount of noise at ISO 100 and it only gets worse the higher the ISO. So whenever possible, use the lowest number you can!

The Importance of Shooting in RAW

I cannot overstate the importance of shooting in RAW (.DNG). It’s so important that I have an entire YouTube video dedicated to this topic (http://youtu.be/sPRL2xEr6ok). In short, if you shoot only JPEGs, you rob yourself of valuable image data that you’ll want in editing. 

To explain why RAW is so important, let’s take a quick look at how JPEG works. When your camera takes a picture and saves a JPEG, it makes some assumptions about the settings you want based on a pre-programmed model from the manufacturer. So the camera looks at the photo of the tree you just took and says “I think this photo will look best with X contrast, Y sharpening, Z color saturation, etc” based on a programmed algorithm.  After making that decision, the camera throws away all of the other data that it collected to take the photo- only saving that which it deems best for the photo. This is why JPEG files are fairly small and are so friendly for email and the internet - they aren’t very deep in terms of color depth or dynamic range.

By comparison, when the camera takes a RAW photo, it makes no assumptions about the contrast, sharpness, color saturation, etc and it saves ALL the data into a much larger proprietary file format. My Nikon camera saves RAW photos as a .NEF, while the DJI Phantom saves them as .DNG. What’s important to note is that RAW isn’t a file type like JPEG, it’s a proprietary format and you need a piece of software that can read that format to edit the RAW file. Instead of inventing their own file format, DJI used the .DNG, which is Adobe’s proprietary format, opening up the ability to edit these files to a variety of pre-existing software. 

When you shoot in RAW, you get all of the data and the camera doesn’t try to assume anything for you - which opens up the creative freedom. Don’t be surprised if you compare a RAW and JPEG file side by side and think the RAW looks dull - that’s the point! You make all the decisions about your photograph & your art, not the camera.

Metadata on one of the .JPEG files from the drone. Notice how low the bit depth is compared to the RAW .DNG file below. Also note how vibrant the colors are in the JPEG because the camera choose those settings - and then deleted all the other data!

Metadata on one of the .JPEG files from the drone. Notice how low the bit depth is compared to the RAW .DNG file below. Also note how vibrant the colors are in the JPEG because the camera choose those settings - and then deleted all the other data!

Now the metadata for the RAW .DNG file - notice the bit depth almost doubles! And while the colors aren't as vibrant, you have all of the data behind the photo, allowing more flexibility and opportunity to edit the photograph, Always shoot in RAW!

Now the metadata for the RAW .DNG file - notice the bit depth almost doubles! And while the colors aren't as vibrant, you have all of the data behind the photo, allowing more flexibility and opportunity to edit the photograph, Always shoot in RAW!

Editing Software

There are lots of choices for photographers these days when it comes to editing. For this article and my own personal use, I use the two most common programs for photo editing - Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. We often forget that the darkroom was an important step in Ansel Adams’ editing - Photoshop is my digital darkroom. Lightroom is a very popular and affordable option and I highly recommend it, but Photoshop has more advanced features that I use, which has made Photoshop my default choice. Either way, the edit process I will describe below works interchangeably between Lightroom and Adobe Camera RAW (the RAW file processor built into Adobe Photoshop). 

Lens Profile Corrections

One of the awesome things about the Adobe software suite is that they offer pre-programmed lens corrections for the DJI Phantoms. The lens on the cameras has a severe fisheye effect which leads to distortions and can be a real pain to correct... Adobe to the rescue! With the pre-programmed lens corrections, I check a box and the software reads the metadata of the file to determine its a DJI camera and then auto corrects all the distortion for me. This is always my first step when editing and this setting can be found under “Lens Profile Corrections” in both Lightroom and Photoshop.

Before using the lens correction: the photograph has a severe fisheye effect that can be hard to correct manually.

Before using the lens correction: the photograph has a severe fisheye effect that can be hard to correct manually.

By clicking the "enable profile correction" box in Adobe Camera Raw (or in Lightroom, it's the same thing), Adobe recognizes the camera as the DJI Phantom and removes all that distortion. 

By clicking the "enable profile correction" box in Adobe Camera Raw (or in Lightroom, it's the same thing), Adobe recognizes the camera as the DJI Phantom and removes all that distortion. 

Removing Chromatic Aberration

Have you ever looked closely at your photos and noticed some things, like trees against a bright sky, have a purple hue and outline? That’s called chromatic aberration. This is less of a problem with high end cameras and lenses, but I’ve noticed it on all the photos from the DJI camera. Again, fixing this is as easy as clicking the box to remove chromatic aberration in Lightroom or Photoshop. This check box is usually found right next to the lens profile corrections and I do it as part of that edit.

Notice how the houses have a purple roof and there is purple grass along the border between the trees and grass - this is called chromatic aberration and is easy to fix.

Notice how the houses have a purple roof and there is purple grass along the border between the trees and grass - this is called chromatic aberration and is easy to fix.

By just checking the box to remove the chromatic aberration, the purple hue is minimized. You can further tweak this to remove more purple hue by adjusting the sliders.

By just checking the box to remove the chromatic aberration, the purple hue is minimized. You can further tweak this to remove more purple hue by adjusting the sliders.

This is the dialogue box in Adobe Camera Raw (its the same in Lightroom) to remove the chromatic aberration. Move the "purple amount" slider to increase the effect.

This is the dialogue box in Adobe Camera Raw (its the same in Lightroom) to remove the chromatic aberration. Move the "purple amount" slider to increase the effect.

Cropping

My next step is usually to crop the photo. I always crop after performing a lens profile correction because those corrections often change the way a photo is setup. There are several standard crop sizes like 4x6 or 5x7, but I often use 16x9 because the widescreen look is very popular. Whatever you choose is up to you!

Setting Black and White Points

Now it’s time to get down and dirty with editing. There is a slider for blacks and whites in both Photoshop and Lightroom. The goal with both sliders is to adjust them until you have a little bit of the photo (a few pixels, just a little!) that is pure black and a few that are pure white. Usually the white slider will be pulled right while the black goes left, but that’s not always the case! Although you can have the computer show you the pure blacks and whites in the scene, I just eyeball this based on aesthetics - it’s art after all! When you have your white and black point set properly, you’ll have some pixels that are pure white and pure black, but not too much!

Start by moving the white and black sliders to set the white and black point where you have both pure white and pure black in the image. I just eyeballed it here (using Lightroom).

Start by moving the white and black sliders to set the white and black point where you have both pure white and pure black in the image. I just eyeballed it here (using Lightroom).

Adjusting Exposure & Contrast

I never adjust the exposure before the black and whites because moving those sliders can often lighten or darken the whole image. I wish Adobe would program the slides in another order for me because everyone assumes you should start here since it’s at the top, but I disagree! This is another artists choice opportunity - you may not change the exposure at all - but find something you like. While you are here, you can also edit some contrast, but I usually don’t modify that slider very much.

I pulled the exposure down a little because I thought it was too bright after adjusting the white point. There's no science in play - just whatever looks good!

I pulled the exposure down a little because I thought it was too bright after adjusting the white point. There's no science in play - just whatever looks good!

Adjusting Highlights & Shadows

This is my favorite part; it’s the magic sauce. In a scene with a blue sky and trees, you will notice that after you set the black and white point that the sky is very bright and the trees are very dark. This is where we fix that. Grab the highlights slider and pull it down until you have a nice result - sometimes I pull this all the way back down to -100 to get a blue sky. Then grab the shadows slider and pull it up to reveal the details that were too dark in the shadows. It’s incredible stuff, really. 

Finally, I pull the shadows and highlights slider to minimize the sheen on the top of the canon while pulling out some detail from inside the canon's wheels These sliders are incredibly powerful!

Finally, I pull the shadows and highlights slider to minimize the sheen on the top of the canon while pulling out some detail from inside the canon's wheels These sliders are incredibly powerful!

Clarity & Vibrance

The final step with the sliders is to adjust clarity and vibrance (color intensity). Clarity is essentially sharpness, but we don’t call it that, we call it clarity. I have found the sweet spot on clarity for me is usually around 20. Then grab the vibrance slider and pull that up until you have nice colors; for me it’s usually between 15-20 but it varies by photo. At this point you may ask about some sliders we haven’t touched - yep - I often don’t use all the sliders to edit a photo. These are the ones I use 90% of the time.

The last step to give it a finished look is to play with the clarity and vibrance sliders to improve color contrast. There is too much of both of these sliders - a little goes a long way!

The last step to give it a finished look is to play with the clarity and vibrance sliders to improve color contrast. There is too much of both of these sliders - a little goes a long way!

Small Touch-Ups

Done... almost! Using either the spot healing brush in Lightroom or content aware brush in Photoshop, I now go through and remove extra junk from the photo. This could include cars, people, telephone poles, etc. The clone stamp in Photoshop can also be very useful for removing these objects. My rule of thumb is to remove anything that would distract the viewer from the story I’m trying to tell with my photo. The command “edit -> undo” can be your friend if you get too carried away!

Using Plug-Ins

I regularly use a plug-in suite sold by Nik Software (owned by Google) to enhance my photos. Their software is very affordable and includes a great plug-in for black and white conversions (Nik Silver Efex) and for high dynamic range photos (HDR Efex Pro). Although I can do both of these things in Photoshop, I think the plug-ins are a very easy and fast way to get great results. I have used plug-ins from other companies like OnOne Software, but the Nik suite is my go-to for this type of work 99% of the time. In my YouTube video about editing DJI photos, I show a demo of a black and white conversion with this software. 

Plug-in software like Nik Silver Efex 2 can make it easy to convert a photograph to black and white or give more dynamic range. These plug-ins work very well and are my favorite for extra post-processing. 

Plug-in software like Nik Silver Efex 2 can make it easy to convert a photograph to black and white or give more dynamic range. These plug-ins work very well and are my favorite for extra post-processing. 

Exporting Results

You can’t just click “save” on a RAW file - you have to export it as another file type. I usually use a TIFF file as my “master” which is full resolution with no loss of color and then convert to JPEG for email or use on the internet. In Photoshop you can pre-program actions that will let you save as a TIFF or JPEG with just the click of a button. Voila! 

I hope this has helped you get more out of your photos - there’s no “wrong” way to edit a photo and as an artist you are afforded lots of freedom to express yourself. There are lots of great resources online to learn both Photoshop and Lightroom, but I recommend KelbyOne based on my own experiences with their training videos. 

If you have questions about any of this content, be sure to shoot me an email by using the contact form on my website. I respond to every email I get! 

Safe flying and happy editing!

Which Lens to Buy: Sigma 150-500 or Nikon 80-400 or Tamron 150-600?

Ever since Tamron announced they were releasing a 150-600mm lens in a Nikon (and Canon) mount, the internet has been buzzing about how this lens will stack up with the other competition for telephoto zooms. Although the Tamron lens hasn't shipped in the Nikon mount (and won't until April 2014), I've been getting alot of questions about which to buy.... more accurately "do I wait for the Tamron lens or get one of the others now?"

First things first - I have owned both the Nikon 80-400mm and Sigma 150-500mm, so I can speak with some authority on those, but my statements about the Tamron are based on internet reviews and from conversations with people who got one of the early Canon mounts. For this blog, I'm assuming the Nikon mount will perform the same as the Canon. Also worth noting is that I'm not paid or otherwise incentivized to promote any of these products and these opinions are mine alone.

Rather than telling you which lens is the best (and therefore the one to buy), let's look at the pros and cons of each. The lens that is the best buy for my style of photography might not be the best for you! Also note that my pros and cons aren't a complete comparison of every feature, just the things that I thought were best/worst about each lens.

Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM APO Lens
Price as of Feb 2104: $899

PROS:

  • Least expensive - appeal for hobby and amateur shooters
  • 500mm reach (750mm on a DX body)
  • Lighter than the Tamron (heavier than Nikon)
  • Optical stabilization is effective for handholding
  • Tripod collar is very sturdy

CONS:

  • Slow autofocus with moving objects (birds)
  • Chromatic aberration is pretty bad
  • Not weather sealed 
  • Not tack sharp at 500mm, even when shooting at f/8-11. Some people report that their lens is tack sharp at 500mm, but mine was not. That'd suggest some quality control differences and you might get lucky (or unlucky). I'd even sent mine into Sigma for calibration but still wasn't sharp enough for me.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR Lens
Price as of Feb 2014: $2,296 (with Nikon rebate)

PROS:

  • Very fast autofocus and great at tracking birds in flight
  • Tack sharp at all focal lengths
  • Lightest weight of all the choices
  • No significant chromatic aberration
  • Weather sealed
  • Optical stabilization is very good

CONS:

  • Significantly more expensive than the other choices
  • Least reach of these three lenses at 400mm (600mm on DX)
  • Tripod collar is a little undersized

Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD Lens
Price as of Feb 2014: $1,069

PROS:

  • Longest focal length of these choices at 600mm (900mm on DX)
  • Weather sealed
  • Autofocus looks like it will be faster than Sigma, probably slower than Nikon?
  • Price makes it a viable alternate to the Sigma if it performs on the market

CONS:

  • Heaviest of the lenses
  • Early reviews suggest focus gets soft around 600mm (alleviated by using f/8-11)
  • Lots of "unknowns" - will the focus speed keep up with the Nikon? How is the chromatic aberration? 

Review coming: I am working on purchasing one of the first Tamron 150-600mm lenses available in Nikon mount in my area, so I'll post some video reviews on YouTube as soon as I can. I also reserve the right to change my mind about the Tamron after using it myself.

Recommendation: Given these three choices, I can see no reason to opt for the cheaper Sigma over the Tamron. Even if budget is driving your selection, the difference in price is negligible but the extra reach and weather sealing alone should be worth the extra money. The challenge comes for those debating between the Tamron and Nikon - it's hard to overlook the $1,000 price difference between the two! I'd suggest anyone looking at those lenses take a hard look at their shooting while trying to decide. If you're often shooting birds in flight or are professional / semi-pro, then the Nikon probably fits your needs better. Of course, if reach is more important than focus speed, it's probably worth waiting for the Tamron's release. Making the decision a little harder is that some marketing genius at Nikon put a hefty rebate on the Nikon 80-400mm lens now, meaning you might pay more for the Nikon lens in April after the Tamron is released.

What's my plan? I primarily shoot with the Nikon 80-400mm now and have no plans to sell it because it's such a great performing lens. BUT, I plan to purchase the Tamron lens upon it's release and will keep both (unless the Tamron really under performs) so that I can have that 600mm reach. Which I will shoot will depend on the environment and situation.

Hopefully that helped provide some insight into how I view the lens market right now. Obviously there are lenses with greater focal length and much better performance, but those tend to run $8,000+ and I didn't think that was a fair comparison! If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment on this post or shoot me an email.

Happy shooting!

Reader Question: How Do I Setup Flash for Macro Photography?

Hey folks! I got a question earlier today from Chuck, who asked me about the flash bracket system I have been using in some of my YouTube videos and to take my macro photographs. So let's talk about flash!

I use flash for all macro photography. It's the only way I can avoid using a tripod for every shot, which is good, because I really hate using tripods with macro photography. Tripods are a pain anywhere and are even worse when I'm trying to photograph something that might be moving (like a bug). Because I use the flash, I can get a fast enough shutter speed to hand hold the camera while still getting an aperture that works (I often shoot macro subjects at f/22-f/45).

The problem with using a flash is that it does almost no good mounted in the hot shoe on top of the camera. I can't point it at the subject and it can cast a shadow over the top of the lens onto my subject. The only way to solve the problem is to take the flash off the camera, but that introduces new problems. 

If I don't use a TTL cable, I would have to use a wireless trigger (expensive) or manually set the flash between every shot (I'm too lazy and forgetful for that!). So if I want the flash off the camera, but still attached via a cable...... that means I've gotta mount it to the camera somehow.

The solution I use is not an aftermarket accessory you can purchase and be done with.... I built it by going to my camera shop and fiddling with parts until I found something I liked. However, because it's all built from random parts, it's fairly inexpensive.

The base: The starting point is at the camera. I always have a Really Right Stuff L bracket mounted onto my camera body; it's compatible with my tripod, monopod, flash accessories, etc. It also is a nice solid piece of metal to help protect the camera when I accidentally ding it into something...... The L brackets are specific to your camera model and you may need a different version if you use an external battery pack, so shop carefully.

The arm: The arm assembly is three different parts. The first is a clamp that attaches to the L bracket and has a screw-tight knob to hold the rest of the arm on ("Mini Screw Knob Clamp" on the shopping list). I can position it anywhere I'd like on the L bracket. The second part is a modular arm kit with a knob ("Rotolight Magic Arm"). I can orient the arm in a bazillion ways and once satisfied with the orientation, I clamp down the knob until it's rock solid. It can hold the weight of the flash without problem, but it's not strong enough that I could carry the camera by that arm without it sagging. Finally, I have a plastic piece that mounted to the top of the arm that accepts the flash cable or the flash hot shoe ("Frio Universal Cold Shoe"). Because none of this was designed to go together, I had to use Loctite on the clamp and hot shoe clip to make sure it all stayed together nice and solid. 

Flash: I use a Nikon SB-700 flash and have a 3rd party TTL cable for the flash. Buy a short TTL cable so that you don't have to drag a few extra feet of cabling around with you! I usually put a white diffuser on the front of the flash to soften the light slightly when doing macro photography.

Shopping List:

PS- sorry for the quality of the photos. When I take pictures of the camera I usually end up using the iPhone, which certainly doesn't compare to the D800!

Have a question you'd like me to answer in the blog? Feel free to contact me and I'll see what I can do!

The arm assembly with TTL flash cable attached. From right to left are the mini clamp, flexible magic arm, hot shoe connector and TTL cable.

The arm assembly with TTL flash cable attached. From right to left are the mini clamp, flexible magic arm, hot shoe connector and TTL cable.

Another view of the clamp and flexible arm

Another view of the clamp and flexible arm

The hot shoe connector thingy. I have no idea what this is actually called, but the thing cost only a few bucks.

The hot shoe connector thingy. I have no idea what this is actually called, but the thing cost only a few bucks.

The Really Right Stuff L bracket on the side of the camera. Because I use the extra battery pack, I had to order the correct bracket.

The Really Right Stuff L bracket on the side of the camera. Because I use the extra battery pack, I had to order the correct bracket.

The TTL cable attached in the camera's hot shoe

The TTL cable attached in the camera's hot shoe

The flash is attached to the TTL cable, which then slides into the blue hot shoe connector. This only works if your TTL cable has an attachment to be mounted into a hot shoe on the bottom of it....... Most do.

The flash is attached to the TTL cable, which then slides into the blue hot shoe connector. This only works if your TTL cable has an attachment to be mounted into a hot shoe on the bottom of it....... Most do.

The entire contraption assembled and ready to shoot. This setup also has the LCD on the flash facing me, which makes it easy to make adjustments on the flash between photos.

The entire contraption assembled and ready to shoot. This setup also has the LCD on the flash facing me, which makes it easy to make adjustments on the flash between photos.

Video Blog: Why Every Photographer Should Shoot in RAW and Edit their Photos

I have had many of you email me in the past few weeks asking me to do a photo critique. I am always happy to do so but found that I kept giving the same advice over and over.... 

I am a firm believer that all photographers should shoot in RAW and edit ("Photoshop") their photos. Unfortunately, there is a stigma associated with editing, but I address that and why it is so important in this video blog. In fact, I believe editing is so important that I edit every single photograph before sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or my website. 

If you aren't shooting RAW or don't edit your photos, watch this video and see if it helps you understand why this is so important. Questions? Leave me a comment!


Stocking Stuffers for Photographers Under $150

Nikon and Canon have given us plenty to lust for this holiday season, but let's take a look at some equipment that I think would make a great stocking stuffer for any photographer on your shopping list. Everything on this list is $150 or less, making them great gift ideas!

Rules: I own almost everything on this list, and if I don't own it, I'm at least very familiar with it. I also don't get any money or commission if you buy any of this stuff from the provided links, they are just there for your convince. I also don't work for or with any of these companies, so no bias. 

All photos are from the linked websites.

1. Rode SmartLav Condenser Microphone - $60

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You're looking at this list and wondering why a microphone is topping my list of stocking stuffers for photographers. Well, if you take any video with your camera, particularly if you do video blogging, you'll want a microphone to use instead of the in-camera mic. The SmartLav by Rode is awesome- I use it for all my video blogs. It connects to the iPhone and records audio directly to my phone. I can then pull the audio off without having to install special software on my computer. It's a great tool and worth buying for anyone who also does some video with their photography.

Buy online at B&H Photo.

2. MindShift Gear Contact Sheet - $40

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This is on my Christmas list! It's such an amazingly simple invention, yet brilliant. Landscape photographers often find themselves dumping their gear in the dirt/mud/wet grass/etc. The contact sheet is a mini tarp and super lightweight so that it's not bogging you down. It also has elastic loops so you can hang it as a rain shelter while you wait for your shot. MindShift gear is a subsidiary of Think Tank Photo, so you know it's going to be good stuff!

Buy from MindShift Gear's website.

3. Visual Echos Better Beamer - $37

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This gadget is a wildlife photographer's best friend. It attaches to the flash and helps throw the light further to get into trees or longer distances. It's an incredible product and the price is even better. I think this $37 gizmo has had more impact on my photos than any other similarly priced item! I won't bore you with how it works here, but if you (or someone you know) take photos of birds or other wildlife, then you need this. Make sure to order the correct version for their flash.

Buy from B&H Photo.

4. A Metal Print - $42+

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Photographers love to take photos, but also love seeing their photos printed. A metal print is a unique (and totally awesome) way to print a photo and give it a unique twist. Prints are available in a zillion sizes - but you can get a gift card if you don't know what size or photo to get the photographer in your life. 

Buy online from Bay Photo.

5. Nikon Binoculars - $95

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I always carry a small pair of binoculars with me for spotting birds or other wildlife.... but I'm already carrying plenty of stuff, so it's important to have high quality and lightweight binoculars. These Nikon ones are great - they've stood up to LOTS of abuse and are plenty bright. They also are small enough for me to tuck into a pocket or pouch as I hike. Tip: I mounted a keyring to mine and use a carabiner to me as I hike; I don't want more things around my neck!

Buy from REI.com

6. A subscription to Photo Technique - $30

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I have read or subscribed to almost every photography publication you can imagine, and I've let most of those subscriptions lapse when the year was over because I wasn't engaged or learning from the magazines. Photo Technique is the exception! Their articles are wide ranging and talk about some more unusual techniques in great detail, not a teaser article. It's one periodical I've learned a lot from, and it's got a more intimate feel that some of the bigger photo magazines. Head to your local bookstore and buy the current copy to stuff in their stocking with a note telling them they've got another year coming!

Subscribe online

7. Wacom Tablet - $93

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I purchased a Wacom tablet a year ago and have been addicted ever since. The idea of interacting with your photos through a tablet is so much more natural than a mouse! There's a short learning curve, but I've found I can be much more efficient with editing by using the tablet vs a mouse. Wacom makes a variety of tablets, but this is a great entry-level tablet for someone just starting. I have one of these for travel and a larger pro version for my desktop in my studio.

Buy online from Amazon.com

8. Moose Peterson's "Captured" Book - $35

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My library of photography books is expansive, and, unfortunately, filled with alot of junk. I've been disappointed with poor books on more than a few occasions, but there is one book I swear by for any wildlife photographer... "Captured" by Moose Peterson. Moose is regarded as one of the best wildlife photographers in the United States, and this book is packed with useful knowledge and motivation for a wildlife photographer. It's a great value and I've learned an incredible amount from Moose's book. 

Buy "Captured" on Amazon.com

9. UPstrap - $30+

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I've used the UPstrap for two years and been very happy with how it's held up. Despite my cat and dog both chewing the strap, it's had no signs of fraying or weakness. The big rubber grippy pad doesn't slip - ever. I could do some wild dancing and my camera would stay exactly where I put it. The UPstrap also doesn't have any quick release points, which means it's less likely to fail and suddenly drop my expensive camera. 

I never, ever, ever, use the strap that came with a camera. Those straps are easy to cut and grab the attention of a thief from far away. Plus, they're not comfortable. 

You can buy the UPstrap directly from their website

10. A Roll of Gaffers Tape - $10

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Gaffers tape is duct tape for photographers. You can use it to fix an amazing number of things! I've once used gaffers tape to fix a tripod when the leg lock broke - now I always carry a few yards of gaffers tape rolled around my monopod or tripod legs. It's an incredibly versatile tool and worth having some handy at all times.

Buy online from B&H Photo.

11. A Print from ScenicTraverse.com - $25+

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You know I can't have a list end on 10.... everyone has a list of 10! I've got World War II poster prints starting at $25 and special limited edition prints for the fine art collector available. Perfect for anyone, even a non-photographer!

Buy from ScenicTraverse.com