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

Getting Sharp: The Importance of Calibration

You have spent hundreds (thousands) of dollars on camera gear, but are you really getting the best image possible with that lens and camera combination? Do you read reviews about sharp lenses, only to find your photographs never look as impressive as the ones you see online? If you have never calibrated your lenses, then there is a good chance that you are loosing the opportunity to get sharp images.

For instance, see the following photo of a bee pollinating this flower (click to enlarge):

A bee on a flower in an indoor garden in Pennsylvania. Shot with a Nikon D850 + Nikon 200mm f/4 micro lens that was calibrated with the camera.

What is Calibration? Do I Need to Calibrate?

If you have a dSLR camera with autofocus lenses, then you need to calibrate. It does not matter if your camera is only a day old - calibration is not a factor of camera age. Very simply, because your camera and lenses were not manufactured together, there is a slight error that almost certainly exists as the camera and lens communicate in the autofocus mechanism. This error varies lens-to-lens, but exists in virtually every single lens.

The result is that the camera and lens think they have achieved focus, but the resulting images will be out of focus when you look at it later. This is a byproduct of how light is bent around the mirror and prism in the dSLR body, with a different piece of light routed to a focusing element.

Unfortunately, this error probably exists in every lens you own.... even if you have one lens that is perfect, another could be off by a huge factor. So you need to calibrate each lens with each camera individually.

Examples of Calibrated vs Non-calibrated Lens

To help illustrate this, lets look at two photographs I took in a nearby forest. These aren't the best photographs ever in terms of composition, but they do a fine job illustrating the importance of calibration. These photos were taken with the Nikon D850 and Sigma 85mm f/1.4 art lens. The Sigma 85mm lens is considered the sharpest lens ever tested by DxO Labs, so the photos taken with it should blow my mind, right?

The following images shot at f/1.4 with the focus on the scar on the tree bark:

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Notice a difference between the image on the left vs right? The one on the left hardly seems sharp.... especially since it supposedly came from the sharpest lens ever tested?! I took several shots and can confirm they all looked like this - clearly out of focus on the area where I was aiming.

Now let's look at the rightimage, with the lens calibration programed into the camera. For this particular lens, the calibration factor was +20. The result here is clearly better. The bark is nice and sharp, with lots of detail. This looks more like the performance from the sharpest lens ever tested....

Here is one more view, side by side, of the two images cropped in on the focus area.

The non-calibrated image

The non-calibrated image

With lens calibration activated

With lens calibration activated

Bottom line: As you can see from the above images, calibration has a huge impact on the sharpness of your photos. And if you are shelling out the big bucks for camera and lenses, then you should be prepared to spend another $100(ish) to calibrate them.

Lens Align & Focus Tune

The Lens Align target. It is best arranged with a neutral background. I used a cheap $8 tripod to hold the Lens Align.

Without question, the top product on the market for calibrating your own lenses is the Lens Align Focus Calibration System and Focus Tune Software. Designed by Michael Tapes, it's easiest and recommended to buy both products together as you will get the best results by using both.

Lens Align

The Lens Align Focus Calibration System is a set of precision manufactured targets that you use to measure optimal sharpness and identify front/back focus alignment issues. The target includes a vertical front panel of calibration targets and a horizontal "ruler" with geometric designs that the Focus Tune software can read. While it's possible to buy and use the Lens Align without Focus Tune, it really doesn't make much sense.

Focus Tune

The Focus Tune software accompanies the Lens Align, and you really can't use the software without the target. The software will help evaluate the sharpness of each image and will measure the front/back focus, helping you identify the best focus adjustment for the lens.

Basic Calibration How-To

For starters, you need to have the Lens Align target, a good tripod for your camera, a cheap tripod for your Lens Align target, and - ideally - the Focus Tune software. You also need to make sure your camera will permit lens calibration / lens alignment adjustments. 

A comprehensive set of instructions is found in this YouTube video - the below directions are designed to give a basic overview of using the system.

The Focus Tune software with all of the images imported and the neon green target set.

  1. Setup your camera, lens to be adjusted, and Lens Align. Use a tripod for the camera and Lens Align. A cheap tripod works best for the target, while you need a sturdy tripod for the camera.

  2. Align the camera and target according to the specifications of the lens (see instructions).

  3. Set the camera to JPEG fine, low ISO (400 or below), and the maximum aperture of the lens (f/1.4, f/2,8, etc)

  4. Shoot a series of five images at the following focus tune adjustments: -20, -15, -10, -5, 0, 5, 10, 15, 20. Defocus the lens between each shot so that the camera has to refocus.

  5. Use Focus Tune to find the cluster of images that is sharpest, then shoot another set of images to refine the setting. For instance, if the sharpest images appeared around 10-15, shoot another series of fives images at adjustment value 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15.

  6. Use Focus Tune to find the sharpest images and identify the value for that particular lens.

  7. Although the camera should remember each setting for the lens in the internal memory, it's a good idea to write them down

  8. Rinse and repeat with each lens!

Sounds easy enough - and it really is! Taking 30 minutes to watch the video instructions will equip you with all the details for the process, but it is really straight forward. Once I knew what I was doing, it took no more than 20 minutes per lens to complete.

But what about zoom lenses? Personally, I calibrated a zoom lens at the focal lengths that will get the most use. For instance, I calibrated my 24-70mm lens at 50mm. A quick test showed that the setting identified for 50mm was also good for other focal lengths. Likewise, if you are using a teleconverter, you should calibrate the lens with and without the teleconverter as you may get different values for each. 

Refining Focus with Focus Tune

A screenshot of the output from the Focus Tune software. The graphic depicts that most of the shots have a front focus issue, but that the last cluster of images are very close to accurate on the sharpness. After additional refinement, it was determined an adjustment of +20 was best for this particular lens.

A screenshot of the output from the Focus Tune software. The graphic depicts that most of the shots have a front focus issue, but that the last cluster of images are very close to accurate on the sharpness. After additional refinement, it was determined an adjustment of +20 was best for this particular lens.

The Focus Tune software really is pretty incredible, and a good buy for anyone calibrating their lenses. In a matter of a few clicks, the software will read each image, evaluate it for sharpness and front/back focus, then will generate a chart and table with focus values. The ideal is to get focus values close to 0. Negative numbers denote front focus, while positive numbers are back focus. 

Looking at the graph on the right, we can see that I had the Nikon D850 setup with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens. The clusters I imaged were all front focused, and badly so (as you noticed from the earlier tree bark photos). 

Only the last cluster of images (shot with a focus adjustment of +20 in camera), were remotely close to in focus. 

It takes a little trial and error with testing different values, but Focus Tune does a great job of helping you jump directly to the best results so that you can find the optimum value for each lens. 

Don't be intimidated if you aren't a math major - Michael Tapes makes some great how-to videos to orient you to the whole process.

Focus Tune will show you the sharpest images and overlays a red mask on the calibration ruler, allowing you to see where the precise focus area lies.

Focus Tune will show you the sharpest images and overlays a red mask on the calibration ruler, allowing you to see where the precise focus area lies.

Finalizing the Calibration

Once you have completed the whole process, you will have values ranging between -20 and +20 that represent the lens calibration that needs to be dialed into your particular camera. I would also recommend writing these values down, because they could drift over time, and it is good to know where you started.

Applying the calibrated lens values for my Nikon 70-200mm lens in my D850.

Applying the calibrated lens values for my Nikon 70-200mm lens in my D850.

For reference, these are the values that each of my lenses needed. What you'll see is that every lens required some adjustment - which is why calibration is so important.

  • Nikon 14-24mm: +1

  • Nikon 24-70mm: +14

  • Nikon 70-200mm: +12

  • Nikon 70-200mm w/1.4 Tele: +8

  • Nikon 300mm: +6

  • Nikon 300mm w/1.4 Tele: +6

  • Sigma 85mm Art: +20

In closing, I hope this blog has helped you understand what lens calibration is, why it is so important, and provided a brief introduction into the process. 

The super detail - eyes, pollen, and little hairs - are only possible from an accurately calibrated lens.

The super detail - eyes, pollen, and little hairs - are only possible from an accurately calibrated lens.

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....

"It's Not Legally Against the Law"

Jay Maziel, one of New York's most famous photographers, once told me "It's not legally against the law to shoot at high noon."

If you are a photographer, you'll know what that means instantly. But for those who might not get what Jay's saying, let me elaborate...... Photographers regard the hours around sunrise and sunset as sacred time. The low sun is not as harsh - it can have a warmer, softer, and more aesthetically pleasing glow. As a result, many photographers won't bother shooting around high noon, when the bright sun can be harsh and less appealing.

Jay Maziel is suggesting that it's okay to shoot at high noon - there isn't a law against it, and that you can still get some great images.

I agree! The below landscape photographs were all taken in the 11am - 1pm hour, but with proper technique, the results are still quite pleasing. Don't let someone tell you that you can't and shouldn't shoot at noon..... it's their loss!

Images all shot with the Leica SL.

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.

Behind the Scenes: Airshow Photographer

Ever wonder what it's like to be just feet from the action at an airshow with nothing but a (big) camera lens between you and some of the most powerful aircraft in the world? 

Let's take a step behind the scenes as an airshow photographer at the Little Gransden Air and Car Show from a few weeks ago. Although not new to aviation photography, I don't have many connections in the UK yet, so I was very grateful when an opportunity arose for me to be an official photographer in at this show. I may not have my furniture shipped over from the United States, but I had everything I needed to shoot the show, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Being a show photographer starts by getting to the show with all your equipment and checking in with the coordinators. After signing my life away to the Brits, I was issued a neon yellow vest that certainly raised my fashions up a few notches. More importantly, the vest gained access to the otherwise restricted portions of the show along the runway, which offers an unobstructed view of the aircraft. This area is tightly controlled by the CAA (British version of the FAA) as you are closer to the aircraft with no safety barriers between you and a spinning prop. 

Neon yellow really can be quite the fashion statement! In my right hand is my D610 with Nikon 80-400mm lens while I have my D800 with 24-70mm on my left shoulder.

Neon yellow really can be quite the fashion statement! In my right hand is my D610 with Nikon 80-400mm lens while I have my D800 with 24-70mm on my left shoulder.

The group of photographers first had an orientation with the organizer who showed us where to stand and explained some of the basic rules for the day. Those rules include getting the heck out of the way should there be an accident - we are standing immediately in front of the fire and rescue services! 

A view of the crowd from my vantage point. Straight ahead is where the planes would park before it was time to perform and the runway is immediately to the right (off image).

A view of the crowd from my vantage point. Straight ahead is where the planes would park before it was time to perform and the runway is immediately to the right (off image).

After our photographer orientation, I had an hour to sit with my friends and enjoy our packed lunch before I had to scurry off to the pilots briefing. This is the last minute planning meeting for everyone flying at the show. Here, the show director reviewed the order of the performances, the timeline, and the take-off sequence. This turned out to be a bit of a spectacle - some performers wanted to get airborne several acts early to give themselves some practice and prep time, so there had to be some careful coordination and planning to make sure everyone knew where they were supposed to be and that all the planes were in the right place at the right time. Adding to the balancing act is that some planes have certain restrictions - for instance, an ultralight glider was set to perform immediately after the Vulcan, but we had to wait 3 minutes for aerial disturbances and turbulence caused by the Vulcan's jets to subside before the ultralight could take to the air. 

Managing the logistics for an airshow is very tricky business and made even harder when some of the performers fly in from another airfield to display and then fly away - the timing has to be perfect! Here a pair of Lancaster's flew over the show immediately following a memorial prayer service to honor those who have died in service to their country.

Besides a slew of logistics, the show director also took this opportunity to cover radio frequencies, information on getting fuel, and where the backup runway to land in the event of an emergency was located. It was all the sorts of things that, as spectators, we take for granted when seeing a brilliant show.

Held in one of the hangars before the show started, the pilots orientation was a chance to work out the final logistics for the flying performances. Here the flight director is briefing the pilots that would be performing on everything from emergency procedures to where the snacks are located.

Following the briefing, I made my way to the flight line to start shooting. This is where the behind the scenes gets less interesting - the obvious photographing of planes ensued! But there were several unique twists to being a show photographer; the show director was standing nearby and I could overhear her radio. This meant I could hear the pilots talking to each other... "ready... go" was a good clue they were about to do a trick or stunt I needed the camera poised and ready for! 

Getting the timing right for photos like this can be a bit tricky, but it helps when you are standing close to the flight director and can overhear the pilots talking on the radio!

Several hours and 5 memory cards later, my feet hurt but I had shot just about everything possible from the show! After returning my vest it was time to head home and start the long and painful process of editing thousands of images to find only the very best.

My friend, who was back in the crowd, got this distant photo of my position for context. I am in one of the neon vests between those firetrucks - it's a position that offers a great vantage point without blocking the views of the rest of the crowd.

Although I normally shoot with my Nikon D800, I actually opted for the D610 for this shoot because it offers a faster shooting rate and the lower megapixels meant I could fit more images per memory card. The camera performed beautifully and is probably my new "go-to" for any action shooting. I still used the D800, but kept it equipped with a 24-70mm lens and used it for close up shots of the action immediately in front of my position. 

Being so close to the flight line also gave me a chance to get some unique angles on non-flight activity. For instance, Mark Jefferies greeted the crowd after an exquisite aerial solo performance. By being away from the crowd, I could shoot back on them to add the additional context.

The show was an outstanding success - all of the performances went off without any major glitches and I took away thousands of great shots. After almost 6 days of editing (slightly delayed by the fact that our furniture was delivered in the middle of it), I narrowed it down to the very best images. Here are a few of the other photographs from the show:

Moving Overseas with Camera Equipment.....!?!

Today's the day! After months of planning and preparing, the movers have descended on our house with a million boxes to move our effects to the United Kingdom. There have been many challenges along the way, the least of which has been figuring out how to get all of my camera equipment safely there. So I figured I'd share my saga...

Background:

This move is a 3-5 year position in the United Kingdom, so packing for it is a little different then packing for a long trip. When the military / Department of Defense packs and moves people around the wold, they do it in stages, which makes the whole thing more manageable for them and challenging for us. 

Option 1: Household Goods (HHG)
This is the shipment where the majority of your effects travel - couches, beds, TVs, etc. It's also the slowest to arrive (2-3 months) and travels by truck and ship, so there's alot of loading/unloading. There is no temperature control and everything is packed on your behalf. Not a good place to put expensive camera equipment!

Option 2: Unaccompanied Baggage (aka Express)
This shipment is designed to travel by air and meet you just a few weeks after you arrive and provide the essentials while you wait for your HHG to arrive. They warn you up front not to pack anything fragile in this shipment as it is rough handled - and if they loose your stuff, you only get reimbursement up to $5k, which barely covers much camera equipment! So again, not a good place to put the gear!

Option 3: Ship it to myself
I can go to the post office and mail my equipment to myself, but the cost of insuring that is prohibitively expensive and the government wouldn't reimburse me for it, so that's also off the table!

Option 4: Storage
In theory, I could tell the government to store this equipment for me, but that kinda defeats the point.....?!

Option 5: Carry on your person
And here we are - the only option that makes any reasonable sense for the camera equipment. The government will pay for 2 checked bags per person (me+husband = 4x 50lbs bags) plus the airline gives one carry-on and one personal item each. While that seems like plenty of space, as soon as I account for clothes and a suitcase in pet supplies (food, litter box, leashes, etc), I'm down to hardly any luggage left! The only option is to get everything I want into a backpack that fits on my back - while a ThinkTank roller bag would be ideal given the volume of stuff to carry, I need to dedicate that space to other items (and I don't own a rolling camera bag). 

I own a zillion backpacks that I could use for this task, but the choice was pretty easy - my MindShift Gear Rotation 180 bag. I have been using this backpack exclusively for the past 8 months and love it to death.... I've dragged it in the snow, rain, sand, and mud and it doesn't care. I even dropped it into a lake - no problem. So there's no reason to not use ol' reliable to carry almost $20,000 worth of gear overseas! 

I have stuffed the Rotation 180 to the brim - it's now holding the following: Nikon D800 w/battery pack, Nikon D600, Nikon 80-400, Nikon 24-70, Nikon 14-24, Nikon speed light, and a ton of accessories, including controllers, filters, cables, and more. The bag tips the scales at almost 30 pounds packed, which is incredibly heavy, but its the only way to ensure the most valuable equipment arrives in one piece without any damage in shipping.

Fully loaded, the Mindshift Gear Rotation 180 tips the scales at over 25 lbs - which is pretty heavy for a camera bag- especially one being carried as a backpack!

The Mindshift Gear Rotation 180 on display in our hotel. I have stuffed almost all of the useable space with camera equipment, with the last bit of space reserved for "day of" items like passports, iPad, etc. Unfortunately the iPad camera isn't good enough to show all the dirt and dust on this bag from the miles of use I've put on it.

Inside the back compartmented of the Mindshift Gear Rotation 180 - I have jammed it full of gear! I would probably never hike with it like this since it's just jammed up, but this was the best way to transport all of the essentials, including lenses, flashes, camera bodies, chargers, filters, and more.

Meanwhile the DJI Phantom Vision 2+ has it's own (custom made) bag that we are using to transport it to the UK....

The DJI Phantom Vision 2+ Quadcopter in my custom made backpack. This will be the second "personal item" we will carry on the plane.

So how does the rest arrive?

A few days ago the first round of movers arrived to spend the day packing - they walked through the house with brown paper and wrapped every single item they could find. At one point our cat became a little concerned that he may be next to be wrapped! Included in this was some other camera equipment - mostly larger bulky items (like other camera bags, less expensive accessories, etc). In total, the movers prepared 208 separate pieces, which includes the final boxes and furniture for our hose.

This used to be part of my photography studio - now it's is a holding place for the wrapped items that will transit to the UK. Somewhere in this pile is all the camera equipment I couldn't manage to carry on my person for the trip.

Shortly thereafter, the next round of movers arrived to load up their trucks. In a giant game of Tetris, they spent 8 hours moving these items into wooden crates and inventorying every item. The wooden crates are cleverly designed to fit inside of commercial shipping containers so they can be loaded onto a ship at the Port of Baltimore before transiting the Atlantic. In total, it took 8 of these large wooden crates to move our entire household effects.

In a crazy game of Tetris, the movers managed to stuff all 208 separate boxes & pieces into these wooden containers. The crates are designed to load straight into a commercial shipping container for maritime shipment to the UK.

Movers staged all of the boxes, weighing over 7,000lbs, outside before loading them into the crates. It took almost 2 trucks to carry all of those boxes away!

After nailing the wooden crates shut, they placed serialized inventory stickers on the outside of the crate to ensure there would be no tampering with our goodies.

The last round of moving came today when a few movers arrived to take away our "Express" shipment. I managed to put a few small pieces of equipment in there - stuff like tripods that are pretty robust - so that I'll have them at my disposal shortly after I arrive. 

The next challenge comes in 10 days when we head to the airport and I convince United Airlines that my 26lbs camera backpack is my "personal item"!

Stay tuned for more moving stories over the next few weeks.....

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!

Quick Shot: 10 Minute Photo

A few weeks ago I got an idea for a 10 minute photograph - something I've never tried before. The idea was to take long exposure photos for 10 minutes and merge the final product into one photo in Photoshop - essentially creating a single image that represents 10 minutes of time.

The challenge was to find a place where I could do this experiment and where it'd be obvious that 10 minutes of time had passed. That meant that I needed a location with some nice moving clouds and (preferably) some water. After extensive research, I decided to try this out at the fishing pier at Leesylvania State Park. 

To get this image, I mounted two neutral density filters on my Nikon D800 with Nikon 14-24mm lens. The neutral density filters limit how much light gets to my camera, so the camera compensates by taking a longer image. Think of it like tricking the camera into thinking it's nighttime during the middle of the day. I had to use a tripod because each image was 20 seconds long and the camera couldn't move at all during this 10 minute stretch.

In total, 30 images were taken over 10 minutes.

To get this result, however, required even longer with Photoshop! First, to speed up processing times, I converted all the RAW NEF files into TIFF format. Then I used Adobe Photoshop photomerge to create a blended image of all 30 photos into one. Of course, this left a little ghosting and vignetting where there were things like fishers standing on the pier, but I removed those to create a seamless image. Finally, I opened the composite TIFF and adjusted it in Adobe Camera RAW and converted it into black and white using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. 

I am pretty pleased with the end result and I think it's neat having a single image that represents 10 minutes in time. What do you think?

My 10 minute photograph of the fishing pier at Leesylvania State Park

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!


Quick Shot: Ice Eye View (As seen on CNN.com)

This article appeared on CNN's homepage on December 11th, 2013 after CNN editors expressed interest in publishing the photos. Scroll down for links to CNN's article.

CNN PRODUCER NOTE When it started snowing after the ice storm, landscape photographer Kristen Meister grabbed her macro gear and headed out to her Woodbridge, Virginia, backyard. “Scientists will pull out their microscopes and show you an intimate view of a snowflake, but nobody could see that with the naked eye. I wanted to capture things that you could still see with a human eye, but it was a blown-up view of what you could see,” she said of her macro ice photos, shot Dec. 9 and 10. “I wanted to show people that there’s beauty just outside their back door. You don’t have to go across the country to get this kind of stuff.
— zdan, CNN iReport producer

Take an up close and personal look at some of the ice from winter storm Dion. Scenic Traverse Photography gives us a macro view of some ice and snow formations from her home in Woodbridge, VA (near Washington, DC).

These macro images offer a unique perspective on the ice and snow storm that has cancelled school and closed the Federal Government between December 9-10, 2013. The ice seen in these images is thinner than the width of a french fry!

All images shot with a Nikon D800, Nikon 105mm macro lens, 1.4x teleconverter and extension tubes. Nikon SB-700 flash used.


CNN's official Twitter feed posted a photo and the article!

CNN's official Twitter feed posted a photo and the article!

The article as it appeared on CNN.com - linked from the CNN home page. The first two images were from my submission to CNN's editors. 

The article as it appeared on CNN.com - linked from the CNN home page. The first two images were from my submission to CNN's editors. 

Equipment Review: MindShift Gear Rotation 180 Backpack (Initial)

Photographers are gear whores. We love our gadgets and gizmos and are always looking to get that next best thing. I'm no exception - I own more camera bags than purses! 

I've been on a quest for a great photographer backpack. Normally, when going on a long hike, I'll pack my gear into a designed hiking backpack, but these bags don't offer the protection for camera gear that I'd like. Additionally, the design of these bags can make it a real pain to get to your gear in a timely manner and require you to remove the backpack to access the compartments.

I own several camera backpacks, my favorite of which is the Think Tank Shape Shifter. It's a great travel bag and I can carry everything I need for several weeks of shooting. Unfortunately, it's not a great bag to hike with; it lacks a true backpacking frame and has no place for me to hold water while I hike. I've read about plenty of photography-specific backpacks that would solve these problems, but they were either too big for my female frame, or didn't satisfy all of my needs. 

A few months ago I heard about a new company called MindShift Gear. They're owned/operated by the same folks who run Think Thank Photo (and I love all the Think Tank products I own), so I was immediately intrigued. They started as a Kickstarter project to build camera bags for hikers and got so much attention that they raised over $100,000 more than their goal! Clearly, there's a demand here that isn't being satisfied by the current marketplace! 

The hallmark bag for MindShift Gear is their Rotation 180 Professional bag. What makes this bag so unique is that the belt harness can unclip from the back of your pack and slide to the front while you wear the bag, allowing access to your gear without taking the bag off. At first this seemed too gimmicky. I've never been a big fan of these "12-in-1 swiss army knife style do everything" bags and was pessimistic about how well this contraption would work. I was impressed, however, with the bag's layout and construction, so I decided to check it out at my favorite camera shop, which happens to be a dealer - Ace Photo.

My main goals when looking at the bag were to assess the fit (particularly since it's a bag designed for men and I'm a curvy woman!) and how well this bag rotation thing worked. 

I was blown away by the fit - this bag is very similar to my high end backpacking bags in that every strap is adjustable in a zillion points, meaning I could adjust it to fit perfectly. The bag was very comfortable and the shoulder straps didn't lay awkwardly over my female curves (some competitor bags are known for being very unforgiving to busty women). In fact, with a few minutes of tweaking, I had this bag sitting like it was custom built for me, which was surprising since I've got a small 5'6" frame. 

The rotation feature stunned me. Although the bag was empty while I played in the store, it moved very smoothly and was a one hand operation to move the belt bag back into place. The clip that holds the bag into the backpack is also operated magnetically, so you only have to get it close for it to snap back into place - very handy for a behind-the-back operation. I actually think this bag may work even better when fully loaded as the weight will help keep the bag in place.

Another important requirement for this bag is that it could accommodate my large format film photography as well as my digital photography. Much as I hate to adjust those padded inserts, this bag can switch between setups with minimal modification to those dividers (see below for load outs). 

I purchased the bag and have been adjusting it at home, but haven't had a chance to test it in the field yet. However, I thought I'd share some initial impressions in a blog and update with a video blog in the future after I've put some serious miles on this thing. 

I'm a photographer, so let's look at the bag in pictures (apologies in advance for the mediocre product photography- I do better with trees!)

The front (or is it the back?) of the bag. Lots of attachment points for rigging gear. It's made from a heavy duty material that will not tear as it brushes past some twigs. The zippers are also well made and weather stitched to minimize any moisture entering the bag. Of course, it also comes with a rain cover that can be mounted to the bag in the event of serious downpours. 

The front (or is it the back?) of the bag. Lots of attachment points for rigging gear. It's made from a heavy duty material that will not tear as it brushes past some twigs. The zippers are also well made and weather stitched to minimize any moisture entering the bag. Of course, it also comes with a rain cover that can be mounted to the bag in the event of serious downpours. 

This side has the compartment for holding a hydration bladder (Camelback) and an exit point for the straw. It also has a mesh pocket for a water bottle or other snacks. Both of these are key for long hikes. The waist belt on this side has a small pocket for stashing a granola bar.

This side has the compartment for holding a hydration bladder (Camelback) and an exit point for the straw. It also has a mesh pocket for a water bottle or other snacks. Both of these are key for long hikes. The waist belt on this side has a small pocket for stashing a granola bar.

The shoulder strap assembly has several adjustment points, allowing for almost custom fit on this bag. In this photo I also have the rigging for the optional tripod mount attached (the carabiners on each shoulder strap). The back pad also has a nice mesh panel to help keep you cool. 

The shoulder strap assembly has several adjustment points, allowing for almost custom fit on this bag. In this photo I also have the rigging for the optional tripod mount attached (the carabiners on each shoulder strap). The back pad also has a nice mesh panel to help keep you cool. 

This is the side where the magic happens! At the bottom is the clip that magnetically disconnects and allows for access to the rotating camera bag. There's also a large pocket on this side which holds the included rain cover.

This is the side where the magic happens! At the bottom is the clip that magnetically disconnects and allows for access to the rotating camera bag. There's also a large pocket on this side which holds the included rain cover.

The Finer Details

This is what the flap looks like when opened. An elastic cord keeps the flap up and out of the way while you rotate the bag.... this bungee is also adjustable to make the flipping action more pronounced. 

This is what the flap looks like when opened. An elastic cord keeps the flap up and out of the way while you rotate the bag.... this bungee is also adjustable to make the flipping action more pronounced. 

A close-up of the clip that secures the flap. It's magnetic, so you only have to get it close for it to re-engage. The thumb cut-out makes it easy to detach one-handed behind your back.

A close-up of the clip that secures the flap. It's magnetic, so you only have to get it close for it to re-engage. The thumb cut-out makes it easy to detach one-handed behind your back.

A close-up of the shoulder straps and the rigging mounted on them. This buckle is for the optional tripod mount. There are also elastic pockets on the shoulder straps that can be used to hold a GPS, cell phone, or Snickers bar.

A close-up of the shoulder straps and the rigging mounted on them. This buckle is for the optional tripod mount. There are also elastic pockets on the shoulder straps that can be used to hold a GPS, cell phone, or Snickers bar.

The exit point for the straw from the hydration pocket (bladder not included, but cheap to buy from REI). Notice the big zippers that are less likely to jam up with a little dirt or mud.

The exit point for the straw from the hydration pocket (bladder not included, but cheap to buy from REI). Notice the big zippers that are less likely to jam up with a little dirt or mud.

Big zipper pulls make it easy to open these zippers, even with bulky gloves on. Sweet!

Big zipper pulls make it easy to open these zippers, even with bulky gloves on. Sweet!

Another side shot, but on this image you can see where the zipper for the expanding front pocket is located. That pocket is huge - I could easily shove an iPad in there if I felt so compelled.... more likely this is where I'd shove my rain gear so it's separated from the camera equipment.

Another side shot, but on this image you can see where the zipper for the expanding front pocket is located. That pocket is huge - I could easily shove an iPad in there if I felt so compelled.... more likely this is where I'd shove my rain gear so it's separated from the camera equipment.

The back pad opens to allow access to the main compartment, meaning you could theoretically access the main compartment without taking the bag off if you rotated the entire bag to your front. This pocket would be a great place to stash a cleaning cloth or other relatively flat items. I wouldn't shove anything too bulky here as it might stick out on your back funny.

The back pad opens to allow access to the main compartment, meaning you could theoretically access the main compartment without taking the bag off if you rotated the entire bag to your front. This pocket would be a great place to stash a cleaning cloth or other relatively flat items. I wouldn't shove anything too bulky here as it might stick out on your back funny.

Same view (inside the back pad access point) but this time I'm showing the inside of the optional padded insert. This insert allows you to use the main compartment to store additional camera gear. The other option is to use this for holding some day hiking equipment. When I carry my large format film camera, I'll need this insert, but will probably opt out of it when shooting digital (I say that now....)

Same view (inside the back pad access point) but this time I'm showing the inside of the optional padded insert. This insert allows you to use the main compartment to store additional camera gear. The other option is to use this for holding some day hiking equipment. When I carry my large format film camera, I'll need this insert, but will probably opt out of it when shooting digital (I say that now....)

The main compartment can also be accessed via a panel on the top. The influence of Think Tank Photo on this design isn't lost- there's a mesh pocket at every turn!

The main compartment can also be accessed via a panel on the top. The influence of Think Tank Photo on this design isn't lost- there's a mesh pocket at every turn!

This is what the bag looks like when you've pulled the waist belt out from the backpack. It's the size of a large fanny pack. Although hard to see in this photo, there is an attachment clip here that keeps the waist belt tethered to the backpack so you don't have to stress about dropping this if the waist belt suddenly disconnected (unlikely). 

This is what the bag looks like when you've pulled the waist belt out from the backpack. It's the size of a large fanny pack. Although hard to see in this photo, there is an attachment clip here that keeps the waist belt tethered to the backpack so you don't have to stress about dropping this if the waist belt suddenly disconnected (unlikely). 

Here's a close-up of the previously mentioned tether. No excuses for dropping something!

Here's a close-up of the previously mentioned tether. No excuses for dropping something!

The belt pack removed from the rest of the backpack. You could carry this as is on a short hike, but I don't see myself doing much of that. The fact that it can be removed might be useful if your carry on bag was overweight .... sorry TSA, this is TWO bags, not ONE! The front pocket here has another rain cover to protect this when it's not housed within the backpack.

The belt pack removed from the rest of the backpack. You could carry this as is on a short hike, but I don't see myself doing much of that. The fact that it can be removed might be useful if your carry on bag was overweight .... sorry TSA, this is TWO bags, not ONE! The front pocket here has another rain cover to protect this when it's not housed within the backpack.

The inside of the belt bag. Notice another mesh pocket an rather expansive cargo area. There are several pockets and modular dividers that will make this a very versatile setup.

The inside of the belt bag. Notice another mesh pocket an rather expansive cargo area. There are several pockets and modular dividers that will make this a very versatile setup.

MindShift Gear sells a pocket similar to the modular pockets made by Think Tank Photo that can be added to the waist belt. I didn't buy that pocket, but found that my existing Think Tank Photo pockets could be mounted. The pocket needs to be rigged as shown to work properly. Although I don't see myself needing more pockets on this bag, this is handy for allowing me to keep things like binoculars or a teleconverter at hand (or more snacks... nom nom nom)!

MindShift Gear sells a pocket similar to the modular pockets made by Think Tank Photo that can be added to the waist belt. I didn't buy that pocket, but found that my existing Think Tank Photo pockets could be mounted. The pocket needs to be rigged as shown to work properly. Although I don't see myself needing more pockets on this bag, this is handy for allowing me to keep things like binoculars or a teleconverter at hand (or more snacks... nom nom nom)!

Belt pack/waist belt with the extra pocket mounted. 

Belt pack/waist belt with the extra pocket mounted. 

The whole thing mounted back into the backpack (with the extra Think Tank Photo pocket attached). 

The whole thing mounted back into the backpack (with the extra Think Tank Photo pocket attached). 

Load Out Testing - Digital

Although I'd never carry all my lenses on a hike, I loaded them all up just to say "I can"... this is the padded insert for the main compartment with a Nikon 80-400mm lens (left) and Nikon 105mm macro (right). I also have a handful of filters in there.

Although I'd never carry all my lenses on a hike, I loaded them all up just to say "I can"... this is the padded insert for the main compartment with a Nikon 80-400mm lens (left) and Nikon 105mm macro (right). I also have a handful of filters in there.

A more realistic load out in the waist bag. I almost always carry my camera in my hands vs in the bag, so I didn't worry about making space for the D800. I have (from left to right): Nikon 24-70mm, binoculars, 1.4x teleconverter, and Nikon 14-24mm lens. Plenty of space for more filters or a speedlight.

A more realistic load out in the waist bag. I almost always carry my camera in my hands vs in the bag, so I didn't worry about making space for the D800. I have (from left to right): Nikon 24-70mm, binoculars, 1.4x teleconverter, and Nikon 14-24mm lens. Plenty of space for more filters or a speedlight.

Load Out Testing - Large Format Film

I will have to use the padded insert in the main compartment when I carry my Zone VI large format (4x5) film camera. The camera takes up the majority of the compartment, but I have space on top for a box of film, my light meter and loupe. Note: I would carry the camera body in it's protective wrap, but removed that for the sake of the photo.

I will have to use the padded insert in the main compartment when I carry my Zone VI large format (4x5) film camera. The camera takes up the majority of the compartment, but I have space on top for a box of film, my light meter and loupe. Note: I would carry the camera body in it's protective wrap, but removed that for the sake of the photo.

The waist bag loaded out for large format film. I have both lenses and film holders in here, but plenty of space for more equipment. I'd probably also put my film changing bag and some extra holders back here.

The waist bag loaded out for large format film. I have both lenses and film holders in here, but plenty of space for more equipment. I'd probably also put my film changing bag and some extra holders back here.

Extra Accessories

This is the top pocket accessory. This is super handy if you are going on a weekend hike and hoping to use this bag as your primary backpack for the trip. This pocket could hold some critical equipment to make that sort of trip possible. It attaches with 5 quick clips.

This is the top pocket accessory. This is super handy if you are going on a weekend hike and hoping to use this bag as your primary backpack for the trip. This pocket could hold some critical equipment to make that sort of trip possible. It attaches with 5 quick clips.

A close-up of the clips and their mount on the bag. Very easy to attach or remove.

A close-up of the clips and their mount on the bag. Very easy to attach or remove.

The pocket attaches to one of the many loops on the front. The straps are long enough that I think I could probably shove a bedroll or something underneath the pocket and use that tension to hold it in place. 

The pocket attaches to one of the many loops on the front. The straps are long enough that I think I could probably shove a bedroll or something underneath the pocket and use that tension to hold it in place. 

With the front pocket in place, the bag looks almost the same as it did without!

With the front pocket in place, the bag looks almost the same as it did without!

This is the tripod cup for those who wish to mount a tripod to their back. This is a gizmo I'll probably never use as intended -I will either mount it to my side using that mesh pocket or use their tripod mounting system to carry it. However, this pocket will be a great place to stash a coat!

This is the tripod cup for those who wish to mount a tripod to their back. This is a gizmo I'll probably never use as intended -I will either mount it to my side using that mesh pocket or use their tripod mounting system to carry it. However, this pocket will be a great place to stash a coat!

The clips for the tripod cup. It starts to get a little busy when you have the tripod cup and the extra top pocket mounted, but not so busy that it's unmanageable. 

The clips for the tripod cup. It starts to get a little busy when you have the tripod cup and the extra top pocket mounted, but not so busy that it's unmanageable. 

Accessory straps. In case you haven't mounted your snowboard or Christmas tree, these straps could probably do it. Outside of trying to carry an overnight camping load in this bag, I don't see much use for these straps on day hikes, but maybe I'll be proven wrong. 

Accessory straps. In case you haven't mounted your snowboard or Christmas tree, these straps could probably do it. Outside of trying to carry an overnight camping load in this bag, I don't see much use for these straps on day hikes, but maybe I'll be proven wrong. 

Half of the tripod mount system. This ring goes around the tripod head and then clips to two carabiners mounted to the shoulder straps. Check out MindShift Gear's website to see how this works - I'll have to get a picture taken when I'm mounted up to help explain this better.

Half of the tripod mount system. This ring goes around the tripod head and then clips to two carabiners mounted to the shoulder straps. Check out MindShift Gear's website to see how this works - I'll have to get a picture taken when I'm mounted up to help explain this better.

Initial Impressions

So far, I'm very impressed with the bag, but need to take it out before I render a final verdict. The construction is top notch and there's no question this bag will last for a long time. The bag is packed full of little features, a number of which I've failed to mention up to this point (including the fact that the frame design allows it to free stand upright and the tripod accessory is a great arm rest). 

I have one very minor concern as I go forward to start using this bag, but it really is minor (I'm digging for issues). When the tripod mounting system is used, it creates alot of straps that dangle in front. I see it as very likely that I'll get caught up in these straps or get them twisted under my shoulder, creating a nuisance when I need to fish them out constantly. Maybe I'll be proven wrong about that, but it's the most glaring flaw I see with an otherwise flaw-free bag. 

I'm going to use the bag for a few weeks and will report back with a video blog, so stay tuned for more! I also plan to do a post with the bag outfitted for a weekend camping trip to see how it would fare for a solo overnight hike.

Note that I'm in no way affiliated with any company or product mentioned in this post. I paid retail for my bag and was not asked to review it, but did so because I hadn't seen many women talking about this bag, and our needs can differ. I also hadn't seen a conversation about using this bag with large format film, so hope to add to that discussion. You can buy this bag directly from MindShift Gear or use their website to find a dealer in your area.

Be sure to follow me on Facebook to see my future blog posts about this bag!

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

Pro Tip: Hands Up

I was doing a real estate photo shoot for a friend this weekend (they are selling a nice place in Alexandria, VA). During the middle of the shoot, I realized there are some handy tricks that I use on an almost daily basis in my photography that alot of people haven't seen... and that are certainly crude enough that you don't see them in photography books! I figured I should start a periodical blog post with these Pro Tips to help you get the most out of your photography. 

Today's Pro Tip is called "hands up" and is a great technique that I use constantly. For instance, at the recent real estate shoot, I was using a flash to evenly light some smaller rooms and tight spaces (like a shower stall). Very few people can get their flash placement right on the first try - we usually tinker around until we get the right settings. However, when you get back to edit your photos later, it can often be very tricky to tell when you got the setting dialed in and stopped tinkering and started being serious with the framing. This technique is very simple - after you have checked that he camera settings are correct, stick your hand out in front of your camera and take a quick shot of your hand.

It'll be ugly. That's okay.

After that, proceed to properly frame and expose your image with the settings you just identified. 

When you get back to Photoshop later, you'll be able to go through your shots and quickly find the hand shot. The images immediately following your hand shot will be the ones you took after getting the settings dialed in.

Another great application for this technique is when you're taking a panorama. Take a hand shot before you start and another at the end. When you are editing later, you can quickly grab the shots that were taken in sequence as part of your panorama.  

The hands up trick is very handy and I use it all the time in landscape and nature photography because I rarely delete a photo in camera, but this lets me create a bookmark without depending on my memory! If you edit hours or days after a shoot, this technique will save you tons of time! 

It's an ugly photo (you can see where the flash was placed, although I aimed the camera to cut the flash out in the next shot), but you can quickly pick out the hand shot and find your way to the good stuff immediately! 

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