Exploring NYC, Part 3: Faces of the City

Over the last few years, I have taken an interest in a form of photography dubbed "street photography." Unlike other photographic disciplines with obvious sounding names (wedding photography / newborn photography), the name "street" does not convey a clear meaning of the art form.

Waiting for an opponent. Two people playing chess outside a park in Manhattan island. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Waiting for an opponent. Two people playing chess outside a park in Manhattan island. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Catching a ride. A young girl rides on her father's shoulders over the crowds of tourists visiting Rockefeller Center during the holidays.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Catching a ride. A young girl rides on her father's shoulders over the crowds of tourists visiting Rockefeller Center during the holidays.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography might be more aptly dubbed "genuine photography" - the goal is to capture everyday scenes and interactions in a new and fresh way to highlight the beauty in our routine life.  When I am shooting the streets, I am looking for genuine interactions; faces, reactions, expressions, moods, and emotions that are genuine and not prompted by the presence of a camera.

Think about it.... when someone holds up a camera to your face, the first natural reaction is to smile and say cheese. But does that smile truly express your emotions and feelings in that moment? Unlikely.

I spy.  A woman looks out from her window on the busy New York streets below. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

I spy.  A woman looks out from her window on the busy New York streets below. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Selfie.  A woman dressed up in her finest fashion prepares her selfie in Times Square.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Selfie.  A woman dressed up in her finest fashion prepares her selfie in Times Square.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Crowd Control.  A NYPD officer directs traffic and keeps the crowds safe as thousands of holiday revelers descend on New York's most popular attractions. Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Crowd Control.  A NYPD officer directs traffic and keeps the crowds safe as thousands of holiday revelers descend on New York's most popular attractions. Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

As a street photographer, I want to capture the subject's emotions and state of being without having the camera enter the equation and effect the expression. In order to do that, I often need to be stealthy and discrete.

A large camera is off-putting. People don't want a stranger shoving a camera in their face. Which is why I use a Leica rangefinder (specifically, the M10) for my street shooting. The small and discrete nature of this camera lets me attract less attention, thereby increasing the odds of going unnoticed by my subject.

Coffee Jolt.  A kid carries two cups of coffee while walking with his parents around the 9/11 memorial.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Coffee Jolt.  A kid carries two cups of coffee while walking with his parents around the 9/11 memorial.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Eye.  A passenger looks out of the window on an express train to Wall Street.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Eye.  A passenger looks out of the window on an express train to Wall Street.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Philosophically, I want every picture I take to be a flattering one. I try to avoid any photograph that could embarrass or humiliate my subject. For instance, I don't photograph the homeless or disabled persons, with few exceptions. 

Ideally, when I am taking street photographs, I am invisible. The person never knows that I took their photograph, or if they do, they are not embarrassed. If someone sees me taking their photograph, I will smile and wave, showing that I'm not a threat. Sometimes I'll tell someone they were beautiful and interesting to me. Surprisingly, most people respond very well to this, and I have never had anyone get mad because I took their photograph.

BFFs.  Two women pose for a photograph in Times Square. I "plucked them out of a crowd" by using a longer focal length and narrow depth of field, thereby blurring the people around them and focusing the attention of the photograph solely on their faces.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

BFFs.  Two women pose for a photograph in Times Square. I "plucked them out of a crowd" by using a longer focal length and narrow depth of field, thereby blurring the people around them and focusing the attention of the photograph solely on their faces.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Stroll.  A man walks in front of the United Nations building. The harsh light and strong shadow became the sparkle that drew me to make this image.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stroll.  A man walks in front of the United Nations building. The harsh light and strong shadow became the sparkle that drew me to make this image.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

As a photographer, I find street photography offers a unique challenge over some of the other photographic disciplines. When I am making landscape images, I often plan the photo, sometimes to a scientific extreme. But as a street shooter, I take whatever I get and roll with the punches.

If it is sunny outside, I have to work with that. If it's raining, I work with that. 

The impromptu and impulsive nature of this type of shooting means I often "follow my nose" - if the light looks particularly good one direction, I'll walk that way. I walked 14 miles in New York one day without having any real plan - I just wandered Manhattan looking for things that caught my eye.

I remain hyper aware of the location of the sun and will switch to another side of the street if the shadows and light is better there. My head is on a swivel, constantly looking for that sparkle.

Street Blown.  A woman's hair blows around in the wind caused by cars rushing past on the street nearby.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Street Blown.  A woman's hair blows around in the wind caused by cars rushing past on the street nearby.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A cyclist waits for the crosswalk sign to turn in his favor.  I was drawn to the fact that his face was covered, so the only place from where I could draw expression was his eyes, and he rewarded me with a very expressive moment.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A cyclist waits for the crosswalk sign to turn in his favor.  I was drawn to the fact that his face was covered, so the only place from where I could draw expression was his eyes, and he rewarded me with a very expressive moment.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

"Sparkle" - that is what I am looking for as I walk. Sparkle is the photograph. Sparkle is the emotion, the color, the contrast, the shadow, the expression...the thing that pushes me to take the photograph. 

As a street photographer, I am instinctive. When I see sparkle, I shoot. If I wait too long and think about it, I have lost that moment of sparkle. 

When someone looks at one of my images and comments "I never would have seen that" or "how did you catch that," I know they see the sparkle. They are looking at the print and see the sparkle that pushed me to create the image in the first place.

Lost.  This is one of the very rare exceptions I have ever made to my rule about not photographing the homeless. This particular gentleman had positioned himself in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrian traffic to divert around him and creating a bit of a traffic jam. I wanted to capture the reaction from other people to having to divert around him and the story of what his day must feel like as thousands of people pass him by.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Lost.  This is one of the very rare exceptions I have ever made to my rule about not photographing the homeless. This particular gentleman had positioned himself in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrian traffic to divert around him and creating a bit of a traffic jam. I wanted to capture the reaction from other people to having to divert around him and the story of what his day must feel like as thousands of people pass him by.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Smile.  A man smiles as he reads something on his cell phone while riding the subway in New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Smile.  A man smiles as he reads something on his cell phone while riding the subway in New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography can also be about story telling. Not every image has a story, but sometimes the story is the sparkle. For instance, take this pro-Tibet rally I saw in New York. Thousands of people were marching across Manhattan to the site of the Chinese Consulate peacefully carrying signs and flags supporting Tibet. 

At one point, their march passes in front of the McDonald's restaurant near Times Square. I immediately saw a story, and began photographing that story.

I was moved at the juxtaposition of American consumerism and the protected right of speech. Here are some people peacefully exercising their First Amendment right to free speech in front of one of America's biggest corporations. To me, this captures the essence of what makes America an incredible country -- there are so many places in the world where this scene would not be allowed, and the combination of the two created an emotional sparkle.

Pro-Tibet rally participants march in front of one of America's icons of global consumerism.... McDonalds.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Pro-Tibet rally participants march in front of one of America's icons of global consumerism.... McDonalds.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The pro-Tibet rally walked through Times Square demanding peace.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The pro-Tibet rally walked through Times Square demanding peace.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stage. Rally goers assembled for a speech near the Chinese consulate.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stage. Rally goers assembled for a speech near the Chinese consulate.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography often involves people, but there are some images I'll photograph without humans that still tell a human story. Usually, I try to convey human interaction with the environment in the non-people prints. These images may be more abstract and invoke the idea of people without clearly showing any in the scene. Sometimes they capture an irony or something so familiar that we stop noticing its existence. 

A Dinosaur.  A bank of pay phones that see very little use in Grand Central Terminal.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

A Dinosaur.  A bank of pay phones that see very little use in Grand Central Terminal.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Ready and Waiting.  A FDNY truck sits at the ready to respond to any incidents around the city.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Ready and Waiting.  A FDNY truck sits at the ready to respond to any incidents around the city.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The Commute.  I purposefully blurred this image by jerking the camera in a violent pan as the taxi approached. The goal was to create a shot that captured the blur of commuting and traffic in a city as busy as New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Commute.  I purposefully blurred this image by jerking the camera in a violent pan as the taxi approached. The goal was to create a shot that captured the blur of commuting and traffic in a city as busy as New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Message.  A simple chair might not have had the sparkle to catch my eye, but this chair, with the "No Crying Allowed" message caught my eye.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Message.  A simple chair might not have had the sparkle to catch my eye, but this chair, with the "No Crying Allowed" message caught my eye.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

In some ways, everything I just described about street photography makes it sound like there is a good amount of "pray and spray"- but the art is anything other than. Pray and spray is a phrase used to describe what happens when I photographer just holds down the shutter and aims the camera recklessly in the hope of capturing a good shot.

Look carefully at my photographs and you'll see that isn't possible. Scroll down and look at the three images below (then come back).

Notice anything in them? Only the subject is in focus. Everything else has a smooth soft blur. That blur, which is referred to as bokeh (a Japanese word), is where the art comes into play. As a photographer, I drew your eyes to the subject- to a pre-determined spot - by precisely choosing what area of the print will be in focus. Don't believe me? Scroll down and look again.

Steps of Time.  Two friends take pictures on the staircase in Times Square. I loved the attire and face of the individual holding the cell phone, so focused the attention of the viewer that direction by having the rest of the image slightly out of focus.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Steps of Time.  Two friends take pictures on the staircase in Times Square. I loved the attire and face of the individual holding the cell phone, so focused the attention of the viewer that direction by having the rest of the image slightly out of focus.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Sharing a Snack.  A mom and son enjoy a Sunday morning snack at an indoor food hall in New York. The scene is very busy with elements that could distract from the story of the shared meal, but selective focus and bokeh help me isolate them and tell the story the way I want.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Sharing a Snack.  A mom and son enjoy a Sunday morning snack at an indoor food hall in New York. The scene is very busy with elements that could distract from the story of the shared meal, but selective focus and bokeh help me isolate them and tell the story the way I want.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The View.  A boy is carried on his dad's shoulders to see the holiday tree in Rockefeller Center.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The View.  A boy is carried on his dad's shoulders to see the holiday tree in Rockefeller Center.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Each of those photographs has a super thin area of the image in focus. Now consider that the camera I use is a manual focus system - there is nothing automated or automagic about it. If I do a poor job of quickly focusing the lens, then my photograph is missed. I usually get one chance - a split second - to turn the focus ring on my Leica lenses to capture that sparkle.

I won't lie - it's hard. I miss more than I catch. But the more I go out and shoot, the better I get. I have a lot of close misses - photographs I'd love another chance to take. But that's not how this works. 

In some ways, the thrill of getting it right is my drug.

I'm addicted to the elation that comes from seeing a perfectly focused shot with the story I wanted captured. That feeling drives me back to the streets, looking for my next fix.

Stormtrooper's Have to Eat.  This man was dressed in a Stormtrooper costume, but had stopped at a deli to get a snack.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Stormtrooper's Have to Eat.  This man was dressed in a Stormtrooper costume, but had stopped at a deli to get a snack.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A police officer waits patiently for the light to chance before she begins directing more traffic over the intersection. The harsh light and strong shadows gave this scene the sparkle I was looking for.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A police officer waits patiently for the light to chance before she begins directing more traffic over the intersection. The harsh light and strong shadows gave this scene the sparkle I was looking for.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Exploring NYC, Part 2: A Day in the Snow

Few things are as magical as a visit to New York City during the holidays, when stores put on extravagant displays, Santa is available for a visit, and holiday markets pop-up across the city. Add a fresh heavy snowfall into the equation, and you have a truly memorable winter wonderland in the city.

A New York City Police Officer prepares this police horse for a ride in the snow

A New York City Police Officer prepares this police horse for a ride in the snow

A couple seeks refuge underneath an umbrella during the snowfall

A couple seeks refuge underneath an umbrella during the snowfall

Photographing snow can be a bit of a challenge. Bad weather always makes for a great photograph, but it's not as easy as just stepping outside, taking a quick image, and having success. I walked over 10 miles in the heavy snow to get these images, and faced several technical challenges along the way.

Snowfall blankets a quiet New York City intersection

Snowfall blankets a quiet New York City intersection

A man strolls through the snow in Central Park

A man strolls through the snow in Central Park

First was the challenge of keeping the camera dry enough. The Leica M10 is technically not weather sealed, but it is pretty hardy. Unfortunately the temperature outside was just warm enough that the snow melted almost instantly when it made contact with my body and the camera, making my hands and the camera very wet (never mind that it also made me very cold!). After several hours, this caused the viewfinder to fog completely.

During periodic breaks indoors, I wrapped the camera in a dry shirt with the hopes that it would help dry out the camera's viewfinder. That worked to an extent, but the remaining moisture would condense anytime I subjected it to a temperature change stepping between the outdoors and indoors. 

A man emerges from the 14th street subway station

A man emerges from the 14th street subway station

Steam rising from street vents adds to the dramatic effect of the snowfall on this New York street

Steam rising from street vents adds to the dramatic effect of the snowfall on this New York street

Second to keeping the camera dry is the challenge of keeping the lens dry. I was far more successful in this endeavor because I kept the camera oriented in my hand so that the lens was either facing downward, or facing downwind of the snow. I never - EVER - use a lens cap when out taking photographs, and certainly was not about to miss a shot because I had covered the lens. 

Taxi cabs lined up on the streets of Times Square during a late evening snowfall

Taxi cabs lined up on the streets of Times Square during a late evening snowfall

A streetsign covered with snow outside Times Square

A streetsign covered with snow outside Times Square

Finally, capturing snow can be a challenge. In a close-up photograph, snow can appear like a blur, rather than a snowflake. The trick was for enough of those blur's to be present in the photograph that the viewer would understand it was not a mistake, but that it was a snowflake.

I don't know how much snow fell in New York on this particular day as it never accumulated beyond a slush on the streets, but it certainly made for a beautiful day of photography.

Two women - presumably en route to a holiday party - stop for food from a street vendor in the late evening snow

Two women - presumably en route to a holiday party - stop for food from a street vendor in the late evening snow

Exploring NYC, Part 1: World Trade Center

Like all Americans old enough to remember the events of 9/11/2001, I have a very vivid and raw memory of that morning. That day would come to define some of my life's most important decisions; would drive me to a career in public service and safety.

A flower in the memorial to the World Trade Center. The shadow of One World Trade casts across the memorial.

A flower in the memorial to the World Trade Center. The shadow of One World Trade casts across the memorial.

This photograph is very powerful to me. I was standing outside the museum and noticed a jetliner flying over One World Trade. My mind started racing with thoughts.... anywhere else in the world, seeing a plane fly over a building is so routine, that it hardly registers. But here, it seemed raw. This is a view similar to the one thousands saw on 9/11 - but with a very different outcome. I took four images of the plane's track over New York City and combined them in this composite. 

This photograph is very powerful to me. I was standing outside the museum and noticed a jetliner flying over One World Trade. My mind started racing with thoughts.... anywhere else in the world, seeing a plane fly over a building is so routine, that it hardly registers. But here, it seemed raw. This is a view similar to the one thousands saw on 9/11 - but with a very different outcome. I took four images of the plane's track over New York City and combined them in this composite. 

The 9/11 memorial and museum only opened in the past few years, and while I have seen the outdoor memorial ponds before, I never had a chance to visit the museum until this most recent trip to New York City. 

I was a bit conflicted about taking photographs in such hallowed ground.

Artists painted 3,000 cards a slightly different shade of blue - each one painting the color of the sky they remember seeing on 9/11. These cards now hang on a wall as a reminder that the memory of those lost on 9/11 cannot be erased.

Artists painted 3,000 cards a slightly different shade of blue - each one painting the color of the sky they remember seeing on 9/11. These cards now hang on a wall as a reminder that the memory of those lost on 9/11 cannot be erased.

September 11th isn't a tourist attraction. The artifacts and memories captured in this museum mark millions of lives changed in the span of a few terrible minutes. I don't want to disrespect the memory of the over 3,000 innocent people killed on that day by turning 9/11 into a photography spectacle. 

A visitor to the memorial paying tribute to some of the victims from 9/11.

A visitor to the memorial paying tribute to some of the victims from 9/11.

A message from supporters of Ladder Company 3; this was part of a fire truck that was smashed when the towers collapsed. 

A message from supporters of Ladder Company 3; this was part of a fire truck that was smashed when the towers collapsed. 

But after a few minutes in the museum, my opinion changed. September 11th was the most terrible of days, a day that we cannot forget. Walking through that museum reopened the emotions from that day that I had long since repressed. I was flooded with sobering memories of what happens when we become complacent and when freedom is not allowed to prosper around the world.

A section of steel from inside the World Trade Center. This particular piece came from the area where the first aircraft tore into the tower, gashing a hole in one of America's most iconic buildings.

A section of steel from inside the World Trade Center. This particular piece came from the area where the first aircraft tore into the tower, gashing a hole in one of America's most iconic buildings.

Names and organizations listed on the memorial wall surrounding the pools in the memorial.

Names and organizations listed on the memorial wall surrounding the pools in the memorial.

Recognizing that many viewers to my website will never have a chance to visit the museum in NYC, I decided to make a handful of photographs that could help convey the emotions and experience I had walking through the museum. 

Four tie-down points. The museum is underground and some of the foundation walls that made up the twin towers are incorporated into the structure of the museum. This part of the foundation remains in the original location. It is one of the few pieces of the towers that still remains as it did on September 11th.

Four tie-down points. The museum is underground and some of the foundation walls that made up the twin towers are incorporated into the structure of the museum. This part of the foundation remains in the original location. It is one of the few pieces of the towers that still remains as it did on September 11th.

Less than a block from the World Trade Center is a fire station home to ladder company 10. Six fireman from this company died rescuing others on 9/11.

Less than a block from the World Trade Center is a fire station home to ladder company 10. Six fireman from this company died rescuing others on 9/11.

I cried twice in the museum. Once while looking at / listening to a selection of voicemail messages left by passengers of those doomed flights to their loved ones. People who left a final message, knowing their fate. I crumbled under the idea of ever having to do something so brave. My second breakdown happened in front of a projection of "missing posters" hung by friends and family searching for their lost relatives. Many of these posters carried a deeply personal message, and my heart broke for every family that had to write a sign like that. One particular sign that pulled me was from a daughter looking for her daddy.

Memories attached to the "last column" - this was the last piece of steel removed from the site. Prior to it's removal, it became a shrine of sorts, with family and friends affixing messages, photos, and flowers to the beam.

Memories attached to the "last column" - this was the last piece of steel removed from the site. Prior to it's removal, it became a shrine of sorts, with family and friends affixing messages, photos, and flowers to the beam.

The top of the last column, with messages and photos to loved ones lost on 9/11.

The top of the last column, with messages and photos to loved ones lost on 9/11.

I could not photograph these things. I could not bring myself to make artwork from the pain of those families. Instead, I chose to photograph objects that were more symbolic of the tragedy.

May we never forget. 

A close-up of some of the memories written upon the "last column".

A close-up of some of the memories written upon the "last column".

A Sea of Contrast

California's legendary coastline offers no shortage of incredible seascape vistas to photograph. While I normally would look for colorful scenes, my time along the coast was plagued by bad weather and heavy rains. To carry that drama into the artwork, I used high contrast black and white adjustments, along with a strong vignette and bold blacks to create images that capture the emotions of that gloomy day.

Photographed with the Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens.

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Why I am Divorcing the Leica SL... It Was a Fun Fling!

It is official. The paperwork has been filed. As of last week, I became the owner of a Nikon D850, and my divorce with the Leica SL is complete.

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By my estimation, I shot roughly 20,000 images with the Leica SL during our relationship - so it was certainly a serious relationship, but one that cannot continue. 

There were three major driving reasons behind my decision to ditch Leica and return to Nikon:

Issues Surrounding Durability and Reliability

As I have previously chronicled, I have had several service and reliability issues with my Leica cameras. The most recent one, which caused my Leica SL 24-90mm lens to suffer a fatal failure during a trip to Yellowstone National Park soured me permanently.

I understand no camera is immune from breakages, but the failure rate I encountered with my Leica gear far surpassed any issues from any other company. As a professional, I cannot tolerate that level of performance.

Compounding the service issue is the length of time needed for service to be performed. In the case of my SL and lens - they left for the factory in Germany nearly 6 weeks ago, but by Leica's estimation, I probably won't get them back from repair until early 2018. I cannot be without a camera for 4 months - particularly not one that costs as much as the SL.

Lack of New Leica SL Lenses

I was an early adopter of the SL, which carries some risks. One of those risks was that Leica would not release additional lenses for the system with the frequency needed to support the development of the SL line. 

By my analysis, that risk became reality. Leica is woefully behind the curve on the SL lens releases.

I recently met a gentleman who had been part of a Leica SL focus group sponsored by Leica. He signed a non-disclosure agreement with Leica, so he couldn't share the details of his conversation, but the gist was that Leica was trying to find their way with the future of the SL line. It was also suggested that some of the invitees Leica brought to this focus group were people who didn't use this camera all that often. In other words, Leica is seeking advice on how to sustain the system from people who aren't frequent users - that isn't a recipe for success.

The Market Beat the Leica SL

Leica has a long production schedule, but they didn't move fast enough to stay ahead of the industry, and they are being usurped. Nikon is probably releasing a full frame mirrorless camera with a high resolution (~50 megapixel) sensor in the next year...and they just released a D850 that has received mind-blowing reviews.

Using companies like DXOmark, which conducts laboratory testing of sensors, I evaluated my Leica SL to the Nikon D850. In these results, it is clear that the D850 totally surpasses the Leica SL, offering several stops more dynamic range, better ISO performance, and more lens options at a fraction of the price.

Sensor testing by DXO Labs shows the superior dynamics range of the Nikon D850

Sensor testing by DXO Labs shows the superior dynamics range of the Nikon D850

For a small company like Leica to have been successful with the SL, they needed to stay very engaged with their customers and needed to continue to produce lenses and upgrades to keep me interested. They squandered that opportunity. Instead, Leica has focused on their M line, which is probably a better business decision for them.

Now what?

Photography is about so much more than the gear and equipment. But the gear and equipment play an important role in photography.

For instance, I love macro photography, but had not shot any macro work since becoming an SL owner. Why? Because the equipment needed to shoot macro photographs was either unavailable, too expensive, or a combination thereof. I don't want a camera to dictate the types of images I can or cannot make - I want to explore my creative whims! A system that is more mature and offers more flexibility is better for the type of images I want to create.

With the release of the D850, I have decided to return to Nikon. Those people who visit my website and admire my work probably won't notice the change; good photographers can make a great image with any camera. 

Finding Local Inspiration: Fall on a Farm

Fall has officially started on the east coast of the United States! Temperatures have finally mellowed, pumpkin spiced everything is available for sale, and the trees are starting to show their fall colors. So last weekend I headed out into rural Virginia to get a few images in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

One thing I often hear from new photographers is that they don't have anything to photograph, and they can only travel once or twice a year. That sentiment represents a lack of creativity! There are photographs to be found everywhere you look. So today I'm sharing over a dozen images that were all taken within a 300 foot radius of a farm house in rural Virginia - all made on the same day (although taken at different times to reflect changing sun conditions).

You don't need need to travel to exotic locations to make some photographs, and I challenge you to find some local inspiration in your back yard!

A white picket fence surrounding the property lines. 

A white picket fence surrounding the property lines. 

Playing with reflections and silhouettes in the window. That's actually my mom sitting at the kitchen table.

Playing with reflections and silhouettes in the window. That's actually my mom sitting at the kitchen table.

A shed sitting along the edge of the property.

A shed sitting along the edge of the property.

A pile of fresh leaves on the lawn

A pile of fresh leaves on the lawn

Two ladders leaning up on the side of the workshop

Two ladders leaning up on the side of the workshop

Peeling paint on the side of the shed

Peeling paint on the side of the shed

Playing with the high contrast late afternoon shadows on the leaves

Playing with the high contrast late afternoon shadows on the leaves

The view from the back of the property

The view from the back of the property

Looking over the fence toward the neighbor's farm

Looking over the fence toward the neighbor's farm

The tree in the front yard

The tree in the front yard

A workshop with an old horse-drawn carriage in the back

A workshop with an old horse-drawn carriage in the back

A pile of leaves on a table in the yard

A pile of leaves on a table in the yard

Leica SL: The Mystery of the Lost Lenses?

When the Leica SL hit the market in October 2015, it caused a whirlwind of excitement. Here was the mirrorless full frame camera system that professional photographers had long awaited. I visited the Leica Store in Mayfair (London) and played with the demo unit. I was instantly hooked and placed my name on a wait list. On that day, I broke from years of Nikon shooting and transitioned to Leica, believing it was the future.

Today, nearly two years to the day since the SL was released, I am not so sure. While I've had a remarkable experience shooting the Leica SL, there is one major area where the SL lags behind the competition, and where my patience has nearly run dry....lenses.

At launch, Leica only had one lens for the SL system - the 24-90mm lens - and promised two additional lenses would follow shortly (a 50mm prime and 90-280mm telephoto). To offset this lack of lenses, Leica also touted how the SL was versatile in it's ability to use lenses from Leica's other lines - including the M and S lenses - when paired with an adaptor. Leica seemed to realize that no one was going to buy a camera system with only one lens option and was trying very hard to cater to photographers by offering cross-system compatibility. While that's all fine and good, using other lenses comes with some disadvantages - most notably the lack of weather sealing and auto focus. For a landscape photographer that is regularly shooting in poor weather, this was a point of concern, although I have used the adaptability in my SL setup.

A year after launch, Leica had come through on the promised lens releases and all was well in SL-land. Three SL system lenses were available, and they had more on the way. 2017 promised to bring the release of four additional system lenses, including a 35mm, 75mm, and 90mm prime lens, along with the 16-35mm wide angle that landscape photographers lusted to own (hint hint.... that'd be me).

Leica SL System Lens Roadmap, as of September 2016

Leica SL System Lens Roadmap, as of September 2016

Quietly, something happened. Lenses stopped showing up. According to the roadmap above, by October 2017, we should have at least two more lenses available, with two more coming any day now. Instead, Leica silently pushed off the release date of these lenses. Now only one lens, the 75mm f/2 ASPH, is slated to arrive in 2017 (maybe? still no word on it), with the other three lenses listed as "coming soon" or "spring 2018."

Could Leica really go a full calendar year without releasing any new lenses for the SL? (The 50mm was released in December 2016, so we won't have to wait long to find out!)

Would anyone really think that's a sign of a healthy camera system?

The rational side of me argues that Leica is trying really hard to produce quality lenses for the SL system, which is why they have been slower in the release schedule. They want only the best lenses on the market, and are busy perfecting them..... right?

Then I open my inbox this morning and see this:

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Seriously? Instead of announcing or releasing lenses for the SL system, it seems the engineers in the glass department of Leica have been on a craze to re-release old 1930s lenses. This is a slap in the face to all of the people who invested in the SL system early. Leica has prioritized these money-grab lenses - collectors pieces for people who will never shoot the lens - over lenses for people who actually want to make photographs.

Fuming over the announcement of a 1930's lens re-release, I decided to stage an armchair war and look up other manufacturers and their lens release schedule for new systems. I compared four other systems - the Fuji GFX 50s, Hasselblad X1D, Sony Alpha A7r, and Pentax 645z. 

What I quickly found is that Leica is behind the curve. The Hasselblad X1D, which is a natural competitor to the SL, only has 4 lenses currently on the market, but it also has been available for 440 days, compared to 750 days for the SL.

Shockingly, Fuji has rocked the market by having six lenses available for it's new medium format system less than a year after launch! Here's a table showing my results:

A comparison of camera systems by release date and current lens availability. In every metric, the SL system is behind the competition. It's worth noting that Sony already had some lenses on the market when they released the Alpha A7r, but they have continued to release new lenses on a somewhat routine schedule. 

A comparison of camera systems by release date and current lens availability. In every metric, the SL system is behind the competition. It's worth noting that Sony already had some lenses on the market when they released the Alpha A7r, but they have continued to release new lenses on a somewhat routine schedule. 

Lack of lenses isn't the only problem facing the SL community - price, speed, and size are also major factors. The SL lenses are massive, and while they may deliver great performance, in an era where competitors are releasing significantly smaller lenses, it's hard to get excited to haul around big glass. The lack of motivation to drag a heavy lens also stems from the fact that these lenses are surprisingly slow; both the 24-90mm and 90-280mm lenses have variable apertures ranging from f/2.8-f/4. Coming from a company that has released f/0.95 lenses, I would expect to see these big heavy (and expensive) lenses maintain at least an aperture of f/2.8 through the zoom range. Finally, we have the price. These lenses are eye-watering expensive, even by Leica standards. 

In an effort to keep the SL relevant in the mind of prospective buyers, Leica recently slashed the price of the camera system. In my mind, this was a sign of bad things....companies only slash prices of a camera when it is doing poorly in sales or about to be replaced. There are no rumors of a "SL2" system hitting the market anytime soon, which suggests to me that current sales are poor, particularly compared to the M10 release. With the new price adjustments, the SL sells for $500 less than the old Leica M240 ($5,995 vs $6,595). In what economic universe does a camera made in 2013 sell for $500 more than a camera made in 2015 with more features? 

I will pause here to say I am not Leica bashing--- I LOVE my M240 and the Leica M system. I just think Leica has stumbled with the release of the SL system, and barring a dramatic turn-around, I would not be surprised if Leica refocused back to the systems that have been very successful. 

Leica does not release sales figures to the public, so we're left to speculate. Price slashes.... delayed lens releases.... a clear focus on producing collectors pieces and historical re-releases.... behind-the-market performance in delivering new options. Are these signs of a healthy system?

Why would anyone buy an SL now? What consumer is looking at the limited options for organic system lenses and is excited by the offerings? And with competitors offering systems with more lenses, more capabilities, and better specs at a lower price, Leica risks loosing adopters of the SL system to newer cameras. 

Personally, I believe the slow release of lenses may be the doom of this system. For the price of joining the Leica SL club, one could easily invest in a 50 megapixel medium format camera (Hasselblad X1D). I have been insanely frustrated by the slow release schedule of the SL lenses - so much so that, combined with recent issues with my gear - I'm considering jumping ship and heading for pastures that have proven to be a bit more reliable in past years. 

What do you think? Am I being too harsh? Or is the Leica SL still a worthy buy?

Long Lens Shooting with the Leica SL

The Leica SL was clearly designed with outdoor, nature, landscape and travel photographers in mind; the abundant weather sealing, GPS. and high-speed shooting were not put into the camera for studio photographers. 

As a landscape photographer, I routinely have use for a telephoto lens. So today I'll discuss the long lens setup I use with the Leica SL.

Using the vehicle as a blind while shooting in Grand Teton

Using the vehicle as a blind while shooting in Grand Teton

For starters, I do not own the Leica 90-280mm lens made for the SL system, much as I would like to. The reason for this is multi-fold:

  1. The Leica 90-280mm, while well made, is overpriced at $6,400. Every other camera manufacturer has a similar telephoto lens offering (normally in the 70-200mm range), and those lenses generally retail for $3,000 or less, with plenty of used options coming in around $1,500.
  2. Competitor lenses, which are already less than half the price, also are faster. The Leica lens only musters f/4 at full zoom, while the Nikon and Canon counterparts are f/2.8 through the entire focal length of the lens. 
  3. In Canon-land, you could buy a 400mm f/4 lens for the same price as the 90-280mm from Leica. In Nikon-land, that same money would buy you a 600mm f/4 lens and still have $2k leftover to spend on a trip! The reality is that for the money they are charging, this lens needs to either be as fast (or faster) as the competition, or it needs to have more range.
  4. The 280mm focal length is just at the short end of what most wildlife photographers would consider a reasonable starting point for their lenses. Most wildlife shooters will carry a 400mm or longer lens.
Bull elk in Yellowstone. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter. 

Bull elk in Yellowstone. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter. 

As it stands currently (October 2017), I am pretty miffed with the rate at which Leica has released lenses for the SL system. Three lens offerings in the two years since the camera was released is weak. Nothing wider than 24mm is weak.

Instead of making a 50mm prime for the SL, Leica should have expedited the production of the 16-35mm lens. There a number of 50mm lenses available on the market for Leica M mount is incredible, so there wasn't a dire need to release that lens first....but that's beyond our discussion here.

Frustrated that I have been left to jerry-rig a long lens solution together, I turned to a manufacturer who knows a lot about how to make great long glass....Canon. For decades, Canon has been a leader in the long lens market, and there are thousands of used lenses to select from. 

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I happened to find myself a very old 400mm f/2.8 bazooka of a lens, and had it modified to accept a Leica R mount. I call this lens a bazooka because it has to weigh upwards of 25lbs! There is no autofocus or image stabilization - it's just a big, old, and solid piece of glass. Because it lacks some of the more modern touches, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 bazooka was pretty affordable - I paid around $800 for the lens with conversion. 

Unfortunately, because it is a bazooka, it's not terribly portable, and I need to have a hefty tripod solution to use it. But that is okay - with the sack of cash saved by opting for this lens, I was able to afford a nice Wimberly head for my tripod to resolve that issue.

You lookin' at me? Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8

You lookin' at me? Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8

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The nice thing is that this lens is extremely sharp, and the EVF of the Leica SL makes it easy to manually focus and track a moving subject. I have now used this lens in Yellowstone for a number of wildlife images, and also used it to shoot the 2017 solar eclipse. In both applications, the lens has done a wonderful job resolving details. And when 400mm isn't enough, I also have a Leica R mount 2x teleconverter that makes the lens an 800mm f/4 lens. Not too shabby!

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As you can see from the snapshot of images included, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 renders beautifully and is incredibly sharp. When supported properly, I am very impressed by the sharpness that can be achieved at f/2.8. I have used the lens for a few landscape images as well, and am very pleased with the results - I don't know if it's good as the 90-280mm lens, but at the price, the results are spectacular. Remember, this isn't a cheap $800 lens -- this lens used to cost $10k, but since it is a few generations old, the lens price has dropped significantly while the quality remains unchanged.

Pronghorn in the snow. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens

Pronghorn in the snow. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens

Two young deer graze in Grand Teton National Park.

Two young deer graze in Grand Teton National Park.

Have you adopted another long lens for your Leica SL? Or did you purchase the Leica 90-280mm lens? Leave me a comment and let me know how you solved this problem!

(White)stone National Park

When I planned my fall trip to Yellowstone National Park, I had certain expectations for the types of art I would have an opportunity to create: fall colors, wildlife, spectacular sunsets, etc.

So much for planning. Mother Nature, it seems, had another idea.

Snow.

We had heavy precipitation every day that we were in the park, with five days in a winter weather advisory. Areas of the park accumulated over 10" of snow in one night, closing many roads and restricting travel through the park for a number of days.

In the midst of this surprise cold, there was still a great opportunity to capture some landscape images.... just not the ones I had planned on! With the sky hidden behind low, snow-filled clouds for days, I focused on more white landscapes to capture the essence of Yellowstone's first snowfall of 2017.

These photographs were all made with the Leica SL. Steam from active geothermal features and snow melt where warm ground met frozen tundra can be seen in a number of the finished prints.

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The Day the Leica SL Failed Me....

The day I hoped would never arrive has, unfortunately, come. The day all photographers hope to avoid. The day their gear fails them.

My experience came a few days ago in Yellowstone National Park - an area with very sparse cellular signal and no camera shops (much less Leica dealers!). Stranded in the middle of a National Park, hundreds of miles from the closest camera shop (800 miles from the closest Leica shop), and on assignment, is no place to encounter a major fault with your gear.

As I have previously discussed, I am a big fan of the Leica SL as a landscape photography camera, although it does have a few faults (durability, LENR issues). But this issue was a major blow to my trust of this camera, and it will take some intense therapy for me to rebuild a relationship of trust with my SL after this experience.

So what happened?

One morning mid-trip, I went out to one of the smaller geyser basins to capture some early morning images of the snow falling over the geothermal landscape. On my way out to my shooting location, I took a few side-shots and everything was working fine. It had been all trip - I was approximately 2,000 images into the project without a glitch. Then it happened.

I zoomed the Leica SL Vario-Elmarit 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens to 90mm to compose my photograph, and the lens jammed. For no explainable reason, the lens just stopped zooming, stuck at 90mm. It was never dropped, it just stopped.

I wiggled the zoom ring on the lens and could feel a grinding resistance. It felt like the teeth that control the gearing of the zoom had seized upon themselves, and even with moderate force, there was no movement. Of course I did not want to force the zoom, and since we were not far from the car, we walked back to sit down and inspect the camera.

Inside our vehicle, I removed the lens from the SL body and set the body aside. I then filmed this short video clip as I tried to wiggle the zoom ring:

As you can see, there is very little movement in the zoom ring as I try to rotate it, and the force I was exerting on the lens was about the maximum I was comfortable with.

I was pissed. Up to this point, the SL lens had been very dependable, and normally it is electronics that are more prone to breaking and failures (not to say a lens can't, just not as common). I essentially had a massive and heavy 90mm f/4 prime lens - and while the autofocus still worked, that was about all the lens had going for it. 

The diverse focal lengths covered by the 24-90mm lens makes it my go-to, so the next option available to me was the 16-18-21 Tri-Elmar. There is a LOT of range in focal lengths between 21mm and 90mm.... couldn't the lens jam someplace more useful, like 35mm?!

Frustrated, swearing, and feeling drained of all creativity as my head throbbed with anger at the lens, we went back out to shoot, but I struggled to compose anything of value with the lens. Here I am, working - trying to create images and content that I can sell to pay for these expensive Leica lenses, and the damn thing fails me.

Using the Leica Vario-Elmar 24-90mm lens as a 90mm zoom once it had jammed.....

Some time later, the lens spontaneously retracted back to 24mm; I had my hand applying a light pressure to the front of the lens as I rotated the variable polarizing filter, and slowly felt the lens retracting back toward 24mm. Go figure. For no more reason than the jamming of the lens, it was unjammed.

Feeling daring, I rotated the zoom ring a few times. Clearly all was not well; I felt a stiff resistance in the ring and could hear it blowing air as it zoomed in and out.

For the remainder of the project, the lens "worked" in sub-ideal conditions. At times it would jam (sometimes at other focal lengths), and then it would un-jam just as quickly. Of note, my sensor was covered with dust very quickly, which leads to my un-official suspicion as to the root of the issue.

100lbs heavier and 20 years older.... this Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens may be a beast, but it worked flawlessly with my Leica SL, despite being far less sophisticated.

While I'm not a certified camera technician, I am suspicious that one of the weather sealing o-rings in the lens jammed in one of the gears, causing the jamming. The reason I can hear so much air, feel resistance and have all the dust in my sensor, I suspect is the result of one of those rings becoming displaced, allowing air to be sucked in volume through the lens and into the camera body. When I dropped off the camera with the Leica Store in DC for service, I mentioned the dust being blown into the camera at astonishing speed; the salesperson removed the lens to look at the sensor and nearly gagged with the dust storm present.

I have dropped the camera off with Leica for a trip to Germany, and I hope Leica makes right on this situation by repairing everything under warranty. 

However, this incident has shook my confidence in the Leica SL. I owned Nikon equipment for five years and handled it / used it in the same conditions as my SL. In those five years, I never had a failure. The only issue came at my own hands, when I dropped my Nikon 24-70mm lens on cement. While it didn't break the glass, the zoom mechanism was a little stiff (although it still worked!). 

In two and a half years of full-time Leica use, this will be the THIRD time a piece of Leica equipment has had to take a trip to Germany for a warranty repair that is not the result of user issue. 

Sure, Nikon's / Canon's / Sony's / etc can fail too. But the ratio of Leica failures to Nikon failures is starting to pile up, and my patience for a Leica failure is slimmer given the price of admission. I expect a $600 off-brand, made in China, plastic without weather sealing camera lens to fail. I don't expect a $5,000 camera lens assembled by Germans in white lab coats to fail. 

I understand things can and will break, and I appreciate that Leica's are not immune to failures. But the frequency with which my gear keeps going to Germany for failures ... (1) defective glass on my M240, (2) a sensor issue in my M240 and (3) now this....either makes me the most unlucky person in the Leica universe, or this equipment isn't built to handle the stressors of heavy-duty professional use. 

How did I manage to infuriate the Leica Gods? Why do they damn me with misfortune?!

How did I manage to infuriate the Leica Gods? Why do they damn me with misfortune?!

My local Leica Store (Washington, DC), is convinced I may have one of the most heavily used SL's out there - and given the cosmetic condition of the camera, I'd be inclined to agree. But there are plenty of Nikon / Canon shooters who use their cameras more than I do and do not have the same volume of issues. I never had an issue with those brands..... and this is the point where I start to wonder if it's me or the camera. 

I'm not giving up or throwing in the towel. What happens once the camera comes back from Germany will go a long way in determining my future with this system. I love the camera, I love the Leica lenses, I love the files they produce, but I dread thinking about what piece of gear will be next to take a trip to Germany. And since I don't own a thriving money tree, it's hard to swallow the Leica price tag with the repeated reliability issues I'm having....

Anyone else encounter issues with the reliability of their Leica SL?

Update (Dec 2017): My Leica SL came back from it's spa treatment in Germany working just as well as it was the first day I used the camera. I was charged a minimal fee for the service, but the repairs were covered under warranty. Glad to be re-united! 

 

The Fall Aspen Hunt

I just returned from another incredible photography expedition, this time to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. I had a number of photographic goals for this trip, one of which included capturing the changing colors of the aspen trees in Grand Teton.

Turns out it wasn't so easy. I had several ideas for what I wanted the final image to look like, but finding trees that were cooperating with my vision was more challenging than expected. The aspens that made a nice composition hadn't yet experienced the change of color that I wanted. The colorful trees weren't located in an area yielding a great composition.

After five days of hunting, I finally found some aspen clusters on the edge of the park boundary where I captured the following compositions. It was incredibly rewarding to finally discover a few aspen stands that had the mature golden yellow leaves that I wanted! 

Shot with the Leica SL.

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Behind-the-Photo: Eclipse Over Washington

Yesterday I shared a remarkable experience with millions of Americans... I joined them in looking up at the sun and enjoying a breathtaking display of the 2017 solar eclipse. During the eclipse, I made a series of images that were later merged into the following photograph (Buy a copy):

The final composite photograph of the August 2017 solar eclipse over the Jefferson Memorial.

The final composite photograph of the August 2017 solar eclipse over the Jefferson Memorial.

Today I am going to break down that photograph to share insight into the capture... part of my process to decelerate from the excitement of seeing the eclipse!

PLANNING THE SHOT

The eclipse came as no surprise - unless you have had your head buried in the sand, you probably knew for weeks (or months) that it was coming. While I knew the eclipse was coming far in advance, it was only in the last three weeks that I started to really plan my photograph.

Unlike many other photos, this is a 'one time only' shot. The next eclipse that would cover the Washington, DC area won't be for at least seven years, and that will no doubt look different from this one. Where the sun will set again tomorrow, offering another chance to re-do a sunset image, the moon and sun won't repeat this alignment every day. One chance. Had to be prepared.

NASA compiled a number of great resources, including some interactive maps that let me calculate the exact time the sun and moon would position themselves over Washington, DC. Using that map, I determined the maximum eclipse coverage over my area would be around 2:45pm EST.

A screenshot of the NASA interactive map, where I could determine the time of the eclipse over Washington, DC.

A screenshot of the NASA interactive map, where I could determine the time of the eclipse over Washington, DC.

With the time and date of the eclipse known, I went to one of my favorite apps for planning shots - the Photographers Ephemeris ("TPE"). The TPE app is wonderful because it lets you place a pushpin anywhere in the world and adjust the time and date to see where the sun and moon will align relative to that location. I normally use this app to plan sunrise and sunset shots because I can determine the exact location of the sun rise/set in advance and position myself and my camera for that event. 

This was the first time I'd used TPE to calculate a photograph at mid-day, but the app responded beautifully. I changed the date to 21 August 2017 around 2:45pm EST and looked at the alignment of the sun and moon to find a location in the DC area that would offer a nice alignment. Many people would photograph the sun that day, so I wanted my final image to include a foreground element that was clearly "DC" - something that gave context and location to the sun images I would also capture.

A quick look at the TPE app and I found my location.... there was almost perfect alignment between the sun, moon, and Jefferson Memorial. Shooting across the Tidal Basin would offer a wonderful alignment for the elements I wanted in my final composition.

A screenshot from the Photographers Ephemeris app, showing the alignment of the sun, moon, and Jefferson Memorial. In the bottom right corner, the app also displayed the lunar coverage of the sun in a small animation, providing exact information for me to use in planning the shot.

A screenshot from the Photographers Ephemeris app, showing the alignment of the sun, moon, and Jefferson Memorial. In the bottom right corner, the app also displayed the lunar coverage of the sun in a small animation, providing exact information for me to use in planning the shot.

I started to imagine the image in my head - a spectacular composite showing several stages of the solar eclipse staged over the Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin.... I may not get totality in DC, but I would have a chance to make a beautiful image anyway!

At this point I had a mental construct of the final product, and it was time to deconstruct the image into its individual elements to plan. The first step was to calculate if it would be possible to get all of the elements in the scene in the camera at the same time, or if I would need to shoot everything as individual elements and merge it later. I suspected it would need to be a composite, but still wanted to do the math to be sure.

Based on the information I had, I put together the following sketch:

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This sketch depicts the information I had - the relative sun angle above the horizon (57.5 degrees), my calculated distance from where I would stand along the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial (1,200 ft) and the height of the Jefferson Memorial (129 ft). From there, I needed to calculate the height of the sun over the memorial. 

Ouch.

It's been awhile since I did geometry, but Google is a great resource for those of us who have forgotten how to do math! I calculated a height of 1,754 ft from the top of the monument to the sun, and my sister, who also happens to be a high school math teacher, confirmed my work. Phew.

After putting down my calculator, it was clear I would have to shoot this as a composite - each element would be a separate image and I would merge them all in Photoshop to create the product I envisioned.

THE EQUIPMENT

With my plan in hand, it was time to get the equipment needed to create my image. Through my math and mental deconstruction of the final image I wanted, I determined there were two different elements I would need to photograph: 1) The Jefferson Memorial and 2) The stages of the solar eclipse.

Those two elements would require completely different equipment, so let's look at each one in turn:

The Jefferson Memorial

Normally, this is a very easy photograph. Point camera at memorial and click, right? Not so fast.... I am taking this photograph at 2:45pm remember. The sky will be a light blue, there will be harsh light and no bright colors. A yellow sun on a baby blue sky will look....out of place. The solar eclipse is also going to darken the sky, so it would be more appropriate to depict the solar elements on a darker sky. But it's still 2:45pm.

I solved this problem with the help of several neutral density filters, which allowed me to darken the sky and create the impression that it was closer to dusk than it really was. Normally I wouldn't employ this tactic during a mid-day shot.... I would just wait until dusk (no filter replaces the real thing), but I felt like this was an acceptable time to use the filters.

I decided that I would get my shot of the Jefferson Memorial before the solar eclipse show started so that I could be totally focused on the sun during the eclipse. 

To get the photograph of the memorial, I used the following equipment:

  • Leica SL Type 601

  • Leica 24-90mm Vario-Elmar lens

  • Gitzo Tripod

  • Acratech ballhead and leveling base

  • Several stacked neutral density filters and a polarizing filter

The Solar Eclipse

The images of the solar eclipse were the ones I was more nervous about getting correct; I have never shot directly into the sun during mid-day, so I needed to get smart in doing so! Thankfully there is no shortage of websites from astrophotographers who explain their techniques!

The longer the focal length, the better. I have a Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens that has a modified Leica R mount that I got to photograph wildlife with, and figured that would be a perfect choice. Even at 400mm, the sun would be fairly small against the sensor - this really is a time for big glass to shine. So I got a 2x teleconverter - which made this lens the equivalent of an 800mm monster! Normally the teleconverter offers a major loss in light reduction, but I knew that wouldn't be an issue when shooting straight into the sun!

The next thing I needed was a solar filter for my lens to protect it and the camera from the harmful sun. The lens is over 6 inches in diameter, so my best solution was to use a piece of solar film and cut my own filter.

I found a piece of solar film on Amazon and used the shipping box and some gaffers tape to engineer a removable holder for the film to sit in front of the lens.

The following equipment was used for each of the solar shots:

My camera rig pointed up at the sun during the eclipse

My camera rig pointed up at the sun during the eclipse

The homemade solar filter mounted to the front of my lens

The homemade solar filter mounted to the front of my lens

GETTING THE SHOT(S)

Alas, eclipse day arrived and I packed some gatorade, a beach towel, and my camera gear for an Uber ride to the Tidal Basin. I setup in the grass in the area I'd pre-determined was the right spot for my final shot.

As previously discussed, I planned to shoot the Jefferson Memorial element first, which I did. But the one I ended up using in my final image came last; scattered puffy clouds earlier in the afternoon meant I'd have to contend with a cloudy sky when placing the sun elements in the composite. Since clouds always cover the sun (and never the other way around), I could not place the sun on top of a cloud.... but by the end of the eclipse, the cloud situation had stabilized and I only needed to contend with a few puffy guys over the horizon. A storm cell had moved in, darkening the scene (which I was already going for with my filters), and the uniform grey sky provided a better and more realistic location to place the solar elements.

Because I had planned so meticulously, I was ready the instant the first bit of the moon started to move across the sun. Since I had never photographed the sun, I used these first few moments of eclipse activity to test my settings and focus, ensuring everything was exactly as I wanted.

All of the solar images were shot at an ISO ranging between 100-400 at f/11. Shutter speeds varied based on the amount of sun visible.

Shooting the eclipse at the base of the Tidal Basin.

Shooting the eclipse at the base of the Tidal Basin.

By the end of the afternoon, rain and storms were starting to move into the area, so I packed my gear and returned home to finish building the final image in Photoshop. I was confident that I had all of the elements needed to build the final image, it was just a matter of assembling them all correctly....

BUILDING THE FINAL IMAGE

The final image would require a composite of several solar elements from various stages of the eclipse overlaid onto my foreground shot of the Jefferson Memorial. In terms of complexity, this is probably the most challenging image I have ever assembled - everything had to look like it was real - the assembly had to be seamless. We've all see poor Photoshop hack jobs - this could not be one!

Is This a FAKE Photo?

Some people will accuse me of making a fake photograph. Sure - the sun never looked like this over the Jefferson Memorial - so in that regard, the photo is a fake. But that's not the point. The point of my artwork is to share an experience. This image is an accurate depiction of my experience - I watched phases of the eclipse move across the sky above the memorial. The photograph I created and shared is an accurate capture of the feeling, emotions, and experience I had. Every element is genuine - there was nothing I created that is not authentic, it is only the combination of those elements that is not genuine.

Assembling the Solar Elements

The photographs of the sun, while the trickiest to get, were actually the easiest to edit. I cropped them all to 1x1 squares (each one in the sensor was the same size since it was a fixed focal length) and adjusted the exposure slightly to correct any over/under exposure. I shot the sun at 10 minute intervals during the early stages, then at 2 minute intervals during the periods of maximum obscuration. The images used in the final shot were taken at the following times (as derived from my in-camera GPS):

  • 21 August 2017, 13:36:10 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 13:51:35 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:02:50 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:14:39 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:28:56 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:39:30 EDT

These images were not selected for the precise interval separating them (clearly!) but rather because they were good images depicting the various stages of the eclipse. In other words, it was an artistic decision, rather than scientific decision.

Each of the six solar elements that would appear in the final composition were then exported at high resolution to be merged with the foreground shot of the memorial.

One of the six solar elements used in the composite image

One of the six solar elements used in the composite image

The Foreground Image

The photograph of the Jefferson Memorial proved a trickier prospect than initially expected. I thought I might present the whole capture in black and white, but the sun started to look more like the moon when done in black and white. Having the sun remain a brilliant orange was the only way to convey to the viewer that it was actually the sun.

That meant the foreground also needed to be in color. I went through several iterations of how this should look before building one that looked correct. In each iteration, I found the balance between the brightness of the solar elements and the brightness of the background sky to be the most challenging element.

Finally I adjusted (and re-adjusted) until I had a foreground image I was happy with. Below is that image before I cleaned it up in Photoshop and added the solar elements.

The early version of the Jefferson Memorial image that was used to create the final composition

The early version of the Jefferson Memorial image that was used to create the final composition

Before adding the solar elements to the composition, I also went through and 'cleaned up' this photograph. There were many dust spots on the sensor, and I didn't like the distraction of the people on the stairs (although I did like the blur of the people on the paddle boats). So I removed each of those things and made slight lighting adjustments to the rest to bring out the best colors across the image.

I brought the final foreground image into Photoshop and then created several layers with each of the solar elements. Using the 'lighten' blend mode, I brought each into the foreground shot and started to build the composite.

I will spare you all of the Photoshop clicks - partially because I don't remember them all and there was a lot of trial and error - but the end result was six solar elements and one background image layered together. 

The next step was to adjust the size and location of the solar elements. For this, I drew a hot pink line across the sky, and used the Photoshop ruler and measurement tools to align each sun at equal intervals along that line. The line trick was a lifesaver - it made the alignment so much easier! I also used this to ensure each solar element was sized similarly.

A screenshot from Photoshop of my final image coming together. Notice the pink line I drew the align each of the solar elements as I built the final image.

A screenshot from Photoshop of my final image coming together. Notice the pink line I drew the align each of the solar elements as I built the final image.

THE FINAL PRODUCT

After weeks of planning, the final product had come together. The weather cooperated. The equipment all worked. The planning paid off. 

I let out a huge sigh of relief when I had finished assembling the final image. Unlike most of my other photographs, I was not confident I would be able to pull this off until the very end, and it was a huge relief to finally celebrate the success. Without a doubt, this was not only the most technically difficult photograph I have ever captured, but it was also the one with the slimmest margin for error; failure to capture the solar elements meant there would be no finished product!

Thank you for taking the time to read this behind-the-photo entry, and leave me a comment if you have any questions about the final image!

You can purchase a copy of this photograph for your home and have it delivered framed and ready to hang!

Eclipse 2017

Like many people, I was bitten by Eclipse mania - I couldn't wait to peer up at the sky (through my safety glasses of course!) and see the moon cover the sun. Unfortunately, my work schedule meant I wouldn't be able to travel to an area that was part of the path of totality, and Washington, DC was only going to get about 85% obscuration. Despite the fact that this wasn't going to be the tremendous eclipse show that so much of the country would enjoy, I was determined to make the best of it and spent weeks planning my shot.

I will do a blog post in the coming days sharing how I took this image, because it is (obviously) a composite of several images. The sky never naturally looked like the image below, but every element in the photograph is genuine! 

As it would happen, planning in photography pays off, because I got a shot very close to the one I had visualized before setting out for the day. 

The sun images were captured with the Leica SL and a 400mm f/2.8 lens with 2x teleconverter (rendering an 800mm equivalent lens). I used a homemade filter to protect the lens and camera from the sun's harmful rays. The photograph of the Jefferson Memorial was made with my Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens with several neutral density filters and a polarizer mounted.

Come back soon to see the 'behind-the-scenes' for how this photograph was made. I hope you enjoy the finished product as much as I enjoyed taking it!

You can purchase a copy of this photograph for your home and have it delivered framed and ready to hang!

DC Eclipse August 2017.jpg

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....