Friday Foto Talk: Post-Processing, Part I   5 comments

The Grand Tetons appear  smaller than they really are in this wide view.  Often very wide-angle shots call for minimal processing.

The Grand Tetons appear smaller than they really are in this wide view. Often very wide-angle shots call for minimal processing.

Last Friday wrapped up the short series of posts on learning photography.  But I thought I’d follow up this week with one more thing you need to think about: post-processing.  This post will cover general considerations and decisions you’ll need to make.  Next time I’ll go into specific software choices.

When I first bought a digital camera, I was under the naive impression that the photos coming out of the camera were what they were.  I knew you could do fancy things with Photoshop, things like putting several pictures together to make a scene that looked like it belonged on a cover from a Yes album (a 70s era prog. rock band for all you millenials!).  Or even merging my face onto Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body (I never did that!).  But since I knew I didn’t want to get into any of that, I just didn’t see the need to buy software.

Although I was blissfully ignorant of the real situation, I was partly right.  I was shooting in Jpeg.  And when you shoot in Jpeg the camera edits pictures before it displays them on the LCD screen.  You can load those Jpegs into your computer and do a lot of extra editing of course.  But the whole idea of shooting in Jpeg is so that you can do a basic edit “in-camera” and get the pictures out without extra work.  Now we have things like Instagram, which does (often dramatic) extra work on pictures before they are shared on the internet.  And all of this without you spending any extra time.

Like the image above, this one from the Texas Panhandle is processed to maximize the details in the scene.  Above it's in the trees while here it's in the layered clouds.

Like the image above, this one from the Texas Panhandle is processed to maximize the details in the scene. Above it’s in the trees while here it’s in the layered clouds.

Through this entire series I’ve assumed you all are on the road toward excellence in photography, and that you want to optimize your time and money on that journey.  The bad news is that in order to fully control what your pictures look like you’ll need to learn to edit them using one or several computer programs.  And this takes even more time and money.  You can limit the damage for the latter by buying your software while taking a formal photography class (say, at a community college).  Student discounts on the most popular software by Adobe and others are very significant, often well over 50% off!  The time you spend learning is directly related to how quickly you pick up computer software.  My experience included a good amount of frustration, and I consider myself rather an ordinary image-editor.  You may have more success.  But however it turns out, if you embark on learning how to use photo software you will eventually become proficient.  So never mind the misplaced images and other screw-ups, the plateaus in learning.  Stick with it!

Fairly soft black and white processing is best for this simple image of fog and trees on the Sandy River delta in Oregon.

Fairly soft black and white processing is best for this simple image of fog and trees on the Sandy River delta in Oregon.

All I wanted to do with this flower shot from a recent trip to Grand Teton National Park was to highlight the blue.

All I wanted to do with this flower shot from a recent trip to Grand Teton National Park was to highlight the blue.

THE ILLUSION OF THE UNTOUCHED IMAGE

One more thing before I continue with recommendations.  You’ll occasionally see folks posting pictures on the web with a caption that seems to brag “straight out of camera”, or words to that effect.  I’m not sure why people do this.  Are they saying their photos are inherently so good that they don’t need any further enhancement on the computer?  Or are they building in an excuse for unedited images because they don’t think they measure up to their usual high standards?  Or are they just feeling guilty about being too lazy to edit?

Whatever it is, they are using flawed logic.  Digital photography is similar to film in a very fundamental way.  Just as with film, in order for a digital photo to be finished it has to be developed, or edited.  Whether you shoot in RAW or Jpeg, the picture that appears on your LCD has been edited on a computer – the computer inside your camera.  Often the editing is quite minimal, but depending on how advanced your camera is you can (automatically) do quite significant things to an image simply by adjusting camera settings.

I can understand if somebody wants to share a picture but they don’t have the time or inclination to edit it.  Just don’t pretend the image hasn’t been “sullied” by computer-based editing, and is thus somehow more pure than an edited shot.  In the film days I didn’t like to look at negatives; I wanted to see the finished product.  It’s the same with digital.  The image starts as a digital file – ones and zeroes – and then gets rendered by a computer (in camera or out) into an image we can all understand and appreciate.

Both Mt. Moran and this buffalo seem to be challenging me as I try to draw as close as I can.  The arched tail says 'stay back!'

Both Mt. Moran and this buffalo seem to be challenging me as I try to draw as close as I can. The arched tail says ‘stay back!’

Two wildlife shots are pretty rare for me in one post.  This is one of my favorite little animals in the world, the American pika.

Two wildlife shots in one post are pretty rare for me. This is one of my favorite little animals in the world, the American pika.

On a trip to Grand Tetons this past September I followed a creek up into the forest from where it entered a lake, and finally found this little waterfall.

On a trip to Grand Tetons this past September I followed a creek up into the forest from where it entered a lake, and finally found this little waterfall.

YOUR EDITING DECISION

The issue isn’t whether you want your images to look “photoshopped” or real.  The computer only makes images look unreal or unnatural if you tell it to.  No, the real issue is this:  do you want to invest the time and effort to learn software and take full control of the editing process?  Or would you rather just use the camera to edit your photos automatically?  Do you like the idea of an intermediate option, making quick choices using Instagram?  One final option is to hire one of the many outlets that’ll edit your photos for you?

I’m not here to convince you one way or the other.  It’s your time, your pictures.  And your choice on this doesn’t mark you as either serious or casual, pro or amateur.  Believe it or not, pros shoot Jpeg, using in-camera processing.  They’re sports photographers who need to get their photos of the game out to online outlets while the game goes on and they’re still shooting.  I made the choice to learn some software and do my own editing.  But I sometimes question that decision.  Sitting at the computer is not my favorite thing to do by a long shot!

What I’m saying is to think of using a computer to edit a digital image file just as you would using chemicals to transform a film negative into a beautiful color photograph.  How much you do to the file is up to you.  You can keep it as close as memory allows to the way the scene was as you squeezed the shutter button.  Or you can take off on a flight of fancy.  Or something in between.  Your approach will, of course, help to define your style.  But however you swing it, computer-based editing is an inseparable part of the image-making process.

The sun sets early these November days.  Good night!

The sun sets early these November days. Good night!

Friday Foto Talk: Learning Photography, Part IV   10 comments

An old fence-line tops a ridge and Colorado's San Juan Mountains show off their autumn colors.

An old fence-line tops a ridge and Colorado’s San Juan Mountains show off their autumn colors.

This is the final installment in this short series on learning photography.  Check out the first three posts on this topic for tips on how to make the most of your time and money when you set out to get serious about making images.  Enjoy some images from my most recent two trips.

WHAT LENSES TO GET: QUALITY

Quality is number one in the lens arena.  When I bought my first serious DSLR (a Canon 5D Mark II), I made the mistake of buying a Sigma 24-70 mm. lens with it.  I never was happy with that lens, and ended up returning it for a Canon.  Of course you can’t do that in most places, but I had bought it in Singapore.  The guys in the shop were very surprised to see me return almost a year later.  I had told them where I was from so they didn’t expect to ever see me again.  But I like Singapore. It’s a fine place to break a long flight to somewhere like India or Nepal, a convenient jumping off point for Borneo, Indonesia & PNG, and the atmosphere (and food!) on the street is great.

After some spirited negotiation, I traded the Sigma in for a Canon and from that point on stuck with quality, mostly Canon L lenses. There are important exceptions to the L rule regarding Canon.  Not really knowing Nikon I can’t say for sure, but I expect it applies as well.  There are a few non-L Canon lenses that match the image quality of L lenses.  One example is the EF-S 17-55 mm., an excellent lens made specifically for crop-frame cameras.  Another is the 100 mm. macro (the older, non-L macro).  Conversely, there are a few Canon L lenses that have somewhat lower image quality (though all L lenses have high build quality).

Fog and a full moon combine to create a unique atmosphere in which to shoot along the Buffalo River, Arkansas.

Fog and a full moon combine to create a unique atmosphere in which to shoot along the Buffalo River, Arkansas.

With Nikon there isn’t such a clear way to tell which lens has better build/image quality like with the red ring of Canon L lenses.  But Nikon lenses with gold rings and “ED” in their names generally represent higher quality.  Bottom line is you need to evaluate lenses on a case by case basis. Even some 3rd party lenses are worth considering.  Though I can’t vouch for any Sigma or Tamron lens, I do know they carry good models.

I can personally vouch for Tokina’s wide-angle zoom, the 16-28 mm. f/2.8, and pretty much anything made by Zeiss is quality both in build and clarity (and will put a dent in your wallet!).  Note that Zeiss has traditionally made only fixed (non-zoom) lenses with manual-focus only.  However, they’ve been departing from that practice lately, building zooms for Sony.  They may be about to do the same for Canon and Nikon.

Note that I haven’t mentioned any kit lenses. That’s because I think you should try to eschew kit lenses, even starting out.  If one comes with your camera and you’re sure you can make a little money by selling it, by all means get it and sell it off.  Or use it until you can afford to upgrade.  Once again there are exceptions.  The Canon 24-105 mm. f/4L is sold as a kit lens with their 5D cameras, and though some will argue, this is a very good lens.

Heading up for a fall hike in the mountains, San Juan Mtns., Colorado

Heading up for a fall hike in the mountains: San Juan Mtns., Colorado

WHAT LENSES TO GET: FOCAL LENGTH

When starting out you should probably just go for the “wedding setup”.  If you’re like me you loathe the idea of shooting a wedding (or even attending one, hehe!).  But that doesn’t mean you won’t do very well in a wide variety of situations with the lenses that most wedding shooters go with.  That is, a mid-range zoom in the neighborhood of 24-70 mm. focal length plus a 70-200 mm. zoom. This focal length (24-200 mm.) is mandatory for you to cover. You don’t necessarily need to cover every millimeter of it of course; for example, if you plan on going with fixed-focal length lenses.  But try to cover most of it.  Slightly less important (unless you’re into landscapes, where it’s a necessity) is a wider-angle zoom in the range starting at 14-16 mm. on the wide end and going up to 24-40 mm. on the long end.

Okay, that’s two to three lenses, depending on money & whether you will be doing a lot of landscapes.  I would, early on, add a fast 50 mm.lens, fast meaning one with a wide maximum aperture (f/1.8 or so).  This will allow you to shoot in low-light without spending a ton of money (50s are cheap).  If you are indeed going to be shooting indoors with plenty of portraits (such as weddings – ugh!), you’ll need to get faster, more expensive lenses.  In a zoom, this normally means a maximum aperture of f/2.8.  If you’ll be doing a lot of landscape or general photography, lenses with maximum aperture of f/4 are just fine.  I wouldn’t go slower that that except for lenses longer than 300 mm.  And I wouldn’t go with lenses that have a variable maximum aperture.  Again, this leaves out most kit lenses, most of which have variable maximum apertures.

Prairie dog town, Oklahoma

Prairie dog town, Oklahoma

MACRO OR NOT?

Unless you’re very sure you want to get deeply into macro photography straight off, I would wait to get a macro lens. Sure, you can skip the 70-200 mm. f/4 lens and get a 100 mm. f/2.8 macro instead.  This would give you a good portrait lens and of course allow macro.  But you’re giving up the flexibility of a 70-200, particularly in the landscape arena.  Instead of going macro right away, you can instead buy a Canon 500D close-up lens.  It screws on like a filter to any lens (doesn’t need to be Canon), yielding high-quality close-up images.  It works very well with a 70-200 mm. zoom lens, and goes for about $150.

ACCESSORIES

This is where many companies have sprung up trying to cash in on the photography craze.  Resist the urge to go crazy on extras.  You will need the following: tripod, tripod head, mounting plates, backpack or other camera bag, a filter or three, camera protection and cleaning stuff.  For the latter, get a couple very good cleaning cloths, maybe a lens pen, plus swabs and solution for the sensor.  You would think all lens cloths are the same, but they aren’t.  I really love my “Tiger” cloth, a large orange cleaning cloth made by an outfit called Kinetronics.

I like this type of rail fence, not just for its looks but because it is so easy to climb!

TRIPOD

While you don’t need to buy the best there is, you do need to go with quality here.  I would strongly consider a carbon fiber model if money allows, but a regular  aluminum tripod, though heavier, will do the job as well.  Manfrotto is one of several companies with well-built medium-priced tripods that come in both aluminum and carbon-fiber versions.  Just don’t go too cheap ($150 or under).  You can easily buy several tripods, not being happy with any of them, and end up going with a good one costing at least $200. The reason for this is the aggravation that results from using a tripod that is made cheap or is too lightweight.  Better to just pony up in the beginning.  Used is always an option with tripods of course, but make sure it’s only a year or two old.

That’s just the tripod legs.  You still need to get a head, and it may be best to buy your tripod and head separately.  You can either go with a pan- or ball-head. A ball-head will enable you to quickly pick any angle and lock it down. A pan-head is better for video and for panning. Unless you already know which you prefer, I’d get a ballhead.  Again, spend a little more and get a good one; at least $200 should do it.  One with an Arca-Swiss type of clamp is best, for its ease of use. It clamps onto a plate that you mount on the bottom of your camera (or lens when using telephotos).

Get a plate made specifically for your camera and match it well to the clamp on the ball-head. The same brand for both head and plate is good but not strictly necessary.  Check when you get it that the fit is perfect; if it’s not send it back and get a plate that matches.  You can’t afford to fool around with this, since all your expensive gear could go crashing if it’s not mounted very securely to your tripod.  By the way, I use an L plate, which wraps around one side of the camera, allowing it to be mounted vertically on the tripod head.  Though more expensive than a regular plate, it is much more stable and offers protection too.

A burnished looking landscape in central Oklahoma.

A burnished landscape in central Oklahoma.

BAGS

For some reason this is the hardest thing to resist going crazy on.  I’m not generally a gear-head, but I really love camera backpacks.  If I didn’t exert serious willpower I’d own a dozen.  Unless you see yourself doing only street photography (for which many prefer shoulder bags), or something like sports (where backpacks are clunky), I would just go for a comfortable camera backpack.  Backpacks aren’t just for hikers; they allow a lot of gear to be carried in the most efficient way possible.  We’re getting into the topic of travel here, so I’ll save the discussion of backpacks and luggage for another post.

If you want to go with an optional second bag, I’d get a smaller one for those times you want to carry only your camera and a lens (or two). You could get a smallish shoulder bag, or one of the Lowepro Toploaders, which have shoulder slings but can also be attached to an optional chest sling (I use this for XC skiing).  You can get a lens case that attaches optionally to the Toploader.  Then you have camera, two lenses plus accessories in an easily-carried, protected bag.

One more fall colors shot from my trip to SW Colorado in October.

FILTERS & OTHER STUFF

In the film days filters were a big deal.  Not so much anymore, since software can simulate most of what filters used to do.  One thing software doesn’t really simulate is polarization.  So I think a circular polarizer is necessary, especially if you’re into landscapes.  You can get just one that is the size of the largest lens you’ll use it on, then get step-down rings that allow it to fit smaller lenses.  I have two for convenience.  Neutral density filters are good to have if you’re into landscapes, and they come in handy in other situations too.  I’ve already posted on these in detail.

Should you get UV filters for each of your lenses?  It depends.  They don’t really do anything except help protect your lens.  But get just one scratch on a lens and you’ll wish you had bought one.  Despite what some say, they are more sure protection than a hood (which you should also use).  The main knock on them is they put another layer of glass between you and the image, potentially impacting quality.  So if you’re going with them you need high-quality UV filters (B&W brand or better).  If you’re pretty careful with equipment, I’d probably skip them.  But if you’re like me, rough on your equipment, they may be worthwhile.

Morning light hits rose hip leaves.

There is one more thing you should definitely get when you buy a camera, and that’s protection.  First off, get something to protect your LCD display(s).  Unlike lenses, these will scratch if you look at them.  The best option in my opinion are the thin, rigid stick-on covers.  Not the flexible stick-on film you buy in packages of 20.  I’m talking about the rigid ones you buy just one of, made by GGS & others.  They’re thin & inconspicuous and yet very durable.  Some even come in a package of two, one for your main rear LCD & one for the small LCD on top of many DSLRs.  Put them on as soon as you get the camera out of its box.  Also consider a rain-cover if you’ll be shooting somewhere with a wet climate.  Even if it’s just a shower-cap &/or thick terry towel (which is what I use), always have it in your camera bag.

Do you need a flash?  Some cameras have built-in flash, but these rarely produce good results.  In my opinion you should learn to shoot in natural light first, then later on, if desired, you can learn about using off-camera flash and other artificial lighting.  If you plan, right off the bat, to shoot indoors a lot, you might want to get a good off-camera flash plus accessories to get the most out of it.  I’d stick with the same brand as your camera, but you don’t necessarily need the top of the line model.  For instance, I have the Canon 430 EX II ($250) plus a synch cord (to fire the flash from above or to the side of the camera).  I also have a hand-held diffuser and reflector.  I don’t use this stuff much, but it’s all I need for fill light plus the occasional indoor portrait.

Well that just about does it.  Thanks for sticking with this lengthy post!  I hope it helped in your quest to get the right gear (but no more), and to lessen some of the sticker shock that comes with getting serious about photography.  Have a fun weekend!

Yesterday evening I was wandering around at sunset when I saw this barn sitting quietly in the day’s last light.

Friday Foto Talk: Learning Photography, Part III   6 comments

A muddy Canadian River at sunrise, Oklahoma.

A muddy Canadian River at sunrise, Oklahoma.

I’m late posting this Friday Foto Talk, shame on me!  My excuse is that I was in the woods for the last few days, away from internet and cell service.  This is the 3rd in a 4-part series on learning photography.  Not what to learn but how to go about it.  This short series has mostly been aimed at those who have just recently begun to get serious about photography.  But everyone will get something out of it.  I believe every photographer, no matter how experienced, is a learning photographer.  So be sure and check out the first two parts if this is your first visit.

My blog has deliberately steered clear of gear talk.  I’ve talked about how best to use various kinds of lenses and filters to create various looks, but I’ve deliberately avoided brand names.  I don’t believe brand has anything to do with the images you create.  As mentioned in Part I, the goal is to buy just enough but not too much gear when you’re just starting on the road to serious image-making.  Later on, if money permits, you can add on to your kit.  You’ll know much better what will genuinely enhance your photography.

Foggy forest early one recent morning in the Ozarks of Arkansas.

Foggy forest early one recent morning in the Ozarks of Arkansas.

IS BRAND IMPORTANT?

Though brand doesn’t matter to the ultimate quality of your images, you’ll nonetheless need to decide what you’re going with at the beginning.  Can you change your mind later and switch?  Sure, it’s easy enough to sell a camera and lenses.  (They go together: each brand of camera fits only lenses made for that brand, or 3rd party lenses with mounts specific to the brand.)  Of course, if you change your mind you’ll lose some money buying new and then selling later.  But more important than that, you’ll need to learn a whole different menu system.  You don’t need to add to what you have to learn, so I recommend keeping things simple.  Pick one brand and stick with that choice until you are a competent photographer (about two years).

It’s a fact that Canon and Nikon remain dominant.  Sure, Sony has established itself, even among pros.  Also, the new mirrorless compact format has made Panasonic a big player.  But the big two are what most professionals continue to use.  And they’ll be easier to sell if it comes to that.  If you have plenty of dough, consider one of the luxury brands (Hasselblad or Leica).  But remember, you’re just learning.  Though image quality is what you’re going for from day one, there’s no need to go crazy just to produce your first 10,000 (worst) images.

A ranch nestles beneath Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

FORMAT

If you are just now getting serious, if you are going to be jumping up from a point and shoot or your phone, you have a couple important decisions to make.  First is format.  You have the option to start out with the compact mirrorless format.  You could also learn on a film system, like medium or large-format.  I think the mirrorless format is a good option for beginners, but I’ll save that whole discussion of mirroless vs. DSLR for another post.  Film has that cachet, but in the learning stage I’d go digital.  Film is not dead (yet), but your learning curve will be significantly shorter with digital. The rest of this post assumes you are going with a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) system.

CAMERA

I would seriously consider limiting your choice to Canon, Nikon or possibly Sony (again assuming you’re not splurging on a luxury brand).  The best plan is to rent each for a weekend and see which you like using better.  Canon and Nikon both keep their value somewhat better than Sony, a big factor later when you want to sell something.  All three have a fairly intuitive user interface.  All three are fairly reliable, but with any of them, you can wind up with a lemon.  If you’re starting out with a used camera, your decision may hinge simply on what you can get a good deal on.  Your decision will also depend on what lens lineup you like best, which brings me to…

BRAND & LENSES

I recommend renting before you buy here too.  Perhaps the best option if you decide on Sony is to buy high-quality lenses made by a 3rd party which come with Sony mounts. Zeiss glass is very well regarded, but pretty spendy unless you buy used.  If you decide on Canon or Nikon, you have a large lineup of lenses to choose from, lenses made by the same folks who make the camera.  Expect these lenses to work a little better with your camera, in general, than those made by 3rd parties.  When I say “work better” I’m not talking image quality. I’m speaking of electronics (quicker & more accurate autofocus, for e.g.).  Sony has been relying on 3rd party lenses, but that includes a recent commitment by Zeiss to make zoom lenses for them.  So Sony’s lens gap may be a thing of the past in the near future.

Beautiful Colorado blue spruce, San Juan Mtns., Colo.

Beautiful Colorado blue spruce, San Juan Mtns., Colo.

I honestly can’t recommend one brand’s lenses over the other.  It is, however, widely believed that Canon does big telephoto lenses better than Nikon, and that Nikon does very wide-angle zooms better.  In the middle of the range (~24-200 mm. focal length), the two are for all intents and purposes not distinguishable.  Since this is where the lion’s share of our photos are taken, it really is a tossup between Canon and Nikon.  Of course if you plan on getting into sport or serious wildlife photography, you may choose Canon because of its (slightly) better long glass.  If you’re a landscape shooter, Nikon might be the one simply because you can get their excellent 14-24 mm. wide angle lens.

Though I’m primarily a landscape person, I don’t mind shooting Canon for the following reason: There are several good alternatives to the Nikon 14-24 mm. out there, made by third parties.  And Canon itself makes two or three fixed focal length wide-angle lenses that produce the same quality as the Nikon wide-angle zoom.  With landscape photography, the speed of autofocus and other electronic considerations are not as important in the wide-angle as the telephoto realms.  You can even get a 3rd party manual-focus wide-angle lens (like a Zeiss) and be perfectly happy doing landscapes.  Try manual- or slow auto-focus with wildlife or sport and you’re done for.  So if you plan on shooting both landscape and wildlife, for example, Canon may hold a slight edge.

Now that I’ve succeeded in contradicting myself and, despite my claims to the contrary, recommended a brand (ahem), we can move on to what’s really important to a just-learning photographer.  That is, what do I need to buy?  Not what brand, what gear.

Amazing lichen, Oachita National Forest, Arkansas

Amazing lichen, Oachita National Forest, Arkansas

USED OR NEW?

If money is not a serious concern, buy new across the board.  If money concerns you to some degree, buy a new camera but look in the used market for lenses.  As long as you check out the merchandise before you buy, lenses are pretty easy to buy used.  Cameras can be a little more iffy.  I’m not saying quality used cameras can’t be had.  I’m just pointing out how hard it is to decide that based on a quick examination in some Starbucks somewhere.  If money is a big concern, start off with used equipment, including camera and accessories.

The reason money may be more of a concern than what you expect is that the most important factor in image quality is the glass (lenses) not the camera.  Lenses are where most of your investment should be, and good glass is not cheap.  You can argue that average lenses are fine to start out, but consider just one of several reasons for buying good glass to start out.  When you’re trying to produce nice sharp images, it can be hard to distinguish softness related to lens quality from softness that stems from your own mistakes.

There is one more piece of gear where you need to start out with high quality.  Can you guess?  The camera perhaps?  No, not in my opinion at least.  You can get a good basic camera that is in the middle of the range and be fine.   No, it’s the tripod and tripod head (more on that later).  So to sum up, get a good basic DSLR to start, don’t skimp on the tripod, and buy lenses that you’ll be happy to keep using well after you’ve become good and have upgraded your camera.

Texas longhorn cattle roam the grasslands in Wichita Mtns., National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.

CROP-FRAME OR FULL-FRAME?

If I was writing this a couple years ago I might recommend serious consideration to a a crop-frame camera, at least to start with.  That’s because they tended to be less expensive than full frames, while still delivering great usability and quality.  That advice is less true now that less expensive full frames (like the excellent Canon 6D) are on the market. It’s also less true because lenses continue to be designed and built primarily for full-frame cameras.  Don’t misunderstand me.  Most lenses can be used with either format.  But since everything is at a longer effective focal length on a crop-frame, lenses at the wider end of the spectrum need to be built specifically for crop-frames; they won’t work on a full-frame.

So where does that leave us?  I would make your decision based on what kind of photography you plan on doing most.  If you really want to get into wildlife or sports, I’d go for a crop-frame; it will give you extra reach in terms of focal length.  If you’ll be doing mostly landscapes, get a full-frame.  If you’re going for portraiture, it’s a toss-up.  But I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and recommend a full-frame camera if you’re not sure or you wish to explore a variety of photography.  Your second camera could always be a crop-frame if you find yourself getting more and more into wildlife or sports.

That’s enough for now.  I’ll continue with the all-important subject of what sorts of lenses to buy next time.  Have a great weekend!

Sunset over the prairie.

Wordless Wednesday: The Ozarks   13 comments

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Single-image Sunday: Annoyed   6 comments

Bet ya think I’m going to talk about being annoyed.  No, even when I am annoyed I’ll try never to subject anyone else to my reasons for being so.  They only make sense at the time anyway.  No, this image is all about this buffalo (otherwise known as a bison) being annoyed with me.  If you’re familiar with American bison, you know they once roamed over most of the central parts of North America.  And that now they’re confined mostly to a few national parks, Yellowstone chief among them.

So you may think this shot is from Yellowstone, or possibly nearby Grand Teton National Park.  You may even know about the buffalo herd at Wind Cave, South Dakota, and think he lives there.

None of the above!  The truth is that I got a surprise when I visited the southern part of Oklahoma recently.  I had seen on the map that there was a wildlife refuge called Wichita Mountains NWR.  I also saw on the web that there were a small number of buffalo there.  Since it was a quick trip, I didn’t expect to see many buffalo, let alone get close enough for a good shot.

Towards dusk I happened to glance off into the trees while driving by and saw this youngish bull.  I stopped and walked around behind him.  Approaching slowly and watchfully, I kept some small trees between he and I.

Annoyed: check out his underside.

Annoyed: check out his underside.

I’ve learned to be cautious around buffalo, but how cautious often depends.  At times you can walk right up to them, drawing no more than a casual glance.  I don’t set out wanting to get too close of course.  But on several occasions while hiking in Yellowstone, I’ve rounded a corner and been confronted with one of the massive beasts lounging in the grass beside the trail.  If it is not autumn, this is not usually a panic situation.

I got close enough to this one to get his attention.  He immediately let me know that I had gotten close enough, thank you.  He turned and took a couple steps in my direction, fixing me with a glare.  If that wasn’t enough, he began to urinate.  That was my clue to back away.  There is a rule of thumb with any large (or even not so large) male animal.  Almost anytime you see them urinating, you can be sure it’s to send a definite signal: stay back!

There are other fairly obvious signals that buffalo give you.  One is when they arch their tail up in the air.  I’ve seen bulls do that during mating season, just before charging another bull.  Another clue is when they throw their huge furry heads about.  If you come upon a buffalo with an arched tail, who’s throwing his head around and urinating at the same time, you should definitely not approach any closer.  And strongly consider retreating.

Many tourists have been injured, some even killed, by bison.  At Yellowstone especially, people often approach too closely in an attempt to get a good picture.  They ignore the obvious warning signals that the bison (I think kindly) is giving them.  When questioned by rangers, some of these people don’t realize that they are wild animals.  And they seem to believe they are slow and ponderous.

True, buffalo go about most of their lives in slow-motion.  But that’s deceiving.  I’ve seen them run very fast and jump 6-foot high fences.  That’s 1500 pounds launching itself over a high fence!  When they want to be, buffalo can be very athletic and very cantankerous – a potentially deadly combination.  It’s amazing to me that more people aren’t rammed and gored, given how many apparently unobservant tourists visit Yellowstone.

So if you plan to visit one of the parks with buffalo, remember the signals, especially if it’s the fall mating season.  Stay safe, and have a great week!

Friday Foto Talk: Learning Photography – Part II   11 comments

Mt Sneffels and its neighbors scrape the sky in southwest Colorado.

Mt Sneffels and its neighbors scrape the sky in southwest Colorado.

I’m thinking you may need a break from Halloween-themed posts and pictures.   This is the second of three parts on learning photography.  Last Friday’s post introduced the topic.

Using your learning time wisely is the reason for this short series about learning photography.  While those who are fairly new to photography may get the most out of it, even old hands know that the learning never stops.  The fact is that all of us, no matter how experienced, could benefit by stopping to think about how we’re going about learning.  It’s at least as important as what you learn.  So make sure to check out Part I.  There you’ll find Tips 1 through 5.

 

Tip 6

  • From the beginning, develop your own unique style.  It’s never too early to begin expressing your own unique take on things: your style.  That includes shooting the things you are passionate about, or at least have a strong interest in.  But don’t get carried away with a narrow focus too soon (see below).

Tip 7

  • Shoot a wide variety of subjects in a variety of lighting.  While learning the basics, do a lot of different kinds of shooting.  You may be most interested in shooting nature or landscapes, for example.  That’s fine, but don’t focus on it too much right away.  To learn about light, to explore the interaction between subject and photographer, to fully appreciate photography, I believe you need to shoot variety: buildings, people, still life, close-ups, indoors as well as out.  You get the idea.
A barn in the best color for a barn, near Ridgway, Colorado.

A barn in the best color for a barn, near Ridgway, Colorado.

Tip 8

  • Personal life can intrude.  Your loved ones will think you just took up a hobby.  But they’ll soon realize it’s much more than that!  As with the two points above, you’ll need to strike another balance here.  Depending on how busy your personal life is, you may need to drop some things, if possible, in order to accommodate the extra demands.  You should be having fun shooting, and that’s not possible if you’re stressed because you have too much on your plate.  That said, your family and work will, as always, be more important.  Be patient.  It may take more time than if you were single with a non-demanding job.  But don’t worry, you’ll still get there.
A prairie dog keeps watch   over his town on the Oklahoma prairie.

A prairie dog keeps watch over his town on the Oklahoma prairie.

Tip 9

  • During your formative period, you should almost completely ignore the images of others.  Period.  You have all the influences you need stored in memory.  You don’t need it now.  Constant comparison to others will likely harm your ability to develop your own style.  Are there exceptions to this rule?  I believe in exceptions to most rules.  But be very selective.  You might visit a gallery, or pick up a book by a seriously great photographer.  But your focus, for at least a year and probably two, should be on shooting and learning, not sharing your images or looking at too much of other shooters.

* This applies especially to the internet.  Facebook in particular can be quite poisonous to a new photographer in my opinion.  If you go online go for a blog post or article purely focused on learning skills.  Later on, after you’ve established a style and know yourself as a photographer, you can start sharing more widely.  It’s only at that point that you’ll continue to learn by viewing (with a critical eye) the images of others.

For some reason I really love rosehips.

For some reason I really love rosehips.

Tip 10

  • Be a harsh self-critic.  This is another thing you need to do right from the beginning.  When you’re selecting images to work on at the computer, try to select only the best.  This is something we all struggle with, especially in the beginning.  Don’t stress that it’s so tough to judge which of your images are good and which aren’t.  Time will make you a better judge of your own pictures.  It will become a little easier as your pictures get better.  Still, you need to be very demanding and only spend time with your best work.

* But you may well ask: “Don’t I need to look at a bunch of pictures online to learn what’s good and what’s not?”  No.  No you don’t.  I can’t emphasize this too strongly.  Scrolling through tons of images on Facebook or 500 px merely teaches you what is popular, not necessarily what is good.  Believe it or not, you already know a strong image from a weak one.  Besides, it is only helpful (especially while learning) to know what makes a good image for you at your particular point of development.  That said, at some time in your learning process, it’s probably a good idea to learn how to critique images.  Later on, you can join a critique forum.

Tip 11

  •  Be calm, relaxed and observant while shooting.  I’ve hit on this point in prior posts.  When I’m around other photographers, I sometimes notice they miss things, seemingly because they’re rushing through the process for no good reason.  And I’m not immune.  I often need to remind myself to keep a calm mind.  I’m naturally observant, at least in nature.  But I’m also habitually late for things, including sunset.  I’ve had to learn that this is no excuse for feeling stressed when I do arrive.

* All of this is directly related to observation.  And that strongly influences how many good shots you’ll get. It’s not just creativity as a whole that suffers from stress.  Your observational abilities also go down when you allow stress to creep in.  Granted, sometimes you need to go pretty fast if the light is changing quickly or you’re working with a skittish subject.  But you can always keep a calm and receptive attitude, no matter what the shooting situation.

Dramatic skies and a thinly forested ridgeline combine with nice light in this picture in the Colorado Rockies

Dramatic skies and a thinly forested ridge-line combine with nice light in this picture in the Colorado Rockies

Tip 12

  • Have fun!  Everything you do in photography, as with life, will turn out better if you make it fun.  There’s something I’ve always found strange.  Even though I greatly appreciate all complements on my pictures, I’m always confused when people say “nice work”.  If this were work to me I wouldn’t be doing it!  A lot easier said than done, you say?  You’re right!  For example, I know from personal experience that it’s hard not to beat yourself up when you miss a great shot.  At those times I try to remember that there is always a next time.  It is so important to maintain perspective.  Don’t take photography too seriously.  And please, no matter how good you eventually get, don’t take yourself as a photographer too seriously.  Have fun!

 

Stay tuned next week for the last post in this series.  Have a great weekend!

The sun sets over the Cimarron River.

The sun sets over the Cimarron River.

Happy Halloween!   14 comments

There are plenty of opportunities in Oregon to capture fog in all its variations.

There are plenty of opportunities in Oregon to capture fog in all its variations.

Tomorrow is Halloween, a holiday I’ve always been of two minds on.  On one hand, I’ve had many fun Halloweens.  We used to decorate the basement in the house I grew up in, and on a couple occasions I remember parties down there with all my friends from school and the neighborhood.  We would run around all amped up on sugar, bobbing for apples and playing pranks.  The evening was capped off by sitting on the cement walls bordering the backyard, that huge oak tree forming a black silhouette in the center, telling ghost stories.

On the other hand, since reaching adulthood, I haven’t really taken to the holiday like when I was a kid.  To me, it is a holiday for children, and never has had the enduring spirit of Christmas.  It seems a little ridiculous how excited some adults get.  I’ve even cynically thought of it as simply an excuse to get drunk at Halloween parties.  Am I too much the curmudgeon?  Probably, haha!  Anyway, here are a few shots I managed to find with a more or less spooky mood to them.

Happy Halloween!

A termite tower in Botswana's Okavango Delta takes on a sinister aspect next to an equally spooky looking acacia tree.

A termite tower in Botswana’s Okavango Delta takes on a sinister aspect next to an equally spooky looking acacia tree.

The streets at night in Campeche, a colonial town in Mexico, are very atmospheric.

The streets at night in Campeche, a colonial town in Mexico, are very atmospheric.

 

More good old Oregon fog.  I don't think this shot is that scary looking.  The light was rather magical but not scary.

More good old Oregon fog. I don’t think this shot is that scary looking. The light was rather magical but not scary.

Mayan temples, such as this one at Tikal, Guatemala, don't necessarily look scary.  That is, until you realize what happened  just inside that small doorway - human sacrifice!

Mayan temples, such as this one at Tikal, Guatemala, don’t necessarily look scary. That is, until you realize what happened just inside that small doorway – human sacrifice!

Near dark deep in a Columbia River Gorge side-canyon, fog and water combine to create a ghostly aparition.

Near dark deep in a Columbia River Gorge side-canyon, fog and water combine to create a ghostly aparition.

The only shot like this I got in Africa, these scavenging Maribou storks are perched above an elephant carcass at sunset.  Don't worry, the elephant was not the victim of poachers in this case.

The only shot like this I got in Africa, these scavenging marabou storks are perched above an elephant carcass at sunset. Don’t worry, the elephant was not the victim of poachers in this case.

Friday Foto Talk: Learning Photography – Part I   6 comments

Ranch land in southwestern Colorado

Ranch land in southwestern Colorado

How long have you been into photography?  Are you just starting out?  If so, you’re in for an adventure!  Learning how to make images you’re really proud of (as opposed to snapshots) is much more involved than it may seem at first.  That’s part of what makes it so fun!

We all come to photography in ways unique to us.  I believe strongly that there is no “right” way to learn photography.  But I also think there are things worth focusing on and things that only serve to distract you as you mature as a photographer.

Photography is interesting in that you can pick it up fairly easily, and yet struggle for years trying to get truly good images.  Anyone can take a picture.  And these days especially, everyone does.  But it’s a different ballgame altogether when it comes to creating images that look good hanging in a gallery.  Photography is like any art form.  It takes practice and dedication to produce something that is worthy of being called art.

Every post in my ongoing Friday Foto Talk series is, of course, about learning photography.  But this short three-part series gets away from the theme of how to do photography.  Instead it covers how best to learn photography.

Spruce and aspen, Colorado Rockies

 Tip 1

  • Make sure you know what you’re getting into.  As just mentioned, serious photography is a fairly intense undertaking, and that applies to both your time and money.  While you certainly don’t have to spend as much money as camera companies would like you to think, you’ll still put a serious dent in your bank account.  Also, you will be investing a large amount of time in order to get good.  Much of it will be alone.  Make sure you are ready for that.  If you’re not ready, that’s perfectly fine.  If you just want to record life – its milestones and funny moments, a bit of its beauty – there’s nothing wrong with sticking to snapshots.  Leave the serious shooting to those who want to invest the time and money.  Don’t feel pressured to become a photographer if your interest is only casual.
Weather moves into the spruce forest of the southern Colorado Rockies.

Weather moves into a spruce forest in the southern Colorado Rockies.

Tip 2

  • Think about how you want to learn the basics.  This isn’t really about what kind of learner you are.  After all, ultimately we all need to practice something to really learn it.  However, in order to learn basic principles, you’ll need to take advantage of books, videos, classes or workshops to one degree or another.  Personally, I like books as long as they’re good.  I got a lot out of Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Photography Field Guide, for example.  Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography Books (vol. 1-3) give great tips on how to shoot a wide variety of subjects.  He also has a well-regarded training website, chock full of training videos.
  • Workshops can be a fun and engaging way to learn.  But they’re also expensive and can include too many other (travel) aspects besides learning photography.  They are also mostly run by folks with no teacher training. Good ones are certainly worthwhile, but are probably best done further down the road, after you’ve gotten the basics down.  The worst workshops are merely some guy’s (or gal’s) attempt to have you help pay for his trip to shoot in an exotic locale.  Unfortunately the latter are ubiquitous.  A regular photography class with field trips may be a better option for you.
Are you tired of fall colors yet?  San Juan Mtns., Colorado

Are you tired of fall colors yet? San Juan Mtns., Colorado

Tip 3

  • Get the right gear, but no more.  More on this in a later post.  For now just realize you’ll need to strike a balance.  You need enough gear of sufficient quality of course.  But you also need to avoid going overboard.

Tip 4

  • No holding back.  Once you decide you’re going to learn to produce great images, you have to focus your energies.  Don’t let anything become an excuse.  Absorb and learn.  Get out and shoot anytime you get a chance.  From the beginning you should adopt a mindset that allows (almost) nothing to come between you and a great image.

 Tip 5

  • Patience is key.  You won’t get good right away.  Every new photographer thinks he or she can shorten the learning curve, and many even think they can leapfrog ahead by buying high-end, pro-style gear.  Believe me, the saying “Your first 10,000 photos are your worst” is true for all of us.  Depending on how much you shoot, it will take at least one, probably two years of serious shooting to become a decent to good photographer.

 Do you have any experiences to relate about learning photography?  Anything you would recommend or avoid?  Please comment below.  Do you have any questions to ask about this topic?  No matter how irrelevant they seem to be, I want to hear them.  So please don’t hesitate.  Stay tuned for Part II, where you’ll find more tips on how best to learn photography.  Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

The sun sets on golden aspen in leaf as viewed from atop a ridge of burned trees.

The sun sets on golden aspen in leaf as viewed from atop a ridge of burned trees.

Wordless Wednesday: A Pond in Autumn   5 comments

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Friday Foto Talk – Taking a Break: Is it Worth it?   20 comments

Quaking aspen in peak color not far from Telluride, Colorado.

Quaking aspen in peak color not far from Telluride, Colorado.

Earlier this year I took a break from serious photography for a few months.  Finally in late July I purchased a new DSLR and began shooting seriously again.  Although my break was essentially forced on me by the loss of a camera, I now see the benefits (and cautions) of purposefully taking a break from shooting.  Here are a few things I learned.

Why take a Break?

  • Burnout:  If you are shooting a bunch for a long time you will  undoubtedly become better with all that practice.  But you may also reach a point of diminishing returns.  It’s possible, even for the most enthusiastic photographer, to get tired of it.  And as soon as you begin to lose even a little motivation, you are not doing as good a job.  You stay in your comfort zone.  You don’t work quite as hard for that image.  If you find yourself not searching as much for unique compositions; if you’re shooting the same subjects in the same sort of light, if you aren’t working the subject like you used to, you could be burned out.  And it could be solved simply by taking a break.
  • New Creative Outlet:  Although you can certainly continue to shoot while trying your hand at painting or writing, for example, it may be best depending on your personality and time demands to focus your attention and efforts solely on the new undertaking, without the distraction of shooting.
  • New Subject or Genre:  If you want to transition from one type of photography to something completely different, you’ll need to learn some things.  Of course you will need to shoot to learn, but before you do this it may be advantageous to take a break from all shooting.  Then you can read about and view images of the new genre.  Also, you’re going to define a different style, or at least a variation on your shooting style.  This takes some time and some thinking.  It may help, before you jump right into the new genre, to pause and view it from an outsider’s perspective.  While doing this you can do some serious thinking about how you want to approach the new thing.
  • Renew your Passion:  This reason is relevant to all of the above points.  For example, if you will be changing photography genres, taking a break will help you really get into it when you return to shooting.  This goes double if you are borderline burnt out.  In fact, it may be because you are burnt out that you consider a new type of photography or a new creative outlet in the first place.  I’ve found that photography is no different than anything else.  In order to do well you need to really go for it.  You need to be passionate.
Sunset approaches at Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado.

Sunset approaches at Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado.

Driving up into the mountains of SW Colorado in autumn, and Chimney Rock looms ahead.

Things to Do While on Hiatus

  • Think:  One thing I’d recommend while on hiatus from photography is to think about how you’re going about it.  Are you developing a style you are comfortable with or merely chasing popularity on Facebook?  Think about the way you’re shooting, the types of subjects you’re naturally attracted to vs. the ones that elicit the “wows”.  Envision the way you’ll go about photography when you return to it.
  • Read:  This is also a great time to do some reading on photography.  While there’s nothing wrong with reading up on technique and how-to, this is the best time to read about the history of photography and some of the great early photographers.  Anything that gets your mind working as you reevaluate your approach and style is a great use of your time.  And while shooting, especially if you are shooting every day, it’s harder to find the time for this.
  • Look at Images of other photographers:  I’m not really talking so much about the internet here.  It’s more related to the above point.  As you read, for example, about Edward Weston or Dorothea Lange, you will naturally be viewing their work too.  Of course you can do this while shooting too, but during a pause the effect on you might be different, more conducive to objective analysis of your approach.
  • Try something else creative:  Even if this is not your reason for taking a pause, it’s a great way to recharge your batteries and broaden your outlook on the arts.  Even something as simple as model railroading or origami can pay unexpected and unpredictable  dividends when you return to shooting.
  • Get your Portfolio squared away:  There are plenty of ways to improve your portfolio of images, from re-editing a few of your older pictures to a wholesale reshuffling of the images displayed in your online galleries.  Is it time to design or redesign a website?  All of this is more easily done when there are no new images coming in.  This subject is worth its own post.  But a break in shooting is the perfect time to go through your existing portfolio and improve it.
  • Get your Images in front of more eyes:  After going through your portfolio, the logical next step is to look at ways to promote it.  Whether you want to start selling some images, want to get some of them critiqued, or simply want to connect with new people via your images, you now have time to focus on getting your images circulated.  Now is also a great time to print some of those you’ve been wanting to print, to look into art shows, farmer’s markets and even galleries.
  • Catch up on the Blogging World:  You knew this was coming!  Now you might be also taking a break from the internet.  While that’s worth considering too, there’s no reason it has to be the same time as a photography break.  This is a great time to expand (in moderation – see below) your reading and image-viewing online.  Find new bloggers and connect more with those you already know.  If you don’t blog, why not start one now?

 

A blustery-cold snow-squall moves in and the fall colors just soften.

A waterfall near Creede, Colo.

A waterfall near Creede, Colo.

 

 

Cautions and Caveats

  • Getting rusty:  It’s very likely that your photography skills will, depending on how long your break is, suffer a decline.  But this “rustiness” is only temporary.  It’s certainly not a reason, in my opinion, to forego a photography hiatus.  Just be aware of it when you return to shooting.  Don’t beat yourself up if you screw up some shots that you would’ve nailed before.  You’ll get it back.
  • Equipment envy:  It’s amazing to realize how quickly new camera gear comes out these days.  Especially if you decide on a months-long break, there will be new “breakthrough” cameras and other toys to tempt you.  Friends you shot with before may have fancy new equipment when you get back together with them.  My recommendation is to ignore it.  Invest in new gear only if you feel you’re at a point to make it really pay (whether in real money or in significant advantages in your ability to make the images you want).  Returning from hiatus you’re unlikely to be at a point where new equipment will pay off.  Shoot for awhile first.
  • Image envy:  It’s probably inevitable that a pause in shooting will enable you to view a lot more online imagery than you previously had time for.  Depending on where you are as a photographer, you’ll need to rein in this inclination to a greater or lesser degree.  It’s a good idea to search for new and different photographers while on pause, but moderation is the key.  Don’t fall into the trap that others are racing ahead of you, or that you’re missing out on a great time of year to shoot (they’re all great!).
  • Shooting Casually:  I did this but I’m not sure how productive it was.  I had a little point and shoot and occasionally shot with that during my break.  It was pretty casual but I found myself trying to make the camera do some pretty heavy lifting.  While I did get some nice images this way, it sorta defeated the purpose of taking a break.  If you’re sure you can do snapshots only and not get too serious, I say go for it.  But realize it’s a little like taking a drink or smoking just one cigarette.  Realize also that when you return to shooting you’ll need to get completely out of snapshot mode and back into serious shooting.  That’s not always easy.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison just before dark, Colorado.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison just before dark, Colorado.

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Getting Back into It

 I recommend not rushing it.  Make sure you’re ready to get back to shooting.  It’s okay to miss photography; just don’t use that as an excuse to end your hiatus too soon.  When it’s time, you’ll be chomping at the bit but also ready in a patient and measured way.  As mentioned, expect some rustiness for awhile.  Keep your expectations modest and don’t stress missed shots.  Just work at the basics and, as always, let your own unique vision guide you.  Have fun!

I have the distinct feeling there is more to this than what I’ve written here.  So if you have anything to add, please don’t be shy about commenting.  Have you taken a break from photography before?  Was it forced on you or voluntary?  You may have an argument for or against going on hiatus.  Or perhaps you’ve an additional caution or caveat to relate.  I will definitely consider it again in the future, despite the drawbacks.

Storm clouds gather and the quaking aspen aren't bothered at all: San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Storm clouds gather and the quaking aspen aren’t bothered at all: San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

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Evening comes on after a glorious sunset at Dallas Divide, Colorado.

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