Archive for January 2015

Friday Foto Talk: Overcoming Obstacles Part I   10 comments

Good Morning!

Good Morning!

Making great images is harder than most people think.  It takes real effort to come up with shots that are relatively original, tell a story or elicit emotion, and are sensitive to subject.  And to do that with any degree of consistency is a tall task indeed.

Technical mastery, though at times frustrating to learn, is staightforward in comparison.  By and large, good photography is about not settling for the easy way.  You need to overcome a variety of obstacles on your way to great pictures, and that’s what this series of posts is all about.  As with life in general, obstacles in photography are both self-made (or internal) and imposed (external).  But both kinds are treated the same.  They’re all just things to handle and get past.

So to start out, here’s a few of the types of obstacles that typically stand in the way of good photography:

This statue outside the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyoming symbolizes this post's topic.

This statue outside the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyoming symbolizes this post’s topic.

Finding Time to Shoot

Shooting with enough frequency, especially when you’re on the steep part of the learning curve, is the key to reaching the point where you’re able to capture good images of a variety of subjects under different conditions.  When you overcome this time obstacle, you’re better able to find solutions to problems of technique (such as too many images out of focus).  That’s why I put it first.

Most of us have heard about 10,000 hours of practice being required for mastery of anything.  I never like putting numbers on this sort of thing.  It’s very simple: the more you practice, the better you’ll become.  Do you need to shoot every day?  No.  But you do need to shoot more than once or twice on the weekends.

Afternoon light over the Guadalupe Mountains, TX was not forgiving for most landscapes, but when I found this old viewpoint on an abandoned road, I thought B&W would bring to mind traveling through in the old days.

Afternoon light over the Guadalupe Mountains, TX was not forgiving for most landscapes, but when I found this old viewpoint on an abandoned road, I thought B&W would bring to mind traveling through here in the old days.

Being Ready

While the above obstacle is most important for learning and for technical issues, not being caught unprepared will probably have the biggest effect on the ultimate quality of your portfolio.  I know, you’d think it would be more complicated than this.  But being ready for the unexpected, combined with putting yourself in front of interesting things, is the most important thing to practice if you want to become a good photographer.

Being ready comes down to having a camera with you and ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.  That mean when you’re walking it’s in your hands not your backpack.  While driving it’s within easy reach not put away.  The old saying, “The best camera is the one you have with you”, is as true today as it was 50 years ago.

Capturing this little Indian girl's smile, near Agra, depended entirely on being ready to shoot quick.  She only paused for only a brief second or two before rushing away to find her mom.

Capturing this little Indian girl’s smile, near Agra, depended entirely on being ready to shoot quick. She only paused for a brief second or two before rushing away to find her mom.

It’s also important to have the camera all set up to go.  How you set up the camera often depends on what you’re expecting to shoot.  If you’re doing candids on the street, where a second’s hesitation means you miss the shot, you may choose program mode.

Don’t listen to those who say you need to be shooting in manual all the time.  In fact, I only shoot manual mode under certain (usually difficult) lighting conditions.  For landscapes I normally shoot in aperture priority mode.  But then again, I’m not concerned about how I’m perceived, whether it’s the camera and lenses I’m carrying or how I use them. 

Thanks for reading.  Have you faced and overcome any of these obstacles?  Are you struggling with a particular one?  Please don’t be shy.  Comment away!  Have a great weekend.


Sunset the other night, and a tree that has seen its share of lightning strikes.

Two for Tuesday: Humbled   13 comments

I think the power of images to tell stories is one of the biggest reasons so many of us enjoy both making and viewing them.  It’s very hard to make a single picture tell a story, at least a story that a wide variety of people will connect with.  While that’s no reason to avoid trying, it also means you’re likely setting yourself up for failure if you expect images like that to come along frequently.

Certainly easier than a single-image story is putting together a group or collection of pictures that together tell a story.  But that may be too easy.  Which brings me to the idea behind Two for Tuesdays.  A pair of pictures is the perfect compromise!  And heck, Tuesdays didn’t really have a good (that is, unforced) theme.  So on occasion I’ll use this day of the week to post a pair of images that will tell a story or make an important point.

Like Wordless Wednesdays, I’ll let the images do the talking, and thus (from here on out) provide words only in the posts’ titles.  By the way, one of these images I already included in a post not long ago.  The second one begged to be posted as well, but I resisted for some reason.  Turns out this was the reason!





Posted January 27, 2015 by MJF Images in People, Photography

Tagged with , , , , ,

Single-Image Sunday: Working a Waterfall   17 comments

This week’s Friday Foto Talk was on working the subject, so I thought I’d post a shot from last year at Abiqua Falls.  It’s a lovely waterfall in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains of Oregon.  It isn’t real easy to get to, involving a drive on logging roads and a short but very steep hike down to the river.  Despite this, the waterfall is pretty popular with local photographers.

I’ve only visited once, but it was on a mostly cloudy Sunday afternoon with fairly flat light.  I also had the place to myself.  So I decided to take my time and explore every vantage point in the natural bowl, ringed by cliffs of basalt, that the falls drops into.  Almost all the photos I’ve seen of this particular falls are taken from nearly the same straight on viewpoint, which is the spot you end up when you’re hiking there.

After crossing the stream and clambering up the side for a high view and working along the streamside for a super-low point of view, I waded to a large rock in the middle of the stream and climbed up to the top.  This gave me a medium-height position looking straight up the stream to the falls – perfect for a vertical frame.

Hours had passed since I had arrived and dusk was approaching.  The cloud-filtered light changed, and for a few brief moments the basalt grotto turned a subtle warm russet color.  There is orange-tinted lichen on the columnar basalt near the falls, so any decent light here is a bonus.

I thought it was a wrap, but on the hike back out in failing light, I managed a couple long exposures of the green-themed stream corridor.  So it was busy and fun shoot where I almost (but not quite) shot this subject to death!  Have a great week!

Abiqua Falls, Oregon

Abiqua Falls, Oregon

Friday Foto Talk: Work It!   10 comments

Fall colors at the Grand Tetons, in a different part of Oxbow Bend than most shoot from.

Fall colors at the Grand Tetons, in a different part of Oxbow Bend than most shoot from.

Everyone knows that determination and perseverance are keys to success.  I’ve always believed that stubborn people also possess these positive qualities.  This Friday’s post is all about working the subject.  You find a particular landscape, a flower or plant, a person, or an animal that you like and you shoot it a lot.  You try to find different compositions, angles and lighting, you keep plugging away until you think you’re being repetitive, you fire off a few more shots just to make sure, before you finally give up.

Along the Lewis River, Washington.

Along the Lewis River, Washington.


The advantages of working the subject are few but important:

  • This is in my opinion the most important reason to work the subject.  “Working it” is a key part of obtaining images that succeed in expressing what you want to express about your subjects.  It often happens that you only realize what the picture should express after you come home and review the shoot on a computer screen.

* Many teachers urge you to plan what you want from the shoot ahead of time.  That’s good advice in some circumstances, but not all the time.  Making meaning from images retroactively is at least as genuine as what is achieved by planning ahead.  There are things going on in your mind while you’re busy shooting, subconscious things.  If you don’t stay with the subject and work it, then you have far less chance to find out what that was.

  • The more you work the subject, the more different compositions will occur to you.  You will see the “picture within the picture”, for example.  This is when all of a sudden you realize the wider view contains within it a composition that demands a tighter crop.  You zoom in or change lenses to get a longer focal length, and though you may not have moved the camera the resulting picture looks way different than your first image.
A waterfall in Honduras drops into thick jungle.

A waterfall in Honduras drops into thick jungle.

  • The longer you shoot, the more likely it is that light will change and give you a totally different look.  In rapidly changing light, going as fast as you can, this can be exciting and frustrating at the same time.

Tighter crop of the same waterfall as above.


  •  The longer you’re there the more you tend to move around.  Changing position, both by walking and by varying camera height, is what working the subject really looks like.  If you set up in one spot and just shoot in different directions or with different focal lengths, you’re not really working the subject.
  • You may find different subjects in the same area, or in the case of moving subjects like animals or people, they may find you.  For instance in nature photography, shooting macro basically involves finding an area with at least one subject you’re interested in, then staying there and (inevitably) finding other subjects to shoot.  More than once I’ve been shooting architecture in a city and drawn the attention of (or had my attention distracted by) an interesting looking person or two.
By sticking around after sunrise and looking for other compositions, I was there when this bull moose happened by, hot in pursuit of his beloved.

By sticking around after sunrise and looking for other compositions, I was there when this bull moose happened by, hot in pursuit of his beloved.


I mentioned above that moving around, finding different and unique compositions, is what working the subject looks like.  But most important is your approach and attitude.  Actively observe everything going on around you.  While you’re doing that, relax and take your time.  That doesn’t mean you shoot slow; it means you’re patient.  Focus on the present and keep distractions (such as plans to hit other locations that day) out of mind while you shoot.

Of course there are times you’ll need to leave a location before you’re really done so as to get to a certain spot when the light is good.  And you don’t want to shoot too long, going over ground you’ve already covered.  It’s always a difficult push-pull, at least for me.  A lot will depend on whether or not you will be able to return to the area.

Which brings me to something you should always remember.  Working the subject doesn’t always need to happen on a single shoot.  Returning to a subject or location, perhaps many times, is a great way to work a subject.  Go exploring near home, especially for places and subjects other photographers overlook.  Find a few areas you really like and return to them often, trying for a variety of seasons and lighting conditions.

That’s it for today.  We could certainly work the subject of working the subject some more.  And perhaps you’d like to, in the comments below.  Have a great weekend!

In the desert of the Baja Peninsula, cloudy weather made it good for stills and close-ups like this shot of the wrinkled surface of a cardon cactus.

In the desert of the Baja Peninsula, cloudy weather made it good for stills and close-ups like this shot of the wrinkled surface of a cardon cactus.

Warm Cactus

Working the macro possibilities so long, I was there for a change in light when the sun sank beneath the clouds, opening up landscape possibilities featuring the same cactus.



Wordless Wednesday: Small-Scale Wind Energy   10 comments


Friday Foto Talk, Part V: Plug-ins   8 comments

First post!  Happy New Year!

First post! Happy New Year!

This post concludes a mini-series on post-processing.  Find parts I – IV here.  My intent is to summarize the approach I’ve found to be helpful for me.  It’s not to give specific instruction on how to edit your photographs on the computer.  You can find these tutorials in many different places both online and in print.  But be selective and only go with the most experienced teachers.  Much of the online instruction in particular can be a little misleading and not all that helpful.  Everybody is different and will approach specific editing tasks differently.  Only very experienced teachers factor this in to the right extent.

You should develop your own unique “workflow”, or general sequence of steps, while being flexible enough to take any given image in a different direction than the one you took the last image.  Editing is, in fact, just like capturing images.  The more you do it the more comfortable you become.  If you’re fairly new to digital photography, don’t expect to get to that post-processing comfort zone without some degree of frustration.  Don’t despair; it’s all part of the learning curve.  And so, on to plug-ins:

Last week I posted a winter Crater Lake.  This one is from late summer with smoke from distant fires turning the sky orange.

Last week I posted a winter Crater Lake. This one is from late summer with smoke from distant fires turning the sky orange.


Plug-ins are software programs that work with Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop CS and other programs to add functionality and ease of use.  They are the classic editing extra.  I’m talking only about those plug-ins which apply post-processing techniques to your images.  There are plugins that do all sorts of things – automatically publishing your pictures on websites, for example.

As the name says, these programs “plug in” to your main editor (Lightroom, Photoshop or Aperture).  When you install a plug-in, you link it to your main editing program.  Editing plug-ins are designed to, in effect, take your images on a round-trip from your main program to the plug-in (where you apply edits) and back again.

In Lightroom for example, you simply right-click on a picture and click “edit in”.  Then from the drop-down menu you choose one of the plug-ins you have installed and, from the box that pops up, select how you want to save it.  After you finish with the image and click save (or apply, or whatever the plug-in says), your photo is automatically sent back to Lightroom, thus creating another version of it in a non-RAW format (Jpeg, TIFF).  Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s a pretty simple procedure.

A bare winter tree

A bare winter tree


Although you can almost always do with Photoshop what any plug-in can do, these little programs can almost always do it quicker and easier.  By and large, a plug-in, like any editing extra, will impart a certain style to your picture.  Plug-ins can lend quite magical or painterly effects to your images.  Many of them do what filters did in the film era.  But they go far beyond simple filters.

The power of these little programs means it’s very easy to overdo things, resulting in an image with the wrong kind of impact.  But, at least with the better plug-ins, it also means you can exert a fair amount of subtlety and control.  This control is best applied by combining the judicious use of sliders and opacity.

Some of the more popular plug-ins for photography include Nik, onOne, Imagenomic and Topaz.  There are others.  These companies offer bundles, which are a good deal if you plan to use two or more of their products a lot.  For instance I use Nik’s Silver Effex & Color Effex quite a bit, so I bought the bundle and for nearly no extra money got their excellent Dfine for noise reduction and HDR Effex for HDR.

The charming town of Quetzaltenango (Xela for short) lies in Guatemala's western highlands.

The charming town of Quetzaltenango (Xela for short) lies in Guatemala’s western highlands.

As mentioned, most editing plug-ins are quite powerful, and thus they’re often used with Photoshop because you can easily apply them as a layer and then dampen the effect simply by changing layer opacity.  Also, you can apply layer masks in Photoshop, limiting the effects of the plugin to local areas of the image.  But even here the creators of these programs have figured out ways to allow their use without Photoshop.  .

With many plug-ins, you can adjust opacity while still inside the plug-in software itself.  And to take it a step further, in the better plug-ins you can adjust the effect in local areas of the image.  Some plug-ins have masking as their sole function, competing directly with Photoshop.

All this allows photographers like me to largely avoid Photoshop, using the plug-ins in conjunction with Lightroom (which doesn’t have layers or layer masking).  As described in Part IV, I use Photoshop itself as a plug-in, only occasionally taking photos from Lightroom to PS for specific tasks, then saving right back to my LR catalog.  If you plan to use plug-ins in conjunction with Lightroom instead of Photoshop, I recommend those that allow a lot of adjustment to the overall effect (opacity) as well as the effects of individual sliders.  All plug-in software offers free trials.

The roof in Carlsbad Cavern's Big Room is studded with thousands of stalactites.

The roof in Carlsbad Cavern’s Big Room is studded with thousands of stalactites.


Plug-ins have an effect you’ll see all over the internet, especially on social media.  Some of these looks become quite popular, and soon enough it seems like 9 out of 10 images you see have been edited by the same plug-in, with the same effect applied.  Of course this isn’t the plug-in’s fault.  It’s just our “ape” ancestry showing through.

But don’t let this stop you from trying the plug-in.  Just be thoughtful and you’ll be okay.  Your job as a photographer stays the same throughout the post-processing minefield, rife as it is with Facebook fads and 500 px rankings.  Edit your images so they express your particular vision, taking strong account of exactly what was happening at the time you pressed the shutter, and how you felt about it.  If that means using a look that happens to be popular at the moment, then so be it.  Don’t be shy!  If it means going with a look that gets 3 likes on Facebook, that’s fine too!  In other words, to beat a dead horse, just be yourself.

While rambling southern Africa, the call of the "go away" bird might make you feel just a bit unwelcome.

While rambling southern Africa, the call of the gray “go away” bird might make you feel just a bit unwelcome.

Canyon hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains, Texas.

Canyon hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains, Texas.


If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I’m more into the capture part of photography.  I started out hating post-processing, but now I’m much more in tune with it.  In the end, it’s up to each of you to learn how you want to approach editing your images.  Just like it’s up to you to choose (and then learn how to use) the software you think will get your photography to where you want to take it.

You’ve likely noticed that I recommend basing things off Lightroom.  That’s because it does such a great job of organizing and editing both.  And boy do I need organizing!  Supplement with Photoshop (or Elements) if you’ll be doing a lot of cloning and/or composites (merging images).  Add a few plug-ins that you enjoy using and that jive with your needs and style.  If you take this approach, you’ll be doing the same thing most pro photographers do.

A long post, thanks for sticking with me!  Hope you got something out of it.  Good luck and have a fun fun fun 2015!

A recent sunset, Cimarron River.

A recent sunset on the Cimarron River.

%d bloggers like this: