Archive for the ‘Friday Foto Talk’ Category

Friday Foto Talk: Video on the Move   5 comments

This is the 3rd part of my mini-series on video for the unrepentant still photographer.  The over-arching premise is that, no matter how in love with still photography you happen to be, there is always a enough time to add in a bit of videography.  If you need real reasons to press that play button, check out Part I.  For tips on things to watch out for when getting started, check out Part II.

Note that in order to watch the videos here you have to click the title at top left.  That will take you to my Vimeo page, where you simply press play to watch them.  There’s a full-screen option.  By the way, they haven’t been edited, even for length.  On my to-do list.  Now let’s get into it!

Video & Focal Length

Last time I recommended starting out simple, by placing your camera on a tripod and recording without moving the camera.  You can also keep things still while hand-holding the camera.  But choose a fairly wide-angle lens for this.  If you zoom in beyond, say, 70 mm., it will be next to impossible to hold the camera still enough.  Even with focal lengths around 50 mm. it’s hard.  Use a tripod.

There is another issue with focal length when recording video.  When you use a medium focal length, on the order of 50 mm., you are replicating the approximate field of view for human vision.  It means that the viewer will not be distracted by either an unusually wide angle, with its distortion, or by any unsteadiness and jittering of the frame that may happen when you zoom in to longer focal lengths.  This doesn’t mean you should avoid those different focal lengths; that’s one big advantage of shooting video with a DSLR.  It’s just that as a rule of thumb 35-60 mm. is a good baseline, or default, focal length.

Camera Movement:  Panning

If you do follow my advice from last post and start out by locking the camera down on a tripod while recording (and in that case you’ll be choosing moving subjects that are interesting in some way), it won’t be long before you get bored and start moving the camera.  The most basic kind of camera movement is panning.  If you shoot a lot of landscapes like me, panning will show you the whole area.  It’s sort of the video equivalent of an establishing shot in still photography.

You have two basic choices.  You can just pan like most people do with their phones, pivoting around while pointing the lens at what you want to include.  Or you can pan while on the tripod.  An in-between option is a monopod set up for video.  In the first case, just winging it by hand, you should realize that a camera phone has a very wide-angle lens.  Any deviations from a smooth pan (short of tripping over your own feet!) are masked by the wide angle of view.  Speaking of hand-holding for video, there are stabilizer rigs that you hold/wear that will make it much easier to keep things smooth while panning and otherwise moving the camera.

For the video below, I bushwacked to a very beautiful & secluded spot in Olympic National Park.  I climbed onto a rock beside a lovely falls and panned through the scene by hand.  Even though I used a wide-angle, you’ll see a couple small errors toward the end.  If I had used a stabilizer rig it would have been smoother.

Panning on the Tripod ~ Which Head?

If you pan on a tripod, which is what I’d try first for longer focal lengths, you have another choice to make.  Do you buy a so-called fluid panning head?  And how nice/expensive?  You can literally spend thousands on a super-smooth fluid head for video.  You’re thinking why can’t I just use my regular ballhead?  Sure. But if you go this route you will have to develop quite the steady technique.  You’ll also need to limit how long a focal length you use and probably accept small hitches in the final product.

‘But’, I hear you saying, ‘my ballhead has separate panning movement.’  Yes it does.  But it’s there for shooting a series of still shots on a plane (a panorama, for e.g.).  It’s movement isn’t really smooth enough for video panning.  That said, I have used my ballhead (not the panning base) to pan through shots.  I use the ballhead itself though, not the pan.  And I don’t do it with particularly long focal lengths.

Panning Heads:  What to Buy

If you go for a panning head, and if you’re not yet a serious videographer, I would buy an intro. model.  But intro. doesn’t mean cheapest.  Cheap fluid heads are like cheap tripods.  You’ll soon regret your purchase.  Get one a bit further up the scale, one with some good reviews by practiced videographers on a budget.  Figure on spending at least $100 and probably closer to $150 or even a bit more.  Look at the Manfrotto fluid heads in that range.


If you have a long telephoto or zoom, and especially if you plan on shooting wildlife, you’ll probably want a Gimbal head.  Wimberley is a popular brand but there are others just as good.  Gimbals aren’t cheap.  But when using big lenses they are more stable, balanced and move more easily than on a ballhead.  As a bonus Gimbals allow smooth panning and other movement during video recording.  So with big lenses it is your go-to head, whether you are doing still photography (following a bird in flight, for e.g.) or video.  There are partial Gimbals that clamp onto your ballhead.  Cheaper than a full Gimbal, these are better than using just the ballhead but not as good as the full version that replaces your ballhead.

Next time, more video on the move: tips for when you’re in the field and want to shoot a video or two to go along with your still shots.  Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!


Foto Talk: Video Basics   4 comments

Let’s continue the series on video.  Check out the introductory post if you have a minute.  My goal in this series is to convince those of you who’ve been happily capturing still photos to give video a try.  If you’re already doing it, good for you!  Either way, read on for some tips on composing videos and making the transition as seamless as possible.  The main theme of this post is that the two share more similarities than differences.  For the videos, click the title at top first, not the play button.  You’ll go to my Vimeo page.

Videos:  What’s the Use?

I’m a still photographer first and foremost.  Even so, I’ve been capturing videos almost from the beginning.  It’s not because I love video.  To be perfectly honest part of it is the mere fact that video was available on my DSLR.   But that’s not a good enough reason is it?  I think in the very near future video will be part of every professional photographer’s portfolio.  I wish I’d been more committed from the beginning, but I have to admit that it’s been an “if I’m in the mood” kind of thing.  I shoot video to mix things up and have a little fun.  That’s more than enough reason for you too

Here are a few ways you can use videos:

  • If you are putting on a slide show, having nothing but still pictures is, let’s be honest, a little boring.  Mix in some video clips, short and impactful, and you’ll have more attention given to those still photos.  The point is that any presentation of still pictures is made more interesting by just a couple-three short video clips.  As long as they are relevant to the general theme and not totally jumpy and bad, they can only add something.
  • Telling a story.  Although a series of pictures can do the same, a single video can tell the whole story more completely.  A combination may be ideal.
  • Capturing and creating integrated audio.  This is a very important aspect of videos, one that sets them apart from still images.  You can add music to a video and fade it out to the soundscape that’s native to the video.  And then back to music if you want.

Getting Started:  Cautions

So how to get started?  Most DSLRs are very easy to switch to video mode.  You simply throw a switch to go into video mode, and press a toggle button to start & stop recording.  I recommend starting out on a tripod and composing things just as you would a still image.  And then don’t move it, recording a shortish clip designed to capture interesting sounds and/or motions within the frame.  You may have to keep trying in order to catch just the right sound and movement.  Later on you can pan the camera, zoom, and change compositions.

Here are a few things to be aware of and guard against when starting out:

  • Compose carefully.  You should do this with stills as well, but with videos it’s easier to forget.  Check out the corners and edges, watching out for a tripod leg or some other distracting element.  Recompose so that your subject is clearly delineated.  And speaking of subject, find something both interesting and easy to spot.  You don’t want it to get lost in the background.  If either subject movement or the soundscape (or both) is able to hold your interest then others are likely to find the video interesting.
  • Watch out for exposure problems.  For example if you place your subject against a bright sky, you might end up with a silhouette.  That’s fine if it’s what you want.  Just realize that you might have a smaller range of editing options, especially if you’re planning to learn the major video editing software later on.  I recommend simply metering the scene as you would with a still image and going with those settings.  If you’re not moving the camera around then whatever mode you normally shoot stills in is fine for video.
  • Don’t move around or touch the camera unnecessarily.  Every time you touch the camera the microphone, which is built in, will record the sound of that.  Every time you move you run the risk of the mic capturing the shuffle of your feet.  And of course don’t move into the frame yourself unless you are a subject.

That’s it for this week.  Stay tuned for more on video.  I really feel with video that it’s important to start off simply.  You don’t want to bite off too much initially.  Have fun out there and happy shooting!

Posted December 4, 2016 by MJF Images in Friday Foto Talk, Photo How-To

Friday Foto Talk: Why Video?   4 comments

Nearly every digital camera sold nowadays has video.  In fact, I can only think of one DSLR without video that I would shoot with.  It’s the excellent Canon 50D, a camera that I used to own (I even took it to Africa).  Camera makers are building video in for a reason.  I don’t have to tell you that videos are very popular on the web.  But even for those of us who buy a camera thinking only of still photography, to have the option of shooting high quality video through high quality glass (lenses) is very tempting.  So it’s usually not long after that shiny new digital camera arrives that we switch to video mode and start winging it.

I say winging it because, while there are important similarities, video is quite different than still photography.  Mistakes are inevitable and can easily make our videos look amateurish.  This series is designed not to make you an expert videographer.  I can’t claim to be, after all.  It’s meant to get you thinking about capturing motion and sound rather than still scenes.  It’s also to give you a baseline from which to start your journey into videography.  This is the first time I’ve posted videos on this blog, and so it’s a bit of an experiment.  I’m inserting them from my Vimeo page.  They’re unedited but not too lengthy.

So why shoot videos at all?  Other than the novelty of capturing motion through a variety of lenses, videos are good for…

  • Mixing things up.  Anything you can do that’s different will help to keep you from slipping into a shooting rut.
  • Adding value to a shoot.  Even if you are shooting a portrait, where the goal is clearly to get a great still shot of your subject, a video is the kind of bonus that’s guaranteed to make him or her very happy.  Only video can show the laughs, changes of expression, and all the interactions that happen on a typical shoot.
  • Showing context.  If you put in a lot of work and money to get someplace great to photograph, you’ll want to bring home something that, while perhaps not your best stuff, is nonetheless critical for documenting your visit.  A wide-angle, so-called establishing shot or two that shows the wider area is one thing.   A video that pans through the area can show even more.  Plus it includes sound!
  • Showing movement.  I know, duh!  While it’s often interesting to show movement in a still photo, only a video can show movement as it actually is.
  • Including the sound-scape.  For me this is one of the most valuable (and challenging) aspects of video.  Still pictures have a huge shortcoming: lack of sound.  A motion picture overcomes that.
  • Profit.  If you are thinking of going pro at some point, there is another major advantage to capturing video.  You’re getting practice for that (inevitable?) moment when you make the transition.  If you follow a number of pro photographers you may have noticed that many if not most of them eventually make the jump to video.  They are doing this not because they like it better than still photography.  Most of them would much prefer to stick with what they love.  No, they’re doing it for money.  For reasons I don’t completely understand, it’s much easier to make a good living being a videographer than a photographer.

Next time we’ll dive into the nuts and bolts of shooting video.  Have a fun weekend everyone, and press play!

Flow & Photography – A Summary   3 comments

Lizard tracks on an early morning jaunt across the dunes in Death Valley.

Lizard tracks on an early morning jaunt across the dunes in Death Valley.

It has been quite awhile since I’ve posted here.  I went off social media during the run-up to and then just after that weird thing that happened in the U.S. last Tuesday.  Been working a lot too.  By the way, although I literally felt sick to my stomach on Wednesday morning when I woke up (at 5 a.m.) and turned on the radio, I got past it and am now in the “this too shall pass” state of mind.  For those of you in other countries, just remember that most people here voted against the orange lizard, and that most of his supporters are not racist bigots, or anti-immigrant.

On the day after the election, I was kayaking and saw this bald eagle.  I took it as a sign that everything would be okay.

On the day after the election, I was kayaking and saw this bald eagle. I took it as a sign that everything would be okay.

I have another photography topic to dive into, but I’ll save that for next week.  Instead I want to wrap up the series on flow that was interrupted.  In fact, right now slipping into a state of flow is the best thing to do for those of us who cannot fathom the next 4 years.  If you haven’t been following along, check out the previous posts in the series.

The beginnings of winter, late fall in southern Utah.

The beginnings of winter, late fall in southern Utah.

An intimate scene in a cypress swamp: Florida.

An intimate scene in a cypress swamp: Florida.


Flow, or “being in the zone”, is a state of relaxed hyper-concentration where we do our best.  But unlike the way you will hear it often described, I don’t believe flow is limited to experts in their fields.  Flow is not when we do the best.  It’s just when we do our best.  The good thing about flow is that the more you get into it, the better you are at the thing you’re engaged in.

Flow is also not related to how active we are physically.  You could be in flow while writing, for example.  Your body is not active, but your mind sure is.  You can also be in flow while engaged in intense physical activity.  Climbing, whether on rock or snow and ice, is an example.  While in flow it’s common to lose track of time.  If you’re writing or doing something else that is physically more passive, you can concentrate for long periods and forget or forego mental exhaustion.  Similarly, in a physically intense activity, you seem to be able to ignore exhaustion when in flow.  Photography, depending on the kind you’re doing, may involve both the mental and the physical.  This is part of why I like it so much.

On the beach looking south at the very edges of an approaching hurricane, still more than a day away.

I think the key to being able to work through tiredness and to lose track of time’s passage is the fact that flow is conducive to relaxation.  Now hyper-focused action may not seem to go together with relaxation.  But when you’re in flow you’re relaxed in a unique way.  It’s not like lying in the sun on a beach with the soothing surf in your ears.  But it’s still a relaxed state.  It’s the kind of relaxation that comes when the mind and body work together the way they’re supposed to.


As far as photography goes, flow is simply a way of shooting pictures that is conducive to a relaxed focus, a way that leads to more creative image-making.  For me, it’s difficult to recommend specific tips that will help you experience flow while shooting.  But then again it’s hard for me to be very prescriptive about photography at all.  It’s such a subjective undertaking.  But I do know when I see photographers who are taking it all too seriously, who are too tight.  Flow, to my mind, is an under-appreciated and major factor behind good photography.

Hot spring in Nevada.

Hot spring in Nevada.

I recommend just two things to those who have recently gotten into photography and want to progress quickly.  First, get the most basic stuff down.  Get to know how your camera works so you aren’t fumbling around.  Practice taking pictures and don’t worry about their quality so much.  The goal is to make settings and exposure adjustments second nature to you.

Second, before starting to photograph, get into a relaxed frame of mind.  Whatever you do to relax, whether it’s breathing or stretching exercises, or positive self talk, do it before you shoot.  Don’t make so much of taking pictures that you tense up.  Realize you’re there to make the most of your subjects, surroundings and light.  Some or all of those variables, such as natural light, will be at least partly out of your control.  What is in your control are the choices you make when you shoot.  Just do your best and don’t stress about the rest.

Thanks for reading, have a wonderful weekend, and have fun shooting!

A recent sunset, Indian River, Florida.

A recent sunset, Indian River, Florida.

Friday Foto Talk: Macro Photography “in Flow”   5 comments

Morning dew in a Montana mountain meadow creates dazzling jewels in the light of the rising sun.

This series on flow and photography has taken on a life of its own; but don’t worry, it’s almost over!  If you haven’t been following along, flow is that state of intense focus where we lose track of time.  Check out Part I and Part II for tips on how to apply it to photography in general.  The rest of this series has applied flow to various genres (landscape, travel, etc.).  This week it’s macro and close-up photography.

Macro is probably the easiest kind of photography in which to experience flow.  There is something about focusing on the small that helps to capture and hold our attention, often for hours.  Macro can also require a lot of trial and error, at least for me it can!  If you don’t become frustrated too easily this can bring about intense engagement with the process.

Pasqueflower is a unique part of the alpine bloom every summer on Mt. Rainier, Washington.

Pasqueflower is a unique part of the alpine bloom every summer on Mt. Rainier, Washington.

Awhile back I did a series on macro photography, so check those posts out for a much more comprehensive tutorial.  The tips below are specific to achieving a state of flow during your macro shoots:

  • Look and Think Small.  It’s hard while on a walk to concentrate exclusively on finding macro subjects.  It would take hours to cover a mile!  But you will find macro opportunities if when you’re hiking along you look out for the odd bit of color, a contrasting shape or texture, or a little movement in the corner of your eye.  Both thinking about and looking for small subjects brings you into the present, and that facilitates flow, even before you take a single shot.
This brown basilisk in a Guatemalan forest almost escaped my attention.

This brown basilisk in a Guatemalan forest almost escaped my attention.

  • Work it.  When you do find something interesting, stick with it for awhile.  That is, work the subject.  Change settings and camera position to vary depth of field.  Vary angle and distance to get different backgrounds and compositions.  And don’t stop there.  Once you’re in “macro mode”, it’s easier to find other subjects, or as with flowers, other examples of the same subject.  Stay on your hands and knees, keep the macro lens on, and don’t worry about time.  Enjoy the flow.
After a few shots of this frog's whole body, I moved in closer and closer until I got a shot that empasized his watchful eye.

After a few shots of this frog’s whole body, I moved in closer and closer until I got a shot that empasized his watchful eye.

  • See the (small-scale) Light.  As photographers we are constant observers of the light.  But when you’re shooting close-up the patterns we are used to change.  All of a sudden you’re able to take advantage of the fact that your field of view is greatly reduced.  This makes it easier to get effective shots in light that would be difficult when shooting larger scenes.  So be a student of light on a small scale too.  Watch how it plays across confined spaces, and how larger elements like trees can help shade or spotlight your subject.  As with the first point above, this will help keep you in the present and accentuate flow.


A water lily in the middle of the Okavango Delta caught the light beautifully as we passed in our mokoro (dugout canoe).

A water lily in the middle of the Okavango Delta caught the light beautifully as we passed in our mokoro (dugout canoe).

  • Be Patient.  To one degree or another, patience is a requirement of all photography.  But when you’re waiting out the wind in a field of flowers or approaching an insect or other small creature inch by inch, you learn the real meaning of patience in photography.  Mastering patience is a key part of making flow a more frequent experience.

This was a recent shot.  I sat patiently waiting for one of the dragonflies buzzing around to land in this natural spotlight.

Macro photography is such a natural when it comes to flow that, even if you don’t normally do macro you’d do well to try it.  That’s because the practices that lead to successful macro photos will help you with the kinds of photography you do enjoy.  And because flow is relatively easy to experience with macro, you can more readily get into it next time you’re out, whatever kind of shooting you do.  Thanks for reading and have a happy weekend!

One of many desert five-spots in Death Valley, part of the so-called super-bloom of last spring.

One of many desert five-spots in Death Valley, part of the so-called super-bloom of last spring.


Friday Foto Talk: Photographing People ‘in Flow’ ~ Candids & Travel   Leave a comment

While shooting landscape in southern Utah, some hikers "rudely" inserted themselves into my photo. The nerve!

While shooting the landscape of southern Utah, these hikers “rudely” inserted themselves into my photo. The nerve!

If you haven’t been following along, I’ve been doing a little series on the idea of flow in photography.  Flow is that state of hyper-focus that we’ve all experienced, perhaps not enough in the modern era of distractions.  Last week’s Foto Talk looked at people photography in general, but was biased toward portraiture.  This week is a follow-up that focuses on my favorite kind of people photography: serendipitous candid shots done either traveling or while engaged with another subject (landscapes, as above, for example).

Two young Malawian boys who somehow didn’t become members of Madonna’s family.

Serendipity & Candids

Serendipity implies little or no thinking ahead.  But it’s okay to have a general approach.  It’ll vary depending on whether you know ahead of time that you’ll be photographing people.  And whether or not you like shooting without first asking permission.  But serendipity means at the very least that your subject(s) don’t know they’re going to appear in your photos until very close to the time you press the shutter.

  • Why should you do this kind of photography?  Say you’re traveling, whether on a short weekend trip close to home or half-way around the world.  You naturally want pictures, right?  Suppose on this trip you head out on foot to look for interesting stuff to photograph.  You might think you’ll be shooting buildings and “the sights”, but in most places you will come across people as well.  You already know they usually make the best images from a trip, and that’s because people speak to us of the place where they live much more strongly and eloquently than any building or mountain can.
I didn't even think about a shot of this Rasta woodcarver on the shores of Lake Malawi until he took a smoke break. I think he represents well the chill atmosphere of the lakeside part of that country.

I didn’t even think about a shot of this Rasta woodcarver on the shores of Lake Malawi until he took a smoke break. I think he represents well the chill atmosphere of the lakeside part of that country.


  • So whether or not your goal on a shoot is to photograph people, be ready anytime you’re out in even a lightly populated area.  I don’t always follow this advice, being somewhat shy most of the time.  But traveling in foreign lands is different; I’m much more outgoing.  I’ve learned that approaching people is easier than it seems.  For one thing they may be just as curious about you as you are of them, and for another many people want to help visitors, and that includes helping them get good photos.
Usually I have trouble approaching girls this pretty, but she and her friends turned out to be full of fun and easy to shoot.

Usually I have trouble approaching girls this pretty, but she and her friends turned out to be full of fun and easy to shoot.

  • The first question photographers who want candid travel shots ask themselves is, “to ask or not to ask first”.  While I do shoot the occasional picture when someone isn’t expecting it, I normally ask first.  But don’t make the mistake I made at first, which is to go right up and ask to shoot their picture.


  • Instead of letting your camera get in the way right off the bat, spend a little time with people before asking to shoot.  Minimize the fact you have a camera (I know, easier said than done when you have a big white lens!).  Be curious about them, advice that applies to all photography subjects.  And if you’re not genuinely curious, shoot something else.


  • As with all people photography (and in fact all photography), have fun!  When you approach strangers, joking around and even making a bit of a fool of yourself are sure-fire ice breakers.
This cute little Sherpa girl, who was shy at first, had such a big playful personality that I had to force myself to stop and get pictures.

This cute little Sherpa girl, who was shy at first, had such a big playful personality that I had to force myself to stop and get pictures.


  • All this engagement takes more time than if you simply shoot and move on to the next subject.  You may miss a shot or two by focusing on the person first and the pictures second.  And you’ll probably get fewer photos.  But the images you do get will hopefully be better, and most important they will mean more to you.


  •  Now it’s time to ask for pictures.  You can simply smile and ask, or you can take more of an indirect approach.  You could point out the aspects of the setting, light, or of your subject that attracted your attention and made you approach in the first place.  Whatever you do, be honest about what you want and respect their decision if they decline.
At first, this beauty in a remote little Zambian village said no. I didn't push, just photographed her friend who had said yes. Luckily she changed her mind.

At first, this beauty in a remote little Zambian village said no. I didn’t push, just photographed her friend who had said yes. Luckily she changed her mind.


  • There is one more issue that inevitably comes up when doing this kind of travel photography, and that’s how to express your gratitude if they say yes.  Your subject may request money, especially if you’re a tourist in a foreign country.  If it’s obvious that you are better off financially than they are, it becomes even more of a temptation to pay.  I generally don’t pay for pictures.  But there are a few exceptions, such as when someone has organized a way to direct a little tourist money to local people and I really want the pictures.  But I do believe that paying results in a less desirable relationship between photographer/tourist and subject/local.  I also think there are too many other ways to show gratitude (see below).  But ultimately whether or not you pay for pictures is a personal decision.
While I didn't pay this young Sherpa in a Himalayan teahouse directly, I did tip him well.

While I didn’t pay this young Sherpa in a Himalayan teahouse directly, I did tip him well.


  • Showing gratitude and sharing your pictures is about more than just showing the back of your camera.  While traveling I carry a small portable printer (Polaroid Pogo but there are others).  I print a wallet-size picture direct from the camera and it’s always a hit.  If they ask for emailed pictures, always always follow up.  I recommend you use low-resolution versions that are good for computer display.  Another great way to show gratitude if your subject is a vendor is to buy something.
Happy kids aren't hard to find in Cambodia, but I got great reactions from this group along Angkor Wat's moat when I handed out pictures. They are holding them and note my little red printer at lower left.

Happy kids aren’t hard to find in Cambodia, but these “urchins” along Angkor Wat’s moat were quite excited when I handed out pictures (which a couple are holding).  Note my little red printer at lower left.

That wraps up people photography & flow.  I hope you enjoyed the pictures.  Granted, some of the above points are not specific to the idea of flow.  It is good advice whether or not you experience flow while shooting candids.  But all of will help create a comfortable atmosphere, and to help both you and your subjects relax and have a good time.  It doesn’t guarantee experiencing flow but it sure helps.  Thanks for reading and have a grand weekend!

The sun sets on a southern Thailand beach as this fire-dancer practices for the evening performance.

The sun sets on a southern Thailand beach as this fire-dancer practices for the evening performance.

Foto Talk: Flow & Photographing People   4 comments

One of my favorite portraits, from Cambodia.

One of my favorite portraits, from Cambodia.

The series on flow continues.  I’d apologize for not posting this on Friday as usual.  But I have a pretty good excuse.  I was busy running away from a little storm called Hurricane Matthew.  Flow, or “being in the zone”, is that state of hyper-concentration and engagement that we’ve all experienced.  Check out Part I for ideas in flow with photography, and Part II for its connection with meditation.

 The goal of these last few posts is to apply the idea of flow to various common types of photography.  I started with, beginning with Landscape and continued with Travel.  You’ll find useful tips on each genre covered, some of which may not seem to have much to do with flow.  On the other hand, I’m not offering comprehensive tutorials on each type of photography here.   The posts don’t cover many of the basics, for example, concentrating instead on more subtle stuff.  I want people to not only make great pictures but to have great fun doing it; to experience the satisfaction of being able to shoot anything and everything well.

Whew!  I didn’t plan that tangent.  Now let’s look at photographing people.  Shooting any live subject, including pets and wildlife, is in many ways quite similar to people photography.  But for brevity’s sake I will focus on people here.

Candid portrait of a Nicaraguan vaquero.

Candid portrait of a Nicaraguan vaquero.

I believe one not often mentioned reason that novice photographers gravitate toward landscape is they believe it to be simpler than photographing people (which they’ve done a lot in snapshot mode).  It seems to be more straightforward to produce professional looking results when shooting landscapes, with rules that are easier to follow (do this and then that, and you’ll get beautiful pictures).

Of course this is not really true.  With either type of photography your goal should not just be technically good photos.  This is what so many of those people who have gotten into photography in recent years stops with.  I’ve said it more than once in this blog:  an excellent photograph elicits emotion and/or tells a story.  Since your viewers are human, it’s easier to reach into the emotional parts of their brains when you photograph people than any other subject.

This young Mayan girl from the Guatemalan Highlands was easy to approach.

I ran into this young girl on a hike in the Guatemalan Highlands.  I think her smile speaks eloquently of the natural playfulness and warmth of Mayan people.

People Photography Tips

  • As with all photography there are really no rules when photographing people.  The only “rules” are those that cover all social interactions, with or without camera.
  • In my opinion there are only three keys to photographing people:  (1) be curious about your potential subjects and what they’re up to; (2) spend a little time with them rather than expecting a quick shot; and (3) relax and have fun with them.  Notice I didn’t mention lighting.  Since light is important in all photography, it goes without saying.
  • Number 3 above is probably the most important thing when photographing people.  For me it’s critical that both photographer and subject have a good time.  That way the posing takes care of itself and is most natural.  Best of all, experiencing flow is easiest when you’re just shooting and playing around with someone.  Sure, shooting a professional head shot is going to be more structured, but even there you can make things relaxed, thus capturing a more natural facial expression.

I met this young Nordic couple at a nature reserve in Nicaragua and we had some fun times together before I asked to shoot their portrait. It made a difference.

  • Next, think about the kinds of images you want.  Do you want a portrait or something more candid and active?  How obvious should the surroundings & background be?  Do you want an image with the frame completely filled, as in the image at top?  Think about that stuff ahead of time and be very familiar with your gear.  That way when it’s time to click the shutter you can concentrate on your subject, not technical matters.  You’ll also have a better chance of experiencing flow while shooting
  • Most photography teachers will tell you to talk to your subjects, that silence is awkward.  While I agree, the nature of your interaction will depend on the situation.  You need to decide when to be interactive and when to slip into the background.  It’s a feel thing.  For example if you’re shooting a group, being a part of the fun and then quickly switching to passive observer role to shoot might get you a great candid.

Moving away and being passive observer is sometimes necessary, in this case to let the horses as well as the girl be themselves.

  • Since some interaction is always necessary, what should you talk about?  Be curious about their lives and keep it light.  Joking around, being self-deprecating, even making a bit of a fool of yourself, all that can help.  It’s fine to talk about the photography & what you’re after.  It can help keep them engaged.  But unless you’re shooting a pro model you can easily overwhelm and even bore your subject.  You don’t want forced and unnatural poses and expressions.  Finally, complimenting your subject will obviously make them feel good, leading to better pictures.  But pouring it on is usually (and correctly) viewed as being false.
Although she's a model, I found talking and joking with her made it easier to move in closer for this shot, necessary since I had a 50 mm. lens.

Although she’s a model, I found talking and joking with her made it easier to move in closer for this shot, necessary since I had a 50 mm. lens.

  • While I believe photographers tend to control posing too much, some direction is called for.  You have to move people around for the best light and background.  But you can do that in a sneakily natural way.  “Hey, that looks like a cool spot to get a few shots.”  Or, “a shot of you in front of that (background) would look good, wouldn’t it?”  They don’t have to know that you’re going to blur it.  Again, the thing is to make your time together come first and the photos second, in order to ‘let it flow’.

I will follow up on Sunday by looking at a distinctive sub-category of people photography: those serendipitous opportunities we often encounter while traveling.  Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!

After a fun afternoon with these two Botswanans, they couldn’t help but be relaxed and happy at sunset. Rare for me, I used a flash and balanced its output with the background light.  That usually takes a number of tries to get right, so a slow-paced, relaxed atmosphere was key.

Friday Foto Talk: Flow & Travel Photography   6 comments

Rising pre-dawn to climb Tajamulco, highest peak in Central America, a half-asleep state gave way to flow as the sun rose.

Rising pre-dawn to climb Tajamulco, highest peak in Central America, a half-asleep state gave way to flow as the sun rose.

Flow, or “being in the zone” is all the rage these days.  It’s considered to be how creative people create.  While that’s true, flow is not that uncommon.  We’ve all experienced it.  I heard a radio interview the other day and the guest referred to flow as something experienced by people at the highest level.  I think that’s too narrow a way to think about it.  Any time you get 100% engaged in an activity and lose track of time, you’re in flow.  Flow will help you progress toward expertise, but being very good at something isn’t a prerequisite for flow.

This series, which started with the idea and concept of flow, has moved on to how to foster the state in different types of photography.  Today let’s look at travel photography, which consists of shooting a wide variety of subjects in unfamiliar places.  I call the entire western U.S. my home area and by definition travel takes me to countries outside the U.S.  My travel photos lean heavily toward cultural subjects, including people, but includes landscape and wildlife.  While traveling I photograph far more people (and fewer landscapes) than I normally do.

A bit of a cliche, but prayer flags and the Himalaya are just too big a part of the scene in Nepal to pass up.

A bit of a cliche, but prayer flags and the Himalaya are just too big a part of the scene in Nepal to pass up.

When you’re traveling and shooting there is no shortage of distractions.  So flow is not that easy.  Here are a few tips:

  • Observe & Engage.  Just as it is with other kinds of photography, keen observation and then intense engagement with your subjects is a sure route toward experiencing flow.
  •  Filter & Focus.  Traveling can overwhelm the senses.  It’s one of the great things about it.  But in order to do your best photography focusing on the subjects that you want to shoot is necessary.  The kind of concentration required to capture images with strong subjects can help you experience flow while doing it.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t get a few overview shots that establish context and show the place you’re in (you could also do this with video).  But it’s easier to get into flow and capture good images if you zero in on one subject at a time, filtering out the rest.

With huge views of the Nepali Himalayas outside this teahouse, I shifted focus to smaller things.

  • Quality vs. Quantity.  Let’s be honest.  Travel can be hectic at times.  That’s probably inevitable.  But your whole trip doesn’t have to be this way.  If you plan an overly busy itinerary, you shouldn’t expect to experience flow while shooting.  And you should expect more snapshots than quality images.  You simply can’t have both quality and quantity, and this goes especially for traveling.  As you plan your itinerary, choose one or the other and be happy with the consequences of that decision.


  • Slow Down.  I prefer to plan a light itinerary and cover less area in more time.  This way I get to relax and spend some time with subjects.  When I take the camera out in some new place, randomly exploring with no real destination in mind, flow comes much easier than when I’m rushing to move on to the next place.  Leaving real time for deep exploration is a key to successful travel photography (and travel in general).  Of course during the trip there will always be those times when you have to hurry to catch a train or to check out.  Just don’t let that pace infect your entire journey.
Angkor Wat's West Gate is an easy subject to like, but it took patience and time to shoot it with pedaling commuters and the sun in the right position.

Angkor Wat’s West Gate is an easy subject to like, but it took patience and time to shoot it with pedaling commuters and the sun in the right position.

  • Make it About the Journey.  While it’s important to get to your destination in order to spend time exploring and shooting, the journey is at least as important.  Sometimes it’s more so.  You’ll encounter some of your best photographic subjects while you’re traveling from one place to another.  So a second key to travel photography is being ready at all times to capture images.  You may prefer your phone for this, or a small point and shoot camera.  It doesn’t matter, just keep observing and shooting things that are interesting along the way.
I was rushing to a waterhole where the game was supposed to be when I stumbled upon this cheetah stalking the grasslands: Etosha, Namibia.

I was rushing to a waterhole where the game was supposed to be when I stumbled upon this cheetah stalking the grasslands: Etosha, Namibia.

  • Be Flexible.  This is good advice anytime you travel, whether shooting seriously or not.  But consider this:  you can take yourself right out of your game if you get uptight about the inevitable changes and screw-ups that occur during any trip.  Being upset about things that are outside your control means you’re not about to enter flow anytime soon.  I won’t claim to be perfect in this regard.  But isn’t it better to look upon an unforeseen left turn in your trip as an opportunity to photograph something unexpected?  Go with the flow so you can experience flow!

I didn’t plan on attending this rough ‘n ready rodeo on Omotepe, Nicaragua. But I let my hosts drag me there and didn’t let their fun with my flag get in the way of a good time.

  • Be Outgoing.  Some of the best travel images are of people, often showing something of their unique culture.  But unless you play at being a paparazzi, you’ll need to break out of your shell and approach strangers in order to get good people shots.  Luckily, most people around the world (not all) are happy to be approached by tourists.  You may be rejected occasionally.  Don’t let that stop you.  All it takes is one great interaction to make your travel day.  Once you’re with an interesting local talking and laughing, all the time shooting great candids, photo flow can’t be far behind!
This Himba boy in northern Namibia was cute in how serious he was about standing tall and noble.

This Himba boy in northern Namibia was cute in how serious he was about standing tall and noble.

By the way, a future post will go into more depth about photographing people in strange (to you) surroundings.  Thanks so much for reading and have a wonderful weekend!

At Tikal, the ancient Mayan city in Guatemala, rainy weather and the late hour made it feel empty and helped me to experience photo flow.

At Tikal, the ancient Mayan city in Guatemala, rainy weather and the late hour made it feel empty and helped me to experience photo flow.

Friday Foto Talk: Photo Flow in Practice (Landscape & Architecture)   5 comments

Early mornings in beautiful places like Pintler Pass, Montana are tailor made for flow.

I’m liking this series on flow in photography.  Hope you are too!  Flow, or being ‘in the zone’, is a state of intense focus where you often lose the sense of time passing.  Check out the first two posts in the series for a background primer.  This and succeeding posts will go through particular examples to show how flow can help you get the best images whether you’re shooting a grand landscape or ducks in the park.

Landscape Flow

I’m not surprised that I more easily enter flow while alone and shooting landscapes.  I love being in nature and almost always feel relaxed away from civilization.  I don’t think we can assume, however, that flow in nature photography is always a piece of cake.  Often it’s when we’re alone in a beautiful setting that those oddly irrelevant thoughts enter in and distract us, taking us right out of the moment.  And being in the moment, fully engaged with your subject, is the entry point to experiencing photo flow.  External factors may get in the way of flow too, as the following example shows.

Though I'm not as much into shooting the stars as I used to be (too popular), I still love stargazing: Snow Canyon, Utah.

Though I’m not as much into shooting the stars as I used to be (too popular), I still love stargazing: Snow Canyon, Utah.

EXAMPLE – Rain at Panther Creek Falls:  Here’s an occasion where I got into flow despite challenges related to weather & terrain.  Although it’s a bit overexposed and popular with photogs., I’d been wanting to shoot at Panther Creek Falls in SW Washington.  To my surprise I was alone.  The fact it was rainy may have had something to do with that, but I wanted to shoot it in a rainy period, for the atmosphere and green of the vegetation.  I spent a lot of time wiping water from my lens, as much from the spray as from rain.

I wacked through wet brush on a very steep slope, approaching from the opposite side of the canyon than the viewpoint and trail is on.  This waterfall gets its unique character from a large spring that floods out of the steep hillside, and I wanted to see that up close.  As I always do with popular spots, I was going for completely different points of view than most every other shot at Panther.  I stayed for nearly three hours, working the subject mercilessly.  Getting to interesting viewpoints in that terrain was slow going, and all the lens-wiping took time too.

Panther Creek Falls, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington.

Panther Creek Falls, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington.

Despite all the distractions of weather and terrain, once I was soaked and didn’t need to worry about getting any wetter, I entered a state of flow.  The image above wasn’t the best of the shoot.  The horizontal version probably is, but I’ve posted that before.  I squatted very close to the water and under the log.  The main falls is in the background.  There are two lessons here:  First, only on a misty rainy day is a shot like this possible; you can’t really simulate it very well with software.  Second, flow by its nature means ignoring discomfort and overcoming challenges.

At Monument Valley, Utah, sand and the light at dusk create a peaceful scene.


Architecture Flow

To me landscape and architecture are similar in many ways.  By the way, I plan to post soon on the different types of photography and how to use their commonalities to more effectively “cross-train” your shooting.  You are much more likely to be around other people when shooting architecture, but flow still feels similar to landscape.  Capturing the character of a building, as with mountains, is more likely when you are in the moment; when you carefully observe the subject, its surroundings and the changing light.

A building on Portland's industrial eastside.

A building on Portland’s industrial eastside.

EXAMPLE – Portland Eastside:  I was just walking along on the east side of Portland, Oregon, close to the river.  Many of the older warehouses and other unremarkable buildings in this area have been spiffed up in recent years, and are now occupied by various upscale tenants.  It was dusk, my favorite time to shoot architecture.  I forgot about judgments and started noticing the more subtle features of the buildings.  This is what flow can do, allow you to notice everything around you.

A big challenge for this image was one that is common with architecture: point of view.  In order to get the right angle and show off the gentle curve of the building as it follows the curving street and sidewalk, I needed to stand in the middle of the street.  Because of the low light, I also needed to be on a tripod.  After several unsuccessful tries where I was chased back to the sidewalk by traffic, I was able to get the shot during a lull.  I don’t think I was in flow while running for my life.  But I was for the important part; that is, finding the subject & composition.

Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

Grand Canyon’s North Rim Lodge reflects warm light from the setting sun at Bright Angel Point.

Friday Foto Talk: Meditation & Photo Flow   10 comments

Sunrise at Reflection Lakes, Mt. Rainier National Park

This is the second in a series on the state of flow in photography.   Check out Part I for introductory ideas and general concepts.  Flow, known also as being “in the zone”, is a mental state most of us are personally familiar with.  While it includes intense concentration, it’s a whole lot more.  Photo flow, at its essence, is not any different than flow in any other endeavour.  As with, for example, flow in writing (especially nonfiction), photo flow is marked predominantly by an intense engagement with your subjects.

Macro is custom-made for slipping into flow.

Macro is custom-made for slipping into flow.

Meditation & Photo Flow Compared

I mentioned in the last post how photo flow is like meditation.  But there are also contrasts.  The point is not to have a blank mind, as in (zen) meditation.  It’s to shoot without thinking too much.  Photo flow is marked by intense engagement with the process, and that involves conscious thought, punctuated by many small decisions.  It’s too active to be synonymous with meditation; but then again, flow can be thought of as a type of meditation.

Meditative on the northern California coast.

Meditative on the northern California coast.

I think of flow as a very relaxed, largely unconscious focus, one in which your body may be anything from very quiet (while writing for instance) to intensely active (I’ve entered flow while climbing mountains & skiing powder).  Meditation, on the other hand, normally implies a quiet body, one that mirrors a quiet mind.  I realize that people think of things like long-distance bike rides as meditation, and I can understand the comparison.  But in general I believe flow not meditation characterizes those sorts of activities.

So how does flow most resemble meditation?  It’s when you’re actually tripping the shutter.  Just like anyone who excels at something, good photographers think about photography for a good chunk of any shooting day (if not every other day!).  But they don’t think about it at the moment of capture.  As that quote machine of a photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson put it: “Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing.”

Next week we’ll look at some examples of photo flow in landscape & nature shooting.  Thanks for looking, have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Being alone near sunset in the desert dunes with the fractal patterns and stark light you can easily slip into flow.

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