Archive for the ‘learning photography’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Macro & Close-up Photography, Part V   6 comments

Some of the simplest things make the nicest photos. This is probably my favorite thing about macro photography.

Some of the simplest things make the nicest photos. This is probably my favorite thing about macro photography.

Okay, this is it!  The final part of my mini-series on macro and close-up photography.  I haven’t explained step by step how exactly to do macro photography, but I hope you’ve gotten enough tips to be confident getting started, and that the more advanced photographers among you have gotten something out of it as well.

An organ pipe cactus once it's dead turns into a sort of honeycombed sculpture.

An organ pipe cactus once it’s dead turns into a sort of honeycombed sculpture.

Depending on how serious you get with macro photography, consider one or a few of these accessories:

  • A tripod that can get close to the ground is probably the most important thing to have with macro.  If your tripod has a center column, removing it can get you much lower.  Some tripods have the ability to rotate the center column to a horizontal position, which allows you to put the camera pretty much at ground level.  My Manfrotto does just this.


  • A flash can fill shadows nicely, but you either need a specialized flash called a ring flash, or have a synch cord or other way to move a standard flash unit off the camera.  A camera with a built-in flash really doesn’t work; subjects are too close.  Same goes for mounting the flash on your camera’s hotshoe.


  • If the sun is bright and somewhat harsh, a portable diffuser is very worthwhile having.  You don’t need a super-big one because of the size of your subjects.  One that spreads to a diameter of about two feet or a bit more is perfect.  They fold up into a flat bag that can be clipped to the outside of your camera pack.  Get the diffuser as close to your subject as possible without it being in your shot (use a tripod plus LiveView).  A small reflector is nice to have as well, sometimes in combination with the diffuser.  You can reflect sunlight to fill shadows on the back side of your subject.
Tiger Lily in perfect bloom: Oregon

Tiger Lily in perfect bloom: Oregon

  • I’ve recommended this before, but Canon’s 500D close-up filter is a great accessory to carry.  If you don’t have a macro lens, it can get you close-up without the weight and cost of an extra lens.  It can’t get you as large a magnification as a true macro lens can.  But when you have one of these plus a macro lens, you can screw it on to the end of the macro lens and really crank up the magnification.  A caution: you also narrow depth of field even more.


  • A set of extension tubes can also stand in for a macro lens, but it’s been my experience that the quality suffers a tad more than using a quality close-up filter (and the only real quality one I know about is the Canon mentioned above).  This is counter-intuitive since with a close-up filter you’re adding glass between the subject and your sensor, whereas extension tubes are hollow.  But tubes do move your lens further from the sensor, affecting focus as well as the way that light strikes the sensor.  I consider them a little less user friendly than close-up filters too.

This is one of my favorite close-ups of mine. Shot w/macro lens but hand-held while on XC skis in Oregon’s Cascade Mtns.

  • A rail is good if you want to really get close and you’re doing a lot of macro.  Rails attach to your tripod head and allow you to move the camera using small, gradual movements.   It avoids clumsily trying to move your tripod a quarter inch here or there, easing the whole process of attaining precise focus.

A drawback: it’s one extra piece of equipment, and some rails are not exactly small.  I have one but don’t use it as much as I probably should.   Genuine macro enthusiasts can’t live without them, especially those who have macro lenses that can attain greater than 100% magnification.

NOTE:  In a couple days I will post a follow-up where I show exactly how to use a rail in the field.

 Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!

Not my usual sunset, and not a macro. I was recently in the neighborhood so stopped for a brief visit at Carlsbad Caverns. This is King's Chamber.

Not the usual sunset.  I was recently in the neighborhood so stopped for a brief visit at Carlsbad Caverns. This is King’s Chamber.

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.


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.


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.


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…


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


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.


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.

Friday Foto Talk: Are Photography Workshops Worthwhile?   10 comments

The desert greets the morning sun at Valley of Fire, Nevada.

The desert greets the morning sun at Valley of Fire, Nevada.

This post is a day late; no internet is a mixed blessing!  It’s really a continuation of the larger topic of guided vs. unguided nature & landscape photography.  Check out last Friday’s Foto Talk for some introductory thoughts on the topic.  In the title of this post you may think I’m asking if workshops are worthwhile for a learning photographer to sign up for.

And you’re right.  But I’m also asking if it is worthwhile for an experienced photographer to organize and run a series of workshops.  I would love to hear your opinions on both parts of this question.

I hope you enjoy the images, which are from the desert where I am now.  Most are from Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.  As always, they are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission, sorry.  But let me know if you’re interested in any of them.  Click on the images to go to the main gallery part of my website. Thanks for your interest.

Sandy hiking at Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

Sandy hiking at Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

The fascinating textures and patterns in the sandstone of Valley of Fire are highlighted by a low sun.

The fascinating textures and patterns in the sandstone of Valley of Fire are highlighted by a low sun.


Photography Workshop Pros & Cons

I’ve been assuming that the plethora of guided photography trips is merely a result of the difficulty photographers have making  money from selling nature photography.  But that’s just half the story.  There must be some demand as well.  How could there possibly be that many people signing up for field workshops?  My mistake was I assumed most people are like me.  While I still have my doubts, I’m definitely coming around to the belief that there is a large group of folks out there who could use a workshop or two.  As is usually the case, supply is simply there to meet demand.

One of Valley of Fire's more popular photographic subjects, the "fire wave".

One of Valley of Fire’s more popular photographic subjects, the “fire wave”.


      • Participants might feel (rightly) that they couldn’t visit that beautiful destination and find all those great photo spots on their own.  Even if they could find the spots, they might not feel comfortable driving or hiking to them alone.
      • With respect to nature & landscape photography itself, folks in a workshop expect to learn the “tricks of the trade”.  Obviously they want to improve their own photography.
      • Putting these two things together, I think there is a somewhat deeper and more compelling reason to take a workshop.  It can serve as a bridge toward participants doing more innovative nature photography on their own.  They might learn that it’s not so intimidating going off and finding unique and wonderful images all by themselves.  But this last benefit only comes with awareness, an over-arching goal of empowerment, on the part of both instructor and participant.

A sculpture of a wild Kiger mustang is actually in my home state, Oregon's eastern desert.


      • The number of “photographers” out there running workshops, just for the money, is only increasing.  There is a real danger, if you’re not careful, of ending up in a workshop run by someone who picked up photography last June, attended a workshop, maybe two, then began marketing their own workshops.  They may be good at the computer end of photography but that does you little good in a field workshop.
      • The lower-quality (cheaper) offerings tend to maximize numbers.  Even if the ratio of instructor to participant is kept within reason, too many people comes with an inevitable decrease in the quality of experience.
      • The cheaper workshops tend to visit only the popular spots.  They let their hordes loose with little direction, and there’s often trampling of vegetation and other nonsense going on.  There’s also the virtual certainty of annoying those unfortunate souls who just happen to be visiting the place at the same time.


Beavertail cactus catches the late afternoon light at Valley of Fire Park near Las Vegas, Nevada.

Beavertail cactus catches the late afternoon light at Valley of Fire Park near Las Vegas, Nevada.

How to Choose a Workshop

It may be apparent from the above that it’s worth doing two things.  First you should think carefully about whether a workshop would be to your benefit. When I say benefit I mean not only learning and improving your photography, but having an enriching and fun experience.  Fun is always important!

The second thing to do is shop carefully, get references from people you know if at all possible, and avoid the “lowest bidder”.  Try talking with your photographer friends: your local club, online contacts, etc.  But as always filter all advice through your own sense of what you want, your personality, common sense, etc.

Resist the temptation to consider the destination in your decision.  The truth is that many places are beautiful.  Even more places can serve to teach you how to take better photos.  It is the people (instructors & co-participants both), along with the structure and atmosphere of the workshop that will determine what impression you come away with.  If the place is beautiful and interesting, that’s a bonus!

All of this said, it’s probably not necessary to go for a workshop run by a “name”.  If you take a workshop from Art Wolf or John Shaw, you’ll undoubtedly have a great experience and learn much.  But you’ll also spend a pile of money.  And you could come away thinking some of that money was spent so you could say you took a workshop from a “master”.

Near sunset on the sandstone at Valley of Fire.

Near sunset on the sandstone at Valley of Fire.

Is it Worth Running a Workshop?

Now to the second part of the question, are photography workshops worthwhile.  I definitely think I could help improve, as much as one person can, the overall quality of photography workshops.  I’ve almost convinced myself to dive into it.  But not quite.  Again I encourage you all to weight in on this.

I have experience with outdoor education along with traditional (classroom) education in the sciences.  I have plenty of photography experience and a wealth of expertise and comfort in the outdoors.  I can offer the kind of enrichment that nearly no other photo workshops don’t offer:  ecology, geology, history and other aspects of many regions in the U.S. and internationally.  I believe in getting to know places intimately for my own benefit.  I would never consider leading folks into areas I had not explored in depth.

Banded sandstone layers lie on edge at Valley of Fire, Nevada.

Banded sandstone layers lie on edge at Valley of Fire, Nevada.

What I lack, of course, is name recognition.  I haven’t exactly been a marketing star with respect to my photography, and as a result, I am anything but well known.  I love blogging for the sake of blogging, and with all modesty I think my posts are above average, substantive not fluffy.  But unlike others, blogging hasn’t to date been a marketing tool for me.  So I have few (but highly valued!) followers.  Perhaps some of you loyal few can do small things to change that.  If the mood strikes you, I would consider it the best holiday gift I could get if you would share or link to my work, as I mentioned in a recent post.

What I didn’t mention last week was good old word of mouth.  I still think that is the best way to spread any word, and it would be so awesome if you felt the urge to bring my images or blog up in a conversation over coffee.  I would so much appreciate simple gestures like these, especially since I know my fellow bloggers, those people I’ve met on here who only follow and like posts because they actually want to, are as sincere as it gets.

A frozen water-pocket reflects the dusk sky in the red-rock country of southeastern Utah.

A frozen water-pocket reflects the dusk sky in the red-rock country of southeastern Utah.

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