Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bouncing - No Check Required

Light reflectors are an absolute must have tool for anyone looking to improve the quality of their photographs. With a good reflector, you can grab a chunk of light and point it exactly where you want it. If you want a colored light, use a colored reflector. The collapsible reflectors are super handy but I use several modifiers that are essentially free. Here are a few of my favorites:

Corrugated cake boards: We ate a cake recently and what do you know, it came with a free gold foil light modifier! Light bounced off of gold foil does wonderful things for skin tones. My 9" round reflector is perfect for isolating a little warm light on a subject's face to quickly make it the focal point of an image.

Old, low thread count white sheet: Draped over a bush, laying on the ground, hanging from a tree... This thing is a gigantic shadow eraser. It also does a fabulous job of softening any light projected through it too. Putting a flash on a stand behind a hanging sheet is a great way to mimic the light from a soft box.

Underbed gift wrap storage container lid: I have a big, flat, clear, Rubbermaid container that I keep my light stands, umbrellas, tripod, flashes and modifiers in. It has a white lid that I use all the time as a bounce surface for both flash and ambient light. The only thing that would make it handier is if it came with wheels and a handle - I'll fix that.

I could go on because I end up finding and using some kind of free reflector on just about every job I shoot. Most locations have good light reflectors lying around all over the place. Look for a sidewalks near shade (just be careful with that up-light, it's not always flattering), awnings, reflective windows, white walls, a sheet of paper, a box of aluminum foil, wall mirrors, compact mirrors, car mirrors, (drape your cheap sheet over the mirrors for a stronger but slightly diffused light), a tanless fat guy with his shirt off... Ok, skip that one, but you get the idea; Free reflectors are everywhere.

To use them, just decide what you want to be the focal point of your image, position your subject in neutral light, then take a reflector and bounce additional light on the spot you want your viewers to see first. There are a thousand other uses for reflectors, but that is the purpose I grab one for most often.

Best of all, you now have an excuse to indulge in that big chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting you've been craving. No, I'm not talking about turning yourself into a tanless fat guy; There's a gold cake board reflector under there, remember? Just be careful when you slice it so you don't tear up your golden ticket to free light. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

New Camera Demands Photographer Upgrade

When I read a new camera review I often find myself wishing for at least one new feature that I don't have on my current camera bodies. I've written detailed specs for my dream camera that continue to evolve as newer cameras push the envelope and I haven't been shy about sharing some of my frustrations with my current gear's limitations either.

But then I got to thinking, what if my cameras could make their own list of features they want in a photographer? I wonder what sort of frustrations my camera bodies might have with me. What would their photographer wish list look like?

A few possible items from the list:

1) Body Color: Not a critical consideration

2) Shake Reduction: Ability to hand hold 1/15 like a rock with shake reduction turned off

3) Dust Reduction: Keeps their gear spotless

4) View Finder: Knows how to find the interesting shot and nail it

5) Manual Zoom: Hello, could we get a model with actual working feet please? How many shots do you really need from the same spot?

6) Auto Priority Mode: Knows what really matters in life and keeps it all in perspective

7) ISO (Sensitivity): Connects with all subjects on a personal level - Even when shooting the obligatory cat, sunset and flower macros

8) Noise Reduction: Patiently waits for new releases and knows when to shut up and shoot already

9) Durability: Has the stamina to get to interesting places and keep shooting all day with energy to spare

10) Auto Firmware Update: Constantly learning and applying new information

11) Intuitive Help System: Teacher at heart with a history of freely sharing what they know

12) In camera processing: Knows how to get it right in the camera

13) Advanced Image Processing Engine: Knows how to post process to fully translate their vision into something stunning

14) Pop up Flash: Random flashes of brilliance constantly popping into their mind and the ability to translate those ideas into photographs

15) Advanced Lighting Control System: Knows how to find, create, place and manipulate all forms of light

16) Internal Controls: Keeps their emotions in check when they miss a shot because I didn't focus quickly enough for them (ouch - this camera's been spying on me)

17) Frame Rate: Takes at least one picture/day, every day.

18) Live View: Constantly framing pictures in their mind no matter what they are doing

and probably most importantly...

19) Pixel (peeping) Density: Less is more - Photographer's pixel peeping density is getting excessive already, what I really want is less noise... refer #8. Would definitely trade a lower pixel peeping density for a higher frame rate any day.

What would your camera put on its list if it had the chance to shop for a new photographer? We all ask a lot of our gear. What if we started focusing on giving a little something back to the tools that work so hard for us now and then? Maybe the best investment in a gear upgrade is an investment in your camera's photographer. Just imagine what that thing could do if it could only get it's hands on the right tool for the job.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Click and Learn

An opportunity to learn more in a single day, with a single mouse click, than many will learn in years with hundreds of shutter clicks but no training:

Digital Photography School - Top 10 Articles

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rapid Fire Sharpness Trick

A lot of today's cameras have a continuous shooting mode where you can hold the shutter button down and the camera will keep taking pictures until you release it. The obvious way to use this feature is to catch a series of action shots but I use it often for a different reason. I use it to get a much sharper image.

When you press the shutter button, no matter how good you are, you will move the camera ever so slightly. If you have a camera with image stabilization it will correct for the movements but the technology isn't perfect. I'm convinced that the I.S. on my camera actually introduces motion sometimes, which is why they tell you to turn it off when you mount the camera on a tripod.

When I take a three shot burst, most of the time the second image will be sharper than the first or third image. The reason is probably the fact that I'm not pressing or releasing the shutter button, and the I.S. technology is caught up on that one shot, so the camera sensor is at its stillest moment on the second image. For whatever reason, it just works.

If you have a continuous shooting mode on your camera take a series of non-stop shots and see for yourself. Put them on the computer, zoom in to 100% and take a really close look at all of them. The results may just surprise you.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Think of the Children!

Why bother? Why go to the trouble to get really, really, really good at photography if you aren't planning to make a living at it? You've got albums of snapshots lying around, right? How many of of your snapshots are so good that your great, great grandchildren will be hanging them on their walls? I've picked up a few clients so I go even further. How many of my client's great, great grandchildren will be hanging my images on their walls? You may never collect a dime from you photography but that doesn't mean they aren't worth far more than you realize. Let me just push you a little, what if you invested in your ability to capture images from your life as dillegently as you are investing in your 401K? (You are investing in your 401K right?)

Maybe I'm just too caught up in my lineage but I sometimes study the photos of my heritage. Does my son have PaPa Martin's cheek bones or is he really going to grow up to be a clone of my wife's brother like I suspect? Man, I wish my grandfather had been as great a photographer as he was a soldier. I would love to have a display of his images from World War II next to the Japanese officer's sword he captured from a smuggler in Okanowa near the end of the war. He gave me that sword as an testament to my proud lineage before he passed away, but you know what? The old black and white photo of him holding that sword is even more valuable to me. I can go to any Army surplus store and buy those swords by the dozen but I could never replace my Grandfather's sword, the one in that photo. I have no idea who shot that image but I thank God he was there at the time and that he knew what he was doing.

If you ever feel the urge to become immortal, reach over, pick up your camera, hold it out at arm's length and snap a shot of your face. Now, turn the camera around, hit the image review button, look yourself in the eye and ask a simple question, "what am I going to shoot today that my great, great grandchildren will count among their treasures?" Not every single picture you take has to qualify, but wouldn't you like to have at least one? What are you willing to invest to get that one shot for your heritage?

How good do I personally want to get? As good as my great, great grandchildren are going to wish I had been... Hopefully even better. I want to earn a spot on their wall, not a corner in their drawer. The fact is, that if you earn that spot it probably won't just be your heritage that finds value in your effort. You may pick up a client or two with their own heritage in mind. You may even make a living at this some day, but don't count that accomplishment, or lack thereof, as a measure of the value of your photographic gifts. We are each and every one worth so much more than we know... Especially when we are armed with a camera and the knowledge of how to use it well.

Of course, I still reserve the right to bump my shoulders a bit and reduce the size of my abs in Photoshop... you know, for posterity's sake. :-) It's not just a picture, it's a visual document of a moment in an immensely valuable life. Learn accordingly. Be better than good - Leave a legacy!

Really Good Free Imaging Tools

I recieved an e-mail today that's "worth" passing along. You will see a mention of Gimp, which you can explore right HERE. These are all great tools to use to add a little, or a lot, of punch to your images. Best of all, they are FREE! Here is the announcement from

Hi GoldenWreckedAngle

I almost never send out these emails, but I wanted to let you know about something huge that's going on at Worth1000 now. As you might already know,
Worth1000 is a contest site primarily dedicated to Photoshopping images.

Over the 7 years since Worth1000 launched, I have been asked by thousands of people who viewed our Photoshop contests: How do I make images like the amazing Worth1000 entries?

Most were asking because traditional desktop software was simply too expensive or hard to learn. Seriously, $2,000 for editing tools?! It was time for a change. I decided it was my responsibility to the awesome design community at Worth1000 to be the one to do it.

So, I created

Aviary, is a suite of free design tools. Now anyone with internet access can use them without installing anything. You just need to visit
Aviary and you're all set.

Aviary should be enough for anyone to get started making some really amazing images (and other types of media). Aviary also allows you to share and work on files with other people in the Aviary community, which makes it even easier to learn.

So far we have released 4 applications into public beta, with many more planned:

- Phoenix: an image editor (similar to Adobe Photoshop / Gimp)
- Raven: a vector editor (useful for logos / and clothing design)
- Toucan: a color editor
- Peacock: an effects editor

We even created an entire free education center where people can learn how to make awesome effects!

If you enjoyed Worth1000, I hope you'll also take the time to try out

At the very least, I encourage you to let anyone interested in image editing to know about it. Feel free to
forward this email to a friend.

The more people that try out our software, the less big corporations will be able to charge to use their software! In a time. when every penny counts, this is vitally important to keeping art software affordable for artists of all ages. Together, we can make a difference.

Here's a special page for Worth1000 users only:


Avi Muchnick
Creator of Worth1000

The Hot Shoe

There are several reasons why a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera has the POTENTIAL to make better pictures than a smaller sensor point and shoot. Note the emphasis. Buying a DSLR and getting better pictures is not a given but it does increase the odds and the abilities to get the shots you really want.

The one feature that made the single biggest difference in my photography when I stepped up to a DSLR was not the bigger sensor, the better lens selection, more manual controls or even the ego boost I got from finally shooting with a "real" camera. Yes, that is actually one of the benefits of owning a DSLR. Our belief has a way of shaping our reality. The early belief that my DSLR automatically made me a better photographer was instrumental in helping me become a better photographer. It also helped me realize very quickly that my former camera had not been my biggest limitation. :-)

So what was the feature that made the biggest difference in my photography? The hot shoe - That little bracket on top of the view finder where you attach an external flash, or at least some kind of trigger to light one. You can buy small sensor cameras with a hot shoe on them but they are going to cost at least as much as some of the entry level DSLR's so unless the smaller size is important to you, you may as well invest in a system that will give you maximum flexibility. As with all gear in this addictive hobby/profession, you can spend a little or a lot on lights. I've invested plenty myself but I think I only paid $15 for the off camera flash I use most often, a Vivitar 4600 with a vari-power slave module on it. More on that light later...

Take a look at these two lighting lessons on how to use the hot shoe to your biggest advantage. Like so many up and coming photographers, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to David Hobby for helping me understand the power and use of off camera flash. Fair warning, the way of the Strobist is addictive. Once you learn to use an off camera flash you will be hooked on well lit photography for good. Here is just about everything you need to know on the subject from a true master of the craft:

Strobist Lighting 101
Strobist Lighting 102

Friday, April 17, 2009

Entry Level DSLR's

The Online Photographer is a great blog to follow. They have been counting down their top ten picks for best cameras in several categories and today they finally moved from small sensor cameras to my recommendation for anyone wanting to get serious about photography - Entry level DSLR's.

Take a look here and add your own thoughts, comments, recommendations or questions below.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My Elbow Pod

Getting your camera to be still while you take a picture is one of the most important things you have to master to improve your images. Tripods are the most stable way to do this but they are cumbersome. I hate being nailed down like that. I can't even sit on the couch for 2 minutes without having to get up and move around. It drives my wife CRAZY. She has threatened to install locking seat belts on our furniture to keep me sitting in one place long enough to have a meaningful conversation. Needless to say, I use them when I must but tripods are just not my cup of tea.

So here is what I do most of the time when I'm shooting shutter speeds under 1/60th of a second. I set the strap length where I can slip it over my elbow, lock my wrist and put tension between the camera body and the palm of my hand. (Thanks to my co-worker Gary for taking these snapshots without asking too many questions)

Then I pull my elbows up tight to my body, squeeze down on the trigger as I breath out and hold it down for a fraction of a second after the shutter trips.

SQUEEZE THE TRIGGER - This is a side note to the strap technique but it's so important. Have someone watch your finger and keep practicing until they can't see it move when you take the picture. If you are a firearm shooter this will all make sense to you. Creating the tension on the strap is like pulling the rifle stock back into your shoulder. It's very important but you also have to concentrate on releasing the tension in your body and squeezing off the shot rather than jerking the trigger. I can hear my Dad now, "squeeze the trigger son, don't jerk it, just squeeze it gently. It ought to surprise you when it goes off. Just squeeze it a little harder and a little harder until it goes off..."

I don't know if my father has ever taken a picture in his life but everything he taught me about hunting and firing a weapon applies. If you don't breath right and you don't squeeze right the picture gets away.

The first time I tried this I was amazed at the difference it made in my photos. So, cinch up your strap and give it a "shot." Please post a comment and let me know if it makes a difference for you. If you have other tricks to stabilize your camera while shooting, please post those too.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Fair warning, this one is long so if you are in a hurry save it for another day. It's a subject I'm passionate about because it's one of the single biggest reasons for the successes I've enjoyed, not just in photography but in everything I've learned to do well.

I am surrounded by friends who constantly tell me that they love photography, and want to get better at it, but they don't know where to start. That is exactly where I was a couple of years ago. Here are some of the things I did to get rolling. They all continue to be crucial to my ongoing development.

1) Pay attention to what the photographers you admire are paying attention to. If you see a photograph you like on flickr look at all of the groups the photographer has posted the image to. Check out their contacts list. Follow every crumb trail of info they leave you to figure out who they have been hanging around with to end up where they are. If you find a blog you like, look at the blogger's profile and see which blogs they are following. Truly successful people in any venture are information sponges. Every great teacher is a conduit to other great teachers - Pay attention to what they are paying attention to then pay attention to it too!

2) Jump in the deep end and drown. Hurts like the dickens at first but it's the best way I know of to draw the hot looking photo-life-guards out of the woodwork for a little mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (that's not all bad). What I mean by that comment is enter some photo contests that are way out of your league and sincerely invite feedback. You are going to get killed, well, maybe not everyone but I sure do, and if you don't, you are entering the wrong contests because there is ALWAYS someone better. Always. When I do well in a contest it is usually because they didn't enter.

The goal here is not to get easy praise, it is to learn how to get better faster. Once you get your prized head shot handed back to you on a plate, find the forums section and go ask for more feedback. This is the most obvious but least used method of getting a quality education I know of. Forget actually winning a contest, it's nice but fairly irrelevant to your success - Look for opportunities to loose and LEARN so you can win at life!

The contest forum, not the contest itself, is where you put the magic formula of success to work. There are exceptions but generally people don't like to hurt other people's feelings so they will hold back in their initial comments. You have to draw the truth out. Start with the question, "What can I do to make this picture better?" Then ask again in a different way. Ask specific questions. Ask questions about the answers. Don't get defensive... ever... for any reason. It's like shutting off the valve of wisdom.

You will get some feedback from amateurs trying to help with what they know; These folks are like the crowd standing around the drowning guy shouting helpful things like, "Dude, breathe!" You might also get a few people hiding their own insecurities behind a hurtful remark or two; These are like the slightly less helpful people who keep slapping the drowning guy in the face while shouting, "Dude wake up!" (side note) Yea, thanks, I can see you're a pro and all but have you noticed that the guy's not responding very positively here? If that's all you've got just leave them alone - seriously. Dweeb... (Ok, back to our regularly scheduled drama) Just keep laying there asking for help and sooner or later you are going to find somebody that knows what they are talking about and are willing to help you out. They are easy to spot. Suddenly, out of the crowd the photographer you've always dreamed of will emerge, glorious beads of wisdom dripping from their tight portfolios as beams of light glisten on their trophy laden stats... AWHHHHHHHhhhhh! Salvation has come - Pucker up baby!

Fair warning, mouth-to-mouth isn't all it's cracked up to be. They never seem to kiss my bruised ego and make me feel better but they almost always offer some honest insight that breathes new life into my photos. Again, pay attention and don't take ANY of the criticism personally, not even from the first crowd. Did I already say don't get defensive? Don't get defensive.

Here are a couple of contests to get you started: Jason occasionally reviews images from his readers too, a gift I still need to take advantage of myself.

And when you are ready... I'm not. (Ok, I know, Off the deep end right? Soon... maybe)

3) Dig, dig, dig, then invest and SHOW thanks, don't just SAY thanks. You almost never find gold lying around on the surface but I promise you, someone is holding some gold that you want. Here is the secret to convince them to give it to you. If someone takes the time to give you high quality feedback take the time to put it to work. Re-shoot the image using their advice then go back and post the improvements to the thread as a way of thanking them for investing in you. This is one of the single most important things you can do to get a team of the brightest talent to start pouring themselves into you. If they can see that you are serious, that they have helped you improve, and that you appreciate it, there is this little nuclear teacher trigger that goes off in their brain. They will move heaven and earth to make sure you keep getting their best stuff.

Here is an example of where I put this principle to work on a photo manipulation: Chopped Pepper Feedback. This image was probably the biggest disappointment in my contest entry history. I knew from experience that meant that it had tremendous potential for growth so I swallowed my pride and trotted it over to the forums for a work-up. Notice how the thread started with a few pats on the back and some modestly helpful advice, then check out what happened when I put these principles to work. Master's of the craft end up spending a lot of time writing and illustrating custom tutorials just for lil-ole-nobody-me. I learned more about reflections and shadows from getting killed in that contest than anything I've ever studied in my life but I had to dig for it, then show my teachers that I appreciated them enough to put their advice to work. MAGIC! Works every time.

Incidentally, the link to the improved image is no longer working in that thread. If you are interested you can see the improvements I made here.

4) Never, ever, ever go to bed until you have learned at least one new thing, even if it's nothing more than a better way to blow your nose (I'm sure there is a web site). Learn how to learn. Everything after that is a cakewalk.

5) Teach what you find out to somebody else. Don't be a know-it-all but challenge yourself to learn what you want to know well enough to pass it on. If you can't explain it to others in a way that is easy to understand then you probably haven't learned it yet. If you find the rare jewel of a student using the principles in #3, that's a good place to poor your efforts. Incidentally, if you happen to be one of those students you'll discover that somehow you end up magically surrounded by them as you grow. Those students will help you draw stuff out of yourself that you didn't know was in there so they too become some of your greatest teachers. Treat them accordingly.

6) Notice a pattern here? Learn from everyone. I have yet to meet a person that was unable or unwilling to teach me something worth learning if I approached them in the right way. The right way is really simple. It's genuine respect for who they are and what they have to offer and you can't fake it. If you simply learn the art of convincing them to open their hand to you then you very well may become the greatest photographer (insert occupation of choice here) in the history of the world. It really is that simple.

If all of that fails then you can always do the other thing I did... Learn Photoshop well enough to hide your lack of skills with a camera... but keep learning the camera anyway. :-) Happy shooting!

That's a wrap!

Here is a simple trick I use for securing my camera to my hand while shooting. Please excuse the snapshots. I was shooting my K10D and pop up flash left handed and triggering it with my index finger while holding the K100D out to illustrate this post. The blurring is intentional. It was the only way I could obscure the fact that I wasn't using a professional hand model.

Caveats aside this trick will make your camera feel like an extension of your arm. Your shots will be steadier, your camera will be safer, you will have more energy at the end of the day and you will never end up with another one of those pictures where your camera strap gets blown into the frame at the wrong moment (am I the only one that ever happened to?).

First I cinch the buckle on one side all the way up against the camera body. Then I add hook and loop velcro at these locations:

Be sure the hard, hook side, of the velcro is on the camera body and the soft, loop side, is on the strap, or the hooks will play havoc on your polyester leisure suit. When shooting I grab the body, slip the strap off my shoulder and let it drop over the top of my hand like so:

As I'm lifting the viewfinder to my eye I wrap the strap under and over my hand and press the velcro together to lock it to my hand. No comments on my needle work please. I'm no seamstress. That's 90 pound spider wire fishing line right there (que chest thumping and masculine grunting sounds).

Most of the time that's it. The weight of the camera is now being carried by my wrist and forearm rather than my fingers. It's very comfortable and secure.

If I am loaded up with a big flash or heavy lens then I will go one step further, wrap it underneath and double secure it with the second set of velcro tabs.

Viola! There's your 15 cent wrist strap. Easy on the hand, easy on the pocketbook. I can now shoot all day and my hand never gets tired.

It's fast and easy to get in and out of too. If you are going to set the camera down pull both tabs loose, shift the bottom tab back and stick it to the top one. You now have a big fat loop waiting for you to stick your hand back through to cinch it down and keep shooting. All of this will quickly become one fluid motion as you lift the camera to your eye. You won't even think about it - Happy shooting!