You Must Follow “The Big Picture”

If you’re at all interested in photojournalism, you must follow The Big Picture. Just do it.

Today’s story on Kazakhstan’s radioactive legacy brought tears to my eyes.

Book Review: The Photographer’s Eye

Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Eye is my favorite book on photography. I read it at the beginning of this year and it changed the way I think about composing photographs. Wait, that’s not quite right. Before I read this book, I didn’t really think about composing at all. I took photographs when I liked what I was looking at, and I had no real idea of how to make my pictures stronger beyond get closer and rule of thirds. I didn’t even really understand what the word composition meant. It was just a term vaguely synonymous with pretty pictures. (Can you tell my background is math & science?)

The Photographer’s Eye is seventy concise lessons in the elements that make up a well-composed photograph. Most lessons are just a two-page spread with a few paragraphs of text, several high-quality photographs, and excellent captions. This book teaches more through its photographs than through its words, so be prepared to take time and explore the photos. In most cases, the words provided just enough context to help me “get it” when I studied the photos. In rare cases, the text is too terse and I’d be left confused (such as the lesson on Dividing the Frame – how can I use the golden ratio in photographs?), but the majority of the lessons struck the fine balance between getting me to understand the concept and leaving me hungry for learning even more.

The Photographer’s Eye even gets the details right. The book is beautifully produced. The paper is high quality, pages lay open easily (important when trying to see the details of photos that get close to the gutter), the photographs look great, and the page layout makes it easy to soak in lots of information on each two page spread.

You could skip this book if you’ve got a good background in art. However, if you’ve come to photography through some other route, get this book. It’s done more to improve my photographs than anything else I’ve read, bought, or tried.

Climbing

This is a just a playground picture of my kid. I really like it, though, for the repetition of curves, the contrast of silver & black, and the exaggerated perspective from my wide angle lens. I even think I achieved some interesting dynamic tension with Alex’s eye line going to the lower left, but the repetition of curves pulls the to the lower right corner. Before reading The Photographer’s Eye, I wouldn’t have even had those concepts in my head. So I doubt I would have recognized the possibility in the scene,  and therefore I wouldn’t have balanced precariously on the top of the climbing structure to get the shot…

EBook Review: “Ten”

Seasons Change

At the risk of this blog turning into a David DuChemin fan site, I’m going to review my second DuChemin work. Ten is an e-book I found once I wandered over to DuChemin’s blog, Pixelated Image. The subtitle pulled me in: Ten ways to improve your craft. None of them involve buying gear. My wife wishes I’d pay more attention to books like this.

For an amateur photographer, Ten has a lot going for it.

  • It’s cheap: Regularly $10, on sale for a few more weeks at $5!
  • It’s short: 32 pages.
  • It’s dense. 10 ideas in 32 pages doesn’t leave a lot of room for fluff. I value concise writing.
  • It has exercises! I haven’t been in any sort of school for over a decade, yet I still find assignments valuable for self-guided learning.

I don’t recommend Ten as your first book on composition. It’s too brief to succeed if you’re getting exposed to these ideas for the first time. Where the e-book shines is focus. As an amateur, I’m easily overwhelmed by all of the things I could be doing to make better images. Ten has helped me organize my thoughts and focus on ten things I can do over the next few weeks to improve.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the ten ideas in the e-book. The book’s so short, I fear if I say too much you won’t want to buy it. And you should buy it. I’ll give you a small preview by sharing the first exercise in the book: Get Pickier. The exercise:

Head out with your camera for an hour and force yourself to shoot a hundred frames – push yourself creatively. Lots of people do this as a creative exercise. But now do the opposite. Go out and shoot only 3 frames… With each image really look at it…. Would you put this on your wall? No? Delete it. Try again. Is the light the way you wanted it? The framing? Is it the right moment? No? Delete it.

I tried the three-frames-in-an-hour exercise on Sunday, and it was both valuable and really, really hard. I love how this mindset forced me to frontload all of my thinking. I find it too easy with digital cameras to shoot indiscriminately and only turn my brain on in front of the computer, during editing. I also feel this enormous pressure when shooting: It’s rare to get time away from the kids, in good light, with interesting subjects. I feel I need to maximize my use of the time by taking as many photos as possible. For example, I shot close to 1,000 frames in two hours at the Prosser Hot Air Balloon Rally. I was shooting by instinct instead of by careful thought.

So, thanks to reading Ten, I brought a different mindset to the Washington Park Arboretum this past Sunday. Even though I had just a precious hour to capture fall color in early morning light, I set a goal of only coming home with three pictures on my SD card. I was immediately more relaxed because I wasn’t trying to bring home every possible image I could find. I was only looking for the best. I set up my tripod, I watched the light. I walked by countless plants that were showing some fall color in my quest for the best. I know if I hadn’t been working on this assignment, I would have stopped to snap every one of those trees and shrubs.

Even with all of this attention, I wasn’t picky enough. I had six photos on my card when I made it back to my car, and only one photo I really like: The photo of the leaf at the top of this review. I don’t feel too bad about only having one keeper. However, in hindsight, I think the other two images I brought home would have been stronger had I taken more time to work on them in the field. Take this photo, for instance:

Autumn and Oak

I like the color of the leaves, and I like the contrast between the leaves and the bark, but in the end this photo doesn’t do it for me. The entire tree had a beautiful shape, though. Maybe I would have had a stronger photo had I backed up to take in the whole tree instead of going for a close-up. Or maybe that wouldn’t have worked either, but my failure is I didn’t even try. This exercise is deceptively challenging.

If there’s that much value in one paragraph, imagine what you’ll get from 32 pages of similarly excellent content. The ebook is just $5 right now. If you’re trying to make your photography better, just get it. Start at this link.

Book Review: Take Your Photography to the Next Level

I’ve been on a tear this year through photography books, looking for the magic formula that will help me produce consistently great images. Although I’m still looking for the magic formula, I’ve found some great books this year, like Within the Frame.

Take Your Photography to the Next Level by George Barr has a promising title. What amateur photographer doesn’t want to make it to the next level? Heck, I’d just love it for somebody to explain the levels to me, so I know what the next one is to aspire to! I skimmed the table of contents at my local Barnes & Noble. Not a whole lot of information on gear or f-stops. Instead, the chapters include Finding Images, Composing, and Assessing Images. It looked promising enough to buy and bring home.

George Barr has a clear, matter-of-fact writing style. My analytical brain appreciates how he approaches some topics. The first chapter on “reading photographs,” for example, methodically walks the reader through different aspects of evaluating an image. This is a skill I’m still consciously trying to develop so I can do more than say, “Pretty picture!” about the images I like. I also got an interesting idea from his chapter on composition: Trying to sketch the main lines of the photo I’m trying to create before pressing the shutter. This sounds like a good exercise to force me to slow down and actively evaluate the composition. I haven’t tried this technique yet, but it seems promising.

Unfortunately, this is all that I directly learned from the book. I had a hard time relating to most of the content and most of the photographs. Early in the book, I was captivated by Barr’s detailed images of industrial & natural subjects. I think his black & white photograph Ship’s Bow on page 10 is a masterpiece, for example. But as I worked my way through the book, I found myself increasingly bored with the images. When I got to the photo of Barr’s underwear lying on the floor (no joke – page 45), I felt I’d passed the point of no return. The photos of dried mud, wet shale, steel tubes, and parking garages all blurred in my mind. My only thought as I skimmed the rest of the book: I’m not sure I want to get to the next level of photography!

I learned more from the experience of reading this book than from the book itself. First, I learned I don’t aspire to be a fine art photographer. If fine art photography’s your thing, you’ll likely find lots of great advice in this book. Most of it went over my head. I value photography that helps me connect to other people, places, and events in this world. I daydream about shooting an assignment for National Geographic instead of getting a portfolio published in Black & White Magazine. There’s not a lot in the book for my demographic.

Second, I learned an important point about picking photography books. A photography book is inevitably the personal account of an experienced photographer to us amateurs. Since there are so many different styles of photography, spend time looking at the pictures in the book and ask yourself, Is this a photographer I want to learn from? If the answer’s “no,” skip the book. In hindsight, I should have studied Barr’s photos as much as the book’s table of contents before I bought it. This isn’t a book I’ll keep on my shelf.

P.S. The Internet can often be a mean-spirited place. George Barr is obviously a more skilled & successful photographer than I am. I don’t want to imply anything negative about his photography, other than saying it’s not my style.

Shooting with the Olympus EP-1

This past Friday night and Saturday, I took a photo vacation. I persuaded my wife to watch the kids, and then I drove three hours to the town of Prosser, Washington, in the heart of the Yakima valley wine region. I was up before the sun on Saturday to photograph the Prosser Hot Air Balloon Rally.

I photographed the balloons with my Nikon D700, 24-70 f/2.8, and 80-200 f/2.8 AF-S lenses. I used the 80-200 most of the time, and the combined weight of the body and lens is 5.6 pounds. But when you drive three hours and wake up in the cold, starry, pre-dawn darkness for less than two hours of taking pictures, weight is not the primary concern. The D700 was a great tool for the job.

Balloon and Ripples

“Balloon and Ripples.” Shot with my Nikon D700 and 80-200 f/2.8 AF-S. Big and heavy, but also fast and responsive with a great viewfinder. Nikon D700, 1/250 at f/9, ISO 400, 80-200 f/2.8 AF-S zoom at 80mm.

But when the balloons had all landed, my mini-vacation wasn’t over. I checked out the Prosser farmer’s market, the town harvest festival, and a few wineries. Unlike my experience with the balloons, this part of the trip was primarily about getting out and experiencing the town. I didn’t have particular photos in mind, but I was on the lookout for fun images that would capture the essence of a day in Prosser. The best tool I have for this job is the Olympus EP-1. Total weight? 1.2 pounds. It’s by far my lightest large-sensor camera, and compact enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to throw it over my shoulder for a few hours of exploring.

Truck, Hay, Chow

Truck, Hay, Chow.” Wine Country glamour aside, this is still rural America. This was the feed & grain store at the edge of town. I took this photo with the EP-1. Using the LCD to compose in the bright sunlight wasn’t a problem at all. EP1, 1/250 at f/11, ISO 200, 14-42 zoom at 14mm.

Size & weight have made me a big fan of the Olympus E-410 and E-520 cameras. I’ve taken thousands of photos with each body and made a sizeable investment in lenses. In spite of owning more “serious” cameras like the D700, a high proportion of my best photographs come from my Olympus cameras, because these are the cameras I feel comfortable carrying anywhere. That’s why I love the EP-1. It gives me almost everything I love about the E-520: Quick access to important shooting controls, full compatibility with my four-thirds lenses, and in-body image stabilization. It even bests the E-520 with two control dials and a new sensor. And the EP-1 provides all of this in a package that’s smaller and lighter than my no-frills E-410.

The EP-1 isn’t perfect. For me, the most significant issue is autofocus speed. Autofocus is accurate, and it’s certainly faster than manually focusing, but this isn’t the camera I’ll grab when I want pictures of my fast-moving kids. That remains my SLR. However, the EP-1 autofocus works perfectly well for a day of exploring, when I’m capturing images of relatively static subjects.

Grapes

Grapes.” This is the center of all economic activity in Prosser. EP-1, 1/80 at f/5.6, ISO 500, 14-42 zoom at 35mm.

Duck Gourd

Duck Gourd.” At the Prosser harvest festival, one of the vendors made a cute display of gooseneck squash painted to look like a duck. Looks very “autumn” to me. EP-1, 1/160 at f/8, ISO 200, 14-42 zoom at 35mm.

Many bemoan the low-resolution LCD. In my shooting, this doesn’t bother me in the least. You can’t check fine focus, but it’s bright and has a wide viewing angle. Honestly, I find it easier to compose on the EP-1 LCD than I do using the optical viewfinder of either of my Olympus DSLRs.

I never intended to get the Olympus EP-1. I’d decided that the GH-1 was the micro-four-thirds camera for me. A series of unfortunate events made me the unintended owner of the EP-1, and while I would not have bought this camera under normal circumstances, I’m glad I have one. It’s a nice compliment to the GH-1. The GH-1 delivers near-DSLR autofocus performance, a good electronic viewfinder, and video performance that’s the envy of every combo camera. But it does this at being nearly the size and weight of my E-520. The EP-1, in contrast, rounds out what I get from the GH-1 by giving me an ultraportable camera with full compatibility with my micro-four-thirds and four-thirds lenses. The EP-1 is a joy to grab-and-go.

The combined strengths of my two micro-four-thirds bodies have completely convinced me that micro-four-thirds is the system for me for serious compact photography. I’ve loved & bonded with my E-410 and E-520, but I’m moving on to their successors. Watch for my eBay listings!

Stacked Bottles

Stacked Bottles.” This was just a display that caught my eye in the 6th Street Coffee Shop in Prosser. The EP-1 does not at all feel out of place in a little coffee shop. EP-1, 1/50 at f/5.6, ISO 1600, 14-42 zoom at 24mm.

Book Review: Within the Frame

Every amateur photographer has a fantasy alter-ego. Bankruptcy aside, I’m sure many envy Annie Leibovitz and have an imaginary career publishing photos of cultural icons for Vanity Fair. Others drool over Ansel Adams and wish they had his impact on landscape photography. Me? I daydream of carrying a Leica around the world. I’d create captivating photo essays that help viewers understand something new about this amazing planet we live on, and I’d be regularly published in National Geographic. In other words, I’d be David DuChemin.

If you have a similar daydream, Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision is the book for you. This is not a technical how-to book, nor is it a generic composition/aesthetic book. It’s basically a 250 page manual on how to be like David. I’ve put the book’s contents into two buckets in my mind. The first 64 pages are a lightweight treatment of photographic vision & composition. It’s a good overview, and it’s refreshing to find a book that focuses on this instead of f-stops. But I prefer Freeman’s The Photographer’s Eye when I want to study composition.

I got the most out of the middle three chapters: Storytelling, Photographing People, and Photographing Places. (The final chapter on photographing culture didn’t do it for me.) The Storytelling chapter helped me think of different techniques for using both single frames and photo essays to tell stories. I’m practicing on my personal blog. For my post on the Puyallup Fair, I picked an establishing shot, a detail shot, a portrait, and a closer.

Swinging Spectator

Swinging Spectator.” I owe this photo to Within the Frame. First, I went to the fair looking for establishing shots for a photo essay. I also thought ahead and knew I wanted photos of the rides. When Alex kept staring at this ride, I saw an opportunity to create foreground/background layers. I slowed the shutter as much as I could in the bright sun to capture movement in the swing.

The chapters on photographing people & places are self-explanatory and dense with helpful tips. What’s most helpful, though, is just the general encouragement and mindset in the chapters. For instance: Photographing strangers is hard. Get over it and do it. And when you do, you owe it to your subject to get the best picture possible. Don’t exclusively rely on clandestine grab shots. Photographing places: Find the right balance between planning your shots and just walking around lost.

Throughout the book you’ll find gorgeous photos, and you’ll learn as much from the photos and their captions as you will from the text. I know the pictures will reward repeated study. And throughout the book, you’ll be reminded to make each photograph about something. This is what DuChemin means when he writes about “vision,” and the most valuable thing about this book is it helped me get that elusive concept. This earns Within the Frame a place on my photography bookshelf.

GH-1 as a Video Camera

Part two of my hands-on experience using the GH-1. Read part one here.

In Part One, I talked about using the GH-1 as a still camera and compared it to my well-loved Olympus E-520 and the 12-60 lens. My initial conclusions is the two shooting experiences are comparable. But if you’re thinking of paying the price premium for the GH-1, you’re looking at using it for more than just stills. You’re eyeing this for its video capability.

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