My first trip to Zion National Park – June 2019

Springdale UT

Zion National Park – June 2019

I’ve always wanted to visit Zion National park for both the hiking and photographic opportunities. It’s one of the most visited national parks so crowds have kept me away. I finally decided to go in early June 2019 and crowds were reasonable, especially early morning. The hiking was some of the most strenuous I’ve had in a while. As a result, my photography was mostly limited to my iPhone as I wanted to keep my pack light. While Im not super pleased with my images I feel I got enough to remember the trip. Looking forward to returning in the coming years, especially in the fall.  If you decide to visit, I highly recommend reviewing Joe’s Guide to Zion. His tips were really useful both for hikes and photography. Enjoy the Images!



Yosemite Valley 2018

I had the opportunity to spend a week in Yosemite Valley in early June. I’ve been wanting to visit Yosemite for many years after watching a number of documentaries on John Muir and his work to preserve and protect this amazing space.

While the weather conditions were good, they were almost too good. As you can see nearly zero clouds which unfortunately make for uninteresting sky in landscape photos. All that said I feel very fortunate given the nasty fires that have plagued California this summer. The fires forced closures in Yosemite valley for over a week in August, so Im thankful for my early June visit.

My favorite image is the 1st one taken at Tunnel View lookout at sunrise. I used a small aperture and slight underexposure to get both the starburst on the left and to draw out the morning shadows. Not a terribly original composition as this is probably one of if not the most photographed places in Yosemite, but I like it the more I look at it.

My next favorite is the shot of upper and lower Yosemite falls taken from up at Glacier Point at a height of nearly a mile above the valley floor. If you look closely you can see a number of hang gliders crossing the valley. There just happened to be about a dozen hang gliders taking off from Glacier Point that morning so I was able to get some nice shots of them.  I highly recommend visiting Yosemite if you get the chance. Im sure I’ll return one day.


Smartphone or DSLR Photography?

One thing that cannot be argued is that Smartphones, and in particular the iPhone, have changed not only the technology and social landscape but has completely transformed the digital camera marketplace. So I’m often asked by friends and family, do I even need a camera or is my smartphone good enough? A few of my thoughts below….

As I approach my 50th birthday I’ve seen a lot of changes in photography. My 1st photography experience was with a film camera (Canon A-1) in high school back in the 1980s. It was in this class I learned how the camera worked, developing film in a darkroom, building a pinhole camera and much more. I picked up my 1st digital camera in 1999….Canon PowerShot s10 with a whopping 2.1 megapixels!

Image credit to Check them out!

Through the 2000’s I upgraded cameras every few years through the Canon D series DSLR line eventually making the switch to the 5d full frame digital line ending up at my current Canon 5d mark iv.   But it was in 2007 when the 1st iPhone released that everything changed. Apple decided that the camera shouldn’t be an afterthought on a phone as it was on most flip phones of the day, it was treated as a 1st class citizen. And with each new release, the camera, lens and software got better and better and people took more and more pictures. All this time the camera manufactures just viewed a smartphone as a toy and not really competition in their business.  Fast forward to today and with few exceptions, most modern smartphones are completely capable of replacing a fixed lens point and shoot digital camera, like the Canon PowerShot cameras I used to own.  There is almost no reason for anyone with a smartphone to invest in an entry-level point and shoot camera. This is evidenced by the rapid decline in the sale and production of these entry level types of cameras.

In addition to the smartphone, one thing I’ve observed is young people have no nostalgia for the old ways of taking photos the way I learned back in the 80’s with a complex camera with switches and dials and archaic terms like F-Stop and ISO!   They want fast, touch screen, convenient, internet and social media connected devices to take photos.  And they aren’t alone. More images are taken with smartphones than any other device by a longshot. Why?  Quite simply virtually everyone has a smartphone and it’s always with them. It is expected that by 2020 nearly 2.9 Billion people will own a smartphone (* This growth in smartphone ownership, combined with ubiquitous internet access and free or low-cost cloud storage, has allowed everyone to photograph everything they see. With the power of these devices…why wouldn’t you capture every cool thing you see in the world around you.

So, does this mean the death of the DSLR camera as we know it? Not necessarily. Should a young person or someone just getting into photography even bother with buying a DSLR or learning all the terms and techniques of DSLR photography? My short answer is it depends. If you are happy with the quality of images you are getting from your smartphone….don’t change. A good smartphone is expensive enough without investing in a DSLR, lenses etc. It’s a very expensive hobby getting into DSLR photography. I can attest to the thousands I’ve spent on cameras, lenses, photo software and mountains of accessories.

If you are still reading on, it means you may have found a photography limitation in your smartphone. Maybe you want to go pro, shoot professional portraits, weddings, product photography, sports/action photography, fine art photography, astrophotography or one of the many other types of photography.  Or maybe you just have a passion for photography and feel you’ll get your best images with a DSLR. All great reasons to consider a DSLR.

Going pro. If you plan to become a paid professional photographer you will quickly find a smartphone just won’t cut it. The reason I state this is that when someone is paying you for your images, the stakes are higher.  Quality images matter. Printing images or at least having high-resolution digital images that have been painstakingly edited are very important to buyers. There is a big difference between posting a 2 mb jpeg image from your iPhone on Instagram that will viewed in a little screen vs a 30mb professional image that will be printed on a 30x 60 canvas or used in a national advertising campaign. The imperfections and limitations of small file format jpeg smartphone images come to light when compared to what you can do with a DSLR. Most new photographers or those who didn’t come up in the era of digital cameras are likely unaware of those differences until they delve deeper into the craft of photography.  The image quality that comes from small files/low megapixel smartphones, just can’t match modern DSLR cameras (some in the 20-50 Megapixel range). Also DSLRs have a wide variety of high quality lenses that can’t currently be matched by smartphones.  That said, there may come a day when smartphones are advanced enough to replace a DSLR…but I think it will take some time.  For now the tool of choice for pro photographers is a DSLR or a Mirrorless Interchangeable lens camera. I won’t got into the details of each of these…see some of my prior blog posts on equipment.

All that said, Smartphones are not without merit. When it comes to practicing your craft and taking great images, you can still practice core concepts in photography using a smartphone (Subject, light, exposure, background, edges).  For example, just today I challenged myself to go out and take a solid landscape image with my iPhone 6s Plus. So at lunch I hiked out into the forest preserve next to my house and found this interesting isolated set of trees contrasting nicely with the overcast sky and layered color of the tall grasses. I took 4 shots of these trees adjusting my composition, moving in closer, removing distractions, centering and decided this was the best of the four. I shot this in RAW format on the iPhone with a program called ProCam. I did some slight color and contrast adjustments in Lightroom CC and a 16×9 crop.  I’ll let you judge if it’s a good landscape image. My point being, if you want to practice photography, I absolutely think you can do it with a smartphone.  Now would I print this on a large canvas? Not likely…it has a lot of noise in the image and not nearly the detail I know I could get with my 5d mark iv on a tripod, but still not bad quality for a post to the web.


Apps!  One of the most compelling thing about smartphones is Apps.  There are a ton of photography apps and photo editing apps for smartphones. Some are quite good, some not so much. Apps are a unique advantage for Smartphones over DSLRs as they allow you to edit your images right on your smartphone and post them within seconds. While camera manufacturers are getting better in this area…they are way behind in ease of use of their editing apps and even the software in the DSLR cameras themselves…although Mirrorless cameras are a bit more advanced in this area.

Image editing workflow. Most pro photographers who shoot with DSLRs go through a painstaking process of downloading images to a computer, importing them into an editing program (Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom) then doing all sorts of edits, then exporting them, posting them to their website, social media, and for the best shots, printing them. Paying customers have different expectations. If someone is paying you for high quality images, the investment in the above workflow and larger image size may be the price to pay to get the quality you need to be a pro photographer. You just need to decide if you want to take that leap, and invest in all there is to learn about DSLR camera and photo techniques.

All of this “workflow” may be overwhelming for beginner photographers…it seems like overkill to most young people I talk to, and I completely understand why they see it this way. The digital workflow of a smartphone is so much faster and efficient. With the above image I chose to download to Lightroom cc and edit on a PC, but I just as easily could have done this on my phone with Lightroom mobile. 

So if you aren’t ready to move to a DSLR, can’t afford it or both, I say keep practicing with your smartphone. Just know that much of the photography advice you’ll find on the web will be biased towards DSLR photography. I think this is slowly changing but just be aware of that bias as you look for advice in online photography groups and websites. Many photographers make the unspoken assumption that if you are into photography that you have a DSLR. I personally don’t follow that edict. I love anyone’s passion for photography regardless of the tool they are using to capture their images.

I’ll wrap with a few recommendations :

  • YouTube- There are many great resources on YouTube to learn about photography. While I haven’t found a great channel dedicated to “smartphone photography” if you search on the term you will find tons of postings. One in particular I thought was fascinating was a competition two pro photographers who run the web site did a few months back. They both took compelling studio model portrait images using only an iPhone and studio lighting. Their results were quite impressive….shared in their Fstoppers YouTube channel.
  • Apps: There are hundreds of photo apps for smartphones…my best advice here is to explore in the app store for your particular smartphone. A few apps I use regularly are Snapseed, Prisma, ProCam, Microsoft Pix. I also use a number of complementary Adobe mobile apps that are companions to their PC desktop editing software such as Lightroom CC,  Photoshop Express..but there are many more.
  • If you do look to other photographers for critiques of your images in online forums such as FaceBook photography groups,  it’s a good idea to let them know you are shooting with a smartphone. I also recommend you provide as much setting detail for the image as you can. All image files taprocamken with digital cameras (smartphone or dslr) include metadata in the file that tell the shutter speed, ISO, F-stop, camera, lens, focal length used when taking the image. The challenge with smartphones is this data isn’t easily accessed while viewing the file on the phone….at least on the iPhone. Some smartphone camera apps (Like the ProCam I use) will give you the option to view the image data as well as manipulate these settings when taking images. (example above).

As always, I welcome any comments and feedback. Keep at it making great images.



Photography tips: How to get sharp images

I help answer questions on a number of beginner photography groups. One of the most common questions or issues I see posted is challenges with out of focus or “soft” images.  Often there isn’t a single reason people have soft images. Soft or out of focus images can be caused by a number of things.  Some of them are just lack of knowledge about camera settings. Some softness can be due to more complex factors such as lighting and other conditions that require you to troubleshoot and make adjustments to your settings. Here are a few things to consider to get in focus images.

Get out of “Auto” mode.  With a beginner photographer who is having issues getting sharp focus, the common thing I see is they are still using the fully automatic (A) setting on their camera. The issue with this setting is that the camera controls all the settings for the camera including the focus point. In most digital cameras if you have it set to full Auto, the camera will use what is called multi-point focus. Meaning it is evaluating multiple objects in the image and making a “judgement” as to how to focus the lens based on those objects. Often the focus point is a compromise between those subjects meaning no one subject will be in total sharp focus. For example if you are taking a portrait image in Auto mode this means that background and/or foreground elements close to your subject could draw focus making your intended subject look “soft” or out of focus. The best way to correct this is to take back control of the focus point.  Without getting into the choices of other settings (Aperture mode or TV/Shutter or Manual mode) the easiest way to fix this is to switch from full Auto mode to P (Program AE) mode. Again, Im assuming you are a beginner. Optimally you should learn to shoot in Manual or one of the other “creative” settings such as Aperture or Tv/Shutter mode.  Program mode is similar to the Auto mode but the key difference is you can control which focus point is used to lock focus.    When you depress the shutter button halfway it should start to focus and you should see the focus point highlighted in the viewfinder (in red for Canon). If you don’t see any focus point indicator this setting may be turned off. Get your camera manual and check to see where you can turn on the focus point highlight alert in the menu settings. Then when focusing you can place that focus point on your intended subject to make sure the lens is focusing where you intend it to focus.

Auto Focus. Get an understanding of how auto-focus actually works on your camera. Grab the manual and look up auto-focus. Most cameras by default will start to auto-focus when you half depress the shutter button. If you slowly apply pressure you’ll notice the button doesn’t go all the way down. It goes about halfway and then you should hear your lens start to focus. Once you fully depress the shutter it will take image.

Check your diopter. If you have a DSLR, the viewfinder has this little tiny wheel usually on the right side of the viewfinder. While looking through the viewfinder you can turn this wheel to sharpen the view through the viewfinder. If this isn’t dialed in correctly you may be inadvertently seeing an out of focus view through the viewfinder causing you to manually focus incorrectly.

Lens Autofocus button. check your lens body to make sure it’s set to AutoFocus. It is possible to bump this switch and unintentionally have the lens in Manual focus mode and you may not even be aware of it. If you do this and aren’t actually manually focusing the lens, it won’t actually focus and every image you take will be out of focus.

Learn the “Exposure Triangle”– I know this sounds complex but without a basic understanding of Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO, you will struggle with getting sharp images. I blogged on this topic in last month here. You can also just do a Google search for “Exposure Triangle” and find ton’s of articles.

Focus point.  I see many photographs where they seem blurry or out of focus not because the photographer didn’t focus at all, but because they focused on the wrong or unintended part of the subject. I see this most often in portrait images. This suggestion drifts more into technique than technical but I strongly advise portrait photographers to get tack sharp focus on the subjects eyes.  Humans are drawn to the eyes so when eyes are out of focus it causes a tension in the image. Work to get tack sharp focus on eyes whenever taking intimate portraits. This applies to nature/animal and pet images as well.

Camera shake.  When shooting in low light, your camera will do everything it can to obtain a proper exposure automatically (with the exception of manual mode where you need to make all setting adjustments). If you are shooting in low or natural light often the camera will slow down the shutter speed to let in enough light to the camera sensor to get a proper exposure.  If the camera must slow down the shutter speed below say 1/250sec if you can’t hold the camera very still when you depress the shutter you may get movement or blur in your images. There are a variety of techniques to address this:

  • use a tripod or mono pod to stabilize the camera. I discuss this in my equipment blog post.
  • In combination with a tripod, consider using a cable release or the self timer setting on your camera to delay shutter release until after you’ve let go of the camera. This will help avoid any unintended shaking of the camera.
  • with a tripod use a setting on your camera called “Mirror lockup”. This setting moves the mirror into the up position before operating the shutter to avoid risk of camera movement with slow shutter speeds.  Typically this is used for long exposures not usually portrait photography.
  • If you must shoot handheld, stabilize yourself by leaning up against an object, wall, pole or something that can provide stability.
  • If shooting hand held, learn to use your body to stabilize your camera. Wedge the arm you use to hold your camera into your stomach/side with your elbow planted against your body use it as a sort of anchor to stabilize your whole arm and by extension the camera. This takes a bit of practice, but pro photographers can do this very well.

Subject movement.  Often you cannot control the movement of your subject. If you can, just ask them to remain still, particularly for portraits. If you are doing more candid shots you may not want to interfere with your subject so you’ll need to do your best to mitigate their movement. One way to do this is to use a faster shutter speed to stop action. You can do this by switching your camera to the Tv(Shutter priority mode). Typically shutter speeds of 1/250sec or faster will stop action in moving subjects to get them sharp.

Lighting challenges.  This gets a little more advanced and requires you to understand the “Exposure Triangle”. Light is everything when it comes to photography. In general better lit subjects will be sharper.  For example if you have a brightly lit day and your subject is moving, you have a good chance at getting a sharp image as you’ll be able to use a fast shutter speed and still get good exposure. If it’s an overcast day you may find that you (or the camera) will require a slower shutter speed to get a proper exposure. If the shutter speed needs to slow down too much (say below 1/250sec) you introduce many of the challenges I mentioned above with camera shake and subject movement. There are a few ways to deal with lighting challenges:

  1. Add artificial or indirect light. In natural light settings you can use equipment like reflectors and defusors to capture light and redirect it to your subject.
  2. Flash. Flash is used predominantly in portrait photography but I’ve also seen it used outdoors very effectively to fill in shadows caused by the sunlight on subjects. There are mountains of info on flash photography. If you intend to do portrait photography, you will need to learn and master flash photography and related equipment. That is beyond the scope of this blog, but an area where you can find many articles to advise you on equipment and technique. A simple first step it to purchase what is called an off camera flash (Speedlite is a common term). These are more advanced flash devices that go well beyond the flash on your camera.
  3. Aperture. If you can increase the Aperture setting (lower F stop #). This will open up to allow more light to the sensor, thus allowing you to use a faster shutter speed to stop action and get a sharp image.
  4. Increase ISO. Another option you can use independently or in combination with opening up the Aperture is to increase the ISO. ISO controls the light sensitivity of the camera senor. A higher ISO # will allow more light to be absorbed by the senor thus allowing you to increase your shutter speed to stop action and get a sharp image.
  5. Use Manual focus. Modern cameras do an awesome job at auto-focus. Unfortunately it’s because of this fact that many photographers forget or don’t even realize they can take their camera off auto-focus and manually turn the focus ring on their lens to dial in sharp focus. I highly recommend doing this in low light settings in particular. The reason being is that often lower end lenses and low end cameras do a less than optimal job of auto-focus in low light. You’ll hear the camera/lens “searching” for the right focus moving slowly back and forth and often not ever achieving sharp focus. If you catch your camera doing this, consider NOT using auto-focus, shift that tab on the side of your lens from AF to MF (Auto Focus to Manual Focus) and then look through the viewfinder and work to manually dial in focus using the focus ring on the lens body.

LiveView.  If you are using a tripod and shooting still subjects consider using the LiveView setting on your camera to see a real time view of the image. You can then use the magnifying button to zoom in and get a magnified view of your subject to make sure it’s tack sharp. Using this in combination with manual focus is one way pro photographers get tack sharp images. Again, this may not be practical for all types of photography but is used very often in Nature and Landscape photography.

Custom Autofocus button. It’s important to note that if you half depress the shutter to autofocus then lift your finger and recompose and then depress the shutter again, the camera refocuses on the new subject at the new autofocus point. Again understanding how your camera auto-focus works is important. While I don’t recommend this for beginner photographers, it is possible to separate the autofocus feature to a completely different button on your camera so that you can focus independent of the camera shutter button. If you find that you need to focus then reframe often you may want to consider this button customization. Again this is often a custom function you can learn about in your manual.

Lens sweet spot.  All camera lenses have what is called the sweet spot. The means there is a focal range and Aperture range in which the lens achieves it’s most sharp focus. This is more of an issue in telephoto lenses and one of the reasons many pro photographers use Prime or single focal length lenses. If you do have a telephoto lens, do some research to learn what the sweet spot is both for focal range and aperture for your lens. Often telephoto lenses are sharpest in the “middle of the range” like an Aperture range of F8-11 and at their lower end of the focal range. Higher end telephoto lenses can achieve better sharpness at the extremes, but they all have limitations.  If you are planning to do a particular type of photography, it’s worth investigating which are the sharpest lenses for the type of photography you prefer. Also consider prime lenses to get the sharpest images. While not as convenient as telephoto (zoom) lenses, they are often less expensive and often provide sharper images.

Lens defects. Most lenses work flawlessly for many years, but they can fail. If you’ve exhausted everything above and are still getting soft images, it’s worth having your lens serviced and calibrated, especially if it’s an expensive lens and particularly if you are hard on your equipment or have dropped your camera and/or lens. Most manufactures allow you to mail your equipment in to have them serviced by an authorized dealer. Again, I view this as a last resort. If possible test your lens a different camera body to see if it’s consistently having issues on more than one camera. If so, it’s likely a lens issue.


Tips for composing great photos

This is the third in my series of posts on photography. In my first two posts I focused on the equipment and technical aspects of photography. For this post I’ll focus on the artistic aspect of photography often called composition.

What I love about photography is that the equipment, the technical and the artistic aspect of making great photos are all equally important. Over time the technical and equipment aspects become second nature which frees up your mind to focus on the creative side of photography.

When I first started to get into photography about 10 years ago, I remember struggling to find interesting subjects or what I call “seeing” the subject.  Over time what I learned is that the more you learn about photography and composition, the more you see interesting subjects all around you. You start to recognize shapes, patterns, curves, interesting ways the light impacts a scene and so much more. Improving photo compositions takes lots of practice, trial and error and feedback from others. I strongly recommend taking photography workshops that focus on critiquing your images. I believe workshops helped me improve my images over time.  If you can’t afford workshops, take a photography night class at a local community college. Most offer continuing educations courses. If that’s not an option find a friend whose work you admire and go shooting with them. Have them look at your compositions and give feedback. Share your work online and ask others for constructive criticism, particularly those whose work you admire. If you don’t ask for feedback it will be very difficult to learn and improve.

Often what I see in many images posted online is what I call “documentation” shots. People tend to see an interesting subject and snap a photo without composing.  Often what they “saw” that drew them to take the photo just doesn’t come through as compelling or there are so many distracting elements in the photo that it’s hard for the viewer to see the subject.   Some of the challenge is many who take photos don’t understand or haven’t yet mastered some of the technical aspects of photography. There are simple practices you can use to improve your compositions. These practices will help to reveal the subject and your personal experience of the beauty or interest that compelled you to take the photo. If you learn a few of the techniques below and use them in combination with some of the technical mastery I discussed in my last post, I promise you will see dramatic improvement in your images.

Every time you lift the camera to take a photo you should be thinking through a few things. Over time these will come naturally but when first starting out, it’s ok to say them in your mind (or out loud if you don’t mind people hearing you talk to yourself). Subject, Light, Background, Edges and Exposure.  Each of these areas deserve an entire blog post but I want to keep it simple for now so I’ll just share a few tips.

First I’m going to tell a little story.  I recently posted an image on a Facebook photography group that garnered some attention.  I took this photo nearly 10 years ago when I was first getting serious about photography. I was on a week-long photo workshop in Door County WI.  The subject was an old tree in a cemetery during the peak of fall color.   At first, I just composed a typical shot which captured the entire tree in its setting. It wasn’t a bad photo but it was uninspiring.  It captured the brilliant yellow in the leaves and the enormity of the tree, but it still didn’t inspire me.  I wasn’t capturing the drama of this old tree that probably sat there for a hundred years through hard winters, hot summers, beautiful falls as people came and went, lived and died.  I stood staring at this tree for 10 minutes and Lou (the workshop instructor) walked up and said, “Yes! That’s a great subject. Let’s see what you have.” I showed him my shot of the tree. He’s said, “that’s a good start. Tell me what is drawing you to this subject.” I told him the enormity and grandeur of the tree and brilliant color. I also like the strength that I see in the trunk and main branches.  Lou suggested getting in closer on some of those details.  This is what is call “working” the subject. I walked up to the tree, right to the base and looked at the texture of the bark. It had this mixture of green and brown and rough texture that really showed the age of the tree. Then looking up from the base I noticed how the main branches appeared to have a human like quality of reaching up and away like a composer waving his arms out to his orchestra. (Side note, I did a Google image search of my image years later and the result that came back was “Best guess for this image: Musical composition” so I feel validated on my impression of the composition). It was an odd thought but it stuck with me and drew me to focus on that aspect in my composition. I leaned up against the trunk of the tree and composed a few different shots up into the branches of the tree to try to capture the structure in the tree.  I tried a few different angles along the base. Below is a series of photos leading up to my final selection. As you can see, I went through trial and error working the subject before coming to a composition that I liked. I literally had dozens of images but showing a few below.   You can click-through to see the detail of my progression in working the image.

I share this story because it was an epiphany for me. It’s when I first realized that photos that inspire people often have a dramatic perspective and getting that perspective just right requires experimenting with the subject with many different angles. Often these compelling photos will have odd angles, high or low perspectives or even zoom in on small details. I tell this story because I feel very strongly that working your subject and really thinking about what moves you about the subject will help you refine your composition to focus on the elements that capture what you “see”. Working a subject can feel awkward at first, as it did for me, but as you do it more it will become second nature. Never accept that first shot as your only image. Force yourself to spend time with a subject before moving on. I promise you’ll be glad you did.

Now on to the tips!

Positioning your subject When it comes to your subject, consider positioning it off-center. Positioning the subject off center provides more interest. Now this isn’t a rule, but a general guide. There are certain circular subjects that look best centered (like a sun flower). In the above photo you can see I positioned the trunk to the left. I did this on purpose to give the branches room to flow up and to the right  through the frame as this was their natural flow.  Positioning this way allows the viewer to come into the photo from the strong base and be led up into the big yellow canopy and the strong branches which lead you up and to the right. In any composition you want to have purpose in how you lead the viewer through the photo. It should have a natural flow. Give your subject room in the image. Consider how close your subject is to the edge of the frame. If it’s a moving subject consider placing it so it has room to move through the frame. If the subject is naturally pointing in one direction place it so that the subject has room move in that direction. In the case of the tree above, I positioned the base so that the branches which naturally moved to the right had room to flow throughout the frame to the right. Notice how I gave the top branch room in the frame, not too close to the top of the frame.

Vertical and Horizontal compositions  Try both with every subject you shoot. You’ll be surprised. I tried a vertical with my tree shot but the trunk over powered and it cut off the smaller branches and how they lead to the right. It didn’t look natural.  I settled on a horizontal as the best composition, but always try both. You’ll be surprised.

Placement of the Horizon  As with keeping subjects off-center, when composing shots that include the horizon, avoiding splitting the sky and land equally in the frame. If you give one or the other more space, you draw the focus to the area of interest in your photo.  If there is more interest in the sky, say dramatic cloud structure, consider including more of the sky in the frame. If there is little interest in the sky don’t include much, or in some cases, any of the sky.  Again, this is not a rule but a guide. When shooting reflections there are some cases where you may want to split 50/50 to emphasize mirroring aspect of the reflection. This works best with smooth water. Also if you do include the horizon, particularly one with a hard line in the image, it’s very important to make sure the horizon is level. If it’s not level this will be very obvious to the viewer and draw attention from your subject.  As with all of these guidelines experiment with different compositions. Have fun with it!

Lines, shapes and patterns   In nature, and the man-made world, you’ll see patterns, shapes and lines everywhere you look. You can use these to provide interest in a photo and to lead the viewers eyes through the image.

Curves and leading lines  Notice in the below photo how the tree line on the left “points” to the mountains. The shore line on the right forms a curved line leading to the mountains in the distance. Think about composing your photos to use natural curves and leading lines.

Used shore line to “point” to the mountains in the background…leading viewers eyes

Layers In landscape photography layers are natural patterns you can see in nature. Notice how you can use the natural color and tree line to create a layered pattern that “steps” you through the photo.

bright colors draw the eye in. I used the yellow tree line as my base to lead into this photo

Shapes See how the groups of trees on the left, right and bottom each form a sort of triangle that points to the sky. You can use shapes to lead the viewer’s eye through the frame.


Repeating patterns.  You can find patterns all throughout nature. It’s best to fill the frame when shooting repeating patterns.


Light. In photography, light is everything. Without it there is no photography.  But, there are different types of light.   Light can transform a composition from just ok, to an amazing photo.  Often you’ll get the most compelling photos shooting at what is called the “edges of light”. This means early morning when the sun is just rising or at dusk when the sun is setting. The reason light is best at these times of day is due to the direction and intensity of the light. Sun light is softer and at a lower angle to the earth at these times of day.  I see many photos of subjects which are shot in the middle of the day with bright sunlight. Often they look harsh with too much contrast between dark and light areas. It’s also very difficult to get a good exposure between the light and dark areas when shooting in bright sunlight.  Cameras have limitations. They cannot differentiate between extreme light and dark the way the human eye can. This is why when you shoot in bright daylight the camera has to make a trade-off to either capture the dark areas with proper exposure or the bright areas. If you capture the dark areas, then the sky and highlights are often blown out white with no detail. If you  properly expose the sky then the dark areas are full black with no detail creating a “contrasty” photo that doesn’t look natural. There are situations where this is unavoidable and there are techniques that can help, but your best way to capture good photos is to shoot at the edges of light to get an even properly exposed photo.  This takes dedication as often you are getting up before the sun rises when everyone else is sleeping or you are shooting at sunset when the family is just sitting down to dinner or getting ready to go out. It is a sacrifice to shoot at the edges of light and takes dedication.

Direction of light.  The direction of light can have a big impact on your compositions.  When composing your photo think about the direction of light and how it can positively impact your subject.

Side lighting  This is when the light is coming from one direction. Side lighting can create a soft contrast between light and dark on your subject and provide a “mood” to the photo.  You can use side lighting to show texture in your subjects through the use of shadows an shading to emphasize texture in objects. In the below image I used side lighting to show the early morning mood of this fall setting. Notice the contrast between light and dark on the tree trunks which illuminate the detail of the bark. The leaves also pick up some translucency.


Front lighting This is when the sun is directly illuminating your subject, coming over your shoulder.  I particularly like this for sunsets. Front lighting can reveal color in subjects and create interesting shadows and lines.


Rear lighting This is when the sun is coming from behind your subject. This type of light allows you to capture translucency of subjects. It can also be used to show the definition of a subject. This is fun to experiment with and one of my favorites.

Diffused light Diffused light is filtered either through the clouds or fog. Useful when shooting close up subjects or when you want a softer more balanced light on subjects. The below shot was on an overcast day which allowed me to use a slightly longer exposure to reveal the green in the forest floor.


Background and Edges. Generally what you are looking to do here is simplify and remove distractions from your compositions.  As I noted above I belong to a number of photo groups and see photos from people from all over the world. I often see posts of an interesting subject with tons of distracting elements in the photo, a house in the background half in and out of the frame, telephone lines cutting right through the photo in the foreground, part of a sidewalk or road that’s neither in or out of the photo. It makes me cringe, but I know that the person taking the photo can’t see these distracting elements because they are blinded by their subject.  When I first started shooting 10 years ago, my pictures were filled with distractions. I still struggle with it to this day. We all get super focused on the subject which causes us to miss all the distracting elements in our photos. The human brain naturally ignores distractions which makes it hard for you to see distracting elements when composing. Photographers need to retrain the eye to see these distractions when composing images.  Over time you will get better at this, but start with using the tools of your camera.  After taking each photo look at the LCD and use the zoom feature on the camera to zoom in on the image you just took and move around all the edges and look for distracting elements.  Look at the background for any distracting elements and work to recompose to remove those distractions. Often you can crop out distracting elements in post processing, but it’s best to get the composition right in camera before you get back to your computer. If you are having trouble seeing the LCD, I recommend purchasing a Hoodman Loupe. It’s a small device you hold up to the LCD, like a viewfinder, that blocks out the light.

Distracting background Be aware of bright objects in the background or foreground that can distract from your subject. This can be a bright-colored object or even the sky itself. The eye is naturally drawn to bright objects. Just look at your images with a critical eye beyond your subject and you will see the distractions. A good way to see some of these distractions is to squint at the composition on your LCD, or to stand back away from the LCD and look at the composition. When you do this the key objects in an image will standout including the major distractions. If you squint at the image on the left you’ll see how your eye is drawn to the bright sky in both the top and bottom of the image which in this case adds nothing to the photo. Best to recompose to remove it (image 2)

Check the edges Watch for objects coming into the frame from the edges. Below is an example of a city shot I took more than 10 years ago. As you can see I was so interested in the architecture of this building that my eye could not see the gigantic pole sticking straight into the image! A simple fix would have been to recompose this as a vertical shot to focus on the building in the center. If that didn’t work I could have tried to move to the left to get the pole out of the image.

chiarctour 014

Exposure  Again one of the more tricky things to master in photography is proper exposure. This falls a bit into the technical area but can have a significant impact on the quality of your compositions. One tool in your camera that will help you with proper exposure is called the Histogram. The histogram shows a graphic display of where all the pixels in your image fall in the light spectrum from dark to light. You can typically access the histogram by hitting the “info” button on your camera when viewing the image you just took. While it’s not a foolproof way of getting proper exposure, reviewing the histogram can give you a clue if your image is over or under exposed. Below is a simple example of a view of the histogram with normal exposure, overexposed and underexposed image.


Most photos won’t be displayed as clear cut as this as you will often have a range of dark and light areas in a photo. The most important thing you want to avoid is full black (a hard line on the left) or full blown out white (hard line on the right).  Again, there are exceptions to this rule. There may be cases where you want some areas to go completely black, but in most cases you want to retain detail in the light and dark areas of your images so they look more natural. Again this takes practice and experience. Another tool that can help is the “Highlight Alert” setting in your camera. Usually found in the menu settings, turning this on will display a flashing on your image on the LCD in areas that are over or under exposed. This alerts you that you need to adjust your exposure and can be a good tool to remind you to check your exposure.  Again, look at your images with a critical eye and work to get proper exposure in your images.

AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing) In some cases it will be difficult or impossible to get a proper exposure from light to dark depending on the range of light in your scene. Remember, your camera has limitations and can only capture a limited range from dark to light. The human eye can see significantly more detail than your camera can capture. You can compensate for the shortfall in the camera by Exposure Bracketing. You can find this setting in your camera menu referenced as Exposure Compensation or AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing). When you turn this on you can set the camera to automatically take a number of photos at different exposures. You can decide to take a range of photos but typically 3 photos is sufficient, 1 photo at  zero (0) or no exposure compensation, 1 photo over exposed (+1)  and 1 under exposed (-1). You can set the amount of over and under exposure by full stops or partial stops (usually by as little as 1/4 or 1/3 of a stop)  depending on the range of light to dark in the scene. I usually start with a 1 stop over and under exposed. Again, this takes some experimentation and practice. Using Exposure compensation allows you to capture a range of photos so you can choose the best exposure when you return to your computer. I personally only use this when shooting in difficult lighting situations or when I know I might want to blend multiple images into an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image (more on this in a future blog).

I hope these tips are useful. If you have any questions feel free to comment or reach out.


Learning the technical aspects of Photography

This is the 2nd in my series of blog posts on photography. In my first post I discussed photography equipment and some tips and pitfalls to avoid. In this post I’ll focus on basic technical aspects of photography which can positively impact your photos.

The saying goes “even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while”.  If you don’t know how your camera works, this pretty much summarizes your chances of getting a great photo. If you really want to take your images to the next level, you are going to need to understand some basic technical aspects of your camera and how they impact your images. For the purposes of this post I’m going to assume you have a Digital SLR camera.

There are many technical areas we can explore in photography. For this post I’m going to focus (pun intended) on 3 key areas: Light sensitivity (ISO), depth of field (Aperture) and shutter speed.  The most important thing to understand is that all 3 of these are interrelated when it comes to how your camera operates.

First lets review a few terms. ISO refers to the light sensitivity of the image senor in your camera.  Aperture refers to the diameter of the opening of the shutter in your camera which impacts light reaching the sensor. Aperture also impacts depth of field or how sharp objects appear in an image from near to far.  Shutter speed relates to how long the shutter is open which impacts light hitting the sensor as well as the sharpness of objects in the image.  We’ll explore each of these in more detail below.

ISO: This term pre-dates the digital era where you could purchase film which had a specific light sensitivity or ISO. In today’s digital era, light sensitivity is manipulated by adjusting the ISO setting on your camera which impacts the digital sensor’s sensitivity to light. Grab your camera and take a look at the buttons on the top. You should see a setting for ISO on the top of the camera or in the menu settings. Depending on your camera model you can adjust this setting somewhere between 50- 64,000 or even higher in high-end cameras.  For most photography you’ll adjust this setting to somewhere between 100- 6400.  Higher ISO settings enable the camera’s sensor to be more sensitive to light, meaning it can accept more light to capture the image.  Lower ISO settings are less light-sensitive but they provide sharper images. The downside of higher ISO is that it often causes something called image “noise”.  The best way to describe noise is when you look closely at an image you’ll see graininess to the image…it won’t seem as sharp. Depending on the subject this may or may not be desirable. In the example below, there is noticeable noise but only as you inspect closely.

Taken at ISO 1600 , If you zoom in closely you’ll see the grainy nature of the high ISO in the sky

While it is possible to reduce “noise” in post processing you’ll want to avoid high amounts of noise in your images unless that’s a look your intend.  Higher quality cameras manage noise better at high ISO settings.  In lower end cameras the noise in images can become unusable at medium to high ISO settings. This is something you’ll see discussed in camera reviews and is worth considering if you expect to shoot in low light situations.

Adjusting settings such as Shutter speed and Aperture etc.   Again take a look at your camera. You should see a dial with markers for Aperture and Shutter priority. The names of these settings will vary by manufacturer. On a Canon camera you should see something like P (Program mode), A (Intelligent Auto) ,  Av (Aperture priority), Tv (shutter priority), M (Manual) and there may be a few more settings like B (Bulb) and C for custom which I won’t cover here but should be covered in your camera manual.


A (Auto Mode). Fully Automatic mode. This is generally what many photographers refer to as the “dummy” mode. Not meant to be derogatory but essentially you aren’t controlling the camera in these modes.  The camera is making all the decisions about settings. The camera looks at the scene and evaluates the situation and adjusts the ISO, Speed, Aperture, focal point and flash based on algorithms programmed into the camera. If you don’t care to know anything about your camera or creative photography, this is your no thought point and shoot setting.   Your creative options will be limited in this mode. side note: this is the only mode where the flash will typically pop up automatically if the camera detects underexposure in the scene.

P (Program AE) similar to the fully Automatic mode, but you get to control a few more items like flash, focus point, drive mode etc. The camera will still fully control Aperture, Shutter speed and ISO so it’s 1 step closer to allowing you to make more decisions about your creative options.

Tv (Shutter Priority)– Setting the camera to Tv allows you to manually control shutter speed and the camera will automatically adjust aperture to try to get a properly exposed shot. You’ll want to use this setting when you want to control the amount of time the shutter is open to get a stop action or a deliberate motion effect in your images. Some cameras will allow the shutter to remain open for as short as 1/8000 sec to as long as 30 seconds (these settings may vary based on camera model).  In general if you want to “stop” the action you use higher shutter speeds. For example if you are shooting birds in flight, sports action or something where you want to capture that moment, using shutter priority will be the way to go.

Taken at 1/500 sec at F4. Sometimes stopping the action allows you to capture that decisive moment that tells a story

Tip: often when shooting in Shutter priority, you’ll want to use the “Drive” setting to capture continuous images at high-speed as you hold down the shutter button. This allows you to shoot quick successive images of action and in post processing select the sharpest or most appealing image out of the many taken.  This is more important when shooting action shots.

Shutter priority is a really fun setting to get creative images. While most photographers use this setting to capture crisp action shots, you can purposely slow the shutter speed to blur action to get a creative effect in your image. Have you ever seen a city night photo where the car lights are a blur trail of light and the rest of the city is in sharp focus? You can get this effect with a slow shutter speed.  Depending on the speed of the cars you can adjust the shutter speed to a fifth of a second to a few seconds or longer to get these long trailing lights. Longer shutter speed = longer light trails.

Have you ever seen travel shots where there is one person standing in a busy bustling crowd and that one person is in sharp focus while the crowd is a blur? Again, a longer shutter speed will blur moving objects but still objects will remain in sharp focus giving you a cool dramatic photo.

Panning is another fun way to experiment  with shutter speed.  Panning is where you move your camera to follow the subject as you shoot. A simple illustration below shows when you pan at a relatively slow shutter speed, the background blurs with motion while the subject stays in relative sharpness. The net effect emphasizes the motion of the subject. In the example below I shot at a relatively slow 1/30 sec shutter speed. If I shot this at 1/500 sec the girl would be “frozen” and you lose the impact of her motion. The blur can tell a story.

Taken at 1/30 sec at F4, this is a simple illustration of panning to show action

Panning takes a bit of practice and experimentation with different shutter speeds but provides amazing results when you get it right.  Tip: consider using AI -Focus to help the camera focus on the subject as you (pan) move the camera. I encourage you to experiment with shutter speeds as the creative possibilities are limitless.

Av (Aperture Priority)– As a nature photographer, this is my favorite setting and my default in most situations.  Just like in Tv when you set your camera to Aperture priority, you control the Aperture setting and the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed to try to capture a properly exposed image. Changing the Aperture adjusts the F-stop or amount of light which reaches the sensor. It also manipulates the Depth of Field or how in focus your background is in the image. A lower F-stop number (i.e.: F 2.8, F4) creates a narrow depth of field or more out of focus background. Adjusting (Aperture) allows you to draw focus on a subject to direct the viewer’s eye. Narrow depth of field also allows you to put distracting backgrounds out of focus.

Taken with a 50mm F1.4 this illustrates how a large aperture can blur background

To get a good understanding of depth of field do a quick experiment. Go into your backyard with a friend and have them stand 10 feet away from you. Take a series of photos of them where you focus on their face but adjust the Aperture on your camera through the range of F-stops from lowest to highest for each successive image. Download the images and review them on your computer. What you’ll see is as you move through the images is that the background will become more in focus as you move to higher F-stop settings (F11, 13, 14, 16, 18 and so on). There are cases where you may want the entire image in focus so you’ll choose a higher F-stop, say for a wide-angle landscape of the mountains and a meadow.  In other cases you may want to blur out districting background elements, for example a close up photo of a single flower. Experimenting with Aperture and depth of field is really fun and will help you make some really creative images.

M (Manual Mode): Some photographers choose to use the M (Manual) mode so they can manually set shutter speed, aperture and ISO to get the effect they are looking for. This is a popular setting for photographers who learned to shoot on film cameras because for many years Manual was the only way to shoot film. It’s worth trying Manual mode to get an understanding of the relationship between Aperture, Shutter speed and how adjustments impact exposure etc.  Keep in mind, in this mode the camera lets you make mistakes because you are now fully in control of all the settings. So if you set the Shutter Speed too slow and the Aperture too large you are going to get a blown out overexposed photo because too much light will be hitting the sensor for too long. The camera won’t “fix” it.  You are going to have to manually watch the exposure when shooting in this mode. Personally I find focusing on one aspect (say Av or Tv) and letting the camera adjust the other setting allows you to focus more on the subject and creative aspects of the image to get the effect you desire.  That said it is worth experimenting with M mode to see what it’s like to completely control all settings.

The relationship between ISO, Shutter speed and Aperture. When you first start out with photography, the most challenging technical aspect of the camera is understanding the relationship between these settings and how they can positively and negatively impact your images.   Lets review some examples to illustrate the relationship:

For this scenario lets assume you are shooting in Av (Aperture priority). As you increase the Aperture (lower F-stop number), more light reaches the sensor. So in effect the shutter speed will be adjusted in order to get a properly exposed image. For example if you set your camera to the lowest F-stop number (say F 2.8) which is the largest aperture…more light will be let in to the sensor meaning the shutter speed will need to be faster in order to get a proper exposure (not over exposed).  So if there is a lot of light in your scene (full daylight), the camera will increase the shutter speed to compensate for all the light,  which will cause action to be stopped in your image.  If you are trying to get a blurred effect and there is a lot of light in the scene you will struggle to get that effect with a low F-stop number (as an example the person in the crowd I mentioned above).   You can manipulate a few other settings to help to “slow” the image. You can decrease the F-stop (higher number), decrease the ISO, (light sensitivity). You can also use a polarizer or neutral density filter to limit the light reaching the sensor.  The net effect will allow the shutter to stay open longer giving you the blurred motion you desire.


Shot in late morning daylight I had to use a neutral density filter to get the shutter speed to slow down to 2 seconds. This allowed me to get the cotton candy effect in the water I was looking for



The same works in reverse. Say you are using the Tv (shutter priority) and you are trying to shoot an action shot in a low light gymnasium at a sporting event. As you increase shutter speed to capture action, it’s going capture less light to the sensor. By default the camera will try to increase the Aperture (lower number) to let in as much light as possible to capture a correct exposure. If your camera and/or lens can only go to say a max aperture of say F 5.6 (common in a telephoto lens), the image may come out under exposed and/or blurry because the camera can’t capture enough light to stop the action.  There are some adjustments you can make in low light situations to help get more light to the sensor. One of them is to increase the ISO. If you recall, a higher ISO will make the sensor more sensitive to light, but the downside is noise.  So in the above case you may be able to increase the ISO to say 1600 or higher and you may be able to stop the “blur” in your action shot, but the downside is you may get more “noise” in the image. So the capability of your camera and lens can, in extreme cases, have an impact on image quality.   This is where photographers often invest in higher quality camera or lenses which can provide better results at the extremes of light.

Low light also has an impact on sharpness of subjects. If you need to shoot at slower speeds in low light any camera shake will cause blurriness in your photos. A tripod or monopod can help you stabilize the camera. Cameras and lenses with vibration control features can also help in these low light situations where you can’t use a tripod, but there are limits.  Also you often can’t control motion in your subjects… so the only way to prevent a blurry subject is to have a faster shutter speed. Generally shutter speeds of 1/250 sec and higher will allow you to get stop action depending on the speed of the subject. A good rule of thumb is that 1 over the focal range of the lens is typically what you can handhold and still avoid camera shake. So for example if you are shooting a telephoto lens and you are zoomed out to 200mm, typically the slowest shutter speed you can shoot handheld is 1/200. As noted above vibration reduction lenses will help at slower shutter speeds, practice will help in this area as well.

To summarize, you can manipulate the Shutter speed, Aperture and ISO to help you get the desired effect  in your photos.  If you are shooting an image and not getting the result you expect, consider these 3 settings and where you can make adjustments to get the result you desire.

In my next blog post I’ll tackle a few other areas such as exposure, exposure bracketing, white balance, HDR, the histogram and other technical tips and tricks. Stay tuned.



2017 Harvard Balloon Fest

I attended Harvard’s 2017 Balloon fest this weekend. This was my 1st time shooting Balloons but something I’ve wanted to do for years. I hadn’t planned to attend but on a whim decided to get up at 4:30am and drive out to Harvard IL to shoot the sunrise launch. I arrived to find a moderate crowd and a fair number of photographers, mostly amateurs like me.  I spoke to a few photographers and got some tips on shooting balloons, where to position yourself and how fast things move once they start inflating. One of the balloon owners gave me a tip on photographing the delicate dance of the pilot working to get the balloon from the ground to vertical which involves them sitting outside the bucket and heating it and as it rises like an acrobat they perform gymnastics to simultaneously manage the torch control while jumping into the basket. Fascinating to watch.  We had somewhat cloudy foggy weather most of the morning until the tail end of launch…you can see the colors start to pop more in the later images as we got some nice side lighting. It was fun to shoot all the colors and patterns in the balloons, but it goes very fast. You don’t have a ton of time to shoot before they are pretty much all in the air and taking off…maybe 15-20 min total. I found myself gravitating to balloons with interesting patterns where I could get some side lighting from the eastern exposure. I may go back to shoot one of the evening “glow” events which I expect will be even more fun and likely more crowded. In any case, enjoy the pics.


Photography tips: First edition, gear, gear and more gear!

There is a massive amount of info on the internet to help you improve your photography. The point of this blog is to inform a novice photographer who is looking to improve the quality of their photos or just learn some new tips.   I decided to start blogging on this topic because over the years I’d get questions from friends, family, co-workers time and again. What should I buy? What’s a good camera? What do I need and how did you take that photo?!

This 1st blog post will focus on the “gear”. I’m not going to cover every piece of equipment out there, but I’m going to cover the basics of what I’d buy if I was starting at square one.

This is just my opinion but knowledge on photography generally falls into 3 broad areas and I’ll blog on each of them eventually.

  1. The gear!  All the cool stuff you need to make great photos. Cameras, tripods, various lenses, filters, flashes and on and on.
  2. The technical stuff.  How the camera works, understanding what an f-stop is, what ISO is,  adjusting settings and the giant world of post processing images in computer programs.
  3. The “art”.  This is about seeing and making great compositions that cause a viewer to pause and contemplate the subject. There are some general “rules” you can learn about composing great images, but remember breaking composition rules is always allowed in the world of photography!

The gear.  When I first got into photography around 1998 shortly after getting married and at the dawn of the digital camera,  I mistakenly thought I needed expensive equipment to take great photos. In some cases this is true, but it’s not a requirement to make compelling images. Some of the best photo’s I’ve ever seen were taken on low-end consumer grade digital cameras that cost a few hundred dollars. What I came to learn is that developing a strong understanding of how your camera works and marrying that knowledge with some basics in creative composition is what takes you to the next level in the quality of your images. You don’t have to know everything but you need to know some core things about your equipment to really use your camera creatively. If all you ever do is leave the camera in the “A” or automatic mode, you really limit your creative possibilities.

Don’t go nuts on gear! Have you ever heard of the military industrial complex? I like to say there is a photography industrial complex. There are thousands of manufacturers out there working to part you from your hard-earned dollars….and let me tell you in my early years they did just that.  It’s important to know that there will always be the next new thing or must have gadget that “will transform your photos”. Try not to get too distracted with all the gear possibilities and stay focused on what matters most to you.

Cameras! Hey what about Smartphones?!  Yes, I know the stats, more pictures are taken on smartphones than any other device by a large factor. I may do a blog on that at some point. That said, Smartphones still have some significant disadvantages when it comes to creative composition and technical capability compared to an SLR camera.  Smartphones are a great complement to an SLR for its versatility and ability to quickly capture a scene to help you refine your composition or quickly capture a fleeting moment. Also some smartphone tech is bleeding into SLR cameras (like wireless support, integration with mobile apps and more) and some SLR tech is bleeding over to phones (like Iphone 7 low light capabilities for example). For now I’m going to focus on what pro and amateur photographers are using today and that’s predominantly SLRs.  I recommend you start with a good solid Digital SLR camera that supports interchangeable lenses like a Canon Rebel or Nikon D series camera. Another possible option is what is called mirrorless ILC (Interchangeable lens camera).   Sony, Olympus and a few others are releasing some great “Mirrorless” cameras these days.   Mirrorless cameras are evolving quickly so worth considering.  Mirrorless aren’t quite as capable as an SLR in areas such as light sensitivity and image quality but they are cheaper, lighter and improving all the time.  If you look at my Badlands post these were all taken with a mirrorless Olympus OM-D E-M1. Overall I was impressed with most of the image quality, particularly ones in full day light. Here are some examples to give you and idea of the size differences between a comparable MILC and DSLR. As you can see the mirrorless is much smaller and lighter, which is appealing if you are walking around all day with a camera and extra gear.

Canon 5d Mark III on left, Olympus OM-D E-M1 on the right. The Canon has a 17-40mm lens and the Olympus has a 12-40mm, so close in range. Both are pro class lenses. 

So why are mirrorless cameras and lenses so much smaller? You can skip this part if the reason doesn’t matter to you.  An SLR camera has a mechanic shutter that remains open until you press the shutter button. With the shutter open it reflects the image (light) coming through the lens to the viewfinder to the top of the camera. What you are actually seeing is a reflection off a little tiny mirror in the camera showing you what the light is reflecting through the lens. When you press the shutter the mirror retracts and the light is exposed directly to the sensor capturing the image, then it swings back open again so you can “see” through the lens.  This is why if you watch closely you’ll see the viewfinder go dark for an instant when you press the shutter. I know complicated isn’t it? All the parts that contribute to this fancy dance add size and weight to the camera. The lenses that accompany DSLRs also tend to have more glass elements in them to improve image quality. Mirrorless cameras have no mechanical shutter or mirror to reflect the light. The light goes directly to the digital sensor which is displayed on the camera LCD on the back showing you a live view of the scene. (Note some DSLRs support live view as well…and I highly recommend this feature). Most mirrorless cameras don’t have a viewfinder on the top of the camera and if they do it’s showing you a digital image not an actual mirror image of the scene. All of this is what makes them much lighter, less parts inside both the camera and the lenses.

When choosing a camera, if possible go try out a few different options at a camera shop. Costco has a pretty nice variety of entry-level DSLRs on display. Poke around and play with a few to see how you like the way it “feels” in your hands. Pick it up, turn it over hold it up to eye level, try moving some of the controls both while you are looking at them and while you have the camera at eye level. Can you easily find the controls? Does it seem intuitive to you?   I’m personally partial to Canon, but my very first SLR was a Olympus and as you can see I’ve come back to them to try mirrorless. There are many great quality cameras from a variety of manufacturers. If you like reviews, two of my favorite sites are Tomsguide and DPreview.

When and where to buy? If you are on a budget, consider used. There are always new models coming out and people selling their old equipment, much of it in like new condition. If you go used proceed with caution and make sure you can return to a reputable seller if there is an issue. Check the sellers history (in the case of ebay) and ask many questions before buying. Get close up pictures of the camera or lens and ask about any repairs or damage before committing to the purchase.  If you prefer new, buy near Christmas as this is when you’ll see some of the best deals.  Also consider getting the “old” model right after the mfg releases the next-gen of the camera. Often retailers are discounting the old model to get it out of inventory. This is how i bought my mirrorless Olympus.

Where to buy is preference. Im comfortable buying over the internet but you may not want to do that for your 1st purchase. Most camera equipment is made in Japan or southeast asia so it tends to get shipped in on the coasts. I’ve personally found B&H Photo Video out of NY to be one of the best online camera shops.  (they also have a massive store in Brooklyn but I’ve never been there). They have very good pricing, great inventory and great customer service.  If you want to buy local, just know that you may pay a little more in a camera shop, Costco, Walmart etc but it may be worth it to be able to touch and feel before you buy.

Tripods! What you’ll come to find is that often great photos were taken from a camera mounted on a tripod. There are many reasons to have a tripod 1) it forces you to slow down, take time and compose. 2) It allows you to steady the camera to avoid blur in your photos caused by camera shake.  3) Some images, like close up or macro, require getting very close to the subject in often awkward positions. The tripod can really help in these situations.

There are a wide variety of tripods made in various materials ranging from expensive but lightweight carbon fiber to aluminum (popular) and steel.  Generally carbon fiber tripods are the most expensive.  I recommend trying out a few different options at a camera shop. Retail camera shops are few and far between these days but if you have one nearby this is an item worth experimenting with before buying. Generally you’ll want to get a tripod that is strong enough to hold your camera with your heaviest lens.  If you get a tripod that has a “center post” which adjusts up and down, make sure you get a tripod that is tall enough to be at standing eye level with the center post in the full down position.  I recommend this because in many cases you won’t want to extend the center post much as this will make the tripod “top-heavy” and unstable causing the very shake you are trying to avoid. Also if you end up doing macro (close up) photography, often you’ll need to get a tripod very low to the ground and in odd angles. A center post that can’t be removed will immediately make this nearly impossible. If you do get a tripod with a center post, make sure it can be removed if needed. Unfortunately when you research tripods some manufactures list the max height of the tripod with the center post extended to max height. Again, this is a mistake I learned the hard way and why I recommend trying out tripods in person.  So get a measuring tape, stand up and measure from the ground to your eye level in inches. You’ll want at least this as the max height of the tripod with the center post down, not fully extended. Also, as you do more work in nature with uneven surfaces you’ll come to find that having a tripod that can extend above your eye height is useful. There will be times when the ground is uneven and you need to extend the tripod legs beyond what you normally would on an even surface. In this photo below I was standing on a hill with 2 tripod legs fully extended down the slope. Without the extra height of the tripod legs, I would have been bent over trying to look into the view finder. I stood watching this deer slowly move up the hill for about 20 minutes until the light was just right. If I had to crouch down for 20 min my back would have been killing me. _MG_8067-Edit-2-Edit-Edit

Some of my favorite tripod manufacturers are Really Right Stuff (RRS), Manfrotto, Gitzo and SLIK, but there are many more. Today I own both a Manfrotto and RRS. Top is the RRS pro tripod with no center post. Bottom is the Manfrotto with a center post half extended. Close up of a ballhead.

Ballheads. I bet you never thought that would be a word in your vocabulary! That said learn it because it will make your life much easier. Again another costly lesson I learned. I started with a somewhat inflexible complex adjusting head on my 1st tripod that had all these different dials and levers I had to adjust and it drove me nuts. Ballheads are much easier to manipulate as they can basically turn in nearly any direction you want with just a quick spin of a dial , swivel the head and spin the dial back again to lock it in. This will save you a ton of frustration when you are composing shots.  There are many brands out there but I use a Really Right Stuff ballhead with quick release plates. Again, you don’t need to go expensive here, get the basic one to start. Manfrotto has some reasonable priced ballheads too. Also these ballheads tend to be universal fit meaning you can just screw them on to nearly any tripod, so you can have a Gitzo tripod with a RRS ballhead. This is an area where mix and match can be useful. Initially you are fine just sticking with the whole setup from one tripod brand.

Plates: you’ll want to get an extra ballhead locking plate too if you have more than one camera so you aren’t constantly having to unscrew the palate and switch it to swap to the other camera.

Lenses: If you are unsure what type of photography you are interested in, start with just the standard kit lens when you buy your 1st camera. Generally the kit lens will be either a single midrange lens like the one shown below (18-55mm). Sometimes the kit will also come with a telephoto lens like the 75-300mm to help you zoom in closer to subjects. This is a nice starter kit to get nearly anyone going. Most of the manufactures offer something similar.

Rebel kit
Image credit to Canon USA  

If you plan to do sports photography or take pictures of fast moving subjects (like kids)…I’ll cover that in a later blog post, but suffice it to say you may decide to invest in a higher quality telephoto lens. Getting good action shots in different lighting conditions and distances can be challenging. For example your kid charging down the basket ball court in a somewhat dimly lit gym from 25 yards away often takes a higher quality lens. Without a fast lens most of the images will turn out blurry and you’ll be frustrated. Entry level telephoto lenses just don’t cut it for “fast” shots, particularly in indoor or low light. But again, start with the reasonable priced stuff first.  You won’t need to get nuts like the guys you see on the sidelines at pro sports with the lens that look like they are shooting a bazooka, but you may need to step up to a slightly higher quality glass and it will make all the difference.

The dirty little secret about lenses! As you start to get deeper into creative photography what you’ll discover is that it’s all about the lenses.  And the lenses can be expensive as you move up in quality and capability. This is because they are finely engineered objects with precision parts inside. It’s not inexpensive to make a high quality lens.  The camera matters,  but at a certain point you’ll discover you want to upgrade to higher quality lenses to get better photos. This is where this hobby can get expensive.   When you get to this point it’s important to know what type of photography you are most drawn to as that will inform the type of lens you want to invest in first. Do you like to shoot super wide-angle dramatic shots. Do you like to shoot birds in flight or fast moving action sports (Canon 70-200 F4 or F2.8)? Do you like to shoot street scenes and architecture (tilt shift lens or 50mm f1.4)? Intimate portraits (100mm 2.8)? Close up macro shots of flowers (60 or 100mm Macro lens)? Knowing this will help you pick that 1st expensive lens to invest in. My 1st expensive lens was a Canon pro series 24-105mm L lens at about $750. It’s still my favorite lens to this day for its sharpness and versatility . It cost more than my camera at that time. This isn’t uncommon, but just realize you don’t have to do this. It’s just where many photographers end up when they want to move their photos to the next level. Don’t feel like you have to make this investment now, but just know that it may get to this point eventually. So when you get here you need to really know what type of photography you are passionate about so you can match that to the best pro lens. And make friends with a rich photographer so you can buy their used lenses when they upgrade!

Other must have gadgets: One of the best gear tips I ever got was …Hoodman Loupe! An absolute necessity for digital cameras so you can see the image on the lcd after you take it. Without this you’ll constantly struggle to see what you just took, particularly in daylight. Extension tubes: If you can’t afford a dedicated macro lens, these are an inexpensive way to modify a regular lens to allow it to focus much closer. Photo backpacks. There are hundreds of options here, so again do a bit of research before committing to a backpack. Or you can buy one of the 8 backpacks I no longer use! Don’t make my mistake and think you need a special backpack for every situation.

Filters.  If you plan to take nature photos, a few filters I highly recommend are a circular polarizer and a Neutral Density filter.  First the Polarizing filter. Both of these filters screw to the end of your lens so the light filters through to the image sensor. A polarizer can be used in many situations but most often used to darken sky’s to give a deep rich feel to the sky and clouds and to remove annoying “glare” in scenes. I use this filter nearly every time I’m in a forest taking photos. It helps to remove the waxy glare that often stands out in on leaves and other greenery where it’s reflecting the light. You just spin the filter as you are looking through your viewfinder and you’ll see that awful glare disappear. It’s like magic!  Depending on how bright it is you can also use it to generally darken a scene to show down action and get that smooth cottony look to water flowing…but this depends largely on how bright it is and the speed of your camera.

Image credit to 

The Neutral Density filter plays a specific role which gets a little more technical but bare with me. There are times when you are shooting a subject in daylight and you want to “slow” down the motion to get a blur effect, say a cotton look to a waterfall or running water in a stream. If it’s too bright out you may not be able to block enough light from the camera sensor to get the shutter to stay open long enough to get that blur look. This is where the Neutral Density filter comes in. You spin the filter and it adds darkening or light blocking without degrading the image quality. Think very expensive high-end sunglasses where you can dial how dark they go. You can adjust the darkness by spinning the filter to get the slow down effect you are looking for. Below is an example of a daytime shot where I used my Neutral Density filter to slow down the water flow by dialing it to block light to the sensor so the shutter could remain open longer without over exposing (making it look too bright). This effect works great for waterfalls and running rivers.


So I’m tired after writing all that so that’s it for now. I’ll be back soon with blog 2 on the “technical” stuff, then wrap up with the “Art” of photography.


Fall Foliage

I don’t know if it’s because I was born in October, but Fall is definitely my favorite time of year. I just love the dramatic transformation of the world around us.  It just puts me in a good mood. To that end, I’m posting a variety of fall photos I’ve taken over the years. Most of these are taken in northern IL forest preserves such as Ryerson, Wrightwoods, Cuba Marsh, MacARTHUR Woods, Half Day Preserve and many more.  I’ll continue to update with more photos as I dig through my archives.  Enjoy

National Parks Nature

Olympic National Park

I took a photography workshop in August of 2014. I spent 2 days in Port Angeles primarily shooting from Hurricane Ridge Rd, Crescent Lake and a day at Tongue Point Marine Sanctuary.  Final 3 days I spent in Forks shooting at Sol Duc Falls, Hoh Rain Forest, Second Beach, Ruby Beach and Rialto Beach. I personally found this to be one of the most beautiful diverse places I’ve visited in the U.S. I feel I could have spent a month here and still only scratch the surface of photo opportunities. I highly recommend it if you can make it.


Door County WI

These photos were taken over a period of years in the Door County area from roughly 2006-2010. Locations include: Cave Point, Peninsula State Park, Sister Bay, Ellison Bluff, Ephraim bay. I also spent a significant portion of time at Newport state park on the east side of Door County. Door county is rich in wildlife and amazing land formations dating back to the ice age. It’s a location I return to again and again. both Spring and Fall are great photo opportunities but fall is my favorite.



Dogs! there must be billions of pictures of peoples pets out there. Everybody believes their dogs are the “cutest”. This post is more for me than anyone. If you don’t know a dogs personality it’s just yet another dog picture. I just want to make sure I’ve got these out in the world somewhere so when they are gone I can look back and remember all the fun times. In the header picture that is Lucy on the left and P.J. on the right. There may be a pic or two of our first two dogs, ex racing Greyhounds, Rocky and Scooby.