Photo Stories

What's In My Bag?

My daily camera kit

My daily camera kit

Every now and then I get asked what camera I use for my travel photos, what camera I take with when on vacation, when shooting street photography, or whatever. In last week's edition I wrote that I carry my camera everywhere, so here is the kit I take with me. The key is to carry only what you need, and remember, there is creative power in limitations. So don't take every bit of camera gear you own. You'll regret it.

The reason I bring my camera everywhere is that you never know when a picture will happen, so I want to be ready to capture it when I see it. Plus, it doubles as a "man bag". I get tired of filling my pockets with junk, and this bag is perfect for carrying my camera and all the other things I need to have with me.

So what's in my bag? Well, I'm glad you asked.

The bag itself is a Domke F-5XB Rugged Wear Bag. It's a small weather proof canvas bag that is solidly constructed in the USA with lots of room and comfortable for all day use. It's balanced, and holds weight well. I carried it everyday for more than two weeks on our European trip this past summer. 

Next is the most important item in the bag... the camera. I shoot with a Lumix GX8 using an Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens. I moved away from carrying my Nikon DSLR, and started shooting with a micro 4:3 system for its smaller form and less weight. My whole bag, when combat ready, is lighter than my Nikon D7200 with the Sigma 17-50mm F/2.8.

The downside of small mirrorless cameras is they're power hunger. I can only get about 350 shots from one battery compared to roughly 1100 from my DSLR, so as a result, I carry three extra batteries with the charger.

The rest of my photo gear takes on a supporting role. Along with the batteries and charger, I have an extra 64GB SanDisk SD card, and a basic cleaning kit. The cleaning kit is a Rocket Air to blow dust, a Nikon Lens Pen/Brush, and a lens cloth. 

One thing to note about lens cloths, never use it for anything other than wiping your camera lens. If you wipe your eyeglasses, for example, you will transfer oils from the glasses to your lens smearing it all around. I use old lens cloths for my glasses or to wipe the back screen only after they get a bit funky. Lens cloths are cheap, and you can get them a lot of places for free.

Last on the list are my personal artifacts. I carry my cell (Nexus 5), wallet, car keys with bottle opener, Visine, Tums, facial tissue, an ink pen, and yes, an old cloth for my eyeglasses.

One thing I plan to get are personal 'business' cards to hand to people when shooting on the street. I love street photography, but sometimes I feel uncomfortable photographing people even when I ask permission because I have nothing to offer them.

But if I have a business card to offer then I can snap a photo and hand them a card with my email address offering to send them the picture when they email me. I enjoy meeting and talking with new people, and this is a great way to market your photography.

Finally, I do have other micro 4:3 lenses, but lately I've been leaving them at home. I want to get proficient with seeing photographs through one focal length, and right now that is the 17mm, which is a 34mm full frame equivalent. The human eye is roughly a 50mm focal length, so a 34mm is a little wider, yet still considered a "normal" lens. 

As I said earlier, there's creative power in limitations, and using only one focal length sets limits on what I can capture. As a result, I need to think creatively to make the pictures I see even if the lens isn't wide or long enough. It forces me to move and not be lazy.

Since I started carrying this kit my DSLR has seen the outside of the house once. Just remember, the best camera is the one you have with you.

Capturing Moments

Looking for Randi & Ronnie

Looking for Randi & Ronnie

If you pay attention, fun moments happen often and they're fleeting. My boys are often doing funny things and getting into all sorts of mischief, and I want to be ready to capture those moments. That's the reason I carry my camera everywhere, and at home I always have it at the ready. If you don't have a camera with you, or you aren't prepared to photograph a moment when it happens you'll miss it. As the adage goes - the best camera is the one you have with you.  

The other day, after arriving home from picking up the boys from daycare they wanted to play in the yard, as they often do. When I unlocked the back door they ran outside to play. Timmy enjoys riding his glide bike around the path in the yard, and Mikey loves wagon rides. 

When not on the bike or in the wagon they will curiously investigate the yard. On this day, Timmy found a hole in the fence, and was peaking through it looking for the neighbors two dogs, Randi and Ronnie. Randi is an older Labradoodle around 10 years old and Ronnie is a 6 month old Labradoodle puppy. I can only guess that Timmy was getting puppy licks on his face while he was poking his head through the crack. Yuck!

While Timmy was having fun getting licked by the puppy, Mikey was peaking around trying to catch a glimpse of the dogs. The boys often discover places in the yard that captures their curiosity, and it is at these times that I capture some of my best photos of them.

If you want to test your camera's speed, your proficiency at using it, and your photography prowess then I suggest you start photographing children. It is a challenge to make great photos of kids, and it's guaranteed, if you pay attention to your process, that your skills will improve. You just have to be ready with your camera, know how to use it well, and quickly react to photographic moments.

For this image I set my camera's aperture to f/5.6 at ISO 100 with a shutter speed of 1/400 of a second, and shot at 50mm (Full Frame = 75mm). I chose these settings for two reasons. First, the boys are running around, and I wanted a fast shutter to freeze the action. I set the aperture to f/5.6 to get a deeper depth of field that would keep the shutter speed fast with a low ISO in the bright sunshine.

Focussing modes are another decision you need to make when photographing active kids. I go back and forth choosing which focussing mode is best. I will sometimes set it to single focus, lock it in, then recompose the composition. But with single focus they can move out of the locked in focal point and become blurry. Whereas, when the boys are moving fast I set the camera to continuous focus. This way when they are running around the camera is continuously refocussing, so most of my shots will be tack sharp.

The one thing I rarely do is motor drive the shutter. I don't view that as photography as it's too much "spray and pray". I'd rather capture a nice moment that engages me in the process while creating a lasting memory of that moment.

One of the things I love about this image is that it reminds me of two different scenes. My first thought was something similar to a modern day Huck Finn. The boys are curiously off on their own engaging in mischief. 

The other scene reminds me of the film The Sandlot. Sure, it's not a baseball picture, but it can be two young boys looking through the old broken fence for their baseball in Mr. Mertle's back yard. Though the Labradoodles are far less ominous than Hercules.

Finally, I processed the image in color because I like how both boys are wearing blue. Perhaps if they were wearing different colors I would have gone black and white, but I felt the color added to the interest of this picture. My first reaction to pictures, whether or not I process in black and white, is to make the determination if color takes away from the story, or is somehow distracting. In this case, I thought the color added to the interest with telling this story. The blue also makes a nice contrast against the grey fence.

What's the takeaway? Have a camera with you, always. Once you learn to see photographs everywhere you can't stop seeing them, and you will want to take lots of pictures. The key is to know which moments are photographs and which are just snapshots. Now get out their and practice learning the difference.

Blue Hour

Musée du Louvre

Musée du Louvre

My wife and I recently celebrated our 10th anniversary in Paris. While there, we visited a number of tourist spots to include the Louvre. It's one of the best museums I have visited and is unbelievably huge. It is said that if you spend 30 seconds in front of each item for 8 hours a day that it would take you 100 days to see every piece. I don't know how true that is, but it's believable. 

The Louvre has an extensive history. It was originally built as a fortress around 1190 by Phillip II, and later used as a palace through the middle ages until Louis XIV moved his palace and the government to Versailles in 1682. During that quiet time the Louvre was used as a residence for artists and later opened as a museum in 1793 after the French Revolution.

Fast forward to the evening of July 17, 2016. After a long day viewing many of the Louvre's priceless works, to include da Vinci's Mona Lisa, we left for another fantastic Parisian dinner. After dinner we walked back to the Louvre and hung out on one of its many stoops waiting for blue hour to arrive.

Blue hour is that time of night just after golden hour. It is the period of twilight that occurs at early dawn or late dusk when the sun is significantly below the horizon when indirect sunlight takes on a blue hue. It typically lasts for about 40 minutes, and the quality of the light is treasured by photographers and artists alike.

Sunset was at 9:47pm, and this image was taken at 10:56pm. After arriving back at the Louvre, my wife and I waited a couple of hours for this moment. I'd say it was well worth it as I love this photo. 

I started shooting right after sunset around 10pm, but the sky was still too bright to display the pyramid and the lights on the building. This was also the second location I shot from, and I like this angle much better than the first. Not only does it showcase the pyramid well, but I also like how it shows the motion of the ferris wheel in the background, and the starbursts from the street lamps.

The camera settings are straight forward. The aperture was set to f/8 for a deeper depth of field, ISO was set to 200 so the image had as little grain as possible, and the exposure was set to four seconds. The lens focussed on the pyramid. To avoid any camera shake I used my little travel tripod and the camera's timer.

A fun side note to this image was the number of other photographers making similar photographs along with others photographing models, and couples in formal wear. Some were using flash photography within a long exposure to highlight the couples with the Louvre in the background. I enjoyed watching and learning from their creative styles.

The architecture of the Louvre is just stunning. Any photograph taken of it is beautiful, and yet I still struggle to grasp the magnitude of its size and the impression it puts upon you. I would say that is also true of Paris itself. It's such a majestic and wonderful city. If you have the opportunity to visit, take it, you won't be disappointed. 

Annoying Photography Practices

I see terrible photographs all the time and everywhere. The following, in no particular order, are the one's I notice most.

Photographing kids from the standing position - I see this one all the time and everywhere. People who post pictures of their kids on Facebook seem to be the biggest offenders. Bend your knees, and get down at their level and on their plane.  You look at kids all day from an adult perspective. We all know that view. Get low, lay down, shoot up at them, and get a perspective that actually shows your kids (and animals) in a flattering way, and within the environment. They're your kids, make them look as cute as you think they are. People will notice and appreciate your efforts even though they may not recognize what you did or why.

Just say no to this perspective!

Just say no to this perspective!

Bend your knees and get on their level

Bend your knees and get on their level

Shooting video in portrait mode - If you shoot a video with your cell phone in portrait mode then you may as well hang your TV on end. This is another big offender seen all the time on Facebook. How many movies have you seen in the theater with the screen hung in portrait view? None, that's how many. Turn your camera to landscape orientation. That's "sideways" and enjoy better videos. You're welcome.

There's no clear subject in your picture - A picture with a ton of shit going on is confusing. You don't know what to look at, and your eye is not drawn anywhere. In really busy pictures you don't know who or what is the subject, or what story you are trying to tell. Find a subject and make that your focal point telling your photo story. Get closer if you have to. Change your angle, talk to people. Ask to take their picture*. A good photograph is all about composition, story telling, and having a clear subject. 

Other than chaos, I have no idea what I found interesting.

Other than chaos, I have no idea what I found interesting.

Posting/sharing blurry images - If an image is blurry delete it. I don't care how cute their smile is, it's blurry. Share only tack sharp images, and stop posting blurry pictures on Facebook. No need to elaborate further. Just say no to blurry pictures! Don't confuse a blurry photograph with motion blur. When done right blur can add an artful touch.

Quick Tip: Every time you photograph someone always focus on the eye nearest you. You can learn more about making tack sharp photos here.

Motion blur adds an element of interest.

Motion blur adds an element of interest.

Over processing an image - Shifting the color correcting sliders all the way to the left or right does not equate to art. Crazy over processed HDR (high dynamic range) images are awful. Trey Ratcliff does HDR well, but few people can. Subtly is the key to a great image.

No image processing - Take a few minutes to retouch your photos and make them come to life. You took them, you want to share them, so why post a flat toned and poorly contrasted picture. None of your friends will share a crappy image. They will however, share something beautiful that stirs emotion. Or better yet, try processing in black and white.

Crooked water - Water does not stay put when it's angled. No, it runs downhill. Crooked horizons don't make sense. Get your lines straight. The same goes for Dutch angles. Your pictures aren't a Batman episode. If you're like me and can't make your lines straight then correct them in post. All image editing software can straighten what's crooked. Not much else to say about it.

At least it's angled in the direction the water is flowing.

At least it's angled in the direction the water is flowing.

 But this one is better.

 But this one is better.

Pictures of watches - If you create a nice image of your old watch, great! Just make sure the hour and minute hands are at the 10 and 2 positions. It's uniform, it frames the watch manufacturer's name, and just makes sense. Next time you see a photo of a watch that has the hands at some random spot you will now know why it looks odd. It's like driving... 10 and 2 people.

Distracting objects at the edges of the frame - Before you snap a picture look at the edges. Is something there that will distract the viewer from your subject? There is? Then move in closer. Change your angle of view, or move the object out of the way and try again. Clean edges keep the focal point on your subject.

Distracting

Distracting

Not Distracting

Not Distracting

Overly cropped images - Now this one is not too bad, but it's one you want to be aware of when cropping an image. Straightening an image or cropping in slightly to remove a distracting object is okay. Just note that a 24 megapixel sensor when not cropped is showing you 24 megapixels. If you crop half the picture it is still the same dimensional size, but now with only 12 megapixels. If you crop further, it may only be 8 mega pixels.

This is the same when you zoom with a smartphone camera. Digital zoom does not zoom. Rather, it crops the image. So your 8mp cameraphone becomes a 4mp image if you zoom 2x. If you need to zoom then stop being lazy and use your feet to walk closer.

Why should you care? Because you want a sharp image. When you crop you remove resolution, and you increase the size of the pixels making your photograph more pixelated. Pixelation is different from grain. A grainy image when, shooting at a high ISO, is fine. Pixelation is not fine.

Do your self a favor and practice getting it right in the camera. Perhaps you need to crop later in post, but study the reasons you are cropping in the first place. Learn what you did right and wrong and how you can improve. Then apply those lessons to the next picture.

All of these things annoy me, and I'm sure I missed a few. Learn the basics to good picture taking and your friends and family will love you for it. I'm done. Now go out and take a picture.

* If you take someone's picture on the street give them your email so they can contact you and you can send them the image later. Another idea is to have a personal business card with your name and email address on it. Take their photo then hand them the card. It's a nice way to meet new people, it helps create community, and it will help improve your photography skills.

Panning and Framing

 Let's face it, a poorly framed photograph is just another snapshot. On the other hand, a properly framed image will draw your eye to the subject, make you think for a moment, and stir emotion. Getting creative within the frame adds even more interest. Consider the above photo. I framed the train's engineer in the window of the engine while panning to show motion... and perhaps his emotion. You can almost hear his thoughts, "Ugh, round and round I go, and these people call this fun."

This picture was made at Travel Town in Griffith Park near downtown Los Angeles. It's a train museum where they have old locomotives, rail cars, cabooses, and all the fixins' on display that go along with the rail industry. They also have a small train ride that rolls around the entire park. My cousin had his little boy's three year old birthday party there on the day I made this photo. Train themed, of course.

The little train runs passengers around and around for hours, and it continued to pass right by where we were sitting. While watching the train roll past I created this picture's image in my head then picked the spot that would allow me to pan, while getting the engineer sitting in the window of the engine.

Panning shots are tough to capture. You have to move your camera at the same speed as the subject using a slow enough shutter speed so the background blurs all while keeping the subject sharply in focus. Panning creates the perception that the subject is moving. For this shot I set the shutter to 1/40th of a second. When lowering the shutter be mindful of the exposure triangle. That means you have to adjust either your aperture or ISO, or both to maintain a properly exposed image.

The second part to capturing a good panning shot is to place the focal point on the subject and move with it. In this case I wanted the engineer in focus looking through the window of the engine to create a frame within the frame. Panning makes for a cool affect and framing within the frame adds more interest.

My first challenge is to have you try some panning shots. Bicycles are great. They're fast enough to create nice motion blur, yet slow enough to help you set up the shot while showing lots of movement. Other vehicles work, too. Just note, the faster the object the faster you can set the shutter speed. Play around with various moving vehicles, and shutter speeds to get the hang of it. I find pans are hard to do well, but when you capture a great one you know it, and it feels good, too.

Second, look to frame your subject within the image. You can make a photograph while looking through the opening of a tent, a side mirror on a car (also adding a reflection), place the subject between columns of a building, or just about anything else that adds a frame. 

Overall, anything you do to add interest to a photo is great. Just be sure your subject is well composed and you can't be wrong. Now go outside and take a picture!