The Best Place To Shoot And How


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One thing I encounter very regularly is photographers lamenting that if they lived near <pick a famous scenic place> their work would look much better…WRONG! (I’d user more colorful language but this is not an adults only page!)  Yes, it would be wonderful if I could just walk out my door into the High Sierras, but just like having the most expensive camera available won’t make you a great photographer, living close by famous subjects won’t either.

Among the things that make iconic shots we get, subject, lighting, composition, you know them all too.  But the part that many people forget is that photography while an art is also a craft.  The only way to improve that craft is by practice.  Wherever you live, there are great shots to be taken.  The advantage that “locals” have is that they get to take those shots over and over again.  Doing that accomplishes several things.  It provides a body of work on a single subject, it allows the photographer to work with different angles and compositions and just as important it lets you discover the best light and other conditions.

I live in central New Jersey.  Some folks feel sorry for me for that.  We don’t have grand high peaks or iconic seashores here.  That’s okay.  We do have plenty of open spaces, farm land and lots of other scenery.  One of my favorite places to shoot is at Duke Farms.  That was the private estate of Doris Duke.  In her will, she left as an environmental learning center that is open to the public free of charge.  When I first went there camera in hand, let’s just say the results were less then spectacular.  Since then I’ve been there in all seasons and varying times of day.  Now, people come to me for advise on when and where to shoot at “Dukes”.  Earlier this year, two of my friends put together an exhibit of pictures of and about natural New Jersey.  The exhibit NJ 350 Elements was hosted at Duke Farms.  More spectacular, this was a juried show where the winning images were printed on satin 60″ x 40″ and displayed outdoors!  The picture at the top of this posting is my submission that was part of the exhibit.  Even more exciting, Duke Farms has commissioned prints of the three images in the show that depicted different parts of their facility (including mine).

I grew up in northern Manhattan.  I am in “the old neighborhood” quite often.  Yes the ethnicity has evolved and what types of stores are there has changed.  But beyond that, it’s remarkably like it was when I was a kid.  It was prowling around that neighborhood with y camera that I started taking urban and street shots.  Some folks tell me that I’m actually getting better at it!  The shot below is an example of how much change stays the same.

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The other side of where to shoot and when is all about being prepared.  Ask any top professional about what they do to prepare for a shoot somewhere away from home, and I’ll bet you get the same answer over and over.  DO YOUR HOMEWORK! If you are going to go on a special vacation to somewhere exotic, will you just go to a travel site and randomly pick a destination?  Probably not.  If you are planning a trip to somewhere that you don’t know and probably won’t get back to often, do your research.  In today’s environment, it’s a lot easier than it used to be.  Go online and find out about interesting places wherever you are going.  Check the blogs and online groups.  Most people are happy to share.  Look for photos of interesting places.  Pay special attention to not just the place, but also time of day, exposure, angles, etc. so that you have some idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Once you have that work done, plan where you want to be and when.  Remember to check for ideal shooting times where you are going.  Remember, just because evening golden light may start around 4 PM at home, doesn’t mean that’s when it will happen where you are going.

Something thing to keep in mind about iconic shots is that you are probably not going to be alone trying to take that shot.  I’ve heard countless tales of photographers who got up before dawn, hauled a ton of gear to be in the perfect spot for a shot, only to find that fifty or a hundred others were already there and filling every good vantage point.

Make sure that your plans are flexible!  If you want to get great outdoor shots, plan on some of the time having adverse weather.  That can be a blessing or a curse, you need to decide which and adjust your schedule accordingly.

Above all, be a realist!  The more practice you have shooting, the greater the likelihood that you will come home with pictures that make you proud.  Take plenty of pictures.  It may sound like common sense, but many people don’t.  If your camera has repeat modes for shooting, use it.  You’d be surprised at the differences you will find in three shots taken at five or six frames per second.

Earlier this year we spent a very nice day walking around Savanah, GA.  The trip to Savanah was pretty spur of the moment so I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare.  Instead I relied on what has worked for me in other cities.  I came away pleased with the results.  Following is an example.

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What it really comes down to is this.  Do you want to be a “me too” photographer?  If so, follow the crowd, take the same shots that everyone else does.  If you want to be a real photographer, someone who views photography as a means to document their view and present it as their art, go off the beaten path.  The first time the great scenes were photographed, they were new and novel and marvelous.  Go out and find your iconic scenes, discover your art and use them to tell your story.

So now, to answer the trick question about the title of this post…the best place to shoot and how is (drum roll please)…wherever you are!  The how is just as simple.  The rules of good photography don’t change, use them, apply them and you’ll get the shots that you want.

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Photography Is Plural


The more time I spend working to perfect my craft, the more I realize that because I am improving in one type of photography , I still have a long way to go with many others.  According to the professional and serious amateur photographers who will always give me honest feedback, I’m getting pretty good at certain types of images.  These include black and white, candids, birds, bugs, macro and intimate scenics.  You can see examples in my galleries.  I have spent a lot of time taking these shots, post processing them and soliciting constructive feedback.

I can take adequate shots at some sporting events if I can get close enough.  I’ve done some okay big landscapes.  Portraits I have a long way to go. Photography is a craft.  As with many crafts it takes time, dedication, practice and teaching to continue to improve.  As one of my mentors explains it, the structure of continuing improvement is a pyramid.  When you start out there are lots of things that need to be done.  Exposure is often off, depth of field needs to be understood and applied, composition needs improvement and the list goes on.  As we gain more knowledge and apply it there are fewer things that need improvement and they are often less obvious and harder to master.

One of the ironies is that while some of these skills are readily transferable across photographic genres, many are not.  As an example, let’s look at portrait photography.  There are many little “tricks of the trade” when it comes to posing the subject for the best outcome.  While I’d love to be able to apply them to birds and flowers, so far my efforts have been in vain.  The same thing applies to lighting.  The lighting in a fine portrait is a very complex subject.  Many is the beginner who allows the flash on their camera to pop up and then wonder at the mediocre picture it produces.  How the lighting is applied not only determines if the portrait is “good” but also the message it conveys.

I have been doing a lot more urban/street photography as well as trying some fun things.  Here in Central New Jersey we are fortunate to have an annual hot air balloon festival.  The balloons come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colors.  Many of them fall into the category that I call whimsical.  They are shaped like cartoon characters, castles, I’ve even seen a hot air space shuttle.  These can make for some great fun shots that I take with a tripod mounted camera usually with a good amount of time to set up and compose the image.  On the other hand, street photography is almost the opposite.  Scenes come and go very quickly (okay there are some that are just there).  Seeing those scenes is not as easy as it looks.  First you need to learn to work with a hand held camera using one of the priority modes.  I usually use aperture mode and let the camera figure out the shutter speed based on F stop and ISO.  Then there is the need to do quick composition since most subjects are not going to hold a pose for you.  I have lots of pictures that I put in my “I Cried Because I Had No Shoes” collection (the rest of the line is “and then I met a man who had no feet).  Yes the image looks really nice, but a key part is chopped off, often the subject’s feet because I wasn’t paying enough attention to the whole frame.

One of the hardest things in street photography is taking someone’s pictures when they know you are taking it.  This normally requires approaching a complete stranger and asking for permission, not something I do easily.  It can get more complex asking for permission to publish the picture and getting a release.

Having taken the shots post processing can be just as tricky.  As I said earlier I love black and white.  It has taken me quite a while to develop an eye for images that will work well in black and white.  The way that an image is processed makes a huge difference in its effect and impact.  Understanding how to do that processing again is not a one size fits all proposition.  Yes many photographers develop a style, but style is constantly being revised and improved with every image.

Out of curiosity, I recently took a shot that I was quite pleased with in its color rendering and converted it to black and white.  I then posted it via a few venues asking viewers which they preferred and why.  The results came in almost evenly split!  (they are the image for this posting)  The simple lesson from that experiment is that no matter how much I may like an image in one rendering or genre, that’s only my opinion and many other people will have different opinions.

The real lesson to be learned here is that if you are just starting out in photography, learn your lessons one at a time.  You cannot master all styles, genres, etc. at the outset.  Find first what you enjoy shooting and then grow your craft from _DSC3234-1CombineduCO-LRthere.  At some point in the process you will start to find other types of images that you enjoy taking and naturally grow your craft.  The other thing to remember is that not every photographer will excel in every style or genre.  That’s fine too.

To me if the photography isn’t fun, why bother with it a all!

Keep On Learning, or How To Improve the Craft


I’ve spent most of my professional life in the (computer) tech world.  That is an environment  where change is constant and the need to enhance existing skills and acquire new ones is never ending.  I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what new skills to gain and resources for enhancing those I have, so I figured doing something similar with my photo skills would be similar…WRONG!

While many of the computer technical skills are also a craft, all you need is the right code (and don’t get me started on what constitutes “right”) to do what is needed.  At one level, this may apply to photography where the “how” of camera mechanics doesn’t change although the terms used by different manufacturers may.  To a certain extent the same applies to the software for getting the most out of your images.  Where it differs is that photography is also about the art of the image.

If I am going to put together a website, I (or someone who has actual graphic art talent) can do a layout from which the web page can be built.  From there, it’s just a matter of fine tuning of colors, spacing, etc.  With a photograph it just doesn’t work that way.  Take a dozen photographers, show them the same subject and ask them to photograph it, you will get twelve very different images.  Angles, lighting, composition, colors, post processing, etc. will allow each photographer to show how s/he sees that subject.  Having said that, there are still a lot of things about what makes a good photograph that apply to all images.  That is where things get different for me.

Having started the photo website, I looked into a number of photo clubs.  I settled on two, one because it meets very close to my home and the other because it is just about nature photography, something I really like.  Both clubs are very open and welcoming.  What is really helpful to me is that in both clubs, the people are open and friendly, willing to share what they know about something that we are all passionate about.

I know that there is only one way to improve a skill, practice and lots of it.  Unlike software development, working with images requires constructive criticism and feedback from both typical viewers and knowledgeable critics.  With a little coaxing and disclaiming getting offended by honest input, family and friends can be a great source for the former.  Finding the later is not so easy.  Yes I could enroll in a formal program to improve those skills and get feedback from the instructor, but I don’t have the time or inclination for that.

Through the Hillsborough Digital Photo Club, I was fortunate enough to meet Jim Roselli of Artistic Efex.  Jim’s knowledge of photography, from setting up a shot to actually getting the shot as well as post processing and printing seems to be limitless.  What’s more, he has been incredibly generous in sharing his knowledge with me.  So far I have only gotten a small taste, but it has made a significant difference in how I am seeing and capturing images.  I’m still learning the post processing tools, so I haven’t been able to take advantage of all his pearls of wisdom in that arena.  Jim and his partner Jim LaSalla produce incredible images across various media.  Take a look here to see what I mean. (P.S. the website doesn’t really do justice to many of the images!)

One nice thing about digital photography is that it is much easier to manage images, both in the camera as well as post processing than was the case with film.  Having said that, with the myriad of options available, digital photography has become its own discipline.  I still have a lot to learn and I’m hopeful that as I gain more knowledge and experience my images will reflect that.