Yes, It’s Okay To Play!


When I was in school, the great sage advice was to find a job/career where you can do what you love.  That way you’re not working but having fun.  It sounds good, but jobs like that are very hard to find.  I did try.  The mattress companies told me that they weren’t looking for testers!

I have worked at jobs that I really enjoyed.  Somehow, those are the jobs that were transitory.  If you’ve been following my posts, you know that I am currently working at being a photographer.  Yes, I love photography, and have since I was a kid.  I don’t have delusions that I will be the next great photographer.  I do think that I can bring some joy to others with my images and would like to make that self supporting.

I recently started working freelance doing real estate photography.  You know those shots that are now standard whenever a home is for sale.  I’ll be honest, this is not they type of photography I aspire to.  It is photography, I do get paid for taking pictures and learn some new tricks and techniques.

One of the requirements for doing the real estate work is that I need to shoot with a 10mm lens.  If you’re not seriously into photography, 10mm is an extreme wide angle lens and can be prone to distortions.  I ordered the new lens (Tamron 10-24) and it came very quickly.  I’ve been shooting through the same camera long enough that it didn’t take any time to put everything together and have the lens ready to go.

I decided that before doing any real estate work I should take the new lens out for a spin.  To put it another way, go out and play for the afternoon.  I didn’t have any specifics in mind.  I just packed up the camera, etc. and went to one of our local towns where I haven’t done much shooting.  This was to be a walking adventure so I left the tripod at home.

When I go out shooting, I’m not constantly checking my images in the camera.  Yes I do check the built in histogram periodically to be sure I’m getting good exposure.  On this little outing, I spent more time checking images to see how the lens worked.  The widest lens that I had used was 28mm, so I figured how much of a difference can 18mm make?  An amazing difference.  I’m used to the idea that if I’m shooting and there is a pole or some other “truly meaningful” thing to the left or right, no problem.  The Tamron has a 109 degree angle of view.  That’s pretty close to anything in front of the camera, so I had to adjust how i position myself relative to the subject.  The other thing I noticed immediately is the distortion.   I’m used to my Nikon lenses that are very accurate in terms of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get).

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Tunnel view

I’ve always wondered how to achieve this effect.  After taking some shots elsewhere, I came to this pedestrian plaza and took a few shots from one knee.  I really like how the pavement and buildings all seem to converge to the back/center of the image.  I do so love the law of unintended consequences!

As kids, the reason that we play is because we have fun.  Of course, while doing that we learn all kinds of things.  Clearly I was getting the maximum benefit of my play.

I continued walking.  I soon came on the county courthouse.  The original building is one of those great classic court buildings.  Again, I was amazed at how close I had to get to the building to only get what I wanted into the image.

Courthouse straight on view
Courthouse straight on view

On this image, I did use Photoshop to take out the distortion.  I’m totally amazed at how much is in the image.  In another few weeks the trees will be in full bloom making a shot like this impossible.  I was fortunate that it was a fairly sunny day so I got the nice blue sky and some interesting clouds.  I suspect that the lens had something to do with the clouds appearing to be focused around the top of the courthouse.  With my Nikon 28-300 lens a shot like this would have needed two or three exposures stitched together as a pano.

There is the obligatory artillery piece outside the courthouse, just off to the right of this image.  Feeling emboldened by the early results, I decided to go to the corner to take a three quarters shot.

Courthouse three quarters view
Courthouse three quarters view

Okay, I admit it, I need some more practice straightening some of the distortion.  I still like the result.  There is so much captured in this image, I’m amazed at what this lens can do.

I’ll spare you the step by step descriptions.  Eventually I found myself at the railroad station.  I took some shots as I went up to the platform.  What I really wanted to play with was the long view down the tracks.  My earlier shots had me thinking that I could get some really interesting shots.

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Looking west on the railroad platform

Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed.  The building rooflines, the tracks and yellow warning strips provide some great leading lines.  I didn’t do much with the distortion on these images.  Having taken the shots under the station roof facing west, I went to the other end of the platform to take some shots looking east.

Black and white on the railroad platform
Looking east on the railroad platform

Once again I got some really “neat” effects.  The light poles start to create that leading line into the station.  If you look carefully, you can see a very full parking lot off to the right and of course the tacks going off into infinity.

I wish I could spend more time playing and getting these results.  To be honest, there were also a lot of images that did not come out nearly as well as the ones above.  That’s the thing about playing, sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t.  The real fun is in the trying and learning.  My advice to you, go out and play, it’s fun and can be very rewarding!

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Are You Growing Your Craft?


I need to start out by apologizing for not having posted for several weeks.  Sometimes “stuff” gets in the way of what’s important.  One very relevant thing was that I did a guest post for Leanne Cole’s excellent site.  The topic was winter photography  The responses were numerous and positive so I am very grateful to Leanne for allowing me to guest.  In case you missed that posting, you can see it here.

I’ve enjoyed photography since I was a kid.  When I started out, I also learned some of the basics of processing, printing, etc.  Yes that was back in the film days.  Back then, there were not nearly as many opportunities to learn.  There were books and magazines, a limited number of classes, some clubs and if you were lucky mentoring and good old trial and error.  At that time, trial and error were expensive because film, chemicals, paper, etc. all added cost.

Some time back I wrote about the many types of photography.  Now the question is how well do you embrace them.  As a combination of artist and technician we photographers can only get better at our craft by practicing it. One thing that I have learned in doing just that is that each type of photography has its own unique characteristics and techniques.  Another fun thing I have learned is, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, the more you know, the more you know!

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My serious learning path started several years ago.  At that time, I was using my camera in auto or presets mode and capturing jpegs. (okay enough laughter)  I was also taking the pictures off the camera and that was that.  Then I started learning.  At first, it was about some post processing via books and websites.  Then I met some more skilled, experienced photographers who got me shooting in RAW either in aperture or full manual mode (I’m not going to get into a debate on Raw vs jpeg here).  They also got me to start processing via Lightroom and Photoshop.  That’s when my images started getting much better.  Let’s face it, mastering Photoshop is not a small task and while I’m nowhere near a “master”, I manage.

I started looking at pictures differently.  I would look at an image I liked and ask why I like it, what did the photographer do to make this image interesting, etc.  All of that led me to start looking at the different types of photography.  I must also include that in that time frame I joined our local photo club which also introduced me to new techniques and methods.  Truth be told, none of us will ever master all types of photography.  Much as I might like to, I doubt that I’ll ever be a high fashion photographer or that I’ll be creating images of the inside of living organisms among other things.

That doesn’t mean that many other types of photography are closed to me, or that I can’t benefit from learning techniques that work especially well in those areas.  Most of my early pictures were nature, family gatherings and “how I spent my summer vacation”.  I know that I have improved the images I take in these areas through a combination of practice and learnings.  I have also gotten into some new types of photography.

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The first of these was serious black and white.  A few years ago had you told me that I’d be loving B&W I’d have simply told you no way.  It has taken some time and practice as well as some excellent software (Silver Efex and BW Effects).  Some of the early results were nothing great.  Therein lies a big lesson, keep at it, be self critical and get constructive criticism.  I can’t overstate how important all three are.

Another area that I’ve gotten much more interested in is urban/street photography.  I had always admired good street photography.  Probably my first exposure to it was the iconic VJ Day Kiss.  What I love about street photography is that it gives me the opportunity to show people and life as they really are.  Showing them in black and white makes it easier to show the “essence” of the image.  Again what got me interested in trying my hand was a presentation on some key aspects of this specialty.  Ironically, many of my best “street” shots show in black and white.  That’s another benefit of growing in all directions._DSC0766BWCOu

One amusing side from the everything old is new again department is that lately I’m also experimenting some with square images.  Some cameras will shoot that way.  Mine doesn’t.  In the right circumstances, it creates some great results.

I’m not going to rant on about the other aspects beyond saying that I’ve gotten much better at portrait type shots as well as candids.  I’ve also learned a number of tricks and techniques in post processing that can help to turn a good image into something special.DSC_3801COu

I’ll finish up with perhaps the most important lesson of all.  Let the camera do as much of the work as possible.  I know this sounds really simple, but to most people it is anything but.  Today’s cameras are very sophisticated computers.  There’s a lot that they can do to improve on the images they capture.  Take the time to go through the manual, learn and understand how and when to use those features.  It’s a lot easier to get all those elements right in the camera than it is to get them in via post processing.

Please feel free to offer comments, provide constructive criticism or ask questions.  I love hearing from you.

More on What Do You See


In this post, I want to talk about seeing one thing, light!  Like it or not, photography is about light more than anything else.  If you doubt that, try taking a picture in a totally dark room, what do you get…total black aka nothing.  I’m going to touch on a number of aspects of light.  Each of these topics can cover volumes, so if anything I mention piques your curiosity, please do your own follow up research.

The first thing to understand about light is that our eyes are much better at perceiving and interpreting it than any of our cameras.  Yes the cameras are getting better, but they still have a long way to go.  To use a little techno speech, our eyes are analog devices, that is they see light along a continuous spectrum that we think of as visible light.  Our digital cameras need to break colors down into numbers.  The camera has three color sensors.  Each pixel registers a certain amount of red, blue and green.  Each of these is translated into a number from 0 to 255.  (Yes I know 16 bit goes up to 65,000)  When all three have a value of zero you get white, when they are all 255 you get black.  When all three have the same value other than 0 or 255, you get shades of gray.  It is the blending of the three values that produce all the colors your camera captures.

What’s your angle: Where is your light source?  For simplicity, let’s consider just the free one, the sun.  The angle of the sun to the horizon is hugely important.  There are photographers who will only shoot outdoors when the sun is close to the horizon.  The hour or so before the sun rises and after it sets are known as blue light.  The hour starting when the sun rises and ending when it sets are golden light.  These produce some incredible images, strictly because the angle of the light interacts with elements in the atmosphere to create these wonderful colors.  The following image is an example of golden light at sunset.

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You can see all the beautiful colors in the sky which make shooting in this light so special.  Notice, that without filters or blending exposures, the capture of the great light in the sky causes most of the rest of the image to be under exposed!  You can’t see much detail on the couple on the beach, but in this case, I don’t think you need to.  The message or sentiment is clearly there.

The opposite of this light is the bright of day.  Whether shooting around noon when the sun is pretty much overhead or earlier/later with the sun in full view creates some very different light.  In this light, it is easy for colors to wash out and the image to be high contrast.  The farther from noon one gets in this light, the more you start to see shadows.  Shooting in this light can be tricky.  You need to understand what it is you are likely to get and work accordingly.  Shots in this light often convert well to black and white.

Following are two versions of the same shot.  It was taken mid afternoon on a clear bright day.  I had to do a bunch of post processing to offset the bright sunshine.  Interestingly, there’s been some discussion among my colleagues and friends as to whether the shot works better with or without the three people walking in the surf.

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Here’s the same shot converted into Black and White.  To me, while I know that these two are the same shot, they strike me as two completely different images conveying different messages and meanings.

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Well, I’ve once again gone on and on.  There’s still plenty to talk about on the subject of light and a few other things about seeing like the camera.  I may start interspersing these with some other topics in the weeks ahead.  As always, I’d love to get your comments and feedback on this or any of my postings.

The Eye of the Beholder


One of the really hard lessons we all need to learn is that everybody sees things differently.  I’m not talking about my seeing something and calling it a tree while you call it a peanut butter sandwich.  The reality is that we all have different experiences and education which significantly influences how we see things.

As a photographer, I always try to capture meaningful images.  Yes, what is meaningful?  If all I am trying to do is capture images for myself, the job is easy…shoot what I like, end of story.  Most of us need to have a broader view.  In some cases it’s because that’s what your customer wants, perhaps you’ve been asked to capture a family function or something else where many others are looking to you to record an event in a way that will be meaningful to many people.

Perhaps my first lesson in this arena came quite a few years ago when I was best man for a college buddy.  While the groom and I were waiting in the church, the photographer came to get shots of the groom.  The photographer really wanted to take some shots of the groom with his chin resting in his hand, looking whimsically skyward.  There might have been some poses that were more atypical of the groom, but we couldn’t think of any.  My buddy made it very clear to the photographer those shots were not going to happen!

One thing that I do like to do is to create several versions of the same image through differences in their treatment and ask a group of people one question…which do you like best and why?  The amusing part to this exercise is that there is almost never a consensus on one image or one reason why!

Following are three versions of the same image.  I took the shot about a year ago in the morning golden light.  The setting is on the grounds of a retreat house where I have been going every January for many years, so I always try to get shots that capture the spiritual feel of the place.

What I ask of you is to leave a comment telling me which you prefer and why.  (If you don’t like any, that’s fine, please tell me why.)  Depending on how many people read and respond, you might find it interesting to check back a couple of days after you post your preferences.

The first image is the original color image.  That is followed by two black and white treatments.  For simplicity’s sake, let’s call them 1, 2 and 3 starting with the color version.

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Taking this theme farther, we get into the idea of photographing people.  I know there is a very strong branch of photography around glamour shots.  These can be for magazine covers, product endorsements or publicity for the subject.  To me that category of image only shows a very superficial view of the person.  Those images are in the same category as the Barbie doll!  They are typically processed to remove some editor’s definition of every flaw, blemish and imperfection.  While they show that stylized ideal, to me they are not real!

To me the real art and beauty in photographing people comes in capturing the inner beauty and personality of the subject.  In many cases the person or image would be an absolute fail in terms of the mass market idea of beauty.  To me, however, that is the real beauty.

Capturing this kind of beauty, and again everyone sees it differently, is very different than how one gets the glamour shots.  I find that the way I get the best results is shooting candids, often from a distance so that the subject does not even know that they are bing photographed.  Yes I know there are huge discussions out there on the pros and cons of this, but that’s a topic for a different posting.  Almost everyone changes when they know that they are being photographed.  This is not so much based on deep rooted vanity so much as an inbred reaction from our society.

So what brings out the inner beauty?  First and foremost, the eyes.  Remember the old saying that the eyes are a window to the soul?  In this case that is absolutely true.  The eyes convey feeling, expression, mood and so much more.  The structure of the face, its features and complexities are the other big component.  In this environment, the nose typically is not the result of plastic surgery, often the glamour folks would scream that it needs that!  Is the skin smooth and flawless?  Not at all.  Life creates wrinkles, creases and blemishes.  Some would call them character lines.  These are the things that distinguish us.  They show that we have experienced life, both the ups and the downs and how they have effected us.  All of these little pieces help to convey a sense of dignity that tell our individual stories better than all the make up and retouching in the world.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

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This gentleman is one of my favorite subjects.  Take a good look at the image.  Is this classically beautiful? No. Does the face tell many stories of a life? Absolutely.  To me what makes this image special is the way it conveys a quite dignity.  I will leave it up to you to put your own story around this image.  That’s one of the great things about this type of shot.  To me images like this (even if I haven’t made them) are the kind that can pull at your heart strings, no words required.  That is one of the truly great things that a well made image can do better than almost anything else.

Small Changes, Big Impacts, Do You See What I See


DSC_4581BWuCO I took the shot above on a recent vacation.  Clearly not in New Jersey in December.  The shot was taken in color, but from the start I was planning it to be in black and white.  No this will not be another of those lengthy rants about how much better, more artistic, true to the craft, etc. black and white is.  Truth be told, there are advantages and benefits to most of the contemporary ways of presenting an image.

I liked the end result as shown here.  I won’t get into all the details around that.  Suffice it to say that to me, the primary focus is on the boy and his sand castle.  From there, the eye is drawn to the three people walking in the surf which draws the eye farther down the beach.  The people in the far distance simply add to the feel of a day at the beach.

Our local photo club is atypical from most in that our charter specifically eliminates competitions within the club.  Our mission is to educate both the members and the greater community about photography.  Due to that very nice piece of our make up, we can submit up to two images per meeting for analytical critique.  These critiques are lead by one of our two mentor pros, are open to all members to add their comments and are an incredible learning vehicle.  When the images come up for critique, there is usually nothing to indicate who the photographer is.

I submitted this shot at a recent meeting.  The comments were generally favorable, pointing out what I had done well and what I might do better.  Several of the members were quick to point out that the boy has a “wedgie”, something that I hadn’t noticed.  The pros were focused more on the three people walking in the surf saying that they are a distraction.  One of our mentors is really big on birds in shots like this to the point that it is a running joke during critiques.  Needless to say, I did pass that test.

After the club meetings, I normally try to apply the critiques I’ve received to the images that I submitted.  This was no exception.  The following day, I opened a copy of the image and took out the three people.  Here’s the result.

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I know there are many photographers who think taking the people out is a betrayal to the art and craft as I am no longer showing what the camera caught.  When dealing with serious photo journalism, I agree.  When talking about photography as art, that’s a totally different realm.

Regardless of ones opinion on realism, I hope that we can all agree that the image looks very different.  I find that the re-editted version is also an image that I am proud of.  This second image, to me, has a very different look, feel and story.  I sent copies of both pictures to a friend in the club who was at the meeting and asked for her reaction.  I reiterated to her that I am open to honest critique whether negative or positive, but please don’t just say, “great shot” or “this is no good” without telling me why.

Her reaction was that they are two very different, but very good presentations.  Whereas the first mage tends to capture a somewhat typical day at the beach with lots of people and activity, the second one is much more focused on the boy and the sand castle.  The surf and the bird provide enough distraction so that the upper right part of the image doesn’t get boring, but there really isn’t much in the image to draw the eye away from the main focus which is the boy and sand castle.

So what did I really do?  I changed perhaps five per cent of the image (I didn’t measure so please don’t start that debate).  The part that I changed was not a big up front component to the image.  Looking at the two side by side, there is a huge difference in the feel, impact, and reaction to the picture.

Small changes don’t have to be just about taking things out or adding them.  When preparing for an exhibit, one of the pictures I was going to use had an element that was crowded next to a couple of others.  Someone suggested that I move it over just enough to create some space between the elements.  We won’t get into the work involved to do it, but the net effect was that when the move was complete, the resulting image was much more powerful.  It was also very well received.

There can also be an amusing side to making small changes.  Among my interests, is yoga.  I’ve been practicing and teaching for a long time.  I go to “yoga camp” most summers.  At one of these camps I got a really good shot of one of my “fellow campers” in a handstand.  We really liked the pose, but the background left  much to be desired.  At times like this, you have to love Photoshop.  I cut her out of the original shot and added her into a much better scenic shot, an open field with flowers around and hills in the background.  I was very happy with the result and sent her a jpeg.  Just after I sent it I was looking a little closer and realized that I had committed one of the cardinal sins (think telephone pole growing out of the subject’s head).  Since she was in a handstand, I wasn’t worried about her head.  Her legs were in a T and I managed to place her such that it appeared that a bush was growing, yep there.  Moving her over slightly corrected that and we had a good laugh over it.  She has since used the shot in promoting her teaching.

Of course, there is a down side.  I won’t start arguing what separates small changes from big ones.  When making these changes, you do need to be careful not to over do it.  I suspect that we’ve all seen HDR shots where the effects have been totally overdone such that the HDR becomes the focus of the picture, not the subject itself.  The same goes for things like saturation.  Going a little overboard on the right image can make a big positive change.  Going that little bit farther and the shot is ruined for pretty much everyone other than those who are color blind.

The moral of all this, to me, is…don’t be afraid to make changes, try things a little different.  Assuming you try them on a copy, you can always delete it if you don’t like it.  Look at your changes critically, be open to what the change does to the image in terms of the message int conveys, the story it tells.  Your final result may be very different from the original picture, and that can be terrific.

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.