The things I love about teaching photography…

Teaching digital photography classes at Learning Exchange

07-15-2012

I’ve been teaching digital photography classes at the Learning Exchange for almost three years. Over 750 people have attended my classes where we cover topics such as digital camera controls, menus, exposure, white balance, depth of field, ISO, motion blur, focal length, focus locking, sensor comparisons, composition, file management, lighting techniques, etc. etc.

As I reflect on the classes and step back and get a wider view of my experiences, I realize how lucky I am to be teaching others how to use their digital cameras. So, what’s in it for me?

Plenty.

From the questions I hear in the classes, I learn a lot about why people want to make better photographs. And this gives me hope. When I start to fear that our culture is slipping into a quick-paced, short-term-memory, social-media-driven lifestyle, someone will remind me that they really want good, long-lasting memories of their loved ones. They want to capture a special moment and save it in a way that is meaningful to them. It is very comforting to know that some of the simpler things in life, like memories, are still important to people.

I learn more and more about my own interests related to photography. Sometimes a student will ask me what I think about when I’m setting up a shot and it forces me to share some things that are quietly resting below the surface of the Obvious. And many of these things are not technical, but emotional. I am reminded why I love to carry a camera with me just about everywhere I go. The student informs and the instructor learns.

I relish a good challenge, and when I am asked to help someone figure out a problem with their camera, I enjoy sitting down with them and doing some troubleshooting. The shared moment of discovery as we sort it out adds a fun spark to the interaction.

I value the feedback I get from students. They tell me when things in a class are working and when they are not. Those comments help me improve the classes each time I teach. But the most rewarding comments are the ones that describe how they felt. I hear things like, “The instructor answered my questions without talking down to me,” or “He is very easy-going and explains technical stuff in simple terms,” or “Now I’m not afraid to use my camera.” Comments like these tell me that I’ve found a way to help others learn to explore something that, frankly, has become unnecessarily technical and confusing to enjoy.

I’ve always heard the best way to learn something is to teach it – I couldn’t agree more.

– + -

Posted in Photo How-to, Photo Instruction | 1 Comment

Polarizing filters for dramatic fall colors

Left photo - no polarizing filter / Right photo taken with a polarizing filter

12-15-2011 (click on any photo to see it larger)

My last post of fall colors in my neighborhood reminded me to share some test shots I took –  I wanted to illustrate how much difference a polarizing filter can make on the colors in a landscape photograph.

The photos above were taken with the same camera, the photo on the left was taken without the polarizing filter and the one on the right was taken with the polarizing filter. The right-hand photo has more vibrant color in the leaves and the sky is a darker blue.

Why the difference? A polarizing filter removes polarized light – the degree of removal is based on the angle of the camera and the rotation of the filter. The filter is actually two filters that rotate independently. By rotating the outer filter (the inner one is firmly attached to the front of your lens) you can vary the effect. Any reflections on non-metallic objects are polarized light and the filter can reduce the reflections.

The images below show a close-up example of the differences in color saturation. The photo on the left (no polarizer) gives you an idea of the amount of reflection on the leaves. When the polarizing filter is rotated (photo on the right) the reflections are reduced and you get the true colors of the leaves.

The reflections on the leaves (left photo) diminish the colors. The polarizing filter (right photo) removes the reflections and allows the full color to show.

Sunlight is also polarized light, so when you use a polarizing filter, it can make the blue sky seem darker and more dramatic. The effect is most pronounced when you are pointing the camera about 90 degrees from the direction of the sunlight.

Another example of a darker blue sky and more vibrant colors on the leaves in the photo on the right.

Be sure to get a circular polarizing filter (most of them these days are circular). A linear polarizer won’t work well with auto-focus systems and digital sensors. A good polarizing filter can be pretty expensive ($40-$50) and if you have several lenses with different filter sizes, the best approach is to buy a filter for the largest size, and get inexpensive step-up rings to adapt the large filter to smaller lens diameters. In this way, you can use one filter on all lenses.

- + -

Posted in Photo How-to, Scenic photos | 1 Comment

Falling back

 

The fall colors have arrived, with a mission.

11-25-2011

After sharing a terrific Thanksgiving meal yesterday, followed by a rousing evening of board games with the family, we took a walk today. It was a beautiful, brisk sunny day so it was a great time to get out and walk off some of the calories from the previous day.

The trees are at their height of beauty this week and it seems everywhere you turn, it hits you head-on.

 

Classic shot of someone’s front yard in the fall

I used to lament the onset of winter, partly because I enjoy doing things outdoors in warm weather. But lately, I’ve come to really appreciate each of the seasons with patience. The autumn season represents transition from the heat and energy of summer toward the cold, gray quiet of winter. Even though winter seems to be the earmark of dying, it is part of the cycle. From this dying, the spring can bring out new life and new abundance in different forms. One season feeds the next, and on and on.

 

These are a few stragglers.

 

Every winter I tell myself I will use the time to finish up some long overdue indoor projects. But it seems I instead find a new, more interesting project to attend to, leaving my best intentions behind like a pile of dry leaves.

- + -

Posted in Commentary on City Life, Street shots | Leave a comment

College football is a blast

 

Be true to your school

09-24-2011

I recently started shooting photos for Sacstatesports.com – a sports-news outlet that features stories on the athletic teams at California State University, Sacramento – better know as the “Sac State Hornets.”

The energy at these games is incredible. The home field seats were pretty well filled, and amazingly, the visitor’s side had a respectable attendance, especially considering the visiting team was from Montana.

One of the things I really like about college sports is how hard the athletes play. They will give it their all on the field. They aren’t playing for a salary, but for the enjoyment, the ambition and the potential. And when they do well, their teammates get excited, too. Of course, the crowd is very loyal and loud. At this game, the Sac State Hornets beat the Montana Grizzlies, 42-28. It was the first Hornets’ victory over Montana in 17 games, so the student crowd was especially rowdy.

Serious football happens here.

Funny thing, I took some crowd shots of the grandstands and it wasn’t until I edited the images after the game that I noticed a strange spectator in the crowd…

 

Looks like a normal crowd shot…
…until you look closer – what the….?

I have no idea what the “Green Man” was about…and nobody around him seemed to care much about it. I guess they were used to it.

 

Diving for yardage.

 

Point after touchdown

 

Wear your team on your cheek.

 

For the record, #35 has the ball.

I look forward to shooting more sports for Sacstatesports – after all, Sac State is my alma mater.

For you gear heads, I shoot with two Canon 7D’s, one with a wide zoom (17-40mm, f/4) for close action and the other with a tele zoom (70- 200mm, f/2.8). At night games, I need to set the ISO  around 3200 so I can get a decent shutter speed (around 1/500 second).

A full gallery of game photos is available here.

- + -

Posted in Action, Events, Night Shots, Sports | Leave a comment

Two Weddings and No Funeral

08-29-2011

Both of my sons were married this month; their weddings were actually 13 days apart. It has been a whirlwind of planning, excitement, chaos and pure joy. At one point, I nicknamed August as “Two Weddings and a Funeral,” with the joke that these two events would likely knock somebody off. Fortunately, we all survived just fine. Now that the weddings are over, I’ve been reflecting on the collective meaning of these events.

Kenny and Jeff are 17 months apart in age, so they grew up together as best buddies. Many of the photos I took over the years show both of them doing things together. Reading. Playing. Traveling. Sports. Parties.

Even today, they consider each other as best friends, so naturally they were each others’ “Best Man” at the weddings. When Jeff gave his Best Man toast, he spoke about all the ways that he and Kenny shared events together, including sports, hobbies and even friends. When Kenny gave his Best Man toast, he spoke about the happiness he felt for Jeff; Kenny said he was the “second happiest man in the room”. I might have disagreed with him, but I’m willing to call it a draw.

As close as they are, they are also two very distinct people. They have different strengths, personalities and challenges. Their weddings and receptions were somewhat different, yet both events were joyous, authentic, and affirming. And in one big way, Kenny and Jeff have this in common: they are now married to terrific women.

As the Dad of these two amazing men, I had a ‘front row seat’ to this beautiful exchange of love, admiration and support between my sons. This has struck me as the best part of each wedding. We don’t always make it a point to say the things we need to say to those close to us. We get busy, we wait for a better moment, or we just forget how important it is. But these two weddings gave me the greatest gift of all – I watched my sons tell each other (and the world) about how much they cared for each other.

I feel so blessed and couldn’t ask for anything more.

(This entry has no photos to look at. This was intentional on my part. So, how does it relate to photography? I think photography is important as one way to keep our memories. It’s not the only way, and I don’t always need a camera to capture the moment. These moments will never fade for me.)

– + –

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sweet Times at the Sugar Mill

The Old Sugar Mill was in operation between 1935 and 1993.

07-11-2011

I recently attended a group photoshoot sponsored by Click Monkeys, a Meetup group formed by Sacramento photographer Tim Engle. Tim arranged access for a group of 84 photographers to use the Old Sugar Mill facility in Clarksburg.

The sugar mill opened in 1935 and processed sugar beets into sugar until 1993, when it closed. For many of these years it was operated by the American Crystal Sugar Company. Coincidentally, my father worked at this factory as a mechanic in the mid-1960’s.

Parts of the Sugar Mill have been restored and it is now home to several local winery tasting rooms, a wedding and reception venue and an outdoor entertainment area.

A panoramic view of the Old Sugar Mill property.

The photo group had access to the unimproved areas of the facility. Spanning several levels, the building shows signs of abandonment and decay. Much of the processing equipment has been removed, leaving large openings in the floors. Most(!) of these openings were roped off to keep us from falling through. Debris, dust and broken windows added to the ambience of the old facility.

An old coffee/paint can - wonder how long it has been there.

It was eerily poignant to walk around the building and wonder what it was like for my dad to work there almost 50 years ago. I imagined the sights, sounds and smells of the factory equipment when it was in full operation during the “campaigns”, the busy harvest times of sugar processing.

Tim does a great job of arranging these meetups, providing numerous talented models, hair and make-up artists.

Chelsea was one of the several outstanding models at the photoshoot.

 

Photographers of all skill levels can practice their technical skills and learn about interacting with and directing models. Sometimes the models are surrounded by enthusiastic shooters, somewhat paparazzi-like. The advantages are the close proximity of many people who can answer questions and share creative ideas. The disadvantages are the way it can be a little chaotic at times, and often leads to several people taking away very similar shots.

I was mainly interested in learning more about high dynamic range (HDR) photography and I knew that a couple of the people co-hosting the event have lots of experience with HDR. I appreciated the quick-start tips I received and had some fun trying out the HDR techniques. This type of environment lends itself to HDR, with a wide range of light levels (sunlit windows and dark shadows in the same scene.)

HDR photography combines a wide range of exposure levels in one image.

This is HDR with some extreme processing, makes for a surreal look.

The digital camera cannot capture the full range of light levels in one image, so HDR involves taking several different exposures of the same scene and blending them into one image. Some HDR can be overprocessed and look pretty dreamlike, but it also has some pretty useful application in areas such as indoor architectural photography.

One of my favorite portraits is this one, taken of fellow photographer, Carl. I asked him to step in for a simple lighting experiment. I put a small strobe on a light stand and placed a gridspot over the flash and set it to fire at about 1/64 power. This gave me a very low-level, concentrated spot of light that I placed on Carl’s eyes – just enough to punch up the light a little and add some drama to the portrait.


If you want to get out with other photographers and practice, check out Meetup.com and search for a photography group in your area. These groups are a great way to learn new techniques, practice, and check out interesting settings.

- + -

 

Posted in Architecture, Photo How-to, Portraits | Leave a comment

What Playing Golf Has Taught Me About Photography

Teeing it up with my $10 yard sale driver.

 

07-07-2011

I was 17 years old when I picked up my first “real” camera. Prior to that I had just been using a basic Brownie-with-610-rollfilm model or the amazing Instamatic-with-126-cartridge film cameras.

I was 34 years old when I picked up my first “real” golf club. Prior to that I had just been using a basic primary-colored putter and matching golf ball to test my skills against the windmill and hippopotamus-mouth obstacles at the mini-golf center.

Since then I have probably shot about 500,000 photos and hit about 500,000 golf balls.

It has been said the best way to get to know someone is to play a round of golf with them. Clearly, the game of golf will shred away any layers of superficial pretense and display the inner core of a human being, usually by the second green. Otherwise mild and even-keeled folks can become vitriolic, maniacal, obscenity-laden beasts in a matter of minutes, often with no shame whatsoever. I’ve seen people throw clubs, break clubs, beat their golf bag for several minutes, run full-speed into a tree, and dismantle a porta-potty – all over a chunked shot or a missed putt. I’ve seen others play terribly and seem to be having a great time.

So what has golf taught me about photography?

I notice plenty of similarities and lessons (although I have never seen a person throw a camera):

Patience - golf demands patience, no doubt. The harder I push, the harder golf pushes back. Only when I finally let go and surrender to the game does it let me in. It’s counter-intuitive but the more I let go and relax, the better I play.

Photography requires patience – to learn, to improve, to gain clientele. It also takes patience with certain subjects to “come around” so they can relax and have great photos taken of them. In my photo classes I often meet aspiring photographers who want me to give them a crash course in photography technique or business aspects so they can become “Polaroid Pro’s.” (A Polaroid Pro is one that is made in 60 seconds.) I feel like Yoda guiding a young Luke Skywalker or Mr. Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid how to wax a car.

Practice - Austin commercial photographer Kirk Tuck has been a swimmer all his life and he talks about the importance of “time in the water”. A person can read books, watch tutorials, take lessons – but nothing is a replacement for just doing it. There is no limit to the amount of online golf instruction available. And most lessons will vary enough to appear contradictory, and thus, more confusing. But in the end, you have to pick up the club and hit some balls.

The same is true for photography. The cacophony of photo tips and advice is mind-numbing…and distracting – sooner or later you have to just pick up the camera and make photos. There is no better way to learn the tactile method for adjusting your camera than to use it a lot. Once you are able to touch-type the controls on your camera, without peeking, then you will be able to get on with the business (and fun) of making pictures. You will also practice interacting with people as subjects and clients. But you have to leave the house!

Discipline - this is a close partner of practice. In both golf and photography, discipline gets you off your butt, keeps you focused on the task at hand, and let’s you get the most out of your experiences. Without discipline, you won’t practice and you won’t learn.

First tee at Pebble Beach Golf Links

 

Gear - comparing golf equipment can be the biggest distraction of all. Which brand of clubs to buy? What kind of shafts(graphite, steel, or what about rifle shafts), grips (tour wrap vs soft vs leather), balls (two piece, three piece, balata), shoes, gloves, head covers, bags, etc etc?? And every year the new technology promises to out-drive and out-score the previous one. The sad fact is there is not a correlation between the cost of golf equipment and the score you will shoot. I’ve been playing golf with some older inexpensive yard-sale clubs recently and I’m really loving it. I hit my $10 yard-sale driver farther and straighter than my much more expensive, hi-tech one.  In a strange way, it feels like I’m thumbing my nose at all the hype around the “next greatest thing” in gear. And that is pretty satisfying.

If you are a photographer this sounds very familiar when it comes to cameras, lenses, lights, tripods, etc etc. It is very easy to get caught up in the next feature or improvement of the newest technology. While I admit that some of the improvements are very useful (low-light capabilities, for example) many of them are just incremental. And remember, your current camera does not suddenly stop working when a newer model comes out. Focusing on the gear is another distraction that gets in the way of Practice. Worse, focusing on the Holy Wars of brand debates takes you nowhere fast.

Every once in a while I pull out an older camera model and re-acquaint myself with it. Besides the little bit of nostalgia, I am also reminded that these cameras still take amazing photos. Some of my favorite images were made with long-forgotten technology. Most of my gear purchase decisions now come down to more practical things, like battery compatibility and consistency with the location of the controls (see touch-typing above).

Creativity - OK, creativity in photography seems obvious, but golf? Oh yes. If you’ve ever found yourself under a low tree branch or been stymied behind an immovable object, you’ve had to tap your golf creativity. It’s called Scrambling and it can make the difference between just one bad shot and several. You are allowed a maximum of 14 clubs, but there is no limit to the number of shots in your repertoire. Can you hit a golf ball behind you while standing with your back to the target? Putt with a 3-wood? Hit the ball 100 yards without flying higher than 10 feet off the ground? Lob the ball over a bush and make it stop on the green? Have you PRACTICED any of these? Many times the best shot is not directly at the flag.

And every once in a while, I make that amazing shot that erases all the bad ones, and brings me back out for another round.

Creativity in photography is much more than visual. I’ve had to scramble on photo shoots plenty of times. The scheduled time comes and goes, and so does the magic light. Equipment fails. Weather changes. The power goes out. People show up in bad moods. The client gets a brainstorm and wants to change the concept on the spot. Or the shot just doesn’t materialize the way the designer had hoped. All of these situations require scrambling and creative skills.

One of my favorite golf axioms is: In golf (and life) if you get into trouble, don’t get into more trouble. Creativity, and discipline, and practice, will get you out of trouble.

Fun - golf is a game that is PLAYED, and “play” should be fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably grinding too hard. I have the most fun playing golf when I get to know my playing partner better. Often, we’ve met on the first tee. Golf becomes the backdrop to the bigger picture – social interaction. I don’t Tweet my playing partner, I look him or her in the eye and we talk. And we talk about everything except golf. I remember the people I’ve played with much more clearly than the score I shot.

Photography is the same – if you’re not having fun, you’re probably grinding too hard. It is the backdrop to the bigger picture of social interaction. Spend a little time looking over the camera instead of through it. I usually remember the photo subject or the event much more fondly than I remember the photographs.

Tee it high and let it fly!

- + -

Posted in Sports | Leave a comment

Playing at the Game

A beautiful day at the ballpark.

 

06-20-2011

I have the fun opportunity to shoot lots of local sporting events: Minor League Baseball (River Cats), NBA (Kings), United Football League (Mountain Lions), Tennis (Capitals), college sports, etc, etc.

Sports photography is always a challenge of techniques – it requires touch-typing all the camera buttons while looking through the viewfinder (no time to peek), anticipating and following the action, keeping track of exposure and manual focus, and oh yeah, watching out for that line drive foul tip that zips over the top of my head. It helps to learn to shoot with both eyes open. So far so good.

Action photos take split-second timing, anticipation of the action, and full control of the camera.

But after a while, and I hate to say this, it gets kind of repetitious. After nailing a few dozen batting shots, fielding plays, double plays, home plate collisions, manager/umpire dirt-kicking exchanges, crowd reactions, and mascot hi-jinks, I start to wonder, “What ELSE can I do?”

And that’s when the fun really begins.

First, I like to get right behind home plate and capture the ball in flight between the pitcher’s hand and the catcher’s glove. Shallow depth of field leaves very little time for the ball to be in focus. Even at 1/8000 of a second(!) it is mostly a matter of lucky timing to capture that one instant when the ball passes through the plane of sharpness. (It helps if your camera can crank out 8.5 images per second, too!)

The ball is sharp, it's not overlapping anything else and it's moving about 88 mph. (Click on photo for larger view)

Next, it’s kind of fun to take a high viewpoint shot of the field and apply some fake tilt-shift effects in Photoshop to give it that “miniaturized” look.

Gee, from way up here, everyone looks like toy figurines.

Then, for something completely different, how about putting the camera on a telescope and taking shots of home plate from the area behind the center field fence? The shots below were taken from a distance of about 450 feet away. I think the effective focal length (after calculating the crop sensor factor) worked out to about 2000 mm.

This photo was taken from about 450 feet away. Seriously, that's some amazing magnification.

 

All eyes are on the ball.

 

Check out the red arrow - that's where I set up the camera/telescope combination to take shots of home plate.

 

Instead of stopping the action, how about letting it really show?

Panning with the subject, shutter speed was 1/15 second.

As you can see, it’s not just the players who get to play at the game!

- + -

 

 

Posted in Action, Photo How-to, Sports | 3 Comments

A Day at the City by the Bay

 

San Francisco’s skyline

06-02-2011

I got a last-minute chance to go the Bay Area last week. Laura was teaching a day-long class in Richmond and I decided to tag along, drop her off at her class and then take a ferry ride over to San Francisco for a few hours. This also gave me a chance to try out a recent used camera purchase. Combined with sunny weather, it was a great day.

The ferry leaves Larkspur and crosses San Francisco Bay to the San Francisco Ferry Building along the Embarcadero. I was lucky enough to catch the high-speed ferry (30 minute ride vs. 45 minutes on the slower one). It really flew along the water. I’m guessing we were moving about 50 mph land speed, based on how hard the wind hit me in the face.

 

These guys were playing “I’m King of the World” with the wind on the ferry.

This was my first time on a ferry on the Bay and it really gives a nice vantage point along the way. We passed San Quentin Prison, Angel Island, got a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, and the approach to the SF city from bayside was terrific.

 

San Quentin Prison – Home Sweet Home for some…

Somebody didn't plan for a rise in sea level.

Approaching the San Francisco Ferry Building

Once I landed in the City, I walked around the Embarcadero area. I ventured into the Hyatt Regency Hotel with its famous atrium interior. I took a photo from this vantage point around 1980, it may be on my website.

 

The atrium inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

 

 

Looking up through a sculpture.

 

Looking down at a lunchtime gathering.

Looking out at the bay.

I had lunch with my son, Ken, who works about a block away. It’s always fun to see my grown kids out in their own world – I realize Ken has lived more than 1/3 of his life in San Francisco. We had a great visit and it was, as always, way too short. I bopped around a little more, bought a baseball cap from the SF Giants Dugout Store (naturally), and headed back to the ferry landing for the return ride back across the bay.

 

This little guy (or gull) was drafting the ferry boat. (That's pretty quick and sharp manual focus.)

"And when the wind is right you can sail away, and find serenity" (name that tune)

– + –

 

 

Posted in Commentary on City Life, Scenic photos, Vacations | Leave a comment

Dorothy Was Right

 

 

Nothing like a crunchy aphid for lunch.

05-31-2011

At the end of the movie, “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy says that if she ever goes looking for her heart’s desire again, she won’t look any further than her own back yard.

A couple weeks ago I put out a call asking for the best place to find ladybugs. I wanted to take some closeup shots and I knew this was the time of year for them. I got several suggestions, most of them fell into two camps: 1) drive way the heck up into the hills, or 2) buy a bag of them and wrangle them myself. Instead, I took Dorothy’s advice and looked in my own backyard. Our fruit tree is heavily infested with aphids so it made sense that I would find ladybugs in the tree.

Sure enough. As I got closer to the tree I could hear the faint cry of aphids being devoured alive (and dead).

 

Don't bug me, I'm busy.

This photo raises a question: What do you call a male ladybug? I learned the answer is: a male ladybug.

Gear talk: These photos were taken with a Canon 7D, 50mm f1.4 lens on a 20mm extension tube, and two Nikon flashes (left and right side). (ISO:100, 1/200, f/11) The camera and flashes were mounted on a home-made bracket (natch) that is pretty mobile and well-balanced.  I can get more magnification by using a longer extension tube. Focusing at this magnification is very critical, depth of field is about 3/8 inch.

- + -

Posted in Animals, DIY Photo Gear, Macro photography, Photo How-to | Leave a comment