March 3rd, 2011
I normally keep the website and Facebook page for Clearing the Vision focused on children’s photography – my own, and how you can improve yours.
But I thought I’d just alert you to my new store on Etsy, where I’m selling some of my other type of work – more personal fine art work.
I’ve been fascinated by clean bold colors and patterns in my photography for a long time, and the work in my store shows a lot of that.
There are also a couple of more traditional landscapes, although most of the time I’ve no idea what I’m doing when trying to create a landscape.
The images are priced at $30 for 8 x 12 size, but I’m happy to take custom orders for different sizes or different paper types (I normally print on professional E-surface paper, but most of these look good on metallic papers, too).
So take a look around, and spread the word if you think you know someone who might like this sort of work.
> Here’s another link to the store.
Thanks very much.
March 1st, 2011
WPPI – Wedding and Portrait Photographers International – host a giant convention and trade show every year, and this year I attended. I was looking to absorb as much information as possible on the business side of things, as well as make contacts, be inspired and get to ogle gear at the trade show.
Here are the key things I came home with:
1) 15,000 is a lot of photographers
Sometimes it can seem like you’re ploughing quite a lonely furrow when you’re a photographer, so it was nice to feel like I actually have a tribe. And a large one at that – around 15,000 of us all in the one place. It meant the queues could be long, but the pre-board system worked well, and I was never turned away from any of the non-preboarded classes I turned up for.
2) You need to love the business side of things
If you’re doing this as a living, then you have to love doing all the other stuff besides shooting that goes along with running a business. I chose a lot of business and marketing-oriented classes because I want to able to keep doing this job for the long term, and unless I keep clients coming in and making a profit by making them happy, I won’t be able to keep the doors open very long.
So unless you look forward to calculating your overheads and your cost of goods sold and working on a marketing plan and remembering to renew your insurance, then you’ll be miserable as a pro shooter. But if you want to embrace all that stuff, then climb aboard.
I’d already been running my own web design business for six years, so I knew this going in, but it’s worth bearing in mind that you won’t be shooting gorgeous kids all day.
3) Other people’s weddings and family images can make me cry
Most of the speakers showed some of their work, regardless of the topic they were talking about – we’re photographers, after all, so show us some images. I think it’s a sign that I’m in the right job that some of these slideshow made me tear up – photos of random strangers getting married, or families I’ll never meet.
These images tell the story of the most important things in our lives – our family and what they mean to us. It sounds really corny, but what we do when we photograph these things really does matter. So I’m not ashamed I got a bit emotional over it.
4) The Trade show was surprisingly resistable, except for the gorgeous books and albums
I thought it’d be risky to let me loose on the floor of the giant trade show, but actually I didn’t spend too much time there.
The Sigma guys were friendly but didn’t make me change my opinion of their reliability after my recent bad experience with their 24-70 f/2.8. I told them about it and they shrugged – “Sometimes it’s the camera, you know?”
“Even if every other lens you’ve ever tried is fine with it?”
“Yep. We can calibrate the lens to work with that camera, though.”
“But then you can’t use that lens with any other body, right?”
“Right.” The guy didn’t seem too bothered with this unsatisfactory state of affairs.
I’m not slagging Sigma for being rubbish – in fact, what’s frustrating is that I’ve heard great things about some of their lenses and would like to try them – I’m slagging them because it seems you can never be sure if any particular copy of their lenses will work with your particular camera. And they know that.
The one sort of thing that did have be salivating at the trade show, however, were the albums and books. Here was a great chance for me to actually handle the merchandise. The albums and books I loved the most were the simplest and most upscale. The Asukabook coffee table style bound books were lovely, as were those from Iris Book.
I’m not a fan of the super thick pages, glossy lay-flat flush mount style that seemed much in evidence, but the books of matted prints from finao (acutally made by Seldex) were also beautiful. To me, presenting the images from a shoot in a beautiful book makes so much sense – it frees the digital files from just sitting on a hard drive or disk somewhere, and creates an object that tells the story of that family and child at that particular moment in time. Love it.
6) If we’re not thinking about video now, we should be
David McLain gave an excellent talk about how he incorporates video into the stills work he does. It looked refreshingly straightforward, and didn’t require tons of extra gear and lighting (“I’m allergic to that stuff, man,” was David’s comment).
Thinking of ways to capture small snippets of video at the same time as you’re shooting the stills (with the same camera of course, which means the same control over depth of field) makes a lot of sense.
I’m still sorting through all my notes, but I had a great (if tiring) time, and have a lots of new stuff to work on as a result of all I learned. I’ll definitely go again, and when I do I’m bringing the largest business cards I can find. I threw my card into the bag with all the other photogs in pretty much each of classes, and didn’t win a single thing.
February 20th, 2011
Las Vegas is loud. Super loud. As soon as you get off the plane there’s neon and slots in the airport concourse.
Then you arrive at your hotel (in my case the monstrously large MGM Grand), and you see the full range of first-world humanity walking through the casinos, and it’s not a pretty sight. Brides in their dresses walk past frat boys carrying drinks the size of hockey sitcks, toddlers run by Asian couples dressed to the nines, and an old man smoking a pipe wanders past a guy in shorts and wife beater.
I’m one of the folks with the lanyards round their neck – conference attendees. I’m at the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International conference until Wednesday.
It’s the end of Day 1 and I’m knackered – party from an early start to fly in this morning. Both the talks I’ve attended so far were good, in different ways. The first by Jared Platt and the second by Jason Aten.
First up was smart, thoughtful and acerbic Jared Platt. His talk, called ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ was more conceptual and less immediately practical than many here (I’m guessing – his was my first one ever), as he stressed that we won’t get hired for our technical ability, but for our eye and instinct. Here’s a quick overview (he’ll forgive me if I’ve garbled what he was saying).
He outlined five elements to consider that will help you distinguish your work from others – including Uncle Bob with his new DSLR (which is capable of doing 90% of what yours can do).
1) The Thing Itself (here we have an advantage as portrait and wedding photographers, because our clients already love what we’re shooting). But Platt argued, the best thing we can do is make sure the images are about our subjects not about us being too precious.
That said, how we handle the other elements will determine whether anyone else responds to our images:
2) How we see the subject – our vantage point: creating depth and energy, making best use of the light, make sure this image is clear: all these depend on our vantage point.
3) How we frame the subject – here’s where we lie the most, argues Platt. But inclusion or omission, we make the world of the image what we want it to be. Busy, lonely, calm or unsettling – much of this is done with framing. Peace comes from leaving room in the frame for the subject to breathe, energy and dissonance from cropping tight (especially to the point of leaving bits of people out of the frame entirely.
4) What details we show – as details suggest the story.
We can’t every really know from only looking at an image what happened – and our clients already know the story. But it really helps to tell your version of the story while you’re showing them the images, to show why this image matters and remind them of the feeling behind it. And Platt made a good point when he pointed out that photographers’ blogs are an excellent way of letting other people know the story of a particular shot – by including the image and some text explanation it brings out the narrative that the image by itself is incapable of telling.
5) When we shoot it – the exact moment we choose to shoot is the final piece. He gave a couple of nice examples of waiting for passers-by to enter his shot to make it exactly what he wanted.
He finished by stressing that photography is about curiousity and seeing the world in our own way. That’s why we get hired, and why our photographs look different to everyone else’s.
I’ll blog on Jason’s much more practical but very useful talk later. Right now my brain’s about to turn to mush. More tomorrow.
February 18th, 2011
Gear for sale - one careful owner
As I noted recently, my ideal portrait shoot set up with probably be something like 2 5d Mk IIs sporting L-series primes of various lengths.
Which got me looking at my current lens set up. Here’s what I had:
Of those, all the zooms cost more than either of the primes – the 24-105mm is around $1000, while the primes are around $400. (I’ve also got a plastic fantastic Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II that I put on my old Rebel XT as a light knockaround camera when I don’t want to bring the 5D).
So you might think I’d do my professional shoots with the more expensive lenses. But I very rarely do. The 24-105mm I’ve used for school group shots and for a recent party session which was more like a studio shoot under controlled conditions. In other words, I’ll use it at times when I know I’ll have good light and need a pretty wide depth of field to make sure everyone’s in focus. Then the convenience of the zoom is handy, and it doesn’t compromise another element of the work.
But for the shots of individual children or their families, I always use one or other of the primes (normally I’ll start with the 85mm for the tighter shots and then stick on the 50mm for the wider and family shots).
Image quality is one reason for this choice (my medium level primes beat my more expensive zooms for sharpness and contrast), and low-light capability indoors is another factor – f/4 indoors doesn’t often give you a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the movement of a scampering child. The primes are also lighter than the zooms – a consideration if I’m shooting one-handed with the camera away from my face to keep the interaction with the subject.
But the creative reasons for using fast primes are the more compelling for me – not being able to zoom makes me think more about composition, and being able to blur the background using a narrow depth of field produces (to me anyway) more pleasing end results.
From Treat to Tool
With all this in mind, it struck me that it makes little sense to have a bunch of my money tied up in lenses that seldom earn me any money.
The reason for this is partly historical, and it also underlines one key difference between amateurs and pros when it comes to photo gear.
I bought all the zoom lenses before I really started taking my photography seriously as a career. Since I didn’t really know what sort of photography I was going to concentrate on, and it was just a hobby, it made sense to have lenses that covered a pretty wide range of focal lengths (from 17mm up to 200mm in my case).
And I didn’t have to show any return on investment for my lenses because I wasn’t doing photography for money. Just as when an amateur cyclist spends $3000 on a new bike, they don’t have to work out how quickly they’ll earn it back – it’s discretionary expenditure. Amateur photogs can spend whatever they can afford on whatever they like.
Pros, on the other hand, need their gear to put food on the table and can’t justify splashing out on something they’d merely quite fancy (not that it doesn’t happen, of course). Which is why many amateurs have much better and more up to date kit than some pros I know (myself included).
But now I know what I love to shoot – people – and that’s also what I get paid to shoot. I have enough experience to know that I live between f/1.4 and f/3, love the limits that primes impose, and also want great lenses I can use one-handed.
A Lens Cull
So I’ve just had a clear out of these excellent but (for me) unsuitable lenses. The 17-40mm and 70-200mm have gone, with the funds going towards a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L.
I’ll keep the 24-105mm for now, but will only add new lenses if they’re my part of my ideal stable. Fortunately, it’s not a long list: in addition to the 35mm f/1.4 L, there’s the Canon EF 85mm f1.2L II USM (at a cool $2000 it’ll be a while before I get that puppy), and the Canon EF 135mm f/2L (which I rented a while ago and loved).
The upshot is that I can only make these decisions because (after nearly five years of shooting a lot) I know what I want to shoot. If I was still an amateur (and had a bunch of disposable income) I’d probably keep the zooms just for the once or twice a year when I broke them out.
So try all kinds of photography – landscapes, architecture, sports, wildlife, street, portraits, studio-style fashion, whatever – with whatever gear you’ve got. Then you’ll get a feel for what you really like, and where you should invest. There’s no such thing as the perfect lens, or even the perfect set of lenses (unless you had the whole B and H catalog) – it all depends on what type of work you do.
And only buy something if you keep running up against a genuine limitation in your current gear.
February 10th, 2011
When I talk to parents about photographing their children, they often complain that they want to take better photographs but they don’t have a very good camera.
I tell them that you can take much better photographs with the camera you already have, before you need to splash out on a new rig. Most of these tips, for example, don’t rely on gear of any particular sort and will definitely improve your images.
I really like taking pictures with my old iPhone 3G which has a famously bad camera (even for a phone), and I’m happy with quite a few of the results.
So I thought I’d test out my assertion that the camera doesn’t matter as much as people think by shooting one day of a recent trip to Disneyland with an older point and shoot – a Canon Powershot SD500 (approx eBay value $40) and shoot the next day with my Canon 5D and a couple of good lenses (approx eBay value $900 for the body, and a total of $1100 for the lenses).
(In case you think I sacrificed priceless family pics for this test, this is the third time we’ve been to Disneyland, and with the in-laws living in LA, it definitely won’t be the last, so each image didn’t have to be a keeper.)
Day 1 – point and shoot
One definite plus for the little Elph is its size. It was liberating to be walking around without a heavy SLR around my neck, although I do it so often I’d forgotten what it felt like not to be carrying a brick with me.
And I got some shots that I was reasonably happy with – they’re not staggeringly good, but they captured moments from the day OK.
More background blur would have been nice, but this shot of waiting for the Dumbo ride is pretty good. Taken with the point and shoot.
But a couple of things were instantly apparent. One was that it was much harder to see what I was photographing – the viewfinder was tiny, and bright sun on the LCD meant I couldn’t use that for composition either.
Normally I'd shoot more of these type of shots to make sure everyone looked OK, but another pretty good result with the little Powershot.
The other instantly notable feature was the sluggishness between focusing and actually taking the photograph, and the lag before you could take a second image. Rather than firing off three or four shots of a our daughter with the characters, I was lucky to get one or two.
And I was never sure if the picture was actually taken when I depressed the shutter, or a short while after.
If you’re not completely in control when you shoot, and can’t take as many shots then the odds are less good that you’ll get a keeper.
I try not to ‘spray and pray’, but there are some times when it’s the best way to ensure you got the shot (like when your daughter’s wearing her yellow princess dress while flying down the Grizzly River Run and getting soaked).
Lack of Control
This is another big issue. With my wife and daughter riding on the Teacups I wanted to try to communicate the giddy speed by using a deliberately slow shutter speed to blur some movement (and then pan the camera to try and keep the subject in focus), but the Powershot wasn’t letting me.
So the teacups shots with it were just OK, but the wide depth of field (pretty much everything is in focus) and lack of blur take away from the drama.
Not so satisfying from the point and shoot. I couldn't blur the movement easily, and the wide depth of field makes everything look equally important (which it never is in a shot).
Back in the evening
So during the day, the little camera was just about acceptable so long as the photos I wanted to take were the ones it wanted me to.
Suddenly, a much happier photographer gets a shot he couldn't get with the little point and shoot.
We returned to the park in the evening, and this time I brought the 5D and a 50mm f/1.4 lens. The Powershot’s maximum ISO was 400, and the widest aperture was f/2.8 so there was no chance I was gettting any shots in the near-dark without using the flash – which would have produced unpleasantly unatmospheric shots.
More recent point and shoots do much better in low light, and while the 5D (mine’s the original model, not the Mark II) is only OK in dodgy light (for a high-end SLR), the fast f/1.4 prime gives you a setup it would be pretty much impossible to replicate with a point and shoot.
This simple shot of walking down Main Street (taken at 1600 ISO and f/1.8) just works so nicely – bokeh-ed background, subjects motion captured without blur, nice warm tones – and it’s exactly the sort of image the point and shoot would struggle with .
The next day we were back in the park with the 5D and this time the 24-105mm f/4 L lens attached. And I was much happier. I could shoot small bursts of shots of my daughter with the characters, and the quality of the images produced was much higher – the colors and contrast deeper, and the sharpness much improved.
It felt like the camera was helping me get the image I imagined, rather than forcing me to take the pictures it felt comfortable with.
Being able to capture what you see instantly is the only way I could get this quick smile while we were waiting for a ride. The evaluative metering does a nice job of exposing the face and dropping the background to black, too.
Obviously this wasn’t really a test to see which of the two cameras is better, or even which I would prefer to bring with me to Disneyland. Any digital SLR offers much greater flexibility and image quality – I wonder how a decent Micro Four Thirds camera would fare.
I did this test party to remind me of the great strengths of SLRs – creative control, narrow depth of field, low-light capabilities, option to use a range of lenses, overall image quality.
But I also did it to see whether I could wring half-decent shots out of a not-so-good camera. And it’s certainly possible.
The technical image quality isn’t there with the old SD500, but if I wasn’t printing the files too big, I wouldn’t care too much. And I’m much happier to have the good if slightly imperfect shots I did get than not to have any at all.
So if you’re not shooting much because you don’t have the camera you’d like, just shoot with what you’ve got. You won’t get as many keepers as if you were shooting with a better camera, but you’ll get a lot more than not taking any photos at all. As the old saw goes, the best camera in the world is the one you have with you.
But if you’re already shooting a lot with your current camera and find yourself constrained by its limitations, now might be the time to make a jump to a new best friend.
Finally, here’s the sort of teacups shot I wanted to get:
January 31st, 2011
I’ve just finished watching the National Geographic documentary, The President’s Photographer, about the White House photographer Pete Souza (it’s available on Netflix on demand streaming if you’re a US subscriber).
It’s a fascinating look at an amazing job, and I admit to having a bit of a photographer’s crush on Souza. Partly it stems from his great book of images from President Obama’s career in the Senate and from his campaign, The Rise of Barack Obama.
One of the key things that struck me from the documentary was the sense of purpose that all the official White House photographers interviewed had in documenting everything that happens with the President. Every image captured ends up in the Library of Congress, for future scholars and historians to access.
This includes the formal events, the countless handshakes and speeches, but it also covers the more domestic and personal moments.
In fact these smaller scale images (particularly from Souza) are some of my favourites – and because of the White House’s enlightened picure usage policity, I include some of them in this blog post. These have an importance to a wide audience because of the post the man occupies, but a lot of them would be great images even if he wasn’t the President.
We’re not heads of state, but the idea of documenting the day to day life of our families also has great merit. These moments are priceless, too, if only to us.
And now because of digital cameras, phones that can shoot video and essentially limitless storage, we can capture and keep records of our own lives more easily than ever before.
Waiting until the special occasions or holidays to bust out the camera misses most of what’s really important in a family – the daily details, triumphs and joys.
So let’s all be our own official photographers, bearing witness to our lives and keeping a record for ourselves later and for future generations. It won’t be in the Library of Congress, but it’s no less important for all that.