Thursday, July 19, 2018

Photographer or Picture Taker? The Difference.

                       THE SEARCH FOR SUBJECTS

         What is the difference between a photographer and a picture taker? With so many images online and camera phones everywhere you look, there seems to be a blurred line that differentiates between the two. Set up an Instagram account or a website, add the word photography to your name and all of a sudden you're a photographer! Really?
        For me, there are a number of things that put someone in the 'photographer' category. Just as having a tool belt doesn't make you a carpenter, a paintbrush an artist, or a frying pan a chef, having a camera doesn't make someone a photographer. So what does? In my view, it boils down to a search. A search to make imagery with impact and emotion.
        In the next few posts, beginning with this one, I will outline a few things that photographers are on the lookout for to create visually appealing work. Today: the search for subjects......
       In landscape photography a person may travel the globe in search of interesting subject matter. Obviously this isn't an absolute necessity as beauty can often be found in our own backyard. But that being said, it would be very rare for a casual picture taker to put forth too much effort to get a photograph.
       A photographer will search online for potential locations. They will organize holidays and trips just so they can acquire a particular shot. They will travel to areas and scout out specific locations and return later to capture an image. This will take time and expense. Picture takers generally will not go to these lengths. 
        The photograph above personally illustrates this point. When planning a family trip to Scotland, I researched ahead of time locations that would lend itself to interesting subject matter. Castles were one of the first things that came to my mind. Upon arriving at Tantallon Castle on the east coast we obviously had to look around and do the tourist thing which included checking out the visitor center. While there I noticed a book that displayed a shot of the castle that was not possible to achieve on the castle grounds. I asked how I would be able to view the castle from this angle and now it was on!
         Driving further down the coast we went off the beaten path, through a farmers property, fed a pound coin to an electric gate, down to a small area to park the car. Following old wooden steps we descended down to the sandy, rocky coast with the vast ocean in front of us. Where was the castle? Hiking further up the coast, the castle finally came into view and the search for my subject was over. While the kids made castles in the sand I concentrated on achieving an interesting composition of my own castle.
         Did this take time? Absolutely. Expense? A pound coin at minimum. Effort? We had no idea where we were going or where we would end up but it was a mini adventure. I'm not so sure a casual picture taker would do this. Most likely they would stay on the highway, pull over, roll down the window, take a quick snapshot and continue on their way. But if you can relate to this little story, then in my estimation anyways, you have taken the first step to becoming a photographer. Thanks for looking!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Does Gear Matter?

     Recently, I had the opportunity to take some visitors to our country on a quick, whirlwind tour of the Alberta Rockies. We stopped at a few of the more iconic stops along the way. This proved to be a good chance to snap a few shots with my i-phone. As far as camera phones go, the one I have is no slouch, one of the newer versions and able to shoot in raw format. Below are a few of the shots, Peyto Lake, Lake Louise and the Banff Springs Hotel. For me, they tic off some of the boxes that make a good photograph: light, atmosphere, composition, strong subject. I ran them through Lightroom using some of the same editing techniques that I normally use, but as you can see they are pretty noisy images. The image quality just isn't there to print them much larger than you see here.

      This made me think about a question that many newbie photographers have: Does it matter what type of gear I use? Should I invest in the most expensive equipment or can I get by with lower end stuff?  If you listen to the camera equipment manufacturers, they give the impression that the only thing stopping you from making great images is the gear you use. Spend thousands, get the latest. Now you're a pro!  On the other hand, many pros that use the latest and the greatest tell you that it doesn't really matter. You can take great photos with any camera. If that's true, why did they spend 10 grand on their latest body and lens? Who is right? Actually, they both are.........kind of.
      Improving your photography and making beautiful images starts with you, not your gear. Work on your ability to see and compose. Find great subject matter. Chase the light and atmosphere.These 3 suggestions are, in my opinion, the 3 best things you can do to improve. These are the things that will make you a 'photographer' and not simply a 'picture taker'. You can do this with your camera phone, point and shoot or cheap DSLR. Do this and your images will soar! That being said..........
      The pros spend thousands. Even though some of them seem to tell us that gear doesn't really matter, the truth is, it does. What do I mean by that?  Think about this: you need surgery. One surgeon uses an electrocautery scalpel. The other a butter knife. Who would you choose? Think about this: Why do athletes use the latest, lightest most high tech equipment they can get? Does it make them better athletes? Not necessarily. But it can improve their results. Think about this: Find an amazing photographer who has a great eye and is very creative. Many years developing their skills and techniques. Now clone him or her. Give one your camera phone and the other the latest top of the line DSLR or mirrorless body with the most expensive glass. Which one will produce the best images? I think we know the answer. The photos above help to illustrate this. If I had my full frame DSLR, filters, tripod etc. with me I would have composed these shots the same way. But the end result would have been better than what we see here. I could have had more dynamic range, long exposures, depth of field, brighter colors, less noise.I would have been able to print these much larger than what we see here. This is where gear can really make a difference. 
        Want amazing landscape vistas? Wide angle lenses really help.. Want creamy soft backgrounds in your portraits? You need fast lenses. Want to shoot in low light and not have noisy photos? Full frame camera bodies with high ISO capability work the best. Want great astrophotography images? Full frame, high ISO and fast glass. What about super sharp, close up wildlife shots? Frames per second and big, bad zooms definitely help.   Ka-ching!
       Yes, gear does matter. If we want to print large, good quality images our equipment can go a long way in helping us do this. BUT, will it make you a skilled photographer? Not really. In my experience, working on my creativity and technical skills in the field and in post processing has been the best bang for my buck. But over time, and in small increments, upgrading gear certainly has its benefits.



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

When the Sun Burps

      We all do it. Some are discreet and others not so much. Little boys do it for entertainment. In some cultures it is considered rude and in others it is a sign of appreciation. Burping. A normal and natural response of the body to expel excess air from the stomach. People may have differing views on the degree of offense taken when in the vicinity of a loud, relieving belch by another person. But the words 'rude' and 'offensive' are the last things that come to mind when the nearest star to our planet suffers from indigestion and releases a belch of cosmic proportions. No, when the sun burps, all we think about is beauty and awe. Why? Because the result is an amazing display of glowing colors dancing in the night sky. The northern lights!
     A quick lesson at Google University explains how this happens. Storms on the sun send charged solar particles through space, some of which are intercepted by Earth. These particles are deflected by earths magnetic shield as a protection for life on the planet. But around the poles, this shield is weaker and some of the particles enter our atmosphere and collide with atoms and molecules. This collision causes the atoms and molecules of oxygen, nitrogen etc. to become 'excited' and during this process they release a particle of light or photon. The varying colors of this display depends upon which gases in the atmosphere are being affected. If the charged solar particles are interacting with oxygen the color produced is green. If you see blues or reds then most likely it was nitrogen. This is by no means a detailed, scientific explanation but it gives us an idea as to what causes this amazing light show.
     While I appreciate the reason behind the aurora, as a photographer, I am more interested in capturing its beauty to share with others. A few nights ago, one of the best displays in years was witnessed across the country. When I was alerted to the event by Aurorawatch early in the evening, I knew I was in for a late night. I still haven't caught up on my sleep! But it was worth it!
     Below are a few images from that night. So to the sun I have this message: Burp! Burp long and hard! It doesn't bother me one bit!


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, No.... It's Photographer Guy!

      "" I have repeated those words in my head numerous times during the darkest part of the morning, trying to convince myself to leave the comfort of a warm bed, for the chance to capture images of the night sky. Every time I have this internal back and forth debate with myself, I can't help but think of the old Spiderman cartoons on TV when I was a kid. I'm pretty sure there was an episode when Spidey was struggling to return to his feet after he was knocked out, and uttering the above words, he willed himself up to defeat the villain. The Lizard, Dr. Octopus and Mysterio had no chance when the Webcrawler was motivated.
      Staying out late, getting up early. Sunset, sunrise. Why does the best light happen at the most inopportune time? Why does the Milkyway galaxy only show up at night, (which I happen to believe  is the best time for sleeping btw)? Aurora borealis, Perseid meteor showers? Yep, all at night, in the dark, when it's colder........and scarier. Super human powers would definitely come in handy when I battle that villain in my head, Lazy Photographer Man, who makes pretty convincing arguments that are anti- get up and pro- stay in bed.

      Actually, when you think about it, being a motivated night sky photographer mimics superhero exploits in a number of ways. Much like Superman, a landscape photographer has to be ready at all times. Supe always had his tights and cape on, even under his suit as his alter ego, Clark Kent. Running to the nearest telephone booth when trouble called, he would start to rip his shirt off, displaying a bold 'S'. So quick to respond, he risked revealing his true identity before he even found a telephone booth. That guy cared. I wished I cared that much about the northern lights.
       Batman did most of his work at night. Sitting in his bat cave, he would scan Gotham City with the most up to date technology to locate crime in action. He was no Joker. Night time was the best time for fighting crime simply because that's when most crime happened. Smart guy. The Dark Knights of photography are not much different. Computers, tablets and digital devices of all kinds are tuned in to aurora watch websites that give alerts. Scanning weather forecasts and patterns to plan the best place and time to find the action. Downloading the best night sky apps to see where the stars are positioned at any given time. Add in the photography equipment itself and we are talking Bruce Wayne money here.

      I don't know how many times while I'm relaxing with a cup of tea, watching Youtube videos on how to get the best out of your landscape photography, when my wife yells downstairs: "There's some pretty crazy light out there!" "Those clouds are pretty impressive!" "Looks like a storm is coming!" Doesn't she realize I'm trying to improve my photography! She's like Batman sitting on the edge of a tall city building, looking for the bat signal reflecting off a cloud.
     I need to work on my superhero attitude. The northern lights may be green, but it's not Kryptonite. Superheros can't afford to be lazy. Usually, crime happens while the world sleeps. So do stars, galaxies, meteors, planets and auroras. If I want to create images from the astro-photography world then I better be Astroboy and get my astro out of bed!
      "!"  Remember those words. Remember Spidey. And remember his day job.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016


       I can't believe how long it has been since I have posted. My apologies to the hundreds of faithful followers of this blog. Alright, lets be serious. I know there are only a handful of you out there that visit from time to time, and I really do appreciate the time you take to visit and comment. Hopefully I won't let as much time pass between posts in the future.
      Over this past winter and spring, I haven't been out photographing as much as I would like. But I did manage to take the camera out a few times and over the next few posts, I will try to share with you some of the images I came up with.
      Over the last few winters, I have been wanting to shoot at Abraham Lake near Nordegg, Alberta. It is famous for its ice bubbles that form when methane gas from decaying matter becomes trapped in the ice. It is about a 2-1/2 hour drive for me to get there, and after getting skunked the previous winter, I had to try again.
     As usual, I was hoping for a great sunset to add drama to the scene but unfortunately, shortly after I arrived, the weather started to roll in. It may have stolen the light but the clouds did add to the moody atmosphere. The wind was impressive. I had crampons on my boots which is definitely a must. Without these it would have been impossible to set up to take pictures. The wind would literally blow you across the ice if you didn't have these sharp cleats digging into the frozen water.
     What made this outing even more special was bumping into a couple of other photographers who had come all the way from Texas to shoot, not only this frozen lake, but many other amazing sights in the Alberta Rockies. It reminded me how fortunate I am to live so close to tremendous scenery. Hope you enjoy a few of the scenes I managed to capture and, as always, thanks for looking!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

6 min and 59 sec

         How long should it take for a photographer to come away from a scene with a great photograph? For example, this past summer in the mountains, I set up my camera within sight of another photographer. Both of us were shooting the same mountain and lake looking for great light during sunrise. After getting my shot, I wandered to another spot and composed another photograph. After one hour I had taken approximately 10 shots that consisted of bracketed images, single shots and long exposures with a variety of compositions in differing light. The other photographer didn't move once!  Was I being impatient or was the other photographer lazy? Did I miss a few fleeting seconds of amazing light by moving around or did I find a unique composition that screams creativity? Which technique is the best way?
       I don't really think there is a 'best way'. Everyone is different and each shooting situation is unique. Personally, I like to move around and try different viewpoints of a scene if possible. It feels more creative and artistic to me. Sometimes I don't know when I will be back in the area again so I want to get the most out of my photo session. Scouting an area ahead of time can be really helpful to find your compositions and then return in good light. You can really spice up your photography if you spend a little time trying different things. The photos below (a different mountain and lake) were all taken in 6 minutes and 59 seconds. Actually I took 5 photos in that time and these three were my favorites in that time frame.
       But the fun doesn't end there! Creativity comes alive in the editing process. In these images, not only did I compose the shots differently but I processed them differently as well. Changing compositions, changing light and changing editing. Right or wrong it's lots of fun!

Thanks for looking!

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Search For Light

     A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to return to one of the most beautiful areas of the Canadian Rockies: Mount Robson. Or more precisely: Berg Lake at the foot of Mount Robson. This mountain is just a hair under 13,000 ft tall and is the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. It is often referred to as the 'Monarch of the Rockies' and as you can see, this mountain deserves its regal nickname. Camping next to Berg Lake, many times throughout the day and night you can hear the thunderous rumblings of Berg Glacier across the lake calving huge chunks of ice into the icy, cold water.
     For much of this trip, the weather was less than desirable. A landscape photographer is always in search of great skies and amazing light to surround their subject. This quite often is the key to dramatic landscape imagery, but unfortunately these things are very unpredictable. Sometimes you only have a very small window of opportunity to find what you are looking for. Fortunately, I had one evening where there were snippets of great light during a mostly grey sky.
     The two images below were taken in the evening and help to illustrate the type of light that most landscape photographers are in search of. The first one was taken, during what photographers call the 'golden hour'. Just after sunrise or just before sunset the light is very soft and has a very golden look, and can really enhance an image. The second one was taken during what is known as the 'blue hour'. This is the time just before sunrise or just after sunset where the dominant color surrounding us is blue and sometimes clouds will catch some residual purples and reds from the rising or descending sun. These two 'hours' at both ends of the day usually provide the best light for landscape photographs and with the unpredictable nature of weather, patience and adaptability is very important. Thanks for looking!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Mighty Bighorn

      Not too far from where I live is Ya Ha Tinda located in the front ranges of the Alberta Rocky Mountains. A relatively short drive west and you can find yourself in very picturesque country. Along the way you may come across some of the famous wild horses that roam the area. Many people come out here to camp, fish, raft and trail ride with horses.
     The picture below is of Bighorn Falls. After parking your vehicle, a short walk up the creek in the canyon will get you to the bottom of these beautiful falls. Although well known to locals, these falls fortunately, still feel relatively secluded not being over run with tourism. Thanks for looking!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Mountain Madness

      The mountain landscape is, for many people, the most beautiful type of scenery on the planet. I personally really enjoy being out in the mountains. The unpredictable weather, the rugged geography and the immense size of some of these pointy rocks make for amazing landscape imagery. Couple these grand vistas with great light, calm lakes, and fast flowing rivers and waterfalls, you'll have photographs that will make all your friends ooh and aah.
     That being said, many photographers want to take it to another level. Hanging out of helicopters, kayaking over waterfalls, and being attached to sheer cliff walls by thin ropes tied to small screws, photographers are able to record scenes that few will ever witness with their own eyes. As a photographer, I am constantly amazed and inspired by these photo explorers; adventurers; nutcases. While I am all for exploring and finding new ways to photograph our wonderful planet, I will only go so far. Will I take a risk? Absolutely! The one mistake and your dead kind of risk? Never! Make a mistake and break bones? Not likely! Fall down and scrape up your butt? I could handle that.
     That takes me to the image below. Bow Lake and Crowfoot Mountain in Banff National Park, Alberta. Easy to get to and easy to photograph. There is a lodge that you can stay in just steps away from the shores of the lake. My car was about a 2 minute walk away from where I took this shot. Search the internet and you will find all kinds of images from this beautiful location......... but not like mine!
      When I photograph a scene I will usually try to find various ways to create unique compositions. Getting higher, lower, changing my angles and finding foreground interest are just a few things that I try to do to make the image more interesting. But after locating this particular spot I knew I needed to up my game.
      Reaching in to my pack to find my 50 foot nylon rope, I surveyed the scene above my head to find a strong branch on one of the many spruce trees along the shore (know where I'm going with this?). Rather than bore you with the details and give away some of my secret compositional techniques, let's just say that by using a complicated system of ropes, pulleys and carabiners, I was able hang upside down and find a unique view of a very popular scene. After a few minutes of swaying (note to self: do not use this technique on windy days), I was able to dial in my settings and focus point and nail the shot! About 45 minutes later, a passerby reached into his pack to find a knife,cut a few ropes and then help me back to my car (note to self: do not use this technique alone).

    If you would like to learn more about how to achieve great photographs using this rare and amazing compositional technique, sign up for my work shop. Oh, and bring a knife. Thanks for looking!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Why Process?

           When looking over your digital files do you sometimes wonder why you took the shot in the first place? When sharing photos with others, it's not uncommon to hear the words: "You had to be there to really appreciate the scene" or "A photograph really doesn't do it justice." Have you ever said that? I know I have.
         Even though modern cameras have amazing capabilities and are improving at a rapid pace, they just can't match the abilities of the human eye/brain combination. When we go about looking at various aspects of a scene in front of us, our eyes and brain work flawlessly together and make lightning fast adjustments so that we are able to record a picture or memory that is perfectly exposed. Whatever we look at in the scene is in focus and has enough detail and color so that we can really appreciate the beauty and mood that is conveyed. Not so with a camera. Generally, the camera is trying to find a balance, a middle ground so to speak, to try and gain an even exposure. This can often result in over exposed highlights, under exposed shadows with little detail or just an overall image that lacks the drama that actually caused you to take the shot in the first place. Now there are ways to minimize these deficiencies when composing your photographs but one thing that can also help is to have a good post processing program and learn to use it well. It can save many an image as the examples below will show.
        This shot was taken with a good quality DSLR. It was at a beautiful time of day with great color and cloud formations in the sky reflecting in the river below. We were rushing to dinner and I didn't bring my tripod but I wanted the shot. Hopefully my camera would do a decent job at metering the scene and maybe I could fix the deficiencies later in my go to processing program, Lightroom. Let's see:

Actually, for a single shot, the camera did a pretty good job. The sky is not blown out and there is detail both in the highlights and in the shadows. But trust me, this is not even close to what I witnessed that evening. Mood, color, drama? There was more to this scene, wasn't there? Absolutely! Look below:

This is more like it! The mood, color, drama is all there. I took this shot in RAW format and in doing so I gave myself the best chance to capture what unfolded before my eyes and to bring it all back later in my processing program. These images really impress upon me the benefits of shooting in RAW, investing in good processing software and learning how to use it. Thanks for looking!