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Who Inspires You? – Redux

I spent some time searching the archives of my blog this morning unsuccessfully. Somewhere in the reaches of my brain, I recall a post about who inspires you as a photographer. Perhaps it was back in the earliest (Google Blogger) days. I remember mentioning a couple pros I have had the pleasure of knowing, as well as some talented amateurs who have become friends. The post would have been some years back now. But I don’t think my “list” would have changed.

Important as that may be, my current thinking is a more fundamental inspiration

For some reason, this concept popped back into my meandering thoughts recently – but in a slightly different way. The “inspiration” concept meant “who inspires/ed you; photographically and artistically?” Important as that may be, my current thinking is a more fundamental inspiration.

My dad and his dad were both engineers. I didn’t get those genes. I don’t think I necessarily got the artistic side, either. But I did inherit a great appreciation for both. The personalities of these two men have – perhaps as I have grown older – come through to me as two of the most important “role models,” in my life. Both of them deeply appreciated quality made mechanical things (some may say gadgets, but it goes beyond to more useful items such as tools, cameras and guns). They instilled in me a great admiration for the engineering and craftsmanship that goes into these things – and the distinction between quality-made items and junk.

my initial fascination with photography was not about the art at all

Today, I have nice tools and nice gear. In both categories, I look for quality and don’t buy “junk.” My recent downsize and move to Florida underscored just how much my life has involved tools. I had to give up a nice woodworking shop in Michigan, for lack of space here. I have recently mostly completed setting up my corner-of-the-garage shop here in Florida. The move actually evolved over a 5-year period, and I spent those years down here often missing my tools and my shop.

How does this relate to photography? It occurs to me that my initial fascination with photography was not about the art at all. It was partly about the science – and mostly about the mechanics. A “modern” (for purposes of this writing, manufactured in the 20th or later centuries) camera is a mechanical marvel. There was something almost seductive about that satisfying “click” from the shutter mechanism of those early mechanical SLR cameras made by Nikon, Pentax, Canon, and others.

I have made frequent reference here to the “gearhead” and have “owned” my own tendency to be attracted to nice gear. I will attribute that to my early role models and admit that the “artistic” side of my photography slipped in the back door over the years (or perhaps, just got its foot in the door and is still trying to get the rest of the way in).

There have been many times over the years that, in spite of my nice gear, I have really struggled with the artistic vision side of my photography (kind of like comparing Tom Brady with the equipment manager in terms of the importance of the endeavor 🙂 ). But I will continue that struggle.


In Search of “Tripod Holes”

The Colosseum is one of Rome’s “postcard” images. It is very difficult to get without crowds and often repair/construction scaffolding.
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

Ray Laskowitz’s comment on my recent post inspired me to think (and write) about this. His “been there, done that,” observation is insightful (as always).

This is probably my favorite shot in Rome. I turned away from the crowds and made “my own” image.
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

In the 1980’s and most of the ‘90’s, photography was a very different world. There were – seemingly – two different photographer groups out there: The serious (including pro) shooters with “sophisticated” equipment, training and experience, and “point & shoot” camera-toting tourists (not meant in a pejorative sense).

This is my hands on favorite shot in Venice. The “postcard” image would include The Grand Canal and perhaps the Ponte Rialto, where the crowds can be unbearable. This one was made early in the morning, on a back canal.
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

We used film. The point & shooters used color negative film and had prints made at the local drugstore. The serious shooters used a variety, including black and white, and color slides. Most of us had our developing done by either a local or mail-order photo processor. The serious among us worked hard for our images, scouting and studying locations and other photographs we saw. But there weren’t very many of us, and except for the very most popular sites, it was pretty normal to either have it to yourself or only be sharing with one or two other shooters on any given day.

Differing accounts put the number of “smartphones” in the world in use at between 2.5 and 3 billion. Billion!

And then came digital (of course, like all short writings, this is a bit of an oversimplification. But in general, I think these are valid observations). I have been as enthusiastic a cheerleader as anyone about the “digital photography revolution.” It has certainly made making images and showing them more convenient for me. And the “digital darkroom” has opened doors for me that I either couldn’t have opened, or at least not very easily.

The Golden Gate, of course, is the big bridge in San Francisco, and is perhaps the most famous and photographed bridge in the U.S. And, it is not too difficult to catch, since there are multiple perspectives to shoot it from. But “my” image is this one – The “Bay Bridge,” taken at first light, from the Embarcadero. I was there all alone.
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

But technology, we continue to learn, often comes at a cost. Differing accounts put the number of “smartphones” in the world in use at between 2.5 and 3 billion. Billion.

One approach I have always advocated is to get up close and look for a more intimate image. This – if you can do it – excludes crowds and other shooters, and is likely going to be “your own” take on a scene.
Copyright Andy Richards 2007

Compare that with about 5 million in 2000 (my research may be a bit questionable. I had a hard time finding this information, but this was from a site that gave numbers of shipments of digital still cameras during the years 1999- 2018. Presumably, this would include DSLR cameras).

With the right foreground, a sunset or sunrise can always add mood to an image. This is an example of a shot where nobody goes – but I did 🙂
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Incorporate 3 billion smartphone users (they all have cameras, and so virtually all smartphone users have now replaced the “point & shooters” noted earlier), with the combustive growth of digital media and you have a true explosion of the conditions I mentioned in the early paragraphs of this blog. As I noted in the last blog, it is difficult for me to illustrate the difference between a small crowd of shooters in 2013 and absolute mob scene we encountered in 2017.

Honeymoon Island is a popular beach, but certainly not an “iconic” photo opportunity. But it IS a good photo opportunity for those famous Florida Gulf sunsets. The unrequested “pose” made this image a “keeper” for me
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

So what do we, as photographers, do now? I am as much a fan of the “postcard” iconic image as the next guy. Indeed, in an earlier phase of my photographic quest, I sought primarily those images. Even though somebody had already done it, I wanted to have “my own.” No apology for that.

I worked to get this “already done” image, even doing a bit of “photoshopping” to get it the way I wanted it.
Copyright Andy Richards 2014

However, there are some palpable certainties that come with the “new age” of digital and smartphones. One is that the opportunities to make these “postcard” images have gotten much, much more difficult. You will have to plan to be present at odd times (which can be difficult for a traveler that is not staying in a destination). You may have to fight the crowds, and thus, change the physical perspective of your images.

I have never been to the Jenne Farm, which is the most photographed barn in New England, but have heard the stories of having to “fight” for tripod position even before sunrise. Instead, my single favorite Vermont Barn scene is this one, which I learned about from a friend. There are not very many shots of it out there (yet).
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

And in the end, Ray is right. We need to get away from the crowds and the icons; away from the “tripod holes” already made by others. I have known it for some time, and my own shooting has (glacially, I admit) evolved in that direction. These days, I look for my own images of the place (those are much more, “my own” than a copy of the postcard shot). And many times those images are away from the crowds, or at the edges of the crowds. My best imagery seems to come when I can spend some time in a location and get out very early or be out late, when the tourists are in bed or in the bars and restaurants. Unfortunately, this is not always possible, because of our chosen method of travel, which often puts us into places during mid-day. Even so, I have found images when I have been looking for them.

When Enough is Enough

Church in the center of Amalfi. When we visited this in 2013, there were very few people. In 2017, the crowd in front of the steps (mostly hidden from view) is 3 to 4 times as many people as are on the steps.
Copyright Andy Richards 2017

Those (very few) who follow this blog have probably noticed that I haven’t been here lately. It has been a combination of things. I have been largely consumed for the past few months – transitioning to full-time retirement. With retirement came a permanent move from Michigan to Florida, and the days have recently been fully engaged with that process. At the same time, these events have conspired to keep me anywhere but behind the lens, or traveling. That will soon change. I have lots of new places to explore and photograph, and some trips on the horizon.

I thought it was time to jump back in here (or at least wade into the shallow end). I often look at other sites on the web for inspiration, information and ideas. A recent news item intrigued me. There is apparently a very small, very quaint and very photogenic street in Paris, where the residents have had enough. I am not going to name it, or link to it. The article notes that “accounts show pictures and videos of dance troupes, fashion shoots, music video crews, endless selfie takers and photographers using the street as though it were a public studio.” the residents have petitioned local government to close of the street and ban such activities during evenings and weekends, so that they can enjoy the very reason they live there.

Church in Amalfi
Copyright Andy Richards 2013
I could not get this same perspective in 2017 because I would have had to wade into a crowd of 100’s of people and try to hold my camera above the fray.

Recently, I have read that certain destinations around the world (like Santorini and Venice) are considering limiting the number of visitors per year. We have all read about the overload of visitors our own National Parks.

My photographer’s “knee-jerk” reaction would be to assign blame to the ubiquitous “smart-phone” toting tourist

So when is enough enough? My photographer’s “knee-jerk” reaction would be to assign blame to the ubiquitous “smart-phone” toting tourist. There might be a kernel of justification there. There is no doubt that there are many rather ignorant souls out there who trample, litter, and otherwise abuse photogenic sites. And they all carry smartphones, for the most part. But the reality is (and we have all observed them), there are some expensive, sophisticated-gear toting “photographers” who are equally guilty. And, as well, there are some pretty talented shooters who make wonderful shots with their smartphones.

Of course, I think I should be allowed to exclusively visit those locations. 🙂 How many of us have silently cursed the person(s) who walked into our just-composed scene (or who just won’t move out of it)? Indeed, I can think of at least one instance where my intently “working” the scene was keeping another photographer from getting his shot (until my companion gently suggested that I move).

Of course, I think I should be allowed to exclusively visit those locations

The point (there is a point? 🙂 ) is that none of us has any superior “right” to the scene. My grandmother used to tell me that the definition of “manners” is simply “consideration for others.” She was right of course, and as we continue to see more and more travelers and photographers (be they DSLR users or smart phone shooters), we need to become more patient, more observant, and yes – perhaps more courteous.

My ebooks often give some pretty specific directions to scenes. I also try to urge readers to consider the rights and privacy of the landowners and adjacent owners, and to make their images without leaving a “footprint.” It is part of what I mean by courtesy.

Don’t Touch That Dial!

The colors in 2006 were a bit “lack-luster”
Copyright Andy Richards 2006

Lately I have seen photos frequently posted that show significant overuse of the “saturation adjusment. I have certainly been guilty of this myself. We shoot a scene that seems magically colorful to us, but when we first see it on our computer screen, it just doesn’t “get there.” If you shoot raw, that is pretty normal. Most images need post-processing. So our first thought is often to use that slider adjustment in our post-processing software (and every software has it); the saturation slider. And 99% of the time that is a mistake! I see a disconcerting trend of overuse of the saturation slider (even among some of my “pro” acquaintances).  My friend, Al Utzig will be chuckling as he reads this. His most frequent critique of my imagery early on was that they seemed over saturated to him. Maybe. I have certainly made much less use of the saturation tools in my post-processing as I – and my software – have become more “seasoned”

Recently, I see a disconcerting trend of overuse of the saturation slider

Like any discussion, we should be sure we are talking about the same thing. A general definition of “saturation” says that “saturation is the state or process that occurs when no more of something can be absorbed, combined with, or added.” When speaking in terms of color and photography, “saturation” generally refers not to the actual color or its accuracy (“hue”), but rather to the intensity of the color. This is important. If you are trying to correct a color, more (or less) saturation won’t really do that (although it might help to improve the color’s appearance in some cases).

What I have learned over the years ….. is that what we are really seeking often has nothing to do with saturation

The problem with the saturation slider (and every software will have its own internal algorithms for this) is that it generally does just what the definition says. It adds (or subtracts) to the intensity of color. Unfortunately, the result is often counterproductive. The saturation slider is indiscriminate (it saturates all color), and too often, a boost in saturation results in a color cast over the entire image. For example, I have seen one Facebook poster recently who is boosting the saturation in fall foliage images and getting a reddish color cast over the entire image. And in most cases, it also generally results in the detail in the photo deteriorating. Try it. Find one of your images and magnify it enough on screen to see the detail, and then move the slider back and forth. The more aggressive you are with it, the more you will see the details go mushy. In many currently posted images it is obvious that the slider has been overused, as the picture looks unreal on our screens. The colors are intensean often, Just not believable.

It is a very real temptation to “goose” the colors to make them as brilliant as we wished they were. Using the saturation slider here boosts the foliage, but at the expense of a red “pall” over the remainder of the image
Copyright Andy Richards 2006

Of course, there may sometimes be reasons to boost saturation. You might actually be striving for unreality. Another is that the saturation on a projected computer screen is always more intense than when a print is made. I often push things a bit before sending them to the printer, to get as close as I can to the color I liked on screen. But even then, you must be very careful not to introduce a color cast effecting the entire image. There are generally better ways to “boost” the appearance of the image.

Here is a slightly more “selective” move, using only the red channel saturation slider. It is slightly better, but still creates a red color cast which can really be seen on the silos and the white house
Copyright Andy Richards 2006

The thing about photographic imagery is that it can often be very difficult to duplicate the “reality” that your eyes saw. For one thing, I believe that each of our eyes see color differently. But it is also the case that the attributes we see in a “good” photograph are often more based on appearance, than reality. Things like contrast, brightness, saturation and even sharpness, all influence the appearance of color. But when it comes to color, something that I have learned over the years using post-processing software is that what we are seeking often has nothing to do with saturation. I think it is important to add here, that I shoot and save all my images as raw files.  Without getting into the should or should-nots, I think nature images (the most common culprit of saturation slider overuse) will always benefit from starting with a raw file. The first step in making the captured image look the way you want it will always be done in the raw converter, and that is very powerful stuff.

Color was slightly better in 2010
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

Even if the image does call for increased saturation, a number of pixel gurus have referred to the saturation slider as a “blunt instrument.” I almost never touch it, except occasionally to de-saturate an image, or parts of it. There are other, better ways to achieve the color we saw in our mind’s eye. Often, getting color “right” is a matter of contrast adjustment rather than saturation. Contrast can be adjusted throughout the image, or perhaps a better approach; locally. I do use the contrast slider in ACR (but not usually later in Photoshop). There are numerous ways to adjust contrast locally, including the tried and true “curves” tool, used with layers (of course it can be used globally on the image – that will be a judgment you will make).

It is still important to resist the temptation to “overdo” with the saturation slider, creating a red color cast on parts of the photo (barn roof), as well as deteriorating already soft detail in the distant foliage
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

I have also found that a brightness change to an image can sometimes make the colors appear to “pop” more. Again this can be accomplished globally, or using an adjustment layer, or a plugin like NIK Viveza 2.

The Saturation Slider is indiscriminate

There is also a relatively new tool: the vibrance tool (Photoshop has it; other software may call it something different). This tool is a slightly “smarter” tool than the saturation slider, as it targets more muted colors to add saturation to them, while leaving already saturated colors alone. But again remember that the tool is action more or less “globally” on the image and that may be letting the computer make your decisions for you. I often add just a small amount of vibrance in ACR (5-15%), combined with small moves of the contrast slider.

The Burton Hill Farm is a favorite image of mine. There is so much going on in this image. I used Viveza 2 to selectively DE-saturate the clouds to take a bluish color cast out of them
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

There are some very sophisticated techniques which require digging under the hood a bit, like working with “luminosity masks” – essentially specialized layers and layer masks, (Tony Kuyper has a set of pre-programmed layers of you are interested). Some years back, I learned a technique espoused by Dan Margulis (his book is a wonderful textbook, but not for the faint of heart. It is technical and it is expensive). It involves moving your image into the LAB colorspace and making some opposite curves adjustments. It really is more of a selective contrast adjustment, but really works wonders to bring out the “snap” in a color photographs. These techniques require some effort. You will have a learning curve, and generally will spend some time on each image in more complex post-processing. Lots of folks would rather go out and shoot and have very little post processing and ease of use instead of having to become a software expert.

There is still a temptation to “goose” the reds with the red slider. But the result is not productive, with oversaturated, mushy reds in the distance and again, a color cast overall
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

This sentiment probably stimulated the many products available today as plugins to existing software. One of the first of these was the NIK plugins. Originally its own company, it was at one time purchased by Google, and for a period was actually free to download and use. Google eventually apparently abandoned it, and it was ultimately sold to the DXo folks, who now offer the package for $69.00. I use it on almost every image I post-process and for me that seems like a reasonable price. They say it is new and improved, but I cannot see any difference, and am still using my originally purchased package. So far, it integrates with Photoshop CC.

The Nik product that is most relevant to this discussion is called Viveza 2. It is all about local adjustments the easy way. They have found a way to locally adjust images using circles on screen and a slider. It is not going to be as particular as using luminosity masks, but for me, for all but the most problematic of images, it works very well. Caution: Viveza does have a saturation slider! Again, I rarely touch it. The sliders I find most useful are the brightness slider, the contrast slider, and sometimes the shadows slider. I have found that in an image that does not need additional color correction (because hue, not saturation is off), that these three sliders – applied locally to areas of the photograph, do everything necessary to render a colorful, vibrant, and realistic result.

This is an example of an image where I “pushed” the sharpening and color contrast in the LAB colorspace. It looks “crispy” on screen, but the natural smoothing process of inkjet printing made this work for a sharp print
Copyright Andy Richards 1997

Indeed, after I owned and learned this software for a while, I found myself going back to old images and completely re-working them. And I discovered that I was, indeed, guilty of SSO (saturation slider overuse). 🙂 . I like the re-worked images much better. If you look at some of your images critically, you might just agree with me.

Make Your Social Media Photos Better – Part IV (“Bullseye” Photography)

Barn in Wheat Field
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Whew, we just covered some pretty “techy” areas in Parts II and III. If you have read on, I appreciate your patience, and there is good news. This one is much easier!  I want to talk about composition here. I left this for last because for the genre we are discussing (for lack of a better description, “smartphone snapshots”), it is perhaps the least important. Focus and exposure are going to take you a long way. Then we can think about composition (and the whole “level horizon” thing is really about composition – it is just such a common error that it got front and center coverage).

Hitting the bullseye is a good thing for darts, bullets, and arrows… photographs; not so much

Another very common thing I see is what I call the “bullseye” approach. Hitting the bullseye is a good thing for darts, bullets, and arrows. In most photographs; not so much. Our internalized image of a camera lens is round. On most cameras (including smartphones) there is an “aiming” point directly in the center of the viewing screen. If you don’t have movable metering and focus points, you are going to have to use that center aiming spot to achieve your photograph. Until (if) smartphone manufactures begin to put more sophisticated camera operating features in their native apps, you will do well to find one of the free, or nominal cost third party camera apps, as they will give you the much desired ability to use the camera as it should be used.

On most cameras (including smartphones) there is an “aiming” point directly in the center of the viewing screen

Given these built-in parameters, it is no wonder that many of the photographs we see posted have their subject dead center in the middle of the picture. If we are making a portrait of the subject (generally a front on of a person or pet), that is often desired. For most other (contextual) photographs, it usually results in boring composition.

Barn in Wheat Field
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

At the same time, the vast majority of scenic images have a “horizon” somewhere in the image. The most common fault here, is placing that horizon line across the middle of the frame. The Barn in the yellow wheat field is a good example. Our immediate thought is that the barn is our subject and we almost involuntarily center it on our aiming point, – in the middle of the frame. As you can see from the second image, moving it to the lower approximatley 1/3 or even the approximately upper 1/3 makes a more interesting, dynamic (and even believable) photo.  Whether you place it higher or lower, will probably depend on whether you want to highlight the foreground or the background of the image. Moving the subject out of the dead center of the image will usually make a more dynamic and pleasing picture.

Farm Scene
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

How do we accomplish that?  I have made reference to several of the tools discussed in Parts I – III. The most important of these tools will be the grid lines. I always have grid lines on on all of my cameras. The most common grid pattern is based on the artists’ “rule of thirds.” Perhaps the majority of images can be made using this grid. With a rule of thirds grid, the intersection of the lines places points in the upper let, upper right, lower right and lower left of the viewing screen. The horizontal grid lines, in addition to helping with level horizons, will help you determine where the horizon should be placed.  The vertical lines help to get the image out of the “bullseye.” It is often my preference to place my subject on or near one of the 4 intersections described above. It depends on the subject and often which way it is looking or moving (a rule of thumb is that you would prefer an animate object looking or moving into the picture). I “contrived” the farm scene image in Photoshop, to create the centered composition. In practice, I only rarely compose a shot like that, so I didn’t really have a good example. In the image I actually shot, you can see that the barn is roughly centered around the top right intersection, and the cattle are at or just below the bottom left (there are some other problems with this image. I would like the cows moving into the image. But in the words of Mick Jagger, “you can’t always get what you want 🙂 ).

Rule of Thirds Grid

The other tools we discussed will now also become very useful. If you move the focusing point out of the center of the image to the point where you want to place your subject, you will now ensure that the subject is not only dynamically placed, but there is a much greater chance that the important parts of it will also be in sharp focus.

Farm Scene
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

For exposure the metering point you want to measure in the picture may not be in the center. Most often, I find it is at the same point as my subject, but not always. Again, these are smartphone snapshots, so we don’t want to have too much to think about. I like to “pre-plan” a shot when I can. With my smartphone, I most often just move the focus/exposure point to the point in the image where I want it and then shoot.

Lobster Boat
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Sometimes composing a scene involves taking a step back and looking at context. When action is happening quickly, you don’t always have time to do that. But if you do have time, it pays to look with your eyes and think about what you want to include (and what you do not want to include) in an image. This is especially true of a scenic shot. The lobster boat shot in Bernard, Maine, is a good example. The boat was the first thing that caught my attention. So the shot is about the boat, right? Centering in on the boat certainly makes this point. But would a “composed” shot be better? Stepping back, either by moving your body, or changing the zoom factor, makes a completely different image. I’ll argue that it is a better, more interesting image and that the boat is STILL the main subject in the photograph. And my original “composition” also gets rid of that void expanse of blue water in the foreground of the image.

Lobster Boat
Copyright Andy Richards 2009

Composition is personal and subjective. I stood next to my best friend, Rich, to shoot this image. I don’t remember, but I would bet his composition was different (and probably better) than mine. What I have talked about here are not “rules.” They are guidelines. And rules and guidelines are “made to be broken.” There are certainly cases (for example, closeups and portraits) where centering the image is desired. But some thoughtful application of these guidelines will make your social media images more interesting.

I hope you have enjoyed this short series. A couple things. First, this stuff seems complicated and time-consuming. But it really isn’t. If you take some time to find and download a camera app, and set things up before you go out with the phone, you will find that paying attention to things like horizon, focus and exposure will quickly become habits and you will do them without really thinking about them. Composition may take a bit more time, but I truly encourage you to try it. Everything I have said in all four installments are “rules” or guidelines. They are not laws. They are only rules. And the age old saying that “rules are made to be broken,” certainly applies to photography.  It is your picture and you should feel free to break the rules when it suits your vision and taste.

Hopefully, if you slogged through all 4 of these blogs, that there was one or two tidbits of useful information.  As always, thanks for reading.

Make Your Social Media Photos Better – Part III (Focus on what you are doing)

Here the subject of the photo is the stream of water and it needs to be in focus. But there are lots of other “moving parts” in the image for the focusing sensor to pay attention to, so you have to make sure you are focusing on the water

Too many images posted on Social Media are soft, or often even downright blurry. While sometimes some softness is desirable, that should only be done intentionally and I am sure the majority of those soft images I see are not intended. As new photographers, one of the primary fundamental things we learn is that an image must be in sharp focus.

Sharp focus is one of the harder things to get right with a smartphone camera

Like the exposure issues in Part II, this is one of the harder things to get right with a smartphone camera. Modern “dedicated” cameras which are, after all, specifically designed to make pictures and do not have to do all the other work a smartphone does, have lots of controls. Most of them are user configurable. The “camera” (really just software) that comes standard with most smartphones has very limited capability to user-configure (though I am told the newest iPhone and Galaxy S9 have begun to add some of these things).  So, again, this is going to be easier with an third-party camera app, if possible.

You can see the water here is soft. The camera’s focusing sensor was “fooled” (really it was probably the user that was fooled) by focusing on the rock in front of the stream of water and let the water go blurry

As I noted in Part II, smartphone cameras are “all-automatic.” This means the software is attempting to do all the things you need to do to capture a digital image.  This means it has to determine proper exposure and focus for you. The focusing system is similar to the light-metering system, in that they both use a measuring device.  In the case of focus, the measurement is the distance from the sensor to the subject. That information is used to tell the camera lens to focus. Knowing that “subjects” often move, most camera manufacturers’ software by default, continually measures and refocuses. Some do better than others. It is possible that the moment you click the shutter does not exactly coincide with when the lens actually makes the capture and save. This may mean that the subject has moved in the meantime and the focus point has changed. This is not likely to happen often, as the camera apps just keep getting better at this. Most of the newest cameras also offer an algorithm called “face recognition.” It is designed to pick out a face or faces in the image area and purposely focus on them. Of course, the problem with this is when you have multiple faces in different places in the image (especially from back to front). Like any technological device, it is important for the user to understand what it is measuring, so you can control that aspect.

Like any technological device, it is important for the user to understand what it is measuring, so you can control that aspect

But there is another, perhaps less obvious concern, and this is most likely to be the culprit. Note that I have used the word “subject” several times above. To understand what is happening with the focusing system, we have to first know what we mean by “subject.” For our purposes here, I will define the “subject” as “that part of the image that you want to be in focus.” I know: the whole thing dummy, right? 🙂 . Digital images, as well as hard copy print images are essentially one-dimensional. The subject matter of our photographs is almost always 3-dimensional; often with substantial depth. The camera lens is not physically capable of rendering the entire depth of the scene in sharp focus. So we have to choose which part(s) we want to really be in focus.

Again, this is accomplished with the measuring tool in the camera. If we do not know where in the frame it is pointing, we will have to resort to our best judgment of the very small screen of our smartphone, often in poor light. The app I am using has the ability to turn on the little small rectangular bracket superimposed on the screen; and to move it around. Moving it around is a nice feature for composition. We will discuss that in Part IV. But the most important thing is to know that you must place the bracket on the part of the photo you want to be sharp (remember that you may also have this bracket set for measuring exposure, as we discuss in part II). When people are in the photo, that should be a face (and if possible, even someone’s eye).

One other thing to understand. Because the lens cannot make everything in the image sharp, it will become selectively more blurry as things move away from the focus point. The “back” (background) of a scene is more susceptible to blur than the front in most cases where smartphone lenses are involved. So if you are taking that sunset shot you want to try to set your focus point on the horizon, rather than a close object in the front (foreground) of the image (for the photographers out there, I appreciate that I am over-simplifying this, but again, this is mainly addressing smartphone snapshots).

Try experimenting with this and you will hopefully begin to see that you do have some control over the sharpness of the image. I think this will make your images better (at least – sharper 🙂 ).

Merry Christmas

Christmas Starburst


It’s that time again. The end of another (very long) year. As we have heard so many times over the years, time does seem to pass more quickly as we get older. Yet ironically, this has been a trying year for many – for many reasons. Yet I remain optimistic.

For me, this is a milestone year. After 36 years of successfully practicing estate planning and business transactions law, this will be my last full year. I will formally “retire” in the early part of 2019. It has been a good ride, and for me personally, in many ways perhaps my most enjoyable year of practice. I hope to focus the next phase of my life on more photography, travel, and learning new things.

In spite of the angst and disagreement, and in many cases, rancor, of our current times, I believe year-end, and for those of us who celebrate it – Christmas – should be a time of reflection and gratitude for the many good things we have and the people who love and support us.

I have often explained our U.S. Judicial System to frustrated “participants,” as “a system that stinks, but is still the best system in history.” I think that even for some who are feeling discouraged about our current circumstances, they might do well to reflect similarly on our country. I believe that I am very fortunate to have been born here, and to be a citizen. I have traveled a fair part of the world in recent years, and have enjoyed seeing other cultures, ways and views immensely. It is humbling and educational to observe that, in spite of the daily news of world “unrest,” there are many other cultures and ways of life in which citizens are happy, successful, and as proud of their country as we are of ours – and to realize that in the end, they are not so much different from us. I look forward to visiting more of the world over the next several years. But I am still glad that I call the U.S. my home and that I have the great privilege of living here. And I am humbled by the great sacrifices others have made to make this a place where I can live in relative freedom.

Christmas, is, of course, at its base, the celebration of the birth of Christ. In my lifetime, I have been fortunate to have been raised in a family who is tolerant of other beliefs (that is not to say many of my influences weren’t strongly opinionated 🙂 ). My parents encouraged us to learn about other religions. As a young person, I attended a Synagogue with my parents (probably not happily at the time 🙂 ), and even was invited to participate in a traditional Seder meal. I was encouraged to learn, and even took classes in high school and college on world religions. I lived in a pretty “vanilla” upper middle class community of about 20,000 people, and if there were mosques in town at the time, I was unaware – or it is likely we would have participated in that too. I hope all of that has given me at least a little bit less of a myopic view about the world and cultures. What I think all religious celebrations share is an introspection, and observation of our many blessings. And what they all certainly do not stand for is the rank commercialism that has grown over the years.

Over the past few years, My close family (the two of us and our 2 children) has “grown” away from the commercial aspect of Christmas and come to reflect more on our blessings, and the value of just having each other and being together when we can, and appreciating each other when we cannot. We don’t focus on the shopping, gift exchange, and financial aspect of a holiday which in our collective hearts we perhaps all agree has become too commercialized. We instead focus on family and activities that bring us together.

Oh yeah. The picture. I have as a “best of intentions” goal, the building of a better “Christmas” portfolio. I will be in Florida permanently by this time next year, and I know there are some pretty amazing displays in and around the Tampa area. So maybe a better post next year :-). This one, taken in 2019, was kind of experimental and I liked it then.  Looking at my small portfolio this morning, it was the one I was moved to post here.

Christmas is a time to be thankful, to keep friends and family close, and to rejoice in the many blessings we enjoy. In that spirit, Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it. And to those whose cultures, beliefs, and religions celebrate other holidays at this time of the year, I wish you my personal best, my appreciation of our differences, and my hope that we can each continue to learn about each other, share our common beliefs, and be tolerant of our differences.

Merry Christmas