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Is Digital Capture Too Easy?

Do We Take Digital Capture For Granted?

In the “My Story” page on this Blog, I suggest that it would be a wonderful exercise for “new” photographers to begin with a truly all-manual camera and color transparency (“slide”) film.  Perhaps there are readers here who don’t even know what that is (or was).


For many photographers – particularly nature and outdoor photographers – a process called color transparency film, became the medium of choice

The “brave new world that digital “capture” has given us has also done a pretty good job of hiding the technical aspects behind the curtain (no pun intended).  To understand that statement probably requires a little trip down memory lane.  The original idea, of course was chemical reaction caused by exposure to light (hence, “exposure”) light on a medium. The reaction caused the chemical to change color (or at least contrast).  While there were some prior experiments, the first “permanent” photographic image was probably the Daguerrotype, in the 18th Century.  Over time, the chemical medium of choice became silver nitrate crystals, suspended in an gel-type emulsion which we called “film.”  A series of red, green and blue layers were later added to the process, to create “color” images.  Compared to the vivid color we see on our computer screens today, early color film was rather subdued.

Black and white, and later, “color reversal” films were designed to create a “negative” image.  The negative image was developed in a chemical bath process in the darkroom.  Then, a second process was used to expose photographic paper (coated with a silver crystal emulsion of its own) to yield a “positive” image.

I believe there is a learning “take-away” from the color transparency film story

For many photographers – particularly nature and outdoor photographers – a process called color transparency film, became the medium of choice.  The color transparency was designed primarily to be projected onto a screen by shining a light through it.  It was also possible to create prints for personal use and for publishing with these images.  In its early stages, this process was confined to a very complex development process, that required very expensive equipment.  Perhaps the first and most famous was the vaunted “Kodachrome.”  Later, processes were created that would allow a less expensive, more routine form of development of the film.  The draw of the color transparency was its detail and realism.


Color transparency film is rarely used anymore, primarily because of the modern digital sensor.  Film had certain limitations, including relatively low ISO ratings (particularly in relationship to grain).  While the film industry made wonderful advances – particularly during the 1990’s, the arrival of digital sensors turned the photographic industry on its “ear.”  Suddenly, we could have a variable ISO “film” in our cameras.  And the quality of digital sensors has continued to get better and better, allowing for a relatively grain-free image at previously unheard of ISO ratings in the tens of thousands (compared to perhaps 200 ISO in a color transparency film).

If digital is so good, why do we care about all this?  Aside from the fact that history is interesting to some of us, I believe there is a learning “take-away” from the color transparency film story.

Our eyes are amazing biotechnical wonders.  Those familiar with cameras that allow user input, are perhaps familiar with the established system used to characterize the amount of light allowed to “expose” the medium (whether film or digital sensor), known as “f stops.”  Scientists say that the eye is altogether capable of seeing a range of up to 30 stops (though, at any given time, depending on lighting conditions, the useful range is perhaps closer to 10 stops).  Neither film nor digital sensors are capable of that much range (though digital technology will probably get there one day).  Because of this limited range, what we are able to record and present is much more limited that what our eye can actually see.  The magnitude of this range is known as “exposure latitude.”

Our eyes are amazing biotechnical wonders

Without getting into a detailed analysis of the various and relative exposure latitudes of different films and digital sensors, knowing these limitations is instructive.  As a general rule, B&W film had greater latitude than color negative film (perhaps comparable to the best digital sensors).  But color transparency film had nearly zero practical latitude.  When shooting slides, I would often under or over expose by 1/3 stop.  Any more than that and the image exposure just began to deteriorate.  So how is that useful?  It forces us to be thoughtful and careful about our exposure techniques.  I learned early on that I could be a bit sloppy when using negative film and still get acceptable exposure.  With slide film there is no margin for error.

But if other media is more “forgiving,” why does this all matter?  Well, what you can see in the darkroom is that there is a lot more you can coax out of a well exposed negative than a poorly exposed one.  And sometimes that is the difference between “acceptable” and “desired” results.  Using color transparency film was an in-your-face demonstration of how critical correct exposure is.  I have always thought of my digital sensor recordings as “digital negatives.”  And, much like the physical film “negatives” the quality of the “digital negative” critically impacts what you are able to do with it in post processing.  Getting correct exposure will yield desired results!

This image, made on Fuji Velvia; the most colorful and saturated film of the day, even with digital “enhancement” shows the more subdued colors and contrast ranges of transparencies

Of course, the comparison between film and digital is not exact.  There is a “science” to correct exposure with a digital image, and the response to exposure latitude is mathematically different.  Enough so that different and new techniques evolved for exposure judgement.  This technique, know as ETTR (or “Expose To The Right”), recognizes use of the graphic, “Histogram” for judging exposure.  I explain this exposure theory and technique in The Perfect Histogram, posted here in 2010.  While again, not an “apples-to-apples” comparison, there are many parallels to shooting with transparency film and optimal use of the digital sensor.

So, to my original question, do we take digital sensors for granted?  I believe many of us do, by not doing the “homework” involved to understand how these marvelous tools do their work.  The “cover” image was taken with my Smart Phone (the ill-conceived Blackberry Priv – Blackberry’s last ditch stand and attempt to compete in the Android world).  My first digital camera had a sub-2 megapixel sensor and produced, small, rather low-quality images.  Today’s smart phone cameras rival nearly any other small-sensor camera out there.  Most of them do not have the ability for significant user technical input, but the ability of the software to “do it for us” yields some impressive and often acceptable results.  But I will stick to my more sophisticated equipment and my knowledge of it, to obtain desired results.  And if you want a “tough lesson” learning experience, grab an old manual SLR camera and a roll of Kodachrome 25 and make some images!

I am experimenting with a beta version of WordPress’ new “Gutenberg” editor, which uses “blocks” of information.  Like anything new, there is a learning curve.  And bugs.  I like the ability to customize backgrounds, and to insert multiple images as “galleries” instead of just a single image at a time.  I am not sure I like the captioning,  I like that they have added drop caps (my prior solution was to make just the first letter in a bolder, larger font).  I do not like the in-your-face, hugeness of the drop caps.  I hope the final version gives us some more adjustability.  Likewise, I would like the ability to use font colors in the blockquotes, and vary the fonts within the text boxes.  Time will tell, but I apologize for any “wonkyness” here.

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Fall Foliage: The “Best” Time?

Red Jack Lake; Hiawatha NF; Michigan U.P.
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

This time of year, some of us get “antsy” about the progress and success of leaf turning, weather, and in general, the logistics of getting on to great fall imagery.  A number of basically dormant internet sites during the remainder of the year suddenly heat up.  Some “old friends” show up.

Every year, there are a number of new joiners to some of the sites.  Some are looking just for “leaf peeping” and travel advice.  Others are seeking information about photography.  Where to goWhen to go. What to expectLodging. TrafficWeather.  There are so many questions.  And predictably, they are generally the same questions from year to year.

Whitefish FallsMichigan U.P.
Copyright Andy Richards 2007

I often jump in and answer the questions.   But I am “that guy.”  No short, definitive answers here. 🙂 A question on a Facebook page earlier this week prompted me to think about this blog.  So I thought I would do some “Q&A.”

Predictably, they are generally the same questions from year to year.

The question I see most often asked is:  When is the best time to go to a destination for “peak” foliage?  The short answer is:  when the foliage is at its peak 🙂 .  Right.  Thanks for the help. 🙂

The thing is, there is no really good, concise answer to this question.  There are many variables. Perhaps the first is: what do you mean by “peak”?  There are different views about that.  One of my favorite (and best-selling images) was made in the Michigan Upper Peninsula years back on a pretty disappointing trip in terms of the “wash” of color we expect to see this time of year.  While the image below, of the Presque Isle River, as it leaves the iconic “Lake of the Clouds,” is arguably not even close to “peak” fall color, the contrast the early color present is pretty dramatic and pleasing.  Likewise, the Whitefish Falls image was shot during a period well past peak.  I excluded foliage that showed evidence of significant leaf drop.  But the colored leaves in the water made for pleasing color, and suggested “fall.”

Presque Isle River, Porcupine Mountain State Park; Michigan U.P.
Copyright 1997 Andy Richards

Perhaps the real point is that you can find some pretty nice opportunities and views without being on destination at exactly the “right” time.  I spent a number of years of my youth in Vermont, working and later attending college.  I remember some pretty spectacular color shows.  Yet when I travel back there, it seems like hard work to find some of those scenes.  When I lived there, I was (obviously) there every day and could see things develop and take advantage of the “peak” times – when they occurred.  In 2012, I guided a photo-workshop in the Michigan U.P., for a pro that I got to know from Pennsylvania, and for perhaps the first time in many years, arrived when the “show” was pretty well under way and watched it develop to peak and then a bit past peak.  The opening image of Red Jack Lake is – arguably – at “peak.”  But again, “peak” will be different things to different observers.


The question I see most often asked is:  When is the best time to go to a destination for “peak” foliage?  The short answer is:  when the foliage is at its peak 🙂 .  Right.  Thanks for the help. 🙂

The best time for fall foliage is very much environmentally driven.  Weather is the biggest factor.  And weather – despite the irony that there are people who make their living “predicting” it – is nothing if not unpredictable.  There needs to be enough moisture through the late months of summer and early autumn to keep the leaves green and healthy.  A very dry “runup” period is a recipe for dull color and early leaf drop.  Then, the conditions during the generally brief window of time when they begin to change to the point where they drop is equally critical.  Cooler temperatures, particularly at night (think frost), is what will kickstart the color change.  Wind and heavy rain can also be the death knell for fall foliage viewing and photography.  Obviously, the timing of this can be only very generally predicted.

Transient Light Photography Workshop; October, 2012
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

There are numerous other factors to consider.  Disease and predators can create negative conditions.  Over the years, I have noted a shift from the very bright reds produced predominately by Maple trees in Vermont, to more of an orange, yellow and brown mix.  Part of this is because of some blight and leaf cutters that have attacked mainly Maple trees, and caused damage and early drop of those species.

Geography and topography can also make their mark.  Generally, higher elevations experience “turn” sooner than lower elevations.  Areas that are in the lee of significant bodies of water will generally experience later color change than areas more inland.  This is almost always evident in the area of Vermont on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, and on the west coast of Michigan, and on the peninsulas that cover the Great Lakes.  Some of the northernmost parts of the U.P. often turn weeks later than other areas further south and inland.

So, while we can try to plan for the “best” time for our visit, there is going to be a significant element of chance.

Photographing Vermont’s Fall Foliage; 2nd Ed.
Copyright 2017; Andy Richards and Carol Smith

Planning is still important and getting as much useful information about a planned destination as possible will help manage expectations.  There are a number of resources, mostly on-line, that are useful, including local weather pages, and foliage progression charts.

While I am admittedly biased 🙂 , I think that perhaps the single best resources for fall photography are my own eBooks. Photographing Vermont’s Fall Foliage; now in its second edition, and co-written by my good friend and talented photographer, Carol Smith.  We have illustrative photographs and detailed directions and relevant information about many great foliage-viewing and photographic spots throughout the state of Vermont.

Photographing Michigan’s U.P., co-written by another friend and talented photographer and writer, Kerry Leibowitz, does pretty much the same thing for Michigan’s vaunted “Upper Peninsula” (which I will argue, rivals New England for fall foliage viewing and photography).

Photographing the U.P. eBook
Copyright 2016 Andy Richards and Kerry Leibowitz

THE Photographer’s Guide To Minnesota’s North Shore, written by another very good friend, Al Utzig, another talented photographer, writer and teacher (who I also met on the SOV forum originally), gives a pretty thorough account of photographic opportunities on Minnesota’s North Shore, along the Lake Superior shoreline.  This area is also not lacking in great fall foliage opportunities.

Some years back, while researching a fall trip to Vermont, I stumbled on the Scenes of Vermont Forums.  This site is a wonderful resource for visitors to Vermont, and to some extent, all of New England; particularly in the fall.  I soon became friends with the proprietor of the site, became a moderator, and even talked him into adding a photo forum.  Unfortunately, these stand-along forums have become less popular due to the dominance of social media sites like Facebook.  But one of the things it does better than any other is to provide “boots-on-the-ground” information during the short and unpredictable foliage season.  I highly recommend a trip there.

A good friend (we met on the Scenes of Vermont forums), Margy Meath, yet another talented photographer, also has a very good Facebook Page; Vermont Foliage Fanatics, which has a number of “cross-over” members from SOV.  If you are a Facebooker, I recommend checking that out.

Big News in Mirrorless

During the past 30 days or so, both of the big camera companies, Nikon and Canon have announced their entry into the full frame, mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MIL) market.  I wondered it this was ever going to happen!  Without getting into the “white hat vs. black hat,” “Ford vs. Chevy” discussion, suffice it to say that there are a number of other players in the market, all of whom make some very estimable camera gear.  But it is difficult to argue that, over the past 30-40 years, Canon and Nikon have been the market leaders.  Consequently, when they do something, it usually get noticed.

I intuitively knew that the industry would eventually move away from the popular and ubiquitous DSLR, to the smaller MIL

I got “married” to Nikon in 1980, and we had a happy relationship until sometime in 2013.  I think by then, that I intuitively knew that the industry would eventually move away from the popular and ubiquitous Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR), to the smaller MIL.  In 2013, after hanging around and watching Nikon, it became apparent that they had no intention of making a serious entry into the MIL marketplace.  Their eventual contestant, the Nikon 1,  offered no compatibility with the existing Nikkor lens line, and a sensor significantly smaller than the competitors and only slighly larger than the typical “point & shoot” (P&S) equipped sensor.  Disappointing for Nikon loyalists.

The NEX series by Sony, first introduced in 2010, signaled a commitment on their part to the MIL camera market.  The earliest DSLR consumer and “prosumer” cameras were equipped with a sensor smaller than the 35mm film cross-section which was the benchmark of Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras that were the most popular film cameras in use at the time, popularly known as “APS” sensors (eventually, technology allowed for affordable and useable sensors equivalent to the 35mm film cross-section.  These became know as “full frame.”  Cost and technology were factors.  The NEX line was one of only a couple mirrorless cameras that offered the APS sensor.  It was still a bit of an unknown at the time and what attracted me to Sony was the sensor that was the same as the one in my Nikon APS backup camera, along with Sony’s partnership with Zeiss lenses.

The “mirrorless” camera, of course, is not a new phenomena.  Rangefinder cameras were widely used by film shooters, even in the light of the popularity the SLR (single lens reflex) camera gained when it later hit the scene.  I was an SLR user.  Like the many other users, I liked the “what you see is what you get” view through the viewfinder (even though in most cases, it wasn’t 100 percent of what the lens actually captured).  But what really made/makes the new digital “rangefinder” cameras stand out, is the new electronic viewfinder (EVF).  Early copies were just not very good.  Today, I actually prefer the EVF.  One of the things I like is its ability to mimic the look through the lens as you stop down or open up, making your view brighter or dimmer (my Sony can override that if you find it disconcerting, but I have grown to really like it).

I know there are a lot of challenges to adding a new technology to very successful existing lines.  Lens mounts, lenses, and focusing technology are among them.  But given the inexorable growth of this camera platform, I have been surprised at the apparently sluggish progress both of the big guys have taken to this.  The recently announced entries by both of them come nearly 10 years later than the first popularly used MIL cameras!  I have thoroughly enjoyed the past 8 years of carrying much smaller, lighter gear in the meantime.

For those who waited patiently for Nikon or Canon, there may be a reward

For those who waited patiently for Nikon or Canon, there may be a reward.  Both of these bodies spec out pretty impressively.  For Nikon, this is only the second physically “new” mount they have designed for any of their interchangeable lenses (the only other one being the Nikon 1 mount).  By that, I mean that even though there have been changes over the years, every Nikkor lens is capable of being physically mounted on every Nikon interchangeable lens body (except for the Nikon 1).  Nikon has already also announce several new lenses (three of which, I believe, will be available yet in 2019) for its Entry, the Nikon Z series (currently, 6 and 7).

I am not sure what offerings Canon has – or will have for their new EOS R.  But both companies have adapters for their “legacy” SLR/DSLR lenses.  Again, in the case of Nikon, that should mean virtually any Nikon mount lens should mount on the Z series with this adaptor.  Of course, there is certain to be limits on functionality, depending on the age of the lens.  Not being familiar with Canon, I am not certain, but I am guessing there will be more limitations on which lenses will mount and which won’t.  But you should be able to use your professional glass on either of these models.

It remains to be seen whether this will be a workable thing.  I could see having one or more of the new lenses for a “travel” outfit, but still being able to use the pro glass for situations where you would be carrying the bigger equipment anyway.  For me, its too late.  I am perfectly happy in my new relationship with Sony.  For now.  🙂

Here We Go Again

I want to start with a blatant “plug” for both of my eBooks. The books (both written with the help of co-authors with their own impressive experience in the locations) are excellent resources for photographers planning to shoot these destinations. Please take a look at these books. They are available on the major sites, including Amazon and Apple iBooks. Go to the link page

Photographing the U.P.
eBook
Copyright 2016 Andy Richards and Kerry Leibowitz

Second Edition!

It’s that time.  Fall.  My favorite time of the year.  Like a cute puppy, I wish it could stay fall forever (maybe I wouldn’t like it so much if it happened – and most cute puppies grow up to be pretty nice dogs anyway).

Stowe, Vermont
Copyright Andy Richards 2005

Fall brings fresh, cool air, football, the harvest, and for most of my adult life, the most important “fall thing” of all: fall foliage.

Tahquamenon River
Michigan
Copyright Andy Richards 2004

While I enjoy photography most times of the year, the fall season presents – for me – the greatest opportunity to make the images I like.  The days are shorter, which means I don’t have to get up so early, or stay out so late, to get the nice light mornings and evenings bring.  The air is clear and fresh.  The sun is lower on the horizon, widening the photographic time window.  It always gets me recharged and excited about getting back out and shooting.

Burton Hill Road
Barton, Vermont
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

Most years, I have a travel plan to someplace spectacular.  My favorite place over the years, of course, has been Vermont.  I like fall foliage and Vermont so much, I wrote an eBook (now in its Second Edition, which features my co-author, Carol Smith’s insights and photography along with my own).

Glade Creek Gristmill
Babcock State Park, WV
Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

No specific plans this year.  I may make a weekend trip or two up to Northern Michigan or the Upper Peninsula, but that will be spur of the moment.  But even in such “off” years, I always seem to find something “fall” to shoot.

Babcock State Park
West Virginia
Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

Please consider purchasing both of my eBooks.  Both were started as logs of my shooting experiences in two of my favorite places in the world:  Vermont and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Both are wonderful outdoor shooting destinations – and both are especially magnificent in the fall.  The books (both written with the help of co-authors with their own impressive experience in the locations) are excellent resources for photographers planning to shoot these destinations. And if you are an outdoor photographer and have not traveled to either of these locations you should – best in the fall.  The books have directions and observations about the best times to shoot, difficulty of getting to them, and other items of information that we have found useful.  In many cases we have even included approximate gps coordinates.  Please take a look at these books.  They are available on the major sites, including Amazon and Apple iBooks.

Somesville Bridge
Town Hall, Somesville, ME
Copyright 2009 Andy Richards

I hope all have good fall shooting and safe travels.

Photogaphers At Red Jack Lake
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

Preferred Post – Processing Software?

Crystal Beach Twilight
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

Recently, I have been trying to branch out and explore some new, or at least rarely visited, territory.  For me, this usually involves reading:  both on the internet and books on particular topics.  In the past months, I have read about B&W, painting images and converting photographic images, flash photography, and more recently, night photography.

Almost everything I read has at least a short section on post-processing.  Because our world has become digital, it is, at the very least a “necessary evil.”  But some of us find it to be a huge positive to our photography, and even enjoy playing around with it.

I would appreciate if readers would respond here and let me know what their “go-to” software for image editing is, and why?

What I see in virtually every text and article though, is the inevitable reference to either Adobe Light Room, Photoshop (which has become a generic reference in many cases to all things digitally manipulated), or both.  It is understandable that Photoshop was the original image editing program, but over the many years since it was first introduced, there have certainly been a number of other programs designed with photographic image-editing in mind.  I have recently experimented with some of these offerings, including, most notably, On1‘s all-in-one, stand-alone, photo-editing software competitor to Photoshop (though I have not used any of them enough to have any judgment about them, there is an impressive lineup, including Capture One, Corel, DxO, ACDsee, and numerous others (interestingly, they all compare themselves against the Adobe “benchmarks” – Photoshop and Light Room – and often mention that you can work in and out of the Adobe programs, “seemlessly.” I gave On1 a pretty thorough test drive over a couple weeks.  Ultimately, I could not get the software to play well with my HP Desktop or my Microsoft Surface 3 and they graciously refunded my purchase.  It was an impressive program at what appears to be a lower price point than Photoshop.  I am currently subscribed to the Adobe Cloud solution; Photoshop CC and Lightroom Classic CC and whether the price point is actually significantly lower may well depend on how often these stand-alone programs need to be updated and at what cost.

In a recent post, I spoke about keeping up with the newest iteration of Photoshop, and concluded that it would remain my “go-to” software for all phases of image editing, for the time being.  The books all seem to suggest that most photographers are either using Light Room, Photoshop, or both.  The then go on and say that the image-editing process is pretty much the same.

Having come from earlier versions of Photoshop that predate Light Room, I never embraced its image-editing capabilities.  Early on, I felt that it still had too much missing from my workflow, and the Photoshop Adobe Raw Converter (ACR), now essentially the same conversion “engine” in both Light Room and ACR, seemed more capable in its early days.  By the time Light Room “caught up” to Photoshop, I was thoroughly entrenched.  I appreciate that Light Room was really developed specifically for photographers, and many who came to digital image-editing later than I did, probably started with Light Room.  There is little doubt in my mind that it is an easier learning curve, and its design is perhaps more logical to photographers.  But that is a little like saying that the metric system is a little more logical than the “English” system to a 62-year-old who has used the latter system all his life.  🙂  I am sure it is more logical.  But that doesn’t make changing my thinking to it a breeze.  So I pretty much stay with Photoshop (and use Light Room as an expensive cataloging tool).  That may change.  But for now, it still does a few things that Light Room doesn’t.  And Lightroom integrates well with it.

The point of this rambling blog is really to try to satisfy my own curiosity.  I would appreciate if readers would respond and let me know what their “go-to” software for image editing is, and why?

Oh, and by the way, I haven’t lost all interest in the “doing” phase of photography.  Not much shooting lately, but a little:  mostly experimentation.  The image here was taken a couple nights ago near my Florida home.  We often have spectacular sunsets here on the gulf.  But this night it was more subdued.  I made this image after sunset during twilight, and used my newest toy, a remote flash trigger, to walk over near the vegetation in the foreground and light it up with the flash.  I am a long way down on the learning curve for using lighting with my Sony system.  Nikon made it so easy.

Now, Fall rapidly approaches, and I suspect the excitement to get out will build.

Twilight; Sunrise or Sunset?

Sailboat; Naraganset Bay Sunset
Newport, Rhode Island
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Sunrise, sunset; Sunrise, sunset; Swiftly flow the days …”, voices the chorus of men from Fiddler On The Roof.  I am not sure it has any relevance, but whenever this topic comes to mind, I cannot help but conjure this earworm.

Otter Cliff Sunrise
Otter Beach, Acadia NP
Bar Harbor, ME
Copyright Andy Richards 2009

Something I read recently got me thinking about this topic (and, since it has been more than a month since I last was motivated to blog, it seemed like suddenly – finally – there was a subject to write about, on which I have experience, an opinion, and perhaps some gems of wisdom). As I did some quick and dirty internet research, I was a bit nonplussed to find that it was not my own original thought.  But I will go on anyway. 🙂

Horseshoe Lake Sunrise
Huron NF, Glennie, MI
Copyright Andy Richards 2008

Photography topics and opinions can be a rather polarizing subject (see what I did there? ) 🙂 . Canon vs. Nikon.  People vs. landscape.  Digital vs. Film.  Handheld vs. tripod.  Long vs. short lens. And of course:  sunset vs. sunrise.  Like the other debates, I find it a bit humorous that anyone would bite on the “which is better” question. And while we may have a preference, the true answer is obvious enough:  both.  And aptly, the title intro: “Twilight” also means both.

Inside Passage, AK Sunrise
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

It is, of course, conventional that the “best” time to photograph is during the so-called “golden hours” which occur shortly after sunrise and last for perhaps and hour and begin again, perhaps an hour or 2 before sunset. I used quotes around best, purposely.  I am not sure there is a single best time to shoot and in my world – more often than not – it is “when you can.” Indeed there are wonderful illustrative photos supporting the merits of shooting before and after the sunrise and sunset.  But here, I am talking about shooting the sunrise and sunset themselves.  Or at the very least, subjects directly bathed in it. Like so many of my images shot in rapidly developing conditions, some are of that “f8 and be there” variety, and others are planned and even re-shot.  The sailboat on Narragansett Bay is the former. I was photographing a lighthouse when the image began to develop and I had to just react quickly to make this image. The Otter Cliff shot, on the other hand, was the product of planning – before I left Michigan, and on several mornings while in Acadia National Park.  It was also shot, and re-shot, trying to achieve the optimal sunrise. Both seem to have worked for me. But there is always a component of planning for any photography. Here are some thoughts on that preparation – mental and practical.

Little Stony Man Sunset
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Copyright Andy Richards 2007

Practical Considerations:  There are multiple considerations for why you might want to shoot a sunrise, sunset, or both. On a practical level, there are considerations of subject and location.  Some locations obviously are affected by their orientation. Whether your subject faces east or west may factor into the decision of which time of day is best. In order to be ready to catch a sunrise shot (or shots), it is really necessary to be on location before the sun actually rises. This may mean hiking in to a location in the darkness.  It most certainly means scouting the location in daylight, and making some calculations about where the sun will be when you make the actual image. Software programs like the Photographers’ Ephemeris, can be an invaluable tool for this planning.

Soo Locks Sunrise
St. Mary’s River
Copyright Andy Richards 2005

Distractions are another important practical issue. It may well be that this phenomena is the single biggest reason why I have many more early morning images than sunsets. The main distraction is family and friends (and it may be more correct to point out that a photographer, if she is not careful, may be the distraction). This is particularly an issue during vacations and travel. My wife and I, and occasionally friends and family, enjoy travel. In recent years, we have traveled to a few parts of the world, and we certainly look forward to more of the same. But sunrise and sunset shooting presents a challenge in these circumstances. It is the rare non-photographer friend or family member who has the patience to accompany a serious photographer to shoot. Sunrise means early rising, which often makes for a long day. Sunsets invariably occur at the dinner/cocktail hours of the afternoon or evening.  For many of us, family and friend social time is important (perhaps more so than photography). My wife is not an early riser, so I have found that I can sneak away for some early morning shooting without disrupting the day plan much of the time. Sunsets are harder.  I have come to the conclusion that sometimes, I just need to go off by myself (or with a like-minded companion) on a “dedicated” photo excursion. I guess it is all about balance.

Clearwater Sunset
Clearwater, FL
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Aesthetic Considerations:  Aesthetics will always influence this decision. For example, I mentioned orientation above. This factor is also influenced by your desired lighting (i.e., backlighting, side, or front lighting). Perhaps one of the most significant aesthetic considerations involves compositional elements. For many years, I have sought “pure” landscape locations (“pure” meaning primarily to me: no people in the frame). These days, it seems that all the good locations are populated by tourists and other “viewers.” The vast majority of them are not serious photographers and it can often be a near-frustrating challenge to make a desired composition without someone in your frame.  With only a few exceptions, sunrises do not pose this problem. Only the unique “tourist” is out at that time of day.  Indeed, I have found that, even in my travel shooting in populated areas, that early mornings are the most productive for people-free imagery. As I have grown older, perhaps wiser, and more tolerant (my wife might disagree with this last characterization 🙂 ), I have concluded that there is often some merit in including people in imagery.

Aix-en-Provence, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

Photographic Considerations:  As I researched this aspect of the “sunrise/sunset” dichotomy, I learned – not surprisingly – that atmospheric conditions influence the photographic result. Sunrises generally have the characteristic of being clearer, cooler air. This is partly due to climatic conditions (is is usually cooler at sunrise than at sunset), and partly due to ambient influences (natural and man-made).  This often results in a lighter, photographically “cooler” and more contrasty image. The natural conditions are also more like to produce fog and mist – often low and dramatic.  A  significant exception to this may be the “marine layer” which is found along the northern west coast, where fog can be found almost any time of the day. But generalizations often trap us. The Horseshoe Lake image (one of my most successful sales images) was made during sunrise behind a cloud which produced a very diffuse, pastel light – in spite of the fact that the blue tint seems cooler (the blue tint is a characteristic of the film I used that morning – Fuji Velvia – in that kind of light condition). Likewise, cloudy conditions in the early morning produced a pastel-like light for the Alaska Inside Passage image. The sunrise image of the Bridge behind the Soo Locks perhaps exhibits more, the characteristics noted here. The morning was crystal clear, making conditions right for the sunstar image produce by the very small aperture, shooting directly toward the sun.

Sunset, Florida Gulf
Honeymoon Island SP
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

Sunsets, in addition to being generally physically warmer, also occur after there has been a day-long accumulation of airborne pollutants and wind-blown particles. Predictably, this often produces a more diffuse, softer, darker image. This sometimes results in surprising colors and it is rare that there aren’t variations from day to day. In my new home base on the Florida Gulf Coast, I hope for partly cloudy conditions as the sunset draws near, as that promises often spectacular colored skies, which are both pastel and brilliant at the same time. It is also sometimes the case that building storm conditions can produce dramatic conditions, especially when backlit by the setting sun.

Sunset over Cruise Ship
Carribean
Copyright Andy Richards 2013

What was interesting to me from my research was the science of all of this. Not really the technical side, but what it produces. I think I probably got the most insight from a painter’s website. The advice there and elsewhere to painters was fascinating. For sunrises, painters were advised that the clear skies of dawn yield more brilliant reds and oranges, and their palate should include yellow, bright orange, pink and blue, and emphasize the contrasts using dark blue on the sky and yellow on the horizon.  For sunsets, they are advised to use warm and dark saturated reds, oranges, magentas and purples.

Sunrise, Hateras National Seashore, Hateras, NC copyright Andy Richards

Personal considerations:  Some years back, I made a quick trip back to Vermont in late summer, to attend a funeral. On Sunday morning, I was invited to go to church with family members and friends.  I politely declined. I wanted some contemplative time, and I had packed some gear.  Instead, I left my motel room in the predawn light, in to photograph a waterfall I had been to many times in my youth, but never photographed. Arriving there just after sunrise, I climbed down a steep pathway and was rewarded with this beautiful waterfall and exclusive occupancy of the area.  Except for the pounding water, there were no other sounds and no other hint of humanity. My family and friends were in church, but I am certain that I was with God!

Cool (32 degree) temperatures following a very wet period created wonderful steam and colorful morning cloud conditions on this pond near Barton, Vermont
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

I have, in years since, often experienced this feeling of awe, being alone, or nearly alone as the world comes awake. It is a soul -cleansing experience for me. I know for others, getting up that early and mustering out is not a pleasant or desired experience. Ironically, that is good for me. As I get older, I understand the reluctance to rise that early 🙂 .

This shot involved a pre-sunrise, 20 minute hike down a very steep mountain trail on a Sunday morning.
I’d rather be here than in church any day!
Copyright Andy Richards 2008

I do appreciate though, after a long, good day, being there to watch the suns last rays of the day.

Sunset; Crystal Beach Pier
Crystal Beach, FL
Copyright Andy Richards 2017

Book Review: “Outdoor Flash Photography,” by John Gerlach and Barbara Eddy

Suggested

What this book is in great need of, in my opinion, is experienced, professional, objective, editing

Catching Up …..

Wow.  My last post was at the beginning of May, 2 full months ago. I guess I have fallen into one of those “lulls.” Nothing new and notable on the shooting front, and nothing much unique to say.

Over the winter, I played around with B&W and “painting.” I read several books on those subjects, and reviewed a couple of them. More recently, something got me realizing that I needed to renew my acquaintance with supplemental and artificial light; and particularly, flash – the stroboscopic variety.

New Gear and Flash …..

Several years ago, I made a monumental (for me, anyway) change in my “gear.” Having been “married” to Nikon for nearly 40 years, I made a complete changeover to Sony mirrorless cameras. The primary reason for my changeover was not creative or technical. It was convenience; and in particular, size and weight. Along the way, I discovered some creative and technical advantages. These are not really attributable to brand, but to “new” and to features. Every manufacturer seems to have certain areas they do better than anyone else. If only I could build my own ala carte camera.

One thing Nikon did better than anyone else (in my view) and Sony seems to do worse than anyone else (again, in my view) is flash. I got spoiled with Nikon’s creative flash system. You see, flash involves math, and there is very little about math that is either appealing or comes naturally to me :-). Nikon took the math out of it and let me not have to “think” about it. Maybe that wasn’t such a good thing.

A detractor for many of us is cost. Brand-dedicated flash units are ungodly expensive. As much as a good lens. And sometimes you want to use multiple units – as much, or more than the camera!  And, flash units are complex, and befuddling: right?

I have absolutely no doubt that the authors of this book are consummate, professional photographers and workshop leaders, and that they really, really know their craft – in particular – the ins and outs of everything “flash.”

During my 40+ years of shooting, I have shot 98% natural light. I have, for sure, used flash (I even remember those big, blue, “lightbulbs” that bayoneted into a reflector on my Asahiflex, popped once and ejected – hot!). But I think it is time for me to start expanding my shooting, to include supplemental lighting.

So, I started reading. Always my go-to. And I learned that there are less expensive, after-market units out there (some good/some not so good).  Sure, they have compromises. My friend, Kerry Leibowitz, once said to me in an e-mail exchange, “everything about photography is a compromise. .. Everything.” So I am good with that. For 1/4 the cost (or less), I was able to find a Sony-compatible flash to play with.  Maybe I will review it at some point (after I understand more about it 🙂 ).

There is a lot out there to read. I am a book person. Hence, the review. But before I do, let me recommend the website, strobist. There is a huge amount of information, free for the reader, here. I have just begun to dig into it, but some would say it is all you need.  Me? I am still a book guy. I like to read and highlight and flag, and go back from time to time. I already had Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Flash Photography,” so I started there (I highly recommend two other Peterson books: “Understanding Exposure” and “Learning to See Creatively“).

There is some really good material.  But you you really have to work for it.  And to me, that is off-putting, particularly in an “instructional book.” With some work, this book could be made into a pithy, useful, field guide that someone like me just might carry around with him. But not in its current version

So, The Book …..

Wanting to dig deeper, I started researching on Amazon. I have long known of John Gerlach, and his workshops, and the bulk of the reviews liked his book “Outdoor Flash Photography.” I had read some of his other books over the years, and was familiar with him, as he originally lived in my “backyard;” the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As many readers know, I have spent some time up there and my “Photographing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” is a guide to many of the wonderful shooting opportunities there. So I bought the book.

“Suggested” …..

This book is in my “suggested” category (meaning, I don’t necessarily believe every shooter should have or read this, but I have it, or have owned it, and found some useful material there). But what makes this a “suggested” book rather than a “recommended” book is largely editorial style, unfortunately. There is some really good material in there.  But you you really have to work for it.  And to me, that is off-putting, particularly in an “instructional book.” With some work, this book could be made into a pithy, useful, field guide that someone like me just might carry around with him. But not in its current version.

As I looked at the different offerings, and the editorial reviews, I was struck at how often the description said something like, “demystifies” flash, or “contains unique material, not found anywhere else.” This book suggests that there is something unique about “outdoor flash photography,” and that there is no other resource out there that covers these topics.  But my research and experience demonstrates otherwise. To be sure, many, if not most of the resources out there have a heavy concentration on portraiture and even sometimes studio lighting techniques. But my conclusion is that there are some basic lighting principles that really apply to photography in general, and they are not that unique from genre to genre.

I would have no hesitancy to sign up for, and attend one of their workshops

Need For Objective Professional Editing

Readers here know I am good at digression.  But I want to say something here, to put my “critical” (“Critical: expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work ….“) comments in context.  I have absolutely no doubt that the authors of this book are consummate, professional photographers and workshop leaders, and that they really, really know their craft – in particular – the ins and outs of everything “flash.”  And you only need to go to their website to see that their imagery is first class, and their workshops well-attended and widely praised.  I had the fortune of bumping into one of their workshops a couple years ago, while shooting fall colors and researching locations for my own Photographing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and introduced myself to John.  He is a very nice man, with an undoubted bank of technical and locational knowledge.  One thing that really impressed me:  neither he nor Barbara had cameras in-hand.  It was their workshop and they were there to be a resource to the attendees.  I would have no hesitancy to sign up for, and attend one of their workshops!  I also studied nearly everything their own “mentors” (the late, Larry West, and John Shaw – both former Michigan residents themselves ) wrote and know the authors’ pedigree is estimable. Knowing this, I was mildly disappointed in this product.

What I was looking for was more of a hands-on, practical, experience-based text. How is “outdoor flash photography” different from “flash photography?” This book partially hits that mark, but it is a difficult path to get there! What the book is in great need of, in my opinion, is experienced, professional, objective editing. The term I would use to describe the current text is: “rambling.”

I would describe the author’s (while both John and Barbara are listed as authors, it is clearly primarily written in John’s voice) style as conversational.  Too conversational. It feels like maybe a day in the field, or in the lecture facility with John speaking. This style probably works well in person (he is said to be engaging and entertaining).  It doesn’t work in written form. As anyone reading here knows, I am all for an informal written presentation. But in written communication (especially instruction), there needs to be a certain level of formality, structure and organization. This book lacks that structure – in a way that makes it difficult to stay with it. Here are some specifics:

Style – The “conversational” style, as noted above, is off-putting. Sentences throughout the book are replete with misplaced modifiers, which I suspect is a matter of conversational usage, but is jarring when repeatedly read. This doesn’t affect the technical presentation of information, but it certainly makes it less effective. The frequent attempts at humor fall flat. Again, they probably work well as one-liners in an oral presentation, but they come across as borderline lame in a more formal, written text.

And words and phrases……..  I have always been a firm believer that good, strong writing and clear communication means simple, direct writing. It is good to vary word choice from time to time to make the writing less repetitive and more interesting (I use a Thesaurus frequently, when I feel that I have been repeating a single word too much). But the use of “big” words, or flowery phrases does not automatically make writing better or more interesting. Sometimes it is just best to say the word that applies in common usage – direct and simple. I have to believe that an objective, professional editor would eliminate the majority of these issues, and create a more straightforward, informative and readable text.

Relevance – Too often, the author wanders “off the reservation,” getting into totally irrelevant commentary which, while perhaps anecdotally interesting, takes us away from the subject matter of the book – flash photography. While some of it may have nominal relevance, a quick reference to it and “move on,” would be, in my view, much more effective. There is too much “Cannon vs. Nikon” philosophy, for example (I appreciate that these authors each use one of these systems, as do perhaps the majority of their audience, and surely there is some relevance to how these makers handle flash issues – but again, “just the facts ma’am” and then move on would be a good thing here). 🙂

Organization – The book is divided into 14 chapters. Respectfully, I do not believe there are 14 separate chapters of material here. I am not sure about publishing requirements and standards, never having personally done more than my own eBooks (which may not be models of clarity either). I have written enough to know that organization is not always an easy path, and there are always choices about how, where and when to present materials. But I truly believe this book could be condensed down to no more than 5 chapters. What we instead find here is a lot of needless (and I think, confusing) repetition.  In an effort to distinguish terminology and techniques, the author ends up repeating the same materials under different topics. The implication is that there is something different, and yet, there really isn’t (a great example is the segue from “fill flash,” “main flash” and “balanced flash.” After 3 long, repetitive chapters, it really boils down (and is implied, in my reading, by the book) that they are not really different categories. They are just applications of the flash fundamental that every flash exposure is composed of two exposures, one being the ambient light exposure and the other being the flash exposure. The rest is just understanding the relationships of the light sources, and how the technology in the units and cameras handle it.

There are many Positives …..

Having been critical, I have to say there are many positives to take away from this book. It is why I “suggest” it. I believe it is worth the work to slog through it and try to distill the very good information that is in there. I will go back and re-read, and take personal notes on this information and hopefully add it to my own kind of “field guide.” Here are some items I think are worthwhile information/tips from my first reading of the book:

  • The author gives one of the better explanations of how the strobe flash works, including flash duration, that I have read.
  • There are a couple comments regarding the use of flash when shooting waterfalls that I had not previously considered – particularly the ability to “freeze” water droplets while maintaining the “silky” look of the main waterfall in the image.  You can be sure I am going to experiment with that.
  • While most experienced users are aware of this, his explanation of how TTL in the flash unit relates to automatic and manual control of the camera was helpful.  He re-inforces why those of us who rely on “automatic” modes, because we don’t know better (or in my case, because we have become lazy), don’t get the results we expect.
  • There are some helpful tips on the placement of flash (particularly in close subjects) to maximize color and texture.

I could see it being transformed from an “eh” book, to one I would put on my “must own” list

The Takeaway …..

The paperback cost just under $27.00.  Today, that is a rather modest cost for a full, published, hard copy book. So I certainly didn’t feel put off or cheated by the purchase. And there was enough in it for me to keep it rather then send it back. But it would not go on my list of “must own under any circumstances” books.

What I think might be a dynamite re-work of this book would be to have some heavy editing, drilling down to the relevant, useful information in the book, perhaps adding some more practical and experiential information, into a shorter and perhaps smaller format (think “field guide”). I could see it being transformed from an “eh” book, to one I would put on my “must own” list.

Suggested