IHAVE shot primarily nature, landscape and other outdoor venues for all the years I have been at this. And for many of those years, I worked hard to get people-free images. Still do some of the time. In popular places, it was not uncommon to sit patiently (or sometimes not so patiently 🙂 ) waiting for people to clear a scene. Later, the ability to “remove” things from images digitally softened some of the angst. But that doesn’t always work. I found myself still waiting for opportunities where the “offending” body was in a spot that would be easy to remove. And then, of course, that brings on all the “isn’t that cheating?” stuff.
not every national park, scenic view, or iconic location was put there for me and my camera
THERE ARE, of course, still going to be times when you want a pristine landscape shot. Often the best time to do that is very early in the morning, before tourists and even workers are out. Getting up early takes a certain discipline, but every time I do so, I am rewarded. Often with complete solitude. Sometimes with just a lot fewer people around. Another way to get that kind of shot is to shoot scenes and places where there aren’t a lot of people. Places that haven’t been discovered yet. Or places that don’t have tourist appeal. I have found some of my best farm scenes to be places that haven’t been “discovered” yet. I have also learned – unfortunately – that it isn’t a good idea to identify those locations in this day and age. There are a couple now famous scenes in Vermont, for example, that used to see the occasional photographer in the road near them – usually during the fall foliage season. But today, everybody and their smartphone wants to photograph these places, and in addition to large numbers of people, many of them have zero respect for other’s property. Indeed in recent years, some of these once quiet, bucolic scenes have taken on a “carnival” atmosphere that is totally at odds with what drew us to them in the first place.
PEOPLE IN the scene can often be perceived as a negative. But I also have to remind myself sometimes that not every national park, scenic view, or iconic location was put there for me and my camera. Indeed, (at least before the advent of the smartphone), the vast majority of visitors to these locations are/were probably there just to see the place. And they certainly have every bit as much of a right to do that (even if they are standing in my photo 🙂 ). Tolerance does not seem to be a popular thing these days, but I still try to practice it.
IN RECENT years, though, something that I have learned is – especially in my travel photography – putting people (or using the people that are there) in your photos sometimes creates added interest. In addition to scale, they can give perspective, and sometimes create questions. Like what is she looking at? What is he thinking? Or they can help express the pure joy of experiencing one of our worldwide wonders. So, for me the trick has now become how to best position the people that are inevitably there in the image. I have begun to look for those moments. I know I am probably late to the game (but suspect I am still with, or ahead of many of my fellow “nature” photographers). Street photographers often purposely seek out people in their imagery. I have never felt really comfortable engaging people, but I am slowly coming to grips with it. In the meantime, I often try to portray people in the image in a basically incognito way (looking away, or so distant as to not have recognizable face). But other times that is just not possible. And when people are in public, they have a reduced expectation of privacy, so I feel that as long as I am not portraying them in a negative way, it is probably o.k.
WHILE INCLUDING people in photographs can be an enhancing factor, I also believe there is a tipping point. I have had times where the venue has been so crowded with people that I have decided not to even shoot it. Sometimes crowds can detract from a shot. Unless, of course, you are trying to depict crowds.
IDON’T think I have used people in images anywhere more than my recent trip to Portugal. We were in two of the most populous cities in the country and let’s face it: there were bound to be people everywhere. Even early in the season. I think this year is perhaps unusual, as people were pent up from the pandemic, and ready to get out and travel again. For whatever reason, there were a lot of people in Lisbon and Porto in late May and early June.
SOMETIMES PEOPLE and their behavior make an otherwise uninteresting image worth a second look. I was walking around St. Kitt during one of our Caribbean Cruise stops and looking for color and interest. The obviously attractive young woman in this shot caught my eye. If the shot were about her, though, having her walking out of the frame is just not very good composition. As much as it may seem so, she is not the true subject of the image. I had all I could do with the fast moving action and my widest zoom to catch the entire important parts of the scene. But mine were not the only eyes she caught. Do you see it? 🙂 I couldn’t resist making this one.
THE “SELFIE” has become (for better or worse) a common occurrence in these times. There are times when people compromise privacy, safety, and property in there unending quest to produce the best Instagram selfie. But sometimes it is just people trying to capture a memory It certainly speaks of behavior. The gondola scene at Piazza San Marco on Venice is iconic. Most of us shoot it trying to exclude outside elements. I was doing that one early morning – making a motion-blur image of the rocking gondolas. When I arrived, I saw this young woman who I believe was making a selfie with the piazza and St. Mark’s in her background. It gives great human interest to the image, in my opinion.
IHAVE made numerous cruise ship pictures over our years of cruising. I am usually shooting either the landscape, or action on the ship. I am never the only one doing so, though most often it is folks with their smart phones (or even tablets sometimes). I love to make images of a harbor as we enter it and dock. As I was doing so in the very picturesque Cobh, Ireland, I noticed the gentleman below doing likewise. I have gotten smarter about my photography over recent years, and was glad I had the presence of mind to capture the scene, which certainly tells a better story than my “solo” images do.
OF ALL the imagery I have made over the years, a substantial majority has been landscape – and of that, more than anything, fall foliage. Mountains, reflections, closeups, barns and farms all make wonderful context. Occasionally, people in the image add color, or interest, or even scale and perspective. I shamelessly confess that I totally “copycatted” the following silhouette image, after seeing a colleague framing it up. But what a great storytelling idea. The photo is another “ho hum” fall foliage image without them.
SOMETIMES STAGING people in an image works. During my trip to Vermont in October, 2021, we were composing and contemplating shooting an uphill Vermont back road, framed with colorful foliage. I made the point that this one needed some interest – a person walking up the road. On of our friends offered to “model,” wearing a bright yellow raincoat I had (which was the brightest “prop” we could find). I think the photo worked well. But when I got home, and reviewed the image on my screen, it occurred to me that red would have more impact. So I made it red. I know. That “cheating” thing again. 🙂
IAM certain that I miss many opportunities to use “models” in my images. I am, by nature, not an outgoing person when around strangers. Again, sometimes, I just get lucky. I was walking in the St. Kitt Cruise port area shooting some of the colorful buildings. This young shop employee asked me out of the blue if I would like her to pose for me. I am no portrait photographer, but I thought this was a kind of fun image that would not have been the same without her in it.
AS OFTEN as I get “unlucky” or even annoyed with the people in a scene, sometimes I get lucky. The scene in Rome was interesting enough to capture my attention. But when the young man walked into the shot, it seemed like a case of “right time; right place” for me.
LOOKING FOR opportunities often begets opportunities. In case of the photo below, we were on a street art walking tour in Cape Town South Africa in January. While mostly shooting the street art imagery, I am always on the lookout for colorful subjects. And – lately – also for human subjects of interest. Here I found both and couldn’t help but wonder if the conversation was about our group?
WHILE SOMETIMES, a photo leaves you wondering about the people in the photo, other times it’s just obvious what the person is doing in the photo – and yet still adds interest. This young woman was one of another couple that joined us on the street art walk recently in Cape Town. The focus of the day, of course was the street art itself. Usually in context. But this opportunity presented itself and I liked the symmetry (physical and figurative). There is little doubt in my mind that the inclusion of the photographer adds interest to the already visually compelling subject.
VERALL, I think there is always going to be room in my portfolio and shooting style for both. I will always want to at least try to make “clean” images. Sometimes that means waiting. Sometimes using content-aware processing. But what I have learned is to look for both opportunities. I think both views, for example, of the Pink Street below are interesting. I had to go very early in the morning to get the empty street. But the people in the second image are always there, beginning in the early evening, and by nighttime, the place is packed. That’s reality and if you are going to portray reality, you are going to have people in the picture. 🙂
[Tomorrow, I head to Ft. Lauderdale to board a cruise ship bound for the Caribbean for a few days. When I return, I am going to take the blog in a slightly different direction – temporarily. See you in a couple weeks]
[I have had this one qeued up for a while. I think that on the eve of fall foliage photography season, it is timely. I will return to the Portugal Series on Saturday]
THERE ARE many really good books out there on digital color management. Perhaps the all-time standard was written some years back by the late, great, Bruce Fraser, along with Chris Murphy and Fred Bunting: “Real World Color Management.” There have been major advances in the technology we use, including capture, scanning, editing and projection since it was written. And it is not a “For Dummies” style book. But for anyone really interested in digital color issues, it is probably worth the slog through it. All this to say that I am not an expert in color management, or theory. My armchair perspective should be given its appropriate weight. Yet some things I have seen recently lead me to delve into this subject from a (hopefully) less technical and more observational perspective. I know I am personally guilty of any number of digital processing issues, so my comments here are geared not toward showing my great expertise. Rather, I want to pass on some knowledge that has been generously shared with me over the years.
. . . overuse of the saturation adjustment in processing images is probably the biggest issue I see in photographs posted on-line
IN SPITE of some objective measurement standards, we all see color differently. As technically amazing as the human brain and senses are, they are in the end, biological. And as such there is a significant variance in each of our biological “equipment.” Likewise, in spite of the objective standards and technical manufacturing abilities available today, Different equipment (and even possibly the identical model of the same brand) will possibly render color differently. And finally, viewing conditions will almost never be exactly comparable. Each of these factors will dictate how we “see” images and color.
AND, PHOTOGRAPHY is in significant part, Art. To me, that means there is no “right” way to portray an image, except the way the photographer wants to portray it. I do, however, think that sometimes the poster of an online image thinks they are portraying it a certain way, but aren’t aware of things they are doing that might actually be detracting from that vision.
THAT BEING said, there are some things that can be nearly universal in this area. The most important of them is perhaps calibration. Despite the variables suggested above, calibrating your equipment – especially your monitor(s), but if you print, also your printer – are a really important step. I use an older technology to calibrate my monitors (since this writing, I have updated my monitor calibration tools and software to the “datacolor Spyder X) and probably don’t do so often enough. Good calibration tools will adjust the brightness, contrast and color of your monitor to a known standard and should take into consideration ambient viewing conditions. It is an added expense, but if you are going to be serious about post-processing images, it is a necessary expense, in my opinion.
MY RECENT observations includetwo significant areasthat I think would improve the images I see on-line (again, I am not using my own images as any “standard,” nor am I trying to establish any superiority – I am just sharing what occurs to me as I view them).
I am not saying that adjusting the saturation in an image is always wrong. But what I am saying is that you cannot generally make a nature image “more” colorful than it already is
The first (and I have written about this in the past, but it continues to be a commonly-seen occurence) is the overuse of the saturation adjustment in processing images. Color is a complex animal. At first blush, it might appear that just moving the saturation slider up renders brighter, and “better” color. One of the places I most often see this is in nature images – particularly fall foliage images. During the short, but intense foliage season, I follow (and even moderate a couple) foliage boards and Facebook Pages. Overuse of the saturation adjustment is rampant on those pages. An image is nice, but the “reds” just aren’t red enough. Push the saturation slider, and at first glance, it pumps up the reds, oranges, and even yellows, right? Well, yeah, but unfortunately, it is not that simple. Digital color is made up of several components. The two that are perhaps most applicable here are saturation and hue. Hue is the component that defines the “trueness” of the color. It moves colors around the color wheel, making them more or less pure colors (or hues). The problem with the hue adjustment is it is very sensitive and it is easy to go too far and actually change the color(s). And, adjusting it generally affects the entire image and all the colors within. Most of us don’t even go there, and if we do try it, never touch it again.
Saturation, on the other hand, is easier to use and give at least the illusion that you are improving the color(s). But maybe not. Note the second image in the composite below (this is a very popular image in the fall, and I often see it posted – frequently oversaturated). Alone, it seems to look good. Nice bright, saturated colors. But compared against the “as shot” color version, you can start to see the problems. Perhaps the best indicator is to look at something in the image that should be a neutral color – like the low, gray shed in the foreground. Note how in the second image, it is unnaturally yellow and the roof has a red cast. In the third image, it has a plainly reddish cast to it. The second area my eyes go to are the bright red foliage immediately behind the steeple. It is pretty brilliant even in the “as shot” frame. But in all of the others, it approaches unreality – almost cartoonish. Next, look at the green roof. In the two “saturated” images, it looks unnaturally bright green. In the “red added,” image, it has a marked reddish cast (as does the sky, the white church, and everything else in that image). And, in the first saturated image, the corn stubble looks totally unrealistic – almost neon. If I could live with one, it would be the saturation adjusted in NIK Viveza 2. I still think it is overdone, but it does seem more subtle. It probably falls within the range of “artistic” adjustment by the shooters. But the other two are just not very good.
Like the hue adjustment, though, the saturation adjustment – by itself – is a global adjustment. In other words, moving the slider affects all the colors within the entire image (so, if you make leaves “redder” by pushing the saturation, you are also making neutral colors like roads and tree trunks, take on an unnatural, oversaturated color – often giving them a red/magenta cast that is not natural or pleasant looking. But more important to understand is that it does not really make color “more colorful” (e.g., it does not make reds “redder”). What saturation does is changes the intensity of the color. But as it does so, it also almost always degrades the image. It also usually introduces an unwanted and often unpleasant color cast. If you closely observe the action of the saturation adjustment, you can see this. Take an image with some good detail in the reds (a fall foliage image with maple leaves, for example). Magnify the image on screen enough so that you can see the edges of a leaf or leaves, and/or the veiny details of the leaf itself. Then increase saturation slowly and you will see the details become mushy. This loss of detail is often one of the telltales I see in oversaturated images.
The overall color cast created by overuse of the saturation adjuster is visible. Sometimes it is painfully obvious, and sometimes it is more subtle – but it is still there. Look at the other areas in the image (often areas you do not want to change), and note that they have taken on a reddish, or even magenta cast. Our eyes are very good at adjusting to these subtleties, and “tell us” that the asphalt, or the grey wooden barn, or the tree trunks are supposed to be grey and so we accept that. But on a more critical view, they often have been changed and aren’t truly depicted as grey (or any of the many other neutral tones they should show). Increasing saturation globally is a bit like taking a color filter and overlaying it on the foliage image. It affects every part of the image. Of course, there are better ways to make adjustments, than globally, and a lot of the overall color cast problem can be fixed with good selection techniques and targeted adjustments. And a targeted approach is almost always the best way to attack these issues. But we are still not really making reds “more red” by saturating them.
I am not saying that adjusting the saturation in an image is always wrong. But what I am saying is that you cannot generally make a nature image “more” colorful than it already is, and have it be effective. I see so many of these images that are, or border on, being cartoonish, have a color “pall” about them, or a significant to complete lack of detail. At the beginning of this post, I made the observation that color is seen differently by each of us. I will take that a step further and say that color is largely a matter of perception. One of the ways we “perceive” color is by its contrast to other colors around it. I shoot 99% of my images in the raw format. Raw capture doesn’t usually look very good straight out of the camera (for reasons more technical than I can adequately explain here), so they universally require some post-processing adjustments, at least in a raw converter software. I use Photoshop (primarily because I always have and am familiar with it). Light Room, perhaps the most popular photographer’s software, has essentially the same “engine” as Photoshop. There are others out there that are equally good. Whatever you prefer to use, one of them will be necessary to process your raw images (and you should shoot raw in most cases). Sometimes though, we just want more “reds” in a foliage image than were actually there. So, in post processing, we “goose” the saturation and/or the reds. But when compared with reality, it really isn’t working.
In the Michigan U.P. foliage scene below, the reds are impressive. But are they real? Nope. Look particularly at that tree in the background toward the left middle. It looks like a colored spotlight is shining on it. And the high leaves in the immediate foreground are just plain unrealistic. Likewise, the “neon” glow of the corn stubble just doesn’t hold up under reality (my reality, anyway). Compare the more “realistic” image further below. No, it as not as “bright red” as the image above. It wasn’t as bright red in real time either. That is what we get sometimes. But I think it is a great example of why trying to make a foliage image “more colorful” than it really is, just doesn’t work (as I am writing this, I note that when an image is uploaded to the WordPress site, something gets done to the colors – so none are what I saw in my calibrated monitors when I uploaded them. But hopefully, the illustration serves).
A better way – In the image here, I would make adjustments, but none of them would involve the saturation adjustment tools. And for the most part those adjustments would be selective or targeted (i.e., to selected parts of the image). In a digital image, the way we present (and see) details, is often by the contrast provided along the edges of each individual pixel. When we have contrasting colors, there will be contrast along the edges of adjoining pixels of different color. Consequently, one of the most effective ways to “enhance” the color of a nature image can be by adjusting the contrast in the image (note that this can also increase apparent sharpness in an image). Again, the plain old “contrast” adjustment is global, and you have to observe what a contrast adjustment is doing not just to the parts of your image, but everywhere (indeed, a truism for virtually any adjustment). I often find just that one adjustment will bring my otherwise blah raw image into the color condition I am looking for (and saw in the field). Again, targeted is better. Because of this, I often do fine tuning adjustments in Photoshop, after the raw conversion. The raw converters have vastly improved since the beginning, though, and there is a brush feature that allows a degree of targeted adjustment in the converter (but not with the precision that can be accomplished in Photoshop, in my view). It works very similarly to the NIK software (which I still use regularly), with an AI-based selection, using a round brush. I find it a rather blunt tool, and use it sparingly, finding that I can do more fine-tuned work in Photoshop. But even before you get to the brush tool, the converters have been working to give you more selective adjustment tools. For example, the dehaze,vibrance, clarity and texture sliders in the ACR/Lightroom raw converters use AI to apply essentially contrast adjustments to only particular ranges within the image. Unfortunately, the nomenclature is sometimes inconsistent and confusing. All 4 of these tools are really contrast adjustment tools. But they do the adjusting in a much more targeted manner than the global adjustments. Again, I would apply these adjustments sparingly and carefully – if at all. It is very easy to overdo them. When it was first added, for example, I was a fan of the clarity adjustment, and often added clarity. It adds contrast to only the “mid-tones” of an image. But what I have observed from using it is that it also tends to desaturate color and give images a kind of grungy look. While that may have its place, I don’t care for it in a nature image. I have found that I like its effect, however, on night scenes. On the other hand, I have become more of a fan of the newer, texture adjustment, which is slightly more subtle, and doesn’t seem to desaturate color. These are all tools, and they should be used carefully, sparingly, and balanced with each other. But they are powerful tools that will increase the appearance of bright, saturated color without the negative effects of the global saturation adjustment. Note, however, that these new tools are Adobe algorithms, and may increase saturation as compensation for other adjustments. It is important to critically watch what an image adjustment is doing to all parts of the image.
A second adjustment that will have a great effect on color and color separation is the brightness/lightness, or luminance adjustment. Color theorists reading to this point have probably also concluded that I missed the boat when describing the aspects of color. I said Hue and Saturation. But there are actually three: Hue, Saturation, and Luminance (for our purposes, think brightness). In most software, there are “brightness” (or similar) adjustments. Again – same drumbeat – they are global and as such, any application will affect the entire image. This is usually not the preferred result. But for our purposes here, again take the foliage image we have been discussing and make up and down brightness adjustments, and observe what it does to your perception of trueness and richness of the colors. You should (generally) see the color get “better” as you decrease (too a point, obviously) brightness. Of course that is also going to decrease apparent detail, and may have an overall effect that is not pleasing. But you can see from this exercise that targeted adjustments of brightness can have significant effect. As I mentioned above, I use the NIK/Google plug in tools. There are those who have been doing this a lot longer (and better) than I who use very technical selection and mask techniques to accomplish fine-tuned adjustments. NIK does that for us, and it does a pretty good job. I continue to use it because I find it very easy to use and generally very good at what I am trying to accomplish, which is targeted adjustments. Selecting particular areas in the image and adjusting contrast and brightness is the most effective way I know to adjust color and make it look “good.” I only very rarely add saturation, and I often decrease saturation in certain parts of an image. If I do add saturation, it will be targeted, and I watch carefully to see the effect on image details.
There is a last, non-saturation based item that can affect the color in your images. As I said earlier, our perception of pixel edges in digital images is primarily governed by contrast at those edges. As such, the term “sharpening” is really kind of a misnomer. An image (aside from some technical issues with capture and capture sharpening not within the scope of this discussion) is really as sharp – or not – as it is going to get upon capture. What digital “sharpening” is really doing is adjusting the contrast at the edges where colors differ (or contrast). Again, global sharpening rarely yields the best results. I use a plug-in (there are many of them out there today – often built into your processing software) and most are good – better than most of us can do on our own. But one thing I notice is that when sharpening an image, it often results in a slightly lighter or brighter overall image. That may be o.k., but it is something that needs to be watched. Adjustments are inter-related.
SO, LOOK again at those saturation – adjusted images. Are you seeing mushiness? Do you see the magenta-colored asphalt or macadam or dirt/gravel? A purple hue on what should be a nice red (perhaps weathered) barn, or even on the gray/brown weathered wood of unpainted barns and fences? Do you see the almost neon green grass and fields; or neon yellow corn stubble? Those are clear signs of a heavy hand on the saturation slider.
I am not advocating a rigid, “water must always be white” approach. But I am advocating that we observe the water in our imagery
◊ THE COLOR OF WATER
Unlike oversaturation, this color issue is one that the limitations of the capture media often creates. When getting exposure and white balance correct for the majority of the image, it often renders water and water-based items with a color cast. This one must be detected and corrected in post processing. It is perhaps the most “missed” element in color rendering and correction in images posted digitally. Several years back, a talented pro and mentor, the late James Moore, was working with me on some of my images, and it was one of the first “gems” he imparted. It has stuck with me. Water is naturally white (maybe a little off-white with maybe just a touch of grey). But once again, our eye/brain response is so smart that our eyes accept that the water should be – and therefore is – white in an image, even when it isn’t. Compare the original and corrected versions of the images below. This applies to flat water, moving water (e.g. waterfalls) and fog (including clouds). That doesn’t necessarily mean that all depictions of water will be white. Water is also a reflective medium and we often see reflected color in water. Indeed, it can be what makes an image “magical.” But other times, we want the water, as an element of the image, to appear natural. I see this most often in two scenarios: (1) waterfalls (drops and pools) and surrounding pockets, and (2) fog.
The Burton Hill Road Farm is perhaps my single favorite Vermont image. I had an image similar to the one above on my website for several years, before one day noticing that I had not carefully considered the fog. Not that is it unpleasing (if that’s a word 🙂 ) as is, but the digital sensor rendered the fog a grey/blue color and a magenta cast. It really wasn’t that color to my eye on that morning. The image below is now corrected for a closer rendition to what fog looked like. More natural. The top image is out of the camera, with the exception of some slight contrast adjustment and sharpening. In the image below, I desaturated the fog/cloud bank in the valley and made slight adjustments to brightness and contrast. I personally find this is done most easily and effectively using NIK Viveza 2. There are of course, other ways to approach this, including NIK’s Color Efex, and Photoshop selection and masking. And though I am not personally famililar with them, I am certain some of the other, popular, third-party software and plugins have the same facility. No other changes were made to either image.
I am not advocating a rigid, “water must always be white” approach. But I am advocating that we observe the water in our imagery (both before, during, and post capture). What did our eyes tell us the water looked like in the field? Now take a critical look at the image in post-processing. Is the water being depicted as we saw it (or as we plan to present it)? I say “critical,” because, as noted above, our eyes can fool us. Our brain knows what the color should look like. But our eyes see it, and our brain corrects it. So we have to apply some experience and understanding of what the water should look like on screen or on printed media. A third party, which “fresh” eyes and who has not been to the scene will likely see the “off” color we may have missed. Usually this is blue.
Water is not blue (although there are certainly times when it does – and should – look blue). But many other times it is white, or near white. That is particularly true in most waterfall and moving water photos. We see photos, paintings and the like, and water is portrayed as blue more often than not. Why? Water is a very reflective medium. The sky has a blue hue on clear days and water reflects that blue color. So, we tend to associate water with blue. In the right context, that is perfectly fine. And, in other cases, it is often the reflected color that is what we want in the image and anything else might look unnatural. But sometimes, blue also looks unnatural. It is not always easy to see, and you have to be actually looking for it, in my opinion. The water in the Sable Falls images is a good example. It was – once again – rendered a blue/blue-grey by the digital sensor. There is so much going on in the image that your color senses may be on overload. most of the other colors appear natural, but look closely at the water again, especially in the darker areas. Compare it with the image following. See it?
It is common to see a waterfall image posted in which the water is not a natural color. Again, our brain often will “correct” what our eyes see, but that doesn’t change things. The actual color rendered is still often an unnatural blue. Where you will really notice it is if you make a print of the image. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to “fix” this, once we recognize the issue. But it is going to take careful targeted adjustments. While we want to change the color of the water, we generally don’t want to affect the surrounding details. Because the primary adjustment here involves de-saturation. But if the surrounding rock has rich hues, we don’t want to lose them, at the expense of correcting the water. So, it will involve some careful selection and masking. Again, I have pretty good success with letting NIK Viveza 2 do the masking for this. But there are many ways to get to it, and your own mileage will vary depending upon your own software, knowledge, and perceptions.
One thing to be careful of is not to correct to white, if the water is not supposed to be white. In the Michigan U.P., there can be a lot of tannins in the water, and this is often true of waterfall cascades up there. We may want to be on the lookout for the blue cast, but not at the expense of the “root beer” tonality the tannins can produce. What we are really saying here is that you have to be observant of the actual conditions on the ground, and then the rendering when you have it on screen later.
Color issues can be hard to see – especially in our own images
THE KEY, I think, is to look critically at our images during processing, and think about what we are really seeing and what looks natural and what doesn’t. Color issues can be hard to see – especially in our own images. I have found that after posting or uploading an image I thought was good, returning to it later is eye-opening and I often think, “that color is off. How did I miss that?”
[Disclaimer: I calibrate my monitors with a Datacolor SpyderX calibration tool and software. I have two matched (identical) monitors on my desktop that I use for 99.99% of my processing. As hard as I try, however, to get color right, there are outside factors beyond my control. I have noted that on both the WordPress site, and on Facebook (where I post the bulk of my work), their software’s algorithm does funky things to my color-corrected images, including compressing some of the color separation and darkening the shadows, often to a point where I wonder why I spent so much time calibrating. 😦 . So, some of the images here may not do as good a job illustrating my points as I intended. The Burton Hill fog photo is a good example. The final image looks much nicer on my monitor before I upload it to the WordPress site. Hopefully, though, you can see enough differences to illustrate my point.]
[While I generally do not post more often than weekly, I am going to stick a couple of these “interlude” posts in between my normal Saturday (ish) schedule. Traditionally, I have posted a “Fall Foliage Time is Here” post, with some thoughts about preparation – both physical and mental for this very special photographic season. I am, of course, in the middle of a series on my trip to Portugal (and that will be rather closely followed by recounts of trips to the Baltic region, and the Mediterranean this fall). My “fall color” will not be foliage this year, but I will be living vicariously through my friends who will be out shooting the foliage – particularly in Vermont. I have had this post queued up for a while now, and have been trying to think when it would best fit in. I think, given that the very busiest season for most of my photographic acquaintances is almost on top of us, it is now or never. Indeed, since this involves some items of equipment, it may even be too late (there is always Amazon and overnight delivery). For a more foliage-specific preparation piece, I posted one hereon the Vermont Foliage Fanatics FB Page.] 🙂
THIS IS not a new topic for me. It is a bit of a reprise of a similar post I wrote a few years back. So much has changed in the photographic world since I started shooting seriously in 1997. While I am not sure that much has changed about the essentials I will cover below, I do think it is an appropriate time to have another conversation about it (or maybe I just ran out of fresh, new topics to write about 🙂 ). We have spent thousands of words and hours talking about the changeover from film to digital capture – and then within the topic of digital capture, from the DSLR camera to mirrorless technology. At the same time, technological advances that would have come with or without the advent of digital capture (like image stabilization and autofocus) have also driven change. With this new camera technology came lens design changes, first, to accommodate the image-circle changes of APS and M4/3 sensors, and then to take advantage of the rear element to image plane distance changes resulting from mirrorless. And we haven’t even said anything about so-called “computational photography.”
WHILE THIS quantum change has been taking place among camera, lens and image media, it seems to me that the accessories I think are essential in the field, haven’t really changed much. Rather, they – and their usage – have only enjoyed perhaps more subtle changes. Tripods have largely moved from aluminum construction to carbon fiber. They have become lighter, and in some cases smaller and more streamlined. But their essential design and function remains unchanged. Camera bag design has not really changed a whole lot, though there has been a pretty much universal move away from the traditional reporter/messenger style bag to backpack styles. But in terms of changes to bag design, the only thing noteworthy is that their organizational components now reflect the newer “gadgets” we carry around, like memory cards, card readers, battery chargers and laptop/tablets. There are many, many accessories that photographers carry around today. Some of them are specialized and reflect the shooter’s particular needs or interests. Others are gadgets. They may or may not be worth the money and effort of carrying them around. I personally think “bags” are an area that could use some innovation. I have owned many of them (though I am sure not as many as a lot of others have), including reporter-style and backpacks. I currently have the smallest available LowePro backpack – but never carry it in the field. It is my travel-carryon bag, and what I keep in the car to work out of. But I hate carrying a heavy and cumbersome bag. So, as “dorky” as it may look, my plain old Eddie Bauer vest is still my preferred “carry.” There are, however, some accessories that are – I think – fundamental to the process of sound photography. You may not agree with me on my list, but the following are things I consider simply indispensable to my success in the field.
You don’t need a Lexus or Mercedes
Tripod. You might wonder if, in this day of in-body, multi-axis image stabilization in modern cameras, a tripod really is necessary? The very short answer: yes. There are many reasons to have – and carry – a tripod (even for your smartphone!). To be sure, IS and IBIS (image stabilization technology) have substantially decreased –but not eliminated – those uses. The ability of today’s sensors to handle very high ISO speeds has also put some limits on the need for a tripod. And there have (and will) always been circumstances in which using a tripod or other fixed platform is impractical, impossible – or at the very least, undesirable. There have certainly been some very talented photographers over the years who have shot mostly handheld. But they understand both the necessary technique and the compromises that are often involved. But there are still situations that call for (or at least recommend) a tripod, and in my opinion, it is a fundamental (perhaps the fundamental) accessory. Aside from the situations where a stable camera platform is a necessity, there are times when its just a good idea. If – all other things being equal – you are in a situation where you can use a tripod and there is a chance it will enhance your shot, why wouldn’t you? I appreciate the downsides. They are clunky to set up and attach your camera to. Slow, too (which – it can be argued – might just be a positive). They are heavy to carry and ungainly to transport. I address some of that by owning a couple different tripods these days. Both carbon fiber, my “workhorse” tripod is medium-large, and made of carbon fiber. I believe from some unscientific testing of my own, that carbon is stiffer, than aluminum alloy, at any given same dimension. It is also lighter. My primary tripod fits inside my medium checked luggage. Because of the head I use (see below), I do have to take my very short center-column out of the legset). But when shooting with my landscape gear (Sony A7rii and lenses), I would not make a trip, or venture into the field, without it. I also have a much smaller, also carbon fiber, tripod. It is so small that its stability – when compared to a full-size tripod – is compromised. But with good bracing and technique, it serves well as a stable platform in instances when a tripod is necessary and carrying the full-sized rig is just not tenable. That means about 95% of my travel these days. The compromise works because I use much smaller and lighter equipment with this one.
I don’t give you advice because I think I am smarter than you. I give it to you based on all the stupid things I have already done 🙂
Best Use: This is going to sound wildly counter to my advocacy, but the best way to use the tripod, in my view, is to not use it. 🙂 At first. I know many photographers who believe that the fixed nature of the tripod inhibits their creative approach to composition. Perhaps it does. Unless I have pre-scouted a location or am acting on information learned from research or others, I frequently start my shooting process with my camera in hand and off the tripod. This way, I can look at different approaches and then upon finding my spot, can bring the tripod to that place. I think too often, that we just want to set the tripod up at standing eye-level. While I can’t argue that eye-level probably the most comfortable level to shoot from, it is not necessarily the best. That is why they are adjustable. 🙂 We get lazy. I see that often in two forms. The first is when we just leave the camera attached and set up our tripod at eye-level. I confess I am altogether too often guilty of this infraction. The second is that we don’t bother to use the tripod. In both cases, we may well be compromising our best work!
Quality: Aside from the move to carbon fiber, and the innovation of the ball and gimbal heads, tripods today do not significantly differ from the tools used by photographers during the last 50 years. They remain, to steal a cleverly named company’s words: a “three-legged thing,” that we use to support our camera equipment. While less expensive carbon fiber and machine tooling from China has revolutionized the industry in terms of purveyors as well as manufacture, old line companies like Gitzo and Manfrotto (Bogen) still have high quality entries in the marketplace. While Gitzo has always held the position of top-of-the line, though, relative newcomer, Really Right Stuff (to the best of my knowledge, manufactured in the U.S. – but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that parts are sourced outside the U.S.) has come on strong. Indeed, I view it as the Lexus to Gitzo’s Mercedes Benz, when Lexus hit the scene some years back. And there are many other competitors that make good-quality, affordable equipment. It is easy to find a reasonable-cost alternative in today’s market.
Don’t “Cheap” out: There are also some very cheap alternatives available. And by “cheap,” I really mean not very well made and not very durable. I owned 2 or 3 of them before sound advice and experience led me to my first well-made Bogen leg set. Here is my advice on tripods (and I recently read something I really like: “I don’t give you advice because I think I am smarter than you. I give it to you based on all the stupid things I have already done.”) 🙂 If it is being sold at Best Buy, K-Mart, or the like, you are probably wasting your money. You don’t need a Lexus or Mercedes. But you do need a solid, well-constructed unit. Don’t buy the $45 special at best buy. Be prepared to spend minimum of $200 for a good tripod (perhaps more for carbon fiber). I don’t think of carbon fiber as an absolute requirement. But it is demonstrably stiffer and lighter. I have moved to it and don’t regret it as I get older. If you aren’t in a positition for whatever reason to acquire a good quality new tripod, there is also a good used Market. You can still find quality aluminum tripods (in fact, if you are going to go that route, I recommend you look out there on the eBay type sites for a good set of used Bogen legs (classics are 3001; 3011), which can be found for less than $100, and then attach your own separate head. These are some very good, reliable tripods. The old adage is that if you buy a cheap one, you will ultimately buy (at least 2) because you will eventually buy the better one. Just do it once, is my advice. 🙂
. . . think about your purposes and style of shooting
Tripod Headsare also an important consideration. There is going to be some divergence of opinion here. My own view is to go back to my premise on another post (Evaluating Your Gear) and think about your purposes and style of shooting.
3-way. My first Bogen tripod came with the venerable Bogen 3-way Pan-tilt head. It was large, heavy, and like the rest of the tripod: inconvenient. It was especially inconvenient to pack for flights (I usually removed it from the legs and removed the 3 adjusting levers from the head; a cumbersome and annoying process, which of course meant re-assembling everything when you arrived and then repeating the process on return). But once assembled it was also very easy to use and to adjust, especially for landscape photos and other “stationary” subjects.
Ball-head. For moving subjects, though, it was cumbersome. The three-way head was the traditional head on all tripods for a long time. Then (astonishingly, a 20-minute Google search did not give me the answer to when the ball-head first became available), the ball head was introduced, and it has become the most popular and ubiquitous head in use today. It is easy to use, moves omni-directionally for moving subjects, and tension can be adjusted, making it easier to move and react to those subjects. By comparison to the traditional 3-way, the ball-head is very compact. Earlier models required the ball portion to be large in order to firmly hold the camera, and its biggest negative has always been what is referred to as “ball-creep,” meaning you would get your composition adjusted, tighten things up, and the weight of the camera/lens, would creep everything downward. Ican also be difficult to make the small moves you often want for precision in a stationary subject. It can be frustrating. Probably the best head I ever had was a very large ball. No ball creep. Locked down solid. Also seconded as an anchor for my canoe. 🙂 It was probably the heaviest piece of gear I had.
Gimbal. At some point, bird-in-flight shooters realized that this still wasn’t the best solution for moving targets – especially with a long, heavy lens attached. Someone invented the gimbal mount. Usually, the lens has a built-in foot that mounts in the center of the gimbal. It works very well, with smooth, easy motion – again generally omnidirectionally. But it seems to me to be a specialized mount, which for most of us is, in addition to being expensive, is large, and cumbersome to pack.
Geared-Head. A variation on the 3-way pan/tilt head, I have found my own “nirvana” when it comes to tripod heads: the geared 3-way pan-tilt head. My tripod shooting is 99% fixed subjects. My composition often means that I find an adjustment and want it to stay (no ball creep) or want to be able to fine-tune it with very small movements. It works for me wonderfully, with the ability to make micro moves in all three directions (but still have the ability to easily make large moves). It is solid. The one I use is magnesium and as such is relatively light weight. And on the tripod, it is also relatively compact (compared with the traditional pan-tilt head). It works for me, but like all photography equipment, there are compromises. It is still cumbersome to travel with; considerably more compact than the traditional 3-way, but less so than most ball heads. I remove the center column (I use only a very short one), head attached and pack that and the legs separately. There are very few models available (in contrast with the ball head, of which there are many). They are not inexpensive (they range from about $200 to well into the $1000’s, for the high end, Arca-Swiss Model). For years there were only 2: the very expensive Arca Swiss, and an expensive, but considerably less so, Bogen model. The downside to the Bogen was that is was cast with Bogen’s less-than-optimal, proprietary quick-release mechanism. In the past few years, Benro ($200) and a company called LeoPhoto ($450 – 500 and only appears to be available directly from mfgr. or on eBay) have offered models. I use the Benro. It is not the greatest fit and finish, but it works exactly as described and was a reasonable-cost alternative for me. The LeoPhoto looks very nice, well-built, and is slightly lighter weight.
I suspect the majority of you will settle upon a good quality ballhead.
Camera Plates. The quick-release camera plate has become a ubiquitous accessory for most shooters who use a tripod. Traditionally, it was required that you screw the base of the camera (most had a threaded socket) directly onto a fixed plate on the tripod. This was not only cumbersome but did not always have the positive hold on the camera that is really needed especially in the “portrait” orientation. With physically longer and heavier lenses, the screw could loosen, causing the camera to rotate. And if you shot multiple bodies, or had to remove it for some reason, it was time consuming and annoying. Of course, this combination probably made it less likely that a lot of people would even use their tripod. Eventually, someone came up with the QR (quick-release) concept. There are a couple different styles available. Probably the two most common are the “Arca-Swiss” design, and the proprietary Bogen hexagon plate. Of the two, the Arca-Swiss (subject to some controversy) has probably become the standard to which most manufactures build. It is disarmingly simple (a dovetail plate with female dovetail accepting clamp). This makes it easy to manufacture, and a very sure, solid attachment (assuming you remember to tighten the clamp properly). The Bogen is – in my view – less effective. It involves a more complicated spring/clamp arrangement that I think is less secure. I owned Bogen tripods with the hexagon plate and clamp arrangement for many years. I have to confess that I never felt as secure about the attachment as I do now with Arca-Swiss style clamp and plate.I would only recommend the Arca-Swiss style QR today.
The L-plate is an indispensable camera accessory in my opinion
L-Plate. Second only to the Tripod, this is an indispensable camera plate in my opinion. One of the things I noted above was the tendency of the old-school direct screw mount to slip and rotate in the portrait position. Unless you have a dedicated plate (designed to fit the body), this also happens, unfortunately, with the QR plates. It is essentially the same issue – the screw loosens and the weight of the gear rotates the camera downward. Having a dedicated plate with a lip which fits the camera body partially fixes this issue.
The “Axis of Equal.” (see what I did there?) 🙂 But there is still a problem: axis. Using any tripod head to photograph in the “portrait” orientation is an awkward process. The design of the head in its “normal” position, is to hold the camera/lens straight up on the same axis as the center of the tripod. Rotating the head to portrait position requires moving the body off-axis and hanging it to the side of the tripod. In addition to losing some of the range of movement of the apparatus, this partially defeats the “three-legged” stability of the tripod and creates just an overall inconvenient situation. Enter the L-plate: a really ingenious piece; and something I never am without. The L plate has Arca Swiss style, QR dovetails on two axes. This means that you can shift from Landscape to Portrait orientation quickly, efficiently, and securely, while the camera remains on the same axis. This means you rarely need to change positions for composition, other that perhaps some fine-tuning. It also gives you the full range of motion for your tripod head. On my Sony, (which rarely gets used without a tripod), the L-plate stays permanently attached. On my travel camera, I leave it off unless I am using it on a tripod, as its bulk begins to defeat the purpose of the nice small body. That camera is probably being handheld 90% of the time anyway. There are a couple negatives to the L-plate. Perhaps the most vexing is that the axis arm for portrait shooting can cover up the electronics accessory ports. Some of this may be a design issue. Unfortunately, brackets are made (and designed) by third party companies, and I doubt there is much communication between them and the camera companies. 🙂 Some of the better designed brackets include cutouts for these ports. One particularly vexing issue for me is that the L-bracket for my Sony A7rii covers the only port I would be inclined to use: the plug-in for a wired remote. Fortunately, Sony cameras support wireless remotes. Unfortunately (including their own branded wireless remote), they don’t work really well. On my Olympus, they accommodatingly put all the ports on the opposite side of the body. But because it is old (and, I suspect because it is probably more of a handheld user’s camera), there are not many brackets made to fit it. The marketplace has plenty of competition for Nikon, Canon and Sony. For the older Olympus models: not so much. Really Right Stuff made one. Their stuff is really well designed and made. And it is really expensive. I have been able to find functional and affordable alternatives. Finally, if you have the Bogen hexagon QR, there is only one alternative for the L-Bracket, made by Bogen. I am not sure it is still available, and I had to work hard to find one even years back. And it is clunky, heavy and – like the entire QR apparatus, just not great.
Dedicated Fitting Critical. Like the QR plates discussion above, it is really important that you find and purchase an L-Bracket that is dedicated to your camera body. They will contain a lip, or step or some other means of locking the bracket to the body to avoid rotational movement. The so-called “universal” L-brackets are – in my opinion – a complete waste of money. They will rotate, and, as such completely negate the value of the L-bracket. Unfortunately, one of the things this means is that you will need a dedicated bracket for each body you intend to use on the tripod (in order to take advantage of the convenience the QR system offers). It also means that you will generally find yourself purchasing a new one each time you acquire a different body, as they change, even within models, for the most part. Market forces can make this an expensive accessory. This is unfortunate, as it is one of the least complex accessories, and should be easy to manufacture and sell inexpensively. Because they must be dedicated in order to really be effective, and because there are many different camera bodies, and many new ones being released, the market is small, enabling higher pricing. But it is one accessory I would not go without. I truly believe that after you use one, you will feel the same.
Remote Shutter Release. While this isn’t as critically essential, in my mind, as the above accessories, it just makes sense. The primary purpose for a tripod is to provide an immovable base for your camera. There are three ways you can get blurry images: focus, subject movement, and camera movement. With proper tripod accessories and technique, we can eliminate the camera movement component. So, it stands to reason that you would not want to go to the expense and trouble of the tripod and accessories above, and then chance camera movement by touching the otherwise rigid setup. I used a remote most of the time. Having said that, it is possible to work without. One way is to use the camera’s self-timer mechanism. I never do that. I don’t like that you don’t have control of the precise time to trip the shutter. The other is – in spite of all I have said about a rigid support – sometimes you actually can improve the stability of the support by having hands on the setup. If the wind is blowing things around, sometimes leaning on the rig with good technique helps and in that case you can probably trip the shutter by hand. But all-in-all, remotes are a relatively inexpensive, and well-invested item.
Level. Seems like a small thing. Maybe also seems gimmicky. It’s not. It’s essential. And inexpensive. And it never lies. This is an accessory I still keep on my camera. When I first started shooting, a bubble level (costing just a couple dollars), attached to the camera hot shoe, was an essential item. I once thought my “eye” was good enough to see level through the view finder. Time and again I proved myself wrong. Then I reasoned that the “rule-of-thirds” guidelines (going all the way back to my Nikon film cameras) would allow me to determine level and perpendicular. Again, I was wrong more often than I liked. The level was almost always right (sometimes you will get a composition where nothing is – or nothing is supposed to be – level). Today, many of the modern EVF cameras have a level built into them (generally both on the screen on the back and in the viewfinder). Properly calibrated, they work. If your camera has one, turn it on. Oh, and by the way, the bubble levels should be “calibrated” too. They are generally cheap, and they can be “off.” I used to buy 2 or 3 of them and use my accurate carpenter’s level on a very flat, level surface to check them. The same thing can be done with the in-camera level. Trust me – if you use one of these, you will spend a lot less time straightening in post processing.
There are two schools of thought about filters
Filters. Filters have always been a mildly controversial topic. Indeed, I have my own strongly held views on filters. There have long been two schools of thought here (and like many things in life, neither school is right – or wrong). One school says why would you spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a piece of quality, sophisticated glass and not have some protection on the front of it? It is a view that has merit, I guess. It is also a view that plays into the hands of the camera stores. “You need a skylight (or similar) for that expensive glass you just purchased.
The other school. Why would you spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a piece of quality, sophisticated glass designed to help you make great images, and put a cheap (or perhaps any) additional piece of glass in front of it? I am from this latter school. And sometimes, I have an answer to the question. My “better” question is: is there a reason to put something on the front of the lens?” I can think of 3 instances. First, if I am going to use the lens in a “dirty” environment (think salt-water shooting, or sandstorm conditions, for example) and want to keep the front element from getting damaged. Second, I may use a neutral density filter in order to control overly bright lighting, when I may want to have slower shutter speeds. And here is one of the changes that modern digital technology has brought. It is often possible to manipulate settings in a more extreme way than we could “back in the day.” It is much easier to make in-camera exposure adjustments (in ISO, shutter speed, etc., with today’s modern digital cameras). It is also much easier to make multiple and blended exposures digitally. And third, I use a polarizing filter to cut glare in certain conditions. If I don’t have a reason to do so, I never put anything on the front of my precision ground glass. The most common use for me is a polarizing filter. I cannot remember the time, recently, when I put any other filter on. But that’s just me. 🙂
A “better” question is: is there a reason to put something on the front of the lens?
You still need a Polarizer. When I started making digital images, it was a rather easy conclusion for me to think I didn’t need a polarizing filter. I was wrong about that (mark that down – I don’t admit it often 🙂 ). The polarizer actually filters unwanted stuff out before it hits the sensor. While you can sometimes simulate that in digital processing, it is generally not going to be as effective. This is particularly true for glare on reflective surfaces (particularly water). It also works to enhance better contrast (and therefore, often more vivid color and color separation) in images containing things like fall foliage. So, the Polarizer is the most important filter and the one I would never be without. There is some “lore” about polarizing filters. The first one I ever owned was part of the “kit” my dad gave me in 1976 with his Asahiflex SLR. This was a completely manual camera, with a waist-level viewfinder. But I could immediately see the effect the polarizer had on glare and have been a believer ever since. When auto-focus came about, these polarizers (called linear polarizers) interfered with the AF mechanism, and we had to buy (much more expensive) circular polarizers. However, the newer AF mechanisms (particularly on the newer mirrorless cameras) are no longer affected by this issue. So go ahead and buy the cheaper linear polarizer (if you can find one). Notice I said “cheaper.” I didn’t say “cheap.” Unfortunately, there are some very poorly designed and manufactured filters out there. They add color casts. They don’t work the way they should. In keeping with the idea of not putting a cheap piece of glass in front of your expensive, precision optic, spend the money for a good quality filter. I have been partial to the B&W brand over the years. It is not inexpensive, but it is compared to the cost of your lens.
While you can sometimes simulate the effect of a polarizer in digital processing, it is generally not going to be as effective
Compass. This tool is perhaps in the same camp as the bubble level. I won’t go so far as to call it essential. But to me it is a pretty important (and relatively inexpensive) accessory. I spend a lot of time on Google Maps, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, and my stand-alone DeLorme (now Garmin) mapping software, planning and calculating details about locations. The Photographer’s Ephemeris – particularly – is an invaluable tool for learning where the sun is going to be on any given day of the year, at any given time of the day, in any location; worldwide. Butonce you are on site, you need to have a reference for at least the cardinal points (N-E-S-W) of the compassin order for the information you have about the sun to have any relevance. And, I have found that it is pretty easy to get confused about directions once on the ground. Like the level, the compass (used properly – remember it is magnetic) never lies. I am talking about a stand-alone, mechanical, handheld compass here – not the compass “app” you have on your phone, tablet or watch. They work off of GPS coordinates, and only really simulate the action of a true magnetic compass. And because they work from GPS, you must be moving, generally, for it to work at all.
Headlamp. I have a headlamp in my shooting vest pocket all the time. I don’t use it very much. But when I do, it is invaluable. I also keep a small flashlight in the camera bag. But the headlamp is more useful, as it allows you to have both hands to do other things. I buy the ones with the red and white light capability. I haven’t done much night photography where it is perfectly dark (most often I shoot in partially lit areas like cities). But I have a few friends who like to shoot the milky way, star trails and such. That requires being in an area where there is near-complete darkness. In order to see well in such conditions, you need to give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness. Then just turning on a flashlight can ruin that adjustment for several minutes. I am told that the red light has a much lesser effect on night vision. So I have both. But if you are out at night (or even get caught unexpectedly out in the dark) a light will be a pretty welcome accessory. Oh, and don’t forget to check – and keep extra – batteries. This should be part of your “inventory” of items to do when planning a trip.
“Digital Items” is the area in which essentials have changed
Tool Kit. I keep a small tool kit in my camera bag. Every camera, lens and accessory seems to have screws. Most often they are “allen-key” or “phillips” head. Occasionally, they are a straight, flathead type screw. But there are screws. And they are of varying sizes. And tripods and head often also have bolts and nuts. So I keep an assortment of small tools designed to work with these parts, and some screws. I always have to remember to remove this from the bag and put it into my check bag when I fly, as things like a knife and screwdrivers are probably going to be confiscated otherwise. One item I have recently added to my bag is filter wrenches. These days, especially with so much plastic being used in manufacture, it is pretty easy to get a filter stuck on the lens front.
Digital Items. Here is the area where the development of digital imagery, cameras and related equipment has changed the “essentials.” It used to be that we needed to carry batteries for electronic cameras, flash, etc., and extra film. That has changed in a big way. Indeed, it may be the one area that the digital age has taken us negative. A photo trip today entails at least the following extra equipment, unthought of just 25 years back:
Batteries (freshly charged – at least 3 or 4) for each camera body we carry
Cables to connect chargers to electrical/USB outlets
Memory Cards (on the positive, they have replaced film and are much smaller, less bulky, and less prone to radar destruction). The number and size of the cards depends on the size (in megapixels) of your camera. It may also depend on your philosophy (I carry a number of smaller cards, to “spread the risk” of contamination/data loss)
Card Reader and backup device. Good practice dictates that in addition to your memory cards, that you back up the cards (perhaps even redundantly) after each day/take
Laptop Computer. I use the computer to move my files – one copy on the laptop HD and another copy to a stand-alone, portable HD. I also use it to review images on a larger screen during periods of downtime in hotel rooms, VRBO’s, etc. Of course, cables and adaptors for the computer needs to be in the mix. There are other, less bulky methods of moving files to backup, but they are not only expensive, but not particularly versatile, in my view.
Miscellaneous. Some of this will change depending on the outing, but I like to keep an assortment of things handy, including gloves, earmuffs, raingear, kitchen and larger size garbage bags, and old towels.
EVERYBODY IS going to carry their own items that they consider essential to their successful shooting. I would be interested to hear what some of those things are that you consider essential (and that I may have missed here).
WE NORMALLY plan our trips well in advance (like sometimes a year or more). It helps with airline costs, and often the guided tours we like are booked well in advance. So when our friends invited us to join them on a trip to Portugal only 2 months beforehand, it was a less familiar experience for us. For the most part, we were able to plan and have good experiences, just as we have on other trips in the past. Unlike most of our travel, this was land based instead of on a cruise ship.
FOR ME, there are pros and cons to this, and I like the fact that we have been able to mix up some of our travel between land-based and cruise ship-based over the years. One of the positives is that we spend more than one day in each place, giving me the ability to do my favorite thing; get out early and walk around with my camera. It also affords the opportunity to get out at night and do some night shooting. And it gives us the opportunity to get to know a place in more depth than a day-excursion allows.
WE SPENT a total of 6 days in Lisbon (4 at the beginning of our trip and 2 at the end), 4 in Porto, 2 in Evora, and 3 in Lagos. They were 4 quite different venues. Lisbon is a modern European city, with a lot of “old” built in. Porto – Portugal’s second largest city by population – is much more traditional, and though there are modern touches, an overall older feeling city. In Evora, we didn’t venture outside the old walled city (our hotel was inside) except once to go to a restaurant just outside the entrance. Lagos was a beach vacation area.
ONE THING that seems to be a common bond wherever we went in Portugal was food. They have a number of their own special favorites (sometimes regional) and they eat big. We did a walking food tour our first morning in Lisbon and a cooking “class” in a local resident’s home in Porto. The like appetizer type foods, which greatly endears them to me. They especially like sausage and two of my favorites are a smoked chicken sausage and their unique smoked chorizo. The latter is done by slicing a chorizo sausage crosswise into small pieces – but not quite through. It is then placed on a special ceramic bowl that has strips across the top to suspend the sausage above the main bowl, which is then partially filled with high proof liquor and lit on fire. Great presentation and great taste. I came home with one of these bowls. I think it will work for almost any kind of hearty sausage. In addition to sausages, they also love other traditional cured meats, like Iberian Ham, and other similar meats.
PORTUGAL HAS a great variety of specialty foods, also. One sweet and delightful treat is their signature pastry, the pastel de nata. It is essentially a mini-custard pie. Fresh from the oven, they are delicious, and we had a number of them during the visit. They are everywhere in the country.
ANOTHER REALLY tasty and ubiquitous Portuguese dish is their Piri-Piri chicken. If you like chicken, you would love this. It is actually just their own variation on a pretty common preparation; a spatchcocked whole chicken is grilled or broiled after the chicken is marinaded in a Piri-Piri pepper sauce. Originally discovered and grown by Portuguese explorers in Portugal’s former Southern African territories, the piri-piri (or peri-peri) pepper is a chili pepper. Like most chili peppers, piri piri is descended from plants from the Americas, but it has grown in the wild in Africa for centuries. It is pretty spicy, but the sauce is probably mild in comparison to a few other well-known varieties. One measure of “heat” for peppers is the Scoville scale. The piri-piri measures between 50,000 – 175,000 heat units on the Scoville scale. For comparison, the jalapeno measures between 2,500- 8,000 units. Cayenne measures between 30,000 – 50,000, while Habanero is between 100,000 – 350,000. But it is really, really good. We ate it at a highly recommended local family restaurant just outside the old walled city in Evora. Being seaport cities, 3 of our stops (Lisbon, Porto and Lagos) had a plentiful and good variety of seafood. I love seafood – especially shellfish – and prawns were always on the menu and generally fresh, large and very good. Usually they were prepared the Portuguese way, sauteed in garlic and olive oil. I am not one of those guys who shoots and posts my food all the time, but I made this image for my son, and decided to include it here as an example of the wonderful seafood we encountered in Portugal.
OTHER FOODS appear to be more regional. While you can find them all over, they tend to be specialties of the regions and best when enjoyed there. In Lisbon, I fell in love with Bifanos, a popular street-food. They are a very simple sandwich of marinated and tender pork on a crusty roll. Most eat them with mustard. The best ones had very tender chunks of pork that were juicy and melt-in-your mouth. Unfortunately, in the tourist restaurants and often restaurant in regions other than Lisbon, the pork was often dry and sliced. But if you get to Lisbon, here is where to get the best. And don’t necessarily believe everything you read in the comments. We ate at one of the other highly recommended Bifanos spots and it was touristy and the sandwiches o.k., but on the dry side and sliced. Sardines are also considered a great delicacy in Portugal. My only problem with them is that in most places, they are not fileted, and bones are no fun to pick around. But Bruce ordered them a couple times, and he didn’t have any problems working around them. On our food tour we stopped at a place known for small bites appetizers and had the sardine taste shown below. My comment: “interesting.” 🙂
SANDWICHES DO not appear to be a real popular thing in Portugal, for the most part. They do have hamburgers and the bifanos. Most of the eating establishments offered what I often call “big food” (more like entrees) and/or appetizers on their lunch menus. But sandwiches? Not so much. Except for one huge (literally) exception. Porto is know for its Franchesina sandwich and it is always on the advice-list: “you have to try the Franchesina when in Porto.” I wanted to try it. Our travel mates did two and they split one. My wife didn’t have any desire, so I “had” to order my own full one. 🙂 I couldn’t eat it all. I struggled through 1/2 and probably should have stopped at 1/3. Good? As they say on line: OMG!. There are variations, but generally they are comprised of bread, several kinds of meat (usually heavy meats like pork belly, steak, bacon, savory sausages), cheese, eggs, and a tasty sauce. They are usually served with a generous side of French Fries. The translation of the name is “Little French Girl.” But as you can see from my plate, there is nothing small about the sandwich. It is essentially a Portuguese (Porto) variation of the French Croque Monsieur. But oh, so good! My own advice: plan to split one with at least one other person.
IN THE south, another traditional food (of Spanish origin, but Portugal’s own spin), is Migas. In Portugal, Migas is traditionally associated with the Alentejo region in Southern Portugal, It is a “hash” made from leftover bread crumbs that is seasoned and cooked. Garlic and olive oil are always an ingredient. Other ingredients such as pork meat drippings, asparagus, tomato, and seasonings such as red pepper paste and fresh coriander are usually included in the Alentejo version of this dish. We had it as one of our choices from the menu in a Tappas restaurant in Lagos, in the Algarve. I thought it had a wonderful, smoky flavor, and reminded me of stuffing. It is apparently a popular breakfast food and is commonly served with eggs. I can see that!
CODFISH IS a staple in the Portuguese cuisine. They are 100’s of ways to use it, including in soups and stews, Broiled, and in my favorite: codfish cakes. The Portuguese call it bachalau. So the codfish cakes are bachalau pastiche. I like fish, but generally cod is not on my favorites list. Too dry for me. The pastiche was just right for me. Ironically, with all the wonderful, fresh seafood caught locally on a daily basis, cod is not among the catch. The cod is caught either in the far North Atlantic (Nova Scotia and Newfoundland) or in the North Sea off the U.K. Because of the distances and time, it was traditionally salted down and dried to preserve it. It is still done that way in Portugal today. To prepare it to be edible, it must be soaked in fresh water (and the water changed frequently). Depending on the salt content, it may soak for hours, or for even days. The accompanying photograph is dried cod, which just sits out on the shelves of the market. Can you see that food was a central theme of the trip? We started in the evening of our first day, and pretty much didn’t stop eating the entire trip! But food was not the only component. We had a driver pick us up at the airport and he gave us a 3-4 hour tour of the city. We kind of saw the “high” (again, literally in some cases) points.
ON OUR arrival in Lisbon, we started with a tour/overview of the city we would be spending the next several days in. Our first stop was the famed Belem Tower, and then moved on to the Monument of The Explorers. Both are, well, “monumental,” and impressive. For early season, there were lots of people around. I found the Explorer Monument particularly challenging to photograph, at least from the viewpoint of being on the ground next to it. I only made one image that I though was a “keeper,” and even that one doesn’t represent what I think of as my best work. But seeing it is pretty amazing.
OUR DRIVER next took us across one of only 2 bridges that cross the Tagus River as it flows into the Atlantic. To the east is the Vasco Da Gamma Bridge. We didn’t really see it. The main bridge is a more traditional suspension bridge that crosses over to Almada, a relatively large community, which is home to many commuters to Lisbon for their daily jobs. The bridge and a ferry system are essentially the only way the two are connected. Fortunately for us, both crossing over and back were done during a time that was not “rush hour.” Our driver told us that commuters often spend an hour each way crossing this bridge. On the other side we went to Sanctuary of Christ the King, a monument which overlooks not only Almada, but the entire area, including across the river to Lisbon. The view is dramatic. I made some wide images of Lisbon, and of the bridge, including a container ship making its way into – presumably – the Port of Lisbon.
KEEPING THE spirit of the topic of food, at lunch time, our driver took us to a trendy spot (it turns out only a few minutes’ walk from our motel) and dropped us off for a bite. The place is called Time Out Market, which is a food hall (we refer to them as “food courts” in the U.S.). Originating in Lisbon in 2014, the concept has since gone national, and since 2019, similar venues have been opened in Miami, New York, Boston, Chicago, and Montreal. Lots of good and interesting food, but the place was a zoo. There were not places where 2 couples could sit together. We ended up getting a sandwich and splitting it and sitting outside on a bench in the little park across the street. There was a small kiosk selling drinks that was associated with Time Out. A pretty nice park. One of the first things we noticed in Lisbon (and it would continue throughout Portugal during our trip) was the beautiful purple blossoms of the Jacaranda Trees, that seemed to dominate the landscape everywhere.
WE FINISHED our tour in mid-afternoon, at an impressive church, up on one of the hills. Lisbon’s city-center is in a valley between two low mountains or hills. The hills are very steep on both sides. The good news there is that from up those hills there are wonderful viewpoints (the formal ones known as miradouro in Portuguese) from which you can see – and if you are like me – photograph the city with great perspectives. The bad news? To see the views, you have to go up the hills and that is a daunting task, even for reasonably fit people. I remember our first trip abroad, to Venice. For those who have been there, there is zero vehicular traffic on Venice’s streets. You walk everywhere you want to go. We spent 3 1/2 very full days doing that and I still remember how much my legs told me they needed a break when we finally sailed away on our cruise ship. Now factor in very steep hills. Legs, knees, feet all were talking to us a couple days in. But it was worth it, and during the week we actually learned about a couple local “shortcuts” (elevators) up some of those very steep hills.
UR DRIVER dropped us off at our hotel, which was right in the heart of the old city. We got situated, and then met for a celebratory drink and some food along one of the many outdoor restaurants just outside our door. The next day was planned pretty full. Mid-morning, we were to meet our guide for the walking food tour, about 10 minutes from the motel. That evening Bruce and I were going on a walking night photography tour. More to come ……