Tuesday, December 19, 2017

3 Things To Keep In Mind When Photographing Historic Sites

I have been a student of history since I was in the seventh grade. I read a book on the American Revolution and never looked back. Since then, I have enjoyed reading about both American and European History. So any time I have a chance to visit a place of historical significance, I start thinking about the places I want to photograph during my stay. I also think about these three things when I plan out what I want to shoot.

1.) Think About Silhouettes: I was in Washington D.C. a couple years ago. It's my favorite city to visit, and I try to go at least once a year to visit friends and family. On this particular trip, I was staying at a hotel that was less than a mile from the Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, VA. I got up pretty early and arrived before sunrise. My main goal was to get shots of the monument from several different angles at a fairly close distance. And since I got there so early, I was able to take the shots at my own pace because there was no one else around. After spending almost an hour there, I felt I had what I needed and packed up my gear to head back to the hotel. I took one last look over my shoulder at the monument before leaving the grounds . . . and stopped dead in my tracks. I got my camera back out, checked the settings and got the shot you see below. It was my favorite one of the morning, and I would have missed it had I not taken one last look back and seen the silhouette of the Marine Corps Memorial against the rising sun. Silhouettes can completely change the complexion of the shot, so look for opportunities to make them a part of your photo.

The Marine Corps Memorial At Sunrise (Arlington, VA)

2.) Look For Unique Angles & Reflections: While it's nice to get the typical postcard shot, it can be even more interesting to look for an angle that you don't see very often.  The Washington Monument is arguably one of the most photographed historic sites on the National Mall. I took several shots of it during my visit, two of which I included in an earlier blog post. But I also took this one. There wasn't a single cloud in the sky on this particular day, so I thought it would be interesting to get a shot right next to the Monument looking straight up. The end result was the illusion of the tip of splitting the sky in two. Take a look. I thought it gave a neat perspective that people don't see very often.
The Washington Monument splitting the DC sky. 

Another effect I look for is reflection. In most cases, this involves the water. And in Washington D.C. there is plenty of water to incorporate this theme. The Potomac River and the Tidal Basin are possibilities but the wind has to be pretty calm to get the desired results. The reflection pool on the National Mall works pretty well at night, but using it in a shot during the day time means dealing with a lot of crowds. But there is one place in particular where you can use reflection quite well and that is at the Vietnam War Memorial.  The names of all the fallen soldiers are etched into polished granite, which looks practically like a mirror. Being at the memorial is powerful enough, but there is something particularly reverent about seeing the people trying to find the names of friends and family members whom they lost in that conflict. My father spent a tour in Vietnam. He was fortunate enough to make it back. He knew many that did not. The shot below shows a gentleman looking for the name of someone he either knew or served with who did not come home. Getting this photo of him as he is searching the west wall is a slightly different use of reflection than what people might typically see.
The west wall at the Vietnam Memorial
 3.) Use Leading Lines To A Point of Interest: The great thing about taking pictures in the D.C. area is you can lead the viewer from one monument to another through the use of leading lines. I was at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in the shot below. It is one of the newer ones, and it is located on the north side of the tidal basin across from the Jefferson Memorial. The site is dominated by a 30 foot sculpture of Dr. King cut out of white granite. It is actually out of frame to the right in this shot. Behind the sculpture are two walls spanning across the grounds. Each panel has one of Dr. King's quotes. This shot caught my eye because the wall runs to the east and takes the viewer's eyes right to the Washington Monument, which is close to a mile away. This is another way to capture a commonly photographed site in a different way. In this case, I was able to use the monuments honoring our first President and one of our founding fathers and the most important civil rights leader in our history.

The wall at the MLK Memorial going to the east, with the Washington Monument in the distance.
I could literally spend days in Washington D.C. taking photos and still not feel like I've gotten everything I wanted. But you all probably have other places you prefer to visit. These tips would apply to any sightseeing trip, whether the destination is historic or not. The one thing I will say is that when the story behind the shot has a historic component to it, the shot itself has a different feel. I can't explain it. That's just my take. In any case, keep these thoughts in mind on your next trip, and I am sure you will get some great photos. Until next time . . .

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Here's A Great Morning Shooting Location In Phoenix, AZ

One thing very cool thing about Phoenix is that it's located in a basin surrounded by mountains in the middle of a desert. That's why its called "The Valley of the Sun." Granted, these aren't the Rocky Mountains, but there is enough elevation to give you some pretty nice views of the entire city.

One of these places is South Mountain State Park. It is about eight miles south of downtown Phoenix. Dobbin's Lookout, its highest point, overlooks the city and sits at an elevation of over 2,300 feet. It's a favorite destination in the park for hikers. Now, while I don't mind walking to get to certain shooting locations there is not always time. So one of the reasons Dobbins Lookout is one of my favorite spots is that I don't have to hike all they way up there. I can just drive my car to the top. There are plenty of great views throughout the park. But this is the best one for getting views of downtown Phoenix.

On this particular visit, I wanted to get some shots as the sun was coming up. It's about to 23 miles to South Mountain from my home in the West Valley, so I left in time to get there about 45 minutes before sunrise.  I set up my tripod and took the photos with remote to eliminate camera movement. The shot below was taken about five minutes after official sunrise using a shutter speed of 1/50s, at f/5 and ISO 640. Clearly, the main focus here was the skyscrapers, but I was also wanting to show the changes in elevation as you get deeper into the shot. In the foreground, you can see all the residential, small business and industrial areas. There probably aren't any buildings more than 20-30 feet high. Then you see downtown, where there is a dramatic leap in the height of the buildings. Chase Field, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks is just slightly right of center about an inch and a half up from the bottom of the photo. It's kind of tough to make out, but it's in a gap between two taller buildings. The sun is just out of frame to the right and is starting to hit the taller buildings. Finally, as you move further into the shot, you see the Phoenix Mountains to the north. They are close to the same elevation as the South Mountains where I am. You can also see the morning haze in the distance, which usually burns off within two hours of sunrise. The best thing about taking photos at Dobbin's Lookout is that it is so peaceful. It's definitely a great place to take photos early in the morning if you don't mind getting up well before sunrise.

Downtown Phoenix in the early morning. Another day begins in the Valley of the Sun. 
But there are other interesting things to shoot at Dobbin's Lookout. The stone shelter you see below is the location's signature landmark. I took this shot a few minutes before the one of downtown: 1/60s shutter speed, f/16, ISO 100. The sun has just come over the mountain behind me and is catching the south facing part of the structure. This was one of my favorite shots of the morning.
The stone shelter located at Dobbin's Lookout in South Mountain State Park. This is a favorite destination for hikers. 

Before leaving, I drove to another part of the park to get some pictures of the desert landscape. By this time the sun was much higher in the sky. Since it doesn't rain much here, it only takes a little to make the desert vegetation to really pop. This location was on the west side of the park along one of the hiking trails. Again, you can get a sense of the rapid elevation changes from where I am standing in that little valley full of Seguaro Cactus to the top of the South Mountains.

So there you go. South Mountain State Park is a terrific place to take photos of the entire Metro Phoenix area. But that isn't all. Whether you are looking for cool structures to shoot or some beautiful desert landscape, you can't go wrong. If a trip to the Valley of the Sun is in your future, do yourself a favor and get to South Mountain to take some photos. Trust me, you'll be glad you did.  Until next time . . .

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Tips For Photographing Small Animals

This past summer, my daughter asked me if she could have a pet rabbit. It took her a while to convince me, but eventually I agreed. It occurred to me that I hadn't taken that many pictures of animals recently so this seemed like a good opportunity.

There are a few things I keep in mind when photographing animals, especially the smaller ones.

1. Focus On The Eyes

 I think it's even more important to focus on the eyes when taking pictures of animals. Seeing the eyes can get you thinking about what might be going on in their heads. Take the shot below for example. This little guy is Benny. He is about eight months old. He is used to seeing me because I feed him occasionally. But this is the first time I've been this close to him with a camera. The look in his eye tells me he is not quite sure what to make of it. It's almost like he's saying, "Okay, I know you feed me sometimes, and that's great. But I don't know what that black thing is that you have pointed at me, and I am this close to being out of here."

2. Camera Settings 

Obviously you want to keep all the attention on your subject. These shots were taken later in the day with an 18-55mm lens. In this next shot, Benny is hanging out munching on some grass: ISO 200, f/5.3, 1/80s, with a 40mm focal length. He wasn't moving around that much in this shot, so I could afford to go with a longer shutter speed. Keep in mind that some small animals can be a little skittish, so you might need to increase your shutter speed to at least the 1/200s - 1/500s range. I was happy with the lighting that the ISO of 200 gave me, so I didn't bump that up. The photo above was taken from a different angle. Because of the difference in the light, I needed a little more sensitivity so it was shot at 500 ISO. You can see that I was able to get a little closer on this shot below also. That brings me to the third point I wanted to share.

3.Get Low And Close

There are a couple reasons why I think it's best to get as low as you can with small animals when photographing them. Even though I am no expert on animal behavior, I think it's fair to say that most feel a little threatened when confronted with something that is greater in size. In the first shot, Benny looks like he is ready to take off at the first sign of trouble. On the shots above and below, I was kneeling down. Then I lowered the camera all the way down to his level and took the photo. This last shot is a little underexposed, but it still works for me. Benny is looking right at the camera, which isn't more than a foot and a half away from him. To me, this shot is so much more interesting. It's probably the one I like the most because Benny let me get that close. The eyes told me that he was more relaxed than in the very first photo.

Those are three easy things to keep in mind when photographing small animals. Their eyes can tell you so much about what they might be experiencing, so focus on those when you plan your shot. Your camera settings will vary depending on the time of day, assuming you are outside. The goal is to bring all the attention to your subject. You will want to play around with the settings to give you the desired exposure and depth of field. Remember that the smaller animals that tend to move suddenly may require a faster shutter speed to eliminate any potential blur. And finally, get as close as you can and get right on their level. This will give you much better perspective than taking the shot standing up. It can also help put the subject more at ease. What are some of your favorite animals to photograph? Feel free to share your thoughts and pictures if you like. That's all for now. Have fun! Until next time . . .


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Color vs. Black & White: When Should You Convert?

Digital photography has given us two things since arriving on the scene nearly 30 years ago. The first is instant feedback with no additional costs. If you don't like the photo you just took, you can just take another one. In fact, you can take as many as you want because unlike shooting with film, it's not costing you extra money. The second thing digital cameras have allowed us to do is experiment in ways that we couldn't before. And one of those ways is figuring out whether the photo you took would look better in color or in black and white.

There are many reasons why you would want to go with a color photo. If vibrant colors are the main theme, and you have several distinct hues present, it is obviously the best option. Here is an example of what I am talking about. The shot below is the starting line of a half marathon run in Phoenix last week. One of the fun things I like about these races is seeing all the different colors people wear.  You see everything from basic black to the brightest neon.  I liked the different combination of colors in this shot. That is the main reason I wanted to get a decent photo of the runners at the start of the race.

But take a look at the same shot in black and white. It has lost much of its appeal since you can't distinguish between the colors the runners are wearing. You can't see the neon green and bright orange shirts or all the different colors of running shoes. In this case, converting the shot to black and white has removed the most appealing aspect of it. At least to me it has.

Now I wanted to share a photo from the same race that I think is enhanced by converting it to black and white. Here is a shot of one of the race leaders. In fact, he is fourth from the right in the photo above and ended up finishing second.  I was standing about 150 yards from the finish line when he came by me.

There are a couple things I like about this shot. First of all, I know exactly what he is feeling at this moment. He is digging deep to find any remaining energy to get himself to the finish line. With an ISO of 1600, and an aperture of f/3.5, I feel like I've gotten the desired depth of field that keeps you focused on the runner and what he is experiencing. But I don't like the red tape in the background. It was there to separate the half marathon home stretch from the 5K, which was on the other side of the street. Cropping it out was not an option because I would have cut off the runner's arms at the elbow. That would have looked pretty silly. Then it occurred to me that I didn't need color to tell the story in this photo. The runner's bright green shirt and colorful racing bib had nothing to do with the shot. And even though I tried to minimize the impact of the red tape by going with a more shallow depth of field, it is still a distraction.  The story of this photo was all about the physical duress that this runner was dealing with just 15-20 seconds from the finish line. That is what I wanted to convey. So I converted it to black and white.

The converted photo is a significant improvement to me. I've said before when it comes to sports action photography, it's the emotion that brings the shot to life. And in this case, the conversion to black and white eliminates all the distractions and focuses your attention right where I want it; on what this runner is physically experiencing as he guts out the last 150 yards of a half marathon. The shot feels a lot more gritty now. It's not hard at all for me to imagine what this runner is going through. I just don't think the color version of this photo comes close to achieving the same effect.

There is one general rule that the professional photographers agree on. The best way to capture the images you are considering for conversion is to shoot them in the RAW format. You have a lot more flexibility that way. You can check out how the image looks in black and white without losing any of color information in the event you want to make some changes later. If you were to shoot them in black and white and then save them to a JPEG format none of the color information would be stored.

So when you are thinking about converting a color photo to black and white, think about the story you want the photo to tell. Ultimately, the direction you decide to go is completely up to you. Like anything else when it comes to photography, the more practice you get, the more you will get a sense for when to convert the image and when not to. If you determine that your decision has increased the impact of the shot, you have made the right choice. Have fun practicing! Until next time . . .

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Top 5 Photos From the Phoenix Half Marathon

I took up recreational distance running a little over 11 years ago, mostly to shake up my workout routine. But I got so into it that I've wound up running seven marathons, nine half marathons, and six 10K races since then. These days, I stick to the 10K races due the the heavy time commitment that those longer races require. But I still enjoy being in that environment. There is a lot of great positive energy.

So this past weekend. I decided to get up early and go downtown to take some shots at a local running event in Phoenix that featured a half marathon, a 5K race and a 10K race. I had actually run that particular 10K four times, but it was the last race scheduled to start, so I wanted to focus more on the half marathon and 5K races.

My blog post from a few weeks ago was entitled "5 Tips For Taking Better Sports Action Photos." The third one listed was "Get the Faces." That was my primary goal for this particular outing. Having experienced a wide range of emotions while running these races, I felt like they would result in teh most compelling shots.

I liked this shot because the runner on the left is all business, while "Waldo"
seems to be having a great time. The facial expression says it all. 
I got to the racing venue at 6:00 AM, so that gave me an hour to scout things out before the half marathon started. I spent some time playing around with my settings to see what would work best for the different locations I was planning to be. Because of the way the course was laid out, it was easy to get around it quickly. The start and finish lines were within a block of each other and it was basically an out and back design. I used my Nikon D5300 with a 70-200mm f/8 Nikkor lens the whole time I was on the course. After some experimentation, I decided to set the ISO at 1600. When the race started it was about 10 minutes after sunrise, and due to being downtown, the tall buildings created quite a bit of shade. So I needed a little more sensitivity to make up for the lower lighting conditions and the faster shutter speeds. Besides that, I was okay with the depth of field being a little shallow since I wanted to draw people viewing the photos to the runners' faces. The aperture wound up at f/3.5 with the shutter speed ranging from 1/2500s-1/4000s using bursts at 4 fps.

Now when it comes to shooting these types of races in particular, the best piece of advice I got was not to worry so much about getting the entire body and shoot from about the waist up, focusing directly on the face. That was my most important takeaway from shooting at this particular event. Here are some of the photos with a brief explanation of what I liked and/or didn't like about them.

 The winner still has a laser like focus less than 200 yards from the finish line. 
This first shot is of the guy who won the half marathon. It was a pretty flat and fast course, and he absolutely destroyed it. Here, he was at the Mile 13 marker, with less than 200 yards to go. As you can see, his eyes are focused right on that finish line. At 1/4000s shutter speed, the camera has absolutely stopped his motion, so what you can't see is that he was really moving. This was the last frame of a burst of about 15 shots, I thought I picked him up early, but he was past me before I knew it.

The next shot is of the runner who finished second. It is one of my a favorite ones because the expression on his face is more typical of someone who is trying to get to that finish line on a tank that is close to being empty. He was battling hard, and even though he is laboring, his finishing time was over a minute better than the guy who won it last year.
Trying to keep from hitting "the Wall" in the last mile. 
Getting back to the facial expression; anyone who has run a distance race of any kind knows what this feels like. Your lungs are burning, and your legs are telling you that they've had just about enough. But you keep putting one foot in front of the other as many times as it takes to get yourself across that finish line. For most of the shots I took, I didn't have a sense for whether or not it would be a good one until I got home and downloaded them to the computer. But when this runner was approaching and I began to fire off my burst, I had a feeling that this particular frame would best tell his story. He definitely left everything out on the course. I absolutely love the intensity being shown here.This guy is running on fumes right now, but he is still pushing himself to the finish line. That's pretty awesome.

These two competitors were dueling all the way to the tape. 
The next two photos show two runners who were competing in the 5K wound up locked in a head to head dual over the last 150 yards. My only regret on these shots was that I was on the opposite side of the road. The two races shared the same final two tenths of a mile. There was a tape running down the middle of the street to keep the runners separate. There was no way to get to the other side of the street in time so I did the best that I could from where I was standing. These guys were in an all out sprint to the finish line. You can see the taller runner watching to see if his pursuer has one final kick left. Trust me, these guys were absolutely flying down the home stretch. The one thing I didn't like about these two photos is that I wound up cutting off some hands and fingers. That might not have happened if I had been on the other side of the road. But since I was focusing on the runners' faces, I can live with this result. Even though the shorter runner is wearing sunglasses, you can get a sense for how hard he is working by seeing him grimace as he fights for that last bit of energy to push him past his opponent. In the second photo you can still see his mouth, and the position of his arms show that he is pumping them to keep his form and gain any advantage he can. To end the suspense, the taller runner hung on to win by one second. It was a great finish.                                       
The taller runner had enough left to hold on for the victory.

So those are some of my favorite shots from the two races I covered. Overall, I felt like I was able to accomplish my goal. Getting to the venue early allowed me to figure out where I wanted to be during different parts of the race. Experimenting with my settings helped me to be ready to capture the shots I was looking for without wasting any unnecessary time. And specific to running, I definitely saw the value in concentrating on shooting from the waist up. This helps you take the people looking at your photo right to the runner's face, which tells the whole story. Until next time . . .

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Have You Ever Pushed The Safety Envelope To Get A Good Shot?

I think we can agree that with the exception of a photojournalist working in a war zone, most people would not consider photography to be inherently dangerous. That is unless we decide to push the limits ourselves by taking some risks. Over the last several months I have seen some photos that clearly involved people putting themselves at some kind of personal risk to get the photo they wanted. Frankly, this is something I didn’t think about all that much. As I have shared with you all before, I enjoy sports action photography and cityscapes the most. When I am taking photos at sporting events, it’s pretty easy to position myself so I don’t get run over by basketball or football players. And when taking pictures around the city, the only thing I need to worry about is not crossing against the light and getting hit by oncoming traffic.
Entrance to the Upper Antelope Canyon near Page, AZ

However, I have recently decided to spend more time taking pictures of the Arizona landscape. Most people think of this part of the country as desert. That is true to some extent, but northern Arizona is all mountains, gorges and canyons. In fact, Flagstaff, AZ sits at a higher elevation than Denver, CO (my hometown). Last spring, one of my very good friends came to Phoenix for a wedding, and we decided to take a day trip to Antelope Canyon, which is near the town of Page, AZ.  I had seen some pretty amazing shots of the canyon, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to get some good practice at landscape photography. There was only one problem. Antelope Canyon is a very popular tourist stop and we were going at time when things were just starting to get busy. We paid for a standard tour. There were also guided tours that were especially set up for photographers, but they cost quite a bit more. It turns out that it wasn’t that great an experience. It was very clear that tourism drove the local economy. And these tours ran like clockwork. The guides didn’t really allow time to take any quality photos. And the interesting thing was that the tour guide companies were conducting the photography tours at the exact same time. So they weren’t really getting a whole lot of opportunities either because that part of the canyon was packed with tourists. If I had paid for that tour, I would have felt like I’d wasted my money. I took several dozen photos, but even without looking at them, I had a sense that I didn’t get anything all that memorable. I was beginning to think that aside from having the opportunity to catch up with my friend, the trip had come up short of my expectations.

We decided to drive over to Horseshoe Bend, which was only about 15 minutes away. This is another very popular spot where the Colorado River make sharp 180 turn through Glen Canyon, which is about 140 miles from the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. I believed that I could still salvage the photography part of the trip if I could get a good shot here. It was about a 20 minute walk down to the edge of the canyon from where we parked. The first thing I noticed as we approached was that there were no guard rails to keep people back from the edge. I had a couple lenses to choose from including an 18-55mm and an 18-105mm. So the question became just how close I was willing to stand to try and get a shot of the entire Horseshoe.  I wouldn’t say that I have a fear of heights; just a healthy respect for high altitudes. I tried taking some shots standing about 10-15 feet away, but even at the widest angle I wasn’t coming close to getting everything I wanted. And the higher rocks were too far back to get the bottom of the Horseshoe. So my only option was to try and get a little closer. I wasn’t going to be one of those daring people who dangled their feet over the ledge to get the shot. The drop is over 1,000 feet to the bottom of the canyon, and I’ve seen my share of photos on the internet taken moments before someone took a wrong step and fell. So I decided to sit down and move within about three feet of the ledge. That way I would still have a nice solid base. Then I just held my camera over my head and took a series of shots hoping I could capture one that worth keeping. I didn’t have the right lens to get the entire horseshoe bend and the talk rock on the opposite side of the river. But I was able to get one that provided some great perspective on the sheer enormity of this part of Glen Canyon. If you look really close, you can see a boat on the river. At over 1,000 feet away, it appears to be a small white dot.
The Horseshoe Bend in Glen Canyon. This is as close as I wanted to get without risking life and limb. From where I
am sitting, it is over 1,000 down to the water. I couldn't quite get the extreme lower and right edges, but it's the
best I could do under the circumstances. See the boat?
So that’s my story on how much I was willing to push the safety envelope to get the shot I wanted. The answer is not terribly far. I just didn’t feel that comfortable standing that close to the ledge with other people standing around. All it would have taken was for someone to stumble and bump into me. And then who knows what would have happened. That’s why sitting on the ground seemed to be the safest play. I must have taken about 30-40 shots, but I found one worth keeping. At first I was disappointed that I didn’t get the entire lower edge of the bend, but from where I was sitting, that was as good as it was going to get. I’ve also talked to other photographers who have taken shots from that same location, and they said it is extremely challenging to get the entire bend and the rocks on the west side without being on some kind of elevated platform. Given the tools that I had to work with, I was happy with the result and felt like that made the trip worthwhile. Do you all have any examples where you pushed the limits even a little bit? I would be interested in hearing about them. Feel free to share them in the comments section. Good luck getting that great shot, but most importantly, stay safe! Until next time . . .

Sunday, October 22, 2017

5 Tips For Taking Better Sports Action Photos

Even before I took up photography, I have always appreciated a really good sports action photo. In a future blog, I'll share what I consider to be my top five, but today I wanted to share five tips that can help you take better sports action photos. I have used them over the last several years, and I have managed to get some nice shots in a few different sports. So here we go . . .

Tip #1.)  Know What You're Shooting

Like anything else, getting a good sports action photo takes preparation and planning. And that starts with knowing the sport that you are going to shoot. I've spent the most time shooting basketball and tennis. I've also spent some time getting shots at a spring training baseball game. By "knowing the sport", I mean understanding how to watch it. I prepare for shooting these sports by looking at photos that professionals take to note the sight lines they are using. Then when I get to the location, I take some time to walk the areas where I think I'll be able to take some good shots, depending on the crowds and the position of the sun. When the game starts, my goal is to shoot from at least three or four different locations so I can get a little variety. One other thing to keep in mind when it comes to knowing what you are shooting: identify key players and note their tendencies. This will help put you in the right position to get a good shot. There is nothing better than having the action come right at you as you are trying to get one that is a keeper. I went back to the photos I took at BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament at Indian Wells last year. The practice schedule showed Eugenie Bouchard practicing in the early afternoon. She was expected to go deep into the tournament, so I figured there would be plenty spectators watching her practice. I got there a little early and found spot where she would be hitting right to me. I didn't have any credentials, so the closest I could get was the first couple of rows in the stands next to the court. It turns out that was good enough. Here is a nice shot I got of Bouchard's forehand.

Tip #2.) Get Tight Shots, Then Crop

Once you are able to identify a good spot, your next goal is to get shots that are as tight possible. It is a great way to bring the person viewing the photo into the action while eliminating whatever is not relevant to the shot. Cropping the shot later will allow you to do that even more. The photo here is the same one of Eugenie Bouchard taken above, but I cropped it tighter to eliminate the guy standing behind her. See the difference? Now it seems like she is playing against me. One other thing to keep in mind. Don't get into a rut holding the camera the conventional way all the time. It might feel more natural, but in certain sports, going vertical can provide a much better perspective.

Tip #3.) Get The Faces

Facial expressions and emotions are such a great part of sports action photography. That is why I tend to favor sports where you are more likely to capture them. It's one reason I haven't spent a lot of time taking pictures at football games.  Although I will say that getting that facial expression through the helmet is pretty cool. Sometimes you can get some nice shots even if it's slightly away from the action. Here is a a photo I got at a youth basketball game a few years ago. The players are preparing to grab the rebound on a free throw attempt.
They are about 12-13 years old. I recall that this was a pretty close game and every possession counted. You can see the anticipation on their faces as the free throw approaches the rim. I don't remember who got the rebound though. This shot could have been framed a little better because I cut off the last three fingers of the middle player. I did manage to capture it in the very next frame, but I liked these facial expressions better, which was what I was trying to get. I also wasn't able to get the left hand of the player on the right. Here is a second photograph from another game. This player is actually my son. He was nine years old at the time. In this shot, he had just grabbed a defensive rebound, and had begun bringing the ball up the court. This one caught my eye because of the intense focus on his face. I find shots like this one to be just as, if not more, compelling when shooting youth sports.

Tip #4.) Keep Practicing

One thing that happens to me when I go shoot sports is that I start to get caught up in the game and I stop shooting for  a while. This is especially true when I am watching my son play. But I have tightened that up quite a bit lately by designating blocks of time during the game when I will concentrate solely on taking photos. The key is to get out there as much as you can so you can keep honing your skills. You may not get to the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell espouses, but every hour counts. Your sense of anticipation and timing will improve, and that can be the difference between a good shot and a great one. 

Tip #5.) Critique Yourself Hard & Accept Constructive Feedback

One mindset I have always had is that no matter how proficient I feel I have become at something, I know what I don't know. It's no different with photography. I have two friends that I often talk to prior to shooting a particular event. One was a professional  and still has an incredible portfolio of photos taken all over the world. And after I finish, I usually send them some of my shots to get their feedback. I also submit some to photography blogs and forums on Reddit as well as posting them on Imgur. I am very open to constructive feedback, and when other photographers see that you are trying to improve, they are very helpful. 

So those are five tips that I always try to keep in mind whenever I go out to take sports action photos. If you have others that have helped you, feel free to leave them in the comments section below. Good luck as you continue sharpening your skills as a sports action photographer! Until next time . . .

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Looking For A Really Good Book On Photography?

When I first got interested in photography, the amount of educational material available was pretty overwhelming. And it’s even worse now. For example, I just went to the Amazon website and typed “Photography Books” in the search box. That returned over 241,000 results. Using some good filtering techniques (four stars or higher, digital photography, and new releases), I was able to get that number down to 50 pretty quickly. But at the end of the day, I thought it made more sense to see what those who have been at it longer than me would recommend.

My dad has been an avid photographer since his days in the military. In fact, he has  a Leica camera that is at least 50 years old and still in perfect working condition. A couple years ago, he bought me a book called Digital Photography Masterclass by Tom Ang. It was exactly what I needed to improve my skills.

This book has great tutorials that cover every aspect of photography.

This book is set up in such a way that makes it very easy to learn the concepts that the author covers. Each chapter is basically a tutorial on some aspect of photography. The first five tutorials help you to get a better understanding of how your camera works. It covers topics such as key camera controls, and exposure. Then there are four chapters that review the elements that will further develop your skills like mastering composition and using available light. After that, Ang takes us into the darkroom to show how to use the available software to perfect the image. Finally, the last seven tutorials cover a specific type of photography (travel, portrait, sports, etc.) that will enable you to focus on the category of your choosing.

I also like how the book reinforces the concepts. There is an assignment at the end of each tutorial that helps you apply the information that you’ve read. This method of learning has been proven to be very effective, and it’s especially true in photography where the feedback now is practically instantaneous. In this age of digital photography, it is possible to review your work immediately following your session. I find this short turnaround time to be very motivating. Not only am I able to see what I did right, but I can focus on the areas where I didn’t get the desired results and make a note on what I need to do to have a better outcome next time.

So if you are looking for a great book to teach you the basics as well as the finer points if digital photography, you don’t need to look any further than Digital Photography Masterclass by Tom Ang. It is extremely well organized, and the author’s writing style makes it very easy to read. At the time of this posting, there is a 3rd Edition available on Amazon in paperback for around $20.00. I think you will find it to be a very worthwhile investment. Until next time . . .

Monday, October 9, 2017

What Is Your Favorite Camera Lens?

When it comes to any of my hobbies, the whole "What is your favorite . . .?" conversation is one that I always enjoy. And with photography, it is especially interesting because there are so many things to consider. The first consideration is obviously what you enjoy shooting the most, and there are quite a number of categories. There is landscape photography, food photography, night photography, candid photography, and action photography, just to name several.

Nikon's 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S Nikkor Lens 
The fact is you can get as granular as you want here. But no matter what the choice, photographers always have one go to lens that will get them the results they are seeking. I happen to really enjoy sports action photography. And for that, the lens I rely on the most is my Nikon 70-200mm zoom lens. The full name is the 70-200mm f2.8 ED VR II AF-S Nikkor Lens. It is extremely versatile and is an outstanding choice for sports action photography for three very important reasons.

  1. The zoom range of 70-200mm gives me a pretty effective shooting range of about 15 - 150 feet while having the ability use the full frame on the subject. That's going to vary a little bit depending on how much background you want to include, but it is a good working distance for just about any sport.
  2. This lens has an f/2.8 aperture, which makes it ideal for shooting indoors where there may not be as much light. This lens will pull in as much light as is available to give you the best opportunity to take a good photo. That's important when you are working with shutter speeds of 1/800s or faster. That's not a lot of time, so having a lens that can capture the most available light in these situations is preferred. Slowing the shutter speed allows for capturing more light, but there is a pretty good chance that your subject will be blurred. You will still need decent indoor lighting but all things being equal, you have a much better chance of a getting a quality shot in a gym using this lens compared to one with a higher minimum aperture. I tried taking sports action shots indoors with my 55-300mm lens with a minimum aperture of f/4.5, and the results are markedly different. The shots are so much darker and many of them were unusable due to the inadequate lighting in the gym. 
  3. The sharpness that this lens provides throughout the entire range of 70-200mm is excellent. The earlier version was notorious for the images having "soft corners". One common metric that is used to rate lenses is called the blur unit. And the lower this number is across the frame, the better. At  f/2.8, the blur units are no higher than 1.5. There just aren't that many lenses out there that can give you that kind of sharpness at that aperture setting. And that is what makes this lens a great choice for sports action photography. Here is one of my favorite shots taken at a spring training baseball game earlier this year. 
    Spring Trainng Baseball: SD vs. Seattle. Taken with Nikon 70-200mm Zoom Lens. Shutter Speed 1/1600s, f/4
So those are main reasons why the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor Lens is my favorite. I do have three other lenses, but when I want to take sports action photos, whether I am indoors or outdoors, I'll always go with my trusty 70-200mm zoom. Now, it is a pretty heavy lens, weighing about 3 lbs. 6 oz. But I'll gladly haul it around. It's a small price to pay for the kinds of shots I have been able to take with it. What is your favorite lens to use and why do you like it? Please share your comments below. I am always interested in learning  more about what other photographers, especially the seasoned amateurs and professionals are using. Until next time . . . 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Same Location, Different Looking Shot

Besides sports action photography, I also enjoy taking shots in different cities; and the more historic, the better. That is why Washington D.C. is hands down my favorite city to visit. I know there are older cities, but what does it for me is the monuments. I never get tired of taking photographs on the National Mall. And the city itself has its own unique vibe. I love riding the Metro to go to the museums, and D.C. has just about any type of restaurant you can imagine.

One of the more interesting discoveries I made during my last couple of trips is how different the monuments and memorials can look depending on the time of day the photograph is taken. I am a big fan of shadowing. It can create a really nice perspective, so I do spend a little time noting how the sun is hitting a particular monument. I also like shooting in the early part of the morning. Taking photos in the 30 minutes before and after sunrise and sunset can add a completely different dimension to your photographs because of the colors that are visible during that time of the day. Here is what I mean. Below, you will see two photos of the Washington Monument. One was taken in Oct. 2015 during the later part of the morning. The second one was taken a year later from a spot that probably wasn't more than 40 - 50 yards away from the original one, but the time was about 20 minutes after official sunrise. I should also mention that these were two photos that I did not use any editing on in order to enhance them. You are seeing exactly what I saw.
Washington Monument - Late Morning
Oct. 2015
Washington Monument - Early Morning
Oct. 2016

As you can see, the weather was absolutely perfect on both of these days. I am taking both shots while standing northeast of the monument. The sun is just out of frame to my left. It is really amazing how much of a difference several hours can make with respect to the colors that you see in a photo. In the first one, the shadow on the nearest face is clearly defined against the blue sky. And you can see the distinct contrast between the monument face catching the sunlight and the one that is shaded. In the early morning shot, the shadowing is still evident, but the terrific colors that are best seen at sunrise are clearly the distinguishing features. This was one of my favorite shots from that particular trip.

The one thing I had not had a chance to do in D.C. is take photographs at night. So on my last trip I booked a guided tour in the evening that made a few stops for people to get out and take photos. In the shots of the Washington Monument above, you saw the difference that a few hours can make. Below, you will be able to see the how much different things can look at night. These two shots were taken at the wall of the MLK Memorial that extended north towards the Washington Monument. The first one was shot in the afternoon.The second one was taken the following year in the evening. I was standing almost in the exact same spot. For the night shot, I used aperture priority and let the camera select the shutter speed and ISO. I also used a tripod to eliminate any camera shake.
MLK Memorial North Wall - Oct. 2015
MLK Memorial North Wall - Oct. 2016
Before I comment on the shots, let me just say that if you haven't had a chance to take a D.C. Monuments tour at night, I highly recommend it. I can't even really describe it. To see them lit up and everyone walking around quietly creates an atmosphere of reverence that you don't feel quite as much during the day. Anyway, I really liked how these two shots turned out. From this spot, the Washington Monument is about a twenty minute walk. I was a little amazed that there weren't any people in the day time shot, but they were all behind me looking at the huge sculpture of Dr. King. Capturing the tourists in the evening shot adds to the effect I think. Obviously, some of them were blurred because they were walking and their motion combined with the slower shutter speed necessary to let in the required amount of light made for the slight distortion. But I actually like it.

So those are just a couple of my favorite shots of Washington D.C. There are dozens more on my Shutterfly page, so if you would like to take a look, feel free to leave your email in the comments section, and I will add you to my list. I just wanted to share some of the things I enjoy about taking photos at different times of the day to demonstrate how much of a difference several hours or more can make even when you are shooting from almost the exact same spot. What cities do you enjoy the most when taking photographs? I would be very interested in seeing some of your favorites along with your comments on what you like the most about them. Until next time . . .

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

My Favorite Shots From Indian Wells

Tennis is one of my favorite sports, and my wife enjoys watching it even more than I do. So last year, I took her to Palm Springs, CA to watch the first two rounds of the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament at the Indian Wells Resort. This event attracts all the top players on both the men's and women's tour, so much so that it has often been called "the Fifth Major" of the tennis season. Given that we both love tennis so much, I thought going to the tournament would make a great early anniversary gift.

It would also give me the opportunity for photograph some of the best tennis players in the world. Indian Wells is an awesome venue. It has a 16,100 seat stadium court and 11 other match courts as well as six practice courts. And the entire property is very easy to get around; not nearly as spread out as Flushing Meadow.

It's a great day for tennis. Here we go!
The best time to get good photos of the players was when they were practicing. The practice courts posted a schedule of who would be using them throughout each day. This made it very easy for me to map out where I needed to be in between the matches my wife and I planned to see.

So for this blog post, I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite shots from the tournament. I am a Nikon guy, and my camera is a D5300 SLR. I brought three lenses with me, but the one I would be relying on the most for the action photography was my Nikkor 70-200mm. It is perfectly suited for events like this. And the weather was absolutely perfect. For settings, I usually went with shutter priority and let the camera select the aperture and ISO. Anyway, here are the shots I selected. I have also provided a little back story for each one.

This is a shot of my wife Winnie with the Stadium Court in the background. As you can tell, the weather was just about perfect. Being in the desert in March, it does get a little cool at night, but during the day the temperatures were reaching at least 80 degrees. Winnie is definitely ready for the day, and she was letting everyone know with her "Fifty Shades of Tennis" t-shirt. It got several nods of approval from other tennis fans throughout the day. The matches started at 11:00 AM and usually wrapped up around 11:00 PM depending on the length of the scheduled matches and the weather. I took this shot with my 18-55 mm Nikkor lens shortly after we arrived on the first day. So while there are not many people in the background, it didn't take long for the crowds to show up. In fact, I am pretty sure they set new attendance record for the tournament.
Nice concentration shown by Madison Keys during
her practice session prior to her first round match.

You may recognize the player to the right as Madison Keys. She made it to the final of the U.S. Open just a few weeks ago before coming up short against Sloane Stephens, another young American star. Here, Keys is getting in some practice prior to her first round match, which was later in the day. I was not able to get right next to the practice court, but the 70-200mm zoom still allowed me to get pretty tight. Up until this trip, most of the action shots I had taken were indoors at my son's basketball games, so it was nice to be outside in the natural light. I experimented with different shutter speeds by starting low and working my way up. Here I used 1/250s. That seemed to be good enough to freeze the player, but the ball is just slightly blurred. It's traveling over 100 mph coming off Keys' racket, so that wasn't totally unexpected. Eventually, I settled for shutter speeds in the 1/1000s - 1/1250s range. The reason I like this shot is because of the concentration and focus being demonstrated here. Madison's eyes are still totally focused on the ball even after it is well on its way. When I first started playing tennis, my eyes would always go to where I wanted to hit the ball just as I was making contact. This resulted in a lot of mishits and unforced errors. If I could execute shots with this kind of concentration, I'd be pretty happy.

Here is Rafael Nadal of Spain getting in a few
serves before taking the court the next day. 
Later that afternoon, we saw Rafael Nadal warming up a few courts down. So I wanted to see if I could get a few shots of him serving. I had every intention of changing my shutter speed after taking some shots around the tennis center, but something distracted me, and I left it on the previous setting. You can tell because the ball is blurred even though it is barely moving as Nadal begins his toss. I was a little disappointed at my lack of attention to detail since I didn't notice the mistake until after I finished shooting. But it was a great lesson learned. After that I double checked my settings every time I got near a practice court so I would be ready. It didn't take long for me to get another great opportunity.

I finally got the shutter speed I was looking for
while watching Eugenie Bouchard of Canada
get in some practice. 

Precision and power are on display as Eugenie Bouchard sends a
blistering backhand down the line during a practice session with her coach.
The next two shots are of Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard. She was a finalist at Wimbledon in 2013, and we were planning on watching her play later that evening. I set the shutter speed at 1/1000s and let the aperture and ISO adjust automatically. Again, you can see the total concentration as Bouchard follows through on her forehand. This shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the ball with no blur at all. The same is true of the shot below. Here, Bouchard's power and precision is on display as she hits a scorching two-fisted backhand down the line that has no chance at being returned. It is probably my most favorite action shot that I took over the course of the two days that we were there. The one thing you cannot get a full appreciation for is just how hard these athletes hit the ball. It just sounds different coming off their racket.  My wife and I spent at least 20 minutes watching Bouchard practice with her coach, and she was absolutely punishing the ball. It also carried over into her first round match later in the evening. She won it handily.

The biggest reason for taking Winnie to the tournament was so she could see the Williams sisters in action. It was their first trip back to Indian Wells in more than 15 years, and the crowd gave them each a rousing ovation when they played their respective matches. Venus played first. She was little rusty and was not able to get out of the first round. At the time, I thought she was just about finished with tennis, but clearly this year, she as proven that she is as competitive as ever. Not many champions can say they made it to two Grand Slam Finals this late in their career. Venus is 37 years old.

Serena Williams played an unseeded German player in her second round match after receiving a first round bye. This was the last match we watched on that second night. We were headed back home the next morning. Of course Serena did not disappoint. Since it was an evening match. There was no flash photography allowed during play. However, there were photo opportunities on the change overs. We were sitting in the first few rows of the loge level behind the baseline. After Serena won the first set, I took out my camera and quickly switched the settings to automatic. Then I just zoomed in tight as she was seated in her chair toweling off and preparing to go out and play the second set. If I had to guess, I would say that I was  about 100 - 120 feet away from her by line of sight distance. Since I had set everything to automatic, I was not able to shoot multiple frame per second, so timing was everything. I kept the camera trained on Serena for at least a minute. The whole time I was saying under my breath, "Please, look up here just once. That's all I'm asking. " And then this happened. . .

Serena Williams on a change over just after winning the first set of her
second round match at the 2016 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, CA
There were literally thousands of fans on that end of the stadium, and it seems like she is looking directly at me as I took this shot. The timing couldn't have been any better. Patience really does pay off if you want a shot badly enough. A minute later, Serena was back on the court. She won the second set easily to advance to the third round.

So those are some of my favorite shots from the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. If you would like see more from that weekend, feel free to leave your email address in the comments section and I will add you to my Shutterfly list. In the meantime, I hope you have enjoyed what you have seen here. And I would really like seeing some of your favorite  shots. They don't just have to be sport action photography either. It's always a great learning experience for me to hear and see what others like to shoot as well. Until next time. . .

Friday, August 4, 2017

ABC Photography: A History

Interestingly enough the idea behind alphabet photography started with an illustrated children's book. In 1999 Stephen T. Johnson put together a wordless book that featured still life pictures of everyday objects that looked like letters of the alphabet. The School Library Journal review of this Caldecott Honor book said, "While parents or teachers might assume from the title that this is a traditional alphabet book, they should be encouraged to look at it as an art book. It's sure to inspire older children to venture out on their own walks to discover the alphabet in the familiar objects of their own hometowns."

One Canadian woman was inspired to do just that. "Through my travels I was able to photograph hundreds of objects, found completely in their natural surroundings that resembled letters of the alphabet. A bridge became the letter 'T", an arm on a park bench a "G" and railway tracks an "E". Jennifer Blakeley didn't just stop at taking alphabet pictures though; she turned alphabet photography into a household name and the latest home d├ęcor craze in Hollywood.

Celebrities such as Ryan Seacrest and Oprah have lauded the unique creativity of using photographed letters to decorate their space. Other entrepreneurs soon followed in Ms. Blakeley's footsteps and now you can find alphabet photography not only of natural, outdoor objects, but of individual letters in famous signs or from famous architectural locations all over the world.

What makes alphabet photography so popular? Part of the appeal of alphabet photographs is the simple appeal of personalization. Everyone likes to see their name - the bigger and flashier the better. Having creative, unique pieces of art on your wall that also spells your name appeals to many people's egos. The variability of this exceptional art choice is another attraction. Almost any and every occasion you can think of is an appropriate time for letter art. Not only individual's names need to be used, for example, an office building could decorate with words like "teamwork" or "success" or "performance". What about a dentist's office with "teeth" or "smile" in their waiting room? A wedding gift with "love" or the couple's last name would be a fun gift. Or a graduation gift that spelled "dream" or "achieve". As you can clearly see, the sky is the limit when it comes to combining words and art. As the age-old saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words". How much then are they worth combined?