Viewing a Master Photographer

By Roger (16 November 2015)

We've talked many times about viewing and studying the work of other photographers, especially the “great” ones. There is much to learn, and it's important to learn from the best. Whenever possible, you should see the photographer's work, in person. There is a big difference in viewing the photos, in the real world, versus viewing them online. The difference can be shocking at times.

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian's American Art Museum for an Irving Penn exhibit (link). I joined a meetup with about 25 members of the On Taking Pictures podcast (link) and Google+ group. The hosts of the podcast, Jeffrey Saddoris and Bill Wadman, were there. We spent about 90 minutes, viewing the photos; split up and made some photos of our own; and had a beer and barbecue together. It was a pretty good way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

So, what did I see at the exhibit?

Penn (1917-2009) was a real working photographer and is considered one of the foremost photographers of the 20th century. He is best known for his fashion photography, but he shot celebrity portraits, street scenes, still lifes, studio, and even advertising. The museum had 146 representative photographs from all aspects of Penn's career, both monochrome and color. He is also known for using simple backgrounds and corners for his photos.

Some of the photographs were stunning, especially when you realize they were printed decades ago. I've gotten so comfortable with today's print quality, I had forgotten how good the quality actually could be with film and platinum printing. It wasn't better than today's prints, but there was a different look to the prints. Some of the color prints from his advertising days were still eye-popping.

When you go to an exhibit like this, you'll also find photos you don't think are worthy of being in such an exhibit. Art, with a capital A, can be a funny thing sometimes. The arbiters of Art will see things a “normal” viewer doesn't. There were a couple photos I didn't appreciate as much as the others. However, you would probably see several that I really liked and have a differing opinion. I'm certainly a fan of Penn's work, especially the portraits.

During the short photowalk, I was looking for some kind of abstract, with lines and curves, like I had seen in the exhibit. Penn's work was done in camera, so I didn't want want to create any kind of Photoshop composite. I saw this window display of strange teapots, with the reflection of a crosswalk in the glass. I'm not sure about the display stand's support cutting through the right teapots, but I didn't want to crop in so far that I lost the curve, and I wanted it straight from the camera.

My Penn-inspired teapots

The museum visit and OTP meetup was a great success. The Penn exhibit runs through 20 March, if you get a chance to visit the museum. You can do a Google Image search to see some of Penn's work. And listen to the podcast, next week (they're released on Tuesdays), and hear the discussion. I'm sure Jeffrey and Bill will talk about the meetup and exhibit.

Happy Veterans Day

By Mark

On the 11th hour of the 11th Day of the 11th month the guns fell silent across Europe marking the end of fighting in WW1.  Today we celebrate that day as Veterans Day, honoring all those who have served.  As a second generation sailor, it is sometime hard to realize that only a small percentage of the population has made the commitment and sacrifices required as part of being in the military.   

CDR Robert B. Segal, USN--My Dad

CDR Robert B. Segal, USN--My Dad

For many of our parent and grandparent’s generations almost everyone “did a hitch”, or served because of the draft. 

Bill Altman, USA--Sarah's Dad WWII

Bill Altman, USA--Sarah's Dad WWII

I got to see a lot of sea.  Some of it was very picturesque such as sunset in the Surigao straits in the Philippines.

Some of it much more industrial and less fun; as in the “joys” of living in a shipyard for months of repairs.   

Throughout my career, the one universal constant was the dedication and quality of the young men and women in the service.  Whether they were in for one tour or a full career, each and every one of them learned that there are things more important than self.  Dedication to the mission, the unit and the country were a unifying force. Whether you served in the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Army, the Air Force, or the Coast Guard be proud of what you accomplished.

Today, lots of places are offering “Free” meals or coffee to Vets all across the country.   Most of the Vets have in one way or another already paid a pretty high price through being deployed again and again.  When you thank a Vet for their service, stop and actually talk to them about what they most remember about their time in uniform.

Ens Segal, USN--1983

Ens Segal, USN--1983

Please also remember that this holiday is about those who served and made it back, while Memorial Day recognizes those who served, but whose lives have ended.

Don't Stop When Time is Short

Mark and I have been very busy at our real jobs lately. This has affected our blogging, making us late or missing. More importantly, it has prevented us from getting out and making new photos. This is a common problem for all photographers who work to afford their photography. Occasionally, you just don't have the time to pursue photography the way you want. There are things you can do, however, that will let you keep your hand in it, until things open up.

Reprocess a Photo. If you're a frequent photographer, you have thousands of older photos you made. When was the last time you reviewed them? Have your processing skills improved? Probably. I like to re-visit some of my favorite photos from, at least, five years ago and decide if I would process them differently today. Undoubtedly, your processing software has improved in the last five years, and you might be surprised at the results.

Seward, Alaska

You can go through one or two photos in a short amount of time, and you get to spend a little time with your favorite images. I work on a virtual copy of the image, so I can compare the before and after. This photo was improved over the original by improvements in image stitching and shadow enhancements. Keep in mind, you may decide that no changes are necessary, after all. That is always an acceptable answer.

Scan some old photos. While we're talking about old photographs, how many old photos have you scanned? I have a pile of them to get through. Scanning can be pretty boring, so I try to do it in small bunches any way. I can do about 20 photos in an hour. If you're all caught up, you can begin fixing the scratches and fading that has occurred over the years. Now that it's digitized and repaired, everyone in the family can have a copy of that treasured, old family photo.


Use your phone. Don't forget you have a perfectly good camera on your phone. You can sneak in a photo when you're stuck in traffic. It may not be your favorite subject, but you can still appreciate the light as you're watching the sunrise through the windshield. I travel through the Manassas Battlefield, every morning. Someone let my “secret” backroad route out to everyone else, so I'm still stuck in traffic. The scenery, however, is always tranquil and enjoyable. During one of my commuting traffic halts, I saw the beautiful light in a field of hay wheels. It won't make my portfolio, but I got to shoot a photo and remind myself of a place I need to get to when I get a break.

Great light on the way to work

Read a book. For an analog solution to your time crunch problem, try the radical solution of reading a book. I like the old photo books found in used bookstores. You can learn much about basic photo exposure and composition from these inexpensive books. Photographers of old were much more careful of these basics because every photo they shot cost them money in film and processing chemicals. The techniques in those old books are still quite valid.

I carry several book apps on my phone and Ipad, so I don't need to carry around bound paper for all my reading material or worry if my downtime occurs when I'm away from home. Most new books are also available as ebooks. The quality of these ebooks has progressed, along with every other technology. The color in these photobooks never fades, and I never lose my bookmark. These apps also hold my camera and flash manuals, which I use to look for capabilities I seldom use and need to try when I get my next camera time.

Online tutorials can help. Are you afraid reading a book will put you to sleep because you've been working such long hours? Well, we've talked, previously, about the tutorials you can access on your computer, Ipad, and smart phones. As a member of Kelbyone and, I can access tutorials and photo inspiration, 24 hours a day, for a few minutes or until I need to get back to work. Their tutorials feature the best photographers alive and the quality is top notch. They have helped advance my photography and post-processing skills. I think they are worth the small investment they cost, but you don't have to spend any money for the free podcasts or Youtube videos. I subscribe to both.

So, when work is interfering with your free time, you don't have to go cold turkey. Take advantage of every minute you can to advance your photography until things open up a bit. As for me, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel – my next opportunity is already booked. I'm looking forward to the fun of getting back behind the camera very soon. It's about time....

Newport, Rhode Island

A Photo Boooooth

By Mark

Well my wife decided that we needed to have a Halloween party. As always, she was right. Every square inch of the house was decorated in a creepy, spooky, Halloween fashion.

One of the ideas we came up with was to set up a photo booth to try and capture the cool costumes of our guests.

I made the suggestion to get a Halloween backdrop and, surprisingly enough; she agreed.

There are lots of sources for backdrops on the internet. I just went through Amazon (shameless plug you should use the link on our blog) to find one we both liked. Of course, that one was sold out and I had to go with our second choice. 

I have long been looking at getting a backdrop support system because it provides a lot of flexibility for more creative photo shoots.

These backdrops fit on standardized sets of stands and a cross bar which set up quickly and can be done by only one person.

I do not have continuous lights so I knew I would need to set up the flashes. Most importantly I wanted to be sure there were no harsh shadows on the background so I used a second light first to wash the backdrop.  I have a set of pocket wizard remote transceivers which fit onto the flash units and onto the camera. You can control the power level of the flashes remotely and independently. I set up the camera on a tripod and focused the lens in manual mode so that the autofocus wouldn’t continually try to readjust. I put tape on the floor to show people where to stand and that assured they would be in focus for the photos. 

I knew that I did not need a lot of light on the backdrop, so I had the power level set at -2 stops as a starting point. I shot a few test shots to see how this worked. Here is a diagram of how the camera and the lights were set up.  I discovered that -2 was too dark so I kept adjusting it and shooting it and would up at -1 1/3 stops. 

Now I could move on to the main light. I used my large 5 ft octagonal soft box to create very soft light on the subjects. I positioned the light off to the side and as high up as possible to make the shadows interesting.  I used my volunteer model, Sarah, to test my lighting. When I was happy with it, I then proceeded to set up the remote control.

I purchased a more capable Vello remote for the camera at Photoshop World. It allows you to select the time delay for your self-portraits. I calculated that 10 seconds would give folks enough time to press the button and then get into position. Finally, I knew that people would like to see their pictures in case they needed to take additional ones that they liked better.

I set up my laptop with Lightroom open and hooked up the tethering capability directly from the camera to the screen. When you pressed the shutter the images were directly transferred into a LR collection and they were visible with the normal development presets already applied. One of the things I learned was that on Nikon cameras, when you are shooting in tethered mode, it does not also write the images to the memory card simultaneously. You need to insure the system is working properly or you will lose your images.

As it turned out, I ended up shooting the pictures myself, and not making the guests follow the simple and clear instructions I had taped to the computer stand. It was just more fun watching the people and interacting with them to get more relaxed poses. 

Each group had a crowd of spectators cheering them on. Toward the end of the evening, some of our guests wanted to take group shots. They were a lot of fun, but because of the dimensions of the space I cut off an elbow or two on the edges of the frame or had part of our basement in the shots. 

Additionally, I should have increased the depth of field because some of the people who moved into the far foreground became a little bit soft in focus. It provided a good learning opportunity for me, and people seemed to really enjoy their photos. We are already looking for a backdrop for the annual Christmas bash in December.