Memorial Day Photo Story

By Roger (30 May 2016)

It's Memorial Day, and, as retired military officers, Mark and I always honor this day. Today is the day we remember service members who died while serving the United States. We have been lucky enough to have all our immediate military family members return safely from their deployments, but I have known several families who were not so fortunate. Here's how I came to create this Memorial Day photo.

COL William B. Nolde

This is U.S. Army Colonel William Benedict Nolde, the last official combat casualty of the Vietnam War. He also served in the Korean War. He was killed just 11 hours before the Paris Peace Accords brought an end to all hostilities. He was survived by his wife, Joyce, and five children.

I met the youngest, Bart, in 1983, while we were lieutenants, attending an Army course, at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona. I photographed Bart and his wife, Shari, and he told me about his father. He talked about the experiences he went through immediately after his father's death. I believe the family was honored at the White House. COL Nolde is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, in Section 3.

I asked him to let me borrow his father's photograph, and I used a macro lens to make a copy – on film. Remember, this is 1983. I was using film and had no access to a scanner. I had never even seen a scanner; they were rare and very expensive tools then. It shows in the poor quality of the portrait.

I made the Vietnam Memorial photo that same year and spent many hours with a professional printer to create the composite. Photoshop didn't exist yet. We made prints of the Memorial, in both color and black and white. We made a photo composite of the black and white portrait; a photo of the Memorial, in black and white; and the color of the flag. (In 1983, selective color photos were very rare and not yet considered bad taste.) You'll notice COL Nolde's name, just above the brim of his hat, has been lightened a bit, to draw the viewer's eye.

I made a couple of prints for Bart and his mother. I wish I had the chance to recreate this composite with today's tools. It would be higher quality and much easier.

I lost touch with Bart when we graduated from the class. I used Google to remember the actual dates and facts about COL Nolde. While I was doing the search, I saw an article that said two of his grandsons were becoming Army officers. The proud tradition continues.

SGT Timothy Sayne

I would also like to remember Army Sergeant Timothy Sayne. He died in Afghanistan, on 18 September 2011. He was a soldier who served with my son, on a previous deployment to Iraq. Mark and I photographed the funeral for his family, at Arlington, in Section 60. His story was told in our blog here.

So, don't forget the meaning of today. It's nice to say things to those you know or meet who are serving now or who served in the past, but Memorial Day is not about them – it's for those who died serving us.

Cull Your Unneeded Photos

By Roger (25 May 2016)

Last week, I wrote about making photos at the Gold Cup horse races, in Northern Virginia. In case there was a smidgen of doubt in your mind, let me repeat, I love shooting at horse events. We used to own a horse. I went to many hunter class events with an old girlfriend who was a top competitor. My daughter rode for the William and Mary Equestrian Team (for which we spent many dollars). I like having horses in my camera. Long intro to say, when this love of a subject is combined with a great opportunity and two cameras, you end up with more than 1,000 photos to sort through.

Today's photographers don't have to worry about film and memory cards keep getting larger and cheaper, so they tend to shoot more photos than needed. Then, they're faced with hard drives of useless photos How do you decide which ones are keepers and which ones to cull from the hard drive? Almost all of us overshoot, and you end up with surplus photos that you'll, probably, never show to anyone – they'll just take up space on the hard drive. Let's go through a few culling options.

The first solution is to recognize the problem and slow down. Put the frame selector to single frame and think before you mash the shutter button. Yes, the sound of a camera flying through 12 frames a second is awesome, but, when your subject is a landscape, you look pretty silly on high speed continuous. If you slow down, you'll get better photos and reduce your culling requirements.

There are many reasons we overshoot, some are even legit. The horse races are fast and furious, and they're not going to re-do a jump because I wasn't ready when they came galloping by. A wedding is a huge, one-time event, and you want to cover every minute. A baby's facial expressions change in less than a second, so you keep shooting. The end result is a long session at the computer to figure out which ones to keep.

I know some photographers who never worry about this, at all. They don't delete their excess photos. “Who knows what I might want two years from now?” “Hard drives are so cheap, why bother with culling?” And words to that effect. OK, fine. That is an option. If that's how you want to approach the topic, you may want to quit reading now.

Some photographers cull only the obvious mistakes and keep the majority of their photos, but make special collections for their keepers. This seems more logical than keeping everything, but you'll still end up with more photos than you'll ever need.

For me, I delete photos I don't want. Whenever I come back from a shoot, I make a couple of passes. I use the “Pick” sort in Lightroom, so photos marked for deletion go to the bottom of the stack and out of my view. On the first pass, I very quickly go through the entire shoot, marking mistakes or bad photos for deletion and give a star to any photo that looks above average. When I reach the end of the shoot, all the photos marked for deletion have been grouped together, and I delete them from Lightroom and the hard drive. They will never be seen again.

The second pass is slower, but not much. I'll give a star to more photos that didn't jump out in the first pass and mark a few more for deletion. The photos that stand out will get three stars. Some of the photos may not have a star rating; some will have one star; and some will have three stars. The three star photos are my first choices for post-processing. I can zip through 1,000 photos in less than 20 minutes, total, for my first two passes. Then, I close Lightroom and do something else.

I don't need all these photos of race officials

The unrated photos sit there until I'm ready to reconsider them. I may go eat something; go to bed; go to work; or let them sit for a week before I get back to them. Your judgment of a photo's worth will change over time, so, before I make a final determination, I let some time pass. When I get back to them, I'll look for unnecessary duplicates and delete a few more photos. The unrated photos that remain will get one star because I haven't, yet, found a reason to delete them. When in doubt, I keep them; they can always be deleted later.

This system has worked for me for a long time, and I use it consistently. You should design your own methodology, according to your tastes. Here are a couple things to consider when deciding on your own solution to excess photos.

What is the requirement or purpose for the shoot? I needed 10 different photos for the Gold Cup folks. (That was the agreement I signed for my press pass.) I could conceivably delete the other 990. But, if the purpose was to build up a portfolio of race photos, I'd want to keep a few of what I consider my best photos. These may or may not be from the 10 I give to Gold Cup. If you just went out for a photowalk to shoot for yourself, you may delete all of them. Catch and release.

If your intent was just to go out and exercise your shutter finger, you may keep photos that really don't have a specific purpose. Nothing wrong with that. You may want to keep some examples of new techniques you're trying, so you can determine how you're progressing. Sometimes, I make less than glorious shots, just for the blog, as examples of what not to do. Of course, I never make mistakes. ;-)

Don't let random people get into your frame

As my purpose changes, so does my selectivity. I keep many family photos to remember our times together. I'm never as picky with these photos as I am when I photograph a client's wedding or portrait shoot. These photos are not about perfect backgrounds and exquisite lighting. I, also, don't cull as many of the duplicates. There is plenty of room on my hard drive for all my family photos.

If you're not opposed to using Photoshop, keep in mind that you may want to keep a less-than-stellar photo because you can use part of it in a composite. Family group photos are a perfect example use. It can be difficult to get one in which everyone is smiling, with their eyes open. However, if you've shot several photos of the group, you can piece together that perfect shot. I always check to see if there is something – a background, a pretty sky, etc. – that can be used later.

Keep backgrounds for composites

You can make a lot of photos in a short amount of time. Enjoy yourself and snap away. When you come back from a really great day of photography fun, with more photos than you want to keep, your cull plan will help you find the keepers. Have fun.

2016 Gold Cup

By Roger (15 May 2016)

Last weekend, I got the chance to go out on the course for the Gold Cup Races, in The Plains, Virginia (link). The races have been going on since 1922, so it's a long-standing tradition, here in Northern Virginia. I've been to the many events at Great Meadow and blogged about the joys of putting on one of the course photographer's vests, back in November, 2014 (link). It's always a long, enjoyable day when you get the chance to take the cameras some place challenging.

Time for racing

And the lighting conditions were challenging. Since the races begin at mid-day, you always have lots of contrasty light. This year, however, we also had moving clouds and were constantly changing our exposure settings. We've had a long run of rainy days, lately, so the course was also little soggy, and race day dawned with lots of clouds in the sky. Luckily, it held off. The day got sunny for some of the races – there are nine – but, by the end of the day, it was clouding up, again.

The key non-photographic requirement for all photographers out on the course is paying attention to what is happening on the field. Each race follows a different course, and you definitely do not want to interfere with any of the proceedings. A couple of jockeys were de-horsed, so you also have to be alert when unsupervised race horses are running loose. They could cause serious damage to you and your gear. Fortunately, neither jockeys nor photographers were harmed.

We started off with the terrier races. You wouldn't believe the intensity of some of the owners in this “fun” race. The dogs just want to run after the raccoon tail and jump the miniature fences. Take a look at their faces when they come out of the starting kennel. This is always a crowd favorite.

And, they're off!

As we prepared for the real races, we split across the course and around the grounds. Some of the photographers were there on assignments to photograph the crowd and ancillary events more than the actual races. There were about 50,000 spectators and vendors dining, drinking, and partying. There are hat contests, tailgate contests, fancy car displays, and para-mutual betting going on, so it is a target-rich environment for photographers. I did shoot some photographs of the crowd, like the one below, but my primary interest was the races.

One of the hat contestants

I tried to stay away from the main gaggle of photographers to get some photos that varied from the main pool. For example, I didn't shoot any photos of the finish line because I went out along the back of the course. (Most of the photographers weren't going to walk that far out.) The course is almost two miles around the outer fences, and, as you can see below, the back of the course is free of spectators. You can get a cleaner photo back there.

Far end of the race course

Due to obvious safety concerns, you stay out of the path of the horses and not too low to the ground. I found a few places that allowed me to get low, behind some barriers, to safely grab a few photos low and close. I was trying to get a different look from the standard photos. It's pretty exciting to be on the ground when the horses come galloping by, within 10 feet.

My down low shots

Of course, you can only differ so much from the standard race shots. There are certain photos that we all made at one point or another. Because these are steeplechase races, you want some of the fence and hedge jumping. One of the races included a path through the shallow pond. There was no way I was going to miss that shot.

Through the brush fence

Through the pond

The last couple races of the day are on a flat course, so I left the course and concentrated my efforts on other subjects – the officials up the tower and jockeys returning to their tent, after the race.

A view halloo?

Mud-covered, but happy with the results of his ride

All in all, it was a great day, with lots of photos and new friends made. I hope to shoot the fall race, in November, if they ask me back. I don't get to photograph these kinds of events very often, so I try to take advantage of them every time I can. According to my phone, it was also a great step-count day. ;-)

Resting between races. Photo by Tony Gibson

Tripod Toppers

By Roger (8 May 2016)

Before we leave the subject of tripods, there are a few other things to consider to finish off your stability package. After you go through the struggle to pick your “legs,” you need to decide what you're going to put on top of them. You don't just set the camera on top; you need something that will allow you to adjust the camera to the perfect angle to capture the composition.

Naturally, there are competing opinions and a myriad of possible solutions to confuse you. As always, talk to your photography friends about what they like and don't like. The most common topper is a ball head, like the one below.

Typical Ball Head

Securely mounted to the ball head

You'll want a ball head that allows you to smoothly adjust your camera into the proper position, with no slippage once you have the camera exactly where you want it. When you're on ground or sand that is not level, you can put your tripod into a sturdy position and level your camera, adjusting it with the ball head. As I discussed in the choosing your tripod blog, you need to consider the weight of your camera and whatever lens you attach. A good quality ball head won't slip.

Ball heads have a slot on one side, so you can move your camera from landscape to portrait mode, without the need to remove your camera from the ball head. This will change the balance on your tripod, however, so ensure your tripod is balanced and your camera is securely locked into the ball head.

Ball head in portrait mode

Another tripod topper choice is the gimbal head. This is the most popular for use with long, heavy telephoto lenses. It is especially favored by nature and sports photographers. The ball head adjustments are not as easy to get to with a long lens attached, but the gimbal adjustments are out to the side. In addition, when the gimbal is properly set up, you can move the camera and lens quickly with just one hand. When you're trying to photograph fast-moving subjects with a long lens, this ability to move is very important.

Gimbal head

Gimbal head with a 5 pound lens

This doesn't mean that you can't use a ball head for long lenses. A sturdy ball head can support long lenses. As you can see, in the photo below, some photographers use long lenses and ball heads. I prefer the gimbal for long lenses and a ball head when I have shorter lenses attached. You need to make your own choices.

Ball head and long lens

The key to the whole system is a quick release plate that attaches to the bottom of your camera and long lenses. Many ball head and gimbal manufacturer companies have proprietary plates that work with only their tripod heads. The alternative, Arca Swiss, standard is more universal and less expensive. They are my preferred solution because they are available from many vendors and are strong enough to support all my equipment.

Proprietary or Arca Swiss, both work fine, but you should standardize your plates and buy enough to cover all your cameras and lenses. You don't want multiple systems, and you don't want to switch these plates from component to component when there are photographs to make. For many long lenses, you can even get Arca Swiss-compatible feet and switch out the one from your manufacturer that relies on a proprietary system. I put one on my Nikon 70-200mm. (You can see it in the second photo, above.)

Another component to consider is the L Bracket. This attaches to the bottom of the camera and goes up the left side. You can see some examples at this link and on the photos of my camera. This allows you to re-position your camera from landscape to portrait, without moving your ball head or gimbal. Since I use the gimbal for long lenses only, I use the L bracket on just the ball head. These L brackets are camera-specific, because of battery compartments and ease of access to camera interfaces, so buy carefully. It should surprise no one that my L bracket is has Arca Swiss compatibility for attaching to my ball head or gimbal head.

By the time you add everything together – tripod, monopod, ball head, gimbal head, L bracket – the cost may dissuade you. But you don't have to buy them all at the same time, and this good quality gear will outlast you. I've had the same stability gear for more than 10 years and use it more than most part-time photographers. They're all still in great condition and getting lots of use. Good equipment is a worthwhile investment.

I hope these blogs have helped you see the value in stability products. They'll increase the sharpness of all your photographs; help you slow down as you move from subject to subject; and open up more opportunities for low light photography. Once you become accustomed to using this gear, you'll find you enjoy them more out in the field than sitting in a corner somewhere. And they come in handy for self-portraits, too.

Different camera, but same tripod and ball head.