Last night when Brian and went to the kitchen for an evening snack we looked out the window to the garden and were surprised to see moonlight casting shadows. It was crisp and cold (mid 30s F), which is when we tend to get clear skies in the winter. I set up my tripod, mounted my camera, grabbed my puffy coat and a warm hat, and headed outside. The view above is from our patio, very much like what we saw from the kitchen window.
I’ve long felt that what I choose to do on New Year’s Day will set the tone for the year to come.
This year Brian and I checked the weather forecast the decided it would be a great day for a snowshoe hike up to Artist Point. I’ve been going up there every winter since 1990-1991 and I never get tired of it. As Brian reminded me yesterday while we were hiking, it’s different every time. Continue reading
Photography styles change over time. Currently we’re in a period of chasing ever-higher resolution and greater sharpness in photography. Many photographers capture large numbers of images during a portrait session since there’s no incremental cost (other than time and energy) with digital imaging.
But there’s another way, one that harkens back to the turn of the twentieth century. I’m starting to experiment with a slower process, with an old-fashioned lens, and fewer clicks of the shutter. The result is a more meditative and contemplative portrait with a softer look. I’m processing these images to black and white or sepia tones, in keeping with the technology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Continue reading
I love the convenience of my iPhone camera for spontaneous photos wherever I may be. If you’re among the 77% of Americans with a smartphone you probably make a lot of pictures with yours, too. Smartphone cameras have gotten significantly better over time, but they’re still not ideal for night-time photography. But you’ve got a camera in your pocket and you’ll shoot at night, especially the holiday lights on display this month.
Here are a few tips to help you make better photos of your favorite light display.
Your camera’s auto exposure system may not be able to figure out how to properly expose bright lights in a dark environment. You might get lights that are washed out or lacking much color or detail. The solution? Under-expose. With the iPhone’s Camera app, touch the screen to focus and notice the little yellow sun that appears. Now take your finger and drag up (to make the picture brighter) or drag down (to make the picture darker). What you see is what you get, so adjust until you have a nice balance of the lights and the environment. You’re usually going to want to darken the photo to hold detail in the lights.
My favorite time to photograph holiday lights is at dusk, 20-30 minutes after sunset. At the winter solstice in Bellingham, sunset is 4:15 pm so shoot at 4:35 to 4:45 to hold a little deep blue color in the sky.
Hold it Steady
Longer exposures are the norm when shooting at night, so you need to take extra steps to hold your camera steady. I like to find something solid to brace my camera on before I gently touch the shutter button. I’ve used walls, door frames, light posts, tree trunks, fences, the top of a trash can, a traffic control bollard, or the ground at various times for night photos with my phone camera. You can usually find something to brace your camera on.
Embrace Movement and Blur
Although I generally like my photos crisp and sharp, sometimes it’s fun to play around with moving my camera during the exposure. On my iPhone I use an app called Slow Shutter Cam ($1.99 in the App Store) for long exposures. Experiment with different shutter speeds and rates of movement. For the holiday lights on the Fairhaven Village Green I settled on a 2-second exposure to record just enough movement for an interesting effect. I like to start moving the camera and then press the shutter button for a smoother effect. Try both panning (sideways movement) or rotating your camera for different effects.
While there are lots of apps that let you add filters and effects at the moment you take a photo, I’m a firm believer in capturing the best possible exposure and then adding any enhancements later. I edit almost every smartphone photo I make before sharing it with anyone. My favorite editor is Snapseed, available free for both iPhone and Android. There are other apps with some of the same features, but I keep coming back to Snapseed. It’s powerful, flexible, and pretty easy to use. If you want to learn how to use it (and are afraid to play on your own) sign up for my iPhone photo class at Whatcom Community College (next offered February 27, March 6 & 13). You’ll be able to crop, adjust brightness, contrast, saturation, highlight and shadow detail. You can even adjust different parts of the picture selectively and edit out bits that don’t belong.
Print Your Favorites
Although it’s tempting to just keep your photos on your phone or share them on social media, prints are still a great way to enjoy and preserve your photos. You can print to your home printer or get prints made at Quicksilver here in Bellingham or at Costco. Both Quicksilver and Costco have apps that let you upload directly from your phone, order prints, and then pick them up a day or so later.
I made all the photos accompanying this story with my iPhone in the course of about half an hour walking around Fairhaven. I had fun playing and experimenting with my camera and then edited them when I was back home and curled up on my comfy sofa with a favorite beverage at hand. The point is to engage your playful spirit and have fun. Delete the experiments that don’t work, polish the good ones in your favorite editor, and then share as you see fit.
If you’d like some more tips, especially if you’re using a DSLR, read what I wrote about photographing holiday lights in December, 2013.
Early this spring I got a message from Judy Davis about photographing her extended family. She’d purchased a certificate at the Lighthouse Mission auction and wondered whether I’d be available on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day to create their portrait. We settled on Mother’s Day afternoon when their whole family would be together at their place outside Snohomish.
As I do for all my family portrait customers, I discussed clothing choices, whether we needed to schedule around nap times, and locations for the session. I stopped by their home outside Snohomish for a site visit on my way to another event east of the mountains. Judy’s husband, Bruce, was home that day and showed me around. We picked a place in their backyard with trees in the background that would have the sun behind everyone when we set up the portrait. We talked about having the grass mowed a few days ahead, as well as where we’d place their horse-drawn carriages. Did I mention that this portrait would include 19 people ages 3 to 93, a dog, and four Clydesdale horses?
With a plan in place, I arrived at the appointed time on Mother’s Day afternoon. It was a little chaotic with so many people in the house, but everyone was either dressed for their portrait or finishing getting ready. I set up my light, put my camera on my tripod, and made a few test shots with a volunteer family member. Then we herded everyone out of the house.
With large multi-generation families I like to group each individual family together so I asked all the kids to stand with their parents. That way I could see who went with whom. I began setting up the shot by seating the great-grandparents in the middle. Then I arranged each family around them, with some on the carriages and some on the ground, looking for nice comfortable individual family groupings that also had a good visual rhythm as a whole. I photographed a version without the horses first, just in case they didn’t cooperate.
Then Judy and her designated horse handlers brought the Clydesdales up from the barn and we arranged them behind the people, with one person holding the reins of each horse. I now had 24 pair of eyes to get looking at the camera at the same time! The horses needed to have their ears forward, showing attention, too.
I never count to three and have people say “cheese” because that produces fake smiles (and doesn’t work for horses anyway). I’m lively and animated behind the camera. Since I use a tripod and no one is moving, I can look people in the eye as I talk, make silly noises, and throw my magic hat in the air. For the horses, I have an app on my phone that plays horse sounds and almost always gets their ears up. Kids of all ages seem to get a smile with the horse sounds, too.
Once I finished with the large group, I set about photographing individual families and other groups on Judy’s shot list. As I worked, Bruce came over and pointed out that rain was on the way. Fast. We sent everyone back in the house, I stashed my camera and light under dry cover, and we developed Plan B. I suggested the barn and walked down to take a look. Judy was skeptical since it wasn’t spotlessly clean, but I convinced her that portraits there would look great. I carried my gear down and set up, then started bringing groups down for their portraits. When she saw the finished portraits she was pleasantly surprised how good her barn looked.
With everyone photographed, I packed up my gear. Then they invited me in for a snack and a beverage before I headed home. I don’t expect that from my clients, but am always grateful when it happens.
A few weeks later Judy came to the studio for her viewing and purchasing appointment. She ended up placing a nice order, including a 20” x 40” Signature Canvas portrait that will go on the wall in the room where Bruce and Judy spend most of their time. It will be a constant reminder of the love shared among all the members of their extended family. I’m honored to have been trusted with the Davis family memories.
A few months ago my friend Tom Kilpatrick, who owns the Hilltop Restaurant on Guide Meridian just south of Axton Road, called me to inquire about a couple of new pieces of mountain art for the restaurant. I prepared a preview gallery and Tom picked a couple of favorite photos. I snapped pictures of the walls in the restaurant so I could show him how his choices would look and to help decide on the right size. We came to agreement on the size and price and I got printed ordered.
Today I took two beautiful canvas prints out to the Hilltop with my tools and got them on the walls.
At the back of the restaurant, where you can enjoy it from the moment you walk in the door until you leave, is a photo of Mt. Baker I made at sunset. It’s a panoramic image, shot on film with my Fuji GX617 camera almost 20 years ago. The finished print is 28″ tall and 80″ wide. Continue reading
I’m sure you’ve seen the bumper sticker, “I Brake For Flowers.” Well, I don’t just brake for them — when conditions are right I’ll drive thousands of miles for wildflowers. That’s just what I did in mid-March when I confirmed that the predicted “superbloom” at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California was actually happening.
A little back story: most of the wildflowers in the desert are annuals. Their seeds remain dormant until conditions are just right. When there’s enough rain at the right time during the winter and temperatures warm up not too fast then the desert can burst into spectacular masses of flowers. Most years only a few flowers bloom, but in 2017 conditions were just right for a massive bloom, which lasts for only a couple of weeks at peak. I couldn’t stay home. Continue reading
As photographers we can easily fall into a rut of always seeing and photographing our world just one way. We find something that works and repeat. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, and done well it can be an important aspect of your style. But if you’re always photographing from eye level with a 50mm lens you’re missing out on alternative ways to tell visual stories.
The spring 2017 issue of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) magazine, The Designer, features examples of my photography that show alternate views of the same garden. The story was written by Katie Elzer-Peters, a garden writer colleague I’ve known for several years. Continue reading
Getting up in the air to photograph a subject from above presents options you just can’t get from the ground. And since I like beer, I jumped at the opportunity last September to photograph hops and the hops harvest in the Yakima valley. Continue reading
Before you press your shutter release, take a good look at what’s in your frame. Pause a moment and take care of any little details you see that might detract from your photo.
In this pair of photos of the daylilies growing by our back door, in the first frame you see all the spent blossoms. That might be OK if the story you’re trying to tell is that daylily blossoms don’t last long and they linger on the stems until they dry up and fall off. But if what you’re after is a nice photo of daylilies blooming, then I think the photo looks a lot better with the spent blossoms removed.
It’s always easier to clean up details like this before capturing the image. Imagine how much time it would have taken in an image editing program like Photoshop to remove the spent blossoms and replace them with plausible background material.
I apply the same principle when photographing people. Let’s get that cat hair off your jacket before I trip the shutter.