Traveling Light Without Sacrificing Photography

Georgia, Chattahoochie National Forest, Woody Gap, fog, mist, autumn, fall, forest, woods, panorama, pano
Tamed Chaos : Prints Available

A layer of fog tames the chaos of the forest, bringing order to this late autumn scene, photographed while driving through the Chattahoochie National Forest in the southern United States.

Last week, I hopped on a plane for the first time in two years. Bound for Atlanta, Georgia, I packed light, wanting to avoid the hassle and expense of checking bags. My trip was a short one – a late flight to Atlanta, two hour drive to Chattanooga for the weekend, then back to Atlanta for just a couple of days before heading home.

When I vacation with my partner, I generally don’t plan our itinerary around photography. Photography isn’t exactly a spectator sport, and there are plenty of other things we both enjoy that we can do together while on vacation. Two years ago, when we went to Arizona on our very first vacation together I brought a DSLR and didn’t use it to take a single picture, despite all of the incredible scenery. On this trip I anticipated less mind blowing natural landscapes, but packed my DSLR again, just in case.

To pack as light and compact as possible while still having some flexibility to shoot a variety of subjects, I brought my smaller 5D Mark II body, a single 50mm f/1.4 lens, a 32GB memory card, two batteries, and a charger. That’s it. No tripod, no filters, no accessories likely to take up space and slow me down. When I take snapshots using my phone just for the fun of it, I never use the built in zoom and always move around to get the composition I want or crop after the fact, so I was not at all phased by only having a prime lens to shoot with. The nice thing about my 50mm 1.4 is that the lens itself is pretty small both in weight and physical dimensions, the focal length is a pretty normal perspective and fairly versatile to shoot with – it works for most subjects from landscapes to people, and the wide aperture gives me more options for shooting hand held in various lighting conditions.

Over the course of the trip, I shot many photos with my DSLR. The package was small enough to fit in my handbag so I was able to take it everywhere with me. The older camera lens combo and basic functionality made it easy to hand off to others so they could take pictures too (which also meant I could actually be in some of the pictures), and because the combination was portable and uncomplicated taking photos was less of a process than when I am out specifically shooting. Not having a tripod, various lenses, and filters to mess around with simplified the way I shot, and made taking photos less of a distraction from actually enjoying all of things we were doing. Packing light and using a simple set up allowed me to focus on being with my partner and having fun on the trip instead of getting wrapped up in taking photos. Another perk: Since I wasn’t hauling a ton of gear it wasn’t very obvious that I had a fancy camera on me most of the time; while being a target for thieves is something I generally don’t worry much about in the states the ability to be discrete is something I have often appreciated when traveling overseas.

I still used my iPhone for some photos – the wider focal length and built in HDR was easier to use when photographing the city from our hotel balcony, and its rear facing camera and small profile was much easier for shooting couples selfies. Unfortunately, I still have an iPhone 6 and the Lightroom Creative Cloud app only allows DNG shooting on newer models, so generally even my coolest iPhone shots don’t make it on to my website (although they do often end up on my Instagram).

In the end, I got some really cool photos. From being able to capture a cool cloud shot from the plane (which I couldn’t do when my photo gear was stored in the overhead bin) to shooting an underground waterfall in a dark cave (which would just not have been possible with my iPhone), having my basic DSLR setup ended up making the trip just a little bit more exciting. Below, you’ll see just a few of the images I’ve managed to go through since returning home just a few days ago.

The only thing I would probably change next trip would be to invest in a different handbag – one maybe a little bigger and with a more substantial crossbody strap or handle. The bag I brought had a narrow 1″ crossbody strap and carrying a camera around in that all day ended up making my back and neck really sore. My bag, which was my personal item on the plane, could also just barely fit my camera and a slightly bigger bag would have let me carry more on the flight.

Chattahoochie National Forest, Georgia
Chattahoochie National Forest, Georgia

The Dark Side

Fifteen or so years ago, I got my very first SLR, a Nikon N65. When I went digital, I purchased a Nikon D70, and a couple of years later a Nikon D200, before switching to Canon in 2007. I’ve been shooting Canon for the past decade, and have owned four different Canon digital bodies (1D Mark II N, 5D Mark II, 7D, and 1D Mark IV), as well as a Canon point-and-shoot and Panasonic micro four-thirds system.

Brad Tupa, Augsburg College, York College of Pennsylvania, Duane Bastress, wrestling, NCAA, NCAA Division III, D3, championship, The College of New Jersey
Determination : Prints Available

This photograph was taken in 2006, using my very first DSLR, a Nikon D70. It’s still a great picture today.

I got away from shooting professionally several years ago, so haven’t given much thought to upgrading gear or dropping a few grand on a new body or lens. Its just not as much a priority as it used to be, and right now I’d rather get a new mountain bike than a new camera. However, I have started shooting more frequently again and have been doing more action photography and photographs where fast shutter speeds are required in low light. I know many folks shooting action sports and animals on the run aren’t using eight year old camera bodies, so I’ve started to look at what’s out there, and my how the times have changed.

In 2007, when I decided to sell my D200 and all of my Nikon mount lenses, I did so because I was shooting alongside Canon shooters who were easily able to shoot a solid two stops higher ISO with the same amount of noise, meaning when I was stuck at ISO 400 and getting blurry images, they could bump their ISO to 800 or 1600 and actually freeze the action of a moving subject. I was also getting to the point where investing in some long glass for wildlife was an obvious next step, and at the time Nikon didn’t have VR (vibration reduction) on any of their long telephoto lenses (the longest lens with VR at the time was a 200-400mm f/4) and their super teles (500mm and 600mm lenses) cost easily $2-3k higher than equivalent Canon lenses with IS (image stabilization). So I took a bold step, sold every Nikon specific thing I owned, and bought a Canon 1D Mark II N and 300mm f/2.8 with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters to make the switch.

I’ve been a happy Canon shooter for the past ten years and haven’t ever really doubted switching, or thought about switching back, until recently. Now, I spend more time shooting my mostly black dog in our tree shaded backyard or window lit home, or walking up ski slopes to photograph mountain bikers racing downhill through heavily wooded forests, sometimes at speeds of 30-40mph. In these situations, being able to bump my ISO even higher would allow me shoot at faster shutter speeds and get sharp, detailed shots of moving subjects even in low light situations. With my current cameras, I feel comfortable bumping my ISO up to about 1600, but know that the noise I’ll get in shadow areas will degrade significantly if I shoot at ISOs much higher than that.

In poking around to see how much ISO noise and dynamic range on digital sensors has improved in the past ten years, I stumbled across high ISO samples of the past two iterations of Canon’s two best pro level cameras, the pro-body 1DX and 1DX II and smaller-sized 5D Mark III and 5D Mark IV and, while better, they don’t come close to the shadow detail and clean high ISO shots of Sony’s cameras or Nikon’s D810 (and newly announced D850). So am I going to switch to Nikon? Probably not.

Charles Drake Field, Landmark College, Landmark Sharks, Reed Bishop, athletics, college, soccer, sports, turf field
Corner Kick : Prints Available

This image was captured just a last month using a Canon 1D Mark IV, a camera released in October 2009. This camera body is eight years old and still allows me to take great pictures.

I have two Canon bodies, six Canon mount lenses, and two Canon mount teleconverters and extension tubes, including some pretty nice glass that I am unlikely to be able to replace for the price point I paid for it. Since switching to Canon, I’ve almost always bought used gear and often bodies that are at least one generation old. It would literally cost me thousands of dollars to make the switch. I don’t shoot professionally much anymore, so having the latest, greatest gear isn’t going to drastically impact my image sales or livelihood, and I’m unlikely to see a return on the investment I make in switching gear. Even with Nikon being ahead in dynamic range, ISO noise, and resolution, Canon still produces some amazing action cameras with high FPS and incredible autofocus. Many pro sports shooters are still using long white lenses, and let’s not forget that images made a decade ago on equipment at least as old are still getting published, winning awards, and making people happy. If Canon falls horribly behind Nikon and Sony in the years to come, I might switch back to Nikon at some point, but I’m not there yet.

I think it’s only a matter of time before the favor will switch back into Canon’s direction. Just ten years ago, things were completely different and I am pretty sure that Nikon and Sony aren’t going to just leave Canon bankrupt in the dust anytime soon. I would love for Canon to release an improved 1DX or 5D series model with higher megapixels and better dynamic range and high ISO performance while staying at a competitive price point and adding features like GPS, WiFi, multiple exposures, long exposure settings, and other features that come standard on some models. While I’m not entirely confident Canon’s next new release will rival everything already out there, I think it is coming. Over the years, when the playing field tends to tip in one direction, it swings back the other way in time. For now, I’ll probably keep my eye out on deals from all the other people jumping ship and switching from Canon to Nikon or Sony, and maybe I’ll buy a new camera when the next generation comes out and makes today’s most current Canon flagship cost half as much. After all, I love buying barely used gear for a fraction of the price. 😉

Exploring Acadia and Leaving the Camera Behind

Last week, I was in Acadia National Park on vacation. Acadia is one of my favorite places – it is literally nature’s playground. You can hike, bike, kayak, rock climb, swim (if you don’t mind cold water), explore tide pools, and sight see, and the photo opportunities are plentiful. I was lucky enough to have this be my fifth (maybe sixth) visit to the park, and even luckier to get to share it with someone special.

I ended up shooting with my DSLR only a few times throughout the whole trip and don’t regret it at all. I find it really difficult to be present in the moment while trying to photograph it, and to me a vacation isn’t really a break if I’m planning my travels around the sun and routinely skipping breakfast to wake up at an ungodly hour to catch sunrise. When I’m worried about light and composition, dialing in my exposure just right and snapping the shutter at precisely the right time, I’m not really noticing much else. It’s probably why when I snapped this photograph I didn’t really care that I was getting eaten by mosquitos and prancing across slippery rocks in a dress and flip-flops.

clouds, tide pool, sunset, Seal Cove, Acadia National Park, Acadia, Mount Desert Island, Maine, coast
Seal Cove Sunset : Prints Available

Pink clouds reflect in tide pools at sunset in Seal Cove near Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine.

The best way for me to enjoy the things I like to photograph is sometimes not to photograph them. Sometimes it’s best to just stop and feel the sun on your face, snuggle in the warm embrace of someone you love, and fully experience a moment in time without distractions. I enjoy sharing my travels and experiences with others through photography, but not taking photographs is beautiful in a way too. When you think about it, not having photographs can make that moment itself more private and personal as it becomes something only shared between you and those you are with at the time. In a day when people document their lunches on social media, that’s kind of special.

I don’t regret not taking more photos on my recent trip to Acadia. Instead of focusing my time fiddling with tripods and filters, forcing my boyfriend to wait around while I struggled with a composition, planning all of our excursions around good light and the best scenery, and missing meals so I could be out shooting during golden hour, we experienced our entire trip together and tried things I wouldn’t have bothered to enjoy if I had only been focused on creating images. It was a wonderful vacation, and I’ll take happy memories shared with the people I love before good photographs any day.

Trailside Trillium

trillium, painted trillium, trail, New Hampshire
Trillium Trail : Prints Available

Painted Trillium line a foot trail in Marlow, New Hampshire.

My favorite local climbing area has abundant wildflowers along the approach trail including these Painted Trillium. I happened to have my camera on me today, so after climbing I went back on the trail and tried to capture some shots of these beautiful flowers at their peak. Due to a slight breeze and no tripod, I chose to shoot handheld with a shallow depth of field and had to half squat, half lie down on the ground to get this shot, all the while being eaten alive by zealous mosquitos. The bugs in this area always seem to be able to sense when you are most vulnerable and least likely to swat at them, biting while you are in the middle of belaying, or in this case, composing a photograph.

Close to Home

Beaver Brook Falls, Keene, NH, New Hampshire, waterfall, spring
The Source : Prints Available

Fresh spring rain and snowmelt means good flow at Beaver Brook Falls, a waterfall in Keene, NH.

I don’t shoot as much as I used to. Between working full time, owning a home and a dog, and striving to be a good partner to my incredible partner, there isn’t a whole lot of time left in the day to go out and take pictures. Even though photography is something I enjoy and want to do more of, once I’ve finally tackled all the things I need to do I’m rarely super motivated to drive around looking for subjects to photograph in the wee hours of the day.

When I started really getting hooked on photography in high school, I shot mostly sports because it was what I had easy access to. I didn’t have my own car, but there were plenty of athletic competitions at school that I could photograph and then catch a ride home after on the late bus or with a friend. I only started shooting nature and wildlife a lot when, halfway through college, I finally got my own wheels and more independence to get around and explore natural places on my own. Before then, I shot whatever was within walking or biking distance from home or school.

Now between working 40+ hours a week, spending at 5 hours a week commuting back and forth from work, doing things to maintain a home, caring for a pet, staying active, and being involved in my relationships and community, I don’t have that much extra time to do photography. I also don’t function as well on limited sleep as I used to and don’t really enjoy driving as much, so 3am wake-ups to drive two hours to the beach for sunrise have about as much appeal to me as picking up dog poop from the backyard. At work, I spend hours every day on a computer or sitting in meetings (even though I don’t have a traditional desk job) so I don’t really enjoy coming home and to edit photographs in my “free” time. Plus, adulting is expensive. Buying groceries and paying my utility bills is more of a priority to me than filling up my gas tank an extra time for a photo trip or buying new camera equipment and software. I used to dedicate days and weekends to shooting, and now I want to be able to take some photos for a few hours and then move on to something else.

So I’ve found myself coming full circle, shooting sports and taking photographs of nature that don’t involve long days and hours of travel. Fortunately there are plenty of opportunities to shoot close to home. I take photographs of student-athletes competing in sports events at work and go with my boyfriend to some of his mountain bike races, where I spend a large part of my time on the mountain photographing him and his teammates while cheering everyone on. I photograph our dog a lot, usually in our own backyard. I’ve started to make a point of going out to photograph the really pretty natural areas in my own town. Lately, the setting of most of my nature themed images has been just a bike ride away from my home.

spring, cascade, Beaver Brook, Keene, New Hampshire, NH
Renewal : Prints Available

Fresh spring leaves frame a small cascade along the Beaver Brook in Keene, NH.

It has been kind of fun to take this approach to photography. I feel less pressure to actually create stunning images, because I’m just shooting for fun. Since I’m not going too far out of my way or using up a whole lot of time, it doesn’t really matter whether I succeed at creating website worthy content or fail completely. Plus, I like the challenge of finding tucked away places and taking advantage of just a few free hours to do something I enjoy. Shooting nature close to home also helps me embrace and appreciate the beauty that is around me every day and reminds me how happy I am to live in a place where waterfalls, wildflowers, and wild animals are just a bike ride away.

Quick Tip: Set Your Camera to Default Mode

Image from Pixabay.

Have you ever turned on your camera and snapped a couple quick shots to capture a fleeting moment only to discover that your settings were all wrong? I have. Fortunately this problem is a relatively easily one to solve by setting your camera to a default mode at the end of every shoot. It’s much easier to adjust aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and focus modes at the end of a shoot when you are unhurried than to have to change a bunch of settings when you feel rushed and your subject is quickly slipping away.

Here are the settings you should focus on: anything related to exposure (including aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, as well as metering settings), focus settings, and anything related to frame rate or shooting delays. Your goal is to set your camera to a happy medium by setting it up to allow in as much light as possible without compromising image quality. You are trying to find settings that would be acceptable for a variety of situations rather than the perfect setting for a given shot.

Exposure: Set your exposure mode to something automatic. I prefer either a full auto mode or aperture priority with my aperture set around f/4. This allows me to turn on the camera and start shooting right away. I find f/4 to be a good default because that aperture is wide enough to let in a decent amount of light but not so wide that my depth of field is super shallow, and all of my lenses have a maximum aperture of f/4 or higher.

ISO: I recommend setting your camera to the fastest ISO you can before image quality noticeably degrades. For me, using a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 1D Mark IV, ISO 400-800 is about right. Those with newer cameras can probably bump the ISO up quite a bit and still get really clean, noise free images. This allows you to use faster shutter speeds and shoot in less light.

Metering: In general, I find that spot metering does a good job for portraits and subject in habitat type shots as well as shots where the subject tends to entirely film the frame. If your camera doesn’t have a good spot metering mode or the metered area doesn’t correspond with your chosen focus points, matrix metering works fine as a default setting.

Focus Settings: Definitely leave your camera and lens set to autofocus. Enable either your middle focus sensor/area or your entire focus field. I prefer to leave my camera on continuous focus, but if you rarely shoot moving subjects one shot will do fine.

Frame Rate: Leave your camera set to the highest frame rate you can successfully take a single photo in. If your camera’s highest FPS setting makes it impossible for you to depress the shutter without snapping multiple frames, you can use the second fastest frame rate setting.

Mirror Lock-up: Disable mirror lock-up.

Timer: Turn off all self-timers and shutter delays.

Filters: Remove all filters unless you are one of those people who refuse to do any type of shooting without a clear protective or UV filter on. Any other filter generally blocks light. Some types of filters, such as polarizing filters and graduated filters are also directional and need to be aligned to work correctly, so having them on will only get in the way and slow you down when you are trying to snap photos quickly.

Memory Card: Always store your camera with a newly formatted memory card or one with plenty of leftover space on it. Nothing is worse than having no room to record images when you’ve already downloaded all of the photos on the card. I always reformat my cards right after downloading previous images to my computer. I also always format cards in the camera I plan on using them in.

Battery: Store your camera with a battery that has at least half of its charge. A freshly charged battery is best, but there is nothing worse than arriving on a shoot or whipping out your camera to capture something and have your battery blink at you then die.

By always switching your camera to these settings at the end of a shoot, when you aren’t rushed and have time, your camera will be ready to go at a moment’s notice. You won’t end up with noisy ISO 3200 photos of a brilliant sunrise or a photo of an unidentifiable black blur crossing the road shot at 1/10th of a second. A fresh memory card and battery will also ensure you can keep shooting no matter what the conditions, so you can capture whatever moments life brings your way.

New Project Highlighting Diversity

Why so white? Images featuring slim, tanned and toned white female models are common in the stock fitness photo industry. While there is nothing wrong with this photo, images like this becomes a problem when they are all that we see. This photo was sourced from Pixabay and is not my own.

I’m super excited to be starting a new project highlighting diversity in everyday athletes. Stock fitness photography is dominated by photographs of slender, toned, tanned models in revealing outfits glistening with sweat. These models are predominantly white, young, attractive, able-bodied, cisgender males and females. Female models are often posed in completely unnatural, hyper-sexualized poses. Male models seem to never have body hair. If you searched news stands, you’d be pressed to find a photograph of an Asian or desi model, someone with stretch marks or a little bit of pudge, or anyone representing the LGBTQIA+ community.

Do you see a problem? I do.

1) Active people come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. Not every athlete has low body fat and a perfect tan. Some active people are black. Some are fat. Some are old, wrinkly, and gray. Showing people only one type of “fit person” suggests that the only way to be fit (and healthy and attractive) is to look like that person. This isn’t true.

2) These photos do not represent reality. I don’t know about you, but I generally don’t feel too sexy when I’m drenched in sweat mid-workout. When I work out, boob sweat and crotch sweat are real, and wisps of hair escape my pony tail and fly out in all directions. I don’t look perfect and put together. While I don’t have a problem with highly stylized photo shoots, I do have a problem when they are passed off as reality. When the only photos of people being active are unrealistic, expectations become impossible to meet.

3) Women do not need to be objectified when they work out. Women are already targeted, marginalized, and sexualized every day. We have to stop expecting women to look, dress, and act a certain way and that way only. When a woman works out, she is empowering herself. She is building strength and confronting demons. Contrary to popular belief, most women are not going to the gym to put themselves on display and parade around for attention or approval. A woman might love how she looks when lifting weights or perfecting Warrior 1, or she may not. She might be comfortable in a colorful sports bra and skin tight leggings, or she may prefer to rock sweats and a t-shirt when she passes you at mile 12 of a half marathon.

4) Representation matters. Period. People connect with things that are familiar. If you can see yourself in a photo, it means more to you. Photos of white, attractive, lean, tanned, oiled women in dramatic poses, wearing makeup, sports bras and booty shorts, and posing with dumbbells aren’t inherently a problem. They become a problem when they are all anyone sees, and there are no photographs of other people to balance them out. When you are none of those typical fitness model things and those photos are the only ones you see representing active lifestyles, the message is that you don’t belong.

I’m a photographer. I get it. Some things “look better” and photograph better than others. Creating stylized technically perfect photos with dramatic lighting and creative camera angles, using attractive models with perfectly groomed hair and makeup and a carefully selected wardrobe is an art. But why can’t other people get that star treatment? Why can’t my mom be inspired by a photo of a 60 something woman with gray hair doing deadlifts at the gym? What’s wrong with a photo of a trans-woman smiling from ear to ear as she runs under the tape of a 5k? It’s time for photographers to step outside of the box and used their carefully honed skills to represent everyday people.

Right now, I’m in the process of taking applications for people interested in modeling for me. No previous modeling experience is necessary, and you don’t have to represent a marginalized group to participate. My only requirements are that individuals interested in collaborating on this project communicate with me openly and honestly; are reliable, open minded, and able to follow directions; regularly participate in physical activity and live an active lifestyle; and live within the local geographic region (right now, I am only working within southwestern New Hampshire and southeastern Vermont, but I may expand this range in the future). If you are interested in participating and happen to live in the area, please shoot me an email. This will be an ongoing project that will likely require learning new techniques, multiple sessions and repeat photoshoots, and lots and lots of patience, but I’m excited about creating work that has a purpose and can make a difference.

Creativity Doesn’t Always Follow the Rules

Waterfalls are easily one of my favorite natural features and favorite things to photograph. I enjoy them so much that I even authored an eBook called The Essential Guide to Photographing Waterfalls back in 2011. In it, I share a number of tips and recommendations, one of which is that generally I prefer to photograph waterfalls on overcast days, when cloud cover softens the harsh contrast of glittery water flowing over dark rocks.

Well some rules are meant to be broken and this is one of them. Given the right conditions, the right setting, and the right tools you can create beautiful waterfall images when the sun is shining.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Smoky Mountains, Great Smoky Mountains, national park, waterfall, Tennessee
Waterfall in Sunlight : Prints Available

The sun shines through a canopy of trees framing a waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains.

I took this photo while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains with photographer Greg Downing in Tennessee back in 2013. It had rained hard the previous day, and I was excited to go find a good waterfall to photograph because I knew they would be flowing. By the time we reached these falls, the weather had improved by normal standards, but it proved tricky for waterfall photography. It was partly cloudy and breezy, which meant the slow shutter speeds I would typically use the blur the moving water would also show any movement in the leaves from the wind. It also meant the light kept changing, from full sun, to partial sun, to complete cloud cover. I took a lot of shots from different angles, trying different techniques, hoping to capture something memorable.

For this image, I snapped the shutter as the sun emerged from behind the clouds, purposefully allowing highlight details to blow out. I was aiming for the bright, fresh feeling of spring, which I think translates well. It took several years of reworking this shot to get it to the point where I feel comfortable sharing it, but even if it isn’t the best waterfall shot I’ve taken I like how its so different from many of my other photos of similar subjects.

Never Delete Potential

One of the most challenging things about being a photographer is editing down your photos and keeping them organized. My collection of photographs spans more than 20,000 images, and I’ve probably shot over a million frames to get them. After a shoot, I make it a point to delete all of the garbage as soon as possible. I then usually select my favorite images – the ones that obviously stand out as being something special. But in between the obvious junk and the obvious winners are a bunch of in-between photos, ones that are neither incredible nor terrible, and these can be the hardest to work with.

Of my 20,000+ image collection, roughly 250 photos are currently displayed on my website and not all of those are the clear winners that emerge immediately following a successful shoot. Many of those photos are ones that have been played with, set aside, and reworked over and over again. Sometimes, I’m not in the right headspace to edit them correctly when I first shoot them. Sometimes, they are technically challenging photos with extreme dynamic range, funky color balance, or any other number of issues that take a while to work through correctly. During a particularly successful shoot, I might have a lot of good but very similar images, and I generally only pick a handful of those to work up. Occasionally, I haven’t yet mastered the skill, the technology doesn’t yet exist, or I don’t possess the software I need to really bring out that photo’s full potential. There can be any number of reasons why a good photo doesn’t make my first cut or first edit.

If a photo isn’t good, it’s okay to delete it. Sometimes I keep bad photos for their sentimental value or uniqueness – for example, when we first got our dog I took a lot of photos of him playing outside and many of them were a little backfocused but I held onto them until I later got better ones – but in general, do away with anything that is misfocused, unintentionally blurry, or poorly composed, especially if to the point that it won’t even hold up for web display. Some photos are just bad. If you like a photo, but the exposure or color are just a bit off, it’s a little noisy, or some other fixable detail makes you take pause, then hold onto it. Some day you may possess the skill, patience, time, or technology to turn that photo into something special. I often spend shooting lulls going through old photos and working on ones that have potential to see what I can make of them. It helps me “do photography” when I’m not actively shooting and creating new images.

Here is one such photo. It’s kinda an extreme example, but you get the idea. I shot this years ago, but only recently processed to the point where I’m actually happy with it. As you can see, it needed quite a bit of tweaking from the RAW file to really bring out its potential.

clouds, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, rocky, beach, dusk
Last Light on the Clouds : Prints Available

The fading colors of the setting sun illuminate the clouds over the rocky beach at dusk.

Branching Out

Washington D.C., Keystone XL, pipeline, protest
Back in 2011, I attended a protest opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline at the national’s capital and brought my camera with me. Being immersed in a crowd of like minded people helped me feel less vulnerable as a photographer and step out of my comfort zone try try and photograph new subjects. I don’t just photograph nature and sports all the time!

Fifteen years ago, I published my first photograph in my high school newspaper. I ended up winning several awards for photojournalism every year of high school after that. I remember at one point a friend came to my house and saw a second place award certificate and said “Wow second place in the whole state! Who got first?”

“I did,” I told her.

In college, I landed my first paid photography gig, shooting athletics for my school’s Sports Information Office. Throughout college and every year since, I’ve earned at least a little bit of money every year from photography, whether it be shooting assignments, selling my work, or photography related writing and instruction. Over the years my photography career has grown, changed, and at times, plateaued. I created niches for myself, first shooting primarily high school and college sports, then focusing on nature and wildlife. While there are a few subjects I’ve managed to avoid altogether, like weddings and product shoots, I have dabbled in many genres at one point or another.

It’s easy to gravitate towards one subject or genre as a photographer, and as a professional it is almost always encouraged. You build your brand around what you shoot best, and it’s easier to be better at something if you specialize in it. This is how you market your business and attract clients.

Does focusing on one genre of photography make you a better photographer? Yes.

Does shooting one subject limit your creativity, professional, and personal growth? Yes.

Shooting subjects you are not comfortable with and don’t shoot often will make you a more well rounded and creative photographer. I’m damn certain I can take a better wildlife photo than Annie Leibovitz because I’ve spent many hours practicing the specific skills that I need to shoot wild animals, such as finding and approaching wildlife and using a long lens. However, I don’t feel comfortable coaching human models into great poses or using artificial light so my portraits are overall quite mediocre, especially if taken indoors. As a photographer there are things I’m good at and some of these things apply to a wide range of subjects, such as noticing great natural light and creating balanced compositions. There are also many more things I need to work on, some of which I may not use that often in my chosen area of expertise but that might prove helpful from time to time. When I only shoot the things I am good at and comfortable with, I don’t improve the skill areas that need the most work and ignoring those makes me less capable overall.

American Alpine Club, benefit dinner, Henderson House, Massachusetts
I was asked to take photos at a fundraising event for the American Alpine Club in exchange for free admission, which included a fancy dinner, auction, and slide show presentation and speaker. The organization only needed a handful of web publishable photos, so it was a task I felt I could manage even though I rarely photograph events or people, and since it was an exchange of services instead of a paid assignment, I didn’t feel as much pressure as I would have if I was hired to photograph the event, so I said yes. There were challenges I didn’t anticipate – the main room had many different light sources that were all different color temperatures and even though the space was large it was crowded and more confined than I thought it would be – so I ended up improvising quite a bit. This ended up being my favorite shot of the evening – a black and white photograph of the main hall that I snapped with a fisheye lens. The fisheye is both the widest and fastest aperture lens I own, and converting the image black and white eliminated the weird color issues I was having from the mixed light available sources. I’m sure a photographer with a background shooting weddings or similar events and gear suited for poorly lit indoor spaces would have taken a much different approach, but I made it work. The shoot lasted just a few hours and was very different from anything I had done before, so it was a great learning experience for me.

I am also a person who likes to learn. Learning is fun! I want to be able to capture images of all the things I want in the ways that I want to, and that isn’t just limited to college students playing soccer or the beach at sunrise. While I may have focused mostly on sports and nature subjects in the past, different things are important to me now and I want to be able to photograph them with the same level of expertise and passion I have when I shoot subjects I have had more practice with. Just because I don’t photograph people doesn’t mean I don’t like people or photographs of people.

I’m also not the same person I was in college or even five years ago. I have a job and responsibilities that make getting up before the sun rises and shooting all day until dusk not very practical. My financial resources are allocated in different ways, towards home improvements and retirement savings instead of a faster computer and new gear. Things like wild animals are not so easy to photograph in the spare hour or two I may have on a given day. So I can either not shoot at all or shoot differently. I’ve been doing a little of both, but I’m trying to shoot more, even if its subjects I’m not great at.

prom, gown, teenager, high school, field, sunset, suit, formal
People photography is not my thing but when a group of teens I am close to asked me to snap photos before their prom, there was no way I was saying no. The teens made the perfect clients and subjects – they didn’t have lofty or unrealistic expectations, I felt comfortable around them and they felt comfortable around me, and they were delightfully confident and goofy and came up with some of their own poses and ideas. I really struggle with directing people for photos because it just seems awkward for me, so this was great practice. Both the teens and I had a lot of fun with this shoot and were really happy with the resulting photos.

I don’t know if the best photographers ever shoot other subjects, but I imagine that they do. Annie Leibovitz might not be able to resist a gorgeous sunset, and I bet David Doubilet takes a snap above water from time to time. Sure it makes sense to specialize in certain genres, especially if you have a photo business, but that doesn’t mean you should never shoot anything else. If we only shot specific subjects, we’d miss out too often on other incredible ones, and that just seems wasteful. There is so much to marvel at in this world. Beauty is everywhere. I am inspired and amazed by things all the time. So why wouldn’t I photograph them when I feel compelled to do so?

If you feel inspired to take a photograph, do it! It doesn’t matter whether its your subject or not, whether or not you can sell it or have a client for it. Shooting different subjects will make you a better photographer instead of just a good [insert specialty here] photographer, and we all want to be better at our craft.

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