I just got back from nine days in Colorado where I got to test my new 5D Mark IV camera. Having a new camera and getting away from everyday life was so inspiring, and I’m really excited about some of the images I took on my trip AND all of the awesome potential of this new camera. Up until a few weeks ago, I was shooting with a 5D Mark II (released September 2008) and a 1D Mark IV (released October 2009), so having a body that isn’t 10+ years old is awesome. The dynamic range, high ISO capabilities, autofocus, and other features (such as WiFi and in-camera HDR) blow away my older bodies, and I can see myself getting out and doing even more shooting once I get better used to how the new camera handles and functions.
I took more than 1000 photos on my trip so it will probably take me a few weeks to get through all of them. Keep an eye on my Instagram for new images from the trip and check back on the blog and photo journal on my website for more about my experience with this new camera and a full trip report in the future.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot more experimental photography and editing techniques. Yesterday morning, I woke up to softly falling snow and decided to go shoot some photos at a park near our home. When I went to leave the house, Winston was clearly ready to join me on my photoshoot, so I decided to take him along for the adventure. It ended up being a good thing because the best photographs I captured were of him.
I’ve been following the work of several pet photographers for a while, and I really love the artistic outdoor dog portraits some of them have perfected. Usually it is a gorgeous dog, posed beautifully surrounded by a bokeh-licious, creamy, dreamy out-of-focus background with gorgeous flare or selective vignetting accentuating the subject. While I definitely am far, far away from perfecting my own take on the technique, I’m pretty happy with the first edit of this winter portrait of Winston taken during today’s walk.
Here’s the straight out of camera original:
And here’s my edited version:
Here I started with leveling and cropping the image, then doing some exposure and white balance corrections. From there I added a radial filter in Lightroom to mimic some solar flare and did some selective contrast enhancements to the dog, then exported to Photoshop, removed the leash, and added then another radial gradient. I ended up bringing the image back and forth between Lightroom and Photoshop a few times to tweak the color and make selective adjustments; there are just certain functions I feel that Lightroom does better than Photoshop and vise versa, and also I feel more comfortable making certain edits in one program vs the other. I have never attempted to add flare (or a highlighted background area) to am image before; I feel like my technique still needs some work, but I also don’t think snow covered trees is the easiest background to add this effect to. While I don’t think this shot is going to win any contests anytime soon (and it’s not even close the the level of work of some of the pet photographers I have been following), I’m pretty happy with the end result!
Sometimes, the biggest adjustment you need to make to an image is to crop it. Such was the case with this photo of a male Red-winged Black Bird, calling from the top of a phragmites frond.
Like most photos, I did a few tweaks to exposure, contrast, and shadow/highlights. Here I brought out the shadow detail on the bird quite a bit, but most of the rest of the scene looks similar to the straight-out-of-camera image (above). The one big difference is the crop. At this location, I wasn’t able to get very close to the birds, so shooting with a 1D Mark IV and 300mm f/2.8 with a 2x TC on still left me with the subject much smaller in the frame than I’d like. Because the detail in the original was good and I nailed the sharpness, exposure, and other settings, cropping the photo significantly still left me with a high quality image, just one with better composition and a larger subject.
The first step to any good edit is to critique the original image. In this case, there were a few things I really liked about the image – the backlit flying grass for one – and a few things that needed to be fixed, such as the too bright highlights and lack in detail in the soccer player’s jersey, as well as the bright reddish spot in the upper left corner. Obviously the goal of post processing is to make the image look the best it can, so when possible correcting the image’s flaws is the way to go. In this case, I brought down the highlights and whites, selectively darkened the red spot just a touch, and added a slight vignette to the entire image. I also enhanced the part I liked – the backlit grass – by adjusting the curves, clarity, and saturation of this part of the image.
One of my favorite tricks/tools is to use the Darken/Lighten Center filter available through the DXO Nik Collection Color Efex plug-in. I really like this tool because it gives you quite a bit of control over the vignetting effect and tends to make the transition between dark and light areas really smooth. One of the biggest perks of the tool is the ability to set where the center is; I find this invaluable when working with a subject that is slightly off center, as I often want the subject in the brightest area of the photo. Since composition rules often dictate that the subject is not dead center, having the ability to adjust the placement of the brightest part of the image, even just a tiny bit, often makes a big difference in how the final image is perceived.
If you aren’t custom naming your photos when you import or copy them to your archive, you are setting yourself up for trouble. The default file naming structure of most photo capture systems allows for around 1000 unique image file names before they start to repeat; eventually the 1001st photo you take on your device will have the exact same name as the first photo you took. Some cameras allow you to custom name the file in camera, but I generally find it easiest to rename all of the files upon import into Lightroom.
Having a consistent naming strategy for your photos can drastically improve your workflow and organization. It is important to choose a name is unique and will continue to be unique as you continue to shoot photos. Be sure not to set yourself up with a system that becomes obsolete as soon as your archive contains over a set number of images, or one in which the identifiers used to distinguish your photos become easily repeatable, therefore eliminating the point of having files with unique names.
I rename all my photos using a unique timestamp based system. Every file name starts with KP (my initials) and then contains a six digit date stamp followed by a hyphen and a six digit timestamp and single digit sequence number. It makes for a really long photo name (16 characters in all), but ensures that all of my photos end up with unique names and allows me to easily combine images from the same shoot that were shot with different cameras. In the event that shots were taken simultaneously (such as if I was shooting a time lapse with one camera while shooting handheld with another and both shutters went off at the exact same time) I could end up with two files with the same name but I have yet to have that happen.
So, for example, the filename for the photo above is KP070927-0825050. This means the photo was taken on September 27, 2007 at approximately 8:25am, and since it is the only photo I took then, it will have a unique filename. I use the YYMMDD date sequence for naming because it keeps all of my files in chronological order; I also use the 24 hour day for my timestamp for the same reason. The seventh digit after the hyphen is the sequence number, which comes in handy when I am shooting at a high frame rate.
Most photographers prefer shorter file names; sixteen characters really is a bit excessive. I use this method because I have photos that span over a wide range of time and subjects, and this one method can be applied to all of my photos regardless of when, where, or why I shot them. The disadvantage of this system is that the name doesn’t really tell me anything about the photo; if you asked me what I took a photo of on September 15, 2007 I’d have no idea what that was, but I could easily find it in my catalog.
For photographers who are a bit more specialized, choosing names that have some connection to the subject can be helpful. For example, a wedding photographer may choose to use the last names of the couple as part of the file name, someone who shoots primarily landscapes might include location, and someone who shoots project or assignment work may use the name of the client as part of the name. You can really be as creative as you want; the key is that all of the names are unique and won’t be repeated.
Lightroom makes it easy to custom rename files easily and quickly. I rename all of my files upon import, but you can easily rename files after the fact as well. I’d give you instructions, but with Lightroom changing all the time you are probably best off finding a YouTube video or looking in the Adobe forums for the recommended current method of using Lightroom to rename photos. Once you set up your naming structure, you can save it as a default setting and almost never think about it again. For example, whenever I import new photos they are automatically placed in a folder according to the date they were taken and renamed according to my date and timestamp based system. This makes the process of copying, importing, and organizing all of my photos quite easy, and then when I need to find them later I can locate the original file within just a few seconds.
Coming up with a timeless naming and file organization strategy that can grow with you is the first step to a well organized photo database. Even if you aren’t using Lightroom or another photo management software program and don’t have the ability to add metadata or keywords, making sure each photo of yours has a unique name and follows a consistent naming structure will set you up for success as you grow and develop as a photographer.
“Glowing Fern” is one of my favorites. For starters, I love ferns, partially because I picture them as part of the landscape of forest with a thick canopy of dense leaves and the forest floor covered in a rich carpet of moss and ferns, and this is where I imagine fairies would live. So part of me associates ferns with magic, and the all green color scheme and soft focus of this shot really make it seem more magical, which fits the subject perfectly.
The original straight-out-of-camera image is a little more boring. But all it needed was some brightening, a tweak with curves, and a subtle diffuse glow filter applied to soften the image and make it have that ethereal, glowing, magical quality. And voila, the final image, shown at the top of this post, is easily one of my favorites!
The internet is a bizarre place. I have learned most of what I know about photography through the internet, and without a gathering of faceless names online offering tips and suggestions, I would likely still be taking some pretty mediocre images. Online critiques have helped me grow and learn as a photographer. Being able to give thoughtful critiques to others and well as receive feedback graciously is a valuable skill, and one I think everyone should practice. Taking the time to offer someone a meaningful critique requires you to articulate your own thoughts and feelings, which it turn makes you more aware of what exactly it is you like or don’t like about a photograph which then allows you to emulate those preferences in your own work. Being able to be polite about the process is what makes people respect you instead of hate you.
Here are my three main rules for thoughtful, non-offensive critiques.
1) Don’t be a jerk. This should be obvious. If the only comments you have are negative, you are probably better off not commenting. Even if you don’t particularly like an image, there is always a way to word your feedback considerately if you must offer a critique, such as when judging a contest or specifically asked for one.
2) Offer the Compliment Sandwich: Start with something positive, add thoughtful criticism and critique in the middle, and end with something positive.
3) Give suggestions for improvement. Instead of just saying “I don’t like this” say what you would have done differently. Critiques are a fantastic opportunity to learn and to teach.
When teaching a workshop and a critique session is involved (they usually are in my workshops) these are the three rules I tell students. However, in the online world, I think a few additional reminders are helpful.
4) Respect others opinions. I don’t agree with anyone 100% of the time, and you probably don’t either. It’s okay to like something that others don’t and vise versa. Photography is very subjective. You can feel differently about a photo than someone else does without either of you being wrong.
5) Be honest.
6) Be specific. Try to pin point what you like and don’t like about an image. Just saying “I like this” or “It doesn’t work for me” isn’t all that helpful. While some very general feedback may be quick and easy to offer, if your goal is to help someone learn and improve your own critiquing skills, it is worth the time and effort to go a little more in depth than a single generic sentence.
7) Don’t give a critique if it isn’t asked for. Some venues are specifically for critiquing photos, such as photo contests, online photo critiquing forums*, and some art galleries. However, many people just want to share their images and if someone is posting a photo to their own social media or website, it’s generally not appropriate to criticize their work. Offering a critique when it isn’t asked for is akin to bullying; just don’t do it. In situations where a critique is not asked for, the old adage applies: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. *Note: Most online photo sharing websites, forums, and Facebook groups have clearly stated rules. It is really important to familiarize yourselves with the guidelines of any groups you belong to and adhere to them.
Here are a couple example images and examples of not so good and better critiques one might offer:
Bad critique: This shot is kind of boring, but the fish looks cool! Why it’s bad: The assessment is negative, and the commenter didn’t provide any specific details, so the photographer doesn’t know how to improve.
Better critique: While this is a really pretty fish, I don’t find the image very interesting and the background is a bit distracting. I find that the green blob in the lower right distracts from the otherwise uniform blue and gold color scheme, and the fish eyeball in the top left corner is a bit awkward. Maybe a slight crop would help? You positioned the fish in the frame nicely though, and the detail is good. This would be a good shot to illustrate this type of fish for a guide book or aquarium display, because you can clearly see the markings and outline of the fish. Why it’s better: Even though this comment contains some critical elements, the commenter leads off with a positive note before diving into what they don’t like about the image. In addition to specifically pointing out areas that could be improved, the commenter also focuses on areas where the photographer did well and ends with a compliment.
Bad critique: Cool photo! Why it’s bad: This isn’t necessary bad, but it’s not helpful either. If you only have a moment to say something while scrolling past an image on social media, this would be a perfectly fine comment to leave, but on a photo critique forum it doesn’t provide much insight. The photographer doesn’t know why you like it.
Better critique: Stunning image! I really like the way that the three white areas in the image form a triangle that kind of help your eye zig-zag through the scene. This along with the vignetting really helps pull the viewers attention to the most interesting parts of the image, and the rocks and moss provide great textural contrast to the silky water. The bold green colors also perfectly capture spring, and I can imagine how peaceful it would be to sit in this exact spot listening to the water trickle by. Well done! Why it’s better: The commenter put a little more thought and time into this critique, and picked out a few details that they think really make the image special. A critique like this helps identify what qualities the commenter likes in an image; the commenter can then apply a similar tactic to their own imagery, and the photographer knows which of the techniques they used were effective.
While I will argue that social media is not good for a lot of things, using the online photography community and social media platforms to share and get feedback on photographs can be a fantastic way to improve your photography skills. By developing solid critiquing skills and providing respectful, thoughtful feedback to others, you are more likely to receive helpful critiques and advise regarding your own work, plus people will like you! Critiquing is an art, one that takes skill, time, and practice to perfect, but following my tips above should help. Good luck!
My dog is one of my favorite models, but that doesn’t mean photographing him is easy. In general, I probably really like one out of every hundred shots I take of him – not because he’s not cute, but because I usually mess something up. The focus will be off, the image will be blurred, or I’ll crop off a body part unintentionally. Winston doesn’t have the best recall – he’s easily distracted by things more exciting than his mom trying to take pictures – so we are mostly limited to shoots in our small, fenced in backyard which is full of rocks, wood chips, mulch, sticks, and plants, some of which are protected by wire fencing, and usually accented with a grill, garden tools, and the random dog toy. Even when I get everything right, getting a shot with a clean, aesthetic background can be tricky.
This image, taken with a 300mm f/2.8 lens, somehow managed to do my boy justice and avoid all the distracting elements in our backyard, but straight-out-of-camera it needed some work. I warmed up the white balance, brought up the exposure, leveled the horizon, and cloned out all of the pesky mosquitos hovering around Winston’s face (if only you could eliminate mosquitos so easily in real life). I also tweaked the shadow areas slightly to bring out some detail, and I used a neat free action I found on the Hair of the Dog photo blog to brighten up the eyes. As a final step, I completely eliminated Winston’s dog tag using the clone tool (in the “Before” image above I actually quickly cloned out the text before posting online, so it’s not exactly SOOC); I typically always edit or clone dog tags before posting online just because people are creepy and I don’t want my (or any of my friends’ or clients’) information out there. I always do this as a final step so I have that detailed info should I choose to print the image and want to keep it on there for sentimental reasons.
Here is a great example of how a strong edit can salvage an otherwise unremarkable photo. The original had another photographer in the way and was too low contrast to be anything other than a quick snap shot; the artistic merit of this photo wasn’t very strong straight-out-of-camera. Enter Lightroom and a couple minutes of my time, and the final edit is a major improvement.
I started by cropping the image to eliminate the out of focus mint colored shirt on the right side of the photo. I also took a bit away from the top and bottom to keep the original ratio. Then I bumped up the contrast quite a bit to help bring out the textures in the splashing mud. I played with the vibrance and saturation levels and specifically tweaked the red color of the rider’s shirt just a little bit (I find the color red often blows out when you bump the contrast or saturation in a photo, so I had to selectively dial that back a bit), and then finally added a strong post-crop vignette in Lightroom. The entire process took less than a few minutes.
This Before and After is a bit more dramatic than the last one I shared. Unlike the autumn shot near Tippin Rock, I actually changed the scene a bit for my shot of “Friendly Bucks.” It’s not something I do very often, and these days I’m more tempted not to use a shot than to change it significantly, but in this case I justified altering the background due to the unique context of the subject and the fact that the background alteration drastically improved the final image.
The original photo was taken in 2006. I loved the moment captured, but the white corner of sky in the background was very distracting.
To improve the straight out of camera version, I fixed the white balance, leveled the horizon (which resulted in a slight cropping of the edges), and cloned the mountain part of the background to fill in the white sky. All of my images have slight tweaks to exposure, shadows/highlights, blacks/whites, contrast, clarity, and vibrance/saturation, but this one required a little more work than that.
The end result is something that is much more breathtaking.
Now there are certainly folks who would frown on the level of manipulation inherent in changing the background of a photo. I don’t disagree with them, and I would never enter the edited version of this photo in a nature photo contest like the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Contest, which requires that photos are not heavily manipulated or altered, or claim for it to be a photo documentation. By adding or removing an element of the scene, it is altered beyond the point of standard adjustments, and I am honest about that and would never try to pass it off as an original representation of my camera’s view at that time. I don’t regret capturing the scene from this angle, because by doing so I was able to get both bucks in the same focal plane, which might not have been possible if I had shifted slightly to have a cleaner background. This interaction also lasted just seconds, and the fact that I captured it at all is something I am proud of.
The goal of my photography is to show the beauty of the natural world and capture moments in my life that are important to me. This photo does just that. Changing the background results in focus falling right on the two deer and prevents the viewer from being distracted by a bright part of the image that detracts from the subject. It enhances the beauty, and accurately represents what someone standing next to me might have seen. Since the point of the photo is the interaction between the bucks, altering the background helps me accomplish my goal. To me, making this change on this photo was, and still is, the right decision.