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.
“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!
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.
This is the first of a new series of Before and After blogs I will be doing, showcasing the straight-out-of-camera (SOOC) images vs the final edited and post-processed versions. I’ve always been mesmerized by Before and After images, especially since I started paying more attention to pet photography and realized that many of the beautiful, dreamy photo illustrations I have seen of pet dogs on Instagram and social media are actually the result of a lot of work behind the computer. The reality is, a lot of the beautiful images you see have been carefully tweaked in post processing, some more so than others of course. Photography is inherently a creative process; the very act of choosing what to include and not include as you compose a scene, the settings you select on your camera, and what film to use or the defaults picked to covert your RAW images in Lightroom are all aspects that alter a photograph’s representation of reality.
I have always advocated for truth in photography, and will forever completely disclose any and all edits and manipulations and tricks used to create any photograph if asked. Not only is honesty important, but I feel that the public and other photographers can learn a lot about what goes into creating an impactful image. Typically, photographers (myself included) won’t reveal every and all details used to create an image in the caption or every time the image is shared or shown, because that simply isn’t realistic, but the goal of my Before and After blog posts is to shed a little more light on the post-capture creative work that goes into creating a final image.
To start, I am going to share this recently snapped photo of a fall foliage scene in New Hampshire. As you can see, there are some pretty trees but my camera didn’t do a good job of capturing the subtleties of the colors of this scene.
In the edited version, I brought out some of the color and texture in the sky, increased the contrast and saturation of the image slightly, and cropped the view further, to emphasize the colorful trees on the distant mountain and de-emphasize the green foliage surrounding the edges of the frame. I’ve also added a slight vignette by darkening the outer edges of the image; I do this frequently with wide landscapes and images with a clear animal or human subject as it helps prevent the eyes from wandering and pulls them into the image.
None of the edits I made were particularly drastic and I didn’t end up adding or removing anything from the original image, but the overall impact of these changes is significant. The straight out of camera version is one that doesn’t encourage a second look, while the edited version encourages eyes to linger.
One of the reasons I chose to share this image is because it is not very dramatic or exciting. Truthfully, if I had gotten out to shoot more this autumn this might not even be an image I would end up sharing. Yet, it shows the big difference even a little editing can make.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I miss fall foliage pretty consistently. The season is usually pretty short, I’m often busy, and the colder temps and shorter days don’t motivate me to try to squeeze photography into my already packed schedule. Even though I live in one of the most beautiful spots in the whole country for fall color and landscapes are one of my main subjects, I’m good at making excuses why not to go shoot – the dog has been home alone all day and needs playtime, I’m carpooling, its too windy, too rainy, there isn’t a single cloud in the sky or the sky is completely overcast, the colors aren’t at peak, the colors are past peak, blah blah blah. I stare at the beautiful trees from my car and wish there were pull-offs near wetlands next to busy highways, but that’s often the extent of it.
Well tonight on my drive home from work I noticed some wispy clouds in the sky. It was a warm, perfectly still, perfectly blue day, and I almost went straight home, but I thought it was possible the clouds would do something so I drove to the only spot I could think of with a clear view of the sky, maple trees, and no hike. I got there minutes before sunset and… got skunked! The sun went down without much excitement, the clouds never lit up with color, and the light was cold and blue. I could have went home disappointed but I decided to shoot a little anyway and got some decent, different new shots. Not every photo needs to be dramatic or have killer light or perfect foliage to work. Sometimes just getting out there and making due with what you find is good enough.
I guess my motto for today is “It’s better to try and fail than to not try at all.” Sometimes, you make out okay.