Monday, September 29, 2008

Surf Photography Tips and Short Recount of My Thrashing

What an awesome weekend! Saturday morning I woke up early to meet some old friends down at 79th street and surf the product of hurricane Kyle that had passed far offshore on its way to New England. It was the first time that I had been in several years so looking into 5 – 8’ swells in a heavy downpour from the deck of a borrowed 8’2 egg was a little intimidating at first. I was late getting into wave 1 and suffered the not so forgotten experience of getting pulled over the falls. The next wave I pearled, burying the nose and getting launched head first into the pit. Wave 3 closed out on take off and sent me on another freefall to the bottom before unloading the lip on me. Just as I was beginning to wonder if the ocean was going to continue to punish me any further, I caught a nice, chest-high wave that I was able to carry through the section and kick out of without any further damage. No big cutbacks or airs, just that great weightless feeling of gliding across a wave face. Now I have to scrape up $600 to buy a new board (I sold my last one when I moved back to Raleigh from Atlantic Beach.)

Iso 200, f/7.1, 1/1250 sec, 500mm

Following the session, I grabbed breakfast at Mary’s while I waited for the rain to subside and then headed back to 79th street to shoot some photos. I’m still blown away by how much the kids nowadays have progressed in their surfing, doing things that were barely imaginable when we were their age. After a couple of hours, I drove to south beach to catch Jackmove playing at the 24th street stage as part of the Neptune Festival activities. I’ll say it again – these kids absolutely rock. If you are interested in VB local ska band that puts on a great show, there is none better.

The concert wrapped at 3:00 so I made my way down to 10th to shoot a few at the Neptune surfing contest hosted by the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA). Although the contest is not on the same scale as the East Coast Surfing Championships (ECSC), it is well run and the primarily local talent was tearing up the unusually good surf. I returned early Sunday morning to find that the conditions had improved overnight the contestants were putting on a show. The greatest, though, were young kids. They have no fear whatsoever. Just think that a 6’ wave to them must look like Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu.

A few surf photography tips:

1. Play the angle. One of the most challenging times to take good surfing photos on the east coast is early morning to midday when the sun is predominately backlighting the surf. Most people get home and are disappointed that all they captured was a silhouette of joe surfer. While this can be artistic at times, a whole shoot coming out this way is frustrating. In this case, look for the angle that gives you the most light on the wave face. This means that instead of shooting directly offshore, you may need to walk up the beach a bit so that when you shoot back, the sun is at a 45 degree or so angle to you. The shadows will be prominent but lessened to a degree.

2.Use exposure your compensation. You are going to have to except the fact that you are going to loose some highlight detail shooting into the sun in order to gain some shadow detail in your subject. Cameras just cannot capture that range of exposures in a single image. Camera meters, while much improved and more intelligent, will still expose for the highlights the majority of the time. You have a couple of choices. The least recommended is spot metering the subject. The reason I don’t like this method is that the action moves fast and keeping the meter spot on the subject in mid action is not easy. The preferable method is to adjust your exposure compensation from +0.3 to +1.0 depending on conditions. Your camera will meter the scene normally for the highlights but then adjust to allow more light to be available for the exposure and bring out detail in the shadows.

3. Focus. Continuous focus tracking is a must.

4. Know the game. This is true in any sports photography. Knowing the sport will help you be prepared to catch the peak (no pun intended) moment when it occurs. In surfing, you can usually tell by the way a surfer attacks the face of the wave. If he or she is making elongated carving turns, you know that you should be readying yourself to capture vertical lip bash or a roundhouse cutback. If, on the other hand, the surfer makes a series small, pulsating turns to increase his or her speed, then there is great chance that he or she is setting up to launch a big air. By knowing the sport, you have a better chance of catching the money shot when it happens.

Iso 200, f/7.1, 1/800 sec, 500mm

5. Burst mode. Surfing is quick with moves being completed in succession before you have the opportunity to press the shutter release more than once. Set your camera to burst mode. If you follow step 4 and know where the action shot happen, firing 3 or 4 rapid continuous frames as the surfer gets to that position enables you to improve your chances of capturing the big move.

6. Look for other opportunities. Just because you are shooting a surfing contest, not all of your photos have to be of surfers tearing up a wave face. Make sure you shoot a few frames of the contest area, surfers lining up for their heat, and anything else that hits you as interesting. One of the best images that captured this weekend was of a fog bank that rolled in on 79th street. When I shot it, it was more for amusement but turned out being one that I’m sure will go on the wall eventually.

Iso 200, f/7.1, 1/1600 sec, 500mm

7. Saturation. Surfing contests are filled with color. If you are a JPEG shooter, set your camera to vivid and really pop those colors. If you shoot RAW, you can play with them during processing.

8. Aperture. Depending on lighting conditions I prefer f6.3 – f7.1. It gives me plenty of light and keeps depth of field relatively shallow when zoomed out.

9. Speed. 800 sec – 2000 sec. In other words, as fast as possible in order to stop action. I generally shoot iso 200 since water tends to be a digital noise magnet or else I would bump it iso 400 and fire even faster.

10. But I don’t own any big glass….. While its true that 500mm – 1000mm lenses are needed to capture the outer breaks, your standard kit lenses or point and shoot is completely good for more onshore stuff, especially those arial moves that take place in the shorebreak. As a matter of fact, some of the best subjects to help hone your skills are skimboarders. Good ones pull moves in the surfline equivalent to that of surfers and because they launch from the dry sand, they will be in range of your lens.

Next time your bored and lacking in inspiration grab your camera and head down to the oceanfront. Believe it or not, people are out there year round. It is not only fun, but it will go a long way toward improving your technique and reaction time for photographing other fast moving subjects like wildlife or car races.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Great Senior Portrait Advice from J. K. Mann!

It is not often that I post twice in one day. Let's be honest, I have trouble posting 2 days in a row so it must be something worthwhile to get me to do so! Jeff Mann just posted a great article on his site regarding tips on taking senior portraits that I feel will be beneficial to photographers of all levels.

Photo courtesy of JKMann Photography

Jeff has perfected the art of the senior portrait and it is awesome that he is willing to openly share some of his techniques on location selection, lighting, posing, and camera settings in what can be a competitive field. He has a gift for seeing great portraits before ever clicking the shutter and his images have become a standard by which portraits are measured in the Digital Grin community. It probably helps that he has a beautiful family to practice with on a regular basis.

Photo courtesy of JKMann Photography

After reading the article, take a moment and peruse his galleries. I believe that you will be impressed with not only his portrait work but also his other images. Jeff has been willing to assist other photographers with his advice and critiques. I know I owe him a lot of credit for the improvements that I have made in my own images. Thank you for sharing Jeff.

Essential Websites for the Photographer

There are a multitude of resources dedicate to photography and post processing of images. As expected, the internet contains thousands of sites dedicated to the subject. You can find websites providing all you need to know about Holga Cameras to others on infrared photography. There are a few though that I visit almost daily and highly recommend to any photographer or digital artist for the quality of their instructional content, inspiring images, and occasional freebies. For those that have been around for awhile, I’m sure that these are already in your bookmarks but if not, definitely mark them (or in the case of blogs – subscribe) for future reference. You will not be disappointed.

Digital Pro Talk
David Ziser is a very accomplished and well respected wedding and portrait photographer; however, his abilities are not limited simply to people. He seems to have mastered that art of capturing any subject. Digital Pro Talk is David’s blog and it contains an unprecedented wealth of information for the both the aspiring photographer and the advanced hobbyist. David will often follow up a written entry on specific techniques with a very thorough and well produced video on how to apply the technique. Anyone that has seen David’s bridal portraits has probably had to pick their jaw off of the ground. The great thing is that the same techniques used for bridal images can be applied to everyday portraits. For those in the business, David provides weekly valuable insights into how to operate and market a successful business. Lastly, the site also contains a wealth of links to other related sites for inspiration, equipment reviews, and post processing tutorials. This should be your first stop each day!

Iso 200, f/9.o, 1/125 sec, 32mm

Lightroom Killer Tips
Matt Kloskowski is one of the original “Photoshop Guys” from the Photoshop User TV and in addition to still doing episodes for the show and managing his Photoshop Killer Tips site; he has devoted a lot of time and effort to his Lightroom site. I am finding more and more that I am doing the majority of my post processing in Adobe Lightroom and very seldom pulling images into Adobe Photoshop unless there is something that I must truly customize. Lightroom 2.0 has made this especially true with its new adjustment tools. By relying on Lightroom for most of the processing, my workflow has sped up dramatically, a real time saver when processing hundreds of photos from an event shoot like a surfing contest. I’ve gotten to the point that I now recommend Lightroom 2.0 as a first purchase before getting Photoshop CS4. Anyway, I got off-track so more about the site. Matt provides a wealth of information, tutorials, and even downloadable presets that you can apply to your own images. Like David, he also posts regular links to inspiring sites and product recommendations. He has a casual, laid back style and regularly replies to emails and comments on his postings. Even if you do not own Lightroom yet (I’m sure you eventually will), this is a great site to visit on a regular basis.

The Strobist blog can be described as everything that you need to know about lighting while on a budget. A few years ago, several photographers discovered that with a bit of creativeness and a good understanding of light and subject, they could create amazing images using portable hot shoe flashes that rivaled those created with high-end studio strobes. The Strobist site walks you through the courses Lighting 101 and Lighting 102, which provide easy to understand explanations on lighting gear and techniques from the beginner to the advanced user level. There is even an associated Flickr gallery where you can post your results as well as view the images created by others. In addition to the lessons, there are many informative posts on everything from advanced lighting techniques to do-it-yourself lighting equipment projects. Regardless if you have an unlimited budget and the greatest lighting gadgets, the Strobist site can still provide you with some valuable information.

Iso 200, f/11.o, 1/250 sec, 62mm

Photoshop User
Opening disclaimer is that to view the majority of content on Photoshop User, you have to join the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP). It costs approximately $100 a year but in addition to the site access, you get a subscription to Photoshop User as well as technical support and discounts to most of the major photographic equipment and software suppliers. The site contains hundreds of tutorials and videos as well as portfolios of other users. It is worth the cost to sign up. If you choose not too, though, you can still access Photoshop User TV, a weekly half-hour show lead by the likes of Scott Kelby, Dave Cross, and Matt Kloskowski in addition to several others. The shows are part tutorial, part news, and part product review. There is a little corny humor but it is all in lighthearted fun.

Well as previously mentioned, there many more sites out there, definitely some that I will feature in future posts; however if you were to check only 4 sites a day, I’d make these a priority.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Notes from the Air Show

Iso 400, f/8.0, 1/1250 sec, 500mm

Yesterday I went out to Oceana Naval Air Station for the air show to shoot some photos. Arriving early, I was directed to a prime parking spot approximately 1 mile from the entrance. To be fair, they had shuttle buses running but it was a nice morning and I needed the exercise; so I loaded my Sigma 50-500mm lens bag onto my camera bag, grabbed my monopod, and hiked across the concrete tarmac to show. At the entrance I was stopped by a very big soldier carrying a very big gun who informed me in no uncertain terms that camera bags were prohibited. The guy in front of me slipped by with his but I figured protesting would at best get me kicked out and at worst…well I didn’t really want to think about it.

Iso 400, f/25.0, 1/160 sec, 500mm

I hiked back to my truck, attached the Sigma to my Nikon D300, put my memory cards in my pocket, and left everything else behind as I walked back to the show. I didn’t realize my mistake until I got to the entrance a second time. Leaving everything behind included my monopod. I briefly considered making a third trip; however, I opted to forgo it and shoot handheld. For those that haven’t had the pleasure of holding a Bigma, it weighs over 5 pounds. It doesn’t seem like much but after 5 hours, it begins to wear on you.

It has been years since I attended an air show. Living near the base, we see the jets all day long and when an air show comes to town, we can usually see a lot of the performances from a distance. It doesn’t in any way compare to actually being there. If you haven’t gone to one, I highly recommend it. From the graceful agility of aerial acrobatics to the sheer power of the jets as they fly just off the deck is breathtaking. Watching the F22 Raptor perform was as beautiful as it was down right terrifying.

Iso 400, f/20.0, 1/320 sec, 500mm

Here are few tips that will help you come away with an enjoyable experience and images that really sing:

1. Arrive early. The gates to the show opened at 8:00 a.m. By the time I arrived and made the multiple trips to my truck, I got in at 9:00 to find that the best spots were already taken. At the very least, you want to get a location right up against the barrier so that you do not have anyone between you and the airstrip. You will be surprised at how low some of planes pass by.

2. Travel light. As previously mentioned, camera bags were not allowed so carry your camera, lens, monopod, and memory cards only. You can get away with individual lens bags attached to your belt or a photo vest if you have one. I wasn’t planning on changing lenses so I only took the one attached to the camera. Also, you will be carrying your equipment all day and you will appreciate the lighter load as the day wears on.

3. Wear comfortable shoes. Walking shoes, hiking boots, or any shoe that offers a lot of cushioning. The viewing area is usually on concrete. After a few hours, your legs and feet will thank you.

4. Bring a chair. You can get a folding chair at any sporting goods or department store for around $10. The chair collapses and slips into a carrying bag that is allowed into the show. Aside from obvious purpose of allowing you to rest you feet and back for a few minutes between performances, the chair serves a much more important role of staking out your territory. As soon as you arrive, place your chair at your selected location right up against the barrier. This will enable you to roam the base and still return to your spot without having someone else move in on it. In all honesty, you will spend very little time actually sitting in the chair.

Iso 400, f/6.3, 1/2000 sec, 370mm

5. Big glass. Most of the planes will make some passes close enough to get a good image with 200mm zoom but if you really want to optimize your opportunities for some great shots, you need to bring something in the 400mm – 600mm range. A cheaper alternative is to purchase 1.4x or 2x teleconverter. Make sure though that the teleconverter that you purchase will work with your camera’s autofocus.

6. Focus selection. Most DSLRs now come equipped with selective and continuous focus. The former locks focus when the shutter is depressed halfway so that you can recompose without the focus shifting to another target. Continuous focus, on the other hand, does just what it sounds like – continues to adjust focus as the subject moves. For the majority of your shooting at an air show, you will want to use continuous focus.

7. Focus points. DSLRs have come a long way in a short amount of time when it comes to focus options. Most allow the user to select a point or a set of points for the camera to use to calculate focus. On the Nikon D300, I use 21 point focus for fast moving subjects. The camera focuses on a single point; however, if the subject moves out past the point in the frame, the camera automatically shifts focus to one of the 20 other points surrounding the primary. Check your camera manual to see what options you have.

8. Vibration reduction. Turn it off. Why? Whether in camera or lens based, VR will slow focusing. Unless you are panning motion shots, you will be shooting at shutter speeds that make VR irrelevant. Since it is not needed, turn it off and allow the camera to gain focus acquisition as fast as possible.

Iso 400, f/25.0, 1/160 sec, 500mm

9. ISO. I found that 400 iso allowed me to shoot at 1/1250 second or faster. I probably could have gone as low as 200 iso; however, large, dense clouds kept moving in and out of the area. I didn’t want to miss a great shot because my shutter speed adjusted to a setting too slow.

10. Settings. I found that I was most comfortable shooting aperture priority set at f/6.3 for the stop action shots. Doing so allowed the shutter speed to adjust for changes in lighting due to cloud cover or bright sun. For panning shots, I remained in aperture priority but set anywhere from f/16 – f/32 in order to bring down the shutter speed create motion blur. I wasn’t worried about the increased depth of field since the background would be blurred regardless. At f/16, I had a shutter speed of 1/250 – 1/400 sec which was good to get that nice radial blur on propellers while still keeping the overall image sharp. At higher f-stops, my shutter speed dropped to 1/80 – 1/120 of a second which is great for panning shots with a lot of motion blur. I definitely need to practice this more as tracking a jet fighter approaching the speed of sound while hand holding a 5 pound lens is fairly difficult.

11. Monopod. Don’t leave it in the truck! For panning shots, it is absolutely a necessity to keep the panning smooth and the image sharp. I got a few right handheld but botched the majority of them by having my hands shake the lens up and down while trying to follow the subject.

12. Take a break. Every now and then, put the camera down and take a look around. There is a lot of neat stuff to see at a show and while resting your eyes, you may come across another image that you hadn’t originally thought about.

I ended up leaving the show before the Blue Angels took to the sky in order to get home in time to catch my Bears choking another victory away in the fourth quarter but I was pretty happy with the majority of the images I created. Processing was fairly straightforward and quick. After importing them into Lightroom 2.0, I ran tone, contrast, and vibrancy adjustments on the first image and then synced the other 300 images. I then ran through them and flagged each as pick or discard. I filtered the picks and made minor adjustments to exposure and shadows before exporting them to jpegs and uploading them to my 09/21/2008 Oceana NAS Air Show gallery.

Next an air show is town, get out there shoot a few. It is a great time.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

DGrin Sharp Shooter Challenge #8

Iso 200, f/22.0, 28 mm, 3 image HDR

One of the best photo contests in which I have competed is being conducted on Digital Grin. It started of as a weekly challenge series where participants were vying for bragging rights and minimal prizes. Last year it morphed into the Last Photographer Standing (LPS), a format based on the popular reality show "Last Comic Standing" where a weekly contest was conducted and each winner went on to compete in the final rounds for gift certificates to B&H Photo, free Smugmug hosting, and other prizes. When LPS concluded, a vacuum was created when the managing pro elected to leave the competition for personal reasons.

True to form, the great people at Smugmug came together and developed an even better format for the contest. Emily (GreenSquared), a respected member of the community and truly talented photographer, volunteered to coordinate the contest and has done nothing short of an incredible job at not only managing the events but also adapting to requests from the rest of the community. Unlike many contests, feedback from participants is encouraged and photographers will often post their perspective entries prior to submission to get advice on selection, composition, theme relevance, technical content, and emotional impact from the very same group of people with whom they are competing. Surprisingly, their competition provides true feedback sometimes at the cost of their own entry being surpassed. It is a contest and a group that cares more about the betterment of photography than simply winning. Something unusual nowadays.

If you are a photographer and wish to improve your skills, I encourage you to enter. On the other hand if you are a spectactor that just enjoys viewing awesome images, I encourage you to stop by the entry threads on a regular basis to see some of the great works that are posted. The contest is held every 2 weeks and usually is based on the photographer having to choose between one of two opposing themes. It is amazing to see some of the interpretations come to life.

In the spirit of the competition, I will post a reminder with a link to the latest submission thread as well as the photo that I am considering entering in the round. Feel free to provide any feedback that you wish. The theme for DSS #8 is Weathered or Polished. For this round I went with the following entry: "Splintered". Wish me luck!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Local Travels: West Moreland State Park

Iso 200, f/13, 65mm, 5 image HDR

For the first time in ages, I decided to actually leave town during my vacation. Monday morning I drove up to meet my parents and my Uncle Earl and Aunt Diana's cottage in West Moreland State Park. It goes to show that even a short trip can lead to a new source of inspiration. Only 3 hours from VA Beach, WMSP is a world apart from our busy beach town.

Iso 200, f/22, 18mm, 5 image HDR

Earl and Diana own one of the few privately-owned cottages within the park. The front of the cottage overlooks the Potomac River. Because most of the park services are closed on weekdays following Labor Day, there are very few other people in the area. All told, I counted no more than 20 others. Wildlife abounds. In the evening and early morning hours, deer come out from their daytime thickets to graze in the open spaces. Blue herons guard their territory along the shorline. The greatest show, though, comes from the bald eagles. Their primary nesting area is on the Horsehead Cliffs but they can be seen silently gliding up and down the river's edge, their massive wings carrying them effortlessly on the slighest breeze.

Iso 200, f/22, 18mm, 5 image HDR

It was a great couple of days spent in a very scenic park with family and great food (no one will ever go hungry there!) Last night I processed some of the take from the weekend and was pleasantly surprised with the images. There are few here in the post and the rest can be seen at my galleries. In future posts, I will go into more detail on how the images were created but for now I need to get ready for a kickball game.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Animal Inspiration

Iso 100, f/5.6, 1/100, 250mm

Anybody who owns a camera has at some point taken a photo of fido or miss princess. Face it, our pets are often our favorite subjects. One they are readily available to pose on a moment's notice (well, except for mine - Mahala hates the camera) and two they are cute as as all get out (even the dog that won the ugliest dog contest!) I first entered into pet photography when volunteering with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control Department. Interestingly we found that better photos of dogs increased the adoption rate by 20 - 30%.

Most people think that pet photography is easy - just find a cute pet, aim, and shoot - then everyone will swoon over how cute fluffy is even if her eyes are glowing yellow-green. Truth is that great pet photography takes patience and planning and patience again. Here are a few of the sites that I look to for new ideas on how to shoot:

Sit Stay Smile
Jill Beninato has a wonderful connection with our furry friends and it definitely shows in her work. Her and her husband Chris have 4 dogs of their own with the latest being a rescue from the much covered recently busted puppy farm. Not only does Jill provide some great photography, but she also provides her clients with some incredible digital paintings of their pets.

Michael Waine Pet Portraits
Michael found his way into professional photography like may of us by following a winding road through other careers until we eventually landed back on what we love. He takes pride in in his ability to pull out the character of each pet he photographs, traits that the owners have already come to know and love. Anyone that has attempted to capture the character of their beloved pet knows that this is no easy task!

Best Friend Photography
Emily Rieman simply has created some of the most stunning black and white pet images that I have witnessed to date (not to mention that her color images are just as fantastic!) For someone that started down the path of a photojournalism career, she definitely found her true calling with the furrier set.

Basic Tips for Better Pet Photos

1. Pets are not 6' tall! When you visit your friend's and family or even look at your own previous photo albums, make note of the angle in which the pet's photo was taken. More than likely, you will find that the photograph is shot looking down at the animal. Face it, our pets are not our height. The best photos are at eye level or, for an even more artistic approach, shot from an angle slightly below their height looking up, giving them a larger than life persona.

Iso 200, f/7.1, 1/125, 160mm

2. Prepare for the chase. Unlike waifer thin models from Ford Modelling, pet photographs tend to suffer when the photographer atempts to pose the animal. Granted, this works sometimes for the more inactive variety (think bull dogs) but for the most part, it looses that thing that makes the pet so special. Although primes are great for people portraits, I prefer a 18 - 200mm zoom for pet portraits. The range enables me to capture the shot whether the animal runs up on me or moves away.

Iso 200, f7.1, 1/400, 200mm

3. Enlist help! The best pet portraits typically (and I say typically because there is always an exception) have the pet looking attentive, eyes wide, ears perked up, and mouth open. The thing is that pets don't normally run around this way. Here is where an assistant comes into play. My best pet portraits came after enlisting the help of another to distract the animal, be it squeezing a toy, enticing them with treats, or guiding them into position.

Iso 200, f7.1, 1/320, 100mm

4. Green eye. If you do not have a studio or are proficient with off-camera flash, attempt to do most of your work in natural sunlight. Green eye is caused by on-camera flash bouncing off of the retina and reflecting back at the camera. While this can sometimes be corrected adequately in post, it is best to avoid it altogether.

5. Volunteer. Our animal shelters are desperately in need of volunteers. In addition to having a plethora of photography subjects, you can help out our four (sometimes three) legged friends. And as Bob Barker used to say, please spay and neuter.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Why Enter a Photography Contest?

People often suffer under the belief that in order to compete in an event, they must be a master in their field. This misconception is often used as a crutch to protect oneself from what we think will be a moment of public humiliation. Instead, we hide in our safe place where we are only judged in a controlled environment, not having to worry that we will be criticized.

The misconception is often a result of our natural tendency to catastrophize the response to our efforts. In other words, we often concentrate on the worst and forget about the positives. Truth is that criticism is good, or even great, when provided in a constructive forum. We should not approach criticism as a negative attack on our abilities but instead embrace it as means to grow and improve.

Digital Grin sharp Shooter Challenge Entry
2.6 Splendor or Squalor
Iso 400, f/7.1, 1/4000 sec, 25mm

This topic came to mind the other day when I was reviewing a friend’s portfolio and realized that the most recent photos in the collection looked very similar to those shot two-year’s earlier. Granted there was a little improvement but for the most part, nothing had changed. The photographs were of the same subjects from the same angles with the same lighting. When I suggested that maybe a different angle would add a new perspective to the subject, my friend became defensive and began to argue her interpretation of the image. As talented as she is, she had found her safe zone and the thought off stepping outside of it was tantamount to opening herself up to ridicule.

I see this quite often on forum posts from photographers that are either new to public feedback or believe that they are far superior to any other photographer on the site. Instead of accepting suggestions for improvement, they lash back in defense of their work. It is a shame that they are missing out on the very thing that can help raise their photography to new levels.

One of the greatest places I’ve seen to get the criticism necessary for improvement is in photography contests. I mentioned Digital Grin in an earlier post. They have a bi-weekly challenge that offers some of the best input from other community members that I have seen on the web. Other sites such as Better Photo and Flickr have similar contests.

When posting for a contest, remember the following and it will be a rewarding experience even if you do not walk away with a prize:

1. Judging is subjective. The individuals selected to judge a contest may not specialize in the same subject matter that you do and therefore may not fully “get” what you intend. Do not expect a nature photographer to have a great appreciation for urban decay photography. Their input on technical aspects, though, may provide you with a new way of seeing your subject in future shoots.

2. Expect to be criticized. I have seen critiques of photos that on first sight I thought should be hanging on a gallery wall. No photograph is perfect. I’d be willing to be that if Ansel Adams were alive today and entered one of his great works of art in a contest, multiple people would find something that could be improved upon.

3. Accept criticism with grace. Even if you don’t agree with the assessment, accept that the person providing input is taking their valuable time to comment on your image. Put aside the initial hurt feelings and decide for yourself if what they have provided you can improve your photos during the next session.

4. Have fun. Compete regularly and you will get to know the regulars. Winning is great, especially if there is a prize on the line; however, approaching the contest for the experience will eventually be far more rewarding.

5. Critique others. I can't think of very few ways to improve your own photography than to find areas of improvement in the work of others.

6. Periodically look back at your entries. If you regularly participate in a contest series, I’d bet that 99% of the time you will notice an improvement in your images from your first contest entry to your latest. There are few things in this world that give such a direct indicator of growth!

I’m sure that there are more things that can be attributed to competitions. If you maintain reasonable expectations, readily accept constructive criticism, and have fun; I believe you will find contests to be great learning vehicles.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What Can A Run Teach You?

4:00 Sunday morning, I crawled out of bed, slipped on my running gear, headed down to the Virginia Beach oceanfront for the 26th Annual Rock-n-Roll Half Marathon. Last year I was up before dawn to get in position to photograph the event. This year I was there to run. Why? A couple of reasons with the first being that everyone looked like they were having so much fun during last year's race. More importantly, though, I had to simply prove to myself that I could.

2007 Rock-n-Roll Half Marathon
Iso 200, 1/800 sec, f/8.0, 60mm

The original plan was to run the Shamrock back in March but a freak injury landed me in the ER just a few days prior. After recovering, I stuck hard to a training program that I enlisted on Active and reached the point where I was doing 9-mile runs comfortably once a week. Then one night after work in mid-June, I was out for a light run when on my third step, I felt my right knee pop and sharp, stabbing pain pierced just below the knee-cap. Even after taking a week off, the pain persisted and I dropped my training program down to doing alternate cross-training exercises instead of putting miles on the pavement. I mistakenly let myself believe that it would be a one-for-one trade-off; however, as we all know, you can't become competent at playing basketball if all you do is practice football.

A few weeks before the race, I picked up my running again and was shocked that instead of 9-milers, I was struggling to do 5s. With the poorer conditioning and my knee still bothering me, I considered skipping the race altogether. Then I did something unexpected... I began telling everyone I knew that I was running it knowing full well that if I didn't, I would look like a failure in more than just my eyes. This was a lesson in tough-love motivation but one that can be applied to everything in life whether it be quitting smoking, loosing weight, or forcing yourself to wake before the sunrises to be in position to catch the best light during the sunrise. It is easy to justify to yourself why you don't want to stick to a program or take a chance; however, when you invite others into your activity, your incentive not to let them down is a powerful motivator to keep you on track.

2007 Rock-n-Roll Half Marathon
Iso 200, 1/500 sec, f/8.0, 200mm

As 20,000 people took their positions on 19th St. for the start, the initial anxiety turned to an excited anticipation. Beach balls were being batted around between the starting corrals and the announcer had the wave rolling from front to back. With each group of 1000 runners that were released from the starting line, a roar of cheers would erupt from the remaining runners waiting their turn. The field was made up of professional athletes, dedicated runners, rec league softball players, and those who were probably doing the first athletic activity of their lives. People were dressed in the latest high-tech running gear and others were in Elvis costumes and blue wigs. The energy was overwhelming.

Lesson 2 of the day: The power of a collective group that shares a similar passion far exceeds the motivational factor that the individual can achieve own their own. How does this apply to photography you ask? It is easy for us to become our own worst critics or to get stuck in our comfort zone and not venturing out to find new subjects or looking at the same subjects in a new and different way. If you do only one thing today to make yourself a better photographer and to improve your creative thinking and skills, join an on-line photography forum. There are many good ones out there. My personal choice is Digital Grin, but take a look around and find one that seems to suit you best. Also instead of heading out into the field by yourself every week, invite along some others to join you. You'll find that by engaging others, your vision will expand and your portfolio will grow to incredible heights.

2007 Rock-n-Roll Half Marathon
Iso 200, 1/640 sec, f/8.0, 18mm

How did the race go you are wondering? With all of the initial energy and excitement, I took off the line and forgot my pace strategy. I felt great and didn't realize that I was running each mile 2.25 minutes faster than I planned for the first 3 miles. At mile 6, I was feeling the effects of the quick carbo depletion in which I unwittingly put myself and my pace had slowed considerable. At mile 9, I felt my legs give in. By the final mile, it felt like I was barely moving with each step; however, something amazing happened during the last quarter mile. With the finish line in sight, I mentally shutout the pain and exhaustion. When I crossed the line and heard my name announced, I was at full sprint and delirious with finishing my first. I missed my goal time by 20 minutes but I finished and realized my third lesson: The only thing that will ever stop us from reaching new heights in our life's pursuits is barriers that we build against ourselves and in striving for those heights, we must find rewards in the individual steps along the way. It doesn't matter if it is running a race or striving for that perfect image.

I know that the content of this article is primarily how the lessons I learned can be applied to photography. I also learned a great deal about myself as well as my running ability. I'm already looking forward to beginning my training program for the Shamrock Half Marathon. This time I will be prepared to crush my goal time.