Educational Series

Northern Lights and a long drive home…

Yesterday I posted one of my shots from early Sunday morning, today in this post I will be sharing the other two. As I mentioned I was driving home from a wedding reception in Alpena, on M-32 almost to 131. I looked to the north, where as luck would have it there was a vacant field. In the clearing I noticed a faint green glow, a recognizable faint green glow. I pulled the van over, rather quickly, it seemed to jar Kayla from her sleep. I pulled out the tripod and the camera and set up on the side of the road. At first I did not foresee the glowing tail lights to be a problem, but in the first exposure they proved to be. I was hoping they would not reach that far up in the frame. I replaced them with a strobing light pointed down at the roadway, as a traffic safety precaution. The lights put on a fascinating bright show as they rotated across the sky to the east.

Northern Lights gaylord photographer Joe Clark

Lacking interesting foreground I decided to pack it in and migrate to the northwest to Walloon Village, a town where Hemingway’s parents had a lake cabin, and he spent a significant portion of his childhood. We set off towards Walloon, sometimes questioning if the lights had faded. Making it to the town I located a grassy area near the dam on the south end of the little public beach. I set up with one leg on the concrete form which was part of the spillway. I shot my first exposures to the west, where I have been told pink was glowing in the aurora.

Northern lights over Walloon Lake michigan Petoskey photographer Joe Clark

The cold temperature of the lake was creating a fog which hung low to the water. The northern lights and the stars seemed to have no problem reflecting off the water through it. There is a minimal amount of light pollution coming from the nearby village, the most annoying being the sodium lights throwing a yellow color temperature into the frame. I can only imagine what kind of impact these sights would have had on the young Hemingway, as he camped out near the lake and in the woods surrounding Walloon Lake. After these shots on Walloon Lake we packed up and headed home arriving around 5am, concluding our long drive across the mitten.

These images are for sale, and will be uploaded to the galleries soon.

For use permission, contact photographer Joe Clark with the contact us option in the menu.

The importance of post processing.

Listen up, this is important.

I apologize in advance if this turns into a ranting article of old. The plan is to stress the importance of post processing photographs as a vital part of the complete process of producing the image. The reason being that an image straight out of the camera is never really suitable for publication unless it is in the confines of a law enforcement document with such requirements. When a photographer is shooting in Raw there is no image until one of processed out of the data, I will explain further later in this post. The most common method of shooting is using the Jpeg format, which can work in some situations. I use it when I need to do non-critical high volume shooting, like at a foot race or other such event.

Please note that this writing is not really intending to  be an instruction article on how to post-process, rather just the importance of doing so. I am including a little bit on the how, but mostly there is a lot of content including some highly technical sciency reasons behind this necessity that I get into.

So, what is post processing?

We will be working with my personal definition; Post processing is any modification on an image after the exposure has been completed. This definition is logically sound, as modern cameras are capable of performing their own processing functions on Jpeg copies of the images in their memory cards. Lightroom, Photoshop, GIMP, MS Paint, Advanced Camera Raw, UFO Raw editor, Dark Table, and other various software are all post processing editors. The process can include adjusting the image back to reality, creating hyper realistic images, a slew of manipulations, and some abusive uses. Double exposures made in camera will be excluded from the definition, as they are grandfathered in from the film days.

And, the importance is?

As a photographer you have two options; presenting the best images possible, or stuffing your foot in your mouth and delivering straight from your camera. The previous option sounds preferable, but it is amazing how many people are paid for photographic work yet deliver sub-standard images which may have had better potential. I have had discussions with clients and potential clients who have been dissatisfied with the work of previous photographers. Be it for the lack of their technical experience, creative sight, or simply failure to adjust the image. For myself, I shoot in Raw; there is no image until I assemble it. I also intentionally overexpose my images so that I can have the largest amount of data to work with in post. Below I will explain these statements. I recently meet with a potential commercial client who manufactures items for the home. They were horribly dissatisfied with their previous photographer. During the meeting I asked to see the images to determine exactly what made them so unhappy. The biggest problem was the adamant lack of post processing. The photographer claimed to be a “purist”, whom operate under a mantra of “my images come straight from the camera”. But in reality however you cut the cookie, you are manipulating your image, and if you shoot in Jpeg using a camera mode (landscape or portrait), or other settings you are actually manipulating more than your may have else wise.  This article titled “Why being a purist in Photography is just nonsense” hits the nail on the head.

I’m a purist chef, tonight we are having raw meat over uncooked rice, with a side of unwashed potato.”

 In the Raw…

Shooting photos in Raw is the professional’s choice method, now there are some out there who shoot in Jpeg alone. It is a personal preference, but so it cramming a fork into an electrical outlet. Raw is simply that, raw data. The camera sensor works by measuring the amount or value of light on a grey scale (black to white) under three colored filters, red, green, and blue. Each pixel is composed of a red, green, and blue filtered photoreceptor. The amounts of each color can later be combined to produce the image. Raw data is the individual measurements of the composition of  the light for each pixel component.  The image displayed on the back of the camera is an estimated Jpeg which could be produced from the data, the histogram is an estimate based on the estimated Jpeg. By no means can you gain more exact results by shooting in Jpeg, as it is rendered from the raw data before the camera permanently discards it. Now the raw data requires rendering which the camera can do automatically producing a Jpeg as I mentioned, or you can take it back home and work on it to get the exact results you wanted in the first place.

The major advantage to using Raw is the capacity of data, it is all there. You can use tools such as Adobe Lightroom and Advanced Camera Raw which is a part of Photoshop, or UFO raw and Gimp to extract the data. There is a lot more data than what the preview screen can display, remember, estimates. The areas which appear pure white or black may contain useful data which can be extracted to show the detail in those areas. Developing the data is as necessary as it was when we all used film. The Raw file must contain the most usable information to produce the print.

To the right, to the right, to the right….

hist 1
Fig. 1a A value histogram.

If you have read through digital photography guides then you may be familiar with terms such as “expose to the right”, “push to the right”, ect.. This is in reference to the histogram (Fig. 1a) which by definition is a data plot on an X and Y axis where X is a value lets say between 0 and 1024 and the Y values between 0 and 5000. Each pixel is plotted on this graph at a singular point based on its overall grey-scale value. So in essence on the right side of the graph indicates the number of brighter pixels, while the darker pixels are on the left. As you can see in figure 1a the data is primarily in the highlight, or brighter pixels on the right, but also significant data is on the left in the shadow regions. The divide in the data means that the image contains some contrast. Now, the bulk of usable data is on the right-hand side because as you get darker the camera can capture significantly less data each stop. When I mean significant I mean half, each stop you get darker in the image the camera can only capture half the data as the previous stop. As you attempt to render out the image it will produce more noise in the dark areas, so you really want to do what you can to avoid that. Pushing the image to the right by over exposing is a best practice. Even if the subject is dark you want that histogram to have the bulk of the data to the right. However you want to be careful.

An overexposed histogram.
Fig. 1b
An overexposed image will produce a histogram similar to this. Note the spike on the far right hand side.

If you overexpose you will have pure white with no detail, and your histogram will usually look like the one in figure 1b. Note how the peak is cut off, or clipped as it is called. You need to know that the camera records digitally, well duh. But what I am saying is as the light comes in and strikes the sensor, it adds bits. Light is cumulative (one of my favorite sayings), be it film or digital.  So the data stacks up in a mathematical fashion; for example 0 is pure black and 15 is pure white. All the camera does for the image is add +1 as needed to the value of a specific pixel component. Once it reaches 15, it is pure white, and additional data is discarded because the maximum is reached. Now with binary 0 = 0000 and 15 = 1111 and it adds as seen in figure 1c. Imagine every photoreceptor as a pot, or a drinking glass, with light being poured in like water. For example, watch the figure as it counts up adding light to the data for the pixel component, once 1111 is reached; the glass is then full and any

Fig. 1c. Binary addition.
Fig. 1c. Binary addition.

additional information cannot be retained. The clipping in Fig. 1b indicates that the glass has overfilled and data has been lost, and is thus useless. Each number is a bit, the example is 4 bits long, a Jpeg is 8 bits per channel. Which provides a maximum total range of 0 to 255. So you have 255 levels of which each is a value of gray on the scale from complete black to fully white for each red, green, and blue component of a pixel. This may be easier to think of as a dimmer switch, which clicks through 255 positions and steps up the light output equally for each position until full output is achieved. Photoshop uses this 255 limit to represent the values in an image, as you can see in Fig. 1d.

Fig. 1d. Note the range from 0 to 255. Photoshop CC
Fig. 1d. Note the range from 0 to 255. Photoshop CC

A camera captures an image in the neighborhood of 12 to 16 bits which is exponentially more data than what can be held in an 8 bit file. So yet again, what is the benefit for shooting in Jpeg when there is so much image data which is uncontrollably discarded? When using Raw mode you have the creative control to determine what you would like to keep and throw away. Keep this in mind for the next section


Dynamic Range and realism…

There is a light side, and a dark side to Photoshop, as with other editing software. I think of myself as being on the light side of the shop, where fashion photographers who manipulate and disfigure the human body are on the dark side. Where I find use, is bringing my data back to a more realistic image. A camera can only capture a portion of what our eyes see. For example taking a photograph of a room, where it is sunny outside. And while you can see the wonderful interior woodwork and look out the window and see the forests and hills your camera will not. Sadly it is one or the other, this is called dynamic range; or the range of values a camera can capture between black and white. There are ways to compile multiple images in post processing to achieve what you can see naturally.  The easiest solution is to create an HDR, or High Dynamic Range image. Other methods employ layering the images on top of one another and masking in or out the sections you wish from each image to generate a composite. I consider this post processing as being an action to bring an image back to realism, and not a true manipulation. Some people will generate hyper-realistic images to better represent their vision, and the results can be amazing.

 So, post processing…

Fig. 2a. Lens correction tabs in ACR.

Post processing gives the photographer the ability to access and edit their image to produce the best photograph possible. So what do you do? Well, in all honesty whatever you would like to. Most of what needs to be done can be processed through Advanced Camera Raw (ACR) or Lightroom (LR). You will want to remove artifacts of the lens and to adjust the exposure where you would like it to be. Artifacts such as Chromatic Aberrations are green and or purple hues which form on the sharp edge of an object. Like a prism a lens can diffract light in a similar manner creating color casts.  Typically checking the box as seen in Fig. 2a can correct these issues. You may need to manually correct the issue however. In lightroom you have a selection tool in the form of an eye dropper near the lens correction section. Click that and then sample some of the aberrations to make them magically go away. As with all these options in Advanced Camera Raw, they are available in Lightroom in the develop module. One of the most important thing is to get the exposure adjusted to the desirable levels. This is done on the basic screen of ACR or at the top on the right panel in LR. These sliders will look something like in Fig. 2b.

Fig. 2b: Basic adjustments.
Fig. 2b: Basic adjustments.

At the top there are the adjustments for the white balance, you may be better off using the preset values for the shooting conditions (such as daylight, cloudy, or shady) you were working in, as you can spend hours learning the nuances of white balance. If you want to play with the slider a little bit, I encourage such behavior. It is very straight forward. Move one of the sliders for temperature or int and the image will take a hue of the color you have slid towards. This can be used to add more of a warm color to the image, like you would find at sunrise or sunset. LR has a selection tool which can use to select a grey card if you photographed one to get the exact color temperature. There is also a product out there called a color checker passport, which will allow you to get a very exact temperature and color accuracy from the photograph. Working down the panel, exposure is the next adjustment; this will adjust the overall exposure of the image. Contrast will predictably add contrast. Highlights are the brighter parts of the image, the parts on the right hand side of the histogram. This is where you can get some of your detail back from an image which was exposed to the right. Back this slider down to the left a bit to reduce clipping and to being the more exposed section of the image back to reality. Shadows work the same but for the darker parts of the image. Take care when adjusting up the shadows however as they will produce more noise. Some detail can be rendered out but significantly less than which can come from the highlights. In Figure 2c you can see the lightroom equivalent, note the similarities. Photoshop has some adjustment tools as well, Fig. 1d is the levels adjustment. Moving the sliders around will clip the image so that you can render the full data in the image. So if you have grey instead of black you can move the left slider to the right and clip all data to black on the left of the histogram. Holding ALT will allow you to preview how that is effecting the image. It will look weird, that’s alright. The colors it is showing are the ones which are being clipped to black in a particular area. It will do the same with the highlights. Where pure black or white are showing indicates a section has gone completely to those ends.  This tool, is in photoshop as I mentioned. Which means that it is working with less available data then ACR or LR will work with, as they both are RAW editors. You use the RAW editors to pull out the best 8 or 16 bits of data, then edit that data in photoshop. That is how you can recover over and underexposed images better with these applications. Note that holding ALT will also work the same way in LR and ACR when adjusting the highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks.

Local selective adjustments…

There is also a local adjustment tool, which is indicated by the brush looking tool on the right at the top of 2c. This is also found in ACR, in the tools panel. The brush tool will allow you to apply changes to the photo, much in the same way you do with the basic sliders; with the exception that these changes will only be made to the select areas you “paint” with the brush. Which if you have been playing around with them, which I hope you have. Then you would have noticed the profound effects they can have on the image. This tools creates that effect locally. Remember when painting with light to have a lot of feathering on it. There is also an option check box called “auto-mask”. This will activate a setting that will only apply the settings of the brush to similar parts of the image which the center of the circle is over when you are painting. This is useful when trying to paint a darker sky behind a portrait subject, or when lightening their faces up. The amount of splash will be greatly reduced if not negated completely. Pressing the backslash (\) key show the before image, and there is a check box which will revile the mask. Yes you are masking.

Exit notes…

Lightroom basic panel
Fig. 2c

Most of what you will need to do to render a more perfect image can be done in Lightroom or ACR, pushing the image to photoshop may be necessary depending on what the final outcome needs to be. Such as rendering HDR, advanced dodging or burning or actual manipulations of the image. By no means am I an expert in the nuances of Photoshop, I am quite new to it. There are better resources out there if you are needing to learn more about the program. I suggest Crative Live which frequently hosts experts and near experts you can learn from; also there are free online resources, printed books at your local bookshop or amazon, and most colleges will have courses on the topic.


I hope that this article has stressed the points on why post processing is an important part of the artistic process. Remember that you want to strive for perfection, and always put your best work out there. Too many people have been selling, publishing, and providing clients with substandard work. Sadly this has led to a degradation of the art, and has devalued the work of professionals. Together we can save the art from this slippery downward slope.

So, try it, work it, see what you can do. Publish your best. Share with the world. Until next time…

Please comment below!


A larger view…

We have seen a lot of small stories over the past few days from the Halloween storm that rolled through Michigan. Many images were so focused upon the smaller stories of the day, I myself even posted a fairly intense shot of the Ludington lighthouse getting washed over (click). However, as photographers we sometimes get lost in the events of the day and focus too heavily on the small things. This is easy to do especially when carrying a long telephoto zoom lens which makes isolating out a fraction of the scene seem necessary. For those of you out there who are looking to expand your photographic talents; try hooking on a prime lens, a 50mm if you have one. Work with this lens for a week straight, using position and angle to adjust your composition. This will produce sharper images and hone your skills, read up a little on prime lenses here in the educational series. Pictured below is another shot of the Ludington lighthouse, shot at a 100mm instead of 400mm there is much more of a story and drama to this image than the previous. What are your thoughts?

Waves strike and clouds loom over the Ludington Lighthouse by Joe Clark

Interesting points on Prime Lenses

I found this article while adding some equipment to LensTag (a theft recovery site for photographers about the use of prime lenses and the advantages over the popular zooms. I do my best work when I am using primes and it the article seems to echo my own thoughts, however in a way which is going to be easier to understand them my babbling. I completely agree that a fixed focal length forces the photographer to think, move, and think some more. Pictured below is one of my favorite and oldest lenses still in use, a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 prime. This was my primary lens for many years when I was working with 35mm film and it resides on my D800 a majority of the time as it lacks the gadgetry and associated weight which is found on modern lenses.

Without further delay, the link:

My old 50mm 1.4 by Joe Clark


Contemperary issues facing Photographers

This is a lovely article from Light Stalking about the issues that many photographers face in the modern age. If you are a photographer you will have seen these out there. If you are not one, they it is a bit of insight to our little world.!


The deception of the light meter…

The Backstabber…

The light meter, a cunning tool and friend that can lead you to great things. But when you rely on it the most, it will turn and stab you in the back. Much like the scorpion and frog, it’s just the nature of the beast. This nature once it’s understood can be harnessed and put to work for you. We will delve into this with some basic tools that you can put in your box and fiddle with on a rainy day, or any day for that matter.

Give it what it wants…

When a light meter is asked to DSC_4061measure the light off of a given subject it likes to average the subject. It wants to see middle gray, or 18% gray. This gray can be found on a gray card, which can be purchased online or at any local camera shop that is worth anything. These cards come in handy for determining such things as exposure and white balance. An exposure reading can be taken directly from a gray card. This is because if you give the meter what it is looking for then it will respond appropriately. The image to the right was exposed according to the reading given by the card. There is however an over all dark feeling to the image due to the shadows cast onto the building. But since the meter was given what it was looking for those shadows were appropriately exposed.  Keep in mind that everything is relative, more on this later.

Things such as white balanceDSC_4237 can also be determined in post production by the use of a gray card. In the examples above and below the card was placed into the scene and exposure was set to it. After the images were downloaded into Adobe Lightroom I selected the develop tab for the image with the card in it. The custom white balance was then set from the gray card using the dropper. For a more scientific mindset a gray card is a constant, it reflects a constant amount of light relative to the amount that falls upon it. It is also a known color, and value. So placing it into scenes where there is an unknown amount of illumination will assist in determining the proper exposure and color of light at that particular scene. This is particularly helpful because there is always change occurring in the amount and color of the light as we move from place to place. However there are known color temperatures, and best guesses for situations of direct sunlight, shade, and even florescent lighting. But to keep on the safe side the use of calibration equipment should be used.

A little historical information…

The gray card is the center of an exposure system developed by Ansel Adams called “The Zone System” (links go to the wiki pages for further reading). Ansel Adams is highly regarded as one of if not the best photographer to have ever walked the Earth. The man was a scientist with a camera, he strove for perfection in every image that he shot. He knew the math, the physics, and the chemistry to create stunning work. One of the most remarkable stories would be associated with his photograph “Moonrise“. For this image he literally pulled over on the side of the road and exposed a film sheet based on a calculation from the known reflected luminosity from the moon. Click the link for the story, but it was an impressive feat.

A little on the zones…

The Zone System, is a rather simple photographic tool. This is an exposure range from 0 to 10. Zone 0 is complete black, so black there is no texture or definition. Zone 10 is pure white, so white that there is no texture of definition in it either. All photographic scenes fall somewhere in the range from 0 to 10, however they may not always fulfill all exposure zones (may not have pure black or white). An example would be an apple quality ranking from 0 to 10, every apple in the bunch is ranked but there need not be 0’s, 3’s, or 10’s but every apple is somewhere on that scale. A gray card is going to fall onto zone 5, because it is designed to reflect the average amount of light. A slightly more luminescent part of the scene would be zone 6, and a darker part would be zone 4. Adjusting exposure and contrast in the scene so that all zones are filled typically produces the best images. But applying creativity and artistic taste to the process such as using high-key (2-3 stops over exposure) may only use a few of the zones and still be considered ideal by the artist.

So, back to the light meter…

So lets get this topic on a roll then, the light meter. I will demonstrate how it lies.


The image to the left is the same as above, the light meter was set to the gray card, and a “proper” exposure was made. This and all following images were then set to the white balance based on the card in this image. All the color samples in this image are properly exposed.

Above: ISO: 1600 F/5.6 1/1600 sec            below:    ISO: 1600 F/5.6 1/1000 sec


Now the image to the right, the camera was switched to aperture priority and the meter reading was taken from the green pain sample. Note the over-exposure from the previous photograph.  The lighting is exactly the same, but the exposure is +3/4 stops. This is because green is a darker color, a cooler tone and reflects less light than the gray card. Therefore the meter dose its job and sets the exposure for the green as if it was looking at the grey card. When exposing a scene green can usually be considered to appear to the meter as -2/3 or -3/4. Therefore when working in a manual mode green can reliably be used to set the exposure in the scene, just make sure that the camera reads it as -2/3 or -3/4 underexposed.  DSC_4239

<– ISO: 1600 F/5.6 1/640 sec

This image was taken in the same manor as the last, but the light meter was pointed at the blue. Note that the shutter speed has yet again changed. It has exposed approximately 1 & 1/2 stops more than the control image.

Below:    ISO: 1600 F/5.6  1/3000 sec


When the exposure was set to the yellow sample, the photo was horribly underexposed. Mind you the only thing which has changed is what color the light meter reading was taken from. In this instance the image is 1 stop underexposed.


<– ISO: 1600 F/5.6 1/1250 sec

This image to the left was exposed with a meter reading taken from the red paint sample. It is about 1/2 stop overexposed based on the gray card.

These are a few examples of how a light meter can produce undesirable results, The most prominent issues however are pure white objects such as snow and dresses, and purely black subjects. The light meter will try and expose so that their value is middle gray.

Their value…

That last sentence was fairly important, and warrants it’s own little section. When we are dealing with light meters, we are dealing only with the value that is being reflected from the subject, as in gray scale, as in luminosity. So when you are dealing with only the brightness of the subject colors do not matter. Colors only exist because of their physical makeup. They absorb all light, except for the frequencies that they reflect, that reflected light determines the color of the object. The amount of light determines the value. Where a brighter color is metered it confuses the light meter into thinking that it is too bright, so it averages the color down to the value of middle gray; this causes the image to be underexposed. We as humans then get frustrated by our cameras because we know, and want that color to be bright. This is where experience, patience, and an intimate familiarity with your equipment comes in handy. When photographing a bright subject, that you want to be bright simply overexpose the meter. Or, try using a gray card.

Some tricks and tools…

Gray cards, use them. Also, pull a meter reading from a gray card and photograph it, then put your hand into the frame and note the difference in exposure when pulling a meter reading from your hand. You can now use your hand as a rough calibration tool simply by keeping that offset in mind.

Shoot in manual mode, always. If you pull a gray card exposure reading, and set your camera to that you can run for a while with those settings. That situation (lighting angle, location, time of day, etc…) will be properly exposed. If you change the angle of light though, you will need to re-check that exposure.

F/11 rule: when shooting in direct sunlight with an aperture of f/11 your shutter speed will be 1/(ISO). Usually this works, and can come in handy.

When shooting in the open, try setting your exposure to the blue sky.

Green things, remember that when they indicate -2/3’s on your meter the exposure is approximately correct.

With digital cameras, it is better to underexpose a little bit then you have more wiggle-room in post production. Film cameras are better to overexpose a little bit, because of how the film captures data.

Photographic relativity…

Every lighting situation is relative. What is “bright” or “overexposed” is relative to what is “dark”, “underexposed”, and “neutral”. You as a photographer can take a photograph of a dark room and expose so that it is overexposed with blown-out highlights. A brightly lit beach can be photographed to appear dark. The contrast from light to dark is all relative to exposure, lighting, and post capture processing. An image partially covered in shadow, where do you place the gray card? What lighting do you want to portray as neutral? Well, that all depends on you. What do you want to highlight? What do you want to show? Your the one who needs to figure that all out!


Newer cameras are getting smarter with their light metering. Computer assisted scene recognition software is allowing the meter to recognize sunsets, back-lit portraits, and a variety of other situations. This is a wonderful thing for point and shoots, soccer-moms, family vacations, and what not. This helps, but also makes it harder to outsmart the light meter. The more knowledge and control that you have over your camera, the better photos you will be able to capture.  Automatic mode is the devil, plane and simple. If allowed to fester it will be the death of the photographer, and the art of photography.


Get out there, shoot something! Buy a gray card and experiment with it a little bit. Buy some books and read them, here try these (link goes to a set of 3 books, “The Camera”, “The Print”, and “The Negative”)

Remember, be smarter than the light meter. It usually takes a lot of effort to be, trust me on that!

Also, and always… Turn the camera to manual mode! The less automatic settings you use that happier you will be.

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Compositional thoughts

It shall be stated…

That in today’s world a major defining difference between professional and amateur photographers is framing and composition. This however has been true throughout the ages. But with the advent of technological abominations that suck the skill and thought process right out of the art it is one of the few remaining distinctions. Back in the day, the evolution of the professional photographer was driven by the use of large format cameras. These cameras produced clean and crisp images, vs the brownie cameras which were glorified pinholes (1880’s personal cameras). It was not until the 1930’s that consumer cameras became capable of producing any real measure of quality, at least in my opinion. Through the years different models and film types were tried until the standard 35mm meet mass production, since then it has been the dominate film and camera standard. Our current DSLR’s are based around 35mm formats. Using 35mm was still a fairly technical process however, mostly due to the lack of complete automation and in camera computer assist. So throughout these ages the professional had to rely heavily on their technical skills. This required proper knowledge of emulsion properties, development, printing, along with compositional necessities. It is fair to say that in the era of digital photography that a lot of these skills are taken care of automatically. However there are still required technical tidbits about digital imaging that need to be known, along with all the technical attributes of light, lenses, and editing.


Let’s get into composition, there is a lot within this topic and this will not be the first post, or the last, or even close to completely covering this topic. I can present tools, ideas, and situations that I use and find to be pleasing. The thing about composition, it is completely subjective. I could use the golden rules of framing, composition, and color.  I could present a “perfect” photograph of a yellow coffee mug, on a blue armrest of a wooden chair that is sitting on the porch, with a soft focus background of golden yellow hues on a field of wheat. This photograph could win awards, it may be placed in a museum, the Louver may replace the Mona Lisa with it. It could be generally accepted as the basis of photographic thought. Due to the subjective nature, all that matters is what runs through the head of the individual viewer. Which a good portion of whom, would probably think it was silly.  So with little delay I will present a couple simple tools to use to assist anyone in composition. Take them, apply them, but keep in mind that it is your perspective on the subject that matters.

Without further ado…

Tools, tools, tools!

The most important thing that I can tell anyone to dramatically improve their photographs is this, slow down. Slow everything down, take your time, wait, watch, learn. Too many people, too often fire away like they are operating a machine gun. This rapid fire technique may provide results by chance, but it is far too unreliable. When someone dose not know what they are doing, they compensate for it by doing the only thing they know how to. Pressing the shutter button. This is due to the lulling effects of the automatic settings that have dulled the minds of newer photographers.

Change it…

If you do not like what you are getting, change something. Take an educated guess and correct it, can you fix it with a change in aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focal length, or position? Reading through some of my other posts in the educational series will give you insight to what those changes will do (at least read the one on perspective). One of the worse things I have ever herd from someone was when I asked them about what lens they were using. I got a reply that was along the lines of “I don’t really know, it came with the camera”. It didn’t come with the camera, the damn lens probably came on the camera. Further questioning lead to further disappointment when I realized that this person didn’t know that the lens was removable, how to change it out, or even how to clean it. This person claimed to be a “photographer” and was actively engaged in a business! This conversation, has occurred in part and completion with multiple people, multiple. So take your time, adjust your settings in an educated manor. Just slow down. Also, read your damn manual; there is usually a lot of good information in it including some artistic direction.


Another important step is to check the four corners, and the four sides of the field of view. Frame your subject, then look around it. This is one of the most, and most forgotten compositional step. Too many people will point their frame at a subject, seeing only the subject. They are blind to the rest of the world that exists in the field of view. It is irrelevant, there is no reason that a care should be given to the homeless man urinating in the background as you are getting that perfect shot of your five year old niece as she is thoroughly enjoying a waffle cone. This will not become apparent, until you have printed the image and have given it away. Magically this will suddenly become an issue. Do not worry though, this is a hard thing to master. This same concept applies to the fire service, too many firefighters are obsessed with spraying water onto a fire. There are times that this is completely non-effective but because it is fire it must be sprayed. There are situations where due to the transfer of heat by radiation causes another structure to ignite nearby or behind the firefighters. This failure is due to a fixation on one thing, and not taking a wider approach and viewing all the angles of the situation. For reference the proper response would be to ignore the fire and to hose off the nearby houses to prevent them from heating up to combustible temperatures. Not that your camera will catch fire, but the concept is the same.

It is amazing the things we as photographers miss when starting out in the world. Checking the frame consistently requires a good amount of discipline, even then it can be forgotten. This is where the initial cropping occurs, the selection of the world you want to show. Too many times to count people do not get in close enough to their subjects, there always seems to be so many distractions in the background. This is called filling the frame. Make your subject big, get in close, use a longer lens. When you have little people in a big world that can portray loneliness, seclusion, ect.  Which can be a significant artistic value. But if you are not trying to make that statement, and you want happy lively people fill that frame. There is too much to get into about the relation between subject, negative space, and background for this post however. For now my best recommendation is for you to go to your local book store and explore the photographic print section. Pull some off the shelf and take a look through them, flip page after page and see the differences that framing has on the image and how it makes you feel.

Location, location, locations…

The placement of the subject within the frame is vital. It is always good to fill the frame, and to leave some space to frame the subject. Think of it as space in the frame that is left empty is a waste of a good photograph. Everything in it needs to be something, somewhere. Placing something dead center in the photograph is boring, try to off set it. The human mind in western culture likes to travel from left to right in most cases. Try to trap the eye in the image, keep in mind that it will be entering from the left, so keep it within the frame. Place a subject on the 1/3 lines of the image to start with. Dose the sky in the lake shot allow the eye to escape through the top? Can you eliminate the sky all together for a better image? Check it, tilt it, turn around a couple times until you find what you like. The placement of lines and angles into the image will draw the eye along them, much like a train riding down it’s tracks and you can bring it to rest on the subject of choice. Angled lines can create a positive or negative feeling, usually going from left to right and the line going diagonally up in the fashion will create an uplifting feeling. This is probably due to the mathematical graphing we all have hammered into our heads from school and business.  Also the placement of two centers of focus for the eye to travel between can be beneficial. Yet again keep this in mind as you flip through photographic print books.

Other Thoughts…

Look at your subject, look at the background, look at the framing, and look at the four sides and corners. Look at everything separately, and combined in the field of view. Look at the relationship between the everything. Is your subject segregated from the frame, or other action that is occurring.  Is the subject large in the image, or are they small? What is the attitude of the subject? Is there a personification of an inanimate subject, or animal? Putting thought and methodology into the composition of the photographs will yield greater results then the typical photograph of a “pretty” subject. Finding a way to combine the shallow aesthetics with thought provoking concepts is the key to ultimate success, a key I am still trying to forge.

Go forth already!

Get out there! I am going to take this advice because it is beautiful and after a couple cups of coffee and a house fire I am ready to go and do some shooting.

So you should as well. Go then, shoot, play, read, look at prints on the rainy days.

For God’s sake use the manual settings!

That’s right I am saying it again, flip the damn switch to something more manual and use that brain you were given!

If you are already using manual settings, then good job. Keep it up.

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Perspectives on perspective.


Perspective is an important part of composition. But having a through understanding of different possibilities of perspective is important. For this discussion we should stick to some basic mechanics.

There are two…

When it comes to perception in relation to photography there are two factors, perspective and magnification. Perspective is the location and angle of the camera in relation to the subject and it’s background. Magnification is the size of the subjects within the frame. We must distinguish between these two concepts for this discussion. This is because you can change the magnification without a change in perspective, as well as the reverse. Let’s play a little bit of a game for this discussion. Take a hand, make a peace sign and hold it a little ways away from your face, close an eye. You can clearly see your hand and whatever is falling between your fingers. Now close that eye and open another, there should be something else visible between your fingers now. This is a shift in perspective, the distance between your eyes has effected the angle of viewing. Now with one eye move your head side to side. The hand should be moving rapidly and the background less so, this is another perspective on perspective. Now if you were to use your other hand to hold a magnifying glass and held your hand steady and magnified it, everything in the field of view would be magnified equally. There is no change in the relation of angles between you, the hand, or the background it is all simply larger. So take that and chew on it for a little bit.

Something, something, darkside……

So lets relate that mess back to photography. If you chewed your way through my thought experiment and didn’t get too confused we shall continue. Go find your tripod, if you do not have one then smack yourself and go and buy one.


Take the tripod and set it up where you have a foreground and background objects. The background needs to be a good distance off such as a mountain, sand dune, or distant barn. The foreground object should be something like a tree and within the range of 30 feet or so. Using a short lens (short lenses are those that have a shorter focal length than a “normal lens” which is usually about 50mm, or the diagonal of the photosensitive medium) photograph both two objects, switch lenses to one that is double the focal length, and then again to one that is double that focal length. Now repeat this process 1/2 the distance to the foreground object, and 50 feet to both sides of your original position. In all cases keep the tree in roughly the same location in the frame. Now find something else to photograph for a while or go home.

Download, develop, or print your photographs and examine them all. Set them up if you printed them in a way so that you can see their positions and the differences. Whenever you double the focal length of the lens a 2x magnification occurs of the entire frame, so your tree and background will all be magnified. When you change position the tree will appear to move, and the background will remain fairly unchanged. Distant objects will barely change perspective, remember that. So in the case where you moved 1/2 the distance to the tree, it will appear larger and the background will still remain the same.  With the side to side shift there will be different angles on the tree, and yet again the background will barely change. You will notice this same thing when driving a car, the trees will fly by but that large distant object barely seems to move. This is because the further the object is, the less of an viewing angle you have on it.

It probably exist, somewhere…

I imaging that somewhere there is a formula that can relate distance and the perspective shift, and it probably involves geometry and calculus. But in the interest of keeping this simple I shall create some sort of mathematical relation on the spot. The percentage of the distance to the subject that change your position by is equivalent to the shift in perspective. Therefore if you are 100 yards from the subject and you move 5 yards to the side, that is a 20% shift of your position relative to the distance to the subject, therefore you can expect a 20% shift in perspective.  This is more than likely no where near numerically accurate, but it will keep your mind engaged when shooting which is good enough for me. I shall develop a formula at some point, or find one. Using this “formula” it is easy to understand that the mountain range that is 10 miles away dose not shift perspective when you move 50 feet to the side, but the tree that is 30 feet away has an immense shift. This would be a 0.117% shift for the mountains, and a 167% shift for the tree. This is an easy to remember rule that is accurate enough for this purpose, so use it.


Get out there and shoot, play with perspective. Fiddle with the manual settings, buy a fraking tripod! Question everything! Shoot only what is interesting!


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A walk out to Sleeping Bear

The other day I went for a walk…

I decided to take a bit of a hike last week, or possibly the week before. It seems hard to determine time these days. But such temporal differences is irrelevant for those who tend to drift and Timelords. But I digress. The important part is that a hike was taken and this should be that story, hopefully.

Setting out, to where?

I went for a drive to the dunes, and as usually when I cannot think of where I want to go I drive to the historic shipping town of  Glen Haven, Mi which is tucked away on Sleeping Bear Point. Glen Haven is a part of and operated by the National Park Service and many of the few buildings are museums. I parked at the main beach area that is overlooked by an old fishing trawler and a canning facility turned into a maritime exposition. I set out to the north along the beach with the backpack of gear strapped on.


I did not have a destination in mind but I figured that it would become apparent as I traveled. I saw a small thrust of land that did not seem that far off so I selected that as a good place to start. As I headed north there were a few opportunities but there were all too familiar, I soon found myself on the beach right off the old life saving station. This is where one of the most intriguing things I have seen all day was discovered, a recently dead seagull. I have never been a fan of these winged rats, but I have never gotten very close the more mobile ones. There was an amazing whiteness that the feathers possessed and it provided a wonderful but morbid still life study for a while. After circling the bird for a whole with a macro lens I decided it was time to move on before someone summoned the police for this strange fascination.


The point of land that I was fixated on was still a little ways off, at this point I had traveled 1/2 mile via sandy beach, and it looked as if I had a similar distance to go. As I approached the point it seemed that it was already occupied by a gaggle of people who where sitting, laughing, and drinking a fair amount of wine. I also noticed some Cannon photographic gear strewn about. As a testament to their lack of ambition they seemed to not even notice the beautiful light that surrounded them. I always know that there is a time for beer, women, and wine; however when the light is golden and crisp, it is not. I proceeded past them with a nod and salutation, as I remembered my own stash of wine that I was carrying in a nalgene bottle. One note about this particular nalgene though, it was one of the more original ones. The translucent whitish hardy plastic of legend, the kind that legend spoke of withstanding many torments. I have carried this bottle for about as long as I have been shooting somewhere since the year 2000. I bought it for my hiking and exploration in the White Mountains in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. This bottle along with my Nikon FM have seen a whole world of torment and abuse that these mountains have thrown at us.  It truly has been a companion of the ages.

As I approached the point…

As I left the jolly group of folks behind I started to approach Sleeping Bear Point. I could tell this by a few indications, The sloops of the dunes suddenly got steeper and the water was becoming closer the the base of them. There were a few of us hiking out this way, I was passing people now and again, only to have them in turn pass me as I was shooting. I found some interest in the sloop of the dunes as I walked along. The sun was shining in such a beautiful manner.


I made my approach to the tip of the point passing lovely sights such as this along the way. Such a fragile structure to be poised near such a powerful thing as a great lake, with the slightest disturbance this sand will roll down the dune and be lost into the lake, well until it is spit up somewhere else on the shore. The travel got a little more on the difficult side when cresting the point and there was only a foot or so of shoreline to tread upon, no to mention the obstructions that seemed to appear from nowhere, such as a tree or more so a clump of them that had to be navigated through or above.


The tip of a point is a rather destructive place, where a constant battle between land and water rages. The weather batters it, the life struggles for survival, the fishing is usually excellent as well.

As the sun sat, so did I…

I decided that with the sun about to disappear I should probably settle down somewhere and find a good sunset photograph and then start making my way back to the car. So I picked a location where I could frame up the sun through the clump of trees that I had to climb around on my way out. As I waited I decided that the wine was too much of a burden to carry back with me, and that problem needed to be resolved. With a short wait the sun began to creep down to and below the horizon.


I captured a few images, praying that I could be stable enough to do so with out the use of the tripod. It was not an effect of the wine, or lack of motivation to set up the tripod though. I was precariously perched on the extreme angle of the slope at the tip of the point. As you can tell from some of the previous images it would be mighty difficult to set up a tripod in those conditions. To make it worse I was having to crouch to get the proper framing I desired in the image. This all tallied up for some major stability issues on my part, the wine consumption admittedly probably did not benefit the situation either.  I finally managed to get into a uncomfortable stance that usually is reserved for contortionists and old men in lazy-boys. It was this half reclined crouch with my side on the dune and an arm pitted into the sand in an attempt to get the stability I needed. After this effort the above was obtained.

It started to get darker…

After the small ball of light descended below the horizon I determined that I would rather get closer to the car than not before it got too dark out. With the recent sightings of cougars in the past few years I am not one to wonder unarmed when the lights go out. Not that such fear would weigh too much on my mind, but I still had a ways to venture. I started to hike back down the shoreline. It was a peaceful walk for all the others had left, with the exception of the wined up group of jolly folks. ImageThey still did not seem to have touched their camera gear and were still in full on wine mode. I stopped to talk to them for a little bit. Apparently one couple was from somewhere overseas, Poland or something like that. I proceeded further down the coast and then stopped to grab a few more photos at the remaining light that was reflecting from the clouds.

Since I was on level ground and not clinging to sand and plant roots for stability I set up the tripod and made some proper exposures. The lighting required a second or three and there was no way that I could stay that still. I fired off the camera a few times, hoping that the folks down at the jut of land would stay still and stop standing up. I finally got what I had come for, although I did not know it when I set out.


I proceeded to head back to the car. Back down to the south I went passing the life saving station, the dead gull. Down I went past the private property signs, and the almost tidal pools of water that like to sneak up in the darkness and soak through my boots.  There were a couple beach fires with a good amount of people siting around them further to the south. I shortly tended the notion of saying hello, but questioned the appropriateness of such an act. After a short while I saw the cannery through the darkness and knew I was at my destination. I clambered up the board walk and found the car. Surprisingly there was another vehicle in the lot although the immediate area was vacant.  With a sigh I removed the gear backpack and placed it in the trunk, it felt wonderful to be freed of the burden of weight for the moment. Homeward I went, with hopeful expectations of my next visit.

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