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Trial Shots – Museum

I went back to my vantage point for the Museum scene on an evening when I thought I might observe some nice sunset light, but alas, the sky behind the cityscape was not as dramatic as I would have hoped.


A pesky layer of stratus clouds put a dull soup behind the skyline. The haloing caused by the uniform clouds highlights the deficiency of the cheap lens I used for the shot.

I was able to work on composition. I decided that in the end this is a very left-handed shot. I will also crop the top when the sky has so little interest. While I waited for the azure hour to kick in, I followed the advice given by many photographers: if the light in front of you does not satisfy, turn around.


The dying light caught the clouds as they formed an apt backdrop for the bare trees on the h


As I recomposed a bit tighter, the light shifted from gold to rose and the clouds complemented the shape of the tree even more:


It’s always nice to get a bonus. I am not a fan of gratuitous sunrise/sunset shots. They are all pretty and guaranteed to get likes on Facebook. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but when faced with gorgeous scenes, it is all too easy to take the easy shot and not work to take the best photo.

When the azure hour arrived, the stratus clouds took up enough light to gain interest. I did crop the excess sky here. I am hoping that as the sunset gets earlier, a few more lights will create more interest in the buildings on the right, which add little in this rendering. By 8 PM on a Friday night, few offices still have occupants.


Most do not appreciate the blue hour as much as the golden hour, but the intense color and muted luminousity can be appealing.

Some do not like the super saturated colors of the post-sunset hour, so I processed one view in black and white to take a look at the tonal quality of the shot.


I printed it, as that truly tests a black and white image, and was satisfied with the detail and tones. (Side note: I submitted this to my camera club and matted it improperly, jamming the crane into the top of the frame. No one in the audience could understand why the judge criticized the crane problem, as they saw the version above projected! You have to be careful from concept to final product.)

I will revisit this shot when I return from Yellowstone.




I went to Cape May Zoo to practice my wildlife skills with mixed results. The company was good – my shooting pal Duke, who was trying out his new telephoto Tamron zoom lens (150-600!) and loving it.

I decided to try out using a lens support from Desmond. It is a clever idea borrowed from our video friends, cradling the lens on one axis and allowing one the ability to move the lens about with the freedom of a monopod via a damped panning swivel, but ultimately affording the solidity of a tripod.


Unfortunately, I was not able to evaluate the new toy because I made an egregious error. When I changed my camera settings to reinstate Image Stabilization, I chose the wrong one – panning only. One expects most images to lack critical sharpness when shooting wildlife for many reasons, but very, very few on this trip were usable as a result of my error. After doing a little reading on IS, I discovered:

  1. At 1/500 or faster, you should shut it off if you have in body stabilization.
  2. With a fork, or the “loose ball” tripod arrangement used by many wildlife shooters photographing wildlife on the move, one needs to use the full 5-axis IS for best results, if one uses it at all.

On the bright side (literally), the Cape May Zoo hours of 10 to 4 are not ideal for capturing animals except in certain conditions (crisp and cloudy), and we got neither, so I didn’t miss much. Activity and light are best at sunrise and sunset, so midwinter is the best time to shoot at this venue unless you are lucky. Opportunities were few, and the crowds not conducive to concentration. The clouds finally rolled in after we had lunch and were well on our way back to Philly. I only got a handful of half decent animal shots, and my best effort was a human interest piece.

Background control proved difficult in the bright lighting conditions:



I got good separation on this bird portrait, which mitigates the bright spots in the background. I like the play of light on the head, but the shadow crease on the body would take some photoshop to remedy.


Normally, I  would try to blur a busy background like this, but shooting at a zoo does not give you many options. Actually, I kind of like the giraffe against the trees – so many people go to great lengths to shoot them against the sky that this approach stands out. The diagonal lines work for me as well. This was one of the better lighting moments – a cloud came across the scene, so there was just enough sun to define the head.


Again it is vexing not to have the ability to change position much on zoo boardwalks. When this pair had their heads raised, their necks were cut by the edge of the field. They did give me a good heads low opportunity, but even with a machine gun shutter I failed to get separation between them by a feather.


The light was so terrible and the setting so distracting that I had to crop the tails off these critters to get a shot of this tender moment.


This was the only shot of the day that satisfied me. The light was near perfect, the diagonal lines appealed to me, and I caught the interaction despite kids and parents swarming everywhere. The goat’s contented reaction to the child’s touch was what attracted me.

I hope to get out for another animal shoot before I go to Yellowstone!


Time for a test shot

My camera club will be exploring night photography this fall, so I decided to get back in the swing of it.

On my morning walks around Lemon Hill, I noticed a shot of the west entrance of the PMA that I have not ever seen posted anywhere. The main entrance, with its Rocky Steps has the most shots, and the west entrance is usually photographed from across the Schuylkill, taking advantage of a nice reflection and the lights of Boathouse Row.

I have learned from shooting landscapes that the sunset light varies quite a bit in angle and quality throughout the year, as does the park foliage that frames the shot, so I am going to take advice from several landscape photographers, who extoll the merits of shooting close to home.

Colorado photographer Glenn Randall found a spot in Rocky Mountain National Park that he considers close to home. First he revisited the site to look for composition. Then he used the Photographers Ephemeris to calculate the best sun angles. Finally he hiked out to the location, three hours distant, in pitch dark, the three times it took to get the shot at sunrise in the ideal conditions that he had visualized .

If he can take that much care, I can certainly do the same to plan a shot a few hundred yards from my home. I ran up to the hill at sunset several days in a row to check for things visible at night that I cound not see during my morning  walks. Of course there were many – obnoxious street lights and little bits of light peeking through the foliage. Also, a lot of elements that were ugly or distracting in the daylight naturally “burned out” in the fading dusk and semi-dark of the city night.

Friday night, I decided to take my first test shots of the scene. I took my walking around camera with ultrazoom lens and used the $10 Tamrac portable tripod that I carry in my street bag. I knew the sunset would be crap, as the sky was dead solid overcast, but the azure hour (30 minutes after sunset) looks great in those conditions.

What do you know, another photographer approached me. He works for Channel 6; I was surprised that they bave still photographers, but they play an important role. What a great gig! He had spotted the shot as well and was scouting it. He visualized it with bare trees and winter light. I remarked that two of us were here, but I could see four or five photographers on the other side of the river shooting the Boathouse Row angle. He had been over on that side a few nights previous and met several shooters. The lights were upgraded on Boathouse Row, so everyone was getting fresh shots of the new lighting.

We had a nice chat, and I tripped the shutter of my camera every few minutes as the light changed.

When I got home, the image quality surprised me. I was only looking for compostion, exposure, and white balance tips.  I did not expect to have usable shots. Using a four year old camera with a 10x kit quality zoom on a spindly portable tripod, I did not expect much. Those asshats who insist Micro 4/3 cannot produce clean low light files be damned.

Here is my initial framing. I tried to inclued as much as possible of the scene so I could look for problems as well as pictures within the picture.


I noticed positves immediately. The white balance was spot on. Since I shoot RAW, there is no problem leaving the auto white balance on, as it does nothing but feed a color temperature into the EXIF data. I can adjust the white balance non-destructively in post. It read the largest well lit area in the picture and gave me great light on the museum. Every other light source was a different color temp, but one reason I like the azure hour is that the intense blue tends to cancel the horrible color of halide and mercury lamps.

Exposure is solid as well. I always start with aperture priority and evaluative metering on these scenes because night shooting always involves one well lit subject, and today’s metering picks that up. I adjust the exposure compensation after one shot based on the histogram, but it was not necessary in this case.

Composition? This view reveals only the tallest buildings (above Billy Penn’s hat) near the Parkway. I had originally envisioned this shot with the Comcast Tech Center finished in 2017, but I like the unfinished building and cranes, and the bare bulbs do not create as much glare as I had firest envisioned. In looking for a final shot, I decided that the tip of City Hall and the radio antenna would spoil the picture, and that a bit could be taken off the right as well. to get rid of the bare branch.


I have a while to work on a final composition, but I like the dynamics of this view. Even tighter and vertical would also work.


The after dark shot was less successful on many levels. With the cloudy sky, the color became the muddy rusty color of reflected light pollution. Even though Philly has one of the best records on light pollution of any major city, the core of a metro area of over 5 million people will not yield an attractive night sky unless the atmosphere is perfectly clear.


Ugh. Naturally the specular highlights begin to blow out, but I can take care of that with bracketing, neutral density filters and the like.

Without the blue from the azure hour, the sickly colors of the lights begin to show up. They might look cool against a deep black sky, but against the muddy brownish sky. less so.

Many night shooters simply process as black and white, which cures many ills. It’s partially a hangover from film days, when long exposures caused unwanted shifts in color balance and exposure. Black and white film proved much more forgiving.

I will shoot more test shots, of course, on clear nights and after midnight, but my preiliminary exploration shows that a good sunset and the azure hour will yield the best results with the least post.

Stay tuned, over the next year or so, I will refine this shot and move toward a final product. Please offer any feedback you think would be helpful.


I’m back at it

After a long hiatus, I plan to return to blogging. Book reviews, articles, and photographs will soon appear in this space.

I curtailed my activity in the face of a couple of events in Fall 2013. The government shutdown forced the temporary closure of Yellowstone and scuttled my trip. Then, in November, my eldest sister (not the one who works at YS) received a diagnosis of hydrocephaly (water on the brain) and faced surgery and rehab. As anyone who maintains a blog knows, any interruption can cause a long term shutdown. Momentum and discipline flee.

The last couple of years have given me a fair share of photographic adventure. I finally made it to Yellowstone in 2014, I returned last year, and I will head out there again next month. As an added treat, my good friend and photo buddy Duke will be along.

Yellowstone presented many photographic challenges . The range of natural features calls for a lot of technical chops, and the size of the park requires a measure of time management and light evaluation. Reading up prepared me, but not enough. Rangers, park employees, and other photographers turned out to have invaluable tips and information. I have heard the excellent Chris Nicholson speak a couple of times on various aspects of National Park photography, and I highly recommend his website and book (

Although I have become comfortable with landscape photography over the past few years, Yellowstone’s unique variety of thermal features and its distinctly western topography call for lots of problem solving. The Yellowstone Foundation selected one of my pictures of the canyon’s Lower Falls as one the top 100 photographs in their Yellowstone Forever contest last year, which validated all the hard work. (A slideshow is here: )

My wildlife photography lags way behind. Capturing animals requires a combination of knowledge (what behaviors should I expect?), skill (the array of choices for settings is staggering), and patience, as well as timing and speed. I missed myriad shots because I did not have my camera prepared when opportunities arose. When I was ready to fire, the moment had sometimes passed or worse lay a half hour in the future. At the decisive point, I had to be ready to steady my camera, pan, or move. My yield was poor by any standard, just a handful of usable shots a day. It gave me some comfort to read that the best wildlife photogs consider a yield of 30% sharp and framed, 3% up to high standards all around, and 1% keepers to represent an excellent output.

I am renting a more suitable lens (the expensive but excellent Olympus 300mm f/4 with dual stabilization) and will be practicing closer to home. I don’t expect to get the sorts of yields that people who spend a hundred days a year do routinely. As Samuel Beckett said, “Ever try. Ever fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I fly to YS on September 18. Expect a daily post when I get there, and a few in advance as I prepare.

Congratulations to Adobe for their latest announcement offering Photoshop CC and Lightroom as a package to Photoshop license holders for $9.99/month with no time limit.

I was one of many photographers who found that the new pricing strategy primarily addressed the problem that Adobe had with their non-customers but paid little attention to making sure their loyal, paying customers received fair treatment.

As someone for whom Photoshop forms an essential part of workflow, $20/month was not a bad deal on its face, but Adobe did not adequately compensate existing licensees for their investment. Those of us with CS licenses have invested between $600 and $2000 on the initial program and upgrades through the years. While it could be argued that we got value for the years of use, the fact remains that a $10/month discount for a year essentially meant that we were only paying $120 less for CC that someone who started using Photoshop legally yesterday.

We were used to paying something in the neighborhood of $10/month to stay upgraded, so the new deal was essentially a doubling of our outlay.

Well, Adobe has not only remedied the problem, but done us one better by throwing in Lightroom.

Thanks, Adobe, for realizing that good will and full acceptance of CC from your most loyal base of customers is better business than cynically trying to screw the maximum amount out of customers who must have the latest software.

Now, if the cable companies and the banks would just come to the same conclusion…


Why Photographs Work:

52 Great Images: Who Made Them, What Makes Them Special and Why

by George Barr

© 2010 Rocky Nook

$39.95 French flapped softcover

I came upon a remarkable book that every photographer, especially those who want to nurture their artistic side as a complement to their paying work.

Photographers look for inspiration, and often they turn to the pantheon of great photographers to find it. They look to Lange, Cartier-Bresson, Steichen, Adams and others and examine the rich histories of those photographers and their bodies of work.

George Barr takes a different and refreshing approach. He chooses not just 52 photographers, but 52 photographs (cards in a deck? weeks in a year?), each from a different shooter. His makes his central aim showing why photographs work, not how photographers work, though photographic process certainly plays a role. Largely, the artists are not household names, but all have solid reputations and fine work.

The structure of the book is deceptively simple. Each chapter begins with a gorgeously reproduced photograph, and its text begins with Barr’s critique of the photograph. The photographers then offer their thoughts on the photograph, encompassing their experience identifying the scene, imagining the image, and making the photograph. A brief biography and portrait of the shooter caps each section.

Photography at its core is learning to battle constraints and solve problems. To create a book like this, one must use living photographers, and to sustain interest and narrative, assemble a wide variety of images.

This he accomplishes admirably, bringing together portraits, landscapes, still life, abstracts, architecture, closeups, documentary, and panoramic images taken with everything from large format cameras to mobile phones, on film and from digital sensors, processed as traditional color and black & white, as infrared, and via alternative processes, with and without obvious manipulation.

By juxtaposing the observer’s comments and the photographer’s thoughts, he reinforces the theme of the book, that photographs work for a number of reasons, but all of them come down to how skilfully an image maker conveys his or her experience and vision to the viewer.

“If the best thing you can say about a photograph is that it is superbly composed, then the image has failed.”

“If a photograph tells you all and leaves nothing to the imagination, it may be a good photograph, but there isn’t a lot of reason to revisit it.”

The first statement appears in the opening chapter and becomes the initial strand in a thread that continues throughout the work. The second forms one of the last stitches in the book’s fabric. Barr insists that remarkable photographs set themselves apart because they combine technical brilliance with a rich understanding of the medium and a deep connection with the subject. He not only dismisses as unremarkable those images that are too studiously composed, but also ones that rely solely on exoticism (colorful travel pictures from remote countries, for instance) or sentimentality, or which simply derive from the work of more inspired photographers.

He draws a lesson from each image by analyzing the artistic and technical elements that allow it to shine. He teaches about the effective use of light, natural, artificial, and modified, the photographer’s skill in handling the tools of the trade, the shooter’s eye, and the importance of a continual path of learning and growth.  When combined with the photographer’s own story of the image and the brief biographies with technical notes, the reader leaves with a complete understanding of all the circumstances that make a great image.

This book will appeal to enthusiast photographers who want to go beyond the basic camera club critiques – find leading lines, use the rule of thirds, control depth of field, expose carefully, etc. – and see how superb technique can combine with inspiration to create memorable images.

For the accomplished or professional photographer, Barr offers a survey of contemporary photography that reveals the variety and quality of work that can be done in almost any genre.

Like any tome with this many entries, some chapters will appeal more than others. The formula does not work for all images, and every reader will have a different taste in images. At the end of the day, however, I feel that fewer, longer chapters would have become pedantic. even academic. By keeping the critiques short, Barr avoids the leaden over-analysis that ruins most photography criticism This is book about photos, not theory, and it largely succeeds. If one chapter falls flat, move to the next, there are plenty.

Definitely worth its reasonable price tag, it will not simply be retired from the coffee table to the bookshelf, but lent, shared, and re-sampled for years.

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