Thursday, December 18, 2014

From Sad To Spectacular



What a difference a little image optimization can make! These are Before and After representations of the same image. It was a beautiful, pristine dawn in Jasper National Park in Canada, but you would never know that by looking at the Before image. It looks gray, dull, and unexciting. While there were pinks and blues in the sky, and lovely fall colors on the hillsides across the lake, they did not appear in the image that was downloaded out of the camera.

In general, regardless of the brand of camera you use, sensors (the sensor "sees" what the lens sees, digitizes it, and then places it on the memory card) are designed to be "dumbed down." What does that mean? It means that manufacturers have designed sensors to do their jobs quickly, and in order to do that the sensor will capture an image without taking the time for perfect replication of the range of contrast or the depth of color that is really there. While that is a bit of an oversimplification, the bottom line is that you will rarely see the degree of contrast and the accuracy of colors in an image as it comes out the camera. Some image optimization is needed on virtually every image in order to bring out what you really saw. Some images need more optimization than others.

This image, because it was pre-sunrise, inherently had very low contrast and the colors are somewhat muted. Add to that the nature of sensors, and the resulting Before image is very gray with minimal color. I wanted to bring out what I saw when I was there, and that required some help from Lightroom.

The "fix" took less than 5 minutes and returned the image closer to what was really there. I admit that I did punch the pinks and blues a bit more than were really there, but still they look natural. In nature and wildlife photography, it is generally better to not go overboard with optimization. You want the final result to look real and believable.

The simple steps used in Lightroom to improve this image were:
1. Lightened the shadows with the Shadows slider.
2. Brightened the whites with the Whites slider so that the mist at the horizon line looked white.
3. Increased Clarity to boost mid-tone contrast.
4. Increased overall Vibrance.
5. Used the HSL panel to pinpoint increases in the saturation in the pinks, blues, and yellows.

Lightroom is simple software to learn and to use, BUT it is all too easy to get confused if you don't learn it properly at the beginning. While there are many online tutorials, they often do not explain what to do and how to do it in a simple, logical way. Many photographers do better in a real classroom with an instructor there with them. Experienced users sometimes need help to unlearn bad habits or relearn proper methods. Novices will learn properly from the beginning and be on a smooth road from that point forward. If you would like to take a REAL class, here is info on one coming up in March    This is a great opportunity to learn Lightroom properly once and for all, regardless of your experience level.

Shutter Speed 2.5 seconds.  Aperture f/22.  ISO 200.  Lens: Canon 17-40mm f/4L set at 17mm.  Camera: Canon 6D.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff hallhead.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "Learn as if you were to live forever."  --Mahatma Gandhi  

Saturday, December 13, 2014

When Wrong Is Right

If you have attended an Awake The Light photo tour or workshop, you have heard me say many times to always ALWAYS use a lens shade on your lens. It helps to cut down on possible flare, even on overcast days. Use of a lens shade will help with color rendition and contrast.

But sometimes flare is a fun thing to play with, and can result in a more moody image. Even when using a lens shade, shooting directly toward the sun when it is low in the sky can still produce flare , as is the case here. This was taken very early in the morning when the sun had just risen above a line of trees that are not visible at the top of the image.

The low sun angle, and my position relative to it, allowed the creative use of flare to create a soft, warm-toned image. I was careful to focus on the near grasses, and to crop out the sun at the top of the image. I did not want the sun in the frame, just its warm soft glow. I was using a lens shade, but when pointing the lens directly toward the sun, flare will still occur.

When shooting directly into the sun, be sure to protect your eyes and your camera by not looking at the sun, or pointing the camera at the sun for very long. Frame the shot, take the shot, and then turn the camera and yourself away from the sun.

If your lenses did not come with a lens shade, you can find them at suppliers like Hunt's Photo and Video, or B and H. They are inexpensive and a must for all shooting situations.

Shutter Speed 1/250 sec.  Aperture f/16.  ISO 1600.  Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS, set at 141mm.  Camera: Canon 6D.  Handheld.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "Turn your face to the sun, and the shadows fall behind you."  --Charlotte Whitten

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

More Lightroom Magic



Compare these two identical images. The Before version is how it came out of the camera. The After image is after a little optimization in Lightroom. The differences are significant. Lightroom was able to bring out the colors and allowed the texture in the dark foreground to be much more visible.

The After image is what was really there, but was not what I saw when I initially downloaded the images from a day of shooting. When your images look dull or lacking in intensity or "punch," it is not your fault. It is just the nature of digital image capture. All the color and detail is really there, but it takes software like Lightroom to bring out the latent colors and details.

This was a unique situation, with the full moon setting at sunrise. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Lightroom brought out the strong pinks and blues easily, helped increase the contrast, and provided texture in all the dark areas. In 10 easy steps, and in less than 3 minutes, this image went from so-so to powerful.

There are many online tutorials out there, but there is no substitute for an in-depth class with a knowledgeable instructor right there to guide you. If that appeals to you, and you can get to Richmond, Virginia in March, consider taking the Lightroom Unleashed workshop. It is a 3-day class that will give you all the information you need to use Lightroom efficiently and with confidence. And your images will have more impact than you imagined possible.  Information here

Shutter Speed 1/4 sec.  Aperture f/11.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 17-40mm, set at 21mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Create Magic



Yes, in this wonderful digital age of photography, magic is at our fingertips. Compare the two versions of the same image above. The BEFORE image is how it came out of the camera. The AFTER version is after the quick and easy use of Lightroom brought out the dark tones and added detail to the light tones.

There are still many photographers who are hesitant to use image optimization software like Lightroom.  (There are other options available, too, but Lightroom is my personal favorite.) Yes, you can do many of the same things, if you shoot RAW, in Photoshop or Elements. But I find Lightroom to be much faster and much better than anything else out there. And it is easy to learn, and it does not take much time to optimize most images.

It took about one minute to improve this image.  The Shadows were lightened, the Highlights were darkened, Clarity was boosted slightly, and Vibrance was increased. Simple and quick.

Those who have never used Lightroom, or even some people who have taken a class or two, express three basic concerns  -  a long learning curve to understand the software, a significant time involvement for optimizing each image, and a requirement to completely change the way they have organized and stored their images in the past. In fact, those concerns are based on misunderstandings, or in some cases from having taken a class that just confused them or did not present the facts and techniques in a logical and simple manner.

Truth be told, you cannot learn Lightroom in a half-day or a day-long class. A more in-depth class will enable you to learn it properly, and be completely comfortable with it when you get home.

If the time is right for you to finally learn Lightroom properly, consider the upcoming LIGHTROOM UNLEASHED workshop coming up in March. Details here   Those who have taken it before have raved about it, and at the conclusion of the class finally "got it." 

Shutter Speed 1/80 sec.  Aperture f/4.  ISO 800.  Lens: Canon 17-40 f/4L set at 40mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Many thanks to the Northern Virginia Photographic Society for the warm welcome and huge turnout for my program last evening on Abstracts. In spite of the cold, rainy, raw weather, they welcomed me warmly and with great enthusiasm. They all stayed to the bitter end and made me feel very special. It was a great group and a wonderful evening.

This is one of many images shown in the program. It illustrates how simple a strong abstract image can be. The image incorporates color, line, and shape to form a cohesive composition with strong visual appeal. It was shot with blacklight, special bulbs that make fluorescent colors pop.

Whether your subject is abstract, or any subject like a flower, landscape, portrait, bird, or wildlife, simple is super. In general, the less complicated the composition the stronger the image can be. That is not to say that a more complicated image cannot be successful, but often simpler is better.

Abstract images are everywhere. You will see many possibilities if you just slow down and look. Look for the line of a flower petal, or reflections in water, or small snippets in the everyday things around you. Once you begin to look for abstract compositions, you will begin to see more and more possibilities.

There is an Abstracts competition coming up soon. The Fifth Annual Joseph Miller Abstracts Competition will begin receiving entries on December 27. All submissions must be received no later than February 25. For more details, click here

If you enjoy photographing abstracts, you should seriously consider entering this competition. If past years are any indication, this will be an incredible exhibit. Accepted entries will be displayed at the Joseph Miller Center for Photography in Manassas, VA in May 2015.

TECHNICAL DATA: Shutter Speed 13 seconds.  Aperture f/32.  ISO 200. Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS set at 192mm.  Camera: Canon 40D.  Gitzo tripod with ballhead.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways."  --Oscar Wilde

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Last Chance For Great Discounts

December 3, this Tuesday, is the deadline for taking advantage of some great discounts on 2015 photo tours and workshops. After December 3, the discounts will no longer be available, so now’s the time to sign up.

Check out what’s coming up and how much you can save by clicking here

The popular Alaska trip to Glacier Bay is nearly full. Only 4 spaces left. Trip includes all lodging and meals at a lovely lodge for our 5 days at Glacier Bay, plus 3 spectacular boat trips to photograph whales, puffins, sea otters, seals, and of course glaciers. Airfare from Juneau to Glacier Bay is also included. Just get yourself to Juneau and we’ll take care of the rest! Information here

Also note that we are offering a brand new photo tour to Charleston, South Carolina in May. We will have plenty of time to photograph in the historic district, plus we will visit some lovely plantations, see the famous Angel Tree, take a custom nostalgic carriage ride in the heart of historic Charleston, and much more. You will also learn some creative techniques to improve your photography and your image optimization skills. Limited to only 10 photographers. Details here

TECHNICAL DATA:  Shutter Speed 1/800 sec.  Aperture f/10.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 400mm f/5.6L.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Opportunity knocks at the strangest times. It’s not the time that matters, but how you answer the door.”  --Steve Gray

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

This beautiful aspen forest in the Canadian Rockies is an appropriate scene to remind us that as the holidays approach, we should slow down and be thankful for all that we have. It is too easy to speed through our lives, not stopping to appreciate the beauty that is all around us, the love of family and friends, and the joy of life.

So take time this holiday week to enjoy everything around you. If the snow keeps you indoors, revel in the coziness of being safe, warm, and dry. If the weather is good where you are, go outside, smell the autumn air, take a walk.

May the holiday week bring you much joy, laughter, and love. I wish each of you a peaceful holiday with good times and good food.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Shutter Speed 1/160 sec.  Aperture f/8.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS set at 154mm.  Camera: Canon 6D.  Handheld.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "Be thankful for what you have.... If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough."  --Oprah Winfrey

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Lucky Break

The Chincoteague Challenge Photo Workshop just ended and what a wonderful workshop it was. All participants stepped up to the challenge and produced some fantastic images. It was a fun and easy-going group, and we had a great time in spite of the unseasonably cold temperatures and high winds.

I stayed for an extra day in order to get some more shooting in before heading home. It was a bright sunny day, and this bittern, who had been completely camouflaged by the grasses before he stepped out into the water, became a very obliging subject. What a stroke of luck that he happened to come out to fish just as I drove by. And it was also lucky that the winds died down, leaving the water smooth as glass.

I took many shots and chose this one as the best of the day. Why? Several reasons. I like his stretched out body position, an indication that he was hunting for fish in the water.  I also like his raised foot and the water dripping off it. I used rapid burst and took many shots of his feet in different positions. Setting your shutter for rapid burst when shooting wildlife helps to improve your chances of capturing that perfect position.

Reminder: when shooting rapid burst, don't shoot more than 3 or 4 images in a row. Your camera will function more efficiently if you do not over-tax it by taking too many shots at a time. If you take too many, your camera will need time to process all the images shot in that burst, and it will not allow you to shoot again until it has processed them all. That might cause you to miss a good shot while you are waiting for your camera to catch up. So take it easy on the shutter button and only take a few shots at a time.

The other thing that ties this image together is the clear reflection in the water. It is a perfect mirror image of the bird and the grasses.

The frontal light on the entire scene made it an easy exposure. The camera's meter read the scene perfectly and provided a good exposure for both the highlights and the shadows.

This is a simple shot that did not require great thought. It did require patience - the patience to watch, to wait, and to be ready when the action became interesting. 

Shutter Speed 1/1600 sec.  Aperture f/8.  ISO 800.  Lens: Canon 200-400mm with external 2X extender for an effective focal length of 800mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "All human wisdom is summed up in two words - wait and hope."  -- Alexandre Dumas 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Passion For Puffins

Puffins. Gotta love 'em. They are unusual with brightly colored bills, cute faces, small bodies, and a bit of a comical appeal. They are sleek in the water, masterful fishermen, and consummate divers. But they are not easy to photograph.

They are fast, and take off from the water's surface with little warning. They are relatively small and often fairly far away.

But if you want to see and photograph some of the most beautiful puffins in the world, come with me to Glacier Bay Alaska in August 2015.

The Glacier Bay photo tour will get us up close and personal to these wonderful birds on 3 separate days. We will be on our own private chartered boat with the best captain in the area who knows where to find them and how to safely get close. I will be at your side, helping you to capture some spectacular images.

The trick with puffins is to be ready. Have your camera pre-set with the proper ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed. These birds are fast, and being alert to their behavior pays off. The boat captain and I will help you recognize behavior, and you should get some great shots.

We will have plenty of room on the boat to spread out and not feel crowded. The boat is designed to hold about 30 people, but we will have the entire boat to ourselves for just our group of 10 photographers. The waters are generally calm, and there is plenty of seating if you need a break.

We will also be in the home waters of humpback whales, which will be another primary subject for our boat trips. We will be in their prime feeding grounds and should be able to see many of them at fairly close range.

But that's not all. We will also be close to sea otters, some of the cutest critters in the animal kingdom. We'll watch them roll, dive, lie on their backs to eat and rest, and will most likely see mothers and babies.

Frankly, it doesn't get any better than this. Alaska is a prime destination in anyone's book, and when you add the opportunity to photograph whales, sea otters, and puffins it becomes a pinnacle experience. And don't forget that we will be in Glacier Bay with all its famous glaciers. We will have a day devoted to cruising the length of the Bay to witness glacier calving, feel the coolness coming off the ice, and experience the awe and wonder of it all.

There are only 4 spaces left on this photo tour. See detailed information here

If Alaska is a place you want to see, don't delay. These last 4 spaces will disappear quickly. Email us at, or call 757-773-0194.

Shutter Speed 1/1600 sec.  Aperture f/10.  ISO 800.  Lens: Canon 400mm f/5.6L. Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe  harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."  --Mark Twain

Sunday, November 9, 2014


Repeating elements, shapes, or colors can be powerful compositional tools. The repetition in this image is plain and simple  -  two blooms of similar size and shape at essentially the same angles. Camera position was important to align them fairly well. Also the shallow depth of field allowed the front flower to take center stage, with the other in a supporting roll.

The dark background helps to make the light flowers pop. This was shot in a hothouse with cultivated plants, so the lighting direction was from above and behind, showcasing the translucent petals. No light was falling on the background, enabling it to go quite dark.

The camera was tipped slightly so that the flowers are at an oblique angle, adding flow to the overall image.

Simple images can have a lot of visual impact. So try to eliminate extraneous elements and concentrate on the main elements that can create a strong image.

Shutter Speed 1/100 sec.  Aperture f/8.  ISO 320.  Lens: Canon 100mm macro f/2.8. Camera: Canon 40D.  Handheld.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light."  --Theodore Roethke