Photo News Roundup, 7/30/11

Sending the week out with a…

Another week, another heaping scoop of photography-related news from around the web. Click on site links for the full articles referenced.

Nikon’s scheduled August 24 product announcement may include a mirrorless camera. Yasuhara’s interesting Nanoha macro lens is due to ship any day now, though the company anticipates product shortages in the early going. Panasonic “GF Pro” announcement expected toward end of 2011. (4/3 Rumors)

54th World Press Photo Contest winners announced. (Boston Globe)

Canon EF 8-15 f/4L fisheye now available; Windows releases codec for native RAW support in Windows. (Canon Rumors)

50mm f/2.0 Summicron-M may be announced this fall; unlike the model it replaces, it will include an aspherical element. Also, a firmware update has been released for the S2. (Leica Rumors)

Photojournalist João Silva, who lost both legs and suffered severe internal injuries after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan, returned to active duty; a photo he took at Wednesday’s closing ceremonies at Walter Reed Army Hospital, where he’s receiving treatment, appeared on the front page of the next day’s Times. (New York Times’ Lens blog, which has been chronicling Silva’s recovery)

Leica UK hints that their mirrorless system, if it comes, will be priced between the X1 and the M9, which is rather like saying it will be somewhere between terribly and horribly overpriced. Meanwhile, the Pentax Q, the company’s foray into mirrorless, should begin shipping at the end of August.  (Mirrorless Rumors)

Not long after the P7000 (supposedly Nikon’s answer to Canon’s G12), Nikon is rumored to be announcing a P7100 with tilt LCD and improved HDR and panoramic capabilities. Meanwhile, the upcoming ruggedized Nikon Coolpix marks the return of GPS to their compacts (no word on whether this will mean anything for their SLRs going forward). (Nikon Rumors)

The sad state of photographers’ rights in the UK (PetaPixel)

A few weeks ago in this space, I linked an article that lays out reasons photographers should think twice before using Google+ (Google Plus). This week, Scott Kelby weighs in with “I’m Kind of Digging Google+”, a different point of view.

Looks like someone may have gotten their hands on some upcoming Sony equipment, including the A77, NEX7, and new 16-50 lens. (Sony Alpha Rumors)

Remember the monkeys who got hold of a professional photographer’s kit and started taking photos? Somewhat belatedly, here’s an interesting take on the copyright issues surrounding that, along with the best self-portrait of a monkey you will ever see. (TechDirt)

Bonus bit (Not Necessarily the News): Steve Coleman asks “What Makes a Photograph Great?” then proceeds to give an answer that’s both thoughtful and worth reading.

Monthly Mailbag, July 2011

The Manual Photography Cheat Sheet (image by kind permission of Miguel Yatco)

I’ve decided that toward the end of each month, I will excerpt some of the mail and messages I get here on The First 10,000. Names have been changed, but I’ve kept the content of the messages largely intact.

Our first message comes from Murphy Brawn, who says, “I’m enjoying your blog even though I am not a photographer by any stretch of the imagination.”

Murphy, that pretty much makes you my target audience. Well, I’m kidding, but only slightly. There’s a reason I started this blog, and targeted it at inexperienced photographers: a lot of blogs and sites tend, I think, to assume a certain experience/interest level among the people reading. The challenge, therefore,  is to reach people who are casual shooters that either a: want to get a bit better, or b: aren’t really sure where they are in relation to photography. I guess the way I’m looking at it is taking something about which I’m passionate, and hoping some of the passion rubs off.

Of course, the other reason I’m targeting the inexperienced is that if I targeted professionals, I’d get laughed off the internet. My chops aren’t up there with the big guys, so it’s a matter of learning as I go, and hoping that someone finds my (in)experience helpful in some way.

All of which is a longish way of saying, “I’m glad you read it, and even more glad you enjoyed it.” Thanks.

Jon Orton sends along the picture that graces this post, courtesy of Miguel Yatco of Living in the Stills (click the photo to enlarge/print it, click the link to visit Miguel’s site). It’s a great little “Cheat Sheet” to explain some of the camera’s workings, and to visualize what’s going on with the camera when you’re changing certain settings.

Short Trini asks, “Any tips and tricks for taking good photos with those disposable cameras? My mom buys them a lot, and sometimes the pics leave a lot to be desired. Sometimes they are out of focus, or they just have that “disposable” look to them.

That can be any number of things. First off, disposables don’t give you much control over focus, shutter speed, or aperture, so the camera’s not always going to be focused where you’d like it to be, nor is it necessarily going to expose the way you had in mind. As is the case with any kind of camera, you sacrifice control for simplicity and cost. One problem you also tend to get with point-and-shoots of pretty much any kind — whether it’s a disposable or a digital — is that the built-in flash can be a bit harsh. If you don’t need the flash, shut it off (most disposables will let you do that).

The other thing that makes a difference sometimes is the brand. Disposables made by Fuji or Kodak, while they’re generally a bit more expensive, come loaded with better film, and are going to be “new,” whereas some of the off-brand disposable cameras not only use cheaper film, they also sometimes use recycled and re-badged disposable bodies. So if the person who last shot with it knocked it around, spilled their drink on it, etc., you’re already starting off with a strike against you.

Finally, sometimes your processing makes a difference, too. Places like CVS and Walgreens do a much better job at processing than they used to, but if the lab’s not using a “name” photo process, the quality of your photos can suffer, too.

Long story short (which is to say, longer): It might not be anything your mom is, or isn’t, doing. Could be the camera, the processing, or any number of other things. The one thing I’d suggest is that if she’s shelling out a lot of money over the course of the year on cameras and developing, a digital compact might not be a bad idea. You can get a decent one without breaking the bank, and while it might seem like a fair chunk of change, it may actually represent a savings depending on how often she uses it. Right away you’re saving on processing, since processing a roll of film where everything came out badly costs you the same as one where it all came out right, whereas with digital, you can pick, choose, process, and print only your “keepers.”

One last thought: as the first month of The First 10,000 draws to a close, thanks to everyone who’s been reading, and for the words of encouragement many of you have sent along. Next month brings more of the same, with the possibility of some surprises in store.

Google Picasa 3.8: The First 10,000 Review

We’d all love our photos to come out of the camera perfect from the moment we’ve pressed the shutter down. While that will happen every so often, it’s generally the exception that proves the rule. More often, we look at the photo and realize the exposure’s just a little off, something’s in the frame that shouldn’t be, or we feel that maybe the photo would work better in black and white. There are literally dozens of photo editing and retouching options out there, some of which cost hundreds of dollars (and give you the degree of control a software package that costs you hundreds of dollars had better have) and others of which will cost you absolutely nothing, yet still manage to disprove the old saying that you get what you pay for. Case in point: Google’s Picasa 3.8. It’s a free download, and it’s easy enough to use that even though books have been written on it, you can easily teach yourself the basics and then some over the course of an afternoon. It does a great job of helping you organize, prioritize, tag, and share photos, but I’ll be concerning myself here with its use as an editor.
Figure One (Let's Just Call Him "Walter")

To give you an idea of the program’s capabilities, I’ll be performing a series of operations on multiple copies of the same photo. The image to the left is the original image, with absolutely nothing done to it. Obviously, there are some issues here. For one thing, it’s crooked. There’s also a bit of highlight clipping on the subject’s left sleeve, thanks to the mirror to his left that provided me with what was otherwise some nice reflected light. The whole thing is slightly out of focus. Obviously, under normal circumstances, not what you’d call a “keeper.” The burning (and/or dodging) question, then, is can Picasa turn this into, if not a work of art, then at least something less of an embarrassment?

The Basic Fixes screen

As you can see, the “Basic Fixes” screen provides limited EXIF and histogram data (a nice touch), as well as a number of basic commands. The “Crop” function allows you to crop to common custom sizes and aspect ratios (common print sizes, square crop, 4:3, 16:9, etc.). The “Straighten” feature overlays a grid on the entire photo, making alignment very easy. “Redeye” does a respectable job of reducing or eliminating redeye. “I’m Feeling Lucky” takes an educated guess at fixing color, contrast, saturation, and white balance. True to the name, sometimes you get lucky, but other times not; the program tends to cheat toward looking either too warm (think 1950’s postcard) or a bit too cold. “Text” works as advertised. “Retouch,” meant for minor blemishes, is a pretty ham-fisted solution. When I tried it on this fella’s sleeve, it looked as though he’d spilled something on it, and the less said about what it did to his nose, the better.

“Edit in Picnik” could probably get a review all to itself, but truth be told, I’d find very little nice to say about it. The bottom line about this feature, which includes all sorts of speech bubbles, cartoon characters, ribbons, frames, and cheesy filters to add to your photos, is that it’s just the thing if you like your photos to look like they were retouched by a five-year-old. If that’s not your thing, look elsewhere.

The Tuning screen

Now we come to the Tuning screen. “Fill Light” can be used if your photo is, on the whole, too dark. The problem is, your photograph can very quickly go from being too dark to being washed out; you may recover some details from underexposed areas, but you’ll also find that highlights that didn’t look clipped before suddenly do. “Highlights” is supposed to emphasize highlights, and does give a somewhat finer degree of control, but still leaves you with fundamentally the same issue.

Tuning: Shadows

“Shadows” takes the issue presented by the other two controls and inverts it; it can be used to increase shadows and contrast, but as there’s no way to choose the areas to which it’s applied, you’re really applying a global setting that darkens the entire picture. Now, instead of your highlights looking clipped, your shadows might instead. The “Natural Color Picker,” meantime, is meant to ensure accurate white balance, or blacks that are truly black. It generally works well for white balance, but be aware that it will also change color values across the rest of the photo as well, sometimes drastically.


The Effects screen

Finally, we come to the Effects screen. “Sharpen” is a mixed blessing; while it can sharpen edges and somewhat mitigate the effects of something that’s slightly out of focus, if it’s used too much, it gives you all sorts of ugly artifacts in the photo. The “Sepia” and “B&W” effects work as advertised; however, you may find yourself wanting or needing to go back and adjust other settings to get the most out of these effects (the black and whites produced, while they’re okay, leave a bit to be desired if you like a more contrasty look). You may also find that the “Filtered B&W” presets, which simulate shooting black and white through colored filters, serve you better.

The "Soft Focus" effect applied

“Soft Focus” isn’t. A true soft-focus shot is still in focus, but the edges are softened; done right, it gives a nice, sort of ethereal, glow to the subject. This just makes it look as though you’re looking at your subject through a foggy window. The “Glow” feature actually manages to get somewhat closer to the intended effect, but still makes your picture look a bit like a poorly-done Glamour Shot.


Walter, "Warmified."

In theory, “Warmify” is supposed to make your photos look as though they were shot through a warming filter. In practice, though, it doesn’t just warm the tones, it also has a distracting tendency to warm  everything to the same temperature, to the point that the photo looks flat. “Saturation” tends toward overkill if not used carefully. The “Tint” and “Graduated Tint” presets likewise take some practice; the latter is useful for adding a color cast to a washed-out sky, but since Picasa doesn’t allow layers or intelligent selection, odds are pretty good that the colors used will “bleed” into parts of the scene where they’re not needed or welcome.

PROS: Cost (free), ease of use, and a generally useful set of options; also an excellent tool for organizing and viewing your collection.

CONS: Lack of fine control over fundamentals like Hue, Saturation, and Brightness can make for a frustrating experience; some options can give your images a markedly overprocessed look.

Walter's Close-up

THE END RESULT: The straightening and cropping gave the expected results quickly and easily. Sharpening, however, introduced a bit more noise and loss of detail than I would have liked, and the color adjustments – in the instance of this particular picture, I should point out – just weren’t doing it for me. Being unable to selectively burn (darken) the subject’s sleeve, and finding the shadow tool a bit too heavy-handed in this case, I tried to split the difference. Converting to black and white, as I’ve done here, turns the noise from a distraction into something closer to film grain, and is also a bit more forgiving of the program’s issues with shadows.

THE VERDICT: This isn’t the most powerful tool available, even in its price range. However, once you learn its quirks and limitations (and get the hang of which features “need” other features to be used to full advantage), it can be a useful tool for small tweaks to individual photos. It isn’t quite the tool for major photo salvage; then again, that rather underscores the importance of getting the photo as close to correct as you possibly can the first time. Download it here:

Photographic Objectivity: Fact, or Fiction?

Robert Capa: Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death (1936)

It was Robert Capa’s best-known photograph, but also easily his most controversial. 75 years later, the debate continues: was this picture of a Spanish Republican soldier’s last moments the ultimate lucky shot, or was it staged? By 1936, photography had long since left its infancy and entered an exciting maturity, gaining respect both as an artistic and journalistic medium. To what standards would the photographer, as photojournalist, artist, or documentarian be held?

It’s often said the camera never lies. I’ll grant you that the camera, by itself, is the perfect neutral party with no ulterior motives. The issue is that it doesn’t make its own photos; that’s guided by a human being, and all the preferences, knowledge, interests and agendas which that human being brings to bear on his or her photomaking process. So it’s worth asking how realistic it is for photographers to be objective.

Nick Ut / The Associated Press (1972)

It’s worth asking, also, whether true objectivity – a kind of knighted neutrality or impartiality – is even desirable. Some of the best-known “news” images of the twentieth century (Capa’s militiaman, Joe Rosenthal’s depiction of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the photography of Leni Riefenstahl) were posed or staged to make political or propaganda points, so their objectivity was immediately called into question. Other photos, however, were the result of the simple fact that someone cared enough to be there, to compose the shot, set their camera, and decide that this image was important enough that somebody, or several somebodies, needed to see it. Nick Ut’s legendary, harrowing photo depicting the aftermath of the bombing of a Vietnamese village would be one good example, and in more recent times, Thomas E. Franklin’s photo of firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero would be another. You could argue that these images were, in some ways, about more than just the events they captured; countless thousands of images were created over the course of both of those events, but these in particular have lasted precisely because they drew a certain resonance from a photographer’s gut reaction to the scene, rather than his* sense of detachment.

After all, your interest in, or passion about, a subject is likely going to inform whether you decide to approach it at all. If it leaves you cold, it’s probably better left to someone else. If you’re going to present that depiction as an opinion or interpretation, then let the chips fall where they may; the rub is if you’re going to present it as truth, in which case you owe it to your subjects, yourself (as well as your reputation), and your viewers to present your subject in a way that’s as factual as possible. It’s not your responsibility to find the best or worst light in which to portray them; done correctly, context will take care of that for you. Photographers like Jacob Riis, and photomonteurs like John Heartfield practiced their art as activism, but it was in a context that let their viewers know the score (Riis generally published in the muckraking papers of the day, and Heartfield published in the Socialist magazine AIZ, so there wasn’t much pretense of objectivity, nor was any needed).

Flag Raising at Ground Zero (Thomas E. Franklin/The Record/Associated Press)

All of this might seem a bit removed from the concerns of the average photographer, especially those of us who don’t do it for a living. But the issue, and the questions that surround it, are worth raising and giving some serious thought. The camera, with its cold gaze, may not have an agenda in mind; however, the photographer, once the image has left the sensor or the film, can impose any conditions he or she sees fit through a multitude of compositional methods and post processing tools. If your photos of something are either the only record, or one of the more visible records, that carries with it a certain responsibility. Time Magazine learned this the hard way after its infamously retouched O.J. Simpson cover.

In summary, I think that whether or not you “need” to be objective depends a lot on the photo and where/how it’s going to be used. The responsibilities of a photojournalist are necessarily different than those of an artist, a street photographer, or portraitist. The expectations for a photographer shooting for National Geographic** versus those for someone shooting for, say, Playboy (you didn’t think the women really looked like that, did you?), are going to be very different things. It’s one thing to airbrush a zit off the groom’s forehead, but it’s something else altogether to airbrush the thugs and corpses out of the photo of a dictator.

Carl Bernstein, who famously broke the Watergate story in collaboration with Bob Woodward, said that objectivity was “getting the best obtainable version of the truth.” Just as no written article can possibly cover every facet of even the simplest story, no photograph, no matter how talented the photographer, could tell the entire story on its own (nor, I would argue, should it attempt to). You do the best you can with what you’ve got, or can get, but you also have a responsibility, no matter what your niche, to do so with integrity.

*Before someone takes me to task over my choice of gender pronoun (after all, some people live for that kind of thing), I’ll remind you that both photographers being referred to are men.

**Speaking of National Geographic, the magazine touched off quite the firestorm when it became known that one of its covers had taken a bit of artistic license, so this isn’t a strictly academic point.

A postscript, and a note: The Nick Ut and Robert Capa photos came from an essay in the UK’s Telegraph, “Ten Photographs that Changed the World.” Those images, and the others used here, are not property of The First 10,000, but are posted under Fair Use.

Shoot with your Feet


Example 1: 18-105 lens, shot at 18mm

Last week, we talked about the importance of not neglecting your other senses in your photography. This week, we’re going to take up something else that’s too often neglected by photographers: feet.

If you’re shooting with a compact, odds are better than even it has a zoom lens. If you’re shooting with an SLR, it probably came with an 18-55 or some other species of zoom. In fact, unless your camera’s either a rangefinder, or comes with a fixed lens, nearly everything comes with, and nearly all of us shoot with, zoom lenses.

Zooms can be a godsend, especially when they enable us to do things we couldn’t otherwise have done. The ability to go from wide-angle to short telephoto (and, with some all-in-ones like the 18-200 and 28-300 zooms, go from wide angle to long zoom, all with the same lens) saves us time and missed shots. There’s also a cost factor involved. The average 300mm prime lens retails for $1350-$4900 bucks, while a zoom that starts at 55mm or 70mm and goes to 300mm will only set you back between four and six hundred. Big difference.*

Example 2: 18-105 shot at 105mm from the same vantage point as Example 1.

Zoom lenses also enable you, as a photographer, to cover more ground without necessarily having to move your feet. You can go from shooting a landscape, or the entirety of a train station (see Example 1) to picking out a detail in that scene without changing lenses or wearing out your shoes. This is not, as it turns out, necessarily a good thing.

Lots of things look interesting from a distance. The problem is, once we’ve gotten the photo, sometimes it doesn’t seem as intriguing as it did before we pressed the shutter. Sometimes the reasons for this are technical (the exposure’s off, it looks like there’s a branch sticking out of someone’s head), but other times it’s because when you have the chance to really see your subject, it turns out it’s not all that much to look at, as in Example 2. The opposite can also be true; things that look ordinary through a viewfinder at 200mm may also reveal shapes, textures, and details you might otherwise have missed had you not bothered to rub elbows with them. Looked at one way, those small details can be context for a larger image; they might also, however, turn out to be interesting subjects in their own right.

Example 3: Same 18-105, shot at 50mm, this time after some walking around.

If you want to start putting this in practice, there’s a very simple way to do it. Pick a focal length, and for a predetermined length of time, only shoot in that focal length. You want more of the scene in the frame? Take a step or two back. If, on the other hand, you want to emphasize a detail, walk toward it. As you do so, you may find yourself coming up against certain obstacles. Maybe you can’t step back as far as you’d like, your subject is significantly above you (as it is in Example 3) or maybe getting as close as you’d like means you’re casting a shadow on your subject.

Whatever the case, get creative. Re-frame the shot, either by changing your angle, or physically walking around the subject. As you do so, it isn’t uncommon to see other shots present themselves, or you may decide that the shot wasn’t as interesting as it seemed now that you’re seeing your subject up close.

Understandably, this isn’t always practical. Sometimes a couple of steps in one direction or another means the difference between going over the edge of a cliff or not. In those instances, zoom all you’d like. Otherwise, try resorting to your feet instead of your zoom from time to time. It can make an enormous difference in the composition and overall appearance of your shots.

*There’s a much smaller price difference when it comes to short, fast primes (24-50mm). You should also be aware that a prime lens affords other advantages, beyond cost, that zooms typically do not. We’ll be taking those up another time.

Rule 5: Unplug

Time keeps on slippin'...

One of the biggest challenges faced by any photographer has nothing to do with skills or settings. Instead, it’s the same challenge faced by anybody trying to juggle their passion (and/or profession) with the other demands of everyday life. At one point or another, we’ve all lamented that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all we have to do, much less to try and shoehorn in the stuff we’d like to do.

Okay, so not enough time. End of story, right? Uh, not so fast.

How much time do you “need” for your craft (because, really, this doesn’t just apply to photographers) on a day to day basis, or how much of it would you like to have? How much of a difference would one extra hour per day make to you, and to what you love to do?

There’s no magic involved here, just a little discipline and a pinch of time management. Cut out some of the clutter, and see what happens.

This has been a real issue for me lately. Between day-to-day obligations, getting The First 10,000 off the ground, and trying to learn (and then hopefully pass on) something new about photography every day, something – literally – was going to have to give. I’m sure for each of those things I just mentioned, you can think of one or three of your own. It’s not an insurmountable obstacle, though. If you need an extra hour a day, instead of worrying about doing an hour less of something (‘cause you can always find an excuse not to do that), do fifteen minutes less of four things. Then it becomes a lot easier to carve out two, sometimes even three hours of your day (you may decide there’s not much point in watching something if you’re going to miss the first or last fifteen minutes; there’s an hour you didn’t have before).

Turn off the television, the MP3 player, and the e-reader. From time to time, step away from the internet, the email, Angry Birds, and the text messages. Hell, if you want to stop reading this right now so you can turn off your computer and get out your camera, I won’t mind a bit (but may I suggest that if you come back tomorrow to read this again, you start at this bit, so you’re not re-reading the same several paragraphs for the next few days).

It’s hard to have something nattering in the background, whether it’s having your iPod on, or just the mental chatter set up by doing too many things at once. People pride themselves on being able to multitask, not realizing that all “multitasking” means is “doing a bunch of things half-assed simultaneously,” rather than devoting your full attention to something. But taking a few minutes’ time away from each of those things to devote to something you love is worthwhile. You’ll have more time than you did before, and the quality of what you do will improve as well.

Postscript: I started this post on the 21st and wrapped it up the next day. On the 23rd I came across something on David duChemin’s Pixelated Image that covers the same ground, and much more eloquently than I’ve managed. It’s called “45 Days,” and you can read it here.

Photo News Roundup, 7/23/11

As I was saying…

Ten pounds of news in a five-pound bag…

Olympus firmware update, EP3 and GH2 battery grips, rumors of Fuji Micro 4/3 camera (4/3 Rumors)

Canon EOS 60D firmware update, Holga Canon-mount giveaway, very remote possibilities of new flash system and EF-mount video camera (Canon Rumors)

US court allows LaChapelle’s suit against singer Rihanna to go to trial, Panasonic announces FZ-47 superzoom bridge camera (which, unlike many of the FZ series thus far, does not shoot RAW), X-Rite launches monthly photo contest (DPReview)

Nifty instructions for making a “Leica” pinhole camera (Leica Rumors)

Interview with Samsung bigwig Sungrok Kim, mirrorless shootout at DxO Mark, Samsung NX100 discontinued (Mirrorless Rumors)

New Coolpix cameras in the offing, including one that’s ruggedized; leaked photos of Nikon mirrorless camera ordered taken off of Chinese website; two new FX bodies (reportedly replacements for the D700 and D3) to reportedly be announced in August, in time to begin shipping in the fall (Nikon Rumors)

New Olympus EVF (Electronic View Finder) leaked, this time by Olympus. Sigma hints they can probably make the SD1 do live view without modifying the camera (which begs the question why they didn’t just have it do that in the first place). Contest to win SD95 book. New website launched for 4/3 fans. (Photo Rumors)

Sony and Sigma head-to-head at Luminous Landscape; yes, that is in “fact” a leaked “photo” of the NEX-7 (I still say it looks Photoshopped!); DSC-TX55 compact announced (Sony Alpha Rumors)

Photographer Bostjan Burger faces prison time for taking 360° photos in Slovenia (Steve’s Digicams)


Photography: Art or Craft?

The Soft Serve Sentry

Bear with me, as I’ll be spending a fair share of this entry essentially thinking out loud; the purpose of this post isn’t so much to issue the last word on something as it is to hopefully start a discussion.

To begin with, let’s establish the definitions from which we’re working. Art, according to the folks at Webster’s, is skill acquired by experience, study, or observation. It could also be loosely defined as the application of imagination to a chosen medium; some have also posited that anything created with artistic intent is, by definition, art. Whether the end result of those creative efforts is actually art, however, seems to be defined by a mixture of cultural consensus and historical perspective.

So it would seem that trying to pin down a definition of art itself (much less whether an individual piece is art or not) is a bit like trying to nail Jell-o to a wall. Let’s see if we have any better luck with Craft. Webster’s again: an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill <the carpenter’s craft> <the craft of writing plays> <crafts such as pottery, carpentry, and sewing>. Well, at least we have some agreement between the two on the skill part.

Let’s put aside the dictionary for a bit, since that’s getting us nowhere. In popular culture, art tends to be seen as something inspired, while craft is somewhat looked down upon as something decidedly pedestrian. Craft has also often denoted something more practical or workmanlike (think of the Bauhaus emphasis on creating objects that might be pretty to look at, but had, above all, to be useful) if not downright kitschy (Martha Stewart, hot glue guns). While photography has its practical applications, those aren’t the first thing most of us would think of when we consider, much less enter, the medium.

Perhaps a more useful distinction can be drawn between art as the end result and craft as the process from which it comes. Ah, now I think we’re getting somewhere. If getting to “art” is somehow fleeting or ephemeral, then craft is the way we attempt to catch that lightning in a bottle. Put differently, anyone can get lucky and create one work of art. Craft is the process by which you take at least some of the chance out of the equation, devoting enough time, effort, and sheer repetition to the process – your process – that you can get the same results consistently.  

 Ansel Adams, who we discussed this time last week, once said “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Stop and think about that for a second: one photograph a month, if you’re lucky. And he didn’t mean, “Go outside once a month, take one photo, and you’re done.” If you get lucky, ten percent of your photos will be competent enough to be worth keeping; a much smaller percentage of those would be the ones that somebody besides you still wants to look at a year from now, ten years from now, or when you’re pushing up daisies. Getting even to the point that Adams is talking about – not a hundred significant photos a year, remember, just twelve – took years of practice on his part, and will take years of practice on your part, mine, or anyone else’s who really cares enough about their chosen medium to get it right. That means not just photography, but any other thing to which you care to apply yourself diligently enough to be any good at it, whether that something is photography, sculpture, writing, pottery, or knitting.

Unless you’re using your camera the same way you’d use a steno pad — strictly to document, giving no more thought to art than if you were making a shopping list or jotting down a phone message — at some point or another, each of us has the urge to capture something artistic. Paradoxically, it’s when we start paying more attention to the craft than the art, beginning to hone our vision and the technique with which we express it, that we increase the odds that we create art instead of having it just happen (or not) by chance.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section.

Camera Essentials: The Cleaning Kit

Giottos Rocket (image courtesy

No matter how careful you are, you’re going to get your camera and lenses dirty. Shit happens, as does dust, schmutz*, fuzz, fingerprints, lint, and all manner of other large and small debris. Therefore, it helps to have the right stuff to clean your camera.

A few recommended items:

  • Giottos Medium Rocket Air Blaster: These come in a number of sizes, some with directional nozzles, some with a little doohickey (pardon the technical jargon) that ionizes the air before it leaves the nozzle, supposedly leading to better cleaning. The reason I suggest Giottos over some of the other options out there: as camera equipment goes, they’re pretty cheap (the standard size usually retails for between ten and fifteen bucks), and they’re higher quality. I’ve heard from a couple of photographer friends who’ve bought cheaper versions that on the first few uses, they’ve ended up with a fine white powder on their lenses or sensors; apparently, some manufacturers put talcum powder or some other,  similar, substance inside their blowers to keep the rubber from sticking to itself. D’you really want powder on your lens, or, God forbid, your sensor? Didn’t think so.
  • Nikon 7072 Lens Pen: These come in a few varieties. Some will have a soft felt tip, others a small brush with soft bristles; others still will have both, one at each end. The brushes are good for things that settle in crevices around your camera, in your eyepiece, or in your lense’s filter threads. The felt end, in the meantime, is handy for the stubborn stuff the brush won’t take care of.
  • Microfiber Cleaning Cloth: Similar to the cloth used for glasses,  this is a soft cloth that’s good if you have a larger area you want to clean. It’s good for your lenses and filters, and even works well in getting nose grease off your LCD. These are available in multiple sizes, and some even come in their own neoprene pouch, complete with lanyard, for easy storage.
  • Lens papers and cleaning solution: I know these are both supposed to be reliable, but I’ve never trusted the papers, especially. Many of them break down into a linty mess as you’re cleaning, which rather defeats the purpose.

Generally speaking, you’ll want to use these in the order in which I have them listed. The air blower should come first, to get all the larger crap off your gear, followed usually by the brush, and followed last by the cleaning cloth. Why that order? I’m glad you asked (and if you didn’t, you’ll be glad I told you anyway). If you reach for a cleaning cloth first and you’ve got something abrasive on your lens, all the cloth is going to do at that point is act like sandpaper, scratching the lens/filter coating, or sometimes even the lens/filter itself.

A few things to NEVER use: paper towels are an obvious no-no. Tissues are, too, since they’re not as soft as they may feel. Puffs tissues (or any other that contains lotion) are even worse, since the lens will shoot everything in soft focus for a long time after that. Avoid harsh cleaners (like Windex, or other glass cleaners), rubbing alcohol, and the like. Also worth noting: if you frequent discussion forums (fora?) and blogs, every so often people will suggest that a t-shirt is about all you need for most of your camera needs. Generally speaking, a cotton t-shirt is pretty soft; the problem is that if you’re out somewhere that your camera can get dusty and dirty, your t-shirt is picking up the same stuff, and then some (things don’t adhere to glass the way they will to fabric). Add sweat to the equation (and/or fabric softener) and you’re setting yourself up for more problems than you solve.

If your sensor needs cleaning, use your air blower in an environment that isn’t going to introduce more dust and dirt into the guts of your camera. Your best bet regarding the sensor is to have it professionally cleaned, since it’s one of the most delicate parts of your camera, and also one of the most expensive to fix if something goes wrong.

Your local camera shop should also have lens cleaning kits that contain the above items in various combinations. Don’t pay too much attention to branding (aside from the caveat about your air blower). If you shoot Pentax and happen to find a kit that’s perfect for your purposes, save for the Canon logo, buy it. Unlike a lens, cleaning kits won’t discriminate between one body or brand and another. The tools listed above are made and sold for a reason; they’re the right tools for the job. Your camera, no matter how large or small, no matter how much you spent on it, is an investment. Take care of it, and it’ll return the favor.

*Schmutz (n., Yiddish): Dirt, debris, random filth.

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Featured Nonprofit: HeARTs Speak

Image courtesy of Lisa Prince Fishler/HeARTs Speak

Photographer Lisa Prince Fishler started HeARTs Speak for one simple reason: every day, from one end of the country, countless adoptable animals are needlessly euthanized. More often than not, they haven’t landed in shelters because there’s something wrong with them; changes in their owners’ lives — be it a drop in income, a change in living arrangements, or the arrival of a child — or simple abandonment account for the lion’s share of shelter animals.

Just as simple economics sometimes works against pet owners, it’s not a shelter’s best friend, either. The average shelter runs on a shoestring, and providing funds to a photographer or painter means cutting back somewhere else. Artists, similarly, may find themselves in the unenviable position of wanting to help but being unable if volunteer work means cutting back on paid assignments. HeARTs Speak takes a two-pronged approach to these problems through donations of photographic equipment to shelters that are inaccessible to photographers, and via cash stipends to the photographers themselves.  With simple photographs and paintings, HeARTs Speak and its contributing artists put a face on the problem, raising not only awareness, but also adoption rates in the process.

The good news is that increasing the number of adoptions by a mere three percent means the end of shelter animals being needlessly put to death. HeARTs Speak seeks “[t]o unite the individual efforts of animal artists & animal rescues into collective action for social change.” Their mission is “to provide the framework, tools & resources to support animal artists working to help animals in need; to disseminate messages that inspire a better understanding of the emotions of animals & ultimately an understanding of, and compassion towards them; to connect Rescues/Shelters with artists with the intention of breaking down the myth that animals from Rescues and Shelters are inferior in some way. Professional Photographs greatly improve adoptability and ultimately, will increase the number of animals adopted and reduce the numbers that are euthanized.”

Says Fishler, “I love what happens when people come together.” To that end, her outreach has included not just photographers and painters, but also other organizations. “HeARTs Speak is actually very excited to be joining forces with The Unexpected Pit Bull Calendar. They’ve been around since 2004, and donate 100% of their net proceeds to pit bull dog related advocacy and rescue groups.  We had almost 40 submissions for the calendar, of which we chose 13 to grace its pages.  It’s something new for us, and for TUPB, but what has resulted is pure magic.”

Animal rescue can seem like a daunting task, but Fishler seems to hew to the old adage that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog: “We only need to increase the number of animals adopted each year by 3% in order to reduce the numbers euthanized to zero.  The more people we have working together, the sooner we can make that happen.” If you’d like to join in the effort, whether as a donor or as a photographer (the organization is always looking for artists and photographers, of all skill levels), visit their website,