Rule 9: Be Culturally Literate

Asbury Park, 8/20/11

I remember meeting someone years ago who, when I asked her what she did, eagerly replied with, “I’m a writer!” Well, okay. What do you write? “Science fiction and fantasy, mostly.” And who or what do you read? “Oh, well, I really don’t like to read…”

I’ll edit my mental response to a somewhat more family-friendly, “Excuse me?!?” Never mind for a minute that I find the idea of cutting reading (or music, or photography or…) out of one’s life about as sensible as cutting off your own kneecaps with a grapefruit spoon. It’s just as much the fact that a life devoid of culture – the arts, the written word – strikes me as being a sad, impoverished place.

The reason why some of us get worked up over things like arts education isn’t (just) because we weren’t terribly good at football. Even if you couldn’t possibly be less interested in creating something on your own, I think that cultural literacy* is a huge part of just getting by in, and making sense of, everyday life. Done right (by which I mean a lowercase-“c” catholic approach, being open to a little of everything), it has the ability to enrich our lives. It also gives us a means to qualify what’s good and distinguish it from crap or kitsch, which comes in handy when you’re trying to detect and/or call out crap and kitsch in other parts of life, like political speeches or paintings by Thomas Kinkade.

But let’s assume that you’re here because by some means or other, you choose to express yourself. From a more practical standpoint, if you don’t have, or are blissfully unaware of, a context in which you’re creating, how in the heck are you supposed to create? If you have no idea what’s been done before, you haven’t much idea of what’s possible, nothing to push back against, nor the sense of support and solidarity that arises even when you engage a work across cultures or centuries. Nor are our raw materials  limited strictly to the media in which we choose to work; they’re the sum total of sensory input that’s swirled around us every day of our lives from our very first days, even the dream material that arises when our subconscious mind decides to have its way with all we’ve ingested during the day. To willfully omit or block out a large portion of that raw material is to acknowledge that we’re willing to draw from a shallower well, and maybe even glad to do so. Or, to put it differently, nobody creates anything of worth in a vacuum.

I know that in many school districts, arts education is viewed as superfluous or frivolous (to say nothing of the ones that treat education, and educators, as unnecessary evils). If that is, or has been, the case where you live, teach yourself. Form impromptu discussion groups, go to libraries, concerts, museums, everywhere and anywhere your feet will carry you. But if you have the option and refuse it, do yourself a favor, and please – I beg of you – do not call yourself an artist (citizen’s enough of a stretch; artist is really straining credibility) if you choose not to be literate in, and outside, your chosen medium.

*By cultural literacy, I mean culture in all the different forms it takes, from lowbrow to highbrow and all points in between. While I think there are qualitative differences between Shakespeare and the Simpsons, I’m also more than willing to admit that life gets pretty dull if you limit yourself to one or the other.

Photo News Roundup, 8/20/11

Just had to keep digging, didn’t you.

We may be posting more news around midweek next week, with product announcements due any day from Nikon and Sony. In the meantime, here’s this week’s gleanings from around the web, with links going to the original articles.

Quiet week on the Olympus front, but quite a bit of Panasonic news, including a new series of Micro 4/3 pro lenses to be called the X series, a GF2 underwater housing from Nauticam, and rumors of a GF7 announcement in late ’11/early ’12. (4/3 Rumors)

Canon is very tight-lipped of late. Might they be announcing something on August 23? 1DS Mark IV TBA in a couple of weeks? At least one thing seems certain: you probably shouldn’t be putting much stock in the 1D Mark V specs floating around lately. (Canon Rumors)

Interesting test of the current generation of rugged/waterproof cameras at

EISA announces their 2011-12 Photo Awards Winners. Scan the list and it looks like a soccer league for six-year-olds; nearly every company took home honors for something. (EISA)

“Inexpensive” and “Leica” are two words not usually seen in the same ZIP code, much less the same sentence, but Phottix apparently has a viewfinder magnifier that’s about a quarter the price of the OEM piece from Leica. Oh, and the memory card issues with Leica cameras have now been joined by battery issues. (Leica Rumors)

With new Sony mirrorless stuff in the offing, the Micro 4/3 Users Group has an interesting size comparison among Sony and Micro 4/3 lenses (personally, I’d like to see a chunkier body on the upcoming NEX, ’cause the current designs look rather like a Labrador mounting a Schnauzer. Just sayin’.)

If you’re a Nikon fan, I hope you weren’t getting your hopes up over their upcoming mirrorless camera. Not only will it not have an APS-C sensor, its design and feature set make this look like a strictly consumer camera. We’re likely to find out more in the days ahead. On a different note, Nikon may be looking to revive the Nikonos waterproof camera (or something like it) and aim it at the market that’s currently gaga over GoPro. (Nikon Rumors)

Remember a couple of weeks ago when it was said Kodak might be trying to unload some of its patents and other intellectual property as a poison pill to ward off takeover? While the company’s valued at about $600 million, those IP assets might be worth in the ballpark of three billion dollars. (Photo Rumors)

More specs trickling out about upcoming Sony cameras, plus the coolest binoculars you’ll see all year. (Sony Alpha Rumors)

Photo Contests: Know Your Rights

Know Your Rights.

Ever try Googling “photo contest”? You’ll come across nearly sixteen million search results. With that many options, there’s got to be pretty good odds of winning somewhere, right? And it’s so tempting… There’s the allure of your name in lights (or at least in 18 point Tahoma), the possibility of having your work judged by the best in the industry, being shown next to the best work of your peers, and maybe even appearing between covers…

The companies and organizations that run photography contests are all too happy to tell you what you could win by entering their contests, from cash to merchandise to the ever-nebulous “exposure.” What they’re not nearly as eager to publicize (it’s usually buried in fine print and legalese) is what they’ll be taking from you in return. That’s because some entities run contests primarily for the purpose of data mining and “rights grabbing,” a practice wherein you sign over your intellectual property rights in exchange for whatever scraps they’re willing to throw you in return.

Which rights? Well, pretty much all of them, at least when it comes to your photos. It’s extremely important to read the fine print. Take, for example, The Great American Photo Contest, and others of its ilk. These are similar to “contests” targeted at writers (and in some cases, even run by the same people), where everyone’s a “winner,” provided you send money, sometimes for a book that may or may not come, or for “fees”; in other cases, you’re essentially being asked to transfer the copyright, and all the rights it would otherwise have conferred to you (whether in the form of recognition, or money, or just the ability to use the image as you see fit) to a third party.

The practice also extends to some bigger, and – you’d think – more reputable names. Tripod manufacturer Manfrotto recently ran a contest called “Imagine More,” the terms and conditions of which initially included the following:

“By uploading the Submission the Participant grants and agrees, for no payment, to grant to SPONSOR all intellectual property rights in the Submission and each of its constituent parts, which rights include, without limitation, the SPONSOR’s right to publish, make available to the public whether directly or indirectly, and/or reproduce on any material now existing or later created the Submission through any media now existing or available at any time during, or after, the Promotion Period notably on any related websites, in any promotional materials, whether related or un-related to the Promotion, and at any other location throughout the world, whether physical or online, that SPONSOR, in its sole discretion, deems appropriate or necessary for the operation of this Promotion and any related publicity and/or promotional purposes and for the duration of protection of the rights. Participant agrees to enter into any further documentation reasonably necessary in order to give effects to these rights.
“In addition, to the extent permitted by the Law, Participant warrants that to the extent permitted by law any so called “moral rights” in the Submission have been waived and shall not be asserted and Participant acknowledges and agrees that SPONSOR may use any ideas from any Submission or other submitted materials, whether or not Participant has been awarded a prize in connection with any such Submission or other materials.”

After a joint email sent by the Association of Photographers and Pro-Imaging expressed concern over the perceived rights grab, the company reworded the rules ever so slightly, but kept the waiver of “moral rights” intact. In case you were wondering what those “moral rights” constituted, they’re traditionally such things as receiving credit for one’s own work, and the right not to have your work used for a denigrating purpose. It should be noted that the Manfrotto example isn’t somehow an aberration; this is a common practice.

Your best, and perhaps only, defense is your due diligence, including the following: Find out who’s judging; the contest may be judged by photographers who bring years of experience to the table, or its “judges” may be little more than a handful of people with no more experience or publishing credits than you’ve got. Also be sure to read the terms and conditions of the contest in full before entering. Google the name of the contest and its sponsor(s) and see what complaints exist against them. Most of all, don’t submit anything if the organization asks for your money or makes unreasonable demands on your rights.*

In case you’re tempted to enter a photo thinking that it’s not representative of your best work, so it’d be no great loss if you “won” and gave up your rights to that particular photo: I’d still advise against it, for the simple fact that you’re giving your tacit agreement to a practice, and an organization, that’s all too happy to profit off others’ hard work while giving back very little in proportion to what they’re willing to take. Your participation is, in effect, the oxygen that allows this kind of thing to thrive. You and I may not be able to stop the practice as individuals, but if enough of us put a foot down and cut off that oxygen supply, someone’s bound to notice.

*To clarify: in order to run a contest, you need to ask for some rights; these will generally involve some kind of first-publication or serial rights, and are reasonable requests. What you have to watch out for is the kind of permission you’re granting (what, exactly, are they asking for?), as well as the duration for which you’re granting those rights. The aforementioned Manfrotto contest, for instance, included the following in its rules: in any media, worldwide, without limit in time. Pay attention to phrases like these, as you’re assigning your rights to that photo to someone else in perpetuum. There’s a lot more to be said on the subject of photographers’ legal rights and responsibilities, and I will no doubt do that in the days and months ahead. In the meantime, if you’re concerned with your intellectual property rights (and you should be), there are a number of excellent books on the subject, not to mention that the services of a lawyer can be invaluable for the big stuff.

Postscript: Not surprisingly, an organization has evolved to document some of the more egregious examples of rights grabbing, and also to encourage companies and others that run contests to voluntarily adopt standards that honor and protect photographers’ rights. You can visit the Artists’ Bill of Rights here, and find the Manfrotto example cited above here.

Review: Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

A friend of mine recommended David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking to me some time ago, and it’s only recently that I’ve finally gotten around to actually buying a copy and reading past the first chapter, rather than doing my usual (reading the first chapter in the bookstore and saying to myself, “I really should pick this up one of these days”). Let me skip ahead to the end of the review, and say that if you’re the kind of person in the habit of talking yourself out of your craft rather than through it, this is a book that belongs on your shelf (provided, of course, you read it first).

Having started off the review ass-backwards, let’s now take up how, exactly, I’ve come to that conclusion.

The book’s thesis is laid out pretty well by the simple declarative that opens the book: “Making art is difficult.”* It goes on, in its first section, to lay out a series of fears that we internalize (the adequacy of our vision and execution, the limits of our talent, our expectations for ourselves) and those we project onto others (the kind of reception we expect from them). And that’s just what we have to deal with before the art’s made; if we clear that hurdle, another one awaits right after in the form of what actually happens when (to paraphrase Brian Eno) you set your art free from your excuses and unleash it on the world. There are forces that, if they don’t intentionally work against the artist, certainly don’t do much to work in his or her favor, either, whether you’re dealing with the whims of popular taste and the marketplace, capricious critics, hard economic times, or any number of other bugaboos.

Thankfully, the book isn’t just a litany of complaints and problems; there are solutions here, if you’re inclined to seek them out and use them. Not least of these is seeking out the support of other artists. If you’ve studied the arts in an academic setting, you may find that any support you may have enjoyed within those walls vanishes like steam from a bathroom mirror once you’ve graduated; if your studies have been largely self-directed, on the other hand, you may not have even had that degree of support. In either case, individuals with whom to collaborate and commiserate can be a vital factor in your continued success.

I realize that I’ve elided and oversimplified the heck out of this book, but that’s alright; this review’s hardly intended as a supplement, much less a substitute. Having summed up so much so far, I’ll do it some more: The remedy could be summed up succinctly as, “You’re worried. I get it. Now cut that out, and get to work.” It could be summed up somewhat better as the authors do at the book’s closing:

In the end, it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot – and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

Letting uncertainty be your motivation can seem a bit perverse, but when the alternative is the certainty of demotivation and defeat, it suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. The book as a whole, and that last bit in particular, is a great reminder and motivator during those times when you need one… and from time to time, I think we all do.

*Incidentally, I’m going to put my usual prejudice against calling it “art” to one side for a bit. There’ll be time enough to address that later, and I intend to.

Your purchases through the Amazon affiliate links in this post help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks for your support!

Charity Profile: Shutter Mission

Some months back, when The First 10,000 was still in the planning stages, I thought to myself that it might be a good idea to see what  photo-related charities and nonprofits might be out there. I’d do the occasional article, and at some point devote a page to what I’d found. Then I found that someone had beaten me to it, and in fact devoted an entire website and organization to doing just that.

That someone is Amanda Shoemaker, who started Shutter Mission when she began to realize how many people could benefit from the services offered by portrait charities, but might not be aware of their existence. Feeling that a mere directory would be “boring,” she decided to showcase the charities alongside the work of the photographers who volunteered with them, partly in the hope that other photographers might also be inspired to give back.

Gradually, Shutter Mission took shape. Over time, it’s grown into its mission, “[t]o highlight portrait charities and support photographers who give their time, talent, and heart.” It has likewise evolved according to a plan laid out before the charity even launched; Shoemaker envisioned, and grew, a central hub for photographers to learn about different options in photography charities, a directory of those charities for the benefit of interested photographers and individuals who could benefit from them, and a photo blog that has showcased organizations and photographers alike. She was kind enough to sit down recently and answer a few questions.

Chicken-and-egg question: I see that you and your husband work in the interactive industry. Since both of you spend so much time around graphics, was photography a natural outgrowth of that, or was it the other way around?

My husband, Eric Shoemaker, is an art director here in San Francisco. I’m a contract web developer and work from our home office in Alameda. We’ve both been into photography for years. I fell in love with it in my youth… my dad was a science teacher at my high school, and the photography club director. He was the one who taught me all the ins and outs of the darkroom. Ever since, I have always been involved in photography… with local clubs, starting a portrait business in Atlanta, and volunteering. As for my husband, I gave Eric his first SLR for his birthday back in 2005, and he hasn’t put it down since. Eric’s favorite subject is his ’67 Beetle, and he has an amazing knack for capturing textures and urban scenes. Often on weekends, we go on “photo strolls” together, around Alameda or in the City. Since we are fairly new to the Bay area (we moved here in 2009), capturing our new town is one of our very favorite things to do.

Of all the things you could have done with your photography, you chose to start ShutterMission. What was the spark for that?

Out of all the portrait sessions I had back when I had my business in Atlanta, my very favorites were the Operation: Love ReUnited sessions. I loved that I could really and truly help someone with my art. It was so touching to witness a military homecoming at the airport, to see a child hug her father who had been gone for so many long months, to see a couple kiss for the first time in too long. And to be able to be there to capture that was the best feeling ever. I fell in love with the idea of portrait charities, and the idea with Shutter Mission was to simply get the word out about all these great organizations. For one, so that families knew they existed and could utilize their services, and two, so that photographers looking to volunteer had a place to find the right organization that fit their skills and interests. I looked around the web, and could not find a site where all of these types of charities were collected, so the idea started with a directory of sorts, and grew from there.

I notice that it was six months between when you initially announced the project on Capturing Light and when it finally went live. Tell me about what was going on behind the scenes during that time.

Well, we had just moved 2,500 away from all our family and friends to a strange new city. You probably don’t want to know what was going on “behind the scenes” here! It was a big adjustment for both of us, and quite honestly, the spare time that I assumed I would have to work on side projects like Shutter Mission wasn’t as abundant as I had hoped. Between work contracts, I squeezed in some time to build it. And because I’m a constant tweaker, it took even longer. But hey, better late than never!

What was the moment when you said, “You know, I’ve really got something here?”

Ha! That hasn’t really happened yet. I’d love to carve out some more time to devote to the blog, and hopefully grow the community. Ideally, I’d like to reach as many photographers as possible, so that the charities can get the max amount of exposure for their causes and be fully “stocked” with available volunteers.

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment thus far?

A mention on the Chicago Tribune’s site was pretty nice… and was a great way to spread the word about charity photography.

And what’s the next milestone you hope to reach?

My next goal with Shutter Mission is to partner with a few photography-specific vendors and host some giveaways for photographers. I’d like to do this as a way to show appreciation for the volunteer work that is being done for the charities, but I also want to attract new photographers to the site who may have not heard of portrait charities before. It will be a great way to educate photographers about the different charities out there and encourage them to get involved.

If someone’s thinking of volunteering with a portrait charity, but either isn’t sure of themselves, or of their skill level, what advice would you give them?

Great question! A lot of charities do require that you are indeed a professional in order to join as a volunteer, and the reason for that is that the people who are being helped via these organizations deserve the absolute best image quality they can get. NILMDTS [Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep] comes to mind… with an infant bereavement session, there are no do-overs. You have to get it right, be professional, sensitive and caring. However, there are volunteer opportunities available for photographers at every skill level. For example, Dog Meets World is open to any photographer who wants to “travel, take pictures, and give joy.” And Help-Portrait utilizes not just photographers, but they also need Adobe Lightroom experts, greeters, lighting technicians, print techs, makeup artists, and more. My advice is, if you want to use your talent to help someone… regardless of skill level… go for it! There is likely a charity that needs you!

Anything you’d like to add that we haven’t already covered?

“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” — Winston Churchill

Paul here again: If there’s a lesson to be drawn, it’s this: no matter what your niche or level of skill, there’s likely an organization that fits your interests and passions, and they could probably use your help. If you’re looking for a good overview of your options, or just want to learn more, is a great starting point.

As befits someone with over ten years’ experience building websites, Amanda’s all over the web. Of course, there’s You can also find her on Twitter (@shuttermission), view her portfolio on the  Lane | Russell website, and visit her blog at

Shooting in Program Mode


Shot in Program, f/5.6, 1/160.

If your camera has priority controls (Shutter and Aperture in addition to full Manual), it likely also has a “P” alongside the A, S, and M. That “P” stands for “Program,” but as we’ll see today, it might as well stand for “Pray.”

Program mode is theoretically supposed to be like Automatic, but with a degree of control. This works fine in principle; the camera makes decisions for you based on how your scene and subject are lit, but you have control over ISO, exposure compensation and flash. Some cameras also allow flexibility within Program, so that you can alter either the shutter speed or aperture as well. In those cases, it should theoretically be like having both Aperture and Shutter priority in a single control option. In practice? Picture playing whack-a-mole with your SLR.

Here’s the problem: we saw in the previous weeks’ tutorials that when the camera allows you to choose one variable (say, your aperture), it automatically takes control of the other to give you what it thinks should be the optimum exposure. The problem with shooting in Program, as with shooting in full Auto, is that there are many combinations of shutter speed, aperture and ISO that will get you the same exposure in the same lighting conditions, but sometimes the choices the camera makes won’t be ones that you’re comfortable with. Sometimes it’ll give you the quicker shutter speed you’d like, but make you sacrifice aperture for it; conversely, you can also try for the slower shutter speed only to find out that more of your background is in focus than you’d like. Sometimes slight under- or over-exposure is needed to get the rest of the photo to look the way you wanted (or you may even have a preference, as some people do, for one or the other as a general rule). Program takes some degree of that control from you. What’s worse, several frames taken in sequence under the same light can have different shutter and aperture values.

This is especially a pain if you’re trying to use exposure compensation; if you dial in a -.3 exposure compensation, you can still end up with shots taken under the same conditions being exposed unpredictably. As you get used to your camera’s quirks, it becomes easier to predict when it will go to one side or the other of a medium exposure, and to compensate accordingly.

Setting shutter and aperture is similarly problematic; you may find the thumb wheels unresponsive for a few tries, to a point where it’s like trying to figure out the button combination in a video game. That’s all well and good if I’ve got a character from Street Fighter in my viewfinder, but otherwise I expect my camera to behave like a camera rather than a game console.

It’s entirely possible that I’m doing something wrong here; I know a couple of photographers who absolutely swear by Program mode. To my mind, the purpose of having controls in the first place is just that: control. Anything that adds unnecessary guesswork to the equation isn’t terribly useful. But then, your mileage may vary.

Program can be good in situations where there’s a lot of action (sports and street photography), though it’s a good idea to check your photos frequently if you’ve set the aperture to make sure it hasn’t picked a default shutter speed that’s too low. It can be downright lousy when you have the time to compose your shot and a very definite idea of the settings you’d like to use (and sacrifices you’re willing to make). On that note, in the next two weeks we’ll be putting together the lessons of the last few weeks and shooting in Manual.

Rule 8: Photograph What You Don’t Know

Nothing to see here...

Generally the first piece of advice you get as a writer is to write what you know.* It’s a useful starting point, within its limits. One thing that I’ve found still more useful, however, whether it’s as a writer or a photographer, is figuring out what I don’t know, and seeing where that takes me.

The photographs that accompany this post were taken a few months ago in New York City. I’ve shot in Manhattan before, but generally with an eye for the architecture. That’s partly because I’ve been fascinated with architecture for ages, but it’s also because I’ve always been skittish about photographing around a lot of people, much less taking photos of them. What is this person I don’t know going to think of some person he doesn’t know taking his photo…? Well, only one way to find out. And the more I shot, the less I worried, and started instead to look for interesting shots and angles right there in the crowd.

Let’s think for a minute about what a lot of us do as photographers. We identify a safe harbor, and stick to it. Sometimes that safe harbor is a type of photography we know we do particularly well, or maybe it’s a geographical area where every nook and cranny is as familiar to us as our own reflection. We know these things, and these places. Shooting good photos from a safe place is like shooting fish in a barrel… about as easy, and after a while, about as rewarding.**

Sometimes this can also apply to technique. To choose an example from outside photography, guitarists will often change their tunings when they find things getting stale. But you can’t retune a camera. Says who? Try changing your lens to a prime, or pick a single focal length on your zoom and limit yourself to that for an afternoon. Find a function you’ve never used on your camera and experiment with that. Ask yourself what you can change in your settings or your gear that can change what you see in the viewfinder, or how it’s represented.

It’s no accident that “essay”–besides being the short writing form with which we’re all familiar–is also defined variously as proposing, testing, or trying something. In that spirit, what will you essay with your photography? Propose something rash, try something silly, but most of all, be willing to be surprised; take your camera, yourself, and your soul somewhere they’ve never been, with no thought as to where you’re going, how you’re getting there, or what you’ll do when you arrive.

So find something, or somewhere, unfamiliar. Seek out those unknowns and get to know them, and once they start getting comfortable, seek out others still. Your first steps in new territory will be uncertain ones often as not, but before long you’ll find your footing and step with more confidence. Along the way, you’ll find that those unknown places can be a veritable goldmine of new ideas and approaches to your craft. Better still, they’re great training for finding the unfamiliar in that which you already know.

*Not sure what the first piece of advice generally is for photographers. In my case, it was probably “Wait a second. Take the lens cap off.”

**Mind you, when I talk about going somewhere unsafe, I mean going outside that which is comfy in our minds, not taking your gear and yourself needlessly into harm’s way.

Photo News Roundup, 8/13/11

It’s awfully hard reaching a mannequin for comment.

The weekly pile o’ news. Links go to full articles.

Budget lensmaker Samyang coming out with Micro 4/3 fisheye; Olympus sending mixed messages about its 4/3 line, on one hand indicating it may have run its course, and on the other hinting that an E50 may be in the pipeline (4/3 Rumors)

Two new Fuji compacts announced, Sony introduces sunlight-friendly LCD, Polaroid announces filter-mount lens line, photographers attacked and robbed in UK riots (Adorama)

Rumors of varying degrees of plausibility, with varied timelines to match, trickling in to Canon Rumors, but a slow news week otherwise.

Samyang announces 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC lens (

Richard Swan of Leica UK drops hints on new Leica mirrorless system (Leica Rumors)

NEX-5 images and specs leaked, Samsung NX200 likely to be announced on September 5 (Mirrorless Rumors)

As if nose grease on your LCD wasn’t bad enough, you may soon have to worry about your schnozz changing your aperture; a company called AppCam wants to put your settings on an LCD touchscreen, a la the iPad. In other news, Jonathan Worth of Coventry University (UK) will be running free online photography courses (PetaPixel)

Tired of Hipstamatic? Yeah, so are we. But it isn’t going anywhere; if anything, it’s mushroomed. Recently released photo of President Obama at Dover AFB raises questions about balancing rights of the press and the public’s right to know against the rights and wishes of the families of men and women killed in action (PopPhoto)

Slow news week on the Sony and Nikon fronts, but their announcements are less than two weeks away. Nothing to add to previous Sony leaks, and Nikon has kept up Apple-like secrecy on their announcement, so not much to report there.

Tripods Vs. Monopods: A Guide

Sometimes a little support is a good thing. (Shot manual at 1.3 seconds, f/11, on a tripod)

A little support can be a good thing. You may have a steady hand, a firm grip, and phenomenal handholding technique, but at 1/10 of a second, even a neurosurgeon would start to notice a bit of camera shake in their photos. Given the myriad uses of long shutter speeds (low light, motion capture, fireworks, and the like), and given also that the image stabilization built into many cameras and lenses is only useful up to a certain point, a decent tripod or monopod is an essential in every photographer’s kit. Which is right for you? Or should you just spring for both? Let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages of each so you can make an informed decision.*

Since most people think “tripod” when they think about camera support, let’s talk about those first. For something so simple – three legs and a spot at the top for your camera – there are oodles (metric) of options out there, including aluminum, wood, and carbon fiber, and scads of options for the head of the tripod. Pricing is similarly varied, with a basic tripod costing about twenty bucks at one end of the spectrum, and a carbon fiber model with a really good ball head going for several hundred. Things to look for:

• Construction: Regardless of cost, does it feel solid? Be aware of the amount of weight you’ll be putting on the tripod (the weight of your body and your heaviest lens), and be sure it can handle it. Pay attention also to the quality of the leg locks (the parts that keep the legs in place when they’re extended), the center column lock, and the quality/type of feet (rubber feet are a must for indoor shooting, but spiked feet are generally more useful outdoors).

• Height: Make sure that the tripod’s center column extends to a height that’s correct for your line of sight. Stooping gets uncomfortable very quickly. Likewise, if you often shoot lower to the ground (especially useful with wildlife, though there are other reasons to do this as well), you’re going to want to make sure the legs will splay far enough apart, and the center column will get low enough, to allow you to shoot from that angle but remain stable.

• Weight: You want something that’s lightweight, since your kit gets heavy after you’ve been schlepping it for a few hours, but not so light that it’s unstable. For example, if you’re shooting in a high wind (or if, like me, you’re a bit clumsy), will the tripod stay upright when it takes a knock, or might it topple over? Don’t forget that some lenses (the average 70-300, to say nothing of a fast 70-200) are not only a bit heavy, they’re also just long enough to be a bit of a pain in the ass, and they don’t always come with tripod collars, so the weight distribution/center of gravity can be a bit askew. Sometimes, a heavier tripod is a necessary evil.

• Load Capacity: This isn’t the weight of the tripod; rather, it’s how much weight you can pile on it without something breaking. Your tripod (and head, if applicable) should be rated for more weight than you’re going to be putting on it.

• Quick release plate: most tripods have these; it’s a plate that attaches to the tripod thread on your camera that can be popped easily on or off the tripod head. Check to see how easily it releases; too easy and your camera may well come off when it’s not supposed to, but if it doesn’t come off easily enough, you could find yourself cursing a blue streak if you need to get it off quickly.

• Range of motion: Can you easily reorient the camera, whether to change from portrait to landscape orientation, to tilt/pan, or to shoot at different angles (especially if you’re looking to shoot downward from a high angle)? This is where the tripod’s head comes into play. Some tripods come with the head permanently attached to the body, while on others the legs can accommodate different heads. There are several different head options, and if you think the available options may not work for you, try something different.

Monopods don’t provide the same degree of stability as tripods, but they’re still very useful. Like their larger cousins, they come in a number of shapes and sizes, and over a pretty wide price range. They come in handy because of their lighter weight, greater portability, and the fact that they can double as a walking stick if you’re on a hike (or a defensive weapon if you’re in a dodgy area). They’re also allowed in places where tripods aren’t; many museums, for instance, frown upon tripods, but will allow the use of monopods. Here, as with tripods, check for the height, load-bearing ability and overall construction. Also pay attention to how you’re holding your camera. A common misconception about monopods is that you should stand as though you and the monopod make up three legs of a tripod. In actuality, you’re better off keeping the monopod close to your body, and using a good handholding technique, as this will be more stable.

So, what to buy? Find a middle ground you can live with. On one hand, putting a heavy and expensive SLR on a ten dollar tripod meant for a point-and-shoot probably isn’t a good idea (all that’s standing between your SLR and the concrete is ten bucks’ worth of spindly aluminum). On the other, however, I don’t necessarily agree with people who insist that the only way to go is spending $500 on a carbon fiber tripod and another $500 on a ball head, with the reasoning that “you’re going to need it sooner or later anyway.”** Get as much tripod (or monopod, or both) as you need, spend wisely, and don’t worry if the guy next to you in the photographer’s vest with two SLR’s around his neck looks at you funny (and nobody wearing a photographer’s vest has the right to look at anyone funny, incidentally). You can get a serviceable monopod for as little as $15, and a good tripod for between $100 and $200. If you find yourself needing something more expensive later, you can always unload the older gear on Craigslist or eBay.

One last thought in closing: There are hundreds of tripods, monopods, and heads available for sale online. Besides the fact that I’d urge you to support your local shop just on general principle, tripods are one thing you really need to get your hands on in order to make an intelligent decision. Getting your hands, and your gear, on a tripod is the best, if not only, way to make an informed choice. No matter how many five star reviews something has, what works for one person may not be right for you; besides, you can’t kick the tires over broadband.

*Other, more specialized, types of photography may call for specialized supports; macro photographers find focusing rails a godsend, while many dedicated videographers who use DSLR’s wouldn’t be caught dead without a steadicam rig. Those systems, and others, are worth considering depending on your niche, but I’m limiting myself to general purpose solutions here.

**Having said that, I owe it to you to offer a differing point of view, courtesy of Thom Hogan. His argument’s sound; the issue, in my opinion, is how much and how often you’re going to need that tripod, not to mention the cost. Bottom line: put at least as much thought into support –what you want, what you’re willing to spend, and what that’s going to mean for you over the long run – as you would into buying a body or lens. It has the potential to have as much impact on your photography as either of those things, not to mention the fact that the right tripod will be with you at least as long as your lenses.

Review: Within the Frame, by David duChemin

Within The Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision

As I was reading this book, something occurred to me. Photography’s become an awful lot like television, not only for the people who view photos, but also, sadly, for many of those who make them. People turn on to tune out, and when it comes to photos, it’s not much different; often as not,  whether it accompanies a news story in a magazine or on a website, the visual barely registers. I think that unfortunately, a lot of times even experienced photographers approach the craft the same way; what’s in the viewfinder, or on that little LCD, barely registers. And that’s to say nothing of what’s in front of the camera, the subject that compelled us to press the shutter button in the first place. Neither audience (reduced to mere “consumers”) nor photographers (reduced to mere “producers”) take much time or trouble engage with what’s in front of them, choosing instead to take an active rather than passive role in the process.

Of course, it doesn’t need to be this way. Maybe it’s a bit presumptuous of me, but it seems that this is one of the larger issues that David duChemin’s addressing with Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision.

Du Chemin, whose specialization in photography for humanitarian causes has taken him all over the world, shows that it’s not enough to bring a photographer’s eye to your work. There are also large doses of (and plenty written on) ethics, getting by in other cultures, and the importance of knowing local laws, customs, and mores. Regardless of the geography, the question remains the same: how do we approach the “other” on his/her ground, and his/her terms, lovingly and respectfully?

You don’t have to set foot within a country mile of Addis Ababa or the Angkor Wat; these things still apply equally on Main Street as they would if you were photographing in Moscow or Marrakesh. So even though a large portion of this book seems almost anthropological, it’s applicable on a local scale, as well. Your task is to make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange, or at least fresher than it was before.

At its heart, then, it’s not about the physical journey, so much as a mental leap; not to be disconnected from our images, and (more importantly) not to be disconnected from our subjects, whether they’re halfway around the world, or just ’round the bend. Yes, there are the requisite bits on technique and gear here, but they’re peripheral to the main thrust of the text, which is perhaps best summed up by duChemin’s now-famous maxim, “Gear is good. Vision is better.”

If there’s a lesson to be drawn here, especially as we add more images to a culture that’s already up to its eyeballs in them, it’s that we should capture the resonant shot, rather than just the obvious or pretty one. Not an easy task, as it requires the photographer to bring to bear not only the artistic and technical skills we too often take for granted, but — more importantly — a mind that’s as open as our eyes are to what’s before us, and a heart that’s compassionate. When we do this, effectively allowing ourselves to be as vulnerable behind the camera as our subjects are before it, we aren’t the only ones who stand a chance of forming, and portraying, deeper connections; those who view our work are more likely to do the same.

Postscript: David duChemin is also the author of VisionMongers: Making a Life and a Living in Photography, Vision & Voice: Refining Your Vision in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Photographically Speaking: A Deeper Look at Creating Stronger Images (Voices That Matter) (due in October). You can visit him on his website (which has his portfolio and a blog that’s as insightful as his books), find his e-books on Craft and Vision, find him on Twitter, or follow him on Facebook (the guy’s everywhere).

Your purchases through the Amazon affiliate links in this post help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks for your support!