Avoid Useless Gear

Except for antipasto, which is always useful.

We photographers are a notorious lot when it comes to having serious GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). For your reading pleasure, here are a few items you can safely avoid:

1. Brand New Anything: It can be VERY tempting, especially when you’ve heard about a product months in advance, to get it the day it’s released. Assuming that’s even possible (there will, after all, be hundreds, if not thousands, of people who’ve read the same speculation and leaked specs), you should actually be thankful if you can’t get your sweaty palms on a product in its early stages. It’s one thing to get a lousy sample; it’s something else altogether when that hotly anticipated product ends up being a dud, or has critical issues that impede its performance (hot pixels, dead pixels, overheating issues, distortion issues, et cetera.

2. Limited Use Anything: This can be true of bodies, lenses (how many people buy a fisheye lens only to have it gather more dust than photos?), and lots of other doodads that OEM and aftermarket manufacturers are always so eager to foist upon us. If it’s going to be absolutely vital once or twice, or if you’re not altogether sure how much use you’ll get out of it, rent or borrow it. If you’re not sure whether you need it, wait ’til it becomes necessary, and see the previous step.

3. Cheap Anything: Not that much comes cheap when it comes to photography. And there are some cheap pieces of kit that I’d argue you really ought to have in your bag (air blower, wireless remote, microfiber cleaning cloths). But some purchases are easy, and tempting, just ’cause they’re so inexpensive relative to most of the rest of your kit that they’re pretty easy to rationalize. Just bear in mind that those $19.95 purchases add up quickly if you’re making them often.

4. Really Expensive Anything:* Sometimes, good enough really is good enough. There are reasons that companies make lenses that run into the tens of thousands of dollars; a professional buying one can reasonably expect to recoup the price of the lens by using it. However, there are also reasons that lower-cost (and usually lower-specced) alternatives exist. Some of us are just shooting for the joy of it. If you’re one of those somebodies, bear in mind that if you’re willing to take the tradeoffs between one piece of equipment and another (lack of a built-in focus motor, for instance), that’s money that could be spent on other things, whether it’s other gear, or a nice dinner out with your long-suffering non-photographer significant other.

5. A Photography Degree: I’ll probably get flamed for this, and will have more to say on it another time. In the meantime, speaking of expensive… This is not to say you shouldn’t take the time and care to learn the fundamentals of the craft, and always work to improve them. With that said, the same calculus of cost versus ROI comes very much into play here as it would with a body or lens. Given that a degree currently comes at a cost that makes a Sigma 200-500mm 2.8 lens seem like a bargain, think twice before enrolling in a photography degree program. There are several other ways to learn the craft that don’t involve mortgaging the house, donating every organ you have two of, and signing a promissory note that puts your offspring in hock to a lender. Explore those first.

That’s just my top five. What are yours? In the comments, let me know the kinds of photography-related swag you habitually avoid.

*There’s a hidden corollary to this rule, however. Anything that’s so insanely expensive that you’d never once consider buying it — like a Sigma 200-500, or one of the hundreds of special edition Leica M9s that the company puts out on a regular basis for people who don’t take photos — automatically stops being expensive, ’cause you weren’t going to buy it anyway. Talk about cheap gear!

How To Photograph Plays and Recitals

Nothing like the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd… If you’ve got a kid, friend, or relative in a play, recital, or other performance and you happen to own a decent camera, don’t be surprised if you’re pressed into service as the photographer for the evening; even if you haven’t been, it’s a great opportunity to try something new with a bunch of willing subjects, and to be entertained in the process. So whether it’s community theater, a high school musical, or a dance recital, here’s a few tips for getting your best shot.

Your preparation can actually start well in advance of the main event. Before you arrive, see if you can get your hands on some of the music used, or a script. This will give you an idea of who’ll be doing what when.

If you’re shooting because you’ve got kids or friends in the play, see if you can’t make it to a dress rehearsal. You’ll be able to do things you couldn’t if you were there on the night of a performance (standing, using a tripod in the aisles, moving around the venue for different angles and perspectives… you can even ask the director about limited flash use). You may also get the chance to get shots of the cast and crew relaxing, goofing off, et cetera.

Bring more memory than you think you need (better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it), and bring spare batteries. Make sure your batteries are charged and memory cards are formatted. I would also suggest bringing some kind of support. While a tripod is going to give you the most stability, it’s also going to be bulky; a monopod does quite nicely without taking up much space. Not only will it stabilize the camera, it will also help to keep your lines straight. If nobody’s sitting directly in front of you, don’t be afraid to brace your elbows on the seat back for additional support.

Choose your lenses carefully (more on that below), and make sure everything – camera body, lens(es), batteries, memory and support – is packed.

Once you arrive, scout your location. You’ll want to pay attention to the pitch of the seating area since some venues have steeper seating than others. Above all, you’ll need clear sight lines – something that minimizes the number of heads in your shots – and you may want an aisle seat for easy access, and having your shooting side free of obstructions. I’ve had better luck off to the sides than in the orchestra seating (again, fewer heads). Somewhat further from stage is better (so you’re not craning your neck, and so the angles look more natural). Arrive early so you can try a few different seats and figure out what works best for you. If you’re using a support, make sure you’ve left sufficient space for it.

About your lens choices: Fast primes are nice for the options they afford you in terms of shutter speed and lower ISO. Having said that, you’re going to be confined to one place for extended periods of time, which eliminates the possibility of zooming/reframing on your feet, and also taking a number of compositional possibilities off the table. A zoom lens – even a slow one – will give you a greater degree of freedom. If it’s a musical, I suggest something that starts wide to be able to encompass what’s going on in the big song and dance numbers. Dramas give you a bit more leeway with a tighter field of view because the staging doesn’t tend to be quite so scattered. In any event, whatever you pack, just be ready to adapt on the fly.

Check your settings: Shoot with the highest quality your camera will allow. That means shooting RAW if you have the option or the inclination, or in the highest-quality JPEG setting your camera has. You’ll likely want/need to edit your photos later, and the more information they contain, the better they’ll stand up to editing.* At the very least, allot one card per act (two per, if your camera has two slots). Auto white balance. Your ISO should be sufficiently high that it allows you to use a decent shutter speed and aperture. If you’re not already familiar with how your camera behaves at high ISO, try some test shots in low light. In any event, unless you’re using a camera that performs exceptionally well at very high ISO’s, don’t go past 1600 ISO. You’ll lose a lot of detail, and notice a lot of noise, especially in dark areas (even if your camera applies noise reduction). Your choice of metering will depend on how you’re shooting; if you’re going to shoot in auto or a priority mode (which, again, I’d suggest you don’t), use center or spot-weighted metering, because average/matrix metering is going to take into account the entire scene, and if the action’s taking place against a black, or very dark, background, you’re going to have some seriously funky exposures, probably with a lot of blown highlights. If you’re shooting manual, it doesn’t matter much; you’ll be ignoring the meter anyway.**

Noises off: First and foremost, turn off your flash. Let me repeat: never, never, never EVER shoot the performance using flash. I don’t care if the blue-haired old lady in the fifth row is doing it. You know better (and if you didn’t, you do now). It’s going to be a distraction to those sitting around you, which is bad enough. Worse still — and I speak from experience here — it’s a huge distraction to the performers. Likewise, if your camera uses an AF assist light, shut that off too. It’s not quite as much of a distraction as a flash, but it’s pretty darn close.

Speaking of distractions, if your camera has a “quiet” setting, use it. That means turning off the little beep that lets you know the photo’s in focus, turning off the shutter noise that the camera makes when it takes a photo (if it has one), and using the setting that quiets the “slap” of the mirror if your camera allows that. Finally, shoot using the viewfinder and not the camera’s LCD. You’ll have a steadier hand, your focusing be faster and more accurate (both manual and auto focus), and you’re also keeping your camera from being a distraction for those seated nearby.

Okay, now it’s show time… and time to shoot in manual. It’s not as hard as it seems, but this is one instance where it pays off. Here’s why: left to its own devices, your camera will try to expose any scene to look like it’s daylight. When you’re dealing with a scene where the lighting is far from ideal, shooting in Auto or even in a Priority mode is going to lead to your camera defaulting to a wide aperture and/or long shutter speed. What’s worse, the end results aren’t likely to look like what you saw in front of you.

While we’re on the subject of aperture and shutter speed, if you’re shooting with a long lens, I’d suggest you sacrifice aperture before shutter speed. If the scenery’s a bit out of focus, nobody’s going to mind, but using a shutter speed that’s too slow is going to leave everybody looking a bit ghostly, if not ghastly. If you’re using a short telephoto zoom (105mm or less at the long end), you can get away with shooting at about f/5.6-f/8 1/125 handheld, and at about 1/200 at the same apertures with a longer zoom, depending on the lighting. Check your photos as you go – you’re only checking at this stage, not deleting/editing/obsessing – so you know what settings need to be tweaked. Don’t be afraid to underexpose a bit (you can brighten photos later), but try to avoid overexposure, since it’s very difficult to recover blown highlights.

Finally, shoot with your ears open, especially if you’re shooting a musical or dance recital. Sometimes getting the shot means not just looking for it, but listening for it. At intermission, check your battery, changing if needed. Change your memory card whether you think you need it or not. Above all, remember why you’re there, and don’t obsess over getting the shot to the point where you miss the important part – the performance itself.

*It also helps if you have to recover highlights or shadows later.

**This takes a little practice, or at least a couple of test shots. The reason I suggest ignoring your meter is because your meter is likely going to tell you the photo’s irredeemably underexposed if you shoot at these settings, but the photos will be a close approximation of what you saw on the stage. Pay attention to the lighting, however, since you may have to adjust from time to time based on how it changes.

If any of you have tips of your own, let’s hear ’em!

Exposure Compensation vs. ISO

Tired of Watching

Okay, quick review time. Let’s throw composition out the window (for today, anyway) and take up exposure for a minute. If you’ll recall, exposure is all about light: the amount, duration, and intensity of the light hitting your medium, whether it’s film or a sensor. These things are covered by your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO respectively.

With all of the options those things afford to you, exposure compensation may seem a bit redundant. It’s not. It’s especially useful in situations with funky lighting (say, when you’re shooting against a brightly lit background, or shooting in snow or on a beach). Setting the exposure compensation can also help to make up for some of the camera’s quirks (i.e. if your camera tends to overexpose slightly when left to its own devices) and give you more control over the exposure.

Depending on your camera, you’ll be able to adjust exposure value (EV) by anywhere from two to five stops, in 1/3-stop increments. They’ll show up in your finder, or on your LCD, usually represented by decimal numbers: +/- 0.3, 0.7, 1, et cetera. Exposure compensation sometimes  isn’t available when you’re shooting in manual, because if you want to over- or under-expose by a set number of stops, all you have to do is to instruct the camera to do that. If, however, you’re using Program or a Priority mode, exposure compensation’s a good way to be able to “set it and forget it.”

Let’s say you’ve chosen an EV of +1. The camera will tweak your settings depending on the mode you’re using, and the EV you’ve dialed in. So if you’re using Shutter Priority and you’ve set the shutter speed to 1/200 and the aperture would normally have been f/16, the camera will instead change the aperture to f/11. Conversely, if you’re shooting in Aperture Priority, it’ll keep the f/16 aperture, but change your shutter speed to 1/125.

So where does ISO enter into all of this? ISO is like an amplifier; it takes what’s already there and boosts it. Just the same as when you’ve got a Strat plugged into an amplifier and you get distortion once you’ve turned the volume up past a certain level, ISO can give you a similar kind of distortion — in the form of visible “noise” — as more gain is applied to the sensor. There are, of course, times when you really need an extra stop or two of sensitivity, such as when you’re shooting at night, or indoors, especially in instances when you’d rather not use a flash. Boosting your exposure compensation by a stop or two will brighten the photo, but it’s not going to change the sensor’s native sensitivity; only your ISO can do that.

If you’re shooting in bright light, or shooting on a tripod in low light using a longer shutter speed, you won’t generally need a high ISO. In the former instance, there’s enough light present already that the sensor doesn’t need too much more sensitivity,* and in the latter case, the duration during which light hits the sensor makes up for its lack of intensity.**

Since all of this may seem about as easy as Chinese arithmatic, let’s try to simplify a bit. If you’re trying to figure out whether the ISO or the Exposure Compensation is the solution, first be a bit more specific about the problem. Is it the amount of the light, or how the color and light are distributed within the frame? If it’s the former, adjust your ISO. If it’s the latter, tweak your exposure compensation.*** It’s going to take a bit of practice to figure out what each will do for (or to) your photos, and what works best for a given situation, but before too long it will become second nature to you.

*Although it can still be useful to add an extra stop of ISO if you’re shooting with a longer lens, or for any other reason that you might need a slightly faster  shutter speed.

**Something else to keep in mind: very long shutter speeds will introduce noise to your shots because the sensor will start to heat up slightly. You may want/need to do a test shot or two just to see how your camera behaves, especially if shooting on the Bulb setting, and then tweak your settings accordingly. It may be that the tradeoff between sensor noise and ISO noise is an acceptable one to you, but that’s an individual choice.

***One final thought: Be careful when using exposure compensation in conjunction with higher ISO settings, since different EV’s can emphasize the noise and loss of detail that comes with using higher ISOs.

Okay, just one more thing: Exposure Compensation should not be confused with Flash Compensation. One controls the camera’s “input” (how it’s exposing the image), while the other controls the “output” (power) of your speedlight.

Using Portrait Versus Landscape for Your Photos

Figure 1

Let’s start off by explaining what Portrait and Landscape are, exactly, for anyone reading this that doesn’t know. Portrait orientation is a more  generally reserved for… well, portraits, like Figure 1. Landscape orientation for landscapes, as in Figure 2. Makes sense, right? So what’s with Figure 3, which shows a portrait (of sorts) in Landscape orientation?

This is worth thinking about since it’s one of the first decisions we make when we decide to make a photo. Here are a few things to think about when you choose whether to shoot in Landscape or in Portrait:

First of all, where’s the eye going? Also bear in mind that once the photo’s taken, you’re effectively trying to lead your viewer around by the eyeballs. Where do you want their eye to go? While there’s a lot that goes into composition, a general rule of thumb is that landscape tends to lend itself to “panning” (the eye’s following the horizontal axis), whereas portrait favors “tilting” (the eye follows the vertical axis) Sometimes there will be lines within the photo that draw the eye, but just as often it’s the shape of the subject itself (or the interplay of its various shapes) that’s doing the work for you.

Figure 2

Landscape is great for creating a sense of context, since it practically begs you to provide some background for your subject. Portrait orientation, on the other hand, is helpful when you want your subject to be the center of attention. Of course, that’s only a guideline, since the way you frame the shot in either case (and specifically, how close or far you are in relation to your subject) can either isolate or contextualize your subject just as well as the way you’re holding your camera.

And that, in a roundabout way, brings us to another consideration. We’re conditioned by years of seeing things presented in a certain way. So much of what we see — television, the monitor on which you’re reading this, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks — is in Landscape that we expect certain kinds of scenes to be presented that way. It’s expansive, inclusive, and informal. On the other hand, so much of portraiture, from Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington to Platon’s portraits of world leaders, relies on what we’ve come to read as the formality of the Portrait format. Using one format where the other would normally be used is a way to work against type on a subconscious level; a horizontal portrait, for instance, can make someone seem more approachable.


Figure 3

Using the Rule of Thirds sometimes also means changing your orientation. If you’re using your viewfinder or LCD’s grid lines (or even just eyeballing it), you may have something that lines up perfectly where it “should” on the grid lines. However, it could also be an awkward, or otherwise ineffective, composition. Try changing the orientation and reframing the shot. This is also true when you’re shooting more than one person, since a vertical photo tends to emphasize closeness (something to bear in mind if you’re shooting a group of friends), whereas a horizontal photo, if not framed properly, can make your subjects seem a bit lost or insignificant.

Here’s what I’d like you to do: Experiment. If you tend to shoot everything in one orientation, try the other. Or, if you tend to shoot certain types of subjects with the same orientation, change things up and see what it does to your composition and framing. If you’re all about context, see what happens when you zoom in on the details; this can have the added bonus of making you notice, and appreciate, details you might’ve missed or otherwise passed over. If, on the other hand, you’re all about detail, enjoy the forest and skip the trees for a bit. Sometimes these small changes can make a big difference, especially at times we’re starting to feel things getting a bit stale.

Figure 4

And here’s something else to try, just for fun: Instead of aligning your camera in a conventional portrait or landscape orientation, use a diagonal line within the photo (even if it’s a diagonal created by a vanishing point) as a guide to align the camera. Take Figure 4 as an example; the landscape format would tend to lead the eye from left to right, and in fact the signs do just that. At the same time, however, the slight diagonal tends to lead the eye “upward” at the same time. The results aren’t always going to be spectacular (indeed, the jury’s still out on Figure 4), but I’ve found that this can be effective at times when you have a really busy frame. When you’ve only got one strong subject, it just looks like they’re toppling over, but if there’s a lot going on, tweaking your orientation can be an option to slow your viewer down. Not only can this give you a different perspective (literally), it’s also a way to play with the leading lines within the photo and where the viewer’s eye is led as a result.

Autofocus Versus Manual Focus


If you’re anything like me — which, for the purposes of this post, means you’re just about blind as a bat without your glasses — autofocus can be a godsend. It’s pretty useful for a host of other reasons and situations as well. Shooting sports or animals, shooting from the hip, shooting at odd angles… there are times that it’s a good thing that the camera can take care of at least one variable for you, and generally do it pretty reliably. There are times, however, when AF isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and you need to eyeball your shot for the best results.

  • Shallow DOF (Depth of Field): This comes into play in two situations. One is when you’re using a lens wide open (say, in the 1.4-3.5 range), either to let in more light or to blur your background. The other is when you’re using a long lens. Someone who knows the physics of these things could probably explain far better than I could, but for whatever reason, a lens racked to 300mm at f/8 acts very much like a 50mm at f/1.8. In either case, your focal plane (the part of the photo that’s in focus) can be razor thin. While autofocus will pick something to focus on, the camera’s idea of what should be in focus may not be the same as yours.
  • Low Contrast/Lousy Lighting: Whether your camera uses contrast detection or phase detection for autofocus, both systems require varying degrees of contrast in order to work well (there’s a better explanation here). Bottom line: if there’s not much contrast (your subject’s color and lighting is similar to its background, for instance) or if you’re working in low light, your camera’s AF may “hunt” for a focal point.
  • Stealth: In low light (where your AF assist light is likely to go off) or if you’re using older, screw-drive AF lenses (which are cheaper than their newer counterparts, but can also be noisy), you may inadvertently draw attention to yourself at a time when you’re trying to stay incognito.
  • Deer Photobomb

    “Busy,” Cluttered, or Active Scenes: I usually love my camera’s AF system, but there are times that it works a little too well. I had initially tried a couple of shots of the deer in Figure 2 using autofocus, only to find that the little AF point in my viewfinder kept skittering between blades of tall grass rather than locking on the deer, where I wanted it. Similarly, if you’re trying to shoot through a chain link fence or a window (especially if the window’s dirty, or if there are reflections you’d rather didn’t distract from the subject), you may find that the AF keeps wanting to focus on what’s closer.

  • Portraits: If you’re filling the frame with your subject’s face (and, for that matter, even when you’re not), you usually want your subject’s eyes in focus. Not their cheek, their nostrils, nose hairs, unibrow, et cetera. And it never fails that when you’re close in on your subject, your autofocus will focus on anything but the eyes.
  • Moving subjects: This one may seem counterintuitive, and it takes practice, but if you’re dealing with a moving subject, it can help to manually focus rather than hoping the AF locks on correctly. It’s especially true when you’re dealing with a subject that’s moving through a scene with lots of foreground/background distractions.
  • Static Subjects: If you’re photographing, say, your dinner, it’s not likely to run away on you (I hope). Using manual focus at a time you don’t necessarily have to can be useful because it forces you to slow down, but also because it can give you the ability to fine-tune what you want in focus.
  • Prefocusing: This isn’t purely manual focusing, but I’m going to add it here because it’s related. If your AF system is having difficulty acquiring your subject for one of the reasons above (or any of the others) but you don’t want to turn AF off for some reason, you can manually focus on your subject (or at least get close to correct focus) and then let the camera take over.

Last, but by no means least, there’s the Stubborn Camera. There will be times that your camera will, for reasons known only to itself, focus on anything and everything but your subject. You could be taking a photo of a black spider on a white wall, and your camera will seemingly fall madly in love with a nondescript part of the wall, totally ignoring the spider. Or it will focus on the clouds, rather than the bear that’s looming over you, threatening to… well, in that case, I think focusing is the least of your problems.

Have any tips you’d like to share? Comment below, or feel free to inbox me!

Prompts and Photography

Paul Simonon by Shepard Fairey

I’ve been writing far longer than I’ve been photographing (though I guess you’d never know that by this site). One thing that you’ll find in many creative writing guides are series of writing prompts meant to help writers break through creative blocks, and to help take their writing in different directions. Since writers are hardly the only ones who hit a wall from time to time (it happens to all creative types sooner or later), or who need a change of direction, I thought I’d take the subject up today.

It occurred to me recently that I’ve discussed this before, but really only obliquely, in a post about photo projects. The idea of a “project” can be intimidating, especially if you’re a hobbyist* (where, after all, will you find the time to commit to something like that, to say nothing of the motivation?), so it can be useful just to have a bite-sized moresel to ruminate over without having to worry about biting off more than you can chew. If we’re going to extend the writing/photography metaphor a bit further, this would be like freewriting, where you free associate for a page or so, usually on a particular subject or theme, versus trying to crank out a short story or novel.

Now, if you’re not a writer, it’d probably help if I explained what free writing was. What you’re doing is a stream of consciousness exercise, leaving aside any considerations of form, grammar, spelling, and even content. If it’s in your head, it goes on the paper, simple as that. It gets a bit more complicated for photographers (we can’t just visualize a muskrat and have it magically manifest in front of the camera), but that doesn’t mean it’s not still useful. What writers and photographers have in common, I think, is a tendency at times to mull something over to a degree that the thoughts get in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish; in plain English, we overthink the damn thing (about which, more in the next post).

So where does that leave us? Well, for starters, give yourself a series of prompts. We’re not after sweeping ideas, or grand, arching themes here. The whole idea is to stay deliberately small and eminently manageable. Instead of thinking to yourself that you’re going to come up with a photo essay on the passage of the seasons in your favorite park, tell yourself you’re going to shoot something feathered, for instance.** Or set a particular small theme for the day, even if it’s something as simple as “red.”

The next thing is to just shoot. Take some time to let the rules go out the window. The results, same as they’d be for a writer, won’t be pretty, but then, pretty isn’t the point here. The point is to get your ass out there and make photos. The only rule? For whatever length of time you choose — a few minutes, an hour, or a day — if it catches your eye, it’s getting its photo taken. Once you’ve gotten to, or over, that bit (especially if you’re blocked), then you can engage your brain and start taking all of that raw material and following it in whatever direction it suggests to you.

Finally, a little something for any writers who may have come across this post accidentally (you didn’t think I’d leave you out, did you?): even — or maybe especially — if you’re not a photographer, find a camera (even if it’s just the one on your mobile phone), get yourself away from the computer, and take some photos. Once you get back home, you will have snapped enough writing prompts to last you a while. Repeat as necessary.

More photography prompts to follow… In the meantime, have any you’d like to share or suggest? Comment below!

*Or even a professional, since pros are prone to talking at great length about all the stuff they’d be shooting if they weren’t so busy making money off their craft.

**With your camera, of course.

New Page: Free Photo Software

Screenshot from the Gnu Image Manipulation Program (GIMP)

In place of the usual Tuesday post, I’ve added a new page to The First 10,000. On it, you’ll find more than 80 sites and programs for photo editing, all of it available for no cost. From time to time, we’ll also be reviewing the best and worst of these sites. If there’s something I’ve missed, feel free to drop me a line at thefirst10000 at gmail dot com. In the meantime, click here for more.

Photo Projects

Self Portrait in Rust

It’s easy to settle into a rut. Even when we know, on some level, that it hasn’t really “all been done,” we feel as though we’ve done… well, if not everything, then enough of the same thing to feel like we’ve settled into a rut. It can be helpful at times like that to set a project for yourself. Having a set of guidelines — as loose or specific as you feel you want or need — can be a great motivator, and a good way to beat the block. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

1. 365 Days project: This one’s a perennial favorite, probably because it can be either as simple or as complicated as you’d like. The most basic requirement is to take a photo of something every day. Beyond that, you can add additional “rules.” Daily self-portraits are common (and more challenging than they might seem; see below). You can also, as one of my friends has done, choose a specific time at which each photo must be taken, or blog the results, as another friend likes to do.

2. 52 Weeks project: Maybe you’re pressed for time, or just plain absent-minded. In that case, set aside one day a week and photograph something at the same time each week.

3. Choose a limit: Take a day, or several, to shoot with only a prime lens. If you don’t own a prime, choose a single focal length on your zoom lens and stick to it. Or, if you usually only shoot in color, set your camera to black-and-white. Only shoot during the day, or during the Golden Hours? Try night photography, or challenge yourself to shoot in lighting conditions that you’d normally consider crappy. In each instance, the idea is to break your old habits and patterns and find new ways to shoot.

4. Shoot one thing: This is a variation on the 365 Days/52 Weeks idea above. Find something — be it a building, an object (like your car) an animal (like your cat) or even yourself, and take at least one shot of it daily. Not only will the resulting photos let you track the changes in your subject over time, it’s also much more challenging than it might seem in the first few days. After all, you’ll soon find yourself looking for new angles and new ways to shoot the same subject, which can present its own set of challenges while it also pushes you to expand your imagination and creativity.

5. Find a Theme: This can be something concrete (shooting shop windows, or in cemeteries, for instance) or something relatively abstract (like trying to capture a photo of a concept, like love or death). The challenge here is to avoid cliches, whether in your choice of subject matter, or in your composition/representation if you’ve chosen a subject that’s often photographed.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to experiment. Put your own spin on these ideas, or come up with something daring of your own. If you’ve come up with an interesting project, let us know!

Copy Shamelessly


I save lots of things. I have piles of ticket stubs, recipes, magazine articles, greeting cards, scraps of paper that I jot things down on… and writing. Lots of it. I’ve discarded quite a bit of what I’ve written over the years, but I’ve also hung onto enough of it to have a pretty good idea of how my writing has evolved over the years. 

With the older writing especially, I can usually tell what I was reading at the time by how I was writing: A bit of Benchley here, a pinch of Barthelme there, the occasional pinch of Rushdie. It’s not just writers who do it, either. Anyone who creates pretty much anything relies on the work of those who’ve gone before for equal parts inspiration and road map. So it’s hardly surprising when we find our work echoes, or even outright mimics, those whose efforts inspired us to do what we do.

When we first catch on to the fact that we’re doing this, we might be a little ashamed. If we were any good, we think, our work would be more authentic, and would speak with something more of our own voices. It’s okay, though; what’s important, at least early on, is the simple fact that you’re doing something, creating something. It’s in that process that we find our voices, and the confidence to speak with them. It’s only later on, if we’re using someone else’s voice or style as a crutch (or actively plagiarizing them) that it becomes problematic.

There’s something useful buried in that imitation, though, and it’s something that only became clear to me by hindsight. When we consciously set out to imitate someone, we’re picking apart their style and disassembling (or deconstructing, if you want to get all fancy about it) what they’ve done to figure out what makes it tick. Putting someone else’s work under that kind of microscope gives us insight into their technique, but actually trying to do what they’ve done can help us to make sense of our own work if we approach it the right way.

So, try this some time: choose a photographer, and do your level best to create something that looks exactly like that person would’ve done it. If, for instance, you feel ambitious enough to take on a David LaChapelle shot, try to re-create the lighting, the makeup, the post-processing… everything. You may not be able to afford all that goes into a LaChapelle shoot (props, lighting setup, assistants, Amanda Lepore), but it can also be fun figuring out ways to get the same results on a shoestring. In the course of doing all of this, you’ll be adding to your own skill set, and also gaining an appreciation for all the work that goes into making a great photo, while also finding new ways to express your own voice in your own work.

A Few Thoughts On Digital Infrared Photography

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery 2011 (D7000 and an inexpensive Polaroid IR filter, converted to black and white)

Infrared (IR) photography can provide some unique, very striking images. Blue skies are nearly turned black, while grass, trees, or skin can take on an eerie, ethereal glow. Having that option in your toolkit can be very tempting.

As with so much else, there’s a catch. In the film days, you needed special IR film and an IR filter (which filtered out the visible parts of the spectrum to leave you with mostly infrared light) to capture that part of the spectrum. Digital sensors, left to their own devices, will pick up the IR and UV (ultraviolet) parts of the spectrum just fine on their own. Therefore, most digital cameras have what’s called an antialiasing filter installed in front of the sensor to block out IR and UV (ultraviolet) rays that could otherwise make a mess of your photos. Over the years, these  filters have gotten stronger and stronger, making it nearly impossible to attach an IR filter and get anything close to an IR image.

If you’re really serious about IR photography, your best bet is to get a secondhand camera (like a Nikon D70) that has a weak antialiasing filter, or sending your existing rig in for modification. Either of these options will run you a considerable amount of money (and the latter option, if I’m guessing correctly, is likely to make your warranty vanish like steam from a bathroom mirror).  There’s another option: pick up a secondhand film body* and some IR film (Ilford makes a pseudo-IR 35mm film that’s well-reviewed and not as tempramental as the older IR stock from companies like Kodak), and snap away. The advantage to this, naturally, is that you can shoot regular 35mm to your heart’s content if you get bored with IR.

In any event, it’s a good idea to think about exactly how much IR photography you’re going to do. It’s a bit like cilantro; some people love the stuff, others can’t stand it, and its overuse gets quite tired very quickly.

The same image, in color. A tad creepy, but not in a good way.

The conventional wisdom about filters is that since your gear is only as strong as its weakest link, you generally don’t want to cheap out on whatever you stick on your lenses. While that’s true in a lot of cases — indeed, I’ve seen cheap UV and polarizing filters cause more issues than they were supposed to solve in the first place — this is one place where I’d suggest you go with something inexpensive if you decide to ignore my advice and try IR photography with a newer camera. Given that you’re not likely to get true IR results, all you’re going to be doing is sticking a very strong red filter on your lens (see the images that accompany this piece). Nothing wrong with that, but plunking down $100.00 or more for something that’s very easy to do with a few clicks in Photoshop or GIMP is a silly use of money that’s probably better used elsewhere.

*If you’re going to go the film route, I’d suggest getting a cheap old rangefinder. Once an IR filter is on a conventional SLR — where, remember, the viewfinder shows the view through the lens — you can’t see a darn thing. Since a rangefinder usually relies on split focus (through a finder that doesn’t rely on the view through the lens), it’s a lot easier to compose and focus.