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How The Shot Was Taken: Morning Vigil

30 Apr
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I spent the early part of last week in the Columbia River Gorge scouting for the July CAPTURE Oregon workshop. My goal was to finalize the best places to take pictures for sunrise, sunset and any time in between, rain or shine. This shot is from one of the locations I’ll plan on visiting:

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Morning Vigil
Portland Women’s Forum Overlook, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

This shot was taken at sunrise on the very last morning of my scouting excursion. At the beginning of my trip, I spent some time trying to figure out which locations I wanted to scout. First I Googled something like “best overlooks in the Columbia River Gorge” and looked around on Google Images and other photographers’ websites to get an idea of what overlooks would offer great photos. As I searched around, I made note of where exactly they were, adding them to a Google My Maps map that I have created for such purposes. I then took some time to figure out which times of day would be the best time to visit those locations.

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Once I have a few places scouted out and had figured out what time of day that would be best photographed, I was able to put together a rough schedule of where I should each morning and evening. And depending on the travel times, I would know what time to set my alarm. I generally try to arrive at a location about 1 hour before sunrise, so that meant my alarm was going off between 4-5am every morning. Arriving an hour before sunrise allows me to check out different angles, get set up in plenty of time, and shoot pre-sunrise long-exposures if the location lends itself to such shots.

For this particular location, I arrived pretty late, only about 20 minutes before sunrise. But it wasn’t because I had over slept . . . this particular overlook turned out to be Plan B. Plan A was the 360 degree Larch Mountain overlook. In my online scouting, I was under the impression that it was open, even though the area was high enough in elevation that the road would normally be closed due to snow through the end of April. Well, my impression proved wrong and the road to the overlook was indeed closed about 4 uphill miles from the top. So that’s why I had to come up with Plan B. Because the Portland Women’s Forum overlook was close by and I had not yet scouted it out, I figured it would be the next best option for the sunrise.

And it turned out to be a pretty good spot! Because it was so cloudy, I wasn’t sure if there would be any color at sunrise. But just in case, I set up my tripod and camera settings quickly at the first break in the trees and waited. When the scene didn’t change after a few minutes, I looked around to see if any other vantage point would be better than the one I had started with. This is what I ended up with:

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I needed to be as high as possible to be able to shoot above the trees in the foreground. As for camera settings, I experimented with multiple focal lengths, and determined that 150mm was what I needed to include only the elements that were interesting at this particular time. I always keep my ISO as low as possible for quality’s sake, and used aperture f/16 to make sure the entire scene was in focus. This left the shutter speed between 1/10th of a second and 2.5 seconds (depending on what part of the scene I was exposing for) which wasn’t a problem because I had the camera on a tripod. With Drive Mode set to 2 second timer, I was able to trip the shutter without touching the camera to make sure there were no unnecessary vibrations from my own finger pressing the shutter release.

In post, I merged 6 different exposures to help me create a realistic dynamic range that the camera could not pick up in one shot.

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To learn more about how I do my online scouting, on-location scouting, use Google My Maps, set up my camera for landscape shots or merge multiple exposures for realistic HDR processing join the PRO Membership and refer to “Morning Vigil” on the PRO Q&A Forum.

Take Your Creativity To A Deeper Level

28 Apr
6428_Salem-West Virginia-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 24 mm, 1-400 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 400

A few weeks ago, I was asked to photograph an old school that was for sale on some property near where I live.

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The purpose was purely documentary. To show what existed so potential buyers could know what they were buying. I wasn’t supposed to be “creative” with the pictures. I was just supposed to photograph the raw fact—what simply existed.

Going into the project, I was in the mindset that nothing else but camera knowledge was going to be necessary for the job. For example, I would just need the non-creative knowledge of how to photograph in poorly lit rooms. I would need the non-creative knowledge of how to make sure all my pictures were always sharp and focused properly. I just needed the non-creative skills of operating a camera.

6357_Salem-West Virginia-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 17 mm, 1-160 sec at f - 4.0, ISO 1600

But now that the job is finished, and as I think back on it, I realize that creativity was actually at play during the entire photo shoot, even when I didn’t realize it. A different level of creativity. Not the kind of artistic creativity specific to what I normally do as a photographer—capturing existing beauty or creating beauty out of ashes—but rather a broader sort of professional creativity that helps one conduct a job with excellence, producing superior results than the person who is there just to do a job.

For instance, while I was on the job, it helped when I would suggest different angles, take pictures from multiple perspectives, request for all the lights to be turned on, look for better vantage points that would give a better idea of what the surroundings were like, rearrange furniture or move things out of the way . . . things that may not necessarily relate to photography specifically but make a difference in how thorough or professionally the job is conducted.

6347_Salem-West Virginia-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 19 mm, 1-160 sec at f - 4.0, ISO 1600

And this sort of creativity—seeking methods of creating superior results—is helpful in every area of life! Everything in life can be done a better way in the eyes of a creative person! As I seek both artistic and professional creativity in the position of “photographer”, than it will ultimately show through in other areas of life.

So, let us continue to think creatively in photography at both levels, as an artists as well as a professional in our field. And to develop both of these levels, let us not forget to remember where creativity actually originates. God hasn’t given us the spirit of fear—timidity, cowardice, just doing a job to get it over with—but instead, the spirit of power to do things well, of love to do it for the benefit of others, and of a “sound mind”, a sort of self-control that allows us to think outside the box of ourselves to look into the world of God’s perspective, the perspective of the Creator.

6447_Salem-West Virginia-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 35 mm, 1-250 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 400

How to Keep from Missing Good Opportunities for Good Pictures

26 Apr
6545_--_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 200 mm, 1-400 sec at f - 8.0, ISO 200

My brother Jonathan and I drove down together from West Virginia to the Big Sandy Family Conference in Texas. It was quite the drive, but when I travel, I try to plan in some extra time to stop for sunrise or sunset pictures.

So, as we were driving along that first day, I started looking for potential places at which we could stop about an hour or so before sunset. The skies were clear so I couldn’t expect there to be a dramatic sunset, but I figured I could plan for be some nice golden hour light.

We were driving through the Appalachian mountains of southern Virginia and there were several points of interest along the way that seemed liked good candidates. Due to timing, we decided to stop at a place called Big Walker Mountain Overlook, about 15 minutes off the Interstate.

Doing my online scouting, I couldn’t find very many pictures of the place so I didn’t know if it would be worth the effort to go there, but there were little blurbs about it here and there about beautiful views from the parking lot of a country store, and even a quarter mile trail out to an overlook called Monster Rocks. It all sounded pretty interesting and seemed like a good spot for sunset.

And when we arrived at the beginning of the golden hour, we found that it was indeed a good place to stop! The main attraction was a 100 foot tower that you could pay to walk up to get 360 views of the surrounding area. However, it was closed, so I figured the next best thing was to hike up to Monster Rocks. A place named like that sounded like it would have good views. And probably better, more natural views and foreground elements to work with than the openings that were there in the parking lot.

Now, it is at this point in the story that I want to pause to throw in my tidbit of advice for how to keep from missing good opportunities for good pictures: if I’m not confident that what is ahead is really beautiful, and I’m currently standing at a spot that is perceived to be semi-beautiful, then it’s usually a better idea to photograph the semi-beautiful place first.

It’s hard to fight the hope that what’s ahead is surely better than where I currently am now, but if I don’t have any proof other than hope that what’s ahead is better, than I have found that it’s worth taking the time to take advantage of where I currently am now—what I know already exists to be beautiful—even if if it may seem to be less striking than what was originally hoped for. It’s the whole concept of “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” I have missed a lot of good opportunities for beautiful pictures because I was greedily looking for something better than what I already had.

So, back to the story, this is what I was presented with at the Big Walker Mountain Overlook parking lot. There were definitely opportunities where I was, but then there was this tantalizing idea that surely it was better out at Monster Rocks.

Well, this time, I fought the urge to set out on the hike immediately, and went down to a little platform at the first overlook to shoot a few shots first. There really was something that caught my eye here at this scene, and I figured it would be better to risk missing what I wasn’t confident existed at Monster Rocks.

So, I shot a few shots.

6545_--_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 200 mm, 1-400 sec at f - 8.0, ISO 200

Then I hiked out to Monster Rocks. I arrived in good time still, thankfully, but instead of the grand vista that I was expecting, it felt more like a little “hole in the wall” sort of place. The angle on the rolling green fields below just wasn’t the same.

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I didn’t have time to go back to the first overlook. And this is usually the case! I probably would have missed both opportunities rushing back to the first one, if I hadn’t taken advantage of the first one first.

So, even though I did shoot from Monster Rocks to get the best shot I could of the sun dipping below the distant mountains, I was glad that I had taken the time to photograph the greener grass on my own side of the fence first. And this is the principle behind how to keep from missing good opportunities for good pictures. Learn self-control, and receive creatively the opportunities that God has already placed in your path.

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How to Add a Professional Touch to Your Photojournalism Photos

25 Apr
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Just finished up the Big Sandy ACTION Photography Team! Let me share some of the best photos submitted by the team members with my comments on the reason why I thought they were the best.

The basic principle behind any good picture taken during an ACTION is, “the best pictures, though often hardest to shoot, are those which portray joyfulness, most powerfully caught when the subject is looking at the camera.”

Any picture that captures this concept is generally`a good picture, and one that will be used. But there is always that certain category of shots among the good that just pop out as being the best. What makes these pictures pop out like that? Here are a few of my thoughts:

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The additional element in this shot is the framing and sense of depth. Because the background as well as elements in the foreground are both out of focus, it creates a powerful sense of depth that creatively raises this picture above the rest.

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The diminishing pattern of chairs in the background is a powerful tool for moving the eye through the entire picture. The leading lines moving across the scene keep the eye moving through the picture, but the main subject is strong enough to keep pulling the eye back, making it a dynamic picture to view.

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This shot is a refreshing break from posed group shots taken of the ALERT Cadets. It’s action plus interaction, a difficult combination that usually only works if captured spontaneously.

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A creative use of silhouette. Not the normal close up shot of a cadet enjoying an activity, but there’s no guessing at first glance the story behind the shot: a cadet timidly descending what may be in his mind the highest climbing wall on earth.

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A fun pose I’ve never seen captured at a Family Conference before. Again, it has to be genuine for it to work, and it’s encouraging to see the photographer on the ball with this one, ready to capture it when it happened.

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I like how going wide on this one captured more of the action that was happening around this quick pose. With all the activity going on in the background, it expresses exactly what I remember happening there: a child’s joy of being around folks who really care about them.

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It’s just perfect! Dad spending time with his kids. Perfect expressions but just enough variation in the spacing between the children, and enough location-specific elements in the background, that keep it from looking like a stock photo.

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This is something different. Pictures of folks in the orchestra enjoying orchestra practice is something difficult to capture because you don’t see it expressed very often. Folks always look serious when they are playing instruments, so to capture the moments between practice, plus capturing a smile, poses quite the challenge. A humorous conductor helps.

Thank you photography team for your hard work in effectively covering the Big Sandy Family Conference! Looking forward to the Christian Heritage Conference in Seattle this weekend!

Preparing for the Epic Moment

30 Mar
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Have you ever read an article and thought, “I wish I had known about that a long time ago!”?

Well, this happened to me the other day. I was reading an article by landscape photographer Anne McKinnell with a title that interested me: 5 Tips for Sand Dune Photography

I have had the opportunity to shoot sand dunes only twice in my life. Once in the burning desert of Death Valley National Park in July, and once in the unforgettable cold of White Sands National Monument in April. Both experiences I would describe as epic. Sand dunes are such awesome subject to shoot! But like any other subject, the “epicness” of the subject will not guarantee the greatness of the picture. It’s the photographer, not the camera, that takes great photos. For example, this was the first picture I took of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley NP. Definitely some potential, but definitely a snapshot!

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So that’s why I was intrigued with this article on sand dunes. I wanted to know how the professionals did it. Now that I knew from experience now that photographing sand dunes was just as difficult as shooting any other subject, I wanted to learn more about how to shoot them so I could get better shots the next chance I had to shoot sand dunes.

And you know what? As I read the article, two thoughts came into my head. First, “I wish I had known these tips before going to those National Parks!”. Second, I thought “You know, these tips could apply to the subjects in my backyard.”

Read her article, 5 Tips for Sand Dune Photography, with that thought in mind. “How do these tips apply to shooting in my backyard?”

In this way, you can prepare yourself in your own backyard to heighten your chances of taking better shots when you’re actually presented with epic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Read the article? Well, now you can read my summary below, of how I learned those 5 tips on my trips. It’s amazing how I can totally relate!

Her first point was, no changing lenses in the field, right? I don’t have a good example image of that to display, but if you’ve never been on sand dunes before, then you can certainly expect there to be blowing sand, on top of the dunes at least, and during the day. At night I don’t recall there being much wind.

Her second point was, find the perfect dune. This is super important, just like determining what your main subject should be in any landscape photo you take. For me, this was my favorite shot at Death Valley, and now I think it’s because I had found my perfect sand dune.

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The third point was to look for shapes. Is this not what I’m doing all the time, with any landscape photo? It’s easier in a field of sand dunes perhaps, but I can certainly be honing this idea in my backyard. What attracted me to this composition was the shapes in the distance. I zoomed in as far as I could to actually make the shapes more prominent in the frame.

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Anne also stressed sidelight. If only I had thought of this earlier! I was in White Sands NM during a full moon, and (foolishly now in retrospect) opted to shoot under the full moon when it was high in the sky, instead of when it was just risen over the mountains. I walked around quite a bit under the unbelievably bright landscape under the full moon, but I really couldn’t find anything interesting to shoot because the light was so flat. If only I had shot the moonlight on the landscape when the light was angled, with the moonlight coming from the side! Instead I had to create my own sidelight with my flashlight.

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Lastly, there was the idea that on desert landscapes, it’s more like the Magic Minute instead of the Golden Hour. This is less obvious in my backyard, but it’s neat to watch the sky or how the light falls on the landscape in the mornings and evenings to observe just how long it’s actually colorful. The magic minute was something else I wish I had known about. I feel I was only able to really take one good shot on the only morning I was able to shoot in White Sands NM.

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Are we preparing now for those epic opportunities of the future?

“Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them” (Luke 12:37).

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