Winning These Photography Awards Was More Than A Coincidence!

26 Aug

What do you notice about the ribbons in the snapshot below?


How many “big” blue ribbons do you see? . . . the two that happen to say “Best Youth Award” and “Best Of Show”? Two, right? Exactly! Two. And they belong to the only two Lenspiration PRO Member who entered the Addison County Fair!

So, how did they do it?

It all started with a question over a month ago on the PRO Q&A Forum. @hannah asks,

I am planning on entering a photo competition, and was wondering if I could ask advice on some pictures, and if you could give me better ideas, or different critique on them, etc.?

The discussion went on for a good while. The PRO members and I chimed in with our thoughts and we went back and forth on several different photos. @hannah’s sister, @emilym, jumped in with some of her own pictures too. I gave my thoughts and recommendations but left the decisions up to them.

I left it there and moved on to other things. The rest was in their hands.

But then a few days later I got this email:

I won the adult best photograph award! We’ve gone from red or white (bad) ribbons to Best of Show. 🙂

What a thrill it was to hear this! It wasn’t just one of the sisters . . . it was both of them that placed. “This is the first time I’ve ever won an award at the fair”, @Hannah writes on the Q&A Forum in a followup comment. Could it be a coincidence? Perhaps. But I don’t think so. Their diligent study and application of the PRO training over the past year is paying off.

To learn more about how you can become involved in the PRO Community, click here. There’s no better time than now to start preparing for your next photo contest!

Have You Ever Had A Chance To Photograph This Creature Before?

22 Aug

Even though I’ve lived in rural West Virginia for about 14 years, it wasn’t until this summer that I finally felt I had a sporting chance at photographing one of the most elusive creatures that silently frequent our area.

Though I hear their eery call regularly, floating through my open bedroom window as I fall asleep on cool summer evenings, I’ve never attempted to actually track the caller down.

Several times, while hunting or simply going about every-day activities, I’ve seen their black silhouette fly across open patches of only-ever-so-slightly-lighter patches of sky.

But because of the Barred Owl’s elusiveness, I’ve felt that I never had a sporting chance at finding one close enough to photograph with any sort of decent quality. And investing in a telephoto lens just for this purpose simiply hasn’t been high on my priority list.

But then came a morning when the odds turned in my favor.

I was taking a pre-dawn stroll down the driveway when I heard an odd, soft, clucking-like noise coming from the edge of the clearning quite close. I didn’t have a flashlight or anything, so I simply recoreded the call on my phone and resolved to ask my bird-genious brother about it later that day.

When I did, I was surprised that he himself did not recognize the call! That made me curious. So after a lot of digging online, I finally discovered what it was: the call of a young, fledgling Barred Owl. 

Perhaps this was my chance! If it happened to be in the same place the next morning, I would be there to photograph it.

And thankfully, it was. Here are the only three pictures I got before it flew off into the misty darkness of that rainy morning:

To learn about how I actually captured these photos–my approach, how I used the limited equipment I had, technical settings, how I processed the photos, or how I identified the call–PRO Members feel free to ask on the PRO Forums!

A Story About Mexico Culture . . . Told With Pictures!

14 Aug

I’m on the Photography Missions Trip in Tijuana this week! Today, the mission team worked on cleaning out and fixing up what will be a third mission center for MissionTalk. Meanwhile, the construction team was hard at work on a big project . . .













It’s fun to watch how things are done in Mexico. Smile 

Want a listen in on the live update on how things are going here in Mexico? PRO Members join us for the webinar on Monday at 7:00pm ET!

First Time for Everything . . . Like Shooting an Event Close to Home!

10 Aug

I’ve lived in West Virginia for over a decade now, and yet I’ve photographed very few photojournalistic-like projects around here. Sure, I’ve shot lots of WV FEW Conferences, Apple Butter Festivals and various ministry outreaches we do as a family, but those I shoot just for the fun of it—it doesn’t matter whether or not the pictures turn out. Most of the time, I’m shooting events out of state, whether it’s a homeschool Conference or wedding for a friend. But when our country church’s multi-day Church Camp rolled around this year, I would have to consider it the first event I’ve shot more than just for fun of it close to home. Like 3-miles-away sort of close to home!


No, it wasn’t a large event, and was definitely pulled off in regular West Virginia fashion, but it was a great place to be involved as a photographer. I had other roles to play other than photographer too, but now that it’s over I wish I had taken more pictures!

Here are a few of my favorite shots from the few times I pulled out my camera. As usual, I was faced with the typical challenges of indoor action, background distraction and covering an event in general, so if any of the PRO members have questions about how a certain shot was taken, or have a local event coming up that you’re expected to perform well in, let me know here on the forums and we’ll discuss it on the PRO Q&A webinar on Monday!









Behind The Shot: Patriotic Expression

30 Jul

Have you ever spent the 4th of July at an airport?

Travel has it’s unfavorable flavors sometimes. When I dropped off the car at a local hotel for a week of parking near the airport, the lady at the desk asked about my Independence Day vacation plans as she pulled up the paperwork . . . No, not for me this time. After a fun-filled weekend with friends and family for the WV FEW, the 4th of July needed to be a normal day of business. I thanked her for making the 4th of July a day of work herself . . . as well as the fellow who drove the shuttle to the airport. I could feel for them.

I must say, if you’re going to spend a holiday at an airport, Pittsburgh is the place to do it! It’s spacious and peaceful. They play classical music too. After seeing my brother Daniel off on his early afternoon flight to Dallas, I got to spend a few hours there before my late afternoon flight took off for Sacramento.

The layover in Las Vegas, however, was a different story. The annoying sounds of countless slot machines and the unceasing frolic of vacationing crowds was almost humorous.

Watching fireworks from the plane, though, as I took off on that last leg of the journey, actually turned out to be something interesting. Not necessarily photogenic, just unique. Little bursts of light erupting simultaneously from multiple points across the cityscape sprawled out below . . . it was, interesting. With a travel-weary smile, I reclined my seat in an attempt to get some sleep, grateful that the firework show was the only unexpected event of the day.

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Patriotic Expression
Parking lot in Sacramento, California
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As it turned out, though, it wouldn’t be the last firework show of the season.

After a full and fun week leading the ACTION Photography Team for the Sacramento Family Conference (which I wrote about in The Photography Team That Kept Growing), and with the long return flight to the East Coast planned for the next day, I was enjoying the randomness of post-Conference, brain-fried conversation with Jonah, a photographer friend from the Sacramento area, while we cleaned up the classroom together. I may tire of taking pictures (especially if it’s of basically the same thing day in and day out during a Conference), but I don’t ever seem to tire of talking photography (especially when the friend you’re talking with is big into phone-photography and is showing you how to utilize your new phone’s manual camera settings.)

At some point, the topic of fireworks comes up. Any shows going on this weekend? As a matter of fact, yes! The California State Fair is just down the road . . . it actually started tonight. No way. Jonah’s says he’s free for the evening. And has a car. Why not?!

With permission (and after the classroom was all cleaned up), we took off! Before long we found ourselves in a Chase bank parking lot just outside the fairgrounds, chatting about life, photography, cars . . . ah, I couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing conclusion to a fantastic week! And the firework show that ensued added a nice, dramatic—patriotic—exclamation mark.


Photographing fireworks is a lot of fun and a Making the Most of Your Vacation video available only to PRO Members is in the works that will explain how to capture them artistically. But for now, here are a few of my favorite shots from the California State Fair fireworks show:







Best Shots From My Brothers Wedding!

21 Jul

My brother got married on Saturday!

As brother to the groom, I found myself in a peculiar position. I was supposed to be both a groomsman and a photographer at the same time! It would have been totally impossible to fulfill both of these roles if it hadn’t been for a photographer friend who enthusiastically volunteered to step in and take my place as photographer during the parts of the wedding where I was supposed to be in the pictures. It worked out very well!

Here are a few of my favorite shots (from both of us photographers) and some comments on why I like them or how they were taken:

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Look at that background!! This took scouting.


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Being a July wedding (and it being common knowledge that bridesmaids take longer to get ready than groomsmen), it was too hot and humid to photograph the bridesmaids outdoors at the appointed time. So, we were forced to shoot indoors. Coming up with a unique angle and pose helped to compensate for the less-than-ideal surroundings.


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Color, symmetry, contrast, almost perfect height-order . . . ah! Somehow it’s hard to stop looking at this shot it’s so perfect. Good choice of color, Daniel & Kathryn. 🙂


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From a burst of shots, but the focus, expressions, positions and up-close subject placement make this one stand out from the rest. There’s a lot of random chance that goes into wedding photography, but I did have control over choice of lens, camera settings and shooting position (squatting vs standing).


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The sister of the bride recommended this perfectly beautiful spot for the couple shots after the ceremony. I like to include surroundings when they are picturesque. Perhaps that’s the landscape photographer side of me coming out . . .


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What’s a wedding shoot without a full-body shot of the bride?! The surroundings called for a centered pose.


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Never seen such a happy Daniel in my life. 🙂  Made sure to get the decorated ring finger real prominent in there.


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Had to re-take this shot after showing it to the bride for suggestions . . . first time around the dress was covering up some of the flowers. It looks much better this way.


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Another important close-up. Love the the multiple applications of layering, depth and contrast here.


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It helps to have helpers around. While I was taking other shots, a helper ran around scouting other locations I hadn’t been to before. This was one of his finds. I purposely positioned myself so that the depth-creating leaves drooping in from the top fit in the empty space of sky like a piece in a puzzle.


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Just trying more creative things here. This was not my idea originally. Always helps to keep an eye open for creative wedding shots!


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I wasn’t about to leave without getting a shot with my brother and new sister! Can you tell we wore ourselves out? 🙂

How Slight Rearranging Can Make All The Difference In The World

15 Jul

When I returned from the Sacramento Family Conference, my brother asked if I would be available to do a quick photoshoot of his family. Of course! With such adorable nieces and nephew, how could I turn that down?!

There were some specific things for which they wanted to use the pictures, so we spent a lot of time setting up. Once everything was set up, it took some more time to get the kids positioned and engaged and happy and smiling at the camera. The whole process takes time.

And when so much time is taken to get an initial shot, it’s difficult to remember to take even more time to do the slight rearranging that will make the shot the best it can be.

Here’s what I mean. This is an initial set up:


It took a long time to get this arrangement set up. Everyone was ready to move on to something different. But after shooting it, I really didn’t like it. Plus, I really wasn’t positive if I had captured good expressions with all the kids. I had taken so many pictures, surely one of them would have all three kids looking happy! But I wasn’t positive. (And as it turns out as you can see, I hadn’t captured one.) So I decided to take even more time to do some slight rearranging. I’m glad I did!


When working with families with small children, I just have to expect and plan for things to take a long time. And then more time on top of that. Yes, it was a quick photoshoot because I didn’t do any more than just two poses, but it wasn’t quick in the amount of time that was taken. If there’s anything I’ve learned from years in landscape photography, quality is better than quantity, regardless of the genre.

Here’s a second example. The only other pose I did that day of the whole family:



See the difference?

I’m learning to take my time. To take time for set up. To take time for smiling kids. And to take time to rearrange. It can make all the difference in the world!

The Photography Team That Kept Growing!

11 Jul


One photography instructor, praying for the Sacramento Photography Team new;
One photographer signs up early—how exciting that there are two!


Two photographers waiting, hoping for more sign-ups to see;
A regular registration comes in—all are glad that there are now three!


Three photographers hoping, registration open for just one week more;
A fourth photographer signs up last minute—we hold our breath, there are only four!


Four photographers, almost canceled, not enough folks for hosting live;
When a last minute request comes in—so grateful that there are five!


Five photographers assembled, on Tuesday for orientation, tips and tricks;
Someone pokes their head in the door—before you know it, there are six!


Six photographers happy, amazed at the amount signed in;
The sixth photographer’s friend wants to learn too—making a total of seven!


Seven photographers gathered, for devotions the next morning at 8:00;
A new registrant walks in the door—we can hardly believe there are eight!


Eight photographers thankful, praising God for a large group so fine;
A helper from COMMIT can’t help but join the team—making a whopping grand total of nine!


A team of nine photographers strong, excited to be learning and shooting;
I’ve never seen a Photography Team quite like this—one that just kept right on growing!


Looking forward to God putting together the final Photography Team of the year in Green Lake, Wisconsin, August 30–September 2!

How Do I Make This Composition Work?

05 Jul

During the CAPTURE Alaska workshop back in 2014, we stopped to have a chat with Alaska landscape and lifestyle photographer Jeff Schultz at his studio in Anchorage. Jeff’s work has been published all over the world, he founded Alaska’s largest stock agency, Alaska Stock Images, and has served as the official photographer for the celebrated Iditarod dog-sled race for more than 30 years. We learned a lot from Jeff during our stop!

And I continue to learn from him. On his blog. Here’s a particularly insightful post he wrote recently . . .

Cropping, composing; vertical, horizontal; long shutter, fast shutter; sun’s going down . . . oh how do I make this look good?!

I was recently out looking for and shooting some spring landscapes. I found myself 50 miles south of home at Portage Lake, hoping that there might be some icebergs in the lake—and sure enough, there was. The light was nice and low and the icebergs were close to shore. I hiked down to the lake and began as I usually do, handholding the camera and composing images before putting the camera on the tripod—which slows down my creativity composition exponentially.

After shooting a number of frames, both vertically and horizontally, from high and low and different areas, I settled on a vertical shot. Because of the water, I wanted to do an extra-slow shutter speed to make the water more silky and interesting rather than stopping it, which to me would make a more boring image. Having set up the tripod, figuring out the hyperfocal distance and the long exposure time, I made the image.

On first glance on the screen it looked great. But as I magnified the image on the screen, I saw that the icebergs had moved much more than I thought they would and than could see with my naked eye. I now saw that they were actually floating, very slowly, from right to left, moving every so slightly out of the frame. I quickly did some recalculating and shot a few more frames, at much faster, but still somewhat slower shutter speeds, hoping to get a good image out of pure luck that would work.

As the bergs moved, I had to as well. I moved down the lake shore and recomposed an image in horizontally and set up the tripod in a hurry. So much for a relaxed landscape shooting experience. I did the same thing here, using several different shutter speeds where I hoped to get the ice bergs still, but the water moving to give a somewhat silky look. I shot these scenes for a good 40 minutes, attempting everything I could think of. Here’s the trial and error results. All of these images are shot with a Canon 5D Mark III and a 16-35mm f/4 lens.


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This first shot is the first experiment I did. Shot at 20mm, f/18, ISO 200 for 2 minutes with a 10-stop Neutral Density filter and a 3-stop hard edge Singh-Ray Galen Rowel graduated Neutral Density filter. Way too long of an exposure to keep the icebergs very still at all. Though it does show motion. Might be something . . . but I thought it was too blurry to be any good.

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For one of the next shots I made, I used a shorter shutter speed. 1/13th of a second, ISO 500 at 16mm, f/20 with the 3-stop hard edge Singh-Ray Galen Rowel graduated Neutral Density filter. The icebergs are sharp and I like the composition somewhat, though the cut-off mountain on the right bothers me. Still I thought something was missing . . .

Click here to finish reading the story on Jeff’s blog!

Behind The Shot: Lost At Sea

29 Jun

I can’t think of very many pictures I’ve taken that has a more wild story behind it than this one . . .



Lost at Sea
Islas de Todos Santos, Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico
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Though it’s not the best picture in the world by any stretch of the imagination, I just have to chuckle when I think about the circumstances I was in when I shot it.

I was down in Tijuana, Mexico, last month on the first ever Photography Mission Trips with Lenspiration. The purpose of the Photography Mission Trips is to use our love for photography to help with the general promotional needs of a particular ministry. So, while participating in the regular LifeChange Action missions trip, I was taking pictures of anything and everything we were doing. Things like orphanage visits, staff portraits, ministry center renovations, work projects, office projects . . . you name it, we shot it. With pictures, you can tell stories to the world of the many amazing things that are happening on a day to day basis.


As we had time, we explored the area to experience the Mexican culture and take in the novelty of being in a foreign country. On one such day we drove down to the coastal city of Ensenada.


We enjoyed the day, taking our time driving along the coast, exploring a country ranch, eating pizza and visiting the natural marine geyser La Bufadora. But as late afternoon rolled around, it was time to find a good spot to photograph sunset over the Pacific. There were lots of options, but I figured the end of the Banda peninsula would be a good spot. It seemed like a good place to drive to, too. And there would be plenty of time to enjoy the area during the golden hour before sunset.

Banda pennesula

Well, while it was true that the road did lead to the end of the peninsula, what we didn’t know was that a gate prohibited any cars from driving to the end of the peninsula. The arrow points to about where the gate:

Banda penensula gate

This meant we had to come up with a different plan. First, we could have driven someplace else. But where else on the peninsula would it have been easy to get down to the coast? Secondly, I thought about climbing the road to the top of the mountain there in the middle of the peninsula. But it was one incredibly tall mountain, and it seemed like it would be easier just to walk around it. So that was option three, and that was the option we decided to take! It would mean 2 miles of hiking and precious little time to prepare for the sunset, but the group was up to it and it was certainly was worth a try!

The walk was beautiful!




The mountain soon blocked the setting sun and we hurried along in shadow. Excitement mounted as we rounded a bend that finally let us get a glimpse of the sun nearing the horizon to the west! We wouldn’t have time to get down to the coast, but we should be able to have the rocky plane stretched out below us.

But that’s when we noticed the fence.


It was a tall, military-looking fence and gate that crossed the road right before the last bend in the road. The light was so beautiful, and we had come so far, I couldn’t believe we had come to a dead end. The gate was placed in such a way that it was impossible to even venture out on the rugged ridge that would provide some much needed foreground subject matter.

Banda penensula fence

It really was a truly unfortunate circumstance. There we were, locked out of the dazzling sunset we had walked so far to photograph with no foreground elements to work with other than the iron bars of a massive gate.

But that’s not the end of the story. Because, you see, we did get some pictures. . . .

After standing there a few minutes trying to come up with a plan . . . I don’t know, about plan D or E by now . . . we saw the last thing we expected to see. We had walked alone the entire way. A closed, abandoned road isn’t generally where people are found. The entire place was forlorn and empty. But to our greatest surprise, there came someone walking up the hill toward us on the other side of the gate.

“May we have your permission to pass through this gate, sir?” our translator asked.

“$100 pesos” said the caretaker.

We processed the information for a moment. We could actually get through?! Was it worth paying for it? The caretaker turned and started walking away.

I pulled out my wallet, “$100 pesos.”

At last, our final obstacle had been removed! Was it too late? It would take too much time to continue down the road, so we scrambled out on the ridge of rocks. The sun was behind the clouds at that point, and the only color left was down on the horizon, but I hoped against hope that the sun would pierce through the clouds one more time.


I set up two shots, one looking toward the west, the other looking toward the east. The western setup would be what I would shoot if the sky turned color again. The eastern setup would be for what I would shoot if the sun did peak through, painting the landscape with gold.

My eastern setup:


My western setup:


Neither happened. And so that’s why, despite it not being the best picture in the world, I always have myself a little chuckle when I think about the story behind this shot. It was a fun experience. A wild experience. An experience that most likely will never happen again . . . until next time, of course.

Note to PRO members: You may view a 15 minute composition lesson and sequence analysis of this image at

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