Earlier this year, Google started offering a collection of plug-in filters under the name Nik Collection. Prior to this move, I was hesitant to spend the $499 for this software, which Google later lowered to $149, feeling that I could accomplish most of the looks it offered without spending the money. But Google’s offering is now free, so many photographers, myself included, downloaded and installed this software.
This software isn’t a stand-alone application, but a set of plug-ins that work with Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom, and Apple’s out-of-production Aperture.
I have only begun to play around with these filters, but so far, I’ve found them to be capable and fun, and I recommend you get them here (link) and try them. The only caveat is one I have stressed since the days of high dynamic range (HDR) overuse: these filters are just a tool in the toolbox, and can easily be used too often and too strongly. But with discretion and taste, they are a good tool.
In the ocean of photography, there are few waters as muddy as the use of the unsharp mask. This filter, commonly found in Adobe editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom, but also used by a myriad of other programs, uses an algorithm of contrast enhancement to, typically, increase the perceived sharpness of an image. I won’t go into to much detail about how this is accomplished, but I will give some guidelines about its use.
Unsharp mask does not add any actual detail to an image. In fact, it is somewhat destructive, particularly if overused.
Unsharp mask should never be applied to an image being archived for your files.
Unsharp mask should never be applied to an already sharp image, except…
Unsharp mask is usually a necessary step when printing images, since most printers yield images with a slightly soft look, and…
Some degree of unsharp mask can make photos for web look better on most monitors, most of which don’t display enough pixels per inch to make unsharpened images look good.
Unsharp mask will sharpen everything, not just details. It is difficult to use unsharp mask on noisy images, since it sharpens the noise along with the details.
With that said, it is possible to use a combination of noise reduction and unsharp mask together to create a usable image from a not sharp file. This combination sacrifices resolution to make an image appear sharper in print on the web.
Occasionally I can rescue a not-very-sharp image with unsharp mask. Often this is the case in my work since I shoot news and sports and sometimes get images of great moments that aren’t quite sharp. It’s easy to take it too far, or to hopelessly pound a bunch of unsharp mask into a really soft image.
I use some kind of sharpening on all the images for my web site and social media. In addition to giving my work a little more “pop” than most of the images on the web, it helps overcome the image compression algorithms used by social media sites.
Finally, don’t let any know-it-alls on the internet (including me) tell you to “never” or “always” use the unsharp mask, or tell you your use of it was somehow wrong. It is a tool in the toolbox, for use as your creativity demands.
In many of my classes, people want to know how to organize their photos. They are mostly lost about how to arrange files and folders on their computers. I’ve known many professional journalists – people who should know better – who have essentially no clue how to organize computer stuff. I don’t fault them, though, because the truth is that life in the information age is bafflingly complex, and photography is now an information technology.
An unhappy social media experience...
“Sorry facebook friends trying to get my photo’s [sic] back. Got new cell ph [sic] & when they were transfering to my new Ph [sic] they lost my STUFF. Not happy…”
When I got my first professional photography jobs, in college, we organized our image files, which at the time were photographic negatives, in traditional containers like spiral notebooks or cardboard boxes. Even the busiest of us on the busiest days were unlikely to shoot more than six or eight rolls of film – maybe 300 images. I kept the same basic organization until the digital era, ending with my last photographic negatives in May 2005, the year my newspaper traded away our last film camera, a Nikon F100.
On a big news or event day now, I can shoot a thousand or more digital frames in my efforts to provide something for print, something for the web, and something apart from that for social media.
It can be baffling to look at that many images on a screen, and the temptation is to either make no effort to edit them, or to grab the best five or six from a shoot and orphan the remaining files. The worst possible option is to tell your computer to upload them all to your Flickr or SmugMug or 500px or Pinterest account, since, as I have pointed out before, no one has time or desire to look at a thousand photos of anything. And consider that if you don’t have time to look at all your photos, why would anyone else?
On our phones the situation gets even more baffling. I’ve stood in front of someone who searched her phone for two minutes or longer to show me a photo, only to finally just give up. The reason is clear: most people shoot many dozens of photos every day, then make no effort to organize them.
Overheard As I Wrote This...
“I’ve got these photos on my computer at home, but I don’t know how to get them off.”
This is one of my biggest peeves in the digital world: people who print digital photos and bring them to us to scan to make them digital. It represents, in my estimation, a kind of willful ignorance.
I discuss all this as I sit at my computer at home and work to finish folder after folder of images. It’s a pretty straightforward process of deleting the genuinely worthless images, grabbing and editing the really captivating pieces, then going back to look at the rest of what’s left behind to see if there might be a pearl among the swine. It’s not a bad workflow, but it comes with a couple of caveats. 1. As you get tired, you tend to get less clear about how you want to edit your images, and 2. If you get in a hurry, you tend to throw out more images so you don’t have to deal with them. This sort of “get finished itis” is one reason I make myself edit in random order sometimes.
I am still amazed sometimes when people come to my newspaper and ask for photographs or their family or friends, but have virtually no additional information, as if every reporter and editor remembers every word we ever published. Or maybe it’s that their world view is so myopic that they really don’t understand how much information is out there.
On our office wall at home is a rack of CDs and DVDs, all with the spines labeled clearly, with names like “Ashford Wedding 2012,” or “Perfect Ten, Anniversary 2014.” It’s an analog approach to organizing digital files, and might be worth consideration if you have difficulty keeping your computer world in order.
Getting organized might be one of the most difficult aspects of photography, as it seems to be in much of life. Don’t rely on your phone, the cloud, or someone you know. Do it yourself. Take the time to learn how. It is hard work, but in the end, it’s worth it.
For the last 15 or so years, the main terminal for delivering photographs to our audience has been the computer and its accessories instead of their predecessors, enlargers and chemicals. The interface between the photographer and the computer is software, computer programs that allow is to view, edit, and deliver images in the 21st century. Here is a rundown on some of the software with which I have become familiar.
Adobe Photoshop: this is the ultimate in image editing, graphic design, and desktop publishing. It’s power to manipulate every element of an image makes it very attractive, particularly for artists and designers, but also for photographers who want control over every pixel. The down side is that it is expensive and complex, requiring a steeper learning curve than its contemporaries. There are a couple of features that make Photoshop my first choice. One is actions, which allows me to assign a function key to do groups of things to an image all at once; for example, I can create an action that will add yellow, darken the blacks, filter noise, apply the unsharp mask, and save the image, all at the touch of one key. Another is history, which allows me to got back through my edits one step at a time to see what I did and how it worked.
Photoshop is integrated with Adobe Bridge, which acts as a kind of digital contact sheet and file manager. You can do some edits to one image, like noise reduction and white balance, then apply those edits to all the images in Bridge.
My first experience with Photoshop was in 1998, when I was given a beige Apple G3 computer and Adobe Photoshop 5. There have been a long series of incremental upgrades to Photoshop, and it is now part of Creative Cloud.
Adobe Photoshop’s little brother is Adobe Photoshop Elements, in version 14 and priced at $99 as I write this. In all honesty, unless you are a graphic artist or designer, Elements can do just about anything to an image you will need. For a lot of professional photographers, the biggest item Elements does not have is the ability to work with 16-bit files. There is a comprehensive list of the differences here, but in the end, for day-to-day photo editing, Elements is a powerful and impressive application.
My friend Michael often uses Elements because it starts up faster.
A pitfall of Photoshop is that it can, as I have discussed on a number of occasions, make pictures lie by adding or removing critical elements, over or under emphasizing elements of human features (from supermodels to war scenes to O. J. Simpson), and creating images that imply someone is saying or doing something they are not. Over the years, such editing has mislead readers and ended the careers of several leading photographers.
Increasing in popularity in recent years is Abobe Lightroom. This combines some features of Photoshop with some features of Bridge, fusing them into a somewhat simplified interface. To me, Lightroom seems like Everyman’s Photoshop. While it has some powerful image management tools, I find its interface less intuitive than Photoshop. I actively dislike the way Lightroom pops hidden toolbars up when you mouse over them.
One serious downside to Lightroom for me as a professional who needs to quickly edit images is the fact that you have to import images into Lightroom before you can work on them, then export them to a file to use them. The reason for this is that Lightroom keeps your edits in its database so they remain “non-destructive,” so you always keep your original photo, but that’s a little patronizing to those of us who figured out how to manage files and edit copies 16 years ago.
Lightroom provides “Publish Services” like Behance, Facebook, and Flickr, with the option of adding more, it seems to me that over the years, applications that try to hold your hand are destined for the scrap heap. Social media integration is both ineffective and etherial, meaning that one day AOL is on top, the next day MySpace is on top, the day after that Facebook is on top, and so on. As I wrote this, I had no idea what “Behance” was, and going to its web site didn’t clear it up much.
Essentially, I need to double-click a photo, smoothly and quickly edit it, save it, then send it where I need it, to a folder on a server usually. Lightroom fights me at every turn.
Apple computer users, particularly those who use the iPhone and iPad products, are familiar with Apple’s Photos, which until recently was called iPhoto. Apple retired their fairly good Aperture application and merged it with iPhoto to create Photos with the goal of integrating desktop editing with phone and tablet editing. If Lightroom is an amateur product, Photos is the kid’s product. It has the few basic controls, but beyond that doesn’t have the tools, particularly brushes, that are critical for professional editing.
Maybe in the end, the applications that try to do everything for you are for people who always struggled with that. That’s not me: my photos are organized by date, and indexed according to name and caption information, since we had to do this from the start of the digital age, long before Photos and Lightroom even existed, and this will probably be the only organization method that will stand the test of time. The reason for this is that software isn’t developed for your needs, but for the software company’s profits. If it doesn’t make money, it will disappear. Don’t believe me? Remember PictureProject? MyPictureTown? EasyShare? Microsoft Photo Editor?
In conclusion, my first choice for photo editing is Adobe Photoshop, followed quite closely by Photoshop Elements.
I am in the middle of teaching another Digital Photography for Beginners class at the Pontotoc Technology Center. It’s a good group.
As my readers and students know, I am an advocate of the RAW file format. I feel that while JPEG is a robust and easy to use format, it can, in many situations, cheat us out of the imaging potential of our expensive, sophisticated camera.
What's the Difference?
JPEG, Joint Photographic Experts Group, is a a lossy compression file format that almost every computer in the world can read. It is the default file format for nearly every new camera. It makes files with 8-bits of data per color per pixel, meaning each color is expressed by a number from 0 to 255. Additionally, too much JPEG compression can create JPEG artifacts, which can’t be easily fixed or removed.
RAW is a proprietary file type unique to each digital camera, that requires special software to access. It is a lossless, sometimes losslessly compressed, file format that creates up to 16-bits per color per pixel, meaning that each color is expressed by a number from 0 to 65535 or higher. Since RAW files don’t use the lossy compression that JPEGs use, it does not create compression artifacts.
One situation where shooting RAW is indispensable is sports in low light, particularly in weird low light. I was in that situation last week in Roff, Oklahoma, a small high school with a cozy gym that is always packed with fans. With lights that have a yellow-green spike, and yellow floor, chairs, uniforms and fan clothing, the yellow quickly overwhelms any effort to pick a correct in-camera white balance. The only solution I’ve found is to shoot RAW, then aggressively dial out the yellow-green in Adobe’s Camera RAW dialog. There’s just not enough color data in an 8-bit JPEG to accomplish this.
As you can see, between click-balancing with the eyedropper tool, and active correction and desaturation of the yellows, it is possible to convert a yellow mess into a very usable image…
The modern photographic lexicon owes a lot to electronic technology. I’m not just talking about digital cameras; in fact, the technology to which I refer can apply to film as well. This technology is broadly discussed as “post-production,” often simple shortened to “post” on photography web sites. I don’t think this is a particularly good moniker because I think of all the steps of photography as part of the production process, so editing and printing are “production,” not “post-production.”
I set myself up for a significant editing challenge on a recent road trip to the desert. I photographed Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado near Page, Arizona. On a previous occasion, I shot it with my 12-24mm Tokina lens, which gave me fairly good results, but despite being zoomed out as wide as possible, I still wasn’t getting the epic, broad, expansive panoramas I was seeing on the web by other photographers.
My solution depended heavily on software: shoot the scene with my 10-17mm Tokina fisheye, and “unbend” the curved lines characteristic of the fisheye lens using Adobe Photoshop to create a sweeping panorama. I’d never done this exact edit before and hadn’t checked it out, but felt I could achieve it one way or the other.
As it turned out, Adobe Photoshop made it quick and easy, and the result was exactly what I wanted.
For decades before the internet and expensive color printing presses, many, or even most, photographs were in black-and-white. The first films were all black-and-white. In practice, the first color film was Kodachrome, introduced in 1935.
My career followed a similar evolution. In high school and college, our newspapers were 100% black-and-white, and our yearbooks only had one color section, which we had to send to the printer at the start of the year. When I became a career photojournalist, we used color so infrequently that we referred to its occurrence as a “color project.” It wasn’t until 1991 that my current newspaper, The Ada News, got the equipment to produce in-house color.
So there was a lot of black-and-white for a long time. As color became more common in print (including some very handsome hardcover books my wife and I have made in recent years), and with the advent of the digital era, black-and-white has evolved from the norm to largely a form of artistic expression.
It’s easy, staring at an smartphone or a tablet, to be satisfied with nothing but color images. But there are those of us who see black-and-white as more than in homage to our past, but as a very compelling visual option.
The question then becomes: how do we get our digital color images into black-and-white, and what is the best way to do this?
One option is to set the camera to black-and-white mode. I do this once in a while, since it forces me to “think” black-and-white at the time I am shooting. The downside is that it limits what I can do with the images later.
Another option is the “app” option. “App” is lazyspeak for “application,” and there are various applications, like Instagram or iPhoto, that have one or more black-and-white options.
My go-to workflow for black-and-white from a color image file is Adobe Photoshop’s channel mixer function. The channel mixer is more sophisticated that mere grayscaling, and offers some of the best options for fine-tuning how the colors in the image are converted to grays. I am particularly fond of the channel mixer in more recent versions of Photoshop, which offer presets that emulate the way black-and-white film responded to filtration.
If you have the software, it’s worth a try. Black-and-white still has the potential to amaze.
The High Dynamic Range (HDR) mania that swept the photographic world a few years ago finally seems to be finding its proper level. For a while, every other image we saw on forums and photo sites was some iteration of HDR, and it was tiresome. Its presence illustrated a profound truth: artistic creativity cannot be manufactured through hardware, software, or, and I cannot emphasize this enough, following trends.
HDR isn’t an invalid or destructive tool in the photographic toolbox, however. In fact, in the right hands and the right circumstance, it can genuinely dazzle.
Since the technique usually involves a piece of software merging several images that are identical except for exposure, and since I shoot mostly news and sports, I use techniques that are slightly different than mainstream HDR.
In the field, I sometimes make images that simply have too much dynamic range. Whites are too bright and darks are too dark, especially when considering that they will appear in the limited-gamut environment of newsprint.
This happens all the time, but I thought about it Saturday as I covered a grass fire northwest of Ada in a community known as Oil Center.
Every firefighter knew me and said hello to me, which is nice. The Oil Center Fire Department Captain said, “you’re costing me a lot of ice cream,” explaining that every time a firefighter gets his picture in the paper, he has to buy ice cream for the whole firehouse.
It was sunny and windy as I worked the fire, such that deputies had to close a portion of highway 3W for a short time due to smoke. I got into the smoke myself, and smelled like it for the rest of the day.
As I worked, the bright sun hit the light smoke that is typical when dry grass burns, and turned it brilliant white. Beneath it was the charcoal grey of scorched earth. The firefighters wore bunker gear, including helmets that cast deep shadows in their faces. It was a very high-contrast situation.
Fill-flash. This really only works quite close to the camera, since flash competes with sunlight, and gets darker as the subject moves away according to the inverse square law (Wil Fry noted that citing the inverse square law might be a bit smug.)
Trying to shoot bursts of three nearly-identical frames to merge using an HDR tool.
Use some kind of graded filter to darken the sky while preserving the other portions of the image.
All of these options are slow and cumbersome in the fast-moving environment of spot news, so I (and those like me) shoot first, as the saying goes, and ask questions later.
I got back to the office with some decent images, but the image in question is pretty contrasty. My go-to workflow in these cases is…
Open the RAW file in Adobe Camera RAW dialog…
Adjust exposure for midtones…
Use the recovery slider to tone down the highlights…
Use the fill light slider to open up the shadows…
Open the image in the regular Photoshop interface.
As you can see, using these tools goes a long way to taming the contrast…
Finally, I like to use the old school tools like burn and dodge to fine-tune the image, which I then caption and copy to the server for my editor…
As we all know, each of us is a product of our era and circumstance. I entered photojournalism in the early 1980s. It was during a period in which black-and-white photography was probably at its zenith. Kodak, Ilford, Fuji and Agfa were all making exceptional silver-based black-and-white films. Most of the images I made for newspapers were in black-and-white.
One concept I learned early in those days was that of grabbing the viewer’s attention, and one way to do that in the 1980s was to darken the corners of the frame, leading the viewer’s eye to the center of the image. As the decade progressed, we photojournalists, either on our own or influenced by each other, used this technique more, and more dramatically than ever before. In the darkroom days it was called “burning” or “burning in,” since after exposing the print to the baseline amount of light, we could open the enlarging lens to a bigger aperture, and using our hand or a piece of cardboard, we would expose the corners to more light from the negative, making that part of the print darker. (If you are confused about the “more light = darker image”, just remember that when printing a photographic negative, everything is exactly that, negative.)
By the late 80s, the technique was being used so frequently and so overpoweringly it began to be known as the “hand of God” technique. Photographers were burning the corners of their prints so much that they were sometimes black.
The 1990s brought more use of color in newspapers, and this corner-burning technique looked wrong in color, so it slower faded from vogue. To this day I still sometimes burn corners in Photoshop, but only to equalize exposure so the corners aren’t too bright. In the end, the objective is to give our audience, in my case the reader, an image that unhesitantly explains the subject.
A popular technique for managing contrast in imagery is called High Dynamic Range, or HDR. Typically the technique employs combining three or more images, identical except for exposure, using software.
Photographing the same scene using different exposures is called bracketing. Bracketing was a necessary evil in the days of film, in situations involving complex light that was difficult to meter. We would make three or four or five bracketed images, then pick the best-exposed of the bunch for our final product. Ansel Adams, possibly the greatest nature photographer of the 20th century, regarded bracketing as lazy and imprecise, but of course, he wasn’t shooting news and sports, and could take his time to analyze exposure and contrast.
With digital photography, particularly with features like histograms and blinking highlights, getting the correct exposure no longer requires the “spray and pray” exposure method. Still, bracketing is a feature of almost every digital SLR on the market, and it allows us to create some very interesting images. HDR is easy to abuse, and sometimes the result can be disturbingly garish and unnatural.
Blending several different exposures works by capturing the highlights in the images exposed to properly render the bright parts of the image, and capturing the shadow areas in images properly exposed for the dark portions of the scene, and blending them together.
The example before you is, I hope, interesting and exciting without crossing the line into garishness. I made it at Waterholes Canyon in Arizona in May. I had the canyon to myself, so I had all the time I needed (unlike at Antelope Canyon, which was so crowded it was difficult to find time or space to work patiently.) I had a small tripod with me, and with my Nikon D80 on it with my 12-24mm, I made the three images you see to the right, bracketed at two-stop intervals. I then used a program called Photomatix Pro to blend them. This program has a number of built-in presets for various blending effects, from “Fusion” , which is quite mild, to “Painterly,” which is quite wild. The final image below used the “Compressor – Smooth” blending method, with a few tweaks of the sliders to get the values I wanted. I then exported to image as a 16-bit TIFF, which I edited in Adobe Photoshop with a few more modest tweaks, including using the brush tool to make the sky bluer.
In previous entries I talked about some of my favorite portraits and some of my favorite travel images. Initially I wanted to cull them down to five top all-time images, but found I was unable because so many of my favorite images presented themselves for my consideration. Compared to that, this project is much more difficult: reducing my entire career in photojournalism to just a few dozen images.
When I started working on this post, I culled a number of images from over the years and put them in a folder called “Best of PJ.” When I opened the folder I found 128 images in it, so I made a folder called “Best of best of PJ,” and moved what seemed like my best images to it. I somehow managed to get that folder down to just 40 images. Most of them are from my time at The Ada News and Ada Magazine, since most of my career has been here. Many of the images in this entry won awards from organizations like the Associated Press and the Oklahoma Press Association.
The Oklahoma Daily and The Sooner Yearbook, Norman, Oklahoma, 1983-1985
When I was with Oklahoma University Student Publications, I focused more attention on the yearbook, since I believed, correctly so, that the quality of reproduction of my images in the yearbook would be higher. As the years passed at OU, however, I saw more opportunity to get into print from the daily. Once when I was in college, I was in Tulsa to see a couple of friends and I had a few extra minutes. I had some images with me, so I decided to run them past an editor at the Tulsa World. Not only was he impressed, he kept asking me, “You’re a student?” I have to admit, that was pretty flattering.
The Shawnee News-Star, Shawnee, Oklahoma, 1985-1988
An Associated Press photographer for whom I had been freelancing called me one morning in the fall of 1985 and said, “Get your butt over to the Shawnee paper and get that job,” and hung up. I started on the evening shift at the News-Star in November of 1985, where I was partnered with day-shift photographer Ed Blochowiak.
The Daily Times, Ottawa, Illinois, 1988
I was only in Illinois for a short time, but I was paired with a talented young photographer named Harold Krewer, and Harold and I often challenged each other to various “shoot-outs.” Harold is no longer in the news business, as last I heard he was following his dream of being curator at a railroad museum.
Ada Evening News, The Ada News, Ada Magazine, Ada, Oklahoma, 1988 to Present
In October of 1988 I returned to Oklahoma to work at my current newspaper, the Ada Evening News, which has since become The Ada News. Since I am the sole photographer, by default I am the Chief Photographer. A few of the significant milestones at our newspaper include the ability to produce our own color separations in 1991, our first use of digital imaging using a film scanner in 1998, and my first digital camera in 2001. In 2007 we started Ada Magazine, and I was named its editor.
Without a doubt I have omitted many great images, but hopefully these represent the character of my work. My photojournalism is a work in progress, so I intend to create a post similar to this at the end of 2012, and annually after that.
You can see a much larger collection of my photojournalism here.
I own two genuinely spectacular vintage manual focus Nikon lenses: the 200mm f/2.0 and the 400mm f/3.5. Both are capable of incredible imaging, since both were made during an era of craftsmanship in photographic manufacturing unmatched by any today.
I don’t use these lenses as often as I think I should, and the reason is simple: they don’t have autofocus. I shoot a lot of sports, and autofocus, especially the very precise and fast autofocus in my Nikon D2H cameras, is a problem solver. Select the center sensor as your starting point and bam! Instant focus.
With these two manual focus gems, though, I am the focus mechanism, and I take a little pride in the notion that after 15 years of using autofocus, I can still focus, shoot, and chew gum at the same time.
There are a lot of techniques for managing focus manually, but the main means are follow focus, which, like it sounds, is where you follow the action and focus continually as it moves, and pre-focus, where you try to predict where the action will happen and set your focus to that point.
Both have advantages, and both have drawbacks. If you have a pretty good eye and decent hand-eye coordination, follow-focus keeps pace with what’s happening on the field, whether it’s a runner storming down the baseline in baseball, or a basketball forward driving to the goal.
Pre-focus works really well for sports in which players start or stop at a specific location. For example, all batters in baseball start in the batter’s box, and all basketball action ends up in the vicinity of the basket. Pre-focusing on areas like that can produce very impressive results.
A friend of mine in the Houston area sometimes shoot Houston Rockets basketball, and prior to the game he mounts a camera behind the glass of the backboard on the court. He pre-focuses his lens on an area just in front of the edge of the basket, since allowing the autofocus to operate while he is away from his camera would be unreliable. He then shoots with the camera using a remote release.
Most of the time when I pre-focus I remain ready to follow focus. For example: I will be pre-focused on home plate in anticipation of a runner scoring, aware that the throw might get away from the catcher and allow the other runner to take third base.
Like everything else in photography, manual focusing takes a lot of practice. Many younger photographers might think of it as a dead art, but as long as I want to be able to shoot with some of history’s greatest older lenses, I am keeping my skills, and therefore my photos, sharp.
Building a list of my top five favorite portraits was even more difficult than deciding on my top five travel images. For one thing, my portraiture spans a much longer period, reaching all the way back to the early 1980s. Another factor is that I married a woman, Abby, I consider to be among the most beautiful of all the women I have ever known, and images of her quickly overpopulated my list.
My portraits have always been of a fairly straightforward style. I realize that there are many hundreds of styles of portraiture in photography, and within those many are an almost infinite number of personal styles. There are also many non-stylized forms of portraiture in the world too, like the pictures you might get made of your two-year-old at Wal Mart’s front-of-the-store studio (at which the “photograpers” are literally trained not to be creative.)
I also make many images of people that I do not consider portraits, because they don’t express anything about the people except how their faces look; studio mug shots, guest speakers behind lecturnes, people making award presentations, etc., as part of my job as a newspaper photographer.
One important difference between much of my photojournalism and my portraiture is that in the first, I am trying to capture a moment, and in the second I am trying to capture a spirit. What really makes a portrait for me is capturing something about that spirit of the people I am photographing. For example, an image of a curious child captures something essential about that person. An image of a model for a magazine ad does not. Children are expressing themselves when they play, while models, for the most part, are just doing what they are told.
There are a lot of variables. In the end, I’ll say that the spirit I hope to capture is mostly revealed in the eyes of my subjects. They are known as “Windows of the Soul” for a reason, that they are the most emotionally revealing aspect of the human form.
As part of this discussion, I am including lens focal length in the captions, since it can be a significant, though not all-encompassing, factor in the creation of a portrait. You might notice that I tend toward the 85mm to 105mm region when choosing a portrait lens, focal lengths which are often regarded as “classic” portrait lenses, and for good reason. These focal lengths allow us to fill the frame with a human face while doing so at a natural, conversational distance.
Portraits aren’t always about flattering a subject or making a subject beautiful, although many of my images are of beautiful people. Sometimes they can be about ruggedness, loneliness, suffering, playfulness, sadness, companionship, and on and on. The only real requirement is that we see who is inside.
As with the travel photos before, I was able to cull this list down only so far, at which point I just couldn’t cut any more. The images collected here are the result after one round after another of editing, deleting, rethinking, etc. The “top five” changed as often as I looked at them. I’ll leave it to you to pick your top five.
Long before the digital revolution, my friends and I struggled to find the ideal way to express our photographic vision using film. Film was a fickle mistress at best, since it took a fair amount of finesse plus a huge amount of memorization to utilize film.
A lot of photographers in the film era settled on a favorite film. My grandfather used nothing but Kodachrome. Another friend of mine used nothing but Fujichrome Velvia.
I, on the other hand, was very much into black-and-white. When the mood strikes, I still gravitate toward the simplicity and elegance of a grayscale image. To that end, I worked with a lot of different black-and-white films over the years. I tried AgfaPan APX100, Ilford’s 400 and 1600 films, and even the occasional NeoPan 400.
In the end, I kept coming back to Kodak films. I never loved the tone I got from Pan-X or Plus-X, preferring the tonal range of the ever-forgiving Tri-X, a 400-speed film, but at the cost of a fair amount of grain. For a while I was souping my Tri-X in Microdol-X, a supposed fine grain developer. In terms of tonal quality and utter forgiveness of exposure errors, I loved Kodak’s Verichrome Pan Film, which was only available in 120 size.
It was with all these variables in mind that my photographer friends and I were pretty excited when, in the early 1980s, Kodak introduced Kodak Technical Pan Film. Developed as a lithographic film (meaning that it was not a continuous-tone film, but pure blacks and white only) for industrial uses, Kodak introduced with the film it’s own developer, Technidol, a compensating developer that allowed the film to be used for full-tone imaging. When processed in Technidol, Tech Pan was rated at about ISO 25, but promised to have the grain and resolution of large format image, like a 4×5-inch view camera makes, from a 35mm camera.
We eagerly loaded up and … uh, what now? The immediate problem was that anything in our regular photographic pantheon we wanted to shoot required 400 speed or higher film. To use Tech Pan, we had to make up stuff to shoot. That, of course, resulted in super-sharp, super-fine-grained images of our desk lamps. Then we discovered just how difficult it was to print this film, which was manufactured on a super-thin Estar-AH plastic base, which showed absolutely every speck of dust no matter how clean we kept our darkrooms.
In the end, I wasn’t really able to integrate Tech Pan into my work flow. In total, I doubt I shot more than ten rolls of it. Once in a while we found a legitimate use for it, but by then the film and/or the developer had expired, and had to replaced before we could shoot. I have maybe five memorable images made with Technical Pan Film.
My friend R. E. called me from San Diego the other day. He was selling a few of his fine art photographs at an arts festival. It was somewhat impromptu on his part, so he only had five images for sale. As we talked, he posed the question, “What are your five favorite images?”
Wow. Five. I’m not sure I could even get down to five categories. Nevertheless, in an effort to answer the challenge, I have been digging though my Image Archive hard drive as I write this. Since it is fairly unlikely I could get this down to five images from everything I’ve shot (I’m a professional photographer, after all), I’ll make this my first installment: travel photos. It still won’t be easy.
I should also add that a list like this is likely to change on an almost daily basis, and there are literally thousands more images I could sneak in here that I feel would be just as worthy. All of these images appear in our travel blog, The Traveller.
I created an entry similar to this two years ago, when I saw a blog entry by Los Angeles photographer and friend Tom Clark called “Eleven Images.” It inspired me, but I was only able to cull down to fifteen of my own images at the time.
I have to say that whenever I look through all these images, no matter the reason, I get very nostalgic about the places and times and moments. I want to go back and do it all again; it was that fun.
But back to the photos. As I cull, I dismiss most images, even ones I like. The only images I am dragging to my “Top 5?” folder are the ones I see and say, “I love that image!” After looking through all my travel photos from all our trips in the past 25 years, I got down to 28 images that I “love.” Hmm. It looks like I’ll have 23 honorable mentions.
If you’ve read this far, you probably realize that in spite of my quippy captions, all of these images warrant consideration. I am proud of the work I have created in my travels over the years, as proud as I am of the vast cadre of images I have provided as a news photographer. It is immensely satisfying, and it adjudicates all the hours of devotion, from the early days in the darkroom trying to get a decent black-and-white print, to all those long, lonely hikes in the wilderness that didn’t really offer any imaging potential, to the times I skimped and saved to afford photo gear.
Often when I read top five or top ten or top 25 lists, like of movies or CDs or books, I find myself strongly disagreeing with editor’s choices. That is certainly your prerogative as you read this. If you think one of these images belongs somewhere else, or you have seen an image on The Traveller you think belongs here, let me know. I might have overlooked something wonderful.
Finally, here are the top five images, not in any particular order: