A long-time-ago photography student, Royce Gideon, invited me to judge a photography show at Artists of the Arbuckles Art Gallery in Sulphur, Oklahoma. I had no idea what to expect since photography is consistently inconsistent, but I had high hopes.
I drove down Thursday morning and had a look, and found myself in the midst of a some fairly amazing work. (I won’t show their work up close or say who won, since they are not my images. If you want to see them, go to Sulphur. It’s a nice little town.)
The judging process was pretty straightforward, as the staff made notes and placed the ribbons on the pieces for me. I discussed the merits of each winner and they took that down as well.
As consumers and the camera industry are well aware, the most common type of photography in the world today is smartphone photography, and the most popular smartphone is the iPhone. My wife Abby and I have iPhones, and their sophisticated, convenient, built-in cameras have all but silenced our point-and-shoot cameras.
As I explore the most recent iteration of these, the iPhone 7 Plus, I am finding both its virtues and its flaws.
My favorite way to use my iPhone to make pictures is through Instagram, which includes interesting filter looks and makes sharing on social media easy. Instagram’s game changer for me, though, is its square format. It leads to me to compose images differently, since more of my photography involves choose between vertical and horizontal compositions.
Some ideas that might up your phonetography game…
Keep your phone clean. In particular, keep that tiny lens free of fingerprints. I see tons of phone photos that are hazy and fog-like, and this is because the lens is covered in schmoogies.
Get closer. This has been an essential piece of my teaching for years, and it applies to phonetography as much as any other. The pixels for which you pined and paid over the years are wasted with sky above and floor below in most iPhone images.
Unless you are shooting square frames, pay attention to mode: portrait vs landscape. Most people hold their phone vertically out of habit, and it defines both their photographs and their videos, often inappropriately. It’s easy to turn a phone on it’s side, but too often we see horizontal scenes represented by vertical compositions.
Steady is better. Even the biggest phones are lightweight, so it becomes very important to hold them steady. If you don’t have a steady hand, consider a mass-based steadycam, tripod or monopod.
Don’t bother with the “pinch to zoom” feature. On most phones, it just crops the pixels in the same way you can when editing later.
Although trendy, getting a light source in your phone photos can make quite a mess, and this technique calls for more lens that the phone can muster.
All of the basic rules of photography apply to the phonetography. Keeping that in mind, the camera in your phone is another great tool in the photography toolbox.
On a couple of occasions before, I have described how much fun I have covering Ada’s Independence Day celebrations in historic Wintersmith Park. Our community goes all-out, starting with the Fireball Classic half-marathon, 10k, and 5k races (this year was the 50th), followed by kids games, then grown-up games, then fireworks at dark over Wintersmith Lake.
Having shot this event year after year has been more than a pleasure, it’s been a privilege to offer my view of this historic family-friendly piece of Americana.
For the first 16 years of my career as a photojournalist, starting with my first newspaper internship in Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1982, my craft was entirely mechanical and analog. I made pictures exclusively on photographic film, and printed them on photographic paper using a darkroom, an enlarger, and processing chemistry of various kinds.
A dominant part of this process for the newspaper industry was the Kodak Ektamatic print processor. Designed to be a very quick way to make prints, the Ektamatic processor used activator and stabilizer instead of developer and fixer. Instead of a properly fixed and washed black-and-white print, it produced a damp, ready to use, supposedly temporary print in just eight seconds.
Anyone who used one of these, and most of us did, remembers one thing about these prints more than anything else: the smell. The stabilizer used a potent mixture of acetic and boric acids to rapidly neutralize the developer and make the image temporarily light safe. It was a vinegar-like smell, only somehow sharper.
Cleaning this processor involved taking it apart and scrubbing the rollers, then adding fresh chemicals using bottles that sat upside down on top of the machine so they could refill the trays using valves that screwed onto the bottles. It needed to be cleaned a couple of times a week, but I can tell from my prints when I waited five or six days because there are streaks on the prints.
My analog craft tapered off somewhat after September 1998, when my company bought a Nikon LS-2000 film scanner and an Apple PowerMac G3 computer to run it. I still processed film, but instead of printing it with an enlarger, I scanned the negatives and saved the files on a server for the newsroom to use.
I cite this transition as part of the impetus for one of my earliest photographic trips to the desert, Villanueva.
Reviewing these images started late last year when my coworker LeaAnn Wells was looking for an old newspaper in the storage are we call the “morgue.” It’s a smallish room, and had filled with so much clutter that when LeaAnn tried to stand on something to reach papers on a high shelf, she almost came crashing down. She and I vowed to clean up the place, which was filled with, for example, 300 copies of the 2006 football preview section, where we really only need about five copies.
Knowing that if everyone is in charge, no one is in charge, I took point in this cleanup effort, and have thrown away maybe a ton of worthless duplicates of newspapers, dust mites, rat turds, and even 50 bags of cooking show coupons and free chicken broth.
In the midst of all this, I found, near the bottom of the piles, a huge box full of my own Ektamatic prints from many years ago, and decided to try to get them in some order and preserve them.
Making Me Look Bad...
One thing I despised was being caught between management urging me to use less material and editorial demanding I use more. Publishers and accountants would tell me something like, “We used too much film and paper last month. Try to use less.” Which I would. Then editors would say something like, “Why can’t I get more shots from this?” or “Why are you printing this so small?”
One thing I was able to affirm by looking through these thousands of images is that I was good. It’s easy for me to forget that I have done solid work for my entire career, particularly during periods when I wasn’t appreciated by management. But I look through these slicks and see that I shot well year after year after year.
Just because some loudmouth Millennial rolls his eyes and dismissively says, “That’s the oldest trick in the book!” (with an implied “old man!”), doesn’t mean it’s not a good trick. I used one of the oldest tricks in my lexicon recently in class: the hair shake. This works well with people who have long hair that is looking too stiff. Have the subject/model throw their head forward and shake their hair, then quickly sit up, letting their hair fly back. Nine times out of ten it will result in their hair looking wild, free, fun, beautiful. Don’t let them touch it – it will feel strange to your model because they never comb or brush it that way, but it will look amazing.
As I was writing a post for my social blog, The Giant Muh, I needed some images. I scrolled through the folder of stuff from our October anniversary trip with my wife Abby, The Endless Sky, and found an image I thought would be worthless because I overexposed it…
When I shot it, I was disappointed, but I kept the frame in-camera and continued my Canyonlands hike with longtime friend Scott Andersen. As the light matured and the day went on, we made many successful images, and had a great time.
I didn’t give the image much more thought.
Today when I saw the image, I attempted to get some detail out of the moon using Adobe Photoshop’s recovery slider, without much effect.
Then I rather whimsically thought, “I’ll run it through my Nik Collection’s single image tone mapping high dynamic range (HDR) filter (which is free – read more here [link]) and see what happens.”
Honestly, I didn’t think there was much detail in the image – the blacks looked black and the moon looked white. I was amazed, then, when the Nik filter was able to extract a very interesting and detailed image…
In October 2016, my wife Abby and I traveled to the American West for our twelfth anniversary, a journey we make as often as we are able. We love the west, and were married in southern Utah in 2004 at Arches National Park.
The trip report, The Endless Sky, posted on our travel blog, was among my favorites, but I didn’t expect to hear this from two of my photographer friends…
From Wil C. Fry
These photos are tremendous, somehow better than your usual. It has me wondering whether you learned some new technique, or used a different camera, or processed them with new software. Or perhaps the light was simply better this time… Or maybe it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
From Dan Marsh
I too am curious, have you learned something new and different, or are you simply getting better with each trip? These are some of the best you’ve ever done.
So to answer their question about what’s changed: essentially, nothing. I don’t exactly agree that these are head and shoulders above my past efforts. I will say that yes, it is an evolving craft, and one I hope I continue to hone and improve. But part of me says that my audience sees only the new product, and only half-remembers some of our great trips in the past.
In fact, while reviewing the travel blog, I have to say that there are many pages from many trips that compare favorably, but those pages have faded somewhat into history. It’s easy to do in the internet era, particularly one that is so trend-centric, but paradigms like “that’s so 2013” or “what have you done for me lately” are troubling because they can dismiss an entire body of work for no valid reason.
As far as technicalities go, no, I haven’t made any important changes to my workflow. I mostly shoot RAW files and edit them in Adobe Photoshop, though sometimes I make JPEG images, following the same basic editing strategies. My priorities are color, light, composition, and location, location, location. The images in this entry also speak volumes about equipment and how much less important it is that the photographer. Some of these images were made with cameras such as the Nikon D100 and the Minolta DiMage 7i, incorrectly regarded as unable to deliver. As you can see, particularly from the earlier images, great photographs are made by great photographers, not by expensive equipment.
Year after year Abby and I go to southern Utah and the Colorado Plateau, but I would love to expand our reach: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Death Valley, and many more locations are on our short list.
That’s the rub, really. My best images from our travels come from visiting the best places. And that’s what makes the adventures, not just the images, great.
Here are some images from over the years, from adventures I think competed well with my most recent efforts. I look at each of these images as one of those moments of success for which we as photographers all strive. They are chronological from oldest to newest, and you can click them to view them larger…
In conclusion, I encourage all my readers, and everyone wanting to learn and grow photographically, to dig deeper into my rather extensive content, not only on the travel blog, but at the photo blog as well. It is my hope there is greatness deep within.
One aspect of my Intro to Digital Photography class is on the third and final night, during which I talk about what to do with our images. I show and tell about how to organize, edit, save, archive, share, and display our images. Since I am about to start another class, I’ve been recently pondering something that troubles me a bit: photographers or picture-taking civilians who take hundreds or thousand of images and then fail to do anything with them.
The occasions that come to mind are three hiking trips I made with three different photographer friends, one in 2011, one in 2013. and one in 2014. We had great times, and these three photographers are three of the best I have ever known, so it is utterly baffling to me when they tell me that after we spent all that time on the road and the trail, and captured thousands of images of what I thought were some amazing moments, that they haven’t done anything at all with their images.
I honestly don’t understand this line of reasoning, and I would be happy to hear a real explanation.
Part of why it bothers me is that I know their images are head and shoulders above the everyday images made in those places when we were there, and that their elegance and beauty would enrich us all.
Instead, they sit in a folder on the desktop of a laptop computer somewhere.
Maybe the point of this entry is to encourage anyone who has a folder full of great unshared images to open it and start to explore their potential. Even if most of the images in that folder are throw-aways (most of mine are), there are certainly pearls amongst them. Set them free!
Yesterday I posted this photo on Facebook of myself showing many of the new images I recently printed and hung in the halls at my newspaper. Cue Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition…
Props to our Publisher Amy Johns for facilitating getting these big prints made.
One Facebooker asked me how I go about picking images for such a display, and the answer is one I have always stressed when teaching: ruthless editing.
Like all of us in the 21st century, I make a lot of pictures. But unlike almost everyone else, I know the value of editing, and how an audience is able to view and enjoy images, and how that comes together to express a message.
These principals were essential as I gathered images for this project, which I am pleased to say is a work in progress. As it stands today, there are 32 new images on the walls, culled from a folder of about 300 images.
The process isn’t easy; over the years I have been privileged to cover thousands of events in our community, and the result is tens of thousands of images. The subset of these images for this project is recent digital color images.
This is also the difficult process we face each year when contest time rolls around.
With that in mind, I decided to challenge myself even farther and get this collection down to just five images, taken from the collection of 32 pieces that are now on the walls. I decided to find an image that represents each broad class of photography: portrait, sports, spot news, feature, and nature.
I was amazed and disappointed recently when I had to reject a number of poster-sized prints my office and I had printed at a profession printer, because despite my exact words “preserve the aspect ratio” of the photos, eight of the 22-image batch had been squished to fit the poster. My disappointment came from the fact that a professional print ship should know better.
But I am aware that many of my readers might not know what this means. In short, almost all of the images of news and sports that I shoot are cropped to a custom aspect ratio for compositional purposes. Aspect ratio is the relationship between the width and the height of an image. Some of my images are square, some are long, thin rectangles, and so on. What the printer did wrong was to either let their machine resize the images, or did it manually, to fit inside a 20×24-inch box so it would fit to the size of the posters I ordered. I was clear in my order that if an image was a square, it should stay square, and if it was long and thin, it should stay that way, and they could trim the print to match the aspect ratio of the image.
My guess is that one employee took my order and another filled it. I’m not terribly upset about it because they understood their mistake and fixed it at once, but it did mean lost time and productivity for me even though I was perfectly clear when placing my order.
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.
The third night of my Intro to Digital Photography class built around what we can do with what we have learned on the first two nights: the basic theory of how cameras work, and how to use some of our tools to create images.
In the digital age, we make a lot of images, and often that’s the end of it, because no one, absolutely no one, has time to look at 500 or 1000 of our images. I’ll go even farther and say that if you do with your images the same thing as everyone else in the 21st century, post them to social media, very few people will see them, and even if they do, they have little chance to make an impact.
Call me old school, but it is my opinion that top quality printing is the best way to create an impressive, expressive photographic product that has the potential to last for decades. The printed work not only looks great, it feels great in the hands, and when it’s new, it even smells great. It has a sense of permanence, importance, significance.
For prints, particularly display prints up to 13×19 inches, Abby and I have owned several photo-quality inkjet printers over the years, our current one being the Epson Stylus Photo 1400. It’s not at the top of the line, but we buy the best paper and ink for it, and the results are spectacular.
Creating items like books and calendars, we use Apple’s Photos app, the latest iteration of what was long-known as iPhoto. Abby’s daughter had the wedding photos we shot for her made into a book at mypublisher.com, and we were all pleased with the result, and there are many other options.
A photo book could be about anything: weddings (here or here or here, all made into books), memorials, holidays, vacations, family reunions, family and community history, anything.
I show some of our prints and books to my students not to brag on our accomplishment, but to say to them. “You can do this with your photography.”
I know so many people with collections of great images of great moments that are hiding inside a smart phone or computer, waiting to be made into something genuinely beautiful.
My readers know that as a small town news photographer, I cover a lot of, well, small town stuff. One thing I have always loved is small town sports, and how the whole town comes out to the games and has a great time. Saturday, I worked a basketball twin bill, girls and boys basketball at Vanoss High School, who was hosting nearby rival Latta.
I felt inspired for some reason to bring my iON action cam and mount it on the hot shoe of my cameras and made a short video of game night…