Recommendations for This Year’s Party Pictures.

I can hardly believe how fast this year has gone by!  Wasn’t I just complaining about the heat, the poor quality summer weather, and hoping we wouldn’t have any summer fires here in the BC Interior. Now I am bundling up in the cold, driving icy roads, and getting ready for Christmas and New Year’s Day parties. I bring up this subject every year, but I think it’s good to consider how to create lasting photographs of family and friends instead of unusable snapshots, and, all to frequently, will be discarded this holiday season.

There are so many opportunities for photography joining family and friends at all those year-end festive events, and many photographers’ dive in, digital camera in hands, happily filling memory cards with candid photos of friends.  The act of picture taking has become so much fun, to rush over to take a picture of someone, look at the LCD, and then quickly slide back to show others those tiny images.

Photography for many people is more about the process of using the digital camera than it is about creating art or even documenting the party; it’s more about standing in front of people, taking lots of quick snapshots and using the camera than it is about making memorable photographs.

Most images made in this fashion never become anything more than space-taking files stored on computers that after quickly being looked at, laughed at, or smiled at, are tucked away with good intentions to be used in some fashion in the future, but after viewing them a time or two they loose their value because there are so many pictures and very few are good enough to give to others anyway. 

How do we approach photography at the next party?  Yes, we should continue to make candid photographs of people having fun, but, perhaps, we also should think about making pictures that tell a story, capture an exciting moment, and importantly, flatter your subjects.  Most people don’t mind seeing a picture of themselves being silly or having fun, but they don’t like pictures that make them look stupid or unattractive.

My approach is to begin by taking a moment to look at the room in which I intend to make photographs, and then, as soon as I get a chance, I make a couple of test shots with longer shutter speeds so that I can include some ambient light when I make exposures using just the on-camera flash, and not end up with brightly lit faces surrounded by a black environment.

I suggest taking a few group shots with two or three people. Get them to squeeze together and compose the shot tightly, including only a little background or foreground. Don’t shoot fast, brace yourself, and select a shutter speed that includes the ambient light, even as low as 1/60th of a second.

Shutter speeds less than of 1/30th of a second won’t work for children playing in the snow during the day because moving subjects will be blurry, but with limited lighting moving subjects will only be exposed when the flash goes off.

 Lighting everything with complicated studio equipment would be great, but that would ruin the party for me and everyone else. It would be more about the photography then about the fun and festivities.  So I manage this by using an on-camera flash and make adjustments as I go.  I want to join in on the fun, not act like a photojournalist.

 Family and friends don’t mind having their pictures taken as long as it’s enjoyable and I want pictures that show them having a good time. So, along with those quick candids I make posed portraits with smiling faces, and if I select some pictures to give away later I want people to like them enough to honestly thank me.

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Thinking about photographic Composition

I had intended to keep my writing in a Christmas mood. However, I think with all the gift cameras this might the perfect time for these thoughts on composition. 

I have always wondered what it is about today’s feature packed cameras that makes photographers disregard the basics of compositional strategies and just snap away excitedly.

My assumption has been that many photographers are so excited about the subject they are photographing that they forget to make that same subject interesting in their final photograph. 

There are more people making pictures today than ever before in the history of photography. Some estimates indicate that there are more photographs made in one year than all those made since photography became popular with the middle class in the mid-1800’s.  So, following that reasoning, there should be an abundance of wonderful photographs being made.   And the probability is that photographers, because of today’s technology, should be getting better and better.  The ability to compose on an LCD screen should also allow photographers to see all the elements in a given scene and compose wonderful pictures.  However, because so many photographers simply disregard composition, I am not sure that is really happening.

In Boyd Norton’s book “Wilderness Photography” he said it best in the chapter on Composition: “ In their first efforts at photography most people consider themselves successful if they produce technically correct pictures – that is, properly exposed. Some photographers never get beyond this stage, considering their work good so long as it remains technically correct and bad if the exposure is off.  It apparently never occurs to these people that with the sophisticated equipment nowadays credit for proper exposure lies more with the camera that with the photographer.  Most aspiring photographic artists soon learn that manipulation of f-stop and shutter speeds to produce proper exposure is only a small part of the photographic art. Successful expression in the medium lies in understanding and applying certain concepts of composition together with the technical manipulation required to produce the final photograph.”

There are a few rules to a composition that have come down to photographers through the ages from classical painters.  For example, “The Rule of Thirds”.  To begin, make a reference diagram that will fit most camera’s formats by drawing a 4×6 rectangle. Draw a line every 2 inches across the 6-inch side and draw two lines at about 1 5/16th inches apart across the 4-inch side.  There should be a 4×6 inch formatted rectangle divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically.

For those of use using the English language, reading begins at the upper left corner, scanning each line left to right, with the page ending at the lower right. Because we likely read more than we do anything else in our lives we have become conditioned to viewing a flat page in that way.  For example, the most expensive advertising location in a newspaper is the lower right because that is where our eyes will eventually end up if we are reading across a page. So when we “read” that 4×6 reference diagram we would see the upper left intersection first and the lower right last.

I don’t want to get complicated so I am going to simplify this rule and say that, from a compositional standpoint, where those lines intersect are the most important places on a photograph.

For example, a red ball is placed on a white piece of paper with the intersecting lines drawn on it. The red ball is first placed at the top left intersection, across to the right intersection, then to the bottom left intersection, and finally ending bottom right.  Most viewers are going to prefer the upper right location the best.  I suggest that readers should consider doing this exercise with the subject matter in their photos.  If one were to draw the 4×6 rectangle on a clear sheet of acetate and place it over 4×6 prints it would be possible to check the composition. An old friend of mine, who in his time was the top-selling landscape photographer in the Kamloops area, had an 8×10 matt cut and ran strings across the opening using The Rule of Thirds. He would then have his first selection of photographs printed 8×10, lay the matt on them and discard any image that didn’t adhere to the rule. He told me that any that didn’t adhere just wouldn’t sell.

Every photograph should have a main subject or center of interest.  Yes, even a landscape.  Take that element in the photograph that is the most interesting and place it in one of those intersections and the result will be a much more successful composition.  When dividing a landscape divide it into thirds.  As I look out at the South Thompson Valley I see the sky, the white bluffs and the river, the foreground, and place them each on a 1/3rd plane. Then I look for the most interesting feature(s) and make sure they are placed in one or more of the intersections.


There is a great deal more involved in the pursuit of pleasing compositions and I will discuss them in the future. This time I’ll end with the Rule of Thirds.

I’ll leave you with a wonderful quote by Victor Hasselblad from his 1976 “Composition” booklet: “Composition in a photograph is often the product of a photographer’s visual sensitivity and talent. And composition is just as important in a photograph as in a classical painting. Good composition is the product of inherent talent, judiciously exercised, and of untiring efforts to achieve satisfactory results.”         If ya like my thoughts, be sure to subscribe.

A photographer’s Twelve Day of Christmas

I like Christmas. I like the music, the bright festive lights and decorations, and all those people, like me, that are in a Christmas mood. Yes, I like this time of year.

I have a friend that I call a rabid photographer; no, not avid, as rabid better describes his lust for picture taking. I never see him without a camera in his hand or a bag over his shoulder.  And yes, he creates lots of pictures, but more than that he is constantly buying camera equipment. He likes purchasing new photography gear as much as he likes using it. So, here is a made up version of what this year’s “Twelve Days of Christmas” might be for him.

On the first day of Christmas he bought himself another digital camera that will shoot with a high ISO for situations when the light is low, and that has a video mode that will be great for his family’s Christmas celebrations.

On the second day of Christmas he purchased a couple of 16GB memory cards so he’ll have lots of image space to hold picture files of “everything” during the holidays.

On the third day of Christmas he acquired an 18–200mm zoom lens.  This popular lens is neat and advantageous for when he’s on the move and it converts to approximately a 28-300mm lens when taking digital format into context.

On the fourth day of Christmas he obtained a roller camera pack.  Shoulder packs and backpacks are common for carrying equipment, but the new packs on wheels are super convenient for those times when he wants extra stuff.

On the fifth day of Christmas he purchased a big telephoto lens.  Yahoo!  I know he has wanted a super telephoto lens for years. Long telephotos are heavy and demand a good tripod, but now he’ll be out photographing wildlife with the rising sun.

On the sixth day of Christmas he obtained a compact point-and-shoot camera.   Sometimes a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) is too big and a small pocket camera is better. His only criterion for the little camera is that it has a viewfinder. A viewfinder lets him hold it close to his eye instead of shakily extending arms and squinting to see the image as the sun reflects off the LCD.

On the seventh day of Christmas he bought himself a carbon fiber tripod.  He wanted a strong lightweight tripod for hiking with his new telephoto lens.  A lightweight, carbon fiber tripod that weighs less than his old aluminum one is just right.

On the eighth day of Christmas he procured a set of wireless senders and receivers to use as a portable studio. The days of only using heavy, bulky studio lighting are gone, and anyone with three or four hotshoe type flashes can set up a multi-light studio anywhere.

On the ninth day of Christmas he bought a battery grip for the camera from the first day of Christmas. The grip increased the camera size and makes it more comfortable to hold horizontally or vertically.

On the tenth day of Christmas he got himself a new computer loaded with the latest image enhancing programs.  Although today’s cameras are amazing, he knows that to make his pictures all they can be, he will need to spend time in postproduction and what better way to do that than with a new computer.

On the eleventh day of Christmas he purchased himself a computer tablet so he can easily show everyone his excellent scenic and wildlife photographs.

On the twelfth day of Christmas he registered for a photography seminar and expedition to be held in Iceland next April. My friend knows one of the best ways to improve his photographic skills is to join a seminar or workshop. The Iceland itinerary includes the Fjallabak Nature Reserve and Sveinstindur by the Vatnajokull glacier. He is unfamiliar with those locations, but will come back with a new understanding of photography, lots of great pictures, and several new friends interested in photography.

That’s my imaginary list for him of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It has been fun and who knows how close I have been?

Give people gift of Photography this year.

How many pictures did you take last summer?  How many pictures did you take while on your last vacation?  What did you do with all those images?  Make lots of small prints? Or did you, heaven forbid, just store them away on your computer’s hard-drive?  Maybe you have thousands of images on CDs and DVDs?

Some of you enlarged a few and maybe joined other photographers in an exhibition and might now have a some matted and framed photographs looking for space on your walls and if you are like me wall space gets pretty limited.   At least I have a shop that I can fill with my framed or matted photographs, but I still have lots of photographs that, in my opinion, deserve a better place than to be stored away and never to be seen.

I have always printed my photographs.  Before digital I would remove my film from the camera, take it to my home lab, then process and print every frame on the negative I liked. I rarely made prints smaller than 8X10 and if I really liked one or more of the shots I would make 11×14 enlargements that including the matt and frame became 16X20.  Nowadays I probably print even more because it is so easy to just sit down to my computer and get excited about the images my wife and I have captured.

As always, I try different techniques, paper, and colours, with an outcome of lots of prints piling up.  Now to get to the point of this column, giving photography as gifts.  I heard about a local photographer that places quite a value on the photography he produces and believes no one should have any of his photography unless they pay for it. As a working photographer I cannot find fault with the value he puts on his work, but I also like people to enjoy my photography and come from the belief that my photography is better suited to being displayed than gathering dust because I want money for every shot.

I have neighbours and because they are loggers they have gladly cut down a tree or two about to fall on my fence. Another neighbour is a skilled mechanic has helped me with my truck when it needed work. The people next door always take care of my chickens, pond full of fish and old cat when my wife and I must be away. None of these people have requested money for their professional skills.  I have friends that are fun to spend the evening partying with, and others that I just want to say hello to without disturbing their busy schedule. I guess I could go out and buy them presents. However, what better gift than a photograph or photographs by me? 

My favourite gift is to photograph their family and give them prints and a CD. If they want an enlargement or two for their family, I’ll make that for them also.   What about all those prints piling up? I haven’t tried this, but I remember that while at a party, a photographer friend of mine brought out a wonderful selection of dry mounted 8×12 and 11×14 photographs and

told everyone they could have any print they wanted. Cards and calendars of our photographs make great gifts also.

Years ago I stopped to photograph a little girl riding her horse along a dusty back road I live on. I printed an 8×10 and gave it to her the next time I saw her. She has since moved to Kamloops, grown up, married, and had children and I suspect her children have made her a grandmother by now. That photograph made us good friends. I know anytime she sees me she will make her way through the crowd or cross the street just to say hi. (I even photographed her wedding many years later) I have photographed my son’s friends on bicycles, motorcycles and cars and given them enlargements.  At one time I could say I had made pictures for everyone on the street I live, but many have moved away and we have new neighbours everywhere. Maybe it’s time to start walking around the neighbourhood again with my camera.  What a great gift a photograph can be.


Think about the gift of Photography

My son’s gift to his wife this Christmas will be five framed 16×20 photographs of him and their two young daughters.

I’ll start by saying that although I can’t think of any better gift than the gift of photography, and even though I always do commissions this time of year, I don’t push my photography on friends and family.  They all know I make pictures for a living, and am pretty good at it, and if they bring it up I am ready and willing, but I am tend to be silent the rest of the time.  Photography for me is the same as any other art displayed in a person’s home, and although there are large photographs on the walls of my home I do realize other people might have other tastes as to just what art is.

I could not have been more pleased when my son called me with his request. We decided to meet at our place in Pritchard and stroll through the wooded area across the road, and spend time taking pictures of the two granddaughters and of him. We wandered the trails of my son’s childhood through the woods, climbed on deadfalls, peaked around trees, ran up and down hills, stood overlooking the river valley behind and had lots of fun until we all tired out. The children loved the experience.  Then with the promise of hot chocolate we turned around and counted our steps home.  All this time I took pictures.

When I photograph children I am never in a hurry. I don’t try to coax a smile by saying, “smile at me”, because unlike adults most children haven’t spent any time practicing in front of a mirror smiling. They don’t know what to do and what usually comes is a face with a wide mouth full of tightly clenched teeth. I just talk a lot, get them to talk back, find many different places to pose, sitting or standing, and take enough time; and because I make sure they are having fun getting their pictures taken I will get relaxed poses, laughs, and smiles in my pictures.  I recognize that generally the first pictures won’t be the best, but who cares? I am shooting digital and just delete those I don’t like and keep taking pictures.

I don’t carry lots of equipment, just a camera with a medium-sized zoom lens and I don’t like long lenses like a 70-200 because I would be to far away from my subjects; I want to the session to be intimate and face-to-face, so for my granddaughter’s pictures I used my 24-70mm, and of course, as always, I used a flash.

There are times that I like off-camera flash and there are times when I keep my flash attached with a bracket that lifts it about eight inches above my camera. This was one of those times, as we were constantly moving. However, I easily could remove the flash whenever I wanted to change the light’s direction.

Modern technology is great. When we returned home I loaded all the pictures into my computer and we sat down to quickly review them all and made our selections. I usually do that by having people select the ones they like first. I moved them into another folder, and then I do the same again and again, moving the best to a new folder. Our goal was to end up with five pictures to be converted to black and white with a slight sepia tint, and then make into 11×14 inch prints.  That size fits perfectly in a 16×20 matt that will finally be displayed behind glass in 16×20 inch brushed silver frames.  I think my daughter-in-law will like this gift from her husband.

This is a good time for photographers to think about their personal photography as Christmas gifts.  I talk with many photographers that make statements like “photography is my passion”, but they never do anything with their pictures except posting them online, or showing them to others from their cell phones.  I see photography the same way I see any other artwork and am disappointed when I visit a photographer’s home and don’t see his/her photographs on the walls.

Are any of you planning on giving your photography as a gift?