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The Magic Hour

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

We kicked-off the Premier Photo Tours Photo Walk series Saturday morning with a sunrise walk in Annapolis, MD. Our intrepid walkers braved the below-freezing early morning temperatures to experience the magic that only happens before sunrise in the early morning hours.

The sky was mostly cloudy, with just a thin sliver of clear air on the eastern horizon – a near perfect for some amazing colors.

We gathered about 45 minutes before sunrise, and the sky was just beginning to show a bit of color along the horizon. The light changes constantly and quickly at this time of day, and as we talked and set up our tripods to frame that perfect shot we were all aware of the growing color breaking through the thin cloud laver.

While the timing differs depending on your location, here in the Mid-Atlantic we’re on the 38 to 39 degree north latitude, and about 20 minutes before sunrise is when the real light show begins. The reverse is true in the evening, as the last colors fade around 25 minutes after sunset.

The first shot here was at around 6:30am – about 15 minutes before sunrise, as the first wash of sunlight turns the edge of the cloud layer a neon red. Just a few minutes before sunrise the rays of the sun fan out along the cloud. Then, as the sun tops the edge of the horizon, her reflection dances across the waters of the Severn River.

It’s a bit odd that an event that happens every day, as predictable as, well, as the sunrise still causes such an intense sense of awe and majesty. Yet every day the show is a bit different and every minute of the morning the view changes.

We almost felt a bit sorry for all those snuggled securely in bed at that hour, blissfully unaware of the glorious show nature was providing us.

Shaping Up Your Composition

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

We’ve looked at lines and how they create movement or tranquility in your photos. Remember, lines can be literal – the visual edge of something in your picture – or implied, such as the line of sight of a person in your photo.

As we’re approaching the start of the Design4Kids 5.6 workshop in Honduras, everyone is busy putting together our lesson plans for the students. One of the great things about teaching photography is that you regularly revisit and review ideas and concepts that have become second nature, and causes you to see them in a fresh perspective.

With that in mind. I thoug I’d continue on the review of the basic elements of design in photography.

The next design elements to consider are shapes. Just like lines, shapes can be literal objects – formed by closed lined into circles, triangles, rectangles or an abstract – or created by an area of tone or color, or by a pattern of similar objects.

Our minds use shape to help us indentify and understand our world. We recognize familiar shapes and respond to stored emotional responses we’ve associated with those shapes. Creating shapes with pattern, color and tone can cause our imaginations to make similar associations even when the literal subject has nothing to do with the shape. Ever laid on your back in the grass on a warm summer day and looked for familiar shapes in cloud formations?

You can even us shape to cause an emotional response that is very different from what would normally be associated with the object itself. This technique is especially useful to create abstract images from otherwise familiar subjects, and create a dynamic photo from what may appear at face value to be an uninteresting subject.

Keep in mind – the spaces in between shapes are shapes in themselves. Being aware of and using the figure and ground interplay, of the positive and negative space, will give your photos another level of emotional energy.

Remember – each of the tips we talk about here are all part of a complete picture. As you become familiar with them and use them in your photos you see the shift in visual energy.

A great way to practice these different elements to cause them to become second nature in your photography is to take each one and shoot self-assignments with them. This is the technique we use in the Photo Mentor classes and our Premier Photo Tours workshops. The more you practice these elements that combine to create an emotional image the more they become a subconscious part of each photo you see. Your photos automatically improve as you absorb each lesson.

Premier Photo Tours on Groupon!

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

OK, I try to avoid crass commercialism here (as opposed to honest capitalism!) but I’m going to put this out there this time.

Those of you who’ve followed this site for some time have no doubt noticed the changes of late. I’m ramping up activity on my travel workshops and local photo walks, and have created Premier Photo Tours as an entity to coordinate it all.

It’s actually a logical outgrowth of the Photo Mentor classes and workshops, with the increased benefit of being able to learn and experimant hands-on in an environment that stimulates your creativity. Having the interaction of fellow phographers also adds to the “brainstorming” and sharing of ideas and techniques.

Well, today and now tomorrow – December 21 and 22 – I’m running an offer as a daily deal on Groupon, the social media buying site. You get the opportunity to try new services and products at significant savings, and we get the opportunity to give you an amazing experience that keeps you coming back for more.

If you’re not familiar with Groupon, or if you’re in a market outside of the metropolitan Washington, DC area, you can see the offer here: http://www.groupon.com/r/uu7103555

It’s a great opportunity to get together, learn and share a bit of photography lore, and meet each other. Even if you’re outside the DC area, think about taking advantage of it for when you’re visiting the area. Plus, I’ve made the voucher good for all Photo Mentor classes as well, and for upcoming travel workshops where we’ll just about all be coming from somewhere else!

Design4Kids 5.6 Honduras Photo Workshop Update

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

We’re just a month away from the start of the Design4Kids 5.6 workshop being held from January 16th through January 22nd, 2011 in Las Mangas, Honduras. The client has been selected, final course content is being completed, travel plans have been made.

The “5.6” number of our fifth Design4Kids Workshop honors the key difference of this event. Unlike the four previous workshops held in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, where photography has been included as a part of the curriculum that was concentrated on graphic design and a graphics project, this week will shift its focus (pun entirely intended) to photography as the primary project.

The kids at Guaruma in Las Mangas, an affiliate school overseen and funded by Fotokids, have been studying photography at various levels, but have little in the way of a graphic design background, and even less in the way of graphics software and graphic design-capable computers. Thus, we felt that our first workshop here in Honduras would be more effectively spent in expanding and refining their photo skills.

The client will be one of the local travel lodges here along the Rio Congrejal, an area emphasizing eco-tourism and honoring its rich and diverse environment. The kids, ages 13 to 19, will learn how to move from simply walking around with a camera to planning , coordinating and effectively executing a photography project for a specific purpose, providing photographs to specific guidelines.

Along the way we’ll introduce them to the advanced capabilities of SLR cameras – their experience up to now as been almost entirely with point & shoot digitals. Take a look at their photos at www.guaruma.org and the Honduras project on www.fotokids.org and you quickly realize that photography is not about the tools but the skills and creative vision of the photographer. They’ve produced an amazing body of work.

As always, I fully expect to come away from this week having gained far more that I give, and working with all these kids is always an incredibly enriching, rewarding experience.

THERE’S STILL TIME!

Although we’re just four and a half weeks away from our kick-off, there’s still time to get involved. We have just one opening still available for a motivated individual to participate as a mentor in the workshop. While having photographic skills is valuable, even more essential is the willingness to give of yourself and a desire to enrich the lives of others. No matter what professional or technical skills you possess, the life skills and knowledge that you impart on the kids here are invaluable to their ultimate success in life. To learn more and become a part of our dedicated crew, email me personally at stu@thephotomentor.com . You can also learn more about Design4Kids at www.Design4Kids.org .

Design4Kids IV Photo & Graphic Design Workshop

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

The fourth Design4Kids workshop begins June 17th in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala. This one has been dubbed “The Master Class” and will be made up of the senior students of previous workshops. In addition to classes in photography and graphic design, we’ll have a stronger emphasis on marketing and small business practices ready to be applied to Jakaramba, the design studio born of the workshops and our parent group, FotoKids.

All of the members of the Jakaramba studio will be participating in the workshop. Up to now their clients have been primarily local and regional non-profit organizations, and they’ve worked on smaller projects. We hope they’ll come away from the workshop with a clear direction for the studio and a solid marketing plan, ready to take their business to the next level.

The client for this workshop will be FotoKids itself, and the project a self-published book to be used for promotion and fund-raising. Plans for the he book are to include an overview of the Fotokids project, feature photographs by FotoKids students, and to touch on the beauty and challenges of Guatemala.

Additional customizable chapters will include bios on individual students, coverage of the Design4Kids project and a look at Jakaramba.

Instructors for this workshop will be Design4Kids director Jeff Speigner, teaching graphic design, Cathy Shea teaching marketing, and Eric Lollkema and myself teaching photography. I’ll also be working with Cathy to interject the small business, target marketing approach with her big business marketing skills and experience.

Eric and I will be arriving a week early and making a side trip to Honduras, where we’ll be teaching photo classes for several days at Guaruma, the Honduras branch of Fotokids.

An interesting side note I’ve recently learned is that while it is currently the rainy season in Guatemala, with moderate temperatures and daily storms, Honduras, right next door but on the Caribbean coast, is in their dry season, with hot sunny days and temps near 100! Quite a climate variance in a area the size of the Carolinas!

Check in regularly – I’ll be providing periodic updates during the trip – internet connections permitting.

Shooting in a Winter Wonderland

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Some of the advantages of living in the Mid-Atlantic region are the tremendous variety of recreational opportunities, from mountains to beaches and rivers and everything in between, the beautiful bounty of spring and fall, warm sultry summers.

And oh yeah – fairly short and relatively mild winters . . .

The day after our record-breaking second top-ten snowstorms in the same year, my own little corner of the world is doing pretty well.

Spent Saturday during the storm tackling the shoveling an hour at a time so that by the end of the day when the snow stopped everything was cleared out to the road. Then, about 7:00pm, much to my surprise the plow came through and cleared our street! (I was expecting it today, maybe tomorrow.)

A planned 15 minute photo walk around the block turned into an hour long meet all the neighbors you never know walk, as everyone says “hi” and welcomes the opportunity to take a break from shoveling. Events like this tend to bring people together.

Meanwhile my cleared driveway is now wet as the sun, even at 25 degrees or so, melts all the ice from the surface. And it was only 11:30. By 2:00 it’s dry pavement!

Streets are still covered in a thin sheet of snow, will probably take another day to dry up. Tomorrow’s forecast for above freezing temps, so that should speed things up. But these head-high snow banks are going to be around for a while.

Called my client in Virginia Beach hoping they had just gotten rain out of all this, but they got a couple of inches of snow. Not a lot, but enough that they don’t want their big beach-front home photographed in it. Maybe by the end of the week.

A rare event like this gives an opportunity to get photos that are otherwise simply unavailable. This will give me a little extra for the classes starting this week!

Wherever you’re reading this from, remember, you typically want to over-expose from what your meter tells you by about one stop in snow. And think about your white balance – deep shadows and overcast light tend to make things go blue pretty quickly. You can either adjust for it, or let it go and use it creatively.

Get out there and shoot now. You can’t get these shots in the middle of summer!

Photographing The Colors Of Autumn

Friday, October 30th, 2009
One of the blessings of living in temperate climates is the change of seasons, and in particular the great palate of color nature provides in the fall. While the exact time, intensity and colors depend on where you are, the prevailing vegetation and usually on the weather for the preceding spring and summer, autumn is typically a great photo opportunity.

Fall Colors on the C&O Canal

Fall Colors on the C&O Canal

Here in the Mid-Atlantic October to early November is showtime, and every year brings something to delight the eye. This year we had a dry end to the summer, which muted some of the colors a bit compared to last year, but there is still plenty to shoot. An added attraction is that many people plan their landscaping with ornamental plants that are green and lush during summer, and then burst into colors in the fall.

It’s common when faced with the overwhelming displays of changing color everywhere to try to capture it all. Sometimes that works, but sometimes you wind up with a photo that encompasses so much it lacks a true point of focus. Also, we can sometimes be so absorbed in the show nature is putting on that we forget about distractions that lead the eye away from the intended subject. Our brain can ignore them when we’re there in person looking at things, but as always, the photo sees all.

One solution is to narrow down our frame and concentrate on smaller slice of the visual pie. Even very close-up and macro shots may capture the feelings of the scene as well or better than an overall vista.

C&O Canal, Potomac, Maryland

C&O Canal, Potomac, Maryland

The fall colors aren’t the only thing going on now. It’s harvest time, and even if you live in the city, take the time to get out and explore the rural fields and farm stands. And don’t forget people! The autumn makes a great time to get photos of your friends and family or anyone out enjoying nature’s bounty.

So take the time to experiment with different subjects, different viewpoints and don’t forget to get up close and personal with nature at this time of year. Soon enough we’ll be shooting those winter scenes!

Re-Photographing The Familiar

Monday, July 13th, 2009

In contrast to the week in Guatemala, where everything was new and exciting, I’ve just returned from a long holiday weekend spent with family at a lake we’ve been visiting for the past nine or ten years.

 

We go at about the same time each year (around July 4th), stay at the same house we’ve stayed at each year, and after that much time it all has the look and feel of familiarity that we all find in our own every day surroundings.

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

 

 

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s a beautiful location, it’s great to spend time together with the family, and there’s plenty to do at and around the lake. It’s hardly a boring vacation.

 

But after this long, I found myself working much harder to find new and different photo ops. Being a bit laid slowed down by an injury this year kept me from being as active and from ranging as far afield as I usually do, and that certainly played a part.

 

One of the first reactions in a place like this is to zone in on the beauty of the place and the ever-changing scene unfolding as weather moves up, down and across the lake.

 

But after ten years, I found myself thinking, “OK, so I don’t have a photo of the lake with THAT particular cloud formation, but I’ve got eleven dozen with cloud formations that look an awfully lot like that one.”

 

Of course, there will always be the shots of family and our activities, which are a never-ending source of subject matter. When we look back, it’s those pictures that keep the memories of those wonderful times alive.

 

We may always go up to the airport for the Fourth of July Pancake Breakfast, but this is probably the only time that I’ll see my niece’s son – would that be my grand-nephew? I’m still confused about all that stuff – probably the only time I’ll catch him surveying his handiwork on his pancake breakfast like this.

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

 

 

In fact there was barely time to lift the camera and press the shutter before the moment was gone. No time to carefully compose, and avoid the bright orange shirt behind him. A bit of localized saturation and tone reduction helped reduce that a little – believe me, that shirt must be neon international orange!

 

When the exciting becomes the ordinary, it’s helpful to go back to the basics, and take a look at things through different eyes.

 

Are you used to framing grand, sweeping panoramas? Switch to a long lens and take a much closer look at things. Concentrate on design, on color, on form instead of on what the subject is.

 

Select a particular focal length lens – even if it’s a particular setting on a zoom lens – and shoot everything, near and far, with that lens.

 

Get closer to your subject, for more intimate shots of people than the comfortable distance you may be used to shooting at.

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

In the end, it was on the last morning there, sitting by the water having coffee, that the patterns of light through the water, painting the rocks below, gave me some of my most successful photos.

 

There’s always something new to see no mater how familiar a subject is. It just takes looking at it from a different point of view.

Shootin’ In The Rain In Guatemala

Sunday, June 28th, 2009
Vulcan San Pedro Accross Lago de Atitlan (c) 2009 Stu Estler

Vulcan San Pedro Accross Lago de Atitlan (c) 2009 Stu Estler

High ISO’s and wide open apertures were the order of the day much of the time here in Santiago de Atitlan.

Our Workshop Leader Jeff Speigner (c) 2009 Stu Estler

Our Workshop Leader Jeff Speigner (c) 2009 Stu Estler

Lots of clouds and light rain making way for the deluge of water as the skies opened up once or twice a day, tempered by a few breaks in the clouds here and there. After all, it is the rainy season.

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

The ebb and flow of weather shrouded volcano San Pedro across the lake in an ever-changing veil of mist and clouds.

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

Of course, the last two days were clear and bright in the morning, as if word of our imminent departure had spread, and the beauty of Guatemala was enticing us to return soon.

 

 View of San Pedro From My Room (c) 2009 Stu Estler

View of San Pedro From My Room (c) 2009 Stu Estler

As the morning passes, the warming air gives birth to rings of clouds halfway up the slope. By noon a tremendous cap of billowing cumulous clouds gives the mountain the appearance of a new eruption – even though it’s been dormant for 40,000 years.

The great white and grey mushroom cap foretells the afternoon’s weather – torrential thunderstorms.

imap-001-blogThe weather taught new photographers and reacquainted we veteran instructors with the beauty and peacefulness of the soft light that embraces every subject when photographing in the rain.

 

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

Colors that become washed out in bright sunlight are vibrant and saturated. The brilliant flowers growing everywhere burst from the lush blanket of green that defines the landscape. Everything glistens in the wetness crafting reflections not to be found when photographing on a clear, dry day.

I was prepared for the wetness there – I knew it was the rainy season. I did my homework and so anticipated the beauty of the environment and culture.

 

 

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

What has completely blown me away has been the incredible talent of these kids! I felt humbled being there teaching them photography.

 

 

 

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

 

Although they vary in experience and skill levels, their creativity, energy and ability is amazing.

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

 

To see what we’ve been up to take a look at www.design4kids.org

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

The next workshop is already scheduled for early December. New volunteers with specialties in photography, design and the arts are eagerly welcome! Check the Design4Kids website and keep looking right here for more info.

I’m told December is sunny and dry!

Wide Angle Wonders

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

During my Kentucky trip, the question came up about wide angle and ultra-wide angle lenses. As I mentioned in the last update, some shots require as long a lens as possible – and sometimes that’s still not enough.

 

 

I do lots of shooting with wide angles in my work, and because of that I’ve become used to seeing the “wide view”, and tend to favor the wide angle look in a lot of my personal work.

 

One thing wide angles don’t do well is individual portraits. In order to fill the frame it’s necessary to get close in to the subject, and at close distances wide angles will create all sorts of distortion – especially to faces! Not very flattering.

 

On the other hand, for shots of larger groups, and especially large groups in tight spaces, wide angles are the answer. Since you’re shooting at a more normal distance, each individual is not as close to the lens, and distortion is minimal or not an issue.

 

Wides, and especially ultra-wides, are essential in shooting interiors when you want to capture the entire space. And they can be great for sweeping landscapes too.  The key to using wide angle lenses without getting weird distortions is not to have any part of the subject too close to the lens.

 

However, in art, and that includes photography, there are no hard, fast rules, and sometimes using the distortion effect from wide angles creates an unusual, interesting viewpoint.

 

Take a look at these photos of the sculptures at Lexington’s Thoroughbred Park, a small fountain and sculpture area on a downtown corner. The opening photo above was taken with a 16mm (equivalent) lens.

 

Just a quick mention of equivalent focal lengths. Even though digital has become the standard for photography, there are numerous digital sensor sizes, and one factor that determines whether a specific focal length lens will give a wide, normal or telephoto field of view is the relationship to the size of the sensor.

 

There’s a lot more to it, and I’ll go more into depth on that another time, but for now it’s enough to know that relative focal lengths are still quoted as the equivalent field of view to a 35mm frame (or a “full-frame” digital sensor, which is the same dimensions as 35mm film).

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, back to the horses. While walking up to the sculptures, I took this overall view from behind the fountain. Not very interesting composition and lots of clutter from the street behind, but it documents the site. Could still make you do a double-take if you came up on it not expecting what is there.

 

 

Since the fountain was being used as a wading pool by a number of families and small kids, I wanted to eliminate that from my composition and concentrate on the horses.

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

 

 

 

 

 

The first shot from in front is at normal standing height, using about a 45mm lens – within the 40-55mm “normal” range. It avoids the clutter and confusion from the waders, but the sculptures still get a little lost in the trees behind them.

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

 

 

 

 

 

Next, I knelt down from the same spot with the same focal-length lens, giving a different perspective and getting more sky behind the sculptures. Not a bad shot and it works pretty well.

 

 

But I wanted to really exaggerate the look and feel of the running thoroughbreds, so I chose to use the ultra-wide 16mm.

 

The resulting view (the opening photo above) was taken just a few feet in front of the lead horses in the sculpture, kneeling down and looking up. It accentuates the feeling of being in the middle of the track as the horses rush by (and over!) you. The distortion of the lead horses amplifies the feeling.

 

I’m a big fan of working a subject form all vantage points, using different lenses and compositions. Sometimes the strangest view turns out to be the most interesting!