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Candid Street Photography and an HDR Workshop at Design4Kids7

Friday, January 20th, 2012

Thursday the Design4Kids group took a break from workshop classes. Each workshop includes an excursion day, giving everyone an opportunity for a bit of sightseeing and the chance to take some photos in a new environment. Along the way we all learn a little more about the area and its people.

The morning saw everyone pile into one of the many water taxis that ply Lago Atitlan, and take the short trip around Vulcan San Pedro to the small town ofSan Juanla Laguna. This small pueblo is the home of many of the local artists and traditional textile cooperatives.

The first thing we see is the result of the torrential rains of a year ago, which caused the lake level to raise by nearly two meters. The water has remained at this new level, and the entire first block of town, previously filled with waterfront shops is now half submerged.

This is a scene repeated all around the lake, and most local businesses have relocated to higher ground and reopened.

There were great opportunities for candid street photography, and the majority of the people here seem quite open to being photographed. Of course there is always the occasional shy subject. The town itself provides a backdrop for creative photography of all kinds.

After returning to our workshop base at la Posada Santiago, Moe Murdock held a great drawing workshop, which was followed by an impromptu mini-class in HDR –HighDynamicRange– photography.

We discussed the entire process of planning your photograph for HDR processing, making the series of exposures and then combining yhem in HDR software.

There are nearly limitless variations of processing options, from very photo-like with expanded shadow and highlight range to the highly graphic look of exaggerated tone-mapping. Of course the kids latched on to the way-out there look right away!

Photos of the day’s activities are posted on the Design4Kids Facebook page –!/Design4Kids

Tomorrow is the final day of the workshop. The graphic design projects are due, and the lesson plans for teaching the digital SLR camera will be presented. Preliminary work looks very good!

– Stu Estler

It’s All Greek To Me

Monday, December 20th, 2010

There’s an ongoing debate amongst experienced photographers about which is more important to photography – light or composition. I side with the camp that says it all begins with light.

Light is the fundamental element in photography. The word itself is a combination of the Greek “photos” – light – and “graphos” – draw. Photography is drawing with light. Without light there is no photograph.

And how you use light in your photos makes all the difference in your results.

Light has four characteristics – quality, direction, color and quantity or intensity. All are part of the creative process in making your pictures, whether you use them intentionally or ignore them and hope for the best. Obviously, learning these characteristics and giving them some thought in crafting your images will yield the best results.

Front lighting is, as the name suggests, light that is coming from in front of the subject. It will usually illuminate all of the subject evenly, but this can cause a “flat” look, without a sense of depth.

Back lighting is light coming from behind the subject. It will light the areas around the subject but leave the subject itself dark – this is how you make a silhouette – or, if you expose for the subject, the surrounding areas will be overexposed.

Side lighting is essentially any light coming from a direction other than directly in front of or directly behind the subject. Side lighting gives the greatest sense of depth as it lights some part of the subject while leaving others in shadow. Shadows help our brains recognize dimension and give a three-dimensional sense to a two-dimensional object like a photo.

The quality of the light is determined by the type of source – whether it comes from a small point, creating a hard light with deep shadows, all the way to an even, overcast type of illumination where the light is coming from every direction, softening or eliminating shadows.

Color of light ranges from warm to cool, depending on the time of day and sky conditions for sunlight, and on the type of light with artificial lighting.  Your camera typically “white balances” to give as neutral a color cast as possible, but you can control your white balance to get the kind of effect and mood you want in your pictures.

While quantity is usually determined by getting the “correct” exposure, using over- or under-exposure creatively to emphasize a certain element in your subject can dramatically affect the mood of your photo.

Becoming a student of light causes you to see your world more vibrantly and helps gives your photos life. There’s obviously much more to the subject of light than the brief introduction here – on fact, learning about light is a big part of our introductory classes and continues to be a significant element in all of the Photo Mentor classes and workshops, as well as the information you discover on our Premier Photo Tours.

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 and the Honduras project on 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.


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 . You can also learn more about Design4Kids at .

With Digital Camera Files, Bigger IS Better

Monday, November 15th, 2010

At a recent conference I attended, I was taking some photos, and one of the people involved asked me to email her some copies. I explained that I would as soon as I had a chance to download the images, process them (I always shoot RAW files) and make an email-freindly sized copy. She wondered what I was talking about – why do I need to go through all that? When she takes pictures in her digital camera, they email just fine.

Here’s what I told her:

One of the most common mistakes I see among beginning photographers can start before you even leave the house – it’s not setting the image quality in your camera to the highest quality.

Don’t worry – it’s not just you – even pros need to remember to check their camera settings before each shoot. Otherwise we could be happily shooting away and realize halfway through that we have our image quality set to a low quality we happened to use the other day for some obscure reason.

Here’s why it’s important to use the highest image quality setting your camera has. The bigger the file size from the camera, the better the photo will look and the larger you can print it. While it’s simple and easy to reduce the size of your photo for emailing or putting it on the web, if you start out with a small web-sized file and try to make it bigger, the image quality will just fall apart. You’ll probably even be able to see the individual little square pixels in the photo.

There are a number of computer programs for working on your photos which can reduce a large file for web and email use. Many are very inexpensive and some are even free!

Just be sure to save the new, smaller image with a different name – always use “Save As” and rename it, never just “Save” or you’ll lose the original file. And for that matter, always make a copy of the original photo file and save it as a backup somewhere so you’ll always have it, even if you do accidentally click “oops”.

And here’s the thing – you never really know which photo might be “THE SHOT” – the one you’ll want to show everybody, make into a poster, maybe even be able to sell – until after you’ve pressed the shutter and see the picture, often not even until you can look at it large on a computer screen.

So treat every shot as though it will be that potential favorite and set your camera to the highest image quality setting it has. The more you learn from the instructors on your Premier Photo To

Photo Classes In Honduras

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

After a delayed flight leg from Houston, Eric and I arrived in Guatemala City at about 10:00pm Monday.  Checked into our hotel (the Barcelo – quite nice) at about 11:00pm, checked out at 4:00am to get to the bus station – making our stay about $20 an hour!

Tuesday was an all-day bus ride from Guatemala City to La Ceiba, Honduras. Fourteen hours, with a bus change and layover of 2 hours in San Pedro, Honduras. Met our cab driver in La Ceiba and took the 45-minute ride up the dirt road to Las Mangas.

After disembarking in San Pedro my iphone was “disappeared” – slipped out of my pocket in the seat, and I was off the bus before I realized it. A “search” by the bus service personnel turned up nothing. Mysteriously I was not allowed back on to look for myself.

So much for keeping in touch by email – all of my contacts were on the phone, not yet in this new computer. Hopefully I’ll be able to restore everything from the backup when I return and get a replacement.

The next two days were spent teaching photo classes to the students at Guaruma, the school project here. Originally started as a photography school for the children in Las Mangas, the project now has expanded to include environmental awareness studies and English, and has a second location about 5 kilometers farther up the mountain in El Pital.

The project we created for the kids was a simulated magazine cover, to teach the students awareness of shooting pictures for a specific format and subject, and then laying out the cover with their photos in Photoshop.

Wednesday we met up with Guaruma’s assistant director, Chris Poliquin and the school’s English teacher, Erin Coutts. That day we worked with the students in Las Mangas, and the theme of their assignment was “form and color in nature”. We took a walk along the nature trails that Guaruma maintains up the road and across the river just outside town. CB

The kids here are very much into macro photography, and their sensitivity and awareness of their environment is great to see. A few leaves on the jungle floor become a carefully composed still life, often displaying the subtle interplay of muted greens and browns, other times exploding in the vibrant colors of jungle flowers.

And insects – Oui! They have a critical eye for the smallest creature resting on a leaf or poised on the end of a branch, and work their subjects like a fashion photographer working with their model. Incredible shots of what others might think of as mundane and perhaps something to be dismissed and avoided.

After shooting their photos, we returned to the school where they loaded them onto the computers and learned how to combine the images in Photoshop into a template Eric created as the cover layout.

Then they played with changing type colors and fonts, moving type around the page, and learned how working with layers simplifies so many things. The students were excited to discover what they could do in the program and quickly realized how these techniques could be used with other projects.

Thursday we went up the road to El Pital and worked with the students up there. Neither of these “towns” are even wide spots in the road, but El Pital is a bit more “rustic”. There’s no nature trail there and the focus of their shoot was portraiture of the townspeople.

After some pointers on the do’s – and don’ts – of taking people pictures along with an explanation of how to shoot for a specific format, we unleashed this gaggle of paparazzi on the town.

While a few held back and preferred the comfort of using each other as subjects, most were quick to engage people they met (of course in this town, everyone knows each other) and ask to take their picture. Most were willing subjects and enjoyed working with the kids.

After corralling everyone and herding them back to the classroom, the kids went through the same process of putting their photos into the “cover” template. This group was a bit less computer-savvy than the Las Mangas kids, but nonetheless picked up the concepts and techniques pretty quickly.

This project gives the students an opportunity to learn practice skills that they’ll be able to apply to all of their photography as they move forward in developing their skills.

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.

Two Weeks of Photo Classes!

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Wow, it’s been a busy week, with another coming right along.

Last Saturday started it off with the Kids & Parents Photo Class. The introductory class was geared toward the kids – 11 to 15 year olds – and the parents came along to share the experience and learn alongside each other. Of course, with today’s tech-savvy kids, it’s likely that they were explaining it again to the parents that evening!

We went over the basics of using their cameras – point & shoots – and a little on light and composition. Next we all went outside and practiced what they learned. Then we came back in the classroom and looked at some photo editing techniques, using software like Google’s Picasa.

The parents told me that the kids went home and took photos all afternoon!

That was followed up during the week with the first of two Home Photography Clinics, this one held in Potomac, Maryland, aimed at professionals in the real estate industry who take their own photos for their listings.

While I still make my living as an architectural photographer, it’s obvious that every photo of every home on the market doesn’t justify a budget of hiring a professional like myself. Many clients over the years have asked about how to take better photos themselves, so I’ve put together a two-day workshop to teach some tips and techniques for improving their photos, without all the expensive and complex equipment that I use.

We started with camera basics – many people at this level are using their cameras on the totally automatic settings, and just taking the camera off “the green” and learning how to control it yourself goes a long way towards improving your results.

We talked a bit about equipment – at least an entry-level SLR is really best – plus adding a wide angle lens and a hot shoe flash to allow bouncing and diffusing light.

And of course using a tripod! I’m a big proponent of using a tripod for just about any photo situation you can. It makes it much easier to get sharp pictures in any condition, and frees you up from worrying about too-slow shutter speeds and too-high and noisy ISO’s.

Then we talked about the qualities and colors of light, and how they all play a key role in the success of a photo. Light should always be the first consideration, not an afterthought.

We followed that up with a look at some basics of composition and design elements, like the Rule of Thirds and using lines – especially the power of diagonal lines – to move the eye through the picture and capture the viewer’s attention.

The first day finished up with some considerations and techniques especially useful for architectural-type shooting. We talked about perspective distortion and parallel lines. And about how to tame the typical ultra-high contrast lighting situations found when photographing interiors.

The second day began with the participants practicing the techniques learned on day one. I hold the workshops in a house to give the students an opportunity to try these techniques right away and ask questions.

Finally we went over some very useful post processing methods that make life in the digital age so much easier.

Shooting in RAW is the first thing to consider to make the process of adjusting images on the computer easier and more efficient. This is another reason for choosing an SLR – even most of the entry level models have RAW capture, while only some advanced digital and few point & shoots allow this.

White balancing an interior space illuminated by mixed light sources can be a time-consuming and complicated task with film and even when shooting JPEGS in camera. With Raw processing it becomes a one-click process, with maybe a little slider adjustment to fine tune things. True, some RAW processing software like Adobe Camera Raw allows white balance adjustments on JPEGS, but this feature is often not found on the more economical entry-level programs.

While critical perspective control is still best done with specialty PC lenses (or a view camera), the ability to quickly adjust for keystoning in programs like Photoshop will instantly take photos of both exteriors and interiors up to a level far above the average real estate listing snapshots.

And the ability to bracket exposures and combine them in post-processing is a tremendously useful means of overcoming too-contrasty lighting conditions. With a bit of practice it soon becomes a quick and simple method of taming extreme highlights and shadows, without the greater learning curve and specialty software required for true HDR images.

Everyone who participated was truly excited to start using their new-found skills, and this week we’ll repeat the workshop with another group in Northern Virginia. Those students are already calling with eager questions and requests!

Introducing The Principles of Exposure

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

D4K3 003We began the day with the less experienced kids in the group, and introduced them to the basics of exposure control – aperture, shutter and ISO, and the relationships between them. These kids have worked with digital point & shoot cameras and have a respectable grounding in composition, and this shows them how to get consistent, predictable results in their photos.

We had them shoot a bracket from -2 to +2 and then showed them how to import their images into Lightroom and make adjustments to their photos, recovering much of their under- and over-exposed frames.

It’s exciting to see the lights come on when the concepts sink in and they “get it”. Ana, one of the girls from “the city” (as Guatemala City is know down here) observed that the shot she liked best wasn’t the “correct” metered exposure – recognizing that having the skills to control the exposure allows you to interpret your image the way you visualize the final result.

Next we repeated the two classes with the more experienced members of the group. While most of them claimed to understand the use of aperture and shutter, it was clear that they all had only a little experience in applying the concepts of manual exposure control in their photos. Once they realized what they really can do by making the camera do what they want, they got totally into the process as well.

Tomorrow is an “excursion day” – no structured classes, but rather a creative play day, with activities that allow the kids to apply and practice the concepts and techniques they’re learning this week. Can’t wait to see what they come up with!

Twilight Photography With Mixed Light Sources

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

The most recent class assignment for my students was an introduction to my favorite photographic time of day – twilight shooting!

You can certainly create interesting images composing solely with the natural light after the sun goes down. The warmth of sunset cools to a deep blue as the light fades below the horizon, forming a stunning backdrop for silhouettes. The colors in the sky itself, especially dotted with glowing clouds reflecting the sun’s last rays, make amazing compositions. Adding water or any reflective surface to mirror the light show going on in the sky creates yet another level of intrigue.

DSC_0104 watermark










Still, it’s the playground of mixing man-made lighting with the waning natural light that will keep me fascinated for – well, I’d say hours, but it only lasts for 20 or 30 minutes! Unless you’re in the far north (or south, though I’ve not had an opportunity to shoot at twilight in Terra del Fuego – yet!) where the summer twilight seemingly does last for hours.

Exciting things happen when you mix the warm wash of tungsten light, the multi-colored palette of neon, and even the green glow of fluorescents and mercury vapor lights, against a backdrop of blue twilight.

While there have always been combinations of filters to adjust the tone and color balance to favor one source or the other, the advent of digital photography and instantly-adjustable white balance has made picking the right color balance incredibly easy. The classic FLB fluorescent filter, used to add that magenta glow that is never quite there in reality, can be mimicked by selecting the fluorescent white balance.

You can try every combination of white balance settings right there one after the other, and pick the one you like. Not to mention shooting in RAW and making minute adjustments in post processing.

Did I say digital photography makes it easier? Now the challenge is deciding which look is the “right” one for your eye. At this time of day there really are no rules. It’s “photographer’s choice”.

So grab your tripod, go out this evening and play!

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.