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Getting to the (Focus) Point

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

When we talk about using the aperture to control depth of field during our Photo Walks, Classes and Workshops, we specify focusing on a particular point in your composition. The depth of field extends in front of and behind that point.

Not too surprisingly, many of you who are just learning your camera are not familiar with setting it up so that you control what the camera focuses on!

Left on its own at the default settings, with all focus points active, the camera is programmed to focus on the closest object it finds in the frame. This is not always where you want to focus.

You do have a way to select a specific focus point. As usual, how you do this differs from camera brand to camera brand (and sometimes model).

On all Canon SLRs that I’ve used this is done by pressing the far right button on the upper back of the body. Canon amazingly calls this the “AF Point Selection” button – mark the day, this may be the only time you find anything described that clearly!

You’ll need to half-press the shutter to activate the meter – to “wake up” the camera – first. When you press the AF point selection button you’ll see all focus points lighted in the viewfinder and on some models also displayed on the LCD screen. You then use the front control wheel to move through the focus points to select the one you want.

On Nikons, (sigh) it depends. On most models you go into the Menu, to AF Area Mode and select Single Point. Then use the Multi-Selector (up, down, right and left arrows on the back) to move the focus point to the desired position. (Note- some Canons allow you to do this as well as select with the front control wheel.) If this doesn’t work for your model it’s time to look in the manual.

For other brands, Sony seems to mostly follow Nikon’s arrangement, Pentax follows Canon’s and the others – well, this is again the time to “go to the book”. We’ve all agreed that the camera manual is not ideally read like a novel. But it is useful as a reference when you know what you’re looking for.

How many options of points you have will depend on the model camera you are using. Typically the higher-end (as in, more expensive) the model, the more points you’ll have available.

For most shooting it isn’t critical which one you select as you can still half-press to focus and then re-compose. I usually use the center point unless I know I’ll be regularly looking in a particular part of the frame. The idea is you now have control over where the camera focuses by placing that point on your subject.

Of course all of the above applies to SLRs. The many point & shoots, advanced digitals and now the mirror-less interchangeable-lens models all have their own language. Some point & shoots don’t have the option to select the focus point, others do. Pretty much all the advanced digitals and MIL models have it. Again you’ll want to see your manual for your particular model.

While there are always exceptions and for some types of fast-moving subjects having all focus points active can be desirable, for most day-to-day walk around photography I recommend always having a single focus point active, allowing you to put the focus exactly where you want it.

Hope this helps make things clearer. (Don’t you really miss my bad puns during the off season?) See you on the next Photo Walk!

– Stu Estler

After The Storm – In The Digital Age

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

It’s late Sunday morning and all that’s left of Hurricane Irene here in Darnestown is a healthy breeze. I’m watching the edge of the cloud line and the blue sky beyond to the west continue to slip closer and closer.

Here in upper Mongomery County Maryland just northwest of Washington, DC we’ve weathered the shorn quite well a few branches down here and there and the obligatory power outage. Even that only lasted about eight hours, so maybe PEPCO really is doing a better job as promised. We’ll see how they do in the harder-hit areas.

No cable back yet so no distraction from the incessant draw of Internet on any of three computers.

Which gives me time to reflect on the difference eight years makes, since Hurricane Isabelle came through in 2003.

She came straight up the Bay so we felt the effects of hurricane winds even here. More damage, power out for five days. I have a well here, so no power=no well pump=no water. While those around me on city and county water complained about cold showers I longed for one.

Got kind of creative after a bit. Ran a garden hose over to my neighbor’s outdoor spigot (they on county water) hooked it up to my spigot and back-filled my water system from theirs. (if you’re ever tempted to try this be sure to shut the valve to your well first!)

The smell and taste of chlorine was never so exquisite!

This time, wiser and more experienced, I had 30 gallon-bottles of tap water in reserve, plus four 5-gallon buckets plus a full bathtub! Used all of one gallon bottle before the power came back on.

Technology was different then too. Eight years ago I had a totally film-based photography business. (I was one of the die-hards – got my first digital camera in January 2004)

No Internet presence then, no website and certainly no web-based business. So no power and no Internet just meant the inconvenience of no email for a few days

No smartphone either. Now here I am writing this entirely through the iPhone posting it and getting word out everywhere. May be a formatting glitch or two – we’ll see.

Yes I realize that’s old news to most of you, but it’s still a revelation considering the relatively brief span of time.

Well, the sun is out and the day becons. Hope all of you who were or still are in the path of the storm are well.

Had to cancel our Annapolis Photo Walk yesterday – hopefully all will be back to some semblance of normal for Tuesday’s Walk.

Quite the week here. Earthquakes, hurricane – what’s next, maybe asteroids? Stay well!

Learning to Truly See Through The Lens

Saturday, March 12th, 2011

A student in an upcoming photo walk recently asked a great question – and it caused me to start thinking of introducing this idea early in the learning process, rather than save it for advanced classes.

She has a DX format SLR (1.5 crop factor from 35mm full frame), and she asked “should I just bring my 35mm f1.8 or do you think I should bring the 18-55mm kit lens too?”

Here is what I replied:

“Back in ‘the day’ when I started out learning photography (when you projected the image through the lens onto a rock and then chiseled it out on the stone) everyone began with a 35mm camera and a 50mm “standard” lens. The first thing we wanted was more lenses, and at that time (early 80’s) zooms were still “amateur” quality, and serious photographers used primes.

Zooms have improved now to the point where they’re the “standard” lens, and few people rely on a single prime lens for their shooting.

As a student, having the single focal length to use caused us to become more aware of the relationship of lens-to-subject, of composition; we learned to use the “two-step zoom” (you use your feet move closer to or farther from the subject). In my advance classes I give an assignment where the student must use just one focal length for all of their shots. It’s OK to use a zoom lens if that’s all they have, but they must choose a focal length and stay with it for the entire assignment.

It causes you to become much more attuned to your subject, more aware of composition and light, to think more creatively and explore the possibilities of framing and composition more fully. I believe some of that is lost with the availability of zoom lenses and the ease of changing focal length rather than working with the image and the subject.

So, if you’re up for it, I’d say use the 35mm, and if it’s convenient maybe bring the kit lens along just in case you’re really not happy with what’s going on with using the prime. “

So what lens do you shoot? Do you rely on the technology and availability of quality zoom lenses to just rack the focal length in and out to suit your preferences for the shot, or are you intimately aware of the relationship each focal length has in the perspective and point of view it produces with your subject

70mm Lens

Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the best-known and well respected photographers of the 20th century is famous for using his M-Leica and 35mm lens for the majority of his photographs.  It’s not about the camera. It’s about the eye and the creative mind behind it.

Think about using just a single focal length lens – whether a prime, or just restricting yourself to a single focal length setting on your zoom. Become thoroughly familiar with all the possibilities and restrictions of that lens. Concentrate on making the best images possible with that focal length. Then, once you’ve become intimately accustomed to that view, choose another focal length, and do the same with it.

16mm Lens

It doesn’t have to be the “normal” 50mm or equivalent field of view. Some people are more comfortable seeing the world from a wide angle viewpoint, while others look for the close detail of a longer lens.

There’s no right and wrong answer here, and no single “ideal” focal length lens. But learning to truly understand the feel and possibilities of each will certainly improve your creative bag of tricks.

Baby It’s Cold Out There

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Some of you have observed that the winter Premier Photo Tours schedule is rather “light”. That’s because you, like me have indicated that you’d rather be somewhere inside and warm in the winter. (Honduras should be nice and hot and humid – I can’t think of a better way to spend January!)

However, there are times when winter provides rich photography opportunities. But there are special considerations for cold weather shooting.

Obviously dressing for the weather is paramount – I won’t belabor the details of that. I will mention that the little chemical hand warming packs, either in your gloves or pockets, are a wonderful thing! Especially since after 25 years of shooting I’ve yet to find gloves that are truly useable with all functions of a camera.

Your camera can also get rather testy in cold weather. This is especially true in the all-electronic digital age.

Batteries will lose their charge more quickly when cold, whether in the camera or waiting in reserve. Be sure everything is fully charged before venturing out, and it’s best to carry your spare batteries in a pocket where they will get help from your body warmth. This of course assumes that you actually have body warmth when outdoors in the cold. (Did I mention I’m not a great fan of cold weather?)

Condensation is also a consideration. Bringing your camera out from the warm, comfortable, moister, somewhat less dry, barely more humid indoor air into the dry mind-numbingly cold outdoors can cause condensation to form on many of your camera’s parts, including the lens.

The best thing to do is allow the camera to cool down a bit, closed, power off, in the case. This will allow a gradual acclimation to the colder and dryer air. Unfortunately using this technique on your body is totally useless.

Opening your camera immediately can cause condensation to form on the lens, and can even cause condensation on electronics, causing all sorts of weird things to happen. The condensation issue is especially true of dSLRs when changing lenses, but point & shoots, which typically are not as weather sealed as the higher end dSLRs, are also subject.

Back in “The Day” we had to do the same thing with our film, as condensation on the film will cause moisture spotting that cannot be removed. While not as much a factor with digital memory cards, moisture can cause imperfect connections on electronic surfaces. And of course, if you do still happen to shoot film, the rules haven’t changed.

The reverse – warming the camera gradually – is true when you come to your senses and go back inside. And you may be wondering, doesn’t the same thing happen in extremely hot, humid conditions, especially when going from an air conditioned environment to the natural steamy outdoors?

Yes it does, but your fingers aren’t turning purple and breaking off while you wait.

We’re now TWELVE DAYS past the winter solstice. The days are getting longer and longer. Spring MUST be just around the corner!

Design4Kids Update

Meanwhile back here in January we’re anxiously awaiting the Design4Kids photography workshop in Las Mangas, Honduras from January 16th through the 22nd.

Fellow photographer Eric Lolkema from Amsterdam and I will be meeting up in Antigua, Guatemala first for a week of full-emersion Spanish language training at one of the fine schools there.” Poco y poco” my Spanish is coming along. We’ll also be laying the groundwork for a future Premier Photo Tours workshop in this vibrant town, the former colonial capital of Guatemala.

Then it’s over to Honduras where we meet up with Design4Kids director Jeff Speigner and two new members of our volunteer cadre for a week of working with the kids at Guaruma, the Honduras branch of Nancy McGirr’s Guatemala City based Fotokids. These after-school photography programs have developed a number of incredibly talented photographers.

Up to now the students at Guaruma have mostly been trained in the art of photography. This workshop will give them a taste of the commercial side, with a local Eco-tourism lodge as a client. The project for the week will be for the kids to develop a body of photographs for the lodge’s promotional materials.

Having sent several days with these young photographers last June, I’m anticipating some exciting results. I’ll do my best to post updates here and on the blog, however internet connections in Las Mangas tend to be slow when available at all, so please bear with me!

Save The Date!

Finally, plans are coming together for the Cape May, NJ photo weekend. Preliminary dates are October 7th – 9th, subject to finalizing. We’re planning to hold the workshop in concert with the town’s Victorian Week, so this will be a double dose of fertile photography subjects! Stay tuned for more details!

Are Point & Shoot Cameras Really Going The Way Of Film Cameras?

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Saw an article yesterday on Yahoo news that predicted the end of the point & shoot camera as we know it today. The claim is that more casual photo-takers are turning to their cell-phone cameras and leaving their point & shoots at home.

As a serious photographer I’ve long said that my ideal compact camera – device, really – would be a truly full-featured camera built into a smart phone. The current iPhone4 and its competitors have a decent basic camera, and can do quite a lot when combined with the many apps available for post-processing.

But they still lack the zoom range, ISO options and exposure control features that most mid-level and up point & shoot cameras have. For someone used to shooting with a full-frame dSLR, often on Manual to have complete control of the results, those are necessities for me, not options.

But for the mass-camera market, those people who want a snapshot of people and places and events happening right now in their lives, without too much concern for high-level image quality and no thought of commercial use or even longevity for their pictures, the convenience of having the cell phone and camera all in one and with them all the time trumps the improved quality of their point & shoot.

I’ve found myself less concerned with not having a separate camera with me everywhere all the time, now that I have the current generation smart phone camera always available. It doesn’t take the place of a serious camera for “real” photography, but it certainly gives new meaning to the old adage of “f8 and be there”.

I’m curious to learn how you feel about this – are you becoming more prone to relying on our phone camera, or is a separate, full-function camera still a must for all occasions for you? Give us your perspective in the comments section. And if you’d like to read the full article on Yahoo, you can find it here:

Don’t Run Your Digital Camera Out of Gas

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

It may be hard to believe, but at every class and workshop I’ve taught, someone has gotten part way through and realized “oh no, my battery is dying”.

Way back in “the day”, with the right camera, you could get by without a battery, just using the camera’s mechanical functions. Not any more. Digital photography is all about electricity, and without that little power source, nothing is going to happen.

Whether you use your camera regularly or leave it sitting in a drawer for months, the battery will drain. You may be more likely to have a freshly charged battery if you do shoot often, since you’ll likely remember to charge it after the first time your camera goes dead in the middle of a photo outing.

Since only a very few cameras now still use the simple old “AA” batteries, you need to recharge your camera battery with the charger that came with it. With most of the newer batteries, it’s OK to charge it even if it isn’t fully drained, so it’s a good idea to charge your battery the night before your shoot.

Of course the best solution is to get a second, back-up battery. That way, when the first one is done for the day, you just replace it on the spot and keep shooting.

Just remember to recharge the exhausted battery when you get home. And it’s a good idea to keep rotating your batteries through the camera even if you don’t use one up on the day’s shooting. That way you’ll be sure to have the second battery fully charged and ready each time.

And finally, when you’re traveling remember to pack your charger! I do, because I’ll never forget the trip to New Orleans when I arrived and discovered that the charger I had laid out and ready to pack never made it into my bags! I couldn’t find a store anywhere in the whole “Big Easy” that sold the charger for my batteries. My shooting on that trip became VERY selective.

It’s an easy thing to overlook, and if you remember just as you’re going out the door that you forgot to charge your battery, it’s too late. To help make sure that everyone who participates in Premier Photo Tours and The Photo Mentor classes and workshops has the best experience possible, I’ve created a pre-workshop planning checklist that you receive as part of your registration. That way everyone has enough energy for a great time.

If you’d like a copy of the checklist, shoot me an email at and I’ll be happy to send it to you.

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

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!

Depth of Field and Fill Flash

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Santiago-45Back in the classroom this morning with an explanation of depth of field and using the aperture for creative control. We worked with “the girls” today on the photography side – it just happens that the girls in the group have less photo training, while the boys are more experienced, and we’ve divided the class into beginners and advanced.

After a short in-class presentation and a few examples, we went outside and practiced the techniques – definitely the best way to really learn and understand how to do it. Everyone loves the opportunity to play and experiment with the camera.

Then back inside for the next lesson – fill flash. We did double photo sessions with the same group today while the other group was doing screen printing on the graphic design side, and will do the same tomorrow with the boys working with us on photography.

It was a natural segue from aperture to understanding the use of fill flash both indoors and outside. It’s natural for beginners to simply use flash as the primary light source and blast away. Once you see the subtle natural results from balancing flash with available light, you really begin to get excited about the possibilities for creative control.

The kids really got into shooting photos of each other with the flash – they played like paparazzi and stars! This group is an amazingly talented bunch of kids, and they devour every new concept we present them.

The afternoon was project work. The concepts are set and the posters are really coming along. Only a day and a half before they present the final designs to the client.

Tomorrow we’ll see how the boys do with depth of field and fill flash. The girls have set the bar!

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!