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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

Interior Photography at the Capital Home Show

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

Just finished shooting the exhibits done by some friends of mine for Habitat ReStore of Northern Virginia at the Capital Home Show in Chantilly, VA this weekend. These designers are incredibly talented, using the discarded and recycled “home parts” from ReStore to create some amazing home furnishings and accessories.

If you’re not familiar with Habitat ReStore – and if you live in a house (apartment, condo, etc.) you should be – these are resale outlets operated by Habitat for Humanity. They collect donated recycled, reusable and surplus building materials and offer them for sale to the public at a fraction of the retail prices for the same materials. Proceeds from the sales help fund local Habitat projects.

Think there’s nothing of interest there for you, since you’re not rehabbing or rebuilding a home? Take a look at what these designers, all members of the IRIS National Capital Area Chapter, can do with these materials and you’ll have an entirely different outlook.

Try – an étagère made from kitchen cabinet doors and pipes. Kitchenette storage benches made from kitchen cabinets. Throw and area rugs made by stitching together carpet samples!

The possibilities are nearly endless. If you’re in the Washington, DC/Northern Virginia area, you owe it to yourself to go over and take a look at everything they’ve done. The Show runs through Sunday, September 26th at the Dulles Expo Center. Note – I’m not affiliated with the Home Show, am not selling tickets nor make anything from the show. I’m not directly affiliated with Habitat for Humanity, but am a strong supporter of their works.

You can find more about Habitat ReStore of Northern Virginia at or if you’re not in the Northern Virginia area at  (click on the “Shop>ReStore Retail Outlets” tab to locate a store in your area). To learn more about IRIS and to locate a designer, take a look at .

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!

Photography at the Washington Auto Show

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Just finished a week of photography covering the Washington Auto Show. This assignment is for the client who produces the show itself, and is largely public relations oriented. We shoot the special events that go on during the show, as well as the day-to-day activities, the public enjoying the auto displays, checking out the new cars.

In some ways PR photography can be one of the most challenging to make interesting, as the subject is often someone speaking at a podium in front of a group. Sometimes the speaker is the shot – a notable who’s presence is the newsworthy event. Other times having the speaker in context with a display showing the topic of his talk helps provide creative elements for a photo.

In one of the more interesting displays at this show, one of the auto makers had a cut-away car with the body shell split down the middle. The two halves spread open revealing the interior, frame, engine and all the insides of the car. The show attendees could get in the car, with a product specialist, and the body closed, all while the specialist described the many features of the vehicle.

It looked great, and would have been an easy capture in video, but getting still photos that described the process provided a bit of a challenge. Open, the body halves and interior looked like a static display, and closed it just looked like a car. A single shot of the vehicle closing still looked like a static display.

I used post processing in Photoshop to help solve this one. I set up the camera on a steady tripod, and did a series of shots. The first was the display open, with the people inside. I then shot several exposures of the car closing, until it was completely closed. Each individual shot looked like this:


I first tried using the PhotoMerge tool to see what happened, but as I suspected it would, it just ended up with the open and closed frames merged together.

 I then opened each photo in Photoshop, and one at a time dragged each successive shot onto the next. I created a Layer Mask and with a low opacity brush erased some of the area where the car was closing in the underlying frame. That was flattened and dragged onto the next closing frame, and the process repeated. The final image looks like this:

This is a process very similar to the one I use when combining exposures of architectural interiors, and with a little practice it’s actually quite simple. The students who take my classes discover that it’s simpler and quicker to do this than to describe it!

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!

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!

Taking A Different Look At Things

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

It’s been a long month since I’ve posted here. Been a crazy busy time, shooting a project for a client and preparing for the launch of The Photo Mentor course.

We met for our first class session on Thursday, August 27th. Since part of the idea behind this class is the development of an online course, we meet for one hour each week and a portion of the class is delivered to each member via email.

Everyone received the preliminary lesson online, then on Thursday we met at a local business-retail-entertainment center, which has a lake, attractions for kids and adults and is a bonanza of visual stimulation and photo opportunities. What better way to stir up a little creativity!?

After a short introduction here’s the assignment everyone did: roam around the center and photograph whatever appealed to their eye. There are a multitude of opportunities to photograph people, things, animals, scenery and buildings at this place. Sounds overly simple doesn’t it?

Here’s the real meat of the assignment. Instead of just wandering around shooting one or two pictures of everything, really take the time to concentrate on just a few subjects. Engage your creative mind and look for every possible way to shoot the same subject.


Students at the photo mentor classStart by thinking about both horizontal and vertical compositions. Try getting close, as well as backing up and getting a wider view.

Instead of just standing and shooting from your own eye level, try to get above your subject. And below. Even try laying down and shooting from ground level.

When taking pictures of people – and animals – this is especially effective. We’re all used to seeing the world from our eye level, our perspective. How about kneeling down and photographing kids eye-to-eye at their level. It’s probably been a long time since you looked at everything from their perspective. 

The whole idea is to get out of your routine way of looking at the world, breaking those habits and making yourself think and see things differently.

The students are now emailing me their photos. We’ll critique their photos and share everyone’s results with each other, so everyone can learn and grow.

So if you’re feeling stuck and bored with your pictures, and are looking to expand your thinking outside of the everyday routine box. Give this a try – whatever your subject.

Just be forewarned – once you do, you may find things don’t all fit back inside that box!

Stu Estler

Back To (Teaching) The Basics of Photography

Sunday, July 26th, 2009
(c) 2007 Stu Estler

(c) 2007 Stu Estler

Have you ever wondered why it is that two people, standing side-by-side, even with the same cameras, can each take a photo of the same subject? One takes a dramatic, emotionally-charged image, while the other’s photos are … dull, uninteresting – you just don’t get that emotional “aha” that you get from really great photos, that feeling of becoming drawn in and becoming part of the picture.

In the 25 plus years I’ve been a professional photographer so many people have asked me how to improve their photos, that I’ve taken all of the knowledge, experience, techniques and tricks that I’ve leaned over my photography career and put it all together in a photo course.




Here are some of the things I cover:

  • Have you ever taken a great shot, and thought “wow, how do I do that again?” You’ll learn how to use all those controls and settings on your camera so that you are able to reliably and easily get consistent results from your photos.
  • Imagine how the impact of little differences in framing and composition can have a dramatic effect on the impact of your photo. You discover how to compose your pictures to capture and lead your viewer’s emotions.
  • We’ll look at design elements in a photograph, how they affect your photos and why they’re such a critical cornerstone in taking really great pictures.
  •  You’ll learn how to see and understand all about light – front lighting, side lighting, back lighting, the color of light, how different times of day makes a difference … remember, photography is all about light. Even the word photography means “drawing with light”.

The course is a self-directed, self-paced program, delivered online via email and a website where you download your weekly lesson. I’m close to releasing the online course, but first I want to fine-tune it to be sure I’m on the right track with what everyone’s looking for.

Before this course goes live, it’s important that I’m certain my students are achieving the success they desire.

What I’ve decided to do is put together a class – a live face-to-face class – as a Beta-test to put the finishing touches on the course.

I’ll get input from all of the members to learn exactly what is most important – what you’d like to learn to help improve your photography.

 We’ll meet for an hour once a week, for six weeks, partly on location where I can demonstrate and you can practice techniques, and partly inside where we can review photos and see examples.

 Now, since you’re reading this photo blog, I’m guessing you have some kind of an interest in photography. So how about chiming in and helping me out?

What three things are you most interested in learning about photography? Doesn’t matter if you’re a working pro or a new beginner. Those of us who are working pros all know the way we got here is through constantly learning. And if you are a pro, what are people asking you?

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

This will also help us develop the program for the next Design4Kids workshop in Guatemala this December. So even if you can’t come along and volunteer this time, you can still participate in helping out the kids.


So go ahead and leave a short (or long) answer in the comments below.

I realize it’s kind of hard to find – it’s buried at the end of each post, as “responses”. I’m still looking for a template I like that handles comments better, haven’t found one yet. Any ideas there are welcome, too!


P.S.  – If you’re in the Washington DC area and would like more info on the live class, let me know how to contact you.

The Magic Of Photography At Twilight

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

I’ve gotten way behind in updates! First two weeks of rain nearly every day (didn’t know that Washington, DC had a rainy season, did you?) then running like crazy trying to catch up and make the deadline for this project. Now more rain!




While soft, overcast light and even rain can provide an environment for wonderful photographs, the client on this project wants “pretty sunny days and blue skies”. Not unreasonable. The subjects – luxury homes – do tend to look their best in good weather. And clear to partly-clear skies give the most dramatic background for my favorite time of day for photography – twilight.


That magic time between darkness and light gives life to amazing images. The combination of the cool blue fading sunlight and the warm glow of incandescent lights in the buildings make this the prime time for architectural photography.


There are two times of day for this effect – dawn and dusk – though it can be a challenge to convince clients to open their doors to set the interior lights for the shot in the early morning hours. Especially now as we approach mid-summer and the solstice, which means at this latitude the light begins to come up by 5:30am.


The quality of the early morning light is different, too, cooler than the late day light of dusk. Shooting from the beginning light of dawn until sunrise creates dramatic photos, but the favorite twilight time is dusk.


I’m still constantly delighted by the swiftness of the changing light. Exposing minute-by-minute yields a different look in each shot. Just after sunset the daylight is still the dominant light source, yielding even, shadow-less light with just the faintest glow from the artificial lights in and around a building.


As the daylight fades the balance shifts until that magic moment when natural and artificial light balance, creating a warm inviting glow from within against a perfect blue background.


Then – blink! – and it’s over. The natural light disappears and the night takes over. Time for dinner and a glass of wine!

Springtime Photos In DC

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Spring is a great time of year. I’m not a big fan of winter’s short days, cold weather and gray-brown scenery, and the explosion of color and life that comes in the spring rejuvenates the soul.  Of course, it does come along with the infamous Mid-Atlantic explosion of pollen – good grief, what a season this one is turning into!

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

(c) 2009 Stu Estler

It’s spring again, and also time for a quarterly project I‘ve been doing for 23 years with one long-time client.





Sneezin’ and wheezin’ aside, it always amazes me how the landscape can go from a barren, desolate winterscape to a lush, green jungle-like blanket in just a month. In fact I just drove up along Canal Rd., coming out of DC along the Potomac, and the grass along side the road that hasn’t been cut yet is wheat-field high and has seed heads! In early May!


Since this particular client is a major real estate firm, and the project is a magazine featuring their high-end properties, the change is especially welcome. Everyplace looks better in a full dress of azaleas, dogwoods and greening trees.


Now if we could just get this week of rain to let up . . .