Want To Improve Your Photography Skills? (I decided to give myself an assignment and make something happen.)

Long Exposure Photography

Long Exposure Photography

Part one of two:

If you really want to grow as a photographer you have to be challenged. Imagine a video game with one level… Kind of doesn’t really exist and why? Boring! How about a race where you are the only competitor? Not much of a challenge. But take anything we do in life and add a challenge to it and it becomes interesting. After all what is life in and of its self? Just a bunch of challenges, that’s it, just a bunch of challenges.

So you want to grow as a photographer? Give yourself a challenge. Or as I like to call them “assignments.” It doesn’t matter whether you are a total beginner or a professional, or whether you are a hobby shooter that just got a new camera for Christmas. Or a working commercial photographer. I can tell you first hand that there is no greater thing that you could be doing to improve your photography skills than going out and capturing images. But the process must be focused and have a purpose or a goal. It must have an end result that you want to accomplish. Example; you say to yourself “I have the whole day free and I want to go and capture images and just have fun.” Ok… Was there any kind of plan? Or are you just gonna go out the door and hope something happens. Now don’t get me wrong, walking out the door with the camera and having it with you all the time is a great habit to get into. After all I wrote a post sometime back about the best way to capture an amazing photo is to first have the camera with you. Sounds stupid I know, so yes always have some sort of camera with you… And don’t get me started on the “well I always have my iPhone.”

Now let’s get to it. Think of what it is you want to get better at. Do you want to take better portraits? Maybe you want to improve your landscape skills. How about you shooters that would like to capture sports? Or do you just want to improve a specific skill? Myself a few years back I decided I wanted to improve my long exposure skills. But rather than just going out and letting something happen I decided to give myself an assignment and make something happen. In the end I hit my goal and the accomplishment felt good, not to mention I had a few great images that I could print and hang up. The images drew lots of compliments and most of all I improved my long exposure skills and I have that tool under my belt. I don’t always shoot long exposure, however it is so nice that when I want to do it, I can. It makes a nice skill for capturing exotic backgrounds that I use in my Photoshop composites. And it all started with a personal assignment. Here is a breakdown of what I did.

I looked at a lot of long exposure photos at the various places I visit on the web. I read as much as I could on the subject, also spent some time at Youtube. But it doesn’t matter whether you read ten books, watch twenty videos and talk to fifty people about it. You still have to go out and do it. Now for long exposures a photographer needs a neutral density filter for the lens. It helps block light allowing the shutter to stay open for long periods of time hence the term long exposure. So I purchased the filter and then I chose a location. Many photographers like to capture moving clouds or moving water with long exposure. I chose water because it is always available. Clouds on the other hand are not always optimum or there may just be no clouds that day. So I have the equipment, the location, the subject and I chose a day when I had plenty of time available. My assignment was to successfully capture some great long exposures of a sunken forest and a local reservoir. The image would show the old tree trunks rising up out of what would look like ice.

So where’s the challenge you might ask. First and for most I chose a very cold day in the winter to do this and that was no fun. But that is when I had the free time and it increased the challenge. The rest was just a matter of calculating how long to keep the shutter open and composing or framing up the scene. Not falling in the water or getting the camera and gear wet also added to the challenge. After about 3 hours I was ready to call it a day and head home. Upon downloading the images and to see my work unfold in front of me was very rewarding. Then came all the fun of editing and choosing whether to keep the color or go with a black & white. In the end I hit my goal and learned a new photography skill along the way.

Now I challenge you to give yourself an assignment. Plan it out, read about it or take a class on it. Write it out and make a plan. Gather the gear you need. Purchase the proper gear or borrow from a friend. Make a gear checklist and plan your date, time and subject. Expect the unexpected after all it is a challenge. Do the assignment with another photographer. Some people are motivated to workout at the gym with a workout partner, so maybe you can do this with your assignment.

In part two, I will talk about a much larger and more complex assignment.

Personal Photo Favorites From 2013 (I would rather have a selfie of me punching Kim Kardashian in the face but…)

1/250 sec at f/2.8 ISO 100 175mm

1/250 sec at f/2.8 ISO 100 175mm

So after mulling through all of the better photos I captured in 2013 I wanted to choose some of my favorites to share with you. As I had stated in an earlier post I always have one photo of my wife that will really stand out and be my favorite of the year. I also wanted to include some additional photos as well.

So I really feel that of all the photos I captured of my wife in 2013 this one is my favorite. A little story about the photo; this photo was shot at 5:49pm on July 29th. As you can see the sun in July is still very high in the sky. I had to shoot a wedding in five days and not being a wedding photographer by trade I was doing my homework and preparing for the big day. I wanted everything to be right. I spent a lot of time reviewing video material by Cliff Mautner. Mr. Mautner is one of the best wedding photographers of our time. I say this because part Cliff’s style is to just go and shoot using mostly available light and minimal flash. His style and approach is very organic and not over the top with a “Broadway” like production to shoot a wedding. Also Cliff is a Nikon Ambassador. If company like Nikon is going to trust him with talking about their products… well I think Cliff might know a thing or two or ten about photography.

One of Cliff’s prize techniques is shooting brides in the middle of the day with high sun and no fill flash. So I had to try this technique out for myself. In short the; put your subject between the camera & the sun and use a dark background. That is it that is all you need to do. Then meter with the camera off the subject’s face. Look at the photo and the front lighting is even across my wife’s face with this wonderful rim lighting. If she had been wearing a darker color shirt would have been even nice for the rim light on the shoulders, not to mention that if this was a bridal shot with the veil, the veil would be very nicely back lit with a glow like effect. So to conclude; I walked out the door and captured this shot in about 5 minutes. The color, lighting and smile all come together to make it a very nice photo. I love it and I will print and frame it.

Pixel (aka Pixie) at day 2.  1/640 sec at f/2.8 ISO 100 200mm

Pixel (aka Pixie) at day 2.
1/640 sec at f/2.8 ISO 100 200mm

My favorite photo of Pixel (aka Pixie) was shot at 11:17am of May 27th at a roadside rest area along route I-78 in Pennsylvania. I had received Pixie for the first time the day before. I had lost my previous Bichon Poo to liver cancer and a mere 20 days later Pixie had come to fill the void and ease the pain of Snuggs rapid departure. So on the second day of having Pixie my wife and I had a road trip planned to visit my father and we just couldn’t leave this little creature home. We stopped to stretch our legs and to let Pixie have some fun. It was our first chance to let here run and be free in the wonderful green grass of the springtime. Using my trusty (you’ll pry it from my cold dead hands) Canon EF70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM lens I shot this wonderful candid shot. She had been running and moving so fast to & fro it was nearly impossible to get a great shot of her. I made a squeaking sound and she stopped for just a few seconds and looked right at me. I love the photo and after posting to Facebook a friend had commented on the light & dark green background as an adding quality to the photo. She was so right it just gives the photo a “good” feel.

Photoshop composite of NY motocross rider Harlan Hoose.

Photoshop composite of NY motocross rider Harlan Hoose.

My favorite Photoshop image of 2013 would be “Shattered” a composite of a motocross rider that I had captured in the springtime at our local motocross track. His name was Harlan Hoose and he hails from New York State. Harlan and two friends had made the long trek down to Raceway Park in Old Bridge Township just to practice. I happened to be there and Harlan Had asked me if I would capture some images of him. This was one of the first of many photos. In the original photo Harlan was just sitting on his bike waiting to go onto the track and I captured a close up focusing on his eyes. So several months later I used the photo as the main element in a Photoshop composite that I call Shattered. With time I grew to like the image even more. Thank you Harlan it was nice meeting you, Anthony & Jordan that day.

1.1250 sec at f/2.8 ISO 200 200mm

1.1250 sec at f/2.8 ISO 200 200mm

My favorite nature shot would be this photo of the Wild Foxtail Grass. Captured at 4:57pm on October 14th right here on the farm where I live. The contrast in color between the background and subject is what I love most about it. Also it didn’t hurt that it received so much affection on 500px.

Sunken Forest 172 sec at f/22 ISO 50 24mm

Sunken Forest
172 sec at f/22 ISO 50 24mm

My favorite Long Exposure photo is this image of one of the “Sunken Forests” at Merrill Creek reservoir located in Warren County New Jersey on top of Montana Mountain. It was cold and very windy that day, but in the end it paid off because I came home with some really nice images.

American Bald Eagle

American Bald Eagle

My most favorite wildlife shot of 2013 would have to be, hands down the one of the images I captured of an American Bald Eagle. It was amazing to see this beautiful bird right here in the town where I work, a rare sight for sure. The photos are not Nat Geo quality but still my favorite nonetheless.

At The Train 1/1600 sec at f/3.5 ISO 200 200mm

At The Train
1/1600 sec at f/3.5 ISO 200 200mm

My most favorite candid shot of the year was taken at the Flemington train station. I was first trying to capture the expression on the little boy’s face and then in the background a young lady and a child stepped from the train. I re-focused at captured a wonderful candid photo.

Selfie in a jail cell.

Selfie in a jail cell. Sussex County, NJ.

Lastly my most favorite selfie would have to be of me in a jail cell. I would rather have a selfies of me punching Kim Kardashian in the face but I’ll settle for the jail cell shot.