Category Archives: Photography Advice

Getting Natural Looking Portraits

With portraits we often see the subject in an expression that seems…well…unnatural. Sometimes the face is twisted in the typical “cheese” grin, or other times the subject simply has the deer-in-the-headlights expression. Why is this?

Most of us are not professional models and we communicate both in words and expression with other people, we are not used to having a camera pointed at us and staring into the “unblinking eye”.

Also we are too self-conscious. When in front of the camera, the subjects do not have the types of feedback when naturally engaged with another person. Does our belly show? Does our nose show too prominently? Is our grin too cheesy?

These two issues combine into a serious case of nervousness.
We are out of our comfort zone. We are trusting this person, who we may not really know, to not make our defects prominent in the photo. With tension comes physical rigidity which ensures that the poses look awkward and the smiles look fake.

To combat this problem I discovered a trick early on; once you pose the subject, get the subject talking. Get him to talk about his classes, his job, his favorite move. Get her to talk about her friends, her college major or her family. Find what is important to the subjects so that you connect with them. While they are talking make sure you are shooting pictures. Yeah, this method produces a lot of wasted shots, but more likely than not, you will get some definite keepers. With the tension drained out of the situation, people will start looking more like people and less like mannequins.

Also, when people engage in conversation they give glimpses of expressions that are truly theirs. The hand reaching to brush away their bangs from their eyes, a smirky half-smile, a laugh that causes their eyes to glint are moments that are hard to capture when simply posing people.

It takes time to build up the chemistry, the trust and the energy so plan to spend more than a few minutes shooting pictures. It generally takes at least fifteen to twenty minutes for me and the subject to “warm up”.

Following this advice you should get more natural looking portraits. But be forewarned, using this method on some people (like my four-year-old son) can lead to some zany results that cannot be predicted.

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Posted by on November 6, 2010 in Photography Advice


How to Improve Your Photography – Pt 3 Podcasts

C. S. Lewis has this great quote which goes  “the next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a company of people who are.” Last post I wrote about libraries and the vast wealth that is found in books and magazines. While podcasts will not replace need of students of photography to pore through “printed’ works, they do perform an important role in education.

So, what is a podcast?

Generally they are audio only productions recorded in an electronic format distributed through the internet.

Why is that a big deal?

Well, since these are in electronic format you can listen to these on computers, either streaming or as downloadable files, and with mp3 players (not just Apple devices like IPhones, or IPods). This allows for easy storage and flexibility to listening.

Who put out these podcasts?

A number of professionals and high-level enthusiasts put out these shows in addition to their already hectic schedule.

What is their motivation?

While there is some self-interest with podcasting, they are all done in a spirit of giving and sharing. Some of the podcasters do put on seminars and even sell books, but their podcasts are not 50 minute infomercials. Generally their intent is to build their reputation and which may eventually, (for some it is happening now) pay off in $$ either directly or, more likely, indirectly.

What types of things do they talk about?

If you listen to one, is there any need to listen to another? To be a bit flippant, they are all like snowflakes, individuals putting out work that, even if the format is similar, it comes across quite different. Some podcasts are interviews with high-end professional photographers, some are philosophical insights while others take a question and answer format.

What is the easiest way to get them?

While going to each site on a weekly or monthly basis is one way to manage the files it is not a very efficient method. Personally I use the ITUNES store, which will require you to download their program, which is about 90 megabyte file. From here you simply search for your shows (under podcasts) and subscribe to the ones you like. Then every time you run the program, it will automatically download new files. There are other ways to subscribe to various podcasts, but I find this to work very well.

What are some of the photography podcasts that I listen to?

  • Camera Dojo – Kerry Garrison – Great all around podcast and wonderful blog.
  • F-Stop Beyond with Ron Dawson – While Ron seeks out famous photographers to interview he focuses the discussion in areas that most photography interviews do not go – people’s personal history, feelings and circumstances.
  • Frederick Van – Various interviews.
  • History of Photography – An honest to goodness lectures from an ongoing college photography class.
  • Lenswork – Great short morsels of insight, philosophy and speculation from the editor of Lenswork Magazine.
  • Lightsource Studio Photography – Interviews with high end commercial photographers.
  • Photofocus – Scott Bourne and a guest answer questions submitted by readers.
  • The Candid Frame – Ibarionix Perello – Great interviews with various people in the photography field. Not just “big names” but even promising students.
  • This Week in Photography – Discussion about news and events related to photography. This is in an Apple media file, which, to me, is very inconvenient as Windows Media player will not recognize the file and nor am I able to play t on my Sansa MP3 player.

    There are other photography podcasts to be found on the internet. The intent was list every single podcast, but to give you a “starter pack” to some that I feel are worthwhile and will have a broad range of appeal. Feel free to share your thoughts and favorites with me.

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Posted by on August 8, 2010 in Photography Advice


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How To Improve Your Photography – Pt. 2. Get Thee To A Library


Tate&Lyle_Decatur_Illinois_9, originally uploaded by Jeffrey Jones.

Sometimes the best things in life are free and fortunately the library falls into that category. Immersing yourself in photography and photography related books and magazines is key to developing a photographic eye. One thing you may not know is that you can check out magazines, at least ones other than the current issue..

The number of photography books and the quantity of newer titles vary from library to library. Often, the bulk of titles are pre-digital age, but don’t let that discourage you. While some aspects of photography have changed since the days of film, the majority of the techniques still apply. Aperture, shutter speeds and even ISO still work the same way, the only real changes are mostly how images are developed, darkroom versus digital.

By delving into the world of images develops a sense of what a good picture is. Just like almost everything else photography is subject to fads and what is fashionable today may look terrible, or dated, tomorrow. When looking at older photographs see what images have stood the test of time. Look past the dated clothing and hair styles and instead look at the picture itself.

Also, don’t limit your reading to just photography books, look at other types of books and magazines that heavily use images. From magazines like National Geographic, Vogue , Life and Wired to biographies, travel books and cultural books, they all provide wonderful examples of good (and bad) photography.

Learning does not have to cost you money. The library is probably the source of the cheapest education that you can give yourself. And regardless of the size or newness of the collections, you will find books and magazines to draw inspiration and learning.

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Posted by on July 19, 2010 in Photography Advice


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Do I Really Need To Buy A Flash?


DSC_9055_6_7.jpg, originally uploaded by Jeffrey Jones.

Photography is confined by the light in a particular scene. Unfortunately, cameras need a lot of light, and I do mean a lot of light, much more light than our eyes do. Because of this we tend to think that if a location is bright enough for us to see clearly then there is plenty of light for taking a picture. Unless bright sunlight abundantly streams into a room, there is almost never enough ambient light to ensure the use of camera settings that allow for acceptable image quality when taking portraits. Unless you have a camera body that exceeds $2,000, bet the bank that photographing in low-light conditions results in motion blur or terrible image noise. Low-light conditions force photographers to make hard decisions; either open the aperture, slow the shutter speeds or to increase the ISO. And sometimes the situation forces compromises in more than just one of those categories.

To remedy the situation the photographer needs In this case we need to bring light into the scene. Since strobe lighting is expensive, people (myself included) seek to find economical work arounds. After all, one can buy a number of light sources at a local hardware store. From LED to incandescent to halogen I tried them all but with very limited success (or even no success). After spending hours playing with these various lights it doesn’t take long to realize that they just don’t work. For example a 500W halogen may seem like it puts out a lot of light…it really doesn’t. To make matters worse it generates a tremendous amount of heat and it produces light that is orange in color. The same with the other lights, their main deficiency is their inability to put out a sufficient quality of light.

That leads us to strobes. One can either purchase one that mounts to the camera (speed light) or a studio strobe. Like everything else, one can find an entire gambit of products in various price ranges, and you need to do a good amount of study before making a truly informed decision.

With the strobes, and especially the speed lights, one often fails to understand just how bright these are. They are so bright, in fact, that they can overpower sunlight…even direct, afternoon day light. So, you may wonder why your eyes don’t burn out with every “pop” of the flash. Our eyes are saved because the light from the flash only stays on for hundredths of a second. BLIP! That is it.

Think of light as water. A halogen is a water hose and a strobe is a giant water balloon. Over time a halogen may put out more light than the strobe, but it may take a full second to put out the same quantity. And while you wait for that full second, your subject moved or you hand shook.

So, if you are serious about your photography, and you plan to photograph people, do yourself a favor and purchase a speed light or a studio strobe. It will save you time and aggravation.

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Posted by on July 15, 2010 in Photography Advice


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How to Improve Your Photography – Part 1

While not everybody pressing the shutter release buttons on their cameras thinks about improving their skills, a good part of us do. It doesn’t take much self-evaluation to realize that in many areas we, as photographers, fall short. Often this realization hits us when we compare our pictures to those of others and realize that we need to take our work to next level.

My first bit of advice is simple. Perhaps so simple that it goes overlooked. If you want to improve your photography you need to take pictures. That is it. We can all go to seminars and read magazines but if we aren’t shooting, what is the point?

When I say that you need to shoot pictures, I mean you need to shoot a lot of pictures and you need to do it often. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great book entitled Outliers in which he described the steps to master something. Usually people think that greatness comes from some strong innate talent. While “natural ability” does play a role, that role is very small in comparison to the amount of time a person spends practicing and doing. Even people that we think of as geniuses, Gladwell points out, spent an extraordinary amount of time working. Greatness did not just happen to them, like some lucky pull of the slot machine. Their accomplishments seem less miraculous once one factors in the amount of time they spent working at it. While we spend our childhood playing video games and watching movies, Mozart spent composing music. So is it any wonder that, as a young adult, Mozart produced masterpieces? Think of all those hours you spent on tv, computer games and hanging out. What if, instead you focused all that time on a craft what you could have accomplished?

Gladwell believes that mastery comes after 10,000 hours of doing something. That comes to 5 years of putting in 40 hour days. While we may not want to, or even have the ability to, devote that much time in this period of our lives, the principle still holds. The more time you spend the better you will get.

So, what are you waiting on? Grab your camera and start shooting!

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Posted by on July 8, 2010 in Photography Advice


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Thoughts On My Gear – Filters

Lens filters are one of those items that salesmen like to push when a customer purchases a new camera. This is not new technology for they have been used by camera enthusiasts and pros for decades. But today we live in the age of digital cameras and are they even needed and they are merely another useless thing that salesmen up-sell to pad their commission?

Polarizer Filter

Polarizer Filter

First off, let’s discuss what filters are . They are merely glass or plastic elements that usually screw on to the end of a lens. And while a filter is not lens specific, generally, you will have to buy a different set of filters for since they are sized to a standard diameters and lenses can vary in size. Telephotos often take larger sized filters than wide-angle lenses do. I was fortunate in that my 50mm prime lens uses the same size as my 18-55mm lens.

UV Filters

There are several types of lenses and one of the most common is the Ultra Violet filter. Ultraviolet light, such as found in sunlight, can create a haze to the photos and protecting images from degradation is very important. In the old days, a physical UV filter was the only way to protect the image but today such protection today is superfluous because modern lenses come with a coating that provides the same protection as a physical UV filter. While one might think that doubling up would provide twice the benefit but a physical filter yields no additional benefit in matters of UV protection..

So, in this day and age, why would photographers affix them to their lenses? Protection. These filters act as a buffer taking the scratches and bumps instead of your more expensive lens. The more you pay for the lens, the more inclined you feel about protecting it, especially when you start shelling out four figures for some of the sweet glass. It seems like a no-brainer, everybody should be using UV filters on all their lenses. After all, a UV filter is relatively inexpensive and may save your lenses from expensive, if not fatal, injury. Well, there are a couple reasons not to use them for this purpose. First, any additional piece of glass you put in front of your lens will affect the quality of any images you take. While the effect may be minimal, a number of people believe that the degradation of the image isn’t worth the potential cost to image quality. Secondly, if you stack too many filters it creates a vignette effect that is usually unwanted. (Yes, Virginia, a vignette, done properly, is desirable thing). Personally I do not use a UV filter. As mentioned in a previous post, I utilize lower-cost kit equipment which makes me less sensitive to damaging my equipment. Also, If I did significantly damage a lens, the provides an excuse to upgrade to better lenses.

Colored Filters

Another type of filter is a colored filter. If you grab one of these and hold it to the light you will notice that this filter changes the color of light passing through. There are a variety of reasons for this modifying light color, but usually it is to either correct the color of the scene you shoot, or it is to shift the colors to something more pleasing. For instance, incandescent lights produce an orangish color cast ,and in standard mode (or normal film), the whole scene takes on that orangy cast. By applying blue filter, the photographer magically changes that orange light into normal colored light thus “normalizing” the scene. But there are times when a photographer will actually seek to change the cast away from accurate to create a pleasing effect.. This, especially when shooting portraits, that a photographer will want the skin to appear “warmer” than it does in that particular scene, and through the use of a filter, this can happen.

So, why wouldn’t digital photographers want to use this filter for correcting and modifying the scenes they shoot? First and foremost, unlike shooting with film, today’s photographers, can easily color correct the scene in-camera and, more importantly, when processing the files with the computer.So, like the UV filter, adding more glass on the end of the lens offers no benefit to the image and may, in fact, slightly degrade image quality.


Next we come to the polarizer, and more correctly, a circular polarizer. Like other polarized items (sunglasses, monitor screens, etc) this filters out all light rays except those hitting the lens at a perpendicular angle. This is very, very powerful because one piece of glass removes the glare off foliage, reduces reflections off surfaces (like water, glass and metal), saturates colors and darkens blue skies. This filter does block some light and thus requires some considerations. Generally ,this is not a problem since the filter gets its heavy usage on bright days so losing a stop or two of light isn’t a problem and may even be a benefit. The filter belongs in the camera bag of any person who photographs landscapes. The benefits this lens provides CANNOT be duplicated in Photoshop.

Neutral Density Filter

The last filters to discuss is the neutral gradient filter, which acts like grey-colored sunglasses for your camera. They block some of the light but they do not affect the color of the image. Why would anybody want sunglasses for their camera? Because when a photographer wants to use a larger aperture or wants to decrease the shutter speed and the scene is too bright to keep highlights from blowing out, these filters save the day.

There is also a spit neutral density filter in which only a portion of the filter has the gradient. In scenes, where the sky is very bright but the ground and subject isn’t, that sort of flexibility is needed. Instead of choosing to blow out either the highlights or the darks the photographer can get a proper exposure for both.

Closing Thoughts

The only filter I use is the circular polarizer, the others were a waste of my money. There are a variety of opinions regarding lens filters and it serves you well to read what others say. The type of photography you do will determine the usefulness of the various types of filters. For example, if you one expensive lenses and you do rock climbing, then you may want to use a UV filter for protection. Before purchasing, do you research and take the money you save and spending it on products that will improve or aid your photography.

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Posted by on July 6, 2010 in Photography Advice


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Variety – The Spice of Photography

If you own a business, especially one that sells a product, it is in the best interest of the company to keep variation down to a minimum. By having the employees perform their job the same way every time not only helps control inventory and eliminate waste, but it also ensures quality by doing away with that individual thing we humans like to add to work.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at a hamburger joint. There is a procedure to cooking a hamburger, with set times to ensure the meat is neither over-cooked nor under-cooked. There is an order in which cooks places condiments on the sandwich to ensure that the cook forgets nothing and the sandwiches consistently taste the same. For placing condiments, the company provides tools that ensure the continuous application of the set amount, every single time. By following this discipline a business ensures that a hamburger purchased in Chicago tastes the same as any other chain store in the United States.

While this practice is great for building sandwiches and cars, it isn’t so good in making great photographs. If one approaches the subject the same way every time soon, all the pictures start looking the same. And while that one approach worked great for one picture, that very essence of “quality”, or what made that picture so wonderful, usually cannot be continuously duplicated as if it were a manufacturing line.

Also, failing to create variety will produce stagnation within the photographer/artist. If we stop thinking about our subjects and our approach the vitality drains from the artistic vision. Think about Olan Mills, a very successful portrait chain, or even Wall Mart. The photographer places the subjects on the X’s, pulls down the back drop and pushes the button. This process continues day in and day out. And while the photographs taken may have a good quality about them, they all look the same.

Variation also produces unexpected results. The picture posted here is my favorite from the series taken while on a trip to the St. Louis Zoo. The lighting was low, making hand-holding the camera risky because of potential camera shake. I framed the picture, dialed in the settings and then simply lowered the camera, let it hang tight from the straps against my torso and I snapped the pictures. I could not see what the camera was taking and I wound up with some interesting results. Many of the photos were obviously bad but yet this particular picture worked out. In fact, it worked out in a way that I could not have done if I tried. I never, would have thought of framing it thus.

So, what is my point? If you have a camera in hand and are taking pictures, try something different and be pleasantly surprised. If your photos all look the same, there is a reason. Break up the monotony and do something different. Variety is the spice of photography.

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Posted by on June 20, 2010 in Photography Advice


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