Monday, December 31, 2012

SIX SHOTS-The Making of Six Photographs

One question that never loses momentum in photography workshops "what were your settings?" Folks always want to know the camera settings. This question has always amazed me. Its not the settings that made the photograph, it was the photographer.

(Click on images to enlarge)

Has today's photography become too automated? Has its simplicity stymied people into less creative decissions? People adjust the dials to AUTO and cross their fingers their vision will be enough to make a great photograph. Yes, it can happen. But remember to fulfill your vision the odds increase substantially when one knows how to use their instrument. Experienced photographers instinctively select settings on their cameras to create the visual music they hear in their head. They don't shoot by chance, but utilize a methodology choosing particular apertures and shutter speeds to achieve a pre-visualized goal.

I guess I've never paid much attention to the settings after the shutter has been released because all those choices were made prior to capturing the moment. Choices were deliberate. In fact, I cannot recall the last time I simply fired off frames not knowing what the settings were. Yet, virtually every popular photo magazine on the planet lists the meta data for every image it features. So, certainly there is interest in this information. I think the better question is "why those settings?"

Do music lovers walk up to a musician and ask, "Why that cord progression?" Musicians play notes to create a song, take the listener someplace that evokes emotion, a beat we tap our foot to, a melody pleasing to the ears.  Making a photograph is no different. Photographers have something to say in their captured moments. The settings that they choose are not accidental. They are purposeful akin to the musician choosing a note to string along a melody.

If you picked any photograph I made twenty years ago, back in the days of Kodachrome and Plus-X, long before meta data was saved with each and every image taken, and asked what my settings were.....I could probably tell you..... and be dead on. Its not because I have a great memory. Its that I  recall how I wanted to interpret that situation. I understood that a shallow depth of field was necessary to drop out the background and let my subject pop, or that 1/15th of second gave just the right amount of movement to sell the visual point desired.

Asking "what were your settings" is a good thing. Interested shooters are looking for answers and understanding the process and results teaches how to communicate more effectively. Keep asking those questions. I want nothing more than to see that grin across your mug when you nail it. As I venture into video with the Nikon D800, I find myself constantly looking at Hollywood film productions and asking myself, "how'd they do that." Being inquisitive sparks action.

In this post are six photographs randomly selected from my files. Let's run through the process of making these images. Don't be alarmed at the clanking sounds. Its just the ideas bouncing around inside my head searching for a way out.

SPRING VALLEY CAVE, the photograph above, shot for (Jan. 2013) SMITHSONIAN Magazine on an article featuring Larry Edwards, a geochemist at the University of Minnesota. Edwards studies cave stalagmites to better understand climate change over the last 3,000 years. Its fascinating work. Yet, you can imagine anytime a photographer is assigned to work in caves, problems quickly magnify.

First, caves are usually wet and muddy, an environment most camera equipment views as hostile. Secondly, and more importantly, how does one light a cave? Caves are pitch black. Photography is all about light. The situation here is the photog has to create light.

There are a myriad of questions to be answered long before a image is ever snapped. How much space will I need to light? How long will we be down there? How far do we go? Is there ample space to carry equipment and how much gear can I bring? Are dangerous gases present? Do we need walkie-talkie's?

Once these questions are answered, photographic plans are made. We were told our time inside the cave was short. Only an hour or so to get the cave photos I needed to illustrate the story was permitted. This meant you had to pick and choose the most important visuals to spend precious time on. Other significant laboratory related images could be done on the surface at the University. But, the heart of the story comes from underground. Using only headlamps, carrying three Nikon SB-900's inside a drybag, a Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commander and Brinkmann Q/Beam 2 Million Candle Power spotlight, my assistant and I followed the team of six deep down inside the cave. I brought two Nikon D3's with me in case one failed in the conditions.

The cave travel was tight quarters. Not even enough room to move around one another. Lighting one person, like Edwards wold not be difficult. A flash in front and my assistant holding a second behind him would do the job. In places like a cave, that backlight is very important to give that third dimensionIt was imperative to get photos of the stalagmites and those were within feet of us along the cave walls in several places. But, these confined spaces gave no feel for the scale of how large the caves passages traveled. There were miles and miles of dark tunnels several hundred feet below the surface. Most too small to crawl through with equipment. We came upon a very large "Cave Room"
that exposed the geological formations of the Spring Valley Cave. I gave me the chance to show the team, the cave and some sense of the geology.

To get this photo, my assistant can be seen (click on the photo to enlarge) down in front of the scientist standing in the foreground. The cave is black, black, black. Only headlamps are seen until the spotlight my assistant is holding is turned on to illuminate the scientist. To show the size of the large room, I had the others wait at the opening of the big room in the distance and handed one of them a SB-900 flash. It was too far for the wireless remote to trigger so I had to yell to them when to manually trigger the flash during the expoure. I instructed them to point the flash at the wall in front of them so they would be silhouetted against it. To ensure they didn't bunch together, potentially making the distant scene confusing, I instructed each person to move a body width away from each other to allow the light to pass through them. This provided a sense of space with people lining the opening.

On the count of three, I open the shutter for a twenty second exposure, while my assistant splashed the spotlight around the cave walls and ceiling then directly at the subject for a five-count. While the shutter was open, I hollered to the person in the distance holding the flash to trigger it, and boom, we had the shot. A lot of planning for a twenty seconds.

LIGHTNING is one of those natural gifts that are so exciting to photograph. And, on occasion a shooter is presented with the perfect situation to document its splendor. Namely, the storm is way in the distance over the prairie or as in this case, over Lake Superior. You don't have to deal with the winds, rain, or even risk of a super-charged bolt climbing down your metal tripod.

But, there are a few tricks to photographing lightning. The big difference is shooting a storm during the day or at night. Photographing lightening during the day is tough. Unlike shooting lightening at night when you can leave the shutter open for multiple strikes, during the day you can only expose as long as the light allows you.

I have found that shooting lightening during the day means you are going to shoot a lot a frames to catch a bolt.

You have to catch the bolt right as it happens because during the daylight hours, your shutter speeds are fast and capturing it as it happens....well you can imagine the odds of catching a flash of light on your frame. There are devices now for triggering the shutter with a lightning bolt flash, like this one device;

I have not personally tried it so I'm unaware of its effectiveness. But, if it works its a fabulous idea. I tend to stumble onto storms and put in my time getting storm pix. If its a thunderstorm all the better. When shooting lightning during the day I have found that lightening often has a "follow-up" flash in exactlyt he same spot. I keep my hands on the cable release, and every time a I sense a flash, wham, I hit the shutter. If I catch the main bolt, great. However, the lightning sometimes pulsates and I catch the second one. The key to to keep trying. Lightning shots during the day are special and offer editors a new look at nature's fury. The above photo was a 15 second exposure at f/7.1 at 200 ISO in the Apostle Islands looking east over Lake Superior. Be careful not to stop down to say, f/22 as it will darken the lightning too much leaving the surrounding ambient light very dark. Have something in your frame that lends a sense of perspective in the photograph.

ICELAND is a photographers dream location. The land of fire and ice offers the photographic mind a plethora of visual material around every corner. Its one of those places that calls you back over and over again. I love these kind of locations and let's face it, if you are not being rewarded on each adventure you have no cause to return. Iceland always has something to give.

Summer is Iceland is a great time to go since the daylight hours are pushing twenty plus hours. In late summer and early Fall, the light is still wonderful but loss is upwards to ten minutes a day. As you can imagine, the time of year you visit Iceland, it has its plus's and minus's.

During one of the Mentor Series Ultimate Photo Workshops ( shooter Lucas Gilman ( and I decided to venture out one evening and photograph a Church near our hotel along the coast. With a handful of eager participants from the workshop, we set out to photograph the church just before dark.

Now, just before dark is the key word here. If you wait until darkness, then everything in the area will be black and only the brightest lights will show up. You want some ambient light to exist to add that third dimension to your scene. Otherwise, its just black with light swimming around the sea of darkness. Its boring.

To make the photograph above required some thinking in the field to make it an interesting image. The church had no lights either inside or outside. So, to add some splash to the image, we needed to add some light. We sent Lucas inside with a SB-900 Nikon Speedlight to manually trigger the flash when we yelled out to him from outside. As the photog's were lined up with the cameras on tripods, the cadence was; 1-2-3-  HIT IT!

Shutters flew opened, Lucas popped the flash around the inside of the church several times while I turned my red headlamp on, light painted the church door for a few seconds and quickly ran through  the darkness along the path holding the headlamp towards the cameras as I ran through the scene. What we accomplished was an image with some life in it. Without the light painting inside and out, we had a white church with no highlights making a fairly bland scene. Adding the smallest amount of light with inexpensive gear elevated interest in the photograph. Scene exposed at 30 seconds, f/9.0 at ISO 400.

LAUGHING GULLS are a common sight around the Gulf coast in Fulton, Texas. Like most species of gulls they hang around parking lots waiting for dropped french fries or pieces of popcorn to supplement their diet of potato chips and the occasional fish from the sea.

It was an awful photographic day of gray skies and rain. In these situations photographers work hard to avoid showing sky in their frames because it offers no color and tends to look washed out or dreadfully flat. I spotted someone in the parking lot tossing up raisins or something feeding the gulls and saw a photo op.

To add some punch to this flat scene a flash was required. Other problems existed as well. The gulls would swoop in and out of the frame with amazing speed so a fast shutter speed was also required.

With my Nikon D3 I can set the flash sync to high speed sync allowing me to shoot at shutter speeds over 1/6000th of a second. Using fill light with the flash I stopped the action and illuminated the gulls enough that even with their black and white coloration, they popped off the flat light in the background.

One additional obstacle remained. Shooting in a urban parking lot promises your background being polluted with street lights, cars, telephone wires, ect.  It can be a simple resolve. Move closer to your subject, get down low and eliminate the distracting clutter by framing your subject against a clean, albiet gray sky. Let the magic begin!

WIND POWER was another article I was assigned to cover for SMITHSONIAN Magazine. I wanted to  be sure I made the visual connection with the commerce of alternative energy resources and the origins of its source. After all, this is the battle of alternative energy exploration.

The concept was easy and required just a few preparations to pull it off.

Dan Juhl, one of the leading developers of wind farms was my subject. I had the idea of showing Juhl holding a lite lightbulb in a farm field, where they are typically located, with the giant wind turbines in the background.

One important point was essential that the turbines, or at least most of them in the frames were moving.

We had to show wind, right! This helped the concept too. I needed the light of dusk to show the light-bulb shining. The dim light allowed for a longer exposure assuring me, if there was any wind, the turbine blades to show movement.

To light the bulb and offer the illusion of harnessing energy via wind power, I had a 200 foot extension cord running across the corn field to a tiny sub-station where my assistant ran a smaller extension cord up the back of Juhl's jacket, up his sleeves to a receptacle to light the bulb. A simple idea was effective in promoting the usage of alternative energy resources made an interesting photograph.

ICE CRYSTALS that formed inside a bucket left on my back porch caught my eye one morning while taking out the trash to the alley. The sun hit the bucket, warming the icy seal, and I turned the bucket over and slid the ice chunk out of the container.

I grabbed the camera and tripod, tossed on a 105mm macro lens and moved in over the ice crystals.  Traveling into the world of macro now and then is exciting stuff. And ice, being one of my favorite subjects just had me giddy. The design of ice crystals, like snowflakes, are individually unique and a simple marvel of living in the northland.

But, the ice itself was pretty bland. The ice was a dreary pale white and had no depth. It needed something. I went inside and grabbed a few colorful towels in the house and set them next to the ice. Next thing you know, that bland, pale ice now had some color. I could move the towels around to fill areas that needed color without overwhelming the icy crystals. Bathroom towels proved to be the perfect solution to shooting ice dropped from the bucket!

Remember, always take out the trash. You never know what cool photos you might find.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


I've never been one to make New Year's resolutions. I just don't see it that way. In fact, I'm more interested in moving past the lull in the holiday season and getting back to shooting. 

This time period at year's end, most magazine stories have gone to bed. New features have yet to be assigned, and I find myself thinking about what new projects I want to undertake, the time necessary to complete them, funding them, and ultimately, how they will be shared.

(Above: 54' Crown Victoria spotted in farmers field while shooting assignment for Smithsonian Magazine Below: 60,000 year old fossil turtle exposed in the White River Badlands for Audubon article)


End of the year thinking equally allows time for reflection on what's been accomplished. That's a good thing. Its important to look back and see if the goals you set were met, the challenges in your path averted, and if those advancements motivated you to greater depths. 

It's natural set-up for peeking around the corner into the future. So, if you've got ideas floating around your head, the key to creating memorable photographs is to follow through with them.

(Above: Abandoned Herring factory in Iceland on personal trip experimenting with HDR)

Look at the majority of your favorite iconic photographs seen in print. Chances are those images were taken when the photographer was on assignment. Those photographs came from a self assigned theme, a feature or news story, advertising campaign, ect. The point is, the photographer was out shooting.

Human's are meant to explore. Getting out there discovering is the path to creating important photographs. I have always found in each assignment I find numerous assignments within that assignment. Being out there shooting opens the door to visual moments. And they don't have to be world changing moments, they need only be significant captures. And, that can happen in your own neck of the woods. The key again is to be out there shooting.

Look to the new year as an opportunity to take risks with your work. 

MOST IMPORTANTLY.....Don't talk yourself out of a personal assignment before it even begins. 

You will amaze yourself how well you can swim when diving in the deep end with a purpose. Tying those images together into a theme, certain single moments will rise to the top and stand alone. Those images are often greater than the sum of the parts.....but this is how you get them.

You are out there, thinking, polishing, discovering new ways to photograph the world around you. 

(Above: Ice Field, Alaska on personal photo shoot. Below: Nude taken during one of my
workshops at the MPC-Minneapolis Photo Center)

Follow your own instincts, don't pass by moments that speak to you. After all, this is what separates you from other shooters. Its defines your vision, you input, your style. You need not travel across the globe. Often, these projects can be acquired in your own town. Pinpoint what is of interest to you. Grab your camera and start investigating everything about it. The visual discoveries that you make become tools for the future. Exploring new ways to make an impact, light, lenses, angle, technique, are all at your disposal.

And once again, don't get lost in the process. If you aren't successful on a days shoot, examine why. Rethink the approach and get back out there. 

Food for thought.....Most feature stories see thousands of images made during the course of the assignment. Yet, come publication time, a mere handful are used in the final presentation. Only the strongest photographs make the cut. Less is more. 

The great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst."

I teach an Environmental Nude Workshop at the Minneapolis Photo Center. I have little experience in shooting nudes. I view the nude as one of the most difficult subjects to undertake. That said, I approach the nude subject as I do all others. Using light, shadow, composition and mood, to stir the imagination.

Take the time to find new ways to communicate. Put your audience in the image. Don't be frustrated that eight hours of time to create a 1/30th of a second wasn't worth it. Organization and preparation are huge but necessary ingredients in a photographers job. Nothing is ever gaurunteed. You can only anticipate and be ready to receive the visual gifts you've put yourself in position to receive.

(Below: Sea kayaking at sunset, five second exposure for 
Jewels On The Water-Lake Superior's Apostle Islands book project)

Looking ahead now, I have numerous projects that are beating a drum loudly in my brain 
even I write this note. Camera is loaded, mind is open. 

Let the games begin.