Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Don't sweat the small stuff - at least not at first.

I haven't really made a big deal out of this,but since hitting 40 I've taken some big steps to get healthy and into shape. Inspired by my constantly fit wife I decided it was time to lose the extra fat gained through the previous 40 years of not really giving a damn.

And when I started doing my research into the type of exercise that I would enjoy, and that I could enjoy over the long haul I found a lot of similarities between the world of exercise and the world of photography.

You wouldn't think it, but early practitioners of both have a very big point in common. They get hung up on the small stuff before they need to. For example, in the world of fitness you can really concentrate on the tiniest little details of diet. Eat more protein, eat less protein, carbs are good for energy, carbs are the devil, fasting is great for your hormones, fasting will crash your hormones.

Unlike the photography world, however, the fitness world is full of scientific studies that can pretty much back up any new idea you come up with. But, just like the photography world, they're often splitting hairs.

I came to see that if I wanted to lose weight I needed to burn more calories than I was taking in. It didn't really matter what form the 'calories in' part took at the start, nor how I chose to create this deficit. I could eat less, or I could move more. As long as I was in a deficit I would lose weight. Couldn't be simpler. Hell I even found a guy in America who lost 18kg eating Twinkies for three months - just to prove a point!

In terms of exercise there were a million choices, all with supposed benefits (if you listened to the authors of the programme) and downsides (if you listened to the authors of competing programmes). But upon looking into it further it became pretty clear that the one I could keep up with and continue with was the one that would give me the most benefit. And there were a million different options, with no one thing being significantly better than another.

In other words as long as I took care of the basics first - move more, eat less - I would lose weight and get fitter. All the other stuff was merely fine-tuning and best left for a long way down the track, if at all.

And that's how I see a lot of beginners in photography. A common question I get asked is "I like this photo but do you think it would have been better if I'd taken it at f8? I've heard my lens is sharpest at f8." Check the metadata of the picture - they took it at f11. In all honesty? It doesn't matter two bob.

There are far more important things to consider in the creating of great photography before you get to worrying about the tiniest details. First and foremost, is the subject compelling? Is what's within the frame enough to capture the viewer's interest? If not then it makes no difference what aperture you're using. A boring photo at f2.8 with nice bokeh is the same as a boring photo at f16 with a big depth-of-field and lens diffraction!

Alright so you've got a nice subject. Well done. Step one is complete. Second step. Is the light nice? Or at least complementary to the subject? Beautiful light can turn the mundane into the sublime, but it can just as easily turn the spectacular into the ho-hum. Choose the right light for your subject. Understand light. Learn to see light even when you don't have your camera with you.

So we have nice light and a great subject. To tell you the truth we're probably about 90% of the way there. A third thing I would add to my list is lens choice and perspective. Does your choice of lens improve the picture. If a wide-angle lens shows too much surrounding stuff and it's not interesting you might need to change to a longer focal length. If that distant background is really attractive then you might need a really big telephoto to compress the perspective. But be careful because your equipment can get in the way.

Or more precisely your love of equipment and a desire to use as much of it as possible just for the sake of using it can. Do you really need 7 speedlights for that portrait? Is it adding to the impact of your subject or is it simply a way of screaming from the top of your lungs "I have 7 speedlights and I can fire them all at once in High Speed Sync!"

Do you have to use that new fisheye lens simply because you just bought it and it cost a lot of money, or does it actually enhance the image? Let the subject decide.

Just like the move more, eat less mantra this could be your new photography mantra - great subject, nice light, right lens. If you've got those three right and you still have time to stop and think about these things then you can concentrate on the fine details. But believe me, they are the last 5% of a great picture. Without the other stuff you've got nothing, no matter what aperture you shot it at.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The travel photography/holiday balance.

I've just come back from a whirlwind trip up to Japan. My wife had a few days off in a row so we decided to quickly pop up there to say hello to her Dad and give the kids a bit of a holiday. This is my youngest son Keyra playing with fireworks in the local park behind his Grandad's house.

Family holidays are difficult times for travel photographers, well for any serious photographer whether professional or amateur I guess. That desire to photograph all the amazing things that you see often clashes with your family's desire for you to spend more time with them.

Photography is by its nature a solo pursuit. I find it very difficult to get any good photographs in a group situation - say a camera club trip - or any situation where I don't have total freedom as to where I go and what I photograph. I find it just makes it very frustrating.

And I used to take that frustration out on my family. I would want to wander off and photograph something, or  hang around in one spot for longer waiting for the perfect opportunity, whilst they wanted to keep going.

It was a constant source of tension until I just decided to let it go. When I'm working I resign myself to the fact that I can never photograph all the amazing things I see and do. It's just not possible. So I took that same attitude over to my family holidays.

I know some photographers who schedule days and times that they can go out by themselves and satisfy their photographic muse, but to be honest with you after a day of running around with the family I'm too buggered to go out and photograph for myself.

I sometimes schedule time off for myself if we're in one place for a long time, like trips back to Sapporo. But otherwise I become more of an opportunist photographer. I get grab shots here and there and spend the majority of the time photographing my kids, something I never do at home. I know, terrible photographer father.

So if your better half is giving you grief about all the time you spend looking through the viewfinder whilst on holiday maybe it's time to put the camera down for a bit. Or point it at the ones you love. Our kids grow up so quick that I'm sure I will be kicking myself twenty years down the track if I don't try and capture their youth. Plus it saves me getting yelled at too much!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why you need to be interested in more than just photography.

There seems to be a bit of confusion in the photographic world about what you need to know to be a better photographer. The overall search for knowledge seems to be around technique and equipment. What aperture do I use to take this photo? How many flashes do I need to take this photo? How many bracketed exposures do I need to take this HDR photo? But in all this searching people are missing the most fundamental questions? What do I want to say with this photo and why should people care?

After you've learned how to take an HDR multi-image stitched panorama with 32 off-camera speedlights what then? What have you achieved? Nothing that anybody else with an internet connection and the right gear could replicate with a bit of practice, trial and error. So you need to find out more about what it is you're photographing and that information can't be found in the metal and plastic of your camera.

Now before I go any further, let me say that I'm not denying that gear and the knowledge of how to use it is important. It is extremely important because it's half of the puzzle. Without the knowledge of how to create the image you see in your head you will have to rely on dumb luck and serendipity to get consistent results. In fact I would go so far as to say that learning how to use off-camera lighting completely saved my photographic business (but that's a story for another day). What I am saying is that knowledge of technique is still only half of the equation.

An interest in photography is not enough to create anything more than images that make people say "Wow I wonder how they did that?" and move on to the next image of the day using the technique du jour. If that's what you're after then all power to you but I want to create images that have longevity because of their content. Images that cause people to stop and think about something. To think about what is in the image, as opposed to how it was taken.

Take the photograph above. Yes we all know what it is and where it is. But, to be honest with you, that's all it says. It tells you nothing at all about what is special about the Mona Lisa. Sure you can see that lots of people go to see it because I walked to the other end of the hall and shot it with a telephoto lens, compressing the crowd and making it feel more crowded than it was. So that's what I wanted to say about the situation.

Because that's all I could say. Apart from the fact that I know it was painted by Leonard daVinci I have to admit that I know nothing about the technique or style used, or even much about the history of it. No shame in admitting you don't know stuff. (I'm not really sure I could make an HDR multi-image stitched panorama with 32 off-camera speedlights either!).

It's not a bad photo, as photos go, but there's no insight here. Nothing new is learned. No HDR, multi speedlight technique could have saved it as far as I'm concerned. Because the background knowledge and interest aren't there. Sorry Leonardo.

So how could I have created an image that resonates? By being interested in more than just photography. Make no mistakes about it, interested photography often takes more effort and leg work before the shoot than it does during the shoot. For example, if I had been on assignment I would have contacted The Louvre beforehand after coming up with some ideas for images. I would have thought of different angles to the story. Is there a tour guide that has a deep connection with the painting? Are there people whose job it is to take care of the painting in various ways? I don't know. Without researching it I'm clutching at straws here but you see what I mean.

I would then figure out who to get in touch with to try and get access to those kinds of photographs and situations. But that's The Louvre you say. They're not going to let any ol' Joe Blow come in and take behind-the-scenes photos. And you might be right, but you never know unless you try. And if they refuse then at least you have studied up on your subject and can think of other photographic possibilities and what you might want to say photographically. And, granted, this is an extreme example but you can extrapolate it back to your local area.

Sure a photo of a clock tower in your local town might be nice but easily obtainable by anybody else, tourist or local. Can you get permission to photograph the people who clean the clock? Or the engineers who calibrate the time? Or the Historical Society that works to preserve it? Think outside the square by showing a deeper interest in what you want to photograph.

In this world of billions of images on social media, to create something that goes beyond the ordinary you need to go deep. You need background knowledge and interest and you need to come up with an angle that represents what you want to say about something. And once you've figured that out? Then you can get out your 32 speedlights. :)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why you need your copyright and your clients don't.

If you take a look in the bottom right hand corner of this image of the Champs Elysees in Paris you'll notice a big Copyright Symbol with my name and website details around the outside. Copyright. It's one of those things that we don't always pay as much attention to as we should. Now granted that the copyright laws may be different depending on where you live in the world but there are some generalities we can make before we move on to specifics.

When you take a photograph for your own personal pleasure the copyright is yours. That means that nobody else can take that photograph, use it without your permission or do anything with it at all without you saying it's OK. That's a pretty simple concept that I'm sure we all understand. We go on holiday, take a bunch of photos and they're all ours and nobody else's. But there are things you can do to your pictures voluntarily which could irrevocably change that, and if that happens it could be a very, very bad thing.

So let's say you buy a house. And it's a beautiful house with a fantastic garden which everybody compliments you on. So you enter some pictures of your house into a competition and there's a big, long contract there but you don't read it because those things always say the same thing blah, blah, blah.

And then one day somebody shows up on your doorstep and claims that you no longer own your house. In fact, by entering the contest, you have agreed to give your house away to the organisers of the competition. Not that you won and are going to get a nice prize or anything, you just sent in the entry form. Sounds ludicrous doesn't it? Who would think of such a stupid idea?

Well, whilst photo competitions won't cause you to lose your house, quite a few of them will take away your photos just by entering them. Seriously. They have little clauses in there that will take away your copyright. So what you say? That just means that the competition people want to use those pictures to promote next year's competition? Believe you me, if that's all they wanted to do that's all they would ask for.

So what exactly do you give them when you give them your copyright? Firstly the photo is theirs. No ifs or buts about it. The photo is no longer yours. That means that you can't show it on your website or anywhere in public. You can't sell it to another person, or even claim it as yours. Because it's not. It's theirs. And if they wanted to they could sue you for using 'their' photo. Because they now own it lock, stock and barrel.

Which means that they can do with it whatever they want. They can use it to promote next year's comeptiton of course, but they can also use it however they like. They can put it on billboards, in magazines, on TV. They can sell it or license it to whoever they want. So not only have they not paid you for it, but they can then make money off what was once your picture. If the competition is being run by a state or national tourist board it's often simply a way of getting great photos for free that they can then use to advertise their local area. Haven't got the budget to pay for photos? Run a photo competition. Works every time!

Think that's not gonna happen? There's a major magazine publisher in the US which is now selling original photographs that they commissioned and took the copyright for. The photographers don't get a red cent and the mega-corporation makes yet more money. Tourism Boards all over the world have the same clauses in their photo competition contracts.

OK so this all sounds like conspiracy theory stuff and you're saying "huh that'll never happen'. OK, call me cynical, but if they don't think it will ever happen why do they insist on taking the copyright?
My advice would be to run, don't walk, in the opposite direction of these so-called contests. There are plenty of legitimate competitions out there that won't ask you to hand over your first-born child just to enter. Read the fine print.

But what about when somebody hires you for a job and tries the same thing?

Government departments are notorious for demanding the copyright in images that are shot on assignment, and I have always either negotiated out of it or walked away from the job. But it is never done in anything but a friendly, non-confrontational manner. I'm not at war with these people. We're trying to work together to get beautiful pictures that they can use for their marketing and promotional purposes. We're on the same team but sometimes the corporate lawyers don't see it that way.

So how do I explain it? Firstly it all comes back to how the pictures are going to be used. For example, if a magazine sends you on assignment all they really need (as opposed to want!) are the rights to print the pictures once in their magazine and also maybe on their website and iPad App edition. That's it. That's all they need.

And yet they will still send you their boilerplate contract with a Copyright Transfer (also known as a Work Made For Hire) in there. Believe me when I tell you that there are always different versions of the 'standard' contract, and no contract is above negotiation.

Government departments often have more extensive usage requirements. They might need to use it in slideshow presentations, websites, brochures etc. A whole range of usage that they're not really sure about. Which is often their excuse for requesting copyright. "Oh but we don't know where we're going to use it so we just need everything."

This is how I explain things. I firstly explain what copyright transfer means. It means that the pictures become theirs and I can never show the image on my website, in my portfolio or even claim it as my own. I explain that I wouldn't get much work as a photographer if I couldn't show my work to people and my website would look pretty boring if it was all blank spaces! That they in fact could sue me if I did any of that. Standard response? "Ooh we would never do that!" My reply? "Maybe not, but you could if you wanted to and I don't want to expose myself to that kind of risk."

I then explain that they would also then have the right to put those images into a stock library and make money off them, or sell them to third parties without either my permission, or paying me extra money. Standard response? "Ooh we would never do that!" My reply? "Maybe not, but you could if you wanted to and I don't want to expose myself to that kind of risk."

And that's usually all I ever have to write. We work together, as a team, on terms of service that give them the usage of the pictures that they need and I retain the copyright. The people who contact you aren't the bad guys in any of this. Ever. The legal departments aren't necessarily evil either, they're just trying to cover their own butts and save time, money and hassle.

If they take copyright they never have to worry about you charging them extra money for using the photos in ways that weren't charged for in the original contract. They save time by not having to contact you to ask permission to use the photos in new ways. And they save hassle by not having to keep track of which images have been licensed for what use. In other words they're most likely being more lazy than they are greedy. Or maybe that's the naive, optimistic side of my personality coming out?

But here's the thing. Unless all you do is photograph for local, very small businesses, then usage will be a big part of how you charge. A big corporation that intends to use your pictures in a multi-million dollar campaign will pay a lot more for your pictures than a small magazine that wants to use it once. But guess what? If that small magazine is owned by that multi-million dollar corporation and they get your copyright? They can use that picture in ways that would have netted you a lot more money. So, in essence, they've saved themselves a lot of money and you've lost a lot of money.Can you afford to subsidise another person's business? I know I can't.

So this is my hard and fast line that I draw in the sand and never cross. I never sign away the copyright in my work for anybody. Never, ever. I will negotiate very extensive usage (with an equivalent charge) to cover those clients who want to use the images every which way (but loose!) but the images never become theirs. They are always mine and will continue to be mine. They are my property, and my legacy to the world. Not all of them are fine art and perhaps many will never see the light of day again, but they are mine and I am proud of every single one of them. And that's non-negotiable. I suggest you adopt the same policy.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Never be afraid to admit who you are...


 So I'm sure it hasn't gone unnoticed around here but I've been very quiet in the blogosphere. And on social media. An on the internet in general.

And while I'd like to tell you that I've been so busy photographing all round the world that I just haven't had time, that's not exactly true.

Mind you, I have been doing a lot of travel. In the last year or so I've been to Bangkok, Japan a couple of times and a month or so in Europe.

And my local Cairns photographic work has also kept me very busy, but so busy that I couldn't find time to sit down and put out a blog post every week or so?

Nobody is that busy surely. No my true excuse is procrastination and denial. Procrastination in that I put it off, and put it off in the belief that nobody is really reading so there's not much point writing. True or not it's what I told myself.

And denial of the fact that I am actually a writer. Or more the fact that I didn't necessarily want it to be true. I was happy to be seen as purely a photographer. The thing is, editors don't see me that way. In fact I've probably written more articles for magazines in the last year than I have in quite a while, and some of them even ran without photos! So it seems that while I was trying to convince myself I wasn't a writer, the world around me doesn't see it that way.

So I'm dropping the facade of being the 'cool' photographer only and admitting that I'm both a writer and a photographer. And I need to write as a cathartic process. One that keeps me on the straight and narrow in a way that photography by itself can't do.

Photography is a very in-the-moment activity. You're looking through the viewfinder and totally concentrating on what is taking place. Trying to anticipate a moment and capture it for eternity. But you're often (in fact invariably) catching somebody else's emotions. People's smiles, frowns, laughter. A nod, a wink. Our job as photographers is to capture that moment of emotion, without necessarily injecting our own emotions into it. Or, in the case of commercial work, you're working to a brief and there is a detailed concept and layout in mind and you're working within that framework.

Writing, on the other hand, gives us the opportunity to explain how we feel and think. To explain why the image (or the moment that we captured in the image) was so important to us at the time. And the more eloquently and emotionally we can express that, the more we are able to connect with other people on a whole different level. Yes a photograph is worth 1000 words, but sometimes adding a few words to that photograph can make a world of difference.

So I will be back blogging. More as a process that I thoroughly enjoy and a way of self-expression than anything else. I don't know how many people are reading, or will stick with me, but I don't think there's going to be too much in the way of explicit education. In other words I'm not going to explain the difference between a wide angle and telephoto lens (which by the way is the most often searched for phrase that leads people to my blog!). Instead I am going to wax lyrical about photography and travel and present myself no-holds barred. Opinions will be freely given and damn the consequences!

Mind you I'm a pretty happy-go-lucky guy in general so don't expect anything too controversial but I will call it like I see it. To ease back into it I am going to post once a week. I've already written down quite a few ideas for future posts and I figure I can manage one a week without boring the back teeth out of you all.

So, if you've got this far, thank you for sticking with me through this long absence and I look forward to re-acquainting myself with you all. See you tomorrow.


Friday, February 7, 2014

I hate noise!

Yes I do. The most terrible thing about digital photography is noise. It ruins so many photos it's just not funny any more.

And how does it ruin photos? Because people are so afraid of it they just don't take the photo. They rationalise that because the picture will be noisy, the quality will be diminished and it's not worth it.

I spent half of my photographic career shooting on 50 and 100 ISO slide film. I know too well the pain of having to miss out on shots because you couldn't get a fast enough shutter speed when you're not allowed to use a tripod.

Now that I'm shooting digitally I am pushing those limits as far as they go - and revelling in it.

Take this shot at left. Taken just a few weeks ago in the monastery at Mont San Michel on the Normandy coast of France.

I've been quite quiet on the blog here because I was a way for a month and this was one of the places we visited. Absolutely spectacular. And dark. Very dark. So dark I could hardly see. And my camera goes up to ISO 2 million or so, but all the magazines tell me that I don't want to go past 1600 because after that it gets really noisy. ISO 1600 would have meant a shutter speed in the realm of 1/2 second. Even after a couple of Scotches my hand isn't that steady. But all the magazines tell me I can't go past ISO 1600.

Really? Let's try it out. This was shot at ISO 12,800. Seriously, that is insanely high but the only way I could get a shot. And does it have noise? You betcha. Can I get rid of some of it in Photoshop? That would be a yes too. But doesn't it soften the details? And a yes again.

So if it's noisy, and getting rid of the noise softens the details wouldn't I have been better just to not take the shot? Are you kidding me? I may never visit this beautiful place again. The noise (after Photoshop work) is about the level of an ISO 400 from one of my older crop cameras. In other words it might not be a poster any time soon but it should be pretty good for even an A4 at a stretch.

Don't be scared of noise. Don't ever miss a shot because you're worried about the lack of quality. Not every shot is meant to be a 30 x 40 inch poster on your wall. Being able to shoot up to ISO 12,800 (I still can't believe I'm typing that!) afforded me the ability to shoot in so many marginal situations that I could never have got an image in that I am truly thankful for it, noise and all.

Travel photography is mostly about capturing a moment and an experience. Yes it would be wonderful if we could set up our tripod wherever we wanted and shoot at our lowest ISO setting with a cable release and mirror lock. But reality dictates that that ain't gonna happen. So before you put your camera away in dread of the horrible noise, give it a go. Push your camera to its limits. The shots will most likely be noisier than you would like. Reducing the noise in post-production might make them softer than you would like. Photography has always been about compromises and this is just one more you need to embrace in pursuit of your art. So go make art and leave the noise worrying to the pixel peepers.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Latest Billboard

It's always nice to see your images used big and they don't come much bigger than billboards! This is a recent pic from a series I did for Trinity Anglican School and it is currently being used in a large billboard on the southern access road coming out of Cairns. It's always a buzz seeing your pictures used in such a great way, although I'm sure the kids are sick of me mentioning it every time we drive past. :)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Travel with kids. Just do it.

I know I'm probably preaching to the converted here but travel with kids. It can be frustrating, and annoying, and tiring. But oh so rewarding. They may seem like they're bored stupid and not learning anything (and they probably are bored after the 50th art gallery in Paris!) but they are most definitely learning stuff.

They're learning that even though the country may be different, the language different and the food different - it's all good. Different is good. Not something to be feared. There are good people everywhere you go.

Here is my wife and two boys ice skating in Amsterdam in front of the Reijksmuseum. It was probably more fun than the Rembrandts in the museum behind but both will remain in their memories forever.

Apple has a new ad for the iPad and in it is a scene from inside the famous Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona - that glorious work of architect Antoni Gaudi. My two boys recognised it as soon as they saw it - which is good because it was only a few weeks ago.

Long after we parents have forgotten how many times we had to yell at the kids to 'look at the damn paintings not your iPod', or 'walk in a straight line so you don't bump into people' and other such angry statements, the photos and the memories will live on.

As you can guess, we've just come back from Europe. 8 days in Paris, 8 in Barcelona and 3 visiting old trekking friends in Amsterdam. Those friends have kids now too. They don't speak English, my kids don't speak Dutch. But somehow they managed to communicate in a joint language of Minecraft and Lego! My youngest son, after dinner at our friends' house, proclaimed it the best night of the whole holiday. Wow, think of all the money I could have saved on hotel rooms if we'd just gone to our friends' house for three weeks. :)

People often exclaim how lucky we are to do all this travel (and believe me we're nothing compared to other of my travel writing buddies!). To them I say it's not luck. It's sacrifice. We go without in other areas of our lives. My wife works hard at a job that takes her away nearly half of the year. I forego my desire to travel to look after the kids full time. We never eat out at home, don't drive expensive cars or buy all the fancy toys that those around us seem to have.

Instead every penny we have gets put into travel. I would much rather give my kids experiences than stuff. Nothing lucky about that just a matter of priorities. So in closing I would say this. Get your kids out into the world. Show them that there's more to the world than just what's around them. Get lost with them in a foreign city. Stumble your way in a foreign language with them. Teach them that life is a book, and those who never travel only read a single page. (heavy paraphrasing there I know!)

And stay tuned for more stories and pictures from Europe.