Monday, November 26, 2012

RMC Art Class 247 Final - A Presentation of 30 Nature Photographs

I have wanted to take this class for several years and was so excited when I was finally able to. I have struggled with learning photography from books. I had attended several lectures in the community by Dave Shumway and knew he was a great nature photographer and also a good instructor. I was confident that by taking his Nature Photography course, I could really improve my understanding of photography and my ability to take better photos.

I have experienced a lot of frustration in the past in not understanding what I should be doing to take the specific types of photos I was interested in. Dave has made all the aspects of photography that were bouncing about in disparate chunks in my mind, come together in one understandable and cohesive unit. 

There is so much more to learn and so many more photos to take to help me advance my skills but this class has provided me an excellent grounding in the basics that I can build on.

The class final is presenting 30 nature photographs taken during the period of the course. Here are mine.

Getting An Earful
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 45-200mm f 4.5-5.6 @ 158mm, ISO 200, f7.1, 1/2000 sec, no flash.
Settings: Could have used ISO 100 and had a good shutter speed.

Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +sharpen, desat water because it was too bright and drew attention from the subject.

Here's Lookin' At You, Kid
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 @ 269mm, ISO 400. f/8, 1/500 sec, no flash.
Wanted to make sure I stopped action and had a close shot.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +saturation, +sharpen, selective -exposure on tree & sky patches, vignette

Keeping A Hawk's Eye
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 @ 275mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/400 sec, no flash.
Settings: Wanted to stop action. Hawk constantly turned head. 

Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +sharpen, selectively burned large branch because it was too bright.

Yellowstone Valley Overlook
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 14mm, ISO 200, f/20, 1/30 sec, no flash, circ polarizer.
Settings: Wanted a wide view and good depth DoF. 

Edit: crop, + exposure, + contrast, + clarity, + vibrance, + sharpening, - hilites & whites, + shadows & blacks, +NR luminance, adj. tone curve (faux LR4 HDR), adj blue HSL for more natural looking sky. sharpened.

Golden Grove
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 15mm, ISO 100, f/13, 1/40 sec, no flash.
Settings: Wanted a wide-angle view and good DoF. 
Edit: crop, + exposure, + contrast, + clarity, + sharpen, +yel & orange saturation, adj for lens distortion to make tree trunks parallel.

Peering Into The Abyss
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 45-200mm  f4-5.6 @103mm,  ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/320 sec, no flash
Settings: Wanted to stop torpedo action of active chipmunks.
Editing: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +sat yellow, +sharpen. Wanted small chipmunk looking into large space.

Sunrise Among Pines
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6 @ 109mm. ISO 100,  f/20, 1/30 sec, no flash.
Settings: Used moderate telephoto to bring sun in. Wanted good DoF for trees and sun. 
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +sharpening, + orange saturation, +sharpen, +NR luminance.

His Majesty
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 @ 264mm, ISO 100, f/9, 1/100 sec, no flash.
Settings: Wanted telephoto and reasonable shutter speed to stop elks movements, DoF was secondary. 
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +saturation, slight +red & +green sat, +sharpen.

Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 29mm, ISO 200, f/20, 1/125 sec, no flash.
Settings: Wanted medium angle and good DoF.
Edit: Edit: crop, tone-mapping, sharpen

Likin' Lichen
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 15mm, ISO 200, f/14, 1/30 sec, no flash.
Settings: Wanted a wide angle, moderate DoF.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, -hilites, -whites, +shadows, +clarity, +saturation, +yellow & red saturation, +sharpen, vignette

October Survivor
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 17mm, ISO 200, f/4, 1/400 sec, no flash.
Settings: Could have used lower ISO and still had good shutter speed. Wanted shallow DoF.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +yellow & purple saturation.

Red Swath
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 23mm, ISO 200, f/18, 1/16 sec, no flash, circ. polarizer.
Settings: Wanted fairly wide angle.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +red saturation, +sharpen.

Autumn Stream
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 14mm, ISO 200, f/20, 1/20 sec, no flash, circ. polarizer.
Settings: Wanted wide angle, good DoF, minimize bright reflections on water.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +saturation, +yellow saturation, +blue saturation & luminance, +sharpen

Baby Dragon Driftwood

Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 25mm, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/50 sec, no flash.

Settings: Wanted medium-wide angle.

Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, + shadows, +clarity, +red saturation, +sharpen.

Glorious Morn
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 14mm, ISO 200, f/11, 1/3 sec, tripod, no flash.
Settings: Wanted a wide angle to encompass as much of the scene as possible. Used a little higher ISO to get enough light for a reasonable shutter speed. Used tripod to stabilize.
Edit: crop, adj. temp, -exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +vibrance, +saturation, +NR luminance, +sharpen

Surveying His Kingdom
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 @ 240m, ISO 200, f/8, 1/600 sec, no flash.
Settings: Wanted faster shutter speed for hand-held and in case deer moved. Wanted background blur.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +sharpen, +NR luminance.

Sculpted Boulder
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 23mm, ISO 200, f/16, 1/25 sec, no flash.
Settings: Wanted medium angle, good depth of field, adequate shutter speed for hand-held.
Edit: crop, +contrast, -hilites, - white, +shadows, +black, +clarity, +vibrance, +sharpen, +NR luminance, adj. tone curve (faux HDR settings).

Emblazoned Autumn
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6 @ 103mm, ISO 200, f/20, 1/25 sec, circ polarizer, tripod, no flash.
Settings: Telelphoto lens to foreshorten scene. Wanted good DOF. Polarizer for color enhancement plus control flare.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, -hilites, -whites, + shadow, +black, + clarity, + vibrance, +NR luminance, adj. tone curve, (faux HDR settings), +sharpen.

Tumbling Waters
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 34mm, ISO 200, f/18, 1/5 sec, tripod, circ. polarizer, no flash.
Settings: Moderate angle. Good DoF. Very slow shutter to blur moving water. Could have used an even lover ISO and it might have been better.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, -hilites, -whites, + shadow, +black, + clarity, + vibrance, + green saturation, +NR luminance, adj. tone curve, (faux HDR settings), +sharpen.

 A River Framed
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 42mm, ISO 200, f/16, 1/50 sec, no flash.
Settings: Wanted moderate angle of view and good DoF, Need to hand-hold because of bushes.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +yellow, +orange, adj. blue saturation & luminance, +sharpen, vignette.

We Are Family
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 @ 205mm, ISO 400. f/9, 1/640 sec, no flash.
Settings: Wanted fast shutter speed to stop any movement, telephoto to bring subjects inclose, moderate DoF.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +sharpen

Silvery Seedheads
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6 @ 61mm, ISO 200. f/4.1, 1/640 sec, no flash.
Settings: Wanted narrow DoF to make subject prominent. Probably could have gone 100 ISO.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +saturation, +red, +green luminance, +sharpen.

Follow The Light
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 37mm, ISO 100, f/20, 4/10 sec, no flash.
Settings: Was in a hurry. Didn't check settings. Shutter speed too slow so photo had motion blur.
Edit: +contrast, +vibrance, +saturation, dry brush filter in PSE.

Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 14mm, ISO 400, f/20, 1/30 sec, no flash.
Used high ISO to get adequate Tv in fading light & DoF. 

Edit: temp adjust (was too blue), crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +saturation on sky, +NR luminance on sky, -exposure on foreground log, +sharpen.

Red Ripples
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 14mm, ISO 400, f/20, 1/8 sec, no flash.
Settings: Wanted wide angle and good DoF.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +vibrance, +saturation, +orange saturation, +sharpen.

Evening Reflections
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 14mm, ISO 100, f/20, .30 sec, no flash, tripod.
Settings: Tried to get good DoF and good quality.

Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +vibrance, +saturation, +sharpen.

Sanguine Sun
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6 @ 162mm. ISO 200, f/11, 1/100 sec, no flash, 
Settings: Wanted telephoto to bring subject closer. Pinkish tinged sky created by using cloudy WB.
Edit: crop, -exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +NR luminance, +sharpen, vignette.

Fading Mountains
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @26mm, ISO 100, f/20, 1/6 sec, no flash.
Settings:Wanted wide angle and good DoF.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +vibrance, +saturation, +yellow saturation, magenta filter to add sky color, +sharpen, +NR luminance.

Storm Over Beartooth Mountains
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 29mm, ISO 400, f/4.9, 1/640 sec, no flash.
Settings: Wanted wide angle. Probably could have used smaller aperture. 
Edit: crop, adj temp & tint, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +sharpen, +NR luminence.

Bobby Sox Trees
Panasonic DMC-G2, Panasonic 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6 @ 158mm, ISO 400, f/20, 1/13 sec, no flash.
Settings: Needed high ISO to allow a small aperture for good DoF and good enough shutter speed to hand-hold.
Edit: crop, +exposure, +contrast, +clarity, +saturation, -yellow saturation, -magenta saturation, +sharpen, +NR luminance

In the past, if I took a good photo, it was mostly accidental, now it will be purposeful. Watch out all you interesting and beautiful scenes because I will be looking to capture you.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Real High Dynamic Range vs Lightroom4 Faux HDR

Many hobby and professional photographers are intrigued by HDR, including myself. Some are fascinated by the surreal images that can be created while others, like me, prefer the effect to be subtle enough that a viewer questions whether it has been HDR processed from bracketed photos or not.

When preparing my 30 photos for the class final, I decided to do some in HDR so I downloaded a trial version of Photomatix, the most popular of the HDR softwares. I processed a number of photos in this program.

I also learned in my research, that people are doing faux HDR in both LR3 and LR4. (PhotoWalkPro) There are a couple of somewhat different approaches to the adjustments used in the development panel but they both involve boosting contrast, reducing both the highlight and white sliders and increasing the shadow and black controls.

All this "messing around" with the photo introduces some noise so noise reduction is addressed by increasing the luminance control near the bottom of the panel.

One of the popular tutorials uses slight tone curve adjustments. Exposure and temperature are adjusted as needed. Of course, HSL and sharpening adjustments can be used also.

Below are a few photos I did using both methods - HDR in Photomatix and faux HDR in LR4.

Sculpted Boulder - Photomatix HDR

Sculpted Boulder - Using single image faux HDR techniques in LR4.

Tumbling Waters - Photomatix HDR
Tumbling Waters - Using single image faux HDR techniques in LR4

 Yellowstone Valley Overlook - Photomatix HDR

 Yellowstone Valley Overlook - Using single image faux HDR techniques in LR4

Seeing how amazingly similar the images are from one of the top-selling HDR software programs and what can be done in LR makes one question why you would buy a dedicated, stand-alone HDR app. It would seem wisest to invest in LR4 only, which has such amazing capabilities, and do your occasional HDR in it. BTW, for those that want over-the-top HDR, that can be done in LR, I just prefer a subtle version. 

When I carefully analyzed these photos side-by-side, I found I preferred the LR4 faux HDR over the Photomatix so, in most cases, it is what I have used for my final photos.

Another HDR app killer may be caused by the fact that a number of manufacturers (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, and more) are now making built in HDR capabilities in their cameras. The camera takes a number of bracketed photos (just as you would do for later process in an HDR program) and does the processing in-camera and you instantly have an HDR to review on your camera screen.

Some pro photo bloggers have questioned whether in-camera HDR is a fad or a wave of the future. My research shows it will be more common to see this capability in future cameras, especially since Canon seems to be in the forefront of perfecting this feature and now you can even choose the degree of HDR effect you wish before the camera does the final processing. 

It appears that cameras are rapidly closing in on the ability to produce photos that come closer and closer to replicating what the human eye discerns. 

Here's to the HDR of the future that I believe, will be truly impressive.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Preparation In Fine Art Landscape Photography Part 2

In the previous blog, I presented an article from Luminous Landscape about preparing for a photo shoot and going out in the field. This is a follow-up to that article that includes checklists, walking the scene, the decisions you must make, and more.

Preparation In Fine Art Landscape Photography

Part 2 of 2:
Preparation Checklist

Alain Briot 

1 - Introduction

In part two of this 2-parts essay we are going to look at the gear you take with you in the field and at what you do once you are in the field. This second part is presented as a checklist so that you can print it to refer to it in the field if you want. I kept the text to a minimum to make this checklist as concise as possible.  This list is based on my experience working in the field in a variety of conditions (I started photographing seriously in 1981). 

Turret Arch, Arches National Park

2 – Your Gear

A – Necessary gear

- Primary camera and backup camera- Lenses: wide, normal, telephoto: 12 to 300 for full-frame 35mm- Several extra batteries for all battery-operated gear- Cleaning cloth (microfiber cleaning cloths are the best) and dust blower- Sensor cleaning kit- Cable release- Camera manual if you are not 100% familiar with all camera functions|- Tripod and ballhead- Padded camera bag- Hoodman loupe- Cleaning cloth- Basic tools such as small screwdrivers, pliers, hex wrenches, etc.- Camera L- Bracket ----> Keeps camera on the same optical axis in horizontal and vertical position

B – Things to keep in mind when using gear in the field


 - Extend your tripod to your full height (unless your composition requires a lower or higher camera position)

----> You must be able to look through your viewfinder without bending over ----> Doing so is more comfortable and will prevent back pain

- Turn lens hood forward so it shades the lens- Don’t keep the lens hood pointing backwards on the lens- Tighten all ballhead and tripod clamps securely

- Turn on blinking highlights on camera histogram

- Know how to read your histogram quickly and accurately

- Expose to the right

- When not shooting, keep your camera ready to use in your bag

----> Keep the lens you use most often on your camera

----> If using a technical camera, keep the camera assembled for faster access 

- Know how to set mirror lockup on your camera

- Use a cable release when the camera is on tripod

C - Carry cameras and lenses in a padded camera bag at all times

Cameras and lenses are fragile and expensive.  If not stored in your camera bag they will eventually be damaged, broken or lost. When you are working in the field, lenses and cameras should not be placed on the road, on the ground, on rocks, walls, etc.  They should not be carried in your shirt or pants pockets either.  They should be carried only in your padded camera bag. 

D - Do not walk with your camera on your tripod

If you sling your tripod over your shoulder with your camera attached to it, you take the chance of launching your camera as if it was a missile. Therefore, never sling your tripod over your shoulder with your camera on it and do not walk or hike with your camera on your tripod. When moving from one location to another remove your camera from the tripod and pack it in your camera bag.  Sooner or later you will be thankful you did. 

E - Use a tripod bag

Quality tripods and ballheads are as expensive as camera equipment. To protect them I carry my carbon fiber tripod and RRS ballhead in a Tamrac tripod bag.  This bag is inexpensive (about $30) and I recommend you use one.  You can buy this bag, or a similar one, from, B&H or other.

F - Never leave your camera on your tripod unattended

Leaving your camera on your tripod unattended is recipe for disaster.  If your tripod falls you won’t be there to stop it and your camera will break.  Therefore, if you need to move away from your camera and tripod for any reason, take your camera off your tripod, pack it away in your camera bag and pack your tripod in your tripod case.

G - Purchase insurance

Even when taking all the precautions mentioned above, working in the field with expensive camera gear carries a certain amount of risk. I therefore recommend that you purchase insurance for damage and theft to protect yourself in case something unexpected happens.

Clouds at Sunset, Capitol Reef National Park

3 – Your Approach

A - What you have to decide personally
- Where do you want details?
- Highlights, shadows, both?
- This will determine how you need to expose the scene
- Not every photograph needs to be HDR !
---> It is OK to not have details in every area of a photograph
---> Exposure in fine art photography is in part an artistic decision
- Which lenses do you like the most?
- What color palette do you want to use?
- Do you like color, black and white, infrared, alternative processes, duotones, etc. ?

B - Walking the scene

As you walk in the landscape looking for pleasing compositions ask yourself:
- What do I want to photograph?
- What type of composition am I looking for?
- Is the light good?
- Is there a photograph here?
- What is catching my eye?
- What is unique, different, or significant about the composition in front of me?
- How can I make this composition stronger, or different from the photographs of the same scene I have seen before?
Do not take a photograph if you are not sure what is significant in your composition.  Instead, continue looking for a composition you really like, a   composition that “talks” to you. 

C – Create both Verticals and horizontals

When you find a composition you really like, create vertical and horizontal versions of this composition, provided the image lends itself to both formats. That way you are OK should you wish to use the photograph vertically or horizontally later on.  For example, verticals are necessary for book covers while horizontals are necessary for 2-page spreads.

D – Use all three Lens families

Take a photograph of the same scene (obviously not of the same composition) with at least one lens from the 3 lens families: wide angle, normal and telephoto.
Take these three (or more) photographs one after the other so the light does not change between photographs.

Dante’s View, Death Valley National Park

E – Use a cardboard (or optical) viewfinder

Using a viewfinder is different than looking at the scene through your camera. First it is lighter, smaller and you can carry it in your shirt pocket. Second, it is not technical and therefore you can focus on seeing the composition instead of also thinking about f-stop, shutter speed, ISO and other technical issues. Finally, a viewfinder lets you look at the composition through different “lenses” very quickly by moving it closer or further from your eye, and both vertically and horizontally, by turning it up and down.

F - Be considerate of other photographers
We all want to bring back the best photographs possible, but unless we all work together none of us will. The key to getting along with everyone is to be considerate.  Watch where other photographers are, make sure you do not get in their shots, and ask they do the same for you.  Cooperating with each other will make the shoot a success.  This has become particularly important now that there are more and more photographers at popular locations.

4 - Conclusion: Practice, Practice, Practice!

The tips I share with you here and in Part 1 need to be practiced in order to become second nature.  The goal is to make preparation and technical aspects automatic so that you can focus on the artistic and creative aspects of fine art photography.  Creativity requires comfort and peace of mind.  You cannot be creative when you are uncomfortable or when your equipment is failing you! Only when everything is working smoothly can you can let go of physical realities and focus on what you see in your mind’s eye.

5 - About Alain Briot
Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, conversion, optimization, printing and marketing photographs. Alain is also the author of Mastering Landscape Photography.Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style and Marketing Fine Art Photography.  All 3 books are available from Amazon and other bookstores as well from Alain’s website.  Kindle versions of Alain’s books are also available on

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Preparing For a Photo Shoot & Going in the Field

Personal note:

I have not always been as well prepared to shoot in the field as I should have been. I searched for articles and checklists that might help me to better prepare and came across this very interesting one.

Preparation In Fine Art Landscape Photography

from Luminous Landscape

Having a successful photography shoot depends in large part on how well prepared you are.  But what does it mean to “be prepared?”  And what is involved when preparing for a photography shoot?  In this essay I will do my best to explain how I prepare for a shoot. I will break this preparation in two parts: what I do in the studio before I photograph, and what I do in the field when I am photographing.

This essay focuses specifically on landscape photography, which is what I do.  However, with a few minor adjustments I believe it can apply just as well to other types of photography.  The main difference is that each photographic subject requires slightly different equipment and knowledge.  However, because I am not talking about acquiring specific equipment or knowledge in this essay, the approach I describe below should be useful whether you photograph landscapes or other subjects.

A few words about success
We all want to be successful in our endeavors. No photographer says before leaving his or her studio: “I want this trip to be unsuccessful.”  Instead, every sane photographer says: “I hope this trip is a success.”  This is particularly true when travelling to a distant location to photograph for several days or weeks.  Because this endeavor involves significant travel costs and commitments in time, those who embark on such trips definitely want to bring back the finest photographs possible.

Unfortunately, not everyone does bring back great photographs. Certainly, failure can be caused by factors out of our control such as adverse weather, falling ill during the trip or having an accident. However, failure is often due to lack of preparation.

Preparation is far more important than many believe. Lack of preparation affects us at the most unwanted time: when we are trying to capture a photograph of something lasting only a few minutes or a couple of seconds.  At that time things go either right or wrong.  Agreed, as I said above, things can go wrong for reasons out of our control.  But more often than not things go wrong because we are not adequately prepared: batteries die and spares are not available, our camera refuses to function properly and we have no backup, the lens we need is in the car, or worse, at home, and so on.  These are all problems that could have been prevented by spending the necessary time preparing for the trip.  The purpose of this essay is to show you exactly how to do that and help you have a productive experience during your next photography shoot.

A - In the Studio

Studio preparation is preparation done before the trip.  It consists of planning your trip, selecting the gear you need, and making sure this gear is in good working order. 

1 - Study the Area

To study an area I have not been to before I read books on the area and browse the web looking for information and photographs.  I talk or exchange emails with other photographers who have been to that area.  I also look for forum threads and blog posts about this area.

I used to look at maps a lot. Today, Google Earth has replaced maps for the most part, at least for research done prior to the trip.  Once on the road I still use maps, often some that I printed from my web research.  I also carry detailed directions and GPS coordinates of the areas I want to visit if finding the location can be tricky.

 2 – Look back at previous work if available

Whenever I return to a location I have photographed before, my goal is to create new images, not retake the ones I created before. Therefore, if I have already been there, I look back at the photographs taken on my previous trips to refresh my memory and to start thinking about new possibilities.  I used to look at photographs taken by other photographers a lot.  In fact, at some point in my career this had become an obsession. However, as I started to focus more and more on my work and on expressing my own vision, I found that I was less and less interested in the work of other photographers.  Today, I rarely intentionally look at the images created by other photographers.  When I do it is usually because I come across images on the web, in books or in magazines, or because someone else shows me photographs.

3 – Check your camera equipment

Before leaving for an extended trip I always go over my equipment to make sure everything is working properly. If I am taking a camera that I have not used in some time, I will take a few shots with it to make sure it works properly. I also check for dust and if necessary I dust off the sensor.  I check that all the lenses are working well.  Finally, I make sure my flash cards are formatted (empty of previous photographs) and that all the cards I want to take are in my card wallet.

I also make sure I am not taking unnecessary or redundant equipment. Carrying too much equipment wastes space unnecessarily, makes my bag heavier, and makes selecting the gear in the field more complicated because I have to go through more equipment to find what I want.

4 - Take a backup camera

The only exception to this rule is that I do take a second camera body in case my main camera breaks down.  That’s a must. Even the best cameras will break down, and they always do so in the field at the most inopportune time. My cameras never break down when I test them in the studio!

They break down in the field, when all the conditions required for a perfect photograph are present, usually at sunset or sunrise, when the light is fantastic and when the last thing on my mind is that my equipment will refuse to work properly.

When that happens, there is no time to be resentful or frustrated.  We must be prepared with plan B, and plan B is having a backup camera, one we can switch to immediately and continue shooting as if nothing happened.

Of course, everything else can break down as well (and will eventually).  Unfortunately you cannot take two of everything.  Doing so would be too heavy and too expensive.  However, you can always do without a specific lens, or a specific accessory if you have to.  But, you cannot work without a camera body. That’s why you have to carry two of them.

5 – Take manuals and basic repair tools

Nobody likes to read manuals and manuals are often considered superfluous.  That is until we need to do something that only the manual can help us with.  Of course this usually happens when we are in the field and this is why we need to take the user’s manual with us when using gear we are not familiar with.  If you use a laptop or a tablet reader in the field, you can take the PDF version.  Personally, I prefer to take the hard copy because it is easier to read in the field.

Having the manual is important because quite often finding how to set specific functions on a digital camera I am not fully familiar with is a frustrating process.   And of course, the need to set these functions only comes up when I expect it the least and need it the most.

I also like to carry basic repair tools because things will happen, and because they will happen at the worst time.  Of course, I understand that with digital cameras there is hardly anything we can fix ourselves if something goes wrong.  However, this is not true if you use a mechanical camera.  Having the proper tools is also useful with tripods and ballheads whose screws have a way of coming loose in the field. These can be easily tightened with the proper Allen or hex wrench.  These wrenches usually come with the tripod or ballhead.  All you need to do is put them in your camera bag.

Shadow, Monument Valley, Arizona-Utah border

This photograph owes its existence to being prepared.  On the day I created it I had photographed extensively because clouds made the light interesting all day long and offered a multitude of possibilities.  I was using 4x5 film at the time, and I was travelling from Canyon de Chelly to Monument Valley.  By the time I arrived at Monument Valley I had exposed all the film loaded in my film holders.  I had spare films, and I had a changing bag, therefore I could easily reload my holders with unexposed film.  However, after what I considered a successful day, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get into the trouble of reloading film on the tailgate of my truck, in view of tourists and exposed to questions that would no doubt come my way. 

I contemplated all this for a while.  On the one hand I was tempted to call it a day because it was overcast and I did not expect much to happen at sunset.  On the other hand, experience had taught me that things can change in minutes in the Southwest, and that no film meant no photograph…  In the end my “preparation instinct” if you will prevailed and I spend 15 minutes reloading 4x5 film holders in my changing bag on my tailgate, trying to be courteous and not make mistakes while answering tourists who wondered what I used such a small tent for. That evening, I captured the scene above barely five minutes after I finished reloading my films.  While I have since witnessed and photographed this scene several more times, I have never seen it so perfect in regards to the light, the shadow or the colors. Even though it may require more work than we are willing to do, preparation does pay off big time.

6 – Charge batteries

Batteries are the life-blood of the equipment therefore they need to be paid attention to carefully.
Rechargeable batteries (gear-specific batteries):I check that all batteries are charged.  If I have not used a camera for some time, I make sure I have spare batteries. If camera and other gear-specific batteries get discharged quickly, I order new ones --old batteries do wear out and have to be replaced.  I also buy the manufacturer’s batteries. While there are lots of cheaper, third party batteries available, they never hold a charge as long as the manufacturer’s batteries.

Disposable batteries:If I have gear that uses disposable batteries, I make sure I carry spares with me.  There may be plenty of these at the store but it won’t do me much good unless I have them in my bag!

7 – Decide which camera you want to use

I prefer to work with a single camera system per trip.  I know that carrying several systems is popular with a number of photographers, however I find that working with two systems complicates things unnecessarily.  I can do it, that’s not the issue, but doing so makes it more difficult to focus on the artistic aspects of photography.

When working with several different systems I tend to focus on technical aspects.  It’s just more challenging to make the equipment transparent to my artistic goals because the gear keeps calling for attention!  I have noticed that most people who work with several systems at the same time keep trying to decide which system is the best for each photo opportunity instead of asking themselves what they want to express in their photographs.  Things become centered on deciding which camera to use instead of deciding how to compose and how to express your personal reaction to the scene.

8 – Pack your bag
Packing your bag is important.  There are different approaches in that regard. Some photographers like to pack their bag with everything they are taking for their trip and then make a selection about what to actually take to each specific location once they are in the field. While this approach works for some it does not work for me.  Once in the field I want to be ready to photograph.  The last thing I want to do is go through my bag and decide what to take and not to take to each specific location.  For this reason I carry my gear in two different “containers:” a camera bag and a small Pelican case.  In the camera bag I carry all the photo gear I plan to use during the trip including a second camera body and a spare battery for each battery-operated gear.  In the pelican case I carry all the additional spare batteries, a sensor cleaning kit, a spare ballhead, additional flash cards and card downloader, spare lenses if I carry some of those, plus other things that I can keep in the car and get to between locations. 

9 – Select the non-photographic gear you will need to take with you

This consists of clothing, shoes, etc.  While these are not photographic supplies per-se, and while it is tempting to overlook them, they are necessary because having the right clothing, shoes and other essentials is important to make your trip worry free and comfortable.  What these consist of is more personal than anything else.  For example, I personally like to keep a pair of thin gloves in each of my jackets because I hate operating my camera with cold hands. The thin gloves I use cost only a couple of dollars and are found in outdoors clothing stores. The ridiculously low price means I can keep a large supply on hand and replace them easily if I get a hole in one of them or I lose them. The last thing I want is being uncomfortable while shooting.  Besides making it difficult to operate the camera, it is very difficult, not to say impossible, to be creative when you are uncomfortable.  The last thing on your mind when you are freezing is expressing your vision!

B – In the Field

Field preparation is quite different from preparation done in the studio.  It is no longer about planning your trip, selecting your gear and making sure everything is in working order.  Instead, field preparation is about knowing what you have to do in the field. It is about knowing when to get to the location, what to do once you are there, and how to make sure that you are doing all the things that cannot be done later on in the studio through post processing.

1 – Get to the location on time

Being prepared in the field starts with getting to the location on time. The sun rises regardless whether or not we are there ready to shoot. I like to be at my chosen location at least half and hour before sunrise in the morning and a minimum of an hour before sunset in the evening.  This is because in the morning the colors in the Eastern sky are more saturated before the sun is up. This is also the perfect time to do silhouettes.  Plus, I get to enjoy the feeling of mystery brought by the semi darkness.  When the sun is up, it washes out all the colors and the mystery is gone.

2 – Find a spot you like

Some photographers like to get their cameras out and on their tripod the minute they get to the location. While this is a good approach if it suits you, this is not what I do.  Personally, I prefer to wait until I see something before I unpack and setup my camera.  In other words, the act of seeing comes first and the act of setting up my equipment comes second.  After all, what if nothing catches my eye?  Then I would unpack my gear for nothing. Furthermore, in the dark it is unlikely that I will find the perfect location where to set up immediately.  Unless I visited the location the day before or during a previous visit, I will not know for sure where I want to setup.  Therefore, unpacking my equipment at the first place I stop at will be a waste of time.  Instead, I find it more productive to look for a location I like and then setup after I found that location.  This is particularly important if I want to do a near-far composition because in that case the first thing I need to do is find a good foreground.

3 – Find the composition

Once I find a spot I like I visualize the composition I want to create.  To do this I either compose the image in my mind or I use a viewfinder, either a cardboard or an optical viewfinder, to visualize the image.  I rarely use my camera to visualize the scene, partly because I prefer to do this without the camera, and partly because my camera is still in my bag at this point.

Based on the composition I want to create, I decide which lens I will be using.  For example, if I do a foreground-background composition it will be a wide angle.   If I do not use the foreground, it will be anywhere from a normal to a short telephoto lens because I can tighten the composition a lot more with a longer lens.  If I want to feature a lot of sky, I may use a wide angle without including the foreground but then I will tilt the camera up to minimize the land and maximize the sky.  Finally, I may decide that none of the lenses I have are wide enough and I may decide to do a stitched composition, capturing the image in several frames that I will merge together into a single image on the computer once back in my studio.

4 – Get your gear ready

Having decided which composition and lens I want to use, I then unpack my tripod (I carry my tripod in a light tripod bag for protection against sand and rocks), I set my camera on the tripod, and I set the lens I selected on the camera.  I also make sure to tighten all the knobs on the tripod and on the quick release plate securely. The few extra seconds this takes me are well worth it because this will prevent some bad surprises later on!  I then proceed to compose the image in the camera viewfinder so that it matches what I saw in my mind’s eye and through my viewfinder.

5 – Expose and check histogram

Once I have composed the image the way I want it, I make the first exposure. Notice that I did not say, “I calculate the exposure.” With film, I had to calculate the exposure.  With digital, because I shoot in manual mode most of the time, I simply make an educated guess about which exposure I need, and take a photograph.  I then check the accuracy of my guess by looking at the histogram.  Because I have been taking photographs for many years this first exposure is usually pretty close if not right on.  I just know from experience what the light level is and what exposure it calls for.  However, some days I am just way off, either because I am not fully awake or because of miscalculation.  Either way, it doesn’t matter.  Digital captures are free after you spend the first 20k on equipment (you may need to adjust this amount to fit your personal budget), so errors are not costing me anything.  Not even time because even when using a light meter the first exposure is rarely spot on, especially at sunrise and sunset because the camera tends to grossly overexpose when the light level is low thinking that shadows shouldn’t be shadows.

I adjust the exposure as necessary and I usually have a correct exposure by the second capture, and if not by the third capture. Having a correct exposure means that the histogram does not show clipping in the areas that matter to me.  At sunrise, to continue with this example, this means not having clipped the highlights.  Because the light level is very low, there will be clipping in the shadows.  This is both expected and wanted because shadows should be dark, as far as I am concerned.

If you use a light meter the same process does apply.  The only difference is that you will be starting with the camera’s exposure instead of guessing the exposure yourself.  After that you will have to evaluate the histogram and make over or under exposure corrections. The camera will rarely be spot-on at sunrise or sunset because calculating the proper exposure at those times is challenging.  Even if it wasn’t challenging, exposure is also a matter of personal taste, which means it often needs to be adjusted even though the light conditions may be fairly easy to deal with.

6 – Fine tune the composition

Once I have found the proper exposure, I look at my composition carefully to see if it can be improved.  In the dark, barely awake, and often not having coffee yet, it would be preposterous to believe that my first composition will be ideal. By making it a point to check the composition carefully, I usually find ways to improve on it by making small changes in regards to how much I include in the frame, how far or close I am to the foreground, which lens to use, and so on.

7 - Look for more

Eventually there is only so much that can be done with a given composition, and when I reach the point where I cannot think of any further improvements, I know it is time to look for another composition.  Here too, it would be pretentious to think that I found the perfect spot right away.  Most likely, at best I found a promising spot, but there has to be other spots just as good if not much better nearby.  I therefore make it a point to walk around the area looking for other promising locations.  By then it is usually lighter and the visibility is much better, making it easier to see the possibilities offered by each different spot.  The light is also warming up, and some direct light may already be shining upon the landscape, bringing with it an additional visual element. I like that because it further motivates me to find a great location, or a great foreground, to continue photographing from.

White Sands Sunrise, New Mexico
Everything went wrong on the day I created this image.  My camera batteries failed, the wind picked up and covered my equipment with sand, and when I thought things couldn’t get much worse, one of my tripod legs broke off.  The leg literally came apart from the top of the tripod.  Not because the tripod was dropped, or handed roughly.  Simply because this was the time it had apparently chosen to break free. 

Preparation could not do much in this instance.  I had checked the tripod before the trip, I had used it for over a week, and there were no signs of upcoming failure.  Neither could I do much to repair it.  The only thing that saved me was the sand. I pushed the broken leg and the two other legs deep into the sand, and adjusted the tripod so that the camera was resting on all three legs.  The sand held everything in place long enough to get this exposure, plus a couple more photographs a few minutes later.  After that, I was able to duct tape the tripod together to make it last the rest of the trip.

Preparation couldn’t prevent this.  What made getting the shot possible in this instance was looking for a solution instead of getting frustrated and discouraged.  This has more to do with personal skills than with trip planning. 

Personal skills are important.  What matters in a situation like this is having your goals clearly defined.  I was there to photograph White Sands at sunrise, not to curse at my tripod.  By staying focused and clear-headed I got the job done. 

8 - Don't second-guess yourself

It is easy to not take a photograph because we consider it “not good enough.”  I call this “second guessing myself.”  There is no shame and no cost (as we saw previously) associated with taking what may turn out to be a “bad” photograph.  If it is indeed bad, just throw it away (or more appropriately, delete it from your flash card or hard drive).  However, who knows if it is going to be good or bad. Sometimes, you may be correct.  Other times you may make the wrong call and not take a photograph that would have been a keeper.

When working in the field when the light is changing quickly there are a multitude of things to think about.  Don’t complicate your life unnecessarily by trying to decide if an image is good or bad.  You will have plenty of time to do that later on in the studio.  Keep it simple and don’t second-guess yourself: just take the image. Then, look if you can refine the composition, following the steps I outlined above. If you cannot refine it, move to a different spot.  Field time is time that needs to be devoted to capturing images, not to criticizing images. You’ll have plenty of time to be critical later on.

9 – Focus your energy on what matters

When photographing in the field there are things you need to worry about and things you do not need to worry about. For example, you have to select the correct ISO, focus the lens properly and expose the capture correctly because none of these things can be changed later on through post processing. However, there is no need to worry about things such as white balance, color space or the exact cropping of the image because you can take care of all of that when you return to your studio.  Having a checklist of what you need to do in the field and what can be done later in the studio is very helpful.  I provide such a list in my second book:  Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style.

 10  – Know when to stop

Eventually all good things come to an end.  As the sun gets higher and higher in the sky, the contrast range becomes too great, the colors lose saturation and the light no longer has the magical quality it had at sunrise.  When that happens, it is time to pack up and go.  You can stay longer and enjoy the scenery, but for all purposes the best photographs of the morning are either on your flash cards or lost forever.  It is time to move on and have breakfast.

11 – Find out what worked and what did not
The last step, and one of the most important, is finding out what worked and what did not work that morning (as well as after any shoot).  This is best done after you have had some time to rest.  For sunrise it is best done after breakfast for example.

What you want to do is go over what worked well and which problems you encountered, if any.  Basically, you want to continue doing what worked and you want to fix what did not work.  Fixing what did not work involves making changes so that you do not encounter similar problems in the future.

If you do this after each shoot you will soon find out that your success rate increases dramatically. This is because the fewer problems you have during a shoot, the more you can focus your energy towards the artistic aspects of your photography.  We need to master technique so it becomes transparent to the expression of our vision and creativity.  We are at our peak when our technical knowledge is such that it lets our creativity flow through uninterrupted.

The goal of preparation is making all the technical issues as transparent as possible. That way they do not stand in the way of our creativity. When technique causes problems, it becomes a barrier to creativity.  Our ideas get trapped in a net of technical issues. However, when we achieve freedom from technical issues, our creativity flows freely through the maze of technical decisions we have to make.

In the next part of this two parts essay we will look at a checklist that will help you get prepared for a shoot.  This second part, which is appropriately called “Preparation Checklist”, will appear on this site next month.

About Alain Briot

Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, conversion, optimization, printing and marketing photographs. Alain is also the author of Mastering Landscape PhotographyMastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style and Marketing Fine Art Photography.  All 3 books are available from Amazon and other bookstores as well from Alain’s website.
You can find more information about Alain's work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to Alain’s Free Monthly Newsletter on his website at To subscribe simply go to and click on the Subscribe link at the top of the page.  You will have access to over 40 free essays by Alain, in PDF format, immediately after subscribing.

Alain welcomes your comments on this essay as well as on his other essays. You can reach Alain directly by emailing him at

Alain Briot
Vistancia, Arizona
June, 2011