Ten Tips for Taking Better Pictures in 2015

Shadows of camels in the sand dunes in the Erg Chebbi in southeastern Morocco.

This past year I have taught a number of photo workshops in various parts of the world. Whether in New York City, the Sahara desert or the mountains of Tibet my students all benefit by being reminded of these basic tenets of photography.

1. Know your camera. Use it once a week so you are adept at all of the controls. Don’t take it out just for vacations, holidays and birthdays

2. Get closer to your subject; Zoom with your feet not with your lens.

3. Don’t concentrate on just the central part of the frame. Look at the entire image in your viewfinder. Is your background helping or hurting your picture?

4. Watch your composition. Do not put your subject’s head in the middle of the frame. You will end up with only half of a picture. The top half will be empty sky or something else unimportant. Focus on your subject, then recompose.

5. Use a high shutter speed to keep your images sharp. Increase your ISO if you can’t achieve a high shutter speed.

6. Work the situation, don’t take one or two photos and move on. Keep shooting, changing angles and your point of view.

7. Be aware of light. Look at shadows and the angle of the light. Great light makes for great photos

8. Be careful when using wide angle lenses on landscapes. The camera will “see” a wide vista but will not focus on details like trees or waterfalls. This is because your eyes and brain see differently than your equipment.

9. Don’t overload yourself with equipment. You can shoot much faster and catch moments when you aren’t changing lenses.

10. And most importantly, Think Before You Shoot.

Guerrilla Lighting in Cuba

Portrait of a man on the street in Trinidad, Cuba.
Light, whether natural or artificial is an indispensable tool in achieving great images. To have more control of the look of my images I make a lot of photos with artificial light. I prefer to use big strobes either in large, light boxes or bounced off white flats when I want to achieve a nice, soft feel but if l am going after a “harder” feeling, I’ll use snoots or grid spots that keep my light source narrow and focused. On my recent trip to Cuba, I decided to try something different. I wanted to shoot some street portraits. I hadn’t been to Cuba in over eight years and I was interested to see not only how the country had changed, but also how the people had changed. I would need a smaller and more portable light source to emulate my large lighting scenarios – guerilla lighting in Cuba – very appropriate.

I immediately noticed that the Cubans I encountered were more forthcoming and talkative than those I had met on my last trip. There was no undercurrent of repression. To visually communicate this, I wanted my portraits to be bright and “open”, not dark or shadowy and moody. I was shooting with a Panasonic Lumix GH3 with the FL 360L flash and the 12-35mm f/2.8 zoom lens. Since the camera and flash work wirelessly, I was able to keep the flash off camera and out of the hot shoe. Before leaving for Cuba, I researched many different light modifiers for these small units. I decided on the Lastolite EzyBox Speed-Lite, a mini softbox, that is an 8.6×8.6 inch (22cm) square unit. I liked this unit because I could set it up quickly and it didn’t take up a lot of space when folded. A softbox this small, however can be a source of harsh light unless it is really close to your subject. In order to achieve the soft feeling that I was after, I gave the flash and softbox combo to one of my traveling companions and asked her to hold it very close (sometimes only inches away) from my subject’s face. Although this was probably annoying to my subjects, by placing the light source close to their faces the reflection of the light from their skin became very soft and diffused. And by adding a slight warming gel to the flash, I was able to achieve nicer skin tones. Keeping the light this close also creates a prominent catch light in the eyes, which draws the viewer into the portrait. I didn’t want to compete with sunlight so I shot most of my photos in the shade. By incorporating colorful backgrounds, I was able to enhance the feeling of the Cuban experience.

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I set the strobe to work automatically with the camera through ETTL and varied my exposures using the camera’s convenient plus and minus strobe control. It took a couple of days of “Guerilla lighting” before I was able to develop a good sense of how to balance the flash and available light. In the majority of cases, I set the camera to underexpose the available light by half to a full stop.

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Tourists riding antique cars through Havana, Cuba.

The Lumix GH3 and the 12-35mm lens make a good, compact package that does not draw attention, which is one of the reasons I like working with it. When I added the soft box to the small Lumix strobe, I had a terrific, portable lighting system that enabled me to achieve the portraits.You can see these portraits and other images of Cuba at http://stock.irablock.com/-/galleries/faces-of-cuba.

Photo Workshop in Istanbul

Date: November 3 – 9, 2013 (Limited Spots Left) / November 10 – 16, 2013 (Limited Spots Left)

Join National Geographic’s Ira Block in Istanbul!

Imagine yourself in one of the world’s greatest cities, beautiful Istanbul; exploring the magnificent Blue Mosque, discovering the stunning Ottoman architecture and strolling along the legendary Bosphorus River while soaking up the local Turkish culture. We’ll visit the magnificent Hagia Sophia and the Topaki Palace, as well as the legendary Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. Hands on technical classes and daily critiques will take your photography to the next level.

You can get more information at http://lizapoliti.com/lizapoliti/istanbul.html.

Photo Workshop at National Camera Exchange in Minneapolis

Tuk Tuk, an auto rickshaw a Bangkok, Thailand street at night.

Date: Friday & Saturday, May 3 & 4, 2013

Location: National Camera Exchange
12055 Elm Creek Blvd, Maple Grove, MN 55369

Ira will be teaching a two day, hands on workshop exploring the world of hybrid photography. This exciting field merges video and still photography using light, moment and composition to create dynamic storytelling.

For more information please go to here.

National Geographic Photography Expedition in New York City

Statue of Liberty on a Misty DayApr 25 – 28, 2013

Ira will be leading a photography expedition to New York City at the end of April.

Brimming with towering skyscrapers, historic parks, vibrant ethnic enclaves, and the colorful bustle of street life, New York City presents photographers with an endless array of subjects. Photograph the environs of Ground Zero, and Battery Park City with its views of the iconic Statue of Liberty. Capture the diverse architecture of fabled Fifth Avenue and the sights of Central Park, and complete a portrait assignment in the lively neighborhoods of Chinatown or Little Italy. Photograph the sunset from the top of Rockefeller Center, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge or bustling South Street Seaport, and the new High Line Park in the early morning light.

This workshop is designed for amateurs who are interested in improving their digital photography. All participants must bring a digital SLR camera, a laptop computer, and software for organizing and presenting images. The workshop is limited to 25 participants.

For more information please go here.

Putting the New Lumix GH3 to the Test

I’m at Photokina in Cologne, Germany where today, Panasonic rolled out its Lumix GH3 camera. In late spring the folks at Panasonic asked me to test this new professional grade camera. I immediately suggested shooting in southern Utah. Although my choice was a bit self serving because I love the American west, I knew that Utah with its canyons, mountains and unique culture was the perfect place for photography.

Panasonic worked around the clock to get the prototype ready and it arrived at my studio the day before I was scheduled to leave for Utah. I was pleasantly surprised to find two new zoom lenses, a 12-35mm and 35-100mm, both with a fixed f/2.8 aperture. These two new lenses were solidly built in addition to being small. Luckily I own a GH2 and was familiar with many of the new camera’s functions and most of the seven lenses that came with it. I was able to fit the camera body, all of the lenses including the compact 100-300mm zoom, a flash, food, first aid kit and lots of water into my medium Tenba backpack. The GH3 and I were ready to go and the five hour flight would give me a chance to study the instruction manual.

This camera is also designed with a lot of dials and buttons which make it easy to change settings – when I’m working fast I don’t like scrolling through menus. The viewfinder is very bright and doesn’t have the ‘electronic’ look that earlier Electronic Viewfinders had. And the swivel screen monitor on the back made it easy for me to shoot low and high angle photos, like the image below of the bronc coming out of the chute.

During the ten days I was shooting in Utah I took the GH3 hiking and camping, climbing bluffs and exploring canyons, and exposing it to water and temperatures as high as 112 degrees Fahrenheit. And as I only had one body and needed to change lenses frequently, the camera was also exposed to a lot of dust and sand. This rugged camera had no problems functioning in these extreme conditions. Shooting the spectacular landscapes was inspiring but it was important to test the camera in non-static situations as well. I knew a Native American Pow Wow and a Rodeo would offer numerous action activities.

The GH3 didn’t let me down. Its great autofocus system was responsive and fast and the six fps motor was invaluable in capturing the bull and bronc riders. The dynamic range of the sensor was beyond what I expected and produced images with detail in both the highlights and shadows. Of course everyone wants to know if a four thirds sensor can deliver enough quality to make really large prints. Here at Photokina some of my prints are almost four feet long. When I was photographing the action at the Pow Wow and rodeo I was working with ISOs of up to 800 and saw a negligible loss of image quality.

Camping out under Utah’s night sky afforded another unique photo opportunity. I had never seen so many stars. To capture these ‘extraterrestrial’ like images I set the camera’s ISO to 2500 and used an exposure of thirty seconds at f/2.8 with the 12-35mm zoom. While the shutter was open my assistant and I used small flashlights to illuminate the surrounding landscape. Although I expected some noise under these extreme exposure conditions the resulting images were remarkable.

From canyons to cowboys, Native American dancers to skies saturated with stars, the images I shot with the prototype GH3 were beyond my expectations. I can’t wait to shoot my next journey with the production model.

7-14mm at 7mm, f5, 1/500sec, ISO200

12-35mm at 26mm, f8, 1/25sec, ISO200

45mm macro, f4.5, 1/160sec, ISO320

12-35mm at 35mm, f5, 1/2000sec, ISO250

35-100mm at 100mm, f8, 1/200sec, ISO160

7-14mm at 8mm, f11, 1/5sec, ISO200

7-14mm at 10mm, f4, 1/1600sec, ISO400

35-100mm at 41mm, f2.8, 1/1000sec, ISO640

7-14mm at 12mm, f2.8, 30sec, ISO2500

You can click here to see a full gallery of my photos.

2012 Singapore Digital Photography Workshop

2012 Singapore Digital Photography Workshop: Mastering Your Flash and Outdoor Lighting for Travel and Street Photography

Flash often mystifies amateur photographers. It’s the one piece of equipment that most photographers have, but few use the correct way. However, mastering artificial light for travel shots and street portraiture is vital, and can take your photography to a new level. Flash can stop motion, or add light to a scene on a dark street, or enhance the sense of motion.

Ira Block is one of the world’s experts on flash photography, lighting outdoor scenes, using flash and powerful lights to tell a story. As a veteran National Geographic photographer, his assignments often involve remote flash and creative use of stage lights to bring subjects like mummies to dinosaur bones to caves to life.

This weekend Singapore workshop is designed to ‘demystify’ the flash, and give you concepts and tips on how to use artificial lighting ‘in the field’ for travel and street photography. This workshop will show you how to maximize your flash—on and off camera—so you can work better indoors, in low light situations and after dark. And make you a better technical photographer.

To enhance the creative atmosphere, this workshop will be held in a private Chinese Shophouse in Chinatown at 5 Blair Road.

Dates:
November 1st to November 4th 2012.

Workshop Costs:
US$950.00. This does not include hotel or airfare.

For more information, please go here.

Focusing on Vision

Teaching a National Geographic NY Workshop on the High Line -- Photo by Louise Pedneault

Regardless of the type of camera and lens you are using, producing a good photograph requires creative vision and deliberate thought. These skills can be learned and enhanced by participating in a photo workshop. With the advent of digital photography, there are a plethora of workshops to choose from. Some focus on software programs like Photoshop and Lightroom, others deal with digital workflow, while advanced courses emphasize the intricacies of color management. Beginner workshops will teach the basics of how to operate and use your camera.

Learning basic photographic principles and how to operate your camera beyond the “program” setting will help you implement your vision. Most of these technical courses are offered through local camera clubs, colleges and community centers. The School of Visual Arts in New York City offers a Masters Program in Digital Photography. Hand books, on-line research and equipment reviews will also supply the basic information on how to operate your camera. The technical aspect of photography is a science; an f stop is a mathematical calculation which ties into the shutter speed and ISO. With patience and concentration, you can learn the technical basics.

I have been teaching a different type of photo workshop – one where the emphasis is on “vision”. Participants in my workshops learn how to “see” photos, how to think about photos, and how to conceptualize photo projects and stories. Whether we are shooting on the High Line in New York City, at a temple in Bangkok, or in a game preserve in Abu Dhabi, the objective is the same: tap into your creative vision to make a great image.

At times I will tell my students not to use a zoom lens (which can be difficult as most people don’t have fixed, focal length lenses) or in the alternative, require them to set their zoon on a specific length and not to change it. This forces you, as the photographer to make the image fit into your vision. I continually tell my students: “zoom with your feet, not the lens”. When you are forced to walk up to your subject and even walk around it, you may discover a better angle or better light than had you been just standing in one spot, twisting the zoom dial.

The creative use of light to enhance your vision cannot be understated. Photographers who do not take light into consideration are not really “seeing” their subject. I do a lot of lighting on my assignments and I often use non-traditional methods. In addition to large strobes, on camera flash units and reflectors I have found flashlights and car headlights useful to recreate light. Although lighting does require technical knowledge, I stress to my students that “seeing” the light and taking advantage of it will make interesting photos that help to tell a story.

After a day of shooting, my students are required to participate in critique sessions. Taking a lot of photos and discussing these images with other workshop members is invaluable. We all learn from each other. Explaining your image, approach and technique forces you to examine your thought process when you took the picture.

Digital photography is a great equalizer. Anyone can point their smart phone at a person, object or scene and take a picture. But thinking about your subject and learning how to “see” your image will make the difference between merely taking a picture and making a great image.

An Exhibition

Frances Alexander and her daughter Earlyne both worked in Tower 1 on different floors. It wasn't until that evening that they found each other.

FACES of HOPE, my portraits of survivors of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Towers’ attacks is opening as an exhibition in Manhattan this week. Mounting a show is almost as challenging as taking photographs so I thought I would share my experiences – the obstacles and eventual triumph – that went into putting this show together.

The photos were originally shot for the National Geographic Magazine to commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11. My picture editor and I thought that portraits of the people who made it out of the twin towers on that horrific day would show something positive about the event, as these courageous individuals have now moved on with their lives. And when the writer Luna Shyr interviewed them, we also found how luck and serendipity made the difference between life and death on that day. Faced with such compelling stories and images, I thought that in addition to the National Geographic’s story, an exhibition was a perfect venue for the work. Originally I wanted to mount an outdoor exhibit so it would be more available to the public. My thought was to place large format (6 feet x 3 feet) weatherproof prints in a great, natural setting. I found space at the southern tip of Manhattan, Battery Park with the assistance of The Battery Conservancy. I was able to raise money from a corporate sponsor which I thought would cover the costs of mounting the exhibit. But I was wrong in calculating the costs. Although I had enough money for the printing, I did not have enough to cover the custom built, metal stanchions which were necessary to hold the large prints. These supports were three times the cost of the printing.

My outdoor show, to which I had devoted a great deal of time, energy, and hard work evaporated. After recovering from this disappointment, I decided to hang a private show for my corporate sponsor and their employees. I did the exhibit at no charge, as the corporation covered the costs of prints and mounting. The prints were made in New York by Gotham Imaging, a small but very careful and concerned lab. If I couldn’t make the prints myself, Gotham was the next best thing. I was able to look at the test prints with the printer and to go over all the small details; this lab has no counter person who takes your order and passes it on to some unknown printer in the back.

The images were face mounted on plexiglass which looks great but is very costly. Gotham suggested a high gloss paper so the prints would adhere to the plexi without bubbles. But since I am not a fan of high gloss paper at exhibits, we used a ‘lustre’, non glare plexi glass to bring the gloss down to a more traditional looking surface. The corporate show, although internal was a huge success. The prints were returned to me when the corporate sponsor finished their exhibit.

Now, I needed a venue where the public could view the images. Traditional galleries were out of the question. They are in business to make money and to cover their expenses and I didn’t feel I could sell my images and make a profit from the September 11 event. I got very lucky when Fred Blake at Fotocare Rentals offered me space. He said that they had done one show in the past and were looking to do more.

When I hung the corporate show, the prints were sized for their space. At Fotocare, we had to arrange the space to fit the images. This worked well because the Fotocare space is open and there is a lot of flexibility. I also decided to include four additional images in the show, current scenes depicting the rebirth of Ground Zero that would add impact to and set the stage for the FACES of HOPE. The show will run from October 19 – November 10.

My next issue concerns the ultimate fate of these photographs. Living in New York City limits my storage space but more than that, I don’t want these images hidden away. Perhaps I’ll donate them to a museum. I welcome suggestions.

Ten Years Later

I have been involved in photographing the horrific aftermath of September 11, 2001 since that mind numbing day. I was in New York that morning, having breakfast with my friend David Harvey when the first plane struck. We were in Chelsea, less than two miles from the attack but the overwhelming chaos prevented us from getting close to the site. We were able, however to get close enough to shoot a few frames with a long lens. A few months later I was assigned by the National Geographic to do a small story on the cleanup-up and rebuilding of the area near ground zero. That story was published in September 2002, on the first anniversary.

In 2009 the magazine assigned me to photograph some of the artifacts that were found among the debris at the site. These objects were donated to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. I also did some photography at Hangar 17 at JFK International Airport where the large steel beams from the demolished Trade Towers and the partially destroyed, first responder vehicles were being housed. The magazine ran a collage of some of these images in September , 2010. The Washington Post has many of those photos on its website here.

As a National Geographic Photographer I have developed a specialty in lighting objects, whether from a museum, a tomb, or even underwater treasure. I was not prepared, however for the emotional impact that taking pictures of the personal effects left by the victims would have on me. The eyeglasses, shoes, and billfold were too recent and too personal for me to feel removed. Last year, the National Geographic again asked me to be involved in another 9-11 story. Susan Welchman, a friend and photo editor at the magazine and I wanted to create some kind of positive look for the 10th anniversary. We decided that portraits of the people who escaped the devastation, along with their personal stories of survival and how they have now moved on with their lives would honor the resilience of the human spirit. It wasn’t very easy to find people, but with the help of our writer Luna Shyr we were able to get together a representative group. If I didn’t believe in luck and serendipity before I met these incredible people, I do now. The difference between life and death that day was measured in split second decisions.

The portraits were all shot in a studio using a medium format, Mamyia Camera and 33 megapixel back. I spent a lot of time creating the appropriate lighting style. My friend Cliff Hausner from the MAC GROUP showed me how to best use a sports reflector to obtain the type of catch light I desired in their eyes. It was very important to me to capture the finest detail and feeling from the faces of these survivors.

The photos can be viewed on the National Geographic website here. This was a collaborative effort amongst a lot of people at the National Geographic, friends, and the survivors that took the time to spend with me. It was not a usual assignment and I feel privileged to be a part of it.