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.

White on White

The temperature here in the Arctic Circle north of Svalbard has finally reached 37 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) and the ice hasn’t melted, leaving seals easy prey for hungry Polar Bears. We were fortunate to see eight, healthy bears this day and to get close enough to photograph them. But how do you shoot (with a camera) a white bear against white ice and get a decent exposure?

In the first and last photos there is enough color in the water to average out the camera’s meter reading. Camera meters need to see tone in a standard way – they try to read everything as a neutral gray. In a colorful scene with a large tonal range the meter is able to produce a good, accurate exposure.

The middle photo is a more complicated story. The image is all white except for the shadow and the bear’s nose. The camera meter really wants to make this photo a nice gray, which would make our white Polar Bear angry and you don’t want to piss off a Polar Bear. So for this situation I set the exposure compensation to plus 2/3 s, which overexposes the image enough to give me a nice white scene and still hold the detail.

In the tragic situation of photographing a starving Polar Bear on land, the meter should do okay with the white and brown tones in the scene. If global warming continues and the Polar Bear’s hunting grounds – ocean ice where it finds seals – freeze later in the fall and then melt earlier in the spring, then we will have more to be concerned about than the correct exposure.

Fourth of July in New York

Fireworks in NYC. Panasonic GH2, 14-140mm lens at 17mm. ISO 160 f/13 at 45 seconds.

Here is my image from last night’s Macy’s fireworks’ display. I positioned myself on the sundeck at my gym, Chelsea Piers and shot north and west up the Hudson River. This fireworks display was incredible and very bright. I stopped down to f/14 and left the shutter open a little longer between the bursts so the adjacent pier would show detail. For this image the shutter was open for 45 seconds using the black card technique I described in my previous blog.. I included the pier because it gives the fireworks size perspective and a sense of location.

Photographing Fireworks

A fireworks exhibition in Las Vegas

Fireworks’ displays are the highlight of many celebrations in the United States. Cities feature these amazing light shows on New Year’s Eve, centennial events, and most notably, the 4th of July. Their various patterns and colors against the night background can produce stunning visual photographs – images that you can capture by following these easy steps:

Use a tripod and shutter release to keep the camera steady.
Set the ISO at 100-400 and the exposure on manual. (F/8 -11 is a good starting point at ISO 100).
Turn off the auto focus to prevent your lens from searching for a focus point in the black sky, and manually focus at infinity.
Turn off the lens stabilization; it doesn’t work well on a tripod.
Don’t use a wide lens or the bursts will appear very small in your frame.
Watch your framing, the fireworks usually explode higher than you think. It’s also nice to include buildings or vistas in the shot for scale and depth.

And now the big secret: lock your shutter open and hold a black card in front of your lens. When you see a good burst of color, remove the black card for a couple of seconds, then hold the black card over your lens again. Remove the card when you see another burst. Repeat this process of removing the card and releasing the shutter until you feel you have gotten a good set of bursts on that one frame. Usually three to five bursts per frame are enough.

Since fireworks are set off in very quick bursts, your shutter only needs to be open from 20-60 seconds to capture them. You can avoid delays in shooting your next frame by turning off the camera’s long exposure noise reduction. (See my previous blog on night photography to learn more about noise reduction) It is important to shoot as much as you can at the beginning of the fireworks’ display. As the show goes on, smoke builds up from the explosions, which gives the sky a hazy look.

Enjoy the spectacle and have a safe celebration.

Working at Night

Panasonic GH2 7-14mm lens at 9mm. ISO 160, 6 seconds f/10

The "Hole"

When the sun goes down don’t put your cameras away, instead grab your tripod and enter a new world of imagery. I’ve been doing ‘night’ shots for many years and the key to making great night photos is simple – don’t wait until it’s totally dark, unless you are planning on photographing stars. If you are shooting landscapes or city scapes, a black sky will not work. Immediately after sunset, a diligent photographer can take advantage of the ten minute window when the sky has a warm glow and there’s still enough light to help illuminate your landscape. You can find color in the sky after sunset; the secret is knowing where to look.
The eastern sky turns cobalt blue while the western sky, where the sun sets will acquire nice pink and blue tones. Of course much of the color is dependent upon atmospheric factors: cloud cover, smog, dust, water particles in the air and the time of year.

When shooting a cityscape with buildings, the lights in the windows add even more depth to your final photo. The best time of year for these shots is in the winter when the sun sets before five or six o’clock and everyone is still at work. In the summer, city scapes can be problematic because the sun sets between seven to ten pm (depending on how far north you are),and because most workers are out of their buildings, the office lights are turned off.

It is best to use a tripod when shooting at night, even though you can set your digital camera to ISO 6400 and hand hold it with a fast lens. With a tripod you can stay at a low ISO and get a good quality file. The higher ISO will give you a lot of noise and that noise will be accentuated in the shadow areas in your image.

Here are some quick tips for night shooting:
• Use a sturdy tripod; a small tripod extended to the max is not stable.
• Use a cable release so the camera doesn’t move when you press the shutter. If you don’t have a cable release, trip the shutter using the self timer.
• Use a low ISO.
• Pick the sharpest lens aperture; it’s usually two to three stops down from wide open.
• Be careful that your camera meter does not take its reading directly off of a highlight or shadow.
• Although you will usually be set at infinity, be aware of where the camera is focusing.
• If the meter reading and the focus are a problem, take the camera off automatic. Use manual focus and manual exposure.
• Lock up your camera’s mirror. The motion of the mirror going up and down can cause camera shake.
• Finally, turn on the camera’s long exposure noise reduction.
There is debate among photographers as to how efficient this is. Some like to use the noise control in Photoshop. My opinion is that the camera does a better job. The downside is that after you take your photo, the camera does another ‘dark frame’ for the same amount of time as your original exposure, which results in a delay before you can take the next picture. The delay is caused by signal to noise ratios and the size of sensor sites; much too technical for the purposes of this blog. (If you want to learn more about it you can do a search.)

Technical aspects aside, shooting at night requires common sense. Get to the location early so you can scout it out and find a good position. Bring a flashlight; by the time you are done it’s going to be dark. Even better than a flashlight, wear a head lantern which frees up your hands. I recall an assignment in Utah when I went out on my own to do a night landscape. The area was quite remote and I had to carry all of my equipment down a steep and slippery path in the dark. There was no cell phone service and had I tripped or fallen and injured myself, I would have been in a lot of trouble. The lesson: don’t go out alone.

For this photo of ground zero in New York City looking west, I got to my location very early. I was shooting from a building under construction and I had to wear boots, a hardhat and an orange vest. I also had an escort with me from the building developer. Our first obstacle was that the construction elevator wasn’t running because it was the end of the day for the construction workers. We had to walk up ten flights of steps with my equipment to get to the right position. The second and almost deal killing obstacle was that in New York as in most cities, safety regulations require that buildings under construction be wrapped in netting to prevent construction material from flying below. This netting was so fine that I couldn’t place my lens through it. I thought my photo was not going to happen until I noticed that various sections of the netting were fastened together with locking cable ties. When I asked my escort if I could cut open a few of these ties, he was skeptical. Finally, he granted me permission on the condition that I close the netting with cable ties when I finished shooting. If I was going to take this picture, I needed to find cable ties; an item that I have plenty of in my studio but none in my camera bag, here on the tenth floor. Having come this far and high up, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. I canvassed the construction bins around the various floors of the site, like a homeless person sifting through garbage cans. Ultimately I got lucky and found a box of cable ties. The photo was going to happen.

The sun went down that evening around 8:22PM. But since I was shooting west into the sunset, balancing the bright sky with the unlit, memorial fountain and barely lit trees wasn’t possible. The sky was darker by 8:40PM but the exposure for the dark shadows in the trees was going to render the sky too bright. Although it would have been easier looking into the darker, eastern sky that angle and direction wouldn’t give me the composition I was going for. It wasn’t until 9:00PM that the light came together and I was able to start taking the pictures I wanted. Working in the dark can be an enlightening experience.