Canon and The National Geographic Channel Photography Seminar – Malaysia and Singapore

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Ira will be conducting a series of lectures for Canon and The National Geographic Channel in Malaysia and Singapore at the beginning of May in conjunction with The National Geographic Channel Young Photographer Award. He will be talking about his career as a National Geographic photographer and about how his interaction with different cultures around the world have inspired his work.

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.

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.

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.

Panasonic’s GF-2: Small Camera Big Benefits

Beach Florida Keys 14mm lens ISO 200

I’ve been shooting for the past few months in various situations with the Panasonic Lumix GF-2 mirrorless DSLR and I’m very impressed with the camera. It is responsive, the autofocus is quick and accurate and the shutter lag is minimal. Its small size, definitely a plus has made it my ‘always have with me’ camera. Most of the time I’ve used it with the 14mm, 2.5 pancake lens (28mm equivalent) but a couple of weeks ago the folks at Panasonic sent me the 20mm, 1.7 lens (40mm equivalent) and a small, electronic viewfinder that slides into the camera’s hot shoe. This combination works well for my purposes, although it took some time for me to get accustomed to using an electronic viewfinder. I like shooting with a viewfinder because I can hold the camera steadier when I press it against my face as opposed to extending the camera away from me to look at the LCD. Although I usually shoot with a full frame 22 megapixel camera, the file quality on the GF-2’s half size 12 megapixel sensor looks very good and I feel comfortable at an ISO setting at 1200. And with the noise controls in the recent Photoshop and Lightroom raw converters, it’s possible to work with this camera at even higher ISO ‘s.

20mm lens at f/2 ISO 1000 mixed light

Crop of face. Some noise reduction added in Lightroom

My main concern with the GF-2 and the larger GH-2 model is that there is no way to lock the LCD touchscreen’s focus point. If you pick up the camera and touch the LCD while it’s active, there is a good chance that you will move the focus point. I’ve talked with Panasonic about this issue and hopefully the problem can be solved in a future firmware update. And the new Panasonic G3 prototype camera I’m currently testing does have a menu function that will lock the focus point.

Over the years I’ve carried many point and shoot cameras but with their tiny sensors and built in zoom lenses, they’ve never reached the quality level that is needed to publish large images in magazines. For a non professional camera, you can count on the GF-2 to produce a high quality image. I’ve made several nice 17×22 inch prints from this camera with files shot at ISO 800 but as with any camera, large print quality is dependent on many factors besides ISO, including using a tripod at slower shutter speeds and picking the sharpest f stop for your particular lens. Panasonic offers many interchangeable, zoom lenses for the GF-2 however some are larger than the camera. For my purposes of a ‘carry with you camera’ I prefer the 14mm or 20mm pancake lenses. An added plus of using this camera with the small lenses is that you don’t look like a professional and you can get into photographic situations where being a ‘pro’ may cause issues.

With Spring upon us the urge to grab your cameras and get out and shoot is great. On a recent morning while I walked to the gym, I passed by an unusually vibrant bed of tulips, not a typical site in my Manhattan neighborhood. I grabbed the GF-2 out of my pocket and though I had the 14mm lens on the camera, I was able to get in close to one of the flowers (yes these lenses focus close) and make a lovely image.

The camera with you is the best camera you have and the GF-2 is the best camera you can always have with you.

Tulip shoot with the 14mm Pancake lens ISO 100

A Cooler Full of Strobes

Pack and spare battery in the hotel

Keeping warm in the snow

In an earlier blog, I mentioned a trip to the Arctic that ultimately had to be postponed due to adverse weather conditions. I needed snow but in November and December it rained. In January I was traveling to the bottom of the globe in Antarctica but now in April, I am finally shooting outside of Iqaluit, Nunavut in the northernmost reaches of Canada. The temperature has been hovering around -22C with winds blowing at 20-30 kph. Although keeping personally warm is paramount, my bigger concern is keeping my battery operated gear from freezing. Fortunately my Canon 5D Mark IIs have been operating really well, although I do warm a few extra batteries with my body heat inside of my coat, in the event I need to change them. My biggest concern however has been my battery operated strobes, essential pieces of equipment that I need for the photo I am here to shoot.

I am using the Profoto Acute Bs, a six hundred watt second pack that has always been reliable. But in this extreme climate I worry that the cold may quickly drain the batteries. Fortunately I brought along Alex Stricker, my friend and fellow photographer to lend a hand. Dragging Alex from the warmth of Phoenix to the cold of the Arctic took some creative coaxing and it was well worth it. Besides his photographic abilities Alex is incredibly talented when it comes to building and prepping anything needed for a complicated shot. In this case, we needed to find a way to keep the Profoto batteries warm and Alex as usually came up with a creative solution.

We bought a midsized, styrofoam cooler (rather ironic for our geographical location) and lined the insides with the eight hour, hand warmer packets I had brought from New York. We placed the strobe unit and two spare batteries inside of the cooler, notched out a hole on the lid, and ran the cable through it to the strobe head. To provide additional insulation, we lined the bottom of the cooler with a silver, space blanket. Before I took the cooler into the cold I walked fifty feet down my hotel corridor with my pocket wizard radio tripper to ensure the strobe would fire. It did.

We felt like we were setting up for a tailgate party when we finally brought the cooler outside only instead of fall football weather, it was -23 C, dog sledging weather. But our heated cooler worked great. We were able to get approximately 150 full power shots off each battery and when we finished shooting, the inside of the cooler was still nice and warm; a lot warmer in fact than either Alex or I.

The New DSLR Video Killers

Sony NEX-FS100U in New York

Sony NEX-FS100U on Mark Forman's car mount


Photos by Mark Forman

I’ve been shooting several assignments in the last month and my focus has literally been on my work. Consequently, I have not been blogging. But discovering and reviewing new equipment always brings me back to the blog. The recent buzz among photographers and videographers is the upcoming large chip video cameras. It was bound to happen eventually; video cameras that use the large chips found in Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras have entered the market. I was fortunate enough to view some video from one of these cameras and it was stunning.

Panasonic started shipping it’s AF100 camera that uses a four thirds sensor at the end of 2010 and a few days ago, Sony announced that the NEX-FS100U NXCAM Super35 camera which uses the larger APS-C sensor will ship at the end of June. This is the same sensor found in the Sony F3 video camera; the camera that tops videographers’ wish lists. The Sony F3 camera sells for around $15,000, while the new Sony FS100U will sell for under $7000 with an 18-200mm lens (27-300 equivalent). I look for Panasonic and Canon to announce their own cameras in this category at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention in Las Vegas in April. Will these new cameras mean the end of video for DSLRs? Probably not the end, but certainly a change for many people.

When Canon DSLRs first added video capability I found the ergonomics awkward. Although the video they produced looked great, these cameras were difficult to handle unless you were willing to spend thousands of dollars on rails, monitors, and other accessories that would turn your little, hand held digital still camera into a monster. Adding this equipment however never corrected the inherent sound problems of shooting with a DSLR. You still needed a separate sound recording device. Because of these limitation I never felt comfortable making anything less than simple films with my DSLR equipment.

The footage I viewed came from the Sony NEX-FS100U. It was shot by my friend Mark Forman, a New York City cinematographer who was testing a prototype of the Sony camera. Mark, who had been producing videos during the past few years with his Canon cameras explained some of the great features of the Sony. He told me the native ISO for the camera is 800 and the night footage that I saw which he shot at 2400 ISO, had very little noise. Even though Canon cameras produced low noise when used for still images, he cautioned that they do show noise when they are used for video capture at the higher ISOs. Mark still loves his Canons, but says “they are a tool designed for stills that shoot video”. The Sony is a true video camera with a monitor and good sound capabilities. It also accepts professional cables. Mark noted the NEX-FS100U has less color aliasing and moiré than the Canons in the video mode. He prefers the Sony’s codec (video compression signal) because it simplifies the video editing workflow as opposed to the codec in the DSLRs which adds an extra step. Additionally, the new Sony allows you to record directly into an external recorder with a much less compressed digital. The Sony’s E mount for lenses and adapters gives you the added option to use most still and motion picture lenses on the camera.

The bottom line is if you are traveling light and on a limited budget, you can make simple films with your DSLR. But if your desire is to make narrative films or documentaries, this new generation of lower priced, large chip video cameras is the way to go. I asked Mark if he would continue to use his Canons for video, he smiled and said “sure, when I need a crash camera”. Here is the test footage Mark shot with the prototype camera.

Here are some links with more information: Film and Digital Times and a promo film from Sony.