Black and white of the Paradise Cafe

Black & White Photography–The Journey Continues

Text and Photography by Chuck Place©

I am continuing my quest to learn black and white photography through the process of converting a number of my color images to b&w. If you didn’t see my last post converting landscapes to black and white, jump back there and take a look.

Each photographic subject, whether sand dunes or deep forest, has presented its own unique challenges. I have been especially struck by the amount of burning and dodging that was necessary for images that look quite good in color.

Black and white of oaks in fog

Black and white of oaks in fog

It has also been a challenge deciding how much contrast I want, especially in the details. I like some velvety blacks in my images, but it is easy to go too far with contrast—almost like too much saturation in color images.

Let’s see how black and white conversions work with images of people.

My first portrait conversion was almost monochromatic to start with. While teaching lighting at a design school in China, I used the schools lighting kit—two fluorescent lights with umbrellas—to demo beauty lighting. These were tight head and shoulder portraits and I was going for a clean, graphic look.

Black and white portrait of student in China

Black and white portrait of student in China

I chose a student from the first row as a model and had her position her hands to help frame her face. The images looked pretty good, but I wanted a little more impact so I had her close her eyes.

The twin arcs of her dark eyelashes on her pale cheeks worked well and seemed to be a natural for black and white conversion. Using the HSL slider, I darkened her sweater and lightened her skin. The last step was pushing the Clarity Slider to -15, giving her skin a soft glow. Ridding this portrait of color seems to have created a more dramatic yet serene image.

Black and white portrait of server in Avila Beach

Black and white portrait of server in Avila Beach

Tight head and shoulder portraits seemed to convert well, but what about environmental portraits with all their location details? This, I found, was similar to converting a forest scene. Detail contrast was critical and some of the presets in the Develop Module proved useful shortcuts.

Black and white portrait of a farmer

Black and white portrait of a farmer

Subtle vignetting using the Radial Filter helped focus the viewer’s attention but a fair amount of burning and dodging was still necessary, just as it was in the landscapes.

The one thing that changed drastically from the tight portraits was the Clarity Slider. A slight negative Clarity setting smoothed out skin texture, but with less skin and more detail in the environmental portraits, I defaulted to my usual Clarity setting of plus twenty or so.

Black and white of hostess in a wine tasting room in Los Olivos

Black and white of hostess in a wine tasting room in Los Olivos

My “street photography” is often busy restaurant interiors, like the image at the top of this post, shot in the venerable Paradise Café.

Converting this image to black & white seems to pump up the energy of the scene, stripping away the soft mood of warm afternoon light and replacing it with pure vibrance and hard-edged light.

Black and white of an Old West town

Black and white of an Old West town

I’m starting to actually see the possibilities in a color image before I convert it. Decisions on the processing steps are getting a little more intuitive and the particular “style” of black & white that I personally prefer is also coming into sharper focus.

Black and white of an apple farmer in the Santa Ynez Valley

Black and white of an apple farmer in the Santa Ynez Valley

I’m getting a terrible urge to start printing some of these images, but I know my eye for black & white needs to develop further. A box of archival matte paper is already on my shopping list along with extra black ink cartridges, just in case my willpower fails.

If you are making this exciting journey to black & white along with me, let me know how you are progressing. This is turning out to be quite challenging but also a lot of fun.

For a listing of my tuition-free Spring 2020 Non-Credit classes at Santa Barbara City College, please click here.


Photography Backlighting

3 Photographic Techniques For Creating Beautiful Direct Sunlight Portraits

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

One of the most challenging lighting environments a photographer will face is creating portraits in direct sunlight. This light source has a strong specular quality that produces harsh shadows and strong highlights. The contrast range is often greater than your camera can capture and the portrait is anything but flattering. There are, however, several techniques that allow you to modify the sun’s light to create beautiful portraits with softly diffused, directional light.

Don’t settle for bad lighting—modify it.

The most commonly used, and easiest solution, is to shoot your portrait early or late in the day. Sunlight is softer at those times with a rich, warm color temperature and a definite direction—perfect for portraits. Early and late sunlight creates drama in a portrait that adds an extra layer of emotion to any image.

Sidelight with photographic reflector

Late in the day sidelight with a warm photographic reflector

For many years National Geographic Magazine has used this technique to set their photography apart from other publications.

Direct afternoon sunlight with a small photographic diffuser panel

Direct afternoon sunlight with a small photographic diffuser panel

The second technique is used while side lighting your subject during the day, but modifying the light with a diffusion panel. Diffusion panels come in a wide range of sizes, from big “silks” large enough to light a car to small, folding models that can be carried in a camera bag all the time. I myself carry a diffusion panel and a reflector on my camera bag, each of which is 8 inches across when folded and opens to 23 inches wide.  They essentially weigh nothing.

Diffusion panels are placed between the sun and your model and the larger the panel, the softer the light.

I have also found that the closer to the subject I place the diffuser, the softer the light becomes. Diffused light tends to fill in shadows and wrap around a subject, creating smoother looking skin. A bonus in portraiture!

Afternoon backlighting with a large photographic reflector

Afternoon backlighting with a large photographic reflector

A reflector or flash fill can also be used to control the contrast of direct sunlight, but I personally prefer the look created by a large reflector. By moving the reflector, I can easily shape the light on my subject and create a strong three-dimensional feel in the image.

Heavy backlight with a reflector

Heavy backlight with a photographic reflector to help fill in the shadows

The final technique is one of my favorites—back lighting. Often when I photograph portraits in bright sunlight, I position my subject so that the sun is behind them and I expose for the shadow side of their face.

Heavily backlit subjects are exposed for the shadow side of their faces

Heavily backlit subjects are exposed for the shadow side of their faces

This approach has several advantages when shooting in direct sunlight.

Backlit subject with a photographic reflector

Backlit subject with a photographic reflector

The first is contrast control. The shadow side of your model, as well as everything else in your image, is the same exposure. Backlighting also produces a bit of a bright halo around your subject, helping to separate them from the background. Your subject can also keep their eyes wide open. There is no squinting when your model has their back to the sun. Lastly, as you adjust your exposure for the model’s shaded side, the background becomes brighter relative to the subject. This gives your image a bit of a high key feel, especially with a shallow depth of field.

Admittedly, avoiding lens flare and dialing in the proper exposure is a little trickier than front lighting. You can find an earlier post on that subject at

With just these 3 techniques, you can create beautiful, striking portraits out in direct sunlight. Mastering some simple equipment and positioning your model properly can lead to startling results. Control the light and then connect with your model. A portrait is, after all, a partnership between you and your subject. Have fun. That will always show in the final portrait.


Portrait of Hostess at a Winery Tasting Room

Directing Your Models–A Photographer’s Guide

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

On a recent Saturday, my workshop students and I spent the morning photographing produce, vendors and street musicians at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. I had found a vendor with an interesting face, nice display and a farm banner that hid their truck. I asked if I could photograph him and he looked at me for a moment and then said “Since you asked, yes”.

Give your subject something to do with their hands.

Give your subject something to do with their hands.

He immediately squared his shoulders, dropped his hands to his sides and stared at the camera. Where I had started with an animated vendor, I now had a ridged statue. This happens more often than not when I ask to photograph someone and it’s my job to turn them back into a living, breathing, engaged individual.

When photographing people, there is a check list in my head that I usually follow.

First, is the subject in the best light for a portrait?

Although this changes depending on what I want to say about the person or their job, I usually want diffused, horizontal light. Maybe I need to move them to a better location within their environment. Maybe they need to be turned slightly or moved only a foot. Don’t be shy about asking. This helps establish your authority on the shoot and their trust in you will quickly grow, especially if you explain why they will look better in the new position.

Find the best light within your set for a portrait.

Find the best light within your set for a portrait.

Second, and equally important, do they have any mannerisms I can use?

Do they use their hands when they talk? Do they smile easily? Is there something unique in their mannerisms that I can incorporate into the image?

Watch for small mannerisms

Watch for small mannerisms that you can use during posing.

Third, give your subject something to do with their hands.

Give them something to hold, something to move, something to pour. Make sure it is something they would normally do so it feels familiar. Give a subject something to do with their hands and they will visibly relax in front of your camera. It’s an easy fix.

Give your model something to hold.

Give your model something to hold. Be careful, of course, about what you give them.

Remember, photographing a model is a partnership between yourself and your subject. There has to be trust and respect and you only have 5 to 10 seconds to establish that trust. Show interest in the person and what they do. By showing interest in the individual, you encourage them to be themself, not just a photo target.

It sounds daunting, but each time you photograph a stranger, it becomes easier.

Some portraits are as much about the job they do as it is the individual.

Some portraits are as much about the job they do as it is the individual.

Get the technical stuff worked out before you approach your subject. Give your model a role to play. Become the director. Careful! You may start to enjoy this.

For more on photographing people, see our blog post  “The Shy Photographer’s Guide To Putting Subjects At Ease”


phalaenopsis, or moth orchids in a greenhouse

Give Yourself A Photo Assignment II

Text and Images by Chuck Place

I have too many interests! Photography is my passion, but I also love cooking, hiking, kayaking, fishing, gardening—the list goes on. Orchids have always fascinated the gardener in me and at one point, I decided to give myself an assignment photographing orchids and local orchid collectors.

Comparison of micro orchids and lemon-sized cymbidium orchids

Comparison of micro orchids and lemon-sized cymbidium orchids

Like many editorial photographers, I find a subject that interests me and start to pick around the edges of the subject with a camera. Once I capture a few interesting files, I find a client to publish the project and then dive in head first.

Orchid collector tending plants in his shade house

Orchid collector tending plants in his shade house

Everyone has their hobbies, their causes, their passions. They all make great self-assignments.

It can be as simple as photographing a short road trip up the Big Sur Coast, or as complex as—well, orchid collectors.

Studio portraits of orchids in a lath house

Studio portraits of orchids in a lath house

My first step was to ask myself why anyone would be interested in this subject. Let’s face it, orchids are exotic creatures, the butterflies of the flower kingdom. One group even has the nickname of butterfly orchids. Orchid collectors are seemingly sane individuals who obsessively shape their world around obtaining and raising orchids. Being a photographer, I can relate to that last part easily.

orchid seedling lab

cybidium orchid seedlings are inspected at Gallup and Stribling Orchids, Carpinteria

My next step was compiling a Shoot List.

This is where I determine the width and depth of my coverage and I tend to burrow in deep. Orchid portraits would be necessary, of course, in both commercial greenhouses and private lath houses. I needed to illustrate the huge variety of orchids, from large tropical cattleyas to tiny micro orchids.

Chinese Brush Painting of orchid

Chinese Brush Painting of orchid

Images of collectors would also be critical–watering, feeding, pollinating, hybridizing and interacting with their specimens. I would also need to cover orchid shows, competitions, clubs, sales and cultivation demos. This shoot list introduced subjects that needed to be researched and a list of people I would need to contact.

Orchids for sale at a commercial greenhouse

Orchids for sale at a commercial greenhouse

Finally, what was going to be the “Look” of the coverage. It seemed obvious to me that bright colors were going to be a thread running through the images.

Orchid collector in the jungle of his lath house

Orchid collector in the jungle of his lath house

I could easily photograph orchid blossoms every day for months and still not have the visual diversity of images for which I always strive. It’s easy to get tunnel vision at this point, but that is the beauty of a self-assigned project. It forces you to move past the obvious core subjects and produce a wide range of subjects that expand on that main topic. It forces you to be creative.

laelia orchid is pollinated by hand

laelia orchid is pollinated by hand

I find self-assigned projects fall into two main categories—locations or subjects.

How about spring wildflower blooms in the California deserts—if the rains continue? Wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley? This is a subject we cover n my Location Photography Spring Workshop coming up in March. Something more challenging? How about marine mammals of the So Cal coast? Saltwater fly fishing in the California surf? Did that one already. Got really wet. Summer Solstice Parade from costume development to the actual parade?

Santa Barbara International Orchid Show

Santa Barbara International Orchid Show

A half hour with your favorite beverage should generate enough ideas to keep you busy for the next year. Step outside your comfort zone, learn to shoot a wider range of subjects and become a much more rounded visual storyteller. Get curios and have fun.

All you need is the structure of a self-assignment. Try it out!


Farmers Market produce

An Exciting Photo Shoot At The Lively Farmers Market

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

My favorite location to try out new photography equipment is not California’s ragged coastline or soaring mountain peaks. Forget the rolling sand dunes of Death Valley National Park or the giant redwoods of Redwood National Park. Give me a good old Farmers Market to run a new lens or camera body through its paces. Whaaaat?

Customers wander a Farmers Market

Customers wander a Farmers Market

That’s right, a Farmers Market. It has everything necessary to test any equipment—or photographer, for that matter. Shooting strong images at a busy farmers market is a test of concentration. A photographer is forced to create order out of chaos, still lifes out of produce and portraits of people who are too busy for a portrait shoot. It’s a tough photography environment!

gold and purple beets

Still life of golden and purple beets at the Farmers Market

Often I take my students to a local Farmers Market, not because I like to see them suffer–not too much, anyway. All photographers that shoot on location need to learn how to take a large, bustling, crowded event and break it down into manageable visual pieces. If a photographer views a market as just a big, chaotic location, their work will reflect just that surface appearance. Let’s break it down.

Eggs and iris for sale

Everything from eggs to iris are for sale at the Farmers Market.

First I like to get some establishing shots as I make a quick survey through the various areas of a market. Different vendors have different products and some create more interesting displays than others. I also pick out the vendors I think will make good portraits. Their looks, their clothing, the lighting at their booth, how they view customers walking by—this all impacts whether I think they will make strong subjects.

cherry tomatoes at the Farmers Market

Diagonals are created from baskets of cherry tomatoes

Farmers Market sign

Farmers Market sign selling strawberries.

My first task is usually to capture the market’s range of products while they are still available. The first tomatoes or berries of the season often sell quickly, so I try to capture those subjects first. Signs are always fun, flowers are always colorful and street musicians always make interesting subjects. I always ask permission from vendors and musicians and drop a dollar or two in the musician’s open instrument case so that I can create a range of portraits without getting the “glare”.

Photographic portrait of street musicians.

Photographic portrait of street musicians.

Later in the morning, after the crowds thin and sales slow down, I’ll work with individual vendors to create environmental portraits. By this point, they are getting a little bored and often welcome something to break up their morning. Because most produce is hauled in by trucks, the vehicles are lined up behind each of the stalls and make rather ugly backgrounds. I prefer to shoot down a row of stalls, filling the background with more produce. A shallow depth of field is necessary to separate my subject from the busy background and I prefer photographing under one of the white awnings. It produces a beautiful soft light with large highlights and great skin tones.

Strawberry_Vendor

Photographic portrait of a vendor selling strawberries.

By the time I’m finished with portraits, I’m a little worn out, my subjects are tired and I have to return to that stall where I bought those great blanched almonds with rosemary and sea salt. Although I tend to shoot all this with a single camera body and a 24-70mm zoom lens, my camera bag is usually full of treats to bring home.

Where else could I find a single location with such a range of photographic subjects and still shop for dinner supplies at the same time. Give it a try and don’t forget the almonds.


cheese fondue lit with window light

Window Light, An Amazingly Elegant Photography Light Source

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

Have you ever wished you could invent the perfect lighting system, one that generally gave you diffused light but could be adjusted to be more specular? A lighting system that provided directional, horizontal lighting that avoided the raccoon eyes of overcast days. A continuous source so you can see the results before you shoot and powerful enough to light an entire room and its contents. Oh, and let’s throw in cheap to buy and very light to carry. Perfect, right?

Alebrije in window light

A gold reflector bounces window light into the near side of a carved Mexican alebrije to control contrast and create a warm highlight.

We all have that lighting system available, of course. I use window lighting for a wide range of photographic subjects, but I have noticed in my classes that many students seem to ignore it. It’s a seemingly easy light source to use, but as in so many things in photography, mastering window light is quite another matter.

Cafe lit with window light

If windows are part of your composition, break them up as much as possible and don’t allow your camera to underexpose the interior, even though the light source is in the frame.

First, let’s define exactly what we are talking about here. Window light is any source of daylight that is horizontally directional and mostly diffused. This diffused daylight is often cool in temperature and does not have to pass through a real window. It would certainly be awkward carrying a window around all day. A large overhang of some sort outdoors will produce the same quality and direction of light as long as there is no direct sunlight intruding into our scene.

Window light also requires that we actually see how the light is impacting our subject, not how we expect it to look. This is one of the big hurdles in learning to be a photographer—actually seeing what is right in front of us.

pizza lit with window light

Pizza was photographed twenty feet from the window light source to emphasize the pizza texture with edgier light and balance the food exposure with the interior exposure.

This will lead to the realization that window light will change depending on where in a lit room we place our subject. Is there more than one window? Are there also artificial lights involved or will the paint color on the walls bias our color balance through bounce light. Do we want flat, even lighting or side lighting that creates dimension and brings up texture. Close to a window, the light is very soft and diffused. It becomes harsher, or more specular, as we move our subject farther from the light source. Do we have reflectors to modify contrast and shape the light? It’s getting a bit more complicated, isn’t it?

restaurant interior photographed with window light

A restaurant interior was photographed at a point where window light and the warm, incandescent light over the table and painting balanced perfectly.

When I first enter a window-lit room or an outdoor arcade with arches open to the ambient light, I sit for a few minutes and study people as they walk through the space. There is always a “sweet spot”, a location within the environment that gives me the perfect direction, the right amount of softness and perfect balance of light on my subject and my background.

Try it, but keep your eyes open. This is a subtle light source but a very powerful one as well. And you have got to love a light source that you don’t have to carry! I know I do.


La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

Great Looking Historic Photographs In 4 Easy Steps

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

I had just gotten back from a fun photo shoot with my class at La Purisima Mission State Historic Park near Lompoc, California. It was a Living History Day with docents dressed in period costumes demonstrating how people during the Mission Period made most of the things they needed fore their daily lives, from nails and blankets to saddles and candles.

Spanish priest, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

Spanish priest, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

I was able to create a lot of great images, but all that color seemed jarring in that historic setting. My students and I post our favorite six images after each location class on a private Facebook Group Page and I decided to sepia tone all of mine. Luckily, I can now do this without a darkroom.

saddle maker's shop, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

saddle maker’s shop, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

Sure, sure, I know. Some of you miss the old days of wet labs. Standing in a darkroom with stinky chemicals was never my idea of a great time and creating sepia images without stained fingertips has great appeal. Blasphemy? Not if you get the results you envision.

The first step is to pick out images with a bit of contrast or subjects that will not suffer from an increase of contrast. I have always found black & white or sepia prints with flat contrast to be rather boring. Just my opinion, but I like a little zip in my images. My favorite black & white photographer, Christopher Broughton, creates images with a great feel of life and texture, even in flat lighting.

weaver, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

weaver, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

Next I import my images into Lightroom, create a virtual copy of my favorites and convert the color images to Sepia Tone using the Lightroom B&W Toned Presets. Don’t bail on me yet! Certainly this is a shortcut, but it works fairly well.

soldier's quarters, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

soldier’s quarters, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

Now for the fun. If you liked burning and dodging under an enlarger in the days of paper prints, you have the same tools in Lightroom, but with much greater precision. I do a little subtle vignetting, as well as burning and dodging in order to guide the viewer’s eye and when everything looks right, I push the Clarity slider to 100 to add some texture to the final image. It gives me that zip that I want in my “old” images.

colonnade, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

colonnade, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Lompoc, California

Admittedly, the portraits don’t have that stiff look produced by long exposures and neck braces, but I can live with that. With the right subjects this approach works wonders. And best of all, you get unique historic photographs and no stained fingers. Try it.


Rule Of Thirds Composition

Mastering The Rule Of Thirds For Beautiful Compositions

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

When I first started to get serious about my photography, I would go out for a few days photographing landscapes and come home totally exhausted. Just the mental process of creating a balanced compositions with my 4×5 view camera would wear me out. It was tough!

sand dunes in thirds composition

sand dunes in thirds composition

I once heard Earnst Haas, a pioneer of color photography, say that his process for composition was moving everything until it feels right. After a few years shooting thousands of images, Ernst Haas’ approach to photographic composition made sense, but in the beginning–it didn’t help much. What did help was stumbling on something painters had used for centuries—the rule of thirds.

The theory goes like this. If you split your composition into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, your main subject should fall on one of those lines or the intersection of two lines. Simple. This keeps your primary subject out of the center of the frame, which is rather static, and produces a more dynamic balance to your composition. Admittedly, this is a loose framework for composing an image, but it really isn’t meant to be a ridged structure. Let’s look at some examples.

Rule of Thirds Composition in Portraits

Rule of Thirds Composition in Portraits

My students often turn in portraits with the subject’s face dead center in the frame. This is often referred to as “Sniper School” for obvious reasons and the portrait often feels a bit “dead”. Moving the model’s eyes to the upper third line creates a better balance to the image. We have moved the subject out of the center of the frame “until it feels right”.

cholla cactus in thirds composition

cholla cactus in thirds composition

Landscapes follow the same steps of moving things around, or moving the camera around, until the balance feels right. In this case the foreground brittlebush flowers in Joshua Tree National Park fill the bottom half, middle ground fills the middle third and background the upper third. Remember, this is a loose framework.

carver rule of thirds composition

carver rule of thirds composition

In the above example of a wood carver in Oaxaca, Mexico, the carver is placed on the right hand third and balanced with extra carvings on the left. In this case, I did actually move things around until it felt balanced. It creates a diagonal flow when the image is viewed.

joshua trees at sunset in thirds composition

joshua trees at sunset in thirds composition

Even a simple silhouette of joshua trees at dawn benefits from the rule of thirds. Two groups of joshua trees are positioned in the upper right intersection and the lower left intersection with mountains in the background giving me a visually heavy base to support all the branching . This produces a much more dynamic composition than placing them all at the same level.

And always keep in mind–this is just the start of learning how to compose powerful images. You will break this rule as often as you use it. Like all rules of composition, just keep “moving everything until it feels right”. Words to live by.


Focus stacked portrait of a lobster fisherman

Control A Photograph’s Depth Of Field With Simple Focus Stacking

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

The commercial fisherman was having a tough time holding up the struggling lobster. It was constantly trying to grab him with the sharp points at the end of each leg. In order to avoid being clawed by the large lobster, the fisherman was holding it out in front of him and that was a real problem for the image I had pre-visualized.

I was photographing a portrait of a commercial lobster fisherman at the Fisherman’s Market in Santa Barbara for a book on local cuisine. It was a foggy morning and I wanted to shoot using a shallow depth of field so that the commercial fishing boats and pier behind my subjects were softly out of focus. In order to separate my subjects even more from the background, I had lit my subjects with a warm, diffused flash.

Everything fell into place—except the lobster. With an aperture setting of f5.6, either the fisherman’s face would be sharp or the lobster would be sharp. If I wanted a soft background, I couldn’t stop down the aperture further and seemed to be stuck with only one of my two subjects being sharply focused.

I used a solution called focus stacking. Making sure that I had frames where the focus on the fisherman’s face was sharp and others where the lobster is sharp, I didn’t change exposure or composition. I merely shifted the focus slightly. This had to be done quickly so that the lobster and fisherman were in pretty much the same position, or in register, in matching images.

Back at my computer, I layered the two shots in Photoshop with the sharp fisherman on top. Setting up a mask on that top layer, I painted out the soft lobster with black, letting the sharp lobster below show through. Flattening the two layers gave me a sharply focused lobster in front of a sharply focused fisherman, all with a soft background created by a shallow depth of field at an f5.6 aperture setting.

Focus stacked photo of bass fishermen on a lake.

Focus stacked photo of bass fishermen on a lake.

Although focus stacking is usually used in macro work, where an extended depth of field is impossible with a single frame, I have found it extremely useful for controlling depth of field in a number of situations where I wanted either shallow depth of field or greater depth of field.

The image of the bass fishermen on Lake Cachuma is an example of layering two images, one focused on the fishermen and one focused on the mountainous background, to give me an image with great depth. Sure, I could have stopped down my lens for greater depth of field, but I had managed to forget my tripod that morning and shooting a 300mm lens hand-held required a wide-open aperture for a fast shutter speed and sharp subjects. Sometimes focus stacking helps me correct rather foolish mistakes. I must have missed my coffee that morning.

All types of focus stacking software can be found with a quick search on-line and some photographers stack multiple frames of the same subject to achieve startling depth and detail in a single image. It’s also a tool that can be applied in subtle ways using simple layering in Photoshop. Experiment with it and see if it doesn’t help in controlling depth of field and producing images that are impossible to capture in a single frame. Remember–mastering post-production tools will expand the photographic possibilities exponentially. As in the days of black and white negatives, digital image capture is only half the journey to a final image. Post-production is the other half. Have fun.


laelia orchid

The Challenge Of Creating Visual Impact In A Photo Essay

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

One of my favorite assignments, no matter the subject, is a photo essay. I love immersing myself in a subject and drilling down into it, exploring all the nooks and crannies. My curiosity and my love of photography intertwine in a joyous dance that is new to me every single time.

orchid collector checks a hybrid orchid in his shade house

orchid collector checks a hybrid orchid in his shade house

A photo essay is essentially a story told with minimal words and, hopefully, lots of photographs.

The trick is creating a diverse range of images that are all necessary to fully explain a subject or location. Whether it is a long-form essay, like a coffee table book, or a short-form essay, like a two page magazine article, the steps are the same—research, organize, shoot and edit.

laelia orchid is pollinated to create a new hybrid

laelia orchid is pollinated to create a new hybrid

Let’s use an essay I photographed recently on orchid collectors for Seasons Magazine as an example. I dabble in gardening and like most people, find orchids both beautiful and exotic, so it was a subject that I found fascinating. Santa Barbara is known for its commercial orchid greenhouses and the city also holds an International Orchid Show each year. The magazine asked that I tie those into the piece as well.

collector tends a cymbidium orchid

orchid collector tends a special cymbidium orchid

Research was going to be critical. Finding contacts at the greenhouses and orchid clubs, collectors that were willing to be photographed on location, schedules for orchid competitions and sales and sources for various types of orchids in full bloom had to be compiled.

prize winning cymbidium orchid

prize winning cymbidium orchid

For such a simple subject, this was going to be a complex project.

In addition to contacts and permissions, research helped me put together a shoot list. This list is critical to making sure that coverage is as diverse, and thorough, as possible. And compiling a shoot list is not a static process as changes and additions are continuously made to the list as images are reviewed.

collector views images of micro orchids

collector views images of micro orchids on a Scanning Electron Microscope

While making appointments was stressful, shooting was a great experience. That is not to say that I could just go out and create beauty shots of orchids all day. Let’s face it, that would quickly put my audience asleep. The flowers are addictive, however, and I had to force myself to cover related subjects.

collector looking at a flower spike of micro orchids

collector looking at a flower spike of micro orchids

Growing and hybridizing orchids has a laboratory phase. Some collectors specialize in miniature orchids, so small that the individual flowers are hard to see without a magnifier. I found a collector that paints orchids. Subjects just popped up as I explored the unique world of orchid collectors.

orchid seedling are checked

orchid seedling are checked in a commercial greenhouse

Post-production also came into play as I created studio portraits of blooms against a white background in the greenhouses. Editing was on ongoing process and accurate captions were critical for the article’s text.

collector paints orchids

collector paints orchids using the Chinese brush painting technique

expensive paphiopedilum orchid

expensive paphiopedilum orchid

Although this sounds like a lot of work—well, it was. The magazine did a great job laying out the images, however, making it all worthwhile. Try it yourself. Pick a topic and spend a month or two researching and photographing a narrow subject or location. You’ll be amazed how it forces you to be a more thoughtful and sensitive photographer and how much fun it can be. Then find a publisher. Think big!

If you are already shooting photo essays and have a favorite subject, share it with the group in the Comments Section. Thanks.