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.


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!


1/15 second exposure blurs Navajo Gourd Dancers.

Photographing Native American Powwows: Planning, Etiquette and Tips

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

I could feel the drum beat in my bones, almost like a heart beat.

Native American dancers seemed to float just above the dance floor, red rock canyon walls towering over the dance arena. I was photographing the annual Gallup Inter Tribal Indian Ceremonial and the spectacle of so many dancers gathered together was quite amazing.

A 300mm f2.8 lens separates a Fancy Dancer

A 300mm f2.8 lens separates a Fancy Dancer from the other dancers.

In the Southwest, powwows also include demonstration dances by various Pueblo, Navajo and Apache tribal members in addition to the usual powwow dance categories. There is a lot going on and it isn’t always easy to capture the strength, energy and pride of the dancers in a single still image.

camera panning separates dancers

A slow shutter speed of 1/30 and panning separates a fairly sharp dancer from the other dancers.

Powwows take place all over the U.S. and Canada and a schedule of events can be found at several web sites, including https://www.powwows.com/2018-pow-wow-calendar/. These are often gatherings of many different tribal groups and have become a celebration of Native American culture.

Women's Fancy Shawl Dancers.

A long lens isolates a group of Women’s Fancy Shawl Dancers.

Before we get started, let’s talk first about etiquette at these events.

Not all powwows allow photography. Some allow still photography but not video. Some will allow photography but no sound recording. Do a little research and make sure photography is allowed before you pull out a camera.

If photography is allowed, that generally means in the dance arena or demonstration areas only. If you come across a dancer outside these venues–always, always, always ask permission! Never step onto the dance floor and if a ceremony is about to take place and the announcer asks that no photographs be taken, lay your camera down and don’t touch it until the ceremony has ended. These are Native American events and they set the rules. We are only visitors.

photographing dancer regalia at a powwow

A 70mm-200mm zoom lens allows you to capture details of dance regalia.

Powows can be held anywhere, even a high school football field. If you want a clean background, without goal posts, get there early and stake out your spot. I try to get right on the edge of the dance arena and sit on the ground or at the top of the grandstands, if they are available.

A high or low shooting angle pretty well eliminates backgrounds and these locations keep other people from blocking my view.

Apache Crown Dancers

Apache Crown Dancers are a fast moving photo subject.

I tend to shoot with two camera bodies, one mounted with a 70mm—200mm zoom lens and the other a fixed 300mm lens. Sometimes dancers are close, but often I need to reach out and isolate a single dancer. These two lenses will handle most dance floor situations. I also carry a 24mm-70mm zoom lens for portraits outside the dance arena.

Individual photo portrait off of the dance floor.

Individual photo portrait off of the dance floor.

I shoot these lenses hand-held and rely on fast shutter speeds for tack sharp images. One of my favorite approaches, however, is using shutter drag, or a slow shutter speed, to create a degree of image blur that illustrates the shape of the dancers motion. It’s really fun.

Zuni Pueblo Turkey Dancer.

Slow shutter speed captures the motion of a Zuni Pueblo Turkey Dancer.

This technique is just a matter of stopping down the lens aperture to eliminate light and then slowing down the shutter speed to compensate for a proper exposure. You can pan with the dancers to blur the background as well, or even tilt the camera during the pan to create even more blur. These can become quite abstract, so try different shutter speeds to get just the right amount of blur, which is a very subjective decision.

I have covered quite a number of these events and occasionally found I was the only anglo face in the crowd. I have always found Native Americans to be gracious and have never been made to feel like an intruder. Follow the rules, ask permission and be open to the spirituality that is part of some of these dances. Powwows offer a glimpse into proud, ancient cultures which we get to explore with our cameras. Look and learn with an open mind and have a great time.

Enjoy the experience.


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.


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.


Portrait of San Juan Pueblo Deer Dancers

How To Manipulate Depth Of Field For Spectacular Portraits

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

During my years as a photography instructor, I have seen many great location portraits produced by my students. Great expression, nice lighting—they should be beautiful portraits, except for one major problem. The foreground, subject and background are all sharp. The images are so busy that the subject is overwhelmed by the surrounding details. It’s difficult for the viewer to know whether the subject or the location is the most important part of the photograph.

I think of this as the point-and-shoot camera effect where everything is in sharp focus.

There are subjects where everything in the frame should be sharp, such as the portrait of a Victorian couple in front of a Victorian building below, but portraits usually benefit from a shallow depth of field. Depth of field is defined as the area in front of and behind the plane of focus that is acceptably sharp. Human vision can’t actually see shallow depth of field. It’s an optical effect.

Portrait of Victorian couple, Cape May, New Jersey

Portrait of Victorian couple, Cape May, New Jersey, 28mm lens, f8 aperture

Shallow depth of field, however, is one of the most powerful tools in photography for separating a subject from its background. By capturing a sharp subject and letting the background go soft, you are telling the viewer of your image what is most important and what is less important. It’s a relatively simply effect to achieve, but you must take control of your camera and get away from letting your camera make photo decisions for you.

Portrait of vendor at Farmers Market

Portrait of vendor selling strawberries and lettuce, Farmer’s Market, 70mm lens, f2.8 aperture

First, set your camera to full Manual or at least Aperture Priority. The aperture, or f-stop, controls depth of field by changing the size of the opening in your lens. High f-stops numbers, like f16 or f22, create a tiny opening and lots of depth of field. A small f-stop number, f2.8 or f4, creates a large opening, or aperture, producing very shallow depth of field.

I know. It would be nice if big aperture numbers created big openings and small aperture numbers created small openings, but it’s the reverse. Blame the optical engineers. Maybe the easiest way to remember this is small f-stop, or aperture, numbers give you the least depth of field and higher numbers give the greatest depth of field. Once you start using this technique, it will quickly become second nature.

Portrait of young woman

Portrait of young woman, 100mm lens, f2.8 aperture

The lens aperture setting is not the only way to produce shallow depth of field in a photograph, however. The longer the focal length of a lens, the easier it is to get a sharp subject with a soft background as seem in the featured image of Deer Dancers above. A short telephoto has traditionally been the preferred portrait lens partly because of this ability to produce a soft background. A longer telephoto will produce an even softer background, making it easy to separate your subject from the background clutter. A wide angle lens, on the other hand, makes it difficult to soften your background.

Portrait of young Hispanic woman with flowers

Portrait of young Hispanic woman with flowers, 300mm lens, f2.8 aperture

 

One other technique for achieving shallow depth of field is moving the camera closer to your subject. It gets a little techie here. This is all about the relationship between camera to subject distance and camera to background distance. As you move the camera closer to your subject, the relative difference between subject distance and background distance becomes greater, producing a softer background. Check out this Depth Of Field Calculator, at http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html, to see the effects of f-stop, focal length and subject distance on depth of field. Change the lens focal length and f-stop to see how depth of field changes.

Portrait of traditional powwow dancer

Portrait of traditional powwow dancer, 200mm lens, f2.8 aperture

If you are like me, all of this technical stuff gives you the shivers, but it’s all good to know. As a working professional, I tend to walk around with my lens aperture “wide open” or set for shallow depth of field. I shoot many subjects, from people to sports and even food, with a shallow depth of field. I need a reason to “stop down” my aperture and create great depth of field. When you have to tell a story with each image, shallow depth of field makes it easy to show viewers what is the most important subject in an image and what is secondary—usually the background. This approach keeps things simple and takes control of this powerful tool away from the camera. Your camera is, after all, just a computer with a lens hanging off it. The best camera is the one inside your head. Control depth of field and rule your world—photographically speaking.

For more on posing subjects for portraits, see our earlier post “Shy Photographer’s Guide To Putting People At Ease”.


Bar in the Union Hotel

The Joy Of Exploring Small Towns With Your Camera

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

I love exploring with my camera and small towns are one of my favorite subjects. Does the town have a colorful history? Does it have a unique culture? Is it located in a photogenic location? The concept of a small town as it’s own little universe just appeals to me. I even live in the large “small” town of Santa Barbara

When I first started shooting for travel magazines, small town assignments were actually a little intimidating. What should I photograph? Who should I photograph? Where in town should I shoot? As it turned out, these were all the wrong questions to start with.

A photographer needs to be clear in their mind about what is important or unusual about the location. What makes that town unique? What makes it worth exploring? That is the most critical first step. Once I answered that one simple question, everything fell into place.

Bar Stools, Union Hotel, Los Alamos

Farm tractor bar stools in the Union Hotel in Los Alamos

The answer to that question supplies the framework for my photo shoots and frees me up to have fun while capturing the images I need for my client. That one step narrows the focus of my shoot to a manageable range of subjects and eliminates the worry that I am missing something.

I often find that students in my class “Location Photo Shoots With A Pro” often go through the same anguishing process. Our first job when we arrive at a location is answering that question of what is unusual about this small town, not what do we shoot. And don’t think this restricts what a photographer can shoot. In my classes, the answer to what do we shoot is merely a framework for each photographer. It’s amazing how many different ways a single theme can be interpreted by talented individuals.

Rusty antique farm machinery

Rusty antique farm machinery in Los Alamos

Last year we visited the Western town of Los Alamos in the Santa Ynez Valley above Santa Barbara. It’s a very small town, but in recent years restaurants and wine tasting rooms have appeared in some of the old false front buildings. The historic Union Hotel and Bar has long been the main attraction for visitors there, along with a selection of antique shops. We quickly decided that we would try to create images that stressed that old Western feel, whether a new restaurant or rusting farm machinery out in front of the towns old railroad freight depot.

Bell Street Farm Restaurant

Bell Street Farm restaurant and server in Los Alamos

This shoot was both an adventure and challenging all at the same time. Some participants concentrated on the old architecture and one produced abstracts of the old farm machinery. I photographed the blending of old and new as tourism slowly transformed the town. Developing our own assignments covering one small location made the process exciting and forced us to become more thoughtful photographers.

Wine Tasting Rooms

Wine tasting rooms in Los Alamos

As I mentioned in a previous post, give yourself assignments that require you to grow as a photographer. And don’t forget the most important aspect of photography. If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it all wrong!

Let us know in the Leave A Reply section below if you have a favorite small town that you have enjoyed photographing. Thanks.


Backlit California poppies in bloom

The 2 Big Hurdles To Creating Amazing Backlit Photographs

In our last post, “The 4 Advantages Of Photographic Backlighting”, we discussed how backlighting helps control contrast in a scene, creates beautiful rim lighting effects, enhances color of translucent subjects and helps models relax in front of the camera by eliminating the need to squint into the sun. In this post, we’ll go over some of the pitfalls of backlighting and how to work around them.

fisherman rim lit with backlighting

A fisherman on the beach is rim lit with backlighting

Camera metering is the first issue, and it can be a bit tricky. Placing the sun behind your subject can fool your camera into thinking there is more light on your main subject than there really is and causing it to underexpose. It’s all that light flooding around the sides of your subject. The trick is to either move closer to your foreground subject or zoom in so that no backlight shines on the front element of your lens. Fill the frame with your subject, blocking out direct sunlight, and take a meter reading. Move back to your original position, recompose and shoot using the same exposure. Your camera will probably be shouting at you that you are overexposing, but just ignore that. This technique guarantees that the shadow side of your subject is properly exposed.

Metering is much trickier when photographing backlit translucent subjects. In the case of wildflower petals, fall leaves or colorful sailboat spinnakers, you must override your meter and overexpose the subject. Don’t hesitate to open up, or overexpose, one to two stops to correct for the backlighting. It all depends on how translucent your subject is. Watch your histogram and push the highlights right to the edge of clipping.

desert flowers lit with backlighting

brittlebush flowers and cholla cactus are lit with backlighting

The second hurdle is to block direct sunlight from hitting the front element of your lens during exposure. Sun bouncing around inside your lens creates flair, a kind of fog that degrades contrast, color and detail in an image. It can also appear as spots of light, depending on the aperture setting for that exposure. Generally you want to avoid flair, but there are times when the effects of flair can be used to create a type of hazy atmosphere—a warm summer day kind of feel.

Lens flair adds atmosphere

Lens flair adds atmosphere at an afternoon Farmers Market

The easiest way to avoid flair is to place your subject directly in front of the light source. Blocking or diffusing the light reduces the intensity and cuts out flair. A subject can also be positioned so that the sun is in a quarter backlit position, either to the right or left behind your subject. In this case, the lens shade that comes with a lens will often do the job of blocking direct sunlight, keeping an image flair-free. When shooting landscapes with my camera mounted on a tripod, a hat or a gray card often does a great job of shading my lens.

One of my first lenses was an ancient Kodak Ektar, mounted on a 4×5 camera, that exploded with flair any time the sun was positioned even slightly in front of the camera. Modern lenses have coated elements that eliminate a lot of flair, but not that Ektar. It was a curse, but I quickly got expert at shading my lens during exposure. The beauty of backlit images quickly made up for the hassle of working with that lens.

Controlling contrast, adding golden rim light and increasing color saturation all guarantee that your backlit photographs will be the most dramatic images of the day. Give it a try, but watch that flair!