The Francisco Peaks and Wupatki National Monument using a 300mm telephoto lens.

Telephoto Camera Lenses: 3 Essential Techniques For Producing Powerful Images

Text & Photos by Chuck Place©

One of my favorite lenses is my Canon 300mm f2.8 telephoto. Sure, it’s big, it’s heavy and it’s really pricy. And although I only occasionally photograph sports or wildlife, the most popular subjects for these big telephotos, the images I create with that lens are always captivating. Let me walk you through the 3 techniques I employ most often when shooting with a telephoto lens. Let’s see if you agree?

Reach, Isolate or Compress—those are the 3 main reasons to own a telephoto lens. 

Long lenses, or telephotos, have a narrower field of vision than a normal lens. This narrowing or cropping of our normal field of vision effectively magnifies the objects or main subjects in our image.

Bull rider in a rodeo captured with 300mm lens
Bull rider action in a rodeo photographed with a Canon 300mm f2.8 lens

This, of course, leads us to the main use of telephoto lenses—reaching out to fill the frame with our main subject. This creates the effect of placing the viewer right in the action, whether it is a young bull rider in a rodeo hanging on for dear life or a sailboat crew hustling to set a spinnaker during a race in San Francisco Bay. 

sailboat race photographed with 70--200mm f2.8 zoom lens
sailboat race action photographed with 70–200mm f2.8 zoom lens

Telephoto lenses come in a range of focal lengths and in both fixed focal lengths, like the 300mm lens, and various zoom configurations. My go-to telephoto lens for events like the Tournament of Roses Parade is a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens. It covers short to medium telephoto ranges and gives me the ability to change the degree of magnification so that I can move in tight on an amazing parade float while cropping out distractions like the parade crowds.

Tournament of Roses Parade photographed with a 70-200mm zoom lens
Float in the Tournament of Roses Parade photographed with a 70-200mm zoom lens

It is also possible to increase the focal length of a telephoto by placing a teleconverter between the camera body and lens. Mine converts my 300mm to a 420mm telephoto that can transport a viewer twenty feet up in a tree to view, up close, one of the Monarch butterfly migration roosting sites here in California.

Monarch butterflies photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens
Monarch butterflies photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens and teleconverter

Having that kind of reach for a photographer is invaluable.

Reach is only one aspect of a telephoto, however. The ability of a telephoto to isolate a subject is not only a function of reach but often depth of field as well. It’s no accident that both of my telephoto lenses are f2.8 lenses, capable of creating images with very shallow depth of field. Picking out a single dancer at a Cinco de Mayo celebration has more impact if the surrounding area is softened with very shallow depth of field. 

dancer photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens
Cinco de Mayo dancer photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens

Also keep in mind that the longer the telephoto focal length, the softer the background becomes. For this very reason, telephoto lenses are often used to produce portraits with very soft, buttery backgrounds, creating a wonderful separation between subject and background.

portrait created with a 300mm telephoto lens
portrait created with a 300mm telephoto lens in a grassy meadow

The third creative technique for which I employ a telephoto lens is compression. 

Unlike a wide angle lens, which creates a feeling of greater depth in a scene, a telephoto lens has the ability to pull the distant components of a scene closer to the foreground subjects, compressing the distance between near and far objects. I find this technique especially powerful for visually linking two distant subjects into a single storyline.

A 300mm telephoto lens was used to connect the ruins of an ancient pueblo in Wupatki National Monument, see the featured image above, with the distant San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona. The San Francisco Peaks are one of four peaks in this part of the Southwest considered sacred to the Navajo and other Native American groups. Located many miles apart, the long telephoto compressed the scene, producing a dramatic image with a strong storyline connecting the two sites.

Golden Gate Bridge photographed with a 70-200mm zoom lens
Golden Gate Bridge photographed at 200mm setting with a 70-200mm zoom lens

Use a telephoto lens to combine the Golden Gate Bridge and the skyline of San Francisco or a snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains Peak and the Alabama Hills framing the foreground. In each case, compressing the distance between near and far subjects creates the dramatic visual storyline that we strive to produce.

Sierra Nevada Mountains was photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens
Sierra Nevada Mountains with Alabama Hills in foreground was photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens

Next time you are out shooting with your telephoto lens, keep in mind that your lens can do much more than just reach out to capture a subject. Open your aperture to its widest setting and try separating your subject from the background with shallow depth of field. 

And don’t forget the compression effect. Line up two distant but related objects in your frame and stop down the aperture for maximum depth of field. Use your telephoto’s ability to compress a scene and create a unique storyline.

If you are only using your telephoto to reach out to a subject, you are missing out on much of the potential of that lens. Try these techniques to expand the creative possibilities of these long lenses. You may be surprised at what you can create.

 


Forced perspective wide angle lens image

3 Exciting Ways To Use Wide Angle Camera Lenses To Capture The Adventure Of Life

My favorite lens is my 24mm-70mm f2.8 Canon Zoom Lens. I use it to create a vast majority of my images and often shoot at either end of its zoom range. It’s my “walking around” lens and the most versatile lens that I own. I tend to keep it set on a wide angle setting which I use more often than the longer focal lengths. Wide angle images are just more fun.

Vineyard photographed with a 24mm wide angle lens at sunrise.
Vineyard photographed with a 24mm wide angle lens at sunrise.

I work with full-chip bodies, meaning the sensor is the same size as original 35mm film, and a normal focal length lens on my camera is 50mm. This covers the same angle of view as human vision and anything with a wider angle of view is considered a wide angle lens. If you shoot a small-chip body, a normal lens is more like 38mm and anything wider is a wide angle lens.

Scenic 24mm wide angle lens image of Monte Alban Archeological Zone
Scenic 24mm wide angle lens image of Monte Alban Archeological Zone near Oaxaca, Mexico, during a storm.

OK. That gets rid of the technical definitions.

Personally, I don’t care about the technology. Everything in photography seems like magic to me. I only care that my equipment gives me the results that I visualized before hitting the shutter button. 

Vista Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, using a 28mm wide angle lens.
Vista of Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, using a 28mm wide angle lens.

Wide angle lenses do just what their name implies—they capture a wider angle of view than we can see without moving our head. The only part of this that captures my attention is how can that unique ability of the lens help me to create images with impact and a meaningful storyline? That’s all that matters, right? Let’s see what we can do.

You can break wide angle images down into 3 broad categories with the first being the most obvious—the sweeping scenic. 

28mm wide angle lens view of Badwater
28mm wide angle lens view of Badwater and the Panamint Range at sunrise, Death Valley National Park, California

Broad natural vistas such as National Park Viewing Points make beautiful wide angle images. The park terrain and features are dramatic and a wide angle zoom lens allows us to capture as much of the vista as we want. Add in great lighting or weather events and you have a great image. The same can be said for city views or even cloud patterns or lightning storms. This is often the first subject photographer’s capture using a wide angle lens.

28mmn wide angle lens is used to capture Island In The Sky
28mmn wide angle lens is used to capture Island In The Sky mesa at sunset, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Because wide angle lenses have “built in” depth of field and most objects are distant in a scenic, it isn’t necessary to stop down very far to get everything in focus. This is another advantage of these lenses.

Scenics, however, are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wide angle images.

A wide angle lens makes it possible to in tight spaces
A wide angle lens makes it possible to shoot inside of a hot air balloon.

Shooting in either a tight space, such as inside a hot air balloon, or in a situation where you can’t back up, such as a church plaza in a city in Mexico, often calls for a wide angle lens. This situation is especially common in architecture where it is often necessary to stop down your aperture further to get greater depth of field to keep everything sharp. 

Photographing a church plaza in Mexico with a wide angle lens.
Photographing a church plaza in Guanajuato, Mexico with a wide angle lens.

Another consideration is convergence. If you can keep your camera lens horizontal, vertical lines run straight up and down, but if you have to tilt your lens up slightly to capture the tops of buildings, vertical lines will converge. 

If this leaning in of buildings is too extreme, then it feels like the buildings are going to fall in on the viewer. Unless that is the effect you want, going to a wider focal length with its wider angle of view and stepping back a ways allows you to lower your lens into a more horizontal position reducing the effect of convergence. Conversely, if I am shooting down on a structure, like a huge multi-storied shopping mall in China, vertical lines will spread apart or diverge.

Shooting down on a mall with a wide angle lens
Shooting down on a mall with a wide angle lens in Guangzhou, China, creates divergence.

My favorite use of a wide angle lens involves the distortion properties of that type of lens. This is where a wide angle is really fun!

Forced perspective view of steam engines
Forced perspective view of steam engines at Golden Spike National Historic Site is created with a 28mm lens.

Forced perspective creates the illusion that a viewer can just about reach out and touch the foreground subject. This is especially effective in landscape photography, where desert wildflowers become huge in the foreground, or architecture, where the nearest structure becomes monumental relative to the rest of the scene. 

24mm image of dune primrose in desert.
24mm image of dune primrose in desert.

Forced Perspective is a powerful storytelling tool that I use often for impact and content.

Depth of field has a big impact in this kind of image. It is critical to pick the proper point of focus and stop down all the way to get maximum depth of field. Everything should be sharp, but especially the foreground subject. By exaggerating the wide angle distortion, you are telling a viewer that the foreground is the most important part of the image. Make sure you pick a dramatic foreground structure to support this effect. 

Victorian front porches are captured with a 24mm wide angle lens
Victorian front porches are captured with a 24mm wide angle lens positioned horizontally creating parallel vertical lines.

Practically every camera out there comes with a wide angle to short telephoto zoom lens. The wide angle range is much more than a tool to capture wide open spaces. Use it to create a sense of great depth or produce an image with a dramatic foreground. Work with the distortion and pump up the impact of your images. That is why wide angle lenses are fun, and in my view fun is the whole point of photography.

Try it out! 


Line of margaritas with soft background

Shallow Depth Of Field—Photography’s Most Powerful Technique

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

It has always seemed ironic to me that, as a professional photographer, the technique I use most often is something I can not see with my own eyes. Shallow depth of field is a product of camera optics and I can only “see” it as I previsualize an image and on the back of my camera, of course, after I shoot.

Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field
Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field

Shallow depth of field is such a powerful effect that I carry my camera with the lens set to f2.8, no matter what focal length lens I have mounted on my camera. I can always stop down the aperture for more depth of field if I need it—see my previous post—but most of the subjects I like to photograph appear best with shallow depth of field. People, food, flowers, wine—they all “pop” with shallow depth of field. 

Let’s start with “Why” we would use shallow depth of field and then get to the “How To”.

Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background
Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background of a busy Farmers Market

Shallow depth of field is used to separate our main subject from the background and sometimes even from the foreground. This sharply defined subject forces our viewers to focus on our main subject first and understand that the softly focused environment is secondary in importance to our main subject. It helps create a visual storyline, something I strive to create in all my images. 

If everything in the frame is sharp due to great depth of field, as in a landscape, a viewer tends to wander around the image visually and decides for themselves what is important and what isn’t. Leading lines and forced perspective can guide the viewer to some extent, but the photographer is telling their viewers that everything in the frame has equal importance. 

It all depends on your storyline!

Shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping
Very shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping on a chair

The first step in creating shallow depth of field is setting your lens to a wide aperture or f-stop. F2.8 to f4 or so will do the job and because these settings let in lots of light, a fast shutter speed is often necessary for a proper exposure. This is a bonus when photographing people, wildlife or sports.  

Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8
Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8

Shooting a longer focal length lens also help soften the background behind your subject. The longer the lens, the softer the background becomes. Keep in mind that wide angle lenses have built in depth of field and it is pretty tough to do a wide angle shot with shallow depth of field, even with your aperture wide open.

Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8
Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8

The last step is rather counter-intuitive but makes sense if you think it through. Move closer to your subject. As the camera to subject distance gets shorter, the camera to background distance becomes relatively greater and the background becomes softer. Try it and see. Keep in mind the focal length should remain the same and because of that you will need to crop tighter on your subject as you move closer.

Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field
Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field to separate it from the background dish

There you have it. For sharp subjects with soft, buttery backgrounds, open your aperture wide, shoot with a longer focal length lens and move closer to your subject. 

Whether you are photographing people portraits at a busy Farmer’s Market, creating the perfect image of a margarita in a crowded restaurant or capturing an intimate moment with the kitten your kids just brought home, shallow depth of field pulls your main subject out of the background with great visual  impact.  

Don’t you wish your own eyes could work that way? Give it time. They will.


When You Want It All–3 Steps To Maximize Depth Of Field

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

Back in the day when my students actually shot on location together, pre-virus, discussions on depth of field were a continual topic. This was partly because some my students had just moved away from full camera automation, the dreaded “P” setting for Program, and had tasked themselves with taking control of their camera. Using the class  recommended “Av” or “A” setting, Aperture Priority, photographers have to manually set the aperture, or f-stop, and the camera picks the shutter speed for the exposure. The “A” setting not only controls exposure but also depth of field and that is where the confusion often erupted.

Keet Seel Ruins, Anasazi Indian, Navajo National Monument, Arizona

Now, if you have ever taken one of my classes, you know I stress the need to create a storyline with each image we create. Photography provides a wide range of tools with which to fine tune our storyline, including light quality, composition, lens focal length and many others. Arguably the most powerful tool in our shop, however, is the ability to control depth of field.

Depth of field is defined as the area of an image in front of and behind the plane of focus that is sharp. By changing the aperture setting, or f-stop, we control how much of our image is sharp and how much is soft. Because sharp detail is one of the components of an image that attracts a viewer’s attention first, this ability to guide the viewer’s eye gives photographers a powerful tool with which to show an audience what we feel is the most important aspect of an image. Every photographic decision we make impacts our storyline.

Spanish Church of San Buenaventura, Gran Quivira, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, New Mexico, United States of America

So, why would you want to make sure everything in your image is sharp? Landscapes are a popular subject where pretty much everything in the image has equal value, from the foreground to the background. Composition may be used to emphasize some component of the scene, but if everything is sharp, the photographer is indicating to the viewer that every aspect of the scene is equally important. Architecture is often handled the same way.

Mission Santa Barbara and the Rose Garden, Santa Barbara, California

Maybe you have a subject within a larger environment. If everything is sharp, you are telling the viewer that both the main subject and the environment are equally important to your storyline.

Let’s look at the 3 techniques we use to create extreme depth of field.

#1 The first, and most obvious step, is stopping down the lens aperture. Remember how apertures work? The higher the aperture number, say f-16 to f-22, gives you the smallest lens opening and the greatest depth of field. This is why we need to take over setting the aperture on our camera so that we can control the amount of depth of field created by our aperture or f-stop setting. In this case, stopping down to f-22 gives us lots of depth.

Piedras Blancas Light Station, San Simeon, California

#2 The second step is choosing a lens focal length. Wide angle lenses have depth built in and the wider the lens, the greater the built-in depth of field. This is not to say that a normal or telephoto lens can not achieve extreme depth, but a wide angle lens can achieve this depth even at midrange aperture settings of f-8 or so.

cow skull on The Racetrack, Death Valley National Park, California

#3 The third step is a little trickier to understand. The greater the camera to subject distance, the easier it is to achieve great depth of field. As you move farther from your main subject, the difference between camera to subject distance and camera to background distance becomes less, making it easier to get maximum depth of field. If you move closer to your main subject, the difference between the two distances becomes greater and both smaller aperture and wider lens may be necessary to achievee the proper depth.

Santa Ynez Valley, California

There you have it. The three tools for creating extensive depth of field in an image are smaller lens aperture, wider focal length lens and greater camera to subject distance. But remember, you need a reason to keep your background as sharp as your subject. Know what you want to say about a subject or location and then create the necessary amount of depth of field. This is a fluid system in which depth of field is almost always your first decision. Take control by setting your camera to “A “ or “Av”, Aperture Priority, and set your lens aperture appropriately. All of this is just a bunch of words, of course, until you set your camera to “A” and start adjusting your depth of field as you shoot.

“You don’t take a photograph. You make it.” Ansel Adams

Our next post will be geared towards creating shallow depth of field, a great technique for separating your subject from the background. Coming soon.


Processed RAW file

RAW Files vs JPEG–Photography’s Format Battle

RAW file versus JPEG? Which is the best image format? Well, I have found that it really depends on a number of variables. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a look at both.

Original unprocessed RAW file

Original unprocessed RAW file of image above exposed for maximum data capture

Do you want large prints of your work to hang over the living room couch? Starting with a RAW file and creating a derivative high-res TIFF file will give you the best quality prints.

RAW files capture the maximum amount of raw data that reaches your camera’s chip. Although RAW files are slightly compressed during capture, RAW files use lossless compression so no data is lost. You can’t print directly from a RAW file or post it on the web. They are large files and must be used to create derivative files such as high-res TIFFs for printing or low-res JPEGs for the web.

RAW files provide maximum data

RAW files provide maximum data for producing large prints

Did you get some great shots of your daughter’s soccer game over the weekend and want to post them to the family Facebook page? JPEGs are the format you want for anything on the web.

JPEG files are also compressed during capture, but the process uses lossy compression. Due to a greater amount of compression, JPEG files are much smaller than RAW files, which is critical for any image posted to the internet. These small files load quickly on the web, but do not have the amount of image information that a RAW file imparts to a high-res TIFF. In addition, image data is lost each time you save a JPEG due to the compression process, so a high-res TIFF is a better choice if you plan to retouch or manipulate an image to any degree.

RAW file of fitness studio processed for edgy, desaturated look

RAW file of fitness studio processed for edgy, desaturated look

Most cameras come set from the manufacturer for JPEG capture.

This is fine if you don’t do any processing of your image files or if you shoot strictly for your social media, website or blog. These files will also work well for prints in the 11×14 range or smaller. You can go into your camera menu and set the JPEG quality for high, which gives you a better quality file with less compression, and you can adjust the degree of saturation as well. A camera can also capture JPEG files faster than RAW files, making this a good format choice for sports or wildlife photographers working with motion and high-speed motor drives.

JPEG files of sailboat race action

JPEG files would be a better format for high-speed capture of the action in a sailboat race

If you have started processing your files in Lightroom or Photoshop, however, shooting RAW files is a much better choice.

The depth of information in a RAW file makes it possible to alter the basic image in a wide range of directions without the image breaking down. RAW files have so much information that you can push those pixels all over the place.

RAW file vs JPEG file

The RAW file on the left and the JPEG on the right, shot at the same time, are quite similar

If you are just starting to learn how to process your images for greater impact, but you still feel more comfortable with JPEGs, open your camera menu and set your camera to capture both JPEG and RAW files for each image. This gives you a finished JPEG to use immediately and a RAW file to process into an image that has your stamp on it. If you are serious about image quality and don’t need to capture multiple images quickly, set your camera to RAW format. You can then create JPEG or TIFF files on demand, depending on the planned use of each image.

Maybe you want a unique “look” to define your style.

This is quite common among portrait or food photographers. Much of their distinctive “look” is created in post-production. Some photographers even sell groups of presets for use with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop that create certain contrast and toning effects. All of this requires image files that have large amounts of data—a RAW file.

Normally processed RAW file and cooler version using a plug-in on the right

Normally processed RAW file of risotto balls on the left and cooler version using a preset on the right

In many ways, Ansel Adams started this trend with his Zone System. It was essentially a system used to manipulate black and white images. Imagine what he would think of being able to process RAW files in Lightroom or Photoshop? I’m sure he would be fascinated to see the variety of images that can be produced from a single RAW File—essentially a digital negative.

If you are interested in learning more about RAW files, processing in Adobe Ligfhtroom and a whole lot more, please join my free Santa Barbara City College Non-Credit Classes “Digital Cameras Digital Photos” starting May 22 and July 8. This is an online class using Zoom for teleconferencing. These classes are a great way to take your photography to the next level while still sheltering in place. It’s a great use of all this down time and you will have new photography skills to try out when we are done with this virus. Hope to see you online this summer.


Black and White photograph of Taos, Pueblo

Stunning Architecture Photography In Black And White

Text and Photos by Chuck Place©

Architecture is one of those photographic subjects that cries out to be captured in black and white. Composed of shapes, texture and light with little inherent color, architectural images often turn quite dramatic when color is stripped away.

Black and White photograph of Walt Disney Concert Hall at dusk

Black and White photograph of Walt Disney Concert Hall at dusk

It’s almost as if the building’s soul is revealed when photographed in black and white.

The choices I make in processing architecture images into b&w are highly subjective, of course. For black and white architecture images, I prefer more contrast than in my landscape images and more emphasis on texture than in my tight portraits.

I’m not trying to sell real estate. I’m selling drama and impact.

The inherent sculptural quality of a structure is what I am actually trying to illustrate. Sometime approaching a building as an abstract object can be interesting, as in the case of Southwest and Pueblo adobe buildings. The texture of the adobe (see above) is as important as defining the massive planes of this traditional style of architecture.

Black and White photograph the church at Rancho de Taos, New Mexico

Black and White photograph the church at Rancho de Taos, New Mexico

At the other end of the scale are sleek, modern buildings like the abstract Walt Disney Concert Hall, especially fun while shooting with a Lensbaby, which is designed to distort reality.

Black and white photograph of abstract building detail using a Lensbaby

Black and white photograph of abstract building detail using a Lensbaby

Often, details of a structure can tell the viewer as much about a building as an overview.

I find this especially true in the case of older styles of architecture, like Victorian, and buildings from other cultures like China. Details can be interesting just because we often tend not to focus on them when visiting a site.

Black and white photograph of the details of a Victorian church

Black and white photograph of the details of a Victorian church

Black and white photograph of traditional Chinese architecture

Black and white photograph of traditional Chinese architecture

Whether your favored architectural subject is a lonely church out in the middle of the Western plains or a busy multi-storied mall with levels that look like the ribs of a gigantic creature, converting your color architecture image to black and white will visually pare the subject down to its elemental components and reveal the true personality of a building.

Black and white photograph of solitary church in the West

Black and white photograph of solitary church in the West

Photographing a piece of architecture in black and white is rather like creating an insightful portrait of a person, only it doesn’t fidget as much.

Black and white photograph of a modern shopping mall

Black and white photograph of a modern shopping mall

Check out  Black and White Photography Conversions and  Black and White People Photography on this site and for more photo classes, check out my Spring 2020 class schedules in the Non-Credit Program at Santa Barbara City College. Thanks.

Chuck Place


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.


Un-cropped winter mountain range

Fill The Frame For Greater Visual Impact

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Famous war photographer Robert Capa once said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” I came across that quote early in my career and soon realized the truth of that statement.

Snowy mountain peak cropped tight with long lens.

Snowy mountain peak cropped tight with long lens.

Adapting that approach to my own work, I have found that to increase impact, crop tighter.

Original beach sunset before cropping.

Original beach sunset before cropping.

Sounds simple, right? But what about all that other stuff you want to keep in the frame? Do you really need all that? Does it make your message stronger? Sometimes less is actually more, as they say.

Cropped beach sunset for greater impact.

Cropped beach sunset for greater impact.

Often, I find my students loosely cropping an image. When asked why, I find they aren’t totally sure what constitutes the main subject. Another famous photo quote, this one by Ansel Adams, is “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Farmers Market vendor with lots of produce.

Farmers Market vendor with lots of produce.

The first step in creating any image is knowing what you want to say about a subject or location. Be clear in your own mind what is important and what is secondary. Then make it clear to your viewer by cropping out most of the secondary material.

Farmers Market vendor cropped tight in camera.

Farmers Market vendor cropped tight in camera.

Cropping tight and filling the frame increases the impact of your image and makes it easy for your audience to “read” your message about the location or subject.

Chinese tourist films Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Chinese tourist films Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the environment around a subject is as important as the subject itself. I would hate to crop out the Forbidden City in the above image. But if you feel like some of your photographs seem a little flat or dull, try cropping tighter in post-production. Experiment with it and if you like the results, you will soon find yourself cropping tighter in-camera. That’s when you will realize that your work has taken another big step up in mastering the power of photography.


Photo Capture–Only Half The Battle

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Today’s photography software is amazing, especially post-production software like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom. Capturing an image is now only the first step in producing a finished photograph. How an image is processed can either emphasize what was obvious in the original capture or change it completely.

Standard processing of the original RAW file

Standard processing of the original RAW file

Ironically, we have traveled a long way to end up with a process similar to long-established black & white darkroom printing techniques. Change the contrast and exposure—no problem. Dodge and burn selective areas of an image—done and done. Now we have even greater control and we can manipulate color at both the global and localized level as well. All this processing power can be daunting and I have found that if I can pre-visualize the final image during capture, post-production goes quite smoothly.

That’s right, I shoot specifically for post-production.

Processing RAW file for an edgy look with Lightroom settings visible

Processing RAW file for an edgy look with Lightroom settings visible

The image above illustrates this process. This fitness studio caters to a certain age range of clients and the windows look out on a parking lot. The model was lit with a large softbox but I allowed the view out the window to over expose. The soft light was flattering to my subject and the blown out windows produced a high key feel to the setting while hiding all the cars.

Using my standard Develop settings in Lightroom, Clarity at 25 and Vibrance at 35, the image turned out as my client and I expected. Wanting to give my client some choices, I also processed this image with an edgier look, setting Clarity to 100 and Vibrance to -55. This look appeals to a younger audience. See the screen shot above.

Processing for normal black & white using Lightroom b&W preset

Processing for normal black & white using Lightroom b&W preset

We could have gone with a basic black & white look as well, or even a high key black & white treatment. Lightroom has a set of black & white presets and you can then alter those settings as your vision dictates.

Processing a high-key black & white image using a Lightroom preset as a starting point

Processing a high-key black & white image using a Lightroom preset as a starting point

One of the brilliant aspects of Lightroom is that it is a non-destructive software. For each unique version you create from a single image, Lightroom merely creates a low-res preview file. The original is never altered. Only when you export a file is a whole new derivative file created. Every version of your original image is saved as a text file that records the processing steps, saving tons of disk space. Brilliant!

How do you learn to pre-visualize a certain look that you create in post-production? Well, you have to play with images in Lightroom. Have fun trying out different slider combinations. Find a look that speaks to you and works well with the subjects you like to photograph.

I even have different Lightroom settings depending on whether the original RAW file comes from my Canon cameras or my DJI drone.

Remember, if you haven’t begun to master post-production, you are only working with half the available photography tools out there. If you want to get a better feel for what is possible using Lightroom, look into my Santa Barbara City College Non-Credit Class “Digital Cameras Digital Photos” or Bruce Burkhardt’s SBCC Non-Credit Class “Adobe Lightroom Essentials”. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.