Tag Archives: failure

Do Not Make Excuses

Let’s talk about art. Fine art photography to be exact.

To be honest, I don’t quite understand the meaning of art. Some people say that art is this or that. There are several interpretations and opinions on this terminology. Some are even conflicting. Well maybe it does not mean anything in particular and people are just naturally argumentative.

I do know what I like in fine art photography and I do have my own (strong) opinion on what is good art. Examples of the type of photos that I truly appreciate are those that you find in http://1x.com. I could literally spend the whole day just looking at the fantastic shots on that website. I admire the likes of Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson as well as the modern photographers Ken Duncan and Peter Lik. I have contacts in Flickr and close friends who are very very good photographers.

What do I like about their photographs? It’s quite difficult to explain. I could start discussing about the techniques of composition that they use, the mood, the colors, the contrast. The problem with such kind of an explanation is that I am using the components of art to explain art which is a bit of a circular argument. It is the kind of explanation that can be easily refuted by silly arguments such as “does that mean that a crappy photograph captured by a monkey isn’t art?”.

So let me try to explain good art by using something that everyone can appreciate. Good art requires EFFORT.

It is very easy to make bad photos. Anyone can do it. But it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to create a pulitzer.

Anyone can sing, in tune or otherwise, but it takes effort to be like Frank Sinatra.

A lot of people laughed at the Gursky photograph that sold for $4.2M because they think that any mortal could have captured it. The reason it sold for that much was because of the name behind the photograph. It took time and tremendous effort for Gursky to make a name for himself. Because of his name, critics will also make an effort to explain why the photograph works instead of dismissing it as something very ordinary. If I had captured that shot, people would still probably buy it just for the frame if the price is right. See the difference?

Some “photographers” say that my art is too rigid. That I follow rules too strictly or that I am too dogmatic. Well they are right. There is a reason for that. I have set my own goals in photography. I would like to become the next Ken Duncan or Ansel Adams. It takes enormous TIME and EFFORT to get there yet there is no guarantee of success. I am just starting out. I still have a very long way to go.

Consider yourself for a moment. What do you hope to achieve? The fact that you are reading my blog probably means that you should try your best to follow the basic rules of photography before breaking them.

Anyone can make bad photographs. I have been there and I still continue to make bad shots intentionally or unknowingly. I am not an expert. Far from it. But I do make an effort to make pleasing photographs.

Just because art is a word that has no concrete definition does not give you an excuse to make bad photos. A bad photo is a bad photo. Call it art if you like but I have much bigger dreams and will not tolerate your quest for mediocrity.

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Some Thoughts on HDR

When I started doing serious photography around mid of 2009, HDR was kind of the latest craze. My reaction when I first saw HDR images was one of amazement. I never expected photographs to be so vibrant and detailed. HDR images looked surreal I just had to try making one myself.

Looking back, I have now understood why I was bewitched by those out-of-this-world photographs. There were several reasons I can think of:

1. I have never seen fine art photographs. Paintings, yes but never photographs. I blame my art subjects because they never discussed photography as an art form.

2. I was used to taking snapshots with film cameras. I did own several point-and-shoot digital cameras but they were there just to record personal experiences.

3. I have never attempted to retouch my photos. I thought that if my photos sucked then maybe I just don’t know how to capture them.

4. I didn’t understand the art of photography. I did not understand light and exposure. I didn’t think about composition.

I thank HDR for making me appreciate fine art photography. Without it, I probably would have continued being just a casual shooter.

Fast forward to the present, I can say that I have been exposed to all sorts of fine art photographs and have learned to appreciate most of them. I now have a bit of understanding on the role of light, even its absence, in creating pleasing photographs. I still struggle with composition and sometimes it is quite frustrating when I come back from a photoshoot with barely any keepers.

So what has this got to do with HDR?

I have realized that the best photographs are the simple ones. The lesser the clutter, the better they are. Most of the time.

So again, what has this got to do with HDR?

A photograph, ideally, must have a single subject. Everything in the frame must contribute to that single message. I once read in a book that before you click the shutter, SIMPLIFY first. You know that a photograph is finished when there is nothing more that you can remove from the frame.

Here lies the problem with a lot of HDR images: they show details all over the frame even in the shadow areas. The argument behind these HDR images is that the photographer wanted to recreate the dynamic range of human vision; there are details everywhere. No blown highlights, no black shadows. (Taken to the extreme, the resulting image becomes flat and lacks contrast. To counter this massive drop in overall contrast, some photographers mindlessly increase local contrast to create details. The result of which is the haloing effect.)

This, I believe, is a result of failing to understand how humans SEE. Humans have very narrow field of focus. If you stretch your arms out and spread your fingers, you could not focus on both your thumb and pinky. Your eyes actually roam around very quickly, gathering details along the way and the brain assembles all the separate data into a cohesive whole. There is no confusion.

Compare this to a frame of photograph where the eye is focused only on a relatively small area. If there are details all throughout the frame, the brain gets confused because the entire view is now crammed into such a small space. By presenting details in both highlights and shadow areas, the brain could no longer concentrate on one subject. This makes the photograph overly complicated and cluttered.

Basic rules of composition, if you believe that there is such a thing, tell you to arrange the elements in a frame in such a way that the main subject becomes the center of attention. Every other element in that frame must not contest the significance of the main subject. The brightest area of the frame catches the eye first so usually this is where you position your subject. By unnecessarily showing details in the shadow areas, you force the viewer to divert his attention away from the subject.

Another example is the basic composition technique of using frames: e.g. a tree in the foreground that frames a house which is the main subject. This “frame” is supposed to force the viewer to concentrate on the house. Improper use of HDR will show details on the tree thus diverting the eye from the house.

HDR is not a bad technique. Sometimes, it is even necessary. It is the improper use of HDR that makes weak photographs. I’m not referring to cartoonish HDRs (they are a completely different level of bad photos) but even “realistic” HDRs can be harmful to your art. Just be careful.

Welcome to My Playground


This is the title that I gave to the photograph which I posted in Flickr. I chose the word playground to portray fun and joy. For me, fun should always come first in photography.

But what does it take to capture such a simple photograph?

The main ingredient is light. Photography, afterall, means painting with light. Not just light intensity or brightness but the quality of light as well. In landscape photography, there are two choices: dawn or dusk. Anything in between is just a variation of the word CRAP. Dawn and dusk have different qualities of light. When you are in the east coast and facing east, dawn will give you a warm orange light while dusk gives a cooler magenta glow. If you are in the west, it’s the opposite. Depending on your location or the time of year, you can have both at the same time. The photo below was taken at dawn as well but notice the magenta tint:


Shooting at dawn has several advantages compared to dusk. People are generally too lazy to wake up early which means you have the entire spot all to yourself. No distractions. For those who have day jobs it means you can still shoot during weekdays especially during summer where a typical session ends around 5:30AM. You’ll be home before the rest of your household is awake.

Dusk sessions have advantages as well. You can shoot longer even up until blue hour kicks in and get nice long exposures. Cityscapes look fantastic when artificial lights turn on.

Anyway, let’s concentrate on the first photo. I woke up at around 3:30AM to prepare myself. My friend’s house is still a 20-minute drive to my place where we agreed to meet. While waiting for him, I started putting on my ski gear because it was just 6 degrees outside. I checked the weather report again to make sure that our target location is free of any weather disturbances. If we suspect heavy clouds then we may need to divert to Cedar Creek instead to capture the waterfalls. The day before, I already knew the tide pattern so Point Halloran was the perfect spot. The tide will be high enough to give us some reflections but low enough such that the small boats won’t move. Timing should be perfect. If the tide comes in too quick before sunrise then our plans are ruined.

My friend arrived around 4:20AM. That’s the advantage of shooting in winter. The sun rises at 6:30AM so we didn’t have to wake up that early. During summer we usually start driving at 3:00 AM for a 5:00AM sunrise. Anyway, we left for Point Halloran and arrived at around 5:45AM. Being on location 45 minutes before sunrise is just right. One hour would be ideal so that you can scout the area. Because we were “late”, we had to rush and start shooting whatever subject we could find.

Let’s talk about equipment. A tripod is essential. Don’t leave home without it. A torch is very handy so you can find your way in the dark. I also brought my gummy boots because I know that the location is quite muddy. My trusty Pentax K5 is fully charged with the initial ISO set to 200 and configured to capture RAW plus JPG. I only have one lens: a cheap Sigma 17-70 which you could buy brand new for a little over $300. I had a cheap 0.9 GND filter attached to a knock-off filter holder. Don’t bother using a UV filter; it’s the most useless accessory you could buy for your lens. Use a proper lens cover instead and a lens hood if you are concerned about scratching your lens. Now that I have enumerated my gear, the point is that ANY camera and kit lens will do. There is absolutely no need for expensive gear in landscape photography.

So what did actually happen when I captured this moment? I was taking photos of a boat that was docked along the muddy shore. I was shooting wide at 17mm, aperture set to f16 and manually focused to 7 feet with exposure compensation set to +1. I was about to change position when I saw my friend about 20 meters away taking photos along the edge of the water. I immediately recognized the photo opportunity. I quickly opened my aperture to f11 and zoomed in to 70mm which was the longest my lens could go. It was just long enough to get a nice compression. I also had to raise my tripod to avoid his silhouette from merging with the horizon. I immediately thought about my composition. I had him positioned on the left third of the frame with the silhouette of the shoreline going from the bottom of the frame towards the horizon. The horizon was placed high enough but also making sure that my friend’s reflection is positioned nicely along the lower third of the frame. I then set my camera to autofocus and shifted the focus sensor to point at my friend. This was the quickest way to focus at infinity. Unlike older lenses that lock into infinity, modern (crippled) lenses don’t do this. Instead they focus past infinity and completely ruin your shot. Knowing that it’s going to be a silhouette shot, I dialed exposure compensation down to -0.5 to make the colors pop and darken the darkest blacks. I did one last peek to check my shutter speed and noticed that it wasn’t fast enough. So I shouted at him “Wag kang gumalaw!”, which is Filipino for “Don’t move!”. I pressed the shutter and my timer automatically started the 2-second countdown. Just before the timer expired, the camera flipped the mirror into a lock up position before finally opening the shutter curtain to capture the image. All of these happened in about 15-20 seconds. I chimped to confirm that the camera did what it was supposed to do and told my friend that he can continue whatever he was doing…after thanking him of course for being a cooperative model 🙂

I would like to emphasize the importance of an inexpensive kit lens here. Had I used an ultrawide lens, I would not have been able to capture this shot. Those distant mountains would have disappeared in an ultrawide lens and the horizon would have merged with my subject unless I shot from a very high position. If I brought a prime lens, I may had to swap lenses thus totally missing the opportunity or walked very slowly in the mud towards or away from the subject just to frame him correctly. Your kit lens is good enough for just about anything.

We started packing up at around 7AM with several keepers safely stored in our cameras.

Post processing is easy when you have done the difficult part of capturing the moment. A simple curves adjustment to enhance the contrast was enough. I did not crop at all. This is how it showed up in the LCD. I softened the image a bit to avoid halos along the edges of high contrast portions of the image. This halo effect is an artifact of digital capture. All my digital cameras do this. If you want to avoid this artifact, shoot film.

What do I like about this shot? I like the silhouette figures. The silhouette of the shoreline added depth to an otherwise flattened image that was brought about by the mid telephoto zoom. The main subject of course is shown here in a position typical of landscape photographers; bent over holding a leash to make sure that their cameras don’t run away. The mix of warm colors and cool blue foreground was a welcome surprise. I liked it a lot so I put my stamp of approval on the lower right portion of the frame 🙂

Allow me to summarize this post:

1. Light is everything.
2. Shoot at dawn/sunrise or dusk/sunset. Anything in between is crap unless you have something very special in the frame.
3. Preparation will consume most of your time.
4. You have to think fast and react just as fast. Which means …
5. Know your camera. Pick one that does not get in the way. You should be able to operate it even in complete darkness.
6. You do not need expensive equipment for landscape photography.
7. Laziness will get you nowhere.

For lessons on lens compression and zoom factor please refer to my previous tutorials:

Understanding your lens

Zoom factor

Stop Shooting Flowers

Ok, this post would probably hit some sensitive nerves but whatever. Anyway, I’m just voicing out my opinion based on observation and experience so it’s up to you whether to take it seriously or not.

If you want to develop real photography skills, stop shooting flowers.

That’s not say that flower shots are bad. In fact some of them are really good. Actually, it is very easy to get good flower shots. Anyone can do it that is why they are usually the shots n00bs make during their formative years.

Set your camera to auto mode and get as close to the flower as what your lens allows and trip the shutter. That’s all it takes to photograph a flower. No need for composition really. A flower dead center in the frame will still look nice. All you need to worry about is getting the focus right. Easy.

So if you really want to learn photography, stop shooting flowers. Your shots will suck but that will force you to learn how to improve them.

Let me suggest a starting point:

Do still life photography in the comfort of your house. Use natural light. Positioning your subject next to a large window will give you that nice soft light. You can use white paper as reflectors. In short, you will learn how light interacts with your subject and proper exposure. Don’t just shoot a solitary object. Use multiple objects and arrange them so you will learn the basics of composition. Use different focal lengths. To get a noise-free shot, you probably would need to use a tripod so you can shoot at low ISO and avoid blur caused by camera shake. Later on you can incorporate the use of strobes or flash.

This still life study will prepare you for landscape photography. Why am I not suggesting landscape as a starting point? Because you do not have control of the light. To have a better chance of getting good light means being on location at least 30 minutes before and after sunrise or sunset. Any other time means ugly cold light. Being in the right location at the right time does not guarantee good light though so it is still a hit or miss situation. If you are persistent, mother nature might reward your efforts. Such is the joy of landscape photography.

You may want to do portraiture next. Portraiture has different challenges although it is very similar to still life photography. The biggest hurdle is that your subject can now complain. Everyone wants to look good on camera even if it they have a face that only their mother can love. It means you will need to master the art of photo retouching. You will have to pixel peep like never before. Your friends may ask you to shoot their special events once you start getting the hang of it. Now that is a challenge.

Another area of photography that you may want to try is wildlife. Here you have a subject interacting with its natural environment. Avoid cliche shots of birds because that will bring you back to the same level as flower shots…only difference is that you now require a lens that’s ten times more heavy and more expensive.

Do macro photography when you get bored. It’s no different to flower shots. Just more tedious. The results can be jaw-dropping amazing though. I enjoy looking at macro shots but I’m not really that interested in doing them.

Street photography and photojournalism can quickly become craptography if you do not have the compositional skills. It requires a lot of skill but more importantly, an even greater amount of luck. Things must happen in front of you and you have to be there to capture it. Depending on where you are, extraordinary events may not happen at all. You are better off taking photos of your drunk friends. Now that I have mentioned drunk, street photography is also dangerous in the wrong locations. Be ready to deal with people who are paranoid. Persistence will pay off. The world’s most memorable photos are, afterall, products of photojournalism.

Avoid sports photography when you are just starting. It encourages bad habits. It’s slightly more rewarding than street photography because you can almost guarantee that there is some action happening where you are. If there is a brawl then you get to do photojournalism as well. There is minimal thinking involved in sports photography. It’s more of a hand-eye coordination thing like playing video games. Reaction time is very important. It also relies on how long your lenses are and how fast your camera can flip the shutter curtain. Of course, you would need to anticipate the action but sports photographers just fire a salvo of shots hoping that something magical happens. Highway patrols do the same with their radar guns. I am not making fun of them. I’m just telling the truth. The fact that sports photographers can manage to capture incredible shots is a testament to their persistence. They know that their keeper rate is lower than Joe Blow’s grade in college calculus but they still do it anyway. And that’s dedication. Sports photography is not for everyone especially if you can’t afford the five-figure equipment.

Again, if you want to improve your photography, stop shooting flowers.

Don’t Push Too Hard

Let us be realistic. Photography is a difficult art to master. Not only are we limited by individual skills, we are also limited by time, subject and tools. It’s not like music where the only limitation is in the musician. In photography knowing when to stop is very important.

Time. We only have 24 hours in a day. Unless you are a paid pro, you will have to juggle photography with your day job. It really pains me when I see a beautiful sunset outside of my office window. I feel bad watching a glorious sunrise inside an airport terminal. You just have to let it pass and hope that you’ll be at the right time and place “next time”.

Subject. How many times have you wished you could move a tree or a huge rock even just a tiny bit for the perfect composition? Or bring a mountain closer? Or move the sun a few inches to the right for symmetry? Or wish the model was taller, skinnier, etc…? Painters are lucky because they could create and arrange their subjects however they want, the trade-off of course is we get to finish our work in a fraction of a second what would take them days or months to complete theirs.

Tools. Among artists, photographers are one of the most ill-equiped. Cameras that can’t capture the dynamic range of a scene. Lenses that are too heavy and too slow. You name it. And yet photographers have the most expensive tools. A photographer spends so much time and money circumventing tool limitations. A good musician or painter seldom complains about his tools but a good photographer simply learns NOT to bother at all.

Your lens isn’t sharp, so shoot at smaller apertures. It is not fast enough, so use a tripod or choose a different subject. Camera sensor is too noisy, then shoot when there is enough light or convert to black and white and use grain to spice up the photo.

I find it funny that people complain about sharpness and shallow depth of field when their shots are not even properly composed.

My point is, there will always be severe tool limitations. Realize that you just have to do something else instead of complaining. You can’t shoot sports or go birding with your 18-55mm f4-5.6 kit lens. Those who do, carry bazookas. Concentrate instead on what you can do with whatever tool you have. Find inspiration. Look for photos that you like that were captured using a similar set of lenses and see if you can come up with a better photo. If you can’t even take a decent shot with your kit then no camera or lens can make you capture better pictures.

Inspiration. That is the best cure against gear acquisition syndrome.

So stop complaining, go out and do wonders with your camera.