Photography Practice: Return to the Scene

A good photography practice can be to return to the same scene multiple times to photograph it under different conditions. If you saw my post about photographing night snow, you’ll have seen this first image already. Well, I found myself in the same area the next day, both during the afternoon and again in the evening. I decided to make the exact same image (or as close as possible) at three different times of day to see how the mood changed.

Even though the actual framing of the subject hasn’t changed at all, things like the light and other people in the scene change things significantly.

afternoon snow with shadows, midwest, indiana
snow photo at dusk in indiana
night snow indiana midwest

Here’s a side-by-side view of all three photos just for the hell of it. Try out this photography practice yourself and tag me in the resulting images!

Related Posts

Be sure to check out my other recent posts about shooting in the snow. There’s also some great photo tips on my YouTube channel about snow.

How to choose the right photographer for you

I’m a commercial, editorial, and documentary photographer, but I did a lot of weddings and portraits in the past. I often get asked how to choose the right photographer and since I have a lot experience in this arena, I thought I would share some of my best tips here on my blog.

Here’s some information consumers should know when hiring a photographer for things like family portraits, weddings, and events.

Anyone Can Be A “Pro”

There’s a low barrier of entry to a person marketing themself as a professional photographer. There are no licenses, certifications, or regulations in the industry.

These days all one needs is a camera and a Facebook page. This can be helpful to you as a consumer because there are a lot of options at different price points. However, you need to keep in mind that people who charge less money nearly always have less experience and skill.

Referrals, Referrals, Referrals

It’s so important I said it thrice. As a consumer, the most effective way to protect yourself from a terrible photography shoot is to ask for referrals from your own friends and family.

If someone you know well, whose opinion you trust, personally recommends a photographer, that is your best bet. Of course, if that person has terrible taste, or you didn’t love their photos, move on to the next referral.

Google Is Popular For A Reason

An old-fashioned Google search is a great way to find a photographer. Typically, photographers showing up at the top of a search are either well-established or are paying good money on advertising, which can mean they take their business seriously.

The number of photographers in a search can be overwhelming! Be as specific as possible to start. Instead of “Indianapolis Photographer” try “Carmel Indiana Wedding Photojournalist.” Describing a specific location, type of photography, and style will help you find more that you like right off the top.

If you find you’re TOO specific, then start expanding the geographic area of your search. Or if locality is more important, start there and be less specific about the style.

Photographers Need A REAL Website

If a photographer only has a Facebook page to promote their services, that’s not a great sign. They are likely either inexperienced or not great at running a business.

A clean, visually appealing, and easy to navigate website is a requirement for a professional photographer. The site should have a broad variety of images from multiple shoots. There should be ample evidence on their site, that they can photograph an event like the one you are hiring them to do.

Professionalism is important

A talented photographer who is not a good businessperson is usually a disappointment. If they’re disorganized or unprofessional, even if they get great photos, it’s not worth the risk. Take their clients’ reviews seriously!

They might not show up on time for your session, take months (or years!) to get your photos back to you, or cause any other number of problems that aren’t related to operating a camera. Your photos may be great, but if you never actually get them, it doesn’t really matter.

What To Look For On a Photographer’s Website

You can tell a lot from a photographer’s website. Here are some things to look for…
– Does it look like they’ve photographed a lot of different subjects? Or do you keep seeing the same people show up over and over again?
– Do you find yourself experiencing any emotions while looking at the photos? Are their images making you smile? Or feel excited about your own upcoming wedding, pregnancy, or family event?
– Is there a good variety of images, or are you seeing the same poses and locations from photo to photo?
– Do they include pricing on their site? Better photographers are more upfront about costs. It helps to cut down on leads that don’t go anywhere.
– Do they have information about what to expect before, during and after a session? This shows professionalism and experience.

Questions to ask before hiring a photographer

Here are a few questions to ask once you have your search narrowed to a few photographers whose work you like.

– Ask to see a full wedding/session/event. It’s easy to pull together a portfolio from dozens of shoots, but you only get one day. How many good shots do they get for one client?
– Make sure you know who your photographer is actually going to be. Seems like you should be getting the person whose name is out front, but you need to be sure. It can be okay to accept another photographer (especially if you’re speaking to a studio as opposed to a one-person-show), but make sure you know WHO it is and you’re seeing samples of THEIR work. They should also cost less than the lead photographer.
– If the information isn’t on their website already, ask how the process of the photo session works. What happens before, during, and after? What should you wear/not wear? How long until you get your finished photos? What exactly is included?

What If They’re Too Expensive?

If you speak with a photographer that you like and they turn out to be too expensive, don’t be afraid to ask them for a referral. Just say something like, “We love your work so much, but unfortunately we can’t afford to work with you. Do you know any photographers that might be willing to work with us in our price range?” A lot of times photographers will have assistants or friends who are newer to the game that they’re willing to refer.

Beware of discounts! I’ve had many people tell me, “Oh, he gave me a great deal!” about the same photographer. If the price on their website says $1000, but they only charge you $500, then their actual price is $500.

Deposits & Payment

It’s common for photographers to ask for a deposit. That isn’t a red flag, it’s actually a really smart way to run a business. It’s also common for photographers to require payment in full before an event. If you like the photographer and they have good reviews, you should feel comfortable with their policies.

When I photographed weddings, I required a $1000 deposit to reserve a date with the balance due 1 month prior to the wedding. This covered my out of pocket costs while I was working on the wedding day and in post-production the days following. This also ensured that both parties were equally committed to the contract.

Using Less Expensive Photographers

It’s okay to use an inexpensive photographer. Everyone deserves to have professional photos of important milestones in their lives. If you find someone you feel checks all the boxes (including your budget), that is all that matters.

There are talented photographers who do this as a side-hustle. You can ask them all the same questions I mentioned above so you know what you’re getting.

You cannot expect the same results or level of service as a photographer who charges 5x as much. As a consumer you need to either adjust your budget to match your expectations, or adjust your expectations to match your budget. However, once you’ve got that settled, there are sure to be many photographers to choose from in any price range.

Good luck! Don’t forget to have fun with your photo shoot!

Shooting a Photo Story

Today we head to the creek to look for a little motivation for shooting a photo story.

It can be hard to find the desire to get out and shoot on a gray winter day. However, if as a creative, I need to create, even in less-than-ideal circumstances.

In this post, I’ll walk through the steps that led to the final product. In other words, you have to get to the bottom of the post to see the finished piece.

Go Shoot

First, we had to get out and explore. When the weather is bland, it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing interesting to see, but really there is. We just have to go look for it.

Friday Photo Tips

If you’ve seen any of my social media channels, you’ll know I post a tip each Friday with some friendly advice.

The week I shot this story, my post was about getting out and shooting a story. You can view that photo tip below.

Follow me on Instagram, Facebook or YouTube to see future Friday Photo Tips. You can learn how to improve your photography no matter what your level of experience is.

The Final Photo Story

Now for the finished piece! Watch the video below to see how I applied the advice from the Friday Photo Tip to the images and video clips I shot.

Subscribe!

Hey, my YouTube channel is one of the places we post our Friday Photo Tips and photo stories. Subscribe to see our latest videos as soon as they’re posted.

ALSO, I have a secondary, more vanity-driven motive for asking you to subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Currently, my channel has the following name in the URL: UCDm1S5mxu4ZSFEstNy6civA.

I do not like that. When I hit 100 subscribers I can change it to something nice like ZachDobsonPhoto.

^^^^^^^^^SUBSCRIBE^^^^^^^^^

Related Posts

Here are some other personal stories I created about just going out and doing things.

I hope this inspires you to do things, too! And then create some art! Yeah!

Low Light Photography: Post-Production

Welcome to my third and final post on my practices for shooting in low light using only available light. This post addresses the low light post-production practices I use to get great shots in extremely low light without using flash or strobes.  

Get the whole series here in a cool PDF download. All the kids are doing it. Just enter your info below.

DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE

Be sure to read the first post for an introduction to the benefits of available light photography and a review of the type of gear I use to get great shots in low light.  Then read the second post about the low light techniques I use while shooting. 

Keep it Real

This is my tag line for commercial photography, so you’ll need to get your own. My first priority when editing photos is to make the scene appear as it did when I took the image.  I don’t use filters or Lightroom presets and I definitely don’t photoshop as a verb.  I am a photojournalist by training and I use the same principles as the photojournalism community in maintaining honesty and accuracy.  My images are intended to be a part of the historical record, documenting a time and place in the world.

“As I Saw It”

When I say I want the scene to appear as it did when I took the image, I mean I want the scene to appear as I saw it, not exactly how the camera captured it. I always keep that in mind for low light post-production. A camera isn’t the same as the human eye. We can see a greater spectrum of tones than the camera can capture in one frame. So when I photograph a performance and expose for the stage, the audience is very dark, but that’s not how my eye perceived it in the moment. I could see the crowd as well. So I’ll bring some of the crowd detail out of the shadows to better represent what I saw with my eyes.

The two images below are a good representation of what I’m describing. The image on the top is completely unedited, the way it came out of the camera. The image on the bottom is edited to my standard of “how I saw it.”

Color VS. Black & White

Everything I shoot is in color.  I’d rather have the option of converting to black & white later than making that decision in the moment.  I don’t have a general rule about what ends up color or B&W; it’s more of a gut feeling.  The easiest consideration for me when making this decision is if I find the color distracting from the essence of the image.  When a nice moment is muddled by green fluorescent light (see image below), I switch it to B&W.  If a bold color in the background draws the eye away from the focus of an image rather than adding to it, I switch to B&W.

When I’m going to use color, I want it to convey the ambiance of a place or add to the story in some respect. When the color doesn’t accomplish that, I’ll convert to B&W. 

Lightroom

I do 98% of my post-production work in Lightroom.  It’s great software for tagging, marking, organizing and editing images.  I could do a whole series of posts on Lightroom, and maybe someday I will.  For today, I’ll focus on some of the Lightroom features I use when editing my low light photos.  Most of these low light post-production principles will work with whatever editing software you’re using, even if it’s not Lightroom.  I’m sure some specifics will differ though.

As a reminder from the second post, I’m always working with RAW image files.  They offer the most latitude in tone and color adjustments, which is especially important when using images that were shot in extremely low light.

Tone

First, I make sure the brightness on my screen is all the way up.  It’s basic, but an easy thing to forget!  As previously stated, I want the scene to look as I saw it in the moment. 

The Histogram

I watch the histogram to make sure I have the full range of tones in the photo.  The right side is whites and the left is blacks.  To the right you’ll see sample histograms from two images. The top is a color image and the bottom is B&W.

Clipping

“Clipping” is when some of the whites are so bright, or the blacks are so dark, that there is no visible detail in them.  When the histogram goes off the right or left side of the image, you have clipping.  The histogram on top has clipping for both blacks and whites. The bottom histogram has no clipping. Sometimes clipping is unavoidable.  If you have a bright spotlight, of course you’re not going to have any detail in that.  And definitely when you’re in a very dark room, some of the shadows are going to be too dark to contain any detail. 

If the histogram doesn’t have the full range of black and white, it won’t have much contrast to it.  So, when I’m shooting in low light, it is usually weighted more towards the blacks.  I look to increase the exposure until some of the histogram reaches closer to the white side.

For my style, I like the image to have contrast, but not too much.  I work to bring out some detail in the shadows, but just slightly.  Mostly, I go by feel to get it where I want it, which is how my eye saw it in the moment.  I don’t want my images to look HDR (High Dynamic Range.  I will NOT get into that.  Google it if you’re curious.)

Luminance

When editing in Lightroom in the “develop” module, on of the boxes is “HSL/Color”.  HSL is for hue, saturation and luminance.  I find luminance most helpful.  I can make the individual colors brighter or darker by using the sliders.

For example, skin tones often contain a lot of orange in them (regardless of ethnicity), so when I slide the orange up and down, it will take those tones up and down.  I pay close attention to anything else in the photo that’s orange-ish because it will change brightness as well.  Also, it’s easy to slide it too far, so just watch that everything still looks balanced.  I typically don’t go more than +/- 20.  This also works with colored light sources.  So if a person was lit by blue light, I need to slide the blue slider to adjust the brightness.

B&W Mix

A breakthrough for me in low light post-production for B&W images in Lightroom was discovering the “Black & White Mix” functionality.  When shooting an image in color and converting to B&W in Lightroom, it retains the color information underneath.  Use the slider to adjust the brightness of certain colors. 

low light post production - lightroom

SUPER ADVANCED PRO TIP: Adjusting the mix with the tool tip.  This is very cool.  First, I click on the little circle in the upper left corner of the “Black & White Mix” box.  Then I can hover the tool tip on the part of the photo I want to adjust.  Clicking and holding then dragging the mouse up and down makes that color brighter or darker.  This works even better than adjusting the individual sliders because sections of the photo are made up of more than one color.  For example, skin tones aren’t just orange.  They can be a mix of orange and red or yellow.  So when I drag up or down on someone’s face, it will adjust each color in proportion to how much of it is present.  NOTE: This also works with color images in using luminance.

I’m not sure which other software might offer this feature.  If you know, leave a comment.

White Balance

A huge benefit of shooting RAW files is to adjust the white balance of image using a combination of color temperature and tint.  This is allows for much more subtle adjustments than working with a jpg.  As I mentioned in the previous post, the RAW image is uncompressed so adjusting the white balance while editing does not affect the image quality at all.

With low light post-production, I’ll try the “auto” white balance setting in Lightroom to see what it gives me.  Sometimes I like it and keep it.  Many times it gets me close and then I can make custom adjustments from there.  Occasionally it’s just way off and I immediately “undo”.

For low light post-production, and any other editing I do, I work to keep the color as I saw it.  If I don’t like the color of the light in an image, rather than changing the white balance so much that it looks like it was shot in different lighting, I’ll make the image B&W.

Shooting in dark places using only available light often leads to very saturated colors.  When at a show or a bar, there can often be very strong colored lighting.  If the subject isn’t too close to the light source, it can make for really cool colors in the image.  However, if a colored light is especially strong, a subject close to the light source can be saturated to the point of losing detail.  In those cases, again, I’ll make the image B&W.  It’s always surprising to see the detail emerge when the color is stripped away in these cases.

Wrap Up

Low light post-production takes some practice, but once you find what works best for you, it can take your photography to another level. This concludes my series of three posts on using available light in low light situations. I hope you enjoyed it and maybe learned something, if only that I like to talk about low light photography. As always, please share this with your photog friends if you think they could use it.  And if you’d like to have the whole series to refer back to, you can download the PDF guide through the form below.

DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE

Get my gear recommendations for low light photography here. 
Learn the tips and techniques I employ while shooting in low light.

If you have something to add to the discussion, please contribute by leaving a comment below. And if you have any questions, be sure to ask in the comments and I’ll answer them soon. 

Thanks! If you take any images using these techniques, tag the photos with #ZDPphototips. I look forward to checking them out!

-Zach

Other Technique/Advice Posts

Advice for student photographers

Improving Sports Photography

Trade Show Photography

Conference/Event Photography

Shooting holiday lights

Low Light Photography: Technique

Thanks for checking out my second post on my practices for shooting in low light using only available light.  For an introduction to the benefits of available light photography and a review of the type of gear I use to get great shots in low light, be sure to read the first post. This post addresses the specific low light techniques I use while shooting. You can also download the whole guide as a super-sleek, handy-dandy PDF right now by entering your info below.

DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE

For illustrative purposes, I’ve selected a series of images from the four years I photographed RIOT LA Alternative Comedy Festival because almost the entire festival happened in dark and crowded theaters without natural light.

Camera Settings

Aperture

As mentioned in the first post, I use mostly prime lenses that have a minimum aperture of f/1.4.  When shooting in low light I shoot consistently at either f/1.4 or f/2.0.  So, since I don’t change my aperture much in these situations, I rely mostly upon changing shutter speed and ISO to get the desired exposure.

Shutter Speed

I usually have a minimum shutter speed in mind when shooting depending on the subject.  If a person is standing mostly still engaging in conversation, I find that 1/60 will suffice, although I’ll try to get that up to 1/125 if I can.  When the person is more animated, I consider 1/125 my target and adjust the ISO to get the shutter speed higher if needed.  Photographing a scene that’s still, I have no problem shooting at 1/15. 

Later in this post I will describe some of the techniques I use to increase my yield of sharp images when shooting at slower shutter speeds.

High ISO

Like most photographers, I try to shoot at the lowest ISO I can.  For my low light technique, I find my best-case scenario is usually around ISO 800.  I’ll regularly shoot at 1600 and even push to 3200 in some circumstances.  Occasionally I’ll even go up to 6400, but only when I feel like a grainy image can work stylistically. I recommend taking some test shots in low light at different ISO settings so you can see for yourself where your line is between good and poor image quality.

RAW files

Most pros (myself included) will always shoot RAW images.  The fact that these are uncompressed gives you a lot more latitude when making color and tone adjustments in post production (the topic of the next post).  If you’re put off by the file sizes of RAW images (which can be 5-10x the size of a JPG), you might want to at least consider switching over to RAW when you’re shooting in very low light.

I also like shooting RAW images because I don’t have to mess with white balance while shooting.  I’ll leave my camera set to auto white balance and just adjust it in post.  Since the RAW image is uncompressed, adjusting the white balance while editing does not affect the image quality at all.

I address working with RAW images in my next installment in this series: post production.

Underexpose

I don’t fully rely on my light meter when shooting in low light. It’s always going to say that the image is underexposed because in low light, it’s trying to average the entire scene, which is mostly dark. So a part of my low light technique is that I’m actually more concerned with my highlights than shadows. If the highlights are blown out, I can’t get them back when editing. I prefer to shoot on the side of underexposing the highlights. Then I know they’re there for me to bring out in post-production.

The other benefit of underexposing is I can shoot at higher shutter speeds and minimize unwanted motion blur. For example, if I spot-meter on a subject and the shutter speed is coming out to 1/15, I might shoot that at 1/30. Then I don’t have to worry about motion blur or camera shake as much. However, I make sure not to underexpose too much because there will be too much noise (digital artifacts) in the shadows/blacks of an image when I adjust the exposure in post-production.

It can be a fine line to walk, but the more I shoot, the better I know where the balance is between a sharp image, good exposure and image quality.

Light Sources

No matter where you’re shooting there’s a light source of some sort.  If you’re trying to shoot in pitch black, you have bigger issues than I can address here.  The first thing I look to identify, whether I’m shooting with my low light technique or at high noon, is where my light is coming from and how I can use what’s available most effectively.

In a dark space, I like to camp out near the light source and see what kind of activity is happening nearby.  I look for people who are talking together near a light and then focus on the person whose face is most clearly lit.  If several people are in decent light, then I look to see who I can frame up in the most interesting way or who is speaking in with more facial expressions or animation.  I’ll also step away from the light source and see if there is an interesting silhouette that can be made or just a different angle I can get by changing positions.

Keep it Sharp

In order for me to consider an image a “keeper”, SOMETHING in it needs to be in focus.  On some occasions a moment may have really cool action or life and it’s not 100% sharp, but for my work that’s the exception rather than the rule. 

Here are a few pointers on how I get a higher number of sharp photos utilizing my low light technique.

Camera Shake

There’s a photography rule of thumb for avoiding blur from camera shake (caused by the way your body/hands move naturally when you’re just standing still): Keep your shutter speed equal to or greater than the focal length of your lens. 

Huh?

That just means if you’re shooting a 100mm lens, you want to keep your shutter speed at or above 1/100.  For a 50mm lens, keep it at or above 1/50.  At any slower speed you risk getting blurry images from camera shake (this differs from motion blur, which refers to the movement of the subject).  A lens with image stabilization has more latitude, but typically prime lenses don’t have stabilization.

Brace yourself

A simple, yet highly effective technique is to just find something nearby to steady yourself and/or brace your camera against: a wall, chair, table, post, floor, bar top, etc.  If I need a little bit of stability (like shooting a wider lens around 1/15), I’ll do something like lean against a wall or doorway.  When I’m shooting slower than that, I’ll look for something I can wedge the camera itself against like a post, chair or tabletop.

You might think I’m a real dummy here, because I could just use a tripod. Nope! Can’t do it. Tripods slow me down significantly, are difficult to carry around and take up a lot of space. It is important to me to be able to work in low light in the same manner I approach any of my shoots, which is why I started using these techniques.

Shoot in bursts

When I used to shoot film (pre-2004), I was very precious with it.  I didn’t have much money and only had a certain amount of film to shoot, so I didn’t shoot a lot of frames.  Even after switching totally to digital, it took a bit of prodding from an early photo editor of mine to start shooting more frames.  As a result, no matter what I shoot, in any level of light, I take 2-3 frames in a burst each time I press the shutter.  This greatly increases my number of usable images.

I think this is especially important in low light, because when I’m shooting at slower shutter speeds, the natural movements of subjects can easily blur an image.  The higher I feel the risk is going to be of getting motion blur I don’t want, the more images I’ll take in a burst.  If I’m at 1/15 taking photos of a person talking animatedly, I’ll take 7-8 consecutive shots.  When I’m taking a wide angle of a scene with many people moving around, and I have the camera resting on the ground, I’ll shoot 10-12 frames in a row.  That gives me a lot to work with when I’m editing.  I only need one of those frames to turn out.

Using Live View

When I first bought a DSLR that could shoot in live view (using the LCD screen as a viewfinder), I thought, I was NEVER going to use it; it’s amateur stuff.  Wrong!  Shooting in live view in low light situations took my available light photography to another level. 

Exposure Preview

Live view has two main features that I use: exposure preview and electronic zoom.  Prior to having exposure preview, in low light I would use spot-metering to get a light reading of the subject, take a photo, and then review the resulting image.  Now I can just see immediately on the screen how the exposure changes as I adjust the camera settings and know I’m getting the result I want before even pressing the shutter release.  When using my mirrorless Fujifilm camera, I’m always shooting in “live view” because even the viewfinder is an LCD screen.  I’m not looking physically through the lens like on my Canon DSLR.

Improve Focus

When using autofocus on a DSLR, if the light gets too low, it just can’t get a read on anything.  I learned to combat this by using live view to improve focus.  By using the exposure preview feature, I can essentially see in the dark.  I would set the exposure much brighter than I wanted, giving the autofocus something to grab onto, and then return the exposure to the desired level and start shooting.  Camera manufacturers got wise to this practice and now many cameras do this automatically.  When shooting in live view in the dark, if the camera can’t focus, the screen will brighten, the camera will focus, and the exposure on screen will return to normal, all automatically.  Pretty cool.

Digital Zoom

Many cameras also give the option to digitally zoom when in live view mode.  To be clear, this doesn’t zoom the final image; it just allows you to see a section of the frame closer up in live view.  I frequently use this feature in my low light technique to make sure the focus is exactly where I want it to be.  Sometimes the method described in the previous paragraph isn’t perfect, so I’ll digitally zoom in live view mode and try autofocus again. If autofocus isn’t exactly where I want it to be at that point, I focus manually and zoom back out to get the image.  When I need to act quickly, I can shoot a burst of images even while zoomed in on the LCD screen because it’s actually taking the full frame image.

Wrap Up

This concludes the post on my low light technique I employ while shooting.  Check out the first post for an introduction to the topic and gear info.  The next post is about post-production. Get the whole series in one download, here. Have anything to add to this discussion? I’d love to hear it! And if you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer them soon. You can also have the whole series now, in a really fancy full color PDF download.

DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE

Thanks! If you take any images using these techniques, tag the photos with #ZDPphototips. I look forward to checking them out!

-Zach

Low Light Photography: Intro

One of the most difficult aspects of photography is shooting in low light. However, with my documentary approach, it’s a skill I need in order to maintain the integrity of the subject material and avoid affecting the end result with my presence. Therefore over the past 15 years I’ve developed a series of practices that allow me to shoot in low light using only available light without compromising image quality. 

Often people will ask me about low light photography situations, so I’ve created a series of three posts shared some tips. OR! You can also get the whole guide now as a PDF by entering your info below.

DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE

This first post is about gear.  Subsequent posts address shooting technique and post-production.  While I firmly believe that the gear itself is NOT the most important aspect, I want to address it in the first post so that the technique I describe later will be clearer.

RIOT LA COMEDY 2016

To illustrate these posts, I’m using images from the four years I photographed RIOT LA Alternative Comedy Festival. Recently I was going through some archives and enjoyed revisiting the experience of the great event, invented from the ground up by my extremely talented friend, Abbey Londer. I thought RIOT was the perfect backdrop for a discussion on low light photography.

Shooting exclusively with available light at night and in dark theaters and bars was a fun challenge at the festival and made for some really cool and rewarding images.  Also, I’m a huge comedy fan, so that just made these gigs even sweeter. 

Benefits of Using Available Light  

First and foremost, I prefer using available light because it is significantly less obtrusive.  As a documentary photographer, I want my imprint on the scene to be minimal.  That means two things to me:  First, I don’t want to affect someone’s experience by introducing flash.  Secondly, I want to stay inconspicuous so I can capture authentic moments that are happening in front of me.

Popping a flash or strobe a few times every minute can be very distracting.  I’m not the only one who feels that way.  When photographing Mel Brooks at the festival in 2017, he specifically asked photographers not to use flash around him.  As a result, I would have missed out on being able to take photos of him backstage and behind the scenes if I relied upon a flash.

Similarly, I feel that the ambiance of a scene is lost once artificial light is introduced.  Using available light allows the image to retain the same feel as the original setting.  Richer color, more background detail and softer light are all benefits of shooting with available light in low-light photography situations.  

Some professional photographers use flash to highlight a scene and allow viewers to see into the shadows. I like to portray the scene as I saw it.  Therefore, it’s simply a matter of style and intent.  I think the larger point is to be purposeful in your approach.

Gear

Let’s get to it. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to talk about gear at the level of an amateur who knows the basics of the technical aspects of photography: aperture, shutter speed and ISO.  I want these posts to be accessible to the widest audience.  If you any questions, whether more basic or advanced, leave them in the comments below and I’ll be sure to answer.

Lens

I think the most important piece of gear for low light photography is the lens.  I prefer prime lenses, also referred to as fixed focal length or non-zoom lenses.  This is because of their wider aperture.  The best, most expensive zoom lenses are only going to get you down to f/2.8.  Having a prime lens that is f/2.0 or f/1.4 gives you a significant amount of latitude in low light.  And don’t forget the lower apertures give better bokeh.

(For more on bokeh check out this blog post.)

I also like wide angle lenses to give the viewer a better sense of being in the middle of things.  That’s a stylistic choice.  If you’re looking at one of my images and you feel like you’re standing right next to the subject, that’s because I was standing right next to the subject using a wide-angle lens.  When shooting with two cameras, I typically use 24mm and 50mm lenses.  When I shoot a single camera, I like to use a 35mm lens.  

Keep in mind that if you have a crop sensor camera, you need to account for that when choosing lenses.  For example, my carry-everywhere-with-me camera is a Fujifilm X-T20, which has a 1.5x crop factor.  So, I bought their 23mm lens, which actually has the same field of view as a 35mm lens on a full frame camera.

Mirrorless Cameras

The camera market these days is exploding with mirrorless cameras.  “Mirrorless” refers to the fact that these cameras don’t have the mirror that a DSLR has, which allows the photographer to look into the viewfinder and see physically through the lens.  Mirrorless cameras have electronic viewfinders, which means you’re looking at a tiny LCD screen when you hold it up to your eye, or using the larger LCD screen on the back of the camera.

This has a few benefits that will come into play in the next post when I talk about technique.  Using an LCD viewfinder with exposure preview in low light allows you to see the image as it will appear when you take it.  This can greatly improve exposure accuracy when shooting in low light.

Another benefit of a mirrorless camera is that most of them can be made to shoot completely silently using electronic shutter mode.  While this doesn’t pertain to low-light photography specifically, I have found it extremely beneficial when shooting in very quiet places where I don’t want to draw attention to myself, which coincidentally tend to be places with less available light.

Even though I just laid out a number of benefits for mirrorless cameras like the Fujifilm I use, I do want to point out that for my commissioned work I continue to use Canon DSLRs.  I find that I can work faster and more effectively with Canon, especially in environments like sports.  I’d give Canon the edge in image quality as well, although it may be negligible in most cases. All of the images at RIOT were shot with Canon.

Resources

Below are some links to some of the gear I’ve mentioned. You’ll see that prices vary quite a bit, but I made sure to include some “affordable” prime lenses ($500 or less). Prices are as of January 2019. Most larger camera shops have a used department that’s worth checking out as well.

*Denotes some of the gear that I use.

Canon Lenses

35mm f/1.4 – $1700
35mm f/2.0 – $549
*24mm f/1.4 – $1549
50mm f/1.8 – $125
*50mm f/1.4 – $349
*50mm f/1.2 – $1350

Nikon Lenses

35mm f/1.4 – $1697
35mm f/1.8 – $527
24mm f/1.4 – $1997
50mm f/1.8 – $217
50mm f/1.4 – $447

Fujifilm Gear

*X-T20 Mirrorless Camera – $700
23mm f/1.4 – $900
*23mm f/2.0 – $450

Rentals

I regularly rent gear from BorrowLenses. This is a great way to try something out before you buy it or rent a specialty item for a specific shoot. Use my affiliate link below. They have discounts for first-time users.

Check out BorrowLenses!

Wrap Up

This wraps up my post on gear for low light photography.  Please check out the the next two posts on technique and post-production. If you’ve enjoyed this post/series on shooting in low light, please share it! You can also have the whole series now, in a really fancy full color PDF download.

and post production. If you’ve enjoyed this post/series on shooting in low light, please share it! You can also have the whole series now, in a really fancy full color PDF download.

DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE

Thanks for reading! If you take any images using these techniques, tag the photos with #ZDPphototips. I look forward to seeing what you make!

-Zach

Advice for Student Photographers

I often receive emails from student photographers seeking advice about pursuing a career in photography.  I decided to compile the answers to the most frequently asked questions in a blog post.

Advice for Student Photographers - Find your voice as a photographer

FIND YOUR VOICE

The most important advice I have for student photographers is to find your own unique point of view. This is the key to differentiating yourself from the thousands of other people trying to make a career in photography.  Your voice is what you’re looking to convey with your work.  It’s not something you sit and try to define in words. It’s primarily driven by the work you create.

The best way to find your voice as a photographer is to get out and shoot as much as possible.   Think, “What am I interested in photographing?”  It doesn’t need to be limited to a narrow category (sports, music, fashion, news, etc.).  Try anything and everything that sounds compelling.  As you shoot more, devote more time to the subjects you find most interesting.  Here’s a good example of something I went out to shoot just because I found it interesting.

SHOOT YOUR INTERESTS

Don’t fall into the trap of chasing images you think other people might like or find impactful.  Shooting what you find interesting will make more compelling images than shooting on trend or trying to convey what you perceive to be an important statement.

As a student photographer, you have access to a wealth of subjects to photograph.  At any university there are many different departments and areas of study and any one of them would be thrilled to have someone taking their photo and highlighting the work they’re doing.  Plus, being a student photographer or working for a student publication can get you access to all types of different events or people outside of school that you might want to photograph.

Studying other topics you’re interested in will greatly inform your photography.  Learning about anything from sociology to dance can affect the direction you take with your work.  Like I said, follow what interests you and that will help you find your voice, which is key to being a great photographer.

BUILD YOUR COMMUNITY

School is also a great place for creating relationships.  Good professors can be life-long mentors.  Friendships will lead to all sorts of personal and professional opportunities you couldn’t even guess at this point.  A network of alumni will be thrilled to meet with you, advise you, and hire you from here on out.

START A DATABASE

I recommend starting to collect your contacts & grow a database now.  Use Apple or Google contacts and compile a list of everyone you know:  friends, family, acquaintances.  Get all of their email addresses and phone numbers in there at a minimum.

Go to events through your school and in the community that sound interesting to you.  When you meet someone, get their business card and put them in your database.  Ask people if you can add them to your email list.   Send out a monthly or bi-weekly email with 1 or 2 images and say something like, “To see my latest work, be sure to follow me on Instagram/Twitter/Blog (include links).”  Don’t ask people for work in these emails.  They should just be casual: “Hey, I wanted to share this with you.” You can use a service like MailChimp for free.

Advice for Student Photographers - Learn from others.

LEARN HOW TO RUN A BUSINESS

If  you want your passion for photography to be more than just a hobby, you’ll want to study business and marketing.  This will not only help you run your own company, it’ll help you know how to best serve your clients.  Even if you’re considering doing photography as art, and not commercially as I do, you still need at least basic business skills to know how to make a living at it.

I’ve been a full-time photographer for more than a decade and I can tell you that actually shooting and editing photos comprises less than half of my time.  A lot of my time is spent marketing and doing the actual work of running a business.  Here’s a partial list of my other regular tasks…

building & maintaining a database of contacts
networking opportunities (i.e. community events)
calling current & prospective clients
writing current & prospective clients
meeting with current & prospective clients
bidding/estimating for new jobs
writing contracts & licensing agreements
registering copyrights
budgeting/tracking expenses
creating email & print pieces to market my business
blogging
posting to social media
managing & maintaining equipment
reading & studying (continuing education classes, publications, blogs, etc.)
managing digital files (organizing, exporting, uploading, archiving)
hiring & managing contractors (assistants, stylists, etc.)

I could list more, but I think you get the idea.  I mention all of these things because I think it’s good to know what you’re getting into.  As your business grows, you can hire people to handle a lot of the tasks you might not care to do, but you’ll always oversee everything, and in the beginning it’s a one-man show.  That’s why I always tell students to take business classes.  I’ve seen many talented photographers struggle and fail because they can’t run a business and many average photographers succeed because they can run a business.  This is why taking business classes is important advice for student photographers.

AVOID DEBT!

It’s very tempting as a broke student photographer to borrow money in order to buy a nice camera and lenses and tell yourself that you need them. Debt severely limits your options in the future.  Buy what you can afford right now.  If you have $500, buy some used gear.  Then after you’ve had time to save up more, sell your old gear and put that money together with your savings to upgrade.

When you’re a young photographer and your shooting style is developing, the type of gear you want can change pretty quickly, so don’t put much money into it.  Borrow gear available at your school.  You can also rent specialty gear when you need it from places like BorrowLenses.

If you use the affiliate link below, it helps me keep doing what I do and connects you with a great service I use all the time…

Check out BorrowLenses!
Advice for Student Photographers - Get started now

START TODAY

So what can you do as a student photographer to get started now?

Shoot, shoot, shoot.  Then edit and see what you like and what you don’t like.  It can be good to get feedback from a trained eye, but don’t put much stock in likes and retweets.  Most photographers who receive thousands of likes on their Instagram photos are NOT making a living as a photographer.  I also know some professionals who generate hundreds of thousands of dollars each year and only have a few followers or aren’t on social media at all.

The style that plays well on Instagram often doesn’t translate to images that work on most other media.  I find that my most complex and layered images don’t play as well on social media as my simple and “pretty” images.­  But those complex photos work much better for print and full-page website images.  They’re also the preferred images of my clients.

When people start seeing your work and following you, they’ll start asking you to shoot things for them.  It will take a few years before you’re able to do it full time, but the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll get there.

GET INVOLVED

Getting involved in your local community of photographers.  Professional organizations like the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) have gatherings where student photographers can meet pros with a lot of experience, hear them speak and ask them questions.  

When you get to know veteran photographers, you can ask them about assisting or shadowing them on a shoot, which is an excellent way to gain knowledge. 

Many cities also have vibrant Instagram communities, where photographers meet up to shoot different events together, or have some friendly competition photographing a theme.  In my area, two good examples would be Igers Indy and Igers Bloomington.

To sum it up, my advice for student photographers who would like to pursue a career in photography is to shoot all the time, share your images and build your network.  If you develop an audience online throughout your time in college, that will be a HUGE help by the time your graduate.

I hope this advice for student photographers helps a bit!  If you have any questions or feedback to give, please leave a comment below so everyone can benefit from the dialog.

Advice for Student Photographers - GO SHOOT!

Anything for the Shot

Nat Fein Babe Ruth Yankees Time Magazine
Nat Fein’s famous photo of Babe Ruth

In 1948, Nat Fein shot this photo of Babe Ruth shortly before his death. Photographers were gathering together to get a shot of Ruth’s face, but Nat “got a feeling” and headed behind Ruth and captured this image, which was the first sports photograph to win a Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve been greatly influenced by this photograph in my career. I shoot many events where there’s a slew of photographers and I pride myself on getting shots no one else has. Because of this photo, whenever I see a group of photographers, I head another direction and I’m always pleased I did.

Recently a friend of mine, Bill Crawford of Harbor Pictures, noticed my particular approach had been documented peripherally in a print on display at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

The following image is part of Keating’s Hoosier Hardwood project from the 2017 IHSAA Boys Basketball State Finals. You might notice a group of photographers on the left in the background.  And then on the right, you’ll see me, lying on the floor by myself.

The resulting photo…

You can see the rest of my favorites from the 2017 Indiana Men’s Basketball State Finals here.

Finally, I’d like to note that Mr. Keating obviously deserves credit here too:  in order to get that perspective he was shooting from a unique perspective as well.  Not that he needs my stamp of approval!  He’s had a long and distinguished career in photojournalism.

Share in the comments, when have you pushed the limits in your photography getting in a unique position that paid off? What about in other kinds of art or work?

“If people only knew…”

I bet you’ve started a sentence that way.  Most likely it was in regard to something you had strong feelings about: the work that you do or a cause you support, for example.

“If people only knew about our business and how we can help them, we’d easily meet our sales goals.”

“If people only knew how this issue is affecting our community, we would be able to raise enough funds to solve the problem.”

The problem might not be that people don’t know about your business or organization.  The problem might be that people only know about the product or service you provide, and don’t realize how you can help them solve their problems.

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“Sell the problem you solve, not the product.” – foundr magazine

“Go from being a service provider to a solutions provider.” David Griffiths, K3-Cubed, Ltd. – Management Consulting

“If there was a problem, yo, I’ll solve it.” – Robert Matthew Van Winkle, multi-platinum recording artist

04_incpas_2778

What does it mean to be a solutions provider?  In my mind, the difference between being a service provider and a solutions provider is the difference between a product and a result.  For my business, it’s saying, “I tell your story,” instead of “I take photos.”  I solve the problem of how a business connects with its clients and investors by telling their story.  In other words, I help my clients stop saying, “If people only knew…”

The first step in becoming a solutions provider is to, “Focus on the customer’s problem and build a message around the specific need your product addresses,” writes entrepreneurship consultant Rick Spence.  We business owners tend to talk a lot about ourselves and the work that we do.  I include myself in that statement.  Instead, we first must listen to our potential clients about what they perceive their problem to be.  Only then can we really frame our product/service as a solution.

As you move down this path of thinking, know that your potential customers might not even realize they have a problem they need solved.  In his Harvard Business Review article about mental models, Mark Bonchek writes, “Mental models are how the brain makes sense of the vast amount of information to be processed every moment of every day.  They are the lens through which we see the world.”

Bonchek uses cloud computing as an example.  Not long ago, “the cloud” was a concept not widely recognized.  If the solution you were selling involved cloud-based computing, you first needed to help potential buyers understand the “mental model” of cloud computing.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

05_incpas_2492

For my business, the “if people only knew…,” is that I can provide the solution to “if people only knew…”  What solutions do you provide your clients? How would this paradigm shift change your marketing and even your target market? Tell us about the solutions your business provides in the comments below.

Sources

Bonchek, Mark. “Don’t Sell a Product, Sell a Whole New Way of Thinking.” Harvard Business Review. web. 18 July 2014.

Spence, Rick. “How to Market to People Who Don’t Know They Need You.” Financial Post. web. 17 Dec. 2014.

Improve Your Sports Photography

Usually when people ask me about getting better sports photos, the question is focused around what equipment to buy.  For this post, I want to provide advice for parents, students and aspiring photographers on how to improve sports shooting.

1) Get close.  The best thing you can do is physically move yourself as close to the action as you can.  Don’t rely on the equipment to do that for you.  A lot of my favorite shots are moments that happen before, after and in between action, and don’t require a long lens to capture.

Capturing emotion up close by physically standing near the subjects with a wider angle gives the viewer a sense of being right in the middle of the action, rather than viewing from afar.
Capturing emotion up close by physically standing near the subjects with a wider angle gives the viewer a sense of being right in the middle of the action, rather than viewing from afar.

This is a great shot to illustrate getting close.  That’s me looking like I’m about to get run over.  I made it out of the way.  It wasn’t until later that I actually got knocked down.  Obviously, I didn’t take this shot, so thanks to Matt Kryger of the Indy Star for sending this over.

2) Communicate.  Plan ahead and ask coaches about shooting before game day.  They’re happy to have other students and parents document the action.  Let them know what you’re hoping to accomplish.  If you’re upfront and low-maintenance, they’re usually very welcoming and help get you close to the action to get some great images of their team.  I say usually because some coaches can be intimidating.  If you’re nervous to approach a head coach, start with an assistant or the Athletic Director.  The AD is there as a liaison between the community, school and athletic department, so communication and approachability are typically strong suits.

01_ihsaa_2152
I was on site at for an IHSAA basketball sectional game about 1.5 hours early to touch base with the coach about shooting pregame in the locker room. Thanks to Arsenal Tech coach Jason Delaney (center) for being so welcoming.

3) Be patient.  The more people are used to seeing you around, the more you’ll start to blend into the background and find great candid images.  There’s always a period of adjustment where people will mug for the camera, so don’t be worried if that happens a lot at first.

07_ihsaa_2611
Students love to get right into the camera and ham it up, but that’s not what I want. I look for genuine reactions to what they’re watching. By hanging around near the student section for 5 minutes or so, they start to ignore me and go back to watching the game, providing me the real opportunity I’m seeking for a great photo.

4) Go early/stay late.  Before crowds arrive or after they leave can offer some interesting and unique moments that most people don’t get to see.  Another benefit is that you can experiment with shooting angles you couldn’t during a game, like standing center court (I almost typed center quart).

Shooting this angle during a game would be impossible. The camera was flat on the floor ON the baseline, which would probably get you kicked out if you tried it during the game.
Shooting this angle during a game would be impossible. The camera was flat on the floor ON the baseline, which would probably get you kicked out if you tried it during the game. This photo features Lawrence Central standout Kyle Guy.

Posing for a photo for moms & dads the state championship trophy.
Carmel High School swimmers posing for a photo for parents after winning the state championship. Shots with the whole team are nice to have, but seeing one or two athletes holding a giant trophy can make for an interesting photo.

5) Get back.  Ok, so I said to get close, yes, but then get as far back as you can to find a different perspective.  Show the arena/venue as a whole.  Some gyms have a track around the upper half that provides a unique angle.  Do something different.

This sectional matchup was absolutely packed. I had to get to the highest point in the gym to fully show the crowd.
This IHSAA sectional matchup between Lawrence Central and Arsenal Tech was absolutely packed. I had to get to the highest point in the gym to show the size of the crowd.

Cheerleaders warm up at the edge of the court before a game. This gym had a raised track that offered this great angle.
Pike High School Cheerleaders warm up at the edge of the court before a game. This gym had a raised track that offered this great angle.

6) DETAILS.  Keep an eye out for interesting details.  A piece of equipment, a message written on a shoe, eccentric clothing: Any small thing that catches your attention will probably make for an interesting photo.

I noticed this kid's shock of hair and thought it would make an interesting detail. Then when he ran is fingers though it, the photo really came together.
I noticed this kid’s shock of hair and thought it would make a cool detail shot. Then when he ran is fingers though it, the photo really came together.

I hope this post helps give some insight into how I work and gives some helpful advice as you pursue your hobby or potential career.  I always welcome questions through this blog or email!

Oh, and one note: All of these photos were from this year so far, except that cheerleader shot.  It was from 2015, but I hadn’t posted it yet and it’s my blog, so I’ll do what I want.

If you want to see a gallery of my basketball photos from 2016 through March 1st, here’s a link: http://www.zachdobson.com/IN-BBALL-2016/1

Life Lessons From A Paper Stopper

stopper

To answer your first question, a paper stopper is that last little flap on your printer’s paper tray that flips up at roughly a 30-degree angle to supposedly stop your paper from falling onto the floor. Hence the above photo.  I’ve never had an issue with paper falling on the floor, with or without the stopper, so I never pay much attention to it.

How can a 2.875″ x 1.5″ (actual dimensions) piece of plastic teach you about life on a more meaningful level?

Recently, I was wrapping up work for the day when I realized last minute I needed to print some flyers for my kid’s school before I could leave.  As I turned on the printer, I saw the paper stopper was folded in, rather than extended as recommended by Epson.  A thought from seemingly nowhere popped into my head: “You should flip that out.”  Then my inner dialogue kicked in and said, “No, you usually don’t mess with that thing, why bother now?”  “Yeah, self, you’re right. Just ignore that instinct which came from the ethers.” I went about closing up the office while the pages printed, stopper folded flat.

Well, it turns out that the stopper wasn’t folded flat.  It was slightly raised.  The first page got caught underneath it and bowed upward, causing the second and third pages to jam the printer.  After fixing the jam and reprinting, I noticed the print heads were out of alignment, leaving small, repeating lines in the flyer.  I like for everything I produce to be neatly and professionally done, even when printing a flyer for school, but time was of the essence and I needed to take what I had gotten and go.

So what?!  You lost 15 minutes and had mediocre flyers for 10 parents at a preschool, what’s the big deal?  

While this wasn’t a problem in the grand scheme of things, or really any-sized scheme of things, it was indicative of how we can live a better life when tuning into those subconscious directions we receive from time to time.  Listening to that instinct I had and taking 3 seconds to reach down and flip out the paper stopper would have made my life better, albeit in a very small way.  But even these small instincts are important, because by listening to these (“Open the paper stopper.” “Drive home that way today.”), we can practice for the larger ones (“Change your career path.” “Move to a new city.”).

I find that when I’m out taking photos, I tune into my environment and find great shots by just going with the flow of life.  I’m still practicing this in my day-to-day life, but I’ll get there, one paper stopper at a time.