Fundamentals of Photography: Shadows

The literal definition of photography “drawing with light.” So the fundamentals of photography are shadows and light. Sometimes it’s important to get back to the basics.

One reason Larry Bird was such a great player was how many free throws he shot every day as a kid. It’s Hoosier lore that he’d shoot 100 free throws every day. Some say 500. I suppose I’ll have to ask him next time I see him around town.

I can’t say what’s true exactly, but that’s not the point. The point is knowing your fundamentals so well that they become a part of you.

Today as I saw some good late afternoon light coming in and casting nice shadows, I decided to go out and work on my fundamentals. Just light and shadow. Black and white.

Try it yourself and link me to the results! This doesn’t have to be a huge investment. I spent 15 minutes on this project. Have fun with it!

shadow self portrait

Related Content

Another photography exercise I like to do is something I came up with that I call 7 Shots from a Chair. Watch the YouTube video below and try it for yourself! You can also ready about my 60 minute blog post experiment here.

Getting Great at Snow Photography

Oh man, it’s been snowing so much here in Indiana. It’s a lot more than we get most winters. So, I’ve been out documenting it. I use snow photography as an opportunity to practice all of the classic elements: framing, shadows, contrast, action, texture, and of course, composition.

The featured image at the top of this post is my favorite composition I’ve taken this winter. I love the angels and geometry. It has great lines that draw your eyes across the frame. It has a timeless quality and feels like a classic image to me.

Frozen Creek Play with Falling Snow

Just across the street and down the hill is another world on the golf course in the winter. It’s great having a park-like setting to explore the woods and play in open areas.

The highlight to our kids is playing on the frozen creek. It’s not cold enough in Indiana every year for creeks and lakes to freeze enough to walk on. But a few weeks of below-freezing temperatures has been enough to freeze the water. They definitely made good use of it!

snow photography frozen creek winter midwest indiana
snow photography portrait

I love the above candid portrait of my daughter. My kids are used to me getting up in their faces while we’re out doing stuff. They never seem to mind, but I try not to stay too close for long because everyone deserves their personal space.

Taking photos of kids at play really shows them at their most free. Add a snowy environment and it makes for something unique because it gives a great sense of time and place. I work to capture eyes in the photo because they add so much to an image.

I don’t photoshop my images in any way. I only do minor color and tone adjustments. Can you tell by that red thread sticking out from her mask? To me, perfection comes from what’s real, not from what I can manufacture in editing software.

snow photography winter contrast shadows

The image above is a study in light and shadow. My kids were throwing snow over the edge of the bridge. I knew that the strong sunlight and shade of the bridge would provide for some nice contrast and highlight the powder in the air.

The contrast of the ice and water below lead to some great minimalist images. There are all sorts of natural abstracts that are unique to winter and snow photography.

Sledding Hill

About 200 yards from our property is a very nice sledding hill. If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you definitely see me post photos from this spot every year. It’s a great place for the neighborhood kids to gather, bring their sleds and snowboards, and just let loose.

winter sledding snow photography

The above image is a good testament to how I assess the full frame when I’m shooting. In watching the scene unfold through my viewfinder, I noticed the kid on the far left about to take off down the hill. I waited for them to slide directly between the two trees before I took the photo. It’s a small detail that I think makes a big difference in the image.

Snow Photography at Home

Sometimes it’s nice to stay close to home. Especially when you want to play with your 20-month-old little brother. There’s still plenty of chances available to practice my snow photography at home.

winter snow photography neighborhood suburbs

Natural Snowy Settings

There are lots of trees and woods around that provide a great opportunity for snow photos both with and without people.

snow as a backdrop

Shooting from a higher angle and excluding the horizon, combined with the white snow provides a nice, simple background. I used that here in addition to the lines of the tree trunks and spacing/directionality of the kids in the frame to form a composition that’s both simple and complex.

The photos above are all examples of natural framing. Look for ways to use elements like trees and patterns in the snow to frame the subjects.

So venture out like the intrepid explorer below and see what elements you can find unique to snow photography to really practice your art!

snow toddler black and white photography

Related Posts

It’s a veritable winter wonderland around here, so I have multiple snow posts to share this year. There’s also some great photo tips on my YouTube channel about snow.

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.

Moody Photos of Night Snow

Twenty years into photography, it’s rare to find a subject I haven’t already photographed in some capacity. Enter Night Snow. Whenever possible, I get outside when it’s snowing those big, fat beautiful flakes, but I had never tried it at night.

First, it required me to do something I absolutely hate: take a tripod. I’m about as anti-tripod as anyone can be who still owns one. I find them extremely limiting. I knew with how dark it was that I would need a tripod to shoot at slower shutter speeds if I wanted to have a low(ish) ISO, which increases my image quality.

But, of course, slow shutter speeds mean that the snow streaks across the image, which isn’t really the effect I was going for. And if the speeds are slow enough, you can’t even tell it’s snowing at all.

Comparing Shutter Speeds for Night Snow

Let’s compare the three images below. The image top left is at a shutter speed 0.8 seconds. Is it even snowing? I can’t tell! The top right image is at 1/8 second. Better! The bottom image is 1/100 second and it has more of the type of night snow look I was going for. However, I had to shoot at ISO 12,800 AND underexpose the image quite a bit to shoot at that shutter speed, which means the quality of the image wasn’t great. The color was terrible, but it does look decent in black & white.

The image below is the best compromise between all the factors. It’s 1/50 sec. And even though it’s ISO 12,800, since I didn’t underexpose it as much as the image above, the color didn’t turn out too terribly. Oh, and all of these photos are at f/2.

photos of night snow in Indiana

Know Thyself

I can admit that my greatest strength as a photographer isn’t thinking of all possible scenarios in advance. One of my greatest strengths is being very quick to adapt to a situation to make it work in my favor.

photos of night snow in Indiana golf course

So that means I decided to crank the ISO (3200-12,800) and accept the graininess that comes with that in order to get my shutter speed high enough to (somewhat) freeze the flakes in midair and get the type of night snow photos that I wanted.

I was glad to have the tripod, though. It made a nice walking stick.

photos of night snow in Indiana holiday lights

Pro Tip: Stability Technique

Just because I’m morally opposed to tripods, it doesn’t mean that I don’t do whatever I can to stabilize my camera to get sharp images. For example, for the image below, wedged my lens into the corner of one of those small squares at the top of the fence to add some stability for this night snow shot. I used trees, buildings and all types of furniture to do the same.

photos of night snow in Indiana at the pool

Related Posts

The snow has been plentiful the last couple weeks, so check out these other posts I did in the snow. Also, I have a couple photo tips about shooting in the snow on my YouTube channel.

Just Get Out and Make Photos

One thing I’ve learned in my 17 years of professional photography is sometimes you need to just get out and DO SOMETHING, even when you’re not feeling inspired.

Being a parent, if you haven’t decided what you’re doing with yourself at a certain time, someone will come along and decide for you. Yesterday morning, my 4 y/o asked me to come outside with him to practice his skateboarding. It was very cold and there was a dusting of snow on the ground, so we headed to the porch.

I wasn’t planning to take any photos, but the sun popped out and the dryer turned on and there was the cool combo of steam and morning light that I had to capture.

We ended with a couple rounds of darts. Why not?

Moments in time

So is this a full photo story? No. It’s more of a vignette. Just a few moments in time. And often that’s enough. Life doesn’t always give you enough time to do a full story and really it’s better that way. I used to obsess about when to start or finish a story. Now I do what I have time to do and that’s that. It takes a lot of pressure off, frankly.

Admittedly, it’s different for client work, but that’s another blog post for another day.

Related Posts

Here are some stories I made about artists. I got out and shot for an hour or two and was happy with the result.

6o Minute Photo Shoot & Blog Post

This morning I decided to try an experiment. I would see if I could shoot, edit and make a blog post in 60 minutes or less. I dedicated 20 minutes to each task.

kid in climbing net in basement

I knew I could do SOMETHING in that time frame, but how many photos would I get that I liked in 20 minutes? I took 89 frames and edited 18. Still not sure how many of those will end up here.

climging ned and giant beanbag in basement

Would I spend too long editing? I didn’t. It took 15 minutes. Since my background is in photojournalism, I’m really very fast at editing.

Ok, I’m going to press “publish” now and I clocked in at about 53 minutes for the entire project start to finish!

Thanks for joining me while I try out this experiment! There are more photos below and some related posts with more images of this time we’re all spending close to home.

skylight on porch in winter
kids pinecone birdfeeder

Related Posts

Here are some other posts of images I took around the homestead during the pandemic.

Single Photos Forming a Collection

Going through some images from 2020, I started to see a lot of single images that I hadn’t published. When I put them together into a collection, they seemed to go together pretty well. I suppose that means my personal style and vision is becoming more cohesive each year.

kid climbing fence at park in the fall
home life with toddler in black and white
kids playing in backyard during the summer
fall leaf with water droplets caught in a basketball net
signs and arrows in a parking lot
backyard fire and trampoline in the suburbs
playing video games on the porch
pond at golden hour

Related Posts

Seeing as most of 2020 was spent at or near home, here are some other groups of photos and stories from pandemic life.

See more: Eating Well Magazine’s Thanksgiving Issue

A funny thing about publishing a magazine is that most of the time you’re working a year in advance. That means for the Thanksgiving 2020 issue of Eating Well magazine, I took photos on Thanksgiving 2019.

Eating Well planned a spread of photos from across the United States to show different ways we celebrate Thanksgiving. My assignment was to document the role small farms play in the process while covering the Midwest section of the story.

Liz and Nate Brownlee own and operate Nightfall Farm in Crothersville, Indiana. Here are some images as I follow them around southern Indiana on their distribution day.

eating-well-thanksgiving issue nightfall farm indiana

Fun Fact: I took the image they published in the first 30 minutes of a 5 hour shoot. You never know which photos are going to be your best until you go through the entire process.

eating-well-thanksgiving issue nightfall farm indiana

Eating Well Thanksgiving Issue

Click on the image below to head to the Eating Well website and see the full story celebrating the diversity of our country on one of our favorite holidays.

eating-well-thanksgiving issue

As It Lies

I’m not a golfer, so it felt a bit odd to start taking photos of lost golf balls. However, I recently started being drawn to photographing lost golf balls on the course near my house and following that instinct lead to a surprisingly philosophical set of images.

I focus on documenting life as it happens naturally, so when my kids asked me to take them to the creek to find golf balls, I grabbed my camera and followed along. I planned to photograph the kids in their search, but I soon felt pulled to shoot the lost balls as well.

After seeing the resulting images and reflecting on them, some deeper themes emerged…

Whether in sports, business, relationships or creative endeavors, we all know the feeling of taking a big shot and shanking it into the woods. It’s so off-course that it’s not even worth the effort pursue it. 

I like the idea of taking someone’s missed shot and making something beautiful out of it. I like to think that means the things we try and fail at can lead to something good like another’s inspiration and success.

The title of this series, As It Lies, comes from the golf rule that you must play your ball from wherever it lands. This is also an apt description for my approach to these images: I shoot each ball as found. I don’t touch or move the ball, or change the scenery in any way for the photo.

I feel there’s a larger collaboration happening to create these images. It starts with a golfer taking an errant shot. Then nature receives it. The ball is held in place, or moved by wind and water over a period of hours, days, months or even years. Only after all that do I find it and document its existence.

If you enjoy these images, you can follow me on Instagram to see the latest balls I find. Many of these images are available as prints, click here to see the images available in our shop. And if one of these speaks to you specifically but you don’t see it in my shop, shoot me an email & I’ll be happy to make it available for you.

Related Content

This is a crazy time of life & it’s been a great opportunity for interesting photojournalism. Here are links to more of my photo stories that have spawned from these times of social distancing and quarantine.

Bethel Cemetery

indianapolis indiana bethel cemetery civil war reenactors

One of the many reasons I love my work is that I never know what type of shoots are going to come my way.  Documenting the rededication of Bethel Cemetery is definitely a photo story different than any I have done before.

A logistics company called Cardno contacted me in the fall to document the opening of a new/old cemetery. Due to necessary infrastructure improvements, Bethel Cemetery was relocated from its home by the airport to an area within Concordia Cemetery on the south side of Indianapolis. Cardno led the project.

indianapolis indiana bethel cemetery civil war veteran
indianapolis indiana bethel cemetery rededication

Established in 1827, Bethel Cemetery saw its last known burial in 1935. Among the buried are veterans of the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

An initial survey of the site identified over 150 headstones. Throughout the relocation project, 543 individual were discovered. In the process they salvaged, restored and reassembled headstones that had fallen into disrepair. 

indianapolis indiana bethel cemetery civil war reenactors
indianapolis indiana bethel cemetery civil war reenactors

Bethel Cemetery Families

Descendants of some of the Civil War veterans attended the rededication as well as some historically prominent families from the Indianapolis area. As a part of the rededication, reenactors from from the Civil War and War of 1812 along with an Honor Guard from the IN National Guard gave salutes to the veterans.

indianapolis indiana bethel cemetery rededication
indianapolis indiana bethel cemetery rededication

Take the next steps

Since you’ve made it to the end of the story, you’re a good candidate to join us for our weekly-ish newsletter. We share the latest stories before they’re available anywhere else, along with some special offers and other generally interesting info. Click here to subscribe.

If you own your own business or are a marketing pro and you want more info about having me out to do a story, send me an email.

indianapolis indiana bethel cemetery rededication

Related Posts

I do documentary photographer for all sorts of commercial clients. Check out these stories below to see some cool stories.

Indiana City Brewing

Indiana City

Last week I visited Indiana City Brewing on the southeast side of downtown Indianapolis to check out their brewing process. It was fun to watch. The building they’re housed in is super cool and the morning light definitely heightened the scene.

I’ve been doing documentary photography and drinking beer (not at the same time) for nearly two decades, so it’s crazy I hadn’t shot any stories about brewing. Glad to finally end the drought!

Meet the Brew Crew

The Indiana City Brewing team has the flow down, moving quickly between tasks. Nick Shadle (the man in the mask) is Head Brewer. Ryan Oesch (the guy with the overalls who you can just tell has good taste in music) is Production Manager. And finally the dude with the best title of all, Cellarman, Mike Abrego.

So if you stop by the brewery and see them around, tell them you saw their photo on here and Zach says hello.

Indiana City Brewing Taproom

Now that you’ve seen all the photos, check out their site for more info and stop by the taproom soon!

We are partnering with Indiana City Brewing for a giveaway on our Instagram page now through November 22, 2019.

They are having a ticketed release party on November 23 for the beer brewed in this photo story, Cratchit’s Winter Olde Ale.

Related Posts

Artist Aaron Scamihorn does the label art for Indiana City, so check out these posts where he makes an appearance.

aaron scamihorn

Check out 2019 Indy Mural Fest

indy mural fest indianapolis art

Inaugural Indy Mural Fest

We love to celebrate art and artists, so I was excited to photograph a new event in Indianapolis: Indy Mural Fest. I appreciate their mission to have a festival full of LOCAL artists, so the full talent of our city is on public display.

Another important factor is that all artists are paid for their work. As a working artist myself, I know how much of a reward it is to be hired for your own vision, so it’s great to see others provided that same opportunity.

indy mural fest indianapolis art
indy mural fest indianapolis art
indy mural fest indianapolis art
indy mural fest indianapolis art
indy mural fest indianapolis art
indy mural fest indianapolis art

See it Yourself

A great thing about this mural art is that it’s on display around the clock in public places. Take a look at this map and go see the art for yourself!

indy mural fest indianapolis art
indy mural fest indianapolis art

Director’s Cut

If you’re interested in seeing even more images from this event, subscribe to our newsletter for a full gallery. Click here to sign up. After entering your email, you’ll see this past week’s newsletter containing a link to a password-protected gallery.

Our newsletter is the place we give a first-looks and extended galleries of my weekly stories. It also includes extras like free downloads, tips, discounts on prints and more.

indy mural fest gallery

Related Posts

Into art, artists and just general creativity? Check out these other posts.

aaron scamihorn

Nathaniel Russell

Recently I had the opportunity to photograph artist Nathaniel Russell in his home studio. His work is often humorous, sometimes political and always thoughtful. Nature and animals are frequent themes, along with humans in their odd beauty and beautiful oddness.


It’s great to see a native Hoosier making cool art around the world and still calling Indiana home. Give him a follow on Instagram to see all the rad murals, posters, woodcuts, skateboards, fake fliers, album covers, illustrations and more that he comes up with. You can also purchase editions of his work in his online shop.

The day of my visit, Nat made some prints from a woodcut and numbered some limited edition silk screens of a big blue bird (sorry folks, sold out).


The music is on constant and literal rotation and this day’s selections included indie band Little Wings and country & gospel music artists The Louvin Brothers. In addition to his visual pieces, Nat plays and records his own music.


This last image is of cleanup, but I enjoyed the visual nature of it nonetheless. I didn’t notice until later that the splotches of black ink were covering the government pages in the phone book. I don’t know if this was coincidence, but I don’t care to ask.


Related Posts

If you’re into art and artists, check out these other posts on the topic.

chocolate syrum art

Carmel Indiana Pool Construction

carmel indiana pool open during construction

A Study in Contrasts

Contrasts always catch my eye. Whether it’s contrasts in tone, color or subject matter, I like to find ways to document them with my camera. This post examines the contrasts at a new Carmel, Indiana pool.

Pool Open During Construction

Our neighborhood has a new pool this year and the area around it is still under construction. This gave me a chance to shoot a lot of those contrasts that I like.

There’s the bright blue water and colorful swimsuits next to the expanse of dirt. Another contrast is the smoothness of the water and new concrete against the footprints left by construction equipment. And the most obvious contrast to me is the shiny, sparkling new pool set against the completely raw, unfinished site around it.

carmel indiana pool open during construction
carmel indiana pool open during construction
carmel indiana pool open during construction
carmel indiana pool open during construction
carmel indiana pool open during construction
carmel indiana pool open during construction
carmel indiana pool open during construction

Construction Noise

On this day there’s a hard-to-miss a bulldozer circling the pool. The rumbling of a diesel engine, the crunch of dirt and rock, plus the squeak of the metal tracks provides an interesting contrast against the splashing and yelling of children. Below is a video clip I shot on my iPhone. Turn on the sound to get an idea of what it feels like to be there.

carmel indiana pool open during construction

Related Posts

Thanks for checking out my photos of construction at a Carmel, Indiana pool. Here are some family activity posts you’ll want to check out.

Sidewalk Chalk


Sometimes creation is destruction. That’s definitely the case with this Crayola sidewalk chalk. It tends to happen when the chalk is worn, broken, left in the rain, dried out and then left in the rain again. Or sometimes it happens with a new box. You can never be sure when the urge will strike.

With these photos and video, I look to capture the light-hearted fun, curiosity and experimentation that is happening.


Related Posts

National Donut Day

Today while standing in line to buy donuts at Titus Bakery, I found out it is National Donut Day. It’s not just another Hallmark holiday; it’s a reason to indulge in our unofficial national breakfast treat (as if you need one other than “deliciousness”). So sit back and let me paint (photograph) a picture for you.

national donut day titus bakery westfield indiana
national donut day titus bakery westfield indiana
national donut day titus bakery westfield indiana

Related Posts

Below are more links to food and family posts. You’ll definitely want to see the burgers in the Moonshine Store!


What do you do with those old electronics you have around the house? Recycle them? Sure, but first, use them for a take-apart project.

apple computer take-apart homeschooling unschooling

Kids love to see what’s inside things. The opportunity to crack open an old computer is something they can’t turn down. And whether they’re using a tiny screwdriver to remove intricate pieces or just taking a mallet to the damn thing, it’s all good.

apple computer take-apart homeschooling unschooling

Building, breaking, reading, drawing, painting, tearing, examining, walking, throwing, watching, poking, smashing, running, jumping, climbing, falling, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, and looking are all a part of learning about the world and how it works. Assigning “value” to one activity over another ignores the unique perspective of the individual.

apple computer take-apart homeschooling unschooling
apple computer take-apart homeschooling unschooling
apple computer take-apart homeschooling unschooling


Before you start a take-apart, make sure to take the batteries out of devices first. Some electronics (like stereos) have capacitors that hold a charge after being unplugged. Typically it’s not more than a day, but double-check these things before you get started.

Also, look for a local electronics recycling site when you’re done. I use the Household Hazardous Waste center in Noblesville, IN. It’s free to county residents. Search your own area to find options nearby.

Related Posts

chocolate syrum art

A Delicious Medium

Today we present a photo story of a young artist discovering a delicious medium. One of the many benefits of working from home when you have four (and soon five) kids who homeschool is witnessing, and subsequently documenting, their shenanigans.

This is what happens when you leave a tempting item on the kitchen counter within reach of a toddler. A new photo story!

chocolate syrup art toddler carmel indiana
chocolate syrup art toddler carmel indiana
chocolate syrup art toddler carmel indiana

It’s All Good

Photo by Courtney McCracken

We believe that children are inherently good. They’re curious about the world around them and are naturally inclined to explore and experiment. When messes happen, we laugh, take some photos and then clean up together.

Related Content

If you like these slice-of-life photo stories, be sure to check us out on Instagram. We also have a new Facebook page.

Also, here are some more stories on family exploration.

Celebrity Cousins

documentary photographer family carmel indiana

A documentary photographer never rests, even on Memorial Day weekend. Indy 500 race day in Indianapolis means family get-togethers and visits with celebrity cousins. Here’s what comedian Jim Gaffigan has to say about these special family members…

“…the ultimate reason for attending family gatherings is for your children to have the time of their lives with their cousins. Little kids love their cousins. I’m not being cute or exaggerating here. Cousins are like celebrities for little kids. If little kids had a People magazine, cousins would be on the cover. Cousins are the barometers of how fun a family get-together will be. Are the cousins going to be there? Fun!”

documentary photographer family carmel indiana
documentary photographer family carmel indiana
documentary photographer family carmel indiana
documentary photographer family carmel indiana
documentary photographer family carmel indiana

A note on approach

If you regularly follow my work and are a photography buff, you might notice these images have more depth of field than what I normally shoot. Many times I like a shallow depth of field to focus the viewer’s eye in a precise spot. Lately, I’ve been shooting more images with increased depth to allow the viewer to take in a scene in more detail.

I like how this works for images like the one above. You can see a number of interactions happening at once while also getting more information about the location for additional context.

Documentary Photographer – Related Posts

If you’re interested in more documentary photography of family-oriented places and events, check these out…

Senator Richard Lugar

Richard Lugar served as United States Senator from Indiana from 1977-2013. He passed away on April 28 at the age of 87. Lugar is known for his international diplomacy, working to greatly reduce the world’s supply of nuclear weapons and helping to pressure the end of apartheid in South Africa.

After his Senate career ended, Lugar created The Lugar Center. The not-for-profit located in Washington, D.C. focuses on international issues and bi-partisan governance.

I had the honor to photograph Richard Lugar in 2011 and 2012 as he ran for his 7th term in the Senate. To me, he seemed the same person in public as in private. He was very warm, friendly, and interested in making real connections with people. I’m glad I met and photographed him, if only for a few days.

US Senator Richard Lugar
US Senator Richard Lugar
US Senator Richard Lugar
US Senator Richard Lugar

Did you know or ever meet Senator Lugar? I’d like to hear what impressions he left on you. If you’re interested in politics, check out my post on Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb.

To learn more about Senator Lugar’s contributions and legacy, read this excellent profile on Time’s website.

Indianapolis Public Schools

This time last year I worked on a project documenting Indianapolis Public Schools. I went to 10 different schools over the course of four days in April & May to photograph students in classes and activities. The images highlight the special programs and opportunities each school has to offer.

Here are some of my favorites. What’s the same and what’s different from when you were in school? Tell us in the comments!

Indianapolis Public Schools
Indianapolis Public Schools
Indianapolis Public Schools
Indianapolis Public Schools
Indianapolis Public Schools
Indianapolis Public Schools
Indianapolis Public Schools
Indianapolis Public Schools
Indianapolis Public Schools
Indianapolis Public Schools
Indianapolis Public Schools
Indianapolis Public Schools
Indianapolis Public Schools

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


Viva Nashvegas

Hats, boots (buy one get two free) and neon signs.  This was my initial impression walking through downtown Nashville, Tennessee, known by locals as “Nashvegas” (thanks for the insider info, Val).

The images in this post offer a QUICK glance of Nashville.  We spent one night and approximately 20 hours in town.  With four young kids in tow, you won’t see the inside of a bunch of honky-tonks, but you will see what we saw: the outside of a bunch of honky-tonks, lots of boots (buy one get two free), street artists and giant wings.

Nashville was dubbed the “Athens of the South” in the 1850’s due to the high number of educational institutions and its arts scene.  So, naturally, it only made sense to build a full-size replica of the Parthenon for its Centennial Exposition in 1897.

I like to think the Parthenon of Ancient Greece had vendor tents outside selling gyros and wine.  Prove me wrong.

The scene outside the Nashville Parthenon.

The full scale replica of Athena in Nashville, TN.

Sun Diner is a Sun Records-themed breakfast joint in the heart of downtown Nashville, Tennessee.  Good food.  Good atmosphere.  Open 24 hours.

“What Lifts You” by local artist Kelsey Montague in the trendy area of Nashville known as The Gulch, is a ready-made Instagrammable spot for tourists to get dolled up and look like their cutest sightseeing outfits have sprouted wings.  Or, if you’re me, get dolled up and take photos of people taking photos of people sprouting wings.

So that’s that!  Go see Nashville.  It’s pretty cool.  I should mention, even if you’re traveling with young kids like we do, you can hear plenty of great music from the street (above, left) and there are a number of kid-friendly music venues like Wildhorse Saloon (above, right).  Oh and don’t forget to buy some boots (buy one get two free).

If you’re interested in licensing for these or any other images from Zach Dobson Photography, please contact us. And be sure to subscribe to see our latest content as it’s released as well as get some cool extras we offer only to our closest allies.

Kids. Just being.

I had a co-op day recently at my kids’ preschool and thought I’d take a few photos.  It’s a kind and loving environment where kids can explore their own interests in their own ways.  They spend time outside every day, including in the rain and snow.

Scroll through the gallery below to see what it’s like on a typical fall day with a group of three and four-year-olds.  You’ll see them playing with some kindergarteners on the playground, too.

[metaslider id=1711]


This past weekend was the grand opening of the Carmel Christkindlmarkt.  I stopped by on Sunday evening to check out the scene.  It’s a beautiful setup with the Palladium in the background.  The iceskating is affordable, and there are special deals on Wednesday and Thursday, so be sure to check out the website for details:

Here a few shots from my brief visit.  I’ll be back soon to do a full shoot for Hamilton County Tourism, so I’ll be sure share those later this winter.

The woodworker is Christian Werner, a master craftsman from the small town of Seiffen, Germany. He travelled to Carmel for the opening weekend in 2017 to demonstrate how he creates animal figurines.

Carmel Indiana Christkindlmarkt Ice Skating

If you’re looking for more recent images from Carmel Christkindlmarkt, you’ll want to join our mailing list because we shared an exclusive view of the gorgeous Glühwein Pyramid, added in 2018, and a mouth watering image of a Raclette with our newsletter and we’ll be sure to let you know when those images go live in the future.

2018 Holiday Events

As legendary Hoosier Michael Jackson once said, “Don’t stop ’til you get enough.”  So by all means, please enjoy our other Indianapolis holiday events posts from 2018.  Click the image below.

indianapolis holiday photography

Refugees in Indiana

Like many people, the images I’ve seen in the news lately of refugees fleeing violence and war have affected me deeply.  Parents are going through extraordinary lengths to protect their children, risking their lives seeking safety and stability.

America is a country founded and built by refugees and immigrants with these same basic goals.  That’s why this spring I began documenting refugees in Indiana.  My goal with this series is to show people living in local communities who embody what it means to be Hoosiers and Americans.

Rana and Reem Okar, 35, are twin sisters from Syria.  They lived in Damascus for 30 years, and although smoke rising from bomb blasts in the distance had become regular occurrences and work commutes were lengthened by checkpoints, they felt safe in their city. They lived in a tight-knit community where eveyone knew each other and they would spend hours after work most days talking with friends and family at restaurants and hookah bars.

They came to the United States in late 2012 to visit family and by late 2013 decided to seek refugee status, as they were concerned about the escalating discord in their home country.

After few years of working various part time jobs in retail, both Rana and Reem were able to find regular full time employment that they enjoy.  Reem works with the program and camping department  of the Boy Scouts and Rana works as a team leader for Engaging Solutions, providing call center operations for health care providers.

Currently they live in the Southport area of Indianapolis with two of their sisters, but are looking to purchase a home on the north side.  On weekends and during vacations they like to travel around the state seeing sights like Brown County State Park and Cataract Falls or shopping in towns like Nashville and Zionsville.

[metaslider id=1386]