Tuesday, January 27, 2015

25 Quick Thoughts On Photography

Brownie Target Six-20 - Stallion Springs, California
Here are 25 quick thoughts that I have on photography. Ready, set, go!

#1. Cameras don't matter. Ever. Either you can or you cannot capture great images.

#2. Those that say that cameras do matter are often insecure in their own abilities. They believe that having top-of-the-line equipment somehow make's their photography better.

#3. If great gear is necessary to create great photographs, how can one explain the great photographs captured with cell phones, Holgas or home-built cameras?

#4. A "crappy" camera in hand is worth two Leica's at home on a shelf.

#5. What does matter in photography is photographic vision.

#6. Creativity and the decisive moment are essential.

#7. You should photograph whatever it is that fascinates you. The more a subject interests you, the more energy, effort and brain power you'll put into it.

#8. Photography is very simple. Anyone can do it, and it doesn't take much effort to learn the basics of how everything works.

#9. Great photography is very difficult. It takes years of practice (and mistakes) to even begin to understand it.

#10. Failure is good, just as long as you learn from it and keep moving forward.

#11. A simple camera set up is better than a complex camera set up. You are more likely to use something if you can just grab-and-go. Less is more.

#12. Less is also more when it comes to each image. Almost always it is better to include the least that you can (and still get the point across) in the frame.

#13. Don't over-complicate things. Too much complexity in any part of photography will weigh you down over time.

#14. Photographing close to home is good. You have much more access to what is around you than places that are far away.

#15. Photographing far away is good, too. It's amazing what visiting great places does for your spirit.

#16. Photography books are better than photography magazines. Books will show you how to do something or will inspire you or educate you somehow. Magazines will also do that, but they have a tendency to give you G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).

#17. G.A.S. is bad because it takes your time, attention, money and energy away from what matters most in photography, and forces you to use it on what matters very little.

#18. Photography forums are pretty much useless. The strongest personalities on them are often amateurs that live in their parent's basement, and these strong personalities typically drive out the most helpful people.

#19. It's good to have someone who's opinion you trust critique your photographs. He or she might notice something that you've completely overlooked that will make a big difference for your photography.

#20. Be careful who you listen to when it comes to critics. Some opinions aren't worth anything, and some are even destructive.

#21. A quick post-processing workflow is great. You don't want to spend too much time sitting at a computer while the rest of life passes by. Find any shortcuts you can to speed this up.

#22. Want the look of film? Shoot film. Want digital images that look pretty darn close to film? Use Alien Skin Exposure software.

#23. Don't let the number of "likes" or "stars" or "favorites" fool you about a photograph. I've had some weak images get a lot of positive attention while some strong images got almost nothing.

#24. Try and capture at least one photograph a day, and never let a week go by without using your camera.

#25. Photography rules should be ignored. Sometimes they are appropriate for a scene, sometimes they are not. Often the best images broke at least one photography rule.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Deflategate - New England Patriots, Footballs & Ethics - Did They Really Cheat?

A Football Dream - Stallion Springs, California
This is a photography blog--not a football blog--so why am I writing this post? I'll be honest: hits for this site, the biggest television event in America will be next Sunday, and I'm a New England Patriots fan. I'll step outside my usual boundaries for this article.

In case you don't know (and who at this point doesn't know?) the New England Patriots, after their decisive victory over the Indianapolis Colts, were accused of deflating their footballs. The supposed reason for doing this was so they'd have better grip while playing in the rain.

The NFL has a clear rule for the inflation levels of footballs: 12.5-13.5 PSI. Each team submits 24 footballs (12 primary and 12 backup), plus some specifically for the kicking game. The teams submit these footballs two hours prior to the start of the game and an official checks their inflation levels. If they find the balls under-inflated they are supposed to add air to bring them to standards, and if they find them over-inflated they're supposed to let air out. Who knew?

Anyway, the balls were measured prior to the game and then again at halftime, and 11 of the 12 primary balls were found to be under-inflated (by 2 PSI, a leaked report claimed). They were correctly inflated at the beginning of the game and were incorrectly at halftime. So someone must have tiptoed into wherever the balls were kept and let some of the air out, right?

That's what ESPN and all of the other sports networks would have liked everyone to believe. It's been relentless. "Liars! Cheats!" They've yelled. It has been completely over-the-top, much like when The Fonz jumped the shark on Happy Days.

Then Bill Belichick came out and said that the team conducted all sorts of tests (scientific-sounding tests) and concluded that Mother Nature is who cheated, not the team. The under-inflated balls can be explained by physics.

People who actually know a thing or two about this came out and said that Belichick's explanation is indeed reasonable. HeadSmart Labs explains it pretty simply in the video below.

Science explains how footballs can deflate on their own. Nobody had to deflate the footballs because that's what they were going to do in this game no matter what. Had the Patriots inflated their footballs to the maximum allowed PSI, they might have remained within the limits during the game. But they inflated their footballs to the minimum, so they stood no chance.

The plot thickens, though. Apparently it was someone at the New York Jets who told the NFL that the Patriots use under-inflated footballs. The Jets and Patriots are rivals, but more importantly the Patriots had just filed paperwork against the Jets for illegally tampering with a player (trying to get a player to play for their team while still under contract with another team, which is against the rules). It's clearly a tit-for-tat. The Colts played along too, still embarrassed from their crushing defeat.

And then another (leaked) report comes out that says only one of the 12 footballs was found to be near 2 PSI under-inflated, ten were about 1 PSI under-inflated and one was correctly inflated. So it isn't quite what was initially reported.

Some have wondered why there is a discrepancy from ball-to-ball, and a big part may be explained by how much each football was used and how much exposure each had to the rain. Even so, each ball is unique and no two balls will deflate exactly the same. Why were the 12 backup footballs found correctly inflated at halftime? Because they had not yet been exposed to the colder temperatures and rain.

Another claim is that the Colts footballs were not found to be under-inflated. But the NFL has said nothing about the Colts footballs. Nobody knows what PSI they were initially inflated to or what they were found to be at halftime, if they were even measured at halftime. So no one knows--it is simply speculation.

I've also heard some say that the Patriot's quarterback, Tom Brady, should have been able to tell if a football was under-inflated just by touching it. But that's just ridiculous. The difference in "give" that a football under-inflated by 1 PSI has is so minimal it's tough to tell when you are comparing two footballs side-by-side (let along judging one ball by itself). At 2 PSI it is easier to tell the difference, but only one ball was found to be under-inflated by that much and we have no idea when and how much that ball was used. Besides that, if Mother Nature was indeed responsible, the footballs would have slowly deflated over time, making it even more difficult to tell.

The sports media has been horrendous throughout all of this. They've made all sorts of accusations without any proof whatsoever. They are clearly biased. They don't want to consider other explanations. The Patriots cheated and then lied about it, end of story.

But it's not the end of the story. It's not likely the story at all. And unless the NFL comes out with a video tape showing someone tampering with the footballs, the sports media is going to lose a lot of credibility. Honestly, they look like fools right now.

And the NFL is treading on thin ice, too. Supposedly the Jets tipped them off prior to the game. If the NFL knew the Patriots were cheating, why knowingly let them cheat for half a game? A playoff game, no less! That does nothing for the "integrity of the game." Yet if the NFL says that they found no evidence of cheating, why allow all of this nonsense to happen before the biggest game of the year? Either way, the NFL comes across as handling this situation wrong from the start.

And why the big deal over any of this? Did the under-inflated footballs have any bearing on the outcome of the game? No. In fact, the Patriots did even better when using the 12 backup footballs in the second half. If anything, an argument can be made that the under-inflated footballs actually made them play worse.

Besides that, nobody seems to care that Brad Johnson once tampered with footballs for the Super Bowl, or that the Green Bay Packers routinely submit over-inflated footballs, or that the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers were caught on camera breaking a rule regarding footballs earlier this season. Those things haven't gained any attention, yet no one will stop talking about "Deflategate."

My only explanation is that people are tired of the New England Patriots winning. They don't want to see them in the Super Bowl. The team has had too much success for too long. It's time for some other teams to have the spotlight for awhile. And if they won't stop winning, then they'll be brought down to size some other way.

This whole thing is quite ridiculous. It's been overblown to such a degree that it is basically a joke now. And until the NFL shares the findings of their investigation, everything is pure speculation. We know nothing, really, other than some footballs were under-inflated and that Mother Nature had something to do with it and quite possibly everything to do with it.

Beyond that, nothing else is sure.  

Saturday, January 24, 2015

5 Things You Never Knew About Tehachapi, California

Tehachapi, California is an interesting place. A quaint town in the Tehachapi Mountains between the Mojave Desert and the San Joaquin Valley, most know it as a travel stop along Highway 58.

But Tehachapi has a lot of surprises. There is more than meets the eye. And there's a reason to stop and stay awhile.

The "5 Things You Never Knew About Tehachapi" listed below may not be a surprise to the locals. I think some residents may be unaware, but, by-and-large, those who live in the area already know these things. It's those that just pass through on Highway 58--those that have been to Tehachapi but have never spent much time in Tehachapi--that this will be a surprise to.

#5 - Take A Hike
The Happy Wanderer - Tehachapi, California
Stay On Trail - Tehachapi, California
One thing that even some locals are unaware of is that Tehachapi is a great place for hiking. There are short and easy options, long and difficult treks, and some hikes that fall somewhere in-between.

The renown Pacific Crest Trail passes through the area just east of town. You can hike north from Cameron Road (at Highway 58) towards the Sierra Nevada's and eventually end up in Canada. Many hike five or so miles up and back as a day trip. You can travel south from Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road (at Cameron Road) through the desert and end up at the Mexico boarder. Or, there is a six mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail in-between these two points that meanders through the wind turbines--perfect for a day hike.

Among the pine trees in the Tehachapi Mountain Park south of town is a moderately difficult hike that offers some great views. The trail is under five miles round trip, but the gain in elevation is about 2,000'. There is a section of the trail near the top that is on private property and signs warn you to keep out.

Meadowbrook Park has some nice walking trails that are in town and are easy. Paralleling Tucker Road between Tehachapi Boulevard and Highline Road is another easy trail found in town. Besides that, the outlying communities of Stallion Springs and Bear Valley Springs have numerous hiking trails that are for residents of those communities. Oh, and see the #1 thing you never knew about Tehachapi below.

#4 - Mustangs
Wind & Horses - Tehachapi, California
A Wind Farm - Tehachapi, California
There is a herd of about 100 wild horses that live in the hills southeast of Tehachapi. Located in the Oak Creek Pass, and often seen near the Tehachapi-Willow Springs road, the horses live under the wind turbines.

Little is known about these horses. Some believe that they are descendants of escaped Morgan horses from a breeder that used to reside in the area over 100 years ago. Other people think that they are descendants of horses that escaped from Spanish explorers or native american tribes.

If you're driving on the Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road, keep a close eye out for horses grazing on the grassy Tehachapi Mountain hills. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you'll see a large group of them near the road.

#3 - Breathtaking Views
Trail View - Tehachapi, California
Gold Above The Valley - Tehachapi, California
It's not a big surprise that there are some good views to take in around Tehachapi. After all, the town is in the mountains. But what you might not realize is just how breathtaking some of these views are.

On the west side of the Tehachapi area, such as Stallion Springs, Bear Valley Springs and Keene, you can find large vistas of the San Joaquin Valley. A hike through the Tehachapi Mountain Park will reveal views of Tehachapi Valley and Brite Valley, and (if you hike far enough) Antelope Valley from about 6,000' above. There are some good views found in Sand Canyon, especially at the north end. Oak Creek Pass has a few nice vistas. There are several good views around Caliente, too.

While it may not be completely obvious that there are breathtaking vistas in and around Tehachapi, a little exploring reveals great surprises all around.

#2 - Biological Diversity
Mountain Road - Tehachapi, California
Joshua Tree At First Light - Tehachapi, California
The Tehachapi area is about as biologically diverse as it gets. The elevation changes rapidly, and it goes from about 2,000' on the east side to almost 8,000' at the peak and back down to about 500' on the west side.

In what is considered "Tehachapi" (the area, not just the town limits), you have desert with Joshua Trees, Creosote and cactus, you have mountain-prairie grasslands, oak woodlands on rolling hills, and even tall pines in evergreen forests. It's equivalent of what you'd see traveling from Mexico to Canada, yet it is all found in one area.

Not very many places can claim the biological diversity found in this one small spot in central California. It's quite amazing, actually.

#1 - Tomo-Kahni State Historic Park
Hikers - Tomo-Kahni State Historic Park, Tehachapi, California
Pictographs #2 - Tomo-Kahni State Historic Park, Tehachapi, California
Tomo-Kahni State Historic Park, just outside of Tehachapi in Sand Canyon, is California's least known and least visited state park. Not everyone in town is even aware of its existence, and most have never visited.

That's really a shame because Tomo-Kahni State Historic Park is actually great. You trek a little over three miles on a guided hike. Along the trail you see remnants of the Native-American people that once lived at this site. The highlight of the tour is a cave covered with pictographs. It's an interesting and educational experience.

The Tomo-Kahni State Historic Park is only open on Saturday mornings in the spring and fall and by appointment only. Less than 400 people visit the park annually. It is definitely Tehachapi's best kept secret.

See also: 10 Things To Do With Kids In Tehachapi, California.

Friday, January 23, 2015

5 Winter Photography Tips

Covered Bridge - Stallion Springs, California
Winter is such a great time to photograph. A scene has a completely different look and feel when the ground is covered in snow. Storm systems can bring added interest to the sky.

But there are some special considerations for photographing at this time of the year. Below are five tips for photography in winter.

1. Check The Weather Forecast
Winter Day #2 - Stallion Springs, California
Check the weather forecast before you go out, and periodically while you are out. This tip is especially important if you are traveling to photograph. In the winter, especially if a storm is passing through, conditions can change rapidly. Roads can become dangerous, and sometimes roads will even close. You don't want to get stuck out in freezing conditions.

It's better to be prepared. If you have an idea of when conditions will improve or worsen, you can plan to avoid the worst of a winter storm. Also, be sure to have emergency items in case the worst happens. No photograph is ever worth dying for.

2. Dress Appropriately
Frozen - Stallion Springs, California
This may seem obvious but it is worth stating: dress appropriately for winter weather. You need to stay warm and dry, which means having the right shoes, pants, coat, head wear and gloves.

Winter can be brutal, and you may end up out in the elements longer than you initially planned. Don't under dress and regret it later. It's better to have too many layers than not enough.

3. Do Not Disturb
Bent And Twisted - Tehachapi, California
When you arrive at the location that you wish to photograph, be careful not to disturb the scene. Nothing ruins a tranquil winter landscape like your own footprints. Think about where you might want to shoot from prior to trampling through the snow.

On top of that, depending on exactly where you are at, there are potential hazards. Slippery surfaces, sharp ice, thin ice, and even avalanches in the mountains are possible dangers. Tripping hazards are sometimes hidden. These things could quickly ruin your day, so be careful where you walk.

4. Look For Details
Red Flower In Snow - Stallion Springs, California
Snow, icicles, and objects covered in ice or frost are great subjects for your photography. Don't just look for large landscapes. The small details often make for the most interesting winter photographs.

The opportunities for macro photography, especially, abound in the winter. Look for interesting patterns and designs made by the winter conditions.

5. Exposure
White, Fence - Tehachapi, California
One thing you can count on when photographing in the winter is that the light meter in your camera will be completely fooled. Typically your camera will try to underexpose the image, sometimes by two or more f-stops.

You'll have to pay close attention to the exposures and use exposure compensation to correct. I have found that one f-stop of additional exposure is a good starting point, and from there it can be fine-tuned. An 18% grey card (for those who use grey cards) can be used to help get the exposure right.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I'm The "Featured Photographer" In The February Issue of Urban Explorer Magazine

On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
The February issue of Urban Explorer Magazine just came out, and I'm the "featured photographer." What that means is there is a four-page article about me and my photography in that issue. Cool!

There's actually quite a lot going on with my abandonment pictures. Besides getting published, I have The Urban Exploration Photography Blog that is off to a great start, and a Flickr group and Facebook page to go along with it. Exciting stuff!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

5 Elements of Successful Black & White Photographs

Mystery Drive - Stallion Springs, California
I love black & white photography. More often than not I prefer monochrome over color. I think it has a timeless fine-art feel. It is also naturally abstract (after all, no one sees the world in shades of grey).

Someone recently told me that black & white is overdone. I actually believe the opposite is true. I think that people don't convert their color images to black & white often enough. In my opinion, if color isn't essential to the point of an image then it should be made monochrome.

Black & white photographs work different than color, so you have to think about the entire process differently. Below are five elements of successful black & white photographs.

Kitchen Faucet Handle - Mojave, California
Shapes and forms are more obvious in monochrome. Without color, there is less to distract the viewer's attention from the subject of a scene. The forms within the image become the focal point. What the viewer sees are the designs.

Look for ways to emphasize the most interesting aspects of the shape of the subject that is within the scene. Make the composition of the shapes intriguing.

Worth One Dollar - Oxnard, California

Often subtle patterns get lost in color photographs. This is because the color draws the viewer's attention away from the pattern. The viewer might glance right past it.

With black & white, as long as the tones are far enough apart, patterns become obvious. Monochrome images allow the viewer to better see the shapes formed by the pattern in the scene.

Shadow Catcher - Stallion Springs, California
Even more than pattern, texture often gets lost in color images. Our minds interpret the scene based on many things, including past experiences--other things we've seen. When we see something (such as a color photograph) our minds are biased and will determine what we see and what we ignore.

Because black & white is abstract by nature, our mind's bias is more removed, and we are able to notice the fine texture more easily. In monochrome, texture is more prominent.

Wind Turbines - Tehachapi, California
Because there is not color to differentiate between elements within a scene, contrasting shades of grey are essential to successful monochrome images. Contrast is when a lighter area and darker area touch each other in a photograph.

What you must ensure is that the main subject has sufficient contrast to draw the viewer's eyes to it. You must also ensure that there is not another high-contrast element within the scene to distract the viewer's attention away from where you want it to go.

On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
Light is the key element that holds the four above elements--form, pattern, texture and contrast--together. Light significantly effects all of those things. What this means is that good black & white photography requires good light.

What "good light" is depends on the scene and how you want your image to look. What is good light for one image may not be for another. You may want even light. You may want light from one side. You may want soft light. You may want harsh light. Each photograph and each situation must be judged individually. It is the photographer's job to determine what is the best light for each image, and to wait until that light exists or artificially create it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Some Camera Thoughts (Nikon D5500, Nikon D5300, Nikon D3300, Nikon D3200 & Canon EOS 20D)

I recently saw two different camera questions on the world wide web. They were not posed to me personally--I was "party 'C'"--but I thought I might share and answer them here. Perhaps something I say will be helpful to someone.

The first question was, "Is it worth it to upgrade from the Nikon D5300 to the new Nikon D5500?" I mentioned last week that the Nikon D5500 is an upcoming brand-new DSLR that replaces the Nikon D5300. But the two cameras are basically identical.

The only differences worth noting between the D5500 and the D5300 are that the D5500 has a touch screen and no built-in GPS, while the D5300 has built-in GPS but no touch screen. The MSRP on the D5500 is a hundred bucks higher, too--that's worth stating.

Suppose you bought a car, say a 2014 Honda Accord with whatever the most common trim level is, and you've been driving it around for a year. Now suppose that the 2015 Accord is out (and it is basically identical to the 2014 model) and with that same trim level you get a sunroof included but the heated seats are not. Would you trade in your still-pretty-darn-new car for the 2015?

If you have money to throw around and if a sunroof is that important to you, then why not? But since you are buying Honda Accords, you are not likely independently wealthy. So it would be a waste of money to do that.

It's the same thing with cameras. It's a waste of money to "upgrade" from the D5300 to the D5500. Heck, the D3300 gives you the same image quality for even less. As far as image quality is concerned, the D5500 isn't even an upgrade over the "entry-level" model. Nikon wants to give you G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) by making you think unimportant extras are essential.

The second question was, "Is it smarter to spend $150 on a body-only Canon EOS 20D, or buy a new DSLR?" The Canon EOS 20D is a 10+ year old DSLR with an 8 megapixel APS-C sized sensor. When it was new it was considered a pretty decent camera.

Digital technology changes quickly, and DSLRs have been improving in every way. They are smaller, lighter, faster, and with better image quality. 10-year-old digital technology is practically Stone Age.

With that said, cameras don't make photographs, photographers do. Either you can or you cannot create good images. If you can create good images, you'll be able to do so with the 10+ year old 20D. If you cannot, not even a new camera will help. Photographic vision matters, equipment does not.

Perhaps the question is one of value. So you spend $150 on the 20D. You'll have to get a lens, perhaps a cheap 18-55mm zoom for $100, and you'll have to get the sensor cleaned (because I'm sure it needs to be cleaned) for $50. Now you've spent $300. If you shop around, you can typically find a Nikon D3200 DSLR with a lens for under $400. For less than $100 more, you can get a camera that is superior in pretty much every single way, and it should have a significantly longer lifespan for you (since it is brand new and not over 10-years-old).