The Lessons behind an Image: Part One

 For the past 14 years, I have had a love affair with photography. Like with anything we love doing, we run into problems as we learn more and progress. And the more problems we face, work through and learn from, the better our work will be. I’m a huge fan of “Try, Fail, Learn, Repeat” Cycle. I try to apply that cycle to all my Passions. I have learned some difficult lessons in photography and I want to share some of them with you. Normally this series is about the story of an image. But today I’m going to switch it up and call this one “The Lessons behind an Image.” Sharing something valuable I learn from one of my images.

Part Five: Lessons learned

 2004 was the start of my love affair with photography. Earlier in that year I got my first DSLR camera, Canons Digital Rebel. With a whopping 6.3 megapixels, 7 Auto focus points and that cheap silver plastic body, it was one of the first DSLR you could buy for under $1000. I loved mine and took it everywhere. And that June, it came with me to the Grosse Ile Air Extravaganza for my second airshow with a DSLR camera. Of the couple of hundred images I shot that day, here’s a series of eight I want to share with you. It’s of this P-51 Mustang, 44-74446 N1451D “Checkertail Clan“. Unfortunately, some 10 years later it crashed. Killing both the new owner/pilot and the instructor on the Fourth of July 2014 shortly after take-off.

film roll of mustang

Of the eight images, only one stands out for me. As soon as I saw the Mustang, I knew there was an image there I want to capture. At the time, I was very new to photography. I really didn’t know what I was doing.(As if I do now) HaHa! But I knew there was an image somewhere of this beautifully polished P-51 with a bunch of crap around it. I remember feeling the struggle and lack of confidence of trying to capture the image I saw with the camera. I had two problems. First, what do I see that is so interesting? Where does it start and stop? And second, how do I hide all the stuff around the aircraft? You can see in the second image in the roll above, there is at least 7 cars, a C-130, a row of porta johns in between the canopy and the vertical stabilizer, some tents over the right wing and what the heck are those folks looking at over the left wing!

 To overcome my first problem of what do I see that is so interesting? Where does it start and stop? Here is where the beauty of digital photography comes into play. With a large enough media card, you have the opportunity to shoot far more than if you were to shooting film. Since I began making images, I have always believed to have more than enough memory cards. I never wanted to get into a situation where I run out room on memory card(s) while out shooting. Two things I remember a lot of photographers telling me when I first start my photographic journey. One, invest in glass and two, get the largest card you can afford. Cards are cheaper than glass. I have always invested in large as well as fast cards. It gives me the freedom to shoot all day and never have to worry about how many shots I have left.

So, I shot like a machine gun so to speak. I shot with confidence knowing that even at the end of the day, I was not going to run of space and I could explore my subject and capture what I saw that interest me. This runs into my second issue; how do I hide all the stuff around the aircraft? How I did was the easy part. I just positioned myself in a way that the aircraft itself cover up the unwanted clutter. But what I feel is more important is the why. And it is a lesson I have come to learn over the years, but I can still trace it back to this image.

 Knowing where the edges of your image lay. To Isolate your subject along with hiding unwanted and unnecessary clutter. Looking back on the image, I know when I took the shot, I didn’t know where the edges of that image was. But you can see me searching for them in the series of images. Close, getting closer, spot on, going away and then revisiting it. I truly didn’t know until after the show, while I was home looking through my images on my PC and saw the photo of the image in my head.

I feel knowing where your image lays is an important part of knowing what it is you are trying to show. One thing through the years that has help me define the edges of images has nothing to do with aviation. It was when I lived downtown in Detroit and I would frequent the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory on Belle isle. I came up with a system that taught me to start down and to see what it is I was looking at. Once in the conservatory, I would walk through all the rooms, gear still in camera bag, looking for things to shoot and keeping mental notes of things of interest. Making my way back to the the entrance where I began, with a few ideas for images, I select what lenses I feel I needed and retraced my steps. When I come to something I wanted to shoot, I stopped, focused in on what is catching my eye. Once I have an idea of what it is, I set up my tripod, compose my shot, shoot and review. If it is not to my liking, I’ll recomposes and shoot again until I’m happy with my shot. I would repeat this for all my points of interest in the conservatory. Over the years, this has help me define the edges of I was looking at as well as help me understand how the camera sees things.

 I ‘m not saying you must always get closer to your subject. There are times when you want to show a sense of space. And even then, you still should know where the edges of your images are. Too much, you can lose your subject all together and not enough, your subject seems crammed in the frame. It comes down to knowing what it is you are trying to show your viewers. Looking back, I wanted a tight shot showing the highly polished surface, its colorful markings and not losing the iconic shape of the P-51. 

FAR_90

 From this one images, I learned two things. One, to keep shooting your subject until you feel you have captured the image that you see in your minds eye. And Two, know where the edges of your image are and why it is important. It took me many years and thousands of images, before I truly grasp how important these two lessons were to me and My Photography.  

EXIF data

Date: June 18, 2004 8:14 am

Model: Canon Digital Rebel

Focal length: 65mm

ISO speed: 100

Exposure time: 1/320th

F stop: F/9

Shot handheld

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Until next post,

Steven

Knowledge or Gear?

So, three weeks ago I have an idea for my next post. It was my take on the Knowledge vs. gear argument. What is more important? Having the knowledge to see and capture images properly or having the latest and greatest gear? The problem was I already knew that knowledge is far more important than any gear. And as I started writing, it turned into a long-winded rant about why knowledge is more important. I did not like the way it was going along with that is not the way I want to share. So, I thrashed it, gathered my thoughts and wrote this. What I normally like to do is come up with an idea that challenges my creativity. Then go out and test it. And share my results with you all.

I know just because you have a camera, does not make you a photographer. That’s a bitter pill for some. My opinion(and my opinion only), what makes you a photographer is having the ability to see and capture images properly that speaks to your viewers. And it does not matter if it was shot on a Nikon, Fuji, Canon, if it was shot as a RAW or Jpeg, was it from a full frame sensor body or from a cell phone… All those things are just tools to capture an image YOU see. It’s what the photographer trying to show and what the image says to YOU that matters most. Yes, gear helps. But like anything, if one does not know how to use their tools properly, the results will never be as good as someone who knows what he or she is doing.

My idea for this post was to go down Belle isle in Detroit on two different weekends. And I wanted my images to show three things. One, how cold it was outside using a limited color palette. Two, to show how colorful and alive it was inside the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory on Belle Isle. And three, have all the images maintain my look or style of photography. On one weekend, I used only with my iPhone 8 plus. And the other weekend, only with my 7D MKII with my 17-85mm. Each weekend, I shot images with the same three goals in mind. Then in Lightroom, strip the EXIF data from each of the images. With the idea of concealing what camera shot what image. Letting you, the reader, to try to figure out if you could tell what image was shot with what. I did strip the EXIF data from the images because it does not matter what gear I used. But what matters, did I accomplish my three goals?

I cannot stress enough how important it is to know how to use YOUR gear properly. Knowing how YOUR gear sees and captures light as well as its limitations. I also want to stress the important of having an idea of what it is YOUR trying to show YOUR viewers. The next time you’re behind your camera ask yourself, “What is it I am trying to show and why?”

Until next time,

Steven

Using up my Bag of Tricks

Show 6, post 1: Northern Illinois Airshow

On September 9th, I drove over to Waukegan for the Northern Illinois airshow. The home show for Warbird Heritage foundation. I meet up with my good friend and fellow photographer, Rob Wetterholt. It was a great little show with a nice line up of performers along with a well laid out static display. I set out to try again to capture a sense of motion while shooting jets. The weather forecast called for partly cloudy skies in the morning and clearing skies as the day went on. By the time things started flying, the sky was clear and blue. I was a little disappointed about not getting the opportunity to try to do some cloud blurring but it’s Mother Nature, what are you going to do? For this show, I rented the Canon 5DSR again and my old friend, the 400mm F/5.6L. Canon’s 400mm F/5.6L is a hidden gem of a lenses. I bought the 100-400mm MKI and the 400 5.6 at the same time. After shooting both lenses, I was turned off by the softness of the 100-400 and sold it. I shoot the 400 5.6 for years and absolutely fell in love with its clarity and sharpness. Before I sold it and got my 500mm F/4.5, I got comfortable shooting it slow. Like 1/80th for takeoff/landing and 1/160th for flying and getting good constant results. The 400 5.6 is not a low light lenses and does not has image stabilization. But what it is, an amazing light weight sunny day lenses that is easy to shoot handheld. In ideal shooting condition, it’s a joy to shoot. I had my 500mm for about 2 years now and still growing into it. But after returning to the 400 5.6, I’m strongly considering getting it again. I had no problem with shooting it slow again.

Which leads me into the title of this post, Using up my Bag of Tricks”. After shooting for some time, I have gathered a few techniques that I like to use to help capture images that I see. These are not anything that I myself have come up with but things I use to try to make my images stand out from others. While shooting at the Northern Illinois Airshow, I got the chance to use all my bag of tricks. Which does not happen too often. This post I’m going to share with you my small but slowly growing bag of tricks.

show opening for phone

Shooting slow to get a sense of motion and speed

This is the hardest of my tricks and I’m still trying to master it. It is my favorite way to isolate a subject. With the background blurred out and the subject tack sharp, the result is an image that shows a great sense of speed and motion. Here’s the thing about panning, it is the same if you’re panning an aircraft in flight, a person riding a bike or a race car on the track. Panning is panning, subject does not matter. What does matter is finding a stance and motion that YOU are comfortable with while panning. It is not the same for everybody, what works well for me may not work for you. This may sound dumb but holding your gear properly is a big factor too. While shooting, you HAVE to be stable and smooth while panning. Shooting a telephoto lenses handheld and at a low shutter speed is not easy but with practice, you can master it. Two important things I want to mention. First, whatever lenses you are using, keep your fingers away from the manual focusing ring while shooting. It does not matter if your using auto focus or any other type of focusing, if you turn the manual focusing ring while shooting, it will override any other focusing type resulting in soft and or out of focus images. And second, use a single auto focus point along with continuous tracking and shooting while panning. Do not use all auto focus points along with continuous tracking and shooting while panning. You’re going to confuse the shit out of your camera and will result in soft and out of focus images.

With the 400 5.6, I shot takeoffs/landings from 1/80th to 1/100th. Shoot flying subject slow depended on the background to show a sense of motion. During the show, the sky was clear blue and was no reason to shoot slow. But one the Hoppers, flying L-39s did do a very low flat pass that on the bottom of the frame has some blurred tree tops. It is not the sharpest image but you get the idea.

Waukegan17_0582

I went down to 1/30th (5DSR/400 5.6) on the Skyraider “Bad News” to get a full ark of the propeller as it taxies back to the hot ramp.

Waukegan17_1000

 

Shooting Low

Or I like to call it, “Doing the Alligator”. Laying on the ground with the camera at ground level, shooting up at your subject. The main problem I have with doing this technique is have a clean and unclutter background. Which at most airshows and aviation events is hard to come by. I have seen this type of shot done with wide angle lenses but I like using something with a bit more reach. Along with, I like to drop the horizon as low as I can and show very little of the ground. Giving the subject a proud stance and a strong presence in the frame. It’s fun to do on a grass field too, shooting through the weeds. You can also use this technique to shoot under airshow fences like this shot from Plames of Fame. Just be careful and mindful of your surroundings. People can and will walk on top of you and your gear.

Waukegan17_2245

Shooting High

Getting up and shooting down on your subjects is something I would like to do more often. There are many ways to do so. Many shows and events have portable stairs alongside aircraft so you can take a peek inside the cockpit, it’s a great location to shoot surrounding aircraft from up high. Another way to photograph aircraft from a higher location is to use a monopod, live view mode and self-timer. I add this technique to my bag of tricks last year at the Planes of Fame show. With my Canon 70D and 70-200mm, I extended all the sections on my monopod, switch to live viewing so I can see what the camera is looking at on the view screen, angled the tile screen down so when I raise the monopod up I can see what I’m trying to shoot. With the camera auto focus drive switched to self-timer 10 secs and in aperture priority @ F/4 to have a high enough shutter speed to not worry about camera shake when the camera is up in the air. Depress the shutter button to start the timer, holding the bottom of the monopod, quickly raise the camera up where I want to shoot. Looking up at the view screen tiled down, compose the shot, hold everything steady and wait for the timer to end. Lower the camera and check the results. It takes some time getting used to but well worth the effort.

Tiling the frame

This is by far the simplest trick in my bag and probably the most controversial. I have found that other either love it or hate it. I love it. I feel it adds visual interest to the subject and maybe some attitude as well. You can also combine this technique with others for even more visual interest.

Trick no# 4?

My newest trick I added to my bag I really don’t know what to call it. It’s showing an aircraft in a series of images. Each image can stand alone but place side by side, you can visualize the whole aircraft. I unconsciously started doing it at the Selfridge show. Just another way for me look at things differently and to see new images. This is something I’m going play with, nurture and make more my own.

Along with the elements of design and my mind’s eye, I feel confident I can capture images unique to me.

To view larger images, click on thumbnails

Waukegan17_1778

Until next post,

Steven

Fun With Statics

Show 5, post 3: Selfridge ANGB Open house and Airshow

My normal routine when I’m at an airshow once I get in is to look around at static and shoot the images I see. Selfridge had a very good static display and I took advance of it. With a 5DSR (I rented from Lenrental.com) and my 70-200mm F/2.8L I started shooting. Seeing the image, finding the edge of the frame, compose, shoot and chimp (recompose and reshoot if necessary) Strangely enough, my favorite shots from the show are of my static images. Yeah, I had two images from my Selfridge experiment I was happy with but that is about it when it comes to the flying. The shooting conditions was only good for a very short time and was strongly backlit for the most of the show.

Shooting statics can be challenging to isolate your subject from ground cluster and other distractions. As I’m shooting, going through my bag of trick, I added a new trick. It’s showing an aircraft in a series of 3 to 4 images. Each image can stand alone but place side by side, you can visualize the whole aircraft. Here’s two series I’m happy with. The first one is the CAG Bird from VFA-143, the “Pukin Dogs”

And the other is an Selfridge A-10 painted in special marking for the 100th Anniversary of the Red Devils of the 107th Fighter Squadron.

What I like to do while shooting statics, is to walk around the ramp, camera at the ready and my head on a swivel, looking around for images. When I do see something, I find what is drawing me in and where are the edges of the image. I’ll adjust the aperture if needed, compose and shoot. Chimping to check composition, exposure and would reshoot if I’m not happy with the result. If I find something that has a lot of visual instead, I’ll start to open my bag of tricks and shoot until I feel satisfied I have captured the subject the way I wanted.

When it comes to what lenses I use, it depends on the subject and where it is. I don’t want to set any kind limits on what focal length to use while shooting statics nor would I say that can only shoot static with a certain focal length either. There is no right or wrong went it comes down to what your mind’s eye sees. The question is do you have the appropriate amount focal length to capture what your eye sees? I have come to enjoy using my 70-200mm F/2.8 for statics. I love how it flattens out the perspective along with zooming tight to isolating details. Heck, 99% of my Selfridge static images was shot using my 70-200mm.

Selfridge_028

While walking along the edge of the “hot” ramp, I saw an interesting image. As soon as I saw it, I know it was a 500mm shot. 70-200mm was not enough to get close in and isolate the Mustang and the 35 without too much clutter. Even at 500mm, I knew there would be some post process work to get the shot I wanted. Here’s how it was shot.

Selfridge_099 uncropped

And after some post processing….

Selfridge_099

The elements of design are not set in stone and not by any focal length, they are only limited by your imagination and your knowledge of how to use your gear properly.

Click on thumbnails to view larger image!

Until next post,

Steven