Tuesday, July 07, 2015

PASSPORT PHOTOS - IT'S REALLY NOT THAT HARD

Examples of proper passport photographs from travel.state.gov.
It happens to all of us, professionals and amateurs alike. You can almost hear the question coming before the speaker opens his or her mouth. DO YOU DO PASSPORT PHOTOS!

Before you hang your head, roll your eyes or something worse, consider your options.

Of course, you could tell them that for around $12 they could go to a drug store or any number of stores that are set up to do this kind of thing. You could let them know that in certain city's there are mobile studios set up right outside the immigration building that will do it lickety-split.

Or consider for just a moment that you can invest ten minutes of your time and take the photo yourself.

And finally, maybe you are the one who needs a passport photo. After all, you have all the equipment to get it done, so why would pay someone else to do it.

Maybe it is so easy to do that even if you are reading this and don't consider yourself a photographer, you'll be able to do it.

Using the Department of State's free photo tool takes all the guesswork out of crop and sizing your final image.
What do you need?

A digital camera (even a new phone would do), a white or off-white wall and plenty of natural or artificial light.

What you don't need is software or more specifically expensive software such as Adobe Photoshop to crop and size your photos. So if this was the barrier that kept you from fulfilling the passport photo request, keep reading.

The most time-consuming and intimidating part of the process for most people is normally the sizing of the final image, according to very specific guidelines from the federal government. You've heard the whole "2 x 2 inches sized such that the head is between 1 inch and 1 3/8 inches from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head." What, and how do I make that happen?

This is one of the few times that the government has made something really simple. Upload you photo to this website and use the tool to resize and save the photo. That's it. It takes all the guess work out of the sizing and cropping process.

Unless you have a photo printer in your home, you will still need to visit that drug store to print your new passport photo on either matte or glossy paper, but at 29¢ per print, you can also afford to print a few extras for Mom.

Additional resources:

Photographer's Guide
Photo Requirements
Frequently asked photo questions

Friday, May 08, 2015

5 TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING IN MUIR WOODS

Occasionally, some light makes its way to the forest floor. 0.5 sec @ f11, ISO 200.
Occasionally, some light makes its way to the forest floor which adds some nice contrast. 0.5 sec @ f11, ISO 200.
If you are visiting the San Francisco Bay area, I urge you to take the time and plan a visit to Muir Woods National Monument. Located just 12 miles north of the city in Marin County, California, and part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, Muir Woods features 240 acres of old-growth Coastal Redwoods and plenty of photographic opportunities.

I recently spent five hours exploring the park and hope that you will benefit from the five photographic tips below.

1. Lens selection. I would probably leave the telephoto behind, but that doesn't mean you need to bring only super wide-angle lenses. The Coastal Redwoods are big and everywhere, so you will not need a telephoto to see them, but adding something in the 70-120mm range would allow you to compress a scene or reach some trees that may be a little further off the path. A longer lens could als come in handy if you want to aim up into the canopy.

As someone who does not shoot a lot of verticals, this location was the exception. 1/2.3 @ f18, ISO 200.
As someone who does not shoot a lot of verticals, this location was the exception. 1/2.3 @ f18, ISO 200.
2. Don't forget the tripod. You will be doing a lot of walking during your visit and you might be tempted to leave the tripod behind. Don't. Even during a bright sunny day, not much light filters down to the forest floor, forcing you to shoot at very slow shutter speeds even if you have fast lenses. And even thought tripods are allowed in the park and the paths are fairly wide, remember to be courteous to other visitors, especially during busy times.
"This is the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world". - John Muir
3. Stay on track. Photography is allowed throughout the park, but you must remain on the paths. There is an easy loop path with an occasional trail that branches off. It took me about four hours to make the loop, but you could certainly do it in less. My recommendation would be to spend the whole day and plan on making several trips around the loop or take advantage of a ranger-led program.

There are a few places along the trail such as Cathedral Grove where you are able to get nice canopy shots from the trail. 0.3 sec @ f14, ISO 200
There are a few places along the trail such as Cathedral Grove where you are able to get nice canopy shots from the trail. 0.3 sec @ f14, ISO 200
4. Get there early or late. Normally this tip would refer to taking advantage of the best light, but in this case it is all about the parking and crowds. Parking is very limited, especially on weekends, but even during my weekday visit, I noticed parking was gone, even a mile down the road, when I left the park around 2 p.m. Another option would be to take the Muir Woods shuttle which runs on the weekends from April 4th through October 25th. The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset.

Redwood sorrel is just one of the shade-loving plants that thrive under the redwood canopy. Look for wildflowers in winter and early spring. 1/13 @ f4.5, ISO 200.
Redwood sorrel is just one of the shade-loving plants that thrive under the redwood canopy. Look for wildflowers in winter and early spring. 1/13 @ f4.5, ISO 200.
5. Big picture - small picture. I was amazed by how much these Coastal Redwoods would impact me. Their size and beauty had me yearning to just shoot wide, take it all in with every frame. But that didn't always convey the true size of these magnificent trees as I reviewed the pictures. Force yourself, as I did, to try other focal lengths in order to achieve a different look. And if you have a macro lens, be sure to bring that too. There are incredible textures everywhere and plenty of interesting subjects on the ground if you can manage to look down.

Shooting from a low angle with a wide angle lens enhances the grandeur. 1/8 @ f8, ISO 400.
Shooting from a low angle with a wide angle lens enhances the grandeur. 1/8 @ f8, ISO 400.
Finally, be sure to take some time and relax during your visit. Since the lighting is fairly constant, there really is no need to rush, or limit your visit to the "best time" of the day for shooting. Find a bench, take a seat, and just enjoy this beautiful redwood forest that William and Elizabeth Kent donated to the federal government in 1908.

Download a PDF to learn more about the history of the park and the California Redwoods.

Monday, April 27, 2015

MAKING THE BEST OF WORLDWIDE PINHOLE DAY

Pinhole photo of Saguaro cactus taken with a Nikon D4S. One-second exposure, aperture unknown.
Pinhole photo of Saguaro cactus taken with a Nikon D4S. One-second exposure, aperture unknown.
I really enjoy pinhole photography and ever since I built a camera and took that first shot in 2013, I've made it a point to participate in the Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (WPPD). This international event is held each year the last Sunday in April in order to promote and celebrate the art of pinhole photography.

Surrounded by digital in my full-time job, I enjoy the opportunity to produce an image on photographic paper using nothing more than a box with a tiny hole and some chemicals. It always provides a challenge and seeing a negative appear on paper as it sits in the developer, reminds me of excitement I felt the first time I stepped into a darkroom over 35 years ago.

So this year I was disappointed when I realized that because of an early Sunday flight to Tucson, Arizona, for an assignment meant that I would not be able to participate. After all, it would not be practical to bring my pinhole camera and chemicals with me. I briefly thought about pre-loading my camera and bringing it along, or maybe get up early and taking one photo before my flight, but neither of these options seemed to excite me enough to do them.

During the flight, I began thinking about missing out on WPPD and that's when it hit me. What is a pinhole camera and why not just use what I had with me, a Nikon D4S with a body cap, to make one. One of the reasons I left so early from Washington, D.C., was so that I could arrive in Tucson early enough to spend some time in the Saguaro National Park before my assignment started on Monday. So I had the time and now I had an idea on what I would do.

Tools used to make the hole in the camera's body cap.
Tools I used to make the hole in the camera's body cap.
After landing, I stopped at a local drug store and picked up a pack of sewing needles, a small roll of duck tape and a package of lighters. Total cost $4.50. I secured a small pebble to the top of the needle using the duck tape and then using the lighter, heated the tip so that I could push it through the center of the body cap. It took a few tries, but really there was nothing more to it.

One big difference of course between this "pinhole camera" and mine is that I was able to see the results of my efforts on the digital display instantly and make adjustments until I had the proper exposure. Too easy.

It wasn't as much fun as previous years, but I can say that I participated in WPPD 2015, and that makes it all worthwhile to me.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

5 TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE

The Golden Gate Bridge a half hour prior to sunrise. 30 sec. @ f8, ISO 200.
The Golden Gate Bridge a half hour prior to sunrise. 30 sec. @ f8, ISO 200.
Before I get to my five tips, I will state right up front that much like my blog post, Five Tips for Shooting Antelope Canyon, this was my first time photographing the Golden Gate Bridge. I say that only to admit that I'm not the expert and in fact I welcome comments, additional tips or even to tell me I'm wrong.

However, as a professional photographer, you might find it interesting how I approach a subject that I never photographed and only have a limited time to do so. In this case, I was in San Francisco for three days, but all of that time was not dedicated to taking pictures of possibly the most photographed bridge in the world. Also of note, all of the photos were taken with a Fujifilm X-T1 mirrorless camera that I had for review.

Consider a rental car or Zip car so you can get to locations away from the crowds, like this photograph of the bridge taken from Point Bonita Lighthouse just before sunset. 1/18 @ f22, ISO 200.
Consider a rental car or Zip car so you can get to locations away from the crowds, like this photograph of the bridge taken from Point Bonita Lighthouse just before sunset. 1/18 @ f22, ISO 200.
Also while it is possible to get to the Golden Gate Bridge via public transportation, tour bus or even by bike, renting a car seems to be the easiest and most convenient way to get to many of the shooting locations, especially if you have limited time or want the ultimate flexibility to chase light.

1. Location, location, location. There are numerous locations or vantage points to photograph the bridge and I'll cover just a few even though I'm sure locals have all kinds of hidden spots picked out.

I shot from three basic locations on the North side and two on the South or San Francisco side of the bridge. On the North, it was Vista Point, Battery Spencer, Marin Headlands (Hawk Hill) and on the South, Lands End, and the South Side parking lot.

Vista Point is the first exit after crossing the bridge heading north and while it offers an alright view of the bridge, my suggestion would be to skip the crowded parking lot and head down the hill towards the Coast Guard Station where you can view the bridge from a low angle. Then walk up to the Vista Point visitors center for an additional view.

A different look at the bridge from Battery Spencer. 1/1700 @ f3.2, ISO 400.
A different look at the bridge from Battery Spencer. 1/1700 @ f3.2, ISO 400.
After leaving Vista Point cross under the bridge and start the climb up Conzelman Rd. making Battery Spencer your first stop. This is a great location and it was the first place that I stopped to photograph the bridge. I was surprised how close the bridge was and you feel like you are at eye level with the bridge towers. Nice vantage point to shoot verticals too.

After leaving Battery Spencer, you continue to climb until you reach the highest point, Hawk Hill. From this vantage point, you get a great overview of the bridge with the city behind it. Don't forget to explore the old World War II batteries while you are there and if you continue on foot through former gun emplacement tunnels to the other side, you will have a bonus view of the Point Bonita Lighthouse.

There are several stopping points along the way so take your time and pull over every chance you get either on the way up or on the return trip, because the view is different and unique each time.

Screen shot from my iPad of the SunSeeker App showing my location and sun direction on the morning of March 17, 2015, as I was attempting to photograph sunrise. One of the nice things about this App is that you can pick a day and time in the future so that there are no surprises, except maybe rain and fog.
Screen shot from my iPad of the SunSeeker App showing my location and sun direction on the morning of March 17, 2015, as I was attempting to photograph sunrise. One of the nice things about this App is that you can pick a day and time in the future so that there are no surprises, except maybe rain and fog. 
2. Timing is everything. Make sure to leave yourself enough time and shooting days to capture the bridge during different times of the day. If you are planning to shoot sunrise or pre-sunrise from Hawk Hill, Conzelman Rd. is closed about a half mile from the top until after sunrise. There is a parking lot, so join the bicyclists and joggers as you make your way to the top. Not too bad, but don't be surprised as I was.

Once again, I used the Sunseeker App to determine sun direction which helps determine where I'm going to start and end my day. Knowing where the sun will be during certain times of the day can help you pre-visualize photographs as you drive around scouting locations.

The Vista Point visitor center gets crowded with both cars and people. I found most people moved on quickly so if you want a particular shot, just wait a few minutes. 1/100 @ f11, ISO 200.
The Vista Point visitor center gets crowded with both cars and people. I found most people moved on quickly so if you want a particular shot, just wait a few minutes. 1/100 @ f11, ISO 200.
3. Avoid the crowds. It is clear that you are not the first person who has thought about photographing the Golden Gate Bridge, so be prepared for crowds, especially at the visitors centers. Sometimes you may also have to pass by a pull-over because it is full, but remember there will be another. It was my experience that if you have a little patience while people grab their selfies, they will move on allowing you to get your shot.

And as in most situations, you lessen your chance of running into crowds by getting there early and staying late. After all, isn't that the best time to shoot anyway? So take a break in the middle of the day and head over to Sausalito for some tacos and Mexican beer at the Salsalita Taco Shop while everyone else is fighting for a spot to photograph the bridge in the noon time sun.

Think about details and capturing pieces of the bridge, even from underneath. This was taken while walking from the Coast Guard station up the hill to the Vista Point parking area. 1/350 @ f9, ISO 200.
Think about details and capturing pieces of the bridge, even from underneath. This was taken while walking from the Coast Guard station up the hill to the Vista Point parking area. 1/350 @ f9, ISO 200.
4. Look for something different. The temptation is to go wide and take in the entire bridge. That makes a nice shot and sets the stage, but don't forget about details. With a telephoto lens, you can pick out details from many of the shooting locations I mentioned previously, but there are also places to access the bridge from underneath. And while I didn't get the chance on this trip, you can also walk or bike across the bridge, which would certainly get you up close and personal.

Among the first photographs I took of the bridge, was as I made the short climb at Battery Spencer which puts you at eye level with the bridge towers and in this case almost in the clouds. 1/60 @ f10, ISO 400.
Among the first photographs I took of the bridge, was as I made the short climb at Battery Spencer which puts you at eye level with the bridge towers and in this case almost in the clouds. 1/60 @ f10, ISO 400.
5. Weather can be your friend. I could state the obvious and just say that the weather, especially clouds and fog, are unpredictable in San Francisco, or I could tell you to embrace it and use it to your advantage. On my first day photographing the bridge, I could only make it half way up Conzelman Rd. before the visibility dropped to near zero. But those same clouds added something to my photos taken from Battery Spencer when they covered just the top of the bridge.

The point is, don't make a judgment from your hotel room downtown. Get out to the locations you scouted and see for yourself because you never know when the weather will change and maybe even change in such a way that takes your photograph from alright to awesome.

Photographed from the trail at Lands End. I rarely use presets, but something about this photograph reminded me of a classic postcard, so I added Yesteryear, and Rounded Corners White presets in Lightroom 5. 1/2000 @ f4, ISO 200.
Photographed from the trail at Lands End. I rarely use presets, but something about this photograph reminded me of a classic postcard, so I added Yesteryear, and Rounded Corners White presets in Lightroom 5. 1/2000 @ f4, ISO 200.
As I said at the beginning of this blog post, there are many more locations to explore and photograph the bridge such as Crissy Field, Fort Point, Point Cavallo, Baker Beach and many, many more. In fact, maybe three days is not enough time.

So make the trip, have fun, and when not photographing the bridge, there are all kinds of other locations around the city to photograph.

Monday, March 23, 2015

SEVEN DAYS WITH THE FUJI X-T1

The first place I headed after landing in San Francisco was the Golden Gate Bridge. 1/200 @ f9, ISO 200.
The first place I headed after landing in San Francisco was the Golden Gate Bridge. 1/200 @ f9, ISO 200.
I recently spent seven days in and around San Francisco, California, with the Fujifilm X-T1. The X-T1 is the fourth of the Fuji X cameras that I've had the chance to use, starting with the X-10 in 2012 and most recently the X-Pro1 during seven days in New York. Of course, my everyday carry camera continues to be the X100S.
Fujifilm X-T1 mirrorless digital camera. Photo courtesy of Fujifilm.com
Fujifilm X-T1 mirrorless digital camera. Photo courtesy of Fujifilm.com
As with the X-Pro1 and my first experience with the X100S, I rented the X-T1 along with the 18-55mm kit lens and a spare battery from Borrowlenses.com. Before a review camera arrives, I download the manual, then read and watch other reviews or tutorials in order to familiarize myself with all the features. Then once the camera arrives I check to make sure the firmware has been updated and in this case while the camera was up-to-date, I did have to update the lens.

I never really felt as comfortable doing street photography with this camera as I have with previous Fuji X rangefinders such as the X-Pro1 and the X100S. 1/15 @ f6.4, ISO 200.
I never really felt as comfortable doing street photography with this camera as I have with previous Fuji X rangefinders such as the X-Pro1 and the X100S. 1/15 @ f6.4, ISO 200.
Right out of the box I liked Fuji's attention to detail and style. The camera felt nice in my hands and the shutter speed, exposure compensation, and ISO dials were solid and easily accessible on top of the camera. In fact, once I went through the electronic menus and set up my preferences, I did not have to return to them for most shooting situations. Fuji really has this down and with the Q menu feature, which is now standard, your most used menu items are only one-click away, and if not, then you can customize them.

I found the 18-55mm lens very sharp at all focal lengths and appreciated the zoom, especially during this review period where I was covering a variety of scenes. 1/13 @ f4.5, ISO 200.
I found the 18-55mm lens very sharp at all focal lengths and appreciated the zoom, especially during this review period where I was covering a variety of scenes. 1/13 @ f4.5, ISO 200.
Three things I noticed right away that made this camera different from previous Fuji cameras I've reviewed. It is not a rangefinder, the SD card slot is separate from the battery chamber and there is a tiltable LCD screen. Two of these I really liked.

The rangefinder is what first attracted me to the Fuji cameras and it remains what I like best about my X100S. In the X100S and the X-Pro1 you have a choice between an Optical Viewfinder (OVF) and an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), but with the X-T1 you only have the EVF. And while the EVF is good, using it all the time felt like I was missing something. a connection with my subjects. This was especially true when I was shooting in continuous focus mode and it never seemed to lock focus. When I took the photo and the preview would appear, the photo was sharp, but while framing shots the focus just never seemed to lock in, even with camera on a tripod.

Having a tiltable LCD screen meant that it was extremely easy to take this shot with the camera pointing straight up. 0.3 sec @ f14, ISO 200.
Having a tiltable LCD screen meant that it was extremely easy to take this shot with the camera pointing straight up. 0.3 sec @ f14, ISO 200.
I never gave tiltable LCD screens a second thought. In fact, when reading rumors of an X-Pro2 it always mentioned a tiltable screen and I would roll my eyes. However after using the tiltable screen on the X-T1, I think I'm a convert and found myself using it often. It saved me from laying on my stomach when shooting macro or low angles and seemed to be a wonderful option when shooting straight up.

Lastly, having the card slot separate from the battery compartment seems insignificant, but there were definitely times when it comes in handy. Such as when the camera was mounted on a tripod (or has the tripod plate attached) it is nice to still be able to access the camera card. Maybe it is just me, but I always seem to release the battery when what I really want to do is eject the camera card, and this eliminates any chances of that. Although I think the real reason Fuji did this was to accommodate the vertical battery grip which I'm sure also adds balance to the camera, especially with longer lenses attached.

Fujifilm XF 18-55mm f 2.8-4 R LM OIS zoom lens. Photo courtesy of www.bhphotovideo.com
Fujifilm XF 18-55mm f 2.8-4 R LM OIS zoom lens. Photo courtesy of www.bhphotovideo.com
During the review, I used the Fujinon XF18-55mm f 2.8-4.0 zoom lens "kit lens." A "kit lens" normally denotes an inexpensive starter lens that comes with a camera, but I found that this lens performed very well. I noticed good contrast and sharpness throughout the zoom range and nothing felt "cheap" about it. One feature I did miss was having the f-stops printed on the lens barrel. I typically shoot in aperture priority mode, so knowing what f-stop I'm at is critical to controlling my exposure. When walking around with my camera, I'm always checking my camera settings so that as light or situations change, I can make adjustments before I'm ready to shoot. With this lens, I had to bring the camera up to my eye and look into the viewfinder. A new Fujinon XF 16-55mm f2.8 lens is now available and would have been my choice if street or low light photography was my goal. 

This camera does not have a built in ND filter like the X100S, so the slowest shutter speed I could get was 1/18 in this situation when I would have preferred something slower. 1/18 @ f22, ISO 200.
This camera does not have a built in ND filter like the X100S, so the slowest shutter speed I could get was 1/18 in this situation when I would have preferred something slower. 1/18 @ f22, ISO 200.
The 18-55mm lens has Optical Image Stabilization, which I left it on during the entire review period, so I don't have any examples of it turned off for comparison, however, looking at my photos now, even shots taken hand-held at fairly slow shutter speeds, they are sharp. A small lens shade is included, although I experienced considerable lens flare, even with the sun at 90 degrees. This is something I did not notice when using the XF 35 f 1.4 lens during my review of the X-Pro1.

One thing about carrying a mirrorless camera, I am much more likely to notice shots like this during lunch in Sausalito. 1/140 @ f5, ISO 400.
One thing about carrying a mirrorless camera, I am much more likely to notice shots like this during lunch in Sausalito. 1/140 @ f5, ISO 400.
I spent the majority of the seven days shooting landscape or outdoor scenes with the camera on a tripod which is very different than my previous reviews of the X-Pro1 and the X100S. So while that let me learn a few things about this camera, it really made me feel like I was missing what I really like about Fuji X cameras - street photography. The X100S and the X-Pro1 are naturals for street photography, but I just never got the same feel with this camera. For some reason, I also seemed to draw more attention to myself with this camera. The lens does stick out from the body which might be more intimidating, or I maybe I just didn't appear comfortable or casual while carrying it.

There is built-in WiFi that when paired with an IOS or Android device, lets you browse and transfer images or control the camera remotely. After some initial difficulty getting the camera to pair with my phone*, I found that it worked well. And it was useful to browse photos and transfer some for sharing on social media which I previously did using an Eyefi Mobi card. What I really would have found useful in this App, is to have the film simulation modes so I could process the photos without having to do it in-camera first.  

Like with previous cameras, I set the X-T1 to shoot Raw + JPEG with the JPEG set to MONOCHROME + Ye filter. With the Firmware V3.00 update, you will be able to enable the classic chrome film simulation mode. 1/600 @ f7.1, ISO 400.
Like with previous cameras, I set the X-T1 to shoot Raw + JPEG with the JPEG set to MONOCHROME + Ye filter. With the Firmware V3.00 update, you will be able to enable the classic chrome film simulation mode. 1/600 @ f7.1, ISO 400.
Final thoughts. This is another nice camera from Fuji and I would have no problem recommending it to someone as their primary camera, even to someone considering going pro. If, however, you already own a DSLR and are looking for a second camera to carry around every day or when working the streets, then I would stick with the X100S or the new X100T.

But you know what I really want is an update to the X-Pro1. An updated rangefinder with interchangeable lenses. Now that's what will get me to spend my money.

*I originally downloaded the wrong App, which wasn't very clear in the Play Store. And based on the one-star reviews, I don't think I was only person making this mistake.