VW3 – Shallow DOF

Welcome to Visual Wilderness Episode #3! In this episode, we talk about our March assignment for Visual Wilderness – Shallow Depth of Field. We discuss some of the reasons we might choose to use a wide aperture, and we’ll talk about what we were trying to accomplish with some of our own shallow DOF photos.

Balancing Photography and Family

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Lots of people ask me how I balance photography and family. I’ll tell you this. It isn’t easy. Some days I have so much to do that I forget to eat lunch. Some days, I’m so tired that I can’t focus on what I’m writing. But most days, I do ok… and it’s hard to complain when you have such awesome kids – and a great job, too. The trick to getting everything done is pretty simple, actually. For me, it’s all about focus and flexibility.

Wednesday evening – 4:15 pm – I’ll drive the kids to the dojo for a short practice before class begins at 5. Then, I’ll leave three kids at the dojo for classes and head back home to prepare dinner. While dinner is cooking, I’ll drive back to the dojo to pick up the 10-year-old after Advanced Class, and take him to basketball practice. And then back to the Dojo once again to pick up the 12-year-old after Black Belt Club. I’ll take her back home and let her eat dinner with her big sister. Spaghetti for dinner – Yum! And then, I’ll head back to the dojo one more time – to pick up my 17-year-old after his Instructor Class. He’ll eat his dinner at home, and then I’m off to pick up the 10-year-old now that basketball practice is finished. He still needs his dinner – and then I’ve got to get everyone off to bed. And that’s just the evening…

The morning is busy with getting the kids out the door – we’re up at 5:45 am. And once they’re all at school, I’m busy with photography stuff – an online meeting, preparing a couple of blog posts, recording audio for an instructional video, putting the finishing touches on a presentation, doing some research for an upcoming trip, maybe even processing an image or two.

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When the kids are home, they’re my first priority. I walk away from the computer and put my attention on them. I help with homework, and play board games, and help them practice martial arts or basketball or whatever they need. I find that if I’m trying to focus on work and the kids want my attention too, I get frustrated. And with lots of kids around, it’s not realistic to expect that I won’t be interrupted every few minutes. So, instead of putting myself in a position where I would feel frustrated, I shift my attention completely. When the kids walk in the door, I belong to them. I try not to schedule meetings for times when my kids are at home and awake. I don’t do presentations in the afternoons or on weekends. Nope. Those times belong to the kids. Period.

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And when they walk out the door in the morning to get on the school bus, I shift my attention to work. Maybe I’m not as productive as I could be. I suppose I could get more done if I spent more time working, rather than talking and laughing with my kids. But why would I want to do that? :)

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Honestly, the hardest part of all this is just keeping track of everyone’s schedules. I always have one eye on the clock – and I sometimes worry that I’ll forget someone somewhere. (Does every parent worry about that?) Every day is different, so I have to be ready to turn on a dime. Somebody forgot their homework. Someone wants to go visit a friend. Someone has outgrown their shoes. Everyone needs a trip to the dentist… It never ends. But don’t worry. I’m not complaining. I have my calendar synced to my computer and my phone, and I set an alarm when I’m likely to forget something. I thrive on keeping busy during the week, and I try to use my weekends to re-charge. We might spend a few hours working on a fun project (we built a cool little robot named Picasso a few weeks ago), or we’ll go to the Science museum, or go for a walk in the woods. We like to have cookouts and go hiking and exploring in the woods – or swimming in the rivers if its warm enough. By Monday, I’m ready to get back to work, and we start all over again!

It’s tough to balance everything. No doubt about it. But it’s a challenge I thoroughly enjoy.

Would you hole up in a hotel room?

Sometimes, the weather doesn’t cooperate when we’re on location. During one visit to Zion National Park in Utah, heavy rain fell for three solid days. This is the weather that flash floods come from… and come they did. A narrow canyon that had been empty minutes before suddenly let loose a raging flood of current. We watched from a safe distance, and then photographed this beautiful landscape that was so different from the Zion we knew.

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Within hours, waterfalls formed on rock faces where there had been none before. Every crevice became a flowing river, and the water pooled in pockets and basins and hollows. We shared an umbrella – and shot in the rain.

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Normally bone-dry, the sandstone mountains of this beautiful place turned to rich orange and pink as the water soaked in. It was an experience like no other – being in a place like this in uncommon weather. Our photos were so different from anything we’d captured here before. It was like exploring someplace entirely new.

Zion National Park - Utah, USA

But something else happened on this trip that really blew our minds. The day after the storms finally passed on, we met a young photographer at another nearby park. He was excited to be out shooting in such a beautiful place, and he told us that he’s paid a lot of money to spend a few days on location with an experienced photographer. He said they’d been stuck in a hotel room for the past three days because of the weather… and this was his first day shooting. When we seemed surprised, he noted that he didn’t feel to badly about it – the “pro” had told him that he was experiencing the “reality” of the profession. Apparently, “real” photographers hole up in hotel rooms when the weather gets bad. I guess we really messed up, being out there in weather like that. Nobody ever told us that being a pro meant ignoring the opportunity offered by unique conditions. Nobody told us we should hide from the rain.

Next time, we’ll know better.

The Flood - Varina Patel

Seriously though – we like to think of photography as an adventure. It’s a string of challenges, and that’s what makes it so endlessly appealing. We’re not suggesting that you should go out and shoot in dangerous weather… PLEASE DON’T! Check with park rangers to find out which areas could be dangerous, and use common sense. (Stay out of crevices and canyons if rain is coming – flash floods can be deadly. If there’s lightening, get yourself indoors or stay in a safe place. And so on.) But if you can be safe about it, get out there and enjoy the beauty of the storm. You never know what you might miss if don’t go out!

VW2 – Simple Manual Blending

In this episode, we welcome special guest Leigh Diprose from FujiFilm Australia. We get started by talking with Leigh about Fuji’s mirrorless camera systems. (We love the low noise capability of these cameras at high ISO.)

Then, Jay opens up a couple of RAW files from the Fuji X-E2 to show how he processes them. He walks us through the blending process to create a finished, natural-looking photograph. If you’d like to try your hand at manual blending, we have included JPEG images so you can practice.

Building on Shared Experiences

This blog post has been bouncing around inside my head for a couple of weeks now. People often ask me how I come up with so many ideas for blog posts – how I keep putting them out week after week, year after year. It’s really not so difficult, because each post comes from an experience – a conversation with another photographer, a question from a student, a compositional challenge in the field… and this post is no different. This post is for Dianne Hall… because she asked the question that got me thinking… and kept me thinking for the past few weeks.

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We were walking along a street in Sydney, discussing photography and art and composition. I was trying to explain how I try to tap into shared experiences when I create a composition. She pointed to a man mowing his lawn near the road, and asked me what I would do with him if I were to take a photo. So, I tried to explain to her how I would work through the process. It’s difficult to put things like that into words… but that’s what I love about teaching. It forces me to find the words to explain something intangible… which in turn, gives me a deeper understanding of what I’m teaching.

I explained that in order to share the picture in my head, I have to understand how my viewer will see what I present. I can never assume that they will understand my intentions with any photograph. We can not read each other’s minds – but we can tap into shared experiences. If I ask you to imagine the call of a trumpet – you can probably pull that up in your memory. That’s a shared experience. The taste of ice cream… the feel of it on your tongue… the crunch of the cone… all of that is shared experience. I know that most people who see my photos will understand those basic things. So that’s what I need to tap into when I make a photo. And so, that’s where I begin when I’m building a composition.

So, where would I begin with a photo of the man mowing the lawn? I’d start with shared experiences. You know the smell of cut grass… but how can I share something you smell in a photo? Actually, it’s not hard to do that. I just need to trigger that smell in your mind… and I do that with a visual element. I want to be sure to include the grass flying out of the rotary mower… because that little visual detail is enough to trigger your experience of the smell of the grass. It’s an important detail. So, I’ll time my shot so that I capture the grass flying through the air. Some of you might even feel a little bit of hay fever coming on when I mention it. ;)

I can also count on you to understand the feeling of a hot day, right? And that’s an important element of the experience I’m trying to share with you. So, I’ll need to include the sweat dripping on the man’s forehead, and the sheen of moisture on his bare arms. I need to include the angle of his body as he pushes the mower… because that will trigger your understanding of hard work and exertion. I need to make sure that I am shooting from an angle that will show all these little details – and that I choose my moment carefully. I might also want to include a little bit of a sense of place. In this case, the man was mowing a little strip of grass in front of his home. I liked the smallness of his lawn. So, I’d be sure to frame my shot so you could see that he was sweating away on his tiny patch of grass… it’s an element of humor that we can all relate to.

So that’s where I’d start. Those are the basic elements I need to include if I want to communicate something to you with this imaginary photograph I’m taking. But that’s just the beginning. There’s something else that I need to consider if I want my photo to be effective. What I don’t include in the photo is just as important as what I do include. There was a line of cars parked in front of this guy’s house. Is that important to my story? It’s not. And furthermore, it distracts from my story. If I include those cars in my photo, I’m demanding that you call up other memories and experiences… which will distract from the moment I’m trying to share. I don’t want you to imagine the heat of a car on a sunny day, or the smell of auto exhaust. I don’t want you to hear the bark of a dog – so I left him out of the frame too. And I left out the lady walking toward me on the sidewalk, and the fire hydrant nearby… and so on.

Sometimes it’s tough to break down a scene like this – and its even more difficult to create a photo that conveys a vivid experience, feeling, or mood. Sometimes, a photo will just happen – appearing fully-formed as if it had a life of its own. But more often than not, I think you’ll find that photos that have real impact require some thought and planning.

Tips for Cool Night Photos!

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I took this shot during our workshop in Australia. I gave away my f/2.8 lens so a student could follow along with the workflow we were presenting – so my settings were different from the others in the group… but no worries. Keep an eye on your histogram, and don’t be afraid of experimentation. Here are my basic tips for night photography.

1. Get your focus right. Your auto-focus won’t work in the dark, but a flashlight should give you the light you need to set your focus. Take a test shot and zoom way in to check so you don’t find yourself with a bunch of blurred photos when you’re done! I stood and held the flashlight for 15 minutes or more while everyone set their focus. It took some time since we were making sure everyone was on the same page.

2. Light Painting is fun – and I think it might be even more fun with a large group! :) We all released our shutters at the same time, and then Jay and I took turns moving the light across the rocks in front of us. We took a whole lot of shots… some were too bright, and some were too dark. Just keep experimenting until you get something you like!

3. Pay attention to your histogram – but don’t expect a neat “bell curve”. You are working with very dark tones, so you should see a peak on the left side of the histogram. You probably won’t see much on the right side of your histogram unless you really go crazy with the light painting. :)

4. Use a wide-open aperture, and keep your shutter speed under 20 seconds or so. A longer shutter speed will result in short star trails. (If you WANT star trails, you’ll need a series of 30-second exposures.) You’ll need to bump up your ISO to get the aperture and shutter speed you want… so you’ll probably want to clean up some noise in post.

Here are a couple of other night shots from other locations:

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Vermilion Cliffs, Arizona – I took this shot at the tail-end of twilight with a 266 second exposure.

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Arches National Park, Utah – This is a blend of 210 exposures – at 30-seconds each. Best date night EVER!

Have you been out shooting at night? Share your suggestions and experiences in the comments! And have fun out there!

What do you wear in cold weather and cold water?

“What do you wear in cold or snowy weather when you know you’ll be spending part of the time standing in cold water?”

Punch Bowl Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon (OR), USA

This is something Jay and I have to deal with quite a lot. It’s critically important to stay warm when you are out shooting, so having the right gear is key. We wear layered clothing when we’re working in the cold, so we can add and subtract as the weather changes. We recommend fleece as a warmth layer – because it is lightweight, and because it holds less than 1% of its weight in water. When it gets colder, we also carry a down jacket. We always carry waterproof/windproof pants with us wherever we go. You can pile on the fleece to try and stay warm… but if it’s windy, you’ll find that the wind passes right through and chills you anyway.

My standard cold-weather outfit includes the following:

Head and Hands – Fleece Hat, Thin Fleece Glove Liners, Waterproof and windproof gloves (we like the ones with a mitten flap that lets us use our fingers to handle the controls on the camera.) Chemical heat packs – put a few in your pockets to keep your hands warm – and tuck your camera inside your coat when you aren’t using it. The heat packs and your body heat will help keep it warm – which will extend the battery life and keep everything working nicely.

Upper Body – fleece jacket for inner layer, down jacket, waterproof and windproof outer layer with hood. The colder it gets, the thicker the layers get. I’ve been known to wear 5 or 6 layers at a time.

Lower Body – quick-dry hiking pants, fleece pants for warmth (yes – I actually put these on top of my quick-dry pants. It sounds weird, but I often want to remove those pants as the day warms up. Trying to get them off if they are under your hiking pants is a total pain.), and a waterproof and windproof pants for outer layer.

As for your feet…

Good, waterproof hiking boots and thick wool socks are critical – but if you are going to be standing in water that will likely go over the tops of your boots, we recommend neoprene diving booties. Yes. Really. :) We actually use the same shoes that divers wear – you can purchase them online or at a dive shop. We spent about six hours standing in freezing water in Utah one year… we broke through three layers of ice with each step, and stood in freezing water that stopped just below our knees. The diving booties won’t keep your feet dry… so that first step was freezing cold… but a few seconds later, our feet felt nice and warm, and we were comfortable for the rest of the hike. Of course, our feet looked like shriveled raisins when we took the boots off. :) We keep a couple of towels in the car, and we dry off carefully and then put on dry, wool socks and our hiking boots. Your boots feel great after that! I let the legs of my fleece pants and waterproof pants get wet – they won’t hold water – and they kept me nice and warm. ALWAYS have a dry change of clothes waiting for you in the car. And be careful out there. Cold will kill you, so be sure you have the right gear, and always travel with someone if you can.

Fuji X-E2 Review

During our incredible time in Australia, Jay and I had the opportunity to shoot with Fuji’s mirrorless X-E2 digital camera. Here’s what we think about the camera itself – as well as some of our favorite X-E2 features.

Physicality.  This mirrorless camera, while being small and lightweight, is also sturdy and well built. With its retro look, the X-E2 is certainly an attractive little camera. It’s easy to use with intuitive controls.

Functionality. The (Q)uick menu or Q button offers a lot of great options and allows you to more easily access frequently used features.

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Q Button options are quick and easily accessible.

The electronic view finder was better than expected. It can be a little too bright at times, but because of this camera’s great LCD, you won’t need the electronic view finder too often. The great LCD is also very accurate, and bright enough to use under most conditions.

Jay and I were also impressed with the Fuji X-E2’s excellent high ISO image quality, and with its well-controlled noise. Kudos to the camera’s engineering team!

Sometimes I work with photographers who prefer to shoot in JPG format because they don’t want to process every photo they shoot. This camera is perfect for these folks because of its LMO (Lens Modulation Optimizer). The X-E2’s in-camera processing takes into account the characteristics of whatever lens you choose to shoot with. Very cool.

Fuji also included film simulation modes for shooting video. I love the fact that this includes exposure compensation during recording. You can also choose between 30 and 60 frames per second.

The camera’s CMOS II sensor with color filter array helps to suppress color moiré (or false color) without an anti-aliasing filter.

Wi-Fi Connectivity. This feature is fantastic. We can shoot and send the photos to our mobile devices via Wi-Fi, which allows us to share photos easily. This is a great feature that makes the camera very cool for social media and bloggers.

Price. The Fuji X-E2 camera is packed with options, at a very good price. It costs around $1399 and includes an 18-55mm F2.8-4 kit lens.

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The Fuji X-E2 is packed with options.

My Favorite Features. The following are three of my favorite features of the Fuji X-E2:

  • Distance scale for manual focus – This feature is awesome for wide-angle photography when you need to work with hyperfocal distance, focus in low contrast situations, or focus in the dark.
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The manual focus distance scale is great for hyperfocal distance, low contrast situations, or focusing in the dark.

  • Digital split image focusing – This feature helps you manually focus  with greater precision. I love this feature – especially for detail shots.
  • Focus peaking – Many of our photography students struggle to get good, consistent focus. Focus peaking highlights areas in the frame that are currently in focus. By simply looking at these highlighted areas on the LCD, you can tell at a glance if the right area is in sharp focus. Great feature.

A couple of minor issues. A couple of things arose that were minor issues overall. For example, if you are using a tripod mount, the mount blocks the camera’s battery access. This can be problematic if, for example, you want to change the battery quickly as the sun is setting. You would have to unscrew the tripod mount or the quick-release plate in order to access the battery compartment.

Also, the weather sealing on this camera could be improved. This is an important aspect for us and other nature photographers. Fuji has already addressed both of these issues with their new X-T1.

The Fuji X-E2 at work. We thoroughly enjoyed shooting with the Fuji X-E2 mirrorless digital camera. It’s a great little camera, easy to use, and is packed with great options. Below are some photographs Jay shot with the X-E2 while we were in Australia.

Anna Bay, NSW, Australia

Birubi Beach after dark.

Anna Bay, Australia

One Mile Beach at Sunrise.

Anna Bay, Australia

Fisherman’s Bay at Mid-Day.

The Phoblographer Interviews Varina and Jay

During this interview, we talked to Chris Gampat from The Phoblographer about our passion for photography… how we started and some of our favorite breathtaking locations as landscape photographers. We also give some of our personal tips about selecting locations and the gear we take to be most prepared for any photo situation. The interview was a fun chance to chat about a career that never leaves us bored.

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Click here to read the interview on The Phoblographer.