Is It Your Challenge Too ?

I’ve read plenty of articles and books about it … but it still isn’t easy. I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit in the past year and I think about it for almost every photo I shoot … but sometimes when I look at my images in Lightroom, I wonder what I was thinking. I’ve taken a class on it and knew about almost every concept the teacher talked about … but I can’t always see the concepts in the real world. What am I talking about? Composition.

Of all the critical skills to learn to improve your photographs, I believe composition is the most important but also the most challenging to see and master. It isn’t that I am unaware of the rule of thirds, the golden mean, visual weight, balance, leading lines, diagonal lines, patterns, texture, and color. I read about them all the time and I like to believe I look for them when I am out on a photo shoot – heck, I even look for them in my everyday life when I don’t have my camera. I feel like I always need to work on doing a better job with my composition, but it seems that even the best photographers see this as a challenge.

There is some degree of subjectivity to exposure but with digital cameras and histograms and post-processing, getting the exposure correct is fairly straightforward. Sure, there are tricky lighting situations but if we use Lightroom we can clean them up. We all have occasional problems with focus when we see that our landscape photo is not tack sharp from foreground to background, or when the background in a portrait is too focused and is distracting. But with composition there is no real formula that leads to a great arrangement of critical elements and the elimination of distracting elements. I’m getting better at minimizing the distractions (and that is quite an improvement for me) but I still have a long way to go … and reading more books and articles probably won’t help me even though I tend to read more books about composition.

Last week my wife went to visit her sister in NY NY so Koty (our dog) and I were bachelor-ing it for five days AND the weather was supposed to be good most days. On Monday we dropped Chris off at the airport before 5:00 am – still plenty of time to see/shoot the sunrise in the park. Tuesday was rainy so we stayed home. But Wednesday and Thursday were beautiful and we were in park for sunrise with plenty of time and weather for some good shots. On Thursday I had a special opportunity to be alongside a really good photographer, Mike Jackson. We talked about photography from before the sun rose until long after the golden color left us and Mike gave me some good advice about composition. It seems to grow on me a little at a time. We talked about balance, how to decide where to crop the mountain range, and a number of other composition topics. I think talking about practicing composition and talking about it with others really helps me. What about you? I have an idea; lets try a more hands-on approach with some examples from my week in the park.

Let’s take a look at three images from each day and see if you SEE my photos in the same way I saw them after a little cleanup in Lightroom. I think I will always believe that composition is fairly subjective – no, not fairly subjective, it is somewhat subjective. But can you tell me why you think one of the images is better than the other two? For each day I will pick out three photos that are OK (I won’t choose horrible photos) but I’d like to hear why you think one is better than the others. Let’s start with Monday’s photos at Mormon Row just east of the Tetons.

Historic Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park

Mormon Row really tells the story of the history of Jackson Hole Wyoming. John Moulton and TA Moulton built their homestead in 1918 in the shadow of the Tetons. Now the Moulton barns are the most photographed in the world. Which photograph of John Moulton’s barn do you think is the best composition?

Morman Row (1 of 3)

Mormon Row #1

Morman Row (3 of 3)

Mormon Row  #2

Morman Row (2 of 3)

Mormon Row #3

Is it easy to choose one as better than the others because it is “prettier?” But what makes one a better photo? What part of composition makes one photo better? In the comments section of the blog describe why you picked Mormon Row #1, #2, or #3 as your favorite. I’ll tell you my thoughts a bit later.

A much less Photographed … Blacktail Pond

Koty and I took a break on Tuesday. The weather was wet and chilly so we stayed home. But Wednesday was supposed to be clear with warmer weather as the day moved on . We arrived at Blacktail Pond in the pitch-black but it didn’t look very inviting to climb down the bank in the dark (remember, I’m old.) So we drove up to Schwabacher’s Landing, hoping it was open, but it wasn’t. So we drove back to the Blacktail Pond overlook and I carefully walked down to the pond, which is essentially a braided area of the Snake River. And it was accommodating with snow and much of the normally wet grasses frozen enough to walk over. It was past sunrise but the sky was warm with whispy-beautiful clouds. There wasn’t a lot of wildlife (oh, for having a nice moose in the shot) but the sound of the birds was peaceful and there was plenty of views to shoot. It was one of those mornings where it was tempting to take photographs of everything – but I have learned that doesn’t work.

Blacktail Pond 3 (1 of 1)   Blacktail Pond #1

Blacktail Pond  (1 of 2)Blacktail Pond #2

Blacktail Pond  (2 of 2)Blacktail Pond #3

So which photo is your favorite? Which one has “the best” composition and why? You may have found it fairly easy to choose a favorite Moulton Barn photo (I did) because it was unique and colorful (sorry, I just gave away my choice) but the Blacktail Pond decision is more difficult. What about the composition of your choice makes that photo better? In the comment section, describe why you choice Blacktail #1, #2, or #3.

Schwabacher’s Landing – The Land of Compositions

After talking to a ranger we found that although the gate to Schwabacher’s Landing wasn’t open, it was all right to walk down to landing. So Friday morning we decided (actually I decided, I didn’t ask Koty) to go back to Schwabacher’s Landing and walk down to the river for sunrise. We met Mike Jackson there and walked down to the landing for a beautiful sunrise. There weren’t any clouds but we were there for all phases of the sunrise. Once again the visual and auditory beauty of the environment would have made it a great morning even if I didn’t get any good photos. But with a little help from Mike I think I got a number of photos “worth saving” – what do you think? Which of these three photos do you think has the best composition and why?

Schwabacher's Landing   (2 of 3)Schwabacher’s Landing #1

Schwabacher's Landing   (3 of 3)Schwabacher’s Landing #2Schwabacher's Landing   (1 of 3)Schwabacher’s Landing #3

Choosing which of these three photos has the best composition may be the most difficult choice. I think all 9 of my photos in this blog are “worth saving” but I think some have better composition than others. What do you think? Is your choice, and your reasoning, better than other’s choice and reasons? Is composition just a subjective decision where beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

I believe there are many compositional concepts or techniques that can improve my photographs. Learning to see them and integrate them into my photography “playbook “ will make me a better photographer. But how do we learn these techniques to the point where we use them “automatically” to see the world more artistically? I’m hoping that seeing and comparing a variety of photos from a similar environment (like the three photos from Moulton Barn, Blacktail Pond, and Schwabacher’s Landing) will help you to integrate compositional techniques into your photos.

On April 25th I will launch the Peer Mentor Photography Program (PMPP) for the Teton Photography Group in Jackson WY. If you live in the Jackson WY area and would like to join us, please let me know (risaacso@iusb.edu) and I’ll send you some information. If you are already signed-up, let me know if the 3-photos approach in this blog helped you to think about and use composition more effectively.

Tragic Loss … Almost

A couple months ago I bought a new 27” iMac with 3 TB of memory. I had been storing all my photos in an external hard drive because my MacBook Pro memory was just about used up. I knew that I needed a back up and kept telling myself I could lose all my photos if the hard drive crashed.   But I kept putting it off, until I got the iMac with plenty of memory available for photos.

The optional added memory led to a delay in actually picking up the iMac. But when I finally went into the Simply Mac store I brought my Mac laptop and the external hard drive for the manager to copy all the critical data to my new computer. Everything seemed to work out fine. When I got home I could easily get my photos from Lightroom. I cruised along for a couple weeks adding photos (although I must admit I didn’t take as many photos in the winter) enjoying seeing my photos on a big screen and then …

When it was time for me to make a presentation at the Teton Photography Group about the Peer Mentor Photography Program I went into Lightroom to get a few photos from the last couple years. I have arranged my photos in Lightroom by the date, which I have found to be very helpful, so I just needed to scroll through 2014 and 2015 to find a pair of photos from the fall season to compare. OH NO !   There were no photos from 2015 at all ! All the photos of the year when I made all my progress were gone !

I searched the new computer memory, the hard drive, and my laptop and couldn’t find any photos from 2015 ! I didn’t know what to do. After about an hour I sent a text to a TPG friend, but he wasn’t available to answer. I marched around the house out-of-my-mind, then returning to the computer to try a new approach. I just about cried, but was too frustrated to take time to tear-up. What was I going to do? What did the guy at the Simply Mac store do when he was copying the 2015 photos from the hard disk? Why didn’t I pay attention to what I had read dozens of times about back ups? Why didn’t I listen to my photo friends? I’ve heard this story before … but I always put the back up off until “tomorrow.” I told myself I deserved this punishment for putting it off … but can’t the photo gods forgive me this time?

Relax Randy, one more approach. How about getting out of Lightroom and search for the photos in the Mac Finder? And I found them. For some reason all the 2015 photos got “lost” in the Lightroom directory and it was pretty simple to get them all back. I have never felt that discouraged, defeated, dejected, depressed … you get the message. But do you ? Are you like the old-Randy? Are you thinking you will get the external hard-drive next week and then back up your photos? Honestly, I have never been that discouraged about photography; I was ready to give-up my drive to improve as an amateur photographer.

I hope that most of you don’t have to worry about back ups because you have already backed up all your photos. But if you haven’t backed up your photos on an external hard drive (or in the cloud?), please take my advice on this one. You don’t want to experience the ordeal I experienced. Go to your local Staples (or wherever you go for electronic), or on-line to Amazon, and get an external hard drive. Then immediately (NOT tomorrow !) back up all your photos.

And just so you can see my improvement, here are the photos I chose to compare the fall of 2014 to the fall of 2015. I think there is improvement. What do you think? And to show how different folks have different opinions of “improvement” and “competence” (see my previous post) … at my presentation not everyone agreed on which of these photos was better, not even the professional photographers.

One is from 2014 and one from 2015.

Which photo is the improved photo?  

Oxbow Bend in the Round

Which photo is the better photograph and why?

Oxbow from 10-2014 (1 of 1)

Involvement Powers Improvement

On the last post I introduced you to Ed Deci’s theory of Intrinsic Motivation. Sorry to be so academic but it seemed like a good way to share something about motivation that is very likely to impact most of us. I’ll try to lay-off the academic stuff in future posts, but let me use Deci’s theory to make one more observation about motivating what I am calling the Growth of Novice and Advancing Amateurs.

Deci says people that are intrinsically motivated to engage in a certain activity (e.g., photography) are likely to feel self-determined, competent, and connected to other people – in our case to people who are also interested in photography. When you are determined to go out on a photo shoot because you will enjoy it, and are feeling competent that your photographs are improving, and are looking forward to a photo shoot with another photographer, you are very likely to be intrinsically motivated. Now let’s focus on the last characteristic in Deci’s theory – connected to others.

Connected to Others – A Photography Mentor

Imagine that you were a Novice Amateur just learning and trying to improve your photography skills without anyone around to help you. You have books, magazines, and on-line information but no one that can personally answer your questions. You take plenty of photographs that you can compare to the images in your books but no one to critique your photos. What would you be missing? What could you add to your journey that would help you improve your photography and motivate you to really work at improvement?

That sounds rather lonely so let’s change the resources a bit. You are a Novice Amateur with very little skills or experience but you have a neighbor who is a professional photographer. He has a studio at home and a gallery in town and after going to one of his presentations it is obvious that his knowledge and experience is extensive. After his presentation you stick around, shyly approach him, and mention to him that you live right across the street. You ask him if he would be willing to talk to you about photography sometime over a cup of coffee or a beer. He agrees but seems rushed and not terrible willing to give you any of his valuable time.

Would you be willing to stop in his gallery to ask him questions about exposure or composition or Lightroom? Would you be willing to bring him some of your photos to critique? Could you ask him if you could tag along with him on a photo shoot?

Your answers to these questions depend a great deal on your personality and your photographic confidence. If you are hesitant to talk with you neighbor, what about a colleague from work whom: You are comfortable talking with; Is interested in photography but isn’t a professional; Is straight-forward and honest, but is a good listener who never belittles others. I imagine most of you are much more likely to approach your co-worker than your neighbor.

Can you learn more from your co-worker than your neighbor? For many of you the answer is probably –“Sure, I’ll gladly take time to be with my co-worker.” But can that co-worker really help? Don’t you need a true expert that knows everything you need to know? I suppose that having that expert be your mentor for 4-5 hours a week for a few months would be very beneficial, especially if that mentor was a good listener and made you feel comfortable. But since he will charge you for his time, could you afford that mentor? I certainly couldn’t afford him.

So what is an amateur photographer to do? In my 37 years as a college professor I spent more than 25 years creating a variety of peer mentor program. I must admit the original idea came from my students and was often revised using their ideas; they could learn from one another if I was there to support them with strategies and resources. In my last five years I met with approximately 50 peer mentors each week to revise the program, create resources, and help them deal with problems. And I am convinced that a peer mentor program would be beneficial for amateur photographers. Now I would like to use what I have learned about peer mentor programs to build a Peer Mentor Photography Program (PMPP) for the Teton Photography Group.

In the most recent posts to this blog I have tried to introduce you to some of the key elements in working with a peer to improve your photography skills, your image quality, and your motivation to move forward and grow as a photographer. To build an effective peer mentor program we need to develop a program where participants:

  • work together and participate regularly (monthly?) in a photo shoot;
  • feel comfortable asking questions and giving feedback to one another;
  • encourage one another to reflect on their progress;
  • share new ideas and techniques about photography;
  • support one another’s growth as an amateur photographer
  • help one another gain confidence in their progress.

To improve on any skill it is important to take some risks. Whether you are learning a sport, or a new job, or a new hobby, or photography, you have to be willing to try activities just outside your comfort zone – and you probably need some support as you take those risks. A professional coach could really help, but a peer who gives you support may have just as much of an impact. So what can you expect from the Teton Photography Group PMPP?

Basic Goals of the Peer Mentor Photography Program

  1. Create a Community of Amateur Photographers that gives support.
  2. Learn to give Information Feedback in a way that supports and encourages the improvement of effective photographic skills.
  3. Build Peer Mentor partnerships that work together at photo shoots and give Informational Feedback to one another as partners.
  4. Meet monthly for PMPP critiques that focus on Informational Feedback but also include sharing what we have learned together as a group.
  5. Highlight topics such as composure and exposure and post-processing to focus on how to improve our photographs.

These are Randy’s tentative goals as of March 2016. One of the many things I learned from my Peer Mentor Leadership Program at the university was that the program worked most effectively when I invited my peer mentors to be involved in the development of the program. I will work to do the same in OUR Peer Mentor Photography Program. I have to start some place to get you involved but I want your input on what is most likely to benefit you. Please give me some feedback in the comment section of this post. Don’t say “Awesome” or “Horrible”🙂  Tell me, and the other readers, how a program like this might help you. What are you excited to do? What might be challenging and keep you hesitant to make a commitment? What might make you uncomfortable? What can Randy do to help you feel excited to get involved?

I have been incredibly fortunate to have joined the Teton Photography Group about a year ago. I was immediately connected to a group of photographers (from amateurs to professionals) who were patient, willing to answer my questions, and eager to go out on a photo shoot with me. As a member of the Steering Committee I felt committed to go to all the meetings, which encouraged me to take some risks including sharing my images with the group. I have learned so much from my experience … and now I hope I can share what I have learned with you.

On Monday March 21st I will be making a presentation for the Teton Photography Group on the Peer Mentor Photography Program. The presentation will be at 6:00 pm to about 8:00 and will be held in the Jackson Hole Real Estate Association at 80 West Broadway, about a block west of the town square in Jackson WY. I hope to see you there so I can answer your questions.

Photography: Work or Play ?

Have you ever had a sport or hobby or activity, in which you loved to participate that resulted in you losing interest? Did you love to cook and then started cooking on the side to make some cash, only to regret getting involved? Did you enjoy woodworking but when the demand for your work at a local store increased dramatically you didn’t enjoy your hobby any more?

My son Jason started playing soccer when he was 5. He loved playing on a travel soccer team with his buddies and won a number of state championships. As a young adolescent he was chosen for the state all-star team and was invited to the Midwest All-Star soccer camp. But the third year he was invited he chose not to go to the camp because it wasn’t fun anymore; the camp had become all about making the national team. He was an all-state player in high school and his team was state runner-up, but after getting a number of scholarship offers he told me he didn’t want to play soccer anymore. What happened to his love for soccer?

I must admit that I was disappointed in his decision but after reflecting on what had happened it made sense. I was an educational psychology professor and my focus on educational motivation helped my understand Jason’s decision. It also helps me to understand what has been happening to me – and maybe can help you understand what might help you. When you engaged in an activity because you enjoy it and then “engagement” is due to an external reward, it is likely that your motivation decreases or is even negative.

Ed Deci is a psychologist who has spent his whole life studying what motivates people; particularly what motivates people to be engaged in activities without any clear external rewards. This type of motivation is called Intrinsic Motivation because the “reward” comes from engagement in the activity rather than an external reward like money or winning a competition. I find this to be extremely important for amateur photographer as pointed out in a joke I have heard a number of times in the last year: Do you know the best ways for photographers to make money? Sell their photography gear🙂 If you are looking for a $$ reward, look again you may learn to dislike taking photographs.

Intrinsic Motivation – A Path to Improving Photography

Since it is unlikely we can make money (which is a extrinsic reward) from selling photographs, it is important we become intrinsically motivated. Deci’s theory of motivation states that people who are Intrinsic Motivated need to feel:

  • Self-Determined – Motivated people feel in control,
  • Competent – Motivated people feel they are improving their skills,
  • Connected to Others – Motivated people typically work with others,

If you have been following the story of my photography problems in 2014 and my improvement in 2015 I bet you can guess where I am going with this.

To be an intrinsically motivated photographer you need to believe that you have chosen to be engaged in photography – not because you have to, but because you want to. To be intrinsically motivated you also need to believe you are competent. That does not mean you believe you are a highly skilled photographer, but rather that you can see you are improving. And Deci’s third intrinsic variable is an unusual one – the need to feel connected with others. One of the strongest emotional supports for intrinsic motivation is to be working with others. Let’s look at how these three variables have impacted me and how they might be impacting you.

Self Determination seems rather obvious but sometimes you need to look below the surface. Is it my choice to become a photographer in my retirement? Sure. But what if I think I have to find something to do? If I feel I am forcing myself to find something to do, then I am less likely to look forward to being engaged in my “hobby.” If you think you have to go out on a photo shoot, then it is less likely that you will enjoy it. If you dread going out for photo shoots in the winter because you hate being cold and you force yourself to go, then it is less likely that you will be motivated in the future. But if you love the outdoors and the solitude of a sunrise, then you are more likely to enjoy being a photographer. “Work” is an activity you need to get paid to do: Don’t make photography work !

The foundation of Competence is recognizing that you are improving your skills, which may be the most important variable in building intrinsic motivation. Whether you are a young child learning to read, a teenager learning social skill, or a retired professor learning to become an advancing photographer, feeling that you are becoming more competent has an enormous impact on your motivation. If the young child does not believe they are improving as a reader, they will give up. If a teenager believes they have no social skills and no one likes them, they will isolate themselves from potential friends. And if this retired professor didn’t see his photography skills improving, it is likely he would have given up and returned to taking family pictures and vacations. Finding a way to actually see your improved competence is critical to continued motivation.

Being Connected to Others is an important part of intrinsic motivation for most, but not all, people. Most of us enjoy being with others, at least for some of the time we are involved in photography. That is not to say that we need to hang-out with folks for every photo shoot. But if we have peers that have similar photo interests it can have an impact on our motivation to “get out there” and then share our photos with our peers. Certainly there are photographers who take photos by themselves and only share their photos with others on-line – and they can be highly motivated. But my own experience has shown me that I feel more motivated if I can occasionally have a photo shoot with a partner, and share my photos with a community that is supportive. My journey to become a better photographer has had many valleys, but my connection to enthusiastic peers has kept me motivated to improve.

I haven’t had many problems with the Self Determination and I will be addressing the Connected to Others in my next blog post, so let’s take a look at my experience with Competence. As I drag you along on my journey, take time to reflect on how these three variables are impacting your journey as a photographer.

Boosting Photography Competence – Check out the Past

One of the most important variables in boosting my confidence as a photographer has been the time I have taken to look at old photographs. I must admit I didn’t intentionally choose to look at photographs from the last two years. I just explored some family photographs and realized my photography had changed.

One of the first things I learned from my involvement in the Teton Photography Group (TPG) was the value of Lightroom (LR). I thought LR was just for photo editing but at my first TPG meeting one of the members told me LR had many applications. He explained that LR allowed me to create a valuable organized photo library. Lightroom has become the most valuable photo gear I have ever purchased for many reason. The most important reason is LR helped build my confidence during 2015 and now in 2016.

Lightroom allowed me to categorize many years of photos by date, place, and the people I had photographed. During 2015 I added the date, place, etc. to most of my photos and in my spare time (remember, I’m retired) I began to add this information to older photos all the way back to the turn of the century and older. It is certainly fun to look at old photos of my children and grandchildren when they are easily accessible. But the impact on my confidence was unanticipated.

Every time I took photos in 2015 I entered them in LR shortly after taking them. Most of the time I looked them over and searched for photos that I thought were pretty good (a 4-star rating was like a grade of B, a 5-star a grade of A). I rarely went back and looked at them, until late 2015 when I accidently looked more carefully. I was looking for photos to use in a Christmas calendars for my family and realized all the good ones were from late in 2015. And when I started checking out the ratings from early in 2015 compared to late in 2015, I was shocked. Early in 2015 I was rating quite a few photos as 4-star that I now thought were pretty bad. My wife helped me choose the 12 photos for the calendar and she noticed how much better the later photos were compared to earlier in the year. The criteria I was using to judge my own photos had changed rather dramatically whether the photo was a landscape or a photo of our dog. My “photographic eye” had changed as I improved and so did my confidence.

There are many ways to boost someone’s confidence. But the best way for a person’s confidence to strengthen is for them to realize that their skills are improving. Telling a child they are a much better reader is not as helpful as the child recognizing they can finish reading a much harder book. Telling a young teenager they are going to make friends is not as helpful as the teenager actually making new friends. And when people comment on your photos on Facebook and tell you they are beautiful, gorgeous, or awesome it doesn’t have a long-term impact on your confidence as a photographer. But when your audience tells you that your photos have great leading lines, and you intentionally composed your photo with leading line … your confidence improves. Let’s look at how my photos changed from 2014 – 2015.

Randy’s Improving Photos from 2014 – 2016

Let’s start with something simple and really unintentional. If you are improving in your photography, even your everyday photos of your pets may be getting better. Chris and Koty (our dog) and I often go cross-country skiing in Teton Canyon on the west side of the Tetons. I often take photos of Chris and Koty.

Koty @ Teton Canyon 2014 (1 of 1)

Look at the improved composition of the winter of 2014 (to the right) to the winter of 2016 (below.) This is a photo I took in the winter of 2014.  Certainly I wasn’t looking for a good composition since I didn’t even know what a good composition looked like.  And I suspect the 2014 photo was shot on auto.

And this is a photo (below) I took this winter without really thinking about composition.  The mountains in the background were quite different and I remember thinking I should get a good foreground with those rocks as Koty ran by them.

Koty @ Teton Canyon 2016 (1 of 1)

Let’s l0ok a comparison (below) that really shows how little composition skills I had “back-in-the-day” compared to when I just got started with the Teton Photography Group.  Isn’t that sky beautiful🙂 and what a great foreground🙂 .  Just kidding.

Oxbow Bend 5-2014 (1 of 1)

Oxbow Bend is one of the most popular places to take photos in Grand Teton National Park. The fall colors are very popular but let’s look at a winter comparison of May 2014 to May 2015. It is very obvious that the winter of 2014 was much colder than 2015 (there was still ice in 2014) but look at the composition comparison. Neither are great photos but the May 2014 (above) was shot in JPG with bland sky and a washed out mountain. The May 2015 (below) certainly isn’t anything great but compared to the 2014 it is a huge improvement. It has some texture, much better color, and better composition.

Oxbow Bend 4-29-2015 (1 of 1)

A comparison of the Snake River Overlook 2015 (below) to Snake River Overlook 2016 may not seem like a fair comparison. Yea sure, the weather in 2015 was not good for photos compared to 2016. But in January of 2015 I didn’t really realize the impact of the weather and a sunrise on my photography.  I would never have gotten up at 5:00 am to see the sunrise in early 2015 and I didn’t have a photography partner.  By the way, showing this photo is a bit embarrassing but I’ve  embarrassed myself in this blog before.  Moving from embarrassed to more confident is part of our journey. Snake River Overloook 1-2015 (1 of 1)

But in January 2016 I got up at 5:00 am, met my photography buddy (thanks Mario) in Jackson, and drove up to the Snake River Overlook and got all set-up for a great sunrise. It didn’t turnout to be as good a photo as Ansel Adams🙂 but the actual sunrise was beautiful and the photos were pretty good.  In case you have never been to the Grand Teton National Park, this is the place where Ansel Adams made the park famous.  It is gorgeous all year.

Snake River Overloook 1-2016 (1 of 1)

And although I don’t have a 2014 or 2015 comparison photo, I’d like to share this photo of the Grand Teton in January 2016. I took this on a cross-country ski with a couple of TPG buddies. It wasn’t intended as primarily a photo shoot but we all brought our cameras and this beautiful morning demanded some photographs.  It certainly isn’t obvious in this photo but an enjoyment of the outdoors, an increasing confidence, a better trained eye, and time with photography friends (thanks Paul and Aaron) is likely to lead to much better photographs.

Grand Snowy Fence 1-19-2016 (1 of 1)

And the Future is Bright

The next blog post will be about the third variable in Deci’s Intrinsic Motivation – Connection to Others.  I will be making a Teton Photography Group presentation on Monday March 21st at 6:00 pm in Jackson.  I will talk about some of the issues I have mentioned in my blog with an emphasis on the value of being connected to other photographers, especially through a Peer Mentor program I will be developing.  I hope to see you there.

 

But It All has Changed

It seems rather strange but it all began at about the turn on the century. Boy, does that make me sound old. I bought my first digital camera (a Nikon Coolpix E4100) and soon found out I was about to become a grandpa. As the guy who took family pictures, I certainly needed a “real camera” so I went out and bought a Nikon D70. In the following years I took a lot of digital photos of my granddaughter, and then my grandson, and enjoyed sharing these photos with my family. And occasionally we went on vacation and I took shots of beautiful places, and assumed these shots were beautiful photographs. And I liked them back then. But now when I go back and look at them I realize they aren’t beautiful photographs. Back then I thought I was a pretty good photographer … but it all has changed.

It’s been six months since I put up the first post on my blog FirstanAmateur.com. When I went back and read the first post, one line stood out: I hope when you read about what I have learned it will help you move forward with better artistic photographs. It reminds me that it might be good to take some time and reflect on what I have learned starting back at the turn of the century, share that with you, and invite you to reflect on what you have learned about becoming a better photographer.

But let me start at the beginning, or at least at the beginning of the new revival of Randy’s photography. When my wife and I retired and moved to Victor Idaho my first “job” was to help out the guys who were building our house. I wanted to learn about home construction and our contractor was very willing to make me the gopher who helped out with the very basic stuff. He was also very nice about answering questions. I felt comfortable to ask silly questions since it was only expected that I didn’t know doddle-squat about construction. In some situations we feel comfortable asking questions; in other situations we feel foolish.

After our house was complete I started looking for something to keep me busy and out of trouble.🙂 I had always enjoyed taking pictures so I thought I could make an easy transition to being a really good photographer, especially since I lived in the beautiful environment of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. I thought it would be easy to make huge improvements in a short time, but I was dead-wrong. And since this blog is about my journey to help you with your journey, let me share the problems from the very beginning – problems some of you may be experiencing.

To become a better photographer I thought I should:

Take a lot more photographs – This certainly sounds like a good idea but it didn’t solve the problem. I remember telling my students that to improve their test scores they should study many more hours; but they just spent more time “studying” in front of the TV. I found that in my first year trying to become a better photographer I took a lot more pictures, carried my camera with me more often, but the photos weren’t any better. I didn’t know what to look for when taking photos. I just started firing away. Just like my students who didn’t really think about their studies, I didn’t really think about the photographs I was taking.

Read more books and learning the lingo – It didn’t take too long for me to learn the photo vocabulary: aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, etc. But I couldn’t really apply any of the terms. I had told my students that they needed to be able to apply what they were learning to real life experience, but they assumed memorization was all they needed. I read the books and sat with my camera in my lap to set the aperture and shutter speed, but when I went out to take photographs I typically used the auto setting; it was easy to do in my chair the night before but in the field the auto was much easier. But I wasn’t really engaged in all this and I didn’t have anyone to turn to when I had question – and I had a LOT of questions, all “dumb” questions. I felt uncomfortable and wondered why this was so difficult for me to grasp.

Shoot in the Golden Hour – Most of the books and articles I read talked about how critical it was to use the golden hour to take photographs. That certainly made sense but I didn’t “see the light” (sorry for the pun) and didn’t get out to take shots before sunrise. I didn’t understanding and appreciation that the value of the “golden hour” was worth the inconvenience of getting up early; just like my students didn’t realize that though studying every day was inconvenient, it was the best was to learn. And looking in retrospect, I knew what I should have done but didn’t have my own photos of the warmth of the lighting during the golden hour. It’s easy to get lazy when you are getting discouraged.

But there were Challenges to Improving My Photographs:

Discouragement – Back-in-the-day I can remember sending off color film for processing thinking I had some great shots, only to be disappointed. In my new life as an amateur photographer I had the same disappointment. After a day of hiking and taking many many photos I arrived home to look at a lot of ordinary pictures that didn’t resemble photos in the books I was reading. I didn’t expect to take National Geographic photos right away🙂, but I thought they would be pretty good. But they were bland and discouraging. If the Grand Teton National Park didn’t “create” impressive photos, maybe the Grand Canyon would – – – but it didn’t.

Discouragement Undermines Confidence – As a professor of a challenging course I frequently had many conversations with discouraged students, many of whom anticipated academic success while others expected failure. Their failure to reach their goals undermined their confidence. This often led to a lack of involvement in class (e.g., they feared asking questions because they would look stupid), a lack of effort (e.g., lazy was a better explanation for failure than stupidity), or they just gave-up and essentially dropped out. I found that I was experiencing the same decreasing confidence. I thought if I put forth a little more effort I would make huge improvement; I was terribly wrong. But just like my students, I didn’t want to admit I was having so much trouble. Other people seemed to take great photographs. What was wrong with me?

My Eyes and Brain don’t work like My Lens and Camera – Living in a beautiful place like the mountain west has its advantages but photo progress can be slow. The beauty of the Grand Tetons seemed so obvious that I’d put on my wide-angle lens to capture all the gorgeous scenery before me. But when I got home the images on my computer looked pretty bland and unimpressive. What was wrong? Why doesn’t my lens and camera take the same shot as my eyes?

Eye Training Takes Time – Reading a lot of photography books and examining Ansel Adams photos is helpful. But training your eyes to recognize what makes a great photograph takes time, experience, and thoughtful reflection. I suspect taking an art class would help (I think I slept though my only art class in college many year ago) but I imagine that the application of line, balance, texture, etc. is critical and I have found that it takes time. And in retrospect, I think it can really help to work with someone and discuss what you see and what you are learning; it can be really tough to improve your photography by yourself. At least I found that it was an important aspect of learning for me.

If Step #1 Ain’t Working, Time to Move on to Step #2

At about the time my discouragement and confidence were hitting bottom a friend suggested I look for a photography club. Tom was involved in a club in South Carolina and he had really gained a lot from having photographers around. I went on-line and found that the Teton Photography Group was a club that met monthly about an hour from our house. I had reservations (remember I was discouraged and lacking confidence) but I was committed to making progress so I planned to attend the next monthly meeting, an Informal Critique.

Back in the fourth blog (The Challenge of Getting Motivated to Learn) you might remember that I admitted that I didn’t take my photos to the Informal Critique at my first meeting with the Teton Photography Group. I was discouraged and lacking confidence and I assumed that my photos would be shot-down. I suspect there are many start-up amateurs (let’s call them Novice Amateurs) that have the same concern and are also lacking confidence. If there is anyone I am hoping to reach with my FirstanAmateur.com blog it is the Novice Amateurs. I am planning on putting up a post next week (Sorry, I know I haven’t done well in sticking to my timelines) to share what I have done in 2015 to move forward. I hope you will join me and make some comments.

I will also have another opportunity to work to help Novice Amateurs and other photographers this coming month. As a members of the Teton Photography Group steering committee, I will be in charge of the Informal Critique (Monday March 14th) and a presentation (Monday March 21st) on a new Peer Mentor Photography Program (PMPP) that I will be developing. I will be talking about these photo activities in upcoming blog posts.

How Feedback Helps or Kills Our Motivation

This year my wife and I each got a Fitbit for Christmas. We do a lot of hiking in the summer and skiing and snowshoeing in the winter so we are usually in pretty good shape. But as we drift into our late 60’s it seems important to be aware of staying in good shape – but how do you do that other than “tipping the scale”? Wearing a Fitbit and checking out our exercise, resting heart rate, calories burned, active minutes, and even how we’ve slept every night helps us know how we’ve exercised. But it does more.

My Fitbit gave me what I really wanted – it has given me the information I needed to recover from knee surgery to get ready for winter activities. It gives me the details about how hard I have exercised to get me in shape without killing my surgically repaired knee. Sweet ! But it does even more.

Back in the day when I was in my 30s and early 40s I was really into running. I was a high school cross-country coach and ran road races almost every week. For more than a decade I kept a running diary with my resting heart rate, how many miles I ran every day, what my time was in every road race, etc. I didn’t realize it then but the information, the specific data, kept me motivated to improve – and I did improve. My times got better on marathons and other races even though I was getting quite a bit older – I was more motivated. Eventually this motivation resulted in too many miles and bad knees. But I learned an important lesson. Motivation is closely tied to something called “informational feedback.”

My Fitbit has something called a “Dashboard” that keeps track of what I have done every day (steps, heart rate, high level activities, etc.) and compares my daily activities to my weekly, and even monthly, activities. It even sends me e-mails with “awards” when I surpass my goals. Maybe I am a little motivation-crazy but the feedback I get from my Dashboard motivates me to get up early and take our dog for a little longer walk every morning as well as the exercises my physical therapist gave me for my knee. And now I can go snowshoeing, and CC skiing, and recently alpine skiing.🙂 How did the Fitbit get me motivated?

When I was a professor of Educational Psychology my research focused on motivation and learning in education. I found that Informational Feedback (feedback that gives you specific information that connects your effort to the learning outcome) improves student results AND motivation; when a student sees that their study time improves their test scores it improves their motivation and effort. A colleague and I create a computer Dashboard where students kept track of how and when they studied and their results on weekly tests. The improvements were dramatic for almost all students; honestly I was shocked at the power of specific informational feedback when delivered in a way that made it clear how studying impacted their grades. At the end of the semester a majority of the students raved about how informational feedback improved their learning. Approximately 50 students each semester volunteered to join my Peer Mentor program to teach other students how to learn using informational feedback and the Dashboard.

Each semester these volunteer peer mentors (they didn’t receive a penny, they only received the experience of teaching others) helped the new students in my class to see the connection to change how they studied. The lesson for me was obvious: when learners see how changes in their efforts lead to success they are more motivated to continue their efforts. Over time I also learned that the Peer Mentors could do something I couldn’t do; they helped their fellow students to accept that they could improve IF they were willing to change how they studied. If “the expert” (that would be Randy-the-teacher) told them to change, they often didn’t listen. But when their colleagues gave them Informational Feedback they did listen and were willing to change. A Peer Mentor is a powerful tool in change.

So what is Informational Feedback and how does it relate to improving your photography? I previously defined informational feedback in learning as feedback that gives you specific information that connects your effort to the learning outcome. In my class the Peer Mentors used the Dashboard to show students that studying for two hours a few days before the test was more helpful to their grade than cramming for 4 hours right before a test. The Peer Mentors tied specific behaviors (2 hours of studying) to specific outcomes (improvements in test grades.) But how do we do that to improve our photography?

Let me start with a feedback problem in photography. Many of you have probably been posting your photos to your Facebook page or the FB page of a group like the Teton Photography Group. Take a few minutes to go back and look at the comments that people made to your photos.

Don’t read-on, go back and read the comments.

I suspect that most of the comments are something like this: “Great shot”; “Awesome”; “Beautiful”; “Gorgeous”. Did any of the comments say something like this: “I like the leading lines”; “The placement of the horizon shows great balance”; “The color in the foreground leads me to look to the mountains and sky”; or “I find the tree branches in the upper right corner to be a bit distracting. I think cropping those out would be helpful.”

Do the “Awesome” comments help you to become a better photographer? Sure, they make you smile and feel good for a few seconds but after a few comments like these you don’t feel a whole lot better. These “Awesome” comments are what are called “Evaluative Feedback”; they simply say that they like, or dislike, your photo but they don’t say why. To improve your photography you need Informational Feedback that tells you what is good (or not so good) about your photo. I hope that if I have made a comment on one of your FB posts that I sent you some Informational Feedback – at least I try to make my comments informational whenever I have the time.

I believe that the most important ingredient in improving our photography is to receive Informational Feedback, particularly from someone you trust. Any type of feedback (informational or evaluative) that might be seen as criticizing your photos could be upsetting. If someone said that your photo was “Horrible” you are likely to be upset – I’d be upset also. Or if someone you don’t know said “Too many distractions in the upper right corner of your photo”, you are more likely to be upset, although not as upset as hearing “Horrible.” But what if the person who told you they see the tree branches as distracting was a person you trust? What if that person was a peer that you saw as your partner; you both went on photo shoots and gave feedback to one another about your photos? I bet you’d feel more comfortable.

I know this can be very intimidating for some of you. It was very intimidating for me at the first Teton Photography Group Informal Critique that I attended a year ago. But I got over my fear fairly quickly once I heard the constructive feedback at the critique; the group gave specific supportive Informational Feedback to start and occasionally gave some specific encouragement on how to improve the photo. When you know that others are there to help you improve it makes it much easier to listen to the feedback. And if you know that the person giving you the feedback is also trying to improve, just like you, it makes the feedback even easier to accept.

My experience with amateur photographers the last year has shown me that I’m not alone in moving forward to improve my photographs. A year ago I didn’t want to share my photos with anyone – especially if I thought they were good photographers – because I thought I was a bad photographer. But I took the risk to share my photos with others and their Informational Feedback had a huge impact on my photos. I listened to their feedback and started to look at my other photos “with their eyes.” For example, at one critique someone pointed out that my photo was too busy around the edges and that I could improve the photo by being more focused on a theme in the photo. I went home and looked at lots of my photos that had the same distraction problem, and did some cropping to improve them.

And I found someone in the group to go and take photo shoots with on Saturday morning. Mario and I have gone on a number of photo shoots and we work together and talk photography. Working with Mario gets me motivated to get out and take photographs early in the morning and his feedback has given me confidence. We have become Peer Mentors that trust one another and are willing to give one another feedback.

I have learned a lot in the first year of my photo journey and, as I said in the first post to this blog, I want to share my journey with you. A year ago my goal was to share my journey to help you, now I want to add to that original goal by creating a Peer Mentor Photography Program (PMPP) that you can join. My next post will be a description of the Peer Mentor Photography Program that I plan to launch in March through the Teton Photography Group. This group will be designed primarily for amateur photographers who live within driving distance of Jackson, WY but it might be possible to do this on-line. I will be hosting the TPG Informal Critique on Monday March 14th and making a presentation on Peer Mentoring on Monday March 21st at the Art Association in Jackson WY.. If you might be interested in joining the Peer Mentor Photography Program (PMPP) send me an e-mail (risaacso@iusb.edu) and think about finding a photography buddy that might be able to take at least one photo shoot with you each month. If you can’t think of anyone, I will find a way to match-up people but it would probably be easier if you find a photo-partner you already know.

I hope to have the next blog post up in the next week or a little later. I will include a description of the goals and activities of the PMPP in the blog.   I am also planning on sending out e-mails to members of the Teton Photography Group that live within driving distance of Jackson WY. If you are interested, please contact me. If you know of a potential Peer Mentor for you, please get in touch with them, invite them to join the blog, and send me their e-mail address so I can get in touch with them.

Some Basic Goals of the Peer Mentor Photography Program

  1. Create a Community of Amateur Photographers that trusts the critique of one another as they work to improve their photography.
  2. Learn how to give Information Feedback to one another in a way that supports and encourages the improvement of effective photographic skills.
  3. Build Peer Mentor partnerships that work together on monthly photo shoots and also give Informational Feedback to one another 1-on-1 as partners.
  4. Meet monthly for PMPP critiques that focus on Informational Feedback but also include sharing what we have learned together as a group.
  5. Highlight topics such as composure and exposure and post-processing to focus on the how to improve our photographs over time.

These are Randy’s tentative goals as of January 2016. One of the many things I learned from my Peer Mentor Leadership Program at the university was that the program worked most effectively when I invited my peer mentors to be involved in the development of the program. I will work to do the same in OUR Peer Mentor Photography Program. I have to start some place to get you involved but I want your input on what is most likely to benefit you. Please give me some feedback in the comment section of this post. Don’t say “Awesome” or “Horrible”🙂 Tell me, and the other readers, how a program like this might help you. What are you excited to do? What might be challenging and keep you hesitant to make a commitment? What might make you uncomfortable? What can Randy do to help you feel excited to get involved?

I’ll try to get my next post up in the next week with more details. You can begin to help me develop this program by sharing what you like, dislike, and what you’d suggest that I change. Make comments on this post or send me an e-mail at risaacso@iusb.edu.

Moving on from the Holidays

I hope you all had a wonderful Holiday. I’m sorry I have been so tardy in getting a post out to the FirstanAmateur.com Blog but I took an extended trip to the Midwest to visit some friends and our sons and grandkids. Fun stuff but I must admit that I didn’t do much photography, except for a type of photography that I just took for granted – point-and-shoot pictures of the holidays.

I hope you also had time to take some photos of family and friends over the holiday. And I wonder if you might be in the same place I am in – disappointed in your “portrait” photos of your family. I see myself as a landscape photographer – or at least attempting to become a landscape photographer. I have seen quite an improvement in my landscape photos and I have “upped” my expectation of any photos that I take. Unfortunately this has led to some disappointment in my attempt at portrait photos of my family. I suppose I could have just taken a bunch of point-and-shoot pictures and been satisfied. But as I said, my expectations have increased and I want good photographs of my grandchildren NOW.

Since I have two wonderful grandkids (aren’t everyone’s grandchildren wonderful?) I try to take photos of them as often as possible. But since they live in Ohio and I live in Idaho, I don’t have daily or weekly opportunities to take photographs of them. So, when I spend a week at their house the pressure is on for Randy to take great portrait photos just like the great infant photos I took a few years ago.

I have a beautiful 11-year-old granddaughter named Cate (aren’t all granddaughters beautiful?) and a funny cute 8-year-old grandson names Ben (yep, all grandsons are funny and cute) and in the last few years Cate has decided that “they” don’t want their picture taken. A couple years ago I even gave Cate a point-and-shoot camera for Christmas (she asked Santa for it) and talked to her about how important it was for me to take photos of her and her brother. Last winter we went on a very short “shoot” when they visited us and we talked about photography. But now she is back to hiding her face and acting shy when she sees my camera … and her brother tends to follow her lead.

Cate No  (1 of 2)

From the beginning I have called this Blog a description of my journey where I shared with my readers what I have learned. I have also hinted that I hoped the readers would share their journey so we could all learn together. But now I need to be a little more pushy – I need your help ! !  I was a college professor who taught teachers, so I had fairly regular interactions with younger children. I was also a track and cross-country coach for kids of all ages and I took tons of pictures of them running – and they liked seeing themselves running. But they weren’t my kids (OK, two of them were my sons) and they never had any problems with me taking photos. What am I doing wrong? OK, I’m not in panic mode quite yet but I am disappointed – not in my grandkids but in my ability to set-up a comfortable environment where Cate and Ben will allow me to take photos of them without having to beg (which isn’t working) or create a formal photo-time (which probably won’t work).

I’ve looked for articles on-line that might help and there are certainly some articles that address this issue. But they seem to be more for a “planned shoot” than informal photos of children. So I’m hoping for some suggestions from those readers who are parents or grandparents. As always I would greatly appreciate comments and suggestions from readers. Those of us who have children or grandchildren would love to have photographs to treasure as our children get older … but many of us need some help getting those good shots.

I have done a web-search for articles that address the challenges of taking good portrait photos of our kids. An article in Nikon Learn and Explore by Tamera Lackey (Taking Better Photos of Your Kids at Play) really stands out to me (I wish I had read it before our holiday trip to the Midwest.) I can’t give you the exact web address but it is part of the Nikon webpage under Learn and Explore. But I can give you a quote that really makes sense to me: Having your subjects trust you is obviously key for a professional shooter, but it’s equally important for the family photographer. “The best way to start when photographing your kids or nieces or nephews,” Tamara says, “is to say, ‘My whole goal is to get great pictures and have fun.’ And then let them know they’re contributing to the success of the photo—it’s a confidence builder for them.”

I will certainly look at Tamara’s article again before my grandkids visit us this spring in the mountains. She has at least a dozen suggestions that really make sense and would be easy to adopt. My approach has been telling them how important it was to me to get good photos but that does seem to work since they “hide” as soon as they realize I am taking their picture. Both of these photos show that I have to be sneaky to get a shot; they lack that fun look that says we are all having a good time.

Cate No  (2 of 2)

 

 

Ben

Arriving Home

After three weeks in the Midwest it was time to go home to Idaho. I took a lot of family pictures (most of them not qualifying as real photographs) and I looked forward to getting back in the saddle and working to become a better landscape photographer. But the transition wasn’t easy. I was used to sleeping in; my son’s stay up way-later than we do and there were lots of football games to watch. I hadn’t used my camera very often and I felt lazy. But I knew what to do. I needed to text my photo-buddy Mario and set up a sunrise shoot.

This may sound strange but I have found that when I need to get off my butt early in the morning and get out there and take some shots the best way to do that is to make a commitment to someone else to meet early in the morning. Mario and I met at the TPG Informal Critique last January and have taken a lot of photo shoots together in the park. We talk photography and share what we have learned and what is difficult to learn about photography. It has worked so well for me that it reminded me of the Peer Mentor program I developed at the university: peers supporting the learning of other students and becoming better learners from the experience. Here is a photo I took last Sunday that I don’t think I would have taken if Mario hadn’t met me at the park.

 

Snake River Sunrise

What’s Coming ?

I hope to get some advice from parents and grandparents about taking photos of their kids. In the past we haven’t had a lot of response to the FirstanAmateur.com “homework” so I’m just going to call this advice from parents to other parents. I hope a number of you will share what you have learned; I suspect I am not the only disappointed grandparent who is trying to become a photographer of beautiful, cute, funny children.

I also want to encourage you to keep an eye out for the next blog post. I wasn’t real dependable in sending out posts late in 2015 but I promise to be a good boy in 2016, at least early in 2016. I am creating a Peer Mentor Photography Program (PMPP) this winter for the Teton Photography Group. I’ll be sharing the goals and plans for the program in the FirstanAmateur.com blog next week and I hope to be able to recruit some of you to join the program.

The Jump and Why

It’s December so it’s time to think about some holiday presents for my family. Yesterday, for the first time ever, I considered giving my brothers, sister, and sons a Christmas present that I created with my photographs – a photo calendar. You might remember from my last post that I said, “I’m not taking great photos but I am taking much better photos than a year ago – even my wife thinks my photos are better.” And if my wife thinks my photos are much better then they must actually be good enough to put on a calendar for my family. So I went to Lightroom to find a dozen photos to use in my calendar.

If you haven’t ever used Lightroom you should give it a chance for a number of reasons. The most common explanation for using Lightroom is the power it has to edit photos – like Photoshop only a lot less complicated. But I have found that Lightroom allows me to build a library that makes it easy to find my favorite photos. So yesterday I used the collections I had created to identify the photos I wanted to use for the calendar. As I started picking photos I remembered that about two years ago my wife and I had taken trips to the Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Arches. Ah-ha, I bet there are some good photos in those collections that I can use in the calendar.

But no, there weren’t many good photos even though I thought they were quite good at the time. It didn’t take me long to get smacked in the face with a very clear message – my wife was correct (and no husband who has been married more than 40 years ever wants to admit his wife is correct) … my photos are much better now than they were a year ago. But why? What makes my photos from late in 2015 better than the ones in early 2015, or the photos from 2013? Ah-ha, here is something to share on my journey. I went back to read my last post and here is the key message I shared, “I believe reflection is important in everything we learn. I have found that I am better at learning to be a photographer if I take time to reflect on what I have learned.”

And this fits in perfectly. In a sense, I have been “photographer” all my adult life. I’ve taken thousands of pictures since I was in high school and most, if not all, of my pictures were snap-shots of family and vacations and events. In the last year my pictures have become photographs, and the photographs have become much better. Why? What have I learned? And since this learning has worked for me, could it work for you? Yesterday I took time to reflect on what I have learned by going back and looking at photographs from a couple years ago. I was very surprised to find that the photos from two years ago that I rated as “good” (Lightroom allows me to rate all my photos) I would rate as barely OK.  I did find that I could “clean-up” some of those photos in Lightroom. But I could only do a mild clean-up since the photos were taken in .JPG, and I’ve learned to take all my photos in RAW. I can’t explain everything that I have learned – oh my, not even close. But I can post some photos with some explanations.

OK Randy, Give us some Examples with Photos

I read a lot of photography books and some of them I read and re-read.  As I learn more about photography I can get more from my favorite books the second or third time I read them.  One of my favorite photographers to read is Bryan Peterson (who runs the Bryan Peterson School of Photography at www. BPSOP.com).  I have read his book Learning to See Creatively many times and I just happened to be reading it again last night when I came across this quote which explains a key change in how I shoot photographs now, “When asked what kind of photographs command the most attention, my answer is always the same.  They’re successful because they’re limited to a single theme or idea – and they’re always organized without clutter.  Amateurs, in their haste to record the image, end up with pictures that often have too many points of interest.”  Every time I read that I think about how I should make sure I implement it into my own photography.  But it isn’t easy to remember, especially in an environment that is as panoramic and beautiful as a National Park.  Let me give you some examples.

Grand Canyon National Park

At the end of the day when my friends and I were on the photo shoot in Yellowstone with Henry Holdsworth the sky had gotten overcast. But Henry gave us a line to remember: “When the sky is white, shoot it tight. When the sky is blue, it’s up to you.” Pretty simple idea to remember and apply when the sky is overcast. I must admit I haven’t always remembered that great line on overcast days, but when we were in the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) I never ever considered how boring the sky was because I was looking at the incredible beauty of the Grand Canyon.

GCNP Before (1 of 1)

These two photos are not exactly the same but taking the “boring sky” out of the picture sure does help.   Waiting for the sun to cast a little light on some of the canyon could have had even more of an impact. Waiting for the right light is critical to good photos and can make some photos great – but not this one. One other thing I learned from my Grand Canyon photos is that when we are surrounded by the incredible beauty of nature we easily forget the importance of narrowing the point of interest.  I like the photo below much better because I have decreased “the clutter.”

GCNP after (1 of 1)

Double Arch at Arches National Park

On to Arches National Park, with many tempting vistas; Wow, look how beautiful this scenery is? And the sky is blue, so it is up to me. But did I really need all this sky and all that sage brush?

Double Arch before (1 of 1)

Arches National Park is really great for photography because the park is small and conveniently located (a 5-10 minute drive from Moab which makes it an easy drive for sunrise) with over 2,000 arches that are from 3’ to over 300’ wide. It’s tempting to take thousands of shots. But what makes those pictures into good photographs? Probably the most important ingredient I tried to learn in 2015 was composition and in 2013 I didn’t have many compositional skills to fall back upon.

Double Arch after (1 of 1)

The original shot of Double Arch isn’t bad.  But is that sky necessary and what does the sagebrush add to the photo? In 2015 I’ve worked at cutting out distractions and clutter; thank you Bryan.  And Henry taught me to  pay attention to the edges to avoid drawing the viewers attention away from what you are trying to get the viewer to focus upon. In 2013 I didn’t have any idea what I was trying to get the viewer to focus upon; Hey this is a great environment, enjoy it like I am enjoying it. For the revised photo #2 I have taking out the blue sky at the top and most of the sagebrush at the bottom.  That cropping decreases the distractions and helps focus the viewer on the texture and contrasting colors.

North Window in Arches National Park

The Windows Section in Arches is amazing. You can walk around the North and South Windows to place the sunrise and/or sunset to highlight the beauty. In 2013 I didn’t realize how important exact sun placement was for composition, but I did get there for sunrise and was amazed at the desert environment. There was sagebrush all around with gnarled juniper trees that looked like they were hundreds of years old. Oh boy, will those juniper trees add to my photographs. Well, maybe.

N Widow Before (1 of 1)

There were beautiful wispy cloud and a deep blue sky in the background with great texture in the juniper tree. But the photo (above) was too busy. There are all those wispy clouds; should the viewer focus on the clouds? And those roots and all that sand in the foreground; should the viewer focus on the foreground? I think I wanted the viewer to focus on the arch but honestly I can’t be sure. Cropping out much of the sky and the foreground (below) seems to help.  And the juniper tree limbs have some leading lines to the arch. This photo is still pretty busy without a clear focus point. And you know what? I hope that reflecting on this photo will help me when I am taking photos in the future. There needs to be a clear focal point and the composition needs to lead the viewers eye to that point.

N Window After (1 of 1)

Balanced Rock in Arches National Park

Certainly composure is one of the most important aspect of my photographic improvement in 2015. But I would be remiss if I didn’t address what I have learned about Lightroom from my colleagues at the Teton Photography Group (TPG). Back-in-the-day I thought of post-processing as “cheating” where the photographer changed how the scene actually looked. But one of my first memories from the TPG was when someone asked if I had ever worked in a darkroom and if I had burned and dodged a B&W photo. If it were OK to make changes to a B&W photo in a darkroom, would it be OK for color in Lightroom? I didn’t need to answer that question and a few minutes later I was convinced to always shoot in RAW.

Balanced Rock before (1 of 1)

There is a slight compositional difference between the photo above and below.  But the most significant difference is in the “pop” in the photo below. There is a slightly better composition in the photo below with a better foreground and the tall rock on the right gives some balance and framing. But the key is the deep blue in the sky and red and clarity in the rock on the sides and in the foreground. Honestly, the photo below actually reflects the color and clarity of that early morning in 2013.

Balanced Rock after (1 of 1)

Near Double Arch in Arches National Park

Not only does Lightroom allow us to crop and add saturation and clarity it also allows photographers to clean-up problems like spots in the sky (I’ve gotten better at not allowing spots but they happen) or lens flare.

Beside Double Arch before (1 of 1)

I’m not quite to the skill level where I can clean-up all the lens flare, but I’m learning. I can’t say the photo below is a great shot, but it certainly is an improvement. And if I were to be there today I would have waited for the cloud in the lower left corner to have moved more into the center of the blue sky between the rocks. I’ve learned a lot in 2015.

Beside Double Arch after (1 of 1)

What did I learn to Make the Jump ?

Where should I start.  Let me start by saying I believe I have made a huge jump in the past year.  I can’t pin-point the one or two variables that have brought about most of the change but I can give you a list of the four or five ingredients in the journey that seem to have made the most improvement.  Will these help you to have a better journey?  I can’t say for sure but I would sure like to hear from you (in the comments) to tell me and the readers, what has worked for you.  Here are my top 4  or 5 explanations:

Time behind the Lens – “The dozen” almost all pointed this out as key variables in their growth, and I fully agree.  I must admit that being retired has given me the opportunity to have time behind my camera and post-process on my computer.  Everyone has the same number of hours in a week but some of us have an easier access to those hours.

Composition – You can read books and take photography and art classes to  increase your understanding of composition.  And I have found that Bryan Peterson’s comments about avoiding the clutter is maybe the most helpful single idea to remember.  But maybe that is because I live an hour from an incredible National Park.  Keep it Simple Silly (KISS) works but it is easy to forget when the view seems so beautiful.

Take Time to Reflect on Your Past Photos – As we grow as photographers it is likely that our photos will improve – but will you recognize that if your wife/husband/friends don’t mention it to you?  Going back to my past photos and seeing that in 2013 I rated some as 4-star photos was eye opening.  I’ve realized I am a better photographer now, but why?  Reflecting on those photographs from 2013 helps me to recognize what I have done to make my photos better.

Shooting with Other Photographers – Remember that I did not bring my photos to my first visit to the Teton Photograph Group.  I thought their critique would rip my photos to pieces.  But I was wrong.  At the time I had never gone out on a photo shoot with anyone; I was probably worried I would look like a fool.  But in the last year I have changed my attitude and approach completely.  I would love to go out with a fellow photographer every week and it would be a huge bonus if we could sit down and share the photos we took with one another.  To do that you need to find a peer you are comfortable with to take photos, AND are willing to share your photos and ideas about what is good photography.

Building a Peer Mentor Partnership –  Through the TPG I have found a photography partner.  Mario and I try to go out for a shoot at least once a month to talk about photography, find places to take good sunrise photography shots, and share our photographic experience and preferences.  In many ways we are very different: I’m probably 30 years older than Mario and we come from very different cultures.  But we share one thing that is usually the topic of the 3 or 4 hours we spend together early on Saturday morning – we love to take landscape photographs.  Neither of us are expert photographers but we can learn many things from one another.  That we can help one another makes us peer mentors.

Randy’s Goal for 2016

There have been many experiences that have helped me improve as a photographer in 2015.  Two key variables were the Teton Photography Group and creating this blog – both made me think and reflect on learning how to be a better photographer.  I hope that my blog may have helped you to think about how you might become a better photographer.  I’d like to conclude 2015 with a new suggestion for becoming a better photographer that could help anyone but I am specifically addressing it to anyone who lives within about an hour of Jackson WY.  I’d like to start a Peer Mentor Program within the Teton Photography Group.

As a educational psychology professor I started a peer mentor program for my students.  About 25 years ago I had a significant number of students who were having a lot of trouble in my class.  At the end of one semester I talked with a group of students about helping out by offering small study groups for the students who were doing poorly.  Within a couple years I had a couple dozen exceptional students leading study groups in which every student was enrolled – they were called peer mentor study groups.  For the next 20 years I studied the impact of peer mentor learning – and boy did it work.  I would like to apply what I learned about peer mentors to the learning of amateur photographers.

If you are in the Teton Photography Group and are interested in participating, please get in touch with me at risaacso@iusb.edu.  The plan at this time is to work the Peer Mentor Photography Program into the Informal Critiques this winter/spring.  But I may also be able to extend this to folks who can only participate on-line, so if you are interested please let me know.

Any comments on this post, or any 2015 post, would be greatly appreciated.

 

 

 

Moving Forward

On my last post I talked about our trip to Coeur D’Alene and some of the problems I faced due to not thinking ahead (not bring all my lenses) and getting lazy (with my graduated neutral density filter.) So I learned a lesson that you would expect me not to repeat. Ah-ha, you’re thinking I’m going to make the same mistake again. So let’s see what I learned.

Last week I took a trip to Oxbow Bend in the Grand Teton National Park on a very chilly November day. Not only was it chilly (single digits) but also very windy. As I drove along the outside loop of the park I could see the sun sinking in the southwest among good clouds. I was hoping for a spectacular colorful sunset as I drove north trying to predict where I should stop, setup my tripod, and wait for the perfect time and place to get shots as the sun dropped behind the mountain peaks.

Oxbow Bend was as far north as I could go and still have a chance for some good foreground and a good mountain background. I stopped, got out of the car, and began to setup my tripod with the complete neutral density filter gear. I could see that the sky was quite bright but the foreground was much darker, and getting darker by the minute – and I didn’t want to make the same mistakes that I made at Coeur D’Alene. The weather was quite different; the sky had great clouds but a blustery wind in single digit temperature is brutal … at least for me. Gut it out Randy, this should be worth it.

The water was mostly frozen with an unusual little “pond.” I thought this would make a nice leading line to the mountains including a reflection of the sun coming through the clouds. But what should the exposure be? The sky was mostly bright with some dark clouds and most of the foreground was dark; time for a neutral density filter. But the small pond of water was fairly bright in the middle of fairly dark snow foreground. Oh boy, this is a challenge. So I bracketed a number of shots hoping to find the right exposure when I got home.

It was really cold and my hand were about to freeze. Rearranging the neutral density filters meant I had to take my gloves off (yikes, really nasty) and I’ve learned my lesson about waiting for the perfect shot. I think the hour wait was worth frozen hands – just mild frostbite? There wasn’t a lot of color in the sky but the shadows in the clouds were interesting. But the biggest payoff was that I learned something that will help me move forward and apply my new experience to future photo shoots. I learned that sometimes the range of light is so extreme (high dynamic range) that even a neutral density filter may not solve the problem.

That night I was in Jackson WY taking a class from Aaron Linsdau (a TPG colleague) on Lightroom. He showed us how to turn-on the “blinkies,” not just for areas that are too bright (washed-out) but also for areas of photos that are too dark. When I got home and put my images into Lightroom I found that I could not change the exposure to avoid the blown-out blinkies (over-exposure) and the under-exposed blinkies. It was disappointing but there was clearly another lesson to learn.

I didn’t have frostbite, I didn’t have the great photo I was hoping to get, but I learned to be more aware of the range of exposure from extremely bright to extremely dark. When the range of light is from very bright to very dark the photo has “high dynamic range” (or HDR) and that HDR is very likely to be too extreme for the camera; there will be parts of the image that are overexposed AND other parts that are underexposed.

For many years there was no solution other than to spend long hours in the darkroom burning-and-dodging, or now to spend long hours at the computer with Photoshop. But fairly recently many post-processing programs have added a sub-program that can combine multiple images that are identical except for the exposure. My Lightroom 6 has the ability to merge a multitude of images that are identical except for the exposure. The program allows Lightroom to combine the images into a photo that minimizes the burn-out and then allows you to use Lightroom on the HDR image to use the Basic sliders to adjust the photo.

What I am trying to suggest is that if you have an understanding of exposure and recognize scenes that have extreme dynamic range you can address the problem post-processing IF you take multiple photos of the scene by bracketing. Let me show you what I did at the chilly sunset at Oxbow. I used my neutral density filters to darken the sky but it was still much too bright in places compared to the foreground.

The first image was shot at ISO 100, 1/80 sec at f/11. Notice the lens flare at the left of the sun. The sky is overexposed in places with sun-burnout.  Notice that the right and left edges are black due to neutral density filter.  After Lightroom 6 did the HDR edit I was able to crop these out.

Chilly Oxbow (1 of 4)

The second image was shot at IS0 100, 1/125 sec at f/11. The lens flare is mostly gone and the sky is slightly overexposed in places near the sun and underexposed in other places .

Chilly Oxbow (2 of 4)

The third image was shot at ISO 100, 1/200 sec at f/11. Whoa, the sky in this shot is very underexposed as is the foreground.

Chilly Oxbow (3 of 4)

This was my first experience using the Lightroom software for high dynamic range, so you have to cut me some slack. And I didn’t plan for using the HDR software when I took the images, so I probably didn’t take the right bracketing shots. BUT this experience got me started and taught me the importance of bracketing to get the extreme underexposure and extreme overexposure. Here is the image that the Lightroom HDR created for me and includes some post-processing I did to the HDR image. It certainly isn’t a great exposure (I am still a moderate amateur) but it was worth the experience and learning that it produced.  You might notice that I’ve even learned how to put my name on the photo in Lightroom.

Chilly Oxbow (4 of 4)

What Did I Learn ?

  1. Suck-It-Up Randy, It’s Winter in the Mountains – Now that it is winter in the mountains there are many opportunities to get great shots. But I have to be ready for them. I had warm clothes but layered gloves are critical. Since it is worth it to stick around to get those really great shots, I have to be ready from head to foot and especially to my hands.
  2. I’m Ready to Move Forward – The Teton Photography Group gives me the opportunity to work and take photo shoots with some really great photographers – many are super-amateurs, I view them as professional photographers. On many occasions I have been pretty intimidated by this situation; they haven’t intended to intimidate me, I’ve just been hesitant to say “Slow don’t I don’t understand.” I suspect some of you may, at times, have felt the same way. My strategy has been to avoid high-tech approaches to photography and stick to learning the photo triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) and composition. I felt I didn’t need to use fancy-dan approaches since I live in an environment with amazing opportunities. I’m not taking great photos but I am taking much better photos than a year ago – even my wife thinks my photos are better. So I think I am ready to take some baby steps into more advanced approaches. Maybe even take a few more classes.
  3. Be More Reflective – As an educational psychology professor I emphasized personal reflection to my students. Most of the students in my class were there to learn to be teachers. My goal was to give them many opportunities to reflect on how they were learning and how they could become better learners; To be a good teacher you have to understand how people learn. I believe reflection is important in everything we learn. I have found that I am better at learning to be a photographer if I take time to reflect on what I have learned. In fact, I have found that writing this blog has been a “good teacher” for me because I have to take time to think about how I am learning and share it with you.
  4. Be Aware of the Dynamic Range of the Exposure – On our shoot with Henry he emphasized the histogram over and over. Whenever the histogram goes beyond the left or right extremes you have a High Dynamic Range problem. The way to solve this problem is to take time to think about what exposure will be needed to catch the very bright areas of the image and what exposure will be needed to catch the very dark areas of the exposure. Then bracket the shot to include all the brightness/darkness.

And What Helps You to Learn ?

When I began writing this blog my goal was to share my photography journey with you to give you an opportunity to learn from my experience. I started by sharing some of the information I received from “the dozen” (a group of twelve amateur photographers who answered twelve questions about photography). Based on some of the feedback I received from the readers I have moved to sharing more of my own experiences and photos of those experiences.

Now after eight posts to the blog I would like some feedback from the readers to help me write the 2016 editions of FirstanAmateur.com. I have been exploring the possibility of adding a critique page to the blog that would give you the opportunity to share your photos and what you are learning – but I need to know if that is something you would value. So here are three approaches I could take in 2016. Please give me some feedback in the comments section about your preferences:

  1. FirstanAmateur should include more information from the dozen.
  2. FirstanAmateur should include more from Randy’s journey.
  3. FirstanAmateur should give readers more opportunities to share their journey including their own photos for critiques.

Please get back in touch with your suggestions. FirstanAmateur is for all of us to learn together and I need to know how you are learning to make this blog more effective.

Disappointed but Learning

Two weeks ago I went to a conference in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. Chris, my wife, is on the local School Board and the conference was about schools, so Koty (our dog) and I were just along for the ride. I’ve heard about the beauty of Coeur D’Alene for years, so I was excited to have the opportunity to spend 3 or 4 days hiking around the majestic lake taking photos. A few days before the conference the weather report was sketchy, but I was confident that a little “weather” would be just fine as long as there were a few sunrises and/or sunsets with good light.

The drive from Victor, Idaho to Coeur D’Alene was gorgeous. When we arrived late in the afternoon on Wednesday there was good light and some sun. It was Chris’ conference so when I took Koty for a walk I left my camera in the room.   We walked around to see the sights and my goal was to get an idea of where I might take some photos the next day. In retrospect, as always, leaving my camera behind was not a good idea!

Thursday morning I took Koty on a walk and checked out a beautiful peninsula called Tubbs Hill, a few hundred yards from our hotel. It is a two-mile hike around the hill on a trail that follows the lake with a beautiful rugged shoreline: a perfect location for great sunrises and sunsets IF I got good light. “No problem. I’ll take Koty back to the room, have breakfast, and go out for a shoot. Great location for photography. Lots of time to get some good shots.” Not a great decision.

Before the trip I bought a used 70-200mm f2.8 Nikon lens (yea, I decided to get some “good glass”) and Thursday morning I decided to just take my camera and new lens with me. I knew the hike was quite hilly and I didn’t want to lug my backpack and all the gear with me. Another not-so-great-decision, but I’m learning.

Tubbs Hill Day #1 (1 of 4)

It was partly sunny and a little chilly but relatively good weather for shooting. It was Veteran’s Day and I met a group of college students who were hiking. Some of them taking photos and some were having trouble with their cameras.

When they saw that I had a Nikon and a big lens they asked me if I could help them take a photo of them. If you want other folks to think you are a big-time photographer, put your camera with a big lens on a tripod and bingo, you are a pro. :-)  I agreed but then noticed the Nikon 7200 she gave me was shooting at something like 2000 at f16 on a partly cloudy day. I was really surprised and probably looked shocked. The owner came up to me and said, “I don’t know how to fix that. It is shooting at ISO 2500.” Ah-ha, I quickly changed the ISO and the exposure and took the shot. It turns out the camera owner had taken night-shots recently and couldn’t remember how to reset the ISO. I helped her out and gave her some advice.  She thanked me many times. This may sound weird, but as I continued my hike I felt confident; their need for some help made me feel like I knew what I was doing, when usually I don’t see myself that way at all.

I’ve been with a lot of really advanced amateur and pro photographers the last few months through my involvement in the Teton Photography Group. I have to admit I’ve felt like I knew very little about photography most of the time, maybe because I was comparing myself to folks who were really good photographers. But on the Tubbs Hill hike that day I felt like I knew something important – and I did, even if more advanced photographers would think ISO was just super-basic.

Tubbs Hill Day #1 (3 of 4)

I continued on with the hike and met my “new friends” again and again; oh how fun it was back-in-the-day when I had energy.  You can see them in this photo (above) out on the point.  Unfortunately, I soon realized that the 70-200 lens I was carrying wasn’t what I needed. I needed a wide-angle lens, but since I didn’t bring my gear backpack I didn’t have one. Man, these bad decisions are pilling up.

Tubbs Hill Day #1 (4 of 4)

Later that afternoon I went out for sunset.  It was getting really windy but I got an OK shot of the sunset. I didn’t worry about the weather since the report for the next day was partly sunny.  But the next day I never saw the sun.

Tubbs Hill Day #2 (2 of 3)

The next day wasn’t partly cloudy – it was very cloudy and looked stormy. I was tempted to just take my wide angle lens but I had learned the prior day that I might need others lenses so I took my backpack and all my gear. Finally a good decision.

Tubbs Hill Day #2 (3 of 3)

But it was chilly and very windy so, guess what – I made another bad decision. The sky was dark but had detail and the shoreline had very little light. Ah-ha, I need my graduated neutral density filter to decrease the expose on the sky. But it was cold and windy and (I have to admit it) I was lazy. I didn’t put the holder for the filter on my lens and simply held the filter in front of the lens. I took a number of shots along the beautiful stormy shoreline. When I got back to the hotel room and looked at the shots in Lightroom I had mixed feelings.

What did I learn and re-learn?

Since this blog as a story about my journey, to help you with your journey, let me share what I learned:

  1. Don’t Put Off Until Tomorrow – It is easy to assume that you can get “this great shot” tomorrow, but that probably never happens. I have read a hundred times that I should carry my camera with me all the time, and I usually do keep it with me in the car. But you can never be sure tomorrow will have good weather for a good photo shoot. Take the shot now and bring your camera along for all your rides.
  2. You Might Know More than You Think – My experience with the college students gave me a new confidence: it showed me that I know some valuable information and can solve more photography problems than I thought. The people I am around typically know way more than me, but many of them are professional photographers. Don’t compare yourself to others. Take time to reflect on how much you have learned and how much better your photos are today than last year or last month.
  3. Don’t Rush, Take your Time, Think about each Shot – It was cold and windy but that is no excuse for not taking a couple minutes to attach the filter holder to the lens. Sure, my hands were freezing and I needed to go back into my backpack to get the filter holder.  But the time would have improved my photos. If you want quality photos, you can’t rush the product.

But most of all, enjoy what you are doing. For some of us it is easy to be self-critical to the extent that we rarely take time to enjoy the progress we are making, to enjoy the actual products/photographs we are creating, to enjoy the environments in which we are taking the photographs, and just to enjoy life. Don’t beat yourself up. You are making progress.

Have a Wonderful Thanksgiving.