*RANT* Learning Photography Isn't Easy

I've been severely neglecting this blog lately, between editorial assignments, baseball games, running a music publication and it just being summer, this segment has kind of taken a back seat. I'd really like to be able to get into blogging more, but coming up with topics has been a challenge. This particular topic, however, has fallen into my lap and needs to be discussed.

I'm a member of quite a few photography groups on Facebook - whether it be concert photography groups, press groups, portrait groups, lighting groups or community groups for products I use, and one thing I've seen over the last few days in one of those groups is new photographers looking to skip the learning process and jump right into owning $25,000 worth of gear they admit to having absolutely no fucking idea how to use.

Just since July 4th, I've gotten into debates with this one particular kid who admittedly is a new photographer with zero photography knowledge and hasn't even mastered basic terminology yet, let alone basic technique like composition and exposure on his entry level Nikon D3400, and he wants to know which Nikon camera is "the best" so he can run out and buy it like it's going to magically make him a better photographer.

Here's a news flash to anyone thinking about getting into photography: THIS ISN'T EASY TO LEARN! Sure, you can spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on professional gear and put it in auto mode and hope for the best, but you can also do that with a point & shoot that costs a fraction of even a basic DSLR kit. There are no shortcuts here, if you want to learn photography you have a couple options.

1) Pay for expensive classes that may or may not be taught by someone who actually knows what they're talking about and can explain current tech to you in a way that will enable you to effectively use your gear, or

2) Take the initiative to teach YOURSELF. Go on YouTube, watch tutorials to understand how your specific camera works, invest in video guides that will teach you how to take your camera out of auto and explain how each component of the exposure triangle determines your exposure. Learn to ignore your meter, learn to be smarter than your camera (because you are) and start with the BASICS! I personally learned to get out of auto by watching - and people are going to scream at me for this - the Fro Knows Photo Beginner's Guide to Getting Out of Auto - yeah, I used it, and it helped a lot. I'd recommend it for anyone who is serious about learning the basics of photography and having a starting point to reference back to when needed.

There isn't a professional photographer on earth who skipped the basics. There isn't a published photojournalist known the world over who skipped the basics. What makes you so special that investing in a $3,000 body that you have no idea how to operate correctly is going to suddenly make you the next Ansel fucking Adams?

I'm entirely self-taught. I learned everything I know about photography through watching tutorials, watching video guides and actually going out and shooting and learning through trial and error how to get shit right in the camera the first time. There's no way around it. Expensive gear won't make you a better photographer; if anything, it'll make you worse because you're crippled the equipment by not using it the way it was intended.

Now, just last night this same kid came into the same group and asked for people to give him their presets so he "learn to edit". HOW exactly is taking someone else's preset and applying it to your - probably underexposed - images "learning to edit"? Yeah, I have presets I use when I edit. Many of them are my own creation, while others are free presets I downloaded, combed through to find ones I like and tweaked them to fit my style of editing and renamed them, but I didn't use them as a crutch to "learn" to edit. I learned to edit the hard way - by actually editing - and my presets all assume one thing: my image was exposed correctly in the camera. They're useless if my image was not exposed correctly, at least until I fix the exposure in post.

On top of all of this, the kid went got an attitude when anyone tried to help him and tell him that he needs to learn the same way the rest of us did: by actually doing it on his own and learning from his own mistakes, the same mistakes the rest of us made early on. That's a sure-fire way to be ignored when you actually ask for help, so good on you for thinking you're such a good photographer 5 minutes into your "career", but it doesn't work that way.

I find it kind of insulting, actually, that this appears to be the norm with new photographers these days. Nobody wants to work towards being a good photographer capable of making money in the industry, and everyone just wants to be handed everything so they don't have to do the work. It doesn't work that way, and anyone who earns money as a photographer put in a lot of time and hard work to get to that point. Don't insult each and every one of us by trying to skip the hard part. There's no way around it and you either have the perseverance and drive to keep plugging and actually learn, or you don't and you should probably find another hobby.

The moral of this rant is: if you're picking up a DSLR, it's because you have an interest in photography, but you need to know before making the investment that it's a PROCESS that takes TIME and COMMITTMENT. There is no easy way to become a good photographer, there are no tricks, and there is no magic camera that will make you good. You're making an investment when you decide to get into photography, an investment of both money and time. You need to understand that you will very likely not be happy with your photos for quite some time until you've truly mastered basic technique and have begun learning advanced techniques like creative composition, the Dutch angle (blah) and on-camera flash. That's before you even get into off-camera flash, multiple speedlights and strobes and all kinds of other things. You're also committing to taking the time to learn to edit YOUR photos in Lightroom and/or Photoshop and develop YOUR style that sets you apart from everyone else.

Photography as a business/career isn't going to happen overnight. I've been lucky, I've only been at this a couple years and I'm making money in the industry, but that came well after I started and learned and got to where I am now. It'll come if you commit to bettering yourself as an artist and becoming a photographer. Simply owning a basic DSLR doesn't make you a photographer, it makes you a guy or girl with a camera and there are millions of those. Work for what you want, don't ask for handouts.

I'm gonna be back soon with a new series where I critique my OWN photos from when I first started in photography, and progressively show how I improved over time and explain the things I learned, what I did differently and ultimately how I got to where I am right now. That's all I've got for now. Deuces.


First Impressions: Tamron 70-200 2.9 VC G2

I recently purchased Tamron's newest entry into the telephoto market, an upgrade for their oft-praised 70-200 2.8 VC USD. The new 70-200 2.8 VC G2 features a sleek, matte black design with 5 stops of Vibration Compensation (VC) across 3 modes along with a newly-introduced focus limiter, and clocks in at a $1300 price tag. I'll start by saying that I do NOT like the placement of the switches in relation to the zoom ring, with the zoom ring being just before the hood and the switches where my palm rests, and the result is my palm constantly changes the position of the switches. That's not something I like at all.

So far, I've only *really* used it twice. I *tested* it at the Doyle concert a couple nights after it came in, but there wasn't enough light to really judge anything other than sharpness when the lens did focus, which was slow at the time - possibly due to the poor lighting - but the images, even at a high ISO (8000) were sharp, so that was a plus. A couple days later I shot high school baseball in broad daylight, so I was able to shoot at a low ISO and really get a feel for what the new Tamron 70-200 2.8 VC G2 can do.

The lens produced very sharp images, though I did experience issues with both front AND back focus. There were a few instances where, shooting through the chain-link fence, the lens would focus ON the fence rather than my subject on the other side of it. When the lens did focus correctly, I was very impressed with the results, even with some pretty heavy cropping in order to make the images tight enough for newspaper specs. The biggest issue I could find during my outing was the focus problem. Here are two sample images, the first is heavily cropped and the second, while cropped, is not cropped nearly as much. Click on the images to view them at full size.

The above images were captured WITHOUT any adjustments using the TAP-in console. As you can see, the lens is extremely sharp even when cropped significantly, and the bokeh is beautiful, in my opinion. The biggest issue so far remains front and back focus, for which Tamron sells their TAP-in console, similar to Sigma's USB dock, which allows you to microadjust compatible lenses at different focus distances. Sigma's dock allows for more detailed customization to compensate for focus issues, allowing for manual adjustments at each focusing distance from close focus to infinity across all focal lengths. Tamron's TAP-in console only allows for adjustments at close focus, a midpoint and infinity across the entire focal range of the lens.

After shooting baseball, I mounted the 70-200 2.8 VC G2 to the TAP-in console and began to adjust my focus to attempt to correct the issues I was experiencing - which occurred mostly at the 135mm and 200mm focal lengths. Here's a screenshot of the adjustments I made to my lens. It should be noted that these adjustments are specific to my copy of the Tamron 70-200 2.8 VC G2 when mounted to my specific camera body. Your needs may differ greatly from mine. Unfortunately, the software for the TAP-in utility does not allow for full screen viewing, but you can still click on the thumbnail to enlarge the photo.

So those are the adjustments I felt were necessary based on my real-world testing in addition to focus testing. I won't go into detail on how to test for front or back focus - there are great articles available online - but the short version is that you line up a row of 5 batteries (I use AA) and shoot with your lens at a 90* angle to the batteries, with your focus point set to focus on the center battery. You repeat across the focal range of the lens, at each distance from close focus to as close to infinity as you can get. I did NOT adjust for infinity because I will almost never use a telephoto lens at infinity focus, and infinity on a lens of this length is very difficult to calibrate.

Following my adjustments, I shot very briefly with the lens at the Sabaton concert, from an elevated platform side stage after the third song, just to test the lens in a real world environment, and was VERY impressed by my results. Here's a sample image:

By now it should be obvious that this lens is unbelievably sharp for its price tag, and in my opinion gives the Nikon $2800 Nikon 70-200 2.8 ED a run for its money. The colors and contrast are rendered beautifully straight out of the camera, although the above images were color corrected in post production to account for changes made by my editing process.

It's definitely worth mentioning that the lens locked focus quickly - I use back-button focus to lock on and recompose - and tracked my subject very well, with no sign of front or back focus issues following my adjustments using the TAP-in utility.

The next night I shot another concert, and this time used the 70-200 2.8 VC G2 in the photo pit, again very briefly, to see how it handled closer focusing distances following adjustments. I was impressed overall, it focused quickly enough for me to lock on and recompose, although I will say that I shot another concert on Monday in poor lighting and it did take a while to focus from the balcony a good distance from the stage. Here's one from the photo pit on Saturday night at the Testament show:

I think that focused nicely in the pit, much closer to the action, at the 70mm end wide open at f/2.8, and it locked on quickly enough. I feel like if I had a little more light, the lens would have locked focus instantly. All of my lenses struggle to focus in low light from time to time, so I wouldn't go so far as to say this is an issue with this lens specifically and more of an issue with he amount of light, over which I obviously have no control.

That brings me to the last sample photo I want to post, shot two nights after the one above, in a venue with very bad lighting. Again, the lens was a little slow to focus and from time to time would not focus at all, to the point where I had to wait for a change in lighting so I could focus and recompose my image. That's an issue, but for the amount of time I'd actually use this lens in extreme low-light situations, I think I can live with it. Here's the last sample I'll include, this time from Delain in very low light. The image itself it noisy from the high ISO, but you can see the detail is there and it's sharp once it focused.

So that's been the extent of my shooting so far with this lens. The Sabaton photo (third from the bottom) is easily my favorite and clearly the sharpest, which I think best showcases just how sharp this lens is when I don't need to crop a ton of detail out due to publishing restrictions imposed by the newspaper I freelance for. If it were up to me I'd never crop, but those baseball photos had to be cropped per my editor's instructions, and there's some detail loss as a result, but the images overall are still sharp and have enough detail to look great in a newspaper.

I haven't been able to get an actual model in front of this lens yet, but I'm hoping to do so soon. Either way, I'll be shooting some editorial with it on Saturday, indoors, in a high school gym where the lighting is probably pretty poor, in addition to shooting with the new Tamron 70-200 2.8 VC G2 as much as possible over the next week or so. I'll update this if I'm able to get a model in front of the lens, but for now and so far, I'm impressed with what Tamron's done here.

That's all I've got for now. Deuces.

Earplugs for Concert Photographers

If you're a music photographer, you've no doubt been asked by your fellow concert photographers which earplugs you use. I know I've had this conversation several times, and I thought it would be a good topic for a blog as I try to make this a more regular thing.

There are tons of earplugs out there, from cheap foam earplugs that you can often find being given away at the promo table at most shows or being sold at the merch table, to high quality musician's earplugs. If you're a concert photographer, odds are you're going to want something a little higher in quality than those cheap foam things that will fall out of your ears. I know, I used those for the first concert I ever shot. They worked, but having to constantly fix them in my ears was annoying.

So what are your options and how much should you spend? I'll say that if you're professional concert photographer - i.e. you work directly for bands as either their show or tour photographer and are constantly shooting full shows - you should absolutely invest in the highest quality earplugs you can find, but if you're shooting shows through a media out and being paid very little or not at all, you can certainly find good earplugs at a reasonable price. These earplugs from SureFire are cheap and will do the job, as will these from Alpine Hearing Protection.

Then you have better quality earplugs for anyone from $10-$30 more than the ones linked above, like these (also Alpine) or these from Earasers, which come in 3 sizes and have replaceable gels available at a discount for when yours eventually wear out, and the Westone earplugs for about $45.

Finally, you've got high end earplugs like these $300 bad boys from Etymotic Research, which offer 24dB of noise cancellation. Those are what you should own if you're a working professional concert photographer and are getting the big bucks, but if you're shooting shows as media, stick with the much cheaper options.

I personally use Earasers. I bought them at a 40% discount through another photographer as part of his sponsorship promotion a little over a year ago, but they're super comfortable and priced reasonably enough for what they offer and how they fit in my ears. The only negative I find is that they're difficult to hold onto due to the entirely silicone construction, and I drop them a lot as a result - I've almost lost one of them on separate occasions, which is obviously a problem in a dark venue when a band is about to come on and you're next to the main, scrambling with a flashlight to find your missing earplug before the band starts playing.

That's the only downside to Earasers, and it could be easily fixed if they would offer an option to buy earplugs that are tethered to a string like other earplugs so that they can hang around your neck between bands, and you can't lose them trying to put them back in their case or in your ears. But they're very comfortable, at least for me, and they're always what I recommend to anyone looking for earplugs. Your mileage may vary from mine, but I'm happy with them overall and should definitely replace buds with fresh ones.

*Obligatory disclaimer: I'm NOT sponsored by Earasers and I get nothing from them for promoting their stuff. I'm just a guy who likes his hearing.

Shooting From The House & Steve Hackett Photo Blog

It's been a little bit since I wrote something here, hopefully I can make this a more frequent thing and actually stay on top of it. It's difficult to want to sit down and write a blog when you're constantly shooting, editing and writing review after review after review, but maybe when things slow down I'll be able to put more time into this.

Anyway. I wanted to talk a little bit about shooting from the house - more specifically, shooting a seated concert where there is no photo pit and you are not allowed to be at the front of the stage as you normally would. This happened at the Steve Hackett show I shot a couple months back. It was a seated show, in a venue that is normally GA standing room only. Aside from it being very weird to see seats on the floor, we were allowed to shoot from anywhere in the house - side stage, floor, VIP. Anywhere, as long as we weren't blocking anyone's view - for the entire 2 1/2 hour show.

That's another thing that almost never happens in this business. Normally, photographers are restricted to the first 3 songs, or songs 2-4 depending on the band, and that's it. So for Hackett to allow the entire show was pretty cool, and it was a fun show on top of that. But, here's the tricky part: How do you move around the house when you're allowed to shoot from anywhere, but not allowed to obstruct anyone's view?

Ideally, you want to shoot from the aisles or side stage, so that you're not standing in front of anyone and can easily move around, right? Nope, the aisles here were a no-go because of the way the back rows were set up, so while we could shoot from "anywhere", anywhere actually meant anywhere that didn't interfere with paying fans. So no pit, no front-of-stage, the board's too far and the aisles are off limits. What does that leave?

Basically, side stage and behind the last row of seats on what is normally the GA-pit level - there are 3 levels at PlayStation Theater - GA floor, GA standing room on a platform, and elevated GA seats behind that - I chose to shoot most of the show from the elevated area at stage right to give myself a better angle, and from the VIP, while also shooting from behind the last row on the floor for a bit. I honestly think I enjoyed that more than shooting from the pit, because when you shoot from the pit your angles are limited and are pretty much the same for every show. Shooting from the house gives a different perspective and lets you get unique shots, and it beats the hell out of being stuck at the board without the ability to be mobile. But you also have to be respectful of the people who paid to be there, because while the photo pit is your space, the house is theirs and they don't want to watch the show through the back of your head.

So, if you ever have an opportunity to shoot a show from the house, do it. It'll change your perspective on concert photography and I honestly wish I could do it more often instead of being stuck in a small pit with 20 other 'togs and no room to move.

Here are a few photos from the house at the Steve Hackett show:

Photo Pit Etiquette *RANT*

Okay, look, I get that everyone is in the pit for the same reason - to get their shots within 3 songs and get out of the way. That's fine, I don't have a problem with that and understand the rules are the rules for a reason, and photographers are limited to a minimal amount of time to shoot and leave the pit. Fine, I get it, that's not the issue.

The issue is people who walk around the pit like they own the place or like their photo pass - the same photo pass I and everyone else was given - entitles them to be an asshole. It doesn't. You don't get to push people out of the way or hold your camera up in front of other photographers, blatantly getting your entire camera body AND the speedlight you're not allowed to use and should not have mounted to your camera, in my frame for 3 songs.

See exhibit A above. I get it, photographers want different angles. That's fine, but you should NOT be doing this while standing in front of other photographers. You see me standing right beside you and you throw your camera, flash and all, into my frame because *YOUR* shot is more important than mine.

Is the image above the best photo? Nope. Is it any worse because there's a giant camera and hand in the frame? Probably not, but I have other shots I looked at and deleted because THIS GUY was so self important that he had to do the "Hail Mary" ALL NIGHT and ruin at least a dozen of my shots.

Again, let me be clear that I don't have a problem with photographers wanting different angles. That's fine, I do things all the time that allow me to get a different angle. What I DON'T do is throw my camera up in front of other photographers. I move behind them and out of their way so I don't interfere with their shot, because theirs is no less important.

Moral of this story is: don't be a jerk to the people you have to work with, because karma's a bitch and what goes around, comes around. Play nice in the pit, everyone, and happy shooting.

Obligatory cheap plug: Head over to www.soundboardmagazine.com for the full photo gallery and review from the Dropkick Murphys show featured above.