Progressions of a Madman: A Journey into My Photographic Evolution: Episode 2

I said when I published the first edition of this series that I wanted it to be a weekly blog, but when you're shooting editorial, working with clients, and running a music publication which requires constant updating and a ton of writing, it's hard to work on a separate blog. I love photography and I'd rather be shooting than writing about it, so this might turn into a monthly series rather than weekly.

But, here we are with the second edition of "Progressions of a Madman", and in the first edition I jumped around between flash photography and available light. In this edition, we're going to stick to available light and start with some of my early photography before progressing into something closer to today - probably from 2016, since I've been doing more editorial this year, more sports (maybe I'll do a segment on sports photography in a later post) and more off-camera flash now that I've finally upgraded flash systems and added a wireless trigger. I've even been doing OCF during the day to balance the background exposure with my subject, so I don't have too much natural-light photography from this year. We'll see where this goes, though.

Anyway, let's get started with a shot from SantaCon 2014:

Nikon D5200, 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, just about two weeks after I first picked up a DSLR as a hobby. Let's rip this one apart right now, shall we? It's  terrible , and that's being generous. The composition is horrendous, the exposure was fixed in post - I no longer have the RAW file in Lightroom, so I can't tell you how much exposure I added in post, but I know it was very underexposed - and worst of all, it's not even in focus. I could blame it on the kit lens, but let's be real, I had no idea what I was doing here. The editing isn't  bad , in my opinion, but it's not  good  either and knowing what I do now, I never would have shot this in the first place.  Kit lenses are tricky as hell, they're not good and they're not meant to create high-quality images, but you absolutely can accomplish that if you know what you're doing. I wouldn't necessarily go back to using a kit lens  now  because I've got a brand identity and certain personal standards, but  maybe  I could see myself doing a series where I go out and shoot with a kit lens to show what can be done in capable hands. I'm kind of curious myself to see what I can accomplish with a kit lens now, so maybe that'll be something I do in the future.  2015:  Let's move along, shall we? Here's one from September 2015, back when I was still learning the exposure triangle and still trying to understand that I needed to ignore my meter and expose for my subject. I'll include three shots here to help illustrate what I'm going to discuss. Squarespace has a character limit, so scroll down for the next photo.  ....  ....  Next photo below

Nikon D5200, 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, just about two weeks after I first picked up a DSLR as a hobby. Let's rip this one apart right now, shall we? It's terrible, and that's being generous. The composition is horrendous, the exposure was fixed in post - I no longer have the RAW file in Lightroom, so I can't tell you how much exposure I added in post, but I know it was very underexposed - and worst of all, it's not even in focus. I could blame it on the kit lens, but let's be real, I had no idea what I was doing here. The editing isn't bad, in my opinion, but it's not good either and knowing what I do now, I never would have shot this in the first place.

Kit lenses are tricky as hell, they're not good and they're not meant to create high-quality images, but you absolutely can accomplish that if you know what you're doing. I wouldn't necessarily go back to using a kit lens now because I've got a brand identity and certain personal standards, but maybe I could see myself doing a series where I go out and shoot with a kit lens to show what can be done in capable hands. I'm kind of curious myself to see what I can accomplish with a kit lens now, so maybe that'll be something I do in the future.

2015:

Let's move along, shall we? Here's one from September 2015, back when I was still learning the exposure triangle and still trying to understand that I needed to ignore my meter and expose for my subject. I'll include three shots here to help illustrate what I'm going to discuss. Squarespace has a character limit, so scroll down for the next photo.

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Next photo below

This is the original unedited RAW file exported to JPEG in Lightroom. No adjustments, two and a half stops underexposed. I never liked the composition on this even though many would argue that it's not  terrible  and looks like it could be an ad for something, but I ended up cropping this a bit. Let's talk about the glaring flaw: it's underexposed by more than two stops. Now, that can be easily fixed in post, but  why  would you want to fix an image in post when it's easy to get right in the camera? This exposure would be pretty close to what I would want to do  now , with off-camera flash lighting my subjects. I could throw a speedlight camera left with a MagMod MagGrid and MagSphere to light the dude's face and then use another speedlight with MagMod modifiers to light the girl from the front, but we'll talk about that another time.  Here's the original edit of this same image.   

This is the original unedited RAW file exported to JPEG in Lightroom. No adjustments, two and a half stops underexposed. I never liked the composition on this even though many would argue that it's not terrible and looks like it could be an ad for something, but I ended up cropping this a bit. Let's talk about the glaring flaw: it's underexposed by more than two stops. Now, that can be easily fixed in post, but why would you want to fix an image in post when it's easy to get right in the camera? This exposure would be pretty close to what I would want to do now, with off-camera flash lighting my subjects. I could throw a speedlight camera left with a MagMod MagGrid and MagSphere to light the dude's face and then use another speedlight with MagMod modifiers to light the girl from the front, but we'll talk about that another time.

Here's the original edit of this same image.

 

_DSC0071.jpg

MEH! This is obviously after adding a ton of exposure, but look at that editing. Blah :-( - yeah, this is pretty bad. Not only did I destroy many of the highlights, but I also pulled the shadows and blacks way up and took away any depth from the image. Not a good look at all. Below is the re-edit from abut a week ago for this feature.

That's much better in terms of editing. The contrast gives it bunch, it's got depth in the shadows and darks and just enough highlights to keep detail in the face while still conveying that they were baking in the sun, and the colors are much more true-to-life. It's  still  not a good photo, but this is part of every aspiring photographer's learning process. Capturing a bunch of bad images with a few good ones thrown in from time to time, until you really get the hang of it.  Let's move on to the last one and something more current, shall we?  2017:  (Scroll down, again. Damn you, Squarespace)  ....  ....  ....  Next photo:

That's much better in terms of editing. The contrast gives it bunch, it's got depth in the shadows and darks and just enough highlights to keep detail in the face while still conveying that they were baking in the sun, and the colors are much more true-to-life. It's still not a good photo, but this is part of every aspiring photographer's learning process. Capturing a bunch of bad images with a few good ones thrown in from time to time, until you really get the hang of it.

Let's move on to the last one and something more current, shall we?

2017:

(Scroll down, again. Damn you, Squarespace)

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Next photo:

Alright, so this is just a random photo at the end of NYC Holi, which, for anyone who isn't familiar, is an annual Indian festival of colors. The traditional Indian festival entails lots of dancing and throwing paint on everyone. It's awesome, HOWEVER, this powered paint is VERY hazardous to photo gear, so take a rain cover with you and keep your lens cap on when you're not shooting.  Anyway, it's not the  best  photo, but it illustrates how composition (ignore the old woman getting in my frame) and editing progress over time. The exposure was just about perfect in the camera, so there was minimal editing to be done. Contrast, lights, darks, highlights and shadows and color correction. That was it, until I looked at it a second time and decided I wanted all those colors on his face to really pop. That was when I decided to make use of the HSL sliders and bring those colors to life by increasing the saturation on all of them, and I ended up really liking this photo, as did my subject.   The above was shot on a Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 Art series lens, which is a phenomenal line from Sigma. Gear does make a world of difference, but so does technical skill and knowing what the correct exposure looks like in the camera so you can at least get close. My personal workflow always results in adding some exposure to my images at the end before exporting, but that's just a product of my editing style and how I like to represent my final images, and that's another thing that will change depending on the situation you're shooting in and what you captured the image for. For example, a random shot like this is just for fun and only needs some quick basic Lightroom adjustments to be a finished product. Anything you do after that can be overkill if you don't understand the tools you're using, but you can really make colors pop in a situation like this.  I recently shot models in a studio, using studio lighting, and I processed my images slightly differently than I would an image shot in daylight, even with off-camera flash. Never get stuck in one workflow for everything. Photography like all other forms of art is highly subjective, but post processing is not a catch-all and one size does not fit all. Develop your own workflow even before you've mastered the exposure triangle and you'll see that once you do understand how to expose an image correctly - or at least close - in the camera, you'll notice a difference instantly. Once you know how you want to represent your final images, this photography thing will start to become second nature.  I think next time - I PROMISE IT WON'T BE A MONTH - I'll discuss shooting live music. I know a lot of people are into that and think it's cool, and since I do a lot of it I think it's worth visiting. That's all I've got for now, deuces.

Alright, so this is just a random photo at the end of NYC Holi, which, for anyone who isn't familiar, is an annual Indian festival of colors. The traditional Indian festival entails lots of dancing and throwing paint on everyone. It's awesome, HOWEVER, this powered paint is VERY hazardous to photo gear, so take a rain cover with you and keep your lens cap on when you're not shooting.

Anyway, it's not the best photo, but it illustrates how composition (ignore the old woman getting in my frame) and editing progress over time. The exposure was just about perfect in the camera, so there was minimal editing to be done. Contrast, lights, darks, highlights and shadows and color correction. That was it, until I looked at it a second time and decided I wanted all those colors on his face to really pop. That was when I decided to make use of the HSL sliders and bring those colors to life by increasing the saturation on all of them, and I ended up really liking this photo, as did my subject. 

The above was shot on a Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 Art series lens, which is a phenomenal line from Sigma. Gear does make a world of difference, but so does technical skill and knowing what the correct exposure looks like in the camera so you can at least get close. My personal workflow always results in adding some exposure to my images at the end before exporting, but that's just a product of my editing style and how I like to represent my final images, and that's another thing that will change depending on the situation you're shooting in and what you captured the image for. For example, a random shot like this is just for fun and only needs some quick basic Lightroom adjustments to be a finished product. Anything you do after that can be overkill if you don't understand the tools you're using, but you can really make colors pop in a situation like this.

I recently shot models in a studio, using studio lighting, and I processed my images slightly differently than I would an image shot in daylight, even with off-camera flash. Never get stuck in one workflow for everything. Photography like all other forms of art is highly subjective, but post processing is not a catch-all and one size does not fit all. Develop your own workflow even before you've mastered the exposure triangle and you'll see that once you do understand how to expose an image correctly - or at least close - in the camera, you'll notice a difference instantly. Once you know how you want to represent your final images, this photography thing will start to become second nature.

I think next time - I PROMISE IT WON'T BE A MONTH - I'll discuss shooting live music. I know a lot of people are into that and think it's cool, and since I do a lot of it I think it's worth visiting. That's all I've got for now, deuces.

Photo Editing 101: Why You Need to Calibrate Your Display

I've seen lots of talk lately about people who think buying a new monitor (display) will magically make them a photo editing wizard. This is entirely false. While having a high quality display is important and necessary to properly edit photos for color accuracy and exposure (for those times when you don't get your exposure perfect in-camera), simply having a high quality display won't make your post processing any better.

The fact is, yes, you do NEED a high quality display - this is the one I use and was built specifically for photo editing - but you also must have two things: 1) a high-quality, gaming-level video card to support the display and accurately render colors to it, and 2) a professional calibration tool to accurately calibrate your display for brightness, contrast, and color representation. Without those two things, your shiny, expensive display is no better than a $50 piece of junk off the bargain bin.

Now, I'm a PC guy, so I had the luxury of building a PC to spec from the ground up so I could process photos quickly and easily, while having the RAM to handle Lightroom and Photoshop running at the same time, and a video card powerful enough to render colors correctly on a high quality, calibrated display. The other option would have been to buy an iMac with a retina display, which is factory calibrated for superior color accuracy. I hate Apple and have been a PC user my entire life, so sticking Windows was a no-brainer. If you're an Apple user, great, you've already won the battle and can stop reading.

The way the Spyder calibration tools work is quite simple: you connect the tool via USB, install the included software, put the calibrator on your display, press a couple buttons and get out of the way while it does its thing. Its "thing" is calibrating your colors based on the amount and type of light in the room. For me, I calibrate my display during the day with my blinds (shutters for those of you outside the US) open so the sunlight hits my screen, as I've found through trial and error that this offers the most accurate color representation and brightness calibration. Once that's done, you're good to go and if you leave the SpyerPro connected and set it to monitor the ambient light in the room, it'll automatically correct for changes in light to maintain your calibrated settings and you'll never notice a difference.

The OTHER key you need to pay attention to is that you want a display with IPS - In-Plane Switching. What IPS does is allows you to view your screen the same way from any angle. This means that the image you see on your screen when you look directly at it will be the same image you see when looking at your screen on an angle, from the other side of the room, laying down. It doesn't matter how you view your display, what you see will appear identical from all angles. Without IPS, you'll see your image differently depending on your viewing angle and even with proper calibration, your colors and contrast *may* appear differently. I always edit head on, for the most part, so I don't have this problem, but I'd never go back to a display without IPS after seeing the difference.

So, the long and short of photo editing is that if you're editing on a display that is NOT calibrated for photo editing using a professional calibration tool and NOT the buttons on your display, it doesn't matter how good the display is or is not. You still won't see your exposure, contrast and colors correctly until you've calibrated your display. Now that doesn't mean calibrating a $50 display will make your life any easier. The fact is a high quality, high-dollar display will render colors infinitely better than a cheap one, and a cheap display isn't worth calibrating because the improvement will be marginal at best and your final images will still look terrible to someone viewing them on a good, properly calibrated display. Having a good display in and of itself won't make you a better editor until you've calibrated it properly. I saw my post processing go from garbage to what it is now once I built a new PC, bought a quality display and calibrated it, and it's like night and day.

If you really want to be a wizard in Lightroom and Photoshop, invest in a good display and a quality calibration tool and get to work. I may make "Photo Editing 101" a series on here, maybe as a way to show my workflow or some behind the scenes editing, but I will almost certainly be launching a new photo series on the blog in the coming weeks. That's all I've got for now, deuces.

 

 

*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.

 

Selling Prints

So this blog post was inspired by something a friend posted on Facebook earlier today, and that was a link to her boyfriend's kid selling photo prints online. Inspiration comes from weird places, eh?

Anywho, the link was to a generic marketplace called Fine Art America, where they offer a bunch of pre-determined print types and sizes and take a cut for "facilitating". As a working photographer, I don't think this is the right way to sell prints, even if you're a hobbyist. Here on Squarespace, selling prints is something of a pain in the ass without the benefit of a plugin or built-in marketplace feature, and I have to manually fulfill orders. That's annoying, but it allows me to use any professional lab I want and often times, the discount I get from Adoramapix - whether it's through them running a sale or sending me a discount code - makes my profit margin worth the time it takes to manually process orders.

It's still a pain, and it's what happens when you use a portfolio-building template website that was never designed with photographers in mind, such as Squarespace. My gripes with the company are no secret, but the hassle of switching proved to be too much of an undertaking, so I live with it for the time being. With that said, there are other, much better platforms for building a photography portfolio that require absolutely no coding skills and were designed specifically for photographers.

1) Photoshelter was designed specifically for photographers, by other photographers, and has an integrated marketplace system that allows you to choose a professional lab to automatically fulfil and ship print orders without you ever having to touch the product. You get the cash, they take a little off the top and the rest goes in your pocket. I used a couple free trials with Photoshelter, to the point of building a fully functional portfolio and store that were both ready to go had I decided to make the jump.

The two biggest reasons I had for not switching - aside from some minor template design flaws that I could have probably lived with - were 1) the complete lack of an integrated blog feature like this one. Yeah, that sounds strange, but writing about random shit is a great way to draw traffic and have more people find my website, and it's something I wanted to be able to continue to do without having to pay for another domain and another Wordpress account dedicated exclusively to Tales From The Pit, and then have to go through the hassle of linking that to my Photoshelter website all while maintaining two full-time Wordpress websites. And 2) the lack of domain hosting with Photoshelter. Since my domain is hosted through Squarespace, I would have needed to buy an account at a website like Domain.com, pay them to migrate my domain to their servers and host it, and then also pay them to link my domain to Photoshelter. That became too costly and, along with having to manually point my own nameservers, too complicated. Someone with more technical DNS knowledge should have an easy time doing that.

2) SmugMug was designed much in the same way as Photoshelter, but less as a portfolio-hosting platform and more thought into the marketplace and monetary aspect of being a photographer, in my opinion. Smugmug works in a pretty similar way, but I believe I was able to build an entire custom website, which proved very complicated for a guy with no web design knowledge and no desire to fumble around endlessly trying to make something out of nothing. The upshot with SmugMug was that, rather than setting your pricing for print sales, you had the option to set your profit above the lab's cost to you for the print and shipping and all that good stuff. SmugMug gets a small percentage and you keep the rest, with the ability to set, say, a 400% profit above your initial cost. That's a nice little feature and saves the math involved in pricing your prints accordingly so that you make money and aren't just selling prints for something to do.

Like Photoshelter, SmugMug partners with professional labs to automatically fulfil and ship your orders, and they get a small cut from each sale. My reasons for not switching to SmugMug from Squarespace are largely the same as my reasons for not moving to Photoshelter, in addition to the web design knowledge needed to build a functional portfolio. There was no dedicated blog feature and no way to link one, along with the inherent problem of needing to first migrate my domain to GoDaddy, who is a SmugMug partner, and then - albeit much more easily - link my domain from GoDaddy to SmugMug. Getting the domain moved away from Squarespace was the much more complicated part here, and I didn't particularly like GoDaddy when they hosted my domain for www.soundboardmagazine.com due to connectivity and functionality issues that resulted in switching hosts.

3) 500px is one I'm a little less familiar with but used a free trial of their premium (paid) services. I found their templates to be rather complicated and not very professional-friendly in the sense that it felt more like designing a portfolio for a hobbyist and not really having any major benefit to marketing myself and my services - which is something Squarespace also heavily lacks. The general confusion with building a portfolio through 500px was enough of a turnoff that I didn't get very far with them and ultimately abandoned my efforts.

The good news is they offer an entirely free place to store and share your photos, and you can advertise your services and/or license prints through their marketplace. That was the biggest benefit I found - the ability to sell licensing to companies who want to use your photos. You weren't necessarily able to set pricing, but I believe 500px starts their licensing fees at $250 and goes up from there depending on the type of license being sought, and you keep 80%. That's a huge benefit for a photographer looking to turn work they've already done into extra money on the back end, or a hobbyist looking to make some money off some cool images. Like I said, I didn't get very far with 500px, so I can't really say much more about them, but selling definitely seemed a bit easier than with Squarespace.

There are obviously other template-based website builders where you can host a portfolio or even just sell prints - Photoshelter and SmugMug also allow for client proofing with their premium packages, which is another thing Squarespace lacks and absolutely needs to address, but the partnership with many professional labs is the attractive point for someone looking to sell prints.

Now, you might be asking what labs are the best. The truth is there are so many, and there are definitely labs that are better than others, but to this point I've ultimately chosen to go with convenience and profit margin and I therefore use Adoramapix. They're local to me and only about a 15 minute drive, in addition to running somewhat frequent sales and emailing me discount codes on a regular enough basis that it's worth my time to continue using them.

But, I've also used H&H Color Lab. It's at this point that I should probably mention that I only print metals for myself, and I do offer metal prints in my store, so I can only comment on metals from personal, hands-on experience. H&H does a phenomenal job of printing, and while I have had issues with Adoramapix in terms of color rendering and scratches on the prints - and the fact that they don't store your file anywhere and have absolutely no way of recreating an exact copy of your original print should there be an issue that requires a reprint - the biggest reason outside of discounts and profit for not using H&H on an exclusive basis is that for me, I don't like the quality of their float mount or the difficulty of mounting said float on the wall.

The Adoramapix float mount is a fairly heavy, and therefore sturdy, wooden mount that comes with another wooden piece with pre-drilled holes for the screws they provide (they also give you a cool level for mounting) so that you can easily screw the mount into the wall and then seat the bracket on it. It's heavy and it's not going anywhere once it's in the wall. H&H gives you a cheap-feeling plastic mount with holes in it for placing screws that you have to take physical measurements for, mark out spots on the wall that correspond with the distance between the screw holes from both each other and the top edge of the print and bracket, then put the screws in the wall and hope they're in the right spot. I've spent so much time trying to align screws with the float mount for the two prints I got from H&H that it just wasn't worth it, and they still felt super flimsy by comparison.

The really cool thing about H&H is that, as a new customer, when your place your first order, they will give you a $50 credit which, before the price hike, bought you 1 1/2 8x12 metal prints. So I got two 8x12 metals for a grand total of $16, and they ship FedEx two-day at no charge. That's a great deal and I would recommend taking advantage of a couple free prints, but not much more than that.

There are many, many other labs, some of which I need to experiment with in the future. The two most commonly referenced labs I hear about are Bay Photo and Blazing Editions. Both seem to be a little on the pricier side, but I've seen metals - and photo prints - by Blazing Editions in person, and they seem to be the go-to choice for photographers doing gallery displays. I have no personal experience with either lab, but they're both next on my list of professional printers to try out. If you've printed at Bay Photo or Blazing Editions, I've turned on comments and I'm curious to hear about your experiences, good or bad.

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.