A place for me to share my recent work, random musings on photography and reflect on my thoughts, experiences, ideas and revelations.

Monday, February 28, 2011

We've Moved

Starting today I am now posting to a new blog location.  Update your bookmarks and start following me at www.tomdills.com/blog .  From that page you can update your RSS feeds or follow through Networked Blogs on Facebook.

I'll keep this page up for a while but will not be posting anything new here.  All the content you have come to love is already at the new location.


Go there now to see the latest post!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Gear Talk

Sunset at sea aboard Celebrity Equinox - G12, ISO 800   



A recent commenter on a blog I follow regularly stated in reply to a post – about image processing and showing examples – that  “Figure 6 on my calibrated quad-core iMac is stunning!”  OK, so we’re all impressed and everything that you have a “calibrated quad-core iMac” but why is that important to your comment?

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Darkroom Time

Windmill ruin, St. Nicholas Abbey, Barbados


The other night I was working at my computer and heard my phone ringing.  I was in my office and my phone was in the kitchen, I was in the middle of a project and didn’t want to be interrupted so I ignored the call and let it go to voicemail.  I do that a lot, not to be rude, but because I believe strongly that managing interruptions is an important part of being productive.  I’ll close my e-mail and my browser when I’m trying to concentrate.  And if I’m in a meeting, having a face-to-face conversation or having dinner, the phone doesn’t have a chance.

A couple of nights later I was teaching my Lightroom class at The Light Factory in a room that is right next door to their darkroom.  As my class was wrapping up I had to take a projector into the classroom where the darkroom is located and struck up a short conversation with the instructor there, trading good-natured barbs about “film – what’s that?” and “Lightroom – what’s that?”  I found it fascinating that we were both teaching classes about photography, but using completely difference processes.

Later on I recalled both of the above events and I happened to think, “you wouldn’t have answered a cell phone in the darkroom, would you have?”  It helped me reconcile the idea of not answering the phone while I am in my own “darkroom.”  I’ve never worked in a darkroom so I can’t speak from experience, but I’ve read articles about photographers spending hours and hours in the darkroom, working on prints until they get them just right.  The ability to work uninterrupted just isn’t part of our vocabulary these days, and I think our creativity suffers for it.  Sometimes we all need to be able to – literally or figuratively – close the door, sit quietly in the dark and do our work, whatever kind of work it might be, without being interrupted by things that we can attend to later.

So, if sometime you call me and end up hearing my voicemail, remember that I might be “in my darkroom” and I’ll call you back when I’m done.

Monday, January 31, 2011

February 2011 Wallpaper and Something New

Cypress Tree on Lake Mattamuskeet in Eastern North Carolina


As I was getting ready to publish my wallpaper for February and trying to decide what photo to use, I was going to use another beach photo or a glorious sunrise but thought, “February is a bleak month, I’m going to go bleak.”  So I chose a photo that I think represents “bleak.”  

“Bleak” might be a little harsh, but unless you happen to live somewhere like Barbados (Hi, Sarah!) February is a month of hopeful anticipation.  Here in the southeastern US it’s definitely still winter but there can be signs of spring.  The Midwest and Northeast will have snow on the ground for months.  So, for February here’s bleak.  Tell me if you agree.

Since I now have an iPad I thought I needed to have a matching wallpaper for that, so here is an iPad wallpaper to match the calendar.  No calendar on this though, I didn't want it to get too cluttered up.

iPad Wallpaper - If you have an iPad you should be able to figure out how to save it!

Thursday, January 27, 2011



In my last post I discussed the benefits of shooting with a Point & Shoot camera.  In this second of two parts I discuss the Cons of shooting with a compact point & shoot camera.

The negatives of this camera are few, and I had to work a bit to come up with a meaningful list, but here goes.

Limited ability for shallow depth of field
Depth of field is not unlimited, but you get a lot of it even at the middle apertures like f4.  At f8 (the smallest aperture on the G12) the DOF is pretty huge.  So it’s tough to isolate your subject against an out of focus background.  Even wide open you don’t get the razor-thin DOF you can get with a fast full frame or medium format lens.  In many cases you just work with it and use to your advantage.  Sometimes you can exaggerate the effect by getting close to your subject.

Still fairly noisy at higher ISOs
I’ve gotten some shots at ISO 1600 or 3200 that I’ve printed and they look pretty good.  In-camera JPEG processing does an excellent job at reducing noise, and Lightroom does an excellent job on RAW files as well.  I shot RAW+JPEG for a short while before Lightroom was able to read the RAW files, and it has been an interesting comparison between the camera-processed JPEGs and Lightroom processed RAW files.

Lousy audio quality on video
I didn’t buy my G12 for video and consider that to be a specialty that I’m hoping to avoid or stay at the fringes of.  The little bit of video I have shot has been interesting but the sound is generally useless.  There are probably a number of accessories that could improve that, but for me the whole idea of using this camera is simplicity.

Somewhat limited focal length
It’s the equivalent of 28-140mm so it covers a lot of territory, but it won’t get you a closeup of an elusive grizzly or a closeup of a bee’s knees, but that’s a lot of coverage.  You can go longer or closer with accessory lenses, but that kind of defeats the idea of the compact camera.

A little slow focusing
My G12 focuses pretty well with lots of light, but once it gets dark it struggles a bit.  It has a nice bright blue focus assist light that annoys anyone else taking pictures of whatever you’re taking a picture of (if they even see it, which they might not!).  Don’t count on it focusing on the black bear in the cave.

Optical viewfinder has small area of coverage vs. LCD
I like using an optical viewfinder, and it makes me feel like a doofus to hold camera at arm’s length to take a photo.  But the viewfinder on the G12 only has about 77% coverage, so accurate framing is virtually impossible, and with “only” 10 megapixels you don’t want to do a lot of cropping.

I've heard a lot of "excuseplanations" about why you shouldn't buy a particular camera, but this one has a lot going for it, at least as far as I'm concerned!
 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Point & Shoot Pros and Cons - Part 1


I’ve written previously about how I am really liking the idea of using a compact Point & Shoot camera for a lot of my photography.  I feel these little gems deserve some real respect in terms of their capabilities.  The camera companies seem to be having a lot of success convincing people that they “need” DSLRs, but I disagree.  I don’t think the average consumer needs anything more than a good Point & Shoot camera, and I’m a firm believer that anyone can take excellent photographs with them.

In this first of two parts I’d like to outline the Pros and Cons of shooting with a compact Point & Shoot camera.

Part I: The Pros

Small and light
Let’s face it.  I don’t have a lot of gear compared to many of my friends, but all the DSLR stuff that I use fits in a bag that – even though it is airline “legal” – I would probably end up having to check at the jetway.  On my most recent vacation, I took all the photo gear I needed in a little Delsey “doctor bag” that held all my stuff with room for my phone, iPod and more.  Ironically that bag is the one I used to carry my medium format film gear in.  It’s all I needed!

A very serious camera, but fun to use
My current Point & Shoot camera is a Canon G12.  It’s got an excellent lens, shoots in RAW, has Image Stabilization and lots of other features that make it a great camera.  I don’t shoot in “Auto” mode, but it has a couple of custom presets that I’ve set up to make it a piece of cake to use.

Easy to take anywhere, fits in my pocket
Chase Jarvis published a book of photos taken with an iPhone camera based on the premise that “the best camera is the one you have with you.”  My cell phone takes pretty good pictures too, but not like my G12.  It fits in my briefcase or my pocket and can go anywhere I go.

Inconspicuous – I don’t look like a “pro”
People everywhere – from rent-a-cops in the Charlotte office buildings to native trinket sellers on St. Martin – are leery of tourists with a big SLR and a “pro” looking lens.  My little camera blends in – as much as I blend in anywhere – and I look like everyone else.  After a while nobody notices me, as long as I behave.

Squarish format
The G12 has a frame that is roughly 3x4, a format I came to really like when I shot medium format film.  I take a lot of verticals, and I find the more square format a lot more appealing than the longish 2x3 format of most DSLRs, especially in the vertical orientation.

Large depth of field
Even wide open the small sensor in these cameras gives you lots of depth of field.  And if you stop down to f4 or smaller you hardly have to focus (although I recommend that you do!).  This can be a hindrance in some situations, but it’s just something you learn how to deal with.

Live histogram
This is not exclusive to point & shoots, but I love the fact that my G12 has a live histogram, so I can judge exposure before the shot, instead of having to shoot and adjust, shoot and adjust.  Saves time and memory!

Excellent image quality within limits
I’ve taken photos at ISO 3200 that are pretty amazing when you consider that a few years ago we didn’t dare use film over 1000, and usually not over 400.  It’s not something you’ll use a lot, but it can make the difference between getting a shot and not getting it.  The lens correction and noise reduction in Lightroom and other programs makes the files from my G12 look as good as those from my 5D

No sensor cleaning!
This is a biggie for me, because I’m terrible at cleaning my sensor on my DSLRs.  With the G12 it’s never a problem.

Next: The Cons

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Marketing and camera choices



In my last post I talked about people’s fascination with equipment and mentioned that marketing plays a large role in what kind of cameras people buy.  I just returned from a 10-day cruise in the Caribbean (talk about good timing!) and one of the many observations I made during this trip was that it seems like the DSLR has really increased market share over past year or two, at least within the subset of people who travel where and how I do.  I don’t think I have seen such a large percentage of big cameras on a cruise before.  There were a lot of lower-priced models, but I spotted at least one 7D, a couple of D90s and more than a handful of “L” or “EX” lenses.  Me?  I took along my trusty G12 with my G9 as a backup.  Never even pulled the G9 out of the bag.

People often ask me for advice about buying a camera.  I tell most people that a good point & shoot will meet the needs of most people from a photographic standpoint, but I also understand that some people believe that they “need” an SLR for reasons other than image quality.  There is after all a certain “cool factor” to carrying an SLR and a big lens.  I don’t try to steer them either way, but if it becomes clear that they are really looking for me to affirm their desire for an SLR I’m happy to do so, although I point out that they are getting more camera than they need.

I’ve been exploring the idea of shooting “serious” photography with my point & shoot camera and find that it works very well.  I’m having a blast with my G12 and am starting to feel like these little cameras are way underappreciated.  I hope to make this idea the subject of a regular series of posts over the coming year.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

I bought an iPad




Yeah, whatever.  More on that later.  This isn’t an article about the iPad.  It’s about gear, and my fascination with people’s fixation on it.

As often happens, this post was inspired by three recent conversations.  One I just observed and two I was actually involved in.

There was recently an exchange on the CNPA forums with several posters discussing the relative merits of the Whiz-Bang 400 and whether it was worth the upgrade from the Whiz-Bang 300 that one of the posters is currently using.  As to be expected the owners of the Whiz-Bang 400 and the even “better” Whiz-Bang 860 chimed in with their support for the “better” camera.  The discussion ended with speculation about whether the Whiz-Bang 400 was due to be replaced in 2011, even mentioning that it was “interesting to speculate on the replacement of this fine camera” and that “I've already convinced myself that I need to be ready to jump when the replacement is announced.”  Score one for the marketing people!

The second conversation was with a fellow photographer while standing on an observation platform at Chincoteague Island NWR while waiting for the snow geese to do something interesting (they didn’t).  This guy, not a CNPA member and not anyone I know, was standing there with a huge something or other camera and lens combination.  I was standing above him on this two-level platform where he couldn’t see my cameras so he had to ask what cameras I had.  I told him that I had a 5D and a 40D, to which he replied “Mark II?”  When I said “no, the original 5D” he immediately became disinterested in any further conversation with me, as though anyone using gear as antiquated as mine couldn’t possibly have anything meaningful to contribute to a conversation.  As expected he packed up and left as soon as the sun went down, while the sensible among us knowingly waited while the sky lit up in one of the nicest sunsets I’ve seen in a while.  No camera is going to take a good photograph when it’s in the trunk.

Lastly, I had a nice little conversation going on Facebook with a couple of friends – both of whom happen to own Nikon cameras and one of whom I knew had asked Santa for a Canon G12 – that turned into a Canon vs. Nikon (friendly) exchange when I commented on my friend’s reference to his camera as “the best camera made” by asking “so you got the G12.”  It was just a good-natured friendly exchange but shows that even among friends gear choice sometimes matters.  I think we’re still friends!

Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to have a little bit of a rebellious streak.  Really.  And when it comes to photo gear I’m convinced that even the relics I shoot with are still better at taking pictures than I am.  When it comes to brands I say that the only meaningful difference between them is the file name, and everything else is marketing.  I’m also convinced that buying 1-generation-removed used cameras is a great way to get a great deal on a great camera.  It’s guys like Mr. Can’t-Wait-For-The-Whiz-Bang-500 that I like to buy my cameras from!

The time I seriously consider buying a new camera is when it doesn’t do what I need it to do or when something else does what I need it to do a lot better than what I have.  That’s why I bought the G12.  It’s a significant improvement over my G9 in just about every instance.  I still use the G9 but know its strengths and keep it out of situations where it isn’t at its best.  I’ve still got a 20D in my bag, and if I needed to use a third camera body I wouldn’t hesitate to pull it out.  It’s even got a 6GB Micro-drive in the card slot!  The camera works as good as it did the day I brought it home.  As does the Micro-drive.  If the camera you are currently using is a “fine camera” I don’t understand why you would be salivating over the rumored replacement that might or might not come next year.  Put down the Internet and go take some pictures!

I think it’s wonderful that newer cameras can take pictures practically in the dark.  It literally opens up more possibilities that we never could have imagined just a few years ago.  But just because a photograph was taken with a certain camera or at a certain ISO or in the dark doesn’t make a difference if it isn’t an interesting photograph.  So that part of the rules hasn’t changed.  Newer cameras take bigger files than the older ones.  But if all you’re going to do is post photos on Flickr or Facebook why do you need a 20 megapixel camera?  If you have clients demanding and willing to pay for huge prints then that makes good sense.  There are very few things I’m likely to do with my photographs that a 10 or 12 megapixel file won’t work for.

I always reaffirm that I am OK with whatever way a person chooses to enjoy photography.  If a person loves to collect gear and have the most recent version of everything I think that’s great.  If a person feels that a certain camera brand is important then that’s a good reason to own it.  Some people love to use software, and I support that.  I am a firm believer in everyone getting to do things their own way.  I like to talk about my preferences not to convince others to think like I do, but to share my thoughts for those who are interested.  Hopefully my photographs are more interesting than my thoughts!

It does concern me that it’s easy for people to get hung up on The Next Great Thing.  I’m afraid that too often worrying about the right tool keeps people from just using the one they’ve got.  A carpenter doesn’t sit around worrying whether to buy a new hammer or not.  A new one won’t make the nail go in any straighter than an old one.  But if he needs to drive a screw he buys a screwdriver.  Some things matter, like making sure your saw blade is sharp.  But that’s about maintenance, not whether something is new or not.  Take care of the tools you have, use them for their intended purpose and replace them when they stop doing what they were meant to do.  Or when something comes along that is so much better that you just can’t help it.  In the mean time get out there and use what you have!

Oh, yeah.  About that other thing.  I bought an iPad.  I hope to be able to read books and magazines on it.  I’ve wanted one since they came out, but it took me a long time to convince myself that it was time to buy one.  I bought a used (refurbished) one, probably just a few months before the next generation comes out.  But I got a good deal on it and I think it will be just the right tool for the job.  Sound familiar?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Plans, Goals and Intentions



Plans

Every year at this time I find myself thinking about my goals for the coming year, and reflecting on my accomplishments of the past year.  The last several years have taken some pretty interesting turns, but with a few more than usual mid-course corrections we got through them pretty much unscathed.  Last year I was able to write this post about one of the bigger turns I’d had to face during 2009.  I have to say that 2010 was just about what I expected it to be, I’ve managed to do most of what I set out to do and have a good start on what I haven’t finished.

A few weeks ago my best shooting buddy John Schornak and I were talking about our plans for 2011.  It was interesting to note – and at some point we both realized it – that neither of us were talking about doing a lot of group stuff.  We’ve both been active in the CNPA, attending meetings, leading outings and making presentations.  We’ve regularly attended the various events at Grandfather Mountain, CNPA annual meetings, WNC FotoFest and countless other opportunities.  There’s something going on somewhere just about every week.  There’s nothing wrong with attending these events and hanging out with all these people.  The events are wonderful and well-presented, provide inspiration to a lot of folks and the people are great friends.  I’ll probably attend a few, but there’s only so much a person can do and when I really think about it, photography for me is not about going to meetings or attending big events.

What I like about photography is getting out into the world, looking for interesting things and figuring out how to express my thoughts and feelings about what I see with my camera.  I already have limited time and creative energy, so when I have a chance to get away I feel like I need to get the most bang for my buck, and given a choice I’m going to give higher consideration to those things that are most important to me and get me where I want to be.  I feel like I do my best work while shooting on my own, working at my own pace and seeing with my own eyes.  Meetings, workshops and presentations have their place, but when I start thinking about what I most want to do – taking photographs – and when I think about the fact that the time I have to do that is very limited, I just don’t think that’s the way I want to spend my time.

Goals

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery


So what does 2011 hold for Tom Dills Photography?  First of all I’m planning to get out and shoot more.  I purposely held back in 2010 because I had other things that were priorities.  I’m not an expert printer yet but I’ve made progress and am pretty happy with my work.  I’ve got a marketing plan that I’m in the process of implementing that is already beginning to pay off in some unexpected ways.  I’m really itching to get back out there and shoot!

I am looking forward to re-inventing the day trip.  Kathy & I like to just hop in the car on a weekend morning and head off somewhere for the day.  Sometimes the goal is photography, sometimes the goal is finding peace and quiet, and sometimes the goal is good food and wine.  Ideally there’s time for all three!  It’s very easy to get caught up in destination shooting, what I call Trophy Hunting.  But I’m not trying to fill up a checklist with places I’ve gone and subjects I’ve shot.  A lot of people miss out on opportunities because the “experts” say that the only times to shoot are in the morning and afternoon.  Yeah, it’s easier then, but it’s not the only time to make good photographs.  So I want to explore that.

I’ve been thinking of myself less and less as a “nature photographer” lately.  There’s a lot more that interests me than just nature, and there are opportunities to be found everywhere.  I really want to explore the creative side of photography, go beyond shooting subjects and clich├ęs and get into expression and intention.  This is foreign territory for a lot of folks but that’s what is making me tick these days.  I will probably take a workshop or two, but they will be small groups intensely focused on what I am looking to learn, not just trudging around in the woods shooting birds, bugs and blossoms (as I’m overly fond of saying).

I’m hoping to strike a balance between information overload and personal development.  There is so much information available these days that it is exceedingly difficult to work through it all, and I firmly believe that many times we take in so much data that we can’t hear our own voice for all the noise.  I recently read an article that referred to “visual junk food” and I think that describes the problem well.  Tasty and delicious with little nutritional value.  It’s OK to eat the Twinkie once in a while but not every day.  The key word is balance.

What I won’t be doing is attending meetings, leading outings or filling my calendar with other people’s priorities.  You won’t see me posting stuff on Facebook as much.  After a year or so of playing around with that I’ve found that it can be such a time-suck that its best if I just avoid it altogether.  When my cell phone pictures get more comments than my “serious” ones it says a lot about why everyone is there and who actually takes the time look and to comment.  Go figure.  But I digress….

My comments will surprise and may even disappoint some people but that’s really OK, because everyone has to decide what they want to do.  I’m not criticizing anyone’s choices or suggesting that what I’m saying should work for everyone, because we all have different reasons for doing what we do.

Intentions

I have a lot to do, and time flies while I’m having fun.  Joe McNally recently posted on his blog:
“Can’t believe it’s December. As my mom used to say, “Oh, you know, 4th of July and the year’s over.” I didn’t really believe her, but you know, she mighta been onto something.”  And he’s right.  But I’ve got plans, and I’m looking forward to working out the details and enjoying the journey.


From Heron Dance, one of my favorite blogs:
I remembered a story of how Bach was approached by a young admirer one day and asked, "But Papa Bach, how do you manage to think of all these new tunes?"

"My dear fellow," Bach is said to have answered, "I have no need to think of them. I have the greatest difficulty not to step on them when I get out of bed in the morning and start moving around my room."
- Laurens Van der Post


I have a lot to say, and it’s my intention to learn how to express my thoughts and ideas in the best way possible.  I’m really enjoying the expression I find from writing, and I’m planning to continue that because I think it is a great way to clarify my thoughts.  And it helps me with my photography because the act of writing a good paragraph is a lot like constructing a good photograph.  Use only the words you need to use to make the point you want to make.


“I apologize for the length of this letter but I didn’t have time to make it shorter”
- (Attributed to everybody from Twain to Pascal)


I want to learn, and I want to teach.  I want to lead and I want to follow.  I want to sell some stuff and share even more.  But mostly I want to learn to express myself with my photographs, and to some extent with my writing.  I like to do this, I want to do this.

I could sit around watching TV or Photoshop tutorials or gear review articles.  I could play around with software to the point where I wouldn’t know my Vision if it bopped me over the head.  I intend for 2011 to be a year of simplification, in my life and in my photography.  Minimize distractions and noise, but not to the point of becoming a hermit.  Just the opposite, I want to be out enjoying the world, being distracted by attraction, living mindfully and purposefully.  Attending to my priorities instead of those of some “expert” who wants to tell me how to think and what to do.  And don’t tell me when and where and what to photograph!

Does that all sound extreme?  It is!  It takes a lot to pull the plug on the things that get in the way, but we’ve done it and are doing it.  Some people think we’re nuts and maybe to an extent we are, but we’re just doing our thing the way we want to do it.  And that’s OK with me.  I’m looking forward to 2011 in a big way.  It might just be the best year yet!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

A New Year



I saw a Facebook post yesterday that asked "As 2010 comes to an end, will you reflect or will you reset?"  My thought is that the clock and the calendar continue to move forward, and so should we.

What better way to start the year than with a beautiful sunrise?  Chincoteague, VA in November 2010.