Thursday, October 9, 2008

I'm Baaaaaaaaack!

ATTENTION Blog Readers!

I am still alive.

It's been almost six months since my last blog entry. Part of that is because I have been incredibly busy with new jobs and part of it is because I just haven't had much to say. The more I've thought about what photography lesson should come next, the more I have realized that THERE JUST ISN'T THAT MUCH TO IT!

Learn how to use your equipment; learn what shutterspeed, aperture, and ISO do for you; and then get out there and shoot. Think about the suggestions I've given on composition and then go try them. It's really that simple.

Now a little about what's been happening in my world:

We spent seven weeks in Idaho and got back to Texas about the 10th of August. I made a trip to Utah in October to hunt muledeer with my dad and then I took the family back to Idaho for Christmas. Now it's January and we're back in the swing of things with life as normal as it ever gets for us.

Last August I took a job with the local newspaper in Aledo, The Community-News. I became their official sideline photographer for high school football and volleyball season. Things went so well that we've extended our agreement for basketball and soccer seasons. I shoot at least one game per week - but usually five or six if I can make it. I still sell prints to parents while making all my shots available for use by the newspaper. It's been a lot of fun. If you like sports photos, you should probably check out my favorite sports shots on my Smugmug website (

In November, I started another new job as a teacher at Aledo Christian School. I teach Geometry, Pre-Calculus, and Calculus two days per week and I love it. Aledo Christian is a small private school; the kids are great and, well, who wouldn't love getting to teach Calculus!

Besides all the sports photography, I've also started doing some High Dynamic Range Imaging. HDR Imaging is a great way to capture the broadest range of light possible in your photographs. I've attached one below that might look familiar to you. Last July I posted about "getting in a rut," and shooting the same places over and over. I talked about how fruitful that can be when you factor in potential changes in lighting due to time of day and/or weather. It turns out that in that last session at sunset in Grand Teton National Park, I shot several shots with different exposures without moving my tripod. THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT YOU NEED FOR HDR! WHAT AMAZING LUCK! I hope you like the result. It now qualifies as my official all-time favorite photograph.

I hope 2009 is off to a good start for you. I'll try to post some more photos and some more photo-thoughts very soon.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

It's okay to get in a rut!

Hmmm. Seems like an odd title doesn't it? I've always thought that it was bad to get in a rut. This week, however, it really paid off.

I'm in the middle of my fifth week in Idaho and I've posted about 250 photos to my website so far. (Click on the link on my main page at to check out the fun.) If you were to look through my newest gallery and the other galleries that I've posted in the past from my visits to Idaho and Wyoming, you would notice a lot of the same locations - over and over, again. Some people might think that would get boring. I'm learning to LOVE IT! Every time I visit Grand Teton National Park to shoot the barns on Mormon Row or the reflection at Schwabacher's Landing, I get something different.

The Tetons are an incredible mountain range. Take a shot before 9am and you're almost certain to get something good. The difference between "good" and "spectacular," however, usually depends on the weather. And since the weather changes all the time, it becomes an adventure every time you go back to that same old place.

We have lots of "bluebird" days up here. Some folks even call it "severe clear." Here's Schwabacher's on a day like that:

Then sometimes you get some clouds in the morning:

Mormon row is the same way. Bluebird morning:

Overcast morning:

I shot that last one above in 2005 and I haven't managed to catch a sunrise like that since. However, now that I've failed a few times, I know a little more about what it takes. It takes weather! Nowadays, I check the sky the evening before to see what might be happening the next morning. I even check early in the afternoon to try to anticipate what the sunset will look like. That brings me back to this week.....

This week I decided to mix things up and try some sunset photography in GTNP, expecting the mountains to silhouette against the evening sky. What I got was a great surprise. I watched the afternoon weather in Teton Valley, Idaho, just west of the Tetons and noticed some really interesting clouds headed toward the peaks. I raced across Teton Pass and found myself sitting at Schwabacher's Landing an hour later. Schwabacher's is the perfect "poster shot" with the reflection in the beaver pond and the beautiful trees along the shoreline. I've shot it so many times you might say I've gotten in a rut! But this time the weather cooperated and gave me a gorgeous sky.

I hope you like it. It's one of my new favorites.... all because I went back to the same old place.

Keep shooting the same things over and over and you will begin to discover that it can be different every time. Look up! Check the sky. Let the weather help your landscape photographs.

Happy shooting!


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Something Different.... for me!

It's been a while since I last posted. I'm sure all of my fans out there - you both know who you are - have missed me..... right?

This spring has been busy. I've done a few portrait sessions and I've done something new: Architectural Photography. I was hired by a friend who builds custom homes to take photos for his new promotional brochure. It's been a unique challenge that has helped to reinforce all those lessons about good photography - remember shutterspeed, aperture, and ISO?  All the tradeoffs come into play just like I taught back in our early lessons together.

Here a few of my favorite shots:

I shot the indoor shots with low ISO to eliminate graininess, small aperture for sharpness and greater depth of field, and long shutterspeed to ensure proper exposure. And of course, with long shutterspeeds I used a tripod to hold the camera steady.


The other "something different" from the last few weeks is that I did my first Bridal Portrait Shoot. Emily is such a beautiful young lady. Here are a couple of my favorites from her shoot.


And now for the best news of all...

We're headed back to Teton Valley, Idaho, for a few weeks of cool mountain weather! Watch my galleries at for additions to the Travel and Nature section. I'll be getting up close and personal with the very best that our National Parks have to offer. Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and (hopefully) Glacier are all on the agenda for this summer. I'll update the blog a few times and I'll shoot about 10,000 photos while we are out west. Hopefully there will be a few keepers.

As always, feel free to e-mail me if you have any photography questions or just want to keep up with our adventures.

- James (

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Theatre is my Life!

Okay, maybe the title was an exaggeration but I have discovered that it is a lot of fun to photograph theatrical performances.

I told you about the fun I had back in February shooting the winter musical production at Aledo High School. This time I got to shoot a serious one-act play entitled, "The Diary of Anne Frank" and a series of short, one-act comedies that included, "Variations on the Death of Trotsky." These were two very different kinds of plays but the photographic challenges were the same. High ISO, wide open apertures, and a monopod to hold the camera are the only way to have a chance at sharp photos. Even then, about one-third of the shots I took were blurry. That's why I love digital! Just keep shootin' - you're bound to hit SOMETHING!

Here's a shot from, "The Diary of Anne Frank."

And, here's a shot from "Variations on the Death of Trotsky."

I'll be back soon with another lesson so keep checking in.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cool Desert Shots...

In early April I made a trip to Las Vegas for a little business with the Nevada Department of Transportation. Those of you that know me well know that a place like Vegas doesn't really interest me. So what did I do? I took the scenic route! We finished with NDOT early and headed for Hoover Dam and the Nevada desert. The tour at Hoover Dam took us down to the generator facility which was very cool. But the real spectacular stuff was the view from the top.

Here's a shot of the generator room.

And this is the view of the back of the dam and an old crane used for transporting men and materials across the canyon.

On the way back to Las Vegas we spotted some cacti blooming in the desert. The sun was high overhead but I think I managed to salvage some pretty good shots.

Thanks for visiting!

- James

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I Took My Own Advice!

In Lesson #7 I said, "Get out there and shoot!" So I did.

On Saturday, March 22nd, Spring Break was winding down for Aaron and Sara. Aaron agreed to go with me for a little evening shoot in Downtown Fort Worth and we had SOME KIND OF FUN! We parked at the base of the bridge on North Main Street just north of downtown and walked up to a vantage point where we could see the Tarrant County Courthouse. Aaron enjoyed this part because he's a big "Walker, Texas Ranger" fan and they often use footage of the courthouse on the show.

There are some spots along the side of the bridge deck that are perfect for photographers: away from the traffic and with a great view. We setup the tripod and camera and dialed in a very small aperture with a very long shutterspeed. We were generally shooting about f/22 with 15 to 30 seconds of exposure time. Check out the results below. The red and white streaks are from the traffic going by on the bridge. Very Cool!!!

It was a little harrowing walking up and down the bridge with traffic whizzing by..... but, you know.... anything for the shot!

We left downtown and headed west for home but along the way we got another surprise: there was a carnival in the parking lot at Ridgmar Mall! I've wanted to do some ferris wheel shots ever since I saw the ones my brother posted on his website at

Here are a couple of my favorites. Two to four seconds at f/22 made for some really cool shots.

I hope you liked them. Now get out there and do some of your own shooting!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Lesson #7 - Get out there and Shoot!

We've covered a lot on how the camera works and what all the different aperture, shutterspeed, and ISO choices are about.

But the TRUTH is that if you don't PRACTICE what you learn then you won't get any better.

In this lesson I'm going to try to motivate you to get out and shoot some photos. I'm going to give you some quick tips and show you some examples. Along the way perhaps I'll hit on a topic that interests you and then you will run out and use all your new technical knowledge to feed your creativity.

So come along with me and let's shoot some photographs!

Children: We love them and we CAN SHOOT THEM!

Get down on their level. Become a part of their world. Capture them being.....themselves. Big goofy smiles are great but having a photo of a little kid engaged in his world can be priceless.

Annoying Teenagers: They NEED to be SHOT!

I often shoot candid shots of teens just hanging out. Their laughter and expressions can be great but when they start mugging for the camera.... well, it's still okay! Here are three to help motivate you:

When I shoot teenagers, I like to use the longest lens I've got. That helps me peek into their world without getting into their space.

Scenic Landscapes: My all-time favorite subject!

My best tip here is to convince you that the best time of day to shoot is at sunrise and sunset. The quality of the light during those times is so much better than during the harsh direct overhead sunshiny part of the day.

Check these out...

More Landscapes:

Use the rule-of-thirds. That means don't place the dominant elements of the photograph in the center. Move them over or up to the one-third points in the frame. Look for diagonal lines that help draw the eye into the frame.

Flowers and Veggies: Spring is coming and the Botanic Garden could become your favorite place!

Don't just shoot down. Get down on their level. Use what you know about aperture to blur the backgrounds and selective focus on one flower. Remember the rule-of-thirds.

Animals: Shoot the family dog - especially if he barks all night. Capture shots of your kids interacting with their pets. Focus on the animal's eyes - that's where we are drawn when we look at the photo. If you like wild animals, do your homework. Learn what times they are most active. Get into their world.... but be careful. Travel to a National Park or State Park; wild animals are a little less wild there.

I hope you've enjoyed these photos as much as I have. Start a collection of personal favorites. It's great to show them off and it's great to look back and see how your creativity and talent have progressed.

Happy Shooting!

- James

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Lesson #6 ..... The Last Tradeoff Lesson!

Lesson #4 was about the tradeoffs involved with choosing an ISO.

Lesson #5 was about the tradeoffs involving aperture choices.

This one is about shutterspeed.

If your shutterspeed is too slow, then your photos might be blurry because your camera was shaking or because your subject moved.

Sometimes blurry is very cool. That's why we need to understand how shutterspeed works!

Shutterspeeds on digital SLR cameras may range from 1/8000th of a second up to 30 seconds. Which speed you choose out of that range depends on what you are trying to accomplish. If you are trying to photograph a 98 mile-per-hour fastball right as it leaves the pitcher's hand, you better use that 1/8000th of a second shutterspeed and you better hope that no one notices that the ball is still a little blurry. That's because in 1/8000th of a second, the ball traveled 0.21 inches. Bummer!

The good news, though is that you don't have to worry about camera shake when you are shooting 1/8000th of a second shutterspeeds because it is unlikely that you are shaking at 98 mph!

Maybe you want to shoot a nice dreamy waterfall and you want to blur the water. How fast is the water going? Maybe 5mph?

If it's going 5 mph, then it travels 7.33 feet in one second. If your shutter speed is set to one-half second, then the water will travel 3.67 feet while your shutter is open. It will definitely be blurry. And, if you don't use a tripod to hold the camera still, the rocks and trees and everything else around the waterfall will be blurry too!

Here are some good guidelines to remember: If you are shooting sports, 1/500th of a second is good but 1/1000th is much better. If you want a milky-looking waterfall, 1/4th of a second is good but 2 seconds is even better. If you want to avoid camera shake, use a shutterspeed that is roughly equal to the focal length of your lens. For example, if you are shooting with a 200 mm lens, try to keep your shutterspeeds faster than 1/200th of a second to avoid blurriness due to camera shake.

Let's look at some examples:

That's a mountain stream in Teton Canyon in Wyoming in May of 2007. I shot with ISO at 100, f/stop at 8, and shutterspeed at 1/4 of a second. As you can see, the water is nicely blurred all around the log and the rock. And to keep the log and the rock sharp, I rested the camera on the window of my truck after turning off the engine. You don't always have to have a tripod, just something really steady on which to brace your camera.

This shot is from Bennington, Vermont, and was taken during the summer of 2006. I used ISO 200, f/stop 7.1, and a shutterspeed of 1/400th of a second. The fast shutterspeed stopped most of the motion of the waterfall and it made it easy to handhold the camera.

Now a couple of sports examples:

My young friend, Greg, catches the ball and heads straight toward my position on the sideline. What a catch and what a photo! I had the ISO at 3200 (max), the f/stop at 2.8 (max) and my shutterspeed was 1/500th of a second. Any slower than that and the shot would have been blurred.

My daughter, Sara, plays a little soccer at 1/400th of a second. Again, f/2.8 and ISO 3200 - both maxed out - and the best I could get under the lousy stadium lighting was 1/400th of a second. Notice how her foot is slightly blurred as it heads for the soccer ball. Maybe the shutterspeed was too slow or maybe it was her awesome power.... hmmm.

And we'll wrap it up with an appearance of the marching band!

This is a very cool shot that I actually did on purpose. This shot was at ISO 1600, f/20, and 1/15th of a second. I had been shooting with the high ISO and the camera set in Aperture Priority Mode when I saw this cool opportunity develop. With a flick of my index finger, I switched from f/2.8 to f/20 which caused the shutterspeed to drop down to 1/15th of a second. I took a couple of shots and immediately rolled the selector back to f/2.8 to continue. When I got home that night and reviewed my shots, I had a keeper! The blurred motion of the drumline with elements going in all directions really looks cool.... at least to me.

Know how your camera works. Know how to control the shutterspeed and you can get the effects you want.

Keep watching.... there's more to come!


Lesson #5 More Tradeoffs

In Lesson #4 I described the tradeoffs involved in your choice of ISO. Increase the ISO and you can shoot at higher shutterspeeds or in low-light conditions. Higher ISO will also get you more digital noise or graininess - that's the tradeoff.

This lesson covers the tradeoffs involved with aperture. You know..... f/stops....... f/numbers!

Remember that the aperture is the hole in the lens through which light travels on its way to the film or sensor. The aperture is adjustable from large f-numbers which correspond to small apertures to small f-numbers which correspond to large apertures.

Confusing? Maybe a definition will help; -- MATH ALERT! -- The f-number (or f/stop) is the ratio of the focal length of the lens to the diameter of the opening in the aperture. An f/stop of 8 means the diameter of the aperture is 1/8th of the focal length of the lens. If you wanted to double the area of the aperture to let in twice as much light, the f/stop would go from 8 to 5.6.

Remember that the area of a circle varies with the SQUARE of the diameter. Go through the math and you'll find that the area of the aperture doubles when you divide the f/stop by 1.414, which of course is the square root of two.


Don't worry about it. That last part was for geeks like me that just MUST UNDERSTAND THE MATH!

Here's the important part: Big aperture = small f-number AND small aperture = big f-number.

So when I say "OPEN up the lens," I mean go to a small f/stop or f-number. When I say "stop down the lens" I mean go to a large f/stop or large f-number.

Now for the tradeoffs (finally!)

Stop down the lens to a small aperture (like f/22) and you will increase your depth of field. Open up the lens to a large aperture (like f/2.8) and the depth of field will become shallow.

Depth of field is all about how much of the subject matter in your photograph is in focus. Focus on an object out in front of you and there will be a zone in front of and behind the object that is also in focus. With a small aperture (like f/22) the zone will be large and may extend from a few inches in front of you all the way to infinity. With a wide open aperture (like f/2.8) the zone will be small - perhaps only a few inches in front of and behind your subject. How wide the zone is for a particular lens depends on the size of the aperture you choose.

When is this important?

How about a couple of examples:

In landscape photography it is sometimes interesting to have the foreground and the background in focus. Stop down the lens to a small aperture and compose the shot. Now remember, the small aperture lets in less light than a large aperture so it naturally follows that a good exposure will require a longer shutterspeed. The aperture is small so it will need to be open longer. That could be a problem if you are handholding the camera or if your subject is moving.

The photo above was taken in October of 2007 in Grand Teton National Park. The clouds were obscuring the beautiful mountains in the background so I decided to focus on the leaves in the near foreground and the barn in the background. I shot with my f/stop at f/13 - a fairly small aperture setting. This dictated a shutterspeed of 1/80th of a second. For the lens length I was using, 1/80th was fast enough to handhold so I didn't need my tripod. The shot was done at ISO 400. If I had been concerned about digital noise, I could have shot at ISO 200 or ISO 100 which would have forced the shutterspeed to decrease to 1/40th or 1/20th, respectively. Both of those speeds would have required me to use a tripod to make sure the shot was steady. (See how I slipped in that review of ISO!)

In portrait photography it is sometimes nice to blur the background so that the subject really stands out. Open up the lens to a wide aperture and compose the shot. Again, the wide aperture means the shutter doesn't have to be open very long. The fast shutterspeed could be great if you need to handhold the camera.

In this shot of the young lady, the ISO was 400, the shutterspeed was 1/200th of a second, and the aperture was at f/2.8. I handheld this shot because the shutterspeed was fast enough to compensate for any camera shake that might have occurred and because I didn't want to set up a tripod on the railroad tracks!

The most important thing to understand is that your choice of aperture affects how much of the photo will be in focus - or how much "depth of field" you have.

Small aperture = large f/stop = lots in focus. Large aperture = small f/stop = very small plane of focus.

If you remember back in Lesson #2 I talked about shooting in Aperture Priority. This is how I shoot about 90 percent of the time. I control the aperture and the ISO and I let the camera pick the shutterspeed. I do this because I want creative control over what is in focus and what is blurry. Even though I'm not controlling the shutterspeed directly, I ALWAYS watch the shutterspeed to make sure it is fast enough for my conditions. If it isn't, then I bump my ISO upward to speed up the shutter. It's all about knowing how the camera works!

Go out and try to shoot with different f/stops and see what effect it has on your photographs.

If you have questions you can leave them here as comments or you can e-mail me at

Thanks for reading!