Sunday, February 24, 2013


Inspiration - The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, esp. to do something creative: "flashes of inspiration".

We can all use a little inspiration to push us out of our rut when it comes to the art of photography.  When I look back at my photos I see a theme that appeared years ago when I first started taking photos seriously. My photographic subjects tend to include mountains, lakes, streams and waterfalls.  I love the silky smooth look of long exposure photos of waterfalls.  I get up long before sunrise to get to a lake when the surface is smooth as glass and creates a mirror reflection of the landscape.  Mountains are just powerful and majestic.  I even have photos of mountains reflecting in small puddles of water in southern Utah deserts, which is not easy to find.

I will keep taking photos of these subjects because they are what I enjoy being near.  However, sometimes my theme feels a bit like a rut.   According to, a rut is "a fixed or established mode or procedure or course of life, usually dull or unpromising."  I need something that will mentally stimulate me to do something creative and push my photography out of that rut and into new areas.

I've found a few things that have helped me:
  • Try some other areas of photography, such as sports, architecture, events, or abstract subjects.  I've done all of these and have learned something each time that helps me improve my skills as a photographer.
  • Spend time with other photographers.  Go out with a friend or group that enjoys photography.  Everyone will have a slightly different style and will approach a subject differently.  I almost always find myself saying "why didn't I think to try that?" when shooting with others.  The best opportunity to get this experience is in a local camera club.
  • Take a class.  I've found photography workshops have been the best investment when it comes to improving the quality of my photos.  When you're considering what photography equipment to upgrade, spend your money on the one between your ears.
  • Study the work of other photographers.  Similar to shooting with others, looking at others photography and thinking about what makes their photos great is an easy way to be inspired.  There are several that I follow online including Ian Plant, Joseph Rossbach, Marc Adamus, David DuChemin and the photographer I admire most - Bill Fortney.
 I recently treated myself to a new book that I hope will provide some new inspiration - Ansel Adams in the National Parks: Photographs from America's Wild Places.  The other day June was telling our son Tim about the book and correctly identified Adams as my favorite photographer.  I'm hoping that by reading this book and studying the photos I'll be inspired to try some new things when I'm out.  I gave that a try yesterday.

While driving the Blue Ridge Parkways with my friend Harold Ross (see point #2 above) we contended with overcast skies, bare trees, brown and gray colors.  We were looking for opportunities to photograph trees in dense fog, horfrost on the trees, tunnels, waterfalls, etc.  We didn't have much luck on these subjects, but on one stop we were treated to some interesting combinations of mountain ridges and fog in the foothills below us.  I tried to apply some of what I saw in the latest addition to my library to these subjects.   Here's a few of my attempts.

Near the end of our adventure we drove into a foggy section.  By the time we got out and set up each of us got one or two shots before the fog blew out.  

I've got a lot of improvement that I need to work on in my photography.  I'll keep working on new ideas and staying out of the rut.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Good Idea Poorly Executed

"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes."
- Oscar Wilde

Sometimes I come up with a good idea for a photograph.  Unfortunately, I don't always turn those good ideas into good photos.  

We were at Walnut Log Road on Reelfoot Lake for sunset on Friday and Sunday night last weekend.  It's a great place for sunset with plenty of Cypress trees in the water with the sun setting behind them making dramatic silhouettes.  The wind that had blown strong all weekend calmed down at sunset making the surface of the lake look like a mirror.  God blessed us with a beautiful painting across the sky and  I came home with 115 shots from Walnut Log Road on Friday night alone!  Some of my favorites from this trip are available viewing and purchase in the Reelfoot Lake Gallery.

I had both my cameras with me - the Canon 7D had a 300mm prime lens with a 1.4 teleconverter.  With the 7D's cropped sensor this is equivalent to a 672mm telephoto lens.   I also had a 17-40mm wide angle zoom on the Canon 5D.  In compact camera terms this is a 40x zoom range between the two camera/lens combinations.

Almost all the shots from Friday night were with the 5D/17-40 combination on a tripod to capture as much of the landscape and sunset as possible.  Here's one of those shots

This is was shot with a 32mm focal length.  It took 1.6 seconds at f/13, ISO 200.   I was hand holding a 2-stop graduated neutral density filter to darken the top half of the photo.  Normally hand holding a graduated neutral density filter (Grad) is not all that difficult.  This night I had to do it with gloves on and my had was still shaking from the cold.  This shot is what I came for and am pretty happy with the results.

However, an idea popped into my head to use the that long lens to isolate some of the tree branches with the sunset reflected in the lake behind it.   I picked the area on the left side of the cypress tree where the color went from yellow to rich dark orange.    In my mind I saw a very dramatic shot.  What I got was not what I envisioned.

I picked the wrong composition and ended up with an image that is too cluttered.

There are too many branches in this picture and there is nothing for the viewer's eye to settle on.   I could have made a better composition if I had pointed my lens a little to the left and isolated the branch that dips down from the rest.

I think it was a good idea but I rushed and didn't think through it.   The good news is I see what I should have done and if I get a similar opportunity and can remember what I learned I might come away with a good picture and not just a good idea.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Test Driving a Lens

June and I joined several other photographers this last weekend for a trek across Tennessee to Realfoot Lake State Park to take pictures of eagles, hawks, snow geese and other birds that winter around the lake each year.   This is perhaps the best opportunity to photograph eagles that doesn't involve traveling to Alaska or Northern Canada.  At one time there were about 200 nesting pairs around the lake.  Those of us on the trip agreed that the numbers appear to be less than that.

It takes about 8 hours to drive from Kingsport to Reelfoot Lake, which is a long road trip.   We might not get this opportunity again so I decided I needed some "better glass" (i.e. - more expensive lens) than what I had.  I have an older Sigma 80-400mm zoom that does pretty well in good "bright" light and on a tripod.   I decided I wanted a prime lens that would produce sharper images, was faster than the Sigma, and have enough "reach" to take shots of birds that might be a little ways away.   My lens of choice was a Canon 300mm f/4L.   To get a little more "reach" I wanted to use a 1.4x teleconverter, making the 300mm 420mm.   I have a cheap(er - it's all relative) teleconverter but putting a cheap teleconverter on an expensive lens gives you a longer lens that takes pictures like a cheap lens.  I needed the Canon version.   These two items sell for $1,376 and $499.  Ouch!

I had talked to people who had rented higher end lenses in the past with good results.  This was my opportunity to try out this lens and teleconverter without having to shell out a lot of cash.  After all, I wasn't sure the Canon would be that much better than the Sigma I already had.   I decided to rent from

The rental process was about as smooth as it can be.  The hardest step was deciding what to rent.  Once I made my decision I placed my order online specifying the day I wanted the lens delivered to my house and the day I would ship it back.   Simple.   FedEx delivered the lens right on time.

The lens and teleconverter were packed very well with material that made repacking for return shipping easy.   The gear looked like new and worked perfectly.  This morning I packed it back up in the original box, stuck the preprinted label on the box and dropped it at the FedEx authorized shipper in town.  The entire process was smooth and flawless. 

The one risk I was worried about did come to pass.  I now see how much better the Canon L prime lens is than my old Sigma zoom and I want to have my own copy.   This may end up costing me much more in the end. 

All these photos were made with the 300mm and 1.4TC combination on a Canon 7D.   Except for the owl, they were taken under overcast conditions.   The eagle on the nest was on a tripod.  All the others were handheld.

Knowing what I know now about shooting birds of prey at Reelfoot lake I think I would go with a longer lens.  The birds tended to be too far away for the 300/1.4x combination.  Maybe the Canon 400mm f/2.8L or the Canon 500mm f/4L.  They are big heavy lenses but it would have given me more reach, more light, and faster focusing.