Welcome to (The Occasional) Photo Tip of the Day! Please also visit my main site jeffwignall.com. Text and photographs Copyright 2014 Jeff Wignall.

"Vision without execution is hallucination."


Thomas Edison

Sunday, June 26, 2011

My Father: A Self Portrait

This is a self portrait that my father (he was the person that taught me photography) made, and I'm guessing that he probably shot it in the 1940s. I probably should have run this on Father's Day, but I didn't (I did put it on my Facebook page--and please look for me there if you have a minute). My father first got me interested in photography when I was 10 years old and I wanted to shoot and develop photos of my first cat: a sweet little gray cat named Whiskey that I got from my mother for Christmas. (She hid the kitten in the kitchen on Christmas morning and when I came down I heard meowing and I kept telling her, "I hear meowing!" She said, "No, I don't think so." But the cat kept meowing when it heard my voice and the cat was, as they say, let out of the Christmas bag.)

Whiskey, or Whiskers as we called him sometimes, was my very first photographic subject--and the first subject that I ever printed.

My father had given me an old "620" format camera to use and he developed the first roll of black and white film. He then mixed up some print developer (Dektol!) and some fixer for me and gave me a small electric proof printer that worked by laying the negatives on a sheet of photo paper in a dark room, turning on the proofing machine (which had lights in it) and then developing the prints. He told me that after I put the print in the fixer solution (it was daylight by the way, so we hung black cloth over my bedroom windows) I could turn on the lights. For some reason I don't think I was clear on just how exciting an event that was going to be.

When I turned on the overhead light and saw the first photo I'd ever taken (and the first print I ever made), of Whiskey on the roof of our den, I let out a whoop that probably scared the neighbors several houses away. I couldn't believe it: I was able to take a photo and (after my father "souped" the negatives) was able to make my own prints. I was in another Universe. That the first photo was of a subject that I loved so much made it even more exciting and important. Within a few years my interest grew to the point that my father had to build me a darkroom in the basement and--though I really wasn't aware of it--as we improved it over the years, it eventually became a darkroom most pros would envy. (I had a 4 x 5 Omega enlarger and lenses capable of letting me print 20 x 30-inch prints from 35mm negs and was shooting with, and processing film from, both 35mm and 4 x 5-inch cameras.)

Lately I've been thinking about the gifts that my parents gave me: my father gave me photography and a sense of calmness, my mother introduced me to cats (I've never been given a better gift than the love of cats and other animals) and a sense of humor. (She was, however, almost anything but calm--and I inherited that side, too.) I wish someone in the family had been a good business teacher, but hey, you can't ask for everything. My father did give me one great piece of worldly advice: "Be careful what you get good at, you might be stuck with it for a very long time." Amen.

He also taught me how to bowl, how to sail and that the quickest path to inner calmness was just to forget strife and conflict and move on. Our arguments (and trust me, there were plenty in the 1960s when rock 'n roll and anti-war sentiments ruled my brain) ended the moment they ended: and that was a great gift, too. You argue, you shout about war, you wave your arms around--and then you have a sandwich together. This, to me, is a model for life.

I've always loved this shot of my father and I love the pose. Cool shot, Pop!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Turn On the Flash for Better Outdoor Portraits

The nice thing about shooting portraits outdoors on bright days is that there is plenty of light, but the downside is that bright sunlight often causes a lot of contrast, as well as deep shadows under the eyebrows, nose and lips. It seems kind of ironic, but one of the things that you can do to improve almost all outdoor portraits--particularly on bright, contrasty days--is to turn on the built-in flash. By turning on the flash, you open up these shadows and greatly reduce the contrast. It's important though to try and strike a natural balance between daylight and flash. If the flash is equal to the daylight it looks false and if it's more powerful than the daylight (often a problem on cloudy days) you'll get an over-lighted look.

Some cameras do a great job of balancing the flash any time that you turn it on in daylight, while others have a "flash fill" mode and in that mode the camera will automatically create a realistic balance between daylight and flash. Most DSLR cameras (like the Nikon D90 that I used to shoot this photo) also have a flash-compensation control that enables you to set the flash so that it's output is less powerful than the existing daylight. (Look in your camera's manual for info on the flash-compensation feature.) Knowing how much compensation to use is just a matter of making a quick test shot. I often take one shot with the flash compensation in the neutral position and then adjust from there--usually turning the flash down by a full stop which seems to create the most pleasing balance.

You'll know the best balance when you see it, it will just look and feel natural. Also, since you'll be using flash to light the face(s) you can often do some interesting things with light direction. In this shot of my friend Marcella and her son Hart, I positioned her so that the sun was more or less behind them and that provided a nice rim light on their hair. The flash then provided a nice even light on the face, but left the glowing highlights in the hair--it's a nice look and easy to create.

Funny, but probably the single biggest piece of advice that I give to people shooting pictures of people outdoors is to turn on the flash. And I can't remember the last time that I shot an outdoor portrait without flash, even if I had it dialed down a few stops so that it was just putting a highlight in the eyes. Try turning on the flash next time you're shooting people outdoors and I'm sure that you'll find yourself using it all the time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

This Year's Poppies: All Popped Out

I've run a few posts recently showing shots of last year's poppies, but this one was shot this year on Memorial Day. I love coming out to the garden and seeing these bright orange petals just blowing in the breeze, but unfortunately they don't last too long: one good rain and all the petals are gone. Also, these poppies aren't spreading as fast in my garden as I've seen them in other gardens. I may have to plant some more just to keep them going. I'd love to see the whole front of the garden filled with them.

Photographically the only problem that I run into with open poppies is that they are very reflective. If you look just to the right of center you can see little line of highlights that are nearly specular (detail-less) highlights. I shot this frame without a tripod (I was being lazy) and there was a breeze blowing, so I cranked the shutter speed up to 1/1600 second and shot nearly wide open (f/5) to toss the background out of focus.

Two days later, of course, it rained hard and the poppies were all gone: show over. I'm hoping some breeder is working on a poppy that will re-bloom all summer. Either that or I'll have to Superglue the petals back on so that I can enjoy them longer.

Photo note: Shot handheld with a Nikon D90 and a 70-300mm Nikkor zoom; recorded in both RAW and Jpeg simultaneously.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Joe McNally's Navy Seals: The Hell Week Photos


I've met and interviewed a lot of great photographers over the years and I have to say that it's quite a trip to sit across from men and women that have literally changed the way that we look at photography and the world. Joe Mcnally is one of those photographers. Even if you've never heard his name before, there is no question that you've seen some of his photos. Joe has been a contributor to National Geographic for more than 23 years and has shot cover stories for TIME, Newsweek, Fortune, New York and countless other major publications. I interviewed him (on videotape) a number of years ago for PDN (Photo District News) shortly after he'd completed an in-depth photo essay on Senator John Glenn's return to space. To get the coverage he needed, Joe photographed every step of Glenn's astronaut training and, in fact, he insisted on becoming NASA dive certified himself during that assignment so that he could photograph Senator Glenn during his underwater training. It was such a wild story that while I think I was scheduled to interview him for an hour, we talked for well over two hours (in fact, I think we actually ran out of videotape).

Joe recently posted a series of photos the U.S. Navy Seals' Hell Week on his blog--a week when even the toughest of the tough are challenged to the core and more than 70% of the class drops out--and I was so blown away by the photos that I had to share them with you. The photos of these young guys enduring hell beyond all imagining will have you wondering how anyone could survive such intense training. And Joe is such a fine photojournalist that he becomes almost invisible in his role: you get no sense that a photographer was there taking the photos, you just find yourself completely immersed in the moment. This is no easy skill: this is the most extreme skill that a photojournalist can master.

Joe is also a first-rate teacher, by the way, and his book The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes is the best book on flash you'll find. He also has a new DVD just out and in the next few days I'll tell you more about that. But in the meantime, I had to share this incredible set of photos with you--you'll come away with nothing but admiration for the photos--and for those incredible Navy Seals. (Photo Copyright Joe McNally; all rights reserved.)