Faded Glory on the Edge of the Desert

This weekend Steve Burns and I went to Jacumba Hot Springs, on the edge of the Anza-Borrego desert to see some old train cars on a private siding of the old Corrizo Gorge Railroad line.  I wanted to know for sure where they were so I could then come back and do an intro video for my Spring online course (once I had it written…). 

I also had a couple of other goals:  test and play a little with some accessories for my bear of a digital cinema camera, the Black Magic ‘Ursa’, and start collecting images with my simple little point-and-shot Canon S120. for a workshop for next year’s Del Mar fair I’ve been asked to do (I’m working my way down to doing some shots with my cell phone but it is harder than I thought to force myself to do that.)

Jacumba Hot Springs was, at one time, a major tourist destination for the elite because of the hot springs there.  It still has the hot springs, and a resort, but it has lost some of its former luster from the days when ritzy folks boarded the train on the coast for a few days “taking the waters” and seeking to rid themselves of a long list of ailments as well as to hobnob with the proper people.

I thought an hour or so there would be more than enough so we left early afternoon for the 2-hour drive.  Admittedly the afternoon light is probably the best, but an hour or so is not anywhere near enough.  I’m most definitely going back.

Since we thought we had all sorts of time our first stop was to tour the current Jacumba Hot Springs Spa and Resort.  A group from the coast doing their annual trek to the hot springs was there and they were definitely a lively group.  We also ran into part of their group while shooting at the old original bathhouse that had burned down years ago.    The walls of the bathhouse were still there since it is fairly hard to burn adobe.  It has now become a tagger’s pallet.  Remember Minor White’s dictum: See things not for what they are, but for what ELSE they are…

The resort itself was basically an adobe motel built around a hot springs pool with attached restaurant and bar.  Not fancy but it might be fun to come out for an over-nighter there.

The old railroad cars (along with some other rolling stock) is clearly private property.  Somewhere along this line is a parked passenger TRAIN.  Now THAT I’d like to find.  But these old cars were interesting.  It has been a long time since the ritzy folks in velvets and lace road in them to come out here to the edge of the desert.  I wonder if at night, when it is still and all the photographers leave (there were a number of others while we were there) they tell each other tales of their time on the line?  When they see someone approach them do the straighten up a little hoping it is someone ready to climb on board and rife off into yesterday with them.  Though others have obviously done so, I did not violate the “No Trespassing” signs but I wanted to, to touch the walls and see if any of that old pride and energy remained.

Anyway, our time was somewhat short but productive.  Here is a short (about a minute) collection of clips and shots.

For the techies in the audience, here is the data:

  • Video at Bathhouse:  Camera:  Black Magic Ursa, V II, 4.6K.  Lenses used were Sigma Cine 35mm and Canon EF lenses: 17-40mm wide angle zoom and an 8-15mm “fisheye” zoom.  Capture settings were ISO 400, Resolution was set to FHD (1080p), Format was ProRes 422/10-bit,  Frame Rate: 30 fps, Shutter Angle: 180 degrees,  Editing and grading done in Premiere Pro
  • Stills at Railroad Cars:  Canon S120 P&S set to JPG and processed in Photoshop. NOTE: ALL of the shots of the old passenger cars were stills from the Canon S120.  Video movement on them was created in Premiere Pro
  • Music: “Abandoned” Licensed through FreePlay.com.

One thing I learned was that trying to hand-hold the 16 lb. Ursa without a shoulder mount is very difficult, at least for an ancient guy like me.  Those shots are much easier with my shoulder mount Sony MC2500.  However the ProRes 10-bit footage has much more dynamic range and color depth to color grade. 

We did have one major disappointment.  There is a great (so we hear) BBQ place in town called Jay’s.  When we got there after shooting Jay was closing up… early.  It seemed it had been a GREAT day for him and he had completely sold out of food.  Good news for him but lousy news for us. 

Well, one more reason to go back!

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Portrait Session with the New College President

San Diego City College has a new college President, Dr. Ricky Shabazz.  It turns out, happily, that he really likes photography and the photo facilities.  So when the request came to do a portrait I was most anxious to oblige. 

The problem is that he already has a very nice “official style” color portrait/headshot taken by a district photographer (if I knew who did it I would credit them since it really is quite nice).  It really is perfect for most directory use, PR use in newsletters, that sort of thing.  The truth is I saw little chance of actually improving on that type of shot (especially since it is not something I normally do) so was initially at a loss and in a mild panic as to what to do to live up to the hype he apparently heard when he told people he was coming here to have me do his portrait.  Needing his support for our program, it seemed to me there was a lot potentially riding on this shoot and I had no clue what was needed or what he expected since I did not know what, if anything, he had seen of my work.

So I went online and did my homework to try to come up with some ideas.  Dr. Shabazz has an impressive background in academia, one would expect that of someone hired as a College President.   But two items caught my eye that went far deeper into his personality.  He had done work dealing with Native Americans — now there was something we could connect on.  Plus he was an AVID fisherman.  And not just any, run-of-the-mill kind of fisherman, mind you, he was into bass fishing — which any serious fisherman will tell you is a whole new game.  Seriously fishing for bass is a different mind set; bass are sneaky and masters of tangling you in the weeds and being able to let you think you’ve gotten them and at the last moment, doing a spectacular leap in the air and casually spitting out the hook.

Well, the obvious thing to do is go with him out to one of the local lakes with some fishing gear and do the shots there.  He would be completely at ease there and his spirit would be more open; fishing tends to do that to folks and bass fishing can be, at once, relaxing and focussing.  Unfortunately (and I’m telling you this for the educational value in it), I was so wrapped up in the other projects over this sabbatical semester, that I had put off the research for the portrait session until it was the day of the shoot… too late to change the plans.  So lesson number one, Grasshopper, is do your research as soon as you can to leave you some planning time. 

Did I do that…do what I preach to my students?  Nooooooo… of course not.  The shoot was scheduled for 4:30 and I was reading his bio data after lunch the same day.  NOT A GOOD PLAN and an even worse example for my students!!!  But now it was too late and he was coming to the studios. And due to his schedule we did not have much of a shoot window.

What to do, what to do??? 

I decided, literally on the drive in, that if I could not really produce a better PR headshot than the one he had, nor do a nice location-based portrait, I would go in a different direction and channel my inner adulation of all things Karsh (that would be Josuf Karsh.  If you don’t know his work look him up.  He was my starting hero and virtual mentor when I got into serious editorial portraiture). Karsh’s career went into warp drive with an iconic shot of Winston Churchill shot in a coat closet with 5 minutes available.  Now THERE is a score to shoot for.  I at least had about 15 minutes and a real studio, one of the great studios in our photo area at City.  

Karsh’s style of work was far more dramatic and atmospheric than the modern typical headshot.  It is also generally more revealing of the subject’s personality and it was 98% done with B&W large format (often 8×10) cameras for incredible detail.  I asked for the same studio I had shot the veterans’ portraits for that show last year to help me set the mental picture.  With the help of the lab tech, Adriana, I roughed in some dramatic lighting around a chair and got my Canon 5DSr ready with a Canon 70-200L f4.  I like that lens in the studio because the sweet spot is closer to the typical strobe required setting of around f8 to f11.  The f2.8 version would already be moving a couple of stops beyond its own best aperture and is much heavier.

Here is the lighting diagram I settled on once he had sat down.  While I tweaked the lights and made a couple of exposure test shots, we chatted a bit, and I begin to get a feel for his personality.

lighting-diagram-shabazz portrait

Dr, Shabazz is really a very open person and we seemed to hit it off right away – at least that is how it seemed to me.  After using the exposure tests to also test some angles and “looks” I knew what I wanted and simply went for it.  An open and engaged shot where you can see the seriousness of his position but the fun and openness in his eyes.  I initially had a top/hair light in place but it made it look too much like a “news anchor” shot so I turned it off.

I took a total of 11 frames counting test shots.  This one is number 11 and I knew it was the shot when I took it.  So since we were running out of time anyway there was no reason to do more.  First, let me show you the full RAW frame right out of the camera and then we’ll talk about editing it.

SDCC President Shabazz-201709290 11 RAW for blog

For this frame the lens was set at about 85-90mm and gave me a nice working distance that let me shoot under the Key Softbox to help avoid flare from the “kicker.”. The 50 megapixel sensor and the lens’s famous sharpness allowed me to stop worrying about crop knowing I had room to play with the large files of over 100 megabytes each.  The 35mm-style full frame would need to be cropped anyway for 16×20 or 20×24 prints so I concentrated on the lower part of the shot to leave a little room for some optional crops knowing the top would go away anyway.

Once I pulled the files into Camera RAW in preparation for final editing with Photoshop, I did the following:  I tweaked color balance on his white shirt collar (it felt a little cold to me since I had left the camera on daylight setting and the strobes are somewhat cooler).  I then assigned my camera’s color profile in  ACR.  dropped the highlights, brought up the shadows, cropped the picture to fit into a 16×20 aspect ratio and sent it to Photoshop.

I had shot it fairly flat/low contrast so that I could capture all of the tones knowing I can adjust all of that in post.  I always had in mind going to a black and white final (remember my “Karsh-like” concept) but the best way to do that is create a good color image first.  There was not all that much to do: boost the contrast a little, take the background down (I had really over lit it in the studio but there was no time to play with that once he got there; all my attention was on his expression and that lighting).  I was aware that in the camera monitor the background was too light but really gave it no other thought but to fix it in post.   After that, all that was left was to do some very subtle tweaks to remove lint on his jacket.  Our studios virtually rain lint but it could have been worse, he might have shown up in a dark jacket… By the way, despite the commonly expressed fear of the 5DSr showing moiré patterns due to the removal of the antialiasing filter to enhance detail, mine shows no more than any other digital camera.  His jacket was a real world test of that…

So that resulted in this initial color version.

SDCC President Shabazz-20170929-010 color edited for blog

THe color was OK, the blue contrasted nicely with the warm tones and his tie… but it did not resonate with my now firm concept and vision for the final.  Now it was time to really channel Karsh.  I converted it to black and white, then, using the “curves” function, boosted the contrast a little more. I then decided to bring the background tone down even more since the gray value was too close to the rest of the image.  

It was beginning to look good to me and as I had conceived it, but something subtle was off… it lacked some warmth and depth.  So I applied a subtle warm duotone, tweaked it with some light digital burning and dodging, and also very slightly (3-4 degrees) canted the head angle so it wasn’t so “stiff” … and that gave me this final.

SDCC President Shabazz-201709290 11 for blog

He emailed me that he really liked the shot.  Me too.  I think it really fits with and shows off his openness and friendliness but retains the professional status of a College President.  This is a serious guy with a fun side and I think that is hinted at in this shot.  I love the expression that can work for either, “Hi there, glad to see you…”  or “You can’t possibly believe what you just told me…”

But I am really anxiously waiting for the lake shot.  We talked about it and he wants to do it.  We’ll probably be able to go for it in December.  That will make a fun comparison.




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City College Photo Event with Jay Dickman

On Thursday evening, Sept 21, 2017, NelsonPhoto and Olympus sponsored an evening presentation by photographer and author Jay Dickman at City College.  Jay is an “Olympus Visionary” which is the Olympus version Canon’s “Master of Light” and similar exhalted titles bestowed by various camera and equipment manufacturers on examplarary photographers that use their equipment.   Held in the auditorium in our VTC building we had an audience of about 100 show up.  I’m officially on sabbatical leave this semester but was asked to be the faculty contact person for the event so there I was, trying to help set up and get the place ready for the event.

Jay Dickman at City

We had to call in the cavalry in the person of Sean, City’s  AV guru but he got things up and running fine… until… Jay showed up with a new MacBook Pro laptop.  I was a learning experience for me and not a positive one.  It seems although small and light weight (a LOT more convenient than my Alienware tank of a laptop) it ONLY had USB-C plugs in the body.  None of our connector/adapters worked.

Fortunately, Larry and Nancy were on their way from the store and were intercepted in time to stop and pick up a connector.  We thought we were saved.  Ah…. Not so fast Grasshopper…

We had thoroughly tested the projector system before he got there; it had been up and running fine, well as fine as an old VGA projector system could run.  But it handled sample stuff I brought top it and online stuff just fine using its own computer system at the “smart” podium.

But when Jay launched into his presentation and started showing his really delightful work from a life of journalism and travel (including some serious “conflict” assignments). A bizarre glitch occurred: in the middle of a slide about 15 minutes into the presentation, the red channel faded leaving a washed out blueish image.   That effect came and went for a while then simply settled in and stayed mostly blue washing out the rich warm colors in many of his images.  It was really a shame.  We were not sure what had caused it.  That had never happened before to any of the other slide shows and video using that projector on both its internal computer system and on a variety of laptops.

I am inclined to think the connector and dongle nonsense required by the MacBook was the problem but do not really know.

Fortunately the material, in many cases was well illustrated as much by the composition of the shot as by the real color so his points were not lost by the technical issues.  There was a lot of good material for students who attended and just regular photographers generally.  He stressed really knowing your camera and equipment so that you do not have to think about them. (Aside to my students… does that sound at all familiar????)

He also extolled the virtues of Olympus’s light weight and small form factor equipment to allow him to pack small and light for his continual travels all over the world.

He also made a compelling case for the power of the still image to hold the audience and remain in their emotional memory longer and more accurately than moving images.  I’m not sure I completely agree but the point was valid and well made.  In the professional/commercial world however, it is irrelevant as more and more commercial clients are demanding video because they are, perhaps, more in tuned with the younger generation’s and it ADD drenched need to stimulation making video sales pitches statistically far more successful than even the most beautifully wrought still images.

Even though I am a proponent and lover of video production, I find that to be sad and hope the still image never disappears entirely.  I agree with him about its power and, especially in a fine art sense, its place as a far more viable display piece.

But for working pros, we may be at the end of an era, especially in arenas such as sports, events, and photo-J assignments.  Professional video cameras are reaching the point where 4K and better capture can produce stunning still frames up to 11×14 with very little effort and have a much higher probability, at 30 frames per second, of capturing “the moment” if the photographer is well enough versed in the subject to start shooting a little early and well enough skilled with his equipment to set shutter angle and speed to capture the movement.

So, I managed to get our program’s entry into this field, “Photo 163: Motion Capture for Still Photographers” launched into the system so we will see how it goes this time.  Stay tuned for further developments…



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Yeah, you’re right, I’ve been incredibly remiss in keeping this blog even remotely up to date.  My excuses are legion, some of them even remotely, if coincidentally, connected to some obscure portion of the truth.  The bottom line is my mind has been elsewhere, like in the future… my future.  I came here sure this was the “last hurrah.”  I would use this time to teach, give back stuff that had been pounded into my thick skull of all of those years and miles and then fade to black behind a podium or tripod.

Now I’m not so sure.  But that is a discussion for another post.

Meantime, the Fall Semester started this past week and I was gleefully not there since I am on sabbatical for this semester.  But that doesn’t mean I’ve not been busy.  I gave a two part workshop through George’s Camera on shooting and producing video for still photographers.  That was fun and pretty well received but it did mean writing it from scratch which took a little time… and took me down some fun side paths along memory lane.

In August I conducted what has become my annual workshop to the Ancient Bristlecone Pines in California’s White Mountains.  The heavy snows pushed us into August and still the road to Patriarch’s Grove was blocked with a large snow drift.  The weather was overcast and dreary for most of it but that sort of turned the world into a gigantic light tent.  And there were occasional breaks in the clouds creating beautiful pools of light amid the gray.  It was too heavily overcast for good night shooting and it poured one evening so painting with light was not a topic we could pursue.  However this time I did make a sort of quasi-documentary, part show-and-tell for the participants, etc., a somewhat schizophrenic little number you can find on YouTube at this URL


I also have several other projects going on, one of them my “official” project to turn in as part of my sabbatical agreement.  It is a research project exploring the critical issue of just where the world of professional photography is headed in the next few years.  This is really important for our program if we are going to assert that we are preparing students for that “Real” world.  I believe I already know the answer but am now waiting the return of surveys and questionnaires so I can put some statistics to it for my presentation.

The truth is I think it will fall completely on deaf ears here.  The state, technically bankrupt, is trying to shore up the 4 year schools and is putting a full court press on us to increase class sizes and to increase “completions” which to them means a student spending two years then leaving with a degree and a transfer to one of the state’s 4 yr universities.  Of course students who want to enter the world of professional photography have no such interests or needs so that puts us in the cross-hairs (right alongside other vocational programs such as Cosmetology.

Nevertheless I’m hoping it might be of value SOMEWHERE so will try to publish it and might even serialize” it here.  I think the insight is valuable and would hate to see it go to waste as I expect it to do here.  More enrollment is the admin mantra but less money for teachers is making the obvious come true.  Why, when the state says we (education) have money again.  I’ll give you a hint.  We have two NEW Dean positions: one is the “Dean of Student Equity” whatever the Hell that is supposed to be, and we have a Dean for a strong workforce.  In my most demented state I could not have made that up…

Our unhappy solution to the unremitting push for more students per class has been to betray our long standing belief that online is NOT the proper way to teach photography and embrace that online world as best we can.  The only thing we have to show for that is now larger caps on our classes.  Admin is essentially clueless about what it takes in terms of time and technology to give engaging visual lectures and critique 40 students’ work online.  And they don’t care.  When I turn in the final research paper report, along with recommendations for some curriculum and program changes my best guess is they will have a heart attack and then simply turn it down.  Already I had one interim VP tell me we should quit this and simply start our own school.  If that didn’t tell us all we needed to know then we simply were not listening.

And you know what?  She was right… but it is not a practical solution for anyone.  Back in the day, The Darkroom, my business in Denver, was headed that way.  We had 26 courses and 22 instructors and were working on State Accreditation.  But I was younger then… boy was I ever.  Now I’m so “long in the tooth” that my incisors leave drag marks in the dirt.  For years I wanted to start a proper school for serious photographers but now I’ll leave that for a younger generation.  Besides, their world will be far different than mine ever was.  And even more to the point, I have another project that has my focus at the moment.

My “fun” project has been to create a proposal for a 10-episode series for cable TV modeled after Carl Sagan’s original series “Cosmos” but on photography and light.  It is, on one level a course in photography.  But on the other it is an examination of the science behind the art, exploring what IS our only tool, “light,” where does this miraculous “paint” for us come from, and how do photographers in different genres manipulate it to achieve their own unique visions for their work.  It will bring the worlds of astronomy, physics, chemistry, history, art, etc. into focus and show how they are all connected and fundamental to the creation of serious photography.

A script for the first episode has now garnered attention from several photo equipment manufacturers for sponsorship and product placement so we are well underway.  I’m hoping to get the first Episode, also our “pilot” shot before I start back with classes in late January.  I’m now a member of the Discovery Networks producers community and know that their normal fee for programming laid alongside our production budget shows a potential profit of about 37% on investment.  Now with the fundamental documents created and copyrighted it is time to turn attention to just that: funding.

The work for the online courses re-awakened my interest in video and film production with a vengeance, a sleeping tiger came roaring back to life.  I had forgotten how much I had grown to love adding elements of motion, sound… and TIME to my imagery.

And in my spare time…. being bored and all…

I spoke with the lead music professor at City about compositions for the series.  That led to an idea I had kicked around years ago but set aside for lack of any interested co-author: the creation of a combined visual and music piece where the two elements complement each other and are equal partners in the finished piece.  To be clear, NOT a case where the visuals illustrate the music such as in a music video or where the music brings richness to the visuals such as in a movie, but a piece of original music and original visual conceived TOGETHER around some theme.

I’m excited by that too.

And… I REALLY need to go visit my friend Jim, in Santa Fe.  I’m hoping that after this next week I’ll have all of the projects to a point where I can take a week off to do that.  Then back to the grindstone.

I’m going to have to go back to the classroom in Spring to take a vacation!

Meantime I’ll try to be better at keeping you all up on such goin’s on.  I said from the first post this was a sort of travel piece taking readers along on my travels whether defined as normal “travel” or virtual travels in cerebral and visceral realms.  The cool thing, for me, is that these projects may take me into ALL of those definitions.

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Final Judging for San Diego Fair 2017

Bright on early on Sunday the 21st a bunch of us gathered in the Photo Exhibition area of the Del Mar Fair Grounds for the 2nd tier judging of entrants for the 2017 international Juried Photography Exhibition.

It was a beautiful morning, and quite on the fairgrounds.  Workers were beginning to erect the stages and vendors starting to set up booths and eating concessions.

blog Fairgrounds stage set up 01

This is the Paddock area and in the center of the shot, one of the stages is being set up.

In a few weeks this will be a madhouse as fair goers descend on the grounds to see the exhibits, taste the latest in Fair Food (I can hardly wait to see what will be this years gross-out offering though it is hard to imagine topping deep fried butter…).  But the greenskeepers have been busy and flowers are everywhere at peak bloom.

blog Fairgrounds flowers 01

The judging went as per normal.  Here is a shot of a typical 3-juror panel to show you how it proceeds.

blog judging sequence

Here is a judging panel in action.  Sorry for the bizarre look; this was shot on my Canon P&S and I accidentally flicked the setting to one of the presets.  I don’t even know which one it was but it is NOT one I would choose on purpose…

The process is that the work to be judged is in the boxes (1) toward the back; a volunteer or helper then takes them one at a time and shows them to the panel (2) which renders its verdict whereupon the records keeper (3) records the data for that print.

The goal is to determine 1st through 4th place and some “honorable mention” images from among those images that passed Tier One oversight.  Unless some rules infraction is noted or the submitted print simply does not live up to the potential of the electronic version seen earlier, all others will hang n the exhibition hall floor.

Once all of the categories have been judges, the first place winners are laid out and the combined jurors then vote for “Best of Show.”  This year took about 4 ballots to get it down to two and a final round determined the winner. (Sorry you will have to go to the fair to check out the results.)

As usual I took my own notes plus chatted with other jurors to get their input on common problems to pass on to help you all in improving your photography as well as your chances for better showings in this and other exhibitions.  Sadly, the number one issue was…

READ THE RULES.  I’m not sure why this would be necessary to mention but it seems to be.  We disqualified a couple of images and downgraded a few others for the simple problem of ignoring the rules as laid out in the data sheets provided for those wanting to submit work.  And do pay attention to the categories.  If you get approved at Tier One for a color shot, do not THEN decide you like it better in Grayscale and turn it in, still in the color category, as a black and white image.

When the rules clearly state that a digital stoke around the image needs to be black or white, that does not include gold or tan even if it would be a better choice for color compatibility.

After nearly ever year’s judging, the coordinators and judges confer to see what mods might be made to the rules to reflect changing technologies and sometimes even evolving image trends.  No set of rules is perfect.  But for any given year, when the data sheets go out, THOSE ARE THE RULES.  Period. You cannot decide unilaterally that you are above them and expect anything other than to have your work kicked out.

FOCUS.   When some element (or elements) in your image need to be sharply focused, THEY NEED YO BE SHARPLY FOCUSED!  How many of you are aware that your electronic auto-focus lens may or may not come from the factory with dead-on focus capability.  Professional and pro-sumer cameras allow you to use software to correct for this so that what seems to be in focus in the viewfinder really IS in focus at the image plane.  This problem is far more prevalent that you may think and many vendors and manufacturers deny it altogether.  But just like ISO/Noise calibrations and sensor calibrations for color bias require your attention, so does this if it is giving you a problem.  It can happen for any lens but is much more common on zoom/variable focus lenses.  And is especially noticeable in macro/close up work were precise focusing is what makes or breaks the image.

It may look great on your camera monitor or on the screen but when sharp areas are critical, zoom in at 100% or more and check it out.  You may be surprised to see how often the focus is off a little but that is enough to kick you image down a peg or two at judging time.

SIZE.  Bigger is not always better, especially when you enlarge past the point where the file can properly resolve the detail.  Several prints would like great when seen across the judging area but when brought around for closer inspection simply fell apart.  You are far better off making a top quality 8×10 image mounted on the mandatory 16×20 mat than you are trying to do a full bleed 16×20 when all that does is show off file flaws.

FINAL PRINT QUALITY.  A printed image is NOT an electronic image.  The printing process, especially enlargements (as noted above) simply make errors and slip-shod editing more obvious.  There are really two issues here:  (a) Editing of the image and (b) printing of the final image.  Both have an effect on the look and quality of the final but are separate issues.

  • EDITING.  It was irritating how often we saw a reasonably well composed and well shot image that suffered from really shoddy editing.  I think there are two possible reasons for this, each with its own solution.
    • The first is that the photographer simply does not know what can or should be done to improve the image so has to real place to start.  No matter what tools you have available to you, if you do not know what you want to accomplish, those tools are worthless.  The more work you see the more opportunities you have to see good editing, to get inspiration and ideas.  And the more chances you have to apply that to your own work.
    • The second issue is that the photographer knows what they would like to do to improve the final image, they simply do not know the tools well enough to actually perform the appropriate edits
    • Both of these issues are resolved with education: learning more about the work being done by others, the potential artistic options available to you.  And there are classes and workshops flooding the place where you can learn to use the tools with expertise.
  • PRINTING.  Whether you are printing on your own printer or are using the services of some professional printer, it is your responsibility to either know how to properly profile your own printer and properly prepare you file for it, or to be able to direct, monitor, and oversee the work of another printer to guarantee the work quality.  Assuming your file is good, it is still up to you to spot and fix any color biases or mismatches, tonal issues and muddiness, and also any presentation issues.  The judges won’t know and do not care why a print is less than perfect when they are looking at them to determine acceptance or rejection.

So that’s it for this year.  Do try to get to the judges panel and/or critiques for input on how to improve your images; and come up to se the show.




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Judging at the Fair: 2017 Pt 1

Well, a year has passed by and here we are again back at the Del Mar Fair grounds for the first tier of judging for the International Exhibition of Photography.  For the last few years I’ve tried to put my “teacher” hat on and list the things the judges seem to focus on as problems and reasons for rejecting images from moving forward to Tier 2 competition. So here we go again.  But…

Hello out there… is anybody listening?  Oh well, as disheartening as it is for a teacher to be ignored, perhaps some of those who were accepted this time heard the message last year and now a new generation is appearing before us.

There were about 4300 entries this year.  There is room to hang roughly 1/3 of those which means we needed to reject about 2/3 of the entries.  At this first past at them, the so-called 1st tier judging, we are looking closely for the reasons to say “No” to the image and we do not have a lot of time to do it.  There is no time to let a subtle but “tasty” image grow on us; it hits up with that “Wow” factor or it fails.  If it hits us immediately with a problem, it also fails.

Judging at Fair 02

The room full of busy judges are the 1st tier judging for the San Diego Fair International Exhibition 2017. Photo (c) Gene Wild, all rights reserved.

So in the hopes of fostering some improvement so that next year if you were rejected this time you’ll have a better shot at it here is a short list of rejection-generating problems and issues.  They are in no particular order except as seen on the monitors and commented on by other judges.  This year’s complete list was a bit long so these are the ones most often mentioned.

Clipped Dynamic Ranges.  Almost all of the shots entered were now taken with digital cameras (except for those in equipment-specific categories.  And that means that almost all of the photographers had the ability to reference an onboard histogram to check the capture of highlights and shadows even if they did not have a good spot meter.  Make sure, first of all that the highlights are not clipped since those cannot be recovered.  Use the RAW converter to recover savable highlights and open up shadow area.  Basic rule: blobs of blocked up black shadows and blown out white highlights are never a good thing but are even worse when they contain potential visual data important to the image’s message.   If there is no way to capture them in a single file then consider using multiple exposures for an exposure blend or even an HDR.  But do NOT submit files with lost shadow and highlight detail and expect it to be embraced by the jurors.

Centered Horizons.  How often we reject crooked horizons almost mechanically.  But putting your horizon line dead in the center of the shot is almost as big a problem.  That can work when you have a perfect reflection creating an interesting abstract image or when the sky and ground areas are of equal balance compositionally and equal importance narratively.  Otherwise it creates a shot where the point of the shot is hard to determine, i.e. what is it that we are supposed to respond to?  What IS the real subject of the photo? What IS the photo’s primary story?  Is it about the sky or is it about the ground?  Pick one then move the horizon line to somewhere around one of those “Rule of Thirds” lines.  It will improve your shots immensely.

Judging at Fair 03

A fair assistant watches as myself (left) and Ian Cummings view one of the entries. (c) Gene Wild, All Rights Reserved

Multiple Shots in One Shot.  This is a common and recurring error.  Putting more than one neat item or subject or composition into your fame does not make it better, it simply makes it confusing and, worse, each of those cool areas detracts from the other cool areas.  If there are all of those potential shots in the scene in front of you, give each one its own chance and its own image.  Otherwise it is simply too busy and too confusing the deal with.

No Apparent Focal Point.  This is the exact opposite of the problem above.  In that one there were too many focal points, here there aren’t any that can be readily discerned.  Great art and therefore photography is about interpretation.  Editorial photography is about narration.  Both types imply and require that there is something  to either interpret or narrate; some elemental primary subject, someplace where your eye is drawn whether a specific element or simply a contrasting point of color or texture or pattern from the general background, in essence the focal point of the shot.  A snap shot requires none of that.  Technically impeccably snapshots, meaning perfectly focused and exposed shots of nothing or no meaning, are typically not ones to get accepted by the judges.  We saw some images that, frankly, would have made a beautiful scarf; gorgeous watercolor-like patterns with some high commercial potential.  But a keeper photograph requires more than simply a nice design.  If that is what you have it might still be worth money, it still has a place, it is just not in this type of exhibition.

Cropping.  Sometimes we saw shots where there were some potentially interesting focal points but they were so lost in the visual weeds it was almost as bad as having no focal point at all.  Several times comments to the effect that, “I’m sure there is a nice photo in there somewhere but it is not our job to find it.” Were heard.  Finding it and making sure it is THE primary element is your job.  And often that involves cropping the image.  We used to say that some of the best photos were made in the paper cutter and that is true here as well.  The bottom line is, if you make me search for the real photo somewhere in your photo, it is going to get rejected.  If it were a class I’d help you find it, but this level of exhibition is not a classroom per se; this is the real thing, this show is big time stuff.  You will be expected to find it yourself… or get another chance next year.

Judging at Fair 01

THe name tag is in case I forget who I am… some days a distinct possibility. It was clearly a mistake for me to have found the box of doughnuts brought in as treats for us…. note the plate is empty… (c) Gene Wild, All Rights Reserved.

FOCUS.  Really?  You would even consider turning in to an international exhibition a shot that was out of focus?  You would enter a shot that had a focal point and composition demanding a critically sharp area… that was not.  C’mon, this is beyond unacceptable.  Judges don’t care that you forgot your tripod that day or simply didn’t want to carry it.  They don’t care that it was a once in a lifetime moment to capture a rare event.  If the subject is soft and not focused it means you did NOT capture it after all.  If you do not respect your imagery sufficiently to do whatever it takes to get things sharp that are supposed to be sharp, then why should we?

Editorial Images.  We saw a lot of images that would have been perfect in a travel magazine or book to help illustrate the text.  They were narrative types of images but not interpretive.  They were perfectly good material for journalistic/documentary use but not something you would see on the wall in a gallery or museum.  If that is your forte then go for it, get really good at it and there could be some real money in your future.  I do not want to be interpreted as downplaying the value of competence of these images.  It is just that they are the wrong types of images for an exhibition such as this and so were often rejected.

NOISE.  Is there a trend I did not get the memo on?  We saw several where the smooth toned areas, such as the sky, were filled with noise.  In some it was so bad it almost looked like someone had applied a “sand” texture to the image.  It was not the typical color noise but usually mostly black or dark gausian dispersed specs.  We could not figure out where it would come from naturally, it is not a normal compression or sizing or even sharpening artifact.  But it is distracting and ugly and resulted in a surprising number of images getting rejected.  I would love to be able to tell you what causes it and therefore what to do to avoid it but I do not know.  Just really closely examine your files before submission and before (and after) printing where it will be enlarged if in the files and fix it first.

Judging at Fair 04

Another view of the room with the judges for the 1st Tier judging at the San Diego Fair. (c) Gene Wild, All Rights Reserved.

So that is it for the moment.  The Second tier of judging where we will be looking at the actual prints, may reveal other things to watch out for.  That is in about a month.  Meantime, here is a bit of, I think, very sagacious advice… if you are going to insist on reinventing the wheel, you’ll be far more successful if you make your version round and not rectangular…  You can ignore all of this and strike off down your own aesthetic path, but if you do you have to be aware that some issues and their acceptable solutions predate you.  You will not win the tour de France on a bike with square tires; you will not win an exhibition like this one with images exhibiting these types of problems.

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Class Demo: Food

Thursday (4/20) I did a demo of food photography for the Lighting Class.  In a class lecture on the previous Tuesday we discussed plated vs. studio food issues and advertising vs editorial style shooting and I showed them a number of examples.

The studio demo gave me a chance to also demo and discuss a “tilt-shift” lens when one needs to tilt the plane of depth of field.  For this demo I used a Canon 90mm Tilt Shift f2.8 on my Canon 5DSr body.  The truth was I didn’t really need it for this shot but it was passed time to show it to the class.  I discussed how to apply the famous (infamous?) Scheimpflug Effect — which is a misnomer by the way but that is another story — to alter the plane of depth of field to make sure that this shot, to be done “advertising style” had the product all in focus.

One of the students in this class is a chef so at my request brought in the food to shoot, an egg white cheese omelet breakfast plate.  To add some sport to it, when he asked what I wanted I told him to surprise me.  It did.  Because it was a sort of “comfort food” dish I decided to use the old side of one of our much abused “apple boxes” as my table top.  He did the arranging/styling/food presentation so about all there was for me to do for the class was light it and shoot it.

Here is the plot…

Food demo omelet -light plot for blog

Lighting plot created with LightingDiagrams.com

All of our studio lights are on overhead grids so it is easy to work around this small set area and not worry about tripping over cords and ground clutter which, if anyone will do it, it will almost certainly be me.


A small softbox overhead and slightly to the rear provided the primary light.  A larger softbox from the front and slightly left of camera provided the fill.  To make the food items stand out and provide some “sparkle” to them, accents and back lighting was created using  two of the monolights and standard 7” reflectors with attached honeycomb grids to control the spill.

I’ve used these lights so often now I cheated and just guessed at the setting.  A first test shot was amazingly right on.  I did have a little more shine added from spray vegetable oil and turned one of the sausages to better show the shine, rechecked it and then did the shot.  I looked at that in the monitor, slightly turned one of the sausages to better catch the accent light and took a second version.   I took some bracketed insurance shots as a precaution but the shots here are from that second shot.  I turned the plate slightly to see if I could get a slightly better accent on everything but decided against it.

This version was very straight forward to edit.  Here is the initial shot right out of the camera.

Food demo omelet - v1 for blog

Hmmmm… well it IS sharp and exposed OK but to me it needed some “life” added to make it more appetizing and appealing.  To edit this in Photoshop I slightly cropped it, added a vignette and cleaned up the edge of the plate.  The only ‘non normal’ thing I did was selectively sharpen the omelet filling.  To do that I borrowed a technique from L.A. photographer Manny Librodo who created a sharpening routine yielding a very hard edged result almost like the original “Dragan Effect” but without the modified  and selective desaturation.

On a separate layer I applied the Librodo sharpening and then, with an inverted layer mask just painted it over the elements in the omelet stuffing in the front of the shot so the individual items stood out better.  (Below are the steps for that effect)

I also extended the wood table top to fill in the surrounding area simply using the clone/stamp tool.  And that gave me this version…

Food demo omelet - V2 for blog

All in all it took about a half hour shooting plus another 10-15 minutes to edit it.  In the film days all of what you see would have to be accomplished in the shoot itself (except the selective sharpening) so using snoots, scrims, and very, very tightly controlled lighting it of course could be done, but I’m thinking maybe an hour’s shooting and to keep the food looking fresh that would have had to be done with “stand-in” food until it was right, then bring in the hero food, tweak it all, and shoot FAST. The reduction in effort, energy, and brain damage afforded by the digital options makes studio life so much easier and, I think better.

Now after my demo and it was the students’ turn to shoot, the student who brought in the food, rearranged the items and added some additional elements he had also brought to the plate of food, placed them all on a marble tile we had available and produced this final shot for his own assignment.

Scotts versionor blog

Photography (c) Scott Sargent and used with permission

Its a nicely done version…!!!  For my own sense of style for food photography I might have used fewer items on the plate so the main item could be seen better with less distraction — somewhere between the two versions.  I do really like the additional splashes of color he added!  But this is a lighting class not a class specifically in food photography and styling so from that standpoint I think he did a very nice job.

By the way, as promised, here are the steps to the Librodo Sharpening I used.

  1. Create a Duplicate Layer
  2. Apply an Unsharp Mask from Filters->Sharpen->Unsharp Mask with these settings:
    1. Amount 18
    2. Radius 40
    3. Threshold 0
  3. Apply a second Unsharp Mask with these settings
    1. Amount 150
    2. Radius 3
    3. Threshhold 0
  4. Apply Edit->Fade Unsharp Mask with these settings:
    1. Opacity 100%
    2. Mode Darken
  5. Apply a third Unsharp Mask with these Settngs
    1. Amount 150
    2. Radius 3
    3. Threshold 0
  6. Apply Edit->Fade Unsharp Mask with these settings
    1. Opacity 50%
    2. Mode Lighten

You can then blend the sharpened and original unsharpened layers back to where you like it if it is a little too much and/or do what I did which was to selectively apply the sharpened area I wanted (the filling) using a layer mask.  I often use this to make small items such as rice grains or corn kernels stand out in a food shot and not look all mushy and run together.  I made it into an action to make life easier in the edit bay.

See you next time…



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