My Five Favorites from 2015

In my last post, I mentioned inviting 21 friends and fellow photographers to submit their five Favorite, not necessarily their five Best, images from 2015. Almost everyone participated, which created an amazing and inspiring collection of images. But even better, this exercise sparked many discussions ranging from practical techniques about how, to more esoteric questions about why, we made or chose a certain image. Much fun.

One of the more esoteric questions still being discussed was how to distinguish between a best and a favorite image. My conclusion, as I proffered in my last post, was that your best images would be interesting, technically sound, and what you intended, but to be a favorite, they also have to evoke an emotional response in you. What we’ve all found is, just like with songs or pieces of music, what moves one person may not register, or may even engender strong dislike, in another. That’s great; it makes us all different. (Some are more different than others, but we’ll ignore that for now…..)

So, here are my five favorites from 2015, with captions showing where they were made. I felt something special when I was drawn to make each image, and I still get that feeling when I look at each of these images. To me, that’s the very essence of a favorite.

Clouds over Ridgway, CO

Clouds over Ridgway, CO

Angel Oak, Johns Island, SC

Angel Oak, Johns Island, SC

Mossy Tree, Carmel Valley, CA

Mossy Tree, Carmel Valley, CA

Clouds over Abiquiu, NM

Clouds over Abiquiu, NM

American Beech Tree, Fall, Smokies

American Beech Tree, Fall, Smokies

Favorites vs. Best

At the end of December 2015, I asked 21 friends and fellow photographers to upload their five favorite images made during 2015. The result was a visual feast of fantastic images made anywhere from a backyard to some pretty exotic locations. Many interesting comments and discussions followed, making the exercise even more fun.

One topic that was mentioned in a few group e-mails, and was discussed among several smaller groups, is the difference between a “favorite” and a “best” image. The choice of the word “Favorite”, without a definition or without restrictions, was intentional from the beginning.

There is no single definition, of course, and I’m not sure I can even consistently articulate what distinguishes one from another in my own work. One test I initially thought of was asking myself, “Which five images, if I were to frame them and hang them on the wall, would I still enjoy looking at and have feelings about over time?” I figured those would be what I would consider my favorites. But would they also be the ones I would choose as my best? Are my best images my favorites? So that definition didn’t really help, either.

Does it even matter whether we call them “favorites” or “best”? I think it could.

I was surprised that no one posted any image of any family member, including pets. It’s interesting that a couple people mentioned in e-mails about having favorites of their grandkids, but none of those were submitted. On purpose, there were no restrictions that images had to be of nature, or even made outdoors, although most of them were. There were no limitations on natural or added light; post-processing; subject; or, with or without people. The only restriction was that the images had to have been made in 2015.

Most of my friends know how much I love my God-dog Fredo. I have been her Godfather (Dogfather?) since she was brought home by a friend just a few weeks after she was born. (She’s 7 ½ as of January 2016.) I helped raise her, and we have been best friends since we first met. I made the image below of her in 2009, and it has been my favorite photo ever since. It’s in a frame on my credenza right in my line of sight when I look up from my desk. If I had made it in 2015, it would definitely have been in my five favorites from that year.

Fredo in Office

Fredo in Office

The reason I bring this up is that unfortunately, in 2015, I made only a few quick snaps of Fredo with my cell phone. They remind me of things she does and of times we shared, and they never fail to make me smile. Yet, while they mean a lot to me, and I’m really glad I have them, I didn’t consider them when I was choosing my favorite photographs. The question is “why not”? If she means so much to me, and if I treasure the pictures of those moments with her, how can they not be among my favorite photographs?

Taking that a step further, I regularly take pictures—often with my iPhone, but increasingly with my D810—of places or things I like or have enjoyed. Those photos may be of a favorite restaurant (inside or out), an interesting vehicle, a clever sign, or even a place I regularly stop when I’m on a trip. They are all photos of things that have meant something to me, yet, again, none of those would make the cut as a favorite photograph from any given year. Why not?

Is it the technical quality that makes an image a favorite? Well, I would argue that a well-executed image that doesn’t have any real meaning is nothing more than a technical exercise. That would never be a favorite. (And I still have to fight the urge to make those! But I digress…..)

After several general discussions and much pondering, I’m starting to think that my favorite and my best photographs are tightly intertwined. In fact, they are likely identical. (I haven’t done an exhaustive analysis, but that’s my strong suspicion.) The above image of Fredo would have made the cut if it had been made in 2015 because I like the subject, the subject’s gesture (as Jay Maisel calls it) means something to me, and the technical details (light, composition, framing, sharpness, etc.) all come together, for me. In other words, I captured my chosen subject, at the right moment, with the right composition, at the right exposure for creating the image I intended. If I had made a similar snapshot on my iPhone of her looking off to the right, I might have treasured capturing the moment, but without the technical execution of the version above, it would not likely have made it as a favorite photograph. A favorite memory, certainly, but not a favorite photograph.

So it seems that to be one of my favorites, an image has to be what I intendedbe well-executed, and evoke an emotion in me. All three elements must be there. Fortunately, looking back, the five I chose as favorites of 2015 meet those three criteria for me. (That being said, I have already had at least one person looking through my five 2015 favorites ask how could I have chosen that image?)

As to best versus favorite, the argument could be made that your best images would be interesting and technically sound, but to be a favorite, they also have to evoke an emotional response in you. In the end, most photographers could probably agree on which images are your best, but only you can determine which are your favorites.

If one of my images doesn’t evoke an emotion in me, I wouldn’t consider it one of my best. Hence, for me, my best and my favorites are pretty much the same.

I hope this helps when you’re reviewing your own images. For me, it was worth the exercise. 

Thom Hogan’s Nikon Complete Guides

Late summer 2001, I swapped my beloved Nikon F5 film camera for a Nikon D1x. While I had been dabbling in digital using a Nikon Coolpix 990 compact digital camera, the D1x was my first digital SLR. I had been keeping up with the Nikon DSLR developments through Thom Hogan’s website, and decided it was time to make the switch.

Of course, the fundamentals of using a camera (aperture, shutter speed, focusing, etc.) were the same between film and digital. But digital brought so many other tools and techniques to learn (white balance, instant review, histograms, blinking highlight warnings, etc.), I decided to take a workshop with Thom so I could start to master using a DSLR. It was a wise choice, as I came away from that workshop with a good working knowledge of my new camera.

Well, Thom didn’t stop with workshops. Since the earliest days of Nikon DSLRs, Thom has written a series of incomparable users manuals, which he justly calls ”Complete Guides”. I download the fully searchable PDF e-books, then read them (and refer to them) on my iPad. They thoroughly explain every button, switch, wheel, and menu item in unsurpassed detail. If that’s all they did, they would be worth the read.

But they do much more. Thom suggests specific settings, and recommends against others, based on his long-time real-world use of the cameras. But, again, he does even more than that. For each recommendation, Thom discusses how and why those settings will affect your photography. These discussions allow you to understand what each function or setting does, why it does it, and how you can best use it. If you own a Nikon DSLR, whether FX or DX, I cannot recommend Thom’s guides highly enough.

Even though I’ve been shooting with a pair of Nikon D810′s for over a year (and with a fairly similar D800E before that), I’ve been looking forward to his D810 book all along. Well, it’s now here. Even if you’re an experienced Nikon owner, if you own a D810 (or any other Nikon DSLR), you owe it to yourself to buy and read Thom’s Guides.

ThomHoganNikonD810ManualCover

Here’s a link to his D810/D810A Guide: http://www.dslrbodies.com/books/bythom-complete-guides-/nikon-d810-guide.html. Any of his guides can be accessed with the link to his home page: http://www.bythom.com/.

NANPA Field Event in the Smokies

From April 30 through May 3, 2015, NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) hosted a Regional Field Event in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Smokies). I helped lead the event with my great friends Willard Clay and Bill Lea. Together, we have led many Smokies workshops over many years, and had a lot of fun with a most wonderful group.

Jakes Creek in Elkmont in the Smokies.

Jakes Creek in Elkmont in the Smokies.

We were based in Townsend, TN, known as The Quiet Side of the Smokies. Townsend is a wonderful little town just a 20 mile, half hour drive from the Knoxville airport. Our base, Talley Ho Inn is only about a mile from the Park entrance.

Spring Tree in Fog in Cades Cove in the Smokies.

Spring Tree in Fog in Cades Cove in the Smokies.

This Field Event went from 5:00 PM Thursday evening at Talley Ho Inn and ran until the end of the optional critique session at 4:00 PM Sunday the 3rd. For more information on NANPA, including their Regional Field Events, check out this link: www.nanpa.org.

Spring Tree in Cades Cove in the Smokies.

Spring Tree in Cades Cove in the Smokies.

This was a wonderful opportunity for participants to experience the most visited National Park in the country with three experienced nature photographers and teachers who have cumulatively led countless photo workshops in the Smokies over many years. All participants got to experience areas of the Park many of them had not even heard of.

Dogwood along the Middle Prong of Little River in the Smokies.

Dogwood along the Middle Prong of Little River in the Smokies.

Spring is a luscious time to photograph the Smokies. Photographic opportunities include all kinds of amazing wildflowers, plenty of waterfalls and cascades, and the classic receding mountain views. Among my favorites are the vivid and varying Spring greens that are everywhere. Deer, birds, wild turkeys, and even a couple black bears were there for the wildlife and bird photographers. And while not strictly nature, the fascinating historic buildings in Cades Cove and Elkmont were outdoor photography favorites.

Trillium and cascade along Tremont Road in the Smokies.

Trillium and cascade along Tremont Road in the Smokies.

Of course, Nature determined what we shot. Fortunately, She cooperated with us quite well. Areas we visited included Cades Cove, Elkmont, Tremont, and the Foothills Parkway overlooks.

Deteriorating Elkmont Cabin in the Smokies

Deteriorating Elkmont Cabin in the Smokies

Throughout the Field Event, the instructors gave an overview of every place we visited, along with specific suggestions of what to shoot there. We then worked with participants in the field, assisting wherever we could.

Spring Colors from Foothills Parkway overlook near the Smokies.

Spring Colors from Foothills Parkway overlook near the Smokies.

If you missed it, you really should watch the NANPA website for future events. www.nanpa.org

©2015 Tom Vadnais Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Go Back

In recent posts, I have stressed the importance of making a photograph when you first encounter an interesting scene or subject. If you don’t shoot it right then, you may never have another opportunity. You might not ever make it back there, or the scene might change significantly. Of course, if you do go back, conditions will inevitably be different. You just hope they’ll be even better.

Trying to get a better version of the photograph you first envisioned is a good reason to go back. But further exploration of the area is an even better reason.

Many photographers seem to have a mental checklist of locations, or even of specific shots, that they want to capture. Once they go to that place or get that photo, they can check it off their list, then go on to the next scene, never to return. Continue reading

Amazing Service from Apple

This isn’t strictly photography-related, but can be for anyone using any Apple product. All customer service should be like this!

The weekend before this past one, I upgraded to an iPhone 6. While I was in the AT&T store, I had to log into my iTunes account with my Apple ID in order to get the phone activated. When I went to do that, I was told (well, on the screen) that I had to change my Apple ID to an email address. My Apple ID had always been a series of letters, but not an email address.

I changed it as requested, and it worked great in the store.

When I got home, I tried to get all my apps on my new phone through iTunes. The apps copied over just fine, but I couldn’t use the ones I had bought, and none of them would update. I kept getting an error message that they were bought using a different Apple ID, so were not authorized on this phone. I checked all settings, and tried several things, but to no avail.

After searching the Apple site for a solution, I sent a message via their site stating my problem. Within a second of clicking Send, my phone rang. It was Apple. I was shocked it was even possible for the call to have been made so quickly. The message said they had received a request for help, but there might be a delay on the phone due to call volume. Yet within a minute, I was talking to a live person! He checked a couple things, then said I would need to talk to a specialist. He said they were quite busy at night (and this was a Sunday night); it would likely be at least 45 minutes on hold. Mornings are always better. Could they call me at 8:45 in the morning? I was impressed, but still skeptical. Continue reading

Shoot It Now, Revisited

In the first Shoot It Now post, I described how a scene can unexpectedly change at almost any time when part of the subject is removed. Scenes can also be irrevocably altered when potential subjects are torn down, uprooted, broken, burned, or collapse.

Even though I am primarily a landscape photographer, I also love shooting dilapidated buildings, cars, machines, etc. There’s just something about the textures and patina of those fading relics I enjoy capturing.

During the Spring and Fall workshops at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (www.gsmit.org/photo.html), we always take participants to photograph details of the old, deteriorating homes in Elkmont. It’s one of our most popular shooting locations. A few of those homes are being saved and renovated by the National Park Service, but most are collapsing, and will eventually be torn down and removed.

As an aside, because many of those houses are crumbling, the National Park Service prohibits anyone from going in them. They will ticket you if they catch you inside. This makes a lot of sense, since the floors, walls, and roofs could (and do) give way without warning. If you’re planning to photograph old structures anywhere, please be very careful about exploring inside them. Continue reading

Shoot It Now

Old Chevrolet at Wil's Garage, Chama, NM

Old Chevrolet at Wil’s Garage, Chama, NM

Have you ever been out shooting and, for some reason or other, decide that even though the scene is worth working, you’ll just come back and do it later? I’ve found that rarely works out as hoped.

In September 2014, I saw this old Chevrolet parked in front of this old garage in northern New Mexico. It looked like a scene that had been frozen in time—possibly for decades. What an opportunity!

But…it was raining fairly hard on and off. And even during the rain, the overcast sky was pretty bright. Then every once in a while, the sun would peak through the broken clouds for a minute or so. This would cause the scene to be strongly backlit, losing all detail. But the image didn’t work from any other angle. Maybe I should just come back in better conditions.

To add to my hesitations, I was supposed to be meeting my buddy Wes from Mesa, AZ, who was driving over for a week of photographing Fall color.

It sure was tempting to just try to shoot it later. Continue reading

Digital Camera Sensor Resolution and Print Sizes

After a presentation to the 4th annual Western North Carolina Foto Fest in Montreat, NC, in September 2013, a couple participants asked me to post my two slides showing the resolutions of digital camera sensors, and effect of resolution on print sizes.

The first slide is reproduced here:

Typical Image Sizes in Pixels

Typical Image Sizes in Pixels

As you can see, a 1.0 megapixel (mp) camera has more resolution than the old NTSC television and more than most PC displays used to have. You might be surprised that a 3.0 mp sensor has more resolution than HDTV! Even more shocking, perhaps, is that the incredible iPad with Retina display has a resolution of 2048×1536 pixels—-exactly what you could capture with a 3.0 mp camera.

So what in the world do we need a 12 mp or 24 mp, or goodness knows, a 36 mp sensor for? That’s where the second slide comes in:

Print Sizes at 240 dpi

Print Sizes at 240 dpi

This chart shows the native print sizes you can make at 240 dpi from the various digital camera sensor resolutions. (Note: I’m not suggesting that you always print at 240 dpi, but that resolution was chosen as a constant to make a comparison. Selecting the appropriate print resolution is a topic unto itself.) Continue reading

Fall Colors in the Smokies Workshop with Willard Clay (and Me) – Oct. 18-21, 2013

What could be better than being in the right place at the right time to capture the incredible Autumn colors in the Smokies, except to be there with enthusiastic fellow photographers, plus the expertise of four experienced photography teachers?

Smokies Fall Color Over River

Workshops through the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont are unique because they feature four instructors and lots of field work, plus practical classroom and post-processing time—all topped off with a fun critique of images made during the weekend. In addition to truly useful discussions and feedback about the images, the critique session features wine and cheese. And lots of laughs.

Having four instructors guarantees you different points of view, and as much or as little individual assistance as you’d like throughout the entire weekend.

Yours truly starts the weekend at 2:00 pm on Friday, October 18, with a discussion of field equipment and techniques to ensure that you can capture the images you intend.

I also end the long weekend with a couple hours of post-processing instruction from 10:00 through noon on Monday, October 21. Using images made during the weekend, we discuss and demonstrate techniques you can use to get the most out of your images—not that yours need much at all, of course!

As a special attraction this Fall, we’re going to have a raptor shoot at the Tremont campus for anyone who wants to participate.

The entire weekend, including field and classroom instruction, dorm room, and all food is only $611! Even transportation to the field locations is included, if you’d like. That’s quite a bargain.

There is a limit on the number of participants so we can keep the student/instructor ratio small, so reserve your place today. You’ll soon see why so many people come back each year.

For more information, and to register, please check out this site: http://www.gsmit.org/fallphoto.html.

©2013 Tom Vadnais Photography. All Rights Reserved.