You Can’t Control Mother Nature

While scouting in preparation for our Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (GSMIT http://gsmit.org/photography-workshops/} fall photography workshop, I visited one of my favorite cascades to make sure it would be a good place to bring the participants. This first photograph was made on Thursday, October 19, 2017—the day before the workshop was to begin. Water levels were so low, that even the full bottle of water I had with me wouldn’t help the situation! No rain was forecast until the last day of the workshop. Obviously, we’d have to find other subjects to shoot.

Tremont Cascade 10/19/17

Tremont Cascade 10/19/17

It poured rain overnight Sunday, October 22, and continued through when the workshop ended mid-day Monday. Monday afternoon, I returned to the cascade. This time, it was almost overflowing with silt-filled water. Still not photogenic.

Tremont Cascade 10/23/17

Tremont Cascade 10/23/17

Water levels change rapidly in the Smokies, and by the next day, the water was clear and at nearly perfect levels and flow rates.

Tremont Cascade 10/24/17

Tremont Cascade 10/24/17

These were good reminders that landscape and nature photographers are completely reliant on Mother Nature for the conditions we face. We must incorporate whatever water levels, fall color changes, light, clouds, fog, wind, rain, snow, dust, drought, fire, etc., we encounter. That’s why it’s so difficult to duplicate an image we’ve either made or seen before. It’s also why we need to remain flexible when we go out to shoot.

A Dark Cover-up

When I travel for a work or a personal photography trip, I either drive my 4Runner TRD Pro or rent an SUV so I can easily access my gear in the field. Years ago, my photo buddy Alan Sislen suggested a cheap, easy way to keep prying eyes from cargo and luggage in the back. It’s a black flat bed sheet. I bought two of them at Walmart; one for my 4Runner and one to keep packed in my travel bag. They’ve become the black sheets of my family. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Black Sheet Over Gear

Black Sheet Over Gear

If I’m going to be hiking any distance when I get to my shooting location, I try not to keep valuables in my vehicle, if possible. But I’ll still cover extra jackets, water, snacks, or empty camera bags or luggage. I find the black sheet most useful when going to and from my shooting location, the airport, meals, the hotel, and when stopping at any store or gas station. It’s cheap, simple deterrence. I even use it day-to-day when I’m at home.

Photographing from a Plane & the Dog Cloud

The Elusive Dog Cloud

The Elusive Dog Cloud

While I end up flying fairly often for work, I usually choose an aisle seat. They don’t seem as confining, and allow me to get up and move around if I choose. This is especially important on cross-country flights. But on a recent return flight to Atlanta from Los Angeles, I was able to get a window seat in first class on a new Delta Boeing 777-200LR. On this plane, there was only one lay-flat seat on each window side. It was the best of both worlds: window and aisle access all in one.

You can adjust your lay-flat seat into all kinds of positions. Since it moves and takes up so much room, each seat is in its own “pod”, surrounded by walls except for the opening to access it. While this is nice and private, the walls impede your direct access to most of the windows. (I found that only Row 5 had direct window access. I was in Row 4.)

Wanting to take advantage of window access to shoot with my new Nikon D850, I made sure to sit on the left side of the plane so it would be in shade most of the eastbound trip. I planned to use both my ZEISS 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* and ZEISS Milvus 50mm f/2 macro lenses.

Right after takeoff from LAX, I noticed the pod wall made getting a DSLR and lens perpendicular to the window nearly impossible. Since this plane was meant for long flights at high altitudes (the flight preceding mine came in from Sydney, Australia), the multi-layered windows seemed particularly thick.

I had started with the 135mm lens, which was physically long enough to force me to hold the camera at an angle to the window. Even though the ZEISS 135mm lens is one of the sharpest ever made, I could never make a sharp image with it on the plane. I reluctantly abandoned it.

When I got home, I looked at the images on my desktop monitor, and saw just a narrow band of focus on each image I made with that lens. Focus rapidly dropped off in either direction from that narrow band. All those window layers had increasingly distorted the image the further away from the focus plane you looked.

Fortunately, I was just able to fit the D850 with the 50mm macro lens perpendicular to the window. Of course, if the lens was against the window, vibrations from the plane would have made every image blurry. So I had to hold it back just a little, while making sure to keep the window frame out of the photo. It was a tight fit, but I was able to get sharp images with this combination.

As we were approaching Atlanta, thunderstorms began to form. Our pilots zigzagged around them, which gave plenty of opportunities to photograph their incredible shapes. During one of our pivots, I saw and photographed the elusive Dog Cloud! Granted, it’s not quite as famous as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or Elvis sightings. But being a dog lover, I was glad to prove it exists.

When shooting from aircraft, a fast shutter speed is required to compensate for vibrations on the plane and for the high speed of the plane. The closer your subject is to the plane, the faster your shutter speed needs to be. This photo was made at 1/800 second to make sure the relatively close Dog Cloud would remain sharp.

Shooting from commercial airliners has plenty of challenges, but is fun and can be rewarding.

Apple Does It Again

In an earlier post, I lauded an experience I had while contacting Apple. Well, it’s happened again.

Except for a brief flirtation with a MacBook Pro in 2003, I’ve strictly been a PC user until 2013, when I bought my second MacBook Pro. This time I’ve kept if for more than a few weeks. In fact, it’s been the only laptop I’ve used since I bought it. And I love it. Although my desktop computer is still a Window-based PC, I permanently retired my PC laptop I was using at the time.

Back when I bought my current MacBook Pro, I also bought the Parallels app to be able to run Windows alongside Mac OS X. I had no idea what I was doing when I first got the machine, and apparently either corrupted or maybe even deleted at least part of Parallels. Over the past couple years, I’ve tried to revive it on my own, but with no luck. Since I had configured my Mac with versions of the apps I used most often, it was never a real problem.

Recently, I’ve been wanting to do more writing on my Mac, but really missed using WordPerfect like I do on my PC desktop. A couple weeks ago, I decided I finally going to figure out how to get Parallels working, and install Windows 10 and WordPerfect on my Mac. (Yes, WordPerfect still exists, and is as great as ever. I’ve been using it since the DOS days. It just keeps getting better.) Continue reading

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

All images and words ©2016 Tom Vadnais Photography

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/.

    ©2015 Tom Vadnais Photography

  • 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