Category Archives: Images

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.

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

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. 

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

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

Photograph Where You Live

As you know, it is essential to travel long distances, preferably to exotic locations, if you want to make interesting images.

Wait, maybe that isn’t really so.

No matter where you live, there are incredible shooting opportunities all around you. Continual shooting is one of the best ways for you to develop your photographic eye. (Reading photography resources and studying photographs and paintings by masters are two other important aides.)

Roswell Road Bridge. Click on image to enlarge.

This image was made less than two miles from my house. I had driven over this bridge thousands of times before without ever noticing anything special about it.

One day, a friend and I decided to go out shooting, so we grabbed our cameras and tripods, and walked along a paved trail along the river. The path led under this all-too-familiar bridge. It was late afternoon, and the sun was starting to go down to the right in the image.

Our intention was to go past the bridge to another spot along the river edge. We never made it. We spent the next hour or so shooting various compositions, including horizontal (landscape) and vertical (portrait) orientations.

Then I turned around, and saw a totally different view. Sun was pouring through the drainage slot on the bridge, and illuminating a pile of rocks below. When I saw that light beam, I knew I was going to process it as a black & white image later.

Roswell Bridge B&W. Click on image to enlarge.

So in an hour, two miles from my house, under a bridge I had crossed thousands of times, I made two images that I liked. Funny thing is when I show them to people, and ask them to guess where there were made, I usually get somewhere in Spain or France as the reply. Of course, I always tell them they guessed right!

Not really. To me, the real story is even more surprising.

As examples of local things to shoot, my Five Mile Radius gallery has a number of images I’ve made within a five mile radius (as you might have guessed) of my house. I hope those images encourage you to get out with your camera and tripod, and explore where you live. Sort of like a traveling photographer who thinks your location is an exotic trip might do…

Opposite Opinions, Same Image

When you see an image, you know if you like it or not, and will probably be able to describe why it affects you the way it does. Many of you have also likely had your images critiqued by a judge for a competition or by a pro during a workshop. Hopefully, any feedback you got was helpful, and allowed you to see any strengths or deficiencies in your image in a new way. But is it the “right” way?

White Sands, NM. (Click on image to enlarge.)

On two different occasions, I had two pros critique the White Sands image above, and got polar opposite responses. At a camera club competition, pro Craig Tanner said he loved how the story of the dune field was told in a single image, and how the different series of curves in the dunes, in the dune tracks, and in the clouds made a dynamic composition. It kept your eye moving around the image taking in all the elements of the scene. He gave it Second place in the Color Print category.

When my friend and mentor British landscape master Charlie Waite critiqued this image during one of his Master Classes, I had to double-check to make sure he wasn’t talking about another image. He wasn’t.

Charlie said it was a jumbled mess, with three unrelated stories mashed into a single frame. There were the graceful ripples and curves of the dunes at the lower left clashing with the discolored, harder-edged dune tracks with scrub bushes scattered about on the right. And that sky! Just too many unrelated shapes and textures to make a cohesive image.

Not only were they commenting on the same image, it was on the identical print, so there was no variation there, either. So, who’s right?

They both are, of course. Each viewed the image from his own unique perspective. Each had, and had clearly expressed, very valid points about the image.

If we’re smart as photographers, we will consider all constructive criticism when evaluating our own images. We might then see ways to improve our images that we missed on our own. But we won’t make changes just to please the critics. As this example shows, we can’t please them all anyway, even if we tried.

The moral: Ask as many friends and pros as you can to critique your images, but take their comments as suggestions, not gospel. There are no absolutes in photography. As Ansel Adams said, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” And what constitutes a good photograph is in the eye of the beholder.