Saturday, January 31, 2009

Why iStock

One day, shortly after I purchased my digital SLR camera, I bumped into my good friend, Andrew Penner, in Willow Park Village in Calgary. I hadn't seen Andrew for a while and we got to talking. Andrew is an amazing guy who doesn't seem to have a "real" job. When I first met Andrew, he was working as a golf pro, teaching lessons and doing some writing on the side. Andrew is incredibly modest and after a while I found out that he works regularly for publications like SCOREGolf Magazine, Inside Golf, and others. When we'd get together he'd ask me about work and I'd tell him stories about being vice-principal of a junior high school. I'd ask him about his work and he'd explain that he was going to Scotland on a tourism junket and would be staying in a five-star resort, playing a round or two of golf and writing about his experiences - all expenses included. Was I envious? Not at all. As Andrew's career progressed, he began taking more and more photographs to accompany his writing and over time shifted his energy away from teaching golf and into writing and photography. When I met Andrew that day in Willow Park, we got to talking about photography and I told him that I was getting back into photography. It was then that he suggested that I check out

I was immediately intrigued. I love photography but early on I began to get frustrated that I didn't seem to have a purpose for making photographs. Just taking pictures for the sake of taking pictures was fine, but other than them filling up my hard drive...what was the point? I was also frustrated that there didn't seem to be anywhere that I could get good honest feedback, let alone constructive criticism of my work. The first place I turned to was I posted images and got a few nebulous comments like, "nice pic" or "you've really captured something" but never anything that would remotely help me to improve as a photographer.

iStock was what I was looking for. After I created a username and password I meticulously read through the photgrapher's training manual and wrote the online quiz. I passed the quiz and was asked to submit three of my best photographs for review. My first three were all rejected, but the feedback that was provided was honest and valuable. Very quickly I learned about "artifacts"and "purple fringing". I was also challenged to improve my lighting and ensure that every image was "tack sharp" and had good composition. I submitted additional images and after a few weeks and overcoming an almost vertical learning curve, I had three images accepted and was certified as an iStock photographer.

In the past year I've been submitting to iStock on a semi-regular basis. I don't get out shooting nearly as often as I'd like since I have a regular full-time job. That being said, I've still managed to get over 120 images added to my portfolio and have sold over 200 images. At an average of $1.00 per sale, I'm not exactly getting rich, but that's not the point. I'm getting better at my photography, I'm getting honest and critical feedback and I know that there are people "out there" who appreciate my work and are willing to pay something for it. I still get a "buzz" when I see that I've made another sale.

Now I know that there are professional photographers who bemoan the death of "real" stock photography and are ticked that microstock has killed the prices that used to be paid for stock images. That being said, the photography business model has changed. If you listen to other professionals like Chase Jarvis, David Hobby and David Nightingale, who have adapted to the new reality, there has never been a better time to be a photographer. Their message is that there is still lots of work for those who are adaptable, willing to work hard and "under promise and over deliver." Watch the video, it's good.

Back to Andrew, at the time of this writing he's got 1897 excellent images in his portfolio and has had 68,045 purchased images. Andrew is not alone in his success, there are many contributors where iStock is their full time job. I have another friend whose father-in-law is a retired school administrator and current iStock contributor. He uses iStock to supplement his retirement income. Who knows what kind of success I will have with iStock, but for now it is keeping me inspired, learning, and working at improving my craft.

Friday, January 30, 2009

My Gear Pt. II

Got home late last night from an intimate concert with Martyn Joseph. My good friend Trent, was at a song writing workshop with Martyn and got to know him on a personal level. Martyn was coming over for a concert in Calgary and Trent asked if he would play for a group of about 50 friends. What an amazing evening! Good food, connecting with friends, and listening to an incredible musician. Martyn shared that he'd once had a review where the critic said, “Martyn Joseph makes Leonard Cohen sound like Julie Andrews.” OK, maybe his voice isn't the best, but he is a brilliant song writer and can he play the guitar. Amazing!

When I wrote, My Gear Pt. I, it was from the perspective of the decisions that I made in the fall of 2007 as I prepared for travel photography. In this post I will finish the discussion around the gear that I have purchased since our trip to Europe, and will conclude with what I would purchase if I was going to buy a digital SLR camera today.

I was very pleased with the gear that I purchased for our trip to Europe. You can view the best of my Europe pictures on my website at Most of my shooting was outside during the daytime, so I rarely had need for anything other than my Nikkor 18-200 mm VR lens. When we were at the Willie Clancy Traditional Music Festival in the dark pubs of Miltown Malbay in Ireland, I switched to my 50 mm f/1.4 and was able to take reasonable pictures with available light. One other piece of equipment that I purchased before our trip was a Nikon SB-24 Speedlight (from eBay for $70) and a set of Cactus wireless triggers, which I lugged all over Europe. I was very glad that I did for the one occasion when I really needed them, which was our evening Greek Feast with Thia Popi (Aunt Popi, portrait above) and Theo Nikos (Uncle Nikos). I've been an avid follower of Strobist, which is a blog dedicated to teaching photographers how to use small portable flash units, triggered off camera in order to create photos with dramatic lighting. Highly recommended!

Since getting back from our trip, I have been working at rounding out my photo equipment so that I can make better portraits with “interesting lighting” as opposed to the very flat, mug-shot type photos that you get with on camera flash photography. I've purchased a second flash, a Nikon SB-28 (again from eBay for $100), a light stand, umbrella, rechargeable batteries, gels to control the colour of the light from the flash, and a few other lighting tid-bits. I bought most of my stuff in a "strobist" kit through Midwest Photo Exchange. They were great to deal with, even for cross-border shopping. I also bought a Nikkor 85 mm f/1.8 lens, which is fast, bright and great for portraits where you have some room to work. I can get in nice and close to people's faces without being in their personal space like I would if using the 50 mm.

That's pretty much it for my collection of gear that I currently use. There is nothing that I have in my collection that I don't use on a regular basis and I don't regret any of the purchases that I've made. I think I did the best I could with the dollars available and the information at hand. That being said, if I were purchasing today instead of a year and a half ago, I'd buy the Nikon D90. The reason is the amount of noise that I get in blue skies and other similar dark even spaces with my D80. It is not a problem for normal photography, but the standards for iStock submissions are getting so stringent that it is getting harder and harder to get an image accepted. The quality of the sensors in Nikon cameras has improved dramatically over the past year and this has been incorporated into the D90. The D90 also still fits all of my original requirements that make for a great "travel" SLR camera. The other fantastic thing about the D90 is that it takes video! I'll link to Chase Jarvis where he shows a video demo of the D90, very cool. That's it for now. I'd be curious to hear your comments about the choices I've made and your experiences. Just click on the “Comment” button below. I've had a report of difficulty leaving comments. If that's your experience, please send me an email so I know.

Monday, January 26, 2009

My Style

Starting this photo blog has been excellent as it has caused me to reflect on my own practice as a photographer and think about why I do the things that I do. As a school administrator working with teachers, I use a similar process. If I can ask questions that cause a teacher to think and reflect on their practice, they will usually make changes to their practice and get better at what they do.

Over the past few days I've been thinking about my style as a photographer. I've already shared about some of my early work and the influence of my dad, but in retrospect, my oldest brother was also a significant force in my early thinking about photography and capturing the world around me. Older brothers are not always gentle in their feedback and I have clear memories of my brother viewing my prints and sorting them into two piles; acceptable and not. His primary criticism of my work was that the viewer's eye was not drawn to the subject of the photo (see the photo of a wasp's nest above ). Being a good teacher he followed up this constructive criticism by working with me to take better images that have a clear subject (see the "special effects" photo of my brother flying like Superman...notice how your eye is drawn right to the subject, and never mind that it is out of focus!). These lessons began to pay dividends as I began to work at subject placement and ensuring that the subject was clearly identifiable (as is evident in these two photos: on the right are my paternal grandparents in their back yard surrounded by flowers, and below is the farm house of my maternal grandparents ). I'm so thankful that I found my photo album with these images from my childhood, and to my brother for his constructive criticism, tutoring, and support.

One year ago I began to submit my work to iStock photo which is a micro-stock photo agency that acquires images from photographers, sells them at reasonable prices, and pays the contributing photographer a small amount per download. I have no illusions of getting wealthy by submitting to iStock, but it has been incredibly useful as a learning and motivational tool. When I started taking digital photos, I began to wonder what I was going to do with all of the photos that were beginning to clog up my hard drive and I was a little concerned that I would lose interest and my new camera gear would begin to gather dust along with my fly-fishing equipment.
The challenge of first, getting accepted as an iStock contributor, second, getting photos accepted into the iStock collection, and third, actually selling some photos, kept me learning and motivated. Shooting for stock has also shaped my style as a photographer. When I am shooting for stock I try to ensure that the subject is "tack sharp" that it is visually interesting and that the exposure is perfect. Often when I am shooting I hear my brother's voice saying, "What is the subject?".

Friday, January 23, 2009

My Gear Pt. I

Let me begin by quoting Scott Bourne from This Week in Photography, "Nobody makes bad lenses or bad cameras anymore." That being said, I researched my camera gear very carefully before I purchased it in the fall of 2007. My decisions were based on the fact that we would be traveling to Europe in the summer of 2008, and I wanted to travel light. I also wanted to maximize the quality of equipment for the least amount of money (which is always more than you've budgeted when you are buying camera gear). I spent considerable time in camera stores, handling cameras from both Canon and Nikon. I didn't consider other manufacturers as I wanted to be able to access the large number of used lenses, speedlights, and other accessories available. I settled on the Nikon D80 because I really liked the way it fit my hands and the controls were intuitive to operate. My next decision after deciding on the D80 body was what lens to buy. I was tempted to purchase the inexpensive "kit" lens, but decided instead on purchasing the best glass I could afford. I settled on the Nikkor 50 mm f/1.4 and have been very happy with this compact, very fast and high quality lens.
I especially like the shallow depth of field that is achieved by shooting with a large aperture, resulting in a smooth, silky background. Whenever I purchase a new lens I also buy a high quality UV filter which protects the front element of the lens from dust and scratches.
I spent the next few months taking hundreds of photos with my new system, getting to know the controls, options, and settings. I found this combination of camera body and lens to be excellent for many types of photography, but found myself getting frustrated with not being able to "bring in" many subjects because of the short focal length. I knew that I would soon be looking for a longer focal length zoom lens. While I was saving up for my next lens I purchased several additional memory cards, an extra battery, and a remote shutter release so that I could take long exposure photographs with the camera mounted on a tripod.
In November of 2008 I began shopping for a zoom lens that would cover a decent range and still be compact and high quality. I did lots of research and after much consideration chose the Nikon 18-200 f/3.5-5.6 VR lens. I really like this lens. I've taken about 90% of my photos with this lens and it is as close to an "all-in-one" that you could hope to get. Having the full range of focal lengths from wide-angle to moderate zoom in one lens does not come without some sacrifice in sharpness, speed and minor darkening of the corners at 28 mm. With this pair of lenses, the 18-200 mm and the fast 50 mm I was almost set for travel photography.
To round out my gear I acquired a good quality circular polarizing filter to fit the 18-200 and a 120 GB Hyperdrive Colorspace, which is a portable hard drive with a screen and built in card reader. This device was perfect for storing my digital photos so that I could clear off my cards and keep shooting. This particular model is quite reasonably priced and the internal rechargeable battery can be charged with a USB cable, AC adapter, and a car charger. I also took along a second portable hard drive which I used to backup the Hyperdrive whenever I had access to a computer.
My last purchase before our trip was a good quality camera backpack. I looked at several LowePro bags but I wasn't happy with the quality of the stitching and velcro closures. I tried out one bag in a local camera store and as I opened a velcro tab, the stitching let loose. Not impressed. I ended up choosing the Customary Barge backpack from Crumpler. I like this bag because it looks like a regular backpack instead of a camera bag. The bottom half has storage for a SLR camera, an extra lens and some accessories. The top portion has enough room for my rain gear and odds and ends. It also has a full padded sleeve for a laptop which can accomodate my Toshiba Tecra laptop. About a month after I bought my backpack, I stepped on one of the buckles for the waist belt and broke it. I sent the good folks at Crumpler an email and they sent me a free replacement waist belt. I was very impressed with their customer service.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Anything That Reflects Light

I'm often asked, "So what do you shoot?" My answer is usually along the lines of "Anything that reflects light!" One of my favorite things to do is to get up early in the morning, grab a cup of coffee in a travel mug and head west of High River into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. One morning, late last August, I happened upon a group of five cowboys in the process of moving a heard of cattle from one pasture, across the road, to an adjacent section of pasture. The light was warm, the air was cool and these quiet gentlemen nodded affirmation when I motioned that I would like to make photos of them. I took this photo just after they crossed the road and headed down into a gully. This cowboy stopped for a few moments to appreciate the peaceful morning and take in the mountain view. Taken at 1/60, f /5.6, ISO 100 at 200mm with my trusty 18-200 VR lens.


I've been making pictures for a long time. I got my first camera, a Kodak Brownie Holiday Camera, when I was about seven years old. I got the camera from my dad who has been an avid photographer for as long as I can remember. As I was reflecting about my start in photography, I remembered that I still have a photo album with shots in it from that first camera buried in a box in the basement. The above shot is from one of my first rolls of film, taken with that camera. I don't remember exactly when or where it was taken, but it must have been on one of our many family road trip vacations in the mid 1970's. (In talking on the phone with mom and dad, it must have been taken around Cardston, AB on our way to the Black Hills in South Dakota in 1971). My dad was a teacher and my mom worked at the local public library. In the summer our holidays consisted of driving, camping, and seeing the sights. This photograph is special to me because it is so similar to many recent photos that I have made since resuming my photography with a digital SLR camera. There's something about an open road and a beautiful landscape that is the essence of freedom. When it is cold outside in January, I often think about packing up our tent trailer and heading off on a road trip with my family. I'm so grateful to my mom and dad for the lifestyle they led and to my dad for sharing his love of photography with me.

This photograph was taken on Highway 40, just north of Highwood House in Kananaskis Country, Alberta. It was taken with my Nikon D80, Nikkor 18-200 mm VR lens at 18 mm, 1/100, f /9.0 and ISO 200. I'm eagerly watching the mailbox as I just purchased a vintage Brownie from eBay. I can't wait to get it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Big Rig at Sunrise

For the past while, as I drive to work in the morning there is one particular view that catches my breath. At this spot the vehicles on the highway are silhouetted against the morning sky and their tires appear to be just barely touching the pavement. Each morning I try to be in place at 7:50 am to see the show. The challenge of how to capture this scene has occupied my thoughts for weeks, and when a big rig rolls by I want to capture the moment. This past Saturday I parked my van and got out my camera. At 100 ISO and maximum aperture my shutter speed had to be at 1/13th of a second. It was pretty cold and I didn't want to be standing there for long so I squeezed off about 15 frames in about 10 minutes. With my fingers freezing I worked at carefully panning to ensure that the vehicles remained as sharp as possible. This photo was the best of two photos I made that featured semi-trailer units.

Comments and questions are welcome.

What it's about

I am a photographer and a teacher. My full-time job is working as a vice-principal of a junior high school. In between my roles of husband, father and educator, I make photographs and learn about photography. I learn by doing, reading books, magazines and websites, listening to podcasts, and reading the blogs of other photographers. I love learning new things and then distilling this information down to a usable form and then sharing it with others. That is what this blog is about. My goal is to share my photography, new techniques, cool resources that I've found, and my thoughts on why I enjoy photography. If you have thoughts or feedback, please leave a comment or send me an email.
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