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Beyond Pretty Part 2: Finding Your People

It’s been a year so I thought I’d update the 5,000 people that read this blog. ????

Shortly after I published the first part of my story, I found Clickin Moms. It’s an online community of women photographers where you can talk about your experiences and photos, swap tips and tricks and take classes. Our Director encouraged me to share my journey in the forums. I chatted with some people who helped me put a name to what I was falling in love with – family documentary photography. My ah-ha moment!

I used to think people posted sink bath photos to show off their fancy subway tiles. Then I had a baby who refuses to bathe any other way.

I spent the next several months combing Instagram hashtags and collectives on this topic. Over time I’ve found my people. Here are just a couple of the photographers that are at the top of my inspiration list:

  1. Jessica Thompson
  2. Ginger Unzueta
  3. Terra Fondriest

Before Instagram put photos in the palm of your hand, people have always looked to the masters in their genre to learn and be inspired. And inspiration doesn’t mean replication. Especially in family documentary photography, you don’t have to worry about copying them unless you’re going to travel to their house and follow their family around. That’s a tad too creepy even for me.

Although nothing is too creepy for my daughter. A little Diane Arbus influence here.

But seeing how other photographers capture their world helps you to view your experience a little differently. It doesn’t happen overnight. But keep your eyes open for your people. Use the hashtag feature on Instagram. Start broad and find photos you like. Look at their hashtags and drill down to more refined communities. You’re going to find a lot of crap and a lot of bots. But ignore those and keep going. You’ll eventually discover pictures that are so damn good that you put your phone down for the night because you’re angry you never even thought of that shot. But don’t stop – keep shooting and keep looking at photos. It’s all part of the journey.

Who’s your Instagram inspiration? Or maybe they are on a different site? Or no site at all, you’ve just been lurking outside their studio. However you found them, share them with us. Message us on Instagram or Facebook or even shoot us an email from our Contact form.

I was even brave enough to try out a little off camera flash. It worked on this image, not sure why or how, but it worked! I was going for a British royalty family photo look.

The Tripod 20% Rule

I often get asked if it’s worth carrying a tripod while traveling. I’d say yes! The next question is, which one?

If you haven’t done any low light photography, then you’re missing some of the most satisfying experiences as a photographer. At the very least take a mini table top tripod with you. The best two I’ve found for DSLR and large compact cameras are both by Manfrotto. The model 709 costs about $50 and fits in a deep pocket. The step up from there is to buy a kit of the 209 legs but with the larger Manfrotto 492 Mini Ball Head. That combo is sold by B&H Camera online for about $85 and is something I never travel without. These little guys have gotten expensive over the last couple of years but B&H also carries less expensive ones made by Oben. The TT-50 is the smaller one and runs about $25. The TT-100 is the slightly larger one and runs $35. A small tripod is usable on any flat surface and good metal ones like the Manfrotto or Oben can also be pushed up against a wall or column to do vertical long exposures. If you shoot with a pocket camera you should absolutely have a tiny table top tripod with you. You can find them at camera stores and at Target and Walmart.

A tiny table top tripod from Target and the resulting shot. This allows you to drop the ISO and stay away from the high noise that compact cameras are notorious for.

If you want a larger tripod, remember to buy one that you’ll actually carry with you. There’s a whole world of tripods out there, but if you spend less than about $150 you’ll probably be replacing it sooner than later. We have found a good rule of thumb is that you should plan to spend about 20% of the cost of your camera and biggest lens on a tripod. It’s worth investing in one that you’ll keep for years. Try to find one that comes up to your standing height but is small enough to pack and light enough to carry around. Shorter people have an advantage here since the taller the tripod, the heavier and more expensive it tends to be.

Geeking out a bit with the gear plus the resulting shot. If you’re going to do night shooting Peter recommends a Petzl style headlamp with the red LED.

I’d recommend a good, light weight ball head instead of a traditional pan/tilt head. They are more compact, quicker to use and pack smaller. Also get a good quick release system. Trying to get a camera screwed off and on of a tripod will shave years off your sanity.

Remember whenever you’re shooting on a tripod turn off your vibration reduction or image stabilization. If you don’t, the pictures will be blurry. On DSLRs this is usually a dedicated switch on the lens. On mirrorless cameras it is sometimes a menu setting.

Tripods are also really helpful for panoramas. Even though long exposures weren’t required for this photo, having a panorama head with an offset plate allowed the foreground in this photo to be properly stitched.

Beyond Pretty: The evolution of my visual literacy

When I joined the staff at Dallas Center for Photography in December 2015, I’d been shooting regularly for about 5 years. Mostly of my dogs and later my child and occasionally for friends with poor vision and cheap taste in photography. I enjoyed taking pictures. I had a gut instinct as to what I thought looked good but I would never classify myself as a “photographer” or claim to have any real knowledge of the subject.

I also had no shame.

I spent a lot of time looking at pictures but found myself lacking the ability to describe what I liked about them. They’re just…pretty! I could spend hours drooling over Dog Breath Photography’s portfolio. And how fun are these images from Loose Leashes?! (I told you I loved dog photography!) After my daughter was born I gravitated towards mommy bloggers who shared their parenting experience with both candid and posed visuals.

But as I immersed myself in the photographic world that DCP opened up to me, something unexpected happened. Instead of being inspired by all of these incredibly creative people, I was confused and insecure. I put my camera down for almost 6 months.

I was seeing images from both professional and beginner photographers that had real depth. My photo of my daughter looked nothing like the stunning portraits that came out of our natural light classes. I was also being exposed to genres of photography that I never really paid much attention. When I accompanied the street photography workshop and tried to capture some street scenes, I didn’t know what the hell to focus on. I felt like I was constantly failing.

After trying for 20 minutes on Halloween to get a pretty picture of Hannah in her costume, this is what I got. I was disappointed because you can’t see her face and considered the whole shoot a failure. When I showed it to Peter he completely disagreed. He explained that it’s strong because it captured her personality perfectly and was a moment any parent could relate to.

By the end of 2016 I had two key realizations. The first was when I realized what’s been holding me back from truly appreciating some photos: my ego and its default reaction of judging. When I am looking at a photograph displayed on a gallery wall my brain wants to quickly dismiss it as “there’s nothing special about that” and not really SEE the picture. But if I’ll turn that voice off for a second, I’ll notice there is a lot more to that photo. Sometimes it’s the interesting compositional elements or it’s capturing a unique experience that only the photographer had access to at that moment in time. As Peter once told me, comparison is the killer of creativity.

Not all intimate family portraits have to be taken outside during golden hour.

My next important discovery was realizing I was developing a vocabulary to describe the photos I was seeing. Sitting in on National Geographic photographer Sam Abell’s image critique gave me my first words to describe how a strong image comes together. I’ve been lucky enough to spend many hours discussing and dissecting photography with Peter. So now instead of a photo just being pretty, I appreciate the lighting, the defined spaces of the subjects or the photographer’s ability to capture the decisive moment in that event.

10 minutes into naptime.

I also started exploring photojournalistic style photography with the work of photographers such as Ed Kashi and Dorothea Lange. I’ve been moved to tears more times looking at Dorothea’s photos of migrant farm families and Japanese internment camps than in the entire year I had the movie E.T. on constant repeat. These photos are far from pretty. They are intense, emotional and necessary.

Fast forward another few months and I’m still frozen. I’m now intimidated by these photojournalists being able to capture impeccably composed photos amidst chaos and disaster and I still can’t figure out where to point my camera. And then Dorothea spoke to me. OK, she spoke to everyone watching that American Masters episode on PBS but it truly resonated with me.

In her early 20’s Dorothea was a successful and busy portrait photographer in San Francisco. When the Great Depression began to take hold of our country, soup lines developed in the streets below her studio. Looking down at this scene one day she said “I will set myself a big problem. I will go there, I will photograph this thing, I will come back, and develop it. I will print it, and I will mount it and I will put it on the wall, all in twenty-four hours. I will do this, to see if I can just grab a hunk of lightning.”

Even during our daily rituals I’m learning to see the details.

So that’s what I’ll do. I will look outside my window and photograph what I see. With constraints from family life, daily commitments and social anxieties, I won’t be traveling to exotic places or immersing myself in the important movements of our current society. But there are still pictures to be taken from my role as a mother, my activities at DCP and every place I may stop in between. I will take these photos, I will process them and although most will not get printed and mounted, I will likely post them on Instagram which is basically the modern equivalent but with a lot less chemicals. I will do this, to see if I can just grab a hunk of lightning. I’ll settle for a spark.

I’ll even allow myself to capture the un-pretty.

Ed Kashi Near and Far Workshop

Ed-Kashi-Workshop-group-photo-dallas-center-for-photography

Photojournalist Ed Kashi spent four days at DCP teaching his Near and Far Workshop where participants exercised their story telling muscles by photographing topics close to home. Ed is president of the VII Photo Agency and is best known for his long form photo essays which bring awareness and explore a situation or a problem. Some of his current work includes an in depth look at Chronic Kidney Disease in Central America in sugar cane workers. His work has been published in publications such as National Geographic, Time, Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine.

During the four days, students had the opportunity to develop an idea for a photo essay, shoot, edit and present a complete story. Projects ranged from an afternoon at a gun range, to preparation for a ballet performance to the life inside an apartment complex of Burmese immigrants. Ed provided guidance on how to approach each situation and taught how to develop a body of work that clearly communicates the story. During a group editing session led by Ed, each participant’s story was pieced together to form a cohesive, engaging photo essay.

Here’s what some of our students had to say about the workshop:

“I find myself falling to the rut of only taking meaningful pictures while on vacation. The concept that you don’t have to go far from home to capture great images was speaking directly to me.” – Tracy Allard

“I was forced to do a lot of fast work in order to get the pictures I needed. This experience game me the confidence to do future project down the road.” – Cristian Heredia

“Ed was very easy to talk to and relate with which made asking questions and seeking guidance easier. His critiques were direct which I like and made sense to me and made it easier for me to dissect my own work.” – Robert Moore

Here’s Tracy Allard’s finished photo essay “Home on the Range”:

My Mom Learns About “The Photo Shop”

On my recent trip to Chicago, I posted a Facebook photo of my friend and me in front of the skyline. We have a dear, mutual friend by the name of Julie who is currently working on getting her masters in graphic design. As a joke, she reposted the photo on my wall with Kevin Bacon posing with us. A few minutes later I get a text from my mom asking me where I met Kevin Bacon. “Photoshop,” I replied.

Later that week I returned to Dallas and had dinner with my mom. “I didn’t realize Kevin Bacon was so short,” she said to me. Confused, I asked her why she would say that. “I was surprised that he is the same height as you and Brad. That picture of you guys at The Photo Shop is pretty great.”

jillian-and-brad-meet-kevin-bacon-dallas-center-for-photography

Good gloves for cold weather shooting

I’m in Oregon for a week and today we’re in Cannon Beach. This is Haystack Rock at low tide on a cold morning. I’m wearing my favorite shooting glove combo, fingerless wool combined with liners sporting fingertip pads for smartphone touch screens.

Haystack-Rock-Glove-Dallas-Center-for-Photography

It was thirty years ago today. . .

It’s been 30 years since Peter Poulides was named one of the great travel photographers in the December 1983 issue of Travel and Leisure.  He came to my office, dropped the issue on my desk and laughed that we should do a “throw back Thursday” post on the blog.  I was amused.  30 years ago, if someone said write a blog post on #tbt they would not know what you meant.  Yet, here we are.

I pick up the magazine and look at the cover.  It is endearing.  His mother wrote what page he was featured on in the middle of the forehead of the girl on the front.  As I thumb through the 126 pages to get there, I skip over a multitude of early 80s ads for cars and alcohol.

Peter-Poulides-Travel-and-Leisure-1983-Dallas-Center-for-Photography-01Peter-Poulides-Travel-and-Leisure-1983-Dallas-Center-for-Photography-02

I get to the article and the list of photographers is impressive.   I immediately recognize some of the greats – Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark and Arnold Newman.  Each photographer has a featured photograph and I see Peter’s image of the Greek church in Mykonos.

There is a common quality between all of the photographs in this spread and I see it clearly in Peter’s shot – stillness.  This does not mean that there is not movement and energy in these photographs.  What it means is that there is an arrested motion – a suspension that is so delicate that one more moment later, it will be destroyed.

“I was there with my partner, a writer, photographing for about 45 minutes,” Peter says in the article.  “Finally, she became cold, began shivering and wanted to leave.  I started to pack things up, turned my shoulders and was about to leave, but looked back and said, ‘just one more shot.’ This is it.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson coined this concept as “the decisive moment.”  It is the moment when all of the elements come together and for a split second are in complete alignment.  They are at peace with one another.

A good photographer is aware of these moments.  A great photographer is an essential element of the moment.

Travel-Photography-Dallas-Center-for-Photography

 

Arca Swiss p0 head modified with Really Right Stuff clamp

I’ve been using an Arca Swiss Z1 ball head on my larger Gitzo tripod for about a year and love it. I added the Really Right Stuff PCL-1 Panning Clamp for panoramas along with a plate and various accessories. The system is great but kind of heavy so I started looking for a lightweight option for traveling.

I had recommended the Arca Swiss p0 (p-zero) head  to a tutoring client based on reviews and specs. This is an ingenious inverted ball design that means you don’t have to have a separate rotator for panos. Because it’s the ball that mounts to the tripod, when you level the ball head the top plate is automatically parallel to the ground and allows perfect panos without an additional panning rotator.  I also suggested that he put a Really Right Stuff clamp on the head.

It turns out there are two product numbers of the p0 head. The 801213 includes the new Arca Swiss Slidefix QS Quick Release which is not compatible with RRS. The 801211 is $70 cheaper and does not include the Quick Release clamp. My client had bought the one with the clamp so the first order of business was to remove the Arca Swiss clamp. This was not easy. The clamp is mounted with a 6mm screw, but the hex allen socket is pretty small and a metric size that I didn’t have. I took a trip to Crouch Sales, a specialty store here in the Dallas photo district that specializes in “bolts, nuts, anchors and more”. This is one of those great places that serves industrial clients, has deep inventory and the guys at the counter know what they’re doing. The salesman finally found a tool that fit but we couldn’t get the screw to break loose. It took clamping the allen wrench into some vice grips and twisting the wrench until it felt like it was going to snap before the screw loosened. Once the Arca Swiss QR plate was off it was easy to replace it with the RRS B2-40 quick release plate. If you do this modification yourself make sure to order the version with the 6mm metric screw. The model number is B2-40-LR-M6.

The system worked so well for my client that I decided to try one myself. First I called Precision Camera Works, the U.S. Arca Swiss repair center, to ask them about the difficulty of getting that M6 screw out of there. The technician I spoke to said that Arca really doesn’t want that QR plate coming off and soon would probably use an even stronger thread lock that would make it almost impossible to remove. He confirmed that the 801211 was the same head, just without the QR plate but with a small double threaded bolt that is 6mm on one end and 1/4-20 on the other. That’s the one I ordered from B&H. The next call was to the always helpful people at Really Right Stuff to confirm what I was about to do and make sure I was ordering the right parts.

When the head arrived I was happy to discover that a standard 7/16 socket wrench perfectly fits around the double headed bolt, grabs on the built in nut and makes it easy to remove. (SEE UPDATED INFORMATION BELOW FOR CORRECT SOCKET SIZE) The whole process took about 5 minutes. The head is much improved with the RRS clamp and now compatible with my other pano components.

 

UPDATE: A client had some trouble getting the screw out of the Arca Swiss plate and her experience might help others with the same problem:

I thought you would like to know that I was finally able to get the tripod head conversion complete. I bought a different socket wrench and then it came out easily. I thought I would give you the details, in case you are recommending the same setup to others. I was originally using a 7/16 socket with 12 sides on a 1/2 inch drive. It was not able to grab hold of the bolt. So a friend of mine tried a 7/16 socket with 6 sides, but the walls of the socket were too thick to fit in the space on the Arca swiss head. So I bought a 7/16 socket with 6 sides with a 1/4 inch drive and it worked perfectly. We did notice that there was some lock tight on the bolt. It was the gray lock tight which my friend described as “light use”. Anyway, I’m all set now, and anxious to start taking panoramas!
Linda
UPDATE DECEMBER 15, 2013
I needed to convert another one of the p0 heads and finally bought exactly the right tool. It’s an 11mm thin walled socket. Easy to find at a good hardware store. I’d recommend you take your Arca Swiss head with you to make sure it will fit between the bolt head and the recessed shoulder on the head.


UPDATE JANUARY 25, 2014
I got this email from Allan today:
I got a p0 and have problem removing the double threaded bolt. Do you need to have the pano locked when removing as I noticed it just rotates when not locked and I use a socket wrench.? I even tried the 6 sided socket wrench but the bolt wouldn’t come out. Thanks

My answer:
Allan, I did the conversion again a few weeks ago and had a heck of a time getting the bolt off. Then I remembered how impact wrenches make short work of getting lug nuts off of a wheel. So I locked the pan on the p0, put the socket wrench in place and than firmly struck the end of the wrench repeatedly with another wrench. After about 10 taps the bolt loosened and I was able to get it out. Let me know how yours turned out.
UPDATE NOVEMBER 7, 2014
Dear Peter,
Your post on the Arca Swiss P0 with the RRS clamp was excellent. I own a P0 and think it’s wonderful but, like yourself, was unhappy about the clamp options. At any rate, I wanted to give you some updated information that you may find useful. I removed the double threaded bolt with an 11mm thin-walled hex socket. It fit perfectly. In addition, you can use the M6 bolt – as you mentioned – but it needs to be 20mm or less. I tried the 25mm and it hits the ball.
My regards,
Justin.

UPDATE MARCH 25. 2015
I saw your post but I am not sure I follow on why you are removing the screw and then using an M6. What is wrong with what it comes with and using, for example, the B2-LR-II?  It has a 3/8” thread which would screw on to it just fine? I am looking for this p0 myself and want to ensure I get the right setup! Kaitlyn

My answer:
Hi Kaitlyn. I first tried a B2-LR-II on the p0 but found it too big for that head. It hangs over quite a bit and gets in the way of handling. The blog post is for the smaller BR-LR which I found to be a perfect fit for the p0 and which doesn’t have a threaded center hole. Also, I liked the idea of using a couple of drops of Blue Loctite on the M6 screw. I do have the larger B2-LR-II on an Arca Z1 head on my larger tripod and it’s a perfect fit there. I hope that helps.

UPDATE MAY 27, 2015

Today I heard from Didier in France about his experience with modifying the Arca Swiss heads. He includes a new way to tackle this problem along with a link to a similar article from a French website.
About Your very interesting article ”Arca Swiss p0 head modified with Really Right Stuff clamp” on your Blog. I made this transformation of the Arca-Swiss head p0, there has several years and I just do the same thing on an Arca-Swiss d4 head. Since 2012, the screw of the clamp is mounted with, I think, epoxy glue. To remove this screw without risking to tear the threads of the hole, I locally heated the head of the screw with a ”Pyropen Weller” equipped with a nozzle ”hot air”. This will soften the adhesive and can easily unscrew the screw, without forcing.

Regarding the head Arca-Swiss p0, I noticed that the black synthetic washer between the head and the clamp degrade stability. I highly recommend to remove it (just attached by a double side adhesive film). Note that the Arca-Swiss heads sold with a clamp do not have this washer.

The same subject on a French forum:
http://www.chassimages.com/forum/index.php/topic,127261.0.html

Sincerely,
Recto38 (from France)