It Started with a Shimmer…..

Amazing post from the great Joe McNally – the passion, the creativity, the visioning and the work!! Visit him at!/portfolio/C0000VjAIFt

Photofocus (old site)

Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome Joe McNally to Photofocus. While Joe’s a busy guy, he’ll be making some posts here from time to time. Please give a warm welcome to Joe and encourage him by leaving feedback on the article and sharing it with your friends.

It Started with a Shimmer…

Actually, a shimmer and an idea.

I don’t know why the folks at Nikon and the Photo Plus Expo administration listened to me when I came to them with Halloween ideas. For someone such as myself, raised up on comic books and the dark fantasies of Mordor, the notion of distressed trick or treaters, of small children poised on the verge of fantastical disaster and mayhem was completely normal. I was somewhat nonplussed then, when most people I tried to explain my ideas to would listen politely, tilt their head, look at me and say, “Sounds cool. You’re…

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Ice Storm II

I’m so far behind with my monthly upload of fresh baked images that I’ve decided to upload some more shots from last week’s ice storm. It was incredible. To see read my thoughts on the storm and for more images, see last week’s post, Ice Storm.


My New Camera

My new camera is a dinosaur: A Crown Graphic press camera made in the ’50s. ImageThe film holders you see on the right are used to hold, expose, and protect 4×5″ cut film. These negs hold a massive amount of information. When scanned in a top drawer drum scanner, fine images can be printed all the way up to 60×40″!ImageThe park bench above is one of my first tests, and I’m thrilled with the quality. And what you’re seeing is the result of the cheapest, smallest scan I could buy. It will hold its detail when properly scanned and printed at size.

“Star Power” at 60×40″, in Miami with its fantastic printer, Derek Sanchez. 9 more are available.

There are plenty of large format cameras out there, but this one fits my shooting style – it has an early version of a rangefinder (see top of photo), so I can load the camera, focus and shoot – even when I’m off a tripod.All of this action is the result of having been chosen to exhibit large scale versions of my work at Art Miami, one of the top exhibitions in the art wold.

Can’t wait to create more pieces at this size in the future!

camera basics

There are really only three things you need to know about your camera equipment. Forget about all the bells, whistles and buttons – those are there to sell more cameras. Most of the people I meet through my training and meetup groups want to know how to use every button on their camera. But the key thing is to understand these four essential controls: Shutter, ISO, focus & aperture. Despite the many differences between analogue and digital cameras, there are still only three things to understand when you’re ready to shut off the “auto”button and go fully manual. 

One, the camera is just a dumb black box that admits, for a measurable amount of time, a measurable quantity of light through to the recording substance, either film or a digital sensor.  Exposing for quantity of light is achieved via the shutter, a simple device that allows for precisely timed allowances of light, no more and no less.

the shutter
the camera back

Sensitivity adjustments are available on digital cameras. By adjusting the ISO setting, you are doing the same thing as changing the film roll for another of a greater or lesser sensitivity.

Secondly –  the lens (a more complex piece of equipment) also does two main things. It allows you to focus the image onto the recording substrate – either sensor or film, plus it allows a precise amount of light to strike that recording medium, depending upon the size of aperture. The larger the aperture opening, the more light is admitted at the time of exposure. Together, the size of the aperture and the time the shutter is open determine the exposure.

These days, focus is usually achieved through autofocus, but I try to get my students to focus the image via the focusing ring. If  the lens you’re thinking of buying looks like the one below, with a tiny little focusing ring, get something else. These are the bane of the digital lens economy. Most of them give more space to the zoom than the focus ring. It should be the other way around. You always need to focus, you don’t always need to zoom: The best way to get a photo is to move your feet.

Thirdly, you have to understand that the camera “sees” the world differently from the way you and I do. Our lenses and brains do innumerable adjustments to make sense of the world. We adjust for shade, colour, bright spots, and we even fill in things that we can’t really see. The camera is both an objective, non-adjusting machine that captures reality, and a highly distorted instrument that takes photos through its own mechanical biases. But that’s for another day: Each aperture, ISO and shutter setting has an effect on the photograph. That’s the hard part.

The size of the aperture + the time of the shutter = amount of exposure

Which brings us to the question: Why go manual in the first place? Simple. Only when you start seeing as the machine does can you begin to bend the instrument to your will.

If none of this is new to you, check out our advanced workshops:

Exposure Workshop, Creative Control (I), Creative Control (II), CompositionAdvanced Composition, Shooting Workshops and Mentor Sessions.

The Instagram Thing

“Here Comes Everybody” is what comes to mind when I sift through the photos on my instagram stream. “Here Comes Everybody” is the title of Clay Shirky‘s 2008 book about what happens when people are able to organize without organizational structures to slow them down. But it’s also about the availability and ubiquity of creative tools through the internet and other digital inventions. Instagram allows people to take photos and filter them through cool looking programs, upload them to the web and share them with anyone. If you have the right social connections and your shots are cool enough, you become an instagram artist with thousands of followers. I’m for it, but it’s starting to bug me when people say “You don’t need a camera anymore. My phone takes better pictures with instagram!”

Take the photo below. I took it with instagram, filtered it through X-Pro (one of it’s many instant filters) and then decided to put everything into photoshop to see what X-Pro actually does. OK, so that’s the image. Pretty good for an iPhone 3. It would be even better with an iPhone 4 or 4S. Now this what I got when I put it through X-Pro.

Dazzling. First, Instagram cropped the image square and gave it a black border. It now has the appearance of being larger, closer, better. It goosed the contrast in both the shadows and highlights – but so much so that bits of the photo are burned out or completely black. It looks great, but not much intelligence was put into the cropping either: I would have liked to see the tail of the bird, and I had no control over that. And finally the blues were pushed at the expense of other colours. So I put the original through photoshop and carefully did everything instagram did.

Obviously a couple of things stand out. Instagram’s saturation was indiscriminate. It looks like it added vibrancy rather than saturation, which killed all of that nice mossy colour on the tree. Preserving that colour allows the bird to separate itself from the background a bit. I was able to adjust levels in such a way as to better preserve the detail in the shadows and highlights. And note that I got even better contrast without losing the colour. That’s because I was able to selectively dodge and burn some areas of the plumage. Finally I used “smart sharpen: at 74% at 1 px. All that was left to do was to square crop and add a black border.

Voila. It took no time to crop it for the proper amount of head and tail space. Just so you can compare the two images side by side, click on the gallery below and switch between photos. I think you’ll see the difference between the automatic filter and the 15 minute process I took through photoshop. Was it worth the effort? Let me know what you think and I’ll try to answer that myself in my next post.