Thursday, September 16, 2010

Landscape Photography - Shooting and Processing

Q: How do I shoot and process my photos? 

People ask me this question at least 20 times per day, seriously!  So, I thought that I better answer it all in a single rather large blog entry so as to have a single point of reference for the future.     I'll include pics with more information in future posts.

I have a feeling that every decent photographer gets this question often, especially from people that are just learning photography.  So what follows is my own take on it.  In a way, it is nothing special.  I don't feel as though I have some secret formula, however I do have a few methods that I follow that are rather ... unusual!  So here it goes.
I have been doing photography since 2006, so I have only used digital cameras.  And I've had no formal training beyond reading every single book I could find on all aspects of photography.  And since I'm also a computer programmer, I have learned how to figure things out on my own, from hand-coding my own website to figuring out all of the software that I use.  So what I do is based purely on personal experimentation, and I'm sure that many experts would excommunicate me from their 'Church of Proper Photographic Techniques' if they saw what I do.  But it works for me and that is what counts.  And that is my advice to anyone that asks.  

It is best to develop your own technique based on what you learn experimentally.  This is very important.  Don't rely on articles that begin with '10 tips to ...' or actually anything referring to 'tips!'  Find out yourself, with the assistance of some foundational knowledge in regards to operating your camera, properly exposing an image, etc.  

Even though you wish to create art, proceed as though you are a scientist.  Scientists begin their education in the lab, learning proper procedures, equations and the like.  But what they are actually learning are the methods of effective discovery.  Scientists learn about the world via experimentation and proof, and photographers can do the same thing.  The big difference is that you are discovering what works for you and your vision of your art while a scientist discovers what works in a verifiable sort of way across all relevant platforms.  Only you know what works for you, yet you can still use the scientific method to discover your artistic self.

Image capture:

Since I like to get really close to the rather violent Pacific Ocean to capture as much drama as possible, I have developed techniques for capture that are very simple and fast.  I'm sure that many photographers do many the following things, but they may not admit it because it does not sound very 'professional.'   To put it simply, I do the following, (in all-manual mode shooting RAW, not jpg!):

1.  I get to my location early and stand there for quite a while, taking it all in.

It is important to soak in the mood and feel of the place that you are about to photograph. Otherwise you can not convey that feeling to your viewer.  The longer you stand there, the better your image will be.  I learned this via trial end error.

2.  I decide what elements strike me the most and imagine them in the image. 

I usually compose the image in my mind before I actually move the camera into position.  I watch the waves and other elements and imagine how to best capture them.  For me, it is best to do this without the camera to hold you back, but do what you feel is best for you.

3.  At a beach, I stand on the shoreline and hand hold the camera with it on the tripod.

Once I have a good idea of what I want to do, I see what the camera can do.  I ask; how wide do I want my view to be?  Is the light good enough to get a short enough exposure to show the proper amount of movement, or do I have to compromise in some way?   Sometimes I have ideas that simply will not work, or perhaps conditions change too quickly to capture it.  So be ready for anything.  Keep an open mind.

4.  I adjust the ND grad filters so that the light is even from top to bottom.

Contrary to what some people say, unless you wish to use HDR, ND grads are absolutely required most of the time when shooting landscapes with dramatic light.  The dynamic range usually just too much unless you are shooting away from the sun.  Even though perhaps you can darken the sky manually in Photoshop with no grad filters, the result is usually ugly or at least difficult to process.  Why make more work for yourself?  Just get the grad filters.  Usually a 0.6 and a 0.9 (or 2 0.9's) will do the job.  Ask yourself,  "Can I get an overall evenly lit exposure with no grads? " I usually use both grads at once

3.  I decide how fast I want the shutter speed to be and adjust the speed.

This is when I decide how much movement I want in the photograph.  Usually on a day with average surf, a 1/8 to 1/4-second exposure shows some movement without it getting chaotic and messy.  Often, a 1/2-second or greater exposure shows the same bits of water moving around in different directions resulting in a messy blob of white cotton.  However, experiment!  Sometimes if the water is flowing smoothly, a 1-second exposure can work.  After enough experimentation, you will get the hang of what works best.  There are many different situations, so experience is the only way to learn.  No book of tips can teach you this.

4.  I adjust the aperture to get the exposure needle right into the middle.

I usually do not have time to get a precise light reading or even think about something like a zone-system.  Fortunately, a digital exposure is nearly free so go for it!

5.  I go in, plant the tripod in my planned place, take a shot and run.

If you are properly prepared and have composed the image ahead of time, you can get in there, plant the tripod, shoot and run in those few seconds in between wave impacts.  And it is surprising how many shots turn out really well.  Still, if you like the scene and you want a good rendition of it, you may have to do 5, 10 or even more variations.  Timing is everything, so watch the waves (or whatever is dynamic) for a while so you can catch it at the most dramatic moment.  Even then, you may need 10 tries!  Don't settle for the first few even if you like them.  It is amazing how randomness can make shot #10 be the best.  If I had a policy of only taking 3 photos of a composition, I'd probably only have half of the good images I have today!

Since I usually use a very wide angle of less than 20mm on a 35mm sensor, I have to get very close to the foreground.  Always find good and substantial foreground to anchor your photo.  That is how a viewer can be transported to your location!

6.  I look at the back of the camera to see what I got and magnify it to 100%.

First I look at the overall picture to see if I have light detail in all areas, then I zoom in to see if it is sharp from foreground to background.  Take a moment here and concentrate.  You do not want to return home thinking that you made the shot of a lifetime only to find out that the foreground is out of focus!  On the widest angle photos, I often focus to infinity and everything from 3ft-infinity is razor sharp on my Canon 17-40L lens with the aperture between F10 and F14.  F22 can make everything soft, so avoid it!  Again, experiment in front of your home with focal sharpness so that you are prepared in the field!  Do not rely on focal charts or advice, even from me.  Find out yourself what works with your gear.  Again, excommunication from the 'Church of Proper Hyperfocal Distance' will probably be your fate, but try it out!  It simplifies things dramatically on super-wide shots.  I have no time to mess around with focus when a 12-footer is bearing down on me.  So I focus manually ahead of time.  When you zoom in, you must be more careful, so experiment with all focal lengths ahead of time.

7.  I look at the histogram.

We are working with digital files now and there are differences versus film.  (Experienced digital photographers know the following information, but I'll go over it anyway.)  With film, you needed to get the most perfect exposure possible on the film.  Sometimes you needed to underexpose in order to get the rich, saturated color of a sunset with detail.  But a RAW digital file is really just a data file.  So, the most important thing is to capture as much data as possible.  And that means getting as close to overexposing it as possible.  That is because each pixel contains a value from 0-255.  0 is dark and 255 is pure white.  So rather than trying to get as many pixels as possible to around 128, try to get them closer to 180 or more. For example, lets say you have a properly exposed picture where the dark areas are 5, the average is 128 and the bright areas are 220.  Most of the picture looks good, but the dark areas (the 5's) are really dark even though you can see detail in the dark areas with your own eyes.  

Because the camera cannot capture the dynamic range of brightness that your eyes can, you need a little help from the data file!  So, what I do is make a picture that is as bright as I can get it without the white areas becoming blown out and overexposed.  Even if it looks a little too bright in the back of the camera, the dark areas will have the detail I need when I process the shot.  So now, you may have the darkest areas at 20 and the brightest at 240.  Just don't let the bright areas get too close to 255 or you will lose detail!  Again, experiment for yourself.  It is the only way to know for sure.

I'll go into processing below, but the main point is to experiment and get as much data into your picture file as possible.  Then you have more leeway when processing.  You also get more leeway by shooting in RAW mode vs. jpg mode.  This is very important because there is more data in a RAW file vs. a jpg file.  Also, a jpg file is compressed even at a 12 setting.  Each time you save, a little bit of detail is lost, so avoid jpgs except as final output.

8.  I adjust the exposure if necessary and try again until it looks good.
Yes, just keep trying until you are satisfied.  

That's it.  I know that this all sounds basic but this is what works for me.  And after doing this for a while, it is really just four steps.  Set it up, take a shot, make adjustments and shoot again.  Don't make things more complicated than they have to be!  I suppose that none of this is revolutionary.  Many of you may do the same thing, I'm not sure.  The important thing is to develop your own way of getting the most data that you can.  

Light = Data!

Again, a digital file from a camera, especially a RAW file, is really a data file.  So you should try to get as much data as you can into your file.  The more light you capture, the more data you have.  This often means slightly overexposing the image while making sure that no areas become truly overexposed.  Often you end up with a picture in the back of the camera that looks a bit overexposed and sometimes downright ugly!  But that is fine because when you darken the image in Photoshop or your image editor of choice, colors and details are there and often can look as good as it did to your own eyes without having to crank up the color saturation slider.  And that is the objective.

It is easier to darken a bright image than to brighten a dark image.  Let's say you have a dark area of the image with pixel values from 2/256 - 4/256 (where 0 is black and 256 is white.)  Values of 2 or 4 are very dark.  If you have a value of 2 and you wish to brighten it up, the next value is 3.  On a percentage basis, going from 2 to 3 is a 50% increase in brightness.
There is no middle ground between 2 and 3, or the resulting 20 and 30 if you brighten it!  So, when you have dark regions and you try to brighten them, you end up with ugly blotchy patches of 'noise' and you lose detail.  Now, if you have dark areas with values around 20 for example and you wish to brighten them a bit, you can go from 20 to 21.  That is only a 5% increase.  So there is a smoother path for brightening vs. from 2 to 3 which is a 50% increase.  Big percentage changes between pixels mean lots of noise in an image.  What is important is not whether you know the numbers, but rather that you know to get as much light (and therefore data) into your image as you can.  The camera can not capture all the dynamic range of light values that you can see, so get as much as you can in the camera.

Another advantage of slightly overexposing an image is that you do not have to saturate it in post-processing to get back the color you saw with your own eyes.  Often times, a 'properly' exposed image looks flat in the back of the camera compared to what you see before you.  Then you get home and try to bring back the color and you get lots of ugly noise.  That is because there is not enough data to recreate the scene you just photographed.  When you you have a lot of data, you can darken the picture by adjusting the levels.  Darkening via levels brings back the color without increasing the noise.  Then it looks more accurate compared to what you originally saw. I spend a LOT of time getting into a place with dramatic light, so I want to make sure that I can bring it home with me.  I am not a Photoshop guru!

Remember, no amount of playing around in Photoshop will make up for the glaring bright light of the majority of most days.

An essential tool for landscape photography are neutral density (ND) graduated filters as I mentioned above.  The sky is usually very bright compared to the land.  Even though your eye can adjust to the dynamic range of bright and dark areas, the camera can not record it.  (My appologies for the repetition to those who use them all the time!)  So you place the darker half of the filter over the brightest areas of the scene before you.  Slide them up and down in the filter holder until the light looks even.  Take a test shot or two.  Don't skip quickly by this step or the image may be unsalvageable.  A long discussion of ND grads is beyond the scope of a blog entry so read up on them if you are unfamiliar.  Sometimes people think that ND grads are not necessary because they can go into Photoshop and darken the sky. Usually this does not work very well because the sky pixels will be so close to 255 that darkening them does nothing at all and can get really ugly!  Darkening near 255 works the same as brightening near 0, though not as dramatically.

The proper use of ND grad filters allows you to get the maximum amount of data possible into your picture's data file (in the darker areas) so you can more easily process it when you get home.  I must admit that I am lazy when it comes to Photoshop.  I don't want to spend much time adjusting images and I don't know many tricks.  I'd rather put all my time into being there when the light is best.  And actually taking an extra hour to get the best shot can save an hour in Photoshop.  Where would you rather be, in nature or on your computer processing a picture?

Sometimes, HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing can take the place of ND grad filters.  Especially in cities or canyons with jagged horizons.  In HDR photography, you take several pictures ranging from severely underexposed to severely overexposed and the HDR software averages them out to make a composite which can look quite realistic if processed subtly.  Sometimes people push HDR processing to make a dramatic and surreal image.  Good processing of this type can look very artistic, but for this article, I'm focusing on making natural and artistic landscapes from a single RAW file exposure.

Processing - Let me see it and feel it again...

When I get back to my computer, I want to recreate and re-experience the feeling that I had when I first saw the scene with my own eyes.  And for me, that is the essence of landscape photography as art.  I want to see it again, and feel it again.  And if I can create a TIFF file that brings me back to that place and time again and again, that is 'art' for me.  Sometimes it may not be art for other people, but that is okay.  Not everyone will relate to every picture.  So rather than worry about whether others will like it, I just try to make sure that I like it.  And hopefully others will too.

When I review the photos, I use Capture One RAW processing software by Phase One.   There are many other RAW processing programs that do a fine job however.  When I browse through them, I end up liking about 10% of the photos I made.  And I do not take many shots on a single sunrise or sunset outing.  On average I take about 20-30 shots and like 2 or 3.  Try to be a ruthless editor, but don't delete any for a few days.  You may have a change of heart!  Even though I try really hard to make every exposure a fine work of art, most simply do not turn out.  The exposure and focus are usually fine, but somehow that feeling of being there is just not... there.  The process of review is rarely what I expect.  Sometimes I think I captured some amazing images and I might even show them around in order to do a bit of chimping (going ooh ooh oooh, aah aah aaah.)  Then, I look at them later and think to myself; "What was I thinking?  This is rather flat and boring!"  Sometimes I almost delete photos that later I like a lot.  In short when you are reviewing your shots, never believe everything you think!

If I have 2 nice images that I like to look at again and again, I am happy.  Often I'll wait a day or two before processing them in order to see if I still like them the next day.  Before making my final decisions, I look at the ones I rejected just to see if I may like them now.  You never know sometimes. 

In my RAW editor, I first make the basic brightness, contrast and color adjustments for the entire image.  Then I convert the RAW file into a 16-bit TIFF file.  16-bit files are bigger and the color is better and more smoothly blended than with jpgs or 8-bit TIFFs.  There are many large volumes written about the advantages of RAW files, so if you wish to go into more detail, read a book or browse the internet.  Suffice to say, shoot RAW and convert to a 16-bit TIFF!

When I am ready to process the TIFF image, I look at it in Photoshop (There are other good TIFF editors too) and compare it to my own memory and sometimes to the back of the camera.  Yes, I actually hold the camera up to the screen to compare!  It seems as though every picture must be adjusted in some way because the camera cannot capture the range of light and color that our eyes see.  That is true even though I use neutral density graduated filters to even out the light in the sky with the light on the land.  Often times the brightest areas are too bright while the darkest areas are too dark, even though with my eyes I could see detail in all areas.  Often, right after I take the shot, I'll hold up the viewfinder to the scene before me and compare, just so I will have an idea on how to process it.  Chimping at this point will guarantee failure just as in tennis when you admire a great shot that you just made.  Chimping in tennis will get you a mouth full of yellow fuzz!

At this point I must say that I rarely use layers, even though the experts think I should.  I tend to use one single layer and make all adjustments to that layer.  I suppose that this heresy will get me excommunicated from the 'Church of Proper Processing', but it works for me.  If you use layers, just continue using them.  There are some advantages such as undoing a change that you made last week because it did not print out right, but the added complexity is just not worth it to me. I also rarely subclass in programming for the same reason.  I just go back to the base object and create a new one.  It is easier.

Once I have the TIFF file open, the first thing I do is select the darkest areas and brighten them up a bit (if necessary) using the 'levels' adjustment in Photoshop.  Then I darken the brightest areas just a bit too if necessary.  If you adjust things too extremely, you will end up with blotchy areas with lots of noise, so be careful.  Sometimes the darkest areas can not be 'saved', so leave them alone.  In short, you can't get something out of nothing.  If the light was not there to begin with, you cannot invent it when you are processing.  (Well, you can but when attempting to record reality, it is not a good idea!)  If you 'invent' light, that is manipulating an image.  You are putting something into the picture that was not originally there in the scene.  Other than dust spots or something very small, I avoid manipulating an image.  It ruins my memory of the place if it does not look/feel as it did when I took the shot.  Slightly brightening up a spot is not manipulation because you are restoring the image to the way it really looked to your eye.  Long exposures can be regarded as in-camera manipulation but those images often accurately record the feel of the place.  People know they are long exposures so there is no deception there.  Manipulation is an issue of honesty more than anything.  If you say that you manipulated an image, fine with me!

When I select an area for brightening or darkening, I will feather it to soften out the edges of the change.  Then the natural look is maintained.  Experiment with this.  To my eye, brightness usually changes gradually as I look from one spot to the next, so I want my photos to look the same way even though the camera often can not record it properly.

Once the file looks properly exposed in all areas, I make sure that the colors are strong and natural looking, just as they looked in the back of the camera and to my memory.  If an area has too much color and has lost detail, such as with a very red sky at sunset, I'll desaturate the area a bit.   If the color is flatter than reality, I may saturate it a few percent.  I do this according to my comparison on the scene between the back of the camera and what I saw with my own eyes.  If the back of the camera looks dull compared to the scene before me, I make a mental note that I must resaturate the photo to get it back to reality.  Over-saturating a colorless scene will introduce ugly blotchy noise and you will lose detail, so be careful with saturation!  I'd rather have detail.  Sometimes you lose mass-appeal by desaturation.  I've seen people admire images with hyper-red blown-out skies that have no detail whatsoever because the photographer cranked up the saturation slider as far as it could go.  And sometimes a hyper-saturated and blotchy image will get admirers to ooh and ahh.  But try to maintain your integrity!

I must admit that many professional photographers look at me as though I've lost my mind when I talk about holding out the camera and comparing it to the scene before me, or comparing the back of the camera to my computer monitor or print.  But the back of the camera is my best link between the original scene and my output, so I'll just let them think I'm crazy!

Then I sharpen each area of a photo one by one.  I'll select some rocks, or the ocean, or a mountain, feather it, and sharpen each thing separately.  Over sharpening can induce some really nasty noise so be careful.  I sharpen each thing at different strengths and radii.  Again, experiment with what works best.  I tend to leave the sky alone, but the ocean often looks good with a smart sharpening radius of 2.0-4.0 while rocks may be sharpened anywhere between 0.2 and 4.0.  Sometimes I'll give places two passes of sharpening, one at around 4.0 and another at a much smaller radius.  You can never be too careful about inducing noise.  Even noise reduction will not save an over sharpened shot. All that work only takes a couple of minutes but it is worth it in a big print.

Once every area is very sharp, but not too sharp, I may reduce the noise in the sky or other smooth areas.  Dark areas of the sky can be the noisiest parts of the photo even at ISO 50, so look at these areas carefully.  Then I'll look at all areas of the photo once again at 100% magnification and look for the any problems of any sort.  Look out for salt spray or dust spots.

That is about it.  In short, I try to get it right in the camera because I really don't want to spend much time in Photoshop.



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Monday, September 13, 2010

Landscape photography: Flickr

The Flickr Phenomenon

I've had hundreds of requests lately, where people ask me how to get more views, get on the explore page, and have more 'interesting' photos on Flickr.  So I'll try to answer some of those questions now.  

First I should tell you that getting to the first page out of 800,000 uploads per day is nice but it really doesn't affect one's day to day life much.  So look at it as an enjoyable challenge, but not as an affirmation that you are the greatest photograper of the day!  There are probably thousands of really good photos daily that get overlooked because the photographer does not do many of the things that I list below.

Another thing before I begin.  This is not a post on how to 'game' Flickr!  I do not spend time moving pictures around into various groups or any of those other artificial ways of getting attention.  That is really just a waste of time!

Okay, there are at least 8 main things to consider:

1)  The Flickr 'Interestingness' algorithm
2)  Photo quality
3)  How and when to upload
4)  Placing (or not placing) photos into groups
5)  Metadata, tags, notes, geotagging, etc.
6)  Your comments on other photos, making friends and contacts
7)  Blogs, twitter etc.
8)  Other Flickr topics.... and why bother with all this?

1)  The Flickr 'Interestingness algorithm determines whether your photo will be seen by many people, or be quickly buried by the other 800,000 uploads that will follow you during a typical day.

It is a bit of computer code which hopes to sort through all of those photos to find the photos that people find the most interesting, based on dozens of variables according to the US patent application.

Here is a link to the actual patent text.

I have read every bit of it (I am a database programmer after all!) and realized that although they are quite detailed in which variables they use, the most important thing is how much weight is given to each variable.  And that changes often.  So reading this does not really help much.  Still, it is good to see what is factored in.

The objective of the algorithm is to place the photos at the top of the list based on how people react to the photos.  And hopefully the best photos ('best' according to the opinions  of the most people) will float to the top. Of course, art is subjective and you may look at the explore page and wonder why the #1 shot looks ugly or boring compared to #500 or even to your last upload.  To make things more fair, they factor in the bias that happens when a photo goes to #1 and then proceeds to get most of the attention.  So being #1 for the day does not mean that it will be #1 when doing a keyword tag search (ordered by interestingness) in a few weeks.

The best way to see how interestingness works is to examine the first few pages of photos on the explore page for the past 10 days or so.  Here is what I noticed regardless of the genre:

The photos are added to just a few, well-selected groups with other good photos.
The photos have notes and are geotagged.
The photos have metadata directly from the camera like shutter speed, etc.
The photos are of popular genres (landscape, self-portrait etc.)
The photos are usually well-composed, but not always in a conventional way.
The thumbnails usually grab my attention even if the quality is not that great.
The photographers have at least hundreds of followers, though 5000 is not better than 500.
The comments made are relevant, not just 'Nice shot!'

Study these top photos closely and think about how they relate to your work.  Do it in a month or a year and see what has changed. Perhaps your attitude will change and this whole discussion is no longer important at all.  That is fine.

Now, if you want your photos to be noticed and to show up in searches months or years after you upload them, there are other things to consider.  For example, sometimes my photos do not make it the first page in Explore for a particular day, but then when you search millions of photos tagged with keywords like 'landscape', or 'california', most of my uploads are in the first 20 pages or so.  So how can this be?  How could a photo of mine never even make it into the top 500 for a day and yet show up as the top landscape photo out of millions in a search?

Well, I'm not really sure.  Really!  Sorry, but I wish I knew.  I am relating this fact, because 'not knowing' is information in and of itself.  It means that I should not focus on the daily algorithm beyond avoiding mistakes that can eliminate my photo from consideration.  So what I do is focus on uploading the highest quality photos that I can make and hope for the best.  Since the interestingness algorithm seems to be trying to find the photos that people like the most, I just try to upload photos that people (like me) like to see.

Fortunately, the photos I like to make are also ones that many people like to see.  If I were into taking photos of rusty pipes (which can be quite beautiful) I would not be here writing about this topic!

The time of day or time of week does not seem to matter much to the search algorithm.  There are times where more people are online and the photos get more attention initially, but the algorithm takes that into account.  Sometimes my photos with the fewest views and faves get the highest interestingness rankings.  So, upload whenever you feel like it.

It is not as though everyone should be striving to get highly ranked photos.  But it is good free advertising and you can meet many people interested in similar topics since they will find you.  Also, Google, Yahoo and other search engines are placing more importance on Flickr.  Have you noticed how when you do a Google/Bing/Yahoo seach for images of some place, the photos are not that 'good?'  They seem random, other than they are relevant or come from a web page that is relevant to the search text.  In the future, I think that 'interestingness' will play more of a role.  If I do a search for 'seascape', I'd like to see good images.  And if a photo buyer does a search, the buyer hopes to see the best photos too.

2) Photo Quality:  If you manage to get a good composition with good color, you can produce a thumbnail that looks good and it will get viewed.  But if people see a big version and the quality is poor, then you know what will happen!  So, I always completely process a photo at full-size before I create a smaller file for Flickr.  I like to upload photos that are 1200 pixels wide because they are big enough to show detail but too small to produce a quality print larger than 4x6 inches.  Yes, they can be stolen and placed on websites but I see no personal loss from it despite the outrage that occurs around theft.  My goal is to let people see the quality.  If you look at the most popular photographers on Flickr, they usually upload fairly large photos that have been processed and sharpened well.  After I resize to 1200 pixels, I will give it one last sharpen at 0.2 pixels in radius, just to bring out those fine details, which get soft after resizing.  Be careful not to sharpen so much as to produce sharpening halos around edges!

3)  How and when to upload:  I've done lots of experimentation with upload times.  In general, you can get more views and votes when the most people are on Flickr, but this does not help you get rated highly for interestingness.  I upload on Friday night or Saturday morning California time because more people who are interested in my type of work seem to be online at those times.  But I have uploaded photos at other times that have become more 'interesting' even with fewer faves and views.  And sometimes those interesting photos are totally missed by the people who normally see my work.  Faves and views are only moderately correlated with interestingness because the interestingness algorithm compares the reaction to your photo to the reactions to other photos uploaded during the same window of time.  The Flickr people seem to be very careful not to ignore photos uploaded during quiet times of the day.  So, upload whenever you want!

As far as 'how' to upload, I get my description ready before I upload.  It takes me a good 20 minutes to write my description, so for 20 minutes there would just be a picture with no description if I wrote it on the spot!  So right after the photo is finished uploading, I'll paste in my description.  Then I quickly put it on the map and add notes to the photo.  Flickr gets and displays the description for the photo via the metadata, but I add longer descriptions for Flickr, so I overwrite what I have in the metadata.  Also, I have all of my keywords in the metadata already so I don't have to add keywords in Flickr.  But sometimes I still add keywords that may be unique to Flickr, usually about groups or the like.

4)  Flickr groups:  This is a controversial topic.  I believe that a few years ago, people with a mind towards becoming popular devised groups where you could upload a photo, vote on others and hopefully get votes for yourself.  They are reciprocal voting sorts of groups.  And they do seem to work as far as getting extra faves.  But the Flickr people caught on, and you will rarely see a highly interesting or highly ranked explore photo that is in many of these sorts of groups.  I have seen a couple of people with photos in these click-back sorts of groups where their photos still get to the top, but don't think you can be as lucky.  Their photos are also really good.  Just look at the front page of Explore and look at what groups the top photos are in.  Usually they are in just a few groups, and they are groups with high quality photos in them.  There are exceptions but usually those 'fave' groups do not help a photo become interesting.  Still, you can meet lots of people there.

I have a few groups that I participate in.  Usually I'll add a photo to around 5-10 groups.  The groups are usually based on a particular region since I do landscapes, or they are based on the number of faves that they receive.  So for example when a photo gets to 100 faves, I'll send it to those '100 faves' groups.  Interestingness kicks in when your photo is next to other good photos.  If people like your photos compared to those other good photos, that adds a lot to your photo's interestingness rating as far as I can tell.

In general, place your photos in groups where you feel that the other photos are 'good.'  Just browse them and you can tell.  And place them in groups where the genre is appropriate for your photo.

5)  Metadata, tags, notes, geotagging, etc.:  If you wish to have your photo seen by others on Flickr and on the internet as a whole, it is very important to put in as much metadata as possible into every photo.  Metadata just means 'extra' data such as a good title, photo description, keywords, copyright notice, email address, website, etc.  Each photo editing program has a different way to enter metadata, so I'll skip the specific details for each program.

Title:  I will include the name of the photo, plus the location.  For example 'International Orange, Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, California'  The title counts for more than keywords in a web search so I put the most important things here.  If you are shooting flowers, you may include the title plus the name of the flower such as 'Tropical Dreams, Hibiscus rosa-sinensus, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California'  Yes, it seems long but it really helps.  And as long as you put the 'real' title in front, people will still know that the title is "Tropical Dreams."

Photo Description:  Again, put as much as you want here.  A good long paragraph will really help, especially since sites like Flickr will take that information and put it in the Flickr search indexes for your photo.  This also goes for other metadata.  Some of this data is also placed into the search indexes both on Flickr and on the internet as a whole, so don't hold back.  Yes, it may be difficult to describe each photo if you have hundreds to process, so you'll have to decide how much effort you wish to spend on each photo.  Since I do not make many photos, I spend a lot of time on each one.

Keywords:  This is the most obvious element used in web searches.  Definitely fully keyword each photo.  Include everything from general to specific or vice-versa.  So on my Golden Gate Bridge example, enter 'golden', 'gate', 'bridge' to start.  Enter the words separately, so that someone could type 'Golden Gate Bridge'  or just 'bridge' and still possibly find your photo.  Upper or lower case characters do not matter so I leave everything in lower case just for the ease of typing.  Also in this example, add general things like 'ocean', 'bay', 'orange','sky' etc.  Anything you can think of works.  If you do not know what words to use, check out other photos of similar things to see what keywords are used for your subject.  Keep a list for future reference too.  Why reinvent the wheel each time?  In Flickr, millions of photos are  tagged with keywords like 'landscape' or 'travel', fewer with things like 'bridge', and even fewer with small location-specific words like 'Sausalito.'  So try to include both general and specific things.  Your home town is always a good way to be noticed in your local area, even for macro or portrait shots.

Copyright Notice:  Definitely put something like 'Copyright SoAndSo Photography, all rights reserved' or something like that .   The year does not always help and sometimes people will see an old year and think it is okay to use it at the present time.  I won't go into all the copyright issuses and each person must decide how to copyright work, but definitely place a good strong copyright on each photo.  Many photographers will also encourage you to place a watermark right on the photo for additional protection.  The guideline for that is, 'not too big or too small.'

Email address and website:  Definitely enter these in the metadata for every photo.  Not only can people find you, but the photos link back to your website and enhance your website ranking.  Also, people working for agencies can locate you if they get your photo passed to them with no other information.  No use in having a great photo when nobody knows who shot it!

Camera settings in metadata:  If you shoot in RAW format (highly recommended!), your camera should record all of your settings in the metadata for each photo.  If you shoot jpg, it is a good idea to enter some information manually just for future reference.

Other metadata in your photo editing program:  New things are being added to metadata, so look at everything your editing program has and fill in what you can.  In general, the more metadata, the better!

6)  Your comments on other photos, making friends and contacts:  Flickr is a socal networking site, not just a photo sharing site, so definitely go out and make comments on other photos.  I have learned almost everthing I know about photography by making and reading comments under tens of thousands of photos.  (In addition to looking at the photos of course!)  I don't make as many comments as I used to due to a lack of time (<10/day), but making comments forces you to really think about a photo.  And then when you go out shooting, you'll remember those photos better and be more focused on what you like and do not like in other photos.  You will be surprized how much more you learn by commenting vs. simply reading in a passive way.

Yes, it almost sounds counter-intuitive to say that making comments helps you to learn, but it really does.  Even if you do not feel as though you are as 'good' as the photographer whose photo you are about to critique, you still have an opinion which is often just as valid and anybody else's.  So give it.  Sometimes you can mention posible 'improvements', but sometimes people are sensitive to that, so be careful.  When I first started photography, I made sure to explicitly invite people to suggest improvments.  That did help me a lot because people really do want to help as long as they don't get attacked for trying!

Another thing about making comments is that you often can make friends and go shooting with them.  That is the essence of social networking and with photography for some reason, it is really easy to make friends.  I think we all have a common interest in the visual world and art in particular.

7)  How to use Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking websites with Flickr:  There is no single best way to use these services, so you have to figure out what works for you.  For example, I started using Twitter last year.

Here are some ways that I've noticed photographers using Twitter:

* Some use it to direct followers to Flickr, Facebook, or their own website updates.  They use it to advertise a new photo or blog entry.  This works to a limited extent.  I have 1100+ followers and each time I tweet about a new Flickr photo, and only about 50 people go check it out.  I only do it once though and some people tweet it several times because most followers will miss any given treet.  Perhaps others have better luck.  Still, it gets the word out.  And I follow other photographers for their latest updates.

I do not tweet or retweet (RT) very often, mostly when I see something really significant or funny.  For the most part, there are so many RT's of the same old stuff that I don't bother.  Some photographers get thousands of followers by tweeting lots of information.  What you put out, you often get back!  For now, I'm not 'trying' to get followers, they just seem to appear somehow.  And don't follow over 300 people or the tweets will go by too fast!

If you are doing workshops or giving advice, Twitter is a great place to be.  It allows people to stay connected to you in a direct way.  If you are not on Twitter and you wish to market your photography, you should think again.  If you just enjoy photography, Twitter is not necessary, but it might be the best way to keep up with what is happening in the world of photography or the world in general.  Twitter is a better way to get up to the minute updates of the latest information vs. reading photography news websites.  The links that are tweeted sometimes lead to lots of good information including the news websites.  So you get the best of both worlds.  I keep up with the latest developments in the sciences and other genres on Twitter.

As far as I can tell, uploading photos to Twitter related photo sites does not do much.  I rarely see many views for even awesome photos and the quality is not good.  I suppose it gives just a little more exposure, but not much.


The most common thing that photographers do with Facebook is set up a fan page.  Then people can post their comments and there is a sense of community.  I do not have a fan page because Flickr keeps me busy enough!  But if I get some spare time, I'll do that too.  People share photos on Facebook too, but Flickr is a better place for photos in general.  Facebook is good when you want to upload lots of photos for discussion or after a workshop etc.  And Facebook is great for social networking of course.  So definitely give it a good look.


This website allows users to vote on items that they feel are interesting.  Photos can go 'viral' where one view leads to a cascade of additional views.  Once, I got over 300,000 views on Digg for a photo of a blowhole in Kauai in just a couple of days.  And many of those viewers go see other photos on Flickr.   These sorts of websites offer good exposure, though Flickr does not increase the interestingness score very much if a photo goes viral.  That 300k view photo stayed exactly where it was (in keyword searches ordered by interestingness) compared to before it went viral.  I will also add that viral views do not lead to much money, since most of the viewers are under 25 and have little money!  Most just want free wallpaper.  Just take a look and you'll see what I mean.  Remember though, some day those young people will have money and they do appreciate photography, so perhaps in the long-term it is good to get this sort of attention.


Though I have not created any videos just yet, it appears as though they can be important for marketing yourself to a wider audience beyond other photo enthusiasts.  Don't expect to get lots of views unless you can get Lady Gaga or some other talented person to be in it!  Still, you can point people to a video and it can be a great selling point.

In general, all social networking websites can help you become noticed, and they can all get more people to look at your photos on Flickr and other websites.  It really comes down to time invested vs. the reward.  If you can increase your earnings or even simply your enjoyment in regards to photography, go for it!

8)  Other Flickr topics:

People ask me what I get out of Flickr.  First, I get a sense of community.  I get to interact with people in my San Francisco area and with others around the world.  There is a lot to learn out there.  Next, I get to learn what people think and feel about my photos.  That enables me to make improvements and try new things.  For example, I recently uploaded a panorama of my local town.  Some people mentioned a greenish tint to it that I had not noticed despite working on it and uploading it the next day.  (I usually let it sit a while before uploading.)  I was able to make another panorama with photos from a few minutes earlier that did not have that greenish tint.  The green really was in the RAW files and I could not seem to get it out without it looking strange!  Thirdly, I get to look at thousands of photos every month, nearly all of which I can remember even a year later.  I'm not quite sure how I can remember all those images considering that my memory is average at best!  I can learn complex things very quickly, and understanding things is how I remember.  But I am not good at straight memorization at all!

So what else do I get from Flickr?  Well, I do make some money via sales and advice.  It is not enough to make a good living in the expensive San Francisco area.  Only 'real' marketing will help with that.  However, more and more serious buyers are searching the most interesting Flickr photos.  Most want something for nothing but some do pay real money.  If someone asks you for something for nothing, tell them that you have to eat.  That usually stops them!

So, why bother with Flickr?  Is it 'worth it?'  Well, Flickr is great for reaching other photo enthusiasts.  But don't expect to reach many buyers including via Getty Images.  I do get sales via Flickr because my photos are near the top of many commonly searched keywords, but don't expect to make a good living at it.  At least with landscapes.  Rather, I think of Flickr as a way to 'stay in good photographic shape.'  It is like working out to stay in good physical shape.  I can see what others are doing and visualize new photos of my own.

So for me, Flickr is definitely worth it because I'm not even sure how much photography I'd do if it were not for the interactions with other people.  Even a camera club would not be enough.  I'd do photography for my own enjoyment, but I'd probably only have 1/3 of the number of good images that I do today.

Oh, I also like Flickr because it is fun!  Did I mention that?

People have wanted to see some of my Flickr Stats pages, so here are some random ones are for your entertainment... or sheer boredom!

 Here are my most viewed photos:

Here are my least faved photos.  Not sure why! (numbers are views/faves/comments)
The last one (#105) is one of my favorites, so you never know!

So what does all this mean?  I'm not really sure.   But I'm glad that people see my work and enjoy it.



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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Landscape Photography: Developing Vision

The most successful landscape photographers seem to have developed a unique personal way of viewing the world.  So how can we develop our own vision?

In the previous blog entry, I discussed how important it is to visualize your potential image and then be prepared to drop it in a moment if your predicted conditions do not develop.

It is important to be open to whatever comes your way.  And if you wish to do this on a consistent basis you must develop a personal vision, your own unique way of seeing the world.  As I've mentioned earlier, even the most loved landscape photographers have invested 10,000+ hours of time and practice in the development of their vision.  So how can you develop a unique personal vision of the world?

From all that I've read about people who have excelled at their craft and from my own experience, you must do what you love and be as inquisitive as a child.  And this goes for any endeavor as well.  For example, the great American news reporter and anchorman Walter Cronkite recently died at age 92.  Hours after his death, I watched a long list of top people in the news field and other famous people talk about their experiences with him.  The thing that struck me the most is that he loved the news.  He loved to discover the story and uncover the truth.  He loved to talk about the news for hours on end with his colleagues, even if they were competitors.  He tried his best to be unbiased and tell it like it is.  He kept an open mind and was ready in an instant to change his reporting if new information was discovered.  His viewers loved him because they could depend on him, and also because he loved what he did.  Enthusiasm is infectious!

There is a lot to be learned from his example, even though he was definitely not a landscape photographer.  You must decide what you really love about nature.  If you like many things, just pick one thing for now.  It could be beaches, mountains, lakes, wheat fields, clouds, flowers, anything.  Forget what people tell you to do, or what is popular.  (Remember, this is blog about creating art, not making money!)  If you are not passionate, nothing else will matter.  Your images will fall flat and people will notice.  But if you love your subject, people will acknowledge it even if the images are not perfect.  And you will enjoy looking at them later.  Passion is generated by curiosity and the desire to know and capture what you love. 

One interviewee I saw on TV, said that even when Walter Cronkite had been doing the
news for decades and had been all over the world, he would still want to rush downstairs to report on a traffic accident outside on the street and try to get the real story.  He retained that sense of curiosity, and that kept his personal vision fresh and continually developing.  And that is one of the best ways to develop your vision for landscape photography.  Who cares how many times you've been to that beach, park or lake?  I bet that you can come up with a different way (your way) of seeing it.

It takes energy and a sense of adventure to create a good landscape photograph.  And I believe that if you do what you love, and let nature take its course, you will find out that your own style and personal vision will emerge.  Give it time. 

People tell me every day that they can recognize a photo as being mine before they read the description or title.  Is this good or bad?  I'm still not sure how this can be, but I hear it over and over again.  If you already have an established style and are successfully doing good landscapes, you can still develop new ways of seeing by just being like a curious child.  Be like you were when you were young.  Do you remember?  I try to do this because I don't want to be too predictable.  I'm not sure how successful I am at being unpredictable, but I'm working on it!

One way to be unpredictable by being open to trying new things.  For example, I recently purchased a *very* dark circular filter by Hoya called the ndx-400.  It has almost 10-stops of darkness.  And now I have a Lee 10-stop filter that fits into my ND grad holder.  They are so dark that it is difficult to see and compose the shot in the viewfinder.  Sometimes I have to compose first before attaching the filter!  However, with the Lee filter, I can easily slide it into the holder after I compose.  So instead of a 1/4-second exposure, I can do a 30-second or even 2-minute exposure with the filter on, even in mid-day light.

Now, normally I like to show lots of action in my pictures such as waves breaking with just a hint of motion.  However, with the filter on, the ocean is reduced to a hazy blur, which can look great when you want to isolate nice rock formations.  But the side benefit to a longer exposure is the ability to show motion in the clouds.  You can often see this in long exposures taken after sunset on a beach with clouds streaking overhead.

I never thought of using the dark filter in a place like Yosemite, where the rocks, trees and water are so well known and are usually the focal point in photos taken there.  However, when I saw the clouds streaking over, around and through the tall cliffs, I realized that I could 'time' the clouds just like I time a wave.  So I began to experiment and soon I figured out how to show the clouds interacting with the land and cliffs in a dramatic way.  I could not have predicted that I would be doing this sort of photography.  My 'style' was to capture dramatic low-light photos with lots of color.  But now, I'm always thinking of ways to make dramatic long-exposures, even in mid-day light.  I guess that my style has changed a bit.  The funny thing is that people have written me to say that they recognized my Half Dome photo with the dark filter as being 'mine' before they even read the description.  I'm not sure how that can be since that photo looks so different from my others.  I guess that 'style' is something innate that can be spotted from a distance?

The point is that I am not working on my style.  It is just evolving.  As Joseph Campbell would say, 'I'm following my bliss.'  Of course, it is difficult to follow your bliss if you are having trouble with things like exposure, processing, or paying the bills via photography! 

People have been asking about my photographic techniques, so I'll discuss that in a future blog entry.  I will admit that I often do not do things in the way that I am 'supposed to.'  If photography were a religion, I would probably be excommunicated for some of the things I do or don't do!  Don't expect any cutting edge Photoshop techniques however.  I do nothing special and try to do as little as possible.  I'd rather be behind the camera than in front of  the computer screen.

Okay, here is that mid-day long exposure of Half Dome in Yosemite.  You can also see it in the 2011 Nature Conservancy calendar!

Flickr photo and comments (97k+ views now)


 Patrick Smith

My fine-art website
Learn from the old masters with my 325-page e-book!
Hi-res downloads and framed photo prints