Category: photography

I have not been a fan of landscape photography through the years. I think it’s partly because I was more focused on people as subject and because I hadn’t learned to shoot landscape. Certainly, a person learning can learn much easier if the variables to learn are reduced. In my case, landscape was learning curve I was saving for the future. And, the books I purchased and the websites I visited rarely had landscape photography that I studied. I’ve now reached a point where I feel like I can recognize good photography regardless of the genre. Recognizing good photography is different than being able to capture it, so I am still not a landscape photographer.

With this in mind, I found myself driving my family to New York for a campus visit for our daughter. We drove through Canada. That night, I checked our route the next morning and realized we’d drive right by Niagara Falls. I’d never been. I didn’t bring an ultra wide lens on the trip. I was ill prepared, but I wanted to check out the Falls. I made everyone get up at 6 AM to make it to Niagara by 7. Apparently parking is free before 8 AM, so that was a bonus. The other bonus is that the hordes of people are not up at 7 AM, so we had the falls nearly all to ourselves on the Canadian side. Wow!

Getting back to my lack of training or desire to shoot landscape . . . Niagara has a way of providing the inspiration. Add a sunrise and I suddenly felt empowered. I was in awe of the setting and studied angles with my 28mm lens, which was as wide as I could go. And, without further ado:

Niagara Falls, sunrise

So now what?

I had SLR film cameras that I used sparingly on Auto modes through the years starting after college around 1992. Prior to that, I had cheap film point and shoots and even developed my own film for a spell. I didn’t understand the nuance of photography, but I enjoyed it.

In 2011, I started a photo-a-day project with a Nikon D70, Panasonic TZ5, and an iPhone 4. I barely touched the D70 and relied on the TZ5 that I had bought in 2008 for a semester in Europe. I spent a month in Africa and only took the TZ5. That’s how bad I was. But I was sticking to my photo-a-day project and beginning to think about composition. At my real job, I was many years into chairing the College Personnel Committee and it was taking a toll on me because of the changes I was making in the process and trying to return fairness to the process after some troubling episodes. I even managed to get the college’s first tenure guidelines approved. But I digress.

Finally got serious around August and pulled out the D70 for a trip to the northeastern shores of Lake Superior, Ontario, CA. But it was bulky and I hated that. And I was pretty ignorant about it. For example, I read at dpreview in 2007 or so that the 50/1.8 was an excellent lens. I bought it and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get the lens to zoom when it arrived. Prime lenses were not something I realized existed. I was ignorant. I didn’t realize the D70 was an APS-C sensor . . . to me, it was just a bulky version of the point and shoot camera, which made little sense to me. I figured the D70 just had better lenses and I wasn’t yet displeased with the point and shoot cameras. This is the mindset of a person who lacks knowledge.

Anyway, because of the bulk I bought a used Panasonic LX5. It had more dials and a better lens than the TZ5, but it was still a point and shoot. I didn’t understand that at the time. I was disappointed in this point and shoot and returned to the D70, but I heard rumblings about a new NEX 5N coming out soon. I preordered it and put my D70 on craigslist.

The NEX 5N arrived around Sept. 12th and my joy of photography and wanting to learn skyrocketed. I was hooked. I loved the images compared to the point and shoot cameras I had largely been using. The kit lens was fantastic to me. I was still shooting A mode all the time. I bought a Canon FDn 50/1.4 lens and wow! Shallow depth of field amazed me. I still love it this many years later. I also did the photo-a-day again in 2012 (actually, I didn’t miss a day until 2014, I believe). And I bought the Sony Zeiss 24/1.8 lens. It never came off of my camera. It was also the most expensive lens I had ever even considered, let alone bought. I was sooo nervous to have it. I bought insurance. I was ultra careful. I was certainly not good enough to have this lens and spend this kind of money, but I wanted to get better. I was improving all the time. The 24 lens (35-ish FF equivalent) forced me to start seeing the world from that perspective. Every shot I could see started to fit into that focal length. I didn’t look for the shots I was missing. I went back to Africa for a month with 18 student teachers, and this is the only lens I used, beyond 1 day with a SEL 50/1.8. I loved it. Loved it. I improved so much with this camera and lens.

In January, 2012 I had my first photo hit Explore on Flickr ever so briefly. It got 5 Favs, so it was nothing, but that was huge for me since even one Fav was a big deal and rare for me. By the summer of 2012, I could get 3 – 5 Favs pretty easily. I was learning post processing and I had a very good feel for that Zeiss 24 lens. I was reading photography theory books and technique books and videos. I was obsessed with getting better. I was also only sleeping about 4 hours a night, which started in 2000 and it just worked for me. So, I had much free time and I didn’t want to overdo my work time averaging already over 50 hours a week, easily. Later that year, I was hitting Favs into the teens. And I recognize that Favs don’t necessarily mean anything, particularly since I was joining more groups and getting more eyes on my images. 100 views to start 2012 and thousands by the end at points. At least increased views meant that someone was looking and that was pleasing to me.

The 35 focal length was made for me, I thought. It’s what I had largely shot for a year+ and it felt right. So I bought an RX1 to go full frame at the end of 2012. Wow! But the shutter leaf mechanism on my RX1 had 1 weak leaf that didn’t fully work. I couldn’t see that my images were impacted, but it was still broken. I kept the camera through Dec. and January because of the healthy return date by Amazon (I was returning a defective camera so I kept it the length I was allowed and they made it later January for purchases from late Nov. which is when I got the RX1). Back to my NEX 5N and Zeiss 24/1.8 for a few months. No biggie.

In March of 2013, I bought the Nikon D600. I had the Sigma 50/1.4 because the 35/1.4 wasn’t out yet. Great combo, but my D600 had a greasy/spotty sensor and I tested it the first day. I knew it was going back, but I fiddled for a week. In late March I decided on the Canon 6D. I bought the 50/1.2L. This was an amazing lens. I rented the combo first and went to New Orleans for a week. By day 1, I knew I’d be buying the combo. Wow! You can see my 42 images from that trip here and you’ll see a pretty nice improvement over my photo-a-day links above, with a lot of room for improvement still as well. Then I bought the Sigma 35/1.4 and it gave me the love I had with the NEX 5N and Zeiss 24. The 50/1.2L stayed on the shelf as the Sigma 35 rarely came off of my camera. I continued to grow and continued trying to learn. With the RX1 and Canon 6D, I had finally shifted to shooting in manual mode (M) and still do today. I had learned enough through my reading that it finally made sense. Compositionally I was starting to get it as well. I could finally see light and 2013 was a great year for growth and development.

2014 is when I shifted to the Sony A7 and Sony Zeiss 55/1.8 in February. Best combo I had ever used. I couldn’t take the lens off of my A7 and I was now seeing the world through the 55 focal length. Finally I was seeing more than 35. I was getting much love on Flickr at this point. Here’s a self portrait I shot in March, 2014:

self portrait

selfie, self portrait March 2014

After getting 70 Favs on that shot, the next day I got over 9000 views and 72 Favs on this shot:

Beer at Founders and bokeh

KBS and Bokeh

Photography was clicking. I felt like I was good at it. But I didn’t let up on my learning. I was reading more and more and studying the art side of photography. I knew I didn’t want to be a photographer who shot senior portraits and weddings or anything like that; rather, I wanted to produce art. That’s all I wanted from my photography. I didn’t have time to be in business, and I certainly had no desire for the business side of photography. It was just a creative outlet for me.

I serve on a local art committee that visited the Muskegon Art Museum in June of 2014. This was the 86th annual show and had 200 works that were selected from artists all across Michigan. As I looked at the photography in the show, I remember thinking, “I can do this.” I even joked at the next art committee meeting that I was going to win the show next year and everyone chuckled, including me. Stay tuned.

In August, I pulled $300 in $5 bills out of the bank and reserved space at Heartside Ministries in downtown Grand Rapids (they serve homeless individuals and folks in poverty). I shot portraits of people in poverty much of the day until my money ran out. I paid each person $5 to sit and chat a bit and then get a few portraits taken and sign a release. I had rented lighting and set up a mini studio. I didn’t know how to use lighting, but I figured it out the day before so I’d be ready. I also returned a week later and gave each person a 4×6 print of their portrait. This was a huge experience for me, but I used the images for my first Art Prize entry, which was at Fountain Street Church. It was titled, Antepenultimate and it was very well received. That was all printed on metal and looked very sharp. If you aren’t sure what Art Prize is, read this. It’s awesome for Grand Rapids and transforms our city for 20 days or so each year.

I was invited to put my entry into an after Art Prize event in Lowell at LowellArts! They told me they had an art festival coming up in early 2015, and invited me to enter that as well. I did enter with a single photograph that I printed on paper with a nice frame and matting (about 24″ image). It was really my first juried show since Art Prize is more of an event to experience. This LowellArts! show was a single showroom full of jury selected pieces. Just getting in was quite an accomplishment.

My entry finished in 5th place. Wow! I hadn’t even considered entering art shows yet beyond Art Prize and I was winning 5th place against oil paintings, sculptures, and other beautiful pieces of art. I started chatting with the other artists and making friends. It felt very good to be a part of that group with so many talented people. And I belonged. This was really the culmination of a lot of hard work paying off up to that point. It really helped validate the time I spent. And again, I wasn’t cutting into my actual work time . . . I just put in a lot of time from 10 PM until 2 AM, really. The day to day shooting was mostly in the flow as I carried my camera everywhere.

homeless guy portrait

Homeless guy portrait

I then got bold and entered 2 photographs into the Muskegon Art Museum’s festival (87th annual). This is the show I had visited the previous year and joked about winning. They had 725 entries. 725 high quality pieces of art. Both of my submissions made the show, which is a huge accomplishment. HUGE! But even bigger than that, I got a phone call telling that I was awarded 2nd place by the jury. Holy Geez! Here’s an article about it, and they’re using my photo over 1st place (probably because B&W photo looked better in a B&W newspaper than the colorful winning sculpture). I also sold this 2nd place photo to a foundation before the show even started. My award money for the year was around $2,000. Unbelievable to me. Here I am during a reception speaking to the crowd about my photograph.

Me talking about my photographs

Me talking about my photograph(s).

My other photograph that was accepted into the show also received more than 700 Favs on Flickr and was one of my most popular photographs off all time. Again, Favs don’t really mean much, but it’s nice when a photograph is recognized by a jury and also by my peers as being worthwhile.

homeless man with wrinkles

Homeless man with wrinkles

So here I was 3.5 years after starting to take photography seriously. I was winning awards in every show I was entering. I was at the height of my photography life. Shooting photos daily for years and studying and working and studying some more was paying off and I was reaping the benefits of my hard work.

As I sit and wait for the 88th Annual Muskegon Art Festival, I can’t help but feel like I’ve peaked. I don’t shoot a photograph every day any more because I have set the bar too high to achieve what I desire by simply snapping a photograph and studying it. I understand the technical stuff quite well now, so testing settings is something I can do in my head before I even take the shot to see the result. I still want to grow and I now understand that shooting a photograph that can be considered great takes much work. I was an available light and handheld shooter much of photography life, but I also recognize that using extra light can also help and that using a tripod can often ensure better sharpness. I get that. That takes much more work. I am busier at work since becoming a department chair, so “much work” is not as easily accomplished. I also worry that I cannot possibly match the success I’ve already had, so I think about letting myself down. And I really want to be a good department chair, so I am reading books and studying that with the same vigor I once put into photography.

In November of 2015, I read about a huge storm hitting the lakeshore with giant waves. I forced myself to get up and rolling at 5:45 AM and head to Grand Haven to see the lighthouse. I grabbed some terrific shots as daylight was just breaking on the stormy scene. The rain and wind were blowing off of Lake Michigan right onto my Rokinon 135/2 lens (I have a hard time taking this lens off of my camera lately). I couldn’t shoot more than a single shot before I had to wipe my lens clean of rain. I had to stand with my back to the lake because of the rain and wind and then quickly turn around and fire a shot or 2 and then turn back around. The light wasn’t great early in the morning so f/8 meant a higher ISO (ISO 1250 – 2000 is nothing for Sony full frame sensor, though). But even my shots that weren’t in focus still managed to satisfy me greatly. For example:

Stormy Lake Michigan

Storm in Grand Haven

I still shoot occasional shots that just catch my eye, but I have hit a plateau to the point that I am not feeling like I am getting better any more (again, putting more time into being an administrator cuts into photography). That’s sort of a gnawing feeling of being in the photography doldrums, so to speak. I can produce nice images that people like, but I also know that they are just more of the same thing I was producing. I do not feel the same level of growth I had for so many years. I guess that’s natural in any field . . . and I have much room to improve in education administration and the growth is more achievable and visible, so there’s that, too.

It’s now 2016 and I do not know what is next. Part of me wants to buy the Sony a7R II Full-Frame Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera, Body Only (Black) (ILCE7RM2/B) and see if that helps me jumpstart my creativity and inspiration. Perhaps if a good deal comes along. Another part of me is content to just do what I do and realize that I had a good run and I would have killed to shoot this kind of photography a few years ago. I should be happy and realize I reached a very high level. But I know I can get better. Time. I need time. Come on lottery! Heh. Thanks for reading and happy shooting to you.

Rowster Coffee

And here is the larger version on Flickr.

Tech Specs: Sony ILCE-7 FE 55mm F5.6 ZA ƒ/1.8 1/125 ISO 160

I took this at the coffeeshop down at the end of my block in 2015. It was much darker inside than out, so this one took a bit of post processing. I don’t typically go for the HDR look, but my edits here sort of mimics what an HDR process might do and I like the end result.

Lightroom 5 on a Mac was used. I cropped the image because I wanted to remove the door knob on the left and I wanted a 16×9 image for more of a cinematic feel (5753×3236 – original was 6000 x 4000). I had to create a custom white balance to account for the yellow outside and cold blue inside. I also increased the contrast +30. Clarity is at +100 and Vibrance is at +7 while Saturation was dropped to -8. Highlights are -100 and shadows are +100, which is how this approaches an HDR feel. The only HSL I do in this image is Luminance for Yellow is -31 (again, the outside was too yellow compared to the inside). When you bump shadows so much, you are much more likely to add noise even on a low ISO shot, so I bumped the Luminance of the Noise Reduction to +27.

I have lens correction turned on. I also had to turn on Remove Chromatic Aberration and the bottom right side of the many had some blue-greens I had to remove with the eye dropper. I have Post-Crop Vignetting turned on for Highlight Priority at -25. I ended with a brush applied on areas that were too bright as shown below. The brush was set at Exposure -.62 and Highlights -37.

LR brush

Brush strokes

I’ll be ending each post with a little request to use my link for shopping for your Camera or Accessories. I think in the past 2 years using this link on another site, I’ve earned about $21. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it could potentially help pay my hosting fees for this website, perhaps.

sunset through grass


And here is the larger version on Flickr.

Tech Specs: Sony ILCE-7 FE 55mm F1.8 ZA ƒ/1.8 1/80 ISO 100

I took this on my university’s main campus just outside of the newer library. Obviously, the sun was going down so I had to slow the shutter speed down to 1/80 just to ensure I’d get an ISO of 100 (which I nearly always prefer when I can get it).

Lightroom 5 on a Mac was used. I cropped the image because I wanted a square of the key grasses (the sides weren’t very interesting and I knew I’d crop all along. Only a little off of the top was cropped out. I had to create a custom white balance to get more of a golden hue to the image. I also increased the contrast +30. Clarity is at +32 and Vibrance is at +43 while Saturation was dropped to -11. I have -8 on the Hue for Orange. I also have the saturation bumped for Orange (+24) and Yellow (+28). Luminance of Orange is -13 and -70 for Yellow. I have no lens correction turned on. I do have Paint Overlay at -44 for the Amount and -40 for the Roundness. Ta da! I was quite pleased with the end result.

I’ll be ending each post with a little request to use my link for shopping for your Camera or Accessories. I think in the past 2 years using this link on another site, I’ve earned about $21. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it could potentially help pay my hosting fees for this website, perhaps.

Cindy retired a year ago in 2013. She was my best friend on faculty. We served on a college level personnel committee together and we went up for full professor together (we were both promoted). She was my sounding board and mentor. We also enjoy drinking a Guinness together. I got to hang out with her not too long ago.

Cindy portrait

My friend Cindy

And here is the larger version on Flickr.

Technical specs: Sony A7 with the FE Zeiss 55/1.8 . . . ƒ/1.8 55.0 mm 1/125 ISO 1000

I took this at a dinner function in a campus building. The lighting was okay, but I was shooting wide open and a normal shutter speed and still needed ISO 1000 for the perfect exposure. She did have an overhead light that was hitting her in a good way, so that helped.

Lightroom on a Mac was used (latest version). I cropped the image because 16 x 9 fit it better. I then converted to Preset B&W Look 2. The image was a bit dark so I pushed exposure +40. I bumped shadows +100 and lowered highlights -87 (thank you dynamic range of the Sony sensor). I used a brush to reduce the clarity -100 all over her face (women don’t want details of their skin enhanced; most men probably either – the clarity slider going in reverse can also add darkness to skin, so be careful where you slide it negatively). I then focused on her eyes. I brightened the eyes (iris only) with a brush at shadows +30 and exposure +12. Finally, another brush was set at sharpness +70 and I used that on her left eye, particularly the eyelashes. Because I bumped shadows so much and added to the exposure, that introduces more noise to the image so I used the noise reduction slider to 22. I also enabled the lens profile for this lens. Doing that reduces the vignetting while making some distortion corrections. I wanted vignetting so I bumped it to -41. And there is the final image you see here. Hope you found this informative.

I’ll be ending each post with a little request to use my link for shopping for your Camera or Accessories. I think in the past 2 years using this link on another site, I’ve earned about $21. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it could potentially help pay my hosting fees for this website, perhaps.

I plan to start posting some of my photography and talking about the photos I publish using this blog. I don’t necessarily think the social media sites allow for the reflection I’d like. Perhaps nobody will visit, but this is more like a public diary that I am doing for myself anyway.

selfie, sean lancaster

Distracted Selfie

Size is sort of small, but I’ll always link to the larger version on Flickr.

Technical specs: Sony A7 with the FE Zeiss 55 . . . ƒ/1.8 55.0 mm 1/125 ISO 6400

I took this in the basement of the Morton Building during Art Prize, 2014. I was leading part of a photowalk and someone called me just as I was pressing the shutter. You can see from the camera settings that this was very low light. I still like how it turned out. I did have to brighten the shadows so I wasn’t lost in the shadows.

In the future, I’ll post more in-depth commentary about my photographs. But I’ll also end each post with a little request to use my link for shopping for your Camera Accessories (or equipment). I think in the past 2 years using this link on another site, I’ve earned about $21. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it could potentially help pay my hosting fees for this website, perhaps.