My Favorite Photos of 2015

For me personally, 2015 was really the year I came into my own as a photographer. I’ve learned much about composition, gesture, and light. I’ve also learned a lot about editing, and have remastered much of my past photography as well with what I’ve learned about color, channels, finishing, and especially subtlety. Less is more, and I’ve learned enough about editing to work towards “developing” my photos rather than processing them.

This past year also marked the first year my work has been displayed on exhibition. The frustrating process of figuring out soft proofing, calibration, luminosity, as well as selecting the best print medium, printing process, and even framing all took a lot of trial and error to get just the way I wanted it. I was also published three times on National Geographic, all three for my Aurora Borealis photography. I interviewed for an article in Nikon Pro magazine’s Winter issue, and one of my photos was used as the front cover on a small town magazine.

I’m overall very happy with how my latest photography has come out, and look forward to even more travel, and more to share with you all in 2016!

Fjærland Calm

Fjærland Calm

Fjærland, Norway

Fjærland is known as “den norsk bokbyen” (the Norwegian book town). Wooden racks of books line the street in front of book stores run out of old cow barns. A small cafe sits at the edge of the water and serves vaffles, kaffe, and conversation with the sweet old lady who owns the place. Snow caps the mountains, even in the summer, from the nearby glaciers, which also feed the fjord. Fjærland is the definition of serenity and tranquility.

 

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Northern Lights Chasing in Iceland with the Nikon D810

There’s nothing quite as magical as seeing a bright green and pink Aurora Borealis dancing in the sky. One of the best things about Aurora photography is that it’s always changing; there’s always a new dance to capture, and plenty of foregrounds to shoot from. My wife and I have been Aurora chasing for a few years now, and have captured her in Norway, Iceland, and back at home in New England. Along the way, we’ve picked up a few tricks, and gotten some practice in taking astrophotography in between.

Solar experts are saying that 2016 will be the last year we see the Aurora this intense for another decade, as the solar cycle is trending toward a less active stage. If you’re planning on chasing the Aurora, now is the time to do it.

Cosmos-SM

Cosmos

Zeiss 15mm, f/2.8, 13+30s, ISO 1600

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A Crash Course in Astrophotography

Dusting off my night photography skills for an upcoming trip to Iceland, with beautiful Newry Maine as a subject. The Milky Way makes an appearance in the late autumn between 8:30 and 10:30. Due to the lack of light pollution in the area, you can see it with the naked eye, but even more so on the sub-freezing nights in October this year.

Elemental

Elemental

Screw Auger Falls, Newry Maine

Night photography requires two things: multiple exposures, and a lot of patience. Typically, you want to fill 2/3 of the frame with the sky and find an interesting background, then expose separately for each. The sky is a simple formula, typically f/2.8, ISO 3200, 25-30s. You really don’t want a longer exposure than that or your stars will get blurry from the Earth’s rotation. The background requires a lot more time. In environments with no lights at all, you can be exposing anywhere from 10-20 minutes. In addition to the sky and an interesting background, some of the great nightscapes also have a strong and interesting foreground. Because you are shooting your lens wide open (to allow in the most light), your depth of field is going to require you to re-focus on the foreground to snap a third exposure.  All three exposures then need to be blended in Photoshop, either using Edit > Auto-Blend Layers, or (in most cases) by hand using masks. Each layer can be processed separately, then joined at the end.

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My Ten Best Landscape Photos To Date, and How to Get There

One of the treasures of traveling with my wife for the past few years has been the framed photos we’ve hung around the house. Many of them are the edited landscape photos I feature in my galleries, with some expensive glass and frame wrapped around them. They’re a lot more than that to us, though; they hold special memories and secrets. I’m still growing as a photographer, and have a lot to learn still. In addition to what’s on our wall, I’ve edited just over 200 photos that I consider part of my overall gallery portfolio, some of which are featured on my website and others I feature on occasion in art galleries. Here are my best ten photos from our travels for you to enjoy, and some background on each of them. The photos are fun to look at, but hopefully you’ll be inspired to get out and visit one of these special places.

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Aurora Over Kirkjufell… Featured on NatGeo!

Someone sent me a link yesterday, that one of my photos had been featured in National Geographic’s weekly gallery for their 2015 photo contest (I had no idea). Aurora Over Kirkjufell is a photo I took while in Iceland with my wife last year. Crazy hail storms plagued us every five minutes that evening, but being on our own Northern Lights chase, we were determined to see the Aurora for the first time. The weather in Iceland can be so harsh that you can have hail storms bearing down on you, and then five minutes later be saying to each other, “hey it looks like it’s going to be a nice evening!” (five minutes after that, another hail storm).

The Aurora Borealis making a grand appearance over Kirkjufell Mountain.
The Aurora Borealis making a grand appearance over Kirkjufell Mountain.

You can see the featured entry and download the wallpaper on NatGeo’s website here: Aurora Over Kirkjufell

NatGeoTravel also posted it on Facebook here: NatGeoTravel Facebook Post

 

The Aurora made a grand appearance over Kirkjufell mountain, and we managed to get off only a handful of shots before the next storm hit. Unfortunately, there was no time to hike to the waterfalls or to the river, but I am quite happy with how this photo turned out.

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How to Plan Your Own Photo Tour

Photography tours and workshops sound exciting and even romantic to amateur photographers looking to get away and come home with some fantastic pictures. The concept is appealing: travel around with a pro photographer who can show you all the great places to shoot. Tours can certainly be beneficial, fun, and provide good instruction, but one other option you may consider is planning your own photography tour and saving possibly ten thousand dollars or more.

My wife and I are planning our second Iceland tour, have been to different parts of Norway three times, Hawaii, London, and many other common workshop destinations. Planning these trips was not as difficult as you might think, and from a cost perspective, night and day. We also found many great benefits to doing it this way.

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Field Test: Formatt-Hitech FireCrest IRND 3.0

I took the FireCrest IRND 3.0 to Hawaii, and here are the results!

Camera: Nikon D800E
Lens: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM "Art"
Filter System: ProGrey G-150X w/77mm Adapter, 67mm Step-up
Filter: Formatt-Hitech FireCrest IRND 3.0
Exposure Time: 30 seconds

FireCrest-Hawaii-Small

The filter itself is definitely a slight bit cooler at long exposures, and so the first thing you may notice is that I had to warm up the color temperature from 6500K to 8000K for the comparison photo. This is to be expected to some degree among such strong neutral density filters, and in spite of Formatt-Hitech’s advertising, there is still some degree of that going on here. This is, of course, why shooting RAW is so important when doing long exposure. Once the color temperature was adjusted, however, you can see that the color channels proved to be almost completely neutral – that is, there was no shift in the reds (or blue, or green for that matter). This is where the FireCrest IRNDs really shine. By blocking the infrared spectrum (the IR in IRND), Formatt-Hitech was able to keep the photo from warming up too much in some areas, causing the color balance to fall apart. This can be a pain to correct in Photoshop.

The verdict for me is this: FireCrest isn’t a magic unicorn; you’re still going to have to adjust for the cooler color temperature that NDs experience when shooting long exposures. FireCrest did do a great job, however, preventing color shift, which is pretty hard to get right, and could easily ruin your shot if you’re using an economy filter.

 

Finding and Shooting Mountain Streams

Mossy Stream SM

Up in the mountains of northern Maine are a number of peaceful, hidden moss-covered streams off in the woods. They’re not difficult to find, you just need to look for the culverts on mountain roads, and then you can follow them on foot deep into the forest. While there are a number of hiking trails all over New England, there’s also a lot of untouched public (or at least unoccupied) land that you can explore. Folks are generally laid back around these areas, so if you accidentally happen onto someone’s land, nobody generally minds. In Maine, there is a lot of public and private land that is used for hunting, so during hunting season, you’ll want to make sure that your’e wearing something bright. If someone doesn’t want you on their land, you’ll see a keep out sign. If you don’t, it’s probably public land or the owners don’t mind if you use it. Gotta love it in the country.

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Evening Silk

Evening SilkBar Harbor, Maine has one of the earliest sunrises on the eastern seaboard. Which is exactly why I decided to sleep in, and find some good sunset locations instead. I did, actually, find some good sunrise locations (a few hundred yards to the left of Thunder Hole in Acadia, there’s a great little trail down to a boulder beach with tidal pools), however none of them compared to this sunset location at the very edge of Bass Harbor. The Bass Harbor Lighthouse can only be found if you’re looking for it, as it’s tucked away along rural roads at the southern edge of Mount Desert Island. I spent an evening shooting alongside a couple other folks vacationing in the area and talking shop. It’s nice to exchange ideas with other photographers once in a while.

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Professional Looking Portraits in a Rush

5SMOn the way back from Martha’s Vineyard, Jess and I stopped at a restaurant near Cedarville, MA named the Rye Tavern. It’s up near the Miles Standish forest. In fact, the restaurant itself is in the middle of a forest, and is probably one of the area’s best kept secrets. After chasing Siri around for some food for an hour, and discussing that we wanted it put on our headstones, “Here lies Jonathan and Jessica. They died searching for food. Thanks Siri.”, we finally found a place that was both good and open. The trek to get there was rough. Imagine being starving and your GPS leads you down dirt roads covered with grass, wondering if anyone would ever find your body if you died here. At the end of the road, in the middle of nowhere, Rye Tavern became our oasis. The food was absolutely delicious. Locally sourced, grass fed beef, goat cheese scallop potatoes, onion-pepper jelly, and even Broccolini (my favorite!). We had the best burger in the universe, and a fantastic steak. The Bison Ragu also made a great starter. We liked the food so much, in fact, that we offered to do the executive chef’s portrait for him.

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What to Photograph When There’s Nothing to Photograph

Menemsha

My wife and I spent the weekend in Martha’s Vineyard for the second time this year, which is a large island off the coast of MA. So large, that it probably should be called a land mass rather than an island. It’s a fun place to spend a couple of days, with a lot of upscale shops and restaurants, beautiful long drives across barrier beaches, cliffs, lighthouses, and even putt putt. One of the best places to enjoy a sunset is in Menemsha. We spent two evenings there. While the second evening gave us a lot of fun things to photograph on the old docks, we sat on the beach for the first night. Beaches are romantic, relaxing, and… boring. Completely boring from most photographers’ standpoints. There’s nothing, just sand, a few rocks, and of course the sunset itself. It’s too easy to take the sand-and-sunset shot, and just make the sunset the subject. My wife and I set out on a walk down the beach to find something – anything – to shoot.

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Cabin on the Fjord

Cabin on the Fjord 2560

Every once in a while, I like to go back into the archives and pull out a photo I think I can really make shine. My work flow has improved significantly in the past months (as has my photography), and so I decided to pull out an old set of panorama shots I took in Norway last year, while vacationing with my wife. This is a tiny little rorbuer fishing cabin on Reinefjord. There are a few that line the fjord like this, and many have been renovated to be rented out as hotel rooms. Our rorbuer was fantastic, and was right up at the water’s edge; in fact, it was up on stilts, and slightly over the fjord. To the left, you can see the tiny town of Reine and a small auto bridge. To the left of that is a small fish drying rack, used by fishermen in the summer to dry out their catches. Lofoten is every bit as gorgeous as it looks in the photos, and to be able to wake up every morning to see this view out the window is beyond words.

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Dawn and Dusk Photography

Blue Morning SM
Dawn and dusk provide two unique styles of light that not only look amazing, but can also distinguish your photography when shooting popular landmarks. The Portland Head Light, in Cape Elizabeth ME, is the most overshot lighthouse in the United States. While I find Canada’s Swallowtail Lighthouse far more beautiful, the Head Light is a great challenge for a few reasons. First, it’s surrounded by dangerous cliffs and is fenced off, forcing photographers to have to work to get a unique shot. Most people simply take the walkup shot at one of a few good angles along the fence line. There are a few relatively safe places to go off-piste, however, and get a chance to walk down to shore. If you’re brave enough to make this journey, you still have to be careful not to slip on the algae covered rocks and have to constantly watch the tide as it creeps up on you. In the shot above, I had just barely made it down to the beach, and had the great opportunity to include this giant boulder in the foreground of the shot.
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Book Review: Sketching Light by Joe McNally

2012-04-10-sketching-light

Joe McNally is a name you may have never heard, but you’ve most likely seen and been touched by his work. I guess the best compliment you could give to a photographer like Joe is this; that his work has touched you. McNally’s internationally celebrated career has spanned 30 years and over 50 countries; you’ve likely seen his work on the covers of TIME, Newsweek, and others, or been awed by his many photographs in National Geographic without even knowing it. Joe also created the well known 9/11 “Faces of Ground Zero” project, which went on tour a year after 9/11, and generated around $2 million for relief efforts. You’d think such an accomplished photographer would want to keep his 30-years of knowledge close to the vest, but to the contrary, Joe openly and generously shares some of his best techniques in Sketching Light, and also spreads a lot of inspiration.

Joe has a number of books about photography, but Sketching Light (2011) is one that has dramatically changed my own photography, not just because of the instruction found in this book, but also because of the meaning and depth Joe’s career has inspired me through. Sketching Light, at face value, is a book about both studio and on-location lighting techniques for portraits. If those words sound cold and uninteresting, it seemed that way to me as well when I initially picked up the book. I was previously only interested in landscape and commercial photography, and had no interest in portraits. In my mind, I wasn’t interested at all in snapping some snobby bride’s photos or doing mall portraits for the family dog. What McNally offered me, though, in addition to some great instruction, was also inspiration – something I had completely lacked in this area of photography. This book walks you through parts of Joe’s professional life in portraits, the stories behind them, the meaning many of them have to both him and his subjects, and only consequently also explains – in full detail – how he masterly lit them. You learn that there are portraits that have meaning, value, and depth. You get instruction and, almost contagiously, the inspiration to go and seek out this kind of storytelling in your own work. Since reading his book, I now seek out meaningful photography projects, particularly of the environmental portrait variety. Better than lighting, Sketching Light has instilled a sense of storytelling in me; that magic drive that you commonly see so prevalent in the work of legends. And he does all of this without even trying.

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Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art Lens

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I’m not going to give you a long spiel about how pixel #9132 looks compared to the Nikon or Canon 35mm lenses. Instead, I’m just going to post a photo I took for a commercial project this week. You can download the raw file here. All I’ll say is this lens is super sharp, makes great pictures, and should be twice the price given its performance. If you haven’t looked at Sigma’s new art lens lineup, you should. FYI, this was shot hand-held.

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Recovering Photos From Bad Storage Cards

A Guide for Photogaphers, Not Geeks

Most photographers have had at least one heart attack moment when they realize all of the photos they’ve taken on a shoot (or a vacation) are suddenly gone, and there’s nothing on the camera’s storage card. Perhaps you’ve accidentally formatted the wrong card, or the card just somehow got damaged. If you’re a professional photographer, there’s a good chance your’e also not a forensic scientist or a hard-core nerd (although it’s OK to be all three!). That minor detail doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t learn to carve data off of a bad storage card and save yourself a lot of money on data recovery. While there are many aspects to forensic science that are extremely complicated, data carving isn’t one of them, and I’ll even walk you through how to do it on your Mac in this article, with a little bit of open source software and a few commands. If you’re scared of your computer, don’t worry. This is all very easy even though it looks a bit intimidating at first. You can test your skills using any old storage card you might have on hand. It doesn’t have to be damaged, although you might be surprised just how much data you thought was deleted from it!

First, lets talk about how your storage card works. When you plug your storage card into your computer, your computer looks for a list of files on the card; this is kind of like a rolodex of all the files your camera has stored. This “catalog” basically says, “OK, this file is this big, and it starts here”. You can think of it like the table of contents of a book. When you format a storage card, most of the time it’s just this table of contents that gets deleted; the actual bits and bytes from the photo you took aren’t erased (because that would take too long). The same can be true when the file system becomes damaged; in most cases, it’s just the file listing that gets blown up somehow, making it appear like there are no files on the card. In more extreme cases, physical damage can sometimes damage the data from one part of the card, but the data for the other half of the card can still be recovered; your computer needs to be told to look past all the damaged data, instead of just giving you an error message.

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Photographing Restaurants

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While my passions are in landscape and environmental portrait photography, I find commercial photography fascinating as it’s all about precision. While creativity is a part of any photographic discipline, commercial photography is usually more about color and lighting accuracy, and more portrayal of a brand rather than telling a story (although you do that too, in the kitchen). I guess the nerd side of me likes the challenge that commercial photography poses, either on location or in a studio.

I recently did a photo shoot for Bedford Village Inn’s new restaurant, Corks. BVI is a full service inn in picturesque Bedford, New Hampshire, and is well known for hosting a number of presidential candidates during the primaries in election years. It’s on the list of top ten best inns in the entire country. They have three restaurants, banquet hall, an old carriage house used as a gift shop, and even a detached New England cottage from the 1700s, where many presidents and other important people have stayed. They also do weddings, events, an ice bar in the winter, bon fires, and give you lots of great reasons to visit for a romantic getaway with your sweetheart.

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Now Available: White Balance Meter

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White Balance Meter is a simple color temperature meter designed to measure a gray card to calculate the color temperature of the ambient lighting on a shoot. Tools like this are often used to help blend their portable lighting with ambient lighting using gels, by determining the approximate color temperature of the room. While there are some color meters on the market for > $1,000, most people only need a simple solution. Obviously, given the advanced light sensing hardware in these hand-held units, you’ll get far more accurate readings from them, however White Balance Meter provides a pretty good approximation, suitable for assisting in gel selection.

Additionally, you can shoot a photo through your gels at varying distances to get an idea of how each gel will change the color temperature of the shot. White Balance Meter is not a finely calibrated piece of equipment, as expensive meters are, but it does get you a reasonable color range to work with.

White Balance Meter is now available in the App Store for only $1.99.

The Fan Club Effect

I’ve known for a long time that fan clubs affect my selection of a particular product or technology, and have been trying to articulate just how they affect the thought process involved in selection. My recent experience in the world of photography has helped me work through that enough to write about.

I generally remain neutral about the technologies I get involved with, as I believe each technology has it’s own place and purpose. I learned this holds true in computer languages, operating systems, and nearly everything else in life. It is interesting, though, to watch the fan clubs of all camps and the impact they have on neutrality and public opinion. In many cases, it actually works against many manufacturers to have such zealous fans. This too holds true of all things, ranging from computer languages to cameras.

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