Tuesday, February 28, 2017


I tell my students that if you don’t see shadows in a scene you’re there at the wrong time—come back later or earlier. I won’t even take my camera out of my camera bag if the light isn’t dramatic…that just happens to be my style.

Once I’ve decided where I’m going and what I’m going to photograph—and it does not matter if it’s nature or travel photography—then it’s all about the when. The when is not just about time of day—basically having the sun low in the sky since the drama is at sunrise or sunset—there’s also the time of year. I’ve always avoided most national parks when the tourists visit them (summer to early fall), so I go to the really popular national parks in late fall to early winter; often late November.

Not only do I not go there when the tourists go there I do my photography when they don’t and I use different tools and techniques to create unique dramatic images. 
Petrified Sand Dune, Devil’s Garden, Arches National Park; lens: 16mm fisheye
The lighting of the low setting sun here is creating very dramatic backlight and side light on the monoliths and showing nice texture on the petrified sand dune in the foreground. Wanting to go in close to fill the foreground with this large sand dune the 16mm fisheye was the only choice as its angle of coverage is 180 degrees. In addition, I kept the inherent distortion to a minimum by keeping the horizon line as close to the middle of the frame as I could.

This next image of the iconic lower Yosemite Falls taken a very cold winter morning not long after sunrise.  I wanted to capture the triangle of ice/snow on the face of the falls….
Lower Yosemite Falls; Lens @ 200mm; on Kodachrome 64 film
Many tourists miss this view because they don’t go out early enough—the ice/snow on the face of the falls melts away rather quickly in direct sun light. I got out there early enough that the sun was off to the side making shadows and creating nice texture in the rock face.  Most tourists seeing this later in the day just get pictures of the falls in flat light.

So, my basic rule in nature photography, if you want Great Lighting, is to be there First or be there Last!

’Til next week….don’t forget if you have questions don’t hesitate to ask…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site:  http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Using Unusual Focal Lengths

This is so important I’ll repeat what I said in Part 1, “The Focal Length you choose is the most important artistic decision in photography.”

The focal length you choose:
  • determines the artistic canvas (how much is seen).
  • determines the perspective.
  • determines the composition.
  • and determines what kind of distortion (extension-wide angle or compression-telephoto) will be used, if any.
All things being equal—you nail your exposure and have your lighting under control—creative choice of Lens shows your audience (literally) your vision, or interpretation, of the world. And isn’t that what art is all about? Photographing things exactly as they are is merely reportage; anyone can do that. That’s why when I undertake the challenge to photograph some iconic thing that has been photographed millions of times I must do my best to create something original.

So, when I was planning our vacation to Italy in 2004, with a stop in Rome, and our hotel only four blocks from the Colosseum, research and planning to photograph the ultimate Roman icon was a priority. Googling the Roman Colosseum produced an endless series of pictures, of course, of the whole thing. Hundreds and hundreds of images of the Colosseum centered in the frame just sitting there.  Amazingly many were taken in broad daylight depicting a dull gray, butt ugly, sad structure!

Knowing this was to be a night-shot I bought a compact tripod that would fit in my luggage along with an umbrella (we were going in May). Doing research I found that Nikon’s 20mm, f2.8, was one of their sharpest lenses, so I bought one! I didn’t yet own a fisheye for my digital cameras then, but I’d already decided that I did not want to distort the Colosseum that much.  

This is my version of the Colosseum at night…
f22.0 @ 4.0 sec., ISO 800; Lens - 20mm
The 20mm lens was perfect for taking a vertical slice of the structure. I did a two way tilt pointing up and over to tilt the structure creating diagonal lines that point to the vanishing point created by the cars, streaking red, taillights. I was happy it rained (Kathi held the umbrella over head to shield the lens) making the street nice and reflective.

Next I went to work slicing-up the Colosseum with my 24-85mm zoom getting some nice detail images, again mostly verticals, that hardly anybody does even today.

Another vertical slice of a Roman structure…
f13.0 @ 1/350 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 24mm
This was up on Palatine Hill towards sunset. I couldn’t resist the alignment of the tree and the archway as I moved-in close with my lens at 24mm.  

I’ll wrap-up with something very recent. Here in Idaho we’ve just had a record setting winter with more snow on the ground than ever recorded in Boise. Coupled with low temps. from -2° to -8° F, with melting in between, we’ve also had lots of great icicles! 
f5.6 @ 1/2000 sec., ISO 100; Lens: 15mm
Warping my front porch with my fisheye lens, I wanted it to look like a mouth full of wicked teeth! Putting the setting sun directly behind the longest icicle (it’s about 3 feet long) created nice backlit detail in all the icicles.   I’ve been having sooooo much fun here this winter!

So, as you can see I like my lens choices at each end of the focal length spectrum. I tend to avoid the boring middle. Try it, you’ll start to see differently using extreme focal lengths.

’Til next week…show me some of your experiments…I’d love to see them.

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


The Telephoto Lens in Portraiture and Art

When doing portraits of people—especially when they are Paying YOU—it’s important that they not be unattractively distorted. In portraiture I also use distortion, but it’s the kind that makes people look good—especially groups—Compression Distortion. This is the speciality of telephoto lenses.

I don’t use Wide Angle Lenses for traditional portraits because for adequate head sizes, using a wide angle lens, you must move in close to the subject(s), which causes very unattractive extinction distortion—especially in groups. All lenses distort in some way—but this type of distortion where the closest part of your subject to the lens becomes unnaturally larger happens naturally with all lenses, however, short lenses will amplify this effect. In group portraits where you have two or more rows of people a short lens will increase the head sizes (and body mass) of those in front and decrease head sizes of the people behind. To control this distortion I use the most telephoto I can given the room I have on my location. Telephoto lenses force you to back away from the group and the perspective change equalizes head sizes front to back. 

My Go-To Focal Length for Portraits
Groups: 135mm to 150mm
Individuals: 200mm to 300mm

You may ask, What is a Wide Angle Lens?  I consider 50mm and anything wider pretty much off limits for traditional portraits. I don’t even own a 50mm lens and haven’t had one for over 40 years! I did have one of the fad 85mm, f1.2, lenses for a year (when we were doing weddings) and sold it finding it merely a wimpy telephoto. When I want telephoto I usually want 200mm or more!

The other affect the telephoto gives me, that a  “normal” or wide angle can’t is good depth-of-field, at wider apertures, while also creating nice out-of-focus (Bokeh) backgrounds.

f5.0 @ 1/400 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 200mm
Here I have three subjects in layers (a near horse, the girl, and a horse behind her) and because I’m really backed-off, using my 200mm lens, the relatively wide aperture of f5.0 is giving me enough depth-of-field for this group and still knocking my background nicely out-of-focus.

Portraits of Individuals

My priority is always creating enough depth-of-field on all portraits to keep every persons’ entire head sharp. I find it distracting and unnatural when I see a portrait where the person has only One Sharp Eye or if the mask of their face is sharp, but their ears are soft because the photographer used too wide an aperture (like f2.8, 1.4 or 1.2) and made it worse by using a 50mm or wider lens!

Therefore, my preferred aperture on individuals is f4.5 to give me adequate depth-of-field, which when used with my lens at 200-300mm will still give me good background “Bokeh”.

f4.5 @ 1/200 sec., ISO 800; Lens @ 200mm
As you can see she’s completely sharp because I’m backed-off using my lens at 200mm, which gives me more depth-of-field than if I was in close using say a 50mm at the same aperture.

TECH NOTE: Did you know that by merely backing-up 10 feet you can Double your depth-of-field?

Great Bokeh at Small Apertures?

Getting great Bokeh is about more than just using wide apertures. In fact, you can get Larger Bokeh circles with more telephoto, at the same aperture, than with a “nifty-fifty”. Bokeh is more about the distance between your subject and the background. Keeping your subject, say 20-30 feet, away from their background is what defocuses everything so nicely. 

NOTE: If you want really great Bokeh always have your background Back-Lit. Specular highlights in the background make the best Bokeh.

f8.0 @ 1/1000 sec., ISO 400; lens @ 200mm
Great Bokeh at f8.0 is possible with a longer lens (in this case 200mm). In addition my telephoto’s compression effect is pushing my subject (the leaf) into the background and yet there’s great separation between the two elements because the background is so defocused.

Telephoto for Landscape?

Aside from Ansel Adams there have been few photographers that could pull-off the huge landscape with a wide angle lens. And even then it took a genius in post-capture manipulation to make it work. So, what’s left for us mere mortal photographers to do?  I do pieces of landscapes; I carve-up scenes with my telephoto often taking vertical slices of the usual horizontal view.

f9.0 @ 1/250 sec., ISO 800; lens @ 200mm
In this image, taken from our balcony, on one of our cruises, in the Caribbean the clouds over the sunset were the best compliment to that orange ball sinking into the ocean. So, I went vertical for a more dramatic composition. 

In Part 3 I’ll show some creative wide angle (still slicing up scenes!) of architecture and icicles as art. ’Tis next week…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


As an artist the lens you choose shows your audience, literally, your vision or interpretation of the world. Being creative often means breaking the rules (I make my own rules) or at least not doing what everybody else is doing! Too many photographers are just copying what others are doing; often copying bad habits.

I often read that experienced photographers suggest this or that focal length lens is best for photographing a certain subject. Or even more bizarre that “artists should be using prime lenses only!” REALLY? That may have been true 50 years ago (I remember that era having begun my photography then), but not for the last 20 years as our computer designed zoom lenses have excelled. The nature purists say we should not distort nature or that the portrait lens of choice is the “nifty-fifty” or the 85mm (and you must have the f 1.2 version) to create good bokeh. Hogwash—These “rules” or popular fads in lens choice are creative killers! 

In the image below, because my subject (Delicate Arch) is such an iconic subject, I set-out to do something really different….
Delicate Arch: Lens: 16mm fisheye; Film: Kodak 35mm Ektachrome Infared (EIR) with an 056 (Orange) filter
Everybody photographs Delicate Arch from the other side (I’m on the cliff side!) and they always photograph the whole thing—a literal translation—boring. So, I’m inside the arch and with a fisheye lens, that sees 180°, I turned away from the right leg of the arch to omit it from the composition. I wanted the one leg and its shadow joining with the rest of the arch’s shadow to imply its presence. In addition to minimize distortion I kept the horizon line in the middle of the frame. If you want to maximize distortion with a super wide angle lens you place the horizon line either above or below the horizontal center line of your frame. Not content with this radical presentation I used Infared color film with an unusual (056) filter color (everybody used a yellow filter back then) to make my sky green. Before photoshop we had to be creative in different ways!

I usually don’t decide what focal length lens I’m going to use, when doing nature, until I’m standing in front of the subject. Then that’s usually the First decision I make followed by the Aperture/Shutter speed and the ISO I need to get there.

I believe that the focal length you choose is the most important artistic decision in photography—and to quote Ansel Adams “where you stand”, relative to the subject, is right up there!

The focal length you choose:
  • determines the artistic canvas (how much you see).
  • determines the perspective.
  • determines the composition.
  • and determines what kind of distortion (extension-wide angle or compression-telephoto) will be used, if any.
Speaking of distortion—how about breaking a portrait “rule” by using a fisheye lens….

f8.0 @ 1/500 sec., ISO 400; lens 15mm fisheye
In this image I actually increased the extension distortion by tilting the camera up (putting the horizontal line very low in the frame) creating the “bowl effect” and wrapping the trees around my subject. Note that the guy is not distorted because I kept him in the middle of the composition.

Using Perspective Distortion Creatively…

f5.0 @ 1/30 sec., ISO 1600; Lens @ 24mm
A classic use of wide angle is to highlight a foreground feature with your wide angle lens that leads you into a more distant main subject—an often cliche, nature, composition. Here, using my zoom lens at 24mm, I made my center of interest the foreground object and because it was more interesting (I like the purple mid-way lights on the clown’s face!) I moved-in close to the painting making it really dominate my frame using the lens’ distortion.

As you can tell I really like very wide angle lenses!  In Part 2 I’ll go into lenses for portraiture and other creative uses for portrait lenses.

Author:  Jerry W Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com