On The Road with Stetson

Last summer, I had the privilege of shooting for Stetson, one of my favorite brands. I spent a few weeks exploring some of my favorite stomping grounds out west, meeting new people and snapping a few shots along the way. It was a good time and such a great experience working for a company who's style and values align so well with my own. What began as an unexpected chance to work for a legendary company has since become a pretty rad friendship and an ongoing thing. I've shot a few more projects for Stetson since then and have several more scheduled throughout the year. This is a repost of my first article at Stetson.com. 

10 Photography Tips For Beginners: Taking Better Pictures


1. Ditch the Phone

They're great for point & shoot. They're great for learning composition. They're convenient. But they're a little too convenient. Most phone cameras are 100% automatic. Manual cameras and decent lenses enable us to make creative decisions that shape the final look of a photograph.  Phones attempt to mimic the results with Studio Mode and Portrait Mode, but they're useless 80% of the time. And even when the technology improves, it still won't measure up to real photographic technique. We’ve all heard “it’s not the gear, it’s the photographer.” Half true. For the most part, people just like saying that. Whole truth: good gear won't make shitty photographers better, but good gear enables skilled photographers to create better images. Phones are no replacement for a good entry-level or professional camera. Think of it like this: Olympians are amazing athletes. With the right gear, they can perform at full potential. Put lumberjack boots on everybody, and see how it plays out. Photography isn't any different. Nice gear doesn’t make us better, but crap gear can hold us back. Get a decent camera with a good lens. And don't break the bank to do it. One of my favorite cameras is the Fuji x-t20. It's about $1K and comes with a great lens. 


2. Lens, baby!

Image quality is much more about your lens than your camera. Both are important, but the camera is just a box that records the image a lens creates. Some cameras do a better job than others, but the style and quality start with the glass. When people refer to photos with “that professional look”, it's almost always the result of a quality lens. Having a nice one can improve picture clarity, contrast, detail, and even color accuracy.  


3. Rule of Thirds

Some people call it the "never center" rule. I call BS on that. Centered photos can be great. But get it right. Don't kind-of center it. Center it or don't. If you don't, Rule of Thirds can help. Imagine a Tic Tac Toe grid on your image. Try placing important things on the lines, especially where the lines intersect.  It's called the rule of thirds, but I say it's just one of many ways to compose an image. In this video, National Geographic photographer, Steve McCurry, briefly demonstrates the rule of thirds and several more interesting ways to bring an image to life:


4. Clean up the Background

Excessive detail in the background is distracting. It pulls attention away from the subject. Sometimes the subject and background can even blend together into some stank dumpster fire nobody wants to look at. It's nervous and nasty. Random objects can also trash your photo. Think of common things like power poles, trash cans, loose garbage, traffic signs, etc.  Avoid junk. I like to place people in front of blank walls, empty areas and wide open landscapes to get a clean image that puts all the focus on the person. 

This is Ted. Ted looks regal af...  until you put him in front of that garbled up bushy tree nonsense. Now he looks like a jackass.  


5. Easy Tiger

Enough with the over-editing!  It screams newbie.  Just because the saturation slider goes to 100, doesn’t mean it should.  Heavy contrast and saturated colors can't make a boring photo interesting.  When professional photographers refer to editing photos, they mean choosing keepers, color correction, and basic adjustments.  There’s nothing wrong with adding a little style or learning the possibilities of your software.  Have fun.  Experiment.  Just be honest with yourself.  If it looks like a pile of neon-laced, cosmic crap, don’t share it.  You wouldn’t walk the streets in a clown suit and pants around your ankles.  So don’t send your photos out into the world looking like a clown with pants around its ankles.  Nobody wants it.

Heavy editing doesn't save boring photos.  It beats them with an ugly stick.


6. University of YouTube

In college, I learned how to use a camera, run a darkroom, and take pictures that don’t suck.  I loved every minute of it.  But! Literally everything else I know about photography came from YouTube. Use it.


7. Steal It

Get on Pinterest.  If you don’t have an account, get one.  Create a new board called “Photo Ideas”.  You can make the board private if you don’t want people sneaking a peak of the learning process.  Fill this board with pictures that make you want to learn photography - photos that inspire you to get out and shoot.  Add to it a few time every week.  As the board grows, pay attention to everything the photos have in common. What themes or characteristics do they share?  What draws you to certain pictures?  Figuring out what to shoot can be tough.  Steal ideas from the board.  Learn what kind of images you like to make. You’ll be coming up with original ideas before you know it.  Even I do it:


8. Shoot RAW

In your camera menu, switch your image quality from jpg to RAW.  With RAW files, you can edit without demolishing the image quality.  The RAW file is like a bucket of information that can be moved and changed.  A jpg is a finished product.  If you try to adjust a jpg in software, you’ll find that the image quality goes down the toilet with a quickness.  It's like food.  You can do a lot with a bucket of fresh ingredients.  What you can’t do is make an omelet after you scrambled all your eggs.  Don’t scramble your photos.  Shoot RAW.  If you’ve been editing jpg photos this whole time, this blog just changed your life. 


9. Whip Up Some Old Fashion Brutal Honesty

As an up & comer, one of the most important things you can possibly do is have your work critiqued.  Not by your friends, family, or anyone else who wants you to feel good about yourself.  Remember the best part of American Idol when the overly passionate, tone deaf, dream chasers would vomit a bucket of sour notes all over the audition room and yell at Simon for laughing?  That's where BFF and mommy critiques get you.  We have to learn our weaknesses before we can beat them.  Real critique comes from someone who is completely unbiased and knows what their talking about.  If you don’t know anyone, just ask.  There are plenty of professional photographers who would be more than willing to look at your photos online and give you feedback.  Don't be afraid to put yourself out there.  It will probably be disappointing at first, but you will become a better photographer as a result.  These guys tell it like it is, and keep it anonymous:

10. See The Light

Light is everything.  Without it, we couldn’t see at all.  The way it falls on your subject ultimately determines how your photo will appear.  You need to imagine what the light is going to look like in a photo. Is it casting a shadow across your subjects face?  Are there dark rings under his or her eyes?  Is it harsh?  Is is soft?  Gear companies like Westcott and Elinchrom have worked for decades to create soft, smooth lighting capabilities.  Soft light is best in most cases.  Harsh light makes terrible photos.  Noon on a sunny day is where photos go to die.  Shoot in the shade.  Soft light will completely change the way you think about photography.  After a while, you’ll start to better understand how the light affects the image.  You’ll begin to see the difference between hard light and harsh light.  When you become more comfortable with reading light in general, you can slowly start to experiment with it.  Want to learn more about light?  Especially outdoors?  YouTube!

BONUS TIP:  Amputation is nobody’s friend.

So you’re no good at photographing people?  Stop cutting off their body parts.  When framing a portraits, never crop below the elbows or below the knees.  No chopping off people’s feet and fingers.  If you’re shooting a headshot, don’t leave a thousand miles between the person's head and the top of the shot.  Head space is lame.  Remember the rule of thirds?  Keep their eyes near the top third - well away from the center.  


-Don’t center every shot.

-Clean up the background.

-Pay attention to the quality of light.

-Shoot in RAW

-Easy on the editing.

-Get ideas from Pinterest.

-Learn more on YouTube.

-Shoot every single day.

Find The Girls On The Negatives

“Find the Girls On The Negatives” reads a headline that pops off the screen of my interwebs to punch me square in the solar plexus.  It's hard for any article or post to rise above the rest when we consume more information in one day that our ancestors did in a lifetime.  We love and hate social media.  Most days it's thousands of photos of thousands of people spinning across our devices on auto rotation that blend into one endless bowl of life-salad nobody wants to eat.  Some days, however, I come across something that doesn't make me want to throw my laptop to the bottom of a nearby river.  Today is one of those days.

Virginia based photographer, Meagan Abell, struck gold in a thrift store in Richmond this week.  While thumbing through an old pile of photos, she uncovered several old, very interesting medium-format film slides.  Slides or (slide film) is a type of film that captures a positive image - meaning the colors are normal rather than inverted like negatives.  Color photography has been around for ages, but smooth, beautiful film of creative content is not the first thing that comes to mind when we hear "box in a thrift store."  These slides were different.  There was something special about them.  "Now I've seen plenty of vintage prints, but never a set of negatives that was in such beautiful condition," Abell explained in her first Facebook post about the slides.  "I just sent them in to be scanned," she continued. "And I'm flipping out because I'm so excited to see these images."

Slides before the scan.

At first sight the images have a theatrical or cinematic quality.  There seems to be some creative purpose behind this shoot.  And that's just the thing; this is a photo shoot we're looking at!  I mean that in the most modern sense of the term.  A 2015 style environmental portraiture shoot.  Obviously, environmental portraiture has been around for a while, but not prominently, and not like this.  This style is unique.  More specifically, it's unique to modern day photography trends.  There is a certain flavor of environmental portraits trending hard right now.  So hard that it's begun to define, in my opinion, a new genre of photography.  It's an interesting blend of landscapes and people.  It's hot right now, and the amazing timing of these antique film slides to show up on the scene in an age custom tailored to their style is enough to blow the minds of the most ridiculous of photo geeks - myself included.  Even more than the coincidental style, there's clearly a story here.  The quality alone suggests a professional photographer using excellent gear for his or her day.  Who were these people?  What were they doing?  Why is the image quality so ridiculously good?!  What is the story behind these beautiful images?  Some say the location is Los Angeles.  That begs an even deeper question: how in the world did they end up in a thrift store in Virginia?  I mean, these aren't your typical Sunday evening snapshots on a Kodak Brownie in 1955.  Whether we ever come to know the significance of these film images or not, it's clear they were intended for something very specific - something special.  This is the mystery that inspired Abell to begin the search.  She's made it her personal goal to trace these images back to the source and uncover the story behind "the girls on the negatives." 

Meagan is on a mission and needs your help.  If you recognize anyone or anything in these photos, speak up!  The internet is trailing it all with the hast tag  ‪#‎FindTheGirlsOnTheNegatives.  If you can help, do it!  If you can’t, just enjoy feasting your eyes on some photographic awesomeness - a quality and beauty only found in the ways of film photography.  I hear "film is not dead" repeated over and over by film photographers and enthusiasts.  With people like Meagan Abell around - people who create, find and appreciate film photography, I say it will never die.

Original Post: www.facebook.com/alwaysabell/posts/10204229570090449?pnref=story

Meagan Abell: www.meaganabellphotography.com

The Girls on The Negatives:

One Down. Eleven to Go.

I’ve always been driven by the things in life I have to look forward to.  Spring is the great jumpstarter.  It gets us jazzed about the entire year.  We look forward to everything in the springtime.  In summer I’m stoked about traveling.  In late summer I look forward to Fall.  During fall I start getting all jazzed up about the holidays.  During the holidays it's a big boat load of friends, family, downtime, gifts, get-togethers, and greatness.  Then BOOM!  January.  Cold, bleak, uneventful, nothing-to-look-forward-to January.  :|

For me, the stretch from January to the end of February was always the low point of the year.  Christmas was gone.  Friends had all gone home.  School was picking up.  Weather was gloomy, and the worst of the cold was yet to come.  The big comedown from a holiday high.  On big no-bueno burrito.

That’s how it was before photography came along.  Photography rewired my brain.  It worked a total 180 on my perspective. 

These days, the dreaded stretch from Janurary to spring isn't dreaded at all.  It's all about gearing up for spring and summer shoots.  These days I find myself imagining all the shoots of the year.  Who will I meet?  What new people will I shoot with?  What new places will I work in?  It’s a total mental free-for-all about the year to come.  It feels a lot like the few minutes before you hit the field for kick-off or that few seconds before you walk out on stage to play a show in a new town.  It’s a constant rush to think of all the great things a year could have in store.  It was just a matter of doing more of what I enjoy and less of everything else.  Incorporating photography into my life changed my entire perspective.  I can’t wait to see what kinds of new shoots and great new photographs this year is going to bring.

Banner Image Story.jpg

For those of you who don’t like your job, don’t worry.  Many people don’t.  I do, but not all of it.  It does have it's jobby aspects.  There's a not-so-fun business side to it.  I'm not talking about loving our jobs.  I'm talking about incorporating something enjoyable into our lives.  Whether it's a hobby, a side job, a project, a different career, or even a relationship - something new can change your perspective on everything.  Before you know it, you'll enjoy getting out of bed every morning.  I want to encourage anyone reading this to take a moment.  Think “what is one thing I could start doing or one thing I could change that would make life more exciting?”  If you don’t have an answer right away, start exploring what makes you tick.  What keeps that boat floating?  Then do it!

For me, it's photographing new people and new places.  I love exploring new landscapes.  I love being invited into someone’s life to capture a piece of the story and make new friends.  There’s nothing else like it.  I hope for a full year of it.  Right now, I'm booking shoots for the year and getting a preview of things to come.  Don’t want to jinx it, but it’s shaping up to be an exciting year so far.  This two-month stretch is no longer the low point of the year.  There is no low point anymore.

If you ask me, the end of January is the best time to talk about what kind of year its going to be.  You just got a four-week preview of 2015.  What kind of year is it so far?   Is it time to kick back and relax, or is it time to gear up and get it done?!  Either way, do what makes you happy.  Hate your job?  Look for a new one.  Can't?  That's crap.  Yes you can.  Dig your job but it's not enough?  Stop climbing the ladder and build your own.  Work life isn't your only life.  Fill it with good and ditch the bad.  You got this.

We’re one month down with eleven to go!  This year could be the best one yet.  Do what makes you happy.  It's that simple.  As I write this, I’m in a workshop surrounded by a pile of photos, negatives, cameras, new camera gear, a booking calendar, hot coffee, and two clueless dogs.  They’re just stoked to be a part of the action.  If you won’t take it from me, take if from a couple of happy dogs: surround yourself with good things.  It's a good year for change.

Hello, 30. I've been expecting you.

Oh the dreaded 30th birthday!  Fortunately, my hair didn't turn white over night.  My bones didn't wither away, and my skin still had a remarkable amount of elasticity when I woke up this morning.  Turns out, it's just a number after all.  

This time last year, I thought of the best way to experience the last time I would ever turn 20-anything.  I was already in Hawaii to show at a gallery in Lahaina, and I wasn't about to let my 20's go out on a low note.  I spent the first day of 29 hiking the East Maui Mountains, making photos, and soaking up every ounce of awesomeness my favorite Hawaiian island had to offer.  

This year, I decided to take a different route.  Sure, I could've bounced up to the mountains and hiked it up.  I could've hit the road on a customary Heath-style trip out west.  I guess I could've done whatever I wanted.  That's what birthdays are all about!

I wasn't feeling it this year.  If there was ever a time for a humble birthday, 30 was it for me.  I spent the last week working on the new studio, shooting the coolest, most unexpected shoot ever, and spending time with friends and family.  It's been a great week.  The transition to 30 was as smooth as a lizard on ice.

So next week I'll probably climb a mountain or jump out of an airplane.  Laid-back is overrated. 

Keep calm and turn 30, kids of '84. 

Studio Lighting: You Got This

It's only been three years since I first picked up a camera.  It feels strange to say that.  I’ve been playing with cameras since I was a kid, but it wasn’t until 2011 that I looked through a viewfinder with the intention to create something more than a snapshot.  

 Leave it to me to step out of focus!  It's what you get when a six pack of IPA meets shallow depth of field...

Leave it to me to step out of focus!  It's what you get when a six pack of IPA meets shallow depth of field...

Three years isn’t long, but I feel like I’ve lived a dozen lifetimes since then.  I never imagined learning so much.  It’s remarkable how much a person can learn when he or she actually wants to.  For the first year & a half, it was all fun and games.  I never imagined this as a career.  It didn't seem possible. But I stuck with it.  I was always told, “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”  I’ve heard it over and over, but I still credit that quote to my dad.  He said it first, so he might as well have coined it.  You’d think such momentum and change would naturally lend itself to an adventurous frame of mind in every aspect of a person’s life, right?  Nope.  In photography, I’ve been reserved.  Always learning, but playing it safe.  Camera + Sunlight = all I need.  In many cases, that’s true.     

For a long time, I considered myself a natural-light photographer.  Meaning, I prefer sunlight over studio lights.  Many photographers call that a cop out. Truth be told, it is - to a degree.  I’m a firm believer in education.  Not traditional education necessarily, but I do put a high price on knowing your stuff.  It’s perfectly fine to call one’s self a natural-light photographer so long as he or she does so by choice and not based on a blatant lack of education.  To be a photographer is to know light.  To be uneducated in such is a hindrance.  I faced that fact this summer.  And I changed it.

I’ve used modifiers, bounced light, and even tossed in the occasional make-shift lamp to throw a little spark into a shot, but real studio lighting was a concept I didn't care to mess with.  First came the cheap collapsible reflectors.  I still live and breathe by those things.  Second came rudimentary shop lights and department-store bulbs.  Finally, I sucked it up and dove in head-first.  Over the summer I challenged myself to learn studio lighting.  Not to simply know the concepts, but to apply them.  The idea always came with such a stigma.  I’m happy to report, I’ve put that stigma to rest.  

With a fair amount of YouTubery and a day of trial and error, the days of relying solely on the sun came to an end.  I'll tell you one undeniable fact I’ve learned.  It’s wonderful to know the ins and outs of natural light, but It’s a far more sophisticated method to create or add light as you see fit.  

Somehow I imagined endless calibration, light adjustment, and hours of frustrating nonsense.  Strobes (or speed lights in my case) were these elusive creatures rivaled only by leprechauns and white unicorns that couldn't be caught or controlled.  Terrifying?!  Not so much.  With a little education and a few adjustments, I managed to nail my first 100% studio-lit session without skipping a beat.

In all honesty, naturally lit, candid moments are the best.  But!  Studio photography is a horse of an entirely different color.  The possibilities are endless, and I encourage all my readers who have the same reservations to quit limiting yourself to the light that happens to be available and open the door to the possibilities of introducing and shaping light of your own.  So far, I’ve found a combination of available light and artificial fill light to be the best of both worlds.  

Normally, I would refrain from any topic that made me out to be a newbie of any kind.  Not for pride, but for the sake of education.  I don’t preach what I don’t know.  I could talk all day long about the ins and outs of natural light photography, but studio light has always been a ghost to me. So many people find the idea of studio lighting daunting and avoid the topic altogether.  In this case, however, it was literally an overnight change.  I encourage you all to venture into new methods and cross your own boundaries.  I’m sure, like me, you’ll find it was never that complicated to start with.  

Gear I recommend:  Click image for links



UMBRELLA DIFFUSERS:  This kit comes with stands!  


CACTUS RF60 SPEED LIGHTS:  These things are so far superior to the name brand speed lights, it’s not even funny.  And cheaper.  CACTUS all the way!  


The rest is gravy.

Have fun :)

The Great Unknown

We are all born explorers.  Not all remain so throughout life, but the instinct is always there.  For me, happiness depends greatly on the idea of having something to look forward to.  It can be something as simple as a new job or as monumental as a life changing trip around the world.  Regardless, we all require some element of mystery and hope - to know there's still undiscovered country out there.  I've always said "I want to know that, no matter how good or bad it gets, life has the potential to change."  It sounds simple enough, but let's not underestimate the power of change.  There is a Great Unknown.  We're designed to seek it out.  Not to question all things, but to actively answer the questions we have and questions we never thought to ask.  To adventure and explore.  To meet new people and experience new things.  To find some balance between comfort, exhilaration, and fear.

In The Beginning

There was much to do.  What should take months took a year.  Maybe two.  It was trying, no doubt.   To struggle for months and do without.  But in the end, the juice was worth the squeeze.  Because these days I do as I please.