Free PDF Resource-The Photo Evaluation Checklist

I believe composition is not only the most important part of photography, it’s the fundamental contributor to making captivating images that engage the viewer.

That’s why I think it’s also the most difficult part of creative photography, and it’s the area I spend most of my time studying and trying to improve. I also hear from many photographers and students that it’s their most frustrating challenge as well—whether on my workshops, or in talks, or in my Q+A days on Facebook.

In fact, I’d venture to say it’s probably the area you’d like to improve the most.

For me composition is like a challenging puzzle that I try to solve every time I go out to photograph. A even though I’m more comfortable with decisions now than I was a decade ago, I am always pushing myself to find ways to make stronger, simpler compositions. The difference now is that I enjoy the challenge, much like moving from a solved puzzle to a more difficult one.

Over time I developed a mental checklist that I use to evaluate my images, whether while I’m composing in the field or editing in Lightroom. I also use this checklist when I critique student images, and it helps me remain focused on the positives and use those as building blocks for improvement into the future.

I created a PDF document of the checklist to help you evaluate your images honestly and compositionally.

Enter your email in the form below to get it delivered to your inbox right away.

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I’m also in the process of developing some in-depth online composition courses that may help you in your creative path as a photographer, including interactive feedback of your images. Stay tuned!

Questions or feedback? Please share in the comments below.

Photo Journal: Catskill View, Hudson Valley


Catskill View, Hudson Valley / Canon 1Ds mk III, f/5.6 @1/160 sec, ISO 200, 180mm, no filters

I hike many of the same trails over and over again in the Hudson Valley, partly for the exercise, mostly because it reminds me of how fortunate I am to have access to nature’s beauty on a continual basis. Nature relaxes me, helps me think and see more clearly, and more than any other activity, gives me a sense of presence I don’t get anywhere else.

The camera comes along as a way to capture some of these experiences, to express in a medium what I feel when I’m aware of every breath I take. Time slows down from my perspective, and composition is how I try to suggest to a viewer what that feeling is like.

Because the location is often the same, it forces me…no, it invites me to look more deeply at what’s in front of me. I rather enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to capture the familiar because it trains me stay curious, and curiosity is often the key that unlocks creativity.

So once again I made the long climb up Mt Beacon, not expecting anything more than what I had already been given, another experience in nature. Once I got to the top however, I knew I had the potential for a dramatic image. Far off in the distance, I saw lots of stratocumulus clouds directly over the Catskill Mountains with beautiful golden light flickering in and out of the many ridges.

I immediately switched to my longest lens, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, because I wanted to capture as much of that drama in the frame as possible. My initial captures seemed too complex, without a clear sense of direction. There were too many colors, to much for the viewer to take in, and that’s where I start to simplify and remove all but the necessary.

I continued to zoom in until I had reached 180mm, and that’s when I finally decided to make the image into a panorama. By that I mean that I cropped in my view finder, ignoring everything below and above the center of the viewfinder. I didn’t stitch because I simply didn’t think I would have enough time to setup the camera properly and take the necessary images.

 

This was the scene when I arrived at the summit. Within minutes, the light started to filter through the clouds in the distance, throwing magical light on the distant mountains. That was my focus and I forgot about everything else in my peripheral vision.

This was my final capture, and the red rectangle shows what I approximated in my viewfinder as the final panorama.

Why a panorama? I thought he strongest composition needed to emphasize the interaction between the clouds, the mountains, and the light. For that to work, I needed to get rid of anything the didn’t add to that group of three things, like the extra clouds and sky above the main cloud, and the near foreground, which would just be a distraction.

Getting the right composition in camera is really important because any subsequent cropping would compromise print size. so I really made sure to double check my left and right edges and find a nice balance of the ridges from left to right.

The composition itself is all about rhythm and pattern, left to right, top to bottom. There’s the energy between the mountains and sky, and for that to work mainly due to the colors that pull you towards the center, from cool to warm. It’s a very simple image, yet so much going on so I think it’s the uniformity of the layers that make the image look and feel unified. Take away any part if the clouds or light in the ridges and that uniformity and balance is lost. 

Developing in Lightroom

My imported RAW file – notice that I purposely “exposed to the right” to take advantage of the sensors sensitivity and capture as many tones as possible. It looks washed out, but a simple reduction in exposure (see below) adds the richness I saw and provides a cleaner richer data file.

Notice how I recover the richer tones by lowering the exposure, but I’m working with richer tones and data because I exposed to the right initially.

Editing in Lightroom was straight forward, and the first thing I did was crop to the desired panorama. From there I optimized the tonal values using the white and black point sliders, added vibrance and clarity to taste, and added some subtle dodging and burning to the mountain ridges to emphasize tonal variation and increase depth.

The Print

Once again I selected a matte paper to emphasize the richness of the colors and light, and also add to the drama of the image without making it look “photographic.” I want to convey the feel of the scene, not the actual content, and for that a matte paper is better suited than a fiber or luster paper which will emphasize contrast and a literal interpretation.

Canson Infinity PrintMaking Rag seemed ideal since it’s subtle but velvety texture would complement the changing textures in the image, from the foreground to the clouds in the sky. Because the image relies on colors, shapes and tones for separation, the texture unifies the entire print adding depth and dimension.

Final print at 14×42 printed on Canon iPF8400 on Canson Infinity PrintMaking Rag 310gsm.

The beautiful texture of PrintMaking Rag adds depth and an organic look and feel that emphasizes the content and feel of the image.

I hope you enjoyed this photo journal entry as I try to deconstruct an image from my initial compositional thoughts to the selection of paper for printing.

Questions or comments, let me know! Thanks for reading!

My Favorite Tools For Getting Work Done

I often get questions about the tools I use to run my photography and workshop business.

So often we simply use a tool either because it’s been recommended, or it’s promoted really well, or everyone else is using it. But does it gel with the way your mind works? Does it let you see a path to the desired outcome? Or does it obscure your progress with confusing options that only make your work more difficult and less enjoyable?

I think this is the case with a lot of technology out there, and I’ve tried my fair share over many years, and been frustrated more than I care to remember.

But I’ve become better at choosing hardware and software that lets me work the way I want to work. And I’m very strict about using tools that make me want to use them for their elegance and usability, not their feature set or multitude of options.

I’ve shared my tools before, but this updated list has the ones I depend on day after day to get work done and keep the business operating smoothly and productively.

Workspace Tools

  • iMac 5K Retina (P3 Display) – my main computer for editing, printing, and all other photography related tasks. The P3 display is critical since it effectively makes the iMac a wide-gamut monitor, with a color space similar to Adobe98.
  • OWC Thunderbay 4 RAID (8TB) – my main external RAID(4-bay) where I store all of my RAW files. It’s fast and reliable, and keeps my data separate from my computer’s internal drive where I only store applications and other non-essential files. I also store my Lightroom catalogs on this drive. It also makes backing up my critical data easy since once I back up this drive, I know I haven’t missed anything.
  • Synology NAS (16TB) – my main backup RAID(4 bay), where I backup and archive all working drives (the OWC RAID mentioned above, video drives, etc). I also use it to backup my laptop, as well as all iPhones and iPads in the house (especially photos and videos). Because it’s connected to my network, it can be access anywhere in the house or over the internet remotely.
  • Como Duetto – I take audio seriously since good music is certainly one of my passions, and this wood grained 2 speaker system sounds amazing, plus it connects to internet radio stations and Spotify. It’s a bit expensive, but I got mine while it was on Kickstarter and it’s been great to listen to while I edit images or write articles.
  • Blue Yeti Microphone – great mic that I use for tutorials, webinars, and video.
  • Baron Fig Confidant Notebook – while I love my digital tools, I’ve come to rely more and more on a notebook and pen to keep track of ideas, thoughts, notes, tasks, and anything else I want to physically record.

Applications

  • Adobe Lightroom – image management, developing, and printing in one unified interface – my photo assistant.
  • Apple Final Cut Pro X – great video editing software I’ve use for every video project.
  • Trello – boards, lists, and cards – a great visual interface that lets me keep track of ideas, projects, tasks, workshops, and much more. Plus it’s collaborative and available on every device. Here’s my Canson paper board.
  • Evernote– a digital filing cabinet, Evernote keeps me organized and is also great for research, reference, saving items from the web, and so much more.
  • Alfred – essentially puts your Mac on steroids.
  • Ulysses – a fantastic app for Mac and iPhone/iPad where I do all of my writing.
  • 1Password – still struggling with lost or forgotten passwords? 1Password is the answer, available for Mac and iPhone/iPad.
  • Screenflow – easy recording and editing of my screen for tutorials videos.
  • Snagit – another screen capture utility I use for capturing parts of my screen as images I can share.
  • Mindnode – I use mind-maps for generating ideas visually. I use this for writing articles, teaching workshops. creating presentations, and any other project where I need to organize many ideas.

Online Services

  • ConvertKit– I’ve used many email marketing services in the past, but ConvertKit is easily my favorite and worth the cost. An email list is the most valuable resource for any online business.
  • Dropbox– the standard cloud storage app that makes sharing documents, images, and other files so easy.
  • Cloudways– my web hosting service where I host my WordPress sites.

If you have questions or comments about any of these tools, or you’d like to read more about a specific one, please let me know  below. I’m always happy to help whether you’re running a business or simply looking to improve your workflow. Thanks for reading!

Lightroom Image Management and Landing the Cover Image of Hudson Valley Magazine

The April 2017 issue of Hudson Valley Magazine features one of my images on the front cover, and I’m really grateful for another opportunity to see my work at the newsstand. This is my third cover image for HV Mag, you can read about the others here, and here.

This is also a good opportunity to share how I use the Library module to organize and manage my images so that I can access any image when I need.

There’s no question that without having a management system in place, I would not have been able to get the cover image. I often get requests from publishers and other organizations asking me to submit images for consideration, and almost always they need the images “yesterday.”

Being able to find specific images quickly is crucial because it makes my potential client happy and I also feel confident about fulfilling requests in the future. That’s important for both reducing stress and generating income!

My approach is fairly simple and based on this strategy which I’ve refined over the years:

  • Star ratings: I use star ratings to rate images from two to four stars. Two stars means it stands out from the majority of the images in a group or shoot. Three stars means it stands out from the two star images. And four stars (my highest rating as of now) means it’s am image I really like and would be willing to share as representative of my work.
  • Labels: I use different color labels to further classify images into specific categories.
    A red label means the image is part of my professional portfolio – images I sell as prints or license for limited use. For example, I have four star images of my family and of trees. The red label separates these further into personal and portfolio images.
    A blue label means the image is part of a stitched panorama.
    A yellow label means it’s an image “in progress” that I haven’t started or finished developing yet.
    A green label means I want to make a print of the image.
  • Keywords: This is where the real magic happens, and once you develop a basic system for how to keyword your images, it pays dividends the longer you use it. I keyword categories, family members, subject matter, locations by park, region, state, and country, clients, seasons, and any other category that is generic.
    I don’t add keywords that I might only use once or twice because that will lead to excessive keywords. But if I can use a keyword on 5-10 images or more, then it’s a good candidate to add. What’s important for me is to limit them so that they are useful, otherwise there are too many to keep track of.
    I also use hierarchical keywords extensively. For example, “Mt Beacon“ is inside of “Hudson Valley”, which is inside of “New York”, which is inside “US.” This means when I add the keyword “Mt Beacon” to any image, it gets all the other keywords automatically.
    This is both powerful and efficient and makes adding and filtering by keywords much less labor intensive.
  • Collections: I use collections to make specific groupings of images. For example, my online portfolio is contained in a collection set with contains collections for themes or subject matter, which is how I have my images categorized on my website.
    I use collections for every yearly calendar I make, especially since I might have to adjust those images differently for printing. I add virtual copies of the images to the collection and now have a separate set of images that I can edit freely just for that calendar, independently of the originals.
    I also use collections to keep track of every gallery exhibition I have done, images that have been displayed at trade shows, or images I have sold to certain clients, especially limited editions.

Finally, I use smart collections to automatically populate a collection based on what I want to organize. Here are some of my most used:

  • Smart collections of my children (matches images keyworded with their names that are two stars or more.)
  • Hudson Valley images (matches images keyword “Hudson Valley”)
  • Images than need further developing (matches images with the yellow label and four stars.)
  • Images I want to print (matches images with the blue label and four stars.)

Quick tip: in the Grid view, use the “J” key to cycle through the different views that show star ratings and labels applied to images.

As you can see, this gives me tremendous flexibility to manage and recall any image I need at any time. So when a magazine emails, I can respond back to them with little delay and have a much better opportunity of being selected, plus it imparts a sense of professionalism and organization that I strive for.

In the case of Hudson Valley Magazine, they asked for an image that would help promote nature and the outdoors. I first selected the Hudson Valley smart collection, then filtered by four star images which brought the number down to about fifty images.

I then looked at each and added candidates to a Quick collection, totaling about twelve. I then switched to the Quick collection, selected all of those and exported them using an Export preset that I made specifically for sharing images in Dropbox.

It converts the images to the sRGB color space, jpeg image format at a quality of 75, adds standard sharpening for screen, and renames the file with my initials at the beginning of the filename. It then saves these images to a folder in Dropbox that I then select and share with the client.

I did the finding, selecting, and sharing of the image in about ten minutes. Not bad for efficient workflow, and they responded that evening with a final selection which I then resent at the required higher resolution and larger color space. Because the image was already in my Quick collection…you get the idea, super easy.

The key to taking advantage of the full potential of Lightroom’s management and cataloging features is:

  1. Setup a system that is simple to start with and works for your needs.
  2. Commit to using the system-make it a habit. Add keywords in the import dialog, and then keyword soon after import. Get it done first, and it pays off big time later.
    Have some free time and a glass of wine? Sit down, put on some good music, and keyword older images which often leads to surprises and discoveries.
  3. Evaluate and modify your system over time as your needs change and your proficiency and experience with Lightroom improves. I tweak my system often to improve and make it more effective for me. But it’s mostly on automatic mode now which gives me the confidence to know I can find an image when I need it with little stress or time wasted.

I hope this behind the scenes look at how I use Lightroom inspires you to explore its great management capabilities. It is one of its core strengths that I think many do not take full advantage of.


Soon after I wrote this article, a request came in for images of ferns and similar vegetation, and farmland. Using keywords and ratings I was able to send a few images for review in about ten minutes. The client selected four. 

Questions or comments? Let me know below, thanks for reading!

Talking About Papers On The B&H Photography Podcast

I was invited to be a guest on the B&H Photography Podcast last week to discuss fine art papers and printing in general. We also had August Pross with us, co-owner of LTI-Lightside, a film and print studio in NYC. The idea was to present both sides of printing your work, either doing it yourself or using a print studio, and what some of the considerations are.

I really enjoyed the conversation, especially where once again I was asked to recommend papers for different types of images, and I answered like I always do; it depends on what you’re trying to convey to the viewer.  

It’s an interesting question that seems to perplex many, perhaps because it requires a hard look at your images from the inside. Why did you press the shutter button? It also requires an understanding of paper characteristics and how they interact with a photograph to create a look or feel.

I discuss all of these issues in-depth in my printing workshops, but I am planning a live webinar soon to answer any questions you might have about printing and photography in general. I will be announcing the webinar dates soon, so stay tuned!

Hope you enjoy the podcast!