Photo Notes A place to talk about making images.

January 17, 2015

On Contests

My books and my classes give me a reason to keep doing this blog. If you’re in Indiana I hope you’ll consider taking my Portfolio Workshop. You can see a little more information about this workshop if you check out this blog post. Thanks so much for your attention.

I seem to be judging photo contests more often. I would guess this is because I’m getting a more extensive network here in Indiana. Judging is always interesting, and occasionally inspiring. I’m usually asked to make some remarks about judging, as well as talking about the images. What follows are some of the things I think about photo contests.


First judging is capricious. Any individual judge has his/her particular experience as well as taste. So any contest that has multiple judges is likely to have more even standards than a contest judged by one person. I know that some organizations have standards for judging, but I think that the personality of the judge will still affect her/his choices.


Photography is not inherently a competitive endeavor; like ice dancing the results are much more open to interpretation than a 100 meter run. A photograph can be extremely personal and deeply evocative with out being a contest winner. I have images that look good to me, for personal reasons, that I don’t want to share. Photographs are a form of communication. Some photographs are able to communicate with almost anyone, while some images are only for a personal journal.


When I choose to enter a contest there is usually some reward besides winning. For instance the images might be published in a magazine or part of a show. I’ve also entered some contests to get my work in front of a particular judge. Usually I’m looking for an opportunity to promote my images or meet people. In addition I often enter contests that have an entry fee. When there is a fee people only enter their best images. I can understand that people only want the opportunity to share images with friends, but I’m not sure that a contest is the best way to do this. The whole business of winning and losing is not as important as communicating ideas, vision and feelings.


When I’m judging a contest I look at how much the interpretation or manipulation the photographer brought to the image. While there are may fabulous images that are technically just f8 and be there, I enjoy seeing images that the photographer worked for. I always want to see the photographer’s interpretation and expression in an image. Frankly I think it would be interesting to see a competition where everyone worked in the same location and had a choice of when to visit the location. Here’s the thing: many people take pictures, fewer people make pictures. I’ve included a couple of made pictures with this post.

disney 2 copy (1)

An image for a contest needs to be pretty strong. In most cases a judge won’t have time to become deeply involved with a very subtle image. You need to do a good job presenting your images matting and framing them. If you don’t present your images well it’s unlikely a judge will fully appreciate them. It’s my opinion that a neutral color mat: white gray or black is better for competition because you can’t control what will appear next to your shot. If I’m showing a more graphic image I might use a smaller mat to make the image space larger, but many images need extra space around them to isolate them from the surroundings. If two images are equally good, if such a thing is possible, that the image with better presentation will win. A good image, well presented, may often do better than a better image poorly presented. I usually use black metal frames for my images because are durable and separate my images from the surroundings.

jennifer solarization

One more thing, and this is a personal opinion. I don’t like canvas mounted photographs. I think that putting a photograph on canvas is a way of making a fake painting. My photographs are supposed to be photographs not paintings. If you would rather have paintings than photographs, or you think that paintings are better than photographs, perhaps you should learn to paint. If your clients will pay more for a photograph mounted on canvas then, by all means get canvas mounted photographs. Having said this, I think gallery wraps, where the image continues around the edges of the canvas frame can look good in some rooms, but I don’t think they are good for a competition. They are too easy to damage and they don’t separate from their surroundings.


If an image is good enough, and sufficiently better than the competition, than it can break any rule and still win. But good enough means pretty damn good. Things like the tonal separation in your print, sharpness and color are critical. It’s possible to have a good image on your computer and get a poor print. Before you enter a print in a competition make sure that print presents your image as well as possible.

knife   pepper

If you’re in Indiana you might be interested in my Portfolio Workshop. We discuss many of these issues and others. There’s more information about the workshop at this link. Also I’m putting some of my BetterPhoto lessons on my site. Please check them out at this link. If you’re interested in a One on One Workshop or private consultation please get in touch.

June 16, 2014

Portfolio Workshop January 28th, 2019!

The last Portfolio Workshop went really well. Why not join us  for the next one? We’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and we’re getting quite good at it! We’ll meet on January 28th at 6:30pm at my studio in Downtown Indianapolis. Read on for more details.
Making photographs might be a solitary experience, but as soon as you’ve made a photograph you’ll want to share it. As you gain experience as a photographer you’ll want to share your photographs more broadly, beyond friends and acquaintance. Of course you’ll be concerned about how other people perceive your work, or at least I hope you will. If you want to present your images to galleries or contests or businesses it’s important to learn how other people see your work. Frankly it’s quite difficult to learn this on your own. I’ve learned this for myself. When I look at my shots I remember the circumstances of the shoot, and this always colors my perception of the shot.


The above shot is a good example I made this shot for a hotel in Beverly Hills. The owners of the hotel and the designer weren’t ready for the shoot and there were other problems. So, while the shot is good, I didn’t put it on my website for quite a while because I remembered the problems when I looked at the shot. So choosing photographs to show is very difficult. When I do a shoot I have certain reasons for the shots, the reasons may be commercial, personal or something else. Because the first time I edit the shots the choices are based on the reasons I did the shoot. I sometimes miss a shot that has other possibilities. This is why I go back to older shots and review them again. That even happened with this shot:



The purpose of the Portfolio Workshop is to help you develop skills for editing and presenting your shots. There are different ways to present your portfolio, and presentation is important. I’ve seen a lot of people who only have digital versions of their portfolios. While a digital portfolio is good, I think you might also want a print portfolio; for one thing it helps you sell prints. More important you want to show various ways of presenting images to your client: digital, website print and more. These tools may be important to a commercial client. For instance I had a high end landscaping client that showed very large prints to potential buyers. He told me that he was going to be landscaping a couple of acres of land and you just couldn’t present that with a 4X6 inch print. Of course he knew he needed really good photographs if he was going to show prints that big. I have a 16X20 inch portfolio that I present to architecture clients; it’s been quite successful. I have a couple of portfolios on my tablet and even a few pdf portfolios my clients can see on line: and In the workshop we’ll be talking about the most effective ways of sharing our work. We’ll also talk about how to get people to look at our work. The shot below is in my16X20 portfolio.

Mark David

There’s a lot more to this workshop than listening to me pontificate about someone else’s photographs. This is a small group and everyone is encouraged to participate. The idea is to see how several different people react to your images. One object of this workshop is to develop a supportive environment where you can get detailed feedback about your images. Another object is to develop everybody’s skill communicating about images. This is always challenging to photographers because few photographers have a background in design. When you can better describe why an image works you’ll also create better skills designing and building images. Of course we’ll also share technical information about making images, but, in this sort of workshop, technology is secondary to developing our design skills.

I’m asking participants to bring two images to each meeting. This way everyone will get a chance to have an image reviewed and to comment on other people’s images. I’m sure there are people who would like to have just their portfolio reviewed rather than be part of this workshop. I certainly do portfolio reviews, but they cost more than $20. A portfolio review is static, this workshop will help you develop your skills as a photographer over time and build great portfolios. The Portfolio Workshop is a live experience. It meets once a month in my Indianapolis Studio.

You can start attending this workshop with just a few images. We meet once a month so you’ll have the opportunity to create more images for your portfolio and bring them to the workshop. You can use the workshop experience to help you decide what kind of a portfolio to develop, or you can develop several portfolios at one time. I’m always working on several sorts of images at the same time. I encourage everyone to participate, by bringing images and by giving feedback to the other participants. Sign up at the Workshop Page on my site. Please join in!

You can get my books through amazon or other booksellers.

Please visit my site to see my other workshops and to check out the Free On Line Classes!

May 28, 2014

I Updated!

Filed under: Large Format Photography,Marketing,Photography Communication — John Siskin @ 2:37 pm

I’ve often posted about the marketing I’m doing. I’ve just finished a complete makeover of my website, which is a very critical part of my marketing. If you didn’t just click over from I hope you’ll visit soon. I haven’t renewed the site in several years, so this update was overdue. I made a number of decisions about how my site should be seen and about who I want to attract to the site. While I know that many people are trying to create sites that are friendlier to phones and other devices, my site is specifically designed to be viewed from a desktop computer. That’s because I built the site for designers and commercial clients, and I expect they make decisions about photography while they’re at work. If I were looking for wedding, portrait or other retail clients I wouldn’t have made this decision. I think the biggest change is that the images on my site are larger, since I’m selling my services as a photographer I think that bigger images look better. I’ve left some text in the site to satisfy Google’s searching mechanism, but the site is really built to show images. I’ve included a couple of images that weren’t on the site before in this blog.

Disney work

It’s always interesting to review the images I’ve made. I find that I change my perception of an image as the experiences of making the image recede. Sometimes, if I had a good time on the shoot, my first impression is that the images are better than they might actually be, and the opposite is also true. Of course I also see how the business and techniques of photography have changed over the forty odd, some very odd, years I have been in the business of photography. While I know that many people think that digital photography is the most significant change, in my work I think the way that Photoshop allows you to manipulate images has had a greater effect. When I used to shoot transparency film for a client there was no way to change the image after the transparency film was shot in the camera, you really had to pay attention to what you did in camera. It’s easier now and you also have much more ability to create. I think the current toolkit available to photographers gives us great opportunities to make commercial and other sorts of photographs.

Horse 1

Of course I don’t always feel that digital imaging is the most personally satisfying way to make photographs, so I still do personal work with large format cameras. There are several posts in this blog about images I’ve made with my 8X10 Toyo camera. I can’t find a perfect explanation for what is so satisfying about making an image with a big camera, but I assure you that I find something special in working with a big camera. This is why I just bought an 11X14 camera. That’s right it shoot an 11X14 inch piece of film; each exposure is on about 154 square inches of film. Several people have already asked me if this is better than a digital image. Of course that depends on several factors. The 11X14 isn’t easier to use and in most situations it doesn’t make better pictures. However if you are making black and white images, whether on modern silver bromide papers or with hand coated alternative emulsions, it will make prints that are visibly different from anything you’ll get with an ink jet printer. There’s no way you can tell the difference by looking at a screen, you have to go look at original prints by people who used large cameras, say Edward Weston. There are many reasons: no enlarger, continuous tone, no grain and more, but trust me the effect can be quite compelling.

Perincamera #0001

The new 11X14 camera!

I’d like to tell you that I’ve already had good results with the camera, but there’s more needed than just the camera to make images. The fact is that I don’t have any film holders. 11X14 inch film holders are quite expensive, several hundred dollars apiece. So if you happen to know of an 11X14 holder that I can get for a reasonable price please let me know. The holder will be going to a good home. I think I have the other tools I need to make images: lenses, tripod and so on, but if you know of any tools for an ultra large format camera please let me know.


Recently a rather large number of people have registered at this blog, at least a couple of hundred folks. In fact I’m getting several new registrations each day. While I’m pleased and flattered that so many people have registered I’m wondering why? None of you have left any comments. Am I missing something? Well, regardless thank you!

Munchkin Inc.

In addition to supporting the blog by registering you can do more and increase your photographic knowledge! My books Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting
and Photographing Architecture are available at Amazon and other places. You can take a class with me at no matter where you are. I’ve had students as far away as Bangladesh and as close by as Indianapolis. Please check out these fine classes:
An Introduction to Photographic Lighting
Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio
Getting Started in Commercial Photography
Of course if you are in the Mid West you can come to my studio for a class. The next opportunity is the Portfolio Workshop on June 16 ( I’ve recently offered a Strobe Lighting Workshop and a Matting and Framing Workshop. I’ll offer these workshops and more soon. Please let me know if you have any ideas for more workshops. Also I’ll be giving a lecture/demonstration about photo microscopy at the Venture Photo Club here in Indianapolis on June 5. Please let me know if you’d like me to present at any photo club that’s local (that’s local to Indianapolis).

Thanks for your attention,

December 9, 2013

More Than Pressing the Button


To start I just want to quickly remind you about the classes: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting, Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio and Getting Started in Commercial Photography and the books:


People make pictures as a form of communication. People have been making pictures for tens of thousands of years, maybe for as long as there have been people. The oldest pictures that are still visible are made with pigments and painted in caves. These may not be the first pictures, but they seem to have lasted the longest. I suppose that pictures like the ones in caves might have been common, but time has washed them away. The reason I start with this idea is that the ability of a picture to convey information about the nature of things, or about feelings, is basic to humanity.  Of course this isn’t the only way we communicate, you’re reading this after all, but it is possibly the most basic way we communicate. Perhaps, because it is so basic people don’t receive much instruction in images. I’ve taken more English classes than I can remember, as well as other language classes. I’ve even taken classes in computer languages, learning to communicate with an inanimate object. Now, of course, I’ve also taken photography and art classes, I make photographs for a living after all, but every class I took about making images was an elective, not one was required. As a photo teacher I’m constantly amazed at how little insight my students have about how to communicate with images. Perhaps we should have more basic instruction in communicating with images.

As an example consider what is called the “rule of thirds.” The basic idea is that a line in your frame, particularly the horizon line, should run across the frame at one third of the way from the top or bottom of the frame. There are a few more considerations with this rule, like the idea that the places where the lines a third into the frame intersect are the most effective places to place the subject. If a photographer has any information about composition, this will often be the first thing he/she knows. Some of my students have followed this rule slavishly, even when it made an obviously bad image. Other basic ideas, like leading lines or placing the subject in a place where the eye will find it quickly are rarely known. Too bad, really. So many photographers have the idea that composition is an innate skill, something you do with your gut, rather than your brain. People often refer to this skill as the eye: “he has a really good eye.” We spend so much of our time discussing equipment and technique, but ignore the most critical skill, building better images. I think there is more to it than choosing what to make a picture of; how we present a subject is at least as important as the subject.

Another consideration is how a photograph itself is presented. If somebody shows me photos of a model mixed in with photos of their last vacation and a couple of pictures she/he took at an antique show, it’s going to make all the images more confusing and less effective. Choosing images that support each other builds a portfolio that is stronger than the individual images. Presenting the images in a consistent manner can also help strengthen the individual images. Most people I know are presenting their images in an electronic format, either on line or in a tablet. I do present this way this too, but I think it is a weaker way to show images. In general this presentation means that the images are small, and there is a sameness to reviewing images on a screen that you don’t have in a print portfolio. If you go to a museum or gallery you’ll notice that the size and frame of an image are part of the artwork. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and Guernica look depressingly similar on my computer screen, but Seurat’s painting is 10 feet long and Guernica is something like 25 feet long. So what you see on your computer screen is not what these paintings look like, unless you have a 25-foot screen. Maybe you think that these images don’t look very similar; perhaps you should go see them in person.

I’ve been tying to start a group here in Indianapolis that would work on building portfolios and better images. Frankly it’s not going very well. I’m hoping to find a group of around ten people who will commit to building a group of images that work together, or on portfolio groups. I’ll be working on a couple of things myself. I hope the participants will have new images most months. I expect them to discuss their reactions to the other participants’ images. Getting feedback from several people is probably the best way to learn how others react to your images. Also, it’s easier to listen to a critique from someone who is also building a portfolio and presenting images. If there are enough people then we could have separate groups for commercial work and fine art. So this is a group effort, not presentation where you sit back and watch.

I’ve attached images from one of my tablet portfolios. I’m going to present these images at facebook as well. Tablets are clearly a wonderful tool for an informal portfolio presentation. You can have an extensive portfolio with you wherever you go. You can choose different groups of images to show different audiences. Also you have some control over the way your images appear, at least because you can choose which tablet to buy. However if the tablet is the only way you present yourself you’ll limit your print sales, if nothing else.

If you’re interested in the portfolio class please contact me at or 317.473.0406. Also check out the workshop ( page of my blog for more information. I’m not doing a portfolio project on line, at this time, but I am still teaching at I have three classes there, all of which involve critiques of images as well as technical information. I hope you will check them out:
An Introduction to Photographic Lighting

Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio
Getting Started in Commercial Photography.


Please keep in mind that the classes and the books help to keep this blog going, so do your holiday shopping here! Happy New Year!

September 10, 2012

Shooting Large Spaces

Filed under: Film Technique,Large Format Photography,Photography Communication — John Siskin @ 9:35 am

I hope you’ll check out my books: Photographing Architecture and Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting. I hope you’ll get copies if you haven’t already. Of course you know that one reason for this blog is to sell the book and get you to consider one of my classes at An Introduction to Photographic Lighting, Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio, Getting Started in Commercial Photography If you’re in the Indianapolis area there are other opportunities as well. I’ll be teaching a class in commercial photography next spring at Ivy Tech.

This is an image I made with the Toyo on the 4X10 format. The original has a great level of detail. I made a couple of prints that were more than 6 feet wide.

Most of the time I try to make photographs. That means individual images that I create in whatever way is appropriate or available for that particular image. If I am shooting with my fish eye camera or my super-wide camera I am going to make images that have a particular view of the world. If I shoot with my new digital camera I can make images with a very extensive pallet because that camera is such a flexible tool. It is also possible to create a series of images that have an internal constancy because they are made in a similar way with a set of basic rules. It isn’t better to make a group of images in this way, but it is an interesting way to approach photography. I have made a couple of portfolios in this way, and I found the work and the results very rewarding.

This is a cyanotype print. I made the sensitive emulsion for the image and coated it onto paper. While the cyanotype is blue the Van Dyke print is dark brown or black.


I have decided to do a project that is a little more challenging in this manner. I am going to shoot large format images of public spaces here in Indiana. I will be shooting auditoriums, halls and religious sanctuaries. I may include such places as hotel lobbies or malls. I have seen many photographers shoot the remains of great buildings, but I think it will be interesting to shoot buildings that are in use. I want to shoot these places with my 8X10 Toyo Field Camera, which is a fantastic tool for architectural subjects. The biggest reason for using the 8X10 Toyo is that I can create alternate process prints with the large negatives. I have done considerable work with cyanotype images in the past, but in this case I expect to make Van Dyke prints. I will also be able to scan the images so that I can make very large prints from the same negatives.

This is a shot of a public space that I like very much. I hope to work with more images like this one.


Although I expect to shoot with the 8X10 camera I will probably actually make 4X10 inch negatives. The more panoramic format is well suited to the project and I can make two images on each piece of film. The 8X10 film is quite expensive, about $4.00 a sheet. I’ve decided to start the project shooting HP5 Plus from Ilford. I like the high ISO, 400 and the film has good detail. I considered Kodak T-Max, but it is much more expensive; also I do not know how long Kodak will continue to supply large format film.

This shot was made on my super-wide camera. It makes great images but isn't good for very large scans or alternative process prints.


In this blog entry I have picked images that are related to this new project either by subject or by methodology or both. The captions will give you information about the relationship between the image and the project.

Made with my super-wide camera. I am interested in how people interact with a public space.

One of the great pleasures of shooting a large format camera is the lenses. Both Nikon and Canon make very fine lenses for their digital cameras, but there is a more individual characteristic to large format lenses. Just the names: Dagor, Angulon and G-Claron conjure up a certain magic. I will start with a 165mm Angulon, which is extremely wide for the 8X10 format. I will also use an 8.25 inch Gold Barrel Dagor and a 14 inch Gold Dot Dagor, for my first shoots. I also have a 270 wide angle G-Claron and a 480mm Dogmar which might be used later in the project. I did some earlier work with home made large format lenses, which was quite successful. I may use these lenses as the project develops.

There are wonderful opportunities to shoot in public spaces.


If you are interested in large format lenses I am going to sell one that you might want: a 360 f5.6 Schneider Symmar. Please send me an e-mail if you are interested. I will probably put the lens on eBay soon. This is a fascinating convertible lens that is very fast. This is the link to the auction at eBay.

April 15, 2012

Blog Updates

Filed under: Indianapolis,Photography Communication — John Siskin @ 9:32 am

Amazon is shipping copies of my second book: Photographing Architecture. This is really exciting! Of course you can also get my first book Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting. You can download copies of most of my articles and some do it yourself projects. I teach three classes at BetterPhoto: Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio, An Introduction to Photographic Lighting and Getting Started in Commercial Photography. I hope you’ll check them out.

This isn’t really much of a post, but more of a note about my blog. I went through all the blog entries in the last few days and added categories. I hope this will make it easier to find things, but it did confuse the chronological order of the thing. The categories are on the right side of the page, at the bottom of the lists. Please let me know if they are helpful by sending an e-mail. I had to shut down the comments, unless you register, as there was too much spam. I added a few random shots this week; I hope you like them.

A couple of other updates: first I will be teaching for Indy Photo Coach soon.  I’ll be doing business consulting with them and a seminar class to start. Probably a lighting class as well. This should be a great chance to get back to live teaching! Also I’ll be teaching at Ivy Tech next spring: a commercial class. I may have a general photo class in the fall as well. One more local note: I got a local client from the walk through I did at the home show a couple of months ago. Now I just have to do more business promotion.

Of course if you’re not in Indianapolis you can still take a class with me at I hope you’ll consider these:
An Introduction to Photographic Lighting

Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio

Getting Started in Commercial Photography
I hope you’ll check them out. I have been told that prices are going up this year at BetterPhoto, so you might want to sign up soon.

October 2, 2011

Seeing and Lights

What you do affects the way you see. I don’t suppose this comes as any particular surprise. And yet I often find that I forget that I see through a filter of commercial photography. This means that my images are designed to read quickly. As I have been learning more about Indianapolis I have been seeing photographs that are very different from my way of seeing. There are a couple of reasons for this: first I am going to several camera clubs. This means I see other peoples’ photographs more often, which is good. Of course I look at a lot of student photos at BetterPhoto, but a lot of those are wig head shots. Another thing that is changing my way of seeing is that I am still lost a lot of the time. So I have to watch where I am going. I expect that my images might begin to change in the next few months.

The tools you use change the way you see. I can remember using a tripod for every shot as an exercise. Shooting this way slows you down and makes you pay attention to composition. Using a view camera changed the way photographers see, because you were always viewing the image upside down and backwards. Instead of paying attention to the overall composition I paid attention to the relationships between parts of the composition. I miss view cameras. One of the best sorts of tools to change the way you see is light. With lights, even just a dedicated strobe, you can change the relationships between sunlight and shadow. With a couple of mono lights you can create light that defines a subject in a new way. You can simulate room light by using soft light from above. You can make something completely different by lighting from below or by using a snoot. Of course I hope you are interested in learning how to use light, that’s the subject that I teach. You can take my class at BetterPhoto, or, if you’re near Indianapolis you can take the workshop I’m giving in a couple of weeks. One of the questions I often get, in my classes, is what should I buy? First, start with just one light. If you get several lights, at one time, you’ll have a tougher time learning to make it work. This is the list I give people in my classes:
Alien Bee B1600 or Calumet Travelite 750. There are other good brands as well. The important thing is getting enough power to enable you to use lights in a variety of ways. You can always reduce light output, but you can’t get more than you bought.
50º or 60º metal bowl reflector. This is the standard reflector, usually 6 to 8 inches. It spreads light over the angle covered by a normal lens.
1-45 inch umbrella, white satin with a removable black back. An umbrella with covered ribs would be better. The size and style of umbrellas is important.
2- light panels with 2-white cotton or white nylon covers. Also get or make a black cover and a sliver cover. Instructions for making light panels  are at the Camera Design page on my website.
Light stand. At least 8 feet tall, 10 is better.
Perhaps a background stand and a neutral muslin background.
Get a chinese Radio Slave. You can get these from eBay, search digital radio slave. Look for one that has a plug headphones or a guitar. For more on connections check out this article. The radio slaves from China are very attractively priced.

When you get a second light, you may get something with less power depending on what you shoot.
I would also get: A second metal bowl reflector, the same as above.
Barn doors and/or snoot Light stand, as above
2- umbrellas, one matching the one you already have, and the other a 60 inch umbrella.
Very short light stand.

If you add a third light I would get Metal bowl reflector, as above.
1 more light panel with a gold cover.
Light stand, maybe with a boom arm.
Barn doors or snoot if you didn’t get it before.
45 inch umbrella.

I’m still doing experimenting with marketing here in Indianapolis. Yesterday I went out and shot a charity event. While this isn’t the kind of thing I do often, it can be a good way to meet some new folks, and hand out a few business cards. I’ll be going to a couple of camera clubs this week. I need to check out the chamber of commerce here in Indianapolis. Of course I am still sending out e-mail, over a thousand sent out so far! I really hope you can take my workshop but if you’re not around Indianapolis you can take my class at BetterPhoto. I also work with a few people privately using the phone and e-mail. Please contact me if you’re interested. And let’s not forget the book: Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers! I hope you take good photos. Thanks, John

June 8, 2011

More Product Photography

Filed under: Commercial Photography,Photography Communication — John Siskin @ 5:30 pm

Big news here in the land of self promotion! My next book, Lighting for Architectural Photography, is now listed on Amazon. Of course you can’t get a copy yet, but you can order. And there was great rejoicing!  If you would rather order something you’ll get right away try my first book Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers which is at and other places. You can get a Kindle version or a Nook version also. I have no idea what they look like. Here is a sample chapter from the book. There has been nothing but good feedback on the first book, so I would guess that you’ll like it. Of course I still hope that you will please consider purchasing my fine art book B Four: pictures of beach, beauty, beings and buildings. Purchases of this book mean a lot to me, and it is also a fine gift for any occasion. I lowered the price a couple of weeks ago, and that has helped. As you know I teach for I really hope you’ll sign up my class: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting. Remember that the books and the class keep me updating this blog. I’ll be writing about product photography again this week. This could be the topic for book three, so I would appreciate your feedback.

Any photograph may evoke a feeling or a memory, that is something photography does well. A beautiful sunset over the ocean always makes a good photograph. It will always mean more to those who remember than sunset, but it will stir memories of sunsets in other people. But, in a product shot, this kind of emotional connection is not the first goal of the photograph, sometimes, such as with a new product, it isn’t possible. I think the first goal of a product shot is always to make the product real. So if the product is a toothbrush you need good detail on the bristles. You’ll want to make the plastic handle look clean and shiny. You can’t count on the imagination of the viewer to make your product look good. When NASA makes an artists rendering of what a rover will look like on Mars, it isn’t really a lot different from a shot of a BMW taking a tight curve in Big Sur. The idea is to make the object real, and then really exciting.

The first thing is focus, and you need enough depth of field to keep the whole product sharp. I have seen a lot of fuzzy product shots on eBay, and they don’t add a romantic look to a strobe or a pocket watch. Second you want the product to separate from the background, don’t put a blue product on a blue background. While I think about it, it is usually bad to make the background more vibrant than the subject. If your subject is neutral color and you put it on a bright red background then all that people will see is the background. Finally pick an angle that will give a sense of depth to the product. If you shoot a box of corn flakes shoot it so that you can see a little of the side and some of the top. This way you’ll show a box rather than just the front. You don’t want to make a shot you could get with a flat bed scanner.

The light is important. You can do a good product shot in open shade. Open shade is outside where the subject is lit by the sky, but not by the sun. This will create little or no shadowing on your product. The one problem is that open shade is that the light is blue; after all it comes from the sky not the sun. Sometimes you can get a better effect if you use the cloudy day setting on a camera or phone. Yes you can do a useable product shot on a phone. You can build better lighting in a studio. In this case you can control the shadows in a way that will help define the shape of the product. A really good product shot gives the item a sense of three-dimensionality.

One other thing that can make a product jump off the page is clipping it from the background. I find this a very tiresome chore. I usually use a company called Deepetch for this, you can also find them on Facebook. They just did a very complex job clipping parts of a house for me. It turned out great.

I did an article that discusses how to control reflection, very important in product shots. You can download it here ( You can see some of my other articles here ( I hope they will make you consider buying my books or taking my class at BetterPhoto ( Of course I also do business consulting. Let me know if you need help.

It looks like I will be relocating to Indianapolis in a few weeks or months. If you have any contacts, with clubs or business that you could share I would be grateful. If you would like to attend some lighting workshops in the Mid-West drop me a line at You can find me on Facebook and Linkedin, just in case you’re looking.

When I teach a class I ask people to practice. I suggest that they work with a Styrofoam wig head and cheap flood lights. The wig head is all white that makes it easy to see the shadows. The flood lights are easy to see and to manipulate. This gives you a sort of a lighting lab where you can practice and experiment. I still use the wig head when I get a new piece of lighting gear. I know I’ve said this before: musicians practice so they can play, why shouldn’t photographers? If you can only practice with a live model you won’t be able to take the same risks you can with a hunk of Styrofoam. Most models don’t have the patience of the wig head. So, if you’re thinking about a lighting class why not mine?, The better way to learn photography

May 16, 2011

Natural Light Again?

Filed under: Lighting Technique,Photography Communication — John Siskin @ 12:30 pm

Before we get to the blog, here is the self promotion: my book Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers is on Here is a sample chapter from the book. There has been nothing but good feedback on this book, so I would guess that you’ll like it. Of course I still hope that you will please consider purchasing my fine art book B Four: pictures of beach, beauty, beings and buildings. Purchases of this book mean a lot to me, and it is also a fine gift for any occasion. I lowered the price a couple of weeks ago, and that has helped. As you know I teach for I really hope you’ll sign up my class: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting.Remember that the books and the class keep me updating this blog.

I would guess that I have written about the words natural and artificial as they apply to light in the past. Every so often somebody says or writes something that makes me want to revisit the topic. When I’ve written about this topic in the past I have included images lit by strobes, this time I’m including daylight images.

Click on the image for information about the super wide camera that made this shot. This camera usees the Nikkor 28mm shift lens.

There are many places where the terms natural and artificial make sense, say with food or even gem stones. We put a high value on natural food and an even higher value on natural rubies. Which is better: natural granola or sugar frosted flakes? Would you be happier if someone gave you a one carat natural ruby, or a ten carat ruby grown in a lab? So the terms natural and artificial have an emotional value associated with them. I know several photographers who say that they are natural light photographers. I do not know anyone who uses that phrase who is also an expert at creating fine light with strobes. There are plenty of people who are good at using ambient light and at using strobes, but they seem to avoid the term natural light photographer.

I think the mercury vapor lights are bad light sources for making photographs. I don’t think I have ever made a good photograph with mercury vapor lights. When I look at these lights with my spectrometer I see only a green, blue and orange line. I have a bad attitude towards these lights. However if I wanted to work in black and white I might be able to do good work with these lights. A big part of why I don’t use these lights is my attitude. It might also be that you typically find these lights used as streetlights. Mercury vapor light doesn’t occur in nature.

The natural light sources that I see used in photographs are the sun, fire and rarely lightning. Bio-luminescence is also natural light, but I have never seen a photograph made with a hundred thousand lightning bugs in a really big jar.

Shot with my digital camera. The hazy sunlight is one of mt favorite types of sunlight.

Lava also counts, but it is somewhat difficult to control. Glowing wires do not occur in nature nor do tubes filled with fluorescent chemicals. As I have mentioned before, for most photographers it would be easier to differentiate between found light and light that you controlled (found light and made light?) or perhaps more usefully continuous light and instantaneous light. Most photographers have a much easier time using continuous light because they can see how the light interacts with the subject. Instantaneous light, this means strobes, but it would apply to the old flash bulbs too, requires an understanding of how light works before it can be used effectively.

There is nothing inherently different about how the light from a strobe works than how light from the sun works. However the strobe is much more portable and much easier to use with accessories. It is very tough to put the sun over head at midnight, even if you go to Alaska. A photographer needs to learn how to control and manipulate light so that you can start with an idea and capture it with a camera. In order to do this we have to practice and improve our tool kits.

Sometimes sunlight is quite good!

If you choose a tool, based on the manufacturer’s recommendation, and then take it to a shoot, you have a good chance of having problems. You need to test it first. Remember the goal of people who make lighting and camera gear is to sell you more gear, NOT to make you a better photographer. Recently I’ve had people telling me that shift/tilt lenses and soft boxes will solve photographic problems they have. I have these things, and have used them, and don’t recommend them. I note that the people interested remained interested despite my comments. Personally, I do not trust equipment manufacturers. I guess others do.

When I teach a class I ask people to practice. I suggest that they work with a Styrofoam wig head and cheap flood lights. The wig head is all white that makes it easy to see the shadows. The flood lights are easy to see and to manipulate. This gives you a sort of a lighting lab where you can practice and experiment. I still use the wig head when I get a new piece of lighting gear. I know I’ve said this before: musicians practice so they can play, why shouldn’t we? If you can only practice with a live model you won’t be able to take the same risks you can with a hunk of Styrofoam. Most models don’t have the patience of the wig head. So, if you’re thinking about a lighting class why not mine?, The better way to learn photography

April 9, 2011

What is Real Photography?

Here are the shameless plugs: my book Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers is on Here is a sample chapter from the book. There has been nothing buut good feedback on this book, so I would guess that you’ll like it. Of course I still hope that you will consider purchasing my fine art book B Four: pictures of beach, beauty, beings and buildings. Frankly purchases of this book mean a lot to me, and it is also a fine gift for any occasion. I lowered the price a couple of weeks ago, and that has helped.  As you know I teach for I really hope you’ll sign up my class: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting. Sign ups continue for the current session, please sigh up now.

This shot was meant to show the size and shape of the concrete dye.

I don’t know when the Kodak company first used the phrase “You push the button; we do the rest” but it must have been in the early 1900s. The Kodak company made possible a new kind of amateur photography: where the camera operator didn’t need to know anything about the technical aspects of photography. This, I think, is the beginning of the idea that what you need to be a photographer is a “good eye,” not any level of technical excellence. In the last few weeks I’ve seen several posts in which real photographers are complaining about those amateur photographers who are ruining everything. I think we ought to take a look at this sentiment.

First who are the real photographers? Photography is the most popular hobby in the world. How many people

I needed to use some of the light from the window, as well as strobe to balance this shot.

don’t try to take a picture sometime? I now have a camera in my phone, and I expect to have one in my next blender. Really I wouldn’t be surprised to see an oven camera that would e-mail you a picture of your food, so you could turn off the oven before it overcooks. Real photography is photography that communicates with pictures; that captures the memories of your days; and that sends pictures to Grandma. I would guess that without amateurs buying cameras we would still be using Speed Graphics, Rollieflexs and Nikon F cameras. These were cameras that were designed for professionals. Are there enough professionals in the world to pay for the design of a Canon 7D? Or consider it this way: a new Hasselblad H4D-60 costs $42,000, as much as new luxury automobile. A Canon Rebel XS costs just $550. I bet Canon is making more money. The thing professional photographers need to come to terms with is that Aunt Tilly, with her Nikon Coolpix, is the real photographer.

Since I’ve been doing photography the goal of the camera manufactures is to make better images for more people, people like Aunt Tilly. These people are amateurs: they take photographs for themselves and to share with friends. They want to remember the moments of their lives in vivid ways. I am a professional photographer that is I make money with my camera. Not just $5 or 10 from the occasional stock photo, but a living. If I am going to continue to do that I need to do more that tell potential clients that I have a good eye. As the manufacturers make better cameras I need to have skills that Aunt Tilly doesn’t have.

Back when I used film I had equipment that amateurs didn’t have: a 4X5 and 8X10 camera and lights. Business was better then, people with Instamatic cameras didn’t shoot product. But now the graphic designer I used to work for frequently has a new Canon. Because not only has Aunt Tilly got a Coolpix, Bob the graphic designer has a 5D. If Bob can shoot the image he needs for that ad he won’t hire me. The cameras are easier to use, and the images are better, and often they don’t need a professional photographer.

If we want to keep working, and I don’t know about you but I want to keep working, we have to bring more to the table than a good eye. I say this a lot, but what we have to do is be able to make pictures, not just take pictures. Aunt Tilly takes pictures. She finds something interesting and points and shoots. She’s like a walking scanner. Photographers need to be able to build a photo from concept to final image. This means you need to know how to create and control light, how to edit, how to work in Photoshop and how to work with a client. There are other things like framing and writing that can be helpful. If you’re doing these things on automatic, or if you’re sending them out, better look behind you to see if Aunt Tilly is catching up.

I added photographs that I used lights for this week. As I’ve mentioned lighting requires a considerable amount of craft, so Aunt Tilly won’t be catching up in this race any time soon.

I really hope you’ll consider taking my class at Sign-up are almost over, but if you sign up now you won’t miss a thing. I also hope you’ll suggest my BetterPhoto class An Introduction to Photographic Lighting to other photographers you know, or perhaps you’d like to give it as a gift? Amherst media sent me the cover for my second book, you can see it here, of course you can still look at my first book at Amazon ., The better way to learn photography

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