On Editing, Workflow, Gear and Other Questions

Photography workflow using Photo Mechanic and Adobe Lightroom

Since I have comments turned off on the blog, I’m sharing some recent questions that have come in from readers, along with my replies.

As an amateur photographer always looking for ways to improve, I was wondering if you might share some advice or recommend techniques for post production. The land and sky in your shots hold such gravitas. Any advice at all is greatly appreciated.

Thanks for the feedback. As I see it, no amount of post-processing can salvage a mediocre photo. So my advice is to work on getting it right in camera. The rest comes naturally. When the light is good, the composition works, and the photograph suggests a story or evokes a feeling, then the editing process is very straightforward: correct color, adjust contrast, and dodge and burn as needed to direct the eye to the focal point of the image, if there is one.

Can you describe your basic workflow once you’ve finished a shoot?

First I copy the images to my computer and make a backup. Then I review all the images. I use Photo Mechanic for both these tasks. (Lightroom is too slow and clunky for the reviewing and culling process, in my view.) I also enter most of my metadata for the shoot at this point. Once I’ve pared down, tagged, and rated or color-coded the set based on my preferences, I import the files into Lightroom. From there I organize and manage the images, typically making simple corrections (such as white balance and exposure adjustments) on the fly. Key images, those to be delivered to the client or otherwise shared, all get processed using Photoshop. Much of that work is actually done in Adobe Camera Raw, where I spend the bulk of my editing time (inside Photoshop). The files are then exported, reviewed, and delivered.

After seeing your setup, I’m thinking about getting the Canon 6D as a second camera. I realized if I’m shooting an event like the Blue Angels, wild stallions, or air balloons, how convenient it would be to not have to change lenses all the time. 

Yes, having a second (or third) camera body at events is essential to the way I work. If I were you, I’d hold off on buying a 6D though, because Canon will soon be announcing a new version of the camera, one that hopefully addresses what I see as its only real shortcoming—the poor autofocus system.

Which Think Tank shoulder bag do you have?

Mine is the Retrospective 10, which is awesome.

I have looked in utter admiration at your photography from Burning Man through the years. I’m looking to take an Olympus OM-D E-M1 to this year’s event. The only question I have is if you were to take only one lens to the event, which one would this be?

Thank you. I have a simple and straightforward answer for you: the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro. I think it’s the perfect one-lens solution for Burning Man.

I have followed your art online and bought the Burning Man book, both of which I admire very much. I am finally planning on attending and would bring my camera gear. I am bringing 2-3 small mirrorless cameras. My question concerns batteries and accessories. With no electrical do you bring a handful of charged batteries? Are there any special accessories you think are indispensable for shooting beyond the ordinary camera/lenses? I’ve heard you have to register the cameras and sign waivers etc. Is there anything special I should know or do to make my effort successful?

If you don’t have access to a generator or other power source, I would recommend bringing an off-the-grid battery (such as a deep-cycle car battery) to keep your cameras, phone and other gadgets charged). In a pinch, you can always charge your batteries using an inexpensive inverter for your car. And if all else fails, you can recharge your batteries at Media Mecca. They have charging stations for journalists and photographers. You’re right, you do need to register your cameras if you plan to publish or otherwise share your photos with the world. Burning Man’s image use policies apply to all published images, but not to use of photos on social media. Don’t worry, you can always request permission after the fact, if need be. Other things that might be useful to bring include compressed air and pre-moistened lens wipes. I always carry large Zip-Loc bags for my cameras in case I’m caught in a whiteout (which happens pretty much all the time!). Other things to consider bringing: business cards for giving to people when you take their picture, and a small notebook for jotting down people’s contact info and/or carrying releases. Have you seen Matt Freedman’s photographer’s guide to Burning Man? You’ll find it here.

Looks like you have at least a drone and the image quality makes me want to believe you’re running around with a Nikon D-Infinity with auto-focusable Zeiss ultra prime glass (exists only for you).

That’s wonderful and hilarious. If only!

Three Essential Zooms

Lenses

It takes more than great equipment to make a great image. You need artistry, skill, and often a bit of luck. But having the right gear is an important part of the equation.

I get a lot of questions about what’s in my camera bag. Here’s a look at three zoom lenses that are critical to the work I do in the field. They are not the only lenses I use — in fact, I have a special love for fixed-length primes, which I’ll talk about in a future post — but when I’m on assignment, shooting events, or doing spot news coverage, chances are that one of the following three lenses is mounted on my camera.

canon16-35Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II. Wide-angle lenses are challenging to work with. They require a sophisticated understanding of composition compared to standard lenses. It has taken me time to learn how to shoot wide — and to develop the confidence to get really close to the action. But this lens is a joy to use and has produced some of my all-time best images. Of the three lenses listed here, it’s the softest and produces the highest degree of distortion, especially in the corners. Doesn’t matter. It’s a rock-solid performer, one that produces consistently excellent results, images draw you in with their rich detail and stunning colors. Aside from the versatile zoom range, two things I especially like about this lens are 1) its relatively light weight (about one and a half pounds with UV filter, caps and hood), and 2) its incredible sunstar effects when stopped down (a function of its having just 7, rather than the usual 8 or 9, diaphragm blades) which means I can shoot directly into the sun, for example, or make sparkling long-exposures after dark.

canon24-70Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II. Canon released this lens in late 2012, replacing the original 24-70mm f/2.8 L, which I had carried around in my bag for about 8 years. While that lens was incredibly rugged and dependable, it was never much fun to use. In fact, even though it was probably the lens I used the most, it was the one I loved the least. When Canon came out with the new version, I had mixed feelings. It cost a fortune, for one thing. How could I justify spending so much on a lens that seemed so, well, plain and ordinary? But every review I read made it clear that the new 24-70mm was in a class of its own. And the image comparisons between the old and new versions made the choice obvious. I’ve now had the lens for more than three years and I can safely say that it’s the most versatile and optically superior piece of glass I own. It works for everything from product shots to press conferences to portrait shoots, producing rich, pleasing images that almost always impress with their clarity and detail. Whenever I’m limited to working with a single lens, this is always my first choice.

canon70-200Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L. Just about every photojournalist worth his or her salt carries a 70-200mm telephoto lens. It’s just hard to manage an assignment without it. Over the past decade, my 70-200mm f/2.8 L lens has gone with me almost everywhere. It’s heavy, weighing in at well over 3 pounds with the UV filter, caps and hood (not to mention the weighty tripod collar). But there’s no replacement when it comes to shooting concerts, lectures, plays, and other events where you need a close-up or a little extra reach. The power of the 200mm focal length is that it compresses distance, making it ideal for compositions that bring together multiple elements in the frame, making them appear closer to each other than they really are. Shot wide open, the 70-200mm can also help separate a subject from its background, making it perfectly suited for long portrait work. It has a very flattering effect on the human face and tends to produce beautifully out-of-focus backgrounds. It used to be my go-to portrait lens. But in recent years I’ve shifted toward shorter focal lengths which force you to get closer to your subject and therfore create more intimate images. The most common version of the lens has image stabilization, but I prefer the one without. I still have a steady hand and like the reduced weight of the non-stabilized version.

In addition to these three zooms, I have a collection of other lenses that serve a variety of special purposes, from a 15mm fisheye and a 35mm f/1.4 to a 85mm f/1.2 and 135mm f/2. More on these in a future post.

Like many photographers, I fantasize about owning other lenses. But the reality is that I already have more gear than I can carry in most situations. And when I need something in particular — such as a 400mm f/2.8 to shoot, say, a concert — I simply rent it.

The 50mm, My First Love

Canon 50mm f/1.4

Canon’s 50mm f/1.4 lens is one that I don’t often use in my professional work but nevertheless serves as a wonderful all-purpose everyday lens. It’s one of my most cherished pieces of equipment. In fact, I consider it essential and rarely leave home without it.

My love affair with the 50mm f/1.4 traces back to my earliest days as a photographer. The first camera I ever owned, a Pentax MV-1, came with a 50mm f/1.4 attached. For years it was the only lens I ever used.

As almost any photographer will tell you, the 50mm focal length represents a “normal” field of view on a 35mm film camera or full-frame digital SLR. It’s very close to how the human eye takes in the world. A 50mm is not exactly wide, but often wide enough if you take a step back. It’s not long, but long enough for most kinds of shooting—and certainly for making portraits.

When I bought my first digital SLR, I picked up a Canon 50mm f/1.4 to go with it. That was more than a decade ago and I still use the lens all the time.

Canon makes the the very same 50mm today, and it still sells for under $400. In the often pricey world of digital photography, I consider that a bargain. And, as I’ll explain in a moment, if you’re considering a 50mm this might be an especially good time to get one.

Meditation Mount in Ojai (50mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO 100)

I carry the 50mm around with me almost everywhere I go. It fits on my Canon 6D, just as it used to fit on my original 5D some years ago, and, before that, the 20D and Digital Rebel. Many times it’s the only lens in the bag. For street photography, casual portraits, and just about anything else that catches my eye, it’s an obvious choice.

Let’s be clear, the 50mm f/1.4 is not the best lens in any particular category. But because it does so many things so well, it happens to be one of the most versatile lenses in Canon’s extensive lineup. And because it excels in low-light conditions—from dimly lit rooms to dark concert halls to parties that carry on late into the night—it’s also happens to be one of the most useful lenses for everyday photography.

Fire Fingers (50mm, f/2.2, 1/500, ISO 400)

Among Canon lenses, the 50mm f/1.4 is not the sharpest tool in the shed. But it’s still very sharp, especially stopped down to, say, f/5.6 or f/8.

It doesn’t have the widest aperture and therefore doesn’t let in the most light or create the most dramatic out-of-focus areas. But close enough.

And it doesn’t have the same rugged build quality and smooth and precise auto-focusing that its more expensive counterpart has. But never mind. It’s plenty good.

Here’s the key point: it does all these things while weighing a mere ten ounces, fitting snugly into the palm of your hand, and costing a fraction of what other lenses cost.

Harper the cat (50mm, f/1.4, 1/1250, ISO 100)

I think the days of the big, heavy SLR are over. Cameras are shrinking. Today it simply doesn’t make sense to carry around a camera unless it’s light, compact and portable. Unfortunately, the most versatile zoom lenses are often the biggest and heaviest.

For me, the 50mm f/1.4 is a better alternative in most situations. It’s tiny and it’s light. You can take it anywhere and (provided you have it mounted on a smaller camera like the 6D) be as inconspicuous as ever.

Rumors have been circulating in recent months that Canon is about to revamp its line of 50mm lenses, perhaps doing away with the 50mm f/1.4 altogether. That would be a shame. And it means there might not be a better time to get one if you don’t already own it.