Category Archives: photography tips

Coming Soon, Leonor and Ben

Untitled HDR2

Sometimes photos still surprise me. I broke a lot of my own rules for this one. Overly popular location and it’s a multi-exposure HDR. And yet I dig it. HDR doesn’t have to be garish, if done right it can just show a great moment the way you saw it. And the right moment can happen anywhere with a great couple.

Lens: 35mm f/1.4
Camera: Nikon D3s


Woo-hoo! “Brenizer Method” (bokehrama, etc.) instructional video, produced by B&H!

Update: See an updated gallery of Brenizer-method images at Google Plus

So, there was this crazy technique I came up with and streamlined a few years ago to use the effects of a multi-layer panorama, combined with fast lenses shot wide-open, to achieve depth-of-field impossible with current lenses. Ever wanted to shoot with a 24mm f/0.4? This technique gives you the opportunity. I asked a few thousand people if they’d ever seen anything like this before and no one had, so I thought I may be on to something. Still, out of the tens of millions of photographers out there I figured nothing is new under the sun, so I worked and worked on different applications of this. How do I do a 20+ image panorama of moving objects like people? How do I do this with continuous lighting? How can I do this with flash? Along the way, people started calling it “The Brenizer Method,” and while I like to think I have a lot more than one method, I admit I am honored and amused by the way it messes with my siblings’ heads.

It’s pretty simple once you learn the process, but I find for almost everyone it requires hands-on, visual learning to really get it. I’ve wanted to do a really good video of it for a long time, and finally I got the opportunity with the great team at B&H Photo.

If you’re interested in learning more, keep this page marked — I’ll use it as my new home base of information about the technique.

PS: Yes, I know there’s no such thing as a 135mm f/1.2. A man can dream, can’t he? And yes, I know I talk with my hands. That’s why I weigh them down with heavy cameras.

Quick tip: One important thing that got left on the cutting-room floor. When shooting any panorama ALL of your settings should be the same shot to shot — your focus, your ISO, your aperture, your shutter speed, and your white balance, otherwise it will be a hot mess. If your camera has an “AEL/AFL” button set to lock both exposure and focus, this takes care of all the variables except the white balance, and if you’re shooting RAW you can correct that later.

Also, photographer Brett Maxwell has come out with a really handy spreadsheet tool so you can figure out the exact equivalent of you final shot in 35mm terms. For example, in the shot in the B&H video, taken with a 105mm f/1.8, the final frame acts like it was shot by a 49mm f/0.8 lens.

Further tips and links (Updated as I have time)

Software: I used Photoshop CS5 in the video because that’s pretty much the current default. Any Photoshop of CS2 or higher will do it, but strangely I find CS3 works better than CS4 or CS5. Since I do this so much, I’ve invested in Autopano Pro, which makes the process so much easier and can also batch multiple panoramas at one time, so if I do four or five of these on the wedding day, I can process them all at once very quickly.

To Tripod or Not to Tripod: I should do a review of pano heads someday, but since I tend to use this technique with people I choose speed of capture over the absolute perfection of a pano head. You tend to only get in trouble when shooting either really close to the subject or things like stairs or railings, both due to parallax error. Good stitching programs, which you’ll need to correct for the vignetting of shooting wide-open, also correct mild parallax as long as you overlap your images by at least a third.


Nikon Tilt-Shift review Part 1: On Camera Movements, And Trends in Photography


UPDATE: Part 2 of this review is here.

For decades, Nikon’s line-up of tilt-shift lenses had been sorely lacking, particularly in the wide-angle designs useful to architecture and interior photographers. But in 2008 they stepped it up in a big way with the release of three new designs, the Nikon 24mm f/3.5, Nikon 45mm f/2.8, and Nikon 85mm f/2.8. These lenses all included:

  • The ability to tilt the front of the lens up and down or side-to-side, dramatically altering the angle of the focal plane
  • The ability to shift the entire lens, providing dramatic changes in perspective (such as keeping the lines of a building parallel even if you are looking up at it) and
  • Nano-crystal coating, meant to reduce certain kinds of flare

I have a lot of experience with the 45mm, and thanks to the kindly folks at B&H, I’ve been shooting with all three for long enough to get a really good handle on their performance. This review is aimed at people who might be interested in buying or reading about these expensive, specialized lenses, so if you have no idea what a tilt-shift is, some of it might be over your head. But you can always read this article at Wikipedia and come back. I’ll wait.

OK. Are you ready? Because this review is going to get a little wild. You see, I believe that once you’ve been a serious shooter for years and internalize that “gear is just a tool,” you know 98 percent of what you need to know about a lens from its specs. I’ve never used the new Nikon 50mm f/1.8G, but I know what 50mm is, and I know what f/1.8 is, so I know 98 percent of what I need to know. The biggest other things that matter are build quality, mechanical performance (such as autofocus speed) and how it looks wide-open (almost any lens is good in the middle apertures). So I tend to spend the first part of a review talking about what the lenses can mean for your photography. And on the subject of tilt-shifts, I have a lot to say — so much that I don’t want the actual discussion of the lenses’ mechanics to be buried by my rambling, and I’m breaking this into two parts.

On the plus side, that means that this article has wider applications, such as for Canon’s 45mm t/s.

100826 200900 45mm f2 8

New possibilities
First of all, a caveat: I know there is nothing new about being able to move pieces of your camera around for perspective and focal plane control — that predates film. And I know that photographers who have been using large-format for years will be slightly amused by discussions of the things that we can do with tilt-shifts the same way I feel about photographers who are amazed by this great new thing called film cameras. But it’s good to keep our minds open. The above shot was helped along by the high ISO capabilities of the Nikon D3s, and it’s a heck of a pain to stitch a bunch of tilted large-format shots together..

At first, I may seem a strange choice to review tilt-shifts, because I shoot people and moments and revel in chaos, while we have tended to use these lenses for very meticulous photography work such as architecture, product photography, landscapes, etc. But a lens is just a tool, just a product of its various capabilities. One of the things that bothered me about tilt-shifts as a product for a long time is that if you think about them just as a tool to create interesting blur, then are are many cheaper ways to do that, from Lensbabies to freelensing to just faking it in Photoshop. But there are advantages to a careful photographer having a precision tool.

First of all, a good tilt-shift is overdesigned. Its image circle is way bigger than it needs to be just to take a picture, and the elements that move relative to each other have been meticulously planned. This means you tend to have way more control with a tilt-shift then with freelensing, getting exactly what you want in-focus and out-of-focus, and also being able to have a lot more capability to create interesting effects even if your subjects are far away from you. One of the photographers who swayed me toward liking tilt-shifts was Ken Kienow, who noted in a discussion that even if you’re using it “wrong,” tilt-shifts are still about what’s in focus as much as what’s out of focus. For example, here the couple was really interested in the bridge a mile and a half away. With a normal lens, I’d either have to composite two photos or shoot at f/22 and hope for the best. Instead, it was easy:

110410 165035 85mm f2 8

Or this couple, where the bride-to-be had a second love affair with her Christian Louboutins:

100826 194911 45mm f2 8 2

(and that was night-time, so good luck with f/22)

But the thing that really started to win me over was a simple realization: Tilt-shifts allow your camera to work the way the eye really sees.

There’s a reason we’re so drawn to fast lenses that create shallow depth-of-field. Something happens when you take a three-dimensional world and cram it into two dimensions. If you’re not careful it looks flat and lifeless. Why? Because the really important sight organ isn’t the eye, it’s the brain. I’ve read a million debates about what focal length “sees like the human eye” — is it 50mm? Is it 24mm? To me, these debates miss the point. When you’re seeing things in the world, your brain focuses your attention. Right now I can see every part of my gigantic 30-inch monitor, and beyond it — I have a huge field of view. But the only thing I’m actually focused on is my tiny cursor, one letter at a time. Sometimes we take in the entire scene, but often nothing else matters. It’s there, we notice it, but it’s just background noise while we see a great sunset, an oncoming car, an enticing glance. And your brain doesn’t care at all about a flat focal plane.

That, to me, is interesting.

110402 123935 85mm f2 8

On trendiness:
Now I must admit the other reason it took a while to win me over to tilt-shifts: A lot of other people in my field were getting into them at the same time. When I see a lot of people zigging, my natural inclination is to zag. Some of it is just business sense — if you’re the same as everyone else, the only reason someone would hire you is because you’re cheaper. But some of it is because I constantly remind myself that as a wedding photographer I am creating work that will still actually matter 30 years from now, and I don’t want people to look back at it and say “Oh … that’s so 2011.”

What I try to have it come down to is that if the content of the photo is good and the effect just enhances it (or doesn’t get in the way of it), then the photo has lasting value. But if the photo is only about the effect, then there’s a good chance I’ll come back to it in five years and say “What was I thinking?”

A good analogy, and one that also applies to weddings, is fashion. A good, classic men’s suit is something that you can look back on decades later and not be embarrassed by, because it’s not about the suit — it just does a job, using good lines and tailoring to make you look darned good. But an orange floral-print leisure suit was all about itself, and any pictures of that have probably long since been burned.

Fisheyes were the tilt-shifts of five years ago — a genuinely useful lens that does things other lenses can’t, but also very easy to abuse. I have some old fisheye shots that I still really dig, and some that … not so much … and it all comes down to content. Content is king.

100925 135626 45mm f2 8

On to Part 2!


Alone in the Dark


Here’s another from my series I like to call “Well, I’m in Texas, let’s get some models and see what kind of photos we can make by tearing apart hotels.” (I’m not that great at naming collections.)

Here I wanted to explore some different things in content and technique (which, of course, heavily relate to each other). To bring in the exterior lighting where I wanted (the greenish one), I had to shoot at very high sensitivity (f/1.4, 1/60th, ISO 4000), and augmented it with the blue light of an ungelled Litepanel MicroPro. That meant making the interior light as dim as possible — throwing two thick red towels over the desktop lamp that works as the key light.


Photo of the Day: Focus on the Moment

There is nothing with such stark a connection between the power of the moment and the lack of power of the resulting photography as someone giving a heartfelt speech at a podium. I sometimes mix it up with freelensing because it’s hard, and thus rare, and it sticks in corporate clients’ minds who haven’t seen it before. I know my buddy Sam Hurd likes to do this in the DC press pool, and gets a lot of strange stares. Sorry for any bad influence, Sam.

Lens: Nikon 85mm f/1.4D
Camera: Nikon D3s


Greetings, Photoshop and Lightroom followers, on the “Brenizer method”

The official Facebook and Twitter pages for Lightroom and Photoshop, with more than a million followers between them, are discussing the “Brenizer method” of stitching for depth-of-field purposes today. The actual links are a bit twisted around, and it might be hard for people to find their way to my content, but still, there might be some new viewers here today. So hello.

I have plans in order to do a proper video tutorial on this, but my photography clients come first (and I have a lot of them), so I’ve put it off until late fall. But here is my original post on the matter, and you can see a lot more samples here.

In the meantime, here’s an old video laying it out. Sorry for the terrible sound, and my hair at the time:

On the fun side, I’ve often wondered why, with eight million viewers to my photo stream on Flickr and many more on my blog and Facebook, I get so little hate-mail. Exposing this to a million new people today might change that. Greetings! But to head the hate-mail off, no, I didn’t come up with the name. I called it “bokeh panoramas.” I like to think I have more methods left in me.


Video: What’s in My Bag (and Why?)

I just made another massive contribution to Nikon’s bottom line, replacing my trusty D3, which I essentially ground into dust, with a second D3s. This meant that every last piece of gear I owned the last time I made a “What’s In my Bag” video has been sold, lost, stolen, or (mostly) broken. Every flash, lens, camera, everything. So here’s another one. More important than the gear are the reasons behind it — I try to only bring what I can carry to most weddings, and like to travel overseas without checking bags, so everything is carefully planned to give redundancy without taking up needless space.

The short list, for gearheads:

Cameras: Nikon D3s (x2)
Flashes: SB-900 (x3)
24mm f/1.4
35mm f/1.8
COMING SOON: 35mm f/1.4
50mm f/1.2
60mm f/2.8 Micro
85mm f/1.4G
135mm f/2 DC
70-200mm f/2.8 VR II
Memory cards: 16GB Sandisk (x4)
Sledgehammer of Light: A Manfrotto 682B and Lastolite triflash
Umbrellas and Lumiquest mini-softbox (not in video)

I also have a bunch of White Lightning studio gear, but I only bring that to weddings when there is a very specialized need, or for photo booths.

This is the point where I note that one of the advantages of living in NYC is that my apartment is made darned hard to break into.


Photo of the Day: Video Light in Your Pocket

Video Light in Your Pocket

If you have an iPhone 4, apps like "Flash Light" can keep the LED flash on for a much stronger light than just using the display. If the best camera is the one that you have with you, so is the best off-camera light.

This works with any phone with an LED flash, as long as there’s a way to hack it to leave it on.

And it’s easy to mount:

100717-101405 24mm_f1.6


Unsung Heroes of Wedding Photography: Fred Rogers

If you want to know anything about why wedding photography is important, a good place to start is this guy:


Yes, Mr. Rogers. As I go forward in this industry, as, after 120 weddings or so, I can no longer see myself as a fresh young upstart, I’ve been thinking a lot about the focus of my photography, the meaning, the whys more than the hows — and it’s hard to think of a better role model than Fred McFeely Rogers.

Now, people familiar with my MacGuyver obsession may say that I was overly influenced by the television I grew up with, and you’re probably right, but hear me out. Fred Rogers was about as close as 20th Century America has to a living saint. He was one of the most famous people on the planet, but as far from a “rock star” as you could ever imagine. He lived simply, and he never lost sight of what his work was really about — primarily the education of children, but also imparting the central message that we are unique, and that our uniqueness is wonderful. And nothing got in his way — with kindness and determination, he saved public television and he saved the VCR, because they helped him do his work. If you have never seen the video of him testifying before Congress, watch it. It’s amazing — his earnestness and intelligence utterly melts away the cynicism of career politicians for one of the few times in recorded history.

He was the antithesis of cool. He was skinny and nerdy and drove an old car, and he wore the same sweater all the time. But cool didn’t matter — he had a job to do, and it was important. Watch his acceptance of a Lifetime Achievement Emmy. Watch him stand before a lot of cool people and remind them that there is something so important.

We are in the middle of a deeply weird change — wedding photography, the red-headed stepchild of artistic photography, is becoming cool. People want to do it, people look at you approvingly when you tell them that you do it for a living, heck, you aren’t even publicly shamed quite so much at art schools if you dabble in it. This is awesome, and amazing, and has opened up so many new possibilities for photography in the industry. But I always try to remind myself that what we do is more than cool. By documenting the one of the most important days in someone’s life, we are writing social history for our clients, for their friends, for their families.

I spend a lot of time at most weddings just looking for perfect expressions. These photos are rarely cool and virtually unpublishable — they don’t tell much of a story, they don’t help future brides plan their wedding, and they don’t really help other photographers learn how to take good pictures. But when a couple comes up to me and says “This is the first picture of my mother I’ve ever seen that actually looks like her!” I feel like just maybe I’ve done something important.

People let us in. At weddings, between the joy and the anxiety and sometimes the alcohol, the walls that we walk around with come crashing down. In many ways, people are most themselves. We have the opportunity to document their uniqueness, the way they express joy, and that is something I want to stay focused on. Beyond the cool portraits, the Brenizer methods and flash composites and jaw-droppingly expensive equipment, sometimes I take photos of people that look like who they are, and I love them.

As he said in his acceptance speech: “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. … Think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.” In other words, the people who we invite to share our wedding days. That is exactly the thing we have the power to document.

There’s no one way to do things. As I said, being super-cool has opened up so many new possibilities, allowing all sorts of couples to get photos that represent their style of expression. Be the Fonz of wedding photography, the Jack Kerouac, the Robert Capa, the Annie Liebowitz. I want to try to be more like the Fred Rogers.



Flickr Group: “Lit by iPhone or iPad”

I love Flickr, but I think it’s been four years since I started a group there. I’m blessed to be busy with awesome clients, so I only participate in a couple existing groups. I mean, there’s a group for the Brenizer Method out there, and I didn’t even start it! But I’m a big Apple dork, and I know how many people out there love their iPhones (I shot for FOUR iPhone app developers last year!) so I’ve started a group for shots lit by these miniature softboxes. If you have any photos like that, feel free to join the party.


Photography tip: Fun with t-stops

Here’s a quick descent into geekdom. I’ve seen hundreds of new macro lens owners run to me with the same question: "When I focus closely, my maximum aperture closes a LOT! Is my lens broken? Was it made cheaply?"

Nope. In fact, your aperture isn’t really changing at all. All that happens is that to come up with a good, general-purpose macro design, there is a trade-off that at super-close distances, a "bellows effect" means that the lens is less effective at transmitting light. (Something that’s measured in t-stops) Note, though, that the aperture of the lens isn’t closing down (measured in f-stops). But new lenses and cameras are smart, so they let you know "Hey! You’re not getting as much light as you might think, and you’ll want to adjust for that!"

Confused yet? Maybe this video will help. We start out with a way-out-of-focus image of a nickel, and there’s a big ol’ blown highlight. Note that as I use the Nikon 60mm AF-S macro to focus all the way in, the exposure gets darker, and the blown highlight goes away. But the *aperture* doesn’t change — you don’t all of a sudden see more depth-of-field.

So don’t freak out when you buy a new macro, but adjust your ISO or flash power accordingly when shooting close-up.


There Are No Rockstar Photographers

One of the attendees of my workshop told me this little anecdote that I absolutely loved. A friend of his is a teacher at a high school, and asked her students one simple question: “Can you name any photographer, living or dead?”

Silence. One student picked out a business card someone had given him and read the name off it.

If that doesn’t sink in, let me put it another way: In American culture, “The Situation” from Jersey Shore is way more famous than any photographer in history. Let that sink in for a bit.

At best, this entire industry has one rock star (Annie Liebowitz). Also, one classic pop diva ignored by the hip young masses (Anne Geddes). And I’ll give you Ryan McGinley as an indie hit.

There are a lot of things to take away from this — yes, you can bemoan a lack of education in the arts. But I LOVE it. Photographers aren’t important — their work is. Honestly, I couldn’t pick Richard Avedon, Alfred Stiglitz, or even modern masters like Steve McCurry out of a line-up — but I know their work inside and out. The Internet makes everything personal, turns everything into self-publishing, making the individual more important. It opens new opportunities, but it can get things twisted around.

Why does this get under my skin? It’s not a matter of individual behavior — most really well-known wedding photographers are the nicest people you could hope to meet. And, as the ad above shows, lots of industries have “rock stars.”

It’s all about what people aspire to. Is what really drives you to become more and more famous, or to do better and better work? Maybe fame is simply supplanting money as a form of currency — there have always been people out simply to get rich — but the central problem is that I believe that what wedding photographers do is more important than what many rock stars or celebrities do.

We aren’t important, but our work is. Love what you do and do it well, and you will spend a lifetime crafting the memories and social histories of people on the most important days of their lives. You will take photos that make children gape in amazement that their parents were so beautiful, you will take photos that will be laid with people in their caskets, you will take photos that can make people cry even if they don’t know the people in them.

Is that really less important than being the drummer for Nickelback?

UPDATE: Mark leaves a fantastic story in the comments: “I teach a HS class in photography. When I asked my kids to name one photographer they all said Ashton Kutcher. Then they saw a grown man cry!”


Photo of the Day: Through the Veil


Remember Timoria and Bob? What a great couple, and a fantastic wedding.

I hate back-tracking. If I miss an exit, I’ll probably look for the best route forward, 10 miles out of the way, instead of just turning back. And so it is with equipment. I just don’t like the idea of replacing a broken lens with the same darned lens. Lenses are tools, and they all give us their own unique way to see, so why not try new things? The 24-70 broke again? Fine. Sure, it’s maybe the best, most useful lenses ever made, but that can also make it boring if you’re not careful. Let’s try some new ways of seeing. Wider, longer, faster. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 broke? Ouch, that one hurt. Not only did I love the thing, but I got one of the very first copies ever on American soil. I literally picked it up at the warehouse for the first shipment (a post-apocalyptic place in East Williamsburg).

So instead of new, let’s go old. My new, old way of seeing is the Nikon 50mm f/1.2. It’s a manual focus lens, but I’ve always liked working with it (the photo above was taken with my assistant’s 50mm f/1.2). I’m always either shooting or looking for the next shot at a wedding, and putting that tricky beast means a little more looking, a little more breathing, with rewarding results.

Plus, as a quick tip, you can always buy great lenses used and not feel bad about the price, since you can sell them to someone else for the same cost. Unless, of course, I break it. There’s about even odds for that.


Bonus Photo of the Day: Goddess Ascending

100113-213807-24 mm.jpg

I’ll try and get up as much new content this week as I can. Here was a photo I took in my recent foray to Nashville, with fellow photographer Lynn Michelle as the model. I bought a Lastolite Triflash to hold three SB-900 flashes at once. Usually people just use this to pur a giant amount of light on in one direction, but here I used it from behind her to send two beams of light out to the sides and one back toward me, making the light fill and shape the area.