I’ve been a big fan of John Shaw’s work for over 25 years, ever since I bought his book, The Nature Photographer’s Complete Guide, which is now unfortunately out of print. (I’m also kicking myself for not remembering to bring it for him to sign. Augh!) I’ve bought nearly every book he’s published, along with a couple of eBooks. John is one of a few photographers that’s on my life list to shoot with.
At any rate, I’ve always wanted to take a workshop with John but either the timing or the money wasn’t right. I’m sure you know how that goes. And his two-day seminars aren’t often in this neck of the woods, either. So when I found out that he was scheduling one in Cincinnati this year and it was just $225 for both days, I jumped on it. Cincinnati is only about 2 hours from me, so it was certainly close enough to make the trip.
The seminar was divided into two segments, corresponding with each day. The first day was about nature photography; John’s techniques in the field and using his camera to capture the images. The second was about John’s digital workflow after image capture, using Lightroom and Photoshop. Now I’m not going to go into the whole thing, but I thought I’d tell you a few of the things I learned that I didn’t know before. Some of these may be new to you; some may not. Some may apply you your style of photography; some may not.
“Mind the gaps.” No, we’re not talking about the British railway system. There can be places in your images where objects may intersect which detract from the composition. The obvious example is the tree growing out of Aunt Betty’s head in the family photo. In other photographs, it might be where an object is just barely touching another— no space between them and no obvious intentional overlap. So pay attention to the intersections and make sure there are gaps between objects where appropriate.
Using filters for digital
John uses only two types of filters with digital: neutral density filters (+7 and +9 stops) and a circular polarizer. (In fact, he carries two identical polarizers, due to an unfortunate incident at the Grand Canyon. Let’s just say I know where you can find a free 77mm circular polarizer.) No neutral density grads (“I can do that in Photoshop/Lightroom.”) or warming/cooling/etc. filters, but reducing glare on wet tree leaves or eliminating reflections in the water is something that you can’t (yet) do in LR/PS. Only a polarizer can do that. What’s his advice for determining how far to turn a polarizing filter? “Turn it until you say ‘Ooooh!”
John’s philosophy on photo manipulation
“Photography is not reality.” No camera is capable of recording reality. By definition, a camera takes a three dimensional scene and creates it in two dimensions. That’s a manipulation of reality. Personally, he does not make composite images (other than panoramas and HDRs), but doesn’t feel that it’s wrong to do so. However, you should certainly be transparent about what you’ve done to an image if asked—and, especially, don’t misrepresent it as non-manipulated— but there’s no reason to explain every image.
Think of color spaces like boxes of crayons. If sRGB is like the 8 color set, then Adobe RGB is the 64 color set, and Pro Photo RGB is the 256 color set. Always start with the largest color space you can and reduce it only when necessary. (It’s also critical to calibrate your monitor to maintain color fidelity throughout the process.) You can usually use Adobe RGB for general work, unless you plan to stay in high-bit images throughout the workflow, then use Pro Photo RGB. When you send files to clients, use Adobe RGB. John uses sRGB only for the web. Also, if you’re shooting RAW, those files do not have a color space. Even though you set one on the camera, it’s meaningless for RAW files.
Make sure you’ve set LR and PS to the same color space, if you’re using them both. Otherwise, they will ask you to convert to that color space, which you don’t necessarily want.
Expose to the right for digital (RAW)
As I’m sure you probably know, you should expose digital images so that as much information is on the right side of the histogram. This will usually make the image on camera’s LCD (and the initially imported image) look rather overexposed, depending on the subject. Once the file is in LR or PS, you can map the histogram data back to the place where the image looks correct. If you underexpose, then attempt to pull the data from the left side of the histogram, it will create a lot of noise in the image.
Very few reasons to shoot RAW + JPEG
“If you shoot both at the same time, one of them will be exposed incorrectly.” This is a corollary to the “expose to the right” for RAW files. If you do this to properly expose the RAW file, the JPEG will be overexposed. If you expose for the JPEG—which is the preview image on the back of the camera—the RAW image will be underexposed. To John, the only people shooting both are photojournalists who are transferring JPEG files immediately to a wire service (perhaps even via WiFi from the camera) and who will want RAW images to manipulate later.
The Lightroom loupe
Finally, here’s a little anecdote about Adobe Lightroom that I didn’t know. The maximum zoom/loupe setting in LR is 11:1. Why not 10:1? Everyone else’s loupe went to 10, so the Adobe engineers decided to go one better. It is, of course, a tribute to the 1984 movie This is Spinal Tap, where the band’s amp “goes to 11.”
As you can see, John has some strong opinions on what works and what doesn’t, but his most-repeated piece of advice is “Do what works for you. Don’t duplicate what I do because that might not be the right thing for you.” You have to put in the time, however, to understand your craft well enough to know what that is.
For me, this seminar was perfect timing and had exactly the right content. It certainly wasn’t a beginner’s seminar and it wasn’t a complete information overload. I felt I learned a lot without being overwhelmed and came away with quite a few new tips and techniques to improve my photographic game.
Now, on to Italy!
A footnote: Last Friday, I was a guest writer on Sabrina Henry’s blog and I mentioned that my inspiration for one of my images was from a similar shot by John Shaw. I also said that I was going to show him my image to get his reaction. What happened? He laughed and commented about how funny inspiration can be. Later in the presentation, he showed us a different shot of his that was almost exactly like mine. I’m gonna take that as a sign that great minds think alike… or something like that.