Be a Better Photographer in 2013

Tomorrow at midnight we welcome a new year.  2012 was an exciting time for New England Photo Workshops.  We held more training classes than ever, we conducted more workshops than ever, and we explored more of New England than ever before.  The year 2013 promises to be just as busy and even more exciting.  Bob and I started this venture 3 years ago and neither of us anticipated “it” ever growing as it has.  We are humbled, we are proud, and we are profoundly thankful to say the least.

Every workshop is designed to offer attendees a variety of subjects at carefully chosen locations throughout New England.  We believe it is essential in your growth as a photographer to be as multi-dimensional as possible.  Being a photographer is much more than just pressing the shutter to take a picture.  Photography is a process that requires attention to detail, knowledge, and commitment.  Technology and modern digital SLR’s open up vast potential for successful image making but, there are a few other things you can do in 2013 to make yourself a better photographer as well.


Your camera is just a tool.  Like any tool, the more you understand how to use it the better your results will be.  Many times in the field, or shooting a job, you HAVE to know how to make adjustments quickly and effectively based on changing conditions.  You invested a lot of money in your camera so invest your time in learning it as well.  Take time and become comfortable with your photographer gear. Review your menus, understand how to make changes in the functions of your camera, and learn where all the buttons are.  Yes, your camera is nothing more than a tool but, if learned and used properly, it can become a powerful extension of you.  The more you know about your camera, and your lenses, the greater potential you have to be a successful photographer.


I cannot stress this point enough.  Knowing your subject is critical to success when you are in the field.  This holds true for nature and wildlife photography more than anything else.  You cannot photograph a Lady Slipper if you do not know when and where they bloom.  You cannot consistently photograph wildlife if you do not understand their behavior and their habitat.  Just as it takes time to know your camera, you have to invest time in knowing the environments you photograph in. New England is a very diverse region of the country with many habitats, varied landscapes, and numerous flora and fauna.  The more you understand the many elements of nature the more your library of successful photos will grow. Study your environment and learn.  If nothing else, its fun to know stuff!


We cannot photograph subjects if they are not here.  It is as simple as that.  Take care of the world we live in and yes, your photography will prosper.  Take responsibility for YOUR impact on the world around you.   Clean up after yourself, use common sense, and obey rules laid out to protect our environment.  Support local community organizations that protect our natural resources, our historical locations, and our many parks.  Monies and budgets are constantly slashed from many worthwhile organizations so, your contributions are critical to their continued missions.  Their missions are for the benefit of all of us.  Help them help us.  None of us can afford donating to EVERY organization but, I would suggest you pick one and support it.  The money and effort you invest will be returned in the form of opportunity and knowing you made a difference for generations to come.  Preservation and conservation is a must for everyone, not just photographers.


It is difficult for anyone to take their camera out and, in an instant, create a great image if you don’t practice.  No one can expect to create a great image during a once in a lifetime trip if you cannot create a great image in your own backyard.  Practice, practice, and more practice.  Think globally and shoot locally.  Take a ride or walk and explore your neighborhood, your town, or your county.  Not everything you shoot needs to be for a class, a competition, or a purpose other than learning.  Hone your skills by shooting often and practicing the proven fundamentals of photography.


In photography, just like life, it is important to know your strengths and your weaknesses.  One significant benefit of the digital era is you have immediate feedback to your success or failure with any image.  We all celebrate our keeper images but, study your mistakes and learn from them as well.  Identify shortcomings in your photography and set goals to improve upon them.  Even the best of photographers still set goals to push themselves and challenge their creative vision.  Combine your goals with the other points on this list and your photography WILL improve.

Photography is, and can be, many things.  As an art form, it is dramatic and powerful.  As a visual form of communication, it is bold and captivating.  Nonetheless, most importantly, photography is a highly personal method of self-expression.  Much of your success will be based upon how much time you are willing to invest in your creative vision and voice.  Achieving success as a photographer, to me, means first investing as much of yourself as possible in the process of photography.  Enjoy all that photography has to offer, practice sound fundamentals, and compelling images will happen.  Above all else, always remember, success is only measured by your own standards.  You have no one to please but yourself.   Everything after that is just a bonus.

Express yourself visually more than ever in 2013, be happy, and be safe.  Happy New Year!.

“Photograph What You Feel”



Some of my personal photography goals for 2013:

1)      To be a better leader and instructor

2)      To continue work on my “Haverhillat Night” series

3)      To display more of my personal work

4)      To write more and post more blogs

5)      To become a better portrait photographer

6)      To learn more about location lighting with my Nikon speedlights and light modifiers

7)      To become a better Black and White photographer

8)      To become a very good print maker

9)      To learn more about, and explore, more ofNew England

10)  To be a more patient photographer

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The Versatility of You

Digital Photography is incredible.  Never before has our potential as photographers been so unlimited.  Today’s cameras are loaded with technology and capable of producing a broad range of results.  All they need is our creativity to make them shine!  We all should strive to be the best photographers we can be; not just the best portrait photographer or sports photographer or wedding photographer.  Your camera is loaded with versatility and you should be as well.

For me, one of the greatest aspects of digital photography is the opportunities it offers.  Pour yourself a cup of coffee, or something a bit stronger if desired, and spend some time studying your camera.   Look it over and learn its buttons and menus.  Understand what YOU need to do to make adjustments in the field.  How do you change your ISO?  Where is your histogram?  Does your camera have bracketing for HDR shooting?  Can you view your images in Black and White?  How do you set focus tracking?  Where do you set file size?   Contemplate what the camera and its technology is capable of.  Then, think about what it can do when combined with your creativity.  It is critical to know your gear but, it is even more essential to realize your aspirations  as a photographer.  The camera is just a tool and, ultimately, it is only as good as you are.  How good do you want to be?   Be aware, be creative, and be versatile.

The latest line of DSLR’s, both pro and consumer grades, give us more versatility than ever.  Seven years ago I bought my first DSLR – the 6 megapixel Nikon D70s.  It was a great consumer grade camera but, struggled at any ISO higher than 400.  I shot scenic’s at ISO 100 and used ISO 400 for sports/low light shooting.  I never went over ISO 400 unless I had to:   very similar to how we worked with film when you think about it.   My new Nikon D800 is a 36 megapixel powerhouse that will transform 35mm digital photography as we know it.  Right now, it gives me once unimaginable potential and versatility.  I welcome  that.
When I was a film shooter and headed to Maine for a weekend, I would typically bring 10 rolls of Fuji Velvia for pretty scenic’s, 10 rolls of 400 speed Fuji Provia for shooting in lower light, and 5 rolls of Kodak Black and White TMAX 400.  Each film had a job to do that was necessary but, costly and, at times, frustrating.  It would never seem to fail that I had half a roll of Velvia still left in my F5 but, now wanted to shoot a portrait in Black and White.  Instead of wasting film, I wasted opportunities.  Now, I dial a button and blow away anything that those films could ever do.  Think about that.  Think about the amazing versatility of that from a technology standpoint.  Now, think about the versatility of that as a photographer.  In a moments notice you can adapt to any situation and capture it with beautiful results.  That is not only very exciting but, it is highly empowering.
All of us should be very excited at the options available to us through technology.   The increasing resolution of today’s camera’s gives us breathtaking detail.  Being able to produce high quality images at ISO’s of 1600, 3200, and 6400 is mind boggling.   I can be in my garden shooting macro shots at ISO 100 and capture fine detail and rich colors.  A short time later, in order to defeat a frustrating breeze,  I can change my ISO to 800 and create a sharp, abstract image with similarly beautiful results. Then, just a few minutes later, change my ISO to 3200 and catch a GREAT portrait of my cat in poor, indoor light.  The power of versatility.   Wow.  No, seriously, Wow!!  
Technology continues to grow at an amazing pace but, to make it effective you must grow as well.  Having the latest, greatest camera does not make you a photographer.  YOU make yourself a photographer.  Push the limits of technology but, push your imagination just as far.  Nurture your creative energy, embrace the versatility of your camera, and harness the power of “you”.   The LCD screen and histogram give immediate feedback on your successes, your failures, and your necessary adjustments but, the best results all come from within.
How Versatile are You?
“Photograph What You Feel”
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HDR: ENF– USE You’ve got more options!

Don’s mantra of Shoot What you Feel is a great way for you to think about your own photography and what you are trying to do.  My ‘mantra’ is one that complements Don’s: Get The Shot YOU Want.  So, if you’re trying to convey a particular feeling or simply to capture a subject in it’s best ‘light’ then know how to do it and what to look for.  Everyone knows I’m a fan of HDR.  I use HDR techniques more often than not.  I’ll even photograph a scene with 3-5 different exposures and determine at home on my PC if I ned the extra shots.  Sometimes I may only use one of the ‘extra’ images.  Other times I’ll use 3, or 5.  If you’re at location and the light is great don’t just take a shot>>>>get the data while you’re there.

During one of our Boston at Night workshops I took three exposures of the skyline from Fan Pier.  Those that were there know that I heartily encouraged that they do the same>>even if they didn’t have an HDR software program!  The sky was great and the Boston skyline is a great part of why we love New England!  So, get the shot.  The skyline is an easy scene to recognize that HDR will help you get the image you saw.  Our eyes are great at being able to see into both the shadows and the highlights but our cameras can’t match that (yet).  Being able to recognize if a scene should be captured with muliple exposures can be difficult at times but the ‘general’ rule is to use HDR techniques when the scene has a high contrast range within it.

Photomatix & Nik’s HDR Efx pro are two widely used and respected HDR software programs.  I use both depending on the subject. I find that Photomatix is great for scenics with trees & grass, etc whereas I think Nik’s is great for architecture in particular.  There is another choice that is not so widely known: Enfuse ( which works directly in Lightroom as a plug-in (Very cool!).  It’s reasonably priced and provides a natural looking result. I tried it yesterday and like what I see.  You might too.

The image above is what the camera thought was correct for the scene. Of course it averaged the bright sky & buildings in shadow to give us that result.  The 3 photos below are the result of different HDR processing techniques.  You might want to compare them to your own work especially if you’re looking for a ‘natural’ looking scene.  I like a color scene to have some ‘extra’ color but also like a scene to look natural as well.  Depends on your mood at the time (!) and what you feel the scene should look like!

So the 3 images below are with Enfuse, Photomatix (using Tone mapping) and Photomatix using (Fusion Auto). On the 2 Photomatix images I used the preset with no adjustments.  My findings are:
– I like the Photomatix with Tone mapping for my ‘extra’ color scenes but has some haloing and noise







– The Photomatix image with Fusion Auto is more realistic but has a very flat almost silvery look to it (can be hard to adjust in LR) with a small amount of noise but sharpens up well

Photomatix-Fusion Auto






– The Enfuse image is more natural and has very little noise and sharpens up quite well

Enfuse HDR

Which one do I like?  I need to run more tests but the Enfuse version is very good.  I’ve looked at other images of landscapes and found the Enfuse software to provide very good low noise results with a more natural look.
All versions need some work in Lightroom or other editing software to give them more contrast.  In summary, I would suggest you try Enfuse for yourself as you may find the results to help you to get the shot you want!
Bob Ring, June 2012


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Know How to Push Your Own Buttons

Digital photography continues to evolve at an unbelievable pace.  The advances in technology provide photographers of every level with more and more options.  Today’s digital cameras, especially DSLR’s, are loaded with capability but, are you?  To make the most of these exciting advancements in technology we must commit ourselves to growing our vision first..

Current digital cameras are high-powered tools that require a great deal of knowledge to use.    Photographers have to learn such things as white balance, multiple metering settings, bracketing for HDR, the differences between a DX and FX sensors, and other nuances of present day digital photography.  Every manufacturer offers cameras loaded with menu options that give every photographer the ability to make professional quality images with the touch of a button.  In conjunction with the cameras is an even greater, and more powerful, array of software for processing our images.   There are so many products on the market it is often difficult to decide, and digest, what is best for this or that.  Creativity, or so it seems, is just a menu choice away.

Despite all the technology, there is nothing more powerful, or meaningful, as your own imagination.  Camera’s and software are just tools.  These tools are only as good as YOU make them.  Photography is about communication, self-expression, and emotion.  Whether you are in your home thinking about your craft or in the field working at it, KNOW how to push your own buttons first.  The more you know about your “self”, the more of yourself you can invest in your photography.

What good are dozens of menu options if you are not, or cannot, connect to your own “self”?   You need to know how to push your own buttons in order to make the most of  the hardware and software.  At every workshop we urge attendees to bring, and read, their owner’s manuals.  But, we also spend a great deal of time asking attendees why they chose this subject; why they shot their image in such a way, and how they feel about their image.  These answers are found in YOUR owner’s manual.  You gotta know that too!

As photographers we MUST connect to our subjects but, we must first connect with ourselves. Take time to think about, and feel, your subject. Take time to think about what has meaning to you.  Take time to find YOUR inspiration from the world around you.  Push yourself and find your own voice.  Creativity comes from within; not a menu option.

Photograph What You Feel


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History Everywhere!

This saturday, May 12th, we are headed to Fort Warren for an exciting one day workshop.  The abandoned fort is located on George’s Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor and is the centerpiece of the Boston Harbor National Park Recreational Area.    Construction began on the fort in 1833 and was concluded during the Civil War: 30 years later!   Fort Warren was designed to guard Boston Harbor from hostile forces but, saw use mostly during the Civil War as a prison for confederate soldiers.  The fort was de-commissioned shortly after WWII but, today is a fantastic destination for tourists and photographers alike.  I can’t wait to lead a  group of adventurous photographers around this jewel of the Boston Harbor islands.

The greatest tool that a photographer can bring with them to the fort is their imagination.  As you walk the grounds and roam the old decaying buildings, stop and imagine the many souls that lived there, served there, were imprisoned there, and died there.  The granite used to build the fort came from the nearby Quincy quarries and others on Cape Ann.  As you observe the massive slabs of granite used in construction, imagine the many workers who cut that granite and labored  to bring it to the island.  Imagine the immigrants, and the families, that forged a life working in the quarries. Imagine where they came from, what their dreams were, where they lived, and how they lived.  Theirs was the American Dream; no different than our dreams today.   In 1833 construction was done with man power, horse power, and sweat.  The granite was brought to the island via sailing vessel.  Look at the massive slabs and imagine the difficulty of loading and unloading a boat by hand, wagon, and horse.  The work was staggeringly hard.  Fort Warren took over 30 years to build – by HAND.  Yes, the most powerful tool a photographer can bring with them to places such as Fort Warren is their imagination.

One of the most invaluable characteristics of New England is it’s rich and storied history.   I love history in general but, I LOVE the history and cultures of New England.  Photography is my profession now but, my degree, from Northeastern University, is in History.   I am thrilled to combine my reverence of history with my love of photography.  All around us, everywhere, history lives and breathes.  Some of it is on a very large and dramatic scale;  some of it is much smaller and inconspicuous scale.  Nonetheless, all of it is essential.  It is our responsibility to respect each and every story before us.  Being informed not only makes us better photographers but, more importantly, better people.  I remind people often that in order to be better photographers we first must  make ourselves better conservationists, better environmentalists, and better naturalists.  The more we know about a subject the more likely we will be successful photographing it.  The more we care about a subject, the more likely we will be successful at preserving it for others to enjoy.  The two go hand in hand.

When you are in the field working it goes without saying that you must follow good technique as often as possible.  However, good technique is not limited to only your camera and gear.  To me, it is equally important to understand what you are photographing and appreciate its story.  Follow good technique with your knowledge and imagination as well.  Know your subject and FEEL it.  Open your mind and heart to the scene before you and photograph with emotion.  More than anything this will lead you to making images with greater impact.  More than anything this will resonate with you far beyond a dramatic image.  The story of Fort Warren is OUR story and we should do all we can to feel it and share it.

Photograph What You Feel

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The Value of a Self-Assignment

Quite often we, as photographers, struggle to find the motivation to get out and create images. In our daily lives many things influence our creativity, or lack thereof. During the winter months we often struggle to find the enthusiasm to brave the elements and do what we love to do: make photos!  One sure way to feel inspired is to take on a Self-Assignment.  A Self-Assignment motivates you to pick up your camera and shoot but, also inspires you to push your creative limits while exploring your chosen subject.

The recent winter here in New England was extraodinarily mild.  The lack of typically cold weather meant many opportunities for venturing out with camera in hand, the lack of snow left the landscape brown and unattractive for the most part.  Most of my photography is done in the outdoors so, the snowless winter left me uninspired for any scenic or landscape photography.

So, to combat the boredom of a featureless winter, I gave myself a specific assignment with purpose:  Haverhill at Night.  My project would be to shoot scenes of my hometown, Haverhill, Massachusetts, but my images could be done only at night and then presented in black and white.  .Haverhill was once a mighty manufacturing center in northern Massachusetts.  During it’s economic heyday 10% of the countries shoes were made in Haverhill earning the city the nickname of “Queen Slipper City”.   In it’s height of productivity the downtown section was full of mills and businesses that were booming.  Today, after years of  lean economic times, Haverhill is a small city undergoing a much needed revitalization.  The long abandoned downtown mills are being transformed into condominiums and new business opportunities including restaurants and eclectic shops.  Once again, Haverhill is thriving.


I have lived in Haverhill for 10 years now but, know very little about the city other than it’s history.  I am unfamiliar with the many roads in and around Haverhill let alone any of its more significant buildings or urban scenes.  The original intent of my project was to get myself out shooting. and learn more about where I chose to live.   In the field  Bob and I strongly advocate Exploring Your Subject and this project allows me to heed my own advice.   If you invest your  energy thoroughly you will not only gain more knowledge of your subject but, your images will reflect growth and new perspectives as well.   Proudly, Haverhill at Night has taken on new life as I embraced my project and fine tuned my vision.


One particular benefit to my project is the opportunity to expand my growing passion for black and white photography.  Haverhill and its storied mills are rich with texture and detail:  perfect for black and white images.  By narrowing my vision to only shooting at night I am also creating the circumstances to fine tune my skill at low light and night photography.   My snowless winter yielded nothing for dramatic New England scenics but, my self assignment has given me a very fun, energizing, and marketable body of work.

Now that spring is here, once again I will be outside finding beautiful colors to shoot but, I will still continue with my project.  I can envision a gallery show of my work, possible sales to downtown restaurants and shops, and presentations on Haverhill and night time photography.  I could not be happier with the results or the possibilities.

So, when you are feeling less than inspired to pick up your camera, put your mind to work on something that will motivate you to take part in the creative process of photography.  Find a self assignment and stick to it.  Embrace your self assignment and grow as a photographer.  Your potential is limitless.

Don Toothaker
“Photograph What You Feel”
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