Dispelling 10 Myths of Being a Professional Photographer

Sunset Light on Half Dome, Camp 6, Yosemite National Park, California
Sony a7RII, S0ny 24-70mm G Master, 30 seconds, f/22, ISO 320, Singh-Ray 10 Stop Mor-Slo.

NOTE: I first posted this blog in 2012. Each year I modify and update it a bit, but overall, have left the main concepts stand. This year I have updated this blog more than at any time in the past as our industry is rapidly changing. Before you quit your day job to venture out into the world of professional photography, give this a read. I’m not one to stomp on anyone’s dreams. I’m just trying to paint a realistic picture (pardon the pun) of making it in today’s climate.

These are just my thoughts after spending 40 years making a living with my camera as both a sports and landscape photographer.

I have had the good fortune to make a living with my camera for the past 40 years. I picked up my first camera at age 13 and have never stopped being fascinated with creating images. During my teen years, I had absolutely no desire to be a professional photographer; however, I did love photographing my home area of Santa Clara Valley and the Monterey Peninsula. I also loved sports and was absorbed in the world of snow ski racing. Every year, without fail, I would round up my friends and see the latest Warren Miller ski film. I would often dream that one day I would be a cinematographer and film my own ski movies, but the world of still photography at the time was nothing more than a hobby, albeit a serious one, of photographing (or at least trying to imitate) the wonderful B&W images that Ansel Adams created.

Then the college years rolled around and I enrolled in Journalism School at San Jose State University. My first semester, I took a class titled Photojournalism 1A and I was hooked! I quickly found that my aptitude was in capturing sports and that began a long career (26 years) of shooting pro sports exclusively (NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB). All through those years, landscape photography was still in my blood, but it got relegated to the back burner. I would shoot a landscape perhaps only a couple times a month as I was busy raising a family, traveling the country, and shooting sports 250-plus days per year. Back in 2001, my family and I vacationed in Mammoth Lakes, California. Galen and Barbara Rowell had just reconverted an old bank building in nearby Bishop into the Mountainlight Gallery. I spent the better part of four hours transfixed by Galen’s images. I came away from that experience vowing to rededicate myself to color landscape photography. Over the years, my landscape side of the business steadily grew to the point that it now requires 85% of my attention and my sports the other 15%. I have been teaching group workshops for 13 years now and I also shoot landscape stock photography for Getty Images. Two-and-a-half years ago I became part of the Sony Arisans of Imagery group and have been absorbed into the world of mirrorless photography. I am convinced that mirrorless is the future of still photography.

If experience has taught me anything, it is that there are so many false assumptions about the life of a pro photographer – regardless of the genre. I can only speak to what I shoot professionally (sports and landscapes) but thought it was time that I dispel 10 myths that I hear on a regular basis. So, without further adieu, let’s get started:

MYTH 1: You are lucky: No doubt it appears that I am living a dream life but there is so much that people don’t see if one is to be successful in this business. First off, luck has nothing to do with success. Hard work and a driving passion to succeed has everything to do with succeeding. I work very hard at what I do – so do most pros. I’m usually in my office by 5:30 am (it is Saturday morning and I started working on this blog at 5:30am) and the first three hours of my day are spent on marketing my business: answering emails, writing blogs, posting Social Media images, etc. Then, I usually edit for another 4 hour block. I try to get a daily 90-minute workout in, then more correspondence or working on other business aspects: returning phone calls, planning trips, planning workshops, etc. My typical day (when I’m not shooting) is usually a minimum of 10 hours of office work – oftentimes more. If I do work in a shoot, my day can extend another 8 hours. Workshops are typically 14-18 hour days depending on the time of year. I have also been the co-team photographer for the NHL’s San Jose Sharks for the past 26 years and on game nights, my day can easily extend to 18 hours. As you can start to see, you really have to love what you do to make this work. On top of all this is the constant travel. Last year I spent 70% of my time on the road. That is a lot of time away from my family even though my boys are out on their own now. The one person who is my rock is my wife Beri. She has always supported me with her love and encouragement. Believe me, there have been times when I have thought about throwing in the towel. Without her and my sons love and a strong faith for guidance, I may have been doing something entirely different with my life. Occasionally self-belief will wane. I lean on my family and faith when those periods hit. Fortunately they are coming fewer and further apart these days.

MYTH 2: You have a gift – you see like an artist: Artistic vision, for the most part, is not something you are born with; it must be studied, practiced, and re-practiced. In other words, it is a learned art. Granted, some individuals are more gifted in this area than others similar to any other profession, but nobody starts creating beautiful art without years of effort and study of the Masters. My first official photography class was my freshman year in college. I barely squeaked by with a C- and the instructor told me to never consider going pro – You’ll go broke within the first year. That harsh statement really served to motivate me. I was never one to listen to naysayers. I despise negativity. This is a craft with a huge learning curve. There are no shortcuts. It is study, apply, analyze, and re-apply. You are the only one who can push yourself. Editors are cruel by-and-large. Once you are a professional, mom is not going to be there telling you how fantastic your images are. You better have a thick skin! My advice is to learn your camera backwards and forwards until you know it by heart, then learn Lightroom and Photoshop (we are the lab nowadays), but most importantly learn vision. Become a student of light, design, and art. Study composition and trust your inner sense of balance. Push the envelope on every shoot. Don’t be satisfied recreating what someone else has done. Develop your own unique vision. In short, it’s a lifetime of study and learning – push yourself everyday to get better – your passion will drive you.

NOTE: I have distilled down my years of learning with both Lightroom and Photoshop and offer a workflow video where I teach you how to use both. Please CLICK HERE for more information.

MYTH 3: I make money with my camera – doesn’t that make me a pro?: This may sound harsh, but the world is littered with part-time professionals. If you truly want to call yourself a professional photographer, show me that you can support a family for a minimum of 5 years solely with your camera and art. Being a good photographer is only one side of the equation. Knowing how to be a good business-person is the other. You will wear many hats if you want to be successful, learn each side of the business and excel. Competition is stiff and you must find a way to make yourself better. For me, it’s being consistent and working hard on a daily basis. I also try and learn something new as much as possible. I didn’t learn Photoshop overnight, I had to work with it for years. It’s not only learning the tools but learning what the image needs to be successful – I call this: Reading an Image. In the professional realm, you need to build your business step-by-step. Build relationships the same way. If you jump too soon, your name and reputation can become easily tarnished. My advice is not to quit your day job as the stress of trying to make it as a pro will kill your passion – once that happens, you are finished. Keep your day job and work every spare hour you can at your job of being a pro. Compete fairly with those who make a full-time living at this – don’t cut the legs out underneath them. Looking back over my career, I always competed fairly with price. I refused to give my services and/or images away for less than market-value. Going cheap to get a “foot in the door” is not a good strategy – it hurts our industry as a whole and it will come back to hurt you.

MYTH 4: If I purchase all the best equipment that will make my images as good as yours: Equipment is important, but vision is more important. Vision is a life-long study of: light, design, perspective, art, and composition. As I have already written, vision must be developed over the years. It is not so much learning what works in a successful image as it is learning what doesn’t work. Learn to eliminate visual clutter and distill the image down to what is important. Understand that you are communicating visually and you must be clear about what is moving you to raise the camera to your eye. Feel that connection with your subject and go about capturing that emotional tug. If something isn’t moving you emotionally it certainly won’t move others. You learn to see like an artist by studying the great artists. Immerse yourself in art – everyday if possible – let it fill your soul. Also, don’t be afraid to fail – because you will – multiple times. But you must learn from your failures. When reviewing a shoot, don’t be so quick to hit the Delete button. Ask yourself why you are deleting an image – why it did not work? Those become huge learning moments. A good photographer can create a great image with a smart phone nowadays. It’s more about learning to see than having the latest piece of gear.

MYTH 5: You get your equipment for free or at a reduced price: I pay the same price as all of you. I have been dealing with Robert’s Distributors and B&H Photo for the past 30 years. I don’t even sell my used equipment online. I tried once to sell some gear on E-Bay and got caught up in a scam – E-Bay turned their back on me and left me hanging. Bottom line, I just don’t have the time! I am affiliated with a few software companies. Namely, ON1 Software. (Please use my code dsmith to receive a 10% discount). This is a match made in heaven as I use their filters on every image I process. I am also happily associated with MacPhun (Luminar), Topaz (Please use my code SMITHPHOTO for a 10% discount) and Perfectly Clear. I use all of these software’s daily in my workflow. But similar to cameras and lenses, software is just a tool. The real vision comes from inside of you. I try to teach my students how to get from seeing a scene literally to seeing it artistically. Ansel Adams called this process “prevsualization.” The reason I work with the top-of-the-line cameras and lenses is because that is what my competition uses. Don’t skimp on a cheap lens. Spend the money on good glass as it will last for many years. Camera technology changes almost every year or two. Sony is turning out new gear at an amazing rate because they are leading the way with mirrorless sensors and cameras. It’s really their sensors that I believe are the best you can buy. Couple this with glass the meets the standards for Zeiss branding and the combination is unbeatable! We are at a crossroads between standard DSLR and Mirrorless cameras. As I mentioned earlier – I see Mirrorless as our future. New cameras dedicated to sports and wildlife are already in the pipeline and once they are released, along with longer glass, mirrorless cameras will surpass DSLR cameras. Chose your system wisely.

MYTH 6: You get to travel to all the iconic locations to make images: True I travel and conduct workshops at locations that are on most photographers bucket lists, but those locations have been photographed millions of times. I do challenge myself to find something a bit different or out of the ordinary, but unless there is some dramatic weather, my images will more-than-likely resemble some other photographer’s image of that location. My greatest pleasure is in finding something new and unique (hard to do in this day-and-age with the internet broadcasting every location imaginable). The image below is a good case-in-point. I have to give my wife Beri all the credit for spotting this scene. This is actually a location about 5 miles from my home. We first traveled down this country road to cut a Christmas tree. She said it would make a great image and she was right. I simply kept returning until I got the atmosphere right. To date, this is my all-time best stock selling image via Getty Images. It has been featured on the cover of 9 books (including my own – Refined Vision: 50 Lessons Designed to Improve Your Digital Landscape Photography). It was also featured on the cover of the coffee-table book: The Life and Love of Trees, which to my surprise was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show as her book-of-the-month choice!

The Life and Love of Trees

MYTH 7: Every trip you make must mean you are planning a new workshop: Granted there are times I plan trips with the specific goal of developing a workshop and oftentimes it does not work out. Yet many times I take trips for my own enjoyment and to see and create images of places I have never been before. Last year I traveled to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania. It was part vacation and part scouting trip for a possible workshop. It is important to separate your work from your vacation. I had the hardest time doing that over the years and I never really felt rested even though I travel all the time. A photo trip means long hours of flying, driving, scouting, waiting for the light and driving some more. Sleep comes in small increments (4-5 hours at night and possibly a nap if you are lucky). My wife has taught me how to separate the two and I’m a better photographer/husband/father because of it. BTW – I will be traveling back to the South Island of New Zealand this June as I loved the area so much that Gary Hart and I have decided to offer a Workshop there starting in the summer of 2018 – details to be announced upon our return!

MYTH 8: Magazines must pay you lots of money for your pictures: Sadly, magazines are dying on the vine (so too are books and newspapers). As you are well-aware, the publishing industry is like a sinking ship and to survive, magazines, books, newspapers, etc., must put their content online – that is where the advertising dollars are. I have had many images published over the years and there is an old saying in our business amongst us pros: Published images (editorial) with our name included is good for the ego but not the bank account. The real money still to this day is in advertising. I’m fortunate that over 75% of my work shown by Getty Images is to potential advertising clients. Your name in never included except for the check that is sent – and yes – those are good paydays! Some of the highest paid pros are names you have never heard. They have learned that anonymity pays well. BTW – as you read this, I will have my first cover-story appearing in the April edition of Outdoor Photographer Magazine.

MYTH 9: Pro‘s Have Secrets That They Only Share With Other Pros: I have to blame the photo magazine industry with perpetuating this fallacy. How many times have you seen the headlines: We Unlock the Pros Secrets! Learn the Pros Secrets for Better Images! Well I’m here to tell you that there are no secrets. There is no secret society that we pros live in. Where we may have the advantage is that we work hard at our craft on a daily basis while all of you are working hard at your chosen profession. Most pros I know are eager to share with one another. Aspects of using the camera, vision, planning, post-processing may come a bit easier to us because we do it every single day, but I for one do not keep secrets. If you read this blog and/or follow my posts on Facebook or read my articles on my website you will know this is true. I share knowledge because that is my way of saying thank you to all mentors. Of course I can’t give it all away, if I did, why would anyone want to take a workshop or buy a training video? I’ve been told by some that I give away too much information. Who knows if that is true? My workshops are well-attended so in a sense, maybe someone reads what I have written and thinks, hey, I’d like to learn more from this guy!

MYTH 10: There is Nothing to Shoot Where I Live: I believe just the opposite is true. If you have truly developed your vision, you will spot images everywhere! Don’t always think grand scene. Get a bit more like the late Eliot Porter and learn to see your world as more intimate. Macro also offers many possibilities when the light is not cooperating. More times than not, the image I have preconceived in my mind does not come to fruition. Oftentimes it is something completely different. Keep an open mind and think creatively. I usually chase light not subjects. Challenge yourself to come away with something new and fresh from each location shoot. Never say: there is nothing here to shoot. That immediately sets you up for failure and closes off your mind. Stay positive, even if you are struggling to find images. Struggle is good – it is what will make you dig deeper for images. Instead, say to yourself: there is an image here and I will find it and it will be uniquely mine. That sets your mind into a positive state and allows for the creative energy to flow.

So you still want to be a professional photographer? Well go for it. No degree or test is required for admission. Just a willingness to work hard, stay passionate, and be a smart business person – and you can add to the list – plenty of self-promotion. The road is lined with wannabes who jumped in with eyes half closed. Know what you are in for and dedicate yourself like you would to any other profession. Good luck and hopefully one day I’ll be reading your blog!

 

Are You an Image Taker or an Image Maker?

Moonset Over Big Sur Coast, Garrapata State Beach, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony 70-200mm, f/16, 2 seconds, ISO 200, Singh-Ray LB Neutral Polarizer, Singh-Ray 3 Stop GND.

People often point out to me that when I talk about photography and capturing images, I will use the term, making an image, as opposed to taking an image. This is because as a visual artist, I do believe in I creating images as opposed to just recording what I see. In my opinion, the term taking images refers to a literal capture of the scene. Literal captures makes us nothing more than a robotic button pusher with no emotional connection to the scene – a snapshooter if you will – click – here’s an image of Big Sur!

I strongly believe that the art of landscape photography is really a three-step process: Step 1 – Finding the scene and the light; Step 2 – capturing the scene creatively; and Step 3 – processing the image – crafting the image. Let’s take a closer look at all three steps as I’ll discuss my thought-process on creating images.

Finding the Scene and the Light

Galen Rowell once wrote, my first thought is always of light. I was a big fan of Rowell’s work and it has influenced immensely my style of photography. So yes, my first thought is about light – quality light – the type of light one finds around the fringes of the day or the soft light that fog, clouds, or indirect light can provide. Rarely do I think about the subject first, but if I do, then I anticipate when the best light might arrive for my scene. If I have dawn, sunrise, sunset or dusk light to play with, then that will provide my color for the scene. If I am shooting under dawn light (as I was with the image above), then I have to wait until the light on the moon (lit by sunlight) matches the light on the landscape. I leave the harsh sunlight to the tourists – the snapshooters.

But finding the light is really just the starting point. I had calculated this moonset a full year back from the actual date using software. The next step was to find my composition. I took my workshop group to Garrapata State Beach for this shoot because I knew at this time of year, there would be these beautiful exposed black rocks that we c0uld use for foreground elements. These same rocks would be buried under tons of sand during the summer months!

Capturing the Scene

We have so many choices once we find a scene and a potential composition. What is the best lens? What perspective do I want to take? Does the contrast range of the light match the dynamic range of my sensor? Do I need grads? Do I need a polarizer? Are there wind issues to deal with? What about depth-of-field?

If you are really locked-in to making your image, at this point of the creative process your mind is racing – addressing all if not more of the questions that I list above. This is where the craft-side of photography takes over. There is really no substitute here for experience. Let me tell you the answers I arrived at during this Q&A session that I had with myself before setting up to capture this image:

What is the best lens: for this scene, my 70-200mm worked best as it compressed the moon with the foreground rocks. The scene itself created plenty of depth from foreground to background. I think a lot about depth – adding layers of interest to my scene. Remember, we are dealing with a two-dimensional medium; thus, the more depth (layers of interest) we can add to our image, the better.

What perspective do I want to take: I often think we (myself included) don’t pay enough attention to this question. I challenge myself to get the camera off the tripod if I am not sure. Tripods can lock us up if we simply extend the legs fully. Don’t fall into this trap; it’s easy to get too lazy here. Find your perspective by moving around then bring the tripod in to support what you have found.

Does the contrast range of the light match the dynamic range of my sensor: Tough question to answer if you don’t know the dynamic range of you camera’s sensor. How can you tell? Here is a blog I wrote about this topic: Determining Your Camera’s Real Dynamic Capture Range.

Do I need grads: That is going to be based on your camera’s dynamic capture range vs. the scene’s contrast range. For example, if you determine that your camera sensor’s dynamic capture range is 7 stops of light, and you meter your scene from the darkest shadows that you wish to retain detail to the brightest highlights that you wish to retain detail and it is 8 or more stops of light, then you have three options: expose for the highlights and let the shadows turn opaque, grad the scene, or bracket exposures and blend in post using layers and masks or Merge to HDR in Lightroom or a dedicated HDR program. Knowledge is power – I strongly advise that you determine your camera sensor’s dynamic range with your tests (using the method provided in the link above), not some test you read on the internet!

Do I need a polarizer: Simple answer for this one – yes. For most landscape scenes (except shooting straight at the sun or night scenes) a polarizer is invaluable – You cannot replicate the affects of a polarizer in post-production.

Are there any wind issues to deal with: Crucial question because we are generally using long shutters at the ends of the day. For this image, wind was not a concern and there was none – it was very calm.

What about depth-of-field: Another critical question and one that works together with shutter and ISO. It’s imperative to know how high an ISO you can get away with for your camera (again, tests will give you the correct answer). Then it is playing the exposure game. You need two more stops of depth, then you have to either raise the ISO or lower the shutter or a combination of the two. Again, knowledge is power! I advise having a Hyperfocal App on your smartphone.

Processing the Image

The old Ansel Adams line that the capture is the score and the processing is the performance still rings true today in the digital era. Again, our we trying to produce a literal scene or an artistic scene? Pros can argue this one to death. My line of thinking is that it is my image and I control the complete process. I do draw the line personally at adding elements to the scene that were not there. I also won’t move elements within a scene. I will clone out an annoying branch or clone a line that will lead my viewer’s eye out of a scene but other than that, I leave the scene alone as captured. I will also dodge and burn within the scene to help guide the viewer’s eye. Yet, if I paid careful attention to the capture process, my post-processing should not require much work beyond basic luminosity and color adjustments (and sharpening).

I know pros who will drop in a completely different sky or add a moon (I did it once and will never do it again). At this point, are we photographers or digital specialists? My pleasure comes from finding an interesting scene with quality light and capturing that. If it moves me enough to put a camera to my eye, chance are it will move someone else. My processing is limited to getting the most out of my RAW file.

So as you can tell, I really do see myself as more of an image maker rather than an image taker. How about you?

If you would like to learn more about becoming an image maker, please consider taking one of my workshops listed below, or contact me about taking a private lesson.

“Define the Moment, or the Moment Will Define You!”

Whitney Portal Fall, Eastern Sierra, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony 70-200mm, f/16, 1.6 sec., ISO 200, Singh-Ray LB Neutral Polarizer.

I’m a huge movie buff. Perhaps it has to do with my affinity towards visual excitement; regardless, I just love watching movies. Every once in a while, there will be a line from a movie that gets stuck in my head, similar to how a song gets stuck at times. I always try to reason why the line resonates with me and oftentimes I find it relates more to my career as a photographer. I wish I could say that only cerebral movies do the trick, but every once in a while a line comes from a less-than-stellar flick.

Last night I awoke with that maverick movie philosopher, Tin Cup (a.k.a. Roy McAvoy – played by Kevin Costner) voice in my head as he utters the line trying to explain why he hit a nearly impossible shot to his caddie (Romeo – played by Cheech Marin). Costner, I mean McAvoy quips, “It was a defining moment, and when a defining moment comes along, you either define the moment or the moment will define you.”

I got thinking back on many of my successful shoots and images. What made them successful? Why do they resonate? Well part of that answer lies in recognizing that you are facing a defining moment. Perhaps it is a moment when the light is just right, perhaps it is a lucky circumstance like a rainbow materializing. Many events can lead to a defining moment. The key is in taking advantage of that moment. Can you work quickly enough to take advantage of what is in front of you? Can you find an awesome composition? Can you find a way for all your elements in your scene to work in a cohesive manner? Can you find a pleasing perspective? Do you know what lens you need? Can you make the correct exposure? The list goes on and on, usually at warped speed.

I find at this moment a real rush of excitement. I know it is adrenaline, but responding in a calm manner is essential. In fact, learning to calm one’s mind at a moment like this takes practice. Miss a step in the process and the image could be ruined. Remember, great light waits for no one!

Costner, I mean McAvoy quips, “It was a defining moment, and when a defining moment comes along, you either define the moment or the moment will define you.”

These defining moments don’t come along all that often. We can up the ante for possibly witnessing these moments based on the time of day we choose to work and the weather we choose to work in. Early and late in the day is when I choose to be out, and if the weather turns bad – that ups my chances of something unique. Lastly, one must be fully comfortable with one’s camera. It must come as second-nature as to where to access all your controls. This is why I choose to shoot in manual mode. I really long for the days when cameras were as simple as offering: ISO, aperture (I realize this is on lens), and shutter. Today’s computerized multi-functional devices can only add to our confusion unless we work with them on a regular basis. Also, as landscape photographers, we are out at crazy hours. Sleep is a luxury and is usually in short supply. So we generally are not at our sharpest mentally, but still we must think clearly and make proper choices.

The image of Whitney Portal Falls was captured back in October while co-teaching Gary Hart’s Eastern Sierra Workshop. We had taken the group out for their first location shoot of the workshop and started here. I’ve been to the falls numerous times but decided to join Gary and some other participants as they had climbed higher up the fall for a new position.

I find at this moment a real rush of excitement. I know it is adrenaline, but responding in a calm manner is essential.

What I found was a defining moment. The entire fall was lit with soft indirect light and the spray had turned to ice, which in turn, covered the dark rocks. To bring this scene to life, I positioned myself so I could add an Aspen branch with with brightly-colored fall leaves. Then I noticed some leaves that had fallen off another Aspen branch in the far right corner of the frame. I knew I had all the elements for a great image if I composed carefully and paid attention to my depth-of-field. I lastly played with various shutter speeds to get the look of the water just the way I wanted. I dialed my ISO up and down until I got the shutter speed that recorded the water just the way I wanted.

I have unfortunately witnessed many amateurs over the years missing their defining moment for a plethora of reasons: they were too slow, unprepared, fumbling with equipment, not double-checking their settings, becoming too wrapped-up in the technical and forgetting the visual, getting too wrapped up in the visual and forgetting the technical. The list goes on. Every once in a while I see pros missing the moment, but it is rare. If one makes his/her living with a camera it is not by lucky chance. Generally it is because they have spent years honing their craft and are ready when their defining moment comes.

My advice for those of you who do miss your defining moment: Don’t beat yourself up. Learn from what went wrong and work hard to fix it so it doesn’t happen again. Beating yourself up only leads to negative thoughts and we don’t want those seeping into our minds when faced with our next defining moment. So be as prepared as possible. Use your camera on a regular basis to familiarize yourself with all the settings. Shoot regularly. Work on improving your vision skills. Lastly, and I have actually seen this happen, don’t try to work on a new technique when a defining moment is happening – stick with what you know best. Do this and I guarantee you will define your next great photographic moment!

When is Your Favorite Time to Photograph?

Dawn and Reflection Pond, South Santa Clara Valley, San Benito County, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony/Zeiss 16-35mm, f/16, 1 sec., ISO 100, Singh-Ray LB Neutral Polarizer.

Following on the heels of my blog titled Find the Light and You’ll Find Your Image, I’d like to pose a simple question, “What end of the day is your favorite time to photograph?”

As you have seen me write many times, I love working on the fringes of the day. Personally, morning is my favorite, though I will preface this with the fact that I hate dragging myself out of bed in the dark – especially on cold mornings!

Early morning is more pristine in terms of less pollutants in the atmosphere. During the colder months, there is more of a chance for mist – especially around water.

The image that accompanies this blog (above) was captured at dawn, just prior to the sun rising. I had scouted this area after heavy California rains flooded many areas that normally do not have water.

I had made this image below during a late afternoon scout.

Clearing Storm and Pond, South Santa Clara Valley, San Benito County, California.
Sony RX100 III, 24mm, f/16, 1/6th, 100 ISO, Singh-Ray LB Neutral Polarizer

I like both images and both have a different feel; however, when I made this image (above), I knew I’d want to come back for morning light as the sun would rise camera-left.

The problem was the storm had left the area and I faced three consecutive blank-blue sky mornings. Finally, after keeping a careful watch on the incoming weather, I spotted a report that called for 30% chance of showers.

With fingers crossed, I set the alarm for a 5am wakeup. Upon arising, I walked out my front door only to see that that the 30% forecast had materialized into a 100% light rain.

The question in my mind was, “do I blow off the shoot and go back to bed or do I get dressed and drive to the location?” Remembering a quote from the legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky, “You’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” I opted to go.

Arriving just as darkness (nautical twilight) was transitioning to civil twilight, I setup and noticed some gaps in the clouds. I began shooting without the color as some mist started forming near the back end of this flooded pasture.

Remembering a quote from the legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky, “You’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” I opted to go.

About 5 minutes prior to posted sunrise time, this warm light started to light the underside of the clouds. When it reflected into the calm water, I made exposures knowing the dynamic range would be captured easily by my Sony a7RII and it’s incredible sensor.

What is illustrated by this story is the fact that the location you wish to photograph will be dictated largely by its positioning to the sun. That is why scouting is important. There was an outside chance that this image could be made with some colorful clouds at sunset, but a lot of elements would have to come together perfectly for that to happen.

When I am shooting locations in Big Sur and/or Yosemite, I have my best luck at sunset because of the way the areas lay out.

It would be fun to hear your favorite time of the day to shoot. Let us know and tell us why.

Field Test: Sony 70-200mm G Master and a6500!

Elm and Half Dome in Clearing Storm, Cooks Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony 70-200mm G Master, f/11, 1/3rd, ISO 100, Singh-Ray LB Polarizer.

Over the past month I have had the opportunity to field test the Sony 70-200mm G Master lens along with the Sony a6500 camera.

My tests with the Sony 70-200mm G Master were for both landscape and sports – the only caveat is that I used the Sony a7RII as my sole landscape body; whereas for sports, I used the Sony a6500.

Let’s start with my review of the Sony 70-200mm G Master.

I always felt the the Canon 70-200mm Series II lens was the sharpest in its class. That was until I got this lens in my hands.

Sony’s G Master glass is designee to be used with high MP cameras like the Sony a7RII. As the resolution of the files increase, so to must the resolving power of the lenses and that is where the G Master series comes in.

Until using this lens, I used exclusively the Sony 70-200mm f/4 G OSS lens. That is also a wonderfully sharp piece of glass. I regularly shoot it at f/11 and f/16.

The 70-200mm G Master has a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and is 27 ounces heavier, but the sharpness across all apertures is off-the-charts awesome! I am not going to run images at every aperture so you’ll just have to trust me on that one.

Upper Yosemite Fall and Black Oaks, Yosemite National Park, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony 70-200mm G Master f/11, 1/5th, ISO 100, Singh-Ray LB Polarizer

According to the Imaging-Resource website: The new flagship telephoto zoom model delivers extraordinary sharpness and clarity throughout the entirety of its zoom range thanks to its three advanced lens elements including XA, Super ED and ED glass components, as well as its Nano AR coating.

The new FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS lens features a floating focusing system — implemented in an a zoom lens for the first time — that contributes to an impressive minimum focusing distance of merely 0.96m and ensures AF performance is optimized during both still and video shooting. The lens includes a SSM (Super Sonic Motor) plus dual linear motors that work together to move large lens elements quickly – a task that requires a high level of drive control and ensures focus accuracy. The new model also has built in Optical SteadyShot image stabilization for capturing sharp, blur-free subjects at all focal lengths and a rotating tripod mount that allows the camera to be quickly removed from a connected tripod as needed.

The new 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens is dust and moisture resistant with an additional fluorine coating added to the front lens. It also has a focus hold button as well as a focal range limiter.

All of this tech talk is a way of saying that Sony has figured out how to go get immediate AF grab with smaller batteries, something Canon could not do with the 5DMKIII series cameras.

Bridalveil Fall and Mist, Yosemite National Park, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony 70-200mm G Master f/11, 1/3rd, ISO 100, Singh-Ray LB Polarizer

Unfortunately, I was unable to get my hands on the new dedicated 1.4x and 2x converters, but having talked to a number of colleagues, their conclusion is unanimous – the converters match the lens and the image sharpness is unaffected.

I will eventually add this lens to my permanent arsenal of Sony glass.

After my trip to Yosemite, it was time to take the lens indoors and and pair it with the new Sony a6500 for some NHL action.

The Sony a6500 is Sony’s best sports camera to date. Though its sensor can capture 24.2 MP, it seems tiny in my hands when paired with the 70-200mm G Master but you shouldn’t let the small size fool you – it sports a AF that performs every bit as well as my Canon 1DX, which costs five times the amount!

Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike Smith watches the puck at SAP Arena in San Jose, California.
Sony a6500, Sony 70-200mm G Master, f/6.3, 1/200th sec., ISO 200, (8) Speedotron 2400WS packs and Speedotron 105 CC quad heads, (5) PocketWizard Plus III

My one drawback with being on strobes was that the maximum sync speed of the a6500 was only 1/200th – this allowed for a bit of ambient movement, expecially on slap shots, and I would like to see Sony max this out near 1/500th in future cameras.

There are so many upsides to this camera that it is crazy-good. As mentioned, the AF smokes, which is a must for any sports camera.

Moreover, Sony finally re-aligned its Menu system making the camera much easier to setup. Hopefully we will see this news menu setup go across-the-board with all new Sony cameras.

San Jose Sharks defenseman Brendon Dillon pokes the puck through the legs of Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike Smith for a goal at SAP Arena in San Jose, California.
Sony a6500, Sony 70-200mm G Master, f/6.3, 1/200th sec., ISO 200, (8) Speedotron 2400WS packs and quad heads, (5) PocketWizard Plus III

I opted for back button focus, which takes the focus off the shutter button and assigns it to a back button. It’s easy to do and I explain it in an earlier blog I wrote on the Sony a6300.

I also assigned another button as a focus-hold button, which allows me to stop the AF at any time while still tripping the shutter.

San Jose Sharks Thomas Hertl battles for the puck at SAP Arena in San Jose, California.
Sony a6500, Sony 70-200mm G Master, f/6.3, 1/200th sec., ISO 200, (8) Speedotron 2400WS packs and quad heads, (5) PocketWizard Plus III

There are times on penalty shots where a referee may skate into my frame while I am pre-focused on the goalie and the shooter.

I did struggle a bit when flipping the camera orientation from horizontal to vertical. The eye-piece for the a6500 is located on the left side of the body as opposed the traditional center positioning making it a bit tricky as I’d have to elevate the camera to align my eye.

Let’s get back to the awesome focus-tracking ability of this camera. I break a top-notch AF system into two parts: a.) the ability of the AF to acquire a subject instantly, and b.) the ability of the focus-tracking to stay with the subject. I give the Sony a6500 A+’s in both categories.

All of this tech talk is a way of saying that Sony has figured out how to go get immediate AF grab with smaller batteries, something Canon could not do with the 5DMKIII series cameras.

Eventually I would like to see Sony come out with a full frame sports camera. The a6500 is APS-C which means there is a conversion factor of 1.5x for all lenses. This made my 70-200mm G Master act as a 105-300mm. Not always bad for sports but I would have needed a second body with a shorter zoom range for when the action moved closer to me.

The Sony a6500 has an expanded buffer (which for me was not an issue as I could only shoot one frame every 3 seconds with the strobes) and has an internal 5-axis image stabilization built into the camera.

I never really got the opportunity to play with the touch-screen display as I kept the viewfinder to my eye. I also had to set the camera up to display the exposure for my eye while keeping my setting differently for the strobes – a nice touch and something studio photographers have to pay attention to with any mirrorless camera.

As for the video, I simply did not test as I do not use video in my current work.

The expanded grip did make the camera more ergonomic in my hand, but I would like the ability to add a battery grip.

Overall, for the $1400 price, this is one beast of a camera in a small package.