A Month on Safari

This post is about photography, a break from my usual (but infrequent) professional missives.

Back in October, I was fortunate enough to go on a 3 week vacation through Africa. It was an amazing experience, to say the least. We covered 6 countries (South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) across 19 days.

First lion we saw on the trip

Before going, I did a ton of research on cameras, lenses, how to get around weight restrictions (33 lbs, including carry-on), etc. I asked a lot of people about what they recommended. Some suggested renting big honking lenses like a 400 2.8 and cropping or a zoom like a 200-500 5.6 (which is 5 lbs all by itself). Many strongly recommended renting the latest and greatest cameras, such as the Nikon D850, with it’s 47MP of resolution. For the most part, I got lots of recommendations for the fastest lens from Nikon only or the highest resolution that I could get. I didn’t get a lot of compromise.

In the end, I decided on a less expensive and lighter (4lb) zoom lens but with more reach – the Sigma 150-600 5.6-6.3 – and sticking with my own Nikon D600 (24MP) with an additional rented D610 (which is basically the same camera but with a new shutter mechanism). I had a 24-120 4 on the D610 that my wife, who excels at landscapes, primarily used.

I learned a lot of interesting things while photographing. First, every millimeter counted. I was almost always shooting at 600mm, and even then when I was post-processing I still had to crop. The first image, of the lion in the brush, is cropped quite a bit to bring him to the center of attention. I was zoomed in similarly on the following few images. And, again, lots of cropping.

Having a lighter weight lens was a big deal, and you don’t have to buy only name brand. It might be only 1lb, but I had heard that the 200-500 was quite heavy. The close up of the lion below was handheld, and I took a lot of photos of him (meaning I was tiring out my arms as it was). Plus, even at the slow end, the 150-600 was only a 1/3 of a stop difference, and I’ve already mentioned the point about needing that last 100mm, so it was a good trade-off I thought. Both lenses had high speed focus and vibration control. And the Sigma was very sharp. as you can see from both the lion and elephant pics below. I didn’t need a Nikon lens, which was hundreds of dollars more, to get great results. It’s a reminder that Sigma, and Tamron and Tokina for that matter, can make great lenses.

I also learned that there is something to be said about being really familiar with your camera. I knew my D600, and all the controls on the D610 were the same. Yes, I could have learned the D850 and had almost double the MP to work with, but my wife, who is a tremendous photographer but isn’t technically inclined, might have struggled a bit if I wasn’t there to help, on a camera I knew already and could adjust quickly.

Also, there is nothing “wrong” with my D600. It’s not as if it’s lost resolution in the 7 years I’ve had it (24MP then is 24MP today, as far as resolution goes, for the most part). It’s not as if it’s worse in low light/at high ISO (a necessity with a slower lens when we were doing game drives towards dusk). Yes, I could have cropped more with a D850, and that might be the one thing I wish I had changed, but I”m still 99% happy with the results I got with the D600. And I admit that I’m ecstatic as the results even with cropping. 24MP is still a lot of resolution, even today, in the world of newly-announced 61MP cameras.

My favorite photo? That’s the one of the leopard at sunset below. It’s shot on a 7 year old, 24MP camera, with a third-party, “slow” lens at maximum focal length, and at ISO 3200. And I think it’s beautiful.

Full gallery is on flickr.

On-site photo printing: lessons learned

At a wedding this past weekend, I was hired to set up a backdrop, take photos of guests, and print them on site.  I had never done this before (the client knew that) but put together and tested a setup of having a computer control the camera, automatically feeding the image into an editing and printing program, and bought a printer that produces “ready to go,” fully dry and archival prints in about 30-45 seconds.

The couple set out “tickets” at each seat which were good for 1 print (multiple photos could be taken for the benefit of the couple, but only 1 print per ticket).  The couple also wanted the guests to be able to choose from the photos and pick the one they wanted to have printed.

Needless to say, I learned quite a few things.

First, it is borderline impossible to do this alone.  An assistant is almost a requirement.  I think that, if I laid everything out in a very tight arrangement right around the camera, I might have been able to do it.  I would probably mount the camera and computer on a single multi-mount tripod accessory, then have the printer on a table right next to me.

Second, letting the guests choose from multiple photos is a bad idea.  It just clogs up that part of the process.  It should be highly controlled – guests get one photo, the photo is printed.  I can do that with a few clicks after each shot.  Now, we could still use the tickets so that guests could have barter tickets and get multiple photos taken, but only 1 photo per ticket, and that photo gets printed, period.

Third, I need either 2 or 3 of these consumer dye-sublimation printers or shell out the $2000+ for a professional grade one.  30 seconds seems fine when working out a workflow in one’s living room, but is way too long when people start hovering over you wanting 1 more print, 1 more print, or if they start queueing up and we have to close up shop early just to make sure all the prints come out.  The consumer printers also can’t handle the prolonged generation of heat that well.

Finally, and on a good note, small, hot-shoe strobes worked just fine for this situation.  I did not have to bring in big professional lights, though I would have if I had the chance.  Battery packs for faster recycling is a must, though.

Get Smart – Tips for Today’s Travel Photographers « Photofocus

Get Smart – Tips for Today’s Travel Photographers « Photofocus.

Scott Bourne (no relation to Jason) is kind of all over the place on the internet, though I knew him first from This Week in Photography, which has a useful though sometimes-remedial podcast (I couldn’t think of a word that didn’t sound derogatory in some way – it’s just not geared for tech heads like me and sometimes I am listening to stuff I already know).  

After my recent trip to Thailand, I find this article pretty useful.  Now, I wasn’t ready to be quite on a photo-trip – no photo vest for me or anything like that.  We were vacationing, and photographed a lot while we were there.  But we were not there for photography.  But this is a useful guide nonetheless.

BBC NEWS | UK | Websites keeping deleted photos

BBC NEWS | UK | Websites keeping deleted photos.

This is actually not that surprising, but still upsetting.  I believe Facebook actually now claims the right to use your photos for their own promotional purposes.  Flickr’s API allows others to display photos without attribution, even if your license, set via Flickr, requires such attribution.  It’s really a mess.

I just resign myself to the fact that if I put a photo online, it’s a free for all and I consider myself lucky when people to attribute my work to me.  Sigh.

adding value to my photography business

Sofortbild – Mac Tethered Shooting

Rather than go about slashing prices in this economy (at which point it’s not worth the trouble, to be honest), I have been trying to add value to what I do as a photographer.  One thing is to offer on-site printing.  I can do this in a number of ways, but being able to actually see the image on the computer and then hit “capture” would be nice.  This free software is intriguing.  Now if I could only get a few more bookings.

perhaps not long for the world of wedding photography…

Truth be told, I’ve been having doubts about my wedding photography work over the last 6 months.  Don’t get me wrong – I have faith that I am a more-than-competent photographer.  I understand lighting, I understand what I should be getting, I have a myriad of tricks up my sleeve to get what I want to be getting, and I enjoy working with clients (there’s about 30 other things I can list but that’s just a start). 

However, the “art” of my photographs have honestly not been improving.  I have hit a kind of wall in my creativity when it comes to new types of shots, different kind of feel, etc.  I am merely a good photographer, and seem to be stuck here.  And not for lack of effort.  But perhaps lack of talent.  I keep an eye out, I rarely sit down and stop during a reception or ceremony so that I can capture those key moments, etc.  But other than getting all the necessary shots and doing a solid job, I’m not sure I’ve been doing a great job and I’m kinda-sorta confident I’m not getting a whole lot better.

Recently, I applied to a group known as the Wedding Photo Journalists Association (WPJA) with the hopes that my membership would improve sales.  I had not heard from them at all for a long time, and asked about the issue on  I didn’t provide a link to my website or samples because it’s still kind of rough around the edges and I didn’t think my ego could take it, honestly.  But, aside with a confirmation that I didn’t get in if I didn’t hear back, I have gotten more feedback on the quality of my photos than I had really wanted.  This was one that really discourage me:

  1. Too many detail and posed shots, I would say 10-15% of your images are photojournalistic. It needs to be the other way around to qualify. 
  2. Too many f/3.5+ photos (This would be shots with too much in focus, I guess).
  3. Please don’t take this personally: Your flash photography probably isn’t good enough. There are quite a few direct flash shots, or seem like pop-up flash.

The reasons why I am so discouraged is that 1 – literally 2 of the dozen+ photos on my website are posed.  Nothing else is.  Some may look like they are, but they aren’t.  Isn’t that part of the trick?  I guess not.  And 2 – I thought I had a good grasp on lighting.  Yes, I prefer to use flash than just open my lens wide open and have no depth of field, but I think I go after a very even flash look, not a “deer in the headlights” look.  None of my shots are direct flash.  And I have never used a pop-up flash.

But if they look that way, then perhaps I’m not getting the job done.  I’m not up to par.  I’m the kind of photographer that I have told others to avoid.  Someone “good enough” but nothing more.

Posing Groups at Weddings…

Ideas for Group Wedding Poses –

Thus far, I have tried to avoid putting up posts from threads on  I have a whole other blog that did that extensively, to the point of annoyance, I think.  It also became less and less useful as it became more and more full of links.

However, I have been struggling with group poses – they are all so traditional.  So time constraint aside (and that’s a big aside), I’m going to try and make use of these examples this Saturday to be a bit more creative, if the venue allows.  Even just a set of steps at the altar can make a big difference.

Strobist: PocketWizard FlexTT5 and MiniTT1: Full Review

Strobist: PocketWizard FlexTT5 and MiniTT1: Full Review.

In the world of photographic lighting tools, this might be one of the most impressive new items out there.  There is another product, called RadioPopper, that does something similar (different method, same functional result) but this coming from PocketWizard is a pretty big deal.  

Basically, when you take a flash off-camera, you get the benefit of much better “modeling” to the light.  More shape, more natural look than a head-on flash, etc.  However, you have thus far had the options of radio-based systems that can “see” around walls but give you no control once you set it at the remote location.  The systems offered by Nikon and Canon do let you control the remote flashes right from the camera, and the flashes will fire exactly the amount of light that the camera says to, but those are IR systems, which require line-of-sight.

This system uses radio, and lets you do through-the-lens, “what the camera says” light output.  Pretty amazing.

adding value as a wedding photographer

While listening to This Week in Photography, Frederick van Johnson aired an interview he did with Dane Sanders, a well-known (and fantastic – check him out on flickr) wedding photographer that has written a book on getting started in the business – Fast Track Photographer.

One of the items Dane mentioned was about protecting one’s brand, and adding value to existing prices and packages as a way of combatting any decline in sales.  The alternative would be to just charge less.  I think this is very important, but that there are a lot of other things that need to be considered for wedding photographers such as myself, charging between $1000-$1500 for a base package (as compared to $2500-$3500, which is kind of the next step up).

The key part is that if you have created your brand as in a certain part of the market and as a certain type of photographer, it is important to protect that brand.  This is marketing 101, to be honest.  I’ll take myself as an example – I started out charging very low ($550) but made it very clear that it was in order to build my portfolio.  Even when I met with potential clients I stated this quite clearly.  As soon as I had 6 weddings under my belt (an arbitrary number, to be honest), I went up to $1000 for the same package.  After about a year of doing weddings at that rate, I discovered that I was meeting with more couples that saw photography as an after-thought than I wanted.  I have now gone up to $1250 for a wedding, which is apparently, based on those with whom I now meet and talk about their wedding plans, an amount that makes couples think about their overall budget and have made a specific decision to find a solid photographer to capture their memories.  You can read more about what I offer on my wedding photography site, if you want.

Throughout this process, I have pursued developing my brand as a photographer that takes a wedding seriously, offers professionalism and a personal dedication to the needs of the couple.  I book no more than 15 weddings a year and never more than 2 weekends in a row.  I have actually turned down weddings that pushed these limits (despite my honest desire to keep revenues up).  That is my brand.  That is who I am, as Allan Chen the Wedding Photographer.  My pricing has reflected that – I want to work with couples who value those parts of the brand.

Well, if I have spent so much time on that, then it’s critical that, even if inquiries are down due to the recession that I still protect that brand.  However, I also have to recognize that couples are watching their wedding budgets more closely, and have to make some hard decisions.  So the question posed to Dane Sanders was how does one keep moving forward in such a situation?

Sanders’ opinion was that it’s about adding value, rather than cutting price.  What does a couple get for that same price?  Yes, the personal touch, etc – that stays the same, of course.  I can’t be more than 100% devoted to their needs, after all.  But I could, for instance, offer an online slideshow for the same price, or add more prints, or a higher end album, something like that.  Many of these options don’t require a lot of extra time on my part (the online gallery in particular) so they are also cost-effective for me.  I think this makes a lot of sense.

The danger, though, is for photographers that charge about what I do.  If I were to take into account the time I spend on processing a wedding, my margin would be very low.  Even if I add an hour or two, it eats more and more into that margin.  If I offer an additional service as part of the package, same problem.  If I’m doing the same amount of work but am charging $3000 (because I’m in that market, or I’ve established myself to justify that price, or whatever) then the margins are better and it makes more sense.  But right now, it gets thinner and thinner.

So what am I doing, having listened to Dane Sanders and agreed with his fundamental recommendations?