Category Archives Guest Blogger

Dave Black working with Nikon SB-5000 Speedlights

Your Questions & My Answers
Hi and welcome to Scott’s blog … It is an honor to be asked to write a Guest blog for Scott … many thanks Scott for the opportunity.

I receive dozens of questions via my website’s Contact Dave page every month from passionate photographers eager to learn, and so this guest blog will be Your Questions and My Answers to a variety of my Instagram and Portfolio images.


“Alpine Shadow” … Nikon D3s, ISO1000, 1/500 at f/14, Nikon 24-70mm lens, SanDisk 32G Extreme Pro Flash Card

Q: Hi Mr. Black, Greetings from Switzerland. I really enjoy your Instagram pictures/mini photo lessons each day, and in particular the Alpine Shadow picture from Switzerland. Please can you elaborate with some backstory? Kind Regards. Francois – Zermatt, Switzerland

A: Hi Francois. So glad that you are enjoying my Instagram posts @daveblackphoto and the mini photo lessons that often accompany each IG picture.

As mentioned in the IG post, Rotenboden Station is a familiar location for those who are climbing, hiking or photographing the alpine sunrise at the Matterhorn in Switzerland.

The backstory is an exercise in patience. I had completed making my sunrise image of the Matterhorn from a location about 1 kilometer away from the Rotenboden Station and had just hiked back to the alpine railway station.

While I was waiting for the train to return and continue my journey up the mountains the sunlight and shadows on the station were beautiful and seemed to be begging for a human element to enter the scene.

The train arrived and I let it go without me. Then, after about 15 minutes, the shadow moved to reveal the cross and a minute later a fellow hiker (with backpack) approached the railway platform and his shadow was cast onto the station wall … thus offering a “different” image of the Matterhorn.

We often go out “looking” for a picture, but we must always be aware of the changing light and shadows around us… and be ready to capture a “moment” when it happens along.

Thanks for your question Francois, hope the backstory is helpful. Cheers. Dave


“Red Rythmic” … Nikon D5, ISO4000, 1/800 at f/13, Nikon 24-70mm lens at 45mm, WB 6250K, 4 NEW Nikon SB-5000 Speedlights with Radio Control, Manfrotto light stands, XQD Card

Q: Hi, Dave! I always check out your three portfolios on your website to see what’s new. Thanks for adding new pics each month. Can you explain where you placed your Speedlights for the Red Rythmic gymnastics image in your Creative Lighting Portfolio on your website? Thanks. Kevin – London.

A…Hi Kevin. Glad you are enjoying my portfolios. I really enjoy adding new images each month to the three collections!

I purposely underexposed the scene by -2.0 stops and then illuminated my subject with FLASH. I used 4 NEW Nikon SB-5000 Speedlights with Radio Control, all of which were in High Speed Sync mode.

The main SB-5000 had a Grid to help spotlight my athlete and was set to FULL power and placed high on a light stand 15 feet away.

I placed a second SB-5000 on a small rock about 20 feet out in front of the athlete and about one foot above the ground cover. This SB-5000 was set to 1/2 power and illuminated the foreground vegetation and the tail ends of the red ribbons.

Because of the uneven terrain, I had an assistant hand hold two SB-5000 Speedlights about 35 feet behind the subject. These two Speedlights, each set to FULL power illuminated some of the vegetation behind her, but not the forest background which I wanted to remain dark.

The subject was an Olympic athlete who was amazing to work with. She performed multiple leaps on the boulder despite it being a very cold, early morning shoot in the Yamanashi Forest of Northern Japan.

Thanks for a great question Kevin.  Cheers. Dave


“Winter Coyote” … Nikon D500, ISO2000, 1/1000 at f/8, Nikon 200-500mm G VR lens with Nikon TC 14E III 1.4x teleconverter, SanDisk 32G Extreme Pro SD Card.

Q: Dear Dave, I’m a longtime fan and very much looking forward to attending your classes at Photoshop World in Orlando this April. I just love the Winter Coyote picture in your Planet Portfolio. Can you tell me the how you captured this picture. Thank you. Debbie – Jacksonville, FL.

A: Hi Debbie. Gad you like the “Winter Coyote,” and please come up and say hello during Photoshop World Orlando. Your question fits into one of my favorite classes at PSW 2017: THINK Before You Press the Shutter a class teaching pre-visualization.

This image was made recently when I joined good friends Keith Ladzinski and Doug Ladzinski for a fun photo safari on a snowy January day in Rocky Mountain National Park.

We had been slowly cruising around the park photographing elk when Doug saw four coyotes way off in the distance, braving the winter storm on a small ridge about 150 yards from the road. With the snow storm and the long distance to the coyotes, I sensed this could be an opportunity for a very special picture.

Let me emphasis that, before I stepped out of the vehicle, I set the in-camera Set Picture Control menu of the D500 to standard and also reduced the contrast and saturation levels slightly. Then I increased the clarity level to help define the snow flakes and Coyote.

I kept my distance on purpose as I wanted to shoot through more volume of the falling snow. The camera-lens combination of the Nikon D500 cropped sensor and 200-500mm f/5.6 lens (at 500mm) with a 1.4x teleconverter gave me a visual lens length of about 1,050mm.

All these preparations: 1,050mm, Set Picture Control adjustments and keep my distance from the coyotes in order to shoot through as much falling snow as possible, but still see my subject clearly… were “pre-visualized” in my mind in just a few seconds. THEN I stepped out of the vehicle onto the snow.

I used manual exposure and chose to nearly overexpose the snow, but not quite. Once this single coyote moved away from the pack and ventured out onto the ridge with the falling snow and head-down posture, the “click” of the shutter was all that was left to do… Voila! “Winter Coyote.”

This process of creating the scene and technical scenario in my mind first is called “pre-visualization” and is what I believe to be the “key” missing component for many photographers trying to make the memorable pictures they want.

Hope this answer is helpful and I look forward to meeting you at PSW. -Dave


“High Riders” … Nikon D810, ISO1000, 1/2500 at f/10, Nikon 14-24mm lens, three Profoto B1 strobes in High Speed Sync mode with Profoto Tele-Zoom Reflectors and Clear Protection Plate, three C-Stands, and Articulating Boom Lift for me to shoot from, SanDisk 32G Extreme Pro Flash Card.

Q: Hi Dave, Your sports portfolio has an insane moto shot with one guy flying and another guy upside-down. Can you tell me what flash was used and how you pulled this picture off? Brandon – Louisiana.

A…Hi Brandon. Thanks for a great question, glad you like the shot.

This Freestyle Motocross image of Team FMX stars Travis Willis (white) and Ed Rossi (blue) was a commercial project that was quite an undertaking for myself and my #1 assistant, Julio Aguilar to accomplish.

I typically use my Nikon SB-5000 Speedlights with radio control for about 90% of my flash work as they are small-portable and have High Speed Sync. But occasionally I need a BIGGER blast of FLASH from a long distance to override the bright ambient sunshine and illuminate my athletes against the underexposed background or sky… so I bring in the Profoto B1 Air strobes.

As mentioned in the image caption above, I used three Profoto B1 Air strobes in High Speed Sync. Each is equipped with Profoto Tele-Zoom Reflector and Clear Glass Protection Plate (instead of the factory frosted plate).

These two modifications that I’ve incorporated with my B1 strobe system have helped make the factory 500 watt second power of a B1 illuminate my subjects more like a 1200 watt second power pack. That’s a HUGE increase in illumination simply by using the Tele-Zoom Reflector and clear protection plate on each B1 unit.

To get up where my athletes perform, I used an Articulating Boom Lift (king size Cherry Picker) to have maximum stability in the bucket, and to access my athletes at about 70 feet in the air for this particular shot.

Travis and Ed made a dozen “tandem” jumps, but this jump in particular was performed with them only a few feet apart and nearly on top of each other at the landing area… CRAZY and AMAZING skill. The icing on the cake was the full moon rising in the upper right corner in front of the lead rider’s boot.

A really awesome photo shoot and a blast to pull off … Thanks for asking.

Adios, Dave


“NFL Game Day” … Nikon D800, ISO4000, 1/1250 at f/5.6, Nikon 600mm f/4 G VR Zoom lens, WB 6250K, SanDisk 32G Extreme Pro Flash Card.

Q: Hello Dave, I am a student looking for a direction to take my life. I was very interested in photography which I really enjoyed and achieved high grades. As an enthusiastic sportsman, I was considering merging the two and becoming a sports photographer. Would you recommend this, and do you have any advice? Gavin – Houston

A: Hi Gavin. The road to being a professional SPORTS photographer who makes their entire living from their craft is not usually achieved overnight, but is an extremely rewarding occupation to pursue.

If you are currently enrolled at a university, or if you have graduated, consider assisting a local sports photographer as a way to learn the profession. Some assistants make good money assisting someone until they are ready to set out on their own business.

Just so you know, the notion that all a SPORTS photographer does is go to a game for three hours, take pictures, and collect a check is far from accurate. “Speedy” computer skills and business savvy are just as important as photographic skills if one is to “make it” in today’s sports photography market place.

The SPORTS photography industry is highly competitive, and your degree of passion should demand a great deal from you, but if you persevere and make GREAT pictures you can have a fine living.

So, do I recommend having a career as a SPORTS photographer….YES, absolutely! It’s the greatest job on the planet. And when you “make it,” you are truly on top of the world each and every time you arrive at the event.

Best to you Gavin. -Dave


“Fire Fighter” … Nikon D500, ISO200 at 30 seconds, Nikon 24-70mm lens, WB 10,000K, Manfrotto Tripod and 410 Geared Head … Lightpainting, SanDisk Extreme pro 32G Card.

Q: Hey Dave, love your light painting portraits. I read your instructional blog about the “soft focus” technique for your portraits but I don’t get it??? Can you explain it. Thanks, Jeromy – Chicago

A: Hi Jeromy. Whether you use Photoshop’s Gaussian Blur tool or my “soft focus” technique with camera and lens, the purpose is to create selected areas in the scene that are soft looking so as to draw attention more directly to the subject’s face which is in focus.

This light painting portrait of a female fire fighter makes use of a manual exposure time of 30 seconds. I used seven seconds to light paint her face, helmet, ax and torso using a small white LED penlight.

For the next 12 seconds of exposure time, I turned off my flashlight, walked to the camera, and manually unfocused the lens to infinity, then walked back to the subject to resume light painting using a small red LED penlight to “soft focus” areas of her arms and helmet.

Finally, with about 11 seconds remaining in the 30 seconds exposure and with my lens still unfocused to infinity, I light painted the backdrop with red LED flashlight while the backdrop was being “fluttered” by an assistant, thus creating a “soft focus” & motion blur… I’m always experimenting.

Hope this answer explains “soft focus.”

Adios. Dave


THANKS again to Scott for having me write this guest blog. Looking forward to seeing many of you at Photoshop World 2017 in Orlando, Florida: April 19-22. See you there! -Dave

You can see more of Dave’s work at DaveBlackPhotography.com, where he shares his monthly Workshop At The Ranch posts like this one. You can also follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

Inspiration for the Sport Grit Look
I’ve had the incredible opportunity of attending every Photoshop World (except for one) since Photoshop World started in 1999. The amount of knowledge taught in a short time is worth more than countless hours trying to learn on your own. Imagine hanging out and collaborating with instructors who have written books on the different styles you want to learn or fellow students that are top in their field. Collaboration and an image Scott took of me inspired me to create the Sport Grit look that I will teach for the first time at Photoshop World this year.

The Sport Grit Look’s Secret Ingredient
The secret ingredient to produce the sports-grit look is to light the subject with harsh light. Harsh light produces strong shadows for a powerful photo. It sculptures the subject in such a way that when applying the Lightroom preset, the grit look is achieved.

Style The Shoot To Change The Mood
I’ve been happy with the look for the past few years, but I felt it was time for a slight change. I wanted to create a different mood. I collaborated with my buddy, Photoshop World and KelbyOne instructor Mike Kubeisy. We came up with adding tape to the athlete’s fingers and wrist to symbolize injuries. Applying eye black added to the tough look.

At this point, the athlete looked like he was preparing for a game. Although it looked good, it didn’t capture the mood I was after. I wanted to show what the athlete would look like after the game. By adding dirt to his face and arms and making sure the white tape got dirty, the style was completed and the mood was set. He looked like he just walked off the field, working through his pain and injuries to capture a hard-fought victory.

Pulling emotion out of the athlete
Athletes are known for being intense when they play. To capture this emotion, have the athlete relive one of their favorite memories from a game, or create a do-or-die game winning moment. The goal is make them look intense. This short video demonstrates how I pull emotions out of an athlete during a shoot.

Finishing the look in Lightroom
To finish the look, use Lightroom to desaturate the colors, over sharpen the image, and change the color temperature along with the tint. To make life easier, you can download my Lightroom Sports Grit preset or you can learn how I created it an article I wrote Shooting Awesome Sports Portraits.

Now you have the lighting foundation and the Lightroom preset for how I create my Sport Grit Look. The final step is to practice and tweak the workflow to make it your own.

You can see more of Vanelli’s work at Vanelli.tips/VanelliAuthor, follow him on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and see him live at Photoshop World April 20-22!

There Is More Than One Way To Skin A Cat

Firstly I would like to thank Scott and Brad for this opportunity to talk a little about my life in the world of interior, architectural and location based photography.

I am based out of London in the UK, and specialize in taking images for a wide range of clients, ranging from architects, interior designers, kitchen designers, cabinet makers, hotels, resorts, and, not forgetting the ‘bread and butter,’ high-end real estate agents for their editorial, advertising and social media needs.

Potted History
I am one of those photographers that started in a black and white darkroom.

Way back when I was sixteen years old, I lucked out and got a job with a company called ‘Brook-Tella.’ They were exhibition printers and possibly the oldest photographic company in the UK back then in the 1980’s.

We hand printed enormous photos and hand developed them in huge vats of developer and fixer. Then the photos were mounted ready for the clients exhibition needs.

The enlargers ran on rails on the floor, and we worked in enormous hanger sized dark-rooms. The enlarging wall was made of metal as we needed to hang large strips of paper with magnets, and often a print was made up of three to four strips of paper 56” deep and up to 15-20’ feet across. Sorry, I’m still not a metric head being British.
These huge images adorned massive trade shows, such as the like of the Major Motor and trade shows in the UK, Europe and America.

This takes me back to how I remember being given a 4”x5” black and white negative and was told to print it day in day out for a week. I can tell you I was ready to walk out after day one, printing the same negative repeatedly; I saw no reason for it. The senior printer explained to me why I was printing this same image time and time again. His name was John, a really nice man, an absolute expert in the darkroom. He sat me down later in the week as I was close to tears and clearly feeling like the rise was being taken out of me.

This is what he said: “Murray, you still don’t know the skills of how to read a negative, the exposure, the grade of paper, what you will get when you burn and dodge different areas. In turn it will give each and every print a different look,” (think Ansel Adams). I swallowed my teenage pride and continued. That lesson has never left me. So, ‘there are many ways to skin a cat!’

I went on to be a fine art printer and then a photographer in my early twenties. Which takes us to date. The reason I tell you about that early experience is that we need to have a lateral and creative mind to get the best out of any situation and each image we create. What we may think is a good way or the best way to get the image isn’t the only way, sometimes it’s just a very simple solution – good clean light.

On Location
When I arrive at a shoot, I never know what will be happening with the light that day or what I may face in terms of logistics of the shoot. It doesn’t always play out as I think it will; all I know is that my clients are expecting quality results.

So I always go with an open mind, a mind that has many solutions to get the results.

First Things First
Each and every one of us has different approach to how we deal with lighting situations. When I give a talk or train anyone I always say that we have to try and make our post work as easy as possible, which means it’s all about getting right in camera first, at least most of it. Not all our clients are happy to pay for expensive post-production work, so workflow is king.

I can tell you that I probably do more post than most photographers in my field, so I am ahead on the learning curve. Down side is that if you start working out your hourly rate you could be earning not a great deal per hour.
But as I said in my heading, ‘There is more than one way to skin a cat.’ So with that in mind, you should approach each shoot with that attitude.

I believe in getting one exposure images when you can. I know many of you go to HDR style stacking, and occasionally it’s the only way. But making it look like a normal image is the difficult part of that style.

Recently when I met a few real estate photographers, I asked them how they went about getting their photos. Here is what shocked me. I heard one say, “I shoot two frames and use HDR.” That’s without anything more than available lighting. So if you think about it, most households and businesses have lighting around 2600Kelvin if you are lucky.

The colour grading in your post is going to be hard work at best with deep brown light mixed in with winter spectrum of blue daylight as we are now in the Northern hemisphere.. Trying to clean up bad light is nearly impossible if you want your client to be happy with your colour grading. So, what do you need to do? Add quality light! I use continuous LED lighting these days, but I have also used speed-lights and studio flash in the past.

Regardless of what you use, you need to add quality light to your interiors, and I promise you, you will be so much happier when you come to your post work.

Stacking, HDR, or one-framers, whatever your poison, just remember that if you want to create a great master file you still need to incorporate some clean light.

Having set workflow routines means you can create a style and know that the results will be scientifically based, giving you confidence in producing high quality work.

In the past I have always had to get my images right on one piece of colour transparency or film, including filtering for different light sources. It was a very methodical way of shooting that has put me in good stead right up to today.

My behind the camera work-flow goes something like this:

  • In the first instance, I choose my angle looking for the dynamic lines in the shot to get the room or space balanced in my viewfinder.
  • With the camera locked down I then look at what needs moving, redressing, tweaking etc.
  • Then I think about the light I am working with or against. I will normally hide some lights out of frame and hidden in frame, all just a soft helping of light, so you can’t see the images have been lit with extra lighting, which is the best way to light a space – subtly. Architects and interior designers often want to see true colour grading and the proper intensity of how lighting plays in a space to be rendered very accurately. Thus, burnt out lights and dirty colors are not an option.

It’s at this point that I decide how the post production will go. Often there will be additions of compositing and blending if need be. So always get a few extra frames exposing for any troublesome areas such as windows and views.

I would very much like to go into the post production side of my work, but that is a whole topic on it’s own, all I want to say is that as photographers we need to own the light.

If you need to go down the route of stacking or HDR, make sure you take images ranging from what looks like a burnt out frame with little detail through to the darkest exposed frame in 1-stop intervals. Two frames just won’t do it. Again, adding your own subtle clean light improves your chances of finishing with a nicely graded photograph.

I’ve got my workflows and I stick to them as I know what I will get, architecture and interiors are less about creative flamboyancy and more about methodical work practice. Knowing the right workflow that works in a certain situation is what we need in our tool kit as interior and architectural photographers.

One size does not fit all. As I said in my heading, ‘There is more than one way to skin a cat.’

You can see more of Murray’s work at RealFocus.co.uk. Murray works out of London, UK. He is considered one of the UK’s leading interior and architectural photographers. His work is published regularly and he is often found riding around London on his motorbike or flying out of the country for international assignments. He can be reached at RealFocusPhotography@gmail.com or you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Today I would like to share a journey to one of the most challenging and fascinating places on earth.

Want to stand on the edge of a crater and watch lava flowing beneath your feet? Want to explore the ancient churches of Lalibela? How about witnessing the culture and rituals of the lip plated Mursi people? Well, then this place is for you – welcome to Ethiopia.

I first learned about Ethiopia when a friend showed me a photograph of Erta Ale  – one of only six active lava lakes in the world. At the time I had no idea there is a place on Earth where you can stand right on the edge of an active volcano. How exciting! I knew right then and I must visit this place.

Little did I know how much more there is to see here – I explored centuries old churches of Lalibela, survived the scorching heat of the Danakil Depression and witnessed unique customs of the Omo Valley tribes.

Traveling in Ethiopia is not exactly comfortable – extreme heat and humidity, long hours in the car to get to most places, very basic accommodations with electricity and running water not always available. Almost every day I was pushed to my limits physically, emotionally and photographically.    

Some of you may wonder if it was worth it? There were moments on the journey when I wondered the same. What I have learned as a travel photographer is how important it is to test your own boundaries. Just when you think you cant take that next step, when you just want to give up and go home, when you are feeling frustrated and exhausted – that’s when you need to push yourself even harder, that’s when you will grow the most and transform. Your whole world opens up and you are never the same. One of the rewards of travel I welcome even more than breathtaking landscapes – learning to live in the moment. So is it worth it – absolutely! Never stop pushing yourself beyond the boundaries.    

The Salt Trade of Northern Ethiopia
Each day the salt miners make a 100km journey to Mekele – the nearest hub of the “white gold” trade.  Starting from the Danakil Depression where the salt is mined, it’s a three day trek through one of the hottest and cruelest places on earth with temperatures rarely falling below 40-60 C (104-140 F) during the day. This has been the livelihood of the Afar people for hundreds of years, and still continues to this day. Barren landscape, dust storms, unbearable heat and lack of water – after spending just a few days here – I’m truly fascinated by the resilience of the people living in this region.

Erta Ale Volcano – Staring Into The Mouth Of Hell
After a nine hour drive over lava fields, salt flats and sand, it’s a three hour hike in the dark until you finally reach the rim of the caldera. Not too far in the distance, you see the red smoke and ash coming from the ground – a mere 500 meters and you will witness what you’ve traveled so far to see – Erta Ale’s active crater.

Excited, you forget about exhaustion and want to run to it as fast as possible, but the local guide cautions you that this is the most dangerous part. As you descend there is no trail – you are walking on freshly crusted lava that cracks under your feet, one false step and you can fall into an air pocket – who knows what’s underneath?  Finally you made it – it’s a live volcano right in front of you  – you feel the heat, hear the lava bubble, see the ash and sparks flying up in mini explosions… It is one of nature’s most mesmerizing and dangerous shows.

The Faces Of Lalibela
Lalibela – the center of Ethiopian Christianity – is famous for its monolithic churches built underground. To this day the exact details of their construction remain a mystery. All the churches are active and priests still use century old books to pray, with the only source of light shining though small windows cut in the massive walls.

The Tribes Of The Omo Valley
Over 20 tribes live in the Omo Valley in the south of Ethiopia, close to the border with Kenya. Each tribe still follows unique rituals and traditions passed on from one generation to the next. Decorative scars, lip plates, being here feels like a time capsule to a foreign traveler.

I hope you enjoyed reading about Ethiopia. For those interested in joining me on adventure trips to some of the most unique corners of the world, feel free to send me a message at natalia@nataliastone.com.

Natalia Stone is a travel photographer based in New York City. Her passion for adventure and photography has taken her to over 40 counties and some of the most remote corners of the world. Whether standing on a rim of an active volcano in Ethiopia, photographing the northern lights in Norway or navigating through glacial waters of Greenland, her goal is to tell visual stories of the incredible treasures our planet holds.

You can see more of her work at NataliaStone.com, and follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

First of all, I would like to thank Scott Kelby and his wonderful team for this amazing opportunity.  Like many photographers I am self taught.  The classes and learning resources Scott has made available through the years has served as a foundation from which I built a career doing what I love.

Sometimes the light finds you. It was playing tricks with me all morning at Anse St-Jean on the Saguenay River
This is a compressed version of a much larger 36 megapixel stitched panoramic. Many don’t know that you can stitch images natively up to 60 megapixels. Do you know of any 60MP DSLR’s? Try this at home and shoot vertical when you do.

I have so many passions in life but three bubble up to the top: photography, travel, and teaching. I’m truly blessed to be able to do all three full time. They feed off of each other, as I write this blog post I’m in a motel in West Virginia making my way across the country from NYC, working on a personal project and scouting several locations for future workshops.

My first RAW photo taken with my iPhone 6S plus. Capturing dynamic range like this was simply not possible. This opens up many more creative possibilities.
Taken in the old city in Quebec. Embracing simplicity and color.

I have a very close connection with my students; there’s a real bond there. I understand that fiery passion of the creative process, that unyielding obsession and the frustration that inevitably comes with it. They’re two sides of the same coin. That frustration, that struggle, as Scott has said once, is a good thing. The frustration is the result of the recognition that we’re not where we want to be creatively. Yet! It’s also, however, an acknowledgement that we have a creative direction, we know where we want to be, if only (fill in the blank here).

Beauty truly is all around us. You just have to look harder sometimes.
Nature peeking through. The best part about being a photographer is recognizing the beauty in scenes like this. Capturing it is a bonus!

That frustration is an acknowledgement of our potential. Imagine the alternative. Take the top performers, in any creative endeavor, if there’s one thing they have in common, they’ll tell you their work is not finished, there’s more to the story. It’s a game of continuous improvement, with each step up the ladder a result of struggle, failure and success. There is no top to this ladder, it just gets higher and higher, the view just gets better. We’re all at different points on this latter. Joe McNally has a great view. No matter where we are and how good the view, we all get stuck.

This shaft of light produced a beautiful pattern, shining through the enormous windows of the NY public library.
Looking back into the streets of SoHo. Part of a project I’m working on for a gallery show just down the street from here later this year.

The Unplayable Piano
In Cologne, Germany in 1975, American jazz legend Keith Jarrett, already world famous, sat down to give the performance of his life. The recording of this session produced the best selling piano album and best selling solo jazz album in history. Just hours before however, he refused to play. There was a problem; the piano was the worst he’d ever seen, half the size of a typical piano, the keys stuck, the pedals broken. It was an unplayable piano. Sitting in his car outside the concert hall, listening to the pleas of a desperate teenage promoter standing in the rain, begging him to play, he agreed.

Taken in an abandoned hallway at one of the many pre-war buildings in Chelsea filled to the brim with art galleries. The light and color reflecting off the glossy walls of this dark corridor caught my immediately.
The blue hour just after sunset from an elevated platform on The High Line in NYC.

Playing in the middle of the range, no pedals, standing up and literally banging on the keys at point for bass and to project the sound, that unplayable piano allowed him to give the performance of his life. This story is recounted in a recent Ted Talks by Tim Harford, which I highly recommend. During the talk, he states, “We don’t want to be asked to do good work with bad tools. We don’t want to have to overcome unnecessary hurdles, but Jarret’s instinct was wrong.” Had he been playing on the best piano, if everything was finely tuned and working perfectly, that magical night never would have happened. He certainly wouldn’t have chosen those circumstances intentionally. None of us would. Perhaps we should. That frustration, that limitation, that hurdle makes us more creative.

Last year I discovered my unplayable piano.

Reflections are one of the scenes best served by the smaller sensor of the phone and the deeper depth of field it provides. I often shoot scenes in a way that takes advantage of this rather than to consider it a disadvantage. Macro photography is another area that benefits from this.

Apple reached out to me last year and asked me to give a presentation for them on iPhone photography, to simply inspire people to go out and shoot more with their iPhone. And so I did, using it as an excuse to embark on a road trip with my DSLR and my iphone and put it to the test. Before then, honestly, I would never have considered shooting with my phone. I’m a professional photographer, I take what I do very seriously, no self respecting photographer would… My instinct, like Jarret’s, was wrong.

Over the past year, my unplayable piano has taught me much about photography, about the creative process, about myself as a photographer. Ultimately, the experience has helped me to reflect who I am as a photographer and what is important to me, the quality of the image and the quality of the experience.

It’s still crazy to me how we’re supposed to capture our vision, our unique vision with this ridiculous piece of glass and metal and circuits we call a camera. I now know what every setting is, I know what every menu means, I know what every dial does. Who cares? Now what? The ability to create a meaningful image is much different than actually creating one. If you’re like me, the achievement of technical perfection and gear lust and acquisition is a comfortable safe distraction. Technical mastery is not the top rung of the latter, it doesn’t even have a good view.  It’s the start of something more. I feel like I’ve been stuck on this rung of the ladder for a while now, pursuing perfection over creativity, knowledge over experience. My unplayed piano helped me climb higher.

Taken with an app using a Photoshop process know as stacking to merge multiple photos. This allows not only for longer actual exposures but the ability to stack multiple short exposures. which comes in handy on windy days. Taken during one of the worst storms in recent history in Nova Scotia a few weeks ago.

My iPhone is handicapped compared to my full frame 42 megapixel DSLR in every way. Paradoxically however, these limitations, the lack of choice and options, are the very things that have challenged me, inspired me and helped me grow as a photographer. The limited resolution has forced me to carefully consider my compositions, the fixed focal length, severely limiting my options, has forced me to use my feet more, the lack of depth of field has required me to pay more attention to all of the details at the edge of the frame as well as more carefully considering the background.

Up until recently, shooting RAW wasn’t an option, shooting compressed jpegs required a more careful consideration of color balance and exposure control. The lack of a viewfinder has been incredibly helpful in breaking the habit of pulling the camera up to my eye and taking every picture from the lofty perspective of 5’7”. Holding the camera away from my body, the very thing we’re taught not to do, has allowed me to see a scene and compose with much greater freedom of movement. Also, a funny thing happens when you don’t have a big camera and lens in front of your face… you’re more approachable. This is me banging on the keys, flexing my creativity, making the system work for me.

A single RAW capture shooting directly into the sun rising over the St. Lawrence river. This should not be possible with a mobile phone. Taken with the iPhone 6S Plus the day after the 7 was released.

Consider again Jarrett’s performance. What made it the best selling solo jazz record ever, was how much it resonated with the audience. It was that what was being played was much more important than how it sounded, the bass was muffled, the treble sharp, it didn’t matter. If we can just suspend the importance of edge to edge sharpness, frame rate and ISO performance long enough, then maybe we can focus on what really matters; our vision, what initially caught our eye. Then, the light, the color, the composition, the gesture, the moment.

These are the timeless ingredients that truly comprise a great photograph and they have so very little to do with the camera we sling around our neck or the lens attached to it. If we can redefine, for ourselves, what image quality truly is, then maybe that camera we all have in our pockets is all we need to create meaningful work. Maybe, like that unplayable piano, it’s exactly what we need to create our best work yet.

I’d like once more to extent my gratitude to Brad Moore, Scott Kelby and the team at KelbyOne for this opportunity as well as Ron Martinsen from Ronmartblog for making the connection.

For those interested in learning more about my capture and post-processing workflow, I will be teaching several workshops this year in NYC and around the world this year. For those in NYC, in March, I’ll be leading my annual two-day Lightroom Bootcamp in NYC, in April I will partnering with world class street photographer Steve Simon in a special iPhone street photography workshop in NYC, October will be a very special and unique photography workshop on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia in concert with the Celtic Colours festival and in November, an active adventure photography workshop in Bhutan with Zephyr Adventures. More information can be found by clicking the links above, signing up for my newsletter or reaching out to me directly at cliff@cliffordpickett.com I’d love to hear from you.

You can see more of Clifford’s work at CliffordPickett.com, and follow him on Instagram@cliffordpickettphotography and @eyephonephotographer, Twitter, and 500px.

Hi Gang: it’s my annual tradition to kick off the New Year with a look back at the best, most popular, and most commented-upon posts of the previous year, (and if I don’t sneak this in before January ends, well…it would just be bad form, so I’m squeaking this in just under the wire).

Today we’re honoring my picks for “Best Guest Blog Posts of 2016”

It was an amazing year for guest posts, and I cannot tell you how hard it was to narrow it down to just ten, because it was one of our best years for guest blog posts ever!

By the way: If you’re wondering how many posts we put up in the course of a year, in 2016 it was 248 posts (Whew!). Also, in case you were wondering: I actually do write all my own posts with the exception of Guest Blog Wednesday and Free Stuff Thursday which are handled for me by the awesome Brad Moore, for which I am boundlessly grateful (thank you so much, Brad!). :)

OK, here we go for “The Best Guest Blog Posts of 2016” (in no particular order):

Stephen Bollinger (above)
His post, “See like a dancer” was inspirational, insightful, and included some absolutely beautiful dance (and sports) images, and his message is spot on.
Luke Copping
His post “The Good, The Bad, and The Great – How To Vet Your Clients In Order To Save Your Time, Your Sanity, and Your Career” is hands down one of the best straight-up business posts of the year. Every photographer should read this one.
Jeremy Cowart
When There’s More Than Photography — Jeremy’s post about his dream to create “The Purpose Hotel” reminds us that we can think beyond our photography and grow in ways we never imagined. When you read this one, be sure to watch the videos in the post. This is so worthwhile. You’ll dig it.
Glyn Dewis
His “Photograph Like a Thief” is a wonderfully empowering, informative, well-researched and illustrated story that will change your perception on so many things. Brilliantly done. You will learn a lot (and a lot about yourself).
Monica Carvalho
Don’t let the first image in her post creep you out (even though it is a bit creepy) you’ll smile, laugh, and love her compositing, and her story. Very well done.
Chris Hershman
He titled it, “A Guide To Becoming A Filmmaker Using DSLR Cameras: Helping Photographers Transition Into Filmmaking” This isn’t just a guest post — it’s more like a Master Class for photographers on shooting video — I’m serious, this is one of the best articles I’ve ever seen on creating professional video. His examples are amazing, and he breaks it down on a level that is just incredible. If you’re interesting in getting started in shooting video, this should be your first stop.
 
Alan Hess
Alan’s post on Photo Releases for shooting concert photography, and his “day in the life” type of coverage of one of his photography gigs takes you “behind the curtain” to see a side of the business you rarely see. If you shoot bands, or dream of shooting concerts, this should be required reading.
Mike Olivella
It’s All About Perspective, Mike’s post about why you should be considering different angles, and even different lenses, to get more epic sports shots (and exactly how it’s all done, with lots of great behind-the-scenes shots), was so well illustrated, written, and received.
Sean Berry
What a fantastic post! It was about Sean’s “first week as the photographer for the Dallas Stars” which he said, “was one of the craziest weeks in my professional career. In the span of 5 days, I became a new photographer.” First, great story. Secondly, his examples, videos, and the step-by-step GIF of how the group shot you see above came together, and all the post processing stuff is just absolutely outstanding. So, so well done, and a great read. You will love it.
Seamus Payne
He gets right to the point with “What Makes Twilight So Vital to Great Architectural Photography” and if you’re into shooting real estate, or fine homes, or architecture, you will learn a lot in a very short time. Very well written, and very informative.
There’s an incredible amount of knowledge, passion, inspiration and soul shared in these posts. I’m so grateful to all the photographers and Photoshop experts who shared their thoughts, teaching and ideas through the my Guest Blog program, and of course a big thanks and high-five to the awesome Brad Moore for wrangling, managing and producing them all. It’s a lot of work, and he runs it all like a boss.
Hope you enjoyed this look back. Tomorrow it’s the 10 most popular posts of 2016 — hope you’ll join me for that.
Best,
-Scott
P.S. Peter Hurley’s “Top 10 Headshot Photography Questions Answered” class that was released last week is killing it! The comments we’re getting are just incredible. Peter is a national treasure! :)
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