About + Photo Tips - Steve Hoffmann
  • About + Photo Tips

About Steve and Some Photo Tips


Steve and 4X5 camera

Death Valley National Park - Salt Creek, Jan 2003


This photo of me was taken by a friend of mine. We didn't have the "light" working in our favor on this trip but we enjoyed the outing. The armless camp chair has its own tote bag and keeps my camera pack and equipment from contact with sand or mud, and in this case, mineral salts. Death Valley National Park contains 3.3 million acres of diverse geography ranging from 282 feet below sea level to 11049 feet of elevation. As a size comparison, Yellowstone National Park has only 2.2 million acres. I have always enjoyed the sparse beauty of desert areas and Death Valley has some very interesting sights.


The majority of these photographs were taken between 1976 and 2008. I started my photography hobby with a 35mm range finder camera and moved on through 35mm film SLR's to 4X5 film cameras then digital SLRs. When I was doing film I preferred Kodachrome 25 transparencies for their saturated colors. Yes, that is ISO 25 for you youngsters. Later on I used Fuji Velvia at a whopping ISO 50. I don't miss film at all. Digital is superior in every way.


The world is a beautiful place and filled with natural wonders both alive and inanimate. However, life in our world for both the human race and our creature friends can have some seemingly cruel and harsh aspects too. One of the things I have always enjoyed about photography is the ability to ‘freeze in time’ a little window of something beautiful, interesting or thought provoking. A good photograph should stimulate the viewer’s mind and imagination. If you feel an emotional response of any kind to even one of my photographs, I have succeeded as a photographer. On a personal level my photographs are 'memory joggers' for many different events and adventures. I hope you enjoy your visit.

Some Photo Tips

Someone once asked a famous bank robber why he robbed banks. His answer was "because that's where the money is." Seems simple enough for the bank robber anyway. He goes where the money is. In order to get good photographs you have to know where to go to find good photo opportunities. If you are interested in birds and animals, you might want to try the zoo or an animal park. Unless you need to have a wild subject, zoo and animal park photography beats setting up a blind and sitting and waiting for a critters to wander or fly by and sit still for your lens. At the zoo or animal park you literally have a captive subject. If you like flowers and insects, try an arboretum, botanical garden or park.


Every now and then you will luck out and the photo of a lifetime is just "there" in front of you waiting to be taken. Most of the time you will have to work to get those special shots. In your travels always keep an eye out for future photo opportunities. By travels I don't mean you have to travel a lot to find good photo opportunities. Being familiar with the area you live in and exploring the local possibilities will probably produce more great photos over time than a two week trip to a well known National Park. Concentrating your photographic energies in the area you live has many advantages for "designing" good photographs.


Landscape photography is much like fishing. You do your research to find a lake or stream where you think you'll find some fish. Then you check out that particular lake or stream for the best spots. Finally, you drop your line in. Some days you get skunked. Fish just aren't at your spot that day. However, tomorrow the biggest hungriest fish in the lake may cruise by that spot. You've got to be patient and keep trying. Day to day and minute by minute changes in the weather and cloud formations make getting great landscape, sunsets and scenic shots 50% luck and 50% planning and skill.


THE QUALITY OF LIGHT:  A subject that is just average at noon in mid summer may look dramatically different in late winter at dawn or sunset. Try to visualize what different lighting and weather conditions may do to each scene or subject you are interested in. Lighting is extremely important in your quest for that special photograph. Mid day or bright sunlight is usually not the best light for color photographs. The range between the deepest shadows and very bright highlights is impossible for film or digital sensors to capture. On a sunny day the light conditions about 2 to 3 hours after sunrise and the same time frame before sunset is usually the best for color photography. Slightly overcast days can offer lighting that produces nice saturated colors without loosing too much shadow and highlight detail. Try to avoid gray overcast skies in landscape and scenic shots. Most landscape compositions will look better with some blue sky areas showing through the clouds. Patchy clouds can give texture, shape and content to the sky portion of your composition. Early morning and late afternoon may produce the best quality of light for many subjects. The lighting and conditions just before and just after a storm can add a dramatic look to landscape photos. The 'colors' of a good sunset begin in the direction the sun is setting and gradually move across the sky to the opposite horizon if there are a few clouds in the sky. This movement of 'color' is active from 5 to 10 minutes before sunset to 5 to 10 minutes after sunset. Timing can be critical to capturing the best light. This is especially true of sunrise and sunset photographs. Plan to arrive 'early' at your photographic destination. There's an old saying among large format photographers that goes something like "F16 and be there an hour early". You don't want to be fumbling with tripods, camera bodies and lenses while that 30-60 seconds of flaming red sunset sky is gradually fading away.


Try to keep in mind the range of light and contrasts that your camera's imaging sensor will capture. Practically speaking, you can retain detail in a 3 to 5 stop range. A black bumble bee on a white flower just won't work very well. It doesn't matter how you bias the exposure you can not capture enough detail in this sort of image. With some exceptions having the sun behind you or at least 90 degrees to your side will produce the best landscape photographs. While facing your subject, lift up your arm and point straight out to your left or right. If the sun is in front of where you are pointing, try to move to a location to get the sun straight to your side or behind you. If you can't get the lighting right with the image framed the way you want it, you can use a small compass to determine where the sun will be earlier or later during the day. If possible, you can return to the area and photograph that scene later in the day or on another day. Having the sun in front of you generally gives washed out blue skies and harsh contrast between the sky and foreground. Having the sun in front can also cause lens flare image degradation.


COMPOSITION AND CONTENT:  This is an area of wide latitude. Nobody likes to have their artistic ideas limited by "rules". Some folks have a natural "eye" for seeing form, content and color. Others have to work hard at understanding what it takes to make a good image. While you can't get a good photographic eye just by reading, I strongly suggest buying some good books on photographic technique if you are serious about your photography hobby. Both John Shaw and George Lepp have good books on outdoor and nature photography. See Amazon.com's online book store and do a search by author. Having said all that, here are a few simple things that you might want to keep in mind. When photographing landscapes try not to put the horizon dead center in the image. Most photographers will mentally divide their viewfinder image into thirds both horizontally and vertically. If your sky area is just plain blue, use the top third of your image for your sky and the other two thirds for your subject and foreground. If the clouds and sky are the main focus of an image, try allowing the sky the full two thirds and use the last third of your image space for the foreground. Along this same line, try not to center your area of main interest in the viewfinder. Move it off to the side or slightly up or down in the framed image. Your scenic images should have enough interesting components to allow the eye to travel easily around the image from item to item in a somewhat ordered fashion.


Sunsets and sunrises that are facing the horizon in which the sun is going to rise or set on usually look best if there is water or something reflective in the foreground. Trees or other objects that will be identifiable in profile will also help put a meaningful foreground in a sunrise or sunset where you are facing the direction of the sun. If the sun does not have a layer of clouds in front of it, the contrast in light intensity between area around the sun and the edges of your composition will be extreme. Some very dramatic sunset and sunrise colors can be captured by finding a scene that is on the opposite horizon from where the sun is actually rising or setting. This type of sunrise or sunset composition allows the soft directional light of pre and early sunrise or early and post sunset to evenly illuminate the entire scene. A few clouds will help reflect these colors and add content and texture to the sky area of this type of sunrise/sunset photograph.



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