Record Shot and Art Photo: Composition Challenges

A lot of my camera time is spent photographing historic structures. They could be anything from a fine house that’s been lovingly preserved to a ruin ready to succumb to the weather or the wrecker’s ball, and everything in between.

The question I always ask myself, especially if it’s a subject I’m photographing for the first time, is, how should I present this? As a straightforward record shot or in an artistic interpretation? Actually, as long as you’re there, it’s as well to do both. Record shots–or in this context one might say documentary shots–are, for me, a way of getting to know the subject: introducing my camera to it and vice versa. After I’ve taken one or more of those, I move in, look more closely, and evaluate the subject for possible artistic interpretations.

Saugerties, a river town on the Hudson River some 45 miles south of Albany, has a vast treasure of historic subjects, including the famous lighthouse that also serves as a B&B. Yesterday the light was just right for photographing a home that adjoins the Reformed Church–actually, it’s the parsonage for the church–because the rhododendrons were out in full force and offered a burst of spring beauty and color.

Here is the first image I made–the record shot: the front of the house with the door, windows, and, of course, the two rhododendron bushes.

IMG_0966 ed s

But I wasn’t satisfied to stop there. It’s a good record shot, a bland postcard shot, one might say, but there must be something more here.

Of course, there was. After all, what had attracted me to the building in the first place–a building I walk or drive past frequently but had never before thought of photographing? The rhododendrons, of course. Here’s the result.

IMG_0967 - s

Please note: Both images are the jpgs “right out of the box,” with only minimal postprocessing. I’ll get to that stage later. But I want to point out that in this blog post I’m concerned primarily with the compositional aspects: how to get from the record or documentary shot to a personal interpretation. But there needn’t be a complete dichotomy between the two, because even a documentary shot can be transformed into something artistic depending on how you decide to process it. (This is especially useful for this historical photography because you can use a program such as Topaz B&W Effects or Nik Silver Efex Pro to make your documentary shot look like an old-fashioned historic photograph.) But that’s another story!

Back to composition: My fellow Hudson Valley photographer Robert Rodriguez, Jr. frequently writes about composition, and offers invaluable tips, in his blog and in his newsletter. If ever there was a photographer who proves that you don’t need to travel out West for the “iconic shots” to produce stunning photography, Robert is such a photographer. Click here to get to his website — I promise you’ll be glad you did. His motto is “Inspiring the Creative Spirit,” and that he certainly does.

Another Reason I’m Glad I Brought My Camera


As a historian and a photographer I like to photograph historic sites, broadly defined. So when I discovered that the opening of a photography exhibit to which I was invited was being held in an old, restored mill in Kingston, New York, I slung my Canon G9X around my neck on the way out the door, figuring that at least I might get an interesting shot of the building’s exterior.

Kingston, in the mid Hudson Valley, is rapidly garnering a reputation as a major artistic center. Artists are flocking there to live and to work. In 2013 an organization called the Rural Ulster Preservation Company (RUPCO) purchased a now abandoned historic building (built 1903) that originally housed the  United States Lace Curtain Mill  and transformed it into a center with apartments and studio space for artists as well as, on the ground floor, space for exhibitions.

As expected, the exterior was worth photographing, and I lined everything up and got the image I wanted before going inside to see the exhibition I had come for. A friend I was with drew my attention to a little corridor and suggested I might find it interesting. Anticipating  more artwork, I was instead surprised to note that some of the machinery that had once been used to operate the mill was still there, in its original place.  Another reason I’m glad I brought my camera! Who could resist that? And I was in good company.

Here are some of the photographs I took along with descriptions of how I processed them. First, the one at the top of the page: This is the only interior shot that I took with the camera’s straightforward settings (as opposed to artistic or “scenic” presets). The very low light level required an ISO of 1600, so the first thing I did was to get rid of the noise using Nik Dfine. I then took the image into Nik Viveza, which I always find is a powerful tool for making selective adjustments accurately and fairly quickly. Since the color came out too warm I decreased the saturation to -35, and in order to maintain definition I upped the contrast to 10 (always remembering Rick Sammon’s dictum “Shadows are your friends”) and gave the structure an ever so slight bump to 2.



Those of you who know my work are probably wondering why I didn’t go for one of my “modern vintage” looks in the photo of the building’s exterior, possibly sepia or B&W. I tried it many different ways but didn’t like the results. The brickwork made for too much detail, and thus a monochrome looked confusing. You’ll notice the image is virtually square; because of the time of day, the setting sun threw the side of the building into bright, warm sunlight and the front into shadow. Regardless of what I tried, the only solution was to crop most of the building’s side out of the photo. (Reminder to self: Return with camera on an overcast day. That way the front and the side will better integrate with each other.)


The other machinery photos were all taken with the camera’s “Nostalgic” scenic preset. This obviated the need for a high and noisy ISO, but it did result in a somewhat soft, well, nostalgic look. In the one above the processing was simple: In Lightroom, again wanting increased definition, I bumped the contrast up to 24 and the clarity to 21. Then I took the saturation down to -17 for a look approaching monochrome but not quite getting there. In Photoshop I used Viveza to increase the structure on the little horizontal bar that has a chain on each end.


Finally, attracted by the pattern cast by the shadow, I made an abstract (above).  Wanting increased definition, in Lightroom I bumped the contrast up to 21, darkened the shadows to -38, and slid the clarity up to 19. In Photoshop I used Viveza to decrease the saturation and to increase the structure on the main object in the picture (sorry — I’m a photographer not an engineer, so I have no idea what any of these things are called except “thingamajig”).

That was an interesting day out. Thanks to the friends who invited me to the show, and to RUPCO for breathing new life into a century-old building in midtown Kingston.

Don’t Leave Home Without It

How many times have you been out somewhere and had reason to exclaim, “Oh NO! If only I had the camera along!”? The best way to avoid that frustrating situation is always to have some kind of camera with you, because you never know. Here are some reasons why, just from the last few days:

One of the main roads into the village where I live is crossed by railroad tracks a couple of miles outside the village. I’m not talking passenger trains, I’m talking freight trains. Long ones. Sometimes verrrry long ones. When you’re approaching this crossing and the lights flash and the gates go down, you know you’re going to be stuck.

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve I was returning from shooting my favorite ruin on the Mountaintop when the lights flashed and the gates descended just before I got to the crossing. Nothing to do but to wait. Well, this turned out to be an exceptionally slow and long train. Fortunately for me, (1) my little backup camera, the Canon G9X, was sitting beside me in the passenger seat; (2) I was only the second car in the queue, thus no obstructions. Below you see a couple of the better samples of how I whiled away the time (and retained my sanity).



This morning after hearing the weather forecast I decided to go out for a walk before the dreaded wintry mix arrived.  As it was chiefly for the exercise it was meant to be a walk at a good pace and not my photographic moseying pace, but I slung the G9X around my neck like a piece of jewelry anyway. Here is what I saw in an antiques shop window a few blocks up Main Street:


I then turned the corner into the village’s chief shopping and restaurant thoroughfare. A few doors down is a thrift shop run by a Christian religious organization. They always have nice window displays and one of the windows often has handwritten posters with religious texts. It happens that I have a historical interest in evangelical poetry. Here is what I found in the thrift shop window today; I couldn’t wait to send the photo to someone with whom I’ve sung this hymn many times:


So, you never know. And P.S.: I’m still waiting for the dreaded wintry mix.

Eulogy for a Red Barn


This old red barn in the heart of the Adirondacks was a mecca for photographers. Situated on Route 73 in Keene, New York, it regularly attracted travelers who happened to be driving that road between the Adirondack Northway and Lake Placid as well as those who, cameras in hand (or in their cars), made it a deliberate destination.

The last time I saw the barn, in early November of this year, I noticed that a pullout with real parking spaces had been added fairly recently, and I assumed that local authorities had decided, for safety’s sake, to take this measure to accommodate the motorists who were otherwise parking somewhere along the well-traveled road.

Perhaps I was correct in my assumption. But this particular use of the shiny new parking spaces was short-lived: despite intense efforts to save it, above all via a Facebook page spearheaded by New Jersey photographer Nick Palmieri, this beloved icon, one of the most photographed landmarks in the Adirondack Park, was torn down shortly before Christmas because officials had deemed it unsafe and beyond repair.

It’s difficult to pin down the exact history of the red barn. Apparently it dates from the first half of the twentieth century and actually was a functioning barn at one time. After surviving other repurposings, the barn was left deserted and the land it stood on is under the jurisdiction of the state DEC. With its red color it provided photographers with a perfect background to the field and mountains in all seasons, and its increasingly dilapidated state tended to add to its charm–until officials decided its days were numbered. The intrepid old barn had, somewhat miraculously,  survived many a tough Adirondack winter (not to mention the ravages of Hurricane Irene five years ago), and perhaps it was thought unlikely to survive the winter of 2016-2017.

So, all we have left of the beloved red Adirondack barn are memories and photographs.  Above is a photograph I took in 2013. Below is one from my last visit, nearly two months ago.

If you would like to purchase a print or other memento of the barn with one of these images on it, please click on the photo you would like and it will take you to my website.


Scott Snyder’s Stunning New Photo Book


Islandport Press, the publisher of this book, classifies N is for New Hampshire as “Children’s Nonfiction,” and while that’s not untrue, the book is so much more. Scott Snyder is a New England photographer, resident in southern New Hampshire and a member of the New England Photography Guild, and his magnificent work graces every page of this lovely book. There are dramatic shots such as this one of the Mt. Washington Cog Railway on the cover, landscapes, interiors and exteriors, people shots — you name it.  In a fairly short amount of time   Scott has succeeded in mastering just about every kind of photography you can think of.   Except the soullessly trendy. He has too much depth to his personality, too much sensitivity to the transcendent, to want to bother with that. Among the plethora of “souvenir” picture books that can be bought at Visitors’ Centers and book shops all over the Granite State, N is for New Hampshire stands out for the photographer’s avoidance of cliche and his deeply personal approach, and because Islandport’s production staff has done a superb job of reproducing the photographs in natural colors and not in souped-up oversaturated versions that some book and calendar publishers seem to think the public wants.

While Rebecca Rule’s text is straightforward enough for children to be able to read and appreciate, it’s by no means too elementary to be informative for adults as well. N is for New Hampshire is an enchanting book for all ages. It’s an unsurpassed way to become acquainted with the work of one of New England’s truly outstanding photographers. You can see more of Scott’s work by visiting his website, and you can purchase his book by clicking here or visiting the website of Islandport Press.


Just Do It! Another Take on a Familiar Theme

1 - DSC-5346 BuzSim s

Regular readers of my blog will know how I strongly urge taking that photo today, now, when you have the opportunity in front of you, rather than assuming “I can always come back tomorrow/next week/ etc.” Never assume! Next time you’re there, they may have cut that tree down, put new vinyl siding on that character-filled weather-beaten home — you name it, a whole catalogue of missed opportunities.

But this time I want to offer a different take on that theme of the dangers of procrastinating. When I’ve committed to submitting photographs for a show or to selling my wares at an event like the Windham ArtFest, I decide what’s going to go, in what size, and in what format. Then I make sure that I have all those photos/sizes/formats ready to upload to the print vendor’s website so I can order all the necessary prints. Needless to say, I try to get that all done in good time so that I’m not unnecessarily spending money on rush fees, premium shipping, that sort of thing.

Coming up in two weeks is one of my favorite shows of the year–Twilight Park Artists in the Catskills. I needed my two photos that were to be framed and hung, plus various others for what they call The Corner Store, the chance to sell extra product such as cards and matted prints. All done, ordered in time, arrived in good time.

But here’s where the danger of procrastination reared its head. I waited a while — like a week or so — before opening the package. After all, my living space is small (major understatement), and I didn’t want two framed photographs out where I could have tripped over them and damaged them.

So, yesterday, during a brief respite from the loathsome summer heat, I decided to open the package and get on with framing the two major photographs, matting another, inserting the others into the card frames, etc.

Whoa, surprise. How could I have ordered something that bad — what was I thinking? The main photos looked as if I’d had a field day with an “increase the shadows” slider, and the card ones weren’t much better. Did I really hang that autumn scene in the Ringwood show back in March?

DSC4860 sWell, yes, I did — and someone bought it. But I had used a different print vendor for that job, the same vendor I used to make card prints for the Windham event, and they were just fine. And the tree photo — to fill an order for 100 cards from a friend who is also my best customer (quite honestly, he qualifies as a patron) I used the popular print vendor I always use for my ready-made cards and most of my books, and they turned out just fine. No complaints from the customer — I mean, patron.

We have to be aware that back-lighting from our computer screens will make the photographs appear brighter than they do when printed, and so when preparing a file to be printed I tweak the various brightness settings accordingly.  And that’s what I upload for my orders.

If I had waited until the really last minute to open that package and frame the pictures, I’d have had to withdraw them from the show rather than ruin my reputation by hanging bad work. Instead I immediately submitted a new order, for the two large prints as well as for some card prints, to the vendor i normally use and trust.  So this time when I say “Do it now!” I mean, please, if you’re ordering prints for something that has a deadline, open that package as soon as it arrives. You never know.

P.S. If you’re traveling through the Catskills in mid-August, you might want to check out the Twilight Park Art Show on Saturday August 13 and Sunday August 14. Paintings, photographs, something for everyone, on the walls and in The Corner Store. Route 23a in Haines Falls. If you’re driving up through Kaaterskill Clove, the entrance is on the left just as you reach Haines Falls. See you there!



When Your Photography Surprises You

Have you ever ventured out, armed not only with your camera but also with some preconceived notions of the images you want to make? It happens to me on week-long visits to New England as well as on half- or full-day trips closer to home. And does it then also sometimes happen that you end up with images radically different from what you thought you were setting out to take — perhaps because the lighting wasn’t what you expected or that tree wasn’t there anymore or etc., etc., etc.? Sometimes that’s a fun part of the game.

And then there are times I go out with no specific ideas for images but just respond to what’s around me. Again, I like the element of surprise.

Here I want to share two images from my recent trip to the northern New England coast, both of places I’d been and things I’d photographed before.  Each had its own unique element of surprise.

The Sunday I decided to drive along the Maine coast toward Ogunquit was sunny and quite windy. After stopping along the coastal road (Rt 1A) to photograph buildings that took my fancy, I ended up, as I knew I would, at the famous Nubble Light. Nubble is probably the most photographed lighthouse in the USA (if not possibly the world, though I wonder whether Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia might be a competitor) because it’s so accessible — you just walk up to it. No boats, no sneaking onto private property, no long hikes on soft sand — just drive up, park, and get out your gear.

As you well know, ease of access doesn’t guarantee ease of getting a great photograph. For one thing, it was midday, usually not the optimum time to chalk up any photographic masterpieces. Also, on a Sunday afternoon in early spring chances are quite good of getting people wandering into your otherwise perfect composition.

DSC-5979 Nik Viv and TC s

Well, out of the several images I took, here’s the one I think was best.  What made it work? (1) The clouds. Thank you, Mother Nature. As famed New England foliage expert Jeff Folger observed when he saw it, it looks as if the clouds are emanating from the lighthouse. So, yes, while I did get closer-up images, this with the clouds was “the” image. (2) No people. There was a person off to the left, but I was cropping that side of the image anyway since it had too much superfluous “stuff.”

Photoshop processing, after my usual preliminary moves with the Raw file in Lightroom, was relatively minimal.  I took the image into Nik Viveza, moderately cranked up the Brightness and Structure, and brushed these settings onto the lighthouse and the foreground rocks to make them stand out from the blue water and sky. Back in Photoshop, a very slight degree of opening the shadows in the Shadows and Highlights. And there you have it: my surprise that any of the images taken under less than optimum conditions would be successful.

The second one contained a surprise of a different kind. This is a well-known tree on the New Hampshire coast at Great Island Common (a.k.a. New Castle Common) near Portsmouth.  I first shot it a year ago while out with New England photographer Jeff Sinon, and that time we had the sweet evening light in our favor. This time I was there midday because it took me a good while to find the place due to the weird location of the sign. Actually, I considered this trip a “study” for, hopefully, a revisit later in the day under better lighting conditions, and I used my Olympus SH-1 instead of my Nikon DSLR.


First, here’s the original. A nicely composed image of this venerable tree, but what boring light! What could be done?

On my way to and from this New England trip I stopped for lunch at the same restaurant. Each time I was seated in a different section, and each of those sections had old oil landscape paintings on the walls in which the colors were not natural but nor were they monochrome. They were sort of a tint. I stared at them and thought there must be a way to recreate this effect in appropriate photographs. Information tucked away in my brain for later use.

Screenshot 2016-04-09

With a completely open mind I decided to take the image into Nik Color Efex Pro 4 and see what the different presets would do. (Remember my post about letting limitations work for you? My current limitation is that my Topaz plug-ins aren’t saving correctly and so I’m making the best of the Nik Suite.) The first preset I clicked (they’re listed in alphabetical order) was Bi-Color Effects.  As you can see from the screenshot, there’s an extensive selection of color combos, and each of those can be tweaked still further.  I tried them until I came to Moss 4. That was it. And — not that I was consciously looking for this — it somehow approximates that effect of hovering between not-quite-natural and not-quite-unnatural that I had observed on those oil paintings.


Please — let me know what you think! I appreciate your comments. Click here or here if you would like to order a print or other product.

Growing Your Photography: Imposing Limits


Wonderful coincidence that led to new discoveries in my photographic journey today: It was Drop-Off Day for artwork to be exhibited in next weekend’s annual Exhibition and Sale at St. Catherine of Bologna Church in Ringwood, New Jersey. With my car duly loaded with my three for-sale photographs plus one for the Silent Auction, off I went down Route 17 and into beautiful Passaic County to relinquish my work into the loving hands of St. Catherine’s volunteers. It happened to be a beautiful day, and though I didn’t have much time to spare for a photo shoot, it was impossible totally to pass up the opportunity.

As it happened, en route to and from St. Catherine’s I had to pass Ringwood Manor, the scene of many of my recent photo shoots and the subject of two of the images I was submitting to the show (there’s a Bonus Tip for you: When deciding what to put into a show or sell at a fair, remember that people like to buy images of their own local region). Fine, I didn’t have to go out of my way; how could I ensure that I wouldn’t get carried away and spend more time there than I ought to?

The two-part solution: First, don’t take a lot of gear. In fact, don’t take the DSLR at all. I opted for my little Olympus Stylus SH-1, which with its zoom that maxes out to 600mm has served me well for  many a travel situation (read: taking on airplanes). Second, limit the pictures I would take to only one of the “Art” presets — the Pinhole, which, obviously, lends itself well to photographing subjects like old buildings.

That limitation — any limitation you choose to impose on yourself (some suggestions you’ll frequently read involve taking along and using only one lens on your DSLR; if you really want a challenge, make it a prime or fixed focal length lens) — will help to free your mind from all your usual presuppositions about what you expect to photograph. Instead, aware that you now have limited options, you will mentally narrow down your options in accord with the limitation you’ve set for yourself.

And so, despite the countless photographs I’ve taken at Ringwood Manor, I was able to find a number of brand new (for me) compositions that worked well with that Pinhole setting. (As an added bonus there’s the physical freedom afforded by toting a small compact instead of a DSLR and tripod.)  Here are a few of them for you to see. And if you’re in the neighborhood, why not stop by and see all the amazing work on display at St. Catherine’s Art Exhibition?  For the images I’ve submitted to the show, click here, here, and here. Thank you!







Kerry Drager’s Coastal Visions Delights the Eye

Coastal_Visions_Cover_Kerry_Drager s

A couple of years or so ago, California photographer Kerry Drager moved from an inland part of his state to a coastal area in central California. And much to the benefit of those of us who follow Kerry’s photographic work, he not surprisingly fell under the spell of the California coast. The spell has drawn him back again and again to photograph the beauty of Cambria, Cayucos, and San Simeon, and some of the results can be seen in the exquisite little book Coastal Visions recently published on

Kerry has infinite patience. You can see the results in this book: waiting for that wave to break just right, for the seagull to position itself in the optimal spot; working out the optimal composition, waiting (or returning again and again) for the sweetest light.

But not all the images are strictly of waves, rocks, gulls, and other things that one readily associates with coastal places. No, there is more to a coastal vision than that.  A stunning backlit group of daisies; an abstract of rock and lichen – Kerry  is renowned for his close-ups both as photographer and a teacher; a fence –what fellow Californian Ansel Adams would likely have called an extract, a portion of a fence in an image composed so as to get the maximum effect from minimum subject matter.

Kerry Drager’s Coastal Visions can be purchased from

And as if the book weren’t enough, Kerry currently has a show running at The Photo Shop in San Luis Obispo until March 14. The show features prints from the book, so it must be quite a treat to see these beautiful images in large format on the wall. Do go and have a look if you live in the area or are passing through.

I eagerly await more publications from Kerry; he is working on other projects and in his own good time – Kerry is methodical, he doesn’t rush impulsively into things (which is why he excels at what he does) – he will show us further products of his creativity. Coastal Visions promises much, and much will certainly be delivered.


When the Light Isn’t Cooperating

DSC-5595 cr two toned s

It happens. From your window very early in the morning you see a glint of red beginning in the sky, and you grab your gear and hurry out to your favorite place to make some photos. Maybe you’ll finally get that moonset you’ve been trying for, or catch the sweet light glinting off the top of that mountain.

So you get there and that glint of light is gone, leaving you with nothing but overcast. A rather dull overcast, at that. What to do?

This happened to me on the day after Christmas at Cooper Lake. Sometimes I’ll simply chalk it up to the luck of the draw and look at the positive side: at least I’m out where I can enjoy a nice walk, even if I don’t have any pictures to show for it.

But on this occasion there were several other factors in my favor, too good to be passed up. First, despite the late-December date, there had yet to be snow or a freeze, so that reflections were visible in the lake and not the sheet of white that one expects at this time of year. Second, those reflections were perfect and undisturbed due to the wind being absolutely still. Third, there was great composition potential, especially now that my favorite tree was completely bare of leaves and made a striking foreground element for the lake scene. And related to this, the lack of strong light revealed some compositional ideas I might otherwise not have seen.

And so the camera came out of the bag, the tripod was set up, and I set to work. Except for the less-than-good light, I was pleased with the results.  But what to do about the boring light?

I began experimenting with some of the plug-ins in my processing software. And I mean experimenting. In some cases I ended up with two or three different results that I’ve saved. In some cases I added filter layers, deleted them again, modified the images in other ways. The end results, with which I’m pleased, are what I prefer to call “photo art.”

I want to stress that my idea of photo art is not the same thing as “improving” a boring photograph by bumping up the saturation and other sliders so that the end result is simply an oversaturated, overprocessed image that screams “phony.” Rather, to make photo art a photograph — a good photograph — is my starting point, but the end-point image, while respecting the integrity of the original, doesn’t necessarily look like a photograph — perhaps not at all. (Some viewers of such an image I made a couple of weeks ago on a foggy day thought it looked like a Japanese painting; OK; but I don’t make such claims for myself. Judge for yourself — it’s the image at the top of this blog post.)

Here are two images from last week’s visit to Cooper Lake, one of the images in two different versions.

DSC-5702 med pop grg s








Here you see the above-mentioned tree. When it’s covered with leaves you have to somehow work around it so that it doesn’t obliterate some interesting parts of the mountains, but when it’s bare like this, it’s perfect. On this occasion it even helped to fill in some of the “empty” sky space that didn’t have clouds. In this version I used Topaz Adjust’s Medium Pop Grunge preset in the HDR Collection. (In all cases this “finishing touch” is preceded by basic processing in Lightroom and then usually some further processing in Photoshop, especially increasing the contrast and often the details or structure. Nik Viveza is an especially powerful tool for this.)

DSC-5702 Top BW Ef s








Same image again, this time processed with the Cerulean Tea Rose preset in Topaz BW Effects Cyanotype Collection. Here I went into the Creative Effects and increased the Feature Boost, since I wanted more detail than what the preset on its own was giving me. Then, back in Photoshop, I lightened the shadows very slightly.

DSC-5711 Viv 2 lyrs Top BW s

I always knew that something could be made of those branches sticking up out of the water, and ironically, the poor light this day facilitated that. I played around quite extensively with this image and came up with three similar versions, the chief difference being the amount of pink tint, ranging from none at all to more pronounced. This is the middle one on that spectrum, and I think it’s my favorite of the three. It took two layers of Viveza plus a layer from the Topaz BW Effects palette. I especially like Viveza for the ability to select  adjustments and then brush them on to only certain parts of the image, and I often use this to accentuate something in the image to which I wish to draw attention, such as the Brightness and Structure in the two trees here.

Which version of the wide-angle image do you prefer? Please leave a note in your comments; I’d like to hear from you.

All images in this post are for sale. Please visit my new Photo Art Gallery at my FAA website.