Robert Vasquez explains why getting to know your subjects is just as important for successful portrait photography as gear and technique.
Portrait photographer Robert Vasquez first picked up a camera in 2009. After a breakthrough commission to shoot a high-profile TV host, he left his job in newspaper publishing and moved into full-time photography. In addition to weddings and travel photography, he has worked with some of the best-known actors, television personalities and musicians in Latin America.
Robert started his journey with a D40 DSLR, but he currently uses a variety of Nikon Z system mirrorless equipment:
In my camera bag, I carry two cameras: the Nikon Z 6II and Z 7II. My lenses include the NIKKOR Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S, NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S, NIKKOR Z 70-200mm f/2.8 S, NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.2 S, NIKKOR Z 50mm MC f/2.8 S, NIKKOR Z 35mm f/1.8 S, and NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S. Additionally, I have polarized ND and CPL filters and two flashes.
Although he uses multiple NIKKOR Z lenses for his work, Robert often finds himself relying on just two—the 70-200mm f/2.8 and the 50mm f/1.2, almost always shooting wide open, to maximize background blur:
Depending on the situation and the style I aim to achieve, both lenses offer distinct advantages—the 70-200mm provides a wide zoom range, allowing me to compose portraits from various distances without changing lenses. Its wide aperture creates a beautiful background blur. On the other hand, the 50mm f/1.2 excels for portrait photography, especially in low-light conditions.
When shooting outdoors, I typically use the widest possible aperture setting. This allows me to separate the subject from the background effectively. I keep ISO sensitivity low, and only shoot at shutter speeds over 1/250 seconds to make sure that there’s no motion blur in my images.
The human factor
Becoming a successful creative isn’t just about gear and practical technique, of course. Robert explains that to make a living as a wedding and portrait photographer, “soft skills” are at least as important as technical mastery:
Photography is more than just capturing beautiful images with good composition and excellent lighting; it involves the human factor. To excel as a portrait photographer, you need qualities like emotional understanding, empathy, patience, communication skills, the ability to capture the essence and personality of the subject, and creativity in creating unique and compelling compositions. Continuous practice and a commitment to improvement are also essential. In addition, it’s important to maintain good relationships with your clients, and stay up-to-date with industry trends.
When it comes to making his subjects feel comfortable, Robert stresses the importance of two-way communication, explaining his process as a photographer, and asking questions to understand what his subjects want to get out of the session:
Clear and friendly communication is essential. I explain my process and assure them that I am there to capture their best self. I ask questions to understand their preferences and break the ice, tailoring the session to their comfort. I once photographed the Mexican acting superstar, Kate del Castillo, for a magazine cover. She was tired from traveling, and when she arrived on set, the atmosphere was a bit tense. I decided to turn my camera off and told the team to take a short break. I used the time to get to know her better. We had coffee and chatted for about 20 minutes about her career. Even though the conversation was brief, she became much more comfortable, and she was more relaxed when we resumed the shoot. The pictures I got that day were among the best I’ve ever captured.
Robert’s 5 tips for successful portrait photography:
Get to know your equipment—become familiar with your cameras, lenses, and all your other accessories.
Before you start experimenting with flash or studio lighting, practice with natural light first to understand how it affects portraits. Learn about soft and diffused light on cloudy days and how to use the warm sunlight during “golden hour.”
Always ensure that you focus on your subject’s eyes.
Experiment with shooting at wide apertures. This will help achieve a pleasing background blur that makes your subject stand out.
Make time to build a good rapport with your subject—it will be reflected in the final image.
D’Ann Boal defines her photographic style as romantic, filled with light and a little magic—and we agree. She is adept at being able to weave stories of love, wonder, peace and gratitude into her imagery. With a studio in a little cottage on her Colorado farm, she’s able to offer her clients the pastures of her farm, nearby country fields and mountain views under sunset skies along the Colorado Front Range.
When I was starting out over a decade ago and still finding my artistic voice, I wanted to create images that were light and airy. But as I’ve grown and found my voice, my style has evolved. The golden light and mountain views of Colorado have made their way into my artistic voice. I love warm, colorful imagery with lots of depth where light is one of the main subjects. My style is feminine and romantic, and I love incorporating flowers and painterly light into my work whenever possible.
D’Ann will add simple props when appropriate—as a statement piece, if you will—so long as it doesn’t compete with the story she’s telling. Less is more. And that can be something as simple as the movement of a flowery dress, bouquet of flowers or boat on the water to add a feeling of timelessness to the image.
Whether it’s a family out in a field in backlight, or a single subject in the studio under moody Rembrandt lighting, D’Ann strives to bring her creative vision to life. Instead of rushing and shooting a ton of images, she’ll slow down to create the photos that align with her artistic vision.
Heirloom Art Creation for Clients
Just as important as the photographs she makes is what she is able to create for her clients. As a professional photographer, it is important to her that the images she’s worked so hard to create get to be seen and enjoyed for years to come.
Whether it’s my own work or for my clients, I create art to be printed. It can be an heirloom coffee table album, prints to tuck on shelves around the home, or big pieces of fine art, my photographs are made with the intention to be shared and enjoyed in tangible form.
Just photographing a client and their family and delivering digital files is not for D’Ann. “I think the saddest outcome a photograph could have is to live on a flash drive collecting dust in the kitchen drawer,” she says. D’Ann explains that “when we sell only digital files, we miss out on the high profitability that selling products provides.” Selling products—prints, albums, wall-art—is a win-win business model. “We can be extremely profitable, while ensuring our clients have memories and artwork they love more with every year,” she adds.
Printed photographs have the power to bring us back in time. They remind us of our priorities. They make us laugh out loud. They are the bottled-up moment of what we love most.
Always a Teacher
D’Ann is involved with The Click Community (formerly Clickinmoms), which gives its community members a place to ask questions, get support, critique photos, and learn. She teaches two workshops as a Click Pro Elite, The Art of Abundance: Business Strategies for the Boutique Photographer and Understanding Light. She has written three self-paced courses on light, editing and storytelling; and also hosts her own Farm & Fairytale Workshop.
D’Ann feels she was born to teach (she does have a Master’s degree in education). She uses Instagram as a way to share her knowledge with behind the scenes videos and photography tips. “I know how daunting it can be to see a polished Instagram page and think everything comes effortlessly,” she explains.”
Photography can be intimidating, so I love to show how easy it can be, or demystify a confusing concept, or simply show how much effort went into getting a shot! Teaching through social media, in-person at workshops and speaking events gives meaning to my work. If I can help others grow, it incentivizes me to keep learning and growing so I have more to share!
We’re always interested to learn about those artists who are inspiration to our creators. D’Ann notes that she is influenced by many great creators: “Elena Shumilova’s ethereal use of light has influenced me from the beginning. Meg Loeks is a master and one of the most giving and prolific photographers I’ve met. I love the magical quality of Paige Tingey’s landscape work, and I’m always inspired by Jackie Haxthausen’s creativity. I am also influenced by movies and TV series like the use of light in Queen’s Gambit, the storytelling shots in Anne with an E, the soulful cinematography of the One Hundred Foot Journey, and poetry by Mary Oliver. “
Having a day job as a Postal Worker in Canada, Jeffrey Ofori works outside, which is great because he’s a flower photographer, though it can be distracting to come upon lovely gardens as he’s delivering mail. But to say Jeffrey is just a flower photographer might not be accurate either, because he loves all genres of photography.
Inspiration from Cinematography
My inspiration comes from—believe it or not—cinematography and color grading, [like] when you’re watching a movie or documentary and there are certain scenes that really draw you in and portray a mood or feeling. I combine that experience with all-inspiring mother nature, and when you bring it down to the macro level, a whole other world opens up.
This cinematic moodiness is brought out by altering the hues or colors of the image palette in his images. And it’s created a unique and visible style when you’re scrolling through your Instagram feed and come upon Jeffrey’s images. You instantly know who created them.
I aim for the cinematic moody feel for my flowers when editing. I always go for that vibe. It’s hard for me to take just a picture of a flower and leave it as is, there are a few instances when I barely edit the photo leaving the flower and its natural color and beauty. For the most part I like to have the flower or petals be the main focal point rather than the background and I want the flowers to tell a story.
Jeffrey normally knows in his head how the final image will look before he’s even brought the image into Adobe Lightroom. He says: “When I capture an image, a lot of the time I already know how it will look in post.” He adds: “I tend to have a calming feeling when I look at my final images. I like to give them names, which are sometimes quirky, sometimes serious. Most of the images that stand out to me though, are the ones that I name.”
I’m a huge fan of cinematography, color grading and color theory.
I’ve created my own custom presets that I work with to get the feel I’m looking to achieve. A lot of the time I shoot underexposed with the white balance set to Cloudy, I also always use a polarizer filter to block out the harsh midday sunlight, and I tend to stick to the Golden hours.
Another aspect to his style is that to the viewer, these flowers almost resemble dancers in a way—their petals are dainty, and in the perfect position relative to the rest of the flower. We’d even call Jeffrey’s images “ethereal” which is exactly what he wants his viewer to think. Jeffrey is adept at using texture, depth-of-field, and composition along with his own color style to create macro images of flowers that look as if they’re paintings not photographs.
“I want the [viewer] to bring their own story to what they see and feel when they come across my art. It brings me joy when I hear or read the emotional feedback from people, it’s a humbling experience,” he explains.
The “Blue Ribbon” image (below), which is my most popular and favorite flower it is an African Daisy just starting to bloom and it’s only an inch tall and the petals flow like poured water. With the right Nikon Micro lens these are the kind of results you can get.
No Flowers Were Harmed in the Making of These Images
I don’t manipulate the flowers themselves by adding or subtracting petals but rather I adjust the textures and tones. Like capturing people, every flower is different.
Jeffrey finds many of his subjects in neighborhood gardens and greenhouses. And because he always takes his camera with him, when the inspiration strikes, he’s ready.
I would say 99% of my flower photography is outdoors. I work with what I’m given. I capture flowers as they are in nature. The most I would do is move a leaf out of the way but I don’t cut or reposition the flowers in any way.” The other 1% of the time I capture indoors with store bought flowers but it is very rare, don’t get me wrong, indoor still life flowers are just as beautiful. I just like to shoot flowers in their natural elements and surroundings.
A shallow depth of field is probably most important to Jeffrey, he explains, especially close-up. It allows him to manually pinpoint his focus on a certain part of the flower rather than the flower being photographed completely in focus—to turn an image of a flower into a beautiful landscape that fills the frame.
As for color, I change it to how I see it. I’ll use different hues and shades to make you look twice. Most people know what the natural color of the flower looks like, what I aim to do as an artist is make you feel how a flower looks.
I consider myself an artist and the camera is my brush. When I use the quote “a rose is a rose is a rose” what I’m trying to interpret to the viewer is that it’s okay to use your creativity and not follow the norm, dare to be different and become your own. Macro photography is a world within a world where we walk past little things everyday that go unnoticed. If we just take the time and slow down, we can really embrace what nature has to offer. “We are here for experiences not appearances.”
Jeffrey has quickly gained a following on Instagram, having only joined the social media platform in early 2021. He understands the importance of engaging with followers, interacting with them. Along with regular posts, he replies to many of the comments he receives. “I appreciate that most of my work can be recognized based on my style,” he says.
As a content creator or vlogger, you know that you need to be able to rely on your gear to be able to produce the quality content your followers demand. And that means a camera that you can depend on, like the Nikon Z series mirrorless cameras.
Mirrorless cameras offer more features and functionality packed into a smaller package than the cameras your parents used to use. Sorry mom and dad!
The most important decision to make about a camera purchase is which one is right for your needs. So, you’ll want to think not only of what you’ll use the camera for today but what you might need it for in the future as well.
Mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than DSLRs. If you want a super small and compact camera, an APS-C size/DX format model like the Z 30, Z 50 or Z fc would work well for your needs. Need the extra battery life, and robustness of a full frame/FX format camera? You may do well with the Z 5 or Z 6II.
And cameras are not just for taking pretty pictures either. Today’s mirrorless cameras can capture 4K video footage, time lapse videos in-camera and even slow motion at 100 or 120 fps.
Other features that are must-haves in today’s digital age are built-in Bluetooth® and Wi-Fi® so you can quickly and easily transfer photos and video to a compatible smartphone using the free SnapBridge app or transfer them wirelessly to a personal computer.
For the Do-It-Yourself Creator
For those creators who are the director, camera operator and host of your own videos, you’ve got flexible options for changing settings and starting and stopping video without having to walk off of your set to change settings.
The SnapBridge app on your smartphone practically turns your phone into a remote. Or use Nikon’s ML-L7 which is a small handheld remote that lets you control most Nikon mirrorless cameras.
The Creator’s Accessory Kit for Z 30 even gives you most everything you need to get started vlogging including a small handheld tripod/grip from Smallrig that even houses the ML-L7 remote control and a RØDE Videomicro™ microphone (with windscreen).
Why you need a dedicated camera
A mirrorless camera has a much larger and higher quality camera sensor than the one on your smartphone, so images and video you can produce in low light situations will look much better, be sharper, crisper and files will be cleaner with less noise. This makes post-production editing (if you need to go that route) much easier.
Along with the quality from the image sensor, you’ve got a lot more versatility in lens selection with an interchangeable lens mirrorless camera. Choose from ultra-wide and wide-angle lenses to macro lenses, telephoto and super-telephoto focal lengths. The variety of focal length choices can really make a difference in how your content is differentiated from someone using a smartphone (limited zoom or macro capabilities or depth of field control) to really make your subject pop against the background. Lastly, a larger image sensor will be able to provide more resolution, so you can actually crop into photos or video if you need to without the file degrading to the point of being unusable.
Her social handle is Savannah Rose Wildlife, and she’s a wildlife photographer. You could say she’s obsessed with the photographic pursuit of wildlife and splits her time between creating images for herself and as a camera assistant on wildlife documentary jobs. She’s also a tracker and scout.
Living in Jackson, WY allows Savannah access to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks as well as the Wyoming expansive public lands system.
Those interested in taking up wildlife photography will be happy to know that much of Savannah’s grizzly photography is created from the side of the road. Being in a vehicle or over 100 yards away ensures that both you and the bears are perfectly safe. However, she does spend a great deal of time in the woods, searching out elusive animals. And a lot of that time can be spent waiting and watching.
One factor I love about this ecosystem is the amount of opportunity to shoot wildlife you can have right from the road. While I prefer to adventure off on my own, I absolutely take advantage of this as well! I love the accessibility of the area to everyone of every skill level. You can roam into the high alpine backcountry or cruise the expansive road system if you prefer.
The single best tip I have for anyone who wants to elevate their wildlife photography or get into the craft is to familiarize yourself with track and sign. Good fieldcraft and naturalist skills make all the difference in the world. There are droves of excellent resources for all skill levels, from books to apps to websites.
It is of utmost importance to know that wild animals have boundaries you should never cross. When out in bear country, Savannah says to familiarize yourself with bear spray and how to use it in case of emergency. She also carries a GPS spot device with her that is capable of calling search and rescue through a satellite connection.
Ethics in the Woods
To Savannah, ethical photography of wildlife is her utmost concern. And she uses her social platforms to inform and educate her followers.
I believe that it is absolutely paramount that wildlife photographers give back to their subjects in some way. Otherwise, sharing their time is simply exploitative. I’m aware that I trespass in their home, intrude on their time, and I know to some extent disrupt the peace; although I try hard to be as noninvasive as possible.
Be An Ethical Wildlife Photographer
• Feeding or baiting wildlife creates unnatural dependencies on human food sources, leading to conflict, spread of disease, dangerous proximity to roads and civilizations: all result in untimely death. • Unsecured trash is another form of this problematic food conditioning, though largely unintentional, which is why people should be educated on what harmful practices they might be overlooking. • Unethical photography practices like the usage of hounds to tree bears or mountain lions for photography puts an incredible amount of stress on these animals. It is unacceptable to run an animal to the point of exhaustion for some photos. • It is crucial to practice good field ethics when photographing wild animals. That means not chasing animals, putting too much pressure on fragile sites like nests or dens, or putting yourself in a situation where an animal might feel like it needs to defend itself. • Safety of the animal is important. Understand that your presence is capable of disturbing the peace. Always let an animal leave a scene if it wants to.
Challenge your beliefs and contemplate how you can be on your best behavior in our wild friends’ home. They deserve it!
My all-time favorite subject is the elusive mountain lion. I’ve watched them slink from shadow to shadow under the light of a full moon, careful not to reveal their presence even in the dead of night. I also enjoy spending time with grizzly bears, which are sentient and powerful creatures. Where the cats are shy, the grizzlies are proud. The cats are subtle, the bears are obvious. In addition to these incredible apex predators, my favorite subjects are always the ones that are the most hidden. Nesting Great Grey owls and goshawks, Martens and weasels, pikas and beavers, and the rare boreal owl. Truly, there are just too many amazing creatures to mention!
Gear that needs to last
Savannah notes that she is not gentle on her gear, and neither is the wild. “One of the main reasons I’ve stuck with Nikon throughout my entire photography career is the substantial quality of gear that endures my abuse,” she says.
A big part of Savannah’s photography includes the setup of camera traps. These remote cameras need to survive intense abuse by the weather and curious bears. Even though the cameras are housed in boxes, she explains that bears learn through touch. “They will not hesitate to get their mouth on anything they find interesting. My lenses have been slobbered on quite a bit and sport a few teeth marks as well but so far, they are still producing great quality images.”
What is a camera trap?
A camera trap is a form of remote photography, in which you place a camera in the wild, that captures candid images of animals in their natural habitat, triggered by a motion sensor. The results are unpredictable.
I like to think that the unique quality of the animals’ presence interacting with your [remote’s] premeditated composition is like the subject having autonomy over how their portrait is taken.
Savannah tries to keep her camera traps out all the time but notes they can be laborious to maintain. It’s not as easy as just turning on a camera and walking away. And plenty of factors are outside of your control: severe weather, animals knocking the kit over, humans tampering with the setup, blowing branches setting off false triggers, and animals not behaving how you anticipated.
My gear does often get grief from bears as they are quite curious and tactile creatures. Usually, they take the opportunity to stop and play with the new toy they have found. Last year, I even had a black bear carry a camera to her bed site and chew on the case all night! Luckily, the camera inside survived the ordeal.
The f/2.8 window
I believe there is a vastly important window of creative expression between f/2.8 and f/4 that is worth the investment for my work, and why I use a 400mm lens and not a 500mm or 600mm. I absolutely love razor sharp depth of field in an up-close wildlife shot.
Savannah says the sharpness of an animal’s eyes while the rest of the image falls away into a dreamy background, “actually represents the moment of the encounter as accurately as possible.”
In a close eye to eye encounter, you’re transfixed as you stare into the animal’s eyes, and they stare into yours. My f/2.8 portraits represent this connection to me and that is the story I want to tell in my work.
The extra f/stop is also valuable in that Savannah often photographs at dawn, dusk and night-time, not in bright sunlight, so the fast nature of the lens means she’ll be able to come home with usable images that hold up from the most dramatic conditions.
Patience is a Virtue
I think I very likely have more patience than most. I’m perfectly comfortable sitting in a blind for hours, as long as there’s a chance of something magical happening … My finished work makes it look like I frequently am face to face with wildlife up-close, when in reality most of my hard drives are filled with animals grazing or walking away. The real up close, face to face types of encounters are in the minority for sure.
Savannah says she tries to be more of a “fly on the wall” when capturing animal behavior with her photography. “I believe there is an element of consent in wildlife photography that is not often discussed,” she says. Best-case scenario: the animals she’s photographing are indifferent to her existence. “Every once in a while you’re lucky to have a wild creature approach with curiosity. These fearless, wonderful moments of interspecies connection are what mean [the] most to me,” she adds.
Creating engaging videos
Along with sharing her photographs, Savannah shares her exploits using short videos on Instagram and TikTok, which she finds to be the quickest way to garner attention for her work. She explains: “Creating punchy, engaging short videos is an art form in itself that is still new to me, and I am enjoying learning how to best use this format to reach out to people.” Along with giving context to her images and bringing those stories to life, she’s found them to be a positive avenue for her business, gaining several thousand followers in a day from videos going viral. “A viral post is incredibly helpful for my small business, in which every order placed makes a difference,” she adds.
Dan Stein has a day job. Nights though, are for astrophotography. Dan—who considers himself to be a creator because as he says, “he’s not simply photographing a scene, but showcasing an experience”—can spend months or years planning for a specific image.
Dan’s foray into astrophotography began when he was a freshman in college and had an assignment to draw the phases of the moon. As he explains it, he can’t draw so he talked his professor into letting him photograph the phases of a moon using a DSLR. That brought an invitation to view and photograph a meteor shower at a nearby dark sky location and as he says, “That night I literally took a shot in the dark and fell in love with astrophotography.”
Astrophotography is rewarding on so many levels. There are nights where you might be half asleep shooting a meteor shower, then BAM! One massive meteor streaks across the sky and suddenly you feel more alive than ever. It is this very sense of pure awe of the show for which the cosmos display for us.
Dan says the more he shoots, the more challenges he’ll create for himself.
There are no boundaries in how I can create a piece that speaks to me. Maybe it is going for an even more difficult hike or trying to achieve even more detail in my shots by mosaicing while tracking or going for a scene that combines elements of both deep space astrophotography and nightscape astrophotography. All of this combined allows for each night under the stars to be even more rewarding.
There are a lot of techniques I use to photograph our sky, oftentimes I combine them as well. I use a portable star tracker which I can take on hikes with me. While this complicates the whole process, the tracker allows me to capture a ton of detail in our night sky.
A star tracker—also known as an equatorial mount—basically allows you to move the camera as the earth moves when taking long exposure photos of the night sky. Without one you won’t be able to take a very long exposure.
Depending on the image being created, Dan may also stack images, combining differing exposures for the sky vs the foreground landscape. Stacking, which uses software in post-production also gets rid of noise and is critical when shooting deep space objects like galaxies or nebulae.
Visit Dan’s website and you’ll see a gallery of Danscapes. We had to ask, just what are Danscapes? They’re Dan’s take on landscapes. “Since I am mostly an astro guy at heart, I figured I would just put a twist on the word landscape by flipping around the letters a bit to spell my name,” he explains.
Nikon Photo Contest
A couple years back, one of Dan’s nighttime landscapes, By the Bells (above) was one of the winning images of the annual Nikon Photo Contest. Dan says that it’s one of his favorite images of all time. He tells us the story behind the image which features the Milky Way.
Nearly 5 years ago my friends and I went on a road trip through Colorado and the Southwest US. We arrived at the location and I set up my tripod but the sky was 100% clouds. After shining our flashlights around the perimeter of the lake we could see a good number of eyes watching us and decided to retreat to avoid becoming dinner.
The next year, I attempted the shot again. I’d driven offroad for nearly four hours and was on the last leg of my drive when I was stopped by a police officer wondering why I was out at such a late hour. I showed him my camera and explained what I was going to be photographing. The stop had cost me time. I rushed to the location and began my setup. I only had a few minutes to shoot before blue hour began which would wash away the Milky Way. Finally, I got my shot. I had a dilemma though. Stay another 30 minutes and risk missing my flight home to get the foreground and lake stack layers as clean as possible or shoot a quick noisy shot to play it safe. I took the risk, even though I had to be at work early the next morning.
I love this image, but I never thought it could win any awards, and a Nikon award for that matter. I honestly thought the email was fake when I received word that I had won. I won a Z 5 full frame mirrorless camera which I use for b-roll/reels.
Being shy about bragging on social media, Dan’s friends took it upon themselves to spread the love on his behalf. He’s received positive feedback in regards to winning and about the image itself.
Dan is one to pay it forward. He’s been fortunate enough to have folks offer pointers when he’s been stuck, and so he feels it’s important to return the favor to people who may seek inspiration in his own work.
I think laying out all of the tools and techniques I use to create my shots also demonstrates the transparency in this process. Often times an astrophotograph can be misunderstood for being digital art or altered heavily, when in reality there is just a significant creative process behind each image.
Dark Skies—Few and Far Between
One thing I want to point out is that as light pollution spreads, dark skies are becoming even more challenging to find. Pair that with waiting for the phase of the moon to be where you need it (new moon as opposed to full moon) and the weather to cooperate, then throw in the mix of needing to hike up mountains to capture certain landscapes—astrophotography requires a lot of practice and patience.
Dan says he knows there is still much he can learn. “I encourage anyone who wants to try astrophotography to acknowledge that there will be a lot of ups and downs, learning does not happen overnight,” he says, adding, “it is important to embrace the difficult nights out just as much as the successful ones. Have patience, and remember the skies will be there for us, even if that means going a little further out of the way to find them.”
Chris Baker regularly photographs nature on a different wavelength. Literally. Don’t know what we mean? We’ll explain. Chris uses Infrared (IR) photography techniques to create otherworldly images.
Chris has a day job, as an engineer for NASA and while you might think that photography as an art and engineering are polar opposites of one another, Chris explains that he uses the same thought processes for both.
While photography is considered an art, there is a science and technical side that engages my engineering, problem-solving side. My initial goal was understanding how the camera works, which came very natural for me. Once I had a fundamental understanding of the science of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, lenses, sensor types, and histograms, I felt like I could adapt to any genre of photography.
Another parallel between engineering and photography, is my approach to shooting. When I’m confronted with a scene, I treat it like I would any engineering problem. I go through a logic or decision flow that will guide my creative choices. What lens is required? Am I wanting to control depth of field (aperture) or motion (shutter speed)? Is a filter required? Should I shoot from a high perspective or low?
For Chris, the small details matter. And perspective is used to engage the viewer of his nature and wildlife images. He’ll deconstruct his favorite photos to understand why he’s drawn to them, then look for opportunities to apply those techniques in his own work.
Infrared Photography Primer
Chris first ventured into Infrared photography in mid-2021, using a filter on the lens of his Z 6II. Within a short time he was hooked and invested in a converted Nikon camera body the next year.
Chris explains that the Hoya R72 (720nm) filter is a popular starting point for Infrared photography. It produces very strong, traditional monochrome Infrared images because it limits the amount of visible light entering the lens. And with some post-processing finesse, can generate false color images.
“The trick,” he says, “becomes working around the internal IR blocking filter incorporated into DSLR and mirrorless camera bodies.” You’ll need to use long shutter speeds, even on a bright sunny day, up to 30 – 90 seconds, which will limit you to shooting subjects that aren’t moving.
Inner Workings of Infrared Photography
Visible light occupies a very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum with wavelengths ranging from 380 to 750nm. Infrared is at the longer wavelength, just above (>750nm).
All standard digital cameras have an internal, physical filter that blocks IR wavelengths from reaching the sensor. When converting a camera for infrared, this filter is removed and replaced with a filter that accepts the longer IR wavelengths (rejecting the shorter visible light wavelengths).
If you’re only interested in pure B&W images and maximizing the natural contrast of IR, then an 830nm can be installed that will accept only IR wavelengths (> 830nm). However, if the photographer is interested in generating false color images, a filter is installed with a wavelength cutoff that allows a mixture of visible and IR light. The more visible light allowed, the stronger the false color image. These “color” IR filters will have wavelength ranges from 720nm (weak color) to 470nm (strong color).
Fortunately, special lenses are not required for infrared.
But, photographers shooting with Infrared converted DSLR cameras have to compensate while focusing for the fact that there’s a difference in the wavelengths of Infrared light vs. visible light. You’d do this by either calibrating the focus of your AF lenses to work properly or manually focus and use the red IR focus scale on the lens.
Mirrorless cameras however, due to their design, actually compensate for the focus shift and are ideal for converting to Infrared photography only.
The other issue you may run into with your lens choice is a lens “hot spot” or bright, hazy circle that appears in the center of an IR image mainly due to the anti-reflective coatings on the lens. Hot spots vary in degree with some lenses being unusable and others exhibiting nothing. Mild or light hot spots can be corrected in post-processing. Fortunately, lens databases have been created to characterize hot spot potential and should be consulted when selecting lenses for IR photography.
Lastly, you’ll want to set a custom white balance, either in the camera or in post-processing software. My workflow involves the latter. Even with a proper white balance, the skies in false color IR images will take on a red tone. So, I’ll use Adobe Photoshop to perform a “channel swap”, where the red and blue channels are swapped to restore the sky to blue. Then further adjustments to the other color channels can manipulate the hue and saturation of foliage to yellow or pink or white.
Chris has one Nikon Z 5 that is converted to Infrared with a 590nm supercolor filter.
This filter allows me to produce strong false color images, while still retaining enough contrast to convert into B&W in post-production if I decide to produce a more traditional monochrome IR image.
For scenarios where I know I’ll want a black and white image, I’ll attach my 720nm external filter to limit the visible light even further and isolate more of the IR spectrum.
Chris says nature and landscape photography is his first love. Noting that Infrared photography is at its most effective in nature scenes with the way foliage and water and sky contrast. Objects that absorb IR light, such as sky and water, will render very dark and objects that reflect IR will render very bright.
It’s such a different and distinctive look that cannot be replicated in software. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of taking something familiar and finding a unique way of shooting it, whether it’s trying different lenses or changing camera angles or experimenting with artificial lighting. Infrared is yet another tool to add to my toolbox for this purpose.
With monochrome IR imagery, textures and patterns in nature that are normally hidden by dark greens in leaves or bright colors in flowers become more prominent. In false color imagery, I’m not bound by traditional colors. Trees and grass can become yellow or magenta or pink or blue and give a scene a dream-like or other-worldly quality.
We asked Chris which subjects he felt worked better for Infrared photography.
Any scene with live foliage tends to look better in infrared because the typical green leaves and blue skies are not a dynamic color combination.
Think about the popularity of photographing fall foliage, he explains, where photographers will flock to capture the changing leaves because they’re more interesting and appealing to see. IR offers this same visual appeal but I can shoot in the middle of the day in the heat of the summer and generate a false color image of a tree in pink or yellow contrasted against a deep blue sky. Or, take that same scene and render it in B&W to make the foliage appear white against a black sky giving the scene a wintery look.
While Chris has a love for nature and wildlife, he says he’ll experiment in most other genres as it satisfies his problem-solving nature. “Each has its own unique challenges and I love that problem solving aspect and opportunity to expand my knowledge.” He also does a lot of macro shooting—of flowers and insects.
He says that the most successful images document some type of interesting behavior.
“To capture those moments requires patience, persistence, a tolerance for bugs, and a willingness to get dirty, as I prefer to shoot from very low angles”, he concludes.
What do you get when you combine a lifelong love of the water with a passion for photography, and then move half-way around the world to paradise that is Guam? For Geremy Grey, it’s the ability to pursue an interest in underwater photography. As a snorkeler and free diver, Geremy expresses his creativity through photographs taken both above and below the water line, using an AquaTech Imaging Solutions underwater housing for his Z 6, which gives him full control over his camera. He also plans to become a certified SCUBA diver.
Geremy says he’s continuously inspired by the beauty within the water, with hopes to expand his underwater photography exploration abroad, capturing oceanic scenes and wildlife in other parts of the world.
I’ve always had an interest in underwater photography. I have followed a bunch of photographers in the field for a long while now and was always envious of their work. Once we moved to Guam, I knew that I had to seize the opportunity to start my journey with underwater photography.
Into the Wild
See the ocean as something to be treasured; to be in awe of the possibilities the ocean carries within it.
Geremy says he’s motivated by the unknown. “You can look up the tide charts, know what the weather will be, but its nearly impossible to know what you’ll be able to capture, how the light will affect the water, or what wildlife you will encounter on that swim. It’s exciting to go out and see what the ocean has to offer!”
Geremy’s favorite underwater subjects include wildlife, particularly sharks. “Getting over the fear was a big leap in my journey to photograph wild sharks which is making it all the more rewarding,” he says.
Above the surface, Geremy is fascinated by waves and the water itself. “The sheer force they carry and the beauty they produce is something I strive to capture in my images,” he explains.
Experimenting with rays of light and how light shines through the water is another subject he is fascinated with.
Color is also an important part of the imagery that Geremy creates.
We see the ocean and it’s typically blue. What I like to explore is the varying degrees of color that can be found within that spectrum. Factors such as time of day, lighting conditions, and weather all affect the different hues of blue that we see. This is incredibly apparent under water. The same spot can be a totally different shade of blue at any given moment.
Dipping your toes into underwater photography
For anyone who’s ever had an interest in underwater photography but never ventured to try it out, there are a few things to keep in mind—both while taking pictures as well as post processing.
Shoot RAW. Learn how to bring back tones in post processing and be patient with the process. Shooting underwater can feel unnatural, but with enough exposure and time in the water, you’ll grow comfortable with it.
Always respect the ocean and the wildlife. It’s often apparent if they’re bothered by you, so respect their space and move along. If you go out enough, you’ll get an image, but also be okay with leaving a dive with nothing exciting. It happens to us all!
Geremy uses Lightroom Classic to process his RAW images. He shoots RAW NEF files to be able to keep as much color as possible in the image files. He notes that he usually starts with color calibration and then move into lighting after he’s nailed down the colors. He admits that at times, he’ll walk away from an image and come back to it with fresh eyes. Geremy adds, “Underwater post-processing is significantly different from any other form of photography I’ve done. It’s a challenge, but the results are extremely rewarding.”
Underwater Bucket List
I’d really like to photograph Whale sharks and Great White sharks at some point. They can’t be found on Guam, so it’s a trip I’m looking forward to in the future. As far as locations, I would love to visit Australia. I follow a bunch of seascape and surf photographers from there and would absolutely love to get in the water to see what I can create.
What about the next five years?
I see myself continuing on this journey of underwater photography. I still have much to learn, many places to visit and photograph, so the opportunities are endless. I’d like to travel more with the intent to shoot different wildlife and seascapes around the world.
No longer a portrait/event photographer, Geremy emphasizes his underwater, wildlife, and documentary travel style photography on his website and Instagram. Although, he has experimented with underwater portraits a few times. He adds, “It’s definitely something I’m wanting to expand on. If approached by a couple who wanted some sort of underwater wedding shoot, I don’t think I’d be able to resist!”
Manny Khan’s photographic journey began with the camera in his smartphone, and after a couple years of sharing images socially and generating positive feedback, Manny wondered about the possibilities that lie with a real camera. His first camera was a Nikon DSLR. Manny used that camera to teach himself about exposure, settings, and by watching how-to videos on YouTube and experimenting he found his niche and style. He’s since upgraded to a Nikon Z 7II mirrorless camera that fits his “evolved style of shooting”, as he notes.
His inspiration comes from the endless picturesque streets, waterfronts and skyline of NYC—year-round, being able to photograph these familiar subjects under different weather and lighting conditions.
Manny defines his work as storytelling through his compositions: “combining available light, shadows, color and textures that evoke emotion and drama in my photos.”
When you’re photographing a similar subject often, you end up challenging yourself to make each image uniquely different from the last. The perspectives in the city are unlimited, lending to the myriad ways of photographing one subject so differently each time.
“The layout of NYC park benches is very intriguing to the eye. Pairing that with city views and lamp posts provides me opportunities to experiment with depth of field to frame my shots with the NYC skyline.”
He’ll often use low-angled perspectives or experiment with different points of view to draw the viewer into the image. Manny explains, “[With] Park benches in particular I look for foreground and any elements such as wooden textures and leading lines that may add to the dynamics of the shot.”
The Beauty of Cherry Blossoms
“Cherry blossoms are signs of new life. Their life cycle is short lived, yet they are so symbolic. I have always loved the unique beauty of cherry blossoms and the positive energy they evoke in people. During the month of April every year, it is an absolute delight to capture the cherry blossoms in NYC, particularly on Roosevelt Island.”
Photographing cherry blossoms on park benches allowed Manny to capture two of his favorite subjects—the blossoms and the park bench. He explains, “In the image of the cherry blossoms looking through the arm rest (above), the drizzle and gray skies helped achieve the moody tones for that image.” The image of the bench at night with the city in the background (below) used the same technique, but at a different time of day. Manny was able to use the light from the lamp post in the scene to provide additional lighting, to showcase the rich texture of the bench and compose the image with deep colors.
The Scene Makes the Image
Choosing how to photograph a landscape or cityscape can be subjective. Do you go out to shoot in bright sunshine or wait for gloomy, stormy days? Each of those images will give the viewer a different message. Manny says, “I generally compose my images of the locations I visit based on the weather conditions, surroundings and available light.”
“During cloudy and rainy days, I’m captivated with the gray skies, fog and soft light of the atmosphere—incorporating that with shadows and reflections to compose a dark and moody image, sometimes incorporating people with umbrellas which I feel adds to the storytelling of that particular image.”
“On bright and sunny days, I love to capture the crisp blue skies and glow of sunlight. Those bright and colorful days are also perfect for nature walks and capturing the deep greens, yellows, and oranges.”
The next time you’ve got the urge to go out to shoot but don’t really have a subject in mind, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself to take a new look at an old, familiar subject.
Photographer Jasmin Javon is passionate about photography and her specialty is macro abstract photography.
“Each style of photography has its own element that captivates me. I enjoy landscape photography for the way it submerges me into the beauty of nature; B&W photography, for the way it plays with light; and portrait photography for the way it captures the essence and identity of someone. I started out as a portrait photographer, so it will always have a place in my heart.”
With her abstract macro work, she lives to create art that makes you pause and explore the work in detail with your imagination. In fact, she utilizes composition, angle and light or exaggeration of elements like form, shape, color and texture to turn a photograph into a piece of art. She defines her work as Abstract Fine Art or Photographic Abstract Art.
“I’m inspired by art itself and the art in nature. The way the clouds move across the sky, or the reflection of the setting sun on the ocean. I also get inspired watching artists do things like paint pours, or work with acrylic resins. I can watch that stuff for hours. I LOVE watching creators put their soul into their work. That’s what inspires me to do the same.”
Techniques in macro
There are a variety of techniques that Jasmin uses to create her abstract art, however they’re all macro. In fact, early on she had only an entry-level DSLR, kit lens and extension tubes to make these images. She’s since moved to the Z 50 mirrorless camera and NIKKOR Z MC 50mm f/2.8 lens.
Jasmin taught herself the various techniques she uses by doing a lot of research on the internet. She explains that she was determined to perfect her craft.
“At the time [I began] I couldn’t afford a true macro lens so my first thought was “How can I accomplish the same results of a macro lens on a budget?” The answer was extension tubes. The only con about using these tubes was the extra weight they added to the camera.”
“Macro techniques allow me to zoom in on the details I find most intriguing compositionally. All of the images I take require selective focus to capture the tiny details, shapes and colors.”
Some images use a technique similar to what you would do to create a fluid painting, others are more simple—soap bubbles or oil and water, or tendrils of smoke.
Jasmin started off photographing oil and water and her photography has: “evolved into more than I could have anticipated,” she says. She has used common household products to create thought provoking images. Jasmin says she finds inspiration in the beauty of things that you typically wouldn’t pay much attention to.
“The pure and simple interaction between water and oil is beautiful in the right light.”
Putting in the work
Jasmin says she aims to shoot twice a week, for a minimum of 2-3 hours at a time. “I just get lost in it,” she says. “When I’m shooting, I typically have an idea in mind of what technique I’ll use and even what colors I want to go with,” she says. Jasmin keeps a master list of ideas and adds to the list as inspiration strikes. However, she’ll also let spontaneity dictate what she shoots. “I will change up the colors and styles at least 3-4 times during one shoot,” she explains.
Jasmin is always testing different materials, in different lighting with different colors and shapes to see what she can change from the last shoot. “I never want my audience to get bored with my work. I love creating new things because it makes me realize how limitless this craft is. I crave the creative aspect of making something out of nothing. It is so satisfying and invigorating to me. Moreover, I want to appeal to more than just one person’s interests.”
“The NIKKOR Z MC 50mm f/2.8 lens is just remarkable,” Jasmin notes. “I was very surprised at how compact and lightweight this camera is with the lens attached.”
“I thoroughly enjoy the sharpness of the images I get and how easily I am able to focus tightly on subjects.” She also loves the versatility of the lens, “I can go from macro to full frame in an instant.”
Just doing it
Jasmin had worked as a studio portrait photographer and even for Disneyland as a Photopass photographer. While she loved bringing memories to people that she knew would be cherished forever, she also wanted her work to be taken more seriously.
She thought to herself, “What do I have to lose if I go after my dream of being a photographer?” Jasmin says she took that and ran with it. “My first camera ever was a Nikon COOLPIX 2500 and here I am being interviewed by one of the top camera companies in the world. I am living testimony that going after what you’re passionate about can only bring good things to you. I believe if you go after what you love doing with all your heart, you can’t fail.”
Jasmin utilizes Instagram to build awareness about her abstract macro photography and has been able to reach a worldwide audience for her work. “I love engaging with fellow artists & photographers, reaching new audiences, and exploring the works of like-minded creators.”
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