The Picture Coach is a blog dedicated to making good photography great. Created and edited by award-winning photographer and book author Scott Robinson, The Picture Coach offers stories, tech tips and ideas from professionals to help high-level amateur photographers who want to make the most of their gear. It’s a forum to showcase good photography, and talk about the principles behind what makes a great picture. And, just like the name says, The Picture Coach is a coach, available for consulting online, one-on-one or in small groups.


“Harry Callahan at 100″

Eleanor, Chicago 1953

Eleanor Callahan died yesterday at a hospice in Atlanta.

That name may not mean much on its own until you realize she was the photographic muse for famed photographer Harry Callahan who one of the most innovative and influential photographers of the 20th century. The above photo of his wife, simply title–“Eleanor, Chicago” gives you a taste of the artist style, simple yet upon closer inspection very powerful.

I was able to see an original print of that photo and many others of Eleanor in the retrospective  “Harry Callahan at 100,” at the National Gallery. The good news: if you are in the Washington, DC area you can see this show until March 4th.

The gallery was nearly empty as my friend and former photo editor Charles Kogod walked from room to room inspecting every one of the 100 photographs in the exhibit.  At one point the security guard came over and said we were standing too close. The prints had that kind of power. First you were back at a normal distance and before you knew it you were pulled right up onto prints trying to figure out something about the image.

Like many, Callahan had no formal training as a photographer except for a few workshops. He started off with a “regular job” working as a shipping clerk in Detroit for Chrysler. He bought his first camera, a Rolleicord and joined the Chrysler Camera Club. Some of the photos in this exhibit were taken as he walked to or from his job at Chrysler.

Two things really stood out to me as I studied the photos that day. He has an amazing ability to work right up to the edge of the light. By that I mean he often had a shaft of light slicing through the image like a knife. The composition was amazing but it was the light that was making the photo special. The beam of daylight looked like it was 30 seconds from fading below the horizon and like magic; Callahan would have framed a person on the extreme edge of the frame crossing that light. No motordrive, no image editing, just amazing understating of the craft of photography.( see Eleanor and Barbara, Chicago, 1953)

A photograph that is “busy” is normally a bad thing. Except if you shoot it like Harry Callahan. The photo below is a great example of the second thing that he did so well. Create a photo that is very complicated, one where your eye doesn’t know where to look but at the same time so compelling that you can’t take your eyes off it. The photo below is the image that nearly got me in trouble with the museum guard because I wanted to be able to figure it out. I never did.( see Detroit 1943 below)


All images are © Estate of Harry Callahan

Special thanks to the National Gallery of Art,

Washington, DC

Detroit, 1943

Eleanor, New York, 1945

The Picture Coach on local TV news

No every frame I shot made it into the book. This one didn’t but I still love the picture. The trio was so into getting their photo taken (they had been working on that keg for a while) that each one took turns holding the tap and looking at the camera. I had an assistant hold a huge diffusion umbrella to shade the people making the light really soft and beautiful. Using the short telephoto lens I shot wide open to limit the depth of field. 85mm lens, 1/2000 of a second @ F1.8.

Rain in Florida caused The Daytona 500 to be postponed until Monday night and that turned out to be a great opportunity for The Picture Coach. I got a phone call from a reporter at the Washington, DC Fox affiliate asking if I would like to do an interview about my Faces of NASCAR book and to talk about the sport. In less than an hour they were set up at the studio and we were talking about Richard Petty, NASCAR and all things racing.

The semi trucks that carry a teams race cars and equipment around the county are called “Haulers” in NASCAR speak and they are really spectacular. Even after driving cross-country to this race in Fontana, CA the trucks look showroom clean. Here I found them early one morning as they wait for the track to open. I wanted as little depth of field as possible so I shot with a 300mm lens at F4.0, shutter speed was 1/2000.



Once again, the Talladega track provided me with an unusual photo. I wasn’t expecting to see fans watching a race while sitting in a blowup pool but with NASCAR you never know. I was backed up agaist a fence so I used the 14mm lens to bring in all parts of the scene. 1/1000 @ F3.5

This photo still makes me laugh. I love to walk around and take in the sights at these races. This “food wagon” was in the infield at the Talladega race. 35mm lens , F1.4 @ 1/40th


Wanting to capture as much of the scene as possible, plus show little bit of motion I set the camera at 1/80th a second and the 14mm lens to F10 for additional depth of field.

I shot this photo at my first weekend working on the book and its still a favorite. The day was just perfect with a beautiful blue sky along with those big clouds; they just kept calling out for something—like a huge American flag. Again it was the 35mm lens, which gave me just the perspective I was looking for. A wider lens looks slightly distorted and a longer lens tended to compress the scene too much. 1/500th @ F9.No every frame I shot made it into the book. This one didn’t but I still love the picture. The trio was so into getting their photo taken (they had been working on that keg for a while) that each one took turns holding the tap and looking at the camera. I had an assistant hold a huge diffusion umbrella to shade the people making the light really soft and beautiful. Using the short telephoto lens I shot wide open to limit the depth of field. 85mm lens, 1/2000 of a second @ F1.8.

Does a portrait need a face ?

Shot with an 85mm 1.8 lens, exposure was 1/160th at F 5.6

The Daytona 500 is the biggest race in NASCAR and in the 54-year history of the race they had never been rained out–until yesterday. The start of the 2012 season begins tonight and that seemed like a great time to talk about shooting portraits which I’ll illustrate with a picture from my book, “Faces of NASCAR”.

Does a portrait always include a face?

Most times that’s true but one my favorites portraits has no eyes, no nose and just a touch of skin.

Richard Petty is one of the biggest names in NASCAR and when I began creating a shot list for my book, “Faces of NASCAR” I knew I wanted a killer portrait of “King Richard”. Chances are you’ve seen a photo of him over the years and I bet he’s sporting that famous 1000-watt smile topped off with a black cowboy hat.

The first time I saw him at a track I stalked him like a big game hunter. First, shooting from a distance with a 400mm lens, then later with a shorter lens and then finally with a wide angle. Looking over my pictures that evening in the hotel room I realized it was easy to get a good photograph of Petty but I need something bold. My quest for something special began by looking over every photo of Petty in fine detail. It was at 100% magnification that I first caught glimpse of the buckle, “NASCAR Winston Cup, Seven Time Champion”. Seeing that buckle I knew the picture I wanted to make.

It would be a few weeks before I had another chance to photograph Petty so there was time to make sure all the details were nailed down. I chose my 85mm 1.8 lens because it would allow me to be work very close, maybe two feet away and it’s wicked sharp to show off all that fine metal work on the buckles surface.

Petty is like a rock star at the track and people are always grabbing his attention for one thing or the other. The racetrack is also covered with packs of photographers, so I didn’t want to make a killer photo just to see my idea stolen by everyone else.

When the next race arrived, I was prepared and again began looking for Petty. I knew I’d only get one chance but I was ready. Luck was working for me that day because it was cloudy and the light was so soft it looked like I had set up a huge overhead softbox. When I saw the king from a distance, I first looked around and didn’t see any other photographers so I hustled up to Petty, quickly told him about my idea and he said “why not”. I dropped down on one knee, framed the shot like I had practiced then made about six or seven frames. That was it. I stood up, thanked the King and walked away. I knew I had nailed it without ever looking at the camera back.

The Picture Coach says….

The idea for this picture began with a quest to do more than shoot another famous face smiling for the camera. Like a golfer putting in time on the driving range I practiced making the picture until I could almost do it in my sleep. I’ll be the first to say that not every photo is something you can practice for but this photo of Richard Petty is another example of what can happen when you pay attention to the details.


Learning to silence the critic

In the last post, I showed you my best photo, the “hero” so to speak. Now, I’ll walk you back through the process and talk about how I got to that favorite photo. Learning what an artist is thinking while they work might help you in your own image making.

It was after 10pm when my group finally arrived at Lockhouse 49 for the night and I was really ready to get off my mountain bike. Riding 50 miles on the C&O canal can wear you out, especially on a cold and windy winters day. When I first saw the house where we were spending the night I was really ticked off. I knew I couldn’t just get inside and warm up with the guys. Why? If I didn’t make the photo right then, I would never do it and then “the critic” would haunt me for days. The critic doesn’t take kindly to being lazy; if you see it then you shoot it, no questions. Easier to just get the damn camera out and make the picture.

Being on the bike I didn’t pack a tripod but I needed a solid platform to set the camera for making a time exposure photo. I did find a nice flat stonewall that I could rest the camera on so that was lucky.  I didn’t see this as the next shot for my portfolio but it should look pretty cool. If you exposed to make the porch look good, (f 4.5 at 3.2 seconds) everything else in the frame would be totally black with no detail anywhere, (see photo below). You see in the top photo that letting more light into the picture (f4.5 @ 20 seconds) the porch is totally white but we get color in the sky and the house separates from the woods.

I got lucky in the photo above. Notice how the left side of the house is lit up? I can than Alan for that, he was putting his bike away and the light from the big-time helmet light provided the perfect “fill” light for that side of the house to help separate it from woods behind. Picture made, I hustle inside to warm up.




Introducing … the Critic

This photo on the Potomac River reminded me of how I first got started making pictures. Normally I’m a people shooter but way back in high school I would pick up my camera and just wander around, pointing the lens toward whatever caught my eye.

These days, its still fun to do pretty much the same thing, walking around looking to make nice pictures. One thing that 30 years of experience has given me is a “co-pilot” who is always there. I call him the critic, that voice in my head that keeps pushing me to make better pictures. That may seem odd but that’s what’s going on upstairs.

When I’m just getting warmed up, or when I haven’t seen anything good to shoot the voice can be kind of tough. As I scan the horizon, framing each possibility in my brains view finder I might hear the voice in a biting tone: “That sucks, or that really sucks.” As the critic, it says “That’s nothing,” or that I must suck as a shooter. Sometimes when the critic is in a really bad mood, he’ll name a certain shooter by name and say “I bet Brian Lanker would have already found a nice photo”.  Once I see something that catches my eye the voice softens and becomes more of a collaborator. Then I hear: ”HEY, HEY, HEY LOOK AT THAT, yeah that just might be something cool, we can work with that……..and then I pick up the camera and off we go.

Engage brain before lifting camera …

Picking up my Washington Post off the driveway, I got yet another example of what separates a real pro from just a guy with a nice camera. Sitting above the fold, four columns wide was a photo showing the very top of the Washington monument. An earthquake had damaged the world’s tallest stone structure and the picture showed an inspector, using ropes, beginning his decent of the 555-foot tall obelisk.

It’s easy to get a graphic shot like this but Post staff photographer Linda Davidson spends hours getting all the details just right. In the post 9-11 world you have to be very, very careful with photos of landmarks and jet planes. The plane, taking off from Reagan National nicely filled the right side of the photo and is headed away from the monument so as not to alarm anyone. It’s a small detail but the silhouette of the worker at the very top of the structure provides perfect balance to the image.

When I asked her about the photo she pointed out something I over looked—patience.” The technical part is very important, but so is patience, she said.” Having an idea, waiting for the weather to clear, watching planes and traffic patterns, I can’t stress enough the patience that can go into things”.

For gear, she was shooting with a Nikon D700, a 200-400mm zoom combined with a 1.4 converter to give her a 560mm lens. By choosing the long telephoto lens she is able to stand far away from the subject, bringing the viewers eye right to it he top of the monument where the action was.

It seems a shame to have to point out the obvious but this photo is real. This is not a composite image. The plane was not photoshopped into the image. The little man on the top of the monument wasn’t copy and pasted from a different frame. Many people think good photography requires the use of that famous Adobe product but in some cases it’s just a shooter that knows their craft.

Teachable moment here:> I don’t want you to run out and buy a $5000 lens, for most subjects any camera is fine. You can improve your pictures by just thinking more. Once you take a good photo (like the monument with the climber) think of what you could do make a good photo even better. Don’t settle for the obvious but push yourself to something better.

Do a search for Washington Post photographer — Linda Davidson, her work will inspire you!


TPC goes from Old School to New School

TPC was blow away with the results of the Nikon D3s shooting night football at iso 10,000 !!!

Shooting night football used to be a serious test of your skills when I began working as a newspaper photographer. The fields were dark as hell, you didn’t have a long telephoto lens to really cover the sport and the film was just too damn slow.

Back then, we shot Kodak Tri-X (iso 400) and over developed it to make us believe we were shooting at iso 1600. How did it look? If you did everything right and got lucky then it only looked bad but often it looked just plain horrible. When you arrived at the game and saw one team was wearing black uniforms you knew it was going to be a tough night. The film when underexposed and over developed (what we called pushing the film) could not hold detail in the black helmets and it would “disappear” when the player was in front of a dark background. Using this film at 1600 controlled your maximum shutter speed. If you could only shoot at iso 1600, then your shutter speed would fall around 1/250 or even 1/125th of a second. Good sports shooters know you need 1/500th to begin to freeze the action. The result of those slow shutter speeds gave you lots of film that was unusable because of motion blur from the players running down the field.

Watch the video to fast-forward yourself a couple of decades. I recently used a Nikon D3s and 200-400mm zoom lens to shoot at a super dark field and the results really really blew me away. I sent samples to a bunch of my photographer buddies and as one said–“It just shouldn’t look this good”


The Picture Coach talks shooting night football and the Nikon D3s from Scott Robinson on Vimeo.

“So, how do you like your mud…”

I was watching the Kentucky Derby on Saturday and had one of those “Glad I wasn’t there” moments. It had rained all day in Louisville and
the total rainfall was nearly three inches. Having covered the race a few times I knew the conditions would totally suck for the shooters
but extreme conditions sometimes make for dramatic pictures.

The next morning when I picked up my New York Times I was not disappointed. The Times ran a race photo the full width of the sports
front page and it looked great. The way the horses were bunched up in the shot I figured it was turn fourth and they were all covered with
mud. To make it even better, like taking a cue from a high-powered movie director, the sun popped out right before the big race and the
bright sun added enough contrast to the scene that the photos really snapped.

Heavy responsibilities come with being “The Picture Coach” and when I saw that photo I knew I needed to track down the photographer for a
little — “How’d ya do it

Enter Rob Carr, a staff photographer for the Associated Press based in Baltimore, MD.

The Picture Coach-Rob, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. Tell us a little about yourself and your history with the
Kentucky Derby.

Rob Carr– I grew up in Kentucky, went to school at Eastern Kentucky University and worked all over the state. This was my 21st year
shooting the Derby.

TPC- At a big event like this, how many photographers did the AP have covering the race?

RC– The AP had 7 staff photographers covering the race along with several freelancer photographers positioned along the track.

TPC-Where did you position yourself for this race and what were the conditions with all that rain.

RC– While I’ve shot the race from just about every position on the track, including the 2000 Derby from a helicopter, I always love
shooting the fourth turn because that is usually where the race is won, or lost.

This year I decided to move back out of the turn a bit more to get more of the horses as they came out the turn.

While it rained most the day, we got lucky about 45 minutes before post as the rained stopped and for the first time the sun popped out
long enough for some nice evening light to begin streaming across the track. A welcome relief to trying to keep camera’s dry all day but a
rush to change the ISO on all the remote cameras before the race started.

TPC-What gear did you use for the race?

RC– I shot the above photo with a Canon MKIV with a 500mm f-4 Canon lens and I also had three remotes mounted to the starting gate, a
16-35mm over the 1 slot, along with a 15mm fisheye on 5DMKII as well as a Sigma 8.5 fisheye on another 5D MKII.

TPC-Great stuff Rob, thanks again.

2nd Annual–Learn to Shoot Football like a PRO

“Learning to Shoot Football Like a Pro” from Scott Robinson on Vimeo.

Let’s talk football. Professional football. WOMENS profession football. Last year I brought a few of my students to the sidelines of a DC Diva’s football game. Like a mother hen, I stood right beside them, offering suggestions to improve their action photography. Check out the above video to see The Picture Coach in action. The results were great and I wanted to do it again this year but just like those TV offers –I’ve added one more thing. I’ve added a session before the game to shoot portraits of a few players.

Mark the night of May 22nd on your calendar. We’re still going to shoot game action from the sidelines just like last year (for the first 10 people to sign up). In advance of the game, I’ll bring in a truckload of gear to prepare a different lighting setup for each player. For example, I might have the first player standing in front of a white seamless with a ring light for her face and use some hard light from each side to really define her jersey and shoulder pads. (Yes, they were shoulder pads just like the big-boys!)

All you have to do is sync your camera with the flash and start making pictures. The cost is $85.00.

Send me an email with questions or to sign up for the workshop–

John Matthews had shot a few games before attending the first “Learn to Shoot Football Like a Pro” workshop. For last years game I rented a 300mm 2.8 lens from my good friends at Penn Camera, here in the DC area. John shot the whole game with that lens and never looked back. I love this shot that John made using the 300mm’s narrow depth of field. The light was great and your attention is just drawn to the player’s right eye.

In this picture, John has great timing. Normally, a quarterback handing off the ball is not a great shot but this one works because the defensive player is right on top of the QB. A split second before or after and this shot would be in the trash.

Here is another great example of what the 300mm 2.8 lens does best. By using the lens at 2.8, the narrow depth of field makes for a very clean background. By wisely shooting from the end zone (guess who suggested that?) you don’t have grandstands or together distracting elements to clutter up your photo. Again, good timing comes into play. The clean view of the players face, the way the ball is being help and her hand on the other players faces mast all combine for a very solid action shot.

Everyone likes alittle drama…

I was heading out to my daughters lacrosse game and noticed how great the light was and just hoped it held until game time. After years of covering sports for a living, sitting in the stands seems odd plus I still enjoy being on the field.

Some days all the stars align correctly and you get lucky. The late afternoon light was so good it almost made me think I was standing on the set of a Hollywood movie. I’ve found the best way to really show off great light is to combine it with a dark background. I got extra lucky at this game because there was a navy blue wall at one end of the field, which would help created a dramatic photo.

My good luck continued when the visiting team ran onto the field wearing these bright red jerseys. With all this going for me, “all I need to do” was make a nice photo. With lacrosse, there is action all over the field but I tried to keep my focus on the area with the dark background. I was not covering this game for a client so I could make up my own rules. For me, rule #1 was to walk away with a dramatic and colorful image.

Let’s break down this picture so you can see how I did it:

The metadata panel shows how the camera is set for the above photo. I was using the 300mm F4 lens and set the f-stop to it’s most wide open setting and the fastest shutter speed (1/640th). I normally set the camera to aperture value but in this case I was using manual exposure.

Here is what the “whole frame” looks like before I cropped it. Even with a 300mm lens you still can be too loose when shooting sports. One of the advantages of a large file size (my camera has a 16 meg sensor) is that you can do a major crop like this one and still have plenty of image left to work with.

So, What’s your day job?

A conversation with Michael Gan

The Picture Coach– “What’s your day job”
Michael Gan– I’m a labor and employment lawyer in my twentieth year of practice. I represent labor unions and employees in a variety of contract matters. My work takes me all over the country. I’ve been to every state in the U.S., except for Alaska

TPC–In you day job, is there any chance to use your photography skills?
MG–I wish there were. I do make training films every year and we have really upgraded our efforts in the video department. We bought two Canon HD video cameras two years ago. The end product is pretty impressive for a bunch of lawyers. I like to shoot tight shots of our subjects, try never to put them in the center of the frame, and generally try to keep it interesting. In our last film, I sat on the floor to capture the conversation of two people talking “above” me. It was an unexpected vantage point and worked especially well. I would not have tried that had I not taken still pictures like that before.

TPC–When did you first start shooting?
MG–I was probably in third or fourth grade when I started taking pictures with a Kodak Instamatic. I grew up in Los Angeles and used to take it to LA Dodger games and shoot from the second deck. I never quite understood why the players came out looking like ants.

TPC–Tell us about your early days with a camera?
MG–After the Instamatic, I upgraded to the Minolta XG 7 and began taking lots of pictures and getting them developed at Fotomat. I didn’t have a real focus to my photography – I just liked experimenting. I had to be careful because I didn’t have any darkroom skills and getting the film developed was super expensive so I experimented in a controlled way. If we had digital cameras back then I probably would have shot a thousand frames a month. Several years later, I inherited my grandfather’s Nikkormat FT with a bunch of interchangeable lenses and filters and realized what the possibilities were.

TPC–Any awards or anything you remember about those early years
MG–I did not enter any competitions but was the sports editor of my high school newspaper. We had several staff photographers so I became a photo editor early on. One kid was terrific but the others weren’t great. They didn’t understand why their images rarely appeared in the paper. That experience helped me hone my own photography skills, which were still pretty raw.

TPC–What was the single thing that attracted you to photography in those early days
MG–I suppose initially it was capturing moments in people’s lives or places we visited but then I started to enjoy the creativity that was basically built-in to the camera. You could change a setting here or there and get a totally different image.

TPC–Currently, how often do you get to pickup the camera and shoot?
MG–In the summer when I tend to have more time I shoot three times a week. The rest of the year it is probably closer to once a week.

TPC–Do you have a favorite subject?
MG– I love to shoot swimming – not just because my kids are competitive swimmers but because the water often adds something very special to the picture.

TPC–What the next piece of gear you’d like to buy?
MG–I’m about to purchase a Canon 7D. I could use more frames/second because I often shoot sports (I have a 30D now) but what I really look forward to is using the 7D to shoot HD video. I know the learning curve will be high but I have seen some incredible projects filmed on the 7D. I also wouldn’t mind a Canon 300mm, f2.8 but it would bust my budget. I can’t justify a Canon 15mm fisheye either. I know I would have little use for it. Finally, I have my eyes on an underwater housing that would enable me to produce images from the bottom of a swimming pool. That is definitely on my wish list.

TPC–Mr. Mega-millions drops my your house and leaves you a rather large present. You can say good-bye to the day job. You are now a full time photographer and able to go and do anything. What kind of pictures would you be making?
MG–I would travel far and wide spending time at various World Championship and Olympic competitions shooting swimming, track and field, and skiing. I would raft down the Colorado River making pictures along the way and I might even try shooting surfing from the water. After I got that out of my system, I would try my hand working for a major news outlet. I don’t know what it’s like to shoot on deadline or without much, if any, advance planning. Many photographers might gravitate away from that kind of work but I know I would find it exciting and challenging.

TPC–Let’s talk about any photo heroes you might have. Who’s work do you admire and why.
MG–I am a huge fan of Donald Miralle ( ) and Al Bello ( ). They both bring incredible creativity to quite ordinary moments. They shoot from neat angles, use color in ways I wish I would have thought of, and make old subjects look new and different. They seem to have incredible access to whatever sporting event they are covering.

TPC–Tell us about your favorite photo. What does it look like, where did you take it, how does it make you feel and what equipment did you use.
MG–It is hard to single out one photo but one of my favorites was taken several years ago at our neighborhood pool. It is a picture of four boys standing shoulder to shoulder at the end of a swim meet. I didn’t tell them how to pose but the way they stood there in absolutely perfect light made me think of Life magazine circa 1965. The expressions are great, the background is clean, and the image looks great enlarged to 16×20. It’s framed and hanging in my den.

TPC—Michael’s timing was perfect as he captured the swimmer at the moment they broke the surface of the water. As with all good sports photos—timing, timing, timing.

TPC—I worked with Michael last summer to create a camera mount so he could shoot straight down on the swimmers. He attached the camera to a diving board and used a long shutter release to fire the camera. There was no way of really knowing what the camera was seeing but he managed again to get a great moment.

TPC—This head-on shot of a swimmer doing the butterfly stroke is kind of a staple of swimming photography but trust me it is not as easy as it may look. Michael has a ton of these shots but I picked this one because it’s super sharp and I love the reflection in the water. The fact that it’s his son is an added bonus for me.

Less is more

Back when I was a newspaper photographer at the Providence Journal the paper had a huge appetite for pictures. You’d think that’s great for a photographer but Rhode Island is a very small state and it’d wear you down. We’d joke that we should make the residents carry ID cards that got punched every time their photo was in the paper. Picture yourself in Barrington, Bristol, or Burrillville, its 20 degrees out; you haven’t seen the sun in weeks. The snow is the color of an old gym towel. Your editor called and she needs two new feature pictures by 3pm.

Where would you look for a photo?

In the photo department, I had access to every lens from a 15mm wide angle to super telephotos. It was easy to just load up your camera bag with one of everything and start driving. You gotta see something, right? One of the ways I used to stay fresh and find interesting pictures was a “less is more” strategy. I’d edit the gear down to one lens and one camera so it would force you to look at the world with a single angle of view. The 600mm F4 lens was a favorite of mine and I found fun ways to use the 18-pound monster. One cold rainy day, I asked my boss Chip (see earlier post on H.E.T.) if he could get me a delivery truck. WHAT??

My plan was to park the delivery truck downtown so I could shoot from the back. I set up the lens on a tripod and waited—all nice and dry. As the office workers left their buildings for the day it was like shooting fish in a barrel. The 600mm and the weather just made for great photos. My less is more strategy worked that day.

Nobody reading this knows Chip, you’ve never been to Rhode Island and have no idea how this might affect you.

Why don’t you try my “less is more” strategy the next time you take out your camera? Look in your camera bag and I bet you’ll see a zoom lens. One option might be to pick a focal length, say something near the telephoto end of the zoom. Next, set your aperture to wide open, say F4 or F4.5. That’s really all there is to it. Keep you camera set to that combination, don’t touch the zoom and start shooting.

Sometime less is more.

The weather has finally turned great here in DC and I really wanted to get out and make a picture. I began with a less is more strategy taking only a tripod, camera body and 135mm lens. To complete this self-assignment I wanted the image to be “black and white” and a really tight detail with a lot of texture.

So, What’s your day job ???

A conversation with Alex Arredondo

By day, Alex is an undercover detective for the Los Angeles Police Department. But his passion is photography. I was coaching Alex when the idea for this series hit me. While there are tons of people shooting photos and owning professional level gear most of you are not fulltime working photographers. I did a quick survey of my students and found quite a few people had really cool day jobs. Since I love LA and he’s got a gun plus a badge we’ll start the series with Alex.

The Picture Coach: Give us a little background info to get us started:
Alex Arredondo: I’m 44 years old; I grew up in Los Angeles and have been with the Los Angeles Police Department for over 22 years. I have worked as a patrol officer; assigned to the Violent Fugitive Task Force, as a detective I’ve investigated everything from Domestic Violence to Homicide. I’m currently working an undercover assignment.

TPC: How’d you first get interested in joining the LAPD?
AA: I joined LAPD because of TV programs like Adam-12, CHIPs and Dragnet.

TPC: Like many of us, you started taking photos in High School. Did you take any photos back then that you were proud of or that you remember?
I thought photography would be an easy “A” but was I wrong. We shot with a Pentax K1000 and had to process the black and white film in the school darkroom. I loved getting the reaction from my classmates and one picture got lots of reaction. I was shooting a HS football game and captured a wide receiver getting hit really hard by a defensive back. The player was really close to me and you could see the pain in his eyes. My teacher submitted the photo to the LA Times. It was awarded some type of award for great sports photos! I still have the photo packed in a box.

TPC: Are there skills that you developed as a policeman that carry over as a photographer?

AA: As a police officer, you need command presents. As a photographer that’s a quality that gets you in places that the “Average Joe” can’t.

TPC: If you could assist one photographer for a day, who would it be?
Sports shooter Dave Black– I’ve seen his work on the web and on the Nikon site. I hate photographers that set everything to automatic, stand straight up and never change their camera position. That’s not Dave’s style at all. His action photos are so impressive and he can also shoot very creative nighttime photos as well. Great range.

TPC: Everyone talks about having a five-year plan. What about you Alex, what do you want to be doing in five years?
AA: I have five more years before I can retire from my law-enforcement job. My goal is to be a professional sports photographer. My dream is to shoot a “Super Bowl” or World Series. I just don’t know where to start.

Alex, as a picture coach I tell students you must be able to walk before you run. By that, I mean you must know the craft of photography backwards and forward. You need to be able to capture peak action at every game you go to. Great sports shooters like Dave Black have a well-honed sense of timing. A Nikon hitting 9-frames-a-second is helpful but the top shooter doesn’t depend on that alone.
If you want to get good at shooting sports give yourself assignments. Go to a little league game or a middle school game on assignment—for yourself. Make a list of what needs to be photographed just like you were shooting for Sports Illustrated. Obviously, you need great action photos but there’s a twist. It can’t be just any cool action shot; it needs to be pictures that tell the story of the game. What do I mean? Lets say the home team wins the game on a 45-yard- pass play at the end of the third quarter. If you were shooting for SI you’d call your editor after the game and the very first thing out of his mouth would be—“ Did you get the play???” That’s what’s expected of top shooters. You need more than just some random shots of people jumping for balls. That’s a good starting point but to really excel at sports photography you need to be a student of the sport.

Enough talk, lets take a look at Alex’s pictures:

WOW—I just love this shot and it really caught me off guard. I had been talking to Alex about maybe shooting some portraits in the fire station he hangs out in and the next thing you know he emails this image. Great drama, strong composition and by using a slow shutter speed he was able to “burn in” the lamp the fireman had on his helmet. The only down side to this photo? I want to see more dramatic portraits like this one!

You want fire photos , Alex has plenty of those to choose from. This is a dramatic shot and the color is very very intense. I like the shot, it’s a classic spot news photo and you see a ton of fire photos in the newspaper but I just wonder. What if he had been shooting with a 70-200mm lens, and zoomed in really tight on the fireman. That might have been an even more dramatic shot. I encouraged him to get a shot like this one and then get much tighter.

Here is what Alex says about this photo: I arrived at an accident scene involving a drunk driver early on a Sunday morning. As I walked around the scene, I saw a child car seat on the ground. I then saw “it”, the Pink Doll on the roadway with shattered car glass. The sun was so intense that I need to darken my background. I ran to me car and grabbed my flash, placed it on full power, closed down my F-stop and took this image. Luckily, the child was not in the car.

I’m not a big fan of students shooting with wide-angle lens. Those lenses are very seductive. Everything tends to look great through the viewfinder but later, on closer inspection the magic of the moment is lost. You now see the clutter you missed when you shot the picture. Alex avoided those pitfalls by getting on the ground for a low angle view. By putting the camera down low it made a nice clean dramatic image.

Bear speaks…on photography

When I first moved to Los Angeles I taught photography and had a steady
stream of students whom you might politely call blessed with enthusiasm but lacking in talent. Who knew that one day I’d be following a student’s career. Even teachers need to learn.

The phone rang in my office the other day and it was Bear. No, it wasn’t a “real-life-talking-bear”—this caller’s full name is Barry Gutierrez but everyone knows him as Bear. He was one of my earliest students and in those early days he was very eager but still rough in his basic skills.

Maybe some of that photo chemistry had seeped into his brain but after taking my class a few times he decided photography was how he was going to spend his life. Barry wanted to be a photojournalist so he spent several months researching the best colleges and ended up choosing Western Kentucky University. He loaded up an old blue Chevy pickup truck; said good-bye to Los Angeles and 2200 miles later arrived in Bowling Green, KY.

The Picture Coach: What did you think of Western Kentucky University when you very first arrived?

Bear: WKU was like joining a family. A co-ed fraternity of photojournalists. I felt a sense of competition and camaraderie all at the same time. I knew that I would be judged on my character, pictures and effort. I got involved as quick as I could.

TPC: Bear worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News before he ended up at the Rocky Mountain News.

Bear: The Rocky was a fantastic place to work. I was impressed with the caliber of photographers and they pushed me to be a better photographer every day.

TPC: Lets get to the big stuff. Your were a member of the photo staff of the Rocky Mountain News which earned a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Colorado wildfires in summer 2002. Tell us about that award.

Bear: The paper entered 20 images for that contest and I had seven pictures in the original entry. I was given the task to print the entry myself. I did it in the studio of the RMN and it took nearly a month. I am almost as proud of printing the entry as I was of making the pictures. I’m pretty sure we used an Epson 2200 for the prints and an 11×14 print could take 10-20 minutes. I made each print with a thick black border and added caption information in white type to the bottom of each print. The format, style and words all had to be checked, rechecked and edited by two different editors at the paper, with the final approval from our publisher. WIth that many eyes on our entry, I had to make a dozen versions of most images and duplicates for safety.

TPC: Where were you when you got the news about the Pulitzer?

Bear: I was stuck in traffic on the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles on my way to see my grandmother. At the time she lived in a house that my grandfather builtwith his own two hands. It stood on a hill with 52 steps. I remember being a little taxed after running up the steps and trying to explain to my 92-year-old grandmother what a Pulitzer Prize was. She really had no clue but she knew it was big. She was so full of joy with me. It was the perfect person to share the news. She has since passed and that moment is chained to my heart forever.

TPC: What was great about shooting for newspapers?

Bear: The best and the worst was the daily grind. I loved the daily adventure of random assignments. One day it might be a plane crash, the next a baby’s birth, and then a baseball game. Some days I had two or three of those assignments one after the next. I loved the instant gratification of being published everyday. When I first started working I would sometimes stay up until 3 am to watch the newspaper being printed with my picture on the front page.

TPC: Tell us what you are doing since the newspaper folded?

Bear: The RMN closed its doors Feb. 28, 2009. I now work for numerous editorial clients nationwide, three or four collage publications, The Associated Press, Denver Post, European Press agency. I shoot corporate portraits, weddings and headshots. I was hired as a stills photographer for a movie in California called Heathens and Thieves in 2009. I also teach photojournalism at Front Range Community College and Metro State College.

TPC: What photographers do you study?

Bear: I think Alex Webb’s work is amazing. He is intensely drawn to great light. His pictures have a special beauty and depth which are framed by incredible culture. I’m curently reading Portrait in Light and Shadow: The Life of Yousuf Karsh by Dr. Maria Tippett, and as I read through Karsh’s journeys, I daydream about being a mouse in his pocket. It has been a fun read about an incredible portrait photographer.

TPC: Cameras are now so smart, what advice do you have for “students” to make their photos stand above the usual.

Bear: If you are examining your pictures, ask yourself this question: “Could my mother take this picture?” If the answer is yes, you need to work much harder. When I teach, I tell my students that billions of images are taken around the globe every year. What makes your images worth looking at? You have to master your equipment. You have to shoot more. Remember, your first 100,000 images are crap. The sooner you get to 100,000 frames, the sooner you will have a style, a name, and a future as a photographer.

TPC: I don’t think you have a crystal ball but what do you see in the future for photography.

Bear:” I fear that video will be our only medium to use in a very short time; 5-10 years. The quality of a still frame from a video will be that of a digital image from a Cannon EOS 1D Mark IV and then it’s all over. Still images will be no more. Like film, we will only make it for artists. There will always be a need for images. In fact that need grows greater and greater each day. It is how we gather those images that will change. Unfortunately the art and craftsmanship I fell in love with will be no more.”

Barry, I just keep learning from you.


TPC: This was the first photo I saw after it was announced that the Rocky Mountain News had won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. Even before I knew he shot the photo I was willing to bet it was Barry’s picture. For me this photo is about timing. Both the timing of the fires as it approaches the beautiful house and the realization that in no time, that house woud be gone.

TPC: Shooting air to air can be tricky and doing it the middle of a major operation like the Colorado wild fires takes talent under pressure. The position of the airplane and the dramatic lighting were elements Barry had no control over but still managed to create a striking image with near perfect composition. In some ways the photo is so pretty it looks like a poster for an upcoming Clint Eastwood poster.

“That’s all he wanted to do, is come home and put her(Leia) on his chest,” said Dana Baum, Rayn’s mother. A photograph of Leia Ryan Baum was placed on her father Sgt. Ryan John Baum’s chest for visitation. Rayn was killed in action in Karmah, Iraq May 18, 2007. Ryan was scheduled to return home to be present for the birth of his daughter Leia Ryan Baum who was born 11 days after his death. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.

The story behind the photo

I think most really good photos have an interesting back-story and I’d like to tell you the story of my first photo in Life Magazine. I had just moved to Los Angeles to begin my freelance career. The tallest building on the West Coast was on fire and the whole 12th floor was fully engaged. The live TV pictures from the scene made it look just like the 1974 movie thriller –The Towering Inferno.

Check out the video for the whole story—


The story behind the photo…

First Photo in Life MAgazine from Scott Robinson on Vimeo.

Where do you want me to put the camera???

A downside to a world where digital cameras are so advance that each image is properly exposed, every picture is in focus and the digital file can be enlarged to mural size is kind of subtle.

How do you make your photographs stand out for the herd?

In my career, I’ve always been interested in getting a camera angle no other photographer shoots. It requires extra work but I don’t know any great photographer who is lazy.

Lets start with this idea, when you look thought the viewfinder, ask yourself—“is this a snapshot or is this a photograph?” A snapshot is what EVERYBODY sees while standing in that spot. Our goal @ TPC is to make photographs. Today, we’ll look at how camera position can affect your pictures and sometimes help you make striking images.

The overhead position—

Working on assignment for Sports Illustrated, I was profiling Clay Puett, the man who invented the electric starting gate in horse racing. I had several portraits of him but I was looking for a lead photo that was more dramatic. By mounting a camera with a 15mm lens on top of the starting gate at Hollywood Park near Los Angeles I was able to provide the readers of the magazine with a very unusual view. Setting my camera to a slow shutter speed blurred the horses and riders slightly, giving it a sense of motion.

The ground level position-

Setting your camera on the ground for a “worm’s eye” view like I did in this picture from the final moments of a High School state tournament game is another way to get a dramatic shot. The score was tied with only one second left on the clock. I knew the whole game could hinge on this single free throw attempt. I quickly pulled off the prism of my Nikon F2 (try that with digital!) so I could look straight down onto the camera’s focusing screen. The photo was published the entire width of the papers sports section so you could really see the cool details which are lost at only 600 pixels! As a photojournalist you are always tiring to get the “Decisive Moment” and everything seemed to come together in this one frame.

The Secret Service doesn’t like dogs…

It was 1988, I was moving to Los Angeles and I needed business cards. A newspaper buddy was a designer and he offered to do it for me. When he first showed me his design I instantly loved it. “Los Angeles is a hip place,” he said, “ and this is a hip design.”

The Los Angeles Times was my first client when I got to town and I had only been there a week when they assigned me to photograph Vice President George H.W. Bush’s arrival at LAX. I had many dealings with the Secret Service over the years and never had a problem before that day. Back then; it took a while to get a new press pass to hang around your neck so I showed up at the event knowing I’d have to do some fast-talking.

Secret Service agents are not the type who enjoys fast-talking and I was in trouble from the start. “ So let me get this straight, you have no press pass, no picture ID and you handed me a business card with a picture of a dog, are you kidding me”, the agent asked. Before I could come up with an answer he followed. “Is that your dog?” No sir, I replied. “You expect me to let a guy with no press pass, no picture ID and a dog on his business card in to photograph the Vice President?” he added with enough attitude to make me feel about six inches tall.

He walked away for a moment and that’s when I realized all was not lost. I popped open one of those zippered pocket in your camera bag you never use and pulled out my seldom-used passport. The agent let me inside and offered a valuable piece of advice. “I’d get rid of that business card.”

You may need more than a German Shepard on your business card to get this close to Vice President Bush. Nikon F3, 35mm lens and Tri-X film.

That’s not how Annie rolls…

President’s day seems like a good time to dig into the archive and
talk about my first assignment to photograph in the Oval Office. I had only
been in Washington two months when the Los Angeles Times called and
needed some updated pictures of President Clinton. I jumped at the
chance. Before arriving in DC, I had lived in Los Angeles and had
photographed a bunch of famous Hollywood types. Steven Spielberg was
the best and Tim Robins was the worst. However you look at it, movie
stars have to take a back seat to the Big Guy.

I had seen those behind the scenes pictures in Vanity Fair of Annie
Leibovitz photographing (don’t think you can really use the word
shooting here) in the White House with her huge light boxes and
multiple assistants so I also wanted to pack enough gear to properly
photograph the leader of the free world.

Back in sunny southern California I would fill up my Suburban with
equipment and be able to park right at the location. This was going to
call for a much different game plan. I ended up with a small two-wheel
cart to carry a set of Dynalite strobes, tripod, light stands and some
soft boxes.

When I cleared security and got inside, the White House media people
looked at my cart like it was R2D2 from Star Wars. What do you think
you’re going to do with that, they asked? You guessed it; I was not on
equal footing with Annie. All that gear stayed outside the oval as I
entered with just two Canon film cameras, an 85mm 1.8 lens and a
70-200mm zoom. What they knew and I didn’t was my time with the
leader of the free world was going to last only three minutes or about
two rolls of color neg film. I knew I didn’t want a standard behind the
desk shot; I decided to go in tight around his face, to capture him in
a pensive moment. The resulting image, of a brooding Clinton, his chin
resting against a clenched fist, stands up well today. And it still amazes
me that I pulled it off in just about three minutes.

When my meter expired, a press person walked into my frame and
waved me toward the door. I grabbed the handle of my still unpacked
equipment cart, and headed for the front gate.

Canon EOS1, Fuji 800 speed film and 70-200 2.8 zoom lens. It may be the Oval Office but it was DARK.

Gentlemen, start your engines…

One of the biggest events in sports takes place this Sunday with the 51st running of the Dayton 500. This time of the year I get a bit antsy, wanting to get back to the track to start another project. It’s been four years since I began shooting photos for my book “Faces of NASCAR” which was publish late in 2006.

When I had completed the shooting and editing phase of the book, I copied all the data to an extra external hard drive, bought a small Pelican case to store the unit and gave it to a neighbor for safekeeping. That neighbor reminded of the gray pelican case the other days so I retrieved the hardrive and began to review those images. I began looking back through the entire collection of images from the book; nearly 12,000 images and a few things jumped up and grabbed my attention.

I’ve broken it down into four areas:

#1–The Stars–Before starting this book, the only other time I had shot a race was the July 4th 1984 race in Daytona , I think they called it the Pepsi Firecracker 400 and Richard Petty was the winner. Petty won his 200th and final race of his long legendary career and then he stopped his car at the start/finish line, walked up the steep banked track and shook hands with a very special guest that afternoon-then President Ronald Reagan. Richard Petty or King Richard as they like to call him was one of those guys with a 1000-watt smile. Every time he was around the track I tried extra hard to capture a portrait of the King.

#2–The details–I was working late one night, fine-tuning a pile of images when I began to look at a photo of King Richard really close, like 300% close. That was when I first noticed the famous belt buckle. Instantly I knew I needed a really tight pictures of the buckle and began to plan out the photo. My assistant in Dover has seen my crude sketch of what I wanted and we had planed to put down a white reflector on the grown to bounce light up into the photo.When I saw the King in the garage are on Saturday before the big race, I quickly told him what I was doing. He agreed and I only shot maybe 10-15 frames. But that was enough and I knew I had my picture.

#3—The Scenes– This is one of my favorite shots. The way the American Flag staff seems to go stab the Target logo really works for me. Very clean composition with the flag, the cloudy blue sky and Target hauler (that’s NASCAR lingo for the trailer trucks that carry all the race gear) just works for me. I originally tried to do a panorama shot with a long row of the haulers but sometime less is more.–Techie tip: It’s kind of old school but I worked hard to keep the trucks from leaning too much. I hate those photos where people who don’t know how to use wide lens point up at something like a building and the things seem to be falling backwards!

#4–The Faces—It would make sense if you titled the book” Faces of NASCAR” you might have a few portraits. The staff and crew were so used to having a camera pointed at them that I felt nearly invisible—which I love. This guy was working on pit row and when he took off his helmet (all people working on the car wear helmets) he was wearing this fireproof, tan-colored Ninja mask. I loved the way it framed his face and by using a long lens (300mm) and moving in very close it made the background go out of focus. The light was very overcast and soft that day so the combination along with the incredible sharpness of the lens made for a really nice portrait.

SuperBowl XX…for photographers

The week leading up to Sundays big game in Miami always makes me think back to one of my best assignments–Covering Superbowl XX. It was 1985, I was a staff photographer at the Providence Journal back then and I had spent a whole month shooting playoff games in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. It was cold, snowy and bleak back home in Rhode Island but I was having a blast on the road. In the end, the Chicago Bears destroyed the Patriots 46-10 in New Orleans but I was living the dream.

It’s hard not to think back to those days and not realize how much easier the game would have been with digital. The superdome, where he game was played was pretty dark with flat ugly lighting. Most newspapers only used black and white pictures at that point and we were forced to shoot at iso 1600. That camera setting only gave us 1/500th of a second at F.3.5. In a real retro move, I pulled out the actual film, grabbed my Schneider 4x loupe and flipped the switch to the light box. Digital has spoiled us with great tonal range that made the film look hard. The combination of the high-speed way we processed the film and the poor lighting made for a grainy ugly result.

At the start of the game, looking up at some of the 72,000 fans I remember this outburst of camera flashes at the opening kickoff. I was pretty nervous in the beginning but I that didn’t last long. The first play from scrimmage was a long pass play to the Patriots Lin Dawson. He ended up getting injured right in front of me and I really mean close. I normally shot action from the sidelines with a 400mm 3.5 Nikon lens along with a 35mm lens on a second body. Remember, the 16-35 zoom was not yet invented so we all used prime lens. The medical staff working on Lin Dawson was so close I had to switch to a 20mm to get it all. My buddy and fellow “Pro-Jo” shooter Bob Breidenbach got a cool frame of me from across the field in the crush of shooters trying to get the picture.

At your average football game you can go pretty much anywhere you want. They do frown on shooters running onto the field but you can travel all 100 yards of the sideline and across the end zone. There is so much media at an event like the Superbowl, they have to provide some order by limiting your access. I remember having a sideline credential that kept me in just one corner of the field. If the action was happening on the other end of the field you couldn’t run to the other end of the field. The Bears were scoring early and often so I spend much of my time photographing the patriots on the sidelines with their helmets off looking defeated.

There were a series of messengers on the field that would collect our film and shuttle it up stairs to the Associated Press darkrooms. Our boss, Chip Maury (See earlier post on H.E.T.) was there to edit our film. He would make a small notch on the edge of the film by the sprocket holes and the AP lab techs would make an 8×10 print for him to put a caption on. It was real madhouse of a place with lots of shouting about deadlines and general craziness. Chip was a former AP guy and I’m sure he felt right at home.

The game went by quickly and it was very late before Bob and I were able to get thought the crowds and hiked up to the upper levels of the stadium to meet Chip. We had no idea if we had made any good photos (remember, no champing with a Nikon F3) but Chip showed us a whole pile of photos that he had transmitted back to the paper, using what was basically just a high tech fax machine. It was New Orleans so there was quiet a party going on as we left the stadium and hurried off to dinner.

This Sunday when the game starts I’ll be watching the sidelines to see what the photographers are doing. Super bowl 20, 30 or 40, film or digital, Nikon or Canon the goal of every shooter on the sideline is still the same. Get great action shots, tell the story of the game and just like the players, have a great game.


Yep, that’s me on the sidelines of Superbowl XX throwing my weight around to get a better angle on the play. The action on the sidelines is nothing like whats on the field but there is often pushing, shoving and its not the place for the shy!!!

Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon was one of the big stories of Super Bowl XX. The former Brigham Young University star set a Super Bowl record with two rushing touchdowns. McMahon completed 12 of 20 passes for 256 yards before leaving the game in the fourth period with a wrist injury. Both photos were made with a Nikon F3, 400mm F3.5 lens and Tri-X film.

For me the week I spent in New Orleans, leading up to the big game was really more fun that the actual event. Media day was a huge circus and its ringleader, as usual was the sunglass wearing Jim McMahon. I loved the dramatic feel that the TV lights gave the picture and by standing behind the player, an unusual camera angle for a press conference it exaggerated the effect. Nikon F3, 20 mm F2.8 lens and Tri-X film