Artist Thomas Swanston

The past two days I was in what I would call Spring Training. The corporate communications staff at Chick-fil-A got together for a retreat at Serenbe. Serenbe is a planned community that is a community of people living in a community of trees.

So we had a retreat there to go over what we call our play book. How we engage with our clients so we become partners with them in their communication. The end result is because we come along side of them we help them find a stronger voice for their passions and stories. We also discovered sometimes we help them discover the diamonds in the rough of their fields.

We divided into teams and talked to some of the businesses in town for our workshop where we were able to practice our play. My group worked with the artist Thomas Swanston of

We realized his work was outstanding, but thought we could help him tell the story of why he creates his art. This is our first attempt with the artist where he tells us in his own words why he paints as he does.

Celebrations & Concerns

One of the really cool things my Sunday School class does each Sunday is to start the class off with Celebrations and Concerns. We take as much time as we need on this. Usually anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes where everyone is invited to give us some celebration or concern.

What I like most about this is knowing the real reason we come together is for a relationship with each other and ultimately to God. So by sharing with each other we take the time to build our relationships. We end each Celebration and Concern time with prayer. We take all these we write on our board each week and pray for them.

Also, each week someone writes all this down and sends an email blast out to our class. If you were there or missed the class you get a friendly reminder about out prayer list. I figure for most of our class we take a moment and pray again for those on the list.

For me this is worship and one of the biggest reasons I am involved in a faith community. Having a personal relationship with people and time with God.

Teaching is a great way to learn

After Tiger Woods won the Master’s the first time he felt he could still improve his game. Tiger went back to the fundamentals of the game; he worked on his swing.

Tiger is not the only professional athlete practicing the fundamentals of his game. Each year major-league baseball teams begin spring training where they discipline themselves in the fundamentals of baseball. They’re doing pretty much what those kids in little league are doing – practicing the basics.

How often do professionals, other than athletes, revisit the fundamentals of their profession? Teachers are taught how students learn. This enables them to pass on the essentials of a subject in a way that their students understand them. To do this a teacher must know their subject extremely well. I stumbled upon the genuine benefits of being plunged back into the nuts and bolts of photography when I started teaching what I do to college students.

In the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure teaching others the basics of lighting and business practices for photography. At the Art Institute of Atlanta I worked with those pursuing photography as a profession. Later, teaching in Kona, Hawaii at the University of Nations Photography Program, I taught students from all over the world who were learning to communicate visually. In Fort Worth, at The Southwestern Photojournalism Conference, I spoke to a group of my peers about business practices in photography. I was the one who learned the most in these places. Teaching your profession requires a lot of thought about how you do what you do. In every profession there are those who know enough to “get by” and in their jobs. Some of these folks probably don’t know why certain things work – just know they do. Odds are they’ve never tried to teach anyone what they do (and let’s hope they don’t).

I received my masters in communications from a school where program was in the education department. We communications majors were required to take classes in teaching. We studied how people learn at different ages. They helped us learn how to package information so that it communicated to a particular audience. In 1985, while working with a missionary organization, I was assigned to teach missionaries how to take better pictures and put together interesting slide shows. I have taught in colleges, to camera clubs and other groups ever since those early days. Over the years I have had to find effective ways to present the fundamentals and help people improve their skills with their cameras.

I believe teaching is one of the best ways to improve in this, and probably any other, profession. It’s up-close and personal. If you spot a puzzled expression in the class you know you didn’t get some point across to that person.

If, as a professional communicator, you see that puzzled expression in meetings with clients or in committee meetings and you think you might be seeing it too often, maybe it’s time to teach.

Learning how to teach the basics of communication can’t help but improve your professional skills and it just might help you get that important point across to your client or that significant committee.

(Photo credit top Dennis Fahringer, middle Morris Abernathy, bottom Dennis Fahringer)

The Psychology of the Telephoto Lens

Nikon D3S, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/125, & 300mm using a Alienbees 1600 Flash for fill flash.

“What I need is a telephoto lens.” We’ve all said this. It doesn’t take long to discover we can’t get close enough to our subjects with a “normal” lens.

If you have kids in sports or the performing arts or if your interest is photographing birds or wild animals either rules or common sense keep our subjects just too far away for interesting photos without a long lens.

Professional photographers reach for their telephoto lenses for the same reason – to fill the frame with the subject.

If they can, the professional photographer may use their longer lenses to tie a subject to its soundings. In an earlier blog post (here) I talked about using wide-angle lenses to show a person in their environment. This can still be accomplished with the use of remote control cameras put in place prior to an event. A remotely controlled camera taking pictures up close of a lion feeding on a carcass beats than risking your life.


One of the most creative tools a photographer has is controlling depth-of-field. Depth-of-field is simply the area in focus in front of and behind the point focused of focus. Telephoto lenses have shallow depth-of-field as compared to wide-angle lenses. With either lens the smaller the f-stop (f/16 vs. f/8) the deeper the depth-of-field. Of course, the reverse is true. With either type of lens the depth-of-field is shallower the more open the f-number (f/4 vs. f/5.6).

Nikon D3S, ISO 200, f/1.4, 1/1600, & 85mm using a Nikon SB900 off camera triggered by Nikon SU800 for fill flash.
This is a crop of the above photograph.  You can see the tip of the nose and just behind the eyes are out of focus.  This is what we call a shallow depth of field.

By controlling (limiting) the depth-of-field you can force the viewer ‘s attention to only what you want them to see. Take a picture of a football receiver catching the ball. If everything was sharp (large depth-of-field) it would be difficult to distinguish the main subject from everything. However, if the same picture were made using a telephoto lens with a shallow depth-of-field The player and the ball would “pop.”  You would have isolated the player and the ball from the rest of the picture, thus calling attention to what you want the viewer to see.

Portrait photographers use medium telephoto lenses to call attention to the face and not the background both in indoor and outdoor portraits.

When you increase the depth-of-field with a telephoto lens, more in focus from front to back of the photo, it will make things appear close together from foreground to the background. The wide-angle lens makes things appear farther apart. Objects in a photograph made with a telephoto lens make those objects appear closer together than in “real life.” The longer (more powerful) the lens the closer together they will appear as well as closer to you. It’s a powerful tool. You can use it to make all kinds of statements.


Nikon D2X, ISO 200, f/4, 1/1000, & 840mm

A sports photographer may use this technique to show a baseball pitcher in his windup; the scoreboard in the background shows a full count and the bottom of the 9th; You can see, again from the score board brought up close behind the pitcher that it is a no-hitter. Now that’s a story telling and powerful photograph all because of the creative use of telephoto lenses and selective focus.

If the photographer had used a shallow depth-of-field you couldn’t read the scoreboard or if a wide-angle lens was used the scoreboard would have been too far away to read.

Nikon D2X, ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/2500, & 840mm

In portrait photography a medium telephoto lens shows faces in a normal perspective as compared to the distortion a wide-angle lens. A moderate telephoto lens of say 80mm to 100mm lens on a 35mm camera will put you about five to seven feet from the subject for a head and shoulder’s photograph.


When photographing wildlife the rule of thumb is to use a minimum of 300 mm lens to fill the frame. You don’t want to be five to seven feet from wildlife. That’s why wildlife photographers use 400mm, 500mm, 600mm or even as long as 800mm lenses.

When you begin to shop for a telephoto lens you’ll find many choices for the same focal length lens. Nikon makes lenses that cost a few hundred dollars on to up to $25,000. The ƒ-stop (aperture) is a big factor in the cost. The lower the number (faster the lens) the more expensive and heavier the lens. 

Fast Lens

There are two advantages to the faster lenses. First of all the faster lenses, like ƒ/2.8, allow taking photos in less light. This is important for the wildlife photographer in the woods at dawn or dusk when the animals are out. 

Nikon D2X, ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/1000, & 400mm

The second advantage of the faster lenses – they allow for more shallow depth-of-field.

It is possible to rent these longer, faster lenses from some rental houses in major cities instead of buying them.

Before mounting a lens on your camera ask yourself, “What do I want to say with this picture? What effect will help me to communicate this message to my audience?

What lens will it be?

When you reach for a telephoto lens, it may be for more than just to make the subject appear closer. Just as wide-angle lenses not only include more stuff, any lens is a tool that can be used to make your point.

The Psychology of the Wide-Angle Lens

Some folks choose a telephoto lens to see how close a subject can appear to be – to say a bear, for instance. These same people doubtlessly chose a wide-angle lens so they can get-it-all-in the picture, usually a landscape picture.

If these people studied the work of professional photographers they would probably be surprised to find that the pros do just the opposite. A professional photographer picks the lens (tool) to use based on what that tool will allow him to do. It is the same for a professional carpenter; he picks a tool to carry out a certain task.

Get Closer 

Robert Capa, a famous war photographer once said, “If you pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Mr. Capa wasn’t advocating the use of longer lenses, he was telling us to physically get closer, to become more involved and intimate with our subjects.

A telephoto lens and a wide-angle lens help us to tell the same story in different ways. The choice of which lens is like a writer choosing which words to use. It depends on what needs to be said.

A telephoto lens not only brings subjects closer to the viewer, it makes objects in the photograph appear closer together than in reality. A wide-angle lens does the opposite. Objects appear further apart than in reality.

Keeping the rendition of special reality in mind consider perhaps the most creative or powerful use of a wide-angle lens; when you are especially close to someone with a wide-angle lens a lot of the surroundings are included. This is great. The viewer sees not only the subject, but their environment as well.

Move closer with your feet
By using our feet and not just our zoom lenses to approach a subject we are able to make “environmental” portraits. We can now show what they look like and were they are and/or what they are doing. It is now easy for our viewers to relate to our subjects. The photo carries a great deal of information.

I love to show where someone works and what he or she does for a living. By getting close, the subject is predominate and not a little speck in the middle of a photo.

I can have the person pause whatever they are doing and just casually look at the camera and if I time it just right I can show them at ease with a pleasant expression. Being so close the photo becomes personal with the viewer because I became personal with the subject. You can’t communicate what you do not experience with the camera.

Why is a photo usually better when you are closer to the subject? The wider the lens the more you get this feeling of being there.

Problems to avoid
There are a couple of problems to be aware of in working with wide-angles this close to a subject.

1) It is difficult to use a wide-angle lens in tight without distortion of people and the surroundings. The wider the lens the more pronounced this problem. A moderately wide lens like a 28 mm is much easier to use than an extreme wide-angle like a 20 mm or wider. Of course, the wider lenses seem to help with creativity – when used correctly.

We’ve all seen shots where the walls look as if they are falling forward or backward or the clock on the wall and the place on the table are ovals instead of circles. This type of distortion, converging lines, can be used for good, but rarely; the general rule is to avoid these distortions. Practice helps.

Keep the subject out of the corners of the picture to avoid bending their head or body out of shape. Keep them out of the center as well since this creates a negative tension (but may be that’s what you want). Using the super wide-angle lenses is a real balancing act. Nothing is cut and dried in creative work and that’s why two photographers can cover the same story and their pictures will be nothing alike.

2) Another problem, if these weren’t enough, with up close and personal wide-angle shots has nothing to do with technical evils. Working this close to someone can make you awfully uncomfortable. This feeling will transfer to the up close person causing another problem.

To avoid this “in your face” quandary, remember some of these tricks to keep you comfortable while close.

Tips on getting people to relax
First, tell them what you are going to do and get their permission before you move in for the shot. A funny thing happens when you do this—they usually get a little excited, are cooperative and feel like they are a part of the making of the photograph rather than just the subject.

Second, they understand that you (and/or your client) consider them valuable and that you think enough of them that you want their picture. You want to include them in the project.

Third, most people (regardless of what they may say) are flattered when they are asked to be in a photo, however, they need help to make it enjoyable.

Using a telephoto lens you can make a great head and shoulders portrait with good perspective, but it can be too selective, to narrow a view, to tell a story about a person. It is possible and it depends on what you want to say and the circumstances of the shoot.

Working close to people with wide-angle lenses tells their story in an intimate and personal way.

Watch the distortion, the composition, the projecting of uncomfortable feeling to your subject as a result of working so close, use the background to help tell the story, keep your eye on the ball, your shoulder to the wheel, tote that barrel, lift that bail, load sixteen tons and if all this seems to freak you out—call me. When the pipes are clogged or the water heater leaks I get freaked out. That’s why I call a plumber.

What Kind of Photographer Are You?

I’m not asking if you shoot weddings, sports, or just make snapshots of your family. These are one way to define a type of photography, but there is another way to describe your pictures.

If you have your subjects turn and look at the camera and say “cheese” there is a good chance you enjoy making photos for mainly your personal use. You like making photos and putting these in photo albums so you can revisit these moments in time. I think everyone likes to make these types of photos for recording their family history. Earlier in my career when I managed 1-hour photo labs I saw some incredibly well done photography that would fit into this category.

I had a few customers who did an excellent job of getting good expressions of their friends and family looking at the camera. The photos were not so tight of the people that you didn’t know where they were, but they would show their friends in front of the Eifel Tower where you could see the people close to the camera with the location in the background easily identifiable.

This type of photographer, snap-shot or memory jogger photographer, is concerned in recording a moment in time and who was there at that moment.

Another style is abstract photography. This would be an instrumental composition with no words to use music as an analogy. The composition and lighting may be well done, but the viewer’s responses are usually wide-ranging.

Ansel Adams is one of the most prominent abstract photographers. His photos create a mood and tone rather than deliver a specific message.

Elliott Porter, another giant in the genera of abstract photography, gave a prefect example of the portrayal of beauty or eliciting of an emotion with his photography rather than a photojournalist statement of fact. When asked (by a photo editor for a news magazine) what he would do if he came upon a stream polluted and covered with oil Porter said, “I could not help but show the beauty of it regardless of the tragedy.”

In some abstract photographs the subject is recognizable, yet others may be so bizarre there is no subject recognition at all. The common theme for these types of photographers a striking image. A specific message is not the purpose.

Then there’s the communications photographer. Their goal is to deliver a precise message. Many techniques used by the abstract photographer are employed, but the message is the thing.

Some communication photographers are conceptual in approach. Their work is thematic. The theme maybe as simple as illustrating an intangible, say hot or cold or “going green.” Their photos communicate an idea.

Life magazine was one of the first places Americans were exposed to photojournalism. These photographers deliver a message, but beyond the message they are pursuing truth. They want to tell the subject’s story accurately in order to obtain a response from the viewer; to make those seeing the photos want to take some action.

In between the conceptual photographer and the photojournalist are many breeds of photographers who are concerned with capturing a message and having the audience engaged with it.

Some photographers can move easily between these approaches. One day they may be covering a news event for a wire service (photojournalism) and the next day shooting and annual report or recruiting guide for a college. They know how to adjust the approach so they are not violating ethics of the professional photojournalist.

What do these styles have in common? The finest photographers shoot what they love most. This enjoyment usually means they have invested time into their subjects and know them well.

Understanding these approaches will better help you identify the best photographer for your projects. Maybe you’re the best for the job. Maybe you need to hire someone to shoot the project for you.

Most clients look beyond a photographer’s ability with the camera. Can you trust this photographer to do the job on his own? They will be representing you. Do you need to be there directing this person?

If you have a message you need communicated you don’t need have a snap-shooter or an abstract photographer – they can fill the “holes” where the pictures are to go, but that doesn’t express your message to your audience.

Be sure your photographer can communicate your message and be someone you can trust. It is easy to hire a known quantity. It’s not so easy to find the one who will get the job done, but the search is worth the trouble.

The Rekindling of Relationships

Christmas 2010 in Morganton, NC. Nikon D3, 14-24mm, ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/2500

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save. Isaiah 46:3-4

Chelle helps decorate ginger bread house at our friend Jackie Reedy’s “Cookie Day” in 2010. Lumix DMC-TZ5. ISO 100, f/3.3, 1/4

“Chelle can you help me put up the Christmas tree?” was my question a few years ago. Our family uses a fake tree due to our allergies and it takes time to unpack and put it together each year. My daughter had gotten finally big enough to help hand me the branches. So together we got the tree assembled and then Dorie, my wife, helped with the ornaments and other decorations around the house. The following year Chelle asked me, “Daddy when are we putting up the tree?” Dorie reminded me we now had a tradition. It continues to this day.

Our Christmas tree in 2011. Nikon Coolpix P7000, ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/30

While I could tell you about all the symbolism of the Christmas tree, for us it boils down to what Christmas is about—the tradition of a relationship being rekindled through a simple tradition of putting up a Christmas tree. It is like the official start for the season for our family. It is a time my daughter enjoys with her father as a special time together. It is my time, as a father, to spend time with my daughter.

Tacky Christmas Sweater Party for Kelly Stancil graduating from Georgia Tech December 2010. Lumix, DMC-TZ5. ISO 250, f/3.3, 1/30

Maybe this is what the season is really about—rekindling our relationship with the father through his son, Jesus Christ. As long as all these traditions help us and remind us to spend time with God, then the season will have been fully lived.

Dear Lord, may these traditions remind me of spending time with you. Help us to not only grow closer to you, but to those around us this season. Help us to celebrate the traditions in a way that draws us closer to you. Amen.

Be a Joiner

Too many individuals are isolated in their jobs. Outside of their work they are unknown. In today’s volatile economic times this may prove to be a costly mistake. Staff positions have been cut, freelancers’ clients have cut budgets or gone out of business.

If your source of income is drying up one good way to find new work is through your network. Membership in professional organizations can be an outstanding resource. Having your name on a membership list can give you access to others in the organization, but to make the organization work for you – you must work for it.

Volunteer. Become involved. Help the group accomplish its goals. Volunteer to call members and invited guest to attend meetings. In the process of making these cold calls you are laying the foundation for a stable career.

You are getting to know others and they are getting to know you. If you ever need to call one of these people for a job you will be way ahead. They know who you are and it is no longer a “cold call.”

Serving on committees lets others see your skills and how you work and communicate. Committees provide an opportunity to show what can’t be shown in a resume, portfolio or reference letter.

You are probably considered an expert due to your experience. People want to employ experts. It is a good idea to volunteer to lead seminars and workshops. While this shows your knowledge in their field, it also shows your ability to communicate clearly your ideas to others. It shows you as a person who wants everyone to succeed.

Volunteer with more than one organization. They don’t all need to be within your work area so long as the help you connect to your community. Rotary clubs, coaching a youth sport team, volunteer for the Red Cross and other groups will help you expand beyond your profession.

Industry leaders are involved in community programs. What better way to get to know leaders than to volunteer along side them?

The number of groups you are a member of is not important. What is important is not to be just a name on the membership role. Active involvement develops the all-important network.

I have been working with college recruiters and admissions offices for most of my career. Many of the suggestions I have listed are things colleges look for when going through applications. They want the best students to attend their college. It is the same with employers and clients they want the best.

Networking builds communication skills. Volunteering improves skills in service roles and leadership positions.

All this volunteering is not just for the future it is for right now. The benefits of networking help in current jobs.

The foundation of building a network is giving. As we learn to give of our time and talents to those around us we learn that our greatest rewards are all the relationships we develop in the process.

How to improve your flash photography

This is the third article I have written on using your flash. My first one was about avoiding the dreadful red eye syndrome and here is a link. The second article I wrote was about should you use flash or not and this article is here for you. I want to address specifically the technique of off camera flash in this e.Newsletter.

First let’s start with what we do know about flash. We know that most cameras that come with a flash built in them give straight on harsh light and subject to red eye. This is due to how close the flash is to the lens. There are times this is the only option you may have for a situation. In this case getting the photo is more important than no photo. Almost every point and shoot has a flash built into them and most people’s photos have this harsh look. The other place we see this straight on flash a lot is in crime scene photography, which has been made more famous through TV shows like the CSI series.

What we do know is when we use the flash on the camera pointed straight at the subject it will look like most all amateurs’ photos and crime scene investigation photos. In other words anyone can get this type of photo and it is almost the norm when it comes to flash photography.

When creative directors, art directors and editors hire professional photographers there is an assumption which is expected and not always stated. The professional is hired to get something different than what they would do with their camera. While picking a unique angle with a different lens may give the client something different, the minute the straight on flash is introduced it immediately looks like something they would or could have done very easily themselves.

Lighting has more impact on a photograph than any other aspect in photography. Without light there are no photos and what kind of light determines much more than weather you can see the subject. It actually helps shape the subject and creates a mood more so than camera angle or lens choice.

When shooting in black and white the direction of the light helps shape the object and can make a photo have more pop or subdued for example. In color the color of the light as well as the direction will help establish the mood. Theater type of lighting makes your subject look dramatic for example. And lot of white light can make something look clinical or even used to simulate the feel of being in heaven.

To avoid red eye I have mentioned in earlier articles bouncing your flash off a ceiling or wall. What I consider one of the most dramatic types of lighting requires your flash to be off camera.

There are two angles which I like the best. First, having the light 45 degrees to the either side of the subject relative to the camera give a lighting affect used by the great artist Rembrandt. Rembrandt liked to have the light 45 degrees to the side of subject relative to his perspective and about 45 degrees up above his perspective as well. If the subject is looking straight at you will get a small triangle on the cheek which is on the opposite side of the light. The shape of the nose and brow help create this triangle. You may have to ask the subject to move their head just slightly to make this work just right.

Second, I think side lighting the subject works really well for people. This is where the light is 90 degrees from the camera on the left or right side of the subject.

There are basically two ways to achieve this technique. You can use a cable to go between your camera and flash. The second way is to use a remote to fire the flash.

When using a cable (check your manual for the flash and camera to get the one for your camera) you will need to be very close physically to the subject to get this to work. The reason is the further back you are from the subject the angle between the lens and the flash relative to the subject will diminish and you will have photos that look more like on camera flash. One simple solution is to buy a longer cable. There is usually a limit as to how long this cable can be and still work with your flash.

A little more expensive solution is to use a remote. There are two kinds of remotes for flashes: a generic radio remote and a wireless one designed to work with your flash. Both of these will let you place your flash away from the camera and each one has its advantage and disadvantage.

The advantage of the radio remote is it works up to a distance of up to 400 feet—depending on the unit. It works around walls and even through them. The disadvantage is if you need to adjust the power of the flash you must go to the flash and adjust it manually. Your TTL function—where the camera pretty much figures out the correct exposure is lost.

The advantage of the wireless system, like the SU-800 for Nikons, is you can control each flash unit separately through the unit. Your camera will fire the units and since it is working in TTL mode will properly adjust the exposure. While both systems will let you use numerous flashes together, the TTL wireless system lets you ratio the lights from the unit and therefore you can look at your LCD and make an adjustment and never have to move. One more major advantage of the wireless system like the one for the Nikon, you can use a shutter speed greater than the sync speed of say 1/250. This opens up many possibilities—especially outside on sunny days.

Using off camera flash requires a lot of practice to master the technique.

Will your photos be better because you use this technique? Maybe, but most importantly they will look different and sometimes this is enough to get the attention of your audience.