My Photo Management Approach

I’ve been interested and involved in amateur photography for a while now. I started shooting with film and even got around to developing in a darkroom before photography went completely digital. I think my parents still have my crappy first attempts at shooting the Taj Mahal when we first visited it in 1989.

Not Windows XP

Butler Park, Austin

It takes time to develop the technique and have an eye for capturing the right moments or the right angle but all I can say is that it gets better, the more you shoot. Shoot a hundred, keep about 10, and show only 3 and soon people start thinking that all of your photos look like the 3 you show them. You don’t have to dispel that notion.

But given the ease and often ephemeral nature of photos these days, don’t neglect the importance of backing up your photos. I’m describing the approach I use and yours may be different given the tools you use.

Continue reading

Killing the SLR

In the same way that the transition from film to digital is now taken for granted, the shift from cameras to networked devices with lenses should be obvious. While we’ve long obsessed over the size of the film and image sensors, today we mainly view photos on networked screens—often tiny ones, regardless of how the image was captured—and networked photography provides access to forms of data that go beyond pixels.

[source: The New Yorker].

Hardly a week goes by before someone declares the beloved SLR[1] to be dead; more often than not, at the hands of the ubiquitous smartphone cameras. While I’m a firm believer in the adage – the best camera is the one you have – I still stop short at saying that its the best camera all the time. Even though I shoot most of my photos these days with an iPhone 5S, I still rely on my recently upgraded Nikon D7100 to shoot the memorable photos that will last me a lifetime. Smartphone cameras have been improving at a tremendous pace and the iPhone 5S now packs a device nearly as good as a regular point-and-shoot. However, there are two reasons I believe that the SLR is still not dead.

RAW format

Admittedly, I discovered the versatility of RAW format late in my photography life but once I realized its potential, I cannot live without it. Not only does the traditional SLR give you power of customization on the fly but also lets you correct any missteps you may have taken in the field during post-processing [2]. Some ultra purists look down at customization but for me, it frees me from remembering infinite customizations to simply focusing on framing and composing the shot. I consider photography to be an art form in a way that it isn’t always meant to capture reality as it exists but to evoke intrigue, seek the viewer to ask questions and interpret the image in their own way. It is perhaps the modern architect in me that shies away from symbolism and classical realism.

The RAW format captures all the information digitally in a photo letting you play around for hours and create umpteen interpretations with a single photo. This range of tones, colors, and light doesn’t come easy and often a single image is nearly 15-20 MB but thanks to cheap external storage, this is no longer a problem. You can bring out details from the shadows that you may have missed while in the field or add gradients to the sky for a more dramatic effect. Obviously, the extent of post processing you do depends on the time you are willing to invest and the effect you want to achieve. If you overdo it, you will be informed rather quickly by others.

However, smartphones currently do not shoot in RAW and often and especially low light images are noisy and grainy beyond any salvage. In bright sunlight outdoors, smartphones perform remarkably well but unless you’re always going to be satisfied with the image you get immediately after you shoot it, you’ll quickly realize the limitations.

Manual Customization

The SLR really shines when you’ve the time and inclination to tinker with the umpteen settings at hand. With the smartphone, you’ve a fixed aperture of f/2 or lower and the software adjusts the rest. Although the software is rapidly catching up and letting you create excellent HDR that earlier needed SLRs so this point is rapidly getting eroded.

But long exposure times to capture the night sky for example or light trails or multiple shots of fireworks and lighting are still best captured by SLRs. More than half of the people who own SLRs still haven’t tapped the entire potential of the customizations their camera offers them and I still discover something new each time I crack open my manual or read about a technique on a photo tutorial blog.

But that said, I still believe that smartphones have a firm footing in the camera business. One, you always have it on you so a photo-worthy moment is rarely missed. Second, you can instantly share what you capture across various social networks. After all, what good is a photo if you don’t share it, right? Often when I’m out with my SLR, I still shoot some photos with my iPhone so I can instantly share them on Instagram or Facebook. I’m sure those photos are viewed by more people than my carefully-edited and post-processed photos on Flickr. But in the end, we do what we have to do.

  1. I include the digital versions of the SLR too. []
  2. I use Lightroom 5 []

Honing Portrait Photography Skills

Photography is one of the few hobbies I have managed to keep up with in spite of numerous other distractions. Of course, I haven’t been able to shoot as much as I like to but hopefully our move to Austin will let me explore better parts of Texas around here. In the meantime, I’ve been shooting my son as he grows up and between Instagram, I’ve managed to amass quite a decent collection of memories. However, at times I feel I’m just using my gut instinct and intuition to shoot what looks best. If something doesn’t, then I just fix it in Lightroom. But as any photographer will tell you, it is part art and part science. It is essential to be cognizant of the rule of photography even if you end up breaking them. After all, you can alter the laws of physics by making light behave different than it does.

Moving to Austin has in a way helped me reach out to opportunities that weren’t available in College Station. Living in a big city obviously has its perks and one such perk is the access to community of any interest you may hold. Moreover, Austin has the distinction of being a liberal city in a conservative state so there are a wide variety of activities and interests for everyone. I had tried looking up photography clubs in College Station but apart from a defunct one, I had no luck.

On the other hand, Austin has several and in fact, has one for each aspect of photography. I found several via Meetup and joined a portrait photography group because it offered interesting-sounding workshops. The next available one was titled, ‘Portraits without Flash’ which was exactly what I wanted because I hate flash photography for its tendency to make images look flat [1]. But the fact that it cost $119 to attend gave me pause. I asked around and found it wasn’t uncommon for Meetup groups to charge for attending workshops; in fact, it was the sign of being a quality workshop.

I attended the workshop along with two other photographers who had been attending such workshops for a while. In fact, it was my first formal workshop if you don’t count the undergraduate photography course I took for fun while in grad school in Atlanta. We were led by a professional photographer in his house which practically was a photo studio with professional lights and backgrounds. He had even invited a professional model to pose for us so we would actually be shooting her to practice our skills. She had makeup done professionally and knew exactly how to pose when instructed by the photographer.

We first practiced in natural light from a large window and he showed us little tricks in getting the best side of a woman [2]. He showed us how to not fight the light but in fact use it to make the model look beautiful. By using the qualities of light – intensity, direction, color, and amount – we can dramatically alter the mood of any image. By using reflectors and the right white balance, you can improve the quality of your portrait significantly; so much so that your subjects will think you’re some kind of magician.

After natural lighting, he proceeded to bring out his studio lights in ascending order of size and complexity and asked us to shoot the model to create different moods from soft glamor to harsh intense profiles. Although, as he said, women shy away from shadows on their face, you can use them to create a more grim and stark mood. The aim of portrait photography however is not to show off your photographic skills but simply to make the subject look beautiful. If the first impression of your portrait by a viewer is on how skilled the photographer must have been and not how beautiful (or whatever mood the intent was) the subject is, then you’ve failed.

Every face has a structure and relates very specifically to light in creating a pattern of light and shadows on their face. It can highlight, no pun intended, their features and bring out their beauty that is otherwise not noticed in unflattering light. The job of the photographers is to study their subject’s face and use their understanding of light and knowledge of art to create a significantly better portrait than what may exist in real life. Partly deceptive but photography is not always about realism (that went out after the Renaissance period) but about creating a beautiful image.

The manner in which he dealt with the model was also insightful. Always respectful but never too deferential. After all, it was her job to pose for us and he didn’t try to make her comfortable. In fact, most of the poses, he said, are uncomfortable but are meant to hold for as long as it takes to capture that photograph. Also, you can’t go into a shoot and ask the model to do what she thinks is good. Most people even models are not aware so photographers are partly choreographers that set up their creation to shoot. He taught us several posing techniques that are flattering to a woman and drastically alter the way they look. The transformation is almost magical. A significantly experienced model is like putty in the hands of a skilled photographer. However, these skills are not learned overnight and needs practice and confidence.

I couldn’t even begin to direct the model partly because I felt awkward and partly because I didn’t know what the heck would look sexy. You also have to communicate with the model bluntly and not mince words. He was casually talking about accentuating her curves, asking her to push her bust out or telling her to move her hips back. His tone was professional yet firm and whenever he touched her, he told her he was going to touch her. The model too was very accommodating and didn’t show any sense of being uncomfortable. All this was very new to the introvert me. I can’t ask my wife to push her bust out for a photo let alone ask a beautiful woman who is a complete stranger.

There are plenty other tips that cannot be put in words but make perfect sense while shooting portraits. As one of the participant said, most of the things we learned seemed obvious in the hindsight but to actually have them demonstrated and having us capture them made all the difference. I was definitely very impressed with the workshop and it was the best $119 I spent.

In fact, I am now tempted to upgrade my camera gear and household high command approval pending, invest in a small studio light to set up in our garage. After the workshop, I chatted for a while with the photographer who gave me more tips on bettering my skills and invited me to engage with the community more often. I’ll definitely be attending more meetups.

I’m listing some of the portraits I took below. Rest are available on Flickr. None of these have been touched up in Lightroom and are direct transfers from my camera, something that is rare for me these days.

Ann Portrait Workshop

Ann Cambell Portrait Workshop

Ann Cambell Portrait Workshop

Ann Cambell Portrait Workshop

Ann Cambell Portrait Workshop

  1. I learned during the workshop that my perception wasn’t all that accurate []
  2. portrait photography is very gender-specific []

Lightroom 5 and Photomatix Pro

Lady Bird Wildflower Center Lily Pond HDR

I finally got around to buying Lightroom 5. Processed this photo from our visit to the Lady Bird Wildflower Center couple of weeks ago using Photomatix Pro plugin for Lightroom. A tad too monochromatic but still came out great, I think.

PS. The real intent of this post was to check how the new image size i.e. 640px width looks with the expanded column width for the blog. If you’re reading it in the feed reader, hop over and check it out. Better?

Working with Eye-Fi and Lightroom

IMG 2144

The wife got me a Eye-Fi SD card for my camera for Fathers’ Day. I had my eye on it (sorry, couldn’t resist) for a while but somehow I hadn’t clicked on the ‘Submit’ button on Amazon yet. Anyway, The Eye-Fi is basically like an ordinary SD card with wifi capabilities so it can wirelessly transmit the photos you take to your laptop saving the hassles of plugging it in each time via USB. Yeah, yeah, first world problems, I know. But there have been times I have clicked hajjar shots on the spur of the moment and never gotten around to importing them leaving them lying around in a digital purgatory. So in fact, this was a selfish gift by the wife since she is the one who nags me to transfer the photos and upload them on sharing sites so she could send photos of her ‘jigar ka tukda‘ to distant family, both 80 and 8,000 miles away.

Conceptually, the workflow seems like a breeze. You take photos, they magically are transmitted to your laptop, you process them, upload them to various places, and wait for the ‘likes’. But in practice, it is not as simple; at least to begin with. I use Lightroom for post-processing and any photo I take, I must process it even if it is to correct for minimal lens distortion before I share it. The Eye-Fi sends the photos to a pre-determined location so naturally my first instinct was to change that location to where my other photos were (I sort by Year > Month). The photos were transferred just fine but Lightroom doesn’t read those new photos even if they are placed in the folder. You have to manually ‘synchronize the folder’. I would’ve preferred this be done automatically each time you launch Lightroom (it is currently a requested feature) but I could live with it. So far so good. I thought I had a decent workflow in place.

But something went wrong today. I took couple of photos which transmitted just fine to my folder. So I fired up Lightroom and hit ‘synchronize folder’. However, this time I got an additional dialog box that asked me if I wanted to remove duplicate photos from the catalog in addition to importing new photos. I hit submit and it emptied my original folder in Lightroom and created a duplicate ‘June’ folder outside the hierarchy. The photos by themselves did not duplicate but now I just had two locations pointing to it. I tinkered around a bit and ended up with a big mess of my entire catalog duplicated in an haphazard fashion. Frustrated, I just shut it off and left it alone to cool off. I’m known to hurl obscenities at the computer if it isn’t working; not that it ever helps.

So how did I fix it? I moved the location of the photos to my original Pictures location instead of the Skydrive [1] and pointed Lightroom to the changed location. Everything seemed to instantly fix itself but I was back to square one. So now I have adjusted my workflow by letting Eye-Fi import to its regular destination and then placate Lightroom by move-importing photos to the Pictures folder. Not the ideal solution since I have to still manually import photos in Lightroom but at least the photos are there on my computer and I don’t have to plug in my camera. Phew!

So why did I go into narrating inane details of my photography workflow frustrations? Just so that I don’t have to call my computer a motherboardfucker, that’s why.

  1. I was using the Skydrive as the default location for my photos so they get synced simultaneously to the cloud. But nowadays I Time-Machine religiously at work almost everyday so chances of losing anything is remote []

The problem with Flickr

The Home view is also quite un-interesting. Some recent activity is displayed, as well as a few recent photos from your Contacts, but it’s just not done in beautiful way. And these are photos we’re talking about! What’s with the miniature thumbnails?

[via Flickr’s upcoming makeover]

After Vimeo’s impressive UI update, I cribbed about Flickr’s lack of updates so I was glad to hear about the upcoming changes. But apart from making changes to the single photo page, I don’t see any major overhaul in the way the site is designed. I hope I’m wrong and BetaBeat didn’t report on the entire list of changes. But as Ryan points out, Flickr, especially after being bought by Yahoo, has lagged. I still consider it a superior photo hosting site compared to its competition. It still offers plenty of options in terms of customization and privacy; the recent geofences privacy was especially brilliant.

But the way I use it now is more of a photo storage in the cloud with almost no interaction with the community that it was known for when Flickr launched. I receive almost no comments or favorites on the few public photos I upload but then I don’t comment or favorite others’ photo as well. Flickr Home is a total disaster; cluttered, filled with unused features, and worst of all, scant focus on the photos. Almost all social networking sites have or at least are working on presenting the recent activity in more pleasing terms. Facebook’s News Feed updates constantly and hence fosters more interaction. Flickr’s idea of recent activity is showing recent photos from your contacts in the smallest thumbnail size possible at the bottom of the Home Page. If one of your contact has uploaded several photos at once, like most of us do, then all you see is that person’s photos. Why isn’t the much vaunted ‘Interestingness’ photos promoted on the home page? Where are the photos that inspire you to shoot better photos, like the way 500px does?

O HAI! by Pratik M (Pratik) on

On the other hand, 500px is an excellent site if you want to get inspired (or intimidated) by people’s photography skills. But more importantly, their UI is excellent and so is their iPad app. I nearly purchased their ‘Awesome'(pro) account until I realized 500px doesn’t allow private photos (to be fair, they want you to only upload photos that you want to share with everyone else). Checking out the Popular and Editor’s Picks on 500px is something I do every night before I sleep. It helps to end the day looking at wonderful art disguised as photographs.

Flickr doesn’t even have an iPad app; I hope they do especially after the retina display iPad 3 launches. But they’ve already lost the market to apps like Flickring and Flickr Studio that tap into their public API. Talk about a lost opportunity.

PS. I hop over to 500px site to get their URL and am surprised by an overhaul of their UI to make it even more impressive (just look at the size of the thumbn…err…photo previews). Flickr indeed has a steep hill to climb.

Research Park

Research Park - Fall 2011

We are so nerdy that even the park we go to is called Research Park

Morning Sunrise

We woke up grumbling on an early Saturday morning to Ruan’s crying in the nursery. We usually like to sleep in on Saturday unless we’ve a Skype session planned with parents in India. I noticed an orange glow on our bedroom window blinds and thought, damn! I left the back porch light on again. Sleepily, I walked across the room and opened the blinds and instantly woke up. I saw this outside and couldn’t resist walking outside in the cold to take a picture:

Morning Sunrise

I bet this is what enlightenment or the proverbial ah-ha! moment feels like; unfiltered and unedited.

Instagram Insta-grumble

Instagram 2.0 review: Insta-grumble:

Across the board distinctive elements of each filter have been compromised. Filters that were washed out are now more contrasty. Filters that were contrasty are now more washed out. They’ve all drifted towards the same look.

Instagram said that all the filters have been completely re-written to work with the new live preview system and to output far higher resolution images, and it seems to me the re-writes just haven’t nailed the original look. I have a feeling this may be for technical reasons, that the new engine for live preview just can’t support certain features like textures.


Instagram is one of the apps that I use most of the time on my iPhone, apart from the regular Mail, Twitter, and Facebook. I love the ease by which you can take neat photos and share it instantly with your network. The filters available are just right and although there are plenty available, I used only a handful, frequently depending upon the mood and context. Heck, I even share all my Instagram pics on my Facebook account; most often get ‘liked’ by multiple people.

If the above linked review is accurate, then it is indeed unfortunate. The vast difference between the filters is what makes choosing between them so much fun (have never used Poprocket so am not sad it got cut but have seen others use it). If all your photos look the same, as the new updates does, why wouldn’t you rather use the built-in camera app or other generic apps? I hope the folks at Instagram aren’t compromising on its unique arty factor in lieu of unnecessary convenience. The app might get more popular but it will lose the crazy (hipster?)fan following it currently enjoys (guess you can see the need for getting more funding take precedence). On the upside, the quality of photos is definitely much better now so you don’t lose detail in which otherwise are just crappy cellphone pictures.

If you are interested and aren’t one of my Facebook friends, you can check out the last 16 photos

Sunset over Castlerock

Sunset over Castlerock

A more subtle HDR, this was taken a few days ago in our subdivision. The temperatures are finally headed downward and we’re getting some rainclouds, if not rain. This makes for brilliant sunsets over the park adjacent to our home.

Shooting Hay While the Sun Shines

We have always seen these circular bales of hay while driving between College Station and Houston but have never stopped to take a picture. We finally stopped and captured a few shots. Fields stretching long into the distance interspersed with these bales almost like scattered randomly make for an interesting sight that this picture hardly captures.

The title is courtesy a comment by @gauravsabnis in response to the picture posted on Twitter. The photo is HDR-processed. More here.

Snow in College Station

Snow in College Station February 2010

College Station got its third snow of the season. Blame El Nino (not global warming) please. The first time wasn’t much and the second time, we were in San Francisco stranded at the airport. The third time is the charm. We are expected to receive nearly 2-4 inches of snow [1] and it is still snowing. We don’t have a kid so naturally the subject of our photos is Lucy who is more than willing to offer dramatic ‘staring-in-the-distance’ poses. More photos.

  1. Compared to the Northeast blizzards, 2-4 inches is not much but remember, we never get snow so thrice in a season is highly unusual []

‘Burdened’ Obama Time Cover

'Burdened' by Dylan Roscover

An amazing portrait created by Dylan Roscover for TIME magazine. It consists of 12,680 individual characters set in about 20 hours, or 10.5 characters per minute and includes type from Obama’s campaign and branding: Gotham, Knockout No. 48, Gill Sans, and Perpetua.

This was featured on the Table of Contents page of the February 1st, 2010 edition of TIME Magazine. It is brilliant not just because of the unique use of typography but also in the manner it captures the zeitgeist of our troubled times. Click through to view large.

Hongkiat shares many more such brilliant art pieces created using typography. There is much beauty even in the seemingly mundane objects like fonts.

R-Strap for SLRs

One of my pet peeves about SLR cameras is the awkward manner in which the camera dangles from your neck. The flimsy straps even if they are those broad Nikon-branded ones are too short to sling across your shoulders. I prefer to carry my camera across my shoulders on the side but then I have to always ‘un-sling’ it to take photos. That is mighty uncomfortable and inconvenient. A search for a sling strap yielded this amazing product called the R-Strap (see video below).

Although it is a tad pricey (starts at $55), good products always are. I received the strap in the mail yesterday and I instantly liked it. I bought the R-Strap 5 that has additional storage in the strap for your iPhone and change. It sits snug on your shoulder and doesn’t move when you lift up the camera to shoot and drop it back when you are done. The camera doesn’t sit on your paunch but rather hangs on the side near your hips with the lens facing back. the position is especially good when you are using a longer lens. You may feel unsafe but trust me, it is much better than knocking into people and poking them in the back with your lens.

I can’t wait to try it out in the field and with the First Friday coming up in Downtown Bryan, I have the perfect opportunity. The snow forecast is not going to stop me.

Update: LumaLoop has a similarly-priced side sling strap. But I still prefer R-Strap because of its steel carbiner lock unlike the flimsy plastic lock on LumaLoop strap. I want to dangle my SLR at my hips without worrying too much about it falling off.

The Blueprints Database

Lovers of engineering drawings, rejoice. This blueprints and reference image database, with more than 37000 blueprints, templates, 3/4/5-views and drawings is one heck of a treasure trove for those who love precision drawing [via]. One of my favorites:

The Cylon Attackstar from Battlestar Galactica.