Ask a Photographer, Part 1

Want to know what gear to buy? Curious about how to improve your technique? Looking for some post-processing tricks? Or just curious about what life is like day to day as a working photographer?

Ask your questions in the comments and I’ll be answering them all day. Now let’s kick off part I of this series!

32 Responses

  1. Awesome, this was a fantastic kick off to this series! Thanks to everyone who participated. I’m going to close the comment thread for now since I’ll be gone for the weekend and unable to answer questions. So if you’ve got any burning questions, save them for next month when we do “Ask a Photographer, Part II.”

  2. Josh, We appreciate you taking time to answer photography questions. I marvel at your photography and marketing. What advice can you give me about cataloging and methods to help me retrieve photos? I grew up with BW photography and a darkroom and and my grandfather taught me to store negatives in a sleeve on the back of my contact proof. So I have a great collection of my early work. But now I just store digital files by date and year and dance around between software. What method have you come to use with your photo collection? Can you be my Grandpa and fill me in on your methods? Thanks!

    1. Hi Mike,

      Personally I use a system very much like yours: everything is organized on my hard drive in folders named with the year, month, day, and subject matter. Works great as long as I remember when I took what photo. If you want something a little more robust I recommend checking out Adobe Bridge. You can use this piece of software to rate your photos, keyword them, and catalog them. Then if you’re ever looking for anything you can just do a search by ranking, keyword, title, description, etc. I just did a search for “Santa Cruz” and it brought up hundreds of photos from my files. Anything and everything with a file name, description, keyword, or any other metadata containing “Santa Cruz.” Incredibly powerful tool as long as you’re good about adding metadata to your photos.

  3. Ok here we go Josh, three questions…

    One: Do you take any special precautions to make sure the ocean doesn’t ruin your expensive camera gear? Obviously taking a swim is a risk, but the salty air can be a slow killer as well.

    Two: Personally I find myself becoming a light snob. When you’ve seen some amazing light it’s hard to settle for anything less. This attitude has started to cost me some opportunities at really nice shots. Have you experienced this as well? Any tips for staying motivated when the conditions aren’t at their best?

    Three: When it’s clear all the best landscape photographers have beards, why do you insist on being clean shaven?

    1. What’s up, Lukas!

      1) Yeah, salty air is a slow killer. In fact, both my Nikon D300 and D300s bit the dust over time due to ocean exposure. I don’t take many precautions but I probably should. If I had to recommend anything I’d say giving your camera a sponge bath after a day at the beach is probably a great idea. I take my tripod in the shower with me and that keeps it functioning well.

      2) Ooh, good question. I’m totally a light snob, and I find that it does keep me from enjoying shooting from time to time. Something that has worked well for me is to try other kinds of photography. So during the summer when it’s foggy and clear and crappy for seascaping I’ve been trying to work more on portraiture and improving my photoshop skills. Then when the clouds start to roll back in I find that I get really excited again to be out shooting the coast even if conditions aren’t great, simply because I miss the experience of taking pictures at the ocean during the summer.

      3) A timely question, sir. I might, just might, have a beard as I type this….

  4. Josh,

    Still absolutely enjoy your work. My question is very basic: I’m thinking of upgrading my “point and shoot” digital camera to a more upscale model. What would you recommend for entry level, with ability to upgrade?

    Thank you.


    1. Hi Deb,

      Here’s what I recommend: figure out exactly how much you can spend then buy the absolute best camera you can afford. Go either Canon or Nikon and you can’t lose. This is sort of a hard question to answer but you have to ask yourself how serious you think you might get about photography. If you’re feeling serious at all about it, don’t buy an entry level camera because you’ll outgrow it within a year or two and then have to plunk down more money to upgrade. Better to get a better camera off the bat and have it last you as long as you have it. I have a Nikon D7000 and I absolutely love it; can’t imagine needing to upgrade for what I do. If you don’t want to spend that much, the Nikon D5100 is basically the same camera but with downgraded focusing capabilities. I don’t know the Canon line up as well but anything in the $600-900 range should serve you well for a long time to come.

      Hope that helps.

  5. Hi,

    I love your photos! I’m curious how you go about sharpening your images. I’ve been told you need to sharpen differently depending on whether the photo is for print or the web, and also depending on the size. I often use Lightroom, and I usually feel like I’m just guessing when I sharpen my images. Any tips?


    1. Hi Kim,

      Thanks for the kind words. While it is true that for your photos to look their absolute best you should sharpen them for each individual venue, the actual difference you’re able to perceive is pretty minor. In my opinion it’s the sort of thing only other photographers and “pixel-peepers” notice. In general once I’ve finished processing a photo and it’s been sharpened to a degree that I think looks good based on viewing the image at full resolution, I don’t do anything more to it in terms of sharpening. In other words, if I’m making a large print of that photo, I’ll up-size the image and make a print without altering the sharpening. Or if I’m using the photo on the web, I’ll resize the image to the resolution I want and then upload it without altering the sharpening. Occasionally if I think the photo looks too sharp after downsizing I’ll adjust the sharpening a bit but I rarely do that.

      In short: does sharpening for web versus print make a difference? Yes it does, but in my opinion it’s a very minor one and something that your friends/family/customers will never ever notice. For me it’s far more important to worry about capturing and creating a quality image than to spend time tweaking those minor details.

      That being said, if you’re still unsure about how much sharpening to apply, you could check out a program called Nik Sharpener Pro. It has a very intuitive interface, allows you to selectively sharpen your image just where you want it, and it has output presets to help you figure out your sharpening for web or prints.


      1. Thanks so much, Josh! I got my info on sharpening from another photographer friend, so it’s nice to get another perspective — and to realize that I don’t need to spend all my time worrying about sharpening. You’re right — you have to decide where to focus your time, and for me, sharpening isn’t my first choice. I use other Nik products, and had been wondering about Sharpener Pro, so I might check it out, just so I feel more confident in what I’m doing. Thanks again! This Q&A session is a great feature.

  6. Hi Josh,
    What a great idea – a photo forum. I absolutely adore your sunset landscape photos.

    When shooting a sunset, how do you get both the foreground and the background properly exposed, and capture the colors of the sunset so that they are as vibrant as possible, all at the same time?


    1. Thanks Laura!

      That’s a great question, and one of the neatest little secrets in photography. There are two main methods to doing this:

      1) You can take two different photos, one the exposes that foreground properly and one that exposes the sky properly. Then in Photoshop you can create a blend between the two photos. Note that this is not the same as HDR (yuck! :), which uses a different approach called Tone Mapping to get detail throughout the image.

      2) But the method I use and wholeheartedly recommend is to use a special filter called a Graduated Neutral Density filter (GND). This filter is dark on the top and fades to clear on the bottom, like this:

      Graduated Neutral Density Filter

      So when you place the dark part of the filter over the sky it darkens the sky relative to the foreground and lets you expose both parts of the scene properly, like this:

      How to use graduated neutral density filters

      They make GND filters in lots of different strengths and varying transitions from soft (smooth transition) to hard (abrupt transition). I use soft most of the time and rely heavily on both my 3-stop and 2-stop GND filters. I use filters made by Lee Filters, and I highly recommend them.

  7. Hi Joshua,

    I am really inspired by your work. Its truly amazing. Gotta learn a lot from you… 🙂

    I have a couple of questions –

    1. I have Lee Big Stopper and when I take a daylight photograph with it, the image looks dull and down. What are the settings (ISO, WB, Metering et al) that I need to change/keep in mind to get better?

    2. For Lee Graduated 1.2 ND Soft Edge filter ,for sunset or beach etc photographs, how do we determine where the boundary should be made in the picture such that parts of the picture are not under or over exposed?

    Thanks a lot buddy. Keep Clickin… \m/

    1. Thanks a lot, Nisarg!

      1) A-ha, great question! There are quite a few issues when working with 10-stop filters and you have zeroed in on one of them: 10-stop filters are notoriously low contrast! The Lee Big Stopper is also known for having a blue tint to it. That is an easier problem to solve: you can put your camera on Auto WB. I’ve found my camera does a pretty good job of adjusting for the color cast when set to Auto WB. You can also use Adobe Camera Raw to figure out exactly how much blue tint your filter has, then use a custom Kelvin WB setting whenever you’re using your Big Stopper. Be aware the other 10-stop filters have more complicated color casts that are very difficult to remove and require a lot of post-processing to correct.

      For the contrast issue, you can set your shooting mode on your camera to something like Vivid or Landscape, which is a higher-contrast mode. That should help add some punch back to your shots. Of course, you can also add contrast in Photoshop.

      It’s also very easy to under-estimate exposure time when using a 10-stop filter. My Big Stopper is actually closer to 10.3 stops than 10 stops, so it wouldn’t surprise me if yours was a little darker than advertised as well. So you may have to increase your exposure a little bit more in order to get a proper exposure. This is especially important if you’re shooting around sunset when the light gets dimmer as you shoot. You might need extend your shutter speed by as much as 1.5 – 2 times what you expect to get a proper exposure! Whatever the case may be, pay attention to your histogram and you can’t go wrong.

      Because of these color and contrast issues you tend to see a lot of black and white long exposure shots with the Big Stopper. Because a) you don’t have to worry about color, and b) you can really crank the contrast in post processing and that usually works really well for black and white.

      Hope that helps!

      1. And 2) What I like to do is use the Live View feature on my camera to make sure I have my filter placed properly. Since Live View shows you what the camera is able to record, rather than what you see with your eye, it’s a great way to tell if your filter is too dark or too light, or not placed properly. And bear in mind that every scene might require a different strength filter depending on your composition on the lighting conditions. Shooting 180° – 90° away from the sun I usually just use a 0.6 or 0.9 soft GND. Shooting into the sun I almost always use an 0.9 and a 0.6 together.

        Sometimes it’s unavoidable that you will overly darken parts of your foreground. To that I say: Photoshop! As long as your shadows aren’t all the way to black you can recover a lot of detail using raw processing and some other neat tricks like luminosity masking.

      2. Thanks Joshua.

        I am definitely making a note of your suggestions. Hope to get better than what I had. 🙂

        Well, for those soft-edge graduated ND, is there a trick to make sure that the parts of the picture are not under or over exposed because of the soft edge?

        Thanks a lot buddy, really appreciate it. Honestly.

        1. Whoops, yeah, forgot to answer the second part of your question originally. Check out my second response above and see if that makes sense. For me the main thing is to make sure that my sky is not blown out, because that’s very difficult to recover. Sometimes it’s inevitable that you will underexpose your foreground because of the filter. The closer you get to shooting into the sun the bigger a problem this becomes. So if you are underexposing your foreground too much you can try using a hard transition instead of a soft transition, you could try using a reverse-GND which has the darkest part of the filter in the middle (really useful for shooting when the sun is on the horizon), or you can do what I do most of the time and recover the shadow areas when doing the raw conversion and post processing.

          1. Awesome!!!

            I think, its better to go for a combination of .6ND and .9ND instead of 1.2ND 🙂

            I resisted going for Photoshop till now, but I think I will have to go for it. Kinda seems indispensable now … 🙂

            Real amazing info man. Thanks a tonne.

            You’re an inspiration buddy.

  8. Hey Joshua – What is the highest number of times u have gone to a place to get that particular shot u had in mind !? Am sure it is never too many times when u having the end in mind, but have u ever thought no this spot is not working out and dropped it out …

    1. Hi Sathya,

      One spot comes to mind immediately: this small shelf just north of Four Mile Beach in Santa Cruz.

      Four Mile Beach, Santa Cruz, California

      When I found this place I immediately had a vision to create a photo like this one, with the water falling off the rocks. But this photo needed very specific conditions: the right tide, and a sunset with color to the southeast. This was taken in the wintertime, when the tide goes through a 2-week cycle of high to low and back. So every two weeks I’d go out to this shelf and hope for the right sunset. It took about 3 months and 6 or 7 visits but it finally all came together.

      I don’t think there’s ever been a photo I’ve given up on but that’s because I’m more of an opportunistic photographer. I see what’s beautiful at the moment and I shoot that. It’s rare for me to pre-visualize a photo and then try repeatedly to get that shot. I’ve learned that what you capture (almost) never matches your vision, so shooting like that is a good way to get disappointed! I’d rather go out and enjoy the moment, instead of trying to make it be something it’s not.

      Take care.

  9. With the Fall Foliage season approaching on the East Coast, I wonder if you could share any tips for getting great photos of the season, in terms of particular camera settings, any pitfalls and ideas for unusual subject matter. Thanks!

    1. Hey Ben,

      Now that is an interesting and complicated question. I can’t give you too many specific recommendations on camera settings simply because each scene will require a different approach, but there are a few tips I can share. For bringing out the best color, consider using a polarizer; that can make a huge difference in saturating those fall reds and oranges. You might also try using your white balance to creative effect. Choosing a white balance of cloudy or shady will really help bring out the warm tones in your image. Also consider that yellow, orange, and red leaves really pop when hit with direct sunlight. Normally I’d avoid shooting in the middle of the day, but for fall color it can make sense. Check out this sample image of a willow in Wanaka, New Zealand. Same exposure, but look what a difference when the sun comes out from behind a cloud to strike the tree!

      Sunlight hitting willow in Lake Wanaka

      As far as pitfalls, I can’t think of any super obvious ones off the top of my head. I’d say watch out for little things like the RGB histogram to make sure you’re not over-saturating the red channel. Also, from a composition standpoint, if you’re shooting in a forest, try not to include too much. Forests are very visually complicated places, and if you can simplify your scene into its basic elements you’ll have a much stronger photo.

      Ideas for unusual subjects? Hmmm… Personally I love shooting backlit trees. It makes the foliage glow with its own internal light. So try finding a great group of trees and then shooting into the sun through the trees. The leaves should really be magic.

      Have fun!

    1. Hi Angela,

      Well I am a wide-angle junkie when it comes to photography because I love the depth, perspective, and impact a good wide-angle photo gives. So if I had to give up all my lenses but one I’d keep my ultra-wide angle. Right now I’m using a Tokina 12-24 f/4 lens which is great. But I’ve heard that the Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 is even sharper in the corners. If push comes to shove, then I’d probably choose that lens. But bear in mind these lenses are for crop-sensor DSLRs. For full-frame cameras I don’t have as much experience but from what I understand the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 is the greatest lens ever created. The only downside is that it has a bulbous front element so it makes using filters really tricky.


  10. Hey Josh… Great idea! I hope you get as much out of this forum as those of us asking questions.

    With that said, knowing you often teach and shoot a great deal along the cliffs of California, I was wondering how often and what technique(s) you use to successfully clean your filters of not only salt spray but fine grains of sand and grit from those incessant swirling sea breezes? I note from one of your video clips that ‘Kimwipes’ are a must but was also wondering if you use any particular cleaning solution or just fresh water to aid in this process while out in the field. Would also be interested in what else you do to clean them more thoroughly once you return home from a shoot.

    Thanks again for this opportunity to learn from afar.

    1. Hey Rick,

      Kimwipes, kimwipes, kimwipes! You can probably tell I love these things. They do just an incredible job of removing salt spray residue in the field. If your filters get sandy or gritty, time to be careful, as that stuff can certainly scratch your filters. If I accidentally drop a filter in the sand I very carefully try to brush the sand off, and maybe use a blower if possible. Rinsing with fresh water is a great idea as well. You might even consider rinsing it in the ocean if you have no other options, just to get the sand off. But then you’ll probably need to bring a towel with you to dry the filter, then a kimwipe to remove the ocean residue. When my filters get really dirty I use a simple spray cleaner called ROR (residual oil remover), one wipe to apply the spray, and another to dry and polish.


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