Practicing, “Know your Ax”… Perfecting Your Skills … & Never Stop Fine Tuning

Knowing your “AX”…….   It’s Important

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”  …………….Vince Lombardi

I have a degree in music. I was a professional musician in and around  New York City until 1989. In 1989, I played over 175 “dates” and made a considerable amount of money. 1989 was also when it was “Been there, done that” time in my life. That’s when I really moved into photography and used this medium to express myself, much like music.

To be a good enough musician to make it, one must practice, practice and then practice some more. You had to “know your Ax”, ( your instrument of choice) as we musicians used to say. The musicians local 802 directory in NYC was as big as a phone book. You had to be a good player to make it there. I still practice every day, but now with my camera.

Being just OK is not enough in music, or really any art form, to make it. In music, there are lots of great players at every turn, looking to take your job. All the silks you need come from wood-shedding and continued learning. Photography is no different.

As part of my photography workshops I constantly preach that we need to be able to “get around”… (a musician’s term) our cameras, know each function button and what they do like the back of our hand,. By doing so now our right brain or creative side can function at capacity. This takes practice.  A musician “sees ” a sheet of music. A photographer”sees” an image. You probably will not learn to “see” until you are not in deep concentration wondering is your settings are correct.

Unfortunately, I see folks buying expensive equipment, myriads of software, and all the latest and fastest lenses etc., all looking for that “magic pill” that will make it all fall into place. Sorry folks, it does not work that way. It takes practice. I used to enjoy seeing the younger guys coming into the music store on 48th Street in NYC trying out new mouthpieces, thinking that a new mouthpiece was the Holy Grail. When I play my trumpet today; I still use the old Vincent Bach,Mount Vernon 5C (for you trumpeters) that I’ve used since high school! Believe me, it isn’t the mouth piece. It’s not the new gear that we have available today. Its practice and honing your skills.

I was introduced to perhaps the greatest trumpet player to have ever lived at an early age. His name was Rafael Mendez a Mexican.  What a life this fellow had. He was born in Jaquilpan, Mexico 1906. It is told that he practiced more than his father allowed, but he practiced. In 1916 he became the bugler to the famous guerrilla leader, Poncho Villa and was drafted into the Mexican Army. Villa demanded that Mendez stay with the rebels even after the rest of his family was allowed to return home! SOon after even My Villa recognized Mendez’s’ talent and released him.

Mendez came to American the early 1930’s, taking work in automobile factories in Detroit and practiced like a demon. He moved to southern California in the mid 1930’s and by 1940 was THE most in demand trumpet player in Hollywood. Decca records offered him a 12 record contract, unheard of for a trumpet soloist during this time.

OK, so why an I telling this story?  Mr. Mendez is no different from what successful photographers should be… perfectionists. Please turn up your speakers and listen to what Mr. Mendez says in this short black & white video. Think of how to apply his words to your camera and to photography. There is no difference. You will be a better photographer if you follow his words. ( and does not he play like anything you’ve ever heard?)

Please click HERE to access the video.

Note his opening line. “There are no shortcuts to learning how to play a trumpet. It takes practice”. The same goes for photography. This video says it all. I can not add more. I suggest that we think about what Mr. Mendez says everyday, as we strive to improve our craft.



There is a story, as there are many about Ansel Adams. When he was about 80 years old, one day he was printing one of his “classic” masterpieces. He finally waked out of the darkroom holding the print he made exclaiming “I finally got the print I wanted when I made the negative”  What was amazing is that the image he printed was captured and and first printed by Ansel when he was 30 years old!

He was still finding ways to improve his work.

Though most viewers will never notice, I often find myself adjusting my master files using today’s technology before posting an image or making a print. I am totally committed to ongoing improvement and learning. In addition, my vision in some respects has changed over the years. Conversely, sometimes after working on the image for a few minutes I realize there’s nothing I can do to improve it, for my taste. I’ll leave it as is.

Recently I was working on the image  on the left. This location is looking north toward San Francisco Bay on the cliffs of the Marin Headlands in California. I worked a bit with the color range, and used the eyedropper tool in Photoshop in a separate layer. By adding a very small curve in a separate layer, I was also able to bring out some detail and slight color enhancement not present in the original Ilfochrome  print. I also was able to bring down the color in the water just a bit to balance the colors more evenly. By adding a bit of sharpening, and as usual some subtle “tweaks” offered by Nik Software, I think that I was able to revive this image quite a bit.

I suspect that someday, I will work on it again with newer technology… but then again… maybe not.




Jack Graham Photography Workshops:    2011 & 2012 schedule available . 2011 space limited.

One on One workshop information:

2012 Ultimate Iceland—filling fast !!

2012 Hidden China and optional Tibet  .. limited availability

PODCAST : ( also available on iTunes)


    FEATURED ESSAY:               SEE the LIGHT !

June , The Palouse, Washington
June, Palouse, Washington

Images and Text © Jack Graham and Jack Graham Photography LLC

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography”……George Eastman

 There’s an old song called “I’m beginning to see the light”. Successful photographers have literally learned to see the light, in order to produce quality images.

side lit…. Sand Dune, Death Valley, CA

Weather you are a landscape photographer, bird photographer, and macro photographer etc, we all depend on the light. Weather you are photographing portraits indoors or the widest landscape outdoors we all depend on light. This is nothing new. However, learning to see the light in a proper fashion can separate you from the pack.

Easy right?  Well not all that easy. It too me many years to develop the sense and intuition to see light.  Often, finding a good subject is easier than finding good light. As my many workshop attendees can vouch for, I am a great believer in what I refer to as “The John Shaw questions”. These were introduced to me at a relatively early stage of my photographic career by John Shaw and though I don’t consciously repeat them every time out, they are always primary in my mind. Is there a good subject? And.. Is the light good?

This essay is about seeing light. Just being in the right place in the right time doesn’t guarantee you’ll see the light. Getting up two hours before sunrise and arriving an hour before sunrise does not guarantee a good photograph, unless you know how to see the light.

“God Rays” at Tillamook Bay, Oregon

It’s the light that makes rocks, water, sand, trees etc. look the way they can. For example, light can make sand look smooth or very rough. It’s the light that makes the texture, color backgrounds and the shape of subjects look the way they do. The way you want a photograph to eventually look is totally dependent on the light.

“I almost never set out to photograph a landscape, nor do I think of my camera as a means of recording a mountain or an animal unless I absolutely need a ‘record shot’. My first thought is always of light”.…..Galen Rowell

Types of Light

using the shadows…. Death Valley NP, CA

Front light: is what most photographers look for. Low angle front lighting can bring out warmth and definition of subjects. Front lighting can eliminate shadows (sometimes though, we need a shadow to represent the way things might really look in the scene don’t be quick to dismiss shadows. In our new HDR world, please don’t overlook shadows. Using shadows is an essay unto itself.  I think we are probably all familiar with front lighting.

Low, diffused lighting: If a subject functions as color, this lighting is primary. Flat, diffused light is most used in macro photography, though if the subject is translucent, you might look for a nice back light effect to bring out elements not seen when front lit.

Back lit Aspens, Eastern Sierra, CA

Back lighting:  The effects of back lighting is very underestimated and not used enough by nature photographers. Back lighting a subject can really bring out the shape of a subject exceedingly well. . It can serve to accentuate the areas not seen by the other forms of light.

Sidelight: Most often used to bring out textures and definition

It is imperative to consider the light and how you want to use it when composing your image, as the light has the major impact on the subject. Don’t just take the subject into effect, because the light can make or break your photograph, even if the subject matter is dynamic. When composing an image ask yourself how can you best use the light. You may need to adjust your location or get lower or higher to get the most out of the light. This is another reason to walk around before committing to a specify location to make the photograph.

Side lit cottonwoods, Zion NP, Utah

Trees, for example can have a totally different look when side lit. Light can alter the texture, color and add to the wow factor depending on where you decide to take your photograph. Experiment. If the light brings out parts of the subject that detracts from the image then you need to move, and adjust the light. If you can not remove the detractions, then maybe it’s better to move on to another subject. Assuming you have a good subject, the amount of light and how you use the light is the key to a successful image.

So now that you have found a great subject, you need to determine the way you want to use the available light. It’s now time to tackle the proper way to expose your image. Again there care variables to consider.

How we see the subject (image) is different from the way the camera see the image. Quickly, our pupils adjust to pick up nuances, colors and details that are before us. Cameras do not react like our pupils. We have to adjust the settings (exposure) on our cameras to accentuate the areas we want to bring out I order to tell the story of the image. A dramatic sunrise or sunset can be much more difficult, than a diffused plant on an overcast day.

Back lighting used to bring out the translucent look of this lupine leaf

Often, without adjusting or fine tuning the exposure that our cameras suggest that we use (via their internal metering systems) the entire image will be rendered the same. We have to take into effect the way we want the image to look. Take into account the color, the texture and shape of the subject and the accompanying elements to make the image complete and pleasing to the viewer.

Sunset, Joshua Tree NP, Ca.

The shape of the subject is the least affected by light. Texture is a bit more affected. Color is the most affected by the light (remember the 4 types of light from earlier in this essay).  Back in the film days we knew that black was 2 stops below middle tone gray. Other colors require exposures above or below middle gray. We had to know this and adjust for it. Though today’s cameras have histograms that can tell us how colors are working within our cameras, we still have to think like film in order to expose properly to use the light, the way we want. Histograms give us instant verification on the exposure. How dark or how light you want a shadow is controlled by your exposure and your histogram can be a way to make sure you have exposed the image correctly. In general colors remain constant with 1/3 to ½ of the optimum exposure.

Exposing – 1/3 stop can often accentuate color as well as texture. By using the proper exposures, we can try and make our cameras work as close to our eyes as possible.

Using the knowledge of light and exposure allow for quality images. It takes some practice and control, but seeing the light is absolutely essential in the success of a photograph.


Photographing Sunrises and Sunsets


PODCAST (new edition–HDR online now) also available on iTUNES 

PHOTOGRAPHING SUNRISE & SUNSET…………………………………………………….Text and images© Jack Graham and Jack Graham Photography LLC.

Sunrise over Napa Valley,CA

I think sometimes we take photographing sunrises and sunsets for granted. However to get a sunrise or sunset right takes more than just getting up early, getting to the location and hoping for magic light. I was reminded of this when photographing the images posted here on my blog yesterday. This was a very difficult sunset to capture, due to the extreme lighting conditions and the quickly encroaching tide on the centra lOregon Coast. I hope this article can reaffirm some of the ideas that you may already know, or help you get started capturing those wonderful scenes that my not be as easy to capture then one thinks!


 Some refer to the best time of the day to be out making photographing as the “Golden Hour”. This is the time of  day when the lighting is softer, the hue of the light is warmer and shadows are longer. When the sun is closer to the horizon, the light travels through more of the atmosphere, reducing the intensity of the direct light, so the illumination comes from indirect light. The bluish light is scattered, which makes the light from the sun appear more reddish and orange. In addition, the sun’s small angle on the horizon produces longer shadows.

The term hour can be more or less an hour, depending on your location. The quality of the lighting is determined by the sun’s altitude and what latitude you’re located on. For example if you live on the equator the altitude of the sun is higher so your “Golden Hour” is much less than one hour of time. In regions close to the poles there may be many hours of “Golden hour” light.

You can download a great application for your iPad or iPhone. You can also use it on your PC. This application will read your exact location and tell you the exact times for the best light, or in other words, tell you the times of the “Golden Hour”.

In addition you can also use something called the Photographers Ephemeris to plan your shoot. This application (program) will let you know the exact direction, rises and sets, of the sun, and moon and thus, the exact time of the good light.  

I also love to photograph the landscape even well before and after the golden hour. You will have to use a tripod and cable release as your exposures will be quite long. Often after a sunset or after the best light of the sunrise, the light will look poor again for a few minutes, and then get good, just before the darkness sets in or the sun comes up from over the horizon and the light becomes harsh. At sunset, look towards the western sky. You will often get a real light show. Remember, not every sunrise or sunset is a winner. You need to be patient get back to a location a few times and you’ll nail one for sure.

Sunset at Pigeon Point, California

Don’t forget the alpenglow! Alpenglow appears before sunrise, after sunset and lasts only a few minutes.

These rays bounce through the atmosphere twice, once on the way down to the earth and again on the way back up. Alpenglow is often a pinkish or orange palate.

I also recommend knowing your location. Get to a location the day before if possible and scout out where you want to be in the morning or evening.

Alpenglow over Devils Golf Course, Death Valley NP,



1) Try to always use a tripod, especially for long exposures, when you’re shutter is open for as much as perhaps 30 seconds.

2) Learn to meter properly. Often using your automatic metering systems in your cameras will be ineffective. I usually spot meter an area. Set your camera to the spot metering mode, and pick a location about 30 degrees off the sun. This is usually a good method to use when there isn’t a medium tone to meter off. You may need to experiment. Always check your histogram as well. You don’t want too much information far to the right (high exposure). Allowing for a bit of under-exposure, allows for more vivid colors of the setting and rising sun.

You might also want to try negative exposure compensation. This is easy. Just set your camera for negative compensation of 2/3 to 2 plus stops, depending on the amount of light in the sky

3) Be careful focusing, if you are shooting in auto focus, the camera will lock the focus on the sky, which has little or no contrast at all. The sensor will have difficulties locking and not be able to focus properly. You really should use using manual focus and set the focus distance to infinity. If you don’t the camera will lock the focus, and deliver a blurry picture.

Sunrise at Monument Valley,UT...use of F22 to create the sunstar

4) Watch your aperture settings. I try and use the smallest aperture possible. This gives me a large depth of field. Though I try and avoid F22 (most lenses are a bit soft at this setting) I will use F22 to try and create the sun star effect.

You may also need to use a graduated neutral density filter. You can read how these work here.  They are invaluable and can make or break an image.

5) Let’s talk a bit about composition. The best to place for me to place the sun is at one of the sides of the frame, rather than at the center, (the rule of thirds) Always try and have some other interesting objects that will act as a foreground in the image as well. I always try and keep my horizon as close to the bottom (see above) of the scene as possible. showing off the great light in the sk. The bottom of the sceneHawaii is usually black anyway.

Silhouetted palm trees, Hawaii

6) Use silhouettes. Anything that a stick out in front of the sun is going is silhouetted. Move around and perhaps get down low enough to include some interesting features to silhouette in your image. However remember for good composition, never place features in the center of the frame.

7) Always shoot in RAW, rather than JPEG. IN the RAW conversion, when processing you will have a chance to salvage areas that are a bit overexposed (the sun for example). There are other benefits that are explained here (as well as 7 tips for making quality images)

30 second exposure, Sunset at Pacific City, Oregon

8) Try using long exposures. This can be a lot of fun. You can make water extra silky looking and quite surreal. You’ll need to be at least 30 seconds or more to make this work.  



usind a wide angle lens to include a good foreground as well as capturing the sunrise at Mesa Arch

Use a telephoto lens to zoom in on the sun in a large way (Caution—NEVER look right at the sun—you can permanently damage your eyes) If you have “live view” on your camera this may help. This technique can produce dramatic images. Also experiment with wide angel lenses. You may have wide angle images with the sun towards the bottom of the image making the sky (if dramatic enough) add to your image. Lens selection it totally up to you!



Understand the Weather

After a storm at Cannon Beach, Oregon

The best sunsets are those where light clouds and haze are in the sky. The sunlight coming through the clouds and haze can create deep reds and purples. I also love the light right after a storm. If you can time it for a sunrise or sunset you’ll get some great light.

Also refer to this past article concerning weather for photographers

Taking quality sunrise and sunset images is not as easy as some think. Simply pointing the camera at the horizon with today’s sophisticated equipment will not make it happen either. Always get to your location at least 45 minutes hour before sunrise and stay at least 45 minutes or later after sunsets. Pay attention to what is written here and go out and make some great images.   

Sunrise at Trillium Lake, Oregon



Jack Graham Photography Workshops 2011 & 2012 ( spaces are limited on most workshops for 2011)

Podcast ( also available on iTUNES): (New edition on HDR now available)


Oregon Coast, May 28, 2011

Out on the Oregon Coast last weekend while conducting a workshop, we were challanged by some interesting but difficult light to photograph in. It looked like things could have been just about perfect. We had great location (just south of Haceta Head Lighthouse), potentially great light, great waves, and what could have been a perfect setup for the sunset. There was that opening in the sky on the western horizon that I hoped would allow the glow to pop through after the sun went down.

 The  image was shot about 20 minute3s before sunset. The sun was still strong above the horizon, in the upper right hand corner. To eliminate the way overexposed area that the sun would have caused, I pointed my lens down beneath the sun, right above the edge of the ocean, but leaving some of the colorful sky in the image. This provided some amazingly beautiful warm light that added to the image, but eliminated the blown out sun. This was no time for slow shutter speeds. I wanted to capture the fast action of the waves as the came over the rocks. My Nikon D700 performed great at ISO 2500 with little or no noise. At 1/640th of a sec!

The challenge here was waiting for that perfect time to get the waves crashing on the rocks and having the light just right. As my workshop attendees found out, it wasn’t that easy, but we all got some pretty interesting images…………….And oh, by the way… the sunset didn’t happen. The clouds above the horizon were just too thick and gray to allow the glow to get through them. The pre-sunset light was better on this occasion.

I hope you all enjoy this image. . Comments are appreciated!

 Technical information……….Nikon D700, Nikon 80-200mm ED IF at 200mm,  Date/Time: 2011:05:28 20:27:41 Shutter speed: 1/640 sec at F 16 ISO 2500, -1/3 compensation, Singh Ray 3 stop soft reverse graduated filter, Gitzo 3541L Tripod, Really Right Stuff BH55 Ball Head


This was my first weekend in the field using my new F-Stop Tilopa BC Backpack…. Needless to say, it performed amazingly well. Not only did I have room for my camera body, 4 lenses, 4 grads, polarizers, lots of different lens hoods, and a lot more, but the extra room inside the backpack allowed me to carry my Nikon SB900 Flash,  my 200mm Macro lens and my rain pants and jacket as well. It was nice not carrying 2 packs to do the same. I was really impressed with the back support it provided.

Please check out their website .If you are a past workshop attendee or have one scheduled in the future,  I CAN get you a discount on their products. For now you need to let me know what you are interested in and I”ll get you the contact info at the company for you to make your purchase. (This method IS changing soon, but for now this is the only way I can help you save some $$$). email me at  

                                                   F STOP offers: (unbeatable in the industry!!)

    • 45 Day Satisfaction Guarantee – return the bag for a full refund for any reason if you are not happy with your purchase.
    • 20 Year Warranty – If there is a manufacture defect, we will fix it or replace it.
    • Premium Designs – our packs are designed in large part from the feedback we have from working professional photographers, so you can rest assured that we have a pack to fit your needs
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        NEW SPECIALS AT HUNT’S PHOTO & VIDEO— call my friends,  Gary Farber at 781-432-2332 or John Duggan at 781-2314

Here is hot off the presses information on some great specials from my friends at HUNT’S