Another 5-star review, this time for my

Posted in Photo Tips and Musings on April 11, 2013 by lpicker

Another 5-star review, this time for my novel “The Dagger of Isis”! What a great week!
Thanks everyone for your support.


Another 5-star review, this time for my

Posted in Photo Tips and Musings on April 11, 2013 by lpicker

Another 5-star review, this time for my novel “The Dagger of Isis”! What a great week!
Thanks everyone for your support.

Now there are 3 ways to enjoy The First

Posted in Photo Tips and Musings on January 24, 2013 by lpicker

Now there are 3 ways to enjoy The First Pharaoh, my new novel. Hardcopy, ebook and audio: It’s rising in the charts-yay!

Cool bird photography contest. 1st, 2nd,

Posted in Photo Tips and Musings on December 8, 2012 by lpicker

Cool bird photography contest. 1st, 2nd, 3rd place prizes. Check it out:

Photographing People

Posted in Photo Tips and Musings with tags , , , , , on February 13, 2010 by lpicker

Ten Tips for Images With Impact

One of the most satisfying aspects of traveling is meeting people from different cultures. Some of my fondest memories are of taking time to talk with citizens of countries I visit and learning their customs and beliefs (and their perceptions of America and Americans). I’ve been invited to dinner by a taxi driver in Cairo and met a man who has become one of my dearest Canadian friends on the bow of a ship in the far North.

I have a feeling that if you asked 100 professional photographers what subject matter is most difficult to photograph, most would say people. To be clear, I’m not speaking of professional portrait or wedding photographers, with their well-designed and lighted studios and automated software. No, I’m referring to travel photographers who want to capture the essence of the cultures they visit, that is, their people.

I’ve been doing professional travel photography for a bunch of years now, and I’m pretty often pleased with the images of people I’ve captured. So the inevitable questions I am asked are  “How do you do it? Do you have any tips for the amateur photographer that you’re willing to share?”

Well, yes, I do have some tips on photographing people and here they are (I welcome comments on this blog and any tips you might have that you would be willing to share with me and my readers).

1. Get Permission. Pros have it drilled into their heads that they need permission to use an image of a person, any person, for commercial purposes. But for the amateur the situation is different. Or is it?

I firmly believe that it is a matter of civility, pure and simple, to ask someone you do not know for permission to photograph him or her. One of my pet peeves is the rude tourist who shoves a camera in the face of someone from a different culture. Of course, if the person is performing that is a different story. But, in my opinion, people have a right to their privacy, and as a photographer I abide by that belief.

Now, permission does not have to be a signed release form. It can be a gesture- holding up your camera, pointing to it and to the subject and shrugging your shoulders as if to ask the question. Or, if you speak the language, just ask.

Bedouin, Egypt's Eastern desert

In some countries, I’m thinking of Muslim countries in particular, photographing women without permission can get you in serious trouble. At the very least you owe it to your subject to give her a chance to cover her face.

Sometimes I admit to having photographed a subject surreptitiously, to catch a special moment or expression. In that case I always go up to them afterwards, show them the images and ask if it is okay with them. Usually their smiling faces are their answer.

Otavalo, Ecuador Market

2. Get a Picture, Give a Print. One thing I like to do is either send a print to the person once I get home or else bring one with me on my next visit to the country. In Ecuador, there is a market in Otavalo where I love to spend time photographing. When I go back, I bring prints of my subjects from my last visit and now the people are excited when I return.

3. Be patient. One of the tips that I give my students at workshops is to be patient when you photograph people. Often it is only after 10 minutes of shooting that the subject relaxes enough for that unguarded moment.

4. Get to Know Your Subject. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of travel photography for me is getting to know my subjects, even if only for a short time. The people connection is what makes the travel experience shine. Before you hoist your camera, ask about the craft they might be exhibiting. As a grandfather five times over, I always ask my subjects about their family; it’s the universal glue that binds us. I can nearly guarantee that if you take the time to do this you will be rewarded with warm and poignant images every time.

5. Shoot Early. I find that a great time to shoot is early in the morning, even in westernized countries. That is when merchants set up their market stalls, when farmers heave

Otavalo, Ecuador Market

their produce from cart to table, when kids scurry to help their parents or scamper away from them. The rising sun casts a warm glow, dust is kicked up highlighting dust motes, and the grittiness of life is front-and-center for your photographic palette.

Sechelt Coming-of-Age Ceremony

6. Tell a Story. I always tell my workshop attendees that when given a choice, shoot a scene tightly. Shooting tight conveys emotion and creates dramatic impact. You do not need the entire person’s body in the image, at times not even the entire face. A child’s face from chin to forehead, lips streaked in chocolate, can be a prize-winner.

However, you need to decide before you shoot what the story is that you want to tell. Is it the expressions of toil on a merchants face, or the warm embrace of a nurturing mother? That will determine whether you shoot a tight face shot or a medium telephoto shot of the mother squatting curbside holding her daughter, or a wide angle of a bustling city square. You decide and then fill the pages of your photo book with that story.

Used flash to eliminate hat shadow

7. Use Flash. At certain times of the day light is harsh and creates deep shadows that distract from the subject. In many cultures people, especially men, wear wide-brimmed hats that create problems during mid-day hours. The solution in these cases is to use flash to gently fill in the shadows. Yes, pros have elaborate flash systems, but they are often superfluous. You can capture terrific shots using your on-camera, pop-up flash. The secret here is to diffuse the light so it doesn’t appear harsh on the face. There are several after-market products out there that you place over your flash to smooth the light and create pleasing portraits. In a pinch I have used a tissue or a white plastic shopping bag.

8. Laugh…a Lot. Laughter truly is the best medicine and I’ve used it even in uncomfortable travel situations. Just think of how funny you look to a Bedouin or a Sengali fisherman, then lighten up and laugh at yourself. That frame of mind alone will loosen up your subjects and help them be more cooperative.

9. Move. When shooting people, move around – talk to them as you do so – and shoot from many different angles. Digital is wonderful. Did the person blink? Just keep shooting. Was the background distracting? Move and keep shooting.

Bedouin Child, Egypt's Eastern Desert

10. Shoot Wide Open. I say this with a caveat, but if the person is the focus of your image, try opening up the aperture to its maximum (f2.0, 2.8, 3.5 or 4.0). That will blur the background and cause your subject to pop off the frame. That works especially well if the person’s face or dress is able to carry the story. If the story you want to tell includes the context – a dance, the village huts, animals or a spectacular backdrop, then close down the lens (f8, 11 or 16). However, that works best when your subject is close to you, creating a strong foreground element.

One last piece of advice… always remember that you are a good-will ambassador. I prefer to go out of my way to show people of different cultures that we Americans are not so bad after all.

Lester Picker is a professional landscape and wildlife photographer living in Maryland. He welcomes questions from his blog readers on any photography-related question.  Visit Les’ website at:

Shoot Early; Shoot Late

Posted in Composition, Equipment, Photo Tips and Musings, Techniques with tags , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2010 by lpicker

“How do you get such saturated colors in the sky?” I am often asked.

“I bet you use fancy filters.”

“Hey, you added those colors in Photoshop, didn’t you?” wink, wink.

Well, my blog friends, I hate to disillusion you, but those colors come from something called sunrise. Pure, natural, 100% organic sunrise. And to capture them you have to get up before sunrise, trek to your preferred location, set up your equipment, pray that it doesn’t rain or cloud over, and then spend the next hour shooting like a maniac.

Sandhill Cranes in Flight

While everyone else is out having a good time during the day, I’m stumbling about in a sleep-deprived daze. Then, around dinnertime, I pull out one solid excuse from my Photographer’s Handbook, and sneak away for another hour of sunset shots. That, in a nutshell, is how a pro photographer captures those magical colors in the sky.

In fact, photographers call the two hours after sunrise and before sunset the ‘magic hours.’ From the perspective of physics that makes sense. When the sun is nearly at the horizon light is penetrating considerably more atmosphere than it does at noon. That slows light down and slower light bends it toward the red end of the visible light spectrum. We humans have a proclivity for reddish colors. They seem ‘warmer’ and more pleasing and peace-inducing to our brains.

Early-Late light also has other properties that tend to transform snapshots into eye-candy. When the sun is low to the horizon it creates longer shadows. That adds depth and texture to images, especially to landscapes.

Abraham Lake Sunrise

Sunrise and sunset are appealing to photographers for another reason. They are typically the hours when wildlife is most active, so your chances of capturing that perfect image of a fox or a bear or any manner of feathered creatures rise exponentially.

If you are traveling abroad, the hours just after sunrise are terrific for photographing local markets. There is typically a lot of hustle and bustle during that period, so with a medium telephoto lens you can stand unobtrusively in a doorway and shoot people setting up their stalls and arranging their exotic wares. (If you intend to use the images for commercial publication, be sure to get model releases from the people you photograph if they are recognizable in the photo… more on that in a later blog).

Sunset is an equally magical time to shoot, although you will most definitely run into more photographers at sunset than at sunrise. Sometimes the fight for photographic territory can be intense at sunset in places like the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Sunrise Over Tundra

Whatever its challenges, the aesthetic rewards of shooting early and late easily make it worthwhile. And don’t think you need to travel to some exotic locale. Just set your alarm and witness your own backyard in a totally different perspective.

Last year I remember being in Yukon Territory. I set my alarm for 3:00 AM to photograph the spectacular northern lights over the Yukon River. In the morning, one of my local hosts asked what I was doing up so early. I mentioned my drive up the local mountain to get a good view of the aurora. He had lived in the Yukon for five years. He flat out told me that he had only seen the lights once!

In terms of equipment I always use my tripod for sunrise/sunset because I want maximum depth-of-field, which slows the shutter speed. Add a cable release and you are set… well, almost. I also use filters at sunrise and sunset.

When you photograph sunrise/sunset, the sky begins to light up while the land in the foreground is still relatively dark. The lighter sky fools your meter into thinking it needs to close down the aperture to restrict the light hitting the sensor. That will render the foreground black, with no details in the shadows.

The way to compensate for this is to use a graduated neutral density filter. A GND filter is a piece of plastic or glass that you place in front of the lens. It is darker at the top and gradually becomes transparent about halfway down. In essence you are putting sunglasses only on the sky portion of your image. Just slide the filter until only the sky is shaded and- voila! – you have the prefect sunrise image. GND filters come is various strengths and with trial and error, and liberal use of the histogram, you will become proficient in their use. I use GNDs from Singh Ray ( and Lee filters ( or you can purchase them through B&H ( or Adorama ( In a future blog I’ll explain how to use these GNDs in more detail.

Kapalua Sunset

Singh-Ray makes a specialty filter known as a Daryl Benson Reverse Neutral Density Graduated Filter. I know that’s a mouthful, but here’s what it does that proves very useful. Let’s say you want to shoot a sunrise where the sun is just peeking out over the horizon. That bright orb will blow out your shot and ruin your image. The Reverse ND filter places a band of ‘sunglasses’ right across the horizon zone, holding back some of that light and allowing for a nicely exposed image in most cases.

Try getting up tomorrow before dawn and you’ll be amazed at what awaits in your own town or neighborhood!

Lester Picker is a professional landscape and wildlife photographer living in Maryland. He welcomes questions from his blog readers on any photography-related question.  Visit Les’ website at:

Best Way to Improve Your Images? Try Shooting in Aperture Priority.

Posted in Photo Tips and Musings with tags , , , , , on November 2, 2009 by lpicker

After more than 30 years in photography, I’ve come to understand that our art consists of two major distinctions. The first is creative vision, the second is technological. I’ll be writing a lot about the creative aspects of photography – the right mental attitude, the vision, the motivations- but in this blog I’ll discuss one technological issue that seems to plague amateur photographers. That is the decision to shoot in aperture priority, shutter priority or fully automatic.

I’ll be the first to admit that today’s DSLRs do a pretty fine job on automatic. Just set it and forget it. The camera’s onboard computer does all the calculations, averages out the exposure values in a scene and- voilà !- you have a nice photo. Coupled with autofocus, you will almost always come back with a decent photo.

But for a professional or advanced amateur, ‘decent’ is just not good enough. In fact, it can be the kiss of death. We look for images that go beyond decent to great, memorable, and most important of all, saleable. Average simply doesn’t cut it.

If we eliminate the totally automatic setting, then, we are left with two choices : aperture priority or shutter priority. The choice between these two may be simpler than you might imagine. Think of it this way. Shutter priority allows you to control the shutter speed. If you are shooting sports or any subject that is moving rapidly and you want to freeze the action, select shutter priority. Set your camera to the fastest shutter speed that still allows a recognizable image and the camera takes over the rest. For general sports, you would want a shutter speed of at least 1/250th of a second or faster. To stop your daughter’s goalie soccer save, you might want to shoot at 1/500 or even 1/1000 of a second. Ditto for a NASCAR event.

If you shoot landscape and nature scenes, even wildlife, I suggest that you consider shooting in aperture priority. Virtually every landscape professional I know shoots in aperture priority. Let’s see why.

When shooting landscapes, you usually want everything possible to be in focus, from nearby objects to distant mountains. That means you should use smaller apertures, say f11, f16 or even f22. Remember that the larger the number, the smaller the aperture. By aperture we refer to the round opening in the camera lens that allows light in when you press the shutter release button (the interleaved metallic gizmo that opens and shuts to create the aperture is called the diaphragm). As aperture decreases (in other words as it goes from f2.8 to f16, for example, the more individual parts of your scene will be in focus.

Moraine Lake

If you were to measure how much of the foreground and background is in focus you would be referring to the depth of field of the image. And that’s where knowing how to shoot in aperture priority comes in handy. The rule is this; as the aperture decreases in size, the depth of field increases. Think of squinting. When we squint, we reduce the opening in the diaphragm of our eyes so that the scene appears to be more in focus.

Okay, so how does this knowledge help to create better images? Let’s look at some examples. You want to take a picture of your no doubt good-looking and brilliant child sitting on a park bench. Behind your prodigy is a busy street scene. Cars are whizzing by, trees and flowers clutter the background, and a huge billboard advertising beer (with the requisite buxom cheerleader) is positioned just to the right of your child’s head.

Bedouin Girl (Egypt)

If you are shooting in aperture-priority, you would simply “open up the lens” by increasing the aperture setting to f2.8 or 3.5 or 4.0. That would seriously reduce the depth-of-field, meaning that your child’s face would be in focus, but everything in the background would be blurry. In fact, if you can open up the lens to f2.8 it would render the background a soft blur that would force the viewer’s eye to the face rather than the distractions in the background.

On the other hand, suppose you are standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and want a classic shot of the nearby point that sticks out. But you also want to capture the gorge itself and the North Rim. In this case you would set the aperture on f11, f16 or f22. That would increase the depth-of-field and just about everything in your image would be sharp.

Rock Solid

One final point. You may wonder why the aperture settings are so oddly numbered. The usual complement of f stops in most lenses is: f2.8, f4.0, f5.6, f8.0, f11, f16 and f22. These numbers are actual the product of the formula that calculates the surface area of the camera’s diaphragm opening. Fuggedaboudit. The only important thing to know is that each f-stop successively halves the amount of light entering the lens as you go from f2.8 to f22. Conversely, as you go from f22 to f2.8, the amount of light hitting your camera’s sensor doubles each time you increase one f-stop.

To paraphrase Ansel Adams, photography is nothing more than capturing and manipulating light. If you want to increase the depth-of-field you will be decreasing the amount of light entering the camera. So that means that for you to get a balanced shot you would need to allow the diaphragm to remain open longer. In some cases you may need to leave the shutter open so long you may need to use a tripod to nail that Grand Canyon shot. Usually, most adults can hand-hold a camera up to 1/25th of a second without hand-shake that would blur the image. If your camera tells you that at f16 you would need to use a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second, do yourself a favor and mount the camera on a tripod (or a Joby, a neat mini-tripod that bends in every conceivable way and is available on the Internet or in camera stores).

So, if you’re currently shooting everything in Automatic, try aperture priority next time you’re out. You’ll gain more creative control over your images and once you get the hang of it I’ll bet you’ll like your images a whole lot more.

Lester Picker is a professional landscape and wildlife photographer living in Maryland. He welcomes questions from his blog readers on any photography-related question.  Visit Les’ website at: