Thursday, August 20, 2009


© David Toczko

Sometimes the less said about a photograph, the better. Such is the case with this image I call "Homer" and I will leave you to draw your own conclusions. I will, however, give you the back story on how I came to capture this image.
I was in New York City a couple years ago and went to Washington Square Park for a day of recreational photography. While I was photographing the fountain at the center of the park, a homeless gentleman approached me and said, "Hey man, it's my birthday...take my picture". Not really knowing what to do and not wanting any trouble, I turned towards him and fired off a quick shot. As I started to turn back towards the fountain, he thanked me, saying he didn't know if he would live to see his next birthday. Well, I was overcome. I do not carry cash on the streets of New York but had stashed five dollars in my pocket in case I wanted a cup of coffee or the like while I was out. I dug into my pocket, handed him the five dollars and told him that was all the cash I had. He thanked me and walked away. I didn't get a chance to hear his story or even get his name. I resumed photographing the park and didn't give the matter any more thought.
Once I returned home, I started sorting through the hundreds of images I had taken during that week in New York and came across this photo and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I just stared at the computer screen with his image on it for what must have been a half an hour. I had to give him a name...but what? Since he was homeless on his birthday, I decided on Homer.
I have been back to New York several times since my chance encounter and have gone to that park in the hopes of seeing him. If nothing else to make sure he is alright, to tell him what an impact his photograph has had on me and others who have seen it and to hopefully learn his name and his story. So far, I have not seen him there. I will be back in New York in October and will once again go to Washington Square Park to look for Homer.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pictures vs. Photographs (Part 2)

Now that I have you rolling around on the ground, it is time to talk about backgrounds. While a close-up always makes a nice photograph, having something in the background of the main subject can add interest and a sense of time and place to an image. Think about that family vacation. A tight head shot would look the same at Disney World as one taken at the Grand Canyon. Have the Magic Kingdom in the background and even Aunt Maude will know where it was taken. How much detail that can be discerned in the background is a function of depth of field which is a topic we can tackle in a future entry. The mantra here is that the background should compliment, not distract from, the subject.

© David Toczko

Take a moment before firing off that shot to scan the background. Is there an unsightly sign you really don't want in the shot? Are there strangers wandering about nearby that could distract the viewer? The photo above is a good example. I wanted the view through the window included to give a sense of place to the image. Scanning the background just before I released the shutter, I noticed a man and woman walking down the road. Having them in the image would pull the viewer's attention away from the chairs and the cascading sunlight to what was going on in the background. My solution? Stop...take a breath and just wait for them to walk out of the shot. Five seconds of waiting saved me untold work on the computer later.

Try to move the objects out of the shot if possible. Have your subject move slightly or you can reposition yourself to avoid getting that trash can in the family reunion photo. In a more kinetic environment, such as a wedding where you are so focused on "getting the shot", it is nice to have an assistant literally looking over your shoulder with the expressed purpose of being on the lookout for such things. Those flowers on the altar are beautiful, but pose a bride in front of them and they will appear to be growing out of her head in the final image.
Don't rely on post-production editing to do this for you unless absolutely unavoidable. How many times have you heard, "Oh, you can just Photoshop that out."? Editing background clutter takes time, a lot of time and in more cases than not, creates its own set of problems with the image. Take the before and after comparison below as an example. (You can click on the images for a larger version) There are a host of problems related to background and foreground with the first image. A woman is in the window across the street, a car is passing out of view on the street, an ashtray and traffic cone are in the foreground. What a mess! After about an hour of work in Photoshop, those issues were resolved in the second image. Take the few extra seconds when you are framing the shot and do "Pre-Production Editing".

In the real-time world, our mind focuses on the point of interest and we don't often see what may be in front of or behind that point. In the split second timelessness of a photograph, those items can ruin an otherwise wonderful image. We are working against human nature, but with time, patience and practice, this simple step can become second nature and will help create memorable photographs.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pictures vs. Photographs (Part 1)

What's the difference between a picture and a photograph? It's difficult for me to explain the subtleties, but I know it when I see it. Over the next few entries I am going to talk about some of the things you can do to take better photographs.

In this entry I'll talk about perspective. Often times when I am out shooting I will meet other photographers. The first thing I do...I admit look to see what type of camera and lenses they are using. That's a given and probably an unwritten rule (or at least a guideline) among photographers. With that formality out of the way, the next thing I look at is his/her knees. A photographer's knees should be dirty, the pants should be worn and even better if grass-stained. If this photographer with whom I have crossed paths has a dirty and/or grass stained shirt... even better!. This phenomena is due to what I like to refer to as the "Get Down" factor.

When photographing, you should "Get Down" on the subject's level. Regardless if it is a person, your family pet or some inanimate object, the perspective from which you shoot should be on the level of the subject and not from your comfortable standing position.

© David Toczko

Take the above photo of my dog Sam for example. Get in close, fill the frame with that image and get down on one knee or crouch to get eye level. It will make the image more intimate and interesting., revealing more detail and capturing the personality of the subject. This really helps when photographing animals in the wild. It may make you appear less threatening or at least less noticeable.

This photo of a baby goat was taken lying down. Yes, the grass was wet with morning dew, but it gives the viewer a better idea of scale when compared to the boards of the fence and really captures that "cuteness factor". The second photo shows dew drops on the bottom side of the rail and just how damp it was that morning. Had I taken those from a standing position I would not have been able to capture those types of details not to mention his interesting expression. You will also avoid stretching or distorting the subject, making it's head appear twice as big as the rest of it's body for example. We've all seen those types of pictures and while they may be amusing, they can be avoided. All cameras from point-and-shoot to high end DSLRs will distort an image to some degree. How much depends on the photographer just as much as the equipment. Camera lenses are capturing three dimensional images and converting them to two dimensions. They don't "see" things the way our eyes do. I'll expand on that more in a future entry.

The main point to take away is to be aware of what makes the subject you are photographing cute, or pretty or interesting and emphasize that in the image you capture. The dirt on the nose of the ground hog in the image below is yet another example. Had I taken the photo from a standing position I would not have been able to "see" that and his ears would have gotten lost in the fur of his head. His body would have blended into the grass and we would have lost that sense of scale relative to the log in the background.

© David Toczko

Friday, July 24, 2009

Wrap It Up

I recently evaluated a roll of Museo Paper's Maestro Canvas Paper and was blown away with the results using my inkjet printer. The colors reproduced were accurate and vibrant, the image seems to jump off the canvas with a three dimensional quality and the detail is amazing. Museo Maestro comes in both matte and glossy versions. For my evaluation and personal preference I printed with the glossy version. I won't bore you with all the technical mumbo jumbo about the paper here. If you want to know more, just follow the link above.

After printing the images, I had to address how I was going to mount and present them, I suppose I could have gone the traditional route of matting and framing, but this would not do them justice. My solution was a gallery wrap. While they have been common in galleries and museums for quite some time, they have grown in popularity for in-home presentation in recent years. The canvas is stretched over and around the sides of a wooden frame system leaving clean edges and corners as well as the image "revealed" on all four sides. Wraps come in a variety of sizes and thicknesses (how far they stand out from the wall) ranging from 3/4" to 4". My first attempt at wrapping was a 12"x18"x1 1/4".

(Photo Courtesy of Canvas on Demand)

Things I like about the wraps:

  • The Canvas.This stuff is amazing. Not all images lend themselves to printing on canvas. Landscapes, animals and architecture look very nice on this media. Portraits would work in certain special situations such as a bridal portrait or family/group shot. While I really like how the original image appears on the canvas, special after effects can be applied to the image on the computer prior to printing that can give it the appearance of a painting.
  • Lower in-place cost. A gallery wrap comes ready-to-hang. In most cases this can be a substantial savings over traditional framing.
  • No special hardware required. Gallery wraps are very light weight. No need for heavy duty nails and hangers.

  • Distinctive appearance. Gallery wraps provide a focal point in any room and any decor. In a traditional room setting they add a classic look and feel while in contemporary room settings they provide a clean, modern accent.

  • Multiple panel displays. Images can be enlarged and printed on multiple panels. This can create a unique look on large wall spaces such as over a sofa. This also allows the collector to purchase panels one at a time if desired thus spreading their investment out over three or four purchases.

(Photo Courtesy of Canvas on Demand)

While I am not abandoning the traditional matted and framed prints, for those certain images and special applications, the gallery wrap is a great alternative.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fog on the Mountain

This morning's foggy drive reminded me of a recent trip to Cumberland Falls. I had great plans to get up early and photograph the Falls with the rising sun in the background. Well...things don't always go according to plan. It rained the night before and the mountain was socked in with fog when I got up. Undaunted, I grabbed my camera and off I went. When I got to the Falls, the "awesome shot" I had pictured in my mind just wasn't going to happen. I waited around thinking the rising sun would burn off the fog, but to no avail. As I made my way back to where I had parked the car, I looked up river to the bridge that crosses the Cumberland river just above the Falls. There it was...the shot. The fog was lifting over the river but the mountains still obscured by the fog. I climbed down to the river's edge and fired off shot after shot trying various combinations of exposure settings. Here's one example of that morning's adventure.

This was not the shot I had planned the night before, but I have learned you have to take what Mother Nature gives you. And maybe...just maybe things will work out. Like the old saying..."When life hands you lemons...make lemonade".