The Importance of Critique

By Sivani Babu

A couple of years ago, I found myself sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the back office of a bookstore with celebrated author Tim Cahill — a founding editor of Outside magazine — and seven other writers. For nearly an hour, they picked apart a story I had written. When we were done, we moved on to the next piece. Through it all, there was only one rule: The author of the story was not allowed to speak during the critique. It sounds like a nightmare, right?

As a photographer and a writer, it is interesting to observe the different roles of critique in both disciplines, and the more I discuss those differences, the more convinced I am that too many photographers are missing out.

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Writers work with editors — not just professional ones, but peers who fill that role as a story develops. We talk about “killing our darlings”— our favorite characters, our clever lines, our seemingly brilliant scenes, and sometimes our entire books. And we seek out opportunities to sit in rooms and listen to strangers deconstruct what took us days, weeks, months, and years to craft. At all levels, critiques are accepted as part of the writing process. But for photographers, particularly for those of us who did not go to school for photography, critique doesn’t seem to be as intrinsic to the process. We seem to be less likely to share our work in places where it will be critiqued. When we do share, we rarely share the images that we know didn’t work, preferring instead to show our favorites and our best. And, on the flip side, when a photographer seeks out thoughtful feedback, too often we don’t fully engage, choosing silence or platitudes over constructive criticism. The differences also go beyond informal interactions. When I am writing a story for publication, there is substantial back and forth between myself and an editor. This is essentially a form of critique. The process starts with the story idea, then continues with submitting the first draft, followed by feedback and revision. Usually, I go through between one and three rounds of revisions with the editor.

For photography assignments, however, the most contact I have with an editor is in the planning stages. With a few notable exceptions, after I’ve shot the story, I submit photos and wait for them to appear online or in print. It wasn’t always this way though. Not long ago, the feedback loop that I rely on as a writer would also have been there for me to rely on as a photographer. More publications had photo editors who worked with photographers at all stages of an assignment to create the best imagery possible, and if we look back at magazines and newspapers of that era, we can see the difference that the process made. To be sure, opportunities in photography to give and receive constructive criticism do exist, but they are not as ubiquitous as they are in writing and when they do arise, we frequently let them pass us by. Why is that? Why is critique less institutionalized in photography? And why, when the opportunities for critique are available, do we fail to grab them in a meaningful way? I can’t offer a definitive explanation. The digital age has had a dramatic impact on the art and industry of photography, and those changes are a major factor, but they don’t fully explain our individual responses to critique. The most common explanation is emotion. We are emotionally attached to our work. We put time and energy into creating images. We might travel for days and endure difficult conditions to capture that single moment when everything comes together. All we have to show for this effort are our photographs, and we’re proud not just of the millions of pixels we recorded, but also of ourselves for being there. So, the idea that someone might have something negative to say about our images, especially the ones that we consider our best work, can be disheartening. Even when coupled with constructive suggestions, critiques can feel personal. It’s just easier to avoid them altogether. There are other possible reasons as well. I’ve heard the saying, “You’re only as good as your weakest photo,” thrown around in photography circles with some frequency. It’s not hard to see how that might prevent people from sharing images they see as weaker for fear of others thinking that’s the best they can do. And I’ve also heard photographers dismiss the benefit of constructive criticism outright. “Personal style,” they say, “can’t be critiqued.”

Each of these reasons probably resonates with someone, and there are others that I haven’t considered. But whatever the reason, there’s a more valuable question to ask: What are we missing out on by foregoing critique? That one I can answer: opportunities. We’re missing out on opportunities to learn from one another; opportunities to consciously develop our own style instead of falling into it haphazardly; opportunities to become better observers; and opportunities to grow as photographers. A photograph is every bit a form of communication as words on a page. An image tells a story, but unless we are listening to how others perceive the story, we can’t know if we’re communicating effectively — if we’re telling the story we intended to tell. And if it seems like it’s easier for writers to accept critique, that’s probably because it is. Because for most of us, writing and critique have been intertwined with the concept of growth since we wrote our first essays in elementary school. Relearning that lesson in a photography context is both a difficult and worthwhile endeavor.

Back in that seminar with Tim, something wonderful happened when I wasn’t allowed to respond to the critiques: I stopped trying to respond to the critiques. Instead, I took in what everyone said without getting lost in any one comment. I became the fly on the wall as people talked about a story. That the story was mine became less important. And when I disagreed with a critique, instead of explaining myself outwardly, I had to turn inward and examine why I disagreed. As a result, a more cohesive articulation of my writing style emerged. Isn’t that what we also want from our photography? So, this is my challenge to everyone, including myself: Seek out meaningful critique of your photos. Start a conversation about an image that didn’t work, share an image about which you are uncertain, or put your best work out there and welcome the lesson if it turns out not to be perfect. Put yourself out there. Then sit back and see what happens when you become the fly on the wall. And if you’re on the other side of a Facebook post, or an email, or a face-to-face question, engage in the process and give thoughtful, detailed feedback — no emoji and no single-word responses. You won’t just be helping someone else out. As a writer and a photographer, I’ve learned so much more about myself and my own work by viewing and discussing the work of others.

All of this might seem uncomfortable at first, but do it anyway. Because on the other side of that discomfort there just might be a better image.

Contrast and Luminosity

“Seeing” an image requires many aspects of ourselves, both mental and physical. There are times we stumble right over an image, simply because we’re thinking of something completely different. I’m not going to discuss those mental and physiological dilemmas, but rather a physical one: contrast.

Our eyes are capable of seeing a much larger dynamic range than most of us realize, and it is only recently that some cameras have begun to equal what our eyes can do. The dynamic range of a scene, or scene brightness ratio, is the luminance difference between the darkest point and the brightest point in the scene. When you look out the window on a sunny day, there is a much greater scene brightness ratio than what you see on a cloudy day, or when you look at the interior of the room you’re sitting in. Most people don’t pay attention to this, but as photographers, we must! 

When you hear of “perfect” light, all this really means is that the contrast of the light actually matched the dynamic range of your camera. If you watch most box office movies, you’ll notice that the light is perfect most of the time. This is because directors are having the set lit by professionals who understand the need to create a scene brightness ratio that the film or digital motion picture camera can capture.

The very same principles can be applied to landscape photography. The big difference is that in landscape photography we don’t have control of the scene brightness ratio. We do have control of timing and point of view though, which provides plenty of creative freedom. Over the years I have tuned my eyes to notice subtle differences in the sunlight and how various atmospheric conditions change it dramatically. In still photography, we can also make use of post-processing tools which give us even greater creative freedom. Post-processing allows landscape photographers to alter the scene brightness ratio even more dramatically than any clouds or natural phenomenon. The amount of post-production or processing you apply to your images is your choice, and the sky is the limit. Personally, I prefer to begin my creative process with the best light I can capture, as this always makes the post-production much simpler, and usually creates far superior work. Here is an example of an image that had great light and would, therefore, required very little post production work.

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This was captured in the late afternoon when the atmosphere blocked some of the sunlight, thus lowering the scene brightness ratio by just enough to enable the camera to capture some of the shadow details on the back side of the dunes.

Here are a few examples of scenes where I knew ahead of time that I would need to edit the scene brightness ratio in post production. The first scene was captured from a helicopter over a braided river in the early morning. Because the river was in shade, there was very little contrast. When I reviewed the histogram in the camera, I realized there was a much lower scene brightness ratio than the camera was capable of capturing, and that I would need to adjust it later in post, to create the look I wanted to achieve.

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The next example is typical of an early-morning or even late-day scene. The colorful sky contrasts strongly with everything below the horizon, and the scene brightness ratio is very large. I knew this was the case just after reviewing the data in the histogram. Because of the clipping that was occurring in both the highlights and shadows, I would need to edit the contrast in post production. Removing contrast (obtaining additional information in the shadows and highlights) in digital imaging is more difficult than adding it, as with the image of the braided river. When attempting to capture a scene brightness ratio that is larger than what the camera can capture, most photographers use a technique called high dynamic range (HDR). This method captures additional image files of lesser and greater exposure value to obtain additional information in the shadows and highlights.

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The best way to learn how to deal with scene brightness ratio in nature photography is to practice as much as you can. The exercise I recommend is to capture hundreds of various images over an hour in as many different conditions as possible, then go review those files, looking mainly at the histogram and noticing which images look good and how the histogram looks. After you’ve repeated this process many times, your eyes will develop a natural sensitivity to the light, and you won't need to rely on the histogram as much.

When you study imagery, you will begin to notice that in many of your favorite images, the light is great. If the light is great, now you know why!

Mongolia Holds a Special Place in My Heart

By Kevin Pepper

From my magical first visit five years ago, I remember driving through the rolling countryside headed towards the ancient city of Karakorum along country roads dotted with nomadic families that had come down from their winter locations. It felt surreal, as if I was stepping further back in time the more I travelled from Ulaanbaator. No roads, vehicles became scarce, and families living as they have for thousands of years… yet there I was, transporting myself back in time.
 
As a history buff I had read about Mongolia, often wondering what life would have been like when Ghengis Khan ruled most of the world from the city that would be my destination, Karakorum. Now, here I was, seeing and photographing life as its been since Genghis Khan founded this city in the year 1220. On that first visit, I wasn’t sure if it was the heavy weight of history that filled the air, or was it the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia , the Erdene Zuu Monastery? Regardless, the photo opportunities were special, and the memories still exist.
 
From Karakorum it was time to head west. My destination was Ulgii, a small town in Western Mongolia that hosts the annual Golden Eagle Festival every October. The Golden Eagle Festival is a celebration of the ancient art of Falconry on Horseback. The earliest recordings of hunting with Golden Eagles on horseback I could find come from the 12th Century. Today, approximately 250 Kazakh men live in the western Mongolia province of Bayan-Olgi and carry on a tradition known as “horse riding eagle falconry”. The skill of using a Golden Eagle to capture prey while riding through the mountains. 
 
I have had the pleasure of witnessing and photographing the synchronicity between man and eagle. Both hunter and eagle showing off the skills needed to once tip the scales between starvation and survival, now showing off the skills to feed a family, but more to embrace the long standing heritage and show off the prowess of the art of hunting fox. As I sat there and watched the two work in tandem, I couldn’t help but wonder how close the bond had to be between a wild golden eagle that was taken after birth from a nest, and the Mongolian Eagle Hunter. Was it a skill that the two mastered together, or was it some pavlovian genetic instinct of the eagle to hunt, combined with man’s superior mind. Was the hunter using training methods of reward so the eagle would hunt?
 
My answer came to me after closely watching both men and bird during my time living with a Kazakh family in Western Mongolia. There, immersed in the ways of the past, watching the eagle live with the family, I spotted the first of many first tender moments of man and bird. The bond did not spawn from the birds need to hunt, nor did it come from training, it came from creating a special and unfathomable respect between a wild bird and a simple man. The man would command, the eagle would listen, instinctively hunt as it has done for centuries, then wait for the hunter to arrive with prey in its talons.

This was that moment that made the trip for me. That tender moment between an eagle and a man made this trip more than a visit to a festival, it made this trip an eye-opening experience that two beings, normally hunting to survive as competitors, can learn that working together, producing a better life. 
 
For me, trips to Mongolia are not just about the photography. While the photo opportunities are ones that are some of the best I have ever had, it’s the people, the cultural and the jaw dropping landscapes that you drive through to get to the destinations that I love. I would love to share this with you in 2018 as I lead another workshop for Muench Workshops. I am taking a group of 8 to three amazing experiences… the Kazakh Eagle Hunters, the Naadam Festival and the Reindeer Herders. 

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See you in Mongolia,

- Kevin Pepper

The Photographer's Guide to the Airline Electronics Ban

There are already restrictions on carrying electronics larger than a smartphone in the airplane cabin if one is traveling to the US from one of ten different airports in the Middle East and North Africa. The UK has a similar ban in place. Based on the latest news reports as of this writing, it seems that the US Department of Homeland Security electronics ban (aka “laptop ban”) could be implemented for all flights into and out of the US. What is the the traveling photographer to do? In this article we will present solutions and give ideas on how to travel successfully and safely with laptops and photographic equipment.

Because “we don’t know what we don’t know” we are going to make the following assumption: “any electronics larger than a smartphone” not only means laptops, tablets, e-readers and the like, but also includes camera bodies, lenses, hard drives, drones, power bricks, and spare batteries. If and when the extended ban happens, you should expect that rules will be difficult to understand and not consistently enforced from one airline to the next, from one airport to the next, or from one country to the next. Anticipate the most stringent rules, assume you will deal with confused security personnel and airline staff, and prepare for both.

I DON’T HAVE GEAR INSURANCE.

Now more than ever before, you should be covering all your gear with an insurance policy. For some, this might be your homeowner’s or other existing insurance, but you should check the policy carefully, and call your company. Ask specific questions, since many policies exclude things like expensive camera gear and air travel. Also, your insurance company can deny your claim if they feel you are working in any way commercially or in a professional capacity. Anyone doing commercial or professional work (even part-time!) should really have an insurance policy that covers you as a working photographer. It’s easier now than ever before to get coverage, so just do it. Make sure you are getting the right amount of coverage, that it works internationally, and that it covers you for theft, damage, and delays. Make a photographic record of all your gear, including the serial numbers. Insurance is critical since the risk of loss, damage and theft is much higher.

THE BAN IS NOT YET IN PLACE BUT I’M WORRIED BECAUSE I LEAVE TOMORROW, AND WHAT IF IT CHANGES WHILE I’M ABROAD?

  • Get a hard, lockable case (such as a ThinkTank Hard Case) that fits your camera backpack.

  • Carry your gear in your backpack on board your flight as normal and as allowed.

  • Pack non-electronics in the ThinkTank Hard Case and check it in with the airline. You should also bring a soft-packable duffel bag to put clothing in if you need to use the hard case for your trip home. Include a roll of packing tape and a good amount of bubble wrap.

  • If you can travel with the hard case while on your trip, great. If it’s too bulky, store it in an airport locker, or with your hotel. Make a plan for this. If you’re on a photo workshop with Muench Workshops, don’t worry, we’ve figured that out for you.

  • If the rules change while you are on your trip, put your camera backpack with all your gear in it inside the hard case, stuff clothing around the edges to make it safe and secure. Inventory and photograph all of your gear. Fill the soft duffel with your clothing and non-breakable items. Check your duffel and hard case.

  • Important: your SD/CF cards stay with you, on your person, safely stored.

THE BAN IS IN PLACE AND I’M PREPARING FOR MY BIG PHOTO TRIP.

  • Time to invest in a ThinkTank Hard Case or similar case (there are alternatives, check Amazon). This case should be large enough to hold all of your camera gear, hard drives, power supplies, laptop, tablet, kindle, everything. They come with foam interiors that can be customized to safely secure and hold your specific gear.

  • Pack everything carefully. Make a detailed inventory and photographic record.

  • You might have to store your hard case somewhere during your trip. For example, there’s no room on the small charter aircraft used in Africa for these cases. When traveling with Muench Workshops, we already have this figured out for you.

  • If you are worried about your laptop getting damaged, and also about your personal or business data on that laptop, then consider getting a cheap “beater” laptop that will just run a browser, your cloud service(s), and Lightroom CC, or the editing program of your choice. You’ll be surprised at what you can get for a few hundred bucks! Tip for Mac lovers: check out the Apple Refurbished store for good deals.

WHAT ABOUT BACKUP AND STORAGE WITHOUT A LAPTOP?

  • Get a portable hard drive that has built in card reader and WIFI. Western Digital makes a couple different models with huge capacities (find them on Amazon, here. They allow you to copy files directly from your card to the hard drive, no computer needed. The integrated reader is for SD cards, and there’s a USB-3 port as well for your CF card reader. Backups will be slower than you’re used to with your laptop, but at least you’ll be able to make copies of your files.

  • When flying, this device will need to be in checked luggage, still not ideal. But you will be keeping all of your SD and CF cards on your person with you at all times.

  • Travel with enough SD or CF cards so that you do not have to reformat them while on your trip. Figure out how many you will need, and then pack a few extra.

  • Another option, if you have a camera that has dual card slots, write your photos simultaneously to two cards at once. This is certainly the easiest method to get redundancy, as you’ll have two copies of every photo from the moment you shoot. Just remember to keep your cards and card copies separate from each other in two different card cases, and store them in different locations while traveling.

I USE MY LAPTOP/IPAD/TABLET/KINDLE ALL THE TiME TO WORK, EDIT PHOTOS, WATCH MOVIES OR TV WHILE FLYING.

  • Upgrade and upsize your smartphone. Get an iPhone 7 Plus or any of the newer, bigger Android phones, and max out the storage.

  • Download your favorite movies/tv/music/books ahead of your trip. Get the Kindle App for your phone and sync up your favorite books.

  • Learn and practice how to transfer files from your SD/CF cards to your smartphone, so you can use use Lightroom Mobile or Photoshop Express or Snapseed on your smartphone. You’ll be amazed at what you can do as far as editing goes! There are card-reader dongles for your phone, and many cameras also can transfer files via wifi or bluetooth.

CAN I JUST SHIP MY GEAR TO AND FROM MY LOCATION?

  • Yes, both DHL and UPS offer worldwide shipping options, but the costs are pretty high. You can pack your gear in a hard case and ship safely. You’ll have to arrange for receipt of the delivery, by a friend, an agent, or hotel. And you’ll have to arrange for return shipping as well, leaving time for that at the end of your trip.

THIS IS ALL JUST TOO MUCH. I’M STAYING HOME.

Certainly this is a choice you can make, but with a little extra planning and preparation, you can deal with this new way of traveling with your gear. With a bit of advance thought and planning, your gear properly insured and carefully packed in a hard case, you should be safe. If you’re reading this far, you are passionate about photography and travel, so don’t let the electronics ban get in the way.

We will stay on top of any changes to the rules and regulations, and update this post as needed. Got questions? We’re available to help, contact us anytime by email or phone.

Yellowstone, Our First National Park

What’s the first thing you think of when you consider Yellowstone? Old Faithful, of course! What's amazing is that there is so much more to Yellowstone. I recently spent 7 days in the park and never even saw Old Faithful. After all, there are over 3,400 square miles of subalpine wilderness with the largest high-elevation lake in North America as well as herds of bison, elk, pronghorn, and rocky mountain sheep, making it the largest, most natural ecosystem in the northern temperate zone. 

 Bison, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Established March 1, 1872 as the world's first, Yellowstone National Park has become an example of what can be done to preserve a wild location in perpetuity through the National Park system. This may sound like a lofty ambition, but thus far it’s working. Whether or not the land will be preserved forever is something we’ll never know, but in the meantime we are fortunate enough to have lived in a time when this valuable resource is cherished.

It’s been 18 years since I was last in the park and I was excited this past month to rekindle my fondness of the place. I was very pleased to see that many aspects, landscapes, and visuals were just as I had remembered. In fact, I found the exact location and the very same rime covered trees where I had captured one of my favorite winter wildlife images 18 years ago on film. Back then the park was teaming with snowmobiles, snow coaches, and some other privately run tours. I recall hundreds of snowmobiles at times filling up the road with untrained drivers, and very loud engines that echoed off the canyon walls in many areas. While the privately guided snowmobile tours can still, at times, become congested, we were mostly by ourselves while on our private snow coach, cruising though the winter wonderland. Now the snowmobiles are controlled and special quiet engines are used to keep the noise level down. This, in conjunction with more strict guiding rules makes for a better environment for the visitors as well as the wildlife. We were constantly mesmerized by the ancient looking beasts, we now call bison. Their large heads and necks are used to brush away the deep snow, up to one meter deep. This year was a bit special for us photographers, since there was more snow on the ground than Yellowstone has seen in the past 10 years. This made it magical for landscapes and wildlife scenes, but a bit frustrating for the snow coach drivers who were getting stuck left and right. Fortunately, we had veteran driver Doug Hilborn, who has worked us for over 10 years. Doug knew where and where not to drive the coach, preventing us from ending up in a deep snow bank like many we passed. 

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The wildlife was distributed slightly differently than recent times, as the deep snow made it difficult for many of the animals to feed. There are vast regions of the park where little wildlife is spotted in the winter because there is no geothermal heat to melt the snow and provide adequate warmth to keep the food growing throughout the winter. This year, even certain normal feeding locations were covered in snow, making the wildlife scarce in some regions. The payoff was encountering more unusual sightings that were quite photogenic, such as this red fox sleeping in the middle of a snowfield. 

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What sets Yellowstone apart from many of the other National Parks is its large size, which can sustain greater numbers of wildlife and in a temperate climate where most thrive. The vast meadows near Hayden Valley are said to sustain one of the larger populations of brown bears in the lower 48 states. This combined with the alien looking geothermal features breaking up an already beautiful landscape make the park lands unique. In fact, there is no greater concentration of geothermal activity on the planet. The ongoing volcanism maintains these features and constantly updates the landscape with visible changes. Earthquakes change the plumbing of the geyser basins, forcing hot water and steam to change course. 

 Black Pond, West Thumb Geyeser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

While walking around the Fountain Paint Pot trail we were shocked to see that something was very different. Throughout the year, day in and day out, Clepsydra geyser erupts with very few interruptions. On the day we visited, Clepsydra geyser was not erupting. It was not much of a photo op, but fascinating to witness. 

 Clepsydra geyser, not errupting, Yellowstone NP Wyoming

I’ve been to Africa many times in pursuit of wildlife and landscapes and each time am amazed by the variety of both. What I have recently learned is that the same flourishing variety is right here in my home country, and with many years of struggling stewardship behind us, the odds are ever greater that this ecosystem will last. 

Life is short, create pictures!

Marc Muench