Cuba: A Visual Treasure

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Just one day remains for folks to pre-order my first photography book, a joint effort called Cuba: Seven in 10 (currently on Kickstarter). We successfully passed our fundraising goal so the the book is on!

Each photographer gets to present 10 photos. To be honest with you I have no idea how I am going to whittle down my choices to such a limited amount of pics. Cuba is a visual paradise with incredible photographic opportunities! I already have dozens of worthy pics and still have one third of my pics to edit. I know the other six photographers in the project — Charles Butler of Union 206 Studios, Nana Gyesie, Dwight Jefferson, Joe Newman of DC Focused, Pablo Raw, and Jon Sterling — were also amazed by Havana.

I have included a few pics below to give you an idea of what I am talking about. From stunning street shots and incredible people to beautiful cars to amazing architecture, Cuba has it all. 27760624312_9f68c1cd7d_h

The shot immediately above epitomizes all that is good with Cuba and all that troubles it. The people have a great warm spirit to them, and the architecture and colors are beautiful. At the same time the passage is poorly lit with the exception of the area where the table is, and you can see corrosion, a result of neglect in the post Soviet era.  The warmth overpowers the negatives here, and that is my sense of Cuba. Hard times may be upon the people, but they will persevere and thrive.

Please find a few more pics below. You can also view my public galleries on 500 Pixels, Facebook, or Flickr.

I hope you decide to pre-order the book today! My offer to give folks a complimentary license from my photography portfolio after the Kickstarter ends still stands. Regardless, thank you for being an interested friend.

Smokin!

A portrait of a young woman in Havana.

Central Havana 2016A shocking scene on a Saturday night in Central Havana. This is the side of Cuba most don’t see.

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And then there is the beauty of Havana.

Kickstarter for The Next Book – Cuba: Seven in 10

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Image by Joe Newman.

My next book will be a team photo effort from seven Washington, DC photographers in Cuba. Cuba: Seven in 10 (see our Kickstarter page) will feature 10 photographic takes on Cuba from each shutterbug, representing our personal interpretations of Havana and Cuban culture as it is exists now before the American tourism rush.

The end result? Cuba viewed by Seven in 10 frames each. This should make for a great photo book.

How long until Cuba’s amazing culture is changed forever by this new influx of American dollars and influence? In many ways, the zeitgeist of Cuban culture is in its twilight before entering a new phase as a destination for vacationing Americans.

The other six photographers in alphabetical order are Charles Butler of Union 206 Studios, Nana Gyesie, Dwight Jefferson, Joe Newman of DC Focused, Pablo Raw, and Jon Sterling. We are asking for pre-orders and support on Kickstarter beginning today.

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Geoff Livingston (me, on the left), Pablo Raw, Joe Newman, Dwight Jefferson, Jon Sperling, Charles Butler, and Nana Gyesie.

The actual trip will happen on June 9-15, and you should definitely expect some behind the scenes photos on my accounts. We also launched a Facebook page where we will post pictures during and after the trip.

Please contribute to this excellent effort. It’s going to be an incredible visual journey, and one that interests most Americans who enjoy travel.

Also, I want to give a shout out to Joe Newman and his new travel company Focused Photo Adventures. The entire trip was arranged by Joe and his company. Also, the header image was contributed by Joe.

What do you think about Cuba?

Flickr Enters Downward Spiral

Traffic for Flickr

It seems like every year or two you see a Flickr is dying post that sparks a major conversation about whether or not the photography social network will survive. Unfortunately, it seems that the time may finally be arriving for one of the longest standing social networks out there.

The most recent round of the “Flickr is dying” debate happened two months ago right around when Yahoo! announced it would stop investing in the network and sell it off. That one was sparked by Photoshelter CEO Allen Murabayashi’s Petapixel rant (I am a Photoshelter user) and sparked a strong defense by Thomas Hawk (I am an active friend of Thomas’s on several social networks).

Murabayashi’s rant seemed motivated by his competitive service offering, but in hindsight the Yahoo! public lack of support at that time may have been the network’s undoing. Things are not the same on the network with interaction and dialogue feeling slow.

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It’s more than a seasonal slump, which you would expect with warmer weather and enthusiasts running outside to use their dusty cameras. While uber photography social network 500 Pixels has experienced a small decline in traffic, too, their overall page views have declined a little more than a half a percentage point since December. Flickr has declined by more than 4 percent, and is in danger of falling out of the top 200 websites globally.

Instagram comparison

The two photography sites are not quite the same with 500 Pixels catering to “serious” photographers, many of whom are pro or semi-pro, while Flickr serves more of the photo enthusiast and consumer crowd. Yet Flickr’s decline is palpable as consumers fly away to more attractive and easier to use options like Instagram. As a result, for the first time that I can remember Flickr is not ranked as a top 10 social network.

Yahoo! Chases Away Whole Groups of Photographers

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Remember when Flickr rebranded itself as a consumer site last year? The new interface has been lacking in my mind (as I noted last May). Load times are slow and the interface was wonky. Yet, this was Marissa Mayer’s grand plan to challenge Instagram.

At first traffic increased, but the new traffic was not the traditional photography enthusiast, semi-pros and pros that made up most of the social network’s audience. It was consumer who used their smartphones as point and click cameras. Meanwhile, the people that made up the more sophisticated photographers on Flickr began to leave for other places.

You know what? That worked for Apple when it stopped catering to the Quark and Final Cut crowd. But Yahoo! is not Apple, and so when the plane crashed this winter, things began to fall apart.

Weekly photo contests suddenly stopped. Load-time issues, upload snafus, and other bugs increased. Auto-upload support for nonpaying Flickr users was taken away. And on the last note, consumers began leaving (because pro-photographers rarely upload scores of photos at a time for anyone other than a client, and when they do they use DropBox or Google Photos or Photoshelter or…).

Can you blame this new generation of Flickr photography enthusiasts? Why bother? After all, other sites are easier to use, have more interaction, and if you’re going to pay, it may as well be with a more reliable entity than a company cutting itself into pieces for an estate sale.

So who’s left after the pro and consumer exodus? Enthusiasts who like to upload nature and landscape pics, often the domain of photography hobbyists. And if that’s what you do, good news! Flickr may still be right for you.

More difficult types of photography — portraits, architecture, nightscapes, monochrome, artificial lighting, etc. — do not perform as well, though. The number of photographers that could create those works are dwindling on Flickr as they seek other networks like the 500 Pixels and YouPics of the world. The feedback is faster and more meaningful there, peer-to-peer. As my friend Richard Binhammer (an infrared photography specialist) says, “My photos seem to be getting more pop on 500 Pixels.”

And event and selfie pics? We all know Instagram is the place for those.

Can Flickr Be Saved?

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A lot depends on who buys Flickr. Doc Searls made an impassioned plea for Adobe to buy the social network, saying that Flickr was the best site for serious photographers.

I’m not sure about the latter anymore, but I do believe Flickr still has value. I’m still there and still use it to house my library. I still get occasional media inquiries to use my pics from Flickr, too. I know others like Thomas Hawk haven’t given up, either.

The question is who will buy it? If Google or Facebook buys Flickr, I will be downloading all of my photos that day and closing my account. Warren Buffett would be more encouraging. At least you know Berkshire Hathaway would invest in the network again.

Maybe the right question is, “Will the sale be in time?” Each month that passes, engagement dwindles. Resuscitating a dead social network is beyond even the brightest minds as we have seen with many attempts to restore MySpace (sorry, Justin Timberlake) and Digg.

Whatever happens, Flickr has been good to me and many other photographers for the past decade plus. If it does fade away, it will be missed.

What do you think?

Bokeh World, Pop-Up Show, and Cuba

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Trioplan 50 photo by Tamara Skudies.

One of my favorite projects this spring has been supporting my client Meyer-Optik’s Kickstarter for the Trioplan f2.9/50. The Kickstarter seeks to return the legendary camera lens with incredible soap bubble bokeh, as seen above.

This lens has a rich history dating back 100 years, so as a photography nerd I love the project. Apparently, so does the market as we have raised almost $600,000 from 900 backers with less than seven days remaining in the campaign!

As part of our efforts we ran a photo quest challenge on photography social network 500 Pixels called Bokeh World. The theme celebrated the lens’s soap bubble bokeh. To participate, 500 Pixels users were encouraged to incorporate bokeh into their photography with the three best pics winning new Trioplan f2.9/50 and f2.8/100 lenses.

The Bokeh World contest received an overwhelming response. More than 35,000 photos were submitted! It was pretty hard whittling down that selection to just three winners. Here is my favorite, Lilia Alvarado’s Life Is a Carnival. What an incredible photograph!

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The Trioplan 50 Kickstarter continues through next Wednesday. I hope you decide to back it.

Pop-Up Photo Show this Saturday

The Pacific Ocean at Night

For those of you in the DC area, I am co-hosting my first photography pop-up show at Broadway Galleries in Alexandria, VA this Saturday. The event will be held from 4 to 6 pm, and will feature some really big prints of some of my more well received night photos.

Refreshments will be served, so have a snack and a bite. If you come, you’ll have the opportunity to provide feedback and tell me which types of photos you like most. Or just come and talk shop with me. I hope to see you then!

Cuba

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Image by mokastet.

Now that Obama has formally established relations with Cuba again, artists and photographers are flocking to the Caribbean island. Just look at the big deal National Geographic made last week about being on the first U.S. cruise to Cuba in 60 years.

The hype and fury comes with good reason. In five years Cuba will not be the same, especially after U.S. interests invade and establish businesses.

Well, guess what? I’m going to Cuba this June as part of a larger project with six DC Focused photographers. We’ll be announcing our project after Memorial Day so stay tuned!

What’s new in your creative world?

Understanding Photography on Instagram

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United Kingdom-based Digital Photographer Magazine interviewed me for their current edition (Magazine Issue #173) on Instagram best practices for photographers. The article is titled “Market Yourself on Instagram”, but it is gated, unfortunately. However, I did keep a copy of my answers, which you can find below.

DP: Do you use Instagram to post the same content as your other social media sites?

GL: When it comes to photography, yes, for the most part. I find that crossover between social networks – 500 Pixels to Facebook to Flickr to Instagram to Twitter – is minimal. Each network has its own audiences.

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Some photos don’t translate well due to the format, which almost forces you to be literal about the rule of thirds. For example, I love this Super Moon photo with the Washington Monument in the lower left for foreground (above), but it breaks the rules. It would never work in Instagram. The photo would be cropped either as another full moon photo, or a Washington Monument pic. Extended in a wide format it would be too small. So I wouldn’t post it in Instagram.

DP: How do you think the platform helps emerging photographers reach new audiences?

Nice of Kendall Jenner @kendalljenner to humor me with a selfie. #whcd #nerdprom

A photo posted by Geoff Livingston (@geoffliving) on


Me shamelessly promoting myself at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

GL: I think Instagram has become much more mainstream in the past two years, and is in many ways is starting to replace Twitter. So it’s a good place to brand yourself, regardless of your type of photography. But, for many of us that’s where it ends.

Portrait and wedding photographers could use it for lead generation, but it would require them to actually network with other people, like and comment. It would not work to just post pics for most. Instagram also has additional potential for photojournalists.

DP: Does Instagram’s limited format enhance or impinge creativity?

GL: I wrote four years ago about my dislike for most of the images, and I still don’t like it. LOL. What many of us would consider dodging or burning or adding a bit more yellow to the temperature is replaced with filters. And as a result, bad images are glossed over.

But for the average point and click person, it improves their efforts. And for all intents and purposes, that’s what smartphones have become, point and click cameras.

Most importantly, though, Instagram allows people to share their lives in a visual manner. Everyone uses visual media to communicate about their lives. Because of this viral social network, many more people are falling in love with photography. That’s a good thing.

Over time I have come to realize that Instagram makes good photography stand out that much more. It’s kind of like a Pultizer Prize caliber writer clearly distinguishes himself in an email correspondence compared to the average office worker’s prose. People can see which folks know how to communicate with a lens, and that’s where photographers start to brand themselves.

DP: How do you use hashtags and geotagging to increase your reach?

Misty Morning #blackandwhite #monochrome #forest #woods #mist #picoftheday #photooftheday

A photo posted by Geoff Livingston (@geoffliving) on

GL: I try to use at least five hashtags per pic, and geotag the photos with location. The reality is that this increases reach by 20-30% per pic. It exposes your work to people who search by topical area, news trend, and location. In my mind, that’s just smart marketing.

DP: In your opinion, what are its biggest drawbacks and advantages?

Walk this way. Featuring Fana Lv. #model #asian #asianmodel #walk #picoftheday #photooftheday

A photo posted by Geoff Livingston (@geoffliving) on

GL: The power of Instagram as its own type of social photography is both its biggest drawback and its greatest advantage. Instagram is life stream/photoblogging in my mind. Like blogging it can create a sense of expertise for inexperienced smartphone heroes. Within their medium they are just that.

But outside of Instagram, their photography may not be as strong. To successfully expand their skills, they may need more practice, or need to learn about lighting to take their photography to the next level, or might simply need to learn manual camera basics like ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

For an Instagram hero, this might be extraordinarily frustrating. They may simply retreat rather than grow and become the photographer they probably could be. This happened with many bloggers who were good writers, but could not conquer other media like magazines, books and traditional journalism.

A champion on one level is a neophyte on another.

Walk This Way Beauty Tight Crop Web

The same could be said for pro photographers who post their outstanding work on the network, and find it undiscovered. They are neophytes in social media and in particular, Instagram. So perhaps they walk away.

When these two worlds collide — the point and click heroes with the tried and true photography experts — is when photography grows and becomes a wider, more appreciated art form.

I came to photography ten years ago through blogging and social media, the need for original images was critical. But I would not be the photographer I am today if it were not for 1) a passion for creating visual art and 2) the expert photographers who took me under their wing, and showed me how to realize more of my potential. We need each other in this digital world.

And now my question to you, the reader: What do you think of Instagram from a pure photography standpoint?

The Special Nature of Night Photography

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The blizzard of 2016 is upon us. I am hoping the wind isn’t severe during the latter hours of the storm so that I can take some night shots of the blizzard before everyone steps all over the snow. Yes, I know. It’s insanity, but that’s how much I love night photography.

Most photography is about capturing the beauty of a moment or a scene. Light plays an essential role in magnifying that beauty. Night photography is much more than that to me.

Night is defined by the absence of the greatest light of all, sunlight. When you photograph outdoor images after the sun goes down, you attempt to capture the precious beauty usually hidden by night.

How many times have you walked outside in the night and needed to let your eyes adjust so that you can see your surroundings? When light appears it is stark, almost like a splash of paint in an empty negative space.

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Today’s digital cameras use sensors that are more sensitive and can better capture those details in the dim night. Many photographers use wide-open aperture settings to try and brighten the scene, often sacrificing detail in the foreground and background. But I think the real value of today’s full frame digital cameras are their ability to read deep amounts of light data across a nightscape at small apertures.

These long exposures can produce fantastic photos. If you have the patience to set up and sit by a tripod with a remote trigger for 1/2 second, eight seconds, 30 seconds or even longer, you can capture some amazing, stark, color-rich night shots.

You will see the subtle oranges of the not too distant day, the blues of an LED light, or the yellows of a tungsten bulb. Shadows dance across the scene hinting at deep colors of green or brown. Stars and planes twinkle in the night sky. Metal and glass reflect the scant light available creating mirror images. Streetlights and beacons in the distance proclaim the nearness of safe harbor if you can just traverse the nightscape before you.

It Takes More than a Smartphone

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The beauty of well-executed night photography is exceptional and rare. These pics stand out in a world filled with everyday black and white street photos in photo forums, grumpy cats on Facebook, and selfie shots proliferating Instagram. It is extremely difficult to capture a fantastic night image on a smartphone, at least with the current models (and here come the pics in my comments section).

Instead, a photographer must know her or his camera well, how the light impacts a landscape or an object, and the best ways to capture the essence of a night scene. Heck, in some cases you may even paint the scene with your own artificial light (flood or flash light, for example). Even then, you must know how to edit the RAW file produced by the camera and bring out the color, tone down light flares, and highlight details that may still be hidden in the shadows.

Night photography is truly an interpretation, a visual art form that cannot be minimized by popular technology. You have to have a vision of what you want to see, and you have to know how to shoot.

Here are thee tips beyond the usual (e.g. get a tripod and a remote trigger) for those who want to take their night photography a little further. I will warn you that one of these is unorthodox.

Spend the Time

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Serious enthusiasts and pros tend to shoot manual. And as most of them will tell you this requires a balance of light sensitivity (ISO), how far open your lens will shoot (aperture), and shutter speed (length of time it takes to capture your photograph).

In the most well lit situations you are photographing at 1/60th of a second or faster and at a relatively low light sensitivity. Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO vary depending on how much depth of field a photographer wants to expose. These are the benefits of artistic choice in normal photography.

With night photography, to get a workable capture you need to make some sacrifices. You have to shoot with a very shallow depth of field. Or your need a high ISO, which can make your photo extremely grainy. Or you need a low shutter speed, which in turn can require a tripod and trigger release to avoid shake. You may need a combination of these things.

I almost always choose to make my sacrifice with time. I prefer an extremely deep field with lots of detail for landscapes, so sacrificing on aperture is a no-no. And I hate photos that are too grainy, so I prefer a lower ISO setting.

I usually ignore the advice of experts who say to shoot between f8-and f16 to maximize lens sharpness. Frankly, my camera sensors are good enough to make up the difference, and I want as detailed a nightscape as possible.

Most of my night pics take between 5 and 30 seconds. In some cases, long exposures at night can take two minutes or more. This gives me the most detailed RAW file possible for editing. And that in turn allows me to bring out the best in my nightscape photos, at least that’s what I currently believe.

Don’t Spend the Time

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There are always exceptions to the rule. In my case, as much as I love a well defined nightscape, if I am photographing the moon or an outdoor action scene, I don’t have the luxury to go for a long exposure. I will open the aperture to f9 or 11, and then try to make up the balance with the ISO setting.

The above photograph is a Super Moon shot from 2014. The photo was shot at f10 at 400 ISO over a half a second. I am certain the focus was on infinity as the shot was taken at 160 mm. I may have done myself a favor if had shot it for 1/4 a second or even faster, and upped the ISO accordingly. The detail in the moon would have been better.

Nevertheless, the focus was on capturing a moon shot that was detailed and yet not too bright. This is the primary issue with moon shots, overexposing the subject. It was a fine line, because I also had to capturing the much dimmer Washington Monument to give the photo context. This was an extremely hard shot, one that a long exposure would have simply ruined.

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Another example is when you want a shallow depth of field. The above Little Snowman pic is an example. I wanted the focus of the shot to be on the snowman and not the Jefferson Memorial. With this one I went for an extremely shallow depth of field (f1.4) and let the lens render the Memorial as a bokeh blurred background. CNN, HLN and local TV picked up the photo for their iReport, social media and broadcast properties, respectively.

When to Break the Rules

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Digital photographers rely on their histogram to tell them when a photograph is well exposed. Most schools and experienced photographers will tell you to shoot and correct to get a balanced histogram. Some would even tell you to overexpose in a dim situation and correct later. Be careful. Instead, I am going to tell you to make your own educated decision when it comes to night photos.

I have corrected and overexposed photos to meet the mantra and almost every time I am disappointed with the result. Usually, I get a night photo that looks like a day shot or a sunrise/sunset pic.

My point is that if you are taking a night shot, it should look like it was taken in the blue hour or at night. The above frozen river picture was a two minute and 12 second exposure. It was dark outside, really dark. The photo looks like it was dark, too, but you can clearly see that a sunrise was approaching on the horizon.

Below is the histogram.

Histogram

This chart makes sense to me. There really wasn’t a lot of bright things to balance the histogram. When I went to correct it, the scene looked like it was moments before the sun peaked. In reality it was a half hour before sunrise. Sometimes you just need to break the rules.

I believe this to be true even when things are white such as buildings or snow, like the previously mentioned snowman shot. It is my view that night shots should look natural as if they were taken at night with delicate, yet illuminating light. The histogram should be secondary in the editing process.

What do you think about night photography?