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Jesse Kalisher: Pro Photographer Secrets

I found that the "secrets" in the following Jesse Kalisher video were really essential tips for taking better photographs and growing as a professional. The North Carolina pro-photographer-and-globetrotter's secrets include:
  1. Take a lot of pictures. Some of your photos will be keepers and capture the scene in a way you could never have imagined possible. You'll see one of Jesse's photos of the Taj Majal showing a flock of birds in flight that didn't attract his attention at first; he was too busy looking at the seven workers in the foreground.
  2. Have your camera always ready. Hang it on a strap around your neck, have your film or digital card loaded and primed, and know that you just might walk into something amazing. Develop the reflex to lift the camera up and start taking pictures right away.
  3. Look behind you - sometimes that's where the best picture might be. I love the example Jesse gives of taking a picture of a man approaching him with a water buffalo - but then he turned around and took another amazing picture of the pair walking off into the sunset. In other words, be prepared to explore all angles of your subject.
  4. Keep learning. Jesse talks about the need to avoid the phobia of reading and understanding every setting, button, and trick in your camera manual so you'll know what your equipment is capable of producing. The latest generation of digital cameras are sophisticated, computer-driven instruments, and mastering the owner's manual is important. I might add that once you have the technical aspects down cold, it's vital to let your creativity kick in so you direct the camera to do your bidding.
  5. Have fun. Photography should be about capturing the joy inside of you as you witness an amazing subject. Your photographs should transport the viewer to where you are emotionally as well as physically. Becoming a professional photographer is all about cultivating passion and enjoyment, and doing your best work in that exalted inner space.

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Autumn in New York

Autumn in New York may be a movie title, and even the name of a popular song, but for me it's simply a fabulous time for making pictures.  Like the familiar array of cartoon specials that air each year, much of Autumn is fairly predictable.  There will be pumpkins, the deer rut, and a brilliant display of vibrant leaf color.  Of course it's tricky to pinpoint the prime dates due to weather variations, but generally speaking, mid-October to early November yield the most opportunity in the metro NY area.

The first frost is symbolic of the drastic change Fall brings to the region. I watch the forecast closely for overnight temperatures in the thirty degree range.  This will usually produce a picturesque layer of frost at first light of morning. To get the average frost dates in U.S. and Canadian cities, check out this helpful guide.  For photos with the most impact, it's important to arrive early as the frost quickly dissipates with the rising sun. To accentuate the feeling of expansive frost, I like to set up my camera near e ground and place the horizon line in the upper third of the frame.  A small aperture helps create great depth of field to keep everything sharp from near to far.  Since the light is low, and the aperture is small, a slower shutter speed is necessary for a good exposure. If you are making the effort to get out of bed on a cold autumn morning, you need to bring your tripod to make sure you come home with sharp photos.

To maximize the saturation of the forest floor and reduce the glare on wet leaves, I often use a circular polarizer. A basic Hoya or Tiffen model does the job well and does not have a negative effect on image clarity.  While the effect is subtle, I believe it makes a postive impact on the overall quality of the photo.

The contrast between rushing water and fallen leaves has long made for beautiful photo opportunities. A slow shutter is necessary to show the motion of the stream or river. The trick is to expose the water as close to white as possible without overexposing the highlights. The histogram is an ideal tool for this, and is actually very easy to use. The only part of the histogram that matters in this situation is the right hand wall. If no data touches the wall on this side, you have not lost any detail in the highlights.

One of the only times you'll see Bucks (male deer) in the wild is during the rut. This annual mating period lasts approximately one month in Fall. Photographing a fully grown male with an eight-point rack in the colorful woods is a breathtaking experience. Yet, it should be noted that Deer can be territorial during the rut, and caution must be exercised to keep yourself out of harms way. Never walk directly towards a Buck. This will be viewed as a threat, and the Deer may charge you with antlers down. A safer approach is to use a longer telephoto lens and approach slowly in a non-threatening indirect angle. Try not to make eye-contact, instead using peripheral vision to find your way. If the Deer looks up startled, stop and look down as if you are a grazing animal. It may take a few minutes for you to get in position, but good wildlife photography takes patience no matter what the season.

Pumpkins and gourds are colorful accents to this season of bounty.  I like to challenge myself to come up with a creative way to show these static objects in a festive way.  Using a wide aperture like f1.8 can throw the entire background out of focus, and create a wash of distant color. This gives the viewer a feeling of endless pumpkins as far as the eye can see. 

 Another approach is to use repetition, and a small aperture for great depth of field.  The photo below shows the rocky terrain lead off the frame into the distance.

One of my favorite types of light is when the subject is backlit.  Rather than shooting with the sun at your back, try pointing your camera right into the sun.  Using this technique with a small aperture such as f22 will work to create the beautiful starburst effect of the sun’s rays reaching into the forest.  The effect will be further enhanced if the sun is partially blocked by leaves or branches.  To find the perfect spot, take the camera off your tripod, and look through the viewfinder while paying attention to the sun beams.  Once you find the right location you can set up the tripod and make your photo. 

Don’t forget to scan the forest floor for quiet moments, and details that may otherwise go by unnoticed.  For inspiration, check out the stunning work of Eliot Porter.
For this type of work a lens in the 50-100mm range works really well.  This type of work requires a keen eye, so take your time and try to tune in to your surroundings by observing everything slowly.  You may need to get down on the ground, or even lay on your belly to find the best angle. 


While hiking, I came across this lone branch glowing on the forest floor.  It was off to the side of the trail, gently blowing in the breeze.  Its leaves, fragile but vibrant, caught the rays of the sun, and then my eye. Over the next few weeks, they'll fall to the earth and join the others.  Photographing it was a quiet moment of introspection.  It's this type of interaction that allows me to connect with nature on a personal level.  To isolate the leaves against the dark background, I used a 400mm lens.


As you can see, the photographic possibilities are seemingly endless in fall here in New York.  Thankfully, the activity is not just limited to the East Coast.  To see a map of foliage activity in the United States, check out this helpful link:  Hopefully, you have a chance to document what happens in your area this Autumn. 

Above:  Helpful tips on composition, histograms and more, filmed on location at Harriman State Park in New York.



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Making Bridal Memories in Monaco, the Hamptons and Washington DC

Alex and Matthew truly had a dream wedding.
The Casino in Monaco provided the dream setting for their July 3, 2010 wedding.
This is one of my favorite photographs of the day.

Clay Blackmore
- Almost a year ago, I was at the third wedding celebration for my clients Matthew and Alexa. The first was in Monaco (see three photo highlights of the actual wedding above), the second was in the Hamptons, and that September weekend, they celebrated in DC. Here are some photographs from that special DC gathering.

We found ourselves in the mix early for decoration pictures, and we had the privilege of working with the renowned chef, Wolfgang Puck. You know me - I never miss a chance to make a portrait of a celebrity. I simply stood him behind a large decorated table and used flash on camera, bounced in my new Rogue light modifier. A tripod and long exposure was the key. The portrait worked out great. My buddy Calvin Hayes made a picture of me taking the photograph, and he caught Wolfgang’s expression as he viewed the images on the back of the camera. He was anxious to see the image. I must say, he was a great sport and he loved the picture!

The Rat Pack strolled by as part of the event's entertainment, and I couldn’t miss the opportunity of having a picture made with "Sammy Davis" and "Frank Sinatra." Amaryllis, the florists, created an outstanding backdrop for the party - and even the couple's florists from France joined the florists from DC for a fun evening. The client tented the Newseum at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue for the event - it was like a living room with the best view in Washington. The guests were treated to an amazing evening, the sunset was sent from Heaven above, and the party started rocking when Lady Bunny took the helm as the DJ and dance queen. Fireworks surprised us all! One of the fun attractions was seeing the couple watch our video of their wedding; plasmas were placed strategically around the tent for great viewing - and you'll see what they saw below.


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We Remember Ten Years Ago: 9/11/2001

By NYIP Director Chuck DeLaney - On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I was the NYIP staff member closest to the Twin Towers. There was a roaring noise, and then the shadow of American Airlines Flight 11, hijacked shortly after leaving Boston’s Logan Airport, darkened the schoolyard at P.S. 234 where I was standing just three short blocks north of the Trade Center. A split second later, the doomed Flight 11 plowed into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. That moment, and the hours that followed, began a challenging time the country, the world, and for our NYIP staff and faculty.

I was in the schoolyard because it was my daughter’s third day of kindergarten. It’s a story for another time, but my family was fine although we were out of our home for over a month. Fortunately, no members of our staff or their families were hurt in the attack. Our receptionist’s mother, who worked at a large corporation headquartered in the Trade Center which lost over 100 employees, didn't go in to work that day. The son of one of our registrar staff spent the day driving injured and ash-covered people to the nearest hospital.

Collectively in the days that followed, the entire New York region worked through the shock of the attack. Transportation was disrupted. Downtown resembled a war zone. Subways skipped stops near the Trade Center. Impromptu memorials sprang up around the city, particularly at firehouses. People who lived near the World Trade Center site were forced to leave their homes for weeks. Since NYIP teaches by distance education, the Anthrax threat that followed on the heels of the 9/11 attacks became a very serious problem. Some students expressed concern about receiving packages from the School, and some of our staff voiced concern about the incoming mail. I personally felt the danger of Anthrax contamination was low, but in order to allay the concerns we took some specific steps. We sent out letters to all students explaining that all our packages and correspondence were prepared by our staff in our offices and warehouse and taken by us directly to the post office. To handle incoming mail, I and another staff member who volunteered for the task put on surgical masks, rubber gloves, and scrutinized each piece of mail in the most remote corner of our office. We surrounded ourselves with various protective washes, a fire extinguisher, and other safety paraphernalia. My feeling was that if it would make the NYIP staff feel safer, I’d open the mail wearing a clown suit.

I’m very proud of the way our staff and faculty kept focused on our mission in the weeks and months after the attacks. Perhaps even more interesting was the seriousness of purpose that we observed in students – many applied themselves to their coursework with a new level of determination. This didn’t surprise me because great tragedy often inspires people to express themselves through their creativity. 

As I stood at the back of the PS 234 schoolyard and looked at the angry, fire-orange hole near the top of 1 World Trade Center seconds after Flight 11 struck it, it was apparent this was an historic event, even before the subsequent horror of the remainder of that bright blue, crisp autumn morning.

David Handschuh, then a photographer for the Daily News, drove to the World Trade Center as soon as he heard the first news on the police radio frequencies. He made some remarkable photographs before he was seriously injured as the first tower collapsed. A few years ago, I had a conversation with David about his recollection of that day - and the health, trauma, and stress that working photographers and journalists face. It’s well worth a listen - click here for the podcast. And click here to see more of David’s ongoing coverage of 9/11 and subsequent memorial events. 

Sid Birns’s Remarkable Self-Assignment

By Chuck DeLaney - NYIP Graduate Sid Birns, who attended NYIP’s residential school back in the 1940s, contacted us last week with a very interesting story.  It involves a self-assignment that he gave himself back in the early 1970s. 

Let’s start at the beginning.  Sid grew up in New York City and decided to study art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.  A friend showed introduced him to the traditional darkroom, and when Sid saw that first print start to come up in the developing tray, he – like so many other photographers of many generations – was hooked.  Photography became his calling.  “My first camera was a 39-cent Univex A,” he recalled.  As for so many others of his generation, World War II intervened, but when Sid returned to New York City, he attended NYIP on the G.I. Bill.  After that, he started working for Acme Newspictures, which became part of United Press International (UPI).  For many years, UPI was the principal photo competitor of the Associated Press photo service.  Sid recalls that his first motorcycle ride was on the back of a courier’s motorcycle bringing film from a photographer at a baseball game back to the office for processing. 

Of his time as a UPI photographer, Sid says carefully, “This was not a job for me.  This was a love thing.  Every day, I couldn’t wait to get back on the job.”  But Sid, having the kind of mind that he does, liked challenges, and he gave himself one: Photographing the Twin Towers, which were rising over Lower Manhattan.  Over the next few decades, Sid photographed the World Trade Center over and over again.  Only this spring, did he decide to assemble those photographs into a self-published book: Gone…but not forgotten. [link to blurb site] As Sid writes in the introduction to his book, “Photographing the Twin Towers began as a personal challenge.  I wanted to see how many different ways I could turn two plain buildings with no distinctive features into something beyond their straight lines.”

Sid would take breaking news assignments that required the photographer to go into the air with a helicopter pilot and then persuade the pilot to take a turn around the Towers on the way home.  “Everyone was taking straight snapshots of the Towers and it drove me crazy.  I wanted to see what I could do with those buildings.”  If a news story took him downtown on the subway, he’d make time to walk the streets that bounded the Trade Center plaza, looking for new angles, different lighting, or different weather. 

Sid taught for a time, and he’d challenge his students, “Do you ever look up?  Do you ever look sideways?”  Sid practiced what he preached. 

On 9/11/2001, Sid was in Canada, and turned on the television, at first thinking he was watching a movie.  As he realized that this was real, his first instinct was to grab a 35mm SLR and start taking pictures of the story unfolding on the screen.  “All my life I’ve followed the news and been there for the big story, but this time I was here and that was there.  This time, I was nowhere near it and couldn’t do anything about it.”

Sid’s daughter helped him assemble the book and plan the layout. He proudly explains that she’s a former jet pilot instructor for the Air Force so the technical things come naturally to her.  “She had the ways and means to put it together,” he observes. 

Sid didn’t publish this book to get rich.  Rather, he explains, “The primary thing for me was to get this out there for its historical value, a thing for people to see – the Twin Towers from all angles.”  He’s sending a copy to the Library of Congress.

Although he’s retired from UPI, Sid still submits work to local papers in Quebec and Florida since he divides his time between the two locations.  “The camera never left me.  To this day that’s true,” he notes.  And, he has another book already planned that will feature other photo stories he’s taken over the years, beginning with his 1952 coverage of Manhattan’s Feast of San Gennaro that’s held every fall in Little Italy.

Sid Birns is a born storyteller and we salute our graduate and wish him well with his future endeavors.

To preview and purchase his book, Gone...but not forgotten, click here.