Tuesday, April 17, 2018


While visiting my son in Palmdale, California, he encouraged me to go into the open desert just behind their housing development and check out the Joshua trees that dominate the landscape. I went out there not expecting much since it was about 1pm (usually not a good time of day for natural light photography), but the sun was low in the sky on that early March day creating nice directional light. Once I saw this field of bizarre trees I immediately went back to my car and got out my camera.  What attracted me was how dramatically different each tree was—they don’t grow symmetrically with the orderly pattern of most trees—they’re chaotic and freaky looking! I like that.

Well, I guess that’s the case since these things aren’t really trees—they’re plants. Actually they’re giant Yuccas in the Agave family. They grow uniquely in the desert southwest of the US and mostly in California’s Mojave high desert. Here’s one of the taller ones….
f11.0 @ 1/200 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 35mm
The Joshua trees typically grow to about 20 feet taking 60 years to mature and can live more than 500 years.

Here’s a detail image…
f16.0 @ 1/500 sec., ISO 400; Lens 15mm

Taken at about 1pm I shot through one of the spiky tufts to get the sun star and nice sky as a background. That dark drooping tendril is the core of the Joshua tree’s flower—at this point all the trees had dropped their flowers.

Here’s a stand of the trees…

f13.0 @ 1/400 sec., ISO 400; Lens 15mm
With their flowers gone leaving that proboscis behind these things look insect like. Using my 15mm fisheye, moving in close, and converting to Black & White I enhanced their bizarre look.

How’s this for Bizarre?…..

f16.0 @ 1/400 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 70mm
Some were apparently dying and their state of decay was compositionally interesting. This limb looked like an ancient fossilized animal. 

This is part of the field I explored…
Car for scale
Using my car for scale gives you an idea of their size. These trees were so much fun to photograph that I came back out after 7pm for sunset lighting.

Had a nice sunset!….

f11.0 @ 1/125 sec., ISO 800; Lens @ 45mm
The Joshua tree has been around for a long time, but their habitat is pretty small and if it gets much hotter and drier in the Mojave they will not survive as a species. The largest Joshua tree on record was 80 feet tall and was estimated to be about 1000 years old.  The Mojave Desert wouldn’t look the same without these spiky icons inhabiting its landscape.

’Til next week…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

Tuesday, April 10, 2018


The Old Idaho State Penitentiary, here in Boise, is a really fascinating piece of history as well as a grim reminder of a time people were less tolerant of crime and had the will to actually punish offenders.

Started in 1870 as a territorial prison and enlarged over the years with a maximum population of a little over 600 inmates, it served its purpose for over 100 years. After several riots and fires it was finally shut down in 1973. 

The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 for its significance as a Territorial Prison. With its dramatic romanesque architecture I decided to use mostly wide angle as a lens choice to both capture exteriors of the large buildings and be able to show more of some small interiors.
f16.0 @ 1/160sec., ISO 400; Lens 15mm
I Wanted something really dramatic as a pano so I cropped one of the 180 degree images into a long skinny. The angry over cast sky added to the perfect mood topping one of the burned-out buildings. 

Next, is the dinning hall…

f11.0 @ 1/250 sec., ISO 500; Lens 15mm
It was designed in 1898 by inmate George Hamilton to provide natural light in the basement. He was paroled early for his exemplary efforts, but committed suicide the day after his release. The building was burned in the riot of 1973.

To the Cell blocks…

f10.0 @ 1/80 sec., ISO 800; Lens 15mm
I liked the color and the peeling paint in this cell house—not to mention its formidable cell doors. Cell House #4 (1952) was the largest  and most modern in this prison.

f5.6 @ 1/30 sec., ISO 800; Len 15mm
As in all prisons troublesome, violent, prisoners we put in solitary confinement…

f6.3 @ 1/40 sec., ISO 800; lens 15mm
They called this Siberia (1926). As you can see it has radiant heating, but it’s outside of the cells! This bleak building had dark, one-man, cells measuring 3’x8’…Siberia indeed!

But, they had clean clothes…

f5.6 @ 1/30 sec., ISO 800; Lens 15mm
The laundry building was impressive. It had 5 or 6 large, turn of the century, belt-driven, bulk washers.

The inmates built a wall around the original warden’s house to be used as the Women’s Ward (1905-1906).
Women's area
You can see the back corner of the women’s ward just beyond this cool looking gate. But, theirs was not a country club…
Women's cell
As you can see their cell doors were just as formidably built as the men’s. Their building had seven 2-person cells. 

I recommend a visit to this historical site to anyone visiting Boise, Idaho. I’ll bet a lot of residents here have not, but should, take the time to view this piece of their history!…Only took me 9 years…LOL

Just a little history and photography education too. ’Til next week…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training Site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client Site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

Tuesday, April 3, 2018


I believe that composition is probably the most important artistic decision in fine art photography; after only lighting. Proper exposure, focus, and depth-of-field are givens in professional photography.  The composition we create is how we direct the viewer’s eye within the frame. What we include and, very importantly, what we exclude powerfully shapes the viewer’s perception of the scene.

Dynamic composition of static subjects is particularly important to maintain the viewer’s interest. Nothing reinforces the static nature of a solitary subject, and at the same time bores the viewer, more than centering it within the frame—a pervasive habit of amateur photographers.

So, let’s look at some old wagon wheels….

f8.0 @ 1/400 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 86mm

Here I framed-up the composition (cropping at the point of capture) placing the hub of the wagon wheel—using the “Rule of Thirds”—in one of the corners of the frame. I’m still showing most of the wheel, but this composition works well because the snow covered grasses on the right side of the frame are not just negative space—they are the secondary centers of interest.

This is the ideal method of compositional cropping; framing-up and cropping at the point of capture. The other method is cropping your existing image after capture—in post production. Yes, you can create many great compositions in “post” very easily, but there will be a price to pay in quality.

Here’s our next wagon wheel scene….

 f4.5 @ 1/640 sec., ISO 400: Lens @ 80mm
This was one of dozens of great subjects on display at a local antique store—the first image in this blog was done there as well.  This image suffers from a cluttered background that is simplified by this first crop…

This crop is a real improvement over the original image. Now there’s only one spot of color (a floral box) in the background that, I think, helps the image.

Then I did a more serious crop….

With this tight crop, offsetting the hub to the left, we now have a dramatic composition highlighting the essence of the wagon wheel by showing its marvelous details.

But what is the digital price for these compositional improvements?

It’s all about file size:

The Original Image:  7.26MB
The 1st Crop:  6.03MB
The 2nd Crop: 1.62MB

That 2nd crop sure looks great, but what can I do with it? Basically make a wallet or just show it on the computer screen.

This is why I teach my students to not just do a “master shot” of a scene and move on! I tell them to carve-up their subjects—use that zoom lens—into many smaller bites—creating different compositions all at your camera’s maximum file size…and “Shoot” in RAW!

So, unless you have an 80 MP, DSLR, avoid the temptation of tight crops in post production!

Always available for questions…’Til next week…

Author: Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training Site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client Site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


I’ve been doing photography of Hakone Gardens (Saratoga, CA) bamboo since 2003. This beautiful 100 year old Japanese garden has many traditional Japanese features that have evolved over the decades making it a real treasure in California’s Silicon Valley. Hakone began receiving some highly prized and fragile bamboo from Yasui, Japan in 1985 and with other local donations the bamboo gardens flourished under the care of the Bamboo Society. Because of the fragile nature of sprouting bamboo access to the bamboo gardens by the general public was limited—behind locked gates. Because of the donations of my photographs documenting Hakone I was granted access to the bamboo gardens whenever I felt the timing was right (the best lighting) for great images. 

This is the view of the bamboo garden (in the background) as scene from Hakone’s parking lot.

f8.0 @ 1/25th sec, ISO 400; Lens @ 40mm
Taken in August I chose open shade in the evening, to capture the greenery without blowing out the highlights that happens when direct sunlight falls on leaves. 

This is the view of the entrance to the bamboo gardens just after the gate…

f8.0 @ 1/320 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 70mm
I did this on an April morning. Most of the time I find that one or two hours before sunset (the”Magic Hour”) gives me the best directional natural light for most outdoor photography, but inside the bamboo garden the only time sunlight penetrated that area was in the morning.

f5.0 @ 1/640 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 120mm
A nice example of directional natural light using selective depth-of-field and a relatively wide aperture to high light that oddly shaped growth of bamboo.  

The following images illustrate the different states of development for the propagation of bamboo…

The tendrils at the base of the plant travel down and create the rhizome system that spreads out to nurture a forrest of bamboo.

The shoots sprout around the mature bamboo and grow very rapidly—up to 36” in 24 hours!

This close-up shows the protective sheath starting to fall away from the now hardened culm; the green area.

Then you end up with a forrest of bamboo in no time!

This is the rare, highly ornamental, Tortoise Shell Bamboo; called Kikko in Japan.

Here’s some nice lighting showing the detail on a bamboo shoot.  Is it me or does the top of that thing look like a crowing rooster?  I really like learning about what I am photographing…it gives my images more meaning…Fascinating stuff—bamboo—hope you enjoyed seeing its genesis.

’Til next week…

Author: Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


I’ve been documenting the beauty of the Hakone Japanese Gardens in Saratoga, California, for over 20 years. As one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s premier sites and 100 years old Hakone is one of the oldest Japanese gardens in the Western Hemisphere. In 2004 It was selected as one of 12 national sites to receive funding under the Save America’s Treasures Program. In 2013 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

I’ve been supplying the Hakone Foundation images for their publicity and funding campaigns for the past 15 years. I’m proud that my images helped the Hakone Foundation to win the funding grant in the Save America’s Treasures program.

Here’s the entrance to the gardens....

f11.0 @ 1/160 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 58mm

The main gate, with its large double doors, constructed using bamboo, has always been a favorite feature of mine. One of the best times to photograph the gardens is in early April when the most colorful blooms appear. This view shows off one of the garden’s most well know features—the bridge over the Koi pond with that old gnarled tree at its entrance.

f11.0 @ 1/125sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 50mm
I waited for backlight for this image to really make the blossoms and the tree’s foliage glow. 

The wisteria covered gazebo, on the pond, is one of my favorite spots at Hakone…

f13.0 @ 1/60 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 24mm
This was done April 10th at 3pm; I photograph the wisteria either under overcast sky or I wait until its not in direct sunlight to avoid over exposure of its highlights.

Then there’s the marvelous waterfall…

f22.0 @ 1 sec., ISO 100; Lens @ 35mm
This waterfall cascades down three tiers in a span of about 12 feet. It was taken the day after the last image, but I came back at nearly 7pm so that this side of the mountain would be in total shade to control the highlights and lower the overall light level.  Then I could use a 1-second time exposure to get the smooth effect on the falling water.   I still had to lower my ISO and use an aperture of f22.0 but that was by design because I wanted lots of depth-of-field too!

At the end of February my favorite tree blooms….

 f8.0 @ 1/160 sec., ISO 800; Lens @ 44mm
This is a Japanese weeping cherry tree. I really like the dramatic color contrast of its blossoms against the greenery in the background.

I did this image at noon on an overcast day to, again, control the highlights. With blossoms like this you must do close-ups…

f8.0 @ 1/250 sec., ISO 800; Lens @ 126mm
  • I used a relatively small aperture on this image (f8.0) because I wanted that row of blossoms to be sharp. I see many photographers, when doing close-up images, using really wide apertures—say f2.8 or even wider—thinking that if they didn’t their backgrounds would be too sharp thus loosing the isolation they want between the subject and the background. What’s important is the distance between the subject and the background. I made sure that the vine of blossoms I picked to photograph was far enough away from its background that even at f8.0, coupled with mild telephoto, the blossoms would be sharp yet the background would be nice and blurry. If I had used say f2.8 the depth-of-field would have been so shallow that only the leading edge of the blossom’s petals would have been in focus. 
Next week we’ll go into Hakone’s secret bamboo garden and see what few tourists get to witness—the genesis of bamboo. ’Til next week…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training Site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client Site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


If you’ve read my blogs before you know that I rarely use flash as a main or even as fill when I do photography outside. It just does not blend well with natural or even continuous artificial lights.   The great thing about our professional digital cameras is that we can use much higher ISO’s, with less noise, longer exposures, (on a tripod) and with the recovery possible using RAW files, it’s amazing what can be accomplished now without resorting to supplemental flash.

As an example the following commercial shoot I did outside about an hour after sunset was done with only the existing ambient and the continuous artificial lights at the location. I wanted those white Christmas lights on the truck to stand out; if I had used flash not only would those lights have all but disappeared, but the snow would have been way too bright.

Here’s the final image….

f6.3 @ 1/20 sec., ISO 800; Lens @ 45mm

The key to this image working was proper exposure of the highlights without too much under exposure of the darker areas. The most important highlight area was the large lighted Zamzows sign that was about 25 yards behind the truck. So, I exposed for that lighted sign and let the truck go a little underexposed. However, since upon reviewing the image on my camera I saw that I could read the lettering on the truck and I still had detail in the deep shadows I knew that I could recover all that underexposed area in post processing. 

Here is the original file….

Original Image
It’s remarkable what can be done just using Adobe Camera Raw to bring down highlights or recover shadow detail; ACR can recover 2-stops or more in a RAW file.

Here’s my ACR adjustments on this file:
  • Exposure + 1.10
  • Highlights -  94
  • Shadows + 55
  • Whites -  60
  • Blacks -  43
  • Contrast -  22
  • Clarity + 56
  • Vibrance + 8
After sharpening at: 67 I used Noise Reduction:
  • Luminance 50
  • Color 50
And finally I adjusted the white balance to remove blue from the snow and warm the scene a bit. Quick and easy…

Ask if you have questions…’Til next week…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

Tuesday, March 6, 2018


If you’re looking for a quick, easy, method to photograph reflective subjects then look up tutorials using a light tent or cube because you’re not going to find it here. As a full time professional with over thirty years of studio experience I’ve never done studio photography the easy way.  The easy way is boring—like the results of just sticking a product in a light cube—and rarely produces anything striking, different, or creative.

Most photographers using light cubes usually create flat lit subjects floating in a featureless void that is good for web product catalogs. This technique is also good for quick through put, not creativity. Whereas the studio photographers that built a custom set with complementary backgrounds, specialized product support and lighting designed to best showcase the products details always made the product appear more valuable and worthy of a hi-end catalog. 

I’ve found over the years by doing it the hard way that even if I fail in a studio set-up I always learn something valuable that improves that “shoot” and others in the future. 

So, here’s my super shiny target pistol as a nice example of a difficult reflective subject…

 f13.0 @ 1/125 sec., ISO 400: Lens @ 170mm
And just to make it more difficult I placed the pistol on Mylar over a rough surface!

Background & Mylar:
  • I chose one of my hand painted, brown tone muslins, because it went nicely with the grips on the pistol.
  • I used the Mylar for two purposes:
  •         1) The Mylar reflects the background giving me a foreground and base that color matches
  •              to the background exactly.
  •         2) The Mylar also gives me kicker reflections onto the underside of the pistol’s barrel.
Here’s my lighting set-up….

Front View
The only thing different here is the background change-out for the photos of a rifle. As you can see I only used ONE LIGHT and a REFLECTOR!

Main Light:  A Larson RS 9”x24” Strip-light
Reflector:  A Photogenic 40”x40” Sil Foil Reflector

Here is a side view of the lighting set-up…

Lighting Side View

Important:  This is the most critical illustration of my set-up as it shows the Direction of the main light and its Relationship to the reflector.

NOTE:  That the main Light is NOT Pointed Directly at the gun; It’s pointed at the reflector.  Or, more precisely, my overhead main light is aimed so that tis trailing edge is just missing the top edge of the gun. This is why the modeling lights on professional studio flash units are so valuable. In a darkened studio the modeling lights on each flash head tell you exactly where each light is pointed showing us its effect.  In this case I merely tilted the overhead main’s soft box down until I saw its light hit the top edge of the gun and then tilted it back up just enough to miss its directly illuminating the gun. Why? If you point your main light at the highly reflective subject the highlights created will all just blow-out, and blown-out highlights—especially with digital cameras—are not recoverable.

Background Light:
To illuminate the backgrounds for these gun photos I tried something different. I used back lighting instead of the usual front lighting often used in the studio.  Why?
  1. I wanted a softer, lantern like, look to the background.
  2. Without front lights and their stands my walkway behind the prop table was cleared so I could more easily have access to make these adjustments to the main light and the guns.
This shoot-through technique worked really well, but because theses hand painted muslins are so thick I did have to use one of my photogenic 500 watt second power lights at nearly full power to be able to use f13.0 for my aperture; and than I had to go to 400 ISO to get the exposure I wanted.

Getting the Light on the gun:
The position you see of the silver reflector in front of the table is not exactly where it was as I took the images of the guns.  I had to minutely adjust the tilt of the silver reflector for each gun or knife as I watched the reflection of the overhead main light on the front surface of each gun.

Hope you enjoyed….’Til next week…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com