Creative Storytelling with the Canon G5 X

New Year's Eve 2015 – It was the last day of a wonderfully rewarding year for photography. In the past 12 months I had worked super hard – leading 12 photo workshops, recording three new on-line classes, giving 13 seminars, recording 24 podcasts, publishing my 36th book, and photographing in Iceland, Provence, the Palouse, Bosque del Apache, Alaska, Telluride, South Beach, Canyon de Chelly, Mesa Verde, Old Car City and Fossil Rim Wildlife Center.

So, I thought I'd celebrate by spending a few hours of personal – and very quiet – time by shooting with my new Canon Powershot G5 X. My goal was to tell the story – in still photographs – of one of my favorite local places to photograph.

The location: The nearby Chuang Yen Monastery, where I take the photographers who join my yearly Rick's Backyard Photo Workshop, which is listed on my Photo Workshops page.

In this post I'll share with you some of my favorite images from the shoot, along with a few quick tips.

Technically, a basic storytelling tip is to take a variety of photographs, indoors and outdoors, at wide-angle, telephoto and close-up settings. Emotionally, the idea is to capture the mood and feeling of a location – which can be captured with creative composition and creative exposures.

Click images to enlarge.

Opening image: The temple at the monastery is one of the largest Buddhist temples in the United States. To capture the temple and the two adjacent bell towers, I set the G5 X's zoom lens to the 24mm setting. One of the reasons I like the GX5 is the zoom range (24-100mm equivalent), which is close to the zoom range of my favorite DSLR lens, the Canon 24-105mm IS zoom (which I use on my Canon 5DS).

Above: An almost floor-to-ceiling statue of Buddha is the centerpiece of the Great Buddha Hall. It is surrounded by thousands of smaller Buddha statues. Photographically, the woman in this photograph adds a sense of scale to the hall and the statue. That's the storytelling part. Technically, I like the relatively low noise in low light situations that the one-inch image sensor offers.

Above: To get this shot, I mounted the G5X on my tripod, set the self-timer to 10 seconds, and then held the tripod by the legs high above my head for an eye-to-eye view. I composed the scene by tilting the flip-out screen down so I could see what the camera was seeing. Talk about a sharp lens! Check out the detail in this image. Oh yeah, the camera's image stabilization feature also added to the sharpness of this high-above-my-head, hand-held shot.

Above: For a brief moment, the sun peeked though a large glass window and cast a beam of light on a section of the small statues. Thanks to the camera's +/- Exposure Compensation feature (a pro feature that I use all the time on my Canon 5DS) I was able to get a perfect exposure (top) in a high-contrast scene. The lower image of the same scene shows what happened when I did not use (to illustrate the point) the Exposure Compensation feature.

Above: I went to the monastery to have fun (and to take some seriously good images). Adding to my fun was the camera's Scene mode, which offers several in-camera enhancements. Left – straight shot in the AV mode, middle – Monochromatic setting, right - Toy Camera setting.

Above: My goal here was to create an image with a good sense of depth. Shooting at an angle is one way to accomplish that goal. Including layers (here the colorful statue in the foreground, the three-dimensional carvings the middle of the frame, and the small statures in the background) also adds a sense of depth to an image. This photograph and all the photographs in this post except for the two Scene mode photographs were taken in the Av mode, which is the mode I use most often on my Canon 5DS.

Above: This is my favorite photograph from my personal New Year's Eve photo celebration. It demonstrates creative composition, which I teach on all my photo workshops. For this photograph I composed the scene using the camera's electronic viewfinder, which is a useful feature when shooting in bright light.

Happy New Year everyone – and have fun storytelling with your camera!

Explore the light,

Want to learn more about creative composition and exposure, with a little bit of image processing tossed in? Check out my latest book, Creative Visualization for Photographers.

Shoot with Spike Saturday #1

I would like to start off with a big hello and a Happy New Year to everyone here today. I would also like to give a warm thank you to Rick for inviting me to blog on his website and now even have a featured spot once a month. One Saturday each month I will be writing a new blog and discussing some fun topics. Rick and I will be calling this day “Shoot with Spike Saturday!” Having said all that, let’s get into the first of my guest posts for 2016.

Being the time of year where people set goals and resolutions, let us play off of that and talk about some photography. More specifically - setting goals before you arrive at a location to shoot. I always set a goal in the back of my head before I even walk out the door. Whether it’s a hotel room while traveling, or my home for a nearby shoot, I do not leave without setting some sort of goal. Sometimes I set a big goal, and sometimes it’s a small goal, but nonetheless I set a goal.

Fulfilling a goal afterward is a wonderful feeling and provides a sense of achievement. I will also be the first to admit, there have been plenty of times where I was not able to reach a goal I set before a shoot, but this is a win/win situation ultimately. This has taught me extreme patience and given me the ability to analyze my results fairly efficiently. I ask myself “What could I do different next time?” I learn from my mistakes and try my best not to let them repeat themselves. It helps me solve problems in the field. Sometimes I have to hit the same location more than once as a part of the learning process. In the end though, I hit my goal!

Now of course you do not need to have been to a location previously to do this. You just need some research, and maybe even a little bit of thinking outside of the box. As for me, I often go shoot within the deserts of Arizona and venture off road. But beforehand, I scout Google maps for terrains and roads. I have apps on my phone that allow me to keep track of things like weather, winds, cloud coverage and even what elements are where within the sky. On a typical night, I might be going for a sunset shot, or shooting the Milky Way, but either way, checking on the weather helps me decide if my goals are obtainable. If I see clouds coming in, then shooting the Milky Way might not be my best option, however this could tell me I have a chance at a colorful sunset, for example.

There’s other ideas for goals too. How about some specific shots? Some ideas could be:
•    Macro - see what’s really up close within your location
•    Black and white - learn to visualize the end result, before shooting
•    HDR - practice capturing a higher dynamic range within the scene
•    Video - nice for projects or sharing
•    Specific compositions - do things you have not done before, experiment, learn
•    Time lapse - broaden what you know
•    Set a goal in processing - textures, colors, crops, be creative

Now that I have your gears turning and you’re thinking about the goals you can set, I will share an image that took quite a bit of planning this past November.

Check out the opening image, and then let’s discuss what was involved, so you can see my process started well before I arrived to my location. My goal was to capture a star trail pic with the North Star, Polaris, right behind the tip of a cactus. This would create the illusion that the star trails are expanding outwards from the tip behind the cactus. I also wanted a traditional “Arizona” looking cactus, as I felt this was important to complete the shot I imagined.

The first thing I did within the planning stages of this image was check the weather for clear skies, throughout the night, because these shots require many 30 second captures. Then I needed to make sure the moon was very close to the new phase, or would be below the horizon during my shoot times, to eliminate the light the moon illuminates. Afterwards I needed to select a location that faced North and away from the Phoenix city lights. So I chose an area near the Superstition Springs Mountains outside of town here. I selected a hiking path that was about 2 miles each way. I was somewhat familiar with this area and knew that this trail has a lot of cactus along the way, so I was out here scouting for the one that would allow me to shoot north, and had a nice shape to it.

Finally after finding the perfect cactus and the weather cooperating, it was time to set up. This involved placing my tripod and camera so that the little star/spec you see (Polaris), was precisely behind the center tip above the cactus. Now don't be fooled. It did take me about 20 minutes and several very tiny adjustments to finally get the position exactly where I wanted it. After I had my composition and camera settings established, it was time to set my intervalometer and just sit back while the magic was captured.

Once I finished, it was time to get home and stack these shots to see if the juice was worth the squeeze. I was very happy to see that it was when I processed the results! These shots were the only ones I took that night (aside from setting up) to create this single image. I was very focused and determined to get this specific shot, but I did have to be realistic and make sure everything aligned up right for me, to ensure the best results and accomplishing my goal.

Below is one more shot from last fall that required quite a bit of patience, but again, I was very happy with my end results.

The biggest thing about capturing and planning this shot was watching social media. Everyday for a few weeks as fall approached, I briefly looked at a Facebook group for my state. This image is from a popular area called Lockett Meadow, but it’s about 2.5 hours from my house, so I was not going to have many chances to capture what I was picturing in my head. This only took about 5 minutes each day, and I was just watching for people to describe their hikes in this area, and/or post their shots, along with seeing what they said about the changing colors in the area.

Lockett Meadow is always a gorgeous area, but the window to find it colored so golden like this is a very small one. I started noticing people were saying there was lots of fall color, but I also noticed that the best colors were high up on the trails. I could see in some of the shots online that there was indeed tons fall foliage, but again, it was high up on the mountains where the bike trails were. So I decided to jump in my Jeep that weekend and off I went. My goal was to get up on to the high bike trails and see what it looked like from up top and shoot there. This was a bit of a hike in, but I did not let that discourage me. Once I arrived, it also took some time to finally capture my shots from up here. There was a lot of bikes coming through constantly and most of them would jump off and take pics of each other in this scene. I couldn't blame them for that! So I spent about 90 patient minutes waiting to get enough time to compose and find something I liked. The point again though - is that I practiced extreme patience, did not let anything steer me from what I wanted to obtain, and kept a strong focus on capturing my envisioned picture.

So for your new year, make sure you set some goals before leaving for a shoot. It’s tempting to just wing things once arriving somewhere, but you do not need to make complex goals. Just start with some simple ones and try some tasks that you have not done before. Envision the end result. Research areas before arriving. There’s tons of apps out there now to help with things like weather, photogenic spots, maps, etc and many of them area free. It’s a great feeling of satisfaction when you accomplish what you set out for, as with all things in life. So make some goals and knock them out with your photography this year! Happy New Year to all of Rick’s visitors and have a great 2016! I can be found on some of the various social media networks and of course my website.

Please visit my website to see more of my photographs.

Until next time! -Spike

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Thanks Spike for an informative and insightful post! Thank you Alex Morley for taking this picture while Spike and I were shooting on our Oregon Coast photo caravan workshop.