Spencer Cox Photography: Blog http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog en-us (C) Spencer Cox (Spencer Cox Photography) Wed, 25 May 2016 19:00:00 GMT Wed, 25 May 2016 19:00:00 GMT http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/img/s12/v172/u373461152-o977629009-50.jpg Spencer Cox Photography: Blog http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog 120 90 A New Website http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2016/5/a-new-website The past year has been unbelievable.

 

At the beginning of 2015, I spent every weekend taking pictures at a waterfall. I knew that I loved photography, and I knew that I wanted to pursue it professionally, but I also had to accept how impossible such a goal would be.

 

In April, though, Nasim Mansurov of photographylife.com extended an offer for me to join the website's growing team. Later in 2015, I was named the Youth Photographer of the Year by Nature's Best Photography, and one of my images went on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. 

 

Now, unbelievably, I am heading towards a life of travel and photography. I don't yet know what the years ahead will bring, but I have never been more excited.

 

This is my last post on this website. All updates about my photography will be on spencercoxphoto.com and my Facebook page, and all my new articles will be on Photography Life

 

Thank you. 

 

Rain Falls 2Rain Falls 2Standard Edition - Tier Two

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(Spencer Cox Photography) Spencer Cox Spencer Cox photo Spencer Cox photography photography http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2016/5/a-new-website Mon, 02 May 2016 05:10:15 GMT
Ordering an Iceland Print http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/7/ordering-an-iceland-print Fjord HorseFjord HorseFrom the Snæfellsnes Peninsula,
West Iceland

Read more about "Fjord Horse" or purchase a print by visiting
this link.

 

I made it back from Iceland in one piece. And, more surprisingly, my drone made it back as well!

 

In a place like Iceland, opportunities for photography are everywhere. I took thousands of photos in Iceland, many of which are among the top photos in my portfolio.

 

As such, I have decided to change the ordering system on my site to make it easier and less expensive for people to order the print that they want. At the moment, this process is only available for the photos I took in Iceland, but I plan to extend it to the rest of the images on my site in the near future.

 

For every one of my best photos from Iceland, I wrote and entire article covering my thoughts on the image, alongside the best ways to get a print. That's a total of 18 full-length articles, a number which grows every time I add a new photo to my Iceland gallery.

 

These new prints are divided into two options: my older printing style (lustre paper, foam backing) and my new printing style (large-format rag paper, top-shelf framing). The older prints represent a more affordable option, whereas the newer style is more high-end.

 

So, if you see an image that speaks to you, it is now much easier to purchase a print exactly how you want, both in price and in quality. You can even special-order a print quite easily.

 

Visit my Iceland Gallery to see the photos I have for sale, then click the "unique purchasing page" link to buy the print that you like.

 

Happy shooting!

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(Spencer Cox Photography) Iceland photo print http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/7/ordering-an-iceland-print Mon, 06 Jul 2015 15:24:54 GMT
Drone Photography http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/5/drone-photography My trip to Iceland is in two weeks, and I have been getting everything ready to an absurd degree. Plus, as happens in all last-minute-panics, I made some crazy decisions recently that are going to have a big impact on my trip. Just a few days ago, I decided that it would be a good idea to bring a drone to Iceland for landscape photography purposes. I had no clue how complex the world of drone photography really is.

For starters, no one does drone photography. About 98% of drone media usage is for videography, and I know of less than twenty people in the world who use one exclusively for professional landscape photography. So, to stand out in the world (and because it would be fun), I bought a drone, using the money I raised from my Kickstarter project.

 

It turns out that drones are unbelievably complicated. I don't know a thing about radio frequencies, circuit boards, transmitters, wiring, wind speeds, or much of anything that is necessary to fly a drone. Plus, because practically no one does landscape photography from a drone, I can't ask anyone for help.

 

After hours of research, I found a drone, a gimbal, a camera, a mini-HDMI to HDMI adaptor, an HDMI to AV output adaptor, an AV transmitter, and a monitor receiver that are all, in theory, compatible. These products have been arriving over the past few days, and I think that I am slowly building a system that lets me take high-quality landscape pictures from the sky.

 

​I based the whole system around the lightest, smallest, and least expensive drone that can carry the lightest possible camera with an APS-C sized sensor. That camera is the Coolpix A, a tiny 16 megapixel machine from Nikon. The drone I chose was the 3DRobotics X8+, which just barely carries the Coolpix A and all the transmission equipment.

 

I managed to mount the Coolpix A on the drone yesterday and take some test photos, although I am still waiting for about half the equipment to arrive. I'll be posting more about the drone on photographylife.com after my trip, but I do have two images to show from my brief first flight:

Everything looks promising for Iceland!

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(Spencer Cox Photography) 3DR Spencer Cox aerial photography drone landscape photography x8+ http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/5/drone-photography Sat, 30 May 2015 19:58:40 GMT
Stars Fall http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/4/stars-fall From time to time, one of my images is just so darn fun to take that it begins to occupy a special spot in my mind. That is undoubtedly the case with the image in this post: Stars Fall.

Stars FallStars FallStandard Edition - Tier One

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For starters, I find the composition of this image to be quite interesting. The stars above the waterfall (Greeter Falls in Tennessee) hold enough visual weight that I cannot position the sky as far to the left as I typically would. The interesting thing is that, in the half-second before a viewer recognizes the stars above the waterfall, the image actually appears imbalanced to the right. Soon, the image shifts to become balanced (or even imbalanced to the left) as the viewer stares at the stars.

 

But, although I like the image itself, the real reason that this photo is important to me is below:

Yup, that's me wearing fishing waders with a goose-down jacket.

 

Stars Fall is important to me because I walked through a river to make it happen. And, although he isn't pictured, my dad walked through the river as well — in part because he didn't want me to drown, and in part because he's just a cool guy.

 

After wading across the river (note to self: bring hiking poles next time), my dad and I scrambled onto a freezing-cold rock on the other side. The sun was about to set, and I knew that I needed two photos for the scene I had in mind: one with the foreground properly exposed (immediately after sunset), and one with stars in the sky (more than an hour after sunset). To get the photos to blend properly, I had to keep my camera completely still for about an hour.

 

It was a cold hour. 

 

The images above don't really show it, but the temperature that night hovered right around freezing. With the cold air and constant spray from the waterfall, I'm sure that it was at least 25 degrees where I sat.

 

So, my dad and I spent an hour eating trail mix and hoping that nothing would bump my tripod out of place, all the while sitting on the coldest rock imaginable. I actually set my fully-charged phone down on the rock at one point, and its battery was dead when I picked it up again.

 

Despite my gloves (pictured above), I also think I came the closest I have ever gotten to having mild frostbite. An hour after I got warm again, my fingers still felt bruised. They're all fine now, but I will definitely bring thicker gloves next time around.

 

What makes this night so amazing is that the result was exactly the image that I had envisioned the day before. I only had one weekend free at this waterfall, and I got amazingly lucky that it wasn't a cloudy night at all. The full moon lit up the foreground perfectly, and the falls were higher than I had ever seen before. Everything came together perfectly for this image, which is one of my favorites of all time. Plus, cold builds character.

 

If you would like to view the image in my gallery or purchase a print, please follow this link.

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(Spencer Cox Photography) Spencer Cox intricate landscape landscape http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/4/stars-fall Mon, 20 Apr 2015 07:00:38 GMT
What's New? http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/4/whats-new-2 ShellShellStandard Edition - Tier Three

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What's New? Quite a bit.

For starters, I now work for PhotographyLife.com!  This is a big deal for me.  PhotographyLife is the single most reputable photography website on the planet, and it is one of the biggest, too. I am now part of the core group of editors, and I will be writing articles fairly often over there.  Here is a link to their website, and here is a link to the article where they introduce me.

 

This means a couple of things for spencercoxphoto.com.  First, I ​will continue to post articles here.  Most of the new content on this site will consist of articles about specific images.  For example, this article.  Moving forward, most of my essays and tutorials will be on PhotographyLife.

 

Also, I am going to attend Northwestern University this fall!  I do wish that there were more grand landscapes near Chicago, but I am looking forward to some cool cityscape photography.  Chicago is great for galleries and connections in the photo world, so I am happy about that.  Also, I have found some interesting natural areas outside the city that I am planning to explore, although they will be for hiking more than for photography.  I am even thinking about branching out into taking street photos, but that may be too crazy for me : )

 

I have updated pricing information throughout the website, and I have added several new images to my galleries.  I have also taken away several images from my galleries, since my tastes have changed.  I eliminated the graffiti category from my galleries, and I have transitioned the best of those photos to my "Cities and Architecture" gallery.  In its place, I have added a gallery where you can view all of my images on this site in alphabetical order, if that suits your tastes.

 

The Solstice Project, my attempt to sell $2500 worth of prints in a month (to fund a landscape photography expedition to Iceland) was barely a success.  But it was a success! With less than twenty hours to go, I met my goal.  So, yahoo!  I will use the money to take aerial photos over the Icelandic coastline (from a helicopter), to bring a completely different perspective to my landscape images.

 

Busy times : )

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(Spencer Cox Photography) Spencer Cox http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/4/whats-new-2 Mon, 06 Apr 2015 21:34:21 GMT
Pangea http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/3/pangea "Pangea""Pangea"The maddeningly beautiful city of Paris looked back at me as I stood at the top of Notre Dame cathedral. I stared at these jigsaw-like buildings in the distance, and I realized how to capture the complex layers of Paris in a single frame.


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- Finalist in Travel Photographer of the Year competition.

 

This image shows the city of Paris, taken from the top of Notre Dame cathedral.  I used my 105mm macro lens on a D7000 (for an equivalent focal length of 150mm) for this image.  It is one of the easiest photos that I have post-processed, simply because it didn't need many adjustments.  I call it Pangea because it makes me think of a single massive continent— chaotic, huge, and yet beautiful.

 

 I use Lightroom almost exclusively to edit my photos, which is simply a personal preference.  For this image, my main edits are as follows: a monochrome conversion, a slight crop, and a contrast boost.  That's about it.  Below is a JPEG extracted from the original NEF image:

 

 

Note that this is a telephoto image taken in the middle of a misty rain.  As a result, the file is fairly low-contrast, even for a raw image.  To start, there were two things that I needed to do: I had to make the image monochromatic (I found the color to be distracting in this relatively abstract image), and I needed to make the buildings pop a bit more.  I converted the photo to black and white, I increased contrast +57, and I increased clarity +48.  These are higher values than I typically use, but they aren't so drastic that they introduce noise into the image (which was taken at ISO 100).  Below is that result:

 

 

It took me a while to choose the crop of the image, but my final decision is below.  One thing that bothered me about the out-of-camera photo was that the top-left corner was unnaturally bright.  It carried too much visual weight, and it threw the photo off balance.  I chose to eliminate this bright spot completely in my final crop.

 

 

At this point, I only had a few little tweaks left.  I sharpened the image how I normally do at ISO 100 on the D7000 (and the exact sharpening settings are at the end of the article).  More importantly, I increased the contrast even more. 

 

I brightened the highlights primarily through the "highlights" and "lights" settings under "tone curve."  Those settings are targeted towards more specific brightness levels than the standard highlights slider under the "basic" tab, and they worked better for this image.  I also darkened the shadows by decreasing the "blacks" slider under the "basic" tab, and I made a couple minor tweaks to other settings in the "basic" tab.  The final result is below:

 

"Pangea""Pangea"The maddeningly beautiful city of Paris looked back at me as I stood at the top of Notre Dame cathedral. I stared at these jigsaw-like buildings in the distance, and I realized how to capture the complex layers of Paris in a single frame.


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- Finalist in Travel Photographer of the Year competition.

 

My settings in Lightroom are as follows:

 

Basic

Exposure: +0.10

Contrast: +46

Highlights: +12

Shadows: +14

Whites: 0

Blacks: -34

Clarity: +48

Vibrance: N/A

Saturation: N/A

 

Tone Curve

Highlights: +12 

Lights: +19

Darks: -10

Shadows: 0

 

HSL/Color/B&W

No changes; I just used the automatic black and white mix.

 

Split Toning

None.

 

Detail

Sharpening

Amount: 48

Radius: 0.9

Detail: 51

Masking: 30

Noise Reduction

Luminance: 20

(Luminance) Detail: 90

Contrast: 50

Color: 20

(Color) Detail: 50

 

Lens Corrections

The only lens correction I applied was to click "remove chromatic aberration."

 

Effects

None.

 

Camera Calibration

Process: 2012

Profile: Adobe Standard

All other settings at zero.

 

Local Adjustments

This photo has no local adjustments, content-aware fill, or gradients.  Very unusual for me, but it simply didn't need any.

 

Overall

This image was not particularly difficult to edit.  My goal was simply to bring out the contrast in these buildings, and I did so without any local adjustments.  I wanted to make this photo more abstract without crossing the line to surrealism, which is why I chose many of my settings in Lightroom.

 

If you would like to purchase a print of this image (12x18 inches large and $100), contact me so I know you're interested.

 

Thanks for reading through this tutorial, and I hope it helps you understand a bit more about "Pangea."

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(Spencer Cox Photography) Lightroom Notre Dame Paris telephoto http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/3/pangea Wed, 04 Mar 2015 23:05:13 GMT
Loka UL Review http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/2/loka-ul-review When I was planning a trip to Norway, the first thing that I realized was that I needed a new backpack. My old bag had served me well, but it was far too small to be a hiking bag, and it was fairly uncomfortable when I loaded it with all my equipment.

 

I realized that I didn't have many options, since most camera-specific backpacks are truly terrible at carrying weight, and they are quite heavy for their capacities (in the 5+ pound range). Ultimately, I found a solution: the F-Stop Gear Loka UL, a top-of-the-line hiking/camera backpack.

 

Why this bag and not a hiking-specific backpack?  Because this is the F-Stop Gear Loka UL!

 

"Rain Falls 2""Rain Falls 2"My tripod was absurdly far into the river for this photo, and I strained to see the composition on the back of my camera. Next time, I will bring trash bags to tie around my feet so that I can stand in the river without dunking my hiking boots!


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Specifications

Dimensions: 22 inches tall, 12.5 inches wide, and 11 inches deep.  However, all of these dimensions can be stretched.

Weight: 2.25 pounds

Volume: 37 liters

Compartments: A top pocket for smaller items, the huge internal compartment (accessible from the top, or from the rear), and a tall but flat compartment down the center of the bag's exterior (the "shovel pocket" according to F-Stop Gear)

Materials: Water resistant, feels like a thin canvas.

Suspension: Removable aluminum frame.

Zippers: Fancy.

Laptop: F-Stop Gear says that it fits a 13-inch laptop, but my 15-inch MacBook Pro fits with some room to spare.

Drainage hole at the bottom of the "shovel pocket."

Internal water bladder/laptop pocket (there is no zipper, just a nylon divider inside the bag).

Holes and straps for a hydration system that I have never used.

A bunch of loops on the outside for attaching other straps.

Emergency whistle on the sternum strap.

Sternum strap.

Side pockets made of the world's strongest mesh.

Stabilizer straps above the shoulder pads.

Extra straps on the side for hiking pole attachment and general amusement (you get bored if you're sitting in a tent for hours).

Really comfortable hip strap that feels like it's made of neoprene even though it isn't.

Cat-proof (see image below)

 

 

Why This One?

As you can tell, the Loka UL is pretty well-specified.  Considering its weight, it can hold quite a bit of camera gear.  F-Stop Gear says that the Loka UL will fit on an airplane but only barely, which seems accurate.  I've flown roughly ten times with this bag, and so far I haven't been stopped.  That's with a tripod hanging off the back, too.

 

The main claim to fame of the Loka UL is that it is a camera backpack built like a hiking backpack.  It weighs less than typical camera backpacks, and it is far more comfortable.  Far more.  Not even close.  The hip belt actually works, and the shoulder straps are nice and soft.

 

The Loka UL can comfortably carry twenty pounds, and it can be pushed up to thirty pounds if you are trying to show off/ruin your shoulders.  This is not a huge hiking bag.  It carries weight very well for a camera bag, but a technical backpack is still a necessity if you're regularly going to be carrying 25+ pounds.  Or, try one of the larger F-Stop Gear backpacks (disclaimer: I haven't).

 

The most weight that I've carried in this bag was thirty pounds for a one-mile scramble across slippery rocks in a stream, followed by two miles of moderate hills.  It was doable, but I don't recommend it.  On the other hand, a different camera backpack that I bought once (and soon returned) gave me a headache even when it was empty.  So, the Loka UL is pretty darn good.

 

The Loka UL is also special because of its rear-access section.  This makes it essentially impossible to steal something by unzipping the bag, so you can walk through a crowd with this bag and feel somewhat safe (although watch your top pocket and your shovel pocket).  The rear access also means that you can open up your gear section even if you have the rain cover over your bag.  

 

Also, the fabric, stitching, and zippers on this backpack are top notch.  The Loka UL has seen more abuse than any other camera bag I've ever had, but it looks completely new (except it's dusty).  This is one bag that won't fall apart, probably ever.

 

"Lightning off the Coast""Lightning off the Coast"Tier Four:
12x18 - 10/10 available

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Comparisons

I have owned just one other bag of a similar load capacity: the LowePro Flipside 500.  This is a terrible bag in every way.  I'm shocked that it has 4.5 stars on B&H.  Truly shocked.  It's the bag that gave me a headache when it was empty, and it weighs 4.4 pounds despite having a smaller internal volume.  

 

Aside from that bag, there's not much to compare.  The regular Loka is similar, but with four key differences: it weighs an extra 1.25 pounds, for starters.  It also has more padding across the back, and its hip strap buckles in the center rather than on the side.  The most major difference is that the bottom of the Loka is rubber rather than the UL's canvas, making it more waterproof.  Granted, I've never had a problem with water seeping into the bottom of the UL. 

 

The only other bag that you may consider is a technical hiking backpack.  These will carry weight better than the Loka UL, and they'll have better ventilation as well.  Depending upon the bag, they may even cost less.  The major downside is that they won't have access to your gear quite as easily, and it may be harder to attach a tripod to the outside.  You'll need to do more research before you pick a good hiking bag.

 

Gura Gear is a potential competitor to F-Stop Gear, but they don't have a bag that carries more than 32 liters.  Plus, even that bag (the Batflae 32L) weighs 4.2 pounds at its minimum configuration.

 

"Icy Falls""Icy Falls"Tier Three:
24x24 - 5/5 available

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Issues

There are only a few issues with the Loka UL.  

 

The first is that there are only three zippered sections, one of which is huge (the main section, of course) and two of which are fairly small (the top section and the shovel pocket).  I would definitely like the bag better if it had one more section on top.  As it is, I end up stuffing filters into the same compartment as my extra batteries and my remote release, which isn't ideal.  

 

Another issue is with the ICU units that you add to the bag.  First, they're heavy for their size.  That's not too important, though; what bothers me is that they poke through to my back.  The ICU units have semi-hard sides, and it is quite easy to feel the top of the unit pressing through the bag as it shifts around.  I fixed this issue by cutting open the ICU and removing the hard backing from one of the four sides.  A pretty drastic move, but at least it worked.

 

The final issue is inherent in the design of the bag: it isn't breathable whatsoever.  If I hike with this bag for more than a mile or so, my back begins to get quite hot.  I've mostly just ignored it, which means that I end up sweating far more than I would like.  This happens because, instead of a mesh separator between the bag and the wearer, this bag has the rear access panel.  Because the entire back of the bag flips off, it simply isn't possible for F-Stop Gear to make it super breathable (it's a neoprene-ish material across the entire back).  That being said, I'm still a bit surprised at how non-breathable it is.  

 

"Arab Room""Arab Room"Tier Four:
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Recommendations

If you don't care about comfort because you just want to haul your gear short distances, consider a cheaper bag.  But don't say I didn't warn you.

 

If you consistently need to carry more than twenty or twenty-five pounds of gear, you'd be better served with a larger bag.  Consider a different F-Stop Gear bag (the Satori seems great, carrying 62 liters at just 4 pounds), or perhaps a traditional hiking backpack.

 

If you travel by airplane a lot, this is probably the largest bag that you can get away with for a carry-on.

 

If you do a lot of day hikes where most of your weight is camera equipment, the Loka UL is perhaps the best bag you could get.

 

I do recommend getting a some small Gatekeeper Straps to attach your tripod to the back of the bag.  If you try to hang it off the side, the bag will be lopsided, although it could work in a pinch.  

 

You don't necessarily need a rain cover for the Loka UL.  I've carried it out for hours in a light/medium rain, and the bag is essentially waterproof (the inside of the top pocket gets damp, but the main compartment stays dry).  Don't dunk it underwater, though.

 

RoundaboutRoundaboutStandard Edition - Tier Three

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Conclusion

The F-Stop Gear Loka UL could be the traveling photographer's dream backpack.  It's certainly expensive, but it is also one of the most well-constructed bags I have ever seen.  The real issue isn't the construction; the real issue is that this is a camera backpack, not a technical hiking backpack.  It carries weight very well, but a dedicated hiking pack will still be better.  Also, the back isn't very breathable.  

 

However, if you will use this bag for medium-length photography hikes rather than multi-day camping trips (which, at 37 liters, is probably how you'd use it), this could be the best bag for you.  I'm going to take it on a fifteen mile hike this summer, and I'll report back later on how comfortable it felt.  A hike that long isn't this bag's forte, though.  If you go on hikes like that all the time or you need to carry 30+ pounds, this probably isn't the bag for you.

 

For me, though, this bag is great.  A few miles with twenty pounds on my back is no problem at all, and that's my most common hike.  The bag isn't perfect, but it's about as close as you can get for what it is.  F-Stop Gear made a true winner, and I'd probably get the 62-liter Satori if I ever needed a bigger bag.  

 

 

Also

If this review was helpful, feel free to click this link to my ongoing Kickstarter project.  You don't need to buy any prints, of course, but the more people who visit the page, the higher the project goes on Kickstarter's front page.  It's worth clicking the link just to see my first ever attempt at videography!

 

In return, I promise to write some more great reviews like this one.  Then, in August, I'll be able to add beautiful landscape photos from Iceland to my galleries!  Win-win-win.  

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(Spencer Cox Photography) F-Stop Gear Loka UL backpack camera backpack camera bag fstop gear hike landscape lightweight review http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/2/loka-ul-review Sun, 01 Mar 2015 04:40:34 GMT
The Solstice Project http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/2/the-solstice-project It's official: I have a Kickstarter! The link is here:

 

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/the-solstice-project/the-solstice-project

 

Yes, the link has "the-solstice-project" twice.  I'm not sure quite why, so just ignore it.

 

Basically, this project is a way for you to buy prints of my photos for less money than usual.  The fun part is that the prints are going to be of photos that I haven't even taken.  It's like mystery meat, except you know that the prints won't give you food poisoning. Unless you eat them.

 

I'm getting off track, though; this project is going to let me take photos during the summer solstice in Iceland, and it's fueled by backers on Kickstarter.

 

Even if you don't back the project, the more people who visit the link above and share the project on Facebook/Twitter, the higher the project goes on the Kickstarter home page.  This indirectly translates to more viewers and more backers, which means that you'll be able to see more fantastic photos on this website come August, even if you pay absolutely nothing.

 

Whether or not you buy a print, thanks for looking!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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(Spencer Cox Photography) Spencer Cox iceland kickstarter the solstice project video http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/2/the-solstice-project Mon, 23 Feb 2015 22:56:51 GMT
50,000 Photos http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/2/50000-photos Just for fun, I decided to check some statistics of my photography throughout the past two years.

 

Wow, I've taken 50,000 photos!

 

As you can see from my gallery pages, my main focuses are macro photography and landscape photography.  Of the two, I'd estimate that macro photos have taken up the vast majority of my 50,000.  When I go out for a few hours to take pictures of, say, dragonflies, I typically return with 300-500 images.  A typical landscape outing leaves me with 100-200.


Yosemite Tunnel View sunrise"Dawn in Yosemite"When I saw this scene, I was looking over Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. I was awe-struck by the way the morning sun sculpted the valley, igniting it with color.


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To read more about this photo, visit my blog post.

- Finalist image in Outdoor Photographer of the Year competition.

 

Of my 50,000 photos, I have exactly twenty in my "best" folder.  I have three in my "best ever" folder. So, out of 50,000 photos, 0.04% are my favorites, and 0.006% are the best of my favorites.

 

That's not very many.

 

About 1/2500 photos becomes one of my "best," and about 1/16000 becomes one of my best-of-the-best.  

 

Now, of course, I have several more than twenty photos that I like.  On this site, there are upwards of seventy gallery photos, and many more in my blog posts.  Still, even that is around 1/400 of the total images I take, which is insanely small.

 

"Rain Falls 2""Rain Falls 2"My tripod was absurdly far into the river for this photo, and I strained to see the composition on the back of my camera. Next time, I will bring trash bags to tie around my feet so that I can stand in the river without dunking my hiking boots!


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The most productive photography trip I have taken is when I went to Paris in the fall of 2013.  I took 2500 photos, seven of which are in my "best" folder (and one in my "best ever" folder).  Still a small percentage (less than 0.3%) but better than typical.  I guess that Paris just clicked with me.

 

So, here's hoping to another 50,000 fun ones!  They say that the first ten thousand photos you take are the worst; I don't completely agree with that, but I do think that the proportion of good photos goes up over time.  Perhaps I'll be able to add a few more to my "best ever" category.

 

"Cathedral at Amiens""Cathedral at Amiens"I walked through Amiens Cathedral in France, stunned by the brilliant light streaming through these massive windows. I stood in awe of this scene for several minutes before clicking the shutter.


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(Spencer Cox Photography) 50000 photos spencer cox spencercoxphoto http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/2/50000-photos Sun, 22 Feb 2015 16:42:20 GMT
Chasing the Intricate Landscape http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/1/chasing-the-intricate-landscape

 

People succeed by finding a niche that no one else has found, then making it beautiful.  A lot of people can come up with unique ideas, including for photography, but very few try to invent their own genre.  It certainly feels like it's all been done, but we know that isn't true.  

 

What's my genre, then?  I like to call it the Intricate Landscape.  

 

First off, I hate clichés.  A lot of fine-art photography is nothing more than high-contrast minimalism, which gets old fast. This isn't the only gimmick in landscape photography, though.  On the other end of the spectrum is the wild saturation of overdone HDR photography, with total information overload in every photo.  Eye candy, but one with a bad aftertaste.

 

Another gimmick that I avoid is the ultra-wide lens.  Some of my favorite photos from other photographers were actually taken at extremely wide angles (14mm or so), but I have seen far more cliché ultra-wide shots than winners.  If I notice instantly that a photo was taken with an ultra-wide, then, in my book, the lens was used incorrectly.  I don't believe that any photo should draw attention to its focal length, or its aspect ratio, or any of its behind-the-scenes technical properties.  

 

Almost exclusively, the landscape images on this site were taken at a focal length equivalent to 35mm, a very "normal" angle of view.  It's certainly not an ultra-wide, and, by some definitions, it is much closer to a standard focal length.  However, it is a very natural perspective; it is somewhat wide, but not to the point where it becomes noticeable in photos. 

 

This leads to another key quality of Intricate Landscapes: they have a lot of information, but they are simple at the same time.  This usually means that they are the type of photo which prints extremely well; they look one way as a small image, but, up close, they reveal a surprising amount of interesting detail.  A normal-feeling angle of view makes the photo inherently more simple than a distorted, wide-angle view.  Look at the photo below:

 

"Rain Falls 2""Rain Falls 2"My tripod was absurdly far into the river for this photo, and I strained to see the composition on the back of my camera. Next time, I will bring trash bags to tie around my feet so that I can stand in the river without dunking my hiking boots!


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It is a simple photo, without any distracting elements, but it is also truly intricate.  The three main trees in the image are somehow surviving on the most precipitous of footholds.  One is in the middle of a river, and two are on the side of a cliff.  The cracks in the rock and the smooth ripples in the water help contribute to the image, and the trees at the top seem to flow into the waterfall.  There is a light fog in the air, perhaps a light rain.  Every inch of the photo, almost, has a detail which adds to the frame.

 

An important part about the waterfall photo above is that it has a buffer without much interest along the edges of the photo.  None of the important elements is cut off by the frame; in fact, no element is even close to the edge.  The rest of the photo, though, has so much stuff.  And yet, it is so simple. 

 

Is that a contradiction?  Yeah, probably.  But I am trying to embrace this contradiction in my landscapes, because it is beautiful.  To make a complex scene simple is my goal.  I won't reach this goal by eliminating as many elements as possible in my composition, but by including as many as possible.  This is where an ultra-wide lens becomes tempting, but it solves no problem.  

 

My goal is not to cram everything possible into my landscapes, but to include as many beautiful objects as possible, arranged in a balanced way.  Typically, scenes have the potential to be Intricate Landscapes if they have three, perhaps four beautiful objects in them.  This is why an ultra-wide wouldn't usually be more helpful than a wide standard like 35mm; the wide standard will usually be able to fit all of these objects in the frame just as easily as an ultra-wide, either by stepping back or creating a panorama.  This way, too, the objects look more natural in the frame.

 

The below photo is not technically a landscape by genre, but it is an Intricate Landscape because of its composition.  I could have singled-out many different parts of this scene, but I chose to include everything.

 

"Cathedral at Amiens""Cathedral at Amiens"I walked through Amiens Cathedral in France, stunned by the brilliant light streaming through these massive windows. I stood in awe of this scene for several minutes before clicking the shutter.


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To be honest, the idea of the Intricate Landscape does not work well at all, except in the most amazing locations.  I simply cannot create the type of photo that I want in most places.  Any scene that is beautiful is not good enough; it needs to be beautiful in a specific way.  I can't describe the specific beauty that I need, but I know it when it's in front of me.  Sometimes, it has to do with the weather: foggy, generally.  Other times, it has to do with the visual poetry of the scene I see, something which just clicks and is all but inexplicable.

 

The Intricate Landscape relies on me, as a photographer.  I need to trust myself rather than compositions I have seen from others, because I rarely see someone else's photo which fits with my personal interpretation of an Intricate Landscape.  More importantly, I need to trust that, in an outstanding location, I have the ability to take a photo which is perfect, for my style.  Often times, I fail to make an Intricate Landscape out of a beautiful scene.  A few times, I have succeeded.

 

Yosemite Tunnel View sunrise"Dawn in Yosemite"When I saw this scene, I was looking over Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. I was awe-struck by the way the morning sun sculpted the valley, igniting it with color.


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(Spencer Cox Photography) elaborate intricate intricate landscape landscape landscape photography http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/1/chasing-the-intricate-landscape Tue, 27 Jan 2015 03:15:28 GMT
In Praise of 5x7 http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/1/in-praise-of-5x7 "Night Arrives Softly at an Alleyway""Night Arrives Softly at an Alleyway"I crouched in this alleyway in Amiens, France, and I knew that a special scene stood in front of me. This alleyway was reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting, and I felt truly calm as I clicked the shutter.


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I don't quite know why, but over time I have grown to believe that the most beautiful ratio for photos is 5x7.  I don't mean print size itself, because 5x7 inches is much too small, but rather the ratio between the short edge and the long edge of the prints. 

 

Call it what you will; 5x7, 10x14, or 15x21, but I keep going back to that same ratio.  (For the record, the 5x7 photos on this site are offered at one print size, 15x21.)

 

No camera nowadays natively shoots at a 5x7 aspect ratio.  Most DSLRs are 2x3, and many smaller cameras have a 3x4 ratio.  Even in the golden days of film, very few cameras shot at a 5x7 ratio.  The largest film cameras typically shot 4x5 or 1x1, and smaller formats tended to be 2x3.  Panoramic cameras existed, too, typically at a 7x16 aspect ratio. 

 

So what is it about the 5x7 ratio that is so beautiful?  Beats me.  I have a couple of theories, although I hate one and the other is pretty deep into the subjective.

 

The first theory is math-based, which I hate.  In fact, I have never been one to say that certain numbers are inherently more beautiful than others simply because they show up a lot in math.  However, whether it is a coincidence or not, there is something interesting with the ratio 5x7: it is remarkably close to the square root of two.  7/5 = 1.4, whereas √2 = 1.41.  

 

Is this important?  I sure hope not.  Reducing complex photographic compositions into mathematical numbers is a backwards concept in my mind.  Art cannot be rationally explained, especially not by numbers.  A "good" image is one which combines several different properties: creativity, interesting subject matter, and an aesthetic composition.

 

There's a touchy word: aesthetic.  Could this be related to the square root of two?  I doubt it.  For me, aesthetic tends to refer to the amount of balance in a photo.  The better that a photographer uses balance, the more aesthetically pleasing the composition is.  Often, well-made photos are intentionally imbalanced to add tension to the frame, and in fact this imbalance can be just as aesthetically pleasing as perfect balance.  I don't think that such a dynamic concept as balance can be condensed to a single number, no matter how prevalent that number is in mathematics.

 

"Rain Falls 2""Rain Falls 2"My tripod was absurdly far into the river for this photo, and I strained to see the composition on the back of my camera. Next time, I will bring trash bags to tie around my feet so that I can stand in the river without dunking my hiking boots!


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So, then, why is a 5x7 ratio so pleasing?  I have already said that a number is not inherently beautiful, so this may seem like a contradiction.  However, I don't believe that it is.

 

Imagine, as an example, that you crop your photo to a 1x10 aspect ratio, a super thin rectangle.  It would be very easy to make a roughly-balanced image, just because you have so much space on either side of the center line.  However, I cannot imagine such an image being aesthetically pleasing; the ratio is just too thin.  Thus, super-panorama photos are very rarely "beautiful," even though all that they have going against them is their aspect ratio.

 

​On the flip side, a square frame also tends to be very difficult to balance properly.  It is the opposite reason, though; a square just isn't inherently dynamic.  I know that all Instagram photos are square, and I also have seen several successful square images in my life.  However, I find the ratio of 1:1 just inherently unappealing.

 

Most of this is because of balance.  When you have a square ratio, it is awkward to place something too far off center.  Unlike rectangular ratios, you can only move a subject off to the side in a square frame slightly before it presses against the edge of the photo.

 

Square frames are symmetrical in four ways (top/bottom, left/right, and two corner/corner symmetries).  Rectangles are only symmetrical in two ways (top/bottom and left/right).  Rectangles are inherently less-balanced than square frames, and therefore more dynamic.  Perhaps it is just me, but I always find that my eye has far less space to move when I look at a square photo.

 

So, then, if a square is not dynamic enough, but a 1x10 panorama is far too thin, where is the happy median?  Here's when it gets theoretical. 

 

"Red Boat in Orange""Red Boat in Orange"I stood on a bridge in Amiens, the "Venice of France," and I overlooked this quaint scene. I saw no other people around, and I felt completely calm. The blue boat drifted softly with the slow current, and I smiled as I clicked the shutter gently.


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I think it is an easy mistake to think that a longer rectangle is more dynamic than a shorter rectangle (say, 1x2 versus 2x3).  At some point, the dynamic advantage of a rectangle begins to taper off, and making the rectangle thinner does not add any more movement to the frame (or, at least, not an appreciable amount more).  

 

It follows, then, that the way to achieve the most aesthetic ratio for a photo is to make the photo as square as possible (to add balance) without the photo looking squarish (because that would make it less dynamic).  Contradictory?  Yes.  But, by this definition, there is an ideal ratio, where a photo is as balanced as possible while still adopting the movement inherent in a rectangular frame.

 

The more that I work at photography, the more that I have come to believe that 5x7 is that ideal ratio.  It is enough of a rectangle that, at least for me, I do not inherently think "square" when I see it.  On the flip side, the 4x5 ratio that is famous among landscape photographers is square enough that I notice it every time I look at the frame.  Same with 3x4, to a lesser extent.  

 

This is a very personal feeling.  In fact, alongside 5x7, my favorite aspect ratios lie somewhere in panoramaland.  I haven't composed enough panoramic scenes to tell for sure, though, so I can't really pin a number on it.  Somewhere between 1x3 and 1x2, though.

 

However, for non-panoramic photos, 5x7 is, in my mind, the most beautiful ratio for a photo.  It seems that I can crop almost any of my 3x2 photos to 5x7 without losing much along the sides, and it somehow adds balance to the frame.

 

Why, then, are the vast majority of the photos on my site in the more rectangular 2x3 aspect ratio, not 5x7?  Two reasons: first, I just recently came to realize the beauty of 5x7, in part based off the few photos that I had cropped that way over time.  

 

Second, and more importantly, I composed most of the photos on the site intentionally to fit a 3x2 ratio.  Cropping to a 5x7 will cramp the frame too much, simply because I had not shot the scene with the intention of cropping it later.  For example, the photo below would lose important context with a 5x7 crop, and it is much better as a 2x3, as shown.

 

"They Watching Us""They Watching Us"I saw this eerie graffiti in the city of Paris, and I stood for several moments trying to comprehend its meaning. To this day, I have no idea what the intended message truly was, but I am glad that I took the photo. The paranoia is evident in the frame.


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It goes without saying that all of this is very subjective.  It lies on the idea of making a photo as square as possible without it being "squarish," which is a confusing task, if not an impossible one.  Every photo is different, of course, and it is a bad idea to crop photos to fit a 5x7 ratio just to make them look "better."

 

A 2x3 photo, when cropped to a more square 5x7 ratio, will not look nicer the vast majority of the time.  A 5x7 ratio is easier for me to arrange the elements of the frame how I want.  Cropping to a 5x7 does not help this for most of my photos, which I have already composed around a 2x3 frame.  

 

That's the key: choosing an aspect ratio that makes it as easy as possible to arrange the frame how you want.  The aspect ratio of the photo should not be so obvious that it is the first thing that people notice about the photo (super-panoramas, for example, and square crops to a lesser extent).  For me, a 5x7 aspect ratio is easy for me to work with.  I've decided to compose more of my photos in the future with the intent of cropping to 5x7.  Not because the 5x7 ratio is inherently beautiful, but because it is inherently easy to work with.  

 

More than any other aspect ratio I have used, the 5x7 frame calls no attention to itself.  It is neither particularly squarish nor particularly rectangular, and as a result it seems to fade into the background.  With a 5x7 frame, I find that the image itself takes center stage.

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(Spencer Cox Photography) 1.4 5x7 7x5 aspect ratio photography ratio http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/1/in-praise-of-5x7 Mon, 26 Jan 2015 02:01:47 GMT
Rain Falls http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/1/rain-falls As a landscape photographer, it is nice to have a versatile location that I can visit as much as possible, but still find new compositions.  For me, that place is Greeter Falls, Tennessee.  

 

There are five major waterfalls in this area, and I have photos from three of them exhibited on this site.  The most photogenic of these is Lower Greeter Falls, which I have nicknamed "Rain Falls" on this site.  This is because every time I visit the falls, it's pouring out!  This actually makes for nice photos, because the falls is evenly lit and it becomes foggier in the rain.  Upper Greeter Falls is nice as well, although it is a much smaller falls with fewer compositional options.

 

Greeter Falls is a versatile enough location, and a large enough area, that I don't feel limited with my photography.  On my last visit, I discovered a 75-foot tall waterfall that no map had marked, simply by following along the river as far as I could.  

 

"Reflection and Meditation""Reflection and Meditation"Tier Three:
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Upper Greeter Falls

 

To get here takes a two-hour drive, but it is well worth the effort.  Each time, I'm able to refine my old compositions and produce better photos than before.  One of my earliest photos, "Rain Falls," was a finalist and ultimately a commended entry in the Outdoor Photographer of the Year competition.  I later took two other photos of the same waterfall that I like better: "Rain Falls 2" and "Rain Falls 3."  My favorite is #2 (the first photo on this page), but different people will have their own opinions.

 

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Lower Greeter Falls, "Rain Falls" (OPOTY Finalist)

 

"Rain Falls 2""Rain Falls 2"My tripod was absurdly far into the river for this photo, and I strained to see the composition on the back of my camera. Next time, I will bring trash bags to tie around my feet so that I can stand in the river without dunking my hiking boots!


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Lower Greeter Falls, "Rain Falls 2" (My personal favorite)

 

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Lower Greeter Falls, "Rain Falls 3" (Because every good scene deserves a panorama)

 

About a half-mile away is Boardtree Falls, a smaller but still interesting waterfall.  When the water level is low, Boardtree Falls all but disappears.  However, it takes a very interesting shape after heavy rain, and it is quite beautiful.

 

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Boardtree Falls, "Tree Falls"

 

I like to come up with clever puns for my photo titles.  It may not seem like much, but buyers always enjoy an interesting title, and it's easier to remember.  I don't know if the same concept applies for photo contests, but a good title certainly doesn't hurt.  With the names "Rain Falls" and "Tree Falls," these photos stand out slightly more.  Plus, the title becomes more descriptive even if the name of the waterfall is something different.

 

Having a location like this means that I know where to go when the weather is right.  During a weekend of low temperatures, I knew that the waterfall would freeze, or icicles would form at the very least.  I made the drive, and I was not disappointed.  Although the waterfall didn't freeze completely, the beautiful ice formations across the cliff (especially on Lower Greeter Falls) were perfect.  Photos will follow soon!

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(Spencer Cox Photography) Boardtree Falls Greeter Falls Tennessee waterfall http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/1/rain-falls Sun, 18 Jan 2015 17:53:47 GMT
How to Win a Photo Contest http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/1/how-to-win-a-photo-contest Every year, the Royal Geographical Society in the United Kingdom hosts a photo contest: TPOTY, the Travel Photographer of the Year.  This is a somewhat well-known contest by a large Society, and it draws a large number of entries from around the world.  The first time I entered this contest, the portfolio I submitted was a finalist in the under-18 category. 

 

"Pangea""Pangea"The maddeningly beautiful city of Paris looked back at me as I stood at the top of Notre Dame cathedral. I stared at these jigsaw-like buildings in the distance, and I realized how to capture the complex layers of Paris in a single frame.


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In addition to TPOTY, I also achieved finalist status in OPOTY, Outdoor Photographer of the Year.  This time, two of my individual photos were finalists rather than a portfolio: "Dawn in Yosemite" and "Rain Falls." "Rain Falls" was chosen as a commended entry.

 

Yosemite Tunnel View sunrise"Dawn in Yosemite"When I saw this scene, I was looking over Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. I was awe-struck by the way the morning sun sculpted the valley, igniting it with color.


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- Finalist image in Outdoor Photographer of the Year competition.

 

I found out recently that I was also a finalist in The International Society for Optics and Photonics "Year of Light" contest.  This was again a single-image competition, where my photo "Cathedral at Amienswill be voted upon in January and February.

 

 

I don't want this to be a self-inflating article.  I achieved a finalist nomination in these competitions, not (at the time of this writing) a first-place win.  Still, it shows something important: someone like me, who doesn't spend my life traveling and doesn't have the most expensive gear, can make images that are competitive in a juried competition.  

 

Granted, I spend a lot of time working on my photography, and I only keep the few images that I love the most.  So I guess you can say that I'm picky.  I do have some good photos, too, which certainly helps.  I'm sure that most people reading this are similar.

 

The key to winning a photo contest, or being a finalist, is simple: know your limits, and know your strengths.  Then match your strengths to the contests you find, and you have the best possible shot at winning.

 

How does this work?  I'll give you an example.  My strengths: I have several solid images, and my monochrome images are among my best.  My weaknesses: I have no single photo which stand heads-and-shoulders above the rest of mine, and I have very few color photos that are amazing.

 

Eiffel Tower at night"Beacon"My camera rested on a concrete ledge a few feet in front of me, and I could barely reach the shutter button. If it had fallen off the ledge, a 150-foot drop would have been its fate. I waited for the Eiffel Tower's spotlight to shine directly upwards, and then I quickly took this photo.


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- Finalist in Travel Photographer of the Year competition.

 

This means that, at the time I write this, my photos are not good for most huge, single-image contests.  Those contests tend to have dozens or hundreds of people submit once-in-a-lifetime, crazy amazing shots.  In contrast, many of my best photos would be very easy for me to repeat, since they don't depend on spur-of-the-moment action or conditions.  

 

I also would not enter my photos in most paid competitions, again because I have no single photo that I place all my confidence in.  People who make back their money in paid competitions have to be totally confident in their portfolio.  By contrast, my best images range from "very good" to "contest winner" simply depending upon whoever looks at them.

 

However, there are some contests which are perfect for my strengths.  Portfolio competitions are ideal for me, since many of my photos can be grouped by genre (macro photography) or tone (monochromatic images).  None of the photos are once-in-a-lifetime shots, but the ones I enter are still very strong images.  Together, they are stronger.  This is how I was a finalist in TPOTY: I entered a portfolio of four monochromatic images from France.

 

"They Watching Us""They Watching Us"I saw this eerie graffiti in the city of Paris, and I stood for several moments trying to comprehend its meaning. To this day, I have no idea what the intended message truly was, but I am glad that I took the photo. The paranoia is evident in the frame.


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​Another type of contest which works well for me are those in which I can enter several of my photos.  OPOTY is a good example; the contest let me enter ten photos, and two of mine were finalists.  This is because all ten photos I submitted were solid images, but some images clearly resonated with the judges more than the others.  In a similar contest, I wouldn't have been surprised if two of my other photos were chosen, or none at all.  Because I have a number of solid photos, I like contests that let me enter several photos at once.

 

Rain FallsRain FallsStandard Edition - Tier Three

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- Finalist image and Commended Entry in the "Outdoor Photographer of the Year" competition.

 

Lastly, going by the theme of the contest is the single most important way to improve your odds.  If you read a contest theme and none of your photos jumps out immediately, then you're probably forcing a connection where there is none.  My "Cathedral at Amiens" image was a finalist in the Year of Light competition in part because light itself is the subject of the photo.

 

​The photos you have are good enough to win a photo competition.  It may not be the competition that you want to win at this point, but if you put the effort into finding this page then I'm sure you are highly dedicated to photography.  In that case, try to find some smaller competitions to enter. I won $100 in the PicHit.me Messages photo competition because mine was one of few photos to even fit the theme.  Aside from that, only enter the competitions that you think you could win.  Submitting photos takes time, and it's more productive to be out shooting than to be inside entering a competition you can't win.

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(Spencer Cox Photography) how to win how to win a photo contest photo photo competition photo contest win http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/1/how-to-win-a-photo-contest Wed, 07 Jan 2015 00:17:34 GMT
Everglades Photography http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/1/everglades-photography I visited the Everglades this January, and I got a few photos that I found interesting.  I am not a wildlife photographer by any means, but my 105mm macro lens is enough of a telephoto that it lets me reach some closer birds in the park.  

 

The light was harsh because I visited the Everglades in the middle of the afternoon.  When that's the case, it's best to expose the photo for highlights and allow shadows to fall deeper.  Not only does it look more natural than blown highlights, but it is also easier to correct.  Below is a good example:

 

 

Alongside exposure, one of the toughest parts about wildlife photography is trying to take a "special" photo.  If you're just trying for a close-up portrait of a bird, you risk taking a photo that hundreds of people have already taken.  When the light isn't amazing, the best way to take a good photo is to wait for the animal to do something interesting.  Below, this heron tries to eat the massive fish it just caught:

 

 

The Everglades is a unique place because the wildlife is generally not afraid of humans.  This makes it easy to get close even with shorter lenses.  I recommend that anyone, even non-wildlife photographers, should visit the Everglades if the opportunity presents itself.  None of these photos is my best, but each one is a good recollection of my visit.  

 

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(Spencer Cox Photography) Everglades great blue heron heron photography http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2015/1/everglades-photography Mon, 05 Jan 2015 18:42:47 GMT
What's New? http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2014/12/whats-new "Rain Falls 3""Rain Falls 3"Tier Three:
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Spencercoxphoto.com has seen some major changes!

 

I have been working for a while on a new version of this websiteone that is more intuitive, easier to share, and more refined.  On the last day of 2014, I'm happy to say that I have finished these updates.

 

Most obviously, the background is now white.  This makes text easier to read, and it makes photos appear more like they will in prints.

 

I added a few photos to my galleries, including the photo above.

 

The home page looks much fancier now.

 

I switched around the layout of the blog to make it easier to find old articles.

 

Also, believe it or not, I added a way to share posts via something called "social media."   Gallery photos and blog posts can now be shared easily through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+. 

 

Prints are easier to order directly from my galleries.  I have updated pricing and sizing information as well.

 

The new gallery layout makes it quicker to switch between each photo, and most images appear larger in this new layout.

 

New fonts!  And new colors.

 

Lastly, my bio page has been updated with links to recent awards I have won and a list of my camera gear.

 

Woot woot! I hope that all of this combines to make a much better viewing experience for visitors to my site.  Expect 2015 to be a good year.

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(Spencer Cox Photography) Spencer Cox Spencer Cox photo spencercoxphoto spencercoxphoto.com update http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2014/12/whats-new Wed, 31 Dec 2014 19:18:00 GMT
Prime Lenses http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2014/11/prime-lenses "The Fox of Amiens""The Fox of Amiens"I walked through the pristine streets of Amiens, France, without finding any graffiti or street art. Then, on this one abandoned building, there was more graffiti than I had ever seen on a single city block. And I've been to San Francisco.


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There is a very old and very polarizing debate in the world of photography: primes versus zooms.  

 

Prime lenses are lenses which cannot zoom, whereas zoom lenses can.  Inherently, it seems that zoom lenses are better, right?  Well, not for everyone.

 

Reasons to Buy a Prime

A prime lens will, by definition, be smaller, lighter, and less expensive than a counterpart zoom (with equal aperture size and optical performance).  And if the prime lens weighs as much as the zoom, it will, all else equal, have either a wider maximum aperture or better optics (or some additional feature, like tilt-shift lenses and macro lenses).

 

Take the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 A for example.  It weighs about as much as a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, but it's a prime lens.  What does this mean?  Well, the Sigma is two stops brighter than the zoom, and it is also sharper.  It has less vignetting, it has almost no chromatic aberration whatsoever, and it costs about $1000 less than the 24-70mm.  In almost every way, the 50mm f/1.4 beats the zoom, except that it doesn't zoom.  Below is a photo from the 50mm.

 

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Granted, the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 is no slouch.  It's very sharp, and it has extremely fast focus.  But, in terms of optical quality at 50mm, the Sigma wins, hands-down.  I'm not a test-chart guy, but you can see that this is true by looking at comparisons around the web.  

 

Before I go any further, it's important to know that I am biased on this subject, but only because of my own experience.  I started out with the 18-55mm kit zoom, then I bought Nikon's 17-55mm f/2.8 zoom.  Along the way, I also bought the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR macro lens, which showed me the image quality possible with a prime lens, especially along the edges of a photo.  Not to mention that the macro feature of the lens let me take pictures that no current zoom allows.  I soon realized that the 17-55 was not a particularly sharp lens, and I sold it.  I bought the Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lens, and later the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 A.

 

Keeping track of that all?  I now have three lenses, and all are primes: the Nikon 24mm f/1.4, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 A, and the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR macro.  At the time I write this, I'm using them all on the Nikon D7000.  Below is a sharpness comparison of the upper-left sixteenth of an image shot at f/4 and 24mm with both the 17-55mm f/2.8 and the 24mm f/1.4.  If I printed the final photo at a 16x24 size, these crops would be 4x6 inches of the frame.  (Click on one of the images and scroll between the two for the most obvious results.)

 

Nikon 24mm f/1.4 sharpness

Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 sharpness

For my photography, a zoom lens would be nice.  However, it also would not be necessary, and, as the above crops show, it would not be good for my prints.  

 

My style of composition is to find a great scene, set my camera on a tripod, and then find the composition that looks the best when I move around the camera.  I default to my 24mm, and I only put on another lens when the "great scene" is in the distance.  Also, I hike a lot.  If I'm on the move, I can use just my 24mm lens and save a considerable amount of weight over a 14-24mm or 24-70mm zoom, and my photos will be a bit sharper, too.  

 

If you have to work quickly, and if you cannot move from where you are, I recommend a zoom.  For most other people, a prime lens is ideal.  

 

If you're a parent photographing your child, a prime lens is probably best.  Prime lenses have wider apertures, so you can make your child stand out from the background.  Also, it takes just as long to walk forward with a prime lens as it does to change a zoom lens to the setting you want.

 

If you're a landscape photographer, primes are probably best for you too.  First, a prime is typically lighter than a zoom (helpful on treks to distant landscapes).  Also, if you're working on a tripod, you'll always be able to get the focal length you want by making a panorama.  And if you're taking star shots, you need the widest aperture you can get.

 

Sports and wildlife shooters will want at least one prime lens, just because primes are the best way to get a super-long focal length at a decent aperture.

 

Street shooters probably don't have time to zoom how they'd want, plus a prime lens is smaller and more discreet.

 

Macro photographers have essentially no zoom lenses that even work as macro lenses. 

 

Travel photographers may want a zoom for its convenience.  Or, they may want a prime for its convenience.  Prime lenses are quicker to use, and they work better in low-light areas, such at cathedrals and museums.  The photo below was taken at f/1.4 and ISO 800, meaning that Nikon's most expensive zoom lenses would have required me to be at ISO 3200.

 

Eiffel Tower at night"Beacon"My camera rested on a concrete ledge a few feet in front of me, and I could barely reach the shutter button. If it had fallen off the ledge, a 150-foot drop would have been its fate. I waited for the Eiffel Tower's spotlight to shine directly upwards, and then I quickly took this photo.


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- Finalist in Travel Photographer of the Year competition.

 

And, for some people, a prime lens helps with composition.  For me, it does, but only when I work handheld.  I typically take five or six photos of the best scenes I see, and I would rather bracket composition with a prime lens than bracket focal lengths with a zoom lens.  For people who like to shoot quickly, and whose compositions often suffer as a result, a prime lens is a good remedy.  It makes you less likely to blindly fill the frame with an interesting object, and instead to consider how to make the scene look its best.  

 

However, for tripod-based work (or for slow and methodical handheld work), a prime lens does not help my composition.  If I spend two minutes envisioning the scene ahead before I ultimately click the shutter, I should probably know the best way to photograph that scene.  Sometimes, that lines up with my focal length, and sometimes it doesn't.

 

This, believe it or not, is another advantage of prime lenses.  With a zoom, I would line up the scene perfectly to the focal length that looks best, and then I would take the picture framed exactly how I want.  

 

With a prime lens, this composition still works, just with a different process.  Instead of framing the shot with the correct focal length, I would change lenses to my prime lens that is longer than the correct focal length.  Then, since I'd be on a tripod anyway, I would shoot a panorama photo.  Every time I do this, I make sure that the entire perfectly-composed scene is well within the boundaries of the panorama.  Just like in the photo below:

 

Half Dome Sunset"Half Dome Sunset"As I took this picture, I watched the last light of the day glint off of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The cool tones of the rock mesmerized me, and the slim band of orange light completed an image I had in my mind's eye.


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The next step is to assemble the panorama in my software, and then crop to the ideal composition.  Now, I have a perfectly-composed photo with higher detail than a single shot would offer.  The only issue: moving subjects.  If you need to capture a photo in a single frame, this technique doesn't work too well.  

 

In all, primes aren't perfect.  But, in general, they are sharper, better in low light, and lighter than zooms.  This makes them worthwhile for a wider audience of people than may be expected.

 

 

Reasons to Buy a Zoom

Zooms still have a key place in photography.  They work best if you need to change perspective quickly, especially if you can't move much.  For example, wedding photographers and close-range sports photographers will probably rely on a fast zoom for much of their work.

 

Also, a lot of zooms are faster to focus than prime lenses.  Documentary photographers will probably carry a zoom or two, primarily for this quality.

 

Some real estate photographers will probably want a wide-angle zoom instead of a prime, because they can afford the weight and aperture loss of a zoom in exchange for the ability to quickly change perspective.  Some landscape photographers are like this as well, although I personally find it worthwhile to spend the time creating a panorama if necessary.  If you're a tripod-bound photographer but you are also on a tight schedule, a zoom lens could be your best option.

 

Another possibility is that a lens manufacturer doesn't have the focal length you want in anything other than a zoom.  For example, there is no autofocus prime lens under 20mm for a Nikon camera, other than a fisheye and an outdated and overpriced 14mm f/2.8.  Prior to 2014, there was no autofocus lens under 24mm aside from the zooms.  I've heard that Canon is just as bad, too.

 

Lastly, if you can only have one lens (for monetary or space purposes) a zoom is probably the way to go.  Primes work best when you have a tag-team; your widest prime will probably work best most of the time (at least for landscape photographers), but there are also situations which demand telephotos.

 

Yosemite Tunnel View sunrise"Dawn in Yosemite"When I saw this scene, I was looking over Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. I was awe-struck by the way the morning sun sculpted the valley, igniting it with color.


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- Finalist image in Outdoor Photographer of the Year competition.

 

Myths of a Zoom Lens

I only have one myth, actually, so this section probably has a bad title.  Regardless, a key myth of zoom lenses is that they let you avoid changing lenses for every shot.  From my experience owning zooms, this simply isn't true.  Unless you have just a single lens, you will always want to change lenses.  It doesn't matter what your kit looks like, because you will always seem to have the wrong lens on your camera at any given time.

 

Recommendations for a budget kit

For Nikon users, I highly suggest the following kit: 20mm f/1.8, 35mm f/1.8 FX, and 60mm f/2.8 macro (or the 50mm f/1.8, if you don't like macro).  This kit is light, inexpensive, high-quality, and versatile.  Depending upon your style, you'll probably use the 20mm or 35mm the most, and you'll switch to the others as needed.  There are no zooms which can capture images this sharp at this price, and especially none which have such wide apertures and also cover full-frame cameras.  Also, for cropped sensors, this kit works very well.  (Another, crop-only option is the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 zoom, paired with the 60mm f/2.8 macro.  This should be just as good, although it won't work if you transition to full frame.)

 

This kit doesn't include any telephoto lenses, because your telephoto lineup will depend more on your budget than anything else.  The 300mm f/4 lens does seem promising at a good price, but I haven't tried it.

 

Also, I'm not a Canon guy, so I can't offer a great recommendation if that's what you shoot.  The new 16-35mm f/4 seems like a good lens, though, especially considering that Canon doesn't have a lot of wide-angle autofocus primes (although their manual focus tilt-shift lenses are supposed to be phenomenal).

 

Summary

Although I'm a prime person, I understand that most people are not.  Zooms are more versatile, they generally focus faster (not the telephotos, though), and they often come with the camera you've already bought.  But for me, a prime kit is my preference.  The wide aperture sometimes comes in handy, and I love the better price/performance/weight tradeoff of primes. 

 

Shoot whatever makes you happy, though, or whatever you already have.  Some of my best photos, like the one below, were taken using Nikon's cheapest 18-55mm zoom, and I'm perfectly happy with that.

 

Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock"Motion"As the waves spread in front of my tripod, they created patterns that reminded me of a desert sand dune. I waited for a slow-rolling wave to engulf the foreground, then I tripped the shutter.


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(Spencer Cox Photography) lens prime zoom http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2014/11/prime-lenses Sun, 30 Nov 2014 14:00:00 GMT
How to Use a Polarizer http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2014/11/how-to-use-a-polarizer Polarizers are some of the most helpful tools in photography, and they are very easy to use.  Just put the filter on the front of your lens and rotate until the picture looks good.  This super-super-quick guide will teach you all the basics of polarizing filters.  To start, polarizers do three main things for your photo:

 

1) Darken skies

2) Saturate leaves

3) Reduce glare

(Also, you can use a polarizing filter to make rainbows pop.)

 

In terms of darkening skies, polarizing filters are the best tool a photographer can have.  In photos where your sky blown out to completely white, polarizing filters can darken it back to a blue color.  Note that polarizing filters are not as useful when they point directly towards or away from the sun, simply because of how the atmosphere reflects polarized light.  Below is a good example where I used a polarizing filter to darken the sky.

 

 

Another useful reason for a polarizing filter is to saturate colors, especially leaves and grass.  This is because a polarizing filter cuts glare that otherwise reflects off of plants, making them seem dull.

 

Lastly, polarizing filters help reduce glare in your photos.  This glare can be from almost anything: water, windows, and anything in between.  The only reflections that polarizing filters cannot reduce are those glinting off of metal.  In the photo below, the rocks would be annoyingly shiny if I had not used a polarizing filter to cut glare.

 

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Remember, as with all filters, subtlety is key.  If someone can tell that you used a polarizer, you probably messed up.  

 

In terms of recommendations, I always use the B+W Kaesemann polarizing filters.  They are expensive, but they are also waterproof and shock-proof.  Thirty seconds before I took the photo above, I dropped my filter into the river.  Not only did it hit rocks when it landed, but it took about a minute to find in the raging water.  Afterwards, I dried it off and slapped it back on my camera for the photo you see above.  It didn't have a scratch.

 

Also, as a final word of advice, make sure not to use a polarizer on a super-wide-angle lens pointed at the sky.  Why?  As I said above, a polarizer doesn't darken the sky much around the sun.  So if you use a super wide lens, you could end up taking a picture where only part of the sky is dark, which looks bad.

 

That's about it!  Thanks for reading, and I hope this helped.

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(Spencer Cox Photography) how to use a polarizer how to use a polarizing filter polarizer polarizing filter http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2014/11/how-to-use-a-polarizer Sat, 29 Nov 2014 14:00:00 GMT
Processing Landscape Photos in Lightroom http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2014/11/processing-landscape-photos-in-lightroom This article is aimed at being a flash-guide on how I processed one of my landscape photos in Lightroom.  Below is the initial image, followed by the final image (click on them to flip between the two):

 

 

As you can see, the image changed by a decent amount.  It started out dull (because I shot it in RAW), but my edits boosted the color as well as the contrast.  Of course, I also cropped the image significantly.  My process for editing this photo is slightly different than my process for many of my other photos, just because this photo needed a lot of clarity added.  Typically, I hover between zero and thirty for my clarity boosts, even for landscape images, but this photo had no real shadows initially, and a +100 was perhaps the best way to add some.  Also, note that this photo was edited using "camera standard" color, not "Adobe standard."  I think that the colors are best this way.

 

 

As you can see above, I started out the image with three major adjustments, aimed at increasing contrast and creating some shadows: +55 contrast, -36 blacks, +100 clarity.  All of these are extreme values in comparison to what I typically use, which goes to show that there is no "standard" setting that works for most landscape images. 

 

Then, I adjusted color.  As you can see with the actions above along the left, I changed around the temperature (to make the photo more golden), I increased vibrance (which I prefer over saturation), and I shifted some of the colors slightly (which you can see on the right).  I try to avoid shifting anything more than twenty points.  Going overboard on this adds color noise and weird gradients to your photos.

 

Lastly, I cropped the photo how I wanted.  I adjusted sharpness and noise reduction slightly, using more extreme noise reduction than typical because of the high clarity value.

 

That's about it!  I made a few minor changes afterwards, but all of these were very subtle.  The main adjustments are easy: contrast, then color, then sharpness.  Learn how to adjust those three, and you'll be great at post-processing.  Subtlety is key!

 

 

 

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(Spencer Cox Photography) Lightroom editing landscape http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2014/11/processing-landscape-photos-in-lightroom Fri, 28 Nov 2014 18:31:02 GMT
Best Shutter Speed for Waterfalls http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2014/11/best-shutter-speed-for-water It's easy to get addicted to the silky-smooth water that comes from leaving your shutter open for several seconds.  However, this effect is overused almost to the degree of garish HDR, to the point where it is nothing more than a gimmick.  

 

On the other hand, it can be distracting and unnatural to have water in your image frozen like ice.  So, where is the happy medium?

 

Short answer: It depends.

 

Long answer: You need to go by the effect you want.  For waterfalls, leaving the shutter open for more than a second will mean that the entire waterfall is silky smooth, without any texture.  For an ocean scene, leaving the shutter open for a while (usually ten seconds or longer) can turn the waves to mist.  Below are examples of both (the top at six seconds, the bottom at thirty seconds):

 

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"Smoke""Smoke"Tier Three:
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This effect works well for some photos, but it is also overused.  Instead, for a lot of photos, it can be best to leave some texture in the water.  Doing so all depends upon how fast the water is moving.  In a slow-moving ocean, you can leave your shutter open for a few seconds.  The example below was shot with a six-second shutter:

 

Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock"Motion"As the waves spread in front of my tripod, they created patterns that reminded me of a desert sand dune. I waited for a slow-rolling wave to engulf the foreground, then I tripped the shutter.


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On the other hand, with a fast-moving stream or waterfall, something more in the 1/4 to 1/3 range could be best.  For example, the next shot was taken at 1/3 second, and it shows a good amount of texture:

 

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I think that 1/2 second to 1/4 second would be a good go-to shutter speed range for rivers and waterfalls, assuming that those settings work in your lighting.  I don't like to kill detail with a slow speed, and I don't like to freeze the water unnaturally with a fast one.  

 

However, there is a time and a place for everything, which I hope becomes clear with these final two photos:

 

"Serendipity""Serendipity"When I first saw this scene, I hardly believed that it was real. Here was a perfect waterfall in Norway with a perfect tree and a perfectly foggy background. I wanted to stand and admire the scene for hours, but the fog was rolling away quickly. I managed a single shot before the serendipitous scene disappeared forever.


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(Spencer Cox Photography) ocean shutter shutter speed water waterfall http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2014/11/best-shutter-speed-for-water Thu, 27 Nov 2014 14:00:00 GMT
Making Rainbows Pop http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2014/11/tip-3-rainbows

 

This is a short article, mostly because I only have one example photo at the moment.  Clearly, rainbows do not like me.

 

When you're learning about a polarizing filter, you'll typically hear how it can cut glare off of water and darken blue skies.  Sometimes, you'll learn how it can also cut glare from a window.  However, one of the things that you may not know about polarizing filters is how they can help bring out a rainbow in your photo.

 

Rainbows are entirely made of polarized light, which should mean that a polarizing filter will completely eliminate a rainbow from your image.  In fact, if you rotate the filter properly, it does.  But who wants to get rid of a rainbow from your photos?  

 

What most people don't know is that a polarizing filter does not just cut out polarized light; instead, at the proper spin, a polarizing filter can actually magnify it.  Typically, you wouldn't do this to a photo, because it adds distracting glare to objects in your frame.  But for a rainbow, it is the best way to brighten colors.  

 

This is very easy to implement: put on your polarizing filter next time you see a rainbow, and rotate the filter until the rainbow pops.  

 

I hope that helped!

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(Spencer Cox Photography) filter photograph polarizer polarizing filter rainbow http://spencercox.zenfolio.com/blog/2014/11/tip-3-rainbows Wed, 26 Nov 2014 14:00:00 GMT