Lens Tragedy in Vermont

As I prepare to shoot an event tomorrow without the benefit of my trusty Fujinon 18-135mm zoom, I thought this might be a good time to remind everyone to exercise caution when handling your gear in the field. This applies to professionals and amateur shutter bugs alike.

Back in May, my wife and I were vacationing up in New England. We stopped in a small Vermont town so we could walk around and take some photos. As I grabbed my camera bag - a smaller backpack I like to use for trips - and pulled it from the back seat of the car, I realized too late that something was wrong. The main compartment flipped open and my zoom lens tumbled down onto asphalt with the impact of a million suns exploding. (It's a slight exaggeration, but such was the effect on my nerves.)

Photo taken immediately after dropping my lens. The cosmetic damage was minor, but focusing problems began appearing soon after.

No glass elements were damaged, but I noticed immediately that the little plastic aperture switch on this otherwise metal lens was banged up. It would slide between positions, but with a lot of resistance. At first everything else seemed OK. But over the next few months I noticed that the focus point wouldn't move on command at random times. I put up with this quirk for a while, but after my last big event realized this could become a problem at a very inopportune moment. I can't afford to miss critical shots because faulty gear lets me down.

Several weeks ago, I packed my sick lens carefully and shipped it to a repair shop in New York. After a delay due to parts availability, I finally got a call this Monday that the lens was ready to ship. The total cost of repairs: $238, not including my initial shipping and insurance. As it's a $900 lens, getting it repaired was a no-brainer. I use this lens a great deal for travel and event photography. The repair shop is an authorized Fujifilm repair center, so I'm optimistic that it will return to me in good working order.

The point of this cautionary tale is simply this: Never leave an unzipped (or unlatched) camera bag closed. If you're at all like me, you'll forget that the bag is not secured in a moment of excitement, and the end result could make for a very costly accident. It may also mean that you find yourself without the lens you want at the worst possible time.

Why Does Aunt Rita Have Three Hands?

If your photos seem a little boring, then maybe you're not paying attention to background details.  It's taken me years to really grasp this concept, but one key to taking consistently interesting photographs is keeping an eye on what's behind your subject.  Managing background details can result in better photos instead of forgettable snapshots.

Minding what's in your background helps improve your photos in a couple of ways.  The most immediately obvious is that it helps eliminate distractions.  It's easy to get caught up in the moment, and fail to notice that a telephone pole or a tree is growing out of your loved one's head, or that a garbage truck is just now cruising down that scenic screet.  Your brain can easily tune out these details while you're busy making sure everyone is smiling.

Keep an eye out for distracting patterns, signs or general clutter that will later confuse viewers since these compete for visual attention. Remember that everything in your viewfinder becomes part of the final image, so while you see two people looking at the camera right now, it's possible you won't notice that construction sign or rude graffiti intruding into the frame until after the fact.  Let your eye rove around the corners of the viewfinder and make sure there's nothing in there you don't want.  You may not be able to "Photoshop" it easily after the fact, so it's far better to exclude undesirable features from the scene in the first place.

Sap buckets hanging on maple trees.  Here I used the element of repetition to add visual interest to the photo.

The second important aspect of considering the background is using elements of the scene to add interest to the photo.  This might be as simple as choosing a colorful background that complements the main subject - a blue car parked by an orange wall, for example.  Another time-honored technique is to use repetition when your subject is one of multiple identical objects, usually keeping the focus on the closest one.  If the subject is a person, you may want to surround them with relevant personal items so that you create what's known as an environmental portrait.  If your subject is a writer, for example, you may want to show them sitting with their keyboard, a thesaurus and other writing tools at their desk.

Whatever approach you decide to use, include only background elements that add to your composition.  Exclude anything that doesn't add to the photograph.  If there are unwanted elements in the background, you may find that moving even a few inches in a different direction eliminates the unwanted element, or enables you to include more of what you do want.  If you can't exclude an unwanted background, try to ensure that it's out of focus.

If you follow these simple guidelines, you may find your photos become much more interesting to yourself and others.