Saturday, December 27, 2008

Letting The Image Speak

I'm finding it hard to write about photographs or photography in general right now. I've tried to come up with short bits once a week, but I'm finding that to be no easier. I suppose that's why I photograph in the first place, because I just don't have that much to say, at least that much worth writing down that would be of interest to anyone but myself.

I'll keep trying, but I may lean a little more toward the news than the notes for a while.

Recently a few people have commented that my photographs look old, and not just because of the warm tone. They have said they look old as if they are of another time. Most of my subject matter is still, unmoving and of common things, often timeless things, like a tree. Maybe I choose subjects that might seem "old fashioned" to current sensibilities. I do seek out stillness and the familiar in that stillness. Maybe that in itself is old fashioned.

Photo: ©2008 David W. Sumner

Monday, December 1, 2008

Meeting the Planet Walker

Anna and I spent last Friday in Point Reyes with our good friends Pam Heyda and John Wall. We all had the great, good fortune to meet John Francis. In the photo above Anna looks on as John Francis inscribes a copy of his book Planetwalker.

Environmentalist and author, John Francis.

In 1971 John Francis witnessed the collision of two oil tankers under the Golden Gate Bridge and the subsequent spill of 500,000 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay.

He was so moved by the incident that he vowed to stop riding in motorized vehicles of any kind. He began walking on a journey that would take him across the world and around the world.

As he traveled, John engaged people he met in lively debate on environmental issues until one day he realized he was talking and arguing more than he was listening. He tried not talking for a day to see how much more he could learn by only listening. One day grew into two, then a week, then a year went by and he was still not talking. John didn't end his silence for 17 years. In that time he walked around the world, earned three degrees, including a PhD, and worked for the Coast Guard writing key environmental legislation concerning oil spills.

John has served as a UN ambassador and recently lectured at TED. His book, "Planetwalker," chronicles his seventeen year journey of silence for the sake of environmental consciousness.

John Francis lives in Point Reyes, California with his wife and son.

Photo: ©2008 David W. Sumner

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What Makes a Good Photograph? Part 2

There is certainly something to be said for minimalism. Focusing on a very few or even single element can help create a very dynamic even dramatic image. Visual simplicity can often speak volumes. The single source of light is the subject of this image, yet it is illuminating the secondary elements around it, thus better defining its context.

Photo: ©2008 David W. Sumner

Friday, November 7, 2008

What Makes a Good Photograph?

Sometimes a photograph isn’t about its subject. A photograph can be about a message or an idea. Other times a photograph can be simply a visually pleasing arrangement of lines and shapes. This photograph is about color.

Photo: ©2008 David W. Sumner

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Beginning of a New Season

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, 2008. Photo: David W. Sumner

It was a busy Summer. Now as Fall closes in I’m looking forward to starting some projects I’ve been putting off for various reasons. I hope to start writing more, which means more frequent posts here. I’m constantly updating my Flickr page which is one reason why I seldom venture into the bloggosphire, but I want that to change, so I’m looking forward to posting more frequently with briefer commentary and more images.

For now you can see my most recent work on my Flickr page. I’m working on the images I shot a couple weeks ago at the free Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Losing a Friend

River of Mud by Jane Grossenbacher
©Jane Grossenbacher

A wonderful photographer and my dear friend for many years, Jane Grossenbacher, passed away Tuesday, September 16th. She had been fighting ovarian cancer for three years.

Jane inspired and motivated me to keep working during my own illness. We often passed each other coming from and going to our chemo treatments. She always greeted me with her beautiful, warm smile and an encouraging, hopeful hug.

Jane was a great artist and had a wonderful life.

A beautiful exhibit of her photography, mostly photogravures, opened September 12th at The Gallery on Potrero Avenue. If you have a chance, please stop by The Gallery and witness Jane's amazing work.

More info on the exhibit here:

The Gallery at 323 Potrero Avenue
(between 16th and 17th Streets, in San Francisco)
Open weekends 1pm - 5pm
Sept 12 - Oct 19, 2008

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Wild West at the Beach

In 1902 Buffalo Bill brought his famous Wild West show to San Francisco. There exists a fairly well known photograph of Buffalo Bill and 100 Indians, mounted on horseback, stretched out along Ocean Beach below the Cliff House. Earlier this month Seattle artist, Thom Ross installed his recreation of that spectacular image. Ross lined up over 100, bigger than life-size, brightly painted plywood cutouts of Indian worriers and Buffalo Bill himself, in the sand right on Ocean Beach. It certainly was a sight to behold and fun to photograph.

You can see more photos here.

Photo: ©2008 David W. Sumner

Sunday, July 6, 2008

An Artful Act

Yesterday's entry was inspired by a passage from Issa's book, Oraga Haru:

"Without lifting the foot, he arrives.
Without moving the tongue, he preaches.
Be you ever in the lead, you still must know
That there is always One who comes before

- Issa, quoting Mumonkan

I appreciate the simplicity in this notion, as I interpret it:

We are shown the way by those who have gone before us. We learn from them, we follow them along the path until we come to a fork in that path which is simply too compelling to ignore, and we begin our own journey down a new path, our path.

We may not be covering new ground, but we are traveling with a knowledge and a passion that will help us experience this 'new' path in a unique way. We observe and interpret our experiences and express them through our work. What ever that work may be, it is driven and shaped by our creative minds.

This is what we do.

Text and photo ©2008 David W. Sumner

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Thoughtful Act

Art and thought, there is nothing more. All art is the expression of thought. Thought inspires and motivates one. Thought sustains one. Without thought, there is nothing. Achieving nothingness is a goal of Zen meditation. But in itself, the process of achieving nothingness is a thoughtful act, an artful act.

Life is to be spent in thought and expressed through art.

This, is the way.

Text and photo: ©2008 David W. Sumner

Friday, May 23, 2008

My 2 Cents on Fill Flash

I’ve always tried to avoid using flash, but often I wish I had just a little boost to diminish shadows. I usually use reflectors, but that means carrying additional bulky gear. So, I’ve been experimenting with fill flash lately.

There are all sorts of formulas for adding just the right amount of fill light to an image. What I have found is that the best way to achieve well balanced fill flash is to start with a flash unit that will allow you to reduce the flash output by fractions of an f/stop. Reducing the flash’s power by 1/2, 1/4, and so on is not the same.

I started with a Nikon SB-24 and my F4. I set the flash exposure compensation on SB-24 to -1.7 (that’s almost, but not quite, 2 stops under). The F4 is set to aperture priority auto and away I go. It works really well, every time. I like the SB-24 very much and it’s the flash unit I go to if I need to be sure my fill flash exposures are perfect.

Hyde Street Pier, San Francisco. Nikon F4 with the SB-24 set for matrix Balanced Fill Flash with and -1.7 compensation ratio. Photo: ©2007 David W. Sumner

The only problem I have is the size and awkward balance of this set up. The SB-24 is big, and when it’s on top of an F4 the combination is top heavy and not too easy to carry around. The F100 is lighter and works perfectly with the SB-24, but hangs upside down if on a strap around my neck or on my shoulder.

I did some reading and heard some good things about the SB-23. I was able to find one at KEH for less than $40, so I ordered it. It’s very simple, small, light, and very, very energy efficient. It has only one switch and two settings: ON and OFF. I have found that it works best on my F100.

The Nikon F100 with the SB-23. Photo: ©2008 David W. Sumner

With the F100 I set the flash mode in camera (something you can’t do with the F4). I choose matrix balance flash and rear sync, and set the exposure mode to aperture priority. Based on my aperture selection the camera sets the shutter speed, calculating the correct ambient exposure. The camera also measures the flash out put and shuts off the flash when the “correct” balance of ambient and flash are achieved.

The Cable Car Museum. Nikon F100 with SB-23. Photo: ©2008 David W. Sumner

This combination works well, but is not as precise as being able to dial down the flash out put by 1/3 stop increments on the unit itself. However the SB-23 is so small and easy to carry, even mounted on the camera, it’s often worth the compromise. Just remember that with the SB-23 you need to par attention to the distance between you and your subject. In other words, don’t get too close. Otherwise the closer you get more you have to stop down your lens and eventually start using a tripod. (Most SB-23s you find will have a sticker pasted on top with a distance guide for various combinations of ISO and f/stop.)

Most people I’ve talked to or read tend to dismiss the “pop-up” flash units on newer cameras as pretty much useless, except for full on flash shots of the family at a picnic. But I don’t agree. I recently photographed the current exhibition of costumes at the Museum of Performance & Design using the Museum’s Nikon D80. I chose the D80 over using film because it allowed me to crank up the ISO setting as I moved around the gallery, in and out of various lighting arrangements, and it has a small on board “pop-up” flash that I can dial down to a -3 stop out put if necessary.

When shooting the costumes I set the camera’s ISO to 1250. The ambient exposure was f/3.5 (wide open) at around 1/20. In general the exposures were good but I could tell I needed a little boost. I popped up the on board flash and dialed in a compensation ratio of -1.7. That’s just what the scene needed. The flash was subtle but made an obvious difference in exposure that maintained the warmth of the ambient lighting while gently opening up the shadows. The gallery I was shooting is a big room. I was using a Nikkor 18-135mm DX at 18mm. The coverage of the flash was perfect. I’ve used the same set up in the same room during an evening event when the ambient exposure had dropped two stops. In that case I found that a flash compensation ratio of -1 worked best for capturing images of guest viewing the exhibition, (as long as they were not moving).

Gallery shot #1: Nikon D80 at ISO 1250 ambient exposure only. Photo: David W. Sumner/MPD

Gallery shot #1: Nikon D80 at ISO 1250 ambient exposure plus -1.7 Fill Flash. Photo: David W. Sumner/MPD

I have a Canon Eos Elan 7NE that has a “pop-up” flash and I use it the same way. It can be dialed up or down in _ stop increments. Not as precise as the Nikons, but I’ve found that dialing down to -2 gives me a good amount of fill without being obvious.

So for me a good rule of thumb for fill flash is to start with a composition ratio of -1.7 and if I’m at all uncertain try a few frames at -1.5 and -1. Of course, if I was shooting a fast paced event outdoors I’d leave it at -1.7 and shoot away.

If you’re experimenting with fill flash or have found a formula that works well for you I’d like to hear from you.

Here’s a link to an article by the late Galen Rowell on his strategy for using fill flash.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

I Have A Dream

I have a dream...

This is what it would take to get me into digital photography:

An FM2 body with an FX sensor. Same center-weighted meter, same shutter speed and ISO dial. An electronic shutter release like the F3 that also recycles the shutter as in the current DSLRs. The F mount that will accept all AI, AIS and Non-AI lenses.

A manual DSLR with no elaborate controls and settings. Aperture, shutter speed, focus, all manual. The sensor is permanently set on auto white balance. There is no viewing screen on the back of the camera. Image composition and exposure settings are viewed through the FM2 type view finder.

This would be exciting and I believe entice many long time Nikon film shooters, like myself, to invest in digital photography. I want to use all my wonderful Nikkor lenses with a simple manual operating digital body that is as rugged and reliable as the Nikons I've been shooting for the past 30 years.

I know this is possible and I know that a product like this could retail for about $600.00, USD.

A camera like this would be a great gift to the millions of loyal Nikon shooters around the world. If Leica can make a digital M, Nikon can make a digital FM2, and do a better job of it.

I may be dreaming, but I know this can be done.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

What, are you nuts!

So the other evening my sister calls me. Susan lives in Bellevue, Washington.

“I need your opinion,” she says. “The guy down the street is selling an old Nikon F2 and a bunch of stuff with it. I know that’s an old one, do you think it would be worth it?”

So I ask the usual questions about brassing, advance lever, shutter release, all shutter speeds working, no cracks on the mount, on and on. Susan says all that seemed fine. The lenses were third party and she wasn’t sure about them. There’s a “big” zoom lens, a really big “500mm f/8 something or other,” a big flash with a “long handle and this thing that sticks out and looks like it screws into the camera somewhere.” There are these little boxes that say “Nikon Type K” on them, an old Nikon neck strap in the original box, a Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 “all metal, but the focusing ring sounds a bit gritty.”

“Oh yeah and there’s another one of those prism things that go on the top of the camera,” she says.

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff…

So I ask, “What are you going to do with all that stuff?”

“I don’t want it, I thought you’d want it,” she says.

“Well, how much does the guy want for it?”

“$150,” she says.

“WHAT! ARE YOU NUTS?!!! Put the phone down, go back there and buy it now! I’ll wait on the line. GO…GO…GO!!!”

“He said he’ll hold it for me. Are you sure you want it?”


I mailed a check the next morning, and now, waiting for me in Bellevue, Washington at my sister’s place is a Nikon F2A, Nikkor 24mm f/2.8, Lexar 500mm f/8 Mirror lens, Sunpak 511 flash with bracket, and various other Nikon parts and some sort of “big” zoom lens.

I’m heading up there in June for my nephew’s graduation. I figure this is my sister’s way of making sure I show up.

Photo: Steve Weil

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Introducing The Where We Live Project

A while back I initiated a project taking a close look at the neighborhoods in which we live. I invited photographers to submit black and white images in the form of a short photo essay that documented the essence of the neighborhoods they live in.

The project lay dormant for about a year. But I've brought it back with renewed energy. You can view the project here and leave comments. If you're interested in contributing an essay to the project send me an e-mail at

Photo: ©2008 David W. Sumner

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Annie Leibovitz at the Legion of Honor

Last weekend I went to the Legion of Honor to see the exhibition of Annie Leiboveitz's work. The show was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and came to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. I wrote a review of the exhibition for You can read it here. If you get the chance to see this exhibition I think you'll be surprised.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Getting The Most Out of Your Print Sales

A friend recently asked me for some tips on selling prints and limiting editions. I’m certainly no expert nor am I getting rich selling prints of my work. But I’ve been in and around the business for twenty years and I’ve seen various ‘business models’ in action. My friend found this information helpful, so I figured I’d share it here.

Some photographers limit their limited editions to a certain few sizes. They may limit editions to 100 - 500 prints, sizes 16x20 and 20x24 and leave 11x14 prints of the same image as an open edition. Materials can also come into play. Fiber base paper is usually used for limited editions (for B&W prints) and resin coated papers are often used for open editions. With pigment prints, materials can also play a factor: archival rag paper vs. clay coated paper.

The thing to keep in mind is how long you want an image to make money for you. Once you have printed the total number of prints in a limited edition you can't print it again in that particular size.

Limiting editions early in your sales career means images may have a shorter sales life. On the other hand, if you have an open edition of 11x14 prints of an image that becomes very popular over the course of several years, you can decide to create a 16x20 limited edition that will command a higher price per print than if the limited edition had been started earlier. It can also serve to increase the value of the open edition prints. Thus you have a longer sales life per image.

Usually, photographers limiting editions will set a price for the first 25 out of 100 prints, then raise the price per print on the next 25 prints. For example, prints 1/100 - 25/100 = X$ ea., 26/100 - 50/100 = X+X$ ea. or X+%of X, and so on. The higher the edition number the rarer the print and the higher the price. Photographers often hold back the first five prints of an addition to be sold once the rest of the edition has sold out. The five prints, #1 - #5, represent the earliest prints in the edition and can now command a higher price than the price paid for last prints of the edition.

Limiting editions is a good sales strategy, but it really only pays off once you've established a good sales record and created a demand for certain images or certain types of images. If you carefully consider print sizes and materials you can ensure a fairly long sales life for an image in a series of limited editions. Smaller sizes are usually open editions or limited to a high number of prints (1000 or more.) Larger sizes are limited to editions of fewer prints (100 to 500.)

Of course the targeted market is a big factor in making these decisions and this is where a gallery comes in. A gallery should have the information to best decide how to price work in the current market. Make sure not to short sell yourself, at the same time realize that as your work is new to the market it may not yet be able command the higher prices.

Photo: ©2008 David W. Sumner

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Process, The Practice

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the fast pace of technological advancements that we forget there are many things, older technologies, that have been with us for a long time that are still valued. Of course, you and I value many of the technologies we grew up with that today seem to so many well out dated. But I'm finding that more and more younger people are placing considerable value on many older technologies. And I'm seeing this especially in the arts.

I have a few friends who teach at the various art schools here in the City. The age of the students range from 8 to 22 years old. I hear stories of how many of the students demonstrate a great enthusiasm for the learning and practice of a "process." Sometimes it's painting and drawing or working with clay or glass or metal. And sometimes it's wet photography.

Recently, a group of university students here in San Francisco fought to preserve the introductory course in black and white photography that was about to be scrapped by the administration in favor of a completely digital program. The students wanted more time in the darkroom. They expressed the desire to more deeply explore a specific creative process.

That's what photography is: a unique creative process. Traditional wet photography and digital photography are two completely different animals. The end result or "product" of these two processes may be very similar or almost identical, but the processes themselves are extremely different.

These two processes rely on two vastly different technologies. Both are valid means with which to create images. Both processes require the mastery of certain fundamentals and a dedicated creative effort to be successful. But they are different. They are valued processes and there are many people eager to master the craft and practice the art of both. And that's what it's about, the practice. It doesn't matter if it's old or new technology. It's about the practice of a process. It's through the practice that one learns and grows. That's something people will always crave: the need to learn and grow. There will always be the need to practice. That's art.

Photo: ©2008 Anna L. Conti

Friday, January 4, 2008

Gear is Good

I recently picked up this SB-23 Speedlight from KEH for $37. It's compact, light and extremely simple. It has one switch with two positions: Manual or TTL. It's either on or off. When left on it automatically goes into Standby mode and conserves power. It uses four AA batteries and is extremely energy efficient. It works great as a source of balanced fill flash with film cameras that control flash modes like the F100, F6, and older models such as the N6006 and even on my odd-ball F601m.

I've been testing it around the house and this evening I took it with me to the beach to check out the surf and sky during a break in this monster storm that's been pounding us since early this morning. After I get my next batch of film processed I'll post some images I shot this evening.

In the meantime feel free to share my mantra:

"Gear is Good."