Good in the Beginning, Good in the Middle, Good in the End

Last month we talked a bit about where “good” photography starts. Briefly, to review, we talked about the need to slow down and observe our surroundings. We also talked about photography and light i.e. good light equals good images. And finally we talked about composition.

Today, as promised, we’ll cover the fundamental basis for how your camera works. I don’t want to get too technical here because, ultimately, my goal is to help you to apply this knowledge to the easiest to use, most immediate tool, at our disposal and that is a cell phone camera.

Since photography is all about light, the key to understanding how our camera works is understanding how the camera captures and uses light to make an image or photograph. One way to understand how a camera works is to look at how the human eye works.

Image Collection: Human Anatomy, Picture of the Eyes, WebMD

Looking in a very rudimentary way, we can recognize the pupil of the eye, as the hole through which light passes. As the pupil widens more light filters through as the pupil shrink less light filters through. In general, we see better in well lit situations than in dimly lit situations. The eyelid of the eye, when open allows us to see, when closed we see nothing. And finally, the lens just behind our eye refracts the light into the back part of the eye where what we “see” is processed by the optical nerves and electrical impulses delivered to the brain. If everything is functioning properly we see the world in full color and with vivid detail.

Similarly, your camera has three variables that determine how to get the right amount of light for the just the right exposure. These are:

  1. Aperture
  2. Shutter speed
  3. Sensitivity



Aperture is the hole through which light passes; light passes through the lens to expose the film or camera sensor. Aperture is measured in f-stops. F-stop numbers are represented like so: f1.4, f2.8, f5.6, f11.2 etc. These numbers can be confusing for people, however, because the smaller the number, the larger the aperture or hole through which light passes and larger the number, the smaller the aperture or hole through which light passes. The f-stop number is determined by a mathematical formula involving diameter; honestly I cannot even begin to explain such a formula and while its nice to know such things it’s not completely necessary to understand the formula to understand aperture. Visually speaking, here’s how the inverse relationship of aperture would illustrated:

Versatile Photography School, Aperture Article

The thing to understand about aperture, in addition to the fact that the aperture controls how much light passes through the lens of the camera, is that aperture also controls depth of field or how much of your image is in focus.

A shallow depth of field is produced by a wide aperture, which in turn, is represented by a smaller number i.e. f1.4, f2.8, f.4.0. A shallow depth of field will mean that a certain portion of your foreground and background will be blurry or out of focus, the wider your aperture the shallower your depth of field. Using a shallow depth of field produces what is called “soft focus”.

Conversely, the smaller your aperture the sharper your image will be. With a smaller aperture more of your foreground, middle ground and background will be in focus. This is represented by a larger number i.e. f5.6, f8.0, f16.0 etc.

Shutter Speed

There is a shutter or curtain that covers the film or sensor of your camera. The shutter does not open unless you click the shutter button.

If we want less light to hit the film or sensor then we want a “fast” shutter speed or we want to open and close the shutter for a shorter duration. If we want more light to hit the film or sensor then we want a “slow” speed or we want to open the shutter for a longer duration.

Shutter speed is measured in seconds and fractions of seconds i.e. 1/20 (slow), 1/60 (fast), 1/100 (faster). When day photos with flash or in bright light, fast shutter speeds apply. When taking photos in low light or even at night, slow shutter speeds apply and a tripod is likely in order.

“Fast” shutter speeds stop motion while “slow” shutter speeds blur motion. This is important to keep in mind if taking photographs at a sporting event or assessing whether or not a tripod might be needed to avoid motion blur.

ISO (Sensitivity to Light)

ISO, simply put, is sensitivity to light, whether we are speaking about film or a digital camera sensor. Sensitivity to light means how fast or how slow an image can be exposed using that particular ISO setting or film speed.

As with everything else in photography, ISO is measured in numbers. ISO films and settings can go as low as ISO 25 and in this digital age camera sensors are pushing extreme limits with ISO’s at 25600 and above. Digital cameras typically have a base ISO setting; usually this base ISO setting is ISO 100 or ISO 200. The ISO settings will then double in increments to the highest ISO setting.

The lower the number the slower the film or less reactive to light it is, the higher the number the faster the film or more reactive to light the film is. So ISO 100 film or your ISO camera setting will be best used in daylight situations and for still photography while ISO 800 film/camera setting will be best used in low light situations or for action photography.

Finally, ISO affects film grain and digital noise. Ideally, you should use the lowest ISO setting or film your shooting situation allows in order to get the clearest, grain or noise free images as possible. But for creative reasons and simply because you have to, you may need to “bump up” your ISO to get the results you want.

So there you have it folks, these are the key components to getting good images. Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. Here’s a really great illustration highlighting how each of these components works together:

Daniel Peters, Fotoblog Hamburg

Now the work of putting these three things together to produce great images is in order. Obviously, on a DSLR it is of the utmost importance to understand how to apply these concepts to get what you want if you wish to make the switch from auto to manual shooting.

If you are using a point and shoot camera or your cell phone, these things are helpful to know in terms of pushing the limits of the technology to get what you want.

I will be doing a 45-minute webinar on how to get better photos from your cell phone on March 29 at 12:00 noon. There’s a nominal fee for the session but guarantee you will walk away with some brass tacks on how to use your cell phone to good effect. Here’s how to register for: How to Get Better Pictures from Your Cell Phone.

Until next time

Carpe Diem!

Sincerely, Pilar


Good Photography Starts Here!

When people find out that I am a professional artist and photographer, generally, the conversation automatically goes to one of two subjects:

  1. The kind of camera I use (how many megapixels it captures etc.)
  2. Whether I think film or digital is better (and which do I shoot with)

And I must confide, here and now, that I find conversations about photography framed in such a way, supremely boring and somewhat annoying. I’d much rather discuss the depth and breadth of photographic history and what concepts impact an artist’s choice of photographic method than discuss camera brands and equipment, or rehash the film vs. digital debate. I just think that photography, as an artistic practice, is more than just the camera you use. Also, why should one have to choose between film and digital? There’s no reason not to use every tool available to you.

Furthermore, in this day and age, in 2016, you can probably make a good image using virtually almost any digital camera out there, even your cell phone. The quality of an image, goes beyond megapixels and film, and rests squarely on the shoulders of the image creator.

There are several basic principles and skills you can master to get better images. Good image making, even at it’s most technologically savvy, is a creative process by which an individual is able to use what’s available to them and make the best out of it.

In brief, here are the three elements which I think are key to making good images better.

  1. Stop & Look

Photography is about seeing and understanding how you see, discovering what interests you. Is it color, patterns or movement – the sky’s the limit really. An important part in the practice of photography is slowing down and NOT snapping a picture but rather appreciating moments as they happen.

  1. It’s All About the Light

The word photography derives from ancient Greek; the root phŏtos or phŏs means, “light” and graphé means, “ drawing” or “representation by line”. Therefore, photography literally means “drawing with light” or “light writing”. Good light = good images.

  1. Composition

Composition encompasses a lot, but basically, it’s using all the rules of photography to your advantage or breaking them all together. But armed with basic compositional knowledge you can do virtually anything when shooting an image.


These are, I think, the most basic principles of getting better pictures. If you want to know more, specifically about getting better photos from your cell phone, please join me on March 29 at 12:00 noon for a webinar entitled: Get Better Pictures from Your Cell Phone.

In my next blog segment, (March 17), I’ll talk a little about knowing and understanding how your camera works. Of course, this is also critical knowledge for getting better pictures, even on your cell phone.

In the meantime:

Carpe Diem!

Sincerely, Pilar

The Mundane Life

The Mundane Life

“Neighborly” note left on my doorstep yesterday. Life gave me lemons, so I made art..

I watch a lot of artist talks and documentaries about famous photographers, their work and their methods. Specifically, TED Talks are interesting and easily accessible to everyone. These mini talks given by a wide variety of world leaders, artists, and image-makers are, more often than not, inspiring!

Watching these talks and documentaries helps me to understand what qualities make a ‘great’ photograph and what others think makes a ‘great’ photographer. Frequently, I agree, so and so is a ‘great’ photographer. Watching and listen to other artists and photographers speak about their work also allows me the opportunity to define, and redefine my own photographic work.

An equally important benefit is the clarity of mind that develops; the vaguely unsettling, intuitive sense that while I may find another photographer’s images fascinating and astoundingly brilliant, my own photographic interests, desires, and needs photographically speaking are expressly different.

Recently while watching a whole series of TED Talks organized exclusively around image-makers the thing that struck me was how far away the photographers and speakers went to “get” and “tell” story. It occurred to me, and not for the first time, that while Afghanistan, Brazil, Mt. Everest and all such places are beautiful and eternally photogenic they are ‘great’ because they are exotic. The stories of people and places that we don’t know halfway across the world will always hold our interest because they are stories about people halfway across the world that we don’t know. How could you possibly go to Africa or Thailand or any place other than home, for that matter, and not get at least one decent photograph? How could you go anywhere but home and not have a story to tell? Isn’t that part of why we travel?

Conversely, it seems to me the mundane stuff of life presents a wide variety of opportunities to be ‘great’ and produce ‘great’ stories and photographs.  A great photograph or series of photographs are not just visually appealing but are images that compel us to want to know more about what we are looking at.

I believe the things with which we are intimately familiar are the fixings to and foundations upon which to build great images.  And I also believe the material of our life provides an opportunity to be more mindful, tuned in, and grounded in our experience.  It’s a way to hopefully find appreciation for own circumstance by focusing on it entirely.

Days With My Father is an intimate journal created by photographer Philip Toledano. It’s an example of how photography can be used to document personal circumstances.


My challenge to you is to create a short series of images (3, 5, or 10 images or anything in between) utilizing the substance of your life.  I will select and spotlight someone’s series here on my blog! I will be looking for solid composition, good use of other visual elements and a pretty tightly wound short photographic story.  We call this a visual narrative. It doesn’t have to be profound just your story!

You may use any kind of camera you have available to you to create this series of images – your cell phone, your point and shoot or your DSLR – whatever works.

Please submit the link to your series in the comments section. The due date for submissions is July 16. The “winner” will have their images featured on during the following week July 22 – 26.

I really can’t wait to see what you come up with!!

In the meantime, I will post my own series next week. So, ‘til next time


Roll Out the Red Carpet!!!

Roll Out the Red Carpet!!!

Well, I have never won an award in my life! So what an honor it is to be nominated for the Sunshine Award by Judy Lesko!

As I understand it this award has been created by bloggers to honor fellow bloggers whose blogging inspires them to create and continue to be positive!

I’ve tried to trace the origin of this award but it seems to be a spontaneous quantum blog event with no readily traceable beginning!

Sunshine Award origins aside, there  a few steps one must take upon being nominated to accept this respected blogger award. (I’d rather call them steps because “rules” sounds so stuffy! Really who likes rules?)

Step 1:  Include the award “logo” in a post or on you blog. 


Step 2: Include a link to the blog or website of the person who nominated you.

You should definitely visit Judy Lesko’s blog. She has got some great photos, interesting tidbits of inspiration and an all around wholesome blog.


As an aside last week it was raining, raining, raining everyday! Finally we had a day of sunshine and while riding in my husband’s convertible I snapped this brilliant image of the blue sky and sunshine:


Step 3: Nominate 10 Bloggers for the Sunshine Award.

The benefit here is that we all get to expand our blogging network and find new inspiration in the words and images of others.

Here are my 10. They are not in any particular order:

  1. Charlotte Hoather, Soprano
  3. Pursuit of Life                  
  4. The 50 Year Project         
  5. just after words                 
  6. The Lantern Room         
  7. BunnyandPorkBelly        
  8. The Dimwit Diary          
  9. NOMADICLES             
  10. posts from the path         

Step 4: Answer 10 questions about yourself. And don’t forget to provide your nominees with 10 questions to answer as well!

1. What is the stupidest thing you have ever done?

 As a young person I did a lot of stupid things. I can’t say any one thing in particular was more stupid than the other. I always say: If I knew then what I knew now, I’d ____. At the same time, the follies of youth are those very same things that make us the people we are in the future. So, if I had the opportunity to go back in time maybe I’d do things differently, maybe I wouldn’t.

2. If your house burned down, which three things would you save?

 I have 5 cats and 2 dogs. So I’d want to save every single one of them first. Then if there was time I’d save my computer box…I have well over 20,000 images on it. And if my cameras were home at the time…I’d have to save those. I’d just have to.

3. What would you say to a dead loved one, if you had the chance?

I love you.

4. What is the worst nightmare you have ever had?

Once I dreamed that giant bees with stingers were chasing me. I was flailing my arms about and I literally fell out of bed onto the floor. I was screaming so loud that I awoke my dog and he was ready to kill whatever was after me. It was summer and we had the windows open. I probably awoke the whole neighborhood too.

These days, in the middle of a dream, as strange as it may seem, I am often able to recognize that I am in a dream. Occasionally, I have strange or disturbing dreams but being able to recognize that I am dreaming helps me to kind of sit back and enjoy it like a movie.

5. If you could talk to a famous person (dead or alive), who would it be and what would you say?

A couple of summers ago, I had the opportunity to intern at a non-profit photography gallery and arts education center as part of the completion of my MFA degree.

I think the most valuable lesson I learned there was that famous people are people too. They put their pants on one leg at a time. So I am not star struck so much any more because I did get to meet many photographers who are really big in this industry. At first it was like “whoa” I am meeting such and so but then I got to know them and see these are real people with real lives.

So in a nutshell I’d just want the opportunity to get to know someone who’s considered famous. Maybe we’d have common interests and maybe not!

6. What is the most beautiful place you have ever been?

Home, after a longtime away.

7. If you had one day to do whatever you wanted (without caring about money) what would you do?

I would hop on a plane with my cameras in hand and fly to New Zealand. I have wanted to go there for sometime now. But it’d be a trip that lasts longer than one day!!!

8. What is the best thing that has ever happened to you?

 Hands down, it’s meeting my husband. He is such an inspiration for me. He keeps me going and grounded.

9. Who or what has affected your life the most?

Again, I think it’s my husband. I think we make a great team in life. Second to that, I would say my pets challenge me to stay compassionate and loving as well.

10. Why do you have a blog?

I started blogging because I wanted to share my love of photography as a medium and mode of communication. I also wanted a way to keep myself accountable to creating work.

Here are my questions for you nominees:

  1.  What’s the best advice you received?
  2. If you had to choose an animal that best represents you, what would it be? And Why?
  3. What is important for you in life, love or money?
  4. Do you have a nickname?
  5. What inspires you?
  6. What’s your favorite beverage?
  7. What’s your favorite season?
  8. What do you like to do on your days off?
  9. What is your dream job?
  10. Why do you blog?

Step 5: Share the news of the Sunshine Award with your nominees!

Make sure you have linked your nominees blogs to your post. Drop by their blog and post a comment with a link to your Sunshine Award.

Well, that. was. fun! Whew!

I am really just pleased as punch that I have been nominated. It’s like the Academy Awards of Blogging! Simply think of me decending the stairs from the podium. Please feel free to give a round of applause. I am waving my best wave and smiling.

Thank you. Thank you very much!

Weekly Photo Challenge: From Above!

Weekly Photo Challenge: From Above!

Hey Everybody! I missed you last week! I was a little bit under weather and swamped with work! But this week I am back in action!

The Weekly Photo Challenge for the week was “From Above”. I am only 5’2″ so most everything is over or above me! Consequently when I think of “from above” I tend to see things from a “worms eye view”, that is to say looking up, as opposed to a “bird’s eye view” or looking down from above.

Actually, I love looking at the sky and the clouds. I love the sun shining on my face. I love the way sun shining from above makes interesting patterns on walls, creating shapes and shadows that could not exist without it.

Hope you enjoy my take on “From Above”!

The Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY. The Plaza is this massive set of marble buildings and concourse built by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. Copyright © Pilar Arthur-Snead & Photographic Expressions
Another view of The Plaza buildings. The Empire State Plaza also houses The EGG, which for anyone not familiar, is exactly what it sounds like…A big marble egg shaped building. Copyright © Pilar Arthur-Snead and Photographic Expressions
Parking? Copyright © Pilar Arthur-Snead & Photographic Expressions
Going up? Copyright © Pilar Arthur-Snead
View of the plaza from one of my favorite restaurants in Albany during the spring and summer: The City Beer Hall. Great food, music and of course, beer! Copyright © Pilar Arthur-Snead & Photographic Expressions
Another view from the City Beer Hall patio. Copyright © Pilar Arthur-Snead & Photographic Expressions

Have great week everyone and keep looking up!!

Keep Going!

Keep Going!

Prayer flags on my front porch, photo taken April 22, 2013 Panasonic Lumix 20mm, ©Pilar Arthur-Snead & Photographic Expressions 2013

Several years ago I worked as a subscription sales rep for a local newspaper company. Basically my job consisted of cold calling people for 8 hours a day and trying to get them to buy a newspaper subscription over the phone.  I had a weekly sales quota to sell 15 subscriptions every week, come hell or high water.  This may not seem like a lot but in order to sell 15 sold subscriptions I needed to make anywhere from 500 to 1000 calls per week, sometimes more, sometimes less.

The guy who had had the job before me was fudging the books, or so I had come to believe, because when I would call people to follow-up on payment for the subscriptions he had supposedly sold, they would be adamant that they had never agreed to such terms. This happened over and over again. I made it a point to try to get payment from people right when they agreed to purchase the paper. And I felt that solid sales were coming in as a result of my efforts. But weekly, I would miss the goal and sell 13 subscriptions not 15. Hmmm-mmmm.

My boss was pretty hard driving and that is putting it mildly. She accused me of being a slacker. When I suggested to my boss that perhaps the person before me had not been honest about their numbers she did not believe me, in fact, this only made her berate me more. The girl who sat in the cubicle next to me was often sick, complaining of headaches and nausea. I often would go to the bathroom and sit in a stall quietly and try to meditate for two minutes just to get away from this woman. She would follow me in there sometimes. It was awful.

One day, before getting ready to go on vacation, was particularly bad. I had sold 13 subscriptions (or something like that) but it was 4:00 pm and the office closed promptly at 5:00, no exceptions.  One way I would get leads to call was through the paper and so I thought I would utilize some of my last hour combing the paper for leads so that the next day and only day I was in the office the following week I could hit the ground running. This did not fly. Every five minutes, my boss kept coming out of her office asking why I was not on the phones. I tried to explain that I was getting prepared for next week so I could get some good sales in before going on vacation. She was screaming at me before long.

She had not known that earlier in the day I had been on the phone to my mother, that’s right I called my mommie, and was telling her how miserable I was.  I had only been with this company for six months and I didn’t want to just throw in the towel. I thought maybe I’d find a way to get those two other subscriptions.

My mom’s advice, however, “Quit!” This went against everything she had ever taught me but this woman was making my life hell over the cost of two newspapers. I was beginning to feel physically ill all the time as well. I wasn’t sleeping, dreading, each week’s beginning (having to make the phone calls) and end (knowing I had made thousands of calls and come up short, again). So as my boss’ voice began to escalate I began to calmly pack my things. I walked out. Your mother isn’t going to tell you to quit unless she thinks you have a really, really good reason for it…namely your sanity and health!!

Fast Forward. In September 2012, I left my job of corporate fundraiser, legitimately and with a little more panache than I left my newspaper position. For the first time in my life, I was pursuing the “job” of my dreams. I was finally, after 3 years of planning and growing, pursuing a life long dream of photographing on a full time basis. I really had to pinch myself quite a bit!!

This year has been exciting because my business has been growing. I have been receiving calls for work on a regular basis. I couldn’t be happier! At the same time, I have had more problems than ever. Lost memory cards, lost files, blurry images, bad prints and lots of seemingly little things that for a photographer are pretty big things!!!

But let’s just say, I am certainly feeling the pangs of growth here. I am also feeling a slight twinge of panic but its not so much concern about whether I have made the right choice in pursuing photography as a career choice. It’s more like I know I’ve made the right choice but will my blunders be my undoing at such an early stage? Will I fail so badly that I will simply not succeed in spite of myself?? Thinking about these mistakes made me think of my experience at the newspaper for some reason. I suppose I am feeling a similar fight or flight response.

It was not all bad at the newspaper; I did get one lesson out of my time there. Every now again in the course of a business day I would go to my boss and say, “Hey I made xyz number of phone calls and sold xy number of subscriptions.” Her response was always the same, “Really, well, Keep Going!” She never said great job, even when on the rare occasions I would meet or exceed the quota. I have never forgotten that.

I have reminded myself on many occasions since to just

“Keep Going!”

Sometimes quitting is an option but most of time when you have a lot of skin in the game it just doesn’t make sense.

Mistakes happen. If you are making mistakes you are making progress. If your making mistakes, you are in action, you are moving. If you are making mistakes, you are taking risks.

Someone once said, it may have been the famous cosmetics guru and entrepreneur, Mary Kay Ash, who said, “Fail Forward to Success”.  If you are making mistakes, you’re not failing; you’re succeeding. And your success (or lack thereof) is not defined by your mistakes but rather by the tenacity you have in getting through them.  Mistakes build character and they also help you to build better systems.

Get out there, make some mistakes and for goodness sake:


Why I Went to Grad School

Why I Went to Grad School

Grand Central Station and Empire State Building, 2011, © Pilar Arthur-Snead and Photographic Expressions

In response to the answer of her previous query which had essentially boiled down to “What the hell are you doing with your life?” Mary (whose name has been changed for the sake of protecting her pompous anonymity) asked indignantly, “Well, what are you going to do with that?”

Mary is my husband’s former boss. (And apparently she had also dubbed herself ‘mother’ to my husband because she was grilling me as if we weren’t already married!) She has a couple of Ph.D. degrees in Education and Nuclear Science or some such. Neither does she see the value in nor the practical application of anything outside of these two endeavors. Basically, she is one of these people who lives to work. She sends emails to co-workers at 2 am and expects an answer.

So to tell her that I was getting a Master’s of Fine Art in Photography was like telling her that I was an idiot of the seventh level. She could not conceive of the answer I gave her in response to her second and equally invasive interrogation.

“Um, take photographs….”

Blink. Blink. Blank stare. Blink. Blink.

“Yeah, but….Can you? But, what are you…?”

You know, I recognize that where she was coming from was a prudish standpoint that only a person with a “proper” education, that is in math or science, could make or earn a living.  In my own family it was drilled into me from a time before I can remember that I would get an “education” and a good job. So I understand very well this idea that education and a proper job as a doctor, lawyer, or teacher are what officially grant you “productive member of society” status.

But I had done it. Or least I had tried to do it…I went to college got my BA. And then I worked as many things from child care worker to non-profit fundraiser.  Always, at the end of the day, I was miserable. I hated sitting at a desk all day or ringing the cash register or whatever.

For a long time photography served as a blissful escape. When I took photographs I got lucky more times than not with “good photographs”. I started to consider that maybe I had some talent at it. At the same time, I am totally technologically incompetent! My husband had tried many times to explain f-stops, circles of confusion, shutter speeds to  me but it was like listening to an adult speak in a Charlie Brown cartoon.

I could have just as easily taken a few workshops in photography, or just bought a myriad of books on how to make a great picture. Except that, I had not, to that point, ever acquired the skills through any of those means. Also, I knew I was never going to be happy “living to work” at just anything.  Photography represented a sustained love in my life. It was something that required little effort on my part to enjoy and for me to share with others in a joyful manner. What was I waiting for? Certainly not for the approval of Mary and those like her!

There was a career with my name stamped right on it. I just needed the knowledge, skill and confidence to make it happen. So I decided it was time to take my passion to next level. I decided to go to grad school and get a degree in photography.

I am at the tail end of my studies at the Academy of Art University. I do not think an MFA is for everyone. It has been for me though. It has been the best investment, financially and mentally, I have made in my life to date.  I needed a container and a space for which I could learn, test, re-test and do so with a relative safety net i.e. under the guise of the classroom and with other learners who, broadly, had the same desires and interests photographically speaking. Additionally, the process of “the getting” has encouraged critical thinking and research about photography beyond simply understanding and executing the technological how-to’s of exposure and composition.

And finally, the point I am making here, and rather long winded-ly, is that if you are passionate about this photography thing – or anything for that matter – you have the right to learn as much about it as you want to (or don’t want to). You have the right to make this passion your living.

Dare I say you have the obligation to fulfill your passion and to stop “living to work”?