Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What kind of camera should I buy?

That is perhaps the most frequently asked question I hear. My usual response is to buy the one you like. By that I mean get one that feels right in your hands and looks like something you will want to carry around.

Second, buy the best camera you can afford or spend the most money you feel comfortable spending on a camera. You really do get what you pay for.

Beyond that the main consideration, in my opinion, is the viewfinder. The viewfinder is what you will spend your time looking at or through while you are making those beautiful photographs. There are three general types of viewfinders. The best is a single-lens-reflex which means that you are looking through the actual lens that the sensor is looking through. In the digital world the term is DSLR for digital single lens reflex.

DSLR cameras are generally the most expensive, but are far and away the most pleasure to use. You almost always see exactly what you are going to get, the original WYSIWYG design. Most have interchangeable lenses for greater versatility. Even if you never change lenses the bigger and brighter viewfinder of a DSLR is worth it. The downside, besides expense, is size. DSLR cameras are bigger and heavier than the other types of digital cameras. Carrying around a DSLR of any brand will mark you as someone who is serious about their photography.

The next type of camera/viewfinder is the electronic viewfinder camera or EVF. This type of camera has a LCD screen that is viewed through a magnifier. These cameras are almost as good as a DSLR and are generally smaller and less expensive. The advantage of the EVF camera is that menu items and other information can be read right off the screen in the viewfinder. Most EVF cameras also give an instant preview right after the photo is made so you can see what you got without taking your eye off the viewfinder. Most EVF camera do not offer interchangeable lenses but do have wide range zoom lenses as standard, so this may not be a serious issue. Most video cameras are of this type.

The last type of camera is the one that has no viewfinder at all, but only a LCD screen on the back. These have many limitations. The fact that they are hard to see in all but ideal lighting conditions is only one. The secret of sharp photos is to hold the camera steady. Holding the camera steady at arm’s length with no support against your face is almost impossible with this type of camera. I know from experience that an LCD screen is impossible to see in bright snow with sunglasses on, making the camera useless in these or many other conditions. Some companies, such as Hoodman, now are making accessory hoods that fasten to the LCD screen to make them useful in more varied light conditions.

Many, if not most, point and shoot cameras, and many more expensive cameras, are eliminating the eye-level viewfinder completely relying only on a LCD screen. This is a big mistake. When purchasing your new digital camera, make sure you can hold the camera up to your eye and see the image clearly through the viewfinder. A good sharp and easy to use viewfinder is the first step in selecting a camera and making great photographs.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Jim Mathis School of Photography

I have believed for some time that as we get older we need to be passing along the things we have learned over the years.

I got my first camera in the fourth grade and have been making picture almost every day since. I believe that is 18,980 days and it is certainly millions of photographs. I have sold cameras, owned a custom photo lab, taught photo classes, and of course been a professional photographer. I have photographed people in every situation imaginable and all kinds of machines and scenery in about a dozen countries.

It is now time to start doing what I can to teach others. With that in mind I am launching “The Jim Mathis School of Photography.”

Most photo classes are introductory level or teach out-dated technology. The first phase of my school will focus on taking people from where they are in their photography skills and help then move to where they want to be. The format will be one-on-one coaching, one day it a time. I think I can help most people dramatically improve their skills on one day.

If you would like to be a better photographer, no matter what your skill level is now, plan to spend a day with me. For an introductory price of $250 per day, I will figure out where you are and help you move to the next level.

I am also beginning to work on instruction videos and will offer workshops on various photo subjects in the future.

Go to:

Monday, October 5, 2009

The National Parks

We enjoyed watching the PBS Ken Burns special on the National Parks last week. Not surprising, there have been a number of photographers directly associated with the parks in various ways. William Henry Jackson’s photos were instrumental in the forming of the first National Park at Yellowstone. The Kolb Brothers had a studio at the Grand Canyon and helped promote it for many years. And of course Ansel Adams will always be associated with Yosemite.

In many ways the National Parks grew up with photography and the rise in attendance at the parks paralleled the growth in amateur photography. We have not been to all of the National Parks, but we have been to a few, and making photos at The Grand Canyon or Yellowstone are some of my fondest memories.

For many years our business was such that we took our annual vacation in the winter. For that reason we are among the privileged few who have been to Yellowstone, not once, but twice, in the winter when the park is covered with snow and the hordes of tourists have left for Florida.

We have a 30x40 print of a frozen Yellowstone Lake at sunrise which often hangs over our fireplace. My wife has a similar size 30x40 print of the Grand Canyon in winter over her desk.

Winter is coming. This can be a glorious time for photography. I probably won’t be going to one of the National Parks this winter, but I will definitely be getting out photos and albums and enjoying some hot chocolate while thinking about the great times skiing, hiking, and snowmobiling in sub-zero weather in the most beautiful of God’s creations.

The above photo is the Grand Tetons in January.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Art Westport

We had a good time at Art Westport last weekend. This was our first experience at this show, but hopefully not our last. Though the sales of framed photographs was not what we had hoped, we practically sold out of panoramic notecards. More importantly, we saw many old friends and made new acquaintances.

The Westport art fair draws an eclectic mix of people which makes for wonderful people watching and good conversations. My panoramic photo of a London street scene attracted the attention of an older gentleman who said he had driven double-decker buses in London as well as cross-country buses through Europe. He told me about the old Routemasters with their crash-box transmissions and manual steering. The new buses have automatic transmissions and power steering even though they are still double-deckers.

In the words of Yogi, “You can hear a lot just be listening.”

We saw lots of dogs walking their owners, but no cats. I guess cats aren’t all that into art.
I took a break from the art fair to play with my band, Sky Blue, Saturday night. We played to a packed house at Homer’s. Overall, a great weekend.

Next weekend we will be at the Zona Rosa Art Festival near KCI and the week after that at the Overland Park Fall Festival. I expect to be better stocked with notecards this time.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Digital Resolution

There is a lot of confusion concerning resolution in digital photography. In the days of film, we just tried to get as much resolution as possible, figuring the more the better. With digital imaging, the subject is a lot less subjective and a whole lot more specific.

Cameras are sold based on the number of individual pixels, or picture elements, they can achieve. 35mm film, under ideal conditions, could possibly show the equivalent of about 10 million pixels. In reality, a five-meg, or 5 million pixel camera, is about equal to 35mm film in resolution.

But the number of pixels is far from the whole story in digital photography. With virtually every camera outside of camera phones, producing images with more than five megapixels, other qualities become more important. The quality of the lens, the type, size, and quality of the sensor, and of course the skill of the photographer are all more important than the number of pixels.

In practical use, the final use of the image determines the resolution necessary. The number of pixels in an image is determined by the media and the size of the image. The most common resolution of an image to be printed on paper is 300 dpi (dots per inch.) If the final result is an 8x10 print the resolution of the image would be 300dpi x 8 inches by 300dpi x 10 inches, or 2400 X 3,000 pixels. 2400 times 3,000 equals 7.2 meg. If the camera produces less than 7.2 megapixels, additional resolution must be interpolated by the computer. This is relatively easy and gives good results. A camera with more than 7.2 megapixels has excess capacity for an 8x10 print. The additional resolution is not only unnecessary, but can degrade the image and only increases the file size.

If the image is going to be viewed on a computer screen, the resolution is about 72 dpi. Web designers usually think of the image size in terms of pixels. If the resolution of a computer monitor is 600x800 pixels, a 400-pixel wide image will cover half the screen. An image in the corner of a web site might be 100 pixels wide. If I post a nice size 200 x 300 pixel image on my web site it has 60,000 pixels, it is a 60K image. If I shot the photo with a 10-meg camera, I must throw away more than 99% of the information.

I often get requests for “high-resolution” photos. I later find out that they are going to be used on a business card, brochure, or even a web site. The size of the final image is the determining factor in the needed resolution.

A good analogy might be to compare camera pixels to horsepower of a car. A 500 horsepower car might be cool, but if all of your driving is in traffic under 40mph, you have a lot of excess capacity and are probably wasting gas. The arguments in favor of a 500HP car are about as ambiguous as they are for a 20-Meg camera, based more on bragging rights than actual necessity.

The confusion over resolution may result from confusing sharpness with resolution. Sharpness is a relative term and has to do with what a picture “looks” like. The factors affecting sharpness are camera movement (the biggie), focus, exposure, and the subject. Maximum sharpness is not always necessary and is often undesirable as in the case of portraits. Professional photographers learn how to use relative sharpness to best advantage.

The format of the file has no affect on resolution. JPEG, TIFF, PSD, RAW, etc are all ways of storing data and have no affect on the resolution. The only affect they have on quality is in the way they are used.

I have seen publications request specific file formats under the guise of better quality. I presume that they had received low quality images in the format of JPEG, or whatever, and concluded that the format was the problem. Poor images can be any format. I will address these formats in a later post.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Mama Don't Take My Kodachrome Away"

This week the Eastman Kodak Company announced the end of Kodachrome. Kodachrome film was introduced in 1936 as the first successful color film. In 1986, my wife and I attended a celebration in Rochester, NY marking the 50th anniversary of the introduction. 1936-2009, 73 years is a good run for any product.

I shot my first roll of Kodachrome in about 1960 and carried on a love/hate relationship with it for the next 35 years. Its color was garish, the exposure was ultra-critical, and the processing extremely specialized, but it was still the best color film we had for many years.

I have slide cabinets full of gorgeous Kodachrome slides made primarily in the 70’s and 80’s. But I have also thrown away thousands of slides that were over or (mainly) under-exposed. Getting the exposure right was a real pain, and you never knew how you did until, a few days later, when the little yellow boxes came back from the Kodak labs in New York, Chicago, or Dallas.

Bracketing, which is a technique of shooting various exposures of the same subject to make sure that you have one at the correct exposure, became routine among pros using Kodachrome.

This week I sold two slide projectors and 25 slide trays on Craig’s List. I kept back one projector and two trays just in case I ever needed them. But, basically it is the end of an era. Digital imaging is clearly superior as far as I am concerned. (The only down sides are questions of archiving and the fact that the quality of the image of digital projectors are not yet as good as projecting a Kodachrome slide with a professional slide projector.)

Kodachrome is now part of our heritage. In the future us old-time photographers will set around old-folks homes and talk about our struggles and victories with Kodachrome and its much maligned brother, Ektachrome. I am looking forward to it. I have the slides to back up my war stories.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Art of the Car

The Kansas City Art Institute’s Art of the Cars Concours was this weekend. About 180 gorgeous cars were on display on the lawn of the art school. As a photographer and car lover, I had a great time walking around, chatting with car owners and enthusiasts and making photos.

The interesting thing about photograph as a hobby is that it is nearly always tired to another hobby. People photograph their pets, their coin collection, birds, cars, or just about everything else that interests them. I would be impossible to be a photographer and not be interested in other things because you wouldn’t have anything to photograph.

The bulk of my professional work is photographing people because I love people. But as a hobbyist, I like all kinds of thing – and cars are certainly high on that list.

To see my photos from the Art of the Car, 2009, CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

10,000 Hours

For a long time I have been interested in the idea of talent verses work. I believe that talent is over-rated and hard work is under-rated. Some research at Florida State University has born this out. FSU researches have determined that it takes about 10,000 hours to learn a difficult skill. In other words, to become a top golfer, surgeon, musician, or photographer, it takes about 10,000 hours of diligent work and practice.

If you practice every night during the week and all day on Saturday’s, you would reach 10,000 hours in about 20 years. If you are in medical school, 10,000 hours is about 5 years. So this number seems about right. And practice is not just piddling around. It must be diligent and disciplined work with a purpose.

A few people like Tiger Woods or Mozart were able to get in their 10,000 hours before they were 21 years-old so people called them prodigies. For others of us, it has taken many years to develop the skills that we need to be considered “talented.”

The top musicians I know can pretty much point to this number of 10,000 hours, along with the quality of the time spent, as the secret. Twenty hours per week for 10 years equals 10,000 hours for example.

In photography, great pictures are not a result of having an expensive camera, no more than a good golf score comes from expensive clubs. But rather, outstanding photos come from years of hard work and practice.

I got my first camera in 1958 and got my first job in photography in 1971. I have spent practically every day since then trying to make better photographs. That’s a lot of hours.

Friday, March 6, 2009

PMA Wrap-up

Thursday, March 5 started with a breakfast featuring Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist. I was surprised that he still worked in customer service of his own company. He hired somebody else to be CEO. That shows where his heart is. He started Craigslist in 1995 just to help people. They figured out later how to pay the bills. Craig's personal blog is:

I then went to a class put on by Franziska Frey who is professor at the Rochester Institue of Technology about archiving photos and long-term storage of digital images. She said that the magic number is five years. Make new CD's every five years and replace your hard drive every five years. After that you are at a greatly increased risk of loosing information. There is a lot of information about this kind of thing that is not commonly known. I will be adding links to Library of Congress sites from later.

I finished up the trade show in the afternoon, had an iced mocha at a local coffeehouse (not a chain) and took a cab to the airport. It was a good week. I now have lots of ideas and information to process and file in my brain.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Wednesday, March 4

I started off today with a couple of workshops about bookbinding and printing. The best one was by some folks from the Hardcover Binders Association, a trade group.

After that, I finally made it to the main floor of the trade show. Canon has now declared itself the world leader in digital imaging, and I didn’t hear anybody disputing that. As such, they claimed the most prominent and biggest space on the floor. They have a huge array of products from cameras to printers and in all prices from inexpensive to out of sight.

A number of the large manufactures such as Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Pentax were putting on demonstrations and shows featuring famous photographers and personalities. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and am looking forward to more tomorrow.

There were a few amazing products that would have been unbelievable just a few years ago. For example, Sony was showing a new camera that will produce true 220 degree panoramics in camera just by turning the camera during a 10 sec exposure. The camera seamlessly stitches together a series of images. The camera is under $500 and ships next month. Casio was showing a pocketable point and shoot camera that will shoot 30 frames per second. This can be easily converted to HD video.

Speaking of video, Canon, Sony, and JVC among others, were all showing super-small, gorgeous Hi-Def camcorders that use flash memory and are about the size of your fist. These manufactures were also showing portable DVD recorders that could be used to write directly from the video cameras.

I’ve enjoyed meeting photographers, dealers, and manufactures from all over the world.

After resting at my hotel, I had dinner at Bahama Breeze and walked back to the convention center for the Beach Boys concert. The concert was wonderful. It certainly helped that the room had good acoustics. Mike Love and Bruce Johnston were the only two original members. At any rate, they sounded great and everybody left with big smiles.

I decided to take the bus back to my hotel. It is a twenty minute walk but the bus took 45 minutes. Deciding whether to sit for 45 minutes or walk for 20 is not an obvious decision.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

PMA Report

PMA 2009

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The first session of the day featured Stephen Burns, He talked about graphics software other than Photoshop. Virtually everyone in the group were Photoshop users, so he talked about what some other things could do differently. He specifically talked about Nik Software.

At 9:00 was the business meeting where five people were given special recognition for their contributions to the industry. The CEO of Nikon was elected to the PMA Hall of Fame. Geoffrey Moore then talked about disruptive innovation.

I went from there to the trade show. The whole photo industry has changed dramatically since the last time I attended PMA about 15 years ago. No one was showing photofinishing equipment, no new film or film cameras were introduced, but there are all kinds of new things never dreamed of before the past few years.

There are a large number of companies showing equipment for printing and binding photo books at all different prices and qualities.

Some companies such as Minolta, Konica, and Mamiya have disappeared altogether. Others have risen to the occasion. Sony and Panasonic didn’t even attend PMA a few years ago, now they are some of the stars.

In the evening I attended an event featuring Jodi Cobb. Jodi is a long-time National Geographic photographer and multi-award winner. She was the first woman to be named White House Photographer of the Year. To photographers, National Geographic staffers are like rock stars. She was wonderful and she and her photos got a standing ovation.

Monday, March 2

After a good nights sleep, I awoke to watch the news of the snow storm that had blanketed the East Coast. Here it was in the mid-60’s with a clear blue “Sky Blue” sky. I walked along palm tree lined Howard Hughes Ave to the convention center. I had a nice breakfast at the convention center and went to the first seminar on dance school photography. It was very interesting.

The second seminar was titled “Being Photographic: Digital Books & New Forms of Photographic Expression.” The speaker was Frank Cost, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. This was an outstanding talk. He pointed out that publishing is all about finding an audience for an idea. With today’s technology the audience no longer has to be large, it can be as small as one person.

The medium is the message, and a book is considered by just about everybody to be a high quality medium – thus the message is elevated just by being in book form.

The luncheon speaker was an author and consultant named Michael Silverstein. He talked about “Trading Up” what motivates consumers.

A message that came through from several sources was that for the past 120 years we have been in a routine. People bought a roll of film, they went home and shot 12, 24, or 36 pictures, then took the film back to the store. A short while later they picked-up their pictures, looked at them a few times and stuck them in a drawer. Now that routine has been disrupted and people don’t know what to do.

Most people keep trying to do the same old thing, such as printing 4x6 prints from their digital files, just with new technologies. Creative people look for new ways to use not only the new tools, but the old ones as well.

As an example, in the afternoon I went to a class put on by a couple of fine artists who have been using digital imaging for about 20 years. They are constantly exploring new ways of using ink-jet printers, making one of a kind and extremely limited edition art books, as well as very large prints on a variety of materials. They were Dorothy Simpson Krause and Bonny Pierce Lhotka There studio is

They had some amazing samples and pictures of commercial art and displays they had done. Bonny Lhotka was particularly into 3D imaging using lenticular lenses.

The next seminar was on optimizing web sites for search engine results. They covered both natural search results (SEO) and paid search results, and how they can work together. Some of these things I knew, but the class filled in some gaps in my knowledge.

The last seminar of the day was about selecting a photo book printer. One presenter was a photo book specialist with Xerox, Brian Segnit and the other was with Fuji, Thomas Curley.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Arrived at Las Vegas airport at about noon and walked to Tuscany Suites Hotel. Since I didn’t know where I was going, I was carrying one bag and pulling another, and it was pretty warm, it was a long walk. It may have been about two miles.

After lunch at the hotel, getting settled in my room and resting a little, I walked to the convention center. This was about a 25 minute walk, probably about a mile and a half since I walk about 4 miles and hour.

The first workshop was called The Seven Rings of Photo Books. It was not particularly interesting, but a bit of an introduction to photo books. What I learned is that most people haven’t heard of specialty photo books and if they have, they are sort of beyond their understanding.

I then went to the Opening Event with a wonderful keynote speaker – Jeremy Gutsche,

He said win like you are used to it and lose like you enjoy it. If you aren’t failing at a good percentage of stuff, you aren’t innovating.
Here is Jeremy Gutsche's address at PMA on YouTube:

Innovation always starts with the customer. Find out what they want.

He cited Smith Corona as the world’s best typewriter company, but they saw no need for computers. They ultimately failed.

Culture beats strategy any day.

I walked back to the hotel stopping at Gordon Biersch Restaurant-brewery for a crab cake sandwich and a locally brewed brew.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Addios 4x6 prints

I spent 23 years in the photofinishing business. Since our clientele was primarily professionals, we called the 3x5 or 4x6 prints “proofs.” That was really just a subtle hint that we didn’t consider a little piece of paper a suitable end to the art of photography.

We knew that 95% of all photographs would end up as 4x6 prints in a drawer. This was never a particularly satisfying thought. Figuring out what to do with all those little prints has been an ongoing challenge ever since George Eastman began cranking them out in 1893. By that time photography had been around for nearly 60 years, but Eastman’s Kodak Company opened photography up to everybody, and opened the floodgates on all these little pieces of paper.

Now in the age of digital photography we have a lot more choices. We are no longer bound to the tradition of the little paper print. We can share photos on web sites, email them to anybody who might be interested, display them as wall size works of art, or wrap them around our cars. As a lover of books, I have been challenging myself with book projects that were not feasible even a couple of years ago. Anybody with a good eye and a little cash can publish a coffee table photography book. I see specialized books of photography as a coming market for commercial photography.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Photos on your web site

In this era of electronic communication, it is easy to forget that it is still about relationships. We want to feel connected to others. The amazing success of sites like LinkedIn, MySpace, and Facebook attest to this fact. When we deal with another company via the internet we still strive for some sort of personal connection.

I recently chose a vender for a project that could be handled by a specialty company thousands of miles away. A Google search revealed several choices, but I ultimately choice the company which posted photos and a short biography of each of their staff. The bios included e-mail addresses and a direct phone number so I knew I could contact anybody in the company. I also knew their job title and their background experience. When someone from the company called me with a question, I called up their photo page and felt like I could make a personal connection. I did not even consider any company that did not provide a phone number or a street address on the first page of their web site.

We are in a very visually oriented culture. Pictures are essential to an effective web site. Photographs should be high quality and attention getting. Additionally, many people are sophisticated enough to recognize stock photos, so actual photos of your business and your people are important – even if you don’t look like the models in the stock images.

I quick survey of web sites shows that very few are using photos effectively. I believe the front page of your web site should feature a high quality photo of your product, facility, people, or maybe the president or key spokesperson. Somebody unfamiliar with your business should be able to glance at the opening page of your site and immediately know what you do without reading a lengthy description.

If you have a “photo” page on your web site, you will find that that is the page most viewers click on first. They want to see what your product looks like, what your office looks like, and if you are the product, they want to see what you look like. A model holding a “black box” is passé.
It has been said that “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But the right picture, in the right place, and the right size could be worth thousands, if not, tens of thousands of dollars to your business.

Beautiful photos grab eyeballs and bring people back, but too many or too large of files will cause the site to load slowly. If it takes more for than a few seconds for your site to load, people will just exit out and move on. For that reason photographs should be optimized for fast loading and tested with various interconnect speeds.

Make it a habit of walking into your business every morning like you are just walking in the door for the first time. You will see all kinds of things you never saw before that every customer immediately sees. Then click on your web page, or better yet, do a search for your company and see it with new eyes like a potential customer would. Is it visually appealing, can you figure out what your company does, can you find out somebody’s name or what they look like? You might be amazed.