Tribeca Dreams

So, the Tribeca Film Festival happened (April 19-30, 2017). If you’re not familiar, the Tribeca Film Festival was established in 2002, purportedly as a means of helping to revitalize the area (Triangle Below Canal Street) in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s possible this isn’t entirely true, given murmurs that the festival was in the works before Sept. 11, 2001. I don’t know for certain how much of that is true, but it doesn’t really matter. Even if the Tribeca Film Festival wasn’t the direct brainchild of those who wanted to do something culturally and economically beneficial after 9/11, I’m confident that 9/11 was surely the impetus to get the show up and running as soon as possible.

There are multiple events (both official and unofficial) held in support of and related to the Tribeca Film Festival, including the Tribeca Dreams Photowalk hosted by Street Dreams Magazine. I’m generally not one for photowalks — shooting with a large group of people just seems a bit odd to me. But I love Tribeca, so I decided to jump in…and I’m glad I did. It was a good time and I was surrounded by inspired and inspiring individuals who all, in one way or another, represent the creativity energy that keeps Tribeca (and all of NYC) buzzing. Here are a handful of my shots from that day.

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Portraits That are More Than Just Snapshots

It seems some photographers have a natural inclination for portraiture; nearly everything they do has all the elements of a great portrait and they make it seem so easy. I don’t know if there’s a gene that makes some photographers better portraitists than others, or if it comes down to practice and more practice. For the sake of argument, let’s go with practice, that way the rest of us have hope of becoming good portrait photographers someday.

The tips below should help you out a bit along your journey to achieve that very goal. These tips are less about technical information like camera settings and flash ratios, and more about the practical intangibles that lie at the center of portrait photography. Read on.

The Way Up

Establish a connection

Remember, this is portrait photography, people pictures. So learn to see your subject as more than just a subject. If the person behind the camera can establish a good rapport with the person in front of the camera, everything else is more likely to fall into place. Lens focal lengths and camera settings and lighting patterns aren’t insignificant factors, but an air of trust and comfort between subject and photographer will prove invaluable when it comes to injecting a portrait with that “something special” quality.

A little flattery goes a long way

Closely related to the idea of establishing a connection, you can boost your subject’s confidence by engaging in a little flattery. Think of things from the subject’s perspective for a moment. It’s likely that they have spent quite a bit of time preparing for their session, knowingly going into something that falls flatly out of their comfort zone. Imagine how much more unsettling it can be to have someone pointing a camera at them and not knowing what the person doing the pointing is thinking. So tell them how great they look. Be enthusiastic with your compliments. The boost of confidence your subject experiences will be apparent in the final images.

Shoot in your subject’s preferred environment

A portrait shoot can take place anywhere. I’m sure no one would object to a beach dotted with palm trees. And studios with muslin backdrops have their place. Neither, however, is a requirement for a successful photo shoot. In fact, shooting in and around a subject’s home might be ideal, as the familiarity of the location will put them at ease and allow their personality to come through more easily. Forcing people to sit under hot lights or endure the frenetic flashing of strobes when they clearly are uncomfortable is counterproductive. And not very nice. So go to their happy place with them, wherever that may be, and you’ll get portraits that are a truer reflection of their personality.

Capture the unscripted moments

It’s easy to get caught up in the routine of posing your subject and taking the shot; pose, shoot, pose, shoot, and call it a day. In some respects, that’s just the way it goes; that’s how most portraits are made. But there’s always something else there, something you don’t want to overlook or dismiss. At some point there may arise an occasion when you’re not “formally” shooting — perhaps you’re changing locations or just about to wrap up the session. These so-called camera-down moments, when the subject doesn’t feel the weight of the lens aimed at them, provide an opportunity to sneak in a few quick shots. The spontaneity of these candid-like shots can reveal the authenticity that portrait photographers crave.

Shoot in aperture priority

Seasoned photographers and self-proclaimed experts will probably insist on shooting fully manual, which is perfectly fine. But if you’re someone who is looking to be unencumbered by technical concerns without forsaking your creative vision, then use aperture priority mode. In order to isolate the face/facial features you’ll want to set a relatively small aperture, typically f/2.8 to f/5.6. Your camera will then choose the appropriate shutter speed. If you find the shutter speed isn’t quite fast enough to avoid blur at your chosen aperture, just boost ISO. Given the quality of most current DSLR sensors, jumping from ISO 100 to ISO 400 won’t negatively affect your images.

Come Close

Don’t fear your own creativity

Don’t let rules put a damper on your output. There’s no reason you should be content with making photos that you can’t get excited about. Get creative with your portraiture:

  • Use non-traditional focal lengths – Wide angle lenses aren’t flattering to faces, but used the right way you can create some unique, eye-catching portraits; also use wide angle lenses for full body portraits or environmental portraits.
  • Use creative framing – Instead of placing your subject in front of a wall or studio backdrop, use something more dynamic; windows, doorways, trees, all work well as framing devices.
  • Overexpose – You don’t need an elaborate lighting setup to get a clean, bright, high-key look. Even it’s not a “true” high-key shot, slightly overexposing can give your image a nice bit of pop.
  • Introduce a prop – It can be anything: a flower to hold, a chair to sit on, anything that might put your subject at ease. Plus, the prop adds an additional dimension to the photo.
  • Creative post-processing – The sky is the limit. Aside from the standard routine of sharpening eyes and removing blemishes, you can introduce textures, create double exposures, or use color isolation.

In short, simply follow your creative instincts and know that becoming a good portrait photographer is well within your reach. Keep shooting.

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In Appreciation of Prime Lenses

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Zoom lenses are everywhere in modern photography — from mobile devices to point and shoot cameras to entry level DSLRs, a zoom lens is pretty much a standard marketing companion. Even many higher end DSLRs typically feature a zoom lens as part of the kit. Sure, you can always buy just a camera body and choose your own lens, but, with a few exceptions, it seems that the days when cameras came with a simple 35mm or 50mm lens are a thing of film photography’s distant past.

This isn’t an effort to denigrate zoom lenses because that would be pointless; zoom lenses play a vital role in photography. But given the dynamics of modern (digital) photography, it is quite possible that many new photographers have never used or even heard of a “prime” lens.

If you happen to be one of those who have never used a prime lens — a single focal length lens — you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about. Is it just hype and no substance? Is the awesomeness of prime lenses all in other people’s heads?

Both of those questions can be assuredly answered, “No.”

So let’s go over the reasons why you should give prime lenses a try and why I’m confident that you will absolutely love the results.

Prime Lenses and Image Quality

One of the things you will hear most often when it comes to why photographers adore prime lenses is for their superior image quality. To be sure, there are indeed a handful of zoom lenses that produce images of a quality approaching — if not matching — some prime lenses. But this isn’t the norm and doesn’t apply to the majority of zoom lenses.

The main reason exceptional image quality is associated with fixed focal length lenses is because they contain less glass, a less complicated optics formula, and fewer moving parts than their zoom counterparts. This all translates to better contrast (which most people interpret as sharpness), less distortion, and more pleasing bokeh (out of focus areas).

sunny day

There is probably no zoom lens in existence that can match a prime lens in every aspect of image quality, and if such a zoom did exist, it would likely weigh a ton and be out of the price range of all but the richest 1%. Both Nikon and Canon make highly regarded 70-200mm zoom lenses, yet both companies also produce comparatively cheap 50mm lenses that are held in high esteem for their optical qualities.

Prime Lenses and Maximum Aperture

This could, perhaps, compete with overall image quality as the number one reason photographers love prime lenses. Having a wide maximum aperture (small f-number) gives prime lenses two very important advantages:

1. They can capture more light, meaning you won’t have to sacrifice shutter speed and you can keep ISO levels lower.

2. Their wider apertures allow more control over depth of field and, thereby, subject-background isolation.

It is not uncommon to find a prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or f/2.0. If you are willing to pay a little more, you can get a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 or f/1.2. In 2013 Sigma lenses introduced the first zoom lens with a constant maximum aperture of f/1.8; all other zoom lenses on the market max out at f/2.8, with the average maximum aperture being f/3.5 to f/5.6.

Prime lenses simply hold a distinct advantage in the lens speed department. When you want to isolate your subject from the background, shoot indoors under poor lighting, or shoot outdoors at night, a prime lens is the way to go.

Prime Lenses and Your Compositional Skills

If one were to cast an aspersion of some kind on prime lenses, it would probably be that they aren’t as versatile as zoom lenses; they can’t change focal lengths. Whether that is truly a “con” is debatable. No, you can’t twist the barrel of a prime lens and suddenly be closer to your subject; you’ll have to use your feet to do that, which will change the shot’s perspective and framing. All of this means that when using a fixed focal length lens, you need to be ever so conscientious of your composition. Sometimes just taking a step forward or backward is all you need; other times, that’s not going to work at all and you’ll need to reframe/recompose the shot. The bottom line is that you will be forced to think before you shoot. If it sounds like too much work, just remember that most things worth doing aren’t usually easy. But the perceived “inconvenience” of using a prime lens may very well end up making you a better photographer.

Prime Lens Weight, Size, and Price

Prime lenses are smaller, lighter, and cheaper than zoom lenses. There are, of course, exceptions to this, particularly in terms of price, as there are some f/1.2 prime lenses that can put a real dent in your bank account. As a guiding principle, however, if you want a small, lightweight, affordable lens, you are very likely to find all these traits in a prime lens.

What Are Prime Lenses Used For?

Almost anything you want, really. And this is where prime lenses’ supposed lack of versatility becomes more a matter of perception than an objective fact.

  • General purpose/walk-around lens. Sometimes you just want to grab your camera and go; you don’t have any specific themes or subjects in mind, you simply feel the urge to go out and shoot, unencumbered by a heavy lens.

driver's seat

  • Street photography. Size and weight make a prime lens the perfect candidate for street photography. You want to be comfortable, not lugging a weighty lens around your neck; and you want to be discreet, not bringing undue attention to yourself, a feat considerably less attainable if you’ve got a foot-long lens protruding from your face.


  • Close-up photography. While not true macro photography, you can use a prime lens in conjunction with a close-up filter or a set of extension tubes to approximate the look of a macro lens. You can also reverse mount one lens onto another to achieve a similar result. And just so there’s no confusion, true macro lenses are, in fact, also prime lenses.


  • Portraits. Lenses 85mm and longer are often considered traditional portrait lengths. But there’s no right or wrong here; you can also use a 35mm or a 50mm lens for portraits, just be aware of the distortion that may be introduced at shorter focal lengths and compose accordingly.

Jackie light Gaze IMG_9868-Edit


The benefits of using a prime lens are many: image quality, aperture, cost, improved technique. We can’t deny, however, that there is a time and a place for zoom lenses; there are situations that simply demand them. If you shoots sports, you will likely find a zoom lens perfectly suited to what you’re shooting; a similar case can be made for wedding photography. The real drawback of prime lenses might be that you would need to carry two or three primes to cover the same focal length of one zoom.

Yet, for some photographers, the image quality of a prime lens is enough to override concerns about having to carry multiple prime lenses. If you are interested in building a collection of primes, you simply need to know what you shoot so that your collection is a smart collection. And it will almost certainly be a sharp collection.