Shooting Through Changing Light

It is safe to say that I am not a morning person.  Honestly, if you told me that my only options were to wake up early, or have a non-anesthetic root canal, I would probably hesitate before I gave you my final answer.

Morning light creates so many wonderful photographic opportunities though, so from time to time I will suck it up and head out on 3 or 4 hours of sleep to shoot.  Such was the case this past summer, when I taught a 5 day travel photography workshop in Toronto with my teaching partner Spencer Wynn.  Sunrise was around 6:30am that week, so we were up shortly after 4am quite often to ensure that we were on location and ready to shoot well before that time.

My favourite thing about these early morning shoots is watching the light change as the sun rises.  In just a short period of time it can go from total darkness, to pre-dawn light, to sunrise and finally to full daylight, each phase offering a completely different look for our images.  Let’s take a look at a series of photos I made one morning in Toronto, time stamped to see how the light changed throughout the 90 minutes or so that I shot (from 5:56am to 7:28am).

(Note:  all of the images in this series where shot in Fuijfilm’s Provia film simulation, using the daylight white balance setting.  The photos have had minimal cropping / straightening, a few exposure corrections and they have been sharpened.)


This was the view that greeted us as we arrived on location, the famous Toronto skyline set against an eerie glowing pink sky that reflected off of the water.  We started shooting immediately, working the scene to find the best composition while the night sky still had this glow:


The sky was brightening quickly however, washing away the wonderful pink hues that were present only minutes before.  I often focus less on the sky and more on detail shots when this happens, in this case photographing silhouettes of the morning cyclists and joggers on the bridge.  It is probably the street photographer in me, but I always find compositions more interesting when I can add in a human element:


I especially love how images like these look in black and white:

When the sun finally made its appearance behind the Toronto skyline the light changed yet again, the rising sun bringing a new colour palette with it as it rose higher and higher in the sky:


When the transition from night to day was complete we looked for other shooting opportunities underneath the bridge.  I fell in love with the geometric shapes and the interplay of light and shadows that we discovered, and then a bird flew into the frame creating an opportunity for an interesting image:


We finally made our way back to the van, tired but excited about the beautiful sunrise we witnessed that morning.  On the way back, however, we couldn’t resist stopping on the bridge to play with the architecture one more time:


When shooting a skyline or cityscape we often head out with one main image in mind.  Changing light brings us so many options though, so it is important to keep working the scene, keep responding to the light and, most importantly, keep making images.  Just keep shooting!

I think my favourite image from the morning is this one:

I love the colours, I love the static elements (the instantly recognizable Toronto skyline framed by the bridge) and I love how the cyclist adds an interesting human element to the scene.

If you are new to this kind of shooting, I highly encourage you to spend a few hours on location shooting through changing light… it is a lot of fun.  And, if you are interested in shooting in this exact location in 2019, definitely consider joining Spencer and I on our next Toronto workshop!

The Story of a City – Toronto Edition



p.s.  This is the fourth and final post from my time in Toronto this year.  Up next on the blog, a lot of new street photography from the streets of Vancouver!

A Storytelling Approach to Travel Photography

Many years ago, when I first started combining my love of photography with my love of travel, I focused heavily on shooting cityscapes and landscapes.  I would head out before sunrise, find the best shooting angle, set up my tripod and wait for the right light.  If people were in my composition I would wait for them to move before taking the shot (I may have even photoshopped one or two of them out over the years).  I was making “postcard images”, so heaven forbid somebody got in the way of the Louvre, the Manhattan skyline, or that beautiful meadow with the rolling hills that I was photographing.

The irony of this is that I have always loved people, from my former work as a paramedic and portrait photographer to my current work as an educator, presenter and street / wedding photographer.  People truly define a culture:  They make the buildings.  They create the art.  They make the food.  They breath life into cities and the countryside.  Honestly, it is impossible to tell the story of a place without also creating images of the people themselves.

Over time I also came to appreciate the importance of the detail shot.  When I thought of places I have travelled to, I realized that it was often the little details that I remembered the most.

When you think of Paris, the Eiffel Tower comes to mind, but so do the love locks.  When you think of Seattle, the Space Needle comes to mind, but so do the fish mongers and their seafood in the market.  When you think of New York, the Empire State building comes to mind, but so do the pigeons in the parks.  It is these little detail shots that round out our architectural images and people images.  It is the little details shots that fill the gaps in a story.

Coming home from a trip is really when the work begins for many of us.  Our minds are full of wonderful memories, our hard drives are full of new images that require editing and processing, and our brains are racing to decide how best to present our new work.

This should be a purposeful process, driven by the following question:

“What story do I want to tell?”

An image, just one singular image, can sometimes hold an entire story within its borders.  It is arguably easier though, and often more impactful, to tell a story through a series of images.  Visual storytelling of this nature is an art form unto itself, one understood by journalists the world over.

You might take the following into consideration when deciding which images to include in a visual story:

  • Do I have establishing shots that set the scene (often taken from a higher vantage point or with a wider lens)?
  • Do I have medium shots (images that are close enough to make out all of the details, but wide enough to show the relationship of the objects within the frame)?
  • Do I have close up and details shots (images that tend to focus on one element, such as a pianist’s hands)?
  • Do I have portraits (traditional mug shot or environmental portraits, candid or posed)?
  • Do I have action shots?
  • Do I have reaction shots (i.e.  people watching the action)?

Once you have selected and processed your final images it is important to play with the arrangement and sequencing to determine how to tell your story in the best way possible.  Maybe you should start with a wide establishing shot to set the scene, then take the viewer inside the place you are documenting with a series of medium shots.  Perhaps you are documenting an artist at work in his or her studio so you show an environmental portrait, several action shots of the artist at work and finally a detail shot or two of the art itself.  There are no hard rules to this of course, it is all in what you want to say and how you want to say it.

If you can, I find it helps to print your work while you are doing this.  There are few things more impactful in the visual arts than looking at a beautiful series of printed images.  Printing also allows you to view your story in a more physical manner, to hold the images in your hands, to spread them to out if need be and to make any changes as required.

If you don’t have the opportunity to print and hang your finished work at least make a book through one of the online services.  Our work is important, it deserves to be so much more than a series of digital ones and zeroes on our hard drives.

The wonderful thing about taking a storytelling approach to your photography is that it can be done anywhere.  Pick a spot in your home town and approach it like a journalist.  Perhaps it is a bakery, the local fair, or a nearby artist’s colony.  Perhaps it is a tattoo artist or a busy neighbourhood near the water.  Dedicate time to shooting there, but with the focused goal of telling a story about the place that you visited.  The lessons learned from doing this will translate directly into your next trip.

Another excellent way to improve your visual storytelling is to seek out critique, honest feedback, from somebody that you respect.  Be open, be receptive, take notes, and then internalize the parts of the feedback that resonate with you.  Getting fresh eyes on your work is a great way to make you better for the next story that you set out to tell.

All of the images in this post were made during a workshop I teach with fellow Official Fujifilm X Photographer Spencer Wynn, called “The Story of a City”.  This is a 5 day workshop, most recently held in Toronto, that is focused on creating storytelling travel photography.

During the workshop we shoot cityscapes and landscapes, we make portraits, we take detail shots, we shoot a little street photography… all of it done with the intention of telling a story.  Lecture and shooting assignments are combined with discussions over coffee about photojournalism and how to improve your vision.  At the end of the workshop each student presents their story from the week, both to celebrate success and to receive feedback on their work.  It is a wonderful workshop that we truly love teaching.

The Story of a City workshop series will be traveling to the following locations in 2019:

  • St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada:  May 6th – 10th (this trip will also include a special day spent photographing icebergs).
  • Paris, France:  June 3rd to 7th
  • Toronto, Canada:  July 15th to 19th
  • Winter location to be announced

If you are interested in any of these workshops please watch this site for more details coming very soon.  Early bird discounts will apply and enrolment is limited (5-10 students max depending on the location, but always with two instructors).

Until next time, here are a few more images from the Toronto workshop!



Without Risk There Can Be No Reward

“The biggest risk a person can take is to do nothing”

– Robert T. Kiyosaki

Risk, and words like it, are used a lot in the arts community:  “that photo is edgy”, “that was a brave choice”, “you took a risk with that one”.

What does “risk” mean though?  In my former life as a paramedic the answer to this was obvious:  I have been exposed to highly contagious diseases, attacked by people on drugs and threatened by people with weapons.  The potential for loss, very real loss, was easily identifiable in these situations.  Trying to define risk in the artistic world, on the other hand, is a bit more nebulous (but no less real).  

Risk usually puts something on the line.  When you take a chance there is the potential for loss, but you also greatly increase the odds of reaching your goals.  Risk can be scary, but if something is worth having then it is worth putting in that extra bit of effort, pushing the boundaries just a little bit more and, sometimes, even pushing away from the dock without knowing what your final destination is going to be (like I did when I quit working as a paramedic to be a full time creative).

Neale Donald Walsch famously said:

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

This is how you grow, by pushing out of your comfort zone and reaching for new levels of excellence in your chosen craft.  The truth is that you will not become a travel photographer by staying in your living room.  You will not build a successful client driven business without a mechanism to meet new people or for people to find you.  You will not become an amazing photographer if you only read forums and FaceBook groups, and you won’t become an author if you never write. 

Growth can be uncomfortable, but it absolutely is where the magic happens.

A personal example…

I never set out to photograph weddings as part of my business model, it was actually something that a friend asked me to do.  There were many reasons why I could have said no, but I saw it is a growth opportunity and quickly agreed.  I can remember being nervous on that first wedding day, working extra hard to ensure that I didn’t miss any once in a lifetime moments that the bride and groom were paying me to capture.  I am confident in my camera skills and I spent 20 years working as a paramedic in time sensitive life or death situations, so you would  think shooting this wedding would have been a breeze for me, right?

No…. no it wasn’t.  

The very real possibility of the client losing out if I didn’t perform properly (i.e. if I missed the first kiss, for example) created a sense of tension during that first wedding that was right up there with many of the other difficult situations that I have handled in my life.  Concerns over things like these could have stopped me from taking the assignment.

You know what though?  I loved it.  I loved the atmosphere.  I loved the pressure.  I loved the confidence that came from knowing that I could deliver.  Now, several years later, I shoot 6-8 weddings a year (which is a perfect number for my business model) and I love the clients that I work with.  

I left my comfort zone, pushed away from the shore, and became a better artist because of it.  

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

I was reminded of all this recently when a friend asked to shoot a wedding with me as a second photographer.  This lady has been a professional for many years in the educational world, is an accomplished writer and photographer, and wanted to see what it was like to shoot a wedding.  I knew the high quality of her work and was excited to partner with her for a shoot.

On the day of the wedding we met to discuss how things would unfold and I could sense a level of nervousness in her, which is only natural when doing something new for the first time.  It didn’t help that the gig was a wedding of course, which is already a high stakes day with multiple once in a lifetime moments that need to be captured (there are no re-takes on a wedding).  It was amazing watching the confidence grow in my friend during the day and later viewing the beautiful photographs that she captured (many of them better than my own).  And, you know what?  I will be hiring this talented lady from now on for all of my weddings.  She was great!

Sometimes you need to jump in the deep end and try that thing you just can’t stop thinking about.  Sometimes you need to force yourself to do the thing that you are scared of.  You need to get out of your comfort zone, take the brave step, and embrace the uncertainty.  It is worth it, I promise.

As Nora Roberts said:

“There is no reward without work, no victory without effort, no battle won without risk.”

So, I ask you:  what is the thing you want to try photographically that you haven’t yet?  What is a risk that you want to take?  What is holding you back?  What are the potential rewards if you succeed?  Why haven’t you started yet?

I’d love to hear all about it in the comments section below.  In the meantime, here are some more wedding images taken over the last few years.