May 2014 Visual Adventures Newsletter



To create this triptych, I used the new Analog Efex Pro 2 software from Nik.

In this Newsletter:
– Greetings
– Stuff I Like This Month
– May GOAL Assignment: Shoot at High ISO
– Photo Techniques: Three Steps to a Beautiful White Background
– Digital Tidbits: Analog Efex Pro 2
– Photo Techniques: Telling a Simple Story Through Photos
– Workshop and Business Updates


I love being a photographer and I know that the people who read this newsletter love photography as well. There are very few disciplines in life that combine technical knowledge with artistic endeavor like photography does. I love the challenge of creating impressive images, I love the camaraderie among like-minded shooters, and I love mastering the gear.

A lot of professional photographers hate talking about the gear involved with photography because they know that gear does not necessarily make a great photographer. All great photographers know that it is their total knowledge of the craft that allows them to create masterful works of art. However the truth is, gear does matter at some level. Especially, as you improve your skill. As with most things, as your skill improves the gear you use can help enhance your photographs.

Most of us buy gear that is beyond our skill level in the hopes that we will work into it. New cameras and lenses are great, but you need to master these technologies before you are able to consistently produce beautiful results. With that said, are you planning on taking a big trip this summer? If so, now is the time to start assessing your photography goals for the adventure and then get to work practicing your craft. Photography is much like other skills in that if you want to excel, you have to practice, practice and practice some more.

To make my point, later this summer I’m traveling to Iceland, Galapagos, Cuba and Africa. Three out of four of these trips will have substantial wildlife photography opportunities and I want to be ready to go so that I can hit the ground and not miss a beat with my photographs. I want to make sure that I know my gear in and out. I want my autofocus technique and my long lens technique to help me produce sharp, contrastry images.

So, I make sure to spend time every day and every week practicing my photography. I live in a rural area of Washington State, USA and we have quite a few wild animals living on our property. I use this resource as a way to continuously exercise my photography eye and technique. I always have at least one camera out and ready to go so I can jump up at a moment’s notice and grab a shot.

These images I take of birds, rabbits and deer keep my mind engaged and my skills sharp. I also know that the repetition of shooting is preparing me for the bigger trips I have planned.

I really encourage you to follow my example and always keep the camera by your side. Practice shooting what interests you even if you won’t be doing anything with the photographs in the long-term. Think of your practice like Mr. Myiagi training the karate kid by having him wax on and wax off for weeks at a time. Practicing your photography will lead to excellence in the long run. Refuse to be lazy. Get out there and take some pics.

Cuba Cultural and Photo Tour


Our international photo trips are truly special. I love taking small groups of photographers to far-off lands while showing them the world through their lenses. Travelers on my trips learn a ton, take great photos, eat wonderful food and enjoy the art of exploration. We’ve already sold out two of our 2014 international trips (Iceland and Galapagos), but still have room on our Cuba and Tanzania photo trips.

Our photo adventure to Cuba is scheduled for October 4-12, 2014. This adventure is designed to be a cultural immersion trip and we will be taking photos of just about anything and everything along the way. The United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has created a relatively new visa for US citizens to travel to Cuba called the people-to-people visa. It is designed to encourage the sharing of culture and ideas between people of the two countries.

We will be traveling as a small group and experiencing many of the charms of old-world Havana and Viñales. I am excited to be leading this trip along with another of my colleagues who is an expert in Cuban history and culture. Our USA departure point is Miami Florida, where we board a special charter flight and fly directly to Havana Cuba. We spend about four days in Havana, and the remainder of the trip in a more rural area called Viñales. Each day of the adventure will be a mixture of cultural interaction, photography, and experiencing the Cuban way of life.

Due to changing economic policy, Cuba is on the cusp of dramatic change and this is bound to be one of the last opportunities to experience Cuba as it has historically been for the last 60 years. The winds of change are blowing strong in Cuba. We should all take this opportunity to see Cuba now.

Currently we are about halfway sold out on this tour, so don’t wait too much longer to sign up if you are interested. I know this trip is going to be an excellent adventure and I would love to have you attend. Email me if you have questions, or check out our information page here: Cuba Cultural and Photo Tour

Stuff I Like This Month

1. Nikon cameras are tough. I have people asking me all the time about how durable their cameras are and whether or not they should take them out into the elements. Everybody is asking if their dSLR will stand up to snow, rain, dust, etc. I’ve had my fair share of camera soakings over the years and my cameras have made it through with flying colors. For another example of this, check out this article to see what happened to photographer Alexy Joffre Frangieh’s Nikon D4 after leaving it in a rain storm for 16 hours. Here’s the link from PetaPixel.

2. I really like the juxtaposition of compelling man-made structures against beautiful natural scenes. Be sure to read this National Geographic story about Dave Yoder photographing radio telescope antennas. The title of this short photo story is Painting the Sky From the Atacama Desert.

3. Nik Software just released Analog Efex Pro 2 for the Nik Collection. This is their homage to old-school film photography and is fully enabled with control points, camera choices, lens options, film choices and blur. The upgrade is free for existing owners of the Nik Collection. Cost for the full Nik Collection is $149 for all seven modules. Download the update or a trial version here: Google Nik Collection . Also, be sure to read the article down below for some examples and further background on the software.

4. It is always fun to get into the mind of other photographers to see what they are doing and what inspires them. POP (Photographers on Photography) interviews shooters, agencies, art buyers and other people in the industry to gain insight into their craft, business and vision. Their site is chock full of photographer interviews and I recommend that you take a look here: I especially like the photography of Tim Tadder, so be sure to read his interview to see what makes him click.




May GOAL Assignment: High ISO

May’s GOAL (Get Out And Learn) photo assignment is to shoot photos in situations that require very high ISO values. Over this last month I’ve been shooting in a lot of indoor, low light environments. As a result, I regularly am shooting above ISO 3200 and am really very happy with the results I’m getting on my modern dSLR cameras. I hear from people all the time that are concerned with noise at high ISO values and ask, “Mike, what is the highest ISO I should use?”

My purpose for this GOAL Assignment is for you to answer the ISO question for yourself. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to shoot an entire event above ISO 2000. You will find that your images do contain a bit of noise but it isn’t as terrible as you might initially think. For this GOAL Assignment, turn off your flash, crank up your ISO and snap away. You’ll probably love what you see, but if you don’t, then you can always mitigate the noise in software such as Adobe Lightroom 5.

Indoor candid portrait at ISO 4500, Nikon D800

Indoor candid portrait at ISO 4500, Nikon D800

Indoor soccer at ISO 3200, Nikon D800.

Indoor soccer at ISO 3200, Nikon D800.

Window portrait at ISO 6400, Nikon D800.

Window portrait at ISO 6400, Nikon D800.

Panorama at California Adventure park, near Disneyland. ISO 2500, Nikon D7000.

Panorama at California Adventure park, near Disneyland. ISO 2500, Nikon D7000.


Photo Techniques: Three Steps to a Beautiful White Background

Taking portraits or product shots in the studio with a bright white background is something photographers have been doing regularly since Richard Avedon made it so popular in the 1960’s. These days, Peter Hurley has cornered the market on headshots with a white background. But the biggest news in the last month has been Amazon’s new US Patent 8,676,045 on photographing a subject against a white background. Seriously, Amazon has been awarded a patent for photographing an object the way we’ve been doing it for decades. This causes me to shake my head, but that isn’t the focus of this article. Rather, I want to show you how you can create your own white background similar to Avedon, Hurley and Amazon.


Richard Avedon was a master at using white backgrounds in his fashion photography


Peter Hurley is the modern-day white background headshot guru.


Amazon patent

Here’s an image from Amazon’s patent on photographing a subject against a white background.

Achieving an elegant bright-white background look in the studio doesn’t have to be difficult. To do this well, you need to master three simple, yet important elements:

1. Proper light placement
2. Proper diffusion
3. Proper brightness

Let’s talk about each of these as they relate to a headshot portrait in the studio.

headshot comp

Here are a bunch of headshots taken with a well-illuminated white background. Read below to learn how to do this yourself.

Proper light placement

The key here is to make sure that the background light evenly illuminates the area around your subject. If you are shooing a headshot, then the light should illuminate the zone around the head and shoulders of your subject. The best way to achieve optimum placement is to set the background light on an adjustable-height light stand. This allows you to take an image, look at the results on your camera’s LCD, then reposition the light as necessary. If you are shooting a series of headshots with different people, then you’ll need to readjust the background light for each individual portrait.


For the background light, make sure you mount it on an adjustable height stand for maximum flexibility.

The image composite shown here was from a portrait shoot I did for a local church, Harbor Covenant. The goal of the shoot was to take pics of the staff members and leadership team for their website. The people in these photographs varied in height from 5’3” tall to 6’4” tall so I found myself adjusting the height of the light stand quite a bit. For each person’s portrait, I took a shot then reviewed it on the back of the camera to check the light’s placement. If the light wasn’t perfect, then I walked back to readjust the light until it was perfect. Once everything was lined up properly, then I took a series of photographs for each individual.

For headshots like the ones that I show here, you really only need one single background light. The ideal placement for the light is just below the person’s shoulders and pointed up towards the ceiling. If you are shooting more of the torso or you have more than one person, then you’ll need to use two or more lights on the background in order to avoid hot spots.

Proper diffusion

After correctly positioning the light, the next step is to add some form of diffusion to the flash. If you don’t diffuse the light, then the flash will shine very harshly on the background and will create a very intense hot spot. A non-diffused flash will even show all the wrinkles in the background material. The softer you can make the background light, the better the quality of the resulting portrait.

Just about any type of diffusion box will do for the background light. Over the years I’ve used the Ultimate Light Box from Harbor Digital Design. The system is durable and the quality of light is excellent. Additionally, I really like the owner of the company (Michael Capozzi) and he’s become a good friend over the time that I’ve known him.


Harbor Digital Design’s Ultimate Light Box.


If you don’t have a diffusion box like the one I described here, then go ahead and just use the small diffusion dome that came with your speedlight. This will be better than using nothing. Remember that the key is to create a large area of light behind the subject’s shoulders and head.

BTS white background

Here’s a BTS shot of the location and light setup.

Proper brightness

The final step in achieving a nice white background is making sure that background brightness is 1.5 to two stops brighter than the subject’s face. You can measure this with traditional manual strobes by using a hand-held light meter such as the Sekonic L-478D or Sekonic L-308S. If you’re using a wireless TTL flash system like the Nikon CLS speedlights, then I recommend setting the background flash to manual output mode while the foreground lights are in TTL mode. Setting the background flash to fire in manual mode will give you consistent results from picture to picture.

You don’t want the background too bright, otherwise you will get blooming behind the subject. This blooming creates a halo appearance that looks a bit odd. If your background light is too dark, then you have a bunch of post processing work to do in Photoshop. You’ll have to use layer masks to or other tools to brighten up the background without brightening up the subject. Be diligent about getting the brightness correct at the time of the shoot and you’ll save yourself a bunch of headache.

For the images shown here, I set the background Nikon SB-910 flash to 1/4 power. The foreground Nikon speedlights in softboxes were set for TTL. The key light was set for +1.0 EV while the fill light was set for 0.0 EV. For the white backdrop, I used a Lastolite white collapsible light panel.

The softboxes I used were Profoto RFi boxes and speed rings that are specifically designed to work with most small speedlights such as the Nikon SB-910 and Canon 600EX. I really like using Profoto gear because of the excellent build quality. Don’t worry so much about the brand of softboxes you use in your studio; just about any softbox or umbrella will do for this type of photography.

The last thing to keep in mind for this type of shoot is to make sure that the house lights are turned off before you take the portraits. Ideally you only want the light from your flashes impacting the photo, not the warm ambient fluorescents. For the church’s photo shoot, I turned off the overhead lights so they would not influence the color of the scene.

Okay, now it’s your turn to take some images with a bright white background. I challenge you to try creating your own headshots using the techniques I detailed above. Post your results online and send me a link or share it on Facebook so I can see the fruits of your labor.

Here’s a list of the gear I used for this shoot:
Nikon D800
Nikon 85mm f/1.8
Peak Design Capture Clip and Leash system
Profoto RFi 3’ Octa softbox
Profoto HR 2’x3’ RF softbox
Profoto Compact Light Stand
Profoto RFi speedrings for Nikon/Canon Flashes
– Nikon SB-900, SB-910, SB-700 speedlights
Swivel Umbrella Adapter
Harbor Digital Design Ultimate Light Box


Digital Tidbits: Analog Efex Pro 2

Maasai woman

Maasai woman, Tanzania. Nikon D800, 70-200mm f/2.8. Processed in Adobe Lightroom 5 and Nik Analog Efex Pro 2.

Retro photography is back with a vengeance. All around the world, photographers are using retro-designed cameras to relive the style of photography they grew up with in the 1960s and 1970s. The retro movement is also gaining ground in post-processing imaging software. Companies like Nik, OnOne and Alien Skin all produce excellent film-replication plugins designed to help us create film-like versions of our digital images.

The newest retro software released just last week, is Nik’s Analog Efex Pro 2. The first version of the software was released in the fall of 2013 so this represents a very quick upgrade cycle from Google’s newly-acquired Nik Software unit.


The user interface of AEP2 is very similar to the other plugins from the Nik Software Suite.

As a member of Nik’s beta testing team, I’ve been working with this new version during development. Over the last few months, I’ve come to really enjoy using the software and I appreciate the hard-work the Nik Software team put into making an elegant product.

As a recovering mechanical engineer, I often have a difficult time appreciating artwork that doesn’t represent reality. In fact, most of my favorite photos are straightforward representations of reality. Creating something conceptual and alternative takes substantial effort from my logical engineering mind (I identify much more closely to Spock than I do with Kirk).

The reason I love Analog Efex Pro 2 (AEP2) so much is that it is specifically designed to create alternative versions of photographs. The very nature of the software is produce images that don’t necessarily represent reality.


Nik AEP2 helps me think differently about my photography and that’s why I like the program. Here’s a multi-lens filter applied to a standard shot (below).


This is the original picture, before applying the multi-lens filter to the image shown above.


Nik Analog Efex Pro 2 is one of seven plug-ins from Nik Collection software suite. If you are already in owner of the software, then upgrading to the new AEP2 is absolutely free. AEP2 works with Adobe Photoshop CS5/CS6/CC, Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 through 12, Adobe Lightroom 3 through 5, and Apple Aperture 3.1 or later.

To start using the program from Lightroom 5, simply right click on an image and choose Edit In -> Analog Efex Pro 2. One of the first things that you will notice is that the AEP2 user interface is very similar to the other pieces of software in the group.
With the program open, the best place to start working is an area called the Camera Kit. Basically, the Camera Kit section provides you with a huge variety of presets that are designed to look like specific camera types and film styles. The software comes pre-programmed with kits like classic camera, multiple lens, double exposure, and different film emulations.


This camera kit setting applied a combination of dirt/scratches, lens vignette and film type to create this faded look.

Once you’ve chosen your camera style, then you can move to the right side of the screen and make adjustments to individual parameters. For example you can change the blur strength or the color cast with very simple and graphical user inputs.

I will say that when you start with the program it can seem a bit overwhelming because of the plethora of adjustments. Give yourself a little bit of time and soon you’ll find a series of presets that you gravitate towards. As you progress in the software package, you can even create your own camera designs in the custom camera area. AEP2 allows you to save these and access them at any point in the future.


double exposure

The double exposure camera kit allows you to create some very interesting looks. Here, you can see the filter adjustments overlaid on the photograph.

One of my favorite elements of the program is the image frames section. This allows you to create very creative and old-school frame styles for the border around your pictures. For example you can make the images look like they were taken with wet plates or with medium format film markings.

As usual, Nik has done an excellent job with the software and I guarantee that your creativity will blossom simply by experimenting with the software. Personally, the software gives me the freedom me to rethink my photographs and encourages me to be bold in my constant struggle to innovate. I love this software and know that you will too.

As I mentioned earlier, the upgrade to AEP2 is free for existing owners of the Nik Collection. The price for the full version (all seven plug-ins) is very reasonable at $150 for the entire package.

Download the upgrade or a trial version of the software package for yourself at this link: Nik Collection

Here are a number of video tutorials from the Nik software team on using the program: Analog Efex Pro 2 Videos

Photo Techniques: Telling a Simple Story Through Photography

pizza party

As a parent, I love to document my children’s lives with my camera. For most of us parents though, it is easy to become lazy shooters when photographing our children’s life events. For example, at a birthday party you may be inclined to take a single photo of blowing out the candles and call it good. Or, perhaps at a soccer game, you’ll settle for taking a single group shot of the kids at the end of the game.

As you know, taking a single photo of an activity will never tell the full story. The most compelling visual stories are always told with a series of photographs and that is why lately I have I have been focusing my effort on photo stories of my children.

Just about anything that we do in life revolves around some type of story. For example, the simple act of going to the store involves a myriad of activities such as writing a shopping list, finding the car keys, putting on your shoes, driving down the road, grabbing a shopping cart, selecting items from the store shelves, and paying the cashier. Even this everyday act of shopping in a grocery store can lead to a compelling photo essay if you are deliberate about capturing each of the elements.

A couple weeks ago, my daughter asked if she could make pizza for dinner. She’s never made pizza from scratch before, so I told her I would be happy to assist her with the process. While she was toiling away, I made sure to keep my Nikon D800 and 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at the ready to capture the story.

Before I began shooting, I knew in my mind that I wanted to capture the pizza making adventure from start to finish. Although I didn’t necessarily write down each of the elements beforehand, I went into the activity knowing that I wanted to capture each aspect of the process. In my mind, I knew this meant photographing things like the recipe, kneading the dough, tossing the crust into the air, adding toppings, and enjoying the results of her hard work.

As she worked, I made sure to take photographs of the details along the way. Being involved with the cooking and the photography was actually great fun for me. I had a blast getting shots of her hands covered in sticky dough and the excitement on her face from throwing the pie crust into the air.

Most cultures around the world thrive on stories and great story telling is how we communicate the best and brightest ideas. The best television shows, movies and books are all successful because of their ability to communicate a well thought out story. Photographic storytelling is similar in that viewers interpret the story through a series of images. The key to putting together a good photo story is making sure that you have effectively captured the traditional elements that comprise a typical story. A good story usually includes most of these elements:
• Introduction
• Characters
• Details
• Storyline
• Surprises & plot twists
• Conclusion

Now that the photos of my daughter’s pizza-making adventure are complete, I will put them into a small photo book as a keepsake for the future. The small photo book will sit on our coffee table in the living room as a fun reminder of the day we both made pizza from scratch.

I encourage you to start story telling with your photography. If you’re not a parent, then think about the things in your life that appeal to you. For example, if you are a runner, then photograph the story of what it takes to go on a typical run. Everything from stretching to tying shoes to running to dodging traffic to sweating to the grimace on your face. All of this adds up to compelling story, especially when shown together as a photo essay.

Just so you don’t have any excuses, here are a bunch of ideas for putting together your own photo story.
• Planting your garden
• Feeding your pet
• Getting ready for the day
• Going on a mountain bike trip
• Birds feeding their newborn chicks in the nest
• Working out at the gym
• Delivering a package to the post office
• Ordering takeout from the local Chinese restaurant
• Taking a taxi cab ride
• Taking the subway to work
• Changing a flat tire
• Writing a hand-written letter
• Painting a piece of art on an easel
• Woodworking in your shop
• Drinking coffee with a friend

Workshop and Business Updates

We keep adding new trips and workshops across the world including our newest adventures India and Iceland. Read below for more information.

Tanzania 2014
Our 2014 trip to Tanzania is going to be better than ever with an optimized travel schedule aimed at allowing us even more time to photograph wildlife in the field. This year’s Tanzanian photo safari is scheduled for November 4 – 15, 2014. Join us for a wildlife photography adventure you’ll never forget.

Here’s the link for more information: Tanzania Photo Safari

Iceland Birds and Landscapes Photo Adventure – Summer 2014 (SOLD OUT)
I’ll be working again with photographer Tim Vollmer to bring together a beautiful photo tour of the Land of Fire and Ice. Last year’s adventure was epic and I can’t wait to return to the land of fire and ice.

More information here: Iceland Birds and Landscapes

Cuba Photo Adventure Trip
Join us to photograph the relics of old Cuba before it transitions to the modern western influence. Our trip will operate on the official People to People visa created by the US Department of Commerce. This allows USA citizens a legal way to enter Cuba and experience the culture. We’ll be photographing every single day in areas ranging from the city of Havana to the rural Vinales.

More information here: Cuba Cultural Photo Adventure Trip

Northern India Tea, Landscape and Wildlife Photo Adventure
Trip dates April 29 – May 11, 2015
Join Mike Hagen and Tim Vollmer on a photo excursion to Northern India that you’ll never forget. We’ve timed our adventure to coincide with the tea harvest in Sikkim where we’ll be creating compelling images in the beautiful tea country highlands of colorful locals harvesting tea, sprawling tea plantations and verdant hills. The Kanchenjunga and Himalayan mountain ranges loom large and will provide stunning backdrops for many of our scenes. We will also be going to a wildlife sanctuary known for its population of rhinoceros, elephant, leopard and bison.

More information here: India Tea, Landscape and Wildlife – 2015

Galapagos Photography Adventure (2014 Trip SOLD OUT)
The Galapagos Islands are one of the most amazing wildlife sanctuaries on planet earth. Join us as we photograph incredible animals while traveling on our own privately-chartered expedition yacht. This is a trip on just about every photographer’s bucket list.

More information here: Galapagos Wildlife Photo Adventure

Iceland in Winter – February 2015
Winter in Iceland is an incredible feast for the eyes. Stunning ice formations, glacial caves and icebergs resting on black sand beaches make for an image-maker’s dream. Our tour focuses on Iceland’s most impressive landscapes, waterfalls and natural features. It is going to be cold, but it will be worth it!

More information here: Iceland in Winter

Masters Series Workshops
We’ve added new Masters series workshops to the Nikonians Academy schedule to help photographers get the most out of their cameras, software and accessories. Our workshops run in cities all around North America and Europe. We hope to bring them to a city near you very soon. This year’s workshops cover:
• Nikon D600/D610
• Nikon D7000/D7100
• Nikon D4/D4s
• Nikon D800/D800E
• Nikon Df
• iTTL Wireless Flash
• Lightroom 5

Sign up for the workshops here: Nikonians Academy

Mike Hagen’s Books
Our how-to books continue to sell well and are designed to help photographers excel at their craft. More information here:
– Thousands of Images, Now What?
– The Nikon Creative Lighting System, Using the SB-600, SB-700, SB-800, SB-900, SB-910, and R1C1 Flashes
– Nikon Capture NX2, After the Shoot (Sold out, but available in eBook format)

Nikon Camera Setup Guides
If you are looking for information on how to set up your Nikon camera, then check out our Nikon Camera Setup Guides here:

Staying Current
You can stay current with our new workshop by watching for news to be posted at the blog, on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Our Visual Adventures website is the new hub of our business operation. You’ll find links to everything we do including our books, workshops, products, newsletter, blog and photo galleries. For now, our previous website will stay put in its present form, but we won’t be adding new content there.

Good Morning !



Custom Group Trips

I frequently put together private trips for groups of photographers who want specialized instruction or guidance. For example, we recently put together a private trip for a small group of people to Tanzania.

If you have a group and want to arrange a custom photo trip to a destination, contact us and we’ll put together an incredible itinerary just for you. Our custom photo adventures are for people all around the world on topics ranging from nature photography, landscape photography, urban photography, location portraits, and just about anything else you can imagine. Simply email or call and we’ll give you all the details for how to go about creating the trip of your dreams.

Private Tutoring and Consulting

Every month I run private workshops for people who want to learn in a one-on-one environment. These are great for folks who want to focus on specific topics related directly to their interests. Topics have included product photography, learning your camera, Lightroom 5, Photoshop CC, Aperture, Capture NX2, wedding photography, color management, nature photography, digital workflow, macro photography, location portraiture and many others. I also regularly consult with businesses, schools, organizations and museums to assist with their photographic and digital workflow needs.

If you have questions about private tutoring or business consulting, call (253) 851-9054 or visit our site here: .


Thanks for taking the time to read this month’s newsletter. Feel free to write or contact us if you have questions about our trips or the articles in this newsletter.

If you are looking for more photo encouragement during the month, be sure to check out for regular updates, news, tips and commentary. Also, I encourage you to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

aurora borealis

Tea plantation

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