Mike Hagen – Visual Adventures – January 2015 Newsletter

In This Newsletter

– Greetings
– Stuff I Like This Month
– January GOAL Assignment: B-Roll and Secondary Subjects
– Field Report: Using the Nikon D750 In Africa
– Product Review: Uplift Desk
– Digital Tidbits: The Lightroom Solution for Cloudless Skies
– Workshop and Business Updates


Seattle skyline for a client’s construction project at the new Hill7 site.


The last few months have been a wonderful time of family, travel and commercial work for Visual Adventures. I was able to do some corporate photography for a client’s construction project in Seattle, do some travel photography in Lake Tahoe California, do some volunteer work in my home town, visit the vast metropolis of Corvallis, Oregon, and of course, watch a bit of Seahawks football!

Photography continues to be a big part of my life and 2015 will be no different. Like most of you, it seems like I have a million photographic goals and I never have enough time to complete them all. Completing projects is simply a matter of picking one and pushing through until it is finished. Easier said than done, right?!

My hope is that you are challenging yourself this year to learn new skills and new techniques. As I’ve been preaching for the last decade, you have to be continuously shooting to get better. My mantra is ABS – Always Be Shooting – and I’d love it if you adopted that mantra for yourself.

I encourage you to dedicate the next week to picking up your camera at least one time every day to try and create a compelling image. I have numerous newsletters and blog posts on our website to help you find inspiration. Do it!

Speaking of practicing, I have three big photo adventure trips in 2015 that I’d like to invite you on. These adventures keep getting better every year as I continue to refine itineraries and locations for the very best photography.

Iceland – July 12-20, 2015
Galapagos – September 12-19, 2015
Tanzania – November 4-15, 2015

All are designed to be incredible photo trips and the images we create from them are truly inspirational. The food on each of our adventures is almost as good as the photography and our accommodations put us close to the action so we maximize our time in the field. I’ve personally tailored every moment of these trips so we are primed for the best photo opportunities at the best time with the best subjects.


Stuff I Like This Month

1. Nikon unveiled the world’s lightest 300mm f/4 lens. This new version utilizes a new optical design called PF, or Phase Fresnel, that utilizes photo diffraction to dramatically reduce the overall size of the optic. The lens should start shipping February 5th, 2015. Pre-order yours here: AF-S Nikon 300mm f/4 PF at B&H Photo

2. Explore the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) in this new interactive photo from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope that shows over 100 million stars. Each of the stars in the photo has at least one planet orbiting and some of the plants have moons. Very cool stuff. Links:
Information and background
Zoomable image

3. What would you do with 14 years of your life? Photographer Beth Moon spent 14 years documenting the world’s oldest trees and the results are beautiful. Link to photographs and article.

4. I like free stuff and know you do too. One of my book publishers, Rocky Nook, has a new content page on their website where they offer free preview chapters and self-contained information for readers. Cool! Here’s the link: RockyNook free books and content.

300mm f/4 PF ED VR

AF-S Nikon 300mm f/4E PF ED VR

Free downloads at Rocky Nook Publishing's website. http://www.rockynook.com/freebies/

Free downloads at Rocky Nook Publishing’s website. http://www.rockynook.com/freebies/


January GOAL Assignment: B-Roll and Secondary Subjects

For the last ten years I’ve been encouraging photographers to get out of their comfort zones and take photos by participating in our regular GOAL Assignments. The acronym GOAL stands for Get Out and Learn and the sole purpose of our regular GOAL Assignment is to encourage photographers to try something new so that they grow in their skill set.

Your January 2015 GOAL Assignment is to photograph secondary subjects. In the film and documentary industry, this is called capturing B-roll. This is the footage you take that supports the main subject. For example, let’s say that you are interviewing the principal of a local elementary school. The most important thing to capture is the principal and her answers to the questions. However, there’s much more to the story that needs to be captured such as the office space, the exterior of the school, the sign, children playing at recess, etc.

I want you to photograph your scenes in the same way. Obviously, your main subject needs to be photographed well, but there’s more to the scenario that will help flesh out the story. For example, say you are going on a wildlife photography trip and have the goal to photograph the birds in the area. Be sure to also photograph the landscape, the weather, the people, the signs, the trees and other wildlife that helps support the ecosystem.

Only by photographing the main subject and also photographing the secondary subjects can you fully tell the story. Only this way are you able to put together the complete story of the adventure.

When I give presentations and slide shows from my trips, I always work to include these critical secondary elements. These are the elements that complete the story by holding the viewer’s attention. Imagine watching a documentary on lions where the only images you looked at for the entire show were lions. You’d be asking yourself, where were these located? What does the surrounding landscape look like? What kind of weather is in that region? Are there other animals in the proximity? Do the lions eat anything? Where do they get their water? Think of these photographs as the supporting cast in your story. They aren’t the headliners, but they are essential.

If the main focus of your trip is to photograph the landscapes of an area, then be sure to also photograph other elements to fill in the story, such as this flamingo. Nikon D800, 200-400mm f/4.

If the main focus of your trip is to photograph the landscapes of an area, then be sure to also photograph other elements to fill in the story, such as this flamingo. Nikon D800, 200-400mm f/4.

Wine in Tanzania

Be sure your supporting photographs include elements that interest the viewer, such as this rack of wine in Tanzania. Nikon D750, 14-24mm f/2.8.


Field Report: Using the Nikon D750 in Africa

Shooting the Nikon D750 in Tanzania on safari was a great decision. The camera performed almost flawlessly. This group of lions was photographed in Ngorongoro Crater with a Nikon D750 and a 200-400mm f/4 lens.

Shooting the Nikon D750 in Tanzania on safari was a great decision. The camera performed almost flawlessly. This group of lions was photographed in Ngorongoro Crater with a Nikon D750 and a 200-400mm f/4 lens.

As I mentioned a few months ago, the Nikon D750 is a killer camera. I’ve been using a D750 almost daily now since October 2014 and have found it to be a very capable camera that can be used in a number of professional environments.

I recently took the body to Tanzania for a two-week safari to see how it would perform in the wilds of Africa. During the trip, I subjected it to the typical safari environment including dust, heat, cold, bumps, bean bags, tripods, long lenses, wildlife, landscapes and people. Read on to see how it performed in the categories that I think are most important.

Image Quality

As you would expect, image quality was superb. The 24MP sensor worked very well for my photography and I found sharpness, resolution and clarity to be very good. I also shot a Nikon D800 on the trip with 36MP and used that camera when I needed ultimate resolution. But for almost everything else, the 24MP D750 was perfect. I’ll be able to blow up the images nice and large while using them for just about any purpose, including the largest wall murals.

The camera provides lots of pixels in case you need to crop. Lion in tree, Silale Swamp, Tanzania. Nikon D750, 200-400mm f/4.

The camera provides lots of pixels in case you need to crop. Lion in tree, Silale Swamp, Tanzania. Nikon D750, 200-400mm f/4.


Autofocus was excellent. The new Group AF option works very well for bird-in-flight photography. Tracking was excellent. Acquisition was excellent. Accuracy was excellent. I was very pleased with the D750 AF system for everything from portraits to landscapes to fast moving animals. Nice work Nikon.

The camera shares the same autofocus and metering technology as the D4s and D810. The newest addition to the Nikon AF system is group area autofocus. I found myself switching between group area and dynamic 21 area autofocus depending on the subject. If I was photographing a single animal such as a rhinoceros or a flying bird, then I would use group area autofocus. On the other hand, if I was photographing something where I needed critical focus such as a close up of a lion or potentially trying to focus on a single zebra in a herd of zebra, then I would use dynamic 21 point autofocus.

I used the new group area autofocus for scenarios like this. Nikon D750, 200-400mm f/4.

I used the new group area autofocus for scenarios like this. Nikon D750, 200-400mm f/4.

Low Light Performance

I took a number of shots in Tanzania at night and was very pleased with the camera’s long-exposure performance at low ISOs. This isn’t really a significant achievement for the D750 because dSLR cameras have all done a pretty good job at long exposures at low ISOs. The true test is what the photographs look like at ISOs above 6400 and 12,800.

During my trip, I took a few shots in low light during the morning and evening and found the high-ISO performance to be excellent as well. Shooting at 3200 and 6400 shows a small amount of noise, but it is easily removed in post processing. ISO 12,800 is usable, but you definitely see the noise in the images. I’m never afraid to use the high ISOs when I need to get the shot. One of my common refrains is that you can use a noisy shot that isn’t blurry, but you can’t use a blurry shot without noise.

I didn’t shoot any photographs at the extended ISO values of 25,600 or 51,200, but I know from experience that they probably wouldn’t have been that usable anyways.

Long exposure photography is a dream with the D750. It produces low noise and the files are beautiful. This is an image of our lodge near Lake Manyara, NP. Nikon D750, 14-24mm f/2.8.

Long exposure photography is a dream with the D750. It produces low noise and the files are beautiful. This is an image of our lodge near Lake Manyara, NP. Nikon D750, 14-24mm f/2.8.

Auto ISO Performance

I’m using auto ISO more and more on my Nikon cameras because it works so well. The D750 auto ISO performed flawlessly during this trip. I use auto ISO in two ways.

1. When shooting wildlife, I generally want a specific shutter speed in order to freeze the motion. Therefore, I set up the auto ISO system to use 1/500 second or 1/1000 second as my minimum shutter speed. The camera’s metering system then automatically changes ISO to keep the shutter speed at that value.
2. When walking with the camera and hand-holding the camera for my shots, I want to pay close attention to my own ability to hold steady. In this case, I’m most interested in setting my shutter speed to match my lens’ focal length. For example, if I’m shooting at 24mm, then I want my shutter speed to be about 1/25 second. If I’m at 100mm, then I want my shutter speed to be about 1/100 second. In these cases, I set my auto ISO to “Auto” which means that the camera sets the shutter speed equal to the inverse of the focal length (50mm = 1/50 second).

Metering System

Nikon added a new light meter to this camera called highlight priority metering. This is in addition to Matrix meter, center weighted meter, and spot meter. My habit has been to shoot matrix metering, so I didn’t use the highlight priority metering system for any photographs in Tanzania.

The matrix metering system performed very well in almost all situation and I ended up using it for 99% of my photographs. I was very happy with the results and continue to be impressed with Nikons mastery of their light metering system.

The metering system works great in almost all situations, even scenarios like this where you have strong back-lighting. Nikon D750, 200-400mm f/4

The metering system works great in almost all situations, even scenarios like this where you have strong back-lighting. Nikon D750, 200-400mm f/4

Buffer Size

Big bummer here. It is well known that the D750 has a small memory buffer. There were many situations where I was photographing animals such as flying birds or running mammals where I simply ran out of buffer and missed shots. The camera shoots at 6.5 frames per second which is very good and fast. However, it only holds about 13 RAW (NEF) shots before the buffer fills up. That means, you get approximately two seconds of shooting before the buffer fills and the camera stops taking shots.

With high-end professional cameras, you just press the shutter release and keep shooting. With the D750, you have to time your photo bursts for peak action and hope that the action is completed before the buffer fills. Wildlife photographers will find this to be very frustrating as I did on multiple occasions.

Ease of Using in Bright Sun

For the most part, readability of the displays in the bright sun is very good, especially on the newly designed rear monitor. Nikon changed the way a few of the settings are accessed on the D750. On some Nikon cameras, you press a button on the back of the camera and then choose the setting by looking at the LCD panel on the top of the camera. On the D750 however, Nikon moved some of the readouts for these settings to the back monitor. For example, White Balance and Qual (RAW/JPG) are adjusted by looking at the back monitor screen.

The good news here is that Nikon changed the color scheme for these types of settings to a simple white and black, high contrast format. The result is that it is pretty easy to read in the bright sunlight. The rear LCD monitor is 3.2” diagonally and has 1.2 million dots of resolution. One of the reasons why it performs so well in the bright sunlight is that each pixel now adds a white dot in addition to the regular RGB dots. This white dot improves brightness and contrast. The viewing angle is nice and wide at 170 degrees, meaning that you can look at the screen from almost any angle and still read the menus.

My preference has always been to use the top LCD of the camera so I wouldn’t have to tilt the camera down to see my settings. I think it is slightly easier to make the adjustments that way than the new way of having to use the rear monitor. That said, it isn’t too big of a deal and I’m not worried about it.

Viewfinder Performance

Looking through the viewfinder and being able to see all the camera settings is no problem whatsoever. The readouts for shutter speed, aperture and ISO are bright and bold.

If anything, the display in the viewfinder tends to be slightly too bright, especially during twilight and night time. In these scenarios, I found the viewfinder readout to be obnoxiously bright when trying to compose photographs of the dark scene. The bright numbers along the base can sometimes cause your pupil to contract, which means it is harder to see the ambient light. I wish there was a way to manually reduce the brightness of viewfinder readout like you can in your car with the dashboard brightness adjustment.


The Nikon D750 ergonomics are excellent. In the hand, the camera feels like a million bucks. It is the nicest feeling camera I’ve ever used. Period. The biggest thing that I notice when holding it is how deep the right hand grip is for my fingers. It is much easier to hand hold the camera with long lenses attached and it feels very robust in my hand. Going back and forth between the D750 and cameras like the D800 and D600, I noticed that I missed the deep recessed handgrip of the D750.

The tilting LCD screen in back is also excellent and I used it extensively while shooting videos or composing images at odd angles. In fact, the tilting rear monitor really shines when using the camera on a tripod. In situations where the camera is mounted very high or very low, I found myself using the tilting LCD screen on the back of the camera multiple times per day.

Before I purchased the camera I wondered if the tilting monitor would be more of a gimmick than a useful tool. I also wondered if it would hold up to heavy use in the real world. I can unequivocally say that the tilting rear LCD monitor is extremely useful and is designed for professional use. I hope Nikon exports this new tilting screen to all their future professional cameras such as the D4s replacement and the D810 replacement.

Using the camera on beanbags in the safari vehicles (Toyota Landcruisers) was no problem. All buttons and functions on the body were easily accessible while balancing on the beanbags. In fact, the deep handgrip really helped in these scenarios, especially when picking up the camera when mounted with long telephoto lenses.

D750 top

Here’s an overhead shot showing the articulated screen and the smaller LCD panel on the top of the camera.

Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is defined as the range of tonalities (brightness) the camera is able to capture, from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights. The D750’s dynamic range is very, very good. It doesn’t quite have the dynamic range of the D800/D810, but I am still blown away with how much detail I can extract from shadows while simultaneously holding detail in the highlights.

Using the shadows and highlights sliders in Lightroom 5.7, I’m able to create pseudo-HDR images from a single file. It is really tremendous being able to take a single shot and have the amazing tonal flexibility available from these RAW files.

This is a tough scene to photograph because of the extreme contrast between the shadows of the zebra and the bright clouds in the sky. The Nikon D750 handled it well. Nikon D750, 200-400mm f/4.

This is a tough scene to photograph because of the extreme contrast between the shadows of the zebra and the bright clouds in the sky. The Nikon D750 handled it well. Nikon D750, 200-400mm f/4.

Video Capabilities

The D750 is a very capable video camera. I shot a bit of wildlife and was pleased with the results. I’m happy that the camera now offers the ability to shoot at full HD at 60 frames per second. This allows me to use the footage as slow motion when necessary.


The big improvement with the D750 over previous generations of Nikon cameras is the increase in the number of frames you can program into the time-lapse photo function. Previously, Nikon cameras were limited to 999 images when shooting time-lapses, now the D750 will shoot 9999 images for the sequence. I created a few time-lapse sequences in Africa and used the expanded function each time. Very nice.

YouTube Link: D750 Time-lapse Video

Battery Life

I’d say that the battery life is slightly less than on my D800 camera. I think the reason for this is that many more of the camera’s settings are accessed from the rear LCD monitor than on the D800/D810. At the end of a long shooting day, I found that the battery was down two or three bars (out of five) where my D800 would be down one or two bars.

That said, battery life isn’t an issue and I’m positive that the camera would give me a solid two days of shooting, as long as I was just shooting photographs. Obviously, once you start doing video work or using the built-in Wi-Fi to transfer photos, then battery life will fall off much quicker.


In all, the D750 is a superb camera for taking on safari. It does just about everything exceedingly well. It excels with autofocus, metering, sharpness, dynamic range, video, ergonomics and overall performance. No camera is perfect though, and the only area where the D750 needs improvement is in its buffer capacity. If I were grading the D750, I’d give it a solid 95%.

Buy your own D750 here: Nikon D750 at B&H Photo


Product Review: Uplift Stand-up Adjustable Desk

Like many people who work in an office environment, I’ve been reading about the benefits of working at a desk while standing up. Even though I’m a photographer, I actually spend quite a bit of time in my office working from a computer. For the last 10 years of my business, I’ve used a typical desk with a nice ergonomic office chair. However, as time progressed, I found a few reoccurring ailments beginning to crop up in my back and right shoulder. These would occur during periods in my work schedule in-between trips and workshops when I’d be working in the office for two or more weeks at a time.

Uplift Desk

The Uplift Desk 900.

The first of the ailments affected my right arm and shoulder. I found that after a week or so of working at my computer, my shoulder would tense up and I’d lose just a bit of feeling in my fingertips. Eventually, I figured out that this happened because of my less-than-ideal sitting posture.

The second ailment affected my lower back and tail bone. I found that my back and tailbone would become sore after sitting for hours at a time. This feeling moved from discomfort to pain over the course of a few weeks and was actually quite frustrating. The pain would disappear while I was leading a photo trip or running a workshop where I’d be on my feet for days at a time.

It was clear that my desk situation was causing pain in my body and I surmised that the main reason for this was my long bouts of sitting at a desk. So, I started researching different options for desks. After reading a million blogs, websites, customer reviews and YouTube videos, I determined that the best option was to use an adjustable height desk that allowed vertical movement from about 26” above the floor to more than 48” above the floor. I wanted the desk to have this range of motion so I could stand or sit at my workstation, or even walk on a treadmill while working at my computer. I also wanted the desk to be sturdy and have a large weight capacity. Some of the desks I looked at would only lift 150 pounds, and I knew I’d like my desk to be able to hold up a bunch of photo and computer gear if necessary.

Uplift desk

When working at the desk, I either stand, sit on a stool or sit on a fitness ball.

During my research, I found standing desk prices ranged from $400 to upwards of $10,000! My goal was to spend between $600 and $1,000.

After all my research and shopping, I decided to buy the Uplift Desk model 900 adjustable-height standing desk from www.thehumansolution.com. I’ve been using the desk for 6 months now and haven’t sat in an office chair even once during this period. I’m extremely happy with this new arrangement and find that I don’t miss sitting in an office chair one iota. The best thing about my new arrangement is the discomfort in my arm, shoulder, back and tailbone have since disappeared.

Stool and Uplift Desk

I normally sit at a stool for 20 minutes at a time, two to three times per day in order to take the pressure off my feet.

Fitness ball and adjustable desk

Once or twice per day I lower the desk and sit on a fitness ball just to mix things up a bit.


The Uplift 900 model has four height memory settings that allow you to quickly reposition the desk for various standing or sitting positions. At this point, I only have three positions programmed; position 1 for standing, position 2 for sitting/leaning on a stool, and position 3 for sitting on a large fitness ball. In addition to the four memory settings, the desk can be instantly adjusted to an infinite number of settings by pressing the up or down arrows.

Here's the control panel for the desk. The digital readout on the left represents the hight of the desk. The arrows are used to manually control up/down motion. The four numbers on the right are memory location for specific heights.

Here’s the control panel for the desk. The digital readout on the left represents the hight of the desk. The arrows are used to manually control up/down motion. The four numbers on the right are memory location for specific heights.

Since owning the desk, I’ve only come across one error that tends to crop up approximately once every three months. Sometimes when repositioning the desk to a different different height, the desk will freeze and then display the Err message on the LCD screen. Fixing the error is fairly simple and just requires pressing the down arrow until the desk reaches its lowest position and then raising it up from there. I don’t know why this happens but I’m happy that the solution is easy and quick to fix.

The whole purpose of an adjustable height desk is to encourage the user to move at regular intervals. My approach is to stand for about an hour, then reduce the height and sit on the stool for about 20 minutes, then go back to standing. About once per day, I will lower the desk down to position 3 and sit on a fitness ball for 20 minutes or so just to mix up my working position. In general though, I spend the majority of the day standing.

What I really like about standing while working is how easy it is to walk around while I’m in the process of writing and brainstorming. Like a lot of people, when I’m in my creative mode, I walk around and pace to come up with ideas. Then, once I come up with an idea, then I’ll go back to the computer to type out my thoughts. I also frequently use dictation software when writing, so standing up while dictating just seems very natural. I’m sure my family thinks it is funny when they see me talking to my computer and waving my arms around during my writing process. For me, it’s like I’m giving a presentation to my computer. My next step is to program laugh tracks and applause into my computer so it responds while I’m speaking!

I installed commercial carpeting on the floor of my office, so it isn’t well padded. Before I started using my standing desk, I would typically take my shoes off while working at my desk but now since I’m standing, I tend to wear shoes for extra support during the day. Eventually, I might add an industrial mat underneath my standing area to further improve the ergonomics of my workstation.

I love my standing desk and can’t imagine going back to a traditional sitting desk. However, working from a standing desk takes some getting used to. If you haven’t stood for long periods of time or if you are somewhat out of shape, then you might need to work your way into a standing desk by standing for 20 minutes at a time then sitting for 20 minutes at a time initially. Over the course of a couple weeks, you’ll get used to standing for long periods at a time and it will eventually become very natural.

Here, you can see the dangling cables for my laptop and other peripherals that I frequently remove from the desk.

Here, you can see the dangling cables for my laptop and other peripherals that I frequently remove from the desk.

There are a couple of things you’ll need to address when buying your own standing desk. One of those is cable management and the other is storage.

Unless you can go completely wireless with your electronic peripherals, then you’ll need to find a way to manage all the cables and cords associated with your computer system. The Uplift Desk ships with a number of stick-on cable clasps but I didn’t find these to be practical since I am regularly connecting and disconnecting different elements of my computer system. For example, back up data to multiple disk drives while simultaneously plugging in a USB microphone or WebCam. After using these peripherals, I disconnect them and put them away. Same goes for my laptop. I plug it in while I’m using it, then disconnect everything when I go on a photo assignment.

In each of these scenarios I have to leave the cables out and dangling over the edge of the desk. If I use the supplied stick on cable clasps, that I would have to continuously unclasp and re-clasp the cables whenever I move a peripheral. It doesn’t look pretty and I get a little bit tired of the clutter, but until I find a better solution, that’s what I’ll have to deal with. I’ve seen other people attach a PVC rain gutter to the back of their desk to handle the cables and I might give that a try to improve cable management.

Uplift also sells a product called the Uplift Advanced Wire Management Kit that works well for equipment that will always stay on the desk. However, if you use a laptop or other mobile computer solutions, then you’ll need another solution that allows you to temporarily route cables for quick access.

Since the desk doesn't have built-in storage, I purchased these plastic drawers to store things like pens, keys, wallet, headphones and other misc. items.

Since the desk doesn’t have built-in storage, I purchased these plastic drawers to store things like pens, keys, wallet, headphones and other misc. items.

The other thing that you’ll need to consider is the fact that the desk doesn’t have built in drawers or shelves. To solve this issue, you’ll need to set small shelving unit on the top of the desk or find a different way to store your papers in a separate freestanding file cabinet. It is difficult to store file cabinets underneath the desk because you are continuously moving the desk up-and-down throughout the day. If your file cabinet is too tall, the desk won’t go to its lowest position for situations when you might be sitting on a fitness ball or a low stool. Therefore, I don’t keep much of anything underneath the desk.

I purchased my uplift desk with the knowledge that I might some point in the future add a treadmill to set up. If you’re considering buying a treadmill, then make sure the desk will go to the appropriate height to allow for the extra 6 inches in height treadmill add to your standing position. Some standing desks do not go high enough for a treadmill, so make sure to research this before making your purchase.

I purchased my desk from the Uplift Desk website here: www.upliftdesk.com. I bought the Uplift 900 Adjustable Height Standing Desk with the 72” x 30” black surface top. Uplift desks are sold by a company called the Human Solution and they have a variety of additional ergonomic solutions at www.thehumansolution.com.


I purchased the 6-foot wide (72") desk and really like all the space it provides.

I purchased the 6-foot wide (72″) desk and really like all the space it provides.


Digital Tidbits: The Lightroom Solution for Clear Skies

lion on kopje

When confronted with a scene that has clear blue skies, darken down the top section to improve the photograph. This image shows one with and one without the darkened sky. Which do you prefer?

I’m a small airplane pilot, and we have a saying for when the skies are completely clear of clouds: severe clear. Severe clear is great news for us pilots, but for the photographer, severe clear means generally boring landscape images and harsh lighting. In many cases, having some clouds in the sky adds to the sense of depth and texture for most photographs.

So what do you do as a photographer when you get to your destination and find that there are no clouds in the sky? Well one tried and true solution is to compose the scene so that you don’t incorporate much of sky in the photograph. This obviously helps minimize the blandness of the sky, but can sometimes result in a less than ideal composition.

Better Solution

I have another approach that will help you improve your images with severe clear skies. The fix for blank skies is to darken down the top of the composition in post-processing. Yes, it is that simple.

In the field, do everything you normally would to create a great composition. Frame the image in the same way you would if it had nice clouds in the sky. Then, once you get back your computer, add a graduated neutral density effect to darken down the very top portion of the sky. This keeps the viewer’s eyes in the frame and prevents them from leaving the composition.

Photographers have been doing this for years all with the intent of keeping viewers eyes located in the middle of the frame. It is often accomplished through vignetting or burning the corners and edges.

There are a numerous ways to darken down the top of a photograph in post processing, but I’ll show you a simple approach using the Graduated Filter in Adobe Lightroom. I’m using Lightroom 5.7 for this example, but the approach is generally the same for all other versions of the program and for Adobe Camera RAW.

Lightroom Graduated Tool

Here are the steps for darkening the top section of the sky using the Graduated Tool in Lightroom:
1. Go to the Develop Module and Click on the Graduated Filter. You’ll find it directly underneath the histogram and it looks like a vertically-oriented rectangle.

graduated tool

Graduated Filter tooll in Lightroom 5.7.

2. Make sure that all the sliders below it are zeroed out. The fastest way to do this is to double click on the word “Effect.”

Develop pane

Double click on effect to zero out all sliders. Then, move the Exposure slider down (left).

3. Move the exposure slider to the left to something like -1.0.
4. Position your mouse at the top of the photograph.
5. Click your mouse and hold while you move your mouse downward from the top of the photograph into the scene. You’ll notice three lines as you move your mouse, representing the top, middle and bottom of the graduated filter.

graduated filter

Click on the top of the screen and drag the mouse downwards to place the Graduated Filter on the photo. Adjust height and rotation by grabbing any of the three lines on the filter.

6. Let go of the mouse once you’ve darkened down the appropriate amount of sky. How much is enough? That’s the difficult question, but I’d say about 10% of the overall photograph or maybe 25% of the sky. Each image is different, so settle on something that looks attractive.
7. Now that the Graduated Filter has been placed, you can change the Exposure slider to fine-tune the change in brightness. I’ve used settings ranging from -0.25 to -2.00.
8. Feel free to modify the size and angle of the Graduated Filter by clicking and dragging any of the three lines. You’ll be able to easily determine which line allows you to adjust the vertical size of the filter and which line allows you to adjust the rotation angle.
9. Once you are happy with the overall effect of the Graduated Filter, click on the Done button at the bottom of the window.


Another example of a photo that is improved by darkening the sky. Ferry boat in Bremerton, WA. Nikon D800, 70-200mm f/2.8

Darkening the sky works exceptionally well in black and white photographs. Victoria Clipper headed up to British Columbia in front of the Olympic Mountain Range. Nikon D800, 70-200mm f/2.8

Darkening the sky works exceptionally well in black and white photographs. Victoria Clipper headed up to British Columbia in front of the Olympic Mountain Range. Nikon D800, 70-200mm f/2.8


Workshop and Business Updates

We keep adding new trips and workshops across the world including our newest adventures Iceland in Winter for 2015. Read below for more information.


Tanzania 2014 and 2015

Our last trip to Tanzania was one of the best we’ve ever had and 2015 promises to be even better. I continue to optimize our travel schedule so that it allows even more time to photograph wildlife in the field. This year’s Tanzanian photo safari is scheduled for November 4 – 15, 2015. Join us for a wildlife photography adventure you’ll never forget.

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

Iceland Photo and Bird Adventure – Summer 2015

I’ll be working again with photographer Tim Vollmer (http://timvollmer.de) 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:

Galapagos Photography Adventure 2015

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:

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 D750
• Nikon D7000/D7100
• Nikon D4/D4s
• Nikon D800/D810/D800E
• Nikon Df
• iTTL Wireless Flash
• Lightroom 5

Sign up for the workshops here:


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: http://visadventures.com/shop/category/photo-books/ 
– 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 (Out of Print)

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: http://visadventures.com/shop/category/camera-setup-guides/

Staying Current

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


Our Visual Adventures website www.VisAdventures.com 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 www.outthereimages.com will stay put in its present form, but we won’t be adding new content there.

Male lion on the Serengeti.

Male lion on the Serengeti.

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: http://visadventures.com/services/private-travel-tours/ .


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 articles.

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


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