photography (and other observations) by John Matthews


A City Moves Forward

To me, the Fay St. warehouse implosion is a statement of progress for the greater Utica, NY, area. For too many years, the “old school” thinking and deal making by city politicians has been an anchor preventing our region from moving forward. The implosion of the Fay St. warehouse represents a physical and psychological breakthrough for our area and adds even more energy to the momentum our area is seeing happen all around us. Watching the building fall made me feel like our city was finally able to leave harbor and head toward a better place. The wind is at our backs.

Video courtesy of Kirk Tupaj:

Timing Is Everything, Shoot with Your Gut

One of the things I like most about photography is the thrill of the chase. There is always that one moment or scene that you are trying to catch. Sometimes you see it coming, sometimes you don't. But when you do, and you are able to capture it, there is no better feeling as a photographer. Last week I was in South Beach, Miami and had the opportunity to do some street shooting. SoBe, short for South Beach, is world famous for its classic art deco architecture. What I love most about street photography is that the subject matter is always changing. You can look at the same space in the matter of a few seconds and it can change in an instant. Case in point is the series of photos below.  The bus captured in this photo was traveling about 35mph and was out of the frame as quickly as it was in it. The advertisement on the bus added just the bit of interest to what would have otherwise been a very boring photo.  Lesson learned: Be aware. Anticipate. Shoot with your gut.

Gary Vaynerchuk Shooting RAW with Jared Polin

I can't remember the first time I saw Jared Polin and his videos, but I've always been impressed with his passion about photography and his ability to start his online business from scratch. He began putting out photography videos from what appeared to be his bedroom. Today he has a sweet studio loft and puts out a really well produced show called RAWTalk. What struck me about Jared was that he was never too concerned about what was, literally, in the background when he first started vs. what he was including in the content he was producing. 

Gary Vaynerchuk is someone who I was introduced to through my social circle and I've been impressed with his hustle and candor talking truth about what individuals and businesses need to do to cut through the noise in the emerging age of social media. He has a great new book, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World, available on Amazon.

I can't believe this interview only has 8k views, it's a great 45 minutes listening to two doers talk about what motivates them and what they have found to be the core ingredients to their individual successes.

El Matador Beach and Malibu Edits

In September of 2013, my girlfriend and I traveled to California for a pre-winter vacation. We chose LA as our home base and made day trips each day traveling north or south depending on that day's itinerary. These are a few random edits from our pit stops along the Pacific Coast Highway. I liked the final result in each of these instances.

Out of Camera (OOC):

Edited in NIK Silver Efex Pro and I thought the final black and white edit looked pretty dramatic.

One of the keys to a successful black and white edit is trying to capture as wide a dynamic range as you can across the image. Notice in the above image, you can find the color white, the color black, and a full range of gray from light to dark across the frame. The contrast in the image, along with that wide dynamic range makes this image almost appear 3D and other worldly.


Edited in NIK Dfine 2 to de-noise, then edited in NIK Color Efex Pro 4 to add some center brightness and add warmer tones to the image. I really liked the final result. This was taken at El Matador Beach where there are a lot of different rock formations you have to navigate as you walk along the beach.


Probably one of my favorite images from our trip. We stopped along PCH 1 to catch a view of the ocean and there was a homeless man swimming in the ocean. He walked over to his air mattress, turned 180° and fell backwards onto it with his hands behind his head. He bounced twice then basked in one of the most beautiful scenes we saw on the trip. I asked myself...'Who's the idiot?'.  Life choices, right?

Edited in NIK Color Efex Pro 4 to add saturation and a bit brightness. This is my favorite kind of image. One that makes you ask yourself questions and wanting to know more about what is going on in the frame. 

We finally made our way to Malibu and stopped at the famous Malibu Pier where we ran into this ambivalent Seagull. I really dislike Seagulls, but this guy was pretty tame and was a good test of the Fuji in quick shooting scenario. I'm not sure the gull would have been so accommodating if I had my huge D700 with grip, might have scared him off. 


Color Efex Pro 4 to add some warmth color and contrast to the frame.

And an alternate Silver Efex edit.

Ugly, isn't it?

Put Yourself Out There

Coffee JouliesIn late 2011 I had the opportunity do product shots for Coffee Joulies as they prepared for their global product launch. This was my first attempt at product photography. While not perfect, I was happy with the final result.

You have no better time than the present to put yourself out there and get noticed. There has been no better time in history to have an idea or service and have available infrastructure to share it. Twitter, G+, Facebook, Pinterest, Medium, Exposure, Wordpress, the list goes on. If you have a good idea, you have a hundred different ways to get it out to the world. So what's stopping you? What's your excuse? Identify it and eliminate it. Break through and do something different. You will be amazed at what can happen.

In the summer of 2011 I was just discovering Kickstarter, a popular crowd funding website. One of the first stories that caught my attention was that of Coffee Joulies. Coffee Joulies are these stainless steel bean shaped objects filled with a phase change material that cools your hot beverage quickly to a drinkable temperature and then maintains that temperature for several hours. Dave Petrillo and Dave Jackson originally started their project seeking $9,500. They wound up raising over $300,000. It was, at the time, one of Kickstarter's most successful campaigns.

To my surprise the Joulies guys were setting up shop right near where I live in Upstate NY. Because Joulies were a hollow, stainless steel, object they needed to find a manufacturing facility that could produce it. They discovered an old flatware factory in Sherrill, NY which had the required equipment to make such a metal shape. Their story was even more interesting to me when I found out they were going to be local. I followed their Facebook page and one day saw the following post:

A dozen or so folks replied to their 'want ad' on their page either stating that they were a photographer or that they knew a photographer. None tried to really do anything to differentiate themselves, though. I decided to send an email:

It was a shot in the dark and I tried to express that I had some unique ideas, albeit pretty simple, about how we could approach a potential product photo shoot. I didn't have anything to lose, so I sent the email and forgot about it. It was about 6 weeks until I got the following reply:

I got the gig! And my first 'real' photo job at that. By 'real' photo job, I mean that I created this opportunity from scratch. It wasn't a job through a friend or organization, this was just me putting myself out there to see what would happen. As it turns out, Dave & Dave (the Joulies guys) were in two-minute warning mode. The holiday shopping season was going to begin in only a couple of weeks and they needed product images for their website and packaging. They'd gotten a ton of publicity via their Kickstarter campaign and they were busy setting up the manufacturing facility getting ready to ramp up production. They had a lot of problems to solve in a short period of time. I drove out to their factory the next day, got a tour, and they gave me a box of product that included the Joulies themselves, a couple different branded travel mugs, and some instruction materials. My job was to take shots of the Joulies against a white background in several different configurations. Joulies by themselves, Joulies in the box packaging, Joulies next to the travel mugs. Any combination I could think of, I was asked to shoot. We agreed on a per photo rate (something I later realized was not the way to go). Simple right?  Well, not exactly.  I didn't have a solid white background available, or lighting. I immediately went to a local camera shop and talked with the owner, who I knew, and I explained the situation. He knew I was now in a red zone myself and understood that this was my first attempt at something like this. He pointed me to a light tent, which is simply a large expandable translucent box covered in white material. You put your lights all around it and it fills with great ambient light that casts minimal shadows. He told me to take it, no charge. "Just bring it back when you're done," he said. I couldn't believe his generosity, but took him up on his offer and went home with the first piece of gear I needed for this job. Next I needed lights. I went to the local hardware store and bought a few of the brightest natural white lights I could find. I would later find out that these were greatly underpowered and I'd have to do a lot of editing in Lightroom work to get the images to where they needed to be. But I had lights. So I went home and set up the light tent on my dining room table, grabbed any table lamp I could find and set up my D7000 on a tripod and began what turned out to be one of the most challenging photo sessions I'd ever attempted. Not only was I required to shoot against the white background, but the objects being photographed were highly reflective and mirror-like. I had to shoot in such a way that I and my camera gear was not visible in the objects being shot. This was turning into something much more difficult than I had imagined. 

But I spent most of the night learning what worked and what didn't and making a lot of mistakes in the process and got my first round of shots captured and edited. I sent them off to the Joulies guys and asked for their feedback. 

What!?! Times Square?! I was really excited to hear that news. I thought I was just shooting them for their website. I had no idea going into this project that what I was shooting in my dining room would ever make it into Times Square.  In a matter of just a few weeks, I'd gone from doing nothing, to doing a bona fide photo shoot for a hot new product that was going to be distributed world wide. Had I not sent that email, had I not put myself out there, I'd have not had what turned out to be one of the most educational photographic experiences I have had. I was forced to determine my job rate, figure out how I wanted to price it out, and most importantly, I figured out how to shoot a very difficult product. For a first effort of this kind, I was extremely pleased and proud of myself.  The Joulies guys later referred me to the owner of Liberty Table Top flatware, the main company in their manufacturing facility and I wound up getting a nice paid job there to take new product shots of their entire flatware line for their website. Of course, it was more highly reflective silver objects to shoot, but I was now prepared! That job allowed me to buy a bigger light tent and some brighter lights so the workflow was a bit easier as well, but still a ton of work involved with product set up. I'll post about that job another day.

The lesson learned here was to simply put yourself out there. I can now say I was a photographer for one of the most successful Kickstarter projects of 2011 and my photographs have appeared on and in Times Square. Pretty awesome! You never know what a job will turn out being or where it will lead, but if you don't try you'll never move forward. Oh, and always ask your client to be a reference!

It's Fun When You Don't Even Have to Try

Well, I already missed an edit yesterday so my post streak currently stands at 1... I'm justifying the lapse due to the fact that it's been sub zero for most of the past 36 hours and let's face it, it's not that easy to hold your gear steady when your nostrils are stuck together. Today totally made up for it, though, as I had a really fun day, photographically speaking.

My day started with the image below. I had just taken off my jacket at my desk and looked out the window to see that I had parked in such a way on an existing set of tire tracks that it appeared as though I did a big donut in our parking lot and spun around a coworker's car to park perfectly. I thought it was a pretty cool looking scene so I snapped this shot. Literally less than 60 seconds invested in this shot.

Later this afternoon I had to stop by a client's place of business to buy a gift certificate. As I drove down his street I saw this huge shadow cast down the middle of the roadway. I pulled over a little and stuck my phone out the window and grabbed this frame:

Again, a 20 second shot and a 30 second edit and I had a pretty cool looking image. I called it 'Half Sun' a play on the half moon cookies that Utica is famous for.  Now in the above image, my client's business is down on the far left hand side of the street. His business is called Gerber's 1933 Tavern and is a renovated speakeasy dating back to Prohibition. Mark Mojave, the owner, is a former city developer and has a great sense of city history and has done a great job restoring a treasure of a building. I wound up parking across the street on the right side in the shade in the above photo. As I exited my vehicle the first thing I saw was an old garage door with a newer looking sign above it. I took a quick shot as I walked over to my client's business. 

So far with the above three images I have a total amount of 2 or 3 minutes invested. I'm just shooting at scenes that are catching my eye as I go about my daily business. On my way out of Gerber's the sun caught my left eye and as I turned to look at it, I noticed these great shadows and details on Gerber's exterior wall. I snapped these photos (really dug the light in these): 

Less than a minute to grab those shots. Probably about 10 minutes total in editing/cropping, etc. And definitely a lot of likes on my social media streams with all of them. Probably about 45 likes total. The amazing thing about today was that it was completely effortless... some days it is such a struggle so I'm really glad to have had a day where things just sort of fell into place and I wasn't forcing anything. Do I wish I had my Fuji? Of course I do. But my mobile phone was handy and it served the purpose of capturing a perfectly suitable set of images. I can't complain about that. 

Today's lesson: if you're in a groove, ride it. It's fun when you don't even have to try. 

Big Barber is Watching

Photography is something that I'm passionate about, but it's really interesting how there is a huge ebb and flow to my ability to maintain a groove with it at times. I am usually hyper perceptive about my surroundings when I'm in a photographic state of mind. I'm looking at everything, trying to frame it in my mind in a dozen different ways. I love seeing what no one else does. Capturing it is a bonus. Perhaps it's temporary burnout, but these streaks of peak creativity never seem to last as long as I'd expect them to. There are days when I'll click a couple hundred frames, then there are weeks I don't press the shutter once. I've tried to figure it out, but really can't come up with a solid reason why that's the case. So this year I'm going to try to do an edit a day, no matter the time, place, or weather. I'm finding that writing is something I don't do enough of either, and it's easy to only be able to communicate in blurbs 140 characters or less if that's what you do every day.

Tonight I took a walk around the village of Clinton looking for something that would catch my eye. Clinton is an historic village in Upstate New York and is about as Americana as you can get in this area. There is a quaint row of businesses along a central Village Green. It's the home of Hamilton College and has a rich history dating back to the mid 1700's. With its rich history, you'd think there would be a lot to photograph, and truly there is. Tonight's challenge was that it was dark and extremely cold. We're talking 1°F cold. Colder with the wind chill. So not only was it a challenge to find something bright enough to photograph, it was tough to motivate myself to go outside to begin with! But I told myself I'd try to get at least something that was more than a snapshot of a park bench or a window scene. I wanted to find something that made me think when I looked at it. I wanted to find an image that would evoke just a little bit of curiosity or wonder.   This is what I came home with. First shot is out of camera (OOC), 2nd is my edit. 



For gear, tonight (and I'm finding most days lately) my go to camera is the Fuji x100S. I definitely was pushing the limits with my settings tonight, this image came in at 1/25 sec at f/2.8 ISO 6400. For my editing my go to platform has been the NIK suite of editing programs. NIK was recently acquired by Google and what was a $500+ software package is now available for less than $150 with a discount code (available periodically). It's a solid suite of software and I do the majority of my editing in it after I get a basic crop established in Lightroom 5. For this edit I did a pass through NIK Dfine 2 for noise reduction, then exported to NIK Color Efex Pro 4 and used the maximum depth filter which highlights the center of the image. I then exported to Silver Efex Pro and tweaked using a filter using a high level of contrast and structure for the final black and white image.

Is this an award winning photograph? Of course not. But the exercise for me tonight was to find something that was interesting in not so friendly weather conditions and try to come back with a shot that made me ask myself a question when I looked at it. What happened to this barber that caused him to put in a security camera? It's also a nice shot that juxtaposes old time charm with new technology. To me, this this photo represents a small example of how the little village that I consider to be a place where you can leave your back door unlocked at night might not be so safe after all.  I really enjoyed going through this simple process tonight and I'm looking forward to things ramping up over the course of the year.

Would be interested in your comments!


Finally. The Beginning.

Winter's Comin'The first photo I ever (almost) sold.*

This is my photography website! Finally! It's taken me a long time to get a site back online and I'm really excited to now have a place of my own to put up some images and thoughts about photography or whatever else is on my mind. So why haven't I had a website for a while? Some of you may remember that I was a pretty avid user of for my iPhoneography photos and was regularly featured on their 'favorites' page each week. I'd earned a decent sized audience there and I felt like I'd be letting folks down if I didn't post an image or two each day. Posterous even invited me to NYC to be interviewed by Fox News at The High Line about iPhoneography. I was enjoying a nice creative groove. It was a fun pressure to have and it kept my creative eye keen to my surroundings more than it had ever been. Twitter acquired Posterous, however, and eventually shut down the platform. The Posterous community was essentially left in the dust. Yes, they had a migration tool that allowed users to download their content for use elsewhere, but it was the Posterous framework that was so easy to use. Email it and forget it. Posterous would format your image, title, and tags and post the image online automatically. It was the perfect service for an iPhoneographer creating on the go. It really took the wind out of my sails when Posterous shut down after having put so much time into building my presence there. It was a valuable lesson for me to learn, though. Actually, I learned a couple lessons: 1. Create for yourself, and no one else. If folks are drawn to your work, consider that a rewarding bonus to the creative process; as soon as you start creating for the specific purpose of meeting others' expectations you begin to lose your edge. And 2., be careful where you plant your roots online. If you are using a free service for your online creative presence, be sure to have a backup plan should that service wind up shuttering its doors. As is often the case, you are going to get what you pay for.

So why create a site at all, right? Good question. For me this is going to be a sandbox of sorts, where I'm going to put up posts explaining (and self teaching in the process) the how's and why's of some of my photography. My hope is that others might gain some insight and I'll also improve my skills in the process. And I want my own little corner of the web where I can direct people if they want to see my work and maybe eventually buy a photo or two. 

The photo at the top of this post was the first photo I ever (almost) sold*. Taking this photo was also the moment when my interest in becoming more serious with photography was sparked. It was a blind shot taken at hip level with my iPhone upside down pointing backwards (read that again!) as I exited the Nice-N-Easy store on the corner of Court St. in Utica, NY. I had parked in front of the store and said to myself, 'If that guy is still sitting there when I leave, I'm going to try and get a picture of him.' As I left the store to go back to my car I didn't have time to introduce myself to him, and I'm not sure that he'd have been responsive had I done so, so I decided to see what I could get with a behind the back shot without looking. I couldn't believe it when I looked at my screen in the car and saw a perfectly framed shot with a pretty decent candid portrait. I posted it online and got a lot of positive feedback. I eventually entered the photo in a regional exhibit at the Stanley Theater and someone actually committed to buying it at the opening reception (*but never picked it up, but that's another story). It was at that moment that I knew I had to see what I could do with photography going forward. Since that exhibition I've been fortunate enough to get several free lance jobs and have enjoyed the creative challenges that each of them have presented. I've even had two more exhibitions. At my last exhibition I sold 23 of 25 photos. It was an amazing feeling and I can't wait to see what else I can accomplish. I certainly don't claim to be the best photographer in the world, but I love the journey that photography often takes me on and I'm hoping to share some of my random edits here with you.

Thanks for reading!