Photography Checklists - A simple option to make you a better photographer

We are proud to introduce a simple product designed to make photographers of all skill levels better.  Based on the aviation pocket checklist Hal flew with on every mission, we created Hal Schmitt's Digital Photography Pocket Checklist, or Photo PCL for short.

With digital, we find very few photographers that specialize in only one subject or use only one technique.  That is one of the awesome parts of digital but the hard part is remembering every different technique and all of the critical steps necessary to make the shot.  On any given day or maybe even during any given shoot a photographer may need to use flash, studio strobe, HDR, panorama, focus stacking, neutral density filters, action, and other techniques.  For most shooters, it is a challenge to remember every technique and even more challenging when the shot needs to happen quickly.  This is where the pocket checklist comes in to assist with all of the different techniques.  For reference, the Photo PCL table of contents is shown below.


The modern, operational checklist is based on the early aviation checklists created in the 1930s.  Since then, the aviation community in particular has come to rely on the checklist as the best way to ensure pilots do not forget the critical steps of a procedure, especially when something goes wrong.  The checklist is not designed to teach you a full procedure but instead should remind you of what you already know.  That is why we were able to fit this many checklists into one small publication as each is only one page of the most important steps.  Hal became incredibly familiar with and relied heavily on operational checklists when flying the FA-18.  The pocket checklist or PCL did not contain every part of a procedure but instead only the most important items.  This was critical as the PCL had to fit in the relatively small cockpit and be user friendly in an operational setting.   The aviation PCL is shown below.

FA-18 pocket checklist

FA-18 pocket checklist

Today many other disciplines have turned to the checklist as a means of increasing performance and reducing human error.  The best part is there is an almost immediate return on a very small investment.  Whether doctors, nurses, pilots, or energy industry workers, checklists have become an essential cross check to boost performance.   

The checklists in Hal's Photo PCL are derived from long-form photography procedures compiled from shooting with many instructors and thousands of clients.  We put together what we call the photography "best practices" and then shortened to the critical steps.  For example, the checklist describing shooting a hand-held high dynamic range series is shown below.


The checklist is laid out in a simple to follow format and contains steps as well as warnings, cautions, and notes that help to remember the procedure and all necessary information.  This format is very similar to that used by carrier pilots in an operational setting.   

Often when checklists are introduced to a new discipline, the reaction is that a standardized, box-checking process will never work.  To quote from the Photo PCL introduction, "People often reject standardization as they believe it creates an army of robots all doing exactly the same thing and removes personal though and choice.  In photographic practice, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Technical standardization does not free you from thinking but instead frees you to think and concentrate on the creative and artistic side of your photography."

As Hal often speaks of, flying fighters is one of the most dynamic operations in the world.  It is precisely because of standardization, procedures, and checklists that our pilots are able to work and excel in such an environment.   As we have noted over the last six months of testing these procedures and checklists with our clients at LIGHT, photographers who use the checklists also excel and make better images in a more consistent and repeatable manner.

The Photo PCL is a simple, interactive PDF that may be printed or used electronically.  Our testers have printed the PCL on 5 x 7 cards and taken to them to the field or have referenced on iBooks or with a  PDF viewer.  To download the PCL, visit the link below.


Topaz Labs ReStyle - Quick Look

Take a look at the new plug in from Topaz Labs called ReStyle.  Hal demonstrates and discusses the plug in this quick video.  Restyle offers one click access to create stylized interpretation of your original image.  You can easily make dozens or hundreds of variations when using the 1000+ presets available in ReStyle. 

The presets are awesome; single click mapping of tones and colors to create unique images, but what makes ReStyle even cooler are the additional controls.  Once you apply a preset you can modify the settings, mask the effects, and even change Blend Modes!Blend Modes are one of my favorite features in Photoshop and it is great to have them available in ReStyle.

ReStyle will retail for 59.99 but the price is 29.99 until the 31st of August with the discount code "restyleit ".

Click the link below to check it out.   


Interesting New Plugin - ReStyle

Started playing with a soon-to-be-released plugin from Topaz Labs yesterday.  I will do a more detailed video on this software soon but in the meantime here is a six pack of the same image to show some of the effects.  All five variants of the original photo are made with a single click in Topaz ReStyle.  The plugin contains about 1000 presets to choose from.  The hardest thing so far has been looking through everything! 

Topaz Restyle generated variants of an Alaskan sunset rainbow. 

Topaz Restyle generated variants of an Alaskan sunset rainbow. 

Hal's Videos and all Elephorm Content Streaming Free

Elephorm, the company that hosts Hal's Lightroom videos, transitioned to a "freemium" model today.  That means all content streams free all the time.  If you prefer to download to your local machine or device there is a small fee.  Pretty cool.  Incredible training at a great price.

Hal's current content on Elephorm is Lightroom 4. With that said, about 98% of the content is directly applicable to Lightroom 5.  His new material will be up soonest. 

Fiat Lux! 

Building a Printer Profile Video Demonstration

Hal recently recorded the process to build your own printer profile using an X-Rite Color Munki.  There are many choices out there but as Hal describes, the Munki delivers pretty good "bang for the buck."

If you prefer to read the process, click on the following link to Hal's description over on the Alpha Strike blog. 

The $5 Photo Accessory (that could save your life)


As nature, landscape, and wildlife photographers we often place ourselves in locations and situations that are a bit off the beaten path. When we do go out to make photographs it is worth thinking a little about possible contingencies and how we will handle them should something occur.  As the most basic precaution, I consider one of the least expensive pieces of gear a photography essential, the simple whistle.

In our modern society, we tend to take our safety or our ability to rapidly communicate for granted.  Sometimes that is the case.  For example, if you are out with me you know you are with an instructor who is certified in CPR and first aid, has had extensive survival training, and handles high stress situations well.  More often though, most photographers think if they have their cell phone they are ready and help is just a call away.  But it is amazing how often we find little to no cell coverage, a dead battery, or a situation where the phone is just out of reach.

As a pilot, I learned to plan for contingencies and to prioritize redundancy in safety or communication systems.  To back up your phone one of the simplest preparations you can make is to carry a whistle when you go out to make photographs.  Survival situation after survival situation has proven that a whistle is a "must have" piece of gear.  Look at any list of items you should have in the field or wilderness and a whistle will be on it.  Oh by the way, it is not enough to have the whistle with you, have it on your person and easily accessible with either hand.

Photographers in the field are just like hikers, campers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.  Interestingly, they tend not to think of themselves as such because our hobby, passion, or profession is so dependent on high tech gear.  But in most cases there is no difference. As an example, Hal has a friend in Alaska who recently almost lost his life while out in the wild.  Overcoming incredible odds he was rescued and recovered, but only because of his whistle.  He was in a bad position and the only way he could try and find help was to blow his whistle.  He blew for over an hour and finally someone heard and investigated. They joked afterwards that his whistle was the $2 accessory that saved his life.  Pretty amazing considering the guy had thousands of dollars of other gear with him. It is also worth mentioning that Hal's friend broke one of the cardinal rules, he went out alone without using the buddy system (the topic of another post.)

So when you are packing up the camera, lenses, and tripod, make sure to put a simple whistle in your pocket.  If you ever run across him in the field, ask Hal to see the four essential pieces of shooting gear: Hoodman HoodLoupe, cell phone for DOF calculations/comms, a good knife, and a whistle.

Always remember making the photograph is optional but making it home is mandatory. (Paraphrased from my mountaineering buddies.)

Fiat Lux!

Lightroom 5 Beta Features - Hal's Favorites

The three part video demonstrates and discusses my favorite features of the Lightroom 5 beta.  The full feature list is below but my favorites are: Improved spot removal and retouching, the Radial Filter, improved crop overlay, import functionality, Smart Previews, and Upright for auto lens corrections.

In the video I reference additional keyboard shortcuts for the Spot Removal and Radial Filter tools.  The shortcuts are shown below.

Spot Removal (Q)

-New circle spot (auto-find source): Single click

-New circle spot (user-defined source): Ctrl drag

-New circle spot (scale from center): Ctrl Alt drag

-New circle spot (scale from anchor): Ctrl Shift drag

-Connect two circle spots: Single click + Shift click

-Increase circle spot size: ]

-Decrease circle spot size: [

-New brush spot: Click drag

-Constrain brush spot to straight line: Shift drag

-Cycle Spot Type: Shift + Q

-Auto-Find New Source: /

-Visualize Spots: A

-Hide Spot Overlays: H

-Delete spot: Alt select

-Delete selected spot: Delete

-Delete multiple spots: Alt drag select

Radial Filter (Shift + M)

-New elliptical mask: Drag

-Apply new mask to crop bounds: Ctrl double-click

-Expand existing mask to crop bounds: Ctrl double-click on mask

-Duplicate: Ctrl Alt drag

-Invert elliptical mask: ’ (apostrophe)

-Hide/show guide: H (short press)

-Hide guide on press, show on release: H (long press)

-Apply & dismiss: Double-click on photo

-Delete selected elliptical mask: Delete

Major feature list

-Smart Previews

-PNGs now supported in Lightroom

-New fullscreen mode.  F key is true full screen.  Legacy full screen mode is Shift + F

-Configurable grid overlays for Loupe view

-New searchable criteria for Smart Collections - File size, Image size, Image bit depth, color channels, Color mode, Color profile, Smart Preview statsus, and PNG

-Advanced healing brush for Spot Removal

-Radial Filter

-Upright auto lens corrections

-LAB color readout on histogram.  Right click on the histogram for a flyout menu.

-New book features

I will do additional videos to show some of these upgrade features.

Fiat Lux!

Computer Specs

One of the most common questions we field concerns computer technical specifications.  People often ask how they should equip and configure their next machine for digital photography purposes (often phrased as Photoshop or Lightroom purposes.)  So let's talk computers for one little post.


Recent build in the LIGHT studio.

LIGHT recommends the current specs as an excellent configuration.  Off the side I will add comments and fall back positions.

Processor - Core i7 quad core.  We are currently using the Core i7 3770 at 3.4 GHz.  Although the two programs listed above perform best with a fast processor a good fall back position is found in the Core i5 3xxx options. We could go on a bit further regarding hyper threading or adding additional physical cores but we have not seen a huge requirement in typical digital photography needs.  If you push a bit beyond the ordinary with your work, take these into consideration.

Memory - 16 GB.  Most baseline systems these days are equipped with 8 GB of RAM but 16 will give you a nice performance boost.  There normally is no need to get the fastest clock speed RAM available unless you are also going to play games.  On the lower side, go with 12 and on the upper top out at 32.

Graphics - Dedicated video card.  There are a huge number of options here but start with an nVidia or ATI set with at least 1 GB.  You may be tempted to go with the higher end cards but you will not see a huge benefit unless you are working with video or gaming.  If you are thinking of running two or more high resolution displays you may want to upgrade as well. With all that said, the integrated graphics on the Core i5 and i7 (from 2500-4000) are pretty good.  You might be surprised how well they work.  The nice thing is you can always add a dedicated video card later if you need to.

SSD - Solid state drive for programs and speed critical data.  SSD prices have dropped significantly and the performance boost is really nice.  An SSD is not a must have but a majority of our clients enjoy the faster start up times and fast program launches.  At a minimum go with a 128ish GB drive.  You can go bigger (my laptop has a 512 GB SSD) but the drives will be a bit pricier.

Hard drives - At least two, one for data and one for scratch/working space.  Hard drive prices have come back down so we like at least 1 TB for storage and 320-500 GB for scratch.  Try for the 7200 rpm drives and if you want faster there are 10k and 15k rpm available. 

Ports - USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt.  Odds are you will connect external storage to your machine and you want it to be fast.  At the top of the list is the Thunderbolt connection, huge speed and flexibility but not as many peripheral/storage choices and much more expensive.  Not nearly as fast but almost ubiquitous and priced right, the USB 3.0 connection is a necessity. Definitely think about these options as one of the most frustrating things is waiting for your machine to communicate with external storage (Lightroom users especially.)

Fortunately, these specs are not too far out of reach for most folks.  Although you may pay a bit more for the system, configuring it properly will save you big in time and workflow efficiency.


Pure fun building this little beast of a Photoshop machine.

For the somewhat adventurous, LIGHT recommends building your own system.  I recently built the computer shown in the pictures above for about $1275 and two hours of my time.  It has all of the options listed above and is unbelievably fast.  For those who may be thinking Thunderbolt and Windows?  My machine is Windows and has two Thunderbolt ports along with eight USB 3.0 and a handful of USB 2.0.  Depending upon how and when you source your parts the do it yourself option can save you quite a bit.  More importantly, the process forces you to learn about the options and make smart choices as to what is best for your needs and workflow.

Any questions, comments, concerns, or addtions add a comment or email me at

Fiat Lux!

Add Two Steps

Recently, we have seen an increase in photographers using the High Pass filter in Photoshop to add edge contrast and texture detail to their images.  This is a cool technique but when you use the filter remember to add two more steps; desaturate your layer before applying the High Pass filter and always target your filter effects with a mask.


You may have seen or heard many photographers talking about how they sharpen only on the Lightness channel in L*A*B* or they make sure to change the blend mode of their sharpening layers to Luminosity or they use the Fade option with a Luminosity blend mode change.  There are many good reasons to make these switches and we suggest you use them in your sharpening or contrast boost workflow.  For the same reasons, when you use High Pass desaturate.

It is a common misconception that when you run the High Pass filter you are left with an image that is baseline 50% gray and only shows brighter or darker tonality at the edge contrast and texture detail.  Instead, High Pass may retain color information from the original image.  This can lead to color shifts or colored fringe along a high contrast edge similar to haloing.


Notice the

remaining color.

Our workflow is to copy the background layer or stamp visible if you have a multi-layer document and then desaturate via Image>Adjustments>Desaturate this can also be executed with the keyboard shortcut of CTRL+Shift+U for Windows or CMD+Shift+U for Mac.


For those who want to play or have more control you can

  • Run a Black and White adjustment instead and modify the tonality of the color arcs.
  • Use multiple layers of High Pass set to different radii.
  • Leave the color in your layer in order to generate a color boost. Watch out for fringing!
  • Use the filter on a Smart Object so you can make changes.
  • Invert your filter layer to decrease contrast and texture detail.

The second misconception is that areas that appear to be smooth after running the High Pass filter are not. Make sure to use a mask and target the filter effect to only those areas that you want to modify. In general, LIGHT does not recommend enhancing the edge contrast or texture detail on the following:

  • The sky especially blue sky.
  • Areas of constant color or tone.
  • Flowing water.
  • Out of focus areas.
  • Human skin especially female skin.

Fiat Lux!