Water Music

Every once in a while an image jumps off the screen at me and I wonder “did I make that?”  This one has such a nice non-linear composition, with interesting detail in both negative and positive space.  And you just can’t keep your eye off that blossom!

This is uncropped so I actually put this one together in the viewfinder.  I really do think film is helping…

OM-1, 35-80mm f/2.8, Kodak Tri-X Pan 400, Xtol developer

OM-1, 35-80mm f/2.8, Kodak Tri-X Pan 400, Xtol developer

 

What’s my motivation?

Playing around with developing film has brought a bit of enlightenment my way.  I have a hint of what photographers mean when they speak of the “tone” of an image. Keep in mind this particular use of the word isn’t concerned with the grey scale range, or the Zone system, or the exposure, but rather the sense being offered by the image.  What it feels like, in essence.

And it helps me realize there are some technical aspects of image quality that are simply not relevant, as only film can portray.

Here are two examples.  First, a landscape image.  For this I expect sharp focus throughout the image, good exposures and colors, a composition that gives a sense of perspective and dimension.

Half Dome from Olmsted Point

I intentionally waiting until someone walked into the composition to give a frame of reference to the scene.  It helps show that the subject – Half Dome – is quite a ways off and that if she is thinking of walking there it’s going to be a bit before she gets there.

The second example is less of a landscape image and more of a setting.  This is B&W film, ISO 400 (about 5 years past expiration date), developed by me, scanned and processed digitally.  This is the image that caught my attention and started me to thinking about “tone”.  This image is grainy, not color, no sense of perspective, and exposed only moderately well.  By the standards of the first image it is not as technically “good”.  Yet it has a quality about it that is engaging, at least to me.  Whereas the landscape above gives a place, the image below gives a mood.  Maybe you sense the same mood I do or perhaps you get something different, but it does elicit a sense of something – something different from the image above.  And that something is independent of the technical quality of the image.

DS20150727212722

And this is what got me to thinking.  Technical quality only carries an image so far, that without the “tone” I’m talking about the picture is really just a documentary about a point in time.  Nothing wrong with that.  But the really interesting photos, the memorable ones, they have something else about them.  And that something is contained in the essence of the scene, not the technical aspects of the image.  The most perfect exposure, focus, contrast and color is important for the first image, but it would be essentially wasted on the second one.

The first glimmer I had of this notion was going through an exhibit of Pulitzer Prize winning images.  Many of them would be instantly recognizable and equally memorable.  They are part of our collective visual consciousness.  Yet looking at them enlarged, framed and hanging on a wall, critiquing them like the fresh photography student I was at the time, I said to myself, “these are really crappy images.”  Poor focus, harsh exposures, odd cropping – many technical reasons that would fault an image as part of a portfolio.  Nonetheless, looking at them as a person, the “tone” of each image jumped off the wall to make an impression.

Maybe it’s something about B&W that encourages this.  Without the seduction of color it’s possible to pay more attention to what the composition says rather than what it looks like.  Maybe digital has actually exceeded film for technical quality, and I’ve gotten so caught up in chasing that razor sharp resolution I’ve lost sight of one key purpose of photography – to tell stories – that returning to film enables me to recover.  All I know is I’m starting to see compositions and worrying less about the technical aspects and more about the content.  It’s an interesting evolution.

Where do I put this light?

We were fortunate out west to have a day or so with clouds in the sky.  Not only do they break up the monotony of a bright blue sky in landscape images, but they also act as dodging tools for the sun.  A uniformly lit landscape can be pretty boring since we use light and dark areas to recognize depth and dimension.  So having clouds move across the sky and alternately shade and open the scene can make more interesting images.

At Mono Lake some of the tufa formations are on dry land, left behind as the lake level dropped.  I stood in front of one formation watching the sun move across the scene as the clouds blew through.  In the series below are examples of intentional placement of light and shade, making the “tone” of the images different.

To me where everything is in shade or sun the image is fairly flat, no sense of distance or texture.  Where there’s a difference in light front to back or vice versa, there’s a sense of looking away into a distance.  My favorite is where the foreground is in shade and the subject in sun.  I immediately am drawn to the tufa formation but realize from the grass they are in the distance and pretty good sized.

What do you get from these images?

Foreground and most of subject in shade

Foreground and most of subject in shade

Foreground in sun, subject in shade

Foreground in sun, some of subject in shade

Foreground in shade, subject in sun

Foreground in shade, subject in sun

Foreground in sun, subject in light shade

Foreground in sun, subject in light shade

Foreground in shade, subject in sun

Foreground in shade, subject in sun

Foreground and front of subject in shade, back of subject in sun

Foreground and front of subject in shade, back of subject in sun

Sierra Images

On the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range lies Mono Lake, a remnant of a prehistoric sea that filled the valley below Tioga Pass.  Once famous for the millions of migratory birds that stopped here on their travel and the Pacific gulls that nested in the millions, Mono Lake suffered from Los Angeles siphoning off water from the melting snowpack that feeds the lake.  Threatened with disappearance, the lake is slowly recovering after efforts by conservation groups to wrestle the water supply away from the metropolis almost 400 miles away.  Nonetheless, the numbers of birds using Mono Lake for resting, feeding and nesting has dropped significantly as they seek other havens in this desert environment.

Mono Lake from Visitor's Center

Mono Lake from Visitor’s Center

Mono Lake is famous for its tufa formations (images of those later), remains of thermal vents in the lake’s bottom that are gradually exposed as the water level drops.  The two islands in the lake and the chain of craters to the south are symbols of the younger and more violent volcanic activity in this valley.  Although Mono Lake is probably over 1 million years old it sits on unstable foundations.  Water passing through these younger strata pick up minerals, contributing to a salinity several times greater than the ocean and an alkaline nature that Mark Twain commented on as being useful for cleaning clothes by simply dipping them in the water a few times!

Mono Lake from overlook

Mono Lake from overlook

Little towns string along the eastern Sierra foothills, agricultural oasis catering to the constant tourist flow passing through in admiration of the scenery to the west.

Sierras from Bridgeport, CA

Sierras from Bridgeport, CA

North Dome in Mirror Lake, Yosemite

North Dome in Mirror Lake, Yosemite

Glacier Point and Royal Arch Creek, Yosemite

Glacier Point and Royal Arch Creek, Yosemite

Bridalveil Falls and Leaning Tower, Yosemite

Bridalveil Falls and Leaning Tower, Yosemite

Yosemite images

Just wrapped up a few days in Yosemite National Park.  Here are a few sample images.  More later.

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, from valley floor

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, from valley floor

Trees and Shadows - Sunset, El Capitan, Yosemite National Park

Trees and Shadows – Sunset, El Capitan, Yosemite National Park

Upper Yosemite valley from Glacier Point

Upper Yosemite valley from Glacier Point

Bridalveil Falls, from valley floor

Bridalveil Falls, from valley floor

Nevada and Vernal Falls from Glacier Point

Nevada and Vernal Falls from Glacier Point

Upper Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome trail

Upper Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome trail

Lower Yosemite Valley from tunnel view

Lower Yosemite Valley from tunnel view

Half Dome at sunrise from Glacier Point

Half Dome at sunrise from Glacier Point

Half Dome from Glacier Point observatory

Half Dome from Glacier Point observatory

Upper Yosemite valley from Sentinel Dome trail

Upper Yosemite valley from Sentinel Dome trail

Lower Yosemite Falls - people at bottom for perspective

Lower Yosemite Falls – people at bottom for perspective

Sharp? Who cares!

No, I haven’t ended my pursuit of really sharp images.  I’m just playing around with ISO400 speed film and large apertures.  Not only will some parts of the image be out of focus but the grain is large enough to make even the sharpest edge a little dull.  Still, not looking bad.  I’m developing Kodak Tri-X Pan 400 film using Xtol developer, indicated by Kodak for use when fine grain and sharp edges are desired.  Seems to be turning out pretty good.  And at this point, pretty good means an image is actually developing on the film!  B&W is actually fairly hard to screw up in the darkroom but I’m always up for a challenge…

Soon I’ll switch to Kodak T-Max 100 so I’m expecting the images to look at little less fuzzy.

I’m expecting my film experience to improve my digital images, once I pick up a digital camera again!