Winter blahs, need a break from B&W.
I was reading a comment by a photographer who said much of his work represented scenes he caught out of the corner of his eye while driving around. It appealed to me and how I behave while out with my camera. As much as I would like to have a destination in mind and a composition waiting for me there, much of my outdoor photography is just driving around. Looking for interesting things, objects, scenes. Places where I can stop, get out and wander around, working the scene that had caught my attention.
Usually it’s simple things, not grand landscapes. After some shooting – getting the muscle memory going again – I start looking. And then I really start seeing. What is the relationship among the objects? What is the light doing to them? What are the shadows telling me?
I enjoy taking time to really see things we generally drive by and ignore. The textures of nature affected by man’s action. The symmetry, intentional and not, of how the land is used and what it produces. The way we make the land into our own.
The ice caves in Lake Superior are pretty famous and a great thing to see. But up and down the shore of Lake Michigan, mostly on the Wisconsin side, are bluffs and rock formations that are battered by the wind and waves, in cold weather becoming enveloped in ice formations just as interesting as those found in Superior. Before Lake Michigan freezes near the shore, when the ground temperature stays below freezing, the wind will push the waves against the rocks, kicking up spray and waves that envelop the shore and stay as ice formations. The scene changes daily depending on wind, which controls the size of the surf, and the temperature.
One area easily accessible is Cave Point County Park, south of Jacksonport in Door County. The limestone of the Niagara Escarpment is exposed as rocky bluffs on the lakeshore and the southeast winter wind drives the almost-freezing lake water against the shelves and coves. The ongoing erosion has cut out overhangs while leaving layer-cake formations along the edge. Each layer seems to direct the water into a chain of icicles.
Even the trees huddled around the rock edge aren’t safe as waves and spray drench them repeatedly, building up an impressive array of ice formations that dangle over the bluff.
It’s pretty impressive to stand there is high surf and literally feel the formation shudder as the big waves hit it. Reminds you how impermanent even the ground below us is in the context of geologic time.
Lines, forms, shadows, structure – when the world is black and white these are all you have to create a mood.
What is this mood? Patient stillness awaiting the new spring? Hibernation after a busy year of production? Soldiers awaiting their next order? Quiet and peace or orderly attention?
Farmers impose order on the field, photographers capture and expose other orders, intentional or incidental. The sun contributes a new direction and dimension, visible only at the right time to those ready to observe.
Most semi-serious photographers love their gear, love playing with their gear, love talking about their gear. Usually the trick is to get us to stop talking about it all and show some pictures.
I use a lot of digital equipment but when I’m interested in really controlling the look of the image I get under the hood behind my view camera. Being able to “disconnect” the plane of the lens from the plane of the film provides opportunities for images that are practically impossible with a regular camera. Our brain does such a great job of interpreting what we see into the “correct” viewpoint that we’re generally surprised at pictures coming out of a regular camera. Oddly, it takes a view camera with all its adjustment capability to deliver a photograph that looks “normal.” The following three images are examples of what I’m talking about.
Snap this shot with a regular camera and you’ll get something that might look similar. Depending on where you stand the corners of the building might be vertical or slightly slanted, the near part of the curved wall at the bottom might be in focus or not, along with the trees in the distance. It depends on the lens being used, the tripod setup and aperture selected. For a view camera, making sure all these elements are exactly as desired is simple. A little front tilt of the lens to “see” the foreground and an aperture stopped down to increase depth of field.
This one would be harder for a regular camera. The sign is about 5 feet from my camera where as the tower is about 50 feet away. My camera is set up slightly down-hill from the tower and sign. And the sign and tower are at different perspectives. To make sure everything is in focus, and that the vertical parts are really vertical while the horizontal parts stay that way required using most of the view camera’s movements. The lens and film plane are swiveled enough to get the focus for the tower and sign in the same plane, the lens has been lifted higher than the film to keep the perspectives the same while being tilted forward slightly to “see” the path in front of the sign, and the aperture is stopped down to f/64 so that everything is in focus.
This was the simplest shot to make. Level the camera, tilt the body down slightly to “see” the ice triangle in the river, tilt the film plane to vertical to keep the trees straight, and tilt the lens forward enough to put the foreground and distance in the same focus.
Setup and adjustments like this usually take 15-20 minutes per shot – definitely not a candid image. Staring at the image developing on the glass screen under the hood is worth it, though, as you see how the adjustments render the shot just as you want it and just as your eye sees it.
One of the definitive books on this subject is Ansel Adams’ The Camera, which provides instruction on using the adjustments to get the image you want. There are other sources out there but Adams writes well and serves up sound advice from years of experience crafting images exactly the way he wanted them. It’s fun to read, and who knows, might encourage more people to try out a view camera for a different perspective on photography.
Complexity in photographs is possibly overrated, at least in the world of outdoor images. Are the most stunning images you’ve seen of some place those that are quietly elegant? That don’t overwhelm you with multiple subjects or several elements clamoring for your eye’s attention? We’re tempted to put everything in a photograph – let the viewer sort it out. But the camera has no brain. It just shows what it sees with no regard to context. The brain lies behind the camera. Without choice of subject and placement and lighting and all the elements of an interesting photograph – we might as well snip out a frame at random from the streaming cellphone videos so prevalent online these days.
Single things tell stories, not crowds.
Finally getting around to processing all the color slide film I have stashed in the freezer. Found some fun street shots, probably from the spring of this year, made in Cedarburg, WI, just north of Milwaukee.
With color film you of course look for over the top color. Have you noticed how bold, primary colors are showing up in advertising and displays more and more? Makes it fun to see how people present their goods while having a good time with them.
Makes you want to throw on a swimsuit and hit the beach for some serious sand castle building. The reflection just adds interest.
According the company, Milwaukee’s finest beer. Definitely some of the best signs around.
Have a great Thanksgiving holiday!