Look down to see up

In September during my workshop we had the opportunity to photograph the full moon about a day or so before complete fullness.  What this means is just as the moon comes over the horizon there remains enough sunlight to illuminate the landscape and you don’t get the blown out highlights in the moon.  Most of us were working on a typical moon-over-mountains composition, something like this:

ISO 100, 200mm, 1/15 sec., f/8

Standing next to a small pond I noticed the scene’s reflection in the water but with the addition of grasses on the shore and some vegetation floating on the surface.  I thought it had a nice abstract look to it so I recomposed and make this image:

ISO 100, 200mm, 1/30 sec., f/5

Having everything razor sharp was of less interest to me for this image; I wanted to capture groups of shapes and tones that would define the composition more than simply a picture of the moon.  Reminded me of advice I got from a black-and-white photographer once.  He said as you are composing, look at the scene and squint to the point where all detail is gone and all you see are the blobs of light and dark.  Then compose to where those blobs form an interesting image.  Everything else will usually fall in place to compliment the composition.  It’s a good way to improve seeing for someone who easily gets distracted by the fine details and misses the complete picture!

By the way, reflections usually lose about one stop of light so you’ll have to adjust to keep your exposure when moving from the original scene.  And sometimes you’ll have to manually focus in order to get what you want to be in focus – autofocus sometimes can’t distinguish between the reflected image and something on the surface of the water.  For the second image I opened my aperture to shorten the depth of field and manually focused on the reflected mountain.

Contemplate the simple

Been out and around for a bit working on new photos and taking a workshop on the business of outdoor photography.  It’s good to hear new perspectives and get some feedback on how my images are structured as well as getting tips on getting images in front of people who will pay for their use!  Small, individually owned  businesses require hard work and commitment, none less than photography, so it’s been great hearing how a successful photographer maintains their business.

As I’ve been making images this week the mood for simplification has been a creative force.  Don’t know why – maybe I’m seeing more beauty in tones and composition than in the brilliant colors and contrasts of “regular” photographs.

Looking for the basic elements of design in a landscape is soothing for me right now, reducing the stress of remembering all those compositional tips I’m supposed to keep in mind while putting an image together.  Telephoto lenses are great for this type of examination of nature – you can zoom into a small part of the landscape and exclude all those other seductive pieces like color.

The search for suitable black and white ‘potential’ images is also interesting, to see while in the field what range of tones and shapes will result in a good final photograph.  It’s a significant advantage of digital over film – you can quickly see what the composition will look like and while working on the computer you can see how the black and white conversion will affect the final image.  Hard to believe the results film photographers achieved with their developing, dodging and burning to prints.

This last image was a fortunate one as we were sitting up for sunset pictures on the day right before the full moon.  At that time the sun will still light up the landscape while the full moon is coming up over the horizon.  Because the brightness of the moon is close to the brightness of the landscape you can get details in the surface of the moon with an exposure that will maintain details in the landscape.  After a half hour or so the moon is too bright to get it and the landscape in a good exposure.

That’s where I am right now, contemplating a more Zen-like approach to composition and lighting.  Probably more to come.

Brush those pixels lightly

When all you have are ranges of tones to portray dimensions in a picture you quickly run up against the question – how much contrast do I want?  Many B&W artists will say the image needs the complete range from solid black to completely white while others prefer a narrower range but clear distinctions between the tones.  With film most people settled for what they got; only the dedicated masters knew enough about film, processing and printing to put what they wanted into the final image.

Now doing so is just a piece of software away, with many options to choose from with respect to tonality and range of tones.  As with most things in life, with more options comes greater pain of choice – what do I do with all those opportunities!?!

My default for most images is exposure first then clarity of details.  When I complete an image for these two, however, I find it doesn’t look contrast-y enough – the “punch” some photographers use to define their personal style.  It’s not that the exposure or details of the image are lacking; rather, the overall image looks flat.

I’ve experimented with global and local contrasts but find my final images still look a little flat.  One technique I’m learning is to paint on the image in order to accentuate the contrast in small, local areas of the image, defining a most distinct difference between light and dark areas.  It’s an old painting trick used to mimic what we see in the world and I’ve found it does help eliminate some of the flatness.

This is an image right out of the camera, converted to B&W using NIK’s Silver Efex Pro 2 plug-in at the default settings.  It was an overcast day so I’m not surprised the range of tones is narrow.  I really wanted some depth around the bend in the creek, however.

Putting the same image back into Photoshop I started painting on the light and dark areas, trying to move them further apart while still retaining some details in the shadows and highlights.  Usually I would stop here but although it’s a little less flat than the first one I’m still not getting the depth I want.

I put the second image back into Photoshop and decided to apply a firmer brush to the dark and light areas.  Some deep shadows started losing detail but they are such a small portion of the overall image I didn’t feel their loss was a detriment.  Enhancing the contrast in the water actually improved it’s appearance – it looks more like water now.  Lightening the grass on the edge right about the curve separated it more from the far side of the creek, especially compared to the initial image.  In addition, darkening the bank below the grass helped call attention to the brighter grass and since bright objects advance toward the viewer while dark objects recede, this helped reduce the flatness in that area.

Even the second treatment is not a contrast-y image but it retains my desired level of detail (which would start getting lost with higher contrast) while providing a little better sense of place.  In such flat lighting this is pretty close to what I would print.

Looking over the three the effects are subtle from one to the other but that certainly fits my approach to B&W.  I couldn’t do harsh tones with this type of image – the details would vanish leaving silhouettes that would result in a confusing, jumbled image.  Not my style of landscape.

Looking more closely where I haven’t before

ISO 200, 17mm, 1/320 sec., f/3.5

Only the core of the trees remain.  The leaves that give us the sense of forest have succumbed to the force of the changing seasons and now lie on the ground that will absorb them to become next spring’s fertilize.  What remains are the skeletons of the forest – trunks, limbs, branches, and twigs – reaching out to be defined by the sky and sunlight.  Now we see them for what they are and can pay attention to the details of their skin and appendages.  Rough bark, snaggly branches, fractal protrusions that together make up the framework of the woods.

Winter’s approach brings on the time of B&W, images defined and governed by tones of grey from black to white, of light wrapping gradually around surfaces to reveal their character and texture.  I used to dread the coming of this season, the time of the year that robs me of the color I enjoy, but now I see it as another classroom to teach me a more simplified way of seeing.  To look and observe the essence of the subjects, to take advantage of the positive and negative spaces they occupy in the composition.

And to learn how to portray scenes in a manner other than the cold, indifferent, stark look I’ve always found this season to show.  That’s one of this winter’s lessons.  As you can see from the above, I’ve got a ways to go.  We’ll see how it turns out.

Low light photography

And by the title I mean where the sun is low in the sky, just those few minutes before it falls behind the trees or hills or horizon.  I’m looking for the last rays of direct sunlight on my subject, casting long shadows and giving a warm glow.  The nice thing about that direct light is how it plays into B&W conversions, especially the use of color filters to control the tones in the image.

The local lake that was drained last fall to kill off zebra mussels is starting to turn green as the grass and other seeds that have blown onto the mud start sprouting.  Water is still present in the lower areas and all the items that were put in the lake for fish to hide in is still visible.  Today I went out to see what deep shadows I could get along with warm highlights, knowing I’d be converting to B&W and possibly doing some toning.

ISO 100, 400mm, 1/60 sec., f/4, EV +.7

The wind was oddly still today so the water was great for reflections.   Here I’m looking to show off the light coming from the left while retaining shadow details, especially in the reflection.  Exposure of reflections is usually 1 stop less than the subject so I had to be careful here to not blow out the highlights on the upper left of the tire but keep some of the tread details in the lower right.  I added back a little warm tone to the tire alone, leaving the water as a neutral grey.  I like the sense of solitude and expectation the image gives me.

ISO 100, 316mm, 1/30 sec., f/4.5, EV-.3

Here I wanted to use the direct light to point out the subject, so I applied a yellow filter to the B&W conversion knowing the yellow light of the sunset would brighten while the blue illumination from the sky lighting the background would darken.  I also used a short depth of field to keep the viewer’s eye returning to the foreground subject, and the reflection to keep an interest in the water.

I like working at sunset better than sunrise because I can gauge how the light will fall on my subjects as the sun sets, something I’m sort of guessing about at sunrise.  Been surprised a few times as the sun comes up and my subject isn’t lit the way I expected.  The downside of sunset is there is usually a haze right at the horizon – dust, clouds, smog – that can soften the light and shadows.  It’s a crapshoot – outdoor photographers have to be patient.

Active Photography

As I continue working on my nemesis, composition, the same idea keeps springing off the pages from different authors.  It sits at the basis for why I photograph yet eludes my grasp when I so fervently need it.  Simply – the image is mine to make.  That’s it.  All composition flows from the initial realization of this – all after this is just application of tools, techniques, and terabytes.

Because a photograph is so easy to snap I neglect to deal with the issue of whether an image should be created.  Beyond documenting my presence at a location or event, does what I see impress upon me a compelling reason to create an image of it?  Without that, why would anyone else care to look at the image?  Absent my passion for the subject or story, who but an avid thematic apperception fan would pause to build a story from my image?  No, the image is mine first; it must flow from a meaning I have for the subject or else the image is uninteresting.

Mastery of the tools and techniques is the means to the end that starts with seeing something that resonates in me in an emotional, intellectual, spiritual, etc. way.  Trying to process meaning into a photograph later is starting to feel as absurd as trying to get flavor into a cake after it has baked.  The result is possible but definitely lacks the quality and interest of starting with the key ingredient.

As I process images it feels like I’m waiting for the meaning to suddenly emerge, where the right combination of sliders, switches, dials and buttons inject now what I was  unable to provide then.  My disappointments with exposure, resolution, composition, etc. I’m realizing are excuses for ignoring the “why” in the beginning, trying to substitute “if only” for “next time” as I learn this craft.

B&W continues to become clearer to me as an instructional tool.  Color distracts and seduces, enticing my eye to capture the view but not the essence.  Tones operating in the continuum of black to white enable me to focus on the reason for the image rather than the brilliance of it.


Winter's wraiths

Elements of Design

Trails Tryptch

A colleague of mine in England recently set out to do some street photography and posted some results on her blog.  As most of her photographic emphasis has been on portraiture this was a challenge she forced on herself to try, to see the world in a different way through her lens.  It’s so easy to find yourself seeing the same things through your camera and then wonder why your images are not different.  Composing in a completely new environment is one way to reset how you see interesting aspects of the world around you and I applaud her determination.

I was fortunate lately to be in a workshop with two long-time practitioners of street photography – William Albert Allard and Jay Maisel.  I think they would both say their ventures out with camera in hand are less about seeking a specific image and more about being ready to capture a distinctive moment.  For them keeping an eye out for what goes on before the shutter is released is equally important to the moment captured and they both talked of developing an almost sixth sense, anticipating where the flow of action was going and what might happen when it converges with a story.

Street photography is not something I particularly pursue, mostly because of my reluctance to photograph people (Bill Allard told me to get over it!  Maybe later.).  So instead, I pursue a similar approach in the woods – sort of a trail photography.  What I mean by this is instead of heading out to find a particular composition I tend to wander through the woods or fields or parks just being aware of what’s going on and what might happen.  Now that I’m more sensitive to light I find myself watching the sky as well as the ground (“will that cloud pass between the sun and that grove of trees?”, “will this look better at a different time of day?”) to forecast what image might develop within my area of interest.  And, because I’m improving my appreciation for B&W, I’m also trying to “see” grades of tones and textures that could be interesting either supporting an image or as the main element.

Following this approach I’m becoming more sensitive to those design elements you read about in many photography books – the elements I should have been paying attention to all those years I was frustrated with my pictures.  Today I found this bike trail in the woods and it, along with the shadows being cast by the low winter sun, made compositions jump out at me.  I particularly like the far right image – the tree stands firmly rooted between its shadow and the trail curving around it, connecting the sky to the ground via its upstretched limbs.  There’s a nice gradation of light wrapping around the left side of the trunk, giving the tree a little dimensionality and helping it stand out against the background.  The tree in the left picture doesn’t show this gradation because the angle I chose to compose in order to get the shadow stretching along the trail meant the trunk was in straight sunlight, making it look flatter.  It stands out against its background only because it is a darker tone but it doesn’t offer a sense of roundness like the image on the right.  Another element to be aware of in the future.

The picture in the middle is all about the broken line of trail that implies a connection for the eye to travel from foreground to background, jumping across the prairie grass to follow the trail into the woods.  The shadows of the grass laying across the trail in the foreground help give it some depth, showing how it is cut into the earth and not just lying on top of it.

Perhaps one day all this education out in nature will benefit my attempts at street photography but for now I’ll keep wandering around the woods to see what stories I can find.