On a recent outing on the Wisconsin river I experimented with shutter speeds. Often photographers automatically go for the long exposure when it comes to flowing water. Once you’ve mastered the technique, it’s a gimme and for the most part produces very striking effects.
But is it always the best or most appropriate? I suppose it depends on what you’re going for. Artistically it can be a great way to contrast motion and stillness and expose patterns that you can’t see the same way with the naked eye. I love it, but sometimes I want to convey the power, noise and sheer presence of a mighty flow. The smoothly swirling patterns, while lovely to look at just don’t showcase those qualities. So I tried my hand at much faster exposures and found those can also produce some striking photos.
Look at the difference in these two images. How does each one make you feel? What does each one tell you about what it was like to be there? What does each one hide from you about what it was like to be there?
These next shots are more traditional waterscapes and are from different positions on the same section of the river, but the emotions they convey are quite contrary.
The snow in that second image helps bolster the drama of a river in full roar that in the long-exposure image isn’t all that apparent (it had stopped snowing by then). But in terms of how each shot makes you feel, take a few minutes to absorb that. The first for me is a bit timeless and hasn’t much in the sense of power that the second does. Without looking at the EXIF data, there’s no way to tell how long it took the water to flow that much. Even if there was snow still flying, it would be blurred and difficult to see. It’s a more restful and possibly a more artistic presentation of the river and the second you could categorize as documentary in nature. It has an immediacy the first doesn’t have.
Depending on how much surface variation there is to a brook or river, I usually time my long exposures between 5 and 15 seconds. Sometimes I go longer, but not often. There is cool stuff below that range though and just leaving the shutter open a fraction of a second can produce some surprising results. Here’s an example of what I mean. This is a slice of the Wisconsin I liked the look of when I was out on some rocks in the midst of the roar. The water is tannic and so naturally the color of tea or root beer. It’s not polluted! Tons of fish, insects, reptiles, birds and mammals depend on this river and it’s hugely popular with two-legged fishermen as well.
I started out with just a bare lens, no filters, working mostly hand held with high shutter speeds. I had my tripod with me though so I did use it for these next shots –
It’s not bad. It has some appeal and visual interest. Could the water action be more interesting? Sure, but that’s really hard to predict and so you’d end up shooting bursts of images hoping for the best. If you’re looking for this stop-action, frozen quality, I’ve found that’s really the only way since the water’s shape is so random. First look for a dynamic part of the water and properly compose and frame. Using live view you can see if the results produce the visual attraction you want. If not, find another section of water and give it another go.
What appealed to me with this little slice was the rocks on the banks; the frame they provide. With the frozen water image, I just didn’t get the contrast I wanted. The rocks are cold, implacable and they seem like river could never affect them (though it does in the end; water always wins). The Wisconsin is active, alive, unpredictable and relentless. So I put a neutral density filter on and tried a long exposure –
OK, so we’re partly there. The rocks are steady as ever and boy do they look like they’d break your bones. All well and good, but look at the water.
Yeah, not too interesting. It’s just one big, featureless blur of a root beer float. To me it’s boring and lacks any sort of quality that would make you look twice at it. Lucky for me, I removed my neutral density filter and added a polarizer only. Using live view I found a shutter speed that would blur the water somewhat, but reveal the deep bronze color. Patterns emerged!
Now we’re talkin’!
The water still conveys force, power and speed, but now there’s something to snag the eye. By having some blurred action the contrast with the granite boulders is apparent, but it’s not so slow that the water loses all character. An in between shutter speed reveals the light and dark of the water as it moves and this gave me what I wanted when I was making this image.
So why did I use two different filters? Well, it was a bright, but overcast day and no matter how low I set my ISO the camera couldn’t get me a very long exposure. I also don’t like to crank the aperture all the way down on any of my lenses. Doing this almost always puts you out of the lens’s sweet spot (usually between f 4 and 11) and images can be comparatively soft. Using a ND filter will get you the longest exposures depending on how dark the filter is (and subsequently how much light it blocks; think of it as sunglasses for your camera). Using a polarizer is a step between a naked lens and a ND filter. My particular polarizer is a B&W and only reduces the exposure by 1 stop. Some will be darker so your results will vary, but for this particular day it worked perfect.
My take-away lesson from this experimentation is a better understanding of how shutter speed helps to create the mood for a moving water image. Whether I want something soft and peaceful, showing lines and highlights that can’t be seen with the naked eye, or something sharp and arresting, showing water frozen in action. But I can’t forget that the extremes don’t always serve my intentions; I need to be ready and flexible in my approach in order to produce the photo I want. Hopefully you get a chance to experiment, too. If you do, give me a shout and show me what you did!
In my last post, I mentioned that I bought a collapsible diffuser, so I thought I would write to explain how I use it, what the results have been and why I can’t believe I haven’t bought one before.
Part of my not buying one is sheer forgetfulness, but another is that I don’t want to complicate my photography with a lot of gear. Before my old ring flash died I used it sparingly because natural light seems much more complementary to my work than artificial and so you’d think a light reflector/diffuser would be more appealing, but somehow I just made do with my hat or leaves or simply using my body to make my own shade. Adequate, but not flexible and certainly not repeatable with any certainty, I mean, who can find the perfect leafy branch every time you need one?
So here is the little beast –
I included a credit card so you can get an idea of size. It’s very slightly translucent, but completely opaque, made of nylon and has a hard plastic ring sewn into the black piping. If you grasp the edges and twist it will fold down to fit in its case which has a loop for attaching to a carabiner or other handy clip. At first I had a time remembering I had one, but once I started using it, it stayed more out of the bag than in. I do wish I could use it with an articulated arm/clip system I built a couple of years ago, but alas it’s too insubstantial which works for being foldable, but doesn’t leave a large/firm enough edge to grip.
Mostly I use it to diffuse light; that is to create shade or soften shadows. Here are a few examples of how I’ve used it to improve my images.
These are the same chanterelle waxcaps from a previous post. I found them in the woods with the sun almost directly overhead. Oh so harsh and contrasty. They were next to a large pile of boulders, fallen branches and other pointy and squishy stuff I didn’t really want to have to climb around in to make shade with my body (my hat wasn’t wide enough).
One of the things I love is that the shadows aren’t entirely gone, but they’re controlled and softened. Now, before you think I’ve used some Lightroom sleight-of-hand, the processing values are exactly the same. It’s only the light and the resulting exposure that is different. Notice the color saturation, too. The orange/red/yellow is much, much too hot in the first picture. Just as you can clip whites and blacks, you can clip colors and just like when you clip highs and lows, the information is unrecoverable. The sensor is overloaded and the detail is lost. So is the smaller mushroom.
This isn’t the only image I took with the diffuser. Using the camera’s LCD screen I could watch the effect of the shade as I held it at different angles and distances from the subject. The differences were subtle, but noticeable and I chose what I liked best in the end. Every situation is different and I’m sure I’ll be playing with it more and more. Without a diffuser I would have walked away from that little scene and lost a photo that I really like.
It isn’t direct light on a subject that is always the main problem. Sometimes it’s glare on another element in the shot that makes for a distracting highlight. Take this one as an example. It’s in my backyard where honey mushrooms grow in huge masses at the base of the trees (the deer love them, btw, and snack on them often). We don’t have a lot of red maples around, so when I spied this leaf I knew I’d use it to make the mushrooms stand out. The problem was the afternoon sun. Even with a polarizer there’s glare on the leaf that I find distracting –
The first places your eyes naturally go to in a photograph are the light areas which is why it’s so important to mange those backgrounds and watch for things that can pull the viewers’ eyes away from your main subject. Out came the handy diffuser and voila –
Other than the change in camera position, everything is the same. The glare was still there and the diffuser blocked it really well. This time I angled the thing perpendicular to the ground to block the sun. The red pops as it should and so does the texture and slight yellow tinge of the mushrooms.
Distractions – they’re not helpful at all and sometimes waiting for the light to change just isn’t practical even in a tiny scene where just a couple of minutes of the earth’s rotation will help. Or waiting for cloud cover. What if there are no clouds? Take this next before picture. Sporophytes are some of my favorite things, but they already exist down where there’s a lot going on; shapes, textures, colors – all competing for your attention. So after careful composition to arrange those elements, light patterns can be hard to deal with like they are just behind the sporophyte stems. Irritating.
So the diffuser to the rescue.
Again, other than the change in light, everything is the same. I just copied the processing I did with the second image onto the first so they would compare fairly. This time I angled the diffuser just behind the sporophytes and hotspot be gone!
Fixing this kind of thing is possible in Lightroom and other robust photo editing packages, but it’s much easier to do in the field. So consider getting a diffuser and using it for your macro and close up work. I find it very useful to provide consistent shade that can be manipulated to give you highlights and shadows that bring out the beauty of your subjects.
In the course of a day I look at hundreds of photographs. By participating in Google+, forums, flickr, 500px and other photo communities it’s easy to do. One thing that has been getting my attention is that people don’t seem to understand white balance and its importance. Mainly I notice it when there is water involved. Blue waterfalls everywhere. Is the world running with mouthwash? Crazy. I also notice it in woodland shots that are clearly taken in daytime, but look really odd and blue. Too cold by far. Mostly it’s white balance which is nothing more than color temperature and can be easily adjusted. Correct white balance and overall color temperature is the most important thing in making sure your colors are accurate. Well, that and monitor calibration, but since you can’t correctly calibrate every monitor in the world, just do your own and let it go.
Folks who shoot in raw often don’t care about white balance in camera because they can always fix it later. To some degree I’m guilty of this, but try to match my wb in the field to what the light actually looks like. It’s tons easier to do it there than after the fact when you might be too removed from the moment to remember what your eyes saw. Most cameras have auto-white balance which is a place to start, but be aware that most cameras aren’t accurate. Here’s an example:
This is my friend Melissa coming down through the Magical Birch Glade in the NH White Mountains.
It was early afternoon and while there weren’t a lot of leaves left on the trees, there were quite a few. The light in autumn afternoons around here is golden and soft. At this time of day it’s not as warm as it gets later, but the yellow leaves made it more so. Take a look at the birch trunks…they appear sort of blueish. They didn’t really look that way. To anyone not with us that day, this picture would be fine, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. For an October day it was warm; in the 80s. Does this picture convey warmth to you at all? And that golden afternoon light I talked about, don’t you want to see it?
The first thing to do is to check your scene in the field and try to match it in your live view screen to as best you can. Probably you won’t get it exactly, but close is good. Try daylight, cloudy, shade, flash – all of them are different temperatures and you can see their effects in the LCD screen. When you get your shots into your computer the first thing to do is adjust the white balance. Many photo editing packages have set their tools in order of precedence, in other words they are in a rough order of how you should use them with white balance at the top of the stack. So with all other changes being the same between shots and only the white balance changed, here’s the Magical Birch Glade –
OK, maybe that one was too subtle. Check this one out.
This is the Little River in Twin Mountain where the Twin Mountain north trailhead is. It was taken just a few hours after the shot in the MBG; farther into that mellow warmth. You wouldn’t know it from this though, would you? This is really the bane of my existence when I look at other people’s images. Blue water. Blue rocks. Blue tree trunks. Come on people. Pay attention! Unless these things really were blue, adjust your white balance.
It’s easy to do. Most editing packages have presets like daylight and cloudy as well as a slider that will let you put the temperature somewhere in the middle. It’s not hard. And look what a difference it makes.
Check out the trees, too – the color pops a lot more and the whole scene is more inviting. Only the white balance is different between the two shots. Here’s another one that’s even more dramatic.
My husband and I went walking in a state park the other day. Unfortunately it’s been closed due budget constraints, but we jumped the fence (as everyone is free to do, you just can’t drive in anymore). What have I been banging on about in this whole post besides white balance?
What are we trying to photograph, folks? Light of course. And nothing is more wonderful than soft, warm late afternoon light in October. It’s truly special. Believe it or not that’s what I saw in the shot here. But the camera doesn’t see like the brain sees and so it’s off. Way off. If you weren’t there of course you wouldn’t know, but the whole point of sharing photos is to bring other people into your world. To show them a little of what you experience and find delight in. Personally I don’t find much to delight in with the before picture. Straight out of the camera be damned. Now for the correction –
Now that’s the scene that made me stop. The trees and their shadows, the couple and the light all made me stop and shoot. Look at that light, would you? It’s lickable. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
Recently I participated in a discussion that stemmed from a person wondering about the composition of a very famous photo by a very famous photographer; Henri Cartier-Bresson. Specifically the person wanted to understand why this image is composed so amazingly well.
It got me to thinking about photography and the importance of concentration in the sense of a Major in College. Cartier-Bresson had a very specific concentration and didn’t experiment wildly with either his subject matter or his equipment. Instead he applied his passion to what amounts to one genre and that, combined with his instinctive artistic sensibility, makes his work compelling, cohesive and unique.
Often when I look at someone’s photo stream or gallery, I don’t see much cohesion. Mostly this applies to amateurs, not people making a living with this. Many photo-enthusiasts seem to sprawl all over the place, never picking a major. They spend a lot of time experimenting not only with subject matter, but equipment as well. They might get a really good photo now and again, but not many. That’s especially sad if the person has been at it for years. To me, as someone looking at what they’ve produced, it is obvious they haven’t mastered anything and don’t look as if they intend to.
That’s one thing I also look for; intent, craft, vision – progress. A specialized style and body of work that shows me they can direct their passion into one channel and really develop expertise. Speaking for myself, I think I’ve improved. My focus lately is woodlands and attempting to capture intimate portraits of the forest and what I find so magical about being in one. Does that make my photos repetitive and boring? I hope not, but then again, I don’t really care. I value my concentration not only for what it produces for images, but for the process itself – it builds muscle memory and good instincts.
By instinct in this case, I mean an instant sense of what will make a good photograph. I don’t claim to know the circumstances under which Mr. Cartier-Bresson made the image above, but I bet he didn’t overthink it. I bet he didn’t stop forever at the top of those stairs and manipulate the camera in every conceivable way before deciding on this composition. I bet it was instinctive. Even if he asked a bicyclist to work with him to make the shot, it was Cartier-Bresson’s knowledge that if he put such a person in that spot it would be amazing. He knew it would be especially good if the rider were blurred. The sense of motion we already get from the swirling steps is almost enough to make the image outstanding, but that bit of activity, of life, really makes it amazing and irreplaceable. Even if this shot wasn’t especially difficult, planned or set up, Cartier-Bresson never-the-less worked on it. His photography career and the hours he put in at his Major produced it. That was the work. And it paid off every time he picked up a camera.
Experimenting and practicing within a specific sphere of photography allows you to build a library of facts, techniques, outcomes and lessons that help you make better decisions in the field. By making better decisions you get better results. By developing good habits you save time and have less frustrating experiences. Eventually habits become instinct. For me, having a foundation of good habits and instinct leaves me more brain power to devote to the finer points of composition, light, perspective, depth-of-field and other technical choices. More keepers is what it comes down to. Expertise is a nice thing to have.
As a novice it’s natural to try lots of things. The world of photography is new and exciting and when I look at my pictures from that time, I smile indulgently at myself. It’s an important time though. We learn the rules and try to play by them, hopefully realizing in the process why they are rules and why they work. I’m talking the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, leading lines and ideas like that. Once understood and applied, they help whatever artistic sensibility you have become more substantive and less theoretical. After looking at shots you’ve taken where you forgot the rules and have crappy photos, it doesn’t take long for the rules to become habit and hopefully instinct.
That said, I don’t think you can really excel unless you pick a major. Ok, I’ll let you have a minor, too, but diluting the craft over lots and lots of genres won’t help you become an expert in any. If you want to be a landscape photographer, do it. Do it more often than you take pictures of your kids. If you want to be a macro photographer, do it more than you take pictures of buildings. If you want to be a street photographer, do it more than you take pictures of your vegetable garden. At first quantity matters more than quality and it’s the application of the former that will build the latter.
Like that old Carnegie Hall joke, the secret is practice, practice, practice. But not just snapping away at anything that moves, you have to devote yourself to what you love and be faithful. The rules of photography always apply, but they apply differently depending on the subject and the particular way you want to show it. The end result, if you have any talent, is that you’ll build a body of work that shows you are a subject matter expert.
I know it’s hard to stop taking pictures of all and sundry, but you really have to. Especially if you’ve got a life, too, and can’t spend 10 hours a day taking photos. If you’re stuck on picking your major, here are a few ideas on how to decide. Go through your photos and rate them. If you’ve already rated them, look at what rated highest and lowest. Did you have fun taking those? Did you love the process? Another way is to look on sharing sites and see which of your photos are most favorited or commented on. Which ones made Explore? Again, did they move you? Was making them a good time? Are they a cohesive group? Another way is to look at your worst pictures. Are those the ones you were really excited about? Why did they fail? Do you want to get better at taking those kinds of pictures?
There are lots of ways to choose your major and once you have it’s vital not only to practice, but to look at the work of the experts. There is no shortage of photo web sites, fora, blogs and sharing communities. Find some photographers who take the kinds of pictures you want to take and follow them. Study their work. Study their processes. Pick apart their EXIF data and equipment lists. Read their articles. Comment on their work and see if you can get a dialog going. Attend one of their workshops if they offer them. Podcasts, webinars, tutorials – it’s amazing what’s available now. Just don’t go overboard. Too much information and too many conflicting approaches will only muddy the waters. Instead, pick a point or two and take them into the field, specifically applying them during your session. See if the ideas work for you. Did you get more keepers from that session or not? Lather, rinse, repeat.
And I do mean repeat. Develop that muscle memory. Develop good habits and instincts. Find your passion. Declare your Major.
Often when I post photos of moving water looking all smooth, silky or smoky I get comments asking how I achieve that result. So I decided to write this post using my latest batch of images to illustrate things (and give you a couple of Lightroom tips in the bargain). Don’t say I never gave you anything.
First you’ll need a tripod. If you don’t have one buy one. If you don’t have money, borrow one and save up. It’s a necessity not just for this, but for a lot of other types of pictures, too. I’m not a wicked tripod snob, for these shots I used a small Slik model that only weighs a couple of pounds. It is plenty stable for my camera and lens. Sometimes I drag my ancient Bogen with me because it’s taller and more robust, but if I’m hiking I take the little Slik. For some helpful ideas on buying a tripod, check out Marko’s latest podcast on Photography.ca.
Second stay out of the direct sun. Get up before it does or go on an overcast day. Chance the rain. It’s the only way to get light that is even enough to keep you from blowing the highlights while keeping detail in the darker areas. There’s enough dynamic range in fast flowing water as it is, don’t make it worse by going in bright sun. Yes, recently I caught some sunlight in a waterfall, but it was early sun and angled very low to the ground so it worked. Overhead sunlight is a real pain, so avoid if you can. I walk away from waterfalls on a hike if it’s sunny; I know the results will be crap, so I don’t even bother.
Third use filters – a polarizer at least and a neutral density filter if you have one. A polarizer filter helps to cut the glare and reflections on the water, but also on vegetation which really makes the colors pop (especially useful if the leaves are wet, which brings up the color, but also reflections). A neutral density filter is like sunglasses for your camera. It cuts the available light and allows for longer shutter speeds which is exactly what you need to give the water that smooth, silky look. They come in different densities that reduce the exposure by a set number of stops. I think I’ve got a 4 or 5 stop. Combined with a polarizer it gets me good results. A polarizer will generally cut 1-1 1/2 stops by itself.
Now, a lot of people think you need a long time, say 30 seconds or even more for shots like this, but I don’t go nearly that long. I stay anywhere from 1 to 5 seconds generally at ISOs 100 and 200. Here’s one from yesterday that’s 1.3 seconds at f10.
The big secret is to expose for the highlights! It is REALLY easy to blow the whites in a waterfall. That and the wrong white balance are my biggest pet peeves because both are easily avoided. Watch your histogram or the high/low blinkies in your LCD screen…a little clipping is manageable, but a huge area is not. Don’t worry that the rest of the shot is dark, you can correct for that in post processing. Use spot metering if you have it and put it on the white water.
Another reason I don’t use very long exposure times is that I like being able to see the bottom of the stream and that often floating bubbles and debris will leave long trails in the photo as they pass by. This shot was only 1.6 seconds at f9 and I love that you can see the rocks in the stream bed. If I’d let it go longer, there’d be more distracting streaks.
As it is you get a sense of motion and of stillness. I twisted the polarizer to full on to cut the glare on the leaves and bring up the richness of the green. Ditto for the reflection of the sky in the water – it’s gone!
If you do blow more highlights than you intended, don’t worry too much. You can use the adjustment brush in Lightroom (or similarly robust editing package) to correct those areas and bring the exposure down. Providing you have some detail left and didn’t clip the water entirely, this can work and help give a more even exposure appearance. I did that with this next shot because try as I might I just couldn’t get it right since the sun was almost overhead.
Just like I described in Black and White Photography 201, I used it here to bring down the exposure just a little. For most of my work I turn the auto mask on so that it doesn’t leak the adjustment area out of the highlighted pass I make with the mouse. Use an appropriate brush size (I always make mine a little on the large side) with a good amount of feather zone, flow and density. It took me a lot of practice (do-overs) to get a feel for the tool, but now I use it a lot to manage the light and dark areas of my images.
Lastly, try to match your white balance to the scene. If you go on an overcast day choose the cloudy or shade setting, they usually match pretty close (or a custom white balance if you’re feeling super techy) . I’ve found that leaving it on auto often renders things much too cool and makes the water blue. I hate that. Sorry if you like it, that’s just me. I’m kind of a realist when it comes to my nature photography and unless the water really was blue, it shouldn’t look like that in a picture. Fix it in post if you don’t get it right in the camera.
Here’s a quick summary –
- Use a tripod
- No direct sun
- Use filters – polarizer and/or neutral density
- Expose for the highlights (spot metering helps)
- Use the adjustment brush or similar tool in post processing
- Use an appropriate white balance (no blue water!)
So that’s it. After a while it becomes second nature, but at first you’ll probably have to practice a bit. Believe me, my first waterfall pictures are AWFUL. I like to think I’ve improved. At least a little.
A while back I said I’d report on my progress from time to time. It’s part of my attempt to be more aware of the state of my photography and where I want to take it. Now if I can only remember what they were. Oh right, here they are –
1. Improve composition; read a book or two, podcasts, tutorials, essays etc.
2. Strive for more distinctive images
3. Maintain post-processing workflow discipline
Hm. Will you look at that.
Yes I have read a few articles that deal with composition, but I haven’t done anything really serious about it. No books have been bought. Mostly because I’m still not working full time and what with the internet being free and all… But I am on the trail of a full time job and when that lands (positive thinking all around!) I will buy a book or two. That being said, I have been more conscious of the rules of composition when I’m out in the field. Hardly ever in the past did I deliberately think about composition in my head. It’s always been very gut-level for me. I walk around, frame, pace, line up, but never do I recite mantras to myself. Now I sort of do. One I keep in mind is relationships…creating relationships between objects in my image. Here’s one –
In this one I deliberately set opposing geometries together. Vertical aspect, horizontal wall in foreground, vertical trees in background, that first horizontal row of nearly square headstones, going from short to tall, the tall monument on the left reinforcing the vertical nature of the shot. All sort of clashes, but also flows really well. I did it deliberately. Oh sure I tried other compositions, but none worked so well. I even left out the rather terrific gate because it broke up the flow too drastically. It blocked the flow. Out it went.
On to the next one. Have I striven for distinctive images? Yes and no. In my mind, this means shooting a more typical view in a different way. Lately I haven’t been presented with much that’s typical so my images remain my own take on the world I see. The only one that approaches anything near this is this shot of Mt. Monadnock –
No, it isn’t that great a photograph. The view to the mountain was difficult and narrow. I had to climb on the top of an escarpment to get clear of the trees in the immediate foreground. The lighting wasn’t particularly helpful either, so I decided to try to make the mountain look small by using a lot of sky. If they sky hadn’t been interesting, I wouldn’t have, but I think as a snapshot, this works. Are there other shots of mountains taken this way, I’m sure there are, but most people wouldn’t even try I don’t think. Maybe I’m foolish to have, but I think even a snapshotty image adds to the impression of a place.
And how is my post-processing work-flow these days? Pretty good actually. Using specific folders, tags, labels, ratings and keywords has made it much easier to find stuff even though I haven’t shot much yet. So far, so good.
So there you have it. An update. Crossing my fingers that the weather cooperates for one last major winter shoot this weekend. I’ll be trying to manage #1 and 2 more fully and hopefully #3 will be habit by now and will fall into place automatically.
How are a landscape photographer and a vampire alike?
Neither goes outside at noon.
Seriously, it makes you wonder doesn’t it? Blood-sucking fiend and Fun-sucking fiend, both taking the joy right out of life.
I recently stopped following a landscape photographer’s blog because he just kept going on and on about only shooting at the crack of dawn. You know what? It’s pompous. It makes me wonder if the guy is really any good. Why can’t he get a terrific photo during the day, huh? Why cantcha snooty landscape photographer guy? You know what else? It’s boring. Every single photo looks the same as every single other photo. Lots of pastel-colored snow scenes with blue shadows and a few fences, trees and churches. Nice, but dull. Technically well-executed, but a yawn fest. I mean, if that’s all you do it’s pretty repetitive. Plus you have to stay inside all day and where’s the fun in that?
Don’t misunderstand, I get the appeal of shooting when the sun is low, but I don’t get the strictness about it. It’s almost like religious dogma with some photographers. I mean, hell, I’m out all day sometimes, does that mean I shouldn’t take pictures? Baloney.
I. Don’t. Buy. It.
I took that shot at about midday last spring. No, it isn’t subtle and all soft and glowing with pastel shades, but it’s still a good photograph. Sometimes photography means working with the light you have. It’s knowing how that can help you make the most of what you find. Using this same shot as an example, what did I do that helped? I used a polarizing filter. Knowing that color would be one of the things to make the shot work, I made sure I had the best of it in that reflection.
Ever hear the expression “perfect is the enemy of good”? Well, that’s how I think of these other golden hour only photographers. They sacrifice good images on the altar of perfect (or their ideas of perfect) and who knows if they ever please themselves. Yes, there is such a thing as perfect light, but it varies by subject matter and what kind of photograph you want. I’d rather be flexible than rigid. I’d rather know how to deal with “imperfect” light than only venture out twice a day. With the vampires.
So what else. Oh yeah, how about vacation. For most of us it means going to a place we probably won’t go back to again. Once in a lifetime kind of thing. You have to work with what you find. What if the sky doesn’t have nice, puffy clouds in it like that first photo? What if the sky is boring and dull? Well put something in it –
Or find something in the foreground to take its place –
Another one shot when the sun is high and guess what? It doesn’t suck. Who wants to drag their asses out of bed at dawn on vacation every day? Not this little gray duck. Once, maybe twice, but not every day. Hell. It’s vacation.
All right, what if the light itself is flat and dull? Isolate. Get out your telephoto, baby. Sometimes tightening up on big vistas can give you little slices that are just as interesting.
Another thing you can do is scout your location beforehand. This can present you with ideas you can use when the light changes. Take this example –
I shot this on my 2nd or 3rd trip to this location. From past visits I knew how the light would track in the afternoon and because I’d seen it in the trees before, I knew that it would also light up the ice in the gorge. Ta da! It worked. And it’s what makes this photo. Not the subject – the LIGHT. And it’s not sundown either. By the time the sun sinks that low up there, the light is gone from this gorge. Mr. Snooty Landscape Photographer would have missed this completely.
See…you don’t need to only photograph during the golden hours (roughly ½ hour before and after the sun rises or sets, also called civil twilight), but if you know how to manage the light you have, you can usually come up with something you’ll be happy with. After a little practice you can make almost any scene work for you. Good light is what you make of it. Of course, getting there early is never a bad idea –
The other day someone asked what made a good black and white photograph. He went on to say that he only uses black and white processing when he’s trying to achieve an old photo look, but noticed when someone converted one of his color images to black and white it looked better because the distracting color of an object was eliminated. While both might be good reasons for sometimes converting to monochrome, I find the approach puzzling. Why use monochrome to “save” a picture only? Or to fake a vintage look? Then I thought about it a little more and wondered if this kind of thing happens because people new to photography have never shot film. My initial conclusion was borne out in a limited way by conversations I had with two photography buddies. One has a good eye and often produces excellent images, but only has digital camera experience where every image starts in color. My other friend on the other hand shot a lot of Tri-X in the past and we agreed that if you do this enough, you can get a feel for the gray value of color.
But it’s not the grays that make a monochrome image sing – it’s the blacks and whites. You’ve got to have both extremes to make it work. Even if you clip a little in the highs and lows, it’s better than having a dull, lifeless image swimming in gray. Depending on the mood you want to strike, lots of contrast can work to make an image sing as well. Don’t get carried away, but don’t be afraid to play with those sliders.
You can’t do all your work in post processing though. You’ve got to put the camera to your eye and envision things in black and white. Because there will be no color to catch or lead the eye, you must be especially careful about compositional elements and the forms and structures you’re photographing. A black and white image has to be even stronger in composition and framing than a color photograph. If it’s weak in color, it will be doubly so in monochrome. Remember that the eye instinctively looks towards white and light shades first. We also react very well to strong shapes defined by dark and light areas.
One exercise that may help you is to set your camera to record black and white jpegs. You can have it give you raw files, too, if you want color renditions. But if you really want to figure out what works and what doesn’t in black and white, set your camera to monochrome (most DSLRs and many high-end compacts have this mode, you just need to find it). You will still see in color through the viewfinder, but live view will be in black and white. Look at the differences. How differently does your eye follow through the image in color versus B&W? Are your forms strong enough? Can your subject be recognized (identified) without color? Are the gray values of the colors too close and without definition? Are you working with strong leading lines? Do you see pure white and black? It shouldn’t take you long to get the hang of it.
Once you’ve got your images on your computer, process them in the normal way, adding contrast, sharpness and cropping if needed. You can further enhance your images with white balance, color sliders in B&W mode and curves. If you can add grain, play with it. Tri-X film had some beautiful grain back before they changed it to T-Max and we loved using that as part of the mood of our images.
Oh and one more thing – don’t be afraid to take chances with black and white. Go for the unconventional. Do a black and white rainbow picture. Try a sunset in black and white. How about a flower? The beach? If your subject is strong in terms of form and you’ve nailed the composition, there’s almost no reason a B&W image can’t be as strong as a color image. Identify what’s interesting your subject – is it shape? Texture? Light and shadow? Framing? Mood? Use black and white to enhance those things that might be overwhelmed by color.
Here are a few more images that I think work particularly well in B&W. All were shot in color since I work from raw files, but each was done with a final B&W image in mind. Some were done this way because there was little color in the scene, some because the forms, lines, shapes or shadows made me go hey – I don’t need color for this one. They are all from my Black and White Gallery.
So to recap –
1. Set your camera to monochrome jpeg mode
2. Use live view to ‘see’ in black and white
3. Check for strong compositions and recognizable subjects
4. Make sure you have pure white and black in your picture
5. Take chances and have fun
Check out Black and White Photography 201
Well not really, but on a photography board someone asked if aliens stole your gear (all of it) and somehow digital photography was rendered out of existence or banned or whatever (no cell phone cameras either), would you shoot film or would you give up photography? If you decided to shoot film, would you go back to your old gear (assuming you had any) or would you try something new.
My immediate answer was yes – I would shoot film. I did for 20 years and sometimes even now have the urge to go back to it, so I’m definitely a photographer at heart. So would I choose my old gear again? Probably. I think the ergos of other brands would do my head in.
My first “serious” camera was an OM1-n that I bought used together with an OM 135mm f2.8 lens. I already had an OM 24mm f2.8 that I bought new as well as a couple other lenses and an OM-G. Oh and a Sunpak flash –
A couple decades later just about I bought an OM-3 and a 35mm f2 lens because I’ve always wanted them. The winder I had back in the 80s, too, but I don’t know why. Just to have it I suspect. It made the camera a bit more convenient to hold sometimes, and balanced it with a long lens, but sort of defeated the purpose of the slim, compactness of the OM bodies.
Yeah, I’d probably go back to my old gear. But I could be tempted by some of its contemporaries. Back when I was choosing which brand have a long-term relationship with, I had a fling with the FA. I mean look at it. Isn’t it purty? It’s no Olympus, which to me are the most beautiful cameras from that era, but it is one serious looking piece of kit.
And much like the OM-3 it was a very advanced camera in terms of flash control, metering and shutter technology. It was also quirky like the OM-3 which eats batteries like crazy. The FA had some shutter problems and there were some recalls, but overall it was a tempting thing. I’d still kind of like to have one. Just to have it. I used to play with the one in the store I worked at just to hear the shutter fire. I do the same thing with my OM-3 now. Digital SLR shutters just don’t have the same sound. Or a film lever which is a tactile pleasure that has no equivalent in digital.
And how about this sweet baby?
Oh how I wanted one. But I found that Olympus made a world-class macro lens, too, and like 15 years later, I bought one –
I’d also be tempted by medium format, but as I don’t have a good enough scanner for those sized negatives, I’d probably just stick with 35mm film. Even now I’m tempted by the idea of processing my own B&W film again. All you need is a black bag, some chemicals and a developing tank…all stuff I used to have, but that got lost along the way. The need for instantaneous feedback could still be approached with doing the film myself and I could still use my old favorites the OM-3 and OM-1n. Plus there’s that chemical smell.
Yes, photography was a little more involved back then. A little more work. But I think that had its advantages. Shooting film was expensive and limiting. If you only had a couple rolls of 24 or 36 frames on you, you had to be discriminating in what you shot. Back then I took more care with each of my images, walking around and around getting the feel for the area or subject, then choosing a shooting position. After that, meticulously framing, composing and deciding on exposure. Now I find myself more carelessly shooting, taking 100 images in my front yard just because I can. Even though I have tried to be a more methodical photographer, the digital medium just makes things so easy and disposable. If you don’t like it, delete it. Don’t like that angle or depth of field, just take another shot. With film there were no do-overs. What you shot was what you shot and if you didn’t like it you’d have to burn another frame.
Film also has its downside; it’s confining. Digital has freed me. Freed me to experiment. To take chances. Lots of images means lots of ways to learn what works and what doesn’t. I’m not tied to a single film speed per camera. I’m not tied to a 36-frame roll. I’m not tied to the time of day. I don’t have to wait to see my images. Memory cards are way more reliable than film which could jam or not thread right if you weren’t paying attention. I don’t have to write down exposure settings for each image anymore to understand what I did right or wrong. I instantly know what my images look like and how I can improve them. I can take hundreds of photos and not spend another dime to see them (aside from my initial investments of computer, software and hard drive).
I guess it’s up to me to find the balance between the discipline of film and the freedom of digital.
So what would you do if aliens stole your gear and outlawed digital photography? Jump into the film pool or take up basket weaving instead?
For 2010 I had a few specific goals in mind for my photography. Here they are –
1. Be more methodical and deliberate; be a more thoughtful photographer
2. Organize digital files better
3. Purge digital files
1 – partial win. I did envision specific photographs ahead of time and go into the field to produce them. This kept me focused and less distracted. I didn’t do this with every shoot though and often went into the field without a plan so only a partial win here. Overall I think my planned sessions went better than my unplanned. Scouting is something I’d never done before, but I found it invaluable. The ability to visualize a certain image that you’ll need to come back for is the germ of a good plan. Becoming familiar with a location leads to ideas and, hopefully, mastery of your shoot. This is not to say I’ve abandoned spontaneity, a couple of my best shots were completely off the cuff. I only mean to say that not every photo can be done this way and I needed to incorporate a more deliberate approach to my usual from-the-hip style.
2 – partial win. I should have looked at more Lightroom tutorials before using it. As the year went along I found myself stymied and frustrated by my lack of organization. Some things I did right, like keywording and using a semi-organized folder structure, but it wasn’t enough. For 2011 I have improved my workflow in some key areas and hopefully will have a more productive year post-processing-wise.
3 – fail. I got a 2 TB drive so who needs to purge?
So what’s up for this year?
1. Improve composition; read a book or two, podcasts, tutorials, essays etc.
2. Strive for more distinctive images
3. Maintain post-processing workflow discipline
Number one is a next step in my more deliberate photographer goal which is still in place. I frame and compose by instinct; basically do I like it, does it work for me – that kind of thing. While this works sometimes, it can be sloppy and inconsistent. I need to be more mindful of the artistic and technical elements that go into a successful composition. When I get my eye to the viewfinder the rules don’t even cross my mind and they should at least some of the time. I also had a better habit when I shot film – I walked around the subject a lot. I moved. I changed angles and locations. For some reason, I’ve gotten lazy and I really need to step out of my own restraints.
Number two is part of honing my personal style. Over the years I’ve taken some pretty clichéd images. I’d like to make a more concerted effort toward originality. Part of this may include post-processing, but I’m not sure. I tend to process each image as an individual, not pursuant to a constant style. I think this works to bring out the special qualities of each image, but may not do much in terms of creating an identifiable style.
Number three is about good habits and taking a little time at the beginning to save a lot of time after the fact. I think I’ve got a good workflow/organizational method worked out and I just need to stick to it.
Well that’s it. I hope that I can keep these goals in mind over the next year and have at least some more partial wins.
This blog will hopefully be part of the equation. I plan to incorporate more posts about how I’m doing relative to each of these goals. I don’t know if that’s something other people want to read about, but it’s something that will help me keep focused on them, so that’s what you’re gonna get.