Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Unpredictability of Photography, and Why Flexibility is Good...

Wildfire - Bishop, CA
When you talk to any serious photographer, amateur or pro, you will inevitably hear the old adage: "When the perfect photo presents itself, you must be ready to take the shot".  What this is actually saying is that, despite all your efforts to control a scene and construct the perfect photo, outside influences will often work against you, thus the perfect photo cannot be engineered, but rather happens naturally and usually in an instant. The only subset of photography that is immune to this is studio photography.  Elements such as weather, lighting, wind, motion within the frame, etc. all work against us every time we venture out. Pro Photographers use things like light disks, multiple strobes, and color lens filters to bring some control to lighting, but for the most part, these are crutches and often times require assistants and expensive ancillary gear. As a landscape/architectural photographer, my goal is to control what I can. I have ultimate control over perspective, composition, and timing. What I see in my mind. and not necessarily through the lens. is ultimately what I want printed.

Garden Crossing - Boston Public Garden, MA
On Composition:
I pay close attention to foreground (does it add or detract from the primary subject). Since I shoot for artistic reasons, I am not bound by the edict not to alter a scene to meet my vision as journalistic photographers are. Take the time to move trash, position a rock, wait for your scene to clear of cars or people, or whatever. I hate it when a parked car is in a scene containing an ancient structure because it destroys the timelessness of the composition. If I am not able to wait or relocate, I will remove the offending piece in post processing (remember that artistic intent isn't bound by rigid rules). As far as background is concerned in my composition, many times the sky IS my background interest. I find that a bright, sunny, and cloudless day is the worst time to venture out. It makes a boring and uninteresting backdrop. Fluffy, billowy clouds with sun breaking through is the best for color prints and full overcast with highly contrasting dramatic clouds are the best for black and white.

On Perspective:
Navy Pier - Chicago, IL
Always remember that when your lens is tilted up, lines will converge inward toward the top. This feels natural to the viewer since 90% of the photos of buildings have this perspective. The reverse of this is not so natural. Photographing from a tall building downward gives the structures an outward leaning bias. I had this issue when in Chicago shooting from atop the John Hancock Tower and the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel. Thankfully there is an option to purchasing an expensive tilt-shift lens. I use Photoshop CS5s Transform Perspective utility found under the Transform tool. This has been around since early versions of Photoshop so even if you have an older copy, check it out. I use it on all my architecture photographs to ensure a more natural appearance. Also, keep in mind that subject distortion and artifacts such as barrel and pincushion distortion can be an issue when using both wide-angle and telephoto lenses in their extreme settings. If possible, use prime lenses or shoot between 55mm and 90mm. Again, Photoshop has a filter that can aid in removing this defect if it is excessive.

On Timing:
Day's End - Huntington Beach, CA
Try and think about all the great color photos you have seen in galleries. They all have the common trait of having been photographed around sunrise or sunset. These are known as the Golden Hours, and for a good reason. The light is usually golden in color, the scenery has better contrast and appears more dramatic, and if you shoot exclusively at this time, a greater number of your prints will earn you gold! That being said, it is difficult achieving this on a regular basis. Most grand vistas are in remote, out of the way places that will mean lodging locally or driving for hours through unfamiliar lands in pitch dark. On a trip to Iceland this past January, we drove 5 hours one morning to reach the Vatnaj√∂kull Glacier Bay in order to catch the color of the sunrise through the beach ice. 

Eastern Sierras - Bishop, CA
This brings me to the reason for my posting along this topic. Yesterday we drove three hours to get to a location that was supposed to have the best wildflower blooms anywhere in a 300 mile radius.  The photos posted online from the day before showed thick carpets of golden poppies in an idyllic mountainside backdrop. Well, just remember, you can control many things, but some things are left to chance. As it tuned out, a short rain and cooler temperatures overnight caused all the poppies to close up for protection. It was a disappointing turn of chance but we chose to move on quickly to find other locations that might have different types of wildflowers. In the end, we didn't get any quality pictures of flowers, but I did walk away with some dramatic mountainside vistas and I had a nice day out hiking with my wife and two dogs. In the end, to be able to stick with photography long enough to become successful, it is important to have fun and roll with the occasional let downs. After all, great photographs are simply a bonus from having had really great adventures and seeing some amazing things.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Spring Wildflowers in the Desert - Take 2

Tomorrow kicks off our second annual pilgrimage to the desert region of Southern California. I learned a lot last year, mostly what not to do. I have never really fancied myself a landscape photographer. Macros of blooming flowers and fields of California poppies leave me feeling a bit flat. Maybe it's because it would be unconscionable to make them into Black and White prints. Knowing this heading out the door makes me feel limited in my options. That being said, it is one of my wife Lisa's passions and I wouldn't miss it for the world.
So, what to do differently... After returning last year and processing my photos, I noticed a definite lack of attention to the fundamentals. Everything from poor aperture control to any lack of foreground interest.

This year I have done my homework. I will be shooting using aperture priority (incidentally one of my favorite settings, if you haven't been paying attention). I will bring a tripod so I can mount my camera low and shoot across the tops of the floral clusters, and I will dedicate at least a third of the frame to capturing sky. We are just coming off of a rainy spell so I have my fingers crossed for some great billowy clouds. The magic settings will be f-9 with a manual focus set at 2m (this should give me focus from 0.5m to infinity). I also plan on bringing my laptop so I can process mid-shoot and make any technical adjustments. Check back tomorrow to see where we went and how we did.

Always be prepared to take the shot...

Night Descends on Chicago

When faced with a situation where you have the perfect photograph developing and you don't have your "good" camera, use what you have available. Being a guy, I don't have the luxury of a bag always on my shoulder. When I know I am going to be on the go or in a social setting that might prohibit carrying my pro camera, I use a smaller point-and-shoot (currently a Canon PowerShot S95). At times I don't even have that luxury. Sometimes a viable solution is the camera on your phone. You might be surprised by the result!
While at a conference in Chicago, I found myself atop the John Hancock Tower in a lounge. the sun was low on the horizon and the combination of light angle and cloud cover created a scene that I knew would be rich with tones. I had a Canon EOS 7D that I thought would serve me well for this venue. Sadly, the 7D's cropped sensor and the lack of a true wide-angled lens made reproducing what I was seeing impossible. I did take a series of images to stitch in Photoshop later but I wanted to get the image now. A friend told me of an iPhone App called Pano that could be used to create a panoramic image real-time.  Not having much faith in the iPhone camera and a $2 App, I nonetheless proceeded to get the shot. What happened next was magic! The photo above is the result of that shot. I am still in shock that, at least for this situation, a simple iPhone 4 camera and some creative software could kick the pants off of a Canon EOS 7D with a Canon EF 28-135 IS Lens.
This goes to show that when all the elements align and a perfect Photograph presents itself, you have to be ready to move quickly with whatever you have at hand. You never know, that quick snap of the cell phone shutter might just produce a portfolio worthy print.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

When is a photograph Art? (...on Latitude)

Ever since I picked up a camera and started producing prints in a darkroom, this question has plagued me.

This is the first article in a
series whereby I attempt to relate what photography and art mean to me. I wish to begin by looking at black and white prints and why the exact same subject can relate two different feelings, and tell two different stories.

My background and passion for photography has its foundation in shades of gray. Having been a Radiographer for the past 23 years, obtaining the right exposure and displaying just the proper scale of gray was essential in making critical diagnosis and saving lives. In medical imaging, the difference in seeing a bone fracture or the tiniest tumor came down to latitude. Latitude in gray scale is defined at the amount of discrete shades that exist between pure black and pure white.

The same can be said for producing the perfect black and white print. Some photographs demand to have a wide latitude, meaning that even the tiniest differences in shades must be reproduced to tell the full story. Other compositions or subjects have to be portrayed with relatively narrow latitude. The contrasty, harsh light and grainy photos speak to me on a different level. The key to telling your story is understand what you want to say, then to shoot in the right light to achieve the proper latitude.

I have discarded many quality pictures because they did not tell the story I wanted to tell. An example of this can be seen in my portfolio under Architecture/Structures. Taken in Chicago, I have two photos of the historic Wrigley Building. I included both because, while one was technically superior in terms of composition, the other tells the story I wanted to share. I felt that this old-world structure needed to be shot at night with the city lights reflecting off the dense, low hanging clouds.

This brings me back to the question of the article: When is a photograph Art? All art is subjective in nature, and not all art has to have universal appeal. When you create a print that grabs the attention of the majority of those who view it, your target audience, you come as close to creating art as any master painter or sculptor hopes to. The key is not to create postcards of interesting places that compete with every other picture of that same place, but to tell a story in a single image. To me, black and white photography is the best medium to narrate with. My portfolio includes many more color pictures than it does black and white, for the simple reason that people LOVE color. Color sells, plain and simple. I am never as happy, nor do I feel like I have done my story justice, until I take those beautiful colors and discard them for the sake of my narrative.

Never be afraid to tell your story. Even if it doesn't have universal appeal, it is your masterpiece.To me, this is Art.