photographs that stir your soul

Posts from the ‘General’ category

I recently had an experience that reminded me when you see an opportunity you must take action. Don’t wait. Don’t think “I can come back and do it later”, even if later is a few minutes.

I was driving to the store to get some fresh food items we needed. It was late afternoon, about an hour before the winter afternoon sunset. I passed a field where there were some horses grazing. The light was beautiful and the horses well-placed to take some shots. As I drove by I thought “I will be back in a few minutes, the light will be even better and I can take some shots. I will only be there for 5 minutes or so.” I continued on to do the shopping. The shopping took a lot longer. I ended up taking about 20 minutes due to having to wait to pay. 

When I got back to the location, the light was good, but the horses were GONE. I had missed my opportunity. 

We have all done this. We see an opportunity, but we are focused on something else we are doing or about to do and we think we can come back or do it later. There is an expression “you can never go back”. It is often used in the context of you cannot go back to a place and expect it to be the same as you remember from many years ago. It applies to every moment and opportunity we have. When you encounter a scene that you recognize as “this is a good opportunity” take action. If it is taking a photograph, take the shot. If it is something else, take the action that allows you to get the outcome you expect or want. That particular confluence of events, timing. light. people, objects, whatever creates the moment will not occur again. Not the way it is at that moment.

I watched a VLOG earlier today and the presenter recommended going out on excursions just to see and experience the light. He expressly stated that you should leave your camera at home. While I understand the intent of this advice, I strongly disagree. If you are going out and there is likely to be an opportunity to get a great shot, you want to be ready to act. 

I have many shots that I got mostly because I was ready and could act when the moment presented itself. I also have lost many opportunities because I failed to act when the opportunity was there.  

Be ready, and act when the chance is presented. 

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While listening to several Podcasts recently I have noticed some common threads. The first is that photography is becoming about the experience of getting a shot, not the final outcome. What people are craving is not to see and potentially purchase a print of some amazing shot you took, but hearing and ideally seeing a video record of what it took to get the shot. The assumption here being that you had to go to a specific place that presented some challenges either in getting there, needing very specific weather conditions, specific time of the day or time of year, or some combination of these. One example I ran into was a 15 minute YouTube video following a landscape photographer on a multi-day hike in a remote region with examples of still shots taken along the way. The bulk of the material was about the hike with momentary flashes of the actual photographs. There was no dialogue, just the sounds of walking and other natural sounds present in the environment. While this was interesting to watch for a few minutes, it provided me with little value. I did not learn anything new. I saw some interesting places I am unlikely to ever visit, but gained no real value from it personally. 

Returning to the various conversations I listened to, it became clear that this example and hundreds of other similar videos, some with more narrative, is driving more people to want that same experience, going on the hike and maybe taking some decent shots along the way. I am sure this is a reflection of my age, my generation, my values and what I seek to get from taking photographs, but I cannot accept that the experience is that valuable or achievable for most people. 

In one of the podcasts a statement was made that only a small number of people may ever be interested in owning a print you made, but thousands want the experience it took to take the picture. This is apparently the trend in present culture. It reminds me about what I think of as the “Instagram effect”. Thousands of (mindless) folks flocking to some place to be able to take a “me too” shot of the location or scene. Applying some built in filters and instantly they have their own personal masterpiece. Really! Why on earth would you do that, and in the process more than likely cause untold, irreparable damage to the location, especially if it is somewhere in a protected natural area?

The other part of this conversation is the assumption that everybody will consume this material that inspires them to want this experience, on their phones. Again – Really! How can you possibly appreciate the grandeur and splendor of some powerful scene on a screen that is 3 inches by 5 inches. Would the images Ansel Adams took with his view camera and printed as large prints ever have gained the fame and admiration if people saw them on a phone screen? I venture to say NOT! Being able to stand in front of such a print and see the detail, the nuance and care that went into creating that image is unique to that experience. One I do not see anybody having while viewing tiny images on a phone screen. 

In the swipe-through-images culture we have you are lucky if one picture gets more than a few seconds of attention. What can you remember of any image, no matter how amazing if you swipe through several hundred in a few minutes? Where is the personal enrichment and value of seeing a great image – a work of art? 

My hope is this is a current fad and one that will pass. 

There is some evidence that there is at least a portion of photographers and photo “consumers” that hanker for a physical rendering of images. 

The emergence and reasonable success of the Fujifilm Instax Mini Instant Film and Instant Mini Camera harkens back to Polaroid Cameras and instant prints, and says there is a need that is being fulfilled by this product. Another data point is the growth in published books, especially self-published books. While getting specific numbers is challenging, what I have been able to determine is that self-publishing of books (not just photo books) has been increasing at +/- 40% per annum for the past 2 to 4 years. 

An anecdote I heard just today was from a photographer that self-published a book in print and E-book format simultaneously on Amazon. After about 3 months of sales he is seeing a consistent ratio of E-book to Print book of 35 to 65, i.e. 65% of the book sales are PRINT.  

The service that is growing is the printing photo-annuals for families.  These services will collect images from your social media feeds and phones and print a book of all your (family) photos for that year in chronological order. 

When it comes to images there is much more value, satisfaction and pleasure from having a book to hold and see high quality prints of the images. When it comes to photo books specifically, the longevity of the Charcoal Book Club suggests that there is a sufficient audience that is paying for new works (books and prints). The annual fee to join the club is $696  for a new  singed book and one new print every month.

Go forth and print your work, or have it printed for you. Put them on your walls. Give prints to friends and family to enjoy. Find a gallery to exhibit your work. You will gain so much more from the physical prints you can hold and return to over time. 

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Over the past decade, with the focus on social media and doing everything on our phones, printing photographs has diminished significantly. This is unfortunate in my view. 

When was the last time you made a print of one of your great images, or had one made? When last did you visit a gallery or photography museum to enjoy high quality prints of photographs? Currently going to galleries is more challenging, but we need to support them so they can survive and be here as we recover from the pandemic. They are an important part of photography. Another option is to get good photography books by top photographers. One of my treasures is Ansel Adams Images 1923-1974.

Seeing well-made prints of good images has a special meaning and beauty. It can evoke strong emotions when done well. Using well chosen papers or other print surfaces, as well as careful framing, mounting and display, the full impact of an image can be realized. Seeing a great image on a tiny phone screen for a few seconds misses so much of the potential of that image. We, and all the people that see our work, are missing out on the full experience of the work using phones, tablets or laptops to view the photographs.

It has been years since I made digital prints and more than 2 decades since I made prints in a darkroom. In December of last year I decided that printing my best photographs would help me improve and potentially create a different path for my work to be displayed and hence seen. 

Making, mounting and displaying an archival quality fine art print is a not trivial task, but well worth the effort. My knowledge was rusty, but there is a plethora of articles, Youtube videos and blog postings that helped me get back up to speed on current printers, papers and tooling. The first big decision was selecting a printer. After many hours of research, reading reviews and watching various video reviews and instructional sessions I selected the Canon P-1000 Color Printer that can print on up to 19-inch wide paper or print media. While I waited to get the printer to come I selected some paper to try out. I ended up getting several packs of fine art variety packs of Hahnemuehle paper. I also downloaded all the ICC profiles for all the paper finishes so that the color profiles could be adjusted correctly for the particular paper. If you are just printing Black and White the ICC profiles are not needed.

I was not disappointed with any of these choices and have selected a subset of papers after trying out a whole raft of them. I picked 4 papers, a Smooth Matte finish Matte FineArt), a heavily textured fine art paper (William Turner), a Glossy Byarta (Glossy FineArt) and their Metallic Paper. The Metallic is very interesting. It has a silver finish and is very reflective, but appropriate prints on this paper look stunning. The William Turner, creates beautiful prints, again for the right subject. Some folks may prefer the Museum Etching paper which is excellent as well. 

Having the printing part set up leaves the matting and framing process to learn and get in place. I am working on that, but do not yet have all the pieces to start practicing and fine-tuning how to do it properly. That will be in a future posting.

Doing all this, together with being restricted from serious travel, has inspired me to put together a new and very different body of work. I have just started taking the photographs and will share the results soon. The good news for us all is the constraints of our current situation can also be the spark to do something different than we usually do expanding our skills and horizons.

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I am sure you have seen this statement before.  You should be photographing with intent. It often is accompanied by a discussion on pre-visualization. Selecting a place you want to photograph, a specific location and then forming a mental image of what you want to create.  This is often associated with black and white images which further requires focus on the light .  Not to say that the light is more or less important in black and white versus color photography. The light needed for the pre-visualization is however important.

Personally I find this very difficult to do, and I suspect many others do as well.  I do not think this makes you less artistic or less of a photographer.  It just means you get there differently. As I have matured as a photographer I have been able to go out and shoot with intent, but not in the manner it is most often described.  My approach is different and I have heard others mention approaches they have that echo my method.

I will select a location broadly.  For the past year, with the lockdowns in place, it has mostly been green belt areas or parks near where I live.  I select one lens for the outing.  This is a restriction, but also simplifies the shooting by removing a decision — what lens to use for this subject. 

I went on such a walk this past week.  It was a sunny day, late afternoon with the sun nearing the horizon.  I picked my 12-24mm Zoom lens for the outing. My initial path was directly into the sun.  I decided that I would focus on the trees that had mostly lost all their leaves at this point allowing me to concentrate on the shapes of the trunks and branches.  I also decided I want to take shots that will be good candidates for black and white images and prints later. Using the stark outlines against a plain sky to create images that speak to me of the remains of a year and the resting of  the trees before they will again burst with life in spring.

Once those choices were made I could scan the woods, consider each tree that was isolated enough to be a candidate and then consider the shape and amount of overlap with nearby trees.  I found several trees that I could isolate sufficiently. I took multiple shots of each varying the exposures as I was often shooting straight into the sun, or the bright edges coming around the tree trunks and branches.  At some point I was at the end of the outward bound stretch and could now head back.

Standing up to the coming cold. #tree #fall #blackandwhite #silhouette
Standing up to the coming cold

Now I had a new set of opportunities.  The sun was at my back.  The light was streaming onto the same trees, but now, many with almost pure white trunks and branches appeared to glow in the late day sun.  Now I had a completely different perspective, but still excellent candidates for black and white images, I slowly made my way back picking out trees and taking multiple shots of each, varying angles and approaches. 

Ready for Winter. Bare tree in last light of day. #tree #fall #blackandwhite
Ready for Winter

Once I was back home I set about the processing.  After selecting the images I thought had worked, told a story to me and were visually solid I went through he next step of creating what I intended, black and white images of the trees.  I take a lot of liberty when doing such processing to bring my full intent to the final images. When processing the stark white trees I chose to drag the blue slider to make the sky black or nearly black.  Other fine tuning of the black and white controls brought the focus to the stark shapes of the trees. With the silhouette images I had taken first I did the opposite to make the sky white or nearly white, making the black shapes of the trees stand out. 

For me shooting with intent is a processes of discovery once I have created some constraints for myself on a subject.  Letting my imagination and senses make the most of the intentional limits I placed on myself.

This process works for me. If you have not found a way to help you drive creativity and new images, give this a try.  Create some constraints on yourself for a shoot — it can be the equipment, the camera settings, the location, the subject, the time of day, or some combination of them. You too may find this liberating once you let yourself discover what is to be found in the world you just created for yourself.  

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In my previous post (Going on a photo trip) I mentioned the idea that you must really SEE what is around you when you go out on a shoot.  This is much harder than you may think. It turns out that our ability to “SEE” what is around us is actually very limited, and we only are able to see a very small area clearly and focus on ONE thing at a time.  This CNN report that gives a little more background. (You need to read past the intro because it is promoting a new TV show about how the brain works, but keep reading, there is good information in there).

If you are going to a place you have been to before, SEEING is even harder because your brain already has a “mental model” of the place and so you register even less about the location.

So when you go out on a shoot, you need to practice at really SEEING everything around you.  It takes work, focus and concentration.  Hey we never said this was easy.  But when you really SEE what is out there you will have more fun and come back with better and more exiting photographs.

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Going on a photo trip?

During a photo shoot today in Wild Basin Reserve I started thinking about the process of preparing and taking the photographs you want.  Here are the basic phases for any serious outing for me:

  • Preparation
  • Planning
  • Safety
  • Execution
  • Finishing

Preparation

Preparing for a trip is the first and very key step.  You need to select your destination. Learn everything you can about the location, see if others have taken photographs that are published at the location (very likely for most places).  Understand for yourself why you are going there?  What do you expect to do when you get there? What equipment do you need, both photographic and hiking or travel? What is the weather forecast? Do you have the right gear to handle the weather and the terrain?  Are you in the right physical shape to handle the excursion?  Is there very steep terrain, wet or muddy conditions? Do you need protection from biting insects?

I am assuming you have the core photographic and outdoor equipment for the trip, or will get the must haves, AND you know how to use the equipment, especially your camera.  If you recently upgraded or got a new camera have you made sure you know how it works, how to use the many features it has, when they may be useful? Have you set it up for your style of shooting? Do you know how to use those special features unexpectedly, or do you need the manual?  If you need the manual, practice on subjects at home till you know how to use all the features without having to refer to the manual.  You don’t want to miss the amazing shot because you were fiddling with some setting on the camera!

So what do you need to take with you if you going on any kind of hike as part of the trip?  Here is what is what I take:

Suitable clothing.  In most outdoor settings (in spring through fall) this means long pants and a long sleeve shirt, sturdy hiking boots/shoes, a hat, sun block and sun glasses.  So I hear you say “but it is 95 degrees out there”.  Protecting yourself from the sun is key. The best way to protect your skin from sun and bugs is clothing.  Personally I hate the various sprays and having greasy skin and getting that over my equipment. (For winter trips  the appropriate winter clothing is needed).

Something to eat like a small bag of trail mix or nuts for a short outing of a couple of hours.  If it is an all day outing or multi-day trip enough food and cooking equipment is needed as well as a tent and sleeping bags etc.

Enough water to keep you hydrated for the FULL duration of the outing plus a little extra.  You never know when you end up being out there longer than expected.

A traditional compass and a printed map.  Yes I know you have compass and map on your phone, but when the battery dies you may be stranded and lost.  A simple compass and printed map takes very little space and adds almost no weight to your backpack.

Something you can lay on the ground that you can sit, kneel or lie on when taking photographs in wet or muddy locations.  This must be water proof on at least one side.  A ground sheet or large garbage bag works well.  Make sure you have a small bag you can keep it in once it gets wet or muddy.

I am assuming you have the core camera, lenses, filters, tripod, extension tubes, flash, memory cards etc., you need in a backpack or other bag you are comfortable carrying for an extended period.

Planning

Before you set out make sure you know where the location is (exact directions etc), you know what the weather will be while you are there, do you need to pay fees to get in, what times can the location be entered and when do you need to be out? Do you need to make a reservation in advance? How will you get there? Can you drive?  Do you need a 4 wheel drive vehicle?

So you have picked the date and location.  Are you going on your own?  Who knows you are going? Do they know exactly where and when to expect you back?  If you slip and break an ankle who will come and look for you?

Make sure your phone and separate GPS (if you carry one) are fully charged before you leave. Carry spare charged batteries for your camera(s).  There is nothing more frustrating than the battery dying as you are about to take that million dollar shot.

Safety

Several safety matters have already been covered.  Protecting yourself from the sun and bugs and having the needed equipment and resources to survive are critical.

As I was walking today I remembered one of the very important field lessons I learned growing up in Africa and going into the bush frequently. (These areas were infested with venomous snakes, scorpions and spiders to say the least). This is especially true if you are walking into the sun or parallel to it. If you need to get over some tree trunks or large rocks, NEVER step OVER them, always step ONTOP of them, look what is on the other side, then step down if it is clear.  Snakes love to lie and bake in the sun against a rock and if you step on it, you will be either very sick or very dead!

Execution

When you get to the location and are ready to set out make sure you have all your equipment, food, water, maps etc. Check with any local services/authorities that nothing has changed that you need to know about paths/roads or river levels. Also check the latest weather forecast, especially if the area is subject to fast moving storms.  By the way, the light at the beginning and ends of storms is usually amazing, so be ready to take advantage of storms, but make sure you are safe too.

If you are visiting an area where there are potentially dangerous animals check with the local authorities if there is something you should be aware of.  For example, if you visit Brazos Bend State park in Texas where they have a major alligator population, you need to know that May is mating season and most of the males will be out on the banks of the river and ponds and you need to be extra vigilant.  Getting between an active male and his mate could be unpleasant if not fatal.

Also remember to know all the rules for the location and FOLLOW them.  Remember other fellow photographers (and general public) want to come visit there too in the future. Breaking the rules makes it harder on everybody else and usually damages the environment.

Once located, set out on your hike.  Regardless of the subject you thought you were going to be photographing, keep your eyes open and really SEE what is there. For example this morning when I set out I was expecting to lots of spring wild flowers in the reserve, which I did, but what I did not expect was several old knurly tree trunks from long dead trees that I always find intriguing subjects to photograph.

When you find a subject consider the LIGHT, the angle that will give you the best result, should you lie on the ground or get your tripod to its max height? Landscape or Portrait format? Is it backlit? Do you go in close with extension tubes, do you need flash fill, or light from a reflector? Don’t rush, but TAKE the picture. With digital you can take as many shots as you need and as many exposures as you want. Don’t leave and then get home without the shot.

Keep moving, keep your eyes and mind open and take more pictures than you may have expected. You can delete the ones that you don’t want later.  Never miss a shot because you are in a hurry or did not have enough storage!. If you run out of storage cards on the trip you failed in your planning!

Don’t relax and stop being in picture taking mode until you get back to your car or settle down for the day and set up camp. Pictures are everywhere waiting for you.  Don’t miss it because you think you are done.  You are not done till you have packed up and are leaving.

Finishing

When you get back home, or to the hotel (or tent) copy all your images to primary and backup storage.  You do not want to lose the master of that special shot. Get into a “standard” workflow for your photographs.  That does not mean there are no exceptions but having a workflow you follow to process your images using your chosen tool, makes seeing the exceptions easier.   I shoot all my pictures in RAW and process them in Lightroom.  As part of the process I rate them and only fully process ones I rate. This morning I took 179 shots and ended up with 11 rated images.  Of those 2 or 3 will end up on my website and posted to Google+ and Stipple.

One of the reasons we take photographs is for other people to see them, so make sure you get them out there.  Sooner is better or else they may never get processed and hence seen!

Get out there. Take those shots.

Happy shooting!

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