I vaguely remember the old days, back before I had an SLR and lenses and filters and a tripod. When I’d see a pretty scene, I'd whip out my point & shoot and take a picture before continuing on my way. I wasn’t creating art. Nope, I was just memorializing on film (yes, film) a scene or a moment that intrigued me. Nothing more, nothing less. Things are different today. I lug around a big D-SLR with several lenses, a few filters, a tripod and a bunch of other stuff that I use not to record simple memories, but to create something approaching “art”.
Over the years I’ve heard photographers say they are “taking pictures, making images, capturing a moment, shooting photos” and a billion other phrases that essentially mean the same thing. Or do they?
I can’t help but think that “taking pictures” or “shooting photos” is entirely different from what I and most other serious photographers do when we head out with our cameras. I like to think that I am creating art.
By it’s very nature, art is subjective. What I think is a gorgeous piece of artwork you may think is a bunch of squiggly lines on canvas. So, the images I create, that I consider art, you may consider just another pretty photo. Or, maybe it’s just another ugly photo. Only you can decide that. The point is this – I’m not just documenting a scene before me. I’m trying to create something that is elevated from being a mere snapshot to something that others may consider to art.
The title of this post is a line that photographers hate to hear when people comment on their images. I hear this one a lot at my art shows. Due to the digital and photoshop age, people tend to think great images are produced by great equipment, when in fact low-end camera equipment can produce good quality images in the hands a of competent photographer. The opposite is true as well: top of the line equipment can easily shoot bad images by a careless photographer.
Juan Pons and I were recently acting as assistants on the sunset hula shoot at the Maui Photo Festival.
Great fun! Great dancers! Great light.
As usual, something interesting happened. After Juan and I set up the reflectors and diffusers to control the harsh light, I ask the crowd of maybe 40 photographers, “Can you guys see the difference in the light when using these accessories?”
Things have been busy! In the spare time from the day job, I’ve been doing some writing and catching up on cataloging. I’ve also been doing some location scouting and other prep work for the coming Light Matters Masterclass. (Spaces are still available for the class, by the way.)
While taking in the scenery around Aurum Lodge on a scouting visit, I was standing on a low rocky crest in late afternoon light, overlooking the stunning blue-green waters of Lake Abraham. I never tire of this color in the mountain lakes… far more than clear water, this glacial coloring seems to me like the chromatic embodiment of freshness and purity.
I was looking down at my shadow dancing in the ripples of the lake waters, and thought of the saying that I've heard and read from many photographers — “light illuminates, shadow defines.” What if the shadow doesn’t just define the subject, but is the whole subject? I took a position on a craggy stretch of the rocks, pulled out my pocket camera (a Panasonic LX3), and captured an image of my shadow self over the water. Pay attention to shadows… including your own!
Tonight I feel a bit like a mad scientist. For some unknown reason I got an itch to try something totally new in Lightroom and Photoshop. I made this image of bison grazing in the meadow at Mormon Row in the Tetons while there a couple weeks ago. Straight out of the camera the image wasn’t terribly exciting but I felt it had potential. Those of you who are familiar with my work know that my images are generally pretty straightforward. I don’t apply creative effects and I process the images to look more or less like the scene did when I photographed it. A little tweak of contrast here, add some saturation there, darken a sky now and again and do a little dodge and burning – voila, the final image appears. I have nothing at all against images that have been heavily manipulated. Photography is an art and we should feel free to create our art on our own terms.
Now, I have obviously taken some serious creative liberties with this image. For starters, my camera doesn’t make square photos. I used a fairly heavy digital grad filter to darken the sky with a heavy dose of clarity to give more separation in the clouds, added some global negative vibrance to mute the colors, made a curves adjustment to increase contrast, dodged the bison to make them stand out a bit more from the meadow, added a vignette and some “grain” – all in Lightroom 3. I exported the image to Photoshop CS4 and experimented with different blurs using the gradient tool to keep the bison sharp-ish while blurring out the background. I didn’t like the results of any of those efforts. What to do? Hmmm…
You can click on Royce's images for a larger view.
I’m mainly a landscape photographer, and I’ve been using High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques in my work for about 5 years now. During that time I’ve used HDR on many images. In fact, I’d venture to say that HDR has become nearly indispensable to my way of working. I don’t use it for everything, and it’s not the only tool in my toolbox, but it’s a very important part of my process.
I’ve done some thinking about HDR and photography, and written about it as well as discussed it with people. I’ve also read quite a bit written by others, both pro and con. It’s now clear to me that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who love HDR, and everyone else.
(Side note – okay, okay. Really, there are two kinds of people: those who think there are two kinds of people, and everyone else. But this is about HDR and photography, not some kind of social studies. And I needed a controversial-seeming opening line.)
Elliott Peak At First Light, White Goat Lakes
When I show my images or prints and disclose something about the part that HDR plays, those who know about digital photography or post-processing frequently have a reaction like “Wow, that doesn’t look like HDR, it looks natural!” Hmm. First, thanks very much – it’s a gratifying comment to receive. It’s my intention to present art, not artifice, and I don’t want my use of technique to be very front-and-center to the visual experience. The main point should be the image itself, not the processing.
But second, there’s something else going on with this interaction. Maybe there’s an implication that my images don’t look like HDR because HDR must look “unnatural”. Just maybe there’s a feeling that there’s a little something different to my images even though they still look kind of “normal”. There are definitely some assumptions about what a “natural” or “normal” photograph is. What’s up with this?
Perhaps a few of those who know that HDR exists and don’t love it simply don’t understand it the way I do. That’s right – HDR isn’t bad, it’s just misunderstood! I don’t want to try to convince anybody to adopt something they don’t need;
This summer, I traveled with my family on a camping trip to the Bandon area of the Oregon coast. It was cold and windy, which is not unusual there but it was a refreshing break from the heat where I live. On the first evening after setting up camp, we were eating dinner in town. A thick fog had rolled in along the Coquille River, and I noticed these pier pilings mysteriously appearing and disappearing in the mist. After dinner, I spent nearly an hour photographing these piers.
Pier Pilings, Coquille River, Bandon, Oregon 2010
When composing this image, I wanted to show both the ethereal foggy mood and the depth of the posts fading out into the mist. I shuffled my camera position until I found a good rhythm of spaces between each line. This spacing accentuates the fascinating graphic structure because each space defines a post, and avoids the merging of that shape. For this image, I used the Singh Ray Vari-ND to lengthen the exposure. This technique does a great job of simplifying the overall image since the blurring “washes away” the textures of the water. To me, this heightens a feeling of the piers floating in space.
Some call me obsessive, others call me compulsive and I admit to both. Over the last decade I visited Yellowstone National Park at least a dozen times. Each time, while driving through the park, I passed a forest of ghostly trees whose trunks were bleached and faded from acidic hot spring runoff and intense alpine sun. Each time I thought, “Hey, that’s a really cool location and one day you should stop and see about making an image of the place.” I’ve had this image in the back of my head since my first visit almost ten years ago. It has gnawed at my brain for damn near a decade. Finally, a couple months ago, I decided to do something about it.
Early June, 2010 I decided to pack up my truck and head north for a two week road trip in the greater Yellowstone area. This was my opportunity to make the image I’d been visualizing all those years. It would require an overcast day, ideally some mist or fog, and a little luck in finding a successful composition. Why luck? This forest is literally right off the road. The shoulder is about a foot wide, then it drops a couple feet into a meadow that is filled with runoff from hot springs where the rangers and common sense tell us we shouldn’t walk. If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone you know that any person with a camera on a tripod attracts the attention of motorists, many of whom are driving rented RV’s that they aren’t used to driving. When your butt is hanging over the fog line and you’re peering through the viewfinder with cars and RVs speeding by, you’ve got to be a little bit lucky to find a composition and avoid becoming roadkill.
Juan Pons of DPExperience , Scott Elowitz of LensCoat products and I arranged the shoot of this rare monster lens. It's been the most popular post on our blog, and we thought we would repost it so new readers could check it out.