Principles of Photographic Improvisation – Contribute Something and Try Something
In my last post, I mentioned how I am reading The Soul of the Camera, the Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making by David duChemin, and I described his first of four “rules” or “principles” of photographic improvisation – agreeing or to say “yes” and not “no.” Today, I look at the second and third principles – Contribute Something, and Try Something.
To contribute something, you need to make the scene your own. DuChemin explains, ” Photography is not objective… We bring our own thoughts, opinions, points of view, and interest to the scen and to every single decision, from aperture to focal length to shutter speed to composition. We chose what to include and exclude. It’s not so much about what’s there as it’s about what I see and how I see it.”
Say you travel to a famous landmark or scene and want to photograph it. Don’t worry about how others have done so, make the scene you own. Sure, take that one composition that you’ve seen before, the shot the maybe even inspired you to come in the first place, but then explore the subject scene on you own, making your own compositions. Or as DeChemin says, “Own it. Add to it. Make every photograph you create a collaboration with what’s before you.”
This, I think, directly relates to the third principle, try something. DuChemin urges his reads to “take a risk and try something. Don’t just wonder what would happen if you moved the camera over to the right. Move it! Slow the shutter, use a wide lens. Listen to the questions, but don’t let them go without a response. And if the first answer doesn’t work, try again.”
It doesn’t even have to be a famous scene, just maybe one you’ve been to or photographed many times before. Do you take the same shot again and again? Perhaps. But to improvise, you’ve got to make it new again for you. Maybe try black and white, or shoot it with your phone instead of you DSLR, or shoot only high-key images, whatever! Sometimes to make it your own you need to try something different.
For example, for the past several years, I’ve been offering walking photo tours of downtown Seattle. These tours are great for my clients, as they see Seattle through fresh eyes. But I’ve seen it and shot it all before. It’s a real challenge for me to find something new. So on a couple trips, I pulled out the fish-eye lens. Now, a lot of what I shot didn’t work so well, but some of the images aren’t so bad. In fact, they are kind of fun, and definitely something I made my own by trying something I hadn’t done before, even after shooting the same places dozens of times before – such as Pioneer Square (above and below), the ferry terminal (below), and the waterfall garden (below). That is photographic improvisation.
Smoke Correction – Reducing Smoke Induced Haze
Though clear now, the skies of Washington State, and indeed most of the Pacific Northwest, have been very smokey almost the entire month of August. The smoke is from wildfires, both in the United States and Canada. I fear, with climate changes, this may be our new “normal” for August, as smokey skies have been prevalent in August the past several years.
As long as the smoke is not too thick, smokey skies can have some advantages to landscape and travel photography. Though I tend not to, some people like the sunsets provided by smokey conditions. I do, however, appreciate that smokey conditions can soften light and can extend golden hour conditions by changing the color of sunlight. On the other hand, they can also dim sunlight so that the light during the actual golden hours is weak.
In my opinion, the disadvantages outweigh any advantages gained. I am fond on blue skies and wide vistas. Smoke can suck the blue out of the sky and obscure views with haze. I also like to use telephoto lenses to pull in distance subjects. Obviously, this does not work so well if there is a lot of smoke.
On my trip to the Palouse last month, the skies were quite smokey. Not smokey enough to totally ruin the trip, but I certainly did not have ideal conditions. The Palouse is known for its blue skies with great clouds. On my last trip, the sky, though clear, was more of a dusky gray. It was also cloud free on except for one day. So much for the wide sky shots I often favor, such as this one I posted on instagram. I found myself following several techniques to minimize the effects of the smoke.
1. Limiting distance in my compositions – instead of including distant hills and vistas in my compositions, I selected relatively close subjects, or chose compositions where the distant background was less important. For example, on my August visit to the Palouse, I did shoot one evening from Steptoe Butte. However, with the smokey haze, I chose one of the lower viewpoint instead of going to the top, and I mostly shot compositions with subjects relatively close to the butte rather than subjects thousands of meters away.
2. Eliminating or limiting the amount of sky in my compositions – with the sky not the blue color one expects, in many cases, I tried to either totally eliminate the sky from my composition or at least limit the amount of sky in the shot.
3. Processing using the Dehaze slider in Lightroom – I often use the dehaze slider in lightroom, and not just to remove haze; I like the microconstrast it adds to images. However, smokey conditions are what the dehaze slider was made for. While processing images from the August Palouse trip in Lightroom, I found myself adding more dehaze than I normally would.
4. Adding blue back into the sky in Lightroom – I typically do not do selective color corrections in Lightroom. Typically I’ll set the color balance for the entire photo and let well enough alone (saving selective color adjustments for Photoshop if I want to do them at all). But with new masking tools for the gradient and brush tools, I found it relatively easy to add some blue back into the sky in Lightroom. Typically, I’d make a fairly tight gradient (or perhaps the brush too) and apply it to the area of the photo containing the sky. Then, using the range mask tool in color mode, I select a wide portion of the sky. This usually masks most of the non-sky areas, but to be sure, I’ll check the Show Selected Mask Overlay checkbox (which uses a red tone to indicate where the gradient is effective). Depending on the image, I may or may not need to do some cleanup of the mask with the eraser brush). To correct the sky, I’ll move the temperature slider toward blue, typically move the exposure slider down about 1/2 to 1/2 a stop, and move the clarity slider down as well. Depending on the image, I may also increase the dehaze slightly. Sounds complicated, but it is fairly easy with a bit of practice. This technique does a nice job on restoring sky color (see the examples below).
Photographing Ancient Ruins – Knossos
The Palace of Knossos is the capital of ancient Minoan Crete. It is reportedly Crete’s most popular tourist attraction. Ancient ruins, particularly popular ones, present a photographic challenge, at least to me. We see photographs of the ruins in guidebooks and on postcards and want to get similar shots. Yet, often the sites are only have limited hours that do not correspond with the best light and are usually overrun by tourists. How to get a few decent shots without obtaining special access (like the photographers whose images you see on the postcard)?
Knossos is the perfect example. When Tanya and I were there, the last admittance of the day was at 3 p.m. We got there about 2:30 p.m., and I was hoping the crowds would be a bit less. However, as it turned out, we picked International Monuments Day (April 18th) to visit – the good news, free admission; the bad news, more people. It wasn’t overrun with tourists, but there we weren’t alone either. Further, 2:30 p.m. is not a prime time for photography, the light is harsh and contrast can be a big problem.
And you can forget about using a tripod. Even if it would not cause a problem with the crowds, tripods (and large professional cameras – whatever the definition of that is) are not allowed. This is a common policy at many historical sites and museums (occasionally I’m surprised and they are allowed, such at the Met in New York and in the Notre Dame Basilca in Montreal).
So what is your average photographer to do? Here are a few tips I’ve discovered that help me photograph at ancient ruins (and other popular sites).
1. Use a telephoto zoom lens – if you don’t want people in your shots, you will need to zoom in to crop them out. A wide-angle lens is good for providing a big scene, but it is almost impossible to use one and not have people in your image.
2. Shoot details – sure shoot an image with the whole building, but if you want to not have people in the shot, shoot details.
3. Don’t crop too tightly in camera – often you will not have the best vantage point to take a shot. If you think you might be making perspective adjustments Lightroom or Photoshop, don’t crop too tightly in-camera. Leave some room to crop after the perspective adjustment is made.
4. Avoid sky when shooting into the sun – we often don’t have much choice about time of day when visiting a historical site, and that scene you’ve been dreaming about shooting is toward the sun. Cut out the sky to avoid the contrast. For example, one of the most common shots you will see of Knossos is similar to the featured shot above, except that it usually shows some sky as well. Here, shooting toward that sun, I cut out the sky to avoid bad contrast and a totally white sky.
5. Shoot in the shade – again, not having much choice about time of day, shooting in mid-day can cause lots of contrast problems. Look for compositions that are in shade and avoid the contrast of partial sunlight.
6. Up your ISO – often you will be shooting not out in the sun, but in a dimly lit rooms or grottoes. Without a tripod, remember to increase your ISO.
Scanography – Fun on a Cold Rainy Day
Winter just seems never to end. We’ve had nothing but a cold, rainy March so far. So what should you do when bored and stuck inside on a rainy winter day? Try your hand at scanography – photography using a flat-bed scanner. If you don’t already own such a scanner, you can often find them cheap at a second-hand store. The images shown here were taken with my Epson Perfection 2450 Photo scanner that I purchased several years ago at Goodwill for $5. The trick is getting such a scanner to run on your computer – often drivers are not available for newer versions of Windows. For example, Epson offer a driver for my scanner for Windows version after XP.
I’m running Windows 7. When I first got the scanner several years back, Windows 7 was still fairly new. To get the scanner to work, I did a Google search on Windows 7 drivers for my scanner model. I discovered that a different Epson model had a driver that worked, so I downloaded that and sure enough, it worked.
Now skip ahead a few years. I tried Widows 10 and decided to go back to Window 7, but when I did so, I lost the driver for the scanner. Well actually, I still had the driver, but Windows would not allow me to install it because it was “unsigned.” This is a case of the software trying to protect your computer from malignant software. I get it, but I really did want to use the scanner again. Finally, after several long Google searches, I discovered there is a way to get Windows to install unsigned drivers. You must first disable the driver signature enforcement, then install the driver. It wasn’t that hard to do, and sure enough, I was back in business.
Since if you pick up a cheap, used scanner, it probably won’t be the same model as mine, I suggest the following. First, go the the manufacturer’s support site and see if there is a driver available. If so, your golden. If not, search Google for an alternate driver. For example, in my case, the Google search might be: “windows 7 driver for epson 2450 scanner”. There is a good chance this will give you a driver that will work. However, if it is unsigned, you still will need some help installing it. So try this Google search: “installing unsigned drivers windows 10”. You will get a number of results that explain how to install unsigned drivers. Good luck!
Once you do get your scanner installed, it’s time to have fun. All of the images here were taken using the scanner. The fun thing about using a scanner for photography, of scanography as it is called, is that you can create interesting effects because the scanner captures an image a line at a time. This means that as the scanner light and sensor moves, you can move your subject either blurring it or making it appear more than once in the frame. I found this is particularly fun for self portraits (just watch out for fogging the glass with your breath).
I found that scanning to TIFF files worked better than to JPGs, but your experience may be different. Once the files are created, I imported them into Lightroom and treated them just like any other file, optimizing them as I saw fit. I found the biggest problem is dust. I’m use to a few dust spots from my camera sensor. With the scanner, you can get hundreds of dust spots, all perfectly in focus. So be sure the clean the glass well when doing your scanography.
Wondering what kind of images you can make with a scanner? My samples here will give you a few ideas. If you want more, just do a Flickr or Google image search for scanography. There is some very creative work out there.
New Transform in Lightroom
Adobe added a new Transform panel in Lightroom CC in June, and since I typically don’t check what is new in each Lightroom upgrade, I didn’t see this new panel until last month. When I did find it, I thought it was amazing. So much so, that from now on, I’ll be checking each upgrade to see what other new features might be available to improve my workflows.
The old transform was under the Lens Correction panel in the Develop Module under the Manual tab, where there were sliders for you to manually adjust lens, vertical, and horizontal distortions; rotation, scale, and aspect ratio. I made wide use of the vertical and horizontal sliders, but not so much the others. I found it was easier to correct rotations or change the aspect ratio with the crop tool and I usually don’t change the scale of an image except upon export. And while these transform tools where very helpful, sometimes I couldn’t get the results I wanted.
With release 2015.6 of Lightroom, Adobe removed the manual transform sliders from the Lens Correction panel and placed them in a new Transform panel (located directly underneath the Lens Correction panel, see the first screenshot below). The lens distortion slider is gone, and two new sliders, for X and Y offsets, are added. But the best new feature is the addition of automatic or guided distortion corrections. There are six options: off, auto, guided, level, vertical, and full. The pop-up help in Lightroom for each of these options states:
- Auto: “enables balanced level, aspect ratio, and perspective corrections”
- Guided: “draw two or more guides to customize perspective corrections”
- Level: “enable level corrections only”
- Vertical: “enable level and vertical perspective corrections only”
- Full: “enable full level, horizontal, and vertical corrections”
There is also a guide tool in the upper left-hand corner with a guide tool. This tool essentially works identically to pressing the Guide button. In both cases, a guide tool becomes active which allows you to place guides on the image to show Lightroom what should be level and vertical. You are allowed to add up to four guides.
I’ve illustrated the use of this new features with an image I took in Sainte-Chapelle in Paris last year. The space is small and crowded, tripods are not allowed, and a wide-angle lens is needed. These conditions make it quite hard to a decent level and perspectively correct shot. The original image, shot with my 28-300mm zoom lens set at 65mm (at 1/20 second, f5.6, ISO 6,400), is shown here below after all Lightroom corrections except those under the Transform panel.
The next image, below, is a screenshot showing the Transform panel open in the Lightroom Develop module. No transform corrections have been selected – the Off button is active. Please note, that when using the Transform corrections, it is best to have the lens profile corrections already active in the Lens Corrections panel.
The images below are the results of selecting the Auto, Level, and Vertical buttons. In this case, the results from the Full button is identical to the Vertical button.
Below I show the steps in using the Guided correction either by guide tool or selecting the Guided button.