As I recently mentioned, I spent a long weekend on San Juan Island several weeks ago. While there, we spent an hour or two at the San Juan Sculptures Park. If on the island and you like art, this is a good place for a quick visit even if you don’t bring your camera. Not only are there sculptures to view, there are also large natural areas including a bit of waterfront. The artwork, more than 125 pieces, is scattered over 20 acres, providing plenty of room to explore. Apparently new sculptures are being added all the time, as when we were there, several pieces had not had their title/artist signs added yet and two workers were building a new stand for a yet-to-be-displayed piece. There is also a resident sculptor, who was setting up shop for the summer while we were there. Admission is a suggested $5 donation per person. The park is within walking distance of the Roche Harbor resort. Together, the two make a good stopping spot for doing some travel photography.
When photography is exercised as an art form rather than an attempt to purely replicate a scene without any interpretation (which, of course is impossible, photographs cannot replicate reality – they are in 2 dimensions instead of 3, they are cropped and reality is not, etc. – this could be a whole separate blog by itself, but I digress), the photographer has a myriad of choices to make. Many choices are made when capturing the image – what lens to use, what exposure settings to use, what to leave in the frame and what to crop out, whether to use a high viewpoint or a low viewpoint, etc. And post capture, there are also a myriad of choices concerning processing – there are global adjustments for exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, the white point, the black point, clarity, saturation, vibrance; cropping; distortion corrections; adding gradients or brush stroke or radial filters; etc. etc. and that is just in Lightroom; go to Photoshop and the choices explode seemingly exponentially.
For the capture side of photography, I’m a big advocate of trying out lots of different options when photographing a subject to really explore its possibilities (see this old post on the subject). Much is said about per-visualizing an image when photographing. And doing so makes a lot of sense and can make for a great image. However, don’t let that per-visualization get in the way of looking at a subject from different, non-per-visualized vantage points.
Okay, I have a confession to make here, I did not follow my own advice when capturing the images accompanying this post. I had one viewpoint in mind, went out, took the shots, and left. Call me bad. These images were taken earlier in the week at Union Station in downtown Tacoma. Union Station is no longer a train station but is now the US courthouse here in the city. Union Station is an iconic shot of Tacoma which I haven’t explored much before (so iconic in fact that I saw another photographer’s image of it hanging on a wall earlier the same evening I took this shot). And the fact that it is an iconic shot maybe why I neglected to cover it from other angles. So here’s so more unsolicited advice – when shooting icons, get the iconic shot out of the way, then try to cover it from other angles and get your own take on the subject (yes, I hear you, I should follow my own advice).
But even when you only get one shot, even the iconic shot, with your post-capture processing you can put your own spin on a subject by the choices you make. Here are four different interpretations of the same subject. Three are HDR images, processed initially in Lightroom, exported to Photomatrix, then re-imported and finished in Lightroom. The other is not an HDR image and was processed solely in Lightroom. If I decide to work on one or more of the images in the future, I may take it to Photoshop to make additional adjustments. The HDR images are made from a set of five images taken one f-stop apart.
The images represent choices for a single exposure of HDR, more realistic HDR and more “grungy” HDR, and distortion correction and cropping versus no distortion correction and cropping. No one image is correct, and no one image is wrong. None represent the reality of the scene as viewed by my eye (this scene, taken at night, is mostly lit from ugly yellow sodium-vapor street lamps for example). All are interpretations; all are artwork; all represent different choices. With these shots, I believe, at least to a small extent, I put my own spin on an icon. I think I favor the cropped, distortion-corrected version the best; but do like the other ones as well. Do you have a favorite?
My first solo exhibition is now showing at the Auburn City Hall Gallery in Auburn, Washington. Although Washington is known as the Evergreen State, there is much more to Washington than green! Come by and see the 26 images in this exhibition that celebrate all the colors of Washington.
The gallery is in the lobby of Auburn City Hall at 25 W Main Street, Auburn and is open from 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday. The exhibition runs through February 27th. We are planning an artist’s reception sometime next month, date and time to be announced.
I’ve heard photography described as the art of capturing light, and perhaps I’ve been guilty of describing it that way as well. Photographic tips often talk about looking for dynamic light, chasing the good light, etc. Yet photography is more than light, it is also time. Consider your camera. Leaving ISO aside, there are two ways to control exposure: changing the aperture and changing the shutter speed.
Time is an essential part of photography. Too little time, and your image will be black; too much time, and it will be white. Every photograph captures a slice of time. Sometimes a very small slice, a small fraction of a second; sometimes a long slice of minutes or even hours.
The human eye is better at capturing light than a camera. The human eye can see detail through a very large dynamic range compared to the best DSLRs out there. This is why HDR is popular, why there camera accessories like split-neutral density filters. But, at least in my opinion, the camera is better than the human eye at capturing time. My camera can capture the action of a running gazelle much better than my eye can. Similarly, it is much better at capturing the movement of the stars across the night sky.
Time makes every photograph unique. Each image captures a different piece of time, and each piece of time is different. I use to tell my kids when they were young, that if they wanted to see something no one in the world had ever seen before, pop open a peanut shell. No one in the world ever saw that particular peanut before (and no one would see it again after they ate it). The same is true for photography, want to capture something no one has every photographed before, take a picture, any picture – you’ve just captured a bit of time that will never be captured again. Okay, I hear you. If you take two photographs one second apart, you have two nearly identical photographs (the extreme example, I guess, being two studio-lit shots of a still life taken seconds apart). I didn’t say your capture would be exciting, only different (and perhaps not even on a visible scale). Making that capture of a small slice of time exciting, making the image worthy to look at, is where the art comes in.
The act of capturing time with a camera is not art. Instead making that capture an experience (both for the photographer and the viewer) is the art of photography. Just like composition makes a big difference in photography, selecting the correct small portion of time to record also makes all the difference. Look at the four examples below of the Colorado River taken from Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah, taken minutes apart and all processed the approximately the same way in Lightroom and Photoshop. I took the first two before sunrise, four minutes apart. The third was taken seven minutes later and the fourth seven minutes after that. Depending on your tastes, the second or the third ones are clearly superior than the first or the fourth (my favorite is the second one). A few minutes made all the difference here.
Selecting the correct time to press the shutter button is not limited to the quality of the light at the time, it also is dependent upon the subject. The best people shots come with when the subjects are showing their emotions to the camera, something that is difficult to capture because it is often so fleeting. And this timing aspect is not limited to people. When shooting scenes with flags flapping in the breeze, for example, I will usually take many shots, just to capture one where the flag looks good. Here’s a couple more examples. The first image, taken on Caye Caulker in Belize, is a little girl fishing with her father. I snapped of a dozen shots, but this is clearly the best, with the girl lightly touching her father. As you might imagine, a girl of this age didn’t hold that pose long, but was quickly looking this way and that, and interacting with a brother just out of the frame. The second shot is of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, I wanted an image with the swans in the pond, and was lucky enough to capture them in a good , with one looking directly at the camera. The birds were only in this position for a quick moment, and all the other shots I took don’t come close to the quality of this one.
The length of time captured in your image also makes a difference and, as I mentioned above, can reveal things not readily apparent to the naked eye. This is true both for short exposures and for long ones. For example, in the following image of snow geese in the Skagit River delta area of Washington State, the very short shutter speed was able to capture some unique looking wing angles and positions. In the second example, of the ferry dock at Steilacoom, Washington, a long shutter speed created beautiful patterns in the water. If you are a regular viewer of my photography, you likely know that I love using long shutter speeds for the effects of it creates – the effect of compressing many seconds of time into a single image.
Sometimes two different sets of time can both be important to an image. In this example, taken from my trip up to Harts Pass several weekends ago, a long exposure was necessary to capture the stars. For images such as this, too short a shutter speed will not show many stars; too long a shutter speed will result in star trails instead of points of light. The shutter speed for this image was 20 seconds. (Generally, for star shots without trails, you will need to shoot at 30 seconds or less). However, in this image, I wanted to add some foreground interest, and I chose to do light painting on the tree. I painted the tree for just a couple of seconds, running the light from the flashlight briefly up and down the tree. More than a few seconds would have made the tree too bright; less, too dark.
Here’s one last example of the importance of time to photography. The image below is of a tree with colorful leaves taken while moving the camera vertically downward. I used a shutter speed of 1/8 second. A longer shutter speeds would have resulted in too much blurring; a shorter shutter speed, too little. The proper shutter speed for this type of shot will vary greatly depending on the subject and the amount of camera movement.
These are just a few examples of the importance of time to photography. I’m sure you can think of more. Photography is nothing without light, but it is also nothing without time.
In the past two months, I have barely touched my camera. I shot a wedding in July, a few family shots last weekend, and did took a few quick shots while in Cannon Beach at the beginning of August. That’s it. Now wedding and family photos are fine, but they really don’t wet my creative juices like travel or landscape photography does. The time in Cannon Beach was fun, but it really wasn’t a photography trip. However, if I had known at the time that I wouldn’t have a chance to do any serious work later in the month, I would have taken many more images there. But I didn’t, and now I have huge pent-up desire to do some photography.
There are many reasons and obligations as to why I haven’t been out making images, but that is not really the point. The point is I have this craving, this deep-seated need to have the camera in my hand and spend a day creating. It is as if my soul has a hole in it right now.
And while this desire is very deep and is truly uncomfortable, I am actually glad I have it. Why? Because it confirms for me that I am an artist and not just a documentarian (I hold nothing against those who make documentaries as their artistic outlet, but I think you understand what I’m saying). I’m also glad for this need because while I consider myself a professional, it confirms for me that I’m not just in it for the money (not that there’s a lot of that). I am an artist. I have the need to create and the camera is just my paintbrush, the computer screen and photographic paper are my mediums.
These thoughts come not only because my lack of creative photography recently, but also due to a blog post by Dan Baumbach, a very talented photographer. In his blog, Dan questions whether he is an artist. I think many photographers have had these thoughts. I know I have had such doubts in the past.
Perhaps it is easier for others to see the art in a photographer’s work than the photographer themselves. Looking at Dan’s images, it is easy (at least for me) to see he is an artist. In comment I left to his post, I mentioned how I recently gave a short talk on using Lightroom to a group of photographers and someone asked how I was allowed to change the white balance to make the image look different (than what they thought it should look like in the real world). And the answer is that I’m an artist, I’m not trying to replicate the real world, I’m trying to create my own personal vision of it.
Sometimes my vision looks like how others see a scene. Sometimes it doesn’t. It is always amazing to me how several different photographers can photograph the same scene and come up with totally different photographs. That’s because we photographers are artists.
It is said that art is in the eye of the beholder. Excuse my language, but that is bullshit. Art is in the eye of the artist, the creator. When you put that camera to your eye and decide, consciously or not, what to put in the frame and what to leave out. You are making artistic and creative decisions. The same is true for every tweak you make in Lightroom or Photoshop. (See this earlier post on how we, as photographers, make creative decisions in processing images.) You are an artist. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Okay, enough with the ranting. Presently, I just need get out there and feed my craving to create. Now, where did I put that camera?