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.
Principles of Photographic Improvisation – Say Yes
I’m currently reading The Soul of the Camera, the Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making by David duChemin. This book is full of nuggets of photographic wisdom, and I can highly recommend it to any photographer who wants to improve their game. You will not find much in the way of technical details about how to shoot great images. Instead, duChemin discusses the photographer’s mind and it relationship to picture-making.
There are easily dozens of blog post topics I could cover based on this book, but for now I’ll discuss his four “rules” or “principles” of photographic improvisation; the first of which is to agree or to say “yes” and not “no.” That is, say yes to the scene in front of you even if it was not what you expected or intended. You could say this is to go with the flow (which duChemin also talks about earlier in the book). Say yes to photographing what the world gives you rather than turning your back on the scene and giving up because it isn’t what you wanted. Accept what’s there and make the most of it.
A couple weeks ago, I went over to Fox Island Bridge to take a photo of Mount Rainier with the full moon rising behind it right before sunset. This situation only happens on two days each year: the day before the full moon in both June and August. Last August I tried for the same shot with only limited success. I was disappointed from that shoot, and that probably set me up to ignore the principle of saying yes. The weather was not ideal, and the view of the moon was not very good. I snapped a few shots, including the shown here, and packed up and went home disappointed. I failed to look for what else nature might be offering up. It was a few days later that I read about duChemin’s first principle.
I should have known better even before reading the book. I had a similar idea earlier this year. Back in February, I wanted to photograph the full moon setting behind the Olympic Mountains at sunrise. On the appointed day, I got up early and drove across town to Brown’s Point in Northeast Tacoma. When I got there, the Olympics, let alone the moon, were obscured by clouds. I climbed back in the car and headed toward home, thinking that perhaps I still might get some decent sunrise shots from the Cliff House parking lot. Sure enough, Mount Rainier was visible and the rising sun painted it and the low hanging clouds, as shown on the featured shot above and the other images below. I didn’t get what I wanted, but I said yes to what was given, which wasn’t bad at all.
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).
New Lightroom CC and Range Masking
Adobe recently updated Lightroom, in the process creating a new version of the program. They renamed the old version Lightroom Classic CC, while the new version took the previous name of the old version: Lightroom CC. Confused yet?
If you have the photography CC subscription service (currently at $10/month), either version is available to download – but you can only have both if you fork out an extra $10 per month. The new Lightroom CC is the wave of the future. It’s main feature is that your Lightroom catalog and all your photos are saved to the Adobe cloud so that you can work on them in Lightroom from anywhere with a internet connection. Sounds like a great idea. The service comes with 1 TB of storage on the cloud. Unfortunately, I would need about 4 times as much space to upload all my photo files. And while I’m sure I could rent extra cloud space, I’m not sure I ready to give Adobe more money yet.
I have my own somewhat convoluted way of working in Lightroom on multiple computers. I export selected portions of my Lightroom catalog with smart previews to the 20GB of cloud storage that comes with the old Lightroom (and the Lightroom Classic), then work with that catalog when away from my main desktop computer. When finished, I import the catalog back into my main catalog. So, for now, I’m sticking with Lightroom Classic.
Plus, Lightroom Classic received a nice upgrade. Reportedly its speed performance has improved, but what I really like is the addition of range masking. Now, any mask made by the adjustment brush, gradient filter, or radial filter can be modified by color or luminance. Simply first create a rough mask using one of the three tools. Then, at the bottom of the Mask dialog, there’s a new setting labeled “Range Mask” with the default setting of off. Change the setting to color, and you get an amount slider and a color picker tool. Only want your blue sky to be selected, use your mouse to select the color picker, move it to the blue sky and click – the other colors are deleted from the rough mask. You can shift and click to select multiple colors and click and drag to define a “box” of colors. It helps to have the Mask Overlay selected to see how your mask changes.
The luminance setting for the Range Mask works similarly, but with brightness instead of color. It does not including a picking tool, but has a “two-handled” slider for defining a brightness range and a smoothness slider. With your mask overlay on, it is easy to play around with these two sliders to see the effect.
The photo above, that I took in mid-October in northeastern Washington, provides an example of the usefulness of the new range masking. I actually first tried developing the image without the new range masking tools. And while the result was nice, it did have problems. Specifically there was some haloing around the aspen trees, I couldn’t get the brightness of the leaves and tree trunks to what I wanted, and the sky color was not totally natural. I probably could have corrected these issues with Photoshop, but thought I’d try the range masking tools in Lightroom to see if they could help.
Below is a progression of how I developed the image in Lightroom Classic starting with the original image with default Lightroom settings.
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.