Tag: Seeing Photographs

No snow – what to do?

November Morning, Vance RoadI know many people, despite calling themselves Canadian, abhore the snow and can’t say anything good about it. Not me! I love the snow and the complete change in reality it brings each year. Sure it’s messy to get around in and, if you’re not careful, it can be dangerous. But, as the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing!”

But without any snow…what’s a landscape photographer to do?!? Not to worry – just refocus on what is around us. There are still many details, subtle hues, textures and tones to photograph.

Frosty mornings bring dead and dried wildflowers to life with a coating of beautiful crystals. WIth the frost comes bright, clear skies and brilliant sunrises – great lighting creating long, cool shadows in contrast with the warmth of early morning. Large scenes come alive with highlights; close-ups become a whole new world of intricate shapes and contrasts.

Speed River, NovemberAt the opposite end of the spectrum are the dreary, overcast days, depressing enough made even more so without snow to brighten them. A walk along a river may just awaken your landscape instincts. Try ignoring the sky and put your efforts into looking for smaller-scale landscapes which avoid the blank starkness above. Shapes, patterns and textures amongst the trees, grasses and wildflowers become apparent when one looks more closely.

Along river banks, the patterns and colour in the willows and grasses come alive when set against the dark water in front and the darker forest behind. The dark water itself can reveal details in flow patterns we might not notice on a sunny day. Ice along the water’s edge adds a further bonus of details to explore.

Flurries, Starkey Hill, Arkell

Lately, when we do get snow, it’s been nothing more than a skiff, like icing sugar on Christmas baking. But that in itself can create magical scenes, outlining each branch and stem. Hues and contrast will be muted under an overcast sky, but an increase in Clarity (in Lightroom) will help to bring back the crispness of the day.

Of course, dreary days are also a good time to spend indoors working on, for example, printing projects. When was the last time you looked through your photographs from the past 12 months, edited a few, then made some selections to print or have printed? I find I learn a lot from my photography when I stop to ask myself “why this image and not that?” Spending time editing also hones those skills. After all, photography isn’t just the capture of images in the camera – there is much to be explored in the digital darkroom, to enhance the scenes you’ve captured. Grey, dreary days might just be the time to do it.

Although Christmas is this week, is there someone who would enjoy receiving one of your photographs? There’s still time!

Grand River – AM and PM

Yesterday was one of those ideal August days for photography: cold overnight and warm during the day, not to mention a super moon in the evening!

Grand River Morning – On a cool, foggy summer morning, the Grand River valley between Elora and West Montrose is filled iwth mist in this view from Pilkington Overlook in Inverhaugh in southern OntarioI was down to my favourite location along the Grand a few days ago, about ½ an hour late for the mist rising, so I kept my eye on the weather for another cold night and Saturday night was just that – down to 10°C overnight. This meant Sunday morning would dawn with great mist over the water and the Grand River did not disappoint.

I started at Pilkington Overlook (between Elora and West Montrose) spending about 15 minutes looking for just the right view with fog filling the valley. I never did find it (I always have trouble there finding just the right view), however, I did come away with one (shown at right).

Sunrise and Mist, Grand River - On a cool summer morning, mist fills the moist, floodplain of the Grand River between Elora and West Montrose in southern OntarioThen, I moved down to the flats below by the Eighth Line bridge. Spectacular. Although the sun had already risen above the valley, it was just coming over the valley edge by the time I drove down there – a golden sunrise with mist swirling around. Having been there just a few days before, I knew exactly where I wanted to set-up each photograph. It was just as well, for within 30 minutes, the show was over – the mist had evaporated. There was still beautiful sunshine that would make lovely summer morning photographs, but without the mist, it just seemed lifeless. Again, just as well – our daughter had promised to make Sunday breakfast and I didn’t want to be late!

In that 30 minutes, I managed a few different set-ups, looking up and down river, each with a different focal length from very wide through to short telephoto (105mm). I disdain straight lines in nature photos, so I always worked to incorporate the curving, leading line of the river bank. I was also able to make a few long exposures to blur the water, using the NDx8 and ND500 filters. The air was so still – nothing moved! Wonderful.

Summer Sunshine, Grand River - Sunrise over the wildflowers along the banks and floodplain of the Grand River at Inverhaugh, between Elora and West Montrose in southern OntarioOne thing I am always startled by is how well the Nikon D800E handles exposures made with the sun in them when processed in Lightroom. (The lenses also behaved with only one small flare spot, daily removed in LR.) For example, the photo above was made at the exposure recommended by the camera (i.e. I did not add exposure compensation). Lightroom successfully brought the highlights of the sun down to something manageable. They don’t have any detail, but then again, there is no detail in the sun to be had! Also, the foreground was not so dark that it couldn’t be brought back to life by increasing the Blacks and the Shadows – all without introducing scads of grain, which is often the case with raising shadow areas.

It was a similar case for this photograph to the right, made a little later. Although I reduced the in-camera exposure by 1 stop, the shadows were still recoverable and still have lots of life.

Super-Moon Rising, Grand River - In August of 2014 the Moon was closer to Earth than at any other point in the year - a supermoon or perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system. This view is over the Grand River between Elora and West Montrose.In the evening, I was back again, for the light around sunset, the super moon and the light after dusk – this time with Laura, . It’s funny how long it takes for the sun to set when you are waiting for it. I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris app (for Desktop, iOS and Android) to determine where the moon would rise and the time it would rise. In fact, earlier in the day, I spent about an hour examining different locations within an hour’s drive of home to determine which would be best. At first, we were going to Spencer Gorge for the view (and I would try that next time, for sure), but having been to the Grand River earlier in the day, I thought, what the heck – why not return.

The moon rose as planned, but I was not altogether satisfied with the foreground arrangement. I made the best of a difficult situation and came back with one. The tricky part is exposing for the moon, while trying to capture some of the detail in the foreground (without, of course, resorting to making a photo montage by using a moon layer and a foreground layer in Potoshop). The photo at right was exposed for 1/30th at ƒ4 at ISO400. The shutter speed has to be high enough to stop the motion of the rotating Earth (the “movement” of the Moon). To keep some detail in the foreground, I had to use ƒ4. I could have (and perhaps should have) gone to ISO800 to get an aperture of ƒ5.6. The earlier you shoot in the evening, ideally just after moonrise, the more brightness there is to light the foreground. I made a more wideangle photograph that works well composition-wise, but, for me anyway, the moon is too small to be effective.

I did enjoy shooting some different set-ups, though, as the sun set and for about an hour afterwards. Afterglow provides and interesting cool and low contrast light. Combined with the complete lack of a breeze and shutter speeds of 30 seconds or more are no trouble.

The next super moon – not quite as super as last night’s – is on September 9th, a Tuesday. Mark it on your calendar and try to find the best location near you.

Here is a gallery of the photos I made yesterday, both in the AM and PM.

Michael Wolf’s Architecture of Density

If you haven’t already seen some of Michael Wolf’s work then head over to his website for some amazing urban views. I keep thinking what great jigsaw puzzles these photographs would make. Go there now…

The Historic French River

When canoe and backcountry instructor Marty Tannahill of PaddleIn suggested canoeing along the French River, I was thrilled. Although not a knowledgeable historian, I am keen on history, as much here in Canada as I was when we lived in the UK. In Canadian history, the French River is as important as the Nile to the Egyptians or the Danube to Eastern Europe and the Thames to England. We just don’t see it that way because the usefulness of the French River today extends only as far as cottaging and canoeing – neither of which are on the national political or economic agendas of today.

Back in our fur trading and exploration days, the French River was the conduit for all movement to the interior of the continent. Everyone passed along these shores: the coureur des bois; the voyageurs; the French explorers Étienne Brûlé, Samuel de Champlain, Pierre-Esprit Radisson (and, perhaps “gooseberries”, too); various missionaries; and the British explorers including Simon Fraser, Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson. Canoeing (or kayaking) the French is like following in the footsteps of giants – cool! So, thanks Marty!

Marty and I and friends of his, Sandra and Steve (both experienced canoeists), spent a few days around the area called “The Ladders” – significant due to the double set of rapids that, in the spring are navigable, but in summer are a pile of well-rounded boulders (but made rather unphotogenic due to the mangy brown-black algae). The weather was typical for this summer: we had everything from grey, heavy cloud to full-on thunder, lightning and rain to clearing storm and beautiful sunshine. Of course, to photographers, storms, as they are approaching and receding, provide wonderful drama to otherwise plain blue skies. We were well fed – thanks Adèle! – and managed to make the most of the weather and the shield scapes around us.

Here are six from our trip – click on one to see it full size. navigation links will be at the bottom. The rest of the photos may be viewed over on my Flickr site. Enjoy!

Must see: “Time is a Dimension”

I love it when photographers venture into new territory and have the technical skills and vision to really make an impact. And it is important for every artist to constantly work towards renewal. Photographer Fong Qi Wei has produced a series of unique photographic collages, but rather than stitching together photographs taken at the same time, he combines images taken over a period of time. This is a must see for landscape photographers – something to try yourself. No doubt Fong had many technical and visual hurdles to overcome – and he does so with great success. Here is an example below – but do click through to his website for a more thorough visual feast.

Tiong Bahru Sunset, 2013. All Rights Reserved – Fong Qi Wei

Manitoulin Time – 2

We’re back now… and missing the quiet! The hum of the city is all around us. One thing that struck us as we drove along through the pastoral landscape of Manitoulin – there are no traffic lights on the island except for one at the swing bridge that takes you off the island to the north. I suppose it’s there to make you second-guess your decision to leave 😉  In fact, as we drove south on the Bruce Peninsula from our ferry crossing, the first traffic light we came to was at Wiarton, an hour’s drive to the south, and it has two. Even more interesting was on our drive south from Tobermory to Guelph along Hwy 6, then Grey Road 3 then Wellington 7, there were only 5 or 6 traffic lights in total. That’s 250km of backroads – clear and paved with little traffic.

The other feature this island doesn’t have – to its credit – are fast food franchises. No Tim’s, no McDonald’s, no KFC, Subway or Wendy’s or Burger King or Starbucks or…you get the picture. And you know what that means –  no litter on the highways and in the parking lots.  Now, litter in Ontario is not really a big problem except that when you really start looking, it is everywhere. It’s strange and a bit sad how we have become so blind to litter – so blind that it took us a few days to realize that Manitoulin has virtually no litter.

Apparently, Tim Horton’s is trying to get into Little Current, but the islanders (they’re called Haweaters – another story) are working to keep fast-food off the island. What I found ironic, though, was that the only person we spoke to in favour of having a Tim Horton’s in Little Current was a First Nations women in M’Chigeeng. She would drive to Espanola for a Tim’s (that’s 70km away or 43 miles).

Anyway – a few more pics and a few words about photography… the D800E is performing wonderfully, however, it is causing me to relax my technique a bit. I find I’m shooting a lot more off-tripod, for one simple reason – ISO 400 is amazingly noise- and grain-free and it still has amazing dynamic range.

When I shot film, my favourite film was ISO 50 Fujichrome Velvia. Throw a polarizer in front of it (which I used a lot on Manitoulin) and I would be down to ISO 12. For work at ƒ16, that meant a shutter speed of 1/15 in the sunshine – even slower with less light. At ISO 400, with a Hoya HD polarizer (I highly recommend it), my effective ISO only goes down by 1 stop – to ISO 200. That means 1/200 at ƒ16 in the sunshine which gives me much more latitude than previously.

That being said, I still use a tripod for most of my “important”work, but I find that when I’m shooting really creative detail-type shots like those of the limestone boulders at Mississagi Point, I’m working off-tripod to get just the right composition – which would take forever to set-up with a tripod. I find I’m more spontaneous with my framing, more inventive and more likely to explore which are all great ways to “see” and, for me, result in more dynamic photographs. I guess what I’m saying is that with the quality of the D800E sensor, I have the best of both worlds: 4×5″ quality when I want to work on-tripod with the spontaneous creativity of 35mm when I choose.

BTW – I highly recommend the Hoya HD line of filters for two reason: they don’t scratch and they don’t smudge with fingerprints. Additionally the POLs are only 1 stop darker than reality. Case in point: while setting up the low-angle rocks and river shot along the Kagawong River, I suddenly realized my polarizer was no longer on the front of my 20mm lens. To my horror, it had dropped into the rocky, fast-flowing river. At 62mm it’s big enough, but has surface area that can easily get bunged up on the rocks. Amazingly, after putting my hand down in amongst the crayfish-infested rocks and searching around, I found the filter – whew – they’re expensive! A wipe with my shirt-tail and I was ready to go – no scratches or marks at all – whew, again!

Some pics…

Silverweed and Pink Quartzite Erratic, Misery Bay
Silverweed and Pink Quartzite Erratic, Misery Bay
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Manitoulin Island
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Manitoulin Island
Detail: Ringer Washer Spigot, Manitoulin Island
Detail: Ringer Washer Spigot, Manitoulin Island
Loon Island and the LaCloche Range, Evening
Loon Island and the LaCloche Range, Evening
Evening Clouds and Light, North Channel and LCloche Range, Lake
Evening Clouds and Light, North Channel and LCloche Range, Lake
Morning Clouds over Manitowaning Bay 1
Morning Clouds over Manitowaning Bay 1
Morning Clouds over Manitowaning Bay 2
Morning Clouds over Manitowaning Bay 2
Alpaca, Noble Alpaca Farm, Manioulin Island
Alpaca, Noble Alpaca Farm, Manioulin Island
Log and Board Outbuilding, Manitoulin island
Log and Board Outbuilding, Manitoulin island
Detail: Collection of Old Stuff, Manitoulin island
Detail: Collection of Old Stuff, Manitoulin island
Evening Light, North Channel and LaCloche Range, Lake Huron, Ont
Evening Light, North Channel and LaCloche Range, Lake Huron, Ont

Some thoughts on cropping…

Rock and Light VII

Late last year, there was a rather protracted exchange on a photography forum regarding sensor/film aspect ratio and cropping. A couple of photographers were quite adamant in defending the point of view that the aspect ratio of the camera is sacrosanct and that all photographs should conform to the sensor proportions and not be cropped. So, if you have a 2:3 sensor (most APS and all full-frame sensors) then all your photographs must be printed or presented at 2:3 (e.g. 12″x18″ prints or 1200x800pixels on screen) and never be cropped. Perhaps most confounding was that they also felt that if one was to crop anything from the photograph, it would be regarded as a “failure” to properly compose in the first place. Needless to say, not everyone agreed.

Now, I understand completely where they were coming from – image quality is maximized when the whole sensor/film frame is utlised. What was surprising to me, however, was the vehemence expressed in the posts in support of the no-cropping point of view.

Baraka and his extended family

Being a small-sensor user, I know first-hand the importance of making best use of the sensor to maintain image quality. What’s the sense of cropping on-screen or in the darkroom if all I needed to do in the first place was move closer to my subject? This “fill-the-frame” concept has been around for almost as long as photography and became particularly important with the adoption of the Leica Standard in 1932. Small-frame 35mm film now had to compete with medium and large-format cameras which were the standards of the day and had much larger film surfaces which meant much higher image quality. To maximize the quality from a 35mm frame, the photographer had to make maximum use of it without cropping. This notion developed a near cult-following with photojournalists and street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson leading the way. To prove they did not crop, they went as far as filing away the edges of negative carriers to allow the edges of the film to show in the prints.

Basically, supporters of this notion have carried forward Henri Cartier-Bresson’s (and others’) technique by making it their own. One can’t quibble with personal choice of style. However, is it right to impose that style on other photographers as “the only way”? Shouldn’t photographers be free to make their own decisions about style without having one imposed on them? And, while 20/20 hindsight is wonderful, to call cropping evidence of a failure to compose properly in the first place seems misplaced to the point of verbal bullying.

Precise composition in the field is essential. It’s part of the art of seeing. However, does the world fit nicely and neatly into a 2×3 rectangle? Or a 6×7 rectangle? How about 6×6 or 4×5 or 4:3? It can, if one forces the issue, but should photographers be tied to a rectangle with proportions determined by engineers and camera manufacturers?

Approaching Front, Winter

I have a sensor that is 4036 x 3024 pixels in dimensions: a 4:3 ratio. However, I recognize that some compositions “work” better as a square, a 1:1 ratio. Other scenes benefit from being closer to a 16:9 ratio or even 2:1, letterbox style. I’m not going to ignore a scene I visualise as a square format just because I’m carrying a rectangle! I shoot it with my rectangular sensor and crop to what I originally saw: a square. However, when doing so, I maintain image quality by carefully composing to make best use of the width of the sensor. For most of the images I choose to crop, I do so because that’s the way I saw it in the field. I made the exposure knowing that the scene before me doesn’t fit the format I’m using.

I suppose I could force each and every composition into the 4:3 rectangle of my camera, but, to me, that seems wrong. My goal as a photographer is to “reveal the art inherent in nature” not to force nature into the proportions of a pre-determined rectangle. While making that forced composition is, in itself, an excellent exercise in seeing, it shouldn’t dictate every photograph one makes.

From my perspective, the bottom line is this: if one is pursuing photography as a visual art, a creative outlet for self-expression, then one should not be constrained either by the legacy of previous photographers or by the technical absolutes imposed by sensor or film proportions. Art, in itself, is a vehicle for free-thinking, not a recipe book for re-creating what others are already doing or have done. “Rules” such as, “compose for the aspect ratio of the viewfinder” and “never crop” (or, for that matter, the “rule of thirds”) were created to guide us, in particular those who are developing their talents and style; they are not meant to be absolutes.

Happy New Year! – What’s your photographic resolution?

So 2010 is almost upon us.

What are you going to do differently in 2010? What are you going to challenge yourself with?

It is so easy to get into a rut. If your job is secure and your family is healthy, we often find ourselves a few years down the line wondering what we’ve achieved. I don’t mean that we should feel the need to start a new life or make an impact on the world. It’s just healthy to be thinking of what we can do to stimulate our lives or our hobby.

If you work in photography, try something new this year – a new technique or a new way of looking at the world. If you’ve never tried shooting and processing raw images – try it! If you’ve never explored the nuances of black-and-white – try it! Try shooing everything for one month with your zoom set at its widest angle. Some of the trendier things to do right now include 365 Clubs (an image a day for a year) or, along the same lines but perhaps designed for those who have a day job – contributing to a 52 Club (an image each week). Try printing your ten best photos from 2009 then framing or “plaking”  or 5 of them. How about publishing a book of your 20 best images from 2009. Remember that family trip you took last summer? Put together a book of images and publish it – one for each of your kids so they have it as a reminder. But don’t try all of these at once. Taking on too much at once can cause you to drown in change and projects.

What ever one thing you choose to change or try for the first time, stick with it until you have mastered it. I believe it was photographer Minor White who once said that it takes a full ten years to learn your craft. It’s not a whole craft you’re learning, it’s just one change, so maybe you could accomplish it with some degree of satisfaction in two or three months. Fred Picker, another of America’s black-and-white photographers felt you needed to repeat a task 100 times before you could confidently store it away as “second nature”. He was referring to processing stacks of 4×5 sheet film by shuffling them in a tray of developer in the pitch dark without scratching them. While nothing we do today in photography takes that kind of care a dexterity (after all we’ve all learned Command-Z or Control-Z), there are certain skills that do demand repetitive training. Photoshop routines come to mind such as masking or sharpening or healing brush or black-and-white processing.

At this time of year, just about everyone who feels the need for personal growth is setting for themselves some kind of goals or “resolutions”. Even if you’re a hobbyist, try setting some goals for your photography. Write down two or three things you would like to accomplish this year that are within your power. Winning a photo contest is not really within any one individual’s power no matter who you pray to, so make them personal growth or personal vision goals. Have you ever done a family portrait? Have you ever studied the changing light on a venetian blind as the sun glides across the heavens? Have you ever tried night photography or stars or the city or the moving cars on a highway? How about puddles – have you ever tried to shoot 15 different images of puddles? Here’s my favourite – and, no, my name isn’t Rover – try shooting 15 different images of a fire hydrant. Or shadows in the snow; or a photo essay of your city; or…

A year from now, revisit those goals to discover where they have led you. You may be surprised that the pathway wasn’t as straight as you expected and that somewhere along the way you ended up in an entirely different albeit equally satisfying place.

All the best to you and your family for 2010!

— Terry McDonald