Photographing a late summer garden.   

 

I woke up to a wet day.

There was a light shower overnight, not the strong rain everything is dying for here in the southern part of British Columbia, but it did dampen things down the most since those rainy weeks last June. However, any rain is good and if I had better hearing I surely would have heard happy sounds coming from the garden outside my door.

The drizzle ended and as I lazily finished my morning coffee, like any serious photographer, I knew there was an opportunity waiting.

Many photographers that are excited with all the brilliant colours of spring ignore the dry plants at the end of summer. Sure the reds, blues, purples, bright yellows and greens have mostly gone, but there is still an abundance of colours if one just takes a moment to look.

I like photographing the garden. As that well-worn quote attributed to Mark Twain goes, “ I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like”, I admit that I have no memory for plant names, but I like all the flowers, trees and bushes one finds in a garden.

With me, it’s not really the colour as much as it is the shapes. My approach to a spring, summer, fall and winter garden is much the same. I search for the shapes, differing tones and, of course, the light.

My favourite accessory for rainy days is my ring-flash. As I would with any portrait, person or plant, I always use flash. I usually operate my flash off-camera using light stands and light modifiers. Sometimes just holding my flash at arms length works at the end of the day. But after a rain I like the sparkling direct light a ring flash produces.

The ring flash is a flash that fits around the front of a lens instead of on the camera. I prefer keeping the flash at some distance by employing longer focal length macro lenses. My macro lens, a true macro, is a 200mm. That lens keeps me out of the garden ensuring that I don’t step on other plants.

I photographing the garden, spring, summer, fall and winter, calming. Maybe that’s because I am looking into and at the small details of a landscape ignoring the world around me

When my wife and I photographed the garden together her final images were about space, design and how all the bushes and flowers fit together and how the colours interacted. Linda’s visuals discussed the landscape rather than individual flowers. Mine are more intimate. As I wrote, I am always, “looking into…at the details” when I wander our garden.

As with any portrait, I am rarely satisfied with natural light and almost always add light from a flash. And during those hours of low light as the storm slowly drifts away adding a bit of light to makes a normally flat subject come to life.

That garden just outside my door is always waiting. I never ignore it and am always looking to see what it offers.

I found this quote by the famous Canadian nature photographer and writer Freeman Patterson, “Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, you intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.”

The Photographic idea

This past week I got into a discussion with two local photographers about photography as Art. Their opinion was that photography has become mostly a point-and-shoot process that is really all about documenting one’s personal life.

I think defining Art has always been “in the eye of the beholder”.  

I remember a friend chastising me when I was too critical of a photographer’s image, by saying that all to familiar phrase, “I may not know about Art, but I do know what I like.” 

Ansel Adams, in the forward to his popular 1950’s book “The Print” said, “Photography, in the final analysis, can be reduced to a few simple principles…” and he continued, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art…technique is justified only so far as it will simplify and clarify the statement of the photographer’s concept.”

I remember the series of books by Adams when photography was about striving for the perfect negative and a good final print.

We don’t need to worry about a perfect negative any more, because even if the image file produced in-camera isn’t satisfactory it’s easily colour balanced, cropped, and sharpened later. Contrast can be changed and increasingly, the trend for many photographers has become to not make large prints at all. 

That said, I still think that Adams’ forward in “The Print” may be as worthwhile now as it was in 1950 for a photographer’s Art. Even with the changes of how an image is managed and finally used (whether print or electronic) the thought process is still important. Adams wrote about the technique of taking the picture, the negative, and the printing procedure. He might as well have been talking about transferring image data from a camera to computer, optimizing the files, and outputting to an online portfolio.

Adams wrote, “We may draw an analogy with music: The composer entertains a musical idea. He sets it down in conventional musical notation. When he performs it, he may, although respecting the score, inject personal expressive interpretations on the basic patterns of the notes. So it is in expressive photography: The concept of the photograph precedes the operation of the camera. Exposure and development of the negative…” He continues by saying, “the print itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.”

I have always liked that final sentence of his “…the print (image file?) itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.”   Those words remind me not to be as critical of other photographers work, if as Adams put it, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas.”

I think what my friend meant when he said, ““I may not know Art, but I do know what I like.”   Was that I should be paying attention to what a photographer might be saying with his or her image and remind myself to think about “interpretation” and the “performance of the photographic idea.”

That is why its good that I still have that somewhat out-dated book, and why I should regularly open it up. After all the prattle about the newest camera, or lens, or computer programs, I need to be brought back to what, in the end, photography is about for me personally.

Pritchard Rodeo 2017    

A whole year has past and once again I joined my friends and neighbours for a dusty, fun-filled Sunday at the Pritchard Rodeo.

Now that the rodeo has come and gone and I am sitting at my computer looking through the many pictures I took, it is easy to see that I had a great time. Actually I am pretty sure everyone that attended, participants, organizers, spectators and photographers, had a great time.

This year’s event was a little sparse. Not when it came to all the spectators, the stands were full. But the numbers of cowboys and cowgirls participating was way down because of the wildfires across the province. I expect many were either evacuated and were struggling to safeguard their homes and livestock or they couldn’t get to the rodeo with all the road closures.

The days leading up to this weekend have been smoke filled and the sky has been grey. But by 10AM on Sunday blue sky with a few clouds. My friend Dave Monsees stopped by my house and ten minutes later we were ringside with our cameras, Dave with his 100-400mm and me with my 70-200mm.

At 1PM the Rodeo Chairman, Pritchard Rodeo stood center ring and waved his hat, the announcer called out the first event, a bronc rider burst into the arena, and all the photographers along the rails started shooting.

I’ve written before how suitable the Pritchard Rodeo grounds are for photographers. There’s a strong metal arena railing that makes it safe to stand close to the action without restricting the view. And every year I look forward to standing there along side all the other photographers that, like me, enjoy capturing the fast moving test of wills between animals and riders. I think that photographing any action event is fun and there’s always action at a rodeo.

This year I met two well-known British Columbia rodeo photographers, Elaine Taschuk from Vancouver and Tony Roberts from Kelowna. They talked about other rodeos in BC and their favourite lenses for capturing the action, and naturally the Canon vs. Nikon quips were flying.

Pritchard is the only rodeo I attend. Its close by, easy to get to, and easy to photograph. All one has to do is pay attention to where the participants are coming from and take up a position that allows everything to move towards the camera. Then I select shutter priority, choose a fast shutterspeed and start shooting. I prefer to use Shutter priority (“TV” on Canon and “S’ on Nikon) so I can select the shutter’s speed and let the camera choose the aperture. Yep, it’s darned easy.

This year’s rodeo (or any rodeo for that matter) was a great way to spend the day. When I got home I downloaded my images and quickly edited out those that didn’t look good, then cropped and balanced the exposure on those I chose to keep.

There will be lots of rodeos over the summer and into the fall that are well worth any photographer’s time. My advice is to grab that camera and mount any zoom lens that, at least, goes to 200mm. Then enjoy a day that will fill your computer with some great action photographs.

Why I like Multi-focal (Zoom) lenses.        

 

The first SLR I owned came with three lenses. Gosh I was pleased, it had a 35mm, 50mm and a 135mm. The years passed and I started working as a photographer documenting many of the alternative approaches to learning that were happening at that time in Southern California’s Education system.

At that time my gear was an SLR, a 50mm and a 200mm lens. Equipment that I quickly found lacking in the fast moving events I was expected to document. Sure, sometimes I photographed students sitting down, but more often than not, those grade schoolers were bouncing around coastal rocks while searching tide pools, excitedly running on board whale watching boats, dashing through city parks and even racing up stairs in some Los Angeles high-rise.

Changing lenses on the go, better yet “on the run”, was a hassle and awkward in a crowded space.

Then a company named Vivitar started advertising their 70-210mm zoom lens. I can remember talking with other working photographers about the magazine advertisements showing a page of postage stamps with perfectly in line perforations.

I’ll make this short by saying, it wasn’t long before I owned one, and wow, could I work a crowded street, schoolyard, site seeing-boat or any other people-filled event. The fact that it wasn’t a wide angle and I was forced to stand back was a minor inconvenience. I shot tight. I got faces, hands, feet, children talking up close, and was able to capture those quick ever-changing expressions.

I was sold on the versatility of that first multifocal length lens. I shot thousands of slides and black and white prints for my employer until I left, deciding to wander up the coast and settle in British Columbia, Canada.

Digital had yet to be invented or thought of by those of us earning our living with cameras, and the bigger the negative was the better. I remember feeling bad for those unfortunate brides and grooms that chose some pal to record their wedding with the family 35mm.

Serious photographers were using medium format cameras and there were very few zoom lenses for medium format. So I was stuck changing lenses again. Lenses that like the big cameras they fit, took up space and made the camera burdensome.

Finally after many painful and expensive years of carrying big formats, Kodak began offering a 35mm professional film that maintained a neutral and true to life colour and was great for enlargements. The film, called “Portra” came in ISO160, ISO400 and ISO800. So with that I was back to using 35mm and zoom lenses again.

I would pack two camera bodies to an event like a wedding, one for black and while and one for colour. I had my choice of mounting a 35-105mm or a 70-200mm multi-focal length lens on which ever I needed at the moment. That flexibility gave me an edge on those photographers that were struggling as they tried to keep up during quickly changing events.

Zoom lenses allowed me to choose the crop I wanted and gave me versatility and speed in any situation.  That Versatility and speed is lacking when I am forced to change lenses and gosh, moving back and forth to widen or narrow framing is just tedious. Having many focal lengths all-in-one keeps me from missing those once in a lifetime shots.

Present day zoom lenses have become sharper, quicker and lighter than those I used with my film cameras. And for those, like me, that have a vacation planned for the upcoming summer. One lens that has the ability to capture and change the world’s perspective at a multitude of focal lengths is so much easier to carry around than several (prime) lenses with focal lengths that are fixed.

 

An excellent tool for a roadside photographer           

I live in a wooded rural location just short of an hour from the city of Kamloops in British Columbia, and it’s so easy to hop in my car to drive along the winding back roads. I suppose I could hike or climb, but truth be told I have the most fun as a roadside photographer.

For years, each spring, my wife and I looked forward to seeing geese hatchings at a near by pond. There are normally two, or sometimes three adults with six or eight goslings hiding in the long grass just across the reed filled pond. However, this spring there are at least eight adult geese and maybe twenty soft yellow goslings residing at the pond.

To photograph them we would stealthily slow the car down and ease to a prolonged stop. Coming to a sudden stop spooks the apprehensive geese causing them to dash away. Do geese “dash”?   Anyway the fearful gaggle of geese would quickly move from sight. And opening the car door to try photographing them is a waste of time.

Having decided on the time of day that gives me the best light, I first slowly drive by so as to determine where I want to stop for the best photos and I shoot from the car. The geese are usually far enough away that anything shorter than a 300mm lens isn’t close enough. Actually, 300mm isn’t really close enough.

In the past twenty plus years Linda and I used countless kinds of equipment to stabilize our lenses. And the best, in my opinion, is a beanbag. A beanbag fits nicely on the car’s windowsill and allows the photographer to nestle down and rest any size lens on it for shake free shooting.

This year I purchased, after months of research and selling off some of my other lenses, the latest Tamron 150-600mm lens. The lens weighs just over four pounds and although it does have vibration control, shooting from a seated position in a car isn’t the best for sharp, shake free photographs. So out comes the beanbag. However,  I quickly realized that big lens demanded a larger beanbag than the one I hastily stitched together years ago.

With a bit of online searching I found a company called Movophoto.com that makes a large and unique beanbag that fits like a saddle over the car window. With my limited sewing skills I could never have made such a perfect beanbag for that big lens. I ordered it, and when it finally arrived I filled it with rice, and although it’s heavy it resides in the car and stays put on the window, so the weight is a good thing. There are a lot of gadgets that I could spend my money on, but for now that beanbag is my favourite.

I slowed my car to a stop next to the pond, shut the engine off, positioned my camera on the large beanbag, and waited for the geese to resume their browsing along the grassy hill beside the pond. At 600mm I was able to frame pretty darn close. Then, when I wanted a different position, I’d just move the car a bit, and take more pictures. I photographed those geese (and some nearby turtles) for about thirty minutes.

Suddenly I heard loud honking from some unseen goose that must have been hiding in the tall pond reeds, and, like a crowd scene from a movie, they all turned at once and rushed into the pond.

I am sure there are experienced photographers that would have set up a blind and waited for hours to get the perfect shot. There is no doubt they will get my respect. But I know where those geese are and what time of day is the best to photograph them. And anyway my car is really comfortable and when I am done I just drive home. I guess I am just a roadside photographer.

Shooting infrared on a quiet spring evening.     

This week had one of those nice quiet evenings that are all so common here in British Columbia. By 7:30PM the sun was starting to go down giving the landscape dramatic shadows and a day’s end glowing light.

I’ll admit I was feeling pretty lazy after tearing the tile out of our shower wall so I could fix the tub taps, but there wasn’t anything interesting on the TV so I decided a short drive around my wooded neighbourhood might clear the tile dust out of my eyes and hair.

Over the many years I have been shooting with first, infrared film, and then for the past 10 plus years, a digital camera converted to only capture infrared, I have found that late afternoons give me the most impressive effects.

So, I grabbed my old IR modified Nikon D100, mounted a 24-70mm lens on it and set off along the winding roads that make up the wooded and hilly location I live in.

That old 6MP camera has served me well, I purchased it new when digital cameras were finally making images with enough quality to compete with film. I photographed weddings, scenics and everything else that I once shot with film. Then when Nikon began offering better sensors with more megapixels I sat it aside. For a while I called it my “car-trunk” camera because I just left it in the car all the time.

Then I read about infrared conversions. I had always shot black and white infrared film, but it was such a hassle. Loading and unloading the camera in the dark and even waiting till late in the evening to process it in metal tanks because I worried there might be some stray light creeping into my home photo lab. I sent that camera away and a few hundred bucks, and about a month later I had an infrared camera.

The images I get are a fun change from the colourful pictures or the sharp black and whites I am used to. Infrared is always a crowd pleaser.

I have a book by William Reedy titled, “Impact–Photography for Advertising”. It begins with the words, “To stop the eye… To set the mood… To start the sale…”

Those are great words for any photographer hoping to create visual impact with his or her photography. I think there is no doubt about it that those words ring true when one looks at the surreal effect of an infrared photograph. So I set off on that quite evening with my camera waiting on the empty seat beside me and made stop after stop to create infrared photographs of the rural neighbourhood that I know so well.

I have written about infrared photography before, so I’ll just end this by repeating myself, “Shooting infrared is always an exploration, a discovery and moves a photographer far from the usual.”

The Lens –“its all about the glass”.  

 

I had a discussion with a photographer this week about whether she should buy a new lens or not. At the time I wished we were close to my computer so I could bring out this article I wrote back in November of 2014. With that, here it is again for the few that didn’t get to read it back then.

Ask any experienced photographer whether to buy a new camera or a new lens and the answer will usually be, “it’s all about the glass,” or, “a good lens is more important than a good camera.”

A bad lens on a good camera will still make poor images, but a good lens on a poor or average camera will still give the photographer good results.

I listened to several friends talking over coffee about reviews they had read about the latest camera offering from Canon. The discussion began with questions like, “why does a photographer that doesn’t shoot sports need a camera with 7 or 8 frames a second” and “I really don’t spend much time shooting in low light situations, so why would I spend extra money on a camera because it is capable of a high ISO.” However, as expected, it wasn’t long before the talk turned to an exchange of views on lenses. Remember, after all, “it’s all about the glass.”

The conversation easily moved from a difference of opinion between those that preferred prime (fixed focal length) lenses, and those, like me, that chose multi-focal length (zoom) lenses. We talked about the importance of wide angle and, of course, wide aperture lenses.

Just because you can change the lens doesn’t mean you have to, but I don’t know many photographers that are that sensible. Most of us are willing to add a new lens to our camera bag as soon as we have extra cash in our pockets. Hmm…that might be more emotional and impulsive than sensible.

I know very few that are content with the short zoom “kit lenses” they got with their camera any more than they are with the tires the manufacturer installed on their car. Yes, the lenses, just like the tires aren’t high quality, but when we change the lens it alters the visual personality of the image, and most photographers I know are engaged in, what I’ll call, a search for a perspective that fits their personal vision.

The camera might capture some subject’s personality, but the lens, in my opinion, allows the resulting image to say something about the photographer.

Several photographers standing on a picturesque hillside using the same camera and lens will probably produce much the same image, but give them each a different lens and the resulting images will be diverse, distinct, and individual.

Yes, it is all about the glass, and there is an exciting diversity of lenses out there waiting for each photographer to choose, discard, and choose again as they explore and create within this stimulating medium.

As I wrote those words I wondered if there were other words that I could use that were more applicable than stimulating. I could have used, intoxicating, invigorating, or even compelling. They all fit and, I think, could apply to some of the feelings those photographers lounging around my shop drinking warm coffee on a cold day as they talked about the lenses they used and would like to use.

A new camera is a lot of fun, but it really is “all about the glass.