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.

Printing Your Own Digital Photographs    

Printing Photos

I had a good time this past week talking with a couple of long time photographers about printing photographs. It was a walk down memory lane as we talked about using film, and how we would spend hours in darkened rooms printing black and white photographs, and about the exciting, and enjoyable, shift to digital images and modern printmaking.

Just like those days when commercial photo labs struggled to match what, with a little practice, a photographer could produce in his or her basement darkroom, I have no doubt that today’s affordable high tech home printers allow us to produce fine art prints that can surpass what most big box commercial labs will give us.

In my opinion it comes down to a battle between visions: The Lab’s or ours. For example, imagine packing your camera equipment off to some isolated location, waiting for hours for the light to reach a colour and effect that matched the artistic vision you desire. Then setting your cameras’ controls with all the experience and skill that you have, and finally releasing the shutter.

Until recently when photographers shot in colour they had to rely on the skill of lab technicians who would hopefully process the images the way they wanted.

Lab technicians, even though well skilled, could only guess at what the conditions were like when the photographer released the shutter, and I suspect much of the time found it rather difficult to recreate and could only guess at the shooting conditions.

Sometimes a slight change in exposure or shift in color will make our photograph stand out, and only we can determine that. For example, those photographers that have bracketed the exposure values of an image know what I am referring to when they are frustrated because they got back several differently exposed prints all printed exactly the same from the lab. The vision in that case becomes the Lab’s; not theirs.

Yes, if we are unsatisfied we would return the film and prints to the lab for a redo. However, more often that not, we just give up and accept the best the lab can do, or try other labs till we get close to what we remembered trying to capture on our film.

I am not going to get into a discussion of printers and papers right now – I’ll save that for another time. I want to go back to where I talked about what happens after we have captured that image we took at that isolated location.

We look on our digital camera’s LCD screen, and check the Histogram to make sure we have captures from which we can work. Now, instead of leaving our vision to the choices of an unknown technician and waiting for the photographs, we download our memory card into our computer, enjoy immediate visual feedback on our photographs, and by using whatever post production software we have we can follow our vision with precision to the final outcome: a photograph that shows exactly what we want it to show; our personal vision. How exciting is that?

With today’s digital technology we can follow our photographic vision from start to finish, from idea to finished print in a way that is far better that ever before possible. And, by using quality photographic printer equipment, photographers can make spectacular enlargements that will give their photography another dimension of control and creativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which Button is for the Composition Mode?        

Pritchard store

Open Gates bw

Forest path

Canon Beach 2

Palouse falls 2

Which button is for the composition mode?     Yes, I did get asked that question the other day, but it is not as silly as it first sounds. I’ll go back to the conversation from which it comes.

A customer stopped by my shop wanting to get a different camera other than the one he had been using for over 20 years.

I was showing him a couple of cameras and explaining the different modes like “aperture priority”, “shutter priority”, “program” and “manual” when he made the statement, “All that seems a bit complicated, just show me which button is for the composition mode because mostly I like taking scenics”.

The other customer in the store stopped her browsing, turned, and just looked at me. I’m not sure if she was troubled by his statement, or also wanted to know about this secret button.

I replied, “Composition is what you do, not the camera, to position your subject within the viewfinder frame,” and added; “composition also deals with perspective and the relationship you create between subjects in the foreground and background.”

Does all that seem too complicated of an answer? I was making squares and rectangles with my hand and moving things around on the counter as I explained it hoping to make it clear to him. Now, however, let us go back to his question of the “composition button” and what he was trying to achieve with his camera. Remember his last camera was from the 1970’s. Even auto focus was new to him.

Cameras programmed since the 1980s are pretty capable of getting the exposure correct in all but the most contrasty lighting conditions. If he were to get serious now that he was about to get a DSLR he would be trying to discover how other successful photographers compose a scenic. Or he would be doing some reading, joining a camera club, or taking some classes that would teach him composition. My impression was that he just liked to take pictures and capture memories of the places he has been. So I think either the mode with the “little mountains” or with the “running person” on the dial of the camera I was showing him would give him exactly what he was looking for and we could, if we wanted to, call them composition modes.

The exposure mode I feel most comfortable with is manual and I am continually thumbing through the different menus on my camera to reset things. I make my living using a camera so I have a camera in my hand a lot of the time. I think each of us needs to use our cameras in ways that make us comfortable so we won’t happen to be confused and experimenting with the settings at that moment when the action happens in front of our camera.

I used to call that a “Kodak moment”. Hmmm, I think I need to find a new phrase now that I am no longer using Kodak films and that company has pretty much disappeared.

In any event, I recommended that he not worry too much about composition and experiment with the different modes his camera has to offer other than “P”. Hopefully he’ll stop by again and I can get him using his DSLR as more than just a point and shoot camera.

In closing this article that started with thoughts of composition, I particularly like this quote of Alexander Lee Nyerges of the Art Institute of Dayton, Ohio, when discussing an exhibition of Ansel Adams of the American West.

“His landscapes were operatic in composition, complete with lighting, tragedy and drama—luring those who viewed his works to seek Nature and capture the spirit of the wilderness.” I am certain Adams had a special button for composition.

Photographer’s Workflow   

WorkStation

This week there was quite a discussion in my shop about the selection of software for producing quality images. Today photographers are clicking camera shutters more than compared to just a few short years ago when photography was ruled by film. Exposing four or five 36-exposure rolls while on vacation, or at a family event, was pretty much the norm instead of the 600, or 1600, captures filling memory cards today.

We each talked about our personal workflow for editing images. The following is some of what I added regarding my own workflow, and some of the programs I use to speed things up.

When I get home with images in my camera the first thing I do is remove the memory card, insert it in the card reader attached to my computer, and begin
the process of downloading. I am usually excited with anticipation about the 
images I have just captured and I want to see them right away.

I begin with a program called Photo Mechanic from Camerabits.com. Photo Mechanic is a fast and easy way to 
work with and manage groups of photos.  I open up a screen full of pictures, select those I want to keep, batch-rename them, and move them to a 
new folder.  The process is very fast and in a short while I can go through and review what I have just photographed.

I don’t leave my image files waiting very long before I start to work on them. 
I am always excited; I hate waiting, and I enjoy working on my pictures. Years ago I would be in my photo lab, with the stereo turned up, happily developing, and printing enlargements in a darkened room only illuminated with red and amber 
lights.

Nowadays I am still happily “developing”, but with the music coming from bigger speakers in my living room and I am sitting in a comfortable chair
instead of standing on a rubber mat in my basement darkroom.  There are no wet trays; there are no coloured lights, just a couple of big, bright computer displays with colourful 
pictures.

I then start the process of enhancing images and for that I employ several programs. Of course there is the ever-familiar Photoshop, however, depending on how I decide to fine tune my images I might choose to use the feature packed Perfect Suite program from Ononesoftware.com. Perfect Suite is a photo editor that works as either a standalone application, or plug-in editor, to Adobe Photoshop that includes some pretty exciting tools.

For years photographers have used graduated filters to cope with the contrasts of bright sky, and low light foregrounds with deep shadows, or bright highlights, when photographing landscapes. Although I don’t recommend getting rid of those filters yet, there is a program that may save lots of time usually spent in Photoshop lightening 
and darkening those landscape pictures. It is called Photomatix from HDRsoftware.com. Photomatix combines more than one exposure of a single subject that is exposed from the darkest shadow to the brightest highlights by creating an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image.

Finally, I will reach into a powerful and fun collection of fine-tuning programs from Niksoftware.com’s easy to use image editor that allows me to compare and make different adjustments quickly.

Most of my images are pretty good when I finish them in Photoshop. However, in my continual quest to speed up my post-processing of images, reduce my time behind the computer, and still produce quality images I find that combining these five programs fits my workflow perfectly.

I know that new cameras and lenses are what most photographers lust after, but I think if you are trying to justify expensive equipment purchases to your spouse, partner, or banker, it might be easier if you are already making show stopping, eye-catching pictures. Check the programs I have mentioned (always try their trial copies first) and see if they are for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Infrared photography moves a photographer far from the usual.

Horses in meadow

Monty Creek

Pritchard Barn

Spring pond                                                Pond Cattail

Monty Creek Church  Watch for Livestock

Sometimes it is necessary for me to get away from doing the usual things. My time as a photographer is spent being precise. I meter for the light and shadow, striving for the best possible exposure, and not much is left to chance.

On the Easter weekend I spent a day photographing a family Christening. My job was to take a creative approach to photographing that religious occasion and telling the family’s story. At an event such as a Christening nothing waits for the photographer and there is no time to correct omissions or mistakes.

The main rule for me was to keep out of everyone’s way, not to become a focal point of attention, and never to miss any thing that happens.

The next morning as I sat at my computer working on the post-production photo editing of the Christening my wife mentioned she would like to finish off the roll of film she had been saving for a sunny day. It didn’t take much convincing to ignore the day’s “to do” list and as I looked out at the clear blue sky I realized I needed something to take off the stress I had been feeling.

There is nothing quite like infrared photography. It is always an exploration when I use the well-worn Nikon D100 that I had modified many years ago to only “see” infrared light.

Vegetation appears white or near white. Black surfaces can appear gray or almost white depending on the angle of reflected light, and if photographed from the right direction the sky becomes black. The bluer the sky, the more the chance there is for an unworldly, surreal effect. And white surfaces can glow with a brightness that illuminates the sky.

I have written about infrared before, but for those that are new to this subject here is the gist of it.

Digital camera sensors are as sensitive to infrared light as to visible light. In order to stop infrared light from contaminating images manufacturers place what they call “a hot filter” in front of the sensor to block the infrared part of the spectrum and still allow the visible light to pass through. My infrared modified D100 has had that filter removed and replaced with a custom filter that allows for infrared only.

My wife wanted to visit a marshy area not far from our home that on wet years fills up with water, and is annually visited by birds, ducks, and geese. But this year’s early dry spring has not given the marsh much water, and when I walked up to the dam two ducks quacked loudly and flew away, and that was the only wildlife sighting for the day.

The back roads always have something to photograph, so we moved on and chose our subjects depending on the light. Linda was shooting with her old medium format 1950’s Ikoflex and was looking for interesting features like fallen trees and rock formations. That particular old film camera doesn’t have an automatic mode, or an in camera meter and requires a hand held light meter. I am sure the few passers by wondered at a woman standing roadside with a boxy thing hanging from her neck while she peered at something in her outstretched hand.

I just explored, and unlike Linda’s limited, 12 exposure roll of film, I had an almost endless supply of digital choice, and besides, infrared changes the way we see things. So I pointed my camera at anything that caught my eye.

I began this discussion with the words, “I spend my time being precise.” And “Not much is left to chance.” However, not so much with infrared. I only use the meter as a not-so-precise guide, and don’t worry about much else. I do try for interesting angles of the subjects I photograph, but sometimes I am in for a surprise when I bring the images up on my monitor.

Shooting infrared is always an exploration, a discovery and moves a photographer far from the usual.

I look forward to all comments. Thanks, John

 

The Photographic Composer’s Score and Performance

Spring storm

A storm o the prairie

 

Wind power

Windpower

October Infrared

October walk in Infrared

Trans Canada trucking

Trans Canada Highway – Infrared

River bluffs

Infrared of Thompson River

 

I taught photography in the 1980s and 90s for the University College of the Cariboo (now Thompson River University) when the only way to make a photograph was using film.

In my lectures I informed students that as well as learning about their cameras, they must become proficient in negative development and printmaking. I would emphasize that those serious about the medium of photography would come to realize that what they did with the camera and the negative it produced was only the beginning, and that it was their final print that would set them apart as a photographer. And I would quote famous photographer Ansel Adams, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print…its performance…”

Film has now been discarded by most serious photographers, although I expect artists will use film creatively for years to come, nevertheless, even with advancing photographic digital technology Adams’ words from the past are still significant.

The digital camera isn’t making a picture in the sense of light permanently imprinting itself with different intensities on a chemically sensitized surface like film. Instead there are sensors and in-camera computers processing light from thousands of photosites that are transferred to computers as data files for conversion into countless pictorial possibilities. I have become, more than ever, of the opinion that like the negative, the RAW image file, is now the “score” to Ansel Adams – the photographic print.

I know there are those that haven’t bothered to move their camera selector off JPG (Joint Photographic Group). However, choosing JPG files means those images are pre-processed in-camera and the photographer loses control. I prefer shooting RAW (not an acronym like JPG, RAW is unprocessed data) and choosing RAW is like having the negative Mr. Adams discussed, affording us total control over those data files or, more importantly, allowing a personal vision of how the final photograph will look.

A young photographer that came into my shop last week got me thinking about this when, with some kind of misplaced pride, he announced he would never use PhotoShop on any of his pictures because he was only into true reality. Although I didn’t comment, I thought about the manufacturer’s presets that were applied in-camera to his image files, the sensor’s dynamic range of only about five stops from black to white and the very limited number of colour spaces his tiny JPG files gave him.

Some years ago I attended a print-making lecture during which one of the speakers said in the past he would get up early and drive to some scenic location hoping to capture an impressive sunrise, after which he would package up his film and send it to the lab and leave all decisions to an unknown technician’s personal vision. However, now he shoots RAW and transfers his image files to his computer and the decision has become his to control how his photograph will be processed for viewing.

As in the days when I processed and altered negatives in special chemicals and manipulated prints by adding and subtracting light, I now use computer programs to process my RAW images in my quest to perfect my vision of each. And I expect the same thing is true now as it was with my students all those years ago, that what they do with the camera is only the beginning, and to repeat Ansel Adams, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print (is) its performance…”

I look forward to all comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

Black and White as a Photographic Medium

1. Cameras  2. Ghost town  3. Kamloops fence & hills  4. Quick turn at the rodeo  4.Chuck the rooster  5. Flower  6. Bailea  7. Monica  8. Church lantern  9. Headwaters

Lois Lane, Kelowna

Black and White as a Photography  has always been my favourite photographic medium. I recall when I first began pointing my camera at different subjects, and started making photographic prints, that I didn’t think too much of colour photography. Yes, colour was fine for documentary work as found in “National Geographic” magazine, or making snapshots of some family, but in the 1970s creative photographers seemed to be working in black and white, not colour.

Photojournalist Ted Grant, who is regarded as Canada’s premier living photographer wrote,

“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!”

Black and white photographs always (and still do in my opinion) seem to create moods and convey an almost tactile quality.

During the period of film photography, photographers had to decide whether their subject would look best in black and white print film, colour print film or slide film and most photographers trudged around with at least two camera bodies weighing them down. However, today that decision to make a black and white image is best left to the computer and some exciting post-production software. And there is no need pack around another camera. (Well, unless one is worried about camera failure.)

Thankfully post-production is no longer contained to dedicated, darkened rooms. I still have an 11×11 foot room in our basement, complete with a six-foot stainless steel sink and custom cabinets. However, it’s mostly used to store photo equipment and for washing my chickens’ eggs. Now my lab is on the main floor of our home and instead of chemicals, the image and print production has become an intricate combination of computer programs, quality printers, and papers that easily rivals the quality of chemical-based, traditional, black and white photography.

A black and white photograph depends on its ability to communicate, it doesn’t need to rely on eye-catching colours for its’ visual presentation. Those B&W images that stand and pass the test of time combine attention to subtle changes in light, composition, and perspective. And it stretches our creativity and forces us to visualize our world in different terms. I remember a photographer once saying that he believed shooting in B&W refined one’s way of seeing. And I heartily agree.

In spite of the many modern photographers that don’t bother with anything more than just accepting what comes out of their camera, black and white photography is far from being left behind in the past, and, in my opinion, with the current processing software, updates in high quality printers, and the latest in printing papers, black and white image-making will continue to be an option for a host of serious creative photographers.

Those photographers that are good at black and white photography learn to exploit the differences in tonal elements in a scene and present viewers with successful B&W portrayals that make excellent use of shapes, textures, light and shadow, and the loss of those original colours becomes irrelevant.

For those that haven’t tried monochromatic (another word applied to B&W) image making, I will mention that it is easier than ever. Most digital cameras have a black and white mode available in the menu. I don’t really like using that, as it does nothing more than de-saturate an images colour data file, excluding control of the different tonal values that make up a black and white image. I suggest trying one of the many great programs available on the Internet that can be downloaded to test for free. Who knows, you might, like I do, really like black and white photography.

Readers by now must know how much I like quotes from famous photographers. So I’ll finish this up with some words from a turn of the century fashion and commercial photographer, Paul Outerbridge: “One very important difference between color and monochromatic photography is this: in black and white you suggest; in color you state. Much can be implied by suggestion, but statement demands certainty… absolute certainty.”

I welcome any comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com