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Autumn has come (photographically speaking) in central Europe, and we could not wait to see the first fall colours inundating the slopes of the Alps. A few days ago we visited the area of Saas Valley, in Valais, and the still green larches from the valley bottom have already turned to gold at higher altitudes. We spent a night up there in what seemed to be the last “decent” temperatures of the season and experienced a great sunset, star-filled night and wonderful sunrise. Although the panoramic images are still in the lab, I decided to post one of the digital captures we took there.

 To the tell you the truth, this images is quite unconventional, taking into account nice autumn colours scream for colour images normally. However, there are some times you really know black and white will enhance the message and visual impact of the image…and this was one of those cases.

When talking about composition to my students, i have always hated to talk about “rules”. For me, there are no real rules of compositions. As Eliot Porter said, “thinking about rules of composition when taking an image is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.  If you really twist my arm asking for “rules”, I would tell you: Simplify, and make the abstraction of the subject matter into its visual building blocks…This later part means: instead of looking at a certain part of the landscape and seeing “trees”, “rocks”, “water”, “clouds” and “mountains”, you should see tones, colours, lines, shapes, balance between elements, visual tension, repetitions, visual echos, textures, patterns,…It is only in this way that you will become a visual artist, and not a simple snapshooter. If you want images than transcend the simple denotations, you need much more than a nice subject and a great light. You need to take your responsibility as photographer, and do that so important part of the job which consists in putting a frame around a little piece of reality to show it to others, in a way it conveys the message you want to be conveyed. And to do this, you need to stop thinking in terms of “subjects depicted” or “tags” and start thinking in terms of visual components for your image.

If you take a look at this image, the real message is the drama of the alpine world, a dynamic image showing what anyone might feel when in the mountains. This message is conveyed by means of that channel of expression which is completely linked to the depicted subject matter. In this case, the fury of the elements (the water raging down the valley), the mineral raw material which created the whole thing (the rock boulders) and the majestic peaks towering over the whole, almost touching that sky with booming clouds where the back light and god beams add to the drama. If these elements depicted help transmit the message, the sole channel of the subject matter represented in the image is not enough for a really strong image. We need to use or accompany that by a second channel of expression in a coherent way: what I call the structural or formal expression of the image. This means we need to use the visual building blocks which are the base for any visual design, as words which put in a certain order convey and highlight the same message or evocative feeling we want to pass with our image content. In this example, the photograph is about dynamism, drama, intemporality, wilderness and raw natural force. 

This message is conveyed by using a diagonal lines, triangular shapes (you might be able to count more than 12 different triangles here), a high overall contrast, a shutter speed which retains a strong texture in the water but shows its movement, the back lighting, the sharp angles and rugged texture of the rocks, the wide richness of tones, the depth created by the water getting diagonally into the frame and bouncing in zig zag as it enters the image, the diminishing perspective (trees becoming smaller as they get far away)…and the black and white conversion.

Black and white here does two things: it takes away an extra dose of documentary or realistic level and elevate the image to a higher level of connotations, and most of all, focuses the attention to the strong visual qualities of the composition without adding an extra layer of information which would not have added as much expression but more complexity. In a way, getting rid of the colour, you see much easier the wonderful textures, lines, shapes of the scene, and savour much slower the strong composition of the scene. In a way, with the black and white conversion I opted for strengthening the message conveyed by the visual building blocks of the image, even if I had to sacrifice the richness of the autumn colour at the level of the subject matter. It adds, therefore, a timeless quality to the image, which corresponds very well with that image of  imtemporality which we associate to these rock giants. However, as in every artistic endeavour, the taste might be different and some people might prefer a colour rendition…In the end, the is no real truth, and that is the funny thing!

Thanks for reading and great light to you all ;-)

(click on the image to see it bigger!)

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If you are really serious about your photography, you will surely know how depressing can be a totally sunny day for a landscape photographer. The perfect time for a hike or a family picnic is a total nightmare for the tripod warrior. That is good news, thought, as otherwise I would miss all barbecues with family and friends…

Sunny days are difficult. Light is soon too contrasty (most of all during summer months) and the absence of clouds means no reflected-diffused light around. Shades go totally black and highlights are blown out. You might ease the pain with a polarizer filter, but only partially, and giving nasty blobs of dark polarized skies when using wide angle focal lengths. Therefore, there is the absence of mood, drama, and the 2D effect in the horizons (most of all when shooting mountain regions) where the skyline seems a card-board cut-out. Get into the forest and the effect will also be miserable. Too contrasty light will explode the dynamic range or exposure latitude of any film or sensor, giving you patches of blacks and whites in a messy environment full of disturbing elements. Of course, sunny days have some other possibilities. You can shoot more intimist scenes in the shade, where you will be using light reflected from the sky. Get a subtractor (something dark absorbing the light) and you might get some directional reflected light, giving you soft light still able to sculpt the texture and detail of your subject. The other possibility, if you still want to shoot wide vistas, is taking advantage of twilight and sunrise-sunset. More than ever, you will need to wake up early or stay late (you had your barbecue, so dont complain). Twilight will give you soft and directional light reflected by the sky when the sun is about to rise or just set below the horizon. Therefore, you will have the bonus of shooting at the antisolar point, observing if you are high enough (mountains) the twilight wedge or shade projected by the Earth on the sky (purple band below the pinky colors of the last edge of the sky lit by the sun). Sunrise and sunset will also keep you busy; giving you some minutes of warm and soft light, not too contrasty, that might provide beautiful possibilities. For the rest of the day, it will be scouting looking for photo opportunities and interesting compositions for the evening to come.

So the thing is, if you really want to push further your photography, you will need to get wet, chilly and muddy. That is not bad news, it is a lot of fun. Trust me.

CLOUDY AND STORMY WHEATER

This is one of the very best opportunities for landscape photography, most of all when attempting to shoot wide sweeping vistas. It is also the best opportunity to get struck by a lighting as metallic cameras on tripods standing in elevated points are begging for problems. Anyway, if we suppose we are cautious, these conditions will add lots of positive things to our photographic activity. Firstly,  cloudy skies will limit the contrast of the light filling the shades with light scattered-diffused-reflected by the clouds. Secondly, they will provide more depth to the compositions, and thirdly, they will add tons mood and drama. Painters knew this very well, and used extensively “stormy-like” effects in their work. Think of Rembrandt, the master of the Chiaroscuro effect, displaying in his work contrasty scenes with a lot of depth and drama by alternating in the painting very dark and light zones. 20090102-_DSC3212

In nature, and particularly in landscape photography, we can also make use of such a technique to provide a shot with loads of drama and ambiance. Imagine an image where a key element nestles in the landscape. A focal point: a barn, a mountain peak, a group of animals, etc. If you have fast moving clouds around and you wait and have a lucky strike, you might have the possibility of pressing the shutter when only that very important area of the landscape is lit by a sun beam, while the rest of the image is in shade. Another possibility is having bands of unlit-lit areas in the landscape: layering of light will give you a lot of depth in the image, providing a strong 3D effect. And then, there is the real drama of shooting a storm passing over the landscape: rainbows, rain curtains, backlit hail or rain drops, threatening skies, etc. _DSC1445

FOG AND MIST

Fog and mist can turn the most miserable and mundane place into a fairy tale or otherworldly image. They make things look very different, allowing you to come with striking images. Therefore, they also provide aerial perspective, giving you a lot of depth in the images, just by changing the tones of the elements according to their distance to the lens. For once too, the weather plays ball with the old saying “less is more”, as fog will erase most of the details of the landscape giving you the chance of playing with a blank canvas where to compose the image with the key elements. Fog and mist can also give you the possibility of witnessing “God beams”, or light rays being diffracted by the fog when obstacles are around. The possibilities are endless, so never complain about fog or mist, and look for it, going up the mountain looking for those clouds wrapped in the high forest._DSC1387

RAIN AND TOTALLY OVERCAST SKIES

Have you ever considered why some images of the forest-river-cascades look sometimes awful? Besides the common problem of forests (total chaos to be “ordered” by the photographer) the main problem tends to be the light. Sunny days (unless you have mist around which will give you beautiful rays of light in all directions) tend to provide too contrasty images under the canopy. This is not a total rule, but is normally the case (you might find very nice opportunities of shooting the autumn canopy, yellow foliage glowing backlit against a totally blue sky for instance). One of the best opportunities for shooting woods, waterfalls and rivers is under a totally overcast sky, with plenty of light. The soft and almost non directional light given by that gigantic diffuser that is a covered sky will provide a very even light that will get to the darkest shades of the forest filling it with light. The highlights are limited too, avoiding the typical reflections on the leaves that blow up the histograms during sunny days. But that is not all. There is also the saturation of the colors. After some rain (or during the rain) you will get pure hues in the woods, greener greens and a much more ambiance, making the viewer of your photo almost smell the humidity and freshness of the forest. However, don’t forget your polarizer, as wet surfaces will cast heavy reflections even under the softer light, killing all those colors and details.narcisses

Another good property of cloudy skies and the softness of the light they provide is the high level of detail and colour that we can get in such conditions. Think on close-ups, flowers, very detailed elements, colourful stuff, foliage, etc. All this elements will benefit very much from soft light. The only problem you might have is getting the skies out of the image if they are totally blank. Totally featureless skies do not add anything to the image and will probabliy go overexposed, so you’d better rule them out of the image.  However, this latter situation might not always be true, as sometimes even in the most cloudy skies the clouds display interesting texture, that can be kept within the latitude of the film-sensor with a good graduated neutral density filter.

SNOW AND FROST

As well as fog and mist, snow and frost can turn a normal scene into a winter wonderland. However, try to get it still clinging from branches, leaves, roofs and ground. That means that if you head out for photography when it has stopped snowing, you will normally miss the moment.

Different possibilities arise with snow: the snow still falling in the landscape will give you impressionistic effects with snow streaks crossing the image or as hundreds of tiny dots if the selected speed has been quick enough; the isolated element floating in the middle of the blizzard; the snow storm clearing with warm hues painting the snow canvas on the landscape, etc. 20090313-_DSC1038

WIND

Is landscape static? Not at all. Look at those clouds, vegetation and water. Everything moves. Photographs are frequently called “still” images, however i cannot disagree more. Leave the diaphragm opened for a few seconds and you will portrait all that dynamism: swaying trees, streaking clouds over the sky, blurred water and reflections, etc. So, dont get angry next time  you cannot keep sharp those little flowers in the background due to the strong wind. Stop down the lens and put some neutral density filters on it, and reinforce the sense of movement obtaining impressionistic effects on vegetation as the shutter is opened for a few seconds.

So, next time you look at the weather forecast and see some “bad” conditions to come, get your camera gear and prepare to head out to look for stunning and powerful images. The barbecue you were going that evening might have been cancelled, after all :).

Thanks for reading, and good light to you all.

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Digital demons…

Hello all. I need some tan. Ok, difficult task when you are in the middle of the european winter. But i really need a tan. I have spent the last three weeks glued to the computer screen, and it seems i will need to buy soon an UVA monitor… The reason is that three weeks ago we finally landed from a 4 weeks trip in Chile and Argentina. That means loads of photos, and that means loads of time classifying, rating, selecting and quickly post-processing gigas of NEF files. Anyway, i will not regret. That is the price to pay to the digital demons. You get histograms, you get flexible ISO, you dont spend a penny while pulling the trigger and you can even “chimp” :), but for every single hour spent in the field in front of the majestic FitzRoy, you will spend a not so glorious hour in front of your computer. And there is no way to scape from that.

This is a reality, and the only way to ease this situation is by making use of something. Something you dont want to hear. Something i dont like either. DISCIPLINE. Learn when to take the shot, but also very importantly, learn when NOT to take it. Never before was so easy and cheap to take photographs. Nowadays, in fact, it is just a matter of pushing a button…and the more pictures i get the more probabilities i will have of getting a good “keeper”.Wrong. You know that. Try to remember what has happened with those “nice” photos you took “just in case” the last time. Surely, they finished with a couple of stars rating in your Lightroom, and there they will remain forever. Hard disk space, time and money wasted.  Technology cannot change what has always been the only way of “making” a good picture: a combination of reflexion, timing, technique, patience and meticulous composition (and of course, light, but that is normally something a landscape photographer can just foresee, but not control). In the end, that old motto of “one breathtaking shot is better than one thousand good ones” still applies, more than ever.

Anyway, dont take me wrong. This blog stuff gives you the on-the-soap-box feeling and it seems you can bath everybody with your golden wisdom light. Far from it. I also have to struggle sometimes to behave myself and reduce my shooting activity to the very best of the day, leaving the camera behind during the rest of the time. But you can do something that will keep you busy, and that will by far reveal as the essential component for a good landscape photography output: location finding. Take the photos when the conditions are the best, and take advantage of the rest of the day to look for those compositions and subjects you will photograph in the next “golden” session. You dont need any photo gear for that. You will need your legs, maybe a pre-conceived idea of what kind of photograph you want to make, or on some occasions just an “open mind” to photographic opportunities that might happen around you. Look for THE good location, select THE viewpoint, previsualize what might happen, how light will affect that place and subject, and you will be getting loads of lottery tickets that might give you the big prize at the end.

If you do that, your photography will improve, your ration of “keepers” will improve, your hard disk will be happier and you will spend less time in front of the computer and more time breathing fresh air in the field. Try to make the exercise, and you will very soon start seeing the result. And remember, if you still struggle, there will be always a simple but strong medicine:  leave behind your digital equipment for some months and get a large format view camera instead :) 

Take care and happy  shooting

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