Monthly Archives: April 2013

Cluttered Backgrounds and Other Distractions

Snowy Trees and Snowy Fences PastoralOne of the key principles I keep in mind when composing an image is to simplify, simplify, simplify.  If it’s possible, anything that doesn’t directly support the composition I’m aiming for has to go, and if it’s not possible, I usually simply will pass on capturing the image.  Perhaps nothing has improved my photography as much as this simple concept.

The thing that probably ruins more potential images for me than anything else is a cluttered background.  I’ve been having a great time over the winter shooting the wonderful, stark trees that can be found on the plains near my home in Northern Colorado.  However, this area is relatively thickly settled, and while there is no shortage of great trees, there is a shortage of trees that don’t have roads, subdivisions, farm equipment, or something else cluttering up the background.  I can’t tell you how many great potential compositions I’ve had to abandon because there was some unwanted element I could not exclude from the frame, no matter where I stood or how I positioned my camera.  A nice, clean background really is a thing of beauty.

The image in this post employs two of my most used techniques to get rid of a cluttered background.  First, it was captured in the middle of a snowstorm.  Nothing will clean up a cluttered background more quickly than making it disappear into the receding gray of rain, snow, or fog.  Second, I was able to position the camera below the horizon line, in this case at the bottom of a slight incline, such that the remaining visible background elements disappeared over the crest of the hill.  As a result, the composition really emphasizes the forms of the snow-covered trees that I was after.

But what about those fences at the base of the trees?  I’ll admit, my first inclination when visualizing this scene was to capture it without the fences.  But, there simply was no way to eliminate those fences from the frame and still keep intact the forms of the trees that I wanted.  And, as I continued to observe the scene, I became more comfortable with leaving the fences in.  From a compositional perspective, I think the horizontal lines of the fences complement the horizontal of the horizon, and from a philosophical perspective, I think the presence of the fences references the nature of the area in which I live.

On this last point, I’ve adopted a naming convention to address situations like this.  Where the subject of an image is primarily landscape or nature, but includes a certain amount of man-made elements like the fences in this image, I call the image a “pastoral.”  Hence, the title of the image in this post, “Snowy Trees and Snowy Fences Pastoral.”

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Three Things to Know About Shooting in the Snow

Evening Light Snowstorm

Last week, in my previous post, I mentioned that spring is just around the corner.  I’m now ready to officially retract that statement.  After several days of more or less continuous snow following that post, which had finally mostly melted away as of yesterday, it’s snowing again here in northern Colorado.  My current estimate is that summer will arrive in about the middle of June.

Fortunately, it’s been remarked that bad weather equals good photography, and snow definitely qualifies.  I’ve been making a mini-project of practicing my winter weather photography skills.  Here are three things I’ve learned over the course of the last week about shooting in the snow:

  1. Wear warm gloves.
  2. Wear warm gloves.
  3. Good gosh almighty, wear warm gloves.

Selecting a good pair of gloves for photography has been surprisingly difficult.  If they’re light enough to work the camera, they’re generally too cold.  If they’re thick enough to stay warm, they’re too clumsy to handle the camera.  The one pair I own that seem both warm enough and light enough is made of fibers that seem to come off on the camera and lens when I handle them.  If anyone knows of gloves that stay warm, are easy to work with, and won’t shed any material, I would love to hear it.

In the meantime, here is “Evening Light Snowstorm,” taken by the side of Highway 257 in Weld County, Colorado, as the snow was falling and the light was fading at the end of the day.

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Know Your Subject

Hold on to the Edge

It’s snowing in Colorado today, but the snow is not fooling me.  It’s spring, and summer is just around the corner.

Last summer was a turning point for my photography.  Part of the reason is because I made a commitment to spend several evenings a week photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park during the long light of the midsummer days.  The premise behind this exercise was that I needed practice for my field skills.  I got the practice I needed, but I got so much more as well.

One thing I learned is that there’s no substitute for getting to know your subject well.

Now, I do believe it’s possible to capture great images without any particular knowledge of your subject, simply by being open to seeing what’s around you and reacting to your opportunities as they develop.  Many of the images in my portfolio have come about this way, and I find there’s a spontaneity and freshness to images made under this approach.  But the converse approach is equally valid, I learned.  Getting to know your subject by spending quality time with it produces images with a more complex, nuanced feel, at least for me.

The image in this post, “Hold on to the Edge,” was produced after several weeks of spending several evenings a week in the Park.  I’m very familiar with the location at which this tree resides.  I’ve seen it under all kinds of lighting, weather, temperatures, and times of day.  Some days I passed it by with hardly a glance, some days I worked nearby photographing other things, and one day I decided to photograph it.

I think that it’s extremely unlikely that I would have made this particular interpretation of this tree without my background and familiarity with the location.  Not that a different interpretation would have been less valid, or produced a lesser image.  It just wouldn’t have been this particular image.  Knowing your subject makes a difference.

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Having a Vision Beats Being a Technician

Longs Peak, Indian Summer

I’m excited to share that five of my images are being shown in Denver this month, including the image above, “Longs Peak, Indian Summer.”

This image is one of my personal favorites.  It was my first image ever to be accepted into a juried exhibition, and has since proven to be one of my more popular images.  But that’s not why it’s one of my favorites.  It’s one of my favorites because it embodies the idea that having a creative vision is more important than being a master technician.

This image was literally among the first captures I ever made when I started pursuing photography back in 2006.  It was taken with my first digital SLR camera, a 6.1 megapixel Pentax *istDL with a Pentax 75-300 SMC lens.  As might be expected from a novice, it had a lot of technical problems.  It sat on my hard drive for six years before my technical skills caught up to my vision for what the image could be.  In 2012, without any advance planning or forethought that I was going to work on it, I suddenly opened it up one day and over the course of several hours created the image above.

Did technical skills play a role?  Absolutely.  A fair amount of work was involved, including sharpening up some blurry edges, evening out the contrast in the foreground, and creating a tonal gradient in the background.  Perhaps most importantly, cropping to the 3.4:1 aspect ratio emphasized the long horizontal lines of the composition in a way that the initial 3:2 aspect ratio did not.

Am I therefore a master digital darkroom technician?  Certainly not.  I know just enough to get me by, and that’s enough.  Don’t get me wrong – I value technical ability and am always striving to improve my technique and skill.   But technique should not get in the way of vision, and skill need only be good enough to communicate the vision underlying an image.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist by nature.  If I had demanded perfect technical ability in the making of this image – both in the initial capture seven years ago and in the digital darkroom editing last year – I would never have made this image at all.  Instead, once I realized my technical ability was sufficient to communicate my vision for the image, I was happy to do so.

For those who are interested, here are the other four images currently being exhibited:

Spire at Rock Cut

Clearing Storm, Mummy Range, Colorado

Longs Peak, Curtain of Clouds

Touch the Sky

You can see them at Alpine Fine Art, 826 Santa Fe Drive in Denver’s Santa Fe arts district.  There’s plenty of other nearby galleries you can visit too, including the John Fielder photography gallery across the street and the Denver School of Photography a couple of doors down.

While you’re in the area, you may as well stop by the Denver Art Museum as well.  The Georgia O’Keefe exhibit is up until April 28th, and I was inspired in particular by a small pencil and watercolor (if memory serves) of an adobe studio doorway I had not seen before.

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In Defense of Photographic Opportunism

Snowy Spring Pastoral, Loveland, Colorado

What the heck is photographic opportunism?  Well, mostly it’s a couple of ten-dollar words to describe a two-dollar concept, but let me explain.

Many of the photographers I admire are advocates of working in groups of images on a single concept or theme – a series, a portfolio, or whatever.  Probably the one who comes most immediately to mind in this regard is Brooks Jensen of Lenswork magazine.  The whole premise of Lenswork, after all, exactly is to publish these kinds of series and portfolios.  It can be a little intimidating, when so much good work done by so many great artists is being presented in this kind of format.

I love a good portfolio of photography, I really do.

I might even aspire to start working this way myself one day.

But that’s not where I am right now.  I’m an opportunistic photographer, and I take my images where I can get them.

There’s a pragmatic component to my thinking here.  Portfolios really take a substantial investment of time and effort to complete.  While I am dedicated to pursuing photography and committed to making time to practice it, it’s not my whole life.  The reality is I have a full-time day job as well as several other competing interests and priorities to handle.  While photography is important to me, most of the time it has to fit into the bigger schedule of my life and be pursued on a time-available basis.  This does not lend itself to portfolio-making.

There’s a technical component here too.  My impression is that many portfolios are undertaken by very experienced photographers, perhaps as a challenge to themselves, or perhaps to generate excitement when making high-quality single images becomes routine or repetitive.  That’s not where my mindset is right now.  I still find a camera to be an intrinsically exciting way to interact with the world.  I enjoy having it with me as a way to visually experience and explore many different kinds of environments in many different expressive ways.  If photography is a learning curve, then I’m still on it, and being open to capturing different kinds of subject matter and making prints in different kinds of styles is an excellent way to develop your skills.

Finally, there’s a philosophical component at play as well.  I’ve heard it said that to make your mark as a photographer, you should become known for one style of image, one kind of subject matter, one approach to prints, etc.  I agree that being consistent in your output will make you known for that kind of work.  But I disagree that consistently generating the same kind of output is required to become known for your work.  Good work is good work.  Think of Picasso, probably one of the most widely recognized artists in history, and the great variety of styles and subject matter his work spanned over his career.

The image in this post, “Snowy Spring Pastoral,” embodies a lot of these themes.  It was very opportunistic, in the sense that we had a quick spring snowstorm here in Colorado last week.  I had no particular plan or objective other than getting out to capture some images of snow, which I don’t do very often.  It also definitely was a learning experience.  Working with wet equipment (kudos to the Canon 5D Mark ii, by the way), getting compositions and exposures right in a driving snow, all added up to expand old skills and develop new ones.  Finally, this image arguably also is a bit of a break from my other work.  The snowy subject matter lent itself to a more high-key treatment than I usually do, and my composition included a mix of the man-made (the fence, the telephone lines) and the natural (the tree, the snow) that I otherwise don’t tend towards as much with landscapes.

So am I troubled that I’m not producing portfolios of work on single subjects or themes?  Not at all, I’m an opportunistic photographer.  That’s just where I’m at right now.

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