Monthly Archives: September 2013

When You Do Something Because You Can’t Not Do It

Sunset in the Canyon of the Rio Grande, New Mexico

There are at least two things in life that, for me, fall into the category of things I couldn’t not do even if I wanted to.  Photography is one of them.

It wasn’t always like this.  Certainly before I purchased my first digital camera back in 2006, I wasn’t practicing photography at all.  Even after that, it was a very stop-and-start process for many years, where brief periods of learning were frequently followed by months, or even years, of inactivity.  It wasn’t until 2012, when I made my first black and white print, that things really turned a corner.  That print was a tipping point of some kind, because ever since then, I can’t get seem to get enough of this discipline.

If there was a common thread, though, an underlying current beneath this whole thing, it has been that photography truly has been a lifelong interest of mine.  Even when I was young, I would notice and look at photographs in a way that I didn’t for painting, or sculpture, or any of the other visual arts.  There was something about the realism of photographs, combined with the element of artistic interpretation, that was uniquely compelling about them.   As I grew older, I always held photography as something that I wanted to eventually explore, even if immediate needs and circumstances at any given time made that difficult.  When digital photography put photographic processing on a computer instead of a wet darkroom, it finally became practical for me to take it up in a serious way.

I think some of the things I’ve identified in this post are signs that should be paid attention to.  If you have a consistent interest in something, that lasts over time and doesn’t go away, then maybe you should be giving it a try.  If you’ve tried and failed one or more times, but the interest is still there and is sincere, maybe keep trying for it.  I’ve found that a true interest sustains the expenditure of effort, and effort expended over time usually results in accomplishment.  And if you’ve reached the point where it is something you can’t not do, then you might really be on to something.

The image in this post, “Sunset in the Canyon of the Rio Grande,” has been banging around on my computer for quite some time.  It is an image I thought would be relatively straightforward to work on, relatively easy to achieve the look I had in my mind for it.  Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case at all.  It took several cycles of trying things out, then shelving it for awhile, the coming back with fresh eyes to try something new.  To be honest, I just wanted to delete it after awhile, and on several occasions almost did.  But there was something there.  I found I kept working on it, because I just couldn’t not work on it.  And in the end, I think I accomplished the goal I set for it, at least to my own satisfaction.

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Process, Not Product

Black Trees Series 2, No. 1

The creation of art is the creation of failure.  These are not my words, I borrowed them from a podcast by Brooks Jensen at LensWork, with my apologies to the same for appropriating them for my blog.  Still, the sentiment behind these words has a certain universal applicability to it, and it is that sentiment that I would like to discuss a little bit here.  What person who has engaged in an artistic endeavor for a sustained period of time has not felt the sting of disappointment when the work just isn’t flowing well?

In the same podcast, Brooks related a story he himself had taken from the book of another on the topic of art (I forget the name of that book – if anyone can tell me, I’ll certainly add it here).  Briefly, a class of pottery students was divided into two, with one half being instructed over the course of the class to be concerned solely with producing one, perfect pot, and the other half being instructed over the course of the class to strive for making quality pots, but to be more concerned with producing simply many of them.  Who produced the better pot?

Perhaps counter-intuitively, it was the group that was focused on making many pots.  The practice of making pots over and over – of attempting, failing, learning, and trying again – ultimately pushed the second group up a learning curve that the first group didn’t have a chance to climb, because the first group simply was making fewer pots.  Stated differently, the process-focused group ultimately produced better work than the product-focused group.

There’s a lesson hereThe process is more important than the product.  If an artist is too focused on product, then the artistic pursuit is likely to be a slow, unproductive, and disappointing one, because after all, who among us always produces perfect work?  On the other hand, if an artist focuses on the process, then the work is likely to be engaging, satisfying, and ultimately better.  Moreover, a process-focused artist understands and is less deterred by the creation of failure, because failure is part of the process of making art.

The image in this post, “Black Trees Series 2, No. 1,” is the product of several failures.  Prior to creating this image, I had been working on several other images, trying approaches and techniques that ultimately were dead-ends.  While I’m certainly as susceptible to frustration and disappointment as anyone else, I honestly can say that I enjoy the process of photography and making images, and so I was able to keep working through my creative block by staying focused on the process, even though the product that I was producing in this period wasn’t very good.  The image here likely wouldn’t be what it is without having had the benefit of my many failed attempts at producing other images along the way.

And to anyone who may be struggling through a rough spell, I say remember to enjoy the process and don’t be too concerned about any individual product.  Art is supposed to be fun, and after all, we’re all only as good as the sum of our failures.

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29 to 16

Great Sand Dunes National Park No. 3

Upon adding the image in this post, “Great Sand Dunes National Park No. 3,” to this website, I realized that the ratio of images in my Landscape and Nature gallery to the combined number of images in all of my other galleries is 29 to 16.  This is nearly 2 to 1!  It may surprise you to learn that I don’t really think of myself as a landscape photographer.  If you look in my other galleries, you’ll see that I have interests in architecture, abstracts, and other areas, too.  While it’s true that I really love landscape photography, I don’t think that I love it nearly twice as much as all of my other photography interests combined.  So how have I ended up with so many landscape images in my portfolio to date?

I think it’s because landscape photography really is difficult!  Not so much on the technical side of operating the camera, editing the images, etc. (although landscape photography poses its own challenges in these areas, just like other areas of photography do).  I mean more on the logistical side of being in the right place at the right time.

Take architecture, for example.  If you don’t like the angle you have on your subject, odds are you can move a few feet in either direction and really change your composition.  With big landscapes like the one here, you often have to measure in increments of miles to change your composition.

Or consider things like still lifes, where often you can control the environment of your subject.  With landscapes, you really are at the mercy of the elements.  Not that there isn’t great landscape photography available under just about all conditions, but the name of the game is to be adaptable and really open to seeing the possibilities around you when you’re faced with circumstances you weren’t expecting.

I certainly don’t mean to imply that landscape photography is more challenging than other photographic disciplines.  It’s more that I’ve found it more challenging for me, individually, than I had expected.  Whatever limited skill and accomplishment I’ve achieved to this point has taken a longer climb up the learning curve than I’ve experienced for other types of photography.

I also should point out that I don’t regret the investment I’ve made in landscape photography at all, and I wouldn’t change my approach if I could.  Not only do I sincerely love landscapes and am very happy to have had the opportunity to build a portfolio in this area, but the learning experience has been tremendous, with many skills that are transferable to other areas of photography.  While I didn’t really plan to invest so much time in this area, I trust my instincts and am happy to roll along whatever photographic path they take me down (and you should, too!).

So why so many landscape images?  When faced with a challenge, particularly for something that I personally want to achieve something in, it’s hard for me to back down.  While I hope to even out the ratio of subject matter in my portfolio in the future, I think that’s why I’ve been doing so many landscapes in the recent past.

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Photography and Experiencing the World

Longs Peak, Cloud Wave

Most of us experience the world through a common framework of references:  we walk and talk, we see and hear, we act and do.  These are very basic experiences that we all have in common.  Beyond these basics, however, are whole worlds of perceptions and awareness that we each also have, some that we share with other people, and some that we experience individually.  The practice of photography is one of these kinds of experiences.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m constantly looking at the sky.  I’m truly amazed and awed at the variety of displays that can happen there.  The image in this post, “Longs Peak, Cloud Wave,” is a perfect example.  Over the course of several hours in Rocky Mountain National Park, I observed this cloud come together.  First, it slowly gathered its shape from the formless masses of clouds around it.  Then, it hung in the sky over Longs Peak and the Never Summer Range, sometimes advancing, sometimes receding, but always delicately balanced over the peaks.  Finally, it gradually dissipated back into the formless masses of clouds from which it came from.  It truly was fascinating and awe-inspiring to watch.

It’s come as a bit of a surprise to me to realize that not everyone watches the sky like I do.  In fact, as near as I can tell, most people don’t.  Perhaps it’s the photographer in me that pays attention.  There are other things, too.  Even before I took up photography, I always was fascinated by how light would reflect off of shiny surfaces, smoothly and gradually building up from inky black shadows to piercing silver highlights.  Or how a city skyline could be abstracted down into different arrangements of lines and shapes, creating different feelings of weight or movement.

The practice of photography has channeled these perceptions and awareness even more.  Now, not only do I walk and talk, see and hear, act and do, but I also highlight and darken, frame and exclude, arrange and compose.  On some level, I’m always thinking in terms of images.  I use photography as a way of experiencing the world.

All this is not to suggest, of course, that photography is the only way to experience the world in a unique or elevated manner.  I’m fairly certain that participation in arts of all kinds probably provides such experiences, and that many other human activities – religion, sports, travel, whatever – probably do to various degrees as well.  Still, to me photography holds a special position in providing an unusually direct and immediate way to achieve this effect.

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The Tonal Range Myth (or, Why I Don’t Use HDR)

Great Sand Dunes National Park No. 2

I’ve met a number of photographers who seem obsessed with translating the tonal range they see with their eyes into the images they make on paper.  For these folks, it’s almost a crime for an image to have areas of pure, featureless black.  Every shadow must have detail, and the failure to preserve detail in the shadows not only is a serious technical failure, it’s just about a sin against photography.  It probably comes as no surprise after viewing the image in this post, “Great Sand Dunes National Park No. 2,” that I’m not one of those people.

By way of background, when I say tonal range, I’m basically referring to the spectrum of tones available in a black and white photograph, from pure featureless black, through the full range of grey tones, up to pure featureless white.  Estimates seem to vary, but it’s probably fair to say most people agree that the human eye can perceive a wider tonal range than is able to be captured by most cameras.

The image in this post, for example, was captured as the sun was setting over Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.  As the sun went down, the tops of the dunes caught the last of the light, while the troughs of the dunes were in dark shadow.  With my eye, I could still plainly make out the details in the troughs – the texture of the sand, the patterns of ripples, etc.  But since my camera’s dynamic range – it’s ability to capture tonal range – was smaller than that of my eyes, the image rendered by my camera made the dune troughs much darker in comparison to the dune tops than how my eyes perceived them.

Several technical workarounds exist to address this situation.  One commonly used approach with digital photography is HDR.  HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and essentially involves taking multiple images of a scene – for example, one exposed to get details in the highlights and one exposed to get details in the shadows – and combining them using computer software so that the final  image has detail throughout the tonal range.  As a result, the tonal range of an image captured with a camera can be expanded, for example to more closely approximate what the eye actually saw.

Now, I’m sure my explanation of HDR probably is giving it short shrift, and that there’s more to it than I’m letting on.  I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never felt the need to use it.

I like that cameras have a limited dynamic range.  It forces you to place your limited budget of tones right on what the most important part of the scene is – here, for example, the tops of the sand dunes.  Moreover, having the less important parts of the scene fall into the shadows forces you to compose wisely, so that you arrange the areas of highlight and shadow to emphasize the subject and create a pleasing composition.

To me, large areas of deep, featureless black can be a powerful compositional element of an image.  Here, for example, I think the deep blacks of the shadow areas add weight and substance to the implied bodies of the dunes, and set off the more delicate, sunlit strips of the dune tops.  Because these deep, black shadows flow right across to the sides of the frame, I also think they create a significant degree of left/right movement through the frame, allowing the eye to freely travel across the image.

Additionally, pure black looks great on paper.  High contrast images can pack a great punch, and deep, inky shadows shine (yes, shine) when placed up against bright white highlights.

I don’t have anything against HDR.  As with most technical aspects of photography, it’s a tool that does a job, and I’ve seen many images where HDR was employed to spectacularly good effect.  However, not every job requires this tool, and not every image requires a full range of tones, especially in the shadow areas.  It’s a myth, and I’m happy not to go along with it.

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