Tag Archives: high key

Unexpected Opportunities

Matchstick Trees. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014.

Matchstick Trees.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014.

Last week, I drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park (about an hour from my home in Northern Colorado) on a great weather day.  By great weather day, I mean stormy – rain, thunder, and lightening moving through the area in the late afternoon and early evening.  Stormy weather often creates great conditions for landscape photography, in the form of dramatic cloud formations, interesting plays of light, etc.  I envisioned these elements superimposed on the already stunning landscapes of the Trail Ridge Road area, and was really looking forward to seeing some expansive vistas and grand landscapes.

What I found when I arrived was – none of that.  The cloud deck had sunk down below the tops of the peaks, and the entire area was fogged in.  Thick, soupy fog of the kind where you can hardly see the taillights of the car on the road in front of you.  There was nothing to shoot, because there was nothing to see.  I figured the day was a bust and was about to turn around and go home.

But then I remembered a stretch of the road where there was a large grouping of tall, bare trees that, from a distance, look like a collection of matchsticks.  I had photographed these trees before, but was never pleased with the results.  The frames always looked cluttered (I never could seem to find a simple, clean composition), and the light on the trees always looked too harsh and with too much contrast to my eye.

How would these Matchstick Trees look in the fog, I wondered?  Quite nice, as it turned out.  The fog reduced the distracting clutter in the frame, enabling me to create more simplified compositions.  And, naturally, the fog diffused the light substantially, evening out the overall contrast in the scene.  My vision for the image was to create a high-key, almost abstract rendering of these trees, and the foggy conditions really played right into that.

When confronted with unexpected conditions, it can be difficult for me to let go of my expectations and adapt to what’s going on around me.  But, it’s my feeling that there almost always is something worthwhile to photograph, so I’ll have to remember to remind myself that it’s just a matter of being open to seeing it.

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Visual Studies

Snowy Trees, Study No. 2

What is a study?  The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a study as “a literary or artistic production intended as a preliminary outline, an experimental interpretation, or an exploratory analysis of specific features or characteristics.”  That’s exactly what the image in this post, “Snowy Trees, Study No. 2,” is.

In looking over my body of work recently, I realized that many of my images tend to be rather low key – that is, having many dark tones near the black end of the grayscale spectrum.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  I like dark tones, and low key presentations can be very effective in conveying certain kinds of moods and atmospheres.  Still, high key images – images having many light tones generally distributed toward the white end of the grayscale spectrum – communicate their own kinds of moods and atmospheres.  As a photographer, I am interested in exploring this kind of visual communication as well.

One problem.  I really didn’t know how to do this.

It’s harder than you might think.  Pulling off a successful high key image is not simply a matter of making everything in the image brighter.  You end up with an image that just looks overexposed.  Instead, it’s more about compressing the tonal range within a relatively narrow, white-shifted band on the grayscale spectrum, while carefully fine-tuning the contrast within that band to keep the image from looking flat.

At least, that seems to be what I’ve learned so far.  In order to give myself some practice, I devised a small project for myself.  I selected a number of images from my archives that seemed to be good candidates for a high key treatment, in this case, snowy trees.  Truthfully, these snowy tree images were captures from earlier this spring that I felt didn’t make the cut for the snow images I was working on then (those earlier images already have been posted to this website).  However, they were perfect as practice vehicles simply to explore the dynamics of how high key imagery works.  In other words, they were perfect as studies.

I didn’t specifically intend for these studies to become finished pieces.  Still, I’m happy with the way they are turning out, so I’ll keep posting them as long as I like what I’m seeing.

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Pre-Visualization Versus Post-Visualization

Five Trees at the Edge of a Storm

Many photographers are familiar with the concept of pre-visualization.  Essentially, this is the idea that when you look at a scene, you envision what the final print will look like even before you click the shutter on your camera.  In this manner, among other things, you can anticipate and control all the variables in your photographic process – composition, camera settings, processing parameters, etc. – up front, so that all the actions you take will support achieving your vision of the final print.  The concept of pre-visualization generally is attributed to the great American photographer Ansel Adams.

In photography circles, I think the idea of pre-visualization has taken on an almost mystical, inviolable aura.  For some, it seems to be a mark of technical prowess: any sign that you deviated from a truly and completely pre-visualized image, such as cropping the image to exclude something in the original capture, is perceived as a sign of lack of craftsmanship when the image was captured.  For others, it seems to be a mark of artistic vision: the truly inspired photographer will be guided by a higher vision for the image, and only a dilettante resorts to trying different interpretations after the shutter is clicked.

I largely support and practice the concept of pre-visualization.  Indeed, it fits hand-in-glove with how I work.  When I see a scene, I generally have a good idea of what I want it to look like in a final print, and knowing how I want it to look does allow me to tailor the photographic process, from capture to print, to fit my vision.  Moreover, I think pre-visualization is an excellent learning tool for those learning photography.  It forces you to know how the technical parameters of your process will affect how your print will look, and it helps you to determine if the scene you are looking at will work as a print at all.

However, as with most things in photography, pre-visualization is not an absolute, at least not for me.  I try not to confine myself to any rule, guideline, or principle that limits my ability to create work that I like.  The image in this post, “Five Trees at the Edge of a Storm,” was pre-visualized by me before I clicked the shutter.  My vision for the image was a high-contrast, somewhat low-key interpretation, wherein the trees would be generally light in tone against a background of foreboding, gray and black clouds.  In the editing of this image, I did indeed try some variations like this, and I believe those results were quite pleasing.

Still, that’s not how it came out in the end.  Instead, it became an exercise in high-key tones and high-contrast elements.  The sky and grass are high key, and high contrast is introduced by the very black silhouettes of the trees.  What changed after I clicked the shutter?  Very simply, I had the chance to see some excellently-done high-key photographs that made quite an impression on me (as an aside, I have no problem with viewing and being inspired by the work of other artists, short of slavish imitation and copying – but that’s a topic for a different blog post).  Suddenly, my whole vision for this image changed into that of the high-key, high-contrast image it became.  In a sense, I post-visualized a whole new interpretation of the scene that I hadn’t considered when I had my camera in hand.  Is this vision any less valid because I had it after the fact?  Is the image any less appealing because I didn’t have this interpretation firmly in mind when I clicked the shutter?  Obviously not, at least for me, anyway!

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