The Why and the How

Playing in the fog

father and child playing on a snow-covered and foggy beach in Ottawa

Father and Son

A few weeks ago, I wrote on G+ about some of those images that just keep you coming back. Images that you made but that have a special connection or meaning for you. Beside the image I posted on that day, here is another one of my earliest images (it remains probably my best seller – though that is a very relative term). It was a really warm early spring day. A day that brought some of the thickest fog I have ever seen. You could barely see 20 feet ahead of you. For certainly makes for one of my favourite shooting conditions, the dark, mysterious and atmospheric conditions are great to create some fantastic imagery. The ordinary turns into the extraordinary, the beautiful into the sublime. It’s the perfect condition for simple, streamlined compositions that are half real, half dream.

I headed to my favourite spot back then, a short walk from my place, by the Ottawa river. Remember that at the time, I am almost exclusively a landscape photographer. That said, as I arrived on the scene, I couldn’t help but notice a boy have the time of his life with his father. The scene was touching and beautiful. I knew right there and then that it would make for a compelling image. The only problem was that I didn’t have a clue how to photograph people, and my legendary shyness would very much get in the way. The very thought of mustering the courage to start thinking about approaching them to let me take their photo was too much to bear. So I moved on.

For a while at least. As I was heading back home, I couldn’t help but take some side glances hoping *they* would start the conversation (yeah, right). For some unknown reason however, I though those trees would also make for a pretty image. Given that I was using my wide-angle, our two friends would hardly feature in the image and I was fine with (yeah, right). Anyhow, I set up, I make an image or two, and miracle, the two decide they have had enough and head out for their car. That meant they were going to walk right into my frame. In the best possible spot. Click. Better to be lucky than good I guess. I’ll take it :) .

Warm Beach Anyone? Or how I made this image

Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Buuuueller?
No one image has made me look crazier than this one. ever. But you gotta do what you gotta do.

beach and streaking clouds in Cuba on a storm day

Man, those clouds move fast!

Imagine yourself on a gorgeous beach, in a resort. People are wrapping up their day slowly. This guy shows up with a backpack the size of California. He starts pulling stuff out like Mary Poppins. A big camera, a big lens, a big tripod, big filters. He starts setting up. The light is changing FAST. So he’s waay into the water and then he starts jumping all around the place, gesticulating like a mad man. Will he ever find a decent composition? That’s what the gathering crowd seems to be thinking. Oh Miracle, he looks like he has. Ffeeeew.

But wait! What’s that he’s pulling out of his bag? He’s running again? Why is he leaving his camera behind? Oh wait. What’s that flashing? He’s flash painting every single one of these poles? Look at the fool running around like, well, a fool, frantically trying to light every one of these pews during the 30s exposure …The crowd keeps getting larger…
By the time I am done, there’s about 20 people watching, wondering what this fool (me) is up to…

Oh well, not the first time I work hard at making a fool of myself…hopefully the drinks will help me forget :)

Remind me to tell you about the sunset dance someday…some day…

On an unrelated topic, if you are interested, I will be reviewing the Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 lens here on the blog next Tuesday.

One scene, three photos

While driving from Merzouga (the sand dunes) to Marrakech during my last Morocco Photo tour, we happened upon some pretty light near Ouarzazate, prompting me to bring the minibus to a screeching halt. (This was pretty much at noon by the way, so you just never know). As soon as we got out, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. The colours in the landscape just begged for it. The layers of clay, limestone and whatever the heck else it was, combining with the great cloud looming over the mountain and the great light screamed compression. A simple, graphic image, closing in on the layers of colour was what it was going to be. The Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 OS was obviously called into action.

Now what remained to be seen was how to make the most of the scene. (Click on the images to see them at full size).

How about starting with a vertical comp?

Taking a vertical composition allowed me to include the entire gamut of apparent layers (6 if I count 2 in the cloud). The almost identical size of each layer creates a nice rhythm in the composition that keeps you going from one layer to the other. The layers being stacked vertically, the vertical composition forces your eye upwards, thus strengthening the message I am trying to convey. The colours aren’t too shabby either.

How about some horizontal action? (Justin, this is for you)

While the vertical composition works as I explained above, I felt that the orientation was a bit constraining and cramped. We “read” images much the same way we read text, from left to right (well, Westerners do, being arabophone, I am not sure that statement fully applies to me ;) ). By switching the camera on its side, I provide the viewer with a bit more space to “read” along each layer, giving a bit more space to explore it. I do sacrifice one layer (compared to the vertical), but I feel this version allows one to spend more time on the image, without sacrificing much.

Let's shake things a bit

At this point, I could have easily packed my gear and called it a day, but I felt there was a bit more to eke out of this place. If it is the layers of colours I was attracted to and wanted to portray, why not simplify my composition even more? To do that, I stopped my lens down to f/22 to slow the shutter speed sufficiently to allow for some lateral panning. In this way, I was able to mute all traces of texture and turn this image into an abstract.

In the end, I am not sure that either image is stronger or better than the others. They are simply three different ways to look at the same scene, yet convey different messages. The take-home message here is that the next time you decide to photograph a place, explore your options, don’t stop at the first image you come upon.

If you have managed to read this far you also get to find out that I have a new “Recent work” gallery up featuring fresh images from Morocco and Spain.

The Elusive Moment

In Photography, you hear everyone talking about the “decisive moment”. This term coined by the famous father of photojournalism Henri-Cartier Bresson refers to that “creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. “”The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

For all his incredible photography and achievements in the art, Cartier-Bresson himself recognized that you do not just make great photographs, and you certainly don’t make a lot of them. In an interview, he likens the idea to milking a cow and surmises that it takes a lot of cows to make a small amount of cheese…In other words, you’ve got to work at it to get it. For one of those “decisive moments”, how many undecisive ones did he have to go through?

We often only show our best work on our blogs and galleries (though I like to post experiments as well). So I thought that today I would post something that actually wouldn’t normally make the cut. I was having a chat with David DuChemin a few weeks ago, when he mentioned this image I made on my last trip to Morocco, saying how it bugged him that I *just* missed that moment. Yes, I had an excuse, but in the end, he expressed what I knew all along, this is an “almost” image. Had the guy just moved his head forward a couple of inches…when he did so, someone walked in front of him and the moment was gone. No image. gah! The image in the end is not just a good composition or a good “moment”/action/event on their own. Rather it is when that moment and that composition coalesce into one “aha!” moment. I wish I had gotten this one, but there will be other opportunities.

How about you, any “almost” success images you want to show us? Link to them in the comment section, or send them to me and I will add them at the end of this section.

Register for my upcoming Photographic Adventure Tour in Morocco (Oct. 29-Nov. 5, 2011) – Click here for more details.

On previsualisation…and making the best of what you’ve got

It took us 3 long and strenuous days of hiking to get here, but the view alone was worth it. I couldn't believe that only 2 days earlier I was standing on top of that wall. What an incredible feeling (click to view larger).

I (and many others) preach the benefits of doing the grunt work before taking a photograph, on previsualizing your shot as (or before) you compose it. Basically, we preach shooting with a purpose, not just aimlessly point your camera at a scene and hope for the best.

Now, I wish I could tell you that’s what I did here, but I’d be lying. When I took this image, I was strongly drawn to the impressive, almost 3000ft tall, wall standing in front of us. Those shapes and textures were seemingly adding to its majesty. However the light was somewhat lacklustre and the resulting image even more underwhelming.

This is the original image processed in Lightroom 3

As you can see, while a beautiful sunset was raging on the adjacent valley, there simply wasn’t enough light to make this landscape come alive. So that’s how it was until this week-end when I accidentally stumbled across this image in my archives. After messing around with it in Nik Color FX Pro for a little while, I thought I’d give it a go in Black and White. While a lot of people use B&W to salvage a so-so image, I come at it from a different angle in that I am extremely picky in selecting potential B&W candidates and only ever have a few that I think are worthy. So doing this conversion was a bit unusual to start with.

In any case, the first step in my B&W conversion workflow involves (and most often is limited to) a little tour in Nik’s Silver FX2 (disclaimer: I am NOT sponsored by these guys, just love their products). I usually start with the High Structure (Smooth) preset then make it my own to suit the particular image I work on.

This is the image after Silver FX2 processing

You can see here that the textures in the rockwall pop out quite a bit more, but to be frank, that doesn’t quite do it for me. I want to make them pop even more so and want to contrast them from the surrounding hills and sky. While I would normally try and do this directly in Silver FX using the control points, I chose to take the image into Photoshop as I needed a bit more control than Nik gives me.

In Photoshop, I first added a levels adjustment layer to slightly bring out the midtones and highlight in the middle section.

The first step in this case is a really mild one as I made slight adjustments to a levels adjustment layer which subtly brought out the highlights in the rockwall while increasing contrast ever-so-slightly in the midtones. In the grand scheme of things, this step may have been unnecessary. However since my desired outcome on this image was a progressing throughout the process and was a moving target, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

The next step is where I made the most dramatic changes with local curves adjustments

The next step is really where I put the defining touches on the image. At this point, I had a much clearer idea of what I was looking for after much hesitation and trial. In this case, I used a curves adjustment layer and increased contrast quite drastically. The changes were kept localised to the rockwall by carefully masking out the sky and bottom third of the image. As you can see here, the rockwall textures jump at you revealing the ruggedness and majesty of the terrain. The only remaining bit left to do to complete my vision was to darken the top and bottom third of the image to take them out of the image, so to speak, and lead the viewer to concentrate on the rockwall exclusively. I did so using another levels adjustment layer masked to only affect the sky and foreground hills. To close the loop, I added a slight tint for the final look using the color balance adjustment layer tool (adding some blues in the shadows and yellows to the highlights).

As you can see through this process, while planning my images ahead of time certainly provides a better for success, it is important to keep one’s mind open to different possibilities. In this case, not only did I not previsualise the image at the time of capture, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with it when I started processing it. The final image really was formed in my mind throughout the editing process. Now, I don’t recommend doing that too often as it is a rather time consuming, ineffective and not often successful process.

Tune in next week for a nice gear review on the F-Stop Gear Tilopa BC photo backpack.