Next time, before you take a picture or even get out the tripod to set up a photo, think of what it is that makes you want to click the shutter. Where does your heart draw you in the scene, and what is it that draws you? What do you want the viewer to feel? Is there a certain area of the photo that invites you in, and how then, can you emphasize that area of the photo?
In the example of “After the Fire,” when I stood in front of this desolate meadow with burned trees and snags, I saw a beautiful meadow emerging. I saw resiliency of the land. The land was coming back. The grasses were golden with pink tips, because they were in seed. It was a heart-warming, full-of-life scene, even in the midst of desolation. So, that was a quality that I wanted to draw out in the photo. Below is a shot of the scene when I first walked up to it.
In looking at the image, I realized there was a lot of distraction with detail. Grasses are very detailed with lines criss-crossing in every direction. The trees are messy with twigs sticking out. In a two-dimensional image, that’s where your eyes will go. You will see all the hodge-podge. What I really wanted to show was the warm orange-gold band of color at the top of the grasses, the cooler green at the base, the sun on the trees, and the mist in the distance, making it all feel a bit magical. In thinking about how to show what it felt like to be there, I realized I could photograph the scene realistically, bring it into Photoshop, and then make the image more impressionistic with special effects. That would be one way of dealing with all the clutter. But if you can solve the problem in the camera, rather than in Photoshop, you not only save a lot of time, but sometimes the image will seem a little more organic with a character of its own. Hence, I decided to try camera motion as a way to reduce the messiness, without losing the overall form.
A slight vertical movement of the camera smooths out much of the detail, without eliminating it completely. I knew I wanted a clean vertical blur, rather than a sloppy movement, and since I am not particularly skilled at hand-holding, I used a tripod with a slow shutter speed (low ISO, small aperture) to get the results I wanted. Now, this comes under the category of a “high failure rate technique,” because it takes several shots to get just what you want. Either the shutter speed is too slow, and you get more blur than you want, or it is too fast, and you don’t get enough blur. Or, the shutter speed was OK, but you didn’t move the camera enough, or missed it altogether. You get the picture. (A future posting will deal with the concept of high failure rate techniques, with appropriate credit given to the person responsible for the term.)
Of course, capturing the image is not the end of the process. I always take RAW files, so that there is plenty of latitude to adjust the image in Photoshop to bring out the qualities I intended. In this photo, I saturated the colors and warmed up the image a bit. This is where I emphasize that it is always useful to consider whether you want to apply an adjustment equally over the entire photo, or are there some areas that would be better left as is? I think this is one of the biggest mistakes people make when they learn a new technique. They apply it to the whole image, it looks kind of cool, and that’s it. Instead, think “What does the image really want?” In this image, I wanted to warm up the grasses and the tree trunks where the sun was hitting them, but I didn’t want to warm the entire photo. Since warm colors come forward to the eye, I could create color depth by leaving the background cool, and warming the foreground. Again, here is the final image after applying color depth and contrast in Photoshop:
Overall, the principle of looking to see what an image wants, doing as much as possible in-camera, and finishing it judiciously in Photoshop will reward you with photos that go beyond the ordinary.