Thinking It Through

After the Fire

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.

Untouched snapshot

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.

Original camera capture with movement

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:

After the Fire - final image

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.

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Time to Play!

When Im playing, art happens.  So often, creativity starts with playing.  And by play, I mean the sheer pleasure of doing, with no thought as to where its going.  Im not thinking about whether or not the final image will sell, meet with approval, or fit into an existing or future series.  Im just having fun.  There are many of these images in my repertoire, which have never been printed for exhibit or used commercially.  But I learned from them and laughed with their sudden appearance.

Play is a way to get out of the box of perceived techical limitations, letting my mind soar off into space with no constraints.  Its surprising what will arise when we discard the limiting thoughts of what we think is technically possible, or what we think is good art.  The image below is a compilation of several photos, each snapped during play time, with no idea that they would someday be used together.


Have you ever awakened in the morning and thought, “What an amazing dream that was!  I wonder if I could make a picture of it?”  Well, thats what I set out to do, and after six hours on the computer, voila! So in this case, the dream (and who knows where that comes from) and the thought, “I wonder if. . .” ignited a play time that carried me through several hours of concentation without any notion of meals or responsibilies or agenda.

The final image doesnt look much like the dream, but it has the same feel.  Thats the funny thing about creativity.  You start out thinking you know what youre going to do, but then it morphs into something else.  Luckily, I already had pictures of grizzlies, and I had recently played around with astronomy images from a process that was published in Photoshop User magazine:  I rarely use elements in a photo that I did not actually take with my own camera or create from scratch in Photoshop.  Though I modified the cosmic elements in this photo, the original source is from NASA FITS files using Photoshop FITS Liberator.  I needed human eyes for the bear, so I had to take a picture of my own.  Perhaps a future tweak will be to change the eyes to luminous blue-green eyes, as that is more consistent with the dream.

In the dream, the bear was walking a trail in the forest.  Not so unusual, except that the feeling of the dream was far more cosmic.  I often find that in order to stay true to the original sense of place, I have to alter the image to communicate what it felt like to be there.  A bear walking out of the forest is not so exceptional.  A bear coming forth from the cosmos, with human eyes, gets my attention.

By the way, theres nothing that inspires play more than going on an outing with another hopelessly addicted photographer, equipped with every photographic toy you have ever purchased, including some that were never intended for a camera.  That is how I get many of the components for future images, not knowing at the time if or when I will use them.

Just playing — but in the process, we open up another dimension of “seeing.”

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Where did that come from?

Have you ever come up with a solution to a problem or rendered a piece of art that just seemed to come out of nowhere?  Do you know where your ideas come from, or what goes into your creative process?  This blog is a journey into mind, technique, imagination, adventure, and whatever else arises in the creative process.  With fine art photography as the central theme, I will explore aspects of creativity, camera techniques, post processing, and experiences as a photographer.  At times, I may post some unique application of Photoshop, but for the most part, this is not a course in Photoshop, as there are many excellent sources and tutorials for Photoshop skills.  Readers are invited to offer their comments and suggestions as we explore this vast and fluid realm of art and photography.

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