A place for me to share my recent work, random musings on photography and reflect on my thoughts, experiences, ideas and revelations.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Depth of Focus

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately educating myself about the history of photography. It’s an interesting exercise, and anyone the least bit interested in the field would do well to take some time to learn more. In addition to Jeff Curto’s History of Photography podcast, The Online Photographer and other websites, there are a number of books available on the subject from your local library.

One of the things I have found fascinating, particularly in the history of landscape photography, is that it hasn’t always been a requirement to shoot at the smallest possible aperture and have everything in focus. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and the rest of the f/64 gang changed the trend dramatically with their ‘everything razor-sharp and in focus’ images. I love that work and it has influenced me greatly, but prior to that, and to a lesser extent after, photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand often used selective focus and shallow depth of field to achieve remarkable results. I don’t pretend to be any of those people, but studying the various methods used throughout photographic history can give us a broader base upon which to build our own vision.

Today we can put a Lensbaby or zone plate on our digital camera and make things out of focus on purpose. And if we’d rather spend time on the computer and don’t want to mess with gear, we can even buy software that will mimic the out-of-focus qualities of lenses we don’t have! But just like it seems counterintuitive to buy software to make our digital images look like film (really!) I generally don’t like messing around with more gear. It just leaves me confused and then I stop seeing things the way I’ve learned to see them. Recently I started thinking “gee, what about if I just use a larger aperture and deliberately make things out of focus? I wonder how that would turn out?”

It is easy to overuse any creative tool, so you don’t want to make every image you take blurry or out of focus any more than you want to make absolutely everything sharp and in focus, but these are tools in our tool box that we can use when the scene or the subject warrants it. We all strive to achieve a personal style or “look” to our photographs, but that doesn’t mean they all look the same. It means that regardless of the style or technique used someone can tell it is your photograph. I believe strongly that you create a “look” by what you feel in your heart and see in the viewfinder, not by processing all your photos with the same software package or using some special lens. I want my images to look the way they do because that’s the way I wanted them to look when I tripped the shutter, not because I know how to run actions in Photoshop and do the same thing to every photo I take.

Anyway, I’ve found myself exploring this shallow depth of focus thing and finding that I like it a lot. It doesn’t always work, but there are times when it is better to suggest what is in a background (or foreground) than actually showing it. I can only imagine the comments at a photo critique session – “gee, it looks kind of soft” or “ those out-of-focus highlights are really distracting.” Well, maybe that’s the point! Don’t just assume that whatever is in focus is the subject! The subject might be the highlights!

Another recent trend, one I’ve tried and like a lot, is using camera movement to blur a scene and distill the elements into patterns of form, textures and color. I don’t do it all the time, but there are some scenes that really lend themselves to it. I have had a great deal of success with this at the beach, but finding suitable subjects on land can be a bit more tricky, at least for me. It’s really fun to take a “traditional” shot with the camera on the tripod, then pull it off the tripod and take a shot of the same scene using a different technique. Explore! You just might find something you like!

One of my grandmother’s sayings was something like “so what does that have to do with the price of prunes?” That was her way of saying “Tom, get to the point!” The point is, we would all do well to study our history, be inspired by the work of the masters – all of them – find things we like, be open to things we haven’t tried or maybe even make us a little uncomfortable, and have fun with this life we call being a photographer.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Looking Up

Things are starting to pop on the bank job front. This past week I had my second interview for a job with a small community bank that I would really like to work for. Tomorrow I have an interview for a position at my former employer that sounds interesting and promising. As opposed to a number of jobs I have applied for lately, I am well-qualified for both of these positions and - most importantly I think - have good connections behind me for each one. Details to come but fingers and toes are crossed!

This past weekend Kathy & I joined some of our CNPA buddies for a day trip to the Linville Falls area on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It seems amazing to say this, but we spent the whole day there and I never went to the falls! I did join part of the group in walking to Dugger's Falls, a little-visited but pretty little waterfall about 50 yards from the parking lot. I didn't take any photos there but enjoyed the view.

After lunch we spent some time hunting wildflowers in the Linville Falls picnic area. I shot some Bee Balm and sunflowers, but had seen some roadside Black-Eyed Susans along the Parkway near the road to the visitor center, so as the afternoon light got nice I went back and paid a visit to these beauties. When I saw them earlier in the day I had visualized this scene, shooting from below with the blue sky and puffy clouds in the background. I know this is way out of character for me, but here I was again laying down on the ground - shooting up through the flowers at the sky!

This is the shot I saw in my mind's eye and feel it is really close to what I was thinking when I first saw the flowers from the road. I think this scene may benefit from some judicious cropping, but for now I'm going to look at it full-frame for a while until I make up my mind!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Website Update

I just added a "Recent Work" gallery to my website to showcase some of my favorite shots from this year to date. I occasionally use that when I have new work to show but haven't had a chance to refresh the individual galleries.

This image is another from June at a "Secret Location" along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Thinking Big to Think Small

Last week I attended my second photography workshop with Les Saucier. The learning opportunities from an outstanding teacher are unlimited if you find someone who you connect with on an artistic, creative and inspirational level. Les is such a teacher, and I am still digesting the nuggets I gathered in just a few hours on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The best and most important thing I came back with is a deeper understanding of the creative process. Les espouses, and I'm paraphrasing quite a bit, that the creative process takes three steps. The first is when one first starts out in art or photography and sees subjects. That is the step that most people are at and often stay at, because we are naturally inclined to look at things. We pay a lot of attention to composition and lighting, and our photography is all about our subject. I do it, we all do it, but there's more.

The second step is when we go beyond seeing objects as subjects and start seeing characteristics - lines, patterns, shapes and colors. This is an interesting phase, because we start thinking about relationships, as in how these lines, patterns, shapes and colors interact. These are the details that attract us to a scene, but we don't always know it and can't always identify them until and unless we take time to think about what we are seeing. Once we stop and look, we see all kinds of things that attract our eyes and stimulate our senses. Once we see those relationships we are able to work our composition to best express the things we see, and that translates into a more powerful and emotional photograph. Sometimes the things we think attracted us to a scene are not what we end up with, because as we explore we start to see smaller and more subtle details that were not immediately apparent.

The third step gets into the emotional response we have to a scene, especially once we have learned about how relationships attract us and how we respond. This step goes far beyond subjects and relationships and starts dealing with ideas. Les pointed out some flowers to one of the participants, who looked at them and responded, "I don't know, they look kind of spent." To which Les replied, "so shoot 'spent.'" Yikes! I made a comment about how the occasional breeze made it hard to get the shot I wanted. Les suggested that I should "shoot the wind." Double yikes! If you look at a scene and think "this is so peaceful," how do you shoot Peaceful? How do you create a photograph that best describes Peaceful? Or glorious, sad, cheerful or soothing? I'm not sure I'm able to go much beyond this point right now, but it's given me a lot to think about.

Turk's Cap Lilies are my favorite summertime wildflower. Their curves and colors have a sensuous beauty that I just love. I tried to make an image that captures "sensuous beauty" and goes beyond the typical documentary photograph. This image may not be technically perfect and probably won't win any contests but I think it goes a long way toward expressing what I feel when I look at a Turk's Cap Lily.

I don't generally talk about gear, but the setup for this was a monster so I have to tell. 70-200 zoom at 150mm with a 500D closeup lens, 2X teleconverter and 25mm extension tube at f32 (my metadata says f64 because of the 2X converter), 1/3 second at ISO 1000. Les says this qualifies for "damn close." It's amazing how much dust shows up at f64!

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Thinking Small

I've been working on a number of projects lately and have gotten a bit behind in my posting. I've got lots of ideas so please bear with me while I extract them from my head without doing any major damage!

A few weeks ago I attended a macro photography workshop with Les Saucier, and I'm attending another one with Les this coming week. He is the master when it comes to macro, and he teaches a way of seeing that is quite a bit different than my normal view. Since the last workshop and in preparation for the next one I have been practicing macro and close-up techniques to add some variety to my own shooting and add another arrow to my quiver (as it were).

Fellow photographer and CNPA member Edgar Payne stopped by this afternoon and we spent some time shooting summer wildflowers on the Torrence Creek Greenway, which runs through my neighborhood. I got a few good shots, but mostly ones that will help me improve for the next time.

This is a close-up of Queen Anne's Lace. The radial pattern reminds me of fireworks, which makes it an appropriate image for this 4th of July holiday.

Enjoy, and stay tuned for more of these close-up images in the near future!