Intent vs. Serendipity in Photography

Most photographs happen in one of a few different ways. Sometimes I go out to a particular kind of location with a particular creative idea in mind, a specific intent. The image below is an example of this approach.

After years of driving through classic California landscapes (gnarled live oaks dotting bone-dry, golden, rolling hills), I decided to look for good locations and see if I could capture the light, the heat and the unique interplay between trees and hills. I spent several days working in a fairly wide area, and the resulting images became the core of a small show, En Plein Air.

 Of course, sometimes you go looking for one thing and find something else. While walking back to my truck after photographing a possible oaks/hills view, I noticed the interesting light filtering into this wooded hillside. This is a panograph made from three horizontal frames stacked on top of each other (with plenty of resolution for larger prints) that really captures the feel of the dappled shade under the oaks on a hot day.

And sometimes photographs happen just because you have a camera in your hand, whether walking through a distant city as a tourist or along a trail in the High Sierra. You never know what might catch your eye if you keep looking. This approach is random and results vary widely depending on the day, the light and how much time you have to investigate things and experiment, but the results are often fun and interesting. A couple of examples are shown below.

 The one on the left is a sort of abstract combination of wild greenery and a mix of old and contemporary architecture found in central Madrid. It’s hard to make sense of (not a requirement in my view) until you realize that the greenery was somehow growing vertically on a wall via some sort of suspended hydroponic system. Anyway, I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition of form, color and texture. The second started with this rock I found along a trail descending from Post Peak Pass in the southeast corner of Yosemite NP. A short hike below the pass the trail passes a tiny lakelet, and there I saw this blue-and-gold pattern half buried in the dirt. It was irregularly shaped, so I just got as close as I could and snapped one exposure. The dark spots in the corners show the edges of the rock.

When I got home I had hundreds of images to sort through, but I kept coming back to this one. I wished I had taken a wider view to see how it would look with a background, but then I experimented by creating a mirror image of the center section. The result is one of my favorite abstract images. The combination of the blue and white-flecked stone with the rust-colored fractures in a symmetrical pattern is almost mandala like and, to me,  hypnotic to look at.

So this is how the creative process starts. Some things you go looking for with a plan, other things you just stumble upon. Still others you discover only after spending hours sorting and editing images in the studio. And the images that I include in shows or fully develop as finished prints are the ones that I like, that I think are engaging, that say something coherent about the subject whatever it may be, even if it isn’t obvious what the subject is

Cameras and Basic Techniques

What Photographic Techniques Do You Use?

Photographic technique starts with cameras and lenses, so I’ll begin there. Until very recently I used two camera systems, a Canon 5D Mark II with very good lenses and a Sony NEX-7 mirrorless camera with three prime lenses, no zooms. The Canon was a heavy, full-frame digital SLR, a solid workhorse used by many professionals. Sony has become a leader in digital sensors (they supply them to Nikon) and the NEX-7 was capable of remarkable captures even though its sensor was slightly smaller than the Canon’s. For travel and backpacking the NEX-7 was the go-to choice. But Sony then introduced three different versions of a camera called the A7, just slightly bigger than the NEX7 and all with full frame sensors that are remarkable. I sold all my Canon gear and purchased the A7-R, a 36mp, full-frame body and I've added several outstanding Zeiss lenses including the Loxia 35mm and 50mm. These are small, light and extremely high quality because they are fully manual in terms of focus and aperture. This is the camera I will rely on until I go for the new A7-RII. There are many great cameras out there, but as the old saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you.

In terms of digital process or workflow, here’s what I do after any work session (whether studio, location or travel destination):

First of all I upload all RAW image files to my computer hard drive (for more about RAW files see my blog post Raw vs JPEG). This drive is automatically backed up to another drive every hour by Time Machine in my Mac. If on the road for an extended period, files get uploaded to an external hard drive via a laptop, then backed up to a second external drive. Hard drives will fail, you just don't know when.

Next, for image evaluation, sorting and tagging, I use Adobe Lightroom, a wonderful software program (especially with RAW image files) that more amateurs and photo enthusiasts should discover. It’s a hugely powerful, affordable tool that will do most of what Photoshop Elements does but is much easier to learn and use.

After deciding which images I want to develop further, I do basic adjustments in Lightroom. These typically include: exposure, white balance, thresholds for deep shadows and bright highlights, overall contrast, mid-tone contrast (clarity), color hue and saturation, capture sharpening, basic cropping, and a host of others. Remarkably, with Lightroom, none of these adjustments alter the original image file in any way. They are simply recorded as instructions that can be changed at any time in the future. Also, decisions about rendering in black & white versus color are usually made here.

Any image destined for printing eventually gets opened in Adobe Photoshop. First, multi-image panographs (see my blog post What Is Panography?) are seamlessly assembled, often using Photoshop’s powerful layering capabilities. If there is any retouching to be done (anything from skin blemishes or sensor dust to intrusive power lines or unwanted people in the background), that usually happens next. After any final cropping, color and tonal adjustments (including a non-destructive technique for mid-tone contrast adjustment), the image is enlarged (or reduced) for the desired print size and sharpened as necessary.

Images are printed using Epson professional-grade printers with archival pigment inks. This is an eight-color system (including three shades of black) capable of reproducing a very wide color gamut and tonal range with very smooth transitions between color shades and tones. I use a variety of archival photographic papers from a number of manufacturers depending on the nature of the subject and the way the print will be mounted and framed. For images to be finished using my glassless framing method, my current favorite papers are Epson’s Cold Press Natural and Cold Press Bright.

This is a very cursory overview of all that goes on between clicking the shutter and framing a print, but I hope it gives you an idea of the many steps in the process. If you're interested in a better understanding of how something as basic as tonal (light & dark) adjustments can change an image, here’s a brief before-and-after. The image was something that caught my eye in the last half-mile of a ten-day back-pack trip, the roots of a pine tree that had grown around a boulder, an irresistible force and an immovable object. The small scene was completely in the shade of the overhead tree, so the light is very flat with no prominent highlights or shadows.

The image on the left is exactly how the image looked when the original RAW file was opened in Lightroom. It's very flat in terms of both color and depth, not very interesting and certainly not a good representation of what caught my eye in the first place. The image on the right is much better. The color is true to my memory of the scene (and a million other boulders and pine tree roots), thanks to a couple of simple hue and saturation adjustments. But the shading, which is what makes the image begin to look three dimensional, is more complicated. In a traditional darkroom this would be done by controlling how much light from the enlarger reached certain areas of the image on the printing paper to make them lighter or darker. In the digital darkroom there a number of techniques to accomplish the same thing. Either way, it's what many photographers refer to as "painting with light."

What Is Panography?

What Is Panography?

Wikipedia says that panography is “a photographic technique in which one picture is assembled from several overlapping photographs.” If you’ve ever seen an image constructed from a bunch of Polaroid photos or like the one by Graham Dew at left, these are a classic panographs. I use the term because "panorama" has such a strong association with ultra-wide, narrow views of landscapes and other subjects, and I use multiple captures to create many of my images. 

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Is It Bad To Manipulate Your Images?

Is It Bad To Manipulate Your Images?

As digital photography has grown in popularity, so, too, has confusion about the tools involved and their proper use. The image at left is an example of a heavily-manipulated image because it's the product of several images taken at the same time. While photographing a series of lotus blooms with a telephoto lens, I realized that the closeup views could not be in focus from front to back and I really wanted to feature the detail and texture of the individual petals. So what to do?

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What Is Giclée?

What Is Giclée?

Here is a great example of how photographic techniques and terminologies can become so misunderstood that they take on a life of their own. The image to the left is a giclée, or at least a detail of one, from a great blog about printing techniques called The Print Guide by Gordon Pritchard. In a nutshell, giclée and "inkjet" mean the same thing. But the story of how the term came to be is more fun and interesting.

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Is Photography Really Art?

Is Photography Really Art?

Some people think photography, especially digital photography, is a less-worthy art form than, say, painting. But this thumbnail, part of an image, Rhein II by Andreas Gursky, sold at auction for $4.3 million, a record. It is nearly twelve feet wide, and critics have raved about Gursky's work. One has said that Gursky's images have "the majestic aura of nineteenth-century landscape paintings."

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Is The Digital Revolution Good for Photography?

Is The Digital Revolution Good for Photography?

In the early days of photography, not all that long ago, it was not viewed as a form of "fine art." While that quickly changed, digital photography still faces a similar stigma today. As discussed more in other posts, some people feel that because digital uses computers, this can't be art, particularly when anyone can buy a good digital camera and quickly learn to make competent images. But I think that's a good thing.  

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Is Film Better Than Digital?

Is Film Better Than Digital?

Is Film Better Than Digital?

Some would say yes, but I don't think so. And as you'll see, getting at the answer is a very complicated and technical exercise. I worked with film for many years and found that 35mm worked well for making prints up to about 11 x 14 inches in size. For much bigger prints most photographers would use large-format film like 4 x 5 or 5 x 7 inches, and some still do. But digital technology is catching up fast. Many of today's cameras can produce more detailed images than the best 35mm film cameras.

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What About Gallery Wraps and Metal Prints?

What About Gallery Wraps and Metal Prints?

Both of these ways of finishing images have become very popular recently, and both are widely marketed by print labs, service bureaus and wedding photographers. A lot of the push seems to come from a need to find alternatives to classic mat-and-glass framing. Just Google "gallery wraps" and you'll see what I mean. But they work because they're printed on canvas and coated in a way similar to what I do.  

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What Is Fine Art Photography?

What Is Fine Art Photography?

For me, the simplest answer is this: A fine art photograph is a work that originates in a camera and is intended for permanent display. This intention is a decision that the photographer or artist has to make, and with most photographs permanent display is not part of the plan. Of course to succeed as a fine art photograph, someone must also want to display it. 

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