Photo Journal: Herring Cove, Campobello Is., NB

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Olympus E-M1 | f/4 @1/15 sec, 62mm (Olympus 40-150mm), ISO 200, no filters

So much of landscape photography is about being open to discovery. We may have an idea of what a potential image might look like, but that’s only possible given certain circumstances, many of which are usually out of our control.

That’s really the story of this image. On several visits to this shoreline at Herring Cove in New Brunswick, I considered several approaches to making an image. What I could use as foreground elements, how I might position my camera, what lens and focal length I might use.

I imagined an image that featured the rocks that only become exposed at low tide, perhaps with more rocks in the middle ground to create depth, and finally the many different hues of green in the trees in the background to create color variation and interest. The sky area would provide the cool blues that so often help add depth to an image—as we know warm colors come forward, cool colors recede. And so I had a plan.

On my final visit at sunrise however, nature had her own plans as usual. And this to me is the moment when photography becomes most exciting, when the chance to enter a “flow” state is greatest. Plans and preconceptions give way to single-minded attention and spontaneity.

At least they should if you want to give as much of yourself as possible to the moment; where flow happens and your creative instincts can take over.

As I looked at the scene, I decided that the sky, the colors, and the light were my subjects, certainly not what I had envisioned before. And so I reversed my previous idea for a composition. I would use the colors and patterns of the sky to create the image, and balance that with the foreground elements as a compliment.

The dark silhouettes of the trees and shoreline became areas to contrast the energy of the colors—a passive area that provides even greater interest to the active area—the sky.

Dark shadows, especially silhouettes, also influence the rhythm of an image, in that they slow down the viewer’s eye to some degree. This influences the feel of an image, and helps to focus the attention on what I wanted to convey—that very elusive quality we all need to share in our images, emotion.

Visual Design

From a design standpoint, I used a basic diagonal from bottom right to top left. The reflection in the immediate foreground served as a way to enter the image, and also provided the repetitive semi-circular shapes that I played with to lead the viewer’s eye up to to the tress and sky. There are three of them, which is a fundamental element you should always look for in your compositions. Three similar shapes, patterns, or colors for example, is almost always visually interesting.

But all of that is secondary to the sky, and this is where I had the greatest challenge and difficulty. How much sky? Where do I place the horizon? Which part of the sky has the strongest colors and greatest variation? These are all questions I asked myself in the brief moments I worked this scene, because as you well know, time is the other factor, changing the conditions by the second. Ultimately what I’m after is the simplest image possible that contains the essence of my experience.

The only way I know how to solve these kinds of problems is to remain engaged in the energy of the moment and focus on responding, not reacting. My definitions are as follows:

  • Responding: using the fundamentals of camera technique and composition intuitively, and staying open to the visual elements as they are, without judgment or expectation. A spontaneous moment follows another spontaneous moment. Connection to the landscape and your personal interpretation is higher or highest.
  • Reacting: self-criticism, judging the images you’re making while making them, and generally becoming more and more trapped in the mechanics of the process. Connection to the landscape and your personal interpretation is much lower, or lowest.

The only way to be more “responsive” is to eliminate as many variables as possible that you can control, so that you can focus on the real task, the creative process. When you don’t have to think about lens choice, focal length, exposure settings, and compositional options, you’re free to focus more on how to capture a scene as strongly as possible, aesthetically and emotionally.

I don’t care if the images I’m capturing work or don’t work when I’m in the field, I only care about responding. The histogram is the only thing I check on the LCD to make sure I’ve captured the proper tones. I know that may sound hard to believe, but what other option is there really?

The time to judge and evaluate your images is when the moments to respond are over, which are often brief and elusive. For me that time is back at home on my computer.

As long as I’m in the field, I’d rather take advantage of that opportunity, that privilege really, to keep my vision (both physically and emotionally) connected to the reality around me. Plus research has shown your brain works much better when you remain engaged on a single task versus switching between the creative side and the editing side—from left to right sides of the brain.

I made eight images starting at 5:42am and ending at 5:46am, and then the color was gone. You can see in the screenshot of Lightroom below that most of what I struggled with was the upper left corner, balancing the trees, the tones in the sky, and the relationship of both to the reflection in the lower right. There’s also a nice tonal line in the sky upper right that I also considered, but I felt it wasn’t as important as the lower right in terms of establishing the strongest diagonal.

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The red lines show the general path I want to viewer to follow through the images based on the strongest lines along areas of highest contrast. Notice they flow along a diagonal path and divide the image between the “active” area (shown by the yellow lines) and the less active, or “passive” area (shown by the grey lines. The concept of active and passive areas influence the unity of an image, its visual rhythm, and the over focal point – in this case the vibrant colors and patterns of the sky. BTW – I never really think about the labels – “sky” for example, when composing, but rather about color, tonal values, lines, and how they all relate. 

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This to me is really the key to the image, where to place the division between the main axis of the image – color vs no color, detail vs very little detail, and dark shadows without any life vs the real life of the image. The reflection in the sand at the bottom is critical in so many ways, yet is only complementary, like the intro to a song. 

The Print

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Here’s a print of the image on Canson Infinity PrintMaKing Rag (printed on an Epson P800), probably my favorite mat papers for images where I really want to de-emphasize the photographic nature of an image, and bring attention to shapes, colors, patterns, and the feel of the relationships they create. Shadow detail is not the key here, but rather how the tones and colors work together without overpowering each other. A mat paper is great when nuance and subtlety is most important to the vision of the photographer. For me it conveys more of what I felt standing on the beach that morning.

None of this is easy or obvious, and comes from years of practice and error, lots of error. But hopefully these “notes’ provide you with idea and inspiration you can use in your own path, which is certainly as valid as anyone else’s.

Please share your thoughts and questions, it’s always an honor to read what you have to share.

The Importance of the Right Time


Silent Colors, Hudson Valley

“I paint for the sole purpose of magnifying the privilege of being alive.” – Robert Henri

My favorite character in the classic childrens book “The Phantom Tollbooth” was Chroma, the conductor who would bring forth the colors of the rainbow, or a beautiful sunset based on a musical “score.” It seems so natural to me that color can correspond to sounds; bright or dark, loud or soft, sharp or dull.

For me this image was definitely more about sound than about leaves, or water, or distant mountains. There was a quiet moment, when all I could hear was the wind blowing through the tall reeds of grass, and at that same time I noticed the cloud reflections in the water at my feet. It was like a single note held high above a steady hum of deep blues.

When I realized what I was seeing and hearing, I remembered the Henri quote above, and decided it was a good time to make a few pictures.

What’s important here is the connection to a moment, or a feeling, or a sense that you’re truly engaged with nature. Music and sound are extremely connected to my visual sense, and so I generally react to moments when those are all in harmony of some sort.

But it can be different for you. Whatever it is that makes you feel most alive, it’s essential  to incorporate that into your approach in the field. After all, that’s what we all want to see from your work – what you see and feel, that we don’t.

Have you ever thought about when is the right time for you to make pictures?

Photo Journal: Tree Light, Mohonk Preserve

Over the years I’ve come to realize more and more that making an image is as much about what we bring to a moment as it is what the moment has to offer. Nature offers or confers an invitation for visual and emotional engagement, but we must be willing to listen, to receive, to see.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says, “Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living,” and it’s the curiosity that will never let you down in nature. For me that pretty much describes how I made this image. It’s the constant curiosity I have in how light interacts with shapes, colors, forms, and our visual sense of the world. But mostly it’s how that makes me feel.

It had rained all night and the forecast called for more light rain, so I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Mohonk Preserve near my home. I decided to go anyway because I’d rather spend time in nature under almost any condition versus staying at home or visiting my local cafe (as much as I enjoy that.) Mohonk is also near and dear to my heart. It was and continues to be my training ground so to speak, a place I know intimately yet never tire of visiting.

It was wet and foggy when I arrived but the forest had a wonderful feel that can best be described as serene and unmistakable. It’s a place I know well, both emotionally and physically. This is why you’re here, I thought as I walked on the trail, trying not to hope for anything but rather to give my fullest attention.

That’s not an easy thing to do, and too often I have found myself wanting something more: better light, more clouds…less this, more that. But none of that “mental baggage” makes any difference does it. In fact it makes matters worse, because the attention, the curiosity, is diminished, or even gone completely.

How do I know this? Because it’s happened to me many, many times. And guess what, it’s never resulted in a better picture. It’s only when I remain aware and curious that I might have the chance to see more deeply; to remain engaged.

After about 2 hours of wandering and capturing a few images here and there, I decided to head home, happy about the time I had spent amongst friends (trees) and wondering when I would return. Just then the fog started to lift just a bit and very subtle light started to penetrate the forest floor.

As the fog lifted, I followed the light as it became warmer higher in the forest canopy, and I saw this particular scene. My initial and sole attraction was the lone tree projecting out from the rock wall. Why this tree? Because its gesture, (an term I learned from Jay Maisel), was accentuated by its silhouette and the bright warmish light behind it. It also lacks color whereas the area surrounding it contains the only green in the composition, adding emphasis to its meaning.

I wanted to make the image simply about that little tree, but it’s the scale I also wanted to capture because that really adds a sense of depth and drama. A relatively narrow focal length was needed to isolate that area since I was standing at least 50-60 feet away from the tree and rocks. I initially started with a horizontal orientation, but I quickly switched to a vertical format to take advantage of the lines and major shapes, which are all moving vertically.

It wasn’t until I started to “frame” the composition that I noticed the pattern of the large “masses,” from very dark, to light, and back to darkness. And because the strong lines lead without any ambiguity, I “pushed” that very dark area on the left more and more into the composition in an effort to make the transition that much more dramatic. As long as I could maintain a general diagonal design, and the light remained warm and beautiful, the shadows would help make the image that much more powerful.

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The red lines show the main leading lines as well as the division between the 3 masses, all having different tonalities and texture but unified by pattern. The yellow lines show that variation and how they move the eye towards the center of interest (green.) The orange lines indicate the highlights and detail that I made sure not to clip on my cameras histogram. Shadows clipped in the darkest areas.

In my recent talk at B&H, I explain the three core elements of composition: leading lines, center of interest, and unity. When I bring the viewfinder to my eye, these are the things I’m looking for simultaneously, and they directly affect how I move the elements around in the scene.

I made a few exposures careful not to clip the highlights because I needed the detail on the rocks. Camera settings on my Olympus E-M1 were:  f/4 @ 1/125, 60mm (40-150mm lens), ISO 400, no filters. And of course as always happens, things never remain the same, and the light moved on.

I’m often asked how to capture fog, and the answer is I don’t capture fog. I try to capture light because that’s the thing that provides the energy for an image. The fog certainly adds a special element to the light, but nonetheless it’s the light that I look for. Fog affects contrast, color, detail, and of course light. And all of these influence the mood of an image, which ideally is simply a reflection of the photographers emotional experience at the moment the shutter button was pressed.

So instead of photographing fog, try to look for variation and interesting light. It’s how fog affects a scene that’s interesting, not the fog itself.

During a recent printing workshop where I had the print displayed, I was asked to talk about this image, and I found myself at a loss of words. That’s ironic given how much I’ve written here, but I suppose it was similar to being asked to describe my feelings at that moment. nI simply said I was reacting to my curiosity, to my gratitude, and to my need for moments such as these.

Develop and Print

I often talk about how an image can suggest a feel, a mood, an ambiance. And that’s what I want to convey with this image, so developing the image and selecting a paper is about maintaining those impressions as faithfully as possible. The shadows aren’t important with respect to detail, they add drama and support the light, so a mat paper is ideal from that standpoint alone.


Original RAW capture

In addition, the light needs to be communicated as softly and as nuanced as possible, yet retain the contrast in the lone tree with it’s suggestive shape and motion. A random but subtle texture would also add interest to the dark areas in all four corners, as well as add some dimension to the center rock.

A paper that’s up to that challenge is Canson Infinity’s PrintMaking Rag, and it works great for this image. This print is 13” x 19” wth a 1.5” border on the left and right side. It really captures what I remember about the moment, in a way that is both clear yet subtle. I want to invite curiosity in a print, and I think the paper leaves room for that tonally without compromising the very important details in the highlights.

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Printed on Canson Infinity PrintMaking Rag, 310gsm, Epson P800 printer. 

I’d love to hear your feedback, so feel free to contribute below. Thanks as always for your attention.

New Dates for the Fine Art Printing Masterclass

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For those of you who are not subscribed to my Beyond the Lens newsletter, I wanted to announce that I’ve added a few more dates to the highly popular Fine Art Printing Masterclass. It’s an intensive 2-day workshop where I cover all you need to to know get started in printing your own work.

I’ve written at length about why I think making your own prints is one of the most rewarding things you can do as a photographer, and in this masterclass I thoroughly explain how and why. For example many people choose papers based on the general look they think they like for their images, but this overlooks one of the most important characteristics of paper:  how a papers surface and texture changes the perception of an image.

Quiet, aggressive, subdued, nuanced, painterly, photographic, literal or poetic – these are all aesthetic and perceptual qualities that the right paper can add to a photograph and to your personal vision for a print. When you factor in a world class fine art paper from Canson Infinity, the creative possibilities become much more personal and meaningful.

I cover all of this in detail and more in the workshop – if you’re interested, here are the remaining dates for 2016:

  • August 27th-28th
  • October 29th-30th
  • December 4th-5th
Register Here

 

Also read more than 25 in-depth reviews from students – many, many thanks to those who have taken the time to leave their feedback, I am extremely grateful.


Lakies Head, Nova Scotia printed on Canson Infinity Platine Fibre Rag paper.

Coffee and Nature

I take my coffee seriously, both as a drink and also as a ritual that starts the beginning of each new day. A good cup of coffee is rich with flavor, not too acidic or bitter. It should be bold and aromatic, but not overpowering. It’s not the quantity that matters, but the quality of the experience.

It also prepares me to engage with the day ahead, whatever it brings. And it’s in nature when I feel most engaged.

There’s the stillness of the air, cool and refreshing, where nature’s sounds travel undisturbed; where the word “noise” has no meaning. There’s also the awareness of mind and body, fresh and rejuvenated after sleep, which is ready to respond to the stimulus of the day ahead. It’s a raw energy that’s ready to be harnessed yet remains untapped, and it excites me to wonder where it will take me, creatively and imaginatively.

(It’s also a reminder of why it ‘s so important to maintain our minds and bodies in peak performance. It makes you happier and more creative, in every way. I’ve written about the body and mind before… )

And of course there’s the sunlight, glorious sunlight. Words fail to describe the emotions and feelings I experience in that magical transition between shadow and light, cold and warmth, vague and and clear. My mind and body react with joy, bliss, and gratitude for another wonderful day that I’m alive. That simple gift is so easy to take for granted, and instead demand something more, as though there actually exists such a thing.

I could easily describe trees, or mountains, or patterns in the sky. It’s not the label that matters, but rather its inherent beauty. Happiness is realizing why I’m inspired by nature, not looking for anything more, but just what’s in front of my eyes and inside my heart. The rest is just part of the difficult path we must navigate until our vision becomes clear. Once that happens, the destination is meaningless, and pursuit of it delays the clarity needed to make photography a worthwhile and lasting activity.

For me it all starts with a cup of coffee. But it can start with whatever you prefer, as long as you never take that gift for granted.

“The expression of beauty is by emotion. The person who can communicate his emotion to the soul of the other is the artist.” – Alphonse Mucha