Friday, August 03, 2012

A trip down memory lane

I started writing about how my sources of inspiration have changed but I got caught up in thinking about my early forays into photography, so I changed the topic. I still want to talk about inspiration, but bear with me as I take a longish trip down memory lane.

Everyone's photography evolves. Some people don't get beyond capturing events and people as they pass in front of them. I can say that I have been shooting pictures for over 50 years, on and off: and the early days were exactly that. I remember my friend Gary's darkroom, where I first saw the magic of an image appearing on a print in a developer tray under a red safelight. I was hooked. The first image of my own I remember printing was a full frame shot of an Air Canada plane coming in for a landing at Dorval Airport. I think I may still have that print somewhere. It was marvellous: perfectly crisp and in focus, an 8x10 that showed every detail of the airplane. Doubly hooked.

Next came my own darkroom, but it wasn't a real one. Just a temporary setup in a bathroom and to develop the film, I had to take it out of the 35mm can and wind it onto a stainless steel spool and into a light-tight can, working in a black bag. Mostly I shot Plus-X Pan, 125 ASA. There was a slower, finer grain film but I can't dredge up the name: Pan-X? Sometimes I shot Tri-X (ASA 400) and there were some Ilford films (FP4? Does that ring a bell? Google is your friend!).

In all those early years, I don't think I ever took a picture of anything soft. Even the still-life's I shot were of objects on my desk: pens and slide rules and chess pieces and I remember a seashell. I learned lighting with desklamps and bedsheets for diffusers. I had a Metz flash with a battery pack you hung around your shoulder and a Nikkormat FTn camera with a 50mm lens. I was studying mathematics and theoretical physics at McGill University in those days and the word "ART" had no place in my life.

I graduated to colour in the late '60s but I never actually (successfully) processed any colour film or made any colour prints. I shot slide film (Kodachrome 25 and occasionally 64) and any prints were made by going out to a commercial lab where they made an internegative. In 1971, I documented a 3-week trip across the continent in a VW Beetle with, if I recall 80 rolls of Kodachrome. That trip was my early education in landscape photography.

In the mid-70's, I got more serious. A friend (Danny) and I bought the photo lab and equipment from Northern Electric (Nortel) and rented the facility and turned it into a studio. It had the best of the best: all stainless steel darkrooms, 20' ceilings, lots of lights and cameras like Hasselblads and and  Kodak 8x10 with an Ektagraphic lens on a crank-up antique wooden stand (wish I still had that!) and tons of other stuff. My favourite working camera was a Plaubel 4x5, and my back still hurts thinking about all the time under a black hood with a loupe trying to focus an upside-down image on a ground glass screen. I learned something about studio lighting there, but mostly we shot tabletop shots of hard stuff: electronics, and jewellery and once, a food series for a restaurant chain that resulted in some 16x20 transparencies in their locations. I did some portraits of my daughter, and I remember a series with a male model for an Italian custom suit maker.

We sold that studio and I lost interest in photography other than documenting my kids and the occasional trip. Life, and my work, had a way of getting in the way. Skip forward to the '90s and the advent of digital... I'll save that for another essay.

I wrote this because... well I was travelling down that old mental pathway. But the message I'm trying to communicate is that I was into the technical side of photography in those days. As I said earlier, ART did not enter into anything I did: my favourite picture from those days was a velvety black image of that 8x10 camera that showed every detail. And another one of the Hasselblad, if I recall. Everything was from the left side of my brain: I was a physicist, for heaven's sake!

When did art and design enter my life? It was in the early 80's. As Director of a division at Siemens, I was involved in our advertising campaigns and was on the periphery when some very creative people designed some killer full-page colour ads. These were the days when VW did a full page newspaper ad with a small car on an otherwise completely white page and everyone was trying to outdo them creatively. Then along came a young advertising manager who carried a sketchpad with him everywhere and used to make notes with bubble letters and drop shadows, and I was hooked.

I actually gave up my job and started a desktop publishing and graphic design company. That was my first exposure to Photoshop: we actually used version 1.0 on our Macs in 1990 or so.

So finally back to my original topic. The word "inspiration" did not apply to my photography until then. I think "Inspiration" and "Left Brain" can't coexist in the same sentence (well they just did! LOL). Skipping over lots and lots of stuff, I think my first real inspiration came after I joined the Richmond Hill Camera Club and saw some of the work other members presented. I joined the club, by the way, when I bought my D70 and realized I knew nothing about composition. I knew how to take technical pictures...

So here's the thing about inspiration:
Some time ago I came across this video by Dewitt Jones from National Geographic. I've watched it frequently. More recently, Scott Kelby did a workshop called "Crush the Composition" (link) which had more to do with other stuff than composition. It's an hour long but it's compelling and worth watching. Kelby's a great teacher. Two things stood out for me: "Work the Scene", and the concept that SOMETHING made you stop to take a picture. Keep looking for it.

Want to learn about composition?
Turn on your TV. Watch ads. Watch movies. Watch shows. Pay attention to what those OUTSTANDING photographers and videographers are doing.

Lately I've hooked up with a lady who is a trained classical artist. For a while, I looked at art with her but my mind was still in the technical mode. You know: "Rule of Thirds", "Leading Lines", etc. I couldn't understand what she was trying to tell me (and still don't, mostly), but she has definitely influenced my direction now. Sure, I'm still enthralled by technical things — playing with macros shot with a bellows, and waiting for that D800 I crave — and yes, you're going to see some tekkie type pictures here, but my goal is to let my right brain loose. We'll see how that goes.

Here's an effort along those lines. Admittedly I use the technical tools available to me in Photoshop CS6 and some plugins and HDR techniques, but it's the end image, not how you get there, right?

This is cropped from a larger image (below). I shot it at the Trent-Severn Waterway, between Balsam Lake and Mitchell Lake, where I was shooting ospreys. As I passed over the canal, the scene below caught my eye. Then I thought it would make a wonderful 'painting'. 

Here's the full scene. It's an HDR, processed with Nik HDR Efex Pro 2, then brought into CS6, using Topaz Adjust and the oil paint filter to achieve the effect I wanted. The textures in the crop above do it for me!

I said I was shooting Ospreys. I couldn't get close enough — as I approached the nest the adult bird flew off after angrily peeping at me and wouldn't come back until I stepped away. So the best I could do was a long telephoto shot which I cropped and added texture to.

Do you think s/he knew I was there?? 
Yesterday, I dropped off some garbage at the local landfill. They have a HUGE bear problem, caused by the ban on the spring bear hunt imposed some years ago by the politicians. Last year there was a family of black bears — a boar and sow and a couple of cubs: now it's grown. There were at least 3 large bears and 4 cubs there yesterday.

This boar (I think. I wasn't going to get close enough to check its reproductive equipment!) took an interest in me  and headed in my direction. As he got closer, I moved around behind my car and left the door open for quick access. The background in this image is really ugly: it's the dump, of course. I might crop him out and layer him into a different composite at some point. The picture was badly overexposed, by the way: a testament to how much information you can recover when you shoot in RAW. Shot with my 400mm lens and only slightly cropped.

Same bear, MUCH closer, different treatment. I scooted into my car after taking this shot: he was about  20 feet away and coming towards me. Still overexposed, so I could get rid of most of the background.
See you next week. I'm going to take out the bellows and try for some macro shots later, if I can find some time and some inspiration!

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