Saturday, February 27, 2016

Keep on Learning.

I like to think that I'll only stop learning when I'm on the other side of the grass. With that in mind, I read and re-read books like Freeman Patterson's "The Art of Seeing", or Michael Freeman's "The Photographer's Eye" or Bruce Barnham's "The Art of Photography" and I seem to learn something new every time. I also look at fine art books with a view to seeing how painters approach their works, to try to apply it to my photography. We'll come back to that one.

Just so you don't think I'm one-dimensional, I also read Michio Kaku, other simpler theoretical physics books (it's been a long time, but I'm still interested), tons of crime and adventure fiction (I average 3 books a week), I listen to a lot of music (mostly guitar blues and jazz and amazing singers), I watch The Big Bang Theory religiously, and, back to photography and art, I look at many, many pictures on Facebook to see how other people do things. I spend a lot of time post-processing images in Lightroom and Photoshop and their ilk, as ALL of my regular readers know!

I also attended a workshop presented by Phil Gebhardt for the Haliburton Highlands Camera Club a couple of days ago and I admit to going in with an ulterior motive. I wanted to see how other instructors teach less-experienced photographers, in order to improve my teaching skills. I also wanted to see how he approached a topic near and dear to my heart, the lessons to be learned by modern photographers from the old time painting masters.

Phil Gebhardt, rimlighted! 

Phil's workshop, entitled "Lessons from Rembrandt"  was clearly not addressed at me, it was for new photographers. His message was that whether the medium is paint on canvas or pixels on a screen or photographic print, we're all trying to render a three-dimensional scene in two dimensions and he showed us some techniques in how to do that. His presentation covered points familiar to anyone who has taken any kind of composition course (in fairness, I have never even taken Art 101!) but that was his stated goal and he stuck to it.

Comments that I heard from the participants all around me indicated that he was very successful at opening some eyes: so kudo's, Phil. The only disappointing thing on my side were a couple of comments from people who had taken MY basic course who thought some of the concepts were new to them, although they were covered in my workshops (although in fairness, they were only part of the workshop which was more directed at the students' left brain). And he seemed to run out of things to say in the latter part of the course although that wasn't his fault, the continuing rain prevented us from going outside and shooting as he had planned.

I know this is long but I hope you're still with me. I did learn some things but more importantly, I came to an epiphany last night. Photographers and artists (paint and other media) are not the same. Generally their approach to their images are completely different, although there are a few exceptions. I've struggled with getting the point across about pre-visualization and careful composition and now I think I've figured out why.

How long does a photographer spend visualizing and planning and rendering his image? A photographer spends anywhere from no time at all (for a snapshot), some milliseconds or seconds (for an action shot), a couple of minutes (for a landscape or sunset, for example). Sure, there are exceptions. Pre-planning, lighting setups, backgrounds, etc. But once it's set up, it's just a matter of milliseconds to  take the picture.

Here's a Lake Superior seascape. I drove for 2 days to get this shot but it only took moments to shoot it. By the way, the Gales of November workshop still has space on October 27-30. Book now if you want to attend! 

I've posted this picture before. But it's an example of what I'm talking about. Although I had this picture in my mind before I even drove down Pleasant Point Road looking for a suitable subject, it still only took a few seconds to shoot it. I knew I wanted to emphasize the vertical lines and how to achieve it. I wasn't sure about the exposure or the shutter speed or how much to move the camera, so I took about a dozen shots until I was satisfied. And I knew that I would be able to enhance it once I got it back to the computer.

Now think about a painter. He has a blank canvas or sketchpad in front of him. He decides what he wants to put on that canvas and where. He thinks about how he wants to light it and where to guide the viewer's eye and what to include and what to exclude and what to change. He decides where to put that horizon, the proportions of the various elements and their relationship to one another, and will probably do an underpainting or sketch to block them into place. He chooses his colours and how he wants his brush strokes to look. Only then does he start putting paint on canvas and he pays attention to every detail, every brushstroke, every nuance.

I'm trying to learn to paint. But I'm a newbie. This is an attempt to render the scene in the photo above in oil on canvas. But it's different, isn't it? I thought about leading the viewer's eye. I thought about how the distant objects are less sharp and detailed or even saturated than the foreground. I needed to lean a tree in the left group to make it more dynamic. I had to fill the negative space at lower left and upper right without drawing the viewer's attention. 
Would I sell this original oil painting? Well, yes, but you'd have to make it worth my while. Think about having an early original 'Springer' and what it might be worth after I'm gone!

Sure there are photographers who work similarly – Ansel Adams comes immediately to mind. Or anyone doing commercial studio work. But for most photographers, "oh, look, a Pine Marten", and a barrage of tens or 100's or 1000's of images follow. Then they winnow through this multitude of images in the hopes of finding one or two that work.

So how do we photographers take these "Lessons from Rembrandt"? I've often said "you have to know the rules so you know when to break them". There are those who disagree with this platitude and I respect their points of view but stand by mine. Except that's not really the message, maybe I can explain it better.

This is the paragraph I'm having the most trouble writing. It relates to the relative laziness of the photographer, the lack of investment he or she has in their images. If a painter screws up a picture (or just doesn't like it), he or she throws away hours, or days or possibly even weeks of work. If a photographer screws up a picture, "oh, well". Click. What if a photographer were to invest more in an image? Not money: time and thought and planning. We tell everyone about this great world we live in, how much better we have it than the oldtimers who were limited to only a few images when they went out shooting but do we really? What if we would approach each image as if pressing that shutter release cost $100 every time we did it? 
Do we need to be more careful with our exposures or focus? NO, not really! That's our advantage in this digital world. That's where we can bracket or shoot multiple shots. Where we can USE the technology.
Would we not then spend more effort designing and planning our images? When we press the shutter release we should ask ourselves, "is this the best I can do? What can I do to improve this picture? Is this going to be a keeper?"

Depending on what you're shooting, you may not have the luxury of all the time in the world. Even if you're shooting landscapes, the light will change. If you're shooting action (could be wildlife, could be sports, could just be kids at play) or particularly if you're trying to capture peoples' activities or expressions, maybe a wedding or a headshot... you don't have the time. Do you want to spend what precious time you have trying to remember the Rule of Thirds or keeping your horizon level, or making the subject stand out through size or colour or value or brightness or contrast or how much exposure compensation to dial in...? That's why you should know the 'rules', know what works, so you can focus your valuable attention on the things that will make that image outstanding.

Make sense?

I think I STILL haven't found a way to say it.

Did you ever have one of "Those" days?

Yesterday. I had a great visit with my mom in Thornhill. On the way there, I stopped for some pictures: I was actually looking for Snowy Owls, but didn't see one, still, the ice-encrusted branches made for interesting images. I took the same route home and again got some not-owl shots.

However on the way home, I stopped for a bathroom break at a gas station in Georgina. I put my cellphone down, and remember specifically telling myself not to forget it. Seriously, I actually told myself not to forget it, literally 5 seconds before leaving the bathroom. You know what's coming, right?

Three hours. I knew exactly where I had left it. It took me an hour to get back there and two more hours to get home. It's my only phone so leaving it for a few days was not an option.

I've lost/forgotten stuff before: but never this bad. Is it just age, or the early onset of you-know-what? I can't find any of my drybags (I use them to keep condensation from forming in my camera when I bring it in from the cold). So I had to buy a new one. I can't find any of my half-dozen flashlights (well, one...) so I bought some new ones yesterday. I go in the grocery store without a shopping list and I can't remember why I'm there. {sigh}.

Anyway, here are some pictures from yesterday.

The trees were coated with a rime of ice and it was capturing the light snow as it fell. I saw this tree and stopped to shoot it. However, I had the long lens on (hoping to see a snowy owl) so even at its widest setting – 150mm – I couldn't get the whole tree in. So I deliberately shot a sequence of nine pictures: starting at lower right, three across, then back across the middle, then the top. I stitched these together with Lightroom CC 2015.4's marvelous new pano-merge feature. The resulting image was almost 150 megapixels in size – so big that I couldn't save it in the normal fashion! It did the job flawlessly. Then I decided it needed some textures and toning... 

Like I said, a rime of ice. This is basically right out of the camera, although I did work on the toning a little.  Surprisingly good given that it was handheld at 600mm (1/1000 second at f/6.3, ISO 5600)

This picture needed some noise reduction. Topaz Labs announced the latest version of DeNoise (6) a couple of days ago and I used it. I simply dialed in the preset for the D800 at 6400 ISO and clicked "go". Wow.

Topaz DeNoise 6 Upgrade
From now until March 20th, Topaz DeNoise 6 is on sale for $30 off their regular price of $79.95. Worth it at twice the price! You can download a free trial to see how it works for you before buying it, but you have to complete the transaction by the 20th of March to get the discounted price. 
Here's the link to the Topaz Labs page: Topaz DeNoise
Use that link, and enter "NOISEFREE" in the coupon code box at checkout to get the discount.
PS: If you already own deNoise your upgrade is free. You probably got an email from Topaz but if not, use the link and download the new version. It will recognize your existing serial number when you install it.

Here's one of these "I can't decide which picture I like best" questions. I hate when people do this on Facebook ("which one do you like, colour or black-and-white?") so forgive me.

The first image is a considered landscape. Diagonal leading lines, hazier in the distance, framed by the dark foliage... it tell the story of this rural house of worship on a snowy winter day.

The second image came to me when I was looking through the viewfinder, composing the first one. I loved the textures of the bricks and I wanted to make that the story. I wanted to make the church stand out from the softness of its ice-covered surroundings.

Snowy owls sometimes perch on that roof. That's why I was there...
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