Every now and then I get an email from a student saying “I went out and looked everywhere, but I could not find anything to photograph!”
I know the feeling well – there just doesn’t seem to be anything in your part the world that’s worthy of being photographed. You look in photography books and see that all those famous photographers seemed to have wonderful locations – exotic, photogenic places that look so cool. But everything around you is just so mundane. Believe me – I’ve been there.
But surely the exotic locations that those famous guys had were actually mundane and boring to the people who lived there? Sometimes, like Robert Frank in America or Marti Friedman in New Zealand it helps to be an immigrant to see a location with fresh eyes. But if that was the only way to take photos we’d only be able to take photos when traveling. Surely the point about photography is that we need to be able to open our eyes to our surroundings to find interesting subjects. If we can open our eyes the world can sometimes transform in a magical way. It’s not ‘out there’ that has changed, it’s the way we see it that can transform our reality.
To illustrate this I’ll tell you about the last photos I took in the ’12 days of Christmas’ photography challenge that we ran on Facebook – take a photo a day for 12 days (https://www.facebook.com/OnlinePhotoInstitute).
On day 11 my family and I were traveling (so according to the ‘exotic location’ theory things should have been easier, but as you will see they were not). Since I was basically on a family trip and using the ’12 days’ challenge as an excuse to get some photography in, I needed to piggy-back my photography onto family trips. Scheduled for this day was a family trip to Auckland Zoo, and eventually we’d end up back at the hotel which was near the airport. We needed to return the rental car before 5 pm, and as we were flying home early the next morning it didn’t really matter that we’d be stuck at the airport for the evening. My idea was that I’d take the advantage of being at the zoo to do some Garry Winogrand style street photography. I’ve always loved Winogrand’s work, and a zoo is a great place for that style, and we don’t have a zoo in Dunedin.
But things didn’t go as planned.
My first photo was of an obese family eating ice creams next to the elephant enclosure. Ironic; cutting; humorous.
But not long after I ended up having a brief conversation with them. They seemed like nice people. Then, as we walked around the zoo, this family was often looking at the same animals we were. I noticed how the parents interacted with their kids. They didn’t just seem nice – they seemed good. And I’d feel really mean if I put the image I had of them on Facebook – it would be cruel to make fun of them in a public forum. They didn’t deserve that.
So I trashed my Winogrand idea. One of my daughters was recovering from scarlet fever, and her energy levels were low, so we ended up back at the hotel before schedule, without me having got my photo for the challenge.
Now, the hotel we were staying at was especially bland, and, because we had booked the cheapest room that could fit us all, the place was crammed with baggage, clothes and grumpy kids. Not much scope for a photo there. And the area around Auckland Airport is pretty much antiseptic and un-photogenic. To cap things off, the weather was bland with a featureless sky, on the edge of rain, but without any definition in the clouds. The most boring possible light. I thought that maybe I could get some photos in the terminal, and at the worst I could hang around after dark and get some long exposures of car headlights or something to satisfy my obligations to the ’12 days’.
I went out with the camera to take the rental car back, hoping I’d find something to photograph on the walk back. I really didn’t want to send in low quality work for the ’12 days’ challenge – there were too many people who I liked, including present and former students, following the challenge. To post a lousy photo would be embarrassing.
I dropped the rental car off, thinking that really I wanted an abandoned building or a field of rusty cars – that’s the sort of location I’ve done some of my best work in. Sharee McBeth had shared a link to photos of exotic abandoned locations and that was in my head. The airport surroundings were just too neat and tidy.
Then I walked out of the rental yard and looked around, and there, across the road, on the other side of a paddock, was an abandoned building. I couldn’t resist it – I had to check it out. As I got closer I realised it wasn’t just one building – it was a field of abandoned buildings and rusty old cars.
I climbed over the barbed wire fence and into the field. There wan’t anyone around, and it looked as if no one had been there for years. It looked like a yard that had once been operated as a wrecker’s yard, for both buildings and cars, but a wreckers yard that no one had tended for decades. I recognised a mark I Jag and and Austin J Type – both vehicles had been discontinued around 1960, so I’m guessing that this yard had not been active since around 1970. (below the J Type and Mark I wrecks)
(Double click to see the images larger)
I love the red colour on the dash of this one…
Saddest was this dead kitten, which almost looked as if it had been posed.
What I like best about old cars is how anthropomorphic they can be. I like the twisted grin on the one below…
This is the view from beside one of the houses looking back to the car rental yard.
Some of the houses reminded me of pictures taken after natural disasters. Here’s a pair of shots of the same building that show the importance of framing with a foreground object. the first one is a document, the second is a photograph…
This is probably my favourite shot from the place – here the house becomes anthropomorphic – us humans are hardwired to see faces.
But my creative streak didn’t end there. By the time I got back to the hotel the view from the window was starting to look good, in a ‘New Topography’ kind of way… (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/feb/08/new-topographics-photographs-american-landscapes)
We walked over to the International terminal to find some dinner, and I explored with the camera. The observation deck…
The shot above is an OK shot, but I like the one below more since it has a sense of narrative (who is she seeing off?). The central composition seems to make her look more lonely.
Even the corridor to the viewing platform seemed interesting
The shot below is probably the most interesting one form the terminal. Of course it’s a photo of a photo, but if Richard Prince can get away with that (http://www.richardprince.com) then so can I. What makes it work is the rubbish bin.
And on the way home from dinner the early evening sun was shining on a parking space…
Now, the point of all this is that there were plenty of images just waiting to be taken, but only when my eyes were open.
Good photos are not out there.
They are in your eyes.
This might seem like I’m harping on a little here, but if there is one thing that I see over and over again in student work, it’s the lack of subtle post-producion skills.
Look at this photo (double click to see larger)…
It’s a pretty undistinguished photo of some cows. There are some obvious problems – there’s a big black spot caused by dirt on the lens, the horizon is not straight, and you can see my shadow at bottom left. But more than that, it’s just a bit… meh. It’s just not special.
Now, look at the same photo after a little TLC in Lightroom…
The obvious problems are fixed – it’s a simple job to straighten the horizon, and cropping the photo so that the shadow is removed also allows us to crop it so that there is a more satisfying aspect ratio with the horizon on the rule-of-thirds line. The spot remover has dealt to the nasty black blob.
But more than that – the grass is literally greener on this side, and the clouds are more interesting. There’s a vignette that pulls our attention into the centre of the shot. The cow that’s looking at us has a more glistening coat, and we can see detail in the shaded side of her face. There’s no serious manipulation here, but there’s a lot more life in the image. This is the sort of work that pretty much every photo needs if it is gong to look it’s best. A dozen small adjustments have a cumulative effect.
To learn how to do these adjustments – here’s a reminder – our great Udemy course is still on special at only $15 if you use the coupon code ‘Shutter’.
It’s worth noting that I shot this with a view to cropping. I used a Samyang fisheye on this shot, so to prevent the horizon bending I made sure the horizon ran through the centre of the frame. I know that a shot like this will usually not work well if the horizon is centred, but I knew I could crop it later, and the fisheye lens will bow any straight lines that are not through the centre. When you are shooting you need to be shooting with a view to what you’ll do to the shot afterwards. These are the same skills that our forbears used in the darkroom.
1 – Hoodloupe
This is surprisingly useful. If you want to use your camera for video recording you’ll have something like this, but for still photography these can be are great too. Basically it’s a lens-viewer attachment that goes over your LCD screen. The Hoodloupe is made of a soft-ish rubber-ish stuff that won’t scratch the LCD screen. Imagine you are out shooting in bright sunlight – you take a shot, but was it any good. You can hardly see the LCD screen because it’s so bright, but you have the Hoodloupe dangling around your neck, so you use that to see the LCD screen really clearly. Or you are like me and need glasses to see the screen in detail – you have the dioptre adjustment set on the viewfinder (so you don’t need glasses for most of your photography), and you can adjust the Hoodloupe’s dioptre as well – and with the magnification it offers you can se every pixel on the LCD.
2 – Monopod
A monopod is a great tool for stabilizing your camera in fast moving situations. For example you are shooting a wedding in low light – you want so stability, but you need to keep moving to get the good shots. A monopod is not as stable s a tripod, but it’s a lot easier to move around and quickly reframe with one. They also make a great instant stabiliser for shooting video hand held – shoot holding the camera out from your body, with the monopod dangling down as a weight – the weight of the monopod helps to prevent roll (leaving you to control pitch and yaw). Some come with little mini-tripod legs at the bottom, but these are no substitute for a real tripod – mine is a plain one with no mini-tripod, and I don’t miss the legs.
3 – Reflector.
You can get cheap 5 in 1 reflectors at very little cost these days – not as rugged as the more expensive models, but so cheap you don’t need to think too hard either. The inner core is a sheet of translucent white diffuser stretched across a circular frame. Over this you can put a cover that is silver on one side and gold on the other. Turn the cover inside out and it becomes white or black. For that matter – I brought a $4 sunshade to go on the dashboard of my car (why they sell them in Dunedin I’ll never know) – it has a silver surface on one side and white on the other – and is a fine reflector.
4 – LED light
My prediction – in ten years time, maybe sooner, flash units will be obsolete. What will make them obsolete will be small LED lights, like this one, but more powerful. This light takes six AA batteries and runs for ages on them. It’s realy useful for adding a little fill and in a pinch could be my primary illumination – but really I’d like it to be stronger for that. As it stands it’s so convenient and easy to use that I use it all the time as a fill. As LED technology improves, and units the size of this one get cheaper and more powerful, I can see little lights like this taking over from flash units because they are so easy to use.
5 – Microphone Boom Stand.
Obviously this is useful, essential even, if you need something to hold a microphone, but I find I use mine for all sorts of other jobs. The LED light and my flash unit can fit on this, and with a little gaffer tape it can hold just about anything, and the boom arrangement allows you great freedom of positioning. One of those things that when you start using it you wonder how you coped without it.
6 – Lightroom or Aperture
If you are not using one of these software packages, well, I think you should be. I used to scoff at them, priding myself on just keeping my images organized or using Bridge to find files – but once I started using Lightroom… Well, it just made everything easier. Both Lightroom and Aperture are easy to use, great when it comes to basic adjustments on your images, and both are inexpensive (although Aperture is cheaper). Personally I use Lightroom, but Aperture has its strengths as well. See here for a detailed comparison…
7 – Lightroom or Aperture course
Both packages are easy to learn, but it really helps if you get a leg up by doing an online course like the OPI 002 courses. I say this because most of the student work I see has not been worked up as much as it should have been in Lightroom or Aperture – it’s the small adjustments that you can make that have a huge impact on the final result (and I think that might make some good material for my next post).
8 – Lens Pen
a really great little accessory that should be in every photographers bag. If you get dust on the lens your fist port of call should be a blower, but if that can’t move it, reach for this. One end has a soft brush, and the other has a soft pad for the really stubborn dirt. Ideally you’d never use one of these, because you’ll never get dust on your lens, but, lets face it, there are some great locations that are also dusty or dirty, and your photography will suffer if you always avoid them.
9 – 50mm lens
The big bargain in lenses is the 50mm. All the main makers have a bargain 50mm, usually their f/1.8 lens. The build quality is not amazing – lots of plastic – but the optics are great since it’s easy to make a fast, sharp lens at this focal length. On a full frame body I don’t really like the focal length – it’s neither tele nor wide, so a bit blah, but when you put a 50mm on an APSC body it becomes a great portrait lens. Also there are some great older lenses with excellent build quality if you can put up with manual focus. I have an ancient Pentax lens that gives great results on my Canon body.
10 – Smart Phone apps
I guess this could be a whole category in itself, but there are several that I use for photography all the time…
– Hipstamatic – the most fun camera app out there. It takes photos with simulated vintage film and lenses, and has a great randomize function. I don’t really use this for serious photography, but I do have a lot of fun with it.
– EOS remote – works with canon cameras via wi-fi and allows you to see what the camera sees on your phone or iPad, and works as a remote control.
– the clock/stopwatch is useful for timing long bulb exposures (and if you are doing really, really long exposures you can listen to music on iTunes or Spotify while you wait).
11 – SD or CF card
Yes one more thing by way of a bonus. A bigger, faster card for the camera. Cards are getting cheaper and cheaper these days, and the capacities keeps on rising. Keep a couple of spare 16GB cards in your camera bag and you’ll never run out of room! But beware cards that do not come from reputable sources –there are lots of low quality counterfeit cards out there – they look identical to the real thing – and sometimes they are just as good as the real thing – but you don’t know what the quality really is. If you get one of those one-in-a-million shots, and you used a dodgy card, you run the risk of the data corrupting and you image being lost forever.
Ansel Adams is one of the best known landscape photographers of the 20th century.
There is a great OPI course that follows in the footsteps of Ansel Adams – called, not surprisingly, ‘Following in the Footsteps of Ansel Adams. The course is a thorough revisiting of Adams work with assignments that get you to replicate his approach, and with lots of pointers on how his style works.
Usually this course is $290, but now there is an Independent Study version of the course which costs only $7.99
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?
The independent study version does not come with any mentoring or feedback – because it does not require us to spend a lot of time in mentoring we can offer it at a really fantastic price.
You’ve got to get the camera position right, and often that means getting the camera lower.
I’ve used Silver Effex Pro to bring out the textures in the buoys by adjusting the way the black and white conversion was handled, and I like the quiet stillness of the shot. The triangle and sphere shapes have a slightly surreal quality. But that’s not the whole story.
We arrived at the dam in the hope of a pleasant walk to the cloud forest above. It wasn’t much of a day, but my thought was that a cloudy day would be a good day to visit a clod forest. As you walk towards the start of the track you go past these two buoys, so I stopped to take a photo. Now, I knew that the best position for the camera here was down near the water, but to get there I’d have needed to climb down a wet, slippery stone surface, and I just wasn’t game. So I stood there in the “tourist position” and took this shot…
Look at the gap between the buoys ant the forest behind them. The buoys look cool, but that’s about all you could say for the shot.
And then off we went on our walk. As we walked the weather got worse and worse, with a steady trickle of light drizzle that make all the leaves wet. Now here I learned something about down jackets – if you walk through wet bush with one on they offer no protection at all. Soon I was soaked through.
Eventually we gave up, and retraced our steps to the car. Everyone else made bee line for the car, which was at least warm and dry, leaving me free to contemplate the lake and those two buoys. Now that I was already wet, climbing down on the slippery rocks didn’t seem half so bad, so I made my way down to the water’s edge, as I knew I should have done the first time. Here’s the same image, but this is what it looked like straight off the camera…
There’s a bit too much foreground, but even as I was shooting i knew I’d crop that away. The important thing is that now the buoys relate to the forest – it’s one picture, not one of the buoys next to another of the forest.
So what can we learn from this?
I think the big lesson is that photography takes time. I didn’t get the good shot until I returned and was able to spend a few minutes just being in the space, alone. It’s really hard to see if you have people waiting for you. Taking the shot is only 1/100th of a second, but getting the camera into the right spot? Sometimes it takes a while (and sometimes it takes more time than you have).
The second lesson is how important the camera position is. And as it usually works out it’s so often a matter of getting the camera lower.
And thirdly – I shot this with a view to post-production. I knew I’d crop the image more horizontally, and I knew I’d work it in Silver Effex Pro to get the maximum richness of the detail in the buoys.
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I was lucky enough to win a prize in th first annual Photogeek competition run by Lens Rentals
When I saw the competition rules it struck me that the best category for me to enter was in the ‘No Video Mode’ category – which turned out to be the least geeky of all the categories. There were some fantastic entries – but I think my favourite was the guy who used a lathe to adjust the filter screw on the front of his lens (follow the link above and go right to the bottom).
But I thought I should post here a little on the winning image that I put in – (double-click on it to see it larger)
This was taken on a Canon 350D that has been converted to Infra Red. The interaction between the Man, the Boy and the Ball works really well, but it’s the Woman in the char looking at us that makes it for me. I like the surreal quality that the infra-red gives to the foliage, turning an ordinary day in the park into what seems to be more like some kind of thermonuclear spectator event. The people are actually watching a brass band concert – I thought it would work nicely if I framed so that we just had the people sunbathing, and framed so that we could not see the band. The group of people who appear to be having a philosophical discussion i the background (look above the Man’s head) also work really well.
I think I’ve managed to capture on of those moments that take an ordinary event and frame it so that it becomes quite surreal.
Working with the 350D is actually a surprisingly pleasant experience. Well, maybe it’s that my expectations are low. Compared to using my 6D, looking through the viewfinder is like looking through a tunnel, and the image on the rear LCD screen is so small it’s useless, and the low light capability is zero. But it makes a cool noise when you take a photo, it’s small, and it goes. And it’s had an infra-red conversion so there’s an element of guesswork as to how any photo will work – foliage comes out white, eyes come out black, other things have an element of serendipity that aids creativity.
In fact if you needed an ultra budget camera I think your first port of call would be one of these coupled with the Samyang 14mm lens…
The Samyamg lens is inexpensive, has great optics, and on the 350D it’s the equivalent of a 22mm – quite a nice focal length. Together they make a great combination for the price. Of course if you were not constrained by price there are better cameras, but if infra-red is just a sideline it’;s hard to justify spending a lot more.
The shot above would also work if I’d used an orthodox camera, but it’s the white foliage that gives it the nuclear charm. It’s that together with the interaction of the people that makes it work.
Here’s another shot taken on the same day…
Here it’s the combination of the dark sky, the bright foliage and the solitary girl running that makes the shot. Not to mention the Atget-ish bandstand.
Both these shots have been shifted to black and white in Lightroom – straight off the camera they have a pinkish cast. Here’re some ducks, with the pink colour left in, on infra-red white grass…