It is all about the background…

I am constantly striving to make my images better reflect the beauty and wonder of the natural world around me.  People often ask me what camera settings I am using to take the photos that I take.  To me that is missing most of the point.  Of course it is nice to be able to take a picture that is correctly exposed and in focus, and without that, the image is less likely to reflect the natural beauty you are trying to convey.  It is necessary, but not sufficient, to have a technically correct image.  Much more important is how the image displays the subject in its environment.  It is important to consider all the stuff that is in the frame but that in itself is not the subject – stuff like colour, light, shade, distractions, shadows, bright spots and so on.  If it doesn’t enhance the subject of the image, then how can you alter the picture in some way so that it does.  Most importantly, can it give the feeling that you get when you are viewing the subject.

In short, you need to disengage the technical side of your brain and engage the artistic side and tie the image you are taking into the emotions you are feeling.  What are you feeling and what is it about what you are seeing that makes you feel like that.  What makes you gasp, draw your breath, say “Wow!”.

I can’t claim to have mastered this, but these images give some idea of how I am thinking when I take a picture.

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The first image (above) is wild carrot flower in our meadow.  This is a plant that I love, so it was important to show not only the delicate nature of the plant, but also the way in which it blends so gracefully with the meadow.  I did this by ensuring that the depth of field was sufficiently small to blur the background but not so narrow as to make it completely free from texture.  There is the feeling here of something, and the angle of the shadows reflects the angle of the wild carrot plant, as if they are all moving in the same breeze.  The lighting is warm evening light, and that was important, but the wild carrot itself stands out because I have placed it in front of an area of shadow.

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This image is of rosebay willow herb in our woods near sunset.  I loved the way in which the sun picked out and backlit the flowers, making them seem lit up from the inside.  However there were a lot of trees in the background which could have been very distracting, so I made sure the depth of field was very narrow, and this led to a nice circular bokeh.  Placing the bright part of the flower by the bright part of the background really draws the eye to this part of the image.

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This little damselfly is perched on a reed stem by one of our ponds.  I have many pictures of damselflies with a nice green background, but here I noticed that other plants in the background gave a variety of colours – green, yellow, red=brown and blue.  By placing this out of focus, it looks as if I have applied a rainbow filter of some kind to the image – in fact this is a completely natural look.  The only editing done here is the usual slight adjustment of the RAW image for white balance, noise, sharpness and minor tweaks to the exposure.

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Here my eye was drawn to the amazing sparkles on the pond behind the dragonfly.  The dragonfly is perched on a fairly ordinary piece of dead reed stem, but the sparkles behind make it look like it is sitting in front of Christmas lights.  It is a completely natural effect due to the way in which the image was taken.

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Sometimes pulling away from your subject makes it stand out more.  This is a dragonfly perched on a reed stem at one of our ponds.  What I have done here is make use of the backlighting to make it stand out, but also use the lovely patchwork of colour produced by the evening light on the foliage in the background to enhance the image further.  It looks a bit like an impressionist painting.  Again, this is a natural effect, with only minor routine editing of the RAW file.

These aren’t perfect images by any means, just a set of pictures I took in the last week or two.  I can criticise each of them.  But I hope it illustrates what I am thinking when I take a picture, and how the background can make the difference between a pretty ordinary image and one that stands out a bit from the crowd.

What is a photographer?

Soggy Blue-tit

Soggy Blue-tit

Just about everybody has a camera.  So almost everybody can take photographs.  But not everybody describes themselves as a photographer.  So what is a photographer, and why do some people call themselves photographers?

Google dictionary defines a photographer as somebody who takes photographs, especially as a job.  This definition seems to imply that a “photographer” is usually taking photos for money, and is therefore usually a professional.

So what is a professional photographer, and how do they differ from amateurs, exactly?  What are you paying for when you pay a “professional photographer” to take pictures for you, or of you?

There are a lot of definitions out there, but basically they revolve around the theme that a professional photographer takes pictures for a living – it is their main or even only job.  They are “creating a source of income from their photography” (http://www.howtobecomeaphotographer.biz/what-is-a-photographer-2/) .  Ken Rockwell, on his excellent web site, reckons you need to be making 50% of your income from photography to be a “professional” (http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/what-is-a-pro.htm).  Other people take a more liberal approach.  James Brandon, writing for The Digital Photography School says you are a professional

“When people love what you do and recognise you as a ‘photographer’, when you make any amount of money or business out of photography, then you are a ‘professional’”. (http://digital-photography-school.com/what-makes-a-photographer-a-professional)

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

Are there any other characteristics of professional photographers?  Is it having a top-of-the-range camera?  Is it that they take better pictures than amateurs?  The answer to both of these questions seems to be “No”.  Anybody can buy a wizzy camera, set up a studio, put up a web page and describe themselves as being a “professional photographer”. It doesn’t mean anything that you have the best equipment if you don’t know how to use it.  Likewise, many professionals will take photos on lots of different cameras including compact cameras and mobile phones.  As Ken Rockwell says “It’s never about what’s the best camera, it’s about what camera makes it the easiest and fastest to create what we need to create. Artists like to make things; we could care less about buying more cameras.” (http://kenrockwell.com/tech/artist-or-technician.htm).  The camera, in this situation, is the tool that lets you achieve your vision, rather than the be-all and end-all of photography.

And are the photos taken by a professional any better?  Well, that depends on the professional, and on the amateur with whom she or he is being compared, and also the subject area – it is difficult, for example, to make money from some types of photography, such as nature and wildlife photography, probably because there are so many talented amateurs out there.  A well-trained professional working in a commercial field will do a good job – photos that are technically proficient, correctly exposed, nicely-lit, in-focus, do what the client has asked for, well-processed and delivered in an appropriate and timely format.  Professionals may also take very beautiful, creative images in their own time.  But not all professional photographers take good photographs, either artistically or technically.  Not all professional photographers take time and trouble over their shots, or their processing. Take a good look at photographers’ web sites – how many of these honestly strike you as being creative, different, interesting, technically proficient, exciting or outstanding?  Some are, for sure, but many of the outstanding photographers web sites you see online are not professionals.

Common Blue in Meadow

Common Blue in Meadow

Amateur photographers take pictures because they love to do so, for the challenge, for the love of recording where the have been, what they have been doing, who they were with and what they were feeling.  Now, to me, that sounds like the definition of photography as “painting with light” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photographer) – you see something you love, or feel strongly about, and you try to create a light painting of that scene.  I have seen many hauntingly beautiful images taken by people who would not call themselves photographers, often with very simple equipment or even with mobile phones that meet the definition of “light painting”.  I have also seen many images taken with top-of-the-range cameras and lenses that would not meet that definition.

Emerald Damselfly at Sunset

Emerald Damselfly at Sunset

To me the difference between a photographer and one who takes photographs is this:  A photographer, or “light-painter” will know the effect that they want to achieve, will know what the final image is going to look like before they even push the shutter button.  It is the act of pre-visualising, or seeing in your head, what the final picture will be that distinguishes a photographer from somebody who takes snapshots.  In short, it is the creation of art that makes a photographer, and a good photographer knows how to do this:  How to convey their emotions, feelings, thoughts, the glorious patterns of light and shade.  The truly exceptional photographers make you draw your breath, and make the hairs on your arms stand on end.  They are able to convey what is in their own brain, in their own eyes, and draw you in, and make you experience what they have experienced.  It is a very rare talent, and one to which I aspire, but most certainly have not risen.

As for me, well, I think it is up to others whether they consider me to be a photographer.  I take photographs because I love to, but would not presume that anybody would want to pay me to do this (although people have indeed paid me to take photographs and bought some of my work).  I wish I could improve such that one day I achieve this label, but for now, I just take pictures with my camera, enjoy doing so, and strive every day to improve what I do, learn from my mistakes and from others, and most of all, convey my love and respect for the natural world to others through my images. 

Further Reading:

Ken Rockwell distinguishes 7 levels of photographer (http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/7.htm).  This is definitely worth reading for anybody who wants to call themselves a “photographer” and you may well recognize yourself in there somewhere.  It is also worth reading his take on “what is photography?” (http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/what-is-photography.htm).

Photography – remember these few things

Meadow Path - leading lines

Meadow Path – leading lines

We had a very successful photography workshop at the woods this weekend, and everybody seemed to enjoy it very much.  I split the day into two sections:  the first called “taking the right picture”, which was about composition, the second called “taking the picture right” which was about technical elements of photography.  We did lots of practical exercises, working round the frequent heavy showers of rain, and we looked at lots of examples.

At the end of the day, as we were doing the final exercise, I got to thinking that there is a lot to take in on some of these days.  What would be the five points that I would sum up with to help beginners move away from snapshots and towards taking photos that reliably look the way you want them to look.

So here they are:

1.  Remember the rule of thirds

Dividing the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically, and placing subjects, horizons, or natural breaks in the image on those thirds produces nice, well-balanced images (at least it does most of the time).  Lots of cameras provide you with a nice grid to make this easy.  Practice until this becomes automatic and then, if you do decide to break this rule of thirds, at least you know that you are doing it, and why you are doing it, and for what reason.

2.  Use leading lines

Leading lines, or visual cues, or visual pathways – whatever you like to call them – are things that lead the eye of the viewer through the photograph.  They help you, as the photographer, to lead the viewer on the same visual journey as you took when you composed the image.  In short, you are helping the viewer to see through the photographer’s eye.  The picture tells a story, becomes more dynamic, and excites the imagination much more when you are guided through it, than when you are left confused as to what, exactly, you are supposed to be seeing (unless creating that confusion is part of the purpose of the image!).

Ox-Eye Daisies

Ox-Eye Daisies

3.  Check the relationship between subject and background

It is SO easy to be so intently focused on the subject that you lose sight of what is around it.  Very small adustments in your position, the subject’s position, and the use of lighting, shadow and colour can make the difference between an OK picture and a very special one.  Look at how the subject is framed, the balance between the subject and the space around the subject, and the balance of light and shade, dark and light, and colours, across the frame.  Getting rid of distracting shadows, highlights, colour patches, or objects can really help the photographer to direct attention to the subject, and make it stand out.

4.  Find and use the exposure compensation button on your camera

Cameras on auto give bland, average exposures.  Even ones with clever “intelligent” metering, spot metering, centre-weighted metering and other fancy backlight compensation buttons.  Auto exposure works pretty well on simple subjects with uniform lighting across the frame.  It doesn’t work well if, say, you have a light subject on a dark background, or vice versa, or in situations where the subject is backlit, or situations of high contrast.  You decide whether it is the highlights or shadows that are important in your image, and then set the exposure accordingly.   You might need to compensate a lot, a little or not at all.  Check your exposure (by the mark one eyeball, or histogram, or both), then compensate.  Learn how to do this without looking.  It really does make a difference.

Small Heath Butterfly

Small Heath Butterfly

5.  Get off auto and use the aperture and shutter speeds creatively

Get off the button marked Auto, iA, P or whatever it is on your camera, and start using the Aperture-priority (A or Av) and Shutter-priority (S or Tv) modes.  This will give you instant control of depth of field (how much of the frame is in focus – using Av), and of how motion is portrayed (freeze or blur – using Tv).  Honestly, it really makes a huge difference.  Virtually all cameras come with these features.  They are there for a reason.  If you don’t have Av and Tv (or A and S) on your camera, then try using the “creative scene” modes – like Sport, Macro, Landscape, Portrait.  Again, they are there for a reason.  Just don’t be frightened to get that button off Auto.  You can always put it back again if things go wrong.

Marsh Orchid

Marsh Orchid

6.  Visualise the final result and then set about getting that result

This is probably the hardest bit to get, but once you do get the hang of it, you change from a snapper into a photographer.  You are then in charge of what you are recording, rather than the situation around you.  It sounds like it takes a bit of time to do this, and often it does.  Quite often it takes ages to visualise and then create the image you want.  But it doesn’t have to, and with practice, you can visualise, even when you have to make a rapid judgement and take a genuine “snap shot”.

The first thing you need to do is learn to figure out what it is in a scene that catches your eye, catches your interest, makes it something you think worthy of photographing.  The human eye doesn’t record things like a camera does – that is, with equal weighting to every pixel on the sensor.  The eye darts around, picking up lots of different small details, and the brain stitches that together into a whole.  That is why when 20 people look at the same scene they will see 20 different scenes, or interpretations of that scene.  That is also why, when you get home, you are often disappointed in the photo you have taken.

Barley in the wind

Barley in the wind

Perhaps you are in a woodland and you take a few photos of the view around you – the trees, the paths, the undergrowth.  But that doesn’t actually capture the feeling of being there.  That is because your eye wasn’t looking at all that stuff all at once.  The experience you had wasn’t a result of the sum of the whole, but what your brain made out of lots of little details.  You need to work out what is drawing your eye.  In a woodland it could be the shapes of the trees, the colours of the leaves, the wonderful colours of the highlights where the sun comes through the shade.  Work out what it is and then take a picture of that.  It might not show the viewer a general woodland scene, but it will show the viewer what held your attention.  It will probably mean much more to you as well.  It also helps to work out what you are feeling:  is it fear?  magic?  happiness?  sadness?  You can tailor your images to fit your emotions, and tell a story much more effectively if you can work this out.

Once you have worked out what it is you want to show, you have to work out how to show it.  That is sometimes hard, but you are well on the way if you can visualise the result you want.  Think about whether it will look better if the picture is fundamentally dark, or fundamentally light.  If it is colourful or monochrome.  If it is sharp or soft.  You can control most of these things when you take the picture, or with simple processing.

Visualising the final result, and then going about getting that result using the first five points should help you become happier with your pictures.

Dream come true…

The woods are beautiful.  There really is no way of improving on nature.  But despite knowing this, I have had a frustrated urge to try and do just that over the last few years.  In early 2010, I started studying a professional photography course, and have set many of the images for my assignments in or around the woods.  It struck me that it would be wonderful if I could actually hold an ehxibition at the woods.  Pictures of the woods set in the woods where they were taken.

This weekend, my dream came true.  My final assignment was to hold an exhibition.  For the last year I have been taking pictures with this aim in mind.  What I really wanted to do seemed impossible:  get a set of images that, when placed in the woods, would both enhance the woods, and be enhanced by their setting, so that both were greater than the sum of the whole.

Entitled “The Eye of the Beholder”, I wanted people to see the woods through my eyes.  There is so much beauty in the detail, and by setting images of the details of the woods  – the insects, butterflies, damselflies, flowers, light and shade, colour and texture – in the place where they were taken, I hoped that the eye of the beholder would be drawn into the image, through the image, and beyond into the woods themselves.  Drawing people through the image into the reality beyond, and helping them to connect to the woods, and learn to see nature, and its beauty, in a different way.

So much work!  Picking the right pictures, selecting the right spot (and then finding I couldn’t put the picture there because of buried stones, the need to turn the tractor, or simply poor lighting), finding the right kind of print that would be weather and UV resistant…and then bashing in the stakes (thank you, Stephen!) and mounting them.

Was it worth it – was it a dream come true?  Well…this weekend we opened the exhibition (which will stay in place until November 2012), and 63 people came along to see it.  And I think it worked, judging by some of the comments.

I don’t think I can ever make people see the wood through my eyes – but I DO think that by careful use of art in the landscape, the relationship between the viewer and the landscape can be made to change.  These pictures don’t do the same thing when they are indoors, on the walls – nice though they look.  Placed outside, in the environment where they were taken, they can improve the connection between the person, photographer and the natural world.  Photography in its real element.  A dream of mine, and a dream come true.

If you’d like to visit, we are open on Wednesday 29th August and 5th and 12th September between 6-8pm, as well as on our Open days on Sundays 23rd September, 28th October and 25th November.  If a group would like to come, then please contact us and we can sort it out.

And if you’d like to see the video of the exhibition with music – well, here it is.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

I am constantly blown away by the beauty of the natural world, and by the beauty of the landscapes and creatures of our lovely woods.  How is it possible to convey this to other people, so that they can see what I am seeing?  This has been a question occupying my mind since I started my photography course way back in 2009.  Now, approaching the end of this course, I have committed to put on an exhibition of images that attempts to do just that.

The problem is that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.  What one person perceives as beautiful may pass another by, in favour of a completely different aspect of the same scene.  Beauty is ephemeral, transient, and depends on the emotions that a scene evokes in the person who sees it.  Beauty is also more than the image itself:  it depends on the sounds, smells, temperature, wind, humidity and the whole experience is much more than what somebody sees.

So how can I convey some of these additional aspects of what I experienced when I took these pictures?  There is so much more to an image than just the pixels on the final print.  For me, looking at these images is an emotional experience because I know what I felt when I took them.  It is also emotional because it is tied up with my love for the woods, and for their wildlife.  I feel a deep-seated connection with the woods after spending many hours over the last five years in their presence.  You can feel small changes with the weeks, months and seasons, and how those seasons vary from year to year.  You can sense little creatures in the undergrowth, notice small changes in the paths that they take, become aware of what makes a particular perch attractive for a butterfly or dragonfly.

What I have been busy with, and hence has taken my time away from this blog, is trying to put something together that shows this connection I have with the woods in a limited set of images.  What was obvious from the outset is that these images have to be show outdoors, in the context in which they were taken.  They have to be seen in the changing seasons of the wood, and with the viewer immersed in the smells, sounds, wind, rain, sunshine, warmth and cold, wet and dry of the woods.  The sound of a buzzard, the rustle of a stealth vole through the grass, the buzz of a bumblebee, the joyful watery twittering of the goldfinches feeding on thistle seeds, the smell of damp grass and wood sage, the wind on your face and on your back – all of these will enhance what you see when you see the pictures.
Likewise, I hope the pictures will enhance what the viewer sees when they are in the woods.  Coming across a picture in its natural setting will, I hope, make people think of what they are looking at and see something of the detail that is there, if only you look for it.  I hope it will also help people to see how things change with seasons, time of day, weather and all those other things that can make the woods such a different place from hour to hour, day to day, season to season and year to year.

When I picked the pictures up from the printer I was almost shaking with excitement.  What I hope is that some of that feeling spills over to those who see them, such that the viewer can get into my eyes, into my head, and see what I saw, and feel what I felt when I took those pictures.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I hope that this beholder can now share some of that with other people.

The exhibition “The Eye of the Beholder” is opening on August Bank Holiday Sunday and Monday 26/7th August 2012, and will also be available for viewing on our final few Open Wednesday evenings of the year (until 2nd week of September), as well as on our September 23rd, October and November Open Days.  Please come along if you can and take a look.  If you can’t there is a brief taster on our YouTube slideshow. 

Photography Part 4: A good photo helps you experience what the photographer experienced

I love nature, landscapes, the natural world.  Some scenes are truly breathtaking.  They reach you at a very deep level, they make you see the world in a different way, and generate emotions.  The scene becomes an experience, rather than an image.What I love about photography is the challenge of helping others to share that experience through the image I take, and that is not necessarily achieved by making a literal record.

What I like is to dissect the experience I am having:  what is it about the place I am in, and the things that I am seeing that is drawing my eye, and making me feel in particular way?  Is it the colours?  The light?  The temperature or humidity?  Abstract patterns?  Sight-lines?  The sky?  Detail or the whole picture?  The detail of a creature, or its place in the context of the landscape?  An emotion?  Do I feel light and bright, or sad and gloomy?  Does the place seem happy or creepy?  Is it real or unreal?

Thinking that through, I can then try and think how I can convey that to somebody viewing my image, so they cannot just see what I saw, but feel what I felt and experience what I experienced.

There is no right or wrong, just success or lack of it.  I will not succeed in conveying what I felt or saw to everybody, but if I succeed in making people catch their breath in the way I caught mine, then to me, that is a successful photograph, and that will usually be achieved partly in the image I took, partly through how I took it, and partly through how I processed it.

Thinking of it in this way, I become more convinced that an image is about how it makes you feel, rather than its technical quality.  Technical ability very frequently helps you achieve the effect you want to, and is an extremely useful tool.  Lack of technical quality can impair the experience and therefore, technique, and the quality of the final image is important.  Very important.  But a photo doesn’t have to be technically perfect to be successful by my criterion, and often isn’t.  Perhaps if we all lightened up a bit, and looked at what the photographer is trying to help us experience, or feel, we would all be a little happier with our own images, and get more out of looking at those of others?

Photography Part 3: Post processing is not good or bad, it is the final result that matters

  1. A lot of people are “against” image-processing software because the results it produces are not “real” and because you couldn’t do that sort of stuff with film.  I have no problem with wanting to take an image that requires no post processing, and am quite happy for people to work in the minimal/no processing way.  Many images produced this way are astounding.  Most people don’t process their images using software.

But just think about this for a bit:  we oldies who used film used to do many of the same tricks that software does, it just took a bit longer and you had to do it yourself.  If you never processed your own film, but just sent it off to the lab and got back their results, then you may not know this.  But when I processed my own film, I used to do lots of things:  crop the image, dodge and burn (alter the exposure over part of the image to allow for high levels of contrast on the original negative), create a mask to process different parts of the print differently, alter the colour balance (in those days, using filters in the enlarger), push the film to get more grain (processing low ISO film to get a high ISO effect), add a border or vignette, cross-process (use a process designed for one film on another one, thus getting a creative effect), bleach-bypass, use a toning process to get a colour-hued black and white image, airbrush imperfections or to add a colour-pop such as pink lips and cheeks on a monochrome image, combine two or more negatives to get a composite image…the list goes on.  The point is that much of what software does, we could always do.

Software also allows us to do much more, and makes it easy for us to do it cheaply, without wasting rolls of film, or chemicals, or paper.  In my mind, the use of software is called “progress” and is just one in a large list of things that is made easier by modern technology.  Others may call its use, and the use of similar techniques with film, cheating.

To my mind, cheating is something different:  it is deliberately setting out to mislead a viewer, for example, by placing the head of one individual on the body of another one, so it appears they were present when they were not.  Of course it is not simple:  when does editing an image become cheating?  Making a model appear slimmer?  Removing a spot from the face of a bride on her wedding photos?  Is this mis-representation?  I don’t know the answer to that, but what I do know is that most photographers don’t set out to mislead:  rather, they set out to convey their impression, emotions, feelings, interpretations of a scene.  If software helps you do that, then fine.  I have no problem with it.  If you prefer not to use software, that is also fine – there are other ways of achieving a creative effect, with or without subsequent use of software (filters are an example of this).

Post-processing is not “right” or “wrong”.  It is just a method of expression.  Whether you choose to use it or not is up to you, and whatever decision you make is fine by me.  However, I hope you will also respect my decision to use, or not to use, processing software.