For December we challenged our oopoomoo Creatives Facebook group to interpret the theme #lightsoftheseason. Below are some of their results that we liked best.
Congratulations to Drake Dyck who we think did the most creative interpretation of the theme. Drake wins a copy of our eBooks: The Icefields Parkway Winter Edition and Kootenay Plains and Abraham Lake Winter Edition.
Who Are you Creatively?
Why do you make photographs? Some people will answer that they make photographs because they want to document their travels or important events in their lives. Others are inspired by nature and want to capture this inspiration. And many use photography as a positive escape from the hectic rat race of life (a kind of meditation or mental yoga). But if we dig even deeper I think there is a universal desire, if not a need, for creativity. As kids we are all naturally curious and creative. Unfortunately, these traits get sapped out of us early on as we are taught the ‘values’ of practical education, work, consumption, and conformity. Many of us picked photography as a creative antidote for the homogenous pressures put on us by society.
But as we learn and practice photography, the ‘ought tos’ start to rear their ugly heads. We are taught about subjects we ought to photograph, locations we ought to visit, compositional rules we ought to follow. In short, over time, the very hobby we took up to express our creativity is stuffed into a box and turned into formula. We suppress our creativity and shoot just what others deem acceptable.
Every so often we need a reset, a reminder to get in touch with who we are and what our inner voice wants to say but that gets drowned out by the yelling of the outside world. Lately, I was feeling out of touch with my creative voice and felt that I was just repeating photographic formulas. My partner, Samantha suggested a little exercise for me to do that would help me determine who I am creatively. She showed me a variety of visual arts from painting to collage. She asked me to pick out pieces that I really liked and then had me write out answers to these questions about each piece:
- What do you think this picture is about?
- What do you respond to or find interesting in the picture? Why?
- Looking at the shape, line, form, texture and colour etc. used by the artist, how do these compositional and material choices help convey the essence of the picture?
Together we looked at my art choices and my detailed answers to her questions. We began to notice some themes, ideas, visual elements and even colours common to each piece. Sam suggested that these commonalities were the seeds of my creative voice. Frankly, I was surprised by the results because the imagery I liked was very different than the images I have become known for. But when I looked at my most recent work, there were little hints of this new voice trying to emerge; I was already beginning to use the themes, ideas and visual design elements that I had chosen in Sam’s exercise. It became obvious that I no longer knew myself creatively. Indeed, I had changed significantly but was still trying to force myself to shoot in my old ‘style’. No wonder photography was feeling strained lately. Now that I have discovered with Sam’s help who I am as a creative, the world has opened up for me again. Photography is a playground and I have given myself permission to play once again.
So if you are feeling a bit lost with your photography, try Sam’s exercise and share and discuss the results with a good friend or fellow photographer. Better yet use the exercise on each other. Often someone else can see easier patterns in your choices that you may subconsciously deny or that you may not want to see. What often emerges from this exercise is the discovery of who you are as a visual creative. That is a powerful revelation. Now go discover your creative voice.
Many photographers have an agenda when they go out to photograph. Whether it’s to capture a portrait, a destination or a representation of a specific subject we often have a preconceived result in mind before we even press the shutter. We know exactly what we hope to capture and what we want the final result to look like. This is not necessarily good or bad; many of history’s best images came as a result of the photographer seeing the photo in their mind’s eye before the camera was ever lifted to the eye. When I look at my own favourite images, a significant portion were visualized in advance and my job was to make that visualization a reality on film or the digital sensor. But just as many of my favourite photos came about from serendipitous discovery and the most creative and refreshing of those discoveries came when I was just goofing around and playing with the camera, when I was experimenting with no serious intent in mind. I think many of us would benefit from not taking photography too seriously and just going out open-minded and ready to have fun. My best results at photographic play have happened when I leave the ‘serious’ gear behind and just respond with a point-n-shoot or small dSLR. I also abandon all the ‘should do’ photographic rules and techniques and just respond organically. It’s so freeing. Many times I just get junk photos, but just as often a gem emerges. I have no expectations either way but simply go out in the world in joyful play. Let me give a couple of examples.
Sam and I used to lead photographic workshops and tours in the Canadian Rockies based out of the Kootenay Plains and Abraham Lake. In the early years most photographers were just happy to be in this amazing locale and make photos of all the things that inspired them. Later on, images of the methane bubbles on Abraham Lake started to circulate on the internet and all of a sudden making images of the bubbles was on the bucket list of most photographers. Our job then became one of leading photographers to the bubbles in sunrise and sunset light so that they could achieve their preconceived result. Amazing images resulted but frankly they all looked pretty much the same. There was a sudden loss of desire to explore the area for all the other visual delights there. Instead there was a fixation on getting bubble images. I also kept repeating the successful bubble formula images because it helped sell workshops.
One day in between winter workshops I went out for a mid-afternoon walk with just a camera and a zoom lens slung over my shoulder. I remember walking the shoreline of Abraham Lake just chilling. I was beach-combing, picking up stones, pieces of ice and pine cones just like a kid. I spent some time balancing myself on one leg on big stones and then rock-hopping stone to stone. In short, I was in goofing-off mode. I was not even remotely thinking about making pictures. In fact, I wanted to escape ‘having to make photos’. I saw some fins of ice along the shoreline and wondered if I could squeeze my way under them. I managed to get under the plate-like slabs of ice and just lay there looking up fascinated with the texture of the ice. Every slight move of my head revealed a new kaleidoscope of wavy distortions. It was mesmerizing. I must have spent twenty minutes just jostling my head around before it dawned on me that I had a camera. A couple of snapshots later and I had some of my favourite images I ever made of Abraham Lake ice. The power of play revealed its creative power.
Here is another example of the power of play. I am a huge fan of dogs and so as a photographer it was not a big stretch for me to end up photographing ‘man’s best friend’. Anyone who has photographed dogs knows it can be tough unless you have an obedience-trained dog that will take your directed commands. Most dogs are not well trained which says more about the owners than the dogs, but that’s another story. I had some early success with my own dogs that had basic obedience training and, when people saw the images, some of them asked me to photograph their dogs. My expectations of how a dog photo session should go, well orchestrated with trained dogs, went out the window fast. I was frustrated, the dog was stressed and the owner was not happy with the results. The whole thing was not fun. The solution to the problem came when I dropped expectations, and just started playing with the dogs. Forget the damn camera! I worked fun back into my time with the dogs. And then I tried something unorthodox. I put the camera on program mode, turned on the auto-focus and the motor drive and just pointed the camera in the general direction of the dog while we played together. Most of the results were terrible but occasionally magic happened! In the film days this was an expensive experiment, but once digital came along, the fun was cheap and I could play even more. Samantha and I refined this ‘play with the dogs’ photographic approach into a more predictably successful technique which we discuss in our dog photography eBook, Sit, Stay & Smile. In the end it was play and the loss of expectations that resulted in fresh imagery of the dogs.
So… the moral is not to take yourself and your photography too seriously. Make room for play and go out and act like a kid. If you want more exercises in play and in creative discovery be sure to check out our Learning to See Workbook and free Born Creative eBook.
It’s hard to believe but it was 10 years ago this week that my guidebook How to Photograph the Canadian Rockies was released!
In 2004, my career as a photographer was suffering because my main source of income, stock photography, had taken a big hit after the market shocks following 9/11 in 2001. I needed something to rejuvenate my career. So I came up with the idea of writing a photographers’ guide book to the Canadian Rockies, a region I knew and loved well. I pitched the idea to a publisher and in April of 2004, with an advance from the publisher in my pocket, I headed to the Rockies to shoot new images and do on-the-ground research for the book. I finished shooting and writing in September of 2004 and turned the manuscript over to publisher who released it in April of 2005. Once the publisher saw the photos I submitted for the guide book, they asked if I would also be willing to do a coffee table book as a companion piece. They called the book Dances with Light – The Canadian Rockies and it was released at the end of April 2005. Both books became Canadian best sellers and each went through three sucessive printings. I’m sure the books would have sold even more copies but the publisher went bankrupt because they expanded too big, too fast. Unfortunately, both books are now out of print. New copies of How to Photograph the Canadian Rockies now sell on Amazon starting at $250.oo! It’s original price was $14.95. Crazy.
Once the publisher went out of business, I bought the remaining copies of How to Photograph the Canadian Rockies (HTPTCR) and sold them through my website – sales were brisk! Once those books were gone, I asked Stephen DesRoches to help me update and design the content as eBooks for specific regions of the Canadian Rockies – we called these eGuides. I took the original content of HTPTCR, added new locations, more photos and updated the descriptions and sold the eGuides by park and by season. Later, when Samantha and I formed our joint company, oopoomoo, we added new locations (the Kootenay Plains) that were not in the original book. And finally, we asked John Marriott, the premier wildlife photographer of the Rockies, to write a title on wildlife photography for the HTPTCR series of eGuides. The result is our eight title library on the Canadian Rockies. Many, many photographers have used our eGuides over the years and our inbox is full of high praise from photographers grateful to us for saving them time and getting them to awesome locations in the right light. In fact, we know of several photographers who have used our eGuides to help them take people on Canadian Rockies photo tours. You know you did a good job when others can take your information and successfully design a photo tour!
To celebrate 10 years of guiding photographers to the right place at the right time either through our eGuides or through our tours and workshops, we are bundling our complete collection of Rockies eGuides into one specially priced package. To buy these eGuides individually costs $80, but now you can buy all eight eGuides for only $60 (basically, you get two eGuides for free). Happy Anniversary!
Stay tuned to this blog because Sam and I will be celebrating this milestone by sharing some of our unpublished Canadian Rockies photos. It’s still a place that makes my heart swell with happiness. We would only add one little plea to this post…please, as Albertans, Canadians and passionate photographers from all over the world, let’s take care of this region and treat it with the respect it deserves.
There is no such thing as bad light; just bad photographers!
Anyone who has taken an oopoomoo workshop has probably heard us say the little mantra above. Whenever there is no sunrise or sunset or the clouds roll in, most photographers think the light is bad and therefore there is nothing worthwhile to photograph! Of course, there is always something that looks great in the light that nature offers up. We need only be open to seeing the possibilities!
Sometimes, though, you need just a little push to help you learn to see… most often we give our workshop students directed assignments to help them take off their ‘tunnel vision glasses’ and see the world in a new and open way. If you can’t make it to one of our workshops for our teaching assignments then our Learning to See eBook will help you with personalized exercises in visualization.
Another way to ‘cheat’ the grey day blues is to try a fresh camera technique or two to get you thinking outside of the ‘good light’ box. Below are a few tips I shared with readers of Outdoor Photography Canada magazine a few years back. I hope they help you see the good in ‘bad’ light.
The easiest way to get better photos from flat light is to shoot tight. Simply eliminate that overcast sky and concentrate on details in the landscape. On overcast days I often just ‘look at my feet’ to find intimate details that are otherwise easily overlooked in the hunt for the grand landscape. This technique often nets me pleasing images on grey days. Digital cameras love the even light of an overcast day and can render complete tonal detail from the darkest areas to the brightest highlights. “When the sky is white, shoot tight”.
On overcast days try mounting a telephoto zoom onto your camera and ‘extracting’ details from distant scenes. I regularly use my 70-200mm zoom or my 300mm telephoto lens to pull out small scenes of a distant landscape.
Often overcast days are windy. I can get hamstrung by the wind when I try to get sharp detailed shots of vegetation in grey light. Rather than giving up, I work with the wind to give me images that show the motion and fluidity caused by the wind. I simply set my camera (on a tripod) at a large aperture number in aperture priority (e.g. f16) and use low ISO settings (e.g. ISO 50 or 100) to give me longer exposure times so the movement of vegetation shows up in the image. To give me even longer exposure times I might add a polarizer and a solid neutral density filter to my lens to give me even longer exposures that I call painting with time.
Grey light often means drab colours. One of the best ways to punch up lackluster colours is with a polarizer. Polarizers remove reflective glare from shiny surfaces like leaves, wet rocks, and the surface of water to give images with more vibrancy. Polarizers are easy to use – just screw one onto your lens and rotate the filter to see the polarization effect wax and wane. If you like what the polarizer does to the scene, snap the photo.
A specialty polarizer called the Gold-n-Blue polarizer is one of my favorite filters for adding colour to monochromatic scenes in grey light. Rather than removing reflective highlights from a scene, the Gold-n-Blue polarizer colours the highlights either gold or blue for dramatic images. Compare the photo on the far left (no polarizer used) with the photo middle left (shot a standard polarizer). The benefits of a polarizer are obvious! Now compare how the Gold-n-Blue polarizer can colour reflective highlights in tones of blue (middle right) or tones of gold (right) with just a turn of the filter. To learn more about filters see our free article: Why Every Landscape Photographer Should Use Filters – Still!
When nature gives you plain light, you can often spice up the dish by adding your own supplemental light. A touch of fill flash or maybe some alternative light sources like flashlights, headlights, or street lamps can often add that little extra zing to take your drab light photo to the next level. You will usually need to wait until dusk to add supplemental light because even though grey days are dim, the overall ambient light is much brighter than the light from man-made light sources. I find that the shooting at dusk when the brightness of your supplemental light source is slightly brighter than the ambient light results in interesting photos. Using supplemental light with longer exposures is call ‘light-painting” and you can read more about that technique in our free article on light painting.
Take Away the Bright
If you want to include the grey sky in your composition usually the sky is so bright that if you expose for the foreground then the sky will burn out to glaring white. To keep detail in the photo you will need to use a specialty filter called a neutral density graduated filter which holds back exposure in the sky while allowing full exposure of the darker foreground. Combining a polarizer with a grad filter gives you a one-two-punch of contrast control! If you are new to using grad filters we have a video tutorial you can watch here.
Shoot it Wet
Don’t let a little drizzle and grey skies ruin your outing. You can get great shots in the rain especially since vegetation looks really saturated when wet. Remember to use your polarizer to further increase colour saturation. I often just use two rubber bands to hold a plastic grocery bag over my camera and lens to keep them both dry while I venture forth in the wet weather to find dripping colours. But you can buy specially made photographic rain covers if you want a solution more user-friendly and elegant-looking than my plastic bag and rubber band contraption. Check your local camera store or type in “camera rain covers” on your internet search engine for a pail full of solutions.
Go Out Anyway
I used to play a game while on photo trips. I would wake up at the sound of the alarm and stick my head out of the tent – if it was overcast, I would sleep in. If it was clear or mixed clear sky with cloud I would get up. Numerous times I went back to bed only to be awakened by brilliant colours effusing through the tent walls. Sure enough my overcast, ‘bad’ light wake up call burned me and I missed great light by assuming a grey sky would not yield spectacular colour. Now when on photo trips I always get up and out with the ring of the alarm and many times I have been rewarded with spectacular light even when the sky was totally cloudy and rain was spitting from the heavens. Being out there is the key – the more you go out in all types of light the more great shots you’ll come home with.
What separates great photographers from good photographers has little to do with gear or camera technique and everything to do with creative vision. Great photographers see the extraordinary in the ordinary and can translate their wonder into images. There is nor shortcut to creative vision except for practice, practice, practice and shooting images that have meaning for you personally.
As a photographer, have you ever visited a destination and afterwards wished that someone would have told you about all the cool places you could have went to but did not know about? I remember going to the Maritime Provinces back in 1996 when I was shooting for my book Darwin Wiggett Photographs Canada. I spent more time driving around scouting than I did shooting. Sure, I did research in advance from various sources to find ‘must-do’ areas but many of the resources were based on tourist travel and not photography. If only there was a guide book for photographers to help distill things down to visually interesting locations and advice of time of year and day to visit each location.
Fortunately with the rise of the internet there has been a plethora of location information, but often you have to visit numerous sources to piece together something cohesive. And sometimes the sources of information are dated or of questionable veracity. We know of a few photographers who are putting out quality location guides to various national parks, provinces and states (us included) but we have also seen some really, really bad location guides.
When we heard that oopoomoo designer and contributor, Stephen DesRoches was teaming up with stock and assignment photographer John Sylvester to make a photography guide to Prince Edward Island we had high expectations of great images and awesome information. And after having been to PEI twice and seeing the information in this eBook, I’ll hand it to these two PEI residents – they have come up with a jam-packed eBook full of useful information and inspiring images.
The guide is simple to use with easy directions, GPS coordinates and suggestions on when to go and hints on making stronger images. Each image has complete camera data captions which many photographers find helpful in learning technique.
The only thing I think is missing from the guide is knowing who took which pictures. Stephen wrote the forward and John the rest of the eBook but both photographers contributed images. Who took which image I have no idea. I wish in the image captions they would at least put the initials of the photographer who took the image. I guess in the end it does not matter because every image is strong and the images tug at my wanderlust and make me want to go back and see all those locations I missed when I went to PEI on my own. Thanks to Stephen and John for an inspiring eBook full of useful information – all for a low, low price of $10! You can download your copy here.
The Creative Use of Aperture
Aperture controls how much of the scene appears to be in sharp focus. That’s the official version. But there’s a secret good photographers know about aperture, and it’s so simple you’ll want to rush out and try it right away. The secret is that aperture does two things very well: it can powerfully direct your viewer’s gaze and it has a huge impact on creating mood in your images. When you think about aperture this way, you begin to approach a potential photograph from a creative viewpoint first as opposed to a technical one. This is liberating because it frees you up to focus on the reason you do photography (to create your own unique images) and avoid the pitfall of becoming lost in the techy parts of making an image (to the detriment of creating your own unique images). But before you can get the most storytelling punch out of aperture, you need to understand how aperture works.
Luckily, aperture is like pie.
There’s a really simple concept behind aperture and – even more awesome – it’s connected to food. But first, you have to forget everything you know or everything someone has tried to teach you about aperture. Traditional teaching of aperture tells you nothing about creativity, so holding onto those ‘ought tos’ can be dangerous. Take a break, pour a cup of tea and clear your mind…are you ready? Here it is! Aperture is an awful lot like pie. Small numbers on your aperture dial like 1.8, 2.8 or 4 give you a small slice of pie (a small wedge of sharpness). On the other hand, large numbers on your aperture dial, like 16 or 22, return a big slice of pie (a large wedge of sharpness). This seems almost too easy but like with most of life’s basic truths, what appears deceptively simple is really a foundation for all those complicated decisions that follow. As a creative photographer, you get to decide just how much of the scene you want to appear in focus; do you want a thin or a large slice? Just like ordering pie! And of course whether you want a thin slice or a large slice is going to depend on where you want your viewer to look in your image and the mood you want to establish.
Examples of aperture in action.
Let’s see how aperture choice can impact your images. The photo on the left (below) was taken with an aperture of f1.4 giving a very thin wedge of sharpness. In fact, the only thing sharp is that rock in the foreground, and that is probably where your eye looked first in the image. The photo on the right was shot at f16 and everything appears sharp! While you probably still looked first at the snowy rock in the foreground, in the f16 image you likely spent more time looking at the mid-ground and background in the shot. There are a few basic principles of perception at work here. Humans tend to look first and spend more time looking at objects in an image that are large (especially if they appear in the lower part of an image), bright and detailed. So, you can use aperture, in conjunction with your understanding of composition, to not only direct where a viewer will look first in your image but also where they will look next. Just as important, you can create a completely different feel to an image just by changing your aperture number. In this example, which image seems softer or more subdued? Whether you want a dreamy feel or a ‘realistic’ or detailed feel in your image can be set in large part by your aperture number.
Let’s look at another example of the same scene shot with different apertures. In the two photos below the top image was made with a telephoto lens focused on the foreground tree and shot with an aperture of f5.6. Only the yellow tree is sharp and the trees in the background are blurry. The image has a softer mood and is more a contextual portrait of the yellow-leaved tree. The bottom image is sharp through out (f22 was used) and the photo is now about the forest.
You don’t always need everything in focus. For example, small aperture numbers on telephoto lenses create a wash of blur in the areas that are not in focus. This blur is called ‘bokeh’, but its effect is beautiful! You focus on the part of the scene you wish to appear sharp and choose a small number (for a small slice of sharpness) on your telephoto lens. In this shot, the foreground flower is sharp and the other flowers are not – but this image is about a soft mood and not a documentary shot of the details of the flowers so a small wedge of sharpness works to tell that story.
On the other hand, with a subject that is dynamic and full of detail you may want the largest slice of sharpness possible to render that detail throughout the frame. The photograph of the chairs below was taken with a large number on the aperture dial to give a large slice of sharpness. You might feel like you are wandering into the scene and to sit and enjoy the view to the sharp mountains in the background.
The three amigos.
Aperture is part of a triad of controls you have at your disposal to make compelling shots. The other two amigos in this triad are shutter speed and ISO. All three affect the look and feel of your photo, and their unique combination in an image is often referred to as an exposure. It can be challenging to learn about what one control does when all three controls are changing either because you are altering them in manual mode yourself or when the camera is doing it for you in a program or auto mode. We suggest you spend some time learning how the small aperture values, middle aperture values and large aperture values on your lenses affect the look of your photographs. The easiest way to do this is to switch your camera to aperture priority mode.
Aperture priority mode
The first step to really understanding aperture is to switch your camera to aperture priority mode. In this mode you are the boss of aperture. You tell the camera which aperture value you need for your creative vision and the camera automatically picks a shutter speed to return an average exposure. If you have your camera set to auto ISO, the camera will vary both the shutter speed and ISO to give an average exposure. All you need to be concerned about is aperture. Easy! If you’re just starting out, work in aperture priority mode, focus on the most important part of your scene, and then really pay attention in playback on your LCD to how your selection (small number or large number) influences where the viewer looks and the mood in your images.
From exposure to expression.
Understanding how aperture works can be confusing especially if you are concentrating on the technical components of aperture instead of thinking about what aperture really does on a creative level. That’s why a handy shortcut is to remember that aperture is like pie: a small aperture number returns a small slice of sharpness and a large aperture number returns a large slice of sharpness. But aperture is about much more than how much of the scene appears in focus. Good photographers understand the ability of aperture (in conjunction with composition) to direct the viewer’s gaze and establish mood in their images. There are a few more tips on using aperture effectively that you will come to know by playing and practicing – we know we’re still discovering the potential of aperture choice and we love to share what we learn with our readers! So, now that you’re initiated into the secret club of visual storytellers who count aperture as a handy tool in their artistic toolbox, there’s only one further question to ask yourself…where will your creative use of aperture take you?
To learn more about aperture, shutter speed and ISO be sure to pick up our Photography Fundamentals eBook collection
Quick and Dirty Processing Tips – Retro Photoshop Technique Using Quick Mask for Making Great Skies!
If you saw our last blog post you learned how we used the retro technique of using Quick Mask in Photoshop to paint on local selections. In this video we’ll show you how we use Quick Mask in conjunction with the gradient tool in Photoshop to make more dramatic skies. To learn more about our processing tips be sure to see our eBook; 7 Quick and Dirty Processing Shortcuts for Lazy Photographers.
Back in the early days of Photoshop, one of the easiest ways to paint on a selection was by using Quick Mask. Of course, now there are a million and one ways to do the same thing but even with all the innovations in making local selections, Samantha and I still find we go back to our tried and true method of using Quick Mask. If you want to learn more about how we do this see our eBook 7 Quick and Dirty Processing Shortcuts for Lazy Photographers and watch the free videos below:
Some things just take time to make.
Several years ago, I had an idea of releasing a retrospective eBook on the making of my favourite 50 images up to and including the year I turned 50. That year also marked 25 years in the photography industry for me. Those are easy numbers to remember, even for an old guy like me. So the idea for the project was born.
But something happened along the way. I didn’t do the eBook. The project got put on the back burner. Perhaps I secretly thought 75 was a better number? Or I was just too busy… or maybe I was denying my mortality! Whatever the reason, this eBook is only about 3 years late. But thanks to the insistence of Samantha, who got me off my rocker and took away my prune juice, some of the stories behind my favourite images gradually came out in a series of interviews and talks with Sam. We put those stories and images into a new eBook called, surprise, surprise 50 at 50.
This eBook is not a ‘how to’ manual. I’m not going to tell you how I made each shot. What I’ve learned is…the technical details really aren’t that important in the end. This wonderful thing we call photography has taken root in everyone’s life…from smartphones to full frame dSLRs, Instagram to Nat Geo, we’re all photographers in some way now. I think it’s inspiring how many passionate shooters there are out there, adding their own unique voice to the world. For me, it’s been quite a crazy ride over the last 25 years in photography. I’ve met some incredible people, made some whopper mistakes but all along, the camera has been my voice to share my passions and what I believed in with the world. The amazing thing is, I found so many of you who felt the same way…and that is why I put a little more of myself into the stories for these 50 images. I hope you enjoy this little stroll through my past…and happy shooting! Maybe our paths will cross somewhere along the way.
To check out the new eBook just go to this link.
And we also have a limited time print sale for collectors who want to hang a Darwin print on their wall – we rarely sell prints so if you want one don’t wait long. 😉