This article originally appeared in Outdoor Photography Canada magazine – subscribe to get these articles years before they appear here 😉
The Art of Practice
Musicians have scales, actors have lines, painters have sketches, and athletes have workouts. Photographers have what? While all other artists have a daily routine to practice their craft, most photographers only dust off the camera when they go on a planned shoot. Imagine if musicians only played whenever they had a gig and did not practice in the time in between? Why, as photographers, do we expect that we will perform wonderfully every time we go out even without practicing in between?
Nothing will sharpen both your technical skills and your artistic eye faster than daily practice. Visual ‘scales’ do for the photographer what musical scales do for the musician; we constantly stay ‘tuned’ up and ready to express our art.
I know we all have really busy lives, so who has time to shoot every day? You might think it’s easy for me as a professional photographer to shoot daily–after all that is my job isn’t it? But to make it as a pro, you need to do some heavy marketing and selling. I only get to go on photo shoots about 1/3rd of the time, the other 2/3rd is spent doing the business part of photography. In the past, I found that between shoots I was not practicing with my camera and that my art was suffering. It often took 2 or 3 days into a trip to get back into ‘seeing’. I was not practiced and ready.
For the last five or six years I have carried a small point-n-shoot digital camera with me everywhere I go. By doing so, I don’t have to carve out special time to shoot daily; I just take a snapshot here and there in my day as I see something interesting. I might be walking the dog, or standing in line at the bank, doing dishes or visiting the washroom. But if something catches my eye in a flash of perception then I’ll make an image. I’m doing a little photography almost every day and the differences I have seen in my ability to see and be creative is amazing. I no longer have any ‘photographer’s block’ and I no longer need to ‘warm up’ before going on a serious photo shoot. I see photos everywhere! Many of you own and carry a smartphone and I know many of you make quick snaps with this convenient little tool. Congratulate yourself for doing visual scales daily… you’ll see big differences in your ‘serious’ photography by practicing everyday with a smartphone or wee point-n-shoot.
Even though I’m a nature photographer, anything that catches my eye can become a photo. The great thing about shooting daily is that soon you’ll begin to remove labels from subjects and just learn to see light, pattern, form and design. You’ll see beauty in the mundane, and you’ll be inspired anywhere you go from the park to the parking lot. The better you become at photography in general, the better you’ll be at outdoor photography in particular. So don’t restrict yourself to pretty nature scenes.
Although I’ve mentioned the wonders of a point-n-shoot camera here before, I really think anyone who is serious about becoming a better photographer should invest in one and carry and use it. If you have a smartphone with a camera start using it for your daily visual push-ups. The quality of the image is not as important as you practicing the art of seeing. Practice for the joy of discovery. Happy shooting!
This article originally appeared in Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine.
Most of us have an outdoor environment where we feel at home; a place that is soul-settling. It could be an old farm or a city park, the ocean shoreline or the vast boreal forest, but it is a place where we seem to be able to reconnect with ourselves both physically and spiritually. For example, I love both the prairie and the mountains equally and feel a strong sense of belonging in both environments. But it’s where these two environments merge that I really feel a sense of connection and where the energy of a place runs through my veins. In particular, the Kootenay Plains in the Bighorn Wildlands near Nordegg, Alberta is a special place for me, not only for the confluence of plain and peak, but also because of the indelible stamp of childhood memory.
I spent my sixth summer running wild in the Kootenay Plains under the caring eyes of my grandparents. At the time, the area was undergoing a radical change with the approval and eventual construction of the Big Horn Dam on the North Saskatchewan River. Sasquatch sightings were plentiful that summer as the Stoney people tried to protect their sacred lands and grave sites from being lost under a flood of water. I remember seeing the ‘sasquatch’ almost daily and still have fond memories of the mythical sightings which for me were as common as seeing a raven or a blue jay.
My grandfather was a grader operator maintaining the gravel roads in the area and he also fostered close relationships with the Stoney people. We were often invited to participate in traditional ceremonies celebrating the Stoney’s connection to the land that they loved. I remember dancing under clear blue Kootenay skies dressed in leather, feather and bead and feeling part of the sacred Sun Dance ceremony. The sound of rhythmic drumming and ululating singing still echoes in my mind every time I return to the Kootenay Plains. These early experiences took deep root within me. They are the reason why, whenever I return to the Kootenay Plains, my troubles seem to fall away and artistic expression comes more naturally than at other places.
I think the reason why I always feel at ease when I return to the Kootenay Plains is because part of me has never left. There is still a blonde-headed, tanned little boy whooping through the aspen stands, dressed in his moccasins and pelts, making the acquaintance of every rock, tree and stream in his path. Getting back in touch with the freedom I experienced in that summer, the freedom to be myself and be a part of nature, is a huge fuel for my creative drive. Even if you can’t think of a special place off the top of your head, you may want to consider investing the time to find your own small scrap of paradise. The artistic soul drinks thirstily when you do.
This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography Canada magazine in 2008 – subscribe to see our article sooner than 6 years wait 😉
To delve deeper into this topic see our Mastering Composition and Visual Design eBook
Do you feel that your photographs are starting to become predictable? If so, then perhaps you need to move beyond the basic elements of composition. The following ‘guidelines’ may help take your images to the next level.
Beyond the Rule of Thirds
Almost every photographer is aware of the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds divides the frame of an image up into three equal portions both vertically and horizontally, and the photographer generally places the subject of the photo at the intersection of the one of the horizontal and verticals thirds (photo 3 -below). Notice how the lighthouse is placed on a line of the thirds and the red cap of the house is at an intersection of the thirds. The horizon line is also placed near a line of the thirds. The rule of thirds works well to create pleasing and balanced photos.
If you want a little more dynamism in your images, try composing using the points along the “golden spiral”. The golden spiral is derived from the golden mean where each succeeding number after one is equal to the sum of the two preceding numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc). The ratio formed from these numbers is 1.618 and is called the golden mean. If you take a 35mm frame (2:3 format) and successively divide the picture frame into 1.618 rectangles you will ultimately spiral down to a smaller rectangle that is a powerful point of attention (photo 4). This point can move to any of the four corners of the photo (photo 5) and often images created using points derived from the golden spiral are more exciting and energetic than images created using the rule of thirds. If we return to the lighthouse photo and recompose the image so the red cap of the lighthouse sits on one of the power points of the golden spiral we produce an image that is much more dynamic (photo 6).
So how do I know where the power points of the golden spiral are when I compose through the viewfinder? Well, I don’t know precisely, but I can compose approximately knowing that the power points are closer to the corners than if I followed the rules of thirds. Also, note that each golden spiral power point is unequally spaced from the edges of the photo (see photo 5). It is this unequal spacing that makes the composition more dynamic. When composing in the field, put your main subject a little closer to the edge of the frame–making sure it is not symmetrically placed in the corner–and you will have something close to the perfection of the golden spiral (Photo 7).
Composing with Triangles
An offshoot of the golden mean is something called the golden triangle. Here, the frame is divided diagonally, corner to corner, and then further divided in one of the main triangles by intersecting the opposing corner with a point derived from the 1.618 ratio (see photo 8). The red lines in photo 8 are the three main triangles that divide up the picture area; the blue line is the 1.618 ratio line. Any photo with diagonal lines and strong shapes will be more pleasing if the shapes and lines follow the layout of the golden triangle. If we go back to the golden spiral version of the light house (photo 9) we notice that the main elements within this photo form obvious shapes that fit nearly perfectly into the triangles defined by the golden mean. Notice also that within the main triangle are sub triangles that further help to add interest to the composition.
For me composition is all about shape: I do not look at objects within my frame as ‘subjects’ but rather see their form. And my task is to distribute the shapes in my picture-space in a pleasing manner. The golden mean, golden spiral and golden triangle give us a good foundation for the layout of the shapes and lines in our photographs. For example, in photo 10, a dusk shot of the Lunenburg Academy in Nova Scotia, I distributed the shapes in the photograph according to the rules of the golden triangle with the tree branches making up one triangle, the building filling most of the second triangle and the sky as the subject of the third triangle. Notice also how the most important part of the photo, the steeple, lies at the intersection of the three triangles.
The Power of Shapes
Now that we know how important implied lines and shapes are to composition, we can explore the emotional meaning to the shapes that we distribute in our pictures. The basic shapes are rectangles, triangles and circles. Rectangles are familiar, safe and comfortable and imply stability and truth but also rigidity and conformity. Triangles suggest action and power because of the pointed nature of the shape. A triangle on its base is powerful but stable but can represent growth. A triangle on its point is unstable and often threatening. Circles suggest infinity, softness, spirituality and security.
Freeman Patterson has pointed out that photographers are often drawn to different shapes at different times over their evolution as artists. During periods of change and growth many photographers find an affinity towards triangles. Circles are often sought by those photographers seeking peace, harmony and well being. Rectangles appeal to those who long for comfort and familiarity. I have seen the shapes change in my composition over time as I go through different phases in my life. Lately I am on a huge triangle kick – I don’t know why, maybe it’s a mid-life crisis! I guess it is better to go out and photograph triangles than buy a Porsche or try to climb Everest! Even in a forest scene where you would think that triangles are not prevalent, I find triangles (photo 11). The scene is divided diagonally into two triangles and the clumps of trees on both the right and left sides of the frame form triangular shapes. Even the centred rock is almost triangular. Did I know I was organizing the picture space into triangles at the time? No, the composition just ‘felt right’ to be organized in the way it is presented.
‘Gestalt’ is from the German word for ‘form, pattern or configuration’. Gestalt theory tells us that the whole can’t be seen by looking at the individual elements. Only when the final product is assembled do we see how the components make up the whole. The same happens in photography. I don’t necessarily recognize the shapes, lines and forms in the scene before me as I am photographing. What I do recognize is that when the composition comes together in the viewfinder it just feels ‘right’. After the fact, I can analyze my photos and then understand why the composition worked so well. It definitely helps to understand the theory behind composition because the more you understand things, the more intuitive or subconsciously things will ‘click’ in the field. I found the more I studied why my pictures were successful or why they failed the better I developed my sense of “gestalt”.
Based on the lesson in this article, see if you can figure out why the composition in photo 12 is successful. If you need a hint, remember to apply what you know about the golden spiral, golden triangles and the power of shapes.
The photo of the pathway follows the rules of the golden triangle very closely with the boardwalk dividing the image into two triangles and the smaller triangles containing distinct areas of the photograph. The vanishing point of the boardwalk is right at one of the power points of the golden spiral and the s-curve of the boardwalk snakes it way through the photo connecting the three main triangles.
We hope you enjoyed this wee article on composition and can start to apply these principles to your own work.
This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography Canada in 2011 – if you don’t want to wait 2 years to see them here, then subscribe to this great magazine 😉
Time – A Photographer’s Best Friend
Photographers are their own worst editors. We are simply too emotionally invested in our images to be objective about them and, as a result, we keep a lot of images that really should have seen the deep end of the trash bin. A critical skill to develop is to remove our bias toward our work and look at our images with a healthy skepticism.
For me, the ultimate test of a photo’s value is the test of time. Does it still excite you and have meaning a week, month, year and even ten years after you snapped the photo? If it does, then the image is a keeper. But in a practical sense we simply can’t let our images age like wine and come back ten years later for a taste test to pick out the keepers. What we need is a system that lets us be objective in the shorter term.
Many of us come back from a shoot and then edit immediately looking for the ‘killer shots’. Often we use a rating system and rank our favourites as 5-star images. These 5-star images get processed right away; we quickly share them on the web and show them to friends. The 4-star and lower rated images we store on hard-drives, forgotten about until maybe (a big maybe) we revisit them many months later and cherry-pick a couple of ‘over-looked’ images. The remaining images gather pixel dust languishing in a library of forgotten hard-drives. We vow to ‘deal’ with these languishing images but never will. Possibly we hope that like wine, the longer these images are ‘aged’, the better they will get. They don’t.
I find if I process images immediately after a shoot that I keep more images than I would if I returned to edit the images at a later date. As well, some of the 5-star images in my initial pick aren’t really that good after all! And surprisingly some images that I initially rank low actually end up being my favorite images. Time removes my emotional attachment and lets me edit more objectively.
So now I build time into my editing workflow. Immediately after a shoot I will do a preliminary edit. In this edit, I delete obvious errors: photos that have poor focus, bad exposure and flawed compositions are removed. All the rest of the photos I keep and back up on an external hard-drive. Then, and this is the critical key, I try to wait at least a month before I return to final editing of the photos. After a month all the excitement of the shoot is gone; I have moved on emotionally, and I can be objective and ruthless. I become a machine on the delete key!
In this final edit, the images I initially thought were killer have lost a lot of lustre and some overlooked gems emerge. I see the shoot with fresh eyes and I can quickly pull out images that have lasting impact and clarity of message. In the end, I keep ten percent or less of the images that I shot. The rest are permanently deleted. My system is lean and mean and my image library is filled with only my best work. Time is your best friend when it comes to objective photo editing: use it wisely.
I am headed out to the Canadian Rockies for a week of photographing wonderful scenery and hanging out with terrific people! Every autumn, for almost a decade, I’ve run a photo tour in the Rockies, guiding participants to the best locations given the light and weather. We’re still going to be your guides in 2014, but Glory of Autumn in the Canadian Rockies will be much more than just a trophy tour. Based on feedback we’ve had from many participants, we’ve altered the format of this event to that of a workshop — essentially, you will be getting more out of your experience in the future! So what’s new? Structured lessons on key topics, tailored assignments so you can benchmark your progress and the benefit of in-class critique are all combined with lots of field time, making these workshops unique in the area. Plus, I have a secret reason why I’m excited about these changes…Samantha is joining me in co-leading these workshops! You get the benefit of two instructors, and I get the company of my sweety. To see why we’re both pretty stoked about the Glory of Autumn workshops, check out the schedule here.
Until we meet one fall day in the glorious Canadian Rockies, we’ll leave you with a few helpful articles for creating great images no matter where you live.
There are two highways in the Canadian Rockies that get overlooked by most photographers. Both highways have stunning scenery and abundant wildlife yet few photographers spend any time there. The first secret drive is Highway 11 from Nordegg, Alberta to the Saskatchewan Crossing in Banff National Park. The second drive is Highway 93 South (the Kootenay Parkway) from Castle Mountain in Banff National Park through Kootenay National Park in British Columbia ending at Radium Hot Springs.
The beauty of the Canadian Rockies is legendary among nature photographers. Not only is the scenery stunning and the wildlife abundant, it’s all easily accessible by highway. To whet your appetite, and for those just passing through, we offer you three scenic drives that we consider the best of the Canadian Rockies. And if you’re looking for more than a quick scout, we have many ‘where to’ guides on these parks for those of you wishing to experience the area in more depth. Watch for the next installment in this topic, Three Amazing Secret Drives in the Canadian Rockies.
The Canadian Rockies form a jagged spine along the western border of the province of Alberta and the eastern border of the province of British Columbia in Canada. For fastest access to the roads described in this article fly into Calgary International Airport in Calgary, Alberta, rent a car and drive west from Calgary on the Trans Canada Highway (highway 1). In just over an hour you’ll be swinging left onto highway 40 which leads you into Kananaskis Country where you’ll find a memory card full of photos.
Winter is the season of hibernation for photographers; the time of year when we hunker down at the computer and process images from the summer and fall; the season when dust collects on our camera gear and trips outdoors mostly involve shoveling the driveway or boosting our car battery. But for photographers willing to brave cold fingers and toes (not to mention dripping noses), winter is the single best season to create one of the highest forms of photographic art – the abstract.
What is an abstract photo? Abstraction is about getting to the essence or details of a subject, telling the truth about the subject in a non-contextual manner, and seeing the subject without definitions. In abstraction we are presenting the subject purely in terms of shape, line, texture, colour, or pattern. In fact, total abstraction bears no trace or reference to anything recognizable. Abstract photography doesn’t strive to portray something realistically but instead uses components of the subject (shapes, lines, textures or colours) to create visual design and emotional impact.
For nature photographers not used to seeing in the abstract, winter does all the heavy lifting for us covering and simplifying the world with a quiet blanket of white. Winter has smoothed nature’s complex, visual palette and presents to us graphic opportunities in the purist form possible. For us, winter is an exciting time to capture artful images. Below are a few tips and techniques to help you create winter abstracts.
Shoot with a telephoto zoom
One of the easiest ways to gather abstracts is to attach a telephoto zoom to your camera (e.g. a 70-300 or 100-400mm lens) and start hunting for shape, line and texture in snow drifts and ice formations. Remember, your goal is to frame up portions of your subject and not show the subject in a documentary manner. Telephoto lenses make isolating graphic sections of the subject easy.
Sunny, winter days with low light skimming across the landscape are perfect for capturing the detailed and crisp lines, shapes and textures in the snow. We like to go out to areas where the snow is not a uniform blanket but instead is undulating where it covers bushes or rocks. Here we hunt for patterns of shadow and light skimming across snowy mounds. We especially like side and back lighting because these qualities really highlight the shape of snow mounds. We use our telephoto zooms to pull in the alternating patterns of blue shadow and white light. Try to fill the frame with shape, line or texture that pleases the eye and creates a rhythmic pattern across the frame.
Use depth-of-field to define your subject
Aperture choice can really affect the final look and feel of your photograph. For example, if you want to focus your viewer’s attention on just a portion of your subject, then use a small number like f2.8 or f4. Small aperture numbers give you a small slice of focus and, when used in conjunction with a telephoto lens, you will get just a sliver of focus. Pick what you want to be sharply focused, get precise focus on that point, and then use a small aperture number to keep that thin slice of focus in your photo. Small aperture numbers often leave you with a dreamy ethereal look that works well with abstracts.
If you want a large slice of focus in your winter abstract, then pick a large aperture number like f22, focus 1/3rd of the way into the image frame and you will get the most depth of field (amount of apparent focus) possible so that your abstract is sharp from foreground to background. If you want to learn more details about how to use aperture for creative expression see our eBook, The Creative Use of Aperture.
Get close for more detail
Another easy way to get more abstract images is simply to get close to your subject. We like to make abstracts of ice patterns and to do this we use a macro lens or a telephoto zoom lens at its closest focus. To get close enough with a macro lens means getting down onto the ice. We wear padded snow pants so we can comfortably get down on the ice to make abstracts. We also use a tripod with legs that splay out so we can get our cameras close to the ground for low level abstraction. The shorter the focal length of the macro lens, the closer you will need to be to the ground to capture your detailed image. We prefer 100mm or longer macro lenses so we can shoot the ice patterns from a more comfortable position (kneeling or standing). With short macro lenses we had to lie on the ice (very cold!)
Turn your abstract into a black & white
You can make your image even more abstract and less representational by eliminating all colour from the scene. Winter scenes are often mostly monochromatic to begin with so why not enhance what you are provided? We always shoot our images in raw format so that after the fact, even though we have a colour image captured, we can easily turn it to black & white in post-production. Our favorite black & white conversion tool is to use Nik Silver Efex in either Lightroom or Photoshop. Silver Efex is an easy to use black & white conversion program that we recommend although there are many methods of converting an image to black & white.
Using live view for black & white abstraction
You can pre-visualize how your subject will look in black & white even before you press the shutter. First, you need to have a camera with live view. Go into the menu on your camera and find ‘picture styles’ (Canon) or ‘picture controls’ (Nikon) and set it to monochrome. Now, when you take a photo and playback the image on your LCD, the displayed image will be black & white. But wait – there’s more!
If you want to see the black & white effect before you take the photo, simply turn on live view and displayed on the LCD will be your scene in black & white! You can see everything you frame as a black & white even before you take the photo. Ansel Adams would love it! While in monochrome live view mode, simply see if the shapes and tones work well as a black & white and, if they do, then take a photo. If you set your camera to JPEG, then the resulting photo collected by your camera will end up being a finished black & white image. But if you shoot raw, the LCD will display a black & white image, but the actual image captured by your camera will be a colour photo (very useful to make creative monochrome conversions). So if you shoot raw you can visualize in black & white but have all the colour information available to you to make any kind of black & white conversion you want. This is a very powerful creative tool.
So get out and go hear the crunch of the snow beneath your winter boots. Snap a few frames and see how easily winter provides photographers with opportunities for abstraction. We are constantly thrilled with nature’s art and in particular with winter’s simple renditions. For us, winter is a time for internal expression and looking at the world with a painter’s eye. We may get frosted ears and rosy cheeks but that’s a small price to pay for the gift of winter abstracts. Happy shooting!
Brando and I made a wee video on how to properly use your zoom lens to tell better stories in your photos. Are you using your zoom lens to its full potential?
Our job as photographers is to capture the best possible image in the camera – an image that captures mood and the message we want to tell about the subject. Post processing of this image should always enhance or supplement the ‘story’ of the image and should not detract in any way. For example, in the photo of a leaf on Abraham Lake, I made a careful composition that showed the story of the leaf, the ice and the wind. It took me several attempts to pull out the best photo possible from this scene. Once I captured what I wanted in the camera, I turned to the digital darkroom to enhance the message. First, I converted the image to black-n-white to selectively manipulate contrast to bring out the snow and ice patterns. I then added back the original colour information in the photo from a duplicate colour image and then I shifted the colours slightly in the scene to enhance the cold mood but bring out the warmth of the leaf. In the end I think my processing choices enhanced the mood and feel of the photo. To learn how I did the processing on this photo be sure to come to our talk Enhancing Story and Mood in the Digital Darkroom to be held this Monday, January 21st in Cochrane (Note: There’s a catch to this one! You gotta be registered for the Persistent Vision Photography Seminar first!)
These days with all the funky software plug-ins out there most of us tend to go a little gimmicky with our processing choices adding ornamentation over function. If the processing is obvious, your story will be diluted. Samantha and I find that most people fall into the over processing trap especially with HDR photos. For example, in the first pairing of images below the left side of the frame shows one of the five exposures captured for HDR processing . The right side of the frame shows a typical ‘overcooked’ HDR image. This image was not overly exaggerated from the kind of results we commonly see! Yech!
Usually when we process HDR images we try to make the final result look more like our eye saw the photo (see the image below). There is a time and place for grungy, cartoonish, HDR images but we don’t think that place is with the subject above. Why? Because our ‘story’ was not a fake, shiny plastic landscape but a beautiful, natural landscape. We’ll also be talking about our HDR processing workflow in our talk this coming Monday.
In the end, we always ask ourselves: does our processing bring out our story, or is the processing starting to become the main attraction? If our processing doesn’t add, or worse if it detracts from the story, we’ll go back to the drawing board and try again.