December’s monthly photo challenge is winter abstracts! Grab some hand warmers and ear muffs and head out with your gear to make abstract images of this exciting season. Post your images to the oopoomoo Facebook group for feedback and encouragement. We’ll be back soon to wade in with our own icy images. Remember, the most creative image posted in the Facebook group wins a copy of Darwin’s 50 at 50 career retrospective. Below are some tips to get you started.
This article was originally published in Outdoor Photography Canada several years ago; subscribe to get our latest writings in the magazine!
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. We 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 on the aperture dial like f4 which gives you a small slice of focus. The longer the telephoto lens and the smaller the number you dial in on the aperture dial, the smaller the sliver of focus you’ll get. Pick what you want to be sharply focused, get precise focus on that point, and then use a small number to keep that thin slice of focus in your photo. Small numbers on the aperture dial 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 f16 or f22, focus 1/3rd of the way into the image frame and you will get the most depth-of field (amount of apparent sharpness) possible so that your abstract is sharp from foreground to background.
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 lens at its closest focus. To get close enough with a macro lens means getting down onto the ice. We wear snow pants with built-in knee pads 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. Lately, we have switched from a 50mm macro lens to a longer telephoto version (a 150mm macro lens) so we can shoot the ice patterns from a more comfortable position (kneeling or standing). With the 50mm macro we often 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 to use is Silver Efex in either Lightroom or Photoshop. Silver Efex is easy to use which is why we recommend it but there are many methods of converting an image to black & white. Use the tool with which you are most comfortable.
Using live view for black & white abstraction
You can 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 you 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. Shoot RAW + JPEG if you want a reference for converting your RAW file later.
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.
This year we’ve had the pleasure of working with Brian Graham on a personal project of his: photographing the Rideau Canal near Ottawa. We mentored Brian in the creation and direction of the project and during the shooting process. Finally, we provided our feedback and helped curate the collection into a final ten or twelve selects. We were so impressed with Brian’s unique interpretation of the canal that we asked him if we could showcase his work here on the oopoomoo blog. He said yes! Below is a brief statement from Brian explaining his thoughts on the project and some information about the canal.
I want to show how the man-made beauty of the Rideau Canal and locks…the regular structure and patterns of the canal, locks, and the machinery used to operate them….can exist harmoniously with the surrounding natural beauty of the lakes, rivers, and vegetation. I don’t see the canal/locks as destroying nature but rather co-existing with the surrounding natural elements allowing me to produce photographs that attempt to show the beauty of man-made objects alongside nature.
The Rideau Canal is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America. It was built to provide a navigable waterway between Lake Ontario and the Ottawa River largely as part of the aftermath of the War of 1812. Preparations to build the canal began in 1826 and the canal opened in 1832. The canal is 202 kilometers long and originally had 46 navigation locks and one guard lock; today the canal has 45 navigation locks plus 2 other locks. The canal is now used by pleasure boaters during the summer months and has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This article was originally published in Outdoor Photography Canada magazine several years ago. Be sure to subscribe to see the latest work from great photographers across Canada.
Chasing the Icon
Photographers are like birders. For a lot of birders, what matters most is the sighting of a species so you can check off that bird from your list. The more species sighted the better. The same is true for many photographers; the number of iconic locations captured adds notches to your photography belt. Taj Mahal? Got it! Delicate Arch? Nabbed! Niagara Falls? You bet! But does a portfolio full of the grand wonders of the World make you a better photographer? I doubt it.
The internet has made finding, knowing and sharing information about photo locations very easy. Do a little research, look at a few photos online and you’ll know exactly where and when to go get the best sighting. And once you get to an icon you’ll line up with hundreds of other photographers all trying to make the same shot. What’s the point?
In the past, the portfolios of photographers were full of work from lesser known local areas, and the images showed more creative vision because people were shooting for themselves and not trying to copy someone else’s iconic image. In short, there was a personal stamp on each photographer’s work because they were reacting to the scene personally.
Fast forward to the app-driven ‘iPhotography’ world of today and everything looks the same. In the portfolios I review, I see all the same trophy locations, with similar compositions, all processed with the same software plug-ins. The results are homogenous and boring. What has happened to personal expression?
I think what’s happened is that we’ve lost touch with why we go out to make photos in the first place. For most of us who do nature photography, we go out because we want to connect with nature. The more we actually take the time, look around and be in nature, the better our photography will be. A National Geographic photographer once said that the way to get good enough to work for the magazine was to choose one subject or location, preferably close to home, that you can revisit over and over again and really get to know well. The better you know the subject or location, the deeper you’ll dig to create unique images with your personal stamp. And the more your personal style emerges, the more likely you’ll be sought after by the magazine.
For me, I’ve found that when I travel if I just visit one or two spots and concentrate on getting to know those locations, then my photography soars. If I chase icons and try to capture as many locations as possible, then my photography and the experience of the trip is unremarkable. So, just like the birder who specializes in one or two species and has a depth of knowledge and personal experience with those species, so too will the photographer who moves beyond the icon checklist encourage a deeper engagement and portrayal of their subjects.
This week we are hosting our Beyond the Icon: Intimate Landscapes of the Canadian Rockies photography workshop where we’ll help our participants bring out their creative vision. I am sure we’ll be blown away by the images made during this workshop as each photographer digs into their well of personal seeing. If you have time this November and you are interested in an intensive creative learning experience we do have a couple of spots left in our Fire and Ice in the Canadian Rockies workshop where we’ll visit the edges of fall and winter in a time when few photographers visit the Rockies. Nothing inspires creativity more than having to look beyond the obvious and November always pushes us to see deeper.
We are so lucky to get the best participants every time we do a photo workshop. Maybe our weird name and informal teaching style attract like-minded people. Whatever the reason every workshop we have so much fun, have a lot of laughs and are so keenly inspired by the work of our participants. Check out the great work by our Glory of Autumn participants photos below – great stuff! Next up is our Beyond the Icon Workshop starting October 21, 2014.
Johann Van Der Merwe
Lately, we’ve noticed photographers posting and writing about a need for more inspiration to fire up their photography. Do you suffer from the deadly blahs sometimes? Is everything around you dusty and dry to the senses? Do you long for a deep, cool drink of refreshing creativity?
One of the reasons we have the Inspirations category on our blog is to build up a store of high-end work that stimulates our (and hopefully our readers’) creativity. It’s the collective well of creativity that we all reach into for a germ of inspiration when we’re just plain ‘ol out of fresh ideas.
And it doesn’t always have to be about photography either. In fact, we highly encourage our students to develop wide-ranging and voracious appetites in several artistic arenas. From the auditory delights of your fave tunes to the sensual pleasures of fine food, it’s all grist for your sometimes grinding creative mill. One of the inspirations we are stoked about recently (and hope to share more about on the blog in the future) is a Calgary-birthed magazine for visual creatives called Uppercase. Not only is it painstakingly edited and thoughtfully put together, but it’s a rarity in today’s magazine world because it’s gloriously ad-free. That’s right, no garish splashy ads lining the columns of an article you thought was informational but turned out to be advertorial. No trashy, simplistic headlines screaming at you that your life will be so much better if you only purchase Product Amazing. Just aaaah! a clean, refreshing drink of creativity to recharge your visual tastebuds! Check out Uppercase. Consider a subscription if you like it. As photographers getting sick from the equivalent of ‘fast food photography’, we need some visual nourishment to sustain us and encourage artistic growth.
Where do you turn to quench your creative thirst? Share your secret (non-photography; let’s be creative here) sources and ideas!
Anyone who follows the oopoomoo blog probably knows about our dog, Brando, who starred in several of our photo instructional videos including Proper Use of Zoom Lens for Story-Telling Photos. Brando left us on August 26 for fields filled with ground squirrels, rabbits and jars of peanut butter and no one to tell him ‘leave it’ 😉
Anyone who has had a dog knows how they wag and wiggle their way into your hearts. But even more so dogs teach us important lessons about life and Brando was no exception. Below are twenty life lessons we learned from Brando:
Lesson 1: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially if you only get fed breakfast!
Lesson 2: Be adaptable… where ever you are is the best place to be.
Lesson 3: Be direct, tell people what you need and want.
Lesson 4: Good hygiene is important; keep your privates parts in order!
Lesson 5: Leave your mark every where you go.
Lesson 6: Puppies are annoying but they deserve patience.
Lesson 7: Always stand up for yourself and your ideals.
Lesson 8: Protect the ones you love.
Lesson 9: Only dumb dogs work for free!
Lesson 10: Don’t look a food gift in the mouth.
Lesson 11. Always lick the hand that feeds you.
Lesson 12: Always lick little kids; they are often covered in food residue.
Lesson 13: Parking lots are gold mines for tasty snacks!
Lesson 14: Everything is an opportunity.
Lesson 15: Don’t waste your time with the wrong people!
Lesson 16: Never complain about things you must do for those you love.
Lesson 17: Stop and smell… everything!
Lesson 18: Trust your instincts.
Lesson 19: There is no bad time for a nap (except at breakfast!)
Lesson 20: Be patient; rewards will come your way.
Going forward in our life, we’ll take Brando’s lessons to heart. If your dog has taught you important life lessons, let us know in the comment section below.
Landscape photography and travel are often married together. We can’t help but dream while running towards the setting sun in exotic places — looking for that magical moment that will become our pride and joy printed on paper. At best, this is an effort of hope and wishes based on visualization and expectations. Expectations that are often built based on the work of others.
Before I became interested in photography, I took my home of Prince Edward Island very much for granted. With nothing more than farm fields and beaches, it felt small, boring and uninteresting. I failed to understand why tourism was so popular.
This problematic way of thinking was so strong that I was in my late 20’s before making my first visit to the eastern side of the island. For perspective, that is only 60 minutes away.
Looking with purpose is a different way of seeing and my discovery of photography as an art has changed how and what I see. My desire to travel and experience other locations continues to be greater than ever but photographically speaking, I’m growing more and more content close to home.
I choose to believe that I am not simply trying to make myself feel better for not living in the mountains but close to home truly isn’t bad either when you give it the attention it deserves. Take the time to stop waiting for the next travel adventure when there is so much to explore just outside the front door.
The grass is not necessarily always greener on the other side of the fence. Embrace and find the beauty in what you currently already have.
For July’s Creative Assignment we asked you to take your least used lens (or least used focal length if you only own one zoom lens) and head out four times in the month, using just that lens/focal length. Well it seems everyone had a busy July and few managed to get the assignment done. We are extending our assignment until the end of August to give you more time to do this valuable exercise. Below are some results from our blog readers who made the time to do the assignment. We hope their results provide you with inspiration to do the assignment for yourself. For August share your story of your least used lens and the images you make on our oopoomoo Facebook group for feedback or comments! We’ll pick our favourites and feature them here on the blog. Sam and I will get out there as well with Sam using her 60mm macro lens and me using my Sigma 85mm f1.4 lens. Happy photography.
Results from Carl Heino
I do a lot of landscape and macro photography. I seldom use the long end of a zoom lens. The attached image was shot just beyond (112mm) the mid-range point of my 18-200mm lens. I chose this image because I tried to frame the scene using the Second Narrows bridges (rail and road) and because I thought the wake of the tug could act as a leading line causing the viewer’s eyes to go first one way and then shift the opposite way before, hopefully, looking through the gap in bridge pillars to the downtown core beyond. Unfortunately, due to the position and speed of the vessel from which I shot and the speed of the tug, I was able to snap only three frames before the opportunity was gone!
Results from Frances Gallogly
I took up your challenge to photograph with my least used lens on four occasions.
My least used lens is my Tamron 16-28. This may seem odd as this is a range that is used frequently by many landscape photographers. However, I find I use my 24-70 a great deal more. I think there are two reasons for this. First, I live in the Northeast and don’t do grand landscapes very much. My photos are generally more intimate landscapes like rural barns and meadows. When I am in Florida during the winter I tend to do fishing piers and beach sunrises. The 24-70 seems a better fit for this. Secondly, ever since I took your Landscape Photography class, my Lee filter system has been an important part of my kit and I can’t use these filters on the 16-28.
So out I went with nothing but my 16-28 on four occasions. It was a challenge and a good learning experience. I’ve attached some of the photos. The first occasion was a day in New York City in which I photographed around Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Station. The second occasion was an afternoon I spent in the historic seaport town of Southport, Connecticut. I took a photo of an old Victorian house and a photo at Fairfield Beach and converted these into digital paintings. The third occasion was a trip to Weir Farm. This is a National Park in Branchville, Connecticut, where the Connecticut Impressionist painter, J. Alden Weir, painted en plein air in the 1800s. I photographed his studio, the Visitor’s Center which is an old farm building, and some of the barns and the Sunken Garden. The last occasion was a trip to Dover Plains, New York, where I photographed some farm scenes. I doubt that the 16-28 will supplant my beloved 24-70, but I now have a much better feel for its capabilities and will undoubtedly use it more frequently.
Here at oopoomoo our tagline is Create, Inspire and Educate. Our inspirations blog category is where we feature work from other photographers that we think fits all three of our tagline verbs perfectly. The Garden and Brook project from Deborah Ehrens is one such project. Deborah explains more about her project:
Last fall I noticed for the first time the remarkable similarity of line and shape of hosta leaves in my garden and the ripple geometry of one of my favorite brooks. It inspired me to bring the two together – and watch how the water and leaves interacted with one another. It required lots of experimenting with ways to hold plant material in moving water, new levels of photoshop to bring out the magic I saw, and some near misses disasters when rambunctious dogs nearly knocked my tripod into the brook… But the rewards were pretty wonderful:
To read more about Deborah’s project be sure to check out her project page which includes a lovely video with more images.
If you have an inspiring project or series of photos or body or original creative work you want us to consider for Inspirations send us your photos (700 pixels in the long dimension) and a write up plus your website.
Turning the Lens to the Present to Build the Future — Wayne Simpson Photographs Phoenix of Sarnia Reserve
Wayne Simpson is a professional wedding, portrait and landscape photographer based out of Owen Sound, Ontario. Wayne’s creative work graces our home, and we feel privileged to consider Wayne our friend. When we saw his most recent project, we knew we couldn’t keep Wayne’s work to ourselves — we had to share this original series with oopoomoo readers. Wayne’s project has deeply touched us as we are about to embark on our own creative journey. Read on to discover Wayne’s personal connection to a disturbing reality for Sarnia Reserve First Nation residents in Ontario.
Q: You are known for your landscape, wedding and family portrait shots, but this series is a little different from some of your work. Where did the idea for the project originate?
A: I’ve actually been thinking about this project for over a year and was only recently able to pull it together. There are several factors that play into why I wanted to do this shoot:
I grew up visiting my Mom on the reserve as a small kid (about 8 or 9 years old). I still remember driving through there at night and seeing all the lights and flare stacks with flames burning – it felt like we were driving through hell and it scared me as a kid. Part of me wanted to make an image that got some of that feeling across.
I still have lots of family living in the middle of all these refineries and I fear for their health and the future of the youth. Just google “Sarnia Reserve” and you will find all kinds of troubling information.
It also really hurts to see the land/water turned toxic. There are small rivers that the kids used to swim in that are now marked as toxic with signage… it’s just so sad.
Q: How did you visualize this scene/story in your mind?
A: This shot was taken on a concrete island between a major 4 lane intersection and an off-ramp. If you were to look in the opposite direction, the reserve starts about 15 meters from here.
I’ve always been amazed by the close proximity of several of the refineries, but I chose this particular spot because I liked the busy hydro lines and old cracked asphalt and also knew that the sun would be rising in exactly the right spot. Knowing the location well and figuring out the direction of light allowed me to communicate the mood I wanted with the introduction of supplemental lighting. It’s not often that I can say a shoot went exactly as planned, but in this case it did!
Q: Tell us a bit about the girl in the picture. Who is she?
A: This little girl’s name is Phoenix Sky Cottrell. Phoenix is 6 years old… but I think her soul is much older! She has a certain mature and quiet manner about her which really draws you in. We left it up to Phoenix to decide if she wanted to do the shoot at 5:30 am to use the best light and she was all in! She was actually excited about the idea! I’m 100 percent certain that she is destined for great things!
Phoenix and her mother have taken part in several Idle No More demonstrations and care deeply about the environment and health of the people, so they have given me permission to share these images.
Q: What kind of lighting set up are you using? Why?
A: In this shoot I wanted to keep the lighting very simple and practical. I used my elinchrom Ranger with a deep octa as a modifier. I wanted to keep things simple, fast and easy so I didn’t waste any time messing around with gear and risk loosing the interest of Phoenix.
I wanted to show the refinery as a dark and ominous presence behind her and utilize some of the early morning colour in the sky. To accomplish what I visualized the shoot looking like, lighting was a must in this particular case.
Q: Describe the morning of the shoot. How did you decide to place your model?
A: The morning of the shoot was quite chilly and very calm. It was very refreshing to not have to deal with harsh light and high winds blowing my light over! I wanted to showcase the great natural light behind Phoenix but also keep my light at least a little bit natural looking. I made a conscious decision to put my light on the same side of her as the sun to keep things as natural looking as possible.
Q:Any tips you want to share about working with ‘real’ people (as opposed to models) in shooting a personal portrait project?
A: I believe that if your personal project is meant to communicate a specific idea which is affecting actual people, it’s best to use those affected people in the images to make it authentic. The images will lack depth if the subject is not personally invested in your project as well. If the project is meant more as a creative release then models are great!
Q: Where do you hope to see this project going?
A: I’m hoping to come up with a series of images depicting environmental challenges facing local reserves, but who knows… it could turn into more than that! After seeing the attention that this work has already received, I’m really hoping to use my vision to bring awareness on more of an emotional level. I could be wrong, but I feel that pulling at people’s emotions with images would garner more long-lasting attention than numbers on a page.
Stay tuned to Wayne’s website for further work in this inspiring series!