It seems photographers fall into two camps; those who shoot Raw and those who shoot JPEGS. Few photographers shoot both. Raw shooters want to capture the most data possible from their cameras so they have the most information available to tweak in post-production. In the film days the negative was the analog data base used to make expressive prints in the darkroom; in the digital era the Raw file is the equivalent to the film negative. Raw shooters generally want to take control and expressive processing is as important (and sometimes more important) than image capture.
Photographing with JPEGS is like photographing with slide film. With slide film, the images did not go into the darkroom, the slide (the positive) was the finished product to be projected or published. Slides shooters were photographers first; they were not darkroom artists. Digital photographers who shoot JPEG need to get it right in the field because the image is processed and finished in camera. Any further processing in the computer will degrade the image information plus defeats the purpose of finishing the image in camera. JPEG shooters either don’t want or need (or are allowed) to do post-processing or are under tight deadlines and don’t have the luxury of post-production.
Why not have the best of both worlds? Until recently the main reason that photographers did not shoot both is that Raw and JPEG required different approaches in image capture that often were incompatible. Raw shooters want the most data possible and to get that data requires ‘exposing to the right‘ to capture more pixel information. Essentially this means ‘over-exposing’ the image without clipping important detail to have more pixel information to massage in post-production. Superficially these images look washed out and pale on the LCD and Raw shooters use their histograms to judge appropriate exposure and not the look of the image on the camera display. The final image density is set later in the computer. JPEG shooters, on the other hand, want images that are finished in-camera looking appropriately exposed for the photographer’s taste. As well, JPEG shooters must decide on the appropriate picture style (vivid, standard, monochrome etc), colour space and white balance to set on their cameras before pressing the shutter. With Raw, you just capture the data; camera settings like white balance, colour space and picture style have no effect on the information captured. And so shooting Raw or shooting JPEG often meant two different shooting mindsets. Photographing with both at the same time didn’t really work well for most people.
In the last five years or so, improvements in camera sensors have made the need to ‘expose to the right’ to get high quality data more a matter of theory and less a matter of necessity. If you’re really anal and a pixel peeper you may see small quality differences in files processed from ‘expose right’ versus ‘exposed to taste’ Raw files. But really, the differences are now so small that for practical applications exposing right just doesn’t matter that much anymore. And so now we could shoot Raw plus JPEG and have the best of both worlds… but why bother?
The biggest problem with shooting Raw is the fact that it’s easy to make images in the field but the real work and time involved is in post-processing. Almost all the photographers I know that shoot Raw have years of back-logged images that are not processed and this backlog constantly haunts and taunts them. You can’t print, email or publish unprocessed Raw images; they need to be run through a Raw image convertor, even if minimally processed, before they can be used. Piles of unprocessed files languishing on hard drives are more than just an inconvenience they are a liability. Years later, looking at backlog of Raw images, you may have forgotten your initial creative vision for a particular image. Maybe you initially envisioned the finished image as a high contrast B+W but now looking at the pale milky looking Raw file you wonder why you even took the photo in the first place.
To solve both problems (the image backlog and remembering your creative vision) why not shoot Raw plus JPEG? Photograph with appropriate white balance, colour settings, exposure, aspect ratio and picture style to honour and represent want you want the final image to look like. These settings will be recorded on the JPEG as a final processed image that you can catalog and share right away. The RAW version of the file will serve as the negative for that JPEG and is always available should you want to tweak the image later or try a different treatment. Using this system gets your images into your catalog faster, allows you to see a rough representation of what you had in mind for your finished image and still provides you with a Raw image to manipulate if you need it. Also shooting JPEG will make you a better photographer because you’ll have to think in advance about what you want the final image to look like. You actually have to visualize and that’s what good artists do! They don’t just take a Raw file and wiggle sliders until something ‘cool’ emerges. If you worried about hard drive space, then just shoot small JPEGS with your Raws since the former is really only used as a visual reference of your digital negatives.
The Raw plus JPEG workflow is not for everyone. If you shoot lots of HDR imagery, focus-stacking, or multi-image panoramas then you might as well stick with Raw because you’ll need to process your images anyway. If you have a camera older than 5-years old you might also want to stick to Raw as well for quality reasons. But if you mostly shoot single in-camera images and have a newer camera with a great sensor, then maybe the Raw plus JPEG workflow might work for you. Try it and let us know what you think.
To read Part I one of this series go here.
The Roadblock to Creativity
A major roadblock to creativity is you. Often it’s a simple case of not knowing yourself that prevents you from blossoming creatively. Finding yourself isn’t that hard if you remove the expectations of who you ‘should’ be and really look into the mirror. Our journey of the one-year ‘creative sabbatical’ ended up being less about doing creative exercises and more about finding ourselves as creative entities. Not everyone needs a year-long journey to do a hard reset; many of you already know who you are. For those who truly know themselves, the problem isn’t about lack of knowing, the problem is about lack of time to honour your creativity. How do you carve out creative time in a world that seems increasingly designed to suck up your every waking minute? Below are a few strategies that Samantha and I recommend to make sure you get to do the creative stuff you desire.
Make Your Creativity a Priority
Any time someone says, “I just don’t have time to do my creative project”, what that really means is creativity is not a priority for that person. Actions speak louder than words. Inaction on your creative work means it’s really not that important to you. Maybe you’re afraid of failing so inaction is simply self-sabotage. It’s easier to tell yourself you would be a great painter but your circumstances don’t allow you the luxury of painting than it is to put in the long hours and practice and potential rejection to become a great painter. If you want to be creative, then schedule creative time. To nourish creativity you need blocks of at least three to four hours to get into the flow. Try to have at least two of these blocks of time per week. At the beginning of each week schedule your creative time in your calendar. This is your sanctuary and you must protect this time. The universe will conspire to take this time away from you, and mostly you’ll conspire against yourself to give up this time. Don’t let that happen. Put in the time even if it feels like you are a fraud. You’re not a fraud – you’re just scared!
But Where Do You Find the Time?
We all think we are so busy and scheduled but really many of us are inefficient with our time. Two of the most relentless time takers we know of are the T.V. and the internet. Most of us watch way too much T.V. and really what do we gain from the experience? Not much. Years ago Sam and I turfed the T.V. precisely because it’s such a mind-numbing, time-eating machine.
Same thing for the internet. We are all so addicted to our smart phones and every ‘ping’ stimulates a Pavlovian reward response. Our attention is constantly diverted from the life we lead to the virtual life we long to be a part of. If you actually measured the amount of time you spent on the internet and social media, you’d be depressingly surprised. All of this time spent watching grumpy cat videos and following the escapades of rich celebrities could be spent on your own creativity. Put a limit to your online time. Sam and I have decided that we will only go on the internet twice a day – once later in the morning after our creative time is over, and then once at the end of the work day. Each session is limited to ½ hour. If we can’t get done everything we need to in that time then we need to examine what we are doing online and streamline things further.
We also purposely chose not to own a smart phone because the temptation to be online all the time is too great (we are not immune to the seductive powers of online living!). We only go online if we are in the office, and we really don’t want to be in the office all day, so we become more efficient with our internet chores. And finally, together we take one full day off a week from the internet and trust us that day is so awesome! This is our ‘family time’ and it’s sacred and is a way to reconnect with ourselves and with each other.
You Do Have the Time – Hell Yes!
We all have the time to be creative, we just need to ditch the stuff that sucks our time or distracts us from pursuing our creativity. You’d be surprised at how much time you can free up when you look at your life and decide if a particular activity is a ‘hell yes’ or a ‘hell no’ pursuit. Is it something you love, something that gives meaning to you and others you love, something you won’t regret giving time to? Then that’s a hell yes! Mostly our lives are full of hell no’s and we let them control us instead of us controlling them. Ditch a few hell no’s and you’ll have the creative time you need. There are no excuses – most of us are simply afraid to be creative and use these external demands as an excuse on why we don’t have the ‘luxury’ of exploring our creative selves. Be brave, be creative; your life will be so much richer for doing so! Share with us some of the tips you use to carve out more creative time in your life.
Much of what we say here has been distilled from the great books listed below – check them out if you need a further kick in the pants to get on to your creativity. And if you have read a book that influenced your creative journey, please mention it in the comments.
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.
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.
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
Anyone who has seen light painted images is keen to try it themselves. I know the first time we saw images that used flashlights at dusk to sweep warm light over the subject we were intrigued. How is that done? In this article we’ll tell you how we do it.
First a confession; we’re lazy! If we can get away with not bringing arithmetic into our photography—or our lives—we do. (Maybe that explains the puzzlement in our household when it is budgeting time!) Back in the good ‘ole film days, getting around the reciprocity problem (the degradation of the film’s sensitivity in dim light during exposure) required more advanced knowledge of exposure calculation to make light painted images that worked. With today’s digital cameras, you can guesstimate your exposure and adjust as needed without having to expertly calculate exposure. Although knowing more about exposure will always make you a better photographer, here is your cheat sheet for light painting at dusk.
We aren’t going to spend much time on what makes the best subject to light paint here. If you are interested in learning more about composing a subject to light paint, check out our Fire and Ice In the Canadian Rockies Workshop where we will add some ‘fire’ to our scenes with some man-made light (in case the sun does not cooperate!) One quick tip is, if you are a beginner, it is often best to select a single, prominent subject with a clean background that is the size of a car or smaller. The point is to emphasize the lit subject, not an entire landscape! Old vehicles in a grassy field, a lone, skeletal tree, or a small barn work well for light painting. But be creative.
Another preliminary consideration is the kind of flashlight you want to use. You will need at least one, and often two is better. For landscape work, we prefer to shoot with warm toned tungsten based lights with one million candle power or more (cheap ones can be had at Canadian Tire). But tungsten lights are rare and now most flashlights are halogen bulbs. Take a piece of yellow or orange plastic and tape it to your halogen flashlight to make the colour of the light warm to contrast with the cobalt dusk sky. Or use any colour of gel you want to add numerous colours to the scene. The more powerful the flashlight the bigger the subject you can handle. Ensure they are fully charged! We have seen many a photographer happily painting their masterpiece only to witness their light fade to a dismal glow. That has never happened to us, of course.
Head out to your subject before it becomes dusk. You want plenty of light so that you can walk around your subject and determine the most interesting composition. Also you want to start early because it is very difficult to focus as it gets darker! Your first job is to get your composition and focus in place. Once your camera is set up (on a tripod with a cable or remote release) you are likely going to leave it in place as you light paint. So this means generally you only get one composition per session, so make it a good one! Once precise focus is achieved, switch to manual focus so your camera will not hunt or change focus as you take pictures in darker and darker conditions. Your camera must be on a tripod for such long exposures, and using a cable release will help prevent any camera movement. If you want to blend parts of several exposures of the light painted image into a final image in Photoshop, then do not move the camera or tripod during the session. And remember if you do move the camera you will need to re-focus which can be hard in the dark even if you use the aid of a powerful flashlight.
How do you know when to start taking pictures? You’ll need a long enough exposure to skim light across your subject using a flashlight. For small subjects like a boulder or a small tree you may need 15 seconds or longer to light paint (depending on the size and power of your flashlight). A quick method we use to know when to start light painting is to set our camera to aperture priority and pick an aperture of f8. Once we get a meter reading of 15 seconds at f8 we’ll try our first light painting.
For our first attempt we’ll skim the flashlight over our subject in several strokes making sure we try to get the whole subject covered. We often like to paint the subject from the side (side-lighting) to give some texture to the object. Once the shutter has closed, go over and look at your LCD. If the light-painted subject is too dark, then you need to spend more time painting the subject with the flashlight. If you were unable to pass the light of the flashlight over the subject for the full 15 seconds, then try again. If you are finding you are still short of time, then you are going to have to wait until the exposure on your camera indicates a longer exposure time like 30 seconds at f8.
If on the other hand your subject is lit like a nuclear explosion, then you need to spend less time light-painting your subject. Maybe you only need one or two strokes of light across the subject to illuminate it. For example, maybe you only need 4 or 5 seconds of flashlight exposure to light your subject but the background needs a full 15 seconds to properly illuminate. The key here is that you control the brightness of your subject based on how long you light it with the flashlight. The brightness of the background is controlled by the overall camera exposure. If your background is too bright, try setting your exposure compensation to -1 EV. If your background is too dark try changing your exposure compensation to +1 EV.
It won’t take long in the dimming dusk until your camera’s exposure is at 30 seconds and soon thereafter your camera will flash a warning about underexposure. What if you want to keep shooting? Simply set your camera to Bulb mode (refer to your camera manual if you are unsure how to do this), set your aperture at f8 and then use your cable release to lock open the shutter for a one minute while you continue light-painting. Some camera releases can be programmed to give precisely timed long exposure but you can get by with the old fashioned method of mentally counting out the seconds while you light paint. As it gets darker and darker you will need to double your exposure time to properly expose the background (e.g 2 minutes, 4 minutes, 8 minutes etc.). But the exposure time for your flash lit subject will remain constant because the brightness of your flashlight is constant.
Take advantage of the flexibility of digital cameras and experiment until you get the perfect balance. Delete the ones that don’t work and keep the magical images. This cheat sheet is just the beginning to the fun you can have with light painting, and there are many more things to consider in light painting like varying the aperture for depth-of-field effects, checking your histogram for optimal exposure, and finessing your light-painting technique to create an ethereal look. To learn more about these advanced techniques come out to our Fire and Ice Workshop in November.
A polarizing filter has been permanently attached to my lens for so long that I simply take it for granted. I rarely remove it but yet continue to be surprised during those condititions that demonstrate just how magical and dramatic the effect can be. Using a polarizing filter can have more impact and value than the lens itself.
The following two images were created minutes apart with different polarizing intensities. The contrast and saturation in the wet sand is significant.
Below is one more example from a slightly hazy day of flying. From 1000 feet above, a polarizer can cut back those reflections, giving us a great view of the ocean floor.
Many of you know Michael Orton for the Orton Effect which he originated in the film days by sandwiching an overexposed sharp slide with an overexposed blurry slide of the same subject to create a painterly looking image. This can easily be replicated in digital during post-processing or by using the multiple exposure capabilities of many of the newer digital cameras. We use the Orton Effect regularly in many of our images (see recent example here) and we have instructions on how to do it in Photoshop here. Users of Photoshop Elements have the Orton Effect built right into the software!
But Michael has moved on from his popular effect and now is using Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) to create amazing ‘e-motional’ photographic art. Check out the article, images and videos below from Michael!
The Magic of Intentional Camera Movement
Imagine yourself walking in the pre-dawn, up a winding trail to an elevated overlook. You weave your way through the forest, and as you near your destination, an ethereal glowing light begins to filter through the trees. Stepping into the clearing you witness one of the most incredible sunrise skies you have ever or may ever see again. Crimson, gold, magenta, orange, for as far as the eye can see, and for a moment you just stand, awestruck, speechless. These moments are what photography is about, but as we all know they don’t happen every day, that is until now. Working with ICM, this same sense of wonder is what I can experience nearly every time I step out with my camera. The difference is that instead of waiting and searching for these moments I can now create them. ICM photography is like a continuous voyage of discovery, that allows you to travel in one direction today, and then a completely different direction tomorrow.
If you sense that your photo life could use some element of creative discovery, and you are open to wherever this might take you, here are some beginning pointers to get started. While the actual process is moving the camera, “seeing” like all photography is really the key. ICM is only as successful as the photographers ability to recognize lines, forms, and tonal differences within the subject. Some situations , like a stand of parallel trees, are easy to attach a compatible camera movement to. Start with these obvious subjects to begin with and mimic the apparent line with a movement. I shoot at my lowest ISO setting with a polarizer and 2 stop ND filter on my 18-70 99% of the time. I use handheld only because I move the camera as if it where a movie camera on a track and not pivoting from a fixed point. Use manual focus to prevent the camera from focus searching during the exposures. Cradle the camera with one hand with your arm into your chest as support for smooth long lines. I use shutter speeds of 1/60 to 4 seconds and numerous actual camera movement speeds for example, slow, medium or fast. Rehearse your chosen action or movement while looking through the viewfinder, then begin making exposures while the camera is moving and continue moving after the exposure is complete.You can move your camera any way you wish. Lines, arcs, circles, ovals, the decision is yours based on what you choose as subject matter. In the past years I have developed what I describe as compound movements which are two combined and then to add a twist I will alter focal length (zoom) or change focus during the exposure. These take practice, but yield diverging lines when the subject matter is appropriate. ICM is not unlike solving a puzzle that when you do, you have an “Aha” moment, followed by “So that is how it works.”
Give yourself enough time to honestly get some results, not just one outing, take a few weeks. It takes patience, this isn’t another “App”. Stay with it and you will know what I am talking about. Marko Kulik has experienced this and now has a wonderful gallery of Montreal streets at night. I use landscape, but any source of lines, form, colour and light can be a starting point. When you have had some successful results you will begin to realize how many combinations of choices of movements and camera speeds there are. Add to this the ability to actually blend and mix colours at the same time, and ICM becomes a process where the given subject matter and your response to it are constantly changing. Unlike going to a favorite landscape I have no preconceptions as to what the outcome will be when I walk into the world armed with ICM. It almost feels like my first few years when everything surprised and excited me, which after 35 years of carrying a camera , is exactly what I needed at this time.
If you are travelling or photographing on Vancouver Island, contact us to view our prints.These new images make impressive prints, especially in larger sizes and are available in very limited edition (10) prints, on canvas or watercolour paper. The video ” The Liquid Landscape ” features some recent work, while the video “A Walk in the Palm Grove” demonstrates the use of ICM in just one location.
Art is about personal expression. How do you feel about a subject? What is your connection to what you see? Why are you attracted to a particular subject? What do you want to tell the world? Who are you? These are the bigger questions we need to ask when making our art.The desire to paint, to sculpt, to make music, or to create photographs should be motivated from within and be an expression of you. External motivations like making money, getting likes, or pleasing others will only spoil your artistic expression. Create for yourself.
Once you are creating for yourself and not others AND you are photographing from your feelings and a connection with a subject, then you can think of which camera technique and post processing methods will enhance your message. Whenever I go to the old coal mine in Nordegg (Brazeau Collieries) I immediately feel a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality. Where some people see a hulk of rusty industrial power, I see a romantic dream of the past. It took me a visit or two to honour my inner feelings about the mine but once I let those feelings out, then I could make the images I wanted to make about the mine.
For example, there is a spot in the mine called the bone yard where random pieces of equipment lay scattered about in the grass. I wanted to show a sense of the passage of time and the static nature of the rusting equipment among the living world. To do this I used a solid ND filter on my camera lens to lengthen exposure time so the grasses moved as a ghostly blur around the rusting pieces of metal. This painterly look was enhanced in processing by using the Orton technique. The end result gave me a wistful look.
The selective use of aperture to have parts of the scene rendered sharp and parts of the scene a dreamy blur was also effective for me in translating my dream-like feeling for the mine. I used apertures such as f1.4 or f2.8 to give me a thin slice of sharpness.
Another technique I used to enhance the nostalgic mood was to convert the images from colour into sepia-toned black and white. Many of the scenes inside of the buildings at the mine site are contrasty with bright light coming in through the windows and cavernous shadow areas. To capture the entire range of bright to dark in the image I used HDR exposure blends (multiple images blended together at different exposures) to create one image with complete tonal detail. The final exposure blend is then converted to sepia to give a historic looking image.
If you would like an opportunity to see and photograph the Nordegg mine and find out how this location makes YOU feel, come join me and Samantha along with Royce Howland for our Coal Mines, Canyons, and the Canadian Rockies: the HDR Photography Workshop this May. I know I’m excited to return to this unique industrial landmark…maybe my creative vision will be different this time…who knows!
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.