Each month we send out a newsletter to our oopoomoo newsletter subscribers with an assignment for the month. In March, we wanted photographers to show us a non-iconic view of an iconic location. We themed the assignment #league_landscape in honour of our new publishing project League magazine (which is now open for subscriptions and submissions). There was a lot of fabulous non-iconic assignment images shown by photographers in our oopoomoo Facebook group but one photographer, Janice Kretzer-Prysunka, really stood out with her portfolio of personal takes at iconic locations. Great work Janice!
Many photographers have an agenda when they go out to photograph. Whether it’s to capture a portrait, a destination or a representation of a specific subject we often have a preconceived result in mind before we even press the shutter. We know exactly what we hope to capture and what we want the final result to look like. This is not necessarily good or bad; many of history’s best images came as a result of the photographer seeing the photo in their mind’s eye before the camera was ever lifted to the eye. When I look at my own favourite images, a significant portion were visualized in advance and my job was to make that visualization a reality on film or the digital sensor. But just as many of my favourite photos came about from serendipitous discovery and the most creative and refreshing of those discoveries came when I was just goofing around and playing with the camera, when I was experimenting with no serious intent in mind. I think many of us would benefit from not taking photography too seriously and just going out open-minded and ready to have fun. My best results at photographic play have happened when I leave the ‘serious’ gear behind and just respond with a point-n-shoot or small dSLR. I also abandon all the ‘should do’ photographic rules and techniques and just respond organically. It’s so freeing. Many times I just get junk photos, but just as often a gem emerges. I have no expectations either way but simply go out in the world in joyful play. Let me give a couple of examples.
Sam and I used to lead photographic workshops and tours in the Canadian Rockies based out of the Kootenay Plains and Abraham Lake. In the early years most photographers were just happy to be in this amazing locale and make photos of all the things that inspired them. Later on, images of the methane bubbles on Abraham Lake started to circulate on the internet and all of a sudden making images of the bubbles was on the bucket list of most photographers. Our job then became one of leading photographers to the bubbles in sunrise and sunset light so that they could achieve their preconceived result. Amazing images resulted but frankly they all looked pretty much the same. There was a sudden loss of desire to explore the area for all the other visual delights there. Instead there was a fixation on getting bubble images. I also kept repeating the successful bubble formula images because it helped sell workshops.
One day in between winter workshops I went out for a mid-afternoon walk with just a camera and a zoom lens slung over my shoulder. I remember walking the shoreline of Abraham Lake just chilling. I was beach-combing, picking up stones, pieces of ice and pine cones just like a kid. I spent some time balancing myself on one leg on big stones and then rock-hopping stone to stone. In short, I was in goofing-off mode. I was not even remotely thinking about making pictures. In fact, I wanted to escape ‘having to make photos’. I saw some fins of ice along the shoreline and wondered if I could squeeze my way under them. I managed to get under the plate-like slabs of ice and just lay there looking up fascinated with the texture of the ice. Every slight move of my head revealed a new kaleidoscope of wavy distortions. It was mesmerizing. I must have spent twenty minutes just jostling my head around before it dawned on me that I had a camera. A couple of snapshots later and I had some of my favourite images I ever made of Abraham Lake ice. The power of play revealed its creative power.
Here is another example of the power of play. I am a huge fan of dogs and so as a photographer it was not a big stretch for me to end up photographing ‘man’s best friend’. Anyone who has photographed dogs knows it can be tough unless you have an obedience-trained dog that will take your directed commands. Most dogs are not well trained which says more about the owners than the dogs, but that’s another story. I had some early success with my own dogs that had basic obedience training and, when people saw the images, some of them asked me to photograph their dogs. My expectations of how a dog photo session should go, well orchestrated with trained dogs, went out the window fast. I was frustrated, the dog was stressed and the owner was not happy with the results. The whole thing was not fun. The solution to the problem came when I dropped expectations, and just started playing with the dogs. Forget the damn camera! I worked fun back into my time with the dogs. And then I tried something unorthodox. I put the camera on program mode, turned on the auto-focus and the motor drive and just pointed the camera in the general direction of the dog while we played together. Most of the results were terrible but occasionally magic happened! In the film days this was an expensive experiment, but once digital came along, the fun was cheap and I could play even more. Samantha and I refined this ‘play with the dogs’ photographic approach into a more predictably successful technique which we discuss in our dog photography eBook, Sit, Stay & Smile. In the end it was play and the loss of expectations that resulted in fresh imagery of the dogs.
So… the moral is not to take yourself and your photography too seriously. Make room for play and go out and act like a kid. If you want more exercises in play and in creative discovery be sure to check out our Learning to See Workbook and free Born Creative eBook.
This year, Darwin and I decided to curate each other’s images to select what we felt was that photographer’s oopoomoo best for 2015. Just as we stipulated in the oopoomoo Newsletter announcing the challenge, an oopoomoo best had to meet three criteria:
- represent who they are photographically as an artist or demonstrate something they learned this year
- be as well-composed as they can do at their learning level, and
- be taken ethically.
You can see what Darwin picked as my oopoomoo best here. And here is the image I’ve chosen as Darwin’s best image of 2015.
In pouring over Darwin’s work for this year, I’ve noticed a shift in his usual subject matter. Instead of photographing grand landscapes, Darwin has started to concentrate more on intimate studies and abstractions. Some of the same elements of style are present in his work, making them a ‘Darwin shot’, such as a fascination with light and shape and an attraction to colours and tonal contrast. But I sense with this image a refinement perhaps of ‘seeing’, an engagement with the mind rather than just senses. There is many layers to this image and it is quietly intriguing.
This image was taken at Lake O’Hara, probably one of the most iconic of places in the Canadian Rockies. We were standing far uphill on the trail to Opabin Plateau and Mary Lake was being covered by a giant shadow cast by Oderay Mountain as the sun set behind it. Darwin had to work fast to frame and make this shot before the light was gone and the lake covered in shadow. When photographers say that they refuse to photograph iconic places, I feel sorry for them; I suspect they are insecure and may suffer from a lack of imagination. A great photographer can always make a place his own as Darwin does here.
As part of our regular monthly Newsletter, this December we asked our subscribers to share with us their best picture of 2015. But the photo could not be just any predictable best, it had to be their ‘oopoomoo best’. To be an ‘oopoomoo best’ the image had to follow these criteria:
- represent who they are photographically as an artist or demonstrate something they learned this year
- be as well-composed as they can do at their learning level, and
- be taken ethically.
If you want to see all the amazing results so far log into your Facebook account and do a search for #myoopoomoobest2015
In the spirit of year-end sharing Sam and I will be showcasing our oopoomoo best image here on the blog but with a twist. Instead of picking our own image to share we are going to chose what we think is our partner’s best image of 2015! Scary stuff to have someone else curate your work.
And so here is my pick of Sam’s best image of 2015. Drum roll please!
I chose this image for several reasons. First, it perfectly represents Sam’s creative vision. Sam loves grass and trees and she has both in spades in this picture. Second, Sam creates compositions that are personal and intimate and that drill down to the essence of what attracted her to the scene. We were out shooting in the Rockies and I was photographing a distant lone spruce in a sea of yellow aspens with my 300mm lens (an obvious and easy subject). Sam asked if she could borrow my camera and lens for a minute. She swung the camera away from the obvious fall colours, away from the big peaks in the background and over to a grassy slope just above the road. I could not for the life of me figure out what she was making a picture of! Of course now I see… a quintessential Sam photo, but at the time I thought she had gone mad photographing away from all the big beauty surrounding us. I’m always impressed by how Sam can make ‘something from nothing’ and how she always photographs true to her vision no matter what others are doing around her. So the biggest reason I picked this image is because Sam continues to surprise and delight me with her creative vision. No one can make Sam images, they are unique to her. And so, for me, this image represents Samantha’s answer to the #myoopoomoobest2015 December Newsletter challenge.
Here at oopoomoo we have always emphasized creative vision in photography. As a photographer you should honour your interests and express those interests from your heart. In short, we try to teach photographers to be artists. Unfortunately, social media and the internet don’t reward the slow path to self discovery but instead it rewards instant gratification, easy to digest imagery and techniques of the day with photographers scurrying all over the globe to get to iconic destinations to make replica images or replicate techniques of other photographers. There is little reward for nurturing your own creative vision. We have written about his extensively before here and here.
Recently, our friend and oopoomoo photography assistant, Catherine returned from taking a workshop with esteemed photographers Freeman Patterson and Andre Gallant. Catherine has long been interested in things that most other photographers pass by. She came with me once on a Canadian Rockies ‘Glory of Autumn’ photography tour and spent her time taking pictures of rocks and sticks while everyone else was making images of mountains and lakes. The other photographers just could not figure out why she was ‘wasting her time’ shooting things she could photograph at home when she was in the Canadian Rockies! The truth was simple – Catherine was following her creative muse, sticks and stone moved her more than big mountain scenes (read about Catherine’s experience at this link). She honoured herself by not caving to peer pressure and shooting for herself. Fast forward to her workshop with Freeman and Andre. Catherine was given an assignment to make reflection shots… in cars. She took to the assignment with gusto and came away with an impressive body of work, so impressive that Freeman singled her out from the class as an example of creative vision. By following her heart, and her interests Catherine emerged as an artist.
Last October Samantha and I came up with a workshop idea in the Canadian Rockies called “Beyond the Icon”. The idea was to strip away the temptation for photographers to make or expect classic Canadian Rockies iconic photos. We went after the fall colours were over but before winter ice and snow set in. It was the season of browns and for many photographers the Rockies looked blah (if that is possible). We also purposely took our participants to unknown locations and even just stopped roadside randomly and gave out photo assignments. The results from the participants were impressive and it was fulfilling to see growth in the participants’ creative vision. Sam and I also had the opportunity to do these same assignments along with the students. And we got to spend some time before and after the workshop making personal images. After the trip I noticed that my creative vision was evolving from big vertical landscapes in theatrical light to more intimate, abstract and graphic images. Recently, I finished processing the images from this outing (finally!) and thought I would share my 25 personal faves from the trip in this post.
What is your creative vision? Have you seen it evolve over time? Are you able to be true to yourself in spite of external pressures to shoot something different from what you love to shoot? We would love hear about it in the comments on this blog or share some images with us on the oopoomoo Facebook Group.
One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome as a photographer was me. I was constantly sabotaging my own progress in photography by worrying about how I looked to others. This wasn’t about fashion (I have none) or the gear I owned (I have too much) or whether my hair looked good (when I had hair); it was about my preoccupation with what others might think of my photos.
Whenever I went out shooting with others, I was always watching to see what they were photographing instead of concentrating on my own work. Were they seeing something I was missing? Were they using a lens I had not thought of? “What are those filters they are using?” “That is a weird angle of view, maybe I should try that!” In short my head was full of constant distracting chatter and my insecurities had me watching everyone else instead of concentrating on just making images. I was in a self-imposed competition.
Even when I shot alone, I was still thinking things like, ‘If I do this funky thing with the flash then people will think I am amazing” Or, “This is awesome! I can’t wait to show people this image; they’ll love it”. In short, I was still worried about my audience. I was shooting for other people and not shooting for myself! And of course I never grew as artist.
Only in moments when others were not around, when I was not in ‘trophy’ photography territory (the grand landscape in iconic locations) and when I didn’t have a camera with me did I start to notice things beyond my preconceptions of what a good photograph should be. I started to see the light and shadow patterns of the window blinds, the play of light through a water glass, the brush of light across the carpet. In short, in quiet moments, and in forgetting about how my photos would appear to others, I started to see.
In my nature photography, I still searched for the grand landscape and the big light and the rewards of accolades by others, but more and more that pursuit was ringing hollow. I was finding more pleasure in making images that were softer, quieter and more introspective. I found great pleasure in making something from nothing and that pleased my sensibilities the most. As soon as I let go of self I became a better photographer.
Now I just shoot for me and worry little what others will think of my photos. As long as the photos are true to my vision and represent who I am and what I saw, then the photos are a success for me. Letting go of self, competition, and concern for audience is really about letting go of insecurities. Finally, I can fully pursue my creative vision. And in doing so the joy of creation has come back full force.
If like me, you suffer from a bad case of ‘yourself,’ then maybe it’s time to let go and make pictures purely for you and not with others in mind. Stop submitting so many images to online forums, stop hoping that others will love your work and start shooting for you. In the end you’ll be a better artist for it. Happy shooting! (Thanks to Freeman Patterson and Samantha Chrysanthou for valuable lessons in ‘barriers to seeing’.)
It’s hard to believe but it was 10 years ago this week that my guidebook How to Photograph the Canadian Rockies was released!
In 2004, my career as a photographer was suffering because my main source of income, stock photography, had taken a big hit after the market shocks following 9/11 in 2001. I needed something to rejuvenate my career. So I came up with the idea of writing a photographers’ guide book to the Canadian Rockies, a region I knew and loved well. I pitched the idea to a publisher and in April of 2004, with an advance from the publisher in my pocket, I headed to the Rockies to shoot new images and do on-the-ground research for the book. I finished shooting and writing in September of 2004 and turned the manuscript over to publisher who released it in April of 2005. Once the publisher saw the photos I submitted for the guide book, they asked if I would also be willing to do a coffee table book as a companion piece. They called the book Dances with Light – The Canadian Rockies and it was released at the end of April 2005. Both books became Canadian best sellers and each went through three sucessive printings. I’m sure the books would have sold even more copies but the publisher went bankrupt because they expanded too big, too fast. Unfortunately, both books are now out of print. New copies of How to Photograph the Canadian Rockies now sell on Amazon starting at $250.oo! It’s original price was $14.95. Crazy.
Once the publisher went out of business, I bought the remaining copies of How to Photograph the Canadian Rockies (HTPTCR) and sold them through my website – sales were brisk! Once those books were gone, I asked Stephen DesRoches to help me update and design the content as eBooks for specific regions of the Canadian Rockies – we called these eGuides. I took the original content of HTPTCR, added new locations, more photos and updated the descriptions and sold the eGuides by park and by season. Later, when Samantha and I formed our joint company, oopoomoo, we added new locations (the Kootenay Plains) that were not in the original book. And finally, we asked John Marriott, the premier wildlife photographer of the Rockies, to write a title on wildlife photography for the HTPTCR series of eGuides. The result is our eight title library on the Canadian Rockies. Many, many photographers have used our eGuides over the years and our inbox is full of high praise from photographers grateful to us for saving them time and getting them to awesome locations in the right light. In fact, we know of several photographers who have used our eGuides to help them take people on Canadian Rockies photo tours. You know you did a good job when others can take your information and successfully design a photo tour!
To celebrate 10 years of guiding photographers to the right place at the right time either through our eGuides or through our tours and workshops, we are bundling our complete collection of Rockies eGuides into one specially priced package. To buy these eGuides individually costs $80, but now you can buy all eight eGuides for only $60 (basically, you get two eGuides for free). Happy Anniversary!
Stay tuned to this blog because Sam and I will be celebrating this milestone by sharing some of our unpublished Canadian Rockies photos. It’s still a place that makes my heart swell with happiness. We would only add one little plea to this post…please, as Albertans, Canadians and passionate photographers from all over the world, let’s take care of this region and treat it with the respect it deserves.
Darwin and I have been visiting our favourite mountain retreat, Aurum Lodge for the past couple of weeks. The weather has been crazy warm and not even that windy for almost the entire time. We did have one snow squall which meant waking up to a surreal, quiet, white world the next day. Both of us headed out with our cameras, going in different directions, and I was incredibly fortunate to spend a half an hour watching and photographing a raven that was observing the still morning.
Although I could have grabbed a shot and quickly left in search of something new, as soon as that thought entered my mind, I had to laugh at myself. What could possibly be more magical than the light, the sun and this dark creature right in front of me? I’m not a wildlife photographer, but I appreciate the patience it takes to learn the habits of animals in order to better photograph them.
And this raven rewarded my decision to stay and observe by preening, calling to a friend, and taking the scene all in before finally flying away. It was a magical experience, and I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to be part of that snowy spring world.
As many of you know, Samantha and I are taking a sabbatical from our busy workshop teaching schedule to concentrate on our own photography and projects in 2015. We do have a limited number of teaching seminars in the spring but we won’t be doing field workshops out of Aurum Lodge in the Canadian Rockies in 2015. Our final field workshop ended with November’s Fire and Ice workshop and we had a great time. We had a group of dedicated and talented photographers who made the most of this year’s unseasonably warm weather. Ice was hard to find and the only fire we got was from overheating in our winter gear! Nevertheless, our crew was open to what nature gave us and we think you’ll agree based on the photos below that no matter what the light or the weather there is always something amazing to photograph if you are open to seeing.
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.