Every month here at oopoomoo we send out our newsletter with a themed photography assignment. For the month of May our assignment was “Creative Clouds” open to any interpretation. We had a lot of great entries over on our oopoomoo Creatives Facebook page. Thanks everyone for your participation!
Below is a selection of our favourite images submitted. Stay tuned for our June newsletter which will be sent out in a day or two with June’s photo assignment. To sign up for our newsletter click here and get our Born Creative eBook for free.
In our last blog post, Samantha tackled building a code of ethics in photography. In the end, we here at oopoomoo decided that the principle to promote the well-being of the things we photograph was a good guide to keep us on the right track ethically. If we are not promoting the well-being of our subjects then ethically we are wading into dark waters. Samantha compiled an extensive checklist of positive actions we could each take to keep on the ethical path. One of those positive actions was to ask permission before photographing an identifiable person. This statement had a number of photographers up in arms suggesting that to do so would kill the art of street and documentary photography. On the contrary, we think keeping the guiding principle of promote the well-being in mind will easily guide you as to whether you should push the shutter button or not. For example, we recently featured the work of documentary photographer Larry Louie and he always asks permission before photographing identifiable people and his photos are all the more powerful in veracity because he engaged with the people he photographs. In some rare cases not asking permission is OK if it promotes the well-being of the subject. Potential situations where this might apply might be war journalism where the need to document might outweigh the privacy of an individual. Our suggested positive actions were guidelines not commandments for you to blindly follow – we always encourage you to question and think for yourself. We hope our guiding principle of promote the well-being is useful to you in your journeys as an ethical photographer.
OK, so that’s our perspective. For a slightly different view on the ethics of street photography we present the guest column below by Amruta Mohod of PhotoWhoa. We would love to hear your feedback on this contentious topic in photography. Please note that the opinions and any errors or omissions in the article below are the sole responsibility of the author and PhotoWhoa.
Ethics In Street Photography; The Black, White And The Grey Of It
by Amruta Mohod
Photographer Joel Goodman’s striking photo of a Manchester street on New Year’s Eve was recently dubbed a ‘perfect picture’ with its painting compositions and conformity to the Fibonacci Spiral that the likes of Lenoardo Da Vinci employed while creating masterpieces.
Did Goodman seek permission from any of the subjects?
Image courtesy The Guardian
Image Courtesy Time Life
Ethically speaking, street photography is the most controversial branch of photography. Since the subject largely consists of people who are mostly shot candid, the question of ethnicity ubiquitously plagues photographers everywhere.
However, note that not every street photograph features a person in the picture or even have to have a street in view.
The idea is to have – as Wikipedia puts it – a human presence.
Another question often asked in connection with street photography is whether or not it should be candid. A lot of times your subject would be aware and even posing for a click. Does that then qualify it to be termed a street photograph?
There are different thoughts on this. While Matt Hart, UK-based street photographer and educator believes in going completely candid so as to not disrupt the natural composition of an image and keep it real, New York street photographer Michael Comeau feels he wouldn’t just startle his subjects if he doesn’t seek permission but might not even get the desired shot.
What’s right and what’s wrong?
Street photography blurs the line between the two, and it’s amply justified.
When it comes to ethics in street photography, every expert has his personal opinion, and swears by the implementation of the same in creating pictures the way they see it.
Like Ansel Adams said “You don’t take a photograph, you make it“, a picture – street or otherwise – says a lot about the photographer too. It’s his perception, thoughts, beliefs and ideologies all seeping to his work, which is why the concept of ethics varies too.
Come to think of it this way, just like ethics in general are extremely subjective, so it is with ethics in street photography. What might be right for one would be horribly wrong for the other and the other way round.
For instance William Klein’s pictures are primarily up close and personal shot with wide angled lenses.
He quotes “I photograph what I see in front of me, I move in close to see better and use a wide-angle lens to get as much as possible in the frame”.
He’s one of the legends in the field of street photograph and has given us some rather compelling clicks. A notable attribute in most of his work is that it tunes the viewer in. It’s like the viewer becomes part of the picture rather than being an onlooker.
True to his words, Klein had always gone for it. Clicked when he saw something that held a sense of a story, a palpable sense of identity and relation and overall a surprising yet perplexing perception of something banal. Like his May Day picture of an old lady surrounded by a small but eclectic group of different nationalities.
Image courtesy https://www.artsy.net/artist/william-klein
Echoing the same thought, is ace street photographer Thomas Leuthard who not only has made his mark with his street portraiture in a short time but is also eager to share his vast wealth of street photography related tips and tricks.
In his free e-book titled Street Faces he gives insights into the approach. He emphasizes on the right approach and how it can make or break your capture.
He also says that the average person doesn’t interest him, he’s always looking for that one face that stands out of the crowd, based on any parameter. But it has to be something captivating, a face that speaks without opening the mouth.
Image courtesy Street Faces
Most might call his approach unethical and even illegal but he sticks to it when it comes to street portraiture.
I never look them into their eyes, never ever (only through the viewfinder). I point my camera to the persons face before he turns his head. I press the button halfway down to pre-focus. When the person turns around, I press the button down and make 3-4 frames in a series. After 3-4 shots I turn around and walk away. Don’t talk, don’t look, I don’t do anything else…
And even legendary Garry Winogrand who is renowned for his artistic perception of the cacophony of American life, was famous for not seeking permission before a click.
To this date, the prolific Winogrand remains an inspiration for a multitude of photographers skewing towards street photography in particular, despite his evident dislike for the term ‘street photography’. But while he could have gotten away with his ‘don’t hesitate, just click’ attitude in the patriarchal 20th century, today his beliefs are not just more likely to be reproachful and angering but it can also pose a threat to a person’s privacy.
Changing Technology and Ethics in Street Photography
There are tons of websites that feature random ‘street photographs’ of people caught unawares. And given how Smartphones have made a photographer out of each one of us, it takes only a few minutes to click, upload and taint a person’s reputation.
This is the area where ethics in street photography need to be discussed closely. The question of consent and the question of intention both determine whether an image is fit to be called a candid and honest street photograph that the public would smile and say thank you for one or that would get you sued or at least beaten up.
Street photographers (majority of them) agree that what they are doing is fine because what they’ve set out to do is create art.
But cut to today’s time when people are not just more wary of getting a picture clicked without their consent (for all the justified reasons) but they are also constantly captured and monitored through surveillance cameras.
So how do you find the middle ground in such contradictions?
Are you clicking that beautiful red-haired lady with a squealing newborn in one arm to show the realities of motherhood or do you intend to put it up in a dark space on the internet for the faceless chorus to go MILF?
The onus of clicking candid is always on the photographer, ethically that is. The legal viewpoint might differ depending on which country you are in.
Consent is an important factor, but when you are going candid and the subject has no idea they’re getting clicked is that ethical or unethical?
And when you are clicking a larger group, do you take each person’s consent?
And there’s also the question of whether taking consent still qualifies it to be called street photography or does it then become a portrait.
Some photographers consider them to be two different areas while some consider portraiture to be a sub-sect of street photography
Weighing in on the ethics debate, some photographers believe that educating the general public more on the requirements of street photography would help. Like if they knew they’d consent automatically like they do in case of CCTV cameras.
But that’s a theoretical concept. Come to think of it logically, this might make them more resistant.
There’s no way to use the idea of surveillance camera to justify street photography, it’s absurd and rather does more harm. Since there is a question of safety involved in surveillance captures, people don’t object to it. The same cannot be said for street photography.
But to some degree, there is a need for that; for a decent understanding of and exposure to street photography. And also the backstage work, requirements, and consequences in general.
Street photography is a form of creating art, actually more like recognizing art. Like Duane Michals puts it:
Photography is essentially an act of recognition by street photographers, not an act of invention. Photographers might respond to an old man’s face, or an Arbus freak, or the way light hits a building—and then they move on. Whereas in all the other art forms, take William Blake, everything that came to that paper never existed before. It’s the idea of alchemy, of making something from nothing.
What could make a street photographer click is subjective, it’s what they see traces of art in. And this is why they opine differently than their peers on the ethics of clicking street photos.
Although this area of photography is affected a lot by the changing times, laws and perceptions, it is not going to be banned or so we hope. Should there be a type of explicit or implicit mandates governing street photography is still hard to say. Like art, photography cannot be contained.
You cannot direct a photographer to click a certain way, it’s something natural and to a degree innate too.
But then should you disrespect or worse derogate an unknown person in the name of art?
Some general no-nos of street photography
Here is an attempt to round up some of the general what-not-to-do(s) in street photography from an ethical point of view. Some of these points might not resonate with some street photographers, well to each his own, but from a general point of view it’s better to not do any of these:
Take pictures of the subject in a compromising position – There’s only so much you can do in the name of art. When it comes to street photography, which is already polarizing, it is best to not take pictures of your subject which they would definitely not consent to.
This is especially important if you are clicking candid of kids. Even when done with the right intention, it would somewhere evoke the wrong response. Therefore, the correct thing to do is to not do it.
It’s better to ask consent of parents when you click a child – You don’t want to have an angry father at your throat or a scared mother calling the cops. If the parent is nearby, ask them permission to shoot a picture of their kid. Most parents don’t mind if you ask them the correct way.
If they ask you to delete, you delete – So someone not just caught you clicking them candid, they marched over to you and demanded you delete their picture, which you absolutely should.
Not only that, if you are going to follow the approach that William Klein or Bruce Gilden took – that of getting right in the face while shooting – then the chances of this happening is all the more. People don’t like their personal spaces tampered with, while some would give you a quizzical ‘what the hell bro’ look, some might actually create a ruckus.
So even after tackling the situation with tact, if they ask you to delete the picture, you have to absolutely do it.
Don’t interrupt their moment – If you think this is irrelevant when you’re shooting candid then you’re wrong. Just because a person isn’t directly aware of you shooting them, doesn’t mean he is completely in the dark. Take for instance what Leuthard does, he waits for an eye contact before clicking candid.
It’s rude and distasteful to interrupt and spoil someone’s moment just because you feel you’d get an amazing shot from that. Some subjects might make the shot better when they know a camera is on them but most would close up.
When we say ethics we mean morals that are accepted by a large group of people. Street photographers the world over believe that there is nothing unethical in their work but there’s no set consensus when it comes to ethics in street photography.
Click a picture with the wrong intention – There was some mention of intentions earlier, the talk of ethics become more prominent in situations where the intention had always been to defame or demean.
And that’s not art.
The question of ‘decency’ and consent make up for most of the ethics debate in street photography, but the only thing that can be said is if it feels right in your heart, click it!
Amruta , PhotoWhoa Team
I love writing about photography and keep it as simple as possible. When not writing about photography I can be seen watching TV and petting all the possible dogs in the society. (My husband dosen’t let me own one) and looking for new places to eat and review them. I also love to connect with new people across the globe hence you can always find me online on Skype. You can find me on Twitter here @amruta_mohod
Each month in our oopoomoo newsletter we announce an assignment theme; for January it was shadow and light (#shadowandlight). Below are our selected favorites from the images submitted to our Facebook group or by email. The February theme will be announced shortly so be sure to sign up for our newsletter to get a head start!
Here at oopoomoo our logline is create, inspire and educate. We love to feature the work of photographers and artists who meet these ideals but we are really thrilled when a photographer’s work is not only creative but is captured ethically and does good in the world. We really believe photographers should be giving rather than just ‘taking’. To this end, we are proud to present the work of Edmonton based photographer, Larry Louie, humanitarian documentary photographer.
Larry leads a dual career. By day he runs an optometry clinic enhancing the vision of his patients. On his self-funded travels he explores the life of indigenous people and social issues around the world and seeks to influence people’s view of the world. He also works closely with NGOs such as First Light Photography School in Bangladesh, Seva Canada whose mission is to end preventable and treatable blindness, and Oxfam whose mission is to create lasting solutions to the injustice of poverty. Larry also opened the Louie Photography Gallery on 124 in Edmonton to highlight the work of local and emerging photographers of all genres. And best of all, even with all of his awards and accolades Larry remains grounded, humble and has a great sense of humour. We are pleased to present our in-depth interview with Larry below:
oopoomoo – Larry you have a successful optometry practice. How do you carve out time for your photographic endeavours?
Larry – Well, my photography is something I do on the side and that’s good and bad in a lot of ways. I don’t have the time and the luxury in terms of going away for a long time and so I’ve got to be very time efficient with my trips. At the same time photography is not a big money maker and I want to shoot things that really mean a lot to me and those kinds of images are not very salable or even things that people want to buy or even look at and so for me it’s more important that I do photography for me rather than for the monetary aspects of it. I use my optometry practice as the breadwinner and the way to pay for my photography and I use my photography as my artistic outlet. For me, being able to travel and experience the world fills me with cherished memories. My wife and I do not have an extravagant lifestyle and we chose to save and use that money for our travel and photography.
oopoomoo – When did you get into photography and when did you know you would pursue photography as a more serious venture?
Larry – It first started in high school. I got a camera as a gift and started photographing the area that I knew which is around Edmonton. I started photographing street scenes and landscapes and so on but what really interested me was one year I went to a boarding house in a derelict part of Edmonton and I met a lot of homeless people and people who were down and out. What I learned from that experience was that these people had a voice, they’re human beings, not inanimate objects and I felt I wanted to tell their story. I found their stories of why they were on the fringes of society really interested my curiosity. I ended up spending a lot of time with them and made a series of pictures of these people. I have always wanted to travel and see the world and experience different cultures. As a kid I was influenced by National Geographic and dreamed about visiting those remote areas. Later, as my practice became more established I had the money to go to these areas. I also had the photographic experience I gained from photographing people in Edmonton and so I could put the two together. One year, about 10 years ago, I went to Nepal and instead of just making the typical tourist pictures I was taken by a guide down to the river where I met similar people as those I photographed in Edmonton, those living on the fringes. I went and visited them several times and that was the catalyst for me to start my major project of celebrating humanity, the people on the fringes of society, people living with hardship and working in rough environments. I just wanted to tell their intriguing stories. I love meeting the people and sharing their stories through my photography.
oopoomoo – Larry, one thing we love about your work is that as a viewer we feel like we are right there and having that connection with the people. There is an intimacy in your work that is poignant.
Larry – That’s deliberate. I want to be physically close to these people and spend time with them to make them feel at ease with me. This closeness and the time I spend to know them, that could be 10 minutes or 5 hours, gives me a small connection that makes them relaxed and accepting of my presence, so the pictures don’t look composed, staged or artificial. To make connections I don’t bring the camera out right away, I meet the people first. Sometimes there are communication barriers but a smiling face, a warm handshake and a few words of their language goes a long way to put people at ease. Also being at ease yourself is the most important thing. And asking permission is key. A lot of times I am really close because I just use a 24mm lens and so I am not sneaking around taking pictures unawares. I am connected with the people first and then close with the camera which makes images that feel that you are there.
oopoomoo – How would you describe your photographic style?
Larry – My work is environmental portraiture. The main focus is the people and the connection. I shoot a lot with my wide angle lens because I want to share a contextual story of the person in their environment. As a viewer you not only see the person but also the story of their life. I chose black and white because it takes away the emotional colour and I want to use the content of the image to provide the emotion. Also lighting is the essence of photography and with black and white that essence comes across stronger. A lot of my work has dramatic lighting and black and white accentuates that more than colour photography.
oopoomoo – You seem to get to some spots off the beaten path, things most tourists never see. How do you find these places?
Larry – We work a lot with NGOs and many of the places I go to are out of bounds for tourists and photographers and also can be dangerous. To get to these places requires background work and, by working with NGOs active in the area, we can get introductions and access that would be hard to get otherwise. In giving back, we don’t give money to people to photograph them. Instead, we pull our resources together through the sale of prints or through the fees I get for my talks and give the money back to the organizations we work with to support local projects. It’s full circle. I photograph for the love of it and hopefully giving back to the people I took some time away from.
oopoomoo – How would you define the term ‘humanitarian photographer’
Larry – Humanitarian photographer is respect, respecting the people your are photographing, respecting the story to be told and not to exploit the situation but to make viewers aware of the situation so that possibly positive change can happen. And then to pool your funds to help an organization to help the group of people in the area you photographed.
oopoomoo – Do you think that humanitarian photographers are becoming a rarer breed?
Larry – I think so because now it is all about the mighty dollar. Newspapers, magazines and so on are asking for the most sensational photographs. Instead of trying to tell the story they want to sell the story which means the more unusual or shocking, the better. Those stories then tend to be heard by the public and so sometimes the stories are distorted both factually and visually. Some news agencies like Reuters are now asking for unaltered images, like the Raw files or in-camera JPEGS so that there is no manipulation of the image so that it has been altered or exaggerated to sell the photograph.
oopoomoo – Because you fund your own trips why do your prefer to go abroad when you could do humanitarian photography right here in Alberta?
Larry – You’re absolutely right, many people ask me why I don’t photograph here. The truth is I love to travel and I have an attraction to the far east, the culture, the crowds, the chaos, the energy… it just gets me going. I thrive artistically on the chaos of these busy, crazy places. And you rarely make great images on your initial visit. You need to go back again and again to develop relationships and make connections. That requires time and so I want to go back to these places like Kathmandu and Manila many times. Each time I go back I see something new and different and expand on the story I am trying to tell.
oopoomoo – Speaking of the Alberta connection, you have opened up the Louie Photography Gallery on 124 in Edmonton to highlight the work of local and emerging photographers. As we know, photo galleries are not really for-profit ventures, so we think that is a noble, local thing to do. But it’s something that also eats into your time and money. Why bother?
Larry – A lot of galleries are displaying work that will sell, like beautiful landscapes and not images that tell stories and so I had some space in my building and I wanted a place to showcase work from local photographers who do the kind of work that might not be represented in more mainstream galleries. I started this three or four years ago and have had several shows and the focus is mostly documentary work because that is not really shown anywhere in Alberta. Last year and this year in February our gallery is part of Exposure Photo Festival and we are happy to be part of that Alberta initiative.
oopoomoo – Your images have a timelessness to them, almost a throwback to film in their purity. Can you comment on that?
Larry – Well, I am old school even though I use a digital camera I see things in black and white. I love vintage black-n-white photography. I don’t want my images to look too modified. In documentary work, if there is garbage on the ground, garbage should stay there. I don’t want to beautify the place or change the look just because it might be distracting to the viewer; it has to be true to the story and I think this reality comes out in my photos. Technique wise you still need appropriate lighting, proper exposure and good composition that fits within 35mm proportions. I don’t crop anything; everything is full frame. To me, that’s important. My ability is in connecting with someone and then being able to compose something quickly that cannot be reproduced again. I find I have to be able to anticipate when something will happen and then be quick to respond. My goal is to capture in the camera and not in post production. I am very bad at Photoshop, and so this is why my photos might look like film.
oopoomoo – Many people might be surprised that you use prime lenses, a 24mm and an 85mm instead of zooms. Why give up the flexibility of zooms?
Larry – I don’t carry a lot of gear, I do a lot of walking, there is the possibility of being robbed. I want to blend in so I dress down and bring minimal gear. I often just bring one body and one lens, often the 24mm. To me it’s all about the interaction with the subject; the camera is just a recording device and I don’t want it to be too big, bulky and imposing for my subjects. When people ask me about gear, I always say it does not really matter, it is all about seeing, expecting and responding. I like prime lenses because they are smaller, more compact, sharper and faster which is especially good for interior work.
oopoomoo – How important have your numerous awards being in boosting your photography career?
Larry – These are just little pats on your shoulder. It’s great to have people acknowledge your work and that’s great for the ego but the bottom line is it’s just icing on the cake. Regardless if I have those awards or not, I am still going to do the same thing. I am not going to change the way I shoot; I shoot the way I like to shoot. Having the recognition is nice, there is no doubt about it, and it allows me to tell my story to a wider audience.
oopoomoo – Some photographers after winning awards start making images catered towards winning more awards. There is an honesty to your pictures that suggests you are true to who you are. How do you keep humble after all the recognition?
Larry – I think my wife does it to me; she puts me down all the time! She says “You’re not that good, just work harder!” (laughs). Interestingly, travel photography tends to do better in magazines and publications because it’s a way for people to sell travel. And so these magazines and contests promote travel and things that allow them to make money. Some of my past wins were more about travel but my humanitarian work is not so publication friendly. And so now my platform to show work through magazines and contests is more limited because my images don’t fit that niche anymore. And my stuff is not ‘sensational’ for newspaper work. But even if my outlets are more limited, I am not going to change my humanitarian work to travel photography because it’s not what I like. The accolades are great but the biggest gift I get is the connection with the people I photograph; those memories are priceless.
oopoomoo – How do you maintain a passionate eye in situations where your heart pours out compassion?
Larry – To me, I do have a purpose when I go to these places. I have a goal in mind and so I am focused that way. And so when I photograph these people, even in very bad situations, I do try to remain objective. I connect with the people but I am there to do a job. After I am done, that’s when the emotions come out. When I am shooting I am focused on that. Afterwards, even hours later when looking at the photos or revisiting the people then the emotions surface. I am removed emotionally while shooting, I am analytical and concentrating on the moment, the light, the composition. At the end of the day it’s hopefully your compassion and connection that allows the image to come through. For instance, when I was in Nepal I saw a scene with a young boy and his mother and a collapsed building behind them. The boy looked up to the sky and I responded immediately to that moment. Afterwards, when looking at the photo my heart was pulled hard and so there is a separation between the shooting process and the emotional processing of the moment.
oopoomoo – After years of doing your humanitarian photography work has your sense of hope for humanity increased or decreased over the years?
Larry – Decreased! Working with NGOs the last several years and helping people one at a time here and there does make a slight small difference. I have to say it’s a little bit of a helpless situation. The situation in Nepal for example. The earthquake was natural, but when all of this aid comes in and none of it goes to the people; when there is an embargo from India and no gas or fuel goes to the country… it’s political. So, no matter how good you are as an NGO worker, volunteer, or organization, until the people are willing to make a change themselves, until the government is willing to be less corrupt and support the people, it’s not going to change. Corruption and greed is the root of all these problems. Until that changes progress can’t be made. Humanitarian photographers and volunteers do help because it is the best thing we think we can do on a small scale but we can’t change the government. Our support might be concrete to provide eye care or to support an educational facility that helps a small portion of people. One step at a time. But all in all, looking at the global picture, I have to say I am a little bit pessimistic, seeing it from the inside and the outside at the same time.
oopoomoo – Has your pessimism reduced your desire to continue?
Larry – Oh no, definitely not – it increases my desire to continue! If you are a photographer or artist of any sort, you have to push the boundaries a little bit. If you are not willing to push boundaries, you are not going to get far. You can’t use the same comfort zone to get to something better or different. The boundaries are political and economic: I am pushing against these. I am not going to make drastic changes but I must do my share.
Larry produced a 2016 calendar that had 100% of proceeds go to the efforts of Seva Canada for the elimination of avoidable blindness. The sale of the calendars raised $5500! To purchase any of Larry’s amazing prints please visit his website to find the photo(s) that you want and then contact Larry at email@example.com.
Thanks Larry for all you do!
Samantha and I have curated what we think are the top 15 images submitted by our awesome Newsletter subscribers. To be considered, subscribers tagged their image with #myoopoomoobest2015 as a request to be considered in this blog post. Some sent their image by email and some posted to the oopoomoo Creatives Facebook group. We encouraged people to submit one image that represented their best work based on the following 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.
We kept these guidelines in mind when choosing the photos for display here on the blog. It was a tough choice with over 100 images to choose from but the ones below best represented fresh seeing, original creative vision and good story-telling. So many images ‘almost’ made the cut and Sam and I wrestled and argued and debated the final 15. So, bruised and beaten, we present our choices. Enjoy and happy 2016!
Chris F Payant
Nathalie Kulin Greenwood
Samantha and I have written extensively on the oopoomoo blog about honouring your creative vision. To be an artist you need to follow your muse especially when outside forces always seem to want to sabotage your progress. For example, my output in photography was directed for years by the need to produce saleable images for stock photography. I shot things I normally would not be interested in and I learned how to make images which would please photo buyers. Once stock photography started to dry up (post 9-11), then money was to be made in providing tours and workshops to other photographers. The imagery I created was meant to entice participants to sign up for desirable destinations or to learn technique driven processes. My own development as an artist suffered. And so the time has come to allow my creative vision free reign of expression.
Samantha and I have taken the pressure off ourselves to produce work for others. We are not shooting for stock nor are we shooting to gather potential tour or workshop clients. Sam never really pursued these things anyway. Instead, we’re returning to photography purely as a creative outlet. Of course, giving up our successful and acclaimed workshop program means we have cut our income by about 1/3rd. But that is a small price to pay to go on a path of self-discovery. To finance our journey we have cut expenses and gotten part time jobs outside the world of photography. Our jobs are what we do to support ourselves as artists. We have decided to purposefully walk the pathway of creativity and see where it takes us. For too long we have been teaching others to do this but we haven’t done it ourselves. You’ll see oopoomoo stay true to its roots of create, inspire and educate through us sharing both our journey and, increasingly, the journeys of others – in fact, we make this adjustment in order to focus more clearly on this important aspect of photo sharing and story-telling. We have a great desire to help photographers be artists. And we welcome all creatives to share their discoveries and stories here on the oopomoo blog or in our oopoomoo Facebook group. Stay tuned!
To read part II of this post, Carving Out Time for Creativity, please go to this link.
In advance of our Scaretography: Halloween Light Painting Event on October 25, we thought we’d have a little tutorial on light painting so that you can try some spooky effects on your own at any time. We’ll be doing more fun things with flash at Scaretography than just light painting, but this should get you started!
What is Light Painting?
Light painting is a photographic technique in which pictures are made by moving a hand-held light source onto a subject while taking a long exposure photograph. The results are unpredictable and different each and every time which adds to the joy of discovery! I use a few simple steps to set up for light painting.
Back in the good ‘ole film days, getting around the reciprocity problem (the degradation of the film’s sensitivity with loss of light during exposure) required more advanced knowledge of exposure calculation. 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 easy light painting.
There are only a few simple steps I follow to set up for light painting. First, determine an appropriate subject. You will have to visualize how it will look lit up at dusk. It’s often best to select a single, prominent subject with a clean background. The point is to highlight the lit subject, not to capture a full landscape! Old vehicles in a grassy field, a lone skeletal tree, or a small barn work well for light painting. Often, I will only subtly paint the subject or select certain parts of the image (old tail lights on vehicles work well for this) to bring to life with the flashlight.
Second, buy appropriate flashlights. You will need at least one, and often two is better. Click the flashlight on and evaluate the type of light it provides. Is it a hot, small white light from a compact handheld? Or is it a yellow, larger, less focused light from a big tungsten flashlight? I like to shoot with warmer hued lights with one-million candle power or more. With newer LED lights take a yellow or orange gel and tape it over the light to give a warm glow against the cobalt blue dusk. Having your white balance set to ‘daylight’ or ‘sunny’ will also return a pleasing warm/cool contrast. Ensure that your flashlights are fully charged! (Everyone makes this mistake at least once.)
Third, head out to your subject in the evening before it becomes dusk. You want plenty of light so that you can walk around your subject and determine the most interesting composition. Usually, depending on how early you start and on how light the sky stays during the shoot, only one or two compositions will be taken. It is very difficult to compose and focus as it gets darker, so determine the best composition and set up your camera before it’s dusk. Once focus is achieved, switch to manual focus so your camera will not hunt to focus in the dark. Use a polarizer to help darken the sky. A polarizer will also allow you to start shooting a bit earlier as they remove one to two stops of light. 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, then don’t move the camera or tripod during the session!
How do you know when to start taking pictures? Ideally, you will want to take pictures when the ambient light is the same intensity as the sky. But what does this look like? First, determine which direction you are shooting. If your camera is pointing away from the sunset, you may notice that the sky in that direction is darker than the sky just above where the sun went down. This means that you will be able to start shooting sooner if your camera is pointing in that direction than if your camera was pointing toward the sunset. If you have no sky in your picture, then you will need to evaluate the ambient light compared to the sky in general. One trick is to look at your subject and squint your eyes a bit. If the light on your subject seems as bright as the sky, then it’s time to take your first exposure. If the light around your subject still seems a bit brighter than your subject, it may still be too early for a light painting.
When the ambient light and the sky seem about equal in intensity, set your camera to bulb function so that you can have exposures longer than 30 seconds (the longest the shutter will stay open on a camera on shutter or aperture priority setting). Leave your aperture at f16 or f11 to start, although you may have to select a wider aperture like f8 later as it gets darker. Take an exposure at 30 seconds, and press playback to check your histogram (if you don’t know how to view the histogram of the image, refer to your camera’s manual). A histogram is a graph that shows the tonal values of a photograph. Knowing how to read the histogram is the most important part of light painting! You want the image to be properly exposed so that you have enough data when you process the image to avoid noise that results from an underexposed file. A ‘good’ histogram should have most of the data in the centre or centre-right of the graph without any data jamming up against either end of the graph. This is because digital cameras record more information in the brighter tones of the spectrum (represented by the right hand side of the graph) and record less data in dark tones. If your histogram shows data jammed at one or both ends, then data is being lost through clipping: the tonal range of the exposure is too great for the camera to record. If all the data is in the graph, but appears to be concentrated on the left side of the graph, the image is likely slightly underexposed. The actual shape of the graphed data does not matter for our purposes, and it also does not matter if data spikes through the top of the histogram.
The biggest mistake most photographers make when light painting is to take the image, look at the back of their LCD and determine that the exposure is fine because the LCD display looks good. But don’t be fooled! The display you are seeing is not the actual photograph you just took; it’s your camera’s best guess, represented in a small jpeg image, of what your final image will look like. This is why it’s critical to look at the histogram to determine if you have not underexposed your dusk image. On the LCD, the image may look too bright, but ignore this. When you process the image, it will come out looking as your eye saw it at the time.
If at 30 seconds, the data is jammed to the right on the histogram, wait until it gets darker and take another test shot. If the data is contained within the histogram and centre or centre-right, then you are ready to start light painting. Take another exposure of 30 seconds but this time aim your flashlight on your subject. You will want to pass the beam of the flashlight in an even manner over the areas you wish lit up in the 30 second time frame. (If 30 seconds is not enough time for you to pass the flashlight over the areas you wish to cover, wait until it gets darker for a longer exposure time). To avoid hot spots where the flashlight was held too long in one spot, twist your wrist in small circles as you paint and wiggle the beam over the entire surface to be painted. When your 30 seconds is up, check your histogram to ensure all the data is in and slightly balanced to the center or center right without going off either end of the graph. If the subject is too brightly lit by the flashlight, then paint for less than the full exposure time. Continue a few exposures at 30 seconds to get a variety of images to work with back home. The beauty of a light painted image is that no two are the same!
As the light dims, you will quickly find that 30 seconds is not enough time to expose your subject properly. Since you are on the bulb setting, you can keep the shutter open as long as you like (either on timer or with a locking mechanism on a cable release). As soon as 30 seconds produces a histogram that is becoming biased to the left (that is, underexposed), you will need to let in more light. A handy rule of thumb is to double your exposure time. Try a 60-second exposure and check your histogram. As the light continues to dim, double your exposure time if needed for the next photograph. There is no hard and fast rule; the trick is to interpret the histogram and adjust your exposure time as the histogram shows the image is becoming underexposed. When you are up to 4 minutes exposure time, you may wish to dial your aperture to f11 or f8 (if depth of field is not critical) to let even more light into the camera. You can keep shooting as long as you like, but keep in mind at some point the ambient light will not be strong enough to record behind your subject and separate it from the background. This is why light painting works best at dusk or dawn and not when it’s dark out. For long-exposure effects, look for wind-blown grasses or moving clouds. With this easy method, I get consistent results without having to bother with calculations (math is nasty!) or lugging around extra gear.
Over at the oopoomoo Facebook Group we encourage people to share those photos they initially passed over but when viewed over and over pass the test of time. You know, images that are OK when freshly made but like a fine scotch they get better and better with age.
Below Sam and I present a batch of finely aged images from our photography friends and clients. If you want to participate, just join our fun and friendly group and post your #sleepersundays photos and maybe you’ll see them appear here in a month or two in installment #3!
Congrats everyone on amazing imagery!
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.
In Canada, summer is the time for camping. I know this because I just looked up availability to one of our fave, local campgrounds to find there was only one spot left out of hundreds. Apparently all of Calgary has already headed out there. And this was for camping mid-week! Usually, one of the perks of being self-employed is that you can set your own hours. In the summer this means leaving home early to arrive at a campsite and register before all those other poor schmucks can get off work and drive out there. Not anymore! Alberta’s pre-registration system has made the whole process more egalitarian if less impromptu.
But this is not a rant about Alberta Parks. No, I thought instead, if I can’t get out camping, at least we can have a little campfire fun so to speak on the blog. My question for you is, what was the eeriest moment you ever had camping out in the great big wild? Share in a comment here on the blog – and even better, a pic (if you were brave enough to get one)!
Now gather round, and I’ll tell you one of mine…it happened when Darwin and I were traveling through Yukon Territory several years ago. We were way up north on one of Canada’s most infamous roads: the Dempster Highway. Known for potholes big enough to swallow a small car, sharp rocks and frost heaves, it is not a journey undertaken lightly or by the uninformed. The weather can also be a bit extreme. The shots in this post are from that visit August 21, 2008. As you can see, we are well into fall colours during our little trip.
My campfire story doesn’t involve a campfire, but it does involve a campground. After hours of driving, we’d managed to reach Engineer Creek Campground where we decided to stop for lunch. Mother nature had been tempermental all day with bursts of sunshine peeking through menacing clouds and fog. We pulled into the campground and found it quite charming with its black rock roads contrasting with fresh yellow leaves. Charming…but quite deserted. There was not a single soul in the place!
We were not deterred and got out our lunch stuff. This involved firing up our small portable cook stove to make a warm lunch. We each set about our tasks of preparing lunch (me chopping veg, Darwin trying to get the stove to work). Pretty soon we noticed though that there didn’t even seem to be birds in this campground, or if there were, they weren’t making a peep.
I think that’s when I started to get a little creeped out.
“Hey Darwin,” I said. “Don’t you think it’s awfully quiet here?”
Darwin looked up from fiddling with the stove. “Come to think of it, where is everybody?” It was later in the day on a very long, lonely road – no one was planning on staying the night here? We kept on prepping lunch but both of us would peer into the dense foliage from time to time. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched whenever I turned my back on the woods. Surreptitiously, I kept my bear spray nearby on the table. We ate facing opposite sides of the forest, not talking much and keeping an eye out.
Well, sorry to say no yeti strode out of the shrubbery and sat down to lunch with us that day. I’m pretty sure something was out there though – usually you get the heebie-jeebies in your tent, in the dark, after a good round of scary stories. But this was during the day, in a beautiful place that we were lucky enough to have all to ourselves. Even our dog, Brando didn’t seem as excited as usual to go for a walk. If there was a critter eyeing us with intent, we never saw or heard it. By mutual agreement we decided not to camp there – or even spend another minute – and pressed on a little further up the Dempster before turning back and beginning our long journey homeward. I shuddered as we drove past the campground on our way back. It still seemed as we drove by as silent as the grave.