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.
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.
A cornerstone of what we do at oopoomoo is to teach the art and craft of photography through our eBooks, talks and workshops. In the last year we were fortunate enough to speak at over 18 events and visit interesting and diverse places, from Antarctica to Saskatchewan. We learned a few things in this past year’s journey…. First and foremost, Canada’s natural areas are world-class and rival any so-called ‘exotic’ destination (and deserve our unswerving protection) and second, Canadians are awesome in their outlook on photography and life! Lest this article descend into a back-thumping, self-congratulatory affair on how cool Canada is, we do need to raise a point of concern. After speaking at all these events in one year, well, you’re bound to spot common patterns emerging as your students learn how to be better photographers. What we found is that, no matter where you call home, there are five mis-steps most photographers make that keep their images from being great. We’ve distilled down a year’s worth of teaching into five fatal flaws that keep your photographs ho-hum rather than huzzah! So read on to learn how to avoid these five mis-steps so you can get your own, unique ‘photography groove’ on.
Yes, this is an official photography term. (In fact, we’re thinking of trademarking the idea because it appears to be so ‘popular’ in so many photographers’ images!) What on earth is a pokie, you ask? Think of those teeny little bits that jut just barely into your image frame. They commonly take earthly form as twigs, stones or even small, bright or dark blobs. You clearly didn’t see them at the time you made the shot because they are just as clearly detracting from your image. Pokies always appear accidental. Sure, you can crop a pokie out…except when a crop will ruin the balance of your composition. In the end, we tell our students that it’s always best to catch and kill a pokie in the field by recomposing your image rather than opt for surgery to remove the foreign growth in post-processing.
Mergies are pokies’ evil twin. Except mergies are much harder to get rid of – and this is why we don’t recommend the ‘easy out’ of cropping away your mistakes later on at the computer. Mergies exist where two visual elements connect or meet by touching or overlapping in some way. Humans are wired to find and perceive connections where visual elements like shapes or lines meet. Note we’re not talking about when you deliberately overlap objects, for example to establish perspective, but an accidental joining of two separate visual elements. Mergies are perceived by your viewer as a mistake and, just like pokies, they call attention to themselves when they really aren’t worth looking at. So keep them out of your images!
Colour over Content
How many of you have somewhat recklessly swung the hue and saturation sliders in Photoshop or Lightroom, or upped the grunge factor in an HDR program? Five months later, are you still as impressed with yourself? If not, you may be suffering the problem of relying on colour saturation over compositional prowess. Images with bold colour are beautiful, but they should still have coherent compositions. Does your image ‘Stand the Test of Time’? Of course, ‘art’ can be very subjective – if you like it, keep on doing it! But if you like to share your images with others, the photograph should have a sound compositional basis; while humans are physiologically wired to respond to vibrant colour, a great image is still free of compositional flaws. If you’re guilty of a heavy trigger finger on ‘ornamental’ tricks that are more about the processing technique than the actual subject matter of the image, consider giving everyone’s eyes a break and learn a little restraint. You will be forced to compose better if you do.
So far, so good right? You’ve graduated beyond pokies, have navigated your composition successfully around mergies, and passed through the adolescent phase of psychedelic colours over sound compositions. You are a master! But wait… what is that? A viewer, lost, wandering without hope or GPS in your image’s midground! Oh no!
All too often – and this mostly applies to wide angle landscapes – we invite our viewers into our image with a big, fat WELCOME mat of a foreground and entice them to move toward a pretty mountain or looming canyon in the distance. But we forget to pack a map, and they end up lost in a jumbled pile of rock or fall through a watery hole in our image’s midground. A finely composed image takes into account fore, back and mid ground and ties the three together using elements of visual design such as line, pattern and shape. This is what we tell our students: “Every single speck of dirt in your photo, every grain of sand, should belong there – and not one particle more.” Reach for this in your compositions.
And finally, the Big One. You clicked the shutter because you saw something (literally and figuratively). But that photograph will have a life of its own: it’s going to leave home and grow up to be a big, Grownup Image. Ideally, it should be able to stand on its own two feet without you there, hovering at its shoulder, explaining what the image is supposed to be about. We’ve felt the pain of workshop participants who can’t help but jump in to explain their shot after a puzzled silence during class critiques. But whether viewers find what you hoped they would (and part of letting go is allowing people to find their own meaning in your images), they do have to find something. The ‘story’ or idea can be simple – the delicate curve of a rosebud can be a complete idea – or quite layered and complicated. But having the message of your image fail is another common conundrum as we learn how to convey complete ideas with only the rough tools we have at hand – plastic, glass, light… and our creative force. You don’t want your child to be the misfit that no one understands! Listen to feedback from others. Often, we’re trying to tell too many things in one image and the viewer ends up confused or, worse, bored. Simplify. Keep throwing things out of your image until only one, clear message comes across. Never underestimate the power of one grain of sand.
So there you have it! If you eliminate these five, common mis-steps along the path of creative development, you can focus more on honing your skill at telling truly unique and memorable stories or ideas in your images. Eliminate these five fatal flaws and you’ll be well on your way to artful compositions with meaning!
When I was a kid one of my favorite things to do was to head out in the woods alone and sit quietly and look around. I would see and hear birds and squirrels going about their daily business. I would watch ants carry loads three times their body size. I would marvel at the architectural wonder of a spider web. The miniature world of the forest floor came alive when I lay down and looked at it at ground level. In short, everything around me was fascinating and magical. As a six-year-old it seemed the perfect job for me would be a forest ranger so I could watch and guard all the animals and plants I loved.
I followed a path of learning about nature through school and university and got a Master’s degree in biology. But making a living as a biologist was more about people and politics than it was about being in the field with the animals. The dream of the six-year old was shattered. Why couldn’t I just hang out in the woods and watch critters and get paid for it?
In university, as part of my studies, I needed to take pictures to add visuals to my presentations on my studies to obtain grants. I soon discovered that photography allowed me to be that wonder-struck six-year-old once again. With photography I could photograph the birds and the squirrels and the ants and the lichen-covered forest floor and take home that amazement in the form of photos. I was hooked! This ability to record my amazement of the natural world remains at the heart of why I still love photography today. Photography is a way I connect with myself in the natural world. I don’t need photography to be amazed, but photography allows me to record my amazement and relive it every time I look at my photos.
The other thing I love about photography is that to do it well you need to learn how to see. You learn to remove labels from things and just see the way that light plays across a subject. You learn how to organize this interplay of light into an aesthetic display of design and composition. In short, learning to see helps you be an artist and being an artist gives you the depth to see the beauty in the everyday.
The longer I am in photography, the better I learn to see and the less I need novel or fresh experiences to feed my amazement. Indeed, I get more amazed now by being able to artistically render ‘something from nothing’. I love discovering the magic in the mundane, and seeing amazement in the overlooked. I am less interested in the obvious and the easy grab shot. I am keen to continue to explore seeing deeper and more personally. And so photography for me has not lost its challenge because photography is so much more than equipment or technical mastery. I think those who get bored with photography were in it for the wrong reasons (the gear, the cool factor, the technical challenge) and not for deeper ‘feeding the soul’ reasons.
I also like that photography with all the advancements in technology has made it easier to make photos that are about personal expression. If you shoot from your heart and are true to yourself then you can make images that truly represent your connection with the world. More and more the cameras are taking care of the technical stuff so we need less concentration on that aspect of the craft and we can have more concentration on the artistic side of photography. For many photographers, the love of gear and technique gets in the way of personal expression but once that geek adoration is outgrown, then we can move on to make images that reflect who we are and what we are interested in. I like that photography can become art if we allow ourselves to become artists. And I am enjoying becoming an artist as an adult just like I was when I was six-years old!
What is it that keeps you in love with photography? Share your thoughts below in the comments!
Myth 1: Serious Nature Photographers Shoot in Manual Mode
Photography Instructor: “What does the ‘M’ setting on your camera represent?”
Student: “It stands for manual.”
Photography Instructor: “Yes it does, but what ‘M’ really stands for is ‘Master’; once you learn to use manual mode you will be the master of the camera!”
Oh puleeeeze! In this case ‘M’ stands for moron!
When a student is taught to use manual, he most often has no idea why or what he’s doing. He twiddles the aperture and shutter speed dials until the light meter returns an average or ‘proper exposure’. Instead of thinking in advance of the creative effects aperture and shutter speed provide, and what the photographer wishes for a given image, the shooter is just turning the dials willy-nilly to get an exposure. Sound familiar? It’s hard to be the master of anything without first understanding, one by one, what aperture, shutter speed and ISO do to the look of your photo.
The vast majority of creative nature photographers we know use aperture and shutter priority modes instead of manual. A creative photographer purposely picks an aperture for a specific effect (aperture priority mode) and the camera automatically picks a corresponding shutter speed for proper exposure. Or the creative photographer picks a shutter speed effect (shutter priority) and the camera automatically picks an aperture for proper exposure. The key here is that the photographer tells the camera what aperture or shutter speed effect she wants. The camera, like a good slave, does the rest! Now that is ‘mastery’. If the shooter does not like the exposure recommended by the camera, she can simply lighten or darken the picture using exposure compensation. Now the photographer is truly the creative boss of the camera!
Of course, there is a time and a place for using manual mode. For example, we use it when making panorama stitches to make sure each picture in the series is exposed exactly the same for easier blending in post-production software. But even in manual mode a specific aperture or shutter speed setting is chosen first and then we manually dial in the other variable for the exposure we want. The best way to master your camera is to learn the effects of aperture using aperture priority mode and the effects of shutter speed using shutter priority mode. For both aperture and shutter speed there are really only three different ‘creative effects’ you need to learn for each and we cover those in our Photography Fundamentals eBook bundle.
Myth 2: Without Good Light, You’ll Only Take Bad Photos
Nature photographers have been told that the best light is during the golden hour, the light that occurs one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset because the light is warmer and softer than when the sun is burning bright high in the sky. And yes, photos made during this ‘magic light’ can be exquisite especially given subjects that look beautiful in this light. For many nature photographers, if there is no sunrise or sunset (such as an overcast day), then there is no point going out because the light is bad for good photos.
If you know anything about us here at oopoomoo, you know that our favorite saying is “There’s no such thing as bad light – just bad photographers”. We wrote an entire article about this myth and our strategies to deal with so-called bad light. No matter what the light you’re given, there’s always something that’ll look great in that light! Our job as photographers is to learn to see the opportunities in any lighting situation and to not shut out potentially great images due to silly rules.
Myth 3: Photographers Who Shoot in Raw Format are More Advanced than Photographers Who Shoot in JPEG Format
The myth here is that advanced and professional photographers shoot Raw while amateurs shoot JPEG. Ha!
We know plenty of creative and professional photographers who shoot JPEG especially on assignment when there is a tight deadline to hand over the photos. Lots of wedding, portrait and journalism pros shoot JPEG and they do the most they can to get it ‘right in camera’. Fewer nature photographers shoot JPEG and we think it’s probably a good thing because many of them have no idea how to get a good capture in the camera! Shooting Raw gives nature photographers the flexibility to ‘fix’ mistakes made in exposure, lighting, white balance, framing and composition in post production. Shooting JPEG means they would have had to perfect the capture in-camera. Shooting JPEG is like shooting slide film: there is little room for error and you need to know what you are doing behind the camera. Many Raw shooters just massage the heck out their pictures in post-production to make the poorly captured images look better.
In our workshops when we give an assignment we make everyone shoot in JPEG format so that we can see what their true skills are behind the camera. Shooting in JPEG levels the playing field. Man, you should hear the complaining from the Raw shooters about having to shoot JPEG! And guess what, their lack of skill and thought behind the camera is clearly revealed when they are forced to hand over JPEGs straight from the camera. People used to shooting in JPEG format do much better work on our assignments than those who rely on the flexibility of Raw to fix their mistakes.
It takes more photographic skill to make a good JPEG capture than it does to shoot Raw. Don’t believe us? Then try shooting JPEG yourself. Would you show and share the JPEG photos you captured in the camera or does the idea of not being able to do post-production work on your images make you cringe? We discuss even more myths about Raw vs. JPEG in this post.
Myth 4: Real Nature Photographers Use a Tripod
Tripods allow photographers the flexibility to use any aperture or shutter speed they want and not introduce hand-held blur. To get the sharpest pictures that your camera and lens combination is capable of, you’ll need to use a sturdy tripod. As well, tripods allow you to make fine tweaks in composition not easily done when hand-holding. All in all, serious photography demands a tripod. Right? Well, we thought that too.
One time we had a workshop participant come on one of our offerings and during the introductions he said, “I don’t use a tripod, I know I am supposed to but I don’t, so please don’t bug me about it!”
“Hmmm… do we have some lessons to teach this guy!” we thought. Well, the lessons was for us! During the portfolio review we expected this guy’s photos to be lacking. Instead we were stunned by the creativity we saw. Don’t believe us? The person in question was Mark Wainer, go to his website to be amazed by what you can do without a tripod.
Another favorite example of creativity without a tripod comes from Michael Orton. Don’t be quick to pass judgement when you see someone hand-holding their camera!
Myth 5 – Serious Photographers Shoot with Serious Gear!
Whenever people find out that we’re professional photographers, the first question we get is about the gear we own. Then they tell us that they are into photography too but need to buy a better camera because their current camera doesn’t take good enough pictures. When asked what camera they own, it’s usually newer and ‘better’ than the ones we are using! And so, no matter how often photographers hear “it’s not the gear, it’s how you use it”, nobody really believes it. The answer is always more megapixels, newer features, and the highest end cameras. During our recent trip to Antarctica almost everyone owned the most expensive top end camera models from Nikon, and Canon. And the vast majority of these people were running their cameras on fully automatic! They didn’t know aperture from Adam or shutter speed from Steve. How can you be creative if don’t understand the creative controls of your camera?
There’s a trend among many of our professional peers to ditch the big professional cameras in favour of smaller, lighter point-n-shoot or mirrorless cameras. All these cameras offer the flexibility of good image quality in a small size but with all the controls a creative photographer needs. As well, travelling with a small camera keeps your load light, makes you less conspicuous to theft or prying authority and keeps you flexible to capture great moments because you always have your camera with you. In the end, many of our peers feel more creative with small cameras than they do when they have to haul out the big guns. Owning the latest and greatest top end camera may get you ooh’s and aah’s from other camera geeks, but it’s doubtful your pictures will improve. Art comes from within. Invest in learning, practice and seeing before investing in gear.
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.
This article was originally published in Outdoor Photography Canada magazine several years ago. Be sure to subscribe to see the latest work from great photographers across Canada.
Chasing the Icon
Photographers are like birders. For a lot of birders, what matters most is the sighting of a species so you can check off that bird from your list. The more species sighted the better. The same is true for many photographers; the number of iconic locations captured adds notches to your photography belt. Taj Mahal? Got it! Delicate Arch? Nabbed! Niagara Falls? You bet! But does a portfolio full of the grand wonders of the World make you a better photographer? I doubt it.
The internet has made finding, knowing and sharing information about photo locations very easy. Do a little research, look at a few photos online and you’ll know exactly where and when to go get the best sighting. And once you get to an icon you’ll line up with hundreds of other photographers all trying to make the same shot. What’s the point?
In the past, the portfolios of photographers were full of work from lesser known local areas, and the images showed more creative vision because people were shooting for themselves and not trying to copy someone else’s iconic image. In short, there was a personal stamp on each photographer’s work because they were reacting to the scene personally.
Fast forward to the app-driven ‘iPhotography’ world of today and everything looks the same. In the portfolios I review, I see all the same trophy locations, with similar compositions, all processed with the same software plug-ins. The results are homogenous and boring. What has happened to personal expression?
I think what’s happened is that we’ve lost touch with why we go out to make photos in the first place. For most of us who do nature photography, we go out because we want to connect with nature. The more we actually take the time, look around and be in nature, the better our photography will be. A National Geographic photographer once said that the way to get good enough to work for the magazine was to choose one subject or location, preferably close to home, that you can revisit over and over again and really get to know well. The better you know the subject or location, the deeper you’ll dig to create unique images with your personal stamp. And the more your personal style emerges, the more likely you’ll be sought after by the magazine.
For me, I’ve found that when I travel if I just visit one or two spots and concentrate on getting to know those locations, then my photography soars. If I chase icons and try to capture as many locations as possible, then my photography and the experience of the trip is unremarkable. So, just like the birder who specializes in one or two species and has a depth of knowledge and personal experience with those species, so too will the photographer who moves beyond the icon checklist encourage a deeper engagement and portrayal of their subjects.
This week we are hosting our Beyond the Icon: Intimate Landscapes of the Canadian Rockies photography workshop where we’ll help our participants bring out their creative vision. I am sure we’ll be blown away by the images made during this workshop as each photographer digs into their well of personal seeing. If you have time this November and you are interested in an intensive creative learning experience we do have a couple of spots left in our Fire and Ice in the Canadian Rockies workshop where we’ll visit the edges of fall and winter in a time when few photographers visit the Rockies. Nothing inspires creativity more than having to look beyond the obvious and November always pushes us to see deeper.
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.
This article was previously published in Outdoor Photography Canada (OPC) one year ago. The newest issue of OPC is a visual treat and we highly recommend a subscription if you love outdoor and nature photography!
We know a lot of photographers who only dig out the camera when they travel. It’s easy to understand why. Most of us are inspired by a change in scenery and travel gives us that needed change plus a good dose of visual novelty. Fresh views open our eyes. We are no longer blinded by our contempt for the familiar like we are at home. We see photos everywhere!
But relying on novel experiences to bring out the creative eye is like relying on drugs to make you happy. Once the drug wears off you are miserable… and then to feel good again you need an even higher dose of the drug. For travel-addicted photographers one exotic trip begets another even more exotic trip. To see ‘fresh’, the travel-addicted photographer needs a higher dose of novelty. Soon the photographer gets jaded because they have seen it all.
To get off the roller coaster rush of travel as a forced way of seeing, my partner Samantha and I think that photographers should adopt the 100-Mile diet. Just like the food version where you try to source most of your nutrition locally, the 100-Mile Diet for Photographers asks you to source the bulk of your visual inspiration locally. Doing so will force you to see the magic in the mundane, make something from nothing and grow as a visual artist. You’ll learn to make compelling images of things most people would not even notice. And here is the hidden perk: if you can make evocative images of the everyday world around you, then what will happen when you travel to a new location? Your images will soar because you already have the skills to make great images anywhere. You’ll see the travel destination with the freshest eyes making images that go beyond the clichéd and predictable. Your images will have your unique stamp on them. What could be better?
So how do you start the 100-Mile Diet for Photographers? Easy. Just get out into your neighborhood, local parks, natural areas, the mall, the main street of town or wherever your life takes you day to day. Pretend you are a visitor from a foreign country or an alien from outer space. What you used to take for granted visually, now becomes inexplicable and intriguing. Don’t judge; just shoot anything that catches your eye. Keep it to the details. Visit frequently. It helps to have a small portable camera like a digital point-n-shoot or even your smartphone. You won’t want to be lugging around your giant bag of lenses to the local coffee shop!
A 100-mile Diet helps you develop the essential skills of ‘learning to see’ that seem to elude so many photographers. Both Samantha and I have travelled around the world and photographed incredible places. But it wasn’t until we gave the same respect and attention to our own neighbourhoods that we saw improvement in our creative skills. We believe this skill is so essential (yet so overlooked) that we created a workbook called Learning to See with plenty of fun exercises to get you flexing your artistic muscle! So don’t rely on ‘exciting’ subjects or iconic destinations to make images that in the end have often been done before. Learn to ‘see’ the wonders in your own backyard for a lifetime of creative photography.