Friday, May 29, 2009

Photographic Intensity

I ummed and aahed about what to title this post. Mainly because words like intensity tend to scare people away. And I certainly don't want to scare any of you away. Maybe determination would have been a better word? No intensity says what I want to say, which is this...

It seems to be a product of our modern age that we're all sold things based on how easy they're supposed to be. Become an expert photographer in 10 easy steps, start your own photography business over night, learn Photoshop in a day.

One thing they all tend to neglect is this word - intensity. They forget that one of the most important factors in really great photography is intensity. Intensity of purpose, intensity of desire (to create a great image) and intensity of will. Now I don't mean that when you're out photographing you'll be walking around with a scowl on your face because you're so serious! Hell I've usually got such a big smile on my dial because I'm having a ball. I'm exactly where I want to be.

But don't let the smile trick you into believing that I'm not intensely concentrated on what I'm trying to do. I am where I am because I want to capture a beautiful moment in time. And it's this moment in time bit that led to me writing this post.

I see quite a few amateur pictures through opportunities I have to judge competitions, people who when they know I'm a photographer show me their work and looking at lots of magazines. One thing I always notice is that often people settle for second best without pushing themselves that little bit farther to get a really fantastic image.

Now in this case I'm not talking about technique, composition or anything like that. I'm talking about waiting for the right time. I've spoken about light a lot on this blog because in travel photography it is possibly the most important element. You can photograph the most spectacular landscape in the world but if it's the wrong time of day it'll just be a snapshot.

Take this image above. Now it was shot on film so there's no metadata to be found, but if there was you'd see that it was taken at about 3:50 in the morning. If it could talk it would tell you that the photographer (that'd be little old me accompanied by my father-in-law!) got out of a nice warm bed at 2:30 in the morning and drove there. We then stood around in the freezing cold and waited until the sun started to come up.

That's an intensity of purpose. I had been there the afternoon before and gotten some nice shots but they were the same as everybody else's. The light was nice but nothing spectacular. And that's where a lot of people stop, satisfied for the moment until they take a look at their images later and wonder if they could have done better. What I'm saying is that if you really want to go the next step. If you really want to improve your photography, then you need a little intensity.

You need to realistically look at your images and decide if they are the best they can be. Putting issues of technique, composition etc aside, were they made at the best time of day? Would a different time of year be better? Would the scene look better at sunrise? Sunset? When it's raining? This harks back to what I've been talking this week about knowing the why of your images.

One of the most often heard phrases I hear is. "it's not as beautiful as I remember". And often it's got nothing to do with the technique or composition which are spot on. It has to do with the time of day. There is no right or wrong time of day but every photographic subject has a best time of day. If you really want to push the limits of your image making then I would encourage you to gather a little intensity and really set yourself a goal of capturing something as well as you possibly can, and to not stop until you are absolutely thrilled with the job.

Once you learn to do that you'll find yourself wanting to do it in everything you do photographically and before you know it you will be producing images that blow people away. Remember that it's not a race to see how many images you can make during your lifetime. It's a determined effort to produce a series of really knock-out images and that takes a different mindset.

Intensity. There it is, I've said it. Hope I didn't scare anybody away and I'll see you next week. Any and all comments greatly appreciated. :)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I don't have anything to say...

Sure you do, you just haven't worked out what it is yet. Yesterday I spoke a little bit about the why of photography - why you want to capture an image of something. Lately in travel photography there tends to be a trend towards images that tell us more about the computer skills of the photographer than they do the actual subject. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against computer manipulation and creating art in Photoshop. But it ain't me. I like my visuals to tell me something I don't already know about the subject, to make me feel something about what I'm seeing.

I guess I come from a traditional, story-telling style of photography and that's where I feel most comfortable both in the work I produce and the work I admire and buy (my house is a virtual photographic book library, not to mention a collection of thousands of National Geographics going back to 1918!)

The images I really admire, and the ones I try to emulate as much as possible, are the ones where it's pretty obvious what impressed the photographer. Seeing as I live surrounded by the rainforest let's take it from a rainforest point of view.

What do I want people to know about my experience in the rainforest, to feel when they look at my photographs? Well firstly, as I sit down beside this little stream I enjoy the sound of the water flowing over the rocks and the peaceful sound it brings. So I want to include some of the river. I love the rich, thick, green canopy that lies over everything so I definitely want to show that.

But I also love the fact that the wind can blow things into little nooks and crannies to create patterns on a tree trunk that wouldn't normally be there creating a peaceful little scene. So I guess the theme I'm going for is one of tranquility with a sense of the harmony of nature.

So now we know what we want to say we have to figure out how. Firstly our river. Knowing that a fast shutter speed freezes the motion of the water but a slow one gives it that lovely, peaceful cotton candy look I choose a slower shutter speed.

By showing some green at the top, but not showing where it finishes, I give a sense of it continuing on for a long way in all directions and really covering the landscape. And by focussing on my little leaf on the log in the foreground I give a sense of nature's natural compositions (no I didn't put it there you cynics!).

So composition taken care of I then have to think about how much I want in focus. Well considering everything in the viewfinder is important I need everything in focus - which calls for a small aperture. I also know that on a sunny day there would be too much contrast to capture all this detail so I need to time my visit for a cloudy day so that I can record the vision I have in my head.

So you can see that I've used what's in front of me to say what I want to say without the need for manipulating anything in the computer. What I have manipulated is the time of day I photographed the scene, the lens I used and the composition I used. But through all those choices the actual subject is what shines through. There's no looking at the image and thinking 'wow I wonder how the photographer did that?'. Instead I hope you think 'wow that's a lovely place, the photographer must have really liked it. It looks very peaceful, I'd like to sit down next to that stream and take it all in.'

So don't think that you need to get all Photoshop-heavy to put a personal touch to your images and show what you want to say. Your subject is quite adept at helping you take images that show your feelings towards your subject - all you have to do is have the image in your mind of why you want to photograph something, pick the applicable time to be there and rely on that old favourite - technique and technology.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The why of photography

Coming up at the end of next month I'm teaching a travel photography course here in Cairns. The one thing I love about teaching is discovering other people's reasons for loving photography and helping them overcome any learning hurdles they might have.

Because I run the classes with small numbers I really want to help each student and have them coming away having learnt what they want or felt they needed to improve.

At the start of the course I usually go around the room and ask the students what it is they hope to learn during our time together. 9 times out of 10 it's a new technique or something to do with the technology. There's something about the gadgetry in photography that either bamboozles the hell out of us or thrills us. Learning what a new button does, or how this gizmo works makes us feel like we're improving.

Unfortunately technical skill alone doesn't make a great image (c'mon deep in your hearts you all knew that). There's always been two parts to photography - the technical side and the artistic side. The problem is that you can't really have one without the other. You can have a great idea for a photograph but without the technical knowledge to transform that idea into a photograph you're out of luck.

But it's the other way that concerns me more, and is something I think a lot of photographers forget. You can be the most technically proficient photographer in the world, know the precise diameter of every aperture in your lens, the serial numbers of every filter you own and the perfect shutter speed to freeze any kind of motion. But why do you know this stuff? To what end?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that in order for all the technical knowledge to mean something, you have to know what you're trying to say. What you want your image to shout to the viewer. And for that to work you have to know in your heart the art you want to create.

A question I often get asked is 'what should I photograph?' Believe me, if you don't know the answer then there is no teacher in the world who can tell you. It has to come from within. So before you get stuck on what aperture or shutter speed you should be using spare a couple of seconds to think why you want to take a certain photograph. What it is you think is beautiful/astounding/amazing about your subject. Then when you have figured that you'll find that the technical stuff will come a lot easier.

I chose the image above because it illustrates everything that can go wrong technically. Because it was so dark in the polar bear exhibit at the Asahiyama Zoo in Hokkaido, Japan, I needed a really slow shutter speed. That meant that not only was the movement of the polar bear blurred, but I couldn't even handhold it steady enough to stop my son from blurring. This is an image that would get rejected on technical grounds for sure. But for some reason it works. You can see the look of extreme concentration on my little boy's face, the polar bear is entirely within the frame and the overall blue makes for a nice effect. Sometimes you can have all the wrong technique and it still works. Go figure.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Monday's Links

Hi everybody,

I thought today that I might post a few links to other travel photographers that I think have some really beautiful work you might like to check out.

The first one is Gavin Gough, a fellow Lonely Planet Images photographer who I just recently discovered. He has posted some beautiful stuff from Nepal that I think is really nice.

Another recent discovery is Matt Brandon over at the Digital Trekker. Based in South Asia he has a lot of stuff from the part of the world that I love. He recently interviewed the wonderful Bob Krist.

I've also recently discovered David duChemin who writes a blog called the Pixelated Image, and has just released a book on travel photography called Within The Frame. I've ordered my copy from Amazon and am looking forward to sitting down and having a read.

And of course I couldn't leave off without mentioning all-round nice guy and fantastic travel photographer Bob Krist. With his mixture of sardonic wit, incisive travel tips and amazing images this is the place to go.

Now I hope you're still going to drop by here every day for your fix of Paul Dymond-type travel photography but what kind of a blogger would I be if I didn't point you in the direction of some other great stuff out there. It's all about karma people, just passing it forward. :)