Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What do you see?

What do you see? Seems a simple question at first glance, doesn't it?
As a photographer, this is obviously a question present in my mind almost constantly. It happened to come to the fore recently when someone was looking at a photograph I had just taken of the Great South Bay. After gazing at the image for a few moments, they wanted to know what the location of the subject was. I responded by describing where the photograph was taken from and the specific area covered within the frame. But, being me, the exchange prompted a new train of thought.

Was this persons perception limited to the physical reality of the photograph? Could they only see the wonderful color of the reflected light off the breeze kissed water, the strip of land in the distance? I will never know in this particular instance, but it is all but certain that this is the case for some people. All they see is the immediate reality before them. I suppose in some ways this is a good thing as it insures, at least to some degree, that they are engaged in the moment.

The photograph can still work on this level, but if it doesn't trigger more in the mind of the viewer it probably isn't working as the photographer intended. Photography suffers a bit on this front due to the very nature of the medium. The camera, at it's most fundamental level, is a recording device. It allows the user to record some event, place or thing in the present moment for future reference. All other artistic mediums are used in the opposite direction. The artist takes an unformed medium - paint, clay, stone, etc. - that has no inherent representational reality and manipulates it to communicate a message. Photography starts with a representational reality, and must be manipulated to convey a message. For the photographer, this is where the question of 'what do you see?' takes flight.

When I saw this particular sunrise, with it's wonderful and unusual soft, brassy light reflected off the silky smooth, quiet water of the Bay, my initial reaction was much like anyone else, frozen to momentary immobility by the serene beauty of the scene. Having my Canon 5D MKII under my arm, the next thoughts were strictly technical, within seconds the camera was up and I rattled through the process of selecting aperture, shutter speed, focal point, etc. and started shooting. Somewhere in this transient moment of seconds is where we separate the artist from the 'taker of pictures'.

(click on image to enlarge)

Most people in that moment see the water, the color of the light, the island in the far distance. The observant will also notice the cloud formations and the really observant (or sailor!) will notice the reflections and patterns of the breeze touching the surface of the water. The photographer sees all these things and more. The aspect that makes the difference - What do you SEE? - lies within the power of metaphor, the potential for broader interpretation within the scene.

One of the aspects of a truly effective image is its ability to trigger the imagination. The body of water and islands in this photograph are intimately familiar to me, having sailed, kayaked and walked these places since my youth. Even still, when I look at this image, the composition and various elements of color and hints of form evoke the wanderlust within me. Recognizable features and details fade away in the distance and my imagination brings forth thoughts of far away places and exotic cultures. The ever curious explorer in me wants to go there, to discover new wonders and experiences that may lie in the mysterious islands just visible on that far, golden horizon.

The camera becomes so much more than a recording device, it has the potential to become a key to other worlds and places, even other times. The photograph opens a door to the place of dreams and fantastic imaginings. This is what I see when I look through the lens. What do you see?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

New Perceptions

I was watching the news a few weeks back and had a minor revelation. The news show was reporting on an extreme local weather event, a tornado, that went through the local neighborhood of Forest Hills. In what has become an increasingly common occurrence in the modern electronic age, the regular news report was augmented by a a series of images taken with a cell phone camera.

This is nothing new or even unusual anymore, as cell phones are now ubiquitous - even Grandma has one - and they all seem to have cameras these days. I usually lament the abysmal quality of the images taken with these little 'chip based' cameras, and rightfully so. The images suffer from heavy jpeg compression, and terrible lenses. I've played with the 5 megapixel version in my Samsung Omnia and had some success as long as my expectations weren't too high and I remained fully aware of the limitations of the little thing. On the other hand, as I always have the cell phone with me, I always have a camera too, so there are some advantages.

This opinion just went through a fundamental change.

As I watched the news report and the terrible quality cell phone images flashed by, I noticed something. The images were of terrible quality. The details were badly blurred by the jpeg compression algorithms and suffered mightily. One image in particular jumped out at me, however. It was no better than the rest from the technical standpoint, but some quality in the light and detail made something else evident - it was beautifully impressionistic. The scene didn't matter in this case, but the quality of the detail that was retained reminded me very strongly of the paintings of the early Impressionist painters. Wonder of wonders!

The photo in question was on the screen for about 10 or 15 seconds, tops, but that was enough for me to get the idea that the little crappy camera may offer some potential I had not considered before. The creative urge had been ignited!

The normal trend in processing is to go for the highest possible levels of detail and sharpness. Painters, of course, know better. The next time you have the opportunity to see a realistic painting up close, get your nose right up in it and see what the artist has done. What you will see is that the carefully applied pigments and strokes cease to resemble anything at all as you get in close. It isn't until you back away that your brain starts to assemble those strokes and colors into an image. The talented artist knows just how to fool your eye. Photography does the opposite, using the light reflected off the actual image to record the actual detail as seen, within the constraints of the current technology, of course.

In the early years of photography, there were limits to the level of resolution obtainable and the result is that those images incorporate a kind of impressionistic quality, although it probably was't intentional, just a by-product of the early technology. It is this latter characteristic that has fascinated me for a long time. I have a great deal of time invested in trying to capture something of this quality in certain of my images. A good example of a successful photograph in this regard is 'Harbor House'. It is a bit ironic in that the original Image is captured with high resolution equipment and I then work to remove much of the inherent detail with the goal of conveying a certain idea or 'sense of place' rather than the overly detailed specifics of the scene.

I am in the early stages of sorting the possibilities here, but I have made some progress with the technique. Here are two examples, one dug up from a trial shot for a future project idea and another just a quick snap of a scene that caught my eye one morning last spring. First is a test shot of the newly renovated and expanded Jamaica Station in Jamaica, NY. I really like the combination of strong diagonals combined with the old and new elements of the scene, but a straight shot would not convey the sense of the place I am looking for. The bad quality cell phone image provided a surprise in that I saw the seed of what I really wanted in it. A black and white conversion and some subtle applications of Photoshop filters get me really close to what I wanted.

(click on image to enlarge)

This is not the final image, but it is a good precursor of what the final image will look like. Next, is the little snapshot of some orchids in a flower vendor's stand on 37th Street in Manhattan. The color in the original jpeg was too garish and aside from a Facebook post, I figured it was't worth much. Just the same, it had a quality that held my interest enough that I saved it in my archives for future reference. I thought it would be an ideal subject for this new process and it seems to have been a good choice.

(Click on image to enlarge)

I am still experimenting and refining the filter processing to achieve just the right combination of retained detail and that subtle impressionistic quality. It will be interesting to see where else this concept takes me.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Time Traveler

One of the aspects of photography that few consider is the dimension of time. I'm not speaking to the fairly straightforward matter of shutter speed vs aperture here. As specialized technologies can extend human sight to the extremes of the electromagnetic spectrum – think x-ray and infrared imaging as common examples - photography has the ability to extend our vision to include the dimension of time.

Most photographic images are, in one form or another, created by recording a specific and finite moment, typically measured within some very small fraction of a second. This is desirable, as this gives a very clear, detailed image for whatever purpose the photographer has in mind, be it posterity or art. We are 'freezing a moment in time', as it is frequently described. Most photographers never depart from this standard approach. Time, as an element in the image, is usually no more involved than a quick calculation in concert with the aperture opening to compose the subject in a particular way.

There is a whole other world out there, however, existing in the intersection of light and motion. It is possible to step back a bit and actually reconsider time as an integral part of the moving world. It is also possible, with a bit of thought and creativity, to include time as an integral part of the photograph. The results can be quite stunning and bring an entirely new perspective to the viewer.

Most of the time, movement is the enemy of the photographer. Movement blurs details and can ruin an otherwise good photograph. Thus we have faster lenses, more sensitive sensors and film combined with the requisite blazing fast shutter speeds. My Canon 5D MkII is capable of shutter speeds as fast as 1/8000 of a second. It is difficult to even comprehend how short a span of time that is. In some circumstances, such as sports and action shots, or trying to freeze the motion of a hummingbird wing, these capabilities are not only desirable, but necessary. To introduce the element of time into an image, we need to go in the other direction, however. A sports photographer may want a bit of blurring in order to convey movement and action, so will use a slightly slower shutter speed to do so. A nature photographer commonly uses a slightly slower shutter speed to the same end. This is most commonly seen in water shots, where the movement of a stream or waterfall is intentionally allowed to blur slightly. This has the effect of both softening the look of the water and brings an element of life to the scene by highlighting the movement of the water in the stream or waterfall. The results can be quite beautiful. Still, in these shots we are typically using small fractions of a second. Most of my images of this sort use a shutter speed in the area of ¼ second or much less. Time is used sparingly and discreetly.

(click image to enlarge)
It is possible to use much larger chunks of time. When this is done, the resulting images change utterly and with them our view of our world. We suddenly begin to see things as part of a continuum rather than a single, unique instant. One of my more popular photographs is of an abandoned and deteriorating dock on the Wicomico River in Maryland. It took over a year and several attempts to get this shot. The dock had fascinated me and I longed to capture the subtle character of it that intrigued me. Dozens of shots were taken and discarded. They just lacked that certain something I saw there, but couldn't quite translate to the image. Finally, one morning I was out before dawn (again!) to try and shoot a bald eagle known to spend the night in a local tree and I found what I was looking for. The morning was windy with intermittent rain, what most people would describe as 'miserable', and accurately so I suppose! The eagle shot did not work out, but walking back along the river I passed the old dock again and was struck by the conditions. For how many years had this old dock weathered such storms, and yet here it still remained? It was showing the years and mileage for sure, but still standing.

I quickly rearranged my entire concept of of what I had been trying to do with this subject. I set the camera up on its tripod, being extra careful to ensure it was planted solidly on the grassy shoreline of the river. I then installed a polarizer and four stops worth of neutral density filters, cutting down the light coming into the camera lens by a total of six stops. It was still overcast and dark. If the sun had risen it was impossible to tell, but I needed the low light in combination with the neutral density filters for my intended shot. Once set up, I attached the remote shutter release – it was imperative that the camera remain absolutely motionless. The shutter speed was set to 25 seconds.

I clicked the shutter and waited what seemed an hour while the seconds ticked away. I then took some bracketing shots at slightly different settings as insurance, but the 25 second exposure was the best in these conditions. I stayed out and took a few more shots, but none really panned out after the dock shoot, as the rain became heavy and the lens was getting too wet. I packed up and walked back to the bed & breakfast where a hot cup of coffee and my ever patient wife were waiting. I eagerly loaded the files into the computer and, finally, there it was, the image I had wanted all along.

(click on image to enlarge)
The long exposure blurs the choppy, windblown waves into a smooth gradient. The rain disappears into a smooth gray mist. The far shoreline a hint of another place. But the dock stands fixed and sharp, as the elements pass around and over it, the dock seemingly permanent and immutable by comparison. But we know the opposite to be true. The dock is already clearly past its prime and the slow, steady wear of the elements will continue to take its toll. If we could extend the exposure long enough, over many decades, we would see that it is the old dock that is the ephemeral element here. The river and wind will remain as elements long after the dock has gradually faded away.

Everything is in motion relative to everything around it. If there exists any constant in the universe, this seems to be it. With a little thought, creativity and patience, the camera can allow a small glimpse into this rarely seen or considered world.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hey! Meter THIS, buddy!

Last post we took a look at exposure compensation on the family point-n-shoot camera. Today we will look at a different way to control the camera's automatic exposure mechanism that doesn't require fussing with all the controls.

Whenever you point your automatic camera at a subject, the camera's light meter adjusts the aperture and shutter speed to what it 'thinks' is the best combination of settings to give the best photograph. Modern cameras have gotten very good at this. As long as there is sufficient light and the level does not exceed the dynamic range of the sensor, it is quite easy to end up with very respectable images from a technical point of view - sharp focus with a decently balanced exposure. As we covered last time, adjusting the exposure compensation moves the 'center point' that the camera uses for averaging the exposure either up or down as desired. This works quite well, but once set you have to live with those settings unless you go back to the menu and change the setting yourself. No big deal really, but it is just one more thing to forget when you are supposed to be having fun.

There is another easier, faster way to achieve the same result, and it does not require accessing any menus that you have to remember to go back and reset. All you have to do is point the camera at a spot that is lighter or darker than your subject, push the shutter button half way down to set the exposure and focus, swing the camera back to the actual subject you are interested in and push the shutter all the way down to complete the shot. It's that easy and fast.

One of the great advantages of the modern family camera is that the image on the sensor is shown on the rear lcd screen. It is this feature that makes our little trick workable. Lets try a little exercise:

Take your camera somewhere where there is a significant variation in light range. This can be inside near a lamp or outside in an area with mixed sun and shade. Turn on the camera and slowly sweep it across the scene such that you cross both dark and light areas during the sweep. Watch the lcd to see what happens to the different light and dark areas as you sweep across the scene. What you are seeing is the camera constantly adjusting to the light conditions as you move it. These changes are reflected right on the lcd! You can actually see the averaging being done in real-time.

Now, do the same sweep again, but this time at some point pick a fixed target, say the brightest spot in view, and push the shutter button down half way. You will see (and probably hear) the camera set the exposure and focus for that particular scene. This happens very quickly, usually in about one second. Once locked, continue the sweep while continueing to hold the shutter button in place at the half depressed point. Notice that the camera is no longer adjusting for the changing light conditions! Once the shutter button is partially depressed, the camera locks its settings until either the button is released or you push it down all the way and activate the shutter, taking a photograph. You can use this characteristic to your advantage.

The idea here is to simply use the natural automatic meter function of the camera to do the hard work for you, but to still have the camera take a picture that is quite different from what the automatic settings would give. I have included two images below for examples. Both images are of the same stairway outside the Morgan Library in Manhattan. I selected this spot as it had some interesting detail and textures and, most of all, some great reflected dawn sunlight shining right on it. The photographs are taken within seconds of each other, so the conditions are identical in both frames. Notice the dramatic change in the images, however!

The first shot is taken 'straight'. I placed the camera between two upright columns, framed the details I wanted and then activated the shutter. The camera did all the work. The reflected lighting is fairly soft, so the entire scene is within range and we end up with a good detailed image. While the camera did a great job of recording the actual scene, the image is otherwise rather uninspiring  and the brightest areas are actually a bit 'hot'.

(click on image to enlarge)

Next, I took the camera and pointed it at the bright blue sky and pressed the shutter down halfway. Once the camera audibly registered the exposure, I turned back to the stairs and tried to repeat the composition from the first shot - all the while holding the shutter button in the halfway position. Remember, this prevents the camera from readjusting the exposure to the darker stair scene. Once in position, I activated the shutter. Notice the dramatic difference between the two images.

(click on image to enlarge)

This image is probably a little too dark, depending on exactly what I was going for, but notice how much more dramatic the light is!  This shot illustrates one of the two main drawbacks of this method of adjusting the camera metering: the inherent lack of precision. The good news is, assuming you have the time to try different settings, is that you can see the effect right on the lcd and quickly meter to a different lighter or darker target as needed. With practice, you can get fast, consistent results. The second drawback is the potential impact on sharp focus. The camera sets the focus on your target at the same time it sets the exposure. If the difference is extreme enough, your shot can be noticeably out of focus. The trick is to try to find a metering target that is roughly the same distance as your final target. This is potentially more of an issue with closeup shots. The small lenses in these cameras are actually pretty forgiving on this point, but it pays to be aware of the issue so you are less likely to be surprised by it.

So there you go! Quick and easy 'manual' exposure control of your automatic camera.

Monday, September 6, 2010

If I had a camera like that...

A slight change in direction for this week. I was going to post about more extensive processing techniques, but it occurred to me that there was a topic that might have more immediate benefits for some of you. I will take up the processing discussion on a later date. Instead, I will discuss how to use the more common point-n-shoot camera to obtain better photographs.

A frequent comment I hear at the shows is “if I had your camera, I could take those good photographs, too.'

Well, maybe yes, and then again maybe no. The fact that they are making that statement tells me that they don't really understand photography, so its probably 'no'. Does pro grade equipment take better images? Of course it does, why else would we spend $1,500 on a prime lens or far more on a pro grade dslr body if it didn't improve the quality of the photographs we take? But, in truth, it is only part of the answer. That good glass and pro dslr combine to give some amazing potential for the photographer. But there is the key word: potential. Higher resolution, better quality pixels in larger sensors and world class glass are going to contribute something to the final product, but it is the photographer that determines the results. The main advantage of the higher grade equipment is this: control. The photographer simply has much more control over what the camera is doing. The typical consumer camera is largely an automatic device, removing all the decision making from the photographic process. For the average user, this is actually a good thing, allowing them to take far better photos than would otherwise be likely. The problem for the more capable photographer is that the averaging software that makes these cameras work tend to produce 'average' photographs. Good photography requires that the photographer put something of themselves into the image. In short, this means the photographer must control what the camera is doing. This, in turn, means the photographer has to understand how the camera works. This means much more than pointing the camera at your subject and pushing the big button. A real measure of a good photographer is one who can take great photographs with less than ideal equipment.

I will touch on some of the options available and cover a few of the simple tricks to help you along with those all-to-common automatic point-n-shoots to get better images. The first thing to do is familiarize yourself with the equipment you happen to have. We will assume for this exercise that the camera is a typical, completely automatic consumer camera. I will be using a Canon sd550, a pretty typical example of the type: decent build quality and feature set, 3X zoom, auto everything with some optional style and environment adjustments. This camera is a few years old now and has provided good service as the basic go to camera for family photo album type shots.

The good news is that new cameras are offering more and more manual control options. Even this 'older' camera has some things we can adjust. A quick look at the rear of the camera and I see a dial that lets me switch to one of several modes, fully auto, Manual , Scenes and video. The Manual setting is the one we are most interested in. This opens up several control options which are very useful, if a bit limited. The first and most important is Exposure Compensation, right at the top of the menu on the little Canon. Exposure compensation is a tremendously useful feature that allows you to adjust the scale on which the camera averages the image exposure. The adjusting range is usually plus or minus two stops of exposure (this is a significant amount). Adjusting increments are in 1/3 stop increments, giving thirteen setpoints.

In a full sun shot with some shadows, the camera will average the exposure such that it gets what it considers the best overall balance. The result is that the brightest spots will be 'blown out', that is, that part of the image will be pure white. This is because the amount of light will actually exceed the range of the sensor's ability to record it. At the other end of the range, the deep shadows will probably lack detail and may even be completely black.

I took the sd550 out in the yard and took three shots of one of our young cats. The shots were taken in the exact same conditions: Full, bright mid-afternoon sun. I took a shot at the two extreme ends of the adjustment range and the center (normal) setting. We will start with the first shot, with the exposure compensation set to -2 stops:

(click on image to enlarge)            Photo #1: Exposure Compensation= -2

Note the overall shot seems a bit dark. The mid range of the photo has been dropped down significantly, but most of the image retains good detail. Look at the shadows and you will see that the shadows are completely black, showing no detail at all. On the other hand, the whites of the fur retain full detail and color. This is the tradeoff at the low setting. Now, watch what happens when we restore the exposure compensation to '0' , the normal default setting (bearing in mind the furball model refused to sit still for the shoot!):

(click on image to enlarge)             Photo #2: Exposure Compensation= 0

This is the normal image you would get under the full automatic setting. Note the light and dark extremes have been averaged. The result is that the shadows now show good detail. The small bit of white fur is actually blown out to pure white, but the area is so small that I does not detract from the image. If the white patch was larger, the camera might have sacrificed some of the shadow detail to pull down the whites a bit.

(click on image to enlarge)             Photo #2: Exposure Compensation= +2

Last is the +2 setting. The change here is very dramatic, with almost the entire frame overexposed. Even the wood surfaces facing the sun have blown out to full white, retaining no detail at all. But look into the shadow areas, especially beyond the bench, which were pure black in the first image and only retained moderate detail in the second image.

This exercise illustrates one of the fundamental controls available to the photographer. I typically use exposure compensation in brightly lit situations to lower the exposure by about 2/3 to a full stop. I shoot in full manual, so I make this adjustment on the fly. An automatic camera will make the adjustment for you if you use the option. The main advantage of this ability, as I most frequently use it, is that I can offset the exposure of highly reflective surfaces to retain detail in those areas of an image. I can refine the exposure in the body of the image later on the computer if desired. With high-end post processing software, I can adjust the light and dark areas individually to retain full detail across the entire image, compensating for the limitations of the camera sensor. Ideally, the user of a point-n-shoot camera can use this to further refine the images a bit better than the camera will, left to its automatic settings.

For the next entry, we will study a technique for 'fooling' the camera sensor to change the exposure setting to were YOU want it to be. See you then!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reality, What A Concept

One of the most frequent questions I hear as a photographer is ”Did you Photoshop that?

The answer is invariably “Yes”, but I can never let it go at that. The persons asking the question seem to have a mindset that any really good image must be 'photoshopped', ie: fake. I make it my task to set them straight.

Let's get something right out in front first: Photoshop is an amazingly powerful program. In the hands of a really talented user, images can be produced that are nothing less than mind blowing and often have little or no relationship to reality. It really has become a medium unto itself. The resulting images should be appreciated as art in their own right, if they qualify for that ethereal status, but they are no longer photography in any practical sense. Here lies the problem for the typical photographer and the resulting guilt by association. Photography is unique in the arts in that it began as, and for the most part remains, a mechanical/technical medium for recording 'reality', ie: realistic depictions of scenes that actually existed. Photojournalism is the most obvious example of this practical and common application of photography.

Next, we have to address Photoshop's place in the modern world of photography in relation to most pro photographers. Photoshop is the modern 'darkroom'. Digital technology has allowed us to eliminate the need for all the cost, chemicals and complications of the traditional darkroom. This is precisely the role that Photoshop fills for the vast majority of photographers. Traditionally, film development included adjustments to color, contrast, brightness, etc. More sophisticated processors would use treatments to dodge (lighten) some details and burn (darken) others. Ansel Adams was a master at this process and this his how he produced many of his most outstanding images, by way of a well known example.

Aside from the physical advantages mentioned above, the additional benefits are the ease of the various adjustments. Most common adjustments can be made with sliding scales and the results are seen immediately on your monitor. The vast majority of photographers operate at or near this level. Photoshop has simply replaced the darkroom and is used in essentially the same way. The biggest change is that this technology has made the once very esoteric and complex developing process accessible to so many more people.

An example of typical processing is provided below. I took the original image during a March walk on Fire Island, looking to catch the last of the winter's snow on the primary dunes in the vicinity of the Fire Island Lighthouse. The first image is the untouched file straight from the camera, converted to jpeg format for posting here. Directly below it is the processed image.

(click on images to enlarge)

A quick look at the file shows that the processing included these adjustments:

1 – A sharp eye will notice a very slight counterclockwise rotation (1.5 degrees) and very slight trimming crop to square the frame after the rotation.
2 – Minor sharpening to enhance detail. Digital photos retain a bit of softness carried over from the sensor and some sharpening is often used to correct for this.
3 – Contrast is increased slightly to further enhance detail.

That's it! Very little is done but, as you can see, the results are fairly dramatic. The image is clearer and the details practically leap off the image. The real work was done in taking the original shot, getting the exposure and composition right to achieve the intended image. The steps outlined above just complete the process.

Lets take things just a little bit farther. A really sharp eye will pick up a couple of very, very subtle alterations. Look at the top, unprocessed image. Just to the right of the base of the lighthouse you may see a small object – the top of the flag pole near the lighthouse. Directly below that, on the lower dune line, there is a bit of irregular grass, with another bit to the left and farther up the sweep of the lower dune. These three details interfered with the clean, graphic sweep of the image I wanted. Accordingly, I used Photoshop to remove them. The result is something of a very small step closer to an artists representation than a truly representational photograph, but the changes are so subtle that without being pointed out, no one would ever realize the slight changes were made. You can see the improvement in the clean lines of the dunes as they bring your eye to the center of attention – the lighthouse - without distraction.

The next blog entry will take a look at the next step: using some of the more sophisticated features of Photoshop to move photography from strictly representational to art. See you then!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Visiting with the Past

My wife Nancy and I just returned from a visit to Nova Scotia. I should probably mention that , being of Scottish descent, I am likely to find anything Scottish at least a little bit interesting. That minor caveat aside, we were both deeply taken with the beauty of this part of the world, both natural and man made. The natural terrain bears a strong kinship to that of Scotland, with its rugged, rocky coastlines and deep, dark spruce forests. The polished granites of Peggy's Cove speak directly to a far distant geological past, much like that of the Scottish landscape. A little research indicates that this particular stone mates with similar from northern Africa, though, and not Europe! So much for first impressions. The northern coastal climate is the real source of the biological similarities, favoring spruce over the deciduous forests found farther south. The proximity of the sea accounts for the rest, with its inevitable impact on the local sea oriented culture.

It is the overlay of man made history that drives our interest today. Like much of North America, the incoming Europeans displaced the Native Americans, who have left little more than place names to remind us that they predated the present residents. We Europeans have all but obliterated any other trace of their presence, a direct result of our greater (and still increasing) numbers and tendency to build more extensive and relatively permanent structures. The expansion has occurred over some several centuries now and, where the earlier European settlements remain, they call to the more attentive visitor about our history, relatively brief though it is.

Our main focus on this trip was such a place, a rather well known tourist stop: Peggy's Cove. Traveling as much as we do, Nancy and I are all too familiar with the commercialization which tends to destroy the heart of many of these historic places, leaving a thin shadow of the former reality. Fortunately, Peggy's Cove is largely spared this ignominy. While there is a fairly constant flow of tourists, fed by a series of large tourist buses, the accommodations for the buses and tourists are all kept outside of the small village. If you want to see Peggy's Cove up close, it is necessary to get off the bus and walk through the little village, which is still an occupied and functional fishing village. It remains 'the real thing', not some gussied up caricature of a recently deceased community. The changes are limited to a parking lot just outside the village and a rather large gift shop and additional parking at the highpoint just above and beyond the opposite side of the village, near the well known lighthouse. This seems to have worked well to keep the village relatively untouched from the more typical effects of the tourist invasion, with the hardscrabble nature of a thin existence by the sea evident in the ubiquitous peeling paint and mossy, rotting, but still functional, and functioning, structures.

(click on image to enlarge)
These places were once the norm on the extensive New England coastline and are hardly considered 'romantic' or beautiful by the occupants. As with many occupations, the hard, bare lifestyle was made untenable by the introduction of large scale commercial fishing and the resulting reduction of many of the fish species that these communities depended on. The pattern is echoed in our own local fisheries. The South Shore of Long Island was such a place until fairly recently. The once common fishing boats are now gone, and there is virtually no trace of their former existence, as even their old haunts have been filled with condos and restaurants.

(click on image to enlarge)
Visiting places such as Peggy's Cove calls to us, as it reminds us of a recently lost history and way of living. It is interesting that we now find beauty in the spare, plain structures placed so precariously exposed to the elements. There is nothing to be found here that is not functional in some respect, the rare dalliance with the unnecessary restricted to a coat of brightly colored paint on a window frame or a boat hull. All else is unadorned in its pristine directness, built to a purpose. As the bulk of the tourists moved ahead, Nancy and I lagged behind to more closely examine the intimate details of this wonderful place: surprisingly bright colored mosses growing through the peeling paint on the base and foundation of a small wooden outbuilding, the moldy details of a hidden stairway between two buildings, a haphazard pile of bright orange trap floats and rust. Rust was everywhere, ever present. No item of steel escapes, as evidenced by the rusty streaks marking the presence of steel nails in the buildings. Here were the trace details of an active seafaring life grown in place for many, many years.

Why do such places speak to us so strongly? It must be more than simple 'quaintness' of a type of life since past. Do we yearn for the simple directness of such an existence rather than the fast moving complexities of the present? Do some of feel that we have lost something important, even vital in the transition? When I look out on our own Great South Bay, and see not a single individual remainder of the once omnipresent clammers and oyster boats, I know we have lost something important in the local community. The Bay can no longer support the oysters, clams and scallops that once put Bluepoint and the Great South Bay on the map, a victim of overfishing and pollution runoff from expanding suburbia.

It is one of my few regrets that these things, taken so for granted at the time, were passing away even as I watched. My recognition of what was happening came far too late, too late to record all but a few scattered remnants. But I look and find the bits and pieces where I can. Not all has yet been erased and built over, not yet.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I visited one of my favorite blogs last night, written by another photographer whose photography and writing I admire, Guy Tal. Guy's blog is always worth a visit. His commentary often reflects many of my own thoughts and today I will focus on a particular aspect of his recent post that caught my attention: silence.

How often do we experience true silence, at least in the respect of the absence of man made sound? I would venture that this happens very, very rarely for most. In fact, I have observed that most people become distinctly uncomfortable in the absence of some kind of man made background noise. Do you leave the television on even when you are not watching it? Do you have to at least have the radio playing, even when driving? This seems to be the normal state of affairs for most. Humans are deeply social creatures and the presence of some form of man made noise seems to offer a form of comfort for many.

Another aspect of this is the constant din of more subtle man made sounds that pervade our lives, mostly unawares. As I write these words, I am sitting on my deck this Sunday morning, enjoying a light breeze as I finish my second cup of coffee, listening to a woodpecker announce his presence in one of our wild cherry trees and the wind chimes occasionally doling out a deep, mellow note. The cicadas are starting to send out their insistent love calls, a sure sign of another hot July afternoon in the offing. This idyllic moment has an underlying current, however. I can hear the distant roar of a powerboat on the Great South Bay, an alarm activating at a neighbors house as they start their car, the low, steady thrum of many wheels speeding along the Sunrise Highway, a brief burst of a siren and finally, the horn and low rumble of a passing train. These sounds fill a space that is so constantly present that most of us don't even realize it is there – until it isn't.

One of the great gifts of a back country trek is the absence of these constant, man induced sounds. This is especially so during a solo journey, when I've gone whole days without seeing or speaking to another person. I have observed three distinct reactions to persons who venture out to these 'silent' places. Some do not notice. They remain busy enough with the details of their respective activities that they miss the change. Others become distinctly unnerved by the silence. They must have a radio or something, anything, filling up that empty space. These people will never be at ease out of a man made environment. The third reaction is one of blessed relief – as if an invisible weight has been lifted. As you may have guessed, I am very definitely in the latter group. I will actually start to stress out in a major way if I can't get away from the constant, underlying din occasionally, even if just for a few moments.

(click on image to enlarge)
Fortunately, while my backcountry time has been much reduced lately, there are other options. The best one exists as much as a factor of timing as location: the predawn. The simple fact that most people are sound asleep at this early hour reduces the activities that generate much of the noise. Add to that a little bit of distance and silent bliss can result. The best, easily accessible local place for this is Fire Island. A short fifteen minute drive followed by a mile or so of walking and one can find themselves in a silent reverie. Here, the 'noise' consists only of crashing waves and wind, and depending on the weather, sometimes even those sounds are absent. The only other entry might be the occasional cry of a gull.

(click on image to enlarge)
Here, at last, the hidden distractions can melt away and the mind can relax, availing itself to the more subtle presence of the natural world. Sitting for a little while alone on a bit of driftwood watching the slowly brightening glow of the eastern horizon, there is something that breathes life deeply back within. Everything seems to open up. I feel the dampness of the sand beneath my feet, smell the brine of the ocean with its complex mix of life and death where land meets sea. The mind and the senses can once again reach out. The result is a renewed connection with the ground beneath my feet, the air that I breathe, the expanse of the sky above, an all too brief respite from the din that drives the real world away.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Art of Creativity

Among other bad habits, I am an avid reader. I spent a good portion of my wastrel youth soaring through the galaxy with the great writers of the science fiction genre, such as Asimov, Heinlein and Herbert. As I grew older, my interests gradually shifted from the E.E. Doc Smith 50's style of Buck Roger adventures (what better name for a grand villain than 'Ming the Merciless' and the brutal Fenachrone!) to the more thoughtful and involved stories of the great Isaac Asimov and writers of a similar intellectual vein. Science fiction became a medium with which to study the human condition, absent the usual direct or implied baggage carried by terrestrial location. Asimov's 'I Robot' series is a model example (the badly butchered Hollywood movie version not-with-standing). More recent years have seen a clear shift in my reading towards non-fiction, primarily relating to the study of the human mind and the nature of consciousness. In retrospect, over the decades there has a been a clear trend towards this direction, the seed planted long ago and fertilized by these excellent authors: the study of the mind, behavior and how each relates to the human condition.

One of the more interesting and fascinating topics along these lines is that of 'creativity'. What is it? How does it happen? Where does it come from? This blog entry does not attempt to answer those questions. I will delve into those dark woods another time. Instead, today I will write about a more immediate facet of creativity: when is one's creative work 'good enough'? This aspect is likely the first question that will quietly and inevitably force its way into the thoughts of anyone attempting to create something new and considering exposing their work, regardless of type or medium, in the public forum. This thought was prompted by a passage I read in my current book of interest, Ray Bradbury's 'Zen in the Art of Writing'. As a side note, this book is an excellent example of why it pays to explore the writings of a favorite author outside of the more well known works. Asimov is another example of a writer known for his science fiction but who has an enormous lexicon of non-fiction writings – but I digress. Mr. Bradbury wrote of receiving an unexpected letter from a person whom he deeply admired, the great art historian Bernard Berenson, but whom he had never met. The letter was written in response to an article Mr. Bradbury had written for the publication 'The Nation' defending his science fiction work (he does not state why he was defending it). The letter read as follows:

“Dear Mr. Bradbury:
In 89 years of life, this is the first fan letter I have written. It is to tell you that I have just read your article in 'The Nation' — "Day After Tomorrow." It is the first time I have encountered the statement by an artist in any field, that to work creatively he must put flesh into it, and enjoy it as a lark, or as a fascinating adventure.

How different from the workers in the heavy industry that professional writing has become!

If you ever touch Florence, come to see me.
Sincerely yours,

B. Berenson”
Ray Bradbury wrote this vital comment in describing his reaction to this unexpected message:

“We all need someone higher, wiser, older to tell us we're not crazy after all, that what we're doing is right. All right, hell, fine! But it is easy to doubt yourself, because you look around at a community of notions held by other writers, other intellectuals, and they make you blush with guilt. Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation.”

The importance of the message within this response cannot be over-emphasized. Regardless of the source or subject of our individual creative muse, it is our own unique muse. There is no shortage of critics in the world, far from it. Back in the mid-seventies, I had two experiences with critics that effectively killed my nascent art career. I was, admittedly, a rank beginner, untrained and unschooled. I was working primarily in water colors and airbrush. My work was heavily influenced by two artists whom most would never mention in the same sentence, Maxfield Parrish and Roger Dean. I had received much positive support from friends and family, such that I even started selling my work in local art and craft shows. I remember being happily shocked when I sold a good chunk of my entire inventory in an early show. That success lead me to try the next step: the commercial world of art sales. This took two forms: approaching galleries and record companies. By way of explanation of the latter, album covers were a hugely popular medium at the time. This is how I became exposed to Roger Dean's work – his series of album covers for the progressive rock band Yes.

During a successful show in a local town, I was encouraged by an attendee to approach a local gallery to sell my work. After the show, I visited the gallery and introduced myself to the person in charge, explaining my success in the show and the suggestion made by one of his patrons. I had with me a large framed original of one of my favorite paintings for his consideration. The criticism was instant, scathing and delivered in such an aloof and arrogant manner that it served to extinguish any glimmering of pride in my work completely and totally. In my naivete, I had been skewered soundly through the heart and this stuffed shirt bastard couldn't care less. If anything, he seemed rather proud of his use of carefully sharpened words.

My next misadventure occurred shortly thereafter. I had an appointment with the art director at Columbia Records, one of the major music labels at the time. I arrived on time for the appointment with a portfolio of prints. Being realistic about my abilities compared to the professional work I'd seen, and not yet fully recovered from my prior experience, I was expecting a rejection. What I was prepared to happily settle for was some constructive criticism and maybe some friendly suggestions. Little did I know the world I was unexpectedly walking into. Something happened first, however. Upon exiting the elevator in the high rise Manhattan tower, I became immediately lost and instead of entering the receptionist area, I accidentally entered the back offices. I had wandered around for a few moments when I stumbled across an office with a man sitting in an armless, upright chair. Leaning against the man's legs was what was clear to me as artwork for an album cover, about 30 inches square. Surrounding both were about six or eight men in suits. I listened for a just a bit and suddenly recognized the tableau for what it was: an interrogation. Why this subject? Why this color here, and that color there? - delivered in cutting intensity. I cleared out before I was spotted.

I finally found the receptionist and introduced myself. The pretty and pleasant woman made me comfortable and announced my presence. I waited. I waited some more. I waited some more beyond that. After a full hour, the receptionist apologized and explained that something had come up and the art director would not be able to see me after all. I asked if he could at least take a look at my portfolio and she agreed to bring it in. Anticipating this possibility, I had left a note attached to my work asking for constructive comments. In less than five minutes, the portfolio was returned and my note was found torn to bits in the bottom of the folio. My budding career as a freelance artist ended in that office.

We jump thirty five years to the present. With a couple of exceptions as requests from friends, I had not painted another work in all those years. I briefly fiddled with pencil and pad in the early eighties, but quickly gave that up too, in spite of a strong reaction from friends. Over the years, I had very occasionally dabbled in photography, but my nomadic lifestyle did not lend itself very well to the film medium, having to rely on third party developers to see what worked and what didn't. It wasn't until the advent of digital cameras that photography and I really connected. I started taking photographs of our backpacking journeys and almost immediately started getting commentary reminiscent of my old paintings. I slowly realized that my old friend, my creative self was returning. There was a fundamental difference in my approach, however.

All my earlier work had been done with the public in mind. Each painting was done with the intent to impress an audience. This was no longer the case. Every photograph I now took was done for strictly personal reasons – because I wanted to capture a specific image for myself. The audience had ceased to be a participant in the creative process. The image had to speak to me and me alone. I did not realize it at the time, but a vital and important change had taken place. For creative art to work, it must reflect something of yourself, to 'put flesh to it' as Berenson wrote to Bradbury. Whether or not an audience will accept or approve is a deeply secondary matter. It should have absolutely nothing to do with what you create, be it a novel, a painting, a photograph.

(click on image to enlarge)

An audience may not approve, but for the artist this should be irrelevant as far as the real art is concerned. Will it sell? Maybe not. The photography I consider my best seems to sell the least. These days I do produce images expressly to sell, but as a general rule these are not what I consider my best artistic images, the ones that speak deep to that place inside. They are good, sound work, 'pretty pictures' as it were, striking a cord somewhere within the purchaser, but it tends to be related more to pleasant memory than something that touches deep within, along with my ability to capture images in a certain way. Make no mistake, there is a place for this and good images still require talent and skill, but it is sometimes a bit like doing a cover song than singing that heartfelt personal ballad, to use the musical analogy. The good news is that art can also result from this process as well, it is just a little less likely.

(click on image to enlarge)

The trick, as the old bit goes, is to work with what you know, those subjects which have a deep emotional hold on you. Only in this inner place can you begin to create something that will reflect your heart and emotion. Here lies the home and source of art. Connect with this part of yourself and 'good enough' may well take care of itself. As the years have progressed, I have learned that I can include more and more in this internal creative space as my experience and understanding increase. Now, even when working with a new subject or location, I am more likely to be able to make that vital emotional connection and it shows in my work.

I no longer consider the audience when visiting with my creative muse. It is more akin to two old friends sharing a private moment together, sharing an intimate conversation, our private lark and adventure. When the winds blow favorably, the results will speak to a greater understanding, a place that even the audience may recognize.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Taking a Moment To Pause

Well, it's been a busy month. We have come out of a series of successful shows, including a last minute invitation to the Bellport, NY show. This turned out to be one of our best shows of the season so far and we will definitely be back next year. The only fixed show date on the horizon now is the Sayville show, which was our strongest last year. Hopefully that pattern will repeat! We have some invitations for various shows come September and October, but we have made no hard commitments yet, as we have to see how our summer plays out. It is also a bad sign that I'm a week into July and I haven't even taken the kayak out of the garage yet.
The Bellport show was unique for the season in that it was a dedicated art show, not a combined arts and crafts show. I find that dedicated art shows are much more satisfying, both for the better sales as well as the more interested, and interesting, audience. People who take the time to attend these shows are there for the art, so the visitors are more focused on what the artists are offering and more inclined to express their interests as they visit your display. This is very enjoyable, as any artist loves to discuss their work with an interested audience.

Aside from the usual inquiries as to locations, technique and equipment, Bellport stood out in that a recurring theme percolated to the surface pretty frequently with quite a few visitors to our display. Several visitors took a lot of time to really stand back and soak up my images and almost all of these commented on a common element within the images: They pointed out that it was clear, regardless of the varying subjects or locations, that I had taken the time to really see and consider the particular moment or scene I was photographing. More interesting, and satisfying to me, is that they stated that this came through as a very strong element throughout my images.

I had taken a moment to pause and really see the subject.

This simple point highlights a critical aspect of successful photographic work. It also reflects what I consider a quality missing in much of our far too busy daily lives. So much is missed in our constant rush of obligations and responsibilities that we take upon ourselves. If we don't take a moment to slow down and step off the speeding treadmill occasionally, too many of us find that our lives have flown by in a blur before we had a chance to actually live them. This is something that I have long refused to accept. I have just as many responsibilities as the next guy, maybe more than most considering my dual careers and long list of interests and activities, but I take the time to break out of the mental monotone that too many of us seem to maintain during the normal day. This takes effort to do. My favorite quote, credited to Jeanne de Salzmann, addresses my approach to this in a very direct way and can be seen on the header of this blog, which should give a bit of a clue as to how important I consider this concept:

"You do not realize enough that your attention is your only chance. Without it you can do nothing.”

This quote speaks to the center of the quality with which we choose to live our lives. A growing concept within psychological circles is that we are truly conscious a very small part of the time. Apparently, we switch in and out of fully engaged consciousness without even realizing it quite frequently. This is not as outlandish a claim as it might seem at first glance. Consider, for a moment, a learning experience such as learning to drive a car for the first time. There are elements of apprehension, joy, maybe even a little fear as you move the vehicle out onto a public road and into traffic for the first time. You are fully engaged in that moment. You are right there, right now. Presently, assuming that you have a few years (at least) of driving experience, where is your attention as you navigate those well known routes? Chances are that you have set the 'chore' of driving to be attended to by a lower level of your mind while the higher levels are attending to something else, possibly something quite mundane – reviewing the grocery list, listening to a favorite bit of music, etc. The complex process of driving a car has been relegated to an automatic process and your attention may be elsewhere or not even engaged at all. This is the mental place where we spend most of our time. Living, or even just seeing fully requires that we break out of this habit as much as possible.

(Click on image to enlarge) A Magnolia bloom seen one morning while walking to work.
It takes effort to do so. Part of the problem is that we slip in and out of being fully attentive so automatically and smoothly that most of us don't even realize it has happened. The direct result is that we can move through the world largely unaware of our surroundings. For the photographer, this is not at all acceptable. We must be engaged with our surroundings as much as possible, as often as possible.

(Click on image to enlarge) A natural color reflection, barely visible, but I noticed it as I walked by on the trail.
My method for doing this has two basic parts. The first is to be engaged with the constant flow of light in and around my surroundings. This constant scanning keeps me alert for unexpected photographic opportunities and works quite well. The second part is simply forcing myself to stop. To pause, even for a brief to take a moment to look, really look and consider the scene before me. This latter point sounds easy enough, but that is often not the case. How often has something caught a flicker of your attention and your reaction was to get back to that when you have the time? Ten minutes later, that moment is likely not even a memory. The power of habit and momentum can be extremely difficult to break. The effort comes in the form of actually making yourself STOP. Stop to look. Stop to consider. Stop to contemplate. Stop to really see.

This is the place that good, even great photography comes from. You must pause a moment. Only then can you fully absorb the scene before you, to fully engage with the world around you and the possibilities that it offers.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

It's Show Time!

This weekend is the first outdoor show of the season and we are busy, busy, busy getting ready. Posts may get a little less regular as the next month is pretty solidly booked with shows in various towns on Long Island. Stop by the News and Events page on the main web site for the upcoming show shedule.

In the meantime I will share a few recent images. First up, is a study of an interesting brownstone detail on 38th Street in Manhattan:

(click images to enlarge)
This is one of those little surprises that hit you when you least expect it and why it pays to carry a pocket camera at all times. I've walked by this spot literally hundreds of times and for some reason, on this particular morning, the light, the details, the textures all just clicked. I used the Canon G9, which spends a good part of its life in my briefcase, on full manual and no flash. Something about the way the G9 works responds really well to texture style sharpening with images like this.

Another example of the value of always being prepared to capture a surprise opportunity is this little study taken during my niece's wedding. We were waiting just outside the country club's bar (is a bar in a country club still called a 'bar'?) when the play of light around these empty wire frame tables and chairs caught my eye:

The graphic shadows of the wire mesh and legs were fascinating. Here I put the Canon G9 to work once again, stashed in my jacket pocket. Settings were manual with no flash. as usual.

One more shot, recently dug up during a review of old files, is this unusual little number. Taken during a mid-day visit to Argyle Park during a snowy, cold winter day, this shot is a very subtle graphic study. I was taken by the potential in the way the flat, gray light reflected off the surface texture of the moving water contrasted against the frozen water and the snow covered bank. Getting the composition 'just so' is critical in an image like this if all the broad forms are to work together.

As I was out scoping potential subjects, on this day I was equipped with one of my pro cameras, the Canon 5D. The lens was the standard 24-105mm and a tripod was used, along with a polarizing filter to control the amount of reflection off the water's surface.

Thanks for visiting. Back to running prints for the upcoming shows. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, be sure to stop by!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tall Ships

Waaaay back in what, for all practical purposes, amounts to a prior lifetime, I was an avid sailor. I was even an actual sailmaker for the duration and owned a couple of sailboats and, finally, ended up living on a 40 foot cabin cruiser circa 1910, which was one of the first powerboats on the Great South Bay. I have been on or close to salt water for pretty much my entire life. As such, I have a particular affinity for boats and a definite love affair with those of the wooden variety. These days, the boat in my life is a wooden kayak that I built myself about a decade ago. It suits my life much more effectively than a larger cruiser and offers the benefits of almost zero maintenance and excellent portability.

The love of the classic wooden sailing craft still remains, however. There are few things as thrilling as seeing one of these wonderful creations in full sail charging across the water. I've sailed a few of these beauties over the years but the last was well over a decade ago, when a few friends and myself delivered a custom built 40' Britt Chance designed wooden yawl around Long Island to its winter harbor on Shelter Island. It was a fine sail to end my sailing career with, with a broad reach the full legth of the south shore of  Long Island that sailors only dream of.

I've been fortunate of late to discover that unique sailing experiences are still within reach. Opening in the Terrence Joyce Gallery in Greenport has presented some unexpected benefits along these lines. The day we met Terrence in his gallery, the HMS Bounty happened to be visiting Greenport. I made the most of this surprise opportunity by taking a series of photographs, some of which are now on display in the Terrence Joyce Gallery. The reaction to the images was so positive that Terrence made a point of letting me know that the Privateer Lynx was coming to Greenport and suggested that photographs of the Lynx would be of interest as well. As luck would have it, the Lynx would be in Greenport for a week and we were able to match her schedule with the one free day I had in a three week window. Even better, we learned that you could participate on a day sail on that day! Of course, I committed to two slots immediately and my wife and I were set for a great afternoon on board.

The Lynx is a reproduction of a real privateer built in 1812. These were the days of the War of 1812 with the British and the Americans needed fast, nimble cargo craft to evade the British blockade. The small clipper styled privateers were the result. These craft were often lightly armed, but they were made for running rather than fighting. The modern Lynx has added low deck houses and more reasonable accomdations for the crew than the original, and has a deeper forefoot to improve tracking. Otherwise, she seems a faithful reproduction of the periods craft.

Nancy and I arrived early, so we could spend time in town and also get some shots of the Lynx at the dock. The crew was also allowing visitors on board, so we took the opportunity to explore the ship while it was relatively quiet and uncrowded.

The Ship's Bell (click on image to enlarge)

One of a pair of starboard cannon.

The big event was the sail of course. The day was brilliant with sun and a light to moderate breeze, in other words, perfect for a pleasant sail. I spent the afternoon mixing with the captain and crew while looking for interesting angles to photograph. While I make a pretty serious effort to stay out of the way, counter to the reputation that some photographers seem to strive for, the crew were exceptionally accomodating and willing to show off and discuss their vessel. It was a splendid afternoon.

I'm still processing the bulk of the images, but here are a few samples.

This image is looking straight up the foremast with the rig close hauled for the beat back to Greenport. The square rigged fore tops'l sets a strong diagonal against the other sails and standing rigging.

Before the mainsail was set, the crew had been flying the huge stars and stripes from the main rigging. I took about a dozen frames trying to get the masthead pennant and flag just right. This was the shot I was trying for. The deep blue sky is the result of the polarizing filter, which reduces reflected glare and really brings out the intense blue of the sky.

Last is my personal favorite from the day. I rarely shoot people, as I require a pretty special set of circumstance and subject to bring out the quality of image that draws me. This afternoon had one of those rare moments.

While prowling the decks looking for subjects, I spotted one of the crew on watch at the bow, looking out for small boat traffic as we crisscrossed the bay off Greenport. Here was the iconic image that calls out to me. Having stood my share of watches, I was instantly transported to that place that thousands of seaman before have lived, where the world is composed only of sky, sea, wind, a far horizon and the immediate needs of the ship.

I slid low along the windward cabin side and laid low in the gunwale, the crewman unawares, and angling up from this low position, framed the crewman against the backdrop of the boom rigged jib and fired off a half dozen frames. Perfect.

We finished up back at the Greenport docks and, after effusively thanking the crew and captain, Nancy and I headed to Clauidio's for dinner, the perfect end to a perfect day.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nothing to See Here...

I remember reading a story by a well known pro photographer about a group of students he had brought into the field during a class. The assignment, if I remember correctly, was along the lines of going out into the woods to find subjects. About half an hour into the field time, two of the students returned to the shuttle and sat down. Asked why they were back so soon, they responded "There is nothing to shoot here".

He did not comment on how they performed in the course, but I suspect they did poorly. The point of the story, and the one I speak to here, is that this response illustrates a disappointing lack of vision, insight and awareness. Perhaps deadened by the wow-wiz-bang! of modern media, when faced with the reality of our actual world, little of it registers anymore. This is a loss with some very serious implications, and not just for photographer wannabes. Unlike the manufactured and intentionally over amped media that plagues our daily lives, the real world can be one of nuance and subtlety.

Allow me to supply a real life example. One cold January morning, I went through my usual pre-dawn routine, this particular morning headed for the Fire Island public beaches at Robert Moses State Park. My goal was, with luck, to get some spectacular sunrise images. I arrived on the beach with time to spare and set up - 5D body, 24-105mm lens and a full height tripod, polarizers and ND grad filters at the ready. And waited. I noticed two other photographers had also arrived on this particular morning, each had staked out a spot about a 1/8 mile away from mine, one to the west, the other to the east. We all waited for the sun to breach the horizon. As anyone knows who rises this early on anything resembling a regular schedule, truly spectacular sunrises doen't exactly show up on demand. As the old saying goes, "you pays your money and you takes your chances". As it happened, this morning was a very definite dud, for spectacular sunrises anyway. Oh, the sun arrived on time (whew!) but there wasn't a hint of a cloud to be seen, and for a spectacular sunrise, you need very good clouds arranged 'just so'.

As the horizon brightened, it became clear that this was not going to be a successful shoot, at least for the intended target. Sure enough, the other two photographers folded up their gear and left. As for me, I simply changed gears. If the big scene isn't cooperating, maybe something can be found in the more intimate details available. The light was certainly fantastic. As the sun inexorably cleared the horizon, the golden red light absolutely burned across the rippled sand at the surf's edge. I relocated to the edge of some shallow, sandy tide pools and started examining the play of light across the sand. It was amazing. I selected an isolated tide pool, with a clearly reflected sky in the still water, composed the shot and snapped the shutter.

(click image to enlarge)
The extremely flat angle of the sun changes quickly and one can't linger or other opportunities may be missed. After a few shots of the tide pool at different angles, I started working towards the west, looking for any interesting details. Shells of the large quahog clams that the area has long been known for are washed up in great numbers here. I found one that had been scoured by the sea and sand long enough to completely bleach it to white and roughen the hard, polished ridges. The low angle of the sun brought out all the fine details in the shell as it rested in the recently wave swept sand.

(click image to enlarge)
And so it went over the course of the next hour as I moved from one odd or interesting detail to the next. By opening ourselves to other possibilities and refusing to be overwhelmed by the large and the loud, a whole new world becomes available to us. We just have to have to learn to see it.