Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Sense of Place

One of the many factors that separates a snapshot from a photograph is the ability of the photograph to project a 'sense of place' to the viewer. Doing this effectively is obviously not as simple as walking up to a scene and pressing the shutter release. If this were the case, photography would require little or no skill and would likely be a simple recording medium. In fact, this might be one of the core characteristics distingquishing a snapshot, which might be considered as a simple recording of a particular moment, and a photograph, which is capable of conveying so much more.

How does one capture this elusive sense of place in a two dimensional still image? The answers are probabably as many as there are photographic subjects and even more once you consider the aspect of individual perception and interpretation as part of the mix. That said, there are some things one can do that could be considered prerequisites towards achieving this goal. When I have an idea for an image, I will go to the location and walk it for a while. If the situation lends itself to it, such as a remote wooded stream, I will sit quietly in that place for a bit. I will not do anything at all with the camera at first. Rather, I will watch as the light and air moves over the surfaces, watching as the textures and details slowly change under the ever changing light. Part of this process is actually quieting myself, turning down the inner noise machine in an attempt to be more perceptive and receptive. To describe it as a form of meditation would not be inaccurate, but it is a meditation on the place, rather than the self.

As I observe the setting, I gradually start to consider the aspects that define the characteristics unique to this place and time. Where is the light coming from and what is the quality of that light? What are the surfaces and how do they react to the available light? Is this the best time and conditions for this place and the potential I may recognize within it? At some point in the process an idea will begin to form that I feel will convey what I see and feel about the subject. Once some form of mental consensus has been reached, my focus will shift to the technical aspects required by the camera to see what I see. This pertains not only to the mechanical aspects required by the camera equipment, but consideration of which elements of the scene are the most critical to defining it and how best to compose them within the frame. This may involve a series of shots at subtly different angles and settings once I've settled on the basic parameters of my idea. Sometimes the idea is more of a feeling than something that can be discreetly described. In this case, I will likely take a wider range of variations on the subject and sort out the one that comes closest to that nebulous idea floating in my mind later.

Quite often, I will decide that the light available at the moment is not acceptable to bring the fullness of the image into fruition. In these cases, it will be necessary to wait, sometimes a few minutes or hours as the sun arcs through its natural course, or even months as a location is visited and revisited waiting for the optimal conditions. A good example of this is a photograph that I recently added to my portfolio: Pampas Dawn. The ornamental grass in this scene grows off to one side of the Whitehaven Hotel and I've been interested in it for several years. I made a point of visiting it every morning whenever my wife and I are staying there, but never took a photograph of it, as the conditions were never quite right for what I thought I saw in it. That finally changed when one windy, raining morning I was up before dawn to make another attempt at an old abandoned dock down river in the opposite direction. When I finished that shoot, The sun was finally starting to burn through the heavy cloud cover - and there it was! The polished, brassy glare of the sun filtering through the grass plumes while silouetting the less ephemeral grass stalks was exactly what I had been looking for.

Another example is an image of a small waterfall within a stream that had caught my eye.  I sat with the water for a bit and watched and listened. The spot was an idyllic setting and everything was perfect...except... the light was too flat. It was very early yet, and the stream was at the bottom of a shallow valley. The sun was still well below the intervening ridge, so I went about my business for an hour or so until the sun finally rose sufficiently high to clear the ridge. Running back to that same spot, I found a series of sunbeams moving across the waterfall, lending a faery-like light to the simple scene.

Compare the final shot above, with the earlier shot taken before the sun cleared the ridge, below. 

Both are of the same place, the same day, about an hour apart. Notice how the newly arrived sunbeams bring the scene alive, adding depth and sharpening the details! Both images are accurate depictions of the place in a direct recording sense, but the added dynamic range and highlighted details in the sunbeam image makes all the difference. When I see the top image, I have a much clearer memory and stronger connection to this little spot. I can even feel the motion of the water as it flows around the stones.

This is what can happen when you take the time to 'feel out' a subject and manage to understand something of what gives that place life, the spirit or feel that makes this place in this particular moment so unique unto itself - its sense of place.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Are You Paying Attention?

“It is impossible to achieve the aim without suffering.” - A.G. Bennett

It takes effort to maintain ones attention. Actual, hard work. The suffering referred to in the opening quote does not refer to suffering in the usual sense. It refers to the fact that keeping your mind working at a level that rises above the usual mental state, driven by routine and habit, requires constant effort. Mental inertia runs towards the dull and unimaginative and it takes work to fight that inertia.

One of my hobbies, aside from photography, is the study of the human mind, especially as regards the nature of consciousness and human behavior. One of the more fascinating aspects that I've discovered is the common thread that shows up in some surprising places. For example: G. I. Gurdjieff, when realizing that the older, more exotic religious traditions were fading in Eurasia, made the effort to study them to learn their inner workings. What he learned was at once simple in concept, but difficult to act upon. At the center of these ancient practices lie methods to clear ones mind of 'noise' and to enhance one's attention and focus. This opens the possibility of thinking in high clarity, free of 'automatic' habitual behavior. Gurdjieff refined his ideas over the years into formal schools built around what he called The Work – which was various exercises designed to help focus and enhance one's attention. Gurdjieff's ideas were picked up and expanded upon by others, such as A.G. Bennett. This idea of enhanced attention also shows up in a somewhat similar fashion in the writings and teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti's teachings were more personal and less structured, but spoke to much the same thing – the awaking of the conscious self.

All of these gentleman could be classified as semi-spiritual teachers or leaders of a sort - which is an oversimplification, although Krishnamurti in particular strongly avoided this type of designation, considering it a destructive course. The first scholarly examination that took a unique look at the true nature of human consciousness was Julian Jaynes in the opening chapters of his book, “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. The topic is too broad and complex to discuss in this little blog, but the immediate heart of the matter can be distilled into this quote by Jeanne de Salzmann, one of Gurdjieffs most ardent supporters:

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

Jaynes postulated that we spend a very small amount of our time fully conscious and provides a startling view of how we think and how the mind works at different levels of consciousness, switching in and out without our even realizing it. While the likes of Gurdjieff, Bennett and Krishnamurti tend to speak in generalizations and concepts, Jaynes gives specific examples that can be readily recognized and understood. The prime concept behind all of them, however, is the same: Most of us move through life only partially aware and your attention is vital if you want to fully experience your life and the world around you.

The application of this concept towards photography should be obvious. One of the things that draws me to photography is the constant need to be aware of your surroundings in the finest detail. When moving thru any environment, whether a backcountry landscape or the busiest urban center, I constantly scan for interesting light and form. This opens the world in a way that must be experienced to be understood and appreciated. It is probably easiest to relate to this experience in a natural setting, as the subject elements tend to be simpler and the distractions fewer. Once a subject has been identified, setting up an image becomes a fairly straightforward process of setting up the best composition in the best available light.

Urban environments are a completely different matter. The variety of lines, angles, details, light and even reflected light provide a sometimes overwhelming collection of choices. The surprise is how few people notice. Most people are so lost in their routines that they are never even aware of the magic occurring right in their midst. This is the common, semi-conscious state in which people spend most of their time. This state of mind is the enemy of all, but especially the photographer. I use my walks across and around Manhattan as an observational exercise. I spend my time actively observing and seeking out interesting site lines and details. The alertness pays real dividends. I capture only a small portion of my little discoveries with my camera, as my schedule does not permit much time to linger, but I note and return to those especially interesting locations with my camera gear later. I do carry a small, high quality camera, a Canon G9, that gets much use taking sample shots for later study. The really interesting subjects will find themselves in front of the big camera later, as this requires more preparation and a special trip for that purpose. Here are two examples:

The Flat Iron Building. I was walking down Madison Avenue late one afternoon, headed home when I noticed, some 10 or more blocks south the setting sun was highlighting the Flat Iron building in a way I had never seen before. I practically ran the 10 blocks in order to get within range while the light was still available. I had the G9 in my coat pocket, fortunately, and was able to record the wonderful moment.

Another unusual find was the fascinating rooftop details of a recently landmarked building, the Ten-Eyck Troughton, originally known as Allerton House. One of architect Arthur Loomis Harmon's earliest designs, it is the first hotel built in the Italian Renaissance style. I noticed one morning this spectacular oxidized copper roof lost in the surrounding high-rises – visible only through a very narrow opening between modern towers if you happened to look in the right direction at the right time as you walked along. Getting the right angle required climbing up on the front steps of a brownstone near the corner of Lexington and 38th Street in order to clear all the important details from the surrounding buildings, such as that delightful detail work on the peak of the roof.

How many people have walked right by these sights without ever seeing them?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Light of Dawn

It is well before dawn, but I am wide awake and (mostly) alert just the same. Hot coffee is in the thermos, the camera gear is stashed in the back of the Jeep, and I'm on the road to this morning's destination. Left behind is a warm bed and a very understanding wife. Chances are that I will soon be carrying all that equipment on my back as I walk a location before the sun meets the horizon.

It is no small task dragging myself out of that very comfortable and inviting bed, but the alternative is to spend the predawn staring out the window and wondering what the dawn light is doing in the unoccupied, uninhabited places. It is a Siren's song of a very unique kind, born in cool silence before the living world stirs.

The morning's destination is determined by various factors. Sometimes my thoughts will converge on a concept of an image in a particular location – specific in detail in the intended photograph, having only to be in the right place at the right time as the light comes to me as I wait. More often, I have a general, vague idea of various elements that might work if I can only pull the bits together in a cohesive composition, then wait for the light to breath life into the scene. Other times, it will be a random exploration of a new location, full of surprise and wonder. Or not. There are mornings that are photographic duds, but there is always satisfaction in the wandering and wondering.

Why the early rising? Why leave the perfectly warm and comfortable bed and cozy wife? It is the light, of course. The dawn light. No other time of the day comes close to the quality of light found as the sun rises. Sunsets are wonderful too, but in a very different way, as the day has a story by the time the sun is fading. Mid-day light is all hard edges and garishness, begging the hard tonal qualities of black and white images. Dawn light is new, clean, virginal in a spirit of potential and promise. All things are possible as the new sun arrives to caress the distant horizon and the world stirs to life, repeating the timeless cycle of days, years, millenia. There are only a relative few moments as the light transitions from the hint of a rosy glow through the reds, then yellows, then blazing golds as the orb climbs into the sky – the eternal cycle repeating yet again.

Here is the best light that holds its special quality – washing the scenery with broad rose and gold swashes of light and long, deep shadows. Pure wonder - often refered to as the 'magic hour' for a reason. The low light allows the photographer to introduce the element of time into an image by using longer shutter speeds. The low light can fit completely within the dynamic range of the film or the sensor, so the scene can be recorded in proper completeness without bracketing or special developing tricks. The creative eye will search out and locate the unusual effects of light and shadow in the fleeting moments these gifts have existence, before the rising sun washes them away.

Worth the early rising? Absolutely. The world during the dawn hours is a quiet, uncrowded place. There is time to think, time to breathe, time to see. The world is a very different place for the people who meet the sun at the horizon. By the time I return home for breakfast and hot coffee, I have already had a full day.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Jessup's Neck

I have a natural urge to explore the lightly tread places, the more remote, the better. Not too many places fit that description on suburbanized Long Island, but with a little effort, you can get surprisingly close considering the location. One of the places I've long wanted to explore is the narrow peninsula called Jessup's Neck. Located just west of Sag Harbor, Jessup's Neck is part of the Elizabeth A. Morton Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge is best known to locals for a fairly unique experience: the birds inhabiting the Refuge have become very acclimated to humans and will readily eat out of your hand if you are just a little patient. I can do this in my own backyard and have also done it in the winter Adirondack Mountains, but the experience is clearly unique and delightful for most visitors. I never tire of seeing the look of utter delight when a chickadee lands on the hand of a child and carefully selects the best sunflower seed from those offered.

For the photographer, this location offers an excellent opportunity to practice bird photography, as the birds are numerous and so are the photo opportunities. Birds are small and quick moving and can drive an inexperienced photographer to distraction, as by the time you have composed your shot and focused, the bird is long gone. Knowing your equipment and being able to set up quickly and accurately will pay real dividends. Landscape photography is a luxury by comparison, as I can spend whole minutes setting up a shot. Bird photography gives you a very small number of seconds. Hesitate and the shot is missed. Even if you get set up and hit the shutter, many of the shots are blurred by the birds quick movements. There is a real balancing act that goes on between a large aperture for fast shutter speeds, which help freeze the action, and a smaller aperture which is more forgiving of focus and depth of field issues, but is more likely to be blurred by the birds movement.

Today, my lens of choice was the Canon 100-400 L Series telephoto. This is a reasonably fast lens (F/5.6 at full telephoto) and works well in this application. The need for quick mobility tends to work against a tripod, so the fast lens is also a good choice for the inevitable hand held shots. Still, fully half the shots, at minimum, will get tossed once home.

My favorite bird shot of the day is of a female cardinal:

The shot was taken with a full-on sunbeam right in the face of the cardinal, so it was necessary to slightly underexpose the rest of the frame, but I like the way the face of the bird is highlighted and the way the red tones of the cedars comes through.

The main body of the park is well occupied by visitors and it can actually be a bit difficult getting a quiet moment with the birds on the busy main path. The remote aspect comes into play when you exit the wooded area and walk onto the beach. There, extending in a long arch to the north and west in the distance, is Jessup's Neck. I've hiked out on the Neck a few times in the past, but never all the way to the end. Today was the day to correct that ommission.


Most of the Refuge visitors go as far as the beach and call it a day. Hiking to the end of the Neck is about a two mile walk, which quickly filters out the lightweights, which is pretty much everybody. Nancy and I headed right out and made the hike a leisurely stroll, Nancy looking for interesting shells and Indian Paint Pots and me for photographic subjects. We ended up at the very exposed tip of the Neck, which is nothing more than a very low sand bar washed over with windblown waves. The only things out there were the sand bar, the Peconic Bay, a cold wind and a small group of very fidgety red-backed sandpipers, no doubt wondering who these intruders were. Robin's Island could be seen to the west, Shelter Island to the east. We then completed the loop by returning down the east side of the Neck, which we had entirely to ourselves. Bliss.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Welcome to Life, Photography and Everything

Welcome to Life, Photography and Everything. This blog is an extension of my photography website, http://www.essentiallightphotography.com/ . It's purpose is to be a forum for mental ramblings concerning, well, Life, Photography and Everything - but primarily photography and its relationship to how one can view the world through the medium.

It seems appropriate to begin with a little information about myself. I've had an ongoing interest in the arts for as long as I can remember, with a definite predilection for the visual arts. I dabbled intermittently with watercolors, pen and ink, pencil, airbrush and photography over the years, but it wasn't until the advent of digital image technology that I found my best medium. I played with very early CGI technology in the early 80's, but back then the market opportunities were as scarce as system memory. Happiness finally arrived in the form of Canon's ELF series cameras. Here was, at long last, the future that I was waiting for. Even so, I was patient enough to wait for Canon to produce the first of it's now famous G Line series of cameras, the G2. A whopping - for the time - 4 megapixel resolution with a decent lens set. The long wait was finally over. I bought the camera and never looked back. I started taking pictures immediately, such as this one, taken at sunrise on Pharoah Lake, Adirondacks, during a four day canoe trip.

Photography has since become an increasingly important part of my life. Over the years, I upgraded my equipment to professional grade, all the while keeping in mind that, ideally, the equipment package would be compatible with my backcountry backpacking travels. Professional photo equipment is anything but small and light, but modern technology has made great advances in the size and bulk of the camera bodies. The Canon 5D was the first of the pro-grade digital SLR's to become a practical backpacking camera. The current model version, Canon's 5D Mk II, at 21 megapixel resolution along with a full frame sensor has improved the technology even further and is presently my main camera body. In the pursuit of portability while assembling a very flexible inventory, I have limited myself to three lenses, all part the highly regarded Canon L series. The workhorse is the 24-105mm. This lens is used in about 90% of my work. For longer shots, I have the 100-400mm telephoto zoom. Last is the 180mm macro. These three lenses allow me to shoot almost anything not requiring very specialized glass.

All my early work involved landscapes, such as the Pharoah Lake image. However, as I became increasingly enamored of photography as a medium of expression, I found myself turning my eye towards more and varied subject matter. As can be seen at http://www.essentiallightphotography.com/ , I will shoot anything that suits my interest at the moment. I have become a constant observer of light and form and am drawn to those places where both combine to create a moment of magic, if only one is prepared to see them.

This blog will touch on the many subjects that come into play during the photographic process, such as the nature of observation, what is creativity, is photography art and what is art anyway? We have an interesting road ahead of us. I hope you will join me along the way from time to time.

Jim Sabiston.