How to KISS in Photography

I remember the day when I got my Nikon 14 to 24 mm lens. I could not wait to head out to the mountains to use it.  I said to myself, wow, now I can get so much more in my photos.  Fast forward to now, I have learned that more in photography is not always better.  At the beginning of this year, after reflecting on my photos and getting feedback, I set a goal to simplify, simplify and oh did I say simplify.

Here is an example of an image where I recognized the need to simplify.  When I shot this image, I was quite excited by it.   The shadows and the light on the lake were what first caught my eye.   I thought wow, this would be a great black and white image.  My second reaction was hey, I’ll use the creek as a leading line into the lake. So, I set up, took the photo, got home and like a robot, processed it and posted it on FaceBook.   The reaction was muted.  Why? I did not take the time to actually look at it with a critical eye and decide whether it actually captured what I wanted.

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Now looking at this image, my reaction is what the heck was I thinking? There is so much detail and chaos in the foreground of this image, it is hard for anyone but me to understand the story I was trying to tell.  What is the story – the many many rocks, the little tree growing out of the stump, the light on the lake, clouds in the sky?

With the goal of simplifying in mind, here are a few techniques on how I K.I.S.S (Keep It Simple Sexy – never liked the word stupid) in photography.

  1.  Focal Length – Mountain scenes, although very beautiful, are very hard to keep simply because there is so much going on – tall rugged majestic mountains, beautiful blue skies with white fluffy clouds, trees, water, flowers, etc.  How does one capture a simple yet powerful image of these super detailed scenes? I have found that zooming in on the key element of the scene really helped me to simplify mountain scenes.  Below are a couple of examples

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Now I wish I could say that simply carrying and using my telephoto lenses was all it took to capture these scenes.  Instead, I have had to retrain my brain and eyes to look for these story lines.  Our eyesight is set at roughly 50 mm so capturing anything with a focal length of greater than 50 mm requires your brain and eyes to eliminate all the clutter and quickly zoom in on a scene to focus on what makes you excited.  To achieve this, I find myself looking high, looking low to the ground, pausing and looking around, taking shots and then looking at component parts within the scene to see what I like, etc.  While I am doing this, I am asking, what really excites me about this scene and then targeting only that piece.  Everything else is redundant and therefore eliminated where at all possible.

2.  Post processing – There are times when I return home and look at my images still needing to simplify more so I can really draw the viewer’s attention to the main point of interest. I achieve this through a couple of post processing techniques of which I use in isolation or together.

In the example below, I cropped the photo because this scene was a long way away so that even at 300 mm (I can crop my sensor to make my 200 mm equivalent to 300 mm) I did not eliminate enough of the mountain.  I also made a few other smaller edits to highlight the light.

 

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The photo below is an example of post processing to simplify the image to create the mood and focus for the viewer. In this photo, I dropped the exposure to black out the trees and to accentuate the highlights from the wind on the mountains. I blacked out the trees vs. cropping them out because I thought they added a nice border and that the cropped version was not going to give me the feel I wanted.     I also cranked up the contrasts, clarity, shadows and highlights again to further accentuate the stormy feel that I wanted.

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3.  Changing perspective

a.  Getting lower to the ground – Getting low will help eliminate details that you do not want or may not need in the mid ground of the photo. In shooting the scene below at Bow Lake, the image was about the cool frost flowers on the lake and fiery sunrise.  The blank boring white snow covered lake would not add anything to the scene.  If anything it would create a blank space that would detract.  So I got low to the frost flowers, which accentuated them and eliminated most of the middle of the lake.  Shooting wide put the firey sunrise in the background.

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In getting low, you could end up getting so close to your objects in the foreground that getting everything sharp from foreground to background will not be possible.  If this is the case, you will likely need to focus stack your photos to get everything sharp.  You can google focus stacking to learn more about how to do this.  I had to focus stack this photo as I was only inches away from the frost flowers.

b.  Getting closer to your main object in the foreground – where possible, you can eliminate a lot of detail and keep a wider angle focal length by simply picking up your tripod and walking closer to your main object in the foreground, where it is safe to do so. The thing to watch when doing this is foreground objects can become distorted when you are shooting at really wide angles.  Some of this distortion may be corrected in post processing.  But while in field keep an eye open for this distortion and minimize as much as possible.

In this shot of Troll Falls, I wanted to get the frozen lit up falls in the shot as well as much of the sky as possible.  To keep this as simple as possible I picked up my tripod and walked to where I could safely take the photo without slipping on the ice.  By doing this I eliminated a bunch of unnecessary messy fallen trees that would have otherwise been in the foreground and I was able to get the sky in the photo by shooting at a wide angle.

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In summary, improving your photography is a never ending journey, but I believe that my focus on simplifying my images has really helped me in my journey.  My next step in simplifying will be to train my brain and eyes to see simple images at all focal lengths from 14 mm to 300 mm.

Whether you are trying to simplify your images or something else, I really encourage you to get out and try something completely different in your photography.  It is a lot fun and you can end up with some very very cool results.

 

Are you cheating when you photoshop your photo?

I cannot count the number of times I have been asked “have you photoshopped your photo”, including recently at a basic photography workshop that I am co-leading, where I was asked, “is processing your photos cheating?”.

I completely understand where this concern is coming from as when I started my photography journey a few years ago I was adamant that I would not process my photos. I wanted the photo to look exactly as taken by the camera.  As I began to better understood photography, the limitations of a camera and artistic vision, my views on processing changed.  My goal in this blog is to explain my current views on photo processing in the context of my artistic journey.

Let me start by answering the question in the title –  NO, processing photos is not cheating unless you are in photo journalism or crime investigation.  In those instances, there are rules on what you can and cannot do that must be followed.   In the art of photography, photo processing is a great tool to use to achieve your artistic vision.

A bit of history in photo processing.   It is not a new development as a result of digital photography and computers. Photo processing began in the dark room.  In fact, a number of the basic digital processing concepts were derived in the darkroom where, through the use of various techniques and chemicals, film developers were able to change brightness, contrast, make small retouches, remove things, etc.

For me understanding photo processing history was important as it provided proper context for editing photos.  It helped me focus my reasons for processing my photos.   Here are the main reasons I process photos.

Technical limitations of the camera vs. human eye

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The human eye and brain are still the most complex computer in the world. Because of this, the human eye’s dynamic range (difference between the lightest lights and darkest darks) is a lot better than even your best cameras.  Our human eyes can resolve as many as three stops more light than the best cameras. Post-processing can help compensate for this by adjusting the darks or lights in isolation of each other depending upon the photo.   In this photo, I had to reduce the shadows/blacks in Adobe Lightroom in order to make the reeds in the foreground stand out a lot more.  I recall when I stood taking the photo that I could see the reeds a lot better than in the camera.

Control of the end product to match my vision.  

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In this photo I wanted to draw the eye of the viewer to the winter storm along the ridges and highlight the blowing snow, so I had to significantly increase the contrast and decrease the exposure to enable this to happen.  I was able to do this because I shot this photo in RAW which is literally a file that does not have any processing done to it by the camera.  It gives the photographer full control over how he or she wants the photo to look without loosing quality.  The other format I could have chosen was JPEG.  In shooting JPEG the camera actually does some of the basic processing for you by increasing the contrast, saturation etc.  It however compresses the image to reduce the file size (main advantage of JPEG).  But in doing so, the file loses a lot of data resulting in losing quality in the photo when processed.  The algorithms used by the camera to process the photo are based on averages and cannot read the minds of the photographer.  So, often the processing does not achieve the photographer’s artistic vision.

Astrophotography

The rotation of the earth creates opportunities and challenges in astrophotography, both of which can be overcome through post-processing.

The first is creating an opportunity – a star trails photo.

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Start trails are created through the rotation of the earth.   In the film days, the photographer would set up facing the north star and leave his or her shutter open for an extended period of time, up to three hours.  The time was solely dependent upon the length of the trail desired.  In the digital age, you are restricted to a lot shorter period of time because of a high risk that the digital sensor will overheat and create a lot of digital noise (grain) and/or artifacts in the photo.  As a result, to create the same effect, the photographer sets his or her camera up set up facing the north star and takes a large number of 20 to 30 second exposures and creates the trail through a post-processing computer program.  In taking this photo, I set up for more than 100 exposures, but after about 50, dew rolled in and started to cover my lens so I lost all the photos after 50.  Had I left the shutter open for 1 exposure, I would have lost the whole photo and not been able to create the star trails.

The effect of the rotating earth can create the opposite effect if the photographers goal is to create a photo with completely sharp stars in very dark lighting conditions.  To properly expose the fore and mid ground, you will most likely need to set your shutter speed for 20 seconds or longer which will result in stars starting to create a trailing effect.  The stars will look like sausages vs. the point of a pin.  To overcome this, the photographer would create two photos – one to expose for the fore and mid ground (keeping the shutter open longer to properly expose the fore and mid ground) and one for the sky (shorter to keep the stars sharp) and then blend the two in post-processing.  This will create the more realistic image that you can see with your eyes.

Expanding my creative vision

There are a number of post-processing techniques and tools that can be utilized to help a photographer expand his or her artistic vision.  The ones that I have used are:

Blending to create a composite photograph.

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This image is a composite of two images.  In my test shot, I was able to capture the beautiful dragon like figure in the sky but it did not have me in it.  The second shot had me in it so I felt a beautiful artistic image would be created if I combined the two by blending in Photoshop.

Composites have perhaps become the most controversial aspect of post-processing because it goes against everyone’s understanding that a photo is documentation.  However, if you think of photography as an art form, the camera and a photo processing tool are not that different from a paint brush and canvas. They both help the artist achieve their artistic vision.   When a photographer creates an image that is not physically possible (e.g. very large moon as a background of another photo), it is incumbent upon the photographer to be transparent that it is a composite.  If you are interested in blending photos, there are many great video tutorials online.

Panoramas

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I took this panorama this past summer at Forgetmenot Pond in Kananaskis country.  It is a group of 4 photos stitched together in Lightroom.  Panorama’s allow the photographer to get a real wide perspective on a beautiful scene.

Focus stacking 

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A large depth of field is extremely important to macro and landscape photographers.  However, often photographers are limited in the amount of depth that they can get when the object is very close to the lens, even at f22.  To overcome this challenge, multiple photos are taken at different focus points and blended together in a post-processing program to get a large depth of field from front to back.

There are likely many more reasons why post-processing can help a photographer create his or her artistic vision.  In creating art, the camera and photo processing are tools that can be utilized like paint brushes and canvases.   One thing to remember is photo processing cannot transition a poor or good photo into a great photo.  That is still up to the photographer in how he or she composes the photo.

Finally, in the end, the amount of post-processing you want to do is really up to your artistic vision and what you are comfortable with in terms of your views it.

 

Is a Human Element Valuable in Landscape and Astro Photography?

Yes, a human element can be an amazing addition to your landscape and astro photography.  Prior to this year, I would go out of my way to avoid any human element or ignore shots that included it.  I thought the shot would not be very natural and that a human element would ruin a pristine nature photo.   Well that all changed early in the year at the Nights of Wonder workshops with Paul Zizka and Dave Broscha.  Dave and Paul are both exceptionally creative at adding a human element to their landscape and astro photography.   Since the workshop, I have really enjoyed including a human element, namely myself, in my landscape and astro photography.   Here are examples where I have incorporated a human element in my recent photography.

  1.  Story telling – The essence of photography is story telling.  The human element can add a lot to the story in a landscape or astro photo.  Here are a couple of examples where I used myself to help tell a story in the photo.

Example 1

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Falling Over Orion

This photo was taken at Elbow Falls in Kananaskis Country, west of Calgary, Canada.  That is me sitting on the rock.  I wanted to tell the story of star gazing on a beautiful peaceful moonlit night. If you look in the background you can see the Orion constellation which was what originally attracted me to this shot.  Without me in the photo, to me it would have been a nice photograph, but in the end, it would lack the compelling story.  Technical information – Nikon D800 – 14 mm, ISO 2000, f4, 20 seconds.

Example 2

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River Aurora Dancing

This photo was taken at one of my very first aurora shows in southern Alberta, and it was an amazing show!  Lady Aurora was dancing like no tomorrow, so I wanted the photo to tell that story.  I thought adding myself with the guitar would make the story of the dance much more interesting.  By the way, I am the least musically inclined person on earth.  So fortunately for you, photos do not have sound. Technical information – Nikon D800 – 14 mm, ISO 4,000, 3.5 and 30 seconds.

2.  Scale – Mother nature has provided us with many beautiful and majestic elements in nature that are difficult to portray their size and scale in a 2d photo.  Including the human element is a great way to help overcome this challenge.  Putting people into the photo however needs to add to the story.

Example 1

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Enjoying Moraine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mountains are one of the majestic and beautiful elements in nature that are very difficult to portray their size and scale.  The people in the canoe really help portray the scale and size of one of the 10 peaks that tower above Moraine Lake.  Also the story of canoeing in a beautiful turquoise mountain lake helps give a feeling of peace and tranquility.  Technical information – Nikon D800 – 70 mm, ISO 200, f11, 1/80 seconds.

Example 2

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The Milky Way

I visited Dinosaur Provincial Park in July this year with the Calgary Camera Club.  After our sunset tour, I went back into the park as I was excited to get some nights shots.  It was a clear beautiful dark night so I was very fortunate to see the Milky Way which I find to be very mysterious and it’s size a wonder.  I was very excited to find this spot and the location of the Milky Way.  It provided the perfect opportunity for me to add myself to provide context in terms of the size of the Milky Way.  The location, Dinosaur Provincial Park, also gave the perfect setting for the mysterious Milky Way.  Technical information – Nikon D800 – 14 mm, ISO 4,000, f4 and 20 seconds.  If I were to re-shoot this shot, I would lower my ISO and open up my fstop to 3.5 or 3.2 as at 4,000 it was too noisy.

3.  Lack of interesting or exciting fore or mid ground

If you have looked at a landscape or nightscape and thought hmmmm, something is missing from this composition, consider adding the human element.  The key is to put the human element in a position and pose that helps with the story.

Example 1

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Morning Stroll

My eye caught the light on the snow covered moraines on the mountain so I stopped on my hike to capture this moment.  In looking at the composition, I felt I could use the road with the curve as a leading line, but it was still missing something.  Therefore, I felt that adding myself (set camera up on a tripod with a timer set for multiple exposures) walking up the trail would add to the composition and the story.  For me, a photo without me would have been rather plain and would not have told a very interesting story.  Technical information – Nikon D800 – 58 mm, ISO 1,250, f16 and 1/500.

Example 2

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Stargazing

I love these reeds at the lake we go to each summer.  I have three different compositions this year taken almost at the very same spot.  Despite my love for the reeds, I felt that the gap in the lake needed to be filled to give this photograph life.  So I inserted myself into it.  The story is of someone stargazing and enjoying the beautiful Milky Way.  My reflection adds a leading line into the photo.  Technical information – Nikon D800 – 16 mm, ISO – 2,500, f3.5 and 30 seconds.

4. Pick the right moment – Learning to pick the right moment and scene to use the human element is pivotal.  In the photo below, I shot one composition with me in it and one with out.  I am having to do this more and more now because my wife has let me know that she is not a big fan of the human element.  I live by the adage, happy wife, happy life.  

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Triple Threat – Milky Way, Aurora and Meteors

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I was quite happy with the photo of me sitting on the rock (see below) when I was out shooting, but when I looked at the photos the day after, I really like the one without me in it (to left). For me, it tells a much better story.  The rock draws you into the photo and the cottage gives the story of lake life under the night sky.  Perhaps someone could be sitting on their deck enjoying time with friends and a glass of wine looking up enjoying the night sky.  Whereas the one with me on the rock is less interesting and does not leave much to the imagination.  Technical information – Both using Nikon D4 – 15 mm, ISO 4,000,  f3.5 and 20 seconds.

My next step in my journey of including a human element in my photography will be with environmental portraits, a much bigger challenge, at least for me, as it will really stretch my creativity and understanding of lighting.  Stay tuned for hopefully a future blog on this.

With the age of digital you have the ability to experiment for free so get out there and try adding a human element using different perspectives and different stories.  You will will not regret it for sure.  To help you out, here are a few tips on how to include a human element:

  1.  If you are alone or shooting at night –
    • Use a sturdy tripod
    • Use an intervelometer – Fancy name for a timer that allows for hundreds of photo’s to be taken at various intervals.  The advantage of an intervelometer vs. a timer is you can set the elapsed time before the shutter goes off to be a lot longer than most cameras’ timers will allow.  This is handy when you have a fair ways to go to get into position in the photo.  They are relatively cheap.  I bought mine for around $70 but I think you can get them for cheaper.
    • Set the intervelometer or timer to take multiple exposures – I set mine for up to 5.  This allows you to get into position, rest a bit if need be, gives time for the environment that you disturbed to settle (e.g. water), etc.
  2. If you are with someone, include them as the human element or bribe them to take the photo.
  3. Night exposures – general max of 20 second exposure time – holding yourself very still is a difficult task.  I find that I can get a pretty sharp photo of my silhouette at 20 seconds, but anything more and I run the risk of blur.  Another tip to help keep yourself still is too look into the distance, similar to driving.
  4. Wear contrasting colours to the environment you are shooting in.  Generally, lighter colours work for me even in the day because my backgrounds tend to be darker.  Bright does not necessarily mean fluorescent.

I truly hope you found this blog useful.  Feedback is always appreciated so I know what to continue to do and what to change.  Enjoy getting out there shooting.

The artist in you

I LOVE photography.  I bought my first DSLR in 2006 and I have considered myself a dabbler in photography since then.  This all changed at the the beginning of this year when a fire was lit in my belly by a couple great photographers Paul Zizka and Dave Brosha.  Links to their websites are below.  Since February I have taken it up as a very serious hobby.  My ultimate goal is to become a well respected Canadian Photographer that shares his vision of the world to everyone.  In this journey, I want to share the great, the good the bad and the ugly through this blog. I hope that people can learn something from my experiences and I can expand my learning through meeting people on this blog.   It is going to be about my experiences in the art and emotional side of photography.

Lesson 1

Allow yourself to be an artist – Dave Brosha spoke these words at Nights of Wonder workshop in February.  Taking these words in and allowing myself to believe I could be an artist was a defining moment in my journey.  These words allowed me to take these photographs.

The Lonely Canoe Reflections

Are these award winning photographs no, but for me they are some of my most creative photographs I have taken to date.  Equally important to Dave saying the words “allow yourself to be an artist” was me allowing myself to think that yes I can be an artist.  Being in the right state of mind and not having any emotional baggage was extremely key to me in allowing myself to start my artistic journey.

In high school, I decided I wanted to become an accountant and so I have had 30 years of living and working in a logical and analytical world, the antithesis of the art world. Over the 30 years, I was extremely ambitious in advancing my career.  The career ambition and life in general came to a head for me in 2009 when I was diagnosed with depression.  My emotional energy as well as my family’s was fully spent by helping me overcome my depression and learning how to manage my life in a very different manner.  There was no room to allow photography on a serious note into my life.  Fast forward to February, 2015 and I was now open for a new chapter.  Dave and Paul’s inspiring work and support in my photography journey has really helped me in not only my photography but my life.

So allow yourself to be an artist.  It is in EVERYONE.  For some it may be harder than others to discover, but if an accountant can discover his creativity outside of “cooking the books”, anyone can.  If the timing is not right for you, that is ABSOLUTELY ok.  I am a firm believer in the things happen for a reason.  So allow those things to happen and be patient for your journey to start.

Here is another one of my favorite images that I have taken since I started my artistic journey.  It introduces my next lesson learned that I will share in my next blog – Pushing yourself miles beyond your comfort zone.  For me this is taking quality portraits.  This one is of myself at Elbow Falls, Alberta Canada at night.

 

Falling over Orion

I hope you enjoyed my first blog and my future blogs.  Feel free to leave comments or email me at lnordbye@shaw.ca.  I will respond to any comments or questions about my blog or photographs as quickly as possible.

Dave Brosha’s website link 

Paul Zizka link