Friday, March 30, 2012

What is Photography About?

I saw a post on the web today, I think it was on Google+, that was praising the new Nikon D800. As an illustration of how good it was the author posted a photo of a bird accompanied by a blow up of just the bird's eye with a red arrow added pointing to a darker spot on the dark eye and the words "That's me". To me it was just a darker spot but he was sure it was his reflection in the bird's eye.

Apparently this photographer feels that the test of a good camera is its ability to render detail within detail. If he's right that you can see a reflection of him in the eye of the bird he photographed that is indeed a technological wonder, but it doesn't mean it is a meaningful image. I would even go so far as to say "Who cares?". Most photographs today are shrunk down to 800-1000 pixels on the long side and posted to the web. I'd guess that the percentage of photos that are actually printed is in the single digits and most of them are still too small to see such detail. The average person can't distinguish things smaller than 1/100th of an inch. You'd need a magnifying glass and a 30x40 print to find that reflection.

Fortunately I read something else on the web today, a post to the Lenswork Daily blog by Brooks Jensen, in which he quoted an email he received from Doug Ethridge. The quote ended saying that our hope is to create "an image that is not of something, but about something". Shooting images so detailed that you can see the reflection of the photographer in the eye of a bird produces photos of without necessarily telling us anything of significance about the subject. Focusing on your subject involves more than focusing your lens.

The photo above is from last fall (October 26th) when the local landscape was brown, but not as totally brown as now. A patch of winterberry in a bog along the Hatch Rd. not far from Potsdam International Airport, a name regarded by some with amusement but it does get occasional flights from Canada. Made with a Canon 7d. BTW on the 40x60 print you can see aphids on the berries (just kidding).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


I'm laid up with a case of bronchitis. We had a week of summer like weather and now we're back in much chillier weather. Everything is brown except for the shoots of spring bulbs. The world around here is not particularly photogenic. Spring is a time of renewal and I've been looking through old photos, deciding which to enter in a competition and I asked for input from some friends. The photo above is one I was considering and one friend commented that it might be stronger in B&W so I decided to try it.
I played with the tonal relationships and applied a warm tone using Photoshop's duotone settings. My friend likes the monochrome version better, my wife likes the color version better. To me they are different images and about different things. The monochrome version is narrower in my opinion, it's about the flowing water and the rest is subsidiary. The color version is richer, both literally because of the color but also in terms of what it is about. The warmth of the rock brings it forward and the green of the foliage is appealing as is the tinge of yellow/orange on the tops of the trees from the lowering sun. The green may be particularly appealing at this time of year when the actual world outside is anything but. The color version is more a presentation of an overall experience and the monochrome more a metaphor.

I like them both but I am more partial to the color version right now. In a different mood, at a different time, I might be more partial to the B&W version more focused as it is on the flow of the water. Right now I'm looking forward to more of the world around me being green and warm. Meantime neither version will go into the competition.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Time for Pondering

The snow in the photo has melted, we got another 4-5 inches and now that has also melted. We're hoping that we've seen the last and it will be spring but I'm not placing any bets on it. Looking back over photos from prior years we've had substantial snow storms as late as mid-April.

I watched a video on the web today in which it was suggested that if one wants to make really good landscape photos you have to go to where the really good landscapes are, the National parks, specifically the western parks, Arches, Yosemite, etc. If you aren't happy with your photos you can't expect to make interesting landscape images near where you live they said, partly because there aren't any great landscapes there and partly because you are too familiar with it. You need to go where the landscape will excite you.

The mention of Arches National Park brought to mind a remark by a photographer/potter friend who said to me "If I see another photograph of Delicate Arch, I think I'll puke." The advice above also struck me as the opposite of the classic advice to writers, "Write what you know."  The only National Park I've ever been to is the one in downtown Philadelphia, PA. The one with the Liberty Bell, Carpenter's Hall and other landmarks of the founding of the country. Not that I wouldn't like to go to some of the National Parks that have grand landscapes and I hope to but I've always felt that I could make excellent landscape photos of the landscape I know, partly because it is familiar and partly because I'm there when it is photogenic.

The photo above for example is simply a group of evergreens on the border between a farm field and woodlot. It is along a road about 15 minutes from my house that I have driven many times and never photographed before. The morning I made this image there had been a wet snowfall that stuck to the trees, in particular the evergreens, and this tableau, looking much like a family posed for a group photo, caught my eye.

I'm a firm believer that the potential for good and often even great (not that I think the above is "great" but I'm quite happy with it) photos is everywhere, that everything can be a great subject under the right lighting and conditions. The trick is twofold. You have to be sensitive to it, constantly looking deeply at the world around you, and you have to be there when the scene presents itself. Excitement is an attitude you cultivate, not something external. There's an old saying 'if you eat steak every day, sometimes beans taste fine'. You can get bored with grandeur too if you allow yourself to adopt that attitude. To make better photos take more interest in your subject matter, whatever it is, approach it with passion and your photos will reflect it. I should add to that you must have the skills to create an image that communicates what you saw and some degree of how it felt to be there.

There can be creative danger in going to iconic landscapes, danger that you will fall into the trap of remaking images of the hundreds or thousands of photographers that went to those sites before. I hope when I do go to one or more of the great parks that I will be inspired to make some photos that are not mere copycat images, but I am convinced that if I can't make interesting photos where I live, the grandeur of a western park will not be sufficient to make my photos great. I believe that it is possible to make as bad or uninteresting a photo of Yosemite as it is of a local farmers woodlot.