Last week I had the pleasure of being one of the instructors on a Hunt’s Photo Adventure in Woodstock, Vermont. We had a full class of attendees of varying abilities, and a beautiful area of the country to use as our subject. Workshops like this are fun because of the exchange of ideas that goes on between experienced photographers, and the numerous lightbulb moments that happen with the less experienced photographers when explaining various principles of photography, or helping them get past a specific challenge.
We based ourselves in Woodstock, Vermont, and visited several landmarks, such as Jenne Farm, Cloudland Road, and a maple sugar shack. Unfortunately, Mother Nature chose not to cooperate fully. While we had some fresh snow when we awoke Saturday morning, skies had been gray Friday afternoon when we started, and remained after the snow Saturday morning. Well, photographers nutty enough to get up before dawn and spend hours outside in the cold aren’t about to be deterred by a little flat light and gray skies! So we got out there and made images with the light we had.
I always enjoy seeing how different people see the same subject differently. It helps me to look deeper into a scene, look harder for a shot besides the obvious, and makes me a bit envious when someone sees something I didn’t! At the same time, I enjoy when I saw something differently than others did, and can help them see it as well.
The other challenge for me is the technical help people need with their cameras and lenses. This is less fun than the creative side for me, but just as important. When you have a group of 10 or 12 photographers, you can potentially get 12 different cameras. Not everyone needs assistance but you never know who will. Thankfully, I’m familiar with most brands to one degree or another, having put in seven years working for Canon, shooting Nikon for the past three and a half, and a Fuji kit for a year as well. I can pretty much find any setting on most cameras given enough time.
Winter in Maine is both a magical and arduous season. While the cold can be bitter and yes, even deadly, Maine’s natural beauty shines even in the winter, especially after a fresh blanket of snow has fallen. This winter, I have found myself photographing in temperatures as low as -14°F (with a wind chill of -24°F), but have captured some of the most beautiful scenes I’ve come across in the state.
The roads to Pemaquid Point weren’t too bad, and the fresh snow was beautiful on the evergreen trees along the roadsides, and the temperature, at 18°F, wasn’t as bitterly cold as I’d experienced earlier in the month. I arrived at Pemaquid Point lighthouse to find that while the entrance to the park had been plowed, the lot itself had been untouched, and no one else had been there. I parked and didn’t see a footprint in the fresh snow anywhere. Perfect.
Not wanting to disturb the pristine blanket of snow, I thought for a moment about how I wanted to plan my images. I didn’t want any footprints in my images, and I knew I wanted to get down on the rocks below the lighthouse to get the snow covered rocks in the foreground and the lighthouse in the background. I made my way to the far end of the parking lot and walked towards the rocks along the edge of the property. I knew there was a path down onto the rocks there and I could work my back to where I thought my images were going to be made. The big question was going to be how treacherous the rocks would be with fresh snow and ice.
I made my way down, slipping once or twice but not too badly, and found the scene as I’d pictured it in my mind. Fresh snow covering the layered rocks as the sky began to glow with the rising sun. It was perfect. I made a few exposures and moved along the rocks to a couple of other spots, before climbing back up and making my way to the other side of the lighthouse for some images there. As the sun rose to my left, the undulations of the ground cast shadows and revealed the textures of the fresh snow. Still, no one else had been to the park except for one car that pulled in, got out and took a cellphone shot, and left as quickly as they came. I eventually saw some footprints other than mine- presumably those of a fox or other small mammal exploring the rocks.
It was exactly the type of morning that restores peace to my soul, and refreshes my mind. And exactly the type of morning that makes it worth it to get out of bed at 4:45am and bundle up for a few hours outside.
At the top of this post is an image I took last Saturday at Marshall Point. While it was bitterly cold, the rising sun painted the scene with warm tones as sea smoke rose from the waters of Muscongus Bay and clouds moved across an azure sky. The sun caused soft warm tones in the sky, with hints of orange and pink in the clouds. Tall grasses poked out of the snow with light brown tones that contrasted nicely with the blue sky and white of the snow and ice. The image above is my final edit. I adjusted the color and contrast of the image in Photoshop to get the image to most closely resemble not only what I saw with my eyes and what I felt when I came upon the scene.
Below, are five versions of the same file, processed as the camera would have had I used the noted picture style. Notice how flat they are, how lacking in color. Notice how the sky lacks pop and even loses detail. Picture styles are good for general use, but I find they kill more images than they help. Personally, I am not content to settle for images that do not convey my vision. The total time spent post-processing this image for me was less than five minutes. I did not manufacture elements of the scene. I simply brought out the most in the information I captured.
As seems to crop up every now and again, lately, one social media group I am a member of has been debating the merits of the post processing of images versus taking what the camera gives you. I am very firmly planted in the post processing camp. I firmly believe that post processing of images, whether in a darkroom or in digital form, is an integral part of the photographic process. It is the difference between being someone who shot their own film and used their own darkroom to process and print it, and being someone who shot a roll of film and took it to the local one-hour photo lab and settled for the prints they were given.
If you went to the lab, you might get some nice prints, but you’ve given up a huge amount of control over the final look of your image. You might not even realize the amount of creative choices available to you when making prints- things like dodging a shadow to bring out detail here, burning down a highlight area to get better detail in clouds, or even using a detail enhancer on the negative to bring out finer details. It’s the difference between a snapshot and a photograph.
I have seen people call the use of images straight out of the camera (SOOC) as “pure” and “true”, as if those of us who do process our images from RAW files are somehow lying. Now, I have seen my share of photo composites that couldn’t possibly be real, but most times the artist has stated that the image is a composite. I have also seen plenty of overprocessed and overdone images (in my opinion). Perhaps some even feel mine are overprocessed and overdone. That said, I don’t feel the need to stand up and proseletyze in a public setting and state that only one way is correct. If I see an image I don’t like, be it due to composition or exposure or processing, I move on without a word. Photography is a subjective and creative process and others are more than welcome to do as they please with their own images, but to call images “pure” or “truthful” because they were taken straight from a digital camera is simply misguided.
Without getting too technical, today’s digital cameras do just as much processing to an image as I do. The difference is that they don’t know what it is they were looking at when taking the photo. Digital cameras have various presets- called “Picture Styles” on Canon cameras, and “Picture Controls” on Nikons. These picture styles determine how color is reproduced, how shadows and highlights are rendered, and how fine detail is handled. So, who told the cameras how to do this? Most likely, a Japanese software engineer. This guy is today’s version of the photo tech who printed your images at the one-hour photo lab. He determines how your photos will look. Yes, you can choose your picture styles in camera yourself, and you can even customize them. But that picture style still starts where our aforementioned engineer says they do.
When you shoot RAW files, the image you see on the screen is still subject to those picture styles. The camera has to start somewhere, so when I photograph with my Nikon D810, I use the “Camera Flat” picture control. This setting is the least contrasty, meaning I can capture the most amount of highlight and shadow detail without losing any. To judge this, I use my histogram to make sure I’ve properly exposed my image. If you’re unaware of what a histogram is, it’s a graph that shows the distribution of highlights, midtones, and shadows within an image. On the left is shadows, the right is highlights, and midtones are in the middle. The peaks in a histogram simply show how many pixels are at a given tonal level. Using a histogram is akin to using Ansel Adams’ zone system. You should be able to look at the scene and know where in the histogram a particular part of the scene will land, and even plan for that part of the scene to be in a specific section of your histogram.
Adams also used a technique called visualization, meaning he would look at the scene, plot certain sections to fall at certain zones within the zone system, and then know what could be done in the darkroom to get the best final print. I use the histogram in a similar way. By knowing where certain critical areas of my scene fall on the histogram, I know what I can do with those tones in processing, so even if the image on the screen doesn’t look the way I want it to based on the scene I see with my own eyes, I know I can get it. Quite often I’ve heard people complain that they can’t get the image to look in camera the way they saw it with their eyes. This is how you do that. In-camera picture styles are generalizations. They will work well for average scenes but as soon as you challenge them just a bit, you will find they fall short.
One last thought: If you truly want an image straight out of the camera, shoot slide film. Different emulsions have their own characteristics, so you choose the type of film you shoot based on the look you want. Fuji Velvia is contrasty and has saturated colors, and was always a personal favorite of mine. Kodak Ektachrome had more neutral color balance and less contrast. Depending on the emulsion some photographers felt it skewed to the cool side of the color palette. But the bottom line is, when shooting slide film, what you see is what you get.
I’m not here to argue one way is better than another. Photography IS very much an art form, and it’s up to each individual to choose how they fulfill their creative needs. What I will argue is when someone states that one approach is “pure” or “true”. I will again state my opinion that those who argue that side don’t really understand the complete photographic process.
One of the things I love about Maine is the climate. Some may say I’m crazy, but harsh though it may be, Maine winters offer every bit as much beauty as the other three seasons. Yes, it’s a bit more difficult to photograph in the elements, but it’s no less rewarding.
For the past week or so, Maine has been under a deep freeze, with temperatures below 20° for the better part of 10 days or so. Lows have been in the negatives during that time. While those conditions are daunting, they create some spectacular visuals. In our case along the coast, one of the most beautiful phenomenon the frigid temperatures bring is known as sea smoke. Sea smoke (also known as frost smoke or steam fog) is formed when very cold air moves over warmer water. It is common in the Arctic, and happens in Maine and New England during a particularly cold spell.
On New Year’s Eve, looking at the weather conditions for the next day, I decided I would get up at sunrise to capture the sea smoke as the rising sun filtered through it, creating this warm and spectacular light. So the night before, I planned my excursion, setting out 2 pairs of pants, 4 shirts, wool socks, boots, heavy jacket, fleece hat and facemask, and gloves. Then I dug out hand warmers (thanks Mom!) and toe warmers (Mom again) to put inside my gloves and boots.
I awoke at 5:30am on New Year’s Day to a temperature of -14°F. While the urge to stay under my warm blankets was strong, I forced myself to get up and head out. My first stop was Portland Head Lighthouse. I’d always wanted to photograph it in winter, with snow on the rocks, and the warm glow of the morning sun. Upon arriving at the lighthouse, I met a few other photographers of similarly questionable sanity, noting that the temperature was still -14°F.
I made my way out onto the rocks, careful to watch my step as there was snow and ice everywhere. I wanted an angle a bit different from the usual shot most people get from the fence at the top of the bluff. I hopped the fence and tried a few different locations on the rocks, first with my Nikon 24-120mm lens, but I wasn’t really thrilled with the composition I was getting, so I switched to my Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens and suddenly the scene came alive for me. I love the look of ultrawide angle lenses, and the Sigma 14mm is superb. Wide angles force me to consider foreground interest in the composition, making for more interesting compositions.
After I felt I’d gotten what I wanted out of Portland Head Light for the day, I decided to head over to Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland. I had seen other photographers’ images from the previous few days, and was incredibly jealous that I couldn’t get out due to my work schedule, so this was my chance to create a few of my own.
While I did get one image with the 14mm lens that I liked, here the 24-120mm lens was more appropriate. So I once again switched lenses and went back to work. With the tide coming in at Portland Harbor, the huge chunks of ice began to float out a bit, creating an interesting foreground as the lighthouse emerged from the fog into the bright morning sun. It was a breathtaking sight to behold.
All told I spent about two and a half hours outside in sub-zero temperatures photographing the sea smoke around two lighthouses. After we got back into the car- I had my girlfriend braving the cold with me- we headed to Becky’s Diner for an amazing New Year’s Day breakfast. And to thaw out a bit.
Last week, I had planned to go out and photograph at sunrise. Originally, I had planned to photograph at Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland. When I arrived, I noticed the sky was setting up to be one of “those” sunrises, where the clouds filled the sky just enough that they would pick up some color and add interest. I then also realized that if I wanted to make the most of it, Spring Point Ledge was the wrong place to be. It faced the wrong direction to really see all the color and get the sun in the shot. I quickly made the decision to head to Portland Head Lighthouse instead.
I’m not unique in the fact that Portland Head Lighthouse is one of my favorite places to photograph in Maine. But I’ve found that it’s like every other oft-photographed icon: no matter how many photos there are of it, every individual can put their own stamp on it and make a photo they can call their own. On this day, I got to Portland Head just in time to find a spot and get set up before the show began. And I noticed there wasn’t another photographer in sight.
After a few false starts, I found a spot I was happy with and started making images. At first, a huge dark cloud had moved in and I wondered if the sunrise would be a bust. But as the sun continued to rise, the clouds continued to move and soon they began to turn a bright pink and then finally, the sky exploded into oranges and red, contrasted with purple in the darker clouds. It was one of the most amazing sunrises I’ve seen.
As the waters of Casco Bay pounded the rocks just below me, I continued making exposures as the light continued to change. I was splashed by the occasional wave and watched the sun break the horizon, the clouds changing colors. The whole show lasted maybe five minutes.
After the sun came up, I moved over to the other side of the lighthouse and used the soft morning light a little more. I finished up and headed out to find breakfast.
One of the highlights of my life as a landscape photographer was a gift given to me by my now ex-wife- a flight over the mountains in Denali National Park. I had been planning the trip for several months when she surprised me with this wrinkle for my birthday. It gave me an opportunity to see Denali in a way I had not seen before, and a way I had not planned.
The thing I most remember about the flight was how small it made me feel. We were 11,000 feet up (the ceiling for the bush plane we were in), and we STILL had to look up from the plane to see the tops of some of the peaks of the Alaska Range, including Denali itself, which was almost double our altitude in height.
As cloud cover moved in and around the mountains, I tried to capture as much of the view as I could- kettle ponds on the tundra, the mountains enveloped in puffy white clouds, glacial lakes, hidden in valleys where people rarely set foot. It was all breathtaking, and remains one of my favorite experiences that I’ve captured with my camera.