This week’s Friday Foto Talk was on working the subject, so I thought I’d post a shot from last year at Abiqua Falls. It’s a lovely waterfall in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. It isn’t real easy to get to, involving a drive on logging roads and a short but very steep hike down to the river. Despite this, the waterfall is pretty popular with local photographers.
I’ve only visited once, but it was on a mostly cloudy Sunday afternoon with fairly flat light. I also had the place to myself. So I decided to take my time and explore every vantage point in the natural bowl, ringed by cliffs of basalt, that the falls drops into. Almost all the photos I’ve seen of this particular falls are taken from nearly the same straight on viewpoint, which is the spot you end up when you’re hiking there.
After crossing the stream and clambering up the side for a high view and working along the streamside for a super-low point of view, I waded to a large rock in the middle of the stream and climbed up to the top. This gave me a medium-height position looking straight up the stream to the falls – perfect for a vertical frame.
Hours had passed since I had arrived and dusk was approaching. The cloud-filtered light changed, and for a few brief moments the basalt grotto turned a subtle warm russet color. There is orange-tinted lichen on the columnar basalt near the falls, so any decent light here is a bonus.
I thought it was a wrap, but on the hike back out in failing light, I managed a couple long exposures of the green-themed stream corridor. So it was busy and fun shoot where I almost (but not quite) shot this subject to death! Have a great week!
Abiqua Falls, Oregon
Fall colors at the Grand Tetons, in a different part of Oxbow Bend than most shoot from.
Everyone knows that determination and perseverance are keys to success. I’ve always believed that stubborn people also possess these positive qualities. This Friday’s post is all about working the subject. You find a particular landscape, a flower or plant, a person, or an animal that you like and you shoot it a lot. You try to find different compositions, angles and lighting, you keep plugging away until you think you’re being repetitive, you fire off a few more shots just to make sure, before you finally give up.
Along the Lewis River, Washington.
WHY WORK THE SUBJECT
The advantages of working the subject are few but important:
- This is in my opinion the most important reason to work the subject. “Working it” is a key part of obtaining images that succeed in expressing what you want to express about your subjects. It often happens that you only realize what the picture should express after you come home and review the shoot on a computer screen.
* Many teachers urge you to plan what you want from the shoot ahead of time. That’s good advice in some circumstances, but not all the time. Making meaning from images retroactively is at least as genuine as what is achieved by planning ahead. There are things going on in your mind while you’re busy shooting, subconscious things. If you don’t stay with the subject and work it, then you have far less chance to find out what that was.
- The more you work the subject, the more different compositions will occur to you. You will see the “picture within the picture”, for example. This is when all of a sudden you realize the wider view contains within it a composition that demands a tighter crop. You zoom in or change lenses to get a longer focal length, and though you may not have moved the camera the resulting picture looks way different than your first image.
A waterfall in Honduras drops into thick jungle.
- The longer you shoot, the more likely it is that light will change and give you a totally different look. In rapidly changing light, going as fast as you can, this can be exciting and frustrating at the same time.
Tighter crop of the same waterfall as above.
- The longer you’re there the more you tend to move around. Changing position, both by walking and by varying camera height, is what working the subject really looks like. If you set up in one spot and just shoot in different directions or with different focal lengths, you’re not really working the subject.
- You may find different subjects in the same area, or in the case of moving subjects like animals or people, they may find you. For instance in nature photography, shooting macro basically involves finding an area with at least one subject you’re interested in, then staying there and (inevitably) finding other subjects to shoot. More than once I’ve been shooting architecture in a city and drawn the attention of (or had my attention distracted by) an interesting looking person or two.
By sticking around after sunrise and looking for other compositions, I was there when this bull moose happened by, hot in pursuit of his beloved.
HOW TO WORK THE SUBJECT
I mentioned above that moving around, finding different and unique compositions, is what working the subject looks like. But most important is your approach and attitude. Actively observe everything going on around you. While you’re doing that, relax and take your time. That doesn’t mean you shoot slow; it means you’re patient. Focus on the present and keep distractions (such as plans to hit other locations that day) out of mind while you shoot.
Of course there are times you’ll need to leave a location before you’re really done so as to get to a certain spot when the light is good. And you don’t want to shoot too long, going over ground you’ve already covered. It’s always a difficult push-pull, at least for me. A lot will depend on whether or not you will be able to return to the area.
Which brings me to something you should always remember. Working the subject doesn’t always need to happen on a single shoot. Returning to a subject or location, perhaps many times, is a great way to work a subject. Go exploring near home, especially for places and subjects other photographers overlook. Find a few areas you really like and return to them often, trying for a variety of seasons and lighting conditions.
That’s it for today. We could certainly work the subject of working the subject some more. And perhaps you’d like to, in the comments below. Have a great weekend!
In the desert of the Baja Peninsula, cloudy weather made it good for stills and close-ups like this shot of the wrinkled surface of a cardon cactus.
Working the macro possibilities so long, I was there for a change in light when the sun sank beneath the clouds, opening up landscape possibilities featuring the same cactus.
First post! Happy New Year!
This post concludes a mini-series on post-processing. Find parts I – IV here. My intent is to summarize the approach I’ve found to be helpful for me. It’s not to give specific instruction on how to edit your photographs on the computer. You can find these tutorials in many different places both online and in print. But be selective and only go with the most experienced teachers. Much of the online instruction in particular can be a little misleading and not all that helpful. Everybody is different and will approach specific editing tasks differently. Only very experienced teachers factor this in to the right extent.
You should develop your own unique “workflow”, or general sequence of steps, while being flexible enough to take any given image in a different direction than the one you took the last image. Editing is, in fact, just like capturing images. The more you do it the more comfortable you become. If you’re fairly new to digital photography, don’t expect to get to that post-processing comfort zone without some degree of frustration. Don’t despair; it’s all part of the learning curve. And so, on to plug-ins:
Last week I posted a winter Crater Lake. This one is from late summer with smoke from distant fires turning the sky orange.
PLUG-INS: WHAT ARE THEY & HOW DO THEY WORK?
Plug-ins are software programs that work with Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop CS and other programs to add functionality and ease of use. They are the classic editing extra. I’m talking only about those plug-ins which apply post-processing techniques to your images. There are plugins that do all sorts of things – automatically publishing your pictures on websites, for example.
As the name says, these programs “plug in” to your main editor (Lightroom, Photoshop or Aperture). When you install a plug-in, you link it to your main editing program. Editing plug-ins are designed to, in effect, take your images on a round-trip from your main program to the plug-in (where you apply edits) and back again.
In Lightroom for example, you simply right-click on a picture and click “edit in”. Then from the drop-down menu you choose one of the plug-ins you have installed and, from the box that pops up, select how you want to save it. After you finish with the image and click save (or apply, or whatever the plug-in says), your photo is automatically sent back to Lightroom, thus creating another version of it in a non-RAW format (Jpeg, TIFF). Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s a pretty simple procedure.
A bare winter tree
PUTTING PLUG-INS TO WORK
Although you can almost always do with Photoshop what any plug-in can do, these little programs can almost always do it quicker and easier. By and large, a plug-in, like any editing extra, will impart a certain style to your picture. Plug-ins can lend quite magical or painterly effects to your images. Many of them do what filters did in the film era. But they go far beyond simple filters.
The power of these little programs means it’s very easy to overdo things, resulting in an image with the wrong kind of impact. But, at least with the better plug-ins, it also means you can exert a fair amount of subtlety and control. This control is best applied by combining the judicious use of sliders and opacity.
Some of the more popular plug-ins for photography include Nik, onOne, Imagenomic and Topaz. There are others. These companies offer bundles, which are a good deal if you plan to use two or more of their products a lot. For instance I use Nik’s Silver Effex & Color Effex quite a bit, so I bought the bundle and for nearly no extra money got their excellent Dfine for noise reduction and HDR Effex for HDR.
The charming town of Quetzaltenango (Xela for short) lies in Guatemala’s western highlands.
As mentioned, most editing plug-ins are quite powerful, and thus they’re often used with Photoshop because you can easily apply them as a layer and then dampen the effect simply by changing layer opacity. Also, you can apply layer masks in Photoshop, limiting the effects of the plugin to local areas of the image. But even here the creators of these programs have figured out ways to allow their use without Photoshop. .
With many plug-ins, you can adjust opacity while still inside the plug-in software itself. And to take it a step further, in the better plug-ins you can adjust the effect in local areas of the image. Some plug-ins have masking as their sole function, competing directly with Photoshop.
All this allows photographers like me to largely avoid Photoshop, using the plug-ins in conjunction with Lightroom (which doesn’t have layers or layer masking). As described in Part IV, I use Photoshop itself as a plug-in, only occasionally taking photos from Lightroom to PS for specific tasks, then saving right back to my LR catalog. If you plan to use plug-ins in conjunction with Lightroom instead of Photoshop, I recommend those that allow a lot of adjustment to the overall effect (opacity) as well as the effects of individual sliders. All plug-in software offers free trials.
The roof in Carlsbad Cavern’s Big Room is studded with thousands of stalactites.
USE PLUG-INS WISELY
Plug-ins have an effect you’ll see all over the internet, especially on social media. Some of these looks become quite popular, and soon enough it seems like 9 out of 10 images you see have been edited by the same plug-in, with the same effect applied. Of course this isn’t the plug-in’s fault. It’s just our “ape” ancestry showing through.
But don’t let this stop you from trying the plug-in. Just be thoughtful and you’ll be okay. Your job as a photographer stays the same throughout the post-processing minefield, rife as it is with Facebook fads and 500 px rankings. Edit your images so they express your particular vision, taking strong account of exactly what was happening at the time you pressed the shutter, and how you felt about it. If that means using a look that happens to be popular at the moment, then so be it. Don’t be shy! If it means going with a look that gets 3 likes on Facebook, that’s fine too! In other words, to beat a dead horse, just be yourself.
While rambling southern Africa, the call of the gray “go away” bird might make you feel just a bit unwelcome.
Canyon hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains, Texas.
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I’m more into the capture part of photography. I started out hating post-processing, but now I’m much more in tune with it. In the end, it’s up to each of you to learn how you want to approach editing your images. Just like it’s up to you to choose (and then learn how to use) the software you think will get your photography to where you want to take it.
You’ve likely noticed that I recommend basing things off Lightroom. That’s because it does such a great job of organizing and editing both. And boy do I need organizing! Supplement with Photoshop (or Elements) if you’ll be doing a lot of cloning and/or composites (merging images). Add a few plug-ins that you enjoy using and that jive with your needs and style. If you take this approach, you’ll be doing the same thing most pro photographers do.
A long post, thanks for sticking with me! Hope you got something out of it. Good luck and have a fun fun fun 2015!
A recent sunset on the Cimarron River.
Despite 2014 being the first time in years where the amount of photography I did actually decreased, I had a pretty tough time picking a favorite mountain image. A bunch are more spectacular and dramatic than this one. But I really like the perspective and light, so this is the one!
Captured from the edge of String Lake in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, you see three peaks, the center one being the tallest one in the range, Grand Teton itself, at 13, 776′ (4200 m.). The one on the left is called Teewinot Mountain, after the Shoshone word for “many pinnacles”. This peak is very nicely highlighted by the light from the setting sun, which is streaming down and bouncing off the walls of Cascade Canyon.
I was just returning from a great hike along the range-front past Leigh Lake and to the sunny, empty shore of Jackson Lake, where I had a nice warm siesta. I went off-trail for a couple hours and saw moose (including a baby), elk and deer. I had been rushing to get back before dark, but when I came to String Lake, not far from the trailhead, the sun was getting ready to set. I wandered off-trail and along the shoreline. I was actually more in wildlife mode, with a long lens on. But when I saw the light on Teewinot, with the Grand behind it, I began to look for good landscape compositions.
String Lake has plenty of rocks and logs along the shore, but I thought the partly submerged grass in this spot where a small creek entered matched the mood of approaching evening. The light reflecting off the water looked beautiful filtered by the grass. It’s been said that pictures will come to you if you let them, and that’s what happened this time. The framed composition just appeared while I was awkwardly trying to keep my feet dry (I failed). I set up quickly while the light lasted. The vertical composition was so obvious to me that I didn’t do a horizontal. I usually try to do both.
I named it The Sentinel because that’s what Teewinot reminds me of here. Although I have a number of very nice images of the Tetons, this might be my favorite thus far. But tell me what you think; don’t be afraid to be honest either! I hope you are enjoying your short work week!
Teewinot Mountain and Grand Teton from String Lake.
Aptly-named Blue Lake in Washington’s North Cascade Mtns.
This continues my mini-series on post-processing. Check out Parts I through III here. The goal is to get you started, not to give blow-by-blow instruction on specific post-processing techniques. For one thing I don’t consider myself qualified to go into detail on any computer-based skill. For another, I don’t think I’d like the way my blog would look with screen shots of software instead of pictures.
Once you’re more or less proficient in Lightroom, and have managed not to lose too many images (remember after importing any image into LR, never ever do anything with that image outside of LR!), you may want to explore extra software programs. You don’t have to of course. Lightroom is great as a start to finish solution. But it can be a nice option for select shots.
I hesitate to recommend some of what I’m about to say. There is, I think, entirely too much following going on in popular photography. Has it always been this way or is it just the internet? Choice of subject is only one way we ape one another (sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, for e.g.). The way we edit our photos is a minefield as well.
A recent shot from Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico.
I’m not saying you should avoid using a technique you picked up from a fellow photographer, one that is enjoying popularity at the moment. But I am saying you should only use it if it helps the image reflect your own aims and style. As with life in general, I think the easiest way to pursue your own style and not follow someone else’s is to keep things as simple as possible.
That said, for a few select images, you may want to…
TRY OTHER SOFTWARE
Depending on the image, you can try other editing techniques (let’s call them “extras”) to get the specific look you want. All depends on the mood you want to create. Oftentimes you’ll need to apply one or more extras just to get an image to look like what you saw and experienced. With many images this can be accomplished with standard editing in Lightroom or Photoshop. But with others extra treatment may be called for.
Many people think the more you work with an image the further from reality it gets. That’s not necessarily true. If you’re not careful and thoughtful about your approach, you can certainly “overcook” any image. But you can do that with very little work as well. Also, as mentioned in Part I of this series, images often come out of the camera looking more dull and flat than the scene appeared at the time.
I’m so pretty: impala in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia.
And so editing is needed simply to bring life back into a digital image. This applies much more with digital than with film, which is one reason some still think film yields a more natural look than digital. But this doesn’t have to be true. All it takes to avoid the lifeless and flat look of digital is to use a purposeful approach. Lightroom can get you there in many cases. But if you find yourself, at least with some shots, spending an inordinate amount of time in Lightroom’s Develop module, trying a variety of presets, banging your head against the wall, and still not getting the results you’re after, it’s time to look at other programs.
I thought I’d throw in a photo to prove it’s not all about nature with me. I call this one, “take that tough boy”
Close in to Tumalo Falls, Oregon.
WHAT ROLE PHOTOSHOP?
I recommend taking an image into Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements to save $) if there is complex cloning to do: taking out people or power poles and lines, for example. Also use Photoshop to merge two or more images into a composite. A composite is when, for example, you take that great portrait you got and then move just the person into a beautiful natural scene you shot last summer. Or when you want to add a dramatic sky to a more interesting foreground.
Photoshop can do a whole lot more than this of course. But it takes real time to learn how to become both proficient and time-efficient with Photoshop. By the way, if you’re wondering whether or not to go for Photoshop or PS Elements, it depends on how serious you are, especially about printing. The full version of Photoshop CS works in 16 bit color while Elements is in 8 bit.
In other words when you go from Lightroom into Elements you are cutting the color depth of your image in half. The fuller color depth can yield slightly smoother color transitions in some images, noticeable by discerning viewers on large, high quality prints. But you almost certainly won’t see any differences, especially on digital displays.
A tree, by itself, that I liked.
There are other differences between PS CS and PS Elements, but you might be surprised at how many advanced functions are shared between the two programs. One more factor to consider: Elements is still available as a stand-alone program, whereas Photoshop CS is only available as a cloud-based program, where you pay monthly.
Only you can decide how deeply you want to get into Photoshop. I will say that many (or most) pros have made the transition to Lightroom for the lion’s share of their post-processing. A lot of people still love Photoshop, and it is certainly powerful. But if you aren’t already proficient, and of course if you don’t want to become a graphic designer or digital artist, Photoshop is a bit like using a full complement of tractors, plows and other farming equipment to work your little backyard garden.
That’s it for now. Next week (I promise!) we’ll go into the wonderful world of plug-ins. Have a wonderful weekend, and keep up that holiday spirit!
Weather starts clearing on a cold winter’s dusk after one of Crater Lake’s typically heavy dumps of snow, followed by a moonlight ski back. I miss skiing and I miss Oregon!
On some Sundays, I like to go behind the scenes of a shot for Single-image Sunday. Work yesterday prevented me from posting. So I had an idea. Mountain Monday is one of those themes you see for posting pictures on the internet. One example is Throwback Thursday). But instead of just posting a mountain picture on Mondays, I’m going to start a little semi-regular series. I figure, at the very least, for those times when I miss Single-image Sunday, it makes a good fall-back.
And so I’m combining Mountain Monday with the idea behind Sunday’s posts. That is, I’ll post one image and briefly tell a story about it. It’ll be a story of what I find most fascinating about the subject of the photo, and how I chose to photograph it given the conditions at the time.
I don’t like to go into detail about the settings and equipment I use while shooting; I don’t think it’s very interesting or illuminating. But I do think it’s cool to see how other people see a given subject, what they find interesting about it. In particular, I think it can be instructive to see how other photographers take what’s given in terms of light, weather and other conditions, and exactly how they choose to showcase the subject through their images.
When shooting, it’s always my goal to (first) put you right there as if you’re seeing the subject in real life, and at that moment; (second) to hold your attention long enough for a little story or emotion to come to mind; and (third) to make you see and appreciate some of what I love about the subject. For me, this is the real purpose of photography.
So now, finally, to the image (they won’t all be this long!). This is a mountain in west Texas that I recently bumped into. I didn’t even know about another El Capitan. I thought that “El Cap”, the one that overlooks Yosemite Valley in California was the only one. You know, the one that is scaled by those incredibly limber rock jocks.
This El Capitan lies in west Texas near the New Mexico border. It was, in the old west, a well known landmark for travelers. In the 1700s and 1800s, it was a beacon for Spaniards and then white Americans pushing into the American desert southwest, heading for Santa Fe or California. It was also an important landmark for native Americans in pre-historical times, going back at least 12,000 years.
Geologically, El Capitan is part of the Guadalupe Mountains, which is the uplifted portion of a long, mostly buried limestone reef. This reef was alive in a warm sea 250 million years ago, in the Permian. It was created by sponges, algae and solitary corals seeking sunlight. And it supported, as modern reefs do, a huge community of bottom-crawling and free swimming critters. Coiled-shell ammonites, a squid-relative that is survived today by the reclusive pearly nautilus, were especially abundant.
Imagine time-travel (of the deep variety): the soft-muffled sound of small waves washing across a shallow bank of brilliant white sand; iridescent shades of turquoise blue water spread in layers across a subtropical seascape, a warm breeze, and no other humans within millions of years of you.
What the years have done to it! The Chihuahuan Desert is one I haven’t properly explored yet. I began to on this little trip. I found a great variety of succulents, including cholla, prickly pear, and several different varieties of agave (including century plant), plus various kinds of yucca. What they all have in common is the ability to hurt when you bump into them. The yucca pictured is called the Spanish bayonet!
For the picture, I scouted this area the day before. I saw (and felt!) that the slopes bordering a major wash had plenty of plant diversity, plus a great view of the mountains. Next to El Capitan is the highest mountain in Texas, Guadalupe Peak at 8751 feet.
Next morning was cold, windy and very clear. Most landscape photographers, you may know, hate clear skies. But it was so darn clear that you could see halfway across Texas (not really). The clarity of the air itself was attractive to me. So I dragged myself out of bed and wandered through the pricklies.
For the foreground, I wanted either an endemic, cool looking plant or an interesting outcrop of limestone. The background was a given: El Capitan & the Guadalupes in the first rays of the sun. The extreme clarity of the air meant that using a wide angle lens and moving very close to the foreground would, despite the lack of clouds, add some sense of depth. The lesson: don’t always assume clear, cloudless conditions equals a flat, boring photograph.
Though this isn’t an award-winner, and certainly won’t secure many “wows” on the internet, I think it’s the kind of image that both depicts this place as it is and also shows it to good advantage. What more can a photographer ask for?
Yucca and the Guadalupe Mountains, west Texas