A recent shot from a lovely place in the Colorado Rockies called Bluebird Lake.
Let’s follow-up on the topic point of view (POV) and in particular last week’s Foto Talk on ethics and legality. As you begin to dream up and try a wide variety of positions to shoot from, you’ll find yourself getting more deeply involved with it. It’s what photography is all about. But before you get lost in the moment, take another moment to consider the following cautionary tales. The phrase “safety comes first”, after all, applies to photography like it does to any undertaking.
Flowers grow on a lichen-covered rock outcrop at 11,000 feet in Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.
POV & Safety: People
- Property Territoriality. I mentioned last week how you might run afoul of property owners or officials. Yet anybody could take strong exception to your shooting near their “territory”. One time in a lonely rural area I was getting some sunset shots. Not far away was a farm house. I was on the side of a county road, not even pointing the camera directly at the house. But driving away in the gathering dark I noticed a guy following me in a pickup. He continued for quite awhile until I stopped, got out and challenged him (something I don’t recommend). Later I was pulled over by a cop (the guy had called) and had to explain who I was and what I was doing.
While shooting this barn in central Oregon I was approached by the owner who told me I was on a private road. I was honest about my reason for being there and he let me shoot away.
- Compositional Territoriality. It’s not always property owners who have issues. You can also get in the way of other photographers too. Although I generally shy away from popular locations and subjects and so don’t run into many others, on occasion I have inadvertently stepped in the way of a fellow shooter. Some of these guys (they’re always guys) are extremely possessive of “their” compositions (see bottom image). I don’t know why but they seem to like shining flashlights or (worse) laser pointers at me in a sort of passive aggressive way. Weird.
- See Below for more on staying safe in populated areas.
Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake. I balanced on the edge for this shot ’cause I wanted a POV highlighting the metamorphic rock textures in the foreground.
- Stay Cool. I probably don’t have to tell you that situations involving angry people can spin quickly out of control. But if you remain relatively calm and listen to what the person is saying you’ll thank yourself later.
- Be Honest. It’s always best to state honestly what you’re doing. If you try to obfuscate in any way you’ll just put yourself under suspicion.
- Be Sensitive but Firm. I try to strike a balance between (1) being sensitive to both the law and to people’s concerns and (2) being firm about my right to be on public property and my right to use (especially to keep!) my camera gear.
- Know when to Walk Away. I don’t always handle people the way I later realize I should have. The main thing I’ve done wrong in the past is to not apologize and walk away when someone gets very angry. Apologize even if you don’t think you’re in the right. If they won’t let you go and want to get physical, just pull out your phone and dial 911.
St. Vrain River, Colorado.
POV & Safety: Animals
People are obviously the biggest danger, but other animals can be dangerous as well (see what I did there?). How close to that buffalo do you really need to be? Seems we read on a weekly basis about tourists getting hurt when they get too near buffalo or other wild animals in Yellowstone Park. And it’s not just tourists. Pro photographers with not enough wildlife experience or common sense get too close. Don’t take domestic animals too lightly either. For example I give Brahma bulls more respect than most wild animals.
This large African elephant in the Okavango Delta gave us a fright when he bluff charged.
- Learn. Start by reading about your animal subjects, paying particular attention to body language, territorial behaviours, “comfort distances” and related info. But remember to take anything you learn on the internet or in books as a general guide only. Animals are like people. It’s not just that each individual is unique; it’s that each situation you find it in is unique. Animal behaviour depends not just on instinct but on the individual and its circumstances.
- Observe. There is no substitute for careful observation of body language while you’re anywhere near a potentially dangerous animal. Don’t approach until you take a good look. For example, ears back is a common warning sign with prey animals. For predators you may get ears back if they’re feeling defensive, or ears forward and alert if they’re on the hunt.
- Go Slow. Approaching slowly will not only avoid frightening the animal and blowing your chances, it will also give the animal a chance to get comfortable and keep it from becoming defensive. It will also allow you more time to observe your quarry and stop if a behaviour indicates you should. As a rule you should never turn your back on or run from any potentially dangerous animal. There are exceptions to this however.
I’ve posted this one before, but it shows so well how animals use body language to warn you about getting any closer (arched tail).
POV & the Blinder Effect
- The blinder effect is when you are dialed in to what you’re doing, changing positions and POV. Our minds are on the shot, not on possible dangers.
- As photographers we are more vulnerable than the average person. To see why, let’s take mountain lions as an example. If you’re a smaller man or a woman you need to be particularly careful in cougar country. But even if you’re big and ugly like me, think about it. As a photographer we often choose to shoot near dawn or dusk when the light is good. And that’s when most predators are active. Further, we tend to crouch down (making ourselves smaller) with faces pressed to the camera instead of directed toward danger.
- In populated areas, simply substitute the word mugger for cougar and the situations are perfectly parallel.
It’s not just when they’re the subjects that wildlife is a potential danger. On a couple occasions I’ve been so focused on a landscape shot that I allowed a curious animal to approach me quite closely. Depending of course on the animal and the situation, this could be either a pleasant surprise or a dangerous development. For example cougars inhabit even populated areas. And don’t forget venomous snakes. Adjusting POV often means walking through tall grass or thick brush.
This Komodo dragon on the island of Rinca, Indonesia snuck up on me while I was photographing a bigger one. It’s a bit chilling to be stalked.
- Urban Areas: In cities, wandering into a sketchy neighborhood near dark is easy to do when chasing a shot. I did it in Kuala Lumpur once while trying for a photo of the Petronas Towers at blue hour (dusk). That is, until a kind local noticed and let me know I was putting myself (or at least all my camera gear) at risk. I got a shot but it wasn’t right, so next night I did something different (see image).
Not as famous as the Petronas Towers, but still worth shooting, the Kuala Lumpur Tower & the perfect POV on my hotel’s roof. I don’t think I was supposed to be there.
- Remote Areas: One reason I like wilderness areas is because there’s normally no need to worry about other people. But the other side of that coin means you are more vulnerable if a bad character does appear. Several years ago I was in Colombia on a hike through a jungle known for its bandits. I stopped to watch some very cool-looking monkeys. There was a small noise and I turned around to find that two young native guys with machetes had caught right up to me. Chills went down my spine. But happily they turned out to be friendly and we ended up hiking together. One even climbed a tree and used his machete to cut a huge fresh papaya down (yummy!).
For the blinder effect there is really just one solution: Be Aware of your Surroundings. Take your face away from the camera and look around from time to time, particularly in lonely places.
I feel like I’ve sounded a tone that’s a bit too paranoid. We all know what can result from too much fear: paralysis. In fact you’ll probably never run into most of these situations. But they are worth being ready for in the same way that it’s wise to prepare for a natural disaster that’ll probably never happen. So be careful out there, just not too careful. Shoot with as many POVs as you think is necessary. Practice awareness and common sense and all will be well. Have a great weekend!
At Utah’s Deadhorse Point, a popular spot, I showed up very early (rare for me). While shooting this gnarled juniper a guy who arrived after me but apparently wanted the same shot circled around trying various ways to hurry me.
Sunrise over Brainard Lake, Rocky Mountain Front Range, Colorado.
I’ve been stranded with vehicle problems lately but it has not been all bad. I’m in a beautiful place, near to Rocky Mountain National Park. Now this is not the most out of the way place I’ve ever been. In fact Rocky (the name locals use for the park) is now the third most popular national park in the country, visited by more people than either Yosemite and Yellowstone. So it can get very crowded, especially on summer weekends.
Besides visiting during the week, there are a few ways to avoid most crowds at Rocky. One is to go over to the west side of the park, in particular staying away from Bear Lake, the most popular destination within the park. Another is to go hiking but to summon the energy and continue on up the trails, past popular destinations in order to get more solitude.
But an alternative is simply to not enter the park at all. The Rocky Mountains don’t stop at the park boundary and public land (mostly Forest Service) extends in three directions. I’ve been checking out a few nearby natural areas recently, mostly to see something different. As I suspected most of these places are also very crowded on weekends. But since they mostly attract locals, they tend to be quieter than the park during the week.
It’s peaceful along the Colorado River in the western part of Rocky Mtn. National Park.
Brainard Lake Recreation Area
One place that is hard not to be impressed with is Brainard Lake Recreation Area. It’s only 35 miles south of Rocky, about an hour’s drive down the Peak to Peak Highway. A busy campground (get there early or reserve a spot) is located conveniently just below Brainard Lake itself. Several small picnic areas are scattered about, and fishing is popular. In recent years a population of moose has moved in. Popular with wildlife photographers, these are Shiras moose, the smallest subspecies. Although definitely smaller than Alaskan moose, bulls can reach 1200 pounds and are dangerous in the fall rut.
The area is also famous for its hiking. Several trails head up into the Indian Peaks Wilderness to beautiful alpine lakes. Energetic hikers and peak baggers continue up the spectacular valleys past glacial tarns and on up to rugged granitic mountains. The hikes tend to be strenuous because of the altitude, but distances are not great. For example I hiked to Blue Lake and it was just 5 miles round-trip with 900 feet elevation gain.
Colorado Columbine on one of the trails of Brainard Lake Recreation Area.
Another amazing hike I can personally recommend is Isabelle Glacier. In 8 3/4 miles you gain 1750 feet. This takes you past two lakes, including lovely Lake Isabelle. Hike beyond this lake and you’ll drop most other hikers, passing flower meadows and a high tarn before climbing into a huge amphitheater surrounded by soaring peaks, snowfields and waterfalls.
Lake Isabelle and Indian Peaks, Colorado.
A family of ducks paddles across Red Rock Lake.
But several of the images here are from the lowest of the area’s lakes, and my favorite. Red Rock Lake lies on the road to Brainard Lake, and most people blow right by it, in a hurry to get to their destinations. It’s a peaceful spot that attracts waterfowl, and has a nice view of Indian Peaks from the east shore. It’s quite a photogenic place, despite not being as spectacular as the high, hike-in lakes, which are closer to the peaks. But because of the red rocks and a partial cover of water lilies I think Red Rock is more visually interesting than many of the area’s lakes.
Thanks for reading, have a great week, and happy shooting!
Beautiful Red Rock Lake, Colorado.
For this recent shot of a granite-lined pool on Colorado’s St. Vrain River, I went for a downward-looking POV.
After the recent posts on point of view (POV), I realized I had been taking it for granted. It’s the kind of thing that experienced photographers model naturally when shooting. But they gloss over it and don’t talk about it enough when teaching. Novices tend to be busy figuring out their cameras, exposure, where to focus, etc. As a result they may not pick up on how important POV is until later on.
But here’s a simple fact: the sooner you learn to quickly and purposefully adjust your point of view, the faster your photography will improve. Why is POV so important? Because it’s all about finding the best compositions. And in photography composition means everything. So be sure to check out POV Part I and POV Part II. This week let’s take a step back and look at some consequences of changing POV in the quest for the perfect shot.
Last Wednesday featured a male mountain bluebird. Here is his mate near their nest at 11,800 feet (3600 m.) up in the Colorado Rockies.
An image whose point of view is of another creature’s point of view (note what the elk is looking at).
Okay. You got the message of the last two Foto Talks. You’re moving around with purpose, shifting POV in all directions, shooting away. You’re well on your way to better photos. And maybe on your way to trouble as well. Here are some quandaries common to photography, along with ideas on how to handle them.
POV & Ethics
- Be Kind to the Environment. Moving closer to your foreground subject could mean trampling delicate vegetation or disturbing other living things (stirring up sediment in a sensitive aquatic environment, for example). Just last night I saw a portrait photographer trampling flowers while shooting a family, and this was inside a national park.
- Be Kind to Fellow Photographers. In places with other photographers around, working a subject with many different POVs (normally laudable) could result in you selfishly “hogging” the subject (next post will have the counterpoint to this).
- Strike a Balance. While a strong commitment to getting the shot is necessary to get good images, it’s also important to avoid being insensitive or rude.
- Be Aware of where you are and of those around you at all times. I’m not saying to take your mind off the photography or to worry about what others think of you lying there on your belly. But at the same time, be conscious about damaging sensitive habitats. Think about the critters, including your fellow photographers.
The subalpine flower meadows of Mt. Rainier, Washington are a place where you should be careful where you step.
POV, Legality & Permission
Are you going to hop that fence to get closer to your subject, grab a quick shot and get back before the property owner comes along? What about entering a questionable area in some foreign country? Laws are different there and enforced in different ways. Do you really want the shot that badly?
- Example 1: Unexpected problem in a Foreign Land. In a busy public area in Malawi I was shooting a cute little baby with big brown eyes, after asking her mom. The unexpected result: a policeman became suspicious, approached me and wanted to take my camera away. I had to do some quick talking, show them my pictures, and get the mom to back me up.
- Example 2: Dangerous & Illegal POV turns out OK. Another example is the image below, which is a few years old. I had driven past this spot with a fantastic view of Portland, Oregon many times. But I could never see a safe way to shoot there. For the same reason that makes the spot such a great POV: it’s on a busy, curving freeway ramp that swings out over the Willamette River.
But one day I noticed a spot where the ramp widened, with just enough room to park. It even had a curb for a bit of protection from traffic. It required a quick maneuver in the heavy traffic. The first time I did it was on my motorcycle, which made it quite easy. But I knew it was illegal to be there so didn’t stay long. I quickly set up my tripod and captured the shot I had been after.
Portland, Oregon is a town of bridges, like the Steele Bridge here spanning the Willamette River at dusk with a crescent moon.
SOLUTIONS: Asking vs. Apologizing
You’ve probably heard the old expression “better to ask forgiveness than beg permission”. Sounds good, right? But in the real world you have to weigh risks and be able to handle things diplomatically if you get caught or challenged. Here are a few examples:
- In villages and on treks I’ve seen photographers surround some poor kid doing something cute, with no thought of whether it was okay with the parents. That is horrible ugly tourist behavior. With kids you should almost always ask the parents first. Or be ready to be apologetic and honest about your motivations.
- For sensitive areas (political or military), I would avoid them outright. If you insist, always ask first.
- Photographing someone’s property (including their bodies) also begs you to ask first. But we’re entering a gray area. If you make it a rule to always ask, you may not get many good shots. You could miss the light, for example. Then in reality you’re asking to return another time.
- One more example: on a city street photographing people. Unless you shoot first, you’ll probably miss that great candid shot. For some subjects, however, it doesn’t matter, street performers for example. So you may as well ask first.
One of my favorite child images, a Sherpa boy waiting for his dad to come home. I didn’t ask permission first, but in a part of Nepal away from tourists, I was willing to risk it. I smiled a lot and his mom invited me in for tea.
SOLUTIONS: The Quandary
The last two points above illustrate a quandary unique to photography. Do you forego the quick shot and engage first, or do you strike while the iron is hot and talk later? Each of us have to handle it in our own way, realizing that each situation is different. Ultimately we need to accept responsibility for our actions. It’s safest to ask permission first, especially if there is the slightest doubt. But whatever happens, it’s important to be honest and pleasant.
Okay that’s it for now. Next week we’ll look at other issues to be aware of when actively changing your point of view. Happy shooting and have a wonderful weekend!
Sunset over the high tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
In a forest I often find stumps or fallen logs to stand on, raising POV. Like atop this fallen giant in California’s redwoods.
This is the second of two parts on Point of View (POV) in photography. Last week Part I looked at general position and angle related to subject and background. This time I’ll focus on what most people think of when they think of POV: height.
Point of View: Height
Let’s go back to when we first picked up a camera. What did we do? We shot from a standing position. Then when we got hold of a tripod we extended the legs and again shot from eye level. This isn’t surprising; it’s almost always the way we experience the world.
Unfortunately, it quickly becomes boring to see picture after picture from this same position. You start to wonder what it’s like to see things the way the world’s shortest man or the tallest woman sees them. Going further, what is it like to see the world from an eagle’s point of view, or an insect’s? There’s only one way to find out. Get up or get down and shoot! It’s the other major way to change point of view: change the camera height.
Long’s Peak, shot last night from the highest point I could find on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.
The easiest way to change height POV is to lower it. You go down on one knee, assuming the classic shooter’s pose. Or you squat, getting a bit lower. Or you lay right down on your belly with elbows propped in a sort of tripod. When you’re using an actual tripod and want to go lower, you either change the length of the legs or spread them more widely.
You can also remove the center column or otherwise rig up the tripod to go even lower. For ultra low POVs you can just plop the camera right down on the ground. Or you use a beanbag, your camera bag, or a piece of clothing for cushioning, giving you a POV very near ground level.
This small cholla cactus I wanted to highlight against the stormy sky of Death Valley, California. So I used a very low POV, a foot or two above the ground.
When you lower your point of view a few interesting things happen:
- Foregrounds draw nearer and get bigger. For compositions with close foreground elements, lowering POV brings them even closer (see image above). If you want everything in focus front to back you may have to stop down to a smaller aperture (higher f/number). Or you can take more than one shot and focus stack the images.
- Foregrounds change position. Lowering your POV also changes how foreground subjects are set off against the background. As you go down, close foreground elements rise in proportion. This can set them against the sky instead of the landscape and even put them in silhouette. You also need to be aware of foreground elements blocking important parts of the background. Make small shifts in position to compensate and get the composition just right.
- Backgrounds recede. This depends on how wide your lens is, but when you lower the camera the background can lose prominence in favor of foreground elements. Even tall mountains tend to shrink. Not as much as when you change from a 50 mm. to a 17 mm. focal length, for example, but the effect is similar. It’s another way that lowering POV helps to emphasize foreground elements in an image, by de-emphasizing the background.
For these two elk this morning, I got low to set them against the rising sun. Compare with image below.
Another recent elk from Rocky Mtn. National Park. But this time from a higher POV gained by walking uphill.
Another way to vary height POV is to raise the camera, so you’re looking down on your subject. It’s more challenging than lowering the camera, but it’s often more interesting to try. And it’s more satisfying when it turns out well. That’s because, as hard as it can seem to get very low (especially as we get older), going up usually requires the most effort and imagination. You need to either climb with your gear up to some perch or do some outside-the-box thinking, or both.
Here are some ideas:
- Climb a rock or mountain. We tell ourselves it won’t matter so much, but that’s our lazy side talking back to us. In actuality, scrambling up onto a rock or heading up a steep trail is often all you need to make that landscape photo pop. It can also add interest to a group photo. Depending on your subject, even a modest increase in POV height can help to add a sense of depth. The image above only required a short (but breathless) walk uphill. I also gave him plenty of space and shot with a longer focal length (600 mm.) so as not to disturb him from his morning “zen spot”.
- Or a tree! Last weekend while photographing these moose in Colorado I was becoming frustrated by the tall willows. While the moose were more than okay with it, happily munching on one of their favorite foods, the willows were also limiting my view to head and antler shots. So I did something I rarely do anymore: I climbed a tree. I only had to go about 6 or 7 feet up to make a big difference in POV. I ended up liking the shots with lower POV, those few without obscuring willows that is. But how would I have known for sure without trying?
I had to get part-way up a tree to even get this much of a moose in the willows, Colorado.
A fairly low POV, helped by finding an avenue through the willows, emphasized the size of this rather rude fellow.
- Tote a ladder around. This is something I’ve only done a couple times, but it’s certainly a good solution in some circumstances. For photos of people, just those few extra feet can really add variety and shift perspective dramatically. For landscapes when you’re in a flat area, especially when shooting from the road where vegetation blocks the view, it can make the difference between getting the shot and getting skunked.
- Go flying. I’m always on a budget, but on occasion it has worked out to charter a flight in a small plane. In the Okavango Delta, for example, I went in with a couple other people and took a spectacular flight over the enormous wetlands in northern Botswana, looking down on elephant and antelope herds. If money is no problem, a helicopter flight is the best option of all. You can hover for one thing, allowing extra time to shoot. In addition, being able to land anywhere (if regulations permit) makes choppers my all-time favorite mode of air travel.
- Get a drone. I don’t really like drones. For some reason they annoy me, and besides I like to be physically behind the camera. But I have to admit that drones allow you to dramatically raise point of view in a hurry. They also allow you to put the camera into places that are impossible to get to.
A low POV and wide angle helps to lend a sense of depth to this shot of a glacial tarn high in the Rockies.
I sometimes catch myself getting lazy when I’m out shooting. Not often, but it happens. I’ve learned that attitude has so much to do with photography, and occasionally the enthusiasm and motivation is just not there. In those cases I think it’s best to just enjoy the place you’re in without photographing anything. Of course us photogs. have a hard time doing this.
But if you are standing in one place and not varying your point of view, ask yourself if you really want to be out shooting that day. A good way to check if you are truly motivated is to simply observe yourself. Are you moving your feet? Are you changing position and height?
The bottom line is that if you want better photographs you simply must vary your point of view as much as possible. All this shifting around to get the shot can lead to problems both legal and safety-wise. So nextFriday I will add a post-script to the topic of POV. Thanks so much for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!
For this sunset shot at Red Rock Lake, Colorado, I wanted to get low enough to emphasize the grasses yet not so low that Indian Peaks would appear too small.
An image from Guatemala, where just the right point of view on the street created interesting angles.
Having tackled fairly heavy topics recently, it’s back to basics this week. Basic but definitely not trivial. Although point of view could describe your own subjective take on the subjects you shoot (part of your style), the term is used most often in photography to describe the physical location of your camera. It’s abbreviated to POV.
It boils down to a very simple idea: constantly vary your points of view. Don’t stand in one place, and don’t shoot from the same height above ground. Move around; get low, lower, and even all the way to the ground; shoot from under your subject; get high and shoot directly down on the scene.
Snow Canyon State Park, Utah offers some amazing points of view. It felt like I was perched atop a huge animal’s foot here.
Point of View: Angle & Position
When we start out in photography we tend to shoot with the sun behind us so that our subjects are illuminated. This is natural and not a bad way to go (exposure is a breeze, for one). Then we see something interesting and naturally turn our cameras that way. We just changed our angle of view.
But then, as novices, we stop there. We don’t vary that angle. We don’t look behind us very much. We also don’t consider the direction that the light is coming from. Better photography comes from shooting in more than one direction (look behind you!) and from remembering the light.
For this one of a termite tower in the Okavango Delta, I moved close to it and shot upward to emphasize its height.
To start varying POV, simply turn a bit and take a shot. Go ahead and continue to rotate through the entire 360 degrees of the compass, shooting as you go. But this is just panning. It’s important to change position too, particularly for close-up subjects. That will bring you closer or further away from your foreground subject relative to various backgrounds.
The idea is to vary POV by combining changes in position with changes in angle of view. But not in a half-hazard or willy-nilly manner. Don’t be that indecisive photographer you sometimes see, constantly putting the camera up to his eyes, swinging it around and zooming in and out, hoping to land on a good shot. It’s not necessarily a bad thing using your camera to test compositions, but I recommend the following.
Avoid pointing your camera hither and thither before you decide on a shot. Use your feet to change POV instead. Use your unaided eyes and keep the wider view; you’ll see more. I almost never put the camera up to my eye until I’m ready to shoot, then I shift or zoom only slightly to dial in the exact composition I want, paying special attention to the edges and corners where unwanted distractions may lurk.
So, in order to move with thought and purpose, read on…
- POV and Subject: Generally speaking getting closer to a subject makes for better pictures of it. But let’s go beyond this simple yet important bit of advice. When you have multiple elements in an image (a landscape with close-in foreground for example), changing position and angle of view changes perspective in significant ways. Even for things that are further away it’s surprising how a small change in position can change the look of a picture. Many shooters don’t appreciate this enough. They don’t think it will matter to walk 10 or 20 yards (meters). But it does (see images below).
Saratoga Springs, Death Valley, CA., from on top of a small hill.
A closer & lower POV than the image above, only taking a few minutes to walk down off the hill.
- POV, Background and Light: Most of us go for the more spectacular, dramatic background. But think about it first. Where is the light coming from? How will changing your position affect how the light falls on your subject or supporting foreground elements? In a past Foto Talk I detailed how to use differing angles of sunlight in your photography. That’s a good post to check out.
- POV, Background and Composition: If you change your POV to change background, how will that change how your overall composition works? For example, will the color palette or texture of the background be consistent or clash in some way with your foreground or other elements? I’m not saying don’t take the picture, but when you take a look on the computer later think about this stuff when you choose selects.
I had to get fairly close (but not too close!) to this buffalo for just the right balance with the background at Yellowstone National Park.
- POV and Subject Weighting: For relatively close subjects, where you stand and which direction you shoot may not only change the background; it may also change your subject’s relationship to it. Will that more dramatic background overwhelm your subject, making it “disappear”? How close do you want to be to your foreground? Remember it’s your choice how much to emphasize a foreground subject.
Wanting the covered bridge to be the main subject, I also wanted Bollinger Mill, Missouri in the same shot. So careful positioning (and a wide angle) was necessary.
Next week’s Foto Talk will go into the ways that changing POV in terms of height affects your photography, with tips for varying things to get the best possible images. Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!
It required careful positioning to get this image from Oklahoma. I didn’t want the usual composition where the bales dominate. Instead my focus was the cottonwood in warm light from the setting sun.
All these are recent images, this from Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Utah. Enjoy!
I’ve stayed away from this topic up until now, maybe because I don’t like beating a dead horse (or a living one for that matter!). My recent series on Visualization led naturally to this subject. So this week I’m going to post a fairly long one. Feel free to copy it and read it later, but I just couldn’t see my way to divide it into parts. This is very important to understand, because if you’re serious about photography it’s important to understand the issue and know without any doubt where you stand on it.
I’m talking about the eternal debate between the belief that photography has become diluted, even ruined, by over-manipulation of images and the reaction to that: it’s simple ignorance of photography as art. This is an argument that seems to have no end, one that mostly centers around post-processing (“that’s been photoshopped!”). But it also comes in during the capture phase.
A sandstone wall and wonderfully refreshing creek in a canyon called Death Hollow, Utah. Quite the hike to get here!
Shades of Gray: Where I Stand
I believe, as usual, that the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. In fact at different times on social media I’ve argued both sides. At least I have when I forget that it’s a bad idea to express opinions on Facebook! First let’s clarify something. Photoshop is just a software program. One can over-edit a photograph or drastically change reality without ever touching Photoshop.
There are, for example, simple plugins that allow you to combine different pictures into one. And don’t forget that reality can be altered during the capture phase as well; Hollywood has been doing it forever. But Photoshop is the most powerful software for manipulating images. It was created for digital artists not photographers. And besides, the term ‘Photoshopped’ is firmly fixed in the vernacular.
Although my opinions recognize the subjectivity and shades of gray inherent in the question, I tend to come down on one side. I think anything a photographer does to create an image is okay. Far be it from me to tell somebody how to express their creativity. That would be very presumptuous. I do wish, however, that people would say in their captions when their images are not photographs but digital art, using photographs as raw material. That’s simple honesty.
I’ll also admit to feeling a bit sad when I think that the original (to me the true) meaning of photography is being lost as it merges with digital art. I’m disappointed that the two are merging, in fact. I don’t like any kind of homogenization, a feature of modern culture across the board, it seems.
A thunderstorm is about to rain all over me here along the roaring Colorado River, Colorado.
What is a Photograph?
Most opinions on the issue hinge on a single assumption: what you think a photograph actually is. I go with the traditional definition. A photograph is the capture of a single moment, in a single place. Or it represents a single time and place. The latter type can introduce all manner of subjectivity. It comes in when, for example, you take one picture of the foreground and a second of the sky immediately after. Then on the computer you combine them for depth of field or exposure purposes (or both). It’s still the capture of a single moment in time.
But when different times and places are combined to make an image, or when the processing completely obscures the moment, then it’s digital art. One of the simplest examples is when a photographer takes a beautiful sky, perhaps one that he didn’t even capture himself, and pastes that into a different photo to replace a “boring” sky. Once you learn how to do that, it’s easy to be tempted to go much further. You start mixing and matching elements to create the perfect image. These aren’t photographs, although they are routinely labeled as such. To repeat, I don’t think they are less worthy; they’re just digital art, different than actual photographs.
The road descending from Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction. Note the bicyclist.
Photoshop & Reality: The Push-Pull
When people complain online about Photoshopped images, they often get criticized by self-described photographic experts. It goes something like this: any image is art, therefore railing against “Photoshopping”, or processing out the reality of the world in favor of fantasy, is simple ignorance of the nature of photography, perhaps even ignorance of art itself.
Since I’m a live-let-live person I agree with this in principle. After all, since the invention of the camera photographers have been bending reality. But I think this kind of response to complaints about overuse of Photoshop is at best trite, and in some cases borders on condescending elitism.
It downplays the very understandable reaction that normal everyday people have to the trends in popular photography. I’m speaking of the reasonable reactions, not those that assume some kind of purity to photography, or those that are critical of somebody just because they edited a photo. People are indeed mistaken when they think only out-of-camera images (inaccurately believed to be unedited) are real.
I’ve had people tell me that my long exposures of blurred water or other moving subjects are not real photos. I’ve also heard people say that cloning out pimples and smoothing skin in portraits is cheating. But the idea that any kind of enhancement to a photo is getting away from real photography is simply wrong.
A very minimally edited image taken mid-day from the top of Angel’s Rest, showing a bird’s-eye view of Zion Canyon, Utah.
Why you may be Right to yell “Photoshopped!”
This push-back goes only so far. For example if you want to use your images to document something (photojournalism), you need to avoid most editing. The exceptions are true corrections (color, contrast, etc.) that make the image more true to reality. In this case you can’t clone out a branch or rock just because you think it is distracting.
But even for most of us who aren’t doing photo-journalism, there are important reasons to not dismiss the “too much Photoshop” argument. Because the sorts of images that get attention online tend to be those that stand out from the crowd in obvious ways (color, dramatic compositions, etc.), there is much more extensive editing, compositing (combining different photos) and other techniques going on than in the past. Much more. It’s a change that probably has nothing to do with art and everything to do with the desire to be popular online.
These heavily-manipulated images are all called photographs, which if you go along with the definition above is simply dishonest. Why would we lie about this? It’s because we know that viewers want to believe the photographer stood in front of that scene and that the image is (pretty much) a faithful rendition. On social media at least, photographs are valued over digital art.
And so it’s hardly surprising that most photographers are heavily manipulating and compositing their images and then pretending they’re the same as simple single exposures. When anyone pipes up online and complains about this trend, they get that trite response mentioned above. “You simply need to be educated on photography as art; trust me, I’m a pro”
What is Artful Photography?
The reason I don’t like this is not as much about its condescension as it is about a presumptuous extrapolation that goes along with this kind of thinking. It goes something like this: Only those images where reality is bent or twisted in some way are artistic. And so it follows that minimally edited documentary-style images are not art. Real photography by its nature seeks to alter reality, and that’s the art of it. This is complete bull. While it may sound all well and good, it ignores the very foundations of photography. It discounts the artistic efforts of generations of great photographers.
I mentioned above that photography has always been about giving the viewer a selective, interpretive version of reality. But this is just one side of the coin. There is another aspect of it that I believe runs through all genres. It’s this: photography isn’t just about bending reality. It’s also about observation, timing, and the attempt to capture a simple moment that needs little or no enhancement.
The image of the sailor kissing his girl in Time’s Square, for example, is mostly about the reality of that moment and needed no special developing techniques to become an instant classic. Claiming that heavy editing on most or all of your images is just you being an artist is rationalization for heavily altering images, probably to get more likes online.
By the way, I think this fallacy; that is, that bending reality is the way you put the art into photography, stems from the long-standing inferiority complex that photographers suffer when comparing themselves with “real” artists: painters, sculptors and the like.
But the dual nature of photography I just described means that it can never be directly compared with more traditional forms of art. In fact, painters and other artists of the realism movement in the 19th century were told similar things: “You aren’t doing real art, it’s too realistic.” But that was real art. And so is realistic photography.
Wading the Fremont River, Utah.
So let me put this subject in more concrete terms and relate it to visualization, discussed last Friday. Whether you are visualizing the specific way the final image will look or deciding that later, during processing; whether you are trying to match the way the scene looked to you in real life or deliberately altering that look, you are practicing real photography, not cheating in some way.
Either kind of image can be art, or it can fall short. It’s not what you do to the image during processing that makes it art; it’s how consciously you create it, how closely your process follows your own vision. And that includes what you actually observe in the field, not just your imaginative flights of fancy when sitting in front of the computer afterwards.
The Watchman overlooks the Virgin River: Zion National Park, Utah.
Navigating your way around the Argument: A Balance
Many years ago I had a job prepping samples in a lab, waiting for an opportunity to go into the field in Alaska. My boss was out of the ordinary, in a good way. He would occasionally write a motivational phrase on the sample bags, underneath the number identifying the sample. He knew we’d see it because we had to record the numbers. I was soon sent into the field (what else do you do with a young guy full of piss and vinegar!).
For some reason we got a batch of sample bags that came from the lab. A few of them had his writing on them, and while swatting mosquitos in the tundra they would show up. A small batch had the following written on them: “Awareness, Awareness!” I knew it had nothing to do with safety (which he trusted us with). It was part of his belief system, to be aware of everything around us, and to recognize it for being completely awesome and amazing.
The prickly pear cactus bloom comes in two colors, a vibrant fuschia and this more subtle yellow one: Zion National Park, Utah.
So are we somehow cheating when we bend and twist reality? Are we misleading viewers when our images do not match what the scene really looked like? The answer is an emphatic no. At least not when you do it consciously and with ‘awareness, awareness!’ It’s simply your artistic side at work.
Just do yourself a favor. Don’t make the mistake many photographers make. Don’t go around bending reality because it’s “more artistic”. After all, creating images which differ from the way things actually looked is not any more artistic than consciously noticing everything about the way the scene appears to you, in order to match that during capture and post-processing.
My advice is this: Do your own thing and don’t worry too much about what I or anyone else says. But if your goal is doing artful photography, avoid following trends and use that powerful editing software with some care. Make sure to focus on the capture phase just as much or more than the post-processing phase. Start with careful observation of what’s going on around you, and throughout the process never stop observing.
Be conscious about what you’re doing and visualize a final image that is true to you and true to your subject. Most of all, don’t worry about the opinions of people who don’t know as much about photography as they think they do. Think about your subject, its surroundings and the overall feeling or mood, rather than what kind of image will get a lot of attention online. The rest will fall into place naturally, trust me. This is the most important thing I’ve said regarding photography in this blog. Happy Shooting!
The setting sun highlights the walls of Capitol Reef, Utah, with the Fremont River flowing through it.
Lupines greet sunrise over the Palouse of eastern Washington. I visualized putting the purple wildflowers together with the area’s characteristic verdant green.
This is the third and final part on visualization in photography. If this is interesting to you, definitely check out Pre-Visualization and Visualization, Part I. This post will make much more sense if you read those first. Except for the image at top, all of these shots are very recent, from southern Utah.
Visualization and the Black & White Photo
Let’s start with an example: shooting for black and white. It’s a bit of a special case but illustrates visualization in action. As I mentioned in my recent series on B&W, you can go out specifically to shoot black and white or you can decide later to convert one or more color images after your shoot. If you decide before going out to do B&W, you are forced to visualize the black and white image while you’re looking at the scene in living color. It’s perhaps the simplest example of conscious visualization in photography.
A few of Zion’s temples in monochrome.
But you need to go further if you want to ‘visualize’ your way to being a better photographer. Visualization only begins to make a real difference when you’re thinking about the subject and composition, along with the lighting conditions, and imagining the way you want the final image to appear. In the case of B&W, the final images obviously do not match reality, which is in color.
And that isn’t the only way that photographers twist reality. In fact, next Friday’s Foto Talk will wade into the polarizing subject of reality, art and “Photoshopped” images. For now, realize that visualization is an important part of your decision whether to match reality or go beyond it. Visualization during shooting can make that decision feel much more natural, less contrived, even more honest, from an artistic point of view.
I’d been wanting to capture the Temple Cap Formation of Zion National Park so I went around visualizing it. This vantage point shows it perched atop the East Temple.
Can Visualization take your Photography to the Next Level?
Consider how visualization (especially the subconscious variety) influences the way you photograph your subjects. Even so-called documentary images, those that attempt to match the reality of the scene, not only carry the subject’s story. They carry your own personal take on that story. Images captured with visualization can easily reflect your overall style.
I don’t believe great photography of any kind is possible without some level of visualization. Even those excellent spur-of-the-moment street photos result from the photographer’s mental pictures of what’s happening. Where anticipation of the critical moment is so important, these mental images are formed instantaneously and mostly outside the photographer’s direct awareness.
Thunderstorms in Utah’s canyon country mean full waterpockets. Here I wanted an extra-low point of view, so set my camera right on the rock at the edge of a pool.
Getting Started with Visualization
Don’t feel overwhelmed, thinking I just threw another obstacle in your path to becoming accomplished at doing photography as art. Visualization is more natural than you might believe at first. In fact, you’re probably already doing it to a small degree without realizing it, even if you’re a novice. At least you are if you avoid thinking of things non-photographic while you’re out shooting. But your goal should be to go further.
On your next photography excursion, start visualizing your images as you shoot. Begin, as always, with conscious observation and awareness of your subject. Then just let things happen in your mind. Don’t expect instant results. It takes practice and isn’t easy to do consistently even after you get the hang of it. I’ll admit right here that I don’t always have the right frame of mind to visualize properly when I’m shooting.
The Navajo Formation dominates Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, and a high viewpoint helped me to visualize an overview shot of it.
After all, you’re not following a recipe or step-by-step instructions in order to get a specific type of photograph. It’s much more organic and open-ended than that. I know it seems like using crystals and the energy fields of pyramids. There’s a reason visualization is not much discussed. But I think it’s important to go beyond the cookie-cutter world of popular photography, where using a camera to make images is too-often taught as if you’re simply mastering a device plus a series of apps.
So give it a try. Think about your subject and its surroundings, the overall feeling or mood of the place. And visualize the kind of image(s) you think would portray both the scene and your unique take on it. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t dialed in right away. Your mantra: keep trying! Have a great weekend and happy shooting.
When stormy weather moved in at Snow Canyon, Utah, my images and then, later, the processing reflected that.
The result of waking up just after sunrise and while still sleepy walking into a fog-suffused meadow in the Sangre de Cristo Mtns., New Mexico, visualizing an image that would capture that mood.
I want to follow-up on last Friday’s post on Pre-visualization. This is Part I and next Friday I’ll conclude with Part II. I strongly believe that most of our best pictures are captured when we are in the right frame of mind, and a big part of that is visualization. Although pre-visualization can result in great images as well, I don’t think it’s as important a skill as visualization. It’s not easy to put these ideas into words, but here goes!
At least it is easy to describe the difference between the two types of visualization. I thought about calling the subject of this post Syn-Visualization; that’s because it takes place while you’re out photographing. Pre-visualization on the other hand happens before-hand, while you’re planning a shoot. A simplistic distinction I admit. The two certainly overlap and lead one to the other. Observation while out shooting is directly related in that it can lead to and be spurred by both kinds of visualization.
I had walked by this interesting cliff near Mt. Hood (Oregon) many times, waiting for the right conditions to show some of the lush environment along the creek that it borders.
While in Oklahoma, I’d been pre-visualizing images of tall-grass prairie in wind. The warm mood of this sunset allowed me to capture it, but with just the barest sense of movement instead of a longer exposure that would blur the textures of the grass.
Visualization in Practice
Let’s use a hypothetical example to show both kinds of visualization at work. On a first visit to a place you might observe something about a subject that you want to highlight. Unfortunately the light and other conditions aren’t quite right, so you shoot a more or less documentary (objective) photo of the subject.
Thinking about it afterwards, you spend some mental energy visualizing your desired image, planning that second visit (it may be the next day or next year). Then when you’re onsite again, you are faced with different conditions, different from last time and different than your pre-visualization. Your mood and state of mind are different. There may even be things that have changed about the place. A large log has fallen into a waterfall, for example.
Unfazed and with an open mind, you observe everything about the subject and conditions. You observe the mood of the place, and inevitably your own state of mind influences your interpretation of that mood. You begin to visualize an image that may to some degree be influenced by your pre-visualization and planning. Or you may throw out all thoughts of realizing your pre-visualized image and visualize a different image.
All of this should lead to getting the best possible image. A picture that does more than just record your being there. One that is deeper than what you thought was possible after your first visit. And as a bonus, you could end up being more artistically satisfied with your image than with one that is simply about the light, one that gets a lot of “wows” & “stunnings” online (although it could do both). The more conscious visualization you do, and the more time you spend behind the camera, the more all this “virtual photography” takes place in your subconscious (read on).
Any safari-goer wants an image of a charging black rhino, right? This curious guy wasn’t charging, but was covering the ground between us a bit too quickly, especially since he’d caught me outside the vehicle (a no no in Kruger N.P.)
While in Mexico I pre-visualized images of a pretty Mexican girl smiling. I ended up with three young friends who wanted to clown around, causing me to change my mind and visualize them together, a borrowed piece of fabric with Mexican flag colors as backdrop.
Let’s go deeper into how visualization might help your photography without much conscious effort. Both pre- and visualization can happen in the subconscious as well as the conscious mind, but there’s an important difference. Subconscious visualization while out shooting is made conscious (or explicit) when you make the photograph. It doesn’t always happen of course, but there’s at least a decent chance it will. In contrast, subconscious pre-visualization moves to the front of your mind in the less useful form of an explicit pre-visualization. Who knows if it will be made into an image or not, but the chances are slim compared to onsite visualization.
For most photogs. pre-visualizing aspens in front of the Grand Tetons has them in fall colors. For me, spring green and exposed trunks meant visualizing something different.
I believe that visualization (both conscious and subconscious), much more so than pre-visualization and planning, leads to images that accurately reflect the nature of the subject and your own take on that subject. It’s for the simple reason that visualization happens when you are faced with your subject, light and other conditions of the moment. Images based on good observation and visualization reflect your own style better too. Pre-visualization is subject to extraneous influences.
All of these benefits depend on how observant and conscious you are when you photograph. If, while you’re out shooting, you are thinking about an argument you had with someone, or about the election and that guy with the fake hair, you can’t expect much useful visualization to take place. I’m the first to admit I don’t always succeed at this level of attention while shooting, but the effort is worthwhile.
Visualization concludes with the next Foto Talk. Thanks for reading, happy shooting, and have a super week!
The Columbia River Gorge in Oregon is a good place for visualization. Here at a restored area I was trying to depict the gorge the way it was before dams, with wetlands lining the length of the river.