Simplify...

Creating strong images is often more about what you choose to exclude from your compositions than what you include. Extraneous objects, distracting bright spots, or other visual detritus rarely add anything to what you are trying to say visually. All elements of your images possess “visual weight”: that tendency for each element to grab and hold your attention. Different elements possess different amounts of visual weight, forming a sort hierarchy of things that grab your attention. Successful images minimize the visual weight of elements in your images that are not part of what you are trying to say photographically allowing those important elements to grab and hold your viewer’s attention. If an element in your image adds nothing to your visual message, it automatically takes away from it. Simplifying your compositions is one of the easiest ways to minimize the visual weight of distractions and strengthen the impact of your images.

A classic example of extraneous objects diluting your compositions is the “tree growing from someone’s head in a group portrait” scenario. Solving this, and other similar problems in composition is simply about being aware of your background and finding a point-of-view that eliminates or at least minimizes the impact of these distracting elements. Solving these problems boils down to recognizing those elements that are important to your visual message and eliminating those that are not.

Begin by identifying what you are trying to say: what you are trying to show the viewer, or what you are trying to make them feel about your subject. This is harder than it sounds, since often your “subject” is not a “thing”; it can also be a mood, a concept, a colour or shape, or the relationships among these.

I came across the image above along the backroads of Tuscany, while scouting for one of my workshops. For me, this wasn’t a landscape so much as it was about the line of the hill punctuated by a row of cypress trees, and the complementary colours of the blue sky and the red clay typical of the Crete Senesi. It was just those elements that were important to me, nothing else; not the winding road just out of frame or the green grass along the ridge of the hill. In a bygone era when we shot film, I would have chosen a high saturation film like Fuji Velvia or Kodak E100SW and underexposed this scene to drop the lower shadow values to near black and saturate the remaining colours. In the digital world it’s better practice to expose for good shadow detail (while being careful not to blow the highlights!) and then drop the shadow detail out in post…. a very simple adjustment in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. The result is just what I saw in my mind’s eye when I peered through the viewfinder.

The image below is another example of the same concept. This image is not for me a picture of the clock tower in this Italian town, rather it’s about line, shape and colour. Dropping the shadow values here allowed me to remove the distracting detail in the sides of the buildings below the clock tower, leaving strong lines to support the tower against the blue Tuscan sky.

When you can’t eliminate distracting elements by changing your point of view or creative use of exposure, you can at times reduce their impact through selective focus techniques (using longer focal length lenses and/or wider apertures to limit depth-of-field) or perhaps even shooting through something to obscure the distracting elements. In the image below, shooting through some foliage in my backyard and using a macro lens wide-open at f/2.8 eliminated the distractions of tree branches and garden tools in the background.

To quote Jay Maisel, “You are responsible for every square millimeter of what is in your viewfinder”. Understanding what is important to your visual message and eliminating everything that doesn’t add to this will result in simpler more impactful images.

Join me in my class, “After the Click, refining your vision in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw” at www.BPSOP.com to discover how to identify the visual weight relationships in your images and how to refine these in post to clarify your visual message.

Why Print Your Work?

Digital imaging has fundamentally changed the way we work as photographers. Digital brings immediacy, flexibility and lowers the on-going cost of creating images: once you own a digital camera, creating thousands of images entails essentially zero incremental cost. For the most part those images live on our hard-drives or somewhere in the cloud. We look at them on our tablets or smartphones, swiping right or left to skim past dozens or hundreds of images in a few minutes. How much thought and consideration can you give to an image you swipe past in a second or two? How easily can you consider your composition, your use of colour, of light and shadow when seen for an instant on a 4-inch screen?

Printing your work at even modest sizes, holding that print in your hands, allows you (in fact forces you) to consider your image more thoroughly; it forces you to slow down. You will see things in a printed image that might remain unseen on a smartphone or tablet; you’ll find yourself asking, “What could I do better” “How can I improve this image?” .

“Printing your work helps you become a better photographer”.

Historically, the print has always been the ultimate expression of the photographer’s art. When you print your work, you complete the artistic process by taking control of the final expression of your image. A fine print possesses tactile and aesthetic qualities that you control with decisions in post-processing on image size, paper choice and presentation method. These decisions are yours when you print your own work.

Printing your work begins the process of creating a long-lasting record of your development as an artist. Sharing prints with others allows to you to share your vision of the world around you with a tactile, long-lasting medium that will likely be around long after your ephemeral digital files are forgotten or lost in some unreadable hard-drive or long-gone cloud service. Your life experiences, and those of your family are too important not to be committed to archival prints with an expected life up to 200 years or more.

Admittedly, printing your work involves climbing a learning curve; fortunately, it’s not that steep or long. You will also have to acquire a capable printer, which is not without additional cost. If you are serious about becoming the best photographer you can, once you have a assembled a basic kit, the next purchase you should consider is a printer rather than the latest camera body laden with features you probably aren’t going to use anyway.

Print your work! Share it, give it away, frame it or just pin it to the wall… but print your work.

The next session of my fine-art printing course begins Friday, November 3rd. More at http://bit.ly/2lyTlvy

A Simple Thought and the Forgotten -ALT


Sometimes the simplest things, the most obvious things, are the things of which we need to remind ourselves most often. A few weeks ago we had a brief break in our usually grey winter days here in Vancouver. By late afternoon I noticed broken clouds filling in on the horizon to the west; the kind of clouds that often produce some interesting sunset possibilities. So I headed down to a point of land a short walk from my home. I arrived there to find a group of photographers setting up for the approaching sunset; big tripods and long lenses everywhere. For me, there was also an obvious wide-angle composition; nice, but nothing out of the ordinary.

After working that for a bit, I moved on, eventually heading back to find the same group; still busy shooting the setting sun with long lenses. So intent on this one possibility, it was apparent than none of them had thought to look behind them at the incredible light developing on the harbour and distant mountain.

We all love to shoot sunsets, after all who can resist a spectacular sunset? The problem though, is that absent a defining landmark, most look like they might have been shot anywhere in the world. The first image above could have just as easily been shot on the coast of France, or a few hundred meters from by back door. Turning your gaze 180 degrees often produces more interesting results that say more about the place where you find yourself. The Light on the Land is often more interesting than the Light itself. It's always worth a look behind you before moving on to your next location.

The Forgotten ALT Key

Lightroom has become (as for many others), my primary image adjustment tool. I can’t imagine life without it. But when I get together with other photographers, I’m surprised to hear how few of them know of the hidden power contained within the -ALT key (“Option” on a Mac). Here are a few of my favourite -ALT key shortcuts.

Epson Legacy Baryta Paper mini-review

Some months after the introduction of the Surecolor P-series printers, Epson revamped their line of high quality fine-art papers. The Legacy line of papers fills in some perceived gaps in their lineup that were perhaps being filled by third-party papers rather than their own. There are four new papers in this line; all are either completely OBA free, or make only limited use of these Optical Brightening Agents. As a result, these papers have very high archival properties. Of the four, I have been working exclusively with the Legacy Baryta for some time now and can offer some impressions.

Image quality

This is paper contains only modest amount of Optical Brightening Agents and because of this it has a brighter white surface tone than the others in the line-up. Up until now, my go-to papers for high quality prints have been a mix of Ilford Gold Fibre Silk, Canson Baryta Photographique or Epson Exhibition Fiber (although for some time now I have been working almost exclusively with Exhibition Fiber. The Legacy Baryta meets or somewhat exceeds the total colour gamut of these papers, but reproduces a noticeably deeper black. Comparing the profiles for each these papers using Chromix Color Think 3-D graphing software bears this impression out. The ability to reproduce deeper blacks translates into richer and deeper more subtle tonality in prints. Using the Outback Photo Printer Test image (reproduced below and available here; scroll to near the bottom to download the 40 Mb .TIF file), when printed on my P800 using the standard Epson profile for this printer and paper combination, I see very smooth tonal gradations in the grey-scale and color ramps Skin tones are pretty much spot on, reds are reproduced cleanly with little evidence of blocking up. It also exhibits excellent differentiation and neutrality in the darkest shadows.

Having printed many images with this paper, my subjective impression is that in general colours appear richer, with greater differentiation of subtle tonal differences than the papers I have used in the past. While it may not by immediately evident in the small jpeg below, the image contains a wide range of subtle variations in the blues and blue-green tones in the ocean water; these appear richer and have subjectively greater purity than with other papers. At the other end of the tonal scale, the beach pebbles are reproduced with all the rich shadow detail visible in the original image. Also of note, in contrast with other papers like Exhibition Fiber, Legacy Baryta required virtually no soft-proofing adjustments to match the monitor image with this paper. This is extraordinary. Soft-proof adjustments are virtually always needed to produce a print matching my expectations: a testament to both the quality of the paper and the profile Epson provides for the P800.

Hvar Island, Croatia

Feel and Handling

The paper has an exceptionally smooth finish, much smoother than the subtle “tooth” of Exhibition Fibre. This is a luster surface paper with a subtle and very uniform sheen, however it shows much less tendency to reflect hotspots from the ambient illumination than other luster papers. The most pleasant surprise with Legacy Baryta was this: it lies flat! Exhibition fiber (and other papers I have used) has a tendency to curl across the short dimension. When fed into a printer like the P800 the left and right edges of the paper lift slightly, at times causing the print head to strike the edges as it passes over them on each back and forth pass of the head. This can be mitigated to some degree by widening the platen gap in the printer, but it is not always possible to eliminate this entirely. Head strikes are not a good thing at the best of times; Legacy Baryta virtually eliminates this as a possibility. Legacy Baryta is a high quality fine-art paper, and priced accordingly; you will likely not want to use this for every-day work prints. However, If you are searching for a paper with an extremely wide-gamut, deep blacks and excellent archival properties Legacy Baryta is definitely worth trying.

Epson Surecolor P800 mini-review


Last August I retired one of my older printers, an Epson 3800 and replaced it with the new Epson Surecolor P800. I skipped over the 3880 as I never really thought it worth the cost, being as it was only a modest upgrade over its predecessor. The P800 however is a very significant jump forward: the difference is real and very apparent in side-by-side print evaluations. The P800 has a wider colour gamut and can reproduce darker blacks (higher dMax) than either the 3880 or the 3800. On this alone I give it my unreserved recommendation.

But beyond this, the nicest surprise was to learn that the printer’s paper handling abilities have been significantly enhanced as well. Where the 3800 would struggle to load certain papers, the P800 never seems to miss a beat. Also of note: the cantankerous front-load option of the 3800 (used to load heavier fine art papers), which I could never get to work reliably, is now redesigned and works flawlessly. Another welcome addition to this printer is the ability to handle paper in rolls through an optional (extra cost) roll feed adapter. If you like to print full-frame 16X24 inch images, you have likely been frustrated by the various paper manufacturers insistence on sticking to standard the US or European paper sizes used for office documents, rather than standard photo print sizes. Only one paper manufacturer I am aware of makes high quality fine art papers in a 17X25 inch sheet size (Harman). The largest 17 inch wide offerings from all others is 17X22, allowing you a printed image of only 14X21 with similar left/right 1/2 inch borders. Purchasing your favourite paper in a 17 inch roll allows you to print not only full-frame 16X24 images, but 17 inch panoramas up to 6, 7, 10 feet or more (Epson is a bit cagey about the maximum printable length. On a Win10 PC I can set a print length of 10 feet with no problems. Suffice it say that the maximum length is likely more than you will ever need with a 17 inch printer.

In general the P800 just feels better designed and more robust than its predecessors.  This is just a subjective personal observation,  but here is an objective example; soon after I purchased the 3800, the flimsy plastic latch tab broke off the front panel door, preventing the door panel from latching correctly, and making it necessary to prop the door closed at an awkward angle. In contrast, the P800 design makes use of a simple magnetic catch: there is nothing to break off.   Brilliant!

I give the P800 a hearty "thumbs-up" recommendation for anyone looking for a high quality 17 inch wide printer.

A Very Useful App

As a photographer, the position of the sun (or the moon) at different times of the day is something that concerns you. Knowing when and from which direction either will rise or set, is important information particularly if you shoot landscapes. You can certainly check the local newspaper or google sunrise and set times for your location. But how about having this information at your finger-tips for your exact location, anywhere in the world? How about being able to predict exactly where the sun or moon will rise or set on any given day in relation to a particular foreground subject? How about being able to search for exact time when the sun or moon will be in a particular position in the sky?

I carry this information in my pocket, everywhere I go, in the form of an incredibly useful app for iOS (also Android) called “The Photographer’s Ephemeris”. It’s available for about $12 from the iTunes store. If you shoot landscapes, this could well be the best 12 bucks you spend all year.

The basic functions are easy to master: sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times and directions are all pretty straightforward. More advanced functions such as searching for the specific sun/moon positions might require a glance through the online documentation, but that’s not really difficult either. Over the years, additional functionality has been added to the program: there is now a night mode which can be used to predict the rise time and position of the Milky Way and Galactic Center if you are so inclined. There are other applications available with more extensive functionality, but “TPE” and its intuitive interface is my go-to app to answer these basic questions.

Have a look at the screen capture below: it’s set for the time and place of the image above (a few miles from my home). The yellow line on the right shows the direction from which the Sun will rise, while the thin blue line shows the current direction to the Moon.

The band below the map indicated the times for various daily events of interest to photographers: sunrise/sunset, moonrise/moonset, the start and end of Civil twilight (the time for all those amazing blue hour shots), as well as the end of, and beginning of Astronomical twilight (between these times the sky will be dark enough for those amazing star-trail and Milky Way shots). Finally, the box below this band shows the current time (7:10am) and indicates the current direction and altitude of the moon and sun (the sun is just below the horizon, the moon ~6 degrees above).

Using the built-in compass in my iPhone ahead of time gave me the general compass direction of the mountain peak in the distance, and using TPE to search for a time just before sunrise when the moon would be high enough in the sky, in the appropriate direction to complete the image I had in my mind gave me several days when these conditions would be met. Now all I had to do was show up and hope for clear skies… not all that common in Vancouver during the winter! On this day however, the stars aligned and I was treated to one of the most spectacular pre-dawn displays I have ever seen from this location.

A side-note: If you want to include a crescent moon in your pre-dawn/sunrise images, start looking for this a day or two ahead of the new moon. A few days later, you should be able to catch a crescent moon hanging above the western horizon in a cobalt blue sky, some time after the sun has set. The rise and set directions for the moon vary greatly over the course of each month; much more so than the sun on it’s annual trek. So, while the newspaper may be able to tell you when the moon will rise or set, you will need TPE to tell you where it will rise and set each day. There is also a free web app version if you would like to give it a try before buying, just go to photoephemeris.com.

Only Good Light

Don’t shoot during the noon day hours on a sunny day! This is a rule we are told over and over: shoot only during the golden light of early morning and late afternoon. While this is generally good advice and can provide wonderful to light to shape and reveal texture and form, the opposite statement, to never shoot during the noonday hours is unnecessarily limiting. 

Photographer and author David DuChemin, wrote, “there is no such thing as ‘bad’ light, only light that works with or against your intent for [an] image.”  Flipping this thought around, bemoaning the light because it doesn’t match your intentions at the moment can mean missing opportunities that may be right in front of you.

After enduring several cloudy days while scouting for my 2017 photo-workshop in Tuscany, we finally woke to clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine.   And, while I spent those cloudy days exploring the charming villages of the Val d’Orcia, I was determined to find some new locations for the incredible landscapes in the area, so we headed out for a day exploring the country-side.  I found the image above driving along the road near San Quirico just before we stopped for lunch.  In a way, it was fortunate that I came upon this image at this time of day… a time of day when traditional wisdom said I should just leave the camera in my bag.  This particular image could not have been created at any other time of day; the sun was high in the sky by this time rendering the cypress trees and the curved ridge of the hillside in silhouette, clearly revealing their form.  The sharply angled sun created what amounted to side-light on the red clay of the Crete Senesi, perfect for revealing the texture and colour of the newly tilled clay on the steep side of the hill.   The red colour was important to reveal since it provides a complement to the deep blues of the sky, and the texture of the red clay is a nice counter point to the softness of the white cloud.

The moral to this short tale is that there are lots of opportunities to create images at any time of the day, in any kind of weather: it just takes opening our minds to the possibilities and letting go of our preconceived notions of what we see and how we should shoot it.

Removing Labels and Arranging Shapes

There are lots of "rules" to think about when composing an image. At its simplest, effective composition is mostly about arranging shapes.  When you are thinking about a composition in front of your camera, it helps to remove the labels and view the scene in terms of just those shapes: the "shapes" that make up an image are the elements of visual design: line, shape, form, texture, pattern and colour. Looked at this way, even a simple pastoral scene of cattle grazing in a field becomes an exercise in those elements.  of line and shape, of pattern and repetition, and of balance using visual weight.

Tree trunks become a repeated pattern of lines, the curve of a hillside is repeated in the arrangement of animals along the hillside and in the curve of the fence which must also follow the curve of the hill. A group of trees, leafed out in early spring foliage becomes a subtle texture composed of different shades of green. The loan animal off to itself on the lower left, since it contrasts sharply with the surrounding grass, becomes a strong draw for the viewer’s eye. Elements that draw a viewer’s eye in this way are said to possess significant “visual weight”, and in this scene the animal on the left as sufficient visual weight to help balance a composition that would be otherwise be weighted more to the right. Aside from just helping to balance the composition, the lone cow also momentarily pulls the viewer's eye way from the other areas of visual interest in the scene, causing the viewer's eye to move continuously through the composition.  Creating movement in an image amplifies visual interest, and helps holds a viewer's interest longer

Effective composition is easier when we learn to let go of simply what a thing is, and concentrate on the shapes that make up our images.

The Importance of Patience

“Sometimes things aren't clear right away. That's where you need to be patient and persevere and see where things lead.” -- Mary Pierce

“Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.” -- Samuel Johnson
These quotes, the first by a 20th century French-American Tennis player, the second by an 18th century British writer, are both relevant to creating great images in the 21st (or any) century. We live in a fast-paced world that demands instant gratification and waits for no one. Allow this mind-set to seep into your image-making and you might end up with images that are less than they might have been.
The importance of studied patience in your photography can’t be overstated. It’s rare to arrive at location, find an ideal subject and create the best image possible in the opening seconds. Situations around your subject develop and change, the light changes, your subject changes, even your thoughts about the image you are trying to create change. Unlike the studio, nothing in the field is under your control; if conditions aren’t right, you have to wait… or plan to return another day. Even when the conditions are perfect: perfect light, perfect background, working your subject is essential to finding that elusive moment where it all comes together. To paraphrase Jay Maisel, that moment where “Light, Colour and Gesture” come together to create that one great instant for you to capture.
National Geographic photographer Sam Abell relates that when he finds and interesting background he will often set up and wait, sometimes for hours, for something interesting to happen in front of this background. (Backgrounds are almost more important than the main subject in a successful image)
This image didn’t require hours, but it did need about 45 minutes, plus a 1/125th of a second to create. I was instantly intrigued by the contrast of the warm interior tones and the blue of the signage and awning in this store in Aix-en-Provence. But it was just another storefront; it needed something more to bring it together and complete the story. Over the course of those 45 minutes I hung out across the street, watched as customers came and went, as people hurried by… and waited. In the fading twilight I had nearly given up when the storekeeper emerged from the store in her blue apron, with a large watering can and began watering the plants displayed on the street. That was the moment I had been waiting for, even though I hadn’t anticipated it at the outset.
Sometimes the action in front of you is unpredictable and is happening so fast that you can’t be sure you have the best image possible in any single frame. Back in the film days, we recognized this implicitly and since we couldn’t instantly review our images we shot lots and lots of frames, “just to be sure”. In the digital age we can instantly review each frame, leading to what NatGeo photographer Cary Wolinsky calls the, “I got it" syndrome. Your camera LCD is a woefully inadequate device with which to analyze your compositions, making decisions to pack up and move on it alone dicey at best. Furthermore, “How do you know you have captured the peak moment anyway?” Situations will always continue to develop and change after you pack up and move on. The image above is one out of more than 150 frames shot over a half hour sitting on the shore of the Na Pali coast of Kauai. Perched on some rocks, remote release in hand, I knocked off frame after frame trying for that instant when one wave reflected off the rocks and ran smack into the next oncoming roller creating enormous eruptions of water. This is the only frame where this happened.
Particularly where people are the subject, fleeting moments that really make a composition are exactly that: fleeting. Even when you think you’ve “nailed it”, it pays to stay on the subject, vigilant and ready.
The image above on the left, was made from a comfortable seat in a café on the Placa in Dubrovnik. Sitting with a glass of Prosecco, watching people and the flow of life around us, camera in hand. The sun was low in the sky, and a portion of the square where I was sitting and where people were walking by was in shade, while the far wall was still lit by the late afternoon sun. Over the course of a half hour or so, I shot many frames, none of which were working… and then these two girls stepped into the picture, for just a second one of them raised her smart phone, snapped a picture and moved on.
The image on the right was shot from the top of the campanile in Venice’s St Mark’s Square. I had been shooting the pattern of tables in the café below. Something was missing. I needed something to add the exclamation mark in the pattern, to complete the composition. Waiters were moving in and out of the frame as I shot this, but nothing really came together until the one solitary waiter walked out among the tables, struck a pose, and moved on all within about 10 seconds. I think the image was worth the grief I took from my family for being late for dinner that night -- sometimes we have to suffer for our art.
Sometimes as well, we have an image in our head but it’s success depends entirely on conditions beyond our control. If you really want this image badly enough, you have to be prepared to persevere and return until those conditions present themselves. This fisheye view of the sun rising above the caldera atop Haleakala on Maui took three visits over five years for the weather to cooperate and produce the image I had in my mind. I know I won’t garner much sympathy for having to return to Maui multiple times…. but there you go.
So when you are out shooting, don’t settle for the first frame, work your subjects, find those fleeting moments, keep coming back until you get the image you are after.

Why Print Your Work?

Hvar-Island-Croatia.jpg
Digital imaging has fundamentally changed the way we work as photographers. Digital brings immediacy, flexibility and lowers the on-going cost of creating images: once you own a digital camera, creating thousands of images entails essentially zero incremental cost. For the most part those images live on our hard-drives or somewhere in some cloud. We look at them on our tablets or smartphones, swiping right or left to skim past dozens or hundreds of images in a few minutes. How much thought and consideration can you give to an image you swipe past in a second or two? How easily can you consider your composition, your use of colour or light and shadow when seen for an instant on a 4-inch screen? Printing your work at even modest sizes, holding that print in your hands, allows you to (in fact forces you to) consider your image more thoroughly. You will see things in a printed image that might remain unseen on a smartphone or tablet; you’ll be find yourself asking, “What could I do better?” “How can I improve this image?”

“Printing your work helps you become a better photographer”

Historically, the print has always been the ultimate expression of the photographer’s art. When you print your work, you complete the artistic process by taking control of the final expression of your image. A fine print possesses tactile and aesthetic qualities that you control with decisions in post-processing, image size, paper choice and presentation method. All of these decisions are yours when you print your own work. Consider all the artistic choices you make when you compose and make your image in camera. You choose a shooting position and a point of view. You choose an appropriate aperture, shutter speed and ISO. You choose an appropriate lens and focal length. You control lighting contrast with graduated filters, fill light, reflectors or perhaps you decide to use an HDR approach. Wouldn’t you want to have the same level of control when you create the final expression of your image?

"Printing your work allows you to complete the artistic process by taking control of the final expression of your work”

Admittedly, printing your work involves climbing a learning curve; fortunately, it’s not that steep or long. You will also have to acquire a capable printer, which is not without additional cost. If you are serious about becoming the best photographer you can, once you have a assembled a basic kit, the next purchase you should consider is a printer rather than the latest camera body laden with features you probably aren’t going to use anyway. As for the learning curve, I can help. Head over www.bpsop.com and have a look at my easy two week introduction to printing your work.