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?

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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.

Themes

An answer to the question, “What is there to shoot?”

Shooting to a theme is one way to keep your mind quietly alert to photographic opportunities. In the context of photography, a theme is simply a coherent set of subject matter. A theme could centre around a set of objects, (Doors, Abstracts, Hands) or it could be a concept (Contrasts, Sorrow, Joy, Indifference). Photographing to a theme doesn’t mean heading out to shoot examples of your theme to the exclusion of all else (although you could); for one thing, good examples of a theme don’t always present themselves every time you are out shooting. Instead, these are ideas that stay in the back of your mind, and that you shoot as opportunities arise. Having them in the back of your mind helps you to be mindful while you are out, always looking for images that fit your chosen theme(s) A few simple themes I work on are “Doors”, “Complementary Colours” and “Colour Harmonies”. Sometimes you get lucky, and more than one theme is present in the same image.

I’m always intrigued by the doors of private homes in Europe. Doors and front porches often seem to be vehicles for personal expression, to difference one’s home from your neighbour. Here are two examples from Provence.

Aside from being eye-catching, these two doorways also represent examples of complementary colours (on the left), and colour harmony (on the right). Complementary colours occupy on opposite sides of the colour wheel, examples include red-green and yellow-blue. When they occur next to each other they reinforce each other, increasing the impact of both. Harmonious colours exist together on the same side of the colour wheel, examples include blue-green, and yellow-orange. Harmonious colours placed next to each other tend to reduce the impact of each other. The images below show the effect of this. Which of the two circles within each square is the most pure and saturated red? The answer is, “Both!” Placed next to its complement blue, the red circle appears more saturated. Placed next to orange, a harmonious colour from the same side of the colour wheel, the impact of the red circle is diluted, and appears less saturated (in fact it almost appears to take on an orange cast).

In the image on the left, the magenta flowers (which have a large dose of red) and the yellow shutter sit on the opposite side of the colour wheel compared to the blue doorway. Their presence next to each other makes each appear stronger than they would on their own. Complementary colours also impart energy and excitement to an image. In the image on the right, all of the principal colours exist on the same side of the colour wheel. This is an example of colour harmony. Rather than reinforcing each other and imparting energy, the harmonious colours in this image impart a sense of calm and tranquility. In other images, colour harmonies derived from the red-orange-yellow side of the colour wheel may impart a sense of warmth and comfort.

So, here’s a short list of some possible themes you might consider:

Abandoned Buildings, Abstracts, Bad Weather, Balloons, Bark, Barns, Bicycle Parts, Black and White, Bridges, Broken Glass, Butterflies, Car Details, Cats, Celebrations, Church Windows, City Skylines, City Street Scenes, Close-up, Clouds, Contrasts, Eyes, Femininity, Fences, Festivals, Fire Engines, Flower Petals, Flowers, Forms in Nature, Gardens, Gates, Glass, Hands, Harvest, Hats, Isolated Objects, Joy, Kids, Lazy, Masculinity, Opposites, Opulent, Patterns, Peeling Paint, People At Work, Peppers, Polished, Porches, Railroad Cars, Railroad Tracks, Raindrops, Rainbows, Red, Reflection, Rust, Rustic, Sand dunes, Sand Patterns, Sea Shells, Seascapes, Seasons, Self, Shadows, Signs, Silhouettes, Skulls, Sky, Smiles, Snow, Soft Curves, Sorrow, Speed, Spring, Stacks, Stairs, Statues, Steam Railroads, Still life, Strange Signs, Sunrise, Sunset, Sweets, Swings, Tattoos, Textures, Toads, Tombstones, Tools, Transport, Tree Knots, Trees, Umbrellas, Uniforms, Urban, Utensils, Vacation, Valves, Vegetables, Vines, Water, Waterfalls, Weather, Weathered Wood, Wet, Wheels, White, Wildlife, Windows, Winter, Woods, Yellow, Zig Zags

Now pick one or two and get shooting!

(Join me for a photo-workshop in Provence or Tuscany next year)

Fun with Texture Overlays

Texture overlays are a great way to add additional depth and dimension to your images. It’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t work with every image. The technique though, has been around long before Photoshop: in the past you might have sandwiched two transparencies (or two negatives) together and printed them as a single image.

What's a texture overlay?
It’s simply an image of some surface with an interesting texture, pattern or colour. In digital terms you add it as an additional layer in your editing program. You can buy packages of texture images from many sources on the internet, or create your own: weathered wood, peeling paint, fabrics such as canvas or burlap, worn leather, carpet, the pattern of burned on grease a well-used roasting pan… the possibilities are endless. A texture overlay cannot be counted on to turn a weak image into a gallery piece, but it can sometimes rescue an image that isn’t quit there, making it into something more interesting.

Don't be a Slave to White Balance

Auto White Balance: it’s one of the first things I ask my workshop students to turn off. When outdoors, choose Daylight or Cloudy white balance instead. Indoors, tungsten white balance will generally provide more pleasing results. Allowing your camera to decide something as important as the colour balance of your images can lead to washed out sunsets, and other less than optimal results as it tries to bring colour conformity to every image you make.

For the most part this is good advice, but there is a world of creative possibility available by occasionally breaking the rules. Colour is one of the prime “mood setters” in image making. Using creative tweaks to the overall colour balance of your images can reinforce the message in your image by influencing the psychological reaction a viewer has to the content of your image.

Let’s look at two examples.

The Brush and the Grad

Taming Lightroom’s Local Adjustment Tools

Lightroom has several local adjustment tools you can use to work on specific areas in your images, including the Adjustment Brush and the Graduated filter. Both have been criticized for been somewhat blunt instruments: lacking the precision of carefully masked adjustment layers in Photoshop. While it’s true that Photoshop offers the possibility of creating very precise local adjustments, it’s unfair to unduly criticize Lightroom’s local adjustment tools: they are more capable than some would have you believe.

The Digital Polarizer

A polarizer is a basic filter which every photographer who works outdoors should have and know how to use. In many ways it’s the only filter, the effects of which can’t be fully reproduced in post using tools like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. But, it does have its limitations.

Photographing the Aurora Borealis

The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is an awesome sight to behold. If you live in the northern reaches of the globe, or even if you are in areas as far south as the northern tier of US states or anywhere in Canada or northern Europe, chances are good that the Aurora will visible to you at some time this winter.

The Trouble with Wide-Angles

As a group, wide-angle lenses are seemingly the hardest for beginning photographers to master. Why is that? Well, for two reasons actually, both tied to their wide field of view.