Challenge of One Road

The main part of this blog post was written last September after my trip to the Palouse at the end of August. It took me a while to come back to it to finish it. The idea of challenging myself is still very important to me and the post remains very much relevant.

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Blue sky above with a streak of white clouds passing by, yellow rolling hills covered with a patchwork blanket of fields below and I’m standing a top of a butte floating between those two. Such a familiar landscape. So many times I’ve visited the Palouse, browsed its network of dirt roads raising dust clouds behind me in the air, captured its beauty in many images. And yet I visit it again and again. Its rolling hills are comforting, meditative and relaxing.

All my visits up till last would start at Steptoe Butte. It was my way to greet the Palouse, taking it all in in one sweeping 360 degree view. It was an easily most noticeable landmark in the Palouse, a popular destination for photographers, a place where images are easy to come by. The biggest challenge is to make something new.

Lately I had noticed my photos from the Palouse had become repetitive. I had my favorite spot for sunrise photography. I had my favorite spot for sunset photography. I kept visiting them every time I went to the Palouse. No risks taken. Guaranteed sunrise or sunset image. Just the way I had done many times. To do something new I had to do something different. I had to allow myself to fail. I needed to give myself an opportunity to see sunrise and sunset in different places. That might mean that I would leave without a killer shot but I can instead leave with a sense of exploration and wonder.

That is what I had on my mind during my last visit to the Palouse.

The first morning of the trip I got up early, before the first light of the day to come had started filling the starry sky. It was dark and chilly. Rather than rushing to a familiar sunrise spot in the morning – one of those I had taken pictures at during previous visits. I got into the car, drove out of the town and then turned onto some random dirt road letting the sunrise catch me somewhere unexpected, somewhere where I had not seen sunrise before.

I managed to get a few pictures during sunrise in different places. First one was a barn with a gradient of cold and warm colors of pre-dawn light in the sky. Then the light of the sun that rose just above the horizon barely skimming the tops of the hills with a lonely windmill, with a Steptoe Butte in the background.

After the early morning exploration I got back to the hotel to have a breakfast. During the breakfast another thought came to my mind: Do I have to wander about at random places? What if I explore the same place deeper? What if I challenge myself to find new images in the same place?

So I’ve decided to visit the same route I picked in the morning… Fast forward two days ahead, I drove that route six times during the trip. Each time I found new images, noticed things that had eluded my attention before. It was fascinating to observe how my attention was getting sharper. I would not notice those things without that focused exercise.

Besides seeing new things in already familiar places I had an opportunity to see the same places in different light: see them in the morning, at noon and in the evening; see how they changed. And as I was going to the same place over and over I was giving an opportunity for something special to happen. One time I got to see a man fly-fishing in a shallow creek, another time a tractor was working the field rising a column of dust in the sky. All of it by driving the same route over and over.

The take away from this story is that it does not matter how far or how close we travel, it does not matter if we visit an old place or a new, what matters for a creativity is a state of mind. Setting some specific goals for self-improvement, setting up challenges often helps to do something truly new and rediscover yourself.

End of Year 2018

The end of the year is a good milestone to wrap up projects, reflect on a year of life, and think of inspirations for the year ahead.

That’s what I’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks besides enjoying time with friends and family during the holidays: wrapping up projects I worked on in 2018. More than that I’ve been working through my backlog of projects from 2017 and uploading them to my website. I’ve uploaded 19(!) completed folios from 2018 and 2017. I hope you’ll make time to look at and enjoy them.

There is still much work to do. And that’s probably the first observation and resolution for the next year. I got a bit carried away with traveling and capturing images and did not spend enough time finishing the images. There were hundreds of images that I had not even looked at yet. My resolution for the next year is to finish projects before starting new ones.

Another observation I have had as I worked through the backlog of the images is that my photos are too alike. It might be consistency or style but I wish there was more discovery and exploration in my images, a sense of wonder. So, my next resolution for the next year is to fail more often. Success is a rewarding experience that is very seductive. Failure is a learning experience that can be rewarding it a completely different way.

And the last observation I had is that I have quite a few odd shots, just one offs that don’t fit into any theme. Not a shot that I made exploring some place, working for some project but some shot because something caught my attention or just because I was somewhere and felt obliged to take a picture. It was not an interesting venture into some new area either because I did not follow up with more images of the same place or subject. I delete many of them get deleted while keeping a few, even though I’m not sure what to do with them. In either case it cost me a lot of time at the computer dealing with those images. So, my last resolution for 2019 is to be more mindful at the time of capturing an image, focus on the projects I’m working on and sometimes just putting camera away and enjoying the scenery.

Wrong Turn

I usually travel to famous destinations well-known for their spectacular views and enticing subjects. Imagine my surprise, upon taking a wrong turn on my way to a locally famous photography spot, to find a hidden gem just in my backyard. When I set out that morning, I was hoping to capture a typical fall subject: leafy trees turning a glorious red lining a quiet, intimate drive. It was a place I had visited many times in the past, and had already stopped by multiple times this season, hoping that the colors would be at their peak brilliance. It’s a beautiful place, don’t get me wrong, and it deserves the many visitors that stop by every year to get a snap of it, their cars parked in a line down the street.

But what I found instead was intimate in its own way, a place without photographers jostling to get the perfect angle, a place that isn’t photographed over and over every year. It is just as stunning, and it captures the ephemeral beauty of autumn just as well as my original destination, but most importantly, it was all mine: clear blue sky touched with a light brush stroke of white clouds, trees covered in mid-autumn yellows reflecting in the still, quiet water in the pond, occasional ripples running across the water and playing with the reflection to create a dream-like view that I had only seen in pictures from far away places.

Somewhere far in the distance, through the wall of trees, I could still hear the noise of the city, the rumble of traffic speeding down freeway, but it all seemed so distant, so surreal. It did not belong in this oasis of quiet and solitude. Rather the sounds of singing birds that had not left for the winter yet, the splashing of water disturbed by the ducks landing or taking off, the quiet whispering of leaves as the easy breeze rustled through the forest belonged here.

There was incredible stillness to the whole scene as if I had walked into a painting, my presence disturbing it and putting it into motion. It had been here all along enticing passerby with its beauty, rejoicing at capturing my attention as I was looking at it and appreciating it. Awestruck for a moment, I just stood there taking it all in before the magic disappeared. Nature was patient with me. It did not disappear. It stayed. It waited. Until I was ready to capture it not only with my eyes but with my camera too.

Pictures taken, I sat on the bank of the pond in the warm autumn sun, breathing in the refreshingly crisp autumn air filled with the sour scent of dry grass and the honey-sweet scent of fallen leaves, thinking about how easy it is to get into the habit of walking the same paths, going to the same well-known locations, photographing known scenes. It offers a sense of comfort and security knowing that I’d definitely get some good images there and if not, it would only be weather conditions to blame: no spectacular light, no sunrise, no sunset. Getting off the beaten path is unpredictable, unknown, and quite frankly scary – there might be nothing worth photographing there. But visiting the same place over and over makes photographs predictable and does not challenge me to grow as a photographer.

P.S. My writing and photography lately has been influenced by my girlfriend who gives me constant support while challenging me to do things differently including this post where she challenged me to write better and gave me some invaluable lessons in language arts.

New Website

http://vitphoto.com/

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about next step for my photographic journey. I’ve gotten into the habit of visiting the same places and taking pictures of the same scenes because they are familiar and most likely to yield a stellar image. My work and my website has become a collection of bestsellers.

At the same time there have been a lot of trips with a lot of images that tell a story.

I haven’t updated my website for a long time. A very long time. The reason for that was not laziness but that the design of the website was based on featuring a limited number of best sellers and not necessarily around a story. Thus a lot of images were left out and most images were once in a while images lacking the context of a story.

Any time I want to publish new work I needed to either prune some work from an existing category to make more room or replace a category altogether with a new one. That was forcing me to revisit the work that has already been completed and never gave me satisfaction of completing another body of work.

My photography interests changed. I go to many different places and try to create a story about the place or seek images with a common theme that tell a story about particular subject.

I had to reimagine my website. It took a long time and a critical mass of unpublished material to finally spend time on website design and making the changes. That work is finally completed and the new website is live today with the three most recent photographic stories.

There is a lot of work ahead of me to sort out a large pile of unorganized work that I’ve collected over the years. It will be something to work on during the long winter nights ahead.

Thanks to my amazing girlfriend who helped me re-imagine my website with a fresh new look. She’s the best ❤

Print is the Ultimate Editing Tool

I’m working thru a backlog of photos I took last fall. And I find a lot of good ones that are too hard to choose from. They are of the same place as I visited the same place over and over photographing in different light, different time of day, different weather.

Making selection from a large set of image close to each other is tough. After narrowing the set of picked images to about 50 I hit a wall. I could not reject any more images. This was about two months ago.

Now two months later I went back trying to reduce selection further. I was able to reject about 30 more images and get selection down to about 20. It was still too many. Too many images that looked too alike.

While working thru the backlog of the images I’ve been also getting ready for the new season of the art fairs. The first art fair of this year is not far away in just two months and really-really wanted to have some new work to show.

With no more ideas of how to make progress I did something I’ve never done before: I’ve printed all those images. I’ve laid them out on the table on the floor, wherever I could find space. One large room filled with images. I’ve started “visiting” the room. My first two visits I still could not reject any images.

Then one day I’ve decided to pull one out, the one that seemed the weakest of the bunch. Then I pulled out one more because there were two that were so close it did not matter which one to keep and which one to reject.

As I spend more time with prints it seemed my vision was unfogging and I was getting more and more clarity. In a few days I was rejecting several prints at a time thinking: of cause the remaining are better – how I could not see it earlier.

Here is one that stayed in “keep” pile.

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Accepting Failure

Today I’ve been going thru some of unfinished prints trying to get organized and prepared for the next year of art fairs.

Several prints have never been finished. They are odds and misses. Something is wrong with them. Maybe size does not match the frame, maybe there is a specle of dust caught in the coating. And yet I keep them.

I’ve asked myself why I keep them. The answer was not immediate and not obvious. What I came to realize was that it was hard to accept failure. I had failed those prints but I could not face it.

Instead of accepting the failure I was cheating myself into believing that I can still salvage them. A lot of effort went into making those prints. Even when I saw it not going well I would still push forward with it.

As I realized that something else dawn on me. The same thing often happens during postprocessing. Sometimes I come back from a trip and bring a lot of not so good images. It might happen for many different reasons: my mind was somewhere else, I did not feel emotional connection to the place, weather did not cooperate, I had gotten “out of shape” not photographing for a while.

Rather than saying – “oh, well, things did not work out” – I spend countless hours trying to make something of it, treaking myself with thinking that there must be something in those images. What I end up with is overprocessed images that I look at a few month later and think “what was I thinking”.

It is something I should watch for in the future. Be brutal if you wish in editing images.

ETTR or Try it before you buy it

There has been a lot of discussion of ETTR (Expose To The Right) on photographic blogs, websites and all kind of other publications. With this method you expose as high as possible with histogram touching the right edge. Here is one article that goes in depth on this method: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/expose-right.shtml.

The idea is that this produces maximum quality digital negative. Often this produces image that looks overexposed and later in post-production supposedly you can lower exposure to get naturally looking image but with higher quality.

While it looks reasonable that this may reduce signal-to-noise ratio, I noticed that this results in images looking too flat and with washed out colors. On my last trip I took two images one normally exposed and one exposed to the right. The scene is extremely simple which helps illustrate the difference in result. In post-production I reduced exposure of the ETTR image to match exposure of the first image. No other adjustments were done to either image. Here are results side-by-side:

_MG_4863 _MG_4864

Guess which one is which? The one on the left is taken with normal exposure, the one on the right is taken with ETTR and then reduced back exposure to match exposure of the first image. As you can see ETTR image results in less color and less contrast, i.e. lower dynamic range. To confirm this here are the corresponding histograms:

_mg_4863 _mg_4864

Just by looking at histograms you can see that the range of tonality is greater in normally exposed image as well as greater separation of colors. This seems to disprove the statement that the article I linked at the beginning does that ETTR image has greater dynamic range.

I don’t know about you by I’d rather expose right than expose to the right. This is just another case to demonstrate my main principle in photography: do what you like, what feels right to you. And no matter how convincing a new idea you read somewhere sounds, try it before using it, get your own feeling for it. If you really like it, use it, just make sure it is because you got your own understanding of it not because someone else told you to do it.

UPDATE: I’ve got requests to include original ETTR image with histogram. Here it goes.

_MG_4864

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