I’m a perfectionist. I know this about myself. My friends know it about me. I know they know because I’ve heard enough grunts from them when I get stuck in one place endlessly perfecting a picture while they want to continue hiking.
This quality of mine can be a virtue as I constantly challenge myself to be better at my craft. It drives me on a personal quest to make the best of the scene to find the best of me. But sometimes it can also be misleading.
This morning I woke up very early as usual given my jet lag after flying from Seattle to Rome to go to Tuscany. I like my jet lag: I wake up deep in the night hours before dawn. I can explore Tuscany by myself while most people are sleeping.
I was staying at a farm near a small hill town Pienza. During day the town was bustling with tourist and shops and restaurants but at night I could have it all to myself. It was quite: a ghost town, a movie set, a place to wander aimlessly through its narrow streets. In warm street lights it was intimate and mysterious.
I could walk along its walls and enjoy the views of mist covered fields surrounding the town, listen to the quiet of the night, breathe its chilly air. The walls were empty during night but there were plenty of photographer every morning there as they offered grand views of the surrounding hills.
The walk to Pienza from the farm was about half an hour. As I was hiking along the road that morning I passed an olive orchard. Then I walked along a winery grape field. The grape wines were low enough that I could glimpse the hills that make Tuscany such a picturesque place. As I came to the end the second olive orchard I veered off the road and sneaked between the trees to come out to a wheat field where I finally got a clear unobstructed view of the valley.
I stopped to marvel at the thick fog blanketing the valley. The fog was slowly moving in waves and only tops of the hills were floating above it like ships in the ocean. I got my camera out and started taking pictures. The perfectionist in me was telling me to go to the town walls, that they would give me a bigger view, that it might be even better, that I would miss the sunrise if I stayed there.
And yet I stayed. I could not move. I could not abandon what I saw. And it dawn on me that the place, where I was, was the best place for me to be, because I was there alone, because I was the only witness to that particular moment, I was the only one there to capture it and share its beauty with others.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice” – Heraclitus
There is a set of small lakes near Banff called Vermillion Lakes. They are easier to access and a nice spot for sunrise photography. I visited them several times: on my way to Abraham Lake and on the way back. They are mostly frozen during winter that is if the winter is actually cold but there are a few of hot springs coming into them that never seem to freeze up.
I found myself a nice cozy place there which I kept coming back to photograph over and over. Initially, I wanted to repeat the photo I took the first time, just with a slightly different composition. When I came the second time though I discovered that the weather changed the look completely. After that the change itself was more interesting to me. So, I kept coming to the same place to see how it looks like at sunrise or sunset, how it looks in warmer weather and in colder weather.
Here are a few photos that I like the most out of my study of the same place.
Sunrise after snowfall:
Twilight before sunrise with warm weather:
Sunset with clear sky when the temperature dropped below 0C again. I’ve waited for this one until gradient of color reaches its peak. (BTW, I love watching Earth’s shadow moving across the sky.)
Sunrise at Maroon Bells Lake
(A series of three stories – frustrating, scary and happy – with a common thread.)
At the dawn of photography back in 19th century there was this guy by the name Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr who was a big advocate for photography in general and travel photography in particular. He talked about taking a photograph as taking a “skin” of reality that was based on his interpretation of an old Greek myth. I don’t want to go too far into that direction as it is not the point of my blog post. The interesting part is that he also warned of possibility of overskinning some scenes. He was concerned that some scenes might be photographed to the point when the scenes themselves will be not interesting. I came face to face with that on my trip to Colorado this fall.
Pacific Northwest has very limited opportunities for fall colors. You’d need to scramble for interesting fall color compositions outside cities in evergreen forests. Going to Colorado and diving into fall colors was a long waiting dream of mine. This year I finally went there. It turned to be a lot of what I expected, a lot more than I expected and some that I’d rather not have. This three stories with a common theme of what photography is for me and what it is not.
Since it was my first time in Colorado I did not have any places of my own in mind; I mostly traveled to well-known places. One of such places is Maroon Bells Lake. It is considered an iconic place of Colorado. Another photographer who went there last year warned me to come an hour before sunrise as there are quite a few photographers coming there to photograph sunrise there.
I scouted the place I want to photograph a day before and showed up there about an hour before sunrise. There were about 20 more photographers along the lake. The place I had scouted the day before was not occupied. I set up my camera on tripod and started waiting. It was freezing cold but everyone was jolly with anticipation. Over the hour that followed number of photographers slowly grew to 70 but everyone was polite and asked if they’re in the way when they setup camera.
Everything was well right up to sunrise, crowded but well. Right before sunrise a guy showed up and put his tripod right in front of my camera. When I politely noted that I was photographing there and he was blocking part of my frame, he said that everyone else was photographing too and would not move. I was pissed but not sure what to do about it except to frame a different image. There was still no way to completely avoid him, so I removed him from a corner of my image in Photoshop.
Next morning I went there without much enthusiasm but with a hope to still take the image I wanted. When I arrived there were already about 50 photographers. The spot where I wanted to make a photo was taken. I got what I got. By the sunrise there were more than a hundred photographers. It was crowded and did not feel very friendly. A guy on the right was frustrated with his gear which he had too much of; switching it constantly in indecision what to use; getting tangled up in it. I was locked into taking one and only one composition. Anything else would mean getting a bunch of tripods in my frame or getting myself into someone else’s frame. Can I be creative in such environment? No.
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:
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:
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.
I’ve wrote about light painting before and I’ll likely write more again as this really fascinates me in photography. For me it is a lot of fun playing with lights, a lot of creativity as I create something that was not there in the first place, and a lot of surprise as most of the time what I get is unexpected.
Here is an image that got me very excited about light painting again. I spent a day photographing fall foliage in Kubota Gardens in Seattle (I’m still working on post-processing those photos). At dusk as it got dark enough for exposures to go up to 30 seconds I started playing with light painting with two waterfalls I found in the gardens.
I found the upper waterfall to be more interesting of the two because it had red leaves caught in the stream and I could get a more dynamic image with foreground and background.
There were two new things I played with this time. First, I brought two different flashlights: one had cool light and the other one had warm light. So, I could do not only light painting but also color painting. The other thing that I played with was focus, shifting focus in the middle of light painting. This created dreamy effect.
For those interested in more technical details here is how I took this image. The camera was on a tripod, aperture wide open (f/4 for the lens that I used), shutter was 30 seconds. It was pretty dark already, my camera was not able to focus just using ambient light. First I would use very powerful warm flashlight. I would point to a rock in the middle of the frame and focused the camera using auto focus. I would turn off auto focus then. Turn off the flashlight, so it does not light up something accidentally, and release shutter. Then quickly with the same powerful warm light I would trace the waterfall and the creek back and forth a few times to ensure that individual spots or streaks of light a now visible. That was taking me about 5 seconds. Then I would turn off flashlight and defocus the lens. The rest of 25 seconds I was using weak cool flashlight to light up sides of the frame while the camera was out of focus. I did this ten times or more, every time getting a different image – I love the element of surprise. This I think is the best out of the series.
A Dream About Water
I went to Olympic National Park again, just 3 weeks after last time. The last time it was all about visiting old friends. This time it was about making new.
I like the saying “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” by Marcel Proust. It has been my guide in photography for long time. But… sometimes we can let our mind rest and let legs do the work.
I did visit a place I had been to many times – Rialto Beach – but this time I walk past Hole in the Wall, further than I’ve ever been before. I was enjoying excitement of exploration, walking the ground I’ve never been to before, soaking in new landscapes.
That’s where I made this photo at twilight. It has some mysterious feel too it, strangely attracting the eye. I’m wondering if its mystery has anything to do with a you-know-which movie.
It is amazing how many different photos can be made in the same spot and of the same subject. Look at this photos for example. The same sea stack at Second Beach, just different atmospheric conditions, different light and different exposure.
And here is a couple of photos with a different angle:
Yet one more angle:
More photos of this place from my earlier trips can be found on my website: http:///www.vitphoto.com/?folio=Olympic.
Do you ever feel lost in space?
There seems to be a pattern of photos throughout the years I photograph, kind of lost in space photos with a subject lost in a lot of blank space around it. Like Stillness. Lost in Fog or Lighthouse.
On a trip to The Lost Coast (no punt intended) last May I took another lost in space photo. This time a lonely boat in the ocean.
I love the place where I live. There is a hillside not far from my house that surprises every year with a grand display of various wild flowers.
It changes every year. The first year I moved here it was covered with California poppies (well, I’m not in California, I’m in Washington, nevertheless we have occasional California poppies here). The next year it was covered with lupines. The year after that it was red poppies. Then chamomiles. This year it is a mix of various flowers.
I don’t know what’s the secret of this hill but I certainly appreciate the opportunity for close up and macro photography that the nature gives me.
Here is a photo I took at that hill recently just after dusk at twilight. The ladybug settled in chamomile flower for the night and the flower was slowly closing up.
Day 6, Dawn
It is my last day in Death Valley, to be more accurate my last morning at Death Valley since after sunrise I will be driving back to Las Vegas and flying home. I can’t wait to hug my wife and son.
On my last morning at Death Valley I decided to photograph at Zabriskie Point. Morning photos from Zabriskie Point has become cliché. I heard stories of tens of photographers showing up there at sunrise. Strangely enough with several trips to Death Valley I’ve never been there. It was about time to change that.
Surprisingly I was the only person there… That’s one hour before sunrise. By sunrise there were 9 photographers and about 15 spectators.
I took several panoramas before, during and after sunrise. The sunrise was not very impressive – there were not much clouds in the sky. Only while reviewing panoramas at home I realized that I created a tale of light of that morning – I was taking a panorama every time there was significant change in light.
So here it is, a tale of light at Zabriskie Point. (Click on the images to see them in larger size.)
6:07 Deep blue of twilight.
6:21 Sunrise moving across the sky.
6:29 Touchdown. The gap between horizon and line of sunrise closed. The clouds lit up.
6:32 Sun kissed the mountains.
7:03 The light is deep in the valley.