Dec 012016
 
Catch You When You Fall

“Catch You When You Fall” || Serene fall colors in the meadow at Sieur de Monts in Acadia National Park, Maine, USA (Fine art prints available – click on photo to order)

How many of you have photographed a gorgeous location only to arrive at home to say, “I didn’t really capture what I wanted” while reviewing your images? Ever had that sinking feeling while you are sipping coffee at your desk when you realize if you would have just moved to the left two feet or switch to a different lens, that would have made the image you wanted—and now there’s nothing you can do about it?  It’s a total bummer, isn’t it?

While reviewing your images on your computer, asking yourself what you could have done differently on your photo shoot will certainly lead to a refined understanding of your current photographic abilities and provide new ideas to try on your next shoot. However, your ability to resolve what you do not like about your photograph is limited to some cropping, exposure levels, and other processing software features. Otherwise, it is difficult to “fix” an image you spent all that time working on in the field, brought home, and then generally disliked.

The ideal time to conduct an initial critique on your work is when you are standing behind your camera in the field. When you analyze your photograph while you are in the process of making it, you give yourself the opportunity to resolve any issues at the time of capture.

After you set up a composition, review your photograph on the back of your LCD.  Check for obvious technical issues like exposure, white balance, depth of field, etc. Then (assuming the light is not fleeting or the jaguar is not disappearing into the woods), take a minute to conduct a quick critique on your image, specifically asking, “What do you like about this photograph?” and “What don’t you like about it?”

Pay attention to your answers! Increase the focus in your photograph on the elements you like. Then, fix or eliminate what you do not like. Repeat this process over and over until you have a frame you can say, “YES! I like everything in this photo!” Only then should you pick your tripod up and move on to another composition.

To give you an idea of how this works, here is the sequence of photographs I made which resulted in the marquee photo above titled, “Catch You When I Fall:”

Sequences of my RAW images that eventually resulted in “Catch Me When I Fall” (the photograph at the top of this post). Click on the photo to view larger.

Now, I typically have a difficult time seeing the trees through the forest (preferring instead to slap on a wide-angle lens and photograph the entire forest…). However, when I saw the colorful trees and leaves being cradled by the luscious grasses at Sieur de Monts in Acadia National Park in Maine this past autumn, I knew I wanted to make a more intimate image I titled, “Catch Me When I Fall” (which expressed the emotion I immediately felt when I saw the scene).

The landscape initially felt very busy to my eye, so I started with a classic horizontal composition with a birch tree in the bottom left corner of the Rule of Thirds grid and the leading lines of the grasses leading across the frame (image “_1110461.dng, or just #461 for short). After I snapped it, I asked myself, “What do you like about this photograph?” and “What don’t you like about it?” I loved the grasses and leaves, but the composition looked too forced and predictable. I also did not like how the subtle line of grasses led the eye essentially out of the frame without going anywhere interesting.

I moved my camera around slightly for image #462 and #463 to resolve those issues but in doing so, realized I had too much grass and not enough of the fall colors I enjoyed so much when I saw the scene. The balance of visual elements felt off.

I tilted my camera up slightly for image #464.

I checked my histogram, and the exposure was too dark so I added about 1/3 stop of light to lighten in #465.

Then I thought I might have too much of the grass in the foreground, which led to me walking into the scene about 10-12 feet to record image #466.

When I did so, however, I lost the leaves in the foreground which was a strong visual element critical to my composition. I decided if the horizontal orientation offered to much of the grass, a vertical orientation would reduce the amount. Hence, image #467.

I noted the image was underexposed, so added another third stop of light for image #468.

For #469, I tilted the camera up a little to position the leaves differently within the frame and emphasize the very subtle path of separated grasses takes from the foreground to the background through the trees. And to straighten my implied horizon. :) I liked this, though!

I could have stopped here (note that #469 and my final frame of #476 are quite similar), but being anal-retentive, I kept asking “what if…,” specifically, what if I moved the placement of the leaves within the frame starting with #470? I liked the leaves better, but I went too wide and started getting “UFO’s” (like distracting plant branches and berries on the left-hand side of my image, too many leaves in the bottom left corner). And my horizon was crooked. Again. So #471, 472, and 473.

As I adjusted my composition, the clouds had thickened and the natural light had decreased so I needed more light via my exposure so I clicked #474.

During the middle of my 13-second exposure, the breeze kicked up and moved the grasses. I knew instantly that would be a throw-away frame but checked my histogram anyhow.  That’s when I noticed the sky in the top right corner blinking at me. Rather than darken the whole exposure, I chose to angle my camera down towards the ground to eliminate it from my composition resulting in #475.

I still did not like the few leaves in the bottom left corner, so I made a small camera tilt to eliminate them in #476. Then a YES! I like everything about it! “Catch You When You Fall” came to life!

(This process should bring great comfort to those of you who think you’re too analytical, as I am–I tell you what, it pays to be picky in your photography!)

This might take one try or six hundred.  Regardless, don’t give up! Something grabbed your attention strongly enough to stop you in your tracks and wrestle with that dreaded tripod (be one with the tripod…)—and since you are the only person in the world who can see it like you do, it is worth putting the effort into polishing your personal visual expression.

Keep in mind that fixing what you do not like about a photograph relies heavily on the tools you have collected in your photographic “toolbox” (e.g. technical knowledge, familiarity with your camera, human perception). So, if you find yourself with a problem you do not know how to fix, do not get frustrated. This is simply a sign of where you might need to develop a new skill.

This approach is especially helpful when you stand in front of an overwhelming scene and simply do not know where to start. Like putting a pen to a blank sheet of paper and then editing the words later, snap “anything.” Then review your photograph and ask, “What do you like about this photograph?” and “What don’t I like about it?” Keep what you like; fix what you don’t. Rinse, lather, repeat.

In addition to helping you bring home images you like with greater consistency, over time, you will train your brain and eye to quickly notice key visual elements (like shape, color, light, form, pattern, balance, spatial relationship, etc.) you like and to disregard what you do not like more naturally, which will ultimately help you develop your own individual style.

Have you tried this approach before? If so, tell us what you like about it (and what you don’t like about it)!

Sep 252013
 
AHWP Womens Retreat_Silly

In accordance with tradition on all of my photography workshops, our group poses for a “silly” group photo on the shoreline of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon.

This past weekend, 17 enthusiastic women embarked on a remarkable four-day photographic journey to Page, Arizona on the third Arizona Highways Photography Workshops(AHPW), “Women’s Photography Retreat.”  Offered in a different location each year, this year our group marveled not only at classic locations like Horseshoe Bend and Lower Antelope Canyon, but also lesser-known spots like the depths of Glen Canyon on the Colorado River from a jumbo raft and the geological “teepees” of Little Cut.

AHPW_WPR_Everyones Own Vision

Everyone following their own vision while rafting down the Colorado River in Glen Canyon, Arizona.

During our location visits and classroom sessions, we reviewed photography techniques like conveying time through slowing our shutter speeds, getting closer to our foreground subjects and maximizing our depth-of-field, and taking test shots at high ISO speeds to determine the proper settings for long exposures of the night sky.  We also held discussions about we can gain inspiration from learning about the history of women in photography as well as how women photographers may see differently.  In between, we swapped “interesting” life stories (some involving things like cats and microwaves…) and loads of belly-aching laughs.  But most importantly, this workshop is – and has always been – about empowering women to try new things by pushing the limits of what we think we’re capable of in both photography and life.

Although the entire experience was unforgettable, what will certainly go down as one of my favorite memories of my photography career is our hike and night photography session at the Toadstools hoodoos in Utah. To watch the women light paint, photograph the Milky Way, and then hike back in the dark under the full moon light – all experiences some had never had until this past weekend – was incredibly rewarding.

We set out about an hour and a half before sunset to allow ample time to wander among this geologically rich area.  After photographing the hoodoos bathed in direct sunlight at sundown, the group refueled during our picnic dinner before starting our night’s activities.

AHPW_WPR_Wiggle the Pickle

While waiting for the night sky to fall and the moon to rise, we ate a picnic dinner on the rocks. Somehow, this led to a suggestion to “wiggle your pickle.” And if you’re going to wiggle your pickle among a group of photographers, someone is bound to get “THE” shot of everyone wiggling their pickle!

Since many of the ladies had never photographed in the dark or painted with light, we began with a quick introductory session around one of the clusters of hoodoos.  In a line, we focused (figuratively and literally) on composing the frame before losing daylight.  As the sun fell well below the horizon, the entire group tested their exposure settings starting at ISO 1600, an f/8 aperture, and 30 seconds shutter speed – an arbitrary setting to serve as a starting point for how much light our camera would collect during that time frame.  Based on the histogram, we could add or subtract light accordingly to record our vision.

As soon as everyone dialed to the right settings and achieved sharp focus, I counted “1-2-3″ and everyone snapped the shutter at the same time.  During the exposure, I painted the hoodoos from the left side with about five to seven seconds of light from a strong LED flashlight.  After the exposure, we all reviewed our histogram to determine whether our cameras had collected enough ambient light and flash light.  Then, we’d repeat.

After a number of snaps, a large, unsightly shadow line revealed itself at the base of the tallest hoodoo.  Because the neighboring smaller hoodoo prevented the flash light from hitting the taller hoodoo, the light needed to originate from the front – not the side.  Because of the longer exposure, I could solve this minor problem by running into the frame with my flashlight while the group’s shutters were released.

On my first attempt, I painted the hoodoos from the side for a few seconds and then danced into the frame (“Like a gazelle!”), painting the tallest hoodoo at the base to eliminate the shadow.   A quick review of the photos indicated the tallest hoodoo had received an excessive amount of light, so we needed to repeat the process with less flash light time.

On the next attempt, one second I was painting the hoodoos as I had down countless times before.  The next second, I was chewing on sand.  By taking a slight deviation to the right in my path in order to distance myself and my flash from the hoodoos to achieve less light, my right foot dropped into a two-foot deep trench and my entire body fell forward into the higher ground on the opposite side.  Not wanting to ruin the entire group’s photo, I yelled, “I’m OK!  KEEP SHOOTING!!”

(The hilarity of this statement becomes more evident when you consider the entire group had released their shutter for 30 seconds, making any adjustments to their shot impossible.  What were they going to do then?  Change their ISO?!)

With the flash light still moving in my right hand, I used my left hand to pick myself up so that I could continue running across the frame to paint the shadow area with light.  After the exposure completed and many laughs about my tumble, “Keep shooting!” quickly became our trip’s motto.

And what a fitting rally cry this was not only for this trip and all the AHPW Women’s Photography Retreats, but also for life in general.  When something brings you down, hose yourself off, get up, and try again.  When something gets in your way, walk around it.  When something does not go the way you hoped, try something else.  No matter the situation or obstacle, personal growth and success comes when we keep going.  Keep trying.  And always KEEP SHOOTING!

~Colleen

P.S. If you or someone you know would like to join us on the next AHPW Women’s Photo Retreat in Verde Valley/Sedona in April 2014, visit the AHPW website at ahpw.org/workshops/2014/Sedona-Arizona-Womens-Photo-Retreat-2014-04-25/ for more information and to register.  This workshop sells out quickly, so if you’re interested, I’d consider registering as soon as possible to reserve your spot!