Sea Blue Lens


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Finding the Words

“Ever had a strong reaction to a photograph?” That’s the question Kat asks in the final lesson in our Find Your Eye: Journey of Fascination class. Well, that’s an easy one: of course I have! But the followup question is not so easy: can I explain why I had that reaction?

I don’t like this lesson very much. I’d much rather just look at a photograph and feel whether I like it or not. But Kat believes that if we learn to explain why we do or do not like a photograph, it will help us to improve our own photography.

And although trying to find concrete reasons for gut reactions is not my strong suit, I knew as soon as I read the lesson that she was right. I think this is going to be one of the most valuable skills I can have in my arsenal, and one whose usefulness is not limited to photography. Now all I have to do is figure it out.

The first part of the assignment was to find several photos we liked (not our own) and describe them: horizontal or vertical format, type of lens, point of view, depth of field, type and direction of light, lines and shapes, warm vs. cool colors, etc. Then we were to choose two of our own photographs — one we like and one we don’t — and analyze them in the same way.

Kat suggested that comparing images from the same photo shoot might be helpful, so that’s what I did. Here is my first photo:

DSC_0179

Post I

When I first saw this old fence post with its loop of barbed wire, I saw it as a vertical subject which would therefore fit well into a vertical format. I took several shots of it that way, but it doesn’t really do much for me. I think it’s kind of ho-hum, and it doesn’t capture the feeling I had when I saw it.

Then I turned the camera horizontally to see what I could see:

Post II

Post II

Immediately I liked that much better.  I like the contrast of the horizontal frame with the vertical post, and also that more of the clouds on the left and the mountain on the right were included. It feels better balanced that way to me. I like the rhythm of the curved stick and curved wire leading to the circle of wire on the post that then trails off diagonally toward the lower right of the frame. Streaks of light in the cloudy sky echo the curved diagonal line of the grass and mountain horizon. I also see an implied triangular shape from the lower left corner to the top of the post and down the wire to the lower right corner.

This kind of analysis does not come naturally to me. I’m an Intuitive-Feeling type in the Myers-Briggs personality type system, not a Thinking-Judging type. (This exercise reminds me of the analyses we had to do in high school literature class. I just wanted to get lost in the story, not pick it apart for symbolism. ) So all that in the paragraph above? I don’t really know if that makes the horizontal version a better image or not. I just know it feels better to me.

Clearly I need to keep working on this one until I can integrate it into my photography tool kit.


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That Sixth Sense

I’m still busy Finding My Eye over here. Next lesson: recognizing intuition. I’m finding this a hard assignment, which is odd, since I think of myself as an intuitive photographer. I seldom go out to take photographs with a goal in mind, but just meander along until something “speaks” to me and I think, “Yes! Try to catch that!”

But is that really intuition? When I take my eyes from the glorious color of the autumn foliage and look down at my feet at exactly the right moment to notice this:

leaf loopLeaf Loop

. . . is that intuition or just a lucky chance? I still remember my excitement when I spotted it. Perhaps it was my intuition that told me it was a good subject for me. Perhaps a different photographer’s intuition would have told him to just keep walking.

I sometimes wonder whether what appears to be a “sixth sense” is simply the result of paying attention to information received, perhaps subliminally, by the usual five senses. A bit of barely-glimpsed motion or color that causes me to look in a certain direction, or a whisper of sound or scent that makes me turn around. But perhaps it’s intuition that tells me to pay attention to that hint of sensory stimulation.

When something tells me a subject would probably make a good photograph, is it intuition or just experience? In fact, Psychology Today’s website has this to say about intuition:

We think of intuition as a magical phenomenon—but hunches are formed out of our past experiences and knowledge.

My past experiences and knowledge tell me to continue seeking out places where the subjects that tug at my heart are likely to be found. My intuition nudges me to keep walking, just a little farther, just around one more bend, and look right over there. . . .

IMG_4797So glad I came this way!


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Learning How I Learn

DSC_0001

My next lesson in Find Your Eye: Journey of Fascination is about how to learn a new technique. Kat has asked us to think about new photographic techniques we’ve been wanting to try, and to consider how we learn best.  Then we’re to choose the new technique we’re most interested in learning right now, and apply our best learning methods to it.

I have a long list of techniques I’m interested in learning, some written down in actual notes and some just mental notes. Some, like HDR,  are brand new to me, and others, like controlling depth of field, I’m familiar with but not as skilled or comfortable as I’d like to be.

When I’m learning something I’m interested in, I’m usually intense and focused. I like classroom learning, especially if it involves hands-on practice and the opportunity to ask questions and get feedback. But I tend to become impatient with off-topic discussions, or having to wait for everyone to catch up. I love the Internet for the wealth of information about any topic you can think of, and that it’s available whenever I want it.

I’ve learned many new photographic techniques through online classes and from fellow bloggers. When I’m interested in a specific topic, I start with an online search, read articles and watch videos, go back to my camera reference books for further details, and try the technique myself. I’ve recently found videos to be very helpful for me, because I can pause them to try each step with my own camera or software. I also take detailed notes, because writing it down not only helps it sink in, but gives me something to refer back to later if needed.

The specific technique I chose to work on for this lesson is hyperfocal distance focusing. It’s a technique useful for taking photos that are in clear focus from foreground all the way to the horizon. It can be complicated! (There’s a more detailed explanation here.)  It can also be controversial.

I used to be able to use the hyperfocal technique pretty successfully when I shot film. It’s been a problem ever since I got my dSLR, because my digital lenses don’t have the helpful focus zone markings that my old lenses did. The result was images like these:

DSC_0113Foreground sharp; distance fuzzy

DSC_0114Distance sharp; foreground fuzzy

After doing some online research, studying some hyperfocal distance charts, reading my aftermarket camera guide, and playing with my camera controls, I headed out to take some photos. The image at the top of this post and the one below were taken using the information I gathered.

DSC_0004Foreground fence sharp; mid-range shrubbery sharp; distant mountains sharp(ish)

I’m not completely satisfied yet, but I think I have a grasp of the principles and I’ll keep working on it. It feels good to be making progress toward mastery of (or at least competence with) a useful technique that should help improve my landscape photos.


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I’m Not Sorry

Starting Point

Starting Point

For the next lesson in my Find Your Eye: Journey of Fascination class, I’ve been asked to compare myself to my idea of a “real photographer” to see where I come up short in my own mind, and to think about what I reflexively apologize for about my photography. Oh, yes, and to stop doing that!

The first thing I realized is that my definition of a real photographer has changed over time. I used to think it was anyone who took better pictures than I did. And that was just about anyone. While I didn’t apologize for my photography, if someone complimented me on it I just sort of shrugged it off. I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. Now I tend to think of a real photographer as a professional photographer — someone who makes a living — or at least has ambitions to — from his or her photography. That’s a more comfortable definition for me, because I have no desire to go pro, and therefore don’t have to compare myself to those people at all.

However, that’s really sidestepping the question, because of course I do have ideas about “real” (i.e., serious) photographers in the sense that Kat means it. They shoot with a top-of-the-line dSLR. They never go anywhere without a camera bag or backpack loaded with a camera or two, extra lenses, flash, filters, etc. They shoot RAW images, in manual, and always use a tripod. They process their images with the latest version of full-fledged Photoshop, not its little brother, Elements. They want to sell their work.

But that’s not me, and I don’t apologize for it. I have tried some of those things in the past; for example, loading all my equipment into a professional-style bag so I could carry it on a photoshoot. I can tell you that having all that weight on my shoulder took the joy out of photography and actually drove me away from it for quite some time. It was eventually buying a small point and shoot film camera that brought me back to the pleasure of taking pictures.

Now I have an excellent dSLR that I love, but I still often use a small P&S that slips into my purse. I seldom use a tripod because it’s just not my style. It’s too cumbersome and fussy for me. I love my Photoshop Elements; it fits my budget and along with Lightroom has all the features I need to handle my post-processing. I’ve still never tried shooting in RAW, since JPEG has been adequate for my needs. And — o, heresy — I shoot in Program or Aperture Priority mode most of the time. Sometimes even in Auto!

All this works for me, and needs no apologies. If it bothers someone else, I figure that’s their problem, not mine. That’s not to say that I think I’m a hot-shot photographer, or that there’s no room for improvement. The fact that I’m here, taking classes and striving to learn and grow, belies that. But I’m happy with who I am and where I am on this Journey. I can admire the work of others and even want to emulate it, without thinking that means there’s something wrong with me.

I think part of this new-found confidence comes with age. I’ve been through plenty and come out intact on the other side. The older I get, the less I care what others might think about me. Besides, one of my all-time favorite quotations is this from Ethel Barrett:

We would worry less about what others think of us if we realized how seldom they do.

I am real and my photographs are a real expression of who I am. Therefore, I am a real photographer. There’s nothing to apologize for in that.

Note: That photo at the top? I took that with my very first camera, a piece of plastic junk that didn’t even last through one whole roll before the film advance knob broke. Though the image quality is lousy, I think I had a pretty good eye for composition even then. And that blurry image brings back to me the best summer I ever had.

I was eleven years old.

 


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Quick Draw

Here I thought I was taking a photography course, and now Kat’s got us drawing pictures. With pen or pencil and PAPER. This lesson in Find Your Eye: Journey of Fascination is about seeing by drawing. Drawing an object helps us see its shapes, lines, light and shadow, blocks of color. It helps us move past our preconceptions and see something in a new way. Then, hopefully, when we look at that object again through the viewfinder, we’ll be able to capture it in a new way.

I wandered around the house looking for an object to draw and hit upon a little ceramic mouse that sits on my dresser. I’ve had it for years and am very fond of it. It reminds me of my daughter, whom I called Mouse when she was little. As instructed in the lesson, I placed it in the center of the table and took three photos of it.

Mousie x 3

Mouse x 3

Then I sat down with paper and pen and began to sketch. (I decided to use a pen not because I am a great or confident artist, but to keep myself from getting obsessive about trying to make a perfect pencil drawing.) I drew four quick sketches, from front, back, and each side.

I haven’t drawn anything in a very long time, but as I proceeded, I found myself relaxing into the exercise and enjoying myself. The first one looked more like a salamander than a mouse, but by the time I finished the last one, I felt I had captured a bit of its little mousey spirit. (No, sorry, you don’t get to see them.)

The next step was to re-photograph the object, using the sketches for inspiration. Most of the new photos I took at the table weren’t much different from before the drawing, but I did take this one because I had drawn it and liked the angle:

Wee Sleekit Beastie

Wee, Sleekit Beastie

This reminds me of the little creature in Robert Burns’ “Ode to a Field Mouse.” I like the simplicity of it, and that long curved shape from the nose to the wrapped-around tail.

I decided to try a different setting, and moved Little Moislie over to my desk, where the window faces northeast and gives a softer light. The desktop gave a nice reflected fill light, too, and I got several images I liked. This was my favorite:

Computer Mouse

Computer Mouse

Doesn’t she look at home there? Maybe I’ll let her stay for a while. She can help me edit my blog posts. Oh, I’ve just turned on the lamp and noticed it gives her some interesting shadows and modeling. There may be more posing in her future.

This was an interesting assignment. I don’t feel that I made a real breakthrough photographically, but I certainly did take a closer look at a small object that I usually take for granted. I can see how drawing could be a useful tool. Years ago, I used to carry a sketchbook with me everywhere. It would probably be a good practice to take up again.

 


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Breaking Through

The next lesson in my Journey of Fascination is called Creative Breakthroughs. My first reaction was, “I don’t think I’ve ever had one.” I believe that my photography has improved over the years, but it seems to me that it has been a gradual process, rather than anything as dramatic as a “breakthrough” — especially a creative one. There has never been anything that has propelled me in a totally different direction with my photography.

But then I started thinking about it and a few things did come to mind.

One I recalled was my move to Maine. A new environment stimulates new output, and what a gorgeous new environment it was. I felt lit up as I attempted to capture the fresh things I saw around me. Soon after that, I got my first digital camera. Suddenly I could take all the pictures I wanted, at no cost, and just delete any that didn’t turn out. Also, it was a very small camera and I began carrying it with me everywhere. I’m in another new environment now, and again am excited about exploring its photographic possibilities.

First photo with Canon Digital Elph

First photo with Canon Digital Elph (SOOC)

Another was signing up for my first Find Your Eye course. I learned a great deal from the lessons. But that wasn’t the real breakthrough. In order to keep the photo journal that was required for the class, I started this blog. I connected with fellow FYE-ers and even random strangers, and for the first time ever, began to put my work (and myself) out into the world. Literally the WORLD. Making those connections, getting feedback and encouragement about my work, and seeing the work of others has inspired my photography and my life. I want to photograph more, and better, and to release it into the wild.

First photo published on blog

First photo published on blog

One of my happiest creative breakthroughs came with the discovery that giving up seriousness and expectations of perfection can actually improve my photography. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times before — that time when I forgot to make sure my camera was in the bag before meeting a friend for a photoshoot. I didn’t even have my small backup camera with me. So I pulled out my iPhone and started taking photos with it. I didn’t expect to get anything good out of it, but hey, I was there, so why not just have some fun? In spite of its limitations, or maybe because of them, I had a blast and got some of my favorite photos ever.

First photo from (accidental) iPhone photo walk

First photo from (accidental) iPhone photo walk

Recently I had another breakthrough when I took a couple of classes from Kim Klassen on post-processing with Photoshop Elements and Lightroom. I’d been using Photoshop for years, stumbling along with it on my own. Just a couple of lessons with Kim and I learned things that amazed me. I don’t know if it was a breakthrough in creativity, but it sure revolutionized my processing.

Fun with Photoshop

First Photoshop assignment: Learning layers at long last

My latest breakthrough actually happened as I was working on our lesson on Contrasts. I did my photo walk and downloaded the images to my computer. I was so mad! They were not sharp, despite being taken in bright sunlight at very fast shutter speeds. Every single one was just soft, even though my camera is supposed to have one of the best picture qualities out there. I was totally fed up. So I started researching, looking through manuals and online forums, and guess what? I discovered I wasn’t the only one with that problem, and there are camera settings to fix it. So I tried variations on those settings, taking test photos, downloading and comparing them, and then I went out and redid my photoshoot. Now I’m getting the nice sharp images I’ve been looking for all along. A breakthrough in creativity? I don’t know if that will be the result, but now I’m a lot more eager to get out there and see what I can make the little beastie do!

It may not be Art, but at least it's not fuzzy.

First photo, second time around. It may not be Art, but at least it’s not fuzzy.

So I have had and I hope will continue to have breakthroughs. Are they Creative Breakthroughs? I guess only time will tell. But one thing Kat said really rang a bell with me: When I go out and try to force it, it doesn’t happen so much.

Here’s to letting it happen. And maybe just encouraging it a little bit!

.


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Contrasts

The second lesson in the Find Your Eye: Journey of Fascination class is about photographic contrasts. This lesson encourages us to think beyond the obvious contrast of light/dark to other conceptual contrasts: new/old, hard/soft, straight/curved, and so on.

Looking through my Inspiration File, I discovered that there’s a strong color contrast in many of my favorite images.

Autumn Vines on Lincoln Mill

Autumn Vines on Lincoln Mill

Another sort of contrast I use a lot is something I think of as “solitariness.” (I may have just made that word up.) By that I mean a person or thing all by itself, contrasting with its environment: a lone person on a beach, a spider web gleaming in the rafters of a ruined building, a poppy in a field of lupine, a little bird all alone in a foggy world.

Song Sparrow

Soloist

The third category that stood out to me was a contrast of incongruity . . . things that strike me as funny or ironic or surprising by their proximity to one another, like a pair of beautiful roses you wouldn’t want to get your nose too close to.

There goes the neighborhood

Stopping to smell the roses…is not always a good idea.

The second part of the class assignment was to go on a photo walk, looking for contrasts to photograph and taking note of how we felt while doing it. I ended up doing my photo walk twice, because I was not at all happy with the first set of images I got. I had a better idea of what I wanted and how to get it the second time around, and was pleased that I tried again. (More on this next time!)

Desert Treescape

Desert Treescape

Contrast: Natural/Man-made — Although the area where I live is very rural, it’s difficult to find “clean” scenic shots. Cell towers march along mountain ridges. Fire roads, fences, buildings, wires, power poles, billboards, etc., proliferate nearly everywhere. In the image above I deliberately framed the electrical transmission tower “trees” with the native junipers and rustic fence in the foreground to emphasize their contrast with the natural landscape.

On the Fence

On the Fence

Contrast: Illusion/Reality — Speaking of that rustic fence . . . it really isn’t. Here I tried to capture the contrast of a traditional post and split-rail fence constructed of very un-traditional molded concrete.

Shadows

Stonewalled

Multiple Contrasts — What first caught my eye here was the contrast between the shape and texture of the smooth, rectangular window panes and the random curves and roughness of the natural stone wall. Then I noticed the soft shadow of the same tree that’s reflected in sharp focus in the window. There’s also a warm/cool color contrast going on here that I like, as well as our old friend light/dark.

Adobe Sky

Adobe Sky

Contrast: Color (warm/cool) and Shape (straight/curved) — Pretty obvious. Might add Texture (smooth/rough), too. This turned out to be my favorite image from the shoot. That was a bit of a surprise, since I expected it to be one of the transmission tower photos. I love the simplicity of this one . . . and those colors!

I enjoyed looking for contrasts, and once I conquered the issues that disappointed me the first time around, I had a great time getting what I wanted. I realized that I have always instinctively used various types of contrast in my photography, but now I’ll be looking for it more consciously.