Photo Exploration: Theo on Stairs (Gratitude)

If you have a child, or know some­one with a child, you’ve got a ready-at-all-times pho­tog­ra­phy sub­ject. They move in unique ways, their per­spec­tive on every­thing is often quite enlight­en­ing, their expres­sions and emo­tions are far more unin­hib­it­ed than when we get old­er. And they nev­er seem to do the same thing for very long so there is always some­thing new to photograph.

This pho­to was tak­en just a cou­ple of months before Theo turned two. It had been a pleas­ant after­noon strolling around the Bilt­more Estate gar­dens but Theo was ready to climb some stairs on his own. Stairs are tricky things, espe­cial­ly for those in their first year of walk­ing upright. As walk­ing is basi­cal­ly con­trolled falling, the idea that in order to climb (or descend) stairs one must fall up or down onto a dif­fer­ent hor­i­zon­tal must be quite an adjust­ment. It makes for some won­der­ful sto­ry-telling — this new con­quer­ing of land­scape. An acqui­si­tion of a skill that will prob­a­bly nev­er leave.

Theo, Bilt­more Estate. July 2012. Canon A‑1, 50mm f/1.8, Ilford HP5+

Pho­tog­ra­phy helps me remem­ber moments. My days seem to be so full that I can get con­fused on remem­ber­ing if some­thing was a cou­ple of days or a cou­ple of weeks ago. But with pho­tographs, espe­cial­ly if I am dis­ci­plined in record­ing when a pho­to was tak­en, I can go back and have per­spec­tive on some past moments. It helps keep my mem­o­ry lin­ear­ly intact. And while there is some­thing to be said for hav­ing a gen­er­al jum­ble of feel­ings, I do like to have my own time­line at least some­what organized.

This Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­day I am grate­ful for the abil­i­ty to watch and engage with Theo’s life as he grows. It does some­times seem to hap­pen in the blink of an eye,  but with pho­tog­ra­phy at least I can cap­ture it in 1/60th sec­ond bursts.

Photo Exploration: “From Inside” Railcar Photo

We all have walked on a rail­road, and any of us who have ever tak­en a pho­to have prob­a­bly pho­tographed along rail­road as well. Seem­ing­ly end­less tracks stretch­ing for­ward and back­wards. Merg­ing and diverg­ing curves and impos­si­bly straight lines cut­ting through and rid­ing along the earth. I’m hard pressed to think of a more acces­si­ble metaphor for human­i­ty’s eter­nal strug­gle to con­trol and uti­lize our environment.

I remem­ber some of my first 35mm pho­tos (10th grade, K‑1000, 50mm lens…some kind of bulk-loaded b/w film) were of tracks in Natchez, MS. Those neg­a­tives (and all the rest from that age) are unfor­tu­nate­ly lost, but with a lit­tle work I’m sure I could find the same places on again. I like­ly fol­lowed the tracks from in front of Grand­moth­er’s house down Broad­way, across Canal and into bust­ed up park­ing lots and ram­bling kudzu that led into the bayou.


This image was from a walk with Andrew Fedy­nak on River­side Dri­ve in north Asheville/Woodfin. Andrew is gra­cious to let me bor­row a Mamiya c330 with an 80mm lens, the “nor­mal” lens for that film size. The c330 is the first cam­era I’ve shot that does square for­mat shots, in the 6x6cm size. Shoot­ing with a square viewfind­er (and one with­out a pen­taprism to “cor­rect” the view) is a bit star­tling. Beyond the nor­mal left-and-right rever­sal, for the first half of a roll I was tilt­ing my eyes in the viewfind­er to see the addi­tion­al mate­r­i­al that would nor­mal­ly be present with the 6x45 or 2x3 ratio formats.

Once I set­tled down into the for­mat, there was an appre­ci­a­tion with the free­dom from hav­ing to fill all that extra space. I could frame a square shot and not to have wor­ry about what’s going on with the edges. I was able to com­pose much tighter, where­as before an image like the one above would have been emp­ty and too cen­ter-weight­ed in a wider format.

Andrew and I walked a good half-mile of track with tem­per­a­tures in the low 50’s and driz­zle all around to get from a park­ing lot to a small set of rail­cars that have been idle for years. I knew to con­serve frames for shoot­ing when we reached the cars, but it took dis­ci­pline to adhere to that behav­ior. I’m a suck­er for rails and there were plen­ty of amaz­ing pho­tos to be had along the way. Shoot­ing a 400 speed film (specif­i­cal­ly Fuji Supe­ria X‑Tra 400) was much faster than the usu­al col­or film I shoot, and I was enjoy­ing being able to hand hold all my shots. There were aban­doned ties, rocks, switch­es and more.

But at the cars there was the dis­trac­tion of abun­dance. What to shoot, how to shoot, should I brack­et, should I conserve…so many options. There are plen­ty of oth­er pho­tos from the rail cars, but this last pho­to before walk­ing back was my favorite. Some­how grass had seed­ed over four feet in the air into the grime and muck accu­mu­lat­ed inside a car. Every­where were warn­ings on the cars say­ing “Doors Open from Inside” (or some­thing) but I saw those words as a direc­tive for nature to take advan­tage of the oppor­tu­ni­ties pre­sent­ed. Maybe to win a lit­tle space back from the rail­roads we use to carve our way through the nat­ur­al world.

Print of this piece avail­able for pur­chase here.

Single Photo HDR

HDR (high dynam­ic range) pho­tog­ra­phy is a top­ic that can gar­ner imme­di­ate dis­dain. It’s the man­go chut­ney or infused olive oil of pho­tog­ra­phy — a way to cov­er mis­takes dur­ing the process and pro­vide cov­er in the pre­sen­ta­tion by say­ing “Look, I’ve got a tech­nique!”

How­ev­er, just like the overused culi­nary fla­vor­ings above, in the right sit­u­a­tions HDR can be used to draw out the sub­tleties of an image or pro­vide the tools to dis­play  far more infor­ma­tion than orig­i­nal­ly available.

There are plen­ty of tuto­ri­als out there on HDR best prac­tices — uti­lize a tri­pod, brack­et, Aper­ture mode only, shoot RAW, etc. But some­times I come across a pho­to after the fact and I think “Hmmm, this would have been a good HDR shot” and I only have one of the orig­i­nal. In these (rel­a­tive­ly few) cas­es, I’ve got a fair­ly fool-proof work­flow in Pho­to­shop to emu­late what prop­er shoot­ing and prepa­ra­tion could have done orig­i­nal­ly. It involves tak­ing a sin­gle image and cre­at­ing copies with mul­ti­ple expo­sures. I used this work­flow recent­ly with one of my dig­i­tal shots from the Rome trip in October.

Here is orig­i­nal image — columns from the ruins of the Tem­ple of the Ves­ta.

I opened the orig­i­nal Canon RAW image  in Pho­to­shop and made two copies, and saved all the TIFF files. Then for copy A, I went into Lev­els and changed the mid-point to 3 and saved. For copy B, I went into Lev­els and changed the mid-point to .25 and saved. This gave three images that were rough­ly +2 stops over, the orig­i­nal, and ‑2 stops under exposed.

Because HDR is depend­ing on hav­ing mul­ti­ple images to com­bine to cre­ate a larg­er dynam­ic range, this effect of fak­ing the expo­sure dif­fer­ences is close (but of course not per­fect) to what could have been cap­tured in three sep­a­rate shots.

The next step is to open all three of the images and go to the Automate->HDR option in Pho­to­shop. Because there isn’t any dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing EXIF data for Pho­to­shop to draw on, one must tell the tool the expo­sure dif­fer­ences. For the new­ly “over­ex­posed” I entered a 2 in the EV field, for the “under­ex­posed” image I put in ‑2 and for the orig­i­nal image I put in 0.

After churn­ing away and a lit­tle col­or tweak­ing, this was the result. As an side, one pat­tern that I do notice reg­u­lar­ly with HDR is that clouds and skies will turn very blue in parts, and reduc­ing the blue sat­u­ra­tion alle­vi­ates that greatly.

My even­tu­al goal with this was a black and white image, so I went into Light­room and treat­ed this new image as any oth­er I was con­vert­ing to b/w and now we have the final result.

I did have to take a good bit of time to edit this. Using the Curves tool, I was able to draw out more of the mid-range darks so the sky and foliage was­n’t so high-key. Evening out the inten­si­ty took a lit­tle time and use of the Grad­u­at­ed Fil­ter tool.


Not as sol­id a result as if I had done three expo­sures on the scene, but still quite a bit more range in the pre­sen­ta­tion than in the orig­i­nal! Hope­ful­ly this final image also avoids the pit­falls of HDR pho­tog­ra­phy: an over-processed effect, ghost­ing and unre­al­is­tic imagery. I am sat­is­fied with this image, espe­cial­ly when reflect­ing on how it started.

Rome: Slide Film

A selec­tion of the Velvia 100F, 6x45 for­mat, shots tak­en with the GA645. Rome, Octo­ber 2012.

Photo Exploration: Mountains to Sea Trail

Once back from Rome, we tried to get out and see the leaves and col­ors as much as pos­si­ble. Once very suc­cess­ful out­ing in that respect was a Sun­day after­noon walk on the Moun­tains to Sea Trail just out­side of Asheville. The image below is from that excursion.

Slide film is one of the more recent media I’ve come to explore, and real­ly only in the past year have I done any mean­ing­ful work with that sort of film. This par­tic­u­lar shot was with the Fuji GA645 (same as the cam­era used here)and Fuji Velvia 100f.

There is a strange feel­ing work­ing with a large-ish for­mat film and yet work­ing with a small-ish piece of equip­ment. Com­pared to the RB67 or even the 645 Pro TL, the GA645 is light­weight and ultra-portable. Tak­ing it for a spin in the woods, when one has to poten­tial­ly car­ry plen­ty of oth­er equip­ment, is a real plea­sure. The glass is immac­u­late and focus­ing is dead on (or you can man­u­al­ly focus if you pre­fer). And the result of the slide film is breath­tak­ing. I wish there was a way to relay the feel­ing of hold­ing a slide over the inter­net. Even view­ing a print does­n’t quite have the same “WOW” fac­tor for me as a slide does. Maybe the trans­paren­cy? Maybe the com­pact­ness and clar­i­ty of the slide. What­ev­er it is, in the fall with the col­ors and tex­tures I don’t know if I’ve seen any oth­er pho­to­graph­ic medi­um that mea­sures up to slide.

Regard­less of your pho­to­graph­ic equip­ment, there is also the ques­tion of HOW to pho­to­graph a scene. And pho­tog­ra­phy of strik­ing col­ors are way up on my list of “Hard Shots.” I think a large amount of the dif­fi­cul­ty is that we expe­ri­ence a walk in the woods with sea­son­al foliage quite vivid­ly, and our rec­ol­lec­tion is often even greater in sat­u­ra­tion than real­i­ty. Thus, pho­tograph­ing such scenes in ways that evoke the same emo­tion is sub­stan­tial­ly more dif­fi­cult than oth­er, less “oomph” dri­ven shots. But I do have some basic ideas that can help.

The first is com­po­si­tion. When pho­tograph­ing nature, it is easy for me to get swept up in the “pret­ty” shots that don’t tell any sto­ry. But when I focus on com­pos­ing an image with a lit­tle bit of nar­ra­tive, my sat­is­fac­tion down the road is much high­er. Espe­cial­ly when shoot­ing film which has such poten­tial for qual­i­ty repro­duc­tion that fail­ures are that much more evi­dent. So be sure to shoot every image, or every series of images, to bring the view­er to the scene and envel­op them in the moment.

Sec­ond­ly, unless you are inten­tion­al­ly tak­ing a pho­to of some­thing sin­gu­lar, I’d stay away from small depth of field­’s. I know my impulse is often shoot wide open and get some rock­ing bokeh, but I’ve found that the effect can be jar­ring. Part of what makes col­or foliage so amaz­ing is that every­where you can look and focus there is col­or. Sharp and bright and sat­u­rat­ed. When you blur that back­ground (and/or fore­ground) in the pho­to, the “being there” effect can be decreased dramatically.

Last, I try as much as pos­si­ble to cut through the mist. I use a polar­iz­er, haze fil­ter, what­ev­er I’ve got handy to increase clar­i­ty through the entire scene. That is, unless  it is a long expo­sure with enough time for the mist or fog or what­ev­er to move about. Oth­er­wise I have found that, like the sec­ond point, the reduc­tion in over­all clar­i­ty can do harm to the entire photograph.

With every­thing there are excep­tions to the above, but those three guide­lines above cer­tain­ly increase my grat­i­fi­ca­tion when review­ing the pho­tos after a ses­sion out in the woods.