Fooling Around – Experimental Photography

Posted in Humor, On Tthe Road, Photography Tricks on May 26th, 2011 by MadDog
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Once again I will get all pedantic on you and deliver a lecture on a subject so obscure that most would not even consider its existence. Today’s endless monograph will lightly cover the pseudo-intellectual pursuit of what I dare to call Experimental Photography. If you Google that phrase, you won’t find very much of interest. Some of the Google Images do lead in the general direction, though. Are you laughing yet?

I use the term more to make fun of myself than for any other reason. It embarrasses me to admit that when I have my camera in my hands I have reverted to a kid with a particularly engaging toy. I wish to appear more serious and, uh . . . deep than that. It’s all about ego. So, don’t take the second part of the title of this post seriously. The “Fooling Around” part is the operative phrase.

My personal view of experimental photography includes a continuum of categories ranging from purely narrative or descriptive to abstract. Within these categories a range of camera techniques can be employed to get the desired effect. I could write a book about this, but I have only this much space. Prepare for compression!

When I take a picture of something which must be instantly recognisable and the object itself is more or less the message, I call this narrative or descriptive. The object is  the story.  Here is a very obvious example:

It’s a sign. How simple can it get? It would be a very uninteresting image except for the words on the sign. What is the message? I’m sure that you’ve gathered that this is a sort of visual double entendre.  There is a place called Lick Elevator, a grain storage facility which you have seen here before. What makes it amusing is that the sign could appear to be a command – a rather absurd one.

This also is a narrative image. In The Happy Singing Machine  I wanted to convey the little surprise I felt when I turned my head and saw the cartoon face staring at me from the side of this whatever-it-is machine:

Here again, to complete the transaction between the photographer and the viewer, the viewer must uncover the narrative – decode it, so to speak. This one is so obvious that it takes little effort.

As you wade through this post you’ll note that I’m slowly (oh, so slowly – will it never end?) moving from narrative or descriptive to abstract. You may find yourself nodding off.

This one is also narrative, in the sense that you can easily see what it is – a restaurant bar top with the street scene outside and everything reflected upside down in the shiny surface:

In actuality, this is a tripple entendre.  The first meaning is the obvious one – the descriptive image itself. It is what it is, an interesting visualisation, but otherwise not noteworthy. The second requires seeing the title of the image, often a clue to the photographer’s hidden message – The Honest Lawyer.  Aside from the fact that the place is possibly a hangout for downtown lawyers, there is the aspect of the mirrored but shaded world reflected in the bar top. Honest? Possibly. True? Probably not. Ethical? Quite likely. Accurate? Well, that depends on who you are asking, eh? You can play these little word games with the image until you decide that you’re wasting valuable time. The third part of the tripple entendre  works for you only if you live in Hamilton, Ontario where there is a matched set of way-too-loud-music quasi-sports (too many big screen TVs silently blaring miscellaneous mundane sports nonsense) plastic-food establishments called The Honest Lawyer. (The funky video clip makes this site worth a click.)

Whew! All that in there? It’s a stretch, I admit.

That shot didn’t require much in the way of camera technique. I simply plopped my Canon G11 down on the bar, pointed it towards the windows and pushed the button. It did require a lot of post-processing to get the effect I wanted.

However, some shots require some planning and fiddling with the camera controls. I like to take shots of things whizzing past the car window. This requires setting the camera to manual or shutter priority mode and selecting a relatively low shutter speed, in this case about 1/8th of a second. It also requires one to look ahead to see what shot might be coming up, because there will be a very short window of time for the exposure:

Here we have the giant communications tower in Toronto framed between trees which are blurred by the movement of the bus on which I was riding. Even more blurred, because it was closer to my camera, is the traffic light on the right. This image is light on transcendental value. There’s not much there. It’s only real interest is the demonstration of motion blur. Ho-hum.

This one is a little more meaty. I remember seeing this sculpture from previous visits to Toronto. I find it no less repulsive than I did before. I wondered how I could capture my revulsion in an image? Hah! A passing pedestrian. Make her appear as if she is fleeing the ugliness:

Simple – select a slow shutter speed, brace firmly against the window frame of the bus and hope that the bus does not move until the pedestrian reaches the precise point at which she seems to be rushing past the travesty. I give you Rush on By.

I’ve been waiting a long time for the opportunity to put a picture of that sculpture in a post and treat it with proper disrespect. Thank you, kind lady, whoever you are.

With this one we are approaching the abstract. I call this a concoction. It follows the recipe of the moment. It’s shaken and baked virtually on the fly. As I was looking out of the window of the bus I was distracted by the reflection of the bus driver. How inconvenient. Why not record my complaint?

Here again, a normal automated shot will not work. If both the reflection and the outside scene are sharp the reflection is lost in the muddle. What is needed is to blur the scenery outside so that the reflection stands our more by its sharpness than by its contrast. A slow shutter speed once again comes to the rescue. If there is a subliminal message in The Phantom Bus Driver  other than the title, you will have to find it. I’ve racked my brain and can’t puzzle it out.

If you are very observant or very bored, you may notice the reflection of my hand holding the camera at the far right of the image. There is a term for this self-referential imagery in which the artist or a portion of the artist appears in the image, but I can’t think of it. Any help out there?

Here the narrative and the abstract mingle. What is the mountainous object which dwarfs the trees? What kind of grass matches a good-sized pine? Does the title Around My Neck  lend a clue? Well, silly me, of course it does. Who am I trying to fool. Some images are just fun and camera technique boils down to nothing more technical than lying on my belly in the wet grass like a 140 pound short thick snake:

The object is, rather obviously, a millstone and it is not twenty meters tall, only about one. The camera angle, shooting from the ground nearly straight up, and the inclusion of the trees make it seem much larger at first glance. I call this Abstract But Not Really Abstract. It’s a visual joke, if not a very good one.

Some of these last ones are approaching abstraction. This one probably more than any of the others:

In Clouds and Angles  it’s all about photography. Nobody would paint this picture. It’s a found object which disappears in an instant unless it is captured and viewed. It appears in a singular place in a moment of time. Were it not for me, nobody would ever have seen it – nobody. Does that mean anything? Of course not. Wait . . . no, it does mean something. It means that somebody sat in a car thinking about the sky and the clouds and watching things go by as a little story about the sky and the clouds and the things going by was being scripted in the mind of the observer until the right moment came along when everything converged and the world was set right for a nanosecond and the finger moved of its own accord to freeze the instant for no purpose whatsoever except the stopping, the pause, the memory of the moment of perfection.

Is that abstract enough for you?

You have to be a little bit odd, I think, to be a photographer. I’ve never made any money to speak of from photography. I’d certainly like  to make some money from it, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. However, I have made a little money at it and I take it very seriously as an expression of how I see the world, so I call myself a semi-professional photographer. Hey, you can have semi-pro baseball players and golfers, why not semi-professional photographers? Fair is fair. Part of that oddness I mentioned is allowing the mind to romp unfettered through the mountains of optical data flooding the visual cortex to stumble across little meadows of incongruity. I give you GO!

This shot would better fit the abstract label if it were not for the top of the bus at the bottom of the image. I, as the photographer, share a tiny hidden joke with you. There is a thing in Ontario called Go Transit. It’s a combination of bus and train service. The logo is entirely unintelligible – see the little turquoise colored symbol? It’s supposed to read “GO”, but you have to be a calligrapher to figure it out.

Patience, I’m nearly finished.

In This Way Up  we are back at the grain elevator again. We’re nearly all the way to abstract now. The object is not clearly recognisable. This is an assemblage of shapes and colours. It has been Photoshopped beyond all reason. My purpose was, as nearly as possible, to obscure reality under layers of camouflage:

If I’ve done my job well the reality will not be too obvious, unless you are an  employee of the establishment and you travel up and down this precarious ladder frequently. See, there you go. Once the reality is clear, the image loses it’s interest. It’s no longer a mystery. Phooey! I should have stopped while I was ahead.

This last one is neither narrative nor abstract. I might go so far as to call it a visual pun, though not a very good one. What makes it weak is that there is no common phrase “food temple” to match the title of the image:

I had some concept or other in mind as I was working on this image. It may have been a deep thought about the place that food has taken in modern western culture. I might have been thinking about how irritated I am that I can’t go to a meeting or visit with friends or engage in practically any social activity without being compelled to consume food. Really folks, I can’t eat that much. Please stop trying to feed me.

Yeah, that may have been it.

I can’t remember.

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Jazzing Up Your Image – The Process

Posted in On Tthe Road, Photography Tricks on April 22nd, 2011 by MadDog
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Once again, as you read this, I will likely have been stuffed into a long metal tube with a huge mob of other flesh and bone humans and am presently leaving a trail of noxious fumes across the frigid night sky between Honolulu and Phoenix. At Phoenix, I’ll hustle from one winged meat wagon to another and arrive, hungry, tired and lonely in Indianapolis. I pray the ground will not be white. I’ll be greeted by an old friend who will house and feed me for my time in Indy. My life today depends pretty much on the love of friends. That’s a good thing. It keeps me going, sometimes even when I’d rather not go.

Faithful reader DogsDon’tPurr commented that she would like to see some step-by-step illustrations of how a digital image is processed in order to produce a more pleasing image, according to the likes of the photographer. I had to think that over for all of five minutes. I’m pretty much running out of material here in Honolulu, so I grabbed a couple of illustrative images from my camera and recorded intermediate steps in my processing so that I can show the steps which I take to prepare my images for presentation. If you feel yourself getting drowsy, switch to another channel.

I don’t suggest that my method of working with images is any better than anyone else’s. Each image maker needs to tailor a sequence which feels right. I used Photoshop for these images, but similar results can be achieved with any image manipulation program, providing it has tools sufficient for the task.

I chose the first image to make a point. The shot as it comes from the camera does not need to be perfect. That’s why we have software to fix them. Practically nothing gets from my camera directly to these pages. I fiddle with every image until I’m happy with it. I took this yesterday evening at sunset from the apartment of a friend:

As it is, it’s a throw-away. There are so many problems with it that I’d bore you to list them. In fact, it’s so bad that I knew from experience that I would never end up with an image which looked “natural”, so I had it in mind from the beginning to go for the “vintage postcard” look. With an image like this, that’s what you’ll end up with anyway, so it’s best to just go with the flow.

First I lightened it up a bit and straightened the buildings.

Next, I had to decide what portion of the image I really wanted in the finished product. I used a cropping tool to remove the obtrusive building to the right and a little of the building on the left along with some of the bottom of the shot:

Now that I look at it on the page, I wish I’d removed the small building on the right also. I could easily make it vanish, but I’ll leave that for another time. What’s left is what I want to show. That’s cropping.

Then I lightened up the lower part of the image because all detail was buried in the shadows. Photoshop has a special tool for lightening up dark parts and darkening light parts in the same operation. I use it often for such images:

Now I can see some detail in the dark part at the bottom, but the colour is dismal.

So, I go to work on it with a tool that allows me to modify the hue of selected colours. I’m dealing mostly with green, so I need to take magenta out and add lots of cyan and yellow:

In the same operation I also took some cyan out of the red, which richend and warmed the sky a bit. The greens are now much brighter, but there is already an artificial look to the image, because I’m trying to create something from nothing. Now we’re crossing over into interpretation. I’m making it up as I go.

Next, I lightened the entire image. Then I used a special selection tool in Photoshop to select only the sky and I increased the saturation and contrast. This livened up the sky considerably:

I also lightened up the buildings and increased the contrast to give them some depth.  In this step I had to fix each little balcony on the building on the left. Some of them had furniture on them. I removed it all. You may have to click to enlarge to see what I’m talking about. You may note that I brightened up the lights in the buildings.

After looking at the image for a while I decided I may as well go the final step in jazzing it up. I did not like the strong blue cast in the clouds on the horizon, so I desaturated them to make them grey, leaving just the tops bluish. I also selected the top third of the image and made a graduated edge on the selection (I “faded” it on the bottom edge). I darkened this area to make the sky more dramatic. It’s an old movie trick:

There we have it. A “Vintage Postcard” shot from Honolulu. And, this proves the point:


For the next demo, I decided to use an example of an image which is not so shabby right out of the camera. You could print this water lily shot and put it in your photo album with reasonable pride. It’s a “lucky” shot:

Ah, some, however, are never satisfied. I can see the possibilities, but it needs some work. This is a sister image to one I put on these pages a while ago. The bee is just facing the other way.

First, I brightened up the entire image and cropped it so that it conforms more to my sense of composition which is biased strongly towards the Rule of Thirds (if you don’t know, you can use my search box):

On my Canon G11 I tend to shoot images slightly underexposed as it seems to give me better saturation of the colours. Maybe I’m dreaming. It’s just a feeling. I haven’t done any side-by-side comparisons to prove it. While I’m rambling photographically, I’ll mention that I’m going crazy trying to edit images on this five year old Toshiba notebook. The screen is horrible. The slightest change of angle changes the contrast drastically and the room lighting makes a dramatic difference. I know the quality of my images has suffered since I left my huge, high quality graphics monitor in Madang. It’s an ancient Sony CRT terminal, but I love it.

The difference in the next image is subtle. If you look at the centre of the blossom, it will appear less colourful than the image before. It may appear to be a step backward:

What I was doing was changing the balance of colours in the center to bring up some subtle shading which was barely discernable in the original. I’ll fix the drabness in the next step, but if I did that first, I’d be unable to get back the shading in the centre which makes the details there more visible.

Here I’ve restored the vibrancy of the colours and sharpened the detail. The greens were still pretty dull and there was little to work with there. I jazzed them up as much as I could without making them look too fake:

I also selectively brought out the bee by brightening only the mid-brightness areas, leaving the shadows dark. For “naturalness”, I’d call this image finished.

Yet, the image still lacked zing. After scratching my head for a while, I decided to abandon all caution and dip into the Artistic Filters in Photoshop. For this shot I chose Poster Edges and applied it with some restraint:

It’s easy to go too far with Poster Edges. All I wanted was just a bit more outlining of the petals and a little more definition of the detail in the centre of the blossom.

There. It’s done.

I’ve known a great number of people who had a good eye for an image and produced great pictures, but were unhappy with their images for a variety of reasons. All of these vague dissatisfactions can be evaporated by a little patience learning to use a few tools in an image editing program. One doesn’t have to spend anything to get in the game. There are lots of free choices. Though not as slick, GIMP is a good editing program that will do just about everything that Photoshop will do, at least the things that a sane person would want.

I’ve taught many people to edit their images in just a few sessions of an hour or two. Once one is “over the hump” of the learning curve, self instruction is easy, considering the huge number of free tutorials available on the web.

The initial learning process can be a little frustrating, as I do not allow one to write down keystroke-by-keystroke instructions. I have found that rapid progress and retention come from understanding the process rather than memorizing the steps. I’ve also found that a glass of nice Merlot makes the whole learning experience much more enjoyable for both student and teacher.

Imagine that.

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The Lilies of the Pond

Posted in On Tthe Road, Photography Tricks on April 9th, 2011 by MadDog
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Yesterday it was impossible for me not to think of Eunie’s death seven months ago. How I miss her. How I’ve changed. I’ve gone through another lifetime in the last few months beginning with despair and suicidal thoughts, stark fear and crippling grief. Much of that is now behind me, hopefully to return only in isolated episodes. Perhaps I am maturing in this strange new life. Loneliness remains my most troubling companion, but I’ve come to realise that it not need plague my future. My allies are my faith, my friends and naive hope.

Being here in Gympie for the last few weeks has been not unlike traveling to a different, less lonely planet. It has provided me with a wealth of distractions and allowed me to heal more rapidly. Certainly travel itself is stressful and I’ve had to make some major adjustments. The stress I felt in Madang was the pressure of the too familiar. Everything in life reminded me constantly of loss and provoked the aching in my heart. Here, at least, that is absent.

So, being in a reflective mood today, I naturally began to think about light. I think that may be a pun of sorts. I don’t usually contrive puns, because I’m no good at it. I suppose that I just proved that point.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about light from the perspective of an artist, in particular, a photographer. It seems to me, and I know that it’s not an original thought, that we do not, in fact, see the real world. Perhaps that requires some explanation. What we do see is only light. Our eyes do not respond to objects, they only sense light. That’s all there is as far as our eyes are concerned. We see only photons reflected or emitted by objects. Though this may seem a very abstract, even meaningless distinction, it’s important in the sense that one who intends to capture the essence of an object must be very aware of the roll of light in revealing the nature of the subject. Indeed, it is all we have to work with. Try turning the lights out.

In this shot of a water lily, one of the better flower images I’ve produced lately, I was working with the light, molding it, in fact, to my will:

The flat, grey light of the overcast sky did not do what I wished. It provided only the colours and the shape. I had to create depth by digital trickery. The bright glow of the yellow centre washed away the detail which I saw with my eyes, but was lost in the electronically recorded image, a common fault of digital cameras. I had to find it in the information and restore it. I was completely unsatisfied with the lack of depth in the water drops. They looked like cartoons. It took some fiddling to make them drops again.

I am the proverbial guy who knows nothing about art, but knows what he likes. I have an idealised template of an image in my mind when I sit down to work with it. My camera provides a good starting point, sometimes better than others This is the beauty of photography today. A dabbler such as myself can produce images which, in another age, might have been presumed to be the work of a master:

I had similar problems with this image. I had to dig deep in the digits and grab back what the flat light took from me. In this case I took a more painterly approach, intensifying detail to the point of parody. At least the leaves in this shot have no serious imperfections.

In this shot of a blossom just opening, I went further down the road of recreating the image to suit my ideal of it. A trick of the light made the deep center seem to glow. Again, details were nearly absent. I struggled mightily to pull them out. I’m quite happy with what happened around the outer edge of the glowing centre:

The little puddle of water on the leaf under the blossom is also a gift.

I got another gift here in the form of a busy bee:

I’m pleased by this snap shot. When working with bees, one has to be quick. They don’t pose. I also like the stems flowing across the frame. “Angled lines” is a good compositional tool to keep in mind.

Voluminous tomes have been written about light from the perspective of the photographer. I’ve read a couple. Though informative, much of the information deals with studio lighting. Since I’ve never been attracted to that kind of photography, the information is mostly academic, but it does provide insights into things an amateur might do well to think about. My advice is to learn to enjoy playing with light. In this shot, which was hopeless with the natural light, I had to find a useful way to use the dinky flash on my Canon G11:

The camera wanted to put way too much light on the subject. I had to ask the long-snouted grasshopper to stick around for a while as I fiddled with the intensity of the flash. I finally found a setting that gave me a good exposure.

Here in this shot of a very fat spider illuminated by a flat, listless sky, the problem was to find a way to give the spider some depth:

Franky, this shot would have been a throw-away if done on film and processed normally. A genius in the darkroom could have pulled up from the negative the detail present in the underexposed body of the spider. With Photoshop, it was the work of a few minutes.

Photography is much more fun for me today than it has ever been before. I can’t believe I stuck with film so long.

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Photography Boot Camp – Class Day

Posted in On Tthe Road, Photography Boot Camp, Photography Tricks on March 18th, 2011 by MadDog
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For the last few days I’ve been passing on a bit of knowledge about photography to five women who were eager students. It’s been fun. We’ve covered some of the basics. We started off with The Exposure Triangle, some basic relationships which every photographer who is serious about images needs to know.

Some interesting questions were posed. How do I get the bird on the fence to be in focus while the background is blurred? How do I do macro photography? It’s amazing how many of these mysteries can be cleared up in a few hours of study and practice.

Since I’m leaving tomorrow morning, today was graduation day. I asked each of my friends to give me two images which they like to put here on MPBM. I’ll show them in alphabetical order. They are all interesting images and all illustrate that the material was well learned.

Here is Ali’s “Reflection”:Ali’s images lean toward the abstract, something which I like.

In “Impression” Ali shows that she has the basics of macro photography figured out:She’s currently hampered by a camera which has limited manual controls and tries to figure out everything for her.

This image, Jann’s “Banksia”, is nicely composed and very pleasing:She did a good job of capturing the sky reflected in the water.

And Jann has certainly learned to do macro:There is the slightest hint of motion blur in the enlarged image. Jann knows that a faster shutter speed would have fixed this. The composition here is good, also. Nice use of negative space and the subject is off-centre enough to add interest. The image has a voice. The ant is asking, “Where to now?”

I like the composition here in Martina’s “Man and Nature”:It’s a clever image.

Martina has also learned her lessons well in the area of depth of field:She now knows how to make the foreground of the image sharp while blurring the distant objects.

Most cameras will not expose this scene correctly. The clouds will be blocked to white and have little detail. In “On the Beach” Narelle has demonstrated that she can whip her camera into doing her will:Good on ya’, Narelle.

Here in “Teewah” Narelle again demonstrates correct exposure:All of the students learned more than I had hoped. What started as a lark ended up being more work than I had anticipated. My abilities to pass on my knowledge improve each time I work with students. I’ve pretty much learned what they will ask and have already figured out easy to understand explanations.

Val has long been a deft hand with macro. She’s captured many fine images of the tiny stuff. Here in “Magic Mushrooms” she shows that she can handle difficult situations. The light level here was very low. It required some jiggling of controls to get the shot. Most casual photographers never figure this out:Of course, most don’t need to, because they are never much interested in standing on their heads in near dark to get an interesting shot.

Here in “Coloured Sands” Val demonstrates a very conventional shot well exposed and nicely framed:

Val is one of those people who can truthfully say, “I’ve been everywhere, man!” She’s traveled around the world and is off once again in a short while – this time to Nepal. I’m jealous.

I’m quite happy with the work and progress of these five friends. I find teaching fun and I’m pretty patient. I kept having to remind them that there are no stupid questions.

There are only stupid answers.

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