Friday, May 30, 2008

Just Fool'n

Improving Images, Accepting Criticism

NOART wrote a very effective criticism of the above image.

Let me try to critique this image.

George, my reactions to your images are quite different, and I do like many of them. This one looked too busy in small, so I clicked to see the large version.

My first reaction was very positive, but after a minute or two of looking, I was not so sure any more.

Obviously a lot of care has gone into choosing the image crop (mostly in camera, I assume), and the composition looks very well balanced. The darker stump on the left balances well with the two larger ones on the right. I find it good that the parallax distortion has not been corrected -- the not quite vertical tree trunks start a nice arch that is continued by the very light needle tree in the lower left. This arch is nicely picked up by the two large stumps on the right and returned back into the image by the thin branches in the upper corner.

While traveling along this arch I notice the interesting water swirls, but the dark stump in the lower middle of the image stops me dead in my tracks. Obviously there is nothing you could have done about it, but I find its presence nonetheless unfortunate.

OK, so now I've looked at the entire image. What it is about? What is the main subject? Do I want to look at it any longer?

That's where I'm left hanging in the air. The entire image is in focus and the entire image is almost equally bright. The arch that I was talking about exists because of the shapes in the image, but not because of the tones. There is no depth. Due to the uniform sharpness and brightness, all elements of the image appear to be at the same distance from the viewer (which of course is not true). And they appear to have equal importance, which too is not true.

I suspect that the original image had more tonal depth and maybe even more focus depth (this might be a blend of several images). I read your blog regularly and know that you go to great lengths to bring the tones and the focus under control, but I think for this image you've gone too far.

Apart from this main critique point, I'm also slightly bothered by the alignment of the dead tree trunk (second from left) and the needle tree behind it.

Overall, I'd say I like the image, but not enough to bookmark it and come back to it later. (But I have bookmarked several of your other images.)

Do you care to critique my critique? I'll be happy to hear your thoughts about this image.

My own assessment of the image, before reading NOART's comments was nice, but hardly great, simply the best I could do on the day, and with nothing better to post, it was marginally acceptable for showing on the blog.

Having now read NOART's comments, I have to agree. First, it does need to be seen larger, second, there is an evenness to tonality which makes the image harder to 'read' and less effective. The black stump I have mixed feelings about - certainly there's nothing else quite like it in the image.

Frankly, I may be simply trying to work on an inherently mediocre image, but I thought I'd play with some of NOART's ideas on the image and while the result still isn't a great image, I do think it shows substantial improvements, enough that it's worth showing the difference that a little editing can make.

Here's my thoughts on the 'new and improved' version.

Pretending that the original version never saw the light of day, I'll comment just on what I see in this new version.

This is an image in which there are several good elements, but they don't quite come together. The waterway would have been better had more been seen, a def. pathway through the woods. The stumps on the right would have been better without those branches in front on the far right. The only thing balancing the stumps on the right are the dark trees further back on the left and given the different nature of them and the higher position on the print, I don't think they do an adequate job in this balancing act.

Overall, even in a goodly size, the image is just too busy. Though it was photographed in the rain, there is absolutely no sense of atmosphere in the image, nothing to suggest the weather.

In the end, while I can improve the image, it is flawed at a fundamental level and I should probably stop trying to rescue it.

This raises some thoughts about the value of having spent 4 hours in the rain, if this is the best I could do. The following points occur to me.

1) practice is never wasted. The work on that day, will pay off sometime in the future.

2) getting out in the rain and enjoying the forest and streams, floods and the brilliant fresh green of spring growth in the rain is never wasted.

3) I got some exercise and fresh air - never to be sneezed at.

4) You can never predict whether today is going to be the day. The only way to ensure failure is to not go out in the first place.

5) Who says failure is such a bad thing. Imagine if you never ever lost playing chess, I suspect it just wouldn't be as interesting.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Possible Magazines For Submissions

Thought I'd start a list of photography magazines which accept and show fine art photography, along with brief comments, as needed.

If you have any magazines to add to this list, as long as they accept general fine art submissions (eg. not Ducks Unlimited), and especially if they do a fairly decent job showing portfolios or single images, then add your comment to this entry. I will republish the list with additions and corrections as needed in the next week or so.

Lenswork - the magazine is black and white only, is known for it's beautiful printing, only does typically three photographers per issue and for many of us, is the ultimate goal of being published in a magazine. Lenswork Extended is the DVD version of the magazine. It accepts colour submissions. The images are pdf's and display large and detailed and look much nicer than the usual small web presentations.

Camera Arts - I'm afraid I don't 'get' this magazine. The images are often kitchy, heavily dependent on technique over image or use trickery as an end in itself. Black and white reproduction is very poor, there being nothing resembling black anywhere. Colour reproduction is significantly better.

Outdoor Photography - is a mass market magazine more interested in articles and products than in images, but they do show some work.

Popular Photography - not normally thought of as a showcase for fine art.

Phot'Art - great reproduction but quite biased to fashion. Fair number of other portfolios too though so could be worth while.

Photo Life - this issue has a very nice portfolio of David Burdeny's seashore images.

Silvershotz - coming along nicely, decent black and white reproduction and I believe they have opened their publication to digital these days.

Black And White - hard to get in as they no longer accept unsolicited submissions - you either win a place based on one of their contests or you get invited.

Focus - you have to be famous to get in free, the rest pay a significant fee for the privilege of being published, which taints the whole idea of being accepted (are you accepted for your skill, or your money). The publisher is very pushy. Perhaps he has the right idea, and I confess I went for it a couple of years ago, but have had second thoughts ever since, and as for his claims of it going out to collectors and generating business for you - I have heard from several people that this is not the case - you are very unlikely to make back the cost of entry (which is > $1000).

Black and White Photography (U.K.) - under new editorship with Elizabeth Roberts after declining a bit in quality over the last year or two but still a very nice magazine, decent reproduction, the ads at the bottom of the readers page are truly horrible so hopefully they will clean up those soon, they even accept small portfolios for the readers pages, showing a single photographer over a few pages.

Outdoor Photography (U.K.) - good colour reproduction, nice looking magazine, a lot of content, unlike the average American magazine, largely about landscapes and wildlife. It's the same publisher as Black and White Photography and they don't seem to do any monochrome, leaving it for the sister magazine.

Value and Significance Vs. Choice Of Subject

Do we value some photographs more than others because of the choice of subject matter? For example, given that we are human, are images of people inherently of more significance (we're not talking money here) than, say, a landscape? Is a landscape inherently more significant than, say a picture of a plastic candle holder (see Andy Ilachinski's images in the current Lenswork)?

Presumably Andy thinks there's as much value in the images from the candle holder, as must Lenswork since they included them (I happen to think they are extremely nice). I suppose we could argue that the only truly significant images are those of suffering, but clearly that's both absurd and unhealthy. Can you imagine if every one of the images you hung in your house was a 'Migrant Mother' type or even worse, a war image?

Arguably Ansel Adams and his landscapes has had every bit as much effect on policy and public sentiment, as Robert Capa and his war images, perhaps more. Brett Weston is as known for his patches of rust as his nudes and grand landscapes.

Pepper # 30 has no social value, other than as a beautiful image. Rembrandt's paintings were ordered by rich merchants, of their wives so the significance of the person to us is non-existent. Clearly the value or significance of the work is in the work itself, not what it represents.

Conclusion: plastic candle holders are fair game, as is absolutely anything else you care to photograph.

One of my all time favourite images is Bob Carlos Clark's 'two forks facing', an image of cutlery he rescued from the bank of the Thames River.

It may be that the significance of the rust or pepper or forks lies in their allegorical representation of something else - the pepper representing the female back and bottom, the forks perhaps a couple facing each other, perhaps making love. But the rust? And there are other examples in which the beauty is in the image and there are no obvious allegories. Mind you, given what people can do with ink blots, anything is possible.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Out In The Rain

Walked the dog between rain storms but when it came to heading out to photograph, it just got wetter and wetter. Camera held up fine, more than can be said for me, but a hot bath later and I'm just fine, thank you.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Projects Are All Very Well, But...

These days, many editors require photographic projects, a unifying theme to the images, some times even to the point of accepting weaker images just because they fit with the theme, even when the photographer may well have dozens of stronger images at home which will remain unseen because they aren't part of a project.

I certainly understand why an editor would do this. The publication looks better when all the images from one photographer are from a single project or at least theme. The ability to produce dozens of strong images on a single topic says a lot about the abilities of the photographer.

I would point out however that many of our greatest photographers did not work this way much or all of the time. Pepper # 30 is much loved. Ever see Peppers 1 - 29. I suppose you could include Edward Weston's other vegetable images but I have only ever seen fewer than a dozen vegetable images from him - ie. good enough to be published. That won't even get you in the door of Lenswork, for example.

I love 'Chez Mondrian' by Kertesz, but I have not seen any of his other images that remotely look like this image or are on the same theme. Instead his publications show a wide variety of subjects from street photography to 'shot from my window' type work to people.

Other well known photographers definitely did projects or worked within themes. Edward Weston could and has done entire books from nudes. Others did or do nothing but projects.

I guess that for those who don't photograph to an agenda or do projects, the hope would be to come up with enough really strong images that they can do a book, though even there publishers like themes so one may be self publishing which basically won't work if you don't have a reputation which you aren't going to get if you don't get published. Hmmm.

There's always the readers pages in photo magazines but as that generally results in only a few images at best, it really tends to reinforce the message 'these were the only good images'. Black and White magazine from U.S.A. accepts small portfolios of images - 8 if I remember rightly, while Black and White Photography (U.K.) published my badlands images a few years ago based on a submission of only a dozen or so images - but all one theme.

Has anyone had success getting published or shown in galleries without a strong theme or without a specific project?

I wonder what editors think about this - since clearly their needs are not necessarily ours, entirely reasonably.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Now This Is Experimenting


- I really like it.

- It's just Photoshop Trickery.

- Anyone could do it.

- But I'm the one who did.

- Am I just kidding myself?

- Would I dare submit such an image for a show, contest or publication?

- Why the hell not?

- But what if they think it's completely tacky? Gimmicky? Trash? Without Merit?

- Should I care?


HIgh Key Hands

At what point does an experiment turn into a project?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Complex Vs. Cohesive

The other day someone commented on the irony of having a very complex image in my book on the page opposite my claim that images should be simple. In fact the image he was concerned about had a very limited colour palette and all the lines worked together and reached upwards to a single point and there wasn't a single extraneous detail in the image to distract from it's strong design.

This then leads to how to make complex multi element subjects work in a photograph. You may well be able to look at your image and discount all the elements that don't help the composition, while concentrating on those that do, but can someone who isn't familiar with the subject or the image do so easily?

Apart from the image features that I referred to in the first paragraph, how do you assure yourself that your images are going to be 'understood'?

1) Survey the image for elements that don't add anything to the story or the composition. If you can't reduce their effect (through darkness or contrast), then you may not have a good image here despite all the good things it has.

2) Is the placement of all the elements of the image (which do work for the story) optimal?

3) If you can't keep things simple in one way (say the number of items or their positions or directions or disparity in shapes) can you keep things simple in other ways? If not,... Sometimes simply switching to black and white can solve the problem.

4) If the many and complex items of your image can be arranged so that there is a virtual 'pathway' around and through the image, then your viewer might well be able to handle the complexity with aplomb.

5) Sometimes complexity can be handled through layering - that is arranging the camera position so that classes of elements are in different planes. Obviously in a two dimensional image this means nothing except where elements overlap so that is what you have to use to simplify the complex design. Two rocks may well be different distances from the camera, but if they don't look it, it complicates things. If one overlaps the other, then the arrangement is made clearer, which if not actually simplifying things, has the same effect in making the image more readable.

6) We tend to assume that smaller things are further away so that even if they aren't further, they tend to be treated as 'background'. Should they overlap something larger though, then you can't pretend they are background material.

7) Sometimes when an image has many elements to it, the elements naturally or with effort on your part can be made to fall into groupings which can simplify the reading of the image and strengthen composition. Four blocks of four is easier to 'read' than 16 random scattered items.

8) Consider the possibility that a complex image will look better in a big print, in which the elements have breathing space and aren't a jumble. This only works sometimes, but when it does...

9) Consider reducing overall contrast in a complex image so that the viewer is left with the impression of a group rather than of a lot of separate elements. In some ways this completely contradicts # 8 suggesting a large print - you just have to see what works in each situation.

10) In the end, if an image is really complex, but you are convinced it works, show it anyway. Who said everyone has to like every one of your images anyway? If all your images are too complex for your audience, you either have to change your pictures or your audience. If the occasional image is important to you and you want it seen, go for it. You might not choose to do it this way when submitting for a contest or hoping to be published, but if you already are, then why not sneak in the occasional challenging image.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


70-200 F4 L IS, Helicon Focus for depth of field.

Pioneer Acres

One of my patients invited me to visit Pioneer Acres, N.E. of Calgary. It's a museum and club and farm and has probably 100 tractors between the club and it's members, plus old trucks and threshers and combines and some thngs which even Tom couldn't identify.

Most cities have something like this, if not displaying farm equipment then mining or steel making or water mill or whatever. Often if they are well out of the city, they have enough land to store the 'somedays', the old stuff that hasn't been rescued yet or is simply being stored as a parts source. This can be a great source of photographic subject matter.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Mike Johnston at TheOnlinePhotographer.Com (look for Color Junkies) has written today a deliberate challenge to colour photography suggesting that black and white is almost always better. of course I'm sure he doesn't really mean it - he's simply taking an extreme point of view to get the conversation going.

I was tempted to write back with an example of one of my images in which even a very small amount of colour was essential to the image. To do so, I had to do a black and white convert of the colour image, and as I had remembered; the black and white version was awful. I have, however; previously noted that black and white conversion often need more contrast and so I started to work on the image, and guess what, I quite like the adjusted black and white version.

Above you see first the colour versi-on I have been showing for the last couple of years, the straight black and white conversion and the edited black and white version (involving several layers and painted masks as well as some dodging of highlights and even a little dodging of mid tones at the end.

In a print, the colour image shows more detail and the subtlties work better, but I have to say I quite like the depth to the black and white image. So much for my point.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Future Of Fine Art Photography

Scenario: you create a wonderful fine art image, edit it with skill and artistry and make a gorgeous print. You don't normally make really big prints, but this image suits it and deserves it so the final image is 20X20 inches.

Now what?

You beetle off to the local framing store, check out the framing and matting options and with care select the best possible combination for your work of art. You even splurge on that new really low reflection glass and without waiting for the price, head out.

A couple of weeks later you get a call, your frame is ready. It looks every bit as good as you had hoped, but My God!, the bill for the framing is $750. How are you going to explain that to the spouse?

You take the image home and having spent that kind of money, you'd better find someplace good to hang it - but guess what - there's no room at the inn!

You end up taking down some other piece of artwork so you can justify this (admittedly very nice) expensive picture.

Well, you won't be doing that again very soon.

Sound familiar?

Fast forward to a year or two from now. Electronic picture frames now come in big sizes, for relatively reasonable amounts, say in the order of $1200.

You can now put a single 24 X 24 inch frame (hey, I can dream about square format can't I?) on the wall and of course images can change at a whim. It's even practical for you to have a different selection than your spouse, or a different selection for when the grand kids come over.

More to the point, do you not think that the fine art consumer market isn't going to do the same thing? It just seems obvious that this is the way to go. No more delicate, expensive, HEAVY framed images sitting at the back of a closet for lack of hanging room.

We're going to have to figure out how to market, price and deliver high resolution files to the fine art image buyer. Boy, sure will make shipping images a lot easier, but now that people can have hundreds of images on their walls, a whole new pricing system will need to be invented.

How will we make sure that our images aren't duplicated? We are going to find ourselves in the same spot as the music and movie industries with pirating issues.

I hope someone is working on the security issues because the technical capabilities are basically here now, and where it was only Bill Gates who could afford to put his art work on large flat screen TV's in the past, I can't see any way that this won't be the way of the future - it's just too darn sensible.

Monday, May 05, 2008

How Wow Art Thou?

Some images are more dramatic than others - they have more 'wow' factor. They grab you through subject matter or dramatic lighting or through contrast. Wow landscape images make great calendars, wow people images tend to be dramatic and the subjects either gorgeous or incredibly wrinkled.

A lot of fine art photographers who take their work very seriously don't often make images like the above. Instead their work is often quiet, thoughtful, of rather ordinary subjects. Often the images are about showing parts of normal life that we wouldn't normally pay any attention to in our daily lives.

This raises the question - Which is the better photograph? Are the fine art photographers who produce these quiet images, often made with extremely high craftsmanship; possibly deluding themselves into thinking that effort is in fact talent?

Which images are going to be valued in the future, say 20 - 50 years from now, if any?

Could it actually be that the quiet image is simply that way because the photographer wasn't patient enough or determined enough to show up time after time to capture the one day with the incredible lighting or dramatic sky or to take the trouble to choose the really terrific looking subject for a portrait, or the model with the perfect body for a nude?

I sure as hell hope not!

Is there any evidence to help resolve this issue?

Not much doubt that it's the dramatic images that make it to the top on photo web sites and often feature on book and magazine covers and calendars. On the other hand those are all situations in which they need to grab your attention in a glance.

If instead of looking at contests, we review the work of the masters of photography, we seem to be learning a different lesson. Take Joel Meyerowitz for example. He is famous for his colour 8X10 work - Cape Light, The Arch, his street photography and even his work with the 9-11 site. Although he uses light and atmosphere with great care, he doesn't rely on dramatic sunsets and brilliant colours. He photographs fairly ordinary subjects, porches, sea shore, garages and such, ordinary people (all be it with red hair) and so on.

On the other hand, the Muench family are both famous and highly sucessful for their grand landcape, dramatic lighting, incredible colour. They have sold thousands of coffee table books full of finely crafted but definitely 'wow' images.

Rather than bore you with an extended list of argument and counter-argument as I think of photographers who fit in one camp or the other, I suspect you can probably supply your own list of photographers who fit in one camp or the other.

Ansel Adams 'name' was largely made on his 'wow' images though interestingly when he is criticized, it's often by people who don't like at some of his more intimate landscape and even his industrial work or his portraits or even his work with graffiti before it became popular as a subject. Those of us who continue to admire Ansel as a photographer (as opposed to printer or teacher), often do so based on the strength of these of his images.

So, have I just argued myself out of making a point? Probably? Is there anything to be learned then from this discussion? Well, I think so.

I think the conclusion is that there is room in fine art photography for 'wow' images and 'wow' photographers and just as much there is room for the 'quiet' photographers and 'quiet' images.

Sousa marches are all well and good but sometimes you want Debussy.

Sunday, May 04, 2008


I spent the afternoon photographing a local park. Originally it had been a working ranch only minutes from our house and my wife used to board her horse there. Eventually the ranch was broken up for development and how hosts hundreds of houses in a new sub-division. Forutnately the forrested area was saved. I was standing on a small log bridge and the view was pretty enough but it was all light and shadow and I really didn't think it would photograph well - if at all. I shot it anyway, not even bothering to multiple expose because I didn't think it worth the effort.

After working on all the "good" images which turned out to be pretty disappointing, I decided to at least have a look at this image. I first noted that despite the sun and shade, the camera had recorded the contrast very well and it actually looked more even in the image than it did standing there - how often does that happen?

Next I decided to bring it into black and white (using the black and white adjustment layer in Photoshop CS3 - and suddenly the dappled sunlight looked really nice, especially with a bit of filtering (ie. using the individual colour sliders in the black and white conversion adjustment layer.

A little darkening of the water, slight cropping on one side and eliminating a fair amount of foreground water so the banks came to the corners and you see here the results. Frankly, a hell of a lot nicer than I predicted at the scene. Below is the original colour image, pleasant but hardly interesting.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Fine Tuning

The image above is one I showed a few days ago. I made a print, put it up in the office and lived with it for a few days. I wasn't happy - oh, it's nice enough, but what I imagined isn't what the print shows. Too much clutter and distraction. I see the image as being about the three light coloured bumpers, looking a bit like the reverse of some Japanese character painted on paper. I tried darkening the rest of the print - didn't like it. I wondered about whether there was some kind of curve that would keep the darkest parts of the print showing some detail but the midtones pushed way way down and leaving the highlights where they were.

Today I tried this and though I didn't record the curve, trust me, it's a bizarre looking one

and this is a reproduction of roughly how it looked. Normally this would produce a very unnatural looking result with incredibly muddy tones, but guess what, it did exactly what I wanted.

I wondered though, whether I should help the print glow just a bit. Normally I'm not a great fan of diffused highlights. This used to be a feature of soft focus lenses, now it's simply a Photoshop trick, and frankly, overdone, but perhaps if it didn't hit you like a sledge hammer, it might be ok, and certainly it fit with my plans for this particular image.

I duplicated the image in another layer, then used gaussian blur of around 20 pixels, changed the blending mode to lighten (so we get the flare, not the spread of dark pixels). I then used the adjustment layer opacity slider to tone down the effect till I thought it reasonable. In fact it may not show enough on screen, though it will help if you take the final image and click on it to have the larger version show in it's own window.

Oh, and there's several dozen minor changes made - I cloned out the numbers pasted on a bumper in the bottom middle of the image, removed a number of scratches and spots that looked more like print defects than part of the image, and in several steps lightened the third light bumper on the right to make it stand out equally to the vertical one and the one on the left.

I'm quite pleased with the print - certainly a lot more than with the original. The glow is subtle - you can't actually see it in the details, it just exists. Exactly what I wanted.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Life Of A Pro

Luminous Landscape a few years ago featured an article written by Doug Brown, largely about his stitching techniques in action photography. As this is still an unusual technique, it remains interesting, but what I liked recently on rereading the article is the description of a working pro photographer and what he goes through to get the shot. From that point of view, it's quite revealing and I thought you might enjoy (re) reading it.