Back to the Future

MorningI photographed this on a weekend looking for white sand beachscapes at Wilson’s Promontory, the southern tip of the Australian mainland. Most of the shoots were busts due to clear skies but on the final morning I came across some very thick fog. On the way back from shooting the Tidal River beach at sunrise, I came across this scene as early morning sunlight filtered through the lifting fog. I shot this one handed at full stretch with my arm above my head on my tippy toes to get as much separation front to back as possible.

What is old may be new again. For those who came into landscape photography in the digital age, this style of genteel scene is probably not something you see too often. First off, the focal length at 95mm is a bit unusual. Secondly, the atmosphere is calm and sedate rather than dramatic. Thirdly, the image was captured in truly bright conditions. It may be a trifle unfashionable but I like this reminds me of the days of large format cameras and when the Lake District was more popular than Iceland.

Blushing Ripples

Blushing Ripples

Another trend I’m seeing is the dwindling number of landscape abstracts. Although these have never been plentiful, the vast number of wide angles and panoramas have made the intimate landscape an almost endangered species. I believe that these require a more developed eye to ‘see’ but the reward is adding versatility and variation to one’s portfolio. I’m glad I made the effort to shoot these sand patterns on the Tidal River beach reflecting the sunrise glow since my other seascape images on the day were pretty standard fare.

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Confessions of a Lazy Landscape Photographer (and Blogger)

Familiar Territory

Familiar Territory

Priorities change. Magic hour shooting and blog postings at religiously observed intervals have taken a backseat in mine. When I first started my journey, digital landscape photography was in its infancy and sunrise/sunset images were not quite as ubiquitous as they are today. Nowadays when I see something that doesn’t rely on the lottery of the sunrise/sunset conditions, it makes me pause and take a second look.

The fact is that I have shot many magic hour landscapes over the past 9 years. If my own portfolio were not already full of such images I would probably be more disciplined about chasing this sort of light these days. Shooting the sweet light will always be the modus operandi of the landscape photographer but creating something unexpected rewards with its own thrills.

Frozen World

Frozen World

Last week, I shot this new image at the ever increasingly popular Tasman Lake, a magnet for landscape photographers in search of floating icebergs. Coincidentally, days before shooting this, I happened to visit New Zealand Geographic’s exhibition of past winners at Christchurch’s Cathedral Square where my effort at the same location was displayed. It had many ingredients of a classic style landscape photograph : shot during the magic hour, ultra wide angle lens, near-far perspective. The twist was that I manipulated the scene by physically removing a chunk of ice and placing it on a rock.

This new image is in many ways the opposite. I visited the location at noon, with no expectation of even taking out my camera from its bag. It was shot handheld with my 50mm prime lens (normally reserved for portraits) in cloudless bright sunny conditions and very straight-forward 5 minute process mainly using Nik’s Silver Efex.

Posted in Landscape, New Zealand | 4 Comments

The Digital Roadmap

Barely a week goes by without somebody enquiring about whether I do digital workflow videos of if there is an eBook in production on this subject. I think that there are already plenty of this sort of thing out there on the web. Truth be told, much of it far more advanced than what I can offer at this point as my post-capture processing is incredibly rudimentary by comparison. Yet it seems that not too many people have levelled criticisms about the way my images look. Nor do I feel that I’m missing any special techniques which are going to be transformative to my portfolio. Does this mean that I can afford to sit back in self-satisfaction and ignore the rapidly-growing advancements in digital enhancements? No. New tools open the imagination to greater possibilities.

I often see images presented by photographers who obviously have a better grasp of digital techniques than myself yet observe that the results are hamstrung by glaring flaws such as overzealous application of contrast, funky looking colours in landscapes or going overboard with flavour-of-the-month-type processing styles.

The way I see it, there are two resources at play in photo finishing, both equally important. First there is the ‘roadmap’ which I regard as a mental picture of how the end product should look like. Now this does not have to be an exact representation of the final image but rather, a rough range of the possibilities in mind. Integrated into all this is some idea what the boundaries are as to what is natural, optimised, artistic or over-the-top. I believe that this concept of developing one’s mental roadmap is generally neglected in favour of developing the second part of the equation, the digital ‘bag of tricks’, workflow techniques which bring vision to fruition on physical media. While the latter can be readily learnt through classes, videos and books, this in not the case for the former.

So how does one develop one’s roadmap? Essentially we are talking about producing the best version of somebody’s vision and what looks right or wrong. There’s obviously a lot of subjectivity at play here. Perhaps the best way to approach this is to find a respected peer willing to give an honest opinion and then being open to their critique.

Something that I have noticed from teaching workshops is many people tend to form a sort of tunnel vision in various aspects of photography. In the field, I see this when participants set up their compositions at the start of the shoot, but persist with the same framing even when the light changes and their first idea no longer works. The same applies to the post-capture process. People get so used to rigidly following a particular formula that some of the variables and imagination are taken out of the equation. I think that a more individual and thoughtful approach to each file helps us to exercise that mental roadmap a little more.

Here are two examples where conceptually the treatment was quite different, although both utilised the same basic tools in Photoshop.

“Discovery” 

Discovery

Discovery

Canon 5DMkII, 16-35mm 2.8L, ISO 100, f14, 1/30

This is a seascape which I recently rescued from the oblivion of my hard drive archives. It’s a sunset at what I consider one of the world’s best coastal locations for photography, found in Cornwall. I’m quite delighted with the result you see here now, hence the reason for my title.

The scene obviously shows a pretty large dynamic range to be captured, with sun on view, crepuscular rays and some shadowed areas. A graduated neutral density filter was used to allow a satisfactory amount of the necessary information to be captured in the one exposure. Due to the level of difficulty, I took some insurance shots from dynamic range but in the end did all my processing from a single RAW file. I processed the same file a few times for highlight, midtone and shadow detail, blending them by hand. Contrast work was achieved by multiple adjustment level layers with fine tuning using Tony Kuyper’s luminosity masks. Finally, some extra detail was brought out using Nik’s Viveza. Overall nothing fancy by today’s standards and the result is a combination of relatively simple digital workflow tools and artistic judgement. A lot of consideration went into aspects such as how bright and dark every inch of the frame should be, making sure that the lighting source falls in a natural way over the landscape and that the hues are optimised rather than over the top.

“Ghost Towers”

Ghost Towers

Ghost Towers

Canon 5DMkIII, 16-35mm 2.8L, ISO 50, f16, 15s

Images of Milford Sound, probably the most iconic view in New Zealand, are a dime a dozen. And there’s not a whole lot distinctive about this composition, I’m finding some zen from the softness and ethereal appearance of the peaks partially covered in low cloud. Rather than crank up contrast as is fashionable nowadays, I’ve kept the processing understated. In contrast to “Discovery”, I only needed to process the RAW file once for dynamic range. Some gentle contrast work using levels layers and finally the gradient tool to darken the reflections to match the top half. All up less than 10 minutes.

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus”. Mark Twain

The digital tool kit is important but it’s the direction your mind takes that will have most influence on how the final image looks.

Posted in Cornwall, Landscape, My 2 cents, New Zealand, Postcapture | 1 Comment

Scale

Blaze-6Most discussions around creating landscape images focuses on rules of composition, perspective, visual balance and flow. However there is one aspect often forgotten which I think can make a landscape photograph far more effective – scale. The difficulty with the genre is that we are usually trying to represent a vast three dimensional subject on a puny two dimensional medium. The easiest and most practical way to convey scale is inclusion of a human figure. However placing a person in a natural environment is not generally something I want to do too often. I’m always on the lookout for visual cues in the scene which give a reference in size and how best to present them to greatest effect. The Archway Islands are gigantic rock formations, popular with photographers. Compositions are fairly limited at this location and I generally have a hard time getting a true feel for how massive these ‘islands’ are in images. I think this interpretation does a serviceable job in this regard. I included one of the shorter surrounding rock formations to emphasise height of the Archway Islands. In addition, having the cloud directly above taking up a similar amount of real estate as the formations gives some impression of vastness.

Posted in Composition, Landscape, My 2 cents, New Zealand | Leave a comment

Crunch Time

Roar!

Roar!

It’s been an exciting week for nature photographers around the world, but particularly for Australians. Shortlists for the ANZANG and Veolia/BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year were emailed out. In my opinion, the latter remains the pinnacle of prestige in nature photography. Nowhere else do you get to compete against the best of the best, many of them the big name shooters for National Geographic. The great thing is that you yourself do not need to be a notable photographer to be successful. All it takes is one terrific shot.

And what of ANZANG? It’s our local competition that was inspired by Veolia WPOTY, except to be eligible, the images have to be shot in Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica or New Guinea. Recent affiliation with Australian Geographic has given it even more coverage. 8 years ago as a photographic newbie, I entered a macro image shot while tramping the Overland Track in Tasmania. It went on to be commended and each subsequent year I have made the honour roll. In recent years, I even achieved a couple of category wins but I am most proud of my consistency over such a long time. Producing quality imagery over a sustained period is an important aspect of a career in photography. The exhilaration of making a few stunning shots wears out soon enough.

What does being shortlisted mean? In ANZANG, it means that you’re in. You just don’t know whether you will receive a commendation or prize. But providing your high resolution and RAW files check out OK, your images will appear at the exhibition and publications. Unfortunately, in the case of WPOTY, the email only means that you’ve made the last round of judging – in other words, the final 1000 images. There is no recognition from the competition that you have reached this stage. From a purely statistical point of view, chances are slim that an image will make it to the commended/prize winning stage since they only choose around 100 pics for the exhibition.

RAW files you say? Yes, these competitions have some fairly strict rules about what you can do with post-processing. Veolia/BBC relaxed their rules significantly this year which means that ANZANG are probably the most strict major competition in the world with the degree of retouching allowed.

So how did I do? Can’t complain too much. Well maybe that the price of entry to ANZANG is quite steep but it really does make you think carefully about each and every photo you enter. Had they allowed 20 photos for each entry like Veolia, I think I would have a few more in the mix at ANZANG. In any case I was really pleased to find out that 5 of my images were successful over 4 categories. I might even have shot at the portfolio prize with this handful of photos, although a sixth shot would give me a lot more confidence about it.

At Veolia WPOTY, I managed to get 4 images through to the final round. Unfortunately they didn’t pick any of the ones I wanted them to choose. I’m not holding my breath to get into the final 100 but at least I have a 40% chance going by the statistics.

I thought I would share some more thoughts about my approach to landscape photography competitions.

Popular vs Prize Winning Images

I cannot emphasise enough that popularity of an image on the web will not necessarily equate with success when judged by a panel of photographers, gallery curators or magazine editors. In fact, the opposite might be true. Look at the landscapes on the popular page of 500px. Lots of wow photos for sure at first glance. But when you look at them day after the day, many of the images start to look the same because they possess characteristics which appeal to the same audience. Now put yourself in the judging panel’s shoes. Images that buck the trend are going to seem a lot more striking. Most of my successes in this year’s competitions turned out to be my least ‘liked’ photos on social media.

On the Subject of Subjects

I remember sitting in one of the WPOTY seminars where a judge was discussing about the process. A common subject photographed in an innovative way makes a much bigger impression that a rare subject with less imagination and vision behind the shot. This seemed to apply to my ANZANG photos this year. 4 of the 5 featured big name icons but re-imagined.

Know Your Audience

This one has stuck with me since my days as a musician. Playing the wrong repertoire to the wrong audience is a recipe for disaster. It should be pretty obvious that in both ANZANG and WPOTY, they are after a natural look in presentation. Supersaturated colours, contrast on steroids and fancy processing with the likes of light bleeding and orton are not going to fly. They will do better in the fine art landscape competitions such as IPA.

What To Do Now That You’re Shortlisted

I tend to be a brief with captioning when putting in my entries, knowing that many may not make the cut. However at the business end of the competition, I will tidy these up, expand on them and generally try to make a better impression with the words. If the decision is tight between two images, the judges may go to the RAW file to see how much manipulation was performed and also the caption to see what the photographer had to say.

Canyon Delight

Canyon Delight

Posted in Competitions, Landscape, My 2 cents | 4 Comments

I Believe

DesignSometime in the recent past along my photographic journey, I started to believe in myself to a degree that was new to me. Every time I step outside with my camera, I now truly believe that a shot is out there somewhere for me, no matter what the conditions. I think this new-found belief and change in attitude has had a positive effect on my work. No longer being tied down by the magic hours gave me the freedom and confidence to pursue a more diverse looking range of landscapes.

Our ability to make telling landscape images should not be at the mercy of the presence or absence of auroras, blazing sunsets or lighting strikes. We are limited only by our imaginations.

Sometimes it may be a matter of waiting for a subtle but often predictable change in the conditions to produce the missing ingredient from an image. The slight clearing in the mist near the cliffs during a rather dreary morning shoot made the difference between a flat seascape or one with a special luminosity.

Caressing the Sea

Caressing the Sea

“Rhythm of the Wind” is a newly released seascape from New Zealand captured during a fine afternoon which has become one of my favourites. Creating something from conditions which gave little away to the landscape photographer was very satisfying. On this occasion, without an obvious scene to shoot, I put away my camera and carefully observed my surroundings until something caught my eye. It wasn’t too long before I noticed the way light was illuminating streaks of sand blowing across the beach.

Rhythm of the Wind

Rhythm of the Wind

How important do you think self-belief is in the image creation process?

Posted in Landscape, My 2 cents, New Zealand | 1 Comment

Getting Emotional

While in my teenage years, a lot of my life revolved around performing music. At first, I liked to play fast and loud. Technique came first, interpretation second. With maturity and more life experiences, I developed more musicality in my playing. I began to seek pieces which allowed me to display a greater range of emotional depth.

Similarly after a few years making photographs, I realised that I didn’t want all my shots to seem one-paced either. However it was not enough to merely shoot different styles of composition, pursue alternative lighting situations, utilise focal lengths outside my comfort zone or adopting new post-processing techniques. The most important driving force fuelling my recent work has been to evoke a wider range of moods and emotions through my images. Sure all the aspects listed above have their place but thinking conceptually and ‘bigger picture’ about how I want the finished presentation to affect the viewer has been a major paradigm shift.

Setting out on a new direction from where both myself and the great majority of other photographers have been going is not necessarily to say that the results are ‘better’ than what is ‘conventionally good or popular’. However, having been able to produce work that departs from the norm has been tremendously satisfying as an artist.

This drive to extend the emoting range of my imagery has renewed my inspiration in landscape photography. Expect to see more examples of this new direction during the rest of 2014.

Moody Moeraki vs Ovum

Moody

Shot in 2008, this has been one of my most successful landscapes. It received a great deal of exposure (in print and exhibition) due to being a winning image in UK’s Digital Camera magazine Photographer of the Year and in the USA with the International Conservation Awards. I would rate it in my personal top 20 favourites and even today it remains probably the most dramatic depiction of the Moeraki Boulders.

My most recent interpretation of this location is “Ovum”, a minimalist high key black and white. The fact that the large bulk of Moeraki shots concentrate on water motion, drama and coloured skies makes this one  stand out I think. An opinion from my most trusted critic was in agreement : “The moeraki boulders are instantly recognisable but it has a completely different feeling to it compared to the previous more bombastic rendition. Ethereal and contemplative.”

Ovum

Ovum

Dreamtime vs Neverland

Dreamtime

Dreamtime

Around the same vintage as Moody Moeraki is “Dreamtime” a fairly conventional shot of Cradle Mountain. There are many excellent images of the classic scene of Cradle Mountain reflected in Dove Lake. The strong sunset colours, autumn foliage and layer of fog made this one fairly memorable as far as iconic views go, I thought.

On my last visit, I arrived at sunset to catch some storms entering the area. The double peak was covered in heavy cloud. As I got ready to pack my gear, there was a brief clearing, revealing the mountain for what must have been less than a couple of minutes. A 30 second exposure caught the shape of the cloud, moving like a wraith upwards. The result? An edgy sinister appearance a world away from the pristine serenity of “Dreamtime”.

Neverland

Neverland

Posted in Landscape, My 2 cents, New Zealand, Tasmania | 2 Comments

To Catch a Ghost

Breath of God

Breath of God

Some landscapes are there for the taking by anybody who happens to be present. Then there are those which remain invisible to many who wander by. They unveil themselves to those with an open mind and in touch with the environment at hand.

“Breath of God” is an example of the former – a majestic landscape and light show that smacks you in the face. Right now, I’m focused on making the best use of whatever conditions are dished up. And often they can be rather good. I was completely taken by surprise by this spectacular light show when a storm blew in just as the alpen glow was hitting both horns of Cradle Mountain.  So despite becoming a bit blasé about these sorts light displays lately, I found myself in a fist-pumping state on what might as well have been the top of the world.

“Apparition” was photographed the next morning in the aftermath of the inclement weather which had arrived overnight. It was wet and visibility poor. Paths and roads seemed to disappear into a white vacuum. Subsequently, this tree suddenly materialised out of nowhere. Just as the fog was rising at an alarming rate, I managed a handful of exposures before it had cleared to the point where the mystery had too.

Apparition

Apparition

 

Posted in Landscape, My 2 cents, Rants and musings, Tasmania | 1 Comment

My Journey – The Mountain and I

Watching the World Go By

Watching the World Go By

This week, I returned to the place where I captured my first landscape photographs. It was more than eight years ago when I took some handheld snaps with a borrowed D-SLR of Australia’s most famous and distinctive peak, Cradle Mountain in Tasmania at sunset. The next morning, I drove to Dove Lake to watch the sunrise. The conditions were perfect and I was rewarded for my early start with a crystal clear reflection of the mountain and some cirrus clouds streaking across the sky.

The other notable part of the overnight stay was that there were three Japanese photographers also shooting sunset and sunrise. I was impressed that the trio seemed to know what they doing, all of their movements conveying a sense of purpose and confidence. And they seemed very professional in that all were using tripods. I was even more impressed by the fact that their tripod legs were sometimes submerged in the water.

Fast forward to 2009 and I found myself at the lake again, on this occasion timed to capture the autumn colours of the fagus (deciduous beech). It was the most beautiful of all the sunrises I had witnessed here, the low lying layer of mist, a completely still lake surface and some intensely pink clouds combining to produce a photograph which I still count among my favourites. I was completely satisfied by my version of this Australian icon and years passed without any desire to return to better this effort.

In recent years, photographing the night sky, especially those with phenomena such as the Milky Way, shooting stars and aurora have become very popular. Unfortunately many of these images merely document the sky without a compelling earth-bound subject. I’ve thought of a few possibilities which would juxtapose distinctive silhouettes against a galaxy-packed sky : Tre Cime in Italy, Cape Woolamai on Phillip Island, the Twelve Apostles and Cradle Mountain. Thus began a dream of photographing Cradle Mountain with the Milky Way and a coloured night sky.

I decided to dedicate myself a period of several months in Tasmania to realise this vision with the side project of exploring the northwest coast. Last weekend I made my first foray to the mountain. I had originally planned on a trip to shoot seascapes on the tip of the west coast but changed my mind at the last minute. The cloudless skies and windless conditions bode well for a starry night and good reflections in Dove Lake.

Without a single cloud in the sky, sunset was nothing spectacular, but I managed to put together a new and original view of Cradle Mountain. I was very pleased with this as it is the most photographed peak in the country. The blue hour period was very soothing; I was alone at the lake and enjoyed the solitude. The few frames made during this time, with the stars starting to appear, captured the mood well.

_J9A4551blendfinal

With no moon, the stars glittered to their full potential against the inky blackness of the sky. After a few 30 second frames for stationary stars, I commenced a startrail exposure aiming for 60-90 minutes. Yes I still do these old school – a single continuous exposure. Some people unfortunately turned up at the lake around midnight so I stopped it after half an hour before their torches ruined the shot. I returned to my SUV and watched the first half of Les Miserables on my laptop until everyone had cleared off from the lake.

I considered trying to get some sleep but I was also itching to get back out to try a longer star trail exposure. I shot several frames of 30 seconds for the stationary stars and the Milky Way before commencing a 64 minute exposure. Since I had engaged the in-camera noise reduction function on my Canon 5DMkIII, it was over two hours before I was able to download and check the RAW files. Once I brought the exposure levels up on the MacBook Air screen I was surprised to find Cradle Mountain backlit by a distinctively greenish canvas accompanied by some patches of red too. I looked back towards the lake and after several minutes could now make out a very faint green glow. Not aurora activity but a phenomenon known as airglow. After processing the images in the early hours of that morning, I realised that my vision had become reality. It’s a romantic notion but I liked that this mountain has been a dominant presence throughout my photographic journey thus far.

What Dreams Are Made Of

What Dreams Are Made Of

Posted in Journal, Landscape, Tasmania | 2 Comments

Shooting Seascapes with Alister Benn – eBook Review

Immersion

Immersion

It had been a long time between blog articles when I started writing this. So perhaps it was ironic that the main reason for beginning this entry were the words of another photographer. Over the second half of 2013, life got in the way of my desire to put down words. Although lacking in substantial articles, updates, announcements and new photographs were posted with regularity through my social networking portals.

Before delving into these eBooks by Alister Benn, which I have taken some time to absorb over a good number of months, allow me a minute of self-indulgence to discuss my personal development as a photographer and teacher. I started to produce images which still remain in my top tier portfolio from my second year onwards. I was completely self-taught during this period. By the end of my second year, I had already taken the most important steps in my development as a photographer, at least in the area of landscapes. Within a short period of time, I was enjoying positive critical feedback from other photographers who had inspired me and success in virtually every competition I entered. The problem with all this rapid and often instinctual development was that it outpaced my understanding of how it all had been achieved.

It was only years later, when I started teaching and blogging that it become important to gain an understanding of my image creation process. Consequently I had to work backwards. I became absorbed in analysing my own photos, trying to determine why for example I would follow the compositional rules in one image and then break them in another. With time, I became far more self aware about every aspect of my photography.

Nothing's Gonna Stop Me Now

Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now

 “Great images are the product of great compositions.” Alister Benn

After several years in photography I came to the same fundamental realisation. To merely capture great light results in a photograph which contains great light. The best images combine flawless composition with light that complements the photographer’s vision. There’s a nebulous zone that occurs before the shutter button is pressed. And this is what the first two books in Alister Benn’s seascape series deal with. While much the subject matter is equally applicable to the broader topic of landscape photography in general, all the images used in the series are coastal.

I read the eBooks on my iPad Air which has the high resolution retina display; the text and excellent photographs looked superb. I won’t dwell too much on the first book, titled simply “Introduction” as it is available as a free download. It provides a broad framework on which each of the subsequent books build on.

The subject of the second book, “Vision and Composition” is self-explanatory but the material covered is comprehensive and quite complex. I suspect some of the material will be beyond the grasp of the photographer close to the start of his or her journey. However this is a book that will be beneficial to revisit at different stages of one’s development hence highly recommendable to both beginner and seasoned photographer alike. I found myself nodding at many of the ideas and concepts expressed by Alister. The line drawings, sometimes overlaid on actual photographs were particularly useful in demonstrating how compositions are constructed. Much of the mystery that was occurring before pressing the shutter in my formative years was being presented in an organised fashion within these pages. I would have loved to start my journey into landscapes with the sort of clarity gleaned from this book but alas seven years ago there was nothing quite like this on the market.

Among Giants

Among Giants

Alister Benn’s eBooks can be purchased from his Harvesting Light website. He is also one of the founders of the world wide nature photography website whytake.

Posted in Book Reviews, Seascapes | 1 Comment