Archive for the ‘Photo Philosophy’ Category

How To See Like A Photographer

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

One of the things I enjoy most about being a photographer is the opportunity to share the knowledge and experience I’ve gained during my 40+-year career looking through the lens. I consider teaching both a privilege and a responsibility, and I do a lot of it.

Something I get asked to address in nearly all of my workshops, both private and small-group, is how to see like a photographer — how to visualize, how to make that leap from snapshot to expressive photograph, how to create an image that’s “Ansel-worthy.”

What does it mean to see like a photographer?

For me, to see like a photographer means that I am constantly looking at things for their photographic potential and visualizing what a finished image might look like — whether as a literal expression of what’s in front of me, or as an expressive interpretation of how I feel, what I think, or what a particular moment or place means to me.

Here’s an example of how and what I see:

A couple of months ago, my wife, Julie, and I were on our way into Yosemite Valley for an upcoming workshop and stopped at Inspiration Point to soak up the grand vista and stretch our legs.

I made a few images with my Canon digital, while Julie snapped away with her iPhone. When we got back to the car, she asked me what I saw.

Without even thinking, I told her that I’d noticed the many dead trees, the incredible water tumbling over Bridalveil Fall and the relationship between the reddishness of the dead trees to the green of the live trees. While I didn’t feel there was enough potential drama to get the big camera out, if I did work the scene, I would likely use an orange-to-red filter to lighten the rusty trees, and darken the green forest to emphasize the whiteness of the fall.

A few days after we returned home, I was chatting with Julie and looking out our window. I caught myself unconsciously moving my head a few inches to one side and back, playing with how the clumps of trees outside seemed more (or less) spatially organized relative to the border formed by the window frame with my head in one position or the other. (And I did this without missing a beat in our conversation!)

I just can’t help it…I’m ALWAYS looking, always seeing, always evaluating, even when I’m not “working.”

Ansel Adams called this process visualization. His ability to consistently look, see, evaluate, visualize and express was one of the main reasons he became the photographer he was. It helped him create those jaw-dropping images that beg the question…”how’d he do that?”

While I was working with him, Ansel Adams helped me see like a photographer.

Conceptually, seeing photographically isn’t that hard to understand, or at least I don’t think it is. But teaching it on a practical and “doable” level has its challenges. How we react to a scene, an object, or an element of nature is something unique and so highly personal.

Looking at Ansel’s own words on visualization, however, I think it is possible to learn to see photographically. “We must examine and explore what lies before our eyes for its significance, substance, shape, texture, and the relationships of tonal values. We can teach our eyes to become more perceptive.”

In more practical terms, here are some of the things I suggest to workshop students as they practice how to see like a photographer:

LOOK…in front of you, behind you, above, below, near, far. Wander off the path in all directions. Take the time to really see what’s there. During an “Expressive Photography” workshop I did for Carmel Visual Arts last year, we took the old coast road off Highway 1 as a field session. Everyone went at their own pace, stopping to photograph what interested or moved them.

When we compared notes and images the next day, one of the students had made an absolutely stunning abstract image of some colorful mushrooms she found growing under a log. Almost to a person, everyone in our group wished they had seen those mushrooms and photographed them. The person who got the image was the one who took the time to wander and LOOK.

DON’T JUST LOOK WITH YOUR EYES. Try and engage your other senses and take a moment (or five!) to think about what attracts you to the scene or the object in the first place. What made you want to pick up your camera? Focus in on that as you start to evaluate what you’re going to photograph and how.

SLOW DOWN, THINK, EXPERIMENT. Once you’ve isolated what you’d like to photograph, don’t be in a rush. Slow down and experiment. Is some element in the subject made clearer by moving the lens up, down, left or right—even if just an inch or two? Is the image stronger in black-and-white or color? Will a filter enhance some of the tonal values and help you better capture the mood or the feeling of the place? Will the image suit your personal interpretation or expression of the scene, if, for example, you darken the sky either in the darkroom or in post-processing?

ESCHEW SURPLUSSAGE. Mark Twain used these words in his essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”. It’s good advice, especially when it comes to photography. If it’s not needed, don’t include it. I frame a scene with my hands or use a cropping card to experiment with what elements I might want to include or exclude from a particular scene.

Ansel Adams using his hands to frame an image

Ansel Adams using his hands to frame an image: Old Pilings, Bolinas Lagoon, California 1976

These suggestions may seem pretty basic, and certainly not the special “Ansel Adams button” that will magically transform your efforts into a masterpiece worthy of Ansel’s signature. But in my experience, it’s often the small things that really matter and that make the most difference in successfully “seeing” photographically and expressing your personal vision. Give these a try!

Are you struggling to see like a photographer yourself. I’m always available by email, no matter where in the world I happen to be. I’d love to hear from you. And if you’d like some one-on-one coaching without ever leaving the comfort of your own home, check out my Virtual Photography Coaching.

alan ross, ming tombs beijing China

Arches, Ming Tombs, Beijing, China 1982

I like to use this image as an example of just how important tiny adjustments to lens placement can be. My subject was a square tower with thick walls and arched opening in each of the 4 walls. Walking by the structure, I noticed that an interesting abstraction was formed when looking through one arch across to another. I set up my 4×5 camera and found a particular spot where a painted demarcation area on the foreground arch exactly met the curve of an opposite arch.  I chose a lens to give the cropping I wanted, micro-adjusted the lens position and released the shutter. A half-inch difference in lens position would have spoiled the effect.

Ansel Adams, Bridalveil in Storm, alan ross

                         My Bridalveil Fall in Storm, Yosemite, 1974

Returning to Yosemite Valley after a fruitless, rainy, field session in Yosemite’s High Country during a July, 1974 Ansel Adams workshop, a couple of other soggy workshop assistants and I popped out of the Crane Flat tunnel to come face-to-face with this marvelous vista of clouds, mountains, waterfall and river. Amazingly, there were almost no other cars stopped at the handful of parking spots, so I pulled over and we all scrambled for our cameras.

I first tried a 150mm lens on my 4×5 camera, but it revealed only a nice scene with no clear “look at this” focus.  I switched to my 203mm and everything came together. I expanded the cloud contrast with a yellow (#12) filter, but the scene was otherwise pretty monochromatic.  I had an early spotmeter – a 1° SEI – and based my exposure to give me good density in the darkest trees.

Later, when I made a quick contact print, I could see I had full detail in both shadows and highlights—a perfect Zone System negative–but the literal rendition of the scene was a complete bore. This is where visualization came into play. The way I visualized the scene had nothing to do with the tonalities that were the reality of what was in front of my lens.

The tonal information recorded in the negative gave me all the substance I needed to bring my interpretation of the scene to life.  I expanded the contrast in the lower clouds and forest and river, and darkened the cloudy sky to give the scene the drama I felt at the time of exposure.

By the way, this was just part of a REALLY good week for me. Ansel had just hired me as full-time assistant in Carmel a few days earlier and over the next several years, he gave me the chance  to fine tune my ability to see like a photographer. I learned from the best.

Alan

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Do you love taking photographs?
Do you dream of being a better photographer?
Do you have questions about exposure, visualization, Photoshop, or Lightroom?

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Read student testimonials and find out how to sign up here.

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Upcoming photo expeditions and workshops:

Visualization, a la Ansel Adams

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

In 1927, during one of his regular trips to Yosemite, Ansel Adams trekked up to the “diving board” on the west shoulder of Half Dome. There, he made a dramatic image of the monolith using a mild yellow filter to darken the sky a bit—a generally recommended and accepted practice in those days.

But what Ansel felt about the scene before him was more dramatic than what he knew the yellow filter would give him. With one plate left unexposed, he daringly made another exposure, this time using a red filter that he hoped would result in an image that was more in tune with what he imagined, or visualized, the final image should be, instead of what was actually in front of him.

The image that resulted from this experiment proved to be a turning point for Ansel in his photographic explorations. For the first time, he was conscious of the difference between what his camera lens saw (the literal) and what he saw in his mind’s eye (the expressive) as the final print.

Ansel ultimately came to refer to this freedom from recording only that the camera and lens could capture in a technical sense to visualization, and he wrote about it extensively during his lifetime.

By itself, visualization doesn’t assure a successful final image, but it does set the stage for the ensuing choreography of photographic steps. To my way of thinking, it is the single most important element in creating an expressive image.

So…just what is visualization and how do you visualize?

Simply put, visualization is a confluence of imagination and technique. It is the ability to picture the final print in your mind before releasing the shutter and possessing the technical know-how to create the image that’s in your mind, even if it differs from the reality of the scene in front of you.

One of Ansel’s favorite sayings was, “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” At the same time, a concept can be sorely limited in clarity by a fuzzy knowledge of technique. The two go hand-in-hand.

In Ansel’s case, his knowledge of technique—knowing what a strong red filter ought to do—enabled him to imagine, or visualize, a final print with a much darker sky than the yellow filter would have afforded. He visualized how he wanted the print to look and used the techniques to execute his vision.

Visualization does not, however, require that you see a finished print that is markedly different from the real qualities of the actual scene. It could be as simple as “seeing” a final color image in delicate pastels rather than in bold, vibrant colors and contrasts. It might mean choosing a particular vantage point to emphasize the qualities of a foreground object. But in all cases, visualization dictates the techniques required to achieve the vision.

The next time you’re out photographing, try taking a moment to disconnect from the reality of the scene in front of your lens, and try to see it as a print.  Is the sky in that print going to be darker than your meter says it ought to be?  If it’s in black-and-white, will skewing color relationships with a filter strengthen your statement? Will a longer or shorter exposure enhance motion in a scene?  These are all things I consider  – usually even before I set the camera up.  With practice you won’t even know you’re doing it – you will have already done it!  That’s visualization.

cutout card

A cut-out card is a great way tighten up your composition!

pola 34 Bolinas Lagoon

And here are some thoughts by Georgia O’Keeffe on the concept of rendering something seen:

“The Ranchos de Taos Church is one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards. Most artists who spend any time in Taos have to paint it, I suppose, just as they have to paint a self-portrait. I had to paint it – the back of it several times, the front once. . . . And I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an Equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at——not copy it.”

Georgia O’Keeffe, 1976

Ranchos Church 2 views

 

Coming up….executing your vision.

  • Choosing an appropriate vantage point so elements in a scene don’t compete with your vision
  • Choosing the right lens to properly frame the subject
  • Knowing enough about filters and exposure to record subject tones in the most useful way
  • Following through in the darkroom or computer lab (“light” room).

Film vs Digital – More on the Topic

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

I got a request a few days ago about my thoughts re small/large format and digital vs film.  It seems to be an active topic so I hope the following can shed some more “light” on the subject!

******

Dear Mr. Ross,

… was wondering if you would be kind enough to answer a couple of questions regarding your use of large format cameras.  In particular, I was wondering two things:

1.       Why do you continue to use large-format cameras for your art?  Do you find some benefit in them that you cannot obtain from a 35mm camera?

2.       It is my belief from what I have read that you prefer film over digital photography.  For example, I noticed your comment in response to the Popular Photography article, Photoshop and Photography – What is Photography?   “I have never seen an inkjet print that could match the depth of image in a traditional silver-print.”   Is my assumption that you primarily use film correct?  Is there ever a time (from a fine art standpoint) where digital would be more beneficial in your mind?

I am sure you are frequently inundated with questions from fans and fellow photographers, so I thank you in advance for taking the time to read these questions, and hopefully responding to them.

Best regards,

*******

Hello…..,

Camera size:  First, consider that you can only cram a certain amount of information in a given amount of space.  At 24x36mm (1×1.5 sq. in) a 35mm camera has a negative with 1.5 square inches of area.  A 4×5″ negative has 20 square inches and 8×10 has 80! So, given an equivalent film in both cameras, a 4×5 negative has over 13 times the information (detail) as a 35mm.  Also, most 4×5 cameras have all sorts of adjustments allowing controls of focus and image geometry not available with “solid-body” cameras.  Further, there is only one exposure on each piece of 4×5 film, so each image can be developed according to its own merits.  Lastly, I personally kind of like the slower, contemplative approach often associated with working with a bigger camera.

Film vs digital:  They both have their merits.  I got a Canon 5D MkII several months ago and think it is a wonderful tool.  Digital can certainly do things film cannot do – capture color and BW at the same time, have different ISO speeds with the twist of a dial, record a staggering number of images on a single memory card and offer instant replay immediately after exposure among other things.  Downside- there is nothing permanent about a digital image.  If an image has not been printed and its storage drive fails without backup, the image is gone forever.  Currently, digital recording has nowhere near the tonal scale of a BW negative, and to some degree, a color negative.  With Digital, many common scenes would require multiple exposures and subsequent HDR processing to record the brightness range easily captured in a single exposure on bw film.  That said, there is just something I intrinsically like about working with film.  I have an Epson 3880 printer and think it produces quite lovely prints – but they still don’t have the tonal depth of a silver-gelatin print.  And it’s more fun to see the image emerge in the developer than watch it get spit out of a printer.

I hope this helps – I’ve only scratched the surface of the topic!  Bottom line, any camera is only a tool.  Each style has its own merits and drawbacks – they are just different, not better or worse!  One can drive a screw with a hammer – but it may not produce the most satisfying results!

Would Ansel Adams Shoot Digital?

Best,

Alan

 

More on Using Filters

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

A previous post discussed the basics of how and why colored filters can change the relationships of different subject colors in black-and-white photography.  This writing will give some visual examples of the effects of filters in BW work.

The example above shows a still-life scene containing a wide range of neutrals and colors, rendered in color, black and white with no filter and then with four strongly colored filters.  The effects are commensurate with the color-wheel in the previous post:

#12 Yellow.  The lemon and banana are lightened significantly.  The near-yellows – red, orange, green are lightened somewhat.  The cyan bowl is darkened.  Neutrals unchanged.

#25 Red.  The lemon and banana are not quite as light as with the yellow filter, but the tomato, radishes and apple have become quite light.  The cyan bowl is now quite dark. Neutrals unchanged.

#58 Green.  It has turned its opposite and near opposites, radishes, tomato, apples near black.  The lettuce is lightened somewhat.  Neutrals unchanged.

#47B Blue.  Wowzer!  But consider – yellow is opposite blue, and red and green are adjacent to yellow.  It darkened everything – except the cyan bowl, which it lightened because that color is its neighbor!

A note:  Red or Green with foliage.  Green plants and trees don’t always behave the way one might think!  Living plants also reflect a great deal of infrared.  Broad-leaf plants usually lighten with a green filter, Junipers and piney growths usually do not.

As I mentioned in the previous post, digital images are best “filtered” post-capture.  The examples shown here should suggest the post-process effects.

Next time – polarizing filters!  You can’t mimic these in Photoshop!

 

 

Using a Cut-Out Card to Refine Photo Composition

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

One of the most challenging things in creating a strong image in photography is the need to find order in chaos. In the urban jungle there are wires, poles, signs, traffic and the like. In the natural world there are rocks, bushes, branches and landforms all contributing to visual mayhem.

In an earlier writing I discussed the fact that it is point of view that creates structure in a photograph, and that one’s choice of lens is after the fact and serves only to effect the most agreeable cropping. But making that choice of lens is often a lot easier said than done. Looking through a viewfinder or at the upside-down image on a groundglass, it is easy to become somewhat fixated on the subject itself, rather than the elements of the composition.

Regular use of a cut-out viewing card can do wonders for tightening up your seeing and compositional strengths. Ansel Adams was a great proponent of using a viewing card and routinely included them in workshop student packets. Completely low-tech, the “tool” is simply a card with a hole cut out in the same shape as your film / image format.

When you are standing on the spot where you plan to make your photograph, instead of looking through your camera to explore the structure of the image, hold the card up to your scene, moving it subtly left, right, up down – AND nearer to and farther away from your eye. You have what amounts to a zoom lens with infinite focal lengths from at-your-nose to full-arm’s-length away! If the card is white, the scene before you can even look like it is already mounted ready for display!  Neat?

 

Photo Composition, Viewing Card

Wait! There’s more! If the hole in the card is the same size as the format you are using, you can even tell pretty nearly just what focal length to use. If you are using a 4×5 camera and the card’s hole is about 4×5 inches, the distance away from your eye is the same as the appropriate focal length! If the card is about eight inches from your eye for the right framing, that would indicate a 210mm lens (eight inches is 203mm). If you are using a 6×7 camera and have a 6x7cm hole in your card, when the card is about six inches from your eye, that would suggest a 150mm lens!

When I’m working with my 8×10 camera, because of its weight and bulk, I don’t usually haul it around with me while I am exploring a subject. I often leave it in the truck, or parked peacefully under a tree, and instead go for a walk with my cut-out card. Once I have found my “spot” I’ll mark it with a rock or something and hop back to get the camera, already knowing pretty well what lens I am going to start with. Now, you can imagine that a card with an 8×10 hole in it would be a bit awkward – and it would be – but instead I just use my 4×5 card and double the indicated focal length.  Thus, if the card is nine inches from my eye, that would indicate the 450mm lens.

In truth, I don’t always have a card with me, but my hands are large enough to form an approximately 4×5 frame, and that works just fine.

Ansel Adams, Ansel Adams Autobiography,

Too Close to Home – Even for Ansel Adams

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

 

Removing Artists’ Block

Golden Gate Bridge Photos, San Francisco Photos, Alan Ross

Golden Gate Bridge, North Tower and Rocks, 1989 On Assignment for The Bank of America

When I first moved to Carmel to work with Ansel Adams in 1974, I made several significant images within the first month or two. Then for the next five years pretty close to nothing.

After I moved to San Francisco in 1979 to open my own studio, I got an assignment to photograph in the Big Sur-Carmel area, and I made two significant photos in one day. One was only a mile south of Ansel’s house!

In 1989 I accepted a contract with a large advertising agency in San Francisco for Bank of America. Project? Shoot the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, I grew up in Sausalito, California, and it is the first town on the north side of the bridge. I NEVER had ANY desire to make an image of something so familiar (and so over-photographed) but I took the job and the incentive kicked me into making a few of my very best images.

Now, having lived in Santa Fe for over 18 years, I find I hardly ever get a camera out at home. The reality? Over-familiarity and the distractions of daily life. I still am amazed by the boggling thunderclouds that build up in the summer and fall – but I haven’t DONE anything about them in years. Errands to run, darkroom work to do, etc.

In the early 1960’s, Ansel Adams, who was born, grew up in, and was still living in San Francisco, took on an assignment that essentially was going to be Ansel Adams’ San Francisco. Always a hard worker, he took to the task with enthusiasm – but after a few months, and a few fair images, he conceded that he was too close to the subject and regretfully bowed out. Conversely, even though he maintained a house in Yosemite, and his wife and children lived there pretty much full time, Yosemite wasn’t his daily environment, and it remained easy for him to maintain his visual enthusiasm about the place.

I think the most difficult thing for any of us, whose work is in the recording and expressive interpretation of our surroundings, is to work “close to home”. I am in Dallas as I write this, and I am promising myself that I will get a camera out when I get home to Santa Fe.

Some times you just have to prime the pump.

 

 

New SX-70 Film?!

Monday, February 21st, 2011

While I was doing the research for a recent talk on Polaroid and Ansel Adams (in conjunction with a 900+ print exhibit of SX-70 images), I learned that SX-70 film is now being made by The Impossible Project in Holland.  They are also making black-and white SX-70 film and have plans to bring back 8×10!  You may also know that Fuji has an SX-70 type instant camera and Polaroid has reintroduced one!  Fuji is also offering color and BW films in both 4×5 and 3×4 packs (not individual sheets).

Photoshop and Photography – What is a Photograph?

Friday, March 26th, 2010

On February 25th, 2010, technology writer David Pogue posted a thought provoking commentary for the New York Times on the subject of Photoshop and Photography – What is a Photograph.  I replied with some thoughts of my own, and David graciously gave me his permission to quote him in my news letter and on my site. (I added the photos, they weren’t in the original article).

Photoshop and Photography: When Is It Real?

 

Popular Photography Award Winner 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Popular Photography Seagulls Award 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By DAVID POGUE

In the March issue of Popular Photography magazine, the editor’s note, by Miriam Leuchter, is called “What Is a Photograph?”

You’d think that, after 73 years, a magazine called Popular Photography would have figured that out. (Ba-da-bump!)

Actually, though, the editorial is about the magazine’s annual Reader’s Photos Contest. This year, in two of the categories, the winners were what the magazine calls composites, and what I call Photoshop jobs.

One photo shows a motorcyclist being chased by a tornado; another shows a flock of seagulls wheeling around a lighthouse in amazingly photogenic formation. Neither scene ever actually existed as photographed.

Now, in my experience, photographers can be a vocal lot. And a lot of them weren’t crazy about the idea of Photoshop jobs winning the contest.

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