The Creation of a Photo I
this is a story of the creation of one of my favorite photographs which hopefully will help other photographers in the endeavors to improve their photos and see the light through practice.
camera equipment enables us, but it is through understanding of light, composition, focus, depth of field and then practice, experimentation and patience that we can use these wonderful tools to create something - and this is where the ART is in photography.
when you look at a famous painting or listen to a pianist play a piece of Mozart or Beethoven, in general, these things just don't happen. More than likely the painter has experimented a hundred times with that or a similar subject or technique. The pianist has played that piece over and over and committed it to memory, the culmination of years of practice.
You can buy the most expensive piano but it will not necessarily make you a pianist, likewise you can buy the most expensive camera system but it will not necessarily make you a photographer.
At this point I must inform you, that I am not a professional photographer who takes photos every day and is an expert in their niche field, nor to I put myself forth as an expert photographer. I am fortunate to be an amateur who can choose when and where he wants to take photos according to the creative mood he is in, irrespective of whether the result pleases others or not.
My journey in photography started in the 1970's and although interrupted for years between, with the advent of digital photography which not only allows me to experiment more readily with immediate feedback, but it has allowed me to produce large prints without all the hassles and cost of post-printing manual retouching which plagued the film photographers. This has inspired me to further improve my images and to even go back to film work for different effects.
so, enough rambling, let's look at the final image (I think it's final for the time being!), and how I interpret it before I discuss how it came to be.
NB. this image really needs to be viewed at 20"x30" to be fully appreciated, sorry you don't have that benefit.
First let's look at what I like about this image and what I feel makes it worth looking at:
to me this is such a simple yet complex scene, a snapshot in time yet moving, whilst having an enigmatic ambience which will mean different things to different people. The more you look into this scene, the more it reveals to you.
Sometimes when I look at it, I see a reflection of myself in the tree allegorically, at other times I dream about the feeling of sitting under the tree as the sun sets and the smell of rain comes in the air, then at other times I feel the mysterious side of the image and the foreboding storm and all its uncertainty that it brings.
Let's look at how a first time viewer may see this scene:
most people will probably look at the brightest part of an image first, in this case, it is the sunlit clouds of the in-coming cold front weather system which is coming up from the south-west (this image looks south), with the sun having just disappeared behind the clouds low down on the right about 30min before it was to set.
the viewer's eye then rapidly shifts to the dominant subject which is this beautiful Australian Eucalypt (gum tree), full of character with its lovely bark nicely lit from the sunlit clouds.
then the mysterious dark branches with their luminous leaves take your attention until the branches point you back to the clouds for another look at what is coming
from here the eyes can then explore the relatively bright foreground of textured grasses with a pattern of parallel lines which push the view from far right bottom back to the centre and to a dry sclerophyll woodland behind the tree in the distance and the farm fence which passes from left to right down the valley to a copse of trees hiding a farmhouse.
the eye then keeps cycling through each of these areas exploring it for more fine detail, keeping the viewer on the image for as long as they desire, while they develop their own personal empathy for the scene.
Why do I think this image works?
it is sharp where it needs to be sharp to give the viewer things to explore.
it has a full range of tonal values with a subtle monochrome tint to give an aesthetic appearance.
it has compositional elements which are aesthetic but also work to encourage the viewer to explore the scene rather than wander off and get distracted.
it has a feeling of motion with blurriness to leaves and the clouds as they moved during the exposure.
it is an adequately familiar scene that most people can relate to and develop their own emotional response.
Now let's look very briefly how this image evolved in my mind:
this image didn't just happen and I was just lucky to be at the right spot at the right time which is sometimes the case with good photos.
I have been to this scene a number of times before, thousands of motorists pass by it each day on their way to work and home again not appreciating or seeing it's beauty.
Indeed if you took a photo of this scene in the usual way as most people who own cameras would, it would be an OK photo but nothing exciting.
there were 2 main keys that are needed to make this scene into a successful photograph:
ensuring a good representation of a nice sky (a normal photo would wash out the sky)
ensuring the tree was lit nicely and not in shade - this means light coming from the west near the horizon, and definitely not the midday sun.
with practice, you can pre-visualise these aspects and work out what is needed.
my first attempts were in 2006 with the legendary Olympus C8080 using an IR filter in the afternoon Winter sun and these produced a pretty good start, addressing both the 2 main keys reasonably well
As you can see the sun on the tree showed it quite nicely, and the sky has some character although not very exciting. One of the main technical problems with this image is that the lens, although a brilliant lens for normal photography has a central hot spot in IR light which is the lighter central region. In addition, at the ISO and post-processing required, it produced a bit more digital noise than I would have liked. Instead of being an exciting scene, it was a reasonably OK portrait of a tree.
I then went back to the scene and tried film infrared with a 6x6 camera but was not happy with the results, mainly because I did not have a IR filter big enough for such a wide angle lens on a 6x6 camera. I tried with colour film, but it just didn't work well enough for me.
So this time I experimented with lenses on both a Olympus E510 and a Canon 1D Mark III camera. I knew I would need about 24-28mm wide angle focal length in 35mm terms. My Olympus ZD 7-14mm lens would have been nice but it does not take filters and I didn't own a ZD 11-22mm lens which may have been the best option on the Olympus.
I then decided to try out various wide angle lenses on the Canon 1D MIII with its 1.3x crop factor. Although my favourite wide angle lens for IR on this camera is my Olympus Zuiko OM 24mm f/2.8 as you can still compose and focus through the Live Preview, I really wanted a bit more wide angle so I chose the beautiful little Olympus Zuiko OM 21mm f/3.5 lens for this job even though I can't compose or focus in Live Preview with the IR filter on as it is f/3.5 and not f/2.8.
The Olympus Zuiko OM 21mm f/3.5 lens has always been my favorite lens for film IR work with Olympus OM cameras and Kodak HIE film. I ran tests to ensure there was no central hotspot issue.
In Feb, 2008, I had just received delivery of my nice new Feisol tripod so the next evening when I heard there was a cold front coming and it seemed it would coincide with the setting sun, I knew I might be in luck, even though it was 37deg C at 6pm still.
After dinner, I informed my family I was off for a sunset photo, and as usual they rolled their eyes in their usual way as if to say I'm crazy. I drove to my scene, some 20-30 minutes from my house, eagerly watching the progress of the clouds, and when I arrived, I was almost too late. The sun was about to drop behind the clouds and the clouds were fast encroaching too far into my scene.
Here is the initial shot taken hand held with an Olympus E330 and ZD 7-14mm lens which does not accept filters, and thus I have post-processed it to look like an infrared photo in terms of the sky but not the leaves and increased the shadow contrast. The wider perspective of a 14mm equivalent focal length demonstrates the in-coming cirrus cloud nicely, this streaming cloud is lost in the 28mm equiv. focal length used on the Canon subsequently:
I then quickly set up my tripod and took some test shots with the Canon 1DmIII with IR filter, and here is a post-processed B&W version of the sunlit scene using a 30sec exposure:
Now this is a pretty good photo, I quite like it. It gives a different ambience to my final shot as the sunlit scene makes the sky even darker and more foreboding. But I had hidden the woodlands behind the tree in an effort to getting some differentiation of the leaves from the incoming clouds which were encroaching the scene much too fast for my liking.
The final shot, I moved the tripod to the right and by then the sun dropped behind the cloud to reveal a beautiful glow on the tree from the sunlit clouds. I knew I would have a winner if only I got the composition, focus, depth of field and exposure correct - something easier said than done when you need to remove the IR filter to compose and focus, then adjust the focus according to the lens IR marker. The light and clouds were only there for about 5 minutes before the 2 main keys were gone.
Finally, the crucial post-processing step of converting a magenta IR image, first to B&W then a slight adjustment of the tone curve and application of a subtle color tint which suited my idea of what it should look like.
And as ever, to the critical eye, there could be further improvements made, but will I go back there again to try?
I hope this analysis has been helpful.
Cheers and I look forward to another good one soon.
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