On color, part 1

Have you noticed more and more people using the #nofilter?  Or have you noticed lately photos where you’ve thought the colors can’t possibly be real?  And if those colors are not real, does it even matter?  These are the kinds of questions that bounce around in my head as I try to keep up with social media and as I review student projects.

The popularity of the #nofilter is in part a reaction to the common use of filters in Instagram – I think that much is clear but I can’t help but wonder if there is more to it.  Sure, technology continues to evolve so we are able to capture photos with more colors but I also think we are seeing more of these highly saturated photos because we are consuming visual media at an unprecedented rate.   And it’s no wonder – taking and sharing photos is easier than ever.  In fact on Instagram alone, over 70 MILLION photos are shared on the service EVERY SINGLE DAY.  That’s a staggering number of photos and that’s just one of several popular social media platforms.

Last week I shared this photo with you and said that the colors were pretty much as I remembered them and I think it is a good example of the kind of highly saturated, colorful sunset photo that I’m writing about today.

Wheat Farm at Sunset

Wheat Farm at Sunset

The colors in this photo are highly saturated and include blue and pink and yellow and orange – okay, this is starting to sound like the song about Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat so I’ll stop there but I think you get the point.  Anyway, I said this is one of my favorite Washington State landscape photos and the colors have a lot to do with that.  So what is it about brightly saturated photos that makes people stop and pay attention?

I’ll get more into these color preferences  (and how you might choose to incorporate them into your work) next week but this week I want to spend some time on the importance of color fidelity in photography.  That is, does it really matter if the colors are real?

M_Kloth_crazy_daisy_6437

These colors are accurate – does it matter for this image?

 

First off, any discussion on whether or not colors matter necessarily needs to exclude certain genres of work.  In photojournalism, for example, colors should be rendered more or less accurately because that is a profession where truth in reporting is expected.  Another example might be (but not always) commercial work.  After all, if you see a can of Coca-Cola, you expect it to be labeled with an exact color of red and white.  Seeing it in shades of pink and blue would go against the branding that the company has worked so hard to establish since it was introduced in 1886.

We expect a super handsome whigle to have these colors so in this case, the colors do make a difference.

We expect a super handsome whigle to have these colors so in this case, the colors do make a difference.

That aside, is accurate color important in an image?  Does it just depend?

To me, I think it does depend on the image.  Certainly there are some types of images that should generally be accurate (like portraits) because we expect to see people with ‘normal’ skin tones but even that is subject to artistic aesthetic choices.  In the end, I think it comes down to the intent of the photographer.  If an image is made primarily for artistic purposes, then anything goes – Andy Warhol (among others) taught us that – but if an image is meant to be a record of something (even just a pretty sunset or a rainbow), then color fidelity probably does matter.

I think I’ll leave it here for today.  Do you agree?  Do you think I missed an important consideration?  Leave a comment and we’ll continue to conversation next week.

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Tips for photographing dogs

From time to time I look at the puppy photos of our first dog Little Bit and see that I’ve come a LONG way as a photographer.  She was mostly black then (she had the white lucky 7 on her chest) which means that most of our photos of her have little fur detail.  Still – I’m lucky to have those photos.   I’ve photographed thousands of animals since then and I’ve learned a thing or two on the way.  I’ve included some of those tips in my books but I’ve never written about them in this format – until now.  Okay, that seemed overly dramatic but I think you’ll find some of these tips useful so let’s get started.

Step one:  Find a willing dog to photograph.

Willing dog model - check!

Willing dog model – check!

That seems a bit obvious but I include it only to point out that some dogs (Hi Maebe!), like people, just would rather not be in front of the camera.  If you have one of those dogs, you’ll want to spend time working to desensitize them to the camera before you begin.  Sure you might be able to snap a quick image or five before they run away but if your goal is to capture a lifetime of memories, get them used to the camera.

Step two:  Find a good location for your session.

Okay, so you might want to take the shot in less than ideal situations anyway but for most of your photos, you can probably do better.

This isn’t ideal for your portrait session.

Okay, so you might want to take the shot in less than ideal situations anyway but for most of your photos, you can probably do better than this photo of Lyle.  Specifically, you’ll want to find a nice location that doesn’t have cluttered background and has fairly even lighting.  The lighting thing is especially important if your dog has both dark and light fur like Lyle because your camera will have a tough time keeping detail in both the highlights and the shadows.  Notice in this photo that Lyle’s white legs do not have any fur detail in the brightest spots – that’s because his head was not in direct sunlight and I needed to overexpose his legs in order to see good detail on his face.

Step three:  Eliminate distractions so that your dog focuses on you.

Is that a rabbit running by?

Is that a rabbit running by?

Sometimes you’ll want those sideways glances but let’s face it, if you are trying to make a portrait of your dog while the squirrels are doing squirrel things in your yard, you are going to have a hard time competing for your pup’s attention.

Step four:  Don’t use treats or toys for your session.

Keep the energy of your session as low as you can.

Keep the energy of your session as low as you can.

It is much easier to ramp up a dog’s energy than it is to calm them down.  If you pull out the bacon flavored super amazing toy, most dogs will find it hard to sit still – or turn off the waterworks (drool isn’t pretty).  Don’t let your pup know that treats are an option when you get started.  If you have a hard time getting them into the spirit of the shoot, then…

Step five:  Use toys and treats for your session.

Grrrr!  Vicious puppy!!!

Grrrr! Vicious puppy!!!

The key here is to use the least exciting toy or treat that you can get away with using (see step four).  If you can’t get your pup’s attention without the distraction, then don’t jump straight to the filet mignon of treats – start with the dry biscuits and see if that will do the trick (also your hands will smell better).

Step six:  Use plenty of light.

Because lots of light can make your dog look demonic.

Because lots of light can make your dog look demonic. BWAHAHAHAHA!

Okay, so you want to use plenty of light but clearly, you want to consider your light source.  I took the above photo in a dark room using my smart phone and the on camera LED flash – it perfectly illustrates why on camera flash is probably not your best option.  When you consider your lighting, make sure that your primary light source is not right next to your camera’s lens otherwise the light will leave your camera, bounce off of the back of your pup’s eye, and give you varying shades of green eye.  Your best lighting will always fall on your pup at an angle that is at least 15 or 20 degrees off axis from your lens.

Step seven:  Have fun!

And give your pup his (or her) just desserts!

And give your pup his (or her) just desserts!

 

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On macro and close up photography

Macro photography has been around for a while, in fact, William Henry Walmsley defined the term photo-macrograph way back in 1899 (he also defined photo-micrograph but that’s a topic for another time).   He originally went to school to study botany but had to drop out so that he could support his family.  Eventually he found work in the field that he enjoyed by preparing slides of insects and plants for a number of scientists.  Today, if you do a quick search for macro photography you’ll see that plants and insects are easily the favorite subjects of photographers – and with good reason.  If we take the time to see these small objects magnified, it’s like a whole new world is revealed to us.

Strictly speaking, most of what we’ve come to think of as macro photography is more accurately called close up photography.  See, the definition of a true macro image is that it has to be at least a 1:1 ratio in object size to the size media is is recorded.  That is, the image that you record on your sensor (or film if you are old school) has to be at least life size.  Don’t think of that in terms of the print, but the physical size of the sensor.  Check out this amazing graphical representation of a penny and a digital sensor to help you understand.

Imagine the rectangle is your camera's sensor and the circle is a penny - that is the 1:1 size ratio that defines macro photography

Imagine the rectangle is your camera’s sensor and the circle is a penny – that is the 1:1 size ratio that defines macro photography

Okay, so now that you have that little factoid stored away for some future trivia night, let’s get on to something a bit more practical:  tips for close up photography (macro or otherwise).

This is not a true macro even though it was made with a macro lens.  It is a close up photograph of Spring's soft front parts.

This is not a true macro even though it was made with a macro lens. It is a close up photograph of Spring’s soft front parts.

If you are using a point and shoot type camera, you are likely limited to what you can achieve.   Point and shoot cameras usually have a macro mode which allows you to focus closer than you can in the regular focusing mode.  If you are using a digital SLR camera or a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, then you can get the best results by using a dedicated macro lens.  If you don’t have a macro lens, and you are very careful, you can also try this trick – take your lens off of your camera, turn it around, and hold it against your camera’s lens mount (be very careful not to scratch the lens!).  You won’t have any of the automated features but your lens will now allow you to focus MUCH closer than when you have the lens on the right way.  If you think that’s pretty cool, you can even buy inexpensive mount adapters so that you can attach the lens to your camera backwards.

Gear aside, there are two main considerations.  First is that macro photography generally takes a lot of light.  And second is that it has a VERY, VERY narrow depth of field (DOF) – like millimeter wide areas of sharp focus when you shoot with your lens wide open.  If you decide to stop down your lens for a larger DOF, then you might get another few millimeters or (gasp) even a centimeter.

My grrrl Spring's right eye.  Notice that there is only a very narrow plane that is perfectly sharp (look at the fur more than the eye).

My grrrl Spring’s right eye. Notice that there is only a very narrow plane that is perfectly sharp (look at the fur more than the eye).  This is typical for macro photography.

So I’m guessing you know where that’s leading, and you’re right – macro photography is usually best done with a tripod.  The lighting is of course enough of a reason to use a tripod because you’ll want one to avoid camera shake but the bigger consideration is the depth of field.  Using a tripod will also allow you to carefully frame your subject because a very little movement can change your composition drastically.  A tripod will allow you to better study the composition to determine what should be in the frame and which part of the image should be in the sharpest focus.

This was a quick cell phone snap of the setup I used for the flower gallery images this week.  You can see that I not only brought extra light to the scene, but I also had my camera on a tripod and I used a remote to trigger the camera to avoid bumping the camera when I pushed the shutter button.

This was a quick cell phone snap of the setup I used for the flower gallery images this week. You can see that I not only brought extra light to the scene, but I also had my camera on a tripod, and I used a remote to trigger the camera.  The dynamic range (range from light to dark in the scene) was too great for my cell phone resulting in ‘clipped highlights’ in the flower.

So there you have it – macro photography in a nutshell.  Let me know if you have any questions and happy shooting!

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Photography as art

Last week I wrote about photography as art and promised to continue the topic today.    I said that I believed that (in my opinion) not every photograph created is a work of art.  I went on to say that a certain amount on intent is needed for a photograph to become a work of art but I’ve also said in the past that something not originally made as a work of art can later become a work of art if an ‘authority’ deems it worthy.    So then, let’s get to the reason this topic has been on my mind.

Peter Lik is a master photographer.  He earned that M. Photog. title by competing in the Professional Photographers of America International Print Competition.  A photographer can submit up to four images a year and if they meet an exacting criteria as judged by a panel of four judges, the images can earn a merit.  A photographer needs 25 merits in order to earn the M. Photog. credential.   He has also been recognized for his work by the Australian Institute of Professional Photography and the British Institute of Professional Photographers.  All of which is to say that Mr. Lik has been recognized by other professional photographers as a master of his craft.  I encourage you to visit his website to see some of his work.

Aside from his technical and aesthetic achievements, Mr. Lik is very, VERY, good at marketing his work AND he has been fortunate enough that his career has brought him to the right places at the right time.  That isn’t to say that he hasn’t earned his achievements through a lot of hard work, just that, as Louis Pasteur famously stated, “fortune favors the prepared” and Mr. Lik has worked hard to put himself in a position to benefit from that fortune.

I’m sure you’re beginning to wonder why I’m going on and on about Peter Lik.  Well, that’s because he recently made history – he sold the most expensive photograph of all time in November, 2014.  In fact, he now holds four of the twenty spots on the list of most expensive photographs ever sold.  His November sale included Phantom which sold for $6.5 million, Illusion for $2.4 million, and Eternal Moods for $1.1 million.  He made the list for the first time in with the sale of One which sold for $1 million in December 2010.  That list is full of people that I lecture about in my history of photography class so I’d say Lik is in very fine company.  Very fine indeed.

Phantom, by Peter Lik http://www.lik.com/news/newsarticle57/, accessed 1/15/15

One would have a tough time arguing that his work is not art.  Yet that’s just what one art critic did.  Jonathan Jones is a journalist and art critic that, since 1999, has written about art for The Gaurdian.  He had this to say about Lik’s Phantom:

This record-setting picture typified everything that goes wrong when photographers think they are artists.  It is derivative, sentimental in its studied romanticism, and consequently in very poor taste.  It looks like a posh poster you might find framed in a pretentious hotel room.
-Jonathan Jones, December 10, 2014

In that same article, Jones also states that photography is not art but rather is a technology.  Again, that is the exact same argument that people have been making since photography was introduced to the world in 1839.  In a previous article, Jones states:

A photograph in a gallery is a flat, soulless, superficial substitute for painting.
-Jonathan Jones, November 13, 2014

So what do you think?  Is that fair?

As you might imagine, Jones’s articles have been popular.  As of this morning, the article written in response to Peter Lik’s historic sale has been shared nearly 41,000 times and has nearly 2000 comments.  In fact, it has been so popular that The Guardian felt the need to publish a counterpoint to the article.  Written by Sean O’Hagan, the article offers a number of solid counterpoints to Jones’s article.  The one that I think is most relevant is that photography is a distinct visual media from painting and the two should not be viewed as being in a competition with each other.

Personally, I can’t help but think that Jones’s recent articles were written not so much as to convince people that photography is an inferior artistic media but rather as a way to drive readers to his articles and to The Guardian.  I think this is supported by the fact that The Guardian has a prominent link to O’Hagan’s article at the top of the December 10 article.  Mostly, my opinion that he is stirring the pot for the sake of controversy is based on the fact that Jones has been writing for the guardian for some time and it wasn’t that long ago that he has claimed that photography is the art of our time.  He wrote:

Photography is the serious art of our time. It also happens to be the most accessible and democratic way of making art that has ever been invented.
-Jonathan Jones, January 10, 2013

He goes on to say:

The greatness of art lies in human insight. What matters most is not the oil paints Rembrandt used, but his compassion.
-Jonathan Jones, January 10, 2013

So then, what’s one to believe?  In the end, I don’t think it matters whether or not Mr. Jones has had a change in heart, is purposely writing controversial opinions, or something else entirely.  Whether or not he appreciates the work of Peter Lik is entirely besides the point, after all, we all have our own tastes and preferences, so it doesn’t matter what he personally thinks about one particular artist.  What does matter is that he is using his platform to get people to think and write about art and photography.  And that is something that I can fully support.

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On photography and art

Today’s topic is one that I’ve been mulling over for quite some time.  There are a number of factors that lead to this week’s topic including my prep work for the start of a new semester teaching the History of Photography class at Washington State University.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's (1826) "View from the Window at Le Gras"

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s (1826) “View from the Window at Le Gras”

Photography was introduced to the world in 1839 but there were efforts to create a permanent image with a camera leading up to that time.  The above image was made by focusing light onto a pewter plate covered in what you can basically think of as asphalt (Bitumen of Judea).  As the light hit the plate, it essentially hardened the asphalt in a way that was directly related to the amount of light that it received (more light, harder bitumen) so that when the exposure was complete (we think it was at least 8 hours but maybe days), the bitumen in the shadow areas could be washed off leaving a permanent image.  This image is believed to be the first permanent image ever made.  This achievement sparked the research that lead to two competing photographic technologies being introduced to the world in 1839.  But here’s the thing – they didn’t consider these earliest ‘photographs’ art but rather viewed them as scientific advances.

Except that might not be entirely true.  See, even from the start, there were people pushing for photography as art and others that pushed for photography as a technique for recreating a scene – and they both kind of had a point.   Fast forward to today (which skips some pretty important photographic history) where we are decades into the post-modernist art movement (where the concept can be the art) so you’d think any question of whether or not a photograph is art would be long dead, but guess what, there are still naysayers claiming that photography is not art.  Could their arguments have any merit?

#firstselfie #notreallydead #isitart

Hippolyte Bayard (1801 – 1887) is credited for making the first ever self portrait and the first ever photographic narrative. #firstselfie #notreallydead #isitart? #1840

First, I’ll pose a few questions to you to get you thinking.  Do you think every image made by a photographer is art?  If no, does it depend on the intent?  If yes, can we expand that to include any image made by a camera?  How about automated exposures (like those made from infamous red light cameras)?

Personally, I think it is fair to make the claim that a certain amount of intent is needed for a photograph to automatically be deemed a work of art.  I’d even go so far as to say that not every photograph that an artist makes would qualify as art.  After all, I use my cameras to create images solely for the sake of documentation and I think it would devalue the idea of what art is (even if that is tricky to define) by saying that every image I create is photographic art.  Maybe a photographic equivalent to King Midas exists in the world but I’ve not been introduced to their gift yet.

I made this masterpiece because I wanted to have a record of the phone number on the sign.

I made this masterpiece because I wanted to have a record of the phone number on the sign. Contact me for pricing information. Oh, and can I suggest that you opt for the gallery wrapped canvas instead of a Giclée?

I think I’ll leave it at that.  Give some thought to these questions and let me know what you decide.  Next week I want to pick up where we left off and discuss the topic in the context of the work of master photographer Peter Lik.  If that name sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve probably seen him (on the Weather Channel) or recently saw that his work was in the headlines because of a recent sale of his work.  Check back for details next Friday.

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