The beach. Sun and sand. Holidays and fun. Solitary strolls. Midnight dips. All good, baby. All good.
The beach. Sun and sand. Holidays and fun. Solitary strolls. Midnight dips. All good, baby. All good.
Ottawa, the capital of Canada, is relatively small city, but with lot’s of beautiful photo opportunities. There’s a cosmopolitan feel about it – in the summer especially – so whether you’re inside exploring or getting out and about , you’re going to be rewarded.
The museums and public spaces feel, like most places in Canada, wide open and full of airy space, but they have the added appeal of dramatic architecture and grand vistas.
While winter has ice skating on the Rideau Canal, I definitely prefer the warmer seasons. But that’s just me.
Travelling in India means crossing all types of terrain: from hard-scrabble, dusty, hot and dry desert, to lush, moist, hot and humid jungle, to everything in between. Wherever I find myself, I can also find an animal around the corner, or in front of my tuk-tuk, or peering down from above. Since I love taking photos of animals, you can see that this is yet another reason I love travelling in India!
Granted, it’s possible to see unhealthy specimens — feral dogs and alley cats come to mind immediately — and animals that just have to fend for themselves. But I’ve seen those in Canada and Japan as well, so that’s not just an Indian problem. So I tend to look for the fun or photogenic specimens instead.
You don’t have to travel far. I’ve found some great animal shots just sitting on a park bench, or while taking an evening stroll. And you don’t have to look hard for the exotic; there tends to be something big and interesting around every corner.
Anyone who’s read an entry or two in this site knows I’m pretty passionate about India. Over the years I’ve peered into the sub-continent (both India and Nepal) six or seven times, and managed to gather a few good shots (“India Travel Photography”) and a few good stories (“Failing to Trek” or “Two Weeks in India”).
I’m sure every India traveler gets asked “why?” particularly by people who have never been there themselves. I can’t easily answer that in a single blog, or in a single image or sentiment. It’s the people, the land, the animals, the atmosphere,… pretty much everything.
So I’m going to start off this little series with some people shots. In the eyes and expressions and demeanor of a few select Indians, I hope you see some of the things that I see. These people are (one reason) why I love India.
Find me a photographer who doesn’t love photos that require a second look?
I’m not talking about trick photography. A simple detail shot isn’t always obvious about what it’s revealing, requiring the viewer to look again, or a little more carefully. A broad environment shot (as above) can be equally interesting, after careful consideration.
Patterns are equally intriguing, when they’re taken out of the natural or manufactured world. Do you have a favourite pattern or perspective shot?
Hokkaido isn’t all grey seas and skies. Flashes of colour are few, true, but enjoyable when they come. You can see the brilliance this field of yellow sunflower brings, catching my eye from the highway as I speed through a recurring thunderstorm.
But sometimes the colour appears, and nothing else. Take this second picture, for example. That’s a brilliant sunset happening midst a grey, growling sea. And the dragon-shaped outcropping of rock is a dramatic counterpoint and foreground. But this wasn’t just a scene I stumbled upon; this is a man-made shot.
As I was driving along the coastal road on a western peninsula of Hokkaido, the sun was setting and I got a shot of the dramatic rays of light piercing the clouds and the sea. But that was it: a great sky, and a fairly boring everything else. Then, about 5 miles down the road, the dragon rock appears, but by now, the sky’s rays had disappeared, so the backdrop to the dragon was, well, a boring sea.
With a little creative layering and blending, I produced the shot you see there. The images were taken 11 minutes apart, on the same stretch of road and in the same forboding twilight. The shape of the dragon is very real, and is, I learned, a landmark on this stretch of road. But the combination of sky and rock wasn’t happenstance. And the dramatic splash of sea, sky and colour, of my own making. The creative thrill of photography isn’t just looking through the lens.
As I was building out this next round of portraits, I realized that was a lot of luck involved in capturing most of these. As I read more on portraiture, though, I see there are unifying elements that make a portrait a strong portrait, and some of these elements are caught in the photos below.
Any photography website or tutorial will tell you there are a few key techniques a photographer must consider when creating a portrait. The eyes of your subject, for example, need to be sharp and show life; some detail such as hair or clothing needs to be sharp and clear; the texture of the skin, depending on the look you want to achieve, needs to be smooth and well-lit (flattering modelesqe look) or coarse and gritty (real-life look); and the lighting needs to be flattering and emphasize whatever it is you want the viewer to focus on. If you have control over your subject, you can also use posing techniques, but my level of street photography doesn’t allow this.
I’ve got a mixed bag of six portraits included in this post, and each of them relies on one or more of these details to make them appealing. The above two shots, the pepper vendor and the biker, don’t necessarily rely on eyes to make the shot; the pepper vendor is squinting and the biker is wearing shades. I think the critical element in both of them is texture and detail. You can see the texture in the pepper vendor’s forehead as well as in the well-oiled tracks of his hair (he had a cool top-knot in the back). With the biker, the texture of the leather is more dominant than his face, and that seems to underline the “biker” nature of the portrait. The fact that he just looks tres cool, and has a background detail of a manly eighteen-wheeler barreling in from camera left, is a bonus.
The next two photos, Woman with Cat and Two Sisters, both rely on eyes. The highlight of the former is, of course, the beautiful almond shape of her eyes framed by the elegant eyebrows, as well as the finer set of cat’s eyes ready for comparison on the right. There is also a liveliness in the woman’s eyes that seems enhanced by, or as a result of, the hug she is giving the cat.
The Two Sisters on the other hand shows, in the older sister’s eyes and overall expression, pleasant bemusement, perhaps due to the photographer standing outside her window or by the antics of her younger sister playing in shadow. While her younger sister’s eyes are closed, the joyous child’s expression is no less winning. There is also much texture in this shot. The chipped nail polish on her fingers gripping the window sill are a dainty counterpoint to the roughness of the wood and corrugated tin of the room’s exterior. The slight scratch on the older girl’s nose brings out her character as well, speaking to, perhaps, some rough-housing fun.
Santa in Bar and Man with Tuk-Tuk are the final two of this series. I think “detail” is the unifying element of these last two (along with the beards and fantastic, groomed moustaches of each of the men). Santa was actually sitting inside the bar, behind a heavy sheet of plastic to keep out the cold (you can see the warp of the material to the right); it is the detail of the plastic and the way it frames Santa’s face that make this shot interesting.
And finally the Man with Tuk-Tuk. Arguably there is too much going on in this shot; I might have blurred the background better (either in-camera or in Pshop) to defocus the detail and therefore focus on the man himself, but I really like the tuk-tuk approaching (you see them on any and every street in India), both for its intrinsic character and the receding depth it creates. The detail of the man himself, such as the fine needlepoint flower on his shawl, the wrapped shape of the shawl itself, and his forehead and pompadour hairstyle, all combine to create a solid street portrait of a seemingly interesting soul.
Building out a black and white portfolio isn’t as easy as you might think. Especially when you’ve grown up in colour, shoot in colour every day (Raw, technically), and really, view life through a colour-ful mind’s eye. The solution, I dare say, is less about learning theory and practice, and more about having a vision.
Developing the vision however, for most of us non-geniuses, means getting into the masters, seeing what has gone on before us, and getting a feel for what we ourselves would like to do. Educating myself on the world of B&W is ongoing, and involves not just absorbing the coffee-table collections of everyone from Adams to Stieglitz to Salgado, but also taking as many online tutorials as possible. But here’s the rub: the more I learn, the less I’m sure of. But also the more I’m aware of the “lack” of vision I possess. I’ve found that even when I’m hip-deep in theory or buried under wave after wave of practical advice, I suffer from an acute awareness that, um, I’m just making it up as I go along?
Downloading a software package is, for me, a practical step. The rules and inherent structure of using a tool, seem to me to be a step in the right direction for learning about what I can do, and what I want to do. But as useful and interesting and absorbing as a package like Nik’s SilverFX is, the number of options are overwhelming; and it doesn’t simplify the creative and editorial responsibilities of pulling off, and pulling together, thematically-linked (perhaps the most basic definition of “vision”) images. Playing around is one thing, but artistic intentions need direction, commitment, choice, and these have to be in place, or in mind, before any photographer can really start to build their B&W vision.
So suffice to say that this B&W portfolio is a work in progress. Using Nik’s SilverFX has helped me turn out a few images, which I’ve included here in a series. Four images that are united by the shared splendor of each wonderful sky. The set is certainly not visionary; more likely just something nice to look at, and united in theme. That’s a start. A step. For now.
For this series of portraits, I’ve divided the group into two; today I’m putting up the vertical images, and in a future post I’ll put up the horizontal images. It’s for consistency’s sake that I do this. I’m sure you’ll agree the consistency is easier to browse (no re-orienting of your monitor required). But there’s another aspect of consistency, and this time a lack of it, that I want to point out. In these four you’re looking at now, two of them are shot from down low (and I really do like the effect), one is shot with a wide-angle lens, and the fourth is shot straight on.
This inconsistency is due to my style, which isn’t studio-based. I grabbed all these shots on the run, as it were, while travelling in India and the US, while drinking with friends in Japan. The series wasn’t conceived as a set; rather, the images were pulled together after the fact. Given my ‘druthers, I would love to act more professionally and create a series from scratch based on a consistent style, but I fear then I’d have to sacrifice the subject matter to achieve the style. Imagine trying to find a cow to stand high for me in a studio as I go low with the camera….
Now this last shot stands out, again for a lack of consistency, but this is something you the viewer can’t see. Let me briefly review what you can see: the subject is of course the first boy with penetrating eyes and a Mona Lisa-smile; then slightly back of him are two friends with serious trepidation written in their brows.
On the left side are railway tracks leading first to a cross, then to curves heading elsewhere,… these tracks help in leading the viewer’s eyes through and eventually out of the picture. But what you can’t see is the next minute of time after this shot was taken, and this is what I like: the boys break from their trepidation and wonderment and turn into laughing and giggling urchins mugging for the foreigner with a camera as they walk home from school. They are filled with fun and boyish charm, but none of the mystery that you see in the image. There is a complete lack of consistency in their behaviour – that which is captured here, and that which I retain in my mind’s eye.
Perhaps a lack of consistency is a good thing. Sometimes.
Fuji-san is an icon, not just here in Japan, but the world over. Representative of symmetry, perfection, peace, it is captured in centuries of art, first brushed, then sketched, and etched, and woven, and developed, and on and on…. Whenever I see Mt. Fuji, I get the same inspiration as countless millions before me: I want to, yet again, take another snapshot. I learned early, though, that it is impossible to capture one perfect view of Fuji-san, and therefore repeated impressions are not just acceptable, but required.
Selecting the right image for portfolio inclusion is at once easy and difficult. On the one hand, it’s easy because I don’t have that many “worthy” snapshots, so the overall lot I have to cull through is limited. On the other hand, when choosing images for a portfolio, relying on “it’s good enough” is setting the bar too low; finding the best of the best is critical to, first, a personal sense of achievement and, second, appreciation of any kind from your viewers. The four I’ve pulled together here please me, for now. I’ve got two over water, and two over land. Clouds are present, and some foreground baubles.
While the beauty of Fuji-san’s shape and symmetry never vary, and using them make it easy to pull off a color snapshot at sunrise or sunset, since engaging on this B&W journey, I’ve had to begin to appreciate different aspects of a “quality” Mt. Fuji image. The soft reds of the sun, combined with that iconic shape, are enough to create a memorable image, but you’re relying a lot on the colour and resulting mood. Black and white is nothing if not mood, but you can’t use colours to create it; instead, I find I’m focusing on clouds, and foreground, and contrast (of course!). I’m not saying anything new to someone already skilled in B&W, but for the student of photography, like me, this is new and important stuff.
This last shot, with the split rocks (they’re actually tied together by a barely-visible rope, related to the Shinto religion) and the crashing waves in the foreground is somewhat disappointing due to the muted nature of Fuji-san herself. In the colour version, the sky is a deep, rich blue which permeates the air; converting this blue to monochrome, however, results in a dim, muted background. You can see that the whites of Fuji-san’s cap are much less white than the crashing wave; my first reaction was to amp the whites of that snow to give the same charged feel of the waves, but the effect didn’t work. It’s background, and needs to feel like background to the viewer. Hmm…. More struggles with what I think is good, and what is good.