Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

Is It Ever Too Early To Dream of Aspen Color?

Aspens and Talus, Autumn
Aspens and Talus, Autumn

Aspens and Talus, Autumn. Eastern Sierra Nevada, California. © Copyright 2013 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Small stands of aspens with autumn leaves stand in front of a talus slope, eastern Sierra Nevada.

Is it ever too early to dream of aspen color? In a word, no.

Every summer around this time I start to think about fall color, and for me that primarily means eastern Sierra Nevada aspen color. I’m not quite sure what triggers the thoughts. Sometimes when I’m in the Sierra — and I am not there right now — it can be some nearly imperceptible changes in the light, the atmosphere, the patterns of annual growth, or even the sound of the wind. It might also be something as simple as my now innate “tuning in” to annual cycles, something that I think we are all more able to do than we might imagine.

On hot northern California days like this one, it certainly does not feel at all like autumn. Yet, I know that the first real signs of the seasonally change will appear high in the Sierra in barely 8 weeks, and the aspen color will arrive only a few weeks after that.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Making the visible visible

I just heard someone say that “photography makes the invisible visible.” It occurred to me that good photography can often do something even more special, namely make the visible visible.

Think about it.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Fallen Begonia Blossom

Fallen Begonia Blossom - A fallen begonia blossom on a bench at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
A fallen begonia blossom on a bench at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Fallen Begonia Blossom. Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden, Fort Bragg, California. August 27, 2012. © Copyright 2012 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A fallen begonia blossom on a bench at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.

On a recent trip to the northern California coast around Mendocino, we spent the better part of a day wandering around at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg. If you ever visit this part of California, you will quickly discover that there are lots of flowers there, both wildflowers and cultivated varieties – they seem to like the cooler, moister, foggier climate. The Botanical Gardens is surprisingly large and comprehensive for a private facility in a somewhat out-of-the-way location. It covers many acres, stretching from the coast highway all the way to the edge of bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and it includes a wide range of plant types, not all of which are what you would expect here.

This was our first visit to the Gardens, so we sort of explored rather than trying to necessarily see everything. Not far from the entrance is the structure of the Mauer Display Garden, where begonias were blooming. The flowers and the intensity of their colors were quite amazing. At one point I believe I remarked that I had never seen anything quite as intensely orange as some of the flowers. At one point I looked away from the main displays of living plants and happened to notice this very colorful blossom that had fallen onto the corner of a bench. While the color probably seems unbelievable, it really was this intense. (Photographing these flowers proved to be a great reminder of the exposure challenges we face when using DSLRs to shoot subjects that are intense in one of the three color channels. In some photographs, the red channel was perhaps three to four stops brighter than the other channels!)

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

What a Photograph Is and What It Ain’t

Every so often I post something lengthy in some photography forum or another, and sometimes I want to get as much mileage out of it as a can… so I share it here. Recently there was a discussion about exposure blending and HDR and related stuff in one such forum and people were trying to decide whether HDR is a good, bad, useful, or indifferent thing. I posted a few times in that thread, but here is the final thing I added.

A poster read and quoted the following:

With our knowledge of post-processing techniques, are we involuntarily pre-disposed to see what could have been rather than what is? Does that limit our ability to appreciate the “what is”?

And then responded this way:

It definitely didn’t seem to limit Ansel’s appreciation of what is. You can see quotes throughout all of his books for many varying scenes on how beautiful it was. But then he will also say that he envisioned the final print as ‘stronger’ and did what was necessary to achieve his vision of the scene. Unless you aren’t talking about a live scene but rather a photo – a ‘plain’ photo that tried to capture ‘what is’. I don’t photograph to try and recreate what is. I would find that a waste of time and boring and leaving little in the way of artistic interpretation of the scene. I try to create a photograph using whatever tools necessary to achieve my vision of a given scene and hopefully with a somewhat unique outcome. But I will never limit myself to trying to replicate ‘reality’ as my eye saw it. I still appreciate what is, just not in my photos.

After that I offered up:

This brings up an interesting subject and one that seems to afflict landscape photography discussions more than it does discussions of other types of photography, namely this notion that a photograph “captures” what is “real” and that this can and should be its goal – and, by extension, anything that “manipulates” that “real” thing is somehow wrong and should be called out.

There is very little support anywhere for that idea, at least in the pure form that some seem to think it might have. Virtually every landscape photographer has said or will tell you today and shows through his or her own work that the idea of a photograph as an objective record of “what was there” is both impossible and undesirable. “Recording” the objective, physical nature of the subject – whatever the heck that even is – is almost completely missing the point.

First, it is impossible.

If we assume that the landscape that we see when in its actual presence at the time of the exposure is an objective and real thing, it is obvious that the camera cannot accurately capture that thing. There is a whole list of reasons for this to be the case, and it could include the following and more:

  1. The reality of the place is a continuum of light and seasons and atmosphere and more, yet the photograph only “captures” a tiny slice of the continuum that defines that subject.
  2. The camera cannot record all of the elements that define the nature of that subject – not the movement of air, the smell, the warmth of the sun, the exertion required (or not) to be there, and much more.
  3. The camera cannot “see” the scene the same way that our visual system does – which is the primary subject of this thread. I’ll just point out that bright clouds don’t blow out and shadows are not blocked and leaves don’t blur in the wind when we use our visual system to view them directly.
  4. The photographer’s most basic choices “edit” and transform the reality of the scene in important ways: where to place the camera, when to click the shutter, what to include/exclude from the scene, focal length, whether aperture choices make everything in focus or are selective, what the shutter speed does to moving elements of the scene, and much more.
  5. Other things that would make this list too long for this thread… ;-)

Second, even if it were possible it would be undesirable.

Let’s use Adams as an example. What moves many about his photographs is not the extent to which they are objectively “real” – fundamentally, they are not real. (The last time I checked, the world was not black and white.) What sets his work apart is the way that he used the tools at hand to interpret (not literally reproduce) the subjects of his photographs and the resulting personality and point of view that are expressed in his work. In other words, the literal subjects were, arguably, primarily a means for Adams to share his point of view and his passions through his photographs. In the end, the photographs tell us more about Adams than they tell us about his subjects. (I used Adams here because he is most likely to be known to all reading the thread, but virtually any other “landscape” photographer’s work would serve as well.)

To loop back to the thread, virtually all serious landscape (and other) photographers understand that it is an essentially unquestioned truth that photographs do not and cannot “accurately” portray the real subject, that they inherently (and aren’t we glad!) express a point of view, and that the notion of a pure “unmanipulated” “capture” is a strange and impossible concept. (Yet, for reasons that I won’t explore here, it seems to persist…)

This means that things are complicated. There is no “right” mode of expression, no “right” or wrong techniques, and no “right” type or amount of modification of a photograph in post. It is all relative and subjective. Some who like to imagine that a world of absolutes would simplify things find this difficult to understand and accept. Wouldn’t it be simpler if we could just declare that HDR or exposure blending or adding saturation or using curves or cloning out a spot were “wrong” because they were manipulations of the original “truth” of the scene and dismiss them as being objectively wrong or even dishonest, unethical, or immoral? But we can’t, if for no other reason than once you start down that absolutist road you would have to exclude most or arguably even all photography.

In the end it is about judgment and taste and the power of the photographer’s personal expression – and not simply an accounting of which techniques were used. Perhaps the least important thing about a photograph is how it was made.

Brief Thoughts on The Life of a Photograph

The image I posted earlier today both here at the blog and on Google+ got me thinking about the various ways that a photograph can “come to life.” This particular image followed a path that several other images that I consider to be among my best followed – namely, it languished in my raw file archive for nearly a year before I rediscovered it recently while going back through the old files. I recognized this pattern some time ago, and I now make it a habit to revisit all of my (thousands and thousands of) raw files about a year after I shoot them.

Why didn’t I “see” this image when I first reviewed raw files right after the shoot? I’m not entirely certain, but several ideas come to mind. Sometimes at the time of the shoot I have a strongly fixed notion of how I want to portray the subject , and as I shoot I’m already categorizing exposures by how well they correspond to this preconception. So when I initially go through the raws I may be mostly looking for what fits my expectations as opposed to looking objectively at what works on its own merits. Coming back a year later allows me to better see the image for what it is, without having my judgment so affected by prior expectations.

Related to this is the sheer number of images and how one deals with them in the post-processing workflow. I may begin with what I think are the most promising couple of images from a shoot and then take them all the way to a print-ready (or actually printed) stage. Once I’ve done that with the first selects from a given subject, I’m more likely to move on to other subjects – and potentially leave other good images in the dust.

There is a lot more to say about this, I think, but I’ll save the longer explication for another blog post in the future. Does anyone else make a practice of doing a full review of raw files at some future date?

When Inspiration Takes a Vacation

It happens to (almost) everyone. The pendulum sometimes swings towards enthusiasm, inspiration, and creative work that almost seems to flow all by itself. But pendulums swing both directions, and one of the prices we pay for doing creative work is having to cope with the inevitable dry periods when enthusiasm, inspiration, and creativity are nowhere to be found, periods when you can find yourself questioning your talent and abilities. (I think that one characteristic of “mature” artists is that they understand this cycle and are less likely to be undone by it – both because they are familiar with its existence and because they have learned ways to deal with it.)

I don’t claim to be the definitive expert on this issue, but I have some experience with it in both photography and music. There is much more to be said about this than I have space for here, but I thought I’d share a reply I wrote in a forum where a poster posed the following: Continue reading When Inspiration Takes a Vacation

Telling Stories About Our Photographs

I am as guilty as (OK, more guilty than) anyone else when it comes to writing a lot of words about my photographs! This is ironic in a way, since I believe that, for the most part, successful photographs should be able to say whatever they have to say without a lot of verbal explanation or justification. (There are clearly exceptions to this “rule,” and this is not to say that there isn’t a lot to talk about in photographs.) But some people seem to enjoy the descriptions, so I offer a bit of back story about every photograph, and I love to discuss the photos with folks who share my interest.

Recently I read a post about a fine landscape photograph that someone had produced – the photograph was one of those that is good enough to make me think about how I might create such an image. As I write this now, I have forgotten whose post it was and precisely which photograph it was about. But something that struck me about this post was the tremendously compelling and somewhat scary story that the photographer told about getting the photo. It included things like standing for days in tremendously difficult and seemingly dangerous weather conditions, traveling miles and miles across difficult terrain to find precisely the image that he/she had previsualized, and the tremendous good fortune of finding this perfect image after days and days of enduring challenges that normal people would not or perhaps could not endure.

Some such stories may be true. (Though more often I suspect that they are considerably embellished, but what’s wrong with a bit of fun fiction now and then? :-) But sometimes I wonder if the effect of the photograph would be the same without the spine-tingling story-telling? And I wonder to what extent some viewers tend to look at (or not) photographs that are not accompanied by such compelling and daring tales? What is the balance between viewers being intrigued by the apparently adventure-filled lives lived by photographers and viewers reacting to the intrinsic quality of the photographs themselves?

With this in mind, I offer two descriptions of events associated with the creation of photographs. Think about how the stories affect your perception of the images – for better or worse. ;-)

Story #1

It was a tough morning in the arid desert valley. The early season heat had started and it was over 90 degrees before 9:00 a.m., raging wind threatened a dust storm, and I had been in the heat and dust and dryness for days now. However, this remote location being a place of extremes, the surrounding mountain peaks were topped by several inches of recent snowfall, making many areas inaccessible to anyone unprepared for serious alpine travel. So I faced a choice – endure another day in the sun-blasted furnace of the valley or make an attempt to struggle up into the alpine zones of the towering mountains and make a photograph. Continue reading Telling Stories About Our Photographs