Growing Your Photography: Imposing Limits

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Wonderful coincidence that led to new discoveries in my photographic journey today: It was Drop-Off Day for artwork to be exhibited in next weekend’s annual Exhibition and Sale at St. Catherine of Bologna Church in Ringwood, New Jersey. With my car duly loaded with my three for-sale photographs plus one for the Silent Auction, off I went down Route 17 and into beautiful Passaic County to relinquish my work into the loving hands of St. Catherine’s volunteers. It happened to be a beautiful day, and though I didn’t have much time to spare for a photo shoot, it was impossible totally to pass up the opportunity.

As it happened, en route to and from St. Catherine’s I had to pass Ringwood Manor, the scene of many of my recent photo shoots and the subject of two of the images I was submitting to the show (there’s a Bonus Tip for you: When deciding what to put into a show or sell at a fair, remember that people like to buy images of their own local region). Fine, I didn’t have to go out of my way; how could I ensure that I wouldn’t get carried away and spend more time there than I ought to?

The two-part solution: First, don’t take a lot of gear. In fact, don’t take the DSLR at all. I opted for my little Olympus Stylus SH-1, which with its zoom that maxes out to 600mm has served me well for  many a travel situation (read: taking on airplanes). Second, limit the pictures I would take to only one of the “Art” presets — the Pinhole, which, obviously, lends itself well to photographing subjects like old buildings.

That limitation — any limitation you choose to impose on yourself (some suggestions you’ll frequently read involve taking along and using only one lens on your DSLR; if you really want a challenge, make it a prime or fixed focal length lens) — will help to free your mind from all your usual presuppositions about what you expect to photograph. Instead, aware that you now have limited options, you will mentally narrow down your options in accord with the limitation you’ve set for yourself.

And so, despite the countless photographs I’ve taken at Ringwood Manor, I was able to find a number of brand new (for me) compositions that worked well with that Pinhole setting. (As an added bonus there’s the physical freedom afforded by toting a small compact instead of a DSLR and tripod.)  Here are a few of them for you to see. And if you’re in the neighborhood, why not stop by and see all the amazing work on display at St. Catherine’s Art Exhibition?  For the images I’ve submitted to the show, click here, here, and here. Thank you!

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Winter Monochrome at the Lake

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Here in the Northeast we had a big snowstorm the day before Thanksgiving. On the day itself the snow was still coming down a bit and we went for a walk to Cooper Lake. It was very cold, the turkey was in process of roasting, so I grabbed my Olympus SH-1 point and shoot rather than my DSLR with tripod.

The images I’m showing you here are the best of the results from that walk. Conditions were a winter photographer’s dream come true. The processing was minimal — very minimal. No B&W conversion was involved; this is completely natural. I tried experimenting with converting one image to B&W and didn’t like the result; it wasn’t the right tone, somehow too warm. The cooler tones right out of the camera were spot-on for the feeling of that day. Hope you enjoy these; comments welcome!

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Last but not least — Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Thank you for being readers of my blog.

New Hampshire Scenes: The Intimate Landscape

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No matter what time of year one visits New Hampshire, those grand mountain landscapes are always an irresistible draw for the camera. Especially (but not only) during foliage season, the scenic vistas along the Kancamagus Highway, Bear  Notch Road, and other major routes (think Rt 302 at Bretton Woods) are magnets for photographers of all stripes.

I enjoy photographing those grand scenes — “lofty mountain grandeur,” as the hymn says. And as long as one clear, sunny day is forecast, I’ll be up and out of my motel room well before the crack of dawn to station myself at Chocorua Lake Road and catch the light show (with luck, the light-and-fog show) over the lake and mountain. But what I find more rewarding is shooting the intimate landscape — particularly forest interiors. It’s a quieter, more meditative process, almost as if I’m waiting for something — a tree trunk or a group of rocks, or a particular arrangement of fallen leaves — to call out, “Hey! Here I am! Look at me!”

A clarification: By “intimate landscape” I mean a scene in which the distance between myself and the closest object is fairly small; I don’t mean macro photography.

Here are some “intimate landscape” images I made on my recent visit to the White Mountains.

DSC-2619 sDiana’s Bath. I arrived early enough on a rainy day to be able to shoot without other people getting into the images, but the recent drought hadn’t left much water in this multistream waterfall. I aimed in close and vertically so that the waterfall wouldn’t be lost in a series of rocks and played with the exposure to get a silky-but-not-too-silky look.

 

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Forest interior. After I made enough images of the actual waterfall, I looked around to see what else might be photo-worthy. Immediately I realized that the scene right before me — the photo to the right — was it. It was as if the tree trunks had bent slightly to let the foliage and the light in the distance be seen.

 

The Champney Falls Trail.

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Named for the 19th-century New Hampshire artist Benjamin Champney, this has always been one of the most popular trails along the famed Kancamagus Highway. Not even the fact that the bridge over the stream was destroyed in Hurricane Irene and will not be replaced has changed that. I’ve gotten good forest interiors here before on rainy days, and this time was no exception. When a dry summer has resulted in trees losing leaves rather prematurely, then photograph the leaves on the ground! The varied colors and patterns of those leaves “make” this photo (below), I think. Incidentally, as you can imagine, several of these images required long exposures. It helps that nothing in them was moving, except the water in the waterfalls!

 Shelburne waterfall.

DSC2732 ed sThis little waterfall has to be one of the best-kept secrets in New Hampshire, as waterfalls go. It’s not listed in any of the guides. Unless you park in the pullover next to it, you’ll hardly notice it; it’s quite hidden by trees. Long exposure needed again. I didn’t want murky shadows, nor did I want to include too much more of the waterfall above where the photo ends; it made for too busy an image. I wonder actually how much water there would have been had I tried this spot two days earlier; as I said above, the drought had depleted the water in all the falls. I had planned to shoot at this spot on the previous day and set out going north on Route 16, but by the time I reached Pinkham Notch the rain was so torrential and thus the visibility so nonexistent that I turned back. Aside from the safety factor, shooting in a bit of rain is one thing, but drowning your DSLR? Not a good idea.

I hope you enjoyed these images. I’ll continue with more from this shoot in subsequent posts. If you’d like to see larger versions, or perhaps would like one of these restful scenes decorating your home, click on the images themselves or on this link to my site. Thank you for looking!

Topaz Great Plug-In for B&W

A few weeks ago I visited an antiques store in the Catskills region known as the Mountain Top. The store, at the junction of Routes 23A and 296 in Hunter, New York, is run by Cindy Smith, and contains both “Old Treasured Belongings” — the gently used items of all kinds — and “Handmade by Cindy” — a stunning array of handbags and other products made by Cindy herself. If you want to read more details, and to see my full-color versions of the photos below, please check the December 5 post on my Hudson Valley and Catskills blog.

But in this post I want to show you just a small part of the capabilities of Topaz’s B & W Effects. This is a powerful tool for expanding your creative postprocessing options, and given my propensity for photographing historic and other interesting buildings, both inside and out, I purchased and downloaded it to see how it could enhance what I call my “Modern Vintage” work. 

Since my objective is that you enjoy the old-fashioned warmth and coziness of  Cindy’s store as mediated by my interpretations, rather than to give you a detailed photo tutorial, I’m going to post the four pictures with just a brief word of explanation about how Topaz B&W Effects was applied in each image.

Ed Img 2034 Top BW sThe presets in Topaz B&W Effects are grouped into collections with such headings as Traditional, Albumen, Cyanotype, Stylized, Opalotype, and others. Each collection then has a number of different presets, which you can preview in a grid if you want and then select from the grid the one you want to work with. This photo was processed using Warm Tone White with Border from the Traditional collection. I increased the Brightness slightly to give it a hint of a faded look.

I’m not a fan of unusual effects for their own sake, but in this case it seemed to Ed Img 2040 Top BW sfit the subject of the image, as if the room were emerging like a benign spirit from a pleasant past. (No, no, I’m not channeling Dickens — at least, I don’t think so!) It’s the Milky White preset from the Opalotype collection. I’ve found that Opalotype presets have good potential for these “old-fashioned” interpretations; I’ve used another in a slightly different context, the interior of a rural diner.

Ed IMG 2036 Top BW sBoth in Topaz B&W Effects and in Topaz Adjust 5 I’ve found the Stylized collections to be great places to mine for processing ideas, and so the next two images were both processed with Stylized presets. This one used the Painterly Color preset; it seemed to be a good way both to make sense of the busyness of the room and to contrast with my interpretation of the first photo above that has similar content.

A word of warning: Topaz B&W Effects is like rich food; you can only eat so Ed IMG Top BW 2044 smuch rich food at one sitting, and in my experience I found myself saying “enough!” by the time I got to the fourth picture, again in one sitting.  A lot of trial-and-error went on here as I found it difficult to settle on an interpretation I could live with. My aim, after all, was to make workable, artistic interpretations in their own right rather than to offer demonstrations of Topaz B&W Effects as ends in themselves. For this last one I again chose from the Stylized collection, this time the Detailed Grunge preset. I gave it a very slight tint. Looking back on the entire process, I found it interesting that my “Modern Vintage” interpretations lend themselves to the two extremes, either a grungy, detailed, structured look or a soft look with vignetting or other “fading” effects toward the edges.

There you have it — my brief intro to Topaz B&W Effects. If you visit their website you can download a free trial before deciding to buy.  I get no commission here, just wanted to share my enthusiasm for this great plug-in in case it helps you. The photos are for sale on my website.

Read about my book Historic Hudson Valley

Omaha’s History in Its Buildings

Downtown Omaha is an amazing treasure of buildings that speak eloquently of the city’s history. Pick up a brochure on the Old Market area and you’ll find a collection of historic photographs of old buildings along with descriptions of what they used to be, their current use, and their exact location. It seems that Omaha is into recycling, rather than demolishing, in a big way. The result is a Midwestern city with considerable character and charm.

Armed with the Old Market brochure from the Omaha tourist office and my Canon Powershot S95 (all I could afford to take on this all-too-brief, fly-very-lightly trip), I set out on many walks to locate and shoot some of the downtown sites. The early mornings offered quiet and space for reflection; in the evenings the place was bustling with people out to enjoy the pubs and restaurants, especially those that offer covered outdoor seating (as most of them do in the Old Market). Here is a selection of my photos.

Ed IMG_1534 sThe lettering that rings the upper stories tells the tale of this impressive building’s former life. The ground floor now houses the Spaghetti Works — a favorite Omaha restaurant, especially for families with children — and shops to attract visitors and residents alike. I processed this image in a straightforward way with Nik Color Efex Pro 4’s Tonal Contrast.

From this angle the plethora of signs tells of a variety of incarnations this building has enjoyed.Ed IMG_1543 s Turn the corner around to the front of the building and see the modern businesses it now houses. This picture was taken early morning after it had rained the previous night and I deliberately chose an angle to include the reflection in the puddle in the foreground.  Like the above photo, processed with a simple Tonal Contrast adjustment in Nik Color Efex Pro.

Ed IMG_1537 Top sThis was a complete surprise–I turned the corner off one of the busy Old Market thoroughfares and here it was — a diner, simply called The Diner! I just laughed in sheer delight. I love diners and only regretted that my program for this visit to Omaha didn’t allow me the opportunity to enjoy a breakfast or lunch here. For this image I used Topaz Adjust, tried two different Detail Strong presets and decided on this one, Detail Strong 2, because it’s far more vibrant. I altered the Details settings from the original preset, one reason being that I wanted to show that the splotch of sunlight on the building wall above the diner was left there deliberately–the different colorations show it to be a work of art in its own right.

Finally, this image is quite different from the rest; unlike the previous three, this building isn’tEd IMG_1479 s enjoying a present life. I struggled with how to interpret this image. I felt sorry for the building and for the fact that it had once housed a cooperative of artists who undoubtedly must have worked together, encouraged and supported one another, shared in other members’ successes and failures. And so I didn’t want to give it one of my grunge looks where every little detail is accentuated so that all you see is a somewhat disorganized network of lines more than the building as a whole. After several experiments I decided on this preset, which I found almost by accident — the Color Stylizer in Nik Color Efex Pro 4, with contrast and saturation adjusted and the tint slightly tweaked. I think it’s reasonably gentle on the poor building. Please, won’t you leave a comment and tell me what you think?

GREAT NEWS: Our book Historic Hudson Valley: A Photographic Tour has just been published! Click the book’s title to view the feature on the website of our publisher, Schiffer Publishing and to purchase your copy.

Favorite Photos of 2012

I’ve just compiled a list of my twelve–that’s right, an even dozen–favorite images that I made during 2012. Can I say they’re by far the best? Well, that’s always very subjective, and a photographer isn’t always the best judge of her/his own work. But IMHO they are certainly among the best, and I’ve chosen them to include representative images from my favorite places and subjects.

Here I’m posting a sample for you to see. Click on any of them, or on this link, to go to my website to view this entire gallery of twelve images. The entire gallery–each of the twelve images–is my Print of the Month for January 2013. That means not one but twelve pictures offered for purchase at the special Print of the Month prices. That’s my New Year’s gift to all my friends and followers. May you have a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!

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“Seen Better Days”: Interpretive Postprocessing of Photos

I was going to call this collection “Dilapidation” until I got a deliciously evocative shot of an alleyway in a rundown town and I didn’t think “dilapidated” really described alleyways. Whereas my historic collection captures the Enduring–buildings such as at New Paltz’s Historic Huguenot Street or in nearby Hurley or the Kingston Stockade District that have been deliberately and lovingly preserved for their aesthetic and historic value–“Seen Better Days” rather preserves the Ephemeral–before the building gets demolished or renovated or succumbs to the ravages of the weather.

My “Seen Better Days” collection lends itself particularly well to black-and-white processing. This can be classic black-and-white, some version of sepia or another “antiquing” sort of look. Some photos can be processed in multiple ways, depending on the interpretation I want to give them. Here I’m going to show you one photo in three different interpretations.

The location of the building is best identified vaguely as “somewhere in the Catskills.” It was for sale and I understand that it has recently been purchased, so obviously I needed to do my work before the new owners do theirs. As I pointed out in my previous blog, if you shoot in color, before you can make a successful monochrome image you have to start with an acceptable color original. The color version here was processed first in Raw and then in Photoshop CS5: some cropping, straightening (it can be difficult to attend to such details during the actual capture when you and your tripod are standing in the middle of a road), enhancing the contrast (and, in Raw, always the clarity), vibrance, and saturation.

I wanted the first monochrome to be a starkly clinical black-and-white image. Starting with the color image here, I processed it with Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, choosing the Fine Art Process preset and increasing the structure to 72. Even though it’s “starkly clinical,” I consider that it nicely straddles the line between Fine Art and Documentary work. (I’d appreciate your comments on this!)

Then I wanted to “reproduce” an old, faded photograph that someone may have kept because they, or their family (parents? grandparents?), lived there a long time ago–during those “better days.” Again using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, I chose the Antique Plate preset, increased the brightness to 60 and decreased the structure to -4. (I’m obsessed with high structure these days and so it was an exercise in artistic discipline for me to see that I can occasionally live without it and still produce a satisfactory photo!) As a “crossover” I think this interpretation is also a candidate for my Fine Art “Modern Vintage” series.

I’ve sent the photos to some friends and have received different opinions on which ones people liked best. I’d like to hear from you: Which one is your favorite, and why?