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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In the Steps of Jervis McEntee

Do you go into mourning once the fall foliage season has ended? Is that it for photography until next summer mercifully cools to an end or, at best. until a blanket of snow adds some brightness to what’s often referred to as “stick season”?

That needn’t be the case. I’ve contended that “there is beauty in bleakness” ever since my trips to Arctic Sweden in the 1990s, and that includes the bleakness of November par excellence. One of my most enduring and endearing photographic memories is of a shoot at Copperas Pond in the Adirondacks a number of years ago. The subdued, diffused light provided by the pale sun made the delicate red berries — I’m not sure what they are, but here’s a photo of some similar berries from last winter in the Catskills — stand out.

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But what about the wider landscape? Is it possible to extract a usable photograph out of the vast, brown sea of bare trees that confront us as we survey a wide-angle landscape during that time between the colorful leaves and the white snow?

I found the answer in two exhibitions of Jervis McEntee, the 19th-century landscape painter who worked mostly (if not exclusively) near or in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Even McEntee was unusual in admitting that November was his favorite time to paint. Fortunately, both exhibitions — one in Kingston and the other (open until December 13) at SUNY New Paltz — and their catalogues carried examples of the works he created at this visually challenging time of year, so I was able to study them before going out on my own November shoot.

The secret, I think, is to work with the bleakness, not against it — that is, to accept it and decide how to make it an advantage rather than try to “correct” it by (for example) enhancing the values of your Vibrance or Saturation slider or going too heavy with filters. For illustrations, here are two of the images I made from my November shoot at Ringwood Manor in Northern New Jersey. Ringwood is one of those places that offers photo opportunities in every season and in almost every kind of light. What could I do with it on a late, rather heavily overcast afternoon in November?

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The first thing the above image needed was a dialing down of the green grass; having been a loyal Fuji Velvia shooter back in the film days, I tend to keep the setting on my Nikon DSLRs on Vivid, which gives that characteristic saturated green. Then, the browns in the image needed the reverse: a bit of enhancement. Finally, to get a hint of a “painterly” look I used the BuzSim preset in Topaz Simplify 4 and increased the detail just a bit.

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This image also benefited from BuzSim and an increase in the detail, as well as an overall dialing down of the saturation.

I think I succeeded in getting what I wanted from these images. I learned from McEntee’s paintings, not because I wanted to “imitate” them and turn my photographs into paintings but because I wanted to see how I could produce what are still recognizably photographs, but ones that show the November landscape to its best advantage and that it is possible to do this.

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