What’s in a Name?

Heavy morning fog on the Potomac River adds mystery to this otherwise peaceful water scene.
“Bridge to NoWhere” –Heavy morning fog on the Potomac River adds mystery to this otherwise peaceful water scene.

I want to share something that you may take for granted, or perhaps never even thought about, and that is “..where do art titles come from?”

As art lovers, we’re accustomed to seeing titles on artworks. Titles are a convenient way to refer to a particular painting or photograph. So instead of saying “that photograph by Gurski of the Rhine River that someone bought for $4,200,000” we simply know it as “Rhine II.”

Photography lends itself very well to titling of images using nominal or geographic descriptors. That’s the tradition of photography. Whether it’s Weston’s “Pepper” series or any number of Ansel Adams’ titles (“Half Dome,” “Snake River”), or even Gurski’s “Rhine II.”  The title of the image often reveals the name of the subject itself, no question about it, just call it what it is.

I find such an objective approach to titling photographs a bit lacking. When I stand before a scene in the field,  I try to think about the concept I want to communicate, the story the scene is telling me. It is this story that I want the title to describe and not so much the physical entity in the picture. The title I give to a finished photograph often reflects the story that struck me at the time of capture. In fact, I often write the “working title” on the field log I keep for every picture I take.

For me, it’s important to title my photographs this way. It helps me recall how I felt when I discovered the scene, and it helps me know how I want to interpret the picture to extend and clarify that feeling.

“Bridge to NoWhere” is a good example.  This historic bridge over the Potomac River completely disappeared into the heavy fog on this particular morning. The far end of the bridge and the far river bank had completely lost all identity, at least in this story. In reality, I knew where the bridge went, but a title such as “Point of Rocks Bridge over the Potomac River” wouldn’t have communicated the mysterious nature of events that I saw when under the darkcloth.

Every artist has their own way of titling their artworks, and none of them are wrong. I have to admit, though, that when I see a piece of art titled “Untitled,” …well, I just don’t get that. Regardless, whatever the artist has named a particular scene, don’t let it keep you from dreaming up your own story. It’s your fantasy, so write it however you want!

Why I never talk about my “photo gear”

A nostalgic scene from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia
“One Morning at Liberty Furnace”–A nostalgic scene from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia

As an art photographer, I’m continually amazed that so many of my peers think that everyone else must be as enamored with photographic equipment as they themselves must be. Why else would they make it certain that I know what f stop, shutter speed, ISO, camera model, and lens they used to take a particular picture?

Maybe they think my knowing this information will be critically helpful when I show up at the same vantage point, and same time of day, and even the same day of the year and under the same lighting conditions, just so I can replicate that very same picture. I can’t think of another reason why someone else would want me to know this information.

Or maybe their web gallery software assumes they want to communicate all the EXIF  data, and there’s no way to turn it off. EXIF data are all those pieces of crap technical information the camera (largely digital cameras) embeds into the picture file where it remains forever. Photo sharing sites like Flickr, Pbase, and others don’t make it easy to make EXIF data invisible to viewers. But it can be done, and they probably should make it easier.

Or, maybe they have nothing else to say about the picture, but they think they have to say SOMETHING….

I’ve written before about the importance of storytelling in art and especially in photographic art. Whether we, as artists, write a narrative that helps viewers see the same story as us or if we choose not to tell our story, the story is still there. Sometimes, the title we give an image is the story. Sometimes the story is meant to be ambiguous, so the less said the better.

The problem I have with overt disclosure of EXIF data is that I find it very distracting. It may be because when I look at an art photograph, my mind wants to  swim among the neurons on my creative, subjective right brain. Then BANG, I notice that the picture was taken with a Canon Mark XXXI with 10-500mm lens at f64 and 1/10,000 sec, and the mood is destroyed. EXIF data excites the objective left brain which competes for attention with it’s right side. Too often the left brain wins.

If you are among those who think that disclosing all that sexy EXIF data is important to anyone besides your camera, you should reconsider that thinking. It can turn people from enjoying the image on its artistic merits to, in some cases, objective revulsion.

So if all you have to say about an image you created is contained in the EXIF data, perhaps it’s time you began saying nothing at all.









Who likes art, anyway?

Sunrise Over the Nez Perce, Yellowstone NP  (Copyright J Riley Stewart)

I admit I’m as a newborn when it comes to knowing about art and artists. I’m not professionally trained in the arts. I can’t draw a straight line. And for most of my adult life, I lived in the left-brained, analytical world of science. But I now see that art has always been a large part of my life. I just didn’t know it. Perhaps it’s the same with you.

If someone were to ask me 35 years ago if I liked art, I would have said “no.” Loving art wasn’t a macho thing in the 80s. I didn’t really know what art was unless someone told me something was “art.”  I hadn’t the exposure to art required to have an opinion about it one way or the other.

It turns out I was in the majority.  It’s commonly thought that only 25% of Americans claim to like “art.” And about half of those actually buy or collect significant art pieces.  I wonder if that’s really true, that only 1 in 4 of us “like” art.

Thirty-five years ago I was art stupid. When I later saw Michaelangelo’s “David” in real life I was awestruck. But this didn’t make me an art lover. When I saw the “Mona Lisa;” again, awestruck. But that didn’t make me an art lover either. When I saw an original Ansel Adams’s “Moon Over Half Dome?”…. Again, awestruck; again, not a convert.

I know now that I remained art stupid through all these experiences (and many more), but something was changing in my mind and heart. I began respecting the emotions that art could evoke in me, if I just gave it a chance. Each of these experiences added just a bit of knowledge to my personal art appreciation toolkit, but not enough to know what to do with these bits. I just knew that I enjoyed the individual experiences beyond words.

Creation and love of art is a uniquely human attribute. Something in our DNA compels us to consciously create and love art.  This is not speculation or hyperbole: study after study has shown the value of art in our human lives. Some even believe that art isn’t merely a luxury as others claim; that art is, in fact, necessary to healthy, happy human lives. Why else would our earliest ancestors spend valuable time drawing on the walls instead of gathering food if they weren’t compelled to? Why do hospital patients heal faster when they have art as part of their treatment?

If art is such a universally valuable thing in our lives, why do so many discredit that value? Perhaps one explanation involves motivations developed in us as youngsters. From our earliest days we are encouraged to develop skills that can lead to a commercially viable trade or profession. Being an artist is not known as one of those promising enterprises, is it? When we think of “artist” we tend to attach adjectives such as “starving” or “quirky” to it.

We can’t truly appreciate art (or anything else for that matter) until we know something about it. At some point in my past something clicked in me that made me want to experience again those feelings I felt when I saw “Mona Lisa” and “Half Dome.” I remembered pouring over pictures of those marvelous landscapes by Thomas Moran and Bierstadt even as a kid, lost in the fantasy of it all.  I eventually was drawn to photography and fine prints, and developed a voracious appetite for photography’s history, its heroes, its processes, and its masterpieces. Ask me today if I’m an art-lover and I would say “absolutely.” I’m a convert.

Here’s a challenge:  Make a New Year’s Resolution to learn more about how art can add value to your own life. Visit local galleries and art museums. Talk to artists about their work (they love to talk about their passion, by the way). Check out photography and other art books from your local library. Subscribe or follow art sites on Facebook or Pinterest. And if you see something you love, buy the damn thing before someone else does. Live with it and you’ll find it will soon become part of you.

Don’t fight the natural inclination to embrace art. To do so only violates what’s in your DNA. And who needs that stress?

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Timing is Everything

“Oconaluftee Sunrise”–Autumn poplars and pines absorb the warm rays of sunlight in the Great Smoky Mountains

Timing is Everything

When photographing in nature, success not only depends on where you are, but when you are.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately how important timing is to my coming home with an image on film that I can get really excited about, and more importantly an image that others will get excited about (after all, it’s all about sharing our experiences, right?)

Photographing landscapes beautifully can be as frustrating as it is rewarding. Ansel Adams once wrote: “Landscape photography can be one of the most rewarding activities, and one of the most frustrating.” Finding interesting subjects, in an unobstructed setting, with beautiful lighting, and unadulterated by Man (you know-trash, aggressive signs, ugly junk, etc) is rarer than most people think it is.

I love the part of my work that I call “the hunt.” In landscape photography, this involves driving around until I find something that tells an interesting story; not unlike an eagle soaring above in search of prey. And, like an eagle, sometimes I come home with bounty, and sometimes not. I’ve driven around for hours, pumped with inspiration and motivation, my eyes constantly peeled and ready to discover something new, only to pull into my driveway at the end of the hunt without having taken a single photograph. I’ve just become a hungry eagle.

Even when I find an interesting story in the landscape, I’m very picky when deciding whether to stop and take a picture or not.

Because I use larger format film to capture my scenics, ‘taking a picture’ requires a significant commitment on my part.  If I decide to photograph a particular scene, I’ll spend at least 30 minutes at that one spot, and often much longer. During that time, almost everything in front of my camera can change (and thus, so can the story): the sunlight can become too harsh or too subdued, calm wind can become breezy, dry conditions can turn to rainy and wet, etc, etc. Mother Nature has a mind of her own, and she is the author of the story.

The scene in “Oconaluftee Sunrise” (above) happened when my timing was in synch with Mother Nature’s, God bless her heart. I’d been to this site before; it’s one of my favorite in the Smoky Mountains. On this particular morning, I arrived before sunrise, not knowing what to expect. Some sunrises are really bland; some are glorious.

After a several minutes scoping on this particular morning, I noticed how the veiled sunlight began breaking through the clouds and spotlighting the fall colors of the trees lining the distant hillside. During just a very few moments, the lighting became intense and made this scene possible. Just as quickly, the colors of the sky and of the trees became muted and washed out.  It was a perfect time; one that I wouldn’t have experienced (or photographed) had I been a bit less patient with Mother Nature.

Like I said, ….timing is everything.

My point is this:  Any art photographer can follow all the rules and still walk away without the “money shot.”  He/She can be at the most beautiful, interesting spot on Earth, during the “golden hour’ surrounding sunrise or sunset, with all the best gear, full of inspiration, and still walk away with nothing except the experience.  So many things beyond our control can totally freak up all our plans to make something beautiful.  I’m learning to accept this risk, enjoy the experience for what it has to offer, and not get so hung up about  missing something that never was meant to be. Patience with Mother Nature will only get you so far…after all, there are more adventures and other opportunities just down the road. Take them as you find them, when you find them.

Creative Photography: Making Snow Look (and feel) Like Snow

Along Lime Kiln Road in Winter

I like photographing snow because snow can create settings that are absolutely beautiful and very photogenic. My favorite rendering of snow scenes is in black and white. I think the absence of cold colors lets the textural and tactile beauty of snow really shine through.

Texture in any fine art photograph is critical to our acceptance of the scene as something worthy of our interest and engagement.  In wintry snow scenes, we need to see the texture before our brain really recognizes snow as snow instead of just white blobs. Once your brain recognizes snow as snow, it then encourages you to enter the scene and become a part of it, and then you can enjoy it!

It’s somewhat of a paradox, but to recognize snow as snow, it can’t be pure white. In fact, my favorite snow scenes have many shades of gray, from very light to very dark. Here’s a general tip: It’s the gray tones in a B&W photograph that make it beautiful; all you need is a very little bit of pure white to give a sense of light to the scene.

As an example of what I’m talking about, I offer “Along Lime Kiln Road in Winter.” I took this picture during 1/30 second just after our snow storm of December 2003. It was a beautifully calm snow fall, allowing the delicate white flakes to cling to the smallest branches of the barren trees. As they say, timing is everything: 15 minutes later the wind came up and caused the flakes to lose their grip and fall to the road, turning the page from the story I’d seen when I clicked the shutter. Does the snow look (and feel) like snow to you? How much pure white do you see?

At this time of year we see lots of snow scenes on Flickr, Facebook, and Pinterest. As they catch your eye and your emotions, ask yourself why that happened. Chances are, it’s because the snow actually looked like snow, full of texture and details that give it identity!

Stay warm!


Myths About Scanning Film for Maximum Quality

Update 3/31/2016

I published this article back in 2011, and at that time I had 3 years experience personally scanning negatives. Add 5 years since, and probably 500 hours scanning, and well, you get the picture.

This article dispels many myths related to the technical process of scanning negative (print) film. Developing photographers may save themselves time and money and produce higher quality scans by knowing these myths exist.

It bears repeating: Take lessons you read on the internet (or anywhere) with a grain of salt unless it comes with substantiating explanation.

I like reading “tips”, “lessons”, “warnings”, “advise” etc from posters on internet blogs or fora. It helps me understand what others have found to be useful so that I might use this information to solve my own problems. Believe me, growing up in the pre-internet era makes me very thankful that we now have the wealth of information available at our fingertips.

Scanning film is a necessary evil for photographers who choose to use a hybrid workflow, where film is used to capture the image and digital processes are used to produce the final image for sharing or printing.  For whatever reason, the art of communicating film scanning techniques by those who choose to  do so is like reading early software “user’s manuals”: Users couldn’t understand a word in them.  If you’re an electronics engineer, you might find that last statement funny (or not), but it’s still true. But unlike modern software developers who have learned how to communicate clearly to non-technical users, scanner developers have not.

I’ve been scanning color and monochrome negatives for about 3 years, and I think I’ve just about got it down. I can produce a digital scan of a 35mm, 6x7cm, or 4x5inch negative without unacceptable noise having very high resolution, and requiring only minimal corrections in my imaging software. My success isn’t so much due to what I’ve read in the blogs or scanning fora as much as it is about TENACITY. Which brings me to my point: Don’t take for granted that what you read in the blogs means exactly what you think it means or that it even applies to your own photographic situation.  This is doubly true if the blogger fails to substantiate (or thoroughly explain) what he/she really means, and ideally includes pros and cons with their recommendation.

Here are examples of myths I’ve read on expert sites that I accepted as truth, didn’t take the time to investigate them on my system using my workflow, and which literally set me back weeks to months in getting to the level of scanning competence that I have currently:

Myth 1. “Scanner manufacturers claim much higher resolution than they can actually deliver, so there is no need to scan above 2400 ppi.”  I use an Epson V700 scanner that Epson claims can scan at 6400 optical resolution. It also has a lower resolution lens that can scan at 4800 ppi. Experts have repeatedly scoffed at Epson’s claims, and have consistently recommended not to scan above 2400 ppi because “..you won’t get any better details from the shadows above 2400 ppi.”  What I’ve learned in my experience is that while I may not get additional shadow details when scanning at 4800 or 6400 ppi, the digital file produced is much better. I’ve found that with this scanner, when using the OEM negative holders provided to ensure optimal focal point of the higher resolution lens, I do not get what I presume is aliasing in the digital file. The effect I get when scanning at low resolution is best termed ‘blotchy’ –clear blue skies looked like wet cotton candy.  When scanning at the optical resolution of one of the lenses, clear blue skies look more like clear blue skies. For whatever reason, forcing the V700 to scan at less than the highest optical resolution for the lenses seems to produce artifacts in the scanned image.  Based solely on the quality of the resulting image, I always scan at the highest optical resolution. Yes, this requires more time scanning and more disk space, but it is the technique that produces a result that is minimally acceptable to me. I deal with the disk space requirement by buying more disk space. All of my negatives that don’t deserve printing are later compressed to “proof” resolution and archived at 5 megapixels or so.  (I always have the negatives that can be re-scanned if needed.)

Myth 2. “Scan at the minimum resolution for your intended purpose and do not compress the file.” Update:  I no longer consider this to be a myth..I’ve found it to be a good practice. But since my intended purpose is to make really large prints, I’m always scanning at maximum resolution to get the largest file size I can. 

Myth 3. “Don’t use the scanner software to set the contrast levels or balance the color; do these tasks in your image processing software instead.”  Again, until I investigated this, I abided by the expert advice and then fought the losing battle of adjusting the levels and colors in Photoshop or Lightroom without ruining the quality of the image. The result was excessive artifacts, noise, and artistic frustration painted all over the images. What these experts must presume is that every negative is perfectly exposed and taken in the best lighting God can make. As a landscape photographer, such circumstances are very rare. I typically express images that have wide latitude (meaning deep blacks and paper white highlights). If a negative has no such attributes, I will adjust the contrast to produce them.   Whoops…adjust too much and the histogram will look moth-eaten and introduce compression artifacts in the image. The more you adjust, the worse it gets.  What I’ve found works best is to get really close to the final image contrast and color balance using the scanner software. This means much less fidgeting in post-process and fewer artifacts in the final image.  Update:  I still find that the scanner algorithms for converting the continuous tones of a negative into digital bits is better than how Photograph CS5 or Lightroom 4.0 converts one tone to another.  Even my 1980s-era Howtek 4500 drum scanner does a better job than CS5 or LR at setting levels, white/black point, and perhaps even curves.

As an example, the two images below are from the same negative. The left image is straight from the scanner without any post processing; the right image received minor enhancements to adjust local and global contrast, saturation, and highlighting. No artifacts resulted from the post-processing. The negative was captured using a Nikon F5 onto Kodak Portra 400 film. I scanned the 35mm negative at 4800 ppi using VueScan with no compression. This produced a 30 megapixel image file. In Vuescan, I locked the film base color to neutral black and the image color to neutral white. Modest post-processing included cropping, adjustment to both global and local contrast, minor sharpening (but no output sharpening), and targeted adjustments to brightness and contrast to the foliage and water. The full resolution image has no processing artifacts that I can see at 100% zoom.

If you find yourself fighting your post-processing technique on flat, low contrast scanned negatives produced using the common expert recommendations, then break the rules.  Set levels and color balance in the scanner software and see for yourself if the final result is better.

Myth 4. “Scanning wet mounts will result in higher quality scans.”  Well, I tried this and found no difference in quality of the resulting scan, just a lot of additional work and cost. The scans I get using Epson V700 negative carriers, scanned at 4800 ppi, have the same detail in the shadows, the same detail in the highlights, and have the same latitude as those scanned using KAMI wet mount system. I did note that I didn’t have the dust problems when using KAMI, but otherwise I noted no improvements.  Update:  My main scanner is now a drum scanner, which requires wet mounting, so of course that’s what I do.   I think the point should be made that sometimes, you need to do what you need to do. If you have a terrible dust problem in your scanning workstation, you may find wet mounting really helps, and may be essential.  There is a far greater difference between a CMOS scanner (desktop scanner) and a PMT (drum) scanner then there is between wet mounting and dry mounting. 

Myth 5. “Amateurs use negative (print) film and professionals use transparency (slide) film.” The implication here is that transparency film somehow has qualities that so far surpass print film to make print film significantly inferior.  Such statements could lead developing photographers to adopt the use of transparency film without even exploring what I consider to be the strong points of print film. When I decided to begin shooting color about 4 years ago, I made the decision to use print film precisely for the reasons most “experts” claim as its weaknesses: exposure latitude and development latitude.

Transparency film typically has a 4-5 stop exposure latitude, about the same as most 2005-era digital cameras could detect. In landscape photography, a typical scene can deliver brightness ranges spanning 8, 9, or even 10 stops or more. This means that the photographer has to decide at the time of capture, whether to clip the shadows and lose most low light detail or to clip the highlights.  Digital photographers are well aware of this situation; most digital sensors also have latitude limitations that result in ‘blown out highlights” or “dumped shadows.” Fortunately for digital photographers, the technology is improving as new sensors are invented.

Print film has no such limitations. In fact, print film can capture the thinnest density having detail on the negative (i.e., the deepest shadows of a scene) while also capturing fine details in the most dense areas (i.e., bright whites like sun lit clouds). Easily.

Scanners of the qualify of my Epson V700 also have a very wide latitude of detection. The figure below is a scan of a 31-step density wedge made on the Epson V700. Each step is 1/3 of a stop from its nearest neighbor, so from one end of the strip to the other is 10 stops. When I scan this step wedge as in the figure below, I can easily detect 31 distinct steps, indicating that the V700 has a detection latitude somewhat over 10 stops.

As a practical example, the scene below presented me an extreme range of brightness. This range had to be captured in one shutter click due to movement of the water, the geyser eruptions, and the sun. Then, the scanner had to detect detail in both the sun and the shadows among the foreground grasses. The picture was captured using Kodak Portra 400 film, with no neutral density gradient  filters used. I developed the film  normally. The original scan retained detail/color in the sun spot and the shadows concurrently.  If I had captured this using a digital camera or if I had used transparency film, this scene would have required multiple shots and later processed using HDR techniques and/or by compositing multiple images, which can introduce their own artifacts in the final image. Shooting with print film gave me the exposure latitude I needed to capture this scene.

I admit to never using slide film for my artistic work, so my experience is limited. However based on the knowledge that slide film has a much narrower latitude and my own experience using print film with its proven (in my hands) wide latitude, I completely dismiss expert contentions that “professionals should use transparency film while amateurs use print film”.  Don’t hesitate to use print film seriously. I’ve found that much of my landscape and nature images require the exposure latitude that only print film can deliver.

If this article helps you decide to try scanning print film or if it simplifies problems you’ve had in your scanning techniques, then it accomplishes its purpose. While the internet forums are full of information, take what you read with a grain of salt. The information is only accurate in the hands of the writer and may not relate one bit to your situation. If you have the time to test such advice, that would be a wise decision. It just may save you a lot of time and money.

Update:  To be serious photographers, we have to invest in equipment we need.  We need to learn the techniques that are important to our craft. I’ve never been one to collaborate with others in creating my photographs, and that means outside film scanners, printers, etc. If you want to use the hybrid workflow, then go ahead and invest in a scanner, learn to use it, spend the time testing various ways to get the job done using the equipment you have. At the least, the growing interest in film photography these days means a growing market for used equipment, so you can always sell the scanner later if you decide scanning is not for you!

J Riley Stewart

Film vs Digital: Insights from the High End

I’ve written already why I continue to shoot my landscapes with medium and large format film vs digital technologies. I want to share with you in this article some additional reasons why there continues to be a large group of us who do so.

I just returned from 2 weeks in the Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks in the USA. These spaces epitomize the best the world has to offer in grand mountain landscapes. If you’ve never been, I hope you get to go soon.

To lay some groundwork, I traveled with two camera bags: one filled with my 35mm gear and the other with my 120 medium format gear (a Mamiya RB67 Pro S). I use the 35 mm to shoot wildlife and the medium format to photograph everything else.  What was on my tripod 99% of the time? The medium format camera. I used 22 rolls (220 frames) of either Ilford FP4 B&W or Kodak Portra color film. That’s a lot of shots, but these Parks definitely are “target rich environments” for landscape photographers!

Each of these frames of film were deliberately composed. By that I mean a series of detailed steps that ultimately result in a properly exposed capture of a scene onto the film. Very quickly, the steps include 1: envision the photograph, 2: place the tripod, 3: decide color vs B&W, 4: install the camera on the tripod, 5: quickly view through the lens, 6: change the lens if necessary, and attach the shutter release 7: adjust the tripod head to achieve the composition I wanted, 8: focus to determine the required aperture, 9: set the aperture and focus, 10: determine the correct time associated with the selected aperture (I use both incident and spot meters to do this), 11: set the time, 12: wait for the exact moment to occur if there are moving clouds or lighting changes occurring, 13: trip the shutter, .reset the shutter release, and advance the film, 14: repeat steps 1-13 as necessary to capture a different scene.

You can see it takes a bit of time to capture each and every scene using this technique, so I’m there for awhile. (I had to wait for Old Faithful for over an hour). Being in a National Park, rarely was I alone. While I was composing or waiting for the moment to arrive, I would often see out of the corner of my eye several other visitors walk up and snap a picture, then get back into their cars and zip off the the next interesting place. If they linger at all, it’s to come over to me to see what the heck I’m doing and ask about that ‘big camera.’ If they do come over, I always stop to talk to them to share ideas. After all, this is fun stuff, and I always get a kick out of what they tell me about themselves, what they’ve seen at the Park, or what they like to photograph. I even let them look through my viewfinder if they ask (and they often do).

If you are typical, you’re probably thinking, “..that’s a lot of trouble to just take a picture.” And this is just where it begins. I still need to develop and scan the film, then process the file into an image for printing. So why do I do it?

Simply put, I shoot medium format and larger film sizes because it makes a huge difference in the quality of large wall-sized prints you can make with these images.

While in Jackson, Wyoming (a popular portal to the Grand Teton National Park), I had a chance to visit 3 photographers’ galleries. Jackson is a very ‘artsy’ town, having a dozen or so art galleries within a few square blocks. All three galleries were what I’d call ‘high end’, meaning they offer and display very large photographs, up to 50 x 96 inches or thereabout.

Without exception, the artworks displayed in each gallery was absolutely beautiful. Extremely fine details even at these large sizes, beautiful coloration and composition, and beautiful finishing. Two galleries I’d highly recommend are John Richter Photography (http://www.johnrichterphoto.com) and David Brookover Gallery (http://www.brookovergallery.com/). Both artists have exceptional gallery designs and artwork in large sizes.  Both are high end artists, selling their larger creations in the thousands of dollars range.

Would it surprise you to know that neither Richter nor Brookover use digital cameras to create their masterpieces? On the contrary, John typically hauls a 4×5 Toyo film camera around, and David uses one of  two 8×10 film view cameras he owns (both were on his gallery floor when I visited, waiting for their next field trip).

I attribute the quality of their images to the fact they use larger format film cameras. This medium is capable of producing the equivalent of a 500 megapixel (for 4×5 scanned images) to 2 Gigapixel (for 8×10 scanned images) for each picture. There are many other finer attributes of film-captured images for these larger formats, but I’ll leave it at a pixel comparison for now. The most capable 35 mm digital cameras achieve 24 megapixels. You can buy digital backs for medium format and large format cameras, but you may need to sell your house first.

To put things into perspective, I know there are a great number of very successful high-end fine art photographers who use digital cameras. But when I look at their artwork (and I did, by the way, when in Jackson), I can definitely tell it. There is no comparison between their large prints and those of Richter and Brookover in terms of technical and artistic quality. That doesn’t make them ‘bad,”  just not as beautiful to my eyes.

They say that an artist should study the works of those they admire in order to develop as an artist. Well, I’ve added two artists to my admire list, Richter and Brookover. The experience of getting to see their art first hand, in their own presentations, was inspiring. I’ve also crossed off any idea of becoming a purely digital photographer in the distant future. I’ll continue to shoot some subjects digitally for specific applications, but if I’m shooting a scene that I think will look great hanging over a sofa (for instance), I’m pulling out my medium or large format cameras, and shooting film, every time!

Let me know if this has convinced you to drag out that idle film camera, or if you want to try medium or large format cameras for those special scenes you come upon. I’ll be glad to discuss the introductory steps with you.

Happy viewing!


A different view of the natural world

I only recently discovered the potential of abstract photography. I knew abstract art existed, of course, but I’d never even considered it as something I wanted to spend my artistic time on.  But about a year ago, I listened to several very successful fine art photographers talk about their approaches to abstract photography, complete with examples, and I was amazed at how beautifully nature can be depicted as abstractions.

Several months passed before I actually tried abstract photography. I was shooting at Chincoteague last Spring. While I normally attach my camera to a good tripod to ensure a sharp capture, on that day the wind was blowing so hard I could hardly stand up, let alone expect a tripod to firmly anchor my camera. So I took my camera in hand and thought I’d try this ‘abstract’ stuff. My subject was to be the salt marsh grasses violently yielding to the aforementioned wind.

I remembered one of the experts describe how moving the camera while clicking the shutter is a common technique for abstract art (there are several others). So that was what I’d try on my virgin attempt. The wind had the grasses of the salt marsh bent over about 45 degrees. I carefully practiced moving the camera parallel to the grasses, then actually took a couple frames.

Digital is great because you get immediate feedback by looking at the LCD screen on the back of the camera. After a very few tries, this is what I saw on the LCD, and I very much liked it.

Salt Marsh, Chincoteague NWR

The technique itself is straightforward and very rewarding if an abstraction is what you are after. Use a slow shutter speed so that there is distinct motion during the exposure. How slow will depend on how fast you intend to move the camera. Certainly, if your shutter speed is 1/100 sec, you need to be moving the camera pretty darn fast, and hold onto it very tightly. I recommend a much slower shutter speed- 1/2 to 1 sec even. Set that first, then meter the scene to see what aperture matches that speed. Remember that small apertures are okay, e.g. f/22 or f/32. Diffraction limitations seen at those apertures are not a concern with abstractions. Then experiment. Try different shutter speeds, different directions of movement (even circular), and various magnitudes of movement. Very small movements of the camera will give different results than large movements. By the way, this technique is even adaptable to camera phones, and Tony Sweet and others have written several articles about this.

Because of the fluid conditions used in abstract photography, the images created are exceptionally unique. In fact, I find it very difficult to reproduce a frame after I’ve captured it. I produced most of the linked abstractions below within an hour of one another and within 10 steps of each other. The landscape was a very popular and well-photographed waterfall (Elakala Falls) in West Virginia. This natural landmark has been captured photographically a million times. So after I took a few traditional pictures that I suspect will look like everyone else’s, I thought abstractly!  I’m glad I did.

Abstract art has a definition, but I’ve found that it is only loosely applied. The strict definition goes something like:  “..if you can tell what the subject is, it ain’t abstract.”   Others consider even traditional black and white images to be “abstract” because B&W doesn’t represent the real scene factually (i.e., it’s missing color). Thus, it is ‘abstract.’  I don’t know where, or if, there is a line between representational and abstract art, and frankly I don’t really care. I’m sure someone will correct me if I mis-characterize my art as “abstract” one day when it’s not. I’m prepared to wait.

What are your experiences with abstract photography? I’m definitely a novice at it, but I’m very pleased with this approach to create unique images of well-photographed places. I don’t see abstract replacing my current style, but I’m not going to limit myself and my art for the sake of being traditional, either. I see abstractions complementing my traditional fine art photography.  As long as I have fun with it and as long as the images I produce are pleasing to me and my audience, I’ll keep it in my art toolbox.

Let me hear your comments!