Behind the Image:  Arabian Colt Fleeting Dust Storm and the Pyramids of Giza

Behind the Image: Arabian Colt Fleeting Dust Storm and the Pyramids of Giza

I’d like to be able to tell you that I had planned this particular shot for months. That’s the way it is with most of my images. But the truth is that for this particular image I got lucky. Better to be lucky than good?

I had been scampering about the Pyramids one afternoon in 2015, setting up my camera for different perspectives of these historic structures, when I noticed a dust storm coming. I figured I needed to hurry, get my shot, and get into my vehicle before I became consumed in dust.

Be Ready for the Unexpected

And just as I was setting up for my last shot, I saw this colt running down the road. I knew it could be a once in a lifetime image, but my camera settings were all wrong; I was set up for a long exposure with narrow aperture for good depth of field at low ISO.

What I needed to do was to quickly shift to fast shutter speed to freeze the horse’s motion, which meant I had to quickly raise ISO. But I only had maybe two seconds to get this right before the horse would be in front of me. Could I pull it off?

The result is what you see. In order to get this shot I had to know my camera extremely well, and shift controls “on the fly” in less than two seconds.

Yes, it’s good to be lucky.

But pulling off this shot required me to be both lucky and good. As I say in my Artist’s Statement, if my objective is to capture “the decisive moment” in landscape photography, this one certainly succeeds.

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Do You Use Photoshop?

Do You Use Photoshop?

This post may seem like a bit of a stream of consciousness.

Stay with me, there is a method to my madness.

It’s a bit of a tutorial for non-photographers.  Trained photographers can go on to the next post.

People who know me know that I was in the Pentagon on 9/11, about a hundred yards from where American Airlines Flight 77 hit.

But that’s a story for another day.

The point is, the very next day, on September 12th, 2001, I was back in the Pentagon trying to get into one of our locked offices by means of a crowbar (our keys to the office had been destroyed in the attack).

I needed to get in to retrieve some classified material, when an overzealous military police officer saw me, crowbar in hand going at the locked door, and having no idea who I was (despite the fact I was in uniform), tackled me, handcuffed me, and arrested me for attempted breaking and entering into one of our Navy offices.

After bringing me to a holding facility, I was able to clear up who I was and what I was doing, and was released within the hour.

(By the way, I forgave him. The world was going crazy.)

Have you ever been arrested?

Years later, a job application required me to answer the question, “Have you ever been arrested?”  I debated how I should answer.

A literally truthful answer would be misleading, since I had not been arrested in the manner intended by the questionnaire.

On the other hand, if military files had documented the arrest, then saying I had not been arrested could be construed as intent to mislead.

In the end, I decided to answer “yes,” but included a lengthy explanation to remove any concern of criminality.

What a mistake that was.

While the hiring entity understood the extenuating circumstances, and had no concern about my “criminal past,” the fact I had answered “yes” to that question mandated the extrapolation of the pre-hire investigation down lines of inquiry that would not otherwise have been required.

T’s had to crossed, I’s had to be dotted, creating a great deal of extra work for a company that genuinely wanted to hire me.

I eventually did get the job, but not before they said, “We wish you had just answered ‘no’ to that question.”

Can a truthful answer sometimes mislead?

The above experience taught me a lesson.

It’s possible to mislead by means of a factually correct statement.

If the answer does not conform to the precise nature of information being sought, then a literally correct answer may confuse more than it enlightens.

This lesson came to mind on July 7th of this year, during the reception for my photography exhibition at the Cooley Gallery in Leesburg, Virginia, where the question I was asked most often was, “Do you use Photoshop?

A literally correct answer to that question may in fact be misleading, for reasons I will get to in a moment.

But before I address that issue, I’d like to go back in time to a simpler period in photography when the buying public had no reason to ask such questions.

Or did they?

Ansel Adams and Photo Editing

Ansel Adams is, of course, one of the originators of the style of photography I pursue.

But what most people do not know it that he was initially trained as a jazz pianist, picking up photography later in life.

He carried that love of music through to his photographic work, often employing musical expressions when describing his technique.

Drawing from his musical background, one of his favorite sayings was “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.”

Said more explicitly, a symphony is founded on a piece of presumably immutable written music, the composer’s score.  Yet nobody denies the conductor her right to express her own interpretation of that score by means of an individualized performance.

Hence, it’s perfectly acceptable for a conductor to “lean into” a score to deliver her musical vision.

And so it was with Ansel and his photographs.

Although he always began with a technically perfect image imprinted on a negative (the score), he also always “bent” or edited the image captured on the negative to match his own artistic vision (the performance).

For him, everything was about the delivery of the vision.  One of his other favorite sayings was “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

He created his “performances” by means of darkroom editing, and he did so with gusto and zeal.

Ansel believed that at least 50% of the artistry of photography occurred in post-processing, the editing done in the darkroom.

“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”

One of the most famous examples of Ansel’s proclivity to heavily edit an image to convey his artistic vision is his “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.

In his original print, the sky was quite bright, the town and savannah have a similar tonal structure causing them to blend together, yielding an image that lacked contrast and “visual separation.”  The low-resolution image seen here is close to the image captured on the negative:

Using Ansel’s musical conceit, this image represents the composer’s “score.”

Over the course of decades, Adams modified this image substantially, darkening the sky, lifting the shadows, and adding contrast and definition to the foreground.

Although he was never perfectly satisfied with the outcome, the prints produced near the end of his life looked something like this:

This, then, was his “performance.”

Note the wonderful use of negative space, the strikingly expressive tonality in the foreground, the bold snowcapped mountains against bright lenticular clouds, the wonderful differentiation in the brush.

It took a lot of processing to make the image this good.

(Ansel is also the one who coined the phrase, “You don’t take a photograph, you make a photograph.”)

I have never heard anyone say they preferred the first print (the score) to Ansel’s ultimate vision (the performance).

This image is the most complete manifestation of his statement, “A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.”

Would Ansel have used Photoshop if he were alive today?

Absolutely, unequivocally, yes!

The difference between how Ansel made art by means of his post-processing techniques, and how it’s done today, lies in the difference between the darkroom Ansel used and the Lightroom (as in, Adobe software products) in use by modern, digital photographers.

Ansel used techniques such as dodging and burning to modify his images in the darkroom.  He used the timing of chemical baths to enhance tonality and contrast.  He used masking techniques to bring out clarity in specific parts of an image.

In Lightroom, and in Photoshop, those effects are still called dodging, burning, tonality, clarity, and masking, but they are all effected using software rather than chemistry.

But the outcome is exactly the same.

But I’m a purist!  I don’t want post-processing!

From this point forward, since the word “Photoshop” has acquired a verb connotation in colloquial usage (as in, to “Photoshop” an image), I will use the word “Photoshop” in its generic form, to mean any software program used for post-processing or to enhance an image after its captured.  That would include Photoshop, Lightroom, Adobe Raw, Aperture, Apple Photos, Pixelmator, Paint, Autodesk Pixir, Picasa, whatever.  (Sorry, Photoshop, but you have been “Kleenex’d.”)

Some people seem to believe that image post-processing (manipulation by software) is wrong and should be avoided at all costs.

Let me be clear about this:  all professional photographers post-process their images.

Let me say that again:  all professional photographers post-process their images.

Because digital cameras do not produce actual images, instead they capture digital files made up of ones and zeroes produced by a proprietary algorithm invented by the camera’s manufacturer, a translation must take place from the native or “raw” file produced by the camera, to transpose that file into some kind of image.

The camera’s interpretation of the image is probably nothing like what the photographer had in mind when she made the photo, but at least it’s a visible image rather than a stream of ones and zeros.

What?  My camera doesn’t make my photo?

Well, it does and it doesn’t.

I don’t want to get too technical, but what a camera really does is translate photons that impinge on its sensor into a digital data stream that can be translated later into a photo.  This is done by means of something called a “transfer function” that was created by an engineer working for the camera’s manufacturer.

A version of that translation must take place inside the camera for you to be able to see the image on the LCD on the back of the camera (or in an electronic viewfinder).

But there is no reason to believe that the translation your camera’s manufacturer selected is the correct translation for the scene in front of you when you captured it, or anything like what you really saw when you made the photo.

In my case, some engineer at Nikon who wrote the translation algorithm for my camera decided how my images should be manipulated in post-processing to make them viewable.

If I don’t redo the post-processing myself, then I’m simply relegating the post-processing decisions to that engineer.  I’m sorry, but I don’t accept that the post-processing judgement of a Nikon engineer is better than my own.

That’s why all professional photographers have to post-process their images.

Photojournalists don’t do post-processing, do they?

Of course not!  That would be unethical!

(Psssst…. actually, they do.  They just may not talk about it.)

The notion that it would be unethical for photojournalists to employ “Photoshop” is silly on its face.

Photojournalists color-correct their images, since the captured photograph will look different depending on the temperature of light present when it was made.  (The camera’s sensor does not sense light the same way the human eye does, so images have a different hue depending on the ambient light, and this has to be corrected for.)

That is post-processing.

Depending on how a photojournalist exposes his image, there may be areas of the image that can’t be viewed because they are too dark or too light.  In those cases, even photojournalists must employ “Photoshop” to correct the exposure and highlight the event he was trying to capture.

That is post-processing.

What should NOT be done by photojournalists is the addition or subtraction of physical features that were present when the image was made.

That would be unethical.

So what do people mean when they ask “Do you use Photoshop?”

It has become axiomatic that fashion photographers use Photoshop to do things that most photography disciplines would consider inappropriate: they manipulate the look of their models by making them skinnier, removing blemishes, changing the appearance of faces, adding things or people who weren’t actually there when the image was taken, and so on.

When most talk about using Photoshop, this is what they thnk it means.

The word “Photoshop” has been hijacked to mean substantial, borderline unethical, manipulation of an image to create a “more perfect” human, or to create a physical situation that did not exist at the time the image was made (Uncle Bob missed the family reunion so we’ll just Photoshop him in), or to create a false reality by addition, for example, of a lightening strike that did not occur, a person or animal that was not there, and so on.

I do not do any of these kinds of things to my images.

Nevertheless, like Ansel, I too believe that at least 50% of the art occurs in post-processing.

So do you use Photoshop?

A truthful answer would be “yes.”

But just like I once said “yes” to the question “have you ever been arrested?” when I could have said no, I fear that answering the question “Do you use Photoshop” with a “yes” actually can mislead the person asking the question.

Here’s why.

I never use Photoshop in ways people normally think of when they ask me, “Do you use Photoshop?”

So what do you use Photoshop for?

Nothing that Ansel Adams wouldn’t do.

I color correct.  I adjust tonality.  I lighten shadows when they are too dark.  I darken highlights when they are too bright.  I crop.  I sharpen an image as appropriate to the print size to enhance detail.  I remove blemishes or errors from the image.

To illustrate this point, here is one of my more popular photos.

The first version is a straight translation of the unaltered raw file, converted to JPEG by the Nikon algorithm, so it is essentially straight out of the camera.

In other words, this image was post-processed by the Nikon engineer who wrote the camera’s algorithm.

I call this image “Manhattan Skyline at Dusk,” and here is my digital negative, my “composer’s score”:

You will notice that although the image is good, it lacks contrast, it’s a bit washed out in tonality, and it has a distracting pole in the bottom center as well as a stray rock in the lower right.

But importantly, note the light beam emanating from One World Trade Center.  It’s right there in the raw file.  (One of my questioners at the exhibition questioned whether I had “Photoshopped” that in.  Obviously, I didn’t.)

After I completed my post-processing, here is my final image, the “performance”:

You can see that I added contrast, removed the distracting foreground elements, added my logo, removed a tiny center-photo light streak caused by a passing boat, I added some sharpening to the lights in the skyscrapers, and that’s pretty much it.

Subtle changes, but important to the overall look I was pursuing (a “decisive moment”).

And of course, the dilemma is that if I answer “yes” to the question “is this image Photoshopped,” people will believe I may have added elements to the image they find remarkable: the still water, the magenta clouds, the light beam from One World Trade Center, and so on.

But the truth is the still water was caused by my use of filters to generate a long exposure, the magenta clouds were caused by Sulphur vapor lights from the city reflecting off those clouds, and the light beam was created by the One World Trade beacon itself.

So, you tell me.  How should I answer this question?  I’m open to ideas.

In the meantime, I refuse to give a yes-or-no answer to the question.

And if you ask, you are just going to have to hear me out.

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Behind the Image: A Photographer’s Self-Portrait Against the Milky Way

Behind the Image: A Photographer’s Self-Portrait Against the Milky Way

It was about 2 in the morning,

I was in the ghost town of Bodie, California, and I had been waiting for hours for the Milky Way to get in exactly the right position over this old barn. I wanted to see if I could get an image with the Milky Way matching the slope of the barn’s roof.

The Challenge

Making a shot like this is tricky. At this time of night, and especially in this town, it is pitch black. The good news about modern cameras is that they can almost see in the dark. Boost the ISO high enough and keep the shutter open long enough, and you can go on a SEAL special ops mission. For the Milky Way the shutter stays open for 30 seconds.

After the Milky Way was right where I had hoped it would be, I made about twenty thirty-second shots, and I just couldn’t get the right mix of exposure for the barn and stars.

Then someone turned on a car’s tail lights behind me while my shutter was open. I was furious— I thought this would ruin my shot. Instead, what I got was the shot above, with the added gem of my shadow.

Twenty prior attempts went into the trash. This was the one I kept.

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How Fine Art Photography is Priced

How Fine Art Photography is Priced

A lot of people have wondered why a fine art print can seem so expensive.  After all, it’s just a picture, right?

There are many ways to answer this question.

The first method of calculating price is to determine the cost of crafting the image, and then factoring in a reasonable amount of profit.

This method is particularly hard for paintings.  After all the cost of raw material in a painting isn’t very much, is it?  The canvas and frame likely cost less than a hundred dollars.

But then you have to factor in the cost of the painter’s labor.  It’s not uncommon for a artist to spend 50 hours crafting a particular painting.  The math then is fairly straight-forward.  Let’s say $20 an hour times 50 hours plus the cost of the canvas, this would generate a price of $1100 for a single painting.  Sounds reasonable, right?

But wait, what’s with this $20 an hour figure?  An artist is not a house painter.  Value is not the same as price.   The final painting should be worth much more than the sum of labor hours.  A true artist is making something that can’t be replicated, he or she is producing a singularity in space/time.  Because of this, the “cost of goods sold” method is absolutely useless in determining an appropriate price for a painting.

Price vs. Value

The issue isn’t price, it’s value, and real method of determining value is to find out what it’s worth to those who would like to possess it.  This is why an auction house like Christie’s is so effective in setting a price that’s roughly equivalent to value.

The same is true of photographic art.  Value is generally set at what people are willing to pay.

While neither the painter nor the photographer can afford to lose money on their art, the cost of goods sold is much more of a factor for the photographer than it is for the painter.

While a painter can often paint anywhere, even in her own house, and with only a small investment in equipment, the photographer must travel to a particular location to capture a particular image.  That costs money.

Then there is the cost of equipment.  It’s not uncommon for a photographer to have $20,000 or more invested in his equipment.

Then there is the cost of labor.  It’s common for a photographer, much like a painter, to spend many tens of hours refining her image, although for the photographer that refinement is normally done on a computer.

Then there is the cost of the print itself, which varies as a function of the size of the print.  A typical 40 x 60-inch high-end print (we’re talking FujiFlex or Lumachrome here) mounted in acrylic will often cost on the order of $900 to manufacture and ship (no frame), or $1100 with a frame.  The smaller the print, the less it costs to produce.  So photography prices are often based on size.

Summing it up…

So ignoring the cost of travel, equipment, and labor, the “break even” price for the photographer for a 40 x 60 print is roughly $1100.

But then you have to factor in the gallery’s cut, which is usually about 40% of the total price.

So now, just to break even on the print costs alone, the photographer has to price her 40 x 60 print at $2200.  At that price she makes not one penny of profit.

But of course the photographer can’t ignore the cost of labor, equipment, travel, etc.  This isn’t charity, it’s supposed to be a business.  What that means is if you see a 40 x 60 print for less than $3000, the photographer is likely selling it below cost.

There are a less than a handful of photographers in the world who are making a decent living doing what they do.  The rest are just scratching by.

I hope you remember this the next time you head to a gallery.

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Chasing the Decisive Moment in Fine Art Photography: An Exhibition

Chasing the Decisive Moment in Fine Art Photography: An Exhibition

On July 7th my fine art photography exhibition begins at the Cooley Gallery in Leesburg, Virginia.  The focus of the exhibition will be “Chasing the Decisive Moment in Fine Art Photography.

Six of my pieces will be on display at The Cooley Gallery, beginning with a reception from 6-9 pm on July 7th.

This is a milestone for me.  To date I’ve relied on internet sales for my work.  But on the advice of several professionals, I decided to take the plunge with an exhibition.  I was very privileged to be accepted by the Cooley Gallery in Leesburg, Virginia, which is owned by former Washington Redskins tight-end Chris Cooley and managed by curator Dana Beal.

The internet is an amazing tool, but looking at artwork on the internet just doesn’t do a piece justice.  You can’t get immersed in an image the way you can standing in front of it.  You can’t feel the image “breathe.”  You can’t get as good a sense of the story of the image, it’s texture, composition, and scale.

Art is a form of communication.  And while I very much appreciate the feedback I get from my online friends, I really don’t believe I can get a true sense of how well I’m communicating without seeing for myself how people react to it.  I want to have a dialog with people as they react to it.  I want to understand what is working, and where I may have missed the mark.

I hope especially to get feedback from the paint artists who exhibit at the Cooley Gallery.  I believe there is much to learn from each other, paint to photography and photography to paint.

A copy of the event’s press release follows:

An Exhibition: “Chasing the Decisive Moment in Fine Art Photography”

 

William Toti has a new exhibit at the Cooley Gallery, 9 North King Street, Leesburg, Virginia, July 7-31, 2017, with an opening reception at the Gallery on July 7th from 6-9 pm.

 

William spent more than four years of his life underwater over the span of a 26-year career in the U.S. Navy submarine force. During the course of his military career, his life was filled with many “decisive moments,” including some quite tragic. When he finally surfaced for good in 2006, his view of the world (along with his world view) had changed, and he took up photography as a method of forcing himself to refocus, as it were, on the beauty of our physical world.

 

Since then, he has traveled the world trying to translate Henri Cartier-Bresson’s well-known street photography zeitgeist into modern, fine art, landscape images. Using a broad canvas and a wide palette of brilliant colors, William’s images transform sometimes well-known photographic themes into bold new interpretations. Please join William for his opening reception on July 7th. Feel free to reach out to him with any questions at the above email address.

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How to Buy Fine Art Photography

How to Buy Fine Art Photography

Sometimes I’m asked what the best way is to purchase fine art photography.  As one who sells his art online, my default answer should be obvious, you should buy art online.  But there are two aspects to this answer:

– How physically to purchase a piece of artwork, and

– How should one select art to buy.

As for the physical act of purchasing art, the internet is a great tool for finding art that appeals to you. Before the internet, a person would essentially have to stumble upon something that appealed to him/her, or would have to hire an art dealer to do the searching for him/her.

Today it’s a matter of a simple google search. Hundreds of options will appear before you, and if something pops up that you like, you can dig into it further to make sure it is something that you will love prior to hitting “purchase.”

But you should consider several issues prior to making a decision on how to physically purchase the piece of artwork:

  1. Are you in search of painted art or photographic art? Both can appeal to you emotionally, there are hundred examples of each. The real issue is which format is right for your intended use.
  2. As for photographic art (which I specialize in), just as with painted art, there are many styles to choose from. There is journalistic photographic art (think Henri Cartier-Brisson), there is abstract photographic art, there is “unrefined” photographic art (think of literal interpretations of a landscape or wildlife scene, with very little modification), there is “impressionistic” photographic art (some modification to a landscape or wildlife image to enhance emotionally appealing aspects of the image, this is the area I specialize in), and there are more. Again, you should choose the style of photo that appeals to you personally.
  3. In what format would you like the art to be provided? Canvas is the format of choice for painting but canvas makes a poor photographic image because modern photography conveys great detail that canvas cannot replicate. So as appealing as it might be to have your favorite piece of photographic art delivered to you on canvas, you will lose both expressive detail and color dynamic range with canvas. A better choice for photographic art would be one of the metal-infused papers like FujiFlex Crystal Archive or Lumachrome, perhaps face-mounted to acrylic rather than mounted behind glass for richer, more substantial intensity of expression.
  4. What size should you purchase for the image? While it’s appealing to purchase a smaller image to limit costs, it takes a certain physical size for the image to “breathe.” Smaller means less emotional impact. A larger image allows you to be consumed in it.
  5. As for matters like mounting, framing, etc, those should be selected to suit the wall upon which the image will hang.
  6. Also make sure the seller has a very good warrantee and return policy before you hit the “buy” button. May be good to exchange emails to ensure you understand fully and have the policy in writing if it’s not absolutely clear on the website.

With respect to how one should decide on an image, I’ve always felt that it’s not enough to purchase an image you merely like to look at, one should purchase a piece of art that has personal meaning to you. Perhaps it reminds you of a place you’ve been. Or a person you know (or once knew). Or an event in your life. Or a meaningful cause you feel passionate about. Or a place you always wanted to visit but because of certain conditions know it’s unlikely you will.

If you purchase an image based on how it looks you will someday find yourself tired of looking. But you will never find yourself tired of feeling.

I hope this helps. If you have any questions on what I wrote above please feel free to reach out to me at https://blog.williamtotiphotography.com

Thanks for reading! And good luck in your search!

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Fine Art Prints with Nevada Art Printers

Fine Art Prints with Nevada Art Printers

Washington Monument and Cherry Trees at Sunset

I‘ve mentioned before that my printer of choice is Nevada Art Printers, located in Las Vegas.

Why?

Take a look at this video.

If Nevada Art Printers is good enough for the best galleries in New York and Las Vegas, I trust that it is good enough for me as well.

I spend a great deal of time, energy, and expense to capture my images.  The last thing I want to happen is for the quality to be compromised during the printing phase.

Today’s high resolution images require several features to be successful:

  • Absolutely impeccable color calibration, so that the color envisioned by the artist is exactly what is produced on the print.
  • High resolution printers, so fine detail captured by today’s cameras is reproduced on the image.
  • Wide dynamic range color representation, to capture the full spectrum of colors reflected in the image
  • Personal attention to the artist’s needs.  Many labs today mass produce images to the extent that no human being actually sees it before it ships.

Robert Park at Nevada Art Printers is a true craftsman.  When I send an image in to be printed, I get to speak to him personally.  I can ensure sharpening and color calibration, is just right prior to making the image.

What this means for you, my customer, is that when you order a print from me, the quality will be equal to the best in the land.

Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions at the contact page above.

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Behind the Image:  The Milky Way Galaxy and a Bristlecone Pine

Behind the Image: The Milky Way Galaxy and a Bristlecone Pine

I

n June 2014, I had the opportunity to take a workshop with legendary landscape photographer David Muench.  Of all living landscape photographers, David is perhaps the most influential.  His style has affected an entire generation.

I tend to keep a prioritized list of locations to shoot, and mostly work down that list when choosing my next excursion.  David’s selected shooting location was Mono Lake (perhaps the subject of a future “Behind the Image” article), and the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains, both in California.  Although those locations were nowhere near the top of my shooting location priority list, the opportunity to shoot with David was too good to pass up.

Shooting with David was at times exhilarating and intimidating.  During this trip David gave me what to this day is the best compliment I’ve ever received as a photographer.  There were occasions when he walked up to me as I was setting up for a shot, looked over my shoulder, and suggested a small alteration that significantly improved my composition.  But David had high expectations as well, and could be very demanding.  I remember at one point thinking, “I’ve just been yelled at by a photography legend!”  In each case, I learned something.

And there were other times when he didn’t have to say anything at all.  I would just watch his workflow and thought-process as he set up, and merely by asking myself “Why is he doing that?” I learned a great deal.

Much of our training was conducted at lower elevations, but the “final exam,” as it were, would occur on the peak of a mountain, at about 11,000 feet in elevation, in pitch dark.

The Bristlecones

You see David loves bristlecone pines.  He spent much of his life chasing them down.  The oldest living species on earth, one particular tree in the White Mountains of California has been alive for more than 5000 years.  Most of the trees we would be shooting were already ancient when Christ was born.  As difficult as it is to get your mind around this, it’s even more difficult to get to see them for real.

Bristlecones only live at very high elevations, high above the regular mountain tree-line.  Seeing them usually involves driving as high as roads will allow, and then hiking up steep, rocky terrain another several hundred feet or more.  Our objective was to take a photo of a Bristlecone at night, with the Milky Way galaxy in the shot.  Doing so in the complete pitch black of night, outfitted fully with backpack, camera, and tripod, is particularly treacherous.  And as hard as it is climbing up, climbing down the steep, slippery, rocky terrain is even harder!

As I did this I kept thinking “I’m too old for this,” but watching David pull this off in his 70s was quite a spectacle.  Not to be outdone by someone more than 20 years my senior, I was determined to make this worth my while.

The Challenge

We climbed the mountain when there was still a bit of good light, giving us an opportunity to reconnoiter and pick out “our tree.”  The idea was to wait until the sun set, the Milky Way rose, and get the tree and the Milky Way in the same shot.  To plan for a shot like this, I make use of an iPhone app called “The Photographer’s Ephemeris.”  Back in my college days during my astronomy studies, we made great use of an ephemeris to identify and map out stars.  Little did I know that decades later I would be using one to precisely plan individual photos.

The app gave me a pretty good idea on what axis the Milky Way would rise.  What was left for me then was to pick out an interesting-looking tree with clear sky behind it, get downhill from the tree so I had a clear shot-line, and then wait until the sky darkened and the Milky Way rose.  That would happen around midnight.  So we had several hours of waiting on a steep, slippery slope, trying our best not allow our boredom during the wait to cause us to do something silly that would cause us to fall off the mountain.

An hour or so after sunset it became very clear that night on this mountain would be very, very dark.  So dark, in fact, that although we could see stars very well (they shone with great intensity that far away from a major city), and although we could even see the glow on the horizon from the lights of Los Angeles more than 300 miles distant, what we could not see the one thing that was supposed to be the very subject of our visit— the bristlecone trees themselves!

This presented a challenge.  It meant we were going to have to somehow light the tree in order for it to be visible to the camera.  There is a technique in photography called “light painting,” but it’s difficult to pull off without having the photograph look contrived.  What you do is use very dim light to illuminate the subject of the photo while you have the shutter open.  In this case, my headlamp filtered through my fingers would have to do the trick.

The Objective

Normally to capture the milky way you have to keep the shutter open somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds.  If you keep the shutter open for too short a time, the Milky Way won’t be bright enough to register on your camera’s sensor.  More than 30 seconds and stars will actually move so much while the shutter is open that they will look like small blurs in your image rather than the single points of light you would like.  A shutter speed somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds is just about right.

Because we had a couple of hours between sunset and the Milky Way rising, we had time to practice our light painting techniques.  There are several problems involved:  if you use too much light, the tree will be so bright it will “blow out” the Milky Way behind it.  Not enough, and you won’t see the tree at all.  Using a small, spot-beam of light also presented the problem of difficulty producing an evenly illuminated image across the tree.  Without proper technique, you would produce “hot spots” on your tree, where some areas were significantly brighter than others.

Fortunately, I had done light painting several times before, and figured it wouldn’t take many tries for me to get it right.  Indeed, my test images were coming out pretty good just as the Milky Way began to rise into view behind the tree.

The tree I had chosen possessed a unique feature:  it had branches that stretched out laterally towards another tree, and that tree seemed to be reaching towards the first one, as if the two trees were reaching out towards each other.  As I watched this feature, and as I monitored the Milky Way’s rise behind it, I was reminded of one of my visits to the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.  Something was familiar about this scene.  Then it occurred to me:  it was Michelangelo’s famous painting, “Adam’s Creation,” where God is reaching his finger out to touch life into Adam.

The Vision

This was the “decisive moment” I was looking for.  I would wait until the Milky Way was directly in line with the two trees, as if the trees were reaching out to touch the Milky Way.  

A new, different, “moment of creation.” 

So there I was at about 11,000 feet altitude, with the temperature hovering near 30 degrees Fahrenheit, shivering, trying not to fall off this mountain, waiting hours for my shot, and I couldn’t be happier.  I was pretty sure I would shortly be making one of my “shots of a lifetime.”

And as you can see above, I got it— exactly as I had hoped to.  The light painting on the tree is even and not too “hot,” the Milky Way is right where I wanted it to be, the exposure, focus, and composition are just right.  

The Outcome

One of my most challenging shots to get, and one of which I am very proud.

When I was telling this story to an art marketing person I met, he said to me, “Why did you go through all that trouble?  You know Milky Way shots don’t have much demand.  It will be hard to sell!”

He’s right.  I don’t get a lot of demand for that shot.  But it still hangs on my wall at home.  

Sometimes it’s necessary to do art that sells.  But sometimes you have to do it because the art itself is driving you.  In other words, you can’t find a way to not do it.

This is one such photo.  Knowing more about it now, I hope you come to enjoy it as much as I do.  

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The Absolutely, Positively Best Camera for Fine Art Photography

The Absolutely, Positively Best Camera for Fine Art Photography

E

very now and somebody says to me, “That’s a great picture!”  What kind of camera do you use?”  My response is usually the same: “The absolute best camera on the market!  The one I happened to have with me at the time!”

Every time this happens it brings to mind the old photographer’s joke where the photographer says to the cook, “That was a great meal!  You must have a really good stove!”

The point that is made by that joke can’t bear repeating often enough. Many of the most iconic photos ever made were made a half-century or more ago using devices that wouldn’t even compare to the camera you probably have in your phone today.

What Role Does the Camera Play?

Although I do have a great camera, the camera is just an instrument.  A tool. But the standards for these tools keep changing.  So what constitutes a “great camera” today?

Years ago, the state of the art in landscape photo technology was led by Canon.  Then about four years ago Nikon took the lead with the D800.  A little over a year ago Sony may have caught up or even pulled slightly ahead of Nikon with their newer full-frame and mini “medium format” cameras. And of course there has always been the Hasselblad, Fuji, and Phase One medium formats for those who want to carry the value of a small Mercedes on their backs.

Nikon… for the Moment

My current instrument of choice is the Nikon D810 for landscape and the Nikon D5 for wildlife. Although every now and then I get tempted to jump to another brand, I have so much invested in glass (lenses) I couldn’t afford to switch at this moment.

But the truth is, this is all a distraction.  It doesn’t matter what brand you shoot or what kind of camera you shoot.  All of today’s professional digital cameras are better than most of the film cameras that produced most of the great images of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.  The high megapixel count is only important if you are going to produce really large (the technical word is “substantial”) prints.  Murals and such.

What’s Really Important

What really matters is the person behind the camera, the mind that visualizes the image before it’s made, and the eye that person views the world with.

I’m frequently struck by the thought that if Ansel Adams were alive today, he would likely be able to make a better image with an iPhone than I could with my full-up kit.

So the message is this:  don’t worry about the photographer’s instrument. Worry about the photographer’s vision.  That’s what really produces the image.

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An Emotional Connection to an Image (with cute animals)

An Emotional Connection to an Image (with cute animals)

T

oday’s the day I sell out by posting a photo of cute animals. But what do you feel when you see the above photo?

It was taken a million miles from nowhere, in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

We were heading to the airstrip to fly out that day.  Our trip was supposed to be completed, we were supposed to be heading home, when we stumbled across this scene.  The back-story for this photo is covered in my “Behind the Images” PDF.  If you are reading this email, you probably already read that story.

But why does this image connect with people?  Because it’s cute?  Three baby cheetahs, backlit, hanging on a branch– what could be cuter than that?

The Setup

What if I were to tell you that just a few days before I took this image we came across another cheetah, not much older than these three, feasting on a baby gazelle, its face all covered in blood.  There wasn’t much cute about the baby cheetah that day.

What if I were to further tell you that it’s unlikely that all three of these animals are still alive today, because of the harsh realities of the African savanna.

For me, this image raises a complex set of emotions.  Struggle.  Despair.  Hope.  Loneliness. Impending death (either the cheetah’s or its prey). Fragility.  Vibrancy.  Joy.  And the sorrow that undoubtedly occurred when mamma cheetah discovered the death of one (or more) of these three.

An image is successful when it evokes a broad spectrum of feelings.  It’s that richness and intensity of feeling that makes us want to look.

Anyway, that’s what we’d say if we play the academic, if we become the photo critic, if we over-analyze.

For this image, at least for the moment, I’m happy to settle for cute.

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Behind the Image:  Manarola at Sunrise (Cinque Terre, Italy)

Behind the Image: Manarola at Sunrise (Cinque Terre, Italy)

In the Cinque Terre region of Italy there are these five coastal villages; not too long ago they were only accessible by boat. Cinque Terre means “five lands” in Italian, and the region received this name because it was very much like five separate land-locked islands with five separate villages separated by very rugged terrain and sea.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

While many people have heard of Cinque Terre, very few have heard the name of the village of Manarola, one of those five “lands,” the one depicted in this photograph.

I had been aware of Manarola for quite some time.  Because of my Italian heritage, it was on my list of places to visit even before I was a photographer.  But becoming a photographer caused this village to move from my “places I’d like to see” list, to my “places I must see as soon as possible” list.

Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen Before

When you look at the photo above you will realize this an iconic (and idyllic) scene.  The villagers paint their houses in a rainbow of colors so individuals could easily pick out their own home from a distance while at sea.  Although many of the villagers still make their living on and from the sea, as you can imagine, tourism has been added to their sources of income.

When I arrived I expected to be greeted by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of “hungry” photographers (read my earlier Yosemite post).  Much to my delight, that didn’t happen.  There were tourists taking the occasional snap, but the first morning I was there, as I got up before sunrise (leaving my wife and son to sleep) to trudge down the long series of staircases to the outcropping where I could take this photo (Cinque Terre could be more aptly named “Mille Scale” or “a thousand staircases”), I was greeted by a photographer’s paradise.

When I got to the outlook (with my friend and guide Paolo), absolutely nobody was there.  No teeming busloads of tourists, no platoons of photographers tripping over themselves to get the perfect composition, no squadrons of selfie-snappers leaning over the rail for the best narcissistic image, nothing!   This was anti-Yosemite!  Not only was it stunningly beautiful, here was the solitude I was hoping for.

The Capture

Making the image was perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had in photography.  I could set up, move around, take my time, change lens filters, go for a longer exposure to get the water effect I wanted, move again, try different exposures, try different compositions, whatever I needed to get my shot.

It’s been almost three years since I made that image and I’ve never had the kind of time and conditions I had on that morning in Italy.  And the image remains one of my most popular.

Golfers keep going because the game teases them into believing that their next game might be their best.  In some ways, photography does the same thing.  As I go around and find places to shoot, I’m always hoping I’m “that close” to another Manarola.

 

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Over a Million Social Media Views and Counting

Over a Million Social Media Views and Counting

Afew months ago I passed a million social media views of my images on Flickr.  The more upscale photo site 500px reports that I have over 500,000 views with them.

So I started doing the math.  To get to 1.5 million views would require over 4000 views a day, every day for a year.  That’s a lot of people seeing my images, and for that I’m very grateful.

But then I began wondering, “who are all those people?”  That’s the problem with social media, you never know.  One power of the medium is that your admirers remain anonymous.  Only your detractors make themselves known.

Almost Famous

An artist I know has several of his paintings hanging in famous peoples’ houses around the country.   I once mentioned to him, “If all those famous people know who you are, you must be famous yourself.”

He replied, “Famous?  I don’t know what famous is.  There’s no way a million people have seen my work.  Maybe a many have seen yours.  Are you famous?”

“Of course not,” I replied.

“Then how can I be?  Anyway, what good does it do to be famous when you’re famous and poor?”

Which brought me back to a fundamental point.  Artists don’t do what they do for the money.  They do it because they can’t not do it.

So I’m well on my way to two million views.  Woohoo!

That and four bucks will get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

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Behind the Image: Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite

Behind the Image: Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite

Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite:  Image made April 8th, 2013

I was pleased to award William Toti the first place award for Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite in Feb. 2017. There have been countless photos taken of Tunnel View in Yosemite, but William’s transcends the rest by it’s exceptional quality of light, mood and strong composition.

Carla Steckley

Judge, ArtSpace Fine Art Photography Contest

Yosemite had been on my “places to shoot” list for a while because every photographer covets perfect, elusive Yosemite National Park photos, particularly a Tunnel View shot, made famous by Ansel Adams’ “A Clearing Winter Storm.”

I had scheduled a trip there to do a shoot, then had to reschedule, then reschedule again, until I began to wonder if I would ever get there.  I decided to nail the trip down by hiring a guide.  (I often hire a guide since, logistically, that is the most efficient way to get to as many photo locations as possible in the least amount of time.)

When I did finally go (April, 2013), I brought both my wife and my brand new Nikon D800.  This would be the first trip with that incredible 36 megapixel camera.

Breathtaking Boredom

Initially, Yosemite was, well Yosemite.  Overwhelming beauty, matched by overwhelming crowds.  Part of the appeal of landscape photography is, for me, the opportunity to spend some time with nature, just me, my wife, and maybe one more person.  That is not Yosemite.  Yosemite is busloads of tourists from all over the world who are rushed from site to site without the real opportunity to enjoy any of it, taking snapshots with their iPads that will look nothing like what they remember.  Yosemite is what happens when you allow unregulated and un-metered access to fragile and pristine places.  As long as this continues, Yosemite will continue to be endangered.

Bustling Boredom?

But from the photography point of view, those masses of people meant there were very few locations I could shoot that didn’t include several dozen human beings in the shot.  Add to that the fact that my Hawaii-raised wife frequently expressed her innate fear of bears, which was all the more amusing since no sane bear would come anywhere near this mass of humanity.  Her fear of bears did at one point prompt me to purchase a stuffed black bear and set it on our bed (“Don’t go in there– there’s a bear in our room!”), which I worried would be the most exciting thing to happen to us on the trip.

Beautiful, bustling, capital-beltway-like Yosemite

And Then the Surprise!

Then on the morning that we were scheduled to leave, we woke to an incredible sight: snow!

Calling an audible (as is often necessary), we decided to skip breakfast and head up to the famous spot known as “Tunnel View,” made famous by Ansel Adams’ “Clearing Winter Storm” photograph.

Here we had a spring storm, one that was sure to clear even quicker than Ansel’s.  We had no time to waste; we hurried to the Tunnel View parking lot, found absolutely nobody there (a first for this trip!), save for a lone coyote.  Having never encountered a coyote on one of my shoots before, I took a couple of snaps of that guy (I considered it a good omen), then headed over to the overlook.

This was one of the most amazing scenes I had ever encountered.  My wife heard me scream when I saw this– very out of character for this old Navy man.  But I knew this was a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Serpentine Vapors

As I expected, the spring day warmed and the snow quickly  began sublimating from solid to vapor.  The vapor began creating this serpentine, meandering form in the valley, something like a white smoke monster from the TV show “Lost.”  To the right of the valley, an updraft from Bridalveil Falls was causing the vapor to lift into the sky, then swirl around in an airborne eddy current.  The sun was just coming up behind Half Dome, creating a nearly horizontal “God’s Ray” into the valley, lighting up the vapor in a remarkable fashion.

The only thing left to do was to not screw it up as I captured the image on my new D800.

The shot at the top of this page was the result.  My most popular image, and my most awarded.  This image resulted in the great David Muench giving me the best compliment I have ever received as a photographer (“Better than Ansel’s.) Another great photographer, Carla Steckel said, “There have been countless photos taken of Tunnel View in Yosemite, but William’s transcends the rest by it’s exceptional quality of light, mood and strong composition.”  Perhaps that’s why it’s had over a million views on social media.

And to this day, it’s perhaps the image of which I am most proud.

And of course, it got me this.

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Beauty and the Beast (New Movie)

Beauty and the Beast (New Movie)

Castle on a Cloud: Image made April 5th, 2016

800-year-old Cesis Castle, Latvia

When my daughter was a little girl, her favorite movie was Beauty and the Beast. We watched it together many times when she was growing up, to the point where she essentially had it memorized, something only a child could do. She could recite every line, sing every phase, from the opening credits to nearly the end of the movie. It was a major source of pleasure in her young life.

She’s an adult now, but the movie still brings her fond memories. So the thought of a live action version of Beauty and the Beast new movie was exciting to my family. As a result, we decided we would all get together, my wife, our daughter, her husband, our son, and see the new version this weekend. We had been looking forward to this for months.

Upon seeing it, we were profoundly disappointed. I, for one, could not understand how Disney could cast a lead character whose acting was so wooden (particularly in the opening scenes) and who needed so much auto-tune to correct her weak voice, that the technology itself became a distraction. Most of the characters were mere ghosts of the profoundly great singers and actors who portrayed the original characters. But the worst of them was Belle herself.

You gotta be kidding!

I was dumbfounded by the casting decisions. That is, until my kids explained that the lead actor, Emma Watson, had played in all the Harry Potter movies.

Suddenly it made sense. “Children” of my daughter’s generation were already invested in the story. Those tickets were sold before the movie was even released.

If the studio was going to sell the story to today’s children, they needed a hook. And what better hook than to cast a woman who today’s kids had already grown to know in the Harry Potter movies?

“Children” of my daughter’s generation were already invested in the story. Those tickets were sold before the movie was even released.

Crass Commercialism is one thing, but…

In other words, the studio was betting that the draw from Harry Potter would outweigh the negative aspects of how the actress played the lead character. After all, nobody would know how bad she was in the role until they had purchased their tickets and were sitting in the theater. But I don’t think that this new version will cause the same degree of devotion and, well, love for the characters and the movie that the earlier version did.

What’s all this have to do with photography?

Photographers are also sometimes driven to allow commercial interests override their creative or artistic instincts. “Don’t you think that would sell better if the sky was just a bit more saturated?” “I’m looking for something like Peter Lik meets Galen Rowell.” “Commercial buyers are infatuated by abstracts these days. Can you do some of that?”

Let me be clear: just like there was nothing wrong in casting Emma Watson to draw in a younger audience to an old movie, there is nothing wrong with making photographic adjustments for commercial purposes. Even photographers have to eat.

But if you’re like me, these adjustments leave you cold. The emotion simply isn’t there.

Getting back to Beauty, in the end, I was actually a bit comforted that the new movie didn’t have the same emotional impact as the original. Nothing can or should replace those memories. When we watch the original, my daughter is eight years old again, 9/11 hasn’t happened yet, and both the world and I are substantially younger.

Who would want to replace that?

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Sleeklens Photoshop Actions Review

Sleeklens Photoshop Actions Review

The Beach at Flakstad: Image made January 23, 2017

A few weeks ago the folks at Sleeklens reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to review one of their products, a set of Sleeklens Photoshop Actions called the “Landscape Adventure Collection.”*

 

Although I agreed to do it, frankly I was skeptical.  I’ve been pitched other similar “labor saving” shortcuts in the past.  I’ve been provided some for free, others I’ve purchased based on the promise that using it would save my most precious resource (my time).  But in the end I’ve always “dabbled and then deleted.”  None have ever lived up to the hype.  (I’m talking about you, Aurora HDR.)

I expected my Sleeklens experience would go much the same.  I’d use it, I’d try to like it, but in the end I’d conclude I could do things manually just as quickly and with more creative control than using the product.  That’s how it has always gone before, and I fully expected that at the end of this experiment I’d be deleting the actions, only to write a review where I tried hard not to be too cruel.

For this Sleeklens experiment, I started with an image from my January trip to Lofoten, Norway, one I really wanted to like, but one that just didn’t have that “oomph” I was looking for:

The beach at Flakstad.

Lofoten, Norway

What you see isn’t what you get

This is pretty much what every photo looks like straight out of the camera (at least those that are executed well technically).  Colorless, lifeless, flat, uninspiring.

So I figured, let’s see what how Sleeklens could help me punch up this photo.  I fired up good old Photoshop, decided what I needed to do to fix the photo, conjured up the Sleeklens actions, and immediately found a few that sounded interesting.

After using Sleeklens to correct tonality and local contrast, I pulled up the “vivid pastel painting” action, and voila!  Instantly I had a much more interesting photo.

I used a couple more actions to recreate the drama in the sky that I saw the day I took the picture, a few to correct the color cast (if you read my other posts you already know a camera’s sensor alters colors based on sky conditions: cloudy, sunny, etc), then I did some final contrast adjustments, and I was done.  Twenty minutes, tops!

And the result

is the image at the top of the page.

Of course I focus my website and blog on those interested in fine art photography, not on photographers themselves (there are plenty of websites devoted to photographers), so if you aren’t a photographer you may be thinking “you mean you spent twenty minutes finishing that photo?”

My answer would be, “Yes, and that’s a darn sight better than the two hours or so I normally spend finishing a photo!”  That means the Sleeklens actions did help me save my most precious resource.

Is the product perfect? No.  In particular, I found the instruction videos a bit austere.  There are over 50 actions here, I could have used a better description of what each of them does.  And there are some actions included in the package that I doubt I will ever use.

But my initial concerns about the product turned out to be wrong. This isn’t a product that I will dabble and discard.  I’ve already made it a permanent addition to my Photoshop Actions pallet.

The actions can be found at sleeklens.com.

If you are an Adobe Lightroom user, Lightroom tutorials can be found at sleeklens.com/lightroom-tutorials/

Lightroom presets at sleeklens.com/product-category/lightroom-presets

My conclusion is that this product is well worth the price, and I do highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: they provided me the actions for free, asking only that I provide my honest opinion in my review.  (Dear Sleeklens people: providing my honest opinion is never something you have to worry about.)

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Digital File Sharing, the Legitimization of Theft, and its Impact on Photography

Digital File Sharing, the Legitimization of Theft, and its Impact on Photography

When I was a boy, the only commercially available medium for purchasing music was the record album. If a friend wanted to borrow an album from me, I might let him, but if he didn’t return it, we would inevitably “have words.”

The evolution of music into digital formats, along with the concurrent development of the internet, meant the death (or nearly so) of physical media like compact discs and LPs. People were able to “rip” their physical media onto their computer, and then “share” that music with friends over the internet.

Of course, this “sharing” mechanism wasn’t really sharing at all because of two important characteristics: (1) you weren’t actually loaning the music to your friends, you were providing them another copy of the music track, and (2) this method allowed you to provide copies of music to millions of your closest friends, obviating the need for any of them to actually purchase the track, eliminating millions of potential sales of that track, thereby nearly destroying the industry that allowed such music to be produced in the first place. In that regard, it was a parasitic theft-dynamic that threatened to kill the “host.”

A Solution?

The solution to this problem, as provided by the digital recording industry, was to lower the price of music so significantly as to make it easier to pay the pennies necessary to purchase a track, than it was to steal the song. This catastrophically lowered the intrinsic value of a musical track. Although it kept the studios somewhat viable, allowing them to limp by on life support, the pennies provided per track were not enough to allow the musicians and bands who made that music to actually make a living plying their craft.

This also drove a commoditization of music, where every track, regardless of how good or bad, was set at essentially the same price. Instead of the free market forces driving the value of music, the theft-dynamic was now driving the value of a track. The unstated motive force was, “if you don’t give it to us cheap, we will simply steal it.” And very few in our society agitated about what was happening.

Imagine if this theft-dynamic were applied to the food industry: some industry executive telling the chef of a 5-star restaurant that he had to charge McDonald’s prices in order for his food to sell, otherwise people would just steal it. Unimaginable? That is exactly what is happening in the digital world these days.

The Effect

Suddenly musicians found themselves back in the days of the 1920s juke joints where they would almost literally have to play for food. Other than within the rarified air of the 1%, the “anointed music artists” (mostly in pop and hip-hop), any hope of actually raising a family on the wage of a musician was a fantasy. In short, this theft-dynamic destroyed the middle class of music, leaving only the very rich and the very poor.

My son, a professional drummer for more than four years, suffered from this effect personally, and saw other egregious examples first-hand. He would sometimes open for bands that had gold records in their catalog, but who were quite literally sleeping on the floors of their fans because they could not afford (nor would their record label provide for) hotel rooms on tour. There just wasn’t enough money being made any more. (Insert shameless plug here: if you want to check out his current band “Fives,” see www.fivesband.com )

The Dynamic

The theft-dynamic started with the child-culture of “file sharing” almost 20 years ago. But this “sharing” wasn’t really sharing, it was stealing, and it essentially legitimized theft. With no adult supervision or moral compass guiding those child-bandits, an entire industry was effectively destroyed.

The kids of that era are now adults, and sadly the dynamic as it pertains to the music industry has metastasized to other (perhaps all other) digital media. Anything that can be digitized is vulnerable to theft. The written word. Works of art. Motion pictures. And, most relevant to me, photographs.

Because screen capture technology allows anyone with the ability to view an image to steal it, sadly, many people do. This has led to the deconstruction of the world of professional photography. Many famous and gifted photographic artists, who could once eke out a living by licensing and selling their images, must now revert to alternative means, mostly teaching workshops, to pay the mortgage. There is certainly nothing wrong with teaching workshops, but I’m certain that wasn’t what they had in mind when their creative instincts first drew them to the medium. And every hour spent teaching is an hour where they are not creating.

We evolved into this world of moral ambiguity. I hope and believe we can evolve out of it.

The Conundrum

It seems that hardly anybody knows how to deal with online image theft.  Even less famous photographers like me are affected. An application called “Tineye” allows one to search the web for their images, and I have found several of my images used extensively, without compensation or permission, all over the internet. One online store was reproducing my images on coffee mugs. Another was selling reproductions of my prints outright. A few online magazines were using my images without permission or citation.

When I asked for advice from a well known, established landscape photographer (one of my mentors), his response was, “This is the world of today. You can’t stop it. You have to learn to make peace with it or it will drive you crazy.” (I could just see my Italian cousins throw up their hands in stoic Italian fashion and say, “Eh! What can you do?”)

Is this yet another parasitic theft-dynamic that will eventually kill the host? Is it resulting in another reduction of intrinsic value, a commoditization, of this art? Will legitimized theft destroy photography’s middle class too?

If my mentor is right, not only is my attempt to make a living by means of my images futile, but the entire photographic art industry is effectively dead.

Perhaps so. Perhaps it’s already happened.

But I’m an optimist. I believe in the intrinsic good of people. I believe if we impose something like a “moral calibration,” and reassert the definition of theft, we can recover from this blight.

We evolved into this world of moral ambiguity. I hope and believe we can evolve out of it.

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Product Review Disclaimer

Product Review Disclaimer

So here is my product review disclaimer.  I’m happy to do product reviews.

I don’t expect this to happen often, because this website is tailored for photograph and print consumers, not for photographers.  Nevertheless, I’ve recently been asked to do a few product reviews, so I find it necessary to articulate my ethical standard up front.

When I do product reviews I will clearly state if I’ve been compensated in any way for the review (although I expect that to rarely happen).

For instance, I’m a Nikon user (at least for the moment), because I regard the D810 as the best landscape camera in the world below medium format size and price.  I know Sony users will quibble with this characterization, citing the A7R II, and I agree the A7R is a great camera with a sensor about as good as the D810’s.  But the feature set on the D810 (available lenses, shutter speed, time-lapse, ease of use) for me, still makes the D810 preferred, at least at this moment in time. Similarly, the Nikon D5 is about as good as it gets for low light, wildlife, and sports.  I make these statements having paid full price for all my Nikon equipment.  In fact, the only time I have ever been compensated by Nikon was for an article that ran in Nikon Asia magazine, and that was done only AFTER I purchased all my equipment (again, at full price).

I have recently been asked to review a couple of products, which as I say, I am happy to do.  When these products have been provided to me free of charge for purposes of my review, I will say so. After all, it’s only reasonable for a company that wants me to review their product provide it to me at no cost.

But if I remain silent on the matter, you can assume it is a product I purchased for my own use.

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The Zen of Fine Art Photography

The Zen of Fine Art Photography

Sunrise at Stonehenge: Image made April 12, 2015

A  statement last night from a painter acquaintance came to me as a bit of a surprise.  Her statement led to a stream of consciousness that could best be characterized as a contemplation of “the zen of fine art photography.”

 

Perhaps I should have expected that one day somebody out of the stone age would have said something like this to me, but I didn’t.

The conversation began with a discussion of why people buy fine art photographs, but eventually led to the real issue on her mind: whether photography could ever be considered “art.”

You gotta be kidding.  This was actually said to me in the year 2017.

Let me start by saying I love painted art. My wife and I have spent many, many hours in galleries such as the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, the Louvre in Paris, and galleries in Rome, Florence, Seoul, not to mention here at home in the States.

My sister-in-law Carrie Patterson is a gifted abstract artist, one of her pieces hangs in our home, along with several other pieces of painted art. And I hope it shows that painted art has inspired much of my photography.

After challenging the “photography as art” premise, she concluded with, “All you photographers have to do is snap the picture. I spend weeks laboring over one of my pieces.” I looked at her to try to gauge whether she was being serious, and by all indications she was.

Of course, this lady had absolutely no idea what it takes to make a good photograph. Trying my best to avoid looking offended, I began pondering the art of fine art photography.

I will deal with the “all you have to do is snap the picture” bit of “fake news” first.  Then we will deal with whether photography can actually be art.

What it takes to make a good image

For those of you who aren’t photographers, here is a brief summary of what a photographer has to do to make a noteworthy image:

Planning.  Prior to a trip, I spend months researching locations, lighting conditions, the best time of year to go, and special equipment I might need to capture the image. I may seek out somebody familiar with the location to help me get to the spot more efficiently rather than wasting precious hours poking around looking for the spot I had in mind.

Noted professionals like Marc Muench, Andy Williams, and others have been instrumental over the years passing on their wisdom about timing, technique, and location, and for this I am very grateful. But more than half of my trips I have made on my own.

Next, I always, or nearly always, have in mind exactly what image I am hunting for before I depart on the trip. Yes, as a “student” of Ansel Adams (at least figuratively, I’m not that old), I had already envisioned my “Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite” before I ever set foot on that airplane, without any knowledge of whether in situ conditions would favor capturing it. Same for “Sunrise at Manarola.” I planned that sunrise shot, even discussing it with a local guide, months before leaving for Italy.

Do you think it was coincidence that I was able to capture the gibbous Moonrise over Stonehenge exactly as the sun was coming up? It wasn’t. I used the Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan exactly what day I needed to be there to get those factors to line up.

Nearly all of my shots are planned out like this. (Or at least my good ones are.) I carry a “future location list” on my iPhone, essentially a bucket list I’ve created for images I covet. I use it to prioritize and plan future excursions. I’m regularly adding to it, deleting from it, and racking and stacking the order based on changing opportunities.

Of course, there are exceptions to the “I planned it all out” rule. I could not have counted on a giraffe walking across the Amboseli plain right at sunset (“Giraffe in Silhouette at Sunset”). Or a lion climbing onto a rock in the Serengeti in “The Lion King.” Or the couple taking the selfie in Korea in “Lovers by a Pond.” Or the pony running past the pyramids in “Arabian Colt Fleeing Dust Storm.” Sometimes serendipity is certainly involved. It’s almost always involved in wildlife shots.

And “luck” is enabled by:

Preparation. I’ve spent thousands of hours learning the techniques of this craft. Understanding my equipment to the point where I can operate it in the dark. Mastering the technical aspects of capturing a perfect exposure.

To those of you who believe “today’s cameras can achieve a perfect exposure by themselves,” even the best of today’s cameras do not possess anywhere near the dynamic range of the human eye, so compromises have to be made to render an image that comes close to what your eye can see.

If you allow the camera to decide, you are rolling the dice on what comes out. Einstein said “God doesn’t play dice,” and neither does a good photographer. These compromises require judgment, and that judgment is a function of the artistic vision you have in mind when you attempt to create an image.

What is your intended focal point (composition)? Where do you want the eye to be drawn (composition)? Do you want a shallow depth of field (wide aperture) or deep (narrow aperture)? How much digital noise are you willing to tolerate (ISO setting)?  How “creamy” do you want that water to appear (shutter speed)?  Do you want the motion frozen, or do you want to capture some motion blur (shutter speed)? Do you want to properly expose the land, and risk the sky being over-exposed (the “exposure triangle”), or do you want to expose for the sky, hoping the land will not be too dark to draw out details (the mid-point in your equipment’s dynamic range)?

These decisions are driven by the photographer’s intended balance between artistic and technical factors.

So when people say to me, “I own a camera.  I’ll just take that photo myself,” I usually respond with:

And I own a stove!

It’s an old photographer’s joke.  At a dinner party one evening, the host says to a photographer, “that’s a fantastic image, you must have a great camera!” to which the photographer replies, “that was a great meal, you must have a really nice stove!”

After the snarky comment settles on them, I usually go on to explain my “recipe” for the image we’re discussing.  How I achieved the particular effects in the image.  What extra equipment (tripods, filters, timers, etc.) were required to get those effects. What special techniques had to be used.  After a bit of education, they can begin to see what makes the image what it is.

Let me be clear: absolutely wonderful images have been made with the worst cameras imaginable, but usually by people who knew what they were doing.  Good images can be made on an iPhone.

But that is very rare.

Phones and other small-sensor cameras are very limited in what you can do with the image.  Very little maniuplation is possible, and the image cannot generally be enlarged into a decent sized print.

If your intent is to maximize compatibility, editability, and enlargeability of an image (as any professional would want to do), that requires the use of “professional gear.”  That’s  why, despite the proliferation of consumer-grade gear, $15,000 cameras still sell.

I don’t want to list the exact value of the gear that I carry on my back when I go out on one of my excursions, but you can assume I am carrying the cost of a new Kia.  To capture an image with the required resolution, color density, and enlargeability, that’s what it costs.

The point being even with something as ubiquitious as a stove (everybody has one), there are very few people who are so good with it that their products are considered to be “works of art.”

And then there is the final element:

Time.  Getting back to the photography critic’s comment that “all you photographers have to do is snap the picture,” it usually takes many months to make a noteworthy image.

Even after the image is in the camera, all you have is a bunch of digital data, ones and zeroes, on that memory card. No camera sees the way people see.

In my case, a group of Japanese engineers at Nikon did their best to write code to translate those ones and zeroes into something they hope looks like what I saw when I took the image.

However, (a) even the best software engineer isn’t good enough to get inside my head and see what I was thinking when I captured the image, (b) because a digital sensor reacts to different light temperatures (sun, shade, cloudy, night) differently, not the way the human eye reacts to those changing conditions, digital sensors can’t even render a literal interpretation of the scene correctly with their magic software, let alone an artistic interpretation, and (c) even the best of today’s 100-megapixel sensors don’t come close to the number of “pixels” God placed at the back of your eye.

Hence, the only way to render those ones and zeroes into the image you had in mind when you captured it is to do so manually with software like Photoshop.

So you use Photoshop!

I know the word “Photoshopped” has a bad connotation these days, but what I’m talking about isn’t putting things into the picture that weren’t there when you took it (or making the mountain look “skinnier”). I’m talking about overcoming the limitations of a the digital sensor to create something close to what your eye saw (or, at least, what your “mind’s eye” saw) when you were standing there capturing the image.

That takes hours upon hours on the computer, doing pesky little things like calibrating your monitor’s color gamut for the viewing conditions the print will be exposed to, color balancing the image, lifting the shadows, restoring the dynamic range, eliminating digital noise, sharpening, sizing, rendering, exporting, uploading, etc etc etc. And then doing it all over again when the print comes back and you find something was lost in the translation between your computer and the printer’s computer.

And of course, doing this requires hundreds of hours learning how to use the software to get the effect you were looking for. And at the risk of sounding un-humble, not everyone who tries to do this is capable of getting it right.

So can photography be art?

Defaulting to another snarky response, I might reply, “Ask Christie’s.”

Or I could suggest you look here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or… you get the picture.

Of course I haven’t seen any canonical definition of art, nor do I believe there ever will be one, so what passes for art will continue to be a matter of personal opinion.

But does anyone doubt that there were many critics in the 19th century who questioned whether French impressionism or pointillism was really art?  Or cubism in the 20th century?  Have those debates been put to bed?  Haven’t you heard that chimpanzees and elephants have created “abstract art?” If an elephant can do it, how can it be called art?

My point being the debate still rages to this day for painted art, so I don’t expect it to die any time soon for photography.

There have always been narrow-minded groups of people, including artists, who are very eager to keep others out of the “club” by denigrating their vision, technique, motivation, training, method, format, visual style, hair color, size of their ears or lack thereof. (Did I say I love Van Gogh?)

If you need empirical evidence as to whether photography is art I point to the photographs that have sold for millions of dollars, more than 99.9% of the paintings for sale today.

If you want less empirical (emotional) evidence, you simply need to look at the right photographic image with an open mind, just as you might for a piece of painted art.  There are paintings I love, paintings I don’t “get,” just as there are photographs I love, and photographs I consider crap.

But if you find even a single photograph that you believe qualifies as art, then the debate has been resolved, if only for you.

Which leads us to:  The Zen of Fine Art Photography

On the home page of this blog I quote Ansel Adams:

 “Art implies control of reality, for reality itself possesses no sense of the aesthetic. Photography becomes art when certain controls are applied…”

And then I add what I strongly believe to be an additional necessary qualifier:

“…and when certain aesthetics are achieved.”

How do we know when those controls have been applied and those aesthetics achieved?  In truth, 99.9% of the photographs you see do not meet any of these criteria, and therefore are not art.

As for me,  I know it when I see it.

Is my work art?

I hope so. I strive for it to be.  But it’s not a question I can answer. It’s one I need you to answer.

So last night when I heard the painter say, “You photographers are so lucky. All you have to do is snap the picture. I spend weeks laboring over one of my pieces,” all this is what went through my head.

I thought about how I might respond. I thought about how I could explain this to her.

But it was noisy, I was tired, and so I just smiled and said, “You’re right. We are lucky. We get to do what we love.”

And I left it at that.

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ArtSpace Fine Art Photography Contest Winner

ArtSpace Fine Art Photography Contest Winner

Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite: Image made April 8, 2013

I learned tonight that my image titled “Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite” finished in First Place in the 2017 ArtSpace Fine Art Photography Contest.  A wonderful surprise!  The judge said she struggled to choose between that image and another one of mine, Manarola at Sunrise, and settled on the Yosemite shot.  Thank you for this great honor!

Announcement here and here

I was pleased to award William Toti the first place award for Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite in Feb. 2017. There have been countless photos taken of Tunnel View in Yosemite, but William’s transcends the rest by it’s exceptional quality of light, mood and strong composition.

Carla Steckley

Judge, ArtSpace Fine Art Photography Contest

Manarola at Sunrise: Image made May 27, 2014

Cinque Terre, Italy

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