On flipping your photographs

Crosses & Bear Mnt in Fog. Boulder, Colorado, 2012
Crosses & Bear Mnt in Fog. Boulder, Colorado, 2012

Just about every photo editing program has the capability to flip your images maybe a couple of ways, or even a multitude of ways–rotate left, rotate right, rotate 180 degrees, flip vertical, flip horizontal, etc. Don’t discount these simple tools to [possibly!] improve the composition of a particular photograph.

Here’s the thing…In western civilization, most languages tend to read from left to right, so our brain gets used to moving in that direction. If the composition of an image is set up to flow from right to left, it might seem unnatural, or at least it could cause a bit of tension (maybe a good thing, depending on your goal with the image). So, thinking in terms of the way the western brain works, you might try flipping your picture horizontally so that it flows in accordance with what our little gray cells expect.

Here is a comparison, to give you an example. Which one feels like it flows more naturally? This one…

Swamp Gold. South Boulder Creek, Colorado, 2012
Swamp Gold. South Boulder Creek, Colorado, 2012

Or this one…

Swamp Gold, again...but with a righthand flow.
Swamp Gold, again…but with a righthand flow.

Did each version give you a slightly different feeling?

Of course, in some cases, you may want to compose in a way that brings a bit of tension or originality to the photograph…but think about it…maybe experiment by flipping and rotating the image here and there, then decide.

One last caution: Some folks have taken this a bit far and they flip all their reflection-type images upside down so that the lake is the sky and vice versa. Avoid that pitfall. If you do it too much and with the wrong picture, it can look very gimmicky. So, save this idea for a very unusual image (it does work in some cases).

So now what do you think of the orientation of my image of the day with the telephone lines (top)? Does it work as is, or would you experiment by flipping it? How many of you recognize that iconic profile of Bear Mountain above Boulder, Colorado? Would it really work to flip the photograph of a well-known landmark?

Who regularly critiques your images?

Flying Free (note the bug!). Boulder, Colorado, 2012
Flying Free (note the bug!). Boulder, Colorado, 2012

Although there are others, it’s my wife who does this on a regular basis–and the more she does it, the better she does. Maybe I’ll come back after a morning shoot with 100 images on the card, I’ll work on maybe a dozen in Lightroom and Photoshop, then show them to her. After she has her say, usually only a couple make the cut as “keepers”. She is pretty honest and straight-forward with what she likes and what she doesn’t like, and I tend to agree with her verdicts about 80-90% of the time. (Definition of “honest and straight-forward”: “This photograph is terrible! It looks like a crappy postcard!”)

It’s always impressive how someone else can give you such a completely different perspective on your photography. They will point out things you hadn’t noticed…or give you ideas that hadn’t occurred to you for composition, lighting, or post-processing…or they will like stuff you thought was bad…or they will hate stuff you thought was good…and so on.

Whoever you have critique your images will, of course, have their own biases and their own personal tastes. Take that into account when you hear what they have to say. Heck, you may completely disagree with their analysis! That’s perfectly OK. Take what they say, ingest it, munch on it, then you can either spit it out or digest it–either way it will make you a better photographer.

In the end, though, if you have someone give you honest feedback you will definitely push that learning curve into a slightly steeper incline than it otherwise would have had.

Wednesday Photo Critique #2, 11/28/2012

The L-M Farm. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012
The L-M Farm. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012

It is sooo difficult to critique one’s own images! That, though, is precisely why I am doing it. I hope that the exercise gets progressively easier with time and that my eye becomes more perceptive and knowledgeable along the way.

I am finding that the key to doing this type of self-critique effectively is to attempt to disconnect oneself from the remembered experience at the time the shutter button was pressed. An image needs to be analyzed on its own merits as the viewer has no idea how difficult it was to set up the shot, how cold it was, how long you took to post-process it, etc. The viewer can only react to what is there in the photograph.

For today, I have selected an image I created very recently–about 10 days ago–near Lyons, Colorado. Here is the metadata: Nikon D90 (1.5x crop factor sensor) with Nikkor 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 zoom at 70mm, f/11, 1/125, ISO200, tripod.

And once again we’ll use my 7-Step Critique Guide I first outlined in my November 14, 2012 post. Click here for the full critique!


Sunset Horizons from Rabbit Mnt. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012
Sunset Horizons from Rabbit Mnt. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012

I continually relearn this lesson: simplicity will often result in a stronger image. My first shutter actuations often include too much of the scene. I can often see that later when I review my images, one after the other, on the computer monitor. With each successive photograph, I can see that slow transition I make from the big view on down to progressively narrower views until I have finally zeroed in on the key area of interest. (Of course, many times, I never actually get there!)

Take the image above, for instance. I was first enthralled with the glorious sunset-lit clouds filling the entire sky, the long black horizon extending for 30 miles to the south and the interaction of the weird lenticular clouds all along the entire horizon–so I tried to capture all of it with several wide-angle and super-wide angle images. Not too bad. But, then it occurred to me what really caught my eye was that small section of the horizon that had the one lone red cloud hovering above it and the white ribbon clouds to the side for contrast. So, once I finally realized what really interested me, off went the wide angle and on went the telephoto. The result? A much stronger image, at least IMHO.

So, try this the next time you are out shooting: Keep narrowing the field of view of your chosen scene little by little until there is almost nothing left but some abstract lines and shapes. You can do this by switching to lenses with larger focal lengths, or with a zoom lens (or two), or simply by zooming in with your feet. Chances are, your strongest images will be some of the last in the sequence.

Curve to the Moon. RMNP, Colorado, 2012
Curve to the Moon. RMNP, Colorado, 2012

The camera as teacher

The Condos. Twin Lakes, Colorado, 2012
The Condos. Twin Lakes, Colorado, 2012

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

–Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

And so it is…When you are on dawn or sunset patrol with your camera, or when you are on the street watching for your own personal “decisive moments”, you can feel your senses come alive as you take the time to really look intimately at the world as if for the first time. You start noticing the subtly changing hues and shadows upon the land/cityscape…your eye moves in to sample smaller–perhaps more abstract–parts of the whole…you turn this way, that way, your eye moves to the sky, to the earth, to the building parapets, to the sewer grates, to the opposite horizon or down the alley to be sure nothing of interest is missed behind you…and, strangely perhaps, you even grow more attuned to the temperature, the humidity, and the scents hanging in the air (even if those are things today’s cameras cannot yet capture).

Yes, when the light  and shooting conditions are right, you can really feel yourself slip into a mental state that is not unlike meditation. You are in the zone, as they say.

Yes, as Dorothea Lange so aptly pointed out, the camera does indeed teach you to see…and to be in the present moment…and to focus your creative mind.

What is an “art photographer”?

McCall Lake #8. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012
McCall Lake #8. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012

Today I think I’ll simply pass on a link to a great article by Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer as his words really struck a C major chord with me. The article is called “The Difference Between A Photographer and an Artist” and you can read it in it’s entirety here–which I highly recommend you do.

The three key points I got out of it?

1) His definition of an “art photographer” as a “photographer with an opinion” is intriguing and will require some contemplation.

2) Never show your sh*t images. Good photographers don’t do this…and I am sooo guilty of this. Time to review and purge all my galleries…

3) The term “photographer” is a loaded term with many possible meanings. (Are you a “photographer”? What does that mean to you?)

Again, I suggest you read the article in its entirety. Mike is a very entertaining writer and there are many other interesting comments to be found in this particular column.

P.S. While you are at his website, check out the post “Open Mike: Texas Wants to Secede“–not really related to photography, but pretty funny and worth the read!

Imagining a scene under different conditions

Late Afternoon in the Foothills. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012
Late Afternoon in the Foothills. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012

Here is a suggestion for you: No matter what you are doing throughout the day–running errands, at the computer at work, driving home at the end of the day, taking out the garbage–keep your photographer goggles on and your eyes alert to possible images. You might not have your camera with you (although you should!), you might not have the time to make a photograph, the light might not be right, and so on…but keep alert to the many possibilities if the right conditions were to materialize. There are potential images everywhere.

I have a number of favorite places, vistas and scenes in which I have composed potential photographs in my mind’s eye; I am just waiting for the conditions to be right. This is the idea, then: Try to imagine what you are seeing under different conditions–in different light, at sunrise, at sunset, with storm clouds, in autumn, in winter with snow, in the rain, in the fog, with people present…or not, with some kind of critter there, at night with star trails, in color, in monochrome. And so on.

Once you have visualized what the scene might be like under different conditions, be alert to when those conditions actually come about…or go there to actively seek out those conditions you have imagined.

When you start imagining how different scenes might look under different conditions, it’s amazing how many more photographic possibilities start popping out at you. Great images are everywhere!

Samsara, a must see film for photographers

Indian Peaks Dawn #2. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012
Indian Peaks Dawn #2. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012

We saw the film Samsara (2011, 102 minutes, directed by Ron Fricke) this week and I want to recommend it as a wonderful, overwhelming, and sometimes shocking, visual banquet for photographers (and anyone else with natural curiosity, really).

As photographers, though, it is always a great idea to broaden our vistas by partaking of the other arts when we get a chance–dance, music, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, opera, literature…and, most certainly, film. It’s a tremendously fun way to stimulate those little gray cells and to come up with new creative ideas for our images.

Samsara is apparently an old Sanskrit word that can be translated as “cyclic existence,” “continuous flow,” “cycle of creation and destruction,” or “the ever-turning wheel of life”. Indeed, the film deals with the tremendous range of the human experience and our relationship with other cultures and our environment. For a movie with no dialogue–only a wonderfully diverse score written by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci–it certainly is successful in provoking thought, introspection, debate, awe, and wonder with its spectacular, ever-changing scenes and strange juxtapositions of those scenes.

The film took five years to make and was filmed in 25 different countries throughout the world. The 70mm camera work uses both slow motion and fast motion to create some really unforgettable and unusual imagery.

Some highlights for me…the repetition of the motif of the eyes–often staring, unblinking and direct, at the audience…the French performance artist Olivier de Sagazan and his wild “mud play”…the opening scenes filmed from a hot air balloon of the ancient and surreal Buddhist temple ruins in Myanmar…the 1000 Hands Dance in Beijing…the Kawah Ijen Sulfur Mine in Java, Indonesia…the mind-blowing Chinese factory scenes…the aerial views in fast motion of the pilgrims at  Mecca…just to mention a few.

For more information, see the official Samsara web site here. Better yet, find out where it’s playing and go see the film yourself–your little creative photographer gray cells will thank you!