Redwoods in Fog, Del Norte State Park, California
Over the past months I’ve presented tutorials about some of the more technical sides of photography, like curves and camera calibration. These are important tools for realizing your vision, but today I want to turn in a different direction and talk about something less technical, but even more essential—inspiration.
Inspiration in photography can mean several different things. First, there’s the inspiration it takes to make a photograph—the leap of imagination that allows someone to capture a new, different way of seeing a subject, or create an original photographic concept.
Second, you can feel inspired when looking at a photograph. I’ve seen many images that have moved me in some way, perhaps by capturing a moment of great beauty, or a poignant interaction between people.
I’ve also felt inspired by a body of work and thought, “Wow, I want to do that! I want to make photographs that good.” In this case the inspiration is a motivator, something that spurs me to greater heights of creativity and imagination.
Many photographs and photographers have inspired me over the years. Seung Kye Lee lives in Norway, and might be the best landscape photographer you’ve never heard of. One of my favorite photographs of his, Rondane – Whispering Wind, has a great sense of space, depth, and scale—disorienting and surreal. Another favorite, Haiku, just portrays beautiful, magical light.
Next, for something completely different: Jerry Uelsmann. His dreamlike composite images—all done in the darkroom, by the way, not with Photoshop—are well known and widely collected. I had the privilege of meeting Jerry several times when he taught workshops for The Ansel Adams Gallery in the 1980s, and he is extremely nice and has a great sense of humor. He also has a large body of work from Yosemite, since he taught many workshops there. What I like about this image, Untitled, 1992, is the integration of human and natural forms. I wish we could all be this connected with nature.
I hope that some of my photographs might be inspiring to others. But I want to tell you today that everyone can do it. Yes, this means you. Your photographs can move people. Your photographs can inspire people.
How? By being inspired yourself. If you’re not moved by what you’re photographing, then your photographs won’t move others. But if you can see deeply into your subject, if you can feel a connection with a place, a moment, or a person, then you might find that spark of insight or imagination that can help you create a great image.
Ansel Adams said, “I have made thousands of photographs of the natural scene, but only those visualizations that were most intensely felt at the moment of exposure have survived the inevitable winnowing of time.” Ansel was more articulate with a camera than a typewriter, but he meant that his best photographs were made when he felt inspired by the scene in front of him.
That’s been my experience too. It was certainly the case when I made the photograph of redwoods at the top of this post. Walking among those giant trees on that foggy morning I felt awestruck, humbled, and deeply connected with everything around me.
It’s easy to get caught up in our jobs and our day-to-day existence. We think about money, or a difficult in-law, or the latest crisis in the news. I think that’s why we love photography. We can’t often express ourselves at work, but we can with a camera. Photography gives us a creative outlet, a way of keeping in touch with our true, inner selves, the person that often gets forgotten while sitting in meetings or paying the bills. A camera can help you connect, or re-connect, with the things that are really important to you. Find out what those things are, what things matter most to you in the world, and you can make inspiring photographs.
What subjects move you and inspire you? What photographs or photographers have you found inspirational? I’d like to hear your thoughts, and see links to images that have inspired you.
“Winding Road” by Ken Schram
This week’s photograph was made by Ken Schram in Door County, Wisconsin. By having his image chosen for this critique Ken will receive a free 16×20 matted print from Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques you can upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose.
Wednesday was the autumn equinox, so it seems appropriate to show some fall color—in this case from Wisconsin. The photograph depicts the road leading to the Washington Island Ferry.
A twisting road like this is an irresistible subject. Most landscape photographers have probably tried to capture a similar view at one time or another—I certainly have. As you click the shutter you imagine the large checks that your stock agency will soon be sending you for licensing this classic stock photo subject… only to get jolted back to reality when you realize how many other curving road photographs are out there. But I digress…
Ken said that with his 18-55mm lens (the only one he owned at the time) he couldn’t compress the curves. He meant that with a longer lens he could have zoomed in on the curviest section of road in the upper-right part of the image to emphasize the zigzags. So he decided instead to “take the viewer on a journey through the frame.” He cropped the photograph (you can see an uncropped, unprocessed version here) to eliminate the washed-out sky, and decided to “start the double-yellow line at the bottom-left corner so the eye would follow the road up to the upper-right third.”
In the original version, that large bright sky at the top of the frame pulls our attention away from the real stars of the scene, the road and fall color. So that sky either needed to be cropped, as Ken did, or darkened. Ken’s crop emphasizes the strong lines of the road and creates a clean, simple, and compelling composition with a crisp autumn feeling.
While I like the idea of cropping out the sky, I’m not sure about the double-yellow line meeting the corner of the frame, and about where the other lines of the road meet the edges of the photograph. If you’ve tried to capture this kind of subject you probably soon realized that the foreground presents a problem. The edges of the road have to enter the frame somewhere near the bottom, but where exactly? Should those lines touch the sides of the frame? The bottom? The corners? One edge on the side, the other on the bottom? And what about that center line?
While I try not to be dogmatic about any aspect of composition, I usually avoid making prominent lines meet the corner of the frame. I’m not sure why exactly, but a line touching a corner seems to divide the photograph awkwardly. And with a road image like this it usually works best to make the lines symmetrical—that is, have both edges of the road meet the bottom of the frame, both meet the sides, or, possibly, both meet the corners.
If you go to Flickr and search for “road” you’ll find examples of every possible composition: both edges of the road touching the sides of the frame, both meeting the bottom, one touching the side and the other the bottom, or one or more lines reaching the bottom corners. To me the most effective of these have that symmetry I was talking about—both edges of the road meeting the sides of the frame, or both meeting the bottom, and usually at about the same distance from the corner. But there are successful, asymmetrical exceptions. (There are also several photographs of the same stretch of road; see here, here, and here.)
Getting back to Ken’s photograph, to me this is a case where the double-yellow line coming out of the corner of the frame looks awkward. Also, the right edge of the photograph is cropped a bit too tightly. Looking at the original, uncropped version I can see that there was more space on that right edge. I’m guessing that Ken chose to trim that side to eliminate messy leaves and pine needles along the side of the road, but that made the white line almost touch the edge of the frame, and to me that feels too cramped.
Given the short focal length lens he had to work with, I think Ken would have been better off standing closer to the center of the road and making both edges of the road meet the sides of the frame, and having the double-yellow line touch the bottom of the photograph. But with the camera position he chose, is there a better crop? I think so—here’s one example with the yellow line meeting the bottom of the frame. This tight framing highlights another problem though: where the double-yellow line crests the foreground hill it meets the edge of the road in the distance. Again, stepping to the left would have avoided this merger.
There’s also another option. The sky isn’t really washed out. It’s light, but has detail, and could be darkened. I did just that by taking the original, unprocessed version and using the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom with “Auto Mask” checked. I also added a slight overall S-curve to punch up the contrast, and trimmed the bottom edge. Including more of this now-darkened sky gives the image a more expansive feeling, like I’m taking that journey through the frame that Ken talked about.
The original image with the sky darkened, a slight increase in contrast, and the bottom edge trimmed
Even though I like this version with more sky, I still think Ken might have been better off standing in the middle of the road. Well, the photograph might have been better, but his health might not!
This image is technically well-executed. Everything appears to be in focus, and the overall exposure looks just right. I think the contrast is a little too high in the finished image, making it feel a bit harsh. In my re-worked version with the darkened sky I added some contrast, but not as much, as I wanted to keep a bright, crisp, autumn feeling.
As always, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Which crop do you prefer? How do you feel about the contrast? And if you’ve tried photographing road scenes like this, how did you deal with the way the lines met the edges of the frame?
Thanks Ken for sharing your image! You can see more his work on Flickr, and on his web site.
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As part of being chosen for this week’s critique Ken will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. I’ll be posting the next critique in two weeks. Thanks for participating!
The Ansel Adams Gallery will be announcing their 2011 workshop schedule soon, but I thought I’d give you a preview of my Photoshop and Digital Printing workshop, since it’s only four months away: January 16-20, 2011.
This is a perfect class for anyone who wants to improve their knowledge and skill with Photoshop. Photoshop is an incredibly powerful program, yet because of that power it’s also complex. This workshop is designed to help you cut through the clutter, and all the conflicting, confusing information out there, and learn simple, powerful techniques for making great digital prints. We’ll have five days—plenty of time to really immerse ourselves in the subject. I guarantee that you’ll leave the class with new skills, confidence, and increased mastery of Photoshop. Click here to read the full workshop description on my web site.
Winter can be a great time to photograph Yosemite Valley. While working on our digital darkroom skills we’ll also keep an eye on the weather and be ready to photograph fresh snow or a clearing storm. Last year we found some great light and clouds one afternoon, as you can see by the accompanying photograph.
As soon as the Gallery makes the announcement I’ll post the full list of workshops here. Or, if you prefer, send me an email letting me know you’re interested and I’ll let you know when the workshops are live and open for registration. And if none of these workshops fit your schedule, I’m available for private workshops for individuals or small groups.
Aspens and Juniper, Rock Creek Canyon
Claudia and I went to the Millpond Music Festival in Bishop this weekend. We were trying to figure out how many years we’ve been going to this event. Eleven? Twelve? Regardless, we love this festival. Crowds are small, the camping is great, and we get to spend time with friends. Oh, and the music is wonderful!
On our way home last night we drove up Rock Creek Canyon, as I had read a report by Inge Fernau on Carol Leigh’s Calphoto site about some early color there. We did find some aspens changing. They were mostly small, scrubby ones near the trailhead, but I was able to make this photo of yellow leaves surrounding a juniper.
It’s still very early for fall color, but by the end of the month the high-elevation aspens on the eastern side of the Sierra should turning. I’ll keep you posted on what I see and hear.
Late-October aspens, June Lake Loop
As fall approaches, you might be wondering where and when to photograph fall color around Yosemite. Click here to read my post from last September describing some of my favorite autumn locations.
It’s too early to tell what kind of fall we’ll have. Some of the Indian rhubarb in Yosemite Valley has already turned yellow, which is a bit early. I’ll be going to Bishop this weekend for the Millpond Music Festival, so I’ll let you know if I see any high-elevations aspens staring to change color.
Let’s hope for a nice fall!