Monday, September 19, 2011

Getting Artistic, Pt. 1

By Antonio E. Amador (©2011).

Just before photography, a painter's basic was to be able to recreate reality, be able to paint a realistic human face, body, landscape, buildings and any other subject out there. A good painter could do so with impact, with beauty, with drama, or with marked personal style; but the basic skill was to master the realism.

So what happened when photography came around in the 19th century? For once, painting turned to anything else but realist; welcome the birth of modern art. Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism are just some of the most notorious movements or styles that developed in the visual arts. Unable to compete with the realism of photography, painting turned into an expression of all sorts of fancy and personal interpretations; it became subjective.

As photography matured, past the technical proficiency รก la Ansel Adams, and all technical proficiency required to do a good documentary, objective image (let's call that the "craft and science of photography"), the photographer that intends to do art, must not let his art be dictated by the subject, but by his own way of portraying that subject. In other words, art is never about the portrayed object, but about the artist.

So how do we do this? I believe one good way to do this is to simply stray away from photography's nature of capturing the real world, and use the camera to capture an emotion, portray an idea, communicate our-self. Get in close, go for a detail; find a pattern, of forms, or colors; go for interesting lighting; interesting light-shadow play-contrast; a texture; use an unusual perspective; use post-production and alter the reality; change the hue, control the color palette, control the softness, sharpness or focus points. I outline some of these tips in more detail below.

Of course, before we can say we are making art, we have to find our own voice, identify our themes and develop a style accordingly. What you enjoy photographing right now points to the above questions, and the kind of photographs you like the most point to your style. Now it's a matter a making a conscious choice, and start narrowing down your options and concentrate on what represents you the most. It is the sign of artistic maturity and it help people pinpoint you as an artist.

1. Unusual Point of View.

Move behind, to the side, see it against different backgrounds. Make it not so obvious to the viewer. Remember, it is not anymore about identifying a subject, but about what interesting forms, shapes, colors we can come about in a way that would elicit a response, or an emotion.

2. Get REALLY Close; Show the Unseen.

Flowers and other natural objects offer a wonderful new world when you move in close enough. Focus on that that the naked eye usually don't see. A true macro lens helps tremendously here. Find forms, shapes, interesting compositions in the little world of close up photography.

3. Creative Focusing, Depth of Field and Bokeh.

Don't be afraid to explore the extremes of focusing; a totally blurred world can be beautifully cut by a sharp subject in the scene. Again, a macro lens can help lots; as well as long telephoto with fast aperture or other lens with a wide aperture. See for interesting out of focus lines or shapes in the background; it can create some of the most breathtaking images. Bokeh photography (that is, photography where bokeh is an integral part of the image) can reward with beautiful and inspiring photography.

4. Creative Direct Lighting for interesting Tone Differentiation.

Go for the moment, or the extreme, or the contrast relationships. Lighting can create the drama you may be looking for; can create bold contrast or simply soft expression. Morning and evening low and warm light con provide good opportunities to exploring direct lighting; or in the lack of, you use artificial devices, like a flash, or a flashlight (preferably LED, for a cooler light closer to outdoor light).

5. Control the Color Palette.

As our work matures, we will want to control more and more of the elements in the frame and start removing more and more unwanted elements. Colors are very powerful, thus they should be used wisely and carefully. First, do not include too many colors in a scene; a good photograph has usually one dominant color and possibly up to two supporting ones.

6. Work Hard on Finding the Perfect Shot.

The art in photography may just be in how selective and consistent you are in what you decide to photograph. Many times, nature and the world do present us with great forms, colors, textures, lighting, that couldn't get any better if imagined by an artist. Part of our art is to simply recognize such opportunities (that is, have sharp artistic sensibilities) and execute in a way that portrays our vision and style. When we do this consistently, we are indeed creating art.

7. Post-Processing (Digital) Treatment.

This is where it actually gets fun. Change color, over-blow highlights, alter clarity, turn to black and white, you name it. With today's digital capabilities, a picture does not end anymore when the shutter is released, but that's only half of the story. When getting artistic, the computer has given us a world of possibilities to develop our artistic style and put our vision in concrete.

Happy Shooting!!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Guidelines for Good Flower Photography, Pt. 2

By Antonio E. (Tony) Amador, @2011

Continuing with our description of those elements that make good flower, garden, nature photography, let's delve a bit deeper into those that separate outstanding work from day to day shots.

1. Back-light and Side-light on Sunny Days.

When the sun hits, move behind subjects for a whole new world of possibilities. Tree leaves show their beautiful color and venation; flowers acquire a translucent quality; "hairy" or "fuzzy" specimens acquire a beautiful halo.

Another great use for direct light is side lighting. Textured subjects, like old tree trunks, show punch and drama.

While soft overcast days, or open shade shooting, do provide very pleasant conditions for overall flower and close-up photography, direct sunlit days bring wonderful opportunities for eye-catching, WOW type of pictures. Just don't give your back to the sun!

2. Tame those Harsh Shadows.

Sometimes we have no choice but to shoot front lit in harsh direct sunlight. For these cases, the handiest fix is your camera flash (fill flash). While you may not end with a contest winner, at least you will have the shot with relatively decent quality, perfect for documentary purposes, and even your own portfolio.

You may also resort to the use of a diffuser to block the harsh sun, or a reflector to fill in shadows, just like the fill flash does. An assistant is helpful for such situations.

Oh, and never underestimate the usefulness of your own body as a light blocker; just stand on the way of the sun and shoot your subject with shaded uniform light. Wear a white shirt; it may help to fill in shadows when close to the subject.

3. Depth of Field Control for Beautiful Bokeh

One of the best tools you have to control background and thus differentiate your subject, is your ability to control depth of field (how much is in focus in the background) using your different aperture settings. The wider the aperture, the longer the lens (focal length) and the longer the distance from subject to background, the more ability to create beautiful bokeh. Bokeh refers to the unfocused parts of a picture, usually the background. Beautiful bokeh is as defining of a good picture as the subject itself, so have it very present when shooting, especially with delicate subjects like flowers.

4. A Macro Lens takes you to Another Level.

Not only will you be able to get really close, or fill the frame with very small specimens, with a macro lens you will gain much control on where you place your focus point, which is sometimes the difference between an okay shot and a perfect shot. This kind of control is hard to get with the macro feature of any point-and-shoot camera.

Remember, when shooting close-up, especially macro, even the slightest movement will affect the focus point or the photo's sharpness, so make sure you assume a comfortable posture, and keep the steadiest hand you can while keeping a close eye on the focus point. Hold your breath and click gently. Raise you ISO if you feel you need to; it's much better a grainy sharp focus than a blurry low grain one.

A macro lens will let you get into the realm of abstract photography as well; see how artistic you can get when emphasizing a tiny detail or part of a subject.

5. Exert More Control over the Scene.

Why not carry a small misting bottle for adding droplets to flowers or leaves for a nice touch on an otherwise common shot? Usually, the more you spray, the larger the droplets. Be ready to remove debris, spider webs and anything that may distract from the main subject or subtract from its beauty. Sometimes it's useful to carry a utility knife or similar tool to get where your fingers cannot, or should not. A set of garden clippers can also be helpful in removing those unwanted dead stems or twigs.

Bring an assistant, and have him/her hold a black or white card behind your subject for instant studio background. He may also hold a white card to fill in shadow areas. This same assistant can probably hold an off camera light source, like a flash, for more controlled lighting, or small lantern for particular or peculiar effects. Or just bring a couple of light stands to hold any off-camera lighting, reflector cards or backdrop.

The more you control the scene, the more professional your shot is going to look.

6. Use a Tripod when you Really Need it.

At some point you may require to shoot with a longer depth of field and low ISO requiring a slower shutter speed than your hand steadiness will allow you. That's when you will need a tripod.

A tripod will also let you concentrate on the composition and the elements of the frame in a more meticulous way, gain more depth of field, and may even give you the free hand necessary for other uses like holding an external light or a reflector. Think of it as a tool for your more formal, commercial, or trophy shots: those that require special attention. So bring it when you already know what you're shooting.

Oh, and be patient, as you still have to wait for the wind to calm before shooting at slow speeds with a tripod; your subject has to be as steady as your camera.

7. Know Your Subjects.

Learn the species name. Learn its blooming time. Maybe learn about its origin. Not only will you become a better photographer and a more educated person, you will also have an easier time when titling, captioning or keywording your image for online publishing.

Keep shooting beauty!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Guidelines for Good Flower Photography

By Antonio E. Amador (©2011, All Rights Reserved).

Besides the 10 Basic Elements of a Good Photograph there are more specific guidelines for great flower, garden or botanical photography. These are very basic elements, as further down we'll get deepen in some of these aspects as well as present new ones.

1. Overcast Days are The Best.

Since most of flower photography has to do with close-ups, there is no use for nice blue skies, which usually come with sunny days. Direct sun on flowers create rather unappealing contrast, with possible loss on highlights as well as shadows. Shadow areas may also acquire the blue cast of the sky above. The great soft box that overcast days create provides even, unchanging light that's very pleasant, neutral, and actually brings out the best color and saturation of subjects. With such light, the photographer can concentrate on so many other important variables rather than dealing with changing sun light and sudden sun blocking cloud shade that are common on such days. Also, overcast days will provide you with sufficient light levels during most of the day for your shooting, while waiting for very early or evening shooting for this light may lower considerably the amount of light for comfortable work.

As an alternative, find subjects in open shadow (any shade area) which is usually fed by the blue sky-atmosphere light or reflected light from other surfaces. There are, for sure, great opportunities for sunny days, in many cases for higher impact and contraster images; nevertheless it requires much more care, and certainly more sweat!

2. Wind is Your Enemy.

One of the marks of substandard photography is motion blur, whether from you hand shake, or from subject movement. If the wind is hitting foliage, you will most likely get blurry images that won't look good when magnified. You may spot easily the blurriness of a flower or leaf in a close-up, but a more elusive one is that of entire trees (moving leaves) due to wind moving it's leaves.

Breezy days make your shooting harder and demands time and energy that could otherwise be invested in more exploration and experimentation.

So, on windy days, wear your patience shirt, or else, leave your camera at home and go for the stroll (it's good every once in a while).

3. Shoot Handheld for Mobility.

When out in a garden, there is a great amount of possible shots awaiting that demand mobility and agility from the photographer. During regular day hours, the amount of light should be enough to be able to hand hold your camera and get sharp pictures. A tripod will multiply your work time, limit your choices and experimentation, and may anyway be useless under breezy conditions.

There is, of course, a place and a case for a tripod, but unless you know why, do without.

4. Pick the Best Specimen for the Job.

Flowers have a peak bloom time, its prime, which will make your photograph a much better one. It will look new, fresh, radiant; petals silky, pollen abundant, strong fragrance, bees all busy!

And conversely watch for the competing flower; one that is too close or positioned in a way that dilutes the attention from the main one. Make sure your pick is favored by the composition.

5. Control the Background.

Great flower photography is usually characterized by its relationship with the background. Garden photographers are usually so mesmerized by the beauty of the subject that they pay little attention to its background. Adding to this, in terms background focus, what you see in your camera's viewfinder is usually not what you get. This is due to the fact that your DSLR camera's aperture idle aperture is the widest, which produces the softest backgrounds. Even after successfully defocusing a background there may still be distracting elements that may need physical removing, blocking or choice of a different angle. Overall, you should be looking for good subject definition or differentiation against its background. Other ways that a good background can be are darker or lighter (tone), different color, different texture or pattern, different saturation, distance, among others.

6. Pick the Right Focus Point.

There is always a natural or sweet spot for placing the focus in a given angle or composition. It is either determined by the physical characteristics of the subject (e.g. a flower's filament/anthers on frontal or semi-frontal angles) or the natural line movement or balance point according to the chosen composition. The important thing is to get this focus point right. Most times than not, this will actually fall within the center region of the frame, which is where people's more naturally tend to look while viewing a picture. Of course, if you are shooting with a long depth of field, most of the subject's element may be in sharp focus. This principle also applies for flower bed shots, where you should always pick one good flower from the rest to place your focus on.

7. Get in There, Fill the Frame!

You don't need to show the entire flower to tell the story. Sometimes a flower is about its color transitions, its texture, its peculiar curls, its majestic filaments and anthers. Even when a flower or leaf have an interesting silhouette, it can probably be captured by a tiny, representative part of it; and edge, its curves. In trying to include the entire specimen in the frame we may lose impact as well as risk getting more competing elements in sight. So in short, be daring, be bold... competition is tough!

Happy Shooting!