Recent Photography #3

Last month there was a vibrant discussion (also known as "a bit of a hoo-ha") amongst the backpacking cognoscenti on twitter about  photographic authenticity (by my count, that's two oxymorons in one sentence). Rather than throwing my hat into the ring, I thought I'd talk around the issue in another recent photography update.

Dave Lintern addressed the discussion in his article The Outdoor Anarchist's Guide to Photography, which is a jolly good read, and neatly coincides with my own position. Having studied photography and worked with it for a couple of decades, I'm fairly confirmed in my beliefs that photographs bear little relation to truth, and it is in fact their tendency to misrepresent that I find most interesting.

The discussion originated in opinions about camera skills being more important than processing skills. Well, while "mastering" a camera (if that is even possible) is certainly not a bad thing, the two have always gone hand-in-hand. What is most important for me, is being able to determine intent when capturing the image (i.e. what you want the image to look like at the end), and then using the tools (camera, skills and knowledge, technique, processing) to achieve that intent. Some call it pre-visualisation, and that's as good a term as any. But the point is, no matter what your skill level is, most of the time what you capture in camera will not be perfect, because of limitations in the ways cameras interpret and record light, and because the contrast range of light available in the real world is (usually) far greater than the range of the camera.

For me, the approach is to determine the mood of what I'm shooting, and figure out the best way to photograph it so that I can later achieve something approximating that mood in post. Mastering your camera, means mastering the entire photographic process, because they are intimately tied.

Most landscape photographers love bad weather. On a nice clear day, the dynamic range of a scene can be so high that many cameras simply can't capture that great an image; a compromise has to be made when metering to give bias towards light, mid-tones, or dark tones. Less perfect weather makes it much easier. A hazy day evens out the light, narrows it down, and allows you to work with the image a little less drastically in order to bring out nice qualities.

Take this one from Muotkatunturi:

A lovely hazy day. I was pretty certain the original capture would be okay. But after a little processing, it's like a veil has been lifted. Now, this was taken with a Nikon D800, and if that can't take the "perfect" shot in camera...

Anyway, my point is that the edited version better reflects what I saw that day: I bought out the red hue that autumnal berry leaves gave to the hill on the right, and the blue-white exposed rock in the center which we'd been able to see from miles away. The detail in the nearer trees and swamp is much more appealing; it has a three-dimensionality and depth that the original lacks. Getting the best exposure possible was still important, but it was possible because the conditions allowed it. If it were a sunny day, I'd have had to frame it differently, and probably cut out the sky.

Another example.

A shot from a few weeks ago of the bridge near my home. Another misty day equals perfect weather for an eerie shot. When I saw it was so foggy, I grabbed my camera knowing that I'd be able to take a shot in which all background detail is lost to white. But making it white – as white as I saw it – takes a little more work. Again, the processed version is like lifting a veil. The stonework benefits greatly from the increased tonality, as do the pipes upper right. The left hand side, all in fog, looks much smoother in the processed version.

When you work with photographs a long time, you start to see colour casts, and know when to expect them. Misty days tend towards blue, and removing that creates a much more "natural" looking image. If I'm honest, though, I've gone a teeny bit too far. A hint of magenta has crept back in, and there is some haloing along the shadow in the water that I need to deal with.

Here's another of my favourite shots from recent weeks, and one that required very little work:

There's no comparison on this one, as the processed version is very similar to the original. I've increased the contrast a little to give more texturality to the grass in the foreground, and evened out the greys a little. I like this image as it looks totally unlike Lapland – more like Denmark.

In many ways, the above image is, then, fairly "natural"

Naturalism in photography is revealed as utter nonsense when it comes to black and white, of course.

I'm torn between renderings of colour and black and white in that one. On the one hand, the colour version is nice and autumnal, but the structure of the scene and the framing provided by the trees suits a black and white formalism, lending it an almost Ansel Adams quality. Black and white is about as far away form natural and authentic as you can get, and yet we've learned to "see" it as classically representative of landscape photography. Go figure.

Playing with that idea – that something inherently "wrong" can still look "right", here's a photo of a raven.

It's "artistic interpretation" time, folks!

When shooting that, I wanted to capture the darkness of the raven, which meant taking control of the camera. With dark (or conversely light) images, the camera meter is always going to get it wrong, so heavy compensation is needed. Balancing the exposure for darkness and detail meant under-exposing from the camera reading, but in order make it work as an image I needed a bright background. Fortunately we'd just had the first snow.

But what in god's name have I done in post-processing? Well, I was trying something out, and going for a dark, eerie, Lynchian mood which I was feeling at the time, because I'd just passed the owls, and the owls are not what they seem.

So with the raven I tried to create a daguerrotype effect to accentuate the spookiness. I'm sure it's not everyone's cup of tea, but that's the funny thing with photography: you can make an image you really like, and nobody else will like it. Then you'll take something you think is a bit mediocre and it'll become an internet sensation.

Here's another one from the "ooh, I don't like that" series of birds.

Unconventional framing was another thing I was experimenting with this month! Probably it was the brightness of new snow combined with mist that triggered that. Conditions like that lend themselves to exploring whitespace.

I like those two swans. There were more in the original shot, but the wings on that one above looked the best, and positioning them on the right suggests they are at the head of a larger flock, migrating south for the winter.

Here's another slide-by-slide comparison (see what I did there?).

Another misty day, hugely benefitted by some post-processing clarification. The original is all right, but the processed version has atmosphere. The addition of some film grain (which you can't really see in these tiny versions) suits the mistiness too, making it almost tactile. I really like the way that the mirrored island and trees look like sound waves.

Let's warm things up a bit.

Three photos from the annual Rovaniemi fire festival (Jokivalkeat) in which art students from the Pyromania Faculty get to display their skills. It's really only missing Edward Woodward.

I love the way the D800 can freeze the fire at high ISO and keep it noise-free. You can feel the raging inferno.

Warmed up? Good. Because outside it's snowing.

I took a client out on a photo tour this week in some beautiful weather – again, a cloudy day with snow let's you really maximise the available contrast of a scene. I love the blackness of the river in this next one.

And that's pretty much it for this edition of Recent Photography.

For a slightly more academic take on photography (albeit one hidden within a nice, fluffy coat) that touches on the issues raised a the start of this post, I was asked to write the introduction to a book of photographs by my friend Tuukka Kaila recently. If you're interested, you can read "Some Words About Pictures" here.

And of course, some of the photos on this page, as well as many more, are available to buy as beautiful, signed prints. Please do check them out – they make excellent presents.

Lastly, if you are of an artistic bent, I have a work currently showing in the Bodies. Border, Crossings exhibition in Pori Art Museum, and will be in Tornio next week for the Import/Export International Viedo- and Media Art Exhibition I've co-curated (both of which have been largely responsible for the lack of backpacking recently!)