Category: Intimate landscapes

Stones, lichen and shadows

Stones, lichen and shadows

I’m currently trying to write an article about imagining depth in a photograph which is after all, a flat piece of paper. The task is proving to be quite difficult.

In the article I want to move beyond compiling a list of compositional techniques that help to create the illusion of depth, for example the use of converging parallel lines, overlapping objects or diminution in scale where the same sized objects look smaller the further they are away from us.

There are plenty of sources for that sort of information and the techniques can easily be incorporated into our compositions to create the illusion of depth or as it is sometimes called, to create the ‘z axis’. In the article I want to go beyond tips and techniques to say more about the way depth perception works – how our brain creates a three-dimensional image of the world based on the two-dimensional data received from each eye. That goal has led me into the realm of ‘visual intelligence’ (a term coined by Professor Donald D Hoffman at the University of California).

Although we might think we see with our eyes, it’s much more complicated than that. We actually ‘see’ with our ‘mind’s eye’. We see what our ‘visual intelligence’ constructs and we learn to do that in the first year of life, even before we can walk and talk. Fortunately our ‘visual intelligence’ relies on a set of universal rules that transcend languages and cultures. This enables the photographer and a viewer to reach a similar conclusion about the three-dimensional reality a photograph is attempting to convey even if they’ve never met or discussed the photograph, or if they speak different languages or live on opposite sides of the globe.

The problem I face with the article is condensing everything that is fascinating about the concept of ‘visual intelligence’ into a short post. I can easily write twenty pages on the subject but trying to condense all that into one or two pages is proving difficult. Nevertheless I’m getting there slowly. In the meantime I decided to do some more work on a photograph I took a year ago in Padley Woods – a place in the Peak District of England. In a way it’s related to the concept of ‘visual intelligence’ because my photograph is deliberately trying to create some visual ambiguity about the subject matter, so when someone looks at it their ‘visual intelligence’ has to work a little harder to try and make sense of the image. As a consequence, I hope the viewer is encouraged to engage with and explore the photograph in more detail (even if that only happens unconsciously).

The title of this post (‘Stones, lichen and shadows’) takes most of the ambiguity away by giving a clue to the nature of the subject matter, but without a caption or introductory description it can prove difficult to instantly make sense of parts of the image. For example, some people have interpreted the image as a picture of a pile of fossils where the leaves have left their impression in the stones, rather than a photograph of a dry-stone wall with the sun casting the shadows of fern leaves onto it. Our ‘visual intelligence’ is pretty smart but it’s not foolproof so it doesn’t always get it right. There are plenty of famous optical illusions that demonstrate that point, for example, Oscar Reutersvärd’s 1934 illusion ‘the devil’s triangle’, where our ‘visual intelligence’ is fooled into ‘seeing’ a three-dimensional triangle that can’t physically exist.

Another connection with ‘visual intelligence’ is the perception of colour and in particular our sensitivity to the colour green. Our eyes can only see three colours – red, green and blue – our brain has to do the rest to construct the wide palette of colours we can distinguish. Green can be a particularly difficult colour for landscape photographers because our camera sensors are biased to collect more green light than red or blue, also because we are particularly sensitive to green – possibly as a result of its importance in our evolution as a species when we were more reliant on the natural world for our survival, and also because the green colour in a lot of our subject matter – grass, trees etc. – represents a ‘memory colour’ – viewers ‘know’ what colour that sort of subject matter should be in a photograph.

The photograph in this post (‘Stones, lichen and shadows’) relies on the colour green quite a lot to give the image a subtle variation of interest and texture. However, the green tones vary quite a bit from yellow-green to blue-green. The Impressionist painters understood the subtle variations of colour in a predominantly green landscape scene often adding for example, blues, pinks and yellows to add visual realism to a scene that the casual observer or the untrained eye would simply describe as being green. Adjusting the ‘greens’ so they appear realistic without losing their aesthetic appeal and compositional contribution therefore formed an important part of post-processing with this image.

Working on the green areas in this image without altering other parts of the image could be difficult because of the generalised, almost random, distribution of the green across the stones and the differences in how the same colour looks (light green – dark green) depending on the localised ‘lighting’ effect created by the sunlight and shadows, and the variation in colour from yellow-green through to blue-green. Fortunately the RAW converter ‘CaptureOne’ has a neat way of constructing extremely complex ‘masks’ to separate parts of an image based on a selected colour and it does that in seconds which is really useful. So in this image I wanted to select the green colour (whether it be yellow-green, green or blue-green) and tone down the colour saturation a little. The following image is a screenshot taken with my iPhone of the mask ‘CaptureOne’ created in two seconds.

The quality of the screenshot isn’t perfect but hopefully you can see the way ‘CaptureOne’ has avoided some parts of the image but still picked up even small, isolated areas that it saw as matching the colour I’d selected as the target for creating the mask. Drawing in this mask by hand would be extremely difficult and time-consuming which is why I often use ‘CaptureOne’ as my Raw converter of choice, particularly when I anticipate the need for complex masks where I can use colour as the defining parameter. In this particular image for example, including the green in small parts of the fern leaf shadows without effecting the entire shadow, or including parts of stones without damaging the colour integrity of the rest of the stone colours would be a major challenge to first identify all the green (pixel by pixel) and then to draw the mask by hand.

I find the colour-masking ability of ‘CaptureOne’ particularly useful in landscape photography. I’ve also used it to select parts of tree trunks on silver birch trees where I want to alter colour, contrast, sharpness, exposure without having to hand-draw complex masks. If you haven’t seen the software and use masks in post-processing then I would suggest having a look at the software particularly since there is a trial version available.

Anyway, time for me to stop and get back to the article I’m trying to put together on the perception of depth/’visual intelligence’ in photography. In particular the way ‘visual intelligence’ helps a viewer of a photograph to reach a shared perception with the photographer of the three-dimensional world represented in the photograph even though the location where it was taken has been flattened onto a sheet of paper or a monitor screen, and the viewer has never been there.

Making it simple is complicated!

Wyming Brook Fallen Trees 3

‘Fallen Trees – Wyming Brook’

I’ve commented before that one of the creative challenges I find particularly rewarding is making visual sense of the complexity in Nature’s woodland ‘designs’. Large branches creating a criss-cross of shapes, obscuring the view; thin twigs infiltrating any spare space between their larger brothers, colours that can either blend different parts of the scene together or keep them separate, the complex pattern of light and the layers of detail created as branches are swallowed into background shadows. The woodland photographer’s biggest challenge is to take all those complexities and create an image that is visually simple – something I find easier to say than do but I take some comfort there are photographer’s more experienced than me who agree it is a difficult challenge.

David Ward – one of my favourite photographer’s of ‘intimate landscapes’ – captures the essence of woodland photography in the foreword he wrote to a book called ‘With Trees’. Published in 2013 by Triplekite, the book showcases a series of woodland scenes taken by Dav Thomas – a Sheffield-based photographer and graphic designer. I wouldn’t say it’s a great collection of woodland photographs but there are some very good images. For example, ‘Baslow Dawn’ taken below Baslow Edge in Derbyshire has a ‘Constable-like’ feel to the trees (without the cottage and haywain!) and ‘Fallen’ taken at Yew Tree Tarn in the Lake District is a good example of how a tangle of branches in a fallen tree can be distilled from the complex woodland that surrounds it. Ward’s foreword to the book reveals his understanding of the complexity of woodland photography through a number of statements that will ‘strike a chord’ for many woodland photographers. He says:

… trees don’t easily give up their secrets to the camera. (Woodlands) are incredibly complex and chaotic, both facets that make it very hard to produce a satisfying photograph. Painters have the luxury of being able to bend the space to their will. They can easily omit any aspect of a view that offends them, move objects around the canvas and, perhaps most conveniently, change the way the light falls. No doubt this all requires great technical expertise to achieve convincingly. But a photographer’s task is no easier.

His comments confirm the point that triggered me to write this short post. In woodland photography, ‘making it simple is complicated’. It’s difficult but not impossible. I’m lucky the photograph in this post turned out better than I originally thought it would but to paraphrase the American President, Thomas Jefferson, “I find the harder I work (at woodland photography), the more luck I seem to have”. Still a long way to go on my journey to become a better woodland photographer so with Jefferson’s words ringing in my ears, it’s time to plan another trip to the woods!

 

Ticking-off lists and wandering around in search of inspiration

This post is about a photograph I’ve been trying to ‘tick-off’ my mental list for quite a while without success. I’ve also included some interesting insights from using GPS tracking during two of my recent ‘wanderings’ through Padley Woods and Wyming Brook Nature Reserve in search of photographic inspiration.

Weather conditions in wintery England are notoriously changeable – no secret there! On days when I’m scouting a new location or just wandering around searching for inspiration, the changeability isn’t a major problem even if it’s raining and cold but it can be a problem when I want a specific shot and only have a few days in which to take it. This particularly applies to a few woodland photographs I’ve carried around in my mind for quite a while but with limited time in England it has proved difficult to ‘tick-off’ them all off my mental list.

I have been lucky enough to be in England and free for photography when the weather conditions were just right for one of those shots – shafts of dappled sunlight in a grove of silver birch trees, the hard textures of the tree bark contrasting with the softness of the grasses – (click here for the photo ‘Sunlight, shadows and silver birch’) . However, a couple of others on my list have proved more difficult to ‘tick-off’. Strange really since one requires rainy, wet conditions and the other, a misty day. You would think both were weather conditions easier to find in England than sunshine but they have proved to be elusive during the relatively short time I have in England during Spring, Autumn and Winter.

However, recently I was in England at the right time when it rained persistently so I managed to get over to Padley Woods and take a photograph of an interesting path that runs through part of the woodland. The path has been on my list for quite some time but when it’s dry and cloudy the gritstone rocks forming the path are grey and photographically ‘flat’ with low contrast so they don’t photograph well. However, when wet, they spring into life to become an intricate jigsaw of stone shapes. Here’s my photo of the path on a rainy day – another one ‘ticked off’ in my search (slow search!) for a coherent set of 15 woodland photographs.

Path through the woods

‘Path through the woods’

Waiting for specific shots over a long period of time sounds very organised and focused and I suppose it is, but it also means you have know a location well. It requires time spent exploring, searching for potential subjects and thinking about the impact of different light/weather conditions. I enjoy those ‘scouting days’ very much. They are an important part of the essence of landscape photography – out walking in the fresh air, surrounded by nature, continually making artistic judgements that one part of the landscape is worth framing whilst others aren’t. Malcolm Andrews talks about the photographic aspects of ‘landscape scouting’ in his 1999 book ‘Landscape and Western Art’ which starts by asking the questions “What is landscape?” and “How does land (the countryside) get to be promoted by the photographer/painter to become landscape?”.

He suggests (p.4) that as we wander through a location we are bombarded by potential photographs, a multitude of scenes, all “… visually auditioning to be landscapes (rather than just ‘land’)”. With that thought he confirms for me one of the enormous challenges for landscape photographers. For every scene we choose to transform into a lasting memory through our photographs there are hundreds of others we mentally reject. It involves a phenomenal amount of mental processing with the landscape photographer having to be even more ruthless than Simon Cowell, that well known talent show judge! This is particularly true with woodland photography but that’s an important part of its appeal to me – the challenge to visually simplify in my mind the complexity of woodland shapes, colours, lines, textures and light and then to take a two-dimensional photograph that captures the three-dimensional essence of the place as I originally ‘saw’ it.

Andrews describes the process with more academic eloquence (p.3), he says “In judging what is a ‘good view’ … We are selecting and editing, suppressing or subordinating some visual information in favour of promoting other features. We are constructing a hierarchical arrangement of the components within a simple view so that it becomes a complex mix of visual facts and imaginative construction. … it is what we do as we aim the camera viewfinder.” That’s exactly what I meant to say!

I love the mental imagery of landscape photography Andrews creates with his words. Visual facts combined with imagination, potential scenes auditioning to be immortalised by the photographer’s camera. I can almost see the trees dancing around in the wind trying to attract my attention.

Turning to a different type of imagery using the GPS function on my watch to track my progress during two recent trips searching for photographic inspiration. The first trip was to Padley Woods (of course) and the second to Wyming Brook Nature Reserve – a new location to me recommended by a fellow blogger Andy Gough who has a WordPress blog called ‘Learning the art of landscape photography’.

Padley Woods

Padley Woods

This first GPS image shows me wandering through a relatively small section of Padley Woods. It tells me I walked for 2.26 miles – not very far – but I was surprised to learn that it took me an average of 51 minutes to cover each mile! The GPS tracking highlights the locations where I had paused to take photographs. I can see the five areas where I stopped to explore the location in more detail and where I took the time to set up my tripod and take some photographs (some of the stops show up more clearly than others because of the image’s small scale).

The next tracking image is from my first exploration of Wyming Brook Nature Reserve, just outside Sheffield. An interesting woodland and stream location, certainly a place to re-visit for further exploration.

Wyming Brook

Wyming Brook

The GPS track says I covered 3.63 miles at an average pace of 36 minutes per mile! The distance of 3+ miles surprised me because I didn’t think I’d travelled anywhere near that sort of distance but the image suggests why I thought that, with my time concentrated in just two particular areas. The GPS track demonstrates in those two areas the landscape photographer’s equivalent of ‘running on the spot’, or ‘shuttle runs’, when the photographer stops and explores part of a location in great detail. Repeatedly searching for the ‘best view’ and the right framing before finally capturing the scene. I’m quite fascinated by these GPS tracks and will certainly use GPS tracking more in the future. They provide a useful record of trips and they also help identify specific areas of photographic interest within a location, geographically marking them for future exploration as seasons and weather conditions change during the year.

Midnight in the woods

Padley_Woods_1_Subtract_82opacity

The original image for this photograph is a woodland extract typical of the sort of photographs that can be found in Padley Woods, part of the Peak District National Park.

However, rather than just presenting a documentary replica of the scene, I have blended the original image with another (a photograph of a ceramic floor tile I have used before with woodland scenes) to create an alternative impression of reality – ‘Midnight in the woods’. For those interested in the Photoshop technicalities, the two images were combined using the ‘Subtract’ blending mode, set at 82% opacity.

Trees with artistic intent

Woodland Impression

‘Woodland Impression’

This image is another in a series I am gradually building based on woodland and Intentional Camera Movement (ICM). The photograph was taken at Lakeside in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, England – a man-made water parkland. My aim was to create an impression of the scene rather than producing a factual representation of this particular piece of woodland.

The image was taken hand-held at arms length with the exposure settings of 1 sec, f16, ISO 100 and a 35mm focal length – so a very rapid, mainly vertical movement of the camera. I’ve developed the image using the RAW converter, Capture One Pro Version 9 (a great piece of software for this sort of image). In post-processing I have tried for a oil/acrylic painting effect using the tools available within Capture One Pro (rather than Photoshop filters) to accentuate the textures, patterns and colours, particularly within the birch trees. In addition to the usual tweaks with things like ‘Clarity’ (mid tone contrast for those who aren’t familiar with Capture One), the most important action for me was to change the ‘White balance’ from the original value of 3,707 °Kelvin, Tint +3 (as shot) to 3,400 °K, Tint -0.5 to give colder colours and a more silvery/blue colour palette to accentuate the silver birches more and give a greater feel of luminosity to the foreground trees. An unwanted side effect of that change was to make the grass bluer so I used the Colour Editor tool in Capture One to select the colour of the grass, tell it to construct an adjustment mask based on that colour (a fantastically useful option within this RAW converter) and then I adjusted the saturation of the grass so it looks more natural. I can’t sing the praises enough of Capture One’s ability to create a complex mask in an image like this in seconds just by clicking on one point in your image to select the colour you want the mask to cover wherever it  occurs in the image.

Finding the right balance between creating an impressionistic photograph using ICM and retaining the detail you want (for example the thin ‘sticks’ just in front of the large tree in the background) is something that requires some experimentation, but for me it’s worth the time since the results open up new creative options and give us ‘non-painters’ more of an opportunity to capture what we see in our minds rather than simply factually, documenting the landscape scene we find before us.

Two different approaches to tree photography

Autumn in England is a good time for traditional, picturesque landscape photography in woodland, but another approach is to use the technique of ‘intentional camera movement’ (ICM) to produce unexpected photographs that look similar to the ‘Impressionism’ style of painting practiced by artists such as Claude Monet. ICM involves long exposure times for a hand-held photograph and a deliberate movement of the camera during the exposure.

The two images shown here were taken with virtually the same exposure. Both taken with a 70mm focal length lens, ISO 100 and an aperture of f11. The difference is the first image was taken using a tripod (2 sec exposure), whilst the second one (1.5 sec exposure) was taken with the camera held at arm’s length and a rapid up and down movement from the wrist during the exposure. The results from ICM can be very hit and miss but generally an up and down movement for vertical subjects such as trees along with an interesting combinations of colours gives a fair chance of success. These two images taken within 200 metres of each other on the same day show the stark difference that can be achieved using the traditional approach to landscape photography with a tripod-mounted camera and sharp focus, compared to the ‘impressionistic painting’ result from ICM without the need for Photoshop post-processing.

MPG_Ass_10_2_J9A0331MPG_Ass_10_1_J9A0307

A dry stone wall and fern shadows in Padley Wood

As part of my on-going project in the Padley Wood and Gorge area, here is an intimate landscape from that area. Currently I am working on three projects that will probably lead to a submission of 15 images for the Royal Photographic Society’s Associate Distinction (ARPS). This image is likely to be part of that submission.

 

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