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The photography social media sites are flooded every day with images from iconic spots. They make for fabulous scenery and are well known for a reason. Scrolling through images from social media sites many photographers will recognize most of the places they were taken from. In today’s photography world, there are many locations that become the hotspot to photograph. For example, Iceland and Norway in wintertime, is one of the most photographed locations in the last couple of years. It’s not uncommon to see several photos in your social media newsfeed. It seems like in the evolution of photography, we flock to the same locations to photograph in the footprints of others. With careful critique from previous photos of the same location, we then set out to outdo that image.
As we continue to follow the suit of other photographers and locations, the bar is raised and we continue to push the boundaries of realism. It’s no good anymore to have an image that has just great light; the image now needs lightning or a rainbow. With the advancement of post-processing and the ability to create just about anything in Photoshop we find photographer in a state of major change. As a photographer, I struggle with the concepts that we continue to photograph the same places year after year.
The photography world is more competitive than ever. The emergence of young photographers who were raised learning the computer has shifted the way images are processed and seen these days. Whenever I find myself teaching photography to other students and clients I always stress to find your own composition. I relate how important it is through framing and composition to tell your own story. It’s more important than ever to develop your own style. This includes both the photography and the art of post processing. With social media being more powerful than ever, we find many photographers guilty of copying other photographers composition. Without a thought to looking for new composition, many photographers are just replicating styles and compositions already achieved in the past.
A funny story happened to me a few years ago when I was photographing at the iconic Palouse Falls in Eastern Washington. As I was getting my camera stuff out of the car a group of photographers approached me and showed me a print of Palouse Falls from some other photographer and they wanted to know where the exact spot of where the photo was taken. I asked the group if they would rather shoot in a different place or they wanted just that one spot. After further discussion they relayed to me they’d come all the way from California to photograph that one spot that’s all they were interested in. Their notion and belief in getting that one iconic shot seems to be the way photographers feel today.
On a certain level, most photographers at one time or another have been victim to this. I am definitely guilty of this when I see a photo I really enjoy. I try to remind myself the importance of creating my own style and vision. But I consciously have to make an effort to find my own composition.
I don’t think it’s wrong to capture that one iconic image but I always stress the importance of also finding other viewpoints and perspectives at these iconic spots. I think photography would be much more interesting if people tried to find their own photography locations and photograph it in the style that is true to them.
You’ve heard the term “grit.” It seems like it’s everywhere these days; from podcasts and radio to magazines, to pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth’s bestselling book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” What is it? How do we get it? And how do we use it to achieve our goals in landscape photography?
Wikipedia defines “grit” as “a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective. This perseverance of effort promotes the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie within a gritty individual’s path to accomplishment, and serves as a driving force in achievement realization.” To me, it means resilience; the ability to focus on the long-term goal and not get discouraged by temporary setbacks. Not giving up when the going gets tough. Learning from mistakes rather than letting frustration and disappointment make you quit.
The older I get, the more I think that grit, rather than innate talent, is truly the secret to success. Long before I began my career as a landscape photographer, I was (and still am!) a professional symphony musician. Talk to any professional symphony musician and you’ll hear a common refrain: sure, I have some talent, but that’s a small part of what leads to success. What leads to success? Hard work. Not only hard work, but smart hard work. I consider myself fortunate to have started music lessons at a young age, and to experience successes and failures. Messing up a performance, losing an audition or a competition—these are opportunities to learn from mistakes, and strengthen one’s grit. It’s so easy to give up when things go wrong. Especially if the thing comes easy for you. You get used to success. So failure stings even more. This is when people often give up. And that’s such a shame!
I’ve read that the best way to praise a child is not to say “you’re so talented!” “you’re so smart!” or variations thereof, but rather “you’re such a hard worker!” or find a way to praise their tenacity and determination. Let your child learn that failure isn’t something to be afraid of, and that it’s okay to get frustrated. It’s what we do after these setbacks that determine success. My wife, a professional violinist and violin teacher, tells her student that a “successful mistake” in a performance is when a student makes a mistake but maintains their composure and keeps going. It’s so easy to get flustered and panicked when a note comes out wrong or a shift is missed, but to keep breathing, keep counting the rhythm, and pick oneself up and continue is the true success.
So how can we translate this grit into the world of landscape photography? I have some ideas.
The more advanced we get at our skill, the more difficult the skills can be to master. This is one instance where frustration can set in. Do we give up? Or do we ask for help, or try it a different way? Admitting that we need help is difficult and humbling, but is a gritty thing to do.
Inevitably, careers will plateau at certain points in time. How do we approach that? Do we let it slide, or do we try new things? Do we approach others for advice or insights?
Or what do we do if we find ourselves losing passion or inspiration? “Photographer’s block?” How do we deal with that?
I’d love to hear your ideas on the subject of grit.
Meanwhile, you can take a test to figure out how “gritty” you are at University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth’s website here.
I can remember falling in love with photography like it was yesterday. There was no other feeling like it. It was like another world had opened up and I discovered a whole new perspective of looking at things. It changed the way I saw everything. As a photographer, you start to see things differently the minute you pick up the camera. Once you become a photographer everything has its own take and vision, for what could be. When I was not out in the field shooting, I was studying every photography book I could find. I was immersed in this world of photography. I would study maps, books, websites, and anything else I could find to help plan my next trip. Photography had become an obsession. Each time I went out, I could see the progress. I began to really start to learn what made an image successful. The obsession grew, along with the learning. As the months passed, I spent more and more time in the field shooting as much as possible. The desire to get the perfect shot became all I could think about. As the months went by, I started becoming so focused on getting the perfect shot I forgot to have fun. I can’t tell you exactly the moment this happened, as it is something that slowly occurred. I would see a particular shot in a magazine, book, or website and I needed to get something better than that. I studied everything there was to know about photography. Trying to improve upon that perfect picture. As the months turned into years and my obsession grew I began to have less and less fun and it became too serious. I can look back now at some family trips which turned into photography trips that should have opened my eyes to how obsessed I had become.
On one particular trip to Hawaii with my family where we were spending the day on a gorgeous Hawaiian beach, just enjoying time together swimming and relaxing. The perfect family day. Until, right before sunset. I shifted gears and became extremely tense with capturing the sunset that was about to occur. I couldn’t miss it!! I began frantically looking for the right filters, dropping everything, and getting flustered because I could not find that perfect foreground. About that time, my wife turned to me, and asked “are we ever going to enjoy a sunset without the camera?” I look back at that moment as being a huge turning point for me. I realized, I had become too serious about getting the shot and forgetting what was most important, enjoy the moment and the people I’m with. I share this story for those just starting out in photography or find themselves in the same situation.
With the realization I had lost my way, I needed to refocus and find out what it was in the beginning that attracted me to the love of photography. For many reasons I was losing the most important purpose of photography, to have fun. Today I can look back and say without a doubt some of my best work came from the times that I spent taking in the surroundings and just enjoying the moment. I realized, like a marriage everything comes with compromise. I needed to find ways to share my love for photography with other things that are just as important. I needed to focus on the experience and the enjoyment of photography. I needed to find a way to include my family in what I loved so much. I needed to take every opportunity to find ways to share my experience and include my wife. This meant sometimes I had to not bring the camera or stop shooting and sit the camera down and just take in the moment. I have to admit; I still find this challenging but I work at it every day.
As many photographers can relate, I had to stop worrying about conditions, timing, and other factors that are out of my control. I realized what ever happened was meant to be. All I could do was just enjoy the moment and do the best with what I was given. Not having clouds didn’t mean the day was ruined. It just meant I needed to re-analyze things and look for something else to shoot. Tunnel vision in the early stages of my photography was a problem. Everything had to be on a grand scale with great clouds, colorful sunsets, and beautiful foregrounds. I had to hit a home run every time. Every experience was based on how successful the image ended up being. Fortunately, I can look back at this now as a chance to learn from my mistakes.
There are times I find myself in a rut when it comes to social media. The amount of incredible work that is on these platforms is overwhelming. I feel it is not good enough to have a great shot anymore. Everything has to have a rainbow, amazing clouds, and a unicorn riding across the sky. I often have to remind myself that it’s okay to have an image that I LIKE, that brings back fond memories or feelings of excitement when I look at it but not necessarily something that everybody else thinks is amazing.
One of the most important factors in capturing a moment is finding a story to tell about each image you have. I take time to ask myself “why am taking this picture? what is it I truly want to capture within this scene?” I believe each scene has a story and it is up to the individual photographer to define that story and convey that in their image. Part of the process, is enjoying the moment. For example, I find myself often alone at sunrise or sunset with nothing but the sounds of nature surrounding me. I try to take in all of the sounds and really take in the opportunity I have been given. I ask myself “how does this make me feel and how is this scene unique?” I then try to compose the image to tell the story of how I am feeling at that moment. It is critical to have a connection to the scene that you are photographing. It has to move you in some way or another. Thus, it might be a beautiful scene, but if you cannot find what it is that connects you to that particular moment it will be evident in the final image.
Today, I go out into the field with a new zest and enjoyment for what I love so much. The things I remember now about each place are the experiences, the people and the memories captured. It is not dependent upon the image and its success. I continue to grow as a photographer, as I learn from my mistakes. I approach each journey, with a fresh perspective to the experience rather than the results. Below are some of the images that are from my most memorable experiences out in the field. These are examples of when I was completely just enjoying the moment.
If you don’t know it yet, I really like visiting Grand Teton National Park. It is somewhat close to where I live, a 9 hr drive, and I have been lucky enough to be able to make it out there every year since I started out with my photography. We usually stay in the National Forest in our little [email protected] travel trailer. For the first couple of days we had some nice eventful spring like weather, but a few days into the trip snow was in the forecast. It ended up snowing about an inch where we were camping and I was able to shoot the image above just as the broke for a brief period that evening.
The above image is an iPhone shot of our campsite during the snow storm. If you look closely you can see little David with his hat on peaking out the window.
Even with my now 3 year old son, I have also made it out into the backcountry on almost every trip. This year we headed down there a little bit earlier than usual because of a busy late summer, so backpacking opportunities were somewhat limited. I packed my little 9 foot Zodiac inflatable boat with an 8HP outboard motor with the hopes of doing some boat camping, and that is just what we did. The boat is just barely big enough for the 3 of us with all of our camping and camera gear so we set out to Elk Island from Colter Bay for the night.
When we rounded the corner into the bay with our campsite, we were very happy to be greeted by a lush meadow of peak lupine. Our tent was nestled in the middle and we had an excellent view of the lake. I was able to do a little fishing and catch both a sunset and sunrise the next morning.
The very next day, we returned to Colter Bay, packed up the boat, and headed to the Leigh Lake trailhead for some backpacking. This is a very easy 5 mile round trip hike and one of our favorite hikes in the park. The campsites are beautiful and right on the lake. We huddled in the tent for a very powerful afternoon thunderstorm and then did a little swimming before dinner and bed. The next morning I looked out the tent before sunrise and saw fog and glassy reflections so needless to say, I was very inspired to get out of bed and shoot! The sunrise was beautiful and the nice conditions lasted for about an hour. The above image was shot just as the light started hitting the peaks and the heavy fog cleared.
I always need to fit a swim in pretty much wherever I am. This is me taking a quick dip just before hiking back.
Here is our little backpacker, who only hiked a total of .5 miles down the trail before begging to be carried back by mom (I had all of our gear in my pack so not an option for me :0
As you probably know, I’ve been shooting the Palouse region of Washington and Idaho for many years. I’m so fortunate to live in nearby Spokane; I spend countless days of the year driving the winding backroads and exploring the hidden sides of the Palouse, shooting and teaching workshops. Over the years one thing I’ve loved to photograph is the old, weathered barns throughout the region. These classic structures seem to capture a collective memory of the American countryside; to tap into a romantic nostalgia. However, once every few years or so, a barn disappears. Of course, some of these century-old structures are simply going to collapse on their own. Others, however, look to me to be quite structurally sound. Although I can’t say for certain what would make a farmer or land owner tear down a barn, one thing may be partially responsible: salvaged barn wood is trendy.
A recent NPR report discusses the trend of using reclaimed or salvaged barn wood in construction–ceiling beams, walls, dining room tables, or brewpub bars–and how it’s helping barn owners make money and how it’s changing the rural landscape. An old, rickety barn may be nothing to a farmer, but by selling it to a barn-wood reclaiming company, could clear the land and make a good amount of money. The reclaiming company then cleans the wood, removes the nails, and sells it for a pretty penny to home builders and designers.
I love the idea of “upcycling” and reusing old, unwanted materials in cool new ways. I totally support ideas that keep materials out of landfills and save natural resources. And of course I support farmers being able to make money from something they don’t need or use anymore. But as a photographer, I mourn the loss of these beautiful old barns. Some of these structures are truly historic, dating back a hundred years or more. Photographs of old barns inspire the viewer to daydream about history: of the barn, of the farmers, our own family histories. The architecture of the structures often have regional uniqueness: old barns in Wyoming look different from old barns in Oregon, for example. I worry that this reclaimed barn-wood trend may take away from us something that can’t be replaced.
None of the barns in the previous images exist anymore. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!
With the spring season arrival upon us and the emergence of wildlfowers approaching, I often get asked for tips when photographing wildflowers. In this article, I have updated some information from an older article with new tips and images. One of the most challenging aspects of nature photography is shooting the subject of wildflowers successfully. There are many aspects to learn and nothing is more rewarding when the outcome is positive. I have made many mistakes over the past few years shooting wildflowers and I hope to pass some of this wisdom down to other photographers. Having the right tools in your camera bag is essential to capturing impact in your images. The first goal when shooting wildflowers is to capture vibrancy and color in the wildflowers. When we look at images of wildflowers the first thing that captures our attention about these images is the color that seems to “pop “off the page. You especially want to have a lot of impact in the foreground to grab your viewer’s attention.
Therefore producing wildflower images that contain good color rendition and vibrancy are vital to the overall goal. To make sure that you are able to reproduce the colors you need a filter that can realistically take advantage of the bold colors and then allow it to come through in the image. The filter I turn to in all my wildflower images is the LB ColorCombo Polarizer. The filter offers two successful qualities in an image that boost impact. The first aspect in the filter is the color intensifier so that images taken with the filter will consist of vibrant and bold colors. In many nature scenes this might not be vital but when shooting wildflowers this is critical.
The essential component to shooting flowers is color. While improving color saturation it also renders the image with a natural color balance so that what you see is what you get. I have tried other filters in the past and found I was getting unusual color casts when I used their filters. Not only did I receive the change in color with other filters but often the colors were also muted. With the Singh-Ray LB Color Combo the results are excellent when it comes to reproducing accurate results. The second component contained within the LB ColorCombo that gives it a huge advantage over other similar filters is that it contains a warming polarizer within the same filter. In the past, you would have to stack filters to get these same results. Shooting wildflowers there is always a certain mood you are looking to convey; I will always lean towards a warmer tone in the image as this really attracts more viewers to your image then cooler tones. So having a warmer within the polarizer I can really take advantage of this as well as gets the best of the warmer tones in the image like the reds and yellows. Thus, the color is accentuated yet remains natural in its overall tone.
One of the arguments I often hear is that I can recapture that color in RAW images so why is it necessary to have this filter. And it always comes back to the notion that it is vital to render the image as close as possible to the original scene. You can add saturation and vibrancy later in post processing but the side effect to that is that you are pulling pixels from the image and thus destroying the image. This is especially prevalent in the shadow areas of an image. The effects become very visible when enlarging an image for larger print. When it comes to reproducing colors through RAW the images maintain their vibrancy without really having to increase the saturation past higher levels.
Another advantage I have noticed with the LB ColorCombo polarizer is the image rendered from the filter remains sharp throughout. With other filters, I have noticed a dramatic reduction in quality pertaining to sharpness. This is critical when shooting something in the foreground close to the lens. Whenever shooting wildflowers there is always a fine balance between ISO and shutter speed. In the past, I have had to shoot without a filter to capture the flowers without movement. The use of other filters has decreased the shutter speed and not allowed me to capture sharpness and detail in the foreground flowers. Shooting wildflowers successfully is much easier now with the newer LB ColorCombo being one stop faster combined with newer cameras having the ability to shoot higher ISO’s with fewer noise pixels.
With the advantages of clarity, color rendition, and color saturation being natural and true to the subject when shooting wildflowers the use of the LB ColorCombo is a definite asset in your arsenal of photography tools.
Photography Documentaries I’ve Liked
By David Cobb
It’s been a long time since the days of the boring and staid documentary. We’re now in the “Golden Age” of this genre, and there have been a number of good photography documentaries released over the past few years. I find that sometimes it’s difficult to make a decision on a film when I love the images, but the quality of the documentary is not great. (Maybe there are poor production values, or the film needed an editor, or it’s just not that interesting. When that happens, I prefer to look at a book of the photographer’s images.)
All the films on this list are easily accessible for viewing, and for the purposes of this list I haven’t included any television series. What follows are a few photography documentaries that I’ve liked from the many I’ve watched.
- The Salt of the Earth – (2014, Director Wim Wenders) This film relives the career of Sebastiao Salgado and covers his major body of work and exhibitions. From the opening scene of images at the gold mines of Serra Pelada to his work on his most recent project Genesis, the film leaves no doubt that Salgado is one of the greatest photographers ever.
- What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann – (2005, Director Steven Cantor) An exploration into the creative mind of an artist. Sally Mann discusses her work through her successes, failures, her influences, and disappointments. There is something for every photographer to relate to in this film.
- Finding Vivian Maier – (2013, Directors John Maloof, Charlie Siskel) Possibly the most famous of all films on this list, Finding Vivian Maier is a movie about a woman who blended in and surreptitiously photographed non-stop for years with no one really knowing she was amassing a large catalogue of images. After her death her work was recently discovered, and the documentary pieces together her life from clues, photographs, and conversations with (now adult) children she looked after while fulfilling her job as a nanny. Her life is a bit of a mystery, but her outstanding photographic work shines a light into her spirit.
- Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – (2012, Director Alison Klayman) Ai Weiwei is a multi-media artist and dissident with homes in the U.S. and China. He’s known in photography for his “giving the finger” images and also his selfies. He might be described as Warhol, Picasso, Calder, and Banksy, rolled into one. This isn’t truly a photography documentary, but it’s fascinating and thought-provoking.
- Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe – (2007, Director James Crump) A thoughtful film which brings to life the professional and personal relationship between Robert Mapplethorpe and his benefactor Sam Wagstaff.
- Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters – (2012, Director Ben Shapiro) The incredible production value, difficulty, and creativity of Gregory Crewdson’s photographs is on display in this mesmerizing documentary. The filming follows him during his work on his Beneath the Roses concept.
- Meru – (2015, Jimmy Chin, Chai Vasarhelyi) Ok, it’s not really a photography documentary, but photographer and videographer Jimmy Chin does a spectacular job of filming this first ascent. Teamed with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk, the climb of the imposing shark fin of India’s Mount Meru gave me the willies just watching. There is a section of this film which showcases some of the climbing photography techniques that Jimmy Chin uses when on assignment.
- War Photographer – (2001, Director Christian Frei) A documentary of photojournalist James Nachtwey who lets his images do the talking. He’s won numerous awards and the highest honors in his profession, and this documentary captures him on assignment in Kosovo, Indonesia, Africa, and the West Bank. The film opens with an adage from Robert Capa, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” and Nachtwey lives by these words. His photographic records of war, famine, and poverty are devastating, and his philosophy on why he’s a war photographer is fascinating.
- Bill Cunningham New York – (2010, Director Richard Press) A delightful film which follows photographer Bill Cunningham snapping fashion images on the streets of New York. Cunningham carries this documentary with his outlook on life, simple lifestyle, fashion eye, dedication, and his infectious exuberance. If you’re ever down in the dumps or want to get out of a photography rut, this film is a dandy pick-me-up.
- Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens – (2008, Director Barbara Leibovitz) This study in the life and career of Annie Leibovitz from her early days at the Rolling Stone to her work for Vanity Fair, Vogue, and her more personal work shows that even someone at the top of the photography world can still make mistakes and grow from them. Her work is astounding and her creative passion is an inspiration. The film is less in-depth than I would have liked, as some major portions of her life are discussed only on the surface.
- Inside Out: The People’s Art Project – (2013, Alastair Siddons) Street photographer JR takes his TED Talks Prize and gives it back to the people to create their own art. His world photography project helps humanize the disenfranchised from Pakistan to South Dakota as they produce giant portraits to post on the streets. They can no longer be ignored and must be seen, as they create their own power through imagery. The film is truly an inspiration to witness the influence of photography changing the common man on the street.
If there are other films you think I might be leaving off this list, let me know. Fellow Photo Cascadia members Adrian Klein and Erin Babnik shared films they liked such as Salt and The Quest for Inspiration. I haven’t seen them yet, but I’m on the lookout for these two. I hope you enjoy the films I’ve listed; many are available on Netflix so they’re easy to find and most have shorter run times. Now curl up with a bowl of popcorn and learn from the masters.
I have to admit, I have had a bit of sensor envy for the past few years. I have watched many people sell off all of their Canon gear and switch over to the Nikon D800, D810, and Sony AR7 and AR7II, many times never looking back. I have thought about it myself, but just didn’t want to go through the lengthy process of selling all of my cameras and lenses and then learn a whole new system. I just like my Canon gear, it is what I have always used, and it just feels right. Plus, the Canon 11-24mm F/4 is a really great lens and not something available from the other systems. But, I have to be honest, I would have loved to have some extra dynamic range from time to time, and my Canon 5D Mark II, and then Mark III, have definitely fallen short of the competitors in this category. Pulled shadows from both of these cameras just don’t look good. There is a clear loss of detail, exaggeration of noise, and some really ugly banding when going to extremes. I had been holding out with hope that Canon would come out with a new camera that could compete in the dynamic range category with the big guys. So, imagine my curiosity when I saw this posted online by DxOMark here:
From the graph, it appears that the 5D Mark IV, with its new sensor technology, can actually compete. The Nikon is the winner at the very lowest ISO’s, but the three cameras are almost exactly equal at a little above ISO 100 until about ISO 250. This is the range that I most often shoot in so this is good news! Even at more extreme ISO’s, the Canon and the Sony are very close, giving the Sony a slight edge. The Nikon falls behind both shortly after ISO 200, but not by much.
The next test that I came across by DPReview can be seen here, This tool allows you to choose between various different cameras and compare dynamic range while choosing ISO and how much the exposure has been pushed.
In this example, each shot has been pushed 6 stops at ISO 100. Pretty extreme but fun to compare. It looks to me like the Nikon and Sony have a noticeable edge here over the 5D Mark IV, but the 5D Mark III looks pretty terrible.
In this next example, each shot has been pushed 5 stops at ISO 200. Once again, very extreme. In this one, the Mark IV, Sony, and Nikon all appear pretty similar, with the 5D Mark III looking pretty terrible once again.
I have had my hands on a 5D Mark IV now for a week or two. Along with much improved dynamic range, the 5D Mark IV is showing improvements in high ISO over the Mark III, and the extra resolution is very nice for some added detail. I haven’t done any extensive shooting with it in the field yet, but so far so good. One more thing worth mentioning about this camera is the added Dual Pixel Raw technology. Here is an interesting writeup on what Dual Pixel Raw is and isn’t. Basically, Canon says that this technology “enables pixel-level adjustment and refinement for still photographs and includes Image Micro-adjustment to help maximize sharpness in detail areas, Bokeh Shift for more pleasing soft focus areas and Ghosting Reduction to help reduce aberrations and flare.“ None of this really sounds that useful to me as a landscape photographer, but digging around one day I came upon this article over on Rawdigger.com, and this article over on Imaging-Resource.com . Basically what they are saying is that there exists an extra stop of dynamic range in the highlights within images captured in Dual Pixel Raw mode. Now, at this time Lightroom doesn’t support Dual Pixel Raw, but they have said they are working on support and it will become available in the near future. It would be pretty cool if they also figured out a way to access that extra stop of dynamic range in the highlights!
by Zack Schnepf
I think the histogram is one of the most important and useful tools in all of photography. It’s a tool I rely on throughout my entire workflow, but I notice it’s a concept that many students have a hard time fully understanding. It can be confusing at first, but once you understand your histogram, you can master your exposures. In this article I’ll share how I use the histogram and why I find it so usefulI. I’ll discuss how I use it the field and in post production.
What is a histogram, how do you read it, and what information does it gives you? Basically, a histogram is a graphical representation of the tonality of an image. It shows what tones and colors exist in an image and the concentration of these tones. Here is the basic anatomy of a histogram. This histogram is from the image below of First Snow on Gothic Peak. The left edge of the graph represents pure black, any tones beyond the left edge have no detail in them. Conversely, the right edge represents pure white, any tones beyond the right edge have no highlight detail, they are just pure white. The middle of the graph represents the mid tones of the image. So, left to right is the luminosity scale, or how bright or dark the tones are. In this histogram you can see overlapping graphs of the three color channels RGB(red, green, blue) The height of the graphs indicates the concentration of tones of color and luminosity tones. For instance, in the histogram you can see I have a spike in the blue channel toward the left side, that tells me I have a lot of dark blue tones in this image. There is also a spike in the red channel right in the middle which tells me I have a large concentration of red midtones which you can see in the red foliage of the image. The Height of the peaks is not important for judging exposure, so don’t worry how high the peaks are. One of the most important things I look for in the field and in post processing is information that might be getting lost in either the shadows, or highlights. In this histogram you can see that all of the information is being contained. I can tell, because none of the color channel graphs are bumping into either edge. I’ll elaborate on this further in the sections below.
In the field, I rely on my histogram as a guide to give me an accurate assessment of each exposure I capture. One of the biggest mistakes I see when teaching photo workshops is a student judging an exposure using the LCD on their camera. I’ve been burned by this too many times to count. I’ll be shooting in a low ambient light situation, take a quick look at the image on the LCD and think it looks great, but when I get home and view it on my computer I realize it’s way underexposed. The low ambient light makes the image on the LCD seem really bright. The only way to truly judge an exposure in the field is to check the histogram. Below are 2 bracketed exposures of the same scene. One exposed to capture the tones in the bright sky and the other exposed to capture the tones in the foreground area. In the field, the darker exposure looked good on the LCD, you could even see detail in the foreground grasses, but one look at the histogram told me those foreground tones were way too dark. You can see on the histogram for the darker exposure, the highlight detail is being captured well, there is no information being lost in the highlight, but there is a large spike next to the left edge of the histogram. This indicates a high concentration of dark tones that contain very little detail. I wanted to take another exposure to capture detail in the shadows.
This lighter exposure has plenty of detail in the shadows. You can see in the histogram, the detail that was being lost in the shadows is being captured well. There is now plenty of detail in the foreground grasses and stream. On the other hand, the highlight tones are blowing out. You can see there is a huge spike on the right edge of the histogram and it goes right up to the edge and beyond. Anything beyond the edge has no detail in it. This is what is known as a high dynamic range scene. You could try to compromise and get an exposure in between and use Lightroom and Photoshop to recover the tones that are being lost, or you can bracket exposures and try to combine multiple exposures that contain a lot more information. Either way, the histogram is the tool that will tell you if you have captured the information you need, or not.
In post production the histogram helps me determine which tonality adjustments to make. Below is an image captured while teaching a workshop in the Palouse this spring. You can see on the histogram, most of the color and luminance tones are concentrated in the middle and left side of the image. This indicates that it is a low contrast, dark exposure. This is important information to determine what post processing this image needs. I would like to add contrast, but also brighten the image.
This is after one contrast adjustment. I was able to increase contrast, brighten the image, and control some highlights that were getting too bright. You can see the tones in the histogram are more spread out, but the highlights and shadows have plenty of detail information in them. From here I can decide if want to add more contrast. I can also lighten, or darken the overall exposure. Either way, the histogram will help guide me to the finished image.
You can learn more about Zack and his instructional videos on his website
There are a number of reasons I’m drawn to photographing ghost towns. Perhaps it’s something to do for a change of pace, maybe it’s photographing the history of a bygone era, or possibly it’s my fascination with dystopian literature. But mostly it’s just fun. I’ve photographed ghost towns from Alaska to Mexico. Most of them exist from the boom-and-bust of the mining era, while others are from the days of Manifest Destiny gone awry; leftovers from a time when Americans thought if we moved to arid lands for cultivation then the rain would follow.
The ruins these people left behind are in different states of disrepair. Some are preserved as parks, some are not and are left to crumble, and others are resurrected as artist colonies for an affordable place to work and live. Whatever their state, there is always something to explore and photograph.
I’ve explored and photographed the well-known ghost towns (i.e. Bodie) to the little-known towns (i.e.) Farlin. Hell, I even did a ghost town long-distance walk across the Yukon and Northwest Territories on the 221 mile (355km) Canol Heritage Trail, and followed a World War II oil pipeline through the wilderness. The walk past little-used and abandoned autos, pump-house towns, and work stations was fascinating. Additionally, I walked the 33-mile (53km) Chilkoot Trail from Dyea, Alaska to Bennett, British Columbia that follows a land of artifacts and relics from the Klondike Gold Rush. But you don’t need to walk long distances for most ghost towns; they’re on maps and a good AWD vehicle will get you to most of them. Just remember that the majority of ghost towns are at a higher elevation and not lowland valleys, so you might need to wait until summer for access.
Upon arriving for the first time, I like to get that establishing shot. Maybe it’s an overview of the entire town from a nearby highpoint, or possibly it’s a shot of one of the more prominent buildings in town like the mine itself. If the light is not right, I’ll come back to that establishing image as the light improves, but at least I’ve found what represents the town as a whole. Once I have the establishing shot, I begin to look for the intimate. Ghost towns are known for what’s left behind. It could be a table setting, an old poster still on the wall, or implements hanging from the ceiling, but I look for those things that might tell more of the story of the place I’m photographing.
Ghost towns usually have plenty of texture and plenty of rust that can create interesting patterns of shape and color. I look at the old boards for details of pattern and rusted old cars with peeling paint can offer a myriad of abstract compositions too. If artists are moving into the area, look for the weird. Near a Nevada ghost town I photographed, there was a whole field of cars planted in the ground grill first. The exposed sections of the autos were covered with graffiti art exploring life, politics, and the exotic.
Since this is a ghost town, also look for the creepy. I had one ghost town all to myself in the middle of Montana. I walked into an old abandoned hotel to look around and then heard something upstairs. When I walked upstairs I just saw a long hallway of light and dark, and thought to myself, “I’m not going down there.” But I did try to capture in a photo the way I felt at the time.
Also when you’re visiting a ghost town look for the cemetery; there is always one nearby. Some can be quaint, others historic, and still others a bit spooky. Any way you capture them, the images can be interesting and will also help tell the story of place. Ghost towns are also a great place for night photography, and light painting the old buildings while photographing the stars overhead can make for a fun evening shoot. If you’re photographing at night, use common sense and leave the steel wool at home. Sparks from these efforts can level a whole town, and enough historic relics from California to Florida have already been lost to photographer’s fire.
In 2017 I’ll be returning to Montana to conduct a photographic loop of the western ghost town locales. I hope you can join me. You can click here for more information.