Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Power of 3

"A good photograph is knowing where to stand." Ansel Adams

A question that often comes to my mind is "Why did I take this photo? What was it about this scene that made me want to photograph it? I get that light plays a significant part in all this and indeed, poor lighting is the primary reason for putting the camera away. But obviously, there are other things going on. Take composition for example. When I think of composition, I think of placement of elements, and which elements to include or not to include within the frame. And it is all for one purpose - to create a visually appealing image.

Several years ago, I posted the image above online and someone commented with a compliment on my use of three objects instead of two or four. Up until then, the number of objects in my photographs was not on my conscious. But that comment struck me because when I looked at the image with this new thought, I realized the meaning of it. From that point on, I considered the number of objects when choosing to create or when composing a photograph. Later, I learned I was following a composition rule - the rule of odds.

The rule of odds applies to odd numbers up to about 7 or 9 (except one). Among them, 3 stands out. There is something about the number three that affects the human brain in an intriguing way. As a teacher, I learned that students understood better when content was boiled down to three main points. Our brains seem to retain information better when it has only three things to remember. Three appears frequently in stories; three bears, three little pigs, three guesses, three wishes. Lectures, stories, video tutorials, blogs, etc tend to have three parts, introduction, main content and summary. And let's not forget the religious symbols as well (Father, Son and Holy Ghost).

The number three also has a visual or aesthetic appeal to our brain. This is where the rule of odds comes into play. It seems that the brain likes seeing one object framed by two other objects. Compared to only two objects which our brain perceives as competing with each other, three objects provide harmony to the scene.

It seems counter-intuitive to inject rules into art, because the word "rule" implies rigidity and having to do something we don't want to do. But the thing is, composition rules really work. To help get around the negativity of rules, maybe we can stop thinking of them as rules and instead think of them as elements our brain find most visually appealing. We photograph what we love to see. And sometimes we snap the photo in the moment without much thought and then move on. But when we are in the mindset of creating an image rather than snapping a photo, we actually apply composition rules, consciously or subconsciously. In other words, we find elements that are visually appealing. We evaluate the scene and create a composition within the frame of the camera's viewfinder. We apply composition rules by moving around and viewing the scene from various perspectives, and by considering things like depth of field, lighting, colors, movement, and so on. We do this to find the most visually appealing composition, not because we think we have to follow rules.

If we can think of nature photography as a form of art, than how is an artistic photograph created from nature? Does the artist consciously look for composition rules in nature or is the artist naturally drawn to a scene because of the composition rules being followed by nature? The answer may be in the colloquial saying "I know it when I see it."

Our brains aesthetically follow the rule of odds most of the time when we photograph what we love because we are naturally drawn to what is visually appealing to our brains.  Once you recognize that the rule of odds can play a very significant part in your creation of artistic nature images, you will also learn that the most powerful part of photography is the ability to capture those three objects in an infinite number of ways. This is because an artistic photograph requires much more than just three objects.

And that is where making photography an art requires so much more than just visual appeal. Composition rules or visual appeal is a great place to begin, but certainly photography as an art goes well beyond that.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The essentials of identity in nature

When I saw these grasses isolated from others, I couldn't help but capture them. There was just something about the design that I viewed as not-quite perfect but perfect enough.

One year ago, I sold my 1600-sq-ft Miami home and moved into a 32-ft RV parked most of the time on a 150-acre island.  I have stripped down my life to its basics by removing all non-essentials, including space.

Down to the basics, a few delicate lines and subtle tones. What more is needed?

This lifestyle is sometimes described as minimalism. Here is one definition that rings true - "At its core, minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it." as written by Joshua Becker. And that is exactly what I did, removed the stuff that distracted me from what I really value.

These grasses and their reflection are about as perfect as you can get as far as placement relative to each other. And that their are three stems instead of two or four makes it more compelling in composition. Nature's art.
Incidentally, the term minimalism was founded in an art movement. Here is a Wikipedia description - "Minimalism describes movements in various forms of art and design, especially visual art and music, where the work is set out to expose the essence, essentials of identity or a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts."

When I first started capturing these scenes, I created ripples that would travel into the frame.

Minimalism is appealing to me as a form of art as well as a way of life. And before I ever contemplated the concept of minimalism or art for that matter, I gravitated to it immediately after picking up a camera. The fact is, I spend a great amount of time in low land and ocean environments with wide open spaces where the horizon meets the sky at a very distant point. Basically, I am surrounded by scenery with lots of negative space. It is by spending my time alone in these open spaces where I have become a student of nature's art. And it is also from my experience in wide open spaces that I have become attuned with the concept of minimalism.

I no longer create ripples, instead, I try to capture nature's handmade ripples.

Consequently, I began to examine some of my images and tried to figure out why I was compelled to create them. In a particular location where I paddle my canoe, I am surrounded by marsh water where small mangrove trees grow among the grasses. Often times the water is flat calm with only a little disturbance from tiny fish or the wind. It is here where I can view water as negative space. It is also where I can frame a scene using delicate grasses or small mangrove seedlings as primary subjects. I paddle slowly through the marsh and am easily drawn into the wide scope of it, especially when the sky awakens with clouds. That is when I love to take out the wide angle lens and try to capture the marsh scene in its entirety.

The scene at large.

But having spent endless hours in this area, I have trained myself to take out the long lens and zoom in, which I now understand to be an attempt to expose the 'essentials of identity' through elimination of all non-essential features. Often, these images do not have much going for them; there is little, if any depth of field or tonal contrast, sometimes the light is flat and there is a significant amount of negative space to accompany a small subject. This has led me to do some research to find the answer to the question "Why did I take that shot in the first place?" Within the huge topics of art and design, I try to sift through the narratives and descriptions in order to crack the code of nature's art.

This is an unusual image and is so contrary to all the other images. But, the cloud reflection was seductive so I tried to compose a scene with the confusing display of lines. It took me a couple years before I decided I liked it.

It finally occurred to me that these images have the same basic element - lines. And the images that are most appealing to me are those with the most negative space (less is more). I believe what I have done is stripped down the landscape to its most basic element or 'essentials of identity'. Indeed, each image by itself falls out of context and does little to offer the viewer a sense of place. But that would not be the point. Instead, I have presented the essential components of this place by removing the non-essentials. What is left to discover are the expressive lines created by the grasses and the mangrove roots.

I thought the subtle cloud reflections and water ripples added nicely without overpowering the gentleness of the grasses. 

At its barest, nature presents itself in various subtle ways; shapes, forms, lines, textures, patterns. Where ever that place may be, its essence will become obvious only after you spend quality time observing. You begin to find what really attracts you to that place; it could be the ripple patterns on a beach, the form of a flower, the shapes created by tree branches, the texture of rocks, and so on. Nature revealed means that you are in tune with its essentials and can ignore the non-essentials. And then from there, you can capture those essentials in a way that is unique to your observations. It may not be obvious to the outsider, but it is to you. At the end of the day, it is your connection to what you value most that allows you to remove the non essentials from your art and your life.

This scene stood out to me despite its lack of tonal contrast, depth of field and strong lighting. It was all about the expressive lines and how they seemed to work together. The ripples from a small animal was a bonus.

If you enjoyed this blog, please check out some of my previous blogs, including this one titled "The Simplicity of Wilderness".

Workshops available.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Only You and Your Camera

For this blog, I thought I would add only images I have never shown before and have hesitated to get out there.

"Social media has colonized what was once a sacred space occupied by emptiness: the space reserved for thought and creativity." Mahershala Ali

Recently, something got me thinking about the barrage of information we are constantly exposed to and how difficult or impossible it is to filter. Having been formally educated in human physiology, I couldn't help but think about the mountains of information and misinformation relating to physical health that are piled on us daily. We are told what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, how to exercise, when to exercise, which drugs or supplements are best for energy, weight loss, weight gain, stress reduction, sleep, etc, etc, etc. And it continually changes.

The human body is fabulously equipped to respond and adapt to all types of stresses. It is designed with primal signals that tell us when to eat, drink, eliminate waste or sleep. These signals alert us to impending physical danger, they tell us when the body has been exposed to a foreign agent and they let us know when the body needs rest. Without any outside influences, we could probably survive quite well by just listening to our bodies. In a way, athletes and wilderness trekkers have learned to do that. Those who refuse to listen to their bodies end up in some kind of trouble, be it injury or sickness.

What does any of that have to do with photography? If you are a photographer, have you ever wondered what your photos would look like if you were totally insulated from outside influences? Imagine your work if you were never exposed to another photographer's work or never read an ad for camera equipment? Imagine it being just you and your camera. Think about that for a minute.

No doubt, your photography (your art) has been influenced by others. Indeed, sometimes we catch ourselves wanting to emulate another's style or go to that iconic place where so many others have photographed. When we are feeling dull, it can be difficult to avoid falling into the habit of repeating someone else's work. It is especially at this time when listening to your inner photographer's voice becomes so essential. We hear it all the time from other photographers giving advice - "find your uniqueness - set yourself apart from the rest". Easy to say, but kind of hard to do, if you do not remove the clutter of outside influences. To get to the heart of your photography, you must listen to your inner photographer for the sake of creativity. And in order to do that, you have to believe in it enough so that you don't allow outside influences to smother it to death. And you have to nourish it.

Are outside influences always bad? Or can they be useful to grow your unique creativity? Absolutely they can! Just like the information we get about nutrition and exercise, we can make use of much of it to help us stay healthy and live a long life. We learned that smoking is bad for our health. Likewise, we learned that hand-holding a camera during long exposure is bad when we want a sharp image. As with nutrition and exercise, in photography we learn so much from other photographers who are willing to teach and share their expertise, which makes us better photographers. 

Regarding nutrition and exercise, I see others who live their lives with robust health and strong bodies. You think, "Wow, what are they doing to be so healthy?" These people inspire us to eat well and be physically active. Likewise, I view hundreds of images, sometimes in one day.  And there are dozens of photographers whose work is just so amazingly stunning and high quality. I figure they must be doing something right and I'd like to know how they do it. 

The difficult task comes when envious thoughts get in the way. Sometimes I find myself feeling totally inadequate because I believe I do not have the experience, skills or camera equipment to be that good. Nor do I have the money or capacity to travel to all these iconic locations.  These are the negative thoughts that smother our creativity.

Fact is, each of us has a unique creativity, it's just a matter of paying attention to it and believing in it. The more you photograph, the more confidence you gain in your own creativity. And this in turn allows you to use those outside influences to feed, not starve that creativity. Instead of viewing the photographer whose iconic shots are always eye popping and who seems to always be in the right place at the right time as someone you want to be, study his or her images and learn  lighting and composition that can be applied to your own work. Instead of dwelling on the fact you don't have the latest camera that everyone seems to be using and costs three times as much as the one you currently own, think about how you can make the most from the camera you have at hand to nourish your creativity.

As a final thought, good health is basic and does not have to cost a lot of money; but  to have it, you need to filter out the misinformation and more importantly, listen to your body. Unique creativity is basic and does not have to cost a lot of money; but to have it, you need to filter out the misinformation and more importantly, listen to your inner photographer.

By the way, if you enjoyed this article, I have a post from several years ago that is very relevant to this topic and may be of interest to you. Check it out!

Saturday, December 8, 2018

An Ode to a Lone Tree

One of many shapes of a red mangrove.
Among the prints I sell, the long mangrove tree images seem to be the most popular. I don't say this to brag, I am only wondering out loud about lone trees and their appeal. They seem to be quite popular as art subjects but also popular in general. The Instagram account, #lonetree has over three quarter million posts. From Google map searches, you'll learn there is a Lone Tree church residing in Oklahoma, a Lone Tree reservoir in Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska and Utah, a town in Colorado and a small community in Iowa named Lone Tree and a road in TX, a parkway in CO and a Drive in SC with same name. Additional Instagram accounts tell us that many businesses and products including a brewery, designer quilts, farm, cider, golf course, ranch, board & paddle and kitchen & bath rely on the name "Lone Tree".

And we nature photographers clamor to capture the lone tree image. Lone tree photos are so popular that there is at least one lone tree in the world that has reached star fame and that is the willow tree on Lake Wanaka in New Zealand.

Lake Wanaka's famous willow tree, by Justin Black.
Even in the Everglades there is the Z tree, famous for its unique trunk growth. Maybe photographers go after the single tree because it provides a coveted uniqueness that makes one photograph stand out from all the others. Not to mention, trees come in all kinds of varieties, shapes, sizes and color, so they are there for the photographic picking.
Everglades Z tree, by Q T Luong
I mostly photograph red mangrove trees, because, well they are everywhere. When out there photographing, I often notice floating in the water the seedlings that one day take root and grow, both vertically and horizontally. I have observed over time a tiny knee-high mangrove grow to eye level. I have photographed the remains of 50-ft tall mangroves killed by a hurricane storm surge. I have watched the survivors make a come back. And I have watched survivors deteriorate from repeated storm attacks until they finally succumb, and we are left with only a paltry reminder of what once was. The trees are the essence of the Everglades and to me, they are the most beautiful trees in the world. I guess that is why I photograph them. And I go for those lone trees as much as the next photographer.

This little red mangrove will grow by reaching out its roots.
A photographer may see a solitary tree in one way, but what about the viewer? What is it about a lone tree image that draws the viewer in? Is it only the unique quality of it? Actually, it may have nothing to do with the aesthetics of art, rather we can find the answer in science. Scientific studies have shown that looking at trees reduces stress (leave it to scientist to find evidence to support the obvious). Given that images of several trees could have just as calming an effect as a lone tree image, than what is it again, that gives the lone tree a certain edge? Science may not have the answer to that one.

A clinical psychologist purchased my print to hang in her office thinking it would benefit her patients' recovery.
So I set out to figure it out. If you Google search "lone tree" images, you will find several of the willow tree of Lake Wanaka, but you will also see quite a variety of other trees. Each tree has its own character (and of course, for each tree are endless possibilities for images). Even if the tree is clearly dead and stands with only its trunk and a few errant branches, it draws our interest. Is it because the tree is a piece of nature that grows in the same spot and never moves, while most everything else around us is unpredictable? In this regard, the tree may take on a symbolism for such qualities as stability, independence and reliability.

An independent red mangrove stands out from the crowd.

But from an artistic view, there may be something else going on. I asked a photojournalist friend why lone trees are so appealing as art. She thinks its because it represents simplicity and beauty, and many people crave that in their busy lives. This makes sense to me as it becomes increasingly difficult to live simple lives. So we go to nature to relieve our stress and to simplify our life, if only for a short period of time. And for so many of us it seems, art is the only accessible means of capturing a glimpse of nature's simplicity. And the lone tree does not disappoint. The lone tree illustrates beauty in form surrounded by negative space. It stands alone, stalwart and as a true testament to the passage of time. It represents something that was there long before we discovered it and will be there long after we leave. I think our minds (or hearts) crave that comforting connection.

Much evidence that this tree survives the continual onslaught of tides and storms.
The lone tree, no matter what condition it is in reminds us that strength carries us through weathered storms and with the right amount of resolve we are always left standing, sometimes beaten down but still supported by our roots.

On second thought, maybe it isn't about us at all. Maybe a lone tree is just a gentle reminder of nature's existence somewhere out there in the world. Period. Whatever it is, it works.

A hurricane survivor stands alone.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Nature in Monochrome

"Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment." Claude Monet

Recently, I visited northern Michigan (where I spent the first 23 years of my life) and visited an old haunt, the Jordan Valley Watershed. Very fond memories of this wilderness area made me want to go back and attempt to photograph the beauty I remember so well. While there, I couldn't help but think how similar it is to my southern Florida haunts. The photo above helps illustrate this point.  The dominate color is green, but with varying tones, shades and tints. This is, by definition, the meaning of monochrome.

The term monochrome is defined is many ways, but basically it refers to one color or hue and all its variations of light. Paint swatches or sample cards at a paint store are a good way to view monochrome. Consider the photo above and the variations of green from dark to light. If it were a painting, the painter would create those variations by taking basic green and adding black (shading), white (tinting), or gray (toning). Below is an example using orange as the basic hue.

While there are obvious differences between south Florida and northern Michigan wilderness, what strikes me as being similar are the monochromatic color schemes (the exception is in the fall when Michigan trees are bright with reds and yellows). At least that is my photography experience. Green (northern hardwood trees) dominates summer in northern Michigan and here in Florida, water and sky are the primary elements, so blue and all its monochromatic colors dominate.

Given the location where I photograph, it is no wonder most of my images are monochromatic and restrained nature scenes. Why is one compelled to photograph such subtleties that struggle to get the viewer's attention? After all, dramatic scenes of nature is what captures the viewer's eye most consistently. Consequently, photographing the simple and unpretentious side of nature is a test in design and composition. It has led me to study color theory and try to figure out why I am drawn to these scenes and more importantly, how I might capture them in a compelling way.

That has led me to examine the concept of monochrome and how a photograph might use it to its advantage. Color combinations alter the connection between visual sensory input and the brain. What might be considered opposite of monochrome is the concept of complementary colors (yellow and blue, for instance). When applied to a photograph, complementary colors boldly stand out and stimulate the brain; whereas monochrome colors are subtle and calming.

The keel-billed toucan's bill draws the viewer's attention with its complementary colors (green and red, orange and blue). Viewed best when its surroundings are monochrome and subdued.
Compelling images are those that lead the viewer's eyes into the scene. Bold contrasting colors do this very well, such as with the keel-billed toucan above. But how do you grab the viewer's attention with a monochromatic image? Applying subtle variations in tones, shades or tints does not challenge the eyes; rather, monochrome color schemes present visual harmony and simplicity. This is very pleasing, but not necessarily an attention grabber. With that in mind, I use some rules of composition and attempt to compose a scene with a monochromatic palette (either primarily blue or primarily green) that not only leads the viewer into the scene, but also invites them to stick around for awhile.

Below are four examples of monochromatic images shot here in south Florida. Note the similarities across these very different looking images. First, there are many variations of a single color that form patterns throughout the image, leading the eyes through the image. Second, each image has a contrasting subject that serves as a focal point. This simply adds interest and initiates the viewer's attention. Third, the subject is strategically placed in the composition using the rule of thirds. Placing a subject off-center (like one third from the top or from the left) gives the image a dynamic quality and draws the eyes into the remaining image.

Focus point is the mangrove seedling. The horizontal blue monochrome pattern offers a tranquil balance and the darker tones at the top and bottom frame the image. The little grasses add subtle chaos and texture to the scene.

Focus point is the canoe silhouette that is framed beautifully by the symmetry of the clouds and their reflections. Like the photo above, darker tones frame the image at the top and bottom, drawing the viewer's eyes to the middle.

Focus point is the mangrove tree. The monochromatic blues are arranged from top to bottom, which help draw the eyes from the tree to the foreground. The slight movement of the water adds texture to the bottom portion of the image, which adds balance to the tree island on the top portion.

Focus point is the white bird. The monochrome greens of the mangrove trees add so much texture and patterns. Some of those greens appear black and this adds depth to the tree canopy and also creates leading lines to draw the viewer's eyes through the image.

Basically, I attempt to compose an image that can be viewed as such; 1) capture the eye's attention with a subject that stands out, 2) invite the eyes to leave the subject and continue moving through the image, and 3), visually "stepping back" and taking in the entire scene. Did the above images do this for you? Let me know your thoughts and how I can improve them.

To learn more about how I capture scenes like these, please visit my YouTube channel and my "Getting the Shot" blog.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Is Photography Art?

I've been reflecting lately on art and how nature photographers may or may not identify themselves as artists. This took some time, but I believe I can honestly say that when I make a photograph, I am creating art.  If you are a photographer, ask yourself, "Am I an artist?" Read on and let's walk down that road together and answer that timeless question, "Is Photography Art?".

I found a Huffington Post article titled" "10 Powerful Responses to What is Art?". As I read through each response, it is quite evident that art is individually defined. But as I read them, several resonated.

"Art is something you invest YOURSELF in as a means to communicate." Christian Villanueva, Disney Performer; YouTube Artist.

Consider the amount of time and effort you put into taking a shot. And for what reason? Think about how often you return to a location or the hundreds of photos you shot just to capture a specific subject before you finally achieved your vision. Think about all the time and effort that goes into learning techniques or studying other's photographs or paintings so that you can make a photograph. If that isn't art, what is?

"Art is work. Not only is it my job (lucky!), but being an artist requires a lot of work." Frank Albinder, Grammy award winning conductor.

Creating art, no matter what the form, is not easy. No artist would ever say it is. I work at creating an image and I work hard at improving. Motivation, dedication with a touch of obsession is what drives photography as an art form. It isn't about the equipment and owning the latest and greatest camera. It's about the images we create. If anticipation for the next photo shoot makes you lose sleep, you may very well be an artist!

"It's about sharing the way we experience the world, which for many is an extension of personality." Wm. Joseph Neiters

I love this quote because this gets to the answer of why we take photographs in the first place. Your photographs are an extension of your experiences. For me, it is about being in the wilderness. My photography grew organically from my canoe trips into the Everglades; no one handed me a camera. My wilderness experiences are embedded in my photography. Whatever it is that inspires you to take photographs, it all starts from within and your connection to your subject, regardless of how you acquired a camera. No one is telling you that you have to take photographs; you're telling yourself that.

"The fundamental difference between art and beauty is that art is about who has produced it, whereas beauty depends on who's looking." Chiara Leonardi

When it comes down to it, we take a photograph for our own sake, not for someone else's (ideally!). We want to capture that moment because it speaks to us, and then we try to create art out of it. A bonus is when a complete stranger who doesn't know you from Adam looks at your photograph and sees beauty or something that speaks to them. It doesn't matter that it is a photograph or a painting or whatever, they just like it. The fact that someone enjoys a photograph we created from the heart is simply a bonus.

So, is photography art? A simple question with a simple answer; YES.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

2018: Year of Learning

2018 Learning Goal: Shoot even when the lighting is less than ideal and learn to work with it in the field and in post-processing.

A very belated happy new year to all. As is customary after coming out of the haze of the holiday season and looking a new year straight in the eye, I have resolved to do some things. Goals are always a part of my photography, but 2018 is going to be very different in many ways, the least of which is more time will be devoted to photography.

If there is any take-away message from my 25+ years of teaching at a university, it is that continuous learning is the most essential ingredient to teaching. The second most essential ingredient is knowing how to simplify your explanations. I earned a Ph.D in physiology and can talk circles around a student's head about "gobbledygook" that had very little meaning to him or her. But students will be students and therefore, will ask questions because they want to find the meaning behind something. And that's when I realized that while I thought I had a practical understanding of physiology, I was struggling to explain it to students.

2018 Learning Goal: Experiment with landscape compositions using the telephoto lens; and study the masters. 
It occurred to me that in order to provide a simple answer to a simple question, I needed to somehow connect the basics to my convoluted understanding of physiology. In other words, I had to dig through all those confusing concepts and find the basic foundation underneath them. And then rebuild my understanding with a simplified version in order to convey its practicality to others.

2018 Learning Goal: Master the use of neutral density and polarizer filters and understand how they work!
And that is exactly what I wish to do with my photography this year, I want to get back to the basics. Only this time I will play a dual role, as student who asks the questions and the teacher who answers them.

2018 Learning Goal: Practice shooting fast subjects and master the camera's tracking focus.
So I challenge you to do the same. For example, you may have recently started using manual exposure. What do you really know about exposure and your camera's meter? Do you have a clear understanding of how the camera's meter works? Do you know when and why you need to stop up or stop down? Do you understand how the lens's focal length affects exposure? Make believe you are a teacher and that you have to explain exposure to a student. Do you have a deep enough understanding to do that in a meaningful, yet simplified way?

That will be my approach this year. And if I can't give myself a correct and simple explanation, I will hit the books until I get it. Ask questions and learn the answers. Do it because you love it.

2018 Learning Goal: Master the use of selective masking in Photoshop.