LET US NOT ASK HOW TO – BUT WHY – MAKE LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHS

If you were interested in learning about long exposure photography techniques and were to do a Google search: “how to long exposure photography”, you would find 32,300,000 search results giving you 1000 lives worth of information, tips, pointers, techniques and more.  Over 32 million!  Long exposure photography is obviously a very popular topic, and one you could study forever.  However, studying the topic of photography technique is not nearly as exciting as actually going out and photographing, so let’s tweak the question and ask “why”.  Why make long exposures?  Asking “how to” activates something in the thinking-mind that wants to research, study, and gain knowledge.  Curiously asking “why” is born out of a different part of our self and activates something else entirely – the inner creative.  When activated, the inner creative is more inclined to go out and photograph life and experiment with different techniques – not just sit at home and read about them.  When you understand the why, the how to comes quite naturally.

There are countless reasons why to make long exposure photographs.  Let’s look at some of them and you will begin to not only see the endless possibilities, but likely begin to feel sparks of inspiration that with some focused attention, will allow you to go out and make fire with your photographs.

FURY

You can create a hint of movement in the water, as seen here with a 1/15 second exposure of a wave exploding against the rocks.  Why?  Because you don’t want your photos to look like the guy who jumped off the tour bus and took a quick snap.  And, it lends itself more to the feeling that the wave is blowing up into the sky.

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WHY NOT TO PRESENT THE SAME PHOTOGRAPH IN BOTH COLOR AND BLACK AND WHITE

STRANGER.  San Diego, California

As I was scrolling through my Google + stream this morning.  I came across a post by a longtime, established, and relatively renowned photographer with an image posted two ways – both in color and black and white, with the question,

“Which one do your prefer?”

“I’d prefer for you, the photographer, to be decisive and choose which one works best!  I’d prefer not to see photographs in both color and black and white.”  I wanted to holler back.  But I didn’t.  I suppose I didn’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers.  With that said, I think it’s a worthy topic to look at and discuss, and this is my forum – so it’s fine.  If I ruffle feathers from here – so be it.

So, what’s my issue here?

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“HOW DO YOU GET THOSE COLORS IN YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS?”

When I exhibit my work, I am often asked this question in one form or another: how do you get these colors in your photographs?  I can’t help but to be a bit bemused by the question, especially when it comes the day after an epic island sunset that had sicko colors blazing across the entire sky, but have come to expect having to answer this question.  I find it an odd question mainly because I see insane colors in nature all of the time.  Granted, as a photographer, I likely pay closer attention to this than others, but still, there are many times where nature’s light is so dynamic that it forces you to stop and look, whether it be sunset light or a vibrant wildflower – do these folks not see this color?

For those of you who are color-deficient (not due to medical reasons), here are 3 easy ways to Enhance the Vividness reaching your eyeballs:

  • 1)  Take walks at sunrise or sunset.
  • 2)  Pay attention to your surroundings.
  • 3)  Purchase a pair of Maui Jim sunglasses!
  • I’ve been wearing these glasses for 15 years and they truly make the world more beautiful!  I don’t step outside without ’em…unless it’s nighttime ;)

Now, I know that most of the people who ask me about the color in my photographs aren’t asking me because they don’t feel that it exists in the world, as much as it doesn’t exist in their photographs.  This is what they’re essentially asking: Why don’t my photographs look like this?  (In fact, I get that exact question too, and I generally respond by saying, You probably haven’t dedicated the past decade to photography.)  So, if this is what people are essentially asking, then I wonder, why would you expect your photographs to look like this?  If you haven’t awaken 104 times before sunrise to get out shooting in the past year, and if you haven’t missed 234 dinner-times to get out shooting in the past year, and if you haven’t fully dedicated yourself to trying to see and capture dynamic light and color, then why would you expect your photographs to look like this?

The reality is, the dynamic nature of the color in my photographs come from a number of elements.  First of all, place and time of day.  This is obviously the most important factor and it can be insulting when people overlook this and go straight to some comment like, So, are these colors all like photoshopped?  I usually have a quick Woody Allen movie-like-moment in my head where I smack ’em in the head and tell there 6 year old to get their goofball dad outta here before I clone-stamp his ass to oblivion.  (Actually, I totally just made that up and have never thought that before, but you get the idea..)  These type of people require you to have a thick-skin, that’s for sure!  It comes from ignorance, and generally someone who wants an easy explanation of-a-thing – something that will fit nicely in a little box and get compartmentalized and then it’s off to the next thing to quickly solve.  For those people – have fun with that.  So when I say obviously, obviously I am not speaking about everyone.  For the rest of you, place and time of day is the most important factor.  You gotta have dynamic light and color in the foundation of your image, captured in-camera, to have a dynamic and vivid image in your final results.  Or, at least – I do.  After that, you’ve got your post-production, printing, finishing, lighting – all important elements to the color that people see in the work.

This week, I did a photography workshop here on Maui with a father and son from Washington State.  They wanted to cover a number of things, but they were both curious and made multiple inquiries to my color in the days leading up to the workshop.  I decided to take some of the mystery out of it and show them a few images from beginning to end.  I am going to show you the same thing with this image from the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco that I captured during my last visit to California.

Here is the RAW file in Adobe Camera Raw, straight outta the camera.  The colors are all in the foundation to the image.  The way a digital camera records a scene, it leaves things a bit unfinished.  Whereas a positive slide transparency like Fuji Velvia, properly exposed, is damn near a complete photograph outta camera, digital RAW capture is more like a negative and needs to be completed by the photographer.

Oh, and the back-story to the image – I was shooting here the night before for sunset when the fog moved in, so I felt optimistic about some ethereal sunrise possibilities.  I stayed with a friend in South City 45 minutes away, and although we stayed up ’til 1am-or-later drinking beer and playing Wii bowling, I still managed to get my ass up at 4:30am and get back up here for sunrise…without coffee!  Why on earth would I do such a thing?  Because of Enhance the Vividness Rule #1 people…to get the color.

All I have done in ACR is brought the color temperature down a bit, making the image cooler.  In so doing, the blues and pink become more blue and pink.

Here it is opened into Photoshop.

I open the image into Nik Colr Efex Pro and put a Contrast Color Range layer onto the image.  This is a tool that I use quite often and like.  You can achieve the same results on your own without the plugin, but it speeds things up and works very well.

Here, I apply a subtle curve to the upper part of the image and sky, just to bring those levels up some.

Finally, to add that little bit of punch, I add a little Vibrance and small-kine Saturation.

There, you get to see the path this image followed from out-of-camera to completion.  Not a big stretch.  The foundation has to hold the goods, otherwise you gotta get back out there and shoot it again.  You don’t get good shots every time you go out, because there isn’t going to be dynamic light and color every time you go out, and then the 10 times you do get the sweet-light, 1/2 the time you’ll still not get the shot because of one reason or another.  So, in reality, if you want to get dynamic color in your photographs, you’ve got to get out there a bunch and shoot lots.  If you simply want to see vivid color, pay closer attention and get yourself some Maui Jim’s!

SUN FIRE IN LA JOLLA

SUN FIRE  La Jolla, California

When we depend on our eyes and our heart to see the world in a new and inspiring way, photographing at home can often be the photographers biggest challenge.  It can almost seem easy to be sparked and to capture life and landscape in a fresh way when you are visiting a faraway exotic locale where everything is new and your senses are heightened, but to do it at home in a place you see everyday and feel so familiar with isn’t ever easy and can border on tedious.

My time in La Jolla had been a good lesson and was successful in teaching me that it is possible to make strong images at home, and to overcome this familiarization with the area that can often extinguish any inspiration to be creative.

The creative approach becomes different.  Whereas when you are traveling, you are in a locale for maybe a few days.  You are likely to be exploring the area and experimenting with many different compositions and burning through lots of film.  In the moment, it is best to shoot shoot shoot and edit later, trusting your eye and skills to capture some gems along the way.  Whilst at home on the other hand, the approach is to really slow down.  You can become more intimate with the subject because you know it will be there the next day.  You begin to know how much the scene changes due to tidal changes, weather, or time of day.  You saturate a potential scene with visit after visit until you feel that the image can no longer get any better!  It is a different approach and not one we as photographers generally daydream about.  It’s always traveling to some foreign wonderland where the light is always sweet and at night there is good beer and good company.  How often do we fantasize about going 1/4 mile down the street 100 times to get the best possible image that our eye and skill can produce?!

It is a test.  It is a different creative approach, but ultimately, I think in many ways it is more rewarding, and I think the work is stronger and more dynamic.  When your persistence takes you to a place where you can honestly say – I can do no better with this scene – then you have truly done your best and can feel complete with the image, and then move on to the next.  Such is the case with this image – Sun Fire.  I have surely photographed these two rocks well over 50 times.  At different times and at different angles using a variety of techniques.

It was one of the more dynamic sunsets of the entire year!  But mixed with the longer exposure of 60 seconds, the water gets that smooth-foggy look that I absolutely love, simplifying the scene and making the rocks evermore dramatic, which adds balance to the drama in the sky.

This is one of a handful of photographs from La Jolla that fall into this lesson learned and an approach to image making that I continue today.  Sure, I want to travel the globe in search of exciting new areas to capture, but I also realize that there is endless scenes right in my backyard too.  Surely it’s no coincidence that my first award winning photographs to receive acclaim were the ones that were produced in this way and mindset…and I never went further than a mile from my front door!

TIME EXPOSED = 60 SECONDS