Don't Be So Literal (The Art Of The Blur)!

Photography has always been a balance of science and art. There are those who are more interested in the equipment than getting out and photographing and those who could care less about the gear and only want to create art. I believe the magic happens when one is familiar enough with their equipment that they can use it in a creative way, in any moment, to help expand their creative vision.

One of the most powerful compositional techniques is to minimize the elements in the frame. Just because the sky exists in a landscape, doesn't mean it needs to be included. When photographing a tree, don't always assume that the whole tree has to be in included. Less is more, and a minimalist composition often creates significantly stronger images.

It's important to constantly push your creative limits. When you've hit the proverbial brick wall, try a technique that you think can't possibly work. The in-camera blurring technique is nothing new to the art of photography, but I first stumbled across the technique when I was cruising around backcountry roads in the winter. The light was a beautiful bright overcast, and I was planning on photographing some snowy landscapes. All of a sudden the weather changed and I was presented with a whiteout. Surely it was time to go home, or was it? The decision to stay and keep photographing was a day that helped shape my photographic vision and style. Unsure of what the outcome was going to be, I set the camera to a slow shutter speed, looked for a nice set of trees and moved the camera up/down as I pressed the shutter. The result blew me away, and to this day I truly enjoy using this technique.

Since this "day of the blur", I have applied the technique to many different types of subjects including grasses, reeds, bushes and marshes/swamps. The results can be spectacular. However, there is an art to the blur technique, and it doesn't just include waving your camera around (although that might produce some other fantastic result). The following is a list of tips to help you begin your blurring adventures:

1) You'll need to use an appropriately slow shutter speed. The speed will depend on the scene, subject, how much light there is, how fast you move the camera and how large an area you need to cover. A good starting point is about 1/20 to 1/4 second. If you are using a mirrorless camera that has an electronic shutter, you will be able to see, in real-time, how blurred the image will be.

2) Make sure you have focus! As bizarre as this sounds, if the subject that you're blurring isn't in focus, your result will just look like a blurred, out of focus image. Take some shots with the subject out of focus to see what I mean.

3) The composition also matters. You want to include as much of the subject but not too much that the image becomes weak. You can use a long or short lens to frame as many trees as will work in your composition. Your camera orientation (horizontal or vertical) will depend on the lens you use and how large the area you want to blur is.

4) Typically you will move the camera in an up or down motion but sometimes both up and down or even a random pattern works! 

5) When you blur a subject, you will end up blending the colour of the different portions of the subject as well. For example, if you are blurring a tree with grass around it, you'll find that some of the green grass will start blending with the brown or white tree trunk and the leaf colours (if any). Note which colour you want most dominant, and begin your blurring accordingly. If you slow down over a particular area, that colour will become more prominent. 

6) The scene you are blurring doesn't always have to be pretty. Look for bold lines and shapes that will create visual interest. Dead trees and hardly any colour can make for excellent images.

7) Most of the time you'll need to do some basic post processing to the blur images. The reason being that the highlights and shadows mix and become averaged out, causing the image to look flat. Therefore, you'll want to ensure that your black and white points are set to taste. You’ll probably also need to add some vibrance or saturation. Keep in mind that your image post processing doesn't need to be technically correct. This is just a guideline as it's ultimately the art we are after.

There are other techniques to create surreal and dreamlike images which I will write about in future articles. The bottom line is that photography is an art just like any other medium. Nobody should dictate how we use our tools. Leaving the viewer to use their imagination to interpret your images can be a more immersive experience for them and create a longer-lasting connection with your art.

Focus on Nature - Connecting Youth to Nature Through Photography

In May I had the opportunity to volunteer with Focus on Nature on one of their workshops to photograph the days events. Focus on Nature is a non-profit charity, operating in Guelph, Ontario, that provides a nature photography program for children in grades four to six. They are aligned with the Ontario visual arts curriculum with their main goal being to connect youth with nature through photography. The program aims to encourage and inspire students to increase their confidence, feed their creativity and instill a healthy appreciation for the natural world. I was looking forward to the day but I couldn't have guessed how powerful the experience was going to be. 

The day began with me arriving at St. Patrick's Catholic School to meet with the Focus on Nature folks. Today's class was a five / six split taught by Mrs. Porcellato. I was immediately told to go to the office. Fortunately, unlike a few times in my elementary school days, this visit was just to sign in! After signing in I went down to the library to meet with Roblin May, the Chair of the Volunteer Committee and Dianne, John and Ric, the workshop volunteers. Focus on Nature has a number of volunteers that help run the daylong workshops at schools across Guelph. I was treated to a very pleasant welcome and was introduced to how the day was to unfold.  

The first part of the day happens in the classroom where the children learn the basics of photography. Roblin taught them compositional concepts such as patterns, negative space, rule of thirds, form and leading lines. The students were also given guidance on how to frame the subject in relation to things around it. The energy in the room was one of enthusiasm and intrigue. The students were soaking up all the information and enjoying every moment of the presentation. Hands were being raised left, right and centre to ask and answer questions. It was so nice to see these kids so eager to unleash their creativity! 

After the presentation was complete, the cameras were assigned to the students. Focus on Nature uses Panasonic Lumix Tough point and shoot cameras. These are great for the students (and any outdoor adventure types) as they are waterproof, shockproof, dust proof and freeze proof. These cameras can handle any of the elements and bumping around they might encounter; although, the students weren’t told that the cameras were virtually indestructible because we can all imagine what the outcome of that might be! I have one of these Panasonic Lumix tough cameras and it goes with me canoeing, backpacking and is pretty much with me wherever I go. As the students were handed their cameras they ran back to their desks, full of enthusiasm, all ready to learn and play! Roblin taught them how to operate the cameras (the Lumix cameras are all very intuitive to use) and went over some dos and don'ts. When the students heard the words “OK let’s go out and take some photos!”, they could barely maintain their ability to form a straight line. They were about to embark on an exciting creative adventure! 

The first activity of the day was walking to a nearby field to photograph the yellow dandelions, trees and any other interesting subjects that the students might find. Unfortunately when we got to the field we watched as the last bunch of dandelions were being mowed by city employees! Roblin grouped everyone up, explained the rules and guidelines of the activity and then broke the group up into three smaller groups to be supervised by Dianne, John and Ric. The groups then went on their way to different areas of the field. Needless to say, there was no walking but full-on sprinting to their assigned areas! Even though the field was made less photogenic with the lack of dandelion colour, there was no holding them back. They were in bushes, on their knees and would stop at nothing to figure out a way to photograph subjects that captivated their creative minds. Some of the subjects and compositions they found interesting is real proof that sometimes as we age we lose our ability to think outside of the box. It was inspiring to be around so many energetic emerging artists! 

After lunch, the next group of activities included a photo scavenger hunt, nature sculpture and editing their photos.  This session was setup as a rotation where each of the group leaders would take a group of students and run the assigned activity. This was a way to give the students the chance to fit all of the activities into the day. For the photo scavenger hunt, the students were in groups of three and were given a list of things to photograph and the photographs had to be nature-based. It was a great way to practice the think outside the box idiom. The nature sculpture activity was a very interesting concept. Once again, the students were sent in groups of three to go and find tidbits of nature, such as grasses, sand, stones, wildflowers and weeds and create a piece of art on the ground. Some of the designs and ideas were a treat to experience. Once the group had a creation they were happy with, it was photographed by the group leader. It was remarkable to witness some of the intricate designs, patterns and shapes these students had made from scrounged up and assembled pieces of nature that people take for granted and ignore every day.   

The last activity was done back in the library where Roblin taught the students how to cull down their images to their top five using Google Picasa. They were allowed to take a maximum of 50 photos during the day. Undoubtedly there were some who took more than this limit, simply based on how excited they were out in the field. The students grasped the image editing process quickly and completed the selection and editing process in no time. Focus on Nature has a number of laptops that are used to perform the photo editing process on. It was a real joy witnessing the satisfaction the students experienced as they played around with cropping, changing colours and adding special effects to their photos. 

The day ended back in the classroom with a slideshow. For each student, their top five photos were projected in front of the class. If the student was interested, they were allowed to speak to their favourite photo they took of the day. It was precious how many of them participated in this exercise and it was clear how proud they were of their photo accomplishments. Speaking in front of the class also encouraged public speaking skills and general confidence and self-esteem. Listening to some of them reflect on their art was astounding with some students providing somewhat deep and philosophical explanations. 

I had no idea what to expect when I agreed to volunteer for the Focus on Nature workshop. To watch these students know essentially nothing about photography and basic concepts to producing some inspiring photographs and speak to them by the end of the day proved a fundamental point. That point being that we need to continually encourage our youth to always feed and pursue their creative outlets and stay connected with nature. The genuine awe and anticipation these students had when photographing and appreciating all things creative and natural was undeniable. I feel honoured and privileged that I was invited to tag along and enjoy the workshop. I’ve always been a proponent of connecting youth to creative outlets and nature and I applaud Focus on Nature for implementing such an effective program. I urge anyone who has an opportunity to volunteer with Focus on Nature to do so. It is an experience that will inspire you as much as it inspires the students.

Mystical Morning - The Journey And The Destination

Many times we are fixated on getting to that favorite shooting location that we forget to pay attention to the happenings around us. In these days of not having enough time, there’s a constant state of frenzy in trying to get as many things done as possible at once. This is rarely a benefit when one is attempting to create successful images. Since I’m a fine art photographer with nature being one of my significant photographic subject matter, it’s not just the creation of nature images that lures me to do this. I also have a tremendous love for the outdoors. Having said that, I’ve trained myself to live in the moment and photograph a great opportunity as it presents itself, wherever it presents itself.

This image (Mystical Morning) was created on a peaceful morning as I was driving to one of my favorite trail locations. I have driven past this scene a hundred times and never bothered to give it any attention. You would never believe me from looking at the image, but these trees sit in front of a rural home that has a bunch of junk in the front yard and a host of trees and shrubs that wouldn’t grab any positive attention in a photograph. During that particular morning there was a heavy fog that had settled in, which had veiled the yard junk and created a fantasy world. I knew I didn’t have long before the sun would pop above the horizon and end the fantastic scene before my eyes.

Proper exposure was critical in order for me to capture detail in the moon and the subtle hues of blues, pinks and purples. This is where knowing your equipment pays off. Not having to fumble with settings and operational issues during the critical moments will lead to more keepers. I also try to have my tripod ready in the car and cameras setup to shoot the type of subject matter I am anticipating. Being prepared in this way reduces the number of fleeting moment images you might miss. Shooting RAW was also of great benefit to allow me the freedom of tweaking the delicate colour gradients without worrying about banding. I did carry on to my favourite spot after I created this image but knew that I had already captured something I was extremely pleased with.

Although I try to create my images as perfect as I can in the field, every digital image requires some post processing. When I got back to the studio I processed the image ensuring critical color accuracy with my X-Rite color management solution (i1Photo Pro 2 and ColorChecker targets) for custom camera, monitor and printer profiling. The X-Rite solution allows me to efficiently and accurately process my images providing more time in the field.

A while ago I had made a conscious effort to go back to the local, familiar places and hone my vision looking for compositions. Like many, I kept telling myself a more exotic, unexplored location would allow me to capture better images. Ironically some of my most popular images are ones that I created close to home.

I learned a valuable lesson that morning when I created Mystical Morning. I learned that to grow ones’ artistic vision, the blinders must come off and we must lose the preconceived notion that one particular area can’t give us the subject matter or situations needed to create beautiful art.