May 17, 2016

Chick’s GBS Adventure – The First Image

In mid-January my husband, Chick, became very ill with Guillain-Barré Syndrome and we began to document his illness and recovery in a blog Chick’s GBS Adventure. In this series of posts, I will explore many of the images from a photographic perspective. You can read the background for this series in my previous blog post The Story Behind Chicks GBS Adventure

The First Image

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The Imagery

By the time we received Chick’s diagnosis, he was fully paralyzed from the neck down and I had moved into the role of primary advocate. There are many layers to the story that are told in this one single image. First is my dominance, larger and in the foreground, against Chick’s subordinate role. However, my image is transparent while Chick’s image is lighted, thereby drawing the eye. Chick’s image is also one of the few things in the frame that isn’t impacted by the reflections. The fact that Chick is looking away gives a subtext to the gravity of the situation. The hospital room is also clearly recognizable. The superimposed buildings provide the context of a large medical facility and the two people entering the building in the lower right hand corner could be any visitor. Finally the darkness provide the mood of seriousness and uncertainty.

The Physical Setup

This image is a picture of Chick in his room taken as a reflection while looking out (or at) his window after the sun had set. My image and the room are all in reflection. The building, parking lot driveway and city lights are as seen through the window. Chick’s room was mostly dark with the exception of the light over his bed. The reflection is strongest where there is the most light in room, drowning out the scene outside. Darker parts of the room have the weakest reflection. Since I am only dimly lit, my image is ghostly with the scene and the lights of the city outside superimposed and shining through.

The Composition

Over the course of the late afternoon and evening, I took many images of this scene. As the sun set the lighting and color would change from sunlight, to the blue hour,  and finally darkness with contrast from the city lights. It was well after sunset when this visual emerged. In composing the frame, I had to be ultra aware of the corners and edges, carefully placing myself and balancing the monitor above Chick’s head in the upper right with the parking garage kiosk in the lower left, being careful not to cut off the corners of either of these two elements. The blank white wall in the upper right corner is somewhat problematic and I toned it down in post-processing as best as possible. Inside the room, the scene was rather static, but outside were a changing set of small details. In the end, I carefully held the framing while I watched only the lower right-hand corner waiting for the right configuration of tiny people to complete the composition.

May 17, 2016

The Story Behind Chick’s GBS Adventure

For much of this year I have published images every day on a blog Chick’s GBS Adventure (http://chickgbsadventure.wordpress.com) which documents a deeply personal and emotional time in my life, caring for my husband who has been ill since Jan 12th. He is now recovering at a very progressive rate (according to his doctors) even though it will still be 1-2 years before he is back to his pre-illness fitness level.

Over the next many posts, I will explore the best of these images, stepping back from the emotional story, and talk about these images from a photographic perspective.

A while back I took a workshop with photojournalist Gerd Ludwig. During that workshop I was challenged over the course of a 4 days to do a Day-in-the-Life documentary of my Parents. Gerd said to me something to the effect that I would need to take a lot of pictures to in order to capture the full story, then edit them down to a manageable 10 or 15, but that out of the whole series, one or two images would stand out on their own. It was true for that series, and certainly true for this one too.

Preface

On January 12th, my husband was admitted to the hospital with no more specific of a diagnosis than “profound weakness”. The true diagnosis came 10 days later: Guillain-Barré Syndrome – an autoimmune condition that attacks the myelin nerve sheaths and leaves them incapable of transmitting nerve impulses to the muscles. The first symptoms are tingling in the hands and feet leading ultimately to various degrees of paralysis. Recovery begins only after the autoimmune response is stopped. It then typically takes 1-2 years for the nerves to completely repair themselves down through the hands and feet, and the strength lost by muscle atrophy to be rebuilt. In my husband’s case, over the course of the 10 days leading to his diagnosis, he became paralyzed from the neck down with involvement of his bowel and bladder. His respiratory and GI systems were affected, but luckily not to the point of needing aid.

On Friday evening, January 22nd, he was finally diagnosed and transported to UCLA Medical Center to begin 5-rounds of plasmapheresis, a treatment to stop the autoimmune response, and set him up for his long recovery.

Before his diagnosis I was completely freaked out, but once we got to UCLA and had a course of direction, I finally had enough awareness to start a documentary series of images which served not only to keep me occupied but also to serve as a record which my husband could then use to see his own progress – something very difficult when you are slowly pulling out of paralysis one small movement at a time.

The Camera

My schedule was pretty unpredictable, as I spent all day and many nights at the hospital or rehabilitation facility providing a constant face of optimism and support. In addition, I never quite knew when a severe bout of pain or depression would hit. I wanted to capture this story, but it was the proverbial photojournalist’s riddle: If you see a man dying on the side of the road, which will you do first, help or take the picture.

My answer was certainly to “help first”. Managing cameras, batteries, memory cards, and lenses was secondary so I relied on what I had with me – a new iPhone 6s and its 12 MP / 31mm effective focal-length camera.

Ergonomics aside (the iPhone is a clumsy physical camera platform), my two biggest complaints with the iPhone are that the sensor has a very hard time with dynamic range and consistently blows out the highlights, and that there is a noticeable shutter lag. The former was just something that I had to work with, often fixing in my post processing. The shutter lag I tried to overcome by taking a lot of images in succession or using Apple’s “live photo” feature and picking the right frame in Lightroom, after the fact. Otherwise, the camera it is reasonably sharp and well performing especially for publishing in smaller sizes.

The process

About the time Chick moved to UCLA, he too became committed to telling his story through a daily blog post on a site we called Chick’s GBS Adventure. With GBS, Chick’s body was paralyzed but his mind remained lucid (except for some hallucinations as a side effects of the pain medications).  Chick and I quickly worked out a system where he would dictate his thoughts to me while I typed on my MacBook Air which I carried with me everywhere.

I would photograph throughout the day, being mindful to protect the privacy of the staff and other patients unless given permission, and we would use the best images of the last 24 hours to help tell the story. My process was to pick my favorites from the phone and email them to myself. Mac’s new AirDrop feature came in quite handy as well – and thankfully all the facilities where Chick was being cared for had good guest WiFi. I would import the images into Adobe Lightroom for light post-processing and export them in a size for publication on our WordPress blog, FaceBook, and email. We wrote each entry in Evernote, which is available on all my devices (MacBook, iPhone, and iPad) then cut and paste into the WordPress editor when ready. Later on we came to also use the voice dictation on the iPhone before doing the final edit on the MacBook.

April 13, 2016

Figure-Ground or Using Contrasting Tones (reprise)

Last night, I presented on using figure-ground, or tonal contrasts, in photography to the Thousand Oaks Photography Group. To recap what I wrote a few posts back on this subject, figure-ground is a compositional concept in which you use tonal distinctions (light vs dark, dark vs light) to distinguish subjects in your image and draw the viewers eye.

In graphic design, it often also refers to pictures that are ambiguous based on what you interpret as the figure (the subject) and the ground (the background). Here are three examples.

Dog-cat

Cat or dog?

Hand-Gun

Hand or gun?

Old-Young-Woman

Old woman or young woman?

In photography we use tonal contrasts to separate the subject and details from their surroundings. You can use simple images to explore this technique such as a light (or lighted) flower against its darker foliage.

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Here the dark outlines on the wings of each bird make it stand out against the lighter foggy background.

In Flight

The light-colored weeds and grasses stand out in all of their detail against the dark rusted cans.

Camp Keeler #12

In this street scene, the mid-tone wall is used to highlight both very dark and very light objects.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Or this white dog lying on the dark mat at the dog show. Note how the use of subtle gray tones within the figure (the dog) and the ground (the mat) add more information and interest than if it was just a pure white shape on a pure black background.

dog on black

Finally, in this more complex scene from Ireland, notice how the woman in her coat (it looks like a mysterious person in a cape) is a dark figure highlighted against the lighted part of the trail, but her white dog is situated in the shadow part of the trail. The use of tonal contrasts to enable the viewer to see each of them and their outlines clearly.

Forresting

I recommend studying the work of Penti Sammallahti and Elliot Erwitt to explore and be inspired by their black and white photography and their masterful use of tonal-contrasts.

Recipes for Success Using Tonal Contrasts

  • If possible – Set your camera to B&W mode, to show your image in B&W in the Live View mode
  • Background First
    • Start with a background with an area of uncomplicated light or dark that you can use to frame your subject against.
    • Wait for a light object to frame within a dark area or a dark object to frame within a light area
  • Subject First
    • Find an interesting subject
    • Determine if it is a dark object or light object
    • Reposition yourself or your subject so that it is surrounded by contrasting tonality
  • Add complexity
  • Look for patterns of repeating light/dark
    • Look for images with both light on dark and dark on light
    • In stripes
    • In surrounding areas
January 2, 2016

Trees inspired by Pentti Sammallahti

Oaks

About a year ago, while attending Photo LA, I was introduced to the images of the Finish photographer Pentti Sammallahti. Sammallahti, who shoots exclusively on black and white film, has a magical way of using tonal relationships and often shoots panoramic formats.

Inspired by Sammallahti’s work, I have recently been shooting with a 12mm lens (24mm equivalent on a full-frame camera) and my camera set to “monochrome” and a 16:9 aspect ratio.

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When working wide and panoramic, my compositional choices are not muchdifferent than when walking around doing my normal color street photography. I look for compositions with layers and dimensions, bringing some objects near and some further away. I try to fill the frame to the edges with stuff (sometimes the stuff is negative space) so that the composition appears to go on forever. And, with black and white, I look for components of the image to be visually speparated by tonal differences – if shooting color, I would use differences in color.

misc_20160101_00115-Edit-Edit

Oddly, I don’t think these images look like anything like the images in the book of Sammallahti that I have studied. His compositions usually have big wide open (snow covered) spaces. I suppose this is true inspiration; to be moved to make your art and not just to copy their art.

November 21, 2015

Why I had to take my camera off B&W

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November 8, 2015

Composition Concept – Figure-Ground

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Every other month I challenge the members of the Thousand Oaks Photo Group, and myself, to employ a specific compositional technique on the images entered for critique the following month. As I prepared my topics for 2016 I decided to add a topic for using figure-ground relationships.

Figure-ground is a compositional concept in which you use tonal distinctions (light vs dark) to bring out the subjects in your image. If you look it up on the internet you will find lots of examples of black and white images where you see two different images depending on what you interpret as the figure (the subject) and what you see as the ground (the background).

LACP_20151106_00044-Edit

In photography, we use figure-ground relationships to distinguish the subject (the figure) from the background (the ground) using contrasts in light and color.

Here is the dictionary definition:

1. relating to or denoting the perception of images by the distinction of objects from a background from which they appear to stand out, especially in contexts where this distinction is ambiguous.

I am a strong believer in the adage that to really learn something, you should teach it. With each lectures preparation, I am challenged to isolate the concept and do my own shooting. The topic of figure-ground was surprisingly more difficult than I had imagined. Once I got past the simple examples of a light flower against a dark forrest or dark silhouettes against a bright sky, I found my own vision for seeing figure-ground relationships cloudy, and so I set myself out to practice seeing these relationships.

LACP_20151106_00070-Edit

If you know my work, you know that 90% of what I do is digital color street photography. But I found that seeing figure-ground relationships in color was difficult. So I gave myself a little edge in learning to see by setting my camera to show me only B&W in the viewfinder so that I could easily see the tonal relationships. You can do this with any camera with an electronic view finder or via live view on your DSLR. B&W photography is particularly beholden to the use of tonal figure-ground relationships because you don’t have color to help you find and distinguish objects.

Photo by Elliot Erwitt, In Glass

Photo by Elliot Erwitt, In Glass

As I was doing my research, I found this image from Elliot Erwitt with many layers of figure and ground relationships:

1. the darker helmets against a light background
2. the highlights on with the dark faces
3. the light reflection in the front soldier’s sun-glasses
4. the self-portrait of Erwitt himself in dark silhouette inside the frame of the sun glass lens.

Each element is clearly delineated from one another simply by surrounding darker items with light and lighter items with dark.

Perhaps my best example of a photography effectively using this figure-ground relationships is this image from the Cong Forest in County Mayo, Ireland.

The Cong
Ireland, County Mayo

The examples of figure-ground relationships in this image include the white dog framed against the darker shadowed part of the path and the dark figure framed against the lighted part of the path. While I was composing this image, I was aware of these relationships somewhere in the back of my mind, but I’m certain that I was more concentrated on spatial the relationships between the objects and their gesture. However, without the figure-ground relationships, I’m not sure that this image would have been as successful.

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