An open Thank You to Sam Abell

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It’s been a couple of weeks now since my class Sam Abell at the Pacific Northwest Art School and I’ve yet to thank him fully. It was quite a class, quite a week, quite a challenge.

First I need to get one thing out of the way. Do not expect to produce your best, most exceptional, work during a week-long intensive with a master photographer. A great image is the result of the alignment of many things including – clarity of vision, mastery of technique, acute awareness of composition, and opportunity. Master classes, on the other hand, push you beyond your current notion of vision, challenge your technical abilities, increase your awareness of your compositional sloppiness, and enforce mandatory daily picture taking.

The routine for this class was quite similar to the workshop I took with Jay Maisel – and I suspect a common formula (now that I have two under my belt). The first day was spent with an introduction by Sam’s to his approach to photography and his personal message to us to become 24-hour photographers. Take pictures of everything. “If you want to make fine photographs, make fine snapshots”. He urged us to keep a diary camera and to practice photography by journaling our daily lives and taking images of everything around us. I am trying to take that to heart and will have more on this approach in the future.

Regarding what I learned at the workshop. The core of Sam’s photography is his process and approach to composition. The phrase “compose and wait” is a central notion but only scratches the surface of the full concept. The goal of his process is to create rich layered images with a place for everything and everything in its place. In a previous blog post, A Lesson with Sam Abell – Micro-Composition, I wrote about a session I had with Sam at Santa Monica Beach where he gave me a first-hand illustration of the technique. In this workshop I was able to take these concepts further. On the first day he relayed story to us of a conversation he had with one of his colleagues. After some discussion, his colleague pronounced that Sams photography wasn’t about micro composition, it was about nano-composition. Macro, micro, or nano composition, Sam’s process for layering an image and putting things in their places is one that not only serves him well, but one that has taken my photography to a new level. He talked about his process as one that can take you past “reductive” photography – the technique of reducing and simplifying to create order and focus – to the creation of richer more complex images that have the same sense of ease to the viewer. He confessed that for years he pursued the reductive notion but ultimately realized that complex photographs are richer, but so much harder.

Through daily discussion and critique, he shared with us several combination genres which he pursues to create these richer photographs:

  • Still life with a life – start with a still life, but find some life to moving through it.
  • Still life attached to a landscape – a still life in a landscape setting
  • Portrait attached to a landscape – a portrait in a landscape setting
  • Whole world photography – capturing a big full scene, but with each element in its place

When Sam talks about elements and line in a photograph, he refers to them as poetic, as in “look at the poetry of the profile of these buildings on the horizon” or “the poetic line formed by the reflection of a sailboat mast”.

The most amazing part of the workshop was during the critique sessions where I observed Sam’s ability observe and evaluate an image with the speed and accuracy of a bullet. Without missing a single detail, he sees everything in it within seconds. I asked him about his process. His answer was revealing. “I just look at it as if it was in my view finder.” How simple, yet how elusive to most of us.

I spent much of the week searching for opportunity, not quite knowing what to say with my camera, what poem to write. Whidbey Island is a quiet town. Quiet towns make quiet pictures and it took much of the week for me to reconcile this and to look for the quiet moments. I present here a couple of quiet moments on the ferry between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend. This couple, with their careful dress and demeanor, represents the presence and intentionality that Sam teaches us to bring to our photography.

Thank you Sam for your open and thoughtful week. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Thank you for your insight and wisdom. And thank you for pushing me beyond.

Exploring Volume – a compositional comparison of Medium Format and Micro Four Thirds

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For the last month or so I’ve been rattling on about shooting Medium Format because the perspective just looks different compared to smaller formats. The optics just behave differently when you capture an chunk of the world with an 80mm lens (in medium format) vs a 50mm lens (in 35mm format) vs a 25mm (in micro-four-thirds format). The words I’ve been using to describe the difference have been compression and perspective.

As I show my work, another word I’m hearing consistently is volume. Whether it is due to the format or my intention while picking the scenes to shoot, showing volume is exactly why I’m exploring medium format. Finding the right scenes to show volume and using a format that provides the opportunities to render volume more effectively.

Here, then, are my first comparisons of images I shot in Medium Format (MF) against Micro-Four-Thirds (MFT). (Ok, some of you are right now saying that I should have compared MF with Full-Frame 35mm, but this is subtle and I think the wider comparison is still important). The purpose is to evaluate if there is a difference in the volume portrayed between the two formats and if they do really just look different.

The micro-four-thirds images were captured in RAW format with an Olympus OMD E-M5 and the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 ASPH Micro 4/3 lens. Of all the lenses in my MFT kit (actually anything I own including my Canon L lenses), this lens has some of the most delicious sharpness and color rendering. The digital images were processed using LightRoom 4 and Photoshop CS6 (mostly in LightRoom) on a color calibrated iMac 27″ monitor.

The medium format images were taken with a Hasselblad 500 C/M on Kodak Ektar 100 with a Hasselblad 80mm T* Zeiss Planar lens. They were scanned with an Epson Perfection V700 flatbed scanner using the Epson scanning software with Digital ICE and autoexposure turned on. I’m not a master scanner – and I tried several programs including VueScan and SilverFast. This setup gave be the most predictable results which were not all that different from the other software with all their fancy, unpredictable, and frankly buggy software. With any of this software, it became clear to me that they would all require careful tweaking of the white balance to reproduce the image I had in my head. The scans were hand color corrected, dodged and burned using LightRoom 4 and Photoshop CS6 on a color calibrated iMac 27″ monitor. This the same monitor and software I use for all my image processing.

I purposely processed the two sets of images independently, about a week apart. I did not compare them at all until last night when I was completely finished processing the medium format film images. Although the purpose of this exercise was to solely compare the difference in feel and scene rendering using an 80mm medium-format setup versus the wider-angle focal length required by a smaller image sensor, you will you will notice other differences including color rendering and overall color relationships across different areas of the image. Balancing the color of this scene, both digitally and using film, was a bear. Both sets of images have selective color temperature adjustments. Each set was processed as if they were my only images and processed to my most preferred tastes. I made no attempt to make them either look alike or different.

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Olympus OM-D E-M5, Panasonic Leica 25mm Summilux ASPH Hasselblad 500 C/M, Zeiss 80mm T* Planar lens, Kodak Ektar 100

Upon comparison, the colors of the film, to me, are definitely are more translucent and inviting. It is fair to ask if, with a bit more work or a different camera sensor, I could duplicate the colors across the two experiences better. I probably could by working with the images side-by-side. However, this was not the experiment. Look past the color and view the differences in the way the two lenses see the world and render the perspective and volume. This is my quest.

More exploration to come and I’m very excited to post a couple of B&W images I processed last night. The babbling will continue.

Fireworks – It’s all in the Presentation

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It is hard to make something new with fireworks. I can think of several styles: traditional, lots of context, and zoomies. This year I saw something new to me – changing focus. What I learned when I started to edit mine, is that it was not so much what I took, but how I chose to present it.

All images taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M. Zuiko 12-50 Zoom. Roughly f/11 @ ISO 200. Some straight, some zoomed. I used the LIVEBULB mode to judge exposure and timing as I watched the image appear on the back screen. This is what I would call the antithesis of shooting film.

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I didn’t take this image in medium format, but I wish I had.

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Although southern California was supposed to have been in the midst of a significant high-pressure heat wave, the night before last these clouds started to move in. We had planned a trip to Santa Barbara just to escape the heat but with the slight cloud cover, I guessed that even in mid-afternoon, I could catch some nice light.

I took with me my Oly OMD E-M5 with the Panasonic 25mm (50mm equiv) f/1.2, the Hasselblad 500 C/M and 80mm f/2.8, and my tripod. Both kits cover roughly the same field of view on their respective cameras. My intention was to continue to work as I have been doing, meter and judge composition with the Oly and take a roll of beach scenes on the Hassy. I’ve been wanting to limit myself to B&W, but when I got to the beach and experienced the wonderful peaceful pastel blues, I knew I was going to load the camera with color. I’m currently exploring Kodak Ektar 100 for the outdoor color work.

Using a little bracketing and a polarizer filter, I shot 4 scenes on my 12 exposure roll, plus a few scenes of some kids playing in the surf. I told myself I wouldn’t use film for my street stuff, but I just couldn’t help myself. When I get the film back and scanned I will post a comparison between the two setups. I am hoping to see both the change in perspective (25mm vs 80mm covering roughly the same field of view) and the difference between my best digital color balance versus the colors captured on film. Even this image show above was difficult to obtain a good color balance between the sky and the land and took a fair amount of tweaking and some selective color balance adjustments.

I filled up my 12 exposures and then started back to the car. We were on the sidewalk when I saw the composition above. I didn’t take this image in medium format, but I wish I had. With a simple composition and expansive view, this image represents all that I am looking to create with my exploration of medium format photography.

This is what I saw in this scene that triggered my exposure. The reeds on the right mimic the shape and create a balance with the land forms coming from the left. The slightly diagonal strip of sand provides movement and direction leading the eye through the image. The gulls sitting on the left are balancing to the cluster of boats on the right. The darker hues below the horizon balance out with the large area of baby blue sky. The greenish moss floating on top of the water lead the eye into the image from the bottom and the clouds bound it from the top. And last, but not least, the people on the sandbar, with their brightly, colored towels add just a touch of context, human interest, and scale.