The photography that I looked at early on was mostly from the US, and showed its iconic western landscapes. This probably had a lot to do with the photo sharing site that I had chosen (Google’s Picasa Web Albums) and the people on the site that I had connected with. :-) Except for the alps though, southern Germany and Bavaria lacked anything that was even remotely as wild, dramatic, grand, empty and vast as these landscapes. It left me with a longing and unfulfilled desire.
Germany itself is a bit smaller in surface area than California, but about twice as many people live in Germany. The landscape is cultured from hundreds of years of human settlement and activities. Outside of cities and villages, there’s little farms and fields. As a result, it’s harder to avoid man-made things in photos in Germany.
Discovering Intimate Landscapes
My inner eye though sees an idealized version of landscapes – wild, not cultivated, and so I always tried to avoid showing human elements in my photos. To achieve that meant looking at landscapes on a much smaller scale, isolate the “little scenes” as I called them, extract a piece of a larger scene to make it look pure and untouched by humans – when in reality, at least a trail would run through a frame, a house or power line was just outside of the frame, or a road was nearby.
As photographers, when we frame a scene, we cherry-pick and create our own version of reality. That of course applies to every kind of photography, not just landscape and nature photography. Depending on how it’s framed, a strictly “documentary” (photojournalist) photo can convey one or the other message. The manipulation of reality begins with framing the photo. The viewer never knows what was outside of the frame. That’s how I learned that photography is “the art of leaving things away” (I didn’t come up with that, but I don’t recall where I heard or read it first) and to me, that was quite fundamental. Whatever is in your frame becomes part of the photo. Later, I discovered that the proper term for my “little scenes” was “intimate landscape photography“.
What I also learned was about the technical aspects of photography, and a lot from online resources and forums. I found that photography forums were often a gathering of people that discussed photographic equipment on a highly technical level though, and rather isolated at that – not that I wouldn’t appreciate the insight some of these people had, I was glad that they shared their knowledge, but I found that the depth and detail was often disconnected from “the bigger picture” (pun intended).
For example – yes, I knew that my “infamous” 18-200mm super-zoom lens was not the sharpest lens (enough of these forum people rubbed it in repeatedly, while at the same time, the lens was in such high demand that I had to wait a month for it). But a sharper lens would not have made any of my photos better, artistically. Photographic gear enables us to make certain photos, but the gear itself doesn’t make us better photographers. The photo below was made with that 18-200mm lens, at 135mm focal length. In other words, I could not have made the photo with my 18-55mm kit lens. :-) I think that’s how we should primarily think about photographic gear.
The other thing that began to happen in 2008 was that I took more freedoms with creative developing of photos. What the camera captured in the scene below was a dull and flat scene on an overcast day – auto white balance for example, to this day, will quite reliably fail when you point it at something with a strong dominant color. I not only corrected that, but took it further, simply because I liked where the colors went. If I was a film user, I would’ve used a warming filter, perhaps.
Also, my eye was attracted to the serenity of the scene, with the reflection in the water, so I tried to get as slow a shutter speed as possible (tricky because the highlights of the one birch in the frame demanded underexposing in order to not blow them out) – and it didn’t work too well, because I didn’t have neutral density filters with me. Wind had disturbed only a portion of the water surface enough to blur it sufficiently, in the other part I added that blur later, on the computer.
The resulting photo expresses the serenity and stillness of this late autumn day at the lake much better. Perhaps with the photographer’s longing for a little more color at this drab time of the year in Germany. :-) It’s still one of my favorite images.
More from this year in the 2008 blog post archives, if you’re curious. :-)
Photo Geek Talk (the tech bits)
I bought a new camera body, in 2008 already. :-P My biggest grievance about the Nikon D70s that I was using was its limited dynamic range: hiking in the mountains in broad daylight often meant either completely blown out highlights, or pretty dark and drowned shadows (this hike to Schneeberg was probably the tipping point, I struggled with the exposures a lot). I briefly tried graduated filters, but found them quite awkward to use, especially hand-held while hiking – after all, my goal was primarily to hike, not to photograph, so I didn’t haul a tripod around for the necessary precision. Also, graduated filters are just a straight line – and mountains are anything but straight! I wanted to get a single exposure, as bright as possible without blowing out the highlights, and then develop for the shadows on the computer.
I still use this approach (it’s called ETTR, expose to the right) and with newer cameras and their improved dynamic range it has become much easier. Back then, the camera with the best dynamic range was the Fuji S5pro – it had a special Fuji sensor with two photo-sites per pixel, one regular and one just for the highlights. This sensor and the electronics came in a Nikon D200 body, which allowed me to keep using my Nikon lenses.
The camera was a bit of a weird beast, but even today, I think it produced the most “photographic” looking images, and often without much processing. The extra dynamic range was in the highlights, not in the shadows, as is the case for modern DSLRs. That was truly special, and I think Nikon’s matrix metering never worked better than with this sensor.
People said that the S5pro is so good and so special, you don’t need to use raw data. Back then I was naive, trusted those people, and used JPEG for a while. While Fuji’s JPEG engine was truly unique (and I heard the same is true for their newer cameras), I found that I was missing key benefits of raw data, and switched to raw once again. Don’t listen to the voices on the internet! :-}Thanks for reading! You can stay up to date with my blogposts and subscribe via email (the subscription form opens in a new browser window/tab). It's easy as pie! :-)
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