Images for their own sakeI’m sure you’ve noticed that the subject matter of my columns plays off the specific features, capabilities and technologies of Nikon gear, most often new Nikon gear. As senior technical manager, part of my job is to highlight new products in terms of what makes them different, better or, in some cases, unique. And what better place to do that than in this magazine.
But not this time.
Frankly, I’m a little envious of the other photographers who are featured in Nikon World. Their taking-off point is photography, and their stories are driven by pictures—pictures from recent assignments or personal work or classic images, pictures that illustrate their techniques and reflect their ideas and vision. This time, that’s what I’m going to do. This is the picture-driven column, my chance to talk about photos I’m excited about that don’t necessarily have anything to do with a specific camera, lens, Speedlight, accessory or Nikon technology. No photo here was taken because I needed to illustrate, for instance, the advantages of Active D-Lighting or auto bracketing or focus tracking. I took these photos because here were subjects and situations that excited and attracted me.
But not always at first glance. I walked right past the bike on my way to a Napa Valley, California, store. No interest; no photo. But on my way back, I saw that the sun was casting shadows of the bike’s wheel. That’s pretty cool, I thought, and I took a picture. On the LCD I saw a technically okay, pretty boring shot. There was a picture here, but I needed to do something else, something different. I decided to try a technique I’d heard about from Dave Black in which he sets his white balance for a cool blue tone and takes the shot using a Speedlight fitted with a warming gel. (Coincidentally, Dave writes about that technique in his Workshop column in this issue.) I set my white balance in the 3000 Kelvin range, snapped a warming gel on my SB-900 and then employed the VAL technique to get the shot. VAL? Voice Activated Lightstand—meaning I stop a passerby and ask, “Would you hold this flash for me while I take a few photos?” The VAL kindly worked with me as I took ten shots at different flash compensation settings to see how each would affect the photo.
My picture of the tutu and ballet shoes was also the result of taking a walk. I was on-site at a ballet studio in Boston as technical advisor for a Nikon Creative Lighting System DVD featuring Bob Krist and Joe McNally. On a break I walked into another room and saw the slippers and the tutu in the soft light streaming in through a window.
Even though I was on a break I was carrying my camera (I believe in the gospel according to Jay [Maisel]: “No chance you’re going to get the shot if you don’t have a camera with you”); good thing, because the light changed in less than a minute. The appeal of the scene was the mix of hard light and soft textures, shadows and colors. It’s an atmospheric, moody photo that suggests rather than states. Someone who saw it said it could be the cover of a ballet school brochure or a ballet program. I don’t know if I saw that possibility right away, but it’s interesting that perhaps unconsciously I composed it so there’d be room for text.
One technique I’ve been using a lot lately, and for which I actually seek out subjects, is HDR, High Dynamic Range, a process that makes it possible to capture a wide range of tones in a high-contrast scene. HDR involves taking a series of exposures, essentially a bracket of three or five or more images, and then using software to create a single image that depicts the scene’s tonal range. Maybe because I’m so interested in HDR, every time I go out to shoot I see something that suits the technique. The old truck, for instance, which I photographed in Goodsprings, Nevada. I saw a wide range of tones, a strong central subject, dark, massing clouds and dramatic colors. I moved around the truck, shooting five-stop brackets from a number of angles. The photo here is my favorite for the way it shows the power of the truck—and because it offered up a surprise. Because there was a slight breeze, the tree branches on the left moved during my five-shot bracket, giving me a blurred shadow that works very well with the image.
Speaking of shadows, they are the subject of the photo I took at the Santa Monica pier. It was about 7:00 p.m. and the low sun was casting long shadows, but they weren’t what I was looking for. I’d gone to the pier to photograph the merry-go-round that was featured in the movie The Sting. But the shadows, the light, the colors and the shapes stopped me. I took some shots, but something was missing. I waited. People came, and I realized I could use their shapes and the shadows as graphic elements in a photo that was a bit of a mystery. I like that this image is an example of what a lot of photographers have said in these pages: they’re on assignment with plans, ideas, even previsualized photos in mind, but often the best pictures they get come from spontaneous moments. And nope, I never did get to the merry-go-round.
On vacation with my family in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, we were walking around and, of course, I had my camera, and from a half block away I saw the blue wall. It was my intention to shoot it for color, texture and shape, but as I walked closer I saw the woman coming and realized she’d walk right by the building. I had time to frame up exactly what I wanted. I locked focus on a specific spot and waited for her to get there. I shot four or five frames. This is the one in which she’s in the best position—and there’s that slightly elevated foot. I didn’t see it happening as I took the photo, but it surely brings a sense of motion to the image.
So those are my purely image-driven contributions to the game. I took these pictures because I was inspired by elements like shape, color, light and texture; and by ideas and techniques. I hope you’ll be likewise inspired.