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Fall 2014 Photography Tour in the Canadian Rockies

March 31, 2014

Co-leaders: Royce Howland & Alan Ernst
Group size: 7 participants maximum, intermediate to advanced photography experience
Dates: September 30 – October 5, 2014
Highlights: 6 days / 5 nights at Aurum Lodge & David Thompson Country
Travel on location: Car-pooling with the group
Fee: $1,899 CDN including all accommodations & meals; not including travel to the lodge
Registration info: The photo tour event page at the Aurum Lodge web site
Contact: Royce Howland (royce at vividaspect dot com) or Alan Ernst (info at aurumlodge dot com)

Fall at Abraham Lake 2 // David Thompson Country

It’s time to announce the ever-popular Fall photo tour! As with last year, at the time I’m writing this, a winter storm has again hit Calgary with below-seasonal temperatures and a big dump of fresh snow. But thinking about the coming seasons, and looking at photos like the one above, help to make the close of this drawn-out winter a bit easier to take. :)

In 2014, we’re adjusting our Fall dates a little bit and will visit David Thompson Country and the Canadian Rockies from September 30 – October 5. Once again, we’ll be taking a small group to great locations with a wealth of photographic opportunities to satisfy anyone with a taste for working outdoors with a camera. Any outdoor photography event has to deal with unpredictable conditions; but in past years we’ve been able to meet or exceed every participant’s expectations, and we plan to do the same again this year!

Our main base will be Aurum Lodge. As I’ve written before, the lodge is ideally positioned to give our group maximum opportunity for autumn photography each day. We’ll cover locations along Highway 11, also known as the David Thompson Highway. This is in front range territory and includes Abraham Lake, pictured above. We’ll also reach into the main Rockies along the world-famous Icefields Parkway, traveling reasonable distances to reach spots north or south of Saskatchewan River Crossing.

We call this a photo tour which means our primary goal is field-intensive photography. We’ll be in the field using any & all available light each day, giving everyone the best chances to build out a great portfolio of images. Even though this is not a workshop with specific teaching or learning goals, we also provide hands-on “learning by doing” in the field, focused on any participant’s needs. We expect everyone to be suitably equipped and to know the basics of using their gear, but we can cover instruction in equipment, technique, composition, processing, and other topics for anyone who’d like to pick up extra approaches to highly productive field photography. If the event leaders photograph for themselves, it will only be as a #2 priority after first ensuring that the group is firing on all cylinders.

We will also provide site orientations as we hit each new or different type of location, because part of getting good photographs is always improving how to see and respond to the unique opportunities at each location based on the subject material, season, weather and other conditions. Landscapes will include both grand and intimate views of mountains, lakes, rivers, canyons, waterfalls, plains, aspen & pine forests, and more. We’ll also take wildlife and macro opportunities if they present themselves. The group will experience a broad spectrum of subjects and locations that are important to a full appreciation of a region as diverse as the Canadian Rockies.

As on every tour, outside of any scheduled side-trip which may have a locked day plan, we otherwise don’t have a fixed itinerary each day. Instead, we’ll be very dynamic in arranging where we go after considering locations, weather, local conditions, and participant interests. Transportation to locations will be based on car-pooling amongst the group. We avoid excessive road miles whenever possible, but time in the vehicles (as well as our daily meals together) are also great opportunities to chat with tour leaders and other group members about anything & everything photography! :)

If this kind of small-group, intensive field photography experience sounds like the ticket for you, please see the event page at the Aurum Lodge web site for registration details. Also see the Vivid Aspect blog Workshops & Events page for information including links to past tour announcements and participant photo results. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me (royce at vividaspect dot com) or Alan Ernst at Aurum Lodge (info at aurumlodge dot com).

If you’re looking for a great autumn photography experience this Fall, I hope you’ll join us! Registration is now open, and spaces are available.

Photography and Interestingness

March 19, 2014
Secrets of the Ice World

Secrets of the Ice World. Amazing, big vistas are plentiful in winter along Abraham Lake. Getting down flat on the ice, and pressing my nose & camera right on the surface, revealed a secret world of tiny details within the ice.

“Humanity takes millions of photos every day. Why are most so forgettable?” A few months ago I read an article by Ian Brown, published in The Globe and Mail. The quote I lead off with here was Brown’s title for his article. It was a bit provocative, in part because it described how a prestigious Alberta photography competition didn’t award a 1st prize winner for the first time in 18 years.

The contest controversy wasn’t really what stuck in my mind over time, though. What really got me thinking was the more general situation underlying Brown’s commentary — at a time when more photographs are being taken, shared and seen than ever before in human history, are these photographs actually interesting? If not, and if we care, what can photographers do about it?

In the age of massive image-sharing and social media sites plus network-enabled cameras that can immediately post digital photos online, I think there are some important considerations about photography and “interestingness”. So over at The Camera Store Blog, I recently posted the first article of a small series to outline some of my thoughts on the subject. A couple of ideas I explore in this first part include the difference between photographing interesting stuff vs. taking an interesting perspective on stuff; and the importance of being an interested photographer in order to make interesting photographs.

I’m not only a photographer but also a photo event leader who takes small groups to places like the Canadian Rockies, Iceland, and Cypress Hills. As such, I’m aware that photo events have been criticized in some quarters. One criticism goes like this: if you can’t make a good photograph, then go to someplace exotic on a guided event and take formulaic shots of really cool stuff as a creative crutch. Well, I suppose there’s always the risk that photographers will confuse the inherent interestingness of any beautiful or exotic subject with the necessity of actively creating photographs that are interesting in their own right.

There’s nothing unproductive in itself about going to amazing locations and working with subjects that fire the imagination. The mistake would come in believing that all that’s needed for great photographs is a great subject. Not so! Making a great photograph from any subject involves a tremendous need for active imagination & interpretation, interest in what lies beneath the surface, expression of something personal, and a lot of hard work. In fact, I believe that making interesting photographs in beautiful or exotic locations can be harder because it’s so easy to fall into the seductive trap of the obvious appeal of what’s out there. But regardless of the location, I believe more interesting photographs will come if the photographer has more interest in what’s in front of the camera.

I hope you’ll click through the link to read the article at the TCS Blog, and I invite your comments…

P.S.: If you’re interested in experiencing and photographing some very interesting stuff in Iceland, the Rockies or Cypress Hills, a few spaces remain open in my up-coming events. ;)

Gleaming Honeycomb, Reykjavik

Gleaming Honeycomb. Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik is a beautiful building. What really caught my interest was the play of sunshine over its geometry of glass and mirrors. Concentrating on this let me create a composition of patterned light.

Three R’s For Creative Photography

February 25, 2014
Calico Hills, Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Prior to my first trip to Iceland in 2012, I did some research to orient myself to some of the fabulous locations there. Fortunately, we spent nearly a whole day at one of my top desired spots – Landmannalaugar. I knew I wanted to capture something about the unique colors & patterns of the rhyolite hills. When clouds began to mass late on the day of our visit, I was ready to photograph with some compositions I already had in mind.

Last year I published this article in The Camera Store’s newsletter. I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and photography over the past while, and specifically I’ve been practicing my own approaches to the “three R’s”. What are they? Nope, I’m not talking about readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic. Instead, I’m talking about research, repetition and responding. Here’s the article again for anybody who is also getting back to the basics. Enjoy! :)

Photography is a creative pursuit. Many people photograph just for enjoyment, but many others do so based on certain goals… often creative goals, not just ones like learning equipment & technique, or developing business & financial results. Perhaps you have some creative goals in place and already know how your gear will help you make those images. Now you need an approach to actually get out there and do it. For situations where the photography effort is casual, and the costs and risks are low, you can get away without a lot of preparation… just head out and see what develops.

But in cases like travel destinations, one-time events or limited-access locations, you may want to prepare a little more. Especially if you’d like to get some photographs that are less like snapshots, and more like stories or distinctive works that really stand out in your portfolio. In these kinds of situations, how do you get your head in a creative space and give yourself more chances at satisfying image-making? Here are three R’s to try out.

Research

Research is a good starting point, and something that most of us usually think of already, especially for travel destinations. Between the blizzard of material on the Internet and a wealth of printed photo magazines and travel guides, there’s an almost overwhelming amount of information available. To sort through it all, it can help to be a bit more directed in researching.

Think in terms of subject, composition and light, three key elements to better photography that I often emphasize. What subjects do you enjoy photographing? Are you pulled in by markets or vibrant civic centers? Will you get up extra early to explore seashores or fishing villages? Do you prefer to explore downtown architecture or wilderness locations? Do you look for abstract or conceptual material, or do you stick with concrete subject matter?

Also consider the light you may encounter. What time of year will you be on location, and what’s the weather likely to be? How might the prevalent conditions affect lighting – clear skies, fog, clouds, snow, heat haze, full moon, long twilights or anything else of interest? Will you be inside or outside, dealing with artificial or natural light? A great deal of success in photography rides with the light you have to work with, so be ready for it.

Subject and lighting are mostly beyond your control; they will be what they will be. Your job is to work with what you encounter using choices in composition. So with some ideas about the subjects and light, think about your photographic style. Do you gravitate to sweeping vistas framed in wide angles? Or do you favor carving out detailed cameos with a long lens? Perhaps you’re visually drawn to bold colors, powerful lines, swirling action, or structural or textured scenes that really shine as black and white images. Do you photograph methodically using a tripod and careful composition of the frame, or do you hand-hold and compose in a fast and fluid way?

Research with an idea of the strengths of your style, and look for opportunities that offer a rich match-up of subject, light and composition. Or, if you feel you’ve been in a rut and want a challenge, research to find something the opposite of what you’d normally do! Either way, think through the kind of images you could make once you get on location… not to put on creative blinders, but to have a bunch of photography scenarios warmed up, so you’re ready to go when you encounter opportunities.

Repetition

Golden Light On the Matrix, Reykjavik

This photo was taken inside the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik. The concert hall was a nearly brand-new building; in fact the outside landscaping wasn’t finished when I was there first in 2012. Even though the location hadn’t been on my radar during my earlier research, I found I really liked the interplay of light with the architecture. Since we were in Reykjavik for a few days, I went back to Harpa for several repeat visits to capture a variety of compositions in different lighting.

The next tactic is repetition. The research you do should NOT be mistaken for what’s really going to happen on location. All the planning in the world may go out the window when faced with reality on a given day. So what’s the best thing to do — bet everything on one roll of the dice and hope for the best? Perhaps. It depends on how flexible your schedule, budget and other factors are. And whether you like to survey a lot of opportunities even when they don’t work out, or (like me) prefer to dive deep into a smaller number of situations and work them more intensively.

Either way, there are probably going to be situations where you really, really want to get something worthwhile. Don’t be a victim of circumstance, but spin fortune in your favor: plan in some repetition. Don’t give yourself one shot with only a brief time. Rather, for high-potential opportunities found in your research, actively structure your schedule for several visits to those prime locations.

Also, scout early on and lock in some specific opportunities to follow up on the next visit(s). Go to a location several times at the same time of day to work the good light or weather conditions; for example do 3 sunrises or sunsets at that old abandoned farmstead. Or plan several visits at different times to get more variety. For example go to that market square early one weekday morning before anybody arrives, and again on a weekend afternoon when it’s packed with the hustle and bustle of vendors and shoppers.

No matter how good you are and how much research you’ve done, it’s probably true that you’ll often get more, better and greater variety of work if you give yourself more than one shot at a rich location. So plan to be there when good luck happens, not just once but several times.

Respond

The final idea I want to describe is, in a lot of ways, more important than both of the others — I call it responding. I’ve met a small number of photographers (as well as other creative folks) who seem to have an innate heightened sensitivity to things going on around them. It’s as if their skin is super thin and their eyes are wide open, like a child’s – the potential of a situation sinks right in and makes an immediate impact on their imagination. As they take in the experience and somehow get to the heart of it, they have the ability to express it back out as photographs that are personal, insightful and creative. That’s what I mean by responding. Even if you haven’t researched a destination or event all that much, or you don’t have a chance for repeated exposure to it, having the ability to respond while you’re there can be a trump card.

Fallen Rock and Falling Water, Skaftafell National Park

During my research of Iceland, I learned some things about the active geology of the island, produced by plate tectonics and many live volcanoes. One visual feature I knew I wanted to work with was the multitude of hexagonal basalt columnar formations. But I wasn’t prepared for the physical impression of some of the locations. We visited a cool waterfall called Svartifoss, but only once and not for very long. Despite the brief contact, I was really struck by the other-worldly feel of the surroundings. I went with it and tried to just respond in a creative way that showed something of what I felt… something mysterious and otherworldly. One viewer of this photo asked, “Where are the hobbits?” That’s the kind of fantastical feeling I had, and I’m glad some of it comes through the image.

Now, besides advising that you rediscover a childlike curiosity about things, this isn’t something I can give you easy tips on. Heck, it’s not something I can reliably or often do, myself. There are plenty of times when I’m in a place where I know there must be something interesting, and yet I just can’t get past the obvious. That’s okay; this is about creativity, not pressure. The good news is I believe that responding isn’t a mystical state restricted to a few gurus of the craft. We can all learn to develop that inquisitive nature, to be more aware of and open to possibilities. We can slow down the spinning complexity in the old noggin, and really pay attention to what’s developing around us. Then, when something does click out there, we’ll be better able to make it click in the camera, too.

Galen Rowell, a master whose photography and writing has been very inspiring to me, talked about developing a “saturation of awareness” of a place, and making really distinctive images in that moment. This is also what’s meant by learning to make more powerful photographs by really seeing what’s there, and intuitively understanding how it will look as a photograph. It comes from experience, and for most of us also as a result of research and repetition. But based on some people I’ve met and worked with, and a few “ah ha!” moments I’ve had myself, I believe that responding is something that can happen without a lot of preparation. We need to be tuned in to whatever possibilities fortune may send our way, and then be ready to creatively react to them.

So there you go, 3 different ways to get your head in the game of creative photography, especially in situations like travel or limited access, where you don’t want to rely on a more casual, hit-or-miss approach. You can use any or all three of these ideas in different combinations. Next time you’re getting ready to go out, think in terms of researching, repeating and responding. See what works for you!

Question for the reader: Of these three tactics, which ones work best for you? Are you a researcher, a repeater or a responder? Do you mix & match all of them at different times? In each of these areas, do you have any effective habits that you’ve developed and would recommend to others?

If you’re looking for creative travel / learning / photography opportunities this year, I’m involved in leading several photo tours and workshops that currently have spaces available. Click through the links below or contact me for details if you’re interested in these events. Deadlines for many of them are approaching fast!

Latest Accreditation Award

February 15, 2014

PPOC LogoOne thing I’ve been doing over the past couple of years is participating in a few professional photography and arts organizations, including the Alberta Society of Artists (ASA) and the Professional Photographers of Canada (PPOC). So far I’ve been enjoying my activities with these groups. I’ve been able to understand more about other artists’ mindsets, approaches, tools, techniques and media; network with others who are seriously pursuing some form of art in a professional capacity; get opportunities to present some of what I’ve learned; and refine my focus for my photography artwork.

Erosion 7, David Thompson Country

Erosion 7, David Thompson Country

Part of participating in the PPOC in particular, has been submitting my work for juried review by panels of master practitioners. A short-term goal of doing this is that it forces me to sharpen my own critical eye. I want to submit a package of photographs for review that are the best I can produce at a point time. Sometimes I think I’m ready to go, but when I look really closely at the work I see things that can be improved; or perhaps images that I had a subjective liking for at one point simply aren’t strong enough to retain their appeal over time.

A phrase I’ve read says “art is never finished, only abandoned”, and I believe that’s true — the point being that the purpose of making art is not to keep sitting on it or polishing it, but to get it out there, whatever “out there” means for any individual artist. Still, knowing that others are going to be looking closely at the work spurs me to step up my game, rather than just “phone in” a submission. Thinking critically about my past or present work, and looking for specific things to improve, benefits all my future work. Longer term, with the PPOC, I’m also working towards various professional designations that are awarded based on evidence of consistently producing good work over time.

One form of PPOC designation is called the accreditation: evidence that a photographer is able to produce good work in a specific genre. There are many accreditation categories, well over 70 the last time I looked. I’ve written previously about getting my accreditations in the Pictorial / Scenic and Fine Art / Decor categories. This year I submitted again, this time in the category of Nature. A few days ago, coincidentally while doing some winter nature photography on & around frozen Lake Abraham, I picked up an email message informing me that my latest submission was accepted. This marks my third portfolio accepted by the national panel of judges — woohoo! :)

Wind-blown Lupins and Crazy Clouds, Iceland

Wind-blown Lupins and Crazy Clouds, Iceland

As I’ve mentioned before, PPOC accreditation is not a competition. Each submission stands on its own as an example of the best work the submitter is capable of producing at that time, in the given category. If a submission is not accepted by the judging panel, the photographer can resubmit a limited number of times to address whatever weaknesses were indicated. The judges evaluate a range of criteria, looking for above average impact, creativity, style, composition, presentation, color balance, centre of interest, lighting, subject matter, image file quality, technique and story-telling. Some of these are technical, matters of craft; while others are much more about the art of the image.

I’m pleased at this latest designation. True, in part it brings a rewarding feeling of satisfaction that some knowledgeable people looked at my work and felt it was above average in the criteria that they’re looking for in professional photography. But more importantly, it’s another milestone on my personal journey to experience aspects of the world, interpret them, and then express them in photographic form as vividly as I can. The way I do this is evolving, in terms of tools, techniques, visual style, and even subject matter. But the goal remains the same — to recognize things that inspire me, and share visual representations that hopefully inspire others in turn.

If you’d like to see the work I submitted for the PPOC Nature category, click this link to see a Flash slideshow. If you can’t view Flash animations on your system, you can instead simply view the gallery of images. Thanks for looking!

Do you photograph or pursue some other art form, and if so are you taking concrete steps to further refine your creative expression? What do you think about judging art — does it have any merit at all, or is art something purely subjective to each artist or viewer? Feel free to comment on what works for you…

Behind the Scene — Gearing Down From Hot Work

January 28, 2014
Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries

Today I’d like to share the first in what hopefully will be a new category of posts. Although, in fairness, they probably will be as irregular as just about everything else here. :) I’m calling these posts “Behind the Scene”. In each one, it’s my plan to crack open a photograph of mine and talk about what went into making it. Where I was, what I was thinking, how I went about taking the photograph, how I developed it, how I came to the concept behind the image or the story I’m trying to tell with it… basically anything that went into my creative process that might be interesting to someone.

Why have I decided to do these? The idea came in part from a series of posts I’ve done on the IRIS blog; IRIS is the non-profit photography organization I co-founded in 2012. That series was called “Story Behind the Scene”. Story-telling through photography is a big part of what IRIS is about, and it seems to be well received from the online and real-world feedback we’ve been getting. My purpose here at the Vivid Aspect Photography blog shares some similar interest in story-telling and building appreciation for photography, but here I can cover more of the creative process. Since most people who view a photograph have no idea of the creative process that went into it, I thought perhaps a few case studies would help illustrate things for those who may be interested. There’s a subset of perception about photography that I’ve encountered, that it’s some kind of magical or heroic thing… where master photographers on solitary quests produce fully-formed, amazing works in flashes of muse-inspired brilliance. Sure, it can be like that. But most often it’s not, it’s just a good mix of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration — creativity and lots of hard work. I want to de-mystify things a bit, while also pointing out the areas where a real artist actually does have to bring something to the table other than lucking out with a chance snapshot.

I recognize that there could be a little risk in doing this. Some people may have some sort of vested interest in the “hero photographer” concept, and might consider it slanderous to talk about the process and how much of it is just working away at something. Some photographers who labour under various “purist” senses of what photography is — and more often, what it isn’t — may not like my description of how I go about things. A few other people who aren’t photographers may have a simple, even idealized expectation of what photography is and likewise may be confused or annoyed if my description doesn’t jive with the way they think things are, or should be. That’s okay. I’m really writing for people who have a combination of curiosity and open-mindedness about photography as an art form, an end-to-end creative process, and who might like to dialogue about it. If you don’t care, or don’t like what you see, I’m cool with that. You’re welcome to your opinion. But since I’m also welcomed to my opinion and this is my art and my blog, I’ll press on and see where it goes. :)

My first “behind the scene” post is for a relatively new photograph — “Gearing Down From Hot Work”. (Or “Gearing Down From Some Hot Work”; I haven’t decided yet whether to keep or discard the word “some” in the title.) The raw materials for this were photographed over a year and a half ago, based on experience seeing (but not photographing) the subject matter for a couple of years prior to that. For various reasons I only just recently took the time to develop this finished photo. And here’s an initial lesson — good work may not hit like a flash of lightning. Something interesting may take years of seeing, thinking, shooting, percolating and working before it finally comes about. Of course, the quick lightning bolt experience sounds a lot more appealing in some ways. But lightning rarely strikes out of a clear blue sky. In an interview I watched recently, award-winning radio producer Ira Glass said this: “I wander around in the rain for a long time until lightning strikes.”

The location of the photograph is the Brazeau Collieries, an abandoned mine site in the small town of Nordegg, Alberta. The mine operation was a successful one, but it closed down in 1955. The 1950′s saw quite a bit of change in several industries that originally had been associated with a wave of Western Canadian expansion from Eastern Canadian (European) interests, in particular the rail and commodities companies. Once things began to go heavily away from coal power towards diesel or other fuels, most of the previous century’s coal industry collapsed, aside from heavy coal-fired electricity generation plants that remain today. The Brazeau Collieries has been abandoned for decades but is more or less intact as the industrial operation existed on its final day of operation. Under the oversight of Alberta’s Clearwater County and the Nordegg Historical Society, the mine exists today as a registered historic site, and can be toured with permission, either as a casual visitor or for photography.

I’ve been to the site numerous times, and really enjoy it. It’s a fascinating place for anybody interested in the history of industry in Alberta. And for photographers who work with industrial subjects, it’s a smorgasbord of photographic opportunity. One thing that fascinated me from the beginning was the seemingly infinite source of details in the heavy iron technology used to engineer this site — seemingly low-tech by today’s standards, but nevertheless exactingly designed and operated for its day. Nowhere are those details more evident than in the briquette processing plant, where ground-down coal was heated, mixed with a tar-like binder, cooled again, and then pressed into briquettes. I can only imagine that the workers in this plant would have had to deal with a tremendous amount of heat, noise, vibration, grime and so on.

From those few facts came the idea behind what eventually turned into this photograph. I wanted to show something of the heavy iron of the place, also show the engineering details that went into it, but also somehow tell the story of the “hot work” that would have been going on. And because the site closed down nearly 50 years ago, I wanted a visual style related to the vintage nature of the scene.

Vintage came first, and was a pretty straight forward decision. All my portfolio images from the Brazeau Collieries so far are done as lightly sepia-toned black & white renditions. They’re cropped to a 4×5 aspect ratio which I really like. I take it from large format film; even though I shoot digital and never worked with film, I find the 4×5 / 8×10 aspect ratio has an appealing visual solidity to it that stills allows me to frame a scene either horizontally or vertically. In my B&W style, I often also do some other things such as corner blurring & softening, partly as a compositional device to channel the viewer towards something more important, away from the corners.

Showing heavy iron, engineering details and telling the story of the hot work was a bit more challenging, and it took me awhile to find some elements that I thought could work. The first part I knew I needed was a place where some kind of machinery would be exposed in a way that I could frame it as a close-up, stripping out all of the surrounding details. I found it in sets of gears, wheels and springs of the 4 heavy coal briquette presses. These big iron elements convey, at least to me, a combination of sheer massiveness but also precise design, like might be found in a timepiece. That’s a good visual contrast to work with, so I was set to start framing up the shot. Eventually I chose an angle that emphasized graceful curves of the heavy iron, and also put some repeating patterns in prominent placement.

Right away I had some challenges to work with even to get test shots going, because the particular briquette press I wanted to work with was more towards the centre of this area of the plant floor, and it was very dark there. Hardly any light hit the surfaces, and the shadows were super deep. I photograph with a Pentax 645D for this kind of work, and this is a medium digital format camera that isn’t great at low light / high ISO photography. I needed to get more light on the subject. But even in doing so, I’d still have very deep shadows to contend with. But in fact this was desirable for visual design, because I wanted strong contrast between shadows and highlights to emphasize the geometric shapes of the machinery.

To get the extra light, I set up a couple of small battery-powered LED light panels. I put one closer in, shining almost straight up, to provide strong light and sharp-edged shadows on the bottom surfaces of the machinery. I put a second panel a bit farther away and higher up, to the right of the camera, to provide gentler fill-in light over the surfaces. This gave me a way to reveal the three-dimensional nature of the shapes by playing with light & shadow.

As predicted, the contrast range was very strong, with bright highlights and extremely pitch-black shadows. Because I usually plan on doing a lot of “digital darkroom” development work — even in cases where I don’t end up doing it, I still usually plan for it up front — I captured multiple exposures of the scene, 5 of them in total. Going from dark to middle to bright exposures gave me several digital frames with decent detail everywhere from shadows to highlights. I later blended these frames using a digital technique called High Dynamic Range (HDR). I really think of HDR as “high fidelity” photography; it lets me capture colour and contrast — light, in essence — equally well, everywhere from the brightest highlights to the darkest shadows. Then when I’m in my digital darkroom environment, I can decide how to develop the light into the final photograph that I want to create, and not worry that I didn’t capture enough of the original light on the scene.

So let’s recap quickly. At this point I have a concept, which is to show big iron machinery with engineering details, that somehow tells the story of doing hot work in a mine operation that was shut down almost 5 decades before. I addressed most of these goals in what I’d done so far to find, frame and capture my photographic subject material. What I had left to do is tell the story of doing the hot, heavy work. Part of the story comes from the patina of coal/tar grime and rust covering the surfaces, which says we’re not looking at a nice, new, antiseptic office environment for the workers of the day. But I needed something more.

Sometimes I clearly see important supports for my story-telling goals in advance, or in the field while I’m photographing. But in this case I didn’t have it all up front. At the time I made the raw photographs, I wasn’t sure how I was going to communicate things like heat, vibration, noise… the sheer physical din of a heavy industrial site at the peak of its operation. After all, today it’s dark, still and silent. How can I show something in a photograph when it isn’t there in reality? This is where creativity comes in, and where photography can show something more than reality. Fortunately, inspiration can strike at any time in the creative process, in my experience. It’s a myth that artists are struck with every bolt of inspiration in advance, before they’ve ever set finger to shutter, pen to paper, or brush to canvas. I say creativity can come anywhere at any time, and being ready & able to respond to it effectively is the most important thing.

So, in this case, I didn’t twig to a way to show the idea of “hot work” until late in my process of working up this photograph as a B&W scene. It came when I realized that my combination of narrow, strong light from below combined with all the splotches of rust on the aging metal, could be used as I converted the photograph from its original colours into monochrome. By filtering how each range of colour translates into tones of pure grey, the viewer’s impression of the final scene can be guided. In this case, I filtered the B&W conversion such that reddish colours were converted to bright tones which made those parts of the image quite bright; and this could be interpreted as being very hot. Lit from below, it almost looks like this machinery is poised over a glowing cauldron of molten metal which has splashed up onto the gears and springs. True, that’s mixing my metaphors because this is a coal mine rather than a steel mill, but visually I think it works.

There were a number of other details in my finishing work, but I won’t go into them all here, this time. Suffice it to say for those who are interested in the technical stuff, I do a bunch of tonality adjustments that are similar to Tony Kuyper style luminosity mask curves adjustments, plus I do some layer blending to augment the contrast work that my HDR process does for me.

Having gone through the exercise in visual design and development of the image, I came to the final piece — the title of the photograph. I knew “hot work” was involved, but that didn’t seem like enough. Because the large, geared wheel is so prominent in the composition, I was playing around with phrases like “gearing up”, “getting in gear”, “slipping a gear”… but none of those worked. Finally I realized that since the mine was abandoned, what had happened was that the place had “geared down”. There I had it — Gearing Down From Hot Work.

As I said up top, this is a recent work. I’m calling it finished, but is it perfect? It’s hard to say — “perfect” compared to what? Having now tussled around with this particular exercise in visual story-telling, there are some things I wish were different or better about it. To deal with them I’d need to go back, refine my vision of and response to the subject matter at the scene, and re-shoot. Even just taking this particular photograph by itself, is it finished? Maybe. Probably. But maybe not, since I’m sure I could find more things to tweak to make it “better”. However, I’m reminded of this quote — “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” It’s often misattributed to Leonardo da Vinci, but it looks like the real source was probably French author Paul Valéry. So even if this particular piece isn’t done yet, it will have to be abandoned… which will let me go on to the next one. :)

If you’re interested in visual story-telling, photographing old industrial sites, learning HDR photo technique, or all of the above, I’ll be a guest instructor at a photography workshop that may interest you. From May 29 – June 1, my good friends and colleagues Samantha Chrysanthou and Darwin Wiggett of oopoomoo are putting on the “Coal Mines, Canyons and Canadian Rockies” workshop. We’ll introduce a small group to the Brazeau Collieries mine site, the surrounding front ranges of the Canadian Rockies in David Thompson Country, and our techniques for working with HDR. Click this link for details on how to join us!

Have you got an opinion on this first “behind the scene” post? What do you think about the creative process as it applies to photography — is everything fair game, should it all be done “in the camera”, or something else? How much technique is too much, and when do you know? Should anyone care about the creative process, or is the final product the only thing that counts? Is this post a case of TMI or tl;dr? :) Comments welcomed…

P.S. To wrap things up, for comparison purposes, I’ll show a before & after example. Here’s a progression of versions of the image starting from a single frame captured in the camera, through several intermediate stages, to the final rendition.

The single darkest frame before anything is done, pretty much “as is” right out of the camera:

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The darkest single original frame.

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The darkest single original frame.

After HDR work, cropping and a few very simple things have been done to the colour version:

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The basic colour photograph, following HDR work.

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The basic colour photograph, following HDR work.

After some further tonal adjustments to the colour version, to bring a little more contrast and darken the mood:

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The colour photograph with baseline tonal adjustments.

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The colour photograph with baseline tonal adjustments.

After the basic conversion from colours to shades of grey:

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The initial conversion of colour to monochrome.

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries. The initial conversion of colour to monochrome.

The finished version, with final tonal adjustments, corner vignetting, sepia toning and other finishing work applied to the B&W conversion:

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries

Gearing Down From Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries

May 2014 HDR Photography Workshop — Coal Mines, Canyons and the Canadian Rockies

January 8, 2014
Gearing Down From Some Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries

Gearing Down From Some Hot Work, Brazeau Collieries

My good friends Samantha Chrysanthou and Darwin Wiggett are the creative team behind oopoomoo. They’re a fun and inspirational duo — photographing, writing and leading instructional photo events, and doing it all with their own brand of down-to-earth humour. This coming Spring, May 29 – June 1, they’ll be running a unique photo workshop located up in David Thompson Country. If you follow my blog, you know I’ve written about this area before, and I love it there. It’s a special place where the Alberta prairies meet the front ranges of the Canadian Rockies, and human history of various kinds goes back a long ways. No surprise that it’s also a region where opportunities abound for creative photography!

The workshop is based at Aurum Lodge a little to the west of the town of Nordegg. I’ve written about the lodge many times before, as well. It’s a fantastic accommodation, very much in harmony with the surroundings. The lodge was designed and continues to be operated by Madeleine and Alan Ernst, and their hospitality is reason alone to visit the lodge. :) If the mission is photography, or just kicking back for a break, there’s no better place.

This workshop is called “Coal Mines, Canyons and the Canadian Rockies“, and that sums up the nature of the photography locations. The coal mine is the defunct Brazeau Collieries operation in Nordegg, shut down and abandoned in the mid-1950′s. It’s now operated as an historic site, and the group will have special access to photograph in this industrial wonderland. When not photographing at the mine, there will be plenty of beautiful surrounding landscape locations including vistas of lakes, canyons, rivers, mountains, forests and plains.

Foxtail Sunset, Abraham Lake

Foxtail Sunset, Abraham Lake

Since this is a workshop, and not just a tour where the group photographs at all times, instruction is a big part of the schedule. The main topic will be High Dynamic Range (HDR) technique. Sam and Darwin are the principal instructors, and I’m happy to say they’ve invited me on board as a guest instructor. I’ll be available to work with the group while we’re in the field. Within the framework that Sam & Darwin introduce, I’ll also lead one of the hands-on lab sessions including demonstration of what I call photorealistic HDR work.

A good subtitle for this event would be “master your tools to master light”. That’s because the group will be introduced to the HDR capture and processing technique that helps make great photographs in conditions of really challenging lighting. Many things in photography involve making trade-offs. Historically one of the biggest trade-offs involved working in lighting situations where the bright highlights, dark shadows or both outstripped what the camera alone could handle. Whether in an outdoor location such as a canyon or mountain-side sunset, or in an indoor architecture setting like an old briquette processing plant, there are many times when the lighting is tough enough that making great images just in the camera (or with optical filters) is difficult if not impossible.

Keeping a Weather Eye, David Thompson Country

Keeping a Weather Eye, David Thompson Country

HDR is a digital technique that was evolved to deal with this challenge. By taking multiple exposures of the scene and blending them together in software, a photographer can create photographs in all kinds of lighting that was too difficult to work in before. That sounds great, but many photographers who are familiar with HDR may have found it difficult to get images looking the way they want because the software is often not straight forward to use. Some photographers may have been put off using HDR altogether, because a certain “HDR look” associated with images posted around the internet is not something that appeals to them.

Well, Sam, Darwin and I all share the idea that images should look the way the photographer makes them look, and so the tools have to be mastered and used appropriately. We’re going to break it down on the technical side in a way that takes out the mystery and complications, and provides an approach that’s straight forward to use. Once the technique is under control, photographers can then concentrate on developing their own personal style of work.

I’d go so far as to say there is no particular “HDR look”, rather there is (or should be!) a particular “photographer look”. Many of my photos make use of HDR techniques, but most don’t look like what most photographers think of when I say “this is an HDR photo”. That’s because I control the tools and make the photos look the way I envision them, not the way a software developer or camera designer decided. While my primary goal is to creatively express the subjects I photograph, I do tend to go for a more “photorealistic” style in my HDR. In other words my photographs don’t look like surrealistic illustrations, which is what most photographers think HDR always means. Instead they look more like what we expect from photographs… but with my own creative interpretation of the light, a little something extra. :)

If you’d like to visually explore beautiful outdoor locations, photograph at a fantastic industrial site, and learn about how to master light with HDR technique, I invite you to join Samantha Chrysanthou, Darwin Wiggett and me. Along with a small group of photographers, we’re going to have a lot of fun starting this coming May 29!

For more information, including pricing and registration details, see the workshop post at the oopoomoo blog and the official ooopoomoo workshop page.

Fall 2014 Photography Masterclass — Storytelling in the Cypress Hills

December 16, 2013

Event: Fall 2014 Photography Masterclass — Storytelling in the Cypress Hills
Instructors: Royce Howland and Peter Carroll
Dates: September 5 – 10, 2014
Duration: 5 nights, 6 days (4 full, 2 partial)
Highlights: Based at Historic Reesor Ranch with locations around the Cypress Hills; special location shoots booked
Travel on location: Shared group transport
Group size: 6 participants maximum
Fee: $2,795 CDN (+ 5% GST for Canadian residents) per person single occupancy room; early bird price $2,595 CDN (+ GST) for registrations confirmed by deposit before March 1, 2014
Deposit: $500 CDN
Includes: All transportation on location, plus accommodation, meals, instructor fees, and location access fees
Not included: Flights or other transportation to or from Reesor Ranch
To register or for questions: Contact Royce Howland (royce at vividaspect dot com) or Peter Carroll (PeterCarroll at shaw dot ca)

Enchantment, Cypress Hills, by Royce Howland.

Enchantment, Cypress Hills, by Royce Howland.

I’m very pleased to announce the continuation of the masterclass series first started 3 years ago. In the early Fall of 2014, I will join with my good friend and accomplished photographer Peter Carroll to co-lead what promises to be an exciting photography experience. Working in the wonderful Cypress Hills region, we will take a small group of photographers into an opportunity to grow creatively through a combination of learning and photographing. Along the way, we’ll have a lot of fun as well!

This masterclass is open to intermediate and above photographers. Ideal participants have a decent level of proficiency with their cameras and digital processing, but want to move beyond that — to expand their personal creative expression while learning and photographing in a unique location. The purpose of the masterclass is to help participants set creative goals, and provide frameworks for improving their photography with a specific focus on visual storytelling. We’ll use seminars, field exercises and image portfolio review sessions to achieve these goals. With a small group, two instructors who work well together, and an intensive event plan, the group will be able to put a concentrated focus on creative development.

Why Attend the Masterclass?

There are three key reasons why you may want to join Peter and me on this masterclass. First and foremost is that you’re a photographer looking to make a significant commitment to, and see serious progress with, your own personal creative expression. You’ve come to realize that the most exciting frontier isn’t new cameras, digital processing techniques or getting votes on social media… not that there’s anything wrong with any of these. But you’ve decided that personal creative expression is your real goal, and these other things are just means to an end — visual storytelling.

Cypress Hills, by Peter Carroll.

Cypress Hills, by Peter Carroll.

Second, Peter and I have worked together in this vein, and we’re both very passionate about creativity and storytelling in photography. We believe 100% that the best images are the best because of the clarity of artistic vision and intent that went into them, and because the resulting photographs pull viewers in with compelling stories. We’re also very excited at the prospect of introducing our ideas and passion to others so that they can make their own creative breakthroughs as well. We’re not going to serve up pat answers, or settle for taking the obvious trophy shots. Aesthetics do matter, and we’ll talk about them. But we’re going to dig deeper and ask tougher questions as we seek creative challenges.

Third, we’re going to be operating in a fantastic area. Our base for the masterclass is Historic Reesor Ranch and the surrounding Cypress Hills. Reesor Ranch is a working ranch just over on the Saskatchewan side of the border, operated for 5 generations by the Reesor family. We’ll meet the Reesors and learn from them about the ranch and the area. Our lodgings and most meals will be at the main ranch house, a beautiful arts & crafts style structure amongst the other buildings on the property. Beyond the ranch, we’ll be surrounded by rolling grasslands, forests, lakes and hills of the Cypress Hills, merging outwards into vast prairie lands. Since the area is a dark sky preserve, at night we’ll be underneath a canopy of stars that provide a light show all their own. This is a distinctive place of understated beauty and long history, and we will explore it to tell visual stories during the masterclass.

Masterclass Structure

The formal structure of the masterclass rests on three key activities: seminars, field work and image reviews. The seminars will be classroom sessions where Peter and I provide key concepts on creatively approaching your photography. These sessions will be pragmatic, but we’re not going to simply provide “the 3 rules for …” kind of material. Instead we’re going to talk about concepts (illustrated with plenty of examples) that each participant will need to bring into their own personal vision and style, in order to make their own work in their own way. The seminars are not about recipes for how to make an image look a certain way. Rather, they’re about why to make photographs, and what photographs each person wants to make… and the creative mindset needed to make it happen.

Along the way there will be a lot of details and ideas shared, but the seminars will provide key topics forming a core structure around which to organize the many details. The three primary seminars are:

  • Making stronger photographs
  • Finding the essence of a photograph
  • Storytelling with photographs
Cypress Hills, by Peter Carroll.

Cypress Hills, by Peter Carroll.

In the field, we’ll do a combination of free shoots where each participant can do their own thing, as well as targeted assignments. The assignments will provide either goals or techniques to guide participants in photographing in a way that applies some aspect of the frameworks given during the seminars. The primary goal of the masterclass is learning and creative development. But make no mistake — with the locations where we’ll be working, everyone will have plenty of opportunities for making great storytelling images.

The final formal component of the masterclass is the image portfolio reviews. In a supportive and constructive environment where everyone is focused on creative development, this is a chance to see pragmatic ways to make stronger photographs and build storytelling into photography. We’ll have at least two scheduled sessions to review and improve the work during the event. This cycle of learn-apply-review will help the learning opportunity to be more tangible, and create a great take-away from the experience.

We’ll have plenty of other opportunities for learning through informal discussions. We’ll be traveling and eating together every day, and the dynamic of these small-group events usually involves a constant flow of ideas. Peter and I will do our best to schedule a few breaks throughout the event, but in all honesty it’s going to be an intensive several days. Make sure you’re well-rested when you arrive! :)

Join the Masterclass!

If you’re a photographer who’s eager for an opportunity to develop your creative expression in a small group setting, and the idea of visual storytelling intrigues you, then this could be an ideal event for you. Peter and I believe that the small group size, learn-apply-review format, intensive focus and great locations will make for a fantastic experience.

Bring your creative goals and desire to learn, bring your enthusiasm for visual storytelling, and bring your motivation to embrace creative challenge. Join us for the Fall 2014 Photography Masterclass — Storytelling in the Cypress Hills!

For more information, see also:

Til the Cows Come Home, SE Alberta, by Royce Howland.

Til the Cows Come Home, SE Alberta, by Royce Howland.

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