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See Yourself Some Unseen

May 2, 2012

I’ve known the creative duo of Juanli Sun and Alister Benn for about 6 years now. Mainly it’s been Alister & I keeping in contact as he & Juanli have followed their roving path from one country to another, pursuing travel, life, work and photographs. Or, perhaps more accurately I should say it’s been Alister keeping in contact with me… anyone who knows me well can attest that I’m a fairly lousy correspondent, unless prodded.

Seeing the Unseen: How to Photograph Landscapes at Night, by Alister Benn

Seeing the Unseen: How to Photograph Landscapes at Night, by Alister Benn

Some years back, Juanli & Alister spent a few months in Calgary, and along with my wife Deb we all got to know each other better in real time, augmenting the online experience and cementing the friendship. Somewhat like me, Alister always had an interest in the words & philosophy of photography, as much as he & Juanli also had excellent skills with camera in hand. So during those few months in Calgary, Alister & I knocked around some writing ideas. We got so far as to flesh out several drafts of different materials and locked in on some key concepts that we felt really resonated with our mutual understanding of photography in the digital age. My path then took a different turn, with me going back to concentrate on my IT career for a few years, and letting go of the writing projects. But Alister kept working on the concepts, and I was very pleased to see him recently produce his best work so far — the 2012 e-book Seeing the Unseen: How to Photograph Landscapes at Night.

I should disclose that besides having known Alister for several years, he did provide me a copy of this e-book knowing I’d more than likely blog about it. 🙂 But no matter, I bought a copy of it as well. So this is not obligatory product marketing in exchange for free swag; it’s just me giving my thoughts about some great material that I like, from somebody who’s got a heap of vision and talent behind the lens.

Now, another thing many people know about my correspondence is that not only is it infrequent, it tends to be pretty lengthy when it does happen. Alister expressed concern that if I reviewed his new e-book, I might be tempted to use more words than he put into the text itself. Here, then, is my brief review for the e-book Seeing the Unseen, by Alister Benn:

If you want to make landscape photographs at night, and don’t already know absolutely everything there is to know about the subject, then you should buy this e-book right now. Even if you don’t care about night photography or do already know everything about it, buy the e-book anyway because it’s chock full of inspiring photography created by a really good bloke.

Note: As of April, you can now get ahold of Seeing the Unseen from Amazon as a Kindle e-book. You can also get it direct from Alister in the original PDF format. Choose what works best for you; I have zero financial interest in either one. Personally I much prefer the PDF version because of the many large, fantastic photographs, which apparently can’t be included in the Kindle e-book format.

What follows below is not review material, but just some additional ruminations. That’s right, I’m on my own time now, so I don’t feel any particular need to restrain the word count…

One thing I’ve been talking about in my photo tours & workshops is that improving one’s creative expression in photography depends heavily on a very small number of essential elements. In my view, the foundation of great photography rests on mastery of 3 things: subject, composition and light. These are 3 separate but intricately connected elements which, if brought together in the photographic frame in an exceptional fashion, will produce something compelling, virtually in spite of all other considerations. That’s not to say that other considerations, such as learning the camera gear or how to use image processing software, aren’t important to some extent. But mastering those things will not produce compelling visuals; what will do it is mastering subject, composition and light.

Twilight of the Off-Season, Waterton

Twilight of the Off-Season, Waterton. The Prince of Wales Hotel at Waterton Lakes National Park is an iconic location that has been seen & photographed a million times. I wanted to create a different look, so I went there in late evening during the off-season and painted the hotel with a powerful flashlight. The unique architecture of the hotel is revealed in warm lighting, while the surroundings are moody & dark. I got the different look I wanted, something I couldn’t achieve during the day.

Of those 3 core factors, let’s think about light for a moment. Most human beings carry out most of their activities during the day. When the sun is up, we have light and some degree of warmth. We can see what we’re doing, and for most of us our energy level is at its peak. Most other people are out & about during the day as well, which is handy if you need to interact with them. So it goes that most photographers work mostly during the day, and create their work during the sunlit hours. This is especially true for those who work with available light, as most outdoor, nature and landscape photographers do. Available, day-time light, then, is the prevalent condition of light in most photographs.

Almost from the beginning, Alister was drawn to a different kind of light — as he calls it, available night light. Of course most nights in most places are not totally dark — there is some kind of light going on. But it’s a very different light from the day time! This is something critical to realize. Searching for that innovative blend of subject, composition and light to create compelling photographs, one would do well to consider how any familiar subject might look when the sun is no longer up. This could open a whole new body of creative expression… as indeed it did for Alister. Forget the words for a minute, just take a look at his work, and consider the other-worldly illumination on much of the subject material. Look at how he has applied the different available night lighting conditions to make compositions. I find them ethereal, moody, peaceful, sometimes disorienting, and always revealing.

If you want to photograph at night, there are some technical things to get a grip on, and Alister does cover them in his e-book. I won’t go into them; check the table of contents for Seeing the Unseen if you want an idea of the technical matters involved. He even provides several case studies on the workflow behind example images. Logistical matters are addressed, too; since it’s dark, normally you can’t just blunder out into a location and stumble around hoping that something will work out. Suffice it to say that Alister is thorough in treating how to plan for, capture and develop good exposures at night. If you’re still getting a handle on aspects of the technical side, this material will help you a lot.

Peace On the Blue Water, Lower Waterton Lake

Peace On the Blue Water, Lower Waterton Lake. This is a blue hour composition I made recently. The stillness of the scene, the shapes & reflections and the soft indirect light are all matched by the blue tones, all coming together cohesively to make an image that resonates with what I felt being there.

Even more interesting, to my way of thinking anyhow, is the nature of the night light itself. This is where Alister’s writing stands a cut above a mere technical treatment of nighttime exposure settings, good fast optics, or ephemeris software programs. This is the real meat — what available night light is, when it is, how much of it there is, how it differs from day light, how the different kinds of night light differ from each other. And ultimately, how you can use the night light. Alister’s philosophy of photography and lighting infuses the whole e-book, but it comes out most strongly when he’s writing about the essential element — light itself.

“Landscape photography at Night”, he writes, “is all about abstraction; hardly a single image taken by available night light can be considered in any way a literal representation of reality. As a species, our night vision is not spectacular compared to Owls for example, but our cameras open up a world of light and detail that is surreal to us. The pleasure of seeing a night exposure open up before me is a thrill, revealing details in the unseen, a confirmation that my preparation has paid off and I have applied myself with both technique and vision to create something unique from the blackness.”

You’ll read about the blue hour, a personal favorite of mine; it’s that period between sundown and truly dark conditions, when things usually get really… well, blue. You’ll read about the stars, and a lot about the moon. The moon reflects light from the sun, but moonlight is not at all like sunlight. You’ll see how to work with the phases the moon goes through each month, and when it rises & sets. Aside from the natural light sources, you’ll also see a consideration of artificial light from light pollution and light painting, both of which can augment whatever light is naturally available. Yeah, for me this is where it’s at. To make something interesting, talk to me about how the light can be interesting. Pursued and mastered, all of it comes together to create compositions that reveal a chosen subject in a new way, thanks to a different take on the light.

Essential to mastering subject, composition and light is to apply them in creatively expressing that which flows from a wellspring of personal experience. Think of subject, composition and light as being the “what” and the “how”; experience is the “why”. So I’ll close off my ruminations with a quote from Guy Tal’s forward to Seeing the Unseen. Guy’s advice is good; it’s above & beyond all pursuit of technique, or even pursuit of art. This underlies my recommendation that you check out Alister’s work, because he has followed this same advice from the start.

Great images are more than just impressions of light; they are also reflections of the person who created them. The more moving and satisfying your own experience, the more it will come through in your work. Beyond just beautiful images, strive to create beautiful memories.

You can do it, too. Get out there and build some more experiences; and see yourself some unseen.

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