On Creating Meaningful Photographs

As a photography blogger, I oftentimes get more caught up with the latest gear that was used to create a photo rather than the substance of the photograph itself. But when the focus shifts to meaningful subject matter and creativity, all pixel count, ISO performance, and frame rate melt into the background. Meaningful photographs can be created with almost any gear. In order to succeed here, the emphasis should be on photographer intent and how well the photographer conveys that intent.

At 4 days old, Jake Jr does a lot of sleeping
At 4 days old, Jake Jr does a lot of sleeping

Recently I welcomed the arrival of my nephew Jake with a quick photo session when he was four days old. Due in part to the latest technology of my gear, I was able to capture high quality photographs without much disruption to little Jake or his parents. I was able to use natural light, a quiet shutter, and a fast frame rate to capture those fleeting expressions of a newborn.

Nancy cradles Jake Jr's hand in her own.
Nancy cradles Jake Jr’s hand in her own.

When I first started photographing regularly, I thought of myself as an explorer, both of the technology I was using and of the world around me. Seeing through a variety of lenses provides many different perspectives of the world, and being able to record those perspectives provides avenues of endless creativity and communication. I first had to master my tools before I could really concentrate on the art. As I improve (I like to always think of myself as improving!) I find myself thinking more about the meaning behind the pictures I am creating, and what I am trying to communicate to the viewer.

At 4 days old, Jake Jr's feet are slightly bigger than an adult thumb
At 4 days old, Jake Jr’s feet are slightly bigger than an adult thumb

Don’t get me wrong, when taking these photos of baby Jake I was using many techniques I’ve learned over the years. But much more important than how I achieved the photos are the photos themselves. These photos will serve both as a keepsake for family members, and as a lasting record of Jake as he appeared as a newborn. I’m sure there will be tens of thousands of photos taken of Jake in his lifetime. Most will become a visual record of his life, but it is those most meaningful photos that will have lasting impact to those who love him.

Jake Jr sleep soundly while resting his hand in his mother's
Jake Jr sleep soundly while resting his hand in his mother’s

The next time you are out shooting, whether you are capturing a beautiful sunset, a wild creature, or a portrait of a loved one, think about the message you are trying to convey in your image. If your answer is “I am creating a beautiful scenic”, that is a great answer. But over time, you might find a deeper message creeping into your work. I know I keep striving to find my meaning and connect with the viewers of my photographs.

Processing For Moods

Recently I uncovered a couple of unprocessed photographs in my collection that I took in Death Valley National Park several years ago. These were sitting in my “reject” pile, but upon a second look, I thought each photo had its own merit. When I looked at these two images a little more closely, I began to feel a very different mood with each.

Blue shadows of twilight dance over the dunes of Death Valley National Park
Blue shadows of twilight dance over the dunes of Death Valley National Park

What struck me with the first photo were the vibrant blue hues that emerged after sunset. Shot in deep twilight, the evening sky was reflected off the light tan sand, creating an amazing blue glow throughout the dune field. In order to accentuate this glow, I increased the contrast of the image overall, and increased the clarity. High contrast helped show off the intricate texture of the foreground dune, showing sharpness in each ripple of sand. Contrast was increased two ways: the first was to set the white and black point of the image. While I didn’t use the extreme ends of the histogram, I got pretty close.

The second was to add a contrast s-curve to the image. All adjustments were done in Adobe Lightroom. I kept the white balance pretty close to what the camera chose, increasing it slightly. This gave me a white balance of just over 6000 Kelvins – I was amazed at how blue it still was even after using such a warm color temperature.

In the blue shades of twilight, smooth dunes stretch to distant mountains, Death Valley National Park
In the blue shades of twilight, smooth dunes stretch to distant mountains, Death Valley National Park

The second image I selected gave me a sense of calm and quietness. In order to accentuate this mood, I kept the contrast very low. I left the white and black points where they were originally, and actually decreased the clarity, giving the dunes a soft, buttery appearance. Because this was more of a graphic image, the low clarity and contrast helped to de-focus attention on the sand texture, and instead allow the dune pattern to abstract, driving the eye up toward the distant mountains.

When making processing decisions, I find it vital to fully understand the message I am trying to convey with each photograph. These moods convey two extremes, even though the images were captured within 20 minutes of each other.

7D Mk II High ISO Performance

Last week I went out in the evening to run my new 7D Mk II through its paces with bird photography (most likely my primary use for this camera). Since my mind was in test mode, I decided to stay out after sunset (much later than normal for bird photography) to see how the camera performed in low light situations. I left the camera in auto-ISO mode to let it decide how high it needed to go. About a half hour after sunset, I was packing it in and heading back to the car, when I saw this blacktail jackrabbit eating from a patch of grass.

A blacktail jackrabbit ventures out into the grass just after sunset, Redwood Shores, CA.
A blacktail jackrabbit ventures out into the grass just after sunset, Redwood Shores, CA.

I was a bit skeptical that anything would turn out given how dark it was. Not even sure if the auto focus would be able to work well in the darkness, I splayed out my tripod legs and got very low to the ground. Auto-focus seemed to be tracking well, so I started firing off bursts of shots, not really paying attention to the ISO. I knew it was high, but I wanted to see how high the ISO could go and still produce a usable image. This was highly dependent on the noise produced at high ISOs, and the amount of reasonable noise reduction I could perform in post processing.

The image above was shot at ISO 25,600! While I realized this produced far too much noise for a large print, it seems to be perfectly usable for web-sized images. You can also see here that the auto-focus was extremely accurate, even in low light.

So how does this translate into changes in the way I photograph? Nothing, really – a shot with this much noise is more of a curiosity than any hard data with which to change my workflow. However, let’s look at another example at a more reasonable ISO.

A hermit thrush pauses briefly on a branch in the last night of the day, Redwood Shores, CA.
A hermit thrush pauses briefly on a branch in the last night of the day, Redwood Shores, CA.

I photographed this hermit thrush a little earlier in the evening than the jackrabbit. It was around sunset, but the sun had already set over the coastal mountains, so the light was certainly waning. Because of the extra light, the camera chose a more “reasonable” ISO of 5000 for this shot. But still, ISO 5000 is very high!

With my previous camera, ISO 1600 was really pushing the boundary of acceptability, with only about 50% of those images being able to hold up to the noise level. After running noise reduction on this image however, it became clear that images shot as high as 5000 ISO would be usable for many circumstances. This probably still wouldn’t hold up for a 16 x 20 inch wall print, but would most likely do fine for editorial use.

Finally, in order to show how smooth the images really are at ISO 800, I’ve included a shot of an anna’s hummingbird, followed by the 100% crop of its head.

An anna's hummingbird perches on a thin branch, surveying the landscape, Redwood Shores, CA.
An anna’s hummingbird perches on a thin branch, surveying the landscape, Redwood Shores, CA.
A 100% crop of an anna's hummingbird. At ISO 800, the Canon 7D Mk II performs with amazingly low noise.
A 100% crop of an anna’s hummingbird. At ISO 800, the Canon 7D Mk II performs with amazingly low noise.

With previous cameras, I’ve always used ISO 400 as my standard starting point, moving up and down the range as light would allow. But with the 7D Mk II, I will likely start shooting at ISO 800 most of the time. I’ve run a slight amount of NR on the hummingbird shot, but the noise is so low that I’d rather have an extra stop of light to play with and get faster shutter speeds than feel the need to drop down to a lower ISO.

When reality is too crazy to print

Those of us who have spent a good deal of time in nature have probably witnessed a few moments of pure magic when weather, light and other natural forces converge to create unforgettable events. I have had several such experiences, some of which I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a camera ready to capture them. When I see it in person, I’m often awe struck at the magnificence before me. But many times when I get home and process the resulting photos, I realize that I’m going to have some explaining to do. Sometimes the colors and lighting are so striking and unusual, that the resulting photo looks completely fake. This is especially true in this modern world of extreme photo manipulation capabilities.

But what to do in such circumstances? I certainly don’t want to de-saturate and alter the unusual colors so that the scene looks more “natural”. That is like saying these lighting events never occurred and what I witnessed should have looked like any other day. Instead I process the image so that the result matches my memory and add some written descriptions to allow the viewer to understand what they are seeing. So without further ado, here are three “crazy” lighting events and the resulting photos.

Dramatic light bursts from behind the Tetons at sunset. Thick smoke and haze from nearby forest fires create God beams as the sun drops behind the horizon, Grand Teton National Park
Dramatic light bursts from behind the Tetons at sunset. Thick smoke and haze from nearby forest fires create God beams as the sun drops behind the horizon, Grand Teton National Park

We’ll start with one of the most unbelievable sunsets I have ever seen. I was with some friends on a photo trip in Grand Tetons National Park a couple of years ago to photograph wildlife and fall colors against the spectacular backdrop of this mountain range. Smoke from nearby wildfires somewhat hampered our efforts early in the trip, but it also lent a special atmospheric quality to the otherwise clear skies.

The sun set behind the notch in the mountains, and we waited. Finally, it peeked out underneath the clouds on the horizon, cutting through the lingering smoke and turning the sky into an unbelievable magenta. In post processing, I kept finding myself wanting to desaturate or change the sky color, but finally I just left it as is. That is how I saw the scene, so I have to trust the colors.

Mt Wilson and the Wilson Mesa glow a light magenta under a cloud that catches the morning light.
Mt Wilson and the Wilson Mesa glow a light magenta under a cloud that catches the morning light.

The next example is from a recent fall color photography trip (notice a pattern here?) that I took to Colorado. Standing just below Last Dollar Road and looking out over the Wilson Mesa, I waited for what the sunrise would bring. The morning did not disappoint, and the clouds over Mt. Wilson lit up a beautiful orange. What was strange about the scene though, was that the entire landscape was cast in a similar orange, as if the color from the clouds on the horizon was emanating out in all directions.

What I realized later was that directly above me was a similar cloud catching similar light. It acted as a giant diffuser, coloring the grass, trees, and mountains in that same orange tint. Again I found myself tempted to remove the color cast, but again, that glow was real, and that is exactly how the scene looked that morning.

Clouds explode with light over the multi-colored rock at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park
Clouds explode with light over the multi-colored rock at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

This sunrise was really spectacular. Given that I was shooting at a popular roadside pullout, the sky really saved the shot here and made it unique (which is why I emphasized it so much in this photo). The bright pink/magenta color continued to get more and more intense as the sun rose behind me. This was one of those moments when the heart starts beating faster and I can feel the blood pumping. I knew I had just seconds to capture the shots I wanted while this phenomenon remained. In all, within 30 seconds it was gone.

As I look back on these shots I see wild colors and unreal looking landscapes. I’m not sure if I’ll ever print any of these, because they look processed beyond reality. But looking at these photos also reminds me of some amazing moments that I’ve witnessed first hand. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.