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Editing Basics: how engaging is this image?

There’s a mysterious thing that happens with images: sometimes, the light we capture on the sensor (or on the film) somehow is missing the one thing that made the moment so spectacular. It’s not out of focus, it’s not terribly under exposed, the composition is okay, there’s just something…. not there.

The thing that’s not there of course, is your feelings the moment you took it. That is something that can be very elusive. The viewers of an image are not cold, they are not windblown, they are not out of breath from hiking up to that ridge, they are not among exciting new friends. All of that is basically impossible to convey in a static image, and that may well be what makes that image special to you.

The very hardest thing for any photographer to do is to look at their images objectively. It’s maddeningly difficult sometimes. I didn’t really understand this mechanism until I worked for Galen Rowell. There were a few images that he absolutely adored, had marked as his Best Images, and yet they were… just a picture. Not a great picture in any objective sense. Most of the time he was spot-on at knowing which images of his would really resonate with people, but every once in a while, he was wrong. There was just no way we would know what it was like to be in that dark, smoky Tibetan house high in the Himalaya, to meet these sweet gentle people who were so kind, and whose picture he took at that moment while the fire burned brightly in the corner.

This is one reason why I think it’s a bad idea to do any sort of real editing while you’re on a trip. You’re too close to the action, emotionally, to tell if a picture is really good or not. There’s time enough when you get home for all that. And your pictures will be better for it.

So when you sit down to edit, ask yourself these things about every picture you’ve taken:

  • Is it engaging to look at?
  • Is it quickly understandable?
  • How long do you want to look at it?

Is it engaging to look at? – Is the composition flat or dynamic? Is there a tension to the composition that will engage the viewer?

SVA_0779The texture of this berg is interesting, and I like how it’s reflected in the calm water beneath it, but it’s just sitting there, really. Compositionally this is a bust. There’s nothing dynamic happening here. There’s nothing technically wrong with this image, it’s just not that interesting.

 

SVA_0858

This is much more engaging. First of all the texture is really fascinating: this ice looks like frosted glass! And the deep grooves in the iceberg give a diagonal line to the composition that really help the picture stand out. Add to that the smaller grooves at a perpendicular angle to that and all of a sudden this is much more interesting compositionally than the one above. And the color, who knew one iceberg could have that many shades of blue?

 

Is there enough going on inside the frame to allow you to spend some time with it, or is it the kind of picture where a single glance is all you need?

ANT_3016

This one is really borderline to me. There’s enough going on visually, but the composition is missing any dynamism. Nice to have brash ice, but the ice floes are too far away and your eye has to kind of reach in order to get any of the detail in the mid-to background.

 

 

ANT_2728

THIS is what I’m talking about. The brash ice (and even a bit of pancake ice!) litter the foreground.  The ice floes lead your eyes into the frame, and the light  and clouds give lots of varied color and texture to the scene.

 

This is essentially separate from the question above, and is a lot more difficult to explain: do you want to just stare at it?  The longer you want to stare at an image the better.

SVA_0918

This image definitely has texture, but it’s all pretty much the same texture. Perhaps the light was a bit too flat, or this was just not the best iceberg to shoot. You’re kind of at the mercy of nature at times like this; there’s only so much you can do to position an iceberg for a portrait at its best angle. Maybe we need to just go find a different iceberg.

 

 

SVA_3950

This is much more like it. The ship in the distance gives some interest, and the triangular shape of the berg leads the viewer’s eye right there. The berg itself has both bizarre dappled texture and is run through with thick bands of moraine which gives some depth of color. The water is rippled by a breeze and that mimics the texture on the ice. The light that day was relentlessly flat but since the iceberg itself has so much texture it still works.

 

Let me give you another example of the “stare at an image” idea:

ANT_6125

This is one picture from Antarctic that I’m absolutely in love with. The texture of that snow, the light hitting it at an angle like that to really  show off the texture and the sculptural nature of it… oooh. Just love it. This is one image I can just stare at. It’s not that complicated of an image, there’s not that much going on compositionally, but the way the different elements (the side light, the color of the light, the yellow light paired with the deep blue clouds) really pops.

 

Oh, and yeah, I’m totally obsessed with ice and icebergs now. I know it. I won’t try to hide it.

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Top Ten Things I Did Not Expect On A Trip To Antarctica and South Georgia

Come for the penguins, stay for the fur seals!

I had done a lot of research before this trip, so I knew quite a bit about what to expect and what would await me there. Years ago I worked for a photographer who visited South Georgia and Antarctica several times, so I had seen tons of  pictures from these places, and could recognize many of them. But even with all that, there were definitely some surprises. Here’s my top ten:

1. This is the best whale watching cruise you’ve never heard of. I’ve seen my share of whales. I’ve gone whale watching on the California coast, on Vancouver Island in Canada, even in Iceland. But even I was shocked at the number of whales we saw. Not only the variety of different species, but the sheer number of whales we saw was incredible.

Line of fin whales in the Scotia Sea

2. Antarctic fur seals are incredibly territorial and downright aggressive creatures. Before our first landing in South Georgia we got a detailed briefing on how to deal with them (basically: stand your ground), but I was shocked to see tiny pups going after us as if they were great big bulls. It was cute when it wasn’t sort of terrifying. Those teeth are sharp.

Fur seal
3. We were really busy. Between the daily landings and the lectures on history and wildlife and geology, meals and being exhausted from being out in the fresh air all day, I had basically no time to read or properly edit my images while on the ship.

4. Just how close to the wildlife you get. The rule is that you need to stay 15 feet away from the animals, keeping in mind that they are free to come as close to you as they’d like… and that is often pretty darn close.

Penguin

4. Doing photography every day for 3 weeks really hones your skills. I’m not sure why this had not occurred to me, but in the course of one of these longer journeys, if you’re using your camera every day and taking at least a quick peek at the results, you’re going to get better. Not only will using your camera become more automatic, but you will be better at evaluating the unique light conditions that occur down there.

Iceberg

5. My shipmates were younger than I expected. When I was in Dallas waiting for my flight to Buenos Aires, I saw the typical cruise crowd all heading down to their South American cruises. Most of them were well over 70, their tickets and IDs hanging on those pockets you wear around your neck. But not on our ship. The group seemed to be about half over 60 and half under, which gave us a good mix. We also had ~ 30% Australians, which of course made the whole thing more fun.

6. The wind is pretty much incessant. If your eyes are sensitive to wind and tear up a lot, make sure to bring wrap-around style sunglasses to help protect them. It will make a big difference. Or be like me and just keep your camera in front of your face all the time.

Wind
7. Getting in and out of zodiacs is easier than I expected… and after learning how to do it in the swells of South Georgia, the landings on the Antarctic peninsula were downright easy, as the water is so much more protected. By the end of it we were all experts, sliding towards the front and swinging our legs over the edge and landing in the water in one smooth motion, like we’d been doing it all our lives.

Zodiac
9. Running up and down the stairs to get to and from your lower-deck cabin is pretty good exercise. My apartment is on the third floor, so running up and down stairs is not new to me, but I was surprised at how by the end of the trip, I was able to race up all 5 flights from my cabin to the deck above the bridge without missing a beat.

10. The weather was fascinating. Between the come-out-of-nowhere katabatic winds (and attendant lenticular clouds) and the thick cumulus clouds that seemed to hover just feet above the water, I was constantly amazed by it. There were thick fogs that dissipated in minutes, mist, snow, sleet, rain — we saw pretty much every kind of weather at some point. I loved it.


Clouds

One thing that doesn’t surprise me? People ask if I want to go back. The answer is simple: In a heartbeat.