Svalbard

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.

 

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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?

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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:

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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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Editing Basics: what does this image need?

Brunnich's Guillemot colony at Alkefjellet, Svalbard, Norway

Brunnich’s Guillemot colony at Alkefjellet, Svalbard, Norway

I’ve been looking at pictures the better part of my life. I began serious photography when I was 16, later studied it in college, then worked for years as a photo researcher for a top adventure photographer and then at a photo agency that specialized in travel imagery. I’ve seen millions of images, and spent an awful lot of time thinking about why some pictures “work” and others don’t. So much time in fact, that it’s usually just an automatic process that happens in the background, one I’ve pretty much ceased thinking about consciously.

But I do remember when I was starting out spending hours and hours looking  at images (my own and other people’s) trying to figure out what was missing, what would make the image come together. It might seem like an utterly precious navel-gazing exercise, but if you want to become a better photographer, it’s absolutely essential.

So when you’re looking at your images, there are a few things you need to ask yourself:

  • What is the image about?
  • Does it convey that?
  • Are there too many distractions?
  • Does it have all the details it needs?

There is more of course, but I’ll leave that for a later post.

Let’s break down this image and think about these questions one by one.

What’s the image about?

This is a bird colony on a high cliff in Svalbard, Norway. So, it’s about birds. But more specifically, it’s about thousands of birds. So the picture needs to show a — forgive my language– shit-ton of birds. I have several images from this location that show a million blobs in the sky, the trick was finding one where some of the birds in the background actually have a distinctive bird shape so that it would instantly read as “bird” not “blob on lens”.

birdshapes

Does it convey that?

I think so… I chose this image specifically due to the numbers of birds in the sky, and if you look more closely at the cliff you can see bunches of birds there crowded on the ledges. It helps that the rocks are a brownish color and not dark gray – if they were gray it would be almost impossible to make out the birds nesting there.

Does it have too many distractions?

This image is very slightly cropped from the original.  I had a bit too much water in the foreground and I felt that it was causing the composition to seem imbalanced. There are lots of ways to think about composition, but controlling how viewers move their eyes through the image is a useful one. Changing the internal dynamics of the picture changes that. You can do this by either framing carefully when making the image, cropping it later, or a combination of both. I generally shoot very tightly, because I learned how to photograph shooting slides. When shooting slide film, what you see is what you get. Any branch or out of focus rock is there and you cannot get rid of it later, so you learn how to see those things in the frame and recompose the image until they’re no longer there. I personally think its a good exercise to do this all the time, to spend one quick moment running your eye along the edges of the frame to look for anything distracting and recompose if possible to remove it. You don’t want to have to spend hours later cropping everything you shoot, and it’s a good way to train your eye to see these things more clearly.

Does it have enough detail?

I chose this picture over others simply due to the photo-bombing guillemot on the foreground. It was just chance that I captured that, but that is one of the reasons I snap a dozen (thirteen to be precise) images in this kind of situation; hoping for that kind of luck. The zodiacs are there to give the image a sense of scale, and the yellow and red parkas also help liven up the image.

details

 

If you want to read more about photography and learn about pre-visualizing how images will look, read Galen Rowell’s excellent book, “Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography

Sneak Peek: Svalbard!

I’ve just returned home from my most recent adventure, to the land of the midnight sun* in arctic Norway. I’m still editing pictures, but wanted to be able to share a few images from the trip. There are many more to come. We had fantastic weather, and saw a wide variety of wildlife.

Atlantic Puffins, Fjortende Julibukta, Svalbard, Norway

Atlantic Puffins, Fjortende Julibukta, Svalbard, Norway

We saw quite a lot of birds, but everyone’s favorite is always the puffin. I’d seen them before in Iceland, but I never really knew the way they hop around on these cliffs — it’s as if they don’t quite know how to walk, so just improvise something to get some forward locomotion. It’s adorable.

 

Rich tundra at Varsolbukta, Bellsund, Svalbard, Norway.

Rich tundra at Varsolbukta, Bellsund, Svalbard, Norway.

The tundra here at Vardsolbukta was incredibly rich and varied – several species of tiny flowering plants, mosses of a half a different shades of green, various lichens and such. The ground in places was like walking on pillows, the moss was so soft. It felt really strange. Things take forever to decompose in the arctic, so there are all sorts of bones and reindeer antlers, skeins of shed reindeer fur and various feathers lying around to be studied. It’s the kind of place you want to walk around bent over at the waist so you don’t miss anything.

Polar bear on the drift ice in the Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway.

Polar bear on the pack ice in the Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway.

And of course: a polar bear! The trip would not have been complete without one…. in the end we saw seven, a very unusual number. This one was particularly photogenic in the bright sunshine and sporting a healthy sleek coat.

There really is something incredibly special about seeing a huge predator like this in the wild. There is that little chest-tightening frisson of excitement the moment you spot it: ” *gasp* BEAR!” — even more exciting if the bridge has not announced its presence yet.

There are many more images to come, including some surprises — things I never would have expected to see on a trip like this.

*A note on the “midnight sun” — I’ve never really experienced this before. What it really is could best be described as: “noon all the time” — there is essentially no modulation in the strength of the sun at any time of day. If the sun is out its at the same height in the sky all the time. Most disconcerting. Bring an eye mask. A good one.

North to Adventure!

Longyearbyen

I’m leaving today for a very exciting trip to Svalbard, Norway — north of the Arctic circle, to travel around the islands and hopefully, hopefully see a polar bear in the wild. Bonus points for walrus, beluga and NARWAL! As you can see in the image above, I will not be seeing any night.

When I land in Longyearbyen, I will be north of the Arctic circle in the same year that I’ve traveled south of the Antarctic circle. I’d be crowing about my achievement, except now I know (at least) three others doing the same! Two are working on the expedition ships, and another is a passenger like me who’s traveling to the North Pole this summer.

North and South

I will definitely be posting as much as I can to instagram so please keep an eye out for that.