Last Friday I posted a short slideshow of images shot in Lamayuru, Ladakh. Thanks to all for the kind words left in comments and sent in emails. There were a number of requests for a how-to, so I’ll do my best to be helpful. Truth is there isn’t much to tell in terms of technique. I pointed the camera and let it do it’s thing while I worried about not getting trod on by a horse, donkey or yak. In situations like this the meter on my 5D does remarkably well. But remember, HOW I meter is not as relevant as what the histogram looks like. I shoot first, meter later. Sort of. HERE’s an article on that.
I shoot in AV, chose an aperture (f/16 in the case of the image above, ISO 100, 1/100sec- (see, the “Sunny 16 Rule” really works!), then check the histogram and try to balance the dark shadows and the bright backlit sun. But here’s the thing – perfect exposures are not what these images are about. These images are about mood, so I wasn’t afraid to blow the exposure, plunge the shadows, or even get way too much lens flare. I grabbed my 5D instead of my newer 5D MkII because it’s my kick-about camera; with the 17-40 lens on it I honestly don’t care what happens to it, so I take more risks, and don’t mind burying it in the dust and chaff of harvest. If you study my work you know I tend towards simple, clean compositions. This was an intentional departure, having already shot some harvest scenes that were front-lit, perfectly exposed, and boring & lifeless (see below).
I post-processed these (the slideshow images not the image above) in Lightroom with very few tweaks. In some cases I made the blacks darker. In most cases I added vignette, pushed the clarity slider way to the right, and added some fill light. In other cases still I pulled back the saturation and bumped the vibrance. I don’t have a formula, just the desire to retain or finesse the dusty, luminous feeling of a warm autumn day in the gold of the barley fields. That’s the key, and it’s what forms the spine of the book I am working on now to compliment Within The Frame.
Within The Frame was primarily about capturing your vision within the camera. The next book, the one after VisionMongers, is about capturing your vision in the digital darkroom of Adobe Lightroom. Most books out there answer the question, “how can I make my photograph look better.” Instead, this next book ask the question, “How can I make this image express my vision?” It begins with being conscious of your vision, the feeling you want to express in your image. Sure, adding contrast might be the answer. Or it might not. Begin with your vision for the image, and play in the darkroom until you’ve brought the digital negative into alignment with that. Forget the recipes and shortcuts, and instead learn what each setting does to the aesthetic of the image. Just the same as you do in camera.
I hope this is helpful in some way. I know it’s vague. Between you and I, I think the reason these images work is because I took the risk of getting in there, shooting against the light and pushing my face (and camera) around in the dust and dirt. As my portfolio fills up with safer images, I find myself drawn more and more to the need to express myself with less perfection and more mood. Perfection is over-rated and seldom touches the heart.
Thanks for the input, David. I have rented the 70-200mm f2.8 IS Canon lens and it works really well. It is expensive, but I think for portraits and sports it would make a great lens. I think for sports, a monopod might make it more manageable. I do think that I need (that words seems to creep up a lot!) a camera that can support higher ISOs with less grain. I do some indoor portraits and I find that anything higher then ISO 400 is somewhat noisy. Yes, I have noise reduction on Aperture and CS4, but I’d rather have the best photo I can before editing. So, i”m looking at the Canon 7D; heard anything about it? I know it was just released. I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for putting it out there.
@Laurie Ferri – I think it’s all a matter of compromise. You need to determine what you want the lens for and what you want the images to look like. Do you need a longer focal length? Do you need it to be lighter? Do you need it to be cheaper? Faster? The 70-200 comes in 4 versions, I believe – so even there you’ve got choice – do you need an f/2.8 or an f/4.0, do you need Image Stabilizer or not?
For your stated needs i think the 70-200/2.8L IS would be amazing. But it’s heavy and expensive – that’s the payoff for amazing. I wouldn’t trade mine for something lighter, I love it too much. Be sure to get into a shop or even rent the lens before you buy it. Often just playing with it can take the magic out of it and make you see that it’s not as good (or possibly better) than you initially though or hoped.
@Todd Senge – Thanks for the honesty. I don’t know I ever claimed “awesome” status for them. The point was that I was trying something new for myself, trying to express something in a way I don’t normally do. They do that for me and for that reason alone I like them. Every photographer needs to listen to his critics, but at the end of the day we need first to create the work that resonates with ourselves, critics be damned.
In the future, however, why not just stick to one comment about how much my images fall short? More than one begins to feel you’ve got an axe to grind and your point gets lost.
One point not made before – I hope the system I have already invested in (start with N) cranks out a f/4 L equivalent series of zooms = tried out the 17-40, very very useful for fun mucking around =]
but then again, you can do that with any gear. for now, it’s the kid in me and those fuji 800 iso waterproof disposable cameras!
I think your message is bang on. We often get told about preventing the pixels from extending beyond the shadow and highlights, but like most things, that message is a guide not a rule.
You definitely created mood and I felt I was right there. Terrific stuff.
David: I think you are a great teacher and inspirer. However, I have to comment that your photographs are less inspiring. If you look at Steve McCurry, Bob Holmes, Bob Krist, Nevada Wier, David Alan Harvey and so many more… these images you just showed do not hold up. I hesitated writing this because you get so many accolades but I just have to say that your images are just “okay”. I am not any better but a critic can have an eye for excellence without being a virtuoso. There is so little intimacy in your images. They just seem to be good travel snaps. However, your writing is great. And, I look forward to that. Todd
I have a Canon Rebel XTi (I’m hoping to upgrade before long to the 7D). I have a 17-85 f/4 and a 70-300mm f4 lenses. When thinking about lenses how do you decide from all the different options out there what lens works best? I do a lot of portraits, candids and sports. The 70-200mm f2.8 was recommended. If I get every lens that looks good, I’d need a Uhaul to carry my gear around. Thanks.
“Kick-about” – I wish that I could bring myself to use my best camera the same way that I do it’s predecessor. The next time I upgrade, it will get used the way that it should always have been used. What’s fascinating is how long that kick-about works just fine (I almost said, “perfectly”) regardless of how I use it.
You are right, “perfection” is way, way overrated. People who are obsessed with perfection rarely take risks. And if you are not taking risks, you probably are not growing all that much.
@Styrmir – Well in reality it’s 3 books in 2 years because I had a year to write Within The Frame before it came out. But yes, the next two were a bit fast. Fortunately I write quickly and enjoy it and as my real passion is international photography, this gives me something to do when I am at home – for which my wife is immensely grateful. And then there’s all that time on planes, in airports and hotels…
But like I said, I’ll slow down and give you all a chance to read these things while I take a breather, and go refresh myself before writing Book The Fourth. 🙂
“Perfection is over-rated and seldom touches the heart.” – well put sir!
And a Lightroom book sounds good. But 3 books in 12 months? Do you have any time to shoot pictures?
And thanks for another great blogpost! Keep’em coming!
@Mihalis – Sorry your comment got trapped in my spam-filter. I’m afraid I can’t tell you much more about the next book. I can tell you it’s specific to post-processing and will be specific to the next release of Lightroom. But VisionMongers is coming out first. Yes, I’m already writing it. Look for more news before the end of this year.
Thanks for the article, David! As usual, a great read, and great work!
I do have one question though…what did you use to create the slideshow page? I’m finishing up some photos for a client, and I thought it would be nice to have a slideshow included on the disc along with the photos themselves…but I wasn’t sure if a PDF-based version (created in LR2) would cut it. After seeing the Harvest album, I was wondering if I could include an Adobe flash-based slideshow as well…
“Perfection is over-rated and seldom touches the heart.”
Hear, hear! Unless the concept of cold sterile perfection is itself the subject, clean, empty images all too often look unnatural and staged. And in some cases, like in the harvest shots, perfection is the antithesis of the subject matter.
Thank you for discussing the tech details of your photos. Looking forward to learning from more of your work.
“The next book, the one after VisionMongers, is about capturing your vision in the digital darkroom of Adobe Lightroom.”
I LOVE you, man! 😀
I guess I wasn’t the only one marveling at the stream of content, which for me has been both inspiring and daunting at the same time. That said, I certainly understand the “making hay” metaphor (and pun for these images) … after coming this far, in what seems a tough line of work, you have to seize the moments as they come.
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@Andrew McCauley – Thanks for the kind words. Yes, the third book will be specifically an Adobe Lightroom book, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be useful to Aperture users. Lightroom is my own tool of choice but it’s a poor carpenter that claims a house can only be built with a hammer of a particular brand. Joe McNally’s books have a Nikon slant but I think the critiques that therefore dismiss them for Canon users are missing out on something. Still, you’re right – it’s specific to Lightroom.
@Sagar – Pace yourself, man. These books don’t expire. As for the “odd looking triangle shaped reddish glare” in the harvest images – just wildly out-of-control lens flare. Not everyone likes it; I’m ok with that 🙂
@everyone else. I know, I’ve been cranking out a lot of content. I’ve been victimized by my own “make hay while the sun shines” mentality. I’m slowing down, I promise. I aim to keep teaching, and writing, and keeping these resources in front of you but I also don’t want to wear you down. And I need some time to go shooting, so we all just need to pace ourselves for the next 6 months. Then I’m taking a beak, I promise. 🙂
“Perfection is over-rated and seldom touches the heart.”
Can I have an Amen?
Well said David. Keep on your unique tack in the world of photography. Truly insightful and really touches on the core of the matter. We’re loving it on this side of the screen.
books after books……..all my time will go in reading and no shooting 🙁
I think your books will make me teacher instead of a photographer 🙂
i liked your harvest images but what’s that odd looking triangle shaped reddish glare in many images….??
Thanks for the post. The harvest images are among my favorites in your body of work.
As for the “After-VisionMongers” book sounds interesting, but, being an Aperture user, I’m a bit leery of it being more about Adobe LIghtroom and less about vision-enhancing post-processing.
Can you tell us more about your Lightroom-related book?
Have you start writing it?
Is it about Lightroom 2 or (maybe) Lightroom 3?
Three e-books, and two upcoming printed books. Man…that’s alot of reading. Oh well, I’ll just have to make the sacrifice. The third book looks like it will be a perfect fit for the artists and the geeks.
I couldn’t agree more. I just did a workshop this weekend with Younes Bounhar to take my mind out of my “safe” portrait photography and get more into a style and mood (incorporating landscape elements). This includes diving down into mud, falling into cold Ottawa streams, and leaving my lenses off my camera with no protection for a bit longer than I’m used to – just to get the shot at the right time.
It also allowed me to fall in love with my 17-40 again – very happy I never sold it – it’s so light and oh so good for stuff like this, and what you did too.
It’s relative, Brian. And a little hyperbolic. I care what happens to it, I just care less about it than I do my 5D MkII – my 5D has a ton of actuations and after 3 years of professional life it owes me nothing. I’m just saying I don’t baby my gear and this one gets even less care because it’s no longer the one I use to make a living. Perhaps if we treated all our tools this way we’d get better photographs from all of them 🙂
A Canon 5D with a 17-40 lens as a “kick-around” that you don’t care what happens to it? Wow, am I at the wrong end of the economic spectrum…
Another book?! I can’t keep up – too much reading and not enough shooting! 🙂
“The next book, the one after VisionMongers, is about capturing your vision in the digital darkroom of Adobe Lightroom”
Sounds great! Looking forward to it already, although no doubt I’ll have to wait a while…