Welcome to (The Occasional) Photo Tip of the Day! Please also visit my main site jeffwignall.com. Text and photographs Copyright 2016 Jeff Wignall.

“The best way out is always through.”

Friday, October 30, 2009

Mind the Moods of Light and Weather

One of the interesting things about photographing autumn scenes (or almost any landscape scenes, for that matter) is that, depending on the lighting and weather, they can produce a whole range of emotional responses. Scenes shot on misty or overcast days where the colors are saturated but muted have a soulful but very pensive and almost sad look to them. The same scenes shot on a sunny day with a bright blue sky are almost bursting with cheerfulness.

Of all the autumn photos I've shot recently, the ones that stand out the most to me are a few dozen that I shot of a small clump of ginko (also called maidenhair) trees in the center of town. I shot the pictures in a period of about 10 or 15 minutes and I get a happy feeling whenever I look at them. How can you look at the colors in this shot and not feel uplifted? The day after I shot this photo the clouds moved in for several days and I drove by those trees again; while their leaves were still in tact and their colors were rich, the scene was greatly dimmed, as if someone had pulled the plug on the tree, shutting off the glow. Had I seen those muted colors and the gray sky before I had seen the electric colors of the shot here, I never cold have imagined how luminescent the scene had been before.

Light and weather play profound roles in our emotional interpretation of a scene, as does the color of the sky. To get a wide range of emotional climates in your photos, it's worth exploring in all kinds of weather--especially when the autumn colors come to town.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reflect on Autumn's Beauty

As beautiful as autumn in New England is, photographing it has always been a double-edged sword for me. On one hand, I find it to be (visually, at least) the most beautiful and inspiring season. The light at this time of year, with the sun lower in the sky and the lighting softer and more golden, combined with the radiance of the autumn leaves changing, is a soul-expanding experience.

On the other hand, beautiful as it is, I find it difficult to photograph, partly because trying to capture that beauty in a mere photograph can be overwhelming. I struggle between looking for the quintessential New England autumn shots of barns and covered bridges surrounded by flaming trees and searching out simpler, more symbolic images--a leaf floating in a stream, or a single golden branch against a radiant blue sky. The worst thing to do probably is to just drive around "looking" for pictures. I do, of course, scout around town by car for a half hour or so, but I find that parking, getting out and taking a closer look at simple scenes is often the best way to find pictures. It's really tough to spot winners at 30 mph!

Perhaps because I find fall to be such a reflective time, I often seem drawn to create compositions that include actual reflections. Reflections work nicely with autumn foliage partly, I think, because they double up on the color in a scene and also because we all seem to find reflections interesting, even alluring. By including the edge of the pond in this scene, for example, I was able to include the leaves twice--once in the scene and once in the reflection--while at the same time adding an interesting foreground.

You can intensify the colors in a reflection by using a polarizing filter if you position yourself at an angle of about 45-degrees from the surface of the water. Polarizing filters are set in a rotating mount and as you turn the filter you'll see the reflection become stronger and then (if you keep rotating it) the reflections will largely disappear. If you're shooting scenes that include a blue sky, you can also use a polarizing filter to darken blue skies, though I use them a lot less often now that I shoot digitally because I can adjust the skies more accurately in editing. I will write more about polarizing filters in a future posting, however.

By the way, I will say without shame that I warmed up this shot a tad during the RAW conversion process by increasing the color temperature of the white balance. There is not, surprisingly enough, much saturation going on; just increasing the warmth was enough to intensify the colors quite a bit. Incidentally I'm addicted to using the RAW format now and feel free to post a comment or write if you'd like me to talk more about why I now love RAW so much (and this is a relatively new development for me!).

Here's an interesting historical side note about the pond in this shot: Peck's Mill Pond is just a mile from my house and in 1899 it was the scene of the worst train disaster in New England history up to that point. A trolley went off its tracks crossing a small bridge over the pond and 36 people were trapped inside and killed. I grew up in this town and have always known of the tragedy that took place at the pond and so (speaking of reflections) there is some element of reflection on that tragic event whenever I shoot photos of that pond.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Photographing Autumn Colors: Make Hay (or Autumn Pictures) While the Sun Shines

Autumn is probably my favorite time of year. I just love the smell of woodsmoke in the air, seeing pumpkins on everyone's front steps, the sweet taste of fresh-made cider--and getting another chance to photograph those amazing autumn leaves. Of all the surprises that Mother Nature has to offer photographers, few are more fascinating to watch than seeing thousands of trees and millions of leaves burst into intense shades of yellow, orange and red. If you've never seen the height autumn's glory in New England, it's a sight to behold.

In New England everyone talks about the "peak" of color as if it were some type of mystical moment--and in some ways it is. While some autumns are better than others, in each season there seems to be a short window of a few days (some Vermonters will tell you it's a few hours) when the leaves are so intensely colored you'd think they're going to just burst and start squirting colorful pigments all over the landscape--the colors are that brilliant. The colors are so outlandish, in fact, that they seem to shine even on the darkest nights.

When the colors get to this state, however, you have to have your camera ready and be prepared to drop what you're doing and start shooting. I saw the tree here while on my way to a dentist appointment and the afternoon light was just starting to illuminate the leaves. I actually thought of blowing-off the appointment to photograph the tree, but decided I had some time before the light was perfect. Thankfully it was a short appointment and so I was able to run home after, grab my camera and get back to the tree just as the last rays of late afternoon light were igniting the treetop. I shot for about 15 minutes, taking a variety of views of this tree and some others nearby and then the sun faded and the magic was gone. The tree was still beautiful to look at, but the illumination was over for the day.

Whether it's the true peak or not, when you see a spectacular tree like this, you have to make an effort to photograph it because, as so often happens in life, the beauty fades quickly. Today there is a driving rain outside and I'm sure that a lot of the leaves in that tree are laying on the ground. That doesn't mean they still wouldn't make a nice photo--leaves in a pile make a great shot--but that moment of the tree just ignited with autumn color, with every leaf in place, is almost certainly over until next year. How glad I am that I made the effort to shoot it.

In the next tip I'll give you some ideas of what kinds of subjects to shoot and some technical tips for getting the best colors.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Tell the Story of Forgotten Spaces

It's easy to look for pictures in the places that are likely to produce "pretty" pictures--the beach, meadows, your garden, etc. Let's face it, beaches and meadows and gardens were made to be photographed and it's your duty as the committed photographer that you are to bring those beautiful scenes home.

But sometimes the most interesting photos are found in places where you would least expect them to be lurking--places like your backyard tool shed, your neighbor's garage or even in the attic of an old barn, which is where I found this shot. I discovered this fascinating little vignette at a Christmas tree farm where (snoop that I am) I had wandered off into an old barn where I'm sure I wasn't supposed to be. The roof of the barn (probably because this area had once been the farmer's workshop) was made of translucent panels (a more modern innovation, no doubt) that created a blissfully soft light over the entire room. Had the lighting not been so soft and enticing I might have just taken a wishful glance at the room and moved on, but with that nice lighting just melting across the room there was no way I wasn't going to photograph it.

The great thing about finding unexpected gems like this is that they're not only great photographic finds, but they tell a story of the places you discover. The farm where this photo was taken has been in the same family since 1812 and I can't help but look at this photo and wonder about all of the hands, across several generations, that have worked in this room and heaped up these old bits of tools and wood. Does the current generation peak into this forgotten corner as they pass by and think about their ancestors? I know that I would.

I grew up near an old mill pond and there was an abandoned milling house falling into ruin in the woods nearby. When we weren't fishing in the pond we used to climb through a window into the mill house and it was like being in an old tool museum--there were still hand tools on the benches, muskrat traps and ice tongs hanging from the walls, and windows full of decades-old spider webs. The mill was torn down before I took up photography but how I wish I could travel back in time to that place with a camera!

But lots of similar places still exist. And the places you explore don't have to be so profoundly historic or even that hidden, either. How many stories are waiting to be told on your dad's workbench, or in your mother's sewing corner? These places are so familiar to us that we tend to overlook them and yet, they are often the most meaningful places in our lives.

Next time you're looking for something interesting to photograph, climb up to the attic or go visit take a walk through an abandoned factory row. You just never know what treasures are sitting there waiting for you.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Don't Fight the Light

It's only natural when you walk up to a subject, whether it's a person, a building, a dog--or in this case a statue--and attempt to compose it from the front. The front view is, after all, often the view you see first and there is an instinctive human reaction that the front view must be the best view. After all, why does any object have a front if that's not the correct way to view it?

And in terms of casual observation, deciding that the correct way to view things is from the front is a pretty good assumption. But photography is not about casual observation; it's about exploring and discovering and finding the best angle for your purposes. More importantly, there are a lot of times when the lighting will dictate what is or isn't the best angle to photograph a subject and (unless you're shooting in a studio where you can change the lighting direction), there's no point in fighting the lighting just so that you can capture the conventional viewpoint.

Take, for example, this very moving Korean War memorial that I came across in Jersey City, New Jersey. The memorial is at the end of a long avenue and when you're driving up the street and see it approaching, it's facing you and it's very dramatic. There's no way that anyone could be driving up this street and not take a few minutes to park their car and pay their respects for a few moments. The problem the day that I visited, however, was that the light was coming from directly behind and the front of the sculpture was deep in shadow.

I really wanted to take at least a cursory photo of the monument though and there were a few different options. Because I was on my way somewhere else, waiting for the light to change wasn't one of them. So instead, I shot a few frames with exposure compensation to see if that would open up the front of the sculpture, but all it did was wash out the background and it did nothing for me artistically. I also tried flash (it looked artificial and was worse) and I tried shooting a few silhouettes by exposing for the bright sky behind but the shapes really weren't defined enough to handle a silhouette.

Rather than fight the light, I decided to circle around the sculpture and see if there were any good angles from the rear, where the lighting was far better. As I circled around it, I could see that the light was falling beautifully on the backs of the two soldiers and I really liked the view of the city street beyond them. I also really like the gesture of the mens' arms around each other--it was a very significant aspect of the sculpture that was hidden from the front, of course, and one that the sculptor captured beautifully. Even though the sculptor knew that most people's first view of his work would be from the front, it was the view from behind that really told the story of these two soldiers and of the camaraderie of war.

You can't change the direction of the sun's light, but you certainly can (and should) change your position relative to it--and you never know what better shots might be waiting for you when you do.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Plump Up Your Pumpkins with Side Lighting

I was going to call this tip "Steal Someone Else's Pumpkins" because that is pretty much what I did to get this shot. While visiting a pick-you-own pumpkin farm in Connecticut (Pumpkinseed Hill in Shelton, Connecticut if you're looking for a great place to shoot on an autumn day), I was too busy photographing pumpkins and people picking them to pick any of my own. As I was wandering around shooting though, I kept seeing people pulling wagon loads full of bright orange pumpkins and was wishing I'd had time to do some picking of my own just so that I had a wagon load to photograph.

Then, as if fate heard my wishes, at the end of the day as the golden late-afternoon sun was glancing the top of the hill, a woman parked her wagon full of pumpkins in a beautiful pool of warm sunlight right in front of me. While she stepped a few feet away to choose a few last pumpkins with her kids, I "borrowed" her wagon and photographed it. I wanted to tell her what a nice job she'd done arranging them but she had an armload of kids in tow and before I could get the words out, off she and her wagon and kids went, oblivious to my artistic larceny.

The thing that I like about this shot (other than the very nice arrangement that my anonymous accomplice created) is that the side-lighting coming from the late rays of sun is giving the pumpkins a nice plump round feeling of volume and weight. Volume is an important visual element, particularly in still life photographs, because in addition to creating a three-dimensional reality, it also helps the brain to imagine the size and bulk of objects. Unlike shapes which just describe the outline of an object (remember, silhouettes excel at describing shapes and they have absolutely no sense of volume), volume provides heft--the plump in the pumpkins, in this case.

The key to revealing volume is using oblique lighting (from the side or the rear, usually) to enhance the three-dimensional appearance. If you want to experiment with this concept sometime, just take an apple and a desk lamp and at first just light the apple flatly from the front. While the color and even the shape of the apple will be realistic looking, you won't get any sense of its fullness. If you move the desk lamp to the extreme side and shoot another frame, you'll see that the shadow side is helping to define the roundness and girth of the apple. Voila! Instant volume.

You can (and should), of course, use this concept to help create volume and three-dimensionality in much larger objects like trees and houses or even mountains in a landscape. By waiting until the light is illuminating your subject from the side (or from the rear if you have a high-enough shooting angle to see both the highlight and shadow sides of the object) you heighten the reality of the scene. Sidelight also enhances texture--in this shot you can almost feel the rippled surface of the pumpkins--and texture also helps to enhance the sense of volume.

All of this goes to show that you just never know when stealing someone else's pumpkins will help you learn a valuable lesson in vision. If only my friends and I had thought of that excuse when we got caught stealing pumpkins when we were kids! "I did it for art's sake, dad!"

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chill the Mood with Cool Colors

Blue Monday, Blue Moon, blue mood, I got the blues--it seems that the color blue takes a lot of blame for people's less-than-sunny moods. I'm not so sure that blue is responsible for all the negative emotional connotations that it gets associated with, but it is true that any time that the primary palette of your photos falls into the cooler range (blues, greens, purples), the emotional atmosphere is chilled out a bit.

But cool blue and other cool colors are also considered calming colors, which is probably why so many people spend so much money to go to the Caribbean and stare at the blue sea for a week. The calming effect of blue is also the reason that interior decorators suggest painting your bedroom blue if you're looking for a peaceful retreat at the end of the day. (I guess if you're looking for passionate nights you should paint your room with hot colors.) And they say wearing a blue suit to a job interview is a good idea because blue is associated with loyalty and calmness.

Cool tones can also be a welcome visual relief on a sunny summer's day. Think about hiking up a hot steep hillside on a hot July afternoon and then refreshing yourself beside a cool blue mountain stream and resting on damp moss-covered rock. I took the photo here after a long hike on a warm summer day on the John Jay Homestead in Katonah, New York and, probably because I was tired and thirsty, was immediately attracted to the unusual blue color of the barn. I found the coolness of the blue paint and the green lawn a refreshing and welcome relief and, of course, responded to that bit of visual relief with my camera. Just looking at the scene in the viewfinder really did help chill me out a bit.

Film and television directors are masters of exploiting the secret power of color and mood and they play with our emotions like puppet masters as they shift the palette from the fiery emotional moods of reds/yellows/oranges to the somber blues/grays/greens of twilight. Next time that you're watching an action/adventure film, watch how the color palette shifts from the hot tones of the action scenes (Bruce Willis igniting the elevator shaft in Die Hard) to the cooler palette of more somber and ominous scenes (the boat Orca in Jaws drifting in the cool twilight as the shark plots its destruction).

All colors have rich and complex psychological interpretations and if you're aware of them when you're choosing your palette or searching for subjects, you can use them to manipulate or intensify the mood of your photos. The more of a particular color range you use in a scene--and the more you eliminate other colors--the more dominant and obvious the mood becomes. And don't be surprised if you come how with a card full of cool-tone subjects and someone asks why you're in such a blue mood!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Read My Interview with National Geographic Photographer Jim Richardson

Ever since I was a kid, my house has had shelves brimming with (and bending under the weight of) hundreds of bright yellow National Geographic magazines. And, in fact, I'm sure the wonderful photos they contained were largely responsible for my interest in photography. It was an honor then, as you might imagine, for me to be able to interview one of their most accomplished and published shooters, Jim Richardson, for my new book Winning Digital Photo Contests.

Today Black Star Rising, the blog of the legendary Black Star photojournalism agency, has published that interview on their blog. Jim (who has judged hundreds of contests himself) provides a really fascinating insight into how digital photo contests are judged (and won) and shares a great deal of his photographic philosophy. It was a great pleasure to talk with Jim and a real honor to have him be a part of the new book.

I think you'll find the interview an interesting and inspiring read and I hope you'll find a few minutes to read it and pass the link along to your photographer friends. And (hint, hint) you can order the new book using the link above or the Amazon ad to the right. (Did I say, "hint, hint" yet?) Take time also to visit Jim's site and you'll be amazed by the beauty of his work.

In the next day or two I'll post some thoughts on my recent afternoon of pumpkin-picking-photos. Orange you glad it's autumn? (Photo courtesy of Jim Richardson.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Keep An Eye Peeled for Peeling Vintage Ads

First, my apologies for not posting for a week, but I've been on the road photographing and spent several days in Chincoteague, Virginia hoping to photograph the wild ponies on Assateague Island--but more about that in an upcoming post. For now, here's an interesting story about a shot I took earlier this summer.

If you're approximately the same age as me (in other words, you grew up watching Leave it to Beaver and the Andy Griffith shows), then you probably immediately recognized the little girl here as Little Miss Sunbeam. Her happy face was a huge part of my childhood and was used to promote Sunbeam bread on signs, magazine and newspaper ads, on TV and, of course, on the bread itself. (And though I hadn't realized it until I started to do some online research, she is still used on their packaging and advertising!)

Maybe it's just nostalgia for a more innocent time, or the fact that I've been seeing this face for most of my life, but it seems to me that you just don't see art like this in advertising anymore. Or maybe it's just that we see so many images and so much advertising these days that there are fewer and fewer genuinely iconic images--all advertising has congealed into one long visual blur, an endless stream of light and color trying to snatch our attention from one instant to the next.

Signs like this are a joy to discover and they pop up at the most unexpected moments. I found this peeling and apparently forgotten sign (though probably a local landmark) in front of a bakery thrift store on Route 1 in Rhode Island. Actually I think it was my companion that spotted it and the moment she pointed it out I nearly slammed on the brakes and quickly turned into the parking lot. I was half tempted to only take a snapshot from the car window, just for old time's sake, but guilt overcame me (as it usually does) and I got out the tripod, chose the best lens and did the sign justice. (I've come to learn that the I suffer a lot less regret later on if give every subject the time and energy it deserves.) I spent about twenty minutes shooting a few dozen different frames of the sign and playing with different crops and angles.

The real fun of finding signs like this though comes in tracking down some of their history--which is exactly what I did. Realizing that there must have been a real girl who posed for the painting, I did some research and discovered that there were actually several "Sunbeam Girls" but the one that I think is pictured in this sign (and the one who was probably the most famous) was Patty Michaels. Patty was selected as the Sunbeam Girl at age five in 1955 and went on to have a very successful career as a model, actress and singer . Her face ended up on millions of packages of bread and she also made personal appearances to promote the bread. Only a few years later she ended up on Broadway in the Sound of Music (starring with Mary Martin) and after four years on the stage, turned to TV and appeared on the variety shows of Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason and Garry Moore. She later became a pop singer and, though that career didn't last too long, performed with some pretty famous names. I'd love to get in touch with her and interview her about her long career!

The artist behind the portraits, an illustrator named Ellen Segner was also a pretty fascinating character and was one of the few women who got famous as a glamor and pin-up artist. She was also the illustrator for the famous "Dick and Jane" children's books! Her Little Miss Sunbeam portraits have been in constant use for more than 60 years.

You just never know how much of a story there is behind old advertising signs, but it's definitely worth the time and effort to photograph them and do some research. For me, finding that Little Miss Sunbeam sign (and I hope the company restores it one day before it peels itself into oblivion) was a fun glimpse back into my childhood and also led me to a fun few hours of research.