Modernism as a movement interested me because of its take on the isolated individual in the industrial world. My favorite modernist was Franz Kafka, with his characters often alienated and trapped alone in a mad ironic world they cannot escape. While 20th century modernism deals with isolation in a time of factories, cars, and new skyscrapers, I feel we are in a new modernist era.
The current sense of alienation finds us alone in a crowd, both in the city and with social media. Our sense of self is exacerbated, a brilliant signal in a vast barren field of noise. For many that noise is defined by the digital noise they experience on their phones, TVs, and computers. It is often malevolent filled with self-indulgent over-spun social media posts, Trumpian vitriol, and fear-mongering tabloid news.
When we are in the world, surrounded by crowds (and that person taking an over-contrived selfie to add to the digital noise) we feel relief, but see ourselves as a unique signal in the noise. The rest of the world doesn’t even see us, just more noise. So last year when shooting street photos, I tried to capture the 21st century sense of self, surrounded by millions, yet alone.
This Friday Exposed DC is hosting a happy hour at the Gallery Underground in Crystal City to unveil the 2018 exhibition. If you live in DC, please join us and come see the exhibition. I will be there on Friday, and the photos are gorgeous, blown up so you can see them in large format.
A dark sky and gritty take on an idyllic Laguna Beach scene makes this walk beautiful, yet fraught with trouble. It’s an image that typifies what I believe represents the isolated self in the 21st century. The beach was actually quite crowded, but there was a five second pause in pedestrian traffic around her on both sides. I actually sat in this spot for 30 minutes waiting for the shot.
Highway to Hell
Taken during a foggy morning in DC, this photo features a man walking alone on the Pennsylvania bike path towards the U.S. Capitol building. The last vestiges of the fog are burning off in the distance, and his silhouetted hoodie add a sinister element to the image. To me this is how many of us feel alone and powerless when we consider the modern political environment.
Run for Joy
I was sitting in the pillar of the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress, waiting for people to walk out the entrance for the perfect shot. Suddenly, this little girl ran into my frame and went tearing down the passage oblivious to the world. The image typifies an innocent beautiful sense of isolation that children have as they enjoy their surroundings. It also illustrates hope, the belief of what could be in this crazy world.
Isolation in Love
When you are in love, one often feels a sense of positive isolation. No one else exists almost, it’s just the two of you enjoying life and facing the world together. This silhouetted shot typifies that sense of love, in my mind.
This poor fellow pushed his luck and found himself trapped in the metro. The doors eventually opened, and let him enter the train. What a great visual for modern isolation. It screams awkwardness, isolation, and humiliation for an individual alone in a large crowd.
It seems like every year or two you see a Flickr is dying post that sparks a major conversation about whether or not the photography social network will survive. Unfortunately, it seems that the time may finally be arriving for one of the longest standing social networks out there.
Murabayashi’s rant seemed motivated by his competitive service offering, but in hindsight the Yahoo! public lack of support at that time may have been the network’s undoing. Things are not the same on the network with interaction and dialogue feeling slow.
It’s more than a seasonal slump, which you would expect with warmer weather and enthusiasts running outside to use their dusty cameras. While uber photography social network 500 Pixels has experienced a small decline in traffic, too, their overall page views have declined a little more than a half a percentage point since December. Flickr has declined by more than 4 percent, and is in danger of falling out of the top 200 websites globally.
The two photography sites are not quite the same with 500 Pixels catering to “serious” photographers, many of whom are pro or semi-pro, while Flickr serves more of the photo enthusiast and consumer crowd. Yet Flickr’s decline is palpable as consumers fly away to more attractive and easier to use options like Instagram. As a result, for the first time that I can remember Flickr is not ranked as a top 10 social network.
Yahoo! Chases Away Whole Groups of Photographers
Remember when Flickr rebranded itself as a consumer site last year? The new interface has been lacking in my mind (as I noted last May). Load times are slow and the interface was wonky. Yet, this was Marissa Mayer’s grand plan to challenge Instagram.
At first traffic increased, but the new traffic was not the traditional photography enthusiast, semi-pros and pros that made up most of the social network’s audience. It was consumer who used their smartphones as point and click cameras. Meanwhile, the people that made up the more sophisticated photographers on Flickr began to leave for other places.
You know what? That worked for Apple when it stopped catering to the Quark and Final Cut crowd. But Yahoo! is not Apple, and so when the plane crashed this winter, things began to fall apart.
Weekly photo contests suddenly stopped. Load-time issues, upload snafus, and other bugs increased. Auto-upload support for nonpaying Flickr users was taken away. And on the last note, consumers began leaving (because pro-photographers rarely upload scores of photos at a time for anyone other than a client, and when they do they use DropBox or Google Photos or Photoshelter or…).
Can you blame this new generation of Flickr photography enthusiasts? Why bother? After all, other sites are easier to use, have more interaction, and if you’re going to pay, it may as well be with a more reliable entity than a company cutting itself into pieces for an estate sale.
So who’s left after the pro and consumer exodus? Enthusiasts who like to upload nature and landscape pics, often the domain of photography hobbyists. And if that’s what you do, good news! Flickr may still be right for you.
More difficult types of photography — portraits, architecture, nightscapes, monochrome, artificial lighting, etc. — do not perform as well, though. The number of photographers that could create those works are dwindling on Flickr as they seek other networks like the 500 Pixels and YouPics of the world. The feedback is faster and more meaningful there, peer-to-peer. As my friend Richard Binhammer (an infrared photography specialist) says, “My photos seem to be getting more pop on 500 Pixels.”
And event and selfie pics? We all know Instagram is the place for those.
I’m not sure about the latter anymore, but I do believe Flickr still has value. I’m still there and still use it to house my library. I still get occasional media inquiries to use my pics from Flickr, too. I know others like Thomas Hawk haven’t given up, either.
The question is who will buy it? If Google or Facebook buys Flickr, I will be downloading all of my photos that day and closing my account. Warren Buffett would be more encouraging. At least you know Berkshire Hathaway would invest in the network again.
Maybe the right question is, “Will the sale be in time?” Each month that passes, engagement dwindles. Resuscitating a dead social network is beyond even the brightest minds as we have seen with many attempts to restore MySpace (sorry, Justin Timberlake) and Digg.
Whatever happens, Flickr has been good to me and many other photographers for the past decade plus. If it does fade away, it will be missed.
The blizzard of 2016 is upon us. I am hoping the wind isn’t severe during the latter hours of the storm so that I can take some night shots of the blizzard before everyone steps all over the snow. Yes, I know. It’s insanity, but that’s how much I love night photography.
Most photography is about capturing the beauty of a moment or a scene. Light plays an essential role in magnifying that beauty. Night photography is much more than that to me.
Night is defined by the absence of the greatest light of all, sunlight. When you photograph outdoor images after the sun goes down, you attempt to capture the precious beauty usually hidden by night.
How many times have you walked outside in the night and needed to let your eyes adjust so that you can see your surroundings? When light appears it is stark, almost like a splash of paint in an empty negative space.
Today’s digital cameras use sensors that are more sensitive and can better capture those details in the dim night. Many photographers use wide-open aperture settings to try and brighten the scene, often sacrificing detail in the foreground and background. But I think the real value of today’s full frame digital cameras are their ability to read deep amounts of light data across a nightscape at small apertures.
These long exposures can produce fantastic photos. If you have the patience to set up and sit by a tripod with a remote trigger for 1/2 second, eight seconds, 30 seconds or even longer, you can capture some amazing, stark, color-rich night shots.
You will see the subtle oranges of the not too distant day, the blues of an LED light, or the yellows of a tungsten bulb. Shadows dance across the scene hinting at deep colors of green or brown. Stars and planes twinkle in the night sky. Metal and glass reflect the scant light available creating mirror images. Streetlights and beacons in the distance proclaim the nearness of safe harbor if you can just traverse the nightscape before you.
It Takes More than a Smartphone
The beauty of well-executed night photography is exceptional and rare. These pics stand out in a world filled with everyday black and white street photos in photo forums, grumpy cats on Facebook, and selfie shots proliferating Instagram. It is extremely difficult to capture a fantastic night image on a smartphone, at least with the current models (and here come the pics in my comments section).
Instead, a photographer must know her or his camera well, how the light impacts a landscape or an object, and the best ways to capture the essence of a night scene. Heck, in some cases you may even paint the scene with your own artificial light (flood or flash light, for example). Even then, you must know how to edit the RAW file produced by the camera and bring out the color, tone down light flares, and highlight details that may still be hidden in the shadows.
Night photography is truly an interpretation, a visual art form that cannot be minimized by popular technology. You have to have a vision of what you want to see, and you have to know how to shoot.
Here are thee tips beyond the usual (e.g. get a tripod and a remote trigger) for those who want to take their night photography a little further. I will warn you that one of these is unorthodox.
Spend the Time
Serious enthusiasts and pros tend to shoot manual. And as most of them will tell you this requires a balance of light sensitivity (ISO), how far open your lens will shoot (aperture), and shutter speed (length of time it takes to capture your photograph).
In the most well lit situations you are photographing at 1/60th of a second or faster and at a relatively low light sensitivity. Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO vary depending on how much depth of field a photographer wants to expose. These are the benefits of artistic choice in normal photography.
With night photography, to get a workable capture you need to make some sacrifices. You have to shoot with a very shallow depth of field. Or your need a high ISO, which can make your photo extremely grainy. Or you need a low shutter speed, which in turn can require a tripod and trigger release to avoid shake. You may need a combination of these things.
I almost always choose to make my sacrifice with time. I prefer an extremely deep field with lots of detail for landscapes, so sacrificing on aperture is a no-no. And I hate photos that are too grainy, so I prefer a lower ISO setting.
I usually ignore the advice of experts who say to shoot between f8-and f16 to maximize lens sharpness. Frankly, my camera sensors are good enough to make up the difference, and I want as detailed a nightscape as possible.
Most of my night pics take between 5 and 30 seconds. In some cases, long exposures at night can take two minutes or more. This gives me the most detailed RAW file possible for editing. And that in turn allows me to bring out the best in my nightscape photos, at least that’s what I currently believe.
Don’t Spend the Time
There are always exceptions to the rule. In my case, as much as I love a well defined nightscape, if I am photographing the moon or an outdoor action scene, I don’t have the luxury to go for a long exposure. I will open the aperture to f9 or 11, and then try to make up the balance with the ISO setting.
The above photograph is a Super Moon shot from 2014. The photo was shot at f10 at 400 ISO over a half a second. I am certain the focus was on infinity as the shot was taken at 160 mm. I may have done myself a favor if had shot it for 1/4 a second or even faster, and upped the ISO accordingly. The detail in the moon would have been better.
Nevertheless, the focus was on capturing a moon shot that was detailed and yet not too bright. This is the primary issue with moon shots, overexposing the subject. It was a fine line, because I also had to capturing the much dimmer Washington Monument to give the photo context. This was an extremely hard shot, one that a long exposure would have simply ruined.
Another example is when you want a shallow depth of field. The above Little Snowman pic is an example. I wanted the focus of the shot to be on the snowman and not the Jefferson Memorial. With this one I went for an extremely shallow depth of field (f1.4) and let the lens render the Memorial as a bokeh blurred background. CNN, HLN and local TV picked up the photo for their iReport, social media and broadcast properties, respectively.
When to Break the Rules
Digital photographers rely on their histogram to tell them when a photograph is well exposed. Most schools and experienced photographers will tell you to shoot and correct to get a balanced histogram. Some would even tell you to overexpose in a dim situation and correct later. Be careful. Instead, I am going to tell you to make your own educated decision when it comes to night photos.
I have corrected and overexposed photos to meet the mantra and almost every time I am disappointed with the result. Usually, I get a night photo that looks like a day shot or a sunrise/sunset pic.
My point is that if you are taking a night shot, it should look like it was taken in the blue hour or at night. The above frozen river picture was a two minute and 12 second exposure. It was dark outside, really dark. The photo looks like it was dark, too, but you can clearly see that a sunrise was approaching on the horizon.
Below is the histogram.
This chart makes sense to me. There really wasn’t a lot of bright things to balance the histogram. When I went to correct it, the scene looked like it was moments before the sun peaked. In reality it was a half hour before sunrise. Sometimes you just need to break the rules.
I believe this to be true even when things are white such as buildings or snow, like the previously mentioned snowman shot. It is my view that night shots should look natural as if they were taken at night with delicate, yet illuminating light. The histogram should be secondary in the editing process.
Earlier this month, I published my photography portfolio, and opened it with a gallery of my very best landscapes (five of which are featured in this story). I opened with landscapes just like I would most stories these days. Landscapes are one of the most popular photograph subjects you can see online. They also play a critical role in telling a remarkable written story for brands or individuals alike.
Creating hybrid stories that blend the literal word and the visual photo is not the easiest thing to do. When you consider articles and stories, they are often crafted by writers. Or they are published by photographers with few words serving as captions. The two together are rarely deployed well as a seamless rich media story.
Together, in a hybrid pictorial, photos compliment the written story by illustrating and expanding on it. The written words expand on the pictures by providing details. For example, the caption for the above photo might read, “Another dawn on the Potomac, how I start at least two of my days every week.” We move from a pretty picture to personal story, one that may or may not be about business.
Landscapes are central to both groups of media assets. They set the scene for the story. They provide a sense of context for where events are happening, either from a business perspective or on a personal level. A landscape can allude to historical context, and words can expanded on that story.
Opening Stories with Scenes and Landscapes
A lot of people introduce stories with pictures of people. If it’s a business story, we see people at work or an individual person, a protagonist. If it’s a personal vacation, we see people at the airport. Perhaps they start their album with a picture of them at the destination. I personally like to introduce stories with landscapes sans people because it provides a sense of place.
Consider movies that take place in far away lands or in future periods. The first Star Wars movie opened with spacescape. This year’s critically acclaimed Fury Road started with the below epic desolated wasteland. National Geographic stories start with an epic landscape photo. Plays open with the a set scene, and then the actors walk onto the stage.
Instead of another dry story about a woman or man in their office changing the world for their customers, open up the story with an epic sunrise or sunset pic at the office building. Or take a great architecture shot inside the building. If the building is lame, wait until late afternoon and the sun comes in the windows almost horizontally, take an office pic then with no people in it. Set the scene.
If it is a vacation, set the scene with an opening shot of the place you are landing. Then put yourself in it. The above shot of Half Moon Bay was how I opened my Facebook sharing of our family vacation to Hawaii this year. We stopped first in California.
When I told the story of the Trans-Jordan Landfill for Audi, I opened it with a sunrise picture over the landfill. When I filed stories with the Huffington Post and with Triple Pundit on Africa (see header image) I suggested opening them with landscapes. In both cases the stories feature landscapes very early on to provide a sense of place.
The same tool also provides a great way to close the story. By closing with the scene you are providing a cue, the visual fade to black. The above photo is from our last night in Hawaii this year. It’s the beach in Kona. I often think of it as the closing scene to our vacation.
It’s just my personal preferred method of storytelling. Every story works better with context. And a landscape or cityscape is one of the best ways to provide that context.
What do you think of the use of scenes in the narrative context?
It’s hard to believe, but we are in the final 12 days of the 365 Full Frame Project. To celebrate, I will be making a big deal with the final 12 photos starting tonight with #354.
For those who are not familiar with 365 Full Frame, the project was created to add high quality full frame photos to the Internet at a low licensing cost. This was to reaffirm the need for high quality visual assets in the current era of social media. All dollars earned were reinvested in more photography equipment.
It’s been quite a ride, and there have been times that I just wanted to stop. There were other times where I just thought the whole project was super annoying to people.
But I persisted, and here we are. One year later I have published more than 700 photos for the project, only half of which were selected for public consumption (the pug pic is an one of the 350+ outtakes).
Along the way I became a better photographer and a professional one, too. I have been hired twice now by companies as a photographer this year and several others have asked to bundle photography with writing or social media services. So there is much to be said for dedicating oneself to consistent practice, photography or some other interest. Or you could say it helps to develop a third pitch. ;)
I plan to publish a photo book using the best 365 Full Frame photos created over the past year. Anyone who sponsors the project at a $100 level or more will get a complimentary copy of the book. And for those at the $50 level, if you chip in another $50 you will get a book, too. No bull (pun intended).
And yes, after the cost of the books, I will continue to reinvest any 365 Full Frame dollars raised in more equipment. Thank you for your support and on to the final 12.