Freezing Water

freezing-water-richardson_24344_600x450Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Perhaps unlocking one creative door opens another.

Somehow that’s how I felt dashing back to the Zodiacs to leave Thistle Fjord in Iceland, flush with confidence from my photographic encounter with the bird wing. If I could break through that creative barrier, what other challenges would succumb to me?

Then I remembered the cascading waterfall near our landing site. Nothing huge, just crystal clear waters sweeping past the ancient farm and dancing down over the rocks to the sea. With a couple of minutes to spare, perhaps I could pull off one more image.

First, a bit of photographic background. Waterfall pictures are moving perilously close to being clichés. I say “close” because I doubt we humans will ever lose our fascination with the delights of cascading water plunging dramatically from on high. But … the techniques used to capture waterfall pictures have become standard fare. The most common current rage is to use a long, very slow shutter speed to turn the water into silky, silvery curtains of liquid smoothness. And lovely pictures they are. It’s just that the style has been done over and over by countless photographers. Me, too—guilty as charged.

The method is simple, even if accomplishing it takes a bit of gear. You simply use a slow shutter speed, usually a half a second or longer, maybe up to as long as 30 seconds. The water in motion blurs to become as smooth as glass. The trick is getting that long shutter speed in broad daylight. You can crank the f-stop all the way down, use the lowest ISO your camera can manage, and still not get there. This is where you need to have a good, strong neutral density (ND) filter, which will cut out enough light to make the long exposure time possible. (Oh, and it should go without saying, you’ll need your tripod or a very conveniently placed rock to set your camera on.)

Well, I didn’t have either an ND filter or my tripod along, which—as it turned out—was a very good thing. That meant I couldn’t fall back on my old tricks and would have to try something new.

But there was more than mere necessity at work here. This waterfall, this setting on the coast of Iceland, was all about bracing clarity, energy, and the freshness of the moment. It was not about serenity and peacefulness, which the usual silky-water picture would have implied. Besides not having the gear to take that picture, I wanted something else.

So I went to the opposite extreme, which is often the most refreshing way out of a creative trap. I decided to try totally freezing the water with a very high shutter speed. In this case that was 1/2500 of a second, which turned the sparkling water into crystallized glass, full of dazzling shapes and totally unexpected textures. My eye could see nothing of this. It was the act of photography that revealed the possibilities.

So I kept exploring the nuances, moving closer to the side of the waterfall, able to get within mere inches of the water (without drowning my Nikon D3), seeing how getting lower put the glasslike water up against the azure sky. Held still in space, the water suggested something I knew was impossible: transparent lava.

In the end the image seemed more appropriate to this starkly beautiful land, so raw and new, so of the moment. In the middle of all this my faithful fedora blew off into the stream and up into the pool above me. Then it came swirling back by, where I could grab it, now sopping wet, but a good omen of luck within my reach

Review: ‘Donald Blumberg Photographs,’ Observing America on the Streets and From the Sofa

NEW HAVEN — There’s real life, and there’s media; there are the spaces outside we inhabit together, and there is the screen we gaze at alone. Yet the photographs of Donald Blumberg, subject of a large retrospective at the Yale University Art Gallery here, make the distinction between reality and image feel overdrawn. Mr. Blumberg began his career shooting on the streets of New York, but by the late 1960s he had turned his lens away from real spaces, preferring to shoot the television in his living room. As the nearly 200 images here attest, the gap between one and the other is smaller than you’d think. Outside or inside, photographing or rephotographing, Mr. Blumberg observes an America in transition and in crisis, via a medium whose assumed veracity he never stopped questioning.

Mr. Blumberg was born in 1935 and initially trained as a biologist, turning to photography only after a formative trip to Europe. His street photography of the early 1960s consists of fluent, if unexceptional, shots of a demotic New York: passengers on a ferry, apartment dwellers sitting in window sills, a painted sign for a Spanish-language church.

One day, out with his camera in Midtown, he looked toward the entrance of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The scale of the doorway and the depth of the nave made the interior appear, from Fifth Avenue, almost entirely black. Parishioners exiting the church seemed to emerge from total darkness. The discovery turned Mr. Blumberg’s street photography into something keener, more formalized and even abstract. For his engaging series “In Front of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral,” produced between 1965 to 1967, he would tilt his camera, sometimes as much as 45 degrees off center, and employ long exposure times to black out the cathedral interior. The effect was to eliminate all context, and to turn the worshipers into highly detailed, if physically awkward, specimens in the void. Two women face opposite directions, a sea of black swamping their heads as well as the space between them. A couple, at an acute angle, peek out from a corner; one of them reaches to scratch her head, her arm scything through darkness.

Ingeniously, Mr. Blumberg noticed that when he developed his film, the black line separating exposures on the contact sheet merged into the blackness of the images. Sequential photographs — sometimes shot seconds apart, sometimes long minutes later — had fused into accidental panoramas. These two- and three-exposure photographs, in which children’s heads appear disembodied in darkness, and women and unnatural angles float in space, are by turns comic, surreal and positively jolting. They overturn the principle that a photograph captures a single instant, forming unified narratives across space and time.

On occasions the photographer would blur his St. Patrick’s photographs, and on their own the streaky abstractions have little to commend them. But when a crisp exposure fused with a blurry one into a single panorama, Mr. Blumberg achieved stunning effects. One features a single man on the left of the composition, gazing into the middle distance. On the right are three women in trench coats, faces obscured and blurred into shadow, chasing him like Eumenides. But remember that the man and the women were initially featured in two photographs, not one. Mr. Blumberg has haunted the solitary man with figures he may never have really encountered.

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By the late 1960s, as the country focused more sharply on Vietnam, Mr. Blumberg’s gaze shifted from the street to the screen. He began to photograph his television — with its space age rounded edges — as Washington made the case for war, arraying the newscasts into televisual mosaics. Lyndon Johnson, folksy but serious during the State of the Union of 1968, appears 24 times in a five-by-five grid of TV screens, the center left blank like the free space on a bingo card. In another mosaic, his successor shows off his new cabinet: Richard Nixon is fit and at ease, George Romney’s hair is lustrous, and a corpulent John Mitchell is unaware he’ll end up in prison.

Mr. Blumberg’s interest in the deadening effect of mass media, and its complicity in violence, puts him closer to contemporaries like John Baldessari and Robert Heinecken than to the street photographers he emulated in his youth. He is now 80, living in Los Angeles and still shooting his television. In recent years, he has shown a particular interest in trashier forms of American media, photographing certain television shows with the closed captioning on. We get reality airheads with horrendous plastic surgery, or home shopping channels, flogging tacky jewelry. One series of photographs documents what I believe is an episode of “Million Dollar Listing” (Mr. Blumberg does not identify his sources), featuring a made-to-order mansion of unspeakable vulgarity.

Mr. Blumberg also goes after the televangelists, shooting pastors on megachurch soundstages and believers who pray, and pay, to be cured of disease. There are also vacuous soap operas, professional poker tournaments, Ultimate Fighting brawls, weight-loss infomercials. These new works have a degree of formal appeal — you still see the raster lines of Mr. Blumberg’s old analog television, and the closed captioning isolates an interesting tension between the image and the dialogue. But they are needlessly cynical and put me in mind of no one so much as Max von Sydow’s lugubrious artist in the Woody Allen film “Hannah and Her Sisters,” who spends a night watching television with complete incomprehension: “Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling? But the worst are the fundamentalist preachers. … If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”

There is, though, one recent series of this photographer’s that transcends cynicism for something as disquieting, and as incisive about media, as his 1960s TV collages. On the day that a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in a school less than an hour from this museum, Mr. Blumberg tuned his television to CNN and MSNBC, which he photographed throughout the day. The dozens of images feature first breaking news alerts, then pass to collaged images of slain children, then blowhard pundits, and at last President Obama at the White House, wiping away a tear. “I have never seen him so emotional,” the caption reads. It is a dignified image of the president, especially in comparison to the earlier, more biting shots of Johnson and Nixon. But given the endurance of gun violence since Newtown — a recent example took place on live television — the president’s anger and heartbreak feel as fleeting as any reality show.

Viking Attacks and Group Photos

vikings-group-photo-richardson_33261_600x450Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

While cruising the wild Hebridean seas, we were attacked by Vikings. Beset, we were, by wild men—and women—returned to their ancient haunts, and bedecked in their ancient garb.

Otherwise, it was a nice evening.

Touring the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis had been glorious (as it always is) and the Zodiacs were waiting to take us back to the National Geographic Explorer. Looking like orange-clad doughboys in our life vests, we were facing stiff winds when the Vikings appeared in a side cove. And, glory be, they were a friendly lot, dispensing very welcome hot toddies and looking ever so fearsome in their (plastic) horned helmets. It was a moment that called out for a group photo.

Which brings me (at long last) to my core question: Which is worse, being attacked by Vikings or having to take a group photo?

Being the photographer saddled with group photo duties is made all the worse because many of the hapless subjects feel like they are being subjected to torture and will not go willingly to their fate. The rest seize the moment to play the clown and can be heard chortling and snorting at their clever disruptions. At best it is like herding sheep, and at worst like herding cats. Generally, chaos rules the day.

It doesn’t have to be that way. And sometimes it can actually be fun, as it was on this evening with the Vikings. I quickly surmised that resistance was futile and so adopted the old physician’s dictum: first, do no harm. After all, there was no reigning in this ragtag band. Better to let the chaos run rampant and just capture the fun. If one or two revelers got lost in the fray, so be it. No fancy lighting either. Just a flash on the camera, a couple of quick adjustments to get the sunset glow, and fire away. This is what motor drives are made for.

You won’t always be so lucky. So here are a few tips to ease your misery.

  • Take command. Fear not (or at least, show no fear). Everyone expects that someone else in charge of this mess. Step up to the plate. Rise above the fray (literally) if you can. A step ladder is a quite good bully pulpit, and a commanding voice will generally bring the rabble to attention. Become the focal point of activity and half the battle is won.
  • Organize the bodies. Think ahead about the physical layout you want for the picture. Then figure out an efficient way to line everyone up or move them around. Old time group photographers used to put a chalk line on the ground. When the group arrived they would tell everyone to stand on the chalk line. Simple. You can try putting a row of chairs where you want them (thinking about composition), then grab the first folks to arrive and tell them to please sit down. As more arrive ask them to fill in behind (and NOT to go beyond either end of the row of chairs.) Then grab a few of younger, spry ones and ask them to sit on the ground up front.
  • Recruit co-conspirators. Find a couple of folks to help you on the ground. For instance, the crowd will just naturally want to spill out too far on either side. So grab two people and put them at each end of the line where you want your group. Just say “Stand here and don’t let anybody go outside of you, OK?”
  • “Build” a composition. If the group isn’t too large (fewer than a dozen, perhaps) you can often build a more relaxed grouping. Start by select one or two people as the centerpiece (Grandma and Grandpa?) and put them in a central position. Then start adding people, one by one, in around them. Take people gently by the arm, if you have to, and move them where you want them. Don’t expect everyone to just sort of fill in naturally.
  • Try subdividing. Some groups naturally lend themselves to subdividing, gathering smaller arrangements of two, three, or four people together within the larger scene. This can add visual variety and make things look much less stuffy. (And not everyone has to stand directly facing the camera. Have a few folks stand sideways, then turn their heads to the camera.)
  • Try a different angle. Getting above a group is a marvelous way to see everyone’s face. Just make sure they really get their chins up and look you straight in the face.
  • Move quickly. You won’t keep the group’s attention forever so have everything in readiness. Camera focused, exposure checked, lighting checked.
  • Talk to them constantly! As long as you are talking they will pay attention to you. If you stop talking then little conversations will break out, and then full-fledged laughter and debates. By then you’re lost. Keep up a little chatter and you’ll stay in charge.
  • Make it fun. A little zaniness on your part will go a long way toward easing the atmosphere.
  • Play the maestro. When it comes time to snap the picture, change the tempo and take command. Make eye contact. (I like to have the camera on a tripod so I don’t have to be looking through the viewfinder.) Raise your arm like you are ready for the downbeat and say something like “OK, everybody, we’re ready.” (And be ready.)
  • Tell them what you want them to do. Remember at this critical moment that all those folks have any idea of what’s happening unless you tell them. I like to be really, really plain. I say, “OK, look at me, look at me, don’t blink, eyes open, look at me, don’t blink” while I snap away. The best way to get everybody’s eyes open is to take several pictures. If you need to make adjustments then tell them so. I say, “Don’t go anywhere, but you can relax for a moment.” Ideally, once I get them in position l like the picture to be over and done in 30 seconds.
  • Try something different. Before you let them go take one more. Maybe you can ask everyone to give you a BIG wave or throw their arms in the air (assuming you aren’t photographing the Supreme Court justices).
  • Disband the crowd (and grab one more). Keep your finger on the shutter when you say “Thank you everyone.” Very often the pleasant confusion of the breakup is interesting in itself. Sport teams are particularly likely to come to life in the moment when everyone is being released.

7 Quick Landscape Composition Guidelines

Landscape DetailsVisit most any photo site on the web, and the vast majority of images you’ll see are of people, nature and architecture. These are the overarching topics that are then subdivided – people in foreign lands, formal portraiture, kids, etc. / landscapes, seascapes, wildlife, etc. / cityscapes, isolated iconic buildings, close ups of buildings and their reflections, etc. While the text and sample images of this article focus on landscapes, the same principles can be applied to most of the listed subjects above. So study the following hints and tips and think how you can substitute Subject A, B, or C into each.

It’s All About the Light: The most dramatic light occurs at sunrise and sunset. The color is warm, it reveals shape and texture due to the low angle, and if there are clouds, the colors can be spectacular. While being out at sunset isn’t much of a sacrifice, getting up at the crack of dawn can be a struggle. But if you don’t, you’ll miss some of the best light of the day.

Think Small: Landscapes are commonly photographed with wide angle lenses to take in the grand scenic. While this is an absolute requirement, don’t overlook the intimate landscape that lies at your feet. Look to the right, to the left, and down. The shot of the day may be a macro just twelve inches from your big toe.

Filter it: Two filters I never leave home without are my polarizer and graduated neutral density. The polarizer saturates a blue sky and removes glare. Without it, my skies lack contrast and my colors aren’t as rich and saturated. The graduated neutral density allows me to create a perfect exposure of a bright sky and shadowed foreground. A 2 stop soft edge is the most versatile, although I own many other variations.

Rule of Thirds: I prefer to call it the Guideline of Thirds in that there are times when you can break it successfully, but for the majority of photographic situations, it will help. Getting the main subject out of the center of the picture provides a better image. Note the key focal points in each of the three photos that accompany this article. None are bulls eyed.

Touch of Color: Take a look at the image made in Bryce Canyon. The tree stands out for three primary reasons – rule of thirds / different texture / different color. In what would have been a monochrome image, the tree is used as a color focal point. As it’s so different from the rest of the subject matter, even though it takes up a small portion of the picture, it’s the primary subject.

Wise Use of Depth Of Field: If you want foreground to background sharpness, strap on a wide angle, stop it down to f22 and focus one third ito the image. This works great for showing the vast landscape. On the other hand, if you want a single flower to be the focal point, do the opposite. Strap on the telephoto, focus on the given bud, and open the lens up. This will create a selective focus look wherein just a single plane is sharp leading the viewer to that spot.

Leading Lines: Leading lines bring the viewer to the primary focal point. They can be zig zag, bending, or diagonal, but should relate to the context of the overall image. In the coastal sunset shot, I used a wide angle and placed the lines of the flowing river and reflecting sun in the foreground. Note how they follow a bending path up to the shoreline and then to the seastack and sunset.