Repost – Abstract Photography – Ep. 1

Opening a view to alternate realities.

As one of my recent posts, Temporary Passage, generated some questions around the technique that I used to generate the image, I thought that I would repost the series of 3 blog posts that I wrote about this topic in February, 2016.  Here is the first one, the other two will appear in the next couple of days.

Zooming abstraction of a brush pile
Brush Abstraction 1

A significant amount of photography attempts to capture the reality we see around us, often in the best possible light.

As a result, most of the advances in photography have been aimed at achieving ever higher fidelity in capturing this reality.  In digital photography, sensors have become more sensitive causing ISO ranges to expand, white balance is corrected ever more accurately and many other innovations have been programmed into the complex computers that we call digital cameras.

Of course, this is a good thing, as it has allowed photographers to get much more satisfactory results in capturing all matter of subjects under a wide variety of conditions.  Moreover, today’s digital cameras provide their users with a sense of instant gratification well beyond that of even the near-instant output of Polaroid cameras.  The added bonus of being able to delete a poor image has brought many people to photography on a scale that dwarfs the success of even the legendary Kodak Brownie camera.

Butterfly uncovered in variegated ivy
Cryptomorphosis 1

One side effect of this renaissance of photography, is that the digital diluvium of imagery may give one the impression that everything ranging from the mundane to the sublime has been recorded by someone somewhere.  How many times have you heard someone say, as you proudly show them your work, “I have a photo of that, let me show you!”, and they bring forth their smart-phone to show you their record of what you thought you were the first to see through your viewfinder?

I have to admit that there have been numerous times that I looked at a scene in front of me, weighing how I might want to photograph it, and felt the pressure to come up with a novel approach to creating the image.  Yes, each individual photographer views the world in their unique and personal fashion, but is it enough differentiation to satisfy our creative urge?  Personally, I refrained from photographing certain scenes that might be considered over-photographed.  Nubble Lighthouse on Cape Neddick, ME, comes to mind; this may be the “most photographed” lighthouse on the East Coast of the US.  It was years before I came up with a treatment of this lighthouse that told a story that I saw.

Light painting of intersection scene

Rather than replicating the great work that has been done by many photographers before me, I started looking for an alternate take on the world around me.  Yes, I still photograph what all of us see around us in the standard manner of faithful reproduction of the scene.  However, from time to time, I have been doing some experimental photography to try and reveal some of the things that our eyes don’t see, but that are still there.  After a little more than a year of experimenting, and learning some new tricks that can be performed with a zoom lens or through camera motion and careful timing, I have started to pull things together into a more unified portfolio of abstract photography.

Rotated columns with night traffic

The goal of this portfolio is to show some of the layer underneath the immediately visible; a layer that I see from time to time, when I look at the world through more of a mind’s eye.  This view is exposed only when I manipulate the camera or the lens, and never through post-capture processing; also, no special camera software or firmware is used.

These images come to me when I am on location and are inspired by the sense of mystery that I derive from that location.  What first started as pure experimentation has evolved into a new set of skills that uncover previously hidden insights.  An image unfolds in front of me as I visualize it, and I plan an approach on how to capture it.  The success rate is not 100%, but the results are interesting and encouraging in exploring new avenues of creativity that may otherwise remain cryptic.

The subjects that I have approached with this experimental methodology have ranged from fire to flowers and urban landscapes.  Each set of subjects evokes their own, specific set of moments in the space-time continuum that ask to be recorded in a particular fashion; some have rendered surprises and few have been disappointing.  There have been times when several attempts were needed to find the right balance that extracts the correct alternate sense from the subject; each subject has a series of alternate views that can be uncovered through opening up to the flow of energy that emanates from it.  Many more await discovery.

In next week’s episode of TTT, I will describe the details of the process that I use to create the images seen here and in my abstract images portfolio.  I hope you don’t mind waiting until next Tuesday for that post.  In the mean time, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask them.

As always, thank you for reading my blog!

TTT – Creative Juices

Bend a wire to your will

All of us get caught in a not-so-creative rut from time to time, which may be tricky to escape.  It has happened to me plenty of times to the point that I started questioning my own abilities.  And then when you’re under pressure to come up with something creative, it becomes even more difficult.

Today’s post is about what I do to get out of that rut; there are a couple of simple steps that I take that usually work for me.

1. Keep Shooting!

No matter what, do not stop and start over-analyzing!  Analysis-paralysis has never gotten anything accomplished, but action does get things done!

2. Try Something New!

This is the step that usually gets me moving forward, as shiny new things are a lot of fun.  Whether it’s a new lighting accessory that you haven’t unpacked yet, or something new that is around the office that you can use for a shoot (see below…)

3. Take On a Challenge.

There are lots of things that lie outside my comfort zone, which makes them a definite challenge for me.  Additionally, it’s not a bad idea to challenge a fellow-creative to a bit of friendly competition.

4. Reward Yourself

When you do that task that you have set for yourself, remember to reward yourself, as positive reinforcement keeps you going.

Just Paperclips…

This shot came from an exercise that I did to come up with something completely new using a rather quotidian object: the lowly paperclip.  Doing something creative with paperclips required me to think differently, to change my angle of approach from what I had been doing.

Literally, I tossed a handful of paperclips on a black surface, and looked at them for something inspiring.  Playing around with light helped me uncover something of interest and worth shooting; it took about 20 or so attempts to really find an angle that worked well for me and provided some cool, harsh light and shadows.

As a reward, I printed this off on 17×22 paper to get the full effect!  It made me smile!!

Technical Details

This one was all about the lighting, as I wound up using a single Canon Speedlite 580EX with some black cinema-foil to control the spillage of light.  My lens choice was a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, so that I could get these paperclips nice and large.

TTT – Analyzing an Image

Framing is everything

As I got a number of positive responses the last time that I did an analysis of how I made the decisions that got me to my particular take of the scene in front of me, I’m doing another post along this vein with a very different image.

Late Summer’s Day

This image is more about discovery than any other factor, as I found this location while driving through the Harvard University research forest in Petersham, MA.  There are times when one should not believe all signs; on this fine day, I chose to ignore the ‘Road Ends’ sign.  The paved road ended, but a dirt road continued and led me into a forest, where I found this stellar location.

This particular landscape has a lot of beautiful elements to it, but not one stand-out element that I wanted to highlight in this photo.  When this is the case, I like to frame the image, such as with the tree on the left and top, the overhanging branch on the right and the tall grass down low.  Framing provides a sense of looking into the scene, as it provides depth and a sense of looking into the scene rather than at it.

This rather simple trick is something that dresses up many a scene, whether you shoot it in portrait or landscape mode.  I’m looking forward to hearing from you, if you have tried this as well.

TTT – Analysis of a Photo

Cabbage anyone?

In this Tuesday Technique Topic, rather than covering a wider range of technical topic, I’d like to do an analysis of a single image.  Please let me know, if this is something that you would like to see done on other images.

Ornamental Cabbage

This image is rather simple, isn’t it?  At first glance, you see a rather colorful ornamental cabbage.  As you look closer, you’ll notice that the cabbage is sharp in its bright purple center, but that the edges are blurring, as we go away from center.  This is not something that was added in Photoshop, but, rather, a conscious decision at the time that I photographed this lovely Autumn vegetable.

The sharp center and blurred edges have the effect of allowing the eye to leave the center, but always drawing it back in; this makes the image a bit mesmerizing in, I hope, a good way.

The advantage of most DSLRs is that they have a variety of settings that allow the photographer to control the final result of the image.  As the depth of field was the critical aspect, I shot this image in aperture priority, so that I set the aperture to f/5.6, which for a focal length of 105mm produces a rather shallow depth of field; at the distance of just under 5 feet, the focal plane is about an inch on either side of the focus point, providing the effect you see here.

What other questions might you have about this image?  If I have any insight into what you may be curious about, I will be happy to share it with you.


My post-processing routine is pretty straightforward, as I am by no means a Photoshop expert.  On this image, the layers used were (in order):

  1. Base image
  2. Unsharp mask
  3. Overlay at 41% opacity
  4. Levels to increase the pop of the colors
  5. A slight bit of contrast increase
  6. A little extra saturation

Nothing overly dramatic, as you see.

I hope this is of interest to you.  I’d love to hear feedback both positive and negative!  Thank you, as always, for reading!!

TTT – Looking down

Always look in every direction..

This week’s tip is a rather simple one, but one that has resulted in some interesting photographs for me and, I hope, may result in some cool shots for you as well:

Look Down.

During those moments when we look for the grand landscape to capture, it may lie at our feet.

How often have you run into this scenario: you are all set to come up with a fantastic landscape shot, but nothing you see through your viewfinder strikes you as ‘the shot’.  What you do next will determine whether you come up with an interesting image from this location or nothing at all.

You could shake your head and walk off to find another great vista, or… you could look down and examine what lies around you and, possibly, find something rather nifty to photograph.

The choice is yours!  Each of the images on this page is the result of my looking down and noticing something that is worth photographing.

Your mission, should you accept it, is to find something to photograph over the next week by looking down.  Feel free to link it to this post, so that I can see what you came up with, as I’m very much looking forward to seeing your creations!

TTT – Creating composite images – pt 2

Some simple tricks to get us there

In last week’s post about Creating composite images (pt 1), I went over visualization, development of a story, planning the shoot and capturing the images needed to create a composite image.  This post will address some of the post-processing steps to achieve a final result, such as this:

Searching for Answers

Creating the background image

The first step is to put together the background image from the variety of shots that were taken to to get the entire scene, as shown in the prior post.  Depending on the amount of real estate that is covered in these images, there may have to be a bit of fancy processing to be done in your favorite image editing software; I use Photoshop, but there are many other capable software packages available.

Master Image
Image Layers

You see the finished background image here, but it is actually made up of components of a number of shots, as can see in the screen grab of the Image Layers.  The base image is opened to show the 7 different shots that were used to create the background.

Additionally, I did a bit of warping on some components of the base image to get them to stitch together more perfectly, and you can see that I use masks to control what is visible from each image.

Of course, if I had used a wider angle lens than the 85mm f/1.2L, it would have been easier, but then I would have to deal with not getting the benefit of a telephoto, which gives more of a sense of looking into the scene than a wider angle lens would (if it were possible, I would have shot from a larger distance, but I was already in a corner of the library).

In later shoots, I have often been able to get the entire background image in a single shot, trusting the pixel quality of my camera.

After the background or master image is complete, it is time to put our model into the image and have her float ethereally in front of the bookshelves.

The Main Subject

Our wonderful model will now make entrance into the image.

Steph on the ladder

It is rather straightforward to get Steph into the image while she stands on the ladder.

We simply add the image of Steph on the ladder as a layer and, voila, she is there!

Note how this image also changed the breezy curtains to Steph’s left, as the moved curtain was not in her main image.  It is layered on top of the master image, so we need to make some corrections.

You guessed it!  It’s time for another layer mask, which is your friend in Photoshop.

Masking out the Steps shows each of the components that create the overall look coming together with their individual layer masks.

Masking out the steps

A quick note on masking and selections in general.  A common mistake that many people make when first starting with masks and selections is that they try to be very precise, which leads to artificially sharp boundaries. When our eyes see those sharp edges, our brain immediately screams: Photoshop!

In order to avoid this, you’ll want to feather your edges by a couple of pixels.  This causes the foreground and background image to blend rather than delineate sharply.  Too much feathering looks fuzzy, but a couple of pixels usually will get the look that you want to achieve.

So let’s take a look at what we have created in the image thus far.

Steph is floating

Final touches

We’ve got a pretty good image, but there were a couple of details that I wanted to address:

  • The book – it became too translucent, when I reduced the opacity of our ethereal being to give her some translucence.  My fix for this was to put another copy of the book on top, which obscured her right thumb, which I then put on top of the new book.  Part of the reason for taking this extra step is that I wanted to throw some additional light on the book, so that the eye would go there naturally.
  • The floor – it’s just way too bright, which draws the eye to it, for which I used a curves adjustment with a mask.

At that point, I was pretty happy with my first truly composite image.  Over time, I have found flaws in it, which I will edit at some point.  Part of the issue is that I have learned more over the past couple of years, which has made my eye more observant and thus critical of earlier work.  Regardless, I’m still pretty happy with it.

I’m looking forward to hearing from those of you who have taken on similar projects or are thinking about them, and I hope that you enjoyed these posts.

TTT – Creating composite images – pt 1

Revealing the magic…

In this past Sunday’s Shot of the Week blog post, I floated the idea of putting together a post or two on the technical elements that go into creating an image along the lines of ‘Searching for Answers‘.

Searching for Answers


The first step in the process should focus on visualizing the image that you are trying to create.

20130419-Searching for Answers-_MG_6019
The Library

When I walked into this mansion’s classically adorned library, it was rather brightly lit through the magnificent windows off to the left in this image.  After taking a look around there were a couple of items that stood out to me about this scene:

  • Red curtains
  • Old books
  • Classic woodwork

This gave me a couple of mental and visual cues to start the process of putting together a storyline for the image.

A Story for the Image

As this type of image is all about telling a story, it is critical to start with the story.  Having a library full of books, the first thing that came to my mind was that the books might contain answers to questions that may have troubled someone in their life.  What if they never had access to these books during their lifetime?  Could they come to visit the library as an ethereal presence, so that they could search for answers to those questions?

20130419-Searching for Answers-_MG_6033
A Base Image

As you can tell, the imagination quickly adds some details to put context together for the shoot.  A quick check of the available wardrobe confirmed that we had a flowing red dress available, so that the color red could be used as a thematic cue.

Planning the Shoot

When creating a composite image, the most important thing is to have a plan.  Ideally, you shoot all the components for the image at the same time, so that lighting is consistent, which will make the final image much more believable.

At the very least, create a mental checklist that ensures all the bases are covered to put the final image together in post processing, particularly when shooting a square composition.  Here are some things to keep in mind:

20130419-Searching for Answers-_MG_6027
  • Make sure that you shoot extra width and height for the image; other than the obvious reason, you may decide later to adjust the exact positioning of your subject
  • Make sure that you have a complete base image for the entire scene (you can see the central portion of the base image above)
  • Give yourself options by playing with some of the elements in the shot, such as the curtains or books, even when you’re not sure you will need them; you might end up throwing some shots away, or end up using one of them in a way you just didn’t expect.

Equipment Notes

Although there are many ways that good shots can be achieved, here are a couple of equipment notes that will make the process a little easier:

  • Always have your camera on a tripod; if you have a tripod that allows for smooth rotation that is ideal for aligning for additional width to your shot.
  • A fixed focal length, prime lens is ideal, but a zoom lens is workable.
  • A remote trigger for your camera makes your shoot a lot easier (see ‘Positioning’ image)
  • Use manual settings on your camera, including manual focus.

Shooting the Key Element(s)

The most important element of this image is the ethereal presence floating in front of the bookshelves, in search of answers in the many volumes stored there.  The next image gives away some of the magic, as you see the model, Steph, standing on a ladder rather than being suspended through unseen forces of levitation.

20130419-Searching for Answers-_MG_6029
Ethereal Presence

Keen observers will also note that that is my thumb holding her dress in a more floating position.  Even keener observers might see that her head position doesn’t match that of the image at the beginning of this post; you are correct, as I used her upper body from one of the other images.

Next week, we’ll go over the details and the process of editing in your favorite image manipulation program, which is not quite as difficult, as you might think.  I’ll leave you with some of the other shots that went into creating the resultant image, as a bit of a behind the scenes view.

I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction.