Keeping it simple

lighthouse

Golden light at La Corbiere, Jersey.

Most photographers I know are always developing their art, changing and adapting to new subjects and new moods.  They also tend to change in the way they see images, and this feeds into new images they make.   When aesthetic changes are experienced by a large enough number of image-makers, they become fashion.  Thus, a couple of years ago, in landscape work, so-called High Dynamic Range, or HDR, images were all the rage.  Done subtly, HDR simply means properly exposing an image so you have detail in the shadows and the highlights, something that with few exceptions has always been a minimum standard for landscape work.  The trouble with the HDR fashion as it emerged towards the end of the last decade was that the effect was exaggerated until the image came to look surreal.  For me, many HDR images started to be about displaying the technique rather than the landscape as it was revealed by the light prevailing when the image was taken.  Yet it is easy to see how this happened.

lighthouse

Blue hour, La Corbiere

The power of photoshop, and HDR plug-ins like Photomatix, is seductive.  It is so easy to keep on editing, always seeking more impact, way beyond the point when perhaps, in the cold light of the next day, one should have stopped.  I have done this myself, egged on by sites like Flickr and 500px where the ‘success’ of an image depends on its being immediately striking rather than any lasting appeal.  Of late, however, I find myself seeking a more subdued aesthetic, one that I hope is truer to the moment as I experienced it when I took the image in the first place.  These images of my lighthouse muse, La Corbière, are the case in point; simple, minimally-edited captures of brief moments when the light seemed to connect with the landscape in a way that pleased my eye.  They are not clever and they will not win any awards but I begin to find myself more satisfied with this sort of image than any other.

lighthouse

Of course, as with any fashion, there eventually has to be a backlash, and the HDR pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way.  So, perhaps in my love of the understated I am just another victim of fashion’s vagaries…  Has your approach to image-making, or image-appreciation, changed recently?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

28 thoughts on “Keeping it simple

  1. My preference as well (keeping it simple), sort of makes it more pristine, perhaps. Just curious about the particulars of the last photograph above (which is strikingly beautiful) — f-stop, where in the photo you focused, exposure, etc. It has amazingly uniform sharpness throughout. Is it the lens, or the set-up technique, or the post-processing? Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Sue
      I will check the exif tomorrow but the reason it’s sharp throughout is because I focused one third of the way into the image. Applying the hyper focal distance at time of taking the image is essential in landscape work. I very rarely sharpen my images in processing, preferring to get that right in camera. I will do a post on hyper focal distance some time soon.

  2. I much prefer your subtle approach. The exaggerated HDR craze really annoyed me, as does the tendency to convert everything to B&W. Not sure what that’s all about (Ansel Adams wannabes by those who couldn’t hold a match to the master?) But I do understand that temptation to add just that extra little bit of pizzazz. I suspect the real art comes in finding and sticking with that fine line. Or staying true to your unique vision.

    • Hi Gunta
      Thank for this lovely long comment. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about black and white. The right image can be very beautiful in B&W. Mind you, it by no means suits every image. But I do think that there is a place for it, not only in street work, where it has a long, established tradition, but also in other genres including landscape. No harm in aspiring to the standard of masters like Adams either. 😉

  3. I too prefer to keep it simple… I try to capture the moment as I see it through the lens, sometimes it’s frustrating because the shot doesn’t quite come out the way I wanted it too but then I think it’s about adjusting my settings/position/composition etc., rather than messing around with photoshop or others. Love your shots above! 🙂

  4. Couldn’t agree more about HDR – done to death! Love the beautiful colours in your shots, and I keep going back to that last one where the white foam trails lead the eye in. I have to disagree with Gunta – I’m a long time fan of b&w, I love the way it simplifies everything, takes it back to basics of form and tone and creates a whole different mood.

  5. I’ve never been to much a fan of HDR, most probably because the majority of the images on which it is applied look fake, plain and simple. Those, on which it really works, well, they don’t scream HDR, so yeah, I guess I’m a fan of the plain and simple, too 🙂
    I do have to defend B/W, though, also because it’s more than just a fad, but has a long-standing tradition. And of course it can be done properly and enhance the essence of the image or be just a trick to spice up a not so great shot. But that’s true for every kind of processing tool or filter, I suppose 🙂

    • Thanks. Yes, I like B&W for the right image too. I think it rarely works when used as a trick to spice up a poor shot because without colour the composition of the image becomes more obvious. No where to hide!

  6. Bravo! I love these nice, evocative shots. My standard when looking at outdoor pictures is that while some enhancement and emphasis is fine, I should find the image “plausible”. As someone who spends a lot of time in the outdoors, I look at a lot of overly processed shots and think, “No way.” I often get the feeling that there is no real empathy with the subject, with the moment, but a desire to improve on it. It’s not “nature photography”, it’s science fiction, made by geekish gear junkies who don’t really like to get their boots dirty.

    • I suspect that you and I have both enjoyed HDR images without knowing they are HDR, because they have been done subtly. It’s the images that scream their processing technique that get my, your, and it seems quite a lot of other people’s goat. Do you think we are seeing less of that sort of image these days? I hope so.

  7. I agree with you on HDR – I use a little sometimes to bring out the detail in images where there’s a big contrast between light and dark, but the aim is always to make it look natural and hopefully people wouldn’t notice that it had been used. I’ve abandoned Photomatix and turned to the Pro Contrast and Detail Extractor filters in Color Efex Pro which seem to give a much more subtle effect. Definitely not keen on the over the top, luridly coloured HDR style, though am always surprised at how many likes and comments they seem to get!

    • Hi Lucy.
      Thanks for sharing the program you use. That’s helpful. I might give it a try. As a happy and fairly regular visitor to your blog, I know you use the technique subtly. I am sure I have never thought ‘HDR!’ when looking at one of your images. My ‘HDR’ technique is very lo-tech. I take three bracketed exposures and blend them using layer masks in photoshop. It’s laborious at times but I like the control and the laboriousness stops me from going too far.

  8. I hope you’re right about the pendulum swinging back, for HDR and all the other “effects” we see so much of nowadays. Strange how easily people believe they can improve on nature.

    • I suppose it’s an art form and HDR is the photographic artist’s paint. But I think what bothers me is the way the viewing aesthetic seemed to change to accept images that to my eye were simply ugly.

  9. I occasionally use HDR, especially in low light, but I don’t think people could pick them apart from my other work.

    I tend to stay to what I call semi-realistic (contrast, brightness, a touch of saturation, etc). And I often check if the image lends itself to B&W, not because I’m an Ansel Adams wannabe, as mentioned above, but because sometimes B&W fits.

    However, speaking of overly processing images . . . I think Adams would have definitively have played with HDR and the myriads of other tools out there. He did do color work (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Shades-of-Ansel-Adams.html), but the processing was too complicated for the time, and he did not have the control he wanted.

    I don’t think he could have dreamed of the control we have these days, but I think he would have explored it to the limits.

    • I agree about Adams. He would most certainly have mastered photoshop. But your HDR, indistinguishable as you say from your other work, is very different from the sort of overblown HDR that hurts my eyes. The top image in this post is a blend of three bracketed exposures combined in Photoshop using layer masks, so HDR in a way, but hopefully the image is still about the landscape and not my mastery (or otherwise!) of Photoshop.

      • I have shot exclusively RAW on my DSLRs since Jan 2009. I would feel very nervous about doing without it for landscape work. Having said that, I am hugely impressed with the jpegs coming out of my travel camera, Fuji XE-1. But I still shoot Raw as well just in case.

      • Ps have never yet had any success with merge blend HDR in Photoshop but perhaps that’s because I am still in the relative dark ages of CS4. But I rather enjoy the control of painting on layer masks. Somehow therapeutic.

  10. I think it’s only natural that when a new technique, or process is developed, lots of people will want to give it a go. Some will master it easily, and some won’t, and some will never get the hang of it. But like all processes, you can’t use it all the time, and so after the initial flurry of activity, it joins all the other techniques and software that we have at our disposal. It will be just another handy tool to bring out when things suit it, which is what how it should be.
    I didn’t have the money for the software, when it first came out, so although I haven’t tried it until now, I watched what was going on with some interest. I have yet to master layers, so it hadn’t occurred to me to do it manually. I have a low boredom threshold when it comes to computers and software, which is why I don’t keep pace with the technology – it makes me annoyed when I’ve learned how to do something with edition 7, and I have to learn how to do it all again when I finally upgrade to edition 11.
    You took the photo in the library Rachael, I think? Brilliant for sure, whether HDR or in manual.

      • Ok, LoL, it’s not a library, but you can see why in my mind, it was one. It’s the photo of Daunts.
        Daunts

        Feel free to delete the link Rachael if you don’t like it here.
        Andy.

      • Hi Andy
        Ah, yes, Daunts. I wasn’t sure because I have also posted photos of actual libraries. No problem with the link here. That shot wasn’t HDR but should have been. The original shot had blown out highlights in the roof. I took it with my iPhone. If I had checked the HDR button the roof would have been better exposed. Instead, I went back and took another shot to produce the image posted on Flickr.

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