Inspiration is always present at the start of any worthwhile endeavor, be it in science, literature, humanitarian projects and especially of course, the arts. Of course, I'm classing the sort of photography displayed on this website as an art, as opposed to forensic or factual photography used to record evidence and so on.
This means that to be sucessful as art, there has to be personal inspiration on the part of the photographer at the time the photo is taken and through the process of developing the image to its completion. This means that the photographer/artist leaves something of themselves in the final piece, some indefinable aspect of their personality that means that the work is truly theirs, and not just the product of the software engineers who programmed the camera used to capture the initial photo.
This leads onto the fact that you have to love what you're doing and what you're photographing in order for the inspiration to flow and for the final image to be based on you, your personality and vision. If you're bored or unmotivated by what you're doing you might well make a technically good photo but it will be a soulless piece of work rather than something that's alive and that will provoke a response in those studying it.
Different photographers are inspired by different subjects and genres. Your inspiration could be the beauty of the human form, the magnificence of grand architecture, the subtlety of a flower and so on. My inspiration comes primarily from my Christian faith, believing in the creator God who made all things well, and I get inspired when I see His beauty and wisdom displayed in the natural world. Dramatic lighting, active weather and movement all get me going, which is why I spend so much time at the coast and in the mountains. It's what I love and it's what I want to portray in my photos.
So where am I going with this piece? Basically I'm saying that whatever branch of artistic expression you're into, do what you love, because only then will you be inspired and only then will your work contain something of yourself.
Still on the theme of inspiration, let's take a look at this photo of a rainbow over the town of Llanberis in Snowdonia, North Wales and see what about the scene inspired me to take and process this photo.
It's worth pointing out at this stage that I'm not entirely happy with how I took this photo. I was driving along a single track road in the rain when my wife Liz spotted the rainbow. The road had high hedges at that point which I couldn't see over so I drove along a bit until we reached a gap in the hedge. I stopped the car in the middle of the road and frantically set up my camera on its tripod, attached a filter holder to the lens and fitted a polariser and ND grad filter, guessing the strength required to balance the exposure between the land and sky. Access to a suitable viewpoint was very limited, and with my car sat blocking the road I didn't have any time to explore and find a better vantage point, nor did I have time to soak in the ambiance of the location, which is something I consider part of my photographic workflow under normal circumstances!
I took this photo while shielding the front of the lens and filters from the rain with a cagoule, and I only managed a couple of exposures before a car came up behind me and I had to throw the camera and tripod back in the car and drive off. Hardly the relaxed contemplative approach to landscape photography that I prefer!
So why did I bother? Inspiration, that's why! The scene before ticked so many of my boxes in one go that I just couldn't pass it by without at least attempting to photograph it. Let's look at what I had in front of me that rainy day in Wales.
The reason why I stopped to take this photo was the rainbow. Without that I wouldn't have risked stopping the car in such a dodgy spot. For me a rainbow is more than a natural phenomenon, caused by the refraction of light through raindrops, it is a powerful visual metaphor relating to the promises of God. Indeed, we're told in the book of Genesis that God placed a rainbow in the sky after Noah's flood to remind Himself that He had promised never again to destroy the earth by flooding. I will always try and photograph a rainbow if I can as a reminder to myself of the faithfulness of God, plus, they're so beautiful!
The clouds in this picture are particularly good. Two of the things I will make an extra effort to photograph are active weather and dramatic clouds, as an interesting sky will make or break a landscape photograph. Of course, the sky isn't everything but to me it is so important in making the image dynamic. A nice bland blue sky, while good for sunbathing holds very little interest for me photographically speaking.
I love mountains. They make me realise how small and transitory my life is, and how precious is the relatively short time we have on earth.
However, to photograph mountains well one needs the right light. The flat light of a midday sun, shining from a clear blue sky, usually results in dissapointment as all the wonderful textures and features are rendered shadowless and indistinguishable. Although this photo was taken in the early afternoon the scattered clouds produced a fantastic light / dark pattern on the hills behind Llanberis which brought out the shapes of the terrain very nicely.
The lake and town
Llyn Padarn and the town of Llanberis on its far shores provide a much needed counterpoint to the green foreground and background. Without this interruption the foreground would merge with the background and the image would lose its structure. Besides, water is something I always try and include in a composition if I can.
To my mind, the foregound is the weakest part of this image. It's pleasant to look at and nicely lit but lacks a definite single element that grabs the attention.
As I mentioned earlier in this piece, there wasn't any time to refine the composition when the photo was taken and, given more time, I would have tried to improve this area.
Mind you, it may not be a bad thing to have a restrained foreground with so much going on elsewhere in the image, and I'm certainly not going to try and alter it - perhaps it will grow on me over time.
To take this image I used my Canon 5D digital full frame camera, fitted with a 24-105mm f4 'L' series Canon zoom lens used at 45mm focal length.
Aperture was f16, exposure was 1/5 second and ISO rating was 100. File format was RAW, to allow for maximum post processing latitude.
A Lee 0.6 (2 stop) neutral density graduated filter was fitted to hold back exposure in the sky and a polarising filter was used to enhance the rainbow.
The camera was mounted on a Manfrotto Magfibre tripod, with mirror lockup enabled and a 2 second self-timer to minimise vibrations. However, I had to lean the tripod against a fence to avoid including said fence in the shot, so it's a good job it wasn't windy!
It's tempting to think that, with such dramatic scenery, no post capture processing would be necessary and the picture would be fine straight out of the camera. Well nothing could be further from the truth.
I have not yet taken a digital photo that didn't require some sort of post-processing, and this one was no exception. The thing is - a digital capture can't match what we see with our eyes due to the limitations of the digital technology compared with the suberb design of our human visual systems. Dynamic range, colour palette, contrast, colour temperature, distortions and so on are all affected by the capture and display mediums that we use for photography, so multiple correction are usually needed just to get the image somewhere near what we saw when the photo was taken.
Once the image has been corrected then that forms the starting point for any artistic interpretations, changes to colour, contrast & composition, that go beyond a mere factual rendition of the scene and add something of the emotions and story we are trying to convey in our images.
Finally the image needs to be optimised for the selected output media. You're currently viewing this image on a screen, which is a tranmissive device operating in an RGB colour space. If you want to print this image so it looks the same (or as close as possible) to how it looks on the screen then further changes will be necessary to compensate for the change to the printer's colour space, with all the limitations that ink and paper impose on dynamic range and colour renditions.
Whew, what a paragraph. Perhaps it would be easier just to show how this photo of the rainbow over Llanberis was taken from a basic RAW conversion to the final image displayed on this site.
The two images above show the basic image fresh from the RAW converter, next to the finished images after being worked on in Photoshop. As described in my workflow page, I use Photoshop master .PSD files to work on improving my images. This way I have a complete history of what I've done, built up in layers which can be switched on and off, or modified later if required. It's a very flexible way to work and one that I heartily recommend.
Anyhow, here is a screenshot of the master file, together with the layers palette that shows all the steps taken to optimise this photo.
Clone - Starting from the bottom up, the first job I did was to clone out all the spots caused by dirt on the sensor. You can't see them in these small images but believe me, they're there!
LCE - Next step is to start putting some contrast and sharpness back in the image. I start with a local contrast enhancement, a technique that I learnt from Michael Reichmann on his website luminous-landscape.com. This crisps up the image and reduces the effect of atmospheric haze somewhat.
USM - Next I apply a small amount of unsharp mask. This is primarily to counter the slight softening effect from the anti-aliasing filter covering the camera's sensor.
Burn in red clouds - This is an odd ajustment, and one I don't make too often. There was a strange red tint in the clouds on the left hand side of the image so I slightly burnt out the red channel in that area to remove it.
B&W - This is a levels adjustment layer that I use to set the black and white points for the image.
Grey - This is a curves adjustment layer used to set the grey point for the image. In this case I used the clouds tfor a grey point, which had the effect of warmimg the image up slightly and removing a slight green colour cast.
Global contrast - Another curves adjustment layer applied to hte whole image to slightly increase the contrast (S curve).
Global sat - A slight saturation increase applied to the whole image.
Rainbow sat - A stronger saturation increase applied to just the rainbow via a layer mask.
Sky - Another curves adjustment layer to increase contrast in the clouds via another layer mask.
Lake - A colour adjustment layer to add a slight blue tint to the lake.
Cloud darken - A curves ajustment layer selectively applied via a layer mask to darken the brightest clouds slightly.
Yellows - A selective colour adjustment layer to improve the colour of the foreground trees and leaves.
Copyright - A text overlay just to remind people who owns the image!
Wow! And that's all there is to it!
All content copyright © Howard Litherland 2009-2019 unless otherwise stated.