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The Structure of a Photograph

The structure of a photograph is founded on light. It starts out with seeing that light and then building up from there.  Seeing the light however, is where most of the real work behind a photograph takes place.  Some say seeing photographically is inherent and can’t be taught.  I am not of that bent.  I think anyone can be taught how to make great photographs.  There are a number of skills that are required to make great photographs and all of those skill can be acquired.

Ephemeral Veil

Ephemeral Veil

Photography is writing with light and so it should go without saying that a photograph will convey something to the viewer.  What a photograph conveys will depend on the intent of the photographer.  No matter what the photographer wants to say, and whether the photographer knows it or not, every photograph is made from both a top-down and a bottom-up process.

Whether the photographer is conscience of the top-down process or not, it all begins with seeing light.  Something will catch the eye or interest of the photographer and causes the process to begin.  Is the light warm or cool, is it harsh or soft, is it diffuse or directional? What elements are illuminated by that light; lines, shapes, colors, textures? Spatial relationships begin to form between the graphic elements and the geometry of the image starts to take shape. At this point the photographer might consciously or unconsciously start to look at the scene from the aspect of isolation. How can what is seen be isolated from its surroundings or on the converse how can it be incorporated into its environment. This will prompt the photographer to start on a more technical path of choosing a lens to either limit the angle of view or expand it. Not only will the lens choice determine the angle of view but it will also dictate the perspective taken, that is where will the photographer stand to make the photograph.

Once the lens and perspective are chosen, the next decision, although technical in nature, has artistic consequences and this is the selection of the lens’s aperture. The technicalities of photography now start to emerge and lacking the technical knowledge will usually be the reason a photograph fails to convey the photographer’s intent. For now the photographer has reached the bottom of the top-down process.

Tailbone Falls - Early Winter run

Tailbone Falls - Early Winter run

Upon choosing a lens it must be focused and its aperture set to a given size.  It is at this point that the photographer begins the bottom-up portion of the photography process.  The bottom-up process is one of technical skill in working with the light itself – from determining how much light is available to how much to let into the camera and for how long.  And unfortunately it is at this very point that most photographers start the image making process and also where confusion and failure start.  It all begins with choosing the aperture, then based on the light available, the shutter speed is determined and coupled with the sensitivity of the capture medium, forms what is called an exposure.

The aperture of a lens is that physical parameter that will ultimately determine how much light will get into the camera to make the photograph a reality. A large aperture will let in more light than a smaller one. While a smaller aperture will, for that given lens, increase the depth of field and a large aperture will limit the depth of field. This property of optics, depth of field, is the perception of how many elements in the scene will appear to be in focus. As technically only one distance from the camera will actually be in focus – the distance focused to on the lens, all other distances closer to and further from the camera will not truly be in focus. The size of the aperture will either enhance the perception of focus or reduce it.

The shutter speeds determines how long light will be let into the camera to expose the light sensitive medium.  The shutter too has both technical and artistic consequences.  Where the aperture was concerned with the perception of focus, the shutter deals with the perception of time.  Time is an interval over which some action takes place.  The shutter speed chosen will either elaborate time by showing action occurring through the perception of motion-blur or remove time from a scene by freezing objects in the frame. With a fast shutter, in other words allowing light to enter into the camera for a very short amount of time, motion can be stopped and time frozen in that instant.  Conversely, with a slow shutter, one in which the lens is open for a very long time, any motion occurring in front of the camera will be captured as such and give the perception of action occurring.

So as the technical settings are set, the photographer still needs to be thinking about what he or she wants to convey in the photograph and how.  In addition to that, determining the right amount of light to let into the camera is of probably the most important step in the bottom-up process.  Determining this amount of light is what most call exposure.

Unfortunately it is the failings of understanding the basics of exposure, the very foundation of capturing the very light that caught the photographer’s fancy in the first place, that renders a photo unsuccessful.  It is here that the foundation of any photograph is formed.  By observing the light, measuring its intensity with a light meter and setting the tonality of the subject being photographed to a tone that comes as close to how the photographer’ eye sees it, the photographer can start building up the photograph so that it can convey his or her intent.  Once the tonality of the subject is assessed and set on a tonal scale where the ends of the scale are pure black and pure white now allows the selection of the aperture and shutter speed such that the tonality of the subject is rendered as seen in the resulting photo.  With the first photograph formed, the photographer can asses if it resulted in conveying what was originally ‘seen’, and if not variations in either the technical or creative elements will be made until the image is deemed successful.

Tailbone Falls - Winter Run

Tailbone Falls - Winter Run

The entire process could take moments, hours, days, months or even years to make one successful photograph of any given subject.  Learning the photographic process is a long term endeavor.  Learning how to make good technical photographs takes a person on a journey through the bottom-up process of understanding light as a physical quantity, learning how to measure it and control how much gets into the camera and how it will look in the final photo.  Learning how to convey what is seen, or even more difficult, learning how to see in the first place requires a person to be immersed in the light and look at it over and over and cognitively observe how it effects mood, emotion and state of mind.

It is a step by step process that can provide a lifetime of learning and enjoyment.  Taking it stepwise in concise classes or in an intensive immersion in the whole process with an instructor devoted to communicating with light is right way to proceed.  Organic Light Photography offers many such classes and workshops.  In addition if none of these offerings suit you, contacting us about what you want we can tailor instruction to your needs and if not we can recommend other fine instructors that can help you.  It all starts with you.

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Reflections

Reflections abound in our world. No matter where we look we see reflections. The light that that reaches our eyes is merely a reflection, in and of itself, of objects that exist in the world. In fact light, pure light, is invisible to our eyes. There is light streaming between you and the monitor right now as you read this that you cannot see. Light only becomes visible to our eyes after it has interacted with creation. In pure light we are blind and in the absence of light we are blind as well. That reflected light is really nothing more than shade – a mixture of pure light and darkness, and it is only in the shade that we can see. It is in these reflections that we can see all the various shades of color and luminosity. It is in the shade that we can start to understand the world we live in.

Reflections on Pebble Beach

Reflections on Pebble Beach

 

The sage Muhammad Ibn Al-Habib in his Diwan (a litany of poems sung to melodies) has a couplet in one of the poems that has a meaning translated as “Truly created things are meanings established as images.  Whoever understands this is among the people of discernment.”   For years I struggled with understanding why I would train my camera on a certain scene, why I found a particular arrangement of objects appealing, why sometimes things looked better than normal.  After coming across this couplet, I froze.  I finally understood that the images I captured had meaning in them, and I now had to reflect on those very ‘reflections’ to find out what they meant to me, and possibly what they might mean to anyone else who looked at them.  And while I am not sure yet as to what the photograph that graces this post means yet, I do know that the moments that occurred that evening when this photograph was made followed  a downpour that followed a clap of thunder that followed a brisk cold wind on a gray and dreary day.  And afterwards it was as calm as can be.  I have more reflecting to do.

Peace.

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Full Of Light

The world is full of light.  Blink and you might just miss it.  It is all around us. It interacts with us.  It shows us the way and brings us information and messages which we decipher into understandings.  Its source – innumerable physically.  Some so far away we don’t know if they still exist.  Some so close, the Sun, that what arrives here left only 8 minutes ago.  When we see its light, it is the past.   For at the very instant that a message of light appears to our eyes, the Sun has already moved to a new spot in the sky.

What we see in the sky is the past.  The sun on the horizon is not really there, as it has already set 8 minutes ago.  The world is full of Light, blink and you just might miss it – I did say that right?

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Speaking Softly

Photography is an amazing medium to work in.  It takes planning.  Choosing a location is always a gamble.  Conditions change every moment.  The light, the very thing that is worked with, is a living thing that interacts with everything it touches, and yet you can’t touch it, hear it, smell it or taste it and for that matter you can’t see it either until it interacts with something.  I enjoy the light.  I chase after it as often as I can.  Using a big camera, like the 4×5, takes a considerable amount of work.  It’s fairly heavy and schlepping it around can be a job.  It is a slow camera to use.  It takes time to set it up, compose with it, focus it and even photographing with it as shutter times are usually on the slow end requiring a tripod.  Once it is setup, you have an investment in time involved that you want to capitalize on so you sit there and wait for the event you came to capture and hope it was all worth it.  It is very different than a digital camera or even a smaller format film camera.

Russian Ridge

Russian Ridge

 

With that big camera, you wait for the light to come to you rather than you trying to capture the light as it elusively slips by.  Smaller cameras on the other hand allow mobility and spontaneity.  They allow one to capture that decisive moment before it slips away.  And I think that is what has made small camera photography so popular and special, it allows us to capture that “Kodak Moment”.  Even though some of the best photographs made by some of the best photographers in the world were done with a 4×5, there is no denying the versatility and popularity of the small camera.

As I waited that evening for the new crescent moon to appear, I was glad to have a digital camera with me as well.  It not only allowed me to capture and share the new moon in the previous post the same night, but also allowed me to capture the subtleties of light that played in the fog mixing into the coastal mountains.

Softly Spoken

Softly Spoken

Yes large format photography is wonderful and becoming more unique.  It still allows the most stunning prints to be made.  It slows the photographer down in the whole process and, by necessity, forces the photographer to become part of the scene before it is captured.  But with both formats on hand, while waiting for the moment to trip the 4×5 shutter, the smaller format allows me to capture everything that is going on around me.  Do the smaller images compare in quality delivered from the 4×5?  No.  But none the less, words spoken softly can still have more impact than saying nothing at all.  And when what you say is said with light, you’d better have a way to say it.

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The Necessity of Art

These days I make my living as an Artist and Teacher, which is strange given that all my training has been in science culminating in a doctorate degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University.  It was during that time as a doctoral student that I became enamored with photography.  I have always loved the outdoors, and quickly discovered the natural and wild areas of the San Francisco Bay Area when I arrived.  My jaunts into the Santa Cruz Mountains were very threraputic in combating the stress associated with graduate study and work.  One day though I picked up a camera out of the necessity to defend my good word against claims that I could not have possibly seen the new crescent moon when it first becomes visible.  The camera was at first a scientific tool that I used to record natural phenomena, much like any other scientific instrument used in an experiment.  However what happened after that was pivotal in my life.

The light was transforming.  It was alive and changed its mood constantly and it brought me along for the ride with it.

Lagunitas Sunset

Lagunitas Sunset

I don’t have many photos from those early days any more but the above sunset was one that was hard to just toss away.  It had a quality of light that was just mesmerizing.  Light became my drug and I needed to chase after it often and capture it for my own edification.  For six years as a graduate student I pursued the light.  Capturing it as often as I could, wherever I happened to be.  I was an observer, I was a learner, I was a scientist with a tool in my hand that captured light.  Nearing the end of graduate school I met my future wife, who was an Artist and taught art at a local private elementary school.  It was exciting being around her when she worked.  She put her soul into her paintings and it came through in her work, it was her.  In six years of trying to share the excitement I found while out photographing the landscape, no one I knew shared my excitement until I met her.  She actually pushed me to achieve better results and was genuinely interested in the light I was capturing.

Fast forward to a time after graduate shcool, we are married now and things are different.  My photos were now obstacles that my wife needed out of the way.  Thousands of them, stored in boxes, were in her way as she moved through the house.  She brought an ultimatum – “toss out all these boxes collecting dust or do some thing with them”!  And that was the pivot that changed me from being a scientist concerned with observation into a artist concerned with expression.  For nearly eight years I had been in observation mode internalizing the natural world.  Capturing moments in time that caused my heart to flutter or that stole my breath away.  For eight years Mother Earth was the balm of my aching soul.  Now it was time to express to others what was arguably overflowing in my heart.

I have read many definitions of art.  None seem to hit the very core of what art is or what an artist does.  To me an artist is someone who expresses to others what is contained in his or her heart and art is that expression.  It can be beautiful or ugly, joyous or sad, and constantly changing.  By default the artist is a scientist because simply put a scientist is some one very skilled at observation.  The scientist internalizes observations and formulates theories based on those observations.  For the most part the scientist’s job stops there.  The artist on the other hand is also a skilled observer and internalizes experiences as well.  However the artist is also a skilled communicator and expresses what he or she has internalized through some medium, be it visual or otherwise.  And while formal science is fairly young in the scope of time, the skills of observation and expression used by an artist is as old as humanity itself.

The Hunt

The Hunt

Humans have been expressing their experiences through some moving means for a very long time.  Whether it is through pictures on a wall, or through the words of a story teller or author, or through rhythm and tones, the artist relates what is in his or her heart to others in moving ways.  In some respects art is what completes us as human beings.  It brings us together peacefully.  It lightens our circumstances and allows us to escape, even if for only a short while, the rigors of life itself.  It allows us to relate with our feelings and emotions – it makes us human.

In the world of today, where terror, oppression, tyranny, injustice, and greed dominate the public sphere it is even more important that we double, or even triple our efforts to include art in our lives.  I am afraid for the generations that follow me that are devoid of art.  How cold and lacking of compassion will they be?  Disconnected from their emotions like soulless robots running on automatic or worse yet with the intent on set to kill!  Art is not taught in schools anymore due to budget cuts.  It is seen as extracurricular and placed on the wayside.  If a young student has a special talent for expression it is not fostered in a meaningful way such that he or she might make an honest living at it.  It is truly a sad state of affairs.

In times of financial turmoil it is art that gets amputated and left to rot first – it being seen as not necessary in life.  However it is through art that we find respite from the worries and anxiety that comes from tribulations in life.  Is it any wonder that hospitals and medical clinics are chock full of art on the walls?  Illness brings our mortality center stage and nothing is more stressful and un-nerving than that.  And yet through the art on those walls, a climate of peace and serenity can pervade the heart.  Look at any piece of art you have in your own home, and observe how it makes you feel.  No, art is not only crucial now more than ever before – it is Necessary.

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The Last Of Winter

On Wednesday afternoon I decided to take a hike on the very last day of winter. The buzz is that the wildflower bloom this year is early with flowers blooming up and down the state, maybe not as extensive as in years past but definitely blooming. On a good year, Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, the place where photography first took hold in my heart, is THE wildflower location on the San Francisco Peninsula and I wanted to see if anything had started there.

It was a day where you did not know where you ended and the sky began. The air was so soothing that you could not tell that you were actually outdoors. It was perfect. As I hiked along I realized the flowers were nowhere to be found. But nonetheless, the hike was great and the scenery, as always, was comforting.

At about one mile into my hike I detoured and headed to the ancient oak grove that resides on Russian Ridge. As I approached the grove, the sun was getting close to the horizon and I realized that this was the very last day of winter – March 19th, 2009. It was as perfect a sunset as one could hope for.

Winters Last Sunset

Winter's Last Sunset

I then noticed this live oak basking in the last rays of the winter’s sun. It was backlit and was poised against a distant hill that was in the shadows. It immediately caught my eye and I dropped my pack and pulled out the Large Format camera and began to work. Once I finished I also captured this image digitally as this oak was still waiting to leave. Still in its winter slumber, the early warm temperatures and life giving rains were not enough to coax the leaves to come out – but I am sure they will be out to play in the sun very soon.

Waiting To Leave

Waiting To Leave

I then turned to the sun, that golden warm torch in our sky as it sank lower in the western sky I waited until it was just moments away before it bid us, and winter, a farewell and tripped the shutter once more.

Last Moments of Winter

Last Moments of Winter

Then I just stood there and watched the sun slowly vanish beneath the horizon – silently and without any fanfare. And suddenly, the last of winter was gone.

The air, laden with moisture, began to chill as the cold wind off the Pacific raced up the canyons and ravines filling it with a delicate mist that began to enshroud the mountains below me in mystery. Mixed with the final rays of the sun, the mountains blushed as Spring began knocking on the door asking to be let in.

Blushing In Pink

Blushing In Pink

Light has always amazed me. It is everywhere in our world as it surrounds us, but at the same time it is invisible until it interacts with the objects in front of us. Then those objects reveal their many shades, tainted if you will, by the light that showers them. Sometimes they glow while other times they come on harshly and force us to look away as if they are trying to tell us to leave them alone. No matter what however, without light they could not manifest themselves for us to see. Without light we would be in perpetual darkness, lost without direction or the courage to step forward. Blinded and bereft of the beauty that appears due to light’s countenance. As spring is now upon us, the days will soon be vibrant with new life basking in the warm light and calling us to come out and play. Let us join the beams of light as they mingle with the Earth and be happy, we all need that.

Peace – Youssef

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From The Hip

From The Hip 1

From The Hip 1

I had to take my truck in to the garage today for some maintence and to correct a brake problem. I took it in later in the afternoon and decided to walk home. It was only about 4 miles away and I thought it would give me an opportunity to see what lies along the road that I drive nearly every day with my camera in hand. I was not terribly inspired by anything until I crossed a freeway bridge. As the cars whizzed by beneath me I thought it would be cool to try and capture some car headlight or taillight trails. However, it was still to bright to get a photo with the shutter open long enought to capture good trails.

So I walked on. Then I began to take photos of the cars that were pasing me by on the street. It seemed like a good idea, but I did not want anyon to know I was photographing their car. So I began to shoot from the hip. Here is what happened.

From The Hip 1

From The Hip 2

From The Hip 1

From The Hip 3

From The Hip 1

From The Hip 4

From The Hip 1

From The Hip 5

From The Hip 1

From The Hip 6

From The Hip 1

From The Hip 7

From The Hip 1

From The Hip 8

I know… not my usual fare. But I found them interesting. Let me know which one you found the most interesting. I’d love to hear from you – Peace.

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When Photography Doesn’t Happen

I went out today to photograph a seasonal waterfall in one of the lesser known and traveled canyons of the Santa Cruz Mountains.  I had discovered this waterfall in the dry early autumn while leading a workshop through that very canyon.  A ravine termineated at this rcocky drop off and it seemed at the time that if there was enough water flowing in that ravine, a nice waterfall could develop.  So after a couple of weeks of pretty consistent rainfall here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I decided to go out and try my luck with that waterfall.

Well I was right on the money with that terminated ravine becoming a waterfall, although only a small ribbon of a falls, not enough rain yet.  As I set up the camera and prepared to focus it, I realized that I had forgotten to bring my focusing loupe!!!  I was using it in my studio this past week to critically check tranperancies for focus on my light table.  And so it was near impossible to focus the large format camera.  I did my best and then stopped down the aperture to f/90!  This required an exposure time of — 8 minutes!

So for the rest of the afternoon, I was an observer.  Unable to record the light that I saw accurately, I let my eyes, mind and heart record the glorious light that filtered into the canyon and danced with the green ferns, tall redwoods and bare red alders.  And later as I drove along the coast, watching the sun play hide and seek between the clouds with rainbows appearing periodically as cloud bursts occured all along the coast.  The sea was tumultuous with small breakers peppering the surface of the Pacific for as far as the eye could see and it glowed with a luminance that was nearly indescribable.  A truly memorable day that has sparked a longing to return very soon to capture that light forever.

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Euphoria

As a photographer I feel a certain amount of responsibility to record the world as it is. I always looked at what I thought were manipulated photos as somewhat of a desecration. That it was untruthful to portray the world in a way that it was not. I think my first foray with this line of thinking was against those photos that were heavily saturated in color produced by the use of a polarizing filter to make a scene look more enticing than it really was. I have always enjoyed the outdoors and I never saw that dripping off the page color in “real life”. I was satisfied, and in some respects arrogant, in producing the dull and lifeless photos that I knew came out of a camera.

Euphoric Glowing Aspens in Lundy Canyon

Then as I became more serious about portraying the natural world as it “really” is, I railed against the heavy-handed use of the now popular and almost indispensable Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter. Used improperly and you could tell that it was a lame attempt to try to make film capture something that it could not. However, when used properly one could hardly tell a GND was used, and the photograph showed a scene that faithfully captured what one’s eye would see. For at this point I had learned that film was limited, it was a poor medium in trying to portray the world as we really experienced it. What I did next shocked my closest confidants; I whole-heartedly accepted and started using the GND. Although now I was branded as a hypocrite, a liar, a fake. I was shocked. Had I created such an environment around me that I had galvanized people into thinking that what the camera and film produced were truth? Had I built around me a glass bubble so fragile that if I tried to grow as a photographer and break through that bubble I would send shards of broken glass at myself as to render me dead? What had I done?

The more I photographed the more I learned that the camera cannot see what my EYES see. The camera cannot feel what my heart feels. The camera cannot smell, hear or touch what my nose, ears and fingers can. As I wandered this beautiful world with my camera photographing I became aware that I was actually being unfaithful to the beauty that I loved so much in my photos.

Even though I was recording the light faithfully, I was not conveying the euphoria that I felt in the presence of that beauty. And thus I embarked on a path of trying to convey the multi-dimensional experience of being out in nature onto the two-dimensional plane of a photograph. What resulted was sometimes very different from the straight record of light that was present. For now, the images transcended into the realm of my feelings. All photographers, as they photograph, are steeped in emotions at the time the shutter is tripped. Recalling those emotions when looking at the resulting photos at times leaves the photographer somewhat let down as the photos appear lifeless. I had to learn to not judge an image until I brought it into my photo editing software environment and apply the standard adjustments – tonal dialation, adjusting contrast and setting color balance – first. Then if it was still lifeless, a number of other adjustments from applying a softening blur or artistic use of dodges and burns to eliminating color entirely and going balck and white. If, after all that, I can’t reproduce a pale shadow of the euphoria I felt at the time I tripped the shutter, then and only then is the image a flop and destined for the trash can, otherwise known as the ‘Round File’.

And thus, you have the photograph that graces this post. A rendition of the euphoric state of my heart as I stood there under these delicate trees as thier leaves shivered in the light breeze and danced among the sunbeams that filtered through them. Maybe I am not a true photographer anymore depicting the world as seen through the lens of a camera, but now, at least now, I feel that I am finally writing with light.

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Why PAN?

It seems like a strange name, Organic Light Pan for a web journal. Why did I choose that? Well one reason which is kind of silly, but of importance in the branding of my company, Organic Light Photography, are the initials OLP. From Organic Light Photography to Organic Light Press to, hopefully in the future, Organic Light Philanthropy, I wanted the web journal to keep the same three letter moniker of OLP.

This is where the search started in naming this journal. I went to great lenghts of searching words that begin with the letter ‘P’ that would capture the sense of what this journal would serve. My photographic work is in general concerned with nature and the landscape. More specifically I am concerned with our relationship with the Earth as well as our relationship with our Maker.

For one, I find it interesting that the natural world, taken as a whole, is at peace with itself. Everything is in balance and it would stay that way if we did not come along and upset that tenuous equilibrium. Thus I write about that in the reflections that accompany my photographs. I also tend to see that if we open our eyes to how the natural world functions we can learn a great many things in how to live our lives in peace with each other. However to do this, one has to “pan” across all the strata of existent things in the universe to see this. And that is where the name of this journal appeared. I also found it fortutious that in many instances a photographer has to pan the camera while following a subject in the viewfinder.

And so, Organic Light Pan became the title of this journal that aims to extract Insights Through Reflections on Nature. Hopefully these insights will lead us to living in peace with each other on this planet and in peace with the Earth itself, our home and vessel as we are hurled through the universe.

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