Thank you to all our photographers for participating in the Redoubt Reporter’s Winter to Spring photo contest. It was a difficult selection process, with so many excellent photos to choose from. Following are more of our submissions. Enjoy!
Thanks to Joe Kashi, Rachel “Ray” Lee and Zirrus VanDevere for lending their technical and artistic eyes to this program.
By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Most photos entered into our spring photo contest were technically adequate, but we can learn some lessons from them, particularly about post-processing and optimizing each image.
Although I’ll mention here a number of general ways in which photos can be improved, when we judged the submissions we did not base choices solely by technical standards. We saw photos made with a broad range of cameras, from consumer point-and-shoot models through full-frame pro cameras. No one brand nor type of camera was clearly dominant.
- Poor control of contrast and “clarity” (the micro-contrast between adjacent fine detail) was a consistent technical issue. In a fair number of the entries, overall contrast was too low, resulting in photos that appear flat, without sufficient tonal separation to result in an eye-catching “snap.” That’s not unique to this selection of photos. Too-low contrast was also evident in many of the photographs selected for the most recent statewide “Rarified Light” juried exhibit. Controlling contrast is not difficult when using nondestructive photo programs like Adobe Lightroom. You can use Lightroom’s development module histogram to adjust the photo’s overall contrast range to ensure that there’s a bit of pure black and a bit of pure white. If you calibrate your monitor and printer, then you can visually adjust contrast and clarity using the direct screen image until it’s to your liking. Next, make a test print of the image to verify that what you see truly is what you get. My sense is that some photographs were submitted straight out of a camera without any post-processing. Although that’s quick, it’s usually not optimum. Most cameras do not produce perfect JPEG files straight out of the camera. That’s typically a valid design decision. By setting default contrast fairly low, design engineers maximize your chance of retaining as much data as possible. The payback, though, is that you’ll need to do some post-processing to optimize any photo file. Often, an easy way to improve a photo is by using RAW image file formats along with light post-processing. You might want to take a look at the Redoubt Reporter’s March 7, 2012, article about post-processing at www.redoubtreporter.wordpress.com.
- Another way to improve a shot is by cropping to strengthen a photo’s composition by eliminating dead space or extraneous but distracting details. Again, this is easy to do, reversibly, with a program like Lightroom. Photoshop cropping is destructive, which means that any cropped-out detail is lost forever once the file is saved.
- Turn off the date stamp. Date stamping is fine for family photos and legal exhibits but it’s distracting and out of place for photos intended to be displayed.
- Check your color balance, especially when an intensely blue sky turns shadow areas bluish. Sometimes, though, an unusual color balance can be effective, especially when photographing at night. If you’re using RAW format photo files, color balance problems are easily corrected, at a very nuanced level, with Lightroom or similar RAW converter programs.
- Straighten your horizons and obvious vertical lines, unless you intend that they be obviously skewed for some worthwhile effect — in which case strongly tilted lines are usually best. In some entries, horizons and vertical lines were noticeably tilted but not to the extent suggesting an intentional effect. In most instances, tilted lines and horizons seem merely accidental and either not noticed or not corrected in post-processing. All is easily fixed in Lightroom.
- Some otherwise intriguing photos fell by the wayside when we could not find any important area rendered with enough sharpness and crispness to anchor an out-of-focus area. An overall lack of sharpness can arise for several reasons, including camera shake or attempting to focus closer than allowed by your lens. The solutions are fairly simple — use a tripod or a faster shutter speed, depending on circumstances. You may need a macro lens if you routinely do close-ups.
- Several otherwise interesting photographs had large cluttered or out-of-focus areas in the foreground. I found that to be more distracting than out-of-focus backgrounds, which often enhance a photograph by separating your subject from background clutter, thus emphasizing the subject. Large cluttered or out-of-focus foreground areas have the opposite effect, distracting from the subject.
- We received a number of iPhone photos. Although these photos show an obviously lower overall image quality compared to high-end cameras, they’re often effective. Some of the iPhone photo apps can produce intriguing effects. They’re not to my taste, personally, but others liked some of them and I can understand why. To me, the lack of detail in large bright areas and the uncorrected color balances are more often distracting than enhancing. If you’re serious about always having a very compact camera with you, then I suggest using a good pocket camera with a larger sensor and RAW file format options. Canon’s new S100 is preferred in this market segment.
- Small-sensor consumer camera entries did rather better technically than might be expected, suggesting that care was taken in selecting the best photos and in post-processing them. If you keep your ISO sensitivities setting at the camera’s lowest setting, then consumer compact cameras can often do rather well, at least in bright light. Consumer cameras do tend to show more lens flare and washed-out bright areas, so be particularly careful to avoid shooting directly toward a bright light source, like the sun, and avoid overexposing bright skies and other highlight details.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.
By Rachel “Ray” Lee, for the Redoubt Reporter
The entries in the Redoubt Reporter’s Spring Photo Contest ranged from a mild intrigue to absolute, riveting fascination. Not only were the perspectives distinctively idiosyncratic, the entrants gave good consideration in the way of contrast, color choice and geometry. Choice of subject matter showed considerable quality. The majority of submissions indicated careful thought in essence and detail.
Each participant displayed a personal style and viewpoint specific to the individual, yet with flexibility and variety of element and input. Some participants approached their subject matter in unique and interesting ways that would not have even occurred to me. Some left me in awe, whereas others seemingly introduced me to a new, esoteric world. Viewing the photo entries was a treat, and I look forward to seeing them hung at the Sterling Highway Kaladi Brothers for our June Redoubt Reporter winners’ exhibition.
With such praise naturally comes a certain level of critical evaluation and some general observations, as well. By no means were any of the photos mundane, but, what else would benefit a great artist other than some constructive criticism?
All of the judges concurred that inadequate cropping was a frequent issue. Others would benefit by correcting inadvertently tilted horizons and vertical lines. In some cases, only small tweaks and fixes were needed. For others, don’t be afraid to cut off an inch or two from one side. Several photos contained copious amounts of radical details — interesting sets of colors, shadings and highlights — but all were muffled due to large, open spaces on the opposite side of the image. Vast blank segments detract from all the wonderful information that was initially intended by the photographer. Cropping is something that can save a picture, and it can be done within seconds. Even the simple Paint program would do the trick.
If you’re planning on displaying an image, consider what the people around you appreciate as art. Do they enjoy an enigmatic, shadowy scene, or spaciousness with little detail? People often hunt for subject matter, and those with a passion for photographs and art love asking, “What is it?” or, “How does that happen?” Of course, perplexing your audience shouldn’t necessarily be your primary goal, but introducing enough ambiguity to force viewers to think more seriously and deeply about your image is worth considering. Try to bring something new to the table, perhaps something that seizes viewers’ emotions. Capture a moment of empathy, wonder, hate, entertainment, agitation or excitement. People like to make a connection with a photo.
Make your image tell a story. Does your photo encourage your audience to imagine a scene, or an entire adventure, to accommodate your art? Give your viewers a feeling of inspiration and anticipation. Encourage the audience to think about what the image is, where it was taken, how it was taken, etc. Make people want to think about your photo. Don’t be so literal that you prevent them from free speculation.
Lastly, image blur was a problem with a number of entries. Although intentional image blur, when used properly, can be a powerful part of a photograph, its counterpart (unintentional blur) reduces the quality of your image. This is especially evident in trees, grass, fences and hair. In our dim winter light, slow shutter speeds are often necessary, resulting in camera shake that blurs everything. Worse, if you’re an outdoor photographer, we live in Alaska, and Alaska is cold enough during the winter months that you’re likely to shiver, increasing camera shake and resulting in a lack of sharp imagery.
I suggest utilizing the camera’s image-stabilization mechanism and exercising caution about using extremely slow shutter speeds. Carrying a tripod in your car can help. At a minimum, brace yourself by settling down on a knee, leaning against a tree or resting your camera on something solid, like a wall or tabletop. Anything that steadies your hands and body to reduce camera shake will help.
Of course, there are spur-of-the-moment photos, where it must be captured in that millisecond or gone forever. Hopefully, you’ve already developed good picture-taking habits that help reduce camera shake without having to think about it consciously. In those cases, good image-stabilization hardware is your friend. I do suggest that you take several shots in quick succession (change the settings in your camera to take multiple, consecutive shots within a second or two). It’s likely that at least one will not show objectionable camera shake.
I’d like to thank all of this year’s contest participants for your submissions. All were an honor to view and judge. I sincerely appreciate this opportunity. Many images were quite inspiring to me as an artist and, hopefully, an opportunity to share your work is an inspiration to you and your community, as well.
Rachel “Ray” Lee is a student at River City Academy and has been accepted into the five most recent “Rarified Light” statewide juried fine art photo exhibitions since 2007. In addition, Lee has exhibited her photographs in two shared gallery exhibits and one solo show.