Plugged In: Straight photos vs. abstract are point of fact

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

The obvious purpose of taking photo gear on a trip is taking photos, preferably good photos of memorable trips and places. That’s our first topic this week.

Generally, most of us take vacation photos as memories of our trip. So it makes sense to first capture photos of ourselves and those with whom we are traveling. Too often, people tend to just take photos of impressive buildings, art works and landscapes, whose identities and locations fast fade from memory. Take photos of those impressive buildings and landscapes, of course, but be sure that you humanize them and make them real memories by including your family and, if possible, yourself. Also take some wide-angle photos to show the overall area.

Face-recognition focusing can be very useful in these situations, but be sure to reset the camera to your normal focus mode after you’ve made those people pictures. To include yourself, you’ll need either some stable spot to place your camera, set to the “Drive” feature self-time, or a helpful passer-by.

As we discussed last week, a large digital SLR-style camera may not be the best choice when traveling, even though it’s likely to have the best image quality. Hulking black cameras tend to attract unwanted attention and cause people to freeze up compared to smaller, less-obtrusive cameras, like premium compact or compact-system cameras. Digital SLR cameras are also rather cumbersome to carry around for days on end. However, regardless of which camera you take, be sure that you definitely know how to use it before departing.

Generally, using on-camera flash usually doesn’t work very well for many travel photos. The flash built into digital cameras is typically quite weak, not effective much beyond 6 or so feet, overexposing closer details, like faces, while underexposing anything in the background. To make matters worse, when you use flash, the camera closes the lens aperture more, resulting in photos that are even more underexposed and, hence, darker. Available light photography usually works better in most dim-light situations so long as you are careful.

The best available light approach for the average traveler is to turn off the flash unit and set your camera to “Auto ISO” and to the “P” Program mode. Turn on image-stabilization, brace yourself to reduce blurring from camera shake and then take your photos. If possible, set your camera use an RAW plus JPEG file format because that will give you many more correction options later if you post-process images on your computer using Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture or similar programs.

Also, set your camera to “bracket” exposures, taking three or more shots each time you press the shutter-release button, with the first photo set to the camera’s calculated exposure and the two or more additional exposures set to brighter and darker exposures. One of these exposures should work well. When not doing critical work, I’ll set my bracketing exposure variation to .7EV and a total of three shots. If I need a more finely tuned exposure, then I’ll use a five-shot bracket with exposure intervals set to .3EV.

Photos courtesy of Joe Kashi. Figure 1 is the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Photos courtesy of Joe Kashi. Figure 1 is the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Figure 1 shows an early evening available light shot of the interior of the famed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. This photo would not be possible with flash for many reasons. On-camera flash units do not have enough power to light up this grand space and, in any event, would overexpose nearby objects while underexposing more distant ones. We’ve posted this photo only on the Redoubt Reporter’s website because newsprint, as a low-definitional medium, simply cannot reproduce the subtle colors and shadows present even in a web resolution version of this photo.

The Notre Dame photograph’s interest results from the subtle details of the available light playing against the cathedral’s walls and from the evening light coming through the stained glass windows. Using a flash sufficiently powerful to light the distant walls and windows would ruin the photo. Further, it’s a common misconception that one can use a flash to capture transmitted light such as the light through the stained glass windows. It doesn’t work.

Before traveling, experiment with your camera to determine the highest ISO setting that works well with the camera and then manually set that ISO sensitivity when the light’s too dim for shooting at lower ISO sensitivity settings. I was surprised and pleased to find that my somewhat older Olympus E-P3 and Canon S100 both did well at ISO 1600, showing good sharpness and relatively low image noise.

However, beyond ISO 1600, there’s too much image noise and too little sharpness for my taste, given my preference for making big, exhibition-grade prints. Those high-ISO images are certainly usable, though, for smaller printed snapshots and for display on a computer monitor. You will simply need to experiment and find the highest ISO setting at which image quality remains adequate for your particular needs.

Also experiment and find the slowest shutter speed where your camera’s image stabilization hardware reliably prevents blur under similar circumstances. Remember that moving objects will blur at slow shutter speeds, so slow shutter speed available light photography works best for static subjects like buildings. In dim light, set your camera to its shutter-speed priority mode (usually labeled “T” or “S” on the mode dial), set to the slowest shutter speed you’ve previously determined to be reliably free of blur, and then let the camera adjust the lens aperture automatically.

  • Tip: Image quality is always better at the lowest ISO setting that allows you to use a lens aperture that provides sufficient sharpness and depth of focus for the particular situation and a shutter speed that’s fast enough to avoid blur. If in doubt about whether your aperture and shutter speed are OK, then you’re usually better off increasing the ISO sensitivity to a higher setting that’s within the range you’ve found acceptable.
  • Tip: If your camera includes a built-in GPS, then enabling the GPS may allow you to later determine the specific building or scene in your photo. The GPS embeds location coordinates in each file’s hidden EXIF data fields. The downside is reduced battery life.

Travel photos are usually highly realistic documents of where we’ve been and what we’ve done. After all, that’s why we make travel photos. On the opposite end of the photographic spectrum, some highly realistic, unmanipulated images often appear abstract simply due to choice of subject, light and cropping.

Abstraction takes many forms

Every photograph is, to some extent, an abstraction, even the most apparently “realistic” documentary images. Photos are flat two-dimensional representations that basically show an excerpt from the larger, 3-D context of the real world. Some sharp, highly representational photos, though, appear more “abstract.” It’s usually a matter of seeing, selecting and photographing apparently abstract images in the commonplace of everyday life.

What such images have in common is the extraction of fundamental ideas from a larger whole. In the same way, “abstract” art focuses upon the primary importance of line, tone and structure and how these may interact so that they’re visually pleasing or intellectually stimulating in a way that’s independent of whatever objects are actually depicted.

The very act of photographing something requires the photographer to “abstract” an image, taking a portion from a greater whole and deciding what will be included, and what will be excluded. That’s an implicit decision about what’s important and what’s not. The late Barry McWayne, a highly regarded Alaska photographer and former Ansel Adams assistant, put it succinctly and clearly: “It’s all about where you stand and where you place the edges of the frame,” he said.

Strong photographs frequently require tight cropping, excluding all but the main subject and fundamental theme, for maximum impact. Your point of view and placement of the edges inevitably reduces any subject to a flat, 2-D image. The more tightly that you frame and crop the overall scene, or the more closely you focus upon some essential detail, the more closely your photo approaches both a conceptual and a visual sense of the abstract.

jk Figure 2 - wet paper tablecloth in BWFigure 2 looks very abstract to most people, many of whom wonder if it’s an aerial photo of a mountain range, brain tissue, or some other highly esoteric subject. It’s not. Figure 2 is merely a close-up photograph of a paper tablecloth that’s puckered because some water was spilled on it. By framing the image so tightly that none of the surrounding picnic area context was visible, this image takes on an abstract quality due to its strong and unusual texture, which I accentuated by increasing contrast and “clarity” when post-processing the RAW format image file.

Figure 3, eroded glacial sediment in Turnagain Arm during low tide.

Figure 3, eroded glacial sediment in Turnagain Arm during low tide.

Figure 3 appears to be minimalist art, dominated by a single strong line. Again, this is a highly representational photo, in this case of some eroded glacial sediment in Turnagain Arm during low tide. By eliminating the surrounding water and mountains with a powerful telephoto lens, I framed a highly realistic photograph that appears abstract because it’s dominated by that single erosional feature.

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,


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Filed under photography, Plugged in, travel

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