Saturday, January 25, 2014

Winter work. Felling trees for firewood

Often these winter days I hear the sound of chainsaws and the crash of falling trees around my neighbourhood. It is the season for the provident to begin the labour of making firewood that will be stacked and dried, ready for the stove that will heat our homes all next winter long. Of course, some of those chain saw sounds seem a little desperate so perhaps there are those who are making wet unseasoned firewood for this winter too. A little smugness on my part is my reward for being a forward thinker.

I was talking to a hitch hiker the other day who lives on a trimaran in Burgoyne Bay and we got to thinking how backwards the great mass of city folk really are (a favourite topic among folk out on the margins). They would look down on my passenger, living rough on an anchored boat, taking his life in his hands every time he rows his dinghy ashore or back again through wind and wave, but our point is that that the further one lives off the grid the better skills, the more care and organization one needs. He too heats with wood, cut from beach logs and prepared well in advance, and his ability to survive all winter out in the cold, tossing bay depends on it. Imagine, good firewood is the key to life itself.

Today it was my turn to sharpen my saw, collect my wedges, and sledge hammer and approach the two trees I had selected some month's before. Heather stood far back, cell phone ready to call 911 if things went wrong, as I made my cuts and pounded in the wedges and finally brought my beauties crashing to the ground. Ah, such satisfaction, such a pleasant feeling of participating once more in the seasonal round of work.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Light. Direct lighting: would it were that simple.

I'm sure that all of us have reached for our camera when the evening sun has burst out from the clouds and dramatically high-lighted the scene before us. Rich, warm light, strong shadows, dramatic contrasts, - we have another sunset photograph to add to all the others. It is is such a powerful lighting effect that our photo is arresting even though it may not be perfectly composed in other respects. Lighting in all its forms is key in photographs. Variations on direct lighting* like this are actually somewhat complicated though.

The sun is still just below the horizon, it is a cold frosty morning at the Fulford Docks, and hoar frost coats the deck boards. This twilight lighting is transitory and precious for a photographer. The sky overhead vibrates, casting a blue sheen over the white frost and altering the shadowy red guard rails towards the purple end of the spectrum. The warm colours of the distant sunrise provide direct, warmer light and contrast, each area of warm and cool * emphasizing the other.

A big stump lies on the beach, the light coming from the mid morning sun, is directional and creates interesting shadows which defines the form. But the sun has only just now emerged from a fog bank and the light has a special quality that comes from the remaining fog particles in the air; it is partially diffused and partakes also from the blue sky overhead and from the softer white light from the fog bank in the background. It is actually more complicated than it may at first appear. And that makes this moment special.

*Warm and cool contrasts. In designing with colour, one of the useful aspects is the effect of warm versus cool. Warm being in the red quadrant of the colour wheel and cool being in the blue. One extra effect is that warm colours seem to advance towards the viewer and cool recede, so for example, a warm colour in the foreground set against a cool background ( even greys can be warm or cool) will increase the sense of depth dramatically. Your whole image may be about these colour effects. Try it out.

Direct v's diffused light. Often, as you see in these photos, there is a combination of these two. Direct, is light in a flashlight beam, a single point source. Sunlight is like a flash light and has intensity, colour and direction. Like a flash light which is covered with a tissue, the sunlight can be diffused by cloud, fog, and other particles in the air. The sun at noon is more intense and whiter, and at dawn and dusk less intense and warmer. Winter light on a sunny day seems washed clear and cold, and on a summer day warm and partially diffused by particles in the atmosphere. Heavily diffused in fog, the direction may seem to be from the whole atmosphere and shadows almost disappear. Sunlight through fog may pastel the colours. It is through an intense study of light that we become better photographers.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Canoeing down the Amazon

This is a copy of the first of a series of entries that will tell the story of Bill and Heather during their CUSO days in Guyana SA. Here we are canoeing down the Amazon and hoping to get back to Guyana to begin our new assignment in the Rupununi district where we will be teaching and running a hostel. Rather than place these amid other material here in Dragongate, I have established a new blog called Dragonish. So please come over there to read the exciting story that eventually comes to an abrupt end in the aftermath of a failed revolution.
Find the link to Dragonish down to your right among the companion blogs.

Canoeing down the Amazon
Guiding the canoe through the snags

Moonlight sparkles on the Amazon River, the high banks and overhanging trees are inky black and the current sighs and ruffles the smooth surface. All is silent in the perfumed air as our long dugout canoe drifts sideways downstream very close to the high river bank. Lovely, yes, but oh so dangerous!

Two days earlier we had arrived in Iquitos by plane from the coast of Peru only to find that the only flight further down river to make connections with Manaus had just left. That was it for a week, and we needed to begin teaching in Guyana and my wife Heather’s mother, Ruth, travelling with us on a holiday trip around South America, had a ticket for her flight home to Canada. We found an English speaking person who arranged for this long canoe ride down river to Leticia where we could catch a flight on to Manaus. Two Amerindian men, a canoe with a big Swedish outboard engine perched on the stern and a banana leaf covered shelter amidships were to get us there in time. We paid some money to our fixer and negotiated how much to pay at the end of the trip. We roared down river all day, stopped for lunch at an Amerindian house for smoked Peccary and carried on.

Occasionally the engine stopped for a while, but eventually started again. Ruth also desperately needed 'rest stops' as she had picked up an intestinal bug. 'Es necessario', I would beg as our crew showed great reluctance to stop their outboard engine yet again.

Into the night we rushed and then the engine stopped; on purpose this time. SHHH, our crew said and pushed us gently down under the shelter. We drifted silently through a riverside town; barking dogs, but no calls to HALT, no flying bullets, as we slipped past the military check point. Again we rushed down river, and then another break down. Another day passed, pretty much a repetition of the first. Another night!

The crew came forward to ask me about the MONEY. The river was dark, wide and lonely, we were very vulnerable here. My Spanish was of the sort that comes from failing it miserably in University, but I was able to explain that yes they would be paid at Leticia, and that we were CUSO volunteers who would be teaching at a school for 'los Indios' in Guyana, far to the north. Phew, back to working on the engine.

This latest breakdown however has us drifting towards a newly slumped section of the river bank, leaving branches and tree tops sticking up out of the swiftly flowing water. The crew, heads down over the engine on the stern, seem oblivious to the danger so I pick up a paddle in the bow, take a few strokes to turn us stern foremost and begin to weave us through the labyrinth of snags. The men glance back, nod and resume work. Paddling a canoe is a skill I learned as a child. Who knew that it would come in so handy! We edge back out into the wide river and eventually the engine roars back to life. This would be a high point in most adventures, but by now it is just another moment of adjustment to the needs of the day in what is turning out to seem an eternity.

The next morning is our date with Leticia and the scheduled flight downriver to Manaus. At each bend the crew smile and call “Leticia”, but of course it is just another jungle covered bank of vegetation. We are all very tired, mosquito bitten and feverish. “Yeah, right!” we think even as we smile back. Eventually though, it does appear and quickly we pay off our crew with many thanks and hurry into town. We change our money ( we are now in Columbia), take a taxi to the dirt airstrip and immediately jump on board our DC3. A near thing, but with a roar we are off. We spend all that day hopping in and out of jungle clearings all the way to Manaus.

The next morning it turns out that the scheduled weekly flight direct to Guyana is full of tropical fish, - no room for us. Another problem to solve. We are sick from a tropical fever that will remain our weekly companion for the next few years. We do not have enough money for the long way around via Belem at the mouth of the Amazon and then the Pan Am flight north along the coast to Guyana. The Brazilian currency devalues that day! The banks are closed! Prices remain fixed at the old rate. We exchange our last US travellers cheques on the black market! Now we can just pay for our flight!

We do eventually get to Guyana on time and in one piece and see Ruth off on her plane home to Canada. We then rush about making plans and buying groceries for our next teaching assignment in the Rupununi District of the remote interior. Looking back to those years in our early twenties it is interesting how experience played such an important part. After a year teaching on the coast of Guyana we were well acclimatised to tropical conditions and to living in a 'developing' country. We could get along using lots of smiles and good will with people of all stripes. We had our camping and adventuring background from Canada. We had visited our next assignment twice already. Now we had our travels around South America, including our trip by canoe down the Amazon to add to our portfolio. We were not really prepared for the responsibilities we would face but were confidently ignorant. We were ready as possible to begin our next assignment.

Perhaps ignorance would turn out to be our best defence in the turbulent months that lay ahead.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Finding light in the dark places.

You must be AWARE.*
Hans Hofmann

Sometimes we see the perfect photographic opportunity and snap away only to find later that low light has messed up our image. Our camera, if on auto iso, may have simply boosted the sensitivity to the point that we have little coloured dots over everything. If we have set our iso to say 200, we may find that our camera has automatically slowed the shutter speed to balance things up and we have a blurred image either from subject movement or ( most likely), camera shake. The program in the camera is trying to produce a 'normal' looking image from an abnormally dark subject and we must find a way to work around this. (The best computer is the mind itself.) If we use exposure compensation to override this problem, closing the aperture some more, we get a darker, low key*image that will match the feeling of the scene.

In most cases however, we find that there is no substitute for a well exposed photograph and to get that in low light conditions requires adding more light, either artificially with lights of various sorts ( don't forget the humble flashlight), a flash unit, or by redirecting light by way of a reflector. Here are some examples.

 Practising with my Speedlight, using a tripod and myself as subject, I chose the dark shadowy area beneath some cedars. I set the camera time exposure for a 10 second delay ( I also have a remote shutter release if needed.) and stepped quickly into position. I chose to bounce the flash to one side so it would reflect back on the subject from a side angle. I have a 4x4 foot piece of white hardboard as a reflector for this purpose, but this time choose to bounce the flash off a cedar tree instead. The resulting lighting is softer, more diffused, (because the reflecting surface is textured bark), and matches the reflective pose I have struck.

One can bounce a flash off anything; but it will reflect the colour of what you bounced it off. In my studio I once got a lovely golden glow from bouncing off the varnished inside of my wood and canvas canoe! Of course I use my on-camera flash if I must, and have experimented with using tissues as a diffuser or a small mirror to bounce off the ceiling or wall.

My grand daughter is down at the beach, the morning sun is glancing off the ocean and beach stones. She squints, her face is broken into strongly defined areas of light and dark. And then she steps under some dark trees. The reflected light off the beach has bounced into the shade. Perfect! If the light had been off calm water, it would have been strong and glaring but here the pebbled surface of Beddis Beach formed just the right reflector.

The more we experiment with light in a purposeful way the more possibilities we become aware of for our camera work. We also experience the world in a more intense way and whose to say which in the end is the more important.

*Low and high key are terms that describe the general effect of the light in your image. High key would be at the upper end of the tonal scale and low key, as in the forest photo, is at the lower end. Matching the tonal scale to your subject is always one aspect of making an image that communicates what we perceive the subject is all about. This image is all about the darkness under the trees, not about the trees in themselves which are the subject matter.

* Hans Hofmann taught painting, but much the same attitude applies to the other visual arts as well. No matter how much equipment we have, our effectiveness as a photographer still hangs of our ability to be aware, super aware, of our surroundings. That awareness has multiple part to it; how we 'know' the world determines what we are able to 'say' and how acutely our senses are honed, our awareness, determines what we are able to see. And seeing is the key to all.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Walking in a Winter Wonderland. The difference between subject and subject matter.

We have been listening to carols for the last few days on the radio and on CDs. ; a mixed blessing, this combining a variety of different songs for different tastes. A few day's ago we had several inches of snow which transformed our forested property into a beautiful, if dangerous, 'winter wonderland' ( dangerous, because of falling branches and trees laden with heavy wet snow). I had such mixed emotions as I headed out with my camera because some images would end up being pretty snow photos just like the saccharine carols we have been listening to and it could be difficult to find something original to say amid all that splendid white stuff. Because snow is transformational in our dark green winter rainforest, from the first fragile perfection of early morning - the flakes still sifting down through the tree tops -, to a dripping disintegration later in the day as the warm front filled in, there was plenty of subjects available.

The idea that the subject of the image is not necessarily the same as the subject matter is a novel thought for many when they bring their cameras up to take a shot. The subject may be philosophical or scientific, newsworthy or emotional, but the subject matter in front of the camera is chosen to represent that broader viewpoint. We are aware of this in written work be it a novel or popular song: a theme/subject of loneliness, for example, is expressed by subject matter, “Hear that whistle blow”.The snow of early morning in its perfection can offer a different subject than the same snow sliding off branches and puddling on the ground later in the day.

When we take our photograph we need at some level at least, to be aware of the expressive potential of the subject matter, and compose our image, even as we take it, so that our communication is clear. Without words to make our intention more precise, a photograph can be interpreted in a variety of ways, so everything we can do at the design stage to emphasis our intended subject is important. Thinking about the tonal range, (the amounts and placement of darks or lights in our viewfinder), considering the colours with their emotional values, and planning our image so that the textures, forms or lines contribute and do not distract, is what makes photography challenging and interesting over the long term. Taking a photograph is dead easy, but making one that is interesting and communicates clearly is an endless challenge. 

This business of expressing the subject through the subject matter is challenging for me because sometimes I am only dimly aware of my real subject. I am attracted to certain subject matter, frame it carefully and later I process it in 'Lightroom' as though I know what I am setting out to say, but if asked I realize that my subject is still only partially conscious and that much of my creative thought is below the radar. It is in struggling to make my process conscious that I develop my Self as well and that is a long and rewarding path. It could be said that I make photographic images and that they in turn develop me.

Ethical Photography. Simply Sensible

“There is such a thing? Ethical photography is probably some plot to restrict my right to photograph anything, anywhere, in my own neighbourhood or around the world. Yeah, I got my rights!”
That, believe it or not, is the fossilized belief system of many photographers today who resist any restrictions on their snapshots. We see them in the park, on safari, in the markets of third world countries, lining up great shots, sticking their cameras into people's faces or grabbing their images from afar with telephoto lens. It is as though they think themselves armoured and invisible behind their cameras. They certainly seem to consider the people around them as just another photo-trophy. How dare they!

Remember when smoking in public was viewed in the same way? How often did we have smoke blown into our faces and our food in a restaurant or at the family dinner table? There seemed to be a right to do that and non-smokers were the sissies. Times changed though and one of the most effective anti-smoking campaigns focused not on the obvious health risks, but on how disgusting that habit really was.

The camera itself has no morality. Because we can photograph anything at all, we do. Pornography, for example, is a multimillion dollar industry and pictures of children being used for these purposes are common enough. Most of us would draw the line at this kind of unethical behaviour, but exactly how far down the field do we place the goal posts for the average photographer?

One of the most obvious ways to deal with this dilemma is to ask permission first ( not second). Yes, that informal pose may be lost, but this is not wildlife photography is it? We may be asked to pay for our photo, but if so we can also get signed permission and that would place our interaction with our subject on a more equal footing. Snapping people's images wholesale is an unequal interaction. The image of the 'ugly North American', cameras draped around his or her neck, photographing 'local colour' is one of disrespect and that is how many people receive it. There are of course legal considerations as well which vary from country to country, but I wonder if, like warnings of the health risks of smoking, these alone will not convince people that are already hooked by the habit to adjust their behaviour. Perhaps in the end we have to say that this photo habit, once considered okay, is not any longer. Like a wide range of humour focused on sex, religion or ethnicity is no longer acceptable and marks the perpetrator as a dinosaur from another era.

So when we wander with our camera we need to be aware that taking someone's photo is really a delicate transaction. And this is not a blanket ban after all, we can obtain permission by asking first, (and probably thereby getting a positive response) and then ideally, getting a model release. We can take people photos where the person is part of a crowd, or purposely on display, say in a parade. It is really just those captures of identifiable individuals that we need to avoid. Not so difficult to adjust to really if we would just get off our unfortunate belief that anything goes.

We live in an time where privacy is perceived to be important because it is increasingly under threat. A photo of someone can end up very quickly on a photo club or social media site and who know how it will be used after that. Think of the stories of 'primitive' peoples who felt that the camera had captured their souls; is that really so different from how we feel today, somehow soiled and abused, when our image is snatched from us?

Photography is about taking images and, as Susan Sontag says in her book 'On Photography', using the camera not for art, but as “ mainly a social rite, a defence against anxiety and a tool of power”. Powerful words, and, like a photograph, oh so true to life.