Fine Art Photographs

A raw image is made when the photographer points the camera at a subject and presses the shutter.

For a raw image to become a fine art image, it must be processed by the photographer in a way that changes the composition, or the color balance, or the tonal range or the contrast – or all of these characteristics – so that the processed image reflects an interpretation of the scene in accordance with the photographer’s vision.

Most collectors would agree that for a photographer’s work to be considered fine art, it must be part of a body of work that evidences a consistent interpretative style.  Many have judged my images to be fine art.  My images don’t start as fine art, however.  They start as raw images.

The Raw Image: Pursuit of Subject, Perspective and Light

The capture of some of my raw images was mostly luck.  I rounded a bend in the road in the early morning or early evening when the light was very soft. I saw a compelling subject in the landscape before me. Not only was the light soft, but the sun’s azimuth happened to be perpendicular to the plane of that subject:  what I call “perfect light.”  I had just enough time before the light changed to stop, set up my camera, read the critical luminances in my spot meter, set the aperture and shutter speed accordingly, and snap the shutter.

Mostly, though, my raw images are the result of a multi-step, meticulous process that, for any given image, can take days, months, even several years to complete.  It is a process that, in my judgment as an artist, optimizes the subject, the perspective and the light in the raw image.  People often compliment my work, saying I have a “good eye.”  That compliment is earned by the faithful execution of the process I use to create my raw images.

To make sense of my process, one must know that I don’t use a modern digital 35 MM camera.  I use a Hasselblad 500CM which is a film camera. I use this camera because it has a 2¼ x 2¼ inch negative from which, via a film scanner, I can create an 82 mega-pixel digital file.  With such a large file I can create high-resolution prints that are as much as three-and-a-half feet square.  I can’t do that with a digital camera that costs less than tens of thousands of dollars. I have four, fixed-focal-length lenses and a few other important pieces of peripheral equipment. These items fit in a back-pack that weighs about thirty pounds. The tripod weighs another ten pounds.

With all this equipment, when I set out to make an image, it is not a casual, spontaneous trip.  It is purposeful, and as painstaking as I am in my discovery of subject and perspective, and as brief as is the duration of early morning or late afternoon/early evening light that satisfies me, I rarely make more than a half-dozen exposures in a day of shooting.

A Subject

All the photographs included in this website, and almost all of those on my photography website (www.steveleonardphotographs.com) were taken in San Francisco or along or near the Coast between Pigeon Point 50 miles south of the Golden Gate and Point Arena 100 miles north of it. I have lived in the middle of this little piece of Northern California for 40 years. I know its back streets and back roads, its sidewalks and trails. That knowledge helps me discover interesting subjects and find compelling perspectives. Most important, my proximity to my subjects allows me to re-visit them to study perspective and ultimately to “ambush the light” as Ansel Adams used to describe it.  Mine is a very pre-meditated approach to making a photograph, but planning and perseverance aside, there is a lot of luck in my successes.

My quest for subjects leads to lots of driving through San Francisco and up and down the Coast and walking the City’s sidewalks and the countryside’s paths and trails. I rarely take my camera when I go out looking for subjects.   Once in a while, on one of these drives, I will see something I hadn’t seen before, or see something in a different light (literally) that makes me look at it as a potential subject.  The search itself is very enjoyable.  I am looking for things in the cityscape, or landscape or seascape that I find dramatic. Most often I am alone, and always my surroundings are pleasant if not sublimely beautiful.

Perspective

Ansel Adams preached the importance of “visualization” in the crafting of a fine art photographic image.  He described visualization as learning to see what the camera sees.  He famously compared a photographer’s composing an image to a composer’s writing a symphony (he then compared developing the film and printing the image to conducting the orchestra).

Careful visualization is where the art of fine art photography begins.  Ultimately, the only way to learn to see what the camera sees is to take a picture, compare it to the scene, change your perspective, maybe wait for different light, snap the shutter again and compare the new image to the scene. And, if necessary, again.  And again.

Having identified a promising subject on one of my explorations, I return to explore its perimeter at various distances in search of the optimum perspective:  i.e., that spot on the ground where I will position my tripod. Usually, I make several “study” images of the subject from various perspectives and with different lenses.  Often, I make a series of “study” images over a series of visits to the site, each such image being a change in perspective from the last, until I feel I have found the perfect point on the ground for seeing the subject the way the camera is going to see it. This part of my process can take a long time because, with film, I can’t see an instant “proof” of my image.  I have to go home after making the “study” image and develop the film and then scan it into PhotoShop and make some preliminary tonal range adjustments in order that the “study” frame might inform my ultimate perspective, or at least the next “study” image. This is part of the price of using a film camera.

On my photography website (www.steveleonardphotographs.com) I have an image of the Transamerica Building in San Francisco. I took a dozen  separate “study” images, each from its own perspective, over a period of two years, before I got the final raw image that became the photograph you see.

The Light

Having found my perspective, I am ready to try to capture it in “perfect” (or nearly so) light. I define perfect light as the azimuth of the sun’s rays being perpendicular (or nearly so) to the plane of the principal surface in the subject, and the sun being very low –  just above the horizon – in a sky that is clear between the sun and the subject.

With my tripod on my found perspective point, I isolate the subject in the camera’s viewfinder and imagine the emphases of light and form that will evoke an emotional response (at least from me) to the subject.  With my spot meter, I read the luminance level of what I visualize as the most important surface in the subject and then set the shutter speed and aperture pursuant to the “placement” of that subject luminance as dictated by Ansel Adams’ “Zone System.”

Unlike many photographers, I rarely use a wide-angle lens to make a landscape photograph.  Almost all of my images are what I call “intimate landscapes” made with portrait or telephoto lenses to isolate and fill at least half the frame with what I see as the subject within the vista. Ironically, about the only times I ever use a wide-angle lens are to take close-ups. I have learned that the camera, through a wide-angle lens, sees broad vistas differently than the human eye sees them.  Most landscapes captured with wide-angle lenses are filled with mostly sky and water (or distant land) with the intended subject too small to show meaningful detail.  Through a wide-angle lens, the picture usually turns out differently than what the photographer saw.

One of the photographs on this website is called “Point Reyes Roadside.”  The perspective is looking out the long, cypress-lined driveway of the old Marconi Telegraph Station on Point Reyes.  It’s a forty-mile drive from my house to that spot on the ground where I placed my tripod.  Over a period of two weeks in late July and early August in 2009, I made nine trips out there (and back).  It took that many visits to the site to discover the subject, find the right perspective and then capture the light that infuses the photograph.  Often, the fog or the clouds obscured the late afternoon light.  Twice the wind was blowing so hard the branches were moving too fast for the slow shutter speed I needed to use (because of the low, late afternoon light) to freeze their motion.  I couldn’t see that from my home.  I had to drive out there. Disappointed trip after trip, I believed I could make a dramatic image of those trees, though, so I kept returning until I got the light and the wind conditions I wanted.

So it is with most of the images on this website and on my photography website. My raw images are not snapshots, nor are my fine art images the result of just a few cursory tweaks in Photoshop of my raw image files.

The Fine Art Image:  Pursuit of Tone and Contrast

Transforming a raw image into a fine art image is the province of the dark room.  In bygone years, the dark room was a “wet” darkroom illuminated with a red lightbulb (the wave length from which didn’t activate the chemicals in the photographic paper), with canisters of chemical baths to develop the film, an enlarger to print the image recorded on the negative onto a piece of photographic paper, and then progressive trays of chemicals to bring the printed image to life on the paper.  It was very cumbersome and often messy.  Today, most photographers use a “dry” darkroom which is nothing more than a computer with photographic processing software (e.g., PhotoShop) which accepts the digital image files from the camera or a film scanner and processes them, and a photographic ink-jet printer which then prints the processed image files on photographic paper.

It is the “…and processes them….” part where the transformation to fine art takes place.

PhotoShop allows the photographer to do with exquisite precision and unerring duplication what Ansel Adams and his proteges used to do with a manual technique called “dodging and burning.”  In Ansel’s day, dodging was holding a piece of cardboard to block part of the light shining down from the enlarger through the negative onto the photographic paper.  By withholding light from one area of the negative, the chemicals in the photographic paper where the light was withheld would not react as fully as the chemicals where the light was not withheld, and the dodged area would print relatively lighter than if it received full light.  Burning was just the opposite.  A piece of cardboard large enough to cover the entire piece of photographic paper, but with a strategically placed hole, is used to withhold the enlarger’s light from all of the negative except one area which thus gets more exposure than the rest of the print and so prints darker.  No matter how careful the photographer is, because dodging and burning is a hand-held, humanly timed procedure, it cannot be exactly duplicated from print to print.  If Adams himself made 100 prints of his “Moonrise” image, none would be exactly the same.

In the “dry” darkroom, all of this manipulation of light takes place digitally in PhotoShop.  For photographers, the essential tool in PhotoShop is the “selection” tool.  This tool allows the precise tracing of individual elements of the image – even very small and very complicated elements – and their isolation on individual “layers” of the image file.  The tonal range, contrast, color saturation and other visual characteristics can be adjusted separately for each selection.

If you were to look at almost any of my raw image files, they would strike you as drab, flat, undramatic compared to their ultimate manifestation as fine art images.  Each of my image files has multiple layers – some have many layers – on each of which I have made some kind of adjustment to a precise selection within the image.  The sum of all these adjustments is what accentuates the light and shadows to accommodate my vision as an artist.  It is the sum of all these adjustments that transform the raw image file into the fine art image file.

Ansel Adams famously compared the making and developing of the negative (today’s raw image file) with writing the score; and the printing and developing of the photograph in the dark room with conducting the orchestra.  In Ansel’s day, the fine art image – the areas to be dodged or burned and the times for this manipulation of light — was stored in his mind, or annotated on note cards. Today, once the selection is made and the adjustments applied in PhotoShop, that information becomes part of the digital file, which has thus become the fine art image file.