If you’re like me, and I suspect that you are, some of your favorite pictures have never been hung on the wall. Sure, they’ve been shared on Facebook and Instagram, but they’ve never been made into a real photograph. Right now I’m going to tell you the story of one of my favorites–the whole story from the time I saw it through the viewfinder to the time I ripped open the shipping box and held it in my hands. I hope it inspires you to dig into your files and make a real photograph of some of your favorites.
Head for the Hills
A few years ago, I was in Moab, Utah, making environmental portraits for a marketing campaign for the University. The crew was there for a week and we spent all day each day photographing and interviewing graduates and students. We sculpted the light for each portrait and each video and everyone got a makeover with our stylist. It was tons of fun, and we met such a variety of folks. Here are several of the pictures we made:
This kind of environmental portraiture is some of my favorite work to do. We have to work fast because we are usually at a place of business and only have a few minutes with each person before they have to get back to work. Despite the short time, we made sure everyone looked their best and got a good presentation. These portraits ended up on billboards around the state, so they needed to look great.
The days were full and long and we were all tired by the time we struck set and headed to dinner.
But when you’re working in Moab, Utah you don’t go back to your hotel at night and watch TV. You head for the hills and make more photographs!
Always Look Left
The picture this story is about was made in just those circumstances. We wanted to go to Dead Horse Point where I had made some fun sunset photos on a previous visit. We drove as fast as we could up the winding road, but as we climbed up the mesa I realized that we weren’t going to get to the campground and then walk the mile out to the point before the sun was gone. Just as I was beginning to despair, we rounded a corner and saw the full moon rising directly between two monoliths. We all jumped out of the cars and scrambled to find a good perspective for our pictures.
I grabbed my longest lens at the time, the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 and snapped it into place on my Lumix GH4. I knew if I used a long lens that the moon would appear larger. I also knew I’d get the best results on a tripod. I used my favorite carbon fiber sticks from Vanguard with the terrific BBH-200 ball head, which is light and exceptionally sturdy.
The sun was getting low and the bottom of the gully in front of me was already in shadow, but the top of the ridge was warmly lit. The sky was surprisingly clear and blue and I realized that this three-tiered color composition, broken only by the monoliths and the moon, would be a good way to compose the scene. I considered placing the monoliths in the center, but it wasn’t as powerful because there were more of them to the right and I felt it distracted from the moonrise. I placed the moon at about the top right intersection of thirds and starting shooting. I shot dozens of pictures with the moon in various positions, but these are my two favorites. I wish I’d shot vertical sooner when the moon was still framed, but I still like this picture.
As the moon rose and the sun sank, this picture ended pretty quickly. I shot brackets for HDR, but HDR doesn’t create light and color, and this picture was simply finished. I remembered the advice to “always look behind you” when shooting, but there wasn’t anything going on there, just a flat stretch of desert with a bright sky. But when I looked to my left I found my next photograph, and I had to hurry because the light was disappearing.
I shot this photo with the same lens, the 75mm. On my micro four-thirds camera it gives a field of view similar to a 150mm lens, and you can see that it really isolates the subject. I worked with this spot for several minutes and even shot a short time-lapse sequence–that wispy cloud turned orange and moved over the butte and out of the shot, so that was fun. But as I reviewed the pictures on my camera, they just didn’t stand out to me.
When the Sun Leaves, You Should Stay
By this time, the sun was completely set, which is when many photographers pack up and head home, but I think that’s a mistake. When the sun is setting low in the sky, you get striking light and shadows, but it’s very contrasty with bright highlights and dark shadows. After it sets, however, the entire western sky is alight and combined with the eastern sky it provides a beautifully directional light without the harsh contrast. Whether you’re making portraits or landscapes, the time after the sun has set, the “blue hour”, is a wonderful time to work.
After my time-lapse, I looked again at the scene in front of me and realized that the soft light was beautiful and that there was much more to the scene than the single butte standing tall. I saw that the intersecting lines of the canyons made a serpentine line leading from the boulders at the bottom to the monolith on top. Now, my degree is in geology, so a scene like this is not only photographically interesting but also intrigues me for the history it reveals in the layered rocks. I liked the boulders looking up at the monolith as if to say, “Your turn will come.” I switched lenses to the Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 and got a wider field of view, but maintained the telephoto perspective (this lens is similar to an 85mm full frame lens).
This is a composite HDR, and you can see that it was getting pretty dark. I liked this better, but the butte on the left was getting me down. So I listened to Scott Bourne’s advice and shot it vertically, too, and that made all the difference. Now it felt like the lines and the vertical framing were working together to emphasize the height of the butte and the depth of the canyon. The picture also has more depth and better leading lines. I had switched my camera to black and white mode, and I liked what I saw on the screen. I shot brackets again and later made an HDR composite.
By this time it was truly dark. We drove up to the point anyway and photographed the stars until the moon rose too high. We enjoyed a lovely desert night, saw lots of burrowing owls and coyotes, and headed back to town to charge batteries and get ready for another day of portraits and videos in the morning.
Let It Simmer
This all happened in 2014. Many of those portraits I made are amongst my favorites, and so I often dig up that folder and share pictures. As time has passed, I’ve also been learning and using new tools that give me more options with my photographs. One of those times I was exploring my Moab pictures, I stumbled on the shots above and realized that I could now finish them with more finesse. Tools like Photomattix, Aurora HDR, and Perfectly Clear have shown me how to make a picture brighter and more vibrant without increasing the noise. I pulled up this old favorite, re-did the HDR, used Perfectly Clear to brighten it a little more without noise, which is marvelous. Perfectly Clear also helped me refine the colors to perfection. Finally, I used Lightroom’s adjustment brush to dodge and burn specific areas to make them lighter and darker. You can see that I enhanced the brightness of some of the highlights to help emphasize the leading lines. In the end, I liked the photograph much more than when I first shot it.
Sometimes, a photograph gets better as you become more skilled. Letting it simmer in the Drobo lets you learn and grow until your finishing skills match your shooting skills. Is that justification for never deleting things? Maybe, but it seems like the cost of buying another drive to store photographs is very low compared to the cost of losing the opportunity to create some art you didn’t realize you had.
Making It Real
Three years after making the picture I was finally ready to make it real and hang it on the wall, but which method to print should I use? I have printed more than the average photographer. Doing family photography, I make lots of prints, plus I used to own two large format printers and helped my club members make prints every week. I’ve used several kinds of papers in my inkjets, I’ve printed canvases, I’ve ordered metal prints, and I’ve even made keychains. Remembering how much fun I had making this picture and how much the whole experience meant to me, I was pretty sure a keychain wouldn’t cut it.
When you print a photograph, you should choose a medium that complements the subject. Inkjet prints have terrific colors, and canvases can add a softness to the picture, while metal prints are vibrant and shiny. But many photographers don’t realize that lab-produced photographic prints are still made the same way they have been for more than a hundred years. When you order a 16×20 from your favorite photo lab, it actually has silver nitrate particles on it–real precious metals–and those react to light shined on them in the lab and produce the colors and tones you see on the paper. These are the longest lasting prints, and they also reproduce tonal values better than any other medium. I’ve spoken with many photographers who kind of assumed that the lab was using inkjet printers to make the photographs, but these are actually produced using light and chemicals on Kodak or Fujifilm papers. I’ve printed a lot, so I know what to expect from what I see on my screen and what I’ll see on paper, but most labs offer a few free prints so you can calibrate your screen to their prints. For my photograph, I knew I needed to use a photographic process to show the gentle tonal gradations, but I also wanted to show the details and the luminous, glowing quality of the highlights.
I had heard of acrylic prints and knew that they were excellent for details and colors. The photograph is first printed using a photochemical process on fine photographic paper, then it’s adhered to a rigid backing and a transparent acrylic face. The result allows the colors and details to shine through the surface of the acrylic better than any other display method. Using a frame with glass isn’t as good because both the photo and the glass are reflective and that makes it harder to see your picture. I love displaying photographs without glass, but it’s hard to protect them. Acrylic, however, protects from UV and from kids throwing milk bottles across the room.
Upon closer study, I found out that TruLife acrylic face mounting is the best kind of acrylic because it’s the most transparent, highest resolution, and best UV protection. Furthermore, it’s anti-glare characteristics makes it easier to see the picture without glare. I ended up ordering from ArtisanHD, one of the labs that prints on acrylic with TruLife, and when the print arrived I was floored. It’s so bright. It’s like it picks up all the light in the room and lets it shine forward out of the print, like light from the edges is gathered and shone forward, too. I love it. It truly shows the vision I had in each step of making this photograph.
I also liked that the photo arrived ready to hang on the wall. Its thin mounting and standout profile further the “pop”. It could be framed, but I like the modern look of it hanging on its own without the physical and visual weight of a frame.
Whatever method or medium you use to print, you should print. Having your photograph hanging large in front of you changes everything, and it makes your art much more real. You’ll find that it also legitimizes your photography in the eyes of those who consider it a hobby. It’s not a hobby, it’s art making, and the bigger you print the better it looks.
I’m now digging through my favorite trips and events looking for pictures I’ve yet to print. There are so many, and as I find them I remember the details of the day. Reliving adventures and memories is why photographs are important. Sharing with friends online is a must, but if you also make prints, large or small, you’ll have a tangible souvenir that you can share. I encourage you to make your pictures into real photographs. Choose the right printing method and make them as large as possible. You’re an artist, and your art deserves to be seen at its best.
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