Fellow journalist Ashlynd Huffman texted me recently asking how to create a silhouette. It occurred to me that it would be worth it to have my own tutorial about it.
Silhouettes are essentially lithographs, and are usually created with a bright background that is correctly exposed, with something underlit or unlit in the foreground that forms a shape without having much detail.
Most of my silhouettes are happy circumstances of natural light, but it doesn’t take a lot to construct one. Throw some light on a background, and leave your foreground figure in the shadows.
If you are shooting in manual exposure mode, move up and down the exposure scale until you get the background about right, and the foreground item, person, or figure, very dark or black.
If you are shooting in an automatic exposure mode like Program, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority, use exposure compensation aggressively to get the look you want. Green Box Mode usually won’t let you control your exposure.
If you are shooting film, bracket: shoot a series of frames at widely different exposure settings.
Silhouettes imply shape and anonymity.
Silhouettes should never take the place of strong narrative, but if used correctly, can contribute to a strong narrative.
On my work laptop, I use recent images from my news, sports, and feature photos as my screen saver.
My Screen Needs to Be Saved?
For you 21st century people who have no idea what a screen saver is, basically it is part of the operating system of a desktop or a laptop computer that activates when the computer is unused, dimming the screen, showing the time and date, making patterns, or, in this case, showing me a slide show of all the photos in my screen saver folder.
The images scroll past, showing years of events I’ve covered, some of it grim, some of it boring, but most of it was absolutely rippingly fun to cover. I hope I never took those events for granted, and I hope we can return to them one day soon.
In the middle of this, it occurred to me that one of my very favorite things to cover , graduations, won’t be happening at all this spring because of the coronavirus crisis. Nor will proms, spring festivals, sports playoffs, water seminars, pancake frys, quilt shows, wagon rides, land run reenactments, groundbreakings, dedications, food festivals, car shows, arts festivals, parades. Life has ground to a halt.
Neither my wife nor I, nor anyone close to us, is sick, and I am grateful for that, for every day, for every breath.
I just posted a few images here, but there are literally thousands in my files that have stories to tell. I want to keep telling these stories.
I shot this on my way to work this morning, fortuitous that my first assignment required a different route to work than I usually take. I jumped out of my car and half-ran across a mostly-empty four-lane highway to get into position.
Basketball season is in its peak, and my newspaper and I cover a lot of games. We have a great sports scene in our area, competitive and exciting.
I wondered as I was photographing one of those games last week, a tournament-heavy week with lots of games, how many photographers face the same thing I do all the time: overwhelming color casts in certain gyms.
In fact, there were at least six other photographers in last week’s mix: Steve Sisney, Josh Clough, Jeannie Neal, Courtney Morehead, Glen Bryan, and Lonny Dorman. I am always glad to see them.
The lighting problem comes from a combination of lights that are designed to be efficient (instead of color-neutral), and floor and ceiling colors that create a sort of color feedback loop. For example, several of the gyms I photograph have yellow school colors, painted on courts that are finished in yellowing varnish, reflected by yellowing ceiling tiles.
These are nice places to work, and I love the opportunity to work at these schools, but the color balance in my photographs requires some very aggressive correction. How do I do this?
I always, always shoot raw files. We in the photographic community probably preach about this too much, but it really is a game-changer. Raw files contain thousands or even millions of times more color values than standard JPEG files.
I don’t bother adjusting white balance in-camera, because…
I will use Adobe Lightroom to fix the color, first with the eyedropper tool, which I click on a neutral spot; sometimes this is all the fix I need. It’s pretty dramatic, actually, sometimes accompanied by the word, “wow.”
I use additional color adjustments in Lightroom’s excellent Hue/Saturation/Luminance (HSL) dialog, which allows me to change not only the amount of the offending color, but also the brightness and the hue of it. I can use this to take a bright lime green basketball court and make it appear a very natural pale tan.
The most important aspect of this, of course, is to create normal-looking skin tones of the players and fans. This can sometimes requires some very aggressive application of color sliders in Lightroom or Photoshop.
As tempting as it is to use the pop-up flash instead of existing light at these venues, you will always be happier with existing light for sports.
I see other people’s image from some of these places, and they all exhibit a common thread: difficult color balance. Take it from me: raw files plus aggressive editing can fix these problems, and result in very satisfying images.
A long-time-ago photography student, Royce Gideon, invited me to judge a photography show at Artists of the Arbuckles Art Gallery in Sulphur, Oklahoma. I had no idea what to expect since photography is consistently inconsistent, but I had high hopes.
I drove down Thursday morning and had a look, and found myself in the midst of a some fairly amazing work. (I won’t show their work up close or say who won, since they are not my images. If you want to see them, go to Sulphur. It’s a nice little town.)
The judging process was pretty straightforward, as the staff made notes and placed the ribbons on the pieces for me. I discussed the merits of each winner and they took that down as well.
As consumers and the camera industry are well aware, the most common type of photography in the world today is smartphone photography, and the most popular smartphone is the iPhone. My wife Abby and I have iPhones, and their sophisticated, convenient, built-in cameras have all but silenced our point-and-shoot cameras.
As I explore the most recent iteration of these, the iPhone 7 Plus, I am finding both its virtues and its flaws.
My favorite way to use my iPhone to make pictures is through Instagram, which includes interesting filter looks and makes sharing on social media easy. Instagram’s game changer for me, though, is its square format. It leads to me to compose images differently, since more of my photography involves choose between vertical and horizontal compositions.
Some ideas that might up your phonetography game…
Keep your phone clean. In particular, keep that tiny lens free of fingerprints. I see tons of phone photos that are hazy and fog-like, and this is because the lens is covered in schmoogies.
Get closer. This has been an essential piece of my teaching for years, and it applies to phonetography as much as any other. The pixels for which you pined and paid over the years are wasted with sky above and floor below in most iPhone images.
Unless you are shooting square frames, pay attention to mode: portrait vs landscape. Most people hold their phone vertically out of habit, and it defines both their photographs and their videos, often inappropriately. It’s easy to turn a phone on it’s side, but too often we see horizontal scenes represented by vertical compositions.
Steady is better. Even the biggest phones are lightweight, so it becomes very important to hold them steady. If you don’t have a steady hand, consider a mass-based steadycam, tripod or monopod.
Don’t bother with the “pinch to zoom” feature. On most phones, it just crops the pixels in the same way you can when editing later.
Although trendy, getting a light source in your phone photos can make quite a mess, and this technique calls for more lens that the phone can muster.
All of the basic rules of photography apply to the phonetography. Keeping that in mind, the camera in your phone is another great tool in the photography toolbox.
On a couple of occasions before, I have described how much fun I have covering Ada’s Independence Day celebrations in historic Wintersmith Park. Our community goes all-out, starting with the Fireball Classic half-marathon, 10k, and 5k races (this year was the 50th), followed by kids games, then grown-up games, then fireworks at dark over Wintersmith Lake.
Having shot this event year after year has been more than a pleasure, it’s been a privilege to offer my view of this historic family-friendly piece of Americana.
For the first 16 years of my career as a photojournalist, starting with my first newspaper internship in Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1982, my craft was entirely mechanical and analog. I made pictures exclusively on photographic film, and printed them on photographic paper using a darkroom, an enlarger, and processing chemistry of various kinds.
A dominant part of this process for the newspaper industry was the Kodak Ektamatic print processor. Designed to be a very quick way to make prints, the Ektamatic processor used activator and stabilizer instead of developer and fixer. Instead of a properly fixed and washed black-and-white print, it produced a damp, ready to use, supposedly temporary print in just eight seconds.
Anyone who used one of these, and most of us did, remembers one thing about these prints more than anything else: the smell. The stabilizer used a potent mixture of acetic and boric acids to rapidly neutralize the developer and make the image temporarily light safe. It was a vinegar-like smell, only somehow sharper.
Cleaning this processor involved taking it apart and scrubbing the rollers, then adding fresh chemicals using bottles that sat upside down on top of the machine so they could refill the trays using valves that screwed onto the bottles. It needed to be cleaned a couple of times a week, but I can tell from my prints when I waited five or six days because there are streaks on the prints.
My analog craft tapered off somewhat after September 1998, when my company bought a Nikon LS-2000 film scanner and an Apple PowerMac G3 computer to run it. I still processed film, but instead of printing it with an enlarger, I scanned the negatives and saved the files on a server for the newsroom to use.
I cite this transition as part of the impetus for one of my earliest photographic trips to the desert, Villanueva.
Reviewing these images started late last year when my coworker LeaAnn Wells was looking for an old newspaper in the storage area called the “morgue.” It’s a smallish room, and had filled with so much clutter that when LeaAnn tried to stand on something to reach papers on a high shelf, she almost came crashing down. She and I vowed to clean up the place, which was filled with, for example, 300 copies of the 2006 football preview section, where we really only need about five copies.
Knowing that if everyone is in charge, no one is in charge, I took point in this cleanup effort, and have thrown away maybe a ton of worthless duplicates of newspapers, dust mites, rat turds, and even 50 bags of cooking show coupons and free chicken broth.
In the midst of all this, I found, near the bottom of the piles, a huge box full of my own Ektamatic prints from many years ago, and decided to try to get them in some order and preserve them.
Making Me Look Bad...
One thing I despised was being caught between management urging me to use less material and editorial demanding I use more. Publishers and accountants would tell me something like, “We used too much film and paper last month. Try to use less.” Which I would. Then editors would say something like, “Why can’t I get more shots from this?” or “Why are you printing this so small?”
One thing I was able to affirm by looking through these thousands of images is that I was good. It’s easy for me to forget that I have done solid work for my entire career, particularly during periods when I wasn’t appreciated by management. But I look through these slicks and see that I shot well year after year after year.
Just because some loudmouth Millennial rolls his eyes and dismissively says, “That’s the oldest trick in the book!” (with an implied “old man!”), doesn’t mean it’s not a good trick. I used one of the oldest tricks in my lexicon recently in class: the hair shake. This works well with people who have long hair that is looking too stiff. Have the subject/model throw their head forward and shake their hair, then quickly sit up, letting their hair fly back. Nine times out of ten it will result in their hair looking wild, free, fun, beautiful. Don’t let them touch it – it will feel strange to your model because they never comb or brush it that way, but it will look amazing.
As I was writing a post for my social blog, The Giant Muh, I needed some images. I scrolled through the folder of stuff from our October anniversary trip with my wife Abby, The Endless Sky, and found an image I thought would be worthless because I overexposed it…
When I shot it, I was disappointed, but I kept the frame in-camera and continued my Canyonlands hike with longtime friend Scott Andersen. As the light matured and the day went on, we made many successful images, and had a great time.
I didn’t give the image much more thought.
Today when I saw the image, I attempted to get some detail out of the moon using Adobe Photoshop’s recovery slider, without much effect.
Then I rather whimsically thought, “I’ll run it through my Nik Collection’s single image tone mapping high dynamic range (HDR) filter (which is free – read more here [link]) and see what happens.”
Honestly, I didn’t think there was much detail in the image – the blacks looked black and the moon looked white. I was amazed, then, when the Nik filter was able to extract a very interesting and detailed image…
In October 2016, my wife Abby and I traveled to the American West for our twelfth anniversary, a journey we make as often as we are able. We love the west, and were married in southern Utah in 2004 at Arches National Park.
The trip report, The Endless Sky, posted on our travel blog, was among my favorites, but I didn’t expect to hear this from two of my photographer friends…
From Wil C. Fry
These photos are tremendous, somehow better than your usual. It has me wondering whether you learned some new technique, or used a different camera, or processed them with new software. Or perhaps the light was simply better this time… Or maybe it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
From Dan Marsh
I too am curious, have you learned something new and different, or are you simply getting better with each trip? These are some of the best you’ve ever done.
So to answer their question about what’s changed: essentially, nothing. I don’t exactly agree that these are head and shoulders above my past efforts. I will say that yes, it is an evolving craft, and one I hope I continue to hone and improve. But part of me says that my audience sees only the new product, and only half-remembers some of our great trips in the past.
In fact, while reviewing the travel blog, I have to say that there are many pages from many trips that compare favorably, but those pages have faded somewhat into history. It’s easy to do in the internet era, particularly one that is so trend-centric, but paradigms like “that’s so 2013” or “what have you done for me lately” are troubling because they can dismiss an entire body of work for no valid reason.
As far as technicalities go, no, I haven’t made any important changes to my workflow. I mostly shoot RAW files and edit them in Adobe Photoshop, though sometimes I make JPEG images, following the same basic editing strategies. My priorities are color, light, composition, and location, location, location. The images in this entry also speak volumes about equipment and how much less important it is that the photographer. Some of these images were made with cameras such as the Nikon D100 and the Minolta DiMage 7i, incorrectly regarded as unable to deliver. As you can see, particularly from the earlier images, great photographs are made by great photographers, not by expensive equipment.
Year after year Abby and I go to southern Utah and the Colorado Plateau, but I would love to expand our reach: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Death Valley, and many more locations are on our short list.
That’s the rub, really. My best images from our travels come from visiting the best places. And that’s what makes the adventures, not just the images, great.
Here are some images from over the years, from adventures I think competed well with my most recent efforts. I look at each of these images as one of those moments of success for which we as photographers all strive. They are chronological from oldest to newest, and you can click them to view them larger…
In conclusion, I encourage all my readers, and everyone wanting to learn and grow photographically, to dig deeper into my rather extensive content, not only on the travel blog, but at the photo blog as well. It is my hope there is greatness deep within.
One aspect of my Intro to Digital Photography class is on the third and final night, during which I talk about what to do with our images. I show and tell about how to organize, edit, save, archive, share, and display our images. Since I am about to start another class, I’ve been recently pondering something that troubles me a bit: photographers or picture-taking civilians who take hundreds or thousand of images and then fail to do anything with them.
The occasions that come to mind are three hiking trips I made with three different photographer friends, one in 2011, one in 2013. and one in 2014. We had great times, and these three photographers are three of the best I have ever known, so it is utterly baffling to me when they tell me that after we spent all that time on the road and the trail, and captured thousands of images of what I thought were some amazing moments, that they haven’t done anything at all with their images.
I honestly don’t understand this line of reasoning, and I would be happy to hear a real explanation.
Part of why it bothers me is that I know their images are head and shoulders above the everyday images made in those places when we were there, and that their elegance and beauty would enrich us all.
Instead, they sit in a folder on the desktop of a laptop computer somewhere.
Maybe the point of this entry is to encourage anyone who has a folder full of great unshared images to open it and start to explore their potential. Even if most of the images in that folder are throw-aways (most of mine are), there are certainly pearls amongst them. Set them free!