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Yosemite and the Masters

This time last year, I was standing on crisp, hoarfrost laden grasses overlooking the Merced River with El Capitan looming vertiginously large in my viewfinder. Watching the dawn sunlight make its way slowly down the face of the giant mountain, turning from shadow grey to hues of yellow and orange is a magnificent sight. I’m wide angle at 18mm (35mm equivalent) and at F11. To my right I have deep, dark rock shielding the sunlight. The dew point here is raising a mist from the shadows as the azimuth of the sun raises the ambient temperature of the surrounding air. This, in turn is creating a shadow of the mountain in the mist, not a Brocken spectre per se, but interesting none the less. There are a few fluffy white clouds breaking up the otherwise clear blue sky and the set of conifer trees on the far bank of the river fill neatly into the valley of the photograph. As the sun rises the angle of the light picks up on the taller subjects. Whilst the foreground trees are still in the lee of the sun, those a little further away are sun lit and vibrant juxtaposing nicely. Having already checked focus by zooming in and scrolling through the image on the monitor, I fire the shutter using the remote, my hands still firmly gloved and ensconced within the pockets of my Paramo. I check the histogram. Have I recorded all the available tones?

The histogram shows that I am close, but I push it a little more, over exposing by one and then one and a third EV in an attempt to maximise detail. I’m very pleased. This trip to Yosemite has already provided a plethora of great image stock. This one adds to it but this is only part of the job, more is to come in the process of producing a photograph. The capture is only part of it if you shoot the way I do. Indeed as with most of those that photographed using film, you’ve then got to process the RAW file or negative and finally make the print, all skills to be learnt.

Many of you know that I play guitar - I use the word ‘play’ loosely mind you - but like my photography, I’m still practising. In the course of that practice I regularly listen and play along to some of the old masters of the blues genre – Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, a certain Mr King and of course slow-hand himself. Even going way way back, the fundamentals still hold true and one can learn from their skill at arranging a set of notes and adding their own nuances of timing, tone and delay to produce outstanding works of musical art. Ansel Adams, a trained musician himself, once elucidated, the taking of the photograph can be compared to the music score, the composer if you will. It is then down to the photographer acting as conductor to interpret that information and make it his own photograph. Now do you see where I’m going with this?

When I saw that there was to be an exhibition of Ansel Adams original prints in London, it was a ‘must see’ for me. I regularly read his series of three books The Camera, The Negative and The Print, and although written for and in the days of film, contain elements of photography that are still very relevant today. This and other books of his have enabled me to become quite familiar with his work and methods, but seeing his prints at the exhibition would I hope cement the process. It did.

I followed this exhibition with another being held at the same time at the Royal Academy. Not photographs here but the work of landscape master painters, Turner, Gainsborough and Constable. From both these exhibitions certain similarities come to the fore which I shall endeavour to cover here.

The choice of format favoured by most was in the ratio of 5:4. Yes there were some panoramic and 3:2 formats but in the main, it was 5:4 or very similar. For Mr Adams, this would have inevitably been set by the film used. For Turner and the like, this was a decision made at the outset. Thus whatever format you choose, making the decision when you take the shot would seem to be a wise move. It helps to frame accordingly.
Knowing what you want to produce at the end of the day obviously helps at the taking stage rather than a ‘What can I do with this’, thought process when you look at the image on the computer screen later. That inevitably leads to an ‘If only…’ moment in my experience and one to be avoided.

Those that have seen my short video of Venice will no doubt know that as far as I am concerned, ‘It’s all about the light.’ Not just me though, it would seem that long ago this facet of art, be it photography or paint medium, was a pre-requisite for a good print.
When going through the early stages of image processing, we all must have at some time, grabbed the pointers on the Level adjustment tool and pulled them in to increase the contrast and left it at that, just setting the white and black points. By doing so we have all the tones covered. I know I have done this myself in the past, but it’s not just about the black and white points, it is what we do with all the tones in between that make the difference.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about making every image look unreal by pulling and pushing the tones all over the place, but likewise, it isn’t just a case of setting the black and white points either. Judicious use of dodging and burning in selected areas lifts some tones and drops others, to produce an image with better tonal balance overall.
One of my favourite images of all time is ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ by Ansel Adams. In his book ‘The Print’, he shows and describes the various stages he went through to produce the finished print. Seeing the print for real at the exhibition did nothing to diminish my point of view regarding the print. It is magnificent, but without the dodging and burning would have lost its tonal balance.

One of his other famous prints is ‘Moonrise over Hermanez’. This he describes as being a chance image. As such, he only managed a couple of frames before the lighting changed. If you Google the title, you will see an image of the print and how dark the sky is. However, the point is that this finished print was not what was recorded on the negative. The negative recorded the information and tonal range. He then produced the dodged and burnt image into the finished print providing the impact of the dark sky with the rays of light illuminating the town. He could only have done so by capturing the information to enable him to produce the finished print.

In digital, if your camera is set to capturing JPEG images then that’s it. That’s the finished information. Your camera has processed the image according to how it is set. That information is then compressed to a fraction of its former self so should not in my opinion be processed a second time. If you do, then you are liable to produce an image with computer generated artefacts that will degrade the image. These may not show if printed small, but almost definitely will if printed at a meaningful size. Those that say they don’t manipulate their images yet shoot in JPEG are missing the point that their camera is manipulating the image according to the designs of some techno wizard in Japan who designed the camera’s programming!

I prefer to produce my own images so therefore shoot to capture the RAW information. I process my own images to show the image I foresaw being produced. It may not necessarily be an identical scientifically accurate reportage of the view, but instead, my visualisation of what I saw. And when you think about it that is all any of us can ever produce. I just want it to be my view.

Keep practising.

I am.