Finally Went to Art School

· Reading Time: 15 minutes

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

After about 15 years of teaching myself how to use a camera I finally decided to go to art school.  Winston Salem is home to one of the premier college level art schools around and it is part of the North Carolina State University system as well.  The University of North Carolina School of the Arts is also not far from my house as luck would have it.  Now before you get all impressed that I will be attending this school don’t be.  I am just visiting, and at a time when classes are all canceled.  As it turns out, when folks are restricted in their comings and goings places that are usually quite populated start to experience a thinning of sorts.  With some recent success in photographing in the downtown settings and concentrating on architectural images I have found that the pedestrian and vehicular traffic is far less than what it used to be.  While people are flocking to what remains of the natural areas and continue to force closings, I have found that the man made landscape now offers that chance to get away in a way that it never has before.  I have been spending some amount of time researching some different locations that I might want to go and try out during this time.  One of these locations was the School of the Arts because of a few really cool buildings that were on campus that I thought might make interesting photographs.

It has been just a matter of determining the best time to go.  Looking at the Google Images of the building I was pretty sure that an evening blue hour shoot would be my best opportunity for an interesting photograph.  If I was able to get some colorful cloud movement it would be even better.  What I was really hoping for was that the interior lights would be on.  That was a huge gamble here since the school was closed down during the COVID-19 chapter of 2020.  I was going to have to take that gamble as I just couldn’t see going out just for a scouting mission to see what it looked like in person.  If I was going to go out, I was going to make it worth my while.

As it turns out, there have been a couple of really stressful things going on here for the last week or so.  I’m not really one to like change, but it would seem that there is a lot of change in the near future that we are starting to plan for.  The biggest is a home purchase that will get us closer to the mountains and into our forever home after many years of putting it off.  If things go well, I will not be doing much photography until well after the beginning of August when it looks like we will be making the move.  Between the middle of May and then, Toni and I will be freshening the house up with a deep cleaning and lots of fresh paint along with a few repairs. There just won’t be much time left to do much with the camera, but the trade-off will be worth it being about an hour closer to the mountains putting one of the access points of the Blue Ridge Parkway about 20 minutes away.

But I digress….

Shall we get back to talking about this current trek that I am working on.  After a particularly stressful few days I decided that I really needed a bit of meditation time which I am best able to do with my camera in hand.  Looking at the weather, there were no clouds in the forecast during the beginning of the week with an all day rain even on Thursday.  My best bet was to have a subject that could work at either sunrise or sunset, but wouldn’t need any major colors in the sky.  This seemed like the perfect time to work the School of the Arts.  If some high clouds moved in that would be icing on the cake, but I was just needing the cooler tones of blue hour to get the images that I had in mind for this building.

The Light Within“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 3-stop soft ND Grad

I managed to get out to the campus for a quick drive through at 7:20 with about 20 minutes left before sunset.  I found the building that I was after and spotted another couple of potential subjects.  I got the truck parked in a visitor lot, even though there were plenty of open spots closer to where I was going to be.  No need in pushing my luck, and it wasn’t a far walk at all.  I grabbed my gear and started the slow walk back up to the library searching out different potential subjects.  I found a few things of interest but nothing that I felt I was ready to shoot just yet.  When I got up to my main subject, I started to scope out the compositions that I was wanting to do.  I had some trees in the way that limited some of my compositions and forced me to get in close to the building.  I was figuring that shooting wide would be my friend with this building which meant that I was going to have to watch for perspective distortion and converging verticals.  The light was also rather uninspiring at this point with the sun still hanging on in the sky.  I moved to the other side of the building to see if I could get anything from there.  Ironically the sky was less interesting from here, but I thought that there might be a few clouds passing by very soon that might catch some color from the low sun so I looked at compositions.

The composition that I found that I liked didn’t require me going for a wide angle like I had been prepared for.  This one was actually calling for a tight shot concentrating on the architectural elements more than anything.  I fitted my 70-200mm lens and got into an elevated position on the walkway to frame up the shot.  A vertical composition worked really well here and I was able to frame the image without the base of the building which I don’t usually like to do.  This was a little different and changed the scale of the building a little bit.  With no real indication of where the foundation was, you really didn’t know what section of a building you were looking at.  More importantly, it allowed me to eliminate the ground clutter that complicated the image and move the emphasis of the image further up to the design qualities of the turret section.

When I had the composition that I liked, I looked at the exposure.  There was still a great deal of latitude between the bright sections and the dark sections so I wasn’t ready to make any exposures just yet.  I did notice that the windows were picking up some very bright reflections which needed to be tamed.  I pulled out my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to see if that would take care of the problem.  After testing it out in my hand, I found that it was worth mounting to the lens which I did.  That changed a lot of the tonal relationships in the image as I got to fine tune the reflected light from the siding and the glass.  My exposure was looking better now, but the sky still was very bright.  I decided to add a Galen Rowell 3-stop soft edge ND Grad to take some of the bite out of the sky.  I was very careful with the positioning of the filter because I was going to be reducing the exposure of the building itself at the top as I pulled the sky down.  I wanted to limit the visibility of the division line as much as possible so I paid attention to where the line actually was by using the depth of field preview button to stop the lens down.  I also knew that I Was going to have to dodge the top of the building in Lightroom to bring the exposure back to compensate.

This formula worked well for the building and within about 15 minutes the light was soft enough that I could make some good exposures.  I had been planning on this being a black and white presentation since color was not a big part of it.  However, as the light faded, the interior lights came on in the building and produced that warm glow inside that I had been hoping for.  This changed my mind on the presentation and I wanted to have an understated color rendition of the scene that paid tribute to that warm interior light with the hard and industrial exterior.  To really drive it all home, I actually introduced a strong magenta color cast in post production which set a mood for the image that I really liked.  I was well on my way for this trek already!

Twilight Glow“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

After seeing that the light was fading from the sky and the building was becoming more prominent, I decided to shift my attention to one of the other compositions that I had scoped out.  As I was swapping out my lens to the 16-35mm one that I was figuring would be the best choice for the next composition I noticed an SUV pulling up in the circle.  It was a campus police officer.  I figured that somebody had seen me walking around and had called me in.  I just waived and continued on with my task hoping that I wouldn’t be made to leave.  He just sat in the car for a while and watched me while I got set up for my next image.  He eventually got bored and got out to go walk around on the other side of the circle.  I figured at that point I was good to go with my current plans.

I had a very wide angle capture of the front of the building set up using a vertical composition that included a bench in the foreground.  I liked the image, but it seemed much too tall and there was no way to crop it to make it look better.  I decided to flip the camera and see how a horizontal image would look.  It was much better balanced, but included an unlit side of the structure when was a little dark for my tastes, but I was able to get the railing and the steps to have a sweeping effect in the foreground.  I looked at this composition and considered some different crops.  I figured that by shaving a little width off by using a 5×7 crop I could minimize the dark side, while still cropping out the bright building just off frame to the left.  This could work, and I was really liking the colors that I was seeing in front of me with the deepening sky above.  I wasn’t going to need the grad filter so I pulled that out and put it away.  I did leave the polarizer attached for this one since it helped to even the tones in the windows on the front and pull a little more color out of the windows to the left.

The composition was rather straightforward with one exception.  I was really trying to avoid distracting converging verticals here so I had to elevate the camera well over my head for this one.  By centering the main structure I was able to minimize the distortion there and the remaining elements on the sides seemed to suit the remaining distortion so I wasn’t worried about needing to remove any of it in post which I was happy about.  This image turned into a great image for the lighting that it showcased.  The bright parts of the image were right where I wanted the eyes to travel and explore the most and the color balance was spot on through the entire image.  That featureless sky that I would hate during the day really looks good at this time of the evening.  The deep and rich hues play so well with the artificial light of structures like this.

Turret In the Blue Hour“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

Not wanting to call it a day on the building that had brought me out here just yet,I walked around and looked for other compositions now that I had a better understanding of the building.  I actually found what I was looking for as I was walking up a walkway well off to the side of the property.  Just at the top of the stairs, I saw the elements coming together for another composition that I really liked.  I got the camera set up on the landing and framed the image.  I had a great perspective on the building, but there was a light pole directly above me that was in the shot and the sign for the building was creeping into the frame on the right.  If I zoomed in more, I lost the perspective that I had with the wide lens.  I had to get the camera closer, but in order to do that, I was going to have to set the tripod in the middle of the landscaping which I really didn’t want to do here with the police officer parked right behind me.  However, if I were to remain on the concrete with the tripod just off of the landing, slightly below me I might be able to pull it off without causing any problems with the pretty landscaping.  I got the camera placed just on the other side of the light pole, and raised it all the way up to where it was nearly at eye level to me as I stood on the wall by the stairs.  I didn’t have to worry about the pole, and by getting about five feet closer I missed the edge of the sign to the right.  This was going to work.

By this time the sun was all but gone and the polarizer was doing very little for the image other than reducing the light that was entering the lens.  I pulled that off and was able to get a 15 second exposure at f/11 for maximum sharpness through the entire image.  The colors were looking very good in the LCD for the mix of temperatures that were present.  I had the bushes on the lower left that provided a foreground element, I had the glass structure that was fully lit pulling your eyes to the right and the wonderful tones of the evening sky to balance it all out.  The long set of windows to the left of the main structure helped pull more of the blue in to balance out the overly warm temperature of the rest of the image.  I was able to frame the image just right on the left side to use a window and the edge of the brick wall above the windows as a framing element that provided some nice visual balance to the image.  I was very happy with this one as it was the concept that I had been after during my planning phase of the trek.

I still wasn’t done with the evening though.  The building to the left that I had been very carefully avoiding in my photographs was interesting in its own right.  I thought that it was time to show it some love now that I was pretty confident that I had all I needed of the main building.  With my attention turned to the much taller and much more complex building my thoughts were moving back to my long lens so that I could isolate areas of this building and focus on the lines and contrasts.  However, the more I thought about it the less I liked that idea.  It just didn’t suit the building at all.  I could go wide, but then there would be a lot to take in.  I was needing a visual anchor for the image.  The only thing that I could find was a table surrounded by large chairs.  They were situated right in the corner of the building where many of the interesting architectural points came together.  It might work, but I would have to go wide on this to full appreciate the scope of the building.

Sit In Awe“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No filters, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I started to put my 16-35mm back on, but decided that my better bet would be to enlist the awesome power of my Rokinon 14mm lens.  I went ahead and fit that one to my camera and started to play around with how I wanted to shoot this one.  The tripod had been at roughly eye level and that was just too high up.  I dropped it down to about waste level and that worked well with the slightly upwards perspective.  The table and chairs didn’t make sense though and there was no flow to them.  Since one chair was already pulled out and set diagonal from the table, I decided to move one of the other chairs and stage the foreground just a little bit.  This is not really introducing elements into a scene which I don’t care to do, but rather organizing what is already there naturally.  I was able to get the second chair into a position that helped to anchor the image right at the bottom corner opposite where the other one was.  That gave me an uninterrupted view of the table which then became a sort of leading line into the image.  The rest of the image was all about showing the the many layers of lines and angles of the building with some strong converging verticals being introduced.

When I got the image home I was not as happy with it since there was just too much green to the image with all of the fluorescent lights that were on.  The furniture was green so if I pulled the green out of the image to make the tones look better, I sacrificed the needed contrasting color of the green furniture and the image lost its appeal.  My best option at this point was to do a conversion in Lightroom to just really focus on the light and dark aspects along with the angles involved.  This immediately got me interested in the image once again.  It had that dramatic quality that I was after and the furniture showed up much better this way as well.  The image turned into a feast for the eyes as they darted all over trying to make sense of this structure.  The added scale from the furniture helped with this, but it is still very much an abstract study as the design elements are not quite as organized as a building should be.  It is a quirky piece and Toni liked it, so I will keep it in my collection.

It was a fun hour and a half that I spent at art school and I did learn quite a bit about how to capture this type of subject.  That might be the draw for architectural studies at this point.  I still have so much to learn and every time I do a shoot like this, I learn so much more than when I am working on subjects that I do over and over again.  Plus, this gives me a little variety in my catalog which is always a good thing.  I do hope that you enjoyed spending the evening with me and I hope that you also enjoy the images that resulted.  If any of them speak to you, please consider supporting this starving artist by purchasing a print.  It will give you the ability to enjoy the image in the format that it was intended for, and you will be helping me maintain my photography at the same time.

Until next time…

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