Leaving My Comfort Zone

· Reading Time: 19 minutes

Saturday, June 15, 2019

A week ago, I was getting excited about all the nice cloudy days that were ahead of me.  In fact, it looked like the next two weeks were going to be clouds and storms, and that was just the kind of weather pattern I was looking for when it came to my landscape photography.  I started out the week thinking that I was only going to have to work Monday and was all set to take advantage of the great conditions on Tuesday.  However, there was a meeting I had forgotten about and that meant that I had to go to work and stay late.  On the way home, I drove under some of the most beautiful clouds I’ve ever seen as a storm was moving through the area.  The light was fantastic, and there was so much drama in the sky.  Sadly, I was sitting in the driver’s seat of the truck on the way home after a long day at work.

The weather for Wednesday was promising as well, but as luck would have it, I was asked to do a detail in the morning and then had some follow up to do around mid day.  By the time I got out of work, the sky had cleared of the decent morning clouds.  That is just my luck I suppose.  Thursday was spoken for so I could take care of some family things up until the the afternoon.  The clouds had been developing nicely around mid day, but according to the cloud forecast, they were all going to be cleared out by 5pm.  Around 2:30 or so, Toni kind of pushed me to go out and do a little photography.  I was thinking about it, but really had no clue what I wanted to shoot.

For a photographer, having no clear plan of what to shoot is a good indication that they shouldn’t even attempt to go out.  But I did.  I knew I needed to stay local since I only had a short amount of time with the clouds, and they were moving East rather quickly.  I set my sights on the Union Cross area as there are some rural scenes out there that I haven’t really photographed that much.  The issue with this was, I was not wanting to shoot rural images.  I was still set on doing landscapes as that was what I had in my mind at the start of the week.  It is hard to find good landscapes in areas of town that are populated, and I wasn’t getting anything that would remotely work as a landscape.

I did find an old Ford and when I was pulling into the driveway I was greeted by two dogs that were probably bigger than my 4Runner.  I might be exaggerating, but they were big enough that I didn’t want to get out of the truck and ask permission to shoot the truck.  The dogs would have had to be put away and that wasn’t fair to them.  I continued on and found myself driving through Davidson County to the South.  The clouds were thinning and the sun was completely exposed so the light was really harsh this close to the middle of the day.  The more I drove, the more discouraged I got.  There was a point where I realized that I was getting desperate and would start to settle for any image. That wasn’t what I wanted because I knew that an image wouldn’t turn out well with the existing lighting.  I called it a day and headed home.

Friday wasn’t conducive to photography and I spent the day playing tennis in the morning and getting the 4Runner cleaned up finally.  It was a productive day and one that had me very tired by the end of the day.  In fact, since Toni gets up really early in the morning to go to work, I just turned in with her before 9pm (being old isn’t all its cracked up to be).  I had her wake me up when she got up before 3am so that I could see what the weather was looking like.  She did, and I remember seeing that there was going to be some thin clouds, but nothing special for the day.  Sunrise might be pretty good, but I had no idea what to put under the sky.  In short, I had no direction and I remembered the hard lesson I had just learned.  I rolled back over and went to sleep.  I was lacking any creative vision for a day with the camera.

13×19″ Print on Luster Paper of Blue Ridge Crescendo

When I woke up, I got a print completed for a client in Michigan which will be getting shipped out later in the week.  That kind of helped me get my creative spark going again, but I had no idea what I wanted to shoot.  I was looking at the weather and the sky was pretty much clear with some wispy clouds passing by every so often.  It wasn’t a good landscape day at all.  The light was too harsh for most decay photography as well.  I could go drive around again and see if there was something that would benefit from the lighting that was there, but I really didn’t see that going well at all.  I was at a crossroads for the day.  It was still early enough that I could get out and try something, or I could just go and visit my Grandfather for the day.  It then occurred to me that I have been wanting to try something a little different and have been waiting for the right time to give it a shot.

For a few months now, I have been wanting to get into downtown Winston Salem to try doing some architectural photography, and some high contrast black and white studies of the buildings.  For this, I was needing harsher light, and very little in the way of clouds.  I really didn’t know how this would go so I had been putting it off for some time now.  When it comes to landscapes and rustic subjects, I can shoot those with my eyes closed.  I can’t remember the last time I shot anything downtown, and it is a whole different approach.  Since I was in a creative slump and the conditions were right, I decided to give it a try on the way to seeing my Grandfather.

Recessed Windows“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I grabbed my gear and headed out to downtown which was only a few miles from the house.  When I got into downtown I remembered why I hated it so much.  I don’t care for the one way streets and all the construction going on.  It is just too congested for my tastes.  My stress level started to soar, but I was going to find something that I wanted to shoot before I left.  I had already told myself that I didn’t really care if I got anything worth keeping or not, I just wanted to make some exposures and try to break this slump I was in.  I drove up and down the streets and found a bunch of stuff that I really wan’t all that happy with.  When I finally got to the Wells Fargo Building, I saw what I thought would be the ingredients that I was looking for.  The sky was very blue, the building was nearly white, and it was standing really tall.  It might not be perfect, but it was worth trying.

I got parked and got my gear.  I walked around the building to find the best light and started at the main entrance shooting some compositions.  I started out with my long 70-200mm lens mounted to my Canon 5D.  Those shots didn’t work out so I went to the exact opposite and pulled out the Rokinon 14mm lens.  That is a perfect lens for this type of photography, but I just couldn’t find the right composition with it.  This was proving more difficult than I thought.  I ended up moving over to the BB&T Building while standing in the Wells Fargo sidewalk.  This was getting a little better, but the building was glass and looked just as blue as the sky.  I wasn’t sure how that would work in a B&W conversion, but I knew I would have to do some heavy tonal conversions to make the building stick out.  I still wasn’t happy at all, even after switching to my 24-70mm lens which is my main walk around lens for pretty much all subjects.

I had started shooting and that was a good thing, but I still wasn’t getting anything that I particularly liked.  I decided to go on a little walk to see what I could find.  I went back around to the other side of the Wells Fargo Building and something caught my eye.  It was in a gated and fenced part of the property, and looked like an outside picnic area.  The fence was just short enough that I could get the camera over it.  I wasn’t interested in the lawn at all.  In fact, what I was after was the decorative overhang that came around the side of the building.  It had the geometry that I was looking for, and the sky was looking just interesting enough.  I was pretty sure that I could do something with this shot.

Modern Geometry“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I extended my Manfrotto 055CXPRO tripod all the way up and made use of the extra height that the Acratech GP-S Ballhead gives me and found that the 24-70mm lens was the perfect lens for this composition.  I only had to worry a little bit about what was at the edges of the frame to make sure that everything made sense.  This was coming together nicely and I could see a very nice monochrome image developing.  It had strong lines, lots of contrast, and was visually interesting.  I was starting to hit my stride with this image.  I only shot two frames of this with slightly different compositions and felt that was enough.  From here, I looked up along the side of the behemoth building.  I liked the repeating patterns of the windows and found a great anchor for an image with the recessed windows down low.

I used my Acratech Ballhead in a way that I had never done it before.  All ballheads have a relief designed to allow the camera to rotate to the side for vertical shooting.  Ever since adding the “L Bracket” to my 5D I haven’t had to use that relief at all.  However, for getting the camera angled nearly straight up I saw a use for it.  I just flipped the head perpendicular to the horizon and pointed the camera straight up.  that seemed to do the trick and got a perspective that was nearly straight up in the air.  I didn’t need to swap out my lens as it seemed to be doing the trick.  I did have the camera mounted on its side for a truly awkward appearance, but it got the composition I was after quite easily.

This was another one that I only shot a couple of different compositions of before deciding that I was happy with what I had.  Things were starting to come easier for me now and that made me happier. I had found my zen in the downtown setting and I was hearing how it wanted to be photographed.  That’s right, I was hearing it.  It is the same thing when I am shooting landscapes or old cars.  When you finally get in tune with your surroundings, they will actually tell you how to best shoot them.  It is an odd phenomenon, and I don’t want you to get the impression that I actually hear instructions.  I don’t.  It is just a feeling that I get and things start to happen almost automatically for me when it does.  I had reached that point in my trek, and I was getting excited.

I continued on with my walk and found a building with a nice curve to it, but the tones were off for what I was wanting to capture.  I tried a few exposures and wasn’t really liking how it was turning out and in the end I decided that it just looked too much like a snapshot to keep.  I was still on a roll though and found yet another building with a nice arch to it.  It just so happened to be the detention center, but the building itself was rather cool.  I set up across the street and swapped in my 70-200mm lens for the composition and crop that I wanted.  I also added my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer since I was now shooting about 90 degrees from the sun and not using a wide angle lens.  This meant that the effect from the polarizer would be much more natural.

City Contrasts“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

What I found that I liked best about this building was the textures and lines.  On one hand, the bricks had a very uniform texture with the patterns developed by the mortar.  The lower aluminum arch was smooth and quite a bit lighter.  Even the windows had differences in patterns and tones.  This one building seemed to be all about contrasts and that fascinated me.  The clouds were in the right position in the sky to help break up the negative space while not being too obtrusive.  It was definitely not my normal image, but I was kind of liking how this one was coming together.  There were only a few exposures made before I decided that I had what I wanted.  I continued back towards the car with the camera still out, just in case, but I was pretty sure I was done.

This is, until I saw the BB&T building once again.  This time it was from a different angle and the sun was hitting it just right.  The clouds were quite nice around it, even if just a little subdued.  I knew that I was going to be able to do something really nice with this one during the conversion to monochrome.  It is nice to know what tools are available to you when you are capturing an image because you will know exactly what you plan on doing to it when you get started.  I set the camera up with the long lens still attached as I only wanted the top of the building.  I liked the dramatic angle that I was getting with this perspective.  The shading on the building was just right for what I wanted to capture and the polarizer was making just enough difference in the glare on the all glass building.  I fired off several compositions of this building ranging from vertical, to horizontal, and I even shot a square crop.  Honestly, in the field the square crop was my favorite of the images.  I thought it had the right amount of drama and the right exposure.

When I got home, and started going through the images, I found a fatal flaw in the square crop.  I had captured the top of the flag pole at the bottom of the image which I could have cloned out, but I was so upset with myself for that oversight, I started to look at the other images instead.  The one that really stood out was the horizontal composition.  It had the nicest clouds and the best overall look, but it lacked presence.  I decided to add a 5×7 crop to it and that did the trick.  All of a sudden the building seemed to jump from the screen and I knew I had the right composition.  I started to create masks on the building, as well as individual masks on the the different surfaces of it.  The sky even got its own mask.  I massaged each of these until I had the image that I had visualized in the field.  This was actually the first image that I processed from the 55 frames that I shot over the almost two hours I was there.  It was the simplest (I thought) to process, but actually turned into one of the most involved edits I have ever done.  Ironically, the last image I shot was the first image I processed, and immediately became a favorite of the day.  None of the following images superseded this one in my hierarchy of favorites.  It just captures the feeling of the day, and really shows what I was after with my images.  The glass building was difficult to work with as it just took on the tones of the sky leading to a very flat image.

Constantly Reflecting“, RAW image straight out of the camera except for resizing.

This is something that I don’t do often at all, in fact I can only think of two other times I have posted a RAW file.  I just wanted to show you the difference that Lightroom can make to an image.  Keep in mind that a RAW file is just the data that is collected by the camera and there is no processing at all to that data.  It allows for a huge amount of information to be readily available like the detail in the sky that can’t barely be seen in this image.  You can see the problem that I was faced with from the glass building.  The entire image was blue, different tones of blue, but just a blue image.  By doing different masks on the image I was able to adjust the tonality of what you saw on an individual basis.  This is what I ended up with after about 45 minutes of editing….

Constantly Reflecting“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I am really happy with how this building turned out in the final presentation.  Is it an honest representation of the scene?  I think that it is because this is how I envisioned it while setting the shot up.  I wanted something dramatic, and this was just what I was looking for.  What I like most about this is it is something completely different from what I normally shoot, and a lot of different techniques were used in the processing of the image.  I count this as an educational piece more than anything else.  I set a goal for myself when I decided to go out this morning and I hunted the right subjects to learn on.  As photographers, if we stop learning and pushing ourselves to improve, we turn stagnant and that is no fun for those that enjoy our work, and it does us no favors either.  In fact, when you are in a slump, the best thing to do is to go out and try something completely different.  It will bring excitement back into your world, and will have a positive impact on your work.


Edit 06-16-2019

There are times when I go  back a day or so later on a shoot and see one that I might have misjudged.  This happens a lot when I am doing images that are not my normal subject matter.  It really does take a while for my brain to get in the right place to critique the images that I shoot.  Yes, I do critique every one of them, and I try to have really high standards with them and take the emotion out of my decision.  Well, I remove what I felt at the time of exposure and let the image talk to me, rather than remind me of the moment.  As the viewer, you don’t have the ability to know what was going through my mind when I released the shutter, and I don’t know if that would be a good thing anyway.  However, you do have the ability to pull emotion from the image itself when you look at it.  That is a hard thing for me to do with photography is pull myself out of it, and ask my brain and heart to interpret it as if I hadn’t shot it.

I did that this morning after some thinking about one of the images that I shot about midway through the morning.  I had mentioned it earlier in this entry and referred to it as more of a snapshot than anything else.  I liked the concept of the round turret on the corner of the building and the way that the light was hitting the side.  The basic elements were there, but I just didn’t like the picture.  It started out very flat and lifeless when I viewed it on the screen.  I had shown my Grandfather the image on the LCD of the camera when I went to visit him and this was the only picture that he really liked.  He said that he recognized that as a building.  Hey, he’s 98 years old and doesn’t mince words.  I will be like that someday (insert Toni’s laughter here).  Anyway, I was looking forward to seeing what I could do with the image, but when it came time to process it, I didn’t see much potential with the composition as I tried different crops and thought about how I was going to process it.  In the end, this image died a 2-star death in Lightroom.

This morning I came at it with a fresh mind and really wanted to see if I could make it work.  I started to play with it and like my favorite BB&T building, I used a lot of masks and nearly every tool in my digital toolbox to create something that I felt represented what the image was trying to say.  It was a long process, but in the end, I was actually starting to like the image.  I sent a picture of it to Toni who was at work since she is the resident expert on monochrome images from an aesthetic point of view.  When she said that it was her favorite of the bunch, I released my doubts and polished it up for addition into the gallery.

Turret With A View“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

One of the hardest things that I had to deal with was the crop.  This was something that I wasn’t sure of in the field which is odd.  I started with a 5×7 crop which was my normal starting point since vertical images seem to look really long for some reason.  I like to take some of that length out of the image these days.  It still wasn’t hitting the mark for the image.  I tried something completely different (hey, I’m already looking at normal in the rear view mirror with this trek) and went with a 16×10 crop that I usually reserve for my horizontal pieces.  That actually looked really good and accentuated the turret, but caused another problem.  The windows on the right were cropped in a way that they looked accidental in the composition.  There was no way to make them work without tearing up the overall composition that I had found which I liked.  My only option was to clone out the three windows that were partially visible on the right wall.  That was a long process, but one that made a lot of sense when I saw the completed image.  There was now a really good flow to the whole piece and I was able to start working on my tonal relationships until I ended up with this image.

It is not my favorite of the bunch, but I do see a lot of great qualities with it now.  To this point, three people have seen it.  Two of which liked it the best out of all of the images.  I obviously liked it because I shot it, but I don’t always listen to myself.  Having the input of two people that I trust, I pushed through and am quite happy with how it turned out.  Hopefully you will like it as well.


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