Mostly Cloudy, 11 Degrees, West Wind 5-10mph
We had about three inches of snow yesterday, so the trails in the woods are pristine. It was cold enough that even the light winds were biting much cheeks. No frostbite, but it wouldn’t take much to get it on a day like this. There were a lot of tracks in the fresh snow this morning. At first I thought someone had been walking a dog there, but I soon realized there were no human tracks. My best guess is coyotes. There were lots of tracks and several areas where the snow was trampled heavily, perhaps as they chased a mouse or vole in the snow.
I see a fair amount of wildlife in the woods. Squirrels are ubiquitous. Deer are pretty common. Wild turkeys are less common but not rare. Jamie and I also came upon a skunk once. It immediately sprayed Jamie, though not too badly. I have only see one coyote in the five years or so of walking there. It was standing perhaps 150 yards away in the trail facing me and looking right at us. It turned and trotted off pretty quickly. I don’t remember if Jamie saw it, but he had sense enough not to chase it. I have no idea what might have happened had he chased it. Would it have run, or stood and fought?
I spent yesterday afternoon (Superbowl Sunday) editing pictures and I explored the kinds of modifications I talked about yesterday. What would my tree trunk pictures look like if I darkened them a lot? The truth is that it didn’t make a lot of difference. It was just darker, no more mysterious or engaging. I looked into the various lenses offered by Lensbaby. Some of them make pretty cool effects, but they’re not cheap and basically do one or two things each. Not a cheap solution, though if money were no object, I would buy one or two.
Then I tried a piece of software I have that purports to simulate different types of camera and lens effects. Right away, it made a stunning difference. They have a bunch of presets that supposedly simulate classic cameras, wet plate cameras, toy cameras, and more. Some of the presets were striking. They transformed the images. I’ll post a bunch of examples here. I think you’ll agree that the results are much more interesting than the original images. I tried a variety of the effects on several different images, then stopped for a break.
I was very uncomfortable with the idea that I could apply what amounted to not much more than a fancy Instagram filter and suddenly have “art.” Much more uncomfortable than I thought I might be. I couldn’t imagine telling the gallery owner that these were software effects, not some exotic camera or lens or film processing.
After lunch I started looking more closely at the controls the software offered. I began changing the settings to my own liking. The software allows you to save your settings to be applied to other photographs. Little by little I was getting more comfortable with the idea. Now I wasn’t just applying a single effect. I was controlling the effects and creating the image I wanted. Many of the effects could almost be reproduced with a conventional editor.
In the end, I figured out that the software allowed me to control selective focus and blur—much like the Lensbaby lenses or some of the “toy” cameras from Lomography. It also gave me more control over vignetting, which is the darkening you sometimes see around the perimeter of a photograph. It’s considered a lens defect technically, but I usually apply a little vignette to my photographs anyway, to help focus attention and contain the image within the frame.
The software also allowed tint effects which alter the color of a photograph or apply tints to a black and white photo. These effects are available in my normal photo editor, which is Adobe Lightroom. It also allowed the application of subtle textures to the image, as if the film were spotted or scratched in processing or handling. I wouldn’t use the more obvious of these, but some of them were subtle enough that I liked them. There were also effects in this tool that simulated light leaks that might streak or blow out parts of an image.
What all of these effects did was to simulate imperfections that have been meticulously eliminated from modern digital cameras. There is no question in my mind that the altered images are generally much more interesting and attractive than the conventional images. I’m still not comfortable with the idea, but I’ll give it time and see where I wind up.
I’ve created beautiful images for years without using these sorts of effects. I have played with selective focus through the use of a Lensbaby lens. I think I used only a couple of these images in my portfolio and was never sure of them. There’s no question that I feel like my unaltered photograhs are somehow more pure than these altered photos, but there’s also no question that these effects inject just the element of darkness and mystery that I was looking for.
I think I’ll just have to let these images sit with me for a while to see how I feel about them over time. I printed a few small prints last night and they look pretty good. I haven’t done any big prints of anything yet. I think some of them might deserve printing at larger sizes. It also occurred to me in my mid-night thoughts that there are a bunch of images that I’ve shot over the years that might come alive with this kind of treatment. I have probably hundreds of images of beautiful forests from the Pictured Rocks area that might finally feel the way I want if I use these tools.
I like the word “tools” a lot better than “effects.” Effects suggests artificiality to me. A tool is just another way of editing a photograph.
It did just occur to me that I don’t think I’ve seen anything like these things used in the fine art photo magazines I subscribe to. You see effects somewhat like them created by actually using antiquated photographic processes. You see photographs where the exposure and values in the images are obviously heavily altered. You even see occasional work where images are composited in Photoshop.
So maybe I wouldn’t submit these images to those magazines, but is that the only standard I should adhere to. Isn’t the idea to create powerful images? Does it matter how they were arrived at? I’m still creating them by making essentially photographic adjustments to them, not unlike what I always do. It’s just that I have some new tools at my disposal.
Or is it? As I said, I think I’ll let time and more reflection resolve this for me. I’l talk to some artist friends, though none of them are photographers. I’m sure this is the sort of thing that would create a firestorm of self-righteousness in a photography forum. I wouldn’t consider going there to discuss it. The decision is up to me and my gallery.