Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Thinking about cinematography

I haven't really paid much attention to cinematography while watching movies, except for those ones like Winged Migration when it's really the subject of the film.

So it's been interesting to at least think about the cinematography as I watched an episode of Montalbano, which is an Italian detective series set in a beautiful town in Sicily.  We were introduced to this series at last winter's Italian class and we were immediately taken by the feeling of Italy it communicates.

The camera work is really beautiful, pulling back to show gorgeous scenes of calm blue water with a distant swimmer (Detective Montalbano) gradually approaching the beach and then wading out of the water.  Many episodes start with this type of scene and also include a lot of footage of Montalbano in his simple but gorgeous beachside apartment.

There are also many scenes of the town and the windswept coastline of Sicily.  I watched part of one episode without the subtitles and it was quite surprising how much of the story I was able to understand.   The camera does a good job of telling the story by following Montalbano through his days.  He appears in almost every scene and the camera focuses a lot on his face and the faces of other characters.  The camera also reveals the relationships between Montelbano and his group of detectives, and his superiors.   

The camera work is slow and deliberate.  There is a contrast between dark saturated colours for the interiors and quite high key, almost blown out exposures outdoors. And always there is the counterpoint of the beautiful turquoise ocean.  It's a gorgeously filmed series--and the stories are quite complex and psychologically interesting as well.  

I wasn't able to figure out how to take screen shots from the series, which can be viewed online here (although they are in Italian).  But I've illustrated this with two photos for the Pacific, one taken in California and one in Mazatlan.  Both of these have a similar feeling to the beach that figures so strongly in the Montelbano series.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Calling yourself an artist

Here's a tricky subject:  deciding if I am an artist or not.  It's something I've struggled with since I was a child.  You know how families do that thing of assigning labels to each child?  My mother always said that my sister was the musical one and I was the artistic one.  Funny how these labels can affect you.  My sister studied piano for many years and took some of those advanced examinations and she has a lovely old piano in her home--but she hasn't played the piano (even when she's by herself) for decades. As for me, I was the artistically talented one who went to art school (then dropped out), studied to be an art teacher (then dropped out), and now I have a spare room full of art supplies but I never go in there.  What is it about these labels that paralyzes people?

I've been reading the responses from others in this class and they show me that I am not alone in responding to this question with trepidation.  I've responded to some of their posts and it has got me thinking deeply about it.  So, here are the questions and my responses to them.

What is “art?” 

Having given it a great deal of thought I've come up with this definition:  Art is a personal creative response to something that touches you in your life.  The response can be through words as a poem or a description, through movement as a dance, through voice in a song or a chant, through creating music of any kind, or through visual media.  

In its narrowest sense, visual art is often thought of as paintings, sculptures and drawings--the things we would see in an art gallery.  But I would also include collage, multi-media, installations, printmaking, cartoons, papier mache, and photography. It could be as simple as noticing the light on the turban squash and framing a photograph.

Having spent a little bit of time in the 'art world' studying painting I also know that there is a whole snobby kind of thing about 'good art' and 'bad art' and this adds to the confusion. Abstract artists dismiss realistic paintings as being less than art.  Some subjects are not considered as valid as others. In Victoria there are lots of paintings of whales that are sold to tourists so any image of a whale becomes suspect.  Then there are paintings that are derivative or hommages to other artists' work.  Is this art?  Some paintings are direct copies from a photograph or another painting.  Is this art?  According to my definition I would say yes to most of these.  Even a copy of another painting is art because it is one person's response to something they connected with.

I've heard an African saying:   If you can walk you can dance; it you can talk you can sing.  This is often quoted to people who think they can't sing.  It's kind of the same with art.  Although there are some people who don't think they're artistic because they can't draw or use paint, they are creative in putting clothing together or setting a table or creating a garden or working with wood.

And of course photography is another way that we can use to create a personal response to something that touches us, even if it's just a momentary glimpse of a bicycle beside the lifeguard tower along the Malecon or this night shot of a pizza place in Mazatlan (which I did a watercolour painting of a couple of years ago).  By this definition, it is all art.

Who is an “artist?” 

Well, here's where it gets tricky.  I suppose you could say that anyone who creates art is an artist.  But I find that "artist" is a really loaded word.  Most people I know who work in the visual arts don't call themselves artists.  They will say they 'make art'  or 'do art' or they 'work in visual art' or 'make paintings' or something like that.  And these are people who are passionate creators of art and who often sell their work.

The media likes to anoint people as "artists" whether they work with fabric or paint colours or magic shows or just about anything else. If you work in the commercial field you can call yourself a graphic artist and that seems to be ok.  And someone very famous who makes a living from art like Robert Bateman can call himself an artist.  But the rest of us don't.

What is the role of art and artists in your life and in society as a whole?

Oh boy, the role of art?  Well maybe it's to share individual responses with others in the world.  Society puts it on a pedestal and the media (and even the government) has its own take.  This is pretty complicated and I don't think I want to get into all of that just now.   

Do you enjoy art and creativity? Are you an observer or a practitioner?

I am both an observer and a practitioner.  I love colour, shape, form, and composition.  I love looking at paintings and thinking about painting. (You'll notice I didn't say I love painting--although I do.  I'm still kind of blocked with painting but I'm thinking of taking some of my photographs and using them as a basis for some kind of abstract acrylic paintings.)  I love looking at photographs and taking photographs.  I find the camera so quick and easy compared to creating a painting that I have stepped away from drawing and painting for now.  

Is photography art? Why or why not? 

Photography can be art but it isn't always. Lots of people take snapshots of events and holidays but they're just recording something rather than making a personal creative response. Just  pointing a camera at something and clicking the shutter doesn't make you an artist or a photographer.  Like any art, photography is complex and demands study and practice.  To make photography art, we have to work to control the medium so it can clearly communicate the way we respond to and see this amazing world we live in.  

I am so drawn to the tiny flowers and I have taken so many images that are not unique in any way, but i still love to look at the small details like the veining in this arugula flower or the shadows on the hydrangea petals.

Are you an artist? Why or why not? 

Like most of the others in Kat's course I struggle with calling myself an artist.  I think most of us shy away from calling ourselves artists because of that.  It sounds a bit show-offy.  But that doesn't mean I don't think of myself as a person who creates personal visual responses to things that I see in my life.  

As I said,  I think that if we make images that evoke an emotional response then we are creating art.  The question then becomes whether the image speaks to others.  It's nice to think that some of them can communicate the essence of my vision at that moment.  I do like to post a few photographs on the internet and it's nice to have some positive feedback.  I'm thinking that I'd like to create some little notecards with some of the images that I've taken so I could use them for gifts.  

But I have no desire to show my photographs because really for me it's the process that I love: getting lost in the moment of capturing the beauty and strangeness I see on this journey through life.  It's a kind of  meditation for me. Thank you Kat for creating a process to help us find ourselves as artists in this world.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Exploring point of view

The assignment is to pick a subject and go beyond the usual point of view. It's true in photography (as in life) that we do have al habitual point of view.  Mine does vary depending on the subject but often I'm looking straight at something or else close up to it at eye level.

For this exercise I chose the huge arbutus tree in my front yard as my subject.  It's an old giant of a tree, probably well over 100 feet in height and I see it every morning from my bedroom window.  In fact I've taken a good many photographs of this tree over the years as I'm often drawn to the gorgeous colour of sunlight on its branches.  Here's the standard POV; it's pretty much what I see out the window. (Yes it's just one tree.)

But this time I was looking for some other ways to capture the tree.  The light wasn't exceptional but I headed out and took about 100 photos trying to push the point-of-view envelope.

The first thing I did was cross the road to shoot from a new angle. I found this point of view somewhat alarming, as it shows just how huge this tree is compared to our little house.  Occasionally we wonder what it would be like to have this tree come down across our roof or driveway.  You can see that we wouldn't stand a chance!

Looking up into the branches from this side gave some nice results with a cedar tree in the background.  

This one shows the  beautiful orange and green undertones of the smooth bark and the one below shows the contrast with rough shagginess of the peeling bark.  

Then I went in closer, leaning up against the trunk and looking straight up into the branches.  I like the way this shows both the ivy on the trunk and leafy branch far above.

And this misty shot really shows that is it a forest giant.

Finally I did some macros of the bark and other details.  I'm not sure why I've never thought to do this before.

I thought I'd finished my exploration of the points of view yesterday but just after I pulled this post together this morning we took the dogs out and on the way back I took another look at the tree.... and had to run in to get my camera.  The sun was showing more of the gorgeous red and yellow tones and I was seeing it in an entirely new way, yet again.

This time I took fifty shots and I really feel that I got into the spirit of this incredible tree.
Here are my favourites:  Two looking way up...

Two quite sharp macros showing the peeling bark....

And this one showing the lovely shading and colours in the smooth bark with the bonus leaf shadows.

I think that this morning's discoveries wouldn't have happened without my spending an hour with the tree yesterday.  Amazing how it builds and builds.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Do I have a shooting style?

Today I'm thinking about how I take photographs, or what Kat calls my shooting style.  For me the equipment part is pretty simple as I just use my Canon G12 which fits into a little black purse that I carry with me everywhere.  No additional lenses, bags or tripod.  This make it pretty easy for me to capture things I see while out and about.  There's a part of me that would like to try using different lenses and filters but I think I need a lot more time just using the camera I have before stepping over that threshold.

I'm still learning to use the modes of this camera and I usually shoot in the program mode or the aperture priority mode because I often use the macro setting and like to have the background out of focus.  Also I am more and more using exposure compensation and the histogram.  I'm beginning to push myself to do more experimenting with camera modes, depending on the situation.

I love natural light, especially the late afternoon and evening sun.  I'm very fond of things that are back-lit, especially flowers and growing things.  I'm also drawn to long shadows and spots of brilliant colour.
That's not to say I don't also like monochromatic views and rainy days.  (The three photos here were taken after a heavy rain in my back yard.)

Pretty well all aspects of natural light are inspiring to me.   My response to light is intuitive.  I've always been aware of colours and shadows and glowing light and I love to attempt to capture it with my camera.  There's still a lot to learn here.

As for location, the world around me is what inspires me, whether I'm walking to the library or exploring a Mexican village.  I find I'm often more excited when I'm in a new place, but if the light is glowing on a tree outside the grocery store I'll be inspired too.  Although I'll bring my camera to a party and take a few photos, these are not what get my photographic juices going.

I usually bring my camera with me everywhere I go--and sometimes I'll even use it to take a photograph or two.  But my preference is to take some time alone to go out alone with my camera and really explore a subject in more detail.  Often when I'm with another person  feel constrained or hurried and just end up grabbing a couple of shots when I know there is much more to be explored.  I think that for me to develop my photography I need to be more deliberate about this.  If I create the time I can do the experimenting with settings get into the deeper meditative flow with my subject.  Also to really study and learn about light and exposures and focal length by doing it consciously.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Walking without the camera

Our assignment was to take a walk somewhere without the camera and journal what we experienced.  For me this was not really new as I often head out the door for a walk with the dogs and leave the camera behind.  Those are usually the times, of course, when I see something I really want to capture.  When that happens I just mentally click it in my mind and add it to my mental image file.  It's pretty full actually...and it's not nearly as easy to review as the photos on my computer!  But to me, just seeing the image can sometimes be enough.

For today's walk I left the dogs at home and went to a place I've always wanted to visit--a nature sanctuary where dogs aren't allowed.  Most of the time when I'm out in nature I have the dogs with me and it's quite different walking without the dogs.  It's so relaxing.   Rithet's Bog is the last remaining peat bog in our area.  Like many wetlands, it's home to a wide variety of birds and butterflies.  I walked the trail part way around it and found it so peaceful to watch the songbirds and the butterflies without thinking that I should try to take photos of them.

I found that my other senses were more heightened on this walk.  I was hearing the songs of the birds and the sound of running water and the wind in the trees.  Also I found I looked up more and saw more of the sky.  (This photo is form my archives and shows a bit of what I saw.)

There was one spot where I really would have loved to stop and take some pictures.  It was a little brown creek that ran into a tiny waterfall with beautiful reflections.  

Now that I've seen this place I will go back there with my camera--and without the dogs (and the husband).  He's pretty accommodating but it's always better to take the time myself and not feel pressured.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Solving focus problems

Continuing along with my photographic explorations, I'm taking another session of Kat's online courses. This one is the Journey of Inspiration.  The first lesson is to think about how I solved a photography problem in the past and how that learning might apply to current problems I'm facing.

I'm finding this assignment tough because it's not really my nature to be so analytical -- but in thinking about it I am remembering a couple of years ago with my old Lumix point-and-shoot I couldn't seem to find the way to focus my macro shots.  I'm obsessed with closeups of flowers (like just about everyone else who has a camera it seems) and I wanted to get in as close as I could with sharp focus.  It seems obvious now but I hadn't connected the little green square in the middle of the image as showing what was in focus.  Reviewing my camera manual was what finally helped me make this connection.  When I did, everything opened up for me and I was able to take images like these two where there's a shallow depth of field and the focus is on one detail.   

I'm still working with a point-and-shoot camera; now it's a Canon G12.  I chose this because it's got just about all the functions of a DSLR but isn't as bulky.   However I am still finding it difficult to get the autofocus to set on what I want.

Look at this photo taken just this weekend.  I was trying to focus on the two ladybugs on the grass stem but no matter how many times I refocused the camera kept focusing on the rocks in behind.  After several attempts I  gave up.  I know that if I had the time to persist and spend maybe half an hour working with this I would have managed to get something better than this--but then the bus came and we had to leave for the folk music festival.

Part of the problem was that I didn't have the time to spend on it.  But maybe it's time to go back to my camera manual.  I know there are other focusing options that I need to review.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Poppies in a pot on the outdoor table in my friend's back yard.  Something dreamy about the out-of-focus bamboo in the background and the backlighted hairs on the stems.  I like the light in this photograph.