A couple years ago, when flappers were dancing the Charleston and ULTRAsomething was still published on newsprint, I would sometimes write about various photographic challenges and how I approached their resolution. Apparently I enjoyed these articles more than my readers did, because they’re amongst the least popular posts ever published on ULTRAsomething.
Although I began to write less frequently about these challenges, I never stopped creating new ones for myself. One of the great things about photography — unlike endeavors such as athletics or underwear modeling — is that you actually improve with age. But you can’t improve if you don’t push yourself, and that’s why I’m always inventing new, self-imposed photo challenges to coax me from my comfort zone.
Last month, I gave myself a new assignment: take a photo that screams “autumn!”
Simple, right? It would have been, had I not stipulated that the photo be shot in black & white. And just to make it tough on myself, I imposed a few additional requirements: I would use neither chicanery nor metaphor. Nor would I allow myself to invoke the transitive property of geometry: “if it’s North America and it’s a photo of a Jack o’ Lantern, then it’s obviously autumn!”
Nope. I wanted a nice “typical” photograph of autumn foliage that, in spite of the fact it was black & white, would still convey “autumn.”
My first attempts all involved scenes that contained a cacophony of colors — red leaves, yellow leaves, orange leaves and green leaves. I knew that careful color filtering would reveal the tonal contrasts between trees, since leaves of different colors would render in different shades of grey. And what was the end result? A bunch of grey trees! I will neither bore you, nor embarrass myself, by posting the pitiful results.
So I simplified the concept, and chose to work with only the basic computer graphic colors: red, green and blue. With a bit of color filtration, I knew these colors would resolve into three distinct tonal shades: white, grey and black. It wasn’t hard to find a scene that contained all the elements: red leaves, green leaves, blue sky and water.
As a test, I photographed the rather banal vista shown below, and applied some red filtering in post production. As expected, the red trees turned white, the blue sky turned black, and the green trees remained grey.
There’s just one problem: This photo bears a striking resemblance to an infrared photograph. Anyone who’s ever seen an infrared photo knows that leaves turn to white and the sky turns black. So in the previous photo, there’s nothing that makes this shot say “autumn” instead of “infrared.” Sure there are a few grey (green) trees in the left of the frame, but even that’s to be expected with infrared photography.
So I rejected this method too, and I wandered around for another month — tempted to either quit or cheat. I just couldn’t figure out how to take a black & white photo of brightly colored foliage, yet make it say “autumn.”
Then last week, with fall waning and winter bearing down, I saw a pair of trees on a hillside — each resplendently adorned with a radiant mixture of yellow and green leaves. It was the sort of scene that color photographers get giddy over. I stared at this scene for a good five minutes. I knew that, somewhere beneath all this color, there must be a black & white shot.
As I walked beneath the trees and looked upward into the complex labyrnth of branches, I heard the fallen leaves rustle beneath my feet. So I looked down — and that’s when I saw the shot shown at the top of this article.
I’d spent so long shooting tree tops, it never occurred to me to shoot tree bottoms. When else, other than autumn, would we see a brightly colored mix of leaves at the base of a tree? And because the leaves are so much whiter than the tree trunk (which, instinctively, we know is brown) we automatically intuit that the leaves must be brightly colored. Consequently, I think this photo succeeds — not necessarily by being a great (or even particularly interesting) shot, but by fully satisfying the dictates of my self-assigned challenge.
Come to think of it, this is probably the reason I stopped publishing articles about overcoming difficult photographic situations — it’s because, by definition, these articles force me to display failure and mediocrity. Considering the state of today’s photographic job market, this doesn’t seem like an overly wise career move.
But then, prospective employers don’t really read this site — photographers do. So here’s a little tip to my fellow photographers: give yourself assignments. Hard ones. Because the more you push yourself, the more you’ll learn to really see the world around you, and the better your photos will be. And in your twilight years, while your buddies all lament their faded physiques and reminisce about past glories on the playing field, you’ll know (as a photographer) that your better days are still to come.
©2011 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “Autumn” was shot with a Pentax K-5 fronted with an old Pentax-M 120mm f/2.8 lens. “Red or Infrared?” was photographed with a Leica M9 and a 35mm version 4 Summicron lens.
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