How to Use Your Camera to Find Adventure

Railay Longboat by Jesse StephenPhoto by Jesse Stephen

 

Defining Adventure Photography

If you’re into how how photography can change your life, then you are likely interested in adventure.

Adventure photography is a term that brings to mind climbers picking their way up frozen waterfalls and divers lost in watery chambers deep underground. Somebody takes pictures, and that is an adventure photographer. If you want a good dose of this, follow Jimmy Chen on Instagram (warning: you will develop a burning need to climb mountains).

But here’s the thing. It’s all relative. What appears totally extreme to one person (frozen waterfalls and pitch-black, waterlogged caves) is sometimes just another “day at the office” for another. That’s not to say that certain activities and moments aren’t risky or have potentially harsh consequences (they do), it’s just that truly being adventurous is actually about how a situation makes you feel rather than how it makes other people feel.

Each of us has our habits and our modes. When we do something over and over, there comes a point where we have to change the situation in order to challenge ourselves again. Hence the expression “living on the edge” – the blurring of the boundary between control and chaos, and the chasing of that fine line.

The fact is that adventure cannot be boxed up, packaged, and put on a shelf. The moment you do that it dies. Adventure is the antithesis of the knowable, the comfortable, and the completely figured-out.

Being adventurous is not any given set of circumstances that one can simply insert themselves into; it is a state of mind. Adventure is different for everyone, and for each of us it is ever-changing.

Adventure photography, then, can be thought of differently than simply documenting “adventurous” activities. It is also a way of doing photography – it is when you use photography to live in an adventurous way, no matter the subject.

Follow Your Camera

This is how your camera can lead you on some of the best adventures you will ever have. Identify a place, a thing, or a concept that you are curious about. Go and photograph it. And that doesn’t mean just taking one picture. I mean really photograph it – by using your camera to figure out things you didn’t know before. If you do this you are going to have an adventure.

The adventure of the real. The adventure of seeing. The means of the camera for awakening you to everything which you are moving through and working in. Textures, shapes, and faces. Push the limits of your camera, and it will push yours. Follow it places, let the sun go down, stick around to see what happens next. Let it give you a reason.

The end result – the photographs – of such escapades need not scream adventurous or extreme. The image of the boat above is the defining moment of a rewarding, spontaneous, and somewhat disastrous ramble of mine across Southeast Asia. A turbulent time, yet it is perhaps the most calming image I have ever made.

It is a reminder, then, that even in the most serene of settings adventure beckons our curious and creative tendencies from just below the surface.

How Photography Can Change Your Life

Photographing the Hawes Sheep Auction (Yorkshire, England) by Victor ArnoldPhoto by Victor Arnold

 

Question: Is photography a lifestyle?

This might seem like a silly question, especially if you don’t think of photography as all that much in and of itself. Many of us just usually add it onto whatever else we’re doing (selfie here, happy snap there).

But what if you put photography first, at least part of the time? Does that mean you’d take pictures every single second of every day that you did that?

Maybe, maybe not. The kind of living I’m talking about has to do with how you see the world, and whether or not photography is helping you to expand your perspective on life.

If you were really, truly living a photographic life (ahem, living exposed) you would frequently be blown away by the sights that you see every day. This is because the state of being alive is an amazing thing – when you take the time to get a good look at it.

It’s like that Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy video, but in this case you don’t even need to set foot on a plane – you just need to get yourself into the right situation and be ready to look around. The World Is Amazing.

This can be confirmed anywhere. You might go halfway around the world and find it. Or you might stumble upon it while walking down a street in your own neighborhood. The point is that your camera can be a ticket to a whole new reality no matter where you are or where you are going, because it can help you get some separation from the daily grind and the same old perspective.

So, the answer is yes. Photography is a kind of lifestyle, one founded on the adventure of seeing the incredible world that we exist in. Photography can change your life because the camera is a tool that captures not only images but also your complete and total attention – if you are prepared to offer it.

Once you realize the possibilities of living exposed, all that’s left to do is to start signing up for your own adventures.

Why Use Manual Focus On Cameras?

Using manual focus gives you more control over your camera, and greatly increases your chance of success in certain photographic situations.

Manual focus puts you in direct control of a camera’s optics. Having this control gives you greater precision when it comes to deciding how the final photograph is going to look. Bottom line: being able to focus manually is an important photographic skill.

Situations

Here are some classic situations where manual focus can do you some real favors:

Portraits

A Faces of Archaeology portraitPhoto by Jesse Stephen, Faces of Archaeology

 

Portraits, at least in terms of focus, are all about the eyes. Unless your creative intent is otherwise, the eyes should appear razor sharp. I’m talking Steve McCurry razor sharp. Otherwise, banish the image to that great digital gyre that’s swirling out there somewhere.

The issue with autofocus when it comes to portraits is that many people make the mistake of letting the camera focus generally on the face. The face, of course, has depth. All too often the camera focuses on an area of the face, such as the nose, that has a different distance to the film plane than the eyes. The different distances are thus subject to the depth of field of the photograph and thus the eyes become slightly – ever so slightly – softened. But the nose is sharp!

To avoid this, one solution is to try using manual focus. Many portrait situations are ones where you can control important aspects of the situation, such as having the camera on a tripod or having the subject sit relatively still. In these kinds of circumstances you have plenty of time to look through your viewfinder and manually focus, spinning the focus ring of your lens back and forth.

Focus just behind the eyes (so they soften slightly), then bring it back to focus just in front of the eyes (again, a slight softness). Repeat several times, back and forth, then lock in the sharpest point between the two and press that shutter. Take several frames – as you nail the focus you always want to be aware of the expression of your subject and exposing at just the right moment.

This can be hard to get, but once you’ve got it you’ll know pretty well when you have the results you need. Best of all (or worst, sometimes), you can’t blame the camera anymore.

Macro, Action, Low Light, Landscapes

A Polynesian fishhook from the collections of the Bishop MuseumPhoto by Jesse Stephen (Ancient Hawaiian bone fishhook), Bishop Museum Anthropology Department Collections

 

Other situations that are similar include macro, action, low light, and landscape photography. Each is a situation where you have control over the situation at hand to warrant considering whether you might be a more effective focuser than your camera.

Macro shots often have an extremely shallow depth of field, thereby increasing the need for exact focusing. Try zooming in on your digital display on the camera back (if you have such a feature) and focusing manually until the edge of that leaf is super sharp (tripod necessary). Then shoot with a shutter delay so as to not bump the camera.

Action shots are often good for autofucus, but you can also set a focus point and let subjects run through them. Such as in the case of a runner coming around a corner at you. Instead of relying on your autofocus to nail a series of shots (variable results are typical), before the runner arrives frame where you think they’ll be and focus on something (a fence post, a pothole) at that exact distance. Proceed to machine gun a series of exposures starting before they reach your focus point and ending after. One image will often be razor sharp. And I mean razor sharp. That’s what we’re going for.

Low light is tricky for manual focus because you can’t see through your viewfinder. But that can be solved with light. As in a flashlight. Or the headlights of a car. With the light(s) on, set your focus. Turn the light(s) off. Expose the scene accordingly. Perfect focus (or at least what you thought was perfect focus).

Landscapes are another one where it’s often good to set your own focus point. Look up something called hyperfocal distance, but the short of it is that you often want to be focused midway into your shot with a deep depth of field. So that the beautiful flower in the foreground AND the peaks in the background are free of the fuzz. Assuming that you’ve wrangled the wind, that is.

Autofocus Ain’t All Bad

The alternative to manual focus is, of course, automatic focus. Auto focus is everywhere (some cameras don’t even have manual focus, or people don’t know how to get to it) and often has various modes (e.g. continuous, single point, multiple point). I’ll deal with auto focus in a later post, but an important point is that both manual focus and auto focus are extremely useful. It is best to know how to do both, but it would seem that many folks always rely on auto.

Focusing is a skill

Once upon a time, cameras had to be manually focused for every photograph. That undoubedly took extra time (although composing and focusing can be done simultaneously). The good thing was that – if you shot enough photographs – you eventually got pretty good at it (or gave up photography, hopefully).

If you don’t have a background shooting with manual focus, take some time and work on it. Because it’s a skill, it takes practice. This can be frustrating (especially when a potentially fine shot is poorly focused) but eventually your results will start to reward the effort. Nailing the focus on one shot is better than having 10 shots that are just slightly soft. And we’ll keep that digital gyre just about manageable.

What’s the Tv Camera Setting For?

Slow shutter speed blurring water over boulders in stream
Photo: Victor Arnold

 

Tv stands for “Shutter Priority Mode”

Ever wanted to capture a colorful bird mid-fight, or maybe blur the water of a stream while it rushes over a mess of jumbled boulders? In any situation where you’re photographing movement, knowing about the Tv (or often just T) setting on your camera can come in handy.

Tv is a “priority” mode that lets you specify a shutter speed and leaves the camera to figure out everything else (aperture, ISO/ASA). Choose Tv mode when you want to control motion in your shot (often either “freezing” or “blurring” it).

Setting your camera to Tv on the mode dial is great when the main consideration of the scene has to do with movement of subjects through or within the frame. To freeze things expose them using a blazing fast shutter speed, like 1/2000 of a second. To blur them, slow it waaay down, like 1/2 (half a second) or  2″ (two seconds). How fast or how slow that shutter speed needs to be to accomplish a desired effect depends on how fast or slow that subject is moving.

That introduces movement and motion of the subject. However, camera movement is also important. When a camera is hand-held, it moves. Or more appropriately, you move (no matter how hard you try to stop breathing… don’t stop breathing). Once you get below a shutter speed of about 1/60th of a second (and this does depend a bit on the focal length of your lens, and whether or not you’re leaning against something, etc), you run the risk of slightly (or fantastically) blurring your pictures because you moved the camera while taking the shot.

Tv mode is one way to combat this. In situations where you know you’re going to handhold the camera (especially in low or fading light), stick it on Tv, scroll to 1/60 and try it out. The camera will hold that setting and adjust aperture and ISO/ASA to achieve correct exposure, if possible.

Final tip:

Make sure you recognize shutter speed values on your camera. They’re usually fractions (1/60) and that gives them away, unless they’re greater than a second in which case they look like 30″ (that’d be a thirty second exposure!). In any case slow shutter speeds will “blur” subjects because they’re moving while the shutter is open (most desirable when your camera is on a tripod). Fast shutter speeds will “freeze” things because the shutter is open instantaneously and that split second is not long enough for much motion to occur.

Here’s a list of full stop shutter speeds from slow (full seconds) to fast (fractions of a second). Your camera will probably have some intermediate shutter speeds on it as well, but most will fall within this range. The vast majority of shots taken in this world fall between 1/15th to 1/1000 of a second, so get out there and push the limits!

SLOW SHUTTER SPEED  30″  15″  8″  4″  2″  1″  1/2  1/4  1/8  1/15  1/30  1/60  1/125  1/250  1/500  1/1000  1/2000  FAST SHUTTER SPEED

Photo: The River Swale between Muker and Keld (that effectively uses a slow shutter speed) taken by Victor Arnold during Exposure: England, the Yorkshire Dales
RELATED: Now that you’ve got Tv mode down, check out What’s the Av setting for?

Nothing Beats Genuine

There’s been plenty of chatter recently about the new Lyto cameras (which don’t require you to focus), Canon’s latest Mega DSLR (which butters your toast for you), and plenty of other stuff that I’ve undoubtedly missed.

Then come along two gals in a canoe. Out for a look. What they find is “a chance encounter and shared moment,” captured seemingly without much fanfare and casually shared. But it spreads like wildfire once people starting seeing it.


 
A quiet production that’s mostly built around a really really cool experience. Even going viral, it feels like it still honors the moment somehow.

Nicely done.

I Shoot Film

Swaledale Barn by Christine Heidel
Photo: Christine Heidel
 
I have a confession to make: I shoot film.

That’s right – in this age of megapixels, 64 GB memory cards and cameras that can rattle off over ten frames in the blink of an eye, I choose to shoot film. But, I don’t just shoot any kind of film. I shoot large format with a 4×5 view camera.

View cameras were first developed during the era of the Daguerreotype in the 1800s and are still in use today, albeit by a relatively small proportion of photographers. This was the type of camera used by Ansel Adams to create his unforgettable landscape photography. The whole idea of the view camera and the process involved to shoot with one captured my imagination and I knew it was something that I needed to try.
 

Into the field

Now, I am still new to the world of large format and I have a lot to learn. Exposure: England, The Yorkshire Dales was the first time that I primarily shot any assignment with my 4×5 camera and I realized fairly quickly that I wasn’t quite prepared for some of the logistics. The gear was heavy. It was tough to load and unload film holders in the field (especially while trying to seek shelter from passing English rainstorms). The light changes quickly in the Yorkshire Dales and all too often I found that by the time I was set up and ready to go, the image that I was trying to capture was long gone.

After a several long days out hiking and shooting, it felt strange to know that I had only created about two dozen exposures while my teammates – who were shooting digital – had probably already made several hundred. What if none of my pictures came out, I wondered?  Might not I travel all the way to England, carry thirty pounds of camera gear for days on end all around the Dales, and end up with nothing? It was a possibility.
 

So, why did I do it?

The answer is actually pretty simple: I chose to shoot with the 4×5 because it forced me to slow down and see the landscape in a different way.

Taking a photograph with a 4×5 view camera is an unavoidably lengthy process. Setting up the camera, composing the image, figuring out the exposure with a hand-held spot meter – all of this takes quite a bit of time. This isn’t a process that I go through for just any photograph. I have to be fully vested in the idea of a picture before I take out the camera. I have to be able to see that image in my mind and know that it is something that I need to capture.

And for me, that is the difference between shooting digital and shooting with my 4×5. Shooting digital is so much more accessible than the 4×5, it makes it easy to capture first and think later. When I walk by something remotely interesting, I can quickly put my digital camera up to my face and rattle off a few frames. I can check the results on the camera’s display and can make adjustments to my exposure and composition based on real-time feedback.

But, when I am out shooting the 4×5, I have to visualize the image fully before I can even begin the process of committing it to film.  I am reminded of something Ansel Adams said: “Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust to your own reactions and convictions. Ask yourself: “Does this subject move me to feel, think and dream? Can I visualize a print – my own personal statement of what I feel and want to convey – from the subject before me?
 

The excitement of finding the memorable

As I ask myself, “does this subject move me?”, I find myself much more aware of the world around me. I am constantly looking for an image that I can commit to. I am seeing the landscape, looking at the light and asking myself if this is a time and place that I want to immortalize in film. Is this a time and place that I want to remember?

And, when I do find that image, nothing compares to the excitement of getting set up to take the shot – because I know that there is the potential to create something beautiful and memorable.

When I got my negatives back from Exposure: England, The Yorkshire Dales I whooped with joy that they came out. Looking at each of the 23 images that I created, I could remember the details of every single one. I know where I was when I took the shot. I can look back at my notes and recall the decisions that I made on composition or the struggles that I had on exposure). Not every image is a keeper, but that’s part of the learning process that I feel I go through every time I shoot the 4×5. I know that those lessons will make me a better photographer overall – whether I am shooting digital or film. Because, in the end, it is not the medium that makes the photograph. Rather, it’s the vision of the photographer and his or her ability translate that vision to the image itself.

The process of visualizing an image and translating it to film is what large format photography is teaching me in a way that nothing else has. That’s why I shoot film.

Note: Written January, 2011

Your Army of Clones: How To Create Marvelous Multiplicity Photographs

Suze Crossing Eagle Creek by Jesse Ward Stephen

A photograph is usually one slice in time, but on occasion it’s more than that. Composite images are a good example.

A composite image is “assembled” from several images. In other words you start with, say, five shots and end up with one. This can be a very simple or a very complex process. Let’s keep it simple!

The above composite image was made from five separate shots. Note that there’s five of Suze in the final shot – that’s multiplicity. Less expensive and less messy than cloning – what’s not to like?!
 

WHAT YOU NEED

  • a camera
  • photo editing software (e.g. Adobe Photoshop)
  • and a vision!

Splurge a little (and make your life easier) by adding:

  • a tripod
  • manual camera controls to keep your exposure constant
  • remote shutter release (if you’re really high maintenance!)

 

SEE IT, SET IT

Right, time for your glorious vision. These sorts of images “work” best when a subject is moving through the shot and the viewer can “see” multiple images of their movement all at once. For example, a snowboarder appears frame-right, launches off the lip of a jump, gets crazy-inverted, flips, twists, turns, lands, and exits frame-left.

What will be an interesting path for the action through the frame? Think about any subject’s movement in terms of a path and where it will go, and point your camera accordingly. What’s going to be visually interesting about the path: lateral, diagonal, mimicking another element of the scene? Every scene is different, but suffice to say the best images of this breed marry the “frame” and the “action”.

In order to keep things the same from shot to shot and isolate the subject’s movement, a tripod is always a plus. To lessen the chance of bumping the camera while shooting, try a remote shutter release. OR you can wing it by handholding and pay for your sins in post. When running and gunning (or smack in the middle of a stream just hiking along, like my above shot), don’t be afraid to just go for it.
 

PREP THE CAMERA

Two more things, and they’re important! First, meter the scene, note the exposure, and then set your camera in full manual mode to expose accordingly. This ensures that you’ll get consistent exposures throughout the shots, which will help to make your final image appear seamless. Second, if you’re shooting a moving subject, make sure that your shutter speed is fast enough to effectively “freeze” the movement. Five blurs across the scene just aren’t going to do your vision justice, now are they?

Right. Ready, set, shoot – before the subject moves into the frame begin firing off a burst of images and continue doing so until they have exited the frame. Go nuts.

Multiplicity stills

As you can see, I shot nineteen images while Suze crossed just upstream. I also moved the camera considerably because I am a general nuisance to myself… No matter – take heart for keeping your exposure constant and living large, remote cable release or not!

Overshoot. Out of the nineteen images, I chose five for the final composite based on Suze’s position and form. Fewer images equals less options for the final image.

Multiplicity behind the scenes

To combine your selected images into one, open them in Adobe Photoshop (or a similar photo editing program), and proceed to combine them all into one file as separate layers. This is like taking five physical prints and stacking them on top of each other.

The next step is akin to cutting up physical prints so that you can see through holes in each one and view all five instances of the subject at the same time. Using the selection tools and/or the eraser tool, get busy making multiplicity!

Five, Count 'em, Five Layers

Sink as much time as you’d like into perfecting your blends. As you might have already noticed, my hack job above is visible in more than one place. But much of the fun is in the making, not necessarily the perfecting!

Now that you got skills, keep in mind that combining images like this is handy for other tomfoolery too, like HDR photography.

Finally, for pioneering studies of motion Google “Muybridge” and to see a master of composite images who did it all in the darkroom check out Ulsman. Happy trails!

Remain Free

Q: Can reporters still work like Henri Cartier-Bresson?
 
A: Yes. As long as they treat photography as a way of life and not as a job. That’s the question. Henri made that choice. He taught us a lesson in how to remain free. And that’s why he succeeded in bringing energy to his images.

Raymond Depardon on Henri-Cartier Bresson, Le Monde (29-30 August 2004)