Though photography is more accessible than ever through digital technology and social media, the category of environmental photography seems to remain somewhat misunderstood and under-appreciated as an art form. For example: a couple years ago, a woman I went on a date with, upon finding out I was a photographer asked, “So…you just like, take pictures of what’s already there?” Yes- NO- wait, it’s not as simple as – WWwwhhhaatttTT??!! Okay, hold up – this date’s OVER, lady.
Photography does not need to be mere documentation that concludes a series of transpired events and it’s certainly much more than depressing the shutter and reflecting exactly what’s in plain sight. It’s an artistic craft that requires patience, anticipation, and design. We really do “paint with light”. Have you ever analyzed impressionist (and many post-impressionist) oil paintings, particularly those of urban depictions? Even though this style of painting strays from mirroring exact scenes with hard, defined edges, it frees the artist to further manipulate light and movement, connect with the real and grounded understanding of the viewer, and simultaneously amplify that appreciation. Through masterful brushstrokes, scenes are carved out and inferred by the emanation and reflection of light versus shadow. A photographer’s understanding of how light impresses the eyes and psyche is quite similar. However outside of the modern miracle of Photoshop, environmental photographers cannot selectively ignore distractions or interrupting elements like painters can with a canvas.
I’m greedy. I wanted the whole thing from top to ground.
APRIL 20, 2011: On the evening I arrived at the theater, I observed a subway entry (which I didn’t know about) that immediately changed how I previsioned the photo. Fortunately, there was no event taking place that evening and as a double bonus – ARETHA FRANKLIN was listed first on the marquis! How can you possibly beat that icon? What if that was Michael Bolton instead? I chose to capture the marquis from a near vantage point, which is where the 17mm tilt-shift came in super handy. The subway entry became the foreground object through which I’d capture the motion of people going to and from below. Instead of treating the Chicago Theater as an isolated subject with little environment beyond it, I chose to use surrounding elements to give it real, historic presence.
I kept settings at 1600 ISO stopped to F16. After some trial and error, I quickly figured out crowds passing directly under the marquis were distracting to the composition. Some tourists asked me to take pictures of them with their cameras (HINT: I am stupid – I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO USE YOUR CAMERA, PUUULLLLLLLLEASE TELL ME HOW TO USE IT.). After 15 minutes of shooting and waiting I felt that I struck gold. With nobody directly under the marquis, a young woman passed me and I quickly depressed the trigger as she passed through the subway entry. I reviewed the image on the rear LCD screen, was satisfied, and called it a night.
One Chicago Moment (2011)
A couple weeks later, I took a first look at this image at full-resolution and discovered an inadvertent bonus. A bus pulled into the right of the photo frame, which added a streaking splash of color and movement, and proved to be the right finishing touch. Had I further increased the ISO, I would’ve likely missed the whole thing with a faster shutter speed. So remember, no matter how much you plan, there’s nothing like having a little luck om your side!
The only major digital editing involved the marquis itself. I wound up burning the text announcing upcoming shows and the light bulbs directly underneath because they came out a bit blown out. Otherwise, I was pretty happy with the final result and achieved exactly what I wanted to impress viewers with. Though this photography is a reflection of what I saw in front of me, what was critical was capturing the atmosphere, lights, and movement – the essence of Chicago, in one precise intersection of place and time. While painters often MAKE the right moments, environmental photographers ensure that they’re IN FRONT OF the right moment; both require the same levels of creative merit and observation with which to execute.
So after spending the day in luxurious Camden, I hopped over to the Philly side. As I crossed over I received my first phone call from a potential client I had been speaking with for the last two weeks. They were ready to go. Without getting into details, that meant the second I got into Philly, I had to find the nearest hotspot to set up my computer and perform business over the next couple of hours. By the time I was done, most of the day was spent and I went to Genos for a cheesesteak before returning across the river to capture sunset.
I had the pleasure of experiencing sunset and early evening on the Jersey side of the Delaware River to shoot the Philly skyline. The first two are hand-held with zoom lenses. It was a sunny and breezy all day, and skies are usually agreeable on those evenings.
Building lights came on and I strapped one of my zoom lenses to a tripod for a more focused scene.
Then used my tilt-shift to capture twilight, including more of the Ben Franklin Bridge.
Gateway to Philadelphia (2012)
Good day and evening of shooting despite the interruptions. I intended to travel to Philly the next morning to capture some photography then head to Baltimore that evening.
That didn’t work out as planned. As most know, I do photography most of the time, but do a little bit of architecture on the side. Instead of taking leisure time in Philly, I spent all morning fielding and responding to phone calls from a) current photography & architectural clients b) potential photography clients c) building contractors. I also put together an estimate and proposal for another assignment that I was in the running for.
The first half of my day was pretty much shot, so I drove to Baltimore.
And received more phone calls.
And more phone calls.
And then I had to find a hotspot in Baltimore.
By day’s end, my phone battery was dead and the “vacation” day I intended to spend in Philly and Baltimore all but evaporated in a hectic flurry of phone calls and e-mails. During the middle of all of this, I managed to stop by and surprise my wonderful friend Lisa at her workplace, and the highlight of seeing her made the trip totally worth it. I grabbed a hotel for the night, ate, missed sunset, but decided to take night shots in Baltimore by Domino Sugars. The distant glow of lights in the photo below are from the Yankees-Orioles game at Camden Yards, which I was kicking myself for not getting tickets. But the Yanks got spanked 10-3 so maybe that was a good thing.
I had never photographed the old factory from this harbor before, I certainly enjoyed shooting it from elevation and the cast reflections.
This “What I Learned” is in regards to night photography, particularly in urban settings. This has nothing to do with HDR, but how to properly expose photographs with a single shutter click. To quote one of the great philosophers of our generation – Ronnie, from the MTV reality series Jersey Shore – “THAT’S ONE SHOT, KID”. So temporarily forget HDR or Photoshop existed and focus on the moment you’re attempting to capture.
As usual, focus will be placed on overarching concepts as opposed to exact technique because I believe why you’re shooting in a certain way will guide how you choose to do so. Though I’ve included my camera settings with these photos I cannot stress how relatively meaningless they are. Not only is each scenario different, but your specific equipment (camera and/or lens) make and model have individual properties and idiosyncrasies that you will adopt to as a photographer. Further, with your set of equipment, you can achieve similar exposures at various combinations of ISO and aperture for any scene; it’s just a matter of what you’re attempting to achieve. Photography isn’t about what you set your camera to and PRESTO! (though admittedly that day is coming sooner than later) -it’s a way of thinking.
The two photographs above were captured with my first digital SLR and BOY, if I could take these shots again! I’ve learned so much since then and you’ll see many of the things I didn’t implement before in the examples below.
If shooting architecture or urban environments, I wouldn’t dare leave home without a tripod. Unless you’re shooting moving subjects at wider apertures (such as people) or using a camera that successfully shoots high ISO with noise, a tripod is strongly recommended to keep your camera stable for long exposures.
It is of great benefit to shoot in RAW. In fact if you’re reading this and still shooting in JPG, I’m not merely suggesting – I’m telling you to switch. No matter your skill level, there is no longer any good reason to shoot in pure JPG unless you REALLY hate your life.
Your camera may not be as accurate auto-focusing at night. Manual focus can help you gain accuracy.
I’d consider removing the filter from your lens. Besides slowing down your exposure an additional stop, dust spots or watermarks on your filter can cause strong light reflection during long exposures.
A lens hood isn’t just for the daytime! Hoods will help keep stray light from entering your lens. Some tilt-shift lens do not accept hoods (which is a total pain) so I’ve used my body, hand, or even an umbrella outside of viewfinder range to help shield stray light. You can see how I allowed light pollution in the upper-right hand corner of this depiction of the Bechtler Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina (doh!).
Step away from out underneath the lighting and voila!
The available natural light during sunset thru night decreases rapidly and understanding how to shoot full manual gives you great control over your photograph. Knowing how to change your “film speed”, aperture, and shutter speed are critical and night is a situation I would not let the camera make a decision for you. At sunset, you will tend to implement lower ISO, shorter exposures, and achieve greater detail in your photograph. As day gives way to night, you may gradually need to increase your ISO, shoot with longer exposures, and settle for less detail in your photograph. You may choose to increase your aperture. Understand your camera’s tolerance for noise as you increase the camera’s ISO. There is no single manual setting that you’ll stick with during the night as you compensate for your surroundings with what you’re attempting to achieve with your shot. Sky color, shadows, reflections, capturing traffic, light posts, signage, and moving crowds are all rapidly-changing variables in a single equation that only you can decide the answer.
While on business, I initially drove past this block of buildings on Daytona Beach during the middle of the day and based on experience, instantly knew I’d return to shoot here later in the evening. The beach was to the east and I realized the setting sun would illuminate the building facades and cause window reflections off the west-facing buildings. The palm trees would be in silhouette and I wanted to get headlight streams from passing vehicles both ways. However, it was Wednesday in January and traffic was light. So I maintained ISO at 100, lowered aperture to 14.0 (enough to keep the buildings sharp), increased my exposure to over 10 seconds and waited until I spied traffic coming both ways. Had it been a busy weekend, my camera settings would’ve been much different in response.
During sunset and the “blue hour”, color temperature of your shots can swing wildly in a short amount of time. At this time, I typically set color temperature to bring out the sky. Later in the evening, I’ll default to Tungsten or Fluorescent to match artificial lighting. No matter the format you shoot in, RAW or JPG, it’s helpful to know how to set your camera’s custom white balance. Even so, RAW is much more forgiving in that you can change this easily in photo software. If in doubt, switch to AWB (auto white-balance). However, I’ve often personally found AWB tends to overcompensate and be too warm, causing evening photos to appear too yellow. Below is an example of how quickly the lighting environment changes.
Light-diffraction increases (when lights appear to look like stars) with smaller apertures which typically require longer exposures – not necessarily as a result of longer exposures. Wikipedia has a scientific explanation, but really I just look at the first couple pretty pictures.
However, you can use those longer exposures to your advantage for dramatic skies and other light elements. Since we’re discussing lighting, be patient until street and window lights come on. Evening photographs seem to look pretty lifeless without them.
Selective depth of field and tilting the plane of focus can help guide the eye to what’s important in the photograph. In the case of the North Carolina State Capitol, I was concerned at such a later hour the sharp silhouette of trees and abundance of surrounding artificial lighting might compete with this state capitol facade. I used a tilt-shift lens to modify the plane of focus and shot at a wider aperture than I normally would to minimize light diffraction. By doing this, I captured the building entry in focus while the surrounding trees and lights appear blurred. It’s a subtle yet effective visual trick.
Keep in mind these are all decisions made ON LOCATION as opposed to looking at them later on the computer (shooting tethered can help). On a recent trip to Chicago, I had an opportunity to attempt many of these ideas at once with the Chicago Theatre. My challenge was to properly expose the photograph, keep the individual bulbs that formed the signage distinct without blowing them out, yet still achieve visible light diffraction. Note in regards to the Chicago sign, I said “distinct” not “sharp”; it’s important that they be distinguishable relative to the entire scene, not that that the scene itself be completely sharp (which I think is widely overrated and misunderstood anyway). So I bumped my ISO up to 1600 to increase the “film speed” yet still shoot at a narrow aperture. The half-second exposure kept light “glow” to a minimum.
But…I also wanted people walking in the scene, specifically entering or leaving the subway. Once I figured my settings, I patiently waited for individuals and groups to walk by to depress the trigger. In one of many attempts over 15 minutes a solitary woman passed by and I captured her in time. I quickly checked the camera preview and YUP! – that was the one. I packed up my stuff and was good to go.
Yet I was frustrated that I couldn’t get the lights underneath the canopy as distinct as I wanted (I did manage to pull some of it out in Adobe) and perhaps I should’ve shot at higher ISO. However, it wasn’t until I was looking at the photo in full-resolution that I realized a bus pulled into the right of the photo frame. It added an artistic splash of color and movement I wasn’t intending. Even the location of the sitting ambulance helped. Had I increased the ISO, I would’ve missed the whole thing with a faster shutter speed.
So remember, no matter how much you wind up learning or the skills you attain – there’s nothing like having a little luck in the moment. Heck, the unpredictability of it all is an essential ingredient to what makes photography so much fun!
Opinions and facts (ha!) are subject to change. Suggestions? Corrections? LOLs and snide comments? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
The weather in Chicago was highly instable but I had a lot of fun there anyways. After spending the morning catching up on work, photographing Wisconsin’s State Capitol, then hopping through Milwaukee and Racine, I arrived in Chicago at sunset.
It was a very cooperative, windy sunset and the best sky I got to photograph my entire stay in Chicago. I was ecstatic with the results down off Lake Shore.
Chicago Lights (2011)
I woke up to check out the Lake Shore Condominiums in the morning. Not as breathtaking, but still pretty cool. If it’s not my favorite high-rise in the city, it’s close to it.
It was a pleasant morning to shoot. I ventured towards the Pritzker Pavillion and the Millennium Cloud Gate – aka The Bean.
This is the underbelly of the Bean – the reflections are of me and a couple other people venturing below.
The curtain wall construction of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies was pretty interesting.
Nearby is the “Spearman” statue with the Congress Hotel serving as backdrop. It was getting towards high noon, so I called the Milwaukee Art Museum to see if the wings were open. They were, so I took a 4-hour round trip just to shoot for about an hour or so.
When I returned to Illinois that evening, I hit up the Chicago Theater and was lucky to get my personal favorite shot in at least a couple of years.
One Chicago Moment (2011)
It rained all day, so I went to Plano to see the Farnsworth House designed by Mies Van der Rohe. I was fortunate to be the only person there and got a private tour, which was pretty kickass.
I went into the city to see buildings I had no intent shooting, but wanted to see like the Carson Pirie Building, Monadnock, and others. Also stopped by to revisit the Illinois Institute of Technology campus. It was architectural civic duty to see them before leaving Chicago!
The next morning was cloudy. I ventured near the Chicago Tribune to get some black and whites.
Then took a trip up the Hancock Tower to see the city from above.
And this is the Hancock Tower. I had a good chuckle when one local paused to jest, “You know that building’s been shot before, right?” Yeah, but I’m going to admit, Chicago was the most touristy I’ve felt in a number of years. Combined with the weather, most of what I took were more snapshots than anything else. And it was FUN.
More stuff from Mies on Lake Shore Drive
The Aqua Tower looks like one of those architectural projects in design studio that you’re like, “There’s no way that’s ever going to get built”. Very interesting what they did with the floor plates in creating the undulating pattern. In the day it’s interesting to look at, but I think it becomes moreso at night.
Because of its reflective surface, the Bean is much easier to photograph on cloudy days than sunny ones.
That’s Gonna Be One Huge Beanstalk (2011)
It’s an interesting centerpiece to downtown, but I’m not a huge fan of Pritzker Pavillion. Maybe I’d feel differently if I was there for a concert or event. Or maybe I’ve seen too many swoopy metal structures.
Finally, I hit up the staircase in the Contemporary Art Museum that EVERYBODY and their grandmother photographs. As a tourist, I was no different.
Saw Wrigley field on the way out of town, which was incredibly underwhelming. That pretty much covers it. I got to see just about everything I wanted to in a few days and would like to thank Tricia, Brian, and Mr. Zeke for their hospitality! This’ll be my last blog while I make a few major tweaks to my website.