Photography is about playing with photons, at least in terms of conventional photography. Whereas in nature photography, with the exception of some underwater shots, it depends mostly on natural sunlight. However, the older photography becomes, the more photographers are willing to experiment. This is why photographers working outdoors can use tools sending photons to reach artistic effects rather than documentary ones. I would like to share several of my projects which focuse on artificial light and the opportunity it may bring.
Incorporating a flash or a torch with the other photography equipment can lead us to new ways of expressing ideas and interesting aesthetics in outdoor photo activity. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist from the novels by Thomas Harris, appreciates simplicity. This seems to be the right approach to photography. Before reaching for any electronic equipment lets take a look at a simple reflector. One sunny day, a few springs ago I was exploring one of my favorite meadows with the idea of shooting veratrum. The shadows were too contrasted so I decided to light them up with a piece of aluminum foil reflecting the sunbeams. I treated the result as the first step to surrealism. Normally, our eyes expect to see shadows all in the same direction when being outdoors, but in this picture the shadows on the veratrum are completely different from the ones on the far away rock. Now the photo started to be intriguing. That illustrates the power of controlling the photons’ paths, even in such a modest way. The working time to use artificial light in nature photography can be as long as all day and night, however I most prefer twilight. I have decided to depend on the flash light several times and I have been satisfied with the results, but generally I am a big fan of artificial light as the additional source to the sun or to the moon.
My first contact with artificial lighting in nature photography was not fully intentional in the technical sense. I was not in the mood to use a flash. It was a mix of inspiration, the potential of the terrain and aesthetic needs. The starting point took place in the previous decade when the album “The World’s Top Photographers: Landscape” by Terry Hope fell into my hands. It was there where I saw works by Michael Frye and they were a great source of inspiration to me straightaway. The main idea is to colorize objects in night landscapes. I chose this technique to show rocks in the national park close to my home. This technique gave me the opportunity to have red dominate my photographs. This color is rather rare in my region and I missed it very much. At the beginning I focused on blue and red visions relating to the warmth of fire and the cold of night. People have wanted to capture this scene since prehistory. Over time I reached for colors reminding me of the mood of the night–calmness and mysteriousness, violet and aquamarine, and the project spread into new areas, such as the seacoast.
My other preferance is to colorize some objects blue making them a variation of the sky above. A general rule I usually follow is not to fight with natural green. When I want to light up leaves etc, I get a green filter. Having both artificial and natural lit green objects on the same frame delivers interesting variations within one color range – the first green is fresh and intensive while the second looks soft and calm. I have decided to use pieces of stained glass instead of dedicated filters. The stained glass absorbs more light, I find it gives more austere effects as well, but that is somewhat subjective. And of course staind glass is very austere itself, and no wonder, as it has medieval roots. As for night photography, the first thought for so many people is the firmament full of stars, (I am not an exception). However, in the project “Night” I like the cloudy sky effect. Taking these photos I often wish to create a group of surfaces in different colors. The starry sky, no matter how beautiful, may be not suitable for this effect, while cloud cover can make the sky a field of navy blue or steel gray.
I call it “Night” but most of the photographs have been taken no later than an hour and a half after sunset which enables the rest of the daylight to play a role in the picture. Favorable natural objects for lighting up when dark are the ones that have tolerably color-neutral surfaces and fancy shapes. That is why the first suggestions are rocks and trees, especially relict trees, wind-shaped trees and grown deciduous trees without leaves. When it gets dark the world turns calmer and time goes slower, also the procedure of taking the night shots gives you more time. I could have relied on precise measurements but I made a different choice. When it gets dark enough I open the shutter and I fall back on intuition. It usually takes several minutes to light up without rushing. In general the efficiency is one session–one picture. Naturally, there are exceptions, especially in the case of chamber landscapes.
For lighting up bigger objects strong sources of light are required. I started with an old Metz hammerhead flash. It had proper power, but after buying some new ones I opted for the Metz 50AF1 and later Nikon’s top model which were compact as well. LED technology means that even a relatively small torch can be efficient enough. An important option for night photography is zoom lighting equipment which allows you to direct a precise beam and separate details close to each other such as tree branches. I find the torch to be more accurate for taking photos of stationary objects since I can see the beam all the time. However sometimes a flash is irreplaceable, for example during windy weather when the object is a tree with thin branches where we want them to be sharp. Whether torch or flash, for this project, I do not connect the lighting equipment with the camera but operate them manually.
Night photography is a big challenge for tripods. The one I use – Manfrotto 055 – is solid enough for a dSLR-size camera in most cases but it has failed at windy weather, especially in connection with a telephoto zoom lens. It is a bit too short as well. Now I am looking for a better solution but I am afraid a really stable tripod may cost a lot and is not compact at all. Things evolve with time. I am continuing with the Night project, however I do not feel it will be finished any time soon. I have just started some new versions, which may become sub-projects in the future. The first idea is to contrast a colorized object with very light, almost white, background. It would still be night photography in the after-sunset meaning, but the impression would be very day-like. The second conception is to take black and white photographs of natural objects colorized at night.
Seagulls at twilight
I have loved the sea since I fisrt saw it and felt the breeze on my face as a kid. And a seagull is a strong symbol of the sea. Flash lighting has enabled me to show these birds in images which emphasize the whiteness of them against the blue of their environment. The color combination symbolizes the sea. The blue background can be interpreted as the waves (general water surface) while the white seagulls can be seen as the crests which are white at rough seas. In contrast to the project “Night” the flash needs to be engaged automatically and the photos are taken shortly before sunrise under specific weather conditions. In this case twilight is not a matter of favoring but a matter of necessity. The photography time is short – no more than 30 minutes per session. To obtain a homogenous blue background, cloudy weather is desired. This is one of the reasons that the most preferred seasons to visit the seacoast are autumn, winter and spring. But creating compositions of blue and white is not the only key point of this project. The other one is to tell about the seagulls’ character – the noises and rush they make when they look for food collectively. Exposures of about one second coordinated with the flash give the effect of clear birds and their blur paths. I often make use of panning as well. The background becomes a bit abstract then. It has snowed a few times while visiting the seacoast during the winter, which was an intriguing addition to the project.
All in all I would call the feeling of this project one of smoothness and freshness. There are no special technical issues in the project. It is obvious that a flash should be fully synchronized with a camera. What is more important is- the longer range the flash light, the better. I can recommend the Nikon SB 910 as the optimum for outdoor photography. At first I thought I would need a tripod but I did not. In nature photography ethical issues are more important than ever. Photographers need to remember that probably the more equipment they take into wild destinations the more mess they make. It is usually a matter of scale. The impact of one photographer will not be noticeable, but a hundred of them… For my project I have chosen a beach next to a fishing harbor where the birds live very close to humans and are accustomed to semi-natural feeding, so I have recognized that bait like small fish, and fish remains as well as my flash-activity are acceptable.
Quanta of rose and snow
Some time ago, when I started reading books about the universe and quantum mechanics, my good friend told me that such interests would influence my photography for sure. I was not so convinced of it until I took a photo of a hawthorn some gloomy winter day shortly after. I was curious how the hawthorn would look like when I would apply flash, changing focus and multiple exposure. The aesthetic of that picture seemed to be very promising. I recognized that the red fruits highlighted were quite nice looking if they were blurred and the background sky was a bit underexposed – dark blue. I had also noticed that red objects like the fruits reflected light more intensely than for example brown branches. There was nothing unusual about it, I just hadn’t thought about it before. An idea that had come to me in a blink of an eye, was to show blurred wild rose fruits and blurred snowflakes symbolizing the quantum nature of our universe and related cosmic matters within a single frame. In order to achieve this effect I employed a flash, a tele-zoom lens and multiple exposure. I was lucky because snowy weather had been expected. The hours around sunset appeared to be the most suitable time. Quantum symbolism is not limited only to the image we can see. It is also a matter of how it occures. I am not able to foresee the snowflakes’ composition so the ones in the collection are the result of scale and randomness. I would describe the role of the flash in this project as separating the snowflakes and the wild rose fruits from the background as well as freezing the snowflakes. I realize the collection may be considered controversial since there are no sharp objects in the photographs which were intentional, but I am ready to defend this way of expression.
There are probably a few undiscovered ways to show ideas using simple and well known tools such as the flash and the torch. I hope that my projects might inspire others to follow my example. So long as it stays ethical, using artificial light seems to be a promising way of making landscapes more luminous.