Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
1 – Introduction: projects and mini-series
I regularly work on projects as well as on mini-series, the difference between the two being the time I spent working on a specific collection of images. While a project can take months or years to complete, a mini- series takes only thirty minutes to an hour to complete. This was the case with this mini-series for which less than an hour was spent capturing images. The processing itself took longer but no more than a week total was spent completing the series.
This demonstrates that a project, when approached as a mini-series, does not have to take a long time to complete. This brevity is adequate when the series is confined to a small geographical area or a specific subject. Both were the case here, the geographical area being a short section of the San Juan River where sandstone walls line the river’s edge and the subject being the canyon walls themselves.
Such a short time frame provides quick gratification and prompt project completion. The immediacy of the results prevent procrastination something all too common with projects. It also makes finishing the project far less intimidating. As I often say most photographers have started a project but few have completed one. Working on an easily manageable mini-series is an effective solution to one of the challenging aspects of photography.
2 – Rationale
The rationale for this mini-series was simple: I wanted to find out what would happen if I created a project and completed it with only a few hours of shooting, while photographing from a moving boat, without control of where we went or stopped (the boat was operated by a boatman who was not under my control) and if I let composition ‘happen’ by shooting fast and being uncritical (not judging my work as I created it). In other words, create a series in which I let a lot of things be controlled by chance instead of trying to control everything myself.
The outcome is the project you are reading about here. I chose to focus on canyon walls because their forms and colors inspired me. Canyon walls are flat, requiring only minor depth of field to guarantee sharpness throughout the image, and this made it possible to use a faster shutter speed. The canyon walls faced North and therefore were in open shade when we floated by. This created highly saturated colors and low contrast, which I like. To simplify I decided to exclude the sky and the water and focus on the forms, patterns and designs in the canyon walls.
3 – How it was done
The photographs in this series were all taken around mid-day, handheld, at 200 ISO, using a zoom lens set to short telephoto, 70 mm on average on 2/3rd sensor, or about 135 mm on a full frame 35mm. The images were taken from a boat while rafting down the San Juan River.
Doing close ups was easy because the boatman got us close to the canyon wall while we drifted by. However, the movement of the boats and the proximity of the canyon wall, sometimes so close I could touch it, made precise composition impossible. At times the boatman would ‘double back’ meaning make a U-turn and return to the location we just passed by, giving me a second chance to capture worthwhile images. Still, most of the time I only had one chance to photograph a promising location. Shooting fast and leaving critical thinking aside were critical to get the shot. It was all about getting immersed in the subject, shooting away and not seeking perfection. Exposure was set to auto with shutter speed being the priority and f8 being the preferred aperture. I used an 18 to 200mm zoom which gave me a wide range of compositional options, from wide to tight depending on what the subject called for and what attracted my eye. It was impulsive shooting at its best. There were no second chances. Those that got away got away for good.
Floating down a river feet away from a canyon wall gave me no time to see detail. What I ‘saw’ was a visual impression, a visual feeling. I saw shapes, colors and patterns that my eyes and brain assembled into a composition in real time. Then I clicked the shutter. The conscious part of composition was gone. I took away the decision to click or not to click by deciding to press the shutter no matter what, thereby making the process automatic. It is as close to automatic writing as it can get with photography. To go further I would have to be blindfolded or forced to photograph in darkness.
3 – Studio work
To keep in the same spirit as the one these images were created, little processing was done to the images in this series. Spotting and content aware were used to remove dust as well as distracting elements, usually minor ones. Reformatting was done when the image did not have the appropriate format, meaning not one I found aesthetically appropriate for a specific image. Finally color and contrast were optimized to fit my aesthetic taste, to create a pleasing color palette for each image and to maintain color and contrast consistency and coherence across the series.
Interestingly, warping, currently one of my most-often used Photoshop moves, was used only on one image and only in a minor manner. This is not to say I did not want to warp or had decided to create a warp-free series. It just means that these images did not call for warping. They did not need it so I did not see the point of using it.
The final project features 16 images. These were selected from 150 image captures I took on the river. The final images were chosen on the basis of several criteria: the artistic interest of the image, the beauty of its colors, the quality of its forms and patterns and my personal aesthetic and artistic like or dislike for a specific image.
Above all when making this selection my concern was for the coherence of the series. Coherence is always an issue with projects (as well as with personal style development but that is a different issue). In fact coherence is the primary challenge and being able to navigate it successful almost guarantees the completion of a successful project.
Coherence means creating a project that has a homogeneous quality to it, a project in which the viewer gets the visual understanding that the images are related to each other and belong to the same group. This is achieved by having comparable color, contrast, form, composition, format and other aesthetic and artistic elements in each image. Coherence does not mean that these elements have to be similar. It only means that they have to be comparable and identifiable as such. In fact it is crucial to have a certain amount of visual differences between the images of a project in order to maintain the viewer’s interest, generate intrigue and pique their curiosity.
In this mini-series the limited geographical area (a couple of river miles) guaranteed subject coherence. The canyon walls being all from of the same geological strata guaranteed that their color and texture were naturally coherent and homogeneous. Studio work was used to increase this natural coherence by controlling cropping, color palette and contrast and making these as consistent as possible (while letting aesthetic considerations run freely) across the sixteen images in the series.
All the photographs are cropped from their original capture. They were all cropped in pretty much the same way: 4×5 format with the crop centered in the image. The reason for the centering is because the boats were moving fast, due to the current, and I did not have time to compose carefully. I composed ‘on the fly’ shooting and composing as fast as I could. It was a case of ‘get the shot while you can or lose it forever.’ I was aware, based on knowing myself, that I compose by looking at the center of the image. It therefore made sense that my compositions were essentially centered, that extraneous material surrounded my initial vision, and that cropping the image to privilege the central area was the way to reveal my true vision for each image.
I set optimization and cropping to ‘automatic’ by copying and pasting a pre-set adjustments ensemble in Lightroom. This was achieved by carefully cropping and optimizing one image, going over all the necessary settings, then copying and pasting these settings onto the other images of the series. The assumption here is that since the images were taken in the same shooting conditions and in the same light the same settings would work for all of them, which they did. When necessary, minor corrections in adjustments and cropping were made. However I tried hard not to seek perfection preferring to accept the settings that the software gave me, in particular for cropping. There is a beauty in accepting something that I would not choose myself. I created the capture, the initial crop and the adjustments on the first image, so letting the software paste my settings onto the next images was not that much of a stretch. It did not make me lose that much control. I could live with that especially when the results were unexpected but pleasing and artistic. The automatic pasting gave me images that were seen differently than the way I would have seen them. Over time, while copying and pasting optimization and cropping settings onto adjacent images in the Lightroom film strip, I came to enjoy the experience of seeing my altered images. I felt as if someone else had composed them and I enjoyed the process of discovering new images within my captures.
I kept the color palettes simple. In most instances it is duo-chromatic, consisting of reds and yellows. There are no pure white or pure blacks in any of the images. When white was present I tinted it a pale yellow shade to harmonize it with the dominant color palette. Blacks were kept neutral but set well above 0 (the absolute black point) to prevent contrast from overwhelming the image.
A couple of raw files are shown in this essay, along with the final version, to show the differences between original capture and final image and to demonstrate the possibilities hidden in raw files. When working with raw files careful processing and keeping an open mind for inspirational opportunities are the keys that unlock my creative possibilities.
4 – Impressions
The impression I wanted these images to share is that of being immersed in the admiration of a canyon wall. I wanted my audience to get lost in the details, the textures, the colors and the forms. I wanted this because it is the feeling I had when I created these photographs.
This was achieved by excluding all elements except the rock face. Without the sky or elements extraneous to rocks (plants for example) we are left with the shapes and the patterns in the stone. We are left with the colors and surprised by their boldness. We are left with the shadows and the forms found in the stone. We are left with an aesthetic that is often part of larger images but that now is interesting for itself and nothing else. An aesthetic that seeks no outside reference. An aesthetic that requires no symbiosis with the surrounding landscape. An aesthetic that encourages us to engage in the admiration of stone.
5 – Conclusion
This is a small series that was fun to do and that offered opportunities for creative photography. It is unlikely to contain signature images. The satisfaction is not in having created images that will stand out and become iconic. Rather the satisfaction is in having created a project and brought it to completion in a timely fashion, without procrastinating and without spending an inordinate amount of time. I encourage you to try completing a similar project on the subject of your choice. Getting things done in a way that pleases your artistic impulse feels great.
6 – About Alain Briot
You can find more information about our workshops, photographs, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to our Free Monthly Newsletter on our website at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com. You will receive 40 free eBooks when you subscribe to my newsletter.
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops with Natalie and offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing, business and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website at this link: http://beautiful-landscape.com/Ebooks-Books-1-2-3.html. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.
7 – Workshops with Alain and Natalie Briot
If you enjoyed this essay you will enjoy attending a workshop with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie to the most photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on the artistic aspects of photography. While we do teach technique, we do so for the purpose of creating artistic photographs. Our goal is to help you create photographs that you will be proud of and that will be unique to you. The locations we photograph include Navajoland, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon and many others. Our workshops listing is available at this link: