Thursday, March 29, 2012

Skylines and Mountainsides

On this day last week I was roadway bound for the region around Shenandoah Valley, specifically gunning for Skyline Drive. If you haven't heard of it, you should have. It's a very touristy locale, but still manages to offer the kinds of stunning vistas you'd think only hardened mountain climbers should ever get the opportunity to see. I'd been there once before in 2010 with a good friend who held similar interests in the photographic sense as myself. Our time there 2 years ago was the stuff of magic. While last week's excursion was certainly not nearly as long a trip, it was still a time of heavy introspection and abstract worldly appreciation. One of those rare opportunities to step back from the game our modern world has made of our day to day existence and contemplate the stuff of existentialism, the stuff that really matters.

Driving down last week proved to be one of those quirky little adventures all its own. The main point of amusement was a hiccup in our chosen GPS device. Utilizing my tablet for all directions and other such location-related needs, we (Kyle tagged along on this trip) managed to make it a majority of the way without a hitch until the signal the tablet received from the cell towers dropped to nil. Suddenly the satellite was grossly off our actual location, so turns, landmarks, roads, everything was askew just enough to throw us that critical little bit off course. Frustrated, a quick stop at a lovely little Italian eatery in the land of Middle-of-Nowhere was just the recharge needed, and with our bearings re-synched we managed to make it to the place we'd chosen to stay for the night. And oh what a place it was.

Two thousand feet up on the undeveloped side of the Pocosan Mountain, hidden like a treasure up nasty, aggressive gravel mountain roads, a local conservationist, naturalist, farmer and all around green thumb had set up a rather large yurt on one of the cliff sides of his 60 acre mountain top property and rented it out to those interested and willing to brave the trek to reach it. He happened to have it listed on the website of the company that contracted me to shoot their listed rental properties, and for the minimal fee he was charging for its use it would have been an insult to myself to not have taken up the offer. Kyle and I aimed to stay there just for the night, my intent being to photograph the mountainside views as tenaciously as possible, but with Kyle's influence the vacation quickly turned from self-prescribed work to an actual, legitimate instance of rest and relaxation. What with the host's home grown meals served to us in the evening and for breakfast the following morning, a hot tub with an amazing sunset view and amazing views in general, it was hard to want to do much else than sit, let stress dissolve and take in the unique sounds of such an isolated area. An actual vacation, fancy that.

The following morning we set off to wander the winding roads of Skyline Drive. Again, while my intent had been to stop and photograph the overlooks aggressively, that simply isn't what happened. We did stop to take in several overlooks, but most of my attention that day was directed to the simple pleasure of aggressive driving, tackling the limited roadways as hard and as fast as possible. I don't think I have ever smelled brakes cooking so repulsively. Each stop at an overlook, though providing an opportunity to take photographs, was ultimately more an opportunity to let my brakes cool off and just generally give the car a chance to breath after the demands I placed on it for miles and miles and miles. It was a fun time, regardless, and Kyle wasn't terrified at all sitting shotgun through my irresponsible maneuvering. Was rather nice to have someone riding passenger who at least understood the method behind the madness of some of the more aggressive handling techniques I employed. 67 miles and 40 minutes later, we were in Front Royal, and even though our adventure hadn't lasted too long, we were both oddly eager to get home.

Unfortunately, the haze over the Blue Ridge Mountains was still heavy. I had hoped the haze would be more subdued in the Spring (my trip in 2010 was in the Summer and haze was atrocious). Ultimately, this means a Fall trip will be required as I am determined to photograph multiple North American States in a single image, and the nearly 4000 foot peaks of some of the mountains of Blue Ridge are some of the only places such a task can be accomplished. Just a quirky personal goal. But I will most definitely be looking forward to staying in the yurt once again.

It's also becoming more and more of a priority to me to shoot such scenes in lower light, either at nightfall or twilight states. They just speak to me more when photographed at those times. Well lit scenes are just so bland anymore.

Tonight I will possibly be shooting with the crew of local urban exploration masters I linked up with in January, but all will largely depend on events at home - I am in the middle of moving into a new apartment and alas the air mattress I've been sleeping on for nearly a year decided to pop last night. Oh well... cest la vie.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Abandoning the Status Quo

It's been a long while since I've made a post on this forum. Peculiar, really - as much as I have done, as many things as I have accomplished in just the (nearly) 2 months since my last entry here, somehow I feel like I have accomplished remarkably little of note. Or perhaps that's simply a rise in my sense of personal doubt that anyone actually cares what I am doing (and let's face it, why should they)? Not sure... but looking back over the past two months... dear lord, my world has been shaken.

Let's start with the business aspect of photography (since I like to pretend this blog is somehow business related in any respect at all). Early in February (but after my last post, obviously) I received a message from a photography department liaison for a certain vacation/travel real estate rental service that has blown up to something quite big over the past few years. At the core, their business model is decidedly "European" - when people have guest spaces they aim to rent out to short term travelers who would rather opt into a private space than a hotel, this company handles the money between them as well as functions as a sort of background checking buffer to ensure hosts and guests are trustworthy individuals. A simple and rather novel approach to rental properties, streamlining the booking process and doing well to alleviate concerns one might have when allowing strangers into their home (and vice versa). While every listing tends to have at least some photos snapped by the property owners themselves, this company contracts freelance photographers in various areas and distributes locations in need of more professional presentation. Effectively real estate photography.

Anywho, this liaison approached me with a very direct offer - not verbatim, but in generally the same words, she proposed to me "You take such fantastic photographs of the interiors of these abandoned structures, how would you like to be paid to take photographs of some not so abandoned interiors?". Long story short, I most enthusiastically accepted the offer made - now I am officially employed as a photographer! To date I have conducted well over a dozen shoots, for which I have been compensated quite graciously. Finally, after years of persistence and missed chances, I am operating in an industry I actually reserve some strong passion for. Good times, for sure.

Partially related to my engagement in such a business form of photography, my editing methods have also undergone tremendous adjustment. The standard by which everyone in the industry swears as far as post-processing goes is Photoshop. Well, Photoshop or Lightroom. An Adobe product. The packaged RAW editors delivered with cameras very often fall to the wayside, neglected and unappreciated.

Following the standard, I utilized Photoshop to process the RAWs from my first photoshoot for the company that contracted me. And much to my alarm, my submissions were rejected for not conforming to a certain style and expectation of image fidelity I simply didn't know how to achieve with Adobe Camera RAW. I fooled with the RAW for hours in ACR and could never manage a clean looking image that would pass the review gate, and as such I feared my chance at continued employment with this company was in dire jeopardy. Desperate, I traveled off the beaten path - I couldn't return to reshoot the scene using JPG processing in-camera (as I suspected the i-Enhance color mode with my manual adjustments would have been the golden formula the company was looking for), so I installed the Olympus Viewer 2 software offered along with the purchase of the camera. I knew that RAW editor would effectively allow the application of color profiles offered in-camera, just with much more in-depth tweaking available. While worried the clarity of the image would not be up to par with the detail retained by ACR conversion, I dove in regardless, out of options and desperate to submit a product that would meet the company's approval.

Not even 20 minutes later I had a solid bank of 15 or so images I knew would pass through the acceptance gates with no problem. More importantly, the next few hours I spent experimenting, reprocessing images I'd shot months ago in RAW, because dear lord Viewer 2 managed to produce a kind of tonality and color fidelity I would never in my life ever learn to achieve in Adobe Camera RAW. And to this day, my post process has effectively abandoned Photoshop entirely - Viewer 2 is that good.

Before, my process never affected the RAW file in ACR that much before it was fully rendered and dumped into Photoshop for layered editing. As such, the color profile of each image was an identically bland natural tone that depended entirely upon heavy adjustment layers to manipulate into anything original or artistic in aesthetic. I'd doted before on Olympus' magnificent JPG engine in-camera, but never really came to the understanding that the same color fidelity could be achieved with its own RAW development software. My only exposure to manufacturer RAW development before Viewer 2 had been Nikon's NEX software, which (as any photographer will tell you) was an atrocious failure of function. That first impression left a stigma that made me afraid to travel outside of Adobe for imaging software. Just as Olympus has a monopoly on ingenious JPG rendering, they similarly have the monopoly on supremely functional and genuinely useful RAW development software packaged with their cameras. No need to spend $900 on the Adobe suite when the camera you already spent $900 on can render an image just as well, if not better, with less effort required on the end of the user.

It dumbfounds me that Olympus isn't higher up on the photography tool popularity charts. They are the only manufacturer I have maintained a system from that actually has the entire package together to maximize the capabilities of the end user of their equipment. Their systems are open and modular, with both in-house support and that of many third party manufacturers, their products come packaged with functional, competent software so the end user isn't required to look elsewhere for optimal image rendering capabilities, they even provide for offsite storage of image files and the bandwidth to carry the load of image sharing and distribution. The system couldn't be more complete, from both a software and hardware end. It doesn't just stop at the capabilities of the camera, it runs over into excellent customer support, quality warranties and product repair, community and open sharing of information between end users - I would call it the Apple of digital cameras, even though I bear a strong contempt for Apple (which isn't to say I respect the amazing product and user support they provide). Digital imaging is so inundated with obsession over the hardware capabilities of its tools, a shame more people don't take the time to step back, look at the greater picture. I'm certain, if they did, Olympus would never have suffered the scare of 3 years ago when they very nearly dipped into irrelevance to the market.

Aside from those two very landmark points... well, let's see... I'm sure I've been up to other things too. My protege, Kyle, and I spent one weekend more or less binging or urban explores. His presence during an explore is a welcome thing - he manages to challenge my usual hesitations and boundaries of risk in ways that encourage the will to conquer them, not the easiest balance of provocation and empathy to exercise. We also took a trip into the Shenandoah Valley region off Skyline Drive for some natural landscapes, but alas, the Blue Ridge Mountains lived up to their name even this early in the year. They definitely demand a Spring-centric shoot to avoid their usual mask of haze. My backlog of personal images has gotten rather tremendous, what with photos from working shoots often taking precedence. However, with my log of working photoshoots taking a bit of a needed lull, I hope to present more of my most recent material this week.

So much in so little time. And so strange that is seems like the complete opposite to me... I really should learn how to relax a bit more.