Just Ducky

Sometimes black and white makes an otherwise uninteresting shots better

Sometimes black and white makes an otherwise uninteresting shots better, but not always

When we went to the Nature Center a weekend or two ago, we went to see the Red Wolves.  But the only wildlife we saw were these two mallard ducks.  Seeing a mallard is not exactly the most exciting birding event in the world.  According to several sources (including Cornell), they’re the most abundant duck in the world.

These two really did not want their picture taken.  They were paddling along serenely until I pulled my DSLR with the 70-200mm lens on it.  It’s as if they knew what a hunter with a gun looked like and were confusing me with one.  They made a bee-line for cover.  I rushed the shot, trying to get a nice close up before they got out of sight.

This is a "traditionally" adjusted version--just nothing to get excited about

This is a “traditionally” adjusted version–just nothing to get excited about

As a result, I didn’t get a chance to change any settings on my camera from the last shot I’d taken.  Having been shooting in the treehouse just before this, I had the camera in full manual mode and set for a pretty dark scene.  So, of course, my duck images came out pretty darn bright.

So, once again, I found myself playing with adjustments in Aperture to see what I could come up with.  Nothing like a bad shot of a ubiquitous subject to make you feel like you can go crazy with the editing.

Playing with the "blur" brush, I applied it to the whole photo and then erased the blur where the ducks were.  I'm not really a fan of this look.

Playing with the “blur” brush, I applied it to the whole photo and then erased the blur where the ducks were. I’m not really a fan of this look.

An interesting side effect of going crazy with the photo editing was that it really demonstrated the superiority of the female mallard’s plumage.  As I adjusted and twisted and played, the biggest challenge was keeping her from disappearing all together.  With brown speckled feathers, the female just kept blending into the background.

I would probably like this if the female showed up better

I would probably like this if the female showed up better

Surprisingly, as I did a little reading on the mallard–a species I have taken for granted since the first time I through them bread crumbs when I was about 4 years old–I learned that sometimes the male is just as well camouflaged.  As an “intermediate” birder (on a good day), I was a little embarrassed I didn’t know that the male mallard loses his flight feathers at the end of breeding season at the same time he molts into an “eclipse” plumage.  For about 2 weeks, he can’t fly.  The brown plumage provides cover while he’s vulnerable.

This was created mostly with the curves feature--but the colors just seem to compete with the ducks

This was created mostly with the curves feature–but the colors just seem to compete with the ducks

Every time I think I know something, I learn something new about it.  And when I’m sure I’ve exhausted all of the current information, usually new information is discovered if I wait long enough.  Good thing I like to learn.

Oops--I slipped with the curves adjustment.  But look at what happened to the male duck

Oops–I slipped with the curves adjustment. But look at what happened to the male duck

Tisen is an avid learner, too.  He has made more progress in his current hobby of “ground-dogging.”  I can’t recall him ever seeing a groundhog, so I’m not sure exactly where he got the idea to burrow under anything, much less blankets, but he’s now added snorkeling to his repertoire of blanket-burrowing techniques.  This is a welcome relief–sometimes when he gets himself completely buried, he starts sounding like he can’t breathe. I’m always relieved when we see his nose.

Tisen snorkeling from under the blankets

Tisen snorkeling from under the blankets

The Digital Dark Room

I have previously resisted editing photos, feeling like it’s cheating somehow.  However, when one of my photography mentors explained to me that “editing” RAW format pictures is like developing negatives in a  dark room, I started thinking about it differently.

Unfortunately, I find that processing photos is not a task I really enjoy.  For one, I spend the vast majority of my waking hours at a computer for work, having personal time end up on a computer as well is a little depressing.  Second, when I’m on the computer, I’m not out shooting.  But, the thing that I am beginning to realize is that part of what changes a photo from a form of documentation to a work of art is what the photographer does with it after the shot is taken.

It’s possible that I may need to bite the bullet and take a class in Photoshop at some point, but for now, I am content to play with Aperture and see if I can do what I need to do with it.  So far, the one thing I know enough to miss is how to layer together two shots into one.  I suspect Aperture doesn’t do that, but it’s possible I just haven’t found it yet.  That would be handy–outdoor shooting often leads to having to choose between an over-exposed sky or an under-exposed subject.  Being able to combine two shots would solve this problem.

For today, I decide to play with a shot from our recent trip to the Smokies.  This was taken from a “knob” where there was an endless panoramic view of the smokies surrounding us.  While there is something about the shot that appeals to me, it completely fails to look like what I want to convey.  I’m not sure how to explain it, but the gap between what I see in my mind and what I see in the photo is large.  Normally, I would just trash this photo and call it done.  But, because there is that little something there that I like, I decide this is a good candidate to start experimenting with.

As I stare at this photo and start making adjustments, I think about something my brother once said to me.  I showed him a photo I was processing  with and without a certain adjustment and asked him which he liked better.  He said (roughly), “Which one is more like what it actually looked like?  That’s the one that’s better.”  I suppose on the surface this seems like a logical way to look at it, but his statement has haunted me ever since.

First, what does something look like?  Is that an absolute that can be monitored and measured and set objectively in stone?  Second, is capturing what something looks like the real goal of photography?  As I ponder this, I realize that it’s not about “what it looks like;” it’s about what I saw.  What I saw is probably a massive brain computation starting with light reflected into my eyes but then processed in the context of my personal experiences, interests, filters, and openness.

What I want to show is a new way to see the same thing.  When photography moves into the realm of creativity, you stretch your mind so you don’t ignore the shimmering light off one small leaf, miss the shadow of a soaring hawk that suddenly appears in your frame, fail to see the contrasting shadows under each blade of grass.  It’s not about “what it looks like”; it’s about learning how to see in new ways.

Having that realization, I find myself wanting to push myself out of documenting mode and into creative mode.  And I’ve realized that by concentrating solely on my shooting skills (which still have a long way to go), I’m completely missing out on half the formula.  So, today, I turn to my computer and play with what I can do in the digital dark room.