When Seattle photographer/blogger and technical photography Guru Ron Martinsen called asking if I’d like to come up to Seattle to help teach an “Outdoor Photography Workshop,” I was thrilled about heading back to the Pacific Northwest. Seattle has always been one of America’s most visually stunning and just plain old cool cities. After shooting professionally for publications and advertising agencies for a few decades, travel is not as appealing as it once was – unless the destination is a gorgeous city like Seattle where urban life and nature so powerfully collide! In Seattle there is something special to photograph for anyone interested in photography!
I’ve been a San Francisco Bay Area photographer for many years, also a wonderful visual destination, an area a bit like Washington state, so Seattle remains a favorite photographic destination whether you are an enthusiastic picture-taker, a serious or advanced amateur or a pro.
Despite the Bay Area’s beauty, I often wish I could import Seattle’s often overcast skies on days when I have outdoor shoots in the sunny Bay Area. Seattle’s frequent drizzle, overcast and general Pacific Northwest weather combine to create what often feels like a giant soft box in the sky, making it a great place to shoot outdoors, in general, since soft light is ultra-flattering and often makes big or unwieldy lighting unnecessary for creating sweet photographs. Bright sunshine is highly overrated for photography, imho, depending on assignment. Seattle light is special– I go there hoping it’s gray and overcast…
Naturally, though, on the day of our Outdoor Photography Workshop, we were blessed with nasty, tough to manage bright, harsh sunshine as if we were in Arizona, fairly ideal considering learning to manage harsh light was the lesson of the day.
After our session teaching fill-flash, use of reflectors and scrims at the lake, we headed into downtown Seattle to capture both outdoor and indoor images in and around Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market, a wonderfully colorful location for photography. Technically, Pike Place Market is not outdoor photography but a building with lots of windows and open walls, a great place to practice existing light photography since lots of daylight beams through the windows then gets mixed with light from various artificial sources, bright neon and tungsten mixed with daylight, a place where average white balance is out the window. In such places it is time for aesthetic considerations over AWB. Which reminds me: have you ever considered WHO decided what is “average white balance?” They didn’t speak for me… I like life rosy and extra colorful! Average is relative. Don’t buy into the conspiracy… Your own idea of correct color is all that matters, to a major degree.
Pike Place Market is fabulous…EXCEPT…there was one problem… In setting up the Workshop we overlooked the fact it was Memorial Day so Pike Place was packed like a can of sardines, creating a real challenge to isolate cool images in a location where, as soon as you spot something special, a crowd 10-50 people immediately blocks the shot. What to do???
Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market and the adjacent Post Alley served as a great location for beginning part II of our outdoor photography session, even though enormous throngs of tourists presented a lesson in learning to isolate clean images within a crowd, honestly a huge problem when photographing major events, festivals or popular attractions.
My method of contending with this too-congested-to-shoot problem in making candid photographs – hopefully interesting moments of interesting people – is to find interesting scenarios or people, then follow them through the location while lost in the crowd, keeping an eye peeled for the cleanest background. When the potential subject pauses, I just wait… If you are set to shoot – while avoiding eye contact with the potential subject – an instant WILL arise when the crowd clears, if only for a split second, revealing your chance to make an awesome photograph! BE PATIENT… Meanwhile, keep your 3rd eye peeled for other cool things to SEE.
At the famed Post Alley gum wall (above and next 3 images) – featuring at least 150′ of gum stuck up to 20′ high on the brick walls of the alley – we encountered yet another crowd, some amazed by the quantity of gum and others grossed-out by all that DNA… Within the enormous crowd we spied two interesting ladies playing with their gum, interesting enough for a nice pic yet blocked by dozens or perhaps even hundreds of gum wall lovers. The only way to make these images was to get close enough – yet not so close as to make them aware of my presence – so when an opening in the crowd presented itself, I’d have my shots of these interesting ladies! Another method was to climb up on something with a longer lens, waiting for tourists to clear out.
At this point, some of you may be wondering about gear… I’ve been “addicted” to both Canon and Nikon digital cameras with my conclusion being both are great – just give me a nice image file from any camera and I can Photoshop the files to perfection. In my mind, Photoshop is the great equalizer – a nice image from any camera brand looks great, once properly imaged. I’ve never been a gear hound but do appreciate solid, dependable, quality equipment. (though for pros it’s mandatory for gear to bounce and stay alive, when dropped) Almost any quality digital camera creates files which are often actually too sharp for flattering people so sharpness is no longer a problem with most lenses. In fact, image softening software – I use Imagenomics Portraiture and Nik Color Efex Pro (CEP4) for softening images of people which are too sharp to be flattering. Rest assured if you photograph a 40-50 year old lady (and some men) with a razor sharp lens, you will not be asked to photograph then again… Most folks prefer being flattered rather than having their pores and blemishes revealed.
During this workshop I was using a Canon 1D Mark IV and a 5D Mark II, primarily with a Canon 50mm/f1.2 lens and a Canon 70-200mm/f2.8 lens. Since I shoot cats & dogs – which are quick- the Canon 1D Mark IV’s 10 frames per second capability is fantastic. However, slower cameras are fine for 90% of the work I do.
None of these images were lit with strobe – all are existing light. Learning to SEE THE LIGHT – whatever light exists – is key in improving your photographic skills. Fast lenses such as my Canon 50mm/f1.2 and it’s big sister the 85mm/f1.2 enable photography in absurdly dark environments but it remains critically important to learn to use strobes and other forms of lighting, your level of interest considered…
Once we moved inside Pike Place Market, (below) our group was stunned by the intensity of the holiday crowd – it was almost impossible to navigate the maze of people snapping up tulips and fresh seafood, much less make cool pictures – or so it seemed, at first. I admit to being slightly taken aback by the size of the crowd – at first. However, when our student photographers turned to me for guidance, puzzled, as if to ask “What would a pro do???” it occurred to me this event was much like a popular summer street fair which brings out tens of thousands of people. Overall shots of the crowd are fine if you like crowd shots but my ploy has always been to attempt to make it look as if the images I make in such mad scenes were void of crowds. The only way to cover such congested scenes is to ease through the crowd searching for interesting people in spots with interesting backgrounds, then staking them out – in a good way! Pay close attention to how the backgrounds look out of focus, an effect typically achieved by shooting near or at maximum aperture so the background is blurred and much less distracting. A blurred background is almost always more interesting and subject-isolating than a sharp one so think blur in crowded scenes. It is entirely possible to make sweet pictures in any crowd with patience and preparation. I encourage practicing focus, making sure you can throw up and fire quickly, with focusing accuracy so when that brief moment presents itself, you nail it sharp and properly exposed.
Like a pitbull focused on a chew toy he MUST have, I instantly became obsessed with nailing a nice frame of this man with the lovely, warm-toned straw hat and interesting beard. People are infinitely interesting, a comment I make in a totally non-judgmental manner. Stalking this straw-hatted person through the crowd while waiting for the right blurry background was tedious both for me and the students who were attempting to absorb and duplicate my fascination with this striking image of man. The “chase” paid off when my potential subject walked into this scene and the 50 people behind him cleared and gave me – and my students – a split second to make this frame. Although our only purpose was learning photography while capturing cool images, this frame is pure art, in the sense it is not a per se storytelling photograph unless we were doing a story on straw hats. Photography for photography’s sake is as valid as any form of photography. The lesson in this frame (which took 20 minutes to capture cleanly) is you can find interesting moments even within mob scenes if you take your time and simply practice patience. (having practiced and rehearsed your skills)
Busted or allergies??? This has to be the most photographed Restroom sign in the world…
As our Workshop students and I were making pictures, this great looking couple walked up and simply asked us to make their picture. I do believe one of my students out-shot me here – which always thrills me! I call images like these “free portraits” meaning we photographers were “gifted” with a nice portrait of a good looking couple by virtue of them simply seeing our cameras and approaching us. No effort, no setup, no set time; simply a free portrait for our students’ portfolios…
How can a photographer screw up an image of such brilliant color and organic design? It’s not possible – is it… Ron Martinsen’s 3 year old son, Kai, could easily make this picture…some photographs are so in your face, even a child could make them. (fortunately for my child-like mind…) This image was made with a Canon 16-35mm/f2.8 lens, a favorite chunk of glass… Working with high speed wide angle zoom lenses enables quick reaction to almost any unpredictable scenario while being most forgiving when it comes to focus.
And in the end, my lovely bride left Pike Place Market with a gorgeous bouquet of tulips to take back to our Belltown rental condo with an incredible view of Puget Sound. Yes, a camera and either a 16-35mm or 50mm lens go everywhere with me. Carry your camera everywhere, folks – and use it!!! This world is so full of wonderful things to SEE and share!