Revisualization – Deviating from Style

Posted on June 8, 2011


I got sent on a last minute business trip to Singapore. Normally, no matter where I go I pack my entire medium format kit. But with time constraints, a 24 hour flight, and having to also take a laptop, I decided to take just the DSLR and two lenses: a 12-24mm zoom, and a 28-200mm zoom. (Have to do something about that crucial 24-28mm gap there.) This is essentially the same kit I take skiing or fishing, with the exception of I usually replace the long zoom with a macro for fishing. It fits into a waterproof bag and is much easier to pack along than the full 40lb pack plus tripod that the MF camera takes.

When I envisioned the trip, I thought of a riot of equatorial color and foliage, throngs of people in exotic dress and automobiles.  However, when I showed up it was a rainy monotonal day. In photographic terms, everything was Zone V, neutral gray. I got to the hotel and started walking around. At first it was difficult to even get outside! All of the malls, convention centers and hotels in this section of town are an interconnected prairie dog city of stores and tunnels. Eventually, I got out of this and started to appreciate that Singapore looks very much like a clearing house for architectural thesis projects, each building reaching higher and seeking new ways to break the skyscraper form factor.

I’m not necessarily a “snapshot photographer.” I don’t particularly document my travels with pictures. I take pictures that move me for some reason or another. It’s not what I saw, it’s how I felt.  When I originally left the hotel, the pearl gray afternoon did not motivate me to even pack my camera. However, I find it hard to turn off my photographic brain, and soon enough I was seeing pictures everywhere. But not the pictures I would normally take.

I have a few “rules” for my pictures. Color needs reason, it needs to be a predominant part of the image.

Enough Color?

Not enough color?

I don’t like to take pictures with the sky in them if there are no clouds in the sky. Especially in B&W.

No, I couldn’t wait, and no it’s not art.

Whenever I see an otherwise comely shot with large expanses of gray sky I always ask myself “didn’t the photographer have the patience to come back and retake that shot at a more interesting time?” Maybe that has to do with the amount of time it takes me to process and print a film shot compared to digital, but there are lots of film shots where a large portion of the print is dominated by vapid gray expanses. I think art takes a degree of patience as well as luck. I have an entire catalog of potential shots when the time is right, or shots I want to retake when the time is better. Other rules are that I won’t take a shot with power lines in it. I want more timelessness as part of my style. For the same reason I often avoid people in my shots. (Would love to have taken some of these with a pinhole for that reason.)

So,what to do? Gradually as I walked around I began to previsualize shots that I had neverbefore seen in my mind’s eye. Gritty, dark, high-contrast shots comparable to shots on graphic arts film. Shots where the sky was blown out as a canvas for the buildings set against it in Batman angles. (You know, not the movies, but the old camp TV show.)  I walked around and composed a few shots, and then went back to the hotel, grabbed my camera and tried to capture the things I’d seen in my mind.

I pumped up my ASA to 1600 to get grain and put some texture in that featureless sky. I place the sky on Zone V (instead of the shadows as I normally do). In general I seriously “underexposed” (probably as much as 4-6 stops compared to how I would shoot this on film).

I allowed blacks in the shadows.

Once Black

I blew stuff out.


I composed with people.

I love the “timeless” 60ish, That girl quality of this shot

I tried to capture motion in space with time.

I spun the camera during the shot to emphasize the architectural spiral and de-emphasize the people

I took shots, deleted them, and took them all over again. I had fun. I left rain on my lens. I kept shots with vignetting.

Late at night after dinner and meetings, I played around with them in Irfranview, converting them to grayscale and making crude gamma and contrast adjustments. I did it all by feel – I’m not even sure I know what gamma is analogous to in the darkroom, and it’s apparently largely monitor-dependent at any rate. I was unencumbered by skill, but I did manage a few successes in realizing my vision.

The winner, this shot has grain, contrast, luminosity, sky. All things I originally didn’t think I could get.

The most important thing, though, is that while I have spent a long time developing my “style” and my techniques to support it, nothing in that time and place could successfully be captured in that style or suited that vision. But because of recent musings on exposure and controls (largely through this blog, reading, and film testing) I was able to change my visualization to suit the conditions I was given. It wasn’t colorful, which I had assumed everything would be. It doesn’t evoke the tropics which I assumed I could not avoid. It’s not timeless; it has people; it’s not realistic; it’s not light and airy. In a way, I think these pictures the polar opposite of architects’ intent and my preconceptions.

There was only so far I could push the images given the tools and content I have. I could not achieve luminosity. They are blocked and blown. And yet, there are one or two photos of the set that I’m actually quite happy to have both foreseen, and also been able to produce. I developed a new skill, I learned to use my toolset from in-camera to post-production to revisualize my environment in a way I never have before. While I’ll probably never print any of these, I’m sure the skills will transfer to times and images where I will.

The full gallery is here.