Category Archives: Photography

digital photography: techniques: thoughts: photographs

This way is not the way

Not the way © Harold Davis

Not the way © Harold Davis

Solar Flare

Rain in California this spring has been sorely needed. It has fallen intermittently and blessedly heavy at times—but never enough to stop the drought or replenish the reservoirs. After one such downpour, I went out with my camera searching for waterdrops.

Solar Flare © Harold Davis

Solar Flare © Harold Davis

It was late afternoon, and the rain had stopped. The setting sun turned drops of water to natural jewelry. I crossed the street, and positioned my tripod near a large and wet patch of decorative grasses. The sun was low in the sky and reflected off some of the grasses. To the extent that I focused close, the reflection of the sun was refracted by the diaphragm blades within the lens. The closer I focused, the larger the solar refraction.

If you look at the image, you can see that I focused on the tiny drop of water in the mid-to-lower left, and that the “solar flare” of refracted sunlight shows the polygonal shape of the opening within my macro lens.

To see more of my photography of natural waterdrops, please check out my book Photographing Waterdrops: Exploring Macro World with Harold Davis (Focal Press).

Exposure data: Nikon D800, 200mm f/4 Nikkor macro lens, 36mm extension tube, +4 close-up filter, 1/400 of a second at f/5.6 and ISO 400, tripod mounted.

Using Light for Emotional Impact

Photography is the art and craft of capturing light, whether via silver halide chemistry on film, or via silicon on a sensor array. “Capturing light” is probably the key part of this definition: unlike the popular perception that we photograph people or things, it is impossible to actually render anything in the absence of light. All we can capture is light emitted or reflected (mostly reflected) by our photographic subject matter.

Irises in a Vase © Harold Davis

Irises in a Vase © Harold Davis

Why do we care about a photo? Generally because it stirs our emotions. Emotions can be stirred for many reasons, and due to many associations (Marcel Proust’s account of emotional reminiscence stirred by an odor comes to mind). An emotionally resonant image that is technically imperfect will trump a technically perfect but banal image any time.

Boathouse Still Life © Harold Davis

Boathouse Still Life © Harold Davis

Leaving aside imagery where the pure storytelling packs a wallop, powerful photos use light emotionally. Even graphic human interest photos are more powerful when they use light to their advantage. To summarize, we capture light not things. Emotional resonance is what matters in imagery. Therefore, powerful images manage to use light to convey an emotional response in the viewer. What should your take-away from this syllogism be? I think there are three simple conclusions that all good photographers recognize as guiding principles, and strive to master:

  • If you want to be a better photographer, train yourself to see light and not objects.
  • Light inspires, directs and misdirects when it is captured as the incredible force it is. Use all of this in your work: the force, the power, the inspiration, the direction and the misdirection.
  • Uniform and moderate light is rarely as interesting as strong lighting. Think of it this way: without evil for comparison, how do we know what “good” is? Light is the same way. You often can’t really see it unless there is also darkness.

In my high-key image of Irises in a Vase (shown far above) I purposely created a highly artificial construct of light that seems almost blinding—and therefore obscures details. This image does not look the way it would be rendered in a single accurate capture, but is more emotionally compelling because the apparently overwhelming light has left only the painterly details, with enough visual clues for the viewer to interpolate the rest. With Boathouse Still Life (above) the emotional appeal is achieved because of the partial illumination. In a generally low-key image, the composition with nautical rope behind it is lit by an apparently momentary shaft of light.

Story of O © Harold Davis

Story of O © Harold Davis

In Story of O (above) the action is in the gradation of light, from the light gray in the distance to the darker gray in the foreground, and the contrast with the black outlined shape. A sense of mystery always adds to the emotional appeal of an image, and the relationship of the background gradient to the “circle” foreground is indeed mysterious, bringing several different kinds of light into play. I like to quote the American poet Randall Jarrell, who once said that “Art being bartender is never drunk.” I take this to mean that my viewers don’t have to know what is going on in an image, and maybe even shouldn’t—but as “bartender” I must. This means first and foremost learning to use and control the emotional impact of light in my imagery. Related stories: More about Story of O; more about Boathouse Still Life. Also check out Becoming a More Creative Photographer (a set of articles with exercises on

Looking back and thinking forward

I’ve been looking through my archives from last year in Paris—and finding many images that I want to process! Looking back at the crop from the spring of last year helps me to understand what I did right, and what I didn’t get to do. I am using the inventory to check plan my photography this year. Both the images below are essentially unmodified (other than RAW processing) from the straight shots—these were about being there and getting it right in the exposure, not about post-production.

Paris Carousel © Harold Davis

Paris Carousel © Harold Davis

About the image: I used a moderate wide angle focal length, and stopped down enough (to f/18) to get both the carousel and the Eiffel tower in focus. Since this was at night, a moderately long exposure was required (3 seconds) to be able to stop the lens down and get the depth-of-field I needed.

Exposure data: Nikon D300, 18-200mm lens at 18mm, 3 seconds at f/18 and ISO 200, tripod mounted.

Arc de Triomphe © Harold Davis

Arc de Triomphe © Harold Davis

About the image: Cars, trucks and busses whiz around the Arc de Triomphe endlessly. I wanted to show these cars as streaks, but with the sunset in the sky there was insufficient light for a long enough exposure. I added a polarizer and a +4 ND filter to cut down the light reaching the sensor so I could adjust the exposure proportionately to allow a longish (30 second) shutter speed.

Exposure data: Nikon D300, 18-200mm lens at 18mm, polarizer and neutral density filter, 30 seconds at f/22 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

Apartments on the Boulevard Haussman

I was struck by the regularity in this apartment building. Nobody had planters out, no bikes were stored, and old shoes weren’t resting in the window embrasures.  This kind of tidiness is what you might expect from the haute bourgeoisie along the Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. I photographed the facade to emphasize its evident symmetry, and processed it using the same set of techniques I used with Room with a View (where there were old sneakers outside the windows!) to make the image look as much like an etching as a black & white photo.

Apartments on the Boulevard Haussmann © Harold Davis

Apartments on the Boulevard Haussmann © Harold Davis

With the image I had pre-visualized, and in this kind of situation, in both shooting and processing I am very glad to have the monochromatic HDR toolkit at my beck and call!

Exposure data: Nikon D300, 18-200mm lens at 130mm, five combined exposures at shutter speeds between 1/13 of a second and 1/800 of a second, each exposure at f/8 and ISO 200, tripod mounted.

Nature’s Palette

Contrary to common cliché, the colors of nature are not always beautiful. But in the case of flowers, colors are almost always beautiful to human eyes. True, flowers need to attract pollinators to survive. But in a weird and wonderful example of species symbiosis, floral propagation is also largely dependent on attractiveness to humans. Nature has a number of stratagems here. For example, some floral species smell good to us. But when it comes to flower species survival and extension via human intervention, nothing beats nature’s glorious palette of floral colors!

Nature's Palette © Harold Davis

Nature’s Palette © Harold Davis

Related image: Tulips and Anemones.

Exposure data: Nikon D800, Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar, 2 seconds at f/16 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

Check out my online Photographing Flowers course (use this link for a $10 discount).

Zeiss Lens Ambassador – Harold Davis

I’m really pleased with my new page as a sponsored photographer on the Zeiss Camera Lens Ambassador site. Check it out:

Lonely Islet by Harold Davis

Lonely Islet © Harold Davis

Related link: Otus & me (an informal review).

Sunday in the Park with George

Sunday in the Park with George. “George” in this case was my Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 lens. The park is Square Jean XXIII, just behind Notre Dame in Paris, on a cold November day near twilight.

In a Paris Park © Harold Davis

In a Paris Park © Harold Davis

The most typical goal of photography is to render crisp images where camera motion is not an issue. This can be achieved by using a fast shutter speed—usually a shorter duration of time than 1/125 of a second—or by putting the camera on a solid support, such as a tripod.

What fun to turn this on its head by intentionally moving the camera during exposure. The results often don’t look very photographic, and it takes a good bit of trial and error to find the right exposure combination. It’s also easier when there is some light, but not too much light. Try this technique in the middle of the day, and even with loads of neutral density filters it is hard to get decent results.

As with the light, so with the motion—you want to move the camera in a consistent way, with enough movement to create an attractive effect but not so much as to turn the image to mush! In this case, “George” and I consistently panned slowly from left to right, pausing on the couple on the bench briefly, and going up and down at the right end of the exposure.

I feel lucky when shooting this way to get one out of a hundred shots turning out decently. Even a few seconds can seem like a very long time when one does it over and over again!

Exposure data: Nikon D800, Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 at f/4.5, 4 seconds at ISO 50, hand held.

Hip to be square

An important part of the gentle art of photographic composition is to recognize that we are rendering a three-dimensional world, in part by presenting it within a two-dimensional frame. An effective composition makes some kind of order out of the chaos inherent in the world using this framing mechanism, and also through the references of elements within the image to the frame that limits the scope of the image. After all, complete freedom is inherently chaotic and anarchic, and the use of a photographic frame is one of the more obvious ordering mechanisms that is available to any photographer.

Special Tulips © Harold Davis

Special Tulips © Harold Davis

My use of the word “framing” here refers of course to the borders of an image (or print)—and not to the external frame that is put around or over a work of art. Our concept of “framing” derives from the shape of the image that the camera captures. This is very strong when you consider traditional film photography: a 35mm negative is framed in a 1.5 to 1 proportion, and a medium format negative is generally square.

With digital, there is less reason to be bound by the internal framing of the capture device. A photo can be cropped in many different proportions, with the only practical constraint the available resolution if one is “throwing away” pixels. You can even create images that extensions of the capture size, such as panoramas or David Hockney-style photo collages.

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed looking at square imagery, but it isn’t a compositional format that has come naturally to me. An art world client specifically asked me to create some square compositions from my flower photos, and I was pleased to see this work out with the image of Special Tulips shown above.

Botanique benchmark: I am excited and happy that a collector has agreed to buy the fifteenth copy of Botanique. This is the last copy that was priced at $1200, and the price is now $1950 for numbers 16-20. Thank you very much everyone who has supported this project, and a big shout-out to the original sponsors on Kickstarter (where pricing started at $600!).

Awagami Video with Botanique

I’m really pleased to note a new professionally-made video from Awagami about photographers who print on Awagami washi that shows my Botanique. The video can be played below, embedded from Facebook. The video is in Japanese with English translation in subtitles. Botanique is shown in the video at about the 50 second mark. 

Rose after Delauney and O’Keeffe

At a recent lunch with my brother he reminded me how we both benefited from a classical education in the arts when we were young. I may not have got much of this stuff via formal education, but I sure was exposed to every layer of visual art history as a child thanks to my parents. Mostly, by seeing the stuff in person—from the paintings on the walls of the Caves of Lascaux to the museums with the “moderns” and everything in between.

To quote the dearly beloved and recently deceased Pete Seeger on the difference between education and experience, “Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don’t.”

I’m not sure how this fits with being dragged through every museum imaginable as a wayward kid—probably more in the experience category—but even as a bored child it was hard not to fall hard for the impressionists at first encounter.

Rose after Delauney and O'Keeffe © Harold Davis

Rose after Delauney and O’Keeffe © Harold Davis

Anyhow, this wasn’t what I had in mind when I went to work on the photo of the pale rose (far below), but I do know enough to recognize the palette and patterns of the great geometric painter Sonia Delauney along with the sensuousness of a Georgia O’Keeffe floral—when they pop out at me in an image I’ve created.

You’ll note that the original image is rotated 90 degrees. The other effects come from a series of LAB adjustments—inversions and equalizations—applied using a variety of blending modes.

Within each rose © Harold Davis

Within each rose © Harold Davis

For a couple of other examples of this kind of thing, check out Mandalas from a Glass Bowl, Broken Arrow and Creating LAB Patterns, and also see my article on, Using LAB Color Adjustments.

Meanwhile, I must report that there is a certain goodwill towards the world that comes about from consorting with one’s fraternal sibling when both brothers are “of a certain age” with receding hairlines and cares and children of their own, and fondly reminiscing about some of the unique aspects of our culturally rich—and radically eclectic (or maybe eclectically radical)—upbringing.

Flowers for the vernal equinox

To celebrate the spring equinox yesterday, here are some Tulips and Anemones shot on my light box for translucency (a white ranunculus peeks through on the upper left as well!). You can recognize some of these specimens in Kaleidoscope of Flowers. As you can see, I am enjoying our California spring!

Tulips and Anemones © Harold Davis

Tulips and Anemones © Harold Davis

Exposure data: Nikon D800, Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar, 2 seconds at f/16 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

Curated—A Different Version of Harold Davis

Danielle Wohl, an art consultant based in Palo Alto, California, has curated a different version of my work on her website. These are not the translucent florals on washi or high-tonal-range black & white prints I am used to collectors choosing. Danielle has selected imagery that verges on the abstract and depicts things like architectural details in Japan, a pattern on an old garden fence, and a stack of old dishes. Check out the Harold Davis page on the Danielle Wohl Art Advisory website.

Here are a couple of the images Danielle selected and the stories behind them:

Apartment Stairs in Shin-Imamiya © Harold Davis

Apartment Stairs in Shin-Imamiya © Harold Davis

With Apartment Stairs in Shin-Imamiya, I was traveling via a series of local trains in central Japan on my way between the monastery guesthouse in Mt Koyo and hiking the Kumano kodo. I changed trains at the Shin-Imamiya Station on the outskirts of Osaka, and there was a wait of an hour or so before my connecting train arrived. I decided to explore a little. You can’t tell from this shot of the patterned apartment stairs, but the area is surprisingly funky, with homeless people on the street right in front of the train station—not the neat and tidy Japan that tourists are supposed to see.

Plates © Harold Davis

Plates © Harold Davis

We had wrapped shooting my Craftsy Photographing Flowers course in Denver, and the crew and I were out for a celebratory lunch. I spotted this stack of plates in the restaurant, and shot and processed it on my iPhone on the spot! I suppose that I have “hungry eyes”—and that looking at interesting things is as necessary to me as food or drink.

The feeling is mutual: my Otus lens

I’ve posted a new informal review of my Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 on My conclusion: “If you can afford it, and if you can work with manual focus (which is often, in fact, my preference), then this lens will yield incomparable results when paired with a high resolution full frame sensor.” Click here to read the full review.

Otus & me---selfie via iPhone 5 camera app

Otus & me—selfie via iPhone 5 camera app

Here’s another recent image shot of a rose in black and white, made with my Otus:

Within each rose © Harold Davis

Within each rose © Harold Davis

Kaleidoscope of Flowers

Spring has come, and I know it’s true because I have anemones and ranunculae to add to my tulips on my light box for back lighting. Fun to create a composition that seems almost like a kaleidoscope image—but the colors are made of flowers!

Kaleidoscope of Flowers © Harold Davis

Kaleidoscope of Flowers © Harold Davis

Exposure information: Shot on a light box with a Nikon D800 and Zeiss Otus 55/1.4. Seven combined exposures, each exposure at f/11 and ISO 100, with exposure times between 1/60 of a second and 2 seconds. Camera tripod mounted; Harold ladder mounted. Exposures combined and processed in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR), Photoshop, Nik HDR Efex Pro, Nik Color Efex Pro, Topaz Adjust and Topaz Simplify.

Related image: Tulips in a Crowd.