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Matinee: Harold Davis On Vision, Craft Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

3 May 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the thirty-first in our series of Saturday matinees today: Harold Davis: Creative Vision and Craft in Digital Photography.

This hour-long presentation at B&H was published in November 2012. Long ago, we put Light & Exposure by Harold Davis on our Bookshelf of Classics. It's an excellent introduction to the basics of digital exposure. A classic, indeed.

This time around, Davis isn't just talking exposure. He's also talking about how he edits images for a non-photographic look. Which he prints on Moab paper. "I'm a painter who uses digital photography as my medium," he explains.

And indeed some of the images he shows are painterly. But others are strangely neither painterly nor photographic yet clearly digital.

As he shows these unique images, he explains broadly how he made them. Multiprocessing a Raw image into separate layers and stacking multiple exposures that show the brightest pixel in each layer are the main tricks but he divulges many useful tidbits along the way, too.

For example, there's nice noise and not-noise size, he says. Don't worry about the nice noise. He suspects, he jokes, that people will one day buy our older noisey digital cameras just for their "noise signature."

He also reveals his formula for starlight: four minutes using ISO 400 at f2.8 or f4. And point north. With a wide angle lens (he used a 10mm fisheye on a DX camera). But it's "very, very hard to see" starlight. You have to get far away from light pollution to see the Milky Way.

He spends between a day and a week to process one of his images, he confesses during one of the frequent breaks for questions in the presentation.

Then he continues the show with a seven-exposure black-and-white High Dynamic Range landscape. First he works with the color data before converting to black and white. He'll go a little garish on the color, he says, to get the contrast he wants in the monochromatic image. And he likes doing this in Lab color space.

He shows a couple of images processed to resemble black and white pencil drawings and etchings.

He drops little tips every now and then, inspired by the image on the screen. To shoot HDR portraits, he suggests using bracketing in burst mode because otherwise people move to much.

To set up a seven-exposure image with a 10-14 EV tonal range, he uses Manual exposure at one particular f-stop setting the shutter speed at one-EV intervals to expose for the tones he finds in the image by spot metering the darkest and lightest parts. Got that?

As you listen to him, though, you get the feeling there are few rules. Lots of recommendations based on lots of experience (he's made every mistake you can, he points out). But few rules.

It's about vision, after all.

A vision that falls outside both the art world and photography, he admits. But ask him about that again in 10 years.

While there's enough information in his short answers to get you in trouble, he has also written extensively on his techniques. Amazon's Harold Davis page lists all his books.

While his images are of physical phenomena, he says he tries to get people to do double-takes. He asks the audience what a black-and-white image was taken of and nobody gets it. It looks like mountains but (well, it's about the 34:20 minute mark). We're not telling.

In his lightbox photography (with a little bit of front lighting), he paints in his flowers from light to dark (with a Photoshop brush) like a watercolorist after exposing at the correct exposure and bracketing up from there to nearly pure white.

He mentions shooting infrared with a converted dSLR and using Lensbabies to expand your vision.

One composition will get you out with your camera after a rain: it's water drops suspended above a flower on a spider web.

And while you're out, he'll send you to Bodie, Calif. too, after you see his HDR shots of the ghost town's interiors.

Asked about a detail of his workflow, he admits, "There are so many different options and they all lead to different things." Just try them, see where they take you.

For a twelve-hour night shoot, he uses a big lithium battery with a DC converter designed for studio lighting as an external battery. He even advises you what to do with yourself for a long shoot like that.

His HDR techniques even include a panorama, requiring him not only to bracket but the shift the camera and bracket. An HDR panorama of a star magnolia makes a nice print on rice paper, he notes.

While he showed a lot of dSLR images, he says near the end, he likes all kinds of cameras. To prove it, he pulls an iPhone out of his shirt pocket. It's the camera he always has with him.

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