5 Lessons From An Award Winning Photo

Windermere_Morning__Winner_of_the_Olympus_Global_Photo_Contest_2017.jpg
Windermere Morning – Winner of the Olympus Global Photo Contest 2017

A few days ago I received an email telling me that my photo “Windermere Morning” had won the Olympus Global Photo Contest 2017. Apart from the kudos that this brings as well as the nice shiny new Olympus camera and lens, it also affords an opportunity to share my thoughts on why my particular photo may have won.

I did consider calling this article “How To Create An Award Winning Photo”, but then I realised that I have no idea how to do that. I simply took a photo that won a competition and I am fully aware that this is very different.

Lesson 1: You’ll never get the shot if you don’t get out and shoot!

Interestingly this shot very nearly didn’t happen. I was staying at a hotel right on the edge of Lake Windermere in the UK Lake District and had set my alarm for just before sunrise. When I woke I could hear rain tapping on the window and I was very tempted to just stay in bed. Luckily after a few minutes I told myself that is not the attitude of a landscape photographer and dragged myself out of bed and down to the lakeside where I was greeted by the scene in the photo.

Just imagine if I had stayed in bed. Things would have been very different.

Lesson 2: The Right Equipment Is Important. The Best Is Not.

Now let’s get this straight. In my opinion, if you are really interested in taking great photos you should invest in the best possible equipment that you can afford. Sure you can take great photos with a phone these days but what a really good camera and a really good lens allows is consistency. The better your equipment the more consistent your images will be. To a point. What my win proves is that whatever the reviews and camera shop sales people might tell you, you do not need a top of the range DSLR to take an award winning photograph. Despite the competition being run by Olympus it was open to entries shot with any make and model of camera. I happen to use Olympus but the more important point is that I use a mirrorless micro four thirds camera rather than a DSLR because that is what suits me for various reasons. Photography snobs the world over will tell you that you can’t shoot landscapes with micro four thirds. Well, I am proof that they are wrong.

This shot also happens to have been taken with a relatively cheap lens, certainly not one from Olympus’ Pro range, but it was clearly up to the task in this instance, as I knew it would be as I stood on the edge of the lake. But just as important as the camera and lens were the peripheral items. I could not have shot this without a good sturdy tripod. I personally use a Benro Travel Angel but the important thing is that you have equipment, such as a tripod that you are comfortable using and that you trust. Get to know your equipment inside out so that using it becomes second nature. That way when you have crawled out of bed in the wee hours against your better nature you may just get set up and ready in time for the shot, rather than fiddling with your equipment trying to remember how it works.

Lesson 3: Spend Time At Your Location

As eluded to earlier I very nearly didn’t get out of bed on the morning I shot this but once I did was important to maximise the opportunity that being in one of the most beautiful parts of the world affords you. I spent a good hour walking around the scene, weighing up the angles, monitoring the light and taking lots of photographs. From this position alone I took at least 20 photos as the ever changing light and conditions worked their magic. I also moved up and down the shore shooting the scene from different angles, sometimes shooting high and sometimes shooting low, sometimes adding foreground interest, sometimes removing it. I literally had no idea that this would be the shot that I would go with until it was on my computer and edited. I had seen it’s potential but only then did I realise it.

Lesson 4: Capture Something That Moves People

It’s not about being technically brilliant, it’s about creating an emotional connection with your audience. The judges comments when awarding my image first place were:

“The world can be a loud, fast, chaotic place. This location, free from troubles is the paradise that the modern person longs for – a place away from their busy lives. When the mind is at peace, ideas naturally come to us.”

That is why it won. He obviously felt a connection with the serenity of the scene. Remember, I am not responsible for that serenity, that was all Mother Nature, I was simply there to capture it, but when I was doing that I could see that it was a scene that would tug at people’s heart strings, because it tugged at mine. Since it won there have been a lots of comments on my various social channels and not one has said, “wow, it’s so sharp”, or “I love the leading line of the boats”. All the comments, and there are hundreds, have been about the serenity and the beauty or simply just how much the person loves that part of the world.

Lesson 5: You Have To Be In It To Win It

OK, this one may seem a bit obvious but it is amazing how easy it is over-looked. If you don’t enter a competition then you won’t win. Simple as that. But how do you know you’re good enough to enter? Well the easy way is to get feedback from your peers. Post your best (and I mean your very best) images on social media channels and photo sharing sites such as Flickr and 500px. If you don’t get any likes it should be a warning that you’re probably not ready to go for the big prize just yet. Have a look around these sites. Look at photos you admire and see how many likes they are getting. If you get to a stage where you are in the same ball park then that is a pretty good indication that your shots may just be ready for the big time.

To crop or not to crop?

That is the question….

To be honest it’s not actually the question for me, in my opinion one should do whatever it takes to create a great end product but the subject of cropping has just “cropped” up (sorry, couldn’t resist) in a forum that I regularly frequent so I thought I’d have my say on the subject.

First I need to confess publicly, if you hadn’t guessed already, that I am a cropper. If you visit my website (www.richardwalkerphotography.co.uk) you’ll see all sorts of different crops ranging from subtle to extreme all with one express purpose in mind, to get the best out of the shot. On the forum I was reading a fairly well known photographer by the name of Jared Polin was mentioned. Apparently he doesn’t advocate cropping, ever, his tagline being “Shoot RAW and don’t crop”. Now, Jared is a superb photographer, but whilst I agree with the “shoot RAW” mantra the anti-crop stance just doesn’t make sense to me and here’s why.

I Don’t Like My Camera’s Aspect Ratio

Whilst I love the micro 4/3 format for it’s small size, superb lenses and wonderful technology, I actually don’t care much for the 4 x 3 aspect ratio. For me as a landscape photographer it is just too square. So what can I do? Well, I can set my camera to a different aspect ratio but firstly the only options are 3 x 2 or 16 x 9 and I prefer 16 x 10, and secondly, what am I doing? Surely I’m cropping, I’m just doing it using the camera software rather than Lightroom and I’d much rather do it in Lightroom.

The point is that in my opinion it is the lack of cropping that will compromise my composition by forcing me to have an aspect ratio that doesn’t suit landscape photography.

You Can’t Always Be Exactly Where You Want When You Want

It is all very well for “experts” to keep trotting out the “get it right in camera” rule but it’s just not always possible. As an aside I also think that we should stop referring to these photography “rules” as I feel that beginners can be very put off if they don’t manage to adhere to them. Perhaps we should start referring to them as “pointers” or something like that because in 2015 the fact is that whilst you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear you can fix a lot in post and save a photograph that may otherwise have been a throwaway and one of the things you can fix is the composition.

The Langdale Pikes rise above Lake Windermere, Lake District, UK
This image was shot with a Canon 5D MKII which has a resolution of 5616 × 3744, yet after cropping this image came out at 4987 x 2153. The reason I had to crop was because this was the only vantage point from which to get this shot. I was shooting from a hillside, to move forward I had to move down the hill and lose the view.
Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 23.15.43
Original of above crop

From what I can see Mr. Polin shoots in a very controlled environment where I’m sure he can take the time to ensure he does get it right in camera but as a landscape photographer I don’t always have that luxury. When I’m out shooting my two main concerns are light and sky. I will think nothing of compromising composition by not being exactly where I want to ensure that I get the right light and sky. It is incredible how fast a scene changes, how fast the clouds go from beautiful white fluffy ones to a dull grey sky, how fast the light on a field changes from beautiful dappled light and shadow to flat and dull, and how the sun can disappear for the rest of the day leaving you having travelled miles staring down-hearted at what just a few seconds ago was an incredible scene that has now been replace by a boring, dull landscape that no-one will want to look at a photograph of.

This is why when I arrive anywhere I always quickly get a “banker” if the light is right. This is very often not taken from where I know I want to be but it sometimes turns out to be the best shot once it has been cropped.

You Shouldn’t Crop Because You’ll Lose Resolution

The main reason people cite for not cropping is that you lose resolution. This is true and I cannot argue with it for one second. It is absolutely correct that if you move your feet or zoom to re-compose and hence “get it right in camera” then you will keep the image at the full resolution that your camera will allow. But why does this matter? Well, bottom line is, in the real world it doesn’t. If you are sharing your images on-line or viewing them on your computer then with any decent camera you can crop severely and the resolution will still be plenty. But what about printing? Well, this is where it can matter, but generally you will have to go pretty mad with your cropping before you make an image unprintable, depending how big you want to print.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 23.24.57
Original of above crop. The crop is 2724 x 1703 or 4.6MP, still big enough to print at 34cm wide.

Let’s say you want to print at A3 size. I would suggest that 200dpi is more than acceptable so armed with this information we can work out the size of image we need to get a good print. So what is it? 36MP? 21MP? 16MP? Well, A3 is 16.53 x 11.69 inches, so 16.53 x 200 = 3306 and 11.69 x 200 = 2338px. So the size image we need to print A3 at 200dpi is 3306px X 2338px or 7.7MP. Will it be as good quality as if you’d got it right in camera? No it won’t. But will it be noticeable enough to stop you cropping a shot that doesn’t work into one that does? No, absolutely not, I have sold many images, some of which are on this page, that have been severely cropped.

An Image Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect

This is one for all the pixel peepers out there. Stop getting obsessed with the fine detail and look at the overall image. Does it work? Does it draw the viewer in? Do people say “wow” when they first glance at it? If the answer is yes then who cares if it is a little soft, or not perfect when viewed at 100%? Don’t throw away a good piece of art just because it is technically slightly flawed.

A fishing boat returns to St Ives harbour, Cornwall

Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 23.19.52
Original of above
The point here is that whilst one should always aspire to perfection it is generally impossible to achieve it. When I first started in photography all I read was “get it right in camera” as if this was a golden rule that could never be broken. The way I read it back then was if you didn’t get it right in camera (whatever that actually means) then you may as well throw it away. The first problem with this was that I had no idea what “right in camera” meant so it was difficult to know when or if I’d got it right. But more importantly it dawned on me that this was not a rule, it was an aspiration, what all those people were saying, badly as it happens, was if you can, get it right in camera, but if you can’t and the scene warrants a shot then give it a shot to the best of your ability and then do whatever you can to bring out the best in it using whatever technology you have available to you.
The bottom line is, don’t hang on every word of any photographer, not even me. Take advice, but always be prepared to ignore it and go with your gut instinct.

Poor Light? Try Black and White

Devoke Water, Lake District, UK. Shot with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 | Oly 9-18mm lens | 36 second exposure | f8 | ISO 100

It’s a dilemma isn’t it? You’ve packed up all your camera gear, booked hotels, travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles with hope and excitement running through your veins, your mind overflowing with images of beautiful landscapes bathed in wonderful golden dappled light………and then you arrive and are greeted by leaden skies and dull grey land. So, what to do?

Well, this is the scenario that occurred to David and I on a recent visit to the English Lake District. There were, as usual when the two of us are together, two schools of thought. David favoured the “sitting in the pub taking wide aperture images of pints of beer” approach. But whilst I could certainly see the merits in this I could also see the downside, there are some seriously strong ales in that part of the world after all. Plus, my passion for landscape photography is at least as strong as David’s passion for beer, so we hit a compromise. Photography until sunset (only 4pm after all), then pub!

“But what about the lack of light?”, David enquired. “Surely light is the thing that adds depth and interest to a landscape photograph”. This is indeed correct and an extremely valid point, especially from a man who is used to shooting in the tropics where gorgeous light is the norm. But there are things that one can do when the sun decides not to play ball, a scenario that I am much more used to than my spoilt brother.

When life deals you lemons make lemonade right? Well, when life deals you a lack of colour in a landscape, simply think about removing all the colour. The temptation can be to try and shoot the scene and then bring out more contrast when post processing but whilst this is certainly an option I have never found it to be as satisfying as going down the black and white route. But to get the best out of black and white photography you have to think a little differently right from the moment you arrive at your location. You need to think in black and white and shoot accordingly.

Think Black and White

What do I mean by think black and white? When shooting colour it is very much about the light and the colours but when shooting in black and white I find it better to think about textures and shapes. Strong textures and shapes are the order of the day. Using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 as I do I am lucky that there are some great settings that allow me to visualize the scene through the viewfinder and the screen in black and white, I always make full use of this functionality and it is one of the things that I love about using the micro four thirds format.

Textures

When shooting black and white images I think much more about textures. I look around the scene and identify subjects that have interesting textures and think about how I will bring out those textures when post processing. In the above image the boathouse and rocks have a very defined texture. The sky too has texture to it, albeit a little more subtle. The water too had texture to it as there was a fairly stiff breeze but for me landscape images like this are all about contrast so I wanted to flatten the water out. I did this by using an 11 stop filter to get an exposure time of 36 seconds at f8. To my eye the smoothness of the water draws the eye to the rocks with their bold texture and these in turn lead the eye to the boat house.

Shapes and lines

Strong shapes and lines add to the dynamism of any black and white shot and landscapes are no different. The line of the horizon, the solidity of the boathouse and the triangular shape of the collection of rocks in the foreground all help to create a strong dynamic.

 

The beauty of black and white is that it can remove distractions allowing the mind of the viewer to concentrate on the main elements of the photograph. It’s beauty is in it’s simplicity. Take the distant mountains in the above photograph, even with relatively flat colours (take a look at the video below to see how dull it was) that a dull day displays the eye would still be drawn to these, perhaps more so than on a sunny day as the viewer would be subconsciously searching for some interest. But in black and white, whilst still an important element of the scene as a whole the mountains stand out much less allowing the main elements to become more bold and striking.

So, next time you look out of the window and it is dull and overcast remember, beautiful locations are beautiful locations no matter what the weather, you just need to shoot in a way that brings that beauty out in the best way that the conditions allow.

Dicki