Improve your visual diet

eyes

At the beginning of every year a lot of people are working on resolution-driven changes to their lives and lifestyles. Do more exercise, eat more veggies, that kind of thing. Worthy goals, but something that often gets neglected is what we expose ourselves to visually.

As humans, up to 80% of our sensory data streams through our eyes into the visual cortex. And yet we often take our eyes for granted and pay little attention to what we look at, or for, in the world around us.

I believe that simply by looking at and for beauty in what we find around us – in other people, works of art, well-crafted pieces of furniture, landscaped gardens, raw natural settings – we improve our consciousness and ourselves.

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Take clutter, for example. A messy, cluttered environment (which currently describes the state of my home office) induces stress. The mere sight of books and hard-drives askew on my desk triggers tiny flickers of anxiety that get smoothed away when I tidy up and bring order to my work space.

Where I live in Montreal, this time of year can be visually draining. The sky is often grey, the ground white with snow and the streets a brown mushy mess of slush and grit. It’s no surprise that this is when those big colourful billboards for trips to Cuba pop up over the highways, showing endless expanses of blue sea and smiling happy people.

Advertising always works that way, creating an enticing contrasting world to the one you are in, but it’s a pity if the only way we expand our visual diet is through ads.

I am a big fan of visiting museums when I travel, and within my own city. I enjoy taking an hour or two to simply stand in front of works of art and let my eyes drink in the imagery, the colours, shapes, textures of something made by a human hand. I’m lucky to live in a city with lots of access to art, not just within museums but throughout the city.

A walk through Mount Royal park is also something that feeds me when my mind needs to look at something other than screens.  Looking at trees, watching sparrows and chickadees flit to and from branches, always lifts my spirits.

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My daughter’s face is another place I look to when I want to soak in the beauty this world has to offer. One of my favourite things to do is steal glances of her in the rearview mirror when I am driving her home from school. She is often looking out the window, quietly observing the passing views and she has such a thoughtful expression I am always intrigued and wonder what she is thinking about. It makes me smile just watching her watching the world like that.

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We all have images that fill us with a sense of something greater than ourselves. Something that can ennoble us and lift us up when we are feeling overwhelmed, or sad, or just tired with life.

There is much tumult in the world today, as ever, and much of the images we see on our screens stain the eyes with pain. Like the scene of that child face down on the shoreline, or the devastated scenes from terror attacks, like that toppled Christmas tree in Berlin, or the ripped apart streets of Aleppo.

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Faun – Pablo Picasso (1937)

I don’t believe we should turn away from the people in need when terrible things do happen, but we do need to balance these images of death and destruction with more beauty and more calmly restorative images that help bring peace of mind.

So if you’ve still got room on your resolution list for one more, make it to seek out and pay attention to what is good and beautiful around you. Fill your eyes and your mind with images that bring you a sense of peace.  We could all use more of it.

Using HDR & long exposures for blur effects in your travel shots

Ghostpeople of Berlin's East Side Gallery

Ghostpeople of Berlin’s East Side Gallery

I read an article this morning by Adam Karnacz in Vantage (on Medium), called Removing People with Long Exposure, in which he described the technique he uses to disappear people from photos at sites where it is impossible to otherwise get a clear shot. Places like St. Peters in Rome, Stonehenge or any major tourist attraction. It’s a simple trick which I also discovered myself recently while visiting Berlin. I was at the East Side Gallery, a 1.7 km long section of the Berlin Wall left standing and completely painted over by artists after the wall came down on November 9, 1989. I had wanted to visit it the first time I was in Berlin two years ago, but ran out of time. Even this visit was rushed, arriving by cab at the end of the day just as the sun was setting. In addition to the dim lighting, there was a metal fence up in front of a large portion of the east-facing wall, erected by the city of Berlin just that day for temporary cleaning of the site. But even at this later time of day there were crowds of people milling by, congregating around the most recognizable sections of the gallery.

I did not have a tripod, as I rarely travel with one since the time I almost missed a flight leaving the Canary Islands because my tripod needed to be checked by security. It is cumbersome to travel with one anyway, but I’ve found a makeshift one can be found by using what you find in your surroundings. A pole to lean the body of the camera on one side works well, or the top of a car or nearby mailbox. A garbage can will work in a pinch, depending on how recently it was emptied out.

I set my camera to shoot high dynamic range (HDR) (which means the camera takes three shots in succession at three different exposures, one under, one correct, and one over-exposure, then merges the three images into one). Shooting HDR requires very static subjects, otherwise the merged images don’t match up and you get strange, electric looking outlines. However, an unexpected advantage I discovered was that if you shoot HDR where something is moving in front of your static subject, i.e., people walking, you get a beautiful shot of your subject and the people either blur right out of the picture or add a surreal, ghostlike effect, showing the traces of humans but nothing recognizable. (See some of my photos of Berlin’s East Side Gallery here)

I thought the effect worked particularly well in some of the shots of got of the East Side Gallery.

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As darkness fell, I switched over to using longer exposures, but this time pointed my lens to take in a bit of the road to capture oncoming traffic to create some random light paintings with headlights next to the wall imagery. I liked the effect in these shots as well.

Electric avenueAnd then there was this final image, which had nothing to do with the wall but was in one of the cars parked right in front of it that I was using as my makeshift tripod. Somehow seems to perfectly capture the quirky, captivating, energy that Berlin emanates and is maybe one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken.

Berlin's Hula Girl

The marketing genius of letting people photograph your art

My sun and the Chihuly Sun sculpture

My sun and the Chihuly Sun sculpture

Driving home today listening the Home Run on CBC, I was happy to hear the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is going to be the permanent owner of the Chihuly Sun, thanks to a generous donation by Montreal philanthropist, Van Berkom. I was one of the 270,000 visitors to the exhibition last year on a day I played hookey with my daughter. As she is a budding artist I wanted to expose her to seeing beautiful things, and Chihuly’s glass sculptures fit the bill perfectly. I was thrilled as well, that photographing the art was not only allowed, but encouraged. I realized, while doing it, that this was genius marketing – both by the artist and the museum as it gave visitors the chance to not only experience the gorgeous opulence of Chihuly’s work, but gave them something to share with their friends and across their social networks, spreading both the fame of the artist and perhaps contributing to the record-breaking attendance levels the museum experienced.

I’ve worked for artists before, and photographed events and magazine features in the National Art Gallery of Canada, and I’ve always had restrictions on what I could and could not include in my shot, even if the subjects (people) were simply in the museum and the art was a colourful backdrop. I understand there are copyright issues, but at the same time, as an artist, wouldn’t you want your work to be seen as widely as possible, especially if, as in these cases, the works have already been purchased and are hanging on museum walls?

Chihuly, aside from making stunning works of art, completely understands that while not everyone can afford to take home a $6,000 bowl (on the extreme low-end of his offerings), everyone can still take something away from the exhibit with the photos. And these photos not only allow viewers to have a deeper, more intimate connection to his work, but will also serve as ambassadors for his fame and enhance the cachet for those lucky few who can afford to own his works. Everybody wins.

Here are a few of the shots from that day I spent in the sun, with my little girl. Feel free to share;)