Perception and Art

rowers.jpg2009 is a great time to be in photography.  The quality of the equipment and the software to process images has improved dramatically in the past 15 years.  I find that my mind coached with training of what these tools can do, has even altered my perceptions of the way I see the world.  I now look for things that often I cannot see, but that I know are there.  Very exciting stuff in that the end resulting image is often analogous to what Forrest Gump said, “it’s like a box of chocolates, you don’t know what you are going to get.”  But usually one knows that you’ll get something that you will like.  The other day I was showing some rowing images to a very experienced friend in the sport.  She saw things in the image that I could not see: wrist position, back inclination and elbow angle of the various rowers that told her information about what was going on in the boat.  Oar positions and alignments that meant nothing to me, but to her trained eye, it was a wholly different plane of observation.  It is like this for me when I photograph a subject.  Many times I have been asked “what are you photographing?” and I have difficultly explaining that I am not quite sure, well, completely anyway.  I am sure it sounds like a stupid answer to the questioner.  However the same thing has happened to me a lot with other photographers.  We’ll be in the same place at the same time, and looking at our pictures later I’ll think, “were we on the same trip together?”  My point is people can and do see things differently and can be trained to see them in a certain way.  Not so different from doctors studying x-rays.

One of the tools that Adobe Systems has added to the quiver of Photoshop CS4 Extended Edition in recent years has been the “stack mode” and its special filters.  If images are captured with precise alignment, Photoshop can take this “stack” of images and process the individual pixels.  A maximum filter will  yield the brightest value of that pixel position from all the images in the stack.  The minimum filter will do the opposite, while the median filter falls in between.  The latter is of great use when you want to photograph a subject that has people or objects moving within the frame.  With enough exposures, you can make them all disappear from the final output image.

point_lobos_max.jpgThese three images here are of some rocks off Point Lobos, California (near Carmel).  A series of nine images stacked together.  Everything about the images is identical, save for the TIME that they were taken.  The first is with the maximum filter applied, and all of the surf (bright white) and the white birds show up in abundance.  Remember the birds have been multiplied as they were flying, so it is likely nine times as many birds as in a single photograph.  The median filter leaves the image in a slightly more natural state but removes much of the chaos of the image. point_lobos_median.jpg 

The minimum (bottom left) shows the darkest part of the rocks without the white surf, and a few dark birds as well.  Of the three I find this one the most interesting as brighter objects tend to be retained on our retina and memory longer than do the darker ones.  point_lobos_min.jpgThat is to say we can imagine the maximum and median images easier than the minimum, dark image.  I think it has become my “art” at this point, it is mine.