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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The New Traditionalist


In less than a decade, Jim Shoemaker went from being afraid of his SLR to a life filled with landscape photography and creating images that convey what the scene feels like

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The Rule of Thirds doesn't begin to cut it and, frankly, sometimes a subject placed dead-center in a frame is powerful if you know what you're doing. I can't say I see landscapes differently; I just see them my way.

"My preferred lens is the [Canon]16-35mm ƒ/2.8L," he adds, "and often I place my foreground object at the minimum focusing distance of the lens. This really forces the sense of depth of the image from front to back and makes the foreground feel imposing. I think it also gives the viewer more of a sensation that they're drawn into the image, and it becomes more of an interactive experience rather than a passive one."

While Shoemaker's aesthetics have surely evolved in his nine-year photography career, the real revolution has been in the way he approaches the technical matters of exposure and processing.
"In the beginning," he says, "I worried too much about what a 'proper' exposure was, when there really is no such thing. A 'proper' exposure makes the image look the way you visualized it, and a 'technically proper' exposure meters at 18% gray. It usually made my images look overexposed and clinical. Now I prefer them slightly darker and more moody. Mystery in an image is good, so long as you intend it to be there!"


Echo Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado. Shoemaker enjoys returning to favorite locations, and he's not concerned with being cliche or repetitive. As he says, "There's no guarantee that I'll see the same landscape twice, even if I want to."
Shoemaker deliberately plays up the mystery in his photographs by working at the edges of light. He finds them at dawn and dusk, in the transition from shadow to highlight, and when light is coming directly at him.

"Backlight adds mystery," Shoemaker says, "hiding elements of the landscape in shadow or silhouette. It serves a similar function to fog, which I consider to be nature's lingerie, but whereas fog is gentle and short scale, backlighting is harsh and dynamic. Both offer only glimpses of what lies beyond the initial tease, but backlight is much more energetic.

"Have you ever seen a Western movie end with the cowboy riding off into a front-lit scene with the sun at his back?" he adds. "All the drama is shooting into the sun. I shoot a lot of my landscapes into the sun, not only at sunrise and sunset, but after the sun has some elevation to it. It works especially well in black-and-white because of the graphic look. All of the shadows come right to the camera, and I like to shoot low to the ground to make them prominent leading lines or design elements."

When working in such challenging lighting situations, good technique—both in camera and in the computer—becomes paramount. Here, again, Shoemaker defers to the past masters, while harnessing modern means to achieve his traditionalist aesthetic.

"I think a lot of people misinterpret what it means to get it right in-camera," he says. "I know how I need to expose the image in order to make sure I'm going to get the details in the tones I want. I shoot in RAW, and I think a lot of people assume all you need to do in RAW is 'expose to the right,' but that's not always the best way to do it. Using a cookie-cutter formula just means that much more work on the computer.

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