Photo Critique Series: “Kiva” by Derrick Kelly

This week’s photograph was made by Derrick Kelly at Kiva Beach in South Lake Tahoe, California. By having his image chosen for this critique Derrick will receive a free 16×20 matted print from Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques you can upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose.

If you’ve been reading these critiques you know that I’m a fan of clean, simple compositions. This photograph epitomizes that. The four stumps stand out clearly against the smooth water, creating a serene, zen-like composition.

The image seems nicely balanced, and I like the way the stumps form a subtle curve through the foreground. The only thing about the composition I can nitpick is the visual merger between the two stumps closest to the camera; it would be great to see clean separation and balanced spacing between all the stumps.

Gaining that separation would have required either raising the camera, moving forward, or stepping to the right and pointing the camera more to the left. I don’t know if any of those options was feasible: the tripod might have been as high as it could go, stepping forward would probably have required wading, and moving to the right and pointing left could have introduced unwanted distractions in the background. But I point this out to make you more aware of such mergers in your own compositions; if you notice problems like this in the field then you have a chance to fix them by changing the camera position.

Derrick seemed to have a clear vision of how he wanted this photograph to look before he pressed the shutter. When I first viewed this image I thought it was captured at dusk, but it was actually made in midday light. Derrick put on a four-stop neutral-density filter, allowing him to use a 15-second exposure. This blurred and smoothed the water, giving the photograph a dusky, long-exposure look.

Derrick also knew from the beginning that he would convert this to black and white. He told me, “I like black and white because I feel it allows me to be more expressive in the image, with less ambiguity about my artistic intent, than does color photography.” Just for comparison, here’s the color version. To me the black-and-white image is indeed more expressive, and makes a stronger statement, than the color one. In color we see what stumps in water look like. In black and white we get that feeling of space and simplicity.

Color version

Color version

I’ve talked about this in a previous critique, but it’s worth mentioning again how black and white can simplify a photograph. Sometimes color can just be a distraction; here, for example, the rocks underneath the water stand out more in the color image, pulling our eyes away from the stumps.

Derrick said that he processed the single Raw file twice in Lightroom, darkening one version to bring out detail in the sky, lightening the other to provide the feeling he wanted in the foreground. He then converted both to black and white and merged them together in Photoshop.

As with many things in the digital darkroom, there were probably several different techniques that could have created a similar look. But the particular tools don’t matter. What does matter is having a clear idea of what you want to convey in the photograph. If you can do that, then you can make the right decisions along the way to convey that vision, from the choice of composition, exposure, shutter speed, depth of field, and filters, to the steps of post-processing.

In his books The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, Ansel Adams stressed the importance of visualization. He said, “The term visualization refers to the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph, and as such, it is one of the most important concepts in photography. It includes the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure, so that the procedures employed will contribute to achieving the desired result.”

I think Derrick did a great job of visualization here. He didn’t want a literal representation of reality. He wanted something more expressive, and took the necessary steps to create that, starting with the 15-second exposure to smooth the water, and finishing with some skillful digital-darkroom work.

What do you think of this photograph? Do you like the black-and-white version better? Does the visual merger of the two stumps bother you? As always, I look forward to hearing your comments.

Thanks Derrick for sharing your image! You can see more his work on Flickr.

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As part of being chosen for this week’s critique Derrick will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. I’ll be posting the next critique in two weeks. Thanks for participating!