Roadkill and photographers

May 8, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

On the surface, there’s nothing very funny about roadkill. The fact that millions of animals die on North American highways every year is a sad testimony to how our automobile addiction has harmed nature.

According to studies, an estimated 41 million squirrels die every year on U.S. roads alone. I’m told that as a kid I once came home from school sobbing because I’d seen a squirrel run over. None of us have enough tears in our bodies for the 26 million cats and 15 million raccoons that die every year on American roads.
And yet roadkill has become part of our pop culture. Google “roadkill” and you’ll get more than 1.5 million hits. There are entire websites devoted to roadkill cuisine, supposedly a hillbilly delicacy.

A 1990 Canadian movie called Roadkill (about a band on the road in northern Ontario) is something of a cult classic. The term “roadkill on the information superhighway” has been used in numerous books, articles and websites to describe those left behind by rapidly changing computer technology.

Even my late mother, who was a very creative person, used to gather bits of fur, feathers, porcupine quills or skulls from roadkill to incorporate into masks and other artistic creations.

So what does all this have to do with photography? Evidently a lot. A search on the photography website Flickr for groups about roadkill comes up with 163 hits. Granted some of those come up because their descriptions explicitly say that they are for animal pictures excluding roadkill, but apparently there are lots of people out there who enjoy shooting dead animals (with a camera, not a gun) and calling it art. My favourite group title is Cute Girls and Roadkill, even though its 23 members don’t seem to have been too active lately. I am not making this up. If I posted a picture of a woman to this group, she might rightly wonder if I saw her as a cute girl or as roadkill.

All this is leadup to a crazy photo idea I had last fall for a shot titled Photographer Roadkill. The idea was inspired when I looked at the photos of one of my Flickr contacts, PMck / Perry, an Ottawa-area photographer whose work I have watched blossom over the past year. Perry has an obsession with a particular bridge west of Ottawa that he refers to as “that bridge.” It’s the bridge on the old Highway 17 across the Mississippi River (not to be mistaken for its U.S. namesake). Perry filled his photostream with dozens of shots of this bridge from all angles and all times of night and day.

I began to worry about Perry. Quite aside from the fact that it’s not normal to be obsessed with a bridge, I worried that he might get so absorbed in photographing the bridge that he might not notice an oncoming car, and might end up as — roadkill. And what if other photographers shared Perry’s obsession and they also ended up as roadkill on THAT bridge? And then what if some of those photographers who shoot for Flickr groups about roadkill came by and saw Perry and the other photographers strewn across the highway and decided to take some shots? You can see where this is going.

At the same time, I’d been looking at the photos of another Flickr contact from Pittsburgh, Dave DiCello, who had been doing some interesting stuff compositing multiple shots of himself into a single photo. I particularly liked one of five versions of himself sitting around playing cards and drinking beer. So I got the idea of trying the same technique with multiple shots of myself as a photographer roadkill on that bridge. I would send it to Perry as a warning of what can happen if you’re not careful taking pictures on highways with fast-moving vehicles. I was even going to use a stuffed dog to represent Perry’s adorable standard poodle Cooper, who accompanies him on shoots.

I set up my tripod on THAT bridge, used the timer, and grabbed a couple shots of myself lying on the road. Trouble is, every time I got into position, I would hear a distant car approaching on the highway. I worried that I might end up as real photographer roadkill. Besides, the lighting was very harsh. So I abandoned the project after a few shots, and this is the best I got.

Photographer Roadkill

Photographer Roadkill

I thought of going back in better light and taking a friend to spot for cars, but then I thought better of the whole idea. It was all very, very sick, and I was sure that if I sent it to Perry he would be horribly offended. Especially placing a stuffed poodle on the road could have caused him to be extremely upset. Not everyone shares my sick sense of humour.

So, I forgot about the idea over the winter, and life carried on.

And then, about a week ago, I was looking at Perry’s photostream on Flickr, and was astonished to see he’d done a photo of his dog Cooper lying on the centre of the same road by the same bridge. And he’d titled it — you guessed it — “Road Kill.”

It turns out then, that I’m not the only one with a wacky, sick sense of humour. And Perry, who I’ve never met, except on the internet, shares some of my wackiness.

And roadkill can be funny, and can have a lot to do with photographers.

Small-town fair

April 30, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Perth, Ontario is probably one of the province’s prettiest towns. Not surprisingly, given its name, Perth was settled by Scottish settlers in the 19th century, and it has some wonderful old stone buildings. The little Tay River runs through the town, and through a picturesque green Stewart Park where broad willow trees cling to its banks.

I happened to pass through Perth last weekend, not knowing until I got downtown that my visit coincided with Perth’s Festival of the Maples. It was a nice day and I had a brand new camera lens I was eager to try out, so I strolled around the festival taking pictures.

Small-town fairs are a great subject for photography. Most people are having fun, and so they aren’t usually bothered by the presence of a camera. And they are doing interesting things. When I worked for small-town newspapers several decades ago, I used to enjoy shooting off several rolls of film at the various fairs and festivals.

Being unfamiliar with my lens, I decided not to ask people to pose this time, and instead shot some of the non-human elements that told the story of the Festival of the Maples. Here are a few shots.

Goat kid in petting zoo

Goat kid in petting zoo

Grilling sausages

Grilling sausages

Duck pond at the fair

Duck pond at the fair

Young people, Chinatown and a lighting experiment

April 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Last weekend I was shooting pictures of the lights and buildings in Montreal’s Chinatown at night. A group of young people saw my camera and tripod and asked me to take their pictures.

It’s been a while since I’ve done much people photography in anything other than fairly conventional lighting. And all I had was the pop-up flash on my Nikon D300, and the tripod. No external flash and no reflectors, etc. When trying a new technique or one you haven’t used in a while, it often takes a bit of experimenting to get it right.

At first I just shot the group with the pop-up flash and a normal flash setting. They arranged themselves in a pose, and I was mainly concerned about how the lighting would look. The result was OK, but the background was very dark, and the light on the kids was harsh. It had a snapshot look.

Group of young people, Chinatown, Montreal

Young people shot with pop-up flash and regular setting

I immediately realized that if I wanted to soften the light on them and bring in more details from the background, I would need to try something else — like a slow-sync flash setting.

A regular flash shot uses a fast shutter speed just long enough to allow the flash to completely light the subject. Slow sync, on the other hand, fires the flash, but the shutter stays open in order to properly expose the background and other areas that aren’t lit by the flash. It’s like two exposures in one — a quick exposure with the flash, and a longer exposure for the background similar to what you’d get if you just took a long exposure without the flash.

The problem was that I didn’t know just how long the exposure would take. And the kids, after seeing the flash go off, assumed the picture was finished, and they moved away. The result was a strange, but interesting ghosting effect.

Young people in Chinatown, slow sync and ghosting

In this shot I used a slow-sync flash, but the kids moved before the exposure was finished.

In the result above, the boy in the front has stayed relatively still. The flash records the features of the others sharply, but then as they move or leave, there is a blurring and ghosting effect as the slow shutter continues exposing for a few seconds without the flash.

So I tried again.

Young people, slow-sync flash 2

Another attempt with slow-sync flash.

Here they held still for longer, but still didn’t quite wait for the camera to finish exposing after the flash went off. I was communicating with them in a mix of English and French, and realized I had to be more clear that not only should they not move, but they should hold the pose until I indicated the shot was finished. I tried again with the whole group.

Young people in Chinatown, another slow sync

Trying again, but asking them to stay still.

They tried to stay still for this one, but to get a group of nine excited young people to stay absolutely still for several seconds just wasn’t going to work, no matter how hard they tried. So I tried again with just three of the boys, again emphasizing that they had to remain absolutely still.

Young people, Chinatown, Montreal

Slow sync with the kids not moving.

I liked the result of this one the best of the series, even though some of the ghosting ones had an interesting effect. The slow sync brought out the lighting of the background and softened the light on the kids. There’s still some ghosting of people moving by, but they are in the background and so less distracting.

It gives me more to experiment with next time. In hindsight, I should have taken more time and tried a few different apertures and shutter speeds to vary the ratio of the exposure time with and without the flash. I’d also like to try it with an external flash and perhaps a reflector. Finally, I should have spent more time choosing the right background, and working with the kids to get the best poses.

Who are your photography gurus?

March 27, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

In a photography group on Flickr, I recently asked participants to name their photography gurus.

To me a guru is more than just someone whose work you admire and try to emulate. It’s also someone who’s a teacher. We don’t necessarily try to imitate the styles of our gurus, but we learn from their ideas and techniques as we develop our own styles.

In my first attempt to answer my own question, I named three photographers whose work I admire for very different reasons. Each though, has published numerous books and articles explaining their techniques – often in an entertaining manner.

They are:

Joe McNally – Joe is an expert on using portable strobes on location, and often works with multiple flashes, linking them wirelessly through the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS). Even if you’re not a Nikonian, you’ll learn a lot from his highly readable books like The Hot Shoe Diaries and When the Shutter Clicks. I highly recommend a DVD he appears in A Hands-on Guide to Creative Lighting. His work appears in some of the best magazines, like National Geographic and Sports Illustrated.

Bryan Peterson – Bryan runs the online Perfect Picture School of Photography, and he’s authored a number of photography books. I really like the way he focuses on creativity and technique, and dispels the idea that expensive gear is the key to successful photography. He has a very clear and accessible way of explaining things, and his books are richly illustrated with his photos. Some I’ve read are: Understanding Exposure, Understanding Close-up Photography, and Beyond Portraiture: Creative People Photography. Excellent books for beginners, but also lots for more experienced photographers.

Scott Kelby – Scott is the guru for post production using software like Photoshop and Lightroom. He too provides online training. As he is a photographer, his books are geared to photographers. He has a goofy sense of humour that isn’t for everyone, but he has a great way of explaining things.

I soon realized that all three of them were American. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but as a Canadian who enjoys landscape photography, I thought I’d better add three Canadian landscape photographers who have also written numerous articles and books I’ve found helpful as I’ve developed my technique:

Darwin Wiggett – based in Alberta.

Daryl Benson – another Albertan.

Dale Wilson – from Nova Scotia.

Others answered with names of photographers they admire, who aren’t necessarily teachers. Check out the discussion:

What makes a great photo?

August 16, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Often I show a group of photos to different people, and I’m always struck that there is rarely a consensus on which is the best photo. Different people are drawn to different things — a photo that speaks to one person seems to leave another person flat.

Sometimes I’ve had to pick a photo — my own or someone else’s — for a publication or some other purpose and I canvass opinions. Some people agree on one photo, while others feel strongly that other photos are better.

The quality of a photo depends a lot on the use you intend to make of it. A picture to hang on a wall will be judged by very different criteria from a picture to be used for editorial purposes (e.g. in a newspaper), or shown in a gallery. A portrait of a person may be stylish and edgy, or conventional and Conservative, and the appropriate picture depends on the person and how it will be used.

To me, there are three elements that must be present for a picture to be good. They may be present in different amounts, but they must all be there:

  • The photo must be technically good
  • It should be presented in a creative and interesting way
  • The photographer should have access to interesting subject matter

I’ll comment more on each of these elements in later posts, but for now, here are a few examples of what I mean.

Technical quality:

Many pictures are technically very good, but the subject matter isn’t interesting. But good subject matter can be ruined if the picture isn’t technically good. The elements of a technically good photo include the right exposure — not too dark or two light; and the right depth of field and focus. You normally want your subject to be in sharp focus, but whether or not you want a sharp or soft background depends on the subject matter and your creative choices. Good technique involves understanding and using light and shadows for the best effect. You also need the right balance of aperture and shutter speed to control depth of field (the area in focus) and the movement of the subject (blurred or frozen sharp).


Thousands of photographers photograph the same subjects day after day, but a creative approach is needed to make a photograph stand out from the pack. Usually this involves choosing an interesting angle, framing the shot appropriately, and ideally including or excluding various elements for added effect. Ideally, a photographer uses technique in a creative way, for example using light and shadows to create a special effect, or freezing or blurring motion to emphasize movement or highlight the subject. Creativity is probably the most important element of a good photo.

Access to subject:

A person who lives in the area of an interesting natural feature is going to have a huge advantage over someone just passing through on a short visit, all other things being equal. The local person will know the best time of day to photograph that subject, and the best angles. They can return over and over under different weather and light conditions or different seasons to get the shot just right.

Likewise, a person who has access to unique subject matter because of where they live or work has an advantage. It’s always best to write about what you know, and the same applies to photography. Subject matter you are familiar with is going to be easier to present in photos than strange subject matter. This is not to suggest you need to live in an exotic place to get great pictures — often there is exciting subject matter in your own home or backyard if you are creative enough to find it.

I’ll comment more on these points in a later post.

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