Friday, August 31, 2012

Storytelling With Instagrams: Editing And Filtering

Let's see far, in this series about telling stories through Instagram photos, I've shared my ideas about:

Next up, let's talk about editing and filtering a final image. As usual, let me work with an example.

Today, as I walked through the parking lot at Target, I noticed that my afternoon shadow has grown long, and I decided to grasp another opportunity to tell a story of seasonal change. Oh yes, I did stop in mid-step, quickly planning and then holding a little photo shoot right there in the middle of the busy parking lot.

I had very few options for styling the scene. I chose a section of pavement free of oil stains, paint lines and shadows of other things. I turned my back to the sun, so that my body would cast a full shadow. I did my best to rearrange my bag so that it did not look quite so much like a giant tumor on my hip, though I'm not sure how successful my efforts might have been. 

My composition options were also somewhat limited by the nature of my subject. I needed a high overhead angle to get my whole shadow in the shot, and while it might have been fun to try some really artsy, partial-body shots with weird poses or surprising angles, I was working right in the middle of the busy lane full of cars, carts and curious onlookers. Plus, the low afternoon sun streaming over my shoulder created a mighty glare on my screen so I didn't have the luxury of seeing my shots as I took them. Really, my only option was to let rip a few images and see what happened.

Under these certainly less-than-ideal conditions, I managed to get five shots that have at least some sign of potential:

This shot captures me from head to toe, which makes cropping this image down to a square quite a challenge. I would have to chop off my head or cut off my feet.  However, I think the shadow of my arms looks awkward, so I wouldn't necessarily mind doing away with the top part of this pic. 

In the second shot, I like how more of the real me is showing at the bottom of the frame. As I was styling this scene and composing with my camera, my intent was to capture only my shadow, but showing a bit of my real skin makes the image more interesting and real. Also, it reminds me of the bit in Peter Pan where Wendy must sew Peter's shadow back on to his feet. Hmm. That interests me.

My shirt is billowing out in this one, which puts me off. But I could crop my real self out to focus the Instagram on just my shadow image, and I kinda like how my shadow torso and legs are slightly to the right side of the frame. 

This fourth image also puts me off. My hand appears in the lower right corner of the shot- a car was coming up on me so the last few images were quite rushed and in trying not to drop my camera, I got a little sloppy. This accident is not necessarily a deal-breaker, since I could easily crop out the bottom bit of the photo. But my shadowed self is angled across the top part of the frame, and it looks to me like I'm tipping over. Not impressed.

The fifth frame shows the most of the real me, including both of my feet. I like the way the angle of my real body meets the angle of my shadow, and like the third image, my shadow self is positioned to the right of the frame. Sadly, my finger has made another appearance in the corner of this image but the effect is subtle enough that I can probably fix it with a filter.

* * * * *

My criteria for choosing the best photo is always the same: which image best tells the my story?

In this case, after the first pass-through, Image Number 5 is my front-runner. All of the photos show a long skinny shadow in the low sun of a late summer afternoon, but this version helps the viewer see that this is actually my shadow. By showing a little skin, I help the viewer establish a human connection in a scene that is otherwise monotone and almost abstracted. And by revealing my real body attached to the lower half of my shadow body, the viewer can more easily decipher the image. 

However, when it comes to selecting my final image, I always reserve all right to change my mind.

Drum roll, please. The moment of truth has arrived. Let's load this baby up on Instagram and see how she edits.

{By the way, I always shoot through my regular camera and then load the photo into Instagram from my camera roll, rather than take the photo directly in Instagram or any other photo app. I read somewhere that the images are of better quality that way.}

Here is my strategy for cropping: 
  • Crop as little as possible, to maximize the pixels in the cropped image
  • Look for a few key reference points that will help the viewer's eye make sense of the cropped image.
  • Don't sweat the details. 

At the top edge of the crop, I wanted to capture at least a tiny bit of the shadowy edge of my shorts on the left side of my legs, to balance out the bump of my bag on the right side of my legs. And at the bottom edge, I hoped to catch the light on the back of my real right leg, and a bit of my olive green shorts,  By expanding the square cropping window completely to the edges of my image - but not any farther, because I am not a fan of those tiny black lines on the sides of my pictures - I was able to get both top and bottom reference points into the Instagram.

Hallelujah! We have a winner.

Ready to play with some filters? 

Goodness, this where our options explode. Besides the options available on the Instagram app, there are  iPhone editing and filtering options galore, with new ones popping up every day. Or so it seems.

Right now, I have Snapseed, 100 Cameras in One, Frametastic, VSCO Cam, and Phonto. I use all of them to one degree or another, they are all great fun, and they all have their purposes. 

But honestly, in the grand scheme of things, I keep a very light touch when filtering my images, and here is why. It's very easy to get carried away, adding layer upon layer of filters, sprinkling on the bokehs, and creating collages of multiple miniaturized photos.

Since my focus is always on the story, the question for me is this: does this effect help me tell my story, or simply create a pretty picture?

You know me. I'm all about that story. So once I have cropped down to a nice square image, my editing technique looks like this:
  • Make any necessary structural repairs - straighten the horizon, run it through autocorrect, correct the brightness, fix the red eye.
  • Apply a filter that highlights the subject of the photo and helps the viewer understand the story.
For this pic, I wanted to keep the spontaneous and less-than-perfect vibe of the original scene. Let's not pretend that taking photos in the middle of a moving lane of traffic is a perfect science. At the same time, the big expanse of plain pavement and stack black shadow are just begging for a bold filter. So I messed around with a bunch of different filters on several apps, and came up with a few ideas::

a glowing ember lurking about on 100 Cameras in 1
a glacier breaking the water gasps on 100 Cameras in 1
Hefe on Instagram
Walden on Instagram
Kelvin on Instagram

Hmm, I'm leaning toward a favorite, but I'm going to wait till tomorrow to decide. I'll revisit the topic of storytelling with Instagrams one last time, to talk about adding text, whether directly to the photos, in the Instagram caption or via hashtags. See you then!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Storytelling With Instagrams: Compose With Your Camera

I've been talking about telling stories with Instagrams. So far, I've covered the first two steps:

Get your story straight.

Before I do anything else to capture a photo, I decide upon the story I want to tell. And once I have decided on my story, all the decisions I make in creating the image will flow from that story. The story serves as the guiding force and unifying theme of my artistic ambition.

Style your scene.

Before I pick up my camera, I devise a little scene that will tell my story. This step involves deciding on a subject for my photo, and then thinking about lighting, backgrounds, reflections and improvised filters, and human interaction with the subject. Because Instagram storytelling often happens in the flow of life, this step involves lots of improvisation and creative problem-solving. So much fun.

The third step of telling stories with Instagrams is this:

Compose with your camera.

Now that I am ready to pick up my camera and actually shoot my subject, I consider all the different ways to capture this carefully arranged scene. Let's look at an example.

* * * * *

Today, I decided to tell a story about the bittersweet brightness of a late August afternoon, in the waning days of summer. These black-eyed susans in my front yard capture that mood for me, so I chose them as my subject.

I thought about cutting a handful of the flowers and putting them in a vase, which would have given me lots of delicious scene-styling possibilities. I could have had a lot of fun experimenting with vases, backdrops, and other details for such a scene, but in the end, I decided that capturing the whole bed full of flowers outdoors was more consistent with the story I wanted to tell. So I waited till late afternoon, when the sun was low, and otherwise, let nature set the scene.

When the light was just right, I grabbed my camera and started shooting. Here are my unedited shots, and a few words about how I composed each type of shot:

I started with some high-angle shots of the flowers in the middle of the bed, where the blossoms were kind of asymmetrically arranged. By tapping on the screen, I focused my shots sometimes on flowers in the foreground, and other times on those farther away from me. I zoomed in on one adorable blossom for an asymmetrical close-up.

Moving my lens toward the front of the bed, where the blossoms were clustered together in a lovely golden clump, I used a bird's eye view angle right down on the lot of them. I took one shot where the yellow blossoms create a diagonal line down the center of the image, and another that is symmetrically balanced. 

Then I stepped around the bed to change my angle, and noticed my feet on the grass under the blossoms, Time for a top-down Show Some Skin shot, bringing me into the photo just enough to create a different feel.

Taking another step around the flower bed and reversing my angles, I bent down and aimed up to shoot the underside of a blossom against the cloudy grey sky. Took me three tries to minimize the bit of roof showing, and get some color into the petals. 

Next, I played with a few skim shots. By shooting across my subject and planning out my shot lines, I was able to capture a lovely bit of scenery beyond the flowers. The first shot reveals a bit of my yard, including a yellow bench and a resting Ranger; the second one is mostly unfocused green.

Finally, I went in for the big lens-dominating close-up. Took me three attempts to get one decent shot with a crisp focus and clear colors, but one out of three ain't bad.

* * * * *

I take a lot of photos of the same thing, don't I. But that is what this step is all about. By creatively composing many different shots of the subject, I have lots of options available to me when I try to choose the one that best suits my story.

One last thought on composing with your camera: I shoot in rectangular compositions but edit my images down into Instagram squares. This fact has two interesting effects on my camera work:

1. My brain is used to composing in rectangles as I'm shooting; I tend to automatically fill the entire rectangular screen with my subject, which makes it very hard to crop down the photo to a suitable square image.  I'm trying to retrain my eye to compose in a square format instead, but I don't always remember to do that. Which means that I am often very happy to have lots of similar-but-not-identical shots of the same subject. Never hurts to take more photos.

2. Because I am always editing from a rectangle down to a square, it's possible to cut a fair amount of ugliness out of a raw photo, rendering a very nice edited image. So I never give up on a photo until I've had a chance to play around with it in editing mode.

Which will be the topic of my next post...editing. Yippee!

King Of The Castle

So I was chatting with my neighbor over the weekend. Yes, that would be the same neighbor who found my cat, Cedric, chilling under the couch in her family room a few weeks ago. When she told me she had an update to that story, I prepared myself to hear that she found him roasting a pheasant in her kitchen. Or something like that.

It seems that the very next day after the couch incident, my neighbor came home from work to find that all four of her little Yorkies were making a huge barking commotion. It probably sounded like a convention of angry mice. Or something like that.

My neighbor sensed turmoil in the air, so she tracked them down in her dining room. She noticed that the curtains and curtain rod had been unceremoniously uprooted and lay in a heap on the floor. Next to her china cupboard. Where the four Yorkies still stood, yapping their furry little miniature hearts out.

What was provoking all this mischief and mayhem? So she wondered. My neighbor hauled her guard dogs out one by one, tucked all four under her arms and deposited them behind the closed door of another room. Then she went back to the dining room to investigate.

Well, it isn't much of a punch line to reveal that pinned in behind the cupboard she found my darling Cedric. He was a little hissy and spitty, but once he realized the dogs were gone, and he was alone with the lady of the house, he calmed right down. She gently eased him out of his fortress, and picked him up. He didn't mind at all.

She walked him to the back door and set him down out side. He didn't mind at all.

And the next morning, when my neighbor opened her back door to greet the new day, she discovered you-know-who, my Cedric, prowling through her back yard. She called hello to him, and he didn't mind at all. In his regal feline way, he simply glanced back at her and gave her a confident 'mrrrrowwwww.' As a king might bestow a greeting upon the head mistress of his castle. Or something like that. 


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Idea Soup

This afternoon, I had a major late-summer weeding, pruning and watering session in my backyard.   You know what that means - my brain was in full-on mull mode for several hours, simmering with thoughts and ideas like a big pot of soup. 

Here, along with a dozen photos that show the results of my physical labor in the garden, are some of the notions that were boggling around in my brain while I worked.

One of the most important jobs of parents is to teach daughters that they are treasures worthy of protection, and to teach sons that they are guardians of the women in their lives. Instilling and reinforcing these messages over and over during our children's childhoods is the best way to prepare them for their inevitable journey into the dating world, and through the life-changing process of choosing a husband or wife.

Too often, parents believe the lies our culture tells us about our young men and women. Yes, as they reach the end of their teen years, they are capable and intelligent and full of promise. In many ways, they are ready to live independent lives. But when it comes to sorting out the complex emotions and  vulnerabilities of romantic relationships, our grown children still need a considerable amount of our support. 

Young women need to know that they are surrounded by older, wiser adults who are looking out for them and their own best interests. Gathered around them in a tight social circle, young women need mother figures to help them make sense of their complex emotions, and they need father figures who will protect them, symbolically or quite literally, from the bold young men in their lives.

In different ways, young men also need the support of older and wiser men and women. Usually they benefit from a bit more space in these relationships, and they often thrive on fewer words and more action. But the importance of these strong bonds is just as vital: mother figures remind young men to be tender and considerate with the women they love, and father figures hold young men accountable to a high standard of honor and respect.

The cultural notion that the job of parenting is completed when we send our 18-year-olds off to university is a joke. The truth is that when our daughters and sons hit their twenties, and begin to think seriously about finding their partners for life, they need us parents more than ever. 

I fully accept and embrace my Muslim friends' religious beliefs. As much as I am committed to my own faith as a Christian, I totally respect their faith and I love learning from them about Islam. When I was first acquainting myself with Islamic customs, I used to ask a billion questions. But there was no aspect of Muslim culture that fascinated me more than the women's practice of wearing hijab

I'll say it all over again - I am totally fine with women who wear hijab and I think it's great that my hijab-wearing friends are very quick to say that they truly enjoy the practice. I am happy that they are happy, and that's what matters most.

But I wanted to understand hijab on a rational level. I wanted someone to explain to me why wearing a headscarf and long sleeves and pants in a tropical climate makes sense. I was looking for a logical explanation to this religious practice.

Now at the same time, in the back of my mind, I reminded myself that every Sunday morning, I eat a tiny little piece of bread and drink a tiny little cup of wine, and say that I'm eating Jesus' body and drinking his blood. I'm totally devoted to this Christian practice of taking communion, yet I will be the first to say that on a purely rational basis, it's kind of weird. So my search for logic in the hijab world wasn't meant to be judgmental or was just pure and simple curiosity.

As I badgered my Muslim friends with questions about hijab, the answers disappointed me. Hijab was explained as a solution to premarital sex and adultery, a cure to unwanted pregnancies, and a surefire way to protect men from the tempting qualities of a woman's body. It was also explained to me that hijab was a way to prevent women from suffering rape. More than once, it was implied to me that women who do not wear hijab are immodest and asking for trouble. These answers did not make sense to me.

Brimming with frustration, I went back to my first and best Muslim friend, and asked him to help me understand. As he often does, he said something incredibly wise to me that resolved the whole dilemma once and for all: Muslim women wear hijab because they believe that is what God asks of them.

Oh. OH. Ohhhhhhhhhhh!! I totally got it. 

Muslim women wear their headscarves, and I eat my bread and wine. Really, we are not so different at all, are we. 

Back among some bushes in my backyard, I found a dead bird. There was a hole in its neck. I hate to say this, but I suspect my darling little Luna was responsible. 

My first instinct was to feel guilty for letting my cat out to prey upon the innocent birds of my neighborhood. 

My second instinct was to recall that my first cat, Blackberry, almost certainly met her fates in either the jaws or claws of a local coyote. 

And my third thought, which lasted much longer than the other two, is that we cat owners make a certain bargain with the devil. If we lock our cats up inside our homes, in the desire to protect either them or the creatures outside, from harm, we deny our cats' nature as animals. To me, this is an act of insufferable selfishness, and I can't do it. So I have no choice but to let my furry babies roam, as they are designed by God to do, and allow them take their place in the middle of the food chain. 

Heaven help us all: cats, birds, coyotes and crazy mixed-up humans.

So there you have it..a ladle full of Idea Soup, from my brain to yours. 

As for Ranger, he's not impressed. He just wants to know when I'll be done so we can go on our walk.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Storytelling With Instagrams: Style Your Scene

If the first step of storytelling with Instagrams is to get your story straight, the second step is this:

Style your scene. 

Before I pick up my camera, I do everything in my power to present the subject of the photo in a way that will enhance my story.

Alright, I'll be honest. In my reckless enthusiasm for taking pics, I usually grab my phone and have the camera open as a reflexive action. This means that I usually have to force myself to lay my camera back down, take a deep breath, and get my brain to think for a moment. This part of the process demands the most patience and self-control from me.

But it has also come to be the most interesting, creative and personal step of my storytelling with  Instagrams, and probably my favorite part. 

Here are a few recent photos from my Instagram feed (@dianeagain) that will help to illustrate my thinking process as I style my scenes:

These chocolate chip cookies were made by a college-age friend whom I visited on my recent road trip to Arizona. Before I left, she tucked some into an old yogurt container and sent them with me. It was such a sweet treat to have homemade cookies for a mid-trip snack, and I wanted to capture a feeling of fresh-baked goodness in this story. However, because I was on the road, I had very few props on hand to help me set this scene. I had to rely on my first and most important rule of styling: Improvise.

At a rest stop, I opening the car door all the way and balanced the container on the seat, in the shadows just beyond the harsh sunlight. Lighting is an important part of staging any scene, and natural indirect sunlight is almost always the best. I don't have any legit lighting equipment, so I do a lot of improvising. I've been known to hold a white canvas or curtain just out of camera range, to bounce light back onto my subject. I try to take all my photos during the daylight hours, but sometimes stories need telling at night and so I drag my IKEA desk lights all over the house. Once I boosted my night-time kitchen lighting by shining a flashlight on a piece of lasagna. I have to say, the result was surprisingly good. 

Back to my cookies. By shooting straight down into the container, I was able to minimize the impact of the not-so-attractive printing on the outside of the yogurt package. Still, I was lacking an interesting background - my fuzzy grey car seat was not adding much to this story. Suddenly, I noticed my pink polka dot purse on the passenger seat, and knew it would add the perfect touch of styling for my cozy cookie story.

During my road trip through Central California, I wanted to tell the story of the orchards, set in precise geometric rows and laden with yummy, semi-exotic crops, such as almonds and oranges. One evening, I realized I was in apricot country just as the setting sun was coloring the air a highly appropriate pinky peach color. And when I saw these rows of new trees, with their white protective containers sharply delineating their straight rows against the black soil, I knew the scenic conditions were perfect for telling my orchard story. 

Interestingly, as I pulled off my sunglasses to take the photo, I was disappointed to discover that a lot of the pink color in the sky was due to my rose-colored lenses. While I could easily have added pink tints during the digital editing process, since this was a story about my road trip, I wanted to capture the apricot-y sky as I had seen it while driving. So I simply held the sunglasses up to my camera lens, and shot the photo through them. This illustrates another of my golden rules of styling: Capture Your Experience.

I'm a little bit camera-shy, yet I recognize the value of the self-portrait and I force myself to take some every now and then. I feel least self-conscious when I use the strategy of Reflected Reality. I search out reflective surfaces that capture but slightly distort my image: bodies of water, glass, old mirrors, and metallic surfaces.

One day, when out for my daily adventure with Ranger, I noticed the interesting circle-patterned reflection in the electronic sign board at the local high school where we often walk. This turned out to be not only a reasonable self-portrait but also a story of my travels with Ranger, since he managed to style himself into my scene.

My youngest daughter is an origami wizard. She not only folds an amazing variety of patterns from memory, but she can make some TINY stuff. As an homage to her skill and a celebration of her new life in a college apartment, I wanted to capture this microscopic little crane of hers. Of course, the challenge of this scene was to convey just how minute her creation actually is. 

I considered using a coin, a paperclip, or some other tiny prop, until I remembered one of my favorite rules of Instagram scene styling: Show Some Skin. It's just a fact of life that we humans are naturally drawn to other humans. But Instagrammed photos of people are not always particularly effective; the Instagram canvas is so small that even a single human face and torso can easily steal the scene from the object that I want my viewers to focus upon. My solution is to style my scenes to include a finger or a foot or the side of a face - any element of the human body. Even a little bit of skin draws viewers into my images and makes them more interesting. 

The wooden laminate background underneath my hand may not be aesthetically stunning. But because it is the dresser top in her new room, it helps to tell the story of my accomplished and self-sufficient daughter.

On a day when I had devoted myself to fasting, I somehow found myself in a a closed car at very close range to a giant, warm, and extremely delicious-smelling cheeseburger. Since I couldn't eat it, I was dying to at least take a photo of this outrageously beautiful creation, and I forced my hungry brain to search for a way to style the scene that might help to reveal my agony.

So I asked my daughter, the owner of this beauty, to unwrap the foil a bit and tip it towards me. I encouraged her to wrap her fingers securely around the burger, not only to keep me from grabbing it and running with it, but also to visually demonstrate her ownership. This is also another good example of my 'Show Some Skin' rule - even though her face is not present, her fingers clearly establish a human connection.

I also wanted to my scene to reveal that we were in the closed space of my car, in order to help tell the story of the tantalizing aromas that accompanied the cheesy beauty. So I angled the burger in my shot to allow for the door handle, in its bright orange 'unlocked' position, to be visible. It's an obvious but ever important rule to 'Check For Clutter.' Despite my impatience to start snapping, I force myself to to carefully check my scenes for unwanted objects, such as stacks of papers, unnecessary items, random shadows, or anything else that will distract the viewer's eye. And as a special reward for thoroughness, I often spot a tiny detail like this car lock that improves the my scene and helps me tell my story.

* * * * *

See what I mean? Styling the scenes of my photos is much more than just arranging components to make a pretty picture. This part of the process challenges me to think carefully about how to position and display the elements of my future Instagram in order to best tell my story.

Before I pick up my camera, I style a scene that helps to tell my story. The story always comes first.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

My Dear Friend Pink

Yesterday was a glorious, four-star, perfect summer day here in the Puget Sound and I spent some time soaking up the sunshine at Seattle's Carkeek Park. I was in good company there, joined by people at birthday parties, family outings, company picnics, and even a wedding. By the end of the day, when I looked back at my camera roll, I was surprised to see a strong motif of pinks jumping out at me. Balloons, dresses, chalk drawings, flip-flops, plastic panels in the fence,flowers, sand toys..even my own outfit and a beautiful late afternoon sun flare came up in tones of pink.

Combined with the expansive blues of sky and sound, the friendly greens of the wood surrounding the park, and the comforting grey sand under my feet, all those splashes of my dear friend pink just made my day.