Lake panorama, with cyclists

Grabbed a couple cameras, a couple lenses (Pentax 40 f/2.4 and Sigma 105 f/2.8) and headed over to the lake to do some experimental photography. I wanted to get a photo of the lake at rest with runners and cyclists appearing to move past the camera lens in a blur, suggesting the passage of time to which the lake is relatively indifferent. OK, perhaps that’s jumping to meaning before I’ve got a form. What I wanted to do was photograph the lake, with some ghosts in it.

By ghosts, I just mean deliberately blurred people. The blur is produced by having a person move through the scene while the camera’s shutter stays open longer than usual. For a while I’ve been intrigued by the “ghosts” in some of the great Eugene Atget’s photos of Paris. Atget was forced to use very long shutters in the range of a couple seconds. Although he seems to have shot very early in the morning when there were few people about, occasionally, his photos have a blur in them where a person wandered on the to the scene during the exposure. I’m not sure if Atget liked it or not, but many people since have found it quite an evocative effect; I certainly do. But I wasn’t trying to imitate Atget precisely here. If I’d kept my shutter open for 2 whole seconds, my ghosts would have been barely imperceptible. Since my ghosts were going to be riding bikes or jogging, I had to speed the shutter up a little to catch them. Most of these were shot around 1/20th sec. (Other technical info: Apertures in all these shots between f/8 and f/9.5. ISO between 160 and 400.)

Catching ghosts was harder than I thought and I wasn’t very successful.

This first shot shows one problem. This father and son, who had parked near where my tripod was standing, had just one moment earlier gotten on their bikes to the left of the tree and begun cycling to the right. I turned the camera at the last second and didn’t have time to think hard. As it happens, although I had my shutter set pretty slow—1/20th sec—they were moving so slowly that they didn’t blur very much. Still, there is an element of interest in this photo, I think: the beautiful sharp and well-defined tree trunk. I also like the fact that, shooting at an angle like this, the level horizontal line of the far shore is not parallel to the line of the near shore, as it is in all the following shots. This would have been my best shot of the day, if I’d use a slower shutter. Sigh.

In the following photo, I captured several passers-by at once:

I like this photo for that reason, and yet, it doesn’t quite click. I am not sure why. Perhaps there are too many ghosts. I also tried a different treatment on this photo. I didn’t convert it all the way to black and white; I simply desaturated it about 80%. Notice that you can still see some of the green in the grass on the near bank and red in the building across the lake. The idea here was that, at sundown, things naturally get less saturated. That is true. But I’m not sure the treatment works. Perhaps the treatment doesn’t work because the composition isn’t perfect. As I said, I’m not sure.

In the next shot, I think the cyclist’s posture is almost perfect:

The way he is learning forward emphasizes the impression of movement, which I wanted. I got lucky there. Note that I’ve cropped that photo to its original aspect ratio (2×3), while most of the others here have been cropped to 1×2, an aspect ratio that emphasizes the horizontal axis of the scene by cutting out a lot of relatively meaningless sky. Sometimes it seems to me that this photo is weakened by the fact that there is simply too much lake in the middle; at other times, I think perhaps the lake (occupying about two-fifths of the vertical space) is balanced by the sky (occupying also about two-fifths of the vertical space) and that this shot is not too bad.

On the effect of cropping, compare this image:

Here I’ve cropped to 1×2, and the ghost cyclist also has worked out pretty well, indeed, except for his posture, perhaps even better than in the previous photo. I think cutting out some of the sky emphasizes the emptiness of the lake in the middle.

It took me a while to realize that this was a problem. Finally, I lowered my tripod very considerably, so the camera was less than 2 ft off the ground. Because the lake is lower than the grass from which I was shooting, lowering the tripod doesn’t change my perspective on the lake much; as you can see in the photo, there’s about as much lake as there was before. But it makes the cyclist’s head move up on the horizon.

This, I think, is the most successful photo of the group, or rather, the one that is least unsuccessful. I wish the cyclist had been moving a little faster. But this time, I got the top of his head almost to touch the far shore— thus “filling in” the lake. And the fact that this cyclist wasn’t at all colorful prompted me to give this a full black and white treatment, which I rather like.

But then again, perhaps the problem with these shots has nothing to do with the cyclists or the amount of empty lake. Maybe the problem was simply that the sunset—which was taking place directly across the lake in all of these photos—was hidden behind a rather boring cloud formation. I just wasn’t lucky that day. It always helps to be lucky.


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