Upon returning from travel, friends often tell me, “you take great pictures!”, and I think this happens often and enthusiastically enough that it’s more than just being polite.
Unfortunately, I know that I don’t really take great photographs … what folks are reacting to, I think, is that I’m developing the ability to find and compose interesting photographs, but that’s a long way from the technical skills needed to really “close the deal”. Maybe when I retire! Until then, I’m building a good inventory of “things I would have done differently” from existing photographs.
The shots below are all from 2010, when I spent a few days in July traveling around the French province of Aveyron, thanks to a wonderful tip from a friend. It was a “solo vacation” (my better half had gone off to Poland for a Peace Corps host family reunion), so I had a lot of unstructured time and opportunity to stop at a whim and dawdle with photography when something caught my eye.
I would highly recommend Aveyron to anyone interested in an off-the-beaten-path European vacation. It is not well-known (and thus buffered from the worst side effects of tourism), yet is the French department with the most number of “Most Beautiful Villages” in the official registry. “Ridiculously beautiful” is the phrase I would have to use. I split my visit between Aveyron, the Pyrenees, and Aragon and Costa Brava in Spain, but those are posts for another time.
Anyway – below are some of what I think are the best photographs I took in Aveyron, plus some commentary on why I found them interesting, as well as what I could have done better. I would love to hear from “real” photographers, amateur or professional, on ways I could have improved these shots!
Fields of Color – Southwest Aveyron, near Sainte Eulalie de Cernon
This one is all about the contrast. The sharp clean lines and resulting "polygons" of color are absolutely beautiful to me. The splashes of lavender and isolated red wildflowers in the wheat field are added bonuses, and the wheat picks up the strong wind adding some dynamism. If I had been more patient, I might have waited for the cloud shadow over the grass to pass, although arguably that makes for a slightly more dynamic scene as well.
These tunnels may be a dime a dozen in the area, but they still make for great photographs. The over the top busyness of the signposts is an added bonus, providing interest and alluding to all the great stuff waiting in every direction. The tunnel and shadows add just a bit of mystery. The tunnel also seems to organically meld into the mountainside. On the downside, the angle of the shot and lighting arent good. I suspect I could have done better with the angle of the shadow, and the glare on the road signs brings out my one and only complaint with my Sony HX-1 camera (which I otherwise love) - it struggles with very high and sharp white/black contrast, adding a purplish tinge.
Ill have more on the Milau viaduct a little further down. For now, the focus is on how something as massive as the concrete pylons nonetheless manages to leave a "light touch" upon the natural landscape (by design). I took the shot from just-off-centerline of the road to suggest how the entire structure would "vanish" if seen boresight-on. I think the gentle curve of the roadway is very attractive, and the stair-stepping of the pylons helps bring depth to an otherwise "flat" landscape shot.
The Village and Chateau at Najac
There are better views of the beautiful château at Najac, but I shared this angle here because it brings in the very complex geography of the village, all lined up along a very narrow ridge. This particular angle would probably have benefitted from waiting for better lighting and a different street scene. I also think too much of the scene is in focus - I lost some of the depth, making the château seem closer than it is.
Monsieur le Bad-Ass (Belcastel)
There is nothing particularly remarkable about this shot at the château in Belcastel, except that it occurred to me that the silhouette and backlighting around the suit of armor seemed to slightly "bring it to life", giving it a slightly ominous and imminent presence. I think the effect is even more pronounced in the photograph. Improvement-wise, I could have done a better job with the angle in hiding and masking the glass window and its frame behind the arch. Together they rob the scene of its "authenticity" and subtly add back a museum-like flavor.
Im actually pretty happy with this one overall. Its not obvious from the photo (part of why I like it) but this is the roof of a small chapel near the château at Brousse-le-Chateau (my home base while in Aveyron). I was fascinated by the rooftop "ecosystem" evolving. The colors and lighting, I think, are good. A slightly different angle might have brought out the foreground pink flower better.
The cellars of Albi
This is not the most aesthetically pleasing of photos (although the houses in the upper layers are quite pretty), but what intrigued me were the subterranean layers of doors and arches, plus their inaccessibility. As interest spots on the photograph they raise all sorts of questions ... who owns them? How do you get to them? Are they still in use? What were they used for? In retrospect this is a case where if I knew what I was doing - and had the time - I think I could have spent a good half day searching for the right angle, lighting and composition to bring out what intrigued me about the doors.
Im actually quite happy with this shot as it stands. The slightly eerie lighting effect isnt HDR, or Photoshop tricks - all I did was boost the highlights a smidge in iPhoto to bring out the cloud texture. I love the upward angle and honestly I think perspective adds a lot over the "full frontal" approach most of the photos of the château that I can find. Overall this photo gives me distinct "Ninth Gate" vibes!
Impressionism … and frustration
This may seem a pretty picture but to me it is a source of significant frustration. I spent a long time in this (very large) field of wildflowers, hoping to capture the "impressionist" feeling, but at the end, it just kicked my butt - its beyond my skills as an amateur photographer. Youd think flowers would be easy! The problems (there are many) were: difficulty in finding the right angle and location to focus upon, the right perspective (I wanted to capture "millions of things", rather than close up on a few), the color balance (the field was not THAT green), and the fluttering of the paper-like red flowers in the breeze. I keep this shot around to remind me that finding something interesting is only the start, and at some point I really need to learn how to use a camera rather than just letting the auto-features do all the work. I think they betrayed me here!
I originally was drawn to this small church near Villeneuve because of the interesting "leaning church" effect. But I liked the photograph much more than the interesting tilt would warrant. It took me a while, but I think what Im attached to is the hodgepodge of architectural elements in play - some apparently "grafted on" to support the original structure. I get the distinct impression this church looked very different at some time in the past. I think this "implied" history is why I like the photo so much. I wish I could say I realized all that in real-time - instead, it just jumped out at me as something that needed capturing, without fully understanding why.
That’s all for now … I’ll post a few more next week. Whether a photographer or not, please feel free to share some constructive criticism! To me these are “nice”, but only 80% of the way there…