Ambient Light - an interview with Seung Kye Lee
Seung, some of us know you already as a fine landscape photographer and an active Flickr member. You were born in South Korea and currently live in Norway. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and how you started with photography?
Well, I surely was not born to be a photographer. But, I have been fascinated by our natural environment for a long time. As an 11-year old, I spent a year on The Faroe Islands. It is totally different from the Norwegian nature I had just been used to, and though I was very young, I was overwhelmed by it`s unique nature. Treeless moors as far as the eyes could see, green lush grass blowing in the wind, waves crushing onto tall, rugged coastlines and the warm-hearted and welcoming Faroic people. This was the earliest seeds that led to a growing feeling of deep connection to the natural environment later on in life. And, being witness to traditional whale killing, actually seeing the sea turning red by whale blood, had a huge impact on me and has affected my personal views on protection of environment and wildlife.
In my twenties, I was a musician inspired by the ambient landscapes that could be "drawn" by the use of electronic equipment like samplers, DAT-recorders, mixers etc. As a musician I would visualize isolated, cold and blue arctic landscapes in my mind and then try to translate them to sounds, rhythms and moods. After some time I started taking photos of city buildings, parks at night, forests, harbors in morning fog and all kinds of abstracts and realized that when I photographed, a calm and focused state of mind revealed itself.
Photography became a meditational practice and I went from disposable cameras, polaroid and film cameras to more a little more advanced equipment that allowed me to be more creative and to improve the image quality. I became more and more interested in the process of making a photograph and eventually photography replaced music production. I never looked back.
Looking at your work and reading your texts reveal a great passion for the ambient light - in particular the light from the sun right above or below the horizon. Admittedly the golden hours can drape the landscape in a fantastic light. However, isn't light much more than this? What do you look for when "hunting" the light? How important is light to your work?
Light changes the visual character, or the visual impact, of any given subject. Direct light, diffused light, harsh light from directly above or sidelight are all a result of the daily revolution of the sun and the weather conditions. Position of the sun and weather goes through cycles of change throughout the year. Though we normally don`t pay much attention to this phenomena in our daily lives, as hikers, climbers or when we look out the window, it is of great importance in photography. The more we learn about the numerous types of light the more we can be in control of the final result. Light cannot be bad or good, it all depends on what kind of subject we shoot, camera positioning and what we want to express...or not express. Because I generally think that light is more important than the subjects, the subjects I want to photograph are dependent on various types of light (overcast, direct, low/high or light beams through cloud cover etc.) which again are dependent on time of year and weather. Why?
I want to highlight my subjects so there is no question about what is actually being photographed, but I also try to not overshadow anything in the process. This can`t be done by visiting the subject only once when our daily time schedule allows it. It normally (not always) requires planning, relative knowledge of weather and the relationship between light and the chosen subject. And time, a lot of time.
An example; on many occasions I have been at fantastic Norwegian places and made many photographs during my stay. Coming home and studying the photographs has then made me realize that something is missing. A foreground lit by nice sunset light, but a mountain left in shadow. A mountain in great light, but a foreground in so deep shadows that only portions of the photograph has any interest. Intense sunlight positioned in the corner and stealing all focus from the subject of interest. There are so many things that can ruin a photograph when it comes to light that to be sure you get want you want, a certain amount of knowledge and respect for light is very important.
You often go back to visit the same locations over and over again. What is it that drags you back? Are you never "finished" with a certain location?
For those of you that already know that my main body of work is based on Rondane National Park in Norway, I would like to emphasize that Rondane Nat. Park is diverse, not only in areal size, but geological diversity and diversity of the flora makes this place so interesting that every time I go there, new things are discovered. The ten peaks, all above 2000 m.(6560 ft.), are large areas each on their own and present many opportunities of photography. The first times I visit a new place, I normally start doing grand landscapes, often overwhelmed by the obvious. If I visit the same place many times, for each visit I get more and more used to the overwhelming impressions of the place and start noticing the more subtle things, subtle angles and so on.
Many good photographs lie hidden in the reflective mind and heart rather than in the eyes. Often I am lucky to hit the sweet spot the first time, but after looking at certain photographs, or prints, at home over a period of time, I realize that particular conditions can create more suitable expressions or visual interest. That`s when I decide to go back and look for those conditions. I always look for improvement and always strive to do better. Then there are times when creativity and good results just flow like a river and when I get home I realize that I have captured photographs that normally would take weeks, or months, even years to capture.
You seem to put a lot of work into preparations, on site scouting and on the process of creating an image in your mind before you actually get to the point where you take the photograph. Could you walk us through the process leading up to the image "Ancient Spirits" as an example?
How did I shoot Ancient Spirits? As a young boy, son of parents that loved to explore Norwegian nature by car, I`ve always remembered Vøringsfossen as spectacular and as a powerful place. If you Google "Vøringsfossen" you will have a ton of photographs popping up. The problem for me was that most look the same; the light is often harsh, compositions either too wide or too compressed, poor quality or poor exposure, looking like documentary shapshots made with one hand on the camera while the other holds an ice cream. I think that sharing photographs from all over the world on internet is a fantastic thing and on occasions, a fast snapshot can be of greater value than a well thought out photograph...so I do not wish to critisize any of the photographers that might feel that I`m pointing a finger at anyone. So, to make a unique photograph at Vøringsfossen I had to rely on unique light conditions.
I looked up info about sunset times, moon rise times and their position in the sky and waited till the weather forecast predicted a cloud-free midnight. The Ancient Spirits photograph was captured long after the sun had set during moon rise. Both morning light (back light) and evening light (front light) would leave the main subject (waterfalls and gorge) in shadow and overcast weather would possibly leave the subjects looking flat. And, the spots to position the camera, and myself, are quite few due to the relatively dangerous location with a straight fall of 182 m. so there weren`t many variables to work with regarding composition. Long after sunset, a long exposure will record light and colors that our eyes cannot see and it`s much easier to get an even exposure throughout the scenery.
So on an early spring day, when the weather was promising (a little cloudy sunset, cloud-free midnight) I drove to Vøringsfossen which is a fairly 4 hour drive from my home, and hoped for either a life-saving sunset, a starry sky or just a visible moon rise by midnight. Close to midnight it was dark and I found the spot that I had composed earlier in the evening, by using a head lamp. I set up my camera, a Canon 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L USM lens, on my tripod and attached a Lee filter holder onto the front of my lens with a 2-step graduated neutral density filter to avoid blowing out the sky. Then I waited till the moon rose to a pleasing position in the photograph. I exposed for 61 sec. and the LCD showed me a much better result than I had hoped for. Without changing anything, I did another exposure for 244 sec. that I later lowered in my RAW-converter to the same light level as my main exposure.
Now, why would I do a second exposure when the first looked perfect?
Upon on-location study of my original exposure of 61 sec., I suspected that digital noise would reveal itself in the darkest shadows in the gorge on my calibrated monitor at home. Noise that wouldn`t be visible on the internet, but would in worst case affect the quality of a large print. As probably most of you know, an underexposure can result in noise in the darkest parts of a photograph. After editing my RAW-file (custom white balance, a little contrast and first-time sharpening) and fine-tuning my 16-bit TIFF the photograph was almost finished. That was when I layered the second exposure (244 sec.) over the final photograph and painted in, or replaced you might say, only the darkest shadows of the original with the noise-free, slightly overexposed, second exposure. Though there was minimal noise in the original file, thanks to the good quality full frame sensor of the 5D Mark II. I only settle for the best quality I am able to produce.
You have an Asian background. Does an Asian way of looking at life influence your work? How does that affect your view on the northern landscape and light?
As I came from Seoul, South-Korea to Norway as a child, I feel like a Norwegian. Nevertheless, from the age of 19 I also have lived an Asian lifestyle, and also spent 6 years in a buddhist temple to become a monk. So, today I actually feel comfortable in both cultures, speak two languages on a daily basis and feel lucky to be Asian and Norwegian at the same time.
I would not say that my Asian lifestyle has had any influence on my work. For example, hiking is more of a Norwegian, or Western, activity than Asian. But, I would say that my lifestyle and photography is influenced by buddhist way of thought. Meditation, reflection upon what life is and what it is not and practice of compassion, is a way of thinking and a way of living.
Regarding northern landscapes and the subarctic light; well, I`ve grown up under nordic light and since a small boy have seen very much of the Norwegian landscapes, from south to north. I believe that many others share my thoughts on Norwegian nature, but few spend as much time and effort to photograph it like I do.
When does a photograph become a cliché? Haven't all photographs in a sense already been captured? Do you try to achieve uniqueness and creativity in your own work?
There are only so many ways of capturing a mountain, a coastline or a bird. After that it all becomes repetitious, just with different light conditions. When I compose a photograph I never think that it has to be unique or ground-breaking creative. I am sure many people can look at my work and think that they have seen it all before just with a different wrapping.
If a photograph is labeled a cliché by ten people, but another ten people don`t agree; who is right? Who is wrong? It is not a matter of right or wrong. No matter if any of them are a group of art dealers or artists themselves, there will always be some who don`t agree. And, that is because a cliché is just an idea, a thought, a feeling and any of these concepts are fleeting, impermanent and dependent on the eye of the beholder.
Yes, I try to make my photographs exciting, fresh and creative. But, I also know that everything I do has been done before and I accept that. I do not mind, because I don`t see myself as an expert or a pioneer...life and learning is a long journey and I have consciously chosen a certain path to follow. Along the way I will make many mistakes, but without mistakes we go nowhere. We should follow our heart and instincts, even if it leads us to places other have trodden before us.
When you learn to bicycle, you learn how to master. When you know how to bicycle, you master. It is only after you have mastered that you can try to go with only one hand, or even with both hands in the air and soon you`ll be able to talk on the phone with one hand and eat a sandwich with the other and still not fall or lose your course. If we try to be creative before we master, only luck decides the outcome and even if the outcome proves to be successfull we can never sustain a consistent success based upon luck alone. I believe uniqueness is a result of an authentic mind and consistentency. And, I think that creativity can be satisfactory only after mastering a craft, not before. I`ve heard of many examples of other photographers that they didn`t know that they had any uniqueness in their work before their viewers told them. Uniqueness is not something we create. If our work is truly unique it will reveal itself in the eyes of others without our help.
Many of the grand masters of photography did not have the technical opportunities of today's digital photography. The process of creating a photographic work was a lot more elaborate than today compared to the digital processes. Still some photographers prefer film, large format cameras, BW and work a lot in the same way as masters did in the past. Do you see this as an attempt to take back the time? Do you try to slow down your own process to capture your vision? Is the digital equipment a blessing or a challenge for this way of working?
We will always look back, remember how things used to be and I think that is fine. Some of us are afraid of change and some of us are not. There are a number of reasons, both personal and common, why we fear change. I think that the more we master one particular work method that proves to be successful, the more we are prone to the fear of change.
In our day and age, digital has become a worthy successor of film, if it`s done with right equipment and good techniques. But, I must admit that I`ve been so close to leave full frame cameras and buy myself a medium format system. Due to a chain of events based on coincidence, I decided not to. My prints now have a very high quality and I no longer believe that a medium format system alone would make my work any better. To master a craft will always yield better results than by depending on our tools. Working digitally is very fast, very simple and with right methods produces very high quality. For some, this might lead to quantity being in more focus than quality. As I explained roughly in some of my other questions, I focus on light, composition and expression of each subject. This makes me work quite slowly, deliberately and that is exactly why I love photography. The most interesting process in photography is when I study my subjects, before I even click the shutter. I just love that part, as I have always been the type of person that can leave everything out and focus on one, single thing entirely for a long time. In general, I think not of digital revolution as a blessing, but a natural development...technology will always evolve without pause whether we like it or not. In the process, I know that many have welcomed digital developments as a true blessing. So, the more we adapt to change, the more opportunities we present to ourselves.
When is critique useful? Do you believe critiquing other images could help our own development as photographers - regardless of skill level?
There are two sources of critique. Professional critique and the critique made by viewers. Both types of critique can help a photographer until a certain degree. There have been times when critique has led me to better ways of doing things and to develop a certain objectivity when looking at my own work. And, sometimes it has had no benefit at all. It very much depends on how a critique is formulated, what the critique addresses and how we react to that critique. When we feel we have a lot to learn, professional critique, or guidance, is very useful and can help us reach our goals.When we have more experience, viewers critique can further lead us into understanding what people like or dislike. Anyone displaying their work to the world, does not want to attract harsh critique, right? We want to create things that people like, whether it may be a small group of people or a larger audience.
If you decide to share your work with other people, critique will be a natural result of that decision. Critique can give you hints about how you can create more pleasing photographs for viewers, or buyers, and about your technical and creative development. Upon receiving critique it is always important to know yourself and what you want to achieve with your photography. For example, a professional telling you that your photograph is a little askew on some net forum or photo-sharing site, this is not constructive critique but a simple observation that tells nothing about the creative or technical aspects of the photograph. If a viewer tells you that they think that you could improve the composition, this might be something to think about. It might show to be contrary of your personal ideas and values, but either way we should use it to our advantage rather than letting it become a source of negative thoughts and emotions. If you are sharing work on the internet, but don`t think critique is an issue, "I share, but I don`t care what others say", why do you share them in the first place? Know yourself. Any artist that exhibit or share on the internet, is not an artist only for themselves. An artist who shares their work, gives a signal to the world that he, or she, wants an audience and to express their ideas and creativity..At that point, critique is the audiences` way of communication, as your sharing is your way of communication.
You already touched upon this earlier in the interview but what is your view on post processing and the "authenticity" of a photograph? Is it an issue for you if people blend different exposures or even photo-montage elements from different captures? What are your own guiding principles?
I have generally no issues regarding how photographers, or artists, process their work. But, there are certain guidelines within different types of photography. If you present yourself as a wildlife photographer, you have a certain responsibility to your audience; you cannot copy and paste a zebra from another photograph to stand beside an eagle just because you think they are a perfect match for each other.
At the same time, those who shun any kind of processing because they want to photograph "reality" are often called purists, but I think they just lack the understanding of photography. A camera, any camera, can never represent reality no matter how you feel about it. It`s a matter of fact. The different techniques and results of processing is another matter and there is no absolute answer or rule. How far we go in our post-processing is not a matter of right or wrong, but a matter of taste.
Processing, though done in many different ways, have always been a natural part of photography and artists` work method. Philip Hyde was, and still is, a legendary American landscape photographer for many people. He worked exclusively with large format cameras and spent much of his time just to observe before he set up his equipment. Now, many people say that he was a traditional photographer, working with film and shooting landscapes, therefore his work shows reality. Do you think that the film came strolling right out of the camera of Ansel Adams, laid itself down on a piece of paper and happily announced: "A Fine Art print has been produced!"?. Since the beginning of photography, all the greatest photographs, have been processed to some degree to create a Fine Art print. Though I lack knowledge about darkrooms and film development, I do know that they used chemicals and particular printing techniques to manipulate different tones of grays, blacks or whites to create the final print.
Today, we do exactly the same, but with different tools. As I have chosen landscapes and nature as my subjects and do not see myself as a digital art artist, I do not clone or manipulate elements that was not there in the first place. I do not throw in colors or light that were not there at the moment of capture. For me, it`s OK to process a landscape/nature photograph to enhance it, but if we clone and erase or radically change the appearance of real life elements after the actual capture in the digital darkroom, it is not a genuine landscape photograph in the traditional sense of the word. It may still be a fantastic photograph, but has moved from being a landscape photograph to become a digital manipulation based on a wish to create an idea in our minds and not to enhance the actual elements in the photograph.
These days, the line between the two are so thin, that generally I do not spend much thought to it because I like to look at photographs rather than dissect it. Above all techniques, is the simple question if we like a particular photograph or not. Quite simple actually.
My work method is based on using filters in the field; graduated neutral density filters in filter holders (static) or hand held (moved during the exposure), polarizers when needed and other traditional techniques. There are many ways of getting the same results using software, but as I mentioned earler, I love the moments and challenges of capture much more than repairing, or creating the whole photograph on the computer. Without my filters, I would in most cases be able to produce similar results using software, but then a major part of my interest would be gone too...the fun and meditative qualities of photography.
The post-processing workflow begins in the RAW-converter. I make use of custom white balance, local contrast, exposure, noise and chromatic aberration reduction and a small amount of sharpening. Then I convert the file to 16-bit TIFF for finer adjustments (dodge/burn, contrast enhancements, sensor dust removal, sharpening etc.) on individual layers to maintain best possible image quality throughout the process till the final print. Sometimes, when I`ve been at the right place, but at the wrong time and contrast between light and shadows are too far apart, I make use of two versions of the same composition; one exposed for the highlights and one for the shadows, and manually blend them on layers. Every subject is different and many of them present too many obstructions for manual blending as well. That is when I return to that place to try to be there at the right time to overcome the exposure difficulties. When I do manual blending I want it to be invisible, seemless and I always inform the viewer about it. I think it is very important to be straightforward with your audience. At the end of the day, I love the challenges, the meditative way of working in the field, and it feels most natural for me to follow the light rather than to make it on a computer.
In our interview with John Acurso he talks about the lack of a clear and strong concept as the bane of many photographers. Do you have a concept as basis for your work? Would you be able to describe it in words?
As an outdoor enthusiast, my work is based on landscapes, whether it be in the mountains, in the forests, by the sea or similar environment. During my hikes and trips, I often encounter interesting details and if I find it worth capturing I have no second thoughts about adding it to my work if it meets my personal standards. But, as I mentioned earlier, the subject itself is not enough. The light, or mood, must express a feeling or a certain natural circumstance. For instance, I have photographed several spectacular subjects, but due to lack of suitable light these photographs stay on an external hard drive as un-edited RAW-files. I guess it`s not a logical choice to resist from displaying them publicly, but a matter of how I want to present myself as a photographer.
We have come the end of this interview and I would like to thank you for taking the time to talk about your work, techniques as well as some more general topics. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to thank you, Hogne, and all others at PPro for the interest in my photography. And, I would also like to thank you, the reader, for taking the time to find out a little more about my photography.
- Main website: www.leeseungkye.com/
- Blog: seungkyelee.wordpress.com
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Seung-Kye-Lee-fine-art-landscape-p...
Originally posted at 3:09PM, 1 September 2010 PST
H o g n e edited this topic 23 months ago.