Former professional jazz musician turned ethereal nature photographer Tony Sweet is a master of improv. He believes the improvisational mastery attained through playing jazz for 20 years at various night clubs and Broadway shows in New York City and Baltimore prepared him well for his work as a nature photographer.
"It's the same thought process. It was a lateral move," says Sweet. While he made the switch from musician to photographer at age 44, arguably later in life, at 54 he is an internationally respected artist who teaches at the most renowned workshops around.
"I look for spontaneous situations, not what's supposed to happen," says Sweet, reached at his Baltimore-based studio. "You can't plan too much. You have to use situations to your advantage."
Sweet looks for items that are smooth in texture, things with more of a graphic feel that create a visual rhythm. Recognize the jazz references? "I went from sound building blocks to visual building blocks," he says in his low, cool voice.
Starting out shooting the nightclub scene, a friend who worked as a nature photographer inspired him and became his first mentor. He now experiments with many techniques-- High Dynamic Range, Digital Infrared, multiple Photoshop tricks-- but primarily sticks to photographing nature.
For his infrared work, he uses a dedicated infrared converted camera, a D200 converted by lifepixel.com. Since all digital cameras are sensitive to infrared light, manufacturers install hot mirrors to prevent infrared light from seeping in camera bodies. This is removed for converted infrared cameras.
Of course, a photographer can accomplish the technique in Photoshop. "But the software is just not the same," says Sweet. "The software can't see subtleties like kelp in an ocean scene." With a digital converter the kelp would be a true infrared bright white, in software it would hardly be noticed. Long exposures of three to four minutes, help to create the ethereal look desired by Sweet.
Long exposures and infrared are also used for Sweet's various fog-like effects created by images of water breaking over rocks. In frame 7, for example, Sweet photographed the scene at National Acadia Park in Maine at 3:30 am, a time when there was no direct sunlight, but there was pretty light that early. He used High Dynamic Range (HDR); defined as a set of techniques that allows a greater dynamic range of exposures (the range of values between light and dark areas) than normal digital imaging techniques. The intention of HDR is to accurately represent the wide range of intensity levels found in real scenes ranging from direct sunlight to shadows.
This method was developed to produce a high dynamic range image from a set of photographs taken with a range of exposures. This composite technique is different from (and may be of lesser or greater quality than) the production of an image from a single exposure of a sensor that has a native high dynamic range. Tone mapping is also used to display HDR images on devices with a low native dynamic range, such as a computer screen.
Sweet took two to four minute exposures. The result was mist-like water.
We'll go through the photos on the page and describe the improv techniques Sweet used on site.
In frame 2, Sweet found a floral area comprised of yellow flowers and one red flower. "I look for a separation of things like this," he says.
To create the painterly image, he took multiple exposures while moving the camera. By twisting the camera in a semicircle and zooming in a bit after each exposure, the final image assembled in Photoshop will look uniform. He used his Nikon D3 and scanned the slides.
He repositioned the single red flower in the grid point of his camera and zoomed in 10 times.
"Really the hardest part is finding the subject- one with an isolating idea," says Sweet.
"You can plan whatever you want, but you can't go out there and be married to that idea."
Some of the variables encountered by Sweet include cloud cover, rays of sunlight and water.
He suggests that rather than cropping out what you don't want, working around the problems while you're out there, especially in a non-studio situation.
"Because I am used to having to improv on the spot, (I) developed a mindset. It's important to condition yourself this way. Because once we get our gear set, there is very little mechanical process involved in a visual response," he says.
For frame 1, of Great Falls (Virginia) National Park, the image is a single image using three Singh Ray grads/fillers for a natural look at the horizon: a 2-stop reverse grad nd - to maintain detail at the horizon, a 2 stop magenta nd - to enhance sky color and a 3-stop soft edge grad nd - to maintain cloud detail throughout.
The result is an organic look.
Frame 6 is a good example of "using the card you're dealt." The red poppy Sweet was photographing was quivering in the wind and would not stay still. He took 10 exposures, each with one stop down and put them together to make the flower look more textured.
"It looked so much better than if I only took a single frame," says Sweet.
Frame 4 is one of the many mills in the Great Smokey Mountains. He used HDR to capture the glistening water in the trough and make it look smoky. In Photoshop he performed some mild color saturation of the woods.
A Photoshop technique was also used in frame 3. To create the softness in the background, Sweet used the duplication Gaussian and blur function and overlay in Photoshop.
The swipe technique was used in frame 5. Swipe is a relatively fast exposure, 1/8-1/4 second where the photographer moves the camera simultaneously. "You need to come up rapidly during the exposure," says Sweet. The separate gradients seen in this image of trees is "a function of moving the camera up fast."
In the last frame, HDR was used to capture a non-public dilapidated building on the south side of Ellis Island with the Statue of Liberty in the background. He took a series of exposures 4, 5 and 6 stops down.
"It is important that it looks like it was all done in one shot. HDR enables you to take the same shot at different exposures and blend the images together with tone mapping and Photomatics software," says Sweet.
Sweet will be coming out with a book on HDR this year. Represented by Getty Picture Agency, he will conduct a workshop this month on Exploring Your Personal Vision at Sundance Resort in Utah from August 25-29, 2008.
For more information on Sweet, his techniques, upcoming workshops and his daily blog, check out his website at TonySweet.com