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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

The Color Cure

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I think I know now – even if only on a small scale – what it must feel like to have Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Technically the malady, which is appropriately dubbed "SAD," is a biochemical imbalance in the body's hypothalamus gland that is caused by a shortening of daylight and a lack of sunshine. Typically, SAD affects people in the deep winter months and is marked by tension, irritability, a desire to oversleep – even a loss in libido.

Treatment typically can involve medication and therapy, but most often it is alleviated by prolonged daily exposure to bright light, up to four hours at a time in front of a device that looks like a small, but very bright, lightbox.

There is a less severe, "subsyndromal," version of SAD, that medical folks simply call the winter blues.

That's where I come in. If not the winter blues, certainly I came down with the rain blues – as I am sure any number of others did in the DC (if not the entire East Coast) area, following what has been the wettest May on record here.

I'm not kidding about this. I'd wake up in the morning to yet another rainy day and immediately I'd be pissed off. I'd be irritable. I'd be tense.

I didn't realize how miserable I felt until we had one glorious break in the weather and experienced the kind of sunny Spring day we usually get during a normal year.

It was wonderful.

Our friend Leslie was visiting from Maine and, since both she and my wife Judy are bigtime gardeners as well as photographers and artists, it was pretty much of a no-brainer to make tracks to the National Arboretum in Northeast Washington – the nation's outdoor garden. As usual, I brought a camera with me, but instead of my Leica M6, which I always keep loaded with bxw, I brought along my digital Fuji FinePix S2 so I could work in color. I didn't know how I would work in color – I don't, for example, tend to make closeups of flowers – but something about the way the sun lit up my world that day, and the prospect of wandering in idyllic multi-colored surroundings, made me want to record that world in something other than monochrome.

[Too, I am finding myself liking my digital FinePix more and more. It is paying for itself in our wedding work, letting me make a digital "executive summary" of the wedding for our clients much more easily than with my older point and shoot Canon PowerShot G1. The comparative lack of shutter lag on the Finepix would be boon enough. Being able to use all my Nikon lenses is a boon-and-a-half.

But it's in picture quality where the camera really shines. The other day, for example, Judy and I shot a huge event for Clark Construction at the brand new DC Convention Center (which Clark built) and did the whole job digitally because the client wanted pictures to post quickly on Clark's website. I did the principal photography with the FinePix (attached to a stroboframe bracket and using auxiliary diffused flash powered by a high-voltage pack) and Judy shot backup with the G1.

Both of us got great stuff – but on the computer screen the difference between the FinePix images and those of the G1 in terms of digital "grain" was palpable.

To repeat, this is one terrific camera.]

Early in our wanderings through the arboretum, Judy, Leslie and I happened upon a water garden and saw a family on its knees peering into the pond at what seemed like a few koi floating about.

Make that a few hundred koi.

The closer we got the denser the crowd of these colorful fish became. It helped that a few of the kids were feeding food pellets to the fish, and within seconds we were witnessing a koi feeding frenzy.

This looks like a job for the FinePix! I declared (if not in so many words). I stood directly over the edge of the pond and shot down on the fish, being careful not to get in the way of the children. I was able to get in tight with my Nikkor 24-120mm zoom, and made sure to work in a shaded area so that the fishes' bright colors were not washed out by sunlight. I made a few preliminary photos of fish swimming past me just to gauge exposure. Of course, working digitally I was able to see that available light and Program mode were working just fine.

This may have been the first time I literally have shot fish in a barrel (OK, a pond) and it was like, well, shooting fish in a barrel. I timed the shot (again, with the happy absence of shutter lag) to get the fish just as they were opening their mouths to feed. I also had the camera's sensitivity set pretty high (either at the equivalent of 800 or 1600 ISO) to insure a fast shutter speed to stop action. Working in open shade not only meant that the fish colors would register vividly, but also that the water surface would show up as a subtle highlight, not as a blown-out distraction. The bubbles on the water's surface were an unexpected gift, and added an element of turbulence.

The therapeutic effect of the gorgeous day and of getting a great picture early on did great things for my mood. Hell, I even made a few closeups of flowers.

I also made a few shots of the wonderful original columns of the Capitol Building that sit majestically on a hilltop on the garden's grounds. But I knew going in that, if I ever were to photograph these columns correctly (to my liking anyway), I would have to shoot bxw and with a 4x5 view camera. Still, they were fun snapshots.

It was only a snapshot, too, that I made a week or so later (and after more damn rain) when the sun decided to come out again and Judy and Leslie and I were museum-hopping downtown. There, near the old Smithsonian castle, a huge, incredibly decorated truck from Pakistan greeted vistors on their way to the Sackler Museum. I probably felt what people feel the first time they see the Eiffel Tower: I simply had to make a picture. And so I did. Black and white – my favorite medium – would have been no help at all here. And it felt good.

Finally, a few days ago, I probably lifted myself fairly completely out of my damp, dismal funk when friends invited us to their annual "rose party" to show off their gorgeous garden – and, of course, their multiple roses.

Happily the weather, which was threatening all day, held off and Judy and I were able to wander the garden reasonably dry. Again I had the FinePix and every so often I weakened and did a floral closeup – only to realize again why I don't do floral closeups.

Flowers being beautiful things all by themselves, they seduce you into taking their picture. But what have you done beyond making a record shot (or, if you will, a passport picture)? What creativity have you brought to your image?

Floral "portraits" are tough, tougher than they seem, and usually involve other elements like gorgeous light and interesting composition.

And sometimes, the better part of valor is simply to ignore the flowers and concentrate on the leaves.

That's what I did in our friends' garden with this third picture – that, to my happy mind anyway, recalls some of Edward Weston's work. I love the sensuous shapes here – as well as the subtlety of the light. Though the picture was made outdoors on a (reasonably) sunny afternoon, I made sure to work in open shadow to avoid blown out highlights.

It was another color keeper and I finally pronounced myself cured of my rain malaise.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.


©Frank Van Riper
Shooting fish in a barrel. Actually, it's a pond at the National Arboretum in Washington. Gaily colored koi stand out against the just-discernible water surface. Bubbles add to impact, giving sense of turbulence.

©Frank Van Riper
In my therapeutic search for color, this wonderful truck from Pakistan near the Sackler Gallery lifted my spirits for its sheer over-the-topness. I admit: it's only a snapshot, but a fun one.

©Frank Van Riper
Finally, wandering friends' gorgeous garden during their annual "rose party," I made this pleasing leaf image – a kind of tranquil refuge from the riot of color elsewhere. Given the monochrome nature of the picture, this one probably would have worked in bxw, but I prefer the green.



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 Van Riper on Van Riper

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