Friday, November 16, 2007

Anatomy of a Photo: The Failure of a Snail

This post has been hugely delayed, mostly because I haven't taken the time to write it up.

Sometimes it is our failures that remind us how far we've come instead of our successes.

The following shoot shows one such failure. I was trying to shoot for the DPC Distance challenge and I had the idea to show a snail with a long way to go. I knew I had a ton of snails in the yard (because I see their slime trails every morning) so that part was easy. To give the idea of distance, I decided to use a wide angle and a diagonal crack leading off into the distance to highlight the idea of distance. But, even though I got the image I was looking for, it wasn't good enough and I actually identified that before I submitted, a first for me. Normally, I'd submit it anyway and then experience the shock and awe when it tanked.

First, the setup. I found a nice crack leading into a flowerbed (the snail Shangri-La). I wanted to highlight the snail with a spot of flash overpowering the sun by a stop or two, so I set up my Sunpak 383 snooted with printer paper (a piece of paper, scissors, and tape are pretty much all you need for light modification in 90% of cases). The blanket is from the picnic I had with my daughter earlier (so I didn't need to lay down on the bare concrete to get my low angle) and the item propping up the light is a toy piano bench (I just grabbed what was handy). Oh, and the orange spot is my discarded shirt (don't ask why I have an orange shirt because it makes me look like a corpse).

To get the angle and lighting right I used a grape sprig (again, left over from the picnic) as a stand in. I'd rather dry some grapes than make a raisin out of a snail unnecessarily.

The next ingredient: a snail, with a bit of water to keep him moving. Snails make pretty easy subjects; even when they run you don't have to move your setup very fast. Aside: turns out the common garden snails found all over California are actually French escargot snails -- some idiot introduced them to the area in the 1850's so he could have the slimy delicacy and they took over the place. More info (including cooking tips!) here at SFGate.

With a little bit of snail herding (and coaxing him out of his shell) he gave me the shot I desired: crawling along the crack towards the distance (34mm, F/18, 1/200s, ISO100). I shot a bunch from slightly different angles, packed up (since I was short on time and new I wasn't going to do another take) and loaded the images on the computer.

And that was when I realized the shot wasn't going to work. I tried all the ways I could think of, but with Basic Editing I couldn't get the separation between the snail and the background. Turns out the concrete has the same yellow/green/brown flecks that the snail has so I couldn't get separation based on color. Desaturating (see opening image) didn't help either because the snail blended right in with the background (darn camouflage).

Even if the snail was brought out correctly (a snooted, hard light from behind the snail to camera right would have done the trick nicely) the goal of the snail wasn't obvious at all because nothing stood out in the background (other than that flash in the upper right). But a bush with a third light on it (or in it!) would look pretty nice.

The point is, I failed in execution, but it was a big deal because I could identify why I failed BEFORE I submitted. Not only that, but brainstorming fixes was very educational!

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