Tale of Two Tunnels – Learning From Similar Photos by Others


As the saying goes, great minds think alike.  Truth be told, one creative mind has likely thought of something similar to that of another creative mind.  That begs the question:  Why would anyone want to think like me?  Since I don’t have the answer to that, I’ll redirect into a post about photography.

Inevitably, you will one day create a photograph which is similar to someone else’s.  It may be intentional – you may be trying to duplicate an effect or learn from another’s photograph.  It may be entirely coincidental.  The latter case is what happened to Mark J. Sanders (a SF @ Flicker contributor) and myself.  In this article are two photos, both of tunnels – different tunnels in fact, both shot while driving (something I really wouldn’t suggest), both shot with similar apertures and similar shutter speeds.  I know it’s hard to believe, but neither of us saw the other’s photo before shooting our own.

Let’s start by discussing Mark’s photo, Tunnel Speed (above, check it out at Flickr).  Mark shot this with an aperture of f/2.8 and a shutter speed of 1/15 at 8mm.  Now he shot it with a Konica Minolta G500 (a point-and-shoot), so I don’t suspect that he had as much control over the shot.  Still, Mark’s vision was clear, and he was able to generate an aesthtically pleasing shot.

My photo, Tunnel Vision (below, check it out at Flickr), was shot with an aperture of f/3.5 and a shutter speed of 1/13 at an 18mm focal length.  Like Mark, I had a clear vision for the shot before setting up, which is why I picked the relatively slow shutter speed and the small aperture.  I wanted to see deep into the tunnel, and I wanted things to blur as a result of the moving vehicle.     

Time to Learn

As I mentioned, these two shots are coincidentally similar, neither Mark or myself planned to mimic each other’s shot.  You may be mimicing someone else’s shot, or someone may have mimiced yours.  Regardless of the situation, it would be unfair for you to be bitter…even if someone mimiced your shot and did it better.  Treat it as flattery, treat it as a blessing, and try to let all emotional attachment to your own photo fade away.  Take this as an opportunity to learn.  So what can you learn?  Start by being honest with yourself.  In general, which photo do you like best?  In the case of these shots, I have to be honest, I like Mark’s photo better, overall.

Now that’s settled, explore each photo in greater detail.  Analyze the setup, the lighting and the post processing if you can.  Check the EXIF data if it’s available.  Try to figure out every aspect of the other person’s shot as best as possible.  Now identify elements of both photos that you like better.  From my photo, I like the smoother lines of the walls and especially the lights.  I suspect that it was easier to hold my heavier camera steady against the steering wheel for support.  Mark’s photo appears as though the camera twisted slightly during exposure which yields the jagged positioning of the light paths (notice they move upwards on the right, but dive slightly on the left).  What I really like about Mark’s photo are the colors.  The colors of the wall certainly add interest, but it’s really the deep blue color deep into the tunnel.    I feel that my shot’s biggest weakness is a lack of color and the raindrops on the windshield (which don’t exist in Mark’s shot).  I also wish my shot didn’t have the dashboard in the shot.  It could be cropped out, but then I miss a lot of the context.

Once you’ve identified the elements of each shot that you like, you will of course want to develop a plan for how to better your own shot.  That’s right…you’re going to plan to redo your own shot.  You want to learn, don’t you?  Best to learn by doing….or doing it again, as the case may be.  Anyhow, you’ll want to start with what your shot already has.  You’ve shot it once, you’ll know how to shoot it again.  So lets add the elements you missed.  Time for examples:

  • Raindrops – Let’s start with an easy one.  Next time, I’ll try this on a dry day.  And I’ll clean my windshield.
  • Dashboard – Cropping is for wimps.  We want to frame the shot so that the hood and dash aren’t visible in the camera.  There are two ways to do it…move the camera closer, or move it higher.  I want to continue to use my steering wheel for stability, so closer isn’t ideal.  To get it higher, I can mount my tripod head – just the head -to the camera which will give me about 5 inches.  That will be enough to get the dash out of the frame while still using the steering wheel.
  • Colors – there’s not a lot I can do about the color of the walls for this tunnel.  I’ll have to find another tunnel to address that specific issue.  To get a nice warm cast, I would mount a yellow filter or a warming filter to the lens.  As for the blue spot – I probably can’t mimic it perfectly, but I have an idea:  Bright Lights.  If I allow enough distance between myself and the other drivers, I may be able to able to flip the headlights into bright mode.  The areas closer to your car (and your camera) will clearly be much brighter.  If you get the exposure right, the areas where the headlights can’t reach will appear much darker in contrast and will naturally appear cooler.  Some post processing may be required to get the exposure perfect, but it should work.

As for the last bit of advice I have to offer on the topic:  Be prepared to fail.  You may not be able to fully achieve the quality you’re working towards.  I suspect you’ll need to try several times before getting it perfect.  But each time you make an attempt, you’ll learn something new.  Tweak your setup and try again.  You’re at least getting closer, so keep trying.

Editor’s Note: As a follow-up to this post, I returned to the Lehigh Valley tunnel to see if my shot could be improved upon.  To see the outcome, please read the post: The Third Tunnel – Lessons Learned and Improved Photo.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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