The Eye of the Beholder


One of the really hard lessons we all need to learn is that everybody sees things differently.  I’m not talking about my seeing something and calling it a tree while you call it a peanut butter sandwich.  The reality is that we all have different experiences and education which significantly influences how we see things.

As a photographer, I always try to capture meaningful images.  Yes, what is meaningful?  If all I am trying to do is capture images for myself, the job is easy…shoot what I like, end of story.  Most of us need to have a broader view.  In some cases it’s because that’s what your customer wants, perhaps you’ve been asked to capture a family function or something else where many others are looking to you to record an event in a way that will be meaningful to many people.

Perhaps my first lesson in this arena came quite a few years ago when I was best man for a college buddy.  While the groom and I were waiting in the church, the photographer came to get shots of the groom.  The photographer really wanted to take some shots of the groom with his chin resting in his hand, looking whimsically skyward.  There might have been some poses that were more atypical of the groom, but we couldn’t think of any.  My buddy made it very clear to the photographer those shots were not going to happen!

One thing that I do like to do is to create several versions of the same image through differences in their treatment and ask a group of people one question…which do you like best and why?  The amusing part to this exercise is that there is almost never a consensus on one image or one reason why!

Following are three versions of the same image.  I took the shot about a year ago in the morning golden light.  The setting is on the grounds of a retreat house where I have been going every January for many years, so I always try to get shots that capture the spiritual feel of the place.

What I ask of you is to leave a comment telling me which you prefer and why.  (If you don’t like any, that’s fine, please tell me why.)  Depending on how many people read and respond, you might find it interesting to check back a couple of days after you post your preferences.

The first image is the original color image.  That is followed by two black and white treatments.  For simplicity’s sake, let’s call them 1, 2 and 3 starting with the color version.

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Taking this theme farther, we get into the idea of photographing people.  I know there is a very strong branch of photography around glamour shots.  These can be for magazine covers, product endorsements or publicity for the subject.  To me that category of image only shows a very superficial view of the person.  Those images are in the same category as the Barbie doll!  They are typically processed to remove some editor’s definition of every flaw, blemish and imperfection.  While they show that stylized ideal, to me they are not real!

To me the real art and beauty in photographing people comes in capturing the inner beauty and personality of the subject.  In many cases the person or image would be an absolute fail in terms of the mass market idea of beauty.  To me, however, that is the real beauty.

Capturing this kind of beauty, and again everyone sees it differently, is very different than how one gets the glamour shots.  I find that the way I get the best results is shooting candids, often from a distance so that the subject does not even know that they are bing photographed.  Yes I know there are huge discussions out there on the pros and cons of this, but that’s a topic for a different posting.  Almost everyone changes when they know that they are being photographed.  This is not so much based on deep rooted vanity so much as an inbred reaction from our society.

So what brings out the inner beauty?  First and foremost, the eyes.  Remember the old saying that the eyes are a window to the soul?  In this case that is absolutely true.  The eyes convey feeling, expression, mood and so much more.  The structure of the face, its features and complexities are the other big component.  In this environment, the nose typically is not the result of plastic surgery, often the glamour folks would scream that it needs that!  Is the skin smooth and flawless?  Not at all.  Life creates wrinkles, creases and blemishes.  Some would call them character lines.  These are the things that distinguish us.  They show that we have experienced life, both the ups and the downs and how they have effected us.  All of these little pieces help to convey a sense of dignity that tell our individual stories better than all the make up and retouching in the world.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

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This gentleman is one of my favorite subjects.  Take a good look at the image.  Is this classically beautiful? No. Does the face tell many stories of a life? Absolutely.  To me what makes this image special is the way it conveys a quite dignity.  I will leave it up to you to put your own story around this image.  That’s one of the great things about this type of shot.  To me images like this (even if I haven’t made them) are the kind that can pull at your heart strings, no words required.  That is one of the truly great things that a well made image can do better than almost anything else.

Small Changes, Big Impacts, Do You See What I See


DSC_4581BWuCO I took the shot above on a recent vacation.  Clearly not in New Jersey in December.  The shot was taken in color, but from the start I was planning it to be in black and white.  No this will not be another of those lengthy rants about how much better, more artistic, true to the craft, etc. black and white is.  Truth be told, there are advantages and benefits to most of the contemporary ways of presenting an image.

I liked the end result as shown here.  I won’t get into all the details around that.  Suffice it to say that to me, the primary focus is on the boy and his sand castle.  From there, the eye is drawn to the three people walking in the surf which draws the eye farther down the beach.  The people in the far distance simply add to the feel of a day at the beach.

Our local photo club is atypical from most in that our charter specifically eliminates competitions within the club.  Our mission is to educate both the members and the greater community about photography.  Due to that very nice piece of our make up, we can submit up to two images per meeting for analytical critique.  These critiques are lead by one of our two mentor pros, are open to all members to add their comments and are an incredible learning vehicle.  When the images come up for critique, there is usually nothing to indicate who the photographer is.

I submitted this shot at a recent meeting.  The comments were generally favorable, pointing out what I had done well and what I might do better.  Several of the members were quick to point out that the boy has a “wedgie”, something that I hadn’t noticed.  The pros were focused more on the three people walking in the surf saying that they are a distraction.  One of our mentors is really big on birds in shots like this to the point that it is a running joke during critiques.  Needless to say, I did pass that test.

After the club meetings, I normally try to apply the critiques I’ve received to the images that I submitted.  This was no exception.  The following day, I opened a copy of the image and took out the three people.  Here’s the result.

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I know there are many photographers who think taking the people out is a betrayal to the art and craft as I am no longer showing what the camera caught.  When dealing with serious photo journalism, I agree.  When talking about photography as art, that’s a totally different realm.

Regardless of ones opinion on realism, I hope that we can all agree that the image looks very different.  I find that the re-editted version is also an image that I am proud of.  This second image, to me, has a very different look, feel and story.  I sent copies of both pictures to a friend in the club who was at the meeting and asked for her reaction.  I reiterated to her that I am open to honest critique whether negative or positive, but please don’t just say, “great shot” or “this is no good” without telling me why.

Her reaction was that they are two very different, but very good presentations.  Whereas the first mage tends to capture a somewhat typical day at the beach with lots of people and activity, the second one is much more focused on the boy and the sand castle.  The surf and the bird provide enough distraction so that the upper right part of the image doesn’t get boring, but there really isn’t much in the image to draw the eye away from the main focus which is the boy and sand castle.

So what did I really do?  I changed perhaps five per cent of the image (I didn’t measure so please don’t start that debate).  The part that I changed was not a big up front component to the image.  Looking at the two side by side, there is a huge difference in the feel, impact, and reaction to the picture.

Small changes don’t have to be just about taking things out or adding them.  When preparing for an exhibit, one of the pictures I was going to use had an element that was crowded next to a couple of others.  Someone suggested that I move it over just enough to create some space between the elements.  We won’t get into the work involved to do it, but the net effect was that when the move was complete, the resulting image was much more powerful.  It was also very well received.

There can also be an amusing side to making small changes.  Among my interests, is yoga.  I’ve been practicing and teaching for a long time.  I go to “yoga camp” most summers.  At one of these camps I got a really good shot of one of my “fellow campers” in a handstand.  We really liked the pose, but the background left  much to be desired.  At times like this, you have to love Photoshop.  I cut her out of the original shot and added her into a much better scenic shot, an open field with flowers around and hills in the background.  I was very happy with the result and sent her a jpeg.  Just after I sent it I was looking a little closer and realized that I had committed one of the cardinal sins (think telephone pole growing out of the subject’s head).  Since she was in a handstand, I wasn’t worried about her head.  Her legs were in a T and I managed to place her such that it appeared that a bush was growing, yep there.  Moving her over slightly corrected that and we had a good laugh over it.  She has since used the shot in promoting her teaching.

Of course, there is a down side.  I won’t start arguing what separates small changes from big ones.  When making these changes, you do need to be careful not to over do it.  I suspect that we’ve all seen HDR shots where the effects have been totally overdone such that the HDR becomes the focus of the picture, not the subject itself.  The same goes for things like saturation.  Going a little overboard on the right image can make a big positive change.  Going that little bit farther and the shot is ruined for pretty much everyone other than those who are color blind.

The moral of all this, to me, is…don’t be afraid to make changes, try things a little different.  Assuming you try them on a copy, you can always delete it if you don’t like it.  Look at your changes critically, be open to what the change does to the image in terms of the message int conveys, the story it tells.  Your final result may be very different from the original picture, and that can be terrific.

The Best Place To Shoot And How


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One thing I encounter very regularly is photographers lamenting that if they lived near <pick a famous scenic place> their work would look much better…WRONG! (I’d user more colorful language but this is not an adults only page!)  Yes, it would be wonderful if I could just walk out my door into the High Sierras, but just like having the most expensive camera available won’t make you a great photographer, living close by famous subjects won’t either.

Among the things that make iconic shots we get, subject, lighting, composition, you know them all too.  But the part that many people forget is that photography while an art is also a craft.  The only way to improve that craft is by practice.  Wherever you live, there are great shots to be taken.  The advantage that “locals” have is that they get to take those shots over and over again.  Doing that accomplishes several things.  It provides a body of work on a single subject, it allows the photographer to work with different angles and compositions and just as important it lets you discover the best light and other conditions.

I live in central New Jersey.  Some folks feel sorry for me for that.  We don’t have grand high peaks or iconic seashores here.  That’s okay.  We do have plenty of open spaces, farm land and lots of other scenery.  One of my favorite places to shoot is at Duke Farms.  That was the private estate of Doris Duke.  In her will, she left as an environmental learning center that is open to the public free of charge.  When I first went there camera in hand, let’s just say the results were less then spectacular.  Since then I’ve been there in all seasons and varying times of day.  Now, people come to me for advise on when and where to shoot at “Dukes”.  Earlier this year, two of my friends put together an exhibit of pictures of and about natural New Jersey.  The exhibit NJ 350 Elements was hosted at Duke Farms.  More spectacular, this was a juried show where the winning images were printed on satin 60″ x 40″ and displayed outdoors!  The picture at the top of this posting is my submission that was part of the exhibit.  Even more exciting, Duke Farms has commissioned prints of the three images in the show that depicted different parts of their facility (including mine).

I grew up in northern Manhattan.  I am in “the old neighborhood” quite often.  Yes the ethnicity has evolved and what types of stores are there has changed.  But beyond that, it’s remarkably like it was when I was a kid.  It was prowling around that neighborhood with y camera that I started taking urban and street shots.  Some folks tell me that I’m actually getting better at it!  The shot below is an example of how much change stays the same.

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The other side of where to shoot and when is all about being prepared.  Ask any top professional about what they do to prepare for a shoot somewhere away from home, and I’ll bet you get the same answer over and over.  DO YOUR HOMEWORK! If you are going to go on a special vacation to somewhere exotic, will you just go to a travel site and randomly pick a destination?  Probably not.  If you are planning a trip to somewhere that you don’t know and probably won’t get back to often, do your research.  In today’s environment, it’s a lot easier than it used to be.  Go online and find out about interesting places wherever you are going.  Check the blogs and online groups.  Most people are happy to share.  Look for photos of interesting places.  Pay special attention to not just the place, but also time of day, exposure, angles, etc. so that you have some idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Once you have that work done, plan where you want to be and when.  Remember to check for ideal shooting times where you are going.  Remember, just because evening golden light may start around 4 PM at home, doesn’t mean that’s when it will happen where you are going.

Something thing to keep in mind about iconic shots is that you are probably not going to be alone trying to take that shot.  I’ve heard countless tales of photographers who got up before dawn, hauled a ton of gear to be in the perfect spot for a shot, only to find that fifty or a hundred others were already there and filling every good vantage point.

Make sure that your plans are flexible!  If you want to get great outdoor shots, plan on some of the time having adverse weather.  That can be a blessing or a curse, you need to decide which and adjust your schedule accordingly.

Above all, be a realist!  The more practice you have shooting, the greater the likelihood that you will come home with pictures that make you proud.  Take plenty of pictures.  It may sound like common sense, but many people don’t.  If your camera has repeat modes for shooting, use it.  You’d be surprised at the differences you will find in three shots taken at five or six frames per second.

Earlier this year we spent a very nice day walking around Savanah, GA.  The trip to Savanah was pretty spur of the moment so I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare.  Instead I relied on what has worked for me in other cities.  I came away pleased with the results.  Following is an example.

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What it really comes down to is this.  Do you want to be a “me too” photographer?  If so, follow the crowd, take the same shots that everyone else does.  If you want to be a real photographer, someone who views photography as a means to document their view and present it as their art, go off the beaten path.  The first time the great scenes were photographed, they were new and novel and marvelous.  Go out and find your iconic scenes, discover your art and use them to tell your story.

So now, to answer the trick question about the title of this post…the best place to shoot and how is (drum roll please)…wherever you are!  The how is just as simple.  The rules of good photography don’t change, use them, apply them and you’ll get the shots that you want.

Photography Is Plural


The more time I spend working to perfect my craft, the more I realize that because I am improving in one type of photography , I still have a long way to go with many others.  According to the professional and serious amateur photographers who will always give me honest feedback, I’m getting pretty good at certain types of images.  These include black and white, candids, birds, bugs, macro and intimate scenics.  You can see examples in my galleries.  I have spent a lot of time taking these shots, post processing them and soliciting constructive feedback.

I can take adequate shots at some sporting events if I can get close enough.  I’ve done some okay big landscapes.  Portraits I have a long way to go. Photography is a craft.  As with many crafts it takes time, dedication, practice and teaching to continue to improve.  As one of my mentors explains it, the structure of continuing improvement is a pyramid.  When you start out there are lots of things that need to be done.  Exposure is often off, depth of field needs to be understood and applied, composition needs improvement and the list goes on.  As we gain more knowledge and apply it there are fewer things that need improvement and they are often less obvious and harder to master.

One of the ironies is that while some of these skills are readily transferable across photographic genres, many are not.  As an example, let’s look at portrait photography.  There are many little “tricks of the trade” when it comes to posing the subject for the best outcome.  While I’d love to be able to apply them to birds and flowers, so far my efforts have been in vain.  The same thing applies to lighting.  The lighting in a fine portrait is a very complex subject.  Many is the beginner who allows the flash on their camera to pop up and then wonder at the mediocre picture it produces.  How the lighting is applied not only determines if the portrait is “good” but also the message it conveys.

I have been doing a lot more urban/street photography as well as trying some fun things.  Here in Central New Jersey we are fortunate to have an annual hot air balloon festival.  The balloons come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colors.  Many of them fall into the category that I call whimsical.  They are shaped like cartoon characters, castles, I’ve even seen a hot air space shuttle.  These can make for some great fun shots that I take with a tripod mounted camera usually with a good amount of time to set up and compose the image.  On the other hand, street photography is almost the opposite.  Scenes come and go very quickly (okay there are some that are just there).  Seeing those scenes is not as easy as it looks.  First you need to learn to work with a hand held camera using one of the priority modes.  I usually use aperture mode and let the camera figure out the shutter speed based on F stop and ISO.  Then there is the need to do quick composition since most subjects are not going to hold a pose for you.  I have lots of pictures that I put in my “I Cried Because I Had No Shoes” collection (the rest of the line is “and then I met a man who had no feet).  Yes the image looks really nice, but a key part is chopped off, often the subject’s feet because I wasn’t paying enough attention to the whole frame.

One of the hardest things in street photography is taking someone’s pictures when they know you are taking it.  This normally requires approaching a complete stranger and asking for permission, not something I do easily.  It can get more complex asking for permission to publish the picture and getting a release.

Having taken the shots post processing can be just as tricky.  As I said earlier I love black and white.  It has taken me quite a while to develop an eye for images that will work well in black and white.  The way that an image is processed makes a huge difference in its effect and impact.  Understanding how to do that processing again is not a one size fits all proposition.  Yes many photographers develop a style, but style is constantly being revised and improved with every image.

Out of curiosity, I recently took a shot that I was quite pleased with in its color rendering and converted it to black and white.  I then posted it via a few venues asking viewers which they preferred and why.  The results came in almost evenly split!  (they are the image for this posting)  The simple lesson from that experiment is that no matter how much I may like an image in one rendering or genre, that’s only my opinion and many other people will have different opinions.

The real lesson to be learned here is that if you are just starting out in photography, learn your lessons one at a time.  You cannot master all styles, genres, etc. at the outset.  Find first what you enjoy shooting and then grow your craft from _DSC3234-1CombineduCO-LRthere.  At some point in the process you will start to find other types of images that you enjoy taking and naturally grow your craft.  The other thing to remember is that not every photographer will excel in every style or genre.  That’s fine too.

To me if the photography isn’t fun, why bother with it a all!