Are You Growing Your Craft?


I need to start out by apologizing for not having posted for several weeks.  Sometimes “stuff” gets in the way of what’s important.  One very relevant thing was that I did a guest post for Leanne Cole’s excellent site.  The topic was winter photography  The responses were numerous and positive so I am very grateful to Leanne for allowing me to guest.  In case you missed that posting, you can see it here.

I’ve enjoyed photography since I was a kid.  When I started out, I also learned some of the basics of processing, printing, etc.  Yes that was back in the film days.  Back then, there were not nearly as many opportunities to learn.  There were books and magazines, a limited number of classes, some clubs and if you were lucky mentoring and good old trial and error.  At that time, trial and error were expensive because film, chemicals, paper, etc. all added cost.

Some time back I wrote about the many types of photography.  Now the question is how well do you embrace them.  As a combination of artist and technician we photographers can only get better at our craft by practicing it. One thing that I have learned in doing just that is that each type of photography has its own unique characteristics and techniques.  Another fun thing I have learned is, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, the more you know, the more you know!

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My serious learning path started several years ago.  At that time, I was using my camera in auto or presets mode and capturing jpegs. (okay enough laughter)  I was also taking the pictures off the camera and that was that.  Then I started learning.  At first, it was about some post processing via books and websites.  Then I met some more skilled, experienced photographers who got me shooting in RAW either in aperture or full manual mode (I’m not going to get into a debate on Raw vs jpeg here).  They also got me to start processing via Lightroom and Photoshop.  That’s when my images started getting much better.  Let’s face it, mastering Photoshop is not a small task and while I’m nowhere near a “master”, I manage.

I started looking at pictures differently.  I would look at an image I liked and ask why I like it, what did the photographer do to make this image interesting, etc.  All of that led me to start looking at the different types of photography.  I must also include that in that time frame I joined our local photo club which also introduced me to new techniques and methods.  Truth be told, none of us will ever master all types of photography.  Much as I might like to, I doubt that I’ll ever be a high fashion photographer or that I’ll be creating images of the inside of living organisms among other things.

That doesn’t mean that many other types of photography are closed to me, or that I can’t benefit from learning techniques that work especially well in those areas.  Most of my early pictures were nature, family gatherings and “how I spent my summer vacation”.  I know that I have improved the images I take in these areas through a combination of practice and learnings.  I have also gotten into some new types of photography.

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The first of these was serious black and white.  A few years ago had you told me that I’d be loving B&W I’d have simply told you no way.  It has taken some time and practice as well as some excellent software (Silver Efex and BW Effects).  Some of the early results were nothing great.  Therein lies a big lesson, keep at it, be self critical and get constructive criticism.  I can’t overstate how important all three are.

Another area that I’ve gotten much more interested in is urban/street photography.  I had always admired good street photography.  Probably my first exposure to it was the iconic VJ Day Kiss.  What I love about street photography is that it gives me the opportunity to show people and life as they really are.  Showing them in black and white makes it easier to show the “essence” of the image.  Again what got me interested in trying my hand was a presentation on some key aspects of this specialty.  Ironically, many of my best “street” shots show in black and white.  That’s another benefit of growing in all directions._DSC0766BWCOu

One amusing side from the everything old is new again department is that lately I’m also experimenting some with square images.  Some cameras will shoot that way.  Mine doesn’t.  In the right circumstances, it creates some great results.

I’m not going to rant on about the other aspects beyond saying that I’ve gotten much better at portrait type shots as well as candids.  I’ve also learned a number of tricks and techniques in post processing that can help to turn a good image into something special.DSC_3801COu

I’ll finish up with perhaps the most important lesson of all.  Let the camera do as much of the work as possible.  I know this sounds really simple, but to most people it is anything but.  Today’s cameras are very sophisticated computers.  There’s a lot that they can do to improve on the images they capture.  Take the time to go through the manual, learn and understand how and when to use those features.  It’s a lot easier to get all those elements right in the camera than it is to get them in via post processing.

Please feel free to offer comments, provide constructive criticism or ask questions.  I love hearing from you.

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.

Taking vs Making


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It may seem like a small thing, but I have noticed that most of the professional photographers I look up to refer to making a picture/image/photograph.  By contrast, most others refer to taking a picture.  So what’s the difference?

Taking a picture is a straight forward process.  To many people that process is get out your phone/camera, see something you want a picture of, push the button and then upload/share it.  Facebook, Instagram, etc. are loaded with such pictures.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with such pictures, they help to convey an immediate image.

Making a picture is a very different process.  Yes it starts out with getting out a camera (it can even be the one in your phone!).  From there, the process moves in a very different direction.  When making an image, the photographer spends the time needed to understand the subject not just, okay that’s a nice (pick something) that could be a great subject.  Now come the questions… How to capture that subject in a way that shows it best; what is the light and how does it impact the subject; what about the surroundings, keep them in focus or not…and the list goes on.  When making an image we often scout out the location in advance to find the best spot.  When going to capture the image, we will get there well before the time comes for actually hitting the shutter so that when the light is just right we are ready.

I am a firm believer in capturing multiple shots.  With today’s digital technology there is no cost to it.  Besides, it often happens that the second, third or whatever shot turns out to be the best.  In other scenarios, we capture two, three or more shots with slight variations in settings so that we capture the full spectrum of that image.

That brings us to the other part of the making process, post processing.  With digital photography, the computer has replaced the darkroom.  In the film days, there were drop off sites where you could leave your film for processing and come back in a day or two to get your prints.  There were also custom labs where you could get the work done.  It cost more and took longer, but the difference was obvious.  Under most circumstances, you can take a picture from your camera and be done… taking a picture.  When making a picture, it gets tweaked, polished and finished with any number of digital tools like Lightroom and Photoshop.  In the case where we took a series of shots with different settings, the software will combine them so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  To be clear, I’m not talking about creating an image in Photoshop, rather using Photoshop to make the image something special.

One of my mentors keeps telling us to let the camera do as much work as possible.  What he means is that the better the quality of the image coming out of the camera, the easier it will be to post process it and the greater the likelihood that the end result will be something you can be proud of.  I always try to follow this advise…with varying levels of success!

To give you a concrete example…I take a lot of shots at Duke Farms here in Hillsborough.  It is a wonderful education center that is open to the public for free.  On the property is an old barn known as the Hay Barn.  Go to the site for details.  Lots of people take pictures of the Hay Barn.  I have my fair share of them too.  When most people show me their shots I ask one question, where are the faces?  They usually give me a puzzled look or ask if I’ve taken my medicine.  Then I explain that when taken from the correct angle in the right light, you can see faces in the the wall (see the accompanying picture).  When I show them they understand what I’m talking about.  When I explain how it’s done, in most cases, the eyes start to glaze.  The difference between taking and making.

There’s Taking Pictures and There’s Photography


We live in a society where everyone seems to think that can do anything or is it everything?  Yes it’s a good idea to be able to do some repairs around the house.  To see some of the shows on TV or online, you’d think that the average person can also add a dormer, lift their home and replace the foundation, etc.  You are welcome to try those things if you want, I’ll leave it to the pros. A similar phenomenon existing in the culinary world.  Most people can toast bread, boil an egg, etc.  If you watch some of the cooking shows there are many dishes that can be made by the average home cook.  Does being able to make eggs benedict for a family brunch qualify you to be a the next White House chef? Not at all. The same mechanism applies to photography.  The digital age has simplified taking and sharing pictures.  However, being able to capture  a shot of your friends making fools of themselves on your phone is not the same as serious photography. If you want to see what I’m taking about, take a look at the pictures that are being shared in the online mass media (e.g Facebook et al).  Yes there are some very nice images being shared, most of them from serious photographers.  The majority are things like “look what I’m having for dinner” and a collection of other quick shots that have been conveniently uploaded for all to see.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with taking and sharing those pictures.  They are not serious photography. All the serious photographers I know, including me, take great pride in our craft.  We spend the time to capture the best image possible and then process those images via a variety of digital tools to get the very best out of the image.  I’m not talking about Photoshopping to create a false reality.  Rather we use the tools carefully so that the image we present is something we can be proud of and that the viewer will recognize as something that has a little piece of us trying to share something special. True photography is an art form.  For that matter there is a branch of photography known as fine art photography.  What constitutes a fine art photograph is up to the individual viewer, but typical fine art photography is some of the finest examples you can find.  After you’ve seen the shots from the phones, take a look at what some photographers I respect have available online:

 

One other thing about serious photographers, we are honored to have our work featured.  We do expect to be given proper credit for any display of our work.  Remember, professional photographers earn their living from that work, so if you want to use it, do the right thing and contact the photographer to get permission and if required, pay for the privilege.