Camera clubs are excellent places for photographers to learn and share photography. In my own development as a photographer I owe much of my early inspiration, learning and excitement about photography to time spent in Images Alberta Camera Club in Edmonton. The friendships developed and the lessons learned have stayed with me through life. I have an abiding fondness for camera clubs, but there can be a dark side to belonging to a camera club….
As with any group effort, sometimes a little herd mentality may surface. And this way of thinking can stifle innovative or fresh ways of photographing – especially when it comes to image competitions. Over time, critiques of submitted images become increasingly formulaic; images that follow the ‘accepted’ rules of competition will score higher than those images that do not abide by these, dare I say it, sacred rules. Putting aside whether competitions are even healthy outlets for creativity, it seems that the ‘rules of photography’ espoused by most camera clubs reward conformity. In my experience, not much creativity happens when the first priority is conformity.
Let’s take a look at four ‘rules’ commonly trotted out during image critique sessions by camera club members.
What is the Subject?
It seems that every photo must have a centre of interest (watch yourself though – placing an object in the centre of your frame violates the superior rule of thirds). According to camera clubs an image needs to have something that we, the viewers, can define as a ‘subject’. No obvious subject? Then the image has failed. Abstract images that are simply about pattern, texture, graphic design or mood do not do well in photo clubs. Abstract painters like Kandinsky, Pollock and Miro would have a difficult time thriving under a regime that forces them to have an obvious subject.
Fill the frame!
One of the ways that camera clubs reinforce the idea of subject is to tell photographers to fill the frame with the subject. This rule makes sense in that many beginning photographers make pictures where it’s not clear what the photo is about or why they took the photo in the first place. Having photographers fill the frame with their desired subject of interest is an easy way to get photographers to make better images. If you fill the frame with the subject, then we will know what the photo is about – all other stuff is excluded. But if all we ever do is fill the frame with the subject, there is no room left to explore placing our subject in a broader environment to tell a contextual story. Many of the great environmental portraits we see in National Geographic or Life magazine do not ‘fill the frame’ but have a small subject in a sea of context. Try that in a camera club and you will hear, “Get closer and fill the frame!”
Make it Sharp!
In camera clubs there is a fascination with sharpness and detail. Much time is spent talking about the best sensors, the sharpest lenses and esoteric things like circles of confusion and hyper-focal distance. If an image is not tack sharp, it won’t win a competition. Period. I think this fascination is partly about gear and partly because most camera clubs are populated with the over 50 crowd who long for the 20-20 vision of their youth (trust me, I know, I also fall into this camp)! Some of the most recognized and historic photos of all time have not been sharp. Just think of Robert Capa’s World War II D-Day photos. These gritty photos succeed because the blur and grain give them the mood of being there. Ansel Adams famously said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Of course we can reverse this idea and state, “There is nothing better than a fuzzy shot of a sharp concept.”
Shoot in Good Light
And finally, there is the fascination with light in photography. This makes sense because photography is literally ‘writing with light’. Light is our tool; the cameras and lenses just capture the light. So a pre-occupation with light is an occupational hazard in photography. Camera clubs tend to classify light as good or bad. Good light is the ‘sweet’ light of the ‘golden hour’ (the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset). Any other light is bad. The reality is, as my partner Samantha likes to say, “There is no such thing as bad light!” There is either light that flatters your subject or concept or light that detracts from the subject or concept. Your job, as a photographer, is to choose the light that best enhances your idea for the photo.
The rules of photography that camera clubs follow are generally useful ‘guidelines’ for making stronger images. But like any rule, followed religiously the rules become constraints and shackles to creativity. You obviously need to know why rules work so that when you break them you do so for creative effect. I wish that camera clubs would look beyond the rules and just look at the heart of each image. If it resonates in spite of ‘flaws’ it is a good photograph. I’ll end this article with another Ansel Adams quote which nicely sums everything up: “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
For December we challenged our oopoomoo Creatives Facebook group to interpret the theme #lightsoftheseason. Below are some of their results that we liked best.
Congratulations to Drake Dyck who we think did the most creative interpretation of the theme. Drake wins a copy of our eBooks: The Icefields Parkway Winter Edition and Kootenay Plains and Abraham Lake Winter Edition.
It’s funny how our expectations and biases colour how we see the world. Sam and I spend much of our time teaching photographers to shed their visual biases and see the world as it is instead of how they think it should be. By being open you’ll get inspiration anywhere and not be shut down by the tunnel vision of expectation.
As much as I know the lesson of being open in photography, I recently discovered that I am much less keen to shed biases in life. In August of 2014 we lost our beloved dog Brando to cancer. It took us a long time to heal from the loss and even consider the idea of a new furry friend.
For the last 14 months I have been working part-time at the Cochrane and Area Humane Society and literally hundreds of adoptable dogs have crossed my path. We get dogs of all sizes and breeds and personality types but I found the ones that I were attracted to all had similar qualities. First of all, the dogs that caught my attention were almost always working or sporting dog breeds or mixes. This is not a surprise because the last five dogs that I have owned or co-owned have been a Shepard/Rottie cross (Brando), a Malamute, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever and an Australian Shepard cross. I like responsive, active dogs that are happy to please.
And so, possible candidates for adoption were categorized as acceptable or not acceptable by me simply based on looks and general disposition. In short, I was not open to seeing the dogs for who they were but instead for what I wanted them to be. I think I’m not alone…many people I know and work with have a ‘soft spot’ for a certain type or breed of dog. Of course, I thought I was being ‘open’ because I never picked the same breed twice but of course I was biased… unless it was a working/sporting dog it was simply not a candidate. For example, I was really interested in adopting the cattle dog cross below.
And then… something happens you don’t expect. On November 7, a 2-month old puppy came into the shelter with sarcoptic mange. The poor little fellow was under high quarantine procedures for most of the time until the mange could be cured and he was not contagious. Caring for the little fart allowed me to get to know him, in spite of the severe restrictions placed on him for minimal contact. I never imagined him as a candidate for adoption (he was not my ‘type’). He was just a fun guy that I helped take care of while he got better. And he was cute….
It was not until he was out of quarantine and Sam met the little dude that the wheels started to turn. I suggested we take him for an overnight visit and, except for a bit of bossy pants barking, I began to realize that he was a pretty awesome little man. I began to see him for who he was as he wormed his way into my heart. Of course, Sam saw him for himself right away and did not foist expectations on who he should be (she is good that way). Sam was open to adopting the littler bugger. And so, the latest member of the oopoomoo team is a pug/beagle cross (a Puggle) that we have dubbed Charles Affables Puggles the Third or “Affie” to his friends (which is everyone).
Thanks Affie (and Sam) for reminding me that our biases can get in the way of us truly seeing, whether that be in photography or in judging others.
Here at oopoomoo we are interested in people who have carved their dreams out of the impenetrable bedrock of societal structure. One local person who has done just that and who is a huge inspiration to us is Jackie Skrypnek. For years Jackie has quietly volunteered behind the scenes in the local food, environment and social sustainability movements. Jackie puts in the work because she believes a better world is possible. She is not looking for accolades or awards; she is looking for results.
Jackie, Samantha and I all have Permaculture Design Certificates (PDCs) from Verge Permaculture in Calgary. Part of the mandate or being a “permie” is to take action and do something that makes a difference in the world. Jackie has done just that. She has transformed her backyard from lawn into an ecologically sustainable food production centre which provides fresh, organic food for her family and friends. And she and her husband, Bryan, have built a passive solar tiny home in their backyard that will operate as an educational B+B teaching people about passive solar design, smaller footprint living and permaculture gardening principles.
The tiny home is only 247 sq feet but packs in sleeping, bathroom, kitchen, living, and dining areas. Jackie designed the tiny home and Jackie and Bryan built it themselves — it’s a work of art! Jackie battled the town bureaucracy to make the first tiny home B+B in Cochrane happen and now, through her perseverance, Jackie’s dream is ready to share with the world. On December 4, from 1 – 3 PM, Jackie is having an open house in Cochrane so you can see the tiny home for yourself and maybe even win a one night stay (there is a draw!). For details on the open house just download this PDF. If you can’t come, we’ve taken a few photos to show you this amazing little tiny home. Congratulations Jackie and Bryan! Cochrane is proud of you!
The Hereabouts Tiny Home website is now live for bookings!
Anyone who has been to oopoomoo seminars or workshops will be familiar with one of the most common compositional flaws in photography – the dreaded pokie.
What is a pokie? No, it’s not a friend of Gumby but rather it’s:
Little objects that stick into the edge of your frame accidentally.
Pokies are not purposeful parts of the composition. Instead they sneak into the frame like unwelcome guests and ruin the party by drawing attention to themselves. In short, they weaken your images. In the image below, can you spot the pokie?
Pretty obvious, eh? That little spruce branch in the upper right corner of the frame just screams out, “Look at me!”
Sometimes we are so fixated on our subjects while shooting that we don’t notice pokies until later when we look at the images on the computer screen. But once you are aware of pokies you’ll start to notice them all the time and you’ll learn to adjust your composition right away to get rid of those pesky buggers.
In some cases you can clone or crop out the offending pokies but sometimes you can’t. Rather than fix compositional errors in post, you’ll be a better photographer and you’ll save time at the computer later if you learn to spot and eliminate pokies in the field.
Show us your best pokie shot and win a spot in one of our January 2017 Resolve: Discover Your Creative Self eCourses. Post your image or images to our oopoomoo Facebook group or email us your entry (info at oopoomoo.com) before midnight MDT November 16, 2017. Below are some ideas of the kinds of images to enter.
- The Annoying Pokie – Show us a great shot that you made that was ruined or marred by an uninvited pokie.
- The Pokie Eliminator – Show us how you zapped away a pokie by changing your composition while shooting (we’ll need to see a before picture showing the nasty pokie, and then the fixed, pokie-free photo). No Photoshop fixes please!
- A Famous Pokie – Show us an annoying pokie in an iconic photograph from a famous photographer (yes, pokies have learned how to be published!). Be sure to credit the photographer and provide a website link to where you found the photo (comment and criticism on published pieces are allowed as fair use). Note: we can only award the pokie prize to a photographer who submits their original work so this last category is more for fun, education and discussion than for prize consideration.
Be sure to tag your images with #thepokieawards to ensure we consider your entry.
We’ve all heard the old saying: “It’s not the camera that makes the picture, it’s the photographer.” Why in music isn’t there a similar refrain? “It’s not the piano that makes the music, it’s the musician.” Or in art? “It’s not the brush or the paint, but the painter.” We rarely care about what brand of brush an artist uses; we care about the art produced. So why is it that, invariably, the first question asked of photographers is, “what kind of camera do you use?”
We think the problem with photography is that photographers use a tool that records images directly from reality. There is no implied ‘interpretation’ in using a camera. It’s seen as a device which objectively records the ‘real’ world. As such, we think that the better the recording device (the camera), the more accurate the reality, and therefore the better the photograph. And so it goes. As photographers we become obsessed with getting better and better gear. Our camera, lenses and accessories become the ends to the means and the means to an end. We become slaves and lovers of the technical aspects of the endeavour. Art is forgotten if even acknowledged at all.
In photography we are less likely to think like an artist. An artist uses his or her tools as a means of inner expression. Art is about telling the world who you are and what you think. Art is not reality; it’s an interpretation of your personal reality. Photographers mistakenly believe that the more they know about gear, tools and technique, the more accurate their representation of reality. Of course, nothing is further from the truth. Obsession with gear and goodies only gets in the way of communicating any message whether that message is journalistic or artistic. In photography we spend precious little time developing vision and voice. Mostly we just want to play with goodies.
For photographers who want to advance beyond gear obsession into the realm of artistic expression, we recommend several approaches:
- Take a bare minimum of gear with you on photo outings. We have written about this before but remind you about taking only a camera and one prime lens like a 50mm lens to help you hone your ability to see and express yourself with a single tool.
- Think of your photography not as a hunt for single trophy shots but instead in terms of a project. Pick a topic (e.g. garbage, trees, puddles) or a conceptual theme (isolation, power, contrast) and develop a body of work that speaks to the topic or theme. Project-based photography will help you concentrate more on the message than the medium. Gear quickly becomes secondary and diminished in importance compared to artistic expression.
- Take a course in photography that is about leaning to see and expression. Avoid courses that discuss technique or gear. You want to exercise your creative expression and not your wallet. Buying more gear, software or camera goodies will not help you. Invest in discovering your creative eye. One option is our Resolve: Discover Your Creative Self eCourse which is targeted so that you discover what makes your creative clock tick.
- Instead of reading on-line reviews of cameras and lenses, book off a day a month to go to art galleries and check out paintings, sculptures and visual installations. Take a notepad and jot down why the art appeals to you or not. Relax and really look at the pieces. What is the art telling you about the artist?
- Don’t try too hard; let your subjects speak to you. Don’t force a technique or a conscious attempt at style. Just respond and soon your photos will be created from within and not as a result of blindly jabbing at the shutter of your high-priced optical recording device.
- Get off the camera control crutch. Go back to fully auto or program mode in your camera and just shoot intuitively. Don’t think, just respond.
Of course there is a lot more you can do, but hopefully these little exercises will get you off the obsession with gear and on to the discovery of your self!
Here at oopoomoo HQ we are getting set for a busy season of teaching, talking and taking (photos of course).
First up, we are thrilled to be part of a photo print exhibition on September 8 at Resolve Photo in Calgary. The print show is called RAÐLJÓST and the show features the work of fifteen local photographers who’ve traveled to — and fallen in love with — Iceland. Inspired by the Icelandic word “raðljóst” (which translates to “enough light to navigate”) the photographs seek to show Iceland interpreted creatively by each artist. Sam and I got a sneak peak at some of the prints going into the show and we are thrilled to report that you’ll discover an Iceland unlike anything you’ve seen before. And seeing these finely crafted prints in person reminds us that a key aspect of photography is not only posting photos to the web but also the tangible pleasure of viewing them as works of art in the form of prints. Some may even argue that the pinnacle in photography is a finely created print! Rather than show off the works here on the website we encourage you to come in person and enjoy the surprising views and luscious nature of fine art photographic prints of Iceland. For more information please check out this link.
Second, speaking of creative vision and personal expression, we want to remind you that oopoomoo will be in Abbotsford BC on October 22 to present our new show, “The Visionary Photographer”. In this show we’ll cover topics designed to take you into the realm of photographic artistry:
- The Confident Artist and The Art of Visual Perception
- Creative Lens Choice and Camera Controls for Visionary Photographers
- Advanced Compositional Patterns for the Visionary Photographer
- Personal Style and Creative Vision: The Metamorphosis of an Artist
Early bird pricing on this show ends August 31, so be sure to register soon if you plan to go. Plus we’d love to reconnect and meet BC friends old and new.
And finally, you may have noticed the fine work coming from students completing our 7/365 – The Mentored Photo Project eCourse. We are thrilled with the inspiring work of our students and have shared their July results. Watch for more awesome projects from our August students coming soon to the blog! If you have a photo project in you bursting to be seen, we have four private mentorships available this September.
Each month we have a creative assignment in our monthly newsletter (to sign up go here and get our free Born Creative eBook). For June the assignment was #creativecrops. Below are our choice picks of the photos submitted. The theme was open to the photographer’s interpretation.
Be sure to check out the oopoomoo Creatives Facebook page to see ongoing assignment postings.
Have you ever noticed that creative people are constantly recording their inspirations and ideas? Painters have sketch books they take with them to tinker with visual ideas. Writers sit in coffee shops, with a notebook or moleskin handy, ready to record snippets of conversations or observations for a character. Musicians used to carry small recorders to sample musical ideas. These days the smart phone is the handy recorder of choice for musicians. And with cameras built into smart phones, this back-pocket visual recorder has become the new sketch pad for photographers. And we have seen an explosion of creativity emerge simply because photographers now always have a camera with them in the form of their smart phone. The problem with smart phones is that they can be as much of a distraction as a creative tool. Instead of concentrating on making visual sketches, the photographer is also checking email, watching his Instagram feed and following the latest episode of his favourite Youtube channel. Meanwhile visual gifts flow by unnoticed.
When I am out and about doing errands and daily tasks I constantly see cool little visual vignettes that I wished I had recorded. We don’t own a smart phone and if we are not ‘on a photo shoot’ we leave the cameras at home so these little scenes are just ephemerally enjoyed in the moment – which is fine but sometimes I wish I could revisit those moments.
For my summer project I resolve to take a camera with me everywhere I go so I can capture the visual treats that present themselves constantly. These little ‘photo doodles’ I plan to put in a scrapbook along with my thoughts and impressions of each moment. Often I find that this type of visual journal is a springboard to launch larger projects. I’ll share the results of this Photo Doodle project on the blog and on the project page. Below are some recent doodles from the last few days. By the way, if you’re interested in trying out your own photo project but need help along the way our new eCourse 7/365 – The Mentored Photo Project might just be the ticket to kick start your creativity (we even have special pricing for those who commit before June 30th). Happy doodles!
In our last blog post, Samantha talked about recent ‘mini-mentorship’ projects that we gave each other. Sam’s project was about personalized tree portraits, mine was about discovering artful design in nature and capturing that design in-camera. For me, the mentorship was incredibly valuable because it helped me recognize and articulate where I was and where I wanted to go as an artist. Once that was clear, the world opened up to infinite possible further project ideas. One of the main reasons that many photographers get in a visual rut and are not inspired is because they simply do not know who they are creatively. Knowing what your inner voice wants to say frees you from external constraints that hold you back.
As a mentor I learned to see the biases and expectations and self-doubt on the part of the mentee. Making assignments that addressed these issues forced the mentee to face the roadblocks to her creativity. Through teaching another you learn just as much about yourself and your own creative roadblocks. For both of us we emerged from the small mentored project with stronger artistic voices and renewed creative drive. Plus, we liked the results of our fun little projects! And now we just want to do more, both as mentors and as mentored artists.