Usually, but not always, I’ll have a plan for post-processing an image while I’m setting up to take that shot in the field. The image below is a good example.
Out in the mountains this past fall, Darwin and I were meandering along my favourite highway, the Bow Valley Parkway. The bright overcast light was turning the forest into a magical realm, highlighting the skeletal branches and brightening up the underbrush. The bright yellow caught my eye, but even as I worked this stand of pine, I wondered if this might be a candidate for conversion to black and white later on the computer. The reason I thought this might work better than the lovely colour which first attracted me is that I didn’t like the green colour of the trees in the background. Converting to black and white would preserve the bright tones in the yellow leaves but strip away the interest in the dark green background. So did it?
Creativity and vision are tough concepts to define sometimes. They’re even a little overused. When Darwin and I think of creativity, we think of original expression, as in, something you made yourself from your interests and passions. In a world saturated with images, it can be tough at times to even know what our interests are! That’s why getting out by yourself to photograph what catches your eye is such an important part of being a photographer. And when you are more comfortable with knowing what motivates you to press that shutter, that vision is going to carry you through the process in three parts: ‘seeing’ the image, making the image and processing the image.
What do you think? Is your creative vision a three-act play?
In advance of our Scaretography: Halloween Light Painting Event on October 25, we thought we’d have a little tutorial on light painting so that you can try some spooky effects on your own at any time. We’ll be doing more fun things with flash at Scaretography than just light painting, but this should get you started!
What is Light Painting?
Light painting is a photographic technique in which pictures are made by moving a hand-held light source onto a subject while taking a long exposure photograph. The results are unpredictable and different each and every time which adds to the joy of discovery! I use a few simple steps to set up for light painting.
Back in the good ‘ole film days, getting around the reciprocity problem (the degradation of the film’s sensitivity with loss of light during exposure) required more advanced knowledge of exposure calculation. With today’s digital cameras, you can “guesstimate” your exposure and adjust as needed without having to expertly calculate exposure. Although knowing more about exposure will always make you a better photographer, here is your cheat sheet for easy light painting.
There are only a few simple steps I follow to set up for light painting. First, determine an appropriate subject. You will have to visualize how it will look lit up at dusk. It’s often best to select a single, prominent subject with a clean background. The point is to highlight the lit subject, not to capture a full landscape! Old vehicles in a grassy field, a lone skeletal tree, or a small barn work well for light painting. Often, I will only subtly paint the subject or select certain parts of the image (old tail lights on vehicles work well for this) to bring to life with the flashlight.
Second, buy appropriate flashlights. You will need at least one, and often two is better. Click the flashlight on and evaluate the type of light it provides. Is it a hot, small white light from a compact handheld? Or is it a yellow, larger, less focused light from a big tungsten flashlight? I like to shoot with warmer hued lights with one-million candle power or more. With newer LED lights take a yellow or orange gel and tape it over the light to give a warm glow against the cobalt blue dusk. Having your white balance set to ‘daylight’ or ‘sunny’ will also return a pleasing warm/cool contrast. Ensure that your flashlights are fully charged! (Everyone makes this mistake at least once.)
Third, head out to your subject in the evening before it becomes dusk. You want plenty of light so that you can walk around your subject and determine the most interesting composition. Usually, depending on how early you start and on how light the sky stays during the shoot, only one or two compositions will be taken. It is very difficult to compose and focus as it gets darker, so determine the best composition and set up your camera before it’s dusk. Once focus is achieved, switch to manual focus so your camera will not hunt to focus in the dark. Use a polarizer to help darken the sky. A polarizer will also allow you to start shooting a bit earlier as they remove one to two stops of light. Your camera must be on a tripod for such long exposures, and using a cable release will help prevent any camera movement. If you want to blend parts of several exposures of the light painted image into a final image, then don’t move the camera or tripod during the session!
How do you know when to start taking pictures? Ideally, you will want to take pictures when the ambient light is the same intensity as the sky. But what does this look like? First, determine which direction you are shooting. If your camera is pointing away from the sunset, you may notice that the sky in that direction is darker than the sky just above where the sun went down. This means that you will be able to start shooting sooner if your camera is pointing in that direction than if your camera was pointing toward the sunset. If you have no sky in your picture, then you will need to evaluate the ambient light compared to the sky in general. One trick is to look at your subject and squint your eyes a bit. If the light on your subject seems as bright as the sky, then it’s time to take your first exposure. If the light around your subject still seems a bit brighter than your subject, it may still be too early for a light painting.
When the ambient light and the sky seem about equal in intensity, set your camera to bulb function so that you can have exposures longer than 30 seconds (the longest the shutter will stay open on a camera on shutter or aperture priority setting). Leave your aperture at f16 or f11 to start, although you may have to select a wider aperture like f8 later as it gets darker. Take an exposure at 30 seconds, and press playback to check your histogram (if you don’t know how to view the histogram of the image, refer to your camera’s manual). A histogram is a graph that shows the tonal values of a photograph. Knowing how to read the histogram is the most important part of light painting! You want the image to be properly exposed so that you have enough data when you process the image to avoid noise that results from an underexposed file. A ‘good’ histogram should have most of the data in the centre or centre-right of the graph without any data jamming up against either end of the graph. This is because digital cameras record more information in the brighter tones of the spectrum (represented by the right hand side of the graph) and record less data in dark tones. If your histogram shows data jammed at one or both ends, then data is being lost through clipping: the tonal range of the exposure is too great for the camera to record. If all the data is in the graph, but appears to be concentrated on the left side of the graph, the image is likely slightly underexposed. The actual shape of the graphed data does not matter for our purposes, and it also does not matter if data spikes through the top of the histogram.
The biggest mistake most photographers make when light painting is to take the image, look at the back of their LCD and determine that the exposure is fine because the LCD display looks good. But don’t be fooled! The display you are seeing is not the actual photograph you just took; it’s your camera’s best guess, represented in a small jpeg image, of what your final image will look like. This is why it’s critical to look at the histogram to determine if you have not underexposed your dusk image. On the LCD, the image may look too bright, but ignore this. When you process the image, it will come out looking as your eye saw it at the time.
If at 30 seconds, the data is jammed to the right on the histogram, wait until it gets darker and take another test shot. If the data is contained within the histogram and centre or centre-right, then you are ready to start light painting. Take another exposure of 30 seconds but this time aim your flashlight on your subject. You will want to pass the beam of the flashlight in an even manner over the areas you wish lit up in the 30 second time frame. (If 30 seconds is not enough time for you to pass the flashlight over the areas you wish to cover, wait until it gets darker for a longer exposure time). To avoid hot spots where the flashlight was held too long in one spot, twist your wrist in small circles as you paint and wiggle the beam over the entire surface to be painted. When your 30 seconds is up, check your histogram to ensure all the data is in and slightly balanced to the center or center right without going off either end of the graph. If the subject is too brightly lit by the flashlight, then paint for less than the full exposure time. Continue a few exposures at 30 seconds to get a variety of images to work with back home. The beauty of a light painted image is that no two are the same!
As the light dims, you will quickly find that 30 seconds is not enough time to expose your subject properly. Since you are on the bulb setting, you can keep the shutter open as long as you like (either on timer or with a locking mechanism on a cable release). As soon as 30 seconds produces a histogram that is becoming biased to the left (that is, underexposed), you will need to let in more light. A handy rule of thumb is to double your exposure time. Try a 60-second exposure and check your histogram. As the light continues to dim, double your exposure time if needed for the next photograph. There is no hard and fast rule; the trick is to interpret the histogram and adjust your exposure time as the histogram shows the image is becoming underexposed. When you are up to 4 minutes exposure time, you may wish to dial your aperture to f11 or f8 (if depth of field is not critical) to let even more light into the camera. You can keep shooting as long as you like, but keep in mind at some point the ambient light will not be strong enough to record behind your subject and separate it from the background. This is why light painting works best at dusk or dawn and not when it’s dark out. For long-exposure effects, look for wind-blown grasses or moving clouds. With this easy method, I get consistent results without having to bother with calculations (math is nasty!) or lugging around extra gear.
It’s Halloween — and time to party! How do photographers celebrate this wacky season? With wickedly good images, of course. We’ve rented a spooky hall in the countryside and planned a full afternoon of light painting, flash effects and a costume party! All the grisly details are here. Can’t make it out? Don’t worry – the October Newsletter will be coming out soon with your monthly challenge – be afraid…be very afraid.
Here at oopoomoo we love photography, and we mean that in the most literal sense; we use cameras to make our art and the more we strive to graph light with our cameras, the better we like it! When we shot film, all the work was done in the camera especially when we shot with slide film (ok, who ‘we’ kidding – Darwin is the master slide film guy). With slide film, there was no darkroom work and no manipulation outside of the camera. What you got was what you managed to capture with your camera. Talk about naked skills.
So, as a thoughtful exercise in the roots of photo-graph-y, we are relaunching a feature that Darwin and I co-launched on our old blogs. When you have a spare moment skip over to my and Darwin’s old blogs to enjoy a blast from the past – make sure you visit both! There’s some hilarious film pics on my old blog of our early relationship.
Here’s where you come in. We want you to share your images taken on film (yes, film, that old, plasticky stuff you have to get developed elsewhere unless you are a darkroom guru) on Fridays over at our oopoomoo facebook group. Use the hashtag #fabulousfilmfridays on Facebook to showcase your work. Every month or two we’ll gather the best of the images and do a summary here on the blog to celebrate photography’s roots! Be sure to start posting this Friday September 4, 2015!
In Canada, summer is the time for camping. I know this because I just looked up availability to one of our fave, local campgrounds to find there was only one spot left out of hundreds. Apparently all of Calgary has already headed out there. And this was for camping mid-week! Usually, one of the perks of being self-employed is that you can set your own hours. In the summer this means leaving home early to arrive at a campsite and register before all those other poor schmucks can get off work and drive out there. Not anymore! Alberta’s pre-registration system has made the whole process more egalitarian if less impromptu.
But this is not a rant about Alberta Parks. No, I thought instead, if I can’t get out camping, at least we can have a little campfire fun so to speak on the blog. My question for you is, what was the eeriest moment you ever had camping out in the great big wild? Share in a comment here on the blog – and even better, a pic (if you were brave enough to get one)!
Now gather round, and I’ll tell you one of mine…it happened when Darwin and I were traveling through Yukon Territory several years ago. We were way up north on one of Canada’s most infamous roads: the Dempster Highway. Known for potholes big enough to swallow a small car, sharp rocks and frost heaves, it is not a journey undertaken lightly or by the uninformed. The weather can also be a bit extreme. The shots in this post are from that visit August 21, 2008. As you can see, we are well into fall colours during our little trip.
My campfire story doesn’t involve a campfire, but it does involve a campground. After hours of driving, we’d managed to reach Engineer Creek Campground where we decided to stop for lunch. Mother nature had been tempermental all day with bursts of sunshine peeking through menacing clouds and fog. We pulled into the campground and found it quite charming with its black rock roads contrasting with fresh yellow leaves. Charming…but quite deserted. There was not a single soul in the place!
We were not deterred and got out our lunch stuff. This involved firing up our small portable cook stove to make a warm lunch. We each set about our tasks of preparing lunch (me chopping veg, Darwin trying to get the stove to work). Pretty soon we noticed though that there didn’t even seem to be birds in this campground, or if there were, they weren’t making a peep.
I think that’s when I started to get a little creeped out.
“Hey Darwin,” I said. “Don’t you think it’s awfully quiet here?”
Darwin looked up from fiddling with the stove. “Come to think of it, where is everybody?” It was later in the day on a very long, lonely road – no one was planning on staying the night here? We kept on prepping lunch but both of us would peer into the dense foliage from time to time. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched whenever I turned my back on the woods. Surreptitiously, I kept my bear spray nearby on the table. We ate facing opposite sides of the forest, not talking much and keeping an eye out.
Well, sorry to say no yeti strode out of the shrubbery and sat down to lunch with us that day. I’m pretty sure something was out there though – usually you get the heebie-jeebies in your tent, in the dark, after a good round of scary stories. But this was during the day, in a beautiful place that we were lucky enough to have all to ourselves. Even our dog, Brando didn’t seem as excited as usual to go for a walk. If there was a critter eyeing us with intent, we never saw or heard it. By mutual agreement we decided not to camp there – or even spend another minute – and pressed on a little further up the Dempster before turning back and beginning our long journey homeward. I shuddered as we drove past the campground on our way back. It still seemed as we drove by as silent as the grave.
I recently had the chance to go camping with family. Now, I have chosen not to have children, but I have lots of nieces and nephews so I can easily get my ‘kid fix’ when I need it. I’m always amazed by parents. It seems to me a tough job some days.
Unlike photography, there’s really no manual to guide you. But it struck me that, in some ways, parenting and photography are alike. Using some of the things I’ve learned from my parents, and from watching other parents, I’m going to make the case that photography is like parenting…so here goes.
Eat Your Broccoli
Remember how your parents were always telling you to eat that healthy, green stuff on your plate? “It’s good for you,” they’d explain. Well, even though we knew they were right, it was still hard sometimes to choke down those veggies. Photography has veggies too – those things you should do to become a better photographer that you don’t really enjoy doing. Like, for example, photographing frequently around home rather than planning exotic photo trips. Sure, traveling some place new is exciting, but you’ll have stronger skills if you practice often in your local area.
Don’t Stay Up Too Late
We know that staying up late and watching TV is bad for us, but we do it anyway (until we get told to turn off the light and go to bed). It can also be tempting to go hard, guns blazing, with your photography. Chasing the sweet light can mean you’re up late photographing star trails after sunset and still upright when sunrise burns up the sky. You don’t want to miss anything of course, but one thing I’ve learned from long photo trips is the need to pace yourself. There’s nothing worse than hitting that creative wall and having no energy to stand up let alone make a good image. Stay in it for the long haul and respect your body and mind’s need to recharge.
Respect Your Elders
There are many, many talented photographers out there and so much to learn from studying the work of artists who have created before us. In the photo industry I’ve seen a tendency to self-aggrandizement, the belief that you and your work is unique and ‘never been done before’. True creative vision is actually pretty rare, so it’s a good idea to stay a little humble and maybe take some time to review the images and art works of photographers and artists whose work has stood the test of time.
Mind Your Manners
One of the tasks of parenting is to teach your children how to behave with other people. Sure you want that toy, but pushing that other kid out of the way and stealing it from your sister is not going to make you many friends. Parents succeed at teaching manners to varying degrees. But as adults, we really have no excuse for bad behaviour. Why is it then that some photographers feel it is just fine to trespass on private property to get a better position? Or scare wildlife away by getting too close? Or yell at tourists who get in their way? I think one of the most remarkable stories from Darwin’s 50 at 50 eBook relates to the incredibly bad behaviour of a bunch of photographers at iconic Delicate Arch. It seems some photographers need to go back to kindergarten to learn some manners.
Pick Good Friends
We’ve all seen this…a nice, sweet kid falling in with ‘the wrong crowd’ and turning into a swearing, pierced, slouched creature. How does this happen? Apparently, parents are right to feel concern over who their children hang out with. Your peers will either elevate you – or bring you down. Finding a mentor in photography can be one of the best things you can do to take your images to a higher level. Consistent, clear, caring feedback can do wonders for your artistic ability. So make sure you pick good friends who not only support your creative efforts but also give you a little challenge sometimes.
Well, I’ve come up with five points. Can you think of some ways in which photography is like parenting?
In one week, it will be one year since we finished packing our bags, squeezed Brando in the back seat and pulled out of Cochrane with our red-and-white Trillium trailer in tow. We were heading off on our Creative Sabbatical, venturing forth into unknown territory with a goal of evaluating our business, our lifestyle and our roles as creatives on this wobbly globe called Earth. So, a look back at our year wherein we try and tackle the big question that many of you might be wondering: But Did They Learn Anything?
Artists in Residence
For the first half of the year, we were stationed out of Aurum Lodge, an eco-lodge in the Canadian Rockies. We have partnered with and supported Aurum Lodge and its owners and proprietors, Alan and Madeleine Ernst, for years. We believe it is important to have hospitality-based businesses in the national and federal parks that emphasize low-impact enjoyment of nature, and this eco-lodge certainly conveys that message. We rounded out over ten years of tours and workshops at Aurum with a full slate of private mentorship and workshops last fall, meeting many keen photographers eager to refine their ability to make images from the world around them. Despite a tough summer of hot, dry, smoke-filled weather, our time spent in this natural region was, as ever, magical. The Kootenay Plains will always have a special place in both our hearts.
Brando Goes to His Happy Hunting Grounds
As many of you who follow oopoomoo adventures know, our beloved companion, film star and chowhound Brando passed away last August at Aurum Lodge. Many people ask us if we are planning on getting a new dog, but we feel that there is not room yet in our hearts for a new friend. Brando was not replaceable. Maybe in the future a furry friend will pick us, but for right now, we think about him often. He must have touched the hearts of others, especially in the instructional videos he starred in on our YouTube channel, because when we played the Lens Choice video during this past April’s Toronto photo workshop, Brando received a spontaneous round of applause at the end of it. He was a special dude. Read our tribute here (with Darwin’s original music – but turn up your speakers because the recording is low volume) for lessons in how to be your own dog.
Penguins and Polar Landings
Next up – the bottom of the Earth! We traveled to Antarctica on a photo symposium expedition and visited the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and spent a brief time on Antarctica. One of the perks of being photography instructors is that sometimes you get to travel to exciting destinations to teach others photography – something we wouldn’t be able to afford ourselves. The south pole does everything large – instead of a handful of penguins, let’s have thousands! Grass grows on South Georgia in giant clumps creating weird mazes that are hard to navigate. On the continent itself, craggy mountains crowd a skimpy, fur seal-coated beach making landings a challenge. Building-sized icebergs sail serenely past. Antarctica is an incredibly fragile place, protected for most of human history by its inaccessibility. That has now changed, and the region now features on many photographers’ bucket lists. Here on oopoomoo, we strive to teach ethical photography. So please, if you find yourself somewhere beautiful, either Antarctica or a small urban park, join us and set the level of care high for our vulnerable and shrinking natural areas.
Adventures in House Sitting
The final leg of our journey has found us house sitting in various homes across Alberta. A sort of ‘try it on for size’, our house sitting has allowed us to discover new communities and ponder the question of what makes a great community, and how do you build one? We did learn a couple of valuable lessons, including ‘more’ is not better, and always turn off the power when testing a shock collar (newsletter subscribers will know what we’re talking about here). During this time, we also embarked across Canada teaching multiple workshops to eager learners in, among other places, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. The support and positive feedback from participants from these events had been almost overwhelming and definitely very gratifying! We are happy that so many of believe in yourself and your creativity.
Some of you have noticed that we don’t have any workshops lined up for the fall or winter. Or spring, for that matter. Some of you have made requests for special workshops which we have turned down. This is very strange behaviour for a photo education-based business like oopoomoo. The truth is, our Creative Sabbatical was an incredible success in so many ways. We made new friends. We ended toxic relationships. We refined our business focus and our priorities. We inspired photographers to be true to their own creative vision. We sold a slate of highly successful workshops and increased our eBook sales. We traveled Canada from British Columbia to Quebec and to the bottom of the world. In short, business is booming.
The truth is, the Creative Sabbatical was a success in all ways but two: it wasn’t creative for us, which means it wasn’t a sabbatical. We worked our cans off. We aren’t complaining! But in twelve months, we delivered over 18 events – a record, even for us. We moved house and office 9 times with one more to go. There was no time for us to pursue our own creative projects and once again another year passed in which we did not do what so many of you do which is invest in your own creative development. So the truth is, we are easing up on the oopoomoo workshop gas pedal and pressing down on the oopoomoo creative publisher pedal. We hope to publish some more of our own photography projects – maybe some new eBooks! – and to continue a dialogue with all of you about what makes your creative life fulfilled. The discussion is hopping on the oopoomoo facebook group where we’d be happy for you to join in, and of course we will continue to publish thoughtful and (hopefully) artful work here on oopoomoo central.
So onwards and upwards to all good things oopoomoo!
A cornerstone of what we do at oopoomoo is to teach the art and craft of photography through our eBooks, talks and workshops. In the last year we were fortunate enough to speak at over 18 events and visit interesting and diverse places, from Antarctica to Saskatchewan. We learned a few things in this past year’s journey…. First and foremost, Canada’s natural areas are world-class and rival any so-called ‘exotic’ destination (and deserve our unswerving protection) and second, Canadians are awesome in their outlook on photography and life! Lest this article descend into a back-thumping, self-congratulatory affair on how cool Canada is, we do need to raise a point of concern. After speaking at all these events in one year, well, you’re bound to spot common patterns emerging as your students learn how to be better photographers. What we found is that, no matter where you call home, there are five mis-steps most photographers make that keep their images from being great. We’ve distilled down a year’s worth of teaching into five fatal flaws that keep your photographs ho-hum rather than huzzah! So read on to learn how to avoid these five mis-steps so you can get your own, unique ‘photography groove’ on.
Yes, this is an official photography term. (In fact, we’re thinking of trademarking the idea because it appears to be so ‘popular’ in so many photographers’ images!) What on earth is a pokie, you ask? Think of those teeny little bits that jut just barely into your image frame. They commonly take earthly form as twigs, stones or even small, bright or dark blobs. You clearly didn’t see them at the time you made the shot because they are just as clearly detracting from your image. Pokies always appear accidental. Sure, you can crop a pokie out…except when a crop will ruin the balance of your composition. In the end, we tell our students that it’s always best to catch and kill a pokie in the field by recomposing your image rather than opt for surgery to remove the foreign growth in post-processing.
Mergies are pokies’ evil twin. Except mergies are much harder to get rid of – and this is why we don’t recommend the ‘easy out’ of cropping away your mistakes later on at the computer. Mergies exist where two visual elements connect or meet by touching or overlapping in some way. Humans are wired to find and perceive connections where visual elements like shapes or lines meet. Note we’re not talking about when you deliberately overlap objects, for example to establish perspective, but an accidental joining of two separate visual elements. Mergies are perceived by your viewer as a mistake and, just like pokies, they call attention to themselves when they really aren’t worth looking at. So keep them out of your images!
Colour over Content
How many of you have somewhat recklessly swung the hue and saturation sliders in Photoshop or Lightroom, or upped the grunge factor in an HDR program? Five months later, are you still as impressed with yourself? If not, you may be suffering the problem of relying on colour saturation over compositional prowess. Images with bold colour are beautiful, but they should still have coherent compositions. Does your image ‘Stand the Test of Time’? Of course, ‘art’ can be very subjective – if you like it, keep on doing it! But if you like to share your images with others, the photograph should have a sound compositional basis; while humans are physiologically wired to respond to vibrant colour, a great image is still free of compositional flaws. If you’re guilty of a heavy trigger finger on ‘ornamental’ tricks that are more about the processing technique than the actual subject matter of the image, consider giving everyone’s eyes a break and learn a little restraint. You will be forced to compose better if you do.
So far, so good right? You’ve graduated beyond pokies, have navigated your composition successfully around mergies, and passed through the adolescent phase of psychedelic colours over sound compositions. You are a master! But wait… what is that? A viewer, lost, wandering without hope or GPS in your image’s midground! Oh no!
All too often – and this mostly applies to wide angle landscapes – we invite our viewers into our image with a big, fat WELCOME mat of a foreground and entice them to move toward a pretty mountain or looming canyon in the distance. But we forget to pack a map, and they end up lost in a jumbled pile of rock or fall through a watery hole in our image’s midground. A finely composed image takes into account fore, back and mid ground and ties the three together using elements of visual design such as line, pattern and shape. This is what we tell our students: “Every single speck of dirt in your photo, every grain of sand, should belong there – and not one particle more.” Reach for this in your compositions.
And finally, the Big One. You clicked the shutter because you saw something (literally and figuratively). But that photograph will have a life of its own: it’s going to leave home and grow up to be a big, Grownup Image. Ideally, it should be able to stand on its own two feet without you there, hovering at its shoulder, explaining what the image is supposed to be about. We’ve felt the pain of workshop participants who can’t help but jump in to explain their shot after a puzzled silence during class critiques. But whether viewers find what you hoped they would (and part of letting go is allowing people to find their own meaning in your images), they do have to find something. The ‘story’ or idea can be simple – the delicate curve of a rosebud can be a complete idea – or quite layered and complicated. But having the message of your image fail is another common conundrum as we learn how to convey complete ideas with only the rough tools we have at hand – plastic, glass, light… and our creative force. You don’t want your child to be the misfit that no one understands! Listen to feedback from others. Often, we’re trying to tell too many things in one image and the viewer ends up confused or, worse, bored. Simplify. Keep throwing things out of your image until only one, clear message comes across. Never underestimate the power of one grain of sand.
So there you have it! If you eliminate these five, common mis-steps along the path of creative development, you can focus more on honing your skill at telling truly unique and memorable stories or ideas in your images. Eliminate these five fatal flaws and you’ll be well on your way to artful compositions with meaning!
(This is Part II; click here to read Part I first!)
In this article, we discuss why classroom seminars AND field sessions are synergistic learning tools – don’t skip one in favour of the other! Remember we are using our upcoming Montreal weekend event as a case study to exemplify our point.
Level the Playing Field
So you arrive at your photo destination. As you come into the present moment, you tune into your senses and your mind is engaged. Photographic possibilities start to jump out at you. You take out your camera and begin exploring.
Or…you arrive and have no idea where to start, what to shoot. If this is you, make sure you read Part I and get thee to a seminar on Learning to See, like the one we are giving in Montreal on June 6! Taking a course on perception is your top priority. Don’t register for any field session photography workshop until you practice learning to see!
Ok, you’ve arrived, you’re starting to get in the photographic groove…and you’re struggling with the assignments we’ve given you after our seminar. That’s good! We believe in helping cement the information provided in the full day seminar with targeted assignments designed to develop the three key skills that make a good photographer. Since we concentrate on field technique over digital darkroom work, we ask everyone to shoot JPEG (either raw + JPEG or just JPEG). This levels the playing field in that everyone is working on the same skills at the same time. We want to know if you’ve understood everything we discussed about seeing the nature and quality of light and how it affects tone in, for example, our Montreal seminar Harnessing the Power of Tone. And we want to see you build advanced compositional patterns to convey your photographic idea as demonstrated in Montreal’s Working Advanced Compositional Patterns talk (we are also giving this seminar in Black Diamond, Alberta, May 31). There’s usually a bit of whining when we make photographers hand in their JPEGs without benefit of digital processing. But the danger to be aware of is that ‘fixing’ your images on the computer makes you lazy. If you do most of your creative work on the computer, then you’re a digital artist, not a photographer. There’s nothing at all wrong with this. But we are teaching a photography course, so we want to see your field skills. You might be surprised and invigorated after a session spent focusing on your field skills! And the good news is that when everyone is shooting in-camera JPEGs it really shows that equipment does not matter; great images are often made with the simplest and least expensive cameras.
There’s a reason why we encourage photographers to attend our seminars as well as our associated field sessions and that is because it’s a two-part strategy to learning. You receive the information and then you head out and test your learning. Attending just a field session without the benefit of the Saturday seminar puts you at a disadvantage. This is true for all our workshops, and we structure them this way because we’ve found that people learn the most with this format.
So if you have registered for a field session in Montreal but are saving money by skipping the seminar (you know all that stuff, right?) we strongly advise you to register for both. Did you take the quiz in Part I? Seriously, compared to what most photographers spend on their gear, this seminar costs pennies compared to most photographers’ gear expenditures but will give you more than a year’s worth of education.
And this goes for any photo educational offering you’re considering…how much instruction is offered? How large are the class sizes? The field sessions? Is there a constructive feedback session afterwards to review your learning? Does the instructor build upon concepts taught in class or does the instructor just ‘show up’ to the field sessions? Does the instructor actively engage with you after the seminar either through social media commentary or answers to your email questions? Also, remember photo tours are about location and being guided to photogenic spots, whereas workshops should teach you to be creative no matter where you find yourself. Are you up for being creative?
Nourishing Feedback, not Pablum, Please!
Speaking of feedback, let’s make it count. While it can be gratifying to get ‘likes’ on social media, these are vague and unhelpful. What did the viewer like? What did the viewer even think the image was about? What could be improved?
In our field sessions, we always try and schedule a feedback session after each outing. This not a time of criticism but rather a chance for you to see your work on the big screen and receive suggestions from your peers as to ways to improve and what they liked about your image. We also provide our comments but encourage class participation. Many students have told us that they learned the most during this constructive session. It’s a perfect way to cap off a full and fun weekend of photography!
Investing in a photo event like Montreal’s Learning to See: Developing Your Creative Vision is about you getting the best value for your buck. It’s about truly becoming a better photographer. So consider your educational options the next time you are thinking of upgrading your gear.
We’ve probably all heard it at some point when showing our images, that insidious insult dressed up as a compliment, “Wow, you must have a really good camera!” Why is it that people think a good photo is the result of good gear? And why do photographers rush out to upgrade to the latest camera body yet drag their feet when it comes to investing in photo education?
We think it’s a big fat myth that buying more and better gear will make you a better photographer, and yet that myth is alive and well out there. We are going to try and debunk this myth using our final photography workshop this spring, Learning to See: Developing Your Creative Vision in Montreal, June 5-7 as a case example. Tell us if we’ve convinced you. So here goes.
The Camera vs Your Brain
A camera is really just a black box made up of plastic, glass and metal. Your brain, on the other hand, is a marvel: coils and folds of squiggly grey matter are infiltrated with a network of delicate neurons that charge and fire and create – thought! Your life experiences shape your thoughts and interests, and your interests and thoughts create your images. A camera is by nature inert. It takes you, the photographer, to point the camera’s eye to something you deem worth photographing. It is you who decides which settings to use to portray your subject and it is you who pinpoints the split second to press the shutter.
In other words, the camera is like a helpful slave that carries out your bidding. True, a camera can help the photographer by ‘guessing’ at some of the settings required to make certain photos such as is found with certain program modes, but even if you shoot on Auto Everything, you are the one who decides what to photograph. There is always a mind behind the shot, so insinuating that it is the camera that makes a good photo ignores the mind behind the photo.
Three Things Make a Good Photographer
What then makes a good photographer if not gear? Essentially, there are three skills that make a good photographer, and we’ve built our Montreal seminar around all three. First, a skilled photographer is one who can translate his thoughts, interests and experiences about a subject matter into an image. Remember that squiggly grey matter perched atop your spine? The germ of an image starts there, in those firing synapses. For example, in Montreal this June, our first topic in the Saturday seminar is Learning to See: The Art of Perception. This talk covers that crucial skill of being able to quickly perceive photographic potential in a moment in time. If you sometimes think there’s nothing to shoot here, then this is the skill you need to work on. Quite frankly, in our experience teaching photography for years, this is an area where many photographers are weak. No amount of gear is going to tell you what is a good moment to capture. In fact, we sometimes see an inverse relationship between the amount of gear a photographer carries and his ability to see! Gear can be a barrier in the way of true seeing.
Second, not only do you have to be able to recognize the photographic potential in a split second, but you also then need to use every tool at your disposal to churn that moment into a final, complete image. This means understanding the creative power of camera controls such as aperture and shutter speed, and are fluent in the language of photography – composition. Do you know what the elements of visual design are? If not, get thee to an educational seminar! And guess what we teach in Montreal…you guessed it: Harvesting the Power of Tone for Compelling Images and Working Advanced Compositional Patterns in the Landscape.
Third, photographers need to understand themselves, what makes them tick. This is the key to developing personal style. If you don’t know and understand what motivates you to shoot, how can you follow your own creative vision? Do you find yourself copying other photographers’ work? Or are you comfortable with your own way of looking at the world? Creative Vision and Personal Style, our final talk on Saturday, addresses this important topic. By the way, in this talk, we reveal which is more important, vision or style, and why.
Take the Quiz
We’re going to end Part I of this topic with a little test. Grab all your camera gear and accessories and lay ‘em out. Make a list of your gear and its retail value at time of purchase. Now make a list of any dedicated computer equipment and software (e.g. special, high resolution monitors, photo processing software, extra hard drives etc.) and note the cost of this equipment at time of purchase. Tally it all up.
Now think back to this year. What photography talks, seminars or workshops have you attended? Write them down and note their cost. Write down any educational eBooks you’ve purchased and their cost – but only if you’ve read them! Unread educational material does not count nor do photo tours with no educational component. What about the year prior? Tally up the amounts you’ve spent on photo education in the last several years.
Compare the two columns. Does the gear/software column greatly outnumber the photo educational column? Have you spent more than $2000 in gear over the last year or so? More than $5,000? $10,000? If so, perhaps it’s time to invest in yourself, and stop lining retailers’ pocketbooks. The only way to be a better photographer is to invest in quality education. The Montreal weekend ranges from $75 – $95 per event. That’s a steal, folks.
Stay tuned for Part II where we level the playing field in our outdoor sessions and get serious with photo feedback.