Many photographers have an agenda when they go out to photograph. Whether it’s to capture a portrait, a destination or a representation of a specific subject we often have a preconceived result in mind before we even press the shutter. We know exactly what we hope to capture and what we want the final result to look like. This is not necessarily good or bad; many of history’s best images came as a result of the photographer seeing the photo in their mind’s eye before the camera was ever lifted to the eye. When I look at my own favourite images, a significant portion were visualized in advance and my job was to make that visualization a reality on film or the digital sensor. But just as many of my favourite photos came about from serendipitous discovery and the most creative and refreshing of those discoveries came when I was just goofing around and playing with the camera, when I was experimenting with no serious intent in mind. I think many of us would benefit from not taking photography too seriously and just going out open-minded and ready to have fun. My best results at photographic play have happened when I leave the ‘serious’ gear behind and just respond with a point-n-shoot or small dSLR. I also abandon all the ‘should do’ photographic rules and techniques and just respond organically. It’s so freeing. Many times I just get junk photos, but just as often a gem emerges. I have no expectations either way but simply go out in the world in joyful play. Let me give a couple of examples.
Sam and I used to lead photographic workshops and tours in the Canadian Rockies based out of the Kootenay Plains and Abraham Lake. In the early years most photographers were just happy to be in this amazing locale and make photos of all the things that inspired them. Later on, images of the methane bubbles on Abraham Lake started to circulate on the internet and all of a sudden making images of the bubbles was on the bucket list of most photographers. Our job then became one of leading photographers to the bubbles in sunrise and sunset light so that they could achieve their preconceived result. Amazing images resulted but frankly they all looked pretty much the same. There was a sudden loss of desire to explore the area for all the other visual delights there. Instead there was a fixation on getting bubble images. I also kept repeating the successful bubble formula images because it helped sell workshops.
One day in between winter workshops I went out for a mid-afternoon walk with just a camera and a zoom lens slung over my shoulder. I remember walking the shoreline of Abraham Lake just chilling. I was beach-combing, picking up stones, pieces of ice and pine cones just like a kid. I spent some time balancing myself on one leg on big stones and then rock-hopping stone to stone. In short, I was in goofing-off mode. I was not even remotely thinking about making pictures. In fact, I wanted to escape ‘having to make photos’. I saw some fins of ice along the shoreline and wondered if I could squeeze my way under them. I managed to get under the plate-like slabs of ice and just lay there looking up fascinated with the texture of the ice. Every slight move of my head revealed a new kaleidoscope of wavy distortions. It was mesmerizing. I must have spent twenty minutes just jostling my head around before it dawned on me that I had a camera. A couple of snapshots later and I had some of my favourite images I ever made of Abraham Lake ice. The power of play revealed its creative power.
Here is another example of the power of play. I am a huge fan of dogs and so as a photographer it was not a big stretch for me to end up photographing ‘man’s best friend’. Anyone who has photographed dogs knows it can be tough unless you have an obedience-trained dog that will take your directed commands. Most dogs are not well trained which says more about the owners than the dogs, but that’s another story. I had some early success with my own dogs that had basic obedience training and, when people saw the images, some of them asked me to photograph their dogs. My expectations of how a dog photo session should go, well orchestrated with trained dogs, went out the window fast. I was frustrated, the dog was stressed and the owner was not happy with the results. The whole thing was not fun. The solution to the problem came when I dropped expectations, and just started playing with the dogs. Forget the damn camera! I worked fun back into my time with the dogs. And then I tried something unorthodox. I put the camera on program mode, turned on the auto-focus and the motor drive and just pointed the camera in the general direction of the dog while we played together. Most of the results were terrible but occasionally magic happened! In the film days this was an expensive experiment, but once digital came along, the fun was cheap and I could play even more. Samantha and I refined this ‘play with the dogs’ photographic approach into a more predictably successful technique which we discuss in our dog photography eBook, Sit, Stay & Smile. In the end it was play and the loss of expectations that resulted in fresh imagery of the dogs.
So… the moral is not to take yourself and your photography too seriously. Make room for play and go out and act like a kid. If you want more exercises in play and in creative discovery be sure to check out our Learning to See Workbook and free Born Creative eBook.
I used to pride myself on being a photographer who could visualize a photo in my head and then go out in the field and make it happen. When it all came together I felt really creative. For example, the cover of our latest eBook 50 at 50 features a canoe at sunrise on George Lake in Killarney Park in Ontario. I had the idea of a sunrise photo of a canoe on a lake in the Canadian Shield for long time. Once I saw George Lake, I knew this was the place to make the image I had in my head. So I rented a canoe and scouted the shoreline for a spot that lined up with sunrise and the next morning I paddled out to the location in the dawn light and made two compositions of my idea.
Much of my photographic career was based on expectations. I made trips planned around flower blooms, full moons, prime fall colours or spring thunder storms. There was always something I expected and wanted to capture. If the flower bloom failed, the moon was hidden by clouds, the leaves had blown off the trees, or the storm cell never formed, I felt personally affronted… might as well pack up and go home… it ain’t gonna happen! Of course, if it all came together I took full credit for the result and patted myself on the back for being so clever.
But of course over the years I learned that where one opportunity is taken away a myriad of new ones are given to you, if only you are open to seeing them. And the latter really only happens if you can let go of expectations. It took me awhile to learn this lesson but once I did, I found a whole new world opened up to me and the creative energy flowed. No matter what the light or the conditions, there are always great things to photograph everywhere if we just learn to see beyond our expectations.
The rise of photo sharing on the internet has really ramped up photographer’s expectations. Now we see amazing images from everywhere and when we go to visit these places we expect we are going to see and capture images like we see on the net. I was reminded of this phenomenon this past weekend when a slew of photographers descended on Abraham Lake to make images of the famous ice bubbles. Well nature did her thing and deposited a covering of fresh snow on the lake. The bubbles were buried; the photographers were bummed out. Many went home dejected that the weekend trip was a waste.
For photographers who let go of expectations, the fresh snow magically transformed otherwise mundane scenes into magic. Now we had sugar-frosted river shorelines, pen and ink etched mountain tops and a canvas of white laid out beneath the forest. The new opportunities were exciting. The creative photographers in the crowd came away with cards bursting with fresh images, the photographers with expectations left with only disappointment. I am glad I finally learned the lesson that expectations kill creativity. I hope this post gets you thinking about your expectations.
Some things just take time to make.
Several years ago, I had an idea of releasing a retrospective eBook on the making of my favourite 50 images up to and including the year I turned 50. That year also marked 25 years in the photography industry for me. Those are easy numbers to remember, even for an old guy like me. So the idea for the project was born.
But something happened along the way. I didn’t do the eBook. The project got put on the back burner. Perhaps I secretly thought 75 was a better number? Or I was just too busy… or maybe I was denying my mortality! Whatever the reason, this eBook is only about 3 years late. But thanks to the insistence of Samantha, who got me off my rocker and took away my prune juice, some of the stories behind my favourite images gradually came out in a series of interviews and talks with Sam. We put those stories and images into a new eBook called, surprise, surprise 50 at 50.
This eBook is not a ‘how to’ manual. I’m not going to tell you how I made each shot. What I’ve learned is…the technical details really aren’t that important in the end. This wonderful thing we call photography has taken root in everyone’s life…from smartphones to full frame dSLRs, Instagram to Nat Geo, we’re all photographers in some way now. I think it’s inspiring how many passionate shooters there are out there, adding their own unique voice to the world. For me, it’s been quite a crazy ride over the last 25 years in photography. I’ve met some incredible people, made some whopper mistakes but all along, the camera has been my voice to share my passions and what I believed in with the world. The amazing thing is, I found so many of you who felt the same way…and that is why I put a little more of myself into the stories for these 50 images. I hope you enjoy this little stroll through my past…and happy shooting! Maybe our paths will cross somewhere along the way.
To check out the new eBook just go to this link.
And we also have a limited time print sale for collectors who want to hang a Darwin print on their wall – we rarely sell prints so if you want one don’t wait long. 😉
Samantha and I have been busy making final image selections and doing the stories behind the images so we can launch the 50 at 50 eBook in a few weeks. Stay tuned for that.
I got my start in ‘serious’ photography when I joined Images Alberta Camera Club in Edmonton in 1986. That club was dynamic and had many instructional outings and workshops and I learned a lot from the dedicated members. At the time I was a member, I was honoured to learn from such luminaries as Daryl Benson, Mark and Leslie Degner, and Larry Louie. I thank Images CC for being such a huge influence on my work; I can see that influence reflected over the years in my imagery.
Below are some outtakes that won’t make it into the 50 at 50 eBook but that I thought might be fun to share for the lessons learned from making the photos.
1989 – Spruce trees emerging from fog at Victoria Glacier, Banff National Park
Lesson: This image taught me that telephoto lenses are great for making ‘extractive’ landscape photos that emphasize graphic compositions. I learned that a 300mm lens was a very useful focal length to make compelling landscape photos. As a side note, this image was made with a camera that I absolutely loved and for which I saved many pennies over a long time — the Canon T90. Never before and never after have I had a love affair with a piece of camera gear such as I had with the T90. The photo was made using a Canon 300mm f5.6 FD lens and Fujichome Velvia 50 slide film.
1996 – Canoe on George Lake, Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario
Lesson: If you can imagine it, you can make it happen. I envisioned a shot of a canoe on the rocky shore of a lake in Ontario. I traveled across Canada for nine months in 1996 to photograph for my book Darwin Wiggett Photographs Canada. I didn’t have a quintessential image of Ontario for the book so I set out to Killarney to make it happen. I rented a canoe one afternoon and scouted with my compass the shore of George Lake for a perfect location to line up with sunrise. I found one about a 30 minutes’ paddle from my campsite. I convinced the rental company with a $50 bill to let me keep the canoe overnight, and early the next morning I paddled to the spot chosen and made two images both of which have become best sellers for me. This one was an IKEA poster for many years. The other photo appears in the 50 at 50 eBook. The image was shot on a Mamiya 645 Pro camera with a 35mm lens and Fujichrome Velvia 50 slide film and a grad filter.
2002 – Cowgirl at Wilcox Pass, Jasper National Park
Lesson: Photoshop makes anything possible, but you gotta tell people when things are not real! In the transition days while I was still shooting film and waiting for digital cameras to become a contender in terms of quality to my medium format camera, I did a lot of Photoshop composite work in the digital darkroom. I would scan my slides into digital format and then mess with them in the computer making scenes that did not exist except in my imagination. In this image I took a cowgirl and her horse from a shot I did in British Columbia and put her into Wilcox Pass in Jasper National Park (where horses are not allowed, by the way). After people viewed the image and found out it was a composite, they often felt really betrayed. So after that, any time I posted one of my composite images I made mention of the fact. I used to mark composite images on the thumbnails on my website so people could decide if they wanted to view ‘fake’ images or not. No one really seems to care much any more if an image is real or not especially since most photos out there today look fanciful with all the digital darkroom work done to them. Even so it is still important to let people know about composite images so they can decide the value of the image to them as viewers. Samantha and I talk about this idea of ‘how far is too far in post processing’ in a recent podcast interview over at Photography.ca
2010 – Abraham Lake, Kootenay Plains, Alberta
Lesson: Everyone wants big light and colourful sunrises and sunsets but dreary grey days at dusk and dawn make really great moody images. As a side note, it seems that good old Abraham Lake has become an iconic destination for photographers looking for frozen methane bubbles. The lake in winter is dangerous at the best of times but this year the lake is especially treacherous not only because the floods in June have carved out new river channels and eroded shores but also because there have been several cold spells followed by warm chinooks that have caused a cycle of freeze and thaw that makes the shoreline ice (where the bubbles are) fragile. As well, numerous snowfalls have put piles of snow along the shoreline ice seams hiding the weak ice. We do not recommend wandering around Abraham Lake without a guide or photo buddy at any time, but we especially warn against the lake this year. While we do have an eGuide on the area, including some spots where bubbles have appeared in the past, the lake has changed a lot this year so we recommend that those shooters unfamiliar with photographing on ice stay on the gravel shoreline where it is safer. If you feel you have enough experience and do decide to go on the ice, only go where the ice is absolutely clear and you can see the thickness of the ice you are walking on (6 or more inches is recommended by some guidebooks). Absolutely stay off the snow-covered, sloping shoreline and any foggy, milky or fragile ice. Crampons or icewalkers are also a must – see my guide to winter shooting to learn more about winter gear.
I’ll have some more stories about my favourite images made over my 25+ year career in the eBook, but for now, here’s a blast from the past: a group photo of my fellow field researchers during grad school!
This blog post is part of Darwin’s 50 at 50 project which chronicles the stories behind the making of 50 of Darwin’s favorite images after hitting the milestone of 50 years old.
The Making of the Image
One of my favorite images I have taken over the years is the photo of a great gray owl and a tree swallow together on a fence. Although I really like this image, once viewers know the backstory of its creation the image loses its power. Read on to see if your initial impression changes once you know how the image was made.
When I was living in Water Valley, Alberta I would take Brando (our dog) in the car and go drive to a quiet country road where the two of us would go for a jog. I was on my way to my favorite jogging road when I saw this owl sitting on a fence post. I stopped the car and watched it for a few minutes; it did not seem disturbed by my presence. I did not have a camera with me so I turned around and drove back home to get a camera and a 300mm lens. When I returned 15 minutes later the owl was still there. I got out of the car, sat on the edge of the ditch and photographed the owl for nearly one hour!
At one point a tree swallow landed on the barbed wire a few feet away from the owl. The owl looked down at the tree swallow. With a 300mm lens I could not get both the swallow and the owl in the frame at the same time. If I had a 70-200mm lens I could have gotten both in the frame together. I quickly photographed the owl staring down at the swallow and then swung the camera to the left and captured a frame of the tree swallow. Later in Photoshop I merged the two images into the one image you see here.
Is this an accurate representation of what I saw? No, of course not… the two birds were not that close together (they were probably twice the distance apart in real life). For me, the image records a very cool moment I experienced in nature and it’s my interpretation of that moment. For most viewers they won’t have the same emotional connection to the moment and so this image just becomes a faked nature photo. Fair enough.
But How Far is Too Far?
Moving birds around in a photo or adding or removing elements like a sky or a moon is often deemed too far to be ‘nature photography’ by most people. But what about the common and seemingly acceptable practice of altering tone and colour in a photograph? Samantha asked me this question after looking at some of my processed landscape photos. She pointed out that the finished images were fairly removed from how the scene looked to our eye. The images are ‘interpretations’ of nature but, as Sam suggested, there is a tendency when looking at nature photos to believe that they are accurate representations of a scene…similar to what the human eye would perceive.
Which got us both thinking – when an image has distinctly altered tones and colours from the ‘real’ scene is that not just as ‘false’ as adding or removing elements from a photo? If we were to guess, we would suppose that many photographers probably will be OK with manipulating tone and colour but not content. After all we have accepted the alteration of tone in photography for a very long time. For example, Ansel Adams took pains in shooting, developing and processing his images with selectively altered tones to direct the viewer’s attention to various parts of the scene. His images are considered ‘realistic’ although they are highly manipulated black-n-white images and look nothing like the reality we see with our eyes.
Most of us shoot digital in raw format and then bring our photographs into Lightroom, Aperture or Photoshop and ‘develop’ them. We easily do as much work or more with alteration of tone as Ansel did in the darkroom. But perhaps one thing that is new over the darkroom tradition is the ease with which we manipulate colour. And manipulate colour we do! Just check out landscape photography on the internet; things look better than real life! Changing the hues, the luminance and saturation in our photos is super easy with image software. Often we will selectively alter some colours in parts of the scene and not in others. Many images we see of the Rockies or of Iceland don’t look anything like they do to our eye – and we’ve seen these places in person. The images on the internet are fantastical or romanticized versions of the place and not a ‘reality’ as our eye sees things – nature images are interpretations, plain and simple.
And why should there be anything wrong with this? Isn’t it up to the photographer to express their artistic goals and present their work to the viewer, who then decides if they appreciate the work for itself? Why do many of us believe a photograph of nature is documentary?
So back to that owl and swallow…the tones and colours are accurate, and the subject matter (the owl looking at the swallow) is real, but the content is forced to fit into the frame. In the photo above, the content is accurate but the tones and colour have been manipulated. Is one more acceptable than the other? We guess most photographers will feel fine with manipulated tone and colour but not with manipulated content (although most photographers we know have no problem cloning out sticks, branches, bright rocks and other distractions from their photos).
Would it be less acceptable if the swallow wasn’t even in the same scene, having been photographed at a different time, and the owl was looking at something else? Is altering colour and tone for interpretation purposes more acceptable than adding or subtracting elements from a scene? Or are both equivalent sins? Has photography moved from documentation firmly into interpretation – and is it time to not take as a literal truth every photo we see? How far is too far… what do you think?
Well, Darwin’s in the first real stages of the 50 at 50 project and broke a sweat the other day when he realized how many folders and how many images he had to weed through in order to select his 50 images for the final eBook. After 25 years as a photographer, I was curious to know how many photos he actually had…turns out he’s digitally archived about 15,000 plus there’s thousands and thousands of slides and negatives gathering dust in our basement.
Luckily, after a couple of days of skimming, it looks like he’s got this project by the horns and has wrestled down the initial selects to 355 images. Whew! We sat down on our couch for a little Q & A. At one point, I asked him if it was hard to choose just 50 shots for this project.
Yeah…first of all, I was surprised by, out of…nearly 15,000 images that it was pretty fast just to get down to 350 which tells me there’s a whole lot of filler in there…. I think something that Ansel Adams once said and I’ll get the quote incorrect but the idea close is that you’re lucky if you make ten good pictures a year. So that tells me then if I’ve been shooting 25 years and I got it down to 350 images that’s just over ten a year. So, I’m doing great!
Although I’m interviewing Darwin for this project, the choice of which images end up in the book and which will not is totally up to Darwin. We talked a little about how even curating a collection is a selective exercise that colours the final result.
If you gave 14,000 pictures for people to edit through and pick what they thought was the strongest work…you’d probably get very different answers…. I think that’s a difficult thing for photographers to do, is to be objective about their work because there’s always subjectivity involved in terms of, you know, what was your emotional state, why is this picture important to you… So these are very personal pics and may or may not represent the best art or the best craft of photography that I’ve done, just these are important pictures to me and ones that have stood the test of time that I don’t get tired of looking at. There’s also some new images in there that have been overlooked over the course of time that never have really seen the light of day or been published or shared and there were some surprises in there.
And where did the idea for this project come from? Here is its origins….
A couple of years ago now, I turned 50. And I realized that…I’d been in photography…since 1986 and it happened to be 25 years in. I was turning 50 years old, seen a lot of changes in the industry, and I thought it might be kind of a nice time to show a bit of retrospective…a retrospective of my work over those 25 years and so I just decided on the number 50 images to fit the 50th birthday.
I wonder which images will make the cut! I know I look forward to discovering the stories behind the shots over the next few weeks. The final word to Darwin:
All artists create work that ultimately needs to be shared. I think that that’s part of what an artist does is they create things that they share with somebody. And so, you gotta put it out there.
Below is a small sample of five images from Darwin’s initial select of 355 images.