Here at oopoomoo our logline is create, inspire and educate. We love to feature the work of photographers and artists who meet these ideals but we are really thrilled when a photographer’s work is not only creative but is captured ethically and does good in the world. We really believe photographers should be giving rather than just ‘taking’. To this end, we are proud to present the work of Edmonton based photographer, Larry Louie, humanitarian documentary photographer.
Larry leads a dual career. By day he runs an optometry clinic enhancing the vision of his patients. On his self-funded travels he explores the life of indigenous people and social issues around the world and seeks to influence people’s view of the world. He also works closely with NGOs such as First Light Photography School in Bangladesh, Seva Canada whose mission is to end preventable and treatable blindness, and Oxfam whose mission is to create lasting solutions to the injustice of poverty. Larry also opened the Louie Photography Gallery on 124 in Edmonton to highlight the work of local and emerging photographers of all genres. And best of all, even with all of his awards and accolades Larry remains grounded, humble and has a great sense of humour. We are pleased to present our in-depth interview with Larry below:
oopoomoo – Larry you have a successful optometry practice. How do you carve out time for your photographic endeavours?
Larry – Well, my photography is something I do on the side and that’s good and bad in a lot of ways. I don’t have the time and the luxury in terms of going away for a long time and so I’ve got to be very time efficient with my trips. At the same time photography is not a big money maker and I want to shoot things that really mean a lot to me and those kinds of images are not very salable or even things that people want to buy or even look at and so for me it’s more important that I do photography for me rather than for the monetary aspects of it. I use my optometry practice as the breadwinner and the way to pay for my photography and I use my photography as my artistic outlet. For me, being able to travel and experience the world fills me with cherished memories. My wife and I do not have an extravagant lifestyle and we chose to save and use that money for our travel and photography.
oopoomoo – When did you get into photography and when did you know you would pursue photography as a more serious venture?
Larry – It first started in high school. I got a camera as a gift and started photographing the area that I knew which is around Edmonton. I started photographing street scenes and landscapes and so on but what really interested me was one year I went to a boarding house in a derelict part of Edmonton and I met a lot of homeless people and people who were down and out. What I learned from that experience was that these people had a voice, they’re human beings, not inanimate objects and I felt I wanted to tell their story. I found their stories of why they were on the fringes of society really interested my curiosity. I ended up spending a lot of time with them and made a series of pictures of these people. I have always wanted to travel and see the world and experience different cultures. As a kid I was influenced by National Geographic and dreamed about visiting those remote areas. Later, as my practice became more established I had the money to go to these areas. I also had the photographic experience I gained from photographing people in Edmonton and so I could put the two together. One year, about 10 years ago, I went to Nepal and instead of just making the typical tourist pictures I was taken by a guide down to the river where I met similar people as those I photographed in Edmonton, those living on the fringes. I went and visited them several times and that was the catalyst for me to start my major project of celebrating humanity, the people on the fringes of society, people living with hardship and working in rough environments. I just wanted to tell their intriguing stories. I love meeting the people and sharing their stories through my photography.
oopoomoo – Larry, one thing we love about your work is that as a viewer we feel like we are right there and having that connection with the people. There is an intimacy in your work that is poignant.
Larry – That’s deliberate. I want to be physically close to these people and spend time with them to make them feel at ease with me. This closeness and the time I spend to know them, that could be 10 minutes or 5 hours, gives me a small connection that makes them relaxed and accepting of my presence, so the pictures don’t look composed, staged or artificial. To make connections I don’t bring the camera out right away, I meet the people first. Sometimes there are communication barriers but a smiling face, a warm handshake and a few words of their language goes a long way to put people at ease. Also being at ease yourself is the most important thing. And asking permission is key. A lot of times I am really close because I just use a 24mm lens and so I am not sneaking around taking pictures unawares. I am connected with the people first and then close with the camera which makes images that feel that you are there.
oopoomoo – How would you describe your photographic style?
Larry – My work is environmental portraiture. The main focus is the people and the connection. I shoot a lot with my wide angle lens because I want to share a contextual story of the person in their environment. As a viewer you not only see the person but also the story of their life. I chose black and white because it takes away the emotional colour and I want to use the content of the image to provide the emotion. Also lighting is the essence of photography and with black and white that essence comes across stronger. A lot of my work has dramatic lighting and black and white accentuates that more than colour photography.
oopoomoo – You seem to get to some spots off the beaten path, things most tourists never see. How do you find these places?
Larry – We work a lot with NGOs and many of the places I go to are out of bounds for tourists and photographers and also can be dangerous. To get to these places requires background work and, by working with NGOs active in the area, we can get introductions and access that would be hard to get otherwise. In giving back, we don’t give money to people to photograph them. Instead, we pull our resources together through the sale of prints or through the fees I get for my talks and give the money back to the organizations we work with to support local projects. It’s full circle. I photograph for the love of it and hopefully giving back to the people I took some time away from.
oopoomoo – How would you define the term ‘humanitarian photographer’
Larry – Humanitarian photographer is respect, respecting the people your are photographing, respecting the story to be told and not to exploit the situation but to make viewers aware of the situation so that possibly positive change can happen. And then to pool your funds to help an organization to help the group of people in the area you photographed.
oopoomoo – Do you think that humanitarian photographers are becoming a rarer breed?
Larry – I think so because now it is all about the mighty dollar. Newspapers, magazines and so on are asking for the most sensational photographs. Instead of trying to tell the story they want to sell the story which means the more unusual or shocking, the better. Those stories then tend to be heard by the public and so sometimes the stories are distorted both factually and visually. Some news agencies like Reuters are now asking for unaltered images, like the Raw files or in-camera JPEGS so that there is no manipulation of the image so that it has been altered or exaggerated to sell the photograph.
oopoomoo – Because you fund your own trips why do your prefer to go abroad when you could do humanitarian photography right here in Alberta?
Larry – You’re absolutely right, many people ask me why I don’t photograph here. The truth is I love to travel and I have an attraction to the far east, the culture, the crowds, the chaos, the energy… it just gets me going. I thrive artistically on the chaos of these busy, crazy places. And you rarely make great images on your initial visit. You need to go back again and again to develop relationships and make connections. That requires time and so I want to go back to these places like Kathmandu and Manila many times. Each time I go back I see something new and different and expand on the story I am trying to tell.
oopoomoo – Speaking of the Alberta connection, you have opened up the Louie Photography Gallery on 124 in Edmonton to highlight the work of local and emerging photographers. As we know, photo galleries are not really for-profit ventures, so we think that is a noble, local thing to do. But it’s something that also eats into your time and money. Why bother?
Larry – A lot of galleries are displaying work that will sell, like beautiful landscapes and not images that tell stories and so I had some space in my building and I wanted a place to showcase work from local photographers who do the kind of work that might not be represented in more mainstream galleries. I started this three or four years ago and have had several shows and the focus is mostly documentary work because that is not really shown anywhere in Alberta. Last year and this year in February our gallery is part of Exposure Photo Festival and we are happy to be part of that Alberta initiative.
oopoomoo – Your images have a timelessness to them, almost a throwback to film in their purity. Can you comment on that?
Larry – Well, I am old school even though I use a digital camera I see things in black and white. I love vintage black-n-white photography. I don’t want my images to look too modified. In documentary work, if there is garbage on the ground, garbage should stay there. I don’t want to beautify the place or change the look just because it might be distracting to the viewer; it has to be true to the story and I think this reality comes out in my photos. Technique wise you still need appropriate lighting, proper exposure and good composition that fits within 35mm proportions. I don’t crop anything; everything is full frame. To me, that’s important. My ability is in connecting with someone and then being able to compose something quickly that cannot be reproduced again. I find I have to be able to anticipate when something will happen and then be quick to respond. My goal is to capture in the camera and not in post production. I am very bad at Photoshop, and so this is why my photos might look like film.
oopoomoo – Many people might be surprised that you use prime lenses, a 24mm and an 85mm instead of zooms. Why give up the flexibility of zooms?
Larry – I don’t carry a lot of gear, I do a lot of walking, there is the possibility of being robbed. I want to blend in so I dress down and bring minimal gear. I often just bring one body and one lens, often the 24mm. To me it’s all about the interaction with the subject; the camera is just a recording device and I don’t want it to be too big, bulky and imposing for my subjects. When people ask me about gear, I always say it does not really matter, it is all about seeing, expecting and responding. I like prime lenses because they are smaller, more compact, sharper and faster which is especially good for interior work.
oopoomoo – How important have your numerous awards being in boosting your photography career?
Larry – These are just little pats on your shoulder. It’s great to have people acknowledge your work and that’s great for the ego but the bottom line is it’s just icing on the cake. Regardless if I have those awards or not, I am still going to do the same thing. I am not going to change the way I shoot; I shoot the way I like to shoot. Having the recognition is nice, there is no doubt about it, and it allows me to tell my story to a wider audience.
oopoomoo – Some photographers after winning awards start making images catered towards winning more awards. There is an honesty to your pictures that suggests you are true to who you are. How do you keep humble after all the recognition?
Larry – I think my wife does it to me; she puts me down all the time! She says “You’re not that good, just work harder!” (laughs). Interestingly, travel photography tends to do better in magazines and publications because it’s a way for people to sell travel. And so these magazines and contests promote travel and things that allow them to make money. Some of my past wins were more about travel but my humanitarian work is not so publication friendly. And so now my platform to show work through magazines and contests is more limited because my images don’t fit that niche anymore. And my stuff is not ‘sensational’ for newspaper work. But even if my outlets are more limited, I am not going to change my humanitarian work to travel photography because it’s not what I like. The accolades are great but the biggest gift I get is the connection with the people I photograph; those memories are priceless.
oopoomoo – How do you maintain a passionate eye in situations where your heart pours out compassion?
Larry – To me, I do have a purpose when I go to these places. I have a goal in mind and so I am focused that way. And so when I photograph these people, even in very bad situations, I do try to remain objective. I connect with the people but I am there to do a job. After I am done, that’s when the emotions come out. When I am shooting I am focused on that. Afterwards, even hours later when looking at the photos or revisiting the people then the emotions surface. I am removed emotionally while shooting, I am analytical and concentrating on the moment, the light, the composition. At the end of the day it’s hopefully your compassion and connection that allows the image to come through. For instance, when I was in Nepal I saw a scene with a young boy and his mother and a collapsed building behind them. The boy looked up to the sky and I responded immediately to that moment. Afterwards, when looking at the photo my heart was pulled hard and so there is a separation between the shooting process and the emotional processing of the moment.
oopoomoo – After years of doing your humanitarian photography work has your sense of hope for humanity increased or decreased over the years?
Larry – Decreased! Working with NGOs the last several years and helping people one at a time here and there does make a slight small difference. I have to say it’s a little bit of a helpless situation. The situation in Nepal for example. The earthquake was natural, but when all of this aid comes in and none of it goes to the people; when there is an embargo from India and no gas or fuel goes to the country… it’s political. So, no matter how good you are as an NGO worker, volunteer, or organization, until the people are willing to make a change themselves, until the government is willing to be less corrupt and support the people, it’s not going to change. Corruption and greed is the root of all these problems. Until that changes progress can’t be made. Humanitarian photographers and volunteers do help because it is the best thing we think we can do on a small scale but we can’t change the government. Our support might be concrete to provide eye care or to support an educational facility that helps a small portion of people. One step at a time. But all in all, looking at the global picture, I have to say I am a little bit pessimistic, seeing it from the inside and the outside at the same time.
oopoomoo – Has your pessimism reduced your desire to continue?
Larry – Oh no, definitely not – it increases my desire to continue! If you are a photographer or artist of any sort, you have to push the boundaries a little bit. If you are not willing to push boundaries, you are not going to get far. You can’t use the same comfort zone to get to something better or different. The boundaries are political and economic: I am pushing against these. I am not going to make drastic changes but I must do my share.
Larry produced a 2016 calendar that had 100% of proceeds go to the efforts of Seva Canada for the elimination of avoidable blindness. The sale of the calendars raised $5500! To purchase any of Larry’s amazing prints please visit his website to find the photo(s) that you want and then contact Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks Larry for all you do!
The great thing about photography (or any visual art) is that no two photographers see the world in exactly the same way; give ten photographers the same scene to photograph and you’ll most often get ten (or more) different results. Even a single photographer will produce multiple interpretations of the same scene. Often our subconscious notices the scene; there is something there that we like. If we respond with our cameras right away then often we capture that flash of subconscious interest and come away with a photo that honours what we feel about a subject. But just as often, our conscious brain kicks in and overrides our subconscious to make judgments, and to categorize and analyze what we see. The more we think, the further we get from what attracted us in the first place. However, we can often get back to our original ‘attraction’ if we let go of our noisy thoughts and begin to explore the subject more from the heart than the mind. Let’s look at both of these scenarios in turn.
Sometimes, your heart’s eye gets it right first thing and further explorations take you further from your visual truth. For example, this past October I went on an outing to the Cochrane Ranchehouse, a lovely natural area park near our home. There, while walking around, I found a curved aspen tree in full colour. I immediately stopped where I was, dug out my camera and because the tree was far away, I put on my 300mm lens and made this photo. In hindsight this image perfectly captures what attracted me to the tree in the first place. I like the bent shape and the contrast of bright yellow against a darker subdued backdrop.
But then, of course, my brain kicked in. Stupid brain! What if I got closer and used a shorter lens? What if I tried different angles on the tree and different framing and aspect ratios? All of these ‘what ifs’ were intruding on the purity of my expression.
And so I worked the scene further to answer these conscious questions. All of these mental explorations took me further from what attracted me to the tree in the first place. Sure, the resulting photos (below) are still pleasing but none honoured my heart’s view of the tree like the initial image. I have learned that if I make a photo as soon as something stops me that often that image is the most ‘true’ to my original attraction.
In the next example, I was driving in the country near Cochrane when I noticed a big snow drift over a grass seed head. I stopped the car, got dressed up and got out the camera gear. In the time it took me to prepare for the cold photography experience, I lost the germ of what attracted me to this scene. The first picture I made was more a document of the overall scene.
I felt the image above was interesting but then I had leading lines of the snow drift and the fence that went nowhere so I zoomed out to take in more of the scene and to have the lines lead to a vanishing point.
Now the lines of the snowdrift and the fence all converge in the distance to take us visually to the part of the fence with the horizontal cross bar. I immediately realized that the fence was not the reason that I stopped the car so I should not include it in the photo.
In the next picture, below, I concentrated only on the snow and the grass. I thought of the tenuous existence of the grass seed head under the big snow drift and I made the next image to tell that dramatic story.
I like the image above a lot and it tells a story of tension but it’s not why I stopped the car. I finally realized that what grabbed me was pure graphic appeal of the lines of the grass and drift. My mind saw lines and that’s what it wanted to show in the final photograph.
This image above is closer to the reason I initially stopped but as anyone who follows oopoomoo composition teachings will know, there are two areas where the line of the snowdrift is ruined from underlying ‘mergers’. A simple shift to a higher viewpoint and slight change in aspect ratio (slightly more panoramic) eliminated the merger problems and gave me the result I had intended from the beginning.
This final image, above, honours what I initially saw in my flash of subconscious. I just needed to work the scene to get back to my original vision. I blame it all on the cold.
The value of working a scene can either confirm that you had your voice in the first place or that you needed to rediscover your voice. The creative process is exactly that, a process. Don’t be afraid to work it! Let us know what your creative process is and if you get what’s in your mind’s eye right away or if you have to work hard to get a result that is in line with your creative vision.
To read Part I one of this series go here.
The Roadblock to Creativity
A major roadblock to creativity is you. Often it’s a simple case of not knowing yourself that prevents you from blossoming creatively. Finding yourself isn’t that hard if you remove the expectations of who you ‘should’ be and really look into the mirror. Our journey of the one-year ‘creative sabbatical’ ended up being less about doing creative exercises and more about finding ourselves as creative entities. Not everyone needs a year-long journey to do a hard reset; many of you already know who you are. For those who truly know themselves, the problem isn’t about lack of knowing, the problem is about lack of time to honour your creativity. How do you carve out creative time in a world that seems increasingly designed to suck up your every waking minute? Below are a few strategies that Samantha and I recommend to make sure you get to do the creative stuff you desire.
Make Your Creativity a Priority
Any time someone says, “I just don’t have time to do my creative project”, what that really means is creativity is not a priority for that person. Actions speak louder than words. Inaction on your creative work means it’s really not that important to you. Maybe you’re afraid of failing so inaction is simply self-sabotage. It’s easier to tell yourself you would be a great painter but your circumstances don’t allow you the luxury of painting than it is to put in the long hours and practice and potential rejection to become a great painter. If you want to be creative, then schedule creative time. To nourish creativity you need blocks of at least three to four hours to get into the flow. Try to have at least two of these blocks of time per week. At the beginning of each week schedule your creative time in your calendar. This is your sanctuary and you must protect this time. The universe will conspire to take this time away from you, and mostly you’ll conspire against yourself to give up this time. Don’t let that happen. Put in the time even if it feels like you are a fraud. You’re not a fraud – you’re just scared!
But Where Do You Find the Time?
We all think we are so busy and scheduled but really many of us are inefficient with our time. Two of the most relentless time takers we know of are the T.V. and the internet. Most of us watch way too much T.V. and really what do we gain from the experience? Not much. Years ago Sam and I turfed the T.V. precisely because it’s such a mind-numbing, time-eating machine.
Same thing for the internet. We are all so addicted to our smart phones and every ‘ping’ stimulates a Pavlovian reward response. Our attention is constantly diverted from the life we lead to the virtual life we long to be a part of. If you actually measured the amount of time you spent on the internet and social media, you’d be depressingly surprised. All of this time spent watching grumpy cat videos and following the escapades of rich celebrities could be spent on your own creativity. Put a limit to your online time. Sam and I have decided that we will only go on the internet twice a day – once later in the morning after our creative time is over, and then once at the end of the work day. Each session is limited to ½ hour. If we can’t get done everything we need to in that time then we need to examine what we are doing online and streamline things further.
We also purposely chose not to own a smart phone because the temptation to be online all the time is too great (we are not immune to the seductive powers of online living!). We only go online if we are in the office, and we really don’t want to be in the office all day, so we become more efficient with our internet chores. And finally, together we take one full day off a week from the internet and trust us that day is so awesome! This is our ‘family time’ and it’s sacred and is a way to reconnect with ourselves and with each other.
You Do Have the Time – Hell Yes!
We all have the time to be creative, we just need to ditch the stuff that sucks our time or distracts us from pursuing our creativity. You’d be surprised at how much time you can free up when you look at your life and decide if a particular activity is a ‘hell yes’ or a ‘hell no’ pursuit. Is it something you love, something that gives meaning to you and others you love, something you won’t regret giving time to? Then that’s a hell yes! Mostly our lives are full of hell no’s and we let them control us instead of us controlling them. Ditch a few hell no’s and you’ll have the creative time you need. There are no excuses – most of us are simply afraid to be creative and use these external demands as an excuse on why we don’t have the ‘luxury’ of exploring our creative selves. Be brave, be creative; your life will be so much richer for doing so! Share with us some of the tips you use to carve out more creative time in your life.
Much of what we say here has been distilled from the great books listed below – check them out if you need a further kick in the pants to get on to your creativity. And if you have read a book that influenced your creative journey, please mention it in the comments.
Samantha and I have written extensively on the oopoomoo blog about honouring your creative vision. To be an artist you need to follow your muse especially when outside forces always seem to want to sabotage your progress. For example, my output in photography was directed for years by the need to produce saleable images for stock photography. I shot things I normally would not be interested in and I learned how to make images which would please photo buyers. Once stock photography started to dry up (post 9-11), then money was to be made in providing tours and workshops to other photographers. The imagery I created was meant to entice participants to sign up for desirable destinations or to learn technique driven processes. My own development as an artist suffered. And so the time has come to allow my creative vision free reign of expression.
Samantha and I have taken the pressure off ourselves to produce work for others. We are not shooting for stock nor are we shooting to gather potential tour or workshop clients. Sam never really pursued these things anyway. Instead, we’re returning to photography purely as a creative outlet. Of course, giving up our successful and acclaimed workshop program means we have cut our income by about 1/3rd. But that is a small price to pay to go on a path of self-discovery. To finance our journey we have cut expenses and gotten part time jobs outside the world of photography. Our jobs are what we do to support ourselves as artists. We have decided to purposefully walk the pathway of creativity and see where it takes us. For too long we have been teaching others to do this but we haven’t done it ourselves. You’ll see oopoomoo stay true to its roots of create, inspire and educate through us sharing both our journey and, increasingly, the journeys of others – in fact, we make this adjustment in order to focus more clearly on this important aspect of photo sharing and story-telling. We have a great desire to help photographers be artists. And we welcome all creatives to share their discoveries and stories here on the oopomoo blog or in our oopoomoo Facebook group. Stay tuned!
To read part II of this post, Carving Out Time for Creativity, please go to this link.
Here at oopoomoo we have always emphasized creative vision in photography. As a photographer you should honour your interests and express those interests from your heart. In short, we try to teach photographers to be artists. Unfortunately, social media and the internet don’t reward the slow path to self discovery but instead it rewards instant gratification, easy to digest imagery and techniques of the day with photographers scurrying all over the globe to get to iconic destinations to make replica images or replicate techniques of other photographers. There is little reward for nurturing your own creative vision. We have written about his extensively before here and here.
Recently, our friend and oopoomoo photography assistant, Catherine returned from taking a workshop with esteemed photographers Freeman Patterson and Andre Gallant. Catherine has long been interested in things that most other photographers pass by. She came with me once on a Canadian Rockies ‘Glory of Autumn’ photography tour and spent her time taking pictures of rocks and sticks while everyone else was making images of mountains and lakes. The other photographers just could not figure out why she was ‘wasting her time’ shooting things she could photograph at home when she was in the Canadian Rockies! The truth was simple – Catherine was following her creative muse, sticks and stone moved her more than big mountain scenes (read about Catherine’s experience at this link). She honoured herself by not caving to peer pressure and shooting for herself. Fast forward to her workshop with Freeman and Andre. Catherine was given an assignment to make reflection shots… in cars. She took to the assignment with gusto and came away with an impressive body of work, so impressive that Freeman singled her out from the class as an example of creative vision. By following her heart, and her interests Catherine emerged as an artist.
Last October Samantha and I came up with a workshop idea in the Canadian Rockies called “Beyond the Icon”. The idea was to strip away the temptation for photographers to make or expect classic Canadian Rockies iconic photos. We went after the fall colours were over but before winter ice and snow set in. It was the season of browns and for many photographers the Rockies looked blah (if that is possible). We also purposely took our participants to unknown locations and even just stopped roadside randomly and gave out photo assignments. The results from the participants were impressive and it was fulfilling to see growth in the participants’ creative vision. Sam and I also had the opportunity to do these same assignments along with the students. And we got to spend some time before and after the workshop making personal images. After the trip I noticed that my creative vision was evolving from big vertical landscapes in theatrical light to more intimate, abstract and graphic images. Recently, I finished processing the images from this outing (finally!) and thought I would share my 25 personal faves from the trip in this post.
What is your creative vision? Have you seen it evolve over time? Are you able to be true to yourself in spite of external pressures to shoot something different from what you love to shoot? We would love hear about it in the comments on this blog or share some images with us on the oopoomoo Facebook Group.
I follow Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa’s blog and recently, they posted an intriguing article on women landscape photographers who inspire. Noting that more and more women are picking up their cameras and becoming accomplished landscape and nature shooters, they also remark that women seem under-represented in various senior positions such as magazine columnists or editors, conference speakers and brand ambassador line ups. Samantha and I have certainly seen more and more women attending our talks and workshops, but a quick scan of any major nature magazine or camera brand list of pros does reveal a serious lack of female voices.
The authors have compiled a list of 165 female landscape photographers of note (Sam is on that list!) which is worth checking out. But what do you think? Are women under-represented at the top levels of our field? Is this just accidental, or have we encountered a new glass ceiling? Do you know a female landscape and nature photographer who inspires you and who you think should be added to the list. Let us know and leave their name and website link in the comments below or better yet go over and tell Sarah and Ron about your favorite female photographer on their blog.
(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.
One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome as a photographer was me. I was constantly sabotaging my own progress in photography by worrying about how I looked to others. This wasn’t about fashion (I have none) or the gear I owned (I have too much) or whether my hair looked good (when I had hair); it was about my preoccupation with what others might think of my photos.
Whenever I went out shooting with others, I was always watching to see what they were photographing instead of concentrating on my own work. Were they seeing something I was missing? Were they using a lens I had not thought of? “What are those filters they are using?” “That is a weird angle of view, maybe I should try that!” In short my head was full of constant distracting chatter and my insecurities had me watching everyone else instead of concentrating on just making images. I was in a self-imposed competition.
Even when I shot alone, I was still thinking things like, ‘If I do this funky thing with the flash then people will think I am amazing” Or, “This is awesome! I can’t wait to show people this image; they’ll love it”. In short, I was still worried about my audience. I was shooting for other people and not shooting for myself! And of course I never grew as artist.
Only in moments when others were not around, when I was not in ‘trophy’ photography territory (the grand landscape in iconic locations) and when I didn’t have a camera with me did I start to notice things beyond my preconceptions of what a good photograph should be. I started to see the light and shadow patterns of the window blinds, the play of light through a water glass, the brush of light across the carpet. In short, in quiet moments, and in forgetting about how my photos would appear to others, I started to see.
In my nature photography, I still searched for the grand landscape and the big light and the rewards of accolades by others, but more and more that pursuit was ringing hollow. I was finding more pleasure in making images that were softer, quieter and more introspective. I found great pleasure in making something from nothing and that pleased my sensibilities the most. As soon as I let go of self I became a better photographer.
Now I just shoot for me and worry little what others will think of my photos. As long as the photos are true to my vision and represent who I am and what I saw, then the photos are a success for me. Letting go of self, competition, and concern for audience is really about letting go of insecurities. Finally, I can fully pursue my creative vision. And in doing so the joy of creation has come back full force.
If like me, you suffer from a bad case of ‘yourself,’ then maybe it’s time to let go and make pictures purely for you and not with others in mind. Stop submitting so many images to online forums, stop hoping that others will love your work and start shooting for you. In the end you’ll be a better artist for it. Happy shooting! (Thanks to Freeman Patterson and Samantha Chrysanthou for valuable lessons in ‘barriers to seeing’.)
When I was a kid one of my favorite things to do was to head out in the woods alone and sit quietly and look around. I would see and hear birds and squirrels going about their daily business. I would watch ants carry loads three times their body size. I would marvel at the architectural wonder of a spider web. The miniature world of the forest floor came alive when I lay down and looked at it at ground level. In short, everything around me was fascinating and magical. As a six-year-old it seemed the perfect job for me would be a forest ranger so I could watch and guard all the animals and plants I loved.
I followed a path of learning about nature through school and university and got a Master’s degree in biology. But making a living as a biologist was more about people and politics than it was about being in the field with the animals. The dream of the six-year old was shattered. Why couldn’t I just hang out in the woods and watch critters and get paid for it?
In university, as part of my studies, I needed to take pictures to add visuals to my presentations on my studies to obtain grants. I soon discovered that photography allowed me to be that wonder-struck six-year-old once again. With photography I could photograph the birds and the squirrels and the ants and the lichen-covered forest floor and take home that amazement in the form of photos. I was hooked! This ability to record my amazement of the natural world remains at the heart of why I still love photography today. Photography is a way I connect with myself in the natural world. I don’t need photography to be amazed, but photography allows me to record my amazement and relive it every time I look at my photos.
The other thing I love about photography is that to do it well you need to learn how to see. You learn to remove labels from things and just see the way that light plays across a subject. You learn how to organize this interplay of light into an aesthetic display of design and composition. In short, learning to see helps you be an artist and being an artist gives you the depth to see the beauty in the everyday.
The longer I am in photography, the better I learn to see and the less I need novel or fresh experiences to feed my amazement. Indeed, I get more amazed now by being able to artistically render ‘something from nothing’. I love discovering the magic in the mundane, and seeing amazement in the overlooked. I am less interested in the obvious and the easy grab shot. I am keen to continue to explore seeing deeper and more personally. And so photography for me has not lost its challenge because photography is so much more than equipment or technical mastery. I think those who get bored with photography were in it for the wrong reasons (the gear, the cool factor, the technical challenge) and not for deeper ‘feeding the soul’ reasons.
I also like that photography with all the advancements in technology has made it easier to make photos that are about personal expression. If you shoot from your heart and are true to yourself then you can make images that truly represent your connection with the world. More and more the cameras are taking care of the technical stuff so we need less concentration on that aspect of the craft and we can have more concentration on the artistic side of photography. For many photographers, the love of gear and technique gets in the way of personal expression but once that geek adoration is outgrown, then we can move on to make images that reflect who we are and what we are interested in. I like that photography can become art if we allow ourselves to become artists. And I am enjoying becoming an artist as an adult just like I was when I was six-years old!
What is it that keeps you in love with photography? Share your thoughts below in the comments!