This article was originally published in Outdoor Photography Canada magazine several years ago. Be sure to subscribe to see the latest work from great photographers across Canada.
Chasing the Icon
Photographers are like birders. For a lot of birders, what matters most is the sighting of a species so you can check off that bird from your list. The more species sighted the better. The same is true for many photographers; the number of iconic locations captured adds notches to your photography belt. Taj Mahal? Got it! Delicate Arch? Nabbed! Niagara Falls? You bet! But does a portfolio full of the grand wonders of the World make you a better photographer? I doubt it.
The internet has made finding, knowing and sharing information about photo locations very easy. Do a little research, look at a few photos online and you’ll know exactly where and when to go get the best sighting. And once you get to an icon you’ll line up with hundreds of other photographers all trying to make the same shot. What’s the point?
In the past, the portfolios of photographers were full of work from lesser known local areas, and the images showed more creative vision because people were shooting for themselves and not trying to copy someone else’s iconic image. In short, there was a personal stamp on each photographer’s work because they were reacting to the scene personally.
Fast forward to the app-driven ‘iPhotography’ world of today and everything looks the same. In the portfolios I review, I see all the same trophy locations, with similar compositions, all processed with the same software plug-ins. The results are homogenous and boring. What has happened to personal expression?
I think what’s happened is that we’ve lost touch with why we go out to make photos in the first place. For most of us who do nature photography, we go out because we want to connect with nature. The more we actually take the time, look around and be in nature, the better our photography will be. A National Geographic photographer once said that the way to get good enough to work for the magazine was to choose one subject or location, preferably close to home, that you can revisit over and over again and really get to know well. The better you know the subject or location, the deeper you’ll dig to create unique images with your personal stamp. And the more your personal style emerges, the more likely you’ll be sought after by the magazine.
For me, I’ve found that when I travel if I just visit one or two spots and concentrate on getting to know those locations, then my photography soars. If I chase icons and try to capture as many locations as possible, then my photography and the experience of the trip is unremarkable. So, just like the birder who specializes in one or two species and has a depth of knowledge and personal experience with those species, so too will the photographer who moves beyond the icon checklist encourage a deeper engagement and portrayal of their subjects.
This week we are hosting our Beyond the Icon: Intimate Landscapes of the Canadian Rockies photography workshop where we’ll help our participants bring out their creative vision. I am sure we’ll be blown away by the images made during this workshop as each photographer digs into their well of personal seeing. If you have time this November and you are interested in an intensive creative learning experience we do have a couple of spots left in our Fire and Ice in the Canadian Rockies workshop where we’ll visit the edges of fall and winter in a time when few photographers visit the Rockies. Nothing inspires creativity more than having to look beyond the obvious and November always pushes us to see deeper.
Lately, we’ve noticed photographers posting and writing about a need for more inspiration to fire up their photography. Do you suffer from the deadly blahs sometimes? Is everything around you dusty and dry to the senses? Do you long for a deep, cool drink of refreshing creativity?
One of the reasons we have the Inspirations category on our blog is to build up a store of high-end work that stimulates our (and hopefully our readers’) creativity. It’s the collective well of creativity that we all reach into for a germ of inspiration when we’re just plain ‘ol out of fresh ideas.
And it doesn’t always have to be about photography either. In fact, we highly encourage our students to develop wide-ranging and voracious appetites in several artistic arenas. From the auditory delights of your fave tunes to the sensual pleasures of fine food, it’s all grist for your sometimes grinding creative mill. One of the inspirations we are stoked about recently (and hope to share more about on the blog in the future) is a Calgary-birthed magazine for visual creatives called Uppercase. Not only is it painstakingly edited and thoughtfully put together, but it’s a rarity in today’s magazine world because it’s gloriously ad-free. That’s right, no garish splashy ads lining the columns of an article you thought was informational but turned out to be advertorial. No trashy, simplistic headlines screaming at you that your life will be so much better if you only purchase Product Amazing. Just aaaah! a clean, refreshing drink of creativity to recharge your visual tastebuds! Check out Uppercase. Consider a subscription if you like it. As photographers getting sick from the equivalent of ‘fast food photography’, we need some visual nourishment to sustain us and encourage artistic growth.
Where do you turn to quench your creative thirst? Share your secret (non-photography; let’s be creative here) sources and ideas!
I know a lot of photographers, most of them male and I see a common theme among them. They are artists in denial.
Most of my friends became photographers through other professional careers like biologists, engineers, optometrists, surgeons, software developers, IT specialists, dentists, and police. If you think about these careers they are all precise, demanding, use a lot of technology and are heavily science based . No wonder my friends are attracted to photography – it’s so easy to geek out with technology and gear and to use ‘scientific’ formula techniques to get ‘acceptable’ results. Photography does not feel like art to them, it feels like a precise craft. And these guys are comfortable with being craftsmen… call them an artist and they get all anxious. Why? Simple! Most of these guys view artists as being not in control of themselves; they are flaky, insecure, emotional, sensitive, unreliable, and weak…. These are all undesirable traits to our type A control freaks. Defining yourself as an artist means you are vulnerable. That’ll never do!
And yet, because everything in their life is so scripted, our pros have a huge hunger for a creative outlet. Photography is an ‘acceptable’ creative outlet because most consider it a craft and not an art (after all, the general public does not consider photography art). But rather than focus on creativity, our guys focus on technique and gear. Once the gear and techniques are mastered (and this only takes a few years for these studied pros), then photography loses its appeal because there is no craft part left to learn. All that is left is the art part of photography and most of these guys don’t want to face that uncomfortable aspect of their craft. So they move on to golf, guitar, carpentry or some other craft to master. In the end they don’t face the critical need in everyone’s life, and that is the need to create at a deep personal level. The true power and joy of photography is not mastery of craft but in the pure joy of self-expression. And this last part can never be mastered.
I can speak of this denial because I chose photography as a creative outlet because it was more acceptable than dance, painting, sculpture, or theatre. The stereotype of artists as flaky was not something I could live with; I needed to be in control. Being an artist and being creative means letting go of control and that was scary! But now that I have mastered so much of the craft of photography all that is left is the art part. I have to face myself. Yikes!
But I am ready to be an artist. As an artist, photography is a big, wide-open world, and my joy to create using this medium is as strong as ever. You may have noticed that Samantha and I write less and less about the technique of photography and more about creativity. This moves reflects our interest in helping ourselves and our clients be artists. Ultimately photography will be a dead end for those shooters who do not get in touch with themselves and their need to create. Embrace the artist in yourself… the first step to recovery is in admitting you have a problem 😉
This article originally appeared in Outdoor Photography Canada magazine – subscribe to get these articles years before they appear here 😉
The Art of Practice
Musicians have scales, actors have lines, painters have sketches, and athletes have workouts. Photographers have what? While all other artists have a daily routine to practice their craft, most photographers only dust off the camera when they go on a planned shoot. Imagine if musicians only played whenever they had a gig and did not practice in the time in between? Why, as photographers, do we expect that we will perform wonderfully every time we go out even without practicing in between?
Nothing will sharpen both your technical skills and your artistic eye faster than daily practice. Visual ‘scales’ do for the photographer what musical scales do for the musician; we constantly stay ‘tuned’ up and ready to express our art.
I know we all have really busy lives, so who has time to shoot every day? You might think it’s easy for me as a professional photographer to shoot daily–after all that is my job isn’t it? But to make it as a pro, you need to do some heavy marketing and selling. I only get to go on photo shoots about 1/3rd of the time, the other 2/3rd is spent doing the business part of photography. In the past, I found that between shoots I was not practicing with my camera and that my art was suffering. It often took 2 or 3 days into a trip to get back into ‘seeing’. I was not practiced and ready.
For the last five or six years I have carried a small point-n-shoot digital camera with me everywhere I go. By doing so, I don’t have to carve out special time to shoot daily; I just take a snapshot here and there in my day as I see something interesting. I might be walking the dog, or standing in line at the bank, doing dishes or visiting the washroom. But if something catches my eye in a flash of perception then I’ll make an image. I’m doing a little photography almost every day and the differences I have seen in my ability to see and be creative is amazing. I no longer have any ‘photographer’s block’ and I no longer need to ‘warm up’ before going on a serious photo shoot. I see photos everywhere! Many of you own and carry a smartphone and I know many of you make quick snaps with this convenient little tool. Congratulate yourself for doing visual scales daily… you’ll see big differences in your ‘serious’ photography by practicing everyday with a smartphone or wee point-n-shoot.
Even though I’m a nature photographer, anything that catches my eye can become a photo. The great thing about shooting daily is that soon you’ll begin to remove labels from subjects and just learn to see light, pattern, form and design. You’ll see beauty in the mundane, and you’ll be inspired anywhere you go from the park to the parking lot. The better you become at photography in general, the better you’ll be at outdoor photography in particular. So don’t restrict yourself to pretty nature scenes.
Although I’ve mentioned the wonders of a point-n-shoot camera here before, I really think anyone who is serious about becoming a better photographer should invest in one and carry and use it. If you have a smartphone with a camera start using it for your daily visual push-ups. The quality of the image is not as important as you practicing the art of seeing. Practice for the joy of discovery. Happy shooting!
Art is about personal expression. How do you feel about a subject? What is your connection to what you see? Why are you attracted to a particular subject? What do you want to tell the world? Who are you? These are the bigger questions we need to ask when making our art.The desire to paint, to sculpt, to make music, or to create photographs should be motivated from within and be an expression of you. External motivations like making money, getting likes, or pleasing others will only spoil your artistic expression. Create for yourself.
Once you are creating for yourself and not others AND you are photographing from your feelings and a connection with a subject, then you can think of which camera technique and post processing methods will enhance your message. Whenever I go to the old coal mine in Nordegg (Brazeau Collieries) I immediately feel a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality. Where some people see a hulk of rusty industrial power, I see a romantic dream of the past. It took me a visit or two to honour my inner feelings about the mine but once I let those feelings out, then I could make the images I wanted to make about the mine.
For example, there is a spot in the mine called the bone yard where random pieces of equipment lay scattered about in the grass. I wanted to show a sense of the passage of time and the static nature of the rusting equipment among the living world. To do this I used a solid ND filter on my camera lens to lengthen exposure time so the grasses moved as a ghostly blur around the rusting pieces of metal. This painterly look was enhanced in processing by using the Orton technique. The end result gave me a wistful look.
The selective use of aperture to have parts of the scene rendered sharp and parts of the scene a dreamy blur was also effective for me in translating my dream-like feeling for the mine. I used apertures such as f1.4 or f2.8 to give me a thin slice of sharpness.
Another technique I used to enhance the nostalgic mood was to convert the images from colour into sepia-toned black and white. Many of the scenes inside of the buildings at the mine site are contrasty with bright light coming in through the windows and cavernous shadow areas. To capture the entire range of bright to dark in the image I used HDR exposure blends (multiple images blended together at different exposures) to create one image with complete tonal detail. The final exposure blend is then converted to sepia to give a historic looking image.
If you would like an opportunity to see and photograph the Nordegg mine and find out how this location makes YOU feel, come join me and Samantha along with Royce Howland for our Coal Mines, Canyons, and the Canadian Rockies: the HDR Photography Workshop this May. I know I’m excited to return to this unique industrial landmark…maybe my creative vision will be different this time…who knows!
This week is the eighth anniversary of my first date with Samantha. Our first date was a comedy of errors, all of my best laid plans went south fast – think of me as a male version of Bridget Jones, only more hairy. Looking back all I can do is shake my head and laugh. Frankly I am surprised Sam agreed to a second date!
So what does all this have to do with photography? A lot… trust me it will all come full circle.
When Samantha and I went out to do photography together I noticed something kind of weird. Sam spent a lot of time not shooting. She seemed to be just standing around. I would ask, “How’s it going?” “Perfect,” she would reply. I would continue madly scurrying about shooting this and that and Sam would still be in the same spot looking around. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Oh, I’m just watching the clouds roll by.” I thought to myself that she just was not into photography that much. But back home, I would see her photos and they were amazing. She found stuff I never even noticed (were we in the same spot?) and she made images that were so uniquely hers. No one could ever copycat a Sam image. There was something about her images that showed a deeper connection between her and the scene. Something at times I’ve felt missing in my photos. What’s going on?
Over the years I’ve learned that Sam standing around does not mean she isn’t doing photography. On the contrary, it means she is actually looking around, connecting with the scene first and only then capturing that connection with her camera afterwards. Most photographers I know, myself included, rush headlong into the world with their face buried behind the camera. The camera comes out first, questions are asked later. Sam approaches a scene the opposite way. The questions are asked first. “Why I am attracted to this spot? How does this subject make me feel? Why is that animal doing that? What is it like to be grass in this windy field?” Sam asks a lot of whys and only after really looking and pondering a subject will she pull her camera out.
What I have learned from Sam is that the act of photography is not really important; actual seeing and understanding the subject is the key. Immerse yourself into the subject and not into the mechanism of making a photo. Too often photographers are so worried about the gear, the technique, and the results they hope to get that they forget about asking themselves about the subject and about how they feel about the subject. To make meaningful images there has to be a connection between you and the subject you are photographing. Too often that connection is not made and superficial meaningless images are the result. Once I started to actually look at and think about my subjects and stopped just rushing in to make photos, my photography improved significantly. The slow, thoughtful approach really works. I started watching the clouds roll by too.
So back to our first date… although almost everything was a disaster (from the meal to the movie) Sam just sat back and watched (and laughed). But she took the time to watch the clouds go by. She liked the potential in the scene and so she revisited the location many more times and finally decided that she could make a meaningful photo there. 🙂
To learn more about learning to see check out our eBook on the subject.
All around us, from our screens to print magazines to giant billboards, there’s a constant stream of images. It’s easy to feel a little lost in terms of our own contribution. Do you ever post a favourite shot to facebook, Flickr or your website, and wonder why you’re bothering? Will anyone even see it? Will they like it?
I know at times I feel like my work is just a drop in the ocean, a tiny sound in an endless void. A voice in the wilderness. So why do we do it? Why do we doggedly share, show and reveal our images in a world already bursting with incredible visual imagery?
Not only is there a surplus of photographs but, if you think about it, we must be CRAZY to open ourselves up in this way! When we post and pin our images, we’re revealing some pretty personal information about ourselves: we’re shouting out what we like, what moves us, what we feel is special, what we think is important. We’re showing our unique artistic impulses and demonstrating our level of technical skill (or our embarrassing lack thereof in both categories). We open ourselves up to the risk of ridicule from complete strangers! Remember that dream everyone has, where you show up at school completely naked!?! On one level, throwing your work out there into a cold, uncaring world can make you feel the same shivery level of exposure.
So when we share our images, we’re either crazy or really brave — or both. I think we continue to post our images, despite the risks, because it’s the human condition to seek connection with others. We were motivated to make something — an image — and we want to share what touched us in hopes it might reach someone else’s heart. And here’s the good news. We have to keep up this crazy, brave, foolish pursuit of connection. Because images can effect change. Because images do have an impact. Because images do connect.
Darwin and I have always taught photography with a firm emphasis on creativity and the uniqueness of vision of every one of our students, regardless of their so-called ‘level’ or ‘professional’ ability. Guy Clark has an amazing song about trusting your cape… sometimes, you just have to make a leap and hope that your belief in yourself will see you through. I firmly believe that everyone’s artistic voice is needed in this world. It’s only through sharing and connection, communication and discussion, that we may be able to fumble our way toward some solutions to the problems of this day-and-age. No lone voice in the wilderness will amount to much of a song, but a beautiful chorus of heart-felt, artistic expression…now that just might change the world.
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.
This article originally appeared in Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine.
Most of us have an outdoor environment where we feel at home; a place that is soul-settling. It could be an old farm or a city park, the ocean shoreline or the vast boreal forest, but it is a place where we seem to be able to reconnect with ourselves both physically and spiritually. For example, I love both the prairie and the mountains equally and feel a strong sense of belonging in both environments. But it’s where these two environments merge that I really feel a sense of connection and where the energy of a place runs through my veins. In particular, the Kootenay Plains in the Bighorn Wildlands near Nordegg, Alberta is a special place for me, not only for the confluence of plain and peak, but also because of the indelible stamp of childhood memory.
I spent my sixth summer running wild in the Kootenay Plains under the caring eyes of my grandparents. At the time, the area was undergoing a radical change with the approval and eventual construction of the Big Horn Dam on the North Saskatchewan River. Sasquatch sightings were plentiful that summer as the Stoney people tried to protect their sacred lands and grave sites from being lost under a flood of water. I remember seeing the ‘sasquatch’ almost daily and still have fond memories of the mythical sightings which for me were as common as seeing a raven or a blue jay.
My grandfather was a grader operator maintaining the gravel roads in the area and he also fostered close relationships with the Stoney people. We were often invited to participate in traditional ceremonies celebrating the Stoney’s connection to the land that they loved. I remember dancing under clear blue Kootenay skies dressed in leather, feather and bead and feeling part of the sacred Sun Dance ceremony. The sound of rhythmic drumming and ululating singing still echoes in my mind every time I return to the Kootenay Plains. These early experiences took deep root within me. They are the reason why, whenever I return to the Kootenay Plains, my troubles seem to fall away and artistic expression comes more naturally than at other places.
I think the reason why I always feel at ease when I return to the Kootenay Plains is because part of me has never left. There is still a blonde-headed, tanned little boy whooping through the aspen stands, dressed in his moccasins and pelts, making the acquaintance of every rock, tree and stream in his path. Getting back in touch with the freedom I experienced in that summer, the freedom to be myself and be a part of nature, is a huge fuel for my creative drive. Even if you can’t think of a special place off the top of your head, you may want to consider investing the time to find your own small scrap of paradise. The artistic soul drinks thirstily when you do.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot about art. Maybe its just a mid-life crisis… or maybe because I make pictures, play music, do writing and finger rub foggy mirror hieroglyphics in the bathroom, I should know what constitutes art.
So what is art and what is an artist? Well… defining art is like trying to define soul… or spirit… or love. Entire books have been written on the subject. Several definitions are currently in vogue and are passing through the internet ether. “An artist makes art” and “Art is something made by an artist”. Hmmm….
When the idea of art is discussed further, the one thing that all the discussions had in common was the idea of connection. The art books I have read suggest that a creation is not art unless it meets an audience. Art has to be experienced by others for a connection to be made. Without connection there is no art. An example often cited is that a musical composition is just notes on paper. It isn’t art until it is performed for an audience. The extension for photographers is that our digital images, negatives, or prints are not, nor can ever be, art if we hide them away from the world. Creations you make must be shared. If, when shared, your work makes a connection with someone then and only then can it be judged as art.
So… if I make a drawing, write a song, compose a poem and just keep it to myself, it’s not art? The inner connection, spirit and joy of pure creation is not enough for a piece to be art? Does this mean that I can’t enjoy my own pieces as art because it’s not art unless I share? What about connecting back to yourself, does that not count? Unless I make an external connection with others with my creation, I will never produce art?
Author, Seth Godin has said “Art is the unique work of a human being, work that touches another.” According to Seth, art is personal (reflects the artist), is untested (original), and is intended to connect. My question lies in the third premise: is connecting with your self enough?
What do you think? Do creations need an audience beyond the creator to be considered art? Or should we just create for the joy of it, just like kids play… for pure joy? If we feel like sharing our creations then so be it. If we don’t then that’s just as valid. Do we even need to worry if what we do is art or if we are an artist? Are labels worth anything?
I would love to hear your thoughts – but be careful – by sharing you could be making art 😉