Here at oopoomoo HQ we enjoy helping people become better photographers (e.g. hone their craft) but what truly gets us excited and what we LOVE to do is help photographers become artists. We are all creatures born to create, and in photography the image is the conduit for personal expression. Channeling your vision through that conduit is easy if you know how to use your tools (the technical part of photography) AND if you are in touch with yourself, honour who you are and know what you have to say (the visionary part of photography). To help with both these aspects of photography, we are offering small group mentorships this summer designed to immerse you in the technical craft and artful expression of photography. Where will your personal vision take you?
For us, no other other tool in the camera bag offers as many technical and creative advantages as the tilt-shift lens. With a tilt-shift lens you can correct keystoning in-camera, make seamless horizontal and vertical panoramas, create giant, megapixel monster images, alter the plane of focus for incredible apparent sharpness independent of aperture, and manufacture dreamy, blurred and miniaturized-looking images. And, best of all, every one of these techniques is created in-camera with nary a pixel altered by less capable software substitutes! The possibilities are almost endless. In the hands of an artist, a tilt-shift lens is a superhero paintbrush! To create art you still must master the brush, but once you do, your creativity will be unleashed and your photography will never be the usual ho-hum. This three-hour hands-on workshop will have you the master of the Tilt Shift lens so that you can use its potential to express your creative vision!
The Mentored Photo Project is a week of intense self-discovery through photography. With the guidance of us, your mentors, Sam and Darwin, you will conceive of, plan and execute a small photography project. A mentored photo project engages many different creative skills and is a rewarding way to transform your ideas into a guided, published reality. Several of our past mentored students have gone on to expand their projects in a way that has positively influenced their development as creative artists. Limited dates available! Register before May 31 and save 40%!
This full day seminar in Medicine Hat, Alberta covers The Language of Light in Landscape Photography, Harnessing the Power of Tone for Compelling Images, Working Advanced Compositional Patterns in the Landscape, and Putting it all Together: Creative Landscape Imagery. We have a special announcement regarding this seminar…we’ve opened up a special offering of our popular online course, Resolve: Discover your Creative Self for seminar attendees! We’re also pricing this informative and insightful course at $95 (regular price $150) to encourage everyone to participate in this unique course! See you at the seminar!
Who Are you Creatively?
Why do you make photographs? Some people will answer that they make photographs because they want to document their travels or important events in their lives. Others are inspired by nature and want to capture this inspiration. And many use photography as a positive escape from the hectic rat race of life (a kind of meditation or mental yoga). But if we dig even deeper I think there is a universal desire, if not a need, for creativity. As kids we are all naturally curious and creative. Unfortunately, these traits get sapped out of us early on as we are taught the ‘values’ of practical education, work, consumption, and conformity. Many of us picked photography as a creative antidote for the homogenous pressures put on us by society.
But as we learn and practice photography, the ‘ought tos’ start to rear their ugly heads. We are taught about subjects we ought to photograph, locations we ought to visit, compositional rules we ought to follow. In short, over time, the very hobby we took up to express our creativity is stuffed into a box and turned into formula. We suppress our creativity and shoot just what others deem acceptable.
Every so often we need a reset, a reminder to get in touch with who we are and what our inner voice wants to say but that gets drowned out by the yelling of the outside world. Lately, I was feeling out of touch with my creative voice and felt that I was just repeating photographic formulas. My partner, Samantha suggested a little exercise for me to do that would help me determine who I am creatively. She showed me a variety of visual arts from painting to collage. She asked me to pick out pieces that I really liked and then had me write out answers to these questions about each piece:
- What do you think this picture is about?
- What do you respond to or find interesting in the picture? Why?
- Looking at the shape, line, form, texture and colour etc. used by the artist, how do these compositional and material choices help convey the essence of the picture?
Together we looked at my art choices and my detailed answers to her questions. We began to notice some themes, ideas, visual elements and even colours common to each piece. Sam suggested that these commonalities were the seeds of my creative voice. Frankly, I was surprised by the results because the imagery I liked was very different than the images I have become known for. But when I looked at my most recent work, there were little hints of this new voice trying to emerge; I was already beginning to use the themes, ideas and visual design elements that I had chosen in Sam’s exercise. It became obvious that I no longer knew myself creatively. Indeed, I had changed significantly but was still trying to force myself to shoot in my old ‘style’. No wonder photography was feeling strained lately. Now that I have discovered with Sam’s help who I am as a creative, the world has opened up for me again. Photography is a playground and I have given myself permission to play once again.
So if you are feeling a bit lost with your photography, try Sam’s exercise and share and discuss the results with a good friend or fellow photographer. Better yet use the exercise on each other. Often someone else can see easier patterns in your choices that you may subconsciously deny or that you may not want to see. What often emerges from this exercise is the discovery of who you are as a visual creative. That is a powerful revelation. Now go discover your creative voice.
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.
This year, Darwin and I decided to curate each other’s images to select what we felt was that photographer’s oopoomoo best for 2015. Just as we stipulated in the oopoomoo Newsletter announcing the challenge, an oopoomoo best had to meet three criteria:
- represent who they are photographically as an artist or demonstrate something they learned this year
- be as well-composed as they can do at their learning level, and
- be taken ethically.
You can see what Darwin picked as my oopoomoo best here. And here is the image I’ve chosen as Darwin’s best image of 2015.
In pouring over Darwin’s work for this year, I’ve noticed a shift in his usual subject matter. Instead of photographing grand landscapes, Darwin has started to concentrate more on intimate studies and abstractions. Some of the same elements of style are present in his work, making them a ‘Darwin shot’, such as a fascination with light and shape and an attraction to colours and tonal contrast. But I sense with this image a refinement perhaps of ‘seeing’, an engagement with the mind rather than just senses. There is many layers to this image and it is quietly intriguing.
This image was taken at Lake O’Hara, probably one of the most iconic of places in the Canadian Rockies. We were standing far uphill on the trail to Opabin Plateau and Mary Lake was being covered by a giant shadow cast by Oderay Mountain as the sun set behind it. Darwin had to work fast to frame and make this shot before the light was gone and the lake covered in shadow. When photographers say that they refuse to photograph iconic places, I feel sorry for them; I suspect they are insecure and may suffer from a lack of imagination. A great photographer can always make a place his own as Darwin does here.
In advance of our Scaretography: Halloween Light Painting Event on October 25, we thought we’d have a little tutorial on light painting so that you can try some spooky effects on your own at any time. We’ll be doing more fun things with flash at Scaretography than just light painting, but this should get you started!
What is Light Painting?
Light painting is a photographic technique in which pictures are made by moving a hand-held light source onto a subject while taking a long exposure photograph. The results are unpredictable and different each and every time which adds to the joy of discovery! I use a few simple steps to set up for light painting.
Back in the good ‘ole film days, getting around the reciprocity problem (the degradation of the film’s sensitivity with loss of light during exposure) required more advanced knowledge of exposure calculation. With today’s digital cameras, you can “guesstimate” your exposure and adjust as needed without having to expertly calculate exposure. Although knowing more about exposure will always make you a better photographer, here is your cheat sheet for easy light painting.
There are only a few simple steps I follow to set up for light painting. First, determine an appropriate subject. You will have to visualize how it will look lit up at dusk. It’s often best to select a single, prominent subject with a clean background. The point is to highlight the lit subject, not to capture a full landscape! Old vehicles in a grassy field, a lone skeletal tree, or a small barn work well for light painting. Often, I will only subtly paint the subject or select certain parts of the image (old tail lights on vehicles work well for this) to bring to life with the flashlight.
Second, buy appropriate flashlights. You will need at least one, and often two is better. Click the flashlight on and evaluate the type of light it provides. Is it a hot, small white light from a compact handheld? Or is it a yellow, larger, less focused light from a big tungsten flashlight? I like to shoot with warmer hued lights with one-million candle power or more. With newer LED lights take a yellow or orange gel and tape it over the light to give a warm glow against the cobalt blue dusk. Having your white balance set to ‘daylight’ or ‘sunny’ will also return a pleasing warm/cool contrast. Ensure that your flashlights are fully charged! (Everyone makes this mistake at least once.)
Third, head out to your subject in the evening before it becomes dusk. You want plenty of light so that you can walk around your subject and determine the most interesting composition. Usually, depending on how early you start and on how light the sky stays during the shoot, only one or two compositions will be taken. It is very difficult to compose and focus as it gets darker, so determine the best composition and set up your camera before it’s dusk. Once focus is achieved, switch to manual focus so your camera will not hunt to focus in the dark. Use a polarizer to help darken the sky. A polarizer will also allow you to start shooting a bit earlier as they remove one to two stops of light. Your camera must be on a tripod for such long exposures, and using a cable release will help prevent any camera movement. If you want to blend parts of several exposures of the light painted image into a final image, then don’t move the camera or tripod during the session!
How do you know when to start taking pictures? Ideally, you will want to take pictures when the ambient light is the same intensity as the sky. But what does this look like? First, determine which direction you are shooting. If your camera is pointing away from the sunset, you may notice that the sky in that direction is darker than the sky just above where the sun went down. This means that you will be able to start shooting sooner if your camera is pointing in that direction than if your camera was pointing toward the sunset. If you have no sky in your picture, then you will need to evaluate the ambient light compared to the sky in general. One trick is to look at your subject and squint your eyes a bit. If the light on your subject seems as bright as the sky, then it’s time to take your first exposure. If the light around your subject still seems a bit brighter than your subject, it may still be too early for a light painting.
When the ambient light and the sky seem about equal in intensity, set your camera to bulb function so that you can have exposures longer than 30 seconds (the longest the shutter will stay open on a camera on shutter or aperture priority setting). Leave your aperture at f16 or f11 to start, although you may have to select a wider aperture like f8 later as it gets darker. Take an exposure at 30 seconds, and press playback to check your histogram (if you don’t know how to view the histogram of the image, refer to your camera’s manual). A histogram is a graph that shows the tonal values of a photograph. Knowing how to read the histogram is the most important part of light painting! You want the image to be properly exposed so that you have enough data when you process the image to avoid noise that results from an underexposed file. A ‘good’ histogram should have most of the data in the centre or centre-right of the graph without any data jamming up against either end of the graph. This is because digital cameras record more information in the brighter tones of the spectrum (represented by the right hand side of the graph) and record less data in dark tones. If your histogram shows data jammed at one or both ends, then data is being lost through clipping: the tonal range of the exposure is too great for the camera to record. If all the data is in the graph, but appears to be concentrated on the left side of the graph, the image is likely slightly underexposed. The actual shape of the graphed data does not matter for our purposes, and it also does not matter if data spikes through the top of the histogram.
The biggest mistake most photographers make when light painting is to take the image, look at the back of their LCD and determine that the exposure is fine because the LCD display looks good. But don’t be fooled! The display you are seeing is not the actual photograph you just took; it’s your camera’s best guess, represented in a small jpeg image, of what your final image will look like. This is why it’s critical to look at the histogram to determine if you have not underexposed your dusk image. On the LCD, the image may look too bright, but ignore this. When you process the image, it will come out looking as your eye saw it at the time.
If at 30 seconds, the data is jammed to the right on the histogram, wait until it gets darker and take another test shot. If the data is contained within the histogram and centre or centre-right, then you are ready to start light painting. Take another exposure of 30 seconds but this time aim your flashlight on your subject. You will want to pass the beam of the flashlight in an even manner over the areas you wish lit up in the 30 second time frame. (If 30 seconds is not enough time for you to pass the flashlight over the areas you wish to cover, wait until it gets darker for a longer exposure time). To avoid hot spots where the flashlight was held too long in one spot, twist your wrist in small circles as you paint and wiggle the beam over the entire surface to be painted. When your 30 seconds is up, check your histogram to ensure all the data is in and slightly balanced to the center or center right without going off either end of the graph. If the subject is too brightly lit by the flashlight, then paint for less than the full exposure time. Continue a few exposures at 30 seconds to get a variety of images to work with back home. The beauty of a light painted image is that no two are the same!
As the light dims, you will quickly find that 30 seconds is not enough time to expose your subject properly. Since you are on the bulb setting, you can keep the shutter open as long as you like (either on timer or with a locking mechanism on a cable release). As soon as 30 seconds produces a histogram that is becoming biased to the left (that is, underexposed), you will need to let in more light. A handy rule of thumb is to double your exposure time. Try a 60-second exposure and check your histogram. As the light continues to dim, double your exposure time if needed for the next photograph. There is no hard and fast rule; the trick is to interpret the histogram and adjust your exposure time as the histogram shows the image is becoming underexposed. When you are up to 4 minutes exposure time, you may wish to dial your aperture to f11 or f8 (if depth of field is not critical) to let even more light into the camera. You can keep shooting as long as you like, but keep in mind at some point the ambient light will not be strong enough to record behind your subject and separate it from the background. This is why light painting works best at dusk or dawn and not when it’s dark out. For long-exposure effects, look for wind-blown grasses or moving clouds. With this easy method, I get consistent results without having to bother with calculations (math is nasty!) or lugging around extra gear.
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.
Many of you know we rented out our house for a year starting last July. We did a six month stint as artists in residence at Aurum Lodge, traveled to Antarctica for one month and then did house sitting in various locales in the Calgary area for the last five months. We lived with a minimum of personal effects for the entire year and we loved the simplicity. Frankly, most of the stuff we left at home we rarely missed (but Sam did really miss her food dehydrator and her cast iron pot in oopoomoo blue).
Now that we are back home we see that much of what we own just clutters our life. The most cluttered area of all is in our hobby and business of photography. So to get rid of the clutter we are having a photo garage sale to help clear our photographic excesses (there must be rehab for this problem). And joining us in clearing the clutter will be our friends and Outdoor Photography Canada magazine columnists, Mark and Leslie Degner. It seems they have also accumulated too many photo goodies over the years.
So here is your opportunity to help us clear our clutter – and increase yours! You might actually find some of this stuff useful! We’ve got some rare and interesting photography gear that might just be what you are looking for at really low prices. Below is a overview of the things we are selling or giving away. Even if you don’t need anything, come by and say hi. We hope you can make it out!
Where: 22 West Terrace Close, Cochrane, Alberta
When: 9:00 am to 12:00 noon, Saturday Aug 22, 2015 (rain or shine – the garage door will not open before 9 AM – sorry early birds!)
What: See list below:
- Original sleeved prints from us and from other respected nature photographers from our collection (5x7s – 3 for $5.00, 8x12s – 2 for $10, 12x18s – $10 each). Great for xmas presents!
- Matted and sleeved prints of various sizes ($5 – $40).
- Canvas, metal and matted and framed prints ready to hang (starting at $10)
- Studio lights, soft boxes, lighting umbrellas, light stands, light modifiers, reflectors – everything you need for studio work or natural light portraiture!
- Film fanatics, pay attention, we have bulk film loaders and film accessories
- We have darkroom stuff galore including 35mm, medium format and 4×5 film development accessories for developing slides (E6) colour and B+W negatives.
- We have enlargers for 35m to 4×5 format (we even have a free one to give away)
- Camera filters and filter holders (Lee and Cokin)
- Lots of camera bags from small to large to waterproof and everything in between
- Cotton carrier system
- Unused fine art digital print paper packets
- Instructional photo DVD’s
- Photography books
- And maybe even a camera or lens or two!
Samantha and I have had a busy spring doing photography workshops across the country. Our workshops take a lot of advanced preparation to give our participants the best experience possible. Between our heavy prep time and the fact that we don’t shoot during our workshops, we’ve had very little time to shoot for ourselves. Now that our workshop schedule is done and we have the summer for our own photography we thought it might be nice to show some of our recent work (newly shot and/or processed images). I’ll start off first with some fresh work. Watch for Sam’s new stuff in a follow up post!
A cornerstone of what we do at oopoomoo is to teach the art and craft of photography through our eBooks, talks and workshops. In the last year we were fortunate enough to speak at over 18 events and visit interesting and diverse places, from Antarctica to Saskatchewan. We learned a few things in this past year’s journey…. First and foremost, Canada’s natural areas are world-class and rival any so-called ‘exotic’ destination (and deserve our unswerving protection) and second, Canadians are awesome in their outlook on photography and life! Lest this article descend into a back-thumping, self-congratulatory affair on how cool Canada is, we do need to raise a point of concern. After speaking at all these events in one year, well, you’re bound to spot common patterns emerging as your students learn how to be better photographers. What we found is that, no matter where you call home, there are five mis-steps most photographers make that keep their images from being great. We’ve distilled down a year’s worth of teaching into five fatal flaws that keep your photographs ho-hum rather than huzzah! So read on to learn how to avoid these five mis-steps so you can get your own, unique ‘photography groove’ on.
Yes, this is an official photography term. (In fact, we’re thinking of trademarking the idea because it appears to be so ‘popular’ in so many photographers’ images!) What on earth is a pokie, you ask? Think of those teeny little bits that jut just barely into your image frame. They commonly take earthly form as twigs, stones or even small, bright or dark blobs. You clearly didn’t see them at the time you made the shot because they are just as clearly detracting from your image. Pokies always appear accidental. Sure, you can crop a pokie out…except when a crop will ruin the balance of your composition. In the end, we tell our students that it’s always best to catch and kill a pokie in the field by recomposing your image rather than opt for surgery to remove the foreign growth in post-processing.
Mergies are pokies’ evil twin. Except mergies are much harder to get rid of – and this is why we don’t recommend the ‘easy out’ of cropping away your mistakes later on at the computer. Mergies exist where two visual elements connect or meet by touching or overlapping in some way. Humans are wired to find and perceive connections where visual elements like shapes or lines meet. Note we’re not talking about when you deliberately overlap objects, for example to establish perspective, but an accidental joining of two separate visual elements. Mergies are perceived by your viewer as a mistake and, just like pokies, they call attention to themselves when they really aren’t worth looking at. So keep them out of your images!
Colour over Content
How many of you have somewhat recklessly swung the hue and saturation sliders in Photoshop or Lightroom, or upped the grunge factor in an HDR program? Five months later, are you still as impressed with yourself? If not, you may be suffering the problem of relying on colour saturation over compositional prowess. Images with bold colour are beautiful, but they should still have coherent compositions. Does your image ‘Stand the Test of Time’? Of course, ‘art’ can be very subjective – if you like it, keep on doing it! But if you like to share your images with others, the photograph should have a sound compositional basis; while humans are physiologically wired to respond to vibrant colour, a great image is still free of compositional flaws. If you’re guilty of a heavy trigger finger on ‘ornamental’ tricks that are more about the processing technique than the actual subject matter of the image, consider giving everyone’s eyes a break and learn a little restraint. You will be forced to compose better if you do.
So far, so good right? You’ve graduated beyond pokies, have navigated your composition successfully around mergies, and passed through the adolescent phase of psychedelic colours over sound compositions. You are a master! But wait… what is that? A viewer, lost, wandering without hope or GPS in your image’s midground! Oh no!
All too often – and this mostly applies to wide angle landscapes – we invite our viewers into our image with a big, fat WELCOME mat of a foreground and entice them to move toward a pretty mountain or looming canyon in the distance. But we forget to pack a map, and they end up lost in a jumbled pile of rock or fall through a watery hole in our image’s midground. A finely composed image takes into account fore, back and mid ground and ties the three together using elements of visual design such as line, pattern and shape. This is what we tell our students: “Every single speck of dirt in your photo, every grain of sand, should belong there – and not one particle more.” Reach for this in your compositions.
And finally, the Big One. You clicked the shutter because you saw something (literally and figuratively). But that photograph will have a life of its own: it’s going to leave home and grow up to be a big, Grownup Image. Ideally, it should be able to stand on its own two feet without you there, hovering at its shoulder, explaining what the image is supposed to be about. We’ve felt the pain of workshop participants who can’t help but jump in to explain their shot after a puzzled silence during class critiques. But whether viewers find what you hoped they would (and part of letting go is allowing people to find their own meaning in your images), they do have to find something. The ‘story’ or idea can be simple – the delicate curve of a rosebud can be a complete idea – or quite layered and complicated. But having the message of your image fail is another common conundrum as we learn how to convey complete ideas with only the rough tools we have at hand – plastic, glass, light… and our creative force. You don’t want your child to be the misfit that no one understands! Listen to feedback from others. Often, we’re trying to tell too many things in one image and the viewer ends up confused or, worse, bored. Simplify. Keep throwing things out of your image until only one, clear message comes across. Never underestimate the power of one grain of sand.
So there you have it! If you eliminate these five, common mis-steps along the path of creative development, you can focus more on honing your skill at telling truly unique and memorable stories or ideas in your images. Eliminate these five fatal flaws and you’ll be well on your way to artful compositions with meaning!
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’.)