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.
Each month in our oopoomoo newsletter we announce an assignment theme; for January it was shadow and light (#shadowandlight). Below are our selected favorites from the images submitted to our Facebook group or by email. The February theme will be announced shortly so be sure to sign up for our newsletter to get a head start!
Samantha and I have curated what we think are the top 15 images submitted by our awesome Newsletter subscribers. To be considered, subscribers tagged their image with #myoopoomoobest2015 as a request to be considered in this blog post. Some sent their image by email and some posted to the oopoomoo Creatives Facebook group. We encouraged people to submit one image that represented their best work based on the following 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.
We kept these guidelines in mind when choosing the photos for display here on the blog. It was a tough choice with over 100 images to choose from but the ones below best represented fresh seeing, original creative vision and good story-telling. So many images ‘almost’ made the cut and Sam and I wrestled and argued and debated the final 15. So, bruised and beaten, we present our choices. Enjoy and happy 2016!
Chris F Payant
Nathalie Kulin Greenwood
As part of our regular monthly Newsletter, this December we asked our subscribers to share with us their best picture of 2015. But the photo could not be just any predictable best, it had to be their ‘oopoomoo best’. To be an ‘oopoomoo best’ the image had to follow these 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.
If you want to see all the amazing results so far log into your Facebook account and do a search for #myoopoomoobest2015
In the spirit of year-end sharing Sam and I will be showcasing our oopoomoo best image here on the blog but with a twist. Instead of picking our own image to share we are going to chose what we think is our partner’s best image of 2015! Scary stuff to have someone else curate your work.
And so here is my pick of Sam’s best image of 2015. Drum roll please!
I chose this image for several reasons. First, it perfectly represents Sam’s creative vision. Sam loves grass and trees and she has both in spades in this picture. Second, Sam creates compositions that are personal and intimate and that drill down to the essence of what attracted her to the scene. We were out shooting in the Rockies and I was photographing a distant lone spruce in a sea of yellow aspens with my 300mm lens (an obvious and easy subject). Sam asked if she could borrow my camera and lens for a minute. She swung the camera away from the obvious fall colours, away from the big peaks in the background and over to a grassy slope just above the road. I could not for the life of me figure out what she was making a picture of! Of course now I see… a quintessential Sam photo, but at the time I thought she had gone mad photographing away from all the big beauty surrounding us. I’m always impressed by how Sam can make ‘something from nothing’ and how she always photographs true to her vision no matter what others are doing around her. So the biggest reason I picked this image is because Sam continues to surprise and delight me with her creative vision. No one can make Sam images, they are unique to her. And so, for me, this image represents Samantha’s answer to the #myoopoomoobest2015 December Newsletter challenge.
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.
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.
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.
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!